Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On Scripture and Historical Truth

I've been mulling this essay over in my head for years. There are a couple of early attempts at it among my more ancient draft posts. But it has taken me a while to accumulate the perspective I think I really needed to grapple with this question in a way that feels satisfying to me. Lacking sufficient perspective, I was willing to table the discussion, and let my disjointed, contradictory thought processes bounce around off each other, awaiting new information or insights.

I'll start by saying that questions about the historicity of the Book of Mormon or the Bible were not among the chief intellectual problems that troubled me at the time I left the Mormon Church in the mid 1980s. I first became somewhat aware of potential problems related to Book of Mormon historicity when an archaeology professor of mine at BYU admitted to a number of dumbfounded students in an after-class discussion that, "not only is there not much archaeological evidence supporting the Book of Mormon, but much of what we know from archaeology seems to conflict with the Book of Mormon."

Oddly at the time, as shocking as that admission sounded coming from a BYU professor, the following admission was actually the one that upset me more profoundly. When we asked him how he could reconcile what he knew as an archaeologist with his faith in the Church, he told us that he simply wore "two different hats." On Sunday, he took off his archaeologist hat and put on his faithful, testimony-bearing, Church-member hat. In the classroom, he did the opposite. That -- to me at the time -- seemed the more profound betrayal. I vowed that I would never wear separate hats. I would always pursue truth from an integrated perspective, refusing to compromise and refusing to compartmentalize as this professor had seemingly done.

It was only much later, many years after I had left the Church, that I started to read about some of the specific historical and archaeological criticisms leveled against the Book of Mormon. And it was only again many years after that, as I returned to the faith, that I became aware of the various dialogs among different groups of Mormon and non-Mormon intellectuals about the implications of secular research for LDS belief in what Joseph Smith called "the keystone of our our religion," the book without which there can be no rational basis for believing in "Mormonism."

One of the most profound spiritual experiences I had, the spiritual experience that more than anything set the course for my current path, occurred when I started to read the Book of Mormon again. I knew that I could not read the Book of Mormon -- or any scripture -- without the Spirit to guide me, and so I prayed to God for the first time in many years. And then following the powerful experience I had as a result of that prayer, I began to read the Book of Mormon daily, and found the Spirit testifying to me frequently and teaching me through its pages. So I had a renewed testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, but it was a spiritual testimony. Not based on painstaking archaeological or historical or linguistic or DNA research, but more the type of testimony that is best described in the Book of Mormon itself, in Alma 32, where you plant a seed of faith, and you water it and nurture it, and as it grows you experience the goodness and truth of it. You grow.

So I can say that while I lost faith largely as a result of my struggles related to being gay, I matured back into the faith as a result of reading the Book of Mormon.

I was still very aware of the "problems" related to accepting the Book of Mormon as true in some objective, historical sense, and not just as a poetic communication of spiritual truths. I am still very interested in reading anything and everything related to Book of Mormon historicity; and I recognize that much of the debate and scholarship on this subject poses not just intellectual but spiritual challenges to Mormonism. But my spiritual witness of "Mormonism" and of the Book of Mormon is such that it does not trouble me to accept that there are "problems" or "challenges" from a secular, historical point of view. I'm willing to continue to accumulate knowledge, to view this as an open question. I can say there is much we still do not know from a historical or archaeological point of view, probably far more than what we do know. So I need not cancel out faith based on what we do know from a secular perspective.

What I have learned through a methodology of faith has enabled me to progress as a human being; it has taught me patience, hope and love. What I have learned (and continue to learn) through secular study of history teaches me humility. It teaches me to have respect for others whose beliefs are different from my own. It teaches me the value of reason as a moral faculty. So I respect secular learning, I love it. But I see no reason to let it override my deepest spiritual impulses.

There are other web sites that document the various challenges and counter-challenges in relation to Book of Mormon historicity. There are the historical arguments about whether the Book of Mormon was more likely to have been produced by 19th-century U.S. culture than by ancient Hebrew-American prophets between 600 B.C. and 400 A.D. There are linguistic and textual arguments about whether or not there are parallels between Book of Mormon texts and ancient Middle Eastern texts. There are archaeological arguments about the lack of evidence of horses and steel and writing in pre-Columbian America; not to mention the difficulty of connecting actual real-world locales to the sites described in the Book of Mormon. There are the debates over what DNA evidence about the ancestry of Native Americans can or cannot tell us about possible infusions of Middle Eastern DNA into the gene pool of this hemisphere. And of course there are the debates over the verisimilitude of Joseph Smith's claims about angelic visitations and golden plates. I think I've covered all the main lines of discussion...

Faithful Mormon scholars have, I think, been the underdogs in many of these debates. They have generally been on the defensive, focusing on making room for faith. The best ones, I think, have succeeded, but not without surrendering first some of the more naive assumptions about the Book of Mormon shared by the majority of LDS faithful who don't trouble themselves with these issues. But underdogs or not, I think all that needs to be accomplished, from a viewpoint of faith, is to make room for faith. So whether or not faithful Mormon scholars persuade their secular colleagues of their scholarly point of view or not is ultimately irrelevant as concerns issues of faith.

There is no reason why scholars of ancient American or Near Eastern history should pursue their studies with a goal of proving scriptural texts -- or with any goal at all, other than to unearth more data about the past. Nor is there any reason why faithful scholars should not take their belief in the historicity of a scriptural text to the field with them, with a goal of confirming it. Rare is the scholar or scientist who doesn't begin with a set of questions which they then proceed to prove or disprove. Much of the best science is done that way. It is advantageous that science be pursued this way from many different angles -- faith-promoting, or faith-challenging, or neither. This is how propositions are tested and truth is won.

