Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ecumenical D&C

Here's what I've been thinking about this week:

During the late 1820s, a group of people come together who are seeking new revelation from God and an outpouring of divine power. They desire to be instruments in bringing about the consummation of God's purposes, which they understand in terms of proclaiming the gospel in its purity, building up the kingdom, redeeming Israel, establishing Zion. They ask, and as God has promised, they receive; they seek, and they find. Through gifts of the Spirit, God speaks to them according to their weakness and their desires, in language they can understand, while at the same time constantly seeking to draw them into greater understanding and more perfect love. The movement attracts new adherents, and thus the Latter Day Saint tradition is born.

From the beginning, however, the Saints have been prone to conflict and division. There are various reasons for this: sincere differences of belief and interpretation, blinding prejudices, psychological insecurities, pride, abuse of power, love of authority, lack of teachability, jealousy, selfishness, parochialism, dogmatism, intolerance, fear of the other. The result is that the Latter Day Saints—the "people of the Restoration," to use a phrase from the Community of Christ D&C that struck me—have been divided and scattered into multiple communities, multiple denominations, living out different understandings of the Restoration.

If we accept the principle that all who ask will receive, and if we have the charity to assume that adherents of all the different Latter Day Saint movements are sincerely seeking to discern God's will, then it follows that the Spirit is at work among all these movements, in one way or another, to one degree or another. They all have spiritual gifts; they all have spiritual failings. I wouldn't say they're all on equal footing: I definitely believe some expressions of the Restoration come closer to God's ideals than others. But I'm prepared to adopt an ecumenical outlook that understands the various Latter Day Saint communities as belonging to a single "people of the Restoration," whom God calls to learn from one another that all may be edified.

So from that perspective, here's how I'd like to study the Doctrine and Covenants the next time around. Here's a plan for an "ecumenical" D&C study. Rather than approach the D&C as a single volume, of which different groups have "their version," I've been trying to reconceive the D&C as an evolutionary tree, showing not only where Latter Day Saints have parted ways with one another, but also to what extent different groups have held certain revelations as a common scriptural heritage. Something like this:My plan, then, for an ecumenical D&C study would be to work my way up the tree, from roots to branches. I'd start with the 1835 D&C, though in my fantasy I have a well-designed critical reader's edition that makes it easy to see where the 1835 revelations have been revised from the Book of Commandments—those revisions being the reason that Hedrickite groups like the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) reject the D&C. The 1835 D&C was organized topically, not chronologically, and I'd want to read the revelations in that topical order, asking myself what it would mean for the Saints to encounter the latter-day canon in that particular way. I would also want to study the Lectures on Faith, since they formed part of the canon at that stage of the tradition.

Next, I'd study the revelations that were added to the 1844-1846 editions of the D&C following Joseph Smith's death. What does this layer add to the Latter Day Saint tradition's understanding of God, God's purposes, and our role in bringing them about?

Then I'd follow the LDS branch of the movement, reading the various revelations added to the 1876 D&C. I haven't been able to figure out what edition of the D&C the FLDS and other Mormon fundamentalists use, but I presume that the 1876 edition constitutes a shared heritage between those groups and the LDS. If I could get reliable texts, I'd also like to read the 1882 and 1883 revelations to John Taylor that were published in some foreign language editions of the D&C—a kind of LDS Septuagint, as it were. Last of all on this branch of the tree, I'd study the revelations added to the LDS D&C since the Manifesto (O.D. 1-2, D&C 137-138).

Then I'd back up to follow the Reorganized branch. The first "layer" of my reading here (I'm mixing archaeological and genealogical imagery) would be sections 114-144, the revelations of Joseph Smith III, Frederick M. Smith, and Israel A. Smith. After that point, different groups on the Reorganized branch part ways regarding what they accept as canonical. So my next "layer" would be sections 145-163 of the Community of Christ D&C. And then perhaps I'd read the sections that the Remnant Church has added to its D&C; I confess I'm not really thrilled about that, but it would test my commitment to the principle of listening to all (D&C 88:122).

