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What Kind of Mormon am I?

When David Bowie died I was in a state of disbelief and shock for days. I knew he was just a rock star—a retired rock start at that who had found peace in being a (very rich) dad doting on his daughter. Nonetheless, Bowie had been my nearly constant companion for over 30 years. My decision to skip his Pittsburgh concert and got o Japan instead has been my persona example that choices open and close doors. As the years went on I believed (hoped) that there was always a chance I could actually see Bowie in concert, even as I knew that chance got slimmer and slimmer each year. When he died, the solidity of “never” hit me hard. I lamented with co-workers, old friends texted me with condolences and shared memories. Bowie’s death was a finality and a visceral loss.

By contrast when our trio of Mormon apostles died, I had a much different reaction. With Packer I was relieved that Thomas Monson had outlived him, thus saving me (us) from having his teachings “canonized.” With the three as a whole their deaths brought me nose sense of loss but rather a fear of whom would be called to replace them.

The contrast of my reaction to Bowie’s death versus the apostles’ deaths has led me to wonder (still unanswered), “What kind of Mormon am I?”

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The Fullness of Life is in the Hazards of Life

For about the last four months Wendy and I have been going out to the west desert with our fat bikes—usually my Surly Moonlander with its 5″ wide tires and Wendy’s Surly Pugsley with its 4″ wide tires—and dogs. We’ve gone to multiple places, but have settled down on going to the Grassy Mountains overlooking the Great Salt Lake Salt Flats and in the far distance the Deep Creek Mountains and the Pilot Mountains. We try to wear the dogs out early so that the placidly trot along our bikes, well aware that we are the only source of water that they have.

For the most part, the dogs run along with us, occasionally  chasing rabbits or kangaroo mice. But a week ago when Wendy, Jeremiah, and I were in the desert with the dogs things went differently. We were were well equipped with water and head lights and were enjoying the ride despite having arrived too late to see the sunset. About twenty minutes into the ride, Jeremiah decided it was time to turn around and so we decided that he and Wendy would ride back to the car and I would keep riding north with the dogs towards the mountain pass.

Just a few minutes after Wendy and Jeremiah turned around, our dogs spotted a pronghorn and without a moments hesitation started on the chase. I didn’t think anything of this. After all for the past months the dogs had chased rabbits, mice, cattle—even a badger—but had always quickly returned. After a few minutes Helios, the slower of the two dogs, returned and the two of us waited for Argos’ return. But as the waiting extended from minutes to tens of minutes, I started to get nervous. I could see Wendy and Jeremiah’s lights off to the south and I wondered if Argos ended up chasing after them. I tried calling them, but couldn’t get a signal. I tried texting, but the text wouldn’t go through, even after multiple tries. I decided to turn back to the car, hoping that I would find Argos cheerfully running along with them. As I rode, I kept calling, hoping that some combination of our positions would result in a sufficient signal connection.

It was 15 minutes after my first attempt to call her before I was actually able to connect with Wendy.

“Wendy, is Argos with you?” I asked urgently as I continued to ride up hill towards the car, the wind howling around me.

“No. Where is he?”

“He took off after a pronghorn about twenty-five minutes ago. I thought he might have followed your lights.”

“Oh boy. Jeremiah’s going to be very upset.”

Wendy and I made a plan. They would drive along the rode and I would go off road, following the path I presume Argos took.

I hollered for Helios to follow me and turned around.

I had marked on my GPS about where Argos had started the chase, so when we were about there I again hollered for Helios to follow me and I rode up the sand embankment and started riding east towards the mountain. I was hollering and Helios was sniffing for Argos. Although there was nothing in the terrain my Moonlander couldn’t handle, the riding was relatively slow and bumpy. I eventually spotted the pronghorn that I presume Argos had been chasing, there was no sign of our dog around. For about two hours I rode around the desert hollering for Argos, scanning my headlight around the desert hoping to catch the red reflection of his eyes or or to serve as a beacon for him.

Not too long into my search, my mind started racing with questions. How long should we stay out here? Should we go home and came back early in the morning with water, food, and sun screen? Should we replace Argos or become a one dog family? What am I going to tell our kids? Jeremiah was there and was upset. How would I comfort him. Clare would be pissed when she found out. What do I say to her? To these last two questions I had an almost immediate answer.

A little over sixteen years early, the first Sunday we had attended the Garden Heights Ward, I had heard Kent Linebaugh quote Edith Hamilton describing the philosophy of the Greek dramatist Aeschylus: “Men [and women] were not meant for safe harbors; the fullness of life is in the hazards of life.” This saying had become an almost daily mantra to me.

I would recite it to myself when our daughter Clare would compete on the balance beam in gymnastics—a terrifying event for a parent to watch. I said it to myself when I dropped our oldest son off for a trip to Europe when he was thirteen and when our youngest son started riding bikes and hiking in the rattlesnake filled canyons of San Diego. And I knew that it described our dogs here in the desert.

This running wild in the desert with us was the fullness of life for our dogs. Their excitement becomes almost uncontrollable as we drive into the desert, and when we are home packing our bikes onto our car, the leap around in excited anticipation. If we had completely kept Argos from the hazards of the desert, he would not have been having a fullness of life.

Now engaging in the hazards of life does not mean you’re reckless or careless. When Clare was on the balance beam, the floor was covered with pads and a trained coach was there to spot her. When Alec went to Europe he was with a group that had been taking students to Europe for over fifty years, and when Jeremiah started biking and hiking in San Diego he wore a helmet, went with friends and had a cell phone. With our dogs we had trained them during the day, had taught them to stay close to us with water and treats. Now that we’ve had more experience, the dogs now wear flashing LED collars.

The fullness of life is in the hazards of life. This is true of our dogs, our selves, and I would surmise our Church. Our stake is currently engaging in a variety of initiatives which our in some ways daring, certainly capable of failing. The Avenues Athletic Association and the merging of youth programs across wards are certainly programs that could fail, but to not attempt them to keep with our status quo, to live safely within the programs that  we are all familiar with is to deny ourselves the opportunity of the fullness of neighborhood and religious life. More generally, if Church always feels safe and comfortable, I wonder if we are truly experiencing the fullness of religion.