The secular challenges to Book of Mormon (or for that matter Biblical) historicity does not trouble me as a person of faith because, from a philosophical perspective, many of the foundational events of faith are by definition unique events. You cannot, by definition, find either precedent for or experimental confirmation of the son of God being born in the flesh, crucified, placed in a tomb cold and dead, and then returning to life. Once the angel Moroni has delivered the golden plates to Joseph, the book has been translated, and the plates returned, he will not come back and repeat the performance for skeptical historians. There were historical witnesses of these events, and you can pore over the sources as a way of figuratively cross-examining the witnesses. You can compare their accounts to the accounts of others, both conflicting and confirming. You can compare the story of Jesus Christ to Dionysus or Mithridates or Horus, and draw whatever conclusions you like about about the supposed parallels. But ultimately, accepting (or rejecting) the reality of the event becomes an act of imagination or faith, or whatever you want to call it.

Personally, I have evolved a disposition to accept these miraculous events as literally true, though maybe not in exactly the terms or the way we always imagine them from reading the texts about them. I accept that the accounts may be flawed (certainly, logically they must be, especially when we find contradictions between different canonical versions of the same account). But I am convinced of their fundamental truth (not "truthiness," as Stephen Colbert says, but "truth").

Every community of faith exists as a witness of the foundational events that created it. Judaism is the proof of Mount Sinai. Christianity is the proof of Jesus. Islam is the proof of Mohammed, just as surely as Mormonism is the proof of Joseph Smith. For those of us who live in the generations after Sinai, or Christ, or Mohammed, or Joseph, the events themselves manifest themselves differently to us. We experience their witness by living lives consonant with the truth that was revealed and that others passed on to us. Our experience is in many ways the reverse of those who experienced the miraculous, foundational event. They experienced it, and changed their lives to conform to the new truth revealed in that way. We inherited it, and created belief in the event in response to the life ways they taught us.

But even then, we have to struggle to find our own truth. To a certain extent, we relive the event itself when we receive our own spiritual witnesses of its truthfulness. We can even experience our own new and unique and life-changing miracles. I have.

People will hasten to point out to me that you can't uncritically, literally accept all the tenets of every single religion in the world. That would be insane. I agree. I can't and I don't -- either with respect to the faith I call my own, or with respect to the faith of others. But I take the witnesses of all honest people of faith seriously. And I take seriously the witness that exists in scripture, tradition, and in communal life of all the various religious communities I am acquainted with. I accept all of this as real data about the nature of the reality we live in and about the nature of God and our relationship to him.

I have a tendency to treat each faith more as a discipline than as a field of knowledge per se, as a methodology that can be used to achieve the kind of maturity and insight and love that our humanity demands. And I know that I will not be able to achieve that maturity myself unless I am willing to commit myself -- intellectually, spiritually and physically.

It is a relief to me to put this out in the open. Yes, I believe in the golden plates. I believe Joseph did see Christ and the Father. I believe these things were as real as the keyboard I'm typing on. And to affirm this feels incredibly grounding to me. It makes the reality I experience every day more real to me. The kiss I planted on my husband's lips this morning as he left for work: more real. The vegetarian chili I made for my family last night; the cold walk through the snow to the nearby produce exchange to pick up the ingredients: more real. My understanding that life is much, much more than the things we see on the surface: more real.


Alan said...

The way I see it (and I apologize in advance if this becomes an essay) is that ever since the rise of science and modernism (which includes modern archeology), religious thinkers have had to be crafty in how to maintain the "truthiness" and "truth" of religious history. A lot of religious people think of postmodernism ("my truth is as true as your truth") as a terrible devastation of "truth" in the 20th century, but actually it was postmodern thinking that saved religious history altogether. For example, in 19th century Europe, in the face of rising secularism, Søren Kierkegaard proposed that faith, at its core, cannot be intellectualized. Truth and God must be personally known in a world where secular truths might be totally averse to religious ones. Some historians of philosophy have called Kierkegaard "The Father of Postmodernism" (but many more give the title to Nietzsche =p). Postmodernism in full force is seen by the 1960s in folks like Derrida and Foucault. I remember reading somewhere a Mormon historian talk about Derrida's deconstructionism as "not hated" precisely because it offers a way of stripping away false truths to reach a beautiful core of real truth. I thought this was strange at the time; Derrida is very much against the idea of "cores" or "origins."

Anyway, in America, the controversy of modernism came about in the 1920s-30s for every religious denomination, from Methodists to Presbyterians to Mormons. This was a result of the nation making decisions to secularize its academies. A somewhat good essay I've found for the Mormon context is in this book ("The Modernism Controversy"). Basically, to achieve statehood, Utah Mormons had to become like the rest of the country: less theocratic, less communal (no more polygamy), more capitalist and individualistic. There was a rise of "personal idealism," to maintain the truth as "true," which can also be described as "spiritual realism." IMO, this is basically Kierkegaard's philosophies in application across America, except Mormons still also have the communal thing going on that most American denominations tossed. My feeling is that Mormonism cannot survive without this communalism because of the eccentricity and youngness of its doctrine and history (and I mean, secularly-speaking, it's only been around for a couple centuries).

What's fascinating, but then also saddening, is then reading Margaret Toscano's essay in that book on feminism and Heavenly Mother. One sees how the postmodern tools Mormonism used/uses in maintaining its historicity have been used by minorities in the imagining of their histories in the midst of debilitating forces (politics in full force since the 1960s, but also certainly earlier). The power-play in Mormon culture to silence these minority histories to maintain the communalism (men v women, heteros v queers, whites v others) becomes empirically evident to me. I don't blame anyone for this silencing...for example, I don't get angry at Church leaders, because it really isn't their "fault," per se. I also recognize that various minorities are happy in the Church... which I state on my website regarding same-sex attracted people. But this is where I stop and cannot go further and why I'm more comfortable as an outsider to the faith.