Between now and the end of the year (more precisely, between now and the beginning of Advent), I plan to reflect on my readings in the Community of Christ D&C. If there turns out to be time, perhaps I'll back up and read the Lectures on Faith. I might even reread earlier sections of the D&C in the 1835 order. But if there isn't time for all that this year, I'll save this plan for another year.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Something new

No post last Sunday because I was back in Salt Lake for the Sunstone Symposium. While I was there, I bought a new triple combination from the Church distribution center in the basement of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. I'd decided that I wanted to be able to take a "fresh" look at the D&C. Up to now, I've been using the same copy I carried on my mission which, apart from being old and cracking out of its spine, has the passages from the missionary discussions marked, which often speak more to the interests of exclusivist, authoritarian Mormonism than to my current understanding. I wanted to clear away that baggage and start marking the text afresh.

So while I was in Salt Lake—on the bus, or taking a break from research for lunch, or waiting to meet someone—I started highlighting passages in my "virginal" copy where I sense the Spirit trying to speak to me. It's been good. It's felt more open to the text and less resistant. I've felt that my relationship with the text has been more affirmative, more affectionate, more loving. More like the period after 1997 when I first began to really engage with the scriptures again after leaving activity in the LDS Church, when I was discovering the Spirit's voice in these texts anew and couldn't get enough.

This week, though, back in North Carolina, I've set that aside and taken up something new I've been contemplating for a while. I've felt increasingly restricted this year by the Sunday School D&C/church history curriculum. Unlike with the Book of Mormon, where we pretty much read through the text chronologically in big chunks, leaving me free to engage with it on my terms independent of where the Correlation Committee wanted to go, the D&C readings have tended to be fragments selected to point to correlated themes, which I feel has made it harder for me to engage positively (rather than reactively) with the text—not to mention, has kept me from reading the whole D&C, since we're just reading whatever pieces serve the interests of the curriculum. So—no more. Finit. When I first started rereading the scriptures on the Sunday School schedule a few years back, it was important to me as a way of walking with, or at least nearer, the LDS community. But it's not producing the spiritual nourishment I need anymore—I spend too much energy fighting the gravitational pull of correlation.

So for the rest of the year I'm leaving the Sunday School schedule and trying out a more "ecumenical" D&C study. I've reached the end of the LDS D&C, basically. So now I'm reading from the RLDS/Community of Christ D&C. For a couple years now, I've been wondering what it would mean to identify not just with the LDS branch of the Latter Day Saint movement but with the movement more broadly conceived. And I'm feeling prompted now—"prodded" is more like what it feels, actually—to move in that direction. I'll work on articulating my vision of what I'm doing more richly as I feel my way down this path. For now, let me say that the basic concept is: I've learned to hear the Spirit's voice in the canonical texts of one branch of the Latter Day Saint movement; now let's listen in on the canonical texts of a different group of Saints trying to discern God's will for them, and let's see what the Spirit may have to say to me through those texts.

So that's what I've been doing for my spiritual reflection time this week. And unfortunately, that's all I have time to say for now, so I'll post my first reflections on the CofC D&C next week.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Health care debate: Deeper into the madness

Observing the lunatic paranoia on display in town hall meetings on health care reform, I am reminded of the Book of Mormon's warning about the judgment and disaster that await a nation "if the time comes that the voice of the people chooses iniquity" (Mosiah 29:27). As we see repeatedly in the Book of Mormon, I'm living in a time when wicked rulers and preachers are taking advantage of people's ignorance to stir them up to anger against what is good.

Listening to the demagoguery that has been unleashed against health care reform by politicians and conservative pundits, I have a fuming wish to "seal them up to the day when the wrath of God will be poured out on the wicked . . . when the Lord will come to . . . measure to every man according to the measure which he has measured to his fellow man" (D&C 1:9-10).
What mean you? You beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor.
(2 Ne. 13:15)

He saw great inequality among the people, some . . . turning their backs on the needy . . . and those who were sick and afflicted. Now this was a great cause for lamentations . . .
(Alma 4:12-13)
Call me radical. Call me naive. Call me uninformed. But the health care reform debate is that simple. God save us.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A message for Joseph Smith

The assigned D&C reading I did this week was section 135, John Taylor’s hyperbolic eulogy for you. As I was deciding what to post to my blog this week, I thought: “I should write a letter to Joseph Smith, like they had us do while I was in the MTC, saying what I appreciate about his ministry.” I thought that would be a good thing, because I’ve felt like my posts have been getting more angry and negative lately, and I wanted to be more positive.

But as I started drawing up a mental list of things you taught and founded that are important to me, I still just felt vaguely angry. And my thoughts weren’t flowing in the way they do when I’m feeling moved by the Spirit.

