Monday, February 23, 2015

"When Doubts and Questions Arise"

Hot off the press is the March 2015 Ensign.

Adam Kotter gets it right with his comments on how to healthily respond to a faith crisis:

"When Doubts and Questions Arise"

Incidentally, I just read these words from Elder John A. Widtsoe this evening.
Doubt of the right kind–––that is, honest questioning–––leads to faith. Such doubt impels men to inquiry which always opens the door to truth. The scientist in his laboratory, the explorer in distant parts, the prayerful man upon his knees–––these and all inquirers like them find truth. They learn some things that are known, others are not. They cease to doubt. . . . On the other hand, the stagnant doubter, one content with himself, unwilling to make the effort, to pay the price of discovery, inevitably reaches unbelief and miry darkness. His doubts grow like poisonous mushrooms in the dim shadows of his mental and spiritual chambers. At last, blind like the mole in his borrow, he usually substitutes ridicule for reason, and indolence for labor.
(John A. Widtsoe, "Is It Wrong to Doubt?" in Science and Your Faith in God [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958], 241.)

While I'm at it, here are also some sage words from Joseph F. Merrill.
In these days there are so many false teachings, so much propaganda, so much shallowness and insincerity, so many appeals to self-interest by ambitious demagogues and others, that it behooves the truth-seeker to investigate all proposals and appeals that come to him in order that he may act wisely.
(Joseph F. Merrill, "The Dynamic God of Science," in Science and Your Faith in God, 117.)

A key to successfully navigating a faith crisis is to never assume that you know enough about the topic you're struggling with. If it's plural marriage, the Book of Abraham, Book of Mormon historicity, or other issues in Church history, you can never study too much, but you can always study too little. In my experience, many individuals who resign their Church membership over these and other issues often do so after giving up too easily on the apologetic responses to the criticism, or not even knowing the responses in the first place! In many instances they read the critical material but don't go any further. Or, if they are aware of the apologetic response, they often get it secondhand from critics who are, in reality, presenting little more than a straw man version of the apologetic response that distorts the real argument. (Exhibit A: the apparent inability of the denizens of the Ex-Mormon Subreddit to understand, much less accurately summarize, John A. Sorenson's suggestion that "horse" served as a Nephite loan-shift for the indigenous American tapir. This, incidentally, has led to a bizarre obsession on the part of these ex-Mormons with the tapir that exhibits an amusing ignorance on their part.)

In short, to paraphrase Werner Heisenberg, "The first gulp from the glass of Mormon history will turn you into an ex-Mormon, but at the bottom of the glass faith in Joseph Smith's divine calling is waiting for you."

Thursday, February 19, 2015

On Judgement and Theistic Science

This quote from Andrew Steane is insightful.
Atheists fear that theism is oppressive because it sets an all-powerful judge over us. Obviously, all good things can be abused, but theism is not oppressive when it connects God profoundly to weakness, not power when it comes to personal relationships. It does include judgement, because caring about how someone behaves is unavoidably part of loving them. But if God is like a good parent, as we assert, then His boundless power sets boundaries–––the laws of nature–––but His dealings with us as people are not on the basis of power but of meaning, which is all about holding back and not overpowering; all about teaching, winning over, liberating, sending. All this is practical because people are empowered most deeply when another person, not just an idea, invites them, in love, to rise to be the one they can be. We do that for one another, but we flag–––our springs run dry. What we needs are springs that don't run dry.
(Andrew Steane, Faithful to Science: The Role of Science in Religion [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014], 131.)

This is a remarkably succinct summation of my own views on God's judgement, and the purpose of having and keeping commandments.

On the question of theism's relationship with science, Steane wisely observes:
One can find examples of tension and resistance to scientific ideas coming from religious concerns, but this is the exception not the rule, and furthermore, on investigation it is found that what is at issue is never science as such, but the uses to which it is put, and the inferences that can be drawn from it.  
Notwithstanding this history, modern-day spokespeople for the more extreme form of atheism tend to set up science and religion as alternatives, in which the former eradicates the latter. The plain fact, the fact as plain as day, that science is, and always has been, a part of theism just as much as it is a part of atheism is either ignored or mistrusted. We theists might appear a little muted in our praise for science on occasions, but this is not because we don't embrace it, it is because we are aware of the dangers involved in its possible abuse, and that abuse includes regarding it as something that can accomplish everything and never mislead.
(Steane, Faithful to Science, 139–140.)