We have a friend in Pittsburgh who has probably always considered himself to be a marginal Mormon, perhaps a black sheep in the fold. Some six years ago we asked him to be a Sunday school teacher. For years he was a phenomenal teacher for many but not all ward members. I believe his years as a Sunday school teacher made him feel more a part of the Church than he did previously. Unfortunately, when there was a bishopric change, zealous people interested in “cleansing” the Sunday School program released Lars over the pulpit without even talking to him first. (It was, I believe, part of a larger purge.) Now a friend tells me, Lars does not attend Church and I have to ask, “What was accomplished?”

I have no doubt that there is something hazardous about having Lars as a Sunday school teacher, just as there is something hazardous about having me as a high priest group instructor, but without engaging in the hazards of life we have no hope of experiencing the fullness of life. Our church experience runs the risk—oh so often realized—of being bland and meaningless without our willingness to face hazards. Surely sometimes our Church needs to be a safe harbor sometimes, but if we never venture out of our religious harbor I doubt we are truly being religious.

The Church is adept at urging us on to the hazards of missionary work. However, we are not always so attuned to the internal hazards of our religion. Sometimes the hazards of life we need to face our nothing more than the discomfort of welcoming the black sheep back into the fold, worshiping in the presence of the smell of alcohol or more flesh than we are accustomed to.

Sometimes the hazards of our religion require us to expose our true beliefs to our Mormon Sunday school class mate. Sometimes the hazards of our religion require us to agitate for change, to envision what the Church could be and act towards that, even if it requires adopting Jude as our patron saint. Sometimes the hazards of our religion require us to persevere  through narrow minded and bigoted leaders and teachers who prefer the safety of the life-less harbor to the life-full hazards of the open sea.

Our dogs are anxious to get back to the desert. We’ve taken them back once since our ordeal with Argos. Their LED collars greatly aid their visibility at night and it is not quite so hazardous to venture out in the dark as it was before. But I know hazards remain, whether they be badgers, rattlesnakes or something not yet imagined. Yet when I’ll see them so anxious to jump from our car that they can hardly contain themselves, I’ll be reassured that I’m helping them to achieve the fullness of their lives.

 

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Rockford Files and the South Cottonwood 11th Ward

 Repost from March 27, 2008 (RIP James Garner)

jim

 

Some time after we bought out HDTV I discovered RTN, the Pittsburgh Retro channel. There have been a lot of discoveries that I’ve made. For instance, I had no idea that Michael Douglas was in Streets of San Francisco. Also Magnum P.I. has its share of bad acting. If I didn’t have to work, I think that I would like to watch Mission Impossible. My main RTN viewing is The Rockford Files. I have vague memories of watching this show as a child, and at some later stage I must have seen a fair number of reruns because all the characters are pleasantly familiar. I had, however, forgotten how much Jim Rockford smoked.

My kids can’t figure out my interest in the show. This works to my advantage for relaxing in the evening because they have no interest in staying up late to watch it with me. Part of my fascination is that Jim is such an enjoyable character. He’s kind of grumpy, kind of tough, kind of suave, but, in classic Greek fashion, none of these are in excess. For example, while Jim can take and give a punch like nobody else (on TV), he isn’t going to play the martyr for his job; he’s quick to throw the hands up and cough up the information when someone pulls a gun on him.

But last night lying in bed contemplating the writings of (Second) Isaiah in my Anchor Bible volume I had an epiphany about The Rockford Files: it isn’t pleasant memories of watching this show, but that this show actually reminds me of my childhood. The police lieutenant’s suit looks just like the suits men wore to church. The plaid jackets and brown pants remind me of dad at work.

Except for the smoking and the gold necklaces, Jim Rockford is my new hero, displacing Sir Richard Burton. Jim seems easier to emulate. I’ll never learn 20 odd languages, and in the current state of the world I have no interest in sneaking myself into Mecca. But fishtailing a Pontiac Firebird in a vacant lot, or pretending to be an insurance adjuster, that I can dream of.jim_and_rocky2

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Pursuit of the Ineffable: In Memory of Charlie Haden

“That cannot be expressed or described in language; too great for words; transcending expression; unspeakable, unutterable, inexpressible.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

It was a hot night in May and I was driving through the streets of Miami in the convertible Chrysler Sebring we had rented for our family vacation. The car was terrible—small, uncomfortable, with terrible visibility for the drive. But it was fund to be driving with roof down, feeling the breeze, seeing the art deco buildings, and listening to the babble of the night clubs, roaring car engines, and squealing tires blending with the music playing on the car radio. We were listening to a jazz radio station I had found by scanning the lower FM frequencies. The music had been but background sounds until the most beautiful song came on. Suddenly I had shut out all the other city sounds and was drawn into the radio. This was the most beautiful song I had heard on the radio. When the song ended I stayed focused on the radio, waiting for the DJ to tell me what I had just heard. The information didn’t come immediately; many songs rolled over the airways—I counted each one. I carefully counted back with the DJ until my number coincided with his naming Charlie Haden as the musician responsible for the splendid song.

I was somewhat familiar with Haden. I had already purchased the serene collaboration with Pat Metheny,  Beyond the Missouri Sky: Short Stories. Not only had I purchased the album I had absorbed it. The album became my Balm of Gilead, displacing Monteverdi’s Vespers as the solace that would let my mind let go of its frantic concerns each night. I become obsessed, in a way, with finding that song. I purchased Land of the Sun and then the more likely Nocturnes. Neither of these albums had the song, and with those failures I moved on, although with the creation of Spotify and Google Play, I’ve been able to renew my hunt at much lower cost. I’m not sure if the song I heard in Miami was actually Charlie Haden. In that pre-Shazam era, there is an inescapable uncertainty in identifying songs on the radio. After all, with a long play list, the distribution of my counting error is not negligible. Now, some 10 years later, I’m not sure I would even recognize a song as being that song. In any case, that night in Miami launched one of my many pursuits of the ineffable: I didn’t want to find that song as much as I wanted to recreate the mood, the feeling of that night.

The philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch has described the ineffable as follows:

The ineffable…cannot be explained because there are infinite and interminable things to be said of it: such is the mystery of God, whose depths cannot be sounded, the inexhaustible mystery of love, both Eros and caritas, the poetic mystery par excellence. (Music and the Ineffable, p. 72)

In music Jankélévitch finds an art form particularly given to the ineffable:

Thus music, at an extreme, develops an inexpressible perfume, the scent of all the memories that disturb and age a soul slowly suffused by knowledge of the past-ness of its own past.  (Music and the Ineffable, p. 96)

I experience the inexpressible perfume of music when I listen to David Bowie, evoking a blend of mostly inarticulate memories stretching back to when I was fourteen and first heard Heroes/Helden (German version of Heroes) on KRCL. In different ways X, The English Beat, Count Basie, and Beethoven all remind me of my past-ness, evoking different blends of anger, joy, and awe.

Moving back to Utah I have rediscovered how Utah’s landscape has been infused into my self, and how music-like it can call forth ineffable memories. The varieties of landscape—desert, mountains, lakes, and red rocks—like my play lists with Charlie Haden and Joe Strummer resurrect different ghosts—partial ephemeral—of my past selfs.

Last Friday evening I hiked up to Red Pine Lake in Little Cottonwood Canyon. With my iPhone I took the panoramic photograph below.  The photograph hints at the rich colors, lush life and grand alpine structures surround the lake. It is beautiful, and I’m glad I now have the photograph to recall the hike. But the photograph is pale substitute for the experience of being at the lake, where there is more than the richer colors that the camera doesn’t capture: the feel of the breeze, the fragrance of the flowers and pines, and the cumulative memories at the lake.

The first time I hiked up to Red Pine Lake  in Little Cottonwood Canyon I was eighteen and recovering from years of poor health. Now in good health, I reveled in proving my physical vitality: I rode my bike from my Cottonwood home to a friend’s father’s house in Logan. I skied the (nearest) steepest slopes at Snowbird. And when I hiked to Red Pine Lake I ran. The hike was intended to be a physical exertion, but what it became was an aesthetic experience. The lake is above 9000 feet, nearly a full mile higher than the Salt Lake Valley. At that altitude the sky was a deep blue, around the lake were ferns, wildflowers, evergreens and scree. The north face of the mountains were still covered with snow that had calfed a Matterhorn-shaped iceberg that serenely floated in the partially frozen lake, all to shortly disappear with the progress of summer. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t have a camera with me on that initial hike.

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When Wendy and I were first in graduate school we would often drive out to the west desert of Utah. The drive kept our son entertained while Wendy and I studied our physiology. One night we drove out farther than usual. When we passed the Grassy and Cedar Mountains a surreal scene opened before us as the blues, violets, reds, pinks, and oranges of the sunset reflected perfectly, as if the whole ground was a polished mirror. With my 35 mm camera I snapped pictures of this magnificent moment. When the film was developed the pictures came out OK, but nothing close to capturing the reality of that night.

The desert became a pilgrimage for me. Years later when we lived in Pittsburgh, I would drive out to the desert with my parents when I was visiting Utah. Usually we would drive to a rest stop at the edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert and watch the sunset. Sometimes storms kept us from seeing what I sought, but usually we would be treated to an awe inspiring sight as the sun set the desert on fire with golds and reds I never saw in Pittsburgh. I would watch as 360 degrees of mountains caught and threw back the dying light. Once I partially caught the evolving sunset, serially photographing the Silver Island Mountains as they transformed from yellow to purple, framed against the dark silhouettes of the Pilot Range. In addition to the photographs, I’ve tried painting the sunsets or writing imagist poetry or even writing a blog entry, but all these efforts have convinced me that these desert sunsets cannot be captured, even though I keep trying.

Technology transforms time and by transforming time transforms us. What was once left to blend into our memories, we now capture, albeit it partially, with words or sketches or photographs or videos. I wonder what the implications of  I wonder what the implications of these transformations are. Do we run the risk of mistaking the part for the whole? Do we rob our souls of the richness of our blended memories? Do we rob ourselves of our full experiences by our obsessions with capturing the moment?

Which brings me back to music. As an art form, music seems singular in its ability to to remind us that life is flux it is change. When it is paused, it disappears. Music can only be appreciated by letting it pass and then disappear. Like sunsets or icebergs, life exists and passes into the next moment, never to be re-experienced  again. Can music with its inevitable ineffable transience be the key artistic form to teach us to live life rather than to miss it by trying to memorialize it?

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Mormon Discipleship

Twenty-one years ago when the “September Six” Church disciplinary actions occurred, I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, vaguely aware of what was happening and very upset by it. Madison was a heady LDS time for me. We had intelligent and provocative friends in our ward, the Wisconsin State Historical Library had a great collection of Mormon books that I devoured, and Wendy was teaching institute. Madison provided a rejuvenation of my Church commitment. My mission, which had taught me to love humanity, as my prophet Camus would write, had also instilled in me a deep cynicism towards Church leadership. My singles ward bishopric had not helped my cynicism nor did my elders quorum president after I was married (he accused me of “throwing stones” at other people’s testimonies). The Church’s statement against participating in symposia exacerbated it. Seemingly, my only medications for this growing cynicism were the sermons of Hugh B. Brown and B. H. Roberts—and the marvelous Mormon histories I was reading at the time.

When I faithfully went to the October 1993 General Priesthood Session, my testimony was faltering from my chronic cumulative experiences coupled with the acute trauma of having read Lavina Fielding Anderson’s Dialogue piece “The LDS Intellectual Community and Church Leadership: A Contemporary Chronology.” Elder Faust’s talk pushed me to the brink. With what I took to be audacious arrogance of his own, Elder Faust derided those who disagreed with the brethren:

There is a certain arrogance in thinking that any of us may be more spiritually intelligent, more learned, or more righteous than the Councils called to preside over us. Those Councils are more in tune with the Lord than any individual persons they preside over, and the individual members of the Councils are generally guided by those Councils. (Elder James E. Faust, October 1993 General Conference)

I did not attend General Priesthood for years, nor did I read Faust (although later I found much in him that I liked). After conference late at night while my wife and infant son slept, I went to the living room of our student apartment, knelt at our green hand-me-down couch and followed Hugh Nibley’s advice Eugene England had repeated in his essay “On Spectral Evidence:”

Be the importunate widow and complain. Itemize your griefs, your doctrinal objections, your personal tastes. Lay them out in full detail and get it out of your system…With this understanding—you will do all this before the only Person qualified to judge either you or your tormentors.

