Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Consider The Wandering Ones

As a fairly vocal dissenter of Mormon orthodoxy, I am often troubled by just how skewed some of my friends’ and acquaintances’ perceptions are with regard to my motivations. If you’ve chosen to leave the faith, why can’t you just leave it alone? To a point, this is a fair question. If I’ve determined Mormonism doesn’t line up with my beliefs, why not press forward and focus on new endeavors? Why do people like me, a relative few of Mormonism’s defectors, sometimes become consumed with analyzing their religious heritage? Why do we feel the need to vocalize our position, thus becoming a disruptive influence amongst believing friends and family? Is it merely persecution evidencing the bitter discontentment of my sins? It is perceived by some that instead of moving onward and upward, apostates are grasping at straws to fill the aching chasm left in their lives by abandoning the restored gospel.

Growing up in the church, I experienced the same mild rhetorical antagonism as most in the states. I saw people picket LDS conference events and disseminate aggressively antagonistic tracts. There is a great deal of confusion about these people in LDS culture. I myself participated in the expression of disdainful sentiments towards these heretics who for whatever illegitimate reason, couldn’t pass muster in the church and are thence promptly taken in by Satan as he marshals his troops to fight God’s work. In the polemical Mormon worldview, people are not fully agents in and of themselves, they are also principles to be manipulated by powers unseen, and ultimately subjected to a grand polarizing paradigm. Such was the framework suggested by Mormonism’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr. Daniel Tyler, an early convert baptized in 1833, recalled of the early church’s struggle with apostate influences in the aftermath of the Kirtland fallout:

“Soon after the Prophet’s arrival in Commerce [Nauvoo] from Missouri prison, Brother Isaac Behunin and myself made him a visit at his residence. His persecutions were the topic of conversation. He repeated many false, inconsistent and contradictory statements made by apostates, frightened members of the Church and outsiders. He also told how most of the officials who would fain have taken his life, when he was arrested, turned in his favor on forming his acquaintance. He laid the burden of the blame on false brethren. …

“When the Prophet had ended telling how he had been treated, Brother Behunin remarked: ‘If I should leave this Church I would not do as those men have done: I would go to some remote place where Mormonism had never been heard of, settle down, and no one would ever learn that I knew anything about it.’

“The great Seer immediately replied: ‘Brother Behunin, you don’t know what you would do. No doubt these men once thought as you do. Before you joined this Church you stood on neutral ground. When the gospel was preached, good and evil were set before you. You could choose either or neither. There were two opposite masters inviting you to serve them. When you joined this Church you enlisted to serve God. When you did that you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve, it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant.’” (“Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor, Aug. 15, 1892, pp. 491,492)

This paradigm strikes me as a very simplistic one. On the one hand, it is a powerful framework in which to view oneself. The dividing lines between good and evil, right and wrong, black and white are very distinct. Both allies and enemies are easily discerned, although they may be caricatures of their real-world counterparts. But it does tend to offer a clear-cut sense of purpose and validation to whatever meaning one chooses to read into life. Unfortunately, this perspective also seems to guarantee all manner of misrepresentation and misunderstanding toward the opposition. It is a propagandistic position.

If one is not wary, a Mormon’s potent sense of purpose can immunize them from constructive self-criticism and strip them of the very compassion they pretend to practice. Don’t get me wrong, latter-day saints are typically very compassionate people, both to their faithful membership and to members of other faiths. But they struggle with the in-between. Once again, the black and white gospel rhetoric creates a polarity that doesn’t really provide space for the dissociated and the disaffiliates. Most Mormons struggle with how to categorize this sometimes vocal minority; persons like myself who love certain aspects of the gospel but choose to make their feelings and concerns known. Thus, these “apostates” are regularly routed into the opposing camp regardless of their honest intentions. Many do not understand that by thus marginalizing thoughtful, struggling members because of honest skepticism, they are creating artificial apostates. These are then typically characterized as faithless, immoral, or otherwise irregular disciples, unfit for the kingdom.

I have exerted my own small efforts to enable the mutual understanding of both parties. But much of my exertions feel wasted when we seldom come to a mutual understanding. I suppose we see the world so differently, we cannot help but speak past each other in many instances. How can we bridge this chasm? Because much of the misunderstanding seems rooted in confusion at the motives of heretics, I hope what follows will provide some mutual understanding for my faithful friends.  To adopt the spirit of the season, I will suggest an empathetic reading of the almost universally understood allegory of Santa Claus. Consider for a moment what it feels like for someone to lose their faith.

