Monday, October 27, 2014

Those Things I Don't Believe

As you may have noticed, I'm an evidence-based kind of guy. I like data, and I like a well reasoned and justifiable logic. This is certainly influenced by my professional career, but I like to think that it confirms well to the whole gentleness, meekness, and persuasion thing (would you like fries with your justification?)

One of the benefits of being so evidence-based is that it is relatively easy for me to realign my beliefs when presented with new and better evidence (the 'better' qualification is a crucial element).  If you provide me with better evidence, I'll respond with better beliefs. 

It was the process of gaining more evidence that led me to abandon my belief in a worldwide flood. There were just too many holes in the story. Too many reasons it couldn't be true and not enough reasons it could. I found that as I asked questions about the flood--how could there be enough water to 'baptize the earth?'; wouldn't the elevation change cause asphyxiation?--the apologists' answers became more and more implausible.

Evolution was another issue that gradually grew on me.  First, I was a pure creationist, then I bought into the six creative periods. Next it was some conglomeration of creationism and evolution (probably not unlike Intelligent Design) and finally settled on evolution. At  this point, I'm a fairly strict evolutionist. 

The implications of these modified beliefs are, I imagine, exactly like what strict biblical interpretationists feared about evolution. Evolution has crushed my confidence in certain beliefs that are widely accepted as simple fact in orthodox Christianity and/or Mormonism.

Let me list a few. 

First, I don't believe Adam and Eve actually existed. At least not as we envision them in our canon. I don't believe in the first-humans-ever-and-distinct-parents-of-the-human-race mythology.  Rather, I suspect the man we know as Adam was the first man God chose to be a prophet. And he was likely chosen at a time when God observed the evolution of a species capable of the moral reasoning on which agency is based.

Things snowball from there. Reject the Adam-as-first-man philosophy brings into question numerous other beliefs. And so I find it unlikely that Eve was formed from a rib; or that the Garden of Eden was on the American continent (or that it even existed, for that matter).

It seems so much more plausible to me that Adam and Eve were the first leaders chosen to establish gospel teaching. That they did so at the very earliest stages of Humanity's development, and that the Flood was a literary device to bridge the gap between oral and written history. It seems more plausible that Moses (and the actual biblical authors) used the common creation myths of the day to convey eternal principles.

This has added a subtle new dimension to how I think about some things. Not too long ago, I came across an online discussion about Eve's motivations for taking the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. I can't really comment on Eve's motivations because I don't believe there was an actual Tree or actual Fruit. I think the more relevant question is, what were the motivations of the person who wrote the allegory in designating Eve as the first to partake? (And that is a separate entry entirely).

I suspect that I will get a certain amount of pushback about rejecting the Adam and Eve story. The Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement are crucial aspects of the Mormon narrative. I suppose the argument goes that if there is no Adam and Eve, the there is no Fall. And if there is no Fall, there is no Atonement. But I don't think that's true.  If the Creation story of Genesis is an allegory--a teaching device--and we acknowledge a loss of information between oral and written histories, then it seems perfectly plausible to conclude that the Fall--being the representation of when Man became accountable for their sins--happened in some other and probably boring way (the same boring way children become accountable?)

It's also possible I'm completely wrong about all of this. Which is fine. I don't particularly care if Adam and Eve were a real thing or not (so why write all this, you ask?  I was bored and cranky).

So let me wrap up with those things I do believe.  I believe that God recognized that we wouldn't be able to live up to His strict and perfect expectations.  I believe that God had the wisdom to comprehend the competing needs of justice and mercy.  And I believe, in His eternal pragmatism, He provided a Savior that could balance those competing needs.  Most importantly, I believe that even with zero understanding of how God established His presence among humanity, those things I do believe are far more valuable than those things I don't.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Christ Becomes Real

Would you believe me if I told you I used to be an opinionated jack-ass?  Well, you shouldn't--the tense of that sentence is wrong.  I'm still an opinionated jack-ass.  Fortunately, I'm not quite as extreme as I used to be.

