Patterns Teach

What do patterns in Church practice and patterns in the stories we hear in Church teach us? I was thinking about this question recently after reading the #VisibleWomen series at the Exponent. The question of how patterns teach was brought to my mind because the whole series seems to be built on this idea. The purpose of the series is to make suggestions to Church leaders about ways that women could be made more visible in areas like Church art, in giving talks, and in conducting their own session of Conference. The subtitle explains the reason: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” The suggestion of this line is that patterns of practice in the Church like how infrequently women are portrayed, how rarely Heavenly Mother is mentioned, and how women aren’t even allowed to conduct their own Conference session, are conveying messages to women that are limiting their view of themselves.

I used to be a statistics teacher, and in that role, I often thought about how patterns can teach. One way the issue came up was when I used example data to teach my students about a statistical test. They would sometimes draw conclusions from irrelevant patterns in my examples. For example, if I illustrated use of a test using two examples, one where the data were temperatures in degrees Fahrenheit, and the other where the data were temperatures in degrees Celsius, students might conclude that the test could only be used when the data were temperatures, but not if they were shot put distances or cell phone provider preference ratings or rat body sizes or any other type of data. Or if the data I showed were all rounded to the nearest ten, students might conclude that the test could only be used with data that had been similarly rounded.

I’m not at all surprised that my students did this. People are great at finding and generalizing patterns. The upside of this is that it made teaching easier: students picked up on many real patterns in how different tests could be used without my ever having to state them explicitly. This generalizes far beyond the classroom. Much of what we learn (probably most of it) comes from observing patterns in what other people do, rather than from having people explicitly explain things to us.

What I tried to do with my students to avoid accidentally teaching things I didn’t intend to with irrelevant patterns was to vary the characteristics of my examples as much as possible to break up the incorrect patterns. For example, if I wanted to avoid conveying that a test could only be used for temperature data, I might show one example that used temperature data and another that used something completely different, like elephant tusk length data. If I wanted to avoid conveying that a test required values rounded to the nearest ten, I would show data where values were rounded at different points.

In case my statistics-related examples are too dense, here’s one that might be more straightforward. If I were teaching someone about parts of speech, and I introduced adjectives with the examples “orange,” “blue,” and “green,” it wouldn’t be surprising if the person I was teaching concluded that only colors qualified as adjectives. I would be better off using a set of examples that broke up the pattern I didn’t want to convey, so something like “orange,” “hairy,” and “difficult.”

Getting back to my opening question, there are many obvious patterns in what we do in the Church, and these patterns convey clear messages, even without anything being stated explicitly. I thought it might be interesting to list some of these patterns and briefly outline what they’re teaching. Many of them come not even from our practice but from the types of stories that are taught (in Conference, Church magazines, and in lesson manuals). Read More

Pitting Believers Against Unbelievers

The March 2015 Ensign includes a BYU-I devotional from Elder Dallin H. Oaks titled, “Stand as Witnesses of God,” which divides the world into believers and unbelievers. Oaks pulls no punches in critiquing the latter, using the term “anti-Christ” to describe atheists, and asserting that the Great and Abominable Church is “any philosophy or organization that opposes belief in God.” I find this framework to be troubling, and this characterization of atheists to be unfair.

Oaks isn’t sure that atheists really have moral standards. He is worried that “today many deny or doubt the existence of God and insist that all rules of behavior are man-made and can be accepted or rejected at will.” But this doesn’t necessarily follow. You can believe that rules are (human)-made without seeing them as something to be cavalierly rejected or accepted. You can still take ethics seriously. Oaks acknowledges that atheists are not necessarily moral relativists but raises the concern that “absolute standards not based on belief in God are difficult to explain.” The moral values of atheists are suspect, in other words, because he fails to find any persuasive reason for them. But unbelievers could make a similar move, critiquing believers by making the case that their moral principles are based on something imaginary and are therefore not to be trusted. I think we would all do well to acknowledge the ability of people to make genuine moral commitments regardless of their status as believers or unbelievers.

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Patriarchy and Agency

Agency is central to LDS theology. We fought a war in the pre-mortal existence to preserve it, and it is an essential part of becoming like God. For this reason, one of the aspects of patriarchy that I find most disturbing is the way in which it affects agency, particularly female agency.

To make sense of this assertion, I need to start with a discussion of the nature of freedom. Mormons as well as other moderns tend to have what is called in theology a Pelagian understanding of freedom, as advocated by the early fifth-century Christian thinker Pelagius in his ongoing dispute with the well-known theologian Augustine. For Pelagius, freedom means the absolute ability to choose good or evil. The will is neutral, un-inclined in either direction, and entirely autonomous. Although in reality all humans fall short, perfection is in fact within human reach—there is no reason why a human being could not in theory make all the right choices. Sin is external to the will, something we choose; it does not infect the will itself. Read More

Two Thoughts From an Ordained Woman

I play the piano for a small Methodist congregation on Sunday mornings. They meet in one of the oldest Methodist churches in the South, a small, lovely brick building in a sleepy old town. It is not large enough to house a pipe organ. The pastor, who interviewed, auditioned, and ultimately hired me, is a young, 40-something woman, recently ordained. She and her husband – he sits in the pews with their three children every Sunday – are fugitives from a much stricter Baptist tradition.

I took the job for purely practical reasons; I needed a form of income that was not too time consuming but would enable me to help support my family while writing my dissertation. Yet, increasingly as time passes, I find myself surprised at my weekly reactions – emotional, intellectual, and spiritual – to the experience of having a woman preside. Her sermons bring up ideas that refuse to leave my mind, and everywhere in her speech are inclusive metaphors of female experience. Although, of course, some of the basic teachings and traditions of Methodism are distinct from Mormonism – the examples below will make that obvious – the parallels are striking enough that, while listening to her, I feel I am beginning to develop a vision of what real female leadership from ordained women would look like in an LDS setting. Here are two examples from sermons that have remained with me: Read More