Blog

On the provincial Mormon

The provincial Mormon is the antithesis of the rounded Mormon.  The latter seeks for a universal perspective; the former, like most narrow perspectives, is utilitarian.

I encounter provincial Mormons regularly; interviews for Temple recommends are one of the settings in which it happens.  Before the questions there’s the small talk.  “What do you do for a living?” has always been, without fail, the catalyst for the provincial.  See, I am not a doctor.  Not an engineer. Not a lawyer.  Not in business.  Not a consultant.  Nothing computer related.  Not an administrator.  Don’t own/work/farm land.  I work in a humanities-type field; my degrees are in the same type of field.  Super not practical.  Soon as I share this with the interviewer, who invariably occupies one of the above career fields (like most in positions of leadership within Mormonism) the tone of the interview changes.  Long story short, it’s disapproval.

As the provincial Mormon is utilitarian, any career path that does not yield 6 figures is derided, seen as a waste.  “Well, what are you gonna’ do with that?” is the catchphrase.  I am interested in wide reading and original languages.  This is an outgrowth of my religion.  It helps me to see the Gods (we have Heavenly Parents, already).  Ironically, the provincial’s money-minded career is most likely an outgrowth of faith as well.  Families, communities, religious institutions–you name it–all have fiscal requirements in civilized society in order to survive.  It is noble and godly to provide.  I can acknowledge that, even though it is not how I have chosen to interpret what a fruitful expression of the faith is in terms of proper employment.  The provincial, however, refuses to consider the approach of others.  Sees anything different as irresponsible and/or heretical.  It’s frustrating to deal with and makes me want to respond in kind.  I could ask the interviewer why money matters so much.  Could point out that, as per Mormon Temple Liturgy, over-reliance on money is essentially satanic.  The interviewer would then misdiagnose me as a threat and withhold access to the Temple.  So I don’t.  I quietly receive criticism of my life’s work that secures an honest living for me and my family.

There are a lot of directions in which this post could go.  We could discuss the inordinate power of local leaders; Mormon culture’s disdain for the humanities; the cultural insularity of certain (geographical) echelons of Mormons; the loathesomeness of good ole boy systems; the recent (and growing) concern over closed-door interviews; jerks; the practically-fatal pitfalls before any society sufficiently disinterested in the humanities, etc.

What needs to understood is that the provincial Mormon sees things in term of “us vs. them” which is uniquely antithetical to the best parts of Mormonism.  The rounded Mormon strives to embrace and embody the universalism promulgated by Joseph Smith.

 

 

A perspective for the dissatisfied

A lot of Mormons love Temple worship and regularly get something out of it.  Plenty don’t.  This is for the plenty.

No doubt you’ve heard and understand what transcendental transactions take place in the Temples.  Salvation, even exaltation, is individually distributed throughout an unreckoned multitude of the spiritually uncredentialled.  Yet you feel nothing.  Probably you’ve heard others describe highly detailed solutions to problems they received in the course of Temple worship.  You receive no such thing.  Let’s talk about this.  Clearly, they’re feeling and receiving stimuli you’re not.  How?  You’re all attending to the same rituals, going through the same motions and postures, donning the same apparel; what variable then, by its presence or absence, is neutralizing your Temple experience?  It’s perspective or what you do (or don’t) bring to the Temple, in regard to expectation.

I want here to offer a perspective to the dissatisfied: The Temple is theatre.  It’s poetry.  As such, it requires an informed approach.  Let’s unpack this.  Aristotle wrote that poetry is concerned with articulating the universal, with clothing truths in such terms as have the broadest appeal.  This, he explained, is its difference from history, which is focused on particulars, on facts (Poet. 1451b).  Thus, in the Temple you identify with Adam or Eve, the universal man and woman, and not specifically as you.  Why? Because our Heavenly Parents, like the Ancient Greeks, knew that every kind of person from every conceivable circumstance could view the drama that is the Temple and therefore had to be able to relate not it to them but themselves to it.  This brings us to Aristotle’s explanation for the function of tragedy: the cleansing of pity, fear and other crippling emotional states from the audience.  This is accomplished as far as the audience is able to identify with the characters who dramatize the action which is, “serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude” (Poet. 1449b).  Thus, we are directed in the Temple to consider ourselves as Adam and Eve (and not consider them us) in order to share in their triumph.

