Personal Experience with Kelly, Dehlin, and the Salt Lake Vigil: The Crucible of Individuals and Institutions

I attended the Ordain Women vigil for Kate Kelly last night in Salt Lake City more out of curiosity. To come and see, to seek understanding, to feel the life pulse of something historic.

I have mixed feelings I’m not sure I know how to articulate well.

We began by singing “The Spirit of God.” A prayer was then offered, first addressed to Heavenly Father, then Heavenly Mother. The crowd was calm and collected, but you could tell the atmosphere was charged. Lots of watery faces. Men too. The pain was palpable.

Kate began her address, “I strangely enough feel a lot of hope…because it’s not too late for [our leaders] to the do the right thing.”

“We hope our leaders make the right decision,” she echoed several times.

The phrase made me pause for a moment.

What is meant by “the right decision”? That Kate’s leaders not take action against her church membership? That the church caves to OW’s direct political pressure? To bend to match Kate’s perspective? For women to be granted priesthood offices, priesthood keys? For Zion to widen her stakes?

All of the above?

All of the myopic comments, tweets, and blogs I’ve read recently that cast nothing but shame, suspicion, and sarcasm upon either side—OW or church leaders—kind of sicken me. This is not an easy decision for anyone. Certainly not for Kate who began the movement, and neither for the church leaders who now have to handle it.

All of this has made me ponder carefully.

When the head says to the foot, “I have no need of you,” the only appropriate response is to mourn. We are all members of the body of Christ, it sucks to lose any of them, though we are also told it is sometimes better to cut off those more offensive parts. Boundry maintenance, in other words, is something we are told will not be mocked.

The fact that Kate’s leaders are still deciding what to do makes me imagine how painfully difficult it would be to sit as a judge. What do you consider first—the individual or the institution? Think about it. When you place marginal needs first, above the collective majority, then any rule or social practice that limits personal freedom can be considered immoral and in need of change. The truth is, not all individual perspectives are of veritable worth.

Do not misunderstand me.

This is not an inditement against anyone who lobbies for gay or feminist rights, only that its contrapositive is equally no less cumbersome: To minimize individual voices in order to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number means you save a ton but still hurt a few. It sickens me that anyone ever has to get hurt.

Suffering is inevitable on both sides.

OW has prompted us to think about necessary and important questions, ones that neither deontological nor utilitarian paradigms are entirely equipped to answer. Why? Because as one woman who bore her testimony after Kate said, “If you silence me, another generation after me will stand up and take my place.” Women’s issues, like gay issues, will not disappear just because a few voices are excommunicated, or cut off. They will persist, and perhaps even grow stronger.

We need to have better, more compassionate, though informed, answers.

I had the privilege to talk with John Dehlin for a bit after the initial testimonies. I really like what he said about his possible excommunication trial, that is, that our church leaders need to be respected for the tremendous amounts of pressure they face in these kinds of situations, and that they can choose who they decide to keep in or out of the church. It’s a difficult paradox to reconcile because in one breath the church is not at all against people having ideas, though in another breath they seem to be saying—“So long as you don’t actively spread them.”

This seems impossible, especially when you consider that ideas are shared social phenomenons that cannot be strictly isolated or eternally suppressed.

People need outlets, especially if they are not given a voice at church, or have reason to fear being socially ostracized.

All of this reminded me of a quote by George Q. Cannon on the nature of apostasy:

“We ha[ve] not stated that an honest difference of opinion between a member of the Church and the authorities constitute [s] apostasy, for we can conceive of a man honestly differing in opinion from the authorities of the Church and yet not be an apostate, BUT [emphasis added] we [can]not conceive of a man publishing those differences of opinion and seeking by arguments, sophistry and special pleading to enforce them upon the people to produce division and strife, and to place the acts and counsels of the authorities of the Church, if possible, in a wrong light, and not be an apostate, for such conduct [i]s apostasy as we understand the term.”

Under this definition it would not surprise me if Kate, or John for that matter, could be excommunicated. They have most certainly published their disagreements with the church and, while I do not like the implications of the term “sophistry”—and hence will not apply it to them—they have made “special pleadings to enforce [their perspectives] upon the people,” not intentionally, I think, “to produce division and strife,” but rather to bring about what they believe to be positive change.

And maybe they’re right. But maybe they’re not.

These are sensitive matters.

Interesting, however, that divisions and strife always seem to precede further light and knowledge.

