Thursday, May 3, 2012

What's Your Damage, Soldier?

Col. Jessup: “You want answers?”
Lt. Kaffee: “I think I’m entitled to them.”
Col. Jessup: “You want answers?!”
Lt. Kaffee: “I want the truth!”
Col. Jessup: “You can't handle the truth!”
– A Few Good Men (1992)

What a terrific exchange between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson! As a film student, I really enjoyed the thematic conflict between these two characters and their opposing values. It seems like both sides of the argument have weight to them. Re-watching the movie more recently, however, I am disturbed by how accurately this character clash represents the conflict of ideals between those who demand undiluted truth in their religious worship and those who feel justified in disclosing only that which is faith-promoting – “Lying for the Lord.”

As a regular participant in priesthood quorums growing up, I was often asked to teach lessons from the manual. I scoured through endnotes and reference material hoping to find interesting quotes and background information. I loved finding hidden gems that nobody knew about (in the deacon’s quorum, mind you). Sometimes I was asked to speak in sacrament meeting; I would accordingly boot up our family's noisy 56k modem and hope nobody called the home phone number while I searched online for engaging anecdotes.

On one such occasion, my Dad was helping me look for sources about the fall of Adam when we ran across a search result flagging quotes for Brigham Young, something about the “Adam-God Theory.” I glanced at my Dad for approval and he nodded, intrigued. What we found was your prototypical Anti-Mormon site – lots of quotes, little context. It was strange; I had been hearing inspired teachings and stories about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the intrepid pioneers who settled the Salt Lake Valley for years, but I had never heard anything like this:

"Now hear it, O inhabitants of the earth, Jew and Gentile, Saint and sinner! When our father Adam came into the garden of Eden, he came into it with a celestial body, and brought Eve, one of his wives, with him. He helped to make and organize this world. He is MICHAEL, the Archangel, the ANCIENT OF DAYS! about whom holy men have written and spoken – HE is our FATHER and our GOD, and the only God with whom WE have to do. Every man upon the earth, professing Christians or non-professing, must hear it, and will know it sooner or later. … Who is the Father? He is the first of the human family.” – Brigham Young (Journal of Discourses, Vol 1, p 50, EMPHASIS and italics theirs)

My father and I exchanged a bewildered gaze, chuckling nervously. I think neither of us quite knew what to make of it. Evidently my father didn’t trust the site’s source because he asked me to click the supporting link. I'm sure we were thinking the same thing: Brigham Young couldn’t have taught that from the pulpit, right? Sure enough, we were presented with scans of Brigham’s discourse dated 9 April 1852, straight out of the Journal of Discourses (which is published by the Church). A General Conference address, no less! We read the sermon in its entirety and decided there was no other explanation – Brigham was off his rocker! Adam-God was shelved.

I share this story because although I didn't recognize it at the time, it was a watershed moment in my faith development. In addition, I understand that most of my readers don’t know me personally and I want to offer some background for my thoughts. Perhaps some of you will be able to relate. Let me here try to summarize my approach, and get to the bottom of what exactly led to the wreckage of my faith in the LDS Church.

Throughout my youth, I was lead to believe that all of the prophets from Adam to Enoch to Moses to Christ had been teaching the same revealed truths and doctrines from the beginning. Essentially, the same things I was learning in Sunday school every week. This first encounter with Brigham's strange notions about our first parents is my earliest recollection of differentiation among my inspired leaders. What I saw in that sermon didn't line up with what I saw in the scriptures or what I was taught by current leadership. Eventually, it evolved into an active discounting of certain prophets as unreliable – mostly Joseph's early successors. The deeper I delved into the history of LDS theological teachings, however, the more I realized that Adam-God theory was only the tip of the iceberg.

In my previous post, I lamented my having passed the threshold of trust in our prophets' divine callings.  I have for all my life subscribed to the credence they suggest they deserve in matters pertaining to God and salvation. Apart from seeming anomalies like Brigham, they have until recently retained the very best benefit of my doubts. But the more I learn about our history and doctrines, the further I am forced to contort my reason around substantial obstacles. While I admire their aspirations, the doctrine is sufficiently diverse so as to frustrate my belief in a common origin for their teachings.

