Aug 30, 2009

Renaissance

For all you Mormon Stories fans out there, the "second generation" of Mormon podcasts has begun now at Mormon Expression, so make sure to check out this new site when you get a chance (You can also see a link on my blog roll). A commenter on my previous thread, Sunflowercalm, tipped me off about a new podcast by the guys at Mormon Expression, interviewing John Dehlin about where he is now and how and why he is now in a much better place spiritually speaking. I think they asked him most of the questions that I would have wanted to ask him myself and I really enjoyed the insight that he was able to give from the experience of his journey. So download it and listen to it. You'll be glad you did.

More directly related to this post, however, is another series of the Mormon Stories podcasts that I hadn't listened to yet: "Fowler's Stages of Faith," podcasts #'s 15, 16, 17. I wish I had listened to this series first and I highly recommend listening to it before embarking on the rest of the podcasts. Seriously, if you listen to nothing else, LISTEN TO THIS SERIES. You won't regret it, I promise.

You can read a bit about Fowler's Stages of Faith Development here, but I highly recommend listening to at least the first podcast (#16) in order to get a better grasp on what it actually means. It will also help you better understand what I'm trying to get at in this post.

I first came across the "dark night of the soul" theory when I read Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light by Brian Kolodiejchuk (which I highly recommend, by the way). Mother Teresa herself experienced intense spiritual darkness and doubt that lasted for most of her life until just before her death. But back then I don't think that it registered in my mind that this phenomenon of a "purgation of the soul that brings purity and union with God," could perhaps apply to regular people and not just extraordinary and holy individuals such as Mother Teresa. It's not something that I've ever really heard in Mormon circles before and I think that this is probably because it is assumed that when we doubt and lack faith, the problem originates in us. God NEVER abandons us or closes the channels of communication, right? Wrong.

But there is a purpose.

Last time I was home visiting my family, I remember having a discussion during FHE about faith. Dad asked us all whether any of us had ever doubted that God existed. To my astonishment, I was the only one in my family who said they had. I was then suddenly aware of the chasm that existed between me and even my own family members, who are by no means ultraorthodox, conservative Mormons. Even they had never doubted. I know that my family would never mean to make me feel weak or "less" in any way. But I did.

I think that those of us who struggle in the Church are usually looked looked at with either misunderstanding (i.e. "They're just not committed to living the Gospel.") or pity (i.e. "It's too bad that they're just not strong enough.") But more than we actually hear it from people, we tend to feed ourselves these negative thoughts all the time. And sometimes we start to believe it. We feel sorry for ourselves. We start to think that perhaps we are weak because we doubt and everyone else knows that we doubt. Then the resentment of those who are spiritually-fulfilled sets in and we start to look at believers in the same condescending manner that we were probably looked at. As we become more "enlightened," we see how "deluded" they are.

After listening to these podcasts, I have begun to look at doubt in a different light. Although I had concluded that having doubts and issues weren't really a sign of weakness, I hadn't really thought about them as being constructive or a necessary part of progression. At least not in the way that they were presented in these podcasts. These stages of faith (or unfaith) are necessary, they can't be rushed, they can be lengthy, (even "brutal," as Tom says in the podcast) and they can't be skipped over.

For those of you who had lived a pretty orthodox, faithful life before entering a crisis of faith, you know the flood of emotions that comes with such a crisis: anger, disillusionment, apathy, and, my personal favourite -- cynicism. It's terrifying and perhaps even a little exhilarating at the same time as you are forced to cast aside all your old dogmas, beliefs and ideas, starting with a blank slate and realizing that you need to make the most out of this life since it may really be all there is. Priorities change. The way you view others changes (as Tom said in the last podcast, he was literally a homophobe and a racist when he was at Stage 3). When he got to Stage 4, it was hell. But now that he's gradually leaving 4, he is grateful for having been forced out of Stage 3. It's about going to a higher level -- and I don't mean that in condescending way. It's about having a deeper and more mature faith.

I'm in Stage 4, I don't know how long I'm going to be in it and I know there's no guarantee that I will ever leave it. I know that many people "check out" once they get to this stage. Some are in the purgatory of Stage 4 literally for years, perhaps even decades.

Part of graduating from Stage 4 and moving onto 5 or even 6 is not harbouring anger and resentment towards those who remain at Stage 3 -- and certainly avoiding any sense of superiority for doing so. For those of you who are or have been in Stage 4, you know how hard it is. And there's no magic pill to make you let go of the anger, doubt, resentment and sense of superiority. Even now that I'm able to put things into perspective and see a possible light at the end of the tunnel, I was reminded today as I sat in church and listened to people that I still have a very very long way to go.

Few will get past Stage 3 and probably fewer are able to leave Stage 4 once they enter it. I know that going back to Stage 3 is not an option. And I don't feel peace at 4. So the only way from here is up.

