Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Religious Faith Quandaries

Probably my favorite show on any media is one that can be listened to on NPR Saturday afternoons at 2:00pm, or for me podcasted and listened to at my convenience, This American Life . The radio show is organized each week around a theme, having multiple stories around that theme, about usually ordinary people in America, but usually, these ordinary people are having very extra-ordinary experiences, very different from my own. So, I usually thoroughly enjoy these glimpses into other people's lives. A few episodes ago, they did a show entitled Nobody's Family is Going to Change. The title they took from this book and each story revolves around the idea that it is sometimes useless to get someone else to change.

One of these stories documents the relationship between a brother and a sister: the brother a recent charismatic born-again convert, the sister, a lesbian. And it is this conflict, between religious certainty and more of a rational skepticism, and a general tolerance of each other's point of view, that I want to spend some time discussing. Because at some level I can really relate to this conflict, having my own personal experiences with it.

But first, let me give you a summary of the show. The story is narrated by the sister, and she describes how while they were growing up, before he left home for college, the two were extremely close. However, in his freshman year in college, as a result of some major emotional struggles, culminating in an intensely personal, spiritual, emotionally charged experience, the brother converts to Christianity and joins a charismatic church. As a result of this conversion, he completely embraces his faith to the degree that he drops out of school and moves to a farm in Alaska owned by this church to live a communal lifestyle with other believers, abandoning his family in the process. Meanwhile, his sister embraces lesbianism, and moves to Europe with her girlfriend. In time, she finally makes a visit to the farm to visit her brother, trying to figure out what happened to him, to make an attempt to reconnect their once close relationship, and to convince him to accept her choices as much as she hopes to accept his. She even made a movie about this trip.

It was absolutely fascinating to hear their conversations in real-time as she attempts to get him to accept her as she is, which is impossible for him to do. In fact, earlier, he made a trip to visit her in Europe, shortly after his conversion. Needless to say, he was judgmental of her situation. What's also fascinating is how she describes the differences each took in dealing with their problems, her time spent working through problems with a therapist, his consultation with the Bible to find answers.

This whole dynamic is interesting. According to the narrator, before his conversion, he was very non-homophoboic, very accepting, and they were very close. However, as she makes the attempts to visit him and talk with him, she discovers the details of his conversion. How his freshman year was unusually difficult; how he was struggling with depressive thoughts; how he has this religious, very spiritual experience; how through this experience, he felt in a very direct and undeniable way, God's love for him; how through additional experiences he was led to this charismatic church; and how through a relationship from this woman who kind of mentors him, he decides to move to the farm.

You see, what is fascinating here is that he becomes a Christian because of an emotionally-charged spiritual experience. I am not sure the extent of the intellectual process involved, it seemed obvious that he studied the Bible pretty intently thereafter, but it seems definitely secondary for him. Nonetheless, he seemlesly adopts all of the doctrines of the church almost without question.

And that's what is interesting to me, that when you experience spiritual conversion to a faith, to a church, and establish both an emotional and a spiritual connection to a particular sect, the intellectual conversion just sort of follows. So, of course he would come down hard on his sister's lifestyle, because it's in the Bible plain as day and I'm sure his pastor preached a sermon on it one Sunday, and it all made sense, and of course it must be true because God led him on this path.

I must confess I don't know these people, I only heard a brief summary on a radio show, so I'm extrapolating here, but stuff like this has happened to me and I bet it has happened to you. In fact, in many ways, I can relate to this phenomenon more so than most because of the religious faith I belong to. Growing up in a non-Mormon town where I had a lot of non-Mormon friends, and being the sort of combative know-it-all kid I was, I got into plenty of religious debates, and I always felt like I was at the disadvantage. You see, the Mormon faith makes some pretty big claims on divine revelation, prophets, priesthood, and being the only true and living church. It's in the first section of the Doctrine Covenants, our church being "the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually—". So, in a debate on church doctrine, all one of my detractors had to do was find one example where my church was wrong, and the major premise of my church falls apart as well.