Then about the middle of the week, during my time for daily reflection, I felt moved to open up a Community of Christ edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. And as I was browsing through it, I came to section 111, which is the statement on marriage that the general assembly voted to include in the D&C in 1835. In case you don’t already know, the LDS dropped it from their D&C after you died, and canonized your revelation on eternal/plural marriage instead. The editorial heading for that section in the Community of Christ edition had this tart comment about how “the church knows no other law of marriage than that which is set forth here”; and when I read that, I thought—Hmm, they’re alluding to the fact that the statement condemns polygamy.

And then all of a sudden I realized something. I’ve always been bemused that the Reorganization has, to this day, been unable to accept the fact that you practiced polygamy. That had always struck me as somewhat pathetically dogged wishful thinking. But reading that comment in the D&C, I suddenly realized—I felt—what a betrayal it is to those members of your movement that you did practice polygamy, behind their backs no less. What little I know of the Reorganization shows that these were people who took seriously the idea that the church is governed by common consent through the deliberations of the General Conference and the various quorums. The general assembly of the church had voted to accept as binding a statement which condemned polygamy, and the Saints had put that statement into a book they accepted as scripture. And then you go and start administering secret teachings that contradict that statement to an elite inner circle, and introducing secret ceremonies, and creating secret quorums and councils that operate outside the established quorums and other governing bodies of the church.

My God—it’s like something out of Nixon’s playbook, or Cheney’s. You weren’t just keeping polygamy secret from outsiders. You were keeping it secret from large numbers of your own followers, because you knew perfectly well they wouldn’t support you. You operated without the sustaining vote of the church. In your megalomania, you were convinced that you were above the laws of the church just as much as you were above the laws of the land. You deceived your own followers. You betrayed their trust. What kind of shepherding is that?

I looked back this week over the journaling I did when I studied the D&C four years ago. My readings were more charitable then. This year, I think my reading has made me more embittered toward you. I’m not sure why that anger is rising at this particular time in my life. Maybe it’s the excommunication. Maybe it’s Prop 8. I presume that with the passage of time, and grace, I’ll regain a more charitable perspective on your ministry. But right now, at the moment I write this, I can’t bring myself to feel badly about your death. I mean, I feel badly for your family’s sake, and for the disastrous, world-wrenching tragedy this was for your people—not that you deserved their loyalty. But your death in Carthage Jail is something you brought on yourself. (The one potentially redeeming factor I can see here is that at least you turned back to face the disaster you’d created instead of running away west across the Mississippi River.) And the schism that followed your death—that’s largely your fault, too. You divided your people when you started forming secret inner circles.

This is not a “F*** you, we’re through” letter, although it may feel that way. I have no home but Mormonism—I’ve learned that already. Until and unless God calls me somewhere else (and that hasn’t happened yet, even when I dearly wished that call would come), I have to work out some kind of place for myself in the movement you founded. That means you’re stuck with me, and I’m stuck with you.

Someday you and I will each stand before the judgment bar of Christ. You’ll be called to task for the ways you failed to live up to gospel principles; I’ll be called to task for the ways I failed. You’ll give account of your stewardships; I’ll give account of mine. Judgment will be passed on the legacy you left to the Saints; judgment will be passed on what I did with my share of that legacy. We’ll each receive grace and a way forward—a place in the kingdom, a sphere in which to serve, and magnify our talents, and continue to progress. I presume that somewhere in that process, you and I will be reconciled. But right now . . . I feel very angry toward you.


Into your hands, O merciful Savior,
we commend your servant Joseph.
Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you,
a sheep of your own fold,
a lamb of your own flock,
a sinner of your own redeeming.
Receive him into the arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

(Book of Common Prayer, USA)

Iran update, and kittens

Mass show trial in Iran. How can Iranian hardliners be so self-enclosed as to think that the "confession" of a Frenchwoman who testifies how "brothers at the Intelligence Ministry made [her] understand" the error of her ways has any shred of credibility?