It's not about "getting my faith back." My old orthodox faith is gone and it's never coming back.

But a renaissance is possible. And who knows what it will look like then.

Maybe that's my glimpse into Stage 5. But it's just a glimpse.

Aug 26, 2009

Some Thoughts From Mormon Stories

I've had a couple of quiet days at home to take time to listen to some of the Mormon Stories podcasts that I hadn't yet had a chance to listen to. It's been challenging, uncomfortable, enlightening, and riveting -- all at the same time. As I finished listening to one of the podcasts this afternoon, I found myself lamenting over the fact that John Dehlin and some of those he interviewed on Mormon Stories have been dismissed as "Anti-Mormon" by some. A while back when I recommended a certain podcast to a church leader that I thought he would find helpful and insightful, he dismissed Dehlin as an employer of anti-Mormon tactics and had only negative things to say about him, even though I'm quite sure he was completely unfamiliar with him. So, as much as I still respect and admire this leader, I couldn't help but think how missing this unbelievably unique and insightful opportunity to learn more about Mormonism and Mormons from all across the spectrum was a huge loss on his part.

I've had a lot to process and digest over the past few days, but I'll try to summarize just some of my thoughts based on the various podcasts that I listened to. I can't recommend them enough to those of you who are struggling with the same issues that I am, or who are simply searching for an increase in understanding.

The first ones I listened to were a series with Paul Toscano (#'s 077-083), one of the September Six who were excommunicated in September of 1993. Toscano is very bold in his personal beliefs and observations. Although he can come across as arrogant, I think that "in-your-face," as he himself put it, is more accurate. He has some very interesting views about the Godhead, Christ, where the Church has gone wrong, where it has gone right, and what he'd like to see change. Although some of his opinions would sound heretical to most Mormons, I came away from the podcast with a deep appreciation for his view on Jesus Christ. Even though I may not share his view completely on exactly who or how Christ is, I found what he said about him downright inspiring and motivational. Yes, I'll say it again. I found an excommunicated "apostate" to be inspiring and motivational. I haven't yet listened to the series featuring his wife, Margaret Toscano, who was also excommunicated later on, but I'm looking forward to it.

The next series I listened to was with Grant Palmer, (#'s 030-033), author of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, and disfellowshipped in 2004 for publishing the book. I found this series to be the most riveting, probably because of Palmer's personality and background story. I could relate to him on many personal levels and my impression was one of a broken man who had to suffer the consequences of finding himself unable to reconcile the evidences he uncovered with the story that he had been led to believe for most of his life. Although he reached some pretty dismal personal conclusions as to the truth of many of Mormonism's claims, ranging from Book of Mormon literal historicity to the multiple accounts of the First Vision, I found his perspective to nevertheless be inspiring in its own way. And even though I'm not sure that I share his opinions and views in all these areas, in a way I could say that I felt relieved by his approach. Here is someone who has lost much of his faith, who does not believe the Church to be literally true on all the levels that it claims, and yet continues to love and see value in the Church -- enough so that he values his membership and still attends sacrament meeting as a disfellowshipped member. I was inspired by the story of his church court hearing and the aftermath -- namely the deeply personal and overwhelming sense of divine peace and comfort he felt the night after an exhausting and traumatic day. I came away feeling comforted by the notion that God continues to reach out to and comfort those who are cut off by the Church organization. Although I haven't read Palmer's book, I think that Bushman's neutralized style is my preference, but I was thoroughly impressed by Palmer's integrity and sincerity. Even if he's totally wrong in his assessments, it takes guts to be honest with oneself and others about one's beliefs -- however unpopular they are -- and especially when the consequences can be monumental. Not only did it affect his church life, but it affected his family life. And I respect that. I couldn't be more disappointed by apologetics and those in the Church who have resorted to ad-hominem attacks on him. I thought that his views on what the Church needs to do to retain credibility, integrity, and prevent an exodus of those who are troubled by what they read in today's world of easily-accessed information were spot-on. And, as was the case after listening to Paul Toscano, I felt a renewed desire to focus solely on Christ -- even though I'm still not quite sure how I'm to do that.

As a contrast, I then listened to the series with FAIR apologetic John Lynch (#'s 007-009). I admit that I was a bit skeptical, as I haven't always been impressed by their (or FARMS') attempts to defend things that are, in my mind, undefendable. But overall, I felt that Lynch was fairly sympathetic to those of us who find it difficult to reconcile faith with history -- even though I don't think that many apologetics really "get" the need of some people for neutral objectivity as opposed to defending everything on the premise that it's true no matter what. But that being said, I think that there is a legitimate place and need for apologetics in the minefield of information about Mormonism that's available online today.

