How Much Should Joseph Smith’s Life Matter to a Mormon Testimony?

book-of-mormon.jpgFor some context, I’m making my way through a recent Mormon Stories podcast with Kathleen Melonakos on her recently published book, Secret Combinations Evidence of Early Mormon Counterfeiting 1800-1847. I need to re-listen to segments and more importantly, I feel the need to read the book. It’s a pretty devastating criticism of Joseph Smith.

First of all, let me lay out a fairly obvious faithful critique of the book before we start – she has a clear critical bias. In the interview, the author explains both her Mormon roots and her long-ago departure from the faith. She is clearly approaching her research from a critical perspective. This fact doesn’t mean her book isn’t valuable, isn’t worth reading, or doesn’t provide important insights to the early church. However, it may also explain her less than generous interpretations of the cited historical evidence.

The main point of the book is to put the early Mormon church in historical context, but more importantly to find some answers to the fundamental question every critic of the Mormon church seems to want to answer – how did Joseph Smith do it? How did Joseph Smith write the Book of Mormon? How did he get so many people to follow him and to sacrifice so much for his cause? How did he come up with so much theology that extends and expands upon the consensus Protestant Christian position?

The faithful Mormon answer to all of these questions is pretty obvious and easy to summarize in a one hour presentation every Mormon missionary has memorized and gives to an investigator within the first couple of visits. Joseph Smith as a fourteen year old boy was confused by all all of the religious contention happening at the time. He wanted to join a church but couldn’t decide which one. In the midst of the confusion and as a response to reading in James that if “anyone lacks wisdom they should ask of God”, he went out into the grove of trees to do exactly that. In direct answer to his prayer, he saw God and Jesus Christ tell him to join none of the churches. Soon after, visits from angels came, guided him to buried plates where he translated a historical scriptural record through the gift and power of God, the Book of Mormon, a record of the ancient Americans. From there, Joseph organized a church of early believers, recruited others, expanded westward until he was assassinated. Brigham Young led the church to Utah and the rest is history.

I am Mormon now largely because I descended from very early converts to the church, Theodore Turley on my dad’s side, Carl Carlquist  on my Mom’s side among so many others. I inherited this religion, my faith extends back into my ancestry.

Melonakos’ book, however, is pretty devastating if taking at face value. Her answers to the question, how Joseph Smith did it is well basically that he didn’t, at least not all by himself. His theology had early pilgrim roots, much of his theology innovations have their genesis  Dartmouth college of which Hyrum Smith had some connection. Ideas for the Book of Mormon were in the air at time time, pulling from sources like the View of the Hebrews and the Spaulding Manuscripts. Much of this is not new to Melonakos, but her contribution is to find Mormon connection to early counterfeiting that was reasonably common in the area of the time, and that Joseph Smith, with his family, participated in these activities, and that they are at the heart of how Joseph Smith founded the church.

In this view Joseph Smith was a fraud, convinced others, including the three and twelve witnesses included in the Book of Mormon, to go along with that fraud, used Masonic rituals to bind participants to secrecy.

My fundamental issue with this view is that this fraud would have to be powerful enough to inspire countless others through the generations, culminating in the modern, global church with millions of members worldwide, all finding inspiration and strength as members of this deeply American faith.

Elder Holland responds similarly, describing how Hyrum and Joseph took comfort in the book they supposedly made up just moments before their death. Could a book they made up really provide this kind support for so many?

A faithful Mormon response to this type of critique is to outright reject it. The church actually has their own take on early Mormon history, the book entitled Saints, written by scholars employed by the church describing early church history from a decidedly faithful perspective.

What should I do with these competing narratives? I’ve already read what I consider to be among the most important Joseph Smith biographies, Rough Stone Rolling written by the faithful Mormon scholar, Richard Bushman, with his own biases. I’ve also read Mormon Enigma, another really well-researched book with a focus on Emma Smith that corroborates much of Bushman’s book describing the same events through Emma’s eyes.