This is very similar to what the First Presidency (at the time Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund) said in 1910:
Our religion is not hostile to real science. That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy; but vain philosophy, human theory and mere speculations of men, we do not accept nor do we adopt anything contrary to divine revelation or to good common sense. But everything that tends to right conduct, that harmonizes with sound morality and increases faith in Deity, finds favor with us no matter where it may be found.
(Deseret Evening News, December 17, 1910, part 1, 3.)

Finally, Steane's comment that "science is, and always has been, a part of theism" is in harmony with what is taught in the Doctrine and Covenants.
  • "And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom. Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand; Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you." (D&C 88:77–80)
  • "And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith. Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God." (D&C 88:118–119)
  • "And set in order the churches, and study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people." (D&C 90:15)
  • "And, verily I say unto you, that it is my will that you should hasten to translate my scriptures, and to obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man, and all this for the salvation of Zion. Amen." (D&C 93:53)
Scientific inquiry and scholarship is just as much a part of being a Mormon theist as faith and prayer.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Tough Love from Jesus



Elder Jeffrey R. Holland had some wise words in his April 2014 General Conference address.
Sadly enough, my young friends, it is a characteristic of our age that if people want any gods at all, they want them to be gods who do not demand much, comfortable gods, smooth gods who not only don’t rock the boat but don’t even row it, gods who pat us on the head, make us giggle, then tell us to run along and pick marigolds. Talk about man creating God in his own image! Sometimes—and this seems the greatest irony of all—these folks invoke the name of Jesus as one who was this kind of “comfortable” God. Really? He who said not only should we not break commandments, but we should not even think about breaking them. And if we do think about breaking them, we have already broken them in our heart. Does that sound like “comfortable” doctrine, easy on the ear and popular down at the village love-in? And what of those who just want to look at sin or touch it from a distance? Jesus said with a flash, if your eye offends you, pluck it out. If your hand offends you, cut it off. “I came not to [bring] peace, but a sword,” He warned those who thought He spoke only soothing platitudes. No wonder that, sermon after sermon, the local communities “pray[ed] him to depart out of their coasts.” No wonder, miracle after miracle, His power was attributed not to God but to the devil. It is obvious that the bumper sticker question “What would Jesus do?” will not always bring a popular response.
(Jeffrey R. Holland, "The Cost–––and Blessings–––of Discipleship," Ensign, May 2014, 7–8.)

A survey of the four gospels vindicates Elder Holland's position.

1. Jesus' go-to epithet for his religious opponents and other pious pretenders was "hypocrite." Jesus calls his opponents "hypocrites" no less than thirteen times in Matthew (Matt 6:2, 5, 17; 7:5; 15:7; 22:18; 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29; 24:51), once in Mark (Mark 7:6), and three times in Luke (Luke 6:42; 12:56; 13:15). The word ὑποκριτής originally denoted a stage actor, or someone who puts on a good show for the audience. It came to be used metaphorically for a dissembler or someone who deals in obfuscation, and the New Testament uses the word to describe someone who is a moral or religious counterfeit.

2. Jesus was not afraid to call his opponents children of the devil (John 8:44), nor two of his apostles "Satan" (Matthew 16:23; Mark 8:33) and "a devil" (John 6:70; cf. 13:2, 27; Luke 22:3), respectively.

3. In one fiery exchange Jesus called the "scribes and Pharisees" he was debating with "child[ren] of hell" (Matthew 23:15).

4. Jesus was no fan of Herod Antipater, and on one occasion derisively called him "that fox" (Luke 13:32), in what was clearly a pejorative epithet for Herod the Great's successor in Galilee and Perea.

5. It wasn't just Herod that elicited animal epithets from Jesus. Twice in Matthew Jesus calls his religious opponents a "brood of vipers" (Matthew 12:34; 23:33).

