Monday, February 25, 2013

"For Thy Pleasure They Were and Are Created"

There's a scene in the Book of Revelation, in chapter 4, where 24 elders sit on 24 thrones gathered around the throne of God, a throne surrounded by a rainbow, "in sight like unto an emerald."  Emerald is green, the color of life.  I wondered why 24 elders rather than 12, the usual sacred number that designates the gathering of the Saints.  Perhaps 12 male and 12 female.  There are also 4 "beasts" around the throne, the first "like a lion," the second "like a calf," the third having a face "as a man," and the fourth "like a flying eagle," each having "six wings" (total freedom of movement?) and "full of eyes within" (seeing everything?).

The beasts "give glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever," but the elders "fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created" (vs. 10-11).

I immediately thought of a couple of verses that Mormons like to cite in relation to the purpose of creation:
For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:39)
Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. (2 Nephi 2:25)
A very pleasant image sprung to mind of God lovingly telling us his children it is for our pleasure we were and are created, and us echoing back, It is for thy pleasure we were and are created!

This is righteousness in creation: doing what we do first for the glory and joy of others.

Christ, of whom Paul said "to whom be glory forever and ever" (Hebrews 13:21), set that pattern in heaven, when he said in response to the call before the creation of the world, "Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever" (Moses 4:2).  He set that heavenly pattern in his ministry on earth when he taught us to pray, "Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done, in earth as it is in Heaven.... Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever" (Matthew 6: 10, 13).  It is the prayer with which he completed his ministry on Calvary: "O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done" (Matthew 26:42).

Divinity is giving glory and joy to others, for ever and ever.

Friday, February 22, 2013

On Unfairness and "Spiritual Reinforcements"

I just finished listening to a very interesting podcast on "A Thoughtful Faith" with Brian C. Hales, discussing his new three-volume series on Joseph Smith's Polygamy.

This was a fascinating interview.  I long ago came to much the same conclusion Bro. Hales has drawn, which is that if you believe Joseph Smith was a prophet and that he received a commandment to institute the practice of polygamy, then much of what looks "shady" about it makes a lot more sense. The argument that Joseph was motivated primarily by his personal libido doesn't seem -- to me -- to be sustained by the historical evidence we have available to us.

Like the interviewer, Sarah Collett (who does an outstanding job as an interviewer in this podcast!), I have long been troubled by certain allegations about Joseph Smith's polygamy.  One was the allegation that Joseph was actually marrying women who were already married -- effectively taking wives away from other men.  Another was the allegation that Joseph was marrying extremely young women -- as young as 14 years old. 

Finally, the impact of Joseph's polygamy on his first wife Emma, and the way she was subsequently treated by Brigham Young after Joseph's death, has always seemed particularly heartless to me.  Sarah posed some excellent questions about the "fairness" of polygamy.

Brother Hales' work is probably the most in-depth treatment of this subject that has ever gone into print.  (I pre-ordered my own copy through  There's a substantial discount if you order in advance.)

In the interview, Hales says that, based on his in-depth research, there is no compelling evidence that Joseph Smith took other men's wives -- for time anyway.  There were eleven women Joseph was sealed to for eternity who were married for this life to other men.  While this must certainly have been a blow to the men who were essentially being told by their wives that they preferred Joseph Smith as a companion in the next life, the implication of being married for eternity but not for time was that these women remained married to their original spouses for all temporal intents and purposes.  No wife-stealing in these eleven cases -- in this life at least!

There were three other cases where Joseph was married to women for time and for eternity who appeared to have been married to other men at the time.  In two of the three cases, Hales was able to document to his satisfaction that the women in question had effectively ended their relationships with their prior spouses.  There's one case in which there does not appear to be evidence either way.  In other words, there's no actual proof, says Hales, that Joseph "stole" other men's wives (or, as some historians have put it, engaged in "polyandry").

Hales also puts to rest the allegations regarding fourteen-year-old brides.  He argues, again, based on painstaking analysis of the data, that while some of Joseph's brides were quite young, none were as young as fourteen, and all were old enough to meet contemporary standards of propriety for age of marriage.

That leaves the question of Emma.

Sarah Collett broached the larger issue in her interview of the "unfairness" of polygamy to women.  The anguish that Emma Hale Smith went through could be seen as emblematic in many ways of this larger issue of unfairness.

Hales, to his credit, does not try to downplay this or minimize it in any way.  He admits that polygamy was -- from a temporal standpoint anyway -- "sexist" and "unfair" and -- his words! -- "indefensible".  His only way of mitigating this was to suggest that things in eternity may not work the way they work here.  Things that seem unfair from a temporal perspective, where we experience intense limitations on our time and resources, might look completely different in the context of eternity, where no such limitations might exist.