My prayer resulted in one of the most concrete spiritual experiences of my life. My prayer did not give me a conviction of the rightness of the Church’s actions. Rather it was a blessing of peace and patience. A patience that has largely paid me off. But my patience has frequently been tested, especially when my friends and family get drawn into the periodic soap operas in the Church.

Two related ideas have helped keep me sane and in the Church over the years. First, Mormon history convinces me that, in general, the Church progresses—with fits and starts and backward drifts, admittedly—towards greater insight. Worked up authorities, while they may gain ground in the short run, usually lose in the long run. Almost universally, all of our panicked responses to evolution or the age of the earth—to pick examples from science—have damped down, and what is said and believed in the Church is much closer to the positions of the scientists (e.g., Henry Eyring) than to the apostles (e.g., Joseph Fielding Smith) who opposed them. Similar examples could be drawn from blacks and the priesthood (big list) and birth control (Lowell Bennion vs. Mark E. Peterson)

Second, is the realization that the Church’s sometimes slow path to realizing its own ideals is not unique and is common to all of culture. Patience is required, as Alfred North Whitehead observed:

Centuries, sometimes thousands of years, have to elapse before thought can capture action. (Adventures of Ideas, p. 55)

While of little comfort to those directly afflicted by the Church’s sometimes misplaced aggression, I am reminded that it is both inevitable (most likely) and certainly not unique.


I have not marched with Ordain Women, although I believe I wore purple to Church on the appropriate supportive Sunday.1 But I think feminist rabble rousers raise important questions that ought to jar us (the Church) out of our non-optimal complacency. I have a hard time, for example, believing that Elder Oaks would have given his April 2014 conference talk absent the alternate voices raising a ruckus.

Similarly I’ve never listened to any “Mormon Stories” podcasts or read any of the posts on the website. Yet I’ve known enough friends of diverse background that have found it valuable that I cannot but feel their pain. It is kind of ironic that Elder Perry encouraged the use the internet to discuss their religion:

We encourage people, young and old, to use the Internet and the social media to reach out and share their religious beliefs. (Elder L. Tom Perry, October 2011 General Conference)

Sharing religious belief necessarily involves sharing your unbelief, explicitly or implicitly. It is almost as if the brethren didn’t expect anything more than people reposting lds.org snippets. “Shar[ing] their religious beliefs” is necessarily a diverse (“their” not “ours” or “my”) process. But the Church and its uncomfortableness with “diversity” is a whole other essay that cannot be completed here.2

Over the years the brethren have ignited their fair share of controversies—the laity have no monopoly here. Sometimes a higher-up reigns them in, sometimes in private, sometimes rather publicly, like when President McKay offered to be a defense witness for Sterling McMurrin at his Church court, disciplinary procedures that had been instigated on the behest of Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee, or when Hugh B. Brown defended the United Nations at BYU after some of Elder Benson’s political activity. Sometimes Church leaders retrench and strike back, unrestrained, at perceived violence with their own particular brand of violence (excommunication). Since the leaders’ violence is much stronger than that available to a few members, just as the state is far more powerful than a few recalcitrants, in my mind it is wise to follow the advice of the Christian anarchist and veteran of the French Resistance, Jacque Ellul, and reject all forms of “violence.” (Of course this paragraph begs for a definition of “violence” and as we have seen the Church does not seem to be strictly bound by statutory definitions, so a leader is free to define any activity as violence.) Additional relevant guidance might be drawn from Jesus who said:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works (emphasis added).

Some people do sit in Moses’ seat, and with that comes ecclesiastical authority to which, for better or worse, we are at their mercy. Decades ago my mission president taught me the truthfulness of Aristotle’s observation: “[I]t is, as a rule, a terrible thing to be at another man’s mercy.” I feel genuine pain for people that are at the mercy of less than optimal ecclesiastical leaders.

How is it best to live conscientiously and authentically in a Church? Surely there is nothing more individual—nothing to which we must be more authentic than our religious selfs—than our religion whether that religion be a theistic or atheistic religion; it is the ultimate expression of what we hold life to mean and to be. Whitehead has given me a religious ideal that I hold to be inescapable:

[I]n some sense or other, justification is the basis of all religion. Your character is developed according to your faith. This is the primary religious truth from which no one can escape. Religion is force of belief cleansing the inward parts. For this reason the primary religious virtue is sincerity, a penetrating sincerity. (Religion in the Making, p. 15).

I would dare say that this ideal is often quite at odds with Mormon life that, in my mind, emphasizes conformity and loyalty over sincerity. For many people I know (including myself) balancing sincerity with conformity is the primary Mormon struggle. For example, under the maxim “silence is assent” can I in good conscience remain silent (implying my consent) when people I agree with are belittled, demonized or excommunicated?

Ought we to be endeavoring to influence the Church? After all, isn’t it a theocracy, we are continually reminded? B. H. Roberts did not see it that way. He called it a theodemocracy emphasizing the role of comment consent in Church governance. In his In Defense of the Faith and the Saints, Elder Roberts quotes at length the philosopher Josiah Royce:

Disciples and partisans, in the world of religious and philosophical opinion, are of two sorts. There are, first, the disciples pure and simple,—people who fall under the spell of a person or a doctrine, and whose whole intellectual life thenceforth consists in their partisanship. They expound, and defend, and ward off foes, and live and die faithful to the one formula. Such disciples may be indispensable at first in helping a new teaching to get a popular hearing, but in the long run they rather hinder than help the wholesome growth of the very ideas that they defend: for great ideas live by growing, and a doctrine that has merely to be preached, over and over, in the same terms, cannot possibly be the whole truth. No man ought to be merely a faithful disciple of any other man. Yes, no man ought to be a mere disciple even of himself. We live spiritually by outliving our formulas, and by thus enriching our sense of their deeper meaning. Now the disciples of the first sort do not live in this larger and more spiritual sense. They repeat. And true life is never mere repetition.

