May 30, 2008

On Spiritual Death Row

I've been reading about Helmuth Hübener, a young member of the Church in Hamburg, Germany during WWII, and the youngest opponent of the Nazis to be sentenced to death by the Volksgerichthof, being sent to the guillotine at the age of 17. Mormon playright Tom Rogers wrote a play about him, Huebener (1976), which was a big success. You can read more about this young man's courageous story in the Spring 2008 issue of Dialogue, or here on Wikepedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helmuth_H%C3%BCbener

The story of Hübener is interesting for a variety of reasons, including the fact that he was excommunicated by the Church once his "crimes" against Hitler's Third Reich came to light. In retrospect, the main reason for this was undoubtedly to protect the Church and its members, particularly after the Nazis issued a warning that "after Jews, Mormons will be next." Another plausible reason for Hübener's excommunication was the political views of certain local Church leaders, including his branch president. In the end, his excommunication was retracted and membership reinstated by the Church posthumously.

So all this business about excommunication and execution has me thinking about whether we could ever find ourselves in a similar moral and spiritual conflict. Hübener listened to his conscience and had to pay for it with his Church membership (at leas as far as he knew), which he obviously treasured, and ultimately with his life. It appears that Church members and leaders who shared his convictions were either in short supply or simply to scared to voice their opposition (let's hope and assume that it's the latter). I can only imagine what it did to him to know that he had been cut off from the Church he loved, for something he was obviously convinced that he was right about. We learn in church that we're all born with "The Light of Christ" or, in other words, a conscience. So what happens when our conscience is in conflict with Church doctrine?

I don't want to give the impression that I'm comparing Helmuth Hübener with Peter and Mary Danzig, but there is one similarity. Both appear to have acted according to what their consciences told them was right and both were going against Church policy. In Hübener's case, he was going against the 12th Article of Faith, "We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law" and by doing so, putting all other German members in danger. At the same time, it's easy to come up with a million reasons for why he was doing the right thing. In regards to Danzig, he also had strong personal convictions but, in my view, went about it the wrong way. Signing your name on a letter in the Salt Lake Tribune accusing LDS leaders of "intellectual tyranny" was not a good move. Neither is it wise to accuse the Church of requesting to "violate my own conscience to write in support of an amendment I feel is contrary to the constitution and to the gospel of Christ," when in fact Church members were requested to write a letter to their senators with "their personal views." I will admit though, that we can all assume what "views" the Church would want members to express in regards to same-sex marriage. That is fairly evident from the Church's official statement expressings its disappointment over the fact that Danzig did not change his convictions:

"For more than a year and a half, Mr. Danzig counseled with his local bishop and stake president regarding same gender marriage and other Church doctrines. Unfortunately he was not able to reconcile his personal beliefs with the doctrine Church leaders are charged to maintain by divine mandate."

So while I don't agree with Danzig's methods, nor all of his convictions, I feel that he was honestly obeying his conscience in regards to his stance on homosexuality and gay marriage. From what I understand, he had gotten pretty deep insight into what it means to be gay through his professional life and therefore had developed a deeper understanding and compassion for homosexuals than your average Mormon. His problem was that the LDS Church is not a church for activists and I think he found himself in a hole that he had inadvertently dug himself. No doubt he and his wife are very hurt, but I would venture to guess that they still have the same testimony they had their whole lives, even if it's buried underneath a heap of hurt and anger. I can't help but wonder if God will take that into account despite an excommunication or withdrawal of membership (as in the case of the Danzigs) that occurs in this life.

It's always hard to say what you would do in such a situation, but I would like to think that if I were Danzig, I'd be able to humble myself enough to retain my Church membership without necessarily disobeying my conscience, always keeping a humble heart and open mind. My advice to him would be to stick it out, hope for the best and wait to see whether the things you hope for come to pass. Only time will tell whether they do or not, and you have to be prepared to be open to the possibility that you're wrong even if you're 99.999% sure that you're not. I think that some activists are ahead of their time and unfortunately, they may be powerless to change anything in Church doctrine or policy. I can imagine that there were members back in the 40's and 50's who wanted nothing more than to see blacks given the same Church opportunities as everyone else. Some never saw it happen in their lifetimes and for others it was probably unimaginable that policies would change. Some were even disappointed when things did change!