So, maybe the first thing to do is not look at the Temple as though it’s presenting history or fact; it’s not.  Maybe a sacred history, as in a timeless dramatization of the human story, but not an historical retelling of facts that took place in some point in the past.  As a history, it would not possess any point of entry for the spectator (you) to advance to the position of participant; it would be mere narrative.  As poetry, as universal truth, the Temple drama can happen daily, enabling the victory it depicts (in spite of all the loss and failure and hurt) to be regularly available to the weary Temple goer in need of that victory.

Understanding the Temple as poetry involves discarding the utilitarian mindset.  “Utilitarian” describes anything having to do with practical, functional use.  Poetry is art, and art is, by its very nature, useless – therein lies its divinity, its potential to elevate humankind.  The pursuit, and especially the creation, of beauty, is the godliest of pastimes.  Humans are mired in the pursuit of utility, inasmuch as we must struggle for our survival.  Before the fall, Adam and Eve were to dress a garden and be happy; having entered the world, their time was given to thorns, thistles, briers, noxious weeds, and bread eaten by the sweat of the face.  Therefore: outside the Temple is utility, inside there must be beauty, there must be art.  Taking the utilitarian mindset into the Temple is about the most counterproductive approach to Temple worship, this side of worthiness at least.  The utilitarian mindset manifests itself with the “I’m here to get my answers” approach.  When those answers are not received, that mindset deems the effort wasteful and pointless.

So, here’s another thing to do: leave your specificities, your particular problems, outside the Temple.  They are products of utility and incongruous with the art, the beauty, of the Temple.  The Master taught that one intent on saving the soul or self will lose it (Matt. 16:25).  The freer one is of utility, the more available one is for the appreciation of the beauty of holiness as depicted in the Temple.  This means losing your daily, utilitarian, factual self in order to freely immerse in the beautiful and find your universal, poetic, true self.   Perhaps it sounds contradictory, forgetting your problems in order to find solutions to them.  Remember: The Master taught that it is one who would lose their soul or self that will find it (Matt. 16:25).

To sum up.  Don’t just put your body in the Temple, put your self in the Temple drama.  Take your troubles to the Temple doors but not beyond; a vessel anything other than empty will have no room for answers.

As a convert

The more I talk with lifelong Mormons, I realize I see some things differently than those raised up in it all.  Maybe it would be more accurate to say I realize I am able to see some things differently.

Struggles

Many of the faith-related struggles Mormons encounter, I believe, have to do with their interactions with, interpretation of, and reaction to the Mormon community.  When something potentially unsettling comes along, the lifers have to square it with the version of their faith they received from the community while growing up.  What complicates the process is that the “version” delivered to the youth is too often presented as infallible, replete with unrealistic depictions of historical figures from Mormon history and/or overly literal readings of scripture.  It is exceedingly difficult to integrate new information into an unyielding preexisting worldview.  The result, it appears, is binary: regression or revulsion.  Lifers too tightly programmed with an uncritical rendering of their faith seem to feel they must either regress to a provincial mindset, damning the unbelievers while demanding orthodoxy, or revile the narrative received in their youth as a fairy tale, denoting it a laughable mass of incongruities, and abandon it.

As a convert, I lack any such conditioning; I am therefore cognitively and emotionally free (at least in theory, right?) to reshape my perception of the faith at will and with impunity.  Admittedly, I’m too often insensitive to the genuine anguish lifers feel in the process of deciding whether they’ve been actively or unintentionally lied to.  Confessedly, I’m also elated by it.  Questioning my childhood is part of what brought me toward Mormonism.  Seeing someone else question is exciting; what discovery awaits, what higher planes, what greater intimacy with the divine!

To tell someone to just ignore the dissonance in their faith life is brutish.  The chaos must be waded into.  The divine pattern, as demonstrated by mythical and religious narratives, ancient and modern, shows the upstart god or outcast hero battling with the great monster, the de-civilizer, Chaos itself, in order to subdue it (usually to death) and recast the fragments of the beast into a new world.  This is the creation of context, the conferral of identity, seeing things and people for what they really are.  This involves accepting that the keepers and conveyors of the now inadequate version of your faith story were not malicious.  Mormons, exceptions there being, are an incredibly utilitarian people, not given to critical inquiry of a poetic or theological nature.  The kind of lengthy, literary study that reveals the undulate nature of the human inclination and thereby reinforces the mind against upheaval when faced with the inevitable vacillations to which the human creature is prone is not valued by the Mormon community at large.  Simply put: too many Mormons don’t read widely enough so their perspectives are stunted, as are their capacities to entertain opposition.