I'm sure a testimony would be useful here, but well, I suppose I'm not really interested in one. Like Toscano, I remain very interested in Mormon culture for other reasons. It certainly provided me a good framework to write my novel, which I do not believe at its "core" is an anti-Mormon novel. =) I'm sure some of the queer characters in future novels I write will also deal with "Mormon-like" dilemmas.

J G-W said...

Alan - Thanks for the thoughtful and very interesting comment... You've obviously given these questions a lot of thought.

I'm not a philosopher, though I've studied the impact of modernism and post-modernism on religious communities in America. I look at these problems more through the eyes of a historian -- and of a person of faith.

I agree that Mormonism has not been exempt from these cultural forces, even though Mormons often like to think they are. I wish there were more tolerance and understanding and less defensiveness within the Mormon community in relation to folks who go through the classic modernist and post-modernist crises of faith. I also wish there was more openness in the Mormon community to discussions across faith lines.

However, I also think that Mormons are right/have been right all along to insist that there are ways of knowing that are valid, even if they are not validated by secular science. I think all knowledge does need to be validated; and most faiths have systems for validating knowledge ("in the mouth of two or three witnesses, etc."). So for me, for example, there is a kind of triangle of revelation, testing, and growth that provides a framework for validating spiritual knowledge. There's an end to which I expect certain kinds of knowledge to lead, and if they don't, I have a basis for evaluating the usefulness/correctness of that knowledge, etc.

This way of knowing -- well rooted in the faith tradition in which I was raised -- has been incredibly empowering to me in my journey as a gay man. In fact, I've found it far more empowering than post-modern secularism or the secular gay rights movement, for what it's worth.

Still, I'm interested in whatever I can learn through whatever methods I can learn -- whether through 19th-century German historical method or post-Einsteinian physics. I want to know, I'm hungry to know. I think, by the way, that's a very Mormon way to approach the world, based on the outlook of Mormonism's founder at least (even if some of his successors have strayed to a more provincial outlook...).

Alan said...

I've found it far more empowering than post-modern secularism or the secular gay rights movement, for what it's worth.

I would like to push back on this a little, if you don't mind. I wouldn't dismiss the gay rights movement so easily for two reasons. First, it has had an effect on Mormon culture, and therefore an effect on you as a gay man in Mormon culture. In the 1970s, homosexuality was an abomination and unspeakable for Mormons. Now it's still sinful, but not quite an "abomination." I don't think Mormons came to this position on their own. The fact that SSA is even a contentious issue rather than something to categorically change or push "outside" the Mormon family and faith, I would argue is a result of the politicking of sexual minorities and growing acceptance in greater America.

The second thing I would say is that what appears as a secular movement is only secular on the surface: in the context of "rights" and "laws." It is underpinned by religious, or at least, moralistic thinking (which is often derived from religious affiliation or disaffiliation). I think it's true that gay rights has tended to be less overtly religious because gays initially had to assert themselves contra to popular theologies. But increasingly, the gay rights movement is religious; it has religious partnerships. Perhaps this is just a matter of perspective, but from where I'm sitting, your work inside the Church is an extension of the gay rights movement if only because you're claiming the term "gay." But then, I'd be curious your take on this.

J G-W said...

Alan - I won't disagree with you on either score. But now let me push back a little.

I have been very involved in the secular gay rights movement. I played an instrumental role in organizing at the University of Minnesota to get a GLBT programs office. I was on the hiring committee that hired its first coordinator! I helped organize some of the early national Queer Studies conferences for graduate students. I wrote a book (published by the University of Chicago Press) in the field. I'm still involved in aspects of the secular gay rights movement, to the extent that I support civil rights organizations like HRC and our local OutFront Minnesota.

I've also been extremely active in GLBT religious organizing. I was the "Reconciled In Christ" director for Lutherans Concerned Minnesota for three years, and spoke in congregations across the state; I was a speaker at the first major Lutheran conference addressing same-sex orientation issues (the "Can We Talk?" conference at Luther Northwestern Seminary); was a member of the Joint Committee on Ministry to and with Gay and Lesbian Persons and Their Families, a committee organized jointly by the Minneapolis and St. Paul Synods of the ELCA; was the founder of an ecumenical GLBT outreach program at the University of Minnesota that was eventually sponsored by Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, the UCC, Disciples and Jews.

I didn't say -- and don't believe -- that the secular gay rights movement is without value. It is concerned with half the picture, with that half that addresses our existence as social and physical beings. This is a very important part of the picture, and you're absolutely right to point out that -- for gay men and lesbians in our society -- the Church has been severely misinformed about this half of the picture and has done a lot of damage as a result. And so the secular gay rights movement has helped to begin to redress some serious deficiencies that prevented the Church from treating gay and lesbian individuals as whole human beings, with bodies as well as minds and spirits.

But in my experience, it generally limited in that it addresses only half the picture. Gay culture has overwhelmingly rejected religion and spirituality. And I routinely see examples of the price we pay for this.

Many gay religious organizations are starting to address this deficiency in the gay community. I'm more or less on board with the Metropolitan Community Churches; and with organizations like Dignity, Evangelicals Concerned, and Affirmation. But I've also noted a tendency in some religious organizations to function more like political caucuses than ministries, which can be a distraction and which can undermine the organizations ability to nurture the spirits of gay and lesbian members.

Right now there are not a lot of good options for many of us, so I recognize the difficulty of the situation. Many of us -- unless we deny significant aspects of ourselves -- are prevented from entering into the full covenantal and sacramental life of the community. That is certainly the case for Mormons. For many of us, the road back to full communion is something like the road to Calvary.

Still, I think we need to try. There's a saying in Islam that when we take one step toward God, he takes three steps toward us. That has been my own experience in returning to the Church.

