Monday, March 30, 2009

A new nephew . . . and troubling news

I learned today that I have a new nephew. I don't have any more news at this point than a photo of the little burrito (you know, wrapped up the way babies are), but it seems the delivery went well for mother and child. Thanks to God for that.

I also received some troubling news today related to the faltering economy and it how it might affect my finances this coming year. It's stressful to think about. My Book of Mormon is sitting on my desk right now, open to 3 Nephi 13:31-34, about taking no thought for what you shall eat or drink; your Heavenly Father knows you have need of all these things; take no thought for the morrow. Trust God, I tell myself. But I'm vividly aware that I live in a world full of people who are placing their hope in God and are still living in poverty, hunger, disease. Trusting God isn't the same as being assured that things are going to work out the way I hope they will.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Joseph Smith is not a gospel principle

The focus of this week's reading was Joseph Smith's role in the Restoration. The study guide prompts me to reflect on what scriptures and doctrines have come to us through Joseph Smith—which I could do, except that my thoughts this week kept running in more . . . I dunno . . . grouchy directions. I'm tired of the adulation of Joseph Smith—the reverential references to "the Prophet Joseph" and how amazing he was and how indebted we are to him; his bland, saccharine portrait gazing at you every time you turn around. Maybe the Joseph Smith bicentennial burned me out, but I'm to the snapping point of wanting to bite people's heads off.

When I created, I deliberately didn't create a page on Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith is not a gospel principle. Joseph Smith was an instrument, a conduit, for generating texts and rituals and other practices that teach us gospel principles. The conduit is not what matters. When I'm thirsty, what matters is the water that comes out of the tap, not the pipes under the sink that convey the water to me. In fact, when I look under the sink, it's not a pretty sight, which is why we keep the pipes under the sink, out of sight. And even after I get the water from the pipe, I still have to run it through an extra filter before it's really palatable for drinking.

That's the metaphor that came to me this week for articulating my feelings about Joseph Smith. He's the pipe under the sink. He's gungy and corroded and not something I want to make a portrait of to hang over my desk to look at for inspiration. He was egotistical and foolish and pathologically in need of loyal followers—and to make it worse, prone to the delusion that his egotistical, foolish, pathological impulses were revelations from God. In other words, your garden-variety charismatic leader of a small but successful new religious movement. Having developed an acquired taste for the water that comes out of Joseph Smith's tap, and finding that it provides me with essential vitamins and minerals (once it's been filtered), I'm appropriately grateful to God for the water; but I'm not interested in opening the cabinet under the sink to gaze in awe at the plumbing or sing its praises. [Let's refrain from a Freudian reading of that last sentence, shall we?]

As I said, my thoughts this week have been grouchy. If I were to do an exercise like writing a letter to Joseph Smith, you'd see more of my positive feelings toward the fruits of his ministry. At the same time, I feel strongly that adulation of Joseph Smith is spiritually unhealthy, as is the adulation of any charismatic leader: it tends toward idolatry; it creates an environment where unrighteous dominion can thrive. And the desire of my heart is for a Mormon community that values the good things that come to us through the texts and practices Smith brought forth but isn't centered on him as a charismatic leader—"the Prophet," with a capital P.

You see the seeds of that kind of Mormonism—the shoots, even—in early sections of the D&C. But it doesn't last long; Smith himself made sure of that. D&C 20, the composition of which was initiated by Oliver Cowdery, presents Joseph and Oliver as co-directors of the church, and then doesn't name Joseph Smith again, though it refers to him elliptically in its brief summary of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon—the point of which is not, as in later versions of Mormon orthodoxy, that Joseph Smith is the uniquely chosen one through whom God restored modern revelation or the authority of the priesthood, but that his experience illustrates the principle that God inspires "men"—that is, people in the plural—to his holy work today as in generations past. That is to say, Joseph's prophetic experiences (he isn't actually referred to here as "prophet") are certainly important in this vision of the origins of the church; but they aren't central in the way they become, for example, when Joseph Smith sits down to write a book called History of the Church, which immediately turns into his autobiography. D&C 20 has much less to say about Joseph Smith and his visions than it does about the various offices and representative conferences that are to govern the church: there is nothing in this document to indicate that its author understands Joseph as exercising hierarchical authority in the church as God's mouthpiece. That comes in D&C 21, in which Joseph (unsatisfied with the role assigned to him in D&C 20?) announces that there will be a record kept in which he is named as prophet and seer and that the Saints are to receive his words as if from the mouth of God. In subsequent revelations (D&C 28; 32), we see Smith moving to gradually diminish Oliver Cowdery's authority to offer prophetic utterances and to delegitimize competing prophetic voices like Hiram Page's. Joseph is determined to be sole king of the mountain—king of the earth, actually, according to a ceremony performed in Nauvoo. And the LDS Church has been content to grant him that central charismatic authority, partly because they want to transfer that same authority to the current church president.