6. If calling his opponents foxes, vipers, and children of hell wasn't enough, Jesus also once referred to the scribes and Pharisees as "whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside [are] full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth" (Matthew 23:27, 29).

Lest I am misunderstood, I am not advocating that we use such harsh rhetoric in all of our correspondences with those we disagree with. Of course civility and tact are important, even when we're in the middle of a heated debate or exchange. Rather, I just want to remind everyone that sometimes it is okay, even necessary, to call people out for what they really are. I also want to remind certain individuals, who shall remain nameless, to be really careful before they appeal to Jesus (or Paul) when they demand some kind of special treatment for their questionable actions.

Faithful to Science

I continue to enjoy Andrew Steane's new book Faithful to Science: The Role of Science in Religion. Below is another part of his book that I found particularly insightful.
Faith is also central to science. This is not only in the obvious (and important) sense that scientists have to talk to and trust one another, but also in two further ways which are quite telling. First is the fact that one is never certain of what one is doing, but one forges ahead anyway. Second is the fact that scientific progress is guided not by pure reason but by a combination of reason and gut instincts.  
To illustrate the first point, I can say, for example that in my experience as a physicist, I have never published a single scientific paper in which I was absolutely sure I was not mistaken in my arguments. I simply honestly believed I had done a good job and was not mistaken. If I had not gone ahead and published, I would have been left silent and would have had nothing to contribute. But I did publish, and it subsequently became clearer as things developed further that my work had been good (though not perfect), and had made a positive contribution. 
The second point, that scientific progress is not guided by reason alone, is not to say that anything downright irrational is admitted. It is partly to recognize that one cannot always build by sheer logic on what is known. Something more inventive and exploratory is involved. This is what T. H. Huxley probably had in mind when he said, 'In scientific work, those who refuse to go beyond fact rarely get as far as fact'. Furthermore, in order to determine the value of a set of rational ideas one needs to develop a form of aesthetic judgement, and sometimes this type of judgement can be more important than having ready answers to every difficulty. Admittedly, in science we try to question our own assumptions all the time, and 'bend over backwards' to make sure there is no mistake in our experiments or reasoning. This is true, but it is not the whole truth. In fact, scientists also revel in defending theories against contrary evidence (up to a point), and this is a positive engine for progress, not a defect in the scientific enterprise. What happens is that a scientist, after lengthy deliberation and investigation, may come to an inspired new way of looking at a variety of natural phenomena. The scientist experiences a deep joy and not a little awe at how elegant and somehow right his or her new theory seems to be. Features of the natural world which previously appeared to be arbitrary now seem to fit into place in a wonderfully neat way. However, it often happens that there are further pieces of evidence which do not agree with the new theory, or the theory appears to make some ridiculous predictions. What does a good scientist do in such a situation? He or she makes a choice: either to reject the theory or to become an advocate for it. In the latter case, the evidence that seems to go counter to the theory will not be ignored, but arguments will be given which suggest how that evidence may be mistaken or misleading, or a simple hope will be expressed that later work will reconcile the apparent contradiction. Science absolutely depends on people taking risks of this sort.
... 
The truth about science is, then, that is flourishes when scientists show faith in their theories: they embrace them because they are beautiful, and they put up some resistance to abandoning them. They take seriously serious counter-evidence, but they require it to prove its credentials.  
It is not hard to make the case that faith is involved when scientists launch out on their voyage of discovery, whether in picking research directions, or intuiting concepts before investing in the effort to elaborate them, and when they publish and promote their ideas. I am not trying to imply that this simplifies the more subtle question of religious faith, only that one should not regard the idea of 'faith' itself as an unworthy part of human nature. Faith is not contrary to reason, nor is it an alternative to reason. Faith, in the sense of engagement and eagerness for the journey, is a partner to reason. . . . Faith is not irrational, but it does go beyond what can be proved by reason.
(Andrew Steane, Faithful to Science: The Role of Science in Religion [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014], 15–18.)