They are what get us thinking, get us working together, even painfully, and that certainly can be a good thing in hindsight.

I personally did not participate in the ritualistic walk over to the Church Office Building, where all were invited to post a picture of themselves on the front doors and quietly deliver one line that began, “I will not be silenced because…” I felt a little uncomfortable with it, not because I don’t respect those who did (I had several friends who participated), but because I’m really too neutral on it all to involve myself with an invisible ordinance I really have no strong testimony towards. But maybe that’s just because I’m an “insensitive man,” perhaps, like my simple critics would probably target me as.

Overall, I’m pleased this event occurred, much like I was pleased with theMormon/Atheist panel discussion that occurred several months ago. These are challenging times. Wonderfully exciting times. I marvel at events like these that try and bring cosmos to chaos, if only because I know deep down for myself that the unexamined life is not worth living. These are personal matters of the heart. Matters between us and God. And that’s really the only thing that matters, right?

(DMS)

The new debate: What (Mormon) women want

Pretty moderate article. Frames both sides of the debate in a constructive, fruitful way. 

(DMS)

In the short term, I think OW will chill some of the momentum we’ve seen on gender issues in the church over the past few years. I think church leaders rightly understand that seismic shifts in church practices cannot come from direct political pressure without deeply dividing the membership and diminishing the moral authority of revelation itself. The schism in the church following the 1890 revelation ending polygamy, after intense outside pressure, taught us that. But even if the short-term effect is chilling, I think that future generations will look back to see that OW prompted us to think closely about necessary questions. What would it mean to ordain women and girls into the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods? That is not the only way to integrate women into priestly and administrative roles in the church, but it’s certainly one option, and OW has done the hard work of making us think it through carefully as a community, setting the stage in our own hearts for future revelation.

Rosalynde Welch on if Ordain Women (OW) has disrupted and stunted the conversation about women in Mormonism.

It’s been my experience that people feel a lot more comfortable being loud and confident in expressing conservative viewpoints in Sunday School and Relief Society than they do expressing more liberal viewpoints. It makes me wonder how many [of them] there are who think and feel more like I do and spend their Sundays biting their tongues.
Shelah Miner

Church Culture, Its Price & the Paradoxical Christ: A Response to Cate’s “Uncomfortable God”

I recently read a post about the current state of the Mormon Church that sounded really frustrated. It was the kind of post that was arguably not written by some angry-about-to-leave-the-church-member, but most likely someone who cared deeply about her religion and wanted to make us think about it in uncomfortable ways. It wasn’t the bad kind of discomfort either. It reminded me more of the impassioned letter that Captain Moroni wrote to Pahoran. It brought to mind Harold B. Lee:

“The true church is intended not only to comfort the afflicted, but to afflict the comfortable” (italics added).

While I do not always agree one hundred percent with the tone, the form, the spirit, or even some of the points the author raises, there is so much more here to carefully and thoughtfully reflect upon that it would be a mistake to simply ignore it, or worse, chalk it up as anti-Mormon rhetoric. If anything, it spiritually challenged me in ways that I appreciated. It left me relishing a remarkable feeling, translated in my mind as these words:

“I need to do better, and I can do better.”

“I need to be the change I wish to see in my church.”

The anonymous author, otherwise known as “Cate,” had a pretty adverse reaction to Elder Holland’s recent conference talk, “The Cost and Blessings of Discipleship.” To be fair, the talk was probably not an easy one for him to deliver. His fervent tone and language, as we have come to expect from Elder Holland, probably didn’t help popularize his message either. He spoke about the inconvenient truths of Christ, a divine messenger from God who told us not to entertain sin, not to believe in soothing platitudes, and to pluck out our eyes if they offend us. In contrast to Christ’s messages of kindness, acceptance, and tolerance, this same affectionate exemplar remarkably declared, “I came not to [bring] peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34).

How these messages reconcile with other compassionate teachings of Christ remains to be our biggest challenge of knowing how to love each other in the right way, despite our differences. I personally did not have the same experience that Cate had towards Holland’s talk, though I could certainly sympathize with where she was coming from. I could see how Holland’s statements about how some of us desire “comfortable gods…gods who do not demand much,” and who would tell us not to “forsake transgression and any hint of advocacy for it in others” could be interpreted as Holland casting unrighteous judgment upon “families who lobby for civil rights for their gay children, [or] women who struggle with the hierarchal inequality in Church structure.”

I’m not so confident, however, that Holland was trying to suggest this.