I think there is value in understanding our early history. I think history can and should increase our faith in God and deepen our appreciation and love for the sacrifices of our forebears. I’m not a descendent of Joseph Smith, but my early ancestors had a deep faith in his message and made deeply significant sacrifices to help build the church he founded.

I don’t think it’s useful to ignore the critics. I think their arguments are worth considering, especially those done in good faith based on careful research. More fundamentally, though, I think Mormonism can and should survive whatever we might discover about Joseph Smith. I don’t believe the church should live or die on the credibility of a single person. There were far too many people involved in the church, past, present and future.

More importantly, I think Mormons should be fearless. Increasingly, every member of the church knows and loves someone who has left the church. I think being willing to have interfaith conversations, conversations between the critic and the believer, conversations in good faith with a willingness to learn from each other, can lead to deeper understanding, wisdom and a better world.


What does it mean to minister?

homteachingHome Teaching

Home teaching was a significant part of my Mormon life. My parents were relentless, never missing a month, like clockwork. I remember when I turned 14, old enough to be my dad’s companion, I dreaded these visits. They would last an hour typically, and it was mostly my dad talking endlessly to the adult members of the family we were visiting, with me sitting there next to him, bored out of my mind. In my Mormon church experience, boredom was my most common emotional experience, home teaching included.

Some of you might be asking, home teaching, eh? Home teaching is a church program where men are divided into companionships, and then assigned three to four families to visit monthly, giving a gospel message, and offering whatever assistance might be needed in that home. Visiting teaching is basically the same program for the women.

There is a lot of theoretical potential with home teaching. In reality, it is often difficult, requiring the coordination of three different schedules (both companions and the family) to visit a single family every single month. Then multiply this by three or four depending on the number of families assigned, the logistical coordination problem is the biggest challenge. Most of the time, it’s done out of obligation. Leadership give constant reminders, determine who were actually visited and then report the results up the hierarchy.  What typically happens, is that most people are busy trying to squeeze all of their visits in at the end of each month. Ward families often understand the obligation and try to make room for these visits even though often times it can be inconvenient on what often is already a really busy Sunday to have to fit in yet another spiritual message on a day already filled with them. More typically, though, the visits aren’t made at all as percentages are often below 50%, month to month.

Sometimes, though, it can really work. I’ve had times when I’ve developed really deep relationships with the families I was assigned. And even when something is done out of obligation, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was a waste of time. Even a short visit can be meaningful. The effectiveness of the program is really all over the map.

But in my experience, the magical home teaching moments where deeply meaningful relationships result are fairly rare. Admittedly, this is potentially more about me than the program. Who knows?  I’m speaking mostly from my own experience.


About six months ago, this program, a program as deeply entrenched into Mormon culture as any we have, was replaced with something that was supposed to go beyond checklists, obligatory monthly visits and weekly nagging, a program called ministry. When I heard this, I jumped for joy. I’ve been feeling pretty frustrated with home teaching and was trying to figure out ways to make it more meaningful and effective.

My interpretation of the program is that it prioritizes relationships over simply visits. And how do you develop a relationship? Well, I’m not sure. It’s difficult. It takes time and it requires people on both sides to make a willing effort. It’s bi-directional, requiring a give and take in both directions. There has to be time, a willing to sacrifice, a listening ear. Phone calls, shared meals, conversations, activities. Teaching is not often a part of friendships, at least not intentional teaching. Relationships work best when both sides view the other as their equal. Most of my friends have come at work or at school. Hours together, working on a project, or struggling to learn a complicated topic. Hours together at work lead to hours together outside of work, simply enjoying each other’s company.

Why the Church is As True as the Gospel

Eugene England wrote a famous and beautiful essay that gets into what makes Mormonism so uniquely beautiful at its core. That the gospel of Jesus Christ can be found in the messy work of trying to make it work in a congregation.  Mormon congregations are organized around lay ministry with borders drawn up geographically. Where I live determines what congregation I attend. When I attend, I am asked to serve along with others who live nearby. In other words, the church divides up its membership into congregations and then utilize the resources in the congregation to fulfil the purposes of the church.

