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North Korea of the Soul

It seems to have become an odd tradition to inadvertently overhear a single General Conference talk that makes me want to deconstruct its message. This time it was Robert Hale’s talk on Sunday morning.

He spoke about how to respond to those who criticize the LDS church or its teachings. By the end, I felt slandered and deeply misunderstood. To illustrate why I felt this way, I combed the first half of his talk (the work got too tedious so I stopped there) for words describing members of the LDS faith and their actions and similarly for words describing its critics and their actions.

Believers Critics
  • love
  • bright
  • faithful
  • Christlike
  • invite
  • respond
  • stood
  • bore
  • simple
  • powerful
  • facing
  • exercised
  • divine
  • responsibility
  • preserve
  • protect
  • uttered
  • incomparable
  • forgive
  • silence
  • meekness
  • forgiveness
  • humble
  • bless
  • good
  • pray
  • strength
  • courage
  • demonstrated
  • suffered
  • did not retaliate
  • [did not] give in to hatred
  • true
  • disciples
  • loving others
  • tolerant
  • compassionate
  • turn the other cheek
  • resist feelings of anger
  • show forth
  • subdue
  • learn
  • see
  • was bound
  • sentenced … to death
  • boldly taught
  • took advantage of that opportunity
  • present
  • kind
  • conversation
  • comment
  • reassuring
  • seek
  • receive
  • react
  • attack
  • despise
  • reject
  • mocking
  • pointing fingers
  • confronted
  • defiling
  • accusers
  • wicked
  • know not
  • enemies
  • curse
  • hate
  • despitefully use
  • persecute
  • severe persecution
  • religious
  • irreligious
  • challenges
  • opposition
  • evil
  • vigorously opposed
  • negative publicity
  • help accomplish
  • lack of interest
  • disparaging
  • hath the spirit of contention

My unscientific list shows the essence of how Hales (and many other Mormons) see themselves and the people who disagree with them. Mormons often see themselves as long suffering martyrs. They tend to perceive any religious disagreement as an attack. Perhaps this results from the circle-the-wagons mentality that protected Mormon pioneers.

I am a critic of the LDS church, yet I hope that those of you who know me can’t recognize me in Hales’s stereotypes. If you can, it is because you’ve seen me on my bad days. I’m not always like that. Some days, my criticisms come from a pure concern for the truth and for the well being of my family, friends, and neighbors. I can disagree and criticize while being civil and, in a word, Christlike.

Hales’s talk represents a failure of communication. It demonstrates that he has failed to reach out to understand the ideas and motives of critics like me. He assumes that behind every criticism is ignorance and hatred. He believes that if we disagree we must not truly understand or that we want to pull down and destroy. He assumes that we fit his stereotypes without taking the time to verify his assumptions.

The sad thing is that he wants the world to listen to him. Why should they be expected to if he doesn’t extend the same courtesy to the world? He must have missed the fifth habit of highly effective people: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.

The common Mormon vision of themselves as martyrs in a war against evil isolates them from seeking to understand their neighbors. This mindset reminds me of North Korea’s view of the United States. North Koreans have been taught that the U.S. is pure evil. Many North Koreans probably believe that they live in the noblest, strongest, most virtuous nation on Earth. The truth is that they live in relative deprivation and ignorance where electricity is a luxury. Their cloistered lives prevent them from learning the truth about themselves and their enemies. If they were allowed to see for themselves, they might not call us paragons of virtue, but they would confess that we aren’t all that evil.

Hales’s talk is the equivalent of a North Korean propaganda poster designed to create a bigoted us-versus-them attitude.

I confess that I am not immune to retreating to the mental ghetto of prejudices and tribalism. So let’s live bigger than that. Let’s listen to each other before we retreat into stereotypes and ignorance. Let’s break free from our personal North Koreas.

