Sunday, December 11, 2011

835 Dreams

This morning, I recorded my 835th dream in my dream journal. It actually appears in the journal as Dream #815, but there are exactly 20 other dreams that escaped my numbering system, either because I jotted them down in the dark and promptly lost or forgot about them, only to find them later, or because I wrote them down before the days when I actually started numbering my dreams in a journal. Some day, probably in the next year or two, I will record my one thousandth dream. And then I think I will throw a party. I'll invite anybody who ever made an appearance in one of my recorded dreams. I doubt George W. Bush or his dad will come to the party, nor Barack Obama, nor Thomas S. Monson, nor J.K. Rowling, nor that actor who played the Scarecrow in the new Batman movies. But if even half the people I know in real life who've made an appearance in one of my dreams show up, that will be quite the rockin' party!

Oddly, I have yet to have an actual dream about practicing yoga. That is really strange, because since mid-July, I've become something of a yoga addict. There's only been one week (the week of Thanksgiving) when I didn't make it to yoga class six times in seven days. (I typically go every day except Sunday.) I've recorded 68 dreams since I started practicing yoga, and in those dreams I've dreamed about work and home and teaching and church, bathing, eating, going to the bathroom, sleeping, sex. I've even dreamed about dreaming! I've dreamed about just about every activity and experience that plays an important role in my life, except yoga. Weird, huh? I'll let you know if I have a dream about yoga, but so far none.

I have a working theory about why that is. I think it's because yoga actually brings me into a state of consciousness that is similar to dreaming. (I said that I've dreamt about dreaming, so I guess that wouldn't rule out dreaming about yoga. More on that in a second, but...) In my experience, through the breathing and the physical postures of yoga, I actually do begin abandon the conscious mind and move into a more subconscious state of awareness. That's actually what they tell you you're supposed to do in yoga. My teachers encourage me to empty my mind and to focus. Actually, if you're doing yoga right, you eventually can't help it. The breathing and the postures are designed to stress your body and mind in ways that force you to empty your conscious mind and focus, if you are going to be able to continue. The achievement of that relaxed state of focus is the whole goal of yoga.

Often when I achieve that, I experience moments of pure ecstasy and inspiration, and it's not uncommon for me to re-experience dreams. Dreams that I have forgotten or partially forgotten sometimes come back to me with vividness and clarity during savasana, the resting posture we always take at the end of a yoga class. After I had experienced this a few times, I wondered if perhaps the state of consciousness achieved through yoga was not similar to or connected to the state of consciousness I experience when I'm dreaming.

My dreams about dreaming are actually exceedingly rare: I've recorded maybe 2 or 3 of them out of 835. And even these weren't technically dreams about dreaming, they were more what I would calls "dreams within dreams": dreams where you "wake up" from a dream, only to find you are still dreaming. So if my yoga practice brings me into a similar type of consciousness, that might explain why I haven't dreamt about it yet.

I recently read through all my dreams, from beginning to end. I've actually created an index of my dreams. When I have a dream, I record the date of the dream, I assign it a number, and I give it a title that is descriptive of the main character, activity, or theme of the dream. For instance, the dream I recorded this morning I titled "Universalism Debate," because the portion of the dream that had the deepest emotional resonance for me involved me trying to explain to people why I was not a Universalist. (I know, I am utterly bizarre.)

I also assign the dream a category or type. The dream type is determined by two factors: where the dream took place, and what type of role was played by the central character in the dream. (Usually I am the central character in my dreams; often it is someone else.) So, for instance, if I have a dream that takes place in Utah, and my father is the central character in the dream, I would assign that dream the "12D" type. (12 = dreams that take place "Out West," D = dreams involving a father/father figure. If I were the central character in the dream, but the dream focused on my role as a father or father figure in Utah, that would also be a 12D dream.)

All of this dream data goes into a spreadsheet I've been keeping. The spreadsheet let's me sort the dreams alphabetically or by date or by category. The main reason I reviewed all my dreams recently was to make sure I was happy with how I had categorized them. (Categorizing is a very subjective process, especially since some dreams have multiple locations and multiple important characters, and it can be difficult to figure out which are most important in the dream.) Once I had completed this review and updated my spreadsheet (with 800+ dreams, it took a couple of weeks), I generated some reports. I was curious if a statistical analysis of my recorded dream life would give me any insight. It did actually give me some helpful perspective about what kind of person I am.

One nice thing about having all my dreams recorded in electronic format is that it makes it much easier to do studies of dream symbolism. For instance, the other night I had a very striking dream (#812, "Queen of the Underworld"), which took place on a train that was speeding through the English countryside. If I wanted to research the meaning of the symbolism of being on a train, I could just do a word search on "train" or "railroad," and easily find every dream I've ever had involving a train.

So far, I've sorted my 835 dreams into roughly 250+ categories. Many of these dreams are unique -- the only type of dream of a particular category. For instance, my "Queen of the Underworld" dream is the only "15Q" dream I've ever had -- a dream that takes place in "the old world," and in which the central character (the "Queen of the Underworld") plays the role of "herald."

The most common dream category I've identified is the "3B" category: dreams whose setting is my immediate home or neighborhood, in which the central role is what I call a "communications specialist" role. I have a lot (a LOT) of dreams that involve me being a scribe/writer/communicator. I guess anybody who knows me well won't be surprised by that. Almost one in five (well, 17.49%, actually) of my dreams has this as the most important role/activity. And a little over one in five (21.44%) takes place in my home or immediate neighborhood. In roughly 3% of my dreams, these two dream elements intersect.

The more common dream settings and characters tell me about my "default" mode in life. These are the dreams I tend to find least interesting, because they are so common. But they are important, because they tell me most about who I am and what my concerns are in day-to-day life. The top four dream settings for me are: first, my immediate home/neighborhood (21%), second, downtown/work (15%), third, "out west" (California and the Intermountain West -- yep, I clock a lot of dream time in Utah) (9%), and fourth, a university/college or other institution of higher learning (8%). The top four main roles/main characters in my dreams are: first, communications specialist (17%), second, father/father figure (9%), third, researcher (9%) and fourth, fool/child (8%). (I spend a fair number of dreams being lost, confused, or desperately trying to find something!)

The more rare/exotic settings and characters are the most entertaining, partly because they are so unusual. They are the dreams that grab my attention, that I find "cool" and that I'm more likely to talk about with friends or family, or spend more time puzzling over and analyzing. The four rarest settings in my dreams are: first, the "Far East"/Pacific rim (0.8%), second, Heaven/a Heaven-like place (1.2%), third, outer space (1.3%), and fourth, Canada/"the Northwoods" (1.6%). (Yes, in my dreams I go to Canada slightly more frequently than I go to outer space.) The four most unusual main characters/roles in my dreams are: first, Jesus Christ/a Christ figure (0.4%), second, a "herald" (0.7%), third, someone in distress (0.8%) and fourth, God (0.8%).

In the past week I have intuited my angelic name while looking into the eyes of a long lost friend, used my power of flight to go in search of missing brothers in L.A., celebrated Seder with Jewish neighbors, witnessed the coming of the end of the world, exposed a polygamist plot being hatched by a corrupt Mormon mission president, hunted vampires in Eastern Europe with Göran by my side, and served as a military chaplain in Iraq, all from the comfort of my bed.

I guess when I do the math, it's slightly shocking how much time I spend recording and analyzing dreams. It's not just that it's good therapy, though often it is that, I guess (and a lot cheaper). I frequently have the experience of waking from a dream that on the surface I found rather alarming, only to puzzle over it for a while and, after taking a deeper look at its symbolism, being comforted or pleasantly surprised by the insight it offered into a difficult situation or question in my life. No matter how disturbing a dream may be to me, I've learned to get over it, and just write it all out, in all its gory detail. Sometimes it's the really weird, embarrassing stuff that holds just the key we need to understand something profound.

The day after Thanksgiving I had a dream in which I had decided that the disconnect between being gay and the world I lived in was too great, so I set off in search of a place on earth where being gay was normal. I decided to start looking in China (#801, "In Search of Gay America (in China)"). It was a sprawling dream that involved the heartbreak of leaving friends and family, getting lost in Shanghai (which, in my subconscious mind's feeble attempt at humor, had a quarter known as "Americatown"), struggling to get by in a place where no one spoke my language, but also occasionally being helped by angels in disguise (like a tall lesbian waitress dressed in white). The dream ended without me having found my destination, standing in a vast atrium in a glass building, near a fountain where the sun was shining down. A gay waiter (dressed in white like the lesbian) had led me there, and told me this was the place, but I still couldn't see it: just endless corridors heading off in different directions, and throngs of people coming and going. Maybe that was my subconscious mind's way of telling me that whatever we consider Utopia is not a place that we find ready-made for us, but a place we create through our choices.

That dream is a good symbol, though, of why I'm obsessed and fascinated by my dreams. It's about that life-long search to try to find myself in the place that's just right.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Twilight of Atheism?

I recently read The Twilight of Atheism, by Alister McGrath, a historian and theologian who has been engaged in the various public debates/discussions over "the New Atheism" in recent years. McGrath grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 70s, where the continuing bloody, religiously motivated fighting between Protestants and Catholics helped to convince him that religion was a plague on humanity and that belief in God a delusion that could only continue to fuel bloodshed and hatred. Through his teens and early adult years, McGrath was a committed atheist, embracing the view that humanity could only come of age and overcome past barbarism by shedding its religious beliefs and embracing a new age organized under the principles of rationalism and science.

In his later adult years, however, McGrath experienced a religious conversion. He became disillusioned with institutional atheism, which he saw as reactive and emotionally unsatisfying. Furthermore, in the few instances where atheism was officially promoted through state policy -- in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, and in the Soviet Union, Communist China, and later in various eastern bloc countries -- he did not see atheism bringing on a new dawn of humanity and freedom. Quite the opposite... In these states, when atheists in power were unable to rationally persuade believers to give up religion (or cooperate with their economic, social and political agendas), they resorted to coercion and persecution -- just like the religions they had supposedly risen above.