As a convert, I am able to recognize and acknowledge, without justifying, that at all levels of Mormondom are untrained clergy.  There are, therefore, innumerable expectations I just don’t maintain.  Untrained in ancient languages, they are incapable of providing either a textually or contextually informed interpretation of scripture.  Such an interpretation could potentially go a long way with millennials, wary as they are of anything that even remotely resembles uninformed groupthink.  At times, one hears that all you need is the Spirit, ya know, like John Lennon said about love.  Then we read that Joseph Smith, who could produce scripture by supernatural means, felt the need to obtain language instruction in the traditional manner: with a teacher, a text, and a lexicon.  Is that not irony?  He even went so far as to imply the necessity of such traditional instruction in the eighth Article of Faith.  The clergy of Mormondom are untrained as well in methods of professional counseling.  This is no call for an overhaul; merely a calling to an awareness of the fact that folks unschooled in the intricacies and dynamics of human interaction and psychology are given stewardship over the innermost recesses of our minds and souls.  In light of this, there’s almost no way they were going to get it “right” when they delivered, over the years, the dimensions of your faith story to you.  It is also important to understand that oneself is among the untrained.  The implications of Joseph Smith’s teachings are vast, complex and still too unplumbed.  Unless the pursuit of languages, literatures, sociology or psychology is yours, cut the clergy – and yourself – some slack.

These times see a struggling generation of Mormons.  This is no sign of weakness.  It is no small thing to be a transition generation.  Mormonism has undergone changes before, cultural shifts, in light of the demands of a larger, occasionally hostile world.  The Church, at this moment, is attempting to maintain its identity yet evolve so as to survive.  Jerusalem has always been surrounded by larger, more powerful cultures.  The challenge its inhabitants frequently faced involved the maintenance of their identity.  Much of the religion in the Tanakh is articulated around this interest.  Perhaps their most transformative challenge was their deportation to Babylon in the early 6th century BC.  One consequence was the (much later; circa 4th-6th centuries AD) formation of two versions of the Talmud: the Babylonian and the Palestinian.  The Talmud was and is an authoritative collection of rabbinic teachings.  The Babylonian version has long since become the more authoritative of the two, largely due to its greater clarity and finer nuance.  Centuries of Judaism have thus been largely shaped by the minds of Rabbis centered in Babylon, away from the sacred city Jerusalem.  Greater clarity and nuance, I submit, are one potential outcome of a tradition surrounded by larger, unavoidably influential cultures.  Mormondom has also been removed from its sacred points of origin and has continually had to renegotiate itself, its conception of its self.  This process is alive again.  The relevance of this attempted Jewish-Mormon analogy to my original premise is as follows.

The ability of the lifer to step outside the provincial views of their childhood and adopt a more rounded perspective will dictate his or her capability to not only assimilate into Mormonism but also to assimilate Mormonism into its next manifestation.  At first the ancient Jews were forcibly driven to Babylon.  In time, Mesopotamia came to house important centers of Talmudic learning.  After a while, Jews were opting for Babylon;[1] they found in it a safe haven wherein they could articulate their beliefs in such a way as to shore up their people against persecution.  The lifer must not recoil at the notion of cultural dissociation, especially if it precipitates a transformation of the (and their) faith that inoculates the next few generations against the advance of a larger, increasingly hostile world.  The power of Mormonism will emerge from struggle, not mindless complacence.

[1] In Mormonspeak, Babylon is viewed only in its 6th century BC context, and connotes “bad place.”   As with much of Christendom, Mormonism loses interest in Jewish history with the advent of Christ.  Centuries after Babylon destroyed the Temple, it became a long-time residence of several communities of highly learned and influential Jewish sages.

