Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Ordaining Women

In his book of this title, sociologist Mark Chaves brings both quantitative and qualitative evidence to bear on his examination of women's ordination as a general social phenomenon impacting the entire spectrum of Christian denominations. Mormonism receives no mention, perhaps because the issue takes on a different cast when applied to a lay ministry, but several of the issues he raises provide what strikes me as a useful framework for understanding our own church's policy.

Although the situation is often conveniently dichotomized between denominations that ordain women and those that do not, the complexity of ways in which women and religious authority can be paired is worth keeping in mind. Ordination does not represent any one single set of practices. Congregations which bar women from the ministry sometimes create loopholes whereby women are nevertheless allowed to participate in activities supposedly restricted to the ordained, whereas churches which do ordain women sometimes exhibit tendencies to truncate their actual authority. So in spite of the ideological divide, the situation for women "on the ground," Chaves suggests, may not be so different for women in churches that ordain them as for their sisters in churches that do not.

Chaves's interest in the topic was sparked by his observation that major denominations such as Presbyterians and Methodists began ordaining women in the 1950s at a time when virtually no women were agitating for ordination. As he argues quite plausibly, the coupling of the liberal concept of equality with female ordination was one of the triumphs of first-wave feminism; earlier calls for women's ordination were typically made without reference to equal rights, arguing instead that certain exceptional women should be allowed ordination since inspiration could subsidize their alleged natural incompetence in leadership roles, but without directly challenging women's status in society. That is, they advocated women's ordination in spite of a belief in women's inferiority.

But as female ordination became representative of a commitment to gender equality, several denominations which accepted equality on ideological grounds felt they could not continue to deny women the priesthood, for symbolic rather than strictly pragmatic reasons (hence the situation for Presbyterians and Methodists alluded to above). The converse, Chaves argues at length, is that resistance to female ordination after such a policy has come to be construed as a commitment to gender equality betokens something far more significant than resistance to women serving in priestly functions. It is emblematic of resistance to modernity.
Rules about women's ordination . . . often have less to do with women clergy than with symbolizing cooperation with or resistance to a much broader social project. . . . Women's ordination symbolizes liberal modernity, and that is why it is so deeply resisted by religious organizations defined most centrally by their antiliberal spirit (128).
Chaves amply illustrates how opposition to women's ordination in no way follows logically from these churches' doctrine, which is why he considers a sociological explanation necessary. As participants in a variegated religious landscape, our own church inevitably takes cues from other Christian faiths; it seems not implausible that the church similarly signals its allegiance to broader cultural forces through a resistance to female ordination (among other issues).

But structural reasons undoubtedly play a role as well. Chaves finds a negative correlation between the following two factors and likelihood to ordain women: centralization, and lack of an autonomous women's organization (both of which the church currently exhibits). In addition, it seems to me the church's self-concept as a transcendent entity likewise hinders examination of policy (and fosters a spirit of authoritarianism preserving the status quo).

Eventually, however, as insistence on gender equality took root in the surrounding culture, even denominations opposing female ordination began to proclaim a belief in equality, as declarations of women's inferiority became increasingly unacceptable to the broader public. Like other institutions stradding this divide, the church has adopted the ideology of equality in its rhetoric while failing to realize its implications for either policy or theology, a disconnect resulting in unmistakeable anxiety. Sister Beck's talk in the last General Conference I find indicative of our underlying awareness of this disconnect and our anxiety surrounding it. (Why emphasize the equality of priesthood specifically, and not the equal access everyone has to prayer, for example, unless there's something about the situation that bespeaks inequality?) Not surprisingly, an emphasis on motherhood in the church has sprung up only in the last few decades, seemingly in an effort to bridge this gap between our stated commitment to equality and our policies.

This unease, however, leads us to explain the situation to ourselves almost exclusively through the lens of equality and deters us from examining the underlying theological implications. By its very nature, no explanation in terms of equality can ever adequately address the issue, because it can never amount to more than a justification. It seeks to answer the question--Why is there an apparent imbalance?--and leaves unanswered the more central question--Why aren't women ordained?

Opponents to women's ordination frequently point out that priesthood power is not a right individuals are entitled to, but a gift granted by God as he pleases. I agree wholeheartedly. But I wonder what specifically it indicates that it pleases God to grant priesthood power only to men.

Within Catholic doctrine, the claim is sometimes advanced that a woman is unsuitable to serve as a priest for the reason a priest must physically resemble Christ. It strikes me that a parallel justification is begging to be articulated in Mormonism: the priesthood is the power to act in God's name; one of God's most salient attributes is maleness; therefore only males are fit to exercise that power. Given our doctrine that God himself is physically embodied, as well as abundant indications that gender is the only distinction recognized and codified by God, it would not be so farfetched to suggest that the efficacy of our ordinances rests in part on the resemblance to God of the person performing the ordinance, among other things in terms of biological sex. Such a doctrinal claim could easily be reinforced by gender policies surrounding proxy ordinances--only a woman can stand in for a woman, and only a man for a man. Similarly, can only a male stand in for a male God?

Conversely, one would expect that women by their very nature would be granted access to Heavenly Mother's divine power. Unfortunately, Heavenly Mother has no known divine power. Heavenly Mother's absence from positions of authority is replicated quite strikingly by the situation prescribed for women on earth.

It is difficult to avoid observing constellations of associations in which doctrine and policy mutually reinforce one another: power, public visibility, and maleness on the one hand, and subordination, limitations on public visibility, passivity, and femaleness on the other.