In The Twilight of Atheism, McGrath sees the high point of atheism as the roughly two centuries between the French Revolution -- which brought atheism out into the open as a viable philosophy -- and the fall of the Soviet Union -- which constituted the collapse of the first modern atheist establishment, and coincided with a trend of increasing religiosity, not just in traditionally religious countries (like the United States), but in the traditional heartland of atheism, in northern and western Europe.

McGrath argues that the stridency of polemicists like Richard Dawkins and Samuel Harris is proof that atheism is losing traction in the post-modern world. Classic atheism, McGrath says, was a philosophical commitment that insisted on the absence of God as a precursor for the liberation of humanity. It would involve a philosophical commitment the reverse of Voltaire's (in)famous dictum: If God existed, we should have to uninvent him. The hardline denial of even the possibility of God's existence was a moral necessity, even if we couldn't prove it. The extension of the label of "atheist" even to those who merely doubt God's existence, who aren't sure, those once referred to as merely "agnostic," McGrath argues, is a sign that atheism is in retreat. The hardline atheist position has lost its power to inspire and to convince.

McGrath argues that historically, atheism has appealed most strongly when religious institutions were most corrupt and oppressive. The birth of modern philosophical atheism took place in eighteenth-century France, where the Catholic Church was completely in bed with the stale and wicked Ancien Régime. In fact, corrupt Church-State establishments throughout Europe were vulnerable to criticism, and provided rich fertilizer for the rise of philosophical atheism all over the continent. By contrast, in the United States, where religion was disestablished and governments democratic, atheism never really took hold. Modern-day statistics tell the story. In France and Germany, the atheist population is close to fifty percent; in Scandinavia, a solid majority, around eighty percent; in Catholic Italy and Anglican Britain, around thirty to forty percent. In the U.S., one percent... Or about nine percent if you count people who label themselves as "agnostic."

McGrath argues that Classical Protestantism may actually have helped sow the seeds for atheism as well. Catholicism invited believers to experience God in the world around them, through ritual and sacrament, in the sensual visual, audible and tangible expressions of faith found in stained glass windows, in statues, in holy water and incense, and in music. Protestantism took all of that away, emphasizing the Bible alone and the rational, preached word as the only means to know about a God who was distant, and who no longer manifested himself miraculously in this world. From this distant, rational clock-maker God, McGrath suggests, it was a short step to no God at all, or to rationalism as God.

Old-line Protestantism, however, gave birth to Pietism. In Britain the predominant form of Pietism was Methodism. Methodism spread like wildfire in the Americas, becoming the predominant form of U.S. Christianity by 1850. When American Methodism started to go mainline and decline, it spawned other, more fervent movements: the Holiness movement which eventually, around the turn of the century, gave birth to Pentecostalism. A century later, Pentecostal and "Charismatic" Christians (Christians in mainline denominations who practice Pentecostal-style worship) number about half a billion worldwide. If growth in the Pentecostal movement continues at its current rate, it will eventually come to outnumber Catholics and become the predominant expression of Christianity in the world.

Pietism, McGrath argues, is the ultimate antidote to atheism, because it encourages the believer to experience, to feel and to see God alive and at work in their daily lives. Someone who has had personal experiences with God, experiences which have developed into an active and personal relationship with God, is very unlikely to find any atheist argument convincing, no matter how intellectually cohesive it may be. How can you refuse to believe in someone that you know personally? The fact that Pietism has been the predominant form of Christian expression in the U.S. is probably a second contributing factor -- along with the early disestablishment of religion -- to the low appeal of atheism on our shores.

McGrath does not take a hardline position against atheism. Atheism, he argues, has actually played an important role in critiquing religious corruption. The Churches, he argues, have responded to atheist criticism. They have taken a hard look at doctrines such as the belief that the unbaptized automatically go to Hell, and have revised or dropped them. Christian churches that once believed a state-church establishment was necessary to uphold faith have now accepted and embraced disestablishment and religious freedom. The Churches have also taken a good, hard look at their role in collaborating with various forms of political, social and economic injustice. What nineteenth-century atheists didn't expect has happened. Churches have evolved and changed and embraced positive social change. The Christianity that atheists critique, McGrath argues, is a "moving target." It's no longer the Christianity of the pre-French-revolutionary ancien régime, though, he suggests, many atheists continue to critique that Church. For that reason, atheists, McGrath ironically suggests, have become the main modern bastion of religious conservatism. Atheism will continue to play a valuable role in society, however, to the extent it remains ever vigilant against new forms of religious corruption.

In a recent post, in explaining why he has embraced atheism, Keith stated that atheism helps him to be "more intrinsically motivated to do good, rather than being extrinsically motivated by my church." This, to me, is a classic example of the way that atheism can actually bring a breath of fresh air to religion. Any careful reading of the New Testament will show that -- from a purely religious perspective! -- "intrinsic" motivation (desire to be loving, kind and compassionate because it's the right thing to do) must trump "extrinsic" motivations (fear of Hell or damnation, desire to be praised or viewed as a good person by others, etc.). This is a basic faith principle. Motivation matters in faith, and extrinsic motivations cannot save us. Yet, religious institutions get too easily wrapped up in the extrinsic motivational structure; they buy into legalism and hierarchy and pride. They easily become rigid and inflexible and intolerant.

When they do, if McGrath's argument is right, atheism will start to hold greater appeal to rank and file members of these institutions; and religious institutions will start to die.

I've continued to be struck by the truth of a line from Ockham's Razor, by Alan Michael Williams:

Every gay person in the LDS Church is fated to float in doubt and skepticism...

Why is this? Because there's no place for us in the institutional Church as we are, as we experience ourselves in the goodness of our created selves. There's no room for us to love, to connect, to find and build family and experience all the growth that comes from that in the way that works for us, that honors who we are and how we experience ourselves. As long as this is true, being gay and Mormon will be problematic.

Like Alister McGrath, I embraced atheism for a time. Perhaps a much shorter time than he did. As a youth and young adult, I had a vibrant prayer and spiritual life, and experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit. As an adult, it was my anger about the lack of place or respect for gay folks in organized Christianity that alienated me from the Church and even from belief in God for a time.

Like McGrath, I demanded a philosophically robust atheism. The kind that insists humanity must mature, must take responsibility for both the good and the evil we have done, and must open its heart in compassion to those who have been marginalized and oppressed, and whose marginalization and oppression has been callously justified as God's will.

I still believe that! But from within a perspective of faith. I've come to believe that faith -- trust in God -- is our best hope at achieving truly loving, just society. Like McGrath, I ultimately abandoned my atheism, and turned instead to a renewed, personal, immediate relationship with God, a God who has spoken to my mind and my heart, who has appeared to me, healed me, comforted me and taught me. Grounded in that relationship, I find a seemingly endless reservoir of love and patience for the very, very long journey ahead of me, and ahead of all of us. That road led me, for good or for ill, straight back to the Church.

I wish others could or would join me in that path. It's lonely sometimes. I have been so heartened by and so grateful for the emotionally and spiritually intimate friendship I've found with other gay Mormons who experience the Holy Spirit in their lives and who affirm both their gayness and their faith. There are a handful of us. It breaks my heart when I see the fervency of faith and love fade among gay Mormon friends. We are the leaven in the dough. What happens if we cease to quicken? We are the salt. What happens if we lose our savor?

There's joy in this path we can't find in any other, if only we can hang in there! There's a reservoir of strength and love in God that can renew and uphold us, and that fills us with sweet, sweet delight... If only we can trust that extra measure.

And yet... I can't blame gay Mormons for losing faith. That's a witness too. A negative witness, but a witness nonetheless. When institutions fail their own, the lesson of history is that people lose faith. This is a religious principle, not an atheist principle. Our lives touch other lives, for good... or for ill.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Domino Theory of Gospel Truth

Most Latter-day Saints are familiar with what I like to call "The Domino Theory of Gospel Truth." It's a hermeneutic that goes something like this:

If the Book of Mormon is true, then Joseph Smith must be a prophet.

If Joseph Smith is a prophet, then the church he restored is the True Church.

If the Church is true, and Joseph Smith was a prophet, then Thomas S. Monson must be a prophet.

If Thomas S. Monson is a prophet, then it's my duty to go out and make sure Proposition 8 passes.

I'm not a philosopher or an expert in logic, but I think it's not too hard to find flaws in these kinds of chains of reasoning.

Now, granted, truth does tend to cling together. Truths in one area support and lead to and illuminate truths in other areas. Everything is interconnected. Still, reality is far more complex than what the Domino Theory suggests.

I understand why Latter-day Saints find the Domino Theory attractive. Especially for new members or for young and immature members, the Domino Theory encourages folks to persevere in the Gospel even when their testimonies are weak and their knowledge is sparse. If the Domino Theory encourages one to work hard, to apply gospel principles, and to keep seeking light and knowledge, then it has served its purpose.

But the problem is, the Domino Theory just as easily becomes a faith crutch. It can actually encourage rigidity and shut down thinking and growth. "I have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, therefore..." Therefore, I should just march lockstep with what everyone else in the Church is doing. I should not think. I should not ask questions. If I encounter information that conflicts with what I think I already know, I should shut it out of my consciousness and deny it as untruth.

The other major problem is that the Domino Theory just as quickly and easily becomes The House of Cards Theory of Gospel Untruth. The House of Cards goes: if I find even one single significant error, then it all must be false. The whole thing comes crashing down like a house of cards.

People who are content to let the Domino Theory guide their faith can't shut out conflicting information forever. And conflicting information they will find in abundance, because their testimonies and their approach to Gospel Truth are far, far too simplistic. The more simplistic our world view is, the more likely the world is to come crashing in on us and disillusioning us. And this, by the way, is a good thing. Nobody is entitled to remain a simpleton forever. That's not part of the agreement we made with God when we came down here... Quite the contrary.