There are certainly challenges in this arrangement. There’s no shopping around for just the right congregation, so if things get difficult, we’re mostly stuck. Not completely, there are exceptions, but exceptions are purposely difficult to get. The reason for this is because these congregations are designed to act like families, Mormons view the work of salvation to be both an individual and a collective endeavor. And congregations are organized to help individuals and families help each other find salvation. We’re in this together.

I bring this up because ministry is at the heart of what Eugene England describes here. Ministry, at its core, is the most important part of being a member of this church.


Some of the concerns I’ve heard about the new program is that it’s highly likely to end up just like “Home Teaching” with a different name, so how is that really all that revelatory significant? Leaders are going to struggle giving up the control they had with home teaching – the assignments, the reporting, the nagging. The only reports required for ministry is whether or not the leaders are doing the quarterly interviews. In other words, are leaders helping the congregation minister to each other? That is the important question, more important it turns out, than what people are actually doing. Rather than pushing people into doing something specific like home teaching visits, can they just encourage relationships to bloom?

Another concern is the forced/assigned nature of the program. There have been plenty of people I really wanted to be friends with in my life. Many of those friendships have not worked out. They take both sides wanting them enough to sacrifice the kind of time required to make friendships work. Sometimes I want the friendship more than the other person.

My Suggestions

I’d like to think ministry is a fundamentally different program than home teaching. If the program is an attempt to make sure no one in the ward family is friendless and if in time of need, there is at least one person nearby with enough built-up authentic concern for that person to be there in a meaningful way, providing love and support built up through years of effort.

If that’s the framing of this program, we need to think of this program completely different. Here are some possibilities to consider:

  1. Make the assignments bi-directional: The families I’ve been assigned to minister should also be assigned to minister to me. This may change, in certain cases the nature of the relationship. I’m trying to minister someone trying to minister to me. That sounds exactly like the precondition of a deep relationship. Why not make that the intention from the beginning.
  2. Don’t reinvent the wheel: Allow friendships developed organically to continue. Relish in the ministry that’s already happening in the congregation. That counts, to use Elder Holland’s words.
  3. Priorities the Friendless: Some people make friends easily, many do not. Make sure those disconnected from the ward have the same opportunities others do. Assign the most energetic, charismatic member to those who are living on the margins.
  4. Give the people a say in who they minister:  Inspiration can come from anywhere, but mostly from where it matters most, on the ground. If someone feels called to minister to someone specifically, let them do it.
  5. De-prioritize the companionship (or better yet eliminate them):  Assigning families to companionships makes the entire thing less authentic, and increases the difficulty building deep relationships. Rather than companionships, connect families where possible.


If we want ministry to work, I think it requires a deep re-thinking of what ministry is. If I’m right and if it’s more about establishing relationships, we need to think about how relationships begin and flourish and provide the right kind of environment to make sure that they do.

We should set up the environment and hope for the best. That’s as much as we can really do.

On Sam Young’s Upcoming Disciplinary Action


Jordan Peterson on Hierarchies

Jordan Peterson has a lot to say about the differences between liberals and conservatives especially in relation to their response to hierarchies.

Hierarchies are inevitable and required to structure and organize our societies against and within a complex world that would otherwise destroy us. He talks a lot about avoiding the dual forces on both sides of the extremes  – the repressive forces of totalitarianism that come from too much order inherent in oppressive hierarchies and the chaos and nihilism of moral relativism when hierarchies fall apart.

To get us into the right balance, we need both sides in this sort of cooperative tension, in constant conversation, pulling and pushing each other into the right balance somewhere in the middle. Like most everything, it’s a complicated balancing act that requires constant vigilance (I can’t resist a very old video I made to fundraise for a cure for diabetes several years ago – trying to keep a diabetics blood sugar in perfect balance, with just the right amount of insulin, proper diet, and regular exercise is an interesting metaphor to life generally):

Conservatives tend to value and support these hierarchies while liberals worry about those who can and are oppressed by them. Both sides play an important role. We need to support hierarchies, but hierarchies need to be occasionally refreshed and updated and they need enough constraints to protect society from the consequences of their corruption, because all hierarchies are corrupt to one extent or another, and left unchecked trend toward deeper corruption.