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My Sould Delighteth in Plainness

[Sometimes I spend so much time on a blog comment that it starts to resemble a blog post in size. That's what happened when I commented on a post at Main Street Plaza about the website What Women Know which is a response to Julie Beck's controversial speech Mothers Who Know. Did I lose anyone?]

In true Relief Society fashion, these women are calling an ultra-polite bullshit on the trite attitudes many LDS people hold. I’ll translate the politeness for you:

Fathers as well as mothers, men as well as women, are called to nurture.

If a father notices his child bearing the burden of a “dirty” diaper, he damn well better do something about it.

Individuals and relationships flourish when we are able to share not only our strengths but also our mutual imperfections and needs.

Get it through your skulls that June Cleaver and Martha Stewart aren’t real people. They are just characters on bland television shows.

Cleanliness depends upon access to resources and has more to do with priorities than purity of heart.

We’re too busy living our lives to care that there are dirty dishes in the sink and semi-naked children eating off the floor when the visiting teachers come over for a surprise visit.

Housework is something that grownups do and that children learn by example and instruction.

Being born female isn’t a sentence of lifelong domestic slavery, so you better get off your butt and do some dishes.

We reverence the responsibility to choose how, when, and whether we become parents.

Until the Brethren or the Relief Society start paying our bills or providing free, high-quality child care, they better back off with the baby-making talk.

Effective parenting is a learned behavior, and, as parents, we learn and grow with each child.

No one is perfect from the day the baby drops, and we won’t accept your guilt trip when our child decides to leave this church and its meddlesome culture.

The choice to have children does not rule out other avenues of influence and power.

Make with the priesthood for women already.

When it comes to employment, most women prefer the luxury of choice to the limitations of necessity.

Stop firing pregnant or divorced CES employees.

We work because we want to; because we need to; and because we have no other choice.

Having a lot of money doesn’t buy happiness, but having some money certainly does. If that means that a woman needs to work to support the baker’s dozen of buns that have left her oven because you told her to multiply and replenish the earth, then a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do.

We distrust separate-but-equal rhetoric; anyone who is regularly reminded that she is “equally important” is probably not. Partnership is illusory without equal decision-making power.

Were you sleeping during history class? Separate is inherently unequal.

We have discovered that healthy relationships are equitable relationships.

No, I will not follow the law of my husband.

We claim the life-affirming powers of spirit and wisdom, and reject the glorification of violence in all its forms.

Has anyone noticed that the scriptures are replete with the glorification of violence? (e.g. headless corpses gasping their last breaths, severed arms, prophets cursing children to be torn apart by bears, stoning disobedient children, the wholesale slaughter of every man, woman, and child (born and unborn) on Earth,…) I plan to skip over the stupid parts of the scriptures during FHE.

Our roles as mothers, sisters, daughters, partners, and friends are just a few of the many parts we will play in the course of our lives.

Stop try to make me a one-dimensional character.

This seems to be an iron-fisted manifesto for Mormon women in a velvet glove of diplomacy.

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I know that I know that I know that I…

Something about his voice made me tune in. It was a cross between a kindergarten teacher reading storybooks and the voice-over guy who does almost all of the movie trailer narrations. The effect was simultaneously overly dramatic and condescendingly disingenuous. He sounded conscious of his own profundity. His tone grated on my nerves, but it made me listen to his General Conference talk about personal testimony, the only talk that I payed much attention to all weekend.

“If you want to know that you know that you know, a price must be paid.… I know what I know, and my witness is true.”

What does that even mean? What price do I have to pay if I want to know that I know that I know that I know? Can I get by with less if I just want to know that I know?

All joking aside, I can only make sense of what Douglas Callister said if what he means is that he is really, really, really confident that what he believes is true. That isn’t what he said, however. He said that his witness is true in some absolute, unmistakable way. “You can trust in me,” he seemed to say.

In fairness, he also taught that the only witness which counts in the end is our own, but his tone seemed to imply that we could rely on his beliefs until we knew for ourselves, no need to doubt.