What's the alternative? I need to end this post and move on with my day, so I don't have time to launch into that except to quickly gesture to some possibilities: taking seriously the model of democratic church governance described in D&C 20; recognizing Smith as deeply flawed instrument and repudiating the tendency to treat him and other church leaders as basically infallible, or at least beyond criticism; to focus more on the Church as a community divinely called to a redemptive work than on exalting the rectitude and authority of the office-holders who have responsibility, in our organization, for coordinating that work. But this is all alien to the impulses that have shaped Mormon orthodoxy ever since large numbers of Saints bought into Joseph Smith's own inflated sense of his importance.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

"The Gathering of My People"

I was a little surprised to see how thoroughly the student's guide equated the gathering of Israel with membership in the LDS Church. The "literal gathering of Israel and . . . the restoration of the Ten Tribes" proclaimed in the Tenth Article of Faith, i.e., the restoration of the descendents of the chosen people to their promised homelands in Palestine and (for Lamanites) the Americas, isn't just downplayed in this lesson's rhetoric—it's entirely absent. Well, except it does get smuggled in—entirely without comment, though—by way of the scripture chain attached to the end of the lesson.

This kind of thing is both encouraging and frustrating for someone with a liberal religious outlook. It's encouraging because it shows official Church teaching moving away from a literal reading of scripture which has served, over the course of LDS history, to sacralize forms of racism. I'm all for getting away from the literal, premillennialist conception of the gathering proclaimed in the Tenth Article of Faith, and I'm happy to see correlation moving in that direction, too. What's frustrating, though, is how it's being done. Instead of openly critiquing the teaching now viewed as problematic, the Church is, as usual, opting for the more Orwellian tack of simply replacing the old rhetoric with a new one, without announcement or explanation, and expecting the membership to climb obediently aboard. That approach is necessary to preserve the operating fiction that at any given moment, Church teaching provides an unchanging, unfailing, irreproachable guide. (The above claims need to be unpacked and nuanced, but to borrow a line of Joseph Smith's, they suit my purpose as they stand.)

And I'm frustrated because even the new church-centered conception of the gathering retains unhealthy aspects of the gathering concept that have persisted throughout the movement's history. For Mormon orthodoxy, the gathering equates with flight. The Saints gather because they perceive they need places of refuge where they can be protected from the world's wickedness and from the destruction God plans to pour out on the world because of its wickedness (D&C 29:8; 38:41-42). Fear is thus a motive in the gathering: these early revelations claim that the Saints need to gather to Ohio because of a conspiracy against them (37:1; 38: 28-32). Operating within this understanding of the gathering is a notion that the Saints are, or should be, a pure, righteous community—indeed, the only righteous community in a world that has become altogether wicked (33:4; 38:31). Preserving the community's purity requires that the inadequately faithful be "cast out" or "cut off." (In D&C 42, the "Law of the Lord," we'll get a whole litany of who needs to be "cast out" of the community; we see the concept at work in this lesson's readings in 52:4-5.)