What’s Happening With Sam Young

With that as a backdrop, consider the upcoming disciplinary action against Sam Young here:

For those not following, he is the founder of a movement named “Protect LDS Children”, the focus of this group is to push the LDS church to stop doing 1 on 1 worthiness interviews with children. From the website:

For decades, it has been common place for Mormon Bishops and other local leaders to pose questions of a sexual nature to children. There are reports of this happening to children as young as age 8. These questions are being asked by an older man, all alone with the child, behind closed doors and often without the knowledge or permission of the parents. Almost universally, these men have no comprehensive training.It is time for this practice to be eliminated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


We call on the LDS Church to immediately cease the practice of subjecting children to questions about masturbation, orgasm, ejaculation, sexual positions or anything else of a sexual nature. This applies to all children up to and including age 17. There should be no one-on-one interviews with children. A parent or other trusted adult of the child’s choosing is to be present.

We call on the LDS Church to publicly disavow this practice.

We call on the LDS Church to ensure that all congregational leaders, as well the general membership, are informed that this practice is prohibited.

In what appears to be in response to a planned protest, the church did recently update its policies on interviews here:

In particular this:

  • If a youth desires, he or she may invite a parent or another adult to be present when meeting with the bishop or one of his counselors.

For clarity, bishops have been asked to perform regular interviews for youth 12 to 18. There is a baptismal interview with a child at 8 and then not another until they are almost 12  in preparation for the transition into the young women/young men program. The church’s primary worthiness concerns are rightly targeted toward youth making their way through the pot-holes of puberty.

Nonetheless, for Sam Young, the policy updates  did not go far enough. For Young, in no circumstances should these interviews be performed without another trusted adult, and that decision should not be left to the youth. Sam Young continued with his public protests and then later followed it up with a highly-publicized prolonged hunger strike.

In response, the church is now moving toward excommunication proceedings.

My Thoughts

The Trained Professional

We’ve taken children to counseling and there were times we’ve left our child alone with the therapist to help her work out issues without the presence of a parent. It feels like these sort of interactions were useful. An observing guardian fundamentally alters the interaction. The child might be safer with a parent there, but it might also prevent the child from being as open with the therapist, something that might be required for real discovery and growth.

Conversation is like that. A conversation will change when its observed, that’s been my experience.

The Bishop

Within Mormonism, ecclesiastical leadership is volunteer. Leaders are called by other leaders into service. People are free to turn the call down, but no one asks to serve. Bishops and other leaders have their own professional lives often completely unrelated to church service. Bishops might be doctors, lawyers, dentists, or janitors. The one constant is that they are dedicated, faithful members of the church, often with years of prior church service.

When the bishop is called into service, Mormons believe they receive a mantel that elevates them beyond their own capacities. When congregants listen to a bishop’s counsel, they treat what they hear as revelatory insights inspired by God’s holy spirit. They believe that the mantel gives bishops special capacity to help shepherd an individual through a difficult world, avoiding life-limiting temptations.

To be honest, with my own experience with teen-agers, I see how much more dependent I am on othes to help guide them as they prepare for the looming, painful separation out into the world. Teenagers naturally start questioning their parents and start looking for other influences and direction. Church culture can provide necessary and important tools to help them launch out with greater confidence and less damage.


But they aren’t professionals and they aren’t trained. And sexual and worthiness conversations are land mines that can be stepped on even by those who are trained. There are plenty of stories of exploding landmines in bishop’s offices and  Sam Young has compiled plenty.

One Interpretation: Tyranny or Chaos?

Sam Young appears to be injecting a bit of chaos into the Mormon structure. If anyone can organize a protest, pushing back against churches doctrines or policies, questioning prophetic decisions and insights, explicitly encouraging the public to not consider joining the church, implicitly encouraging others to leave, these actions can legitimately feel destabilizing to the church.