The Domino Theory of Gospel Truth is not only illogical, it is unscriptural. Just a few key texts on spiritual hermeneutics should suffice to make my point. The hermeneutic described in D&C section 9 suggests that reception of truth requires labor before hand, it requires wrestling, and it requires careful listening. The Lord in this section essentially says, “Garbage in, garbage out.” If you don't do your homework, no revelation. The apostle Paul said “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5: 21); implicitly: "Prove all things, chuck that which is bad."

Alma 32, that great sermon on how faith and knowledge sustain and interact with one another, emphasizes how we learn truth by applying it, by putting it to the test. And Alma is at pains to point out that this is a process that only enables us to establish one truth at a time:

And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing.... (Alma 32: 34, emphasis mine)

Alma doesn't say, "Well, now you have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, so you don't need to work at establishing the truth of anything else. Now just do what I tell you to do without question." He says quite the opposite. His sermon on faith anticipates that the search for truth will be a lifelong quest. The Gospel that Alma describes is a gospel whose truth is established piecemeal, "line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little" (Isaiah 28: 10-13 and D&C 98: 12).

To borrow another metaphor from Jesus, our testimony is like a house that must be built on a solid foundation (Matthew 7: 24-29). And an edifice of truth, like all edifices, is built one brick at a time. That's how I've approached my return to Mormonism. Yes, I had a very powerful experience in which the Spirit told me it was time to come back to the Church. I've learned to trust the Spirit in my life. The Spirit guided me in my process of coming out. It has guided me in every significant decision in my life, and those decisions have worked out for the best in ways I never could have expected or foreseen. So when the Spirit told me to go back to the Church – quite out of the blue – I was surprised, shocked, angry, worried. But I had learned to trust the Spirit, so I started going back to Church again in 2005.

Did that mean I automatically assumed that every single thing in the Church was true? No... I've slowly been rebuilding my testimony from the foundation up. I prayerfully reread the Book of Mormon. I incorporated daily prayer and scripture study into my life. I gave up pornography. I started living the Word of Wisdom. At each point, my approach was, let's try this, and see what happens. In the process I began to learn powerful spiritual truths. I gained insight into who I am, what my strengths and what my weaknesses are. I began to learn that, in terms of the principles of daily living, what the Church teaches is more right than wrong. I found the basic edifice of LDS faith to be sound. I found I could begin to build my life on it, and as a result I could become a better, happier, stronger person.

I've taken the same experimental/experiential approach to the teachings of Church leaders. I listen to the talks at General Conference in a spirit of , “Let's see what I can learn from this.” If I hear anything surprising, or if something is said that I find uncomfortable or that I need to wrestle with, I think, let's give this a chance and see where it takes me. If I try something and it doesn't work, well, then I've learned it doesn't work. Do I hold a grudge against the leader who said that? Well, maybe he meant well. Maybe that principle worked well for him in different circumstances, but it doesn't work for me. That's OK. He's trying to help, I'm trying to learn. In the end, we'll get there with patience and work.

But if it does work, I've learned something new that I wouldn't have learned if I hadn't been willing to wrestle with something uncomfortable or unusual.

Of course Church leaders occasionally spout homophobic crap. Fortunately, Boyd K. Packer's out-of-line comments were quietly removed from the record; official statements were made to contain the damage. And still, I've learned so much from Boyd K. Packer. He was a major formative influence on my youth, and on balance I would say for the good. His teachings have given me confidence in my ability to seek and receive answers to prayers. He's inspired me with a profoundly democratic understanding of how the Church works and what my role in it might be. I've learned much about love and courage and forgiveness and faith from Elder Boyd K. Packer. Has he said things that were probably uninspired and that injured me? Yes. Has he said things that were inspired and that have made me a better man by listening to and following them? Definitely. Boyd K. Packer will be the first to admit that he is just a man, that he is fallible. And he has also said from the Conference pulpit that we are as entitled to revelation as he is and that we are responsible to seek the Lord's guidance directly in evaluating the truth of all things. That's the Mormonism I believe in, and he believes in it too.

There's stuff that I've tried that failed spectacularly. I did the best I could with the advice President Kimball offered about homosexuality in The Miracle of Forgiveness. I went the road of 1970s and 1980s Church teaching on homosexuality. It did not produce the results claimed, and almost led me to suicide. I don't have to try that again. I've pretty much proven to my permanent satisfaction that Church leaders got it wrong on that score.

A sort of corollary of the Domino Theory of Gospel Truth is the Doctrine of Mormon Papal Infallibility. Now how many times do we have to say, Mormons do not believe their leaders to be infallible? This has been so well established in Church teaching that it's exasperating to have to keep repeating it. But both members and non-members proceed to act as if we believe our leaders are infallible. A sort of proof text of the (false) Doctrine of Mormon Papal Infallibility is the Wilford Woodruff quote provided in a footnote to Official Declaration 1:

The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty. (Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890, p. 2.)

It is worth noting here that Woodruff is actually speaking to a fairly narrow circumstance: a circumstance in which a Church leader deliberately lies with the intention of leading the Church astray. Please note Woodruff's repeated use of the word "attempts" here: "attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty." That choice of words implies intention, a willful effort to discourage the Saints from obeying the Gospel as transmitted through scripture and the previous teachings of Church prophets. The full quote does not seem to address a situation in which a Church leader is unintentionally mistaken about something, in which a Church leader's knowledge of something is incomplete or inaccurate.

More importantly, the Wilford Woodruff quote must be considered in historical context. Wilford Woodruff said what he said in order to address the terrible confusion and doubt that had been created by the release of the Manifesto. Wilford Woodruff had to reassure the Saints that in ending the practice of plural marriage, he was not leading the Church astray. That was the context of that quote. The Saints had so come to view plural marriage as a bedrock, foundational principle of their faith, there were serious doubts that a prophet of the Lord could receive a legitimate revelation bringing it to an end. Woodruff was, in essence saying, perhaps with a bit of hyperbole, that he was not leading the Church astray in making this major course correction. Did he lead the Church astray in ending polygamy? That's a judgment bigger than one human being could make; but it's hard to argue that the Church hasn't prospered since then, in large part as a result of that course correction.

Does that Wilford Woodruff quote mean that we must take it as an article of faith that no Mormon prophet or apostle anywhere could ever teach a single untruth? That seems contrary to my understanding of how God works through mortals. But that's just me, testing one principle of the gospel at a time, building the edifice of my faith one brick at a time. The truth is, no leader of the Church ever could lead the Church astray, so long as its members continue to apply scriptural hermeneutics to the search for truth, so long as they are willing to work at and test and try all things, clinging to that which is good and rejecting that which is false.

I realize that many gay LDS have had their faith shattered because of the aforementioned erroneous teachings on homosexuality. I had my faith shattered for many years. As I stated in an earlier post, this has been a stumbling block for me and for many. Does it prove that the Church in its entirety is false? That we can't trust anything that is taught? Well, oddly enough, it is the broad principles of Church teaching -- that I am a child of God, that I have the light of Christ in me, that the Spirit will lead me into all truth -- that have healed the anguish caused by those false teachings, and that have enabled me to grow and thrive as a human being, as a son, as a brother and, yes, as a husband of a same-sex spouse and a father of our foster son.

I do have a testimony of the Church. But my testimony goes something like this: I've tried gospel principles. I've tested them in my life. And so far, they work. They've brought me joy, peace and blessings too many to enumerate and too great to repay God for. And based on what I've experienced, I'm willing to keep going, to keep seeking and listening to and following the Spirit.

Monday, December 5, 2011

On the Cost and Nature of Discipleship

In my last post, I shared some of the sadness and the wrestling I occasionally experience because of my desire to be a member in full standing in the Church.

Today I read a text in the Gospel of Matthew that seemed to speak directly to this experience.

Matthew 20 begins with the parable of the day laborers, one of my favorite of Jesus' parables. In it, the master of a vineyard goes out in search of day laborers at various shifts throughout the day. He starts early in the morning and hires some laborers for "a penny." Then he comes back at "the third hour" (what we'd call 9:00 A.M.), then again at noon, and at 3:00 p.m. Finally, he returns nearly at the end of the work day... At "the eleventh hour" (our 5:00 p.m.). He finds laborers standing there idle, and he asks them: "Why stand ye here all the day idle?"

Their response: "Because no man hath hired us."

The master's response? To immediately hire them and put them to work.

The story gets really interesting when, at the end of the work day (which ordinarily would have been less than an hour later), the master pays up. Everybody gets the same pay -- a penny. Those who had labored through the heat of the day get a bit worked up... How come these guys, who showed up at the eleventh hour are getting the same pay as everybody else? The master puts them in their place. This, he says in essence, is how I choose to pay you. I'm honoring my agreement with you... You have nothing to say to these others. Are you upset because I choose to be generous?

Of course, what particularly struck me today is that perhaps this strikes the Lord as fair because it is not the fault of the day laborers that no one had hired them. They were there, waiting in the market all the day long, waiting for someone to hire them. They wanted work. (Does this sound familiar in today's economy?) Had someone hired them earlier, they would gladly have gone. When the master finally hired them, off they went.

Depending on how literally we want to read this parable as a metaphor of the Kingdom of God, we could look at the "day" as the period of history spanning the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ, and the Second Coming, the final harvest. And maybe this is the Lord acknowledging that even in the eleventh hour of the Kingdom, not everyone who is willing and able to participate in its building will have been hired... Some of us won't be hired till the final minutes of the work day. Is that our fault? God forbid... When the Master sees fit, he will hire us, and our reward will be no less than others'.

But it makes sense to cross reference these verses in Matthew with the numerous revelations in the Doctrine & Covenants that boldly invite: "Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work" (e.g., D&C 4: 3). I have always found these verses deeply comforting. If I'm willing to "thrust in my sickle," to live my life in faith, hope and charity, and bear my testimony, I'm laboring in the vineyard! There's no invitation I need from anybody, no labor contract needed, to do that kind of work in the Kingdom.

