Tuesday, April 26, 2011

No Respecter of Persons

Sunday night I dreamed that I overheard a conversation being held in whispered tones between my grandmother and some other women in my family. They had apparently just discovered that my grandfather's father had been a man of African ancestry. This was, to them, a scandalous discovery.

In my dream, after overhearing this conversation, I found a photograph of my grandfather and studied it. I thought, his nose did seem rather broad, his lips rather full for a man of northern European ancestry. His skin seemed a bit darker than my grandmother's, whose ancestry was mostly Swedish. Now, with this new information, looking at his face in the photograph I could see it. He obviously had some African ancestry. Which meant, so did my father, and so did I.

In my dream, this provoked intense reflection on my part. Had this been known, my father and my grandfather would not have been permitted to hold the priesthood. Had their priesthood been invalid? My father baptized me in 1971. He ordained me to the priesthood in 1975. (Three years before individuals of African ancestry were permitted to hold the priesthood in the LDS Church.) If my father's priesthood had been void and invalid because of his race, did that invalidate my baptism? Had I ever truly been a member of the Church? Had I ever actually held the priesthood? What about the people I baptized before and during my mission? Were they no longer members of the Church? What about those they may have baptized and/or ordained, and so on?


In my dream, these reflections didn't upset me. They merely left me with a sense of awe at how totally this little bit of previously buried information could upend what I thought had been the major foundations of my life and identity, and that it could have such far-reaching ramifications for so many other people in my life. I was not who I thought I was, and fundamental truths about my life, it turns out, were not true.

Actually, the more I reflected on it, I found myself experiencing a strange kind of delight at the fact my husband and I did not, after all, have a "mixed race" marriage. (My husband is African American.) I love Göran's family in Memphis and am in awe of his heritage, in awe of the struggles of his ancestors for freedom and dignity. At some level I found myself feeling satisfied that we could now share this heritage in a deeper way.

As my sleeping consciousness merged into waking consciousness, other interesting thoughts danced across my brain. My grandfather was born to a woman who became a plural wife after the Manifesto. (This is actually true.) Now for the first time, I found myself wondering about my legitimacy in relation to that fact. The first wife in that marriage had lived in "the big house" with my great-grandfather, while my great-grandmother (the second wife) had lived in a smaller house out on the farm (also true). I had actually learned about this as a teenager, overhearing a hushed conversation between my grandmother and some of my aunts. Somehow that (true) event merged into the dream reality; the farm house my grandfather had been raised in had become slave quarters, and I had become a descendent of slaves.


What is the meaning of this dream? Do I have a secret wish to have my whole Mormon history somehow declared null and void, so that I can experience a deeper intimacy with my husband? (When I told Göran about this dream, I thought he'd laugh at me, but he was actually fascinated by it.) This dream, as I said, provoked in me a kind of awe. This was one of those dreams that sort of haunted me throughout the day. It left me feeling prayerful. And in the stillness as I prayed and reflected on it throughout the day, the Spirit instructed me.

I was impressed with the wickedness of the world. The more I pray and ponder on and think about the ban on ordaining African Americans that began some time after the death of Joseph Smith and ended in 1978, the more I see it as a product of the racist attitudes that saturated American culture during roughly that same period. There is a constant danger that human beings, rather than letting the revelations of God challenge our conventional understandings of the world, will assimilate the word of God to our own ways and our own understandings; and that we will fashion idols out of them. Attitudes of racial chosen-ness and superiority is one of the more common idols...

I was impressed with the fragility of my ideas of who and what I am. My identity, my self-understanding, is so wrapped up in worldly ideas. This is why, I suppose, after the Lord revealed himself to Moses, and then showed him "the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created," Moses' response was, "Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed" (Moses 1: 1-10).

I realized how precious God's presence in my life is. I realize how easily I could lose that presence if I let myself get caught up in pride, if I start thinking too much of what I think I am. God is no respecter of persons.

I am grateful that, if I turn to him, I can hear his voice whispering to me through the veil, every day, every minute if I will. That, I realize, is the true foundation of my life. Everything else is like a dream that will fade away when we wake up at the final dawn.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

My Time Among the Catholics

I've posted on my Religious Histories blog about my experiences learning about Catholicism while on my mission, and later while spending time in a monastery exploring celibacy.

