“Deep doctrine” is one of the phrases I most dislike in Mormonism. It’s usually used with reference to questions like the location of Kolob, the Lost Ten Tribes, the role of other planets in the Plan of Salvation, the characteristics of different phases of existence, the meaning of various symbols in the book of Revelation, and so on and so forth.
If people want to spend their time exploring such subjects, I have no objection. I have plenty of my own strange interests. What I dislike, however, is the framework in which these topics are “deeper” than more central teachings, or that they are for the spiritually sophisticated. “Deep” all too often gets used as a synonym for “esoteric.” And one might ask, all right then, what are the “shallow” doctrines? Faith, repentance, the atonement? Are those doctrines that you grasp before moving on to the more advanced ones? Something seems more than a little off in such a model. Continue reading
I’m eating Cheerios for breakfast, and contemplating the small plastic pill box sitting in front of me. Seven days of psychotropic magic. Unlike my evening meds, the morning ones are small and easy to swallow. But the thought crosses my mind, as it so often does—why am I doing this, exactly?
After too many of them, the hospitalizations start to blur together. Sparse double bedrooms with doors that you’re not allowed to shut. Showers that turn themselves off every minute or so, so that you have to keep pushing a button to keep them going. Rules against having anything sharp, against shoelaces, against pens, against personal electronic devices such as cell phones or laptops. That last one makes life particularly challenging. One or two payphones for the unit, with stiff competition and time limits. A common area with a television which, except during groups, is on almost constantly. If you aren’t all that fond of television, it’s likely to drive you crazy. Crazier, I mean. Continue reading
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.
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. Continue reading
I detest strawberries. I shudder when I see my sisters eating them by the handful, or chopping them up for their cereal. I pick them out of salad so as not to ruin the flavor of the other ingredients. And I am horrified when people waste perfectly good chocolate by slathering it on strawberries. Since I’m also not fond of raspberries or tomatoes, a friend once accused me of having a phobia of red fruits. This is demonstrably false, as I will cheerfully eat a cherry or a red delicious apple. But keep the strawberries far from me. Continue reading
In April 1971, President Spencer W. Kimball quoted some of the shocking proposals he had recently encountered. One unnamed church, he discovered, had “approved recommendation that homosexuality between consenting adults should no longer be a criminal offense. …” These are ugly voices, he warned.
In a news conference in January 2015, the LDS church announced that it was “publicly favoring laws and ordinances that protect LGBT people from discrimination in housing and employment.”
It’s been an interesting few decades. Continue reading
As a kid in primary, I was in awe of the bishop. He was the trusted authority figure, the one who knew how things should go. The awe faded somewhat as I became a teenager, but I still remained firmly convinced of his inspiration. If he felt that we needed a talk on morality (the code word for chastity), for example, it was because that was what God wanted. Full stop. To some degree, I saw church leaders as infallible.
The current situation with April Young Bennett, who had to choose between renewing her temple recommend and leaving up her posts on female ordination, brings up a troubling aspect of church governance: the extent to which local leaders can define apostasy. As anyone in the church can tell you, bishops and stake presidents can vary widely on a number of issues, and life in one stake can be quite different from life in another. I’m not saying that this is necessarily in and of itself a bad thing. But I do think it causes problems when it comes to particular issues, such as the way in which cases of apostasy are handled. Continue reading
This is a paper I wrote when I was just beginning my theological studies, titled “A Few Thoughts for Mormons on Approaching the Nicene Creed.” It was for a class on the Mystery of God. I thought it would be a fun follow-up to my most recent post. I’d probably come up at the subject a bit differently now, but it’s interesting to see how I was thinking about it when I was first grappling with the notion of the Trinity.
I do not know how many Mormons are familiar with the Nicene Creed, but those who are, I suspect, are likely to be more than a little wary of it. From an LDS point of view, it is perhaps easy to dismiss it as coming from an apostate Christianity, as reflecting too much theological formulating instead of plain and simple gospel truths. It is clearly outside the bounds of our tradition, reflecting a theology alien to us, and I am certainly not out to dispute that fact. Yet I wonder if we can nonetheless learn to better understand what it means to those who do accept it as basic doctrine, if we can engage the challenge of not merely viewing it as something faintly ridiculous but of attempting to appreciate the meaning it has for traditional Christianity. Continue reading
According to Nephi, many “plain and precious truths” were taken out of the Bible. When the question is posed in Gospel Doctrine as to what exactly these truths might be, people often bring up the nature of God. Other Christians have a completely confusing understanding of God, it is said, as opposed to our straightforward one. What is with this whole three-in-one Trinity, anyhow? This is perhaps the most common complaint I hear about mainstream Christianity—their understanding of God is far too complicated.