In contrast, the Protestants have it easy. Most of them simply say that as long as you believe in Jesus Christ (and since most people in Yuma, AZ do), you have nothing to worry about. That churches here on earth are a man-made invention, flawed to be sure, mere tools to help us mingle together, strengthen one-another, but the truth lies only in the Bible and in our relationship with God. We largely agree on this point, but it's just our church takes the additional rather significant step that God in His wisdom and mercy talked to one fourteen year old boy back in the early 1800's and through him started a divinely directed church.

And our church, through revelation to prophets does have a lot of complex doctrines, not completely understood by anyone I know, which is exciting to have room to grow and expand in an organization. But its tricky. Despite all of the doctrinal complexities inherent in the church, mainly members of the church are directed to keep it simple, rooted in simple expressions of faith, rooted in emotional and spiritual experiences. In our monthly testimony meetings, we are asked to keep our messages short and focused on simple expressions of faith in God, Jesus Christ, and in the Divine mission of the church on the earth. As missionaries teaching prospective converts, we stick to six simple discussions, based solely on core principles of faith, repentance, baptism, the Holy Ghost, scriptures, prophets, and revelation. We ask the person to pray, and as directed by their own convictions make the choice to act on the emotions and feelings they experience as they search. That's it.

But what's interesting to me, in the context of this essay, is what we don't do. A convert is never asked if they are comfortable with the church's polygomous history, or what they think of the historical controversies surrounding the Mountain Meadows massacre. Many times, a prospective convert will hear about this or other issues from a friend or pastor either before or soon after the conversion at which time they are forced to deal with it, but the missionaries never bring it up. And its probably a good thing too because these issues are difficult to explain and basically get in the way of what's important, a person's personal journey to establish a relationship with Deity.

But contrast that with someone like myself who grew up in the church or someone who has been a member for many years. I have heard so many explanations of polygamy from these people and even have come up with a few of my own, none of them, to my knowledge, are officially church endorsed. But because the person has an emotional connection to the faith, they feel compelled to close the loop intellectually as well, and then talk themselves into some pretty crazy mental gymnastics in their attempts to do so.

I am only using the example of my faith because it is my faith, but we all have examples. Let's take politics. Isn't it strange to you that as soon as you declare yourself to be a liberal (for example), you almost always automatically become pro choice on abortion, anti-death penalty, pro progressive tax code, pro strict environmental laws, pro-increase the minimum wage, etc., etc., etc. Somewhere a long the line, you probably had some sort of emotional conversion to the Democratic party, maybe a particular political leader was particularly inspiring, maybe the group of friends you associate with were influential, maybe your parents were Democrats and raised you that way. But because of something more emotional than intellectual, you find yourself compelled to close the loop 100% of the way, and basically adopt the complete party line, hook, line and sinker. And your voting record bears it out.

This is not meant to be a criticism, it's incredibly easy thing to do. In fact, I have been a registered Republican most of my life and in those years I had a pretty consistent Republican-oriented voting record. I really can't remember ever voting for a Democrat until around 2004 or so. It was then that I registered independent, and have tried to vote that way. More recently, almost entirely because of Barack Obama, I registered Democrat, and found myself sympathizing more and more uniformly with the democratic side of the argument on so many issues. I have to keep reminding myself to stay independent in my thinking.

But there is another political component to my point. One of my first blog posts, I entitled it, "Are Democrats Smarter than Republicans", consisting of my personal political history. Well, one of the points I never really got to there and I'm getting to here, is that the Republican party has largely become the party of faith, while the Democratic party has become the party of intellectual reasoning.

The clash between the brother and sister of This American Life happens all the time in Congress, on Fox News, and in our communities. You are un-American if you don't wear an American lapel on your jacket and attend a church pastored by Jeremiah Wright. John Kerry was pillored in the 2004 debates for bringing up the idea of using a "global test" before we invade another country. And Bush's invasion into Iraq, as ill-thought out as it was, and this medieval like Crusades aspect to it.

Even the economic debates has this religious versus secular feel to it. The Republicans view always boils down to keeping the government out of the market and this almost religious faith that the free-market model will solve all of problems of poverty, family, and country. And the Republicans have been largely effective in labeling Democrats as elitist socialist, who want to grow government at the expense of our liberty.

