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.

14 comments:

  1. I enjoyed your post and I whole-heartedly agree with you that "True Mormonism" or True religion of any kind should contain all truth, and should do so unflinchingly. I went through a very similar process as you are now going through a couple years ago, I have blogged the answers I found at www.meremormonism.blogspot.edu. It is meant to be read from the earliest post through the last post. Check it out.

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    1. Impressive blog, Harris. I also have a difficult time believing in any ideology that refuses to employ the same level-headed scrutiny that it thrusts on outsider perspectives on itself. The sad truth I am learning is that even in the face of overwhelmingly contrary evidence, most choose to persist in their native, preferred worldview. Loyalty to an ideology or an institution overcomes loyalty to the pursuit of truth. Can I really blame them though? It is a harrowing and difficult process. As Packer said, the truth can be painful, and destructive even. Yet, if the foundation has a crack, is not demolition required to build a stronger base? Or as Joseph himself put it, "If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong we may go wrong, and it will be a hard matter to get right." Re-examining the foundational claims and philosophies of Mormonism is a requisite ordeal for the faithful, I believe.

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  2. Not sure why this popped on my Facebook, but I was interested to see what you had to say. Several years ago, I also conducted my own search for "truth" within the Mormon religion. After many years of doubt, I was finally open to go wherever the quest might lead.

    You can probably guess the result. The Mormon legends I was taught as a child could NOT hold up to historical or even ideological scrutiny.

    I requested formally to be removed from the church membership records at the age of 25. I didn't want to spend my time debating with or rejecting those with good, albeit, misguided intentions to re-activate the "lost soul".

    Especially, when the biggest surprise was what I found! I had feared losing acceptance, comraderie, purpose and even peace, I actually gained a new FREEDOM. I am sure you know the one I am referencing...."For you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you FREE!"

    Best wishes...keep writing!

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    1. Thank you for the encouragement, and for sharing your experience. The pursuit of truth is a worthy goal. As indicated in my post, I can sympathize totally with your "conversion": "After many years of doubt, I was finally open to go wherever the quest might lead." I would have fought the accusation at the time, but in hindsight I know I have been troubled by internal doubts for years. I feel strongly that it takes a lot for members of our faith to recognize themselves as closet-doubters. I still spend a lot of mindshare reconsidering and revising the basic assumptions I've made in the past about my religious/spiritual experiences.

      Speaking for myself obviously, I could not find relief from these faith struggles until I was willing to put my life on the line, so to speak, and really deal with my beliefs mercilessly. I say "put my life on the line" because in Mormonism, religion isn't just an hour on sunday and tithes on the plate once a month. Rather, Joseph had a finger in every piece of the pie. Hence the struggles when doubters leave the flock and soon find their worlds crashing down around them. Mormonism deals in every aspect of one's worldview, from cosmological and personal identity, to sociality, culture, philosophy, politics, family economics, science, etc. But losing that artificial orientation can have the effect you suggest - true autonomy and freedom for the first-time. That aspect is both intimidating and exhilarating simultaneously!

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  3. Wow. So well said. This paragraph particularly hit home with me, as just last night two former friends (both active Mormons) decided to call me a slew of names in response to a status update on Facebook:

    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.

    Can we be facebook friends? I highly respect what you've written here, and it seems we share much in common - I need friends of your type in my quiver.

    https://www.facebook.com/archonon

    I'm curious as to whether you are deciding to continue in activity. In my experience most who come to your place leave before too long.

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    1. Thanks for the compliments, Mark. I have experienced similar slandering as I have become more vocal and public about my concerns. Feel free to browse my timeline and you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about. My personal opinion is that everybody has insecurities in their faith of choice; everyone, therefore, desires like-minded fellowship. It seems to me that when some person whom the believers previously respected or held in high esteem in matters pertaining to their religion chooses to renounce any part of their creed, they lash out and slander the "apostate's" motives and/or character.

      I try not to take it personally that most people react this way instinctively; it is a kind of spiritual-defense mechanism. They need a way to explain your abandonment in terms that fit with their faith paradigm. Because Mormonism claims exclusivity for itself in the "one true church" and "divine revelation" department, no one can leave because it is not true. They must have left for pride, for sin, for weakness of character, or lack of endurance, etc. While some may in fact leave for those reasons, I am coming to the personal conclusion that most apostates left because the pieces just didn't fit.

      I am less-active in the church for the time being. Sacrament meeting is mind-numbing, and the rest of the block is either painful for me or painful for those who have to listen to me comment. I find it extremely difficult to sit silently while non-sense and retro-fitted history is proclaimed in endless repetition. I would like to stay, if I felt like my views were welcome, but I am increasingly finding they are not. For this reason, I've turned to blogging to satisfy my needs for communal conversation. It is my "worship" in a way.

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  4. I really liked this post. I look forward to following this blog. I also served in the Oregon Eugene mission and may have been around there the same time you were. I feel like I remember hearing about you; but about halfway through I kept going to distant, secluded areas so I didn't know many people.

    I was wondering if you might speak to your methodology of history. And maybe this is more of a topic for a later post than a response here, but I'm curious as to what "history" is and means to you. On one hand, I guess that translates to "what is your training as an historian?" but also I suppose its a deeper question about your philosophy of history. You definitely do an excellent job of defining a lot of that here (god I hate that Packer quote). I guess I was wondering to what extent you find discussions of critical theory or the politics/history/dynamics of historiography relevant to how you engage with history in general but also with "Mormon History" specifically.