Hales, also to his credit, insists that Latter-day Saints need to be nicer to Emma Smith.  While Emma's reputation has long been besmirched in LDS circles by accusations of selfishness and lack of faith, Hales agrees that Emma did the best she could with an extremely painful, difficult and unfair situation.  There were moments when she almost accepted Joseph's polygamy, almost came to terms with it.  But ultimately she could not make peace with it.  Hales refuses to believe that her ultimate inability to accept the polygamy of her husband, in the temporal sphere anyway, will be a mark against her in the eternities.  At any rate, he refuses to judge her, and he thinks other Latter-day Saints should extend her the benefit of a doubt as well.

Hales also talks about "spiritual reinforcements" that God sends to those of us who experience unfairness -- for a variety of reasons -- in this life.  He describes historical evidence that is available to us that many LDS plural wives received such "spiritual reinforcements," that gave them comfort and helped them find peace in a situation few of our contemporaries could characterize as anything but unbearable and unjust.

I had to admit that I squirmed as I listened to him talk about this.  It sounds too much like "pie-in-the-sky" type religion, which I've always rejected.  The doctrine of "just lie down and take it, and everything will be all right in the next life" is and should be repugnant to every decent son and daughter of God.

God placed a yearning for justice in our hearts for a reason.  Justice delayed is justice denied, and if it is delayed till eternity it might as well be denied for eternity.  There is so much in religion that makes no sense at all, if we don't see the highest principle of religion, the highest form of love, as the achievement in time as well as in eternity of fairness.  The word "righteous" itself is a synonym for: "just," "rightful," and "fair."  There is no righteousness without fairness.

I will admit, I have experienced the kinds of "spiritual reinforcements" Hales describes in my own life.

If nineteenth-century Mormon women experienced "unfairness" under the institution of plural marriage, those who feel the sting of "unfairness" most acutely today in relation to Mormon beliefs and practices related to marriage must be gay men and women.  And the moment when I felt the sting of that unfairness most deeply was the day after the election results of November 2008, when I learned the results of the Prop 8 vote in California.  That really hurt. 

And as the sense of anger and betrayal welled up in me, I remember the Spirit speaking very clearly to me.  The Spirit said in essence: "Don't be angry.  Don't be afraid.  Your Heavenly Father loves you and is proud of you, and this will be made right."  It took some effort on my part to follow that prompting; to take a deep breath, and to set aside the anger.  But when I did, I experienced this incredible peace rushing in.  I attended Church the following Sunday, and greater spiritual gifts followed.  Spiritual reinforcements, indeed.

But what God told me in those moments was not, "You just have to learn to accept this unfairness."  It was, in essence, "Be faithful.  Be loving.  Be patient.  I will make this right."

The spiritual reinforcements I've received have helped keep me from spiraling down into unproductive rage; to focus instead on doing what I can to bear witness of what I know, bring comfort to others, and to work to make things better.  That's how real spiritual reinforcements work in my experience.

I don't know how this worked for women in plural marriages.  I know that many were satisfied with their lot and found deep, deep happiness.  I also know that many struggled, experienced deep pain, and some were treated horribly.  Family stories I'm aware of of one of my great-grandmothers bears witness to some of the horrible ways in which unrighteous dominion could be used in plural marriages to devastating effect.  I'm certain my ancestor Charlotte experienced spiritual reinforcements too, reinforcements that gave her the courage to pack her bags and walk away from an abusive home environment, heading for Salt Lake never to turn back.

I still wrestle with polygamy.  It's one of those things I've sort of put in a box and that I wrestle with from time to time.  I try not to let it interfere with my faith, which is one of the greatest sources of hope and strength in my life.

I am grateful for the work Brother Hales has done to make sense of Joseph Smith's polygamy.  He's helped answer some deeply troubling questions, and his spirit of kindness and humility in the interview posted on "A Thoughtful Faith" was comforting, even if I had trouble with some of the things he said.  The full interview was well worth listening to, and I look forward to reading his books.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Spooky Mormon Hell Dream

Nothing new in terms of the basic picture of Mormonism presented in "The Book of Mormon: The Musical." We already saw it in the "Mormon episode" of South Park. Those Mormons, they believe in some wacky, crazy shit! But they sure are nice. Really amazingly nice!

Spoiler alert! If you haven't seen "The Book of Mormon: The Musical" yet, and you don't want any major plot revelations before seeing it yourself, don't read any further!

In the play, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham arrive in Uganda with high hopes of bringing souls to Christ. Elder Price is a superstar missionary whom everyone expects to change the world, while his companion, Elder Cunningham, is a flunky who has a tendency to tell tall tales, and who's never even read the Book of Mormon. Confronted with the poverty, disease and violence of life in Uganda, however, it is superstar missionary Elder Price who gets discouraged and abandons his post. Elder Cunningham stays behind, only to discover that the missionaries' enthusiasm and faith has rubbed off on one young Ugandan woman in the village named Nabulungi.  Nabulungi persuades the other villagers that perhaps Mormonism does have some unique power that can help them solve their problems and find a new promised land in "Salt Lake City."

