Tag Archives: mormon culture

Pioneer Spirit: Reclaiming our Spiritual Imagination

pioneer: noun. 1. one who originates or helps open up a new line of thought; one who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc. 2. one of the first to settle in a territory.

Pioneer Day. Our day to celebrate how our spiritual progenitors followed their leaders to the Promised Land and made the desert bloom like the rose. That willingness to subjugate self-interest in the service of the common good is a legacy bequeathed to us by those forebearers. In the Mormon beehive, we’re all taught to hum the same tune.

But there’s another meaning of the word pioneer. According to Merriam Webster, a pioneer is one who originates or helps open up a new line of thought; who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc. 

In this sense of the term pioneer, can modern-day Mormons also claim a spiritual heritage? If so, to what extent has institutional and cultural Mormonism kept the “questing spirit” alive? Do we hold the conviction, burning bright in Joseph Smith’s day, that the door of knowledge swings open only when someone with a question comes knocking?

This, I’ve written before, used to be the essential spirit of Mormonism, and Joseph Smith was its primary advocate, resisting all attempts at reining in his expansive, even audacious,  imagination. This may be seen as an embarrassment now, as Church leaders are left with no intellectually honest way to reconcile theologically incompatible teachings, or to harmonize early doctrines with subsequently taught doctrines, but it’s also the reason we arrived at a theology as paradigm-shattering as that presented in the King Follett Address.

Surely the Church is more than a museum to protect historical artifacts from breaking. Surely its leaders are more than curators, ensuring that nothing gets knocked over. The terms prophet, seer, and revelator used to signify particular roles. Are any of those roles reflected in the phrase, maintaining the status quo? 

Even in religious life, a breakthrough requires a breaking through.

As I’ve been grappling with the question of how a Church once infused with the questing spirit could now view public questioners as faithless and subversive, warranting extermination from the beehive, I stumbled quite accidentally on a passage from a book* I’ve been reading that presents a cultural critique of Buddhism. The author, Stephen Batchelor, points to a general trend among religions. He explains that the founding figures, possessing a genius for imagination and the “capacity to express an authentic vision that responds creatively to the needs of their particular situation,” attract an eager following. (And surely there is nowhere a more apt description of Joseph Smith!) But once established, the new faith’s enthusiasm for new ideas soon cools. “For while the founding figures were imaginative and creative, imagination and creativity were rarely qualities encouraged in the schools and orders they established.”

Why not? Why doesn’t the institution perpetuate that founding spirit of innovation and creativity?  The author’s conclusion is that over time, “the preservation of orthodoxy became the main priority.” He elaborates:

While originating in acts of imagination, orthodoxies paradoxically seek to control imagination as a means of maintaining their authority . . . and to suppress authentic attempts at creative innovation that might threaten the status quo.

The more hierarchic and authoritarian a religious institution, the more it will require that the creations of imagination conform to its doctrines…

This is what I see happening. It’s not new. An honest appraisal would acknowledge that Joseph Smith himself fended off challenges to his authority, sometimes ruthlessly. But at least that Prophet was not afraid of a free marketplace of ideas. Why the insecurity now? Do we not believe, as the apostle Hugh B. Brown believed, that in that marketplace, “truth emerges triumphant?”  That apostle went on to say, “Only error fears freedom of expression.”

Batchelor finishes his observation by stating that religions may find it convenient in the short term to silence those who ask what is possible,

Yet, by the suppression of the imagination, the very life of dharma practice is cut off at its source. While religious orthodoxies may survive and even prosper for centuries, in the end they will ossify. When the world around them changes, they will lack the imaginative power to respond creatively to the challenges of the new situation.