Take LGBT issues for example.

The church has already declared it is very much in favor of gay rights, and has even “advocated for legal protection for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches.” What the church has not done, which its critics have cited as cruel and hostile, is sanction homosexual behavior as divinely permissible. This stance, they say, “neither constitutes nor condones any kind of hostility towards gays and lesbians.”

I must confess.

This is a terribly complex issue that warrants no easy solution. What I do fear is how Elder Holland’s “words [might] catalyze the most judgmental voices in the church, promoting a spirit of division and justifying intolerance.” I personally have to agree with Cate here. I have read some rather insensitive blog posts and even sat through some pretty brash Sunday school lessons concerning this issue. The attitudes and explanations I’ve experienced have been far too comfortably caricatured, superficially glossed, and oversimplified to the point that it has made me realize how many cultural predilections need to change in the church if we truly are to be “at-one” with each other.

Cate makes an astute observation:

“I found a God who was radically more interested in my ability to love my neighbor in spite of his or her fallen state than to draw lines which exclude.”

The liberal passion to love all people, without restraint, without borders, boundaries, or lines—in a word, to love “unconditionally”—is very admirable. Few people can effectively do it. There is a difference between choosing to love people unconditionally, and conditions people place upon themselves to feel our love.

I believe it is in God’s disposition to love each of us unconditionally, though this should not suggest that we are always in a position to feel or even accept his love. The scriptures are replete with conditional expressions: “If (certain conditions exist) then (certain consequences follow)”; “Inasmuch as…(certain conditions exist), … (certain consequences follow)”; “Except … cannot…etc.”

To insinuate that there are no real moral conditions to consider to feel or even accept God’s love suffers from what I would call presenting a “selective Jesus,” meaning, isolating his important characteristics at the neglect of others.

Do not misunderstand me.

I am in no way here trying to morally police, judge or criticize people who carry unfathomable burdens yet who seek to serve God, and who live according to the best of their ability. Those kinds of strivings are nothing short of beautiful, something to be applauded. I am merely pointing out how difficult it is reconcile the loving, compassionate Jesus with the apocalyptic Jesus of Matthew 24, or the angry Jesus who kicks ass at the temple, or the divisive Jesus who brings not peace but a sword.

Such a paradoxical Jesus leads us to ask, “How are we to draw moral boundaries while still welcome profound differences? How do we transcend the “us vs. them” paradigms that typically only fuel our fears and antipathies?”

I think Cate has a pretty good answer:

“I found a God whose love is transformative and whose love, when manifest through me, is a corrective force needing little, if any, accompanying condemnation.”

Cate raises another good point. It is true that we should “define faithfulness to God…in terms of what we stand for,” rather than what “we stand against.” Too much focus on the latter has made us a church bent on “sin management” rather than creating environments that welcome and embrace “people who sin differently.” We as members of the church, myself included, can improve a lot in this area. The challenge, of course, is how to be equally just and merciful, at the same time.

My brother Trevor raises a great question concerning this balance:

“Can we have both [mercy and justice], or must we always err to one side or the other? And if we do err, which side is it better to err on?”

Trevor follows up his questions with a great paraphrase from Lowell Bennion, a renowned church apologist:

“If you’re faced with a situation in which you could reasonably exercise justice over mercy, err on the side of mercy. Given the nature of institutions, however, I don’t know if they can afford that luxury.”

This is exactly right.

It seems that institutions cannot afford the luxury to be universally merciful, that is, to validate all beliefs, practices, and lifestyles as “divinely acceptable,” or even equal for that matter. If everything is sacred then nothing is sacred. Religious institutions, to survive, must be predominantly conservative and correlated, lest they become fractured schisms devoid of a centralized ethos. The central message of the Mormon church can still be one of love and radical compassion, though greater work and articulation still needs to be given to how we ought to circumscribe boundaries between truth and error, sacred and profane paradigms. Such matters need to be handled sensitively, probably not with harsh brush strokes.

“Contrary to cultural mythos, it’s not because we are guilty and hate hard truths. It’s because, as was the case with Job, we’ve lived lives of hard truth and we’ve experienced the complexities of mortality firsthand. We’ve seen beneath the superficial skin of simple dichotomies and have felt the blood of our belief pour from us like water from a sword pierced side.”

Correlation is hard on intellectuals.

I sympathize greatly with those who struggle with this program.

I personally struggle with it.

But I also find it exhilarating—the challenge, that is, to wrestle with it.