That is why we follow the prophets in the first place, isn’t it? Because they speak with God face-to-face and receive revelation like Moses and the other patriarchs. The prophet is supposed to be God’s mouthpiece. Ironically, it is because I have tried to honor their teachings as prophetic that I have been “tossed to and fro, ... carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14). Too often, it became a question of ‘which prophet, which era?’ rather than a sure source I could turn to for consistent guidance and knowledge about religion. The more inconsistencies I discovered, the more I was angry and frustrated that these things were hidden from the membership and that I was misled to expect uniformity in the first place. Without this as an anchor what else can we rely on to know the church is true, or that God is literally guiding us as a people? Perhaps personal revelation is the answer. If my graduation from the LDS seminary program has taught me anything, it is that I can read and pray about the Book of Mormon to know Joseph Smith is a true prophet, that the Church is true, and therefore gain a testimony that we have a true prophet living on the earth today.

Sympathetic friends and counselors have wisely recommended that I “seek revelation and apply the Alma principle in this process.” I can honestly say I have given my best efforts to know the doctrine, to know God and his Son as we teach them, and to know these things by the Spirit, as we define it. I believe Alma teaches a true principle in Alma 32 – a scientific process almost. Over the 13 years I have seriously pursued this process, I have received no definitive, positive answer about the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, or how the hell I am supposed to coalesce the mess that is Mormonism into ‘God’s Solemn, Revealed Truth.’ When I present my problem, the inevitable response from members is a resounding ‘Shelve your concerns and keep praying!’ How oft then must I pray over the same faith-seed that refuses to grow?

Believe me, I have wanted it to grow. Desire and faith are not the issue. With some kind of distinctive, divine confirmation my concerns could feasibly fade into oblivion. But they amount to much greater significance because my efforts to confirm the divine origin of the church have been fruitless. I have employed Alma’s methodology in discovering the truth of the Book of Mormon and the Restoration, but not to the desired results. “Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away” (Alma 32:32). I do not propose to throw out the baby with the bath-water, but I am ready to re-examine the premise of my faith and go where the evidence leads me.

But the faithful don’t approve of this course of action. The integral question becomes, at what point do we know we have prayed enough, studied enough, searched enough to be able to make an earnest decision about it? Doubtless, the orthodox opinion is ‘never.’ If you aren’t receiving a positive answer, the obvious issue is your lack of sincerity, or real intent, or faith in Christ, or patience, or endurance, or whatever. Something is amiss in your life that is preventing you from experiencing the only possible outcome – that our particular brand of religion is the ultimate truth for humanity. Did you pray? Yes. Did you get a ‘Yes?’ No. Pray again until you do. That’s called a circular argument, folks; the logical black hole.

On the other hand, I am sympathetic to their plight. There was a time in my life when I never could have considered the possibility of an ultimate answer in the negative. Close relatives have been quick to observe that my change of mind is probably the product of my choices since coming home from my mission. I am 25, recently divorced, struggling to finance and complet my college education, and still not really sure what I want to do for a career. It is true that the path I have chosen in my life since I returned home from my mission has been a key factor in my change of perspective. Without these life experiences (some of which have fractured my traditional understanding of the world around me), I would not have been willing to venture much thought into these problems. Not because they did not merit thought, but because they were contrary to my faith paradigm and were therefore easier to ignore.

It was the disruptive that pushed me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to see what I now see with clarity. Some who are close to me have expressed the opinion that my judgment is shrouded and I am set on a course that could destroy my soul. I don’t blame them personally for this judgmental point of view; leaders of the church have consistently espoused a self-confirming methodology to deal with outside/contrary thought. If I am in agreement with orthodoxy and properly aligned, then I am clean and coming unto Christ. If am in opposition on any point, then I am a heretic, apostate, etc. Admittedly, this is a simplification, but the underlying principle can be found in the Lord’s moniker: “And by this you may know they are under the bondage of sin, because they come not unto me. For whoso cometh not unto me is under the bondage of sin” (D&C 84:50-51). In the church’s view, for all intents and purposes, they are “the Lord.” So that leaves myself and others like me “guilty until proven innocent,” so to speak.

This tactic of criticizing a contrarian’s spiritual standing arouses my mind to an increasingly apparent source of irritation to me. I have been vocal about my concerns in the hopes that I can find support and possibly answers in my struggle. But in an effort to discourage inactivity and questioning leadership, church authorities (and the membership by extension) assume and imply moral fault in questioning individuals to thereby disarm their criticisms and discredit their voice as part of the community. Henceforth, any issues or questions I could raise automatically hold zero merit due to their perceived nature, regardless of how substantial the comments are. With regards to cultural, social, and possibly ecclesiastical standing, it seems that honest critical analysis of our history, leadership, or official church doctrine feels tantamount to tightrope walking the New York City skyline without a parachute; it is kamikaze in nearly every sense.

