The Mormon/Atheist Panel Discussion: April 16, 2014

Last night I attended the Mormon/Atheist panel discussion in Salt Lake City. This was a “warm-up” event for the American Atheist National Convention, which will be held this weekend at the Hilton Salt Lake Center targeted for closet atheists in the pews. The panel consisted of two Mormon historians, Professor J.B. Haws and Dr. Richard Holzapfel, and two atheist authors, David Silverman and ex-Mormon Joanne Hanks.

The best term I could think of to describe the event was a “beautiful disaster.”

I don’t mean to say that the experience wasn’t informative, well-spent, or tremendously intriguing. It was all of those, indeed. I only mean to convey how deliciously awkward it was to sit in a room that tried to dispel the myths and stereotypes surrounding each teams views, though ironically reinforced them due to the sound byte format of the discussion. It was “beautiful” (both sides tried to communicate and understand each other) but it was a “disaster” (everyone probably walked away unconvinced that real bridges were drawn, or myths expelled).  

Three things can be said about this.

First: I was among the 5% minority of theists in attendance draped in a menagerie of jeers and catcalls from the remaining atheistic 95%. It was actually amazing to feel the life pulse of team psychology at play on both ends. For example, anything that was seemingly or actually intelligently said by the atheistic panel led to an eruption of cheers and celebrations from the disbelieving majority. The small number of theists in these moments remained abysmally quiet. On the Mormon counter end, anything said that displayed the benefits of religion, its good practices and such, led to a few pathetic claps and whistles, enough to be drowned out by the majority silence. It was almost like watching a sport, a spectacle to see who’s team could amass more “told-you-so” points. I agree here with my friend Lincoln Cannon who tweeted a play-by-play of the event: “I’m tired of atheist self-congratulations for intelligence and religious self-congratulations for goodness.”

Second: There were two really awkward examples of how tapping into the pathos of your audience doesn’t really work to legitimately debunk your opponents’ position. The first came from Joanne Hanks, the ex-Mormon, who began her introduction by telling a story about when she joined a polygamy cult five years into her monogamous marriage. Addressing the females in the audience, she asked, “You hear your husband having sex with another woman downstairs and you have to tell yourself: “This is God’s will.” What would you do?” This, of course, is a very good question for a Mormon audience, regardless their standing. The way it was conveyed, however, implied that one instance of corruption (namely, her subjective experience) provided wholesale proof that all of Mormonism must be corrupt. Universal instantiations work in logic, not with people, let alone organizations.  

The second example came from J.B. Haws, who, when confronted with the question of what evidence is there for the man-in-the-clouds, responded with personal testimony akin to the non-sequitur sunset fallacy. “What I know is transcendent, though just because it’s difficult to describe doesn’t make it less real,” said Haws. Silverman pushed him on this issue, arguing not against Haws’ experience but against his interpretation of his experience. Seeing a beautiful sunset, basking in its awesomeness, and then concluding God’s existence is not a very helpful thing to say to an audience that so often likes to hijack the criteria for what counts as “evidence.”  It was painful to watch this line of testimony get smacked down with boos and brays.

Third: “A debate seeks victory, a discussion seeks understanding.” This was the mantra of the evening, though I’m not so sure it was accomplished. With all the heckling from the audience, it was difficult to authentically engage the content of what was being said. There were, however, a lot of really good, thought-provoking questions raised: Is it possible to be moral without God? Do symbolic proxy baptisms do damage to the non-believing living? How much money do Mormons actually pay to non-LDS charity funds? Can organizations be held responsible for individual choices that are bad? Is there such a thing as a nice atheist? A moral one? If it’s not a Mormon ideal to shun, why do so many people feel like they do? Why won’t Mormons allow atheistic billboards to be displayed along the I-15? Mormons say their beliefs are inclusive of everyone, so why then the image of being exclusive towards gays, feminists, atheists, ex-Mormons, etc.? Do the majority of Mormons really know their history? If so, how can the select few who do actually stay? Can the Mormon Church still do good without having 200k chandeliers in their temples?

Overall, I’m happy this discussion happened. Though far from ideal, it was beautiful to see two opposing teams come together and try to give flesh to an ancient theme, to let the lion lie down with the lamb. We have a long way to go before this can happen. We must first understand what it means to be human. And then, we must come to terms with what our conclusions tell us. We must follow the patterns, discern the trails, embrace a compassionate vision, and see what all this implies for what it might mean to be “divine.”

Let the conversation continue!


More On “Noah”

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I’ve decided to explore just a wee bit further some of the brazen reviews/comments that have been made about this film, most of which have revealed a remarkable pattern among the religious right, who slam the film, and the secular left, who praise it. One religious-conservative blogger called it “a tale that entirely perverts the nature of God,” another wished that it “should have come as close as possible to the actual written story.” Glenn Beck went as far to call the story “anti-human, and I mean strongly anti-human.” Then there’s the moderate left drawing the conclusion that for a fallen, cynical world “Christians should appreciate [this film for its] positive portrayal of the concept of spirituality.” Other leftists say that it “takes Genesis seriously as a text worth reading carefully and thinking about deeply in its own right.”

What is happening here?

Is this just another case of rigid posture reacting against a book-to-film adaptation, one that wildly dismisses fan expectations and opts for its own self-indulgent interpretation? Or does Aronofsky somehow, informed by his own culturally Jewish childhood, seem familiar enough with the spirit of this story to perform his own midrashic retelling?

This is a film, I believe, that does not allow the religious orthodox to default moral responsibility to an ancient book; but it also does not serve an anti-religious agenda bent on removing a higher power from our existence. It very much reflects its own tension found in our current culture wars: How do we interpret the signs around us that point and give meaning to our lives? As the Internet has been replete to show, some will be prone to strict interpretation, others loose, while others still radical but often less understood will transcend the signs.

Glenn Beck may ironically have a point (despite his not seeing the film) in calling this film “anti-human” in that it does not support wasted living as a summit for human flourishing, though it cannot be denied that the importance of children and families in this film acts as the most divine sign, even if revealed to its characters painfully piecemeal. As one reviewer put it, “This film insists on the importance of having children…there must be families.”

It takes a while for Noah to receive this revelation. Through this very powerful concept of not immediately grasping his Maker’s plan, but trusting that it will reveal purpose in time, Aronofsky’s portrayal of a prophet receives the gravitas needed to dispel the mistaken belief that prophets are somehow immune to the pain, growth, burden and responsibility of making moral choices.

