Monday, April 30, 2007

Before All Else: Modesty

It's prom season, apparently. I don't have kids in school yet, but I do have a brother-in-law who recent went to his senior prom. (I skipped mine and have never looked back, but that's another story.) We talked to my in-laws the night of the event (after his group had come to the house for pictures and had left) and I was really struck by the disdain they seemed to show for all of the girls but one (my brother's date). The reason, of course, was immodesty. It was as if nothing else was visible to them. Was their hair nicely done? Did their dresses look stunning? Could you sense their youthful exuberance on the brink of launching themselves out into the big, wide world? No, they were just immodest. It was like they had just met a bunch of pole dancers.

What is modesty, anyway? My favorite definition comes from a book written by Karol Wojtyla, "Love and Responsibility." I don't remember a lot of the details, but this concept stuck in my mind--immodesty is dressing in a manner to present oneself first and foremost as an object of sexual pleasure. I liked it because 1) it's gender neutral, and 2) it's about your own intentions, rather than how others will view you.

This is still subjective, obviously. People gladly tromp around at the beach in clothing that would be considered immodest on a date. Acceptable skin-baring has varied considerably over the last 200 years. And different cultures simultaneously to accept different levels of exposure, as a quick trip between Europe and the US will show.

Is it immodest to try to look attractive? That seems a little draconian--like requiring a burqa. So if we're not expecting people to make themselves hideous, we should expect them to flatter themselves with their clothing. In the US, this frequently means showing shoulders and back if you're a woman. I have to admit that when I see most formal dresses, I think that they are lovely articles of clothing, not the uniform of a street-walker. I've seen a couple wedding dresses go from the original stunning design to "temple-worthy," and it always seemed like a sad sort of aesthetic destruction--like the Taliban scratching the faces or heads off of artwork in Afghanistan.

But somehow, in mainstream Mormon culture, modesty has become extremely legalistic. It's like temple garments (whether you wear them or not) are the imagined line of acceptance. Dress off the shoulder? Immodest. Collarbone visible? Immodest. Muumuu? Modest. The fact that the garments themselves started showing lots of skin in 1923 is conveniently forgotten in this approach.

It seems like modesty is falling in line with smoking for the church. It's very easy to draw defined boundary, then look with disdain at those on the wrong side of the line. My thoughts are drawn to the message of Sister Nadauld, YWGP in 2001: You can recognize women who are grateful to be a daughter of God by their outward appearance.

Sure makes it simple to determine who is good and bad, doesn't it?

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007


HOFRS--Helping Other Feel and Recognize the Spirit

This was a lesson I learned in the MTC. It was the most important part of developing conversion--you taught a lesson, showed a video, etc., then would say something to the effect of, "You feel that nice happy/warm/peaceful feeling? That's the Spirit telling you this is true."

This all seemed very straightforward. Having never felt the Spirit, how could we expect people to recognize it?

But, according to many faithful Mormons, the Spirit is not a feeling. It's something different and unique. According to my FIL, it's a combination of a feeling and knowledge. According to many believers (not just Mormons), the Spirit can make you just "know" something.

So, here's the problem.

Why doesn't the Spirit self-identify? Is it just me, or is that not the most obvious thing for the Spirit to do? You've got an investigator discovering a "true" message; why would the Spirit suddenly decide to be so coy? If it's just a feeling, then it makes sense that you need someone to frame the meaning: "That feeling (which is just a feeling) means what I just told you is true." If they feel the same thing in the presence of an annuity salesperson, they'll have it framed another way: "You can trust me--this is a good investment for your family." Con-artists probably get people to feel good about dubious propositions all the time--that's why their called confidence- artists.

If it's not a feeling, why would it have to be explained? I do not understand how Spirit=Knowledge can be reconciled with Spirit=Unusual Feeling. Given that even the church acknowledges the latter, I have to seriously question the former.

Monday, April 23, 2007

God--the great Because

I'm in the process of raising 3 pre-K kids, each about 2 years apart. As any experienced parent (and many a non-parent, frankly) knows, kids go through a stage of asking "why" over and over again shortly after becoming verbal. I always try my best to answer these rapid-fire inquiries, even if the final response is, "I don't know." I can't stand it when people say, "because," simply because that's really NOT an answer. It's a conjunction, folks. Yet it gets used a lot, even between adults.

On to the point, and another story. Last night, my wife and I were discussing the interview question at the back of Stages of Faith. It's a good exercise, because I think it's demonstrating to her that our values haven't diverged. One question was about core values or something to that effect. I answered that I had two primary one's--living the golden rule, and questing for knowledge. She said that hers were faith in God and faith in Jesus Christ. This was a critical moment, for my recent agnosticism/disbelief in the Mormon God causes her great angst. So I drilled down:

Uj: What does that mean?"
DW of Uj: What do you mean, "what does that mean?" You know what it means.
Uj: No, I told you values that you can map directly to how I will act in given situations. You told me you believe in God. What does that mean when the rubber hits the road?

Of course, it came back to the golden rule for her, too. I pointed out that God was kind of an unnecessary addition to that value--you could adhere to the golden rule with or without the belief that God cares.