Later in the same chapter, Jesus reminds the disciples again of his impending imprisonment, torture, death and resurrection (vs. 17-19). While an earlier, similar declaration elicited denial from Peter, who couldn't seem to see past the bad part of this prophecy, this declaration elicited from the mother of James and John a request that, when he returns in glory, James and John be permitted to sit on his right and left hands. This was sort of the opposite error of the error Peter committed, and James, John and their mother are also rebuked. They were eager for the glory and the reward, but had somehow forgotten about the cost of discipleship. While Peter failed to see the resurrection at the end of the pain and death, James and John sort of missed the pain and death that stood between them and future glory:

Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?

They (perhaps arrogantly) answered in the affirmative, and Jesus' response was, "Ye shall indeed drink of my cup..." But he then proceeded to a lesson about the nature of discipleship. To walk that road is not about claiming a glorious spot on the right or the left hand of the Son of Man. It's not about striving for preeminence of place or the satisfactions of power ("as the princes of the Gentiles," v. 25). It is about being the servant of all (v. 27). The Greek word here rendered as servant could just as easily be rendered "slave." If you would be great in the kingdom, in other words, get used to no rank whatsoever, get used to doing the shit jobs. If you think about exactly the work that Jesus did for us (dying the ignominious death of a convicted criminal on a Roman cross), he's asking of us no more than he did himself.

If our status is something like that in relation to the Church, perhaps we should count ourselves blessed.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why Church Membership Matters -- and So Does Family

This is something I perennially struggle with.

I go through periods in my prayer life where every day I pray to have my Church membership restored, to be fully reunited with the Church. This is something I really desire, and I think it's a righteous desire. I want to be baptized.

And I have done my homework and wrestled with the Church's current position that someone in a same-sex relationship cannot be a member. I have fasted and prayed and pondered and wrestled with the implications of this: i.e., that the fastest and easiest road to membership in the Church would be for me to simply "put away" my partner. (That's a nice biblical euphemism, isn't it?) I guess one way of looking at this is that for me, my entry into the Church would have to begin with an act of betrayal and abandonment. The end result of my fasting, praying, pondering and wrestling with this was a clear message from the Spirit that to do so, for me, would be a sin.

My bishop isn't pressuring me to leave my husband. He does feel that I am paying the price right now for past "bad decisions."

I have on numerous occasions received comfort through the Holy Spirit. My Heavenly Father does not expect me to fix this. My relationship is blessed by him, and is a good thing, and is part of his intention for me to be happy in this life and find eternal life in the next. And it is not my fault that to be in relationship with Göran means I cannot be a member of the Church. And the Lord will not withhold any blessings from me of which I am deserving, just because of circumstances that are beyond my control. He knows my righteous desire to be re-baptized and to enter into the Church; I've expressed this desire to my bishop. And I have received an abundance of spiritual gifts greater than anything I ever received when I was a Church member. And the Lord has blessed our relationship, helping to resolve my husband's birth certificate/passport issue, and reuniting us with his family in Memphis; and opening our respective families' eyes and hearts in such a way that they fully love and support us and honor our relationship and accept us both as full and equal members of our families.

So sometimes I have felt it was ungrateful to ask for more. And sometimes I have felt the Spirit quietly prompting me to simply be patient and wait on the Lord to fix this. It is his Church, and he will work things out in his own way. So sometimes in my prayer life I let go of praying to become a member of the Church, and I just express gratitude for the many blessings we've received. The blessings we receive are tailored to our unique, individual circumstances, and they might not make sense or be applicable in someone else's circumstances. Though like all blessings, they are conditioned upon our exercise of faith. That's how the Lord helps us to grow.

Recently, I heard about a situation of two gay men who are members of the Church and who are legally married, and who are now facing excommunication. It's not unlike the situation Buckley Jeppson faced some years ago. In Buckley's case, after a flurry of media publicity to the effect that the Church was about to excommunicate a legally married individual, his Stake dropped disciplinary proceedings against him and he was allowed to remain a member in good standing. As far as I know, to the present time Buckley remains married to a person of the same sex, and also a member of the Church.

Buckley's case is a little confusing to me. Does it mean that the Church is willing to violate its own principles merely for the sake of avoiding bad press? Or does it mean that there in fact is no reason why two members of the same sex who are married couldn't be members of the Church? On numerous occasions, I've invited my husband to go to Church with me. The Restored Gospel gives my life meaning and it has opened my mind and my heart in incredible ways, and I wish that he could experience what I have experienced. But my inability to be a member of the Church is a huge stumbling block for him. He says if I am allowed to be a member, then he will consider attending, not before. This is understandable (even as it breaks my heart). If Buckley's case in fact means that I could be a member, I wish my bishop and stake president could be informed about this.

The Church's current position is a terrible stumbling block for many -- I want to say the vast majority of -- gay men and lesbians. The price that gay men and lesbians have to pay to remain members in good standing is so high that only a small minority are willing or able to do it. And this creates terrible contradictions in their lives that has resulted in much pain, cynicism and loss of faith. This breaks my heart, almost every day of my life, every time I witness the light of faith going out in the heart of yet another one of my gay or lesbian brothers or sisters.

The Lord has taken and is taking good care of me; and I trust implicitly in the promises I've received from the Spirit that I won't be disadvantaged in any way due to circumstances beyond my control. But I believe that my situation is an anomaly. It's one of those many things in this world that is not right, and that will eventually need to be righted by the Lord.

Here are some reasons why Church membership matters, why it continues to matter and will always matter to me:

Baptism is the first ordinance of the Gospel. It is a visible, tangible reminder of the commitments we make to God.

A very Biblical metaphor of the relationship between us and God is the metaphor of marriage. The covenants we enter into with God have been compared in numerous places in scripture to the covenant of marriage. We are, in essence, married to God through baptism.

Göran and I lived together without marriage for a couple of years before we finally had a commitment ceremony in 1995. (In 2008 we were legally married in California, an option that was not available to us until then.) For many years, as a young gay man in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I felt bitter about the fact that legal marriage was not available to same-sex couples. I convinced myself that what matters in a relationship is the commitments we make in our hearts; that external ordinances and artifacts such as marriage ceremonies or certificates don't matter or make any difference. When we finally got married (it was Göran's idea to do so!) I learned how wrong I had been. The gathering with family and friends, the making of a public promise, and even (years later!) the state acknowledgment of that promise and the issuing of a certificate to that effect made a HUGE difference. These things deepened our commitments to one another in incredible ways.

It's the same with baptism. Right now I am, in a very real sense, "cohabiting" with the Church. My testimony and my desire for complete and total union with the Church does matter, it does make a difference, just as the love between two unmarried people does make a difference. But it isn't complete until it is sealed by the outward ordinance.

Being a member of the Church incorporates us into a system of accountability that helps us keep covenants. I long to be able to participate in that system, to be able to be held accountable by Church and priesthood leaders. This is a good thing. I do the best I can to live the gospel, but I need help from time to time, and the temptations to stray are greater when it's just me, by myself, trying to live the gospel on my own.

That's what I must do, I have no choice. I guess in some ways, when I do live a gospel principle, it becomes that much more powerful a statement because there is no system of accountability for me except my own conscience. For instance, Göran and Glen and I had Thanksgiving this year with Glen's boyfriend's family. (That was, parenthetically, a WONDERFUL occasion. We felt so grateful for this family that completely welcomed us and made us feel right at home around a HUGE Thanksgiving table with lots of other extended family present!) There was wine being served, and it was tempting to feel like I wanted to join everyone else. I felt a bit like an oddball. A common reaction I get from folks is, "gay, Mormon? why care about a glass of wine? are you crazy? etc." I wavered for a moment mentally; and I know, personally, that I wavered in a way I'm sure I would not have, if there hadn't been that doubt gnawing at the back of my head: "Oh, it doesn't matter. You're not a member anyway. It's not like you can be more excommunicated."

I know better than that, of course. While I don't condemn others' decision to drink -- I really, really don't! I simply recognize that their commitments are different from mine, that's all!! -- I know that my decision not to drink is an important symbol, and important statement of faith. The fact that it can come from within is a powerful thing. So I don't regret that I am placed in this situation. It allows me to grow in incredible ways!

At the same time, we need the Church precisely because human beings have weaknesses, faults and failings! Having the structure of public, outward ceremonies and commitments is a good thing. It helps us in the struggle with temptation. I am denied those public, outward ceremonies and commitments. Worthiness interviews, taking the Sacrament on Sunday morning, having and using a temple recommend, all important aids to faithful living that I am denied.

We should all eventually grow to a place in our faith where we don't need outward observances. If I understand anything about the Gospel, it is that the fullness of the higher law doesn't require these things. But to say that I don't need those things would be to assume that I've reached a state of perfection I simply haven't. I want and need those things.

Being a member of the Church means we publicly covenant to bear one another's burdens. Fortunately, my bishops over the past six years have decided that there was no reason I couldn't have a home teacher. So I've had a number of home teachers over the years; and I am grateful for the service they render me. But I want to be a home teacher. I want to give, I don't want just to receive. I have been blessed by the testimonies of others on Sunday morning. I want to be able to share my testimony. I have been blessed by what I've learned from teachers in Priesthood and Sunday School lessons. I want to be able to teach!

I can and do take advantage of opportunities for service -- occasionally participating in Church cleanings, helping ward members to move, volunteering in service projects (such as the flood relief that Göran and Glen and I all volunteered for under Church auspices a few years ago). I love these opportunities for service -- they make me feel good.

Though it hurts sometimes too. Sometimes I feel so incredibly lonely. I wept the last time I helped clean the Church. I was one of two people who had shown up, and I was vacuuming the hallway outside the sanctuary, and I just wept. I don't know how to describe it other than that I felt incredibly alone.