For those who have ears to hear, these comments also have application for Mormon apologetics. There are some who insist that Mormon apologists presuppose their conclusions as being true, and thus are different from "critical scholars." Actually, in my experience interacting with such groups as FairMormon, Steane is more close at describing the mindset of many apologists than other voices on the Internet.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

More Thoughts from Andrew Steane

Here is a collection of more quotes from Andrew Steane's excellent book Faithful to Science. (See also here and here.)
Miracles are events that break the rules, but not in an arbitrary way–––they are pointers to a larger set of rules (p. 95).
Compare this with these remarks from the LDS Bible Dictionary.
Miracles should not be regarded as deviations from the ordinary course of nature so much as manifestations of divine or spiritual power. Some lower law was in each case superseded by the action of a higher. 
This has been the Mormon understanding of miracles since the early theological ruminations of Parley P. and Orson Pratt.
Autobiography is utterly subjective, but it is valuable because the truth of a matter can be told partly by how it works out in practice, in the messy but precious situations of peoples' lives, not just the simplified atmosphere of the academic dissecting room (p. 97).
It is important to remember that not all truth or knowledge comes from scientific endeavors, but also sometimes from our own subjective life experiences and perceptions. Determining whether the commandments are "true" (i.e. they impart specific blessings for following them) in large part results from our personal experiences living and applying them.
My experience of the science/faith question has been a sequence that could be summarized as: 'innocence, then painful tension, then (mostly) resolution', and this sequence has been followed in more than one area at various times. By 'innocence' I mean the initial feeling that I enjoyed, namely that thee is no tension whatsoever; science is the fascinating study of one aspect of God's great creative work. By 'tension' I mean the difficulty that the natural world does not always, or in all aspects, look like the work of a good creator, and that ultimately there is no unavoidable conclusion one way or the other regarding questions of origins. . . . By 'smooth resolution' I mean that most of the intellectual difficulties that have bugged me in the past have eventually fallen away as I learned to see the resolution, but this does not precent my becoming aware of new ones (p. 101)
This is true for me as well. It has been, at times, a rocky road of discovery, synthesis, and paradigm shifting, but I have found satisfactory answers to most of my pressing questions about the existence of God, the Church's truth claims, issues with the scriptures and Church history, etc. There are still issues I'm rattling around in my mind, but I have witnessed a positive trend in finding answers to my most pressing questions.
People fear that the same or an even worse risk associated with letting God be an arbiter of right and wrong. Obviously, it can be abused when people claim to speak for God, but at least we are free to call that abusive. The truth of the situation is not to be feared but welcomed, because it is not that God invents moral dictates arbitrarily (what a contemptible notion!). Rather, the situation is comparable to that of a judge in a human court of law: the judge does not invent the law and is not above the law, but is trusted to discern the law. The difference is that God can always be trusted. He can be trusted both to see clearly and to decide fairly (p. 105).
This is, needless to say, a very Mormon view on God's relationship to eternal laws, judgement, etc.

Finally, speaking of atheistic determinism, Steane write:
We must reject these mechanistic claims, and believe that any argument leading to them is faulty, even if we can't immediately see the fault in the argument or its premise. We must do this partly because such arguments are self-destroying. If our thoughts are only ever inexorably channelled or randomly thrown by microscopic rules, with no appeal to higher-level concepts such as reason and assertion, aesthetics and value, then we cannot reason and the 'argument' is not an argument, merely a sequence of utterances, and the word 'imply' is meaningless in all human languages. It amounts to arguing, on 'scientific' grounds, that science itself is a grand delusion (p. 116).
An acquaintance of mine who is a physicist recently made this same point in a e-mail exchange with me on this topic.
From a philosophical level, believing determinism undercuts our ability to trust anything about science. Unless we had freedom to conduct experiments, to interpret the data, to make informed conclusions freely, how can we trust any of it? If something chose what experiment we ran for us, or if something chose what interpretation we made for us, how can we trust anything? If we have no free will, for all we know, how we do science and what we take away from it is forced upon us and thus we have no way of having any faith in the enterprise.
I will continue reading through Steane's book and posting more money quotes as I find them. So far I am highly impressed with Steane, and highly recommend him.

"Isis post video allegedly showing mass beheading of Coptic Christian hostages"

As reported by the Guardian, ISIS–––that degenerate, nihilistic death cult–––recently allegedly executed 21 Coptic Egyptian Christians in a mass murder.