Happy Easter!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


We are one family. That's the first thing we have to understand in order to begin to wrestle with the great problems of life, death, and faith.

A student thesis I read in the past week discussed the fact that until the moment when we experience our own death, we can only know of death by observing it in others. (This is an key theme in the philosophical thought of Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida, who provided some of the main inspiration for this student's theological reflections.) I was fascinated by the notion that human beings seem to need to understand the nature of death in order to make meaning of their lives.

And yet, the true nature of death remains obscure. Much human activity -- the philosophers point out -- is geared toward avoiding having to deal with the question of the nature of death. Many of us simply live in denial about death, acting as if we will live forever. But those who reflect on the nature of death recognize that it presents different possibilities. This is where it gets interesting.

Death may be a final, absolute end of existence. It certainly appears to be that, when we observe it in others. Years ago, shortly after Göran's mother died, we saw her body. She had passed away less than 24 hours earlier, so her physical form was exactly what it had been when she was still alive. But I remember remarking how utterly still she was, how completely quiet and unmoving she was. It was a stillness such as I had never observed in a human being. It was a shocking experience, almost. It looked like Lettie Ruth, but I was very aware that it was not Lettie Ruth any more.

We know that eventually, once a person dies, what we see of them becomes subject to complete dissolution and dispersion of their constituent elements. Eventually there is nothing coherent that remains. So what we observe of death presents the possibility of a complete end, total annihilation of the human being.

The truth is, however, not knowing death in the first person, not having experienced it ourselves, we cannot conclusively say that death represents a complete end of consciousness or existence for the person who dies. So we are presented merely with the possibility that death represents an absolute end.

What evidence do we have that death does not represent an absolute end? There are individuals who have been clinically dead and been resuscitated, only to recount striking experiences that they had while their bodies appeared to be lifeless: seeing their bodies from above, traveling to other places, encountering and conversing with intelligent, benevolent beings, and having their lives changed after their return.

There are also individuals who describe having encountered the spirits of deceased loved ones: either feeling their presence or even having seen them. I and other members of my family have had both kinds of experiences. My maternal grandfather, for instance, who was never a member of the LDS Church, claimed to have witnessed his deceased daughter wearing a "beautiful dress," close to his bedside shortly before he passed away himself.

There are also certain kinds of religious experience, such as the vision described by Joseph F. Smith in Section 138 of the D&C, or such as the vision described in Revelation 20: 12 ("I saw the dead, small and great"), in which the dead are perceived to have an existence beyond the grave. Individuals may also have spiritual experiences in which they anticipate the likelihood of their own existence beyond their own death.

I'm not sure how widespread such experiences are. My sense is that these kinds of experiences are common enough, though not, perhaps, a majority experience, at least in our culture. However many have had these kinds of experiences, and however powerful and meaningful as they may be to those who have them, they are still nonetheless merely suggestive of the possibility that there is some spiritual aspect of ourselves that lives on beyond the dissolution of our bodies. To those who have had such experiences, possibility may feel more like probability or certainty, though depending on the nature of the experience, there may still be room for doubt. Certainly to those who have had no such first-hand experiences, they can be no more conclusive than whatever we might speculate about the nature of death based on our observation of it.

What fascinated me, on reading my student's account of Heidegger's and Derrida's views on death, was their insistence that human beings are, in essence, suspended between possibilities. Assuming one is intellectually honest, one can deny the possibility of life beyond death no more than one can deny the possibility of death being some kind of absolute end. It was these philosophers' perception of this truth about death that led them to see death both imbuing life with its sacredness and making us aware of the uniquely individual nature of each person's life.

The fact that we can experience no one's death but our own, reminds us that we can experience no one's life but our own! Among gay Mormons, I frequently see gay men and lesbians who desperately want someone else to give them clear, unambiguous guidance about what decisions they need to make in their lives with relation to sexuality and the Church. This question, in essence, is: What will secure the greatest happiness for me, in this life as well as in eternity? There are lots of subsidiary questions: Am I an eternal being? And if so: Will I be gay or straight in eternity? Which is another way of asking: Will happiness with a person of my own sex in this life deprive me of potential happiness with a person of the opposite sex in the next life? Or: Is my happiness in the next life continuous with, or is it at odds with, my happiness in this life? Heady questions, when, the philosophers insist, it's not possible really to get past death itself. But there are this worldly questions we ask too, like: Can I be as happy in this life with a person of the opposite sex as I might be with a person of the same sex? And so on.