Most of us have been on the receiving end of this one, so it should be easy to relate to. Every winter, parents tell their children a wonderfully magical tale about a portly, bearded man who spends the year crafting toys for believers. In a single night in December, we are told, he graciously delivers presents and toys and candy to all the good boys and girls throughout the world. Parents take their children to sit on the lap of an actor at the mall, have their kids write letters to him, and set out milk, cookies, and a carrot the night before. Many parents go to great lengths to sustain the illusion, staying up all night wrapping presents in his name. When the children wake to find presents stacked knee high, each fulfilling their every hope and desire, they are bedazzled! Witnessing for themselves the many gifts, the carrot and cookies eaten, they can't help but believe. In the eyes of these innocent children there is something magical in everything about it! They have every confirmation they need.

It comes as no surprise to note that children often become a little more obedient and a little more submissive come the holidays. The smart parents will leverage the occasion to teach love and compassion and selfless giving to their little ones. Nevertheless, it is often difficult for children to anticipate anything other than what they will receive from Santa on Christmas. But eventually there comes a time when they're a little older, a little more mature, and a lot more rational thinking. They've experienced more of the laws that govern our world. Perhaps they start discussing the logic of Santa Claus being able to visit every home in a night with their friends, perhaps they find a few gifts with Santa's name on them hidden in Mom's closet, or maybe they begin to comprehend the sheer multitudes of children living in third-world countries who have no concept of Christmas or presents or anything of the sort.

The shattering of that illusion can be devastating to them. Some children will feel hurt for being lied to, others will kick themselves for not examining the evidence more closely, and many more will rush to inform the ignorance of faithful friends. Most of them experience a loss of some sort. The magic of Christmas day seems to vanish, even if they can learn to enjoy the spirit of giving in its stead. Now to begin drawing parallels with a Mormon faith crisis, extend this childhood experience with the Santa Claus fable from a single, superficial holiday tradition once a year to every day of a person's life. Suppose we continue to elaborate on the Christmas fiction so that there is no aspect of life that belief does not affect. It informs everything you see and do in the world, even defining your very identity and purpose. Extend the fable’s duration well into adulthood. Imagine that the parental figures continue to employ elaborate, illusory evidences and emphatically faith-promoting discourse to sustain the credibility of the myth. Imagine that you yourself want it to be true so badly that you yourself begin to contribute to the Christmas culture, and you perpetuate it to your children. And then imagine one day you see through it all. You realize how ridiculous it would be if an obese man really could fit through your chimney and fill your life with awesome goodness.

As an adult believer in this sort of thing, the structural collapse would be crushing, even world-shattering in many respects. Can you imagine reaching middle age and still believing Santa is real? To discover you have been treated as a child for far too long? Consider the intense personal trauma this sort of paradigm collapse would create for even the most strong-minded individuals. Do the parents necessarily deserve the blame? Of course much responsibility does fall on them. Perhaps most “parents” in this scenario are believers themselves, only perpetuating their holiday faith heritage to a new generation with the best of intentions. Their ardent argumentation for the truthfulness of this mythology is certainly validation for their own beliefs, as well as for their children. And even those parents who do not truly believe are contented to perpetuate the myth, believing in arrogance that it is still the best method to encourage obedience and teach proper moral lessons to their subjects. Do these parents profit from the obedience of their children? Definitely. If children become committed dependents, as they typically do during the holiday season, is there nothing parents could not require of mature adults who are likewise convicted of “the truth” all year round? Afterall, parents could hang onerous consequences over the heads of their children so long as they submit to the belief.

Such are the realizations of many who lose their faith. So much the more with Mormonism, too. Can you imagine the disgust, the revulsion these grown adults might feel at learning they were living, breathing, walking manifestations of the lies they were taught in their youth? How furious would they be to realize they were defrauded, no matter how earnest the intentions of their mentors? How embarrassing! Multiply a child's devastation at learning the truth behind Christmas a thousand times, and you begin to understand the pain of leaving Mormonism, from the heretic's point of view. Such is the initial bitterness of our plight. I think if the faithful can muster any empathy for the heartbroken child who discovers the reality behind Christmas, they can begin to sympathize with the broken hearts of many who leave Mormonism.