Unfortunately, there appears to be little reason to doubt the veracity of this report.

If ever Matthew 10:32 applied to anyone, it applies to these and other martyrs who have died in the conflict with ISIS. "Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven."

The words of John's apocalypse also apply here.
And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled. (Revelation 6:9–11)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Lebensmüdigkeit, Sehnsucht, und Wanderlust

One thing I love about the German language is how expressive it is. The standard joke is if there isn't a word for something in German, just take three or four different words and smash them together to make one. Or, if you want a very specific word for a very specific thing, you can smash together a bunch words to come up with something like Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän. (That's a real thing. Look it up.)

Recently, as I've been winding down my time at BYU, I have fallen into a rather singular emotional state. I can't really describe it adequately in English, so I'll revert to German.

I've recently been suffering from a bad bout of what the Germans call Lebensmüdigkeit. What does this mean? It literally translates as "life tiredness," and is slippery to nail down in English. It's not quite depression (I'm not sad), or exhaustion (I'm have energy), or anything like that, although it can be paired with those and other near-synonyms. It's also not really being "tired of life" in a suicidal sense (no need to call a suicide hotline, I promise), although, again, it can be linked with that. I'd say it's more like resignation mixed with frustration at not seeing progress or changes one's life that one wants to see happen. In my estimation it's more like being tired with one's circumstances in life than life itself, although one may understandably take the implications of meaning all the way.

Of course, when one suffers from Lebensmüdigkeit, that almost naturally drives one to foster Sehnsucht in one's breast. This one's a little easier to nail down. Typically translated as "longing" or "yearning," it has been defined by Wikipedia thusly:
Sehnsucht represents thoughts and feelings about all facets of life that are unfinished or imperfect, paired with a yearning for ideal alternative experiences. It has been referred to as “life’s longings”; or an individual’s search for happiness while coping with the reality of unattainable wishes. Such feelings are usually profound, and tend to be accompanied by both positive and negative feelings. This produces what has often been described as an ambiguous emotional occurrence.
A casual glance at the standard canon of Lieder (as performed by the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for example) will reveal no less than 7 songs from the Romantics either titled simply "Sehnsucht" or containing the word as a compound element. Here, for example, is Schiller's poem "Ach, aus dieses Tales Gründen," set to music by Schubert and titled simply "Sehnsucht."

Ach, aus dieses Tales Gründen,
Die der kalte Nebel drückt,
Könnt' ich doch den Ausgang finden,
Ach, wie fühlt' ich mich beglückt!
Dort erblick' ich schöne Hügel,
Ewig jung und ewig grün!
Hätt' ich Schwingen hätt ich Flügel,
Nach den Hügeln zög' ich hin.

Harmonieen hör' ich klingen,
Töne süßer Himmelsruh',
Und die leichten Winde bringen
Mir der Düfte Balsam zu,
Gold'ne Früchte seh' ich glühen,
Winkend zwischen dunkelm Laub,
Und die Blumen, die dort blühen,
Werden keines Winters Raub.

Ach wie schön muß sich's ergehen
Dort im ew'gen Sonnenschein,
Und die Luft auf jenen Höhen,
O wie labend muß sie sein!
Doch mir wehrt des Stromes Toben,
Der ergrimmt dazwischen braust,
Seine Wellen sind gehoben,
Daß die Seele mir ergraust.

Einen Nachen seh ich schwanken,
Aber ach! der Fährmann fehlt.
Frisch hinein und ohne Wanken,
Seine Segel sind beseelt.
Du mußt glauben, du mußt wagen,
Denn die Götter leih'n kein Pfand,
Nur ein Wunder kann dich tragen
In das schöne Wunderland.

This is an excellent poetic summary of the feelings associated with Sehnsucht.