It makes a difference, when our service to one another is publicly acknowledged as part of a framework of covenant and love... Something I am excluded from.

I don't want comments on this post about how faithful I am, blah, blah. That's not the point. I try to be faithful. Sometimes I am not faithful, and I need the blessings that have been divinely prepared for us through the establishment of a Church to help us build and strengthen faith.

The Church is not perfect. If it were, we wouldn't be down here working out our salvation, we would be up in Heaven, with Enoch and his city of perfected Saints. The Second Coming would have been long ago, as Christ would have come to receive his Church as a perfect bride. No we are not there yet.

We are in process of getting there. This is the process: Us making a public commitment to one another to bear one another's burdens and to perfect our faith together. That's what the Church is.

I know I'm not perfect by any measure. Some people think they know exactly how and why I'm not perfect, because I'm "living the homosexual lifestyle." Their judgments may or may not be in accordance with God's... I don't presume to have any final word on whether their judgments are righteous; though I know the scriptures have reserved some pretty harsh words for those who do judge unrighteously and who withhold forgiveness. We all need to be careful on that score. Even if unrighteous judgments are made, well, that's to be expected among people still perfecting themselves! If we're blessed enough to see and understand that, well, we're doubly blessed!

Perhaps the greatest gift of the Spirit is to receive that gift of knowledge: that it's OK if we've often failed one another. The point is to get back up and keep trying. Every time I watch the film Finding Nemo, I weep when Dory (played by lesbian comedian Ellen Degeneres!) sings, over and over again, "Just keep swimming! Just keep swimming!" That more or less summarizes our obligation as disciples of Christ. Don't get distracted by the difficulty of the task. Don't get distracted by other's failings, or your own. You just keep trying to do what you know you need to do.

I want to be part of the process of perfecting the Church and perfecting myself. In order to do that, I need to make and keep public commitments: both to the Church and to my husband. Right now I am told that I must choose to break/betray/deny one in order to honor the other. But I know that the path to Zion does not lie through betrayal or denial of family or Church. It all needs to -- and I trust some day will -- fit together perfectly, lovingly and harmoniously.

But in the mean time, in this time and place, I am forced to accept cohabitation as the highest form of commitment I can make to the Church.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Third Day

Right after Matthew's description of Jesus' famous exchange with Peter on the subject of his divine identity (Peter: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God"!), Matthew states that Jesus

From that time forth began... to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. (Matt. 16: 21)

Now it's unclear to me whether this teaching of Christ about his impending torture, death and resurrection came right after Peter's testimony or not. The phrase "from that time forth began" suggests continuing activity over a period of time, and also signals a semantic break with what came just before this statement in the text. But it's still significant that this is placed in the narrative right after the description of Jesus' open discussion with the disciples about his calling as the Christ, the Anointed.

When Peter said "Thou art the Christ," he was bearing a witness that had been impressed upon him by the Father through the Holy Spirit. As Jesus put it, "flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven" (vs. 17). After Peter bears witness of what the Spirit has taught him, then Christ discusses it openly. It is almost as if Christ waited to discuss it until this sacred secret of Jesus' divinity and calling could no longer be withheld from the disciples, until their eyes and hearts were sufficiently open for them to be taught it directly from heaven.

And still... Human fear, human doubt intervenes. We are so fragile!

Jesus told them what would happen to him, and in the telling there was both good news and bad news. The bad news first. I'm going to Jerusalem, and there, things won't go so well for me. And I'm going to be killed. But now, the good news. The third day after I am killed, I will be raised from death. Death cannot conquer me! (Matt. 16: 21)

Peter didn't even hear the good news part. He went straight for the bad. And that despite what he knew in his heart, despite what the Spirit had just impressed upon him in terms he could not deny, that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God! What greater knowledge did Peter need in order to trust in Jesus, in order to lay all his fears to rest? But this is the Peter who walked a few steps on the water, and then sank as soon as he saw the waves...

Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. (vs. 22)

I'd always wondered about the vehemence of Christ's response until I read it today.

Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. (vs. 23)

If you deny my crucifixion, my death, then there's no resurrection to follow. No redemption. No life everlasting for anyone. And, focusing on the bad news, it would have been tempting to turn away from Jerusalem, to avoid all that pain and sorrow. That had to be tempting to Jesus; every bit as tempting as those moments when he was starving in the desert, and Satan offered him a little bit of bread, a little bit of unearned fame, a little bit of power... Maybe Jesus was flashing back to that trauma in the wilderness when he remonstrated, "Get thee behind me, Satan...!"

Peter succumbed to the temptation to doubt, to recoil, to be fearful. And that in spite of the marvelous testimony he had just born. The contrast is striking here between Jesus' praise ("Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in Heaven") and Jesus' condemnation ("thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men"). Ouch! It just goes to show, that to have a testimony does not make us perfect. We can know things, we can have seen things and we can have received remarkable witnesses of the Spirit. And we can still falter, we can still waver in our faith.

Jesus' response (in verses 24-26) is to encourage his disciples to move into and through their fear. You're afraid of the cross? I'm not going to deny there is a cross ahead of us. So deny yourselves, and take up your cross and follow me. Let's go through this together. For in losing your life, you will find it.

To take up one's cross is to renounce fear of the consequences. To deny oneself is to deny the ego, to deny that part of us that wants to control. Jesus says, in essence, let go of your need to control. Let go of your fear. Come on, follow me into the darkness, into your fear, and through it, over to the other side.

Where, he reminds his disciples again, there is glory and life everlasting.

For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then shall he reward every man according to his works. (vs. 27)

Bad news? Good news!

I can relate to Peter here. I've had that experience of receiving a revelation of bad news and good news, and getting so wrapped up in the former I forgot the latter, and stumbled a bit. But life is full of these kinds of opportunities to grow! Faith is that journey that teaches us to receive the message in its fullness, and to find hope in the good news of it at the end, and to not be afraid of the bad in between. It takes patience to walk in faith. It takes patience and trust to get up when we stumble. And in the patience and the trust, we learn the pure love of Christ.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Our Home

Today is a momentous day for me and Göran. As of today, our home is officially paid off. Our mortgage is paid in full.

The picture was taken in August 1996 when we signed the closing papers. It will be couple of months before we get the nice little piece of paper saying that the property is officially ours. When I scheduled the "pay-off" earlier this week, I was informed that we were paying a $46 fee for the county to re-issue the deed in our names, and that we should be able pick up the new deed at the county registrar's office some time around the new year. Göran is already making plans for a "mortgage burning party" to be held sometime next spring. Y'all are invited!

At a moment like this, it's tempting to go into raptures about "the American Dream." But we live in a neighborhood where a fair number of folks lost their homes a few short years ago, while billionaires were scrambling to make off with their life savings. I have friends and family who were not as lucky as Göran and I were... Who -- in pursuit of "the American Dream" -- took a chance and bought a dream home, only to have things fall apart. An ugly divorce. A lost job. And in the midst of that, trying to sell a home that had lost value in a market gone bust, and losing thousands.

In some larger sense that transcends U.S. law, the land our house stands on isn't ours. We didn't build the house. At best, it and the property it sits on are borrowed. Eventually, we'll pass it on, die, give everything back to wherever it came from. At best, we can only be grateful we have a place to stay, for now.

Göran and I were in the right place at the right time. We bought our house from friends who had bought dirt cheap and obtained grants to renovate, and who -- out of a sense of compassion or equity or whatever -- decided to sell cheap to someone who might not be able to afford a home of their own otherwise. We knew we were blessed. I still consider us more lucky than deserving.

So, we celebrate this moment with a sense of gratitude and hope, and a desire to share the love and sanctuary we've found here with others. If any of you are ever in the neighborhood, drop me a line! Stop by! All are welcome here!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Temple Attendance

This past Sunday was our Stake Conference.  As always, I was grateful to be able to attend; grateful for friends who gave me a ride, and friends who were there to be my surrogate Church family.  As is often the case, there was at least some discomfort.  Though I guess I've come to see the discomfort as a friend.  It is there to help me to avoid slipping into complacency or taking things for granted.

Our temple president spoke about covenants, which he defined (he said, according to the "Greek definition") as a strong commitment through which we come to resemble the one with whom we have made the commitment.  I reflected on the attributes of Christ: patience, compassion, sacrifice.  I reflected on how I might cultivate those attributes in myself; and on what doing so would reflect about the nature of my relationship with God.

Our mission president spoke, and invited every member of the Stake to "call yourself on a mission."  I reflected on my testimony; how it is the greatest gift that I have, and how it is the greatest gift I can share.

Those reflections filled me -- and fill me -- with peace and gratitude.

I found our Stake President's remarks, however, of greatest direct relevance to my own personal situation.  He began with an analogy between physical health and spiritual health (he used his efforts to monitor his cholesterol as an example).  He then asked us a series of questions, inviting us to ask these questions of ourselves as a way of monitoring our spiritual health.  "Do you know God and Christ and do you listen to the Spirit?" was the first question.  "Do you sustain the prophets and apostles?" which, he clarified, meant to listen to and apply their teachings in our lives.  "Do you keep yourself pure and clean of the world?"  "Do you strive to keep the covenants you've made?"  He broke it out for us: being open and honest; practicing contrition and repentance; obeying the Word of Wisdom; and so on.  This was all basically a reiteration of the temple president's message.

He reminded us that these were all basically temple worthiness questions, and he followed this series of questions with an admonition: Go to the temple frequently, because the temple is a place where you can find healing and revelation.

I determined to go to the temple.  I know I can't go inside the temple.  As long as I remain committed to my spouse, I won't be able to be baptized or receive a recommend.  But I can at least go to the temple.  I can pray and seek healing and revelation outside its walls if I can't inside.

He ended his talk with two more questions: "Are you willing to stand as a witness of Christ?"  (He quoted Mosiah 18: 8-9.)  And, "Are you willing to be an example?"  And he followed those two questions by reiterating our mission president's message with the admonition: "Share the Gospel."