However, if the church’s policies have the feel of being consistently imposed from the top down. If the church feels like it never takes into consideration the experiences of its members, day to day. If church leaders at the top appear to not really be listening to the average membership’s concerns. If church leaders only appear to be talking to but never really carefully listening to its members, or more expansively, if they always shut down debate, rather than consider critical complaints, the culture can start to appear oppressive and tyrannical.

Does Sam Young Deserve a Conversation with Church Leadership

First of all, it appears that Sam Young has been in conversation with local leadership. I’m not sure they have changed their practices at a local level to adhere to Young’s suggestions. I think there is plenty of room for bishops at the local level to do that without contradicting church policy. Bishops should consult with parents before inviting children into an interview. They easily could encourage them to be a part of that interview.

However, local leadership have no power to change church policy. Sam Young’s criticism is directed toward Salt Lake City and changes to the policies he objects have to come from the very top. I understand that for the prophet to take time to directly address every critic in individual conversations would be unsustainable and could distract from their core duties to lead the church.

But certainly, some amount of engagement here could be extremely useful. The secular world may have a few things to say about the efficacy of private one-on-one interviews between an adult and a teenager and the kinds of dangers and land-mines that might occur when someone untrained is navigating sensitive topics like sexuality with one still trying to understand and control hormones raging as they navigate puberty.

Thoughtful conversations can be revelatory experiences. However, I understand much of the secular world does not give sufficient space for revelation, a deep component of the driving force for Mormonism. How do you confront a data-driven argument with a God-inspired response? Sometimes God is in the data but not always.

These kinds of conversations can be landmines in-and-of themselves. Church leaders might look foolish to the best scientists in the secular world and still be correct, well, if you believe at all in the efficacy of revelation and a prophet’s ability to receive such.

Current Thoughts

I hate when someone is excommunicated for nearly any reason with the exception of predatory behavior. Apostasy is the one I have the most trouble with because someone who is otherwise faithful in every respect could be considered an apostate for having a disagreement over a single issue and that seems to be the case here.

In this case, I’d rather see the church in better communication with Sam Young, attempting to either convince him while also showing a good faith willingness to be convinced.

Jordan Peterson is fond of comparing God to the word, Logos. God is fundamentally in our thoughtful conversations. It’s in conversation we move toward wisdom. It’s through conversation we can achieve balance. I wish there were more conversation between the church and its critics. I think to achieve the balance between oppressive order and disruptive chaos, we need thoughtful conversation. It’s the most potent solution to the problems of hierarchies, but the church for understandable reasons more often than not seems to avoid them.





Mormon Revelation

Recently, the Mormon prophet, President Nelson made an announcement about the church’s name:

The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of the name He has revealed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have work before us to bring ourselves in harmony with His will. In recent weeks, various Church leaders and departments have initiated the necessary steps to do so. Additional information about this important matter will be made available in the coming months.

In the announcement President Nelson asks us to stop using the name Mormon when referring to the church or its members, preferring the official name, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” or “The Church of Jesus Christ” or notably, “the restored Church of Jesus Christ” as approved abbreviations. A lot has already been said about the practicality of this directive and so that’s not something I care to talk about here.

What’s more interesting to me is the revelatory nature of it, that “The Lord has impressed” upon President Nelson’s “mind the importance of the name He has revealed for His church…” It got me thinking about the nature of revelation.

In a previous post, I talked about what it means to disagree with prophets, using disagreement as a way to properly understand problematic parts of Mormon history. In that post I talked about revelation this way:

This is revelation. It’s raining down everywhere and the church only directly captures a portion of it. In fact, the more the church isolates itself from the world, the further away from God’s revelatory streams it gets.

I believe revelation takes work and not just on your knees, in prayer work, not just in your study wrestling with the scriptures work – but also out there in the world doing good kind of work and out there in conversation with all sorts of people type of work. It requires stepping out on as many limbs as possible, making mistakes, scraping knees, even causing a little unintentional pain. Revelation often happens most profoundly during our lowest moments, when we’ve been forced to our knees from failure after painful failure.