Finally, those who experience Sehnsucht for something frequently fall into Wanderlust. This last one has come into English as a loanword, and was even the title for a 2012 film starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd. Literally "hiking desire," for the Romantics Wanderlust was the impulse to escape into the world and leave behind your old life. It was effectively memorialized with Werther's openly exclamation:
Wie froh bin ich, daß ich weg bin! Bester Freund, was ist das Herz des Menschen! Dich zu verlassen, den ich so liebe, von dem ich unzertrennlich war, und froh zu sein!
So, how does this all apply to me right now? I can't really articulate it at this time, actually. Suffice it to say that I've grown somewhat frustrated at the stagnancy in my life right now, which makes me yearn for something new and better, which drives me to want to escape Provo and the life I know right now. Thankfully, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Come April I will be done with BYU, done with Provo, and, if all goes well, gearing up for grad school in the fall and working for my sister and brother-in-law during the summer.

Until that happens, though, I am left to reflect these words from Schiller:

Doch mir wehrt des Stromes Toben,
Der ergrimmt dazwischen braust,
Seine Wellen sind gehoben,
Daß die Seele mir ergraust.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

On Questions and Patience

The British physicist Andrew Steane has this to say about questions.
Questions should not be dismissed or discouraged, but sometimes answers have to be postponed, because the student has to first acquire the necessary conceptual apparatus in order to understand the very language of the answer. . . . [O]ne wants the student to . . . ask really probing questions, but one does not want the student to give air to mere vanity that declares it to be nonsense before it is even understood.
(Andrew Steane, Faithful to Science: The Role of Science in Religion [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014], 39.)

This reminds me of a line from Walt Whitman's poem "Song of the Answerer": "He is the Answerer, / What can be answer'd he answers, and what cannot be answer'd he / shows how it cannot be answer'd."

In academia there are plenty of issues or questions that, at the present, cannot be completely resolved or answered. This is also true with some issues in Church history and doctrine. What do we do in this case? Hugh Nibley urged,
The two rules to follow here are 1) to ask the right questions, and 2) to keep looking.
(Hugh Nibley, “The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham: A Response,” in An Approach to the Book of Abraham, ed. John Gee [Provo, UT: FARMS, 2009], 499.)

This is very wise advice from two very wise men. If someone were to come to me asking how best to address a faith crisis, I would strongly recommend he or she first adopt the paradigm of Steane and Nibley.

John Dehlin Has Been Excommunicated. Here's the Reason Why

As announced in various news outlets (here, here, and here) John Dehlin has been excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Below is the letter (taken from here; see also here) sent by President Bryan King to Dehlin, dated February 9, 2015. This letter details exactly why Dehlin has been excommunicated.

(Click to enlarge)



Note the specific reasons why Dehlin was excommunicated:

1. "Your teachings disputing the nature of our Heavenly Father and the divinity of Jesus Christ."
2. "Your statements that the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham are fraudulent and works of fiction."
3. "Your statements and teachings that reject The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as being the true Church with power and authority from God."

Do you see any mention of supporting LGBT rights or Ordain Women? 

Make sure you read the entire letter. It is very clear, precise, and reasonable.

This, of course, won't stop Dehlin and his supporters from obfuscating and perpetuating the narrative that Dehlin is being punished for having questions, and that he is an LGBT/Ordain Women martyr. 

This letter represents, in the mind of the Church, why Dehlin is being excommunicated, to wit: 
[Y]ou do not have the right to remain a member of the Church in good standing while openly and publicly trying to convince others that Church teachings are in error. 
[Update] 

The Church has responded to Dehlin's excommunication here. Also, be sure to read the piece by MormonVoices here.

Friday, February 6, 2015

On "Unrighteous Dominion"

Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail by Liz Lemon Swindle.
I have problems with people casually throwing out accusations of "unrighteous dominion" at Kate Kelly's and John Dehlin's priesthood leaders. The phrase, of course, comes from Doctrine and Covenants 121.
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. (D&C 121:39)
If we look at D&C 121 in its historical context, I believe we see that Joseph Smith had some very specific things and circumstances (and even people) in mind when he warned against priesthood holders exercising "unrighteous dominion." 

For starters, we need to understand that this section of the D&C comes from the middle of Joseph's lengthly letter to the Church (through bishop Edward Partridge) dated March 20, 1839. (You can read the letter at the Joseph Smith Papers here.) In this letter, Joseph, among other things, decries the deplorable conditions he and the Saints were in at this time. Historian Steven C. Harper describes these conditions and the actions of some of Joseph Smith's most trusted brethren that landed him there. 