In spite of the implications of both doctrine and policy, I remain skeptically hopeful that the eternal situation is not as bleak as our vision of it. I do not presume to know the will of God. But too often I believe we accept God's silence as a definitive answer to questions that were never asked. To take a trivial example, I suspect the reason organs are standard in our church rests not on any fundamental eternal principle, but rather the simple fact that organs were the norm in Christian congregations at the time our church was founded. No cultural forces have impelled us to suggest an eternal significance to organs, or to use organs' symbolic value as a way of aligning ourselves with larger ideological forces demarcating church and world. Restricting full priesthood rights to men was equally the norm in Christian churches at the time the church was founded; for whatever complex of reasons, this practice has since been enshrined in our rhetoric as an everlastingly legitimate arrangement.

As Chaves points out, "denominational policies about women's ordination carry a symbolic meaning well beyond their pragmatic consequences for religious organizations" (83). Quite frequently when the issue is raised, the focus centers on those pragmatic consequences to the exclusion of their theological implications. But more is at stake for women than their ability to administer a blessing or serve in a bishopric: the issue, for me, is less about personal rights and opportunities as it is about identity in the eternal sense.

Read more . . .

Sunday, May 28, 2006

What Would Jesus Do?

As Christians, we talk a lot about the imitation of Christ; Jesus, we are told, provided us not only with teachings, but also with the example of his life to follow. However, I find that putting this into practice is often more difficult than questions along the lines of "what would Jesus do?" might make it appear. Since few people would argue that we are all required to be itinerant miracle-workers and die excruciating deaths, it's clear that at least to some extent, we have to make judgment calls about just which aspects of Christ's life we are expected to imitate.

One issue which often comes up in this context is that of suffering. Some Christians have historically interpreted the imitation of Christ as including the practice of physical mortification. On a milder note, I know people who are reluctant to take pain medication because they see it as more virtuous to suffer; Jesus didn't shrink from drinking the cup, and they're not going to, either. Given that Jesus suffered, and we believe that this suffering was redemptive, what attitude should we take toward the suffering in our lives and in the world? How can we talk about suffering as potentially having positive effects without thereby undermining efforts to alleviate it?

There's another "what would Jesus do" question I've been wondering about lately. Quite frankly, Jesus at times comes off in the gospels as pretty obnoxious. He calls people names and pulls no punches in denouncing unrighteousness. On numerous occasions I've seen scathing condemnations of others made by people who when confronted about it point out that they're only doing what Jesus did. To be fair, I think they have a point: Jesus tells the Pharisees just what he thinks of them, without any of this politically correct stuff about sensitivity and tolerance.

But my question is: to what extent are we as Christians expected to imitate Jesus' methods? I see a number of reasons to be wary of any idea that we should precisely mimic them. There are the fairly obvious points that none of us are called to the same life mission that he was, and that none of us can claim the perfect love that motivated him. It's also worth considering that he acted in a cultural context quite different from our own, and adopting his rhetorical style and tactics wholesale might be as nonsensical as adopting his dress and eating habits.

In translating foreign languages, a common problem is that if you simply render the text word for word into the second language, you often thereby mangle the meaning of the original. I think a similar problem arises if we see the requirement to follow Christ as meaning to simply copy his behavior. I'm continually trying to figure out what it really means to "translate" the imitation of Christ into the specific situation of my own life, to live in a way which reflects his commitments to love and justice. And I don't think the question, "what would Jesus do?" is always all that helpful in this endeavor. A more useful question, perhaps, is "what would Jesus want me to do?"

Read more . . .

Friday, May 26, 2006

Thoughts from Julian

In the year 1373, at the age of 30, Julian of Norwich had a series of visions, published as the Revelations of Divine Love. I've read the work a couple of times, and I find it good medicine for the overly neurotic soul. While I might not accept all the details of Julian's theology, I love her picture of a God who is approachable, who is infinitely kind, who isn't nearly as troubled by our constant failings and mistakes as we are.

Reports Julian:
God reminded me that I would sin; and because of my pleasure in contemplating him, I was slow to pay attention to that showing. And our very Lord kindly waited and gave me the grace to pay attention . . . And at this I began to feel a quiet fear, and to this our Lord answered, "I am keeping you very safe." This promise was made with more love and assurance and spiritual sustenance than I can possibly say, for just as it was shown that I would sin, the help was also shown.
It's a reassuring idea: yes, we're inevitably going to sin, as uncomfortable as it might be to look at that. But God isn't planning to give up on us or leave us alone when that occurs; he is rather "keeping you very safe." Julian explains, "Our Lord takes tender care of us when we feel that we are almost forsaken and cast away because of our sin and because we have deserved it." One of the most pernicious effects of sin, she warns, is that it prevents us from seeing God correctly. In our guilt, we think that God is angry or hates us, and we turn away from him; we are blinded to the reality of his love.
And when we fall through frailty or blindness, then our kind Lord touches us, moves us and calls us, and then he wants us to see our wretchedness and sinfulness and acknowledge it humbly. But he does not want us to stop at this point, nor does he want us to be very anxious to accuse ourselves, nor does he want us to be inwardly miserable; but he wants us quickly to turn our thoughts to him; for he stands all alone and waits for us, sorrowing and lamenting until we come, and is impatient to have us with him; for we are his joy and his delight, and he is our balm and our life.
Not only is God our delight, but we are also his. We long for God, and God longs for us. Julian elsewhere comments, "For as truly there is a property of compassion and pity in God, so there is as truly a property of thirst and longing in God." I'm reminded of the story of Enos, in which God is no Unmoved Mover but one who weeps over his children.

