Not too long ago I listened to this podcast which is a recording of a presentation by Dr. David Christian, a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Utah, and thus pretty well versed in treating Mormons. Incidentally, he is also no longer an active, practicing Mormon. In this podcast, at least, he criticizes the church on the way it tends to deal with those who sin - basically all of us.
One of the arguments he makes I want to take on directly. He feels the church behaves in absolutist all or nothing teaching that gets some of its members into trouble. He refers to it as a virgin thinking, where committing a sin once is just as bad as doing it over and over again. You are no longer a virgin when you slip up and have sex with one person, so what's the difference if you have sex with nine more. Obviously there's a big difference between messing up one time and becoming entrenched in bad behavior, and it is unfair to claim that anyone in the church believes the two are equivalent. But I can see why, given the way that these messages are sometimes taught, someone may get caught up in this kind of thinking. Once you sin once, when the stakes are high, you feel terrible and ashamed, your feelings of self worth plummet and it's much easier to just to do it again and again, and perhaps fall into addiction.
And I'm sure this is a more of a problem for those within the church. He backs up his claims with plenty of statistics.
He uses an interesting analogy to illustrate the problem with this. When you apply vertical pressure on a credit card it bends pretty far one way, and the more pressure you apply the farther the card bends. Let's say bending the card one way is analogous to being righteous and sinful if bent the other. So, if at first your pressure forces the card over to the good side, things are great. But if something happens and the card is pushed against the vertical pressure toward the other side, not only are you switching from the good toward the bad, you are moving much further to the other side and it's much harder to move the card back. It's very hard, living under this kind of pressure, to mess up one time, someone who falters, tends to falter pretty dramatically.
Here are some of the statistics he sites. Once a Mormon partakes in alcohol, they are far more likely to become alcoholic than a non-Mormon. Utah has the highest rates of on-line pornography use in the country. I think it was Italians he said who have among the highest percentage of people who drink alcohol, but also have much lower rates of abuse.
All of this makes sense as far as it goes. If you engage in absolutist thinking, you increase the pressure, and if a slip is made, it has a far more significant consequence on your emotional state.
I can't disagree with this.
But is this the church's fault? I think where most critics of the Mormon church stumble is they fail to fundamentally understand what the church is all about. Admittedly, this is my understanding of the church they are misunderstanding, and my perspective is also flawed, but let me explain why I disagree with Dr. Christian. Let me also try to point out how I'm trying to raise my children as Mormons in a culture that gives them every opportunity for someone to commit sin.
I think the biggest difference between the Mormon church and many of the other churches out there is that we expect much more out of our members. I think this goes without saying, but let me dig deeper because it's fundamental to what our church is all about.
I think, in some ways, the Mormon church is a little bit like Google in the technology industry. The church has no paid clergy. Instead, we are all clergy. Every single position in the church is not only important, but vital. When someone joins our church, they are not only becoming a member, but essentially, they are its clergy as well.
I love the scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants that brings this point home:
D&C 18: 14-16
14 Wherefore, you are called to cry repentance unto this people.
15 And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!
Not only is every soul precious, but every position in the church is important. My two year old is attending nursery every week during church and is being cared for by under-appreciated nursery workers who are introducing her to gospel principles. My older kids are listening to the testimonies of primary teachers helping them to develop the foundation for their faith in God. I know we as parents are important to their success, but so is the broader community they participate in and the church is there to help them with that. Their souls are important to us. I am thankful for those people who believe the same thing. And they show this by their sacrifice. They willingly volunteer their time to help our children grow in their faith.
I compare my church to Google because Google hires engineers who are committed to the industry and each employee is expected to produce at a high level at every level. The company strives to have a bottom up development approach. Every person matters and is important and has a voice. The company innovates because each of its employee's are allowed to innovate.
In the same way, all members of the Mormon church are asked to contribute at every level in the effort of bringing souls to Christ. The church is trying to do something difficult and members of this church are being asked to engage in that effort. The biggest difference between our church and Google, is that Google tries very hard to hire only highly qualified people by making it very hard to pass their interviews. The church's by contrast simply says that if you have a desire to serve God you are called to the work. If more companies hired based on desire, our unemployment rates would shrink and our recession would disappear, sigh.
But as members of the church, we are definitely called to work and to sacrifice. So, yes, there can be pretty intense vertical pressure and yes, it can cause problems.
But there is another way.
In a television interview some years ago, the then prophet and president of the church President Gordon Hinckley was asked about this. He was asked about how he avoids sin, and was it difficult. He said matter of factly that it's not difficult for him at all because he simply does not spend much time thinking about sin. He found a way to remove the vertical pressure on the credit card completely. He learned to change the game. Rather than applying pressure on himself to avoid sin, he spent his life anxiously engaged in improving the world around him. His focus wasn't on sin, his focus was on being engaged in goodness.
I think this shift is vital, especially in a world where it's increasingly easy to get hooked into alcohol, drugs, pornography, and other kinds of addictions. This is the approach I want for my childen. Let them find ways to engage in flow enhancing activities. The world has really opened up in this way. We live in a world filled with teachers, really we all should be teachers. It's becoming easier and easier to learn just about anything if we have the dedication and patience to do so. Learn a language, find a league in almost any kind of sport, or learn a musical instrument.
As my children reach high school, I hope they can find a passion that consumes a lot of their energy. I don't much care what it is, just something that gives them plenty of opportunities to experience flow, activities that are challenging and fulfilling, activities that will help them develop an expertise in something, something that brings them joy. If they can leverage this passion to benefit the community in some way? So be it, you don't have to be old to change the world.
And sure, they will be young, and their bodies will one day be surging with hormones, and temptations will be all around them and mistakes will be made. I hope as a parent I can be loving, understanding, open and forgiving. I hope they will be able to feel that deeply. I hope that no matter what happens they realize in a deep way they are valuable and valued and have an almost unlimited potential to do whatever they set their minds to do.
I think in all of those ways, the vertical pressure of the credit card is released. Instead of being worried about moving this way or that way across an imaginary line separating sin from righteousness, the entire card is shifted, their entire perspective about who they are and what they can achieve changes. This is probably a lifetime endeavor, but as Christians, this is what we are trying to do. We are trying to raise the bar. We are trying to be like Jesus and that is a high standard.