Next, I listened to a two-part interview (#'s 002-003) with Gregory Prince, author of David O. McKay And The Rise Of Modern Mormonism. The second part of this interview, which covered the priesthood ban, was particularly fascinating. David O. McKay was very progressive in many ways -- especially in his desire to see the priesthood ban lifted and the personal efforts he made to have it lifted in his time. However, this progressivism did not extend to his personal views on race and civil rights. His views about blacks was typical for the time and place in which he lived, and he neglected to rise above this mindset when he occasionally had the oppotunity to do so. Sad, but certainly not shocking. Nevertheless, McKay was a friend of scholarship, intellectualism, unorthodox views, and even intervened when certain people were threatened with excommunication for these unorthodox views that he didn't necessarily agree with. He was a champion of free agency -- in thought included.

Lastly, I listened to a Seattle recording (#066) of a speech given by a woman about the history of the involvement of the LDS Church in the ERA movement. I really knew very little about this part of our history, but I was struck by the parallels between it and our involvement in Prop 8, most notably the proportion of Mormons who decided to follow blindly the Church's appell to vote it down, as well as the reasons given for doing so. For instance, some argued that passing the ERA would allow homosexuals to marry, or that stay-at-home mothers would be forced out of the home. The words "scare tactics" came to mind, as was often the case when I read the arguments by some Church members during the Prop 8 campaign. (One noteworthy piece of information was the disappointing fact that George Romney -- a man who is often praised for his progressive stance in the Black Civil Rights movement despite being pressured by certain Church leaders to change that stance -- was quoted as dismissing the ERA as an attempt by "moral perverts" to destroy the family.)

I have many of the podcasts to listen to yet. Just thought I'd share my latest impressions and I look forward to hearing yours.

Aug 15, 2009

How Important Is Image?

I was just on my way to bed, but just as I was about to shut down my computer, I see this headline on my Yahoo homepage. So I guess I won't be going to bed just yet.

Let's not turn this into a Yes vs. No debate on Prop 8. We've all been there, done that. What I am interested in discussing, however, is how important our image is as Mormons and as a church.

Ironically, today I was able to catch up on Skype with my best friend since kindergarten, who came out as a lesbian a few years ago. We chatted a bit about some things we were mulling about in our lives, among them spirituality and our love of writing. I told her about my blog and even directed her to an essay I wrote regarding Prop 8 in another forum. To be honest, it felt good. I've thought about our friendship a lot throughout the whole gay marriage ruckus and often felt like I should address this delicate issue somehow. I don't want to be a part of this "image" that I fear we have become as Mormons -- thanks to the media, warped accounts, selective information, and unfair criticisms from those who dislike the Church and its policies, but, saddest of all, the fact that there is truth behind a lot of it.

Most interesting in the article linked above was this particular paragraph:

"What I hear from my community and from straight progressive individuals is that they now see the church as a force for evil and as an enemy of fairness and equality," said Kate Kendell, executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights. Kendell grew up Mormon in Utah. "To have the church's very deep and noble history telescoped down into this very nasty little image is as painful for me as for any faithful Mormon."

She's right. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, as a Mormon, this "nasty little image," as she calls it, is painful. Many in the Church will say that it doesn't matter, that "the work will go forward," while others almost seem to relish in it, having their persecution complex reignited and becoming virtual "martyrs for morality." But maybe image does matter. Isn't that what PR people are for?

Church spokeswoman Kim Farah claims:
"In reality the Church has received enormous support for its defense of marriage."
Maybe so, but I can guess where that support is coming from and it worries me in terms of where all the Church's growth will be coming from in the future.

And we think that Mormons have a conservative Republican image now?

How will it be when we've alienated virtually every progressive out there with this scary, anti civil rights image? Whether or not that is true is a whole other debate, but it's certainly becoming our image -- at least in America -- and I think that it will require investigators of the Church to really work hard at looking at the issues from a balanced, fair perspective in order to figure out what the Mormon religion is really about, as opposed to our image as a church. And how many will be able to do that? So, how much does image matter to you as a Mormon? Do you care about any of this? Why or why not?

Aug 6, 2009

The Euthanasia Debate Hits Close To Home

Yesterday I found out that my grandfather is dying.

We were prepared for this, as he is in his late 80's and had recently stopped eating and experiencing symptoms which indicated something very serious. The diagnosis is now official: prostate cancer that has mestastasized to the bones.

As the doctor told my grandmother, there are difficult months ahead. I know this all too well, working in elderly care myself and sometimes having tended to patients in the last days of their lives. Some go relatively quickly and peacefully, while others have to endure a long, difficult battle.

I was thinking last night about a great conversation we had on Mormon Heretic's blog a while back about euthanasia where we discussed at length the situations of terminal patients, among those Chantal S├ębire, the French woman who fought for the right to assisted suicide. Nothing has really changed in my opinion on the matter since then.