On this Pioneer Day, I celebrate those among us who open up new lines of thinking, who invite us to reexamine our assumptions, who keep knocking on the door of knowledge. I celebrate the bishops and Sunday School teachers and neighbors who maintain a space for people who ask questions. I celebrate the breakthroughs–the breaking through–we’ve experienced in our short history after enough people dared to raise their voices against injustice or inequality or incomplete truth-telling.  I celebrate those among us sufficiently awake not to be lulled into thinking All is Well in Zion. These are Pioneers worthy of our legacy. And this is their day.

 

 

* Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. (p.108)

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Facing “Peace and Violence” in our Collective Memory

“His duty is to bear witness for the dead and the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time. The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.” 

Elie Wiesel, Night, Preface

It’s hard to look honestly at our past. Especially when some of our actions fall so short of our ideals. And when we do take a good hard look, Memory finds she’s not permitted to publish her report until it’s first been redacted by a team of lawyers and then forwarded on to the suits at PR for a slick revision. I’m not making this observation theoretically; I experience it personally, time and time again. My own ego keeps thousands of employees busy night and day crafting narratives that preserve its sense of self-respect. This is human nature, isn’t it? Portraying only the most flattering versions of ourselves?

My own trouble confronting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about myself inclines me to be understanding when others flounder in the same attempt. So it’s without condemnation that I observe this all too human tendency on full display in the series of essays being added to the LDS Church’s official website. Taken as a whole, the essays suggest a growing willingness by Church leaders to acknowledge decidedly unflattering moments from our history. This may be a watershed moment in an organization for whom transparency has been a one-way mirror where they could see us but we couldn’t see them.

As one who takes seriously the call to be a peacemaker in this world, I find myself encouraged by the arrival of the newest essay, “Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints.” But also disappointed.

For me, this essay falls short in the same way the others fell short: it seems more intent on deflection than reflection.

Let me explain what I mean analogously by way of a familiar scene at our house:

Hearing some commotion, my wife and I discover that one of our children has struck a sibling. Called to explain, the child recites a litany of abuses to which they’d been subjected. Once they’re certain that I fully appreciate the extent to which they themselves are the real victim, they will mention their own misdeed, but in terms that make their actions seem justifiable—or at least understandable—given the circumstances.

In “Peace and Violence,” the Church seems to be following this pattern. The anonymous author(s) appear to have been given the task of explaining egregious acts of violence, such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in a way that reinforces our persecution narrative while also acknowledging a few isolated incidents in which Mormons were the aggressor. Throughout, allegations of violence perpetrated by members of the LDS church are either dismissed as being unfounded or over-blown, or, in the case of the well-documented Mountain Meadows incident, characterized as a tragic instance of the early Saints reacting poorly to the religiously-motivated hostility and sustained aggression they’d so long endured.

I don’t object to context, mind you. Indeed, as the essay takes pains to establish, a pervasive culture of violence typified 19th Century frontier life (as any even-handed treatment of the subject would recognize). But this essay’s portrayal of early Mormons as peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek folk who only occasionally lost their cool falls short of being fully candid. More importantly, it misses the opportunity to identify elements in our own church culture that kindled a spirit of vengeance and retaliation in our past, and which, I will argue in a future essay, continue to plague our present.

The audience for this and the other topical essays is most likely the member or investigator who has encountered deeply disturbing facts of history and returns to the official Church website seeking the most comforting explanation possible.

But what if we want our past to be a catalyst for transformation?

Comforting explanations only reinforce our sense that “all is well and was ever thus.” Such an approach lulls us into spiritual complacency and retards our growth, both personally and collectively. Sometimes we should squirm.

Hamlet’s words touched the nerve of his mother’s guilt. She wanted comfort, but he wanted her redemption. So he sat her down and said

…you shall not budge;

You go not till I set you up a glass

Where you may see the inmost part of you.

If we are honest, and if we are willing to squirm, we can use our history as a catalyst for transformation.

I’ll share two ways the essay fails to be transformative.