Then again, maybe these people are more cynically calculating than I give them credit for. The true believers who support this regime will buy it, and it's primarily for them that this show is being put on.
Bring the day of visitation, Lord,
when you will unveil your face
to appoint the portion of the oppressor among hypocrites,
where there is gnashing of teeth.
(D&C 124:8)

A new generation of feral kittens out in the gully next to our apartment complex. I see them occasionally as I walk the dog, exploring their world but still nursing. At first I saw four—two gray-and-black, one orange, one white. Now the white one seems to have disappeared. A torrential downpour a couple days ago turned the gully into a raging stream, and I have this awful mental image of the kitten being swept away and drowned.
Lord, by you all things were made that live.
Receive this kitten into your paradise,
where every creature you have made enjoys eternal felicity.
(D&C 45:1, 77:2-3).

Sunday, August 2, 2009

D&C 130:2 and a commitment ceremony

This week I did the assigned D&C readings for the lesson on eternal marriage: D&C 131 and 132 (or rather, the parts of 132 that don't talk about polygamy). For me, though, the most important passage in the D&C that speaks to the subject of eternal relationships is 130:2—
And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.
This statement, which predates D&C 132 by a few months, suggests that social bonds in general persist into the next world. And indeed, this makes perfect sense in light of LDS teachings elsewhere—going back to the Book of Mormon—which indicate that the resurrection means being restored to the bodies, knowledge, spiritual qualities, and personalities we have in mortality.

I take this to mean, then, that if a day indeed comes after death when my partner and I are restored to our physical bodies, we will again enjoy between ourselves the same sociality there that we enjoy here. We will still be in love, we will still feel passion for one another, and affection, and emotional attachment; we will still desire to be together—assuming, that is, that we still have that desire when the time comes for us to depart this world.

But now we come to D&C 132. And now we're being told that, actually, the same sociality that exists among us won't exist among us there unless our relationships, covenants, contracts, bonds, oaths, vows, connections, associations, expectations, etc. (v. 7) receive the proper ritual stamp of approval. Now we're presented with a vision of an afterlife in which two people who desire to be together for all eternity—who have made a covenant with one another to that effect (v. 18)—but whose relationship doesn't have the right words said over it by the right person will be separated so that they "remain separately and singly . . . to all eternity," as "servants . . . for those are worthy of a far [greater] . . . weight of glory" (vv. 16-17). In other words, D&C 132:15-18 gives us a vision of the afterlife that looks something along these lines:
One of the basic principles of my liberal scriptural hermeneutic is that generous readings trump stingy ones, given the premise that our Heavenly Parents are not people who give their children stones when they ask for bread (Matt. 7:9-11). D&C 132:15-18 speaks of a God who gives his children stones, or worse. D&C 130:2 points to a God who gives his children bread—better yet, who gives his children cake. If it is true, as some of Joseph Smith's other revelations suggest, that in the world to come our Heavenly Parents have prepared multiple kingdoms of glory because they are willing to let us have there whatever joy we chose here, then I can look forward in confidence to spending eternity with my chosen partner, assuming we both still want that and are still faithful to the covenant we have made to one another.

On June 9, 2001—Gay Pride weekend in Utah—my partner and I held a commitment ceremony. The ceremony was performed by a Unitarian minister, but we wrote it ourselves. It was structured after an LDS sealing ceremony, though we adapted it quite freely to express our theological understanding. In this ceremony, we made a covenant with one another in the presence of witnesses, and we laid before God the desires of our hearts. If relationships endure after death, we wanted that blessing for our relationship. If sexual partnerships can be holy, we wanted ours to be holy. We wanted our couplehood to be recognized, nurtured, supported, and honored as heterosexual couples are. In Genesis, Jacob wrestles with God to obtain a blessing. Similarly, my partner and I had blessings we wanted to obtain, and we've had to fight church and society to get them. Those wrestling matches still aren't over.

This is what we promised to one another:
M., do you take N. by the right hand, and give yourself to be joined to him in the eyes of God, and receive him to be joined to you in the eyes of God, desiring to remain with him for time and all eternity, with a covenant and promise that you will observe and keep all the responsibilities and obligations pertaining to a holy partnership, and this you do in the presence of God, angels, and these witnesses of your own free will and choice?
And these are the blessings we sought—the blessings we asked the minister to invoke on our behalf:
I call down upon you blessings of peace, companionship, strength, energy, passion, health, protection, growth, fulfillment, pleasure, creativity, power, and abundance of life, with all the blessings of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, and say to you: be fruitful and fill the measure of your creation, that you may have joy and rejoicing therein.

All these blessings, together with all the blessings which God desires to pour upon your partnership, I invoke upon you, through your faithfulness, in the name of God—Creator, Redeemer, and Comforter. Amen.