24 September 2007

My take on the "Inoculation" debate

To know what the debate is about, you'll want to read/listen to the following:
Sorting Out Inoculation at Mormon Mentality
and the podcasts #12 and #13-15 over at Mormon Matters.

For those not willing to invest a couple of hours to get into the whole debate, I'll try to give you the gist of the argument in a few short sentences.

- There are some weird, bad, potentially-faith-damaging things in Mormon history/doctrine, especially when they are introduced or explained by someone who is not a believer and/or is not sympathetic to the Church's history and/or truth claims.
- The Church currently and historically has done a poor job of explaining its own doctrine and history to members (and in some cases, may actively conceal it) in a way that prepares them for eventually finding it and being shaken by it.
- It would therefore be better for the Church to "inoculate" the Saints by giving warts-and-all history and explaining all the weird and difficult doctrines clearly, in order to reduce the shock and disillusionment that comes when one learns of this through an independent and unfriendly source.
(Incidentally, if you want a more general view of Social Inoculation Theory, see this page.

First of all, let me say that while I totally understand the idea of the term inoculation to describe what the result should be, I agree with the poster over at Mormon Mentality that the inoculation metaphor is incorrectly applied. Inoculation in the biological/medical sense means deliberate "infection" (hard to avoid such polemical terms) with a weaker version of a disease, in order to prevent infection with a truly virulent form of a pathogen. What some folks are advocating is hitting members will the full dose of the Truth, which should prevent them from being infected with other, more virulent mutations, of the "Truth". I'm a lawyer, not a doctor, so I don't know what this is called. But hitting members with a weaker/tidier/incomplete version of the Truth is what the Church is already doing. And it is not having the effect to prevent members from becoming disillusioned when difficult matters of faith and history arise. It may abate curiosity for a time, but many come to possess the uncomfortable information not due to curiosity, but because of contact with other people.

One school of thought among the GAs regarding the "inoculation" of Church members is that of Boyd K. Packer that "all truths are not necessarily useful." As a matter of theory, I agree. Knowing about the Mountain Meadows Massacre or about Joseph Smith's plural wives does not inspire faith in or allegiance to the Church.

But as a premise for how instruction in doctrinal and historical matters should be done, I cannot. for me, it boils down to a single question: Does the Spirit testify of Truth or of Utility? If the Spirit does indeed testify of Truth, "things as they really are", (which I believe that it does) then it will not testify of a convenient untruth. If we insist and focus upon members obtaining a witness of the Spirit, the only reasonable and viable choice ought to be to teach the Truth and not the Convenient, warts and all.

23 September 2007

Does BYU create doctrine?

This post comes from an idea I have had floating around for some time now. In fact, I wish I had posted on it sooner, when the ideas were fresher. In part, it comes out of the experience of my wife teaching in the Department of Religious Studies at BYU.

The argument that I intend to lay out is that, contrary to the prerogatives of latter-day scripture, the true doctrine-making institution of the Church is not the First Presidency or the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, it is the faculty of the BYU religion department, and more broadly of the Church Educational System. Disclaimer #1- I am not stating that this as being my ideal situation (it is emphatically NOT), simply that it is empirically true.
Disclaimer #2- I realize that I am overstating my case a little here, and it is intended to be somewhat hyperbolic. However, I would not waste my time on such a long post if I did not think there was some truth to it.

Key assumption (which underlies this entire argument)- the doctrine that really counts is the doctrine "on the ground" (what gets talked about in Church on Sunday and lived out daily in the lives of members) and not some Platonic ideal of doctrine that appears in official Church manuals.

First premise: The great doctrinal era of the Church is OVER.
Perhaps I should state that it a more tentative fashion...based on recent experience, the great doctrinal era of the Church appears to be over (I leave open the possibility that a new revelatory period could break open at any moment). Now I say this as someone who fully believes that the General Authorities of the Church are divinely inspired to guide the LDS Church. Nevertheless, the dramatic world-shaking revelations of Joseph Smith, etc. are not part of our contemporary spiritual experience as members of the Church. Whatever doctrine is being made in the Church today are merely tweaks of existing principles or assertions of principles that are generally uncontroversial among LDS or in the world. Joseph Smith built the house, we are merely moving the furniture around.