So what happens to these wandering children? It seems to me that things mostly get better after the initial disappointments. Some will rush off and immediately fill the vacancy with other, similar mythologies. It may be religion or politics or secularism. But others will face the facts unabashedly. We discover new freedoms and learn empowerment from this newfound agency. But we are also forced to own up to the crushing reality of impending death, of having to realize our own purpose in life, etc. All of these pleasures and pains offer a true "coming of age" experience in my opinion – one I do not believe is possible within the confines of Mormonism or any institutional religion. So while the stories of Santa Claus were a beautiful ecstasy to us as children, we must not curse the children who begin to see past it. These begin to discover morality within themselves, independent of any supernatural machinations. You see, these are headed for adulthood as they pursue maturity. They abandon cognitive dissonance and become more fully self-integrated. These begin to realize that they can no longer depend on a mythical man to deliver presents to friends, family, and children. They themselves will learn to give, and thus become the fabled Santa Claus. No longer are these children, constantly submitting to some unseen, pretended higher authority. They grow up and discover that authority within themselves. They become true agents, fit to act and not be acted upon.

For this reason, I believe it is good to speak up and encourage honest dealings when it comes to Mormonism’s faith claims. Those who are ready for the dialogue will be bettered by it. But those who are not ready should be cautious. Do not mistake the adult discussions taking place on controversial subjects within Mormonism as bitterness caused by mystical forces or some other justification within your own paradigm. Consider for a moment that the world is bigger than how you view it. Many of my “fallen” peers invested their whole souls in Mormonism before discovering the disconcerting reality. Should any of us be surprised that they want to speak frankly with their friends and family as a result? To be clear, I suggest this Santa Claus allegory not to belittle believers, but to help them understand the feelings of those who have left the fold.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

D&C 5: An Alteration Altercation

When the LDS Doctrine & Covenants was first published in 1835, some noticed that several of Joseph Smith's revelations had been significantly altered from their earlier manuscript counterparts. What follows is an exacting comparison between the manuscript and published versions of one of Joseph's earliest recorded revelations, received at Harmony, Pennsylvania in March 1829. The revelation was provoked by Martin Harris' desire to confirm Joseph's possession of an ancient record inscribed on gold plates.

I have imposed several editorial earmarks on the text for the reader's convenience. [Bracketed Numbers] are inserted in reference to the modern LDS versification of this revelation (D&C 5:1-20). [Bracketed Letters/Words] are inserted for clarification where helpful. Struckthrough Words are significant portions of text from the manuscripts that were omitted for publication. Boldface Words are new additions to the text not corroborated by any of the early manuscripts; sometimes these fragments replace previous terms or phrases and other times are interpolated seamlessly into the original. Italicised Words reflect a change in tense, perspective, or quantity. Capitalization and punctuation are also accurately represented.

“March 1829 Revelation to Joseph Smith, Jr. and Martin Harris," from the Newell K. Whitney Collection (D&C 5):

“[1] Behold I say unto you that my servant hath desired A witness that my servant Joseph hath got the things which he hath testified that he hath got
“[2] and now Behold this shall ye say unto him I the Lord am God I have given these things unto him & I have commanded him that he should stand as a witness of these things
“[3] nevertheless I have caused him that he should enter into a covenant with me that he should not show them except I command him & he hath no power over them e[x]cept I grant it unto him
“[4] & he hath A gift to translate the Book & I have commanded him that he shall pretend to no other gift for I will grant unto him no other gift
“[5] and verily I say unto you that woe shall come unto the Inhabitents of the Earth if they will not hearken unto my words
“[7] for Behold if they will not believe my words they would not believe my servants if it were possible he could show them all things
“[8] O ye unbelieving ye stiffnecked Generation
“[9] Behold I have reserved the things which have been spoken of which I have entrusted to my servant for a wise purpose in me & it shall be made known unto future Generations
“[10] but for this Generation they shall have my word
“[11] yea & the testimony of three of my servants shall go forth with my word unto this Generation
“[12] yea three shall know of a surety that those things are true
“[13] for I will give them power that they may Behold & view those things as they are
“[14] & to none else will I grant this power among this Generation
“[15] & the testimony of three Witnesses will I send forth & my word
“[16] & behold whosoever believeth in my word him will I visit with the manifestations of my spirit & they shall be Born of me
“[18] & their testimony Shall also go forth & thus if the People of this Generation harden not their hearts I will work a reformation among them & I will put down all lieings & deceivings & Priestcraft & envyings & strifes & Idolatries and sorceries & all manner of Iniquities & I will establish my Church yea even the church which was taught by my Desiples [Disciples] & now if this Generation do harden their hearts against my words Behold I deliver them up unto Satan for he reigneth & hath much Power at this time for he hat got great hold upon the hearts of the People of this Generation & how far from the iniquities of Sodom and Gomorrah do they come at this time & Behold the Sword of justice doth hang above their heads & if they persist in the hardness of the[i]r hearts the time cometh that it must fall upon them
“[20]Behold I tell you these things even as I also told the People of the destruction of Jerusalem & my word shall be verified at this time as it hath hitherto been verrified."