The next morning, I knew I wanted to go to the temple that day.  I texted a friend of mine, a member of my family home evening group.  I told him what I wanted to do, and asked him if he would join me.  Synchronicity!  S. too had gone to his Stake Conference the previous day -- in the nearby St. Paul Stake.  And he had had a similar revelation.  Like me, he currently does not have a temple recommend.  Unlike me, he is currently a member of the Church, and has been working with his bishop and is confident of his ability to get a recommend soon.  But as of yesterday, neither of us could enter the temple.  But we both wanted to go to the temple.

So I rented an "hour car" around lunch time, and picked S. up from work.  We brought sack lunches with us.  When we arrived at the temple, there was no one there.  No cars in the parking lot.  There was a person outside the temple, cleaning the windows.  I parked the car so we could look at the temple while we ate.  My eyes were drawn to the gleaming statue of the Angel Moroni on the steeple.  We prayed together and we talked.  After we had finished eating, we got out of the car and walked around the temple.  The air was cool -- the forecast had predicted snow flurries, though we never got them.  But it wasn't too cool for us to sit down on a stone bench outside the temple and share our testimonies of Jesus Christ and of his Church with one another.


I have a little pocket charm.  Göran bought it for me years ago as a souvenir from a trip he made to northern Minnesota.  It's a little clear glass sun symbol that shimmers and reflects rainbow colors in the sunlight.  I like to carry it around with me as a reminder of Göran's love for me, but also as a reminder of the Kingdom of glory that is likened to the glory of the sun.  Its translucence reminds me of how I want to be a channel of light myself; how I want my soul to be pure and clean so that the light of Christ can shine through it.

The temple is like that to me as well.  It is a place where I can go and be reminded of what I yearn for, and what I want to be.  It is a kind of touchstone to me.  I want to go there often.

It was such a blessing to be able to worship last September inside the Kirtland Temple.  I look forward to the time when I can worship inside other temples of the Restoration as well.  But for now, I was grateful for the presence of the temple -- a place that has been consecrated by the power of God, and dedicated to the building of God's kingdom -- where I could go to be inspired and be reminded and feel the Spirit and have my testimony strengthened.


Yesterday morning, before deciding I was going to go to the temple, I began reading the Gospel of Matthew.  I was fascinated by the genealogy presented in verses 1-17.  There are a lot of very interesting things about that genealogy (the fact that it is a catalog of sinners as well as saints, not the least interesting of them).  But what interested me most that particular morning was the fact that Matthew presented the genealogy not of Mary but of Joseph.  Matthew goes on to emphasize in the ensuing narrative that Joseph is not Jesus' father by blood lineage.  But Joseph's genealogy is presented as "the book of the generation of Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham".
In the Annotated Scholar's Version of Matthew, there's a note appended to verse 25, emphasizing that when Joseph gave the name "Jesus" to the child (in accordance with angelic instructions), the "act of naming the child is tantamount to adoption, claiming the child as his own.  Thus, Jesus is the legal son of Joseph."

This somehow gave me hope.  It reminded me that in the Kingdom of God, blood does not make a family.  Faith and action do.

So I prayed for my family at the temple, as I did the first time I visited the temple a few years ago, with Göran and Glen.


My testimony doesn't depend on things in my life being perfect.  It doesn't depend on the world being a perfect place to live.  It doesn't depend on the Church or its members or leaders being perfect.  It certainly doesn't depend on me being perfect.

When our family home evening group met last month, I think I felt inspired to say something along the lines of, "The Church can only be as perfect as its most imperfect member."  And my brothers both giggled a bit at that saying, and J. said, "Well, knowing myself, that's not very perfect."  And S. and I both echoed his sentiment with hearty Amens in relation to ourselves.  If we desire to be forgiven, we must forgive.  Or, in order to receive forgiveness, we must cultivate an awareness of our need to be forgiven.  As soon as we are aware of our own sins, the need to judge dissipates, and the hunger for communion increases.

My testimony is an invisible touchstone, like my pocket sun charm, like the temple, pointing me in the right direction.  Pointing me in the direction of faith and repentance, hope and steadfastness, love and labor.

The temple is at its best a symbol of the perfection of the Kingdom, in advance of our actual perfection.  Patience and love are the virtues that will enable us to eventually realize that perfection.

Friday, November 4, 2011

And Should I Die Before I Wake...

Today I had my annual physical.

I always very much enjoy these, partly because I use it as an occasion for reflection, not just on my state of physical health but on my state of spiritual health as well.  I like that my doctor asks me very broad questions -- about how things are going at home, with my spouse and our foster son, my activities, my diet, my emotional state.  He asks me about eating enough veggies and brushing my teeth and wearing seat belts and bike helmets.  He asks me about sex.  He wants to know how I feel about myself, my sense of self-worth.  I like that he's not just taking blood and urine and feeling my lymph nodes, but that he sees my health as being interconnected with everything I do and am in life.

It's the closest I get to anything like a worthiness interview.  As I reflected on the questions my doctor asked me, I found me asking myself some worthiness-type questions.  I found myself reflecting on my state of spiritual health.  Lately I have found myself wishing I could have formal Church worthiness interviews.  If an annual or bi-annual physical is a good idea, why not an annual or bi-annual spiritual?  I guess it's assumed -- at least from the point of view of Church policy -- that because I am in a committed same-sex relationship there's no point in ever checking in on my state of spiritual welfare.  (It's hard to avoid feeling like that's a statement that I'm hopeless/worthless/not worth the time and trouble, as long as I'm in a same-sex relationship?  As a point of spiritual health, I try not to dwell on thoughts like that.)  But that certainly puts it on me to conduct regular self-exams, I guess.

But I digress...

Today, as the nurse was taking blood and urine samples, she asked me if I had a written "Health Care Directive."  I asked her what this was, and she said it was a written statement about what kind of treatment I would like in the event that I am unconscious or unable to communicate or unable to make decisions for myself.

I told her that, no, I didn't have a written Health Care Directive. 

She asked me if I'd like more information about preparing one, and I said I did.  So now I'm looking at this form that asks a bunch of really hard questions.

Now, part of the problem answering these questions is that I would be basing my answers on a lot of suppositions about an experience that I simply have never had.  It's fine and good for me to say now, "If I have a terminal illness, I don't want you to take any measures to revive me if I have a heart attack."  I can say that now, but how can I possibly know that's how I will feel when I'm actually in that situation?  Wouldn't it be possible -- likely even! -- that no matter how I actually feel about this in some vague philosophical sense now, that once I'm actually in that situation I might have a completely different perspective of the problem, and change my mind?

I remember having conversations with my mom about this when I was a kid.  My mom was a nurse for many years, and a very good one.  She actually worked in a kid's terminal ward at one point.  And she's witnessed people of all ages passing away.  And so I felt like she had some special insight about this.  From my mom I've inherited the conviction that when God is ready for me to die, there are no special measures that anyone will be able to take to prevent me from dying.  I will die.  But in the meantime, if God has put the knowledge and means at our disposal to preserve life, we should take them no matter what.

I also spent a fair amount of time with my grandmother in the last years of her life.  Grandma lived to what we generally think of as extreme old age.  She died at the age of 102.  And even though it was difficult for her to communicate toward the end, the time I spent with her was a gift.  Her life was a gift to her whole family, right up until the very end.  And I came away from that feeling that life is always a good thing, even under diminished circumstances.

But then, I wasn't in Grandma's shoes.  I wasn't on a feeding tube and oxygen.  I know it was extremely difficult for her.  I know she missed Grandpa, and was really anxious to rejoin him on the other side of the veil.  And I know how important physical activity and exercise were to her, and how difficult it was for her in those last months when she couldn't even walk.  She was getting lung infections from the feeding tube, and I know at least one family member who thought we should have taken her off it.

I don't know.

I'll be thinking about these questions in the next days and weeks, and probably putting together a written health directive.  I'm curious if others have thought about this, and if any of you have any ideas...  I'm open here, trying to figure things out.  Any insights that anyone has would be much appreciated...

Friday, October 21, 2011

Of Veils and Tests

I once had an interesting philosophical discussion with my brother about the nature of moral tests.

I have, over the years, come to the conclusion that many of the moral tests we face here in this life are tests in which God deliberately keeps us in the dark about certain things, to see how we will respond if we think things are a certain way.

I've expressed this idea to my brother, a philosopher who teaches at University of California Riverside, and he has taken issue with me.  He told me that without complete disclosure, without full knowledge of the conditions of a moral test, we cannot truly be tested.  God will judge us and judge our moral decisions based on what we knew at the time that we were being tested.

Now, I like my brother's idea.  It certainly appeals to my sense of justice.  It doesn't seem fair that we should be judged on the basis of decisions that we made without complete knowledge.  Or if we are judged, our lack of knowledge when we made those decisions needs to be taken into account.  It needs to mitigate the final results of the judgment.

Nevertheless...  While I believe there certainly are the kinds of moral tests my brother speaks of in this life, I cling to the nagging suspicion that tests of this sort are actually fairly rare.  My reasons for insisting that God tests us by keeping us in the dark about certain key things and watching to see how we behave are philosophical, experiential and scriptural.

My philosophical reason for believing this is based on the simple fact that the human condition is governed by ignorance.  Compare, first of all, the total knowledge of any one individual -- even a very smart and well-educated individual -- to the sum total of human knowledge.  Take everything that person thinks he or she knows, and filter out all misinformation.  That person will know only the smallest fraction of everything it is humanly possible to know, everything that human beings, collectively as a race, know.  Now compare the sum total, the collective knowledge of all human beings who have ever lived, everything that is gathered in every book that has ever been written, everything that's stored somewhere on the Internet (filter out all the misinformation! which probably ends up deleting something like 99%), and then compare it to the sum total of everything that can be known.  All truth that is out there in the Universe to know, past, present and future.  (This is the D&C 93: 24 definition of "truth.")  If we believe in an omniscient God, that would be, basically, everything that God knows.  And I think we must agree that the collective knowledge of humanity is only a small fraction of the truth of all things.  So any given individual -- the person who is making all important moral decisions in life, the person who is being tested -- is making every single moral decision of any consequence based on the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction of the truth.  From a purely philosophical perspective, one must conclude that human beings as decision-makers decide mostly in the dark.