A few years back, I was reading 2 Nephi 5 at a time when I'd recently been reading Mircea Eliade, so I was thinking about the organization of sacred space. 2 Nephi 5 describes the founding of the first Nephite society after their exodus into the wilderness to escape Laman and Lemuel and their followers (an early template for LDS gatherings). As I was reading it with Eliade on the brain, I realized that this chapter was presenting what would become a classically LDS understanding of the ideal society, the kind of society they kept trying to build every place they gathered. At the sacred center of this society is the temple, the axis mundi that links earth to heaven. But at the margins of this society is constant violence, or the constant threat of violence, as the community wards off its perceived enemies. For this society, Laban's sword (which Nephi says he used as the model for making other swords with which to arm his people) is as crucial a symbol as the temple.

I think the same is true for Mormon orthodoxy today. You see it at work in rhetoric about the stakes of Zion being "a refuge and a defense against evil." The gathered community is a community huddled together for protection, except when they send emissaries out into the world, endowed with power from on high to protect them, to try to convince others to come be gathered with them and thus escape the wrath that is to come. The gathered community lives with a constant sense of being under attack, which in turn requires a constant, vigilant patrolling of boundaries and the use of various forms of violence to keep the community safe and pure: the rhetorical violence of aggressive apologetics parrying "attacks" on the faith from outsiders; the psychological and emotional violence of "casting out" and "cutting off" insiders deemed to be insufficiently faithful or loyal; and at times the physical violence of a Mountain Meadows Massacre.

That's what I see as unhealthy or dangerous in the concept of the gathering. But I also sense the Spirit moving around inside this concept, trying to break through and communicate something of worth.
  • I sense that in the idea of coming together to be endowed with power from on high and then going out into the world to serve. That concept is integral to how the Episcopal services Hugo and I attend are structured: the community gathers, is nourished by word and sacrament, and then goes forth in the power of the Spirit to love and to serve. That same concept is at work in the LDS gathering.

  • I feel the Spirit when I read about Christ being like a hen who gathers her chicks under her wings (29:1-2), or when Christ says, "Lift up your hearts and be glad, for I am in your midst" (29:5). The gathered community is the community that naturally forms as individuals come to Christ and in so doing find themselves one with everyone else who has come to Christ. The gathered community is called to live out that oneness more conscientiously and fully: to be united in prayer (29:6), to esteem our brothers and sisters as ourselves (38:24-25), to be one in the sense of being equal in privileges, including economic privilege (38:26-27).

  • I hear the Spirit in the injunction to go out from the world, or from Babylon; to be clean, you who bear the vessels of the Lord (38:42). There's a danger of spiritual elitism there, but it's also a call to be a priestly people, a counterculture committed to gospel principles in a world reigned by anti-Christian principles like consumerism or militarism or laissez-faire economics.

  • I feel the Spirit when the revelations promise that "I, the Lord, will hasten the city in its time" (52:43). The city is Zion, of course. Some years back, I read an interview with Christian essayist Kathleen Norris in which she said she was currently reflecting on what it means that the Christian vision of the ideal community is a city. Latter-day Saints take that vision very literally, of course. The gathered people build cities. This isn't a rural Western fantasy of everyone living out on self-sufficient homesteads, a good drive away from their neighbors and far away from the long resented arm of the feds. A city requires organization, government, coordination, regulations, safety nets, administration, social services, systems for distributing goods. The question before us—the challenge of the gathering—is to build all that in a way that will be just and equitable and merciful and compassionate and generous and consecrated and respectful of the dignity of every person.
But the image of people fleeing from the world to gather in places of refuge doesn't really help us do that in the long run. That vision lends itself very well to building walls and fortifying boundaries and launching counterattacks and ferreting out traitors. It doesn't lend itself well to working to transform the society in which you live in the direction of peace and union and love. For that you need to start emphasizing different metaphors: the salt of the earth, the lump that leavens the loaf. I'd like to live long enough to see the Saints start privileging those metaphors instead of the current rhetoric about gathering to places of defense and refuge.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The field is white already to harvest

My reading this week was lesson 11 in the D&C/Church history curriculum. My reflection this week takes the form of sketches I created trying to capture my thoughts and feelings in response to passages from the reading.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A prayer roll for Iraq

I just got done watching the documentary No End in Sight, about the inept U.S. officials who orchestrated (if you can really call it that) the Iraq war and then blundered their bloody way into the chaos and civil war that followed. I really should stop watching these kinds of films—they make me boiling mad, along the lines of "I wish there was a hell so these people would burn in it the way they deserve."