Second premise: No one has a greater amount, degree, and depth of access to the repositories of doctrinal knowledge within Latter-day Saints at a time when doctrinal ideas are being formulated and stored than professors at BYU or the faculty of CES.
For the most part, the average Church member's engagement with General Authorities consists of the following: 16 hours a year (General Conference) and a couple of articles from the Ensign. But looking back at the first premise, many of these articles and GC talks are not doctrinal in nature, or at least only weakly so. Also, at a time when members are truly paying attention in GC or reading the Ensign regularly, many notions of doctrine have already been solidified.
BYU professors and CES faculty have far greater access to LDS youth in the high school and college age. Doctrine and interpretations of scripture are, in fact, taught in Seminary, Institute, and throughout the BYU Religion Department (classes in which are required for one to graduate from BYU). Students emerging from these classes will take from them knowledge about the scriptures and the doctrine of the Church that they will reproduce in official settings throughout the rest of their lives (this is really the evidence of the premise, rather than a part of it). In addition, these individuals write a great deal of the doctrinal material on-sale at stores like Deseret Book. While one might claim that most LDS get their doctrinal ideas in Sunday School or Priesthood, chances are that your teacher went to BYU, has attended CES, or got some of the ideas that you are being taught from materials produced by one of those sources.

Example- How many people do you know who claim to have gained a fuller understanding of the Atonement because of Stephen Robinson's "Believing Christ"?

I lump CES and the BYU Religion Department together for a reason. As a purely org chart matter, I do not believe that they are the same thing. Presumably, the head of BYU Religion Dept. reports to the President of BYU, or something like that, who reports to someone on the Church Education Committee, another member of which is the head of CES. This would indicate parallel lines of communication and authority. However, Terry Ball, the current Dean of Religious Education, is a CES trainee. His elevation to the Deanship was orchestrated by another CES alum, Boyd K. Packer. I don't actually believe that CES is some Gadianton-robber-like conspiracy, a secret combination bent on controlling the whole Church through false doctrine. Rather, I merely point out that CES represents and perpetuates a certain conservative brand of Mormon doctrine, one with which not all LDS resonate or feel comfortable.

So my argument basically boils down to the following: there is currently a doctrine-making void in the Church (due to a lack of official doctrinal exposition), and CES and BYU have been both willing and able to step in to fill it. They have the resources and access to perpetuate their particular view of the doctrine of the Church, and have and continue to do so.

Related to this matter, but too large a topic for me to address, is the age-old question of "What is Mormon doctrine? Where do I find it?" The fact that the answers to these questions are uncertain gives CES and BYU even greater latitude to step to the fore and proclaim that they have the answers we seek.

21 September 2007

More delays

Sorry I haven't posted anything around these parts in a little while. It has been a hectic week. For one, I taught Seminary this week (I was substituting for a friend of mine who has the calling). Since I never went to Seminary in high school (I was not yet a member), I wanted to go the day before to check it out and see how it was done. All in all, it was a good experience. The kids seemed to like my lesson, but I think that might have something to do with the fact that they were scarfing down Krispy Kreme donuts and OJ at the same time. Anyway, that was two straight days of getting up at 5 am, and nobody should blog on such little rest.

So hopefully I will have something to post on Sunday afternoon. I already have at least two posts in mind: a review of Terryl Givens' new book, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture and an analysis of whether BYU profs are the real doctrine-makers in the Church.

11 September 2007

The vicious cycle of polygamy and anti-Mormonism

This semester, I am enrolled in a course in Family Law. Two weeks ago, we had an extensive discussion about polygamy (particularly in the FLDS context) and I became quite involved in it. A classmate of mine pointed out that too frequently, polygamy is immediately associated with Mormonism, while it is also practiced widely by neopagans (Wicca, etc.) and Muslims (though not in the US). I was thankful to him for that point, not only in recognizing that polygamy is not exclusively a Mormon "problem" but also for the fact that I was no longer the person in the room with the weirdest religion (he had previously confessed that he himself was a neo-pagan).

