Thursday, February 24, 2011

For a Mess of Pottage

I've gone back and forth about whether to write on Dallin Oaks' speech to an audience at Chapman University School of Law. I'm a bit late, but I've decided to enter the fray. Many others have written excellent posts responding to Oaks and have corrected the record in the wake of a staggering number of misrepresentations in that speech. They have my thanks, as do many of those who commented. In particular, my friend Rob has written an outstanding series of posts. I recommend all eight posts in that series; start with number one. My comment to Rob's last post is what finally tipped the scales in favor of publishing my own post.
It seems that Oaks' once sound legal mind has been compromised in a quest to joust political windmills. In all sincerity, I feel very sad to witness this. This is not a flippant ad hominem attack. Here is a man who deserves credit for a very distinguished and multifaceted legal career. He has been a lawyer, a clerk to a U.S. Supreme Court justice, a law professor, interim dean of a law school, a Utah Supreme Court justice, and was once on the short list of possible U.S. Supreme Court nominees. Given his background, we should have high expectations regarding his understanding of the law and his ability to present cogent arguments supported by facts. Of course, we all fall short sometimes. Heaven knows, I do. But Oaks' speech on February 4, 2011 is a dive into an abyss. Why do I say that? Because
Judge Judy hears better evidence on her TV show than we heard in Oaks' speech. Higher sophistication in the grammar of the speaker does not enhance the truthfulness or weight of the content. Unless you count smoke and mirrors. If Oaks read the cases he cited in his speech, he knowingly misrepresented the facts. We mere mortals call that dishonesty. If he didn't read the cases and instead relied on the summaries produced by groups like Focus on the Family or the Family Research Council regarding the examples he gives in his speech (or relied on summaries from poorly trained or untrained assistants) Oaks should have known that such information was unreliable and required confirmation, especially given his years of experience as a lawyer and judge who I presume has at least some understanding of the concepts of constructive knowledge, credibility and candor. To rely on dubious sources and pass their information along is also a form of dishonesty.
Let's face it, if someone without legal training had given that speech, we might be inclined to give him or her a pass. Oaks doesn't get a pass.
This isn't about a difference of opinion, legal perspective or political philosophy. Reasonable people can honestly disagree about the role of religion in society, the jurisprudence of the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of the Constitution, and the way in which we balance competing legal interests and rights. This is about truth and fairness---of which there was precious little in Dallin Oaks' speech. 
Even the most casual reader of this blog will pick up on the fact that my worldview is dramatically different than that of Dallin H. Oaks. Different strokes for different folks. Diversity of views and opinions make this country great. Misrepresenting facts and fear mongering do not. And self-serving speechification cannot substitute for open and forthright dialogue. 
Oaks' speech is yet another pitiful example of what seems to be a willful failure to use basic logic and sound reasoning. To be sure, his speech scratched the itching ears of many and stoked the fires in the bellies of self-appointed culture warriors. There's little doubt that it made others' ears bleed. Everyone is going to have a different reaction. Fine. But we're not talking about Glenn Beck or Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh---or Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Oaks is in the upper echelon of leadership in a worldwide church.
So I ask, is this the proper role for a man called to be a special witness of Jesus Christ? If the focus of his duty is to protect the interests of the church as an institution and preserve its corporate brand, he has played his role well. But if the purpose of his ministry as an apostle is to lift up the hands that hang down, strengthen the feeble knees and ponder the questions that begin with "When saw we thee an hungered," how does this speech advance those pursuits?
The tragic conclusion to draw is that Dallin Oaks has abandoned his training and experience in favor of reckless pontification and undisciplined punditry. We should all be sad, and a little angry, that he has sold his credibility, both as a jurist and as a minister, for a mess of tasteless political pottage.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Expecto Patronum (or, Gossip Really Sucks!)