Aronofsky does not offer us cartoonish, Sunday school comfort, but challenges us to dig deeper into the spirit of the scriptures. Sure, the Noah depicted in the bible does not try to unflinchingly murder his family in order to fulfill the will of God, but does not the spirit of this Abrahamic obedience ring true to other biblical accounts perhaps not so cut and dry? The dangers of religion are revealed in these moments, again showing how religion cannot be exonerated completely if it is to be fulfilled faithfully.

The truths about this film are manifold, but one in particular is to not buy into the literalist trap of refusing to see beyond the signs to which the signs themselves point. It is inherently Jewish (by which I mean biblically stubborn) to get stuck up on the external forms of this film, as manifest in the reviews I’ve read that cannot seem to grasp the power of myth, nuance, and expressionism. We are missing the point, in other words, if our discourse does not move beyond rock monsters, paired animals, and environmentalist rhetoric.

For a film written and directed by a self-proclaimed atheist, calling it “the least biblical film ever made,” he’s probably right. This isn’t a biblical film—it doesn’t conform to most, if at all any, of the biblical trappings impaired on its meaning since the crucifixion of Christ. It doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers to life’s greatest questions and values. It doesn’t bask in its certainty but trusts in its ambiguity. The divine will speak to us in ways we can understand, even if we err along the way. And through err, forgiveness. Through err, repentance. New beginnings. Rainbows and flowers—signs of rebirth and renewal, chances to get things right. This all sounds sentimentally boorish and trite, though rarely earned or realized in the wake of a corrupt and fallen world.


Is Going To Church Our Religion?

“Two or three angels

Came near to the earth.

They saw a fat church.

Little black streams of people

Came and went in continually.

And the angels were puzzled

To know why the people went thus,

And why they stayed so long within.”

Steven Crane, “Two or Three Angels”


I follow suit with Bonner Ritchie and ask, “Where should we be at 9am on a Sunday morning?” If the answer is always emphatically, “At a church meeting,” we probably have defaulted our responsibility. This is not to suggest that being at a church meeting is without its merit, only that if we never have anything better to do we probably are not thinking and are not taking “responsibility of choosing to go for a good reason.”

Is going to a church meeting really “doing” religion anyway? The apostle James taught us: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”

Of course, the new age sensibility has almost complete disdain for organized religion yet nevertheless sustains an energetic enthusiasm for spirituality. This seems to spring from the lyrical expression of William Blake, who suggested that “God might be better found in the solitary contemplation of nature than in the crowded pews of churches” (Givens). I get this. I do. It’s attractiveness is found in removing the friction inherent in communal sites, meant to wear down our rough edges, socialize, reshape and care for us, as Durkheim suggested, who, “if if left to [our] own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal and selfish pleasures.”

But there are also risks to consider, one being to use the organization, the religion, as a default mechanism to absolve the responsibility, the burden, the pain, and most assuredly the growth of making real moral decisions.

The desire, expressed by Sartre, is to transcend the curse to be free by asking what role should the organization, the religion play in our lives if we should not abrogate our choices to sages?

This is a great question, wholly paradoxical. It implies such rich tension that is natural to our desires to be liberated, unique and unbounded, yet equally loyal, committed and bound in loving ties to others, and to discover how we fit into what Paul called the “body of Christ,” or what others have suggested as The New Jerusalem, the General Assembly and Church of the First Born, or, as in the prophecy of Enoch, Zion. As Terryl Givens suggests, “There are no Zion individuals. There is only a Zion community.” 


owensjanet said: Have you read Matt Walsh’s review of the movie [Noah]?

Yes. His criticism was too easy, too surface, a conservative tone on the theological spectrum that makes him appear like a biblical literalist, which isn’t flattering. This same fundamentalist attitude, which is characteristic of a low tolerance for ambiguity, represents the kind of thinking that atheists love to hate. To call this film “a tale that entirely perverts the nature of God” is to ascribe clear-cut, uniform answers to a story that is not so clear-cut and uniform (and probably was never intended to be). To believe otherwise is to admit a lack of imagination—it is a failure to see beyond the Symbol the mighty reality for which the Symbol stands. 


We Believe All that God Has Revealed…

I have been convinced at times in my life that the most boring day of the week is Sunday. This has largely been a result of believing that the most boring place to be is a sacrament meeting. I remember hearing a quote in my institute class once from the late Hugh Nibley who said something to the effect: “In order to be a good Latter-day Saint you need to have an infinite capacity for boredom”—which, I think, humorously holds some truth, but for reasons that I think should not be true. Put differently: True, honest discipleship does not afford us the chance to ever get bored. And the reason for that, I believe, is found in the reflective margins of the ninth article of faith, which will be the basis of this post today. 

“We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”

For me this article of faith reveals one of the more fascinating paradoxes of Mormonism. The nature of this paradox goes as follows: We believe in continuing revelation. Because we believe in continuing revelation it seems that we cannot have a theology that is any more than provisional, or temporary, because to claim otherwise is to claim that we’ve reached a plateau, a conceptual end, a spiritual license to cease from asking, knocking, and seeking. To claim that our doctrine, in other words, is absolute and immune to change, has no need for further clarification and articulation, and represents the final, inalterable word of God seems to establish what in sectarian language we call a “creed.” And creeds, by their very nature, cannot be trumped by further light and knowledge, but also, incidentally, from the perspective of the prophet Joseph Smith, were not looked favorably upon. Joseph himself taught:

“The creeds set up stakes and say hitherto shalt thou come, and no further—which I cannot subscribe to…I want the liberty to believe as I please, it feels so good not to be trammeled. 

Our founding prophet believed that creeds fixed limits on human ingenuity and closed the doors for truth and further light and knowledge to spring from any source, regardless the label. The astounding paradox here, however, is that even Joseph would soon come to learn that this sort of untrammeled, unbounded freedom that he wanted the Saints to experience and enjoy had to be regulated and ordered within a community of restraints, lest it spun wildly out of control. We can bring to mind here several examples from church history. The first being the extravagant behavior of people possessed by spirits at the camp meetings that Joseph attended. These were people who exhibited uncontrolled, pseudo-spiritual emotions, believing themselves in possession of divine revelation, yet were neither edifying nor enlightening to those participating. The second example we can consider is Hiram Page, who, like Joseph, was also receiving revelations from a seer stone, yet, according the historical account, was receiving revelations “that were at variance with the order of God’s house, as laid down in the New Testament.”