Revelatory Dead Ends

The church actually teaches the messy nature of revelation.

Elder Holland talks here about a time in his personal life when driving down a dirt road with his son, they hit a fork in the road. It was getting late and they were far away from civilization and so felt concerned enough to pray about which road to take. After the prayer, they both felt inspired to go right. After a few hundred feet, the road dead ends. Inspiration led them down the wrong road. They turned around and proceeded down the right one. Here, Elder Holland felt like they were inspired to make the wrong decision so they could feel more confident in going down the right road.

I think this is more common and more broadly applicable than we think. I believe revelation gets us down a path, sometimes the wrong path, but the point is to get us out of indecision, to feel confident enough to act even if in the action we mess up. It’s up to us to continuously stay in-tune to the good-intentioned wrong paths, to apologize and make up for our mistakes, giving us more confidence as we u-turn and move down better ones. This type of relationship with revelation requires faith, humility and the willingness to receive and accept criticism as our decisions come into conflict with broader society.

A Church in Constant Restoration

I find President Nelson’s suggested name “The Restored Church of Jesus Christ” notable because I’m not as sure that its an applicable description of the current church as it is. Rather I think it’s aspirational rather than descriptive. It’s what we hope we are rather than what we actually are.

President Uchtdorf taught this in his talk “Are you Sleeping Through the Restoration”?

Sometimes we think of the Restoration of the gospel as something that is complete, already behind us—

Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, he received priesthood keys, the Church was organized. In reality, the Restoration is an ongoing process; we are living in it right now. It includes “all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal,” and the “many great and important things” that “He will yet reveal.”2Brethren, the exciting developments of today are part of that long-foretold period of preparation that will culminate in the glorious Second Coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

In my interpretation, this means we are collectively, institutionally, still on the journey, still trying to figure things out, still closer to the beginning than the end. It means also we will continue to make mistakes.

Ok, maybe I will say a few things about the name change. I understand the impulse. Being a Mormon is specifically what and who we are. It’s how we are positioned in the world. When someone asks me what church I belong to, it’s cumbersome to use our full name and more often than not the person I’m talking to would not make the connection. When I say I’m Mormon, they know.

I think there’s something aspirational about our official name, however. Mormon ties us to a book, “The Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ” ties us to something we hope to embody – a gospel of truth, of love, of peace, of sanctification. It’s a gospel that encomposses everything and everbody. It’s something bigger than Mormonism or Catholicism or Hinduism or Buddhism, it’s something that can and should unite the whole world.

Importantly, it’s not something we can fully hold all by ourselves. It’s too big, but I appreciate the effort. And maybe that’s what revelation is all about, in the end, it’s job is to get us out the door and to make an effort. It’s the bold act of trying to be more than we ever can be. It’s about being Christian and not just Mormon.

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.

When You Disagree With a Prophet

Joseph-SmithMormonism is a church led by prophets, modeled after New Testament church of prophets, apostles, bishops and teachers and all the rest. Part of being a Mormon is to support the church, its hierarchy and the leadership. Basically, to follow the prophet. We have been taught since children, that following church leaders, staying in the boat, and all the rest, will bring with it protection against life’s storms. And we’re warned that if we disobey, we may lose out on God’s blessings. Scriptures are filled with stories of the woes of those who disobey prophetic warnings.

But here’s the deal, prophets are just people too.  It’s easy to glorify scriptural prophets in the ancient world, believing they are more in tune to God then the average person. But even here, they mess up. Jonah had to be swallowed by a whale  before fulfilling the mission God gave him. Peter, in the heat of the moment, denies Jesus three times. Then later, has to be convinced to share the good news of Christ’s message outside of his Jewish tribe.

With the proximity of time and place, it’s easier to find problems with our latter day Mormon prophets. Being a life-long Mormon, by far the two hardest issues to explain are that black people were kept from the priesthood and the temple up until 1978 when permission was finally granted, and that Joseph Smith implemented polygamy, a practice that continued until 1904.