There's a homey quality to Julian's God; you can imagine yourself having a cup of hot chocolate with him on a cold day, and talking over your troubles. He speaks in a friendly, down-to-earth way, and expresses interest in what's going on with us. Thomas Aquinas, writing the century before, explains in brilliant detail how grace effects a change in us, but it's hard to imagine his God inquiring as to our feelings about the atonement, which is what the Lord asks Julian. And when we finally turn to God, she reports, his affectionate response is, "My darling, I am glad you have come to me. I have always been with you in all your misery and now you can see how much I love you and we are united in bliss."

Sometimes I find myself avoiding prayer because of a vague unease that God is mad at me and perhaps doesn't want anything to do with me anymore. I appreciate Julian's vision, because it tells me of a God who is more patient and loving than I usually think he is. And I also like that it's very much a vision of hope. The Lord tells Julian (in a line famously appropriated by T.S. Eliot), "I may make all things well, I can make all things well and I will make all things well and I shall make all things well; and you shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well."

Read more . . .

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Joseph Smith Sphinx

When I was in Utah this past month, I visited the Gilgal Garden, which supposedly is on a lot of tourist information for Salt Lake City, but that very few local residents are even aware of. It's this odd statue garden where a man named Thomas Battersby Child, Jr. handcrafted huge stones into sculptures that represented his beliefs. The garden contains a variety of sculptures, including "The Monument to the Trade" and "The Monument to the Priesthood," though my two favorites are the "Captain of the Lord's Host," which is a carved figure with a big boulder for a head (how can you not like a statue that just has a big boulder for a head?) and the Joseph Smith Sphinx.

I don't really have any profound thoughts on any of this--I just wanted to introduce everyone to the Joseph Smith Sphinx because I thought it was cool and slightly odd, while totally making sense to me as a Mormon piece of folk art.

Anyone else want to share strange or interesting experiences with Mormon folklore, folk art, etc.?

(The image I posted is a picture by Robert Hirschi, which can be found on the Gilgal Gardens website.)

Read more . . .

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Reflections of a Utah Mormon

Okay, I was actually born in California, but my family moved to Utah the summer I was five years old, and I don't remember much before that time. (I do recall wondering how we would attend church after the move, as I'd gleaned from Primary that we were the "one true church," which I took to refer to the physical building we attended. Little did I know that there would be "true churches" on every block.) I lived in Utah County for the next eighteen years, from the time I started kindergarten to the time I completed my undergraduate education at BYU.

I grew up in a world where you could buy CTR stickers along with bread and milk at the local grocery store, and where you'd usually see at least five members of your ward while you were there shopping. The neighborhood was shaped by invisible ward boundaries; we lived at the edge of the ward, and as a result I was well acquainted with the people living to the north of us, but those in the houses to the south were near strangers, people you might see twice a year at stake conference. (They re-drew the boundaries after I left for BYU, and I've never quite adjusted to the fact that those people are in my parents' ward.)

I had non-member acquaintances, but in all those years I never had a close non-LDS friend. Many of my friends in high school questioned their faith, wondered about feminist issues, perhaps dabbled in exotic things like Buddhism, but our religious conversations inevitably took place in the framework of Mormonism. My seminary teachers claimed that evolution was a theory of the devil, but the AP Biology teachers who taught me about it, and who had no trouble accepting the theory themselves, were also LDS. I never had the experience of "standing up for my beliefs" as a lone Mormon, but I do remember what it was like to wear a Clinton/Gore sticker to school in 1992, and be surrounded by a sea of Bush/Quayle supporters, many of whom took the view that it wasn't possible to be a faithful Mormon and a Democrat.

When I went to BYU, I was fascinated by the stories told by people who'd grown up in other places, some where Mormons were tiny minorities. It was true that I couldn't relate to many of their experiences, but I was nonetheless unsettled by the glib way in which "Utah Mormons" were often dismissed. I heard that people such as myself were sheltered, that we had no idea what it was like to have our testimony challenged, that we needed to get out in the "real world" and find out what life was like. After all, what obstacles could a Utah Mormon, living in the shadow of the everlasting hills, possibly have encountered?

Yet if there were ways in which I was less knowledgeable about the "outside world," I found that I was often more aware of problems within the Church than were my classmates. I remember, for example, a student being shocked to learn that some German Mormons in the 1930s had joined the Nazi party. I was all too aware that being LDS wasn't necessarily a guarantee of anything; I'd grown up hearing scandalous stories about Mormons. Bishops who turned out to be committing adultery. People using their Church connections as a way to further financial scams. The excommunication of George P. Lee. The Paul H. Dunn stories that turned out to be fabrications. Questions about the involvement of the Church in Utah politics. Tensions between LDS authorities and intellectuals. One didn't have to go looking for this stuff; it was on the news, in the air.

I imagine that every place has its own unique challenges. I have to admit that I've found it easier to be a Mormon outside of Utah, and I think it would be hard to go back. And yet I still cringe when I hear people condescendingly referred to as "Utah Mormons." I've been away from the state for a number of years, but I still consider myself in some sense a Utah Mormon; my Mormonness, for good and for bad, has been shaped by my experiences growing up there. I have plenty of my own complaints about Utah, but I find that it's somewhat like having your family criticized. If you're not a fellow Utahn and you start mocking the state and its people, I just might have to wash your mouth out with Jello.