You might argue, Ah, but the moral decisions that I make are of limited scope!  They are limited to things and people and interactions that are well within the scope of my knowledge, no matter how limited that knowledge may, in the grand scheme of things, be.  Yes, But...  I would argue that there are certain things that we don't know, that we can't know, that have a huge impact on moral decisions even of limited scope.  For example, what happens to me after I die?  What do I know of this?  My brother's favorite philosopher, Heidegger, has had a lot to say about what we can and cannot know of this, and of the impact that this lack of knowledge has on moral decisions.  If I knew that my life would completely end at death, if I knew that there was no part of me that continued on, no immortal soul, that would completely change how I behave in fundamental ways, across the board.  The same is true of how it would change my moral choices if I knew that there was life after death, if I knew my soul was eternal, if I knew there would be some kind of final judgment before the throne of Christ.  Most people act as if they know, but they in fact don't know.  So the moral test is conducted in conditions of ignorance.

Is it that part of the moral test involves seeing which set of unproven assumptions we are willing to go on?  Is it to allow us to set the terms of our own test...?  But I digress...

My experiential reason for believing this is simply because of what I know about my own moral decisions.  I know at some fundamental level that I go through life making the bulk of my decisions based on gut feelings about things.  I often discover that things I thought I knew, that played an important role in making some past decision of considerable weight were actually just plain wrong.  I am often forced to make a decision quickly because there's some time limit built into the decision, and I am often in a situation in which a decision that must be made now would be much easier if I had certain facts at my disposal, and despite my best efforts to obtain those facts, I don't have them, and so...  I make a decision.  Based on a guess about what those all important facts are or how they will unfold to me at some future time.  I'm often aware that information I would like to have, I simply cannot obtain.  And so I must intuit, and go from there.

My experience, in other words, seems to confirm what I posit philosophically...  That I am a being of limited knowledge and limited intelligence, who am forced to make decisions very much in the dark about things of ultimate relevance to my decisions.

I have also observed that, while I often make decisions in the dark, the consequence of any decision I make is to obtain more light.  I've learned that life decisions are very often a kind of trial and error process.  And it is possible to look at life as something whose end goal is, after all, not to judge us, but to educate us.  So every decision, bad or good, that I make is, well, all good.  It's all part of the process of getting more and more hands-on learning.  But I digress again...  (or do I?)

Finally, there are my scriptural reasons for believing this.  And here I've already somewhat laid the groundwork for this by pointing out that philosophically we posit that we live mostly in the dark, but the scriptures purport to be a source of divinely inspired light.  From a philosophical point of view, I might ask, "But how can I know that the scriptures are what they purport to be?  How can I know they are true?"  I'll leave that weighty philosophical question aside for the moment, and say that by my own process I've come to accept the scriptures as trustworthy.

LDS scriptures in particular present a picture of the human condition in which the state of darkness we posit philosophically and confirm experientially was intended by God.  According to the scriptural account of mortal life, we all entered this life by way of a veil of forgetfulness.  And we are separated from ultimate knowledge of God and eternity by a veil that -- though occasionally briefly parted -- for the most part remains firmly in place.  God purposely set it up this way.  God purposely thought that the best way to test us would be to see what we do and how we react when knowledge of ultimate truth is veiled from us.

Now we can choose to try to live close to the veil.  That is generally what I try to do.  I've had some really remarkable spiritual experiences.  I've experienced at least a partial parting of the veil on numerous occasions.  I can say, based on those experiences, that there is a different state of awareness when we are in the midst of experiencing that parting of the veil than there is before or after the parting.  In the midst of that experience of the divine, it is like dwelling in pure light.  There is nothing like it.  It is life-changing.  After the experience is over, we are in darkness again.  We still have the memory of the light; of how it made us feel, of how it transformed our awareness, and of how it transformed us.  But in the absence of that experience, we are forced to live off of its memory.  We are plunged into the darkness again, and are forced to make our way in the dark.  So the parting of the veil doesn't alleviate us of the basic conditions of mortal life.  We still need to struggle with doubt and darkness.  And this is why it is possible to see and experience incredible things, and to eventually turn away from what we've experienced.  We can lose our grace.  We can lose our testimonies.  Unless we continue in prayer, faith, good works and repentance.


Now, I think this is generally a disquieting thing to reflect on.  It requires humility of us.  Humility as in: I don't know, so I won't judge you.  Just do the best you can do.  I will try to do the best that I can do.  We're all doing the best we can here, under difficult circumstances.

I find there's a natural human tendency to want to deny that there are important things that we need to know that we just don't or can't.  There's a natural human tendency to want to deny that we could well be wrong about everything that matters, everything that's important.  To acknowledge that possibility, forces us to live in a certain way that, I think, is more gentle, is more careful, is more compassionate.  But we generally prefer certainty (and the arrogance that comes with it).

So Mormons -- despite what our scriptures teach us about the conditions of mortality -- have a tendency to want to insist that we of course know all the answers.  And if we personally don't have a direct pipeline to God, our leaders do.  "Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets," etc.  The typical exegesis of this Amos text goes: "We have living prophets, so we know all of God's secrets, if we just do exactly what they tell us."  Well, OK.  But I think another valid exegesis of this is to confirm what I've said about living close to the veil.  Yes, God parts the veil for us occasionally.  But this doesn't change the fundamental conditions of the test of mortality.  Making decisions in uncertainty.

I was reading this morning in the Book of Mark, chapter 6.  And there was a particular turn of phrase that caught me, in verses 51-52.  These verses were speaking of the twelve, and they say: "they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered. For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened."  In other words, even though the twelve had -- just the previous day! -- experienced the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, they had already forgotten, or perhaps even never understood, its significance.  Now the twelve were Christ's chosen leaders, the leaders of his Church, and here is as clear a statement as any that even they did not fully understand something crucial about Christ's nature and about his mission.

What particularly intrigued me though was the turn of phrase, "their heart was hardened," which reminds me of the story of Moses and Pharaoh, and that disquieting phrase repeated several times in Exodus that "the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart."  There are definitely texts in the Old Testament as well as the New that suggest that God sometimes keeps certain information from us in order to accomplish some grander purpose.  God wanted to demonstrate that it was by his power, and his power alone, that the children of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt.  So God hardened Pharaoh's heart, so that Pharaoh would make things as difficult as possible.  Only then would the conditions be right for God to liberate the children of Israel in a way that they always and forever would acknowledge that it was God and God alone who freed them.

Similarly, Christ's true nature and his true mission seem to have been veiled from the minds and hearts of the apostles.  There were momentary partings of the veil, as when Peter, James and John witnessed the transfiguration.  But even these temporary partings eventually faded into the uncertainty of memory.  The twelve were genuinely shocked, overwhelmed, and surprised when Christ appeared to them alive and resplendent, three days after they had buried him in the tomb.


I have often had a discussion with other Mohos about the challenges of being gay and Mormon.  I have stated elsewhere, and I'll state here again, that I've had numerous very powerful spiritual experiences in which I have plead with God to help me understand why I am gay and how that fits into his plan.  And I've received personal revelations on this score that have helped ground me in my path.  They haven't answered all my questions; nor do they alleviate me of the responsibility of struggling in the dark, so to speak.  But I do feel certain that my gayness is an integral part of my eternal being; that it is a natural and very good part of who I am, and that my relationship with my husband Göran is blessed by God; and that someday, we will all have a full understanding of how my gayness and my family fit into the grand scheme of things.  This has been of great comfort to me.

And I am not the only one who has had these kinds of experiences.  Over the years, I have been able to connect with other gay LDS -- and even non-LDS -- who have had similar spiritual experiences.

But then comes the question: If we know this, how is it our leaders don't know?  How come the Church still treats us as unclean?  How come the Church says that our homosexuality is a mortal affliction that will somehow evaporate in the next life, so we need to remain alone, celibate and single in this life to avoid the pollution that comes from homosexual relationships?  How can the Church's official teaching and understanding be so at odds with our experience?  And if I have a testimony, how am I supposed to deal with this contradiction?

All I can say is that scripturally, there is precedent for the Lord veiling our understanding in a variety of ways.  Just as the Lord had a purpose in veiling his true identity and mission from the twelve until he was ready to fully reveal it after his resurrection, the Lord, I believe, has a purpose in veiling understanding of this aspect of human sexuality from the Church until such time as we -- collectively -- are ready to receive a full understanding of it.

In the meantime, lives are in the balance.  Individual gay men and lesbians have lost their lives over this -- are losing their lives over this -- because of the intense pain and uncertainty created by the Church's condemnation of something that feels not at all like a temporary, mortal "affliction" to us, but like a core and good and key part of who we are.  So we have an immediate need for understanding and knowledge on this.  And I think that if we try to live "close to the veil," if we humbly seek understanding from the Lord on this, we will receive what we need in order to live and thrive and fulfill whatever missions the Lord has individually for us to fulfill.  So I guess that's a way of trying to resolve the contradiction.