Public pressure ultimately ended both practices. Stopping polygamy was a precondition for Utah to become a state. The church lifted the priesthood ban after years of both external and internal pressure and protest. As the church grew in predominantly black countries in Africa and South America, it simply couldn’t sustain leadership in these areas. And ultimately having to parse out who had black blood in their genealogy proved ultimately to be fundamentally problematic.  Finally, an important article written by a black Mormon scholar was the final nudge that got President Kimball on his knees to pray for a revelation to fix a decades-long problem.

Whenever someone I knew questioned my more dogmatic Mormon claims that, for example, I belonged to the one and only true church of God restored they could simply ask how God’s church could keep temple blessings from black people for so long? Or did God really command prophets to take multiple wives? Over the years, members have come up with various reasons to explain these practices – polygamy was part of the Old Testament church, the priesthood was available only to the Jews for centuries. So, who knows why God is so selective, really, but God has shown himself to be so. These reasons I recycled in the face of such criticisms, but never convincingly.

The problem fundamentally with these sorts of apologetic answers is that they assume the church gets these issues right. The presupposition here is that the priesthood ban was from God. I don’t believe this is true. I believe that the policy was inspired by an American church founded in the midst of a deeply racist nation. In 1830, slavery was still the law of the land, and the country was only decades away from the Civil War.

And then the nearly uniformly white church moved from New York, to Ohio, to Missouri, to Illinois before finally settling in Utah absorbing persecution along the way, but finally placing it in the far-reaches of the desert where they could organize and grow within the safe confines of a religious state largely isolated from the rest of the country. And even for most of the 20th century, Utah has remained a largely a white state controlled mostly by a white church.

Rather than defending this practice, it’s so much easier to understand it simply as a mistake. That racism lingers within American institutions is just an inevitably given its history. Let’s accept it, account for it, and learn from it. Importantly, the church has at various times had to be nudged in the right direction by society at large.

But this brings up a bigger, more important point. God’s revelations don’t just come from within the church. In Letters to a Young Mormon, Adam Miller put it this way:

God has been rushing to show us more of this strange world. You name it: fossils, black holes, x-rays, DNA, set theory, one-dimensional strings, Neanderthals, dark matter, brain imaging, big data, evolution, retroviruses, interplanetary travel, the Higgs boson, non-euclidean geometries, Mars rovers, etc. GodUsed to send us an occasional rain. Now the revelations come as a flood. We live in a postdiluvian world, and the rain falls harder every day.

This is revelation. It’s raining down everywhere and the church only directly captures a portion of it. In fact, the more the church isolates itself from the world, the further away from God’s revelatory streams it gets. Both the priesthood ban and polygamy germinated and grew in the churches early days, a time of segregation and isolation. Polygamy was introduced by Joseph Smith pre-Utah migration, but covertly, in secret. And ultimately the primary reason for Joseph Smith’s ultimate martyrdom and the saints resulting migration into Utah. Both practices were jettisoned as the church re-integrated. On both issues, God had moved the world ahead of the church and finally as the church finally came to terms with its place in the world, the church moved to catch up.

Coming to terms with the church’s historical prophetic mistakes puts a faithful member of the church in a quandary. How do you know whether current prophets are not making the similar mistakes now? If the prophet can’t be trusted to be correct conduits of God’s message what good are they then?

Remember, first, that yes, prophets make mistakes, but then so do all of us, egregious mistakes.  Like all the rest of us, Mormons can do crazy things when they go rogue. Which is why we need checks and balances. We need the power of personal conscience and personal revelation balanced by the revelations and wisdom embedded in institutions. We desperately need multiple competing institutions acting in tension with one another, competing and correcting the worst impulses within us individually and institutionally.

If we’re all imperfect and if God works in and through all that is good in the world, I think it behooves us to stay engaged, holding our own ideas with humility. Being willing to be correct ourselves and then when we make mistakes, apologizing and make amends.

In other words, we need each other, we need to be engaged, we need to be connected, we need to share our ideas but also listen to others. I believe in the messiness of an increasingly connected world, revelation and inspiration can exist, in the messiness and not apart from it.