Read more . . .

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Eve at FMH

Eve's currently guest-posting at Feminist Mormon Housewives; check out her thoughts:

Memories of a Trailer-Trash Girlhood: Mormons and Social Class

Introverted in an Extraverted Church

Read more . . .

Thursday, May 18, 2006

"Swept Aside By Feminism"

In the latest of Alexander McCall Smith's absolutely delightful "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" books, Blue Shoes and Happiness, there's a passage about feminism that I thought was hilarious. The character Phuti Radiphuti, a rather shy, earnest man, who is engaged to Mma. Makutsi, is contemplating:
For far too long men had assumed that women would do their bidding, and if women were now questioning that, then he was quite happy to agree with them. Not that he was sympathetic to those people who called themselves feminists: he had heard one of those ladies on the radio and had been shocked by her aggressiveness towards the man who was interviewing her. This woman had more or less accused the reporter of arrogance when he had questioned her statement that men had, in general, fewer abilities than women. She had said that his time was "over" and that men like him would be swept aside by feminism. But if men were to be swept aside, wondered Phuti Pradiphuti, then where would men be put? Would there be special homes for them, where they could be given small tasks to perform while women got on with the important business of running things? Would men be allowed out of these homes on selected outings (accompanied, of course)? For some days after he had listened to the interview, Phuti Radiphuti had worried about being swept aside, and had experienced a vivid and uncomfortable dream— a nightmare, really— in which he was indeed swept aside by a large feminist with a broom. It was an unpleasant experience, tumbling head over heels, covered with a cloud of dust, in the face of the frightening woman's brush-strokes. (p. 53-4)
Phuti musters up the courage to ask Mma. Makutsi if she is a feminist, and she replies "Of course I am. These days most ladies are feminists." This causes some concern for poor Phuti Radiphuti, and as a result for Mma. Makutsi, who is warned that it is unwise to talk to men about feminism as it makes them run away. Fortunately, all is resolved happily in the end.

When feminism is discussed, one of the anxieties which frequently seems to emerge is something along the lines of, if feminists get their way, will men be "swept aside?" I've heard it argued, for example, that if women had the priesthood they would take over the church, and men would no longer feel they had anything to contribute. But I'm not convinced that it's necessary to frame this as a kind of zero-sum game. If women had more formal authority or a greater voice, would this cause men to "lose" something— or is it possible that both men and women could benefit from such contributions?

Read more . . .

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Are All Women "Mothers"?

I've heard it said that all women, regardless of whether they have children, are mothers. (Sheri Dew's oft-quoted talk on the subject a few years ago is a well-known instance of this point of view.) While I appreciate the inclusive intent behind it, I have some serious reservations about such a claim.

First of all, I think the term "motherhood" gets so broadened in this approach as to lose any substantive meaning. I have enormous respect for what mothers do. But I'm simply not going to pretend that the term applies to me, too. To claim that I, in my single childless grad student life, am as much a "mother" as a woman who is raising her children, is to devalue the specific character and importance of what she's doing. If the aim is to point out that women can act caring and nurturing and serve others regardless of whether they have children of their own, why don't we simply speak about that in terms of the call to follow Christ (which, incidentally, applies equally to women and men)? Why appropriate and re-define the term "motherhood?"

In addition, I don't like the way in which "motherhood" and "womanhood" get collapsed into each other in this way of thinking. Motherhood is one role which a woman can take on; I do not however believe that it is constitutive of what it is to be a woman. Women also function in a variety of other roles: sister, wife, daughter, teacher, priestess, etc. But surely what it is to be a woman (or a man) goes far beyond any particular role that she or he might fill.

My sense is that this kind of argument arises from the inflated discourse about motherhood, the tendency in LDS thought to place it on a pedestal. Once that's happened, it becomes awkward to deal with the fact that there are numerous women who don't have the chance (or perhaps even the desire) to be mothers. But where did this rhetorical elevation of motherhood to the highest of all callings come from in the first place? I would guess that it's largely the result of an attempt to make sense of the restriction of the priesthood to males. This is why fatherhood doesn't get talked about in the same kind of idealized way, and why no one feels the need to say that all men are in some sense fathers; as priesthood-holders, their value is already clear.

I don't think that the priesthood/motherhood parallel works, for a number of reasons. And I wonder whether if it were dropped, it would be easier to back away from overblown claims about motherhood. I see it as far more meaningful to talk about motherhood not as some abstract, almost mystical quality possessed by women everywhere, but as a concrete and vital service which many (but not all) women perform. If we want to honor mothers (whom I certainly think are worthy of recognition), let's honor mothers; if we want to honor women, let's honor women. But let's not talk as if the two were identical.

Read more . . .

Friday, May 12, 2006

Reclaiming the Body

The dualism of Descartes still heavily influences contemporary understandings of the mind-body problem. It also heavily influences the church’s own form of dualism: spirit-body.

According to Cartesian dualism, each individual is made up of a mind and a body. The two are linked, but the mind has precedence over the body (who can forget Descartes famous “I think, therefore, I am”?). The source of initiative, rationality, and all other good things, is the mind, while the body is dangerous, transgressive, emotional, etc. (An interesting side-note: many feminist scholars have published on how the mind-body division was imposed onto the man-woman division, where men become assocated with the elevated, rational mind and women with the transgressive, emotional body.) In today’s society, we still have not escaped this dualism. People still trust rationality (a quality of the mind) over emotionality (a quality of the body). Bodies and bodily desires, especially those of women, are still generally considered dangerous and transgressive.