MoHoHawaii said...

Here's an analogy.

You are a member of a jury. One of the attorneys is a pillar of the community and a leader in the Church. His credibility is unimpeachable. As he makes his case, you sit at the edge of your seat hanging on to every word. The hair stands up on the back of your neck, and you feel a rush of confirmation from the Spirit as he presents his case. Some might judge the narrative as implausible, but this does not matter to you, since all things are possible, even things that most people might find unlikely. The attorney brings out several witnesses who testify that they have personal knowledge that confirms the attorney's version of events. You again feel a rush of the Spirit as the witnesses look the jury in the eye and give their solemn testimony under oath. As the attorney rests his case, you know the verdict you will render, and a deep feeling of peace comes over you. The matter is resolved in your heart and mind, since you feel that you have truly been given divine knowledge that answers the question before the court.

The opposing attorney does not inspire. He dresses poorly and doesn't maintain eye contact with the jury. However, he does show the results of a painstaking forensic investigation. This includes scientifically validated DNA comparisons, microscopic fiber matching, ballistics, plaster casts of tire tracks and laboratory analysis of gunpowder residues. The physical evidence paints a very different picture from what you have been led to believe up to this point in the trial. Expert witnesses explain the techniques used to develop the physical evidence. The conclusions of fact rely on techniques that can be independently reproduced.

As it turns out, there is a mountain of forensic evidence from multiple scientific disciplines that overwhelmingly opposes the conclusion you were inspired to reach by testimony and spiritual confirmation.

What verdict do you give once the jury is sequestered?

Alan said...

Lots of involvement there. =)

Yet, I just want to point out that there will always be a half missing if you continue to call it "the secular gay rights movement." All "rights" are already secular, yet the underlying drive to acquire them never is.

Thus, I don't think it's appropriate to say that gay culture has "rejected" spirituality; our spiritualities are what underpin our will to live and be happy and content in the face of societal rejection. Remember that religious communities rejected gay people, and gay folks and their allies then reimagined faith and God to include gay people. Granted, gays have, by and large, rejected organized religions and their accompanying life paradigms/niches, and many of those religions are now open to ministering and proselytizing to gays rather than simply ousting them. A deficiency then appears in the eyes of these organized religions. And certainly there are clear deficiencies in some gay people as a result of being culturally "lost" in the midst of all this rejection and searching. Yet, today's situation is a result of the secular AND religious/spiritual work done by queers and their allies in the last several decades.

I suppose what this boils down to is that it's not a half/half recipe in my head. I think that recipe does a disservice to those that have come before you.

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - You assume that the Spirit would speak in favor of the guilty because his lawyer is polished; and that the Spirit would testify before I the juror have had a chance to evaluate the evidence and ponder it out in my mind. But that's not how the Spirit works...

"Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7)

"Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind..." (D&C 9:7-8)

But really, for me the more apt comparison, if we want to stick with a courtroom analogy, would be that attorney A presents witnesses of an event, and attorney B asks me to disbelieve the witnesses because they are poor and illiterate, and because he himself has never witnessed anything like the event of which they present testimony. He further asks me to disbelieve my own experience validating the principles which the witnesses derived from their experience of the event in question. I can't, as a rational being, do that.

J G-W said...

Alan - I'm in fundamental agreement with you.

You don't seem to like my using the term "secular gay rights movement," but I'm not sure what I would call a movement that is not affiliated with any religion, and that focuses on political and civil rights.

I agree that the gay rights movement -- whether you want to call it secular or not -- has succeeded in large part because it is based upon correct spiritual principles. The gay rights movement is having an impact on communities of faith -- across the religious spectrum -- because people recognize the spiritual truth in the proposition that we are all human beings with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

While the secular gay rights movement has empowered me to a certain point -- and again, I stress that I've never felt it was without value, or I would not have participated as actively in it as I have -- it can only take me so far.

I've seen far too many members of the gay community become victims of a variety of pitfalls. I've seen the "sexual liberation" philosophy undermine individuals and relationships. A friend of mine who works for the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services sent me a news bulletin recently regarding a skyrocketing of HIV transmission among 13-24 year-olds in the state of Minnesota. And don't get me started on substance abuse issues...

Civil rights discourse -- grounded in profound spiritual principles though it may be -- doesn't necessarily give us the spiritual grounding we need in order to build the personal wisdom and fortitude required to navigate the pitfalls and face continuing legal, social and religious discrimination.

A living relationship with the Holy Spirit that I find nourished through my relationship to my community of faith -- the LDS Church -- has given me those things.

I recognize that we are, for the most part, caught between a rock and a hard place here. Homophobia in our churches is a tremendous obstacle. But just because the way forward is difficult doesn't mean we should turn back.

Each individual has to decide what their best way forward is. I'm going to try this route, and I'll report to you on my progress.

Alan said...

Like I said, civil rights are often not affiliated with organized religion, but this does not make them wholly secular. I have a feeling that your "secular" tag-on is doing more for your conceptualizations than you care to admit.

For example, sexual liberation does not cause a rise in HIV infection. What causes it is a lack of protection and education. By the late 80s, gay men responded to AIDS by imagining sex differently, not concentrating so much on their penises. Now, teenagers think the crisis has dissipated, so they engage in dangerous behavior. This behavior is not "sexual liberation." (In fact, arguably, not concentrating so much on one's penis is sexual liberation from the same old sexual acts!) A gay man could have 30 partners in one year and take all the necessary precautions to protect himself. Or a couple can open a relationship and the relationship not get hurt.

Similarly, substance abuse issues by LGBT individuals is more nuanced than blaming it on "gay culture." These kinds of generalizations are not helpful. They might serve to make the "religious" cause worthy, but I actually think of them as they're own kind of prejudice.

