Tuesday, April 24, 2012

No Fanaticism. No Apologetics. Just Full Disclosure.

Anti-Mormonism. It’s a dirty, dirty word where I come from.

You see I grew up hearing stories of my father’s run-ins with anti-Mormons on his mission in Phoenix, Arizona. He served in ’83-84, during the height of the new Anti-LDS fervor – Gerald and Sandra Tanner had recently published the likes of Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? and The God Makers, whilst eventual murderer Mark Hofmann was redirecting the LDS consciousness toward Mormonism’s “magical origins.” At the same time, historians both friendly and hostile were being slowly squeezed out of access to sensitive primary-source documents surrounding early Mormon history. Mormonism was in the media in a big way.

Anyway, as a greenie my dad and his trainer tracted into a couple that invited a protestant minister named James White, of Alpha & Omega Ministries, to join them. They cordially invited the missionaries into the study. The chairs were already set up. As they entered a room lined with shelves of books on religious topics, the elders noticed some “anti-Mormon” literature and accordingly braced themselves for the impending conflict. Only a month fresh into the mission field, the experience rocked my father at the time – he spent the next several months fishing the scriptures for useful “apologetic” references on a wide variety of topics so that next time he encountered anti-Mormons, he could better defend his faith.

I myself have had plenty of opportunities growing up to interact with the anti-Mormon community and the arguments they enlist. I used to spend my spring evenings as a youth listening to their rants as they picketed the Mesa Easter pageant; I came to know some of them by name. These are the same guys that protest General Conference in Salt Lake City twice a year. I always looked at them with the same secret vitriol they displayed openly toward members of the church. The venom they spit should have been sufficient for me to disregard everything they said and walk away. Why were their accusations so bothersome to me, and yet alluring? I couldn’t quite put my thumb on it. But it drove me to study and “contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.”

I have several scholarly uncles on my mother’s side who introduced me to Mormon apologetics and supported me in my early scholastic pursuits. As a teacher and priest in the Church, I discovered and relished the writings of big gun defenders such as Nibley, Sperry, and Welch. I gained an affection for the hidden truths that underpinned some of our more confusing/controversial doctrines; they fascinated me and gave hope that we could withstand the assailant outcries, that I could “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.” I spent a great deal of time leading up to my mission perusing the FARMS section of Deseret Book and scanning FAIRLDS.org to get an edge on the touchy topics.

Finally arriving in the Oregon Eugene mission, my preparations earned me a reputation for ready rebuttals and healthy debate when the occasion arose. We didn’t do much Bible-bashing in our mission, though a few of us had a nose for it (made readily apparent at the Eugene bus terminals). It was rarely a productive exercise anyhow. My skills were more useful in situations where investigators had been confronted with anti-Mormon literature from concerned friends or family. Or alternatively, when missionaries were being stalked and harassed by zealous “born again” adherents. They occasionally enlisted Elder Fackrell's help and I would accordingly write point-for-point counter-arguments, usually to the silence of the antagonists and the satisfaction of the elders. I was endowed with a new name: “Just the Facks!”

But privately in my studies, I was encountering problems with our theology, with our doctrines, and with our scriptures. Particularly the Book of Mormon. I had previously read the New Testament, but never before with the familiar scrutiny of my mission study sessions. As I did so, I began to see just how indebted the Book of Mormon is to Biblical discourse, in exact phraseology and vernacular. Why were Paul’s writings showing up in the words of Native American prophets years before he wrote them? Also, the New Testament “church” didn’t come out quite as clearly as I gathered in previous, cursory readings. Suffice it to say, things weren’t aligning the way I had been taught to expect, and it was a serious frustration for me personally.

Nevertheless, I continued to faithfully testify of the Gospel restoration despite my internal, mounting doubts. I wrote my uncles and my father about segments of my concerns, and they offered helpful insight that allowed me to shelve the issues, if only temporarily. I finished my mission honorably and returned home grateful for the opportunity to serve. I had a few disappointments that I tried to ignore, prayers toward the end that never elicited satisfactory answers. Life happened, the proverbial shit hit the fan, and my concerns perpetually resurfaced. As I strived to connect with God on this most important subject, I became less willing to accept flimsy, placeholder answers. I decided I could no longer put off my pursuit of substantial resolutions to increasingly legitimate questions.

Over the last year, I have applied myself in the pursuit and study of reliable primary-source documents, friendly or not. I became familiar with the so-called “new Mormon history,” first initiated with Fawn Brodie’s infamous biography of Joseph Smith and carried to prominence by the likes of Arrington, Quinn, and Vogel. The more I tried to congeal and harmonize what I found in the teachings of the Mormon prophets, the more I came to doubt the source of their inspiration and revelation. They were too disparate, too fractured for me to continue assuming that their callings were divine based on positive feelings about the Book of Mormon or a “testimony” earned in its repetition. My faith barrier snapped and I passed the threshold of trust in our prophets' divine callings.