In one particularly egregious example of jack-assery, I got into an argument with someone about the appropriateness of including Santa Claus in ward Christmas parties.  I was adamant that Santa Claus had no business having any mention in the church, as we should be teaching people, especially children, about Christ.  Fantasy and mythology need not apply.  My inflexibility on the subject leaves me a bit embarrassed.  I certainly could be an idiot when I was younger.  As I've learned more about how children's I've come to understand that to young children, when we talk of Christ, he is every bit as real as Santa Claus.  At the same time, to a young child, Christ is every bit as mythical as Santa Claus. By the time children develop the cognitive ability to distinguish between fiction and history, it really doesn't matter what they've learned about Christ and Santa Claus.

Realistically, all children will eventually learn that Santa Claus is fiction.  Christ will suffer the same fate unless the child feels the Holy Spirit confirm the reality of Christ to them.  Currently, my opinion on Santa Claus at ward parties has evolved.  Just have fun and spread joy.

Joy is a good word for what I've felt much of the past week.  My family has been on a cross country road trip from Cleveland to Los Angeles.  We've taken a rather indirect route, visiting family and friends along Interstates 80 and 70.  I can't begin to explain how much I've loved watching my daughters play together; support each other in those awful long days in the car; sing songs together; and giggle with delight on the Tram up a mountain.  This trip has been 100 times more fun than I anticipated.

As we talked to our daughters about the places we would see, Bug said that she wanted to stop in Salt Lake City to see Temple Square.  She has a familiarity with pictures of the Salt Lake temple and was curious to see the building that is in so many of the pictures she has seen at church (I guess).

It didn't really hold her interest.  By the time we made it to Temple Square, she was more interested in running up and down the sidewalks, admiring the flowers, and trying to play in the fountains.  Pretty much anything we showed her would hold her interest only briefly.  Invariably, she would take off running and giggling.

To finish our visit to the Square, we stopped in to see the Christus statue.  The physical design of this exhibit is brilliant, as you are able to walk up a spiral ramp to the viewing area.  The statue kind of pops into view and leaves quite an impression.

Bug was particularly struck by this statue, and she positioned herself about 5 feet away from the pedestal, looked up, and was positively glued for a minute.  Then she did something that really stood out to me.  I watched as she lifted her arms to 90 degree angles.  She turned her palms up, tilted her head down, and examined her hands.  First her left, then her right.  Slowly and deliberately, she looked up again at the statue.  She studied Christ's hands carefully, comparing them with hers.  Christ's hands had strange holes that her hands didn't.  It was a difference that captivated her.

After a couple minutes, she stepped away, and we made our way back downstairs.  The downstairs portion of the exhibit displayed several large paintings depicting Christ's life and ministry.  I took Bug's hand and walked her over to one painting of Christ hanging on the cross.

"What do you notice about His hands?" I asked her.

"They're bleeding."

We talked about how people drove nails through his hands to hold him on the cross1.  We discussed the significance of Christ retaining those scars after his Resurrection to remind us of how he suffered so that we could return to God.

Bug is normally very sensitive to discussions about people suffering.  She usually withdraws from such conversations.  She worries about people who suffer and her sadness is visible in her eyes.  I saw a flash of that withdrawal for a moment at the start of our discussion.  But it was only a flash.  Then I watched as truth infiltrated her soul.  I watched the Holy Spirit reach out to her.  Right then, I saw Christ became more real than Santa Claus.  For the first time, Christ became real to her.  And with her help, once more Christ became real to me.

Bug turned to the podium in front of the painting.  "What does this say?" she asked.  I read:
he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)
"With his wounds, we are healed." I explained to her, fighting back tears.  She wrapped her arms around my neck, and I could have lived in that moment forever.


"Yes, Bug?"  I looked her in the eye, ready for the profound truth about to come from the mouth of my babe.

"I need to go potty."

1 "Because they ran out of rope" she said. (the thieves are tied up with ropes in this painting)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Little Less Like Home

The past 24 hours have been an arrangement of sadness, laughter, and joy.  I have to thank the friends who helped bring in the laughter and joy.  Without their company, I might have spiraled into an all-out rage.