On the other hand, there are disciples of a second sort. They are men who have been attracted to a new doctrine by the fact that it gave expression, in a novel way, to some large and deep interest which had already grown up in themselves, and which had already come, more or less independently, to their own consciousness. They thus bring to the new teaching, from the first, their own personal contribution. The truth that they gain is changed as it enters their souls. The seed that the sower strews upon their fields springs up in their soil, and bears fruit,—thirty, sixty, an hundred fold. They return to their master his own with usury. Such, men are the disciples that it is worth while for a master to have. Disciples of the first sort often become, as Schopenhauer said, mere magnifying mirrors wherein one sees enlarged, all the defects of a doctrine. Disciples of the second sort co-operate in the works of the Spirit; and even if they always remain rather disciples than originators, they help to lead the thought that they accept to a truer expression. They force it beyond its earlier and cruder stages of development.

Roberts then asks if there is room in Mormonism for disciples of the second sort. He forcefully asserts that there not only is room for but a “crying need” for them:

I believe Mormonism affords opportunity for disciples of the second sort; nay, that its crying need is for such disciples. It calls for thoughtful disciples who will not be content with merely repeating some of its truths, but will develop its truths; and enlarge it by that development. Not half—not one-hundredth part—not a thousandth part of that which Joseph Smith revealed to the Church has yet been unfolded, either to the Church or to the world. The work of the expounder has scarcely begun. The Prophet planted by teaching the germ-truths of the great dispensation of the fulness of times. The watering and the weeding is going on, and God is giving the increase, and will give it more abundantly in the future as more intelligent discipleship shall obtain. The disciples of Mormonism, growing discontented with the necessarily primitive methods which have hitherto prevailed in sustaining the doctrine, will yet take profounder and broader views of the great doctrines committed to the Church; and, departing from mere repetition, will cast them in new formulas; co-operating in the works of the Spirit, until “they help to give to the truth received a more forceful expression, and carry it beyond the earlier and cruder stages of its development.”

The orthodox view in the LDS Church tends towards the thought that there are 15 men who have the privilege to expound doctrine. For the rest of us, as Bruce R. McConkie put it, it is our “province to echo what [they] say or to remain silent.” I side with Roberts over McConkie on both doctrinal and practical principles. Doctrinally we are all, in Mormon belief, spirit children of God, having a spark of the divine within us, and, if members of the Church, blessed with the Gift of the Holy Ghost. It is in our nature as eternal intelligences to perceive and analyze the nature of the universe, of existence.

From a practical viewpoint, the more people we have expounding, watering, and weeding, “co-operating in the works of the Spirit,” the more forceful and refined our gospel message will be. Fifteen men whose primary daily activities seem to be ecclesiastical management, cannot be expected to achieve this on their own, or with the help of some quorums of Seventies or even with a large Church bureaucracy. Over-burdened leaders in the past have realized that concentration of power is not the long-term solution, as Moses said to Joshua, “would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29)

Even the authoritarian George Q. Cannon could see the value in this distributed model. He said:

The genius of the Kingdom with which we are associated is to disseminate knowledge through all the ranks of the people and to make of every man a Prophet and every woman a Prophetess. (April 27, 1867, JD 12:46, compiled in Gospel Truths, p. 270)

Recently while watching a university commencement, our twelve-year-old son asked, “Do only millionaires get honorary doctorates?” An obvious challenge is faced by every thoughtful disciple of the second sort: how to be influential? This question should not be viewed as insidious, as it seems to be for Kate Kelly, who has been accused of trying to recruit and sway people to her point of view. For a disciple, testimonies and religious philosophies are not academic games; they are to be in some sense shared, proselytized because they are held by the disciple to be in some way—perhaps only a limited way—true for them and thus true in part. Any statement made in a Relief Society or Sunday School class is an attempt to recruit others to a viewpoint, whether that viewpoint is parallel to the message of the manual, orthogonal, or opposed to it.

When I was a missionary, Mortimer Adler taught me the essence of Aristotle’s Rhetoric: ethos, pathos, and logos.3 In order to be influential, a speaker must proceed in the order of ethos, demonstrating your position as one who ought to be listened to, pathos, getting the listener emotional engaged in the topic, and finally logos, the evidence and logic of your point.

People with alternate viewpoints really don’t struggle much with the pathos or the logos, but the nearly insurmountable obstacle in a hierarchical Church of 15 million is ethos. Why should anyone listen to me (other than my high priest group on the third Sunday of the month)? I do not have an ecclesiastical title (or a position in the Church Education System), or priesthood keys. The position is especially challenging for women who have an even smaller set of titles to appeal to and never have priesthood keys. It cannot be surprising that groups like Ordain Women take a provocative approach: they may not have been influential (we can only judge on the short term) but they have been listened to. (Reading Gregory Prince’s interview with Chieko Okazaki is a good way to see how hard it can be to be listened to.)

A corollary problem is, “Why I should listen?” John Locke wrote: “For every church is orthodox to itself; to others, erroneous or heretical.” Locke’s statement has rung true to me in a variety of secular and religious settings. I expand on Lock to say “For every department chair/division chief/prince/apostle/seventy/stake president/bishop is orthodox to himself.” Orthodox to himself, orthodox to herself. Why do I need to listen to you? Perhaps I’m mixing orthodoxy with completeness too much here. But to listen, other than out of indifferent politeness, one has to think that one incomplete (either through omission or error) in one’s thoughts. And that is a viewpoint hard for most people to hold.

Orthodoxy and completeness, “truth” and “error,” are more variable in the Church than our press releases and pulpit rhetoric implies. I have lived where in one moment I am a favorite of the stake president, and a moment later, when a new stake president is in place, declared anathema and heretical (if not apostate)—all while not changing one whit myself.