I wouldn't advise anyone to get their hopes up for some big change in doctrine in regards to homosexuality and marriage, but I still have an inkling of hope that someday no one will have to feel bad for doing what they honestly feel in their heart is right. And I know that that's perhaps just wishful thinking...

May 26, 2008

"I know the Church is true, I love my mom and dad," And Other Absolute Truths

Ever since I was a child, I remember sitting in fast and testimony meeting and wondering why all the kids in primary all said virtually the same testimony: "I know the Church is true, I love my mom and dad, I know so-and-so is a true prophet, etc." "Why can't someone just say something different?" I would think to myself. I must admit that I fell into the same trap myself, but I do recall adding to my testimony the fact that I loved my cat, the young and budding dissident that I was. I guess I felt that would be enough to not be guilty of plagiarism like all the others. Now that I've gotten older, I've come to understand that one's testimony is a personal thing and everyone has had their own personal experiences. So I try to be less critical, since I'm not exactly able to get up every month and say something profound.

Being married to a non-member, as I am, has its challenges but it can also be an excellent opportunity to re-examine one's faith and to challenge it. Only then do I know how strong (or weak) my faith really is. I remember my husband commenting after a fast and testimony meeting that he wondered how everyone could get up there and say things like "I KNOW the Church is true, beyond a shadow of a doubt, etc." This got me thinking and I started to re-examine my faith and questioning what I knew vs. what I believed. I came to the conclusion that a more honest testimony, at least for myself, is that "I BELIEVE the Church is true, I HOPE that it is, if I had to bet my life or money on it, I would bet that it is true and there is a lot of good in the Church. However, there are a lot of troubling things in the Church's past and present, so I am open to the possibility that it's all a fraud. I BELIEVE in a lot, but I KNOW very little."

We are a church of absolute truths. Not only do we have the absolute truth, we have a monopoly on absolute truth. We are GOD's Church upon the earth, the ONLY true Church, with the ONLY true prophet, the ONLY one with legitimate priesthood authority from GOD, and in order to be saved, you have to go through us, whether in this life or the next. Should be reassuring, right? Personally, I shy away from absolute truths. I may believe all of the above, but I have a hard time proclaiming it all to be "the absolute truth" that everyone should feel obligated to accept. Maybe it's just my way of wimping out. After all, knowing the absolute truth is a scary thought. For starters, what kind of horrendous trial would it take for me to KNOW? I think I'd rather go througout life with uncertainty than being struck down by an angel. That level of certainty carries a lot of obligation with it. What if polygamy was reinstated a few years down the road? Have you ever thought about what you'd do? I think you can see my fear of commitment shining through. It's a miracle I ever got married.

Despite the fact that many look at Mormons as being arrogant for saying they so, I don't like to bash all the Mormons who say that they KNOW. Who am I to say that they don't know? I don't know. I have admiration for the commitment of anyone who can say they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it's all true and therefore if polygamy was reinstated tomorrow or President Monson said that chocolate was now banned, they would follow through.

I've found great comfort in "Pascal's Wager," from French philosopher Blaise Pascal (see image), which basically says that even though God's existence can't be proven by reason, people should "wager" that God does exist and live their lives accordingly because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I think there's a lot of truth to it, despite the fact that I know an atheist would say that I'm losing the only life I have by wasting my time on living a religion for a God that doesn't exist. (You can read more about Pascal here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal)

On the other hand, I think that most Mormons would find Pascal's Wager to be insufficient. Because we CAN KNOW, why settle for just wagering on it? One of life's greatest mysteries to me is why some people seem to know and accept the truth so easily, while others can struggle their entire lives searching, yearning, longing to know the truth only to find it to be elusive. I've seen many good people: caring, compassionate, and humble who have such a strong desire to know God and to feel His Peace. Some find it, but others don't and it's easy to ask what they did wrong. In some cases I can't find any flaw in their approach. I read an article not too long ago, I think it was in the Ensign but I can't remember which issue or which GA was telling the story about one of the prophets. When he was called to be a stake president, he expressed his feelings that he didn't felt he KNEW with absolutely certainty that the Gospel was true. Some of the brethren felt this was enough to remove him from office because he SHOULD KNOW, but the superior at the time felt that that would be a little hasty. To make a short story short, his superior told him that he could know for a surety and so he prayed earnestly about it, got the witness he was in need of, and later went on to become a prophet.