Yesterday, before I got the news about my grandfather, the subject of euthanasia was already weighing heavily on my mind because of a foster cat I have been taken care of who has kidney failure. I talked to my vet and now it's just a matter of keeping her happy and comfortable for as long as we can. Once I can tell she is suffering, I know what I have to do. With previous pets, I had made the mistake of prolonging their suffering and it's something that I regret.

Euthanasia is a very difficult, sensitive subject. When I think about how adamant I am about preserving animal and human life and how I've often fought for it -- everything from rescuing unwanted animals from being killed and protesting against the meat industry, to opposing the death penalty even for convicted criminals and encouraging adoption over abortion -- it seems kind of ironic that I'd want people to be able to end their lives with assistance.

The Church's official stance on euthanasia is as follows:

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes in the sanctity of human life, and is therefore opposed to euthanasia. Euthanasia is defined as deliberately putting to death a person who is suffering from an incurable condition or disease. Such a deliberate act ends life immediately through, for example, so-called assisted suicide. Ending a life in such a manner is a violation of the commandments of God.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not believe that allowing a person to die from natural causes by removing a patient from artificial means of life support, as in the case of a long-term illness, falls within the definition of euthanasia. When dying from such an illness or an accident becomes inevitable, it should be seen as a blessing and a purposeful part of eternal existence. Members should not feel obligated to extend mortal life by means that are unreasonable. These judgments are best made by family members after receiving wise and competent medical advice and seeking divine guidance through fasting and prayer."

I find it interesting that in regards to people suffering from a painful, terminal illness, "(e)uthanasia is defined as deliberately putting to death a person who is suffering from an incurable condition or disease" and the Church is opposed to it. And yet, when it comes to abortion, the Church states that it is acceptable when "(a) competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth."

Why is it OK to actively end the life of the baby, but not the terminally-ill cancer patient, when there is no hope of either of them surviving? Why is the baby not obligated to live for as long as it survives and endure a natural death like the cancer patient?

The common argument I hear from those who are opposed to euthanasia is that it's up to God to give and take life. But is it really all His doing? In the creation of life, God has empowered us human beings to decide together with Him (hopefully wisely) when a spirit should be sent to them in the form of a new life. Could it be that God has empowered us to make such decisions at the end stage of life as well?

God sees the sparrow fall, but is it He who causes it to fall? We know that God doesn't always intervene and gives us free agency to do good or inflict evil upon others. Does God purposely inflict us with diseases like cancer? Most would say no. So does He really want people to suffer horribly and, sometimes, seemingly endlessly when it doesn't have to be that way?

I outlined my view on how I think a euthanasia law should be on Mormon Heretic's thread, but wish to include it here:

1.) There would be a law allowing only for patients deemed terminally ill by at least two medical professionals to have access to the cocktail of meds that would allow the person to end his/her life peacefully and as pain-free as possible on his/her terms. I think it’s important to specify that it shouldn’t just be available to people in horrible pain because some terminal illnesses result in a slow death that may not cause horrible pain per se, but perhaps cause horrible symptoms like suffocation. It would be understandable that some would want to end their lives before they get to the later stage of their illness.

2.) If possible, the patient should administer the fatal dose his or herself. If the patient is unable to do so and yet able to state clearly his/her wishes, then a willing doctor or family member can administer it in the presence of medical witnesses, “willing” being a key word because some people would have a moral problem with being the one to administer the fatal dose, which should be respected.

3.) The part I’m not sure about is whether doctors and/or family members should have the authority to decide for a mentally incapacitated person (i.e. Alzheimer’s patient) that a fatal dose should be administered. Perhaps it should only be allowed if the patient had stated on record his/her wishes in such an event while he/she was still mentally sound enough to make that decision. Sort of like what people do now with “Do Not Rescucitate” orders.

I just can't help but find it ironic that most rational people will agree that animals -- the creatures that mankind has abused, exploited, neglected, and devalued all throughout history -- are entitled to a humane death, either through euthanization or (supposedly) humane slaughterhouse laws (which we all know are frequently abused and broken), whereas human beings that are in a hopeless, painful situation with no end in sight, are not permitted to exit this life as gracefully and compassionately as possible.

If we were never ever given the right to intervene in matters of life and death, one would think that Mormons would mostly be pacifists (they are not), opposed to capital punishment (they are not), opposed to abortion in all cases (they are not) and vegetarians (they are not). Why, then, are we opposed to giving someone the opportunity to end his or her life peacefully at the time when it seems to make the most sense?

I don't know what lies ahead for my grandfather. I hope that it won't be a long battle and that he will go home to the Lord without having to suffer much pain. But as I thought about him last night, I couldn't help but think how comforting it would be to anyone in that situation to know that they would have the option to go peacefully, surrounded by their loved ones, when they feel the time is right.

My grandmother reads my blog, so please show a little compassion and consideration in your comments. Also remember that it's easy to say what you would do until you're in such a situation yourself.