J G-W said...

Alan - I'm not blaming the secularism of the civil gay rights movement for HIV infection rate increases (any more than I'm blaming sexual liberation). I understand how you might think that's what I'm saying (or meaning), since that kind of rhetoric is out there. I'm simply saying that spirituality -- and spiritual community -- provide us with a framework and a support network for making choices and keeping commitments related to these kinds of things that are rarely found in the kinds of organizations you typically find in the gay community.

Sexual liberation is its own punishment (or reward, however you choose to look at it). If you want to have 30 sexual partners a month (and focus on whatever part of the body you want), you are free to do so; but maybe not free to do so and find the kind of satisfaction that comes from developing one intimate, life-long partnership with someone you truly love.

Look, I'm not trying to debate with you the merits of whatever life course you choose, secular or religious or spiritual or however you choose to define that.

You questioned me about my comment that I find myself more empowered with the kind of testimony and relationship with God that I've been able to find by returning to the Church than I found in the secular gay rights movement. I've tried to explain why I feel more empowered... That's not really going to change, no matter how much we wrangle over definitions...

Maybe the reason I use the term "secular" gay rights movement is because I catch flak all the time from members of the gay community, who see my choice to affiliate with the Church as some sort of betrayal or lunacy or the sad, sad consequence of years of brain-washing. This kind of defining doesn't just come from religious folks...

Alan said...

Hey, before we continue, or if we continue, I just want to say that the reason I'm engaging with you on definitions is not to convince you of my way of thinking, per se. I haven't talked about my own life choices, and might seem on the offensive against yours. I'm not "against" you; I do not think that affiliating with the Church is any of those things that you said. However, you are continuing to talk about spirituality as if it's outside the gay community, and something that is lacking, when you also say that you agree with the points I'm making about spirituality in the gay community. Apparently, there is an aspect of what I'm saying that you disagree with not just for yourself, but for others as well. This aspect seems to me as follows: the gay community is A, B and C, and religious/spiritual groups bring in X, Y and Z. In my mind, however, even an organization like Evergreen is part of the "gay community." Ex-gays are a minority of the LGBT community; they are not outside of it. LGBT religious organizing like you've done is part of the gay community; it's not "brought to" the gay community. These definitional boundaries make a huge difference, and there is a reason I'm pushing them on you.

The Church's stance on homosexuality, as you know, is not just a stance on "homosexuality," but also a stance and silencing of many other things, including alternative spiritualities and ways of living. This is not a vendetta against anyone, but simply something every faith does to maintain its structure, coherency and sense of relevance, legitimacy and, in many cases, supremacy. My intention in the last few posts has been to point out the ways I see you perpetuating silences with your God-talk, though I understand that it is also your structure and life and belief system (albeit, unique in its own way), so it's tricky, deeply personal business. I can cease this pushing, if you's a terrible introduction (and I still very much want you to review my novel, so I best be careful =p)

J G-W said...

Alan - OK. I was just listening to a conference talk yesterday, where President Monson quoted Heber J. Grant: "That man is a fool, who takes offense where none was intended."

I'll say for (I'm losing count) the third time?? I don't see myself disagreeing with what you're saying. What you've just stated here is why I use the term "secular gay community" -- to differentiate between those elements of the gay community that are unconcerned with religion and/or spirituality, and those segments of the gay community that are concerned with it. I'm not trying to define anybody as inside or outside the gay community. Even the ex-gays... (Though I wonder if they would define themselves as part of the gay community?)

Furthermore, I'm with you in feeling that there are spiritual elements or aspects of the overarching goals of the gay rights movement. I'm not trying to say that people who choose not to affiliate with churches or religious organizations are devoid of spirituality.

All I have been trying to say (from the beginning) is that my decision to affiliate with the Church has added a dimension to my life that was lacking without it; that I could not get no matter how hard I tried through activity in gay rights organizations; and that it has been empowering in fundamental ways that I could not experience otherwise.

I'm not sure how talking about my personal experience with this (my "God-talk") perpetuates the silencing of anyone. I'm not sure how to take that. Am I not supposed to talk about this? Do I have to be silenced in order for others to not feel silenced?

I'm not trying to say that anyone is not entitled to believe what they feel is right and follow their own consciences. In fact, actually, I think I've pretty strongly stated (here and elsewhere) that the only way anyone will progress spiritually is by following their own conscience, which I emphatically don't assume will necessarily lead them to the same choices I've made.

So maybe we're misunderstanding each other here. I assume you are not trying to provoke or offend me, and I hope you understand that is not my intention in relation to you...

And, yes, I'm still interested in reading your novel. Maybe it will help me get inside your head so I can understand why we seem to be talking past each other here. :-)

J G-W said...

Also... Something I meant to address above... I do think that religious organizations "bring something" to the gay community. But I'm not sure why it would be bad for me to suggest that.

Secular humanist atheism brings something to religion... It presents certain challenges, raises certain questions that the churches could learn from.

Spiritual organizations exist for a purpose. They too present unique perspectives and challenges to the broader society.

Some organizations (and individuals) behave badly, and interact with others more coercively that others... I'm on board with the idea that open exchange of ideas is cool. Using coercion is bad.

Alan said...

Even the ex-gays... (Though I wonder if they would define themselves as part of the gay community?)

Perhaps this is a good place to tease out what I'm trying to convey, but so far have failed to do. I think the misunderstanding lies in that my thoughts over the years have become more Buddhist and less Christian, and that I'm perhaps "studying" Christians too much in my degree program.