In my adrenaline rush, I feel a need to vent, and my temperament is to vent religiously. So here goes.

During the federal campaign to destroy polygamy, which turned into a campaign to out-and-out destroy Mormonism, church leaders gathered in their temple robes and performed a kind of inverted prayer roll—inverted in the sense that instead of praying for the well-being of a list of sick and afflicted people, they instead prayed for judgment against a list of government officials they saw as their persecutors. The list included the U.S. president, the Supreme Court, members of Congress, various state or territorial governors, and judges. (My source for this is Thomas Alexander's biography of Wilford Woodruff, Things in Heaven and Earth.)

In that spirit, I present below a prayer roll of some of the government officials and other political movers who are responsible for the Iraq war. I pray that these men (they all happen to be men on this list, since I'm not feeling particulary incensed at Condoleezza Rice at the moment) will be brought before the bar of God's judgment. The list could be longer, much longer. And it could include folks from "the other side," people like Muqtada al-Sadr. But these are the people whose offenses against their fellow beings have kindled my anger tonight. They preoccupy my attention because they acted in the name of my country.

George W. Bush
Dick Cheney
Donald Rumsfeld
Paul Wolfowitz
Bill Kristol
George Tenet
Paul Bremer
Walter Slocombe

In more positive terms—but necessarily vaguer terms—I pray for Iraqis and for the foreign nationals who are working with them to stablize and rebuild the country and provide humanitarian assistance. Somehow let there be peace. Somehow let the waste places be restored.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

D&C 25

When I sat down to write this post, I thought I was going to talk about the seeds this revelation contains for envisioning priestly roles for women in the Church. But then my eye fell on a question in the student guide—"How can spouses show that they delight in each other?"—and that word "delight" suddenly gave me that heart-lifting moved-by-the-Spirit feeling. So totally impromptu, I feel moved to say something about the delight I experience in my relationship with my partner.

Hugo and I have been together since Thanksgiving 1999. That was the day we moved our friendship, which had built up slowly over the previous year-and-a-half or so, into a romance. And having gotten that far into this paragraph, I'm really unsure how to proceed. How do I describe this relationship? The attraction is primarily intellectual, I'd say. I am deeply in love with Hugo's mind... which isn't to say the relationship isn't physical, too, though I'll refrain from further comment in that department. I will say this: I remember how exciting it was the first time he reached out to hold my hand. We were driving in the car the day after Thanksgiving, on the way to visit a friend of his. Our friendship had built up gradually over the past year-and-a-half or so. We were so compatible in terms of our intellectual interests. I wanted so badly to have him as my partner. But I'd gotten to a point where I'd accepted that wasn't going to happen; we were just going to be friends... and then the thrilling surprise when he made that first move in the car to take my hand. That was a moment of delight for my soul.

Gads this writing is agonizingly difficult. I don't know what to say without lapsing into cliché. All right, fine, screw it—cliché time: I can't imagine life without Hugo. I feel so grateful that God brought him into my life. I'm so grateful that we live at a time and place where we can make a life together without the secrecy of the closet. I'm grateful he came with me to North Carolina. I worry about the future. The inability to marry makes our situation precarious. We desperately need to draw up wills and powers of attorney and so on—but we can't afford it right now, and anyway those kinds of documents don't necessarily remain valid when you move from one state to another. There are a lot of practical issues we have to work out eventually. It's overwhelming to think about.

But I was supposed to be talking about the "delight." Not to sound mercenary about it, but at a practical level, my partnership with Hugo makes the organization of my life a lot easier in terms of distribution of labor—things like shopping, seeing that bills are paid. Again, I hope that doesn't sound mercenary, but it's an important way that Hugo supports me as I work and study. And I hope he feels adequately supported by me. Hugo's not big on talking about feelings—he's somewhat stereotypically masculine in that regard—so I don't always quite know where we stand as transparently as I would like. But we're together, and things feel like they're working. Certainly this relationship has been easier than other partnerships I've attempted in the past. We're very compatible. We fit well together. And we're coming up on 10 years together. I thank God for that.