In the church, we have a similar dichotomy, though here the elevated category is that of “spirit” rather than “mind.” In church classes, we are encouraged to submit our natural desires to the dictates of the spirit. In his October 1985 conference address on “Self-Mastery,” Russell M. Nelson argues, “Before you can master yourself, my precious one, you need to know who you are. You consist of two parts—your physical body, and your spirit which lives within your body. You may have heard the expression ‘mind over matter.’ That’s what I would like to talk about—but phrase it a little differently: ‘spirit over body.’ That is self-mastery.” He continues, “Your spirit acquired a body at birth and became a soul to live in mortality through periods of trial and testing. Part of each test is to determine if your body can become mastered by the spirit that dwells within it.”

Nelson’s talk is a clear, representative example of the church’s discourse on the body and spirit division. While we do believe that “[t]he spirit and the body are the soul of man” (D&C 88:15), our discourse often indicates that the spirit is of a higher element than the body, and we need to subsume our bodies to our spirits.

Yet underneath this elevation of spirit over body, the church has a truly amazing (and I would argue, unique) emphasis on the body. Many religions consider us strange for thinking that God is embodied and looks like us. The notion that God has a body of flesh and bone is a significant doctrine, as is our belief that one of the central (if not the central) purposes of mortality is for us to get a body. We learn that Satan and his followers are passionately jealous of our bodies, and that in the spirit world, we’ll be limited in the progress we can make because we will not be in possession of our bodies at that time.

In contemporary philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science, there has been a re-examination and reclaiming of the body (see Elizabeth Grosz’s Volatile Bodies or George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philsophy in the Flesh), and I would like to see us do the same in the church. And not solely in the way we currently see the body celebrated—as a holy temple that we should protect and keep sacred through practices of modesty and chastity (for example, see Susan Tanner’s conference address from last October on “The Sanctity of the Body”). While chastity and modesty are important precepts and teachings, I want more celebration of the joyous nature of our bodies. While our bodies are the object of much of life’s pains and trials, they are also the seat of joy and pleasure and our interface with the many wonders around us.

I also want a more substantial consideration of what it means that our body is an equally important part of “the soul of man.” Why is God embodied? Why do we have bodies? How are they an important part of our eternal nature? Perhaps some of the answers to these questions are beyond our mortal comprehension, but I would propose one preliminary answer: God’s plan is a plan of happiness, and we can only receive a fullness of joy through our body.

Let’s rethink the spirit-body dichotomy and discuss the multifold purposes of our bodies. While controlling our desires is an important lesson of mortality, our bodies are so much more than something to be mastered by our spirits. They are part of our eternal nature, and they play an integral role in our divinity and our capacity for empathy, love, and joy.

Read more . . .

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Ethics of Missionary Work

First of all, before I find myself pelted with tomatoes (or perhaps Books of Mormon) by an army of RMs, let me clarify that I don't think that sharing something which you've found life-changing, something which you think could have tremendous potential benefits for others, is a bad thing to do; in fact, quite the contrary. Nonetheless, I am troubled by much of our discourse about missionary work. I keep coming back to the question of whether it's morally acceptable to enter into a relationship with another human being with a view towards using that relationship to accomplish some other end (even a laudable one), rather than seeing the relationship as an end in and of itself.

I'm actually less bothered by the work performed by full-time, clearly identifiable missionaries. There's a certain straightforwardness to it; they're not hiding the fact that they're out to convert you. But when it comes to that more nebulous realm of "member missionary work," things get murky and at least potentially duplicitous. When I act friendly or loving to people, when I engage in service, it is because I'm hoping to thereby implicitly advertise my faith? And if so, can I truly be said to be practicing charity?

Likewise, viewing people as "potential converts" raises a host of problems. If that's the lens through which I'm relating to someone, am I going to be open to the possibility that I could genuinely learn something from her experience and beliefs, or am I going to be preoccupied with the ways in which I think my answers can fix his problems? Am I going to share the variety of my life experiences, including the struggles and the dark times, or am I going to censor out bits which I fear might not be sufficiently faith-promoting?

I find that when I discuss LDS teachings with non-members (which happens fairly often, given that many of my friends and acquaintances are fellow theology students and quite interested in religion), I sometimes feel like I have to bend over backward to ensure that they know that I'm not only talking about the subject as part of an agenda to convert them, that I'm genuinely interested in their beliefs as well. Because of our reputation for proselytizing, it at times seems that the very fact that I'm a Mormon means that my motives are already suspect in any religious conversation. It's an awkward position to be in.

I wonder whether there's a certain paradoxical element to missionary work, in that you can't directly pursue the goal without damaging the integrity of the process. In other words, it doesn't work to befriend someone in hopes of converting them, because such a friendship is already of dubious authenticity. In a nutshell, I'd prefer to see missionary work as something which enriches relationships, rather than view relationships as a useful tool for furthering missionary work.

Read more . . .

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mothers in the Book of Mormon

It’s Mother's Day on Sunday and I would like to bet that at least one person in every ward is going to read the one mother-related scripture in the Book of Mormon. “Yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them. And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it.” (Alma 56:47-48) Have you ever wondered who those faithful women are?

