Oh Say What is Truth?

truth At the core of the Mormon founding story is Joseph Smith, a 14 year old boy living in the midst of a religious revival in upstate New York when he received a visitation from God the Father and Jesus Christ and was told to join none of the churches. Instead, over the following years, he was directed to translate the Book of Mormon, a record written by ancient inhabitants in America, and then restore God’s church on the earth, the same church that was led by Christ in the New Testament. The telling of this first vision as Mormons like to call it has been canonized in Mormon scripture as part of the Pearl of Great Price.

For church members, a lot rides on how much of what Joseph Smith did and said is actually true. A recent prophet and church leader Gordon B. Hinkley put it this way in an address he gave to the general membership of the church:

Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.

This first vision experience is at the core of the message I taught investigators as a missionary for the church in Alabama. It was in our opening message, that Joseph Smith prayed to find out which church he should join and in response to that prayer, God the Father and Jesus came and directed him to join none of them.

The first Sunday of every month, we have no assigned speakers. Rather, the time is turned over to the congregation to stand and declare their testimony. That Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus in the groves of trees is a fundamental part of most testimonies month after month.

What to make of this? What exactly do we mean when we say the church is true?

Full disclosure, I’ve done this. I have stood up in testimony meeting and at times with great fervor have announced the simple declaration, “I know the church is true” and at these times, I’ve felt something associated with this assurance, which has in my mind confirmed the words.

So, let’s dig into this idea of Mormon truth. Terryl Givens provides some helpful Mormon historical context in his book The Crucible of Doubt.

Many readers of Joseph Smith’s First Vision account feel the sting of a wide-net rebuke, with its reference to the Christian creeds as ‘an abomination’ in God’s sight. Harsh to modern ears, however, Smith’s language fits right into his cultural milieu. Religious discourse of prior ages was a vigorous and, by modern standards, shockingly abrasive and nasty hurly-burly of insults and slurs.

In that chapter, Givens describes the hyperbolic religious language at the time that influenced Joseph Smith’s own writings. But then, sites other writings of Joseph Smith that is more expansive and generous, describing holy men (and women) not found within Mormonism and that how the gospel had never really left the earth but was hidden in the wilderness.

I love this:

It appears that when God lacked prophets, He spoke through poets and musicians, sages and simple men and women of faith and goodness. He spoke through Michelangelo’s Pieta and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry and Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. He spoke through wise men such as the second-century Origen, who taught of our premortal existence in God’s presence, of a God who felt our pain as His own, and of a Father’s love so infinite that it would embrace the whole human family….

And God continues to talk to us in this way, through prophets and poets and musicians and sages and simple men and women of faith and goodness. In many ways, the gospel is still in the wilderness.

Adam Miller in his book Rube Goldberg Machines, talks about testimony and Mormon certainty in ways that I find helpful and inclusive and possible both within and without Mormonism:

A testimony involves a sincere clarify of an ‘I know’ because it is , in its naked purity, subtracted from every sign. It is subtracted from every objective sign because it declares the restoration of possibilities that the facts of the world exclude. A testimony is a bolt of lightning that splits the night in two. Testimonies contravene the stubborn inertia proper to this world. Here, the lost and impossible possibilities revealed by a testimony take hold of and recondition the world. This, though is fundamentally different from the world taking hold of and conditioning a testimony. A testimony conditioned by the world is a sign. Testimonies are not essential because they reveal how things are in the world (this is the task of science). Testimonies are essential because they reveal, in light of the Atonement, how things can be.

Testimonies have to be centered on grace, on the atonement. On a spiritual experience that invokes sanctification and purification. We live in a world with consequences, but testimony describes our experiences when those consequences are circumvented, when we become whole despite ourselves. If we say, then, the church is true, if our testimony is based on an institutional church, for it not to be a sign, it has to be a declaration of an experience with grace within the church. When we say the church is true, we are saying we have experienced Christ at church.

To say the church is the only true and living church is to repeat the hyperbolic language of the early 1800’s Joseph Smith was immersed in. To say the church is true in the way Adam Miller describes is to say we’ve experienced a sanctifying experience that brought us out of this world into an eternal one. It’s to experience living in deep time, it’s to  experience an early resurrection.