Suddenly Joseph is faced with a very challenging question: He wanted at one point for everyone to voice scripture and see God. Though without procedures, without order, leadership and law, the question would remain how he could avoid the pitfalls of other charismatic religions that did not circumscribe boundaries for human expression. And would differences of opinions about what counts as divine revelation oblige him to then tolerate a diversity of views indefinitely? Well, according to Joseph the answer was no. There had to be a single spokesmen divinely appointed whose amplification of authority at the center would in turn amplify and energize the authority of the entire congregation. And that is a wonderfully fascinating and unique paradox to consider because while the structure of the church from an outsider’s perspective may look like tyranny or despotism, from an insider’s perspective looks like ordered benevolence—the kind that means to empower each of us individually, as well as collectively. To get a taste for how rich this paradox is, consider a passage here from Richard Bushman, a reputable and faithful church historian who wrote the following:

“Revelation meant freedom to Joseph, freedom to expand his mind through time and space, seeking truth wherever it might be. But [Joseph also had] a desire for order [to] balance the freeing impulse. By licensing his followers to speak with the Holy Ghost, he risked having the whole movement spin out of control. Against the centrifugal force of individual revelation, Joseph continually organized and regulated. Though he was the chief visionary of the age, he showed little sympathy for the extravagant behavior of people possessed by spirits. He preferred edification and orderly worship to the uncontrolled emotions of the camp meeting…[This] balance between freedom and control makes it difficult to keep Mormonism in focus. Was it authoritarian or anarchic, disciplined or unbounded?”

That is a really good question because it addresses the tension in our midst for an open cannon, and by implication continued revelation, yet also our need for stakes, order and authority, all which can be seen in the prophet Joseph as he was often torn between the impulse to obliterate the creeds yet equally sanction them within a legalistic vocabulary of authority, priesthood, laws, and ordinances. These outward manifestations, which are believed to be eternal and unchanging, are what give our religion its life-pulse, its structure, its feelings of safety and superiority, but they are also what behave as great stumbling blocks for those who have suffered authoritative abuse in organized religious settings.

I would like to shift gears a bit and focus on this tension inherent in revealed religion and what it implies for how we as members of the church interpret revealed doctrine in the light of our continual need to clarify and expound what has already been given. And I would like to provide some suggestions on how we can be anxiously engaged in this latter-day work by performing what is probably the most oft repeated phrase in the New Testament: “to ask, knock, and seek” revelation for ourselves, as well as our families. 

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught:

“I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them…fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions: they cannot stand the fire at all.”

Something that really astounds me about this quote is to consider Joseph’s audience—he’s speaking specifically about members of the church who, because of their “traditions,” or perhaps rigid posture towards interpreting doctrine, immediately “fly to pieces like glass” whenever new revelation, new articulation, or new clarification is given to what has already been established. I think there’s some truth to that. I think sometimes we as members are perhaps too comfortable in our traditions. It was Harold B. Lee who taught that “the true Church is intended not only to comfort the afflicted, but to afflict the comfortable.” I’ve had friends of mine tell me that because we live in the “dispensation of the fullness of times,” and that because we belong to “the one and only true and living church,” that this must unequivocally mean that our quest for truth and understanding can come to an end. They’ve said things to me like, “We have it all right here in the standard works,” an attitude that seems to say: “A Quad! A Quad! We have got a Quad, and there cannot be any more Quad.” This is somewhat of an ironic attitude because as Bushman points out, “The Book of Mormon prepares the way for itself by ridiculing those who think the Bible is sufficient,” but it also warns against anyone who restricts God in the present from speaking anywhere and anytime, even if His voice appears at times to go against the grain of rigid orthodoxy (2Nephi 29).

Neal A. Maxwell has warned that “such members move out a few hundred yards from the entrance of the straight and narrow path…thinking, “Well, this is all there is to it” and they end up living far below their possibilities.” The belief that our search for truth can come to an end because we think we already possess all the truths pertinent to our salvation is, I believe, one of the more subtle and carnally secure attitudes that lulls us into the mistaken belief that “all is well in Zion.” It is to incorrectly believe 1). We already understand fully what has been given, and 2). That we need not educate ourselves beyond the standard works despite the Lord’s mandate to “seek out the best books” and to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:70, 74, 77-80). This pacified attitude has been rightfully called “the myth of the unruffled Mormon,” and Frances Menlove describes this myth as follows:

“This myth [of the unruffled Mormon is] simply the commonly held picture of the Mormon as a complete, integrated personality, untroubled by the doubts and uncertainties that plague the Protestant and oblivious to the painful searching and probing of the non-believer. The Mormon is taught from Primary on up that he, unlike his non-Mormon friends, knows with absolute certainty the answers to the [thorniest] problems of existence, that in fact his search has come to an end, and that his main task in life is to present these truths to others so that they too may end their quests.”

I think there is enough scriptural precedent for us to be suspect of this attitude. I’ve mentioned two here already, specifically how the Lord’s calls us to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith,” to “seek out the best books words of wisdom”…”that we may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine…in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God…of things both in heaven and in the earth…things which have been, things which are at home, things which are abroad…a knowledge also of countries and kingdoms—that ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you” (D&C 88:70, 74, 77-80).

Surely, then, if we are to be prepared to serve in the church at our highest capacity, we have our work cut out for us! And while we are in possession of distinctive and sacred truths, we should never feel as though we’ve arrived at a spiritual plateau, or that we’ve figured everything out, or that we should be afraid to ask questions—even tough ones. For me personally, I believe we should study and teach truths in our lessons that are in harmony with gospel principles, even if those truths fall outside of the purview of the standard works. I take the lead here from Joseph Smith who taught that “one of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” He taught us that Latter-day Saints “are ready to believe [and teach] all true principles that exist,” regardless the source. Brigham Young further confirmed this principle when he taught that “Mormonism embraces every principle [of truth], for time and all eternity. No matter who has it. If the infidel has got truth it belongs to Mormonism…Such a plan incorporates every system of true doctrine…whether it be ecclesiastical, moral, philosophical, or civil…[and it is our duty] to gather up all the truths…wherever they may be found in every nation, kindred, tongue and people, and to bring [them] to Zion.”

Imagine, then, these two principles at play in our gospel doctrine, priesthood and relief society classes: 1). That we be not afraid to ask, knock, and seek after revelation found in “the best books” and in “words of wisdom,” whether secular or non-secular, insomuch that we, like Nephi, can liken the message within a gospel framework in order to augment what has already been established in the standard works. As Eugene England has taught: “The whole point of our message to the world is to add, to provide, on the basis of modern, [personal] revelation, additional, clarifying concepts, new witnesses that will increase and expand others’ faith in Christ.” 2). To never believe that the final interpretation, or final clarification has been given on what has been revealed, for as the apostle Bruce McConkie has taught: “The last word has not been spoken on any subject, [doctrine included]” and “there are more things we do not know about the doctrines of salvation than there are things we do know.”