I feel the pain and frustration of Cate here and I sympathize:

“I see good people frustrated with being called to repentance by an institution which acts in ways that are sometimes baffling when compared to the word and life of Christ. I see a corporation that has built up a culture through correlated texts and copyright media which prioritizes unthinking conformity over true discipleship.”

In the correlation program, it is difficult for eager, hungry, painfully thoughtful members of the church to thrive because, for us, individual integrity is viewed as something tremendously sacred. It is not something we easily sacrifice to big groups that demand strict obedience, groupthink and conformity. Just as our parents know that our testimonies can never be theirs, so too do anxiously engaged members grow tired of borrowed light and begin to create their own.

“Most of our people, having been fed a steady diet of pre-digested milk, are pathetically nonchalant. Starved for a gospel rich in transformative unity with God, they are uninspired by the lackluster offering of platitudes and proscriptions. They are wandering toward agnosticism, atheism, and other churches, not because they are unable to believe, but because the anemic offerings of their church experience have convinced them that God is not present at our self-congratulatory “historic” meetings or in our proclamations drafted by legal teams, however well they poll.”

This is a bit heavy-handed, I admit. I personally do not agree with the tone here, but I certainly agree that there are plenty of “platitudes and proscriptions” that fall upon deaf ears at church. I look around me and people look bored, tired, and starved for meaning, distracted by phones, games, children and robotic speakers. I agree that people are leaving to create light elsewhere, if only because their church experience did not inspire them to be the change they wished to see in their wards.

Making our own light has its challenges. No one is truly an island; we all borrow from each other and insulate ourselves from perspectives we find uncomfortable. The problem with thinking we’re islands, that we should merely follow our own conscience, independent of organized groups, is that we rarely then experience the needed social pressures that organized groups provide, which in turn allows for people to question our motives, whether we are trying to change God’s will to match our own perspectives, or whether we are trying to align ourselves to the will of God.

Knowing the difference between these two—our will, and divine will—comes to us best, I believe, through individuals wrestling with institutions, sons and daughters wrestling with families.

I’d like to close now with what I believe are the best parts of Cate’s post.

“My God calls me out into the streets. He leaves me restless with the ache to heal and be healed. It is a throbbing, relentless discomfort that compels me to do His bidding. And when I heed His call, lives are changed. They are transformed without the need for formalized discussions or new member checklists. They are changed because the good news is just that good.

This paragraph deserves a standing ovation.

It sums up everything I have tried to get from my mind buried deep down into my heart. It exposes how useless, how perfunctory our rituals and ordinances are unless they truly take us somewhere, take us to Christ, wherein He then takes us beyond the rote, mechanical aspect of performing these rituals, and transforms our hearts into eternal compassions ready to mourn, serve, create and grow with others. Our services should not be limited either to strictly those in our own congregations, but should “see the faces of those who most need our service,” whomever they may be.

“The gospel doesn’t spread by force—certainly not by forced discussion. It spreads by fascination.”

I know a non-member who is taking the missionary discussions right now. In fact, I sit with this genuine man and participate in these discussions with him. He and I have chatted about what baptism might mean to him, what kind of member he’d want to be, but the missionaries sort of turn him off because of their agenda to push the baptismal card without really considering that what they are asking of him takes time. Sometimes a lifetime. Sometimes never. And we should be ok with that. We should be ok with the fact that our agendas do not convert people—only the Spirit of God converts people, and that Spirit can manifest itself through us by really getting to know people, loving and serving them, laughing and challenging them; not by “formalized discussions or new member checklists.”

And so, I say to you, my fellow friends in the gospel, and to you Cate…

This is your church.

Be the change you wish to see in your church!

Step up, rise up, throw off the fear and boredom that surrounds you; voice your opinion; show forth your good works; magnify your appetite for otherness—even if you’re mocked or rejected. In the words of Elder Holland, you will then “step into a circle of very distinguished women and men who have, as the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob said, “view[ed Christ’s] death, and suffer[ed] his cross and [borne] the shame of the world.”

Just be authentic, be real.

People will then naturally congregate and want to give new meaning to organized religion.

John, Kate, and Jesus: How Do We Atone the One with the Many, the Parts with the Body?

The recent John Dehlin/Kate Kelly buzz has made me ponder an important, challenging question:

How is this nebulous thing we call “atonement,” that far reaching, boundless gift we spend countless hours preaching about on Sunday, and which Jesus somehow makes universally possible for the entire human race—how is this concept to become an effectual reality for us when we have strong, perhaps vehement disagreements with those in whom we are commanded to love?