1835 LDS Doctrine & Covenants, section 32 (D&C 5):

“Behold I say unto you, that as my servant Martin Harris has desired a witness at my hand, that you, my servant Joseph Smith, jr.have got the things plates of which you have testified and borne record that you have received of me:
“and now behold, this shall you say unto him, He who spake unto you said unto you, I the Lord am God, and have given these things unto youmy servant Joseph Smith, jr. and I have commanded you that you shall stand as a witness of these things,
“[3] nevertheless and I have caused you that you should enter into a covenant with me that you should not show them except to those persons to whom commanded youand you have no power over them except I grant it unto you.
“[4] And you have a gift to translate the Book plates; and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon youand I have commanded him that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished.
“[5] and Verily I say unto you, that wo shall come unto the inhabitants of the Earth if they will not hearken unto my words”
“[7] for hereafter you shall be ordained and go forth and deliver my words unto the children of men. Behold if they will not believe my words, they would not believe you, my servant Joseph, if it were possible that you could show them all these things which I have committed unto you.
“[8] O this unbelieving and stiffnecked generation, mine anger is kindled against them.
“[9] Behold verily, I say unto you, I have reserved those things which have been spoken of which I have entrusted unto you, my servant Joseph, for a wise purpose in me, and it shall be made known unto future generations;
“[10] but for this generation they shall have my word through you;
“[11] yea And in addition to your testimony the testimony of three of my servants, whom I shall call and ordain, unto whom I will show these thingsand they shall go forth with my words that are given through you, unto this Generation
“[12] yea,  three they shall know of a surety that these things are true:
“[13] for from heaven will I declare it unto them: I will give them power that they may behold and view these things as they are;
“[14] And to none else will I grant this power, to receive this same testimony, among this generation, in this, the beginning of the rising up, and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness – clear as the moon and fair as the sun and terrible as an army with banners.
“[15] And the testimony of three witnesses will I send forth of my word.
“[16] And behold, whosoever believeth in my wordsthem will I visit with the manifestation of my Spirit; and they shall be born of me, even of water and of the Spirit.
[17] And you must wait yet a little while; for ye are not yet ordained –  
“[18] And their testimony shall also go forth & thus if the People unto the condemnation of this generation if they harden not their hearts against them: I will work a reformation among them & I will put down all lieings & deceivings & Priestcraft & envyings & strifes & Idolatries and sorceries & all manner of Iniquities & I will establish my Church yea even the church which was taught by my Desiples & now if this Generation do harden their hearts against my words Behold I deliver them up unto Satan for he reigneth & hath much Power at this time for he hat got great hold upon the hearts of the People of this Generation & how far from the iniquities of Sodom and Gomorrah do they come at this time & Behold the Sword of justice doth hang above their heads & if they persist in the hardness of the[i]r hearts the time cometh that it must fall upon them
[19] for a desolating scourge shall go forth among the inhabitants of the earth, and shall continue to be poured out, from time to time, if they repent not, until the earth is empty, and the inhabitants thereof are consumed away, and utterly destroyed by the brightness of my coming.
“[20] Behold I tell you these things even as I also told the people of the destruction of Jerusalem, and my word shall be verified at this time as it hath hitherto been verified."

Many other revelations received similar treatment in the first publication of the Doctrine & Covenants. What meaning should these alterations communicate to the Latter-day Saints? From the perspective of one having grown up in the church – mission, temple endowment, sealing and all – learning these facts seems to demand a dramatic shift in the orthodox Mormon conception of revelation, prophecy, and scripture.

Should the modern D&C rely on the earliest available manuscript versions (like the Bible) or on the 1835 edition as it does currently? Should Latter-day Saints have the opportunity to insert redactions and revisions into their own revelations in like manner? Should the scriptures instead be recognized as subjective, faithful musings, only reflective of their contemporary culture? Finally, if it is the case that God's Word is only truly revelatory in hindsight, of what utility is it for us here in the present?

– Marquardt, ed., The Joseph Smith Revelations: Text & Commentary, pp. 26-29
– Bench, ed., The Parallel Doctrine and Covenants: The 1832-1833, 1833, and 1835 Editions of Joseph Smith's Revelations, pp. 5-7