I am very much of the B.H. Roberts persuasion that the very fact our church insists on continuing revelation means that we will not be merely content to accept as true whatever is printed in a book or delivered from a pulpit; as Roberts himself says, we “will not be content with merely repeating some of its truths, but will develop its truths; and enlarge it by that development…[we will] depart from mere repetition [and] will cast [the doctrines of the church] into new formulas; cooperating in the works of the Spirit, until they help give to the truths received a more forceful expression, and carry it beyond the earlier and cruder stages of its development.”

One thing that is very exciting for me about these ideas is that we live in a church that encourages us to tenaciously seek after revelation. And while there certainly has been, like Truman Madsen has rightly pointed out, “unlicensed and irresponsible speculation” done in the name of such continued revelation, and that we should be alerted against pursuing things in whom the apostle Paul said, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit,” there are, to the contrary, many mysteries which the scriptures call “the mysteries of godliness,” which are the deeper, richer things of our existence that I suspect the Prophet Joseph charged us to discover when he said: “I beseech you to go forward and search deeper and deeper into the mysteries of Godliness…”

I would like to close by sharing my own testimony on this path towards deeper meaning, deeper revelation, both for myself and also for my family. There are many that know me who will be the first to admit that my approach and methodology to studying and teaching the gospel isn’t always the most orthodox. I can be challenging at times, but hopefully my challenges have been served in a devotional and faith-promoting context. And while some reading this may not agree with every jot and tittle with what I’ve expressed, I hope you know that I am deeply committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is everything to me—as my wife can attest to you, it is basically the only thing that I know how to speak passionately about. And that passion has come from years of allowing the Holy Ghost to be my companion.

Jesus Christ is my Savior, but not in some nebulous, far-reaching way. The essence that I would project in His ideal personhood would be the same essence that has saved me from a life of boredom and has showed me that boredom is nothing more than a lack of imagination to keep things real and relevant. That same essence, of Spirit, has opened my mind and helped me see truth and goodness in unlikely sources, some of which others have considered uncomfortable and perhaps dangerous—but for me has been part of what Terryl Givens calls the exhilarating “process, the ongoing, dynamic engagement, the exploring, questing, and provoking dialectical encounter with tradition, with boundaries, and with normative thinking,” all of which encapsulates the supernal promise made by the Prophet Joseph that if we wish to commune with God, and commune with Him intimately and truthfully, our minds must then inevitably “stretch as high as the utmost Heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss and broad expanse of eternity.” 



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Like all Aronofsky films, by the time the credits roll I just sort of have to sit in my chair unstirred, unsettled, sterile and amazed, awash with thoughts that I can barely connect. Paradoxically, I feel connected enough with the ancient mood of this story that it’s worth a try.

This was a profoundly human film. Brilliantly executed. It dispels the Sunday school, whitewash narrative that traditionalists like to tell, believing themselves to be in possession of the “mood,” while challenging us to make room for a much more nuanced, more complex and viscerally raw and emblematic story.

I appreciated its dauntless effort to show us a prophet wrestle with his maker, his mantle, his own conscience even. It does not shy from showing prophetic imperfection, yet equally does not embrace any sort of anti-religious skepticism. It is not even neutral in its approach. It is utterly, simplistically human—rife with beautiful ambiguity, rich paradoxes, and is uncompromising in its refusal for easy, clear-cut answers. 

While the faithful may see this as an interrogatory, flawed interpretation of how prophets communicate with the divine, setting up expectations for how they believe the process to unflinchingly work, it is my belief that good artists will often skillfully question and explore in depth our sacred narratives if only to challenge those of us who understand things too quickly, draw conclusions too easily, and believe ourselves to know sacred things without proving we’ve wrestled, like Jacob, with divine things. 

Those with a low tolerance for ambiguity and a rigid, unbending posture towards religiosity will probably not like this film. It brought to mind a talk I recently read by Bruce C. Hafen where he taught that “if we are not willing to grapple with the frustration that comes from facing bravely the uncertainties we encounter, we may never develop the kind of spiritual maturity that is necessary for our ultimate preparations” to serve more effectively in our community. This film raises more questions than it does answers, and sometimes that sort of humility is needed to combat a culture intoxicated on “knowing,” especially when “knowing” leads you to dangerously compromise, as Aronofksy shows, what is most important life.

I recommend this film for the spiritually inquisitive, truth-seeking type. 


Christian Right Has Major Role in Hastening Decline of Religion in America

I’m torn on this issue. Part of me wants to see the extinction of religion, or in religious terms—see the “fulfillment” of religion in humanity, where people collectively mature and distance themselves from supernatural, superstitious, and over-zealous modes of thinking. To borrow the language of B.H. Roberts, I would like to see a world where believers “grow discontented with the necessarily primitive methods which have hitherto prevailed in sustaining doctrine,” so much that they will take to “profounder and broader views [and might I add, “views tinged with a secular flavor”] …cooperating in the works of the Spirit, until they help to give to the truths received a more forceful expression, and carry it beyond the earlier and cruder [and “supernatural”] stages of its development.”

The problem, I fear, is that people will abolish religion too quickly, too rashly, before having matured and especially before realizing what its structure, rules, and rituals have tried to inspire and protect people from, and in this sense people will lose those sacrificial opportunities inherent in religion that in turn help build cooperating, sustained communities. As Emile Durkheim has suggested, “Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure [which is inherent in religion] is to abandon himself and demoralize him.”