Could I be wrong about this?  Well, part of the whole point of this essay is that, yes, absolutely I could be!  Nothing, no personal revelation certainly, could alleviate me of the fundamental conditions of the tests of mortality, which involves walking mostly in darkness by faith.  I'm doing the best I can to find as much light as I can and to live by it.  And I find that the love and the light I have experienced in my relationship with my husband and in being true to him and caring for him nurture hope and faith and patience in me.  And I find that the love and the light I experience at Church and in staying as true as I can to the Gospel also open things up in my life, they help me to be a better, more loving, more patient person overall.  So I can say that it feels right to affirm both my testimony of the Gospel and my relationship with my husband together, simultaneously, as part of a whole.  But I may yet learn many great and amazing things that will totally change my perception of everything.  So I have to learn to accept my limitations with some humility and openness and patience and trust that God will unveil things to us in a way that will work toward some ultimate good.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, and a Mormon Christian Reflects on "Brother Joseph"

My fairy god daughter Daphne had to write a report based, at least in part, on her reading of this wonderful little book by Rabbi Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (Doubleday, 1993).  After reading her thoughtful paper, she allowed me to borrow the book. It's a quick read. I was able to finish it in about three sittings of about an hour per sitting (about as long as it takes me to read one of Original Mohomie's blog entries).

Rabbi Neusner, in a way that is perhaps a model of respectfulness, carries on a conversation with the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew. He argues with Jesus, specifically about the Sermon on the Mount. For the rabbi, argument is a high form of respect, a form of honor. Rabbi Neusner honors Jesus by arguing with him. He takes Jesus seriously enough to think deeply about what he has to say, and to reflect on the implications of what Jesus has to say for him and his family and his nation. And ultimately the rabbi disagrees with Jesus. He explains to Jesus why, after all, he will not follow him, why he chooses instead to let Jesus go his way, while he returns home to his wife, children, dog, and garden, and goes on with his life as he had lived it before.  Rabbi Neusner hopes that at least one effect of this encounter is that it will encourage Jews to be better Jews and Christians to be better Christians.  He hopes for greater respect between Christians and Jews.  But he does not expect ever to become a Christian.

I encourage folks to read this book.  It seems timely, especially for Mormons, given that high profile Christian leaders are accusing us of belonging to a "cult."  I suppose we're long used to the slur that we are not "Christian," or rather, the denial that we are "Christian" being used as a slur.  (It's one thing to acknowledge that Mormons are not Christians in the same way as Protestants and Catholics, and another thing to defame us by denying us the Christian label we apply to ourselves.)  I think Rabbi Neusner's book is a model for how people of differing beliefs and values can talk to one another about their differences.

The rabbi's argument hinges on Jesus' statement, in the Sermon on the Mount, that he came "not to abolish [the Law and the Prophets] but to fulfill them."  Rabbi Neusner thinks that Jesus does in fact abolish some fairly important aspects of the Law and the Prophets (the Torah).  Jesus' teaching, he argues, has no place in it for the "we" encompassed in the revelation of the Law on Mount Sinai.  Jesus' morality, he argues, is a too-individualistic morality of the heart.  It includes teachings that are potentially profoundly anti-social ("do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth...").  His abolition of the holiness code, the rabbi argues, makes irrecoverable any sort of sacred "now" in a Kingdom of God on earth.  Yes, he accuses Jesus of other-worldliness, of looking too much forward to a Kingdom of Heaven after death, rather than a this-worldly Kingdom of holiness.  ("Holiness" for the rabbi means emulation of God in the here and now.)

For me, however, the most electrifying part of Rabbi Neusner's argument came when he insisted that it is ultimately impossible to separate any evaluation of Jesus' theological positions from Jesus' claim to divinity.  More shocking, the rabbi came to this conclusion through a close reading of the Sermon on the Mount.  There has been a tendency, the rabbi acknowledged, to want to separate "the historical Jesus" from the dogma of the Church.  Many people -- Jewish and liberal Christian alike -- hold the view that Jesus must obviously have been a "great moral teacher," but that he could never have actually made any claim to divinity.  The apostle Paul is accused, in this account of Christian history, of inventing the expiatory atonement theology that required making Jesus into a God.  Jesus himself would never have made such claims.

But Rabbi Neusner argues that if you look very closely at what Jesus is saying in the Sermon on the Mount you cannot conclude anything different than that Jesus is putting himself above the Torah.  The rabbi makes some very close comparisons of what Jesus says to some of the great commentary on the Torah from the Mishnah and the Talmud, and he acknowledges that much of what Jesus says sounds very much like what you would expect from a classical teacher of the Torah.  But there are points where Jesus makes critical departures from the Torah, departures that, he argues, undermine its integrity as a divine commandment.  And it is at those very junctures where Jesus places himself at the center of any Christian moral system.  Without a divine Jesus, there is no sense in which Jesus could possibly have come to "fulfill" the Law and the Prophets.  Without a divine Jesus, the rabbi essentially argues, Christian morality comes apart at the seams; and it certainly can make no claim on the loyalty of Jews, who must reject Jesus in favor of the Torah.

This is simultaneously the boldest and most humble part of Rabbi Neusner's argument.  He never anywhere impugns Christians' belief in the divinity of Christ.  To the contrary, he says in essence, if this is what you believe, you have no choice but to follow Jesus' teaching, even -- or especially -- where it contradicts the Torah.  But, he simultaneously points out, it is impossible to gloss over the significant differences that separate Jewish and Christian moral teaching and theology.  At some point, Jew or Christian, in evaluating the claims of Christianity you must decide what you think about the person of Jesus Christ, and that will make the difference between whether you "follow Jesus" or go some other way.

I found these arguments particularly relevant to the debate over whether Mormons are Christians.  A lot of that debate hinges on Mormons' particular beliefs about the nature of man and the nature of God, and whether Mormons believe in Christ's divinity in the same way as Nicene (Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox) Christians.  By Rabbi Neusner's criteria, I think it is impossible to conclude anything but that Mormons are indeed Christians, and very solid Christians at that.  That's a conclusion I find myself startled to accept.  I've always been happy to concede that Mormons, if they were Christians, were not Christians in the same way as other Christians.  (I've never particularly worried if other Christians thought we should be excommunicated from the family of "Christian" communions.)  But from the point of view of Judaism, from the point of view of the question, "Do you see Jesus as greater than the Torah, and do you subordinate all other moral considerations to the imperative of following Jesus?" Mormons most definitely are Christians in no fundamentally different sense from anyone else who claims that label.

At the same time, just as the person of Jesus forms a kind of crossroads dividing devout Jews from devout Christians, the person of Joseph Smith, Jr. becomes a similar kind of crossroads dividing Mormon Christians from every other kind of Christian.  Either Christ was divine, along with all that implies, or he was not, and there's no meaningful Christian "system" if he wasn't.  Either Joseph Smith was a prophet, or he was not.  And just as many students of Christian history, embarrassed by claims of Jesus' divinity have tried to make Christ a "great moral teacher," so many students of Mormon history, embarrassed by Joseph Smith's claim to be a prophet, have tried to make the prophet Joseph into a great "theological innovator," or a "moral reformer" who sought to reframe Christian theology for American modernity.  But, I would argue, there's no meaningful Mormon "system" if the prophet Joseph did not literally speak with and receive authority from God.  "Mormonism" comes apart at the seams if Joseph Smith was just a theological innovator or reformer.

When I attended the Affirmation Convention in Kirtland, Ohio, I was particularly intrigued by a lecture I heard there on Mormon history delivered by Community of Christ historian John Hamer.  His lecture boiled down, I think, to the notion that different branches of the "Mormon movement" could be accounted for in relation to their acceptance of successive revelations of the Prophet Joseph.  At the very core of Mormon belief, you have "Restorationism," the idea of the need to "restore" the "primitive," ancient Church of Jesus Christ, as established by Christ himself in the meridian of time.  At this level, Mormons look very similar in their belief to other radical "restorationist" Christians (like the Campbellites or certain kinds of Baptists).  Acceptance of the Book of Mormon and of the divine calling of Joseph Smith is what separates "Mormons" from other restorationists.  On the other hand, the "Nauvoo theology" -- polygamy, theocracy, temple sealing, and the King Follett theology regarding the divinity inherent in human nature -- is what separates Latter-day Saints from the Community of Christ.  The Community of Christ was ultimately constituted of those Mormon communities that rejected Brigham Young's leadership; and the main bone of contention in relation to Young's leadership was the Nauvoo theology.  (It's why Emma Smith ultimately aligned herself with the "Reorganization"...  She never could reconcile herself to her husband's polygamous teaching.)

This is why, ultimately, as much respect as I have for the Community of Christ, as grateful to them as I am for their compassionate moves toward greater inclusion of GLBT folks, as much as I love individual members of the Community of Christ, and as much as I honor their testimonies and their profoundly Christian commitments, I can't see myself joining the Community of Christ.  For me, there's no making sense of Joseph Smith's calling as a prophet without coming to full terms with the Nauvoo theology he revealed.  And at that crossroads that divides me from other Christians -- at that all-important question regarding the divine calling of Joseph Smith the prophet -- I am firmly decided on the point that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet of God, with all that that implies.  For all my human frailty and sin, and for whatever judgment I may come under to acknowledge it, I cannot retreat from the conviction at the core of my being that Joseph Smith was a revealer of divine truth and a restorer of divine priesthood.  I must come to terms with that in all its fullness, let the chips fall where they may, even if to do so ultimately condemns me.

Whatever conflicting emotions I may have about this, oddly, the one emotion that comes to the fore is gratitude.  I am thankful to know what I know, to know it with every fiber of my being.

I cannot possibly judge or condemn others for what they believe or do not believe.  I cannot speak for what they know or the ways in which their consciences may hold them responsible to that knowledge.  It is too awesome a responsibility for me simply to be obedient to my own conscience to try to account for anyone else's.  And my conscience commands me to love others completely and unconditionally, to seek their happiness and welfare as I would my own.  So I am grateful to people of conscience everywhere.  Rabbi Neusner, thank you.  My Christian friends who think I'm slightly crazy for being Mormon but love me anyway, thank you.  My friends in the Community of Christ who extend a loving welcome to me as a gay man and as a "Mormon," thank you.  My LDS brothers and sisters who don't know what to make of me as a gay man, but who love me and are willing to wrestle with me and on my behalf, thank you.