Part of the reason the gay Mormon blogosphere is so compelling to us is because we seek answers for ourselves by observing the lives of others. Within the gay Mormon blogging world, it is possible to find (almost) every conceivable life choice. And we can try to judge the happiness of others in an attempt to guess what might make us most happy.

The bad news, from the point of view of the philosophers, is that this won't help us. Our life is utterly unique in the sense that it is the only one we can experience. I can't experience anyone else's life. I have no way of knowing whether their choices make them happier than my choices have made me.

The good news, from the point of view of the philosophers, is that this really doesn't matter. What makes someone else exquisitely happy may in fact not make me happy at all. So we may accept the responsibility of living our lives, knowing that it is ours to live. It is our sacred gift, and belongs to no one else.

Still, I want to say we are connected. Our stories do tell us something: about possibilities. Because we are one family, because we are brothers and sisters, others' experiences are sacred to us, even if they don't grant us the kinds of certainty we wish they would.

And life could not be so sacred, or so meaningful if it were not granted us in this way that it is: interconnected with the lives of others even as it is suspended in the midst of infinite possibilities.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

We Are All Pioneers, Laborers

Real faith cannot be bequeathed. It cannot be taught. It can only be discovered.

There may be eighth generation Mormons, but there are no eighth (or even second) generation Saints.

Every person in the world for whom faith is real has had to come to it on his or her own. And there is no accident of birth, no physical, no mental, no spiritual condition, no inheritance or lack thereof, that gives anyone any sort of head start. If you think that your faith is something you got from your parents or even your Sunday School teachers, then you don't have the kind of faith that can ultimately save you.

Real faith cannot be accumulated. We can't pile it up like riches, to be deposited today and drawn on tomorrow. There is no wealth of faith, no treasure we can lock away and save somewhere.

Faith is like manna. It has to be gathered fresh every day. It has to be eaten and digested while it is fresh, or it does our bodies no good. Yesterday's manna will turn to ash in our mouths.

So in the kingdom of God, there is no aristocracy. We are all working class. We are all miners. We are all field hands. We are all weavers or smiths or millers. But the ore we are mining, the field we are sowing, the cloth we are weaving, the metal we are working, the grain we are grinding is our own hearts. It is ourselves. We are the raw material and the end product of faith.

Everything that resides in us -- our desires, hopes, and dreams; our big and little questions; our sorrow, our pain, our weakness and our failings; whatever gets us out of bed in the morning, our joy, our laughter, whatever gives us pure, unadulterated happiness; our loves and our one great love; our grief; our dullness and our intensity; our aches and longings, requited and unrequited -- all of it is grist.

That is why being gay cannot possibly exclude us from the Kingdom of God; nor can the loving bonds we form with one another, the relationships we build with one another that make our lives worth living! Our lives, our loves, our families are where faith dwells! These are the things without which faith is useless, because we would have nothing for faith to give meaning.

If we have been shut out, disinherited, excommunicated, we are blessed. Because the first step in the journey of real faith must be to abandon or to be stripped of our illusions. If we think we have, we have nothing. If we know we have nothing, we have everything we need.

I yearn for this for us.

Friday, April 15, 2011


When I was a kid taking swimming lessons for the first time, I remember learning how to float. At first I was really nervous. I didn't believe it was possible for me to float. I seemed to have proof of it: when I jumped into the water, I'd sink right to the bottom. How could I float? When the teacher told us to try to float, I'd struggle. I was afraid of the water rising up over my face. I'd tense up and wiggle, thinking that would keep me at the top of the water, but of course it didn't. It wasn't until I could relax, and let go. Stop trying. That's when I learned that if I just calmly let my chest and my stomach rise, the water would hold me just enough to keep the water from covering my face. I could float if I just surrendered.