Faith and Reason: A Response to Stephen Smoot

I think you raise some good points in this paper. To argue that “differing epistemologies” is not always tantamount with “contradictory epistemologies” is a crucial element in the faith vs. reason debate, one I’m glad you advance mostly because to equivocate the two (like many fundamentalists do) is often to circumscribe truth prematurely, as if to suggest that controversy admits to no real right or wrong answers. Actually, controversy (or the fact that we have “differing epistemologies”) may just mean that our knowledge is not yet complete, as when you say: “we, with fallible, limited language and reasoning faculties, do not have the capability to fully harmonize or recognize…truth.” Sam Harris argues similarly in The Moral Landscape: “Most people take scientific consensus to mean that scientific truths exist, and they consider controversy to be merely a sign that further work remains to be done.” Yes, and the fact that Harris can admit that “further work remains to be done” acknowledges what Elisha says is the purpose of faith: to “purify” our reasoning, “to draw the fullness of [our reasons] implications.”
Though each of us has a definitional line between what our current understanding compels us to believe (reason) and what is still yet largely unexplored, and thereby left to our ignorance (faith), I believe this line is ever shifting, ever changing, much like how Givens describes “the ongoing, dynamic engagement, the exploring, questing, and provoking dialectical encounter” with questions that fall within the purview of the known and the unknown. What’s interesting about our definitions of faith and reason, naturalism and supernaturalism, is how we determine the criteria for what counts as either. Put differently, whenever we eliminate an epistemological approach to truth because of what we perceive is absurd or irrational in its method, we are, in a very theological way, playing God by dictating the rules and conditions for what counts as “real.” We are saying, in a sense, that we are omniscient over a very select range of our environment, however small or seemingly insignificant, and that this range has been tested enough times to exclude certain epistemologies from being legitimate.
I can agree and disagree with there being legitimate ways for us coming to grasp truth, a conversation which can be saved for a later date. I guess the one question I have for your paper is: While you have defined faith using LDS vernacular (the D&C references) and have brought it into conformity with more rational principles, how might you respond to someone who would argue that you’ve overlooked and watered down the conditions for what faith has typically meant for the religious; meaning, those who are required to believe in unverifiable, metaphysical and historical propositions in order to maintain membership? (Think temple recommend questions here). I ask you this question because it has often been asked of me. In other words, our secular friends will have no problem accepting Joseph’s definition of faith as “the moving cause of all intelligent action,” but what they will take issue with is applying this sort of faith to someone who claimed he was the Son of God, or someone who claimed he could walk on water, or feed five-thousand men and women with a shortage of bread, etc. Our friends doubt faith in the classically religious sense, not the pedestrian sense. I’ll fall back on a possible answer to this dilemma by quoting E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien:
The trick is that our definitions of natural and supernatural are ever changing. We humans set the line between natural and supernatural. Natural indicates “things we understand.” Supernatural things are things we don’t (yet) understand. Since human knowledge is growing, the line keeps moving. The item itself never changes, but it moves — in our minds — across the line from supernatural to natural. Lightening was once considered miraculous, supernatural… . Once we understood something about how lightning works, we stopped considering it supernatural. Lightening never changed. But something serious happened: God quit having a role in lightening, as far as we were concerned… . [N]ow that we understand the physics of lightning, Westerners remove it from God’s hands. Thunder cannot answer Western prayers. Lightning does not smite Western sinners. Once we understand a rule of the universe we cut God out of any relationship to it.”
What think ye?


Atheism and Secular Humanism, according to Dallin H. Oaks

Elder Dallin H. Oaks, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, recently gave a public, bristling attack against two secular philosophies—humanism and atheism—that created a modest amount of buzz amongst the intellectual community of the LDS Church. After having read his talk, I’d like to examine its claims for what it tries to communicate about these worldviews but too casually mischaracterizes and perhaps disservices, even in the wake of its more positive aims and suggestions.

Oaks begins by affirming that “we live in a world where many deny the existence of God” in addition to the eternal truths of “right and wrong [as] defined by His teachings and His commandments.” This “rejection of divine authority as the ultimate basis of right and wrong” is characteristic, he says, of those who the Apostle John called “anti-Christ,” or those who “denieth the Father and the Son” (1John 2:22). Oaks blankets both atheists and secular humanists into this category, comparing their lack of moral adherence to “traditional religious morality” with the Book of Mormon’s teachings on the “great and abominable church of all the earth, whose founder is the devil” (1Nephi 14:7). “Any philosophy or organization that opposes belief in God,” says Oaks, must belong “to the church of the devil” (1Nephi 14:10; also see 1Nephi 13:4-6).

There are many puzzling things about these statements.

The first that comes to mind is to determine what counts as those “who deny the existence of God.” Does a denial of a counterfeit “God” cast one into “the church of the devil”? Or is it only through the denial of knowing some extremely intimate “God,” like one who is acquainted with a friend, that qualifies for the ruling, “anti-Christ”? 

The second question to unravel is to determine what counts as those who reject “the eternal reality of the truths of right and wrong defined by His teachings and His commandments”? Do those who reject moral precepts grounded in metaphysical constructs count as those who reject morality altogether? Should those who reject moral precepts given by finite and fallible humans always be cast with those who reject “[God’s] teachings and [God’s} commandments”? And should those who replace the metaphysical positioning of religious morality with a morality grounded in humanly-understood principles belong to “the church of the devil”?

These are crucially important questions, ones that Oaks deliberately or inadvertently doesn’t answer. It seems far easier to couch those who reject religion and religious morals into a blanketed set of devils than to wrestle with the harder, more nuanced discussion about why secular humanists and atheists might reject current discourses on the divine and alleged divine morals. It may be even harder to understand how many have rejected and replaced religious morals with more intimately understood principles, not grounded in metaphysical narratives. However, none of this should warrant any sort of vague or oversimplified condemnation against those irreligionists who do not fit Oak’s stereotypes.

In learning what many intellectual atheists and secular humanists specifically reject in religion, I have discovered that their denial of divine authority is inextricably tied to their denial of the supernatural, as well as any ethical absolute grounded in metaphysical propositions. They deny counterfeit “Gods,” are sensitive to religious power gone awry, and yes, use combative reason, satire and ridicule to mock the “people of God,” but such scorn must be understood sympathetically given that we no longer live in a culture where the basic questions of existence are already answered for us. Religious belief, in other words, is not enough to quell existential questioning.

This is why Oak’s amazing blanket statements about atheists and secular humanists does terrible disservice to our evangelical need to understand outsiders—it seems to suggest that unless you believe in God, or unless you accept the divine authoritative foundation for morality, you cannot be moral or spiritual. This is hardly true. Insofar as religious believers can accept the idea that there are admirable people who nevertheless do not believe, must mean that even religious people cannot close off the door to genuine existential questioning; they cannot assume that the knottiest problems of our existence have already been articulated in the holy books, let alone should prevent us from still greater articulations.

To be generous, I do believe Oaks is trying to condemn, and rightfully so, the laissez faire sham morality made “popular [in the] media and in current peer pressure.” It’s the eat-drink-and-be-merry attitude, which, correctly, has done nothing but cause people to pursue shallow, carnal and selfish pleasures. Furthermore, to Oak’s credit, he doesn’t necessarily compare those who deny or doubt the existence of God with those who would default to a morally relativistic lifestyle. Paradoxically, he also doesn’t acknowledge whether one can lead a moral lifestyle without religion, or “God” for that matter. He simply states the issue is “difficult to explain.”