Okay, this was lame. But it is what it is.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Ken Starr reminds me why I am a liberal

On Thursday, Hugo and I watched part of the oral arguments before the California Supreme Court about Prop 8. Ken Starr was in fine form—poised and smart and articulate. All the qualities that make the Book of Mormon look askance at lawyers. "Our side's" lawyers were something of a disappointment, especially the fellow who spoke just before Starr. I wondered if they had gone in so convinced of the moral rightness of their cause that they hadn't really appreciated what a hard sell they had to make, legally.

Anyway, I was struck by an irony. "Our side" was basically making an appeal to transcendent values: if, as the state supreme court had earlier ruled (albeit by a razor-thin majority, which is part of the problem here), gays and lesbians have an inalienable right to marriage, then that right should remain inviolable, even in the face of as potent an appeal in our system as popular vote. Starr's argument—and I'm not remembering exactly how he worded it, but he was explicit on this point—is that "inalienable" just means a right recognized by popular vote. Apart from the fact that Starr's position is an unabashed defense of tyrrany of the majority (which doesn't "strike" me as anything in some detached intellectual sense—rather, it scares the bejesus out of me), what struck me as ironic is that Starr, a religious conservative, was arguing for a purely procedural understanding of "inalienable rights." Of course, Starr's absolutely right that the way things work in practice, "inalienable" rights are simply the rights a particular social group recognizes as "inalienable." But considering how often I've heard religious conservatives in this country over the past couple of decades decry the loss of a working notion in American law that inalienable rights are transcendent—i.e., bestowed upon us by our Creator—I was surprised to hear Starr propounding a relativistic understanding of "inalienable rights."

And yet, of course, I shouldn't be surprised by it. I'm now going to make an irresponsibly sweeping generalization of the kind that I could never—and should never—get away with in my scholarly discourse; the kind of sweeping generalization, in fact, that my scholarship helps to bring under the curb of intellectual discipline. But I'm going to state the sweeping generalization anyway, because it reflects the subjective, emotive, experiential, blood-and-guts dimensions to my political commitments as they intersect with my spirituality, i.e., my most deeply rooted intuitions and passions about what's right and true.

The sweeping generalization is this: It shouldn't surprise me to see a religious conservative behave disingenuously, because after two decades of experience in LDS institutions dominated by religious conservatives, it's what I've come to expect. People who see themselves as defenders of orthodox truth and moral probity against sinister, even diabolical, foes, and who feel authorized by the cosmic nature of the struggle to pursue strategies they would denounce as dishonest or tyrranical or unjust if pursued by the people they see as their enemies. A crusading spirit without a conscience—that's my experience of religious conservatism. Religious liberalism, as I understand it and try to live it, is religion with a conscience. Often an ineffectively fastidious conscience, which can be extremely frustrating when you simply need to get something done. But I'd rather err in that direction than in the direction that brought us the Benson spy ring, or the Strengthening Church Members Committee, or the September Six, or the firing of professors during the BYU academic freedom controversy. Or Mountain Meadows. Or secret post-Manifesto polygamy. Or the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor. Mormons keep thinking those tactics will work out for them. Not only does religious conservativism lack a conscience; it also seems to have a slow learning curve.

Okay—that soapbox turned out to be more bitter than I'd anticipated.


God of promise—

Your kingdom come.
Your justice and equity be established.
Your righteousness and truth sweep the earth as with a flood.