Russell Kirk’s “Enemies of the Permanent Things”

If I could but help just one other soul to the reading of the works of Russell Kirk.  Mormons! Feel of this, and tell me if Dr. Kirk did not echo Joseph Smith in his estimation of eternal truth as “…that religion which has existed since the beginning of the world, but which now takes the name of Christianity.” (pg. 21)  Or maybe in his assessment of inspiration: “Direct revelation, moreover, has been extremely rare: on most occasions, divine wisdom was expressed through the mouths of very human prophets—who may be categorized, if you wish, under the late classification of ‘seer.’” (pg.34)  On the universal availability of truth, as Joseph so clearly demonstrated in his religious innovation and teachings, against the notion of some single, great font of knowledge from God:

“To maintain that all normative truth may be found in the Bible, or in any other sacred book, is to fall into the error of what Coleridge called ‘bibliolatry.’ Though the Decalogue is the word of God, it is not the sole source of the commandments for mankind.  The universality of such moral laws is succinctly put by C. S. Lewis, in his Abolition of Man; Lewis calls these universal commandments, perceived and expressed variously in every culture, ‘the Tao.’…Although in our Father’s house are many mansions, they are not all on the same floor, true enough; yet Jewish and Christian dogmas, if the clearest and highest expression of moral normality, nevertheless do not enjoy an exclusive claim to such revelation.” (pg. 35)

Kirk classes poets with prophets, Solon with Moses (pg. 38), as both active within the seeric office.  Such categorization is harmonious with the implications of Mormonism, in light of Joseph Smith’s utilization of any source in his environment to articulate the truths he grasped.  Poets and prophets deliver eternal verity clothed in the idiom of their culture.

I do not intend for this little review to continue much longer.  In my attempt to shine some points of its light on potential readers I very well could transcribe the book.  Here are some important points of resonance for me with Dr. Kirk.

He was a convert to his faith.  As such, he lacked the cultural conditioning attendant upon an upbringing within the faith (which goes for all faith traditions); his mind was unhindered by the cultural blindness that can result from natal loyalty to tribe.  He thus freely partook of truth whencever he found it.

He read widely.  His thought, and most satisfyingly his writing, was permeated with the fruits of broad literary attainment.  As per his own admission, he did not take the time to learn languages; no Latin, Ancient Greek, or Biblical Hebrew, not German or Italian.  He made this no hindrance to his pursuit of familiarity with writers without the pale of the American and English milieu in which was his training.

He valued revelation and tradition, saw them as complementary.

Read Russell Kirk, Mormons.

Some of the beauties of Catholicism

I think on this often.  I love Catholicism and want to share some few of its aspects I find beautiful, aesthetically and/or out of gratitude.

It is venerable.  The weight of its age lends a majesty to its gait.  There is gravitas in its voice, borne from its lengthy tenure.  For two-thousand years it has shepherded the West, been its conscience.  It is not lightly dismissed.

It values knowledge.  Catholicism has preserved liberal education, first having defined it.  Genuine, purposeful education contemplates the good, true, and beautiful; Catholicism has steadfastly shone this light for nearly twenty centuries.  The unequaled worth attached to the humanities at Catholic universities is a modest testament to this effort.

It is prevalent.  I believe it has always been the largest bastion of Christianity.  Most the inheritors of Western Civilization have Catholic ancestors.  In this way it creates community, preserves connection; it provides a common heritage.

It is universal.  This is in its very name; “catholic” is composed of two Greek words, κατά and ὅλος.  The first word, a preposition, means “with regard to/concerning” and the second “whole/entire.”  Catholicism, by its very name, is universal.

It is beautiful.  Cathedrals are unassailably lovely, monuments to the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty, and cultivate solemn awe in the observer.  The Latin Mass, with its ancient tongue, clear signals, and measured posture, purifies and poetizes.

Mormonism exists and functions in a special doctrinal tandem of sorts with Catholicism, has a connection with it, that is yet unexplored.  O for that day.

“The old Catholic Church is worth more than all.” -Joseph Smith, June 16th, 1844

Something Peculiar

Ever noticed that some Mormons (the biblical literalists, especially) will insist that Moses wrote Genesis, as per the ancient tradition?  Then those same Mormons will insist that Joseph Smith did not write the Book of Mormon?

Why the double standard?  How come writing a religious “history” of an ancient people from whom he claimed descent makes Moses a prophet but makes Joseph a fraud?

Say that you tell these Mormons that Genesis, as we have it, was not authored by Moses but is the product of several scribal traditions writing in different eras with different agendas centuries apart from Moses’ lifetime.[1]  For them, such a proposition delegitimizes Genesis, takes away from its being “true.”

Now, tell those same Mormons that the Book of Mormon, as we have it, was not authored by Joseph Smith but is the product of several scribal traditions writing in different eras with different agendas centuries apart from Joseph.  This would affirm the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon for them!