My trust in Mormon theology failed first, which lead me to examine the history and practice more closely. For the first time, I began to shed my native LDS bias and look at the historical documentation with honest eyes. What I found in our church's history, our doctrine, and our practice was disturbing to me. I grew up in a culture that taught me not to trust the philosophies of men (read: anything not preached from a Mormon pulpit), warned me about the Satan-inspired lies that were uttered by church opponents, and slandered the character and reputations of “apostates.” But reality tells a different tale. Mormon origins do not consist of the varnished, immaculate miracle story we are told in LDS seminaries. The doctrine restored in 1830 does not exactly resemble the religion practiced by the ancient Semites, the Jews, or the primitive Christians, to say nothing of what is taught in the church today. And there are as many naturalistic explanations for Joseph’s calling and revelations as supernatural – quantitatively and qualitatively more, in my opinion.

The truth is, I found myself oscillating between revulsion at learning much of my upbringing was a fraud, and revulsion at learning anti-Mormons had quite a bit of validity to their points. It was fanaticism on either end, whether apologist or apostate; both lied, took out of context, and selectively ignored things to justify their native position. Neither of them are truly trustworthy, but both are mostly sincere. I am still incensed by the betrayal, and frustrated that there was legitimacy to arguments that were easier to write off when I assumed there was nothing of substance to their claims.

I still hate the attitude, or tone, employed by your prototypical anti-Mormon. It is harsh, in some cases hateful, and does nothing to emphasize the seriousness of their concerns about Mormonism’s truth claims. And I believe strongly they are worth addressing and resolving if possible. Personally, however, I no longer require the outcome to conform to the predisposed conclusions of my upbringing. If after weighing the evidence, we conclude that Joseph was most likely lying about the origins of the Egyptian papyrus, and its attendant revelation, so be it. I have been open and honest publicly about my studies and observations in the hopes that I can check myself against error or subconscious preference. Two heads are better than one, right?

I have been very disappointed by the reaction of most of my friends and family who belong to the LDS community. I feel I have been very generous in my comments and constructive in my criticisms. For all of my kindly candor, it is returned to me again with malice, with negative insinuations, and with all the rancor and bitterness of an exchange between opposing polemicists. I am being accused of consuming anti-Mormon literature and thrusting it upon the faithful masses. Well, no more. The delusion that anything in opposition to contemporary Mormon thought or tradition is “anti-Mormon” needs to be quelled. To fight against a true principle or fact, even if ignorantly, is to kick against the pricks.

When it comes to scrutiny in the pursuit of truth, nothing should be sacred. All of it must be submitted to rigorous examination. According to Joseph Smith, we cannot fail to do so and come out true Mormons. He proclaimed,

“Truth is Mormonism.” 
(Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 389). 

Brigham Young also taught:

“If there is a truth among the ungodly and wicked it belongs to us, and if there is a truth in hell it is ours.” “Mormonism is all truth in heaven, on earth or in hell. … All truth is ours. Now if anybody wants to make a trade, come on! If you have truths, and I have errors, I will give ten errors for one truth…” “Mormonism embraces all truth that is revealed and that is unrevealed, whether religious, political, scientific, or philosophical.” “Mormonism includes all truth.” (JD 12:155, 14:280-281, 9:149, 11:375 respectively). 

Now that ideal is a “marvelous work and a wonder!” Contrast this early sentiment to the modern church’s promotion of complacent ignorance:

“I have a hard time with historians because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting; it destroys. I could tell most of the secretaries in the church office building that they are ugly and fat. That would be the truth, but it would hurt and destroy them. Historians should tell only that part of the truth that is inspiring and uplifting" – Boyd K. Packer (Quinn ed., Faithful History: Essays On Writing Mormon History, p 103, fn 22). 

This ideology is revolting to me. Evidently, some of the leading brethren today lack the capacity to register the difference between lying about a person’s physical appearance, and lying about doctrines, practices, and historical facts that are potentially relevant to one’s salvation and beliefs. If I may correct the anti-Mormons in their fervor – the most pernicious “Satanism” perpetuated in the Mormon Church is our prescribed tolerance of half-truths. We may not be aware of that fact, but it is true nonetheless, and it ought not be so. As someone who has been accused of espousing anti-Mormon philosophy, let me just say that Mormons are not the enemy at all; ignorance is the enemy. A zeal without knowledge is the problem, and that too by our own foundational standards. In the words of Grant Palmer:

“According to early Mormonism, ‘Truth is Mormonism’ and thus it is falsehood itself that is anti-Mormon.” (Palmer, "What is Anti-Mormon?" – available here)

If we really have the truth as we claim, we have nothing to fear and nothing to hide, anti-Mormons and apologists be damned. Throughout this major life transition, I have retained my aversion to the tone and label of anti-Mormonism. Hence, “The Anti-Anti.” It’s not so much that I have an aversion to their conclusions, just a reticence to employ fanaticism in dealing with the subject of religion. Let the zealots deal with politics.