Considering this experience, I am led to reflect on the sad historical reality that has played out for those honest enough to point out the vices with the virtues. Real cultural/historical studies aspiring to embrace an unbiased approach have been summarily dismissed by leadership and even denounced from the pulpit by general authorities (even ones as generous as Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling). Take for example D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View or Richard Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy: A History. Historians who strive for these ideals are too often censored and disallowed speaking privileges in meetinghouses. Case in point, Linda K. Newell & Valeen Tippets Avery were censored for their work on the award-winning biography, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, because it portrays “a non-traditional view of Joseph Smith [and early church history],” according to the LDS hierarchy (Preface to the Second Edition, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, p xii). In defense of this action, Elder Dallin H. Oaks offered:

"My duty as a member of the Council of the Twelve is to protect what is most unique about the LDS church, namely the authority of priesthood, testimony regarding the restoration of the gospel, and the divine mission of the Savior. Everything else may be sacrificed in order to maintain the integrity of those essential facts. Thus, if Mormon Enigma reveals information that is detrimental to the reputation of Joseph Smith, then it is necessary to try to limit its influence and that of its authors."
– Linda King Newell, “The Biography of Emma Hale Smith,” 1992 Pacific Northwest Sunstone Symposium, audiotape #J976; as quoted in Anderson, Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith: Psychobiography and the Book of Mormon, p xliii, fn 28; Emphasis mine.

Discussion of these facts is thence left to outliers and “apostates”, usually forced to the sidelines by the common rhetoric ideal: Either the church is true or it is not. Black or white. No middle-ground. Do we not understand that by thus marginalizing thoughtful, believing members because of historical and doctrinal studies, we are creating artificial apostates? Despite what the Book of Mormon says about cosmic duality, my experience in the world and in the church tells me nothing is simply black and white. We build straw-man dichotomies when we say, “Each of us has to face the matter – either the church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing” (Hinckley, “Loyalty,” April 2003 General Conference). By following the brethren and local leaders, the general membership will therefore zealously dismiss any rational thought or discussion of alternative concepts. The author of a subversive Book of Mormon commentary summarizes the resulting problem of “group faith” conformity:

“It may as well be a dream. It involves our collective slumber. We get pictures in our head when we are taught some truth and presume that the picture is accurate. Then after we have repeated the “truth” often enough, we go on to believe the picture must be all-inclusive.
“Once we’ve arrived at that point, the truth no longer matters. Our minds are made up. We’ve decided the answers, and no further evidence will be considered. This certainly is reinforced when more people reach the same conclusion because they share the same picture in their head. You get together with others and testify that you are all in possession of the truth; not only the truth, but ALL of the truth. Before long every one of the group can pass a lie-detector test about the truth as they explain it.
“As a result, this herd is incapable of ever seeing the picture differently. They cannot open their minds to the idea that their picture is skewed or off. It is most certainly incomplete. It is, in fact, so far short of the whole story that when any part of the remaining missing information is shown to them they are certain it is a lie.
“It is painful to part with our suppositions and the traditions we hold dear. It is painful to admit there may be much more of the picture we have not yet considered, much less seen. It causes anxiety and fear. So much fear in fact, that when it comes to 'eternal truth,' people literally put their lives in jeopardy if they denounce the falsehoods of the herd and proclaim the truth to those whose peace of mind and self-identity is tied to the incomplete and misleading picture they believe holds all truth.” (Snuffer, Jr., Removing The Condemnation, p 3, emphasis his)

In hindsight, it seems clear to me the lengths we sometimes go to reach the perceived community consensus. True opportunities for learning are thusly extinguished for the sake of comfortable unity. Pride is another element that sometimes prevents us from seeing reality beyond our prescribed filters. No matter the underlying reasons, when authority is automatically exercised to silence heterodox thought, our growth is stunted. It is written, “when we undertake to ... gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man [/organization]” (D&C 121: 37). Amen!