That got me thinking this morning about why so many believers throw God out there as an answer to moral questions. Does it really mean anything? Not in terms of actions--if I were going to tell someone I'm gay (which I'm not--just a good example for where I'm going), I'd rather tell a person who claims to live the golden rule than one who claims to be Christian. The Golden Ruler will not hit me, because he himself does not like to be hit. The Christian is a gamble--might be a moral person in the sense of the golden rule, might be an executor of God's Will. There are still advocates of jail time for homosexual behavior! So a person's belief in God tells me nothing about their values.

You might suppose that that makes God a neutral assertion--that "God told me so" has no true meaning. But, unfortunately, it's not. God is also a conversation stopper. "God told me so" = "I am right, because." There's nothing following the because, so it's not really supporting the "I am right," but a believer doesn't usually see that. So, God becomes the Great Because, seeming to resolve things when it fact it does not.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Should I stay or should I go now?

Why do I want to leave the church? It's a fair question, particularly from an active member. Let's face it, lots of religions offer lots of good things to many people--why not just pick the one you're born with, and which most of your family affiliates with, and make the best of it? Why leap into the great unknown?

The factual errors behind the church aren't really the biggest issue for me. They're important to identify, of course, because without them you can't question anything. I mean, if Smith really did see God and Jesus, and they really told him to sleep around and make up the Book of Abraham, then you've got to think that you'd better keep studying the Book of Mormon, etc. But realizing that the church is built on a sandy foundation isn't sufficient justification to begin smoking, obviously. There are still some good ideas in there.

On the flip side, family is a huge issue. I can't do anything without profoundly affecting my wife and I'm sensitive to that. As long as she is a believer I feel compelled to support her by attending weekly, holding a calling, etc. But that's not really a defense of the church.

So let's pretend...if she were at the same point in her faith journey that I am...

The main reason I would stay in the church is for the opportunities it gives me to teach my kids and bond as a family. I believe that family myths and shared rituals are very important. I know full well that these can be developed by any family, but I also believe that it takes a lot more energy to do it completely on your own. Take FHE, for example. Attending church reminds you to do it, and I think sitting down as a family for some quality discussion, singing, etc. is good. Without the church I'd have to develop my own ritual, then stick to it without any external cultural support. Not impossible, but difficult. I'd also have to make concerted efforts to talk to my kids about smoking, drinking, sleeping around, being nice to others, etc. Right now I can rest assured that if I skip a week or two, the Primary teachers have my back. That's helpful, because I think that singing "Follow the Prophet" is less dangerous than never being taught avoid drugs. (Again, I'm not saying that I would never talk about that stuff, but isn't it easy to forget?)

This same church indoctrination, however, is my main reason for wanting to leave. Especially for the sake of my girls. I shared some quotes from a YW lesson in an earlier post, but those just scratched the surface. A few months ago I spent some time (an hour or so) looking at topics in both the YM and YW manuals. The differences were mind-boggling. It made me ill. Here's a smattering of what bothers me:
  1. Homemaking lessons. YW are taught that this is a critical way to improve the world and bring the Spirit into their lives. This year's manual (#2) has two in a row (Home Environment & Sharing Work in the Home). YM do not have a single lesson on this topic.
  2. Picking a particular topic, e.g. obedience, shows a focus on roles for women (obey so that you can be a mother and helpmeet, #1 commandment is multiply & replenish the earth) and on freedom of choice (obey so that you can have more options) for boys.

I'm not trying to be exhaustive here--just giving a quick example. But this kind of thing drives me crazy. They've fixed this in the RS/PH split by going to single manuals. Why haven't they done this for YM/YW? Exposing my girls to this kind of indoctrination is supremely frustrating--I am left to deliver conflicting messages: teaching them humanist ideals at home while sending them off to YW every week! (Of course, I'm 9 years from having a girl in YW....)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


That's my new word of the day. It's the development of interpretations for a revelation. I'm writing about this because I'm watching it happen right in front of me, and it just kills me.

I have a family member who's engaged. She got engaged to this guy pretty quickly, following lots of personal revelation all around--to both parents, both lovers, friends of parents, etc. This included some of the "miraculous" simultaneous revelation that is so desirable. Amusingly, the one apostate in the crowd, yours truly, was getting his own revelation--Danger, Will Robinson! Of course, I wasn't wrapping mine in the pretty veneer of God-imbued knowledge, so it didn't get a lot of respect. The obvious signs of problems that I was seeing were being seen by everyone else; it's just that to them, GOD had spoken--relationship problems could be worked out after the marriage. I felt like I was watching a train wreck unfolding before my eyes. Call me Cassandra.

Well, last week the boy expressed serious reservations about going through with the impending wedding. Not, "I'm nervous about this big step," but "I don't think I love you," kind of reservations. The wedding's not officially off, of course, because my family member had it revealed to her that they should get married. But at least the parents have finally gotten off the bandwagon--how could you not when your daughter is talking about marrying a guy that "doesn't love her enough?"