We learn in the scriptures that each member of the Church is entitled to a spiritual gift. In D&C 46 it reads:


11 For all have not every a gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God.

12 To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.

13 To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.

14 To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.

15 And again, to some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know the differences of administration, as it will be pleasing unto the same Lord, according as the Lord will, suiting his mercies according to the conditions of the children of men.

16 And again, it is given by the Holy Ghost to some to know the diversities of operations, whether they be of God, that the manifestations of the Spirit may be given to every man to profit withal.

17 And again, verily I say unto you, to some is given, by the Spirit of God, the word of wisdom.

18 To another is given the word of knowledge, that all may be taught to be wise and to have knowledge.

19 And again, to some it is given to have faith to be healed;

20 And to others it is given to have faith to heal.

21 And again, to some is given the working of miracles;

22 And to others it is given to prophesy;

23 And to others the discerning of spirits.

24 And again, it is given to some to speak with tongues;

25 And to another is given the interpretation of tongues.

26 And all these gifts come from God, for the benefit of the children of God.

While I don't think I've been given verse #13, I think that perhaps I do have #14. Does this mean that I can be quite content to sit back and say "Yes, I believe and therefore I will be faithful" or do I need to constantly be reaching for the sure knowledge of verse #13? If I interpret these verses correctly, then it seems to me that those who think that everyone can know just like they do, is perhaps wrong. (Incidentally, it's amazing how many people in the Church seem to have been given #13. Think about that next fast and testimony meeting. :)

Those are my thoughts for the day. Oh, and just for the record, I do love my mom and dad and my cat(s) and that's the absolute truth!

May 22, 2008

Spiritual Jeopardy: Who Wants To Play?

I may as well admit it. Certain things about Boyd K. Packer rub me the wrong way. I'm not saying he's a bad man, is wrong, or shouldn't be a GA, I'm just saying that I personally have a problem with embracing some of the stuff he says. Last night I was reading in Dialogue again, about "Faithful Scholarship" and Postmodernism by Duffy. It's a long and interesting essay and I'll try not to take the following excerpt out of context since it was applied to a long and complicated debate about Mormon historians and it would take me forever to tell the whole story. Aside from that, I'm still very new to such debates, so feel free to put me in my place.

"In opposing the new Mormon history's ostensibly neutral approach, Midgley and Bohn extended a critique that had already been made by CES personnel and Apostle Boyd K. Packer, who found the new Mormon history too secular and inadequately faith-promoting. In his controversial 1981 address, "The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect," Packer rejected the quest to be "objective, impartial, and scholarly" in writing Church history on the grounds that Latter-day Saints were at war. The "posture of detachment" or "sympathetic neutrality" to which some LDS scholars aspired (Packer was almost certainly thinking of Arrington, specifically) risked "giving equal time to the adversary." At its core, the antipositivist complaint was identical to Packer's. Mormon historians needed to stand on the side of the gospel, not on some fictitious objective middle ground."

I was curious about that talk by Packer and so I read it in its entirety here: http://byustudies.byu.edu/shop/pdfSRC/21.3Packer.pdf. I actually think that he makes some very valid points and that his concerns are legitimate. I will give President Packer this: if you're going to write a history about your purported faith, it's certainly difficult to remain objective, impartial, scholarly, and still uphold that faith -- although I think Bushman came pretty darn close in Rough Stone Rolling. Given that Packer's address dates back to 1981, I'd be curious to know what he really thinks of Rough Stone Rolling and whether that criticism could apply to a work such as Bushman's. Have times changed or would Rough Stone Rolling still be considered too "objective, impartial and scholarly?" I now quote directly from Packer's talk:

"That historian or scholar who delights in pointing out the weaknesses and frailties of present or past leaders destroys faith. A destroyer of faith—particularly one within the Church, and more particularly one who is employed specifically to build faith—places himself in great spiritual jeopardy. He is serving the wrong master, and unless he repents, he will not be among the faithful in the eternities. One who chooses to follow the tenets of his profession, regardless of how they may injure the Church or destroy the faith of those not ready for “advanced history,” is himself in spiritual jeopardy. If that one is a member of the Church, he has broken his covenants and will be accountable. After all of the tomorrows of mortality have been finished, he will not stand where he might have stood."