The real challenge of his talk lies in the margins of what is meant by “moral relativism.” Oaks cites several scholars who describe this worldview as anything that admits to “no universally right or wrong answers” to moral questions, and that there are “no reasonable or rational ways by which to make moral distinctions that apply in every time, in every place, and to every person.” To agree with this definition is to automatically claim its contrapositive—that is, that there are, in fact, universal morals that can and should be applied “in every time, in every place, and to every person.”

Oak’s confidence in the existence of moral absolutes, as defined above, makes it difficult to understand, for example, how Joseph Smith could grant an exception to the moral rule when he justified polygamy, or when Brigham Young made an exception to the moral rule when he justified blood atonement rhetoric. “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another,” said Joseph. I wonder how Oaks would respond to Joseph here, for it is this unnerving principle that prioritizes relationships over rules. When we do not acknowledge that our personal relationship with God (or whatever your brand of spiritual conscience entails) is the norming factor in making moral decisions, but instead believe that rules apply “in every time, in every place, and to every person,” exceptions to the rule cannot be granted. And this does nothing but make a paradoxical mess of the development of Mormon theology.

I understand that Oaks was speaking to a very specific audience, namely LDS members, and that although he does not outright state that it’s impossible to be moral without belief in God, he does potently group atheists and secular humanists into the same boat as those of the “church of the devil” and those who are “anti-Christ,” which can only then reinforce the “us versus them” attitude in the minds of believers, thinking themselves to be righteous while those who disbelieve to be unrighteous. Such mischaracterization and oversimplification surely does not help our goal to preach the gospel in more richly nuanced, self-reflective ways. 


Foucault and the Problem of “Doctrine”

At one time or another we’ve all heard some form of the familiar adage: “Nothing is as constant as change.”

­—Thomas S. Monson (President of the Latter-day Saint Church, October 2008)


No religion escapes the problem of “doctrine.”

What this means is that every good religion must wrestle with the relationship between authoritative creeds, or setting up “stakes,” and the need for continuing revelation, which, in the case of Mormonism, raises some challenging questions that are not altogether easy to answer.

For example, what exactly is “doctrine”? Is it absolute and immune to change? What about the words of prophets and apostles? Are we to always take their words to be axiomatically true, free of human input? If doctrine does not represent the final, inalterable word of God—or ultimate reality itself—but instead refers to our current finite and fallible beliefs about God, and by extension ultimate reality, how do we anchor ourselves in a religious institution that seems built upon evolving, flexible narratives?

I’d like to think about a few of these questions while drawing upon the methodology of Michel Foucault, a Twentieth Century intellectual who uses the existential concept of “power” (what we may, in LDS terms, call “Church hierarchy”) to elucidate the nature and significance of “discourse” (or “doctrine”).  I am interested in using Foucault to primarily reflect upon the discursive traces and origins of our LDS past, to get “genealogical,” if you will, and to specifically deconstruct some of the grand narratives that have been framed in Mormonism that once were thought to represent the infallible word of God. Doing so, I believe, will help us locate not only the sites where power produces discourse, or where church hierarchy produces doctrine; it will also help us better understand one of the great paradoxes of LDS thought—the need for “stakes” yet “continued revelation”—captured nicely here by BYU professor James Faulconer:

Since Latter-day Saints insist on continuing revelation, they cannot have a dogmatic theology that is any more than provisional and heuristic, for a theology claiming to be more than that could always be trumped by new revelation.”

While “dogmatic theology” certainly has no place in LDS discourse, “stakes,” to the contrary, are needed, and their purpose is to ensure the survival of the institution, to circumscribe truth, to define and exclude, to set bounds for what is morally permissible, and, ultimately, to build walls that separate the sacred from the profane.

Michel Foucault: Power and Discourse

Part of what makes his methodology so influential is how he views various cultural, intellectual and economic structures at play within a given society. These structures, located in a certain social “space,” are what give scaffolding to various “power discourses,” which are a set of patterns, beliefs and ideas—not necessarily homogenous—used to sustain relations of dominance.

One example Foucault cites is when leprosy vanished from the Western world at the end of the Middle Ages. While leprosy disappeared, the structures that surrounded it remained. A new “space” opened which replaced the concern with diseased bodies with a concern with abnormal, diseased minds. This cultural shift, or creation of a new social space where certain people could be defined and excluded, represents the sites where power produces discourse. Those in power produce these discourses, which are specifically produced for the benefit of those in power. What Foucault attempts to demonstrate is how when one discourse dies out, another steps in to take its place. And so on and so forth.

Looking at how discourses are produced, Foucault is specifically interested in who produces them, why they produce them, and when discourses are replaced, transformed, and who replaces, transforms them, when, and why. This is the power of his method—it looks for the gaps, silences, and ruptures in historiography when new cultural “spaces” emerge—to better identify ideological conceits.

Blacks and the Priesthood

There are hundreds if not thousands of discourses, some more prominent than others, and many, many within the LDS Church as well. One example of this production of discourse pertains to the priesthood ban for blacks. President Brigham Young stated in 1854 that blacks would never hold the priesthood until “all the other children of Adam have had the privilege of receiving the Priesthood…and have received their resurrection from the dead.”  President Joseph Fielding Smith, many years later, similarly stated that this curse would continue “while time endures.” Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, in his book “Mormon Doctrine,” called blacks the biological descendants of Ham (descendants of Cain) and thus “essentially” a lesser race unworthy of the priesthood.

However, when the revelation opening the doors for blacks to receive the priesthood in 1978 occurred, McConkie recanted his former position saying: “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.”

Blood Atonement

Another example of LDS “doctrine” gone awry that fiercely defined and excluded apostate members, but later was abolished, is found in the infamous belief of “blood atonement.” During the great migration West, Brigham Young and other LDS leaders repeatedly preached about specific sins for which it was necessary to shed the blood of men and women. In his book “Doctrines of Salvation,” Joseph Fielding Smith affirmed that after committing “certain grievous sins,” a person “must make sacrifice of his own life to atone—so far as in his power lies—for that sin, for the blood of Christ alone under certain circumstances will not avail.”