First, the authors of the essay didn’t invite us to learn from our past. While we can’t undo our historical failings, we can recognize the factors that contributed to those failings. As a Church, are we ready for those hard conversations? Can we recognize the presence of institutional factors that may still exist today, rendering us violence prone? I’m sobered by a passage I read in the prologue to Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Walker, Turley, Leonard), in which our own historians identify conditions that increase the likelihood of institutional violence:

Episodes of violence often begin when one people classify another as “the other,” stripping them of any humanity and mentally transforming them into enemies. Once this process of devaluing and demonizing occurs, stereotypes take over, rumors circulate, and pressure builds to conform to group action against the perceived threat. Those classified as the enemy are often seen as the transgressors, even as steps are being taken against them. When these tinderbox conditions exist, a single incident, small or ordinary in usual circumstances, may spark great violence ending in atrocity. The literature suggests other elements are often present when “good people” do terrible things. Usually there is an atmosphere of authority and obedience, which allows errant leaders to trump the moral instincts of their followers.

sermon-mount-jesus-christComing to recognize that many of these same elements are systemically perpetuated in our contemporary Church culture, these kinds of insights could be truly transformative, helping us to become a peaceful people whose discipleship is more Sermon on the Mount and less “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

The second way the essay could have been transformative is by telling the truth in a way that lays bare our greatest vulnerabilities. No spin. Serve it up plain, without any dipping sauce. And when it comes to recounting our crimes against others, it seems to me we are under a special moral obligation to be completely and unreservedly honest.

Official poster of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. The poster exhibits the slogan of the Commission: “The truth hurts, but silence kills.”

Official poster of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

By trying to preserve our own sense of our goodness, we fail to achieve a remission of our sins. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela taught the world this insight—that there is a redemptive quality found at the nexus of Truth and Reconciliation.

In a harrowing scene from Red Prophet, a fictionalized re-imagining of Mormon history penned by Orson Scott Card we see this principle of Truth and Reconciliation. Here, in a meadow flowing with the blood of innocent men, women, and children, the otherwise honorable men who did the killing are about to hear the conditions of their redemption:

From elbow to hands, they dripped with blood. Some tried to wipe it off on their shirts. Some searched for wounds that might be bleeding, but there were no wounds. Just bloody hands.

“Do you want your hands to be clean of the blood of my people?” asked the Red Prophet. He wasn’t shouting anymore, but they all heard him, every word. And yes, yes, they wanted their hands to be clean. “Then go home and tell this story to your wives and children, to your neighbors, to your friends. Tell the whole story. Leave nothing out. Don’t say that someone fooled you – you all knew when you fired on people who had no weapons that what you did was murder. No matter whether you thought some of us might have committed some crime. When you shot at babies in their mothers’ arms, little children, old men and women, you were murdering us because we were Red. So tell the story as it happened, and if you tell it true, your hands will be clean.”

Let’s tell the whole story. Leave nothing out. And when we tell it true, our hands will finally be clean.

 

Put Away Our Telescopes? Not a Chance! The Heavens are Calling.

From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,

From the laziness that is content with half-truths,

From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,

Oh God of Truth, deliver us.

     ~ Ancient Prayer

IN 1633, THE ROMAN INQUISITION CHARGED Galileo Galilei with heresy. His crime? Entertaining the notion that the sun “does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world,” and for espousing a theory deemed “false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scripture.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 2.58.36 PMWhile Galileo didn’t invent the heliocentric model of the universe, he discovered plenty of evidence for it. His own powerful telescopes were showing him things never before encountered, and mathematical reasoning confirmed what others, like Copernicus, had been saying. To a rational mind, there was no denying the soundness of the astronomer’s conclusion, but it was an inconvenient truth, to say the least, in an age where burning heretics, not fossil fuels, contributed most to global warming.

To be fair, scientists and philosophers, not just the Church, opposed him. But it was the Church with the power to coerce and intimidate. As the sole mediator of rites essential to salvation, God’s priestly representatives could strip Galileo of his eternal salvation. What could man do more?