In a cramped and filthy dungeon room without beds, bathrooms, warmth, or adequate food, Joseph passed his darkest days. He was awaiting trial for a capital offense without hope for due process of law as his wife, children, and beloved followers were robbed of their property, stripped of their civil liberties, and driven midwinter by a mob acting under the guise of official orders from the governor, aided and abetted by a host of apostates. Indeed, many of Joseph's most trusted and stalwart brethren had forsaken him. (Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants: A Guides Tour Through Modern Revelation [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2008], 447.)

Who were these apostates that, through their betrayal of the Prophet, landed him in Liberty Jail? They included former apostles Thomas B. Marsh, Orson Hyde, and William E. McClellin, as well as others, such as Sampson Avard (the founder of the infamous Danite band) and William W. Phelps. Each of these men held prominent positions in the Church either locally–––such as Avard, a member of the Far West high council–––or in the upper hierarchy, and each of them in some way contributed to Joseph ending up in jail.

It was these circumstances and the actions by these once-faithful leaders that Joseph was almost certainly responding to when he spoke of "unrighteous dominion" being a threat to the stability of the Church and its members. He was, I am convinced, reacting to and warning against the kind of things these dissidents had done to cause Joseph and the Church major grief in Missouri. (There are plenty of handy monographs I can recommend, such as Alexander L. Baugh's fantastic volume A Call to Arms: The Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri [BYU Press, 2000] or Leland H. Gentry's Fire and Sword [reprint; Greg Kofford, 2009] that more throughly document what these dissidents had done to cause problems.) Joseph even names Avard specifically in his letter as one who had caused the Saints many "sufferings" because of his "wickedness," so it seems to me that this stuff was on his mind as he wrote. 

As such, "unrighteous dominion" isn't just whenever a priesthood leader does something you don't agree with. It's when a priesthood leader in the Church attempts to use his position for self-aggrandizement, puffing up his pride, bolstering his control, or exploiting others. Fundamentally, it comes down to betraying the duties of the priesthood, especially when things get tough, or to secure the praise of the world. Joseph says just as much in his letter. "Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men" (D&C 121:34–35). Here is Harper once again, who summarizes this well. 
"[Those who commit 'unrighteous dominion'] cannot have power in the priesthood if they cover their sins, gratify pride, have vain ambition, or exploit the weak and the impoverished," which sins these dissidents Joseph was responding to had committed. (Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants, 450.)
Notice too that "unrighteous dominion" comes at the end of a list of highly unflattering and sinful behavior that should never be exhibited by a priesthood holder. "[W]hen 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," that, Joseph says, is when "the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man" (D&C 121:37).

So here is my question for anyone who wants to accuse Kate Kelly's or John Dehlin's priesthood leaders of "unrighteous dominion," or of otherwise having had their priesthood authority "withdrawn" because of their alleged participation in such. What, exactly, have they done that remotely qualifies as anything listed above? Remember, Joseph was responding to very specific problems facing the leadership of the Church in Missouri in 1838–39. He was responding to these very things being done by even some of his most trusted brethren. How, then, exactly have Kelly's or Dehlin's leaders: (A) set their hearts "upon the things of this world"; (B) "aspire[d] to the honors of men"; (C) "undertake[n] to cover [their] sins"; (D) "gratif[ied] [their] pride"; or (E) attempted to "exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men"? 

I don't want generalities here. I want specifics. What specific actions have Kelly's or Dehlin's leaders undertaken that qualify as "unrighteous dominion," given the conjoining behaviors attending such laid out by D&C 121? The revelation is very specific in naming what kind of behavior qualifies a priesthood holder to lose his authority and power because of "unrighteous dominion." I'm sorry, but simply excommunicating someone isn't enough. It is the prerogative of bishops and stake presidents, as judges in Israel, to employ such measures when they feel it necessary (and after having undertaken the proper protocol). If, say, it could be shown that Kelly's or Dehlin's leaders excommunicated them out of spite, hatred, or jealously, or to cover up their own sins and transgressions, then you might have something. Until then, any accusation of "unrighteous dominion" against them is simply ludicrous. 