When I do my morning stretching exercises, I've learned the same thing. I've never been good at touching my toes. My legs are long in comparison with my torso, and I always thought toe-touches were impossible for me. When I tried, I'd get to a certain point and the backs of my legs would start to complain, and tell me I couldn't do it without bending my knees. I'd tense up, and I just couldn't do it. But then finally one day, I learned something. If I exhaled as I started to reach, my body naturally relaxed. Instead of tensing at the point where my muscles were really stretching, I'd relax into the stretch, and suddenly, the toe-touches were easy, and actually felt good! I guess I've discovered that my body can do amazing things, if I stop thinking so much about it, and just let go.

Spiritually, it works the same way. I've discovered that "the natural man" is not about desiring sex or material things. Those things have a valid place in a life that is lived in the fullness that God intends. Rather, "the natural man" is the desiring itself, the wanting, the scheming. I can desire very spiritual things (to sit at the right hand of Christ) and my desire can still corrupt me. Perhaps worse than my desire for material things or physical release. It's the conniving to get what we want, what we think we need. It's when we figuratively take life by the throat and demand, "Pay me that thou owest," when the way of truth would be to seek first the kingdom of God, and let whatever we need be added unto us. It's not by worry, Christ taught, that we can add an inch to our stature, or turn a white hair dark. The lilies of the field don't toil, but God arrays them nonetheless.

That's why the most profoundly religious act was in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Christ said, "Not my will, but thine be done." It was in that act of surrender.

We can get so lost in our desire. This morning, as I was reading in the Doctrine & Covenants, I ran into this excellent counsel to David Whitmer:
You have feared man and have not relied on me for strength as you ought.... You have not given heed unto my Spirit, and to those who were set over you, but have been persuaded by those whom I have not commanded. Wherefore, you are left to inquire for yourself at my hand, and ponder upon the things which you have received. (D&C 30: 1-3)
We lose the Spirit when we calculate.

It's a simple act, this letting go. It's hard to do with our heads, though. We usually have to breathe, to exhale, to let go. Our hearts know how to let go better than our heads. God will let us fight and struggle, and drown! In order to let us learn for ourselves how to let go and be sustained, to float! In order to grow, to stretch, we must learn to relax.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why So Gay?

There's been some discussion in the Moho Facebook group about the terms Same-Sex Attraction (SSA), Same-Gender Attraction (SGA), Homosexual, Gay, Queer, etc. Whatever words we might use to describe men who love men and women who love women.

I guess we'll be perennially condemned to have this discussion over and over again. That sort of comes with the territory of belonging to a despised minority. My perception is that as people become more comfortable with who they are, they become less preoccupied with what they call themselves.

I've never been a fan of the SSA and SGA terms. My gut level response to the terms is, it's about so much more than mere "attraction." Other words that I'd use to describe the feelings I feel toward men would include "connection" or "bonding." Furthermore, SSA and SGA tend to connote mere sexual attraction (though there's no reason why they couldn't connote more). And I'd really prefer a word that speaks more to the totality of feeling a connection to men that includes social, emotional and spiritual components, as well as a physical component.

Of the available choices, I guess I still prefer "gay." But that deserves to be unpacked too. If I prefer it, why that term as opposed to something like "SSA"? I mean, the bald meaning of the word is "cheerful" or "happy." Does this mean I'm never sad? Taken literally, it could be kind of silly as a self descriptor.

However, words are symbols. They are short hand. As short hand, "gay" is not a bad word, because cheer, happiness, exuberance, or gaiety is definitely what I feel in the company of men. I like a word that says something positive about how I feel about being whatever it is that I am that has to do with my desire to be pair-bonded for life with another man. I like that the word is not sexually oriented, that it doesn't single out my sexual attraction as the trait that defines me.

I also prefer the word gay because it has a history of being used by people like me to self-identify. Of the available choices, "gay" is one of the few words that hasn't been imposed on me and others like me by some medical or religious establishment. The history of a word often has more to do with its acceptability as a descriptor than anything else. That's one reason I believe "queer" will never be widely accepted, and other words like "faggot" will remain almost universally rejected.

And that's ultimately what the use of words needs to boil down to. It is disrespectful to insist on calling people by a name that they themselves are uncomfortable with. It is respectful to call people by the name that they have stated a preference for.