I wish to use Rough Stone Rolling again because I think it's an excellent example. I'm certainly not implying that Bushman "delights in pointing out the weaknesses and frailties" of Joseph Smith, but RSR certainly did point out his weaknesses and frailties. Depending on the circumstances and mindset of the reader, RSR can either destroy or build faith. Though it left me struggling to accept certain things about Joseph, my personal experience after reading it was more of the latter. So, my question to all of you is do you think that Bushman is "in spiritual jeopardy" as President Packer put it? He continues:

"In the Church we are not neutral. We are one-sided. There is a war going on, and we are engaged in it. It is the war between good and evil, and we are belligerents defending the good. We are therefore obliged to give preference to and protect all that is represented in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we have made covenants to do it. Some of our scholars establish for themselves a posture of neutrality. They call it “sympathetic detachment.” Historians are particularly wont to do that. If they make a complimentary statement about the Church, they
seem to have to counter it with something that is uncomplimentary."

Loyalty is a virtue that I appreciate and so I can appreciate President Packer's call for loyalty here. But what is this "war" that is going on and who is the enemy? Is it Satan? Is it historians? Intellectuals? Or even the common member who has anything negative to say about the Church or its history? I'm not a historian, but if I were, I know I would find myself in a huge dilemma. When Bushman said that he has to fight a war on two fronts, he was right and I don't envy the guy.

I really feel very torn because I want to be loyal and faith-promoting, and yet at the same time my conscience compels me to acknowledge that Joseph Smith and the other prophets were not superheroes and that Mormonism has some skeletons in its closet in regards to things like Mountain Meadows, polygamy, and the treatment of blacks, etc. Does wanting to know more and discussing the non-so-faith-promoting aspects of my religion make me a traitor?

There is no doubt that searching for truth carries a certain degree of risk. As Packer said in that talk, some members lose their faith because of these so-called neutral historians. It's sad that that happens, but I tend to think that having faithful members of the Church, such as Bushman, approach Mormon history in an objective sort of way is actually in a way, faith-promoting in itself. Why do you have to be a bitter apostate in order to be objective?

I have to admit, knowing that President Packer is next in line gives me all the more motivation to remember President Monson in my prayers. (Shame on me.) But I guess that's my own problem and nobody else's.

May 14, 2008

"In The Eye Of The Beholder..."

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," the saying goes. We can look at something and come away with a different impression or meaning than the person standing beside us.

Perhaps it works the same with the scriptures. I've always been amazed, and sometimes frustrated, by how I can read a scripture and get a totally different meaning out of it than someone else -- if I get any meaning out of it at all.

I'm one of those few people who can say that they've read the "Quad" from cover to cover. However, I'm a very sporadic scripture reader and my success in being a daily (or even weekly) scripture reader has usually been short-lived.

I'm not good with symbolism or poetry. To give you an idea of how much I enjoyed studying Shakespeare in high school, if you gave me the choice between re-growing my 4 wisdom teeth and having them re-extracted vs. having to read and memorize Merchant Of Venice again, I might just choose the 5 minutes of excruciating physical pain over the hours of excruciating boredom. The sad part is that that's maybe not far from an exaggeration. And as for poetry, well, let's just say that the boys of my youth had to take a different approach if they wanted to romance me. At the same time, however, I can respect and appreciate the fact that certain people are mesmerized by Shakespeare or poetry.

The scriptures, for me, actually fare a little better than the above mentioned. I appreciate the historical background and symbolism behind the parables of Jesus. Nevertheless, reading the scriptures and applying them to my personal life is a struggle for me.

In the Spring 2008 issue of Dialogue, I thought that Kathleen Petty put it well when she said:

"The problem with allowing people to find their own meaning in the scriptures is that they will find their own meaning in the scriptures."

This has always been a concern of mine and since I'm the type of person who needs clear and explicit instructions, getting advice or answers from God via the scriptures is not exactly comforting. If I interpret a scripture one way and someone else another, who's right?

We had a family discussion a few days ago about vegetarianism. Some of my family members like to tease me about being a vegetarian, but I take it all in stride. So we put the scriptures to the test on the subject. Here is a good example of how it's possible for people to interpret a scripture differently and both can swear that they are right.

In D&C 89:13 it says:

“And it is pleasing unto me that they [the flesh of beasts and fowls] should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.”