But...there's this problem of the revelations. Enter, Evolation. This boy was important for you to be dating right now. But God couldn't have just told you that? God wanted you to think you were getting married. So God tells lies that sometimes really mess up your emotions? The boy has made an unrighteous decision to flout the revelation. So call him to repentance and insist on marriage? Etc. Etc. Those are all real statements I have heard. Let me add some of my own. You'll get married in 50-60 years, after your first spouses have passed away. You'll become one of his plural wives in the CK because your earthly husband will not attain sufficient power and priesthoods to keep you.

No credit to the secular humanist here, who applied his extremely limited EQ to identify that this was a match made in lustful attraction, not heaven.

What's really scary is that this family member still wants to marry him, based on her revelation. I'm hoping she receives some evolation, and soon.

Evolation is one of the great hurdles to seeing the supernatural for what it really is. It doesn't allow for any mistakes to be made in the revelation channel, simply misinterpretations. The great logical flaw here is that if you can so easily misinterpret a "spiritual prompting," how can you call it "knowledge?" Maybe you're misinterpreting that the Church Is True?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Appeals to Authority

I've recently begun to notice an interesting aspect of modern Mormon teaching--there not that modern. Take the following, the Young Women's Manual 1 lesson, Patriarchal Leadership in the Home. It's a great read to understand why the church bothers me so much, but that's for another post.

This lesson is extremely simple, and dwells on a concept that is one of the crucial differentiators between Brighamism and mainstream churches. It starts with some directions to the teacher to be sensitive to the fact that only some girls will "have fathers who are righteous patriarchs in their homes." Then there's a quiz, the answers, and a story.

The answers (except for one) all come from quotes from dead General Authorities. The most recent quote is from 1984--23 years ago! Not a single answer cites Hinckley, nor do any of them simply use their own "authority" as a church publication. Even the story at the end, where a daughter learns that she can love her non-Mormon Dad, comes from 1978. (Don't worry, he becomes a member of the church in the end, so loving him was worth it after all!) Now, the copyright is from 1992, so that lowers the gap to 8 years at the time of publication (with most quotes 15+ years old), but that also means that supposedly nothing has happened in the last 15 years that might impact how we discuss family structure.

I've noticed this same trend toward constant quoting in Conference talks, as well. Maybe they were always like this, but I was never struck that way when reading the Journal of Discourses or talks by McConkie. Now, using past sources can be a valuable way to reach across a philosophical divide (such as quoting C.S. Lewis when proselyting to Christians), but how is that relevant here? Do current leaders feel like they have to win over active members (i.e. the only people who care about the cited authorities)? Or are they just afraid to step out of correlated discussions?

As an aside, consider the following two quotes from the lesson:

In the Church there is full equality between man and woman. (John A.
Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft,
1960], p. 30)

The patriarchal order is of divine origin and will continue throughout time and eternity. There is, then, a particular reason why men, women and children should understand this order and this authority in the households of the people of God. … It is not merely a question of who is perhaps the best qualified. Neither is it wholly a question of who is living the most worthy life. It is a question largely of law and order (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p. 287).

To the comment, ‘My husband [or father] is not a member of the Church, nor does he respect it,’ I with love and compassion answer: ‘Dear Sister, whether he is a member or not, he is still the father and head of the family (Richard G. Scott, “Father Is Head of the Family,” Ensign, Feb. 1977, pp. 84–85).

In the home the presiding authority is always vested in the father, and in all home affairs and family matters there is no other authority paramount (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1975], p. 27).

As the old classic song goes, "One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn't belong." Unfortunately, my faith lies in the one that doesn't belong.

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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Reconciling Suffering

I've been thinking more about theodicy. I have a hard time believing that God answers seemingly trivial prayers, while at the same time allowing incredible suffering elsewhere. So I'm thinking more about how the world would look if all of the suffering was actually "taken care" of by a benevolent God.

What if we had a world in which, as sometimes is suggested, no one suffered? It seems like the first challenge is to narrow down what that means...does it mean that one never fails to meet budget in a business, never misses a goal in sports, or never has a car breakdown? These are simple examples for illustrating the incompatibility of expectations--usually another party must "suffer" for these things to occur.

So what if we limit this to more grave suffering--physical pain for example? If we posit a world in which there is no, say, starvation, then what does it matter whether a business makes its budgets or not? The danger of a minor failure turning into a major one is what makes them significant in their own right. I don't want to go hungry, ergo I don't want to lose my job, ergo I work hard. Without the "real" suffering at the end of the road, what would "small" suffering even mean? So some threat to livelihood must exist for any sense of danger to exist. If nothing bad could ever happen, life would seem somewhat sterile-perhaps even void of meaning. What's the point of doing anything if the outcome is never threatening?

I suppose one could be motivated by a desire to do "good" things. But what is "good" if pain is nonexistent?

Of course, this is the popular notion of heaven: bad stuff doesn't happen. If it's not that way, then what's so great about it? Just an endless existence full of joys and disappointments? I'm not so sure that non-existence seems so bad in comparison.

This isn't fully developed, but the point of this blog is to capture things as I think them...sorry.

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