In fact, most of the Democratic arguments I read are much more moderate. Most support the free market, but see its limitations in certain areas, so they support regulation, and government constraint, and to help "smooth over the rough edges" of the free market.

Now I'm not saying the Republican point of view is necessarily wrong and the Democratic view is right. I definitely see the religious point of view healthy and necessary in the political sphere, and I largely disagree with some attempts to eliminate religion from the public conversation. And sometimes, the more simple, religious approach is also the right approach.

To wrap up, I want to talk a little more about something personal to me that really fits into this theme, the issue of homosexuality. This issue has so many elements of religion and secularism and it rips the two right down the middle, motivating politicians to ammend constitutions, and religious groups to push legislation. To many religious groups, including my own, this is a clear cut case of taking a morale stand against something that is morally wrong. But if you take the religious argument out of the equation and look at it with only your secular eyes, the Democratic argument seems make more sense. There does seem to be rather strong evidence that points to strong homosexual feelings in certain people at early ages. And to suppress those feelings seems to lead to a lifetime of heartache. Admittedly, I'm completely naive on this issue.

The Mormon church has made some pretty emphatically clear statements on gender and sexuality. In fact, just a short time ago, it published The Proclamation on the Family where it says in no uncertain terms:

"Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose."


"We further declare that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife."


"The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity."

Pretty clear stuff. And I do feel a religious, spiritual, and emotional connection to the doctrine behind these statements. But I do know people that I highly respect that have close homosexual friends, and largely because of those friendships believe in their heart of hearts that their sexuality is an intrinsic part of their identity. In fact, I have met some of those homosexuals, and would agree these people seem to be good in every possible sense of the word, as far as I can tell.

And also consider this story about transgendered six year olds. How, I want to know do you square this example with the statements in The Proclamation of the Family?

I guess my point is you just don't. In a recent Paul Graham essay entitled Lies We Tell Kids, he says, "Very smart adults often seem unusually innocent, and I don't think this is a coincidence. I think they've deliberately avoided learning about certain things. Certainly I do. I used to think I wanted to know everything. Now I know I don't."

That's all he says about that, and he moves on to the next thought. That idea is fascinating to me because it rings so true. It reminds me of this poem from a book written by the recent American poet laureate, Ted Kooser, on pornography, entitled a Deck of Pornographic Playing Cards, and it goes like this:

We were ten or eleven, my friend and I,
when we found them under a bridge,
on top of a beam where pigeons were resting.
Someone had carefully hidden them there.
On each was a black-and-white photo,
no two cards alike. We grew quiet and older,
young men on our haunches, staring at
what we feared might be the future.
The pigeons flapped back to their roosts,
rustling and cooing. The river gurgled
as it slipped from the bridge's cool shadow.
There were women with big muzzled dogs,
women with bottles and broom handles.
Stallions stood over the bodies of others.
The women smiled and licked their lips
with tongues like thorns. We grew old.
We were two old men with stiff legs
and sad hearts. We had wanted to laugh
but we couldn't. We had thought we were boys,
come there to throw stones at the pigeons,
but we were already dying inside.

The image of these boys growing old in that moment of accidental knowledge is pretty startling for me, and I think that is the point maybe. That maybe it is important to understand some things, but better not to understand many other things. That it's more important to feel love, to feel spirituality and emotional connections with heaven, than it is to get caught up in debates that have no answers.

What makes the Proclamation on the Family so powerful for me is that it emphasizes strong families that are lasting and enduring. I just don't think it's especially helpful to use it as hammer to pound an anti-gay argument down someone's throat. We all make very personal decisions on these issues, and it can be very difficult to make sense of why one person chooses a lifestyle completely different from our own.

So, I think in day to day living, in our association with our friends and peers, it's pretty clear that we should follow principles of compassion, empathy, and love. In matters of public policy I wish there was more room for politicians to simply say, "you know this is a tough issue and I'm just not sure what the right answer is".

Really, truly, what is the best way to deal with abortion or homosexual marriage. The answer is probably to error on the side of compassion and tolerance, not being afraid to compromise to get stuff done, to admit that we live in a wonderful country filled with incredible people having all sorts of religious, spiritual, and intellectual points of view and its our opportunity to understand one another in the spirit of friendship and humility.