In fact, I'd challenge anyone reading this to go look at Bishop Harrison's letter to Kelly or President King's letter to Dehlin and show me where their tone, attitude, or demeanor in any way reflect these characteristics above. 

I am perfectly satisfied that Bishop Harrison and President King have in no way exercised "unrighteous dominion" upon Kate Kelly or John Dehlin. I am likewise perfectly satisfied that any accusation of such leveled against Harrison and King by Kelly's or Dehlin's apologists is little more than empty rhetoric that both fundamentally misunderstands what D&C 121 has to say about "unrighteous dominion" and is meant to unduly inflame the public's passions against these brethren. 

Finally, I want to end by drawing attention to verses 16–17 in D&C 121. 

Cursed are all those that shall lift up the heel against mine anointed, saith the Lord, and cry they have sinned when they have not sinned before me, saith the Lord, but have done that which was meet in mine eyes, and which I commanded them. But those who cry transgression do it because they are the servants of sin, and are the children of disobedience themselves.

Let this be a warning against those who would so casually toss around accusations of "unrighteous dominion" against any of the Lord's anointed, including Kate Kelly's or John Dehlin's priesthood leaders. 

Are You an Active Mormon? Kate Kelly is Insulting You (But You're Probably Too Stupid to Realize It)

If you're an active, faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are content with your membership in the Church, are happy to sustain Church leaders, willingly keep your covenants, and aren't on a feminist crusade to tear down the patriarchy at any cost, then Kate Kelly has a message for you.
Sadly, the Mormon faith has become a place that incentivizes the survival of the least fit. Since strict obedience is demanded and harshly enforced, only the least talented, least articulate, least nuanced thinkers, least likely to take a stand against abuse, and the least courageous people thrive in the Church today. 
Yes, you read that correctly. If you're an active member who hasn't hitched your wagon to Kelly's Ordain Women movement, or if you're otherwise not some kind of dissident, you're untalented, inarticulate, unnuanced, and complicit in (the patriarchy's?) unspeakable abuses.

Oh, and if you're not actively "seek[ing] change," you don't have a conscience.
Mormon congregants of conscience will continue to ask bold questions and seek change – and it’s up the the Church, like any good shepherd, to respond to the needs of its modern flock. 
You're also "small-minded," by the way, if you don't "accept" dissenters.
The enemy is a world and paradigm too small-minded to accept the dissenters and outcasts that Christ himself would have ministered to and included.
What does that even mean? Seriously. "Accept" dissenters? How? Treat them like human beings? Show them basic courtesy? (Something Kelly evidently isn't willing to do for those who dissent from her views.) Okay, sure. But is that it? What else? Let them vocally criticize the Church, belittle the Brethren, mislead members with false doctrine, and the like, with no repercussion? Let them, say, accuse President Monson of being a fraud and try to haul him to court? Or publicly spread rumors of President Monson's mental health to undermine his leadership? Or publish trashy anti-Mormon tabloids that are rife with falsehoods, spin, and misinformation?

In all seriousness, this piece by Kelly has to be one of the most condescending, preachy, inaccurate, deranged, smug, and self-righteous articles I have encountered in recent memory. Oh, and it is breathtakingly insulting. Kelly's utter and brazen contempt for her erstwhile fellow Saints (to say nothing of Church leaders) reveals her true colors. Not that I'm particularly outraged or offended per se. At this point, I wouldn't expect anything less from Kelly. After all, "If [she has] called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall [she] call them of his household?" (Matthew 10:25) Rather, I just want to highlight the kind of attitude Kelly holds for those who disagree with her. That, and I want people to notice the fruits Kelly has produced since her excommunication. Has she shown contrition, humility, an openness to dialogue, or any signs of wanting to repair the breech? No. She has, instead, exhibited contempt and heaped calumny upon the heads of the Saints.

In the end, after reading Kelly's screed, all I can think of is this clip. Then again, I'm apparently untalented, inarticulate, dull of thought, cowardly, and lack a conscience, so what do I know?