There are, for instance, at Church, some folks who insist on calling me "John Wrathall." I don't object to that. I will never make a fuss about that. That is my name. But the only reason it is my legal name is because I live in a society that makes it difficult and costly to legally change my name, even though I consider myself married, and even though my marital name would be "Gustav-Wrathall." "Gustav-Wrathall" is the name that I have chosen to signify that I have intertwined my life's fortunes with a man whose name prior to our relationship was "Gustav." "Gustav-Wrathall" is the name that we both have chosen to signify our commitment to each other and the mutual life we have chosen to build together. So I have a preference for that name. I have used it to describe myself for almost two decades. And my feeling is that -- whether or not people regard my relationship with Göran as valid -- if they have respect for me as a person, they will refer to me by the name I (we) have chosen: "Gustav-Wrathall".

It's a little more challenging when we're dealing with terms that are used to describe large numbers of people. Not everyone who might be described by the term "gay" likes the term "gay."

In my experience, the vast majority of people who are "same-sex attracted" prefer the term gay -- especially once they have come to a place of self-acceptance. We tend to embrace terms like "same-sex attraction" when we still feel tentative and uncomfortable with this aspect of ourselves. People who use terms like SSA or SGA tend to do so in order to minimize the "same-sex attraction" and distance themselves from it. That in itself says something about the terms.

I've never felt that being gay "defines" me in any way. I am many, many things: a human being, a male, a Finnish-American, a historian, right-handed, a paralegal, partnered; I am loving, spiritual, intellectually curious; I am many, many things. And gay. But I don't feel any need to distance myself from my gayness or minimize that aspect of my life. I am gay. My gayness is what it is. At different times in my life, my gayness has seemed more or less important, depending on what issues I happened to be dealing with at that time in my life. It was a huge issue when I was coming out; at other times in my life, it hasn't really registered. It is neither the most important nor the least important aspect of who and what I am. It just is a part of me, like my right-handedness.

But because many people do feel conflicted about being gay, and because this is a difficult issue, I think we are called upon to exercise sensitivity and charity when speaking or writing about this. In any given situation, I try to pay attention to what terms people are using, and then I try to match my language to be sensitive to their feelings and concerns. Because ultimately, showing respect and having unhindered dialog is more important to me than insisting on being called "gay."

Whatever you choose to call me, I am what I am.

Monday, April 11, 2011

O Love That Glorifies the Son

Here's another never sung gem from the LDS hymnal, #295:
O love that glorifies the Son,
O love that says, "Thy will be done!"
Pure love whose spirit makes us one --
Come, fill my soul today;
Come fill my soul today.

O love that binds our family,
O love that brings my heart to thee,
Pure love that lasts eternally --
Come, fill my soul today;
Come fill my soul today.

O love that overcomes defeat,
O love that turns the bitter sweet,
Pure love that makes our lives complete --
Come, fill my soul today;
Come fill my soul today.

O Lord, give me the will to mend;
O Lord, change me from foe to friend;
Dear Lord, sustain me to the end --
Come, fill my soul today;
Come fill my soul today.

I've sometimes heard it suggested that the love that binds two people together -- the love that brought my mom and dad to marry each other, or the love that has inspired me and Göran to make our lives together -- is somehow qualitatively different from the Divine Love, from the Pure Love of Christ, from the love that God feels for us and the love that motivated Christ to die for us.

Deep down inside, I've always known that wasn't true. I've always known that was a lie about the nature of love -- a lie told out of fear. I've known it because of the kind of love I feel for Göran which -- yes! -- could inspire me to give my life for him. There's something deep and profound that connects us. It's a love that was born, true enough, in superficial romance, in "attraction." But beginnings are always that way. By simple means great things are brought to pass. Attraction, desire led us to make promises. That's what attraction and desire are supposed to do! Our attraction, our desire, sings us a song of what could be if we have faith. So we make promises. And the fulfillment of faith is in the keeping of promises, day by day, week by week, year by year, until I can barely believe we're coming up on two decades together. And like that sunrise on a cloudy morning Elder Bednar spoke of a couple of weeks ago, one fine day it dawns on me, there's something powerful there. A love that would inspire me to give all for him. A love that looks and feels so much like the Divine Love, it's hard for me not to apprehend the love Göran and I share as a sacrament, as an embodiment of the Divine Grace.