April said...

Very well written Scott. I think I'd have to agree with you that some things I just don't want to know about and other opinions I keep to myself. I find it interesting though that even within the church there are so many views on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. We were all raised to believe the same things, although our parents and oursleves are individulas with different interpretations. All I know is, I just can't wait to talk to Heavenly Father and have my questions answered. Frankly, I'd like to know if I'm on the right track, if there is one.

K. OF Creich said...

In the East they make a distinction between disciples and Devotees. For Devotees the small stuff isn't so important--it is the affect, the burning in the bosom that matters.

I was reared with a German Catholic Grandfather in a small in law room with bath. He was reared by The Sisters of the Seven Pains--i.e. Dolores, after they lied and said his mother was dead.

His Oldest sister did not believe the nuns and took her brothers and sisters to the Cemetary where they cried until dusk--there was no upturned earth.

A nun came and called them for dinner. He was a Boomer,
and had many adventures about which I loved to hear,
sitting on his lap and watching Roy Roger and Dale Evens. Grandpa was a real rootin' tootin' coyboy and little girls who didn't get
baptized went to hell. I was pretty sure that wasn't true,
and I knew there were other kids in the ward who were baptized Catholic and afterwards Mormon.

It didn't happen in Cedar City,
which I thought was close to
heaven. And if it didn't happen in Cedar, it wasn't
happening in our family.

So if you want to know
what I think about Mountain Meadows, or the FDLS Children, I've been crying
about the raid pretty much since it happened.

Something is going wrong
with Amerikwa, in fact, Bush
gave himself unprecedented
and extraordinary powers
just this morning.

He must defend the honor of
Texas and Texas and if there
are FLDS disabled children dying in the hospital because
CPS doesn't believe that any
state has services superior to
those of the Texan Nation State.

HHM played the trick of getting in and out under the
very noses of the Morally
Superior Texans and are probably hunting down the
Dads and older boys.

Of course they know their patients, deliver entrained twins with different mothers
as a matter of course and monitor the childrens'
blood clotting time and other
important measures about
how the babies and mothers are doing.

The trouble is that we lie when we have to. We lie with a smile on our faces unperturbed, when we have to. We hate it, but all the kids from Yearning For Zion
knew it, it was in their blood.

My Grandma's best friend was the Shart Crick midwife
and died of a post war epidemic just after the war,
just like my Aunt Kathleen did at the same time.

Weeping and stoicism got them through--so I hate it
when people discover that
we lie. I'm sure they lie in China--that was what gave him his big grin.

And if there are converts who
are shocked, let 'em be shocked. My best friend just
got baptized--she loves her
missionaries and her sisters
and she doesn't give a darn if
there is a long list of things I think she ought to know before she gets baptized last month.

She is a person of importance who doesn't like it and hears about herself on the TV, then hears the news about herself from the kids.

I told her to work it out on her own, really whatever she does I'll love her the same,
and it's true. I told her her missionaries were just kids
and to ask me if she needs a
question answered. I think
she'd rather watch them make fools of them selves, the fish is on the hook--with they lose such a precious soul when they were so close
to netting her.

I wish I could watch. I made her promise not to suggest that it was my fault to anyone.

Kathleen Matheson Sutherland

tempe turley said...

Thanks April for your kind comments. I guess I haven't heard a lot of diverse commentary from members of the church about either issue but it would be interesting to hear it.

Kathleen, I guess I'm not sure what you're getting at with your comments.

I do want to make it clear that the church I belong to, the LDS church is much different than the FLDS church, and while we have had polygamy in our history, we have long ago stopped. From what I heard about what has gone on inside the FLDS church, it really saddens me, young girls getting forced into marriage with older men, boys banished because of the competition between women (hard to maintain the multiple wives dynamic if you have equal numbers of men and women), relationship between mothers and their children weakened. The whole thing is sickening and heartbreaking quite frankly.

I can't speak to how the government has stepped in to disrupt it. But I'm glad Warren Jepps is behind bars, and I'm glad we're finally doing something about all the abuse that has been going on in that community all these years.