This roller coaster of religious life—the bishop’s roulette of spatial and temporal variation that people speak of—is something that I wonder if the brethren experience, considering the relatively slow drift of the top governing councils.4

Institutionally I think we must legitimize the individual voice and move away from the concentration of Mormon voices to priesthood leaders, and simultaneously eliminate the explicit or implicit granting of infallibility to Church leaders. I think the legitimizing the individual, who after all is a child of Diety, which seems to trump any of our earthly or ecclesiastical differences, is part of creating “profounder and broader views of the great doctrines committed to the Church” Roberts spoke of. Thoughts of infallibility stem, I believe, from a certain laziness, and are not a part of the Gospel. During the Reed Smoot hearings, the Church published in the Improvement Era, under the editorial hand of President Joseph F. Smith, a talk by Elder B. H. Roberts that clearly rebutted infallibility in Church leaders:

Now about men being constantly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that all they say and do is an inspiration of God, even the answering of questions.

There is nothing in the doctrines of the Church which makes it necessary to believe that, even of men who are high officials of the Church. When we consider the imperfections of men, their passions and prejudices, that mar the Spirit of God in them, happy is the man who can occasionally ascend to the spiritual heights of inspiration and commune with God! …. [W]e should recognize the fact that we do many things by our own uninspired intelligence for the issues of which we are ourselves responsible. he will help men at need, but I think it improper to assign every word and every act of a man to an inspiration from the Lord. Hence, I think it a reasonable conclusion to say that constant, never-varying inspiration is not a factor in the administration of the affairs of the Church; not even good men, no, not even though they be prophets or other high officials of the Church, are at all times and in all things inspired of God. It is only occasionally, and at need, that God comes to their aid.

That there have been unwise things done in the Church by good men, men susceptible at time to the inspiration of the Spirit of God, we may not question. Many instances in the history of the Church, through three quarters of a century, prove it, and it would be a solecism to say that God was the author of those unwise, not to say positively foolish, things that have been done. For these things men just stand responsible, not God.

It is well nigh as dangerous to claim too much for the inspiration of God, in the affairs of men, as it is to claim too little. By the first, men are led into superstition, and into blasphemously accrediting their own imperfect actions, their blunders, and possibly even their sins, to God; and by the second, they are apt to altogether eliminate the influence of God from human affairs; I pause in doubt as to which conclusion would be the worse. (“The Relation of Inspiration and Revelation to Church Government”)

People talk about the cacophony of Mormon voices in the 21st Century—as if this is a bad thing. It is the natural consequence of our collective and individual fallibilities but also of our diverse religious backgrounds, temperaments, and needs. The cocophony has always been there, even if the sound was muffled. We should see the advantages that the technologies that amplify these discordant voices brings. Recent studies have shown that groups in which all voices are heard and respected tend to make better decisions than groups dominated by particular members, and, incidentally, groups containing women make better decisions than groups consisting only of men.


Once when I was in an admissions meeting for a department at the University of Pittsburgh, a faculty member joked that Aristotle wouldn’t get admitted to our department. When the September Six were excommunicated I found that atmosphere so chilling that I was amazed that in my lifetime (admittedly my infant lifetime) a member of the First Presidency, Hugh B. Brown, had actually said, “We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts.” Twenty years later I am still in awe at the seeming audacity of that statement. Sometimes I wonder whether Hugh B. Brown could be a general authority of our Church forty years after his death. I do not mean to canonize President Brown: he was a man of his time, full of limitations that his most ardent admirers might find problematic now. Yet throughout his twenty years as a General Authority he expressed an advocacy of freedom of thought and expression that I think we would all be benefited to become familiar with. I know he is dead—unfortunately it is unlikely to live to a hundred and thirty in this era—and was never the President of the Church and thus not entitled to have his talks edited and excerpted for our Presidents of the Church manuals (although I would surmise that the vast majority of these manuals do not consist of teachings of men when they were actually presidents of the Church, a wee bit of false advertising). But humor me. A good starting point is President Brown’s 1969 address at BYU (available here), from which I will provide a few of my favorite excerpts:

One of the most important things in the world is freedom of the mind; from this all other freedoms spring. Such freedom is necessarily dangerous, for one cannot think right without running the risk of thinking wrong, but generally more thinking is the antidote for the evils that spring from wrong thinking. More thinking is required, and we call upon you students to exercise your God-given right to think through on every proposition that is submitted to you and be unafraid to express your opinions, with proper respect for those to whom you talk and proper acknowledgment of your own shortcomings.

You young people live in an age when freedom of the mind is suppressed over much of the world. We must preserve it in the Church and in America and resist all efforts of earnest men to suppress it, for when it is suppressed, we might lose the liberties vouchsafed in the Constitution of the United States.

Preserve, then, the freedom of your mind in education and in religion, and be unafraid to express your thoughts and to insist upon your right to examine every proposition. We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts.

Affectation of any sort borders on vulgarity, and at the least it is ridiculous to pretend to feelings and beliefs that do not appeal to your intelligence.

But while I believe all that God has revealed, I am not quite sure that I understand what he has revealed, and the fact that he has promised further revelation is to me a challenge to keep an open mind and be prepared to follow wherever my search for truth may lead.

We have been blessed with much knowledge by revelation from God which, in some part, the world lacks. But there is an incomprehensibly greater part of truth which we must yet discover. Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers—that we in fact have a corner on truth. For we do not.