This hymn testifies of the unity of loves: the love that says "Thy will be done" and the love that binds my family is one and the same. The hymn says that the love that binds our family is also "the love that brings my heart to thee." I know how true this is for some very personal reasons. It was only when my love for my spouse reached a new level of commitment that I suddenly found myself hearing the voice of the Spirit whispering so clearly to me in August 2005. My love for Göran, my faithfulness and commitment to him, led me back to God; and my love for God, my faithfulness and commitment to God, led me back to Göran, in ever more profound circles of love and commitment.

But these loves -- of God, of family -- are connected to other loves too: "love that overcomes defeat," "love that turns the bitter sweet." This sounds more like hope and faith. But hope, as the prophet Moroni reminds us, we cannot have without faith, and we can have neither faith nor hope without love (Moroni 7: 40-48).

Finally, the love of family that turns our hearts to God, the pure love of Christ that fills our hearts with faith and hope, are manifested in the final love mentioned in the hymn: the love that gives us "the will to mend," the love that changes us "from foe to friend." This love makes us peacemakers. It makes us agents of change in the world around us to create harmony and peace where there was discord; to return patience for anger; to return love for hate.

You can't deny one without upsetting or undermining all the others. It's all one love.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Father-Son Time

Today I met Glen for lunch on the University of Minnesota campus. I took him to lunch at a little restaurant I used to eat at all the time when I was in grad school. It's the first time I've eaten there in almost twenty years. I wasn't even sure it would still be there, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it there right in the same spot, looking almost exactly the same as it did the last time I ate there. They still had my favorite dish on the menu.

I'm not sure who needed this father-son talk more -- me or Glen. I've seen him at least once every other week since he started at the University. A couple of weeks ago, we took Glen with us to see the King Tut exhibit at the Minnesota Science Museum, and ate together at our favorite eatery -- Mickey's Diner. (For you non-Minnesotans, you can see it at the end of the Prairie Home Companion Movie. I've sat in the exact spot where Garrison Keillor sits in the movie!) But somehow, in these casual get-togethers, I just haven't found the time to talk heart-to-heart. I realized I need that -- even if he doesn't! I miss not having our son around. And I think of him all the time. I want him to be happy, to be doing well. I think about that and pray for it literally every day. I want him to know that I love him.

I think, Is this what it was like for my parents?

So we had lunch, and Glen told me all about school. He reported being stressed. But it was a stress I'm very familiar with. I remember being in school. It made me happy to hear about this stress, because it's the kind of stress that makes you grow, as you work hard to do your best. Watching him talk, I could tell he was good in his skin.

He asked me: "Have I changed since I moved out?"

I looked him square in the eyes. "You have," I said without hesitation.

"How?" he asked.

"You're more confident. You seem more centered."

"I am," he replied. He proceeded to tell me how liberating it was for him to live on his own, without all our rules. I was happy. That's what the rules were for in the first place! To get him to the point where he could do without them!

I'm so glad for this. I feel so lucky to have this. I can't wait till our next lunch!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Three Rules of Revelation

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James subjected to scientific scrutiny particular kinds of experience, including spiritual impressions, inspiration that seemed to come from some outside source, unseen "presences," auditory phenomena, and visions. He considered data from different historical epochs, and from many different religious sources: Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Christian Science, New Thought, and even Atheist or Agnostic. (Yes, atheists can have spiritual experiences!)

James professed agnosticism as to the actual sources of revelation. Whether revelation emanated from actual unseen but unknown entities, or from gods, or from God, or whether it was a function of human psychology, he refused to draw any hard, fast conclusions. James took a fairly pragmatic approach to this problem by applying a test that most religious folks themselves could hardly disagree with. We should judge a religious experience, he said, by the fruit it produces. When someone has a religious experience, does it make him or her more compassionate, hopeful and patient? Does it inspire more effective efforts to improve one's own lot in life, and to improve the world around us? If it does, James suggested, then we might consider the experience to have validity, regardless of what we judge to be its source.

James suggested three very practical rules for dealing with revelation.