In locating the sites of power for this particular “doctrine,” D. Michael Quinn argues that some LDS historians have claimed that blood atonement sermons were simply Brigham Young’s use of “rhetorical devices designed to frighten wayward individuals into conformity with Latter-day Saint principles.” While this might be true, other LDS historians like Paul H. Peterson counter this by arguing, “Obviously there were those who could not easily make a distinction between rhetoric and reality,” thus lending credence to the position that the LDS hierarchy during this time was at least responsibility instigative for the “violent acts of zealous Mormons who accepted their instructions literally and carried out various forms of blood atonement.”

Foucault Applied to LDS Discourse

If Foucault’s methodology is taken seriously, it would seem very much to call into question these types of LDS discourses (or “doctrines”) as following the same pattern of evolving discourses that were once believed to be “essential,” but in time were replaced, transformed from old, outdated cultural “spaces” meant to justify the superiority of the dominant group. Part of this production of power (as evident from past prophetic and apostolic views on blacks and violence)[1] is to systematically and sometimes idiosyncratically create “otherness”—that is, how particular groups of people are marginalized, defined, and excluded for the benefit of those in power.

More recent examples of otherness, which for some calls into question the Church’s current essentialist claims, include the role of women in the church, in addition to gender and sexual orientation issues. Foucault, for example, would challenge the Church’s stance towards biological essentialism—the belief, as stated in the Proclamation to the Family, that “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose…” If this were true, the criticism goes, and gender is not socially constructed, then it would hold that throughout all generations of time and throughout all eternity that there have never been things like hermaphrodites or androgynous dispositions.

The Church, however, incidentally more aligned with Foucault on this next point, has not taken an “official” stance towards human sexuality, or sexual preference, even while condemning homosexual behavior. Perhaps this is because there has recently been ample scientific backing given to the role that genetics plays in human sexual identity, informing us that sexual orientation isn’t merely about social construction as it was once thought to be by past LDS leaders. Ironically, homosexual behavior is still marginalized, defined and excluded as being separate from “normal” behavior in the Church, and this reality represents what Foucault calls the power of “confinement”—the power used by the state (or in this case, Church hierarchy) to separate what is abnormal from what is normal in order to define itself; only by controlling what is abnormal can the “normal” exist.[2]   

One challenge that Foucault’s ideas present to conservative Latter-day Saints relates to their assumption that doctrine represents indiscriminately the final, inalterable word of God—the final, essential discourse!—when in reality probably represents something closer to their own cultural narration.[3] Liberal Latter-day Saints, to the contrary, do not typically suffer from this compunction. They do not find the notion of theological change, or doctrinal discontinuity, unsettling. Instead, they welcome doctrinal alterations as, what Charles Harrell calls, “a natural consequence of having a living, dynamic church guided by continuing revelation.”

For Foucault, part of what continuing revelation implies operates under the dictates of the current power structure, which merely a previous social system produced and believed to be “final” or “absolute,” only later to be replaced, transformed in order to make room for a newer, more dominant narrative.  If true, this would seem to underscore a major challenge to understanding current revelation: it masks itself as “fixed” reality when in fact represents a cultural synthesis of newer power, newer knowledge; it is like a plot on the matrix, where as soon as you get out of one system you’re tossed into another.  

While it seems that power is impossible to escape, there lies in the fracas of this assumption a series of questions, which, if unresolved, seems to cast Foucault’s entire project to the existential winds of moral relativism: Does it matter at all which set of moral discourses we should respect, given that each is socially constructed to benefit those in power? Why would it matter which ones we respected, if morality, like discourse, is organized around key shifts in the status of power within a society?

The Paradoxical Need for “Stakes”

If answers are available to these questions, we probably should first consider one of the great paradoxes of the LDS faith, expressed implicitly here in Joseph Smith’s uneasy feeling towards the nature of creeds: “The creeds set up stakes,” he said, “and say hitherto shalt thou come, and no further—which I cannot subscribe toI want the liberty to believe as I please, it feels so good not to be trammeled.” Joseph believed the creeds fixed limits on human ingenuity and closed the doors for truth to spring from any source. Paradoxically, notes Richard Bushman, Joseph’s “desire for order balanced the freeing impulse.” He knew that by licensing his followers to speak freely by the Holy Ghost would risk the whole religion to spin out of control, as it almost did under Hiram Page. Joseph was thus torn between the impulse to obliterate the creeds yet sanction them within a legalistic vocabulary: As Terryl Givens observes, “Authority, priesthood, laws, and ordinances, were everything.”There is no salvation,” Joseph declared, “without a legal administrator.”

Though the “creeds set up stakes” in Joseph’s mind, he would soon come to learn that the need for stakes was imperative to contend against the centrifugal force of individual, undisciplined revelations.[4] This is where the power of the conservative institution comes alive in the LDS religion: The need for stakes, made manifest through the power of sociocentric rituals, laws and constraints, are meant to socialize, reshape, and care for individuals, who, if left to their own private revelations, divorced from the institution, might pursue extravagant, uncontrolled behavior, whereby they become laws unto themselves. It is this institutional conservative power, in other words, that was founded to diametrically organize and regulate the winds of moral relativism.

Turning to Foucault, it seems plausible to concede that a “confinement” of revelations was introduced into Joseph’s theology in order to realign moral relativism to its proper branded social “space,” thus creating a kind of safe haven where the Church hierarchy, and only the Church hierarchy, could produce the authoritative moral “discourses,” while sentencing those who breached them. The creation of this new space involved a series of measures—keys, orders, authorities, priesthoods, ordinances, etc.—which sought to circumscribe rebels and rebellious tendencies to places of judgment, while equally rewarding those who learned to demarcate the bounds between sacred and profane discourses.

In an almost inexplicable contradiction, however, when polygamy was introduced into the Church, Joseph had to justify this apparent breach of the revealed discourse, which before had already established marriage to be monogamous, by teaching what is probably the most unnerving principle of the government of God: “that which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another. God said, “Thou shalt not kill;” at another time He said, “Thou shalt utterly destroy.” This is the principle on which the government of heavens is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is…”

With Foucault in mind, such an enigmatic, relativistic attitude towards defining morality may be viewed as nothing more than confirming what Bushman reports as “the fears that rational Christians had for centuries about the social chaos inherent in revealed religion”—that is, the fear of power gone awry, power misused, power that must inevitably be renewed, recycled, and transformed from socially produced revelations into newer, braver, more responsible discourses.[5]

Even though Joseph would qualify his revelations, believing they functioned like law, and not relegating them to what Stephen Smoot calls “the same category as current moral relativists who preach the popular laissez faire morality of today,” Joseph did preach that morality arbitrary determined “without law, without revelation, without commandment…would prove [to be a set of] cursings and vexations in the end.” He left us with a profound, albeit divine puzzle to solve on how to balance freedom and control, choice and obedience, whether to be authoritarian or anarchic, legalistic or romantic, disciplined or unbounded, etc.