    For example, my methodological training is as a theater historian invested in cultural studies. I'm particularly interested not only in researching and writing about performances that took place in history, but also (perhaps in a more anthropological vein) in understanding how performance itself (be it in a theatre or a parade or a temple) is or was a form of historiography. It's a particular way of approaching history because whereas I find the contributions of an historical methodology informed by positivism extremely important and powerful in producing significant scholarship, it simply does not work as an approach to history that answers the questions I'm interested in. And I think that the work of Foucault, de Certeau, Bourdieu, and cultural anthropologists offer exciting critiques that reveal a multiplicity or a plurality to how individuals, communities, or societies might understand, organize, deploy, or create "history."

    So I personally recognize that this position avails itself of an apologetic position more readily; one I take as a person currently choosing to live an "openly Mormon lifestyle" (a phrase that was used at the recent Circling the Wagons conference in DC for LGBTQ Mormons and their allies). When I sit in a Sunday School class and hear "history," I recognize its failings as historical truth; but I am interested in engaging with people on how history works for them along different criteria or as a different epistemology. And as frustrated as I get with inaccuracies, I'm also intrigued with how my people make sense of themselves and the past.

    I realize I'm a little all over the place and I hope that this isn't coming across as a "come back, there's a place for you here" reply to your post. That's not my intent. It's more a matter of articulating how I privilege anthropological, ethnographic, and performative generations of truth and ways of knowing and how those forces inform methods of historians and the process of historiography--even when I'm at church. And I'm interested in finding out more about the "how" informing the processes and philosophies of other historians, including you. Again, wonderful post. Write more soon.

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    1. Hi Allan. My apologies for the delayed response. If you like, friend me on Facebook so I get a sense of who you are - maybe I will remember your face better than I recall your name. Thanks for your thoughts. You bring up quite a few interesting and important points that I'd like to touch on, if only so my audience can better understand where I'm coming from. Actually, I'll probably reserve commentary on most of this stuff for future posts because I think its all worth noticing.

      Suffice it to say for the time being, I am VERY interested in critical theory of the sciences, whether historical, anthropological, sociological, etc. All of them obviously have a bearing on a critical study of the Mormon tradition, and its attendant philosophy and theology (or lack thereof!). I appreciate the scientific method for its tangible practicality, but I also recognize that reason and logic as a basis for objective study really undercuts the absolute reliability of these disciplines. All of us have biases that influence our reason, our logic, and our feelings, which means a realistic objective is not inscrutable impartiality. It is to introspect and investigate our unique point of view in the pursuit of abandoning as much bias as possible.

      I think your perspective on philosophy of religion is totally reasonable. Whether or not it is used for apologetics, I believe there is real value in understanding the nature of historiography, of historical revisionism. Working as a historical research assistant in the field of religion, I understand that the true past is forever lost to human beings. Any reproduction of the past, whether performed (viz. the temple), written or otherwise, is by its nature a fantasy (even if based on fact). I personally believe the pervasiveness of religion in the history of homo sapientes can be attributed to the human need for narrative context in our lives. It creates real drive for our futures to contextualize our present with the legacy past (Joseph Campbell, anyone?). In other words, I agree with LDS historian Richard Bushman:

      "Facts are not fixed in predetermined form merely awaiting discovery and description. They do not force themselves on the historian; we select and mold them. We cannot avoid sculpting the past because the record contains so many facts, all heaped together without recognizable shape. We must select certain ones and form them into a convincing story. Inevitably we come up with differing accounts of the same event. ... [However,] recognizing the contingency of written history does not mean we can dismiss it as trivial. No human activity, including the physical sciences, escapes these limitations. We must try to speak the truth about the past as earnestly as we try to tell the truth about anything." (Bushman, Faithful History, p 3,6)

      Hopefully this at least partially answers your questions about my study philosophies. I know I cannot ever do perfect justice to LDS history, doctrine, theology, etc. For this reason I am making an effort to air my frustrations upfront. I believe in the sciences, and that cumulatively they are a reasonably reliable tool by which we can come closer to the truth progressively. They are imperfect, but nevertheless important.

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  5. I found your blog through facecrook. We have a mutual friend. Funny enough we also probably know each other through the NOM forum if you still go there regularly. I'm a fairly regular poster. Just wanted to say I enjoyed the story. Though I don't know that you will ever really get anywhere getting people to change their views on what constitutes "anti'mormon" literature. I had someone tell me that even if it was written by a CES instructor who is still active in the church, if it led me away then it must be from satan, it must be anti-mormon.

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    1. I'm "kicking against the pricks," eh? Perhaps you're right. Folks who believe as you said have a very narrow, dogmatic point of view - one that won't last long if they ever dig deeper than the surface on this stuff. I know because I was one of them. I was a dogmatic and orthodox as can be through my mission, and I admit in hindsight that I was kind of a pompous dick. Like I said, it didn't last long after my mission. So I hold out hope that even those types of folks (like me) can be reached eventually, and certainly there are more open-minded people out there who I hope will participate in the discussion. Thanks for your support.

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  6. this is hard to read with that background opacity

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  7. Hi Kolby,
    I'm a friend of your families and you might know me personally although I prefer not to disclose my name due to my families close relation to yours, and my fear of one of them discovering how I feel about my religion. I'd just like to say I enjoy your blog and find myself agreeing to the points presented in your posts. Is there a way I could send you an email?

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    1. Of course! Email me confidentially @ kolbyf@gmx.com.

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