Abandoned by his more doctrinally adept companion Elder Price, Elder Cunningham, who knows little to nothing about the Book of Mormon or about LDS Church history, improvises and preaches a gospel to the Ugandans that bears little to no resemblance to the official Mormon gospel.  The Ugandans nevertheless find his message inspiring, and convert en masse to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When the local warlord shows up, threatening to destroy the entire village, their new found faith gives them the courage to stand up and drive the villains away.  Unfortunately, when the mission president learns of the fabrications that Elder Cunningham has used to convert the Ugandan Saints, he orders all the missionaries home in shame.  But Elder Price, who had returned feeling guilty about his earlier abandonment of his mission post (after having a "spooky Mormon hell dream"), decides that doctrinal orthodoxy doesn't matter any more.  What matters is that the faith and enthusiasm of the missionaries made a difference in the lives of the Ugandans.  Elder Price persuades the missionaries to stay behind and continue to work to improve the lives of their converts.  The musical ends with the missionaries and the converted Ugandans joining together to preach a new gospel based on the fabrications of Elder Cunningham that had so inspired them.

I have to say there is much about this musical I loved.  There were silly -- almost ridiculous -- inaccuracies slipped in, perhaps, to deliberately signal that this was a work of fiction.  Mormon missionaries get their mission assignments long before arriving in the Missionary Training Center, and they don't spend their entire two years with one companion.  Oh, and, for the record, though Mormons are often driven by terrifying guilt, they really don't believe in the classical Christian hell, filled with sulfur and brimstone and ruled by a red Devil with horns and bat wings and a pitchfork.  And I'm yet ever to hear a single Mormon utter the phrase "Praise Christ!"  Yeesh.

But much of the texture of missionary life felt realistic to me.  The emotional and spiritual bond between missionary companions is powerful and life-changing -- at least my relationships with my companions were.  There are missionaries obsessed with personal glory, as well as missionaries whose humility and desire to do what's right outweigh their desire for adulation.  The mission field is rife with missionaries who get burned out and discouraged and who give up, as well as missionaries whose faith spurs them to remarkable acts of sacrifice and courage.  And Mormon missionaries do enter the mission field notoriously naive about the culture of the people they are sent there to convert, but they also usually learn to deeply love the people, and are often both challenged and transformed by that love.  Oh, and, for what it's worth, the play taps realistically into the "gay Mormon moment" by including a Mormon missionary character who is gay, and who deals with it by just "turning it off."

An implicit message in the musical is that belief is almost always ridiculous, but the power of belief can still make the world a better place, if we remain humble and are willing to put ourselves on the line for the welfare of others.  This is not a bad message.  It actually resonates with the very scriptural notion that "faith without works is dead."  I like the way the play presents the real-life faith struggle of what happens when prayers aren't answered the way we like them to be.  I couldn't help but be moved by the scene where Mormon elders and converted villagers gather together dressed in white at the waters of baptism.  Mormons are portrayed as hopelessly naive, but Mormons will like the fact that the play generally gives them the benefit of a doubt at least as to their motives, which are portrayed as unfailingly well meaning.  The message in the musical that is least likely to sit well with most Mormons, however, is the idea that it doesn't matter what we believe, so long as our belief is fervent and well-intentioned.  

I'm pretty sure I don't actually believe that at all; what we believe really does matter.  And Mormons have rational reasons for believing that God is real, and that Joseph Smith did speak to him, and that the books of scripture that inspire us are true.  There are aspects of our faith that we all wrestle with (including the racist elements in the Book of Mormon), and Mormons are concerned about objective validation of their beliefs.  I think Matt Stone and Trey Parker do Mormons injustice by acting as if the only ways to believe in that wacky Joseph Smith, and that weird Book of Mormon is either to take everything at face value and never to question anything -- to "just turn [doubt] off" -- or to take it all as mere metaphor.  In my mind, doctrinaire scientific rationalism fails because it doesn't take religious experience seriously, and Mormonism is powerful as a faith because it does.  The universe is more complex than South Park makes it out to be.

All the same, I liked the musical.  Mormons who watch it may have to bring ear-stoppers for all the profanity (though I have to admit, the musical's portrayal of Mormon phobias about profanity is pretty dang funny).  The play is not anti-Mormon, though it presents a view of Mormonism that is colored by the unbelief of its creators.  Ultimately, if Matt Stone and Trey Parker are willing to grant Mormons the benefit of a doubt as to their motives, I'm willing to return the favor.  

And so, apparently, is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which took out three full-page ads in the playbill of the Minneapolis show, encouraging play attendees to "read the book" now that they'd "seen the play," proving the play's point that if Mormons really do one thing very well, it is to "believe."