So, ex-gays don't consider themselves part of the gay community. There's an assumption that one should not be coerced into a community one doesn't want to be part of. Fair enough. Mormons also function this way; no one is forced to be is fundamentally Mormon by choice. However, if either gayness or Mormonness were truly non-coercive, then Mohos wouldn't have such a difficult time, now would they? In other words, "sexuality" and "spirituality" both have coercive elements. This is not a bad thing. It just is, and we agree that as a result of this, sexuality and spirituality should not be so separate since there are sexual minorities in the world (and they shouldn't be separate for other reasons, of course).

If we look at gayness holistically then, beyond what might appear as a separatist movement involved in acquiring rights (secular), but as something that affects everyone because sexual minorities are part of society as a whole (spiritual), then, one could argue that everyone is part of the "gay community," whether they want to be or not. Not everyone needs to be "gay"...but simply loving, supportive, understanding, etc. This is a spiritual assertion and it is a coercive assertion. I know you just said "using coercion is bad," but you have a politics and I would argue that all politics are coercive to some extent. When one overly focuses on the non-coercive aspects of one's politics, one can be blind to the coercive aspects. A good example is how 1970s feminism, in trying to "give women choices," actually took choices away from women of color/third-world women in the very enunciation of the feminism.

What has happened, historically, is that gayness (or queerness, rather) has been compartmentalized as "worldly" (the body), whereas faith communities uphold themselves as providing something beyond worldliness (the spirit). But if you believe these two elements are not separate, then there is no reason to continue the paradigms and the coercions therein, except to educate those who haven't yet seen the "light." By "God-talk" and silencing, I'm referring to the way that you have, I assume, taken up the role of educator in the telling of your life story. In the way you frame the situation on the ground, I feel there are coercions that you may not wish to convey. It's perhaps difficult or impossible to pinpoint what those coercions are and for whom, even though I've been reaching for examples. One way to think about it is this: when people say that you're crazy or "betraying the cause" for being Mormon and gay, there are historical forces larger than Mormon and gay discourse speaking through them and falling on your plate. Similarly, when you talk about your life, it's more than just your life you're talking about.

I think I'm gonna stop there.

J G-W said...

Alan - Teasing out some of your thought process in this way is extremely helpful.

But if I understand you correctly, there's no way of speaking about one's experience -- from any perspective -- without creating shadows or silences; without defining the world in some way that someone else will find incongruent or "oppressive." I understand this concept and I agree with it. It's why I believe one of the primary human virtues has to be humility.

I think you're using the term "coercion" in a slightly different sense than I am. Yes, there are realities that make coercive demands of us. An analogous concept in Mormon theology is the idea of "eternal law." But to me its confusing to speak that way, because the law of gravity is "coercive" in a very different way than, say, a law passed in Uganda making homosexuality punishable by death (or, say, insisting on using the word "coercive" in a way that disagrees with your listeners!).

I suppose this exchange has been somewhat useful in that it has helped me clarify a few things for myself. One is that I once saw being gay as my primary identity; and identified with the gay community as my primary community. I'm realizing now that that is no longer the case. I would now insist on a primary identity of "human being/child of God." The equation of those two concepts (human being = child of God) is a very Mormon way of defining oneself in relation to the rest of humanity, so I suppose you take that as proof I've evolved from a gay activist perspective back to a classic Mormon perspective. My evolution from one perspective to another might explain why -- from my current perspective -- I now feel like the sense of identity I once had feels incomplete or overly constraining.

I want to pause here to point out that I don't see the two perspectives as having equal validity (i.e., the perspective that one's gayness is one's primary identity vs. seeing one's humanity/divinity as one's primary identity). I think there is an objective basis for insisting that one identity (the latter) has greater validity than the former. There are ways in which my present perspective -- at the very least -- feels qualitatively better and functions better for me in terms of how I manage my various relationships and life goals.

I can also say that there are ways in which even though having my gayness as my primary identity is inferior to the way I understand my identity now, there was a point in my life where it was more functional. That point in my life coincided with the time when I was literally in crisis over this; literally suicidal. So focusing on my gayness as my primary identity helped me work through a lot of stuff I needed to work through to get to a more integrated perspective.

There's a lot more I could say, including to talk about the implications of the fact that the LDS Church leadership right now tends to define my identity as a heterosexual child of God with a mortal homosexual condition, and why this definition makes no sense to me whatsoever. But this is the point at which I will stop.

Alan said...

Well, we don't have to stop necessarily. =p I think the movement from "child of God" to "heterosexual child of God" is instructive here.

Humility is absolutely important and what I'm alluding to. Humility is what allows one to be open to otherness. The difficulty arises when humility is coupled with "doctrine" or "eternal law" which is not open to otherness. Thus, when "human being/child of God" (as wonderful as that sounds) is coupled with doctrine, you might get something like "heterosexual child of God," depending on the circumstances of the development of that doctrine.

This is why putting some doctrine in a place "outside" of official doctrine is important. I think for Mormons this is called "personal revelation," but sociologically speaking, it's basically otherness that doctrine cannot account for.

We choose to bracket a set of phenomenon as "gravity." That this has become law with specific parameters is not as "natural" as you might think it is. There are aspects of "gravity" that are, in fact, needlessly coercive from an ethnoscientific standpoint. Gravity as it is defined is "naturally coercive" because of its parameters. Similarly, child of God, as it is defined is "naturally coercive."

Maybe you'll find use in this different alignment. What is "coercive" and what is "chosen" often depends on fuzzy variables of the way something is framed. Some things have their frame build into them, which can create an illusion of the frame being "true."

Eliyahu said...

I fail to see what the post or the comments have to do with the title, "On Scripture and Historical Truth." Since the finding of the scrolls in Qumran it is well established that for over three millennium the Torah of the Jews has been copied pretty much intact. How do Mormons or for that matter homosexuals come off as legitimate at all. They are precluded by the eternal Torah. This is very simple logic. The history is that the Torah was given a long time ago and has not been improved on. This is in accordance of what the definition of perfection is. The Creator of the universe is perfect so there is no plan B. I assume you have read the Torah in English. But it was given in Hebrew to Yisrael, a portion who still follow it today. If you will come to the Torah you will find life, otherwise you simply follow you own heart and eyes as did Joseph Smith.