Rule Number One. A revelation must be authoritative for the person who receives it. James points out that to the person who has had a spiritual experience -- whether it be a more common experience, like feeling a spiritual prompting, or a rarer and more dramatic experience, like seeing a vision -- to that person the experience is sensory data. Despite the extraordinary nature of the experience, it is every bit as compelling to those who have experienced it as ordinary sight, hearing and touch is to them and to everyone else. To tell individuals that they did not see a vision or experience a prompting is futile and perhaps even harmful. And individuals who have received a revelation have no choice but to order their lives so as to be in harmony with the information proffered through that experience or experiences.

Rule Number Two. A revelation cannot be authoritative for anyone else but the person who has received the revelation. Every individual is obliged to steer their lives in accordance with the best knowledge that they personally are able to obtain about the nature of existence and the choices available to them within the context of that understanding. The fact of having received a revelation does not in and of itself make a person an authority over others, or give them the right to dictate how others should respond to that revelation.

This, by the way, is eminently consistent with the approach taken by the Prophet Joseph Smith in relation to the revelations he claimed to have received. From the founding of the LDS Church in 1830 to the present, converts have joined not simply because they were impressed by the Prophet's account of what he experienced and were willing to take his word for it, but because they themselves had spiritual experiences confirming the truthfulness of his revelations. Those experiences could be subtle, or they could be dramatic. But in this sense, the LDS Church was and always has been founded on the rock of personal revelation and testimony.

When I was a kid, I remember being profoundly impressed by the fact that my dad taught me not to base my faith on his or my mom's faith. He raised me to believe that when I was old enough, I should gather information about different religions and make my own decision. And though it broke my dad's heart when I left the LDS Church for a time, he respected my decision. Which, of course, made the reaffirmation of my testimony and my desire to return to the LDS Church that much more meaningful.

Rule Number Three. While a revelation can only be authoritative to those who have received the revelation, those who have not received revelations of their own should be willing to consider and take seriously the data that is available to them from those who have.

This is actually the central argument of The Varieties of Religious Experience. James demonstrates, very persuasively I think, that despite the great diversity and seemingly contradictory content of the many different revelations received by various prophets, mystics, and saints throughout the ages, there are in fact startlingly consistent patterns that mark these kinds of experience as genuine. Furthermore, individuals who have bona fide experiences generally change their lives in predictable ways (e.g., they become demonstrably more patient, virtuous and compassionate, more willing and able to make total personal sacrifices for some greater good, etc.). Furthermore, James argues, the kinds of life changes wrought through these experiences do not appear capable of having been wrought in any other way.

James, in other words, argues that even those who never have these kinds of experiences have sufficiently compelling observable evidence that there is something objectively real in them to be obliged to take these experiences seriously. The invisible world has an observable, measurable impact on the visible world. To refuse to take this seriously, he suggests, might be comparable to a blind man who refuses to consider a seeing man's testimony about the existence of color.

James makes a very helpful clarification in his lecture on "Philosophy" regarding what he calls "compelling" or "coercive" arguments about religion. Believers have frequently tried -- but have always objectively failed -- to use revelatory experiences to create air-tight, logically unassailable arguments in support of particular religious outlooks. Non-believers have similarly attempted to convert believers through coercive argumentation as well. The fact that many churches, denominations, sects, and philosophical schools continue to exist, he argues, is proof positive that logical argument cannot persuade in such matters. Thus, James is somewhat skeptical about the value of systematic theologies or worldly philosophies. But he is enthusiastic about what he calls the "science of religion." Religious experience has a valid, valuable place in human society, and should be studied and taken seriously.

James' insights are helpful, I think, in sorting out the current quandary over homosexuality and the Church. I am convinced it is supremely unhelpful for Church leaders and adherents to argue that gay men and lesbians must simply ignore their own personal experience in order to accept and obey the Church's authoritative teaching on the subject of homosexuality. This is not only counter-intuitive but can actually be harmful. Ultimately, that which must be most authoritative in the life of any human being is that person's own experience.

If a gay man or lesbian experiences their sexuality as a core part of who they are, as an intimate and inherent aspect of their soul, it is vain and futile to tell them otherwise. If they find joy and spiritual strength in a loving, committed relationship with someone of the same sex, you only discredit yourself by telling them that same-sex relationships are hollow and sinful. What they have experienced and know is what they have experienced and know, and no one will likely convince them otherwise. The only way to convince a person under such circumstances is to undermine their confidence in their ability to know themselves, to perceive the world around them, and to make moral choices. And that is the spiritual equivalent of destroying the village in order to save it. No one thus persuaded will be made fit for any kind of meaningful spiritual or moral existence.