But there is one more dimension of truth I’d like to point out outlined in an “On Being” interview with the physicist Frank Wilczek. And I think it’s relevant here:

“You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.”

“And I think that’s the essence of complementarity, that you have to view the world in different ways to do it justice, and the different ways can each be very rich, can each be internally consistent, can each have its own language and rules, but they may be mutually incompatible. And to do full justice to reality, you have to take both of them into account.”

So, adding this idea of complementarity. If Mormonism can indeed be true, in a fully rich and deep way, than even here, it leaves open the actual possibility that other traditions, other ways of living faith, other ways of seeing and living in this world, can also be true in ways that seem incompatible with Mormonism.

What I’m after here is a recognition of a world that I actually experience day to day, that I’ve had deep, meaningful religious experiences both within and without Mormonism. Both at church on Sunday, and in the concert halls on Saturday.  But more than that, I’ve disagreed with prophets and have learned truths from the devil himself.

What I’m offering is a world of complexity, mystery and a recognition that there is more that we don’t know than we know. If that is the world we’re living in, where we have the opportunity to experience deep time, have plenty of walks in darkness, have moments of confusion and doubt, I think we need to accept our own weakness and live in this world with humility and a willingness to learn, both within and without our traditions.


Republicans in 2018 – A Hypothesis

Cynicism is probably the most common response to politics these days. It’s difficult to defend one’s one political party as it struggles with scandal, bad decisions or failed leadership. A common response is to assume the other political party is no better. This is precisely what happened in the Trump/Clinton election. Both candidates carried significant political baggage, but a large number of voters simply refused to rank one against the other. Some opted out and others voted for marginal third party candidates. Still others just threw their support to their party, hoping the party leadership would constrain the worse impulses of the candidate. From this cynicism and a lot luck, we now have Trump.

Now with Trump’s victory, the mutual blame continues. Republicans control all three branches of government, but democrats share the blame of government inaction, corruption and bloat.

First of all I don’t agree with this assessment. I believe it’s important that we dive deeper, adapt more sophisticated analysis and be open to the possibility that one party at different times behaves worse than the other.

Just some quick table-setting first. All institutions are problematic, corrupt to degrees, and flawed. It’s a truism that none of us are perfect, so obviously the institutions we lead are not going to be perfect either. This isn’t an all or nothing analysis. There are degrees and degradations. We must be willing to dive deeper. We will always vote for the lesser of two evils if we admit that all of us have a bit of evil within us (or the greater of two goods for the optimists among us).

Second, given the nature of our constitutional system, we are stuck with two main political parties. Given this, the ideology of one party tends to dominate at certain points in our history. The other party tends to act as a moderating pragmatic force, tempering the majority party’s excesses. Even as the government’s control alternates, the nation’s political center tends to move the country forward in a fairly consistent direction, prompting some to believe there is no real difference between the two parties, further cementing some of the assumptions outlined above.

To lay this out a bit, let me give a very brief, very high level political history. In the first half of the twentieth century, as the United States transitioned into a global power, helping to lead and win two devastating world wars, culminating in the defeat of European fascism and large parts of the world’s transition to communism. In addition because of the devastating effects of a global depression, the US political center shifted toward globalism, communist containment and the expansion of the safety net. Roosevelt and then later Johnson brought us social security, medicare, medicaid and other government programs that are now broadly popular and have helped alleviate the worse effects of poverty, especially among the elderly. Meanwhile, communist containment and democratic European alignment has been the central strategy of our foreign policy from Roosevelt to Reagan. So, our policies and general political direction stayed on a relatively consistent course as we moved through Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.

But the devastations of the Vietnam War, the gains of the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and political scandal started to wear down that consensus. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were weak attempt to maintain the status quo.

But it was Ronald Reagan that led the country into a new era, moving the political center in a conservative direction. During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the marginal tax rates for the highest bracket was at 70%, the economy was experiencing both high inflation and slow economic growth. Significant tax cuts, especially at the highest marginal rates, regulatory rollbacks, increased global trade, and a decreased concern for our national debt helped increased market supply, decrease inflation, and move the country out of recession. The Soviet Union’s collapse and the end of the cold war basically eliminated communism as a global concern.