The reason I mention all this is that it got me thinking about how anger and ridicule over polygamy gets rolled into general anti-Mormonism. Anti-Mormonism did not begin with Joseph's practice of polygamy. The JS-H attests to this; but also there is some argument that Joseph's polygamous wives were not publicly known before his martyrdom, which was a direct result of anti-Mormonism. However, it is likewise indisputable that a large portion of anti-Mormonism in the late 19th and 20th centuries, even up until know, is based in the Church's previous practice of polygamy and the mistaken impression that it is still practiced among us. My impression is that the two (the larger anti-Mormon sentiment and the horror of polygamy) feed off of one another. If polygamy were no longer an issue, anti-Mormons would focus on something else. But many people who might be willing to let Mormons alone on many theological differences get very riled up about the Church's practice of polygamy.

I say this as someone who supports the 1st Amendment rights of polygamists to practice their religious beliefs. I understand that polygamy (particularly as practiced by FLDS) has many attendant evils, e.g. the "Lost Boys", sexual abuse, incest, etc. However, a blanket prohibition on polygamy is too blunt an instrument to deal with these issues. Nor would I be against polygamists who entered into plural marriage for purely secular reasons or simply as a matter of preference. I do not say this as a Mormon, and therefore predisposed to sympathize with polygamists, or as a liberal, and similarly predisposed to allow plurality of belief (and some would say sexual freedom). Rather I think the liberty-related imperatives of our Constitution show that previous laws or decisions that would prohibit polygamy were profoundly mistaken and un-American.

Apology for Mountain Meadows

For those who had not heard, the Church, through Elder Henry B. Eyring, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, issued an "apology" for the Mountain Meadows Massacre (hereinafter MMM). Some might gripe that the actual word apology or apologize is never used, and they would be right. However, the right sentiments and contrition are there. I hope that this will satisfy all the people who have hoped and waited for such an apology over many years. In my opinion, such an apology is long overdue. That there was complicity or responsibility for the MMM attributable to some Church members has not been in doubt (except among the most stubborn and closed-minded LDS) for many years now. It would have been better to come forward earlier when such an apology and acknowledgment of responsibility was not a foregone conclusion. Hopefully the healing can begin, both for the members of the Church who in their hearts have not recognized the capacity for evil in all men, even otherwise upstanding citizens and Mormons, and for the families and descendants of the victims, who may have held a grudge against the Church for too long now.

Also, I can't wait to get the new OUP book on MMM by Richard Turley, et al.

09 September 2007

Judges don't know Jesus (or Muhammed, or Buddha, or...)

In my other life, I'm a law student and therefore an aspiring lawyer. I am always interested in court cases that involve churches or religion, and even more so when it involves the LDS Church (see my posts from about a month or so ago). What I have noticed is an unfortunate fact that courts do an incredibly poor job of taking cognizance of religious doctrine and organization. Some people may say that a court has no business delving into a religion's doctrine and in many instances they would be correct. However, I can think of a couple of situations (including the OR Supreme Court case I discussed earlier) where it would be appropriate and necessary for a court to do so.

That being said, we, the Latter-day Saints, don't exactly make this easy on them. I have seen some pretty awkward citations of the standard works as proof of our doctrine, but we know that we don't believe everything in the scriptures and the scriptures don't contain everything we believe. What is a judge to do? Does the Prophet have to be put up on the stand or deposed out of court? Even then, we don't (or should not) make doctrine out of everything the Prophet says. A judge who is Mormon should clearly recuse himself/herself from any case involving the Church, so he/she would be little to no help. Supposedly unbiased and objective scholarship of the Church typically misapprehends the true form or substance of our beliefs as well, so it is an equally unreliable source. I guess my tentative conclusion is that we cannot expect to see any improvement in the treatment of religious doctrine in judicial opinions, because the sources are notoriously conflicted (even in our own hierarchical Church).

02 September 2007

A question of propriety

My uncle (mother's brother) died suddenly and unexpectedly over the weekend. I have not been asked to give a eulogy and do not expect to be. I am the only Mormon in my family (besides my wife) and my parents and assorted other relatives have been vocally anti-Mormon in the not-so-distant past.

If you were in my place, would you dare to use scriptures from the standard works other than the KJV Bible? I can think of many scriptures that would be both enlightening and uplifting at the time of a loved one's death that come out of the D&C and the BoM. Would you mention them in a hypothetical eulogy in a non-Mormon chapel?

My wife has also been asked to play the piano during the service. Could she use some LDS hymns that were appropriate to the occasion, but not found in the hymnal of my family's denomination?

In general, how much leeway do I have to use this as an opportunity to share the Gospel and when have I crossed the line and become tacky and even offensive?