John Stuart Mill echoes my sentiments on freedom of thought/reason in a community context: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race ... those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error” (John S. Mill, On Liberty, 1869, emphasis mine). The summarized result is a policy of half-disclosure typified by Boyd Packer’s rationalization: “There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful” (Packer, "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect", 1981, BYU Studies, Vol 21, No 3, pp 259-271).

I take it as an absurd attitude of spiritual arrogance and condescension for the brethren to withhold substantial and truthful information on the basis of protecting the "integrity" of the church's essential truth claims. It does more harm to believers to be dishonest, to tell half-truths, and censor sensitive topics completely than to be forthright and potentially hurt some feelings. It is also counter-productive to crusade against honest seekers who are pursuing truth. Doubt and skepticism can be as much a part of finding one’s footing in life and religion as faith and hope. But in our spiritual economy, we too often place a premium on absolute, unquestioning obedience:

"Some members are constantly evaluating the gospel by the standards of the world. … [Some] common reservations are flagged by words such as 'yes, but . . .' when scriptures or prophets are quoted. Or we may hear, 'I am not going to let the Church make my decisions for me.' Obedience is a fundamental law of the gospel. … But the philosophical standard of the world holds that unquestioning obedience equals blind obedience, and blind obedience is mindless obedience. This is simply not true. Unquestioning obedience to the Lord indicates that a person has developed faith and trust in Him to the point where he or she considers all inspired instruction — whether it be recorded scripture or the words of modern prophets — to be worthy of obedience. … Let us believe all things. Let us have unquestioning faith in all of the doctrines and truths of the restored gospel.” (Elder Robert C. Oaks, "Believe All Things," Ensign, July 2005, page 30)

Contrast this to an earlier mantra belonging to Brigham Young’s presidency. To his credit, he insisted the Saints use their God-given freedom to think, act, and question for themselves:

“What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation…” – Brigham Young, 12 Jan 1862 (Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol 9, p 150)

And Again:

None are required to tamely and blindly submit to a man because he has a portion of the priesthood. We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark, that they would do anything they were told to do by those who presided over them, if they knew it was wrong; but such obedience as this is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself should not claim a rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly. A man of God… would despise the idea. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty authority have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the saints were told to do by their presidents, they should do it without asking any questions. When Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their minds to do wrong themselves.” – Elder Samuel Richards (Richards, Millennial Star 14: 593-595 – Emphasis mine)

So it ought to be. Joseph Smith originally delineated his theology from that of Methodism and other Christian sects of the day by noticing the common restraints placed on free thought and theological expression. Joseph’s foundational claims were based on the drive for truth! He says, “I want to come up into the presence of God, and learn all things; but the creeds set up stakes, and say, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further’; which I cannot subscribe to” (Oct. 1843 Address, Documentary History of the Church 6: 56-59). This open-mindedness was part of the religious genius that made him such a dynamic charismatic. Unfortunately, even in Joseph’s lifetime limits were installed to dictate where exactly free thought and free speech could flow. Certainly not against Joseph’s person, lest you invite a flying trumpet your way or the destruction of your printing press.

Speaking of which, I recently read through the Nauvoo Expositor again. I recommend you read it for yourself (good scans of the original facsimiles here). Perhaps many will be reticent to read from its pages. Most know that it was the beginning of the end for Joseph Smith. Or rather, the subject of the paper was the beginning – polygamy, plurality of Gods, power-mongering, etc. – the issuance of the paper itself was the culmination of these woes. Having trusted apologetic scholarship for so many years, I was expecting to find the blackened, vicious lies that were promised me all along. Instead, I was seriously disappointed to find still more corroboratory testimony of Joseph’s private promiscuity and abuse of his ecclesiastical privileges. It pains me to think that I blindly trusted the words of respected leaders and apologists when they described the bitter, enraged apostasy of so many previously faithful members who conspired to disavow the Lord’s anointed, and slander his good name and character.