My friend Invictus Pilgrim recently posted about his experience of dealing with the fallout from the actions of a gossipy member of his ward. He posed the question of what prompts people to act like Dementors, feeding off the challenges of others. I posted a comment which is the genesis of this post. (Full disclosure: I'm a hopeless Harry Potter fan. I see many analogies to life in the compelling stories J.K. Rowling has given us in her series of books. And for those of you who haven't read the series, Dementors are the ominous creatures who literally suck the happiness out of people in the wizard world.)

Gossip, emotional callousness and failure to respect appropriate boundaries are not unique to Mormons. But too many Mormons are exquisitely expert at these things. Being blind to the beam in their eye obstructing clear vision of the wholeness of a person, and being tragically unwilling to confront their own personal challenges, many "saints, who are or can be called saints" who have thrust themselves into prominence in their local ward or branch, on the bloggernacle or in the savor-lost realms of headquarters in Salt Lake City swoop in to feast on the trials (or what they perceive to be trials) of others. Rather than find nourishment in the difficult path of Christian discipleship, which requires self-awareness and introspection, these latter-day Dementors relentlessly scavenge on the plight of others. The pervasiveness of this in Mormon culture and the inability (or unwillingness) of local and general leaders to put a stop to it is a primary factor that pushes many people out of the church. Thus, large numbers of wonderful people who contribute so much often leave the church or stop participating in church not because they are offended, but because the outrageous and un-Christian personal conduct of "respectable" members of the church are so offensive and lacking in respect that to remain a part of the church would be untenable emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.

Unfortunately, there will always be Dementors feeding on what they perceive to be the trials of others---both in and out of the church. That Dementors are tolerated in the church at all is an indictment against it. Sadly, those Dementors have made what could be a wonderful church into an Azkaban-like fortress of despair and darkness disguised on the exterior as a gleaming city on a hill.

The church can, and should do better. The church as an institution knows how to do better. Individual members know how to do better. Thank goodness for the many Mormons who aren't just "active members" but who are earnestly practicing the best aspects of their faith and following Jesus Christ whom they worship and try to emulate. Many of us who have left the church or no longer participate have deep cultural and familial ties to Mormonism. We may be on the outskirts of the kingdom in the eyes of some. We may reject the notion that the kingdom is real. But many of us are still invested at some level. So we hope for the best to shine forth even though much of our experience has confined us to the shadows and we've had to find light elsewhere.

We may never get rid of all the Dementors in our lives. But we don't have to hang around them. And we have some great remedies to help when they descend on us. My advice to us all: Keep practicing the Patronus charm, and remember that chocolate always makes a person feel better after a Dementor attack.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Fly Paper for the Soul

One of the more poignant aspects of reframing what my Mormon heritage means to me has been coming to terms with the fact that I don't truly have a place at the table of mainstream Mormonism as my complete self. There's no going back to being the limited version of myself. There's no going back to conforming to the narrow range of acceptability in modern Mormondom. I just have to find my way forward.

I know how to wear the constricting, suffocating mask of the good Mormon boy, take my proffered seat at the table and mind my manners. But I hate it. I'm serious. I really hate it. Most people would describe me as a polite person. But it's really difficult for me to endure the mind-numbing conversation at the table of conventional Mormonism. If I don't wear the aforementioned mask, I'm seen as a mere fly pestering the faithful as they sip their lukewarm herbal tea and eat their cucumber and white bread sandwiches at their genteel Victorian picnic. Many of the guardians of that bucolic setting swat at me like a fly because they fail (or refuse) to see me for what I am:  a real-life person hoping to contribute something to the big potluck, even though it may be seasoned differently than others' offerings.

A lot of us are in this position. If we can make it through the repellant that's sprayed to ward off the intellectuals, the feminists and the homos, we're shooed away from the table. Some of us quickly go find another place to sup with more welcoming company (who are often more fun anyway). Some of us end up landing at the table, only to get stuck on the fly paper we thought was shiny varnish---at least for a while. Most of us get unstuck eventually. But even though we may come to realize that it was fly paper for our souls, the pain of exclusion and vilification doesn't fade quickly. And for someone like me who used to be in church leadership, it's even more complicated. I hope I never did anything that could be taken as shooing people away, or directing them to the fly paper.