Reflecting on this question leads to another, one that is often found on bumper stickers:

“What would Jesus do?”

Jesus, from my experience, is probably the best paradox least understood.

In one breath, he led by example and distanced himself from the mainstream orthodox, was criticized for it, ate dinner with sinners and publicans, spent his time with the socially undesirable, the uncool, unpopular, culturally and tangibly leprous, and even encouraged us to defend the worst of the worst, as seen in the woman taken in adultery. He taught us to leave the institutionalized 99 and go after the marginalized 1, something that would later be mirrored in our baptismal covenant to mourn with those who mourn.

In another breath, Jesus got extremely angry with people who trampled the bounds of acceptable behavior, who dissolved barriers between the sacred and the profane, as seen with the moneychangers in the temple. He taught in strange parables about cutting parts of our body off if they offend us, lest those parts spoil the whole. He condemned sin and commanded repentance. He didn’t seem fond of lukewarm, vacillating disciples either. He often spoke in bold, polarizing language: That we are either for him or against him. None of this wishy-washy devotion.

I think these two aspects of Jesus’ personality—his mercy, his justice—present the biggest challenge for anyone who tries to follow him or who desires to see, do, and be like him. It is also these two aspects that lie at the heart of the John/Kate controversy. How are we to treat those who arrive at interpretations that conflict with mainstream orthodoxy? What if our integrity or perspective on doctrine places us in jeopardy with our own church standing? Do we remain loyal to our own private conscience, or do we conform and remain loyal to the communities we belong to? Is it possible to have it both ways? What do we do when our own personal, inner light urges us to fight for what we believe in, even when the majority says otherwise?

There are answers, I believe, to all of these questions. It is difficult, however, to sometimes see what the answers are because our integrity is not something we typically sacrifice easily to constraining outside forces, especially when those forces try to imprison our highest, most sensitive desires.

In the case of John and Kate, I will not pretend to know the intentions of either. I do know that big public icons in the church who walk the theological tightrope tread precarious territory, especially those who recruit others to campaigns that try to change church doctrine and/or policy. I do believe there is such a thing as trickle-up revelation, spawned from grassroots movements that inform top-tier members of the church hierarchy. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise though that the church, being inherently conservative, will do whatever it takes to protect its organizational integrity, its doctrines, its members, even at the cost of cutting some of its marginal crowds off.

And that is one of the hardest things to reconcile:

Knowing when to go after the one and when to cut off your hand.

This is no easy task, to be sure, and I am highly suspect of those who try to reduce this controversy, or any church controversy, to swift, simple answers.

For my conservative friends, I know that whenever we place infallible trust in a person, a prophet, or organization, we relieve ourselves of the burden to continually exercise our own agency and discernment, which only absolves us of the responsibility to make real moral choices. Dostoevsky said it best: “We want some person to be a keeper of our conscience,” though I’m fairly confident that God would not want slaves for children. I’m pretty sure he’d want co-equal, co-autonomous, compassionate collaborators that work together creatively to console, uplift, and alchemize the suffering of those around us.

For my liberal friends, I know that organizations and communities are the only means wherein individuals with competing desires can thrive, and that the bigger the group, the bigger the family, the more conservative, and yes, even the more harsh at times, the collective group will be to protect its members from those marginal perspectives that make porous the boundaries between the sacred and the profane. There must be boundaries, there must be social pressures, if only to curb our own vain ambitions, to socialize and reshape us into something Zion-like.

This war in each of us, this conflict of soul, is based on what’s going on inside us versus external pressures we feel that tell us to conform to something else. It complicates our relationship with knowing the will of the divine. It frustrates our knowing how to reconcile the one with the many, the parts with the body, the individual with the institution. Jesus embodies all of these profound paradoxes, and then challenges us to rise above them.

Transcend them.

We can learn from his example.

The John and Kate controversy represents a microcosmic type of the paradoxes that will follow us into eternity. That sounds really ethereal and philosophically vague, I know, and probably won’t really sink in either until we confront someone we truly love and who believes, practices and promotes things we don’t really agree with. What is to be done in these moments? How do we show our love for them? How do we address their concerns? Their pain? How do we hang around and befriend them without shutting the doors? Is it even possible?

Perhaps these are questions that parents are better equipped to answer.

(DMS)

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