I agree that the Trinity is a difficult doctrine. However, I’m not persuaded that the LDS take on the Godhead is actually any clearer. Continue reading
Mormon feminists, like Christian feminists more broadly, are posed with the difficulty of making sense of the patriarchal aspects of a tradition which they believe to be inspired. One of the most challenging questions for both groups is this: if one is to reject particular aspects of the tradition (for example, female subordination), on what basis can such a rejection be made?
Some feminists have concluded that Christianity and patriarchy are too closely intertwined for them to be ever pulled apart, and have therefore abandoned Christianity. (Interestingly, a similar assumption is made by those conservatives who see Christianity as inherently patriarchal, and therefore argue that real Christians must abandon feminism). However, a number of others have proposed ways to maintain serious commitments to both Christianity and feminism, looking for creative ways of negotiating the tensions. Some propose drawing on contemporary experience, while others look to liberating elements within the tradition. And in an LDS context, I would add the approach of drawing on personal revelation. Continue reading
A sacrament meeting talk I gave this year
“Fear not,” says the angel to the shepherds, in the familiar words of Christmas Eve: “for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” Put another way, grace has broken into the world.
“Fear not,” begins the angelic message. Rather, we are called to have faith—to be open to the word of God. “In the face of [Christmas],” writes the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, “we bravely open our hearts so that it may also happen to us and through us.” This offer of grace in some sense constitutes us as human beings—to be human is to be confronted by the sometimes disconcerting and disorienting love of God. We can run from this, or we can take the risk of faith. In refusing to close ourselves off from love and from life, we emulate a passible God, who is likewise open to us, and we emulate Christ, who came to experience life fully. And the message of Christmas is that ultimately, we have nothing to fear: God’s goodness and love can be trusted. Continue reading
In his popular book Believing Christ, Stephen Robinson relates a parable which at least in my experience has become quite influential in LDS discussions of grace. In this story, Robinson’s young daughter asks if she can have a bicycle. Robinson replies, save your pennies until you have enough. Some time later, he discovers that his daughter has diligently followed his instructions, and has managed to save all of sixty-one cents. They go to look at bicycles, but his daughter is devastated to realize just how much more the bicycle costs than she is able to contribute. Robinson, however, tells her that if she gives all that she has, he will pay the rest, and he purchases the bicycle.
The parallels here are fairly obvious. We cannot achieve salvation on our own—but we are still required to contribute however much we can, no matter small it may be. In this approach, 2 Nephi 25:23—“it is by grace that we are saved after all we can do”—describes a situation in which we do what we can, we contribute what we have, and grace makes up the (vast) difference.
I think this parable has good to offer, particularly in its stress that we are not expected to do more than we can, and its focus on Christ’s ability to save us. In this, it serves as an important corrective to an over-emphasis on works. However, I have some serious reservations about it. Continue reading
The classic formulation is of the problem of evil is that (1) God is all-powerful, (2) God is good, and (3) evil exists. How is it possible that (3) is the case if both (1) and (2) are true? Mormons, I think, tend to question (1), to posit a God who is not all-powerful, and to emphasize that humans have genuine agency and God rarely appears to override it. (Some also seem to move in the direction of questioning (3), saying things like “everything happens for a reason” or framing everything, including the negatives of life, as engineered by God, and thus essentially making evil illusory. I think this is hugely problematic, but that’s a tangent.)
I’m generally sympathetic to the move to make divine omnipotence limited (whether inherently, or because God chooses to make space for agency.) But here I want to consider the question in a context I find particularly challenging: the church. How do we make sense of it that God seems to be allowing all kinds of problems in the church? Just to clarify, I’m not talking about the kind of problems that arise in any human community, as flawed people with different temperaments and opinions do their best to work together. I’m talking about problems in the structure, in teachings and practices, in the scriptures and prophetic statements—the things that, if you take the church at its word, God is directly engineering. Continue reading
I’ve recently come across the troubling accusation that LDS feminists deny the atonement, expressed both in this post, and in comments in various places. A few thoughts in response.