Approximately twenty-six years before Helaman took his army to fight the Lamanites, the sons of Mosiah and some of their friends set off to preach the word of God to the Lamanites. Among the stories told about this journey, there are those that tell of three women who played a role in the conversion of many Lamanites and may have been the mothers or grandmothers of the sons of Helaman. (See Alma 17-19, 22)

The first woman we run into is only known by her husband, King Lamoni. After Ammon protects the King’s flocks, he preaches to the King, who prays to the Lord and falls down as if dead. The King’s servants carry Lamoni off to his wife, who mourns the apparent death of her husband for two days. She decides against burying Lamoni, has a talk with her husband’s servants and calls for Ammon. When he arrives, she explains that she thinks her husband is not dead as he “does not stink” Ammon takes a look at the King and tells her that he “sleepeth in God” and will awake in the morning. Ammon then asks a very important question. He asks, “Believest thou this?” and she answers, “I have had no witness save thy word, and the word of our servants; nevertheless I believe that it shall be according as thou hast said.” Ammon then counters with the compliment, “Blessed art thou because of thy exceeding faith; I say unto thee, woman, there has not been such great faith among all the people of the Nephites.” The Queen believed the words of an unknown man based simply on the testimony of others.

The story continues. King Lamoni wakes up in the morning, as Ammon had prophesied. Lamoni’s joy in his experiences during those days of unconsciousness is so great that he testifies to his wife and then falls to the floor. His wife, whose heart has been changed through the words of her husband, also falls to the floor, overcome by the Spirit. Ammon and the servants are also overcome and fall to the ground as well. This is where the second woman comes in. Abish, a servant of the Queen who had “been converted to the Lord many years, on account of a remarkable vision of her father,” runs to tell the people the good news, hoping that they will also come to believe in the power of God. Unfortunately, the people aren’t as excited as Abish is. They are suspicious of this unknown Nephite. They fall to arguing among themselves about whether or not they should kill him. This bothers Abish, who had been so excited just a few moments ago. She starts to cry, and runs to the Queen and lifts her up by the hand. The Queen speaks in tongues, proclaims the greatness of God and revives her husband. Ammon and the others soon follow. These two women, one whose testimony had survived on its own for many years and one who had just discovered God, both have great spiritual strength and understanding, and either or both of them must have passed that strength on to their own children.

There is one other woman connected with these events. After having a little confrontation with his son, King Lamoni’s father decides to give the gospel a chance. Ammon’s brother, Aaron, goes to visit him. A similar event happens. King Lamoni’s father, upon hearing the gospel, prays to Lord and falls down as if he were dead. His wife, though, is not as accepting as her daughter-in-law. Instead of believing Aaron, she commands her servants to take him. They refuse out of fear. The queen then commands that the people come and slay Aaron. To avoid any further contention, Aaron stretches forth his hand and raises the King up. The King then proceeds to convert entire household, including his wife. Though this woman does not initially believe and welcome Aaron, she eventually has her own change of heart and joins the church with her husband. As her husband has married children, it is less likely that this woman is the mother of a stripling warrior. But her testimony doubtlessly affected her children and their children and her grandsons could have been among those who remembered the words of their mother.

Though these three women are never again mentioned individually, they are doubtless part of the group of people who moved from the lands of the Lamanites to the land of Jershon, under Nephite protection. These people took on a new name, the Anti-Nephi-Lehites. Therefore, it is no stretch of the imagination to guess that these three women could have been among the ranks of mothers who taught their sons to trust in the Lord. These women could have been among those referred by when the sons of Helaman said, "We do not doubt our mothers knew it."

Read more . . .

Monday, May 08, 2006

I Don't Like Church History

There. I said it.

The flaw is in me, not in the discipline of history, which I just don’t have much of a mind for. Kiskilili and Elbereth--who study very different aspects of it in very different ways--both have a much better intuitive sense of history than I do, and Lynnette earned a couple of degrees in it before finding her calling in theology. Me, I’d rather wander around in the abstractions of philosophy than have to deal with the tedium of what actually happened.

My family moved to Utah right before I started fourth grade. I believe I was forever scarred by those grainy photographs of pioneers bravely conquering the desert, eternally grim and stalwart in their long black outfits. Also, the pioneers are the sacred bogeyman of every Mormon child. If you ever complain about being hot in the back seat of the car on some long trip, someone inevitably points out that the pioneers didn’t have air conditioning when they crossed the plains.

But I can’t blame it all on hagiography. Strike two is polygamy. It’s hard to deal with a version of marriage that essentially continues, in terms of our temple sealing practices, and that has such uncomfortable orignary authority. I’m descended from lots of polygamists, so I owe my existence to the practice, but I can't say I enjoy examining the grim and dirty details.

In the end, all hagiography and polygamy aside, I’m just bored by it. I think it’s great other people love it. I think it’s great there are—evidently!—so many fascinating conversations going on in the LDS world about our history. I have nothing but the profoundest respect for Dave of DMI, the range of whose knowledge and whose civilized tone are my ideal of what the Bloggernacle should be. I think it’s great there are books like _Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview_ and _Mormon Enigma_ and _In Sacred Loneliness_ and _Rough Stone Rolling_. I just can’t make myself pick them up. I just can’t. I’m sorry. I end up reading Harry Potter instead.

I wouldn't deny history funding if I had lots of money. I would just want other people to do it, not me.

Further confessions of my general unfitness to be a Mormon intellectual, coming soon!

Read more . . .