Now, a vegetarian would read that as they should NOT be used, and ONLY in times of winter, cold, or famine is it acceptable. (Interestingly, one source says that the comma after the word "used" was added to D&C in 1920.)

On the other hand, a meat-lover's-pizza-lover would say that they should not be used ONLY in times of winter, cold, or famine. And if this meat lover wants an even stronger argument, he can turn to D&C 49 where it says:

"And whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God; For, behold, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which cometh of the earth, is ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance."

I've heard some members use this scripture as justification for vegetarianism being "evil." In my view, the problem is that they don't read further on because then it says:

"But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin. And wo be unto that man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need." (D&C 49: 20-21).

Anyways, my point is that I think it can be problematic to find an "answer" in the scriptures and know that you're right. Anyone who has an experience or opinion to share, I welcome ideas.

May 5, 2008

Wright And Wrong

OK, I'm going to get a little political now. I will start off by saying that I'm not a staunch supporter of Obama, I just like him slightly better than the others and I think that he will be the next president. I certainly don't think that he should be immune to criticism.

I just read this commentary by Glenn Beck on CNN.com regarding Obama trying to distance himself from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. (you can read the entire article here: http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/05/05/beck.obamawright/index.html). I'm not extremely familiar with Beck, since I've only caught a few bits of his shows here and there. I wouldn't say I share his point of view on some things, but I appreciate his approach to politics and different issues. I actually didn't know he was a Mormon until President Hinckley died and there was a tribute by Beck circulating on the Internet. I like the guy and I admire how he's been able to turn his life around after a rocky past.

I know that Beck claims to be a "conservative who just who happens to not be a Republican." I don't know whether he supported Romney while he was still in the race, but if he did, I wonder if he felt a little funny writing this commentary.

Beck writes:

"It wasn't Wright's overbearing volume, hilarious comedy, hand movements, or dance quality that made me think he was a dangerous peddler of conspiracy theories. It was his words that did that. I don't want someone like him with access to the president for twenty minutes, let alone twenty years."

Where have I heard this before? Hmmm... isn't that "access to the president" phrase roughly the same concern that a lot of people had about Mitt Romney? Only, instead of being criticized for associating with a "dangerous peddler of conspiracy theories," Romney was accused of being associated with a prophet some would regard as a dangerous peddler of a homophobic, anti-feminist agenda and the leader of a religion with a racist and polygamist past. Those of us familiar with Mormonism can easily laugh off such ideas, but put yourself in the position of someone who knows little or nothing about the Church and how it works. Can you see why people could be concerned, just as a lot of people are now concerned about Obama? In no way do I agree or sympathize with Wright's racist rantings, but I know at the same time that one need not dig too deeply to find some pretty disturbing teachings on race, among other things, in Mormonism. The only real difference I see is that Wright is alive and current, while the most controversial Mormon leaders are mostly dead.

Beck continues:

"Do I think for a second that Obama believes the government created the AIDS virus to kill African-Americans? No. But at this point it's rational to wonder whether he is either lying or has an awful sense of judgment. He either knew Wright's views and didn't tell the truth about them, or he somehow missed the core beliefs of the man who was spending his Sunday mornings teaching core beliefs.

I'm glad Obama has come to the same conclusion that Wright's critics came to long ago. I just wonder why it took me two minutes and him two decades."

While I was reading this article, that scripture came to mind from Matthew 7:3, "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" Now don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to accuse Beck of any sin here, but I do wonder how he could have missed the parallels. It might take him just two minutes to see through Wright, but how long would it take him to see through Brigham Young for his fiery, racially-charged speeches, or Joseph Smith for his underaged brides? To be quite honest, as much as I am deeply disturbed by some aspects of my faith, I wouldn't be willing to stand in front of America and publicly denounce past prophets of my religion. But apparently neither Beck nor Romney is willing either. And either that makes us people of integrity or huge cowards, depending on how you look at it.

I was anxious while Romney was still in the race, particularly if it had turned out to be him vs. Obama, in other words, White Mormon Republican vs. Black Democrat. I think that Romney would have found himself under intense scrutiny, just as Obama is now, or even more so, because of Mormonism's former doctrines related to race. Honestly, I was scared to death that it would come to that, and at the same time I was hoping it would, merely for the fascinating religious and ethical debates that could have followed.

But I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be in their shoes.