In Christ's name, amen.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

If I'd never been a member of the LDS Church

One of the questions accompanying lesson 9 in the D&C/Church history Sunday School curriculum is: "How might your life be different if the Church had not been restored or if you were not a member of the Church?" Of course, the question's cuing people to say things like, "I wouldn't have the direction of a living prophet," or "I wouldn't enjoy the blessings of the Atonement," or "I couldn't be with my family forever." My first reflex upon seeing the question was to grimace and roll my eyes, and then I thought for a while about how much it annoys me when people who find out I still identify as Mormon ask me, usually with surprise, "So you still attend church?"—as if participation in the official institutions of the LDS Church were the be-all and end-all of Mormonism. (I find that question particularly annoying when it comes from people in religious studies, who ought to know better. When someone tells you they're Jewish, do you assume they keep kosher? Or if they're Catholic, do you assume they go to Mass every week? No. You inquire about the construction of their religious identity as something they might have negotiated in various ways. So what's so hard about conceiving that I, as a Mormon, might have the creativity and initiative to similarly renegotiate my religious identity?)

Anyway, after I'd indulged in that little mental rant for a while, I decided to think through the question in a (relatively) more humble frame of thought. How might my life be different if I hadn't been raised in the LDS Church?

Well, strictly speaking, I wouldn't exist, since my parents met as a result of attending BYU after their respective conversions to the LDS Church. If my parents had never joined the LDS Church—and if we loosen up the thought exercise enough to assume that a person we can call "me" would still have sprung forth from either my mother's womb or my father's loins, even without the other's genetic material (can you tell I'm teaching philosophy of religion this summer?)—then given my parents' prior religious histories, I might have been raised some kind of conservative evangelical or, alternatively, a tepid Lutheran, or possibly with no particular religious identity at all. Which means I might have grown up in a more permissive household—or not. I might have been raised in a religious community less preoccupied with orthodoxy and boundary maintenance—or not. I might have experienced less guilt about discovering that I'm gay—or not. I might have attended some kind of conservative religious college and—given my arrogant, stand-out-from-the-herd temperament—rebelled by becoming a liberal; or I might have attended a liberal or secular college and, given the same temperament, rebelled by becoming a conservative. Who's to say?

I think it's safe to say I wouldn't have spent two years as a young adult living in the Dominican Republic. Which means that Third World poverty might not linger in my mind the way it does, and I might find it easier to feel entitled or oblivious to the luxuries of American culture. I wouldn't have ever met . . . here plug in a long list of people whose lives I feel very grateful for having entered or intersected with, however briefly as a missionary.

It's safe to say I wouldn't have attended BYU, which means that I might have realized years before I actually did that I could pursue something called "religious studies," in which case I might actually be a professor in this field somewhere already instead of still working toward it at age 36.

I wouldn't have experienced the endowment. As I write it, I wonder if that will seem like a trivial thing to readers. But the temple ceremony has been very important to me in shaping how I understand who I am, and where I'm going in a cosmic or existential sense, and what God wants me to do with my life. I would consider it a loss not to have experienced that.

What else? Similar to the observation I just made about the endowment, I probably would never have engaged with the distinctive LDS scriptures and therefore wouldn't have the spiritual vocabulary they provide. I doubt I would have been moved to join the LDS Church had I not been raised in it. I doubt I would be moved to take the LDS scriptures seriously if I hadn't grown up studying them in a receptive frame of mind that allowed me to experience the Spirit speaking to me through them.

Obviously I haven't engaged here in the kind of reflection the Sunday School manual wants. I'm not gushing gratefully about the unique, indispensible blessings available only in and through the LDS Church. I happen to have been raised in the LDS Church. That fact shaped my life in ways that I appreciate—in some cases, that I appreciate deeply—but it's also shaped my life in ways that I'm not so thrilled about, though who's to say a different life would necessarily have been better? The point is: God found me where I was. He reached out to me in the context, and in the language, of the LDS Church. And even after I stepped away from that church's institutions, I found that communicating with God still came most naturally in the language I'd learned there, and so that's how we've kept talking.

There's nothing special, really, about that arrangement in the big scheme of things, though it's vitally important to me personally. God speaks every language. If I hadn't started out in the LDS Church, he would have found me wherever I was and spoken to me in whatever language was spoken there—and then waited for me, hopefully, to respond. That's how he works. And once I'd responded, he would have led me wherever he wanted me to be, or wherever he knew would best let me live out the desires of my heart. Maybe that would have been the LDS Church, maybe not. All I can know is what actually has been and is. And I trust him to keep leading me along.