Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Obedience -- The Root of All Evil

In my experience, obedience is the foundation of the Mormon faith. I think it's impossible to overstate the significance of this concept to Mormons, not just to the "laws of God" as is popular in general Christianity, but to Mormon men who outrank you. An upcoming lesson from the Spencer Kimball manual captures it well in the statement:

[Kimball] underwent that complex operation not because it was deemed to be reasonably safe in the opinion of his medical advisers, but because he was obedient to...the leaders of the Church—regardless of personal risk.

Last year's manual included these gems from Wilford Woodruff:

The Lord will lead [the President of the Church] where he wants him to go. We know God is with him, and has led him all the time. … It requires [the prophet] to tell us what is right and what is wrong in many things, because that is his place and calling. … A perfect channel exists between the Lord and him, through which he obtains wisdom, which is diffused through other channels to the people. That we know. We have got to learn to bring this knowledge into practice. 12

The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place.

What is obedience? I will use the following definition: ipso facto compliance to a source of authority. In other words, compliance solely because of the authority vested in the source. In the church world, it's using leaders as the primary justification for an action (e.g. not wearing double earrings because Hinkley said not to).

Why is obedience necessary? For children, it makes a lot of sense. They don't have the rational faculties or experience to understand all of the dangers that surround them, so if a parent says, "hold my hand in the parking lot," they will obey or face grave danger. Parents usually encourage obedience for this very purpose--to protect their children. It's also part of developing the inhibitions that we call maturity. Obedience is very important in small children.

But what about in adults? Does obedience serve a good purpose? It might in situations of serious, immediate peril, such as serving in the armed forces. It's also convenient if you don't like having to think a lot. It's always simpler to do what you're told, rather than think through the issue yourself.

Do either of these conditions properly apply to matters of ethics or faith? Of course not. So, why would a religion need to harp on obedience, unless its precepts were not clearly good ones to adhere to?

For example, the golden rule is a teaching that stands on its own--an adult does not need to be told to obey his leader and thereby live the golden rule, because the golden rule makes sense after rational examination. If two earrings were a bad thing, it would be obvious (or at least could be made obvious through explanation.)

In the Book of Mormon, even God, when telling Nephi to decapitate a sleeping man, explains the reasoning for the commandment. And that's God. Shouldn't we hold humans to a little higher standard than, "your wish is my command?"

After all, obedience is a coin-toss. Obedient people can do great good or great evil--it all depends on who they're following. That's why I worry about teaching my children to follow and obey, rather than to think critically and question (not defy) authority. I understand how the church inherited this core value--pressure to obey is the only way it would have survived in its earlier cult-like days. But now that it's grown up a bit, it's time to move on. I'm just doing my part to help out.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Functional Infallibility

From the blog that brought you Evolation comes...Functional Infallibilty!

What is functional infallibility? Infallibility that exists in spite of denial of the same. This is easier to demonstrate than explain. Here's how to do it in seven simple steps.

  1. Find a believing Mormon.
  2. Ask if the President of the Church is infallibile.
  3. Wait for the "No."
  4. Ask for an example of a mistake by the current President, or any of his last three predecessors.
  5. Listen to the silence.
  6. Ask for an example of a mistake that might be made in the near future.
  7. Listen to the silence.

Viola, functional infallibility in action. You see, nobody wants to outright claim that another human won't make a mistake, so presidents of the church must not be infallible. But when it comes to leading the church (which requires the kind of spiritual connection Mormons routinely teach comes from strict obedience), devout Mormons generally get extremely uncomfortable at the prospect of such a mistake actually occuring. It just isn't possible.

I have seen this used to defend even the "crazy" statements, such as men on the moon or sun, Native Americans turning white, etc. They simply won't give a single example of a mistaken teaching. It's a beautifully simple example of double-think:

Fallible Prophets Don't Make Mistakes.

Not every devout Mormon believes this, of course, but I don't think I've ever had the seven steps play out differently. The one time I saw it more or less happen in the 'Nacle, an Iron-Rodder asked, "Do you think you're smarter than the Prophet?" at which point the Liahona shut up. Functional infallibility in action.

So while Webster's defines infallible as:
incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith or morals,

Liminal Blather defines functional infallibility as:
incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith or morals, while not possessing the attribute of infallibility.

Simple enough?

Friday, June 1, 2007

Racism--Water Under the Bridge?

Okay, yet another blog post arising from the furious debate raging on my last post. Is the church, today, actually racist? Or, more importantly, am I comfortable with my religion in the context of racial equality?


A more ardent defender of the organization might rightly point out that Brigham Young, John Taylor, Mark Peterson, Joseph Fielding Smith and other bigots are all dead and gone; that we now give the priesthood to blacks; and that Hinkley as told us not to be racists; so the issue is over.

Those things are progress. Definitely. But progress does not equal arrival! Here's what bothers me, for those who care.

1. The Book of Mormon is racist.

Lamanites are given dark skin as a curse for their iniquity. I've heard desperate apologetics attempt to explain this away, but the purpose was to make them less enticing to white Nephites, so this is clearly a visual characteristic. Plus when the Amlicites mark their skin with red paint at one point (Alma 3) it is discussed as a parallel to the dark Lamanites. This comes up many places in the Book of Mormon. In other words, a skin-darkening literally occured, and it is a tainting, a bad thing. The solution: embrace a metaphorical approach to the Book of Mormon. Vestiges of 19th century thinking can be disregarded, just as the violence and misogyny are usually ignored in the Bible.

2. Selling books with racist teachings is racist.

Books written prior to 1978 (and possibly later) referring to blacks as less valiant in the pre-existence are still available through Deseret Books. Solution: stop selling them or switch to new revised editions.

3. Allowing racist doctrines to continue to circulate is racist.

I don't remember much of my life before 1978, being so young and all. I grew up attending church every week. In the 1980's, I learned all about how blacks were fence-sitters in the pre-existence. I'm sure it wasn't in any correlated material, but I learned it just the same. I do not remember (nor do I know of today), any correlated material that proactively dismissed the old doctrines. Solution: actively teach that blacks and whites have always been equal.

4. Portraying God as a racist is racist.

Ultimately, the 1978 decision was a great step, but one taken somewhat begrudgingly, by all appearances. I realize that the Q15 have said that they felt inspired to take this self-evident step--I'm sure that if there is a God that inspires anything, God would have agreed with this decision. However, the doctrine of Presidential Infallibility meant that the leaders couldn't, in 1978, say that the ban had been wrong per se, just that it was over. So we are encouraged to believe that God really didn't want the church organization to be an ensign to the world on such an important moral issue, but to merely be a follower. And a begrudging-looking follower, at that. Solution: admit that prior to 1978, blacks really should have held the priesthood, black families should have been sealed, and a black women should not have been sealed as an eternal servant to Joseph Smith.

See, it's not so hard to get this right.

Listening to Darron Smith's podcasts on MormonStories really opened my eyes to the modern experience of a black person in the modern church. There's room to improve, for sure.