First of all, I note that this discussion primarily focuses on negative encounters with individuals. LDS feminists are upset, it is so often assumed, because they’ve had negative experiences with priesthood holders. Obviously, this happens. But two points about this:
1) There are so, so many ways you can encounter painful aspects of the church—in scriptures where females barely appear, in a prohibition on prayer to Heavenly Mother, in temple covenants which differ by gender, in the historical and possibly eternal practice of polygamy, in the denial of priesthood to women, in the depressing fact that women are an “auxiliary” and not ecclesiastically necessary. The problems are much deeper than simply having a bad experience with one’s bishop.
2) Negative encounters with priesthood leaders always take place within a broader setting of structural inequality. They wouldn’t be nearly so fraught if this weren’t the case.
I don’t remember where I was when I first heard about the September Six. However, I do know that I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I read about it obsessively, trying to make sense of what was happening with my church. But there was only so much to read. There was no internet, no friends posting on Facebook, no storm of blog posts. I was just starting my freshman year at BYU, and leaving the church didn’t feel like a viable option. I don’t think I even really wanted to leave. But I felt like I had nowhere to go to process the anger and disillusionment I was feeling.
When I read the first NYT article about Mormons facing church discipline, by contrast, I immediately starting texting and emailing friends, who shared the shock and outrage that I was feeling. I’m finding it impossible to keep up with even a fraction of the online discussion. At church on Sunday, I skipped Sunday School with a couple of friends to discuss the situation.
And I’ve been thinking a lot about communities. Continue reading
“How infinite that wisdom,
The plan of holiness,
That made salvation perfect
And veiled the Lord in flesh,
To walk upon his footstool
And be like man, almost,
In his exalted station,
And die, or all was lost.”
W.W. Phelps, “O God the Eternal Father,” Hymns 175
Theologians often distinguish between a “high christology” and a “low christology.” The former emphasizes Jesus’ divinity. It is called “high” because it begins with Jesus as God, and looks at his descent to earth. A “low christology” on the other hand, is primarily interested in Jesus as a human being, in his mortal experience. The two approaches are not seen as being in conflict; they simply have differing emphases.
Latter-day Saints, I think, tend to talk about Jesus with a “high christology” orientation. We strongly emphasize his divinity. I do not think this is in and of itself a bad thing. However, the danger of focusing too much on this is that it can leave one with the impression that Jesus wasn’t really quite human, as can be seen in phrases like the one in the hymn I’ve quoted above: “to be like man, almost.” This leads to several problems. Continue reading
I worry about posting this. I know it can be a touchy topic, and I don’t want to be the elephant carelessly stomping around and offending people right and left. So if I’m doing that, then tell me. Really. Then I’ll know what to do better next time.
I’m not a convert. I know, I know, “everyone’s a convert.” But really, I’m not. It’s not that I’ve just stayed in the Church because I was raised in it, and never engaged in any kind of thought for myself, as some are quick to assume. But quite frankly, I have no idea what it would be like to be a member of a different religious tradition, or none at all, and then switch to Mormonism, and I don’t think I should pretend that I really understand the experience. I have plenty of admiration for those who do it—one of my professors in grad school was an expert on conversion, and one of the things he always said is that we ought to have a lot of respect for converts to any faith, because it’s an immensely challenging life transition. But it’s something foreign to me. Continue reading
Notes from a train trip from Emeryville, CA to Indianapolis, IN
10 April 2014
Central Time, now, as we’re in Nebraska. I fell asleep around 11:00, and while it hasn’t been continuous sleep, at least it’s been some. But I’m awake enough at the moment that I decided to get up for a while. I can tell we’re going pretty fast, because it’s harder than usual to type, as the train is jerkier than usual.
Given my tendencies toward depression, it’s generally not a good idea for me to have too much time alone to just think—I’m likely to think myself into a dark place. But there’s something magical about trains for me. It’s easier to resist that lure. It’s easier to stay in the present. I know what my therapist would say: it’s not actually magic. It’s that I’ve made a particular association; that I’ve invested the train with this meaning, with this power. But I still maintain that it’s a little bit magical. Continue reading