I can imagine Galileo’s family and friends pleading with him to stop studying the heavens. It’s dangerous, they must have said. Put away your telescope.

Inquisitive Latter-day Saints hear that, too. Why study the night sky when its constellations have already been named, catalogued, and described in our Church-approved manuals? Why look at the heavens when Deseret Book publishes thousands of titles on Astronomy? There’s no need to look for yourself. And it could be dangerous: You could lose faith in the truthfulness of the Star Map. Put away your telescope.

And yet, like Galileo, the urge to know the truth by our own experience, to understand what’s really out there, compels us to look for ourselves. So we look. And then we begin to understand why there was so much institutional hand-wringing over what we might find.

We’re discovering some stars in the night sky that don’t correspond to the official Star Maps we’ve been issued at Church. Certain constellations have been left off the official charts, and it appears that some stars have even been redrawn to suggest patterns that aren’t present in a clear reading of the starry sky. Not only that, but those who’ve traveled far and wide report that what we see printed on our Star Maps constitutes only one perspective, from a Northern line of latitude, and that skywatchers in the Southern Hemisphere see an entirely different set of stars. The discrepancies are not easily dismissed.

We are confused.

We hear leaders telling us not to trust our own eyesight, to doubt our faculties of reason. We hear apologists pat us on the head and explain that there’s really no contradiction between what we’re seeing in our telescopes and what’s on our official Star Maps. Then we go to Church and hear people bearing testimony of the Star Map. And we sing, Praise to the Cartographer. And what we hear most of all is that we shouldn’t be looking through our own telescopes in the first place, but instead should exercise faith that the Star Map is True.

That last point prompts me to ask: Should we have testimonies of the Star Map and its Cartographers? Or should we have direct encounters with the Heavens they attempt to describe? Isn’t it rather like going to a restaurant and worshipping the menu instead of savoring the food?

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 3.18.39 PMI’VE BEEN AIMING MY OWN TELESCOPE at the spectacular cosmos that is Mormonism, collapsing its distance, but until recently I’ve been reluctant to share an honest account of what I’ve seen. For one thing, I realize my view is filtered through a particular lens, shaped by my personal and cultural biases, faulty reasoning powers, and limited perception. For another, I haven’t wanted to force anyone to look through the telescope with me, believing it’s the prerogative of each person to decide if and when they look for themselves. But mostly, it’s fear that has kept me–and so many like me–from giving an honest report of our experience. We stand much to lose by admitting that we see things differently. We are branded as arrogant, faithless, deluded, disloyal, and dangerous.

I get it. I’ve been there myself. By discrediting a person, we don’t have to grapple with the questions he or she raises. And when our most crucial claim as an institution is that we’re right about everything, it’s simply not permissible to allow someone to suggest we may be wrong about anything. The community protects itself from the vulnerability of uncertainty by marginalizing anyone who doesn’t reinforce their sense of certainty. And if there’s one thing out of which we Mormons fashion a Golden Calf, it’s our personal and collective certainty.

Fortunately, astronomical charts can be redrawn to more closely reflect reality. At the institutional level, curriculum and resources are being re-written to acknowledge some of the more egregious discrepancies between our traditional narratives and more honest tellings. No doubt, this change comes as the Church is hoping to earn back the trust of those who have been far more more troubled by the lack of openness than they are by a clear reading of the stars. I applaud this forthrightness for its own sake, and am persuaded that whenever institutions resist transparency they will lose credibility with Millennials for whom unrestricted access to information is seen as a birthright.

Call me crazy, but I still find value in those Star Maps. They fire my spiritual imagination. They bestow a mythic power on our collective narrative. And the awe they’ve instilled in me over so many years has become the prime motivator for me to seek my own direct, unmediated experience with the Universe.

Put away our telescopes? Not a chance. The Heavens are calling!

 ~

Want to discuss? Share your thoughts and your experiences here, or start your own conversation among friends by sharing this essay with someone else.

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