J G-W said...

Eliyahu - If you really believe that, I guess my only question for you is why you are wasting your time talking to me, when you should be rounding up a posse of holy elders to come put me and others like me to death.

I really have nothing against you. We can be friends or enemies. It's up to you.

MoHoHawaii said...

I now have been mulling over this for four days.

The core of this discussion is the nature of the subjective versus the objective.

In a court of law, we use objective means to arrive at a verdict. This is why evidence matters, especially evidence that can be independently verified. Independent verification is the definition of objectivity and is at the heart of the scientific method. The kind of forensic evidence that is admissable in court uses the same scientific principles and techniques that created the medicines you take and keeps the airplane you travel in from crashing to the ground. Let's give thanks for independently verifiable, repeatable results.

Your spiritual experiences, no matter how real they may be, are not independently verifiable. They exist in you and for you alone. I do not deny their power for you, but they are not for others. There are things one shouldn't pray about, and which verdict to give as a juror is among them. (I find the idea of jurors praying over the verdict to be quite terrifying.) When it comes to courts of law, it is better to keep the subjective out of it entirely.

Occasionally, this separation is harder to maintain. What happens when spiritual witness and objective evidence unavoidably collide, as in the case of the historicity of the Book of Mormon?

Here, I have to say that I agree more with your BYU archaeology professor than with you. Rather than the deny objective, independently verifiable facts that underlie the science of archaeology, this man chose to compartmentalize his life into separate subjective and objective realms. This makes sense to me because integrating scientific objectivity into his religious belief system would have come at high cost-- he would have lost his faith and his job at BYU. He would likely have caused intense pain to his wife and family.

Of course, he could have "integrated" his objective and subjective worlds by destroying his scientific integrity. It is admirable that he chose not to do this.

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - I agree that jurors in a court of law should arrive at their verdict based upon careful analysis of forensic evidence. In fact, I think in most American courts of law they will be instructed that that is how our system works, and that is what their duty is.

I can imagine a scenario where a juror analyzes the forensic evidence, and perceives that logically the evidence points toward one verdict. Yet, in his gut he may feel that there's more to the case than what appears to be there on the surface. What does a conscientious juror do in such a circumstance? Maybe he or she probes the evidence more deeply; maybe he or she asks other jurors how they feel about the evidence. Maybe he or she simply votes in favor of what the forensic evidence says in spite of their gut qualms. I'm not saying I wouldn't do the latter in such a situation. But I'm not saying I wouldn't also probably give it some serious thought. Who knows? Maybe such promptings may in fact encourage a juror to reexamine some evidence and find problems with it that would introduce reasonable doubts about guilt. I would never simply ignore forensic evidence in favor of spiritual promptings. That's my point -- you take all the evidence as data and you do the best you can with it. If the forensic case was ironclad, and promptings to review it didn't lead to any other conclusion, then I would probably vote with my head -- unless it was a really remarkable prompting. Maybe that "unless" would make you nervous about having me in a jury. For what it's worth, I'm not the kind of person who keeps such values or inclinations to myself, and opposing counsel would have plenty of opportunity to eliminate me in the jury selection process.

J G-W said...

All the same, the forensic verdict in an American law court is different from making a determination about spiritual truths. In the case of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, are you suggesting that I should abandon my spiritual path if I find troublesome historical problems that I can't resolve intellectually?

Again, as in my response to your trial jury example, I wouldn't make any hard, fast rules here in absence of more than just hypothetical arguments. There could be evidence of a historical nature about Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon that would force me to reevaluate. For example, a secret diary of Joseph Smith full of confessions about how the whole thing was a hoax, and how he pulled it off? Yes, there is some evidence that would force me to reevaluate the whole thing.

I don't want jimmied evidence... I want archaeologists, historians, linguists and DNA specialists to do their job examining the past with all the precision that their respective disciplines teach them. I understand that there are limits on what they can know and not know, and I will keep that in mind in evaluating what they find.

But the process of intellectually knowing stuff about history is a couple of removes from the kinds of decisions that I need to make every day. So in the walk of faith, I follow the Spirit; and that "method" of making decisions in my life has been so powerfully validated over and over and over again, there's nothing that can convince me it's wrong.

This is a process of knowing, in which we have barely scratched the surface. I'm committed to staying with it. By the way, I think the whole argument about the "God of the unknown" is problematic. (I.e., we just use God to explain what we don't understand, so as more and more gets explained, we need God less and less.) It doesn't make sense to me, because it seems to me that what science "knows" always produces more questions. I don't see physics departments anywhere taking down their placards any time soon because there simply are no more questions to answer. Not that God should be used to explain what we don't understand; I've always thought that was silly. But, again, I won't eliminate faith based on an incomplete picture of the universe either.

Unlike physics which could conceivably know everything (but... really???) there are things that historians will literally NEVER know. (Unless the physicists can invent a time machine...) Again, you can't persuade me to eliminate faith based on what historians don't know. I'm a historian, I know much, much better than that.

MoHoHawaii said...

In the case of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, are you suggesting that I should abandon my spiritual path if I find troublesome historical problems that I can't resolve intellectually?

I think I'm arguing the opposite of this. In effect, I'm agreeing with your friend the BYU archaeology professor when he talked of his two hats. I have no reason to believe that this man's spirituality is any less real to him than yours is to you, but his comfort level with inconvenient archaeology and ethnology is likely much greater than yours.