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Tales of Sacrament Meeting

The T&S thread on chapel seating got me thinking about my memories of sacrament meeting over the years. I don't recall that my family sat consistently in one place when I was a kid, though I do remember a lot of sitting in the hard folding chairs in the cultural hall. As I recall, younger sisters could be very useful for helping the time go by. When I was an early teen, I would take one of my younger sisters for a walk during the middle of the meeting, ostensibly because she needed to stretch her legs. Another sister spent sacrament meeting drawing mazes; she reminds me of the time when she left to use the restroom and was quite unhappy when she came back to find that I'd "livened up" her maze with various comments and threats.

I spent a lot of time reading the hymn book, or counting things in it, since there wasn't much else to read. I wasn't the only one turning there for entertainment; my brother put his creative energies to work and re-wrote hymn lyrics. I don't think I'll ever be able to sing "Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel" without thinking of his Communist version, including the refrain, "Put your shoulder to the wheel, push along / And sing only this approved Party song."

When I was living in the Midwest several years ago and attending a branch, one Sunday we had a high council speaker who in the middle of a very random talk mentioned that he wanted to tell us about a gift we all had. I was anticipating something like faith, or the Holy Ghost, so I was a bit surprised when he went on to talk about how we could develop a photographic memory. If we would order the product MegaMemory, he explained, it would increase our memory by five hundred percent; he was going to recommend to the branch president that he purchase it for the branch. I don't think I've ever struggled so hard not to burst into hysterical laughter during a sacrament meeting--which would have been very obvious, given that we met in a fairly small room. I also remember a talk in that branch on the subject of Star Wars, for which the speaker brought a lifesize Yoda as a visual aid (though unfortunately he was asked to leave it in the hall.)

My friends of other faiths often ask me about LDS worship services. I tell them that often they can be quite humdrum. But because we have little formal liturgy and different people talking every week, you really never know what might happen in them.

Read more . . .

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

On Questioning

I've been reading a lot of Luther lately. He makes the point over and over that human reason is insufferably arrogant in its attempts to understand God; God's actions may sometimes appear absurd to us, but it is not our place to judge. Faith, he says, includes believing in the goodness of God even if he decides to damn everyone; it is presumptuous of reason to question God's mercy based on the fact that some end up in hell, even if they had no possibility of doing otherwise. Luther, like Augustine, in asserting the priority of grace over freedom (we do not have the power to opt for faith; God must work that in us), has no solution to the question of why God elects some and not others. For him, that decision is part of the hidden will of God, and it is not our place to pry into such matters.

I hear similar sentiments sometimes expressed by members of the Church. "It's that way because that's how God has chosen to do it, and who are we to second-guess God?" I have a difficult time with such an approach. On the one hand, I do think it's tremendously important to acknowledge that God's perspective is much, much broader than ours, that of course things aren't always going to make sense to us. But I also think it's crucial to continually place our understanding of God's will in dialogue with our conscience, our own sense of right and wrong. The latter is admittedly culturally-bound and fallible, but I think it's worth remembering that the former is as well.

I also think that there is sometimes a bit of a double standard with this. For example, I've occasionally heard comments in church about the troubling implications of the practice of infant baptism, that it suggests a God who is unjust and therefore not to be trusted. In other words, a practice is critiqued on the basis that it makes God appear unfair to our understanding— despite the fact that our understanding is inherently limited. Likewise, people in other religious traditions who worry about what is going to happen to their loved ones who died without having heard of Christ, and who dislike the idea that such people could end up in hell, are likely to be told by Mormons that such concerns are valid and important and worth addressing. Yet when Church members struggle with aspects of our own tradition that seem unjust to them, that perhaps hurt them as deeply as the mother who is told she must believe that her deceased unbaptized child is forever locked out of heaven, they are often told that they simply need to accept that this is how God does things, and it is not our place to object.

Perhaps one reason why we're given multiple ways of accessing truth— scripture, personal revelation, church authority, conscience, reason— is that they serve as checks and balances on each other. It doesn't make sense to me that God would give us the more internal ways of discerning truth and then expect us to automatically discount them if they conflict with more external communications (or the reverse). I don't have an easy answer about what to do when some of these come into sharp conflict with each other. But I don't think the solution is to say "that's just how things are," and dismiss further discussion of such matters as illegitimate and irrelevant.

Read more . . .

Monday, May 01, 2006

Gifted

I was that proverbial and justly despised snot-nose, a gifted child. I remember being separated out from my kindergarten class with a few others into a special group for those of us already reading. I remember taking what I’m now sure was an I.Q. test at the end of first grade, sitting on a large chair in a strange office as a strange woman read me strings of numbers from a book and told me to recite them to her backwards. (So much of childhood consists of navigating adults’ inscrutable directives.) I remember the advanced reading and math classes that provided “enriched” activities. (Who was being subjected to the “impoverished” activities, I wonder now?) I remember the gifted class I attended every morning for an hour in third grade. The work was engaging enough, but there was a tense watchfulness about the teachers. I rarely felt that I pleased them, nor did I ever feel quite at ease in that room.

Like athletic prowess or musical ability, giftedness can quickly swallow an identity whole. Paradoxically, it interferes with learning because it inhibits the confession of ignorance. Once you are gifted, can you have a bad day, put your foot in your mouth, admit that you don’t know something, be dumb, be bad, goof off, daydream, waste time? Even at five, I felt uneasy about the extravagant praise I sometimes garnered. My teachers were praising someone else, and dimly I knew I was not the polite, self-restrained, eager-to-please child I seemed. At school I was pathetically overcontrolled, petrified of failure. But at home I was wild, oversensitive, melodramatic. I fought with my brother and sisters, talked back, burst into tears, threw my toys on the floor, refused to eat my vegetables. The praise of school was based on a myth of myself that, having set in motion, I could not stop because I was terrified of authority and terrified to behave in any other way than with absolute and rigid self-control. Sometimes I wanted to quit being so good just to escape the burden of having to be. Yet I craved the praise of my teachers even as I knew it was not me they were praising.