I think most people will agree that we human beings are limited. We can’t know everything. Our knowing is confined to some subset of everything.

I would go further to say that we can’t know anything with absolute certainty. We rely on the trustworthiness of our own minds. To know anything absolutely, our minds must be in perfect working order with all the facts available to it. Here, we run into a bootstrapping problem: how can we know that our minds are in perfect working order? It is nonsensical to think that we can use our minds to judge their own fitness. If a mind is unfit, then it could erroneously judge itself fit because of its unfitness.

It is tempting to wonder whether God could intervene here making it possible for us to know something with absolute certainty. I can’t imagine what form that intervention would take. We would still be forced to wonder how we could be sure that our impression that God gave us perfect knowledge is true? How do we know that we know? Answering that by “prayer and fasting” we can know that we know seems ignorant of the problem at hand.

I can’t see any way to escape this trap. The honest must admit to themselves that they will never know something with absolute certainty. There must always be doubt, if we are honest. We may be very confident in our beliefs, but that doesn’t make them true. In other words we can say that we believe that we know, but anyone who says that they know that they know isn’t being honest with themselves (or the church).

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You Will Respect My Authoritay!

Bishop Abbott engulfed my youngest daughter and I in a huge bear hug. He saw me at a wedding reception that I attended last weekend and came over to me to shake my hand (or so I believed before being mashed in a fierce man-hug). He had served as my bishop when I was attending the University Ward. He’s a very large guy and has the kind of disposition which when put together are always described as “being a big teddy bear”. He had heard through the grapevine about my recent change of heart regarding God and the Mormon church. He assured me that he continued to love me. He said that I couldn’t lie to myself about where I’m at, but that he hoped that I would find my way back into the faith. He also took this chance to bear his testimony regarding the truthfulness of Mormonism.

I don’t write about this to make him the object of ridicule. I truly appreciate when people take the time to express their continued concern for me and transcend the temptation to tribalism when someone votes themself off the island.

My early relationship with my father wasn’t as close as either one of us would have preferred. That has changed over time, but I was a momma’s boy and for various reasons never gave my father much respect once I reached a certain young age. Consequently, I think, I’ve spent a lot of time seeking approval from male authority figures whom I could respect. My opinions were easily changed when an authority figure expressed disapproval of them. I often felt cowed and anxious to please when in their presence.

This seems to have changed as I publicly admitted my doubts.

I spent my first General Conference as a publicly known disbeliever tuning in and out as my wife watched on broadcast television. I had on my critical thinking cap unashamedly for the first time. What I heard was a mixture of good and bad. It is sometimes tempting to assign malicious intent to the General Authorities, but I think they are sincerely trying to do what they think is right. Religion can regrettably justify many unsavory actions in the sincere believer.

Each General Conference as a believer, I had basked in the warm glow of hearing my beliefs echoed back to me. It felt good to have my worldview confirmed to me by wise old men. Hearing the old familiar rhythms, I now felt the desire to retreat back to that comfortable place where I enjoyed certainty and a sense of community.

I listened to Elder Marlin K. Jensen’s talk on remembering. He was serving as mission president of the NYRM when I first arrived in the mission field. All the missionaries that I knew loved him. I yearned for his approval, though I think I never really got it. I think some of us would have fallen on our swords if he had asked it. He gave me sage advice as he left the mission that has changed my life. I have great respect for this sincere man who serves in the leading councils of the Church.

Listening to his talk was a bittersweet moment. I saw and heard a man whom I love and respect, but some of the things that he said jarred against my understanding of the world. This will seem arrogant, but I felt like I had surpassed him in some small way. It’s sad to lose a hero.

There was a time when I would have taken to heart the advice of these men in my life on the weight of their authority. I don’t feel the same need for their approval any more. I have claimed sovereignty over my own life and beliefs.

The King is dead! Long live the King!

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