In modern Mormon culture, a major aspect of this spiritual/emotional fly paper is the requirement that every experience in life be affixed to a narrow interpretation of the scripture "be still and know that I am God." (For some of the more authoritarian-minded leaders in the LDS church, the implication is "be still and know that I speak for God, whether by His own voice or mine it is the same, so follow, follow, follow, lest thou be smitten and cast out, yadda, yadda, yadda.") Like everyone else, I need to be still sometimes. But life is mostly about movement. I thrive more in the dynamic rather than the static. I like the process of working through the question more than arriving at the answer. Quiet reflection is a vital part of human existence and usually teases out the meaning of all the vivacious movement. It's just that I prefer not to live my life as a potted plant waiting for water.

Early Mormonism was vibrant, energetic, and on the move---both figuratively and literally. The early church couldn't stay in one place very long. Despite its failings, and those of its early leaders, the church used to be more elastic, adaptable and inclusive. Once the church became rooted in the "Valley of the Everlasting Hills," the institutional imperative sucked the life out of individual spirituality. It became rigid, stony and exclusionary. Power has been, and continues to be, systematically consolidated. Spiritual discovery has been replaced with spiritual compliance. The LDS church may be a racially and linguistically diverse global institution, but it is culturally monolithic and organizationally hierarchical, with all things great and small emanating from Temple Square. In almost every way, the City of the Great Salt Lake has become the source of "salt of the earth," having replaced the savory collection of individual experiences and epiphanies. Rather than exploring the depths of human spirituality, the modern church merely floats on the surface, barely moving at all. Swimming, struggling against the resistance of the water in that salty lake-church, is not encouraged. Instead, floating with the current is rewarded.

Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if exploring spiritual depths and bringing genuine and interesting nourishment to the "table of the Lord" were rewarded in modern Mormonism? It seems to me that doing so would be a pure expression of acting with our "free agency." The obsession with compliance, superficiality and definitive answers may be good cultural glue, but it keeps us stuck when it comes to spiritual and emotional growth. Because of this, many of us forge our path of free will independent of the church and Mormon culture.

I freely and quickly acknowledge the many good things I gained from my experiences in the LDS church. But it has come at a high, and sticky, price. I respect the fact that the church, its doctrines, its policies (is there a real distinction anymore?) and the general culture of Mormonism work for some people. It gives them a foundation and a structure. For me, it became a prison. It became fly paper for my soul.

Nearly all Mormon leaders at all levels focus on adherence to "gospel principles" when what they really mean is "church standards of conduct." As important as basic rules of conduct are, fulfillment comes from something deeper. A "gospel" (as in teachings that challenge the status quo and attempt to elevate the mind and spirit) isn't about conduct. A "gospel" deals with the innermost parts of the human soul as well as the interactions between human beings without being obsessed with conduct for its own sake. Having been immersed in Mormon culture for most of my life, I testify that the gospel gets plenty of lip service. Keeping up appearances wins every day, and twice on Sunday. Ostensibly, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the core of Mormonism. In reality, the core of Mormonism is to "Let your light so shine that men might see your good works...," for the glory of the church.

Modern, true-believing, stalwart, active, temple-worthy Mormonism is, most commonly, not so firmly rooted in the full gospel of Christ as it is stuck in a mire of muddy doctrine, sappy superficiality, syrupy politeness and sticky self-absorption. From afar, the modern church looks as slick and polished as the PR/correlation apparatus that created it. Up close, it's a bowl of pretty wax fruit surrounded by fly paper. It's not all awful. There's still some good underneath. Some people are able to dig in and find it. If the church works for some people, that's fine. It doesn't work for me. 

I'm far from being enlightened, but I'm no longer stuck. And I'm learning to use my most assuredly non-insect wings.