These were decent men like First Presidency member William Law, who, “with his arms around the neck of the Prophet, [plead] with him to withdraw the doctrine of plural marriage, which he had at that time commenced to teach to some of the brethren [privately]... Mr. Law pleaded for this with Joseph with tears streaming from his eyes” (Joseph W. McMurrin, “Mr. Law’s Testimony”, Improvement Era (May 1903), 507-510; also available here). After Joseph allegedly approached William’s wife, Jane, to propose a polyandrous relationship, his friendship with William spoiled and distrust encumbered them both. Joseph denied charges of polygamous practice vehemently in public and slandered anyone who opposed him. Ultimately, Joseph illegally removed William from the First Presidency and from fellowship with the Twelve on 8 Jan 1844, the same day William recorded the following in his Nauvoo diary:

“I thank God that He opened my understanding to know between truth and error, in relation to plurality & community of wives, and that I had fortitude to tell Joseph that it was of the Devil and that he should put it down & I feel that I have opposed a base error and that the eternal God is on my side, and if I am persecuted it is because I vindicate principles of virtue and justice, not that I wish to injure any man, but I love the truth, and hate to see the virtuous destroyed and brought down into corruption and vice, and finally cast upon the world as unclean.” – William Law (Lyndon W. Cook, William Law, p 46,47 – Emphasis mine)

Knowing now more fully the manner in which Joseph conducted himself in employing polygamy in his private affairs, and having read the words of these “apostates” for myself, I can sympathize with them fully. It is fitting then that William and his brother Wilson, in company with a few others, took courage at the risk of reputation, property, and apparently their lives in order to stand for the truth. William chose the adage, “The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But The Truth,” for the tagline of his expository newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor. The first and only issue was printed 7 June 1844; it claimed to reveal the truth about the prophet's illegal and immoral actions in Nauvoo. Joseph and the city council had the printing press and office destroyed two days later, an action which ironically resulted in more damage than the paper alone could have managed. Joseph was murdered within weeks.

It is for this reason that I have adopted William’s tagline – both to pay homage to the premiere “Anti-Mormon” publication whose function was to shed light on "secret combinations," and to somehow offset my decidedly Pro-Mormon blog title. Ironically, the purported anthem on both sides of the spectrum is the worthiness of the sincere truth quest. The question then I reiterate: is the truth better served by full-disclosure, or are we justified in selectively representing it to serve a higher cause?


  1. After reading your blog and thinking for quite some time about it I keep stumbling on the fact that it seems you are attempting to prove or disprove a point about the Mormon church while using its own scripture, doctrine and leaders. I don't feel that you will come to any significant conclusion by going about it in this way. I don't feel that you can use its own doctrine and belief system against itself. That would, in essence, become a double negative making the church true would it not? I feel you would need to attempt to disprove the leaders as false first to declare said doctrine unacceptable and not the other way around.

    1. Hi Rex. I hear what you're saying, and you've got a good point. Ideological organizations frequently employ circular logic that is essentially self-confirming, which is what makes it difficult for most members of the LDS church to see beyond this "Rube Goldberg" machine.

      On the other hand, somehow I have been fortunate enough to peak my head out of the clouds for long enough to see the contradictions in the complexity. I will show in future posts that Mormonism is theologically self-defeating and is too contradictory to live up to its claims as a revelatory institution. Certainly, in some ways it will be like trying to nail Jello to the wall. I'm not saying it will be easy, I'm only saying it will be worth it. I hope you'll stick around!

  2. "If my graduation from the LDS seminary program has taught me anything..."

    Great quote!

    I really liked your post. I felt like you captured the confusion and convolutedness of LDS thinking, and how frustratingly impossible it is to reason with a believer through it.

    I've been trying to think of succinct ways of explaining these issues to believers like: "I can't distinguish between a false positive and a true positive using Moroni's promise" or "Like Alma suggests, I planted my desire to believe but it didn't grow into understanding and fulfillment. I tried not believing, and I found myself very fulfilled and comfortable."

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Muccavwon. I agree with your frustrations in communicating with TBM members - it can make you want to tear you hair out. When family and close friends revile against you and impugn your honest motives, it can break your heart. But I try my best to show empathy and understand how they feel.

      For me, it has in many ways been an excruciating ordeal trying to work through these issues. It's not pleasant having your prized beliefs contradicted or scrutinized. But I now recognize the cognitive dissonance I felt early on, even though at the time I was in denial. Probably this is a very common reaction for believers. Eventually, I saw enough problems that knowing what was true became more important than knowing the church was true for me. I became open to going wherever the evidence might lead. This tipping point made all the difference in the world.

      So I've come to the personal conclusion that all I can do is present my story and the issues I am aware of and present them fairly, from my perspective. I don't really care whether people choose to stay or leave the church. I just believe that people have a right to be fully informed on the history, doctrine, and practices of an institution that demands so much of our lives.

      Thanks for your comment. I hope you'll keep reading.