I really can't say for sure why our church adopted polygamy when it did, but I'm glad we're not doing it now, and I'm glad it's an issue I really don't have to deal with personally.

While I believe in tolerance as a general rule. I have no tolerance for behavior that causes explicit damage to others, and it seems obvious that that is what has been going on within the FLDS church.

K. OF Creich said...

Missonaries are 19 year old kids
who probably didn't listen to their
Church History Teacher when they were nine or escaped the class entirely.

Alternatly the teachers try to involve the boys by playing church history
baseball. Sometimes they are only pretending to not listen. I caught
my boys at this a few times.

My husband was willing to teach the boys seperatly, but the Sunday School Superintendent said if I
couldn't manage my class he'd find someone better. [Unlikely].

So, the best you can do is send an outraged letter to the Church Historian's office. They care about what converts think--especially when there are so many.

Now if the probably is that you want to understand better, that is much easier to solve. Be ready for
things you never thought might be so. Mormon History is extremely
complex. If you want objectivity,
I'd read Thomas Kane, a non-Mormon journalist who was
friendly to the Saints, but non-Mormon and objective.

There are non-Mormon journalists
who developed some helpful paradigms for looking at religious
history--the notion of the sacred
story. The Sacred Story of Mormon
origins may be tremendously important.

You can get into the nitty gritty of
it as a historian, and learn things which you may be able to integrate back into the sacred story, but
it takes time. You need to know a great deal about the history of Europe and America to place Mormon History.

The net is the worst place to learn.
There are Mormon Historians with
sites, but no time.

Try Seagull Tapes and books, or Sam Weiler's Books--he has a few million books warehoused.


H said...

Who is this Kathleen person? I can't wrap my finger around what she is trying to say. Anyway Scott, I hope you take all these thoughts to heart when it comes to checking the little boxes in the election booth. (well, I guess that would be filling in the little line on the ballot)

Davey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Davey said...

Hi Scott, I just found your blog; I’m liking what I read so far. I'm glad you take the time to think about this stuff, it's great.

I definitely agree with your general point that erring on the side of compassion and tolerance is probably the best way to go. On your other point I'm reading "Forbidden Knowledge: from Prometheus to pornography" by Roger Shattuck, in it the author wonders whether myths like Prometheus, Adam and Eve and others have something to teach us about the danger of unbounded curiosity. It addresses your point fairly comprehensively, I haven't finished it yet so I won't recommend it but now you know it's out there.

The issue of gay Mormons got me thinking so much that my comment turned into it's own post so you'll have to check my blog to read it but thanks for inspiring some thoughts.

tempe turley said...


Thanks for your comments. I searched your blog but I haven't found this one yet, I'm guessing you haven't posted it. I'll be anxiously awaiting...

K. OF Creich said...

Hmmmm.....who is this Kathleen person, I've been wondering for a long time. I don't feel very different from these Shortcreek folks because I spent summers not far from there and downwind from the Nevada Test Site.

My father was a friend of Zion's
Books Sam Weiler after the war so
I grew up with first editions of Mormonism's Documentary and Comprehensive Histories of the Church. My Dad also had a first edition of the D and C which was too fragile to handle much, so he waited for something worth trading it in for. That was the Journal of Discourses.

I had most of it read by the time
I was 17 or so. And had discussed the difficult passages with my parents. [Adam-God theory, blood atonement] I was fascinated by Joseph Smith's reading of the Zohar, on Creation, on the next world.

One day me'n my girlfriends were palling around town and we went
over to Virginia's house because
she had a record of English Folksongs and a record player.

It was a version of She Moved through the Faire that had a few more verses on it. The maiden is thirteen and the stranger begs her
three more years longer to tarry.

Only Virginia and I survived until
we were 17. I had to fight my mother to let me go to College. But we were straight LDS, Handcart Pioneers on both sides. My Great
Grandmother was the last to be
born in Polygamy. She married, leaving the Y to get married, and went up into the High Country near Circleville with another newly married couple to herd sheep.
My Grandmother went to BAC at 14
and had a romantic life with my grandfather.

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