As you go forward in your search for truth, and as you espouse principles and establish ideals toward which to work, pray for courage to be true to you loyalties, to your ideals and to yourself

Alfred North Whitehead could not be a 21st Century general authority; he probably could not even be a Mormon. Nonetheless we could also do with a dose of Whitehead.5 Addressing the issue of conflicts between religion and Science, Whitehead wrote a wonderful article in The Atlantic in 1925 that we could frame on our walls:

Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development. This evolution of religion is in the main a disengagement of its own proper ideas from the adventitious notions which have crept into it by reason of the expression of its own ideas in terms of the imaginative picture of the world entertained in previous ages. Such a release of religion from the bonds of imperfect science is all to the good. It stresses its own genuine message. The great point to be kept in mind is that normally an advance in science will show that statements of various religious beliefs require some sort of modification. It may be that they have to be expanded or explained, or, indeed, entirely restated. If the religion is a sound expression of truth, this modification will only exhibit more adequately the exact point which is of importance. This process is a gain. In so far, therefore, as any religion has any contact with physical facts, it is to be expected that the point of view of those facts must be continually modified as scientific knowledge advances. In this way the exact relevance of these facts for religious thought will grow more and more clear. The progress of science must result in the unceasing modification of religious thought, to the great advantage of religion. (“Science and Religion”)

In formal logic a contradiction is the signal of a defeat, but in the evolution of real knowledge it marks the first step in progress toward a victory. This is one great reason for the utmost toleration of variety of opinion. Once and forever this duty of toleration has been summed up in the words, ‘Let both grow together until the harvest.’ The failure of religious Christians to act up to this precept, of the highest authority, is one of the curiosities of religious history. (Alfred North Whitehead, ibid)


Within the wards I have lived in I have been, often to my pain and worrying, open about my beliefs and doubts, my religious rewards and spiritual struggles. For a few years I was on a high council where I learned to value my openness, as it allowed me to touch members of the stake disconnected from more traditional speakers. Yet since my troubled night in Madison, Wisconsin, twenty-one years ago, I have largely been silent publicly. I have written blogs, for myself and friends but kept them password protected and not indexed by search engines. My only exception to this has been one Sunstone publication. Recent events in the Church have forced me to rethink my public silence. So many people from the Church Public Affairs Department to bloggers to people commenting on news stories (and blogs) describe a Church very different from what I have experienced and that I know many of my friends and acquaintances have experienced.  I cannot in good conscience not join (in my own obscure way) the cacophony of Mormon voices. I hope that my friends and acquaintances join me so that the spectrum of Mormon experiences are more fully and accurately depicted.

I don’t know what my writing agenda should be, other than trying to reconcile my life experiences with my religious philosophy and testimony or facilitating discipleship of the second sort among my friends. In addition to my own ignorance, unrighteousness, and limited relevant eduction, there are a number of intellectual roadblocks, perhaps even “contradictions”—a.k.a. opportunities for “progress toward a victory”—within the Church that I hope are tackled by those more capable than me, but I’ll have to, for the sake of my own sanity, tackle them myself.

Some of the topics that I think are important to be addressed are listed here.

First, does the Church, as was implied by its publication of Elder Roberts talk, still believe that there is a “crying need” for disciples of the second sort? How does this fit with our correlated Church?

Second, we need a more robust discussion about the nature of revelation to prophets, presidents, bishops, and congregational recalcitrants. Receiver operator characteristic curves balance true positives against false positives and provide a good model for revelation that I think should be widely disseminated, but my own poor previous attempts to do this in Sunday school and priesthood classes have generally only been met by blank stares.

Third, how do we cultivate the courage of expression—“be unafraid to express your opinions”—President Brown called for. The common charge to keep your opinions private is untenable to a disciple of a second sort. Besides if the opinion is in error, airing an opinion is the first step to revising an opinion.

Fourth, tone in our discussions does matter, but it can’t take priority over substance. What constitutes the “proper respect” President Brown called for? It cannot be the cowering acquiescence satirized here. Similarly, what constitutes “proper acknowledgment of your own shortcomings”? It cannot be stating that the Prophet (prophets) is (are) smarter than we are and know more than we do. I don’t know their IQs and about some things I definitely do know more than they do, like my own life, magnetic resonance imaging, the music of X, and maybe, just maybe, the writings of Jeremiah. (Who could spend as much time on him as I have?)

Fifth, how do we resolve the contradiction between Mormonism’s elevation of the individual and the love for hierarchy?

Sixth, how do we overcome the prophet paradox that is the result of fallible ecclesiastical prophets sometimes being inspired but without an obvious way of knowing when they were or were not inspired, with the result that a prophet-led Church often lags rather than leads social transformations (e.g. Civil Rights as an example).

Oh the lists goes on, but I’ll stop at a perfect number, since in addition to my Mormon heterodoxy (hey, President Brown said it is OK) I’m a closest numerologist.


I am not a good prayer. My night in Madison was an exception in my life. But one of my mentors, Max Parkin, once gave me a set of B. H. Roberts’ Comprehensive History of the Church with the condition that whenever I struggle with the Church that I promise to pray about it. I try and I’ll recommend Marjorie Suchocki’s marvelous book on Prayer, In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer, to others who struggle with prayer. But along with my new commitment to be more public with my religion, I will try to be more observant in my private prayers.

I am through and through a Mormon and I find, on the whole, integrated over space and time, that there is more good than bad in it. The best that is in me is a product of this Church. The worst I have to blame on my genes and my parents (kidding Mom and Dad, just seeing if you are paying any attention to this.) But, man, there are some things in the Church that just drive me crazy! Far too frequently Church members react to people pointing out problems or complaining about the Church by saying, “Well why don’t you go find another Church!” My conviction is that such reactions are not only naive, the members imagining they live in a Church that doesn’t really but also uncharitable such that their eternal destiny might just be headed South, where it is a little warmer, as then Elder Hugh B. Brown told a BYU audience, since as Paul said, without charity we are nothing.


  1. I often wear colored shirts to Church and purple to me signifies the common (and thus equalizing) royalty in all of us; we no longer live in an era where only the few could wear purple.
  2. But I need to write a follow-up since all my anarchy reading of the last year has gotten me thinking about the need for fostering diversity and small-scale disorder within the Church.
  3. I read How to Speak, How to Listen.
  4. Exceptions to the slow drift certainly occur, such as with the death of Heber J. Grant where J. Reuben Clark lost his position of influence or the replacing of Hugh B. Brown with Harold B. Lee in the First Presidency upon the death of President McKay.
  5. “Whitehead is one of the least-read and rarely-cited philosophers in the American climate and maybe has the fewest serious followers. For Mormons it is at least interesting that such views commended themselves to one of the most religious of thoughtful men in the Twentieth Century.” Truman Madsen review of “A Christian Natural Theology”, BYU Studies 6:3-4

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How to Survive a Hospital Stay

I have a friend who just had heart surgery, the robotic, minimally invasive kind. I told his wife that I would send my hard-earned tips on how to survive a hospital stay.