No life can long sustain such constraints or such contradictions. I didn't last. By eighth grade I was so depressed that for weeks I couldn’t so much as write my own name at the top of my papers, and my glory days were over. It was both a loss and a relief.

The end of my giftedness is the inevitable end of every such story. At some point—high school, college, graduate school—you hit your level, where everyone is just as gifted as you are, and many are more. It is the end of a life that finds its meaning in excelling others, but equally the beginning of other ways of living. Now that I’m old enough to be a garrulous nontraditional student, I find myself asking every question I once swallowed in fear, without pausing to consider how dumb I might sound. The freedom not to know, to be wrong, to be at peace with one's own utter ordinariness: we so misprize such wild and precious liberties.

Our faith promises the gifts of the spirit. Before God we are neither loved nor reviled for them, but given them that we might learn love in their holy uses. A spiritual gift is a language, an invitation to know and love God and one another. And we are judged by our desires for good or evil that find expression in them, not by our gifts themselves. I Corinthians 13 teaches the severe and tender lesson that the only gift that will endure is love. All our gifts fail, or perhaps alternately, in terms of our doctrine of eternal progression, the day will come when like our cast-off mortal social ranks, our gifts will cease to distinguish us out from one another because we will stand in absolute equality before God.

Early in my mission, I memorized a passage of scripture in Italian with my companion, Doctrine and Covenants Section 4, that section missionaries the world over probably still recite together every week at district meeting. I’ve always liked memorization and recitation. I like holding the architecture of a poem in my mind’s eye, entering a room of words in a willed rhythm, like striking the strings of an instrument exactly on the downbeat, and savoring, phrasing the precise musicality of each phrase. To learn by heart is to surrender a piece of yourself to a pattern of language which then has claim upon you. My companion’s favorite verse was, “And if ye have desires to serve, ye are called to the work,” or in Italian, as we said it together, and as it still passes through my mind on sleepless nights, “Se voi avete il desiderio di servire Iddio, voi siete chiamati al lavoro.” My companion was kind, warm-hearted, and outgoing as I’ve never been, and she was merciful to me in my restless weirdness without being condescending. I remember her telling me that no one believed she’d go on a mission. Everyone thought she’d get married instead, which in a swift and bizarre cultural reversal, had the become in some eyes the path of lesser women. She told me how she had quoted that verse to her detractors, confident that her desire alone was enough.

Life strips us beyond nakedness. So much of what we love falsely, and truly, is tenuous. Material things wax old or are lost, we fall into poverty, relationships fail, people we love die. Our minds as well as our bodies can lose their powers to age. Perhaps all that we can hope for in this life is to cultivate our desires for the good. As long as I can desire the good, I can train my heart to hear the sometimes distant but constant call to the work of God, and to respond with whatever means now lie by grace between my hands, knowing that the power of my desire alone is mine.

Read more . . .

Faith and the Imagination

I've recently been doing work on the imagination and self-narrative, and it's made me think a lot about the role of imagination in faith. This isn't at all to say that I see faith as equivalent to belief in something imaginary, but simply that I think our faith is always shaped by our imagination. Our understanding of the divine is inevitably mediated by what we imagine it to be—we carry some kind of picture or image of God in our minds based not only on our life experience but also on the ways in which we've made sense of that experience, the connections we've drawn between events, the meanings we've constructed. And such processes are fundamentally imaginative in nature.

One fascinating suggestion I've encountered is that the Fall is actually a Fall of imagination. We've lost our ability to rightly imagine both God and ourselves. Salvation thus involves a kind of repair of the imagination. Our encounter with revelation, with God's self-disclosure, opens up new possibilities in what we are able to imagine. If revelation is to make any real difference in our lives, we have to go beyond mere intellectual comprehension of its truths; we must imaginatively enter into the world which it discloses to us. Both faith and imagination involve openness to realities beyond what we can currently see.

Of course, the imagination can also be problematic. In looking over scriptures on the subject, I was struck by how negative many of them are. Paul warns of those "who became vain in their imaginations" (Romans 1:21). Mormon notes that "if ye have imagined up unto yourselves a god who doth vary, and in whom there is shadow of changing, then ye have imagined up unto yourselves a god who is not a God of miracles." (Mormon 9:10) The Doctrine & Covenants observes, "They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god" (1:16). One of the real dangers with imagining seems to be that of idolatry. We run the risk of conjuring up an image of God and mistaking it for the final word on the subject, forgetting that God is always beyond our imaginative capacity. We can get stuck in the way which we imagine reality to be, and close ourselves off to new possibilities.

However, I believe that the imagination can be healing, even salvific. Sin is linked to bondage, to lack of freedom, to an ever narrowing field of vision. The imagination can potentially be a way of moving beyond the destructive narratives which we might find ourselves living. Alma 32, which encourages us to experiment on the word and see where it takes us, might be understood as an appeal to the imagination. Our ability to imagine means that we can keep re-interpreting our experience, re-telling our stories— and in that process, we can unexpectedly encounter God even in places where we previously only saw darkness and emptiness.

Read more . . .

Coming Back to Life

I considered writing something cheesy about the beginning of May and it being spring and the sun shining, but I think I'll just say that we're back.

Read more . . .