By going the literalist route one makes one's spiritual path dependent on claims that are potentially falsifiable by science. This makes one's testimony more fragile (or, equivalently, it increases one's inclination to simply deny the truly astounding mountain of evidence against BOM historicity.) I just don't see the benefit of harnessing one's wagon to this particular horse.

The point of all of this to me is not whether or not you J G-W should believe (clearly, you should), it's whether the literalist view is necessary and helpful and in any way preferable to the compartmentalizing of your BYU archaeology professor.

Having said all that, I can certainly understand your point of view. I wasn't able to compartmentalize either. It wasn't so much a choice as it was temperament. And look where that got me. :- ) That crashing sound you hear is my faith shattering on the floor from the lack of axles in pre-Columbian America.

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - Congratulations on catching something I was wondering if anyone would catch (and/or call me on)!

I realized upon completing this essay that, in fact, I probably have evolved to a position that is closer to my BYU professor than I once would have liked to admit.

As far as Book of Mormon historicity goes, it certainly would be convenient for testimony-bearing LDS if we actually knew where Zarahemla was or someone found golden plates somewhere in central America engraved with "Reformed Egyptian" characters. Since we don't have those things, we have to make do with the scholarship produced by FARMS, which tends to be more apologetic in nature.

For example, FARMS scholars have devoted attention to the problem of whether steel weapons would survive as artifacts for 1500 years in a tropical environment. Even if they've made their case, all they've succeeded in doing is pointing out that you can't argue non-existence from lack of evidence. It's not nearly the same thing as finding actual 2000-year-old steel swords of Middle Eastern workmanship in some cave in Guatemala.

So you do, to a certain extent, have to hold your faith in tension with what science currently knows when it comes to that kind of stuff.

But I'm OK with saying that I don't have all the proof I'd like, so I'm going to have to wait to see if we eventually uncover more. In the meantime the Book of Mormon is still a powerful text to me, something that continues to be a vehicle through which I receive revelation from God and grow as a person.

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - the problem is not with literalism, the problem is with rigidity, denial and fear.

I've been thinking about the words of the 13th article of faith: "We believe all things." I always used to wonder what the heck that meant. How could anybody "believe all things"?

But I think I understand now... To believe all things is to approach everything and everyone with openness and without fear.

Eliyahu said...

Eliyahu - If you really believe that, I guess my only question for you is why you are wasting your time talking to me, when you should be rounding up a posse of holy elders to come put me and others like me to death.

I really have nothing against you. We can be friends or enemies. It's up to you.

That was quite a canned reply but not logical. You probably don't know that in Judaism a felon had to be warned of his felonious behavior and he needed to understand that what he was going to do could result in execution. So even though you correctly understand the penalty of a Jew that does homosexual acts, even they were never hunted down indiscriminately. That is a great problem of thinking one knows Judaism from reading only the English Jewish scriptures. Non Jews are not exempt, but they fall outside the scope of Jewish earthly authorities. They are however just as human and just as liable to the Singularity (the Creator). Should I assume you have read, probably in English, how it is a felony to do homosexual acts from the Jewish book of instruction? You may muddy the waters by saying why you would need to abide by this instruction of some foreign people. But why does all the Xtian sects and even the Muslims give lip-service to it? Surely the BOM picks and chooses from the Jewish instruction book of life but the command to not do homosexual acts was not included. I wonder why I would be wasting my time and MoHoHawaii is not. He speaks of objective verses subjective evidence but there is really no one on trial. The Torah puts everyone on trial but it rules for acquittal should the offender turn from their misstep, misdemeanor, or felony. So no, I wouldn't want to come after you, I would want you to see the objectivity of the instruction of life and live. The BOM is contradictory to the Torah so it by definition can only produce death. To willfully violate the Torah, the book of life, also will prove fatal in the world to come. But again it was the title, “Scripture and Historical Truth” that was a non-starter because history is what it was, it can be scrutinized but never changed. Scripture only in the case of the Torah can be considered historically intact based on extant manuscripts from Qumran. The Torah defines truth as itself so it is objective. Possible that I won't reply again but I regularly visit the Web Cafe at

J G-W said...

Eliyahu - Your comment stated that I am illegitimate for two reasons -- because I am gay, and because I am Mormon. If you consider me to be illegitimate, there's no basis for dialog between us. That's why I asked you why you would waste your time with me.

Mohohawaii is a friend of mine. We frequently have disagreements. But I do not call him illegitimate, and he does not call me illegitimate. We converse and even argue as equals who show respect for one another. I am happy to converse and even argue with you on the same basis -- as equals who show respect one for another and who do not resort to calling each other illegitimate.

If you wish to converse, my next question to you would be: What is greater? The law? Or God, the giver of the law? And if God is greater, then shouldn't you have respect for other people who have received revelation from God? Shouldn't you be as interested in learning what God has revealed to them, as they should be in what God has revealed through the Torah?

MoHoHawaii said...

I am having a hard time with this thread. It makes me conflicted and unhappy because of my affection for you. There are some inconsistencies in your position that I could call out, but to what end? To upset a person I care about? To form a division where none need be? I don't want that.

This conversation helps clarify in my own mind why I am not a person of faith even though my temperament has some attributes that are typical of believers. I still want you as my Sunday School teacher, and we'll just deal the issue of jury duty later. :- )

Much love,

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - I expect a good many people will be distressed by my position, and all for different reasons (as should be evident from following some of the other conversations on this post). And of all the people it does not please me to distress, you are at the top of the list.

For me this is far less about assuming the right position than engaging in the right process. I look at it as something like the process of building an arch. Until the keystone is lowered into place, the two sides of the arch would collapse without external struts holding them up. Let's just say I'm willing to live with certain tensions, believing that the resolution will be worth it.

This is as true of the challenges of being gay and Mormon, as it is of the challenges of reconciling faith and intellect.

I do wish we were part of the same Sunday School class!