Two members of the Church are being called to a disciplinary council.  These councils are the formal mechanism by which members may be disfellowshipped or excommunicated from the church.

I get that the Church has the right to do this.  I understand why they are doing it.  But in the larger context of the past few weeks, it makes me very uncomfortable.  For me, this is what I see coming from the Church right now:

  1. We're meeting with Mormon Women Stand because this is how we feel proper women of the Church should behave.
  2. We don't meet with extreme groups.  If you have questions about the role of women (or other teachings of the Church), meet with your local priesthood leaders.
  3. By the way, we're likely excommunicating a few of people who have been critical of Church teachings.
So yeah, I feel real comfortable talking to my bishop now.

The thing that I find most frustrating is that it feels like the Church hasn't even attempted any real dialog on the issue.  The closest thing we've seen is Elder Oaks' talk in the most recent General Conference.  I read his talk again this morning to see if there was anything I missed.  Let me share with you all of the new things I learned from his talk-----okay I'm done.  Because he didn't teach anything new.  

Maybe I'm exceptional (I doubt that), but I already knew everything he talked about.  Reminders are great.  I won't begrudge anyone a reminder of the Church's position.  But reiterating your position is not the same as having a dialog on the topic.

For clarity's sake, let me mock up the conversation as it appears to have been had from my perspective:
Ordain Women: We believe true equality requires that women be ordained to the priesthood.
LDS Church: We disagree with your conclusion.
Ordain Women: Perhaps we should talk about this.  Here's are the assumptions and logical processes that led to our conclusion.
LDS Church: We still disagree with your conclusion.  
Ordain Women: Could you elaborate on your assumptions, or tell us where you disagree with our assumptions?
LDS Church: We continue to disagree with your conclusion.  We will now restate our conclusion.   
 Yes, there's a lot of nuance missing there.  There's a lot more going into the disciplinary councils than just pressure for dialog.  But this is the core of what bothers me about the whole affair.  I am extremely uncomfortable with the Church leadership stating its conclusion without explaining how it got to the conclusion.  Would it really be so hard to say something as simple as "We disagree with your assertion that Joseph Smith ordained Emma Smith to the priesthood--it is our understanding that the language surrounding priesthood ordinations and settings apart was not as specific as it is today.  We believe that, in modern language, Emma Smith was set apart to a position of authority."

I want to understand.  I don't even have to agree with all of the logic in order to accept the result.  I just want to see if the logic that led to the result is internally consistent.  With the information that is coming out of the Church (and by information, I mean deafening silence), I can't do that.

I keep hearing people say, "Well how do you know that they haven't prayed about and gotten an answer."  I don't.  I also don't know that they have prayed about it.  I don't know anything.  I haven't been given the chance to understand.  Everything I've heard is just a reiteration of what the current position is.  And that's precisely what bothers me.

Today, I feel a little less safe in the Church.  I feel that people like me, who want more depth and understanding--about not just what, but why and how--are less welcome.  I feel I've lost a part of the refuge that church has been for me the past six months.  Church feels less like home today, and that makes me sad.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Mormon Superiority Myths: Infidelity

I'm a sucker for click-bait, I'll admit it.  But my fascination usually stems from a curiosity regarding how badly the headline mangles reality.  So I couldn't resist when I saw the headline "You May Be Surprised How Many Born-Again Christians Use Ashley Madison."

A new survey conducted by Ashley Madison -- a dating website for people already in relationships -- sought to discover the link between religion and infidelity by asking 105,000 of its members around the world about their religious affiliation. More than 60,000 of the respondents were in the U.S.

The implication is that Born-again Christians are more likely to cheat on their partners than those from other religions because they make up 25.1% of the user base at Ashley Madison.  Don't be fooled: they have demonstrated no such thing.  Instead of demonstrating that a randomly chosen Evangelical Christian is more likely to be a user of Ashley Madison, they've actually shown that a randomly chosen Ashley Madison is most likely to be an Evangelical Christian.

Big deal.