  • ENJOY THE PAIN MEDICATION, BUT NOT TOO MUCH: Modern delivery mechanisms may have drastically changed the situation from when I was getting doped up by doctors, so maybe this suggestion is a bit outdated. Few things in this world feel as good as when those narcotics hit your brain (remember what Lou Reed said–“I feel like Jesus’ son”), but few things are scarier than drug addiction. I have had friends that have teetered near the edge, fallen over, and crawled back to safety—all from pain prescriptions following surgery.
  • WEAR SOCKS, PREFERABLY SHOES WHEN WALKING AROUND: Despite the antiseptic smell that permeates a hospital, they are really filthy places. And who knows what needles or other paraphernalia have inadvertently been dropped along your path. This tip comes from a friend who has been a surgeon for thirty years, so I think he knows of what he speaks.
  • ENJOY THE SPONGE BATHS: Admit the idea of being nearly naked (oh those carefully draped sheets) while a nurse of the opposite sex gently handles your body fits a middle-aged man’s fantasy. We can’t expect to much excitement from our lives, but when it comes our way don’t be frigid.
  • FLIRT WITH THE NURSES, THE ONES PLUS OR MINUS TEN YEARS FROM YOUR AGE: Depending on your orientation this might call for a similar qualification to “ENJOY THE SPONGE BATHS.” You’re bored; they’re bored. Let’s lighten the mood with some narcotic induced levity.
  • DON’T WORRY ABOUT YOUR SOUTHERN EXPOSURE: When it becomes time to get up out of your bed and exercise, grab your IV stand and look forward. There is some scriptural phrase about not looking back. Looking back to make sure your bottom is covered is just going to twist you up and make you walk in dangerously zig-zaging paths.
  • TREAT THE NURSES AND OTHER STAFF WITH RESPECT: I worked with a nurse in Pittsburgh who was about 5’1″. She said she was 5’6″ before she became a nurse. Lots of people from above piling down on them; you don’t need to be one of them. Besides, they are the people primarily responsible for keeping you sane. And if you are mean, don’t expect a quality sponge bath.
  • DON’T EXPECT TO GET ANYTHING DONE: Leave work and books and household repairs behind; they’ll be there when you get out. And don’t expect your brain to be anything great while you’re suffering through pain and its palliatives.
  • EMBRACE YOUR PATHETICNESS: Its hard to be arrogant once you’ve been in a hospital and your urine has been drained with a Foley catheter, you’ve soiled your sheets and all your visitors have seen the green, foamy stuff being pumped out of your stomach. All this, as the Doctrine & Covenants says, will be for your good. I don’t know if thirty years later I’ve been able to embrace the patheticness of my soiled bed sheets, but I do have one story to share to wrap this all up with. When I had my finger surgery, I felt most pathetic. I was right handed and my right index finger had just been slices open and was in terrible pain. My right hand was useless. To top things off, I had a PIC line put in my left arm, rendering it useless also. I couldn’t feed myself as handling the fork and knife required more than my gimpy hands could muster. With my spaghetti and garden salad dinner sitting untouched by my bedside, my friend David came to visit. Seeing my plight he cut my food and fed me. At the moment it felt pretty shameful, but it was a bonding moment that has stuck with me over the years. Patheticness is a basis for friendship, an opportunity for people whom you have helped to help you, a reminder that our grandiosity is but a show. For when all is done, as the Psalm says, we are but dust. (Although some pretty valuable dust, if we get into. After all, there are a variety of kinds of dust: the dust that is sand mixed with dead skin cells and hair follicles, yes, but also gold dust.)

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Th M.C. B.S. Filter

The Gospel Principles class was always small, just my companion and I, an occasional investigator, and a handful of members most of whom had been in the church long enough that this would not normally be considered the appropriate Sunday school class. But I couldn’t blame any of them for their choice to attend. The teacher, Merrell Carter, was an extraordinary teacher, in addition to being the ward mission leader and stake mission president. Brother Carter was a every devoted missionary, leaving his job as a drama teacher at Springville High School to join the Army full-time as an artillery officer, so that he could do more missionary work when the Church got rid of Seventies quorums among the stakes. He had a unique flair that blended his backgrounds into an earthy spirituality more similar to the iconic J. Golden Kimball than to anybody else I’ve ever known.

I had been in Montpelier for just about a month when Brother Carter arrived at class with a most memorable contraption: a large ring-shaped air filter had been attached to metal clothes hangers that had been bent to form a ring, just the diameter to sit on an adult’s head like a crown. Walking over to Larry B., a member who the previous week had expressed extended consternation at a sacrament meeting talk, solemnly placed the homemade hat on Larry’s head and pronounced, “Larry, here’s a bullshit filter for you to wear to church so you don’t get too worked up when you hear stupid things.”

I’ve thought of that Sunday morning in Vermont more times than I could count. How often I wish I had had a bullshit filter with me. And while I’d love to have the audacity to wear an air filter around my head—or to give one to a friend who is struggling—I should at least do a better job of implementing a bullshit filter in the internal wirings of my head. Last weekend at a priesthood leadership meeting I could have used one. Some stupid statements were absurd enough to give the leaders pause, but others, particularly around the subject of the Boy Scouts of America and the question of homosexuality seemed well accepted. I wanted to lean forward and harangue Fred V., second counselor in our bishopric, about what I perceive as the disparity between the BSA stance and the Church’s own stance regarding celibate homosexuals serving in Church callings. But I didn’t, and I probably shouldn’t have, anyway. My bullshit filter should have caught it. Our son, Alec, could have used a bullshit filter when he was taught there would be no rainbows in the millennium or that Satan controlled his heart if he didn’t support Proposition 8.

If Brother Carter’s bullshit filter worked like noise subtraction headphones, some days at Church could be awfully quiet and peaceful, a great time to meditate. But in fairness, there is usually an insightful sentiment shared by someone, and one fear I have of such a tranquility-inducing filter would be falling asleep and missing what, say, a Steve Mori would share in class. Reflecting on my own set of silly things said at Church or at work or at home, I wonder if the filter could be bidirectional, saving me by subtraction when I say things I should regret.

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