On the other hand, regardless of how powerful our journey out of the closet and into self-awareness has been, and regardless of how joyful, loving, and meaningful our relationships with our life-partners are, gay men and lesbians cannot expect members and leaders of the Church to lightly reevaluate what they consider to be authoritative teaching about human nature and the nature of the family. At the very least, they will not do so until they have seen convincing good fruit resulting from the kinds of decisions that gay men and lesbians are making in relation to sexuality and relationships. In a time scheme that measures everything against eternity, it is not unreasonable to expect that Church leaders will want to see good fruit that lasts not just a few years, but at least a lifetime and beyond.

I would like to suggest three correlates of James' rules, as they apply to the situation of GLBT folks in relation to the Church:

Correlate Number One. We have a right consider our personal experience in coming to terms with our sexual orientation as authoritative for us, and we have the right to seek and to receive personal revelation in relation to the decisions we make based on that experience. We do not need to wait for anyone else to "get it" -- either in or out of the Church -- to accept as authoritative and apply our own learning on this subject.

Correlate Number Two. We need to be patient with family and friends, and with Church members and leaders as they figure out what to make of our experience and our decisions.

Correlate Number Three. It most likely will take time for the fruits of our decisions -- either positive or negative -- to show in our lives. We may experience positive fruits initially -- positive enough that we are willing to commit our lives in a certain way. Still, it may take time for us to feel certain that we've made the right choices for ourselves. It may take even longer for others to be convinced. There is no quick, easy way to move forward collectively. However, our voices deserve to be heard, just as we have an obligation to very carefully consider the Church's authoritative teaching and try to make sense of it in relation to our own personal experience.

This is why I can't stress enough how important it is for us to wrestle with issues in our lives related to sexuality within a framework of faith. So often in life we have nothing more to go on than a gut instinct. We need to trust that God loves us, and that, if we listen, he is capable of guiding us to our greatest and highest good. We also need to believe in our own goodness, and trust that we have all the resources we need to make these decisions. We need to trust the process. We will make mistakes and require course changes along the way. But if we are honest with ourselves, if we do our homework, if we wrestle, study and sincerely desire to do what is right, we may have confidence that the decisions we make for ourselves are right for us, no matter what anyone else may say.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Close the Temples

I'm not sure I've ever heard stronger statements made in General Conference about the imperative to house the homeless, feed the hungry, and address the needs of the poor than I did in the third general session of this past General Conference.

One of the most astonishing statements came during the talk of Presiding Bishop H. David Burton, quoting President Heber J. Grant to the effect that the Church should shut down the seminaries, discontinue its missionary work, and close the temples before it should stop meeting the temporal needs of the hungry and homeless. Bishop Burton reiterated this point in his talk later, when he stated that it does not matter how many temples we build, how large our membership grows, and how positive our public image is. If we do not care for the poor, "we are under condemnation and cannot please the Lord." He also reminded the general membership of the Church of King Benjamin's teaching that we cannot hope to retain a remission of our sins if we allow the poor to suffer and starve. Society, he later stated, in order to be founded upon true principles, must be "woven with the threads of charity."

Silvia H. Allred, First Counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency followed up with equally strong statements. To "visit the poor and the needy," she stated, constitutes the "essence of discipleship," because it is an expression of the general commandment to love one another and serve one another. It is "pure religion."

If this is true -- and I am convinced that it is in the very deepest part of my soul -- then it means there is not one of us, no matter what our status is in relation to the Church, whether we be excommunicated or in good membership standing, whether we be gay or straight, whether we have a burning testimony or are struggling to believe, who cannot exercise faith in this matter. In something so crucial, so central to the Gospel, can we really hope to have any sort of a living faith, if it isn't alive in at least this principle?

In his testimony later in that session, President Monson stated that the temples are a testimony that life beyond the grave is as real as our life on earth. But when a prophet of the Lord has said that we should close the temples before we stop caring for the poor, isn't that the same as saying that there is no eternal life worth having without charity?