The situation is wonky with the critics of scripture, even!  To weaken Genesis’ cultural authority they strive to distance it from Moses, even questioning his existence.  For whatever reason that strategy is reversed for the Book of Mormon, whose critics strive to diminish its cultural authority by strengthening its connection to Joseph Smith, very much insisting that he really was behind it!

So, here are my thoughts.  I am neither attacking the Book of Mormon nor Joseph Smith’s prophethood.  No, on the contrary, I don’t think either is taken seriously enough.  I cannot understand why some Mormons think Joseph recovering a history is a greater display of seership than if he had dictated a text from pure inspiration.  Think on that, a text, a divine narrative, straight from heaven!

I do not reject the testimonies of the eleven witnesses or Joseph’s encounters with Moroni; I trust and accept the historicity of it all.  Remember though, while we’re talking about witnesses, that everyone who observed the “translation” process (of the Book of Mormon) recounted that the plates sat on a table, inert and under cover, apart from Joseph and his scribes.

To be honest, I believe the Book of Mormon (as we have it) is a divine expansion of an ancient text (please see my essay, The Nature of Inspiration, for more of an explanation).  The Book of Mormon has components both ancient (like all the chiasmus and Nahum and the like) and modern (like its Americanisms, anachronisms, and the KING’S ENGLISH).

If you ask me, the Book of Mormon as a product of Joseph’s divine inspiration makes him a greater prophet than it ever could if considered a mere transmitted history.  If Moses, whose existence is challenged, is thought a great prophet for having written Genesis, how great a prophet then is Joseph (as a seer, not a man) who definitely lived, who definitely produced genuine scripture?  Come on Mormons, Joseph’s critics already insist it was him, when will we let them know that that makes it all even truer than before?

[1] For an excellent explanation of the authorship of the Old Testament from a Latter-day Saint perspective see David Bokovoy’s “Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy”

Trials

As a formal logical conundrum, the problem of evil is probably not known to most Mormons; as an emotional reaction, I do not doubt that everyone with some basic sense of God is acquainted with it.  Essentially, it’s what happens whenever one’s capability to make sense of undesirable circumstances is taxed unto failure, and the other-than constructive questioning begins. Simply put: it’s hard to make sense of bad things happening to good people.

There is no shame in this; it’s a tremendously human reaction and ofttimes indicative of compassion.  I want to ruminate on five potential sources of undesirable circumstances, reflecting on the likelihood of each: God, Satan, one’s own self, other people, and chance.

1.God: When I hear anyone suggest that God gives trials, I wince and recoil; I do not believe that God sends trials.  I know that scripture gives examples to the contrary, like Abraham sacrificing Isaac; keep in mind that the Old Testament reflects how the ancient Jews interpreted God waaaaaay after the fact.  I know it helps many people cope with trials to believe that God sent those trials because they needed to learn something; how then, does He, and our Heavenly Mother, decide who of Their children “needs” to be murdered and/or raped, what minor “needs” to be abused by an adult in a position of trust, or “needs” an incurable disease?

To be clear, I am denying that God dispenses misfortune.  I fully accept that He (and She) participates in human history, in mortal affairs.  Our Heavenly Parents are involved, not cruel.

Also, I believe that God can give purpose to any trial (2Ne2:2).

2.Satan: In Mormonism, he’s an unembodied being, and Joseph Smith taught that embodied beings have more power than the unembodied.  Satan affects people indirectly, through the agency of others who elect to submit their will to him.  On the one hand, being the father of lies makes him sorta’ responsible for, or at least an accessory to, all evil choices; on the other hand, as he never gained a body, he has never been physically capable of forcing anybody to do anything, so I can’t ever blame him directly for anything.

3.One’s own self: An undeniable source of trials.  We all know when we’ve screwed up; but that’s ok, it’s the only path to repentance!

4.Other people: Another undeniable source of trials; basically, when source number three results in collateral damage.

5.Chance: Mortality is fraught with built-in perils.  If God, Satan, yourself, and everyone else were never sources of trials, your body would still wither and expire; and all our bodies wither and expire at different rates and by different means.  Although Mormonism is unique for viewing the Fall as an ascent, a step toward God, we are still physically fallen, corruption; we tend toward entropy.  Some live to a great age and pass peacefully after a full life.  Others encounter terrible illnesses or fatal accidents at a bitterly young age.  Such circumstances, such faulty bodies, are a condition of mortality, and unavoidable.

So, turns out I have about two and a half sources for trials: oneself, others, and the hazards of mortality.  There’s probably more still.