Further, gains in black civil rights lowered the temperature on that issue while the 1970’s excesses of the sexual revolution placed cultural war issues front and center. Ronald Reagan represented a return to patriotism, free markets, and family values. Being accused a liberal became an insult.

This move to conservatism hurt George Bush Sr. losing a second term primarily because he momentarily worried about growing debt and raised taxes after promising he wouldn’t. Bill Clinton in his first two years, tried to expand access to health care, tried and failed and then lost Congress in a wave election in 1994. America would not tolerate a step back to pre-Reagan liberalism. Not yet. He spent the remaining six years of office with the strategy of triangulation, keeping tax rates relatively low while rolling back, if only moderately, the social safety net with welfare reform, then siding with the conservatives on the cultural wars with don’t ask/don’t tell, and tacking to the right on crime, with his crime bill.

In the new century, the world shifted yet again and quickly. Globalization, automation, increased global wealth, wealth inequality, and an increased dependence on consumer debt. In this new century, a dot com bubble led the world right into the real estate bubble which led to what could have been another great global depression.

The political history in this new century has been a difficult one. The Republican party so far has been holding tight to Reaganism even as its relevance in this new world seems less obvious. How far can you keep cutting marginal tax rates for the rich? How much does this continue to make sense in an era of massive inequality? How much debt can a country really take without serious consequences. Our security threats have become decentralized. All the super-powers are more or less on our side. China’s economy has modernized as its markets have become freer.

Bush’s presidency was marked by 9/11, the single biggest terrorist attack on US soil, pulled off by a ragtag set of terrorists set up in the failed state of Afghanistan. The reaction mired our military ever since in both Afghanistan and then Iraq, setting off tribal war that has engulfed much of the middle east, burning brightly in Syria today.

Obama tried to respond to the new realities with new ideas. Riding high on a momentous victory in 2008, with super-majorities in Congress, he tried to move the country left, proposing a solution to the problem of rising health care costs and decreased access to it with what he felt was a market-based solution. The blow-back was immediate. Although, Obama got a first version of his healthcare passed, a Republican Congress take-over in 2010, halted further progress, and then a Trump victory in 2016 crippled it further.

In summary, given the electoral college map, the concentration of liberals on the coasts and in cities, giving rural areas more relative power than their populations would indicate, Reagan economics and 1960’s style religious conservatism is still political center slightly right. But the data isn’t good in this regard. Debt is growing; economic inequality is growing; automation, trade and globalization has cut into job security; and the demographics of our country is trending less white, less protestant, less religious and more secular. The political center is slowly moving left.

The Trump presidency is a reflection of that. In some sense, Trump’s presidency and the rise of the alt-right comes from a sense of a looming loss. Trump’s version of “Make America Great Again”, seemed much less about strengthening our country to meet its current problems, and more about trying to make America look a lot more like it used to look in the 1950’s – white, protestant, with large factories and mines re-employing the working class who increasingly are finding themselves with few employment options.

His presidency wasn’t really won on Reagan principles at all. Trumpism is national and tribal. He ran on trade wars, strong borders, and more prisons. He felt that the US was in decline and was being played as a global sucker. But Reaganism is the central guiding philosophy of the RNC. So, they made a wager. The RNC would support Trump, as long as Trump appointed conservative judges and signed their legislation.

So, where does this lead my judgment of the two parties? In many ways, it’s still a work in progress. Some hoped Obama would be the Democratic Reagan. Permanently moving the political center left. This could have happened if the Democrats would have won in 2016. Trump was a hail marry to stop it. And its worked for a while as the Republicans are doing all they can to reverse most of what Obama spent 8 years building.

But it’s a reactionary, impulsive desperate attempt to not think about the world as it actually is.

I’m not saying the DNC is in great shape. In some sense the Trump presidency is hurting the DNC as well. But it’s not clear yet. The DNC has two choices. To wait the current moment out. Continuing Obama’s first steps toward a soft turn left, finding ways to address global and domestic problems with a safety net, a tax code and a government designed for the modern day.

I’m not sure how this will end up. But as it stands, the RNC is in worse shape than the DNC, but there is more work on both sides.