If we take a look at the percentages of religions in the population compared to the percentages of religions in the user base, we get a different idea.  Take a look:

Religion Percentage of Population Percentage of Ashley Madison Users
Evangelist 26.3 25.10
Catholic 23.9 22.75
Protestant 18.1 22.70
Agnostic 2.4 2.00
Mormon 1.7 1.60
Muslim 0.6 1.50
Jewish 1.7 1.40
Atheist 1.6 1.40
Jehovah's Witness 0.7 0.50
Hinduism 0.4 0.30

As you can see, the percentages track pretty well.  Statistically, we would call this good agreement between the data.  A goodness of fit tests also indicates no reason to suspect that the distributions differ (p = 0.22).

What's the practical interpretation?  Effectively, all American religions (and non religions) suffer from infidelity in fairly equal proportions.  Well, at least the kind of infidelity where people are willing to pay a website to help them cheat.

So what does this all mean for Mormon culture?  Nothing really.  At most, we might think that Mormons aren't any better behaved than other religions. 

My advice: save your money and take your partner out to dinner.

Friday, May 30, 2014

On Missing Context

The Church's public affairs department sent an open letter to mormon blogs yesterday.  You can read it for yourself.  There are parts of it I like, and parts of it I don't.

First, the part that I don't like.  Otterson describes a criticism from the internet community at "By not engaging with the more extreme groups, the Church – and Public Affairs in particular – is not acting as Christ would."  Let me start of by just clarifying that the argument "public affairs is not acting as Christ would" is just stupid.  I get that much.  Public affairs is an entity meant to help develop and distribute messaging from the Church.  They shouldn't be expected to "act as Christ would."

That being said, if you're going to claim that you're not meeting with extreme groups, then don't meet with extreme groups.  And yes, Mormon Women Stand is an extreme group.  In response to Ordain Women, they describe themselves as women who "unequivocally sustain the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles."  That may seem perfectly harmless at first, but unequivocal doesn't leave much space for doubt and concern.  The expectation of unequivocal stifles innovation and creativity in solving problems the Church and local congregations face.

Mormon Women Stand and Ordain Women are the opposite extremes in the discussion of women's issues in the Church.  So let's not claim that we're not meeting with extreme groups.

The part I did like: in response to the question of whether women (or men) are ever demeaned or marginalized in the Church, "Yes, of course....What this argues for is better training of leaders and members1."  As it turns out, I just had a brief talk with my bishop about this on Tuesday.  And I can't tell you how relieving it is to have a bishop to whom I can speak of my wholly equivocal support for how the ward is being managed without him calling into question my commitment to the Church.  But we talked about how so many positions in the Church require strong leadership skills, and the Church does next to nothing to teach those skills.  I mean that quite seriously: the Church does next to nothing to teach its members leadership skills.

Sure, we have "leadership training" meetings pretty much every stake conference.  There's one catch to those training meetings, though--you're only invited if you've already been called into leadership.  And most of the leadership training meetings I've been to end up with a public speaking format (ie, usually no interaction between the speaker and the audience) and focus on how we need to "listen to the Spirit" and "ask for and follow inspiration."

I won't argue against those principles.  They are certainly true and valuable.  But how about doing workshops that teach interviewing skills?  How about workshops that teach leaders how to ask questions that get members to evaluate and express their own beliefs?  How about workshops that teach leaders how to build a common vision and inspire people to want to contribute; to do better than manipulate them with "the Lord is calling you and you don't want to let down the Lord, do you?"  When  you possess these skills, the power of inspiration and revelation are magnified many times over.  We should be teaching them routinely.  We should be teaching them to people before they are called into leadership.  We should be teaching these skills to our youth, our home and visiting teachers, and our Sunday school teachers.

Screw it!  We should be teaching these skills to anyone who walks through the door.

So yes, we need better training.  Can we please start by recognizing that our ability to lead is not completely determined by our ability to hear the Spirit?  Can we admit, already, that there are practical skills that we aren't teaching our current and future leaders that, if they developed, would make for a stronger church?  Can we start now?

1 I'm going to ignore for now the fact that the problem isn't really that local leaders sometimes demean and marginalize members, but that there are systemic and cultural forces in the Church's teachings and structure that enable and perpetuate these things.