Drawing a Line

From the bohemian rock musical, “Rent,” a story about struggling artists trying to survive in New York City during the AIDS/HIV epidemic, there emerges a question with such profound existential weight that the answer given seems too sensible to ever deny as the obvious response: “What binds the fabric together when the raging, shifting winds of change keep ripping away?” to which Benny, the artists’ landlord, fearlessly responds: “Draw a line in the sand and then make a stand.”

From the hundreds if not thousands of moral discourses there are in the evolving world, it would seem that this response does answer the importance of selecting and then respecting a given moral discourse. However, it still leaves us with the nagging question of which one to choose, and even harder, why we should choose it.  One way to interpret this choice is to concede that everyone is to uphold the sacred and ongoing responsibility to draw a line somewhere—a line separating good from evil, virtue from vice, pleasure from pain—and then take a stand, even in the face of our most merciless critics.

For Foucault, it is clear that drawing this line is immensely problematic due to the complex nature of discourse and how people often become trapped and blinded to their own moral matrix. This happens especially in religions where believers assign important adjudicating power to a select group of men whose teachings are not always reliable. This certainly does not have to be the case in Mormonism, though I’m afraid those who are more literally-inclined in the Church suffer from this compunction more so than the margin of liberals in their congregation.

There is even sufficient support from past leaders of the Church that members can still sustain the prophets and apostles without believing them to be perfect or that whatever they say comes directly from celestial spheres. Brigham Young, for example, warned against those who “have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him,” while Hugh B. Brown pleaded with us “not to accept as true whatever is printed in a book or delivered from a pulpit.”Brown continued: “While all Mormons should respect, support, and heed the teachings of the authorities of the Church, no one should accept a statement and base his or her testimony upon it, no matter who makes it, until he or she has, under mature examination, found it to be true and worthwhile.”

In the light of the long history of theological change within Mormonism, such history should surely reveal the struggles, discontinuities and the role of the individual within the institution. It also should reveal enough precedents in the Church to warrant a more flexible posture towards doctrinal discourse. As Harrell argues: “It would be naïve to suppose that all the major doctrinal kinks have been worked out, and that we now have the final word of God on all important doctrinal matters.” Indeed, has it not been suggested that the very “notion of continuing revelation resists theological finality[?]”

In drawing my own line, I believe there is such a thing as doctrine, which refers to our beliefs about ultimate reality, but that these beliefs or narratives we tell in Church are often limited, shortsighted, and subject to further amendment. Doctrine, from our vantage, to use Kantian categories, is “phenomenally” relevant but “noumenally” distant. This isn’t to become discouraged over, only to admit that there are, to borrow Bruce McConkie’s ironic statement, “more things we do not know about the doctrines of salvation than there are things we do know.”

I close now with a quote my brother Trevor recently shared with me by Frances Menlove, one that I think, if its content were ever shown to be untrue, would, as Joseph himself put it, “lay a foundation that [would] revolutionize the whole world.”

“One of the factors which sometimes impede private honesty is ‘the myth of the unruffled Mormon.’ This myth is simply the commonly held picture of the Mormon as a complete, integrated personality, untroubled by the doubts and uncertainties that plague the Protestant and oblivious to the painful searching and probing of the non-believer. The Mormon is taught from Primary on up that he, unlike his non-Mormon friends, knows with absolute certainty the answers to the knottiest problems of existence, that in fact his search has come to an end, and that his main task in life is to present these truths to others so that they too may end their quests.

In reality, the Mormon is also subject to uncertainties and doubts. This fact derives inevitably from his understanding of free agency, his freedom to love or turn away, his freedom to choose this path or another one. ‘Lord, I believe … help thou my unbelief’ expresses simply the profound experience of those who seek God. The man who blots out internal awareness in order to maintain to himself and to others the appearance of absolute certainty, who refuses to examine his inner life, may all too often settle for the appearance of a Christian believer rather than for its actuality. No one should doubt that in some way, or for some reason, he is also a doubter.”


[1] While some LDS apologetics may argue that these past unenlightened views about blacks and violence merely represented a cultural derivation, that the brethren were mere “products of their times,” it still does not excuse the gross abuse of power in the Church hierarchy, and seems even to support the deistic position that God seldom involves himself in the affairs of men but instead lets them wallow in the evil of their own creation.

[2] This reality of confining the “abnormal” raises the immensely difficult question for homosexual Latter-day Saints: They must choose to remain committed to the church hierarchy and its current, believed-to-be eternal discourse, and thereby lead a life of celibacy and loneliness, or, they must leave those constructs and pursue a life in accordance with their own spiritual conscience.

[3] The myths of doctrinal inerrancy and scriptural uniformity have given rise to a public, bristling fury of anti-Mormon literature written to undermine the fallacious assumption of prophetic infallibility, and those who base their faith on this assumption are typically more likely to go apostate than those who are more liberal in their doctrinal thinking. Harrell cites the entry on “apostate” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which states: “Apostasy may be accelerated by a faulty assumption that scripture or Church leaders are infallible…Neither the Church nor its leaders claim infallibility.” 

[4] The authority to bridle unfounded revelation is actually inherent in the calling of the Church prophet. J. Reuben Clark told Church members that “only the President of the Church…has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scripture that shall be binding on the Church, or change in any way the existing doctrines of the Church.” Harrell observes here that “to state that the president has the right to “change” Church doctrines implies they are not necessarily fixed.”

[5] Interestingly, Joseph’s theology already took into account the potential dangers associated with these fears and warned against those who used power unethically:

“The powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon principles of righteousness…When we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or authority of that man.”


After ten years of research, writing, re-writing, and tons of sweat equity, my brilliant, inexhaustible mother completed her first self-published book on the benefits of music for children. It’s targeted mainly for parents and educators, but contains valuable information on how anyone can build a bigger, better brain using music, whether listening to music or playing a musical instrument. 

Kirkus Review—the largest independent book reviewer in the nation—gave it a “sterling” review, calling it “a meticulously researched and crafted work…an encyclopedic, invaluable resource for anyone who believes in music education.”

I am enormously proud of my mother, of course. I’ve provided a link here for anyone interested in purchasing the book (paperback, kindle, etc.)

Way to go mom!




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