Friday, April 07, 2006

Testimony of a Dissident

A while back another blogger asked me to submit an essay about my Mormon experience. Probably, for good reasons he changed his mind and never published it. Since it is already written and might shed some light on my argument at Times and Seasons, I might as well publish it myself. It might help some people to understand where I am coming from.

Testimony of a Dissident
When I grew up in the seventies and eighties, Church was a liberating experience. My mother converted when I was six. My father never joined the LDS Church and refused permission for me to get baptized until I was fourteen. Since the prohibition was never sufficiently justified, it only stimulated my aspirations.

I was an enthusiastic Mormon, walking five miles to get to Church when I couldn’t afford public transportation. Except for my younger brother, I was the only Mormon in my school. Everyone knew about me because I was a Mormon for a reason. Probably the best indicator of my commitment to the Mormon cause was my role as a joint teacher in the conversion of over thirty Germans, which contributed to the creation of another ward.

Freedom made Church a great experience. Our young men’s leader saw to it that we did not come to harm. Beyond that we explored the gospel together. That was fortuitous because German Mormons can either be intellectually self-reliant or they can be sociopaths. We cherished each other and went to great lengths to spend time with each other. Two of us would have to bike 35 kilometers one way to meet the rest of us. Neither distance nor dogma would separate us from the gospel and each other. We did what it would take and our parents and leaders would let us.

Freedom built our testimony. Six of us served missions. That would not be spectacular in the Mormon corridor but it was spectacular in Germany. None of the German leaders I knew had served missions, except for a couple who worked for the Church Education System. Of our group, only one remains active enthusiastically. One participates selectively. Four of us have distanced ourselves from Mormonism. I don’t think that any one of us had a good experience on our missions, though I am in doubt about two.

I left a very enthusiastic missionary and even though the experience was rather disappointing, in terms of trivializing sacred gospel principles with profane management techniques, I held on to my testimony. But I would never be comfortable at Church again. In 2003 I stumbled across the excommunication of the September Six. Finally, I had to acknowledge that LDS leaders are constrained by self-interest rather than god.

Excommunicating scholars for their work creates a theological paradox. At face value, membership in the LDS Church is a condition for salvation. Excommunicated researchers cannot be redeemed until they restore their membership privileges. However, that would require them to deny their research, which represents not objective truth but the results of their best efforts to know the truth. Hence researchers’ denial constitutes a lie and lying is a sin, which makes their salvation impossible. If these individuals wanted to repent their lies then they would fail once more to qualify for membership. Regardless of what the scholars do, according to Mormon theology, they will lose salvation when disciplined for their research. That’s abusive and heretical. It’s abusive because there is no way out for the scholars. It’s heretical because it creates a situation where the atonement does not apply.

Though it appeals to my sense of justice that those who excommunicate scholars entangle themselves in heresy, I am more concerned about abuse. Since the excommunication of scholars has been continuing for twelve years, Gordon Hinckley and the fifteen are responsible. The excommunications could not have been sustained without support from the top. It was my obligation to terminate allegiance to the abusers. Otherwise I would have become an accomplice. Though I am living a Mormon lifestyle, I can no longer accept callings, contribute money, or perform any other act that would support abuse.

Making Sense of Mormon Knowledge Claims
To many Mormons, my decision is problematic because Mormons approach religion in terms of knowledge. If knowledge claims imply power claims, what does it mean that Mormon theology claims knowledge rather than faith?

Claiming to know the improvable, Mormons tend to regard those who disagree with suspicion, contempt, and hostility. The Mormon vocabulary refers to people as members, non-members, inactives, and apostates. Only conformists are complete human beings. Everyone else is defective. Non-members would better be members. Inactivity is the manifestation of weakness. Anyone who disagrees must be lacking in faith, virtue, or good will.

This aggressive language is necessary to sustain the belief that Mormons know what no one else knows. The only way, Mormon culture can maintain the notion of knowledge, which 98% of humanity does not share and the majority of their co-religionists refuse to apply, is to claim superior virtue. For in Mormon epistemology, it is the heart, not the brain that determines what is right (D&C 9:8, Moroni 10:3). And virtue, not reason, is the vehicle of knowledge. Those who do not obtain such insight must have been lacking in sincerity and effort (Moroni 10:4). Mormon theology reserves the ultimate judgment for those who reassess their experience.

Alma 36:6 describes reassessment in terms of murder:
For behold, if ye deny the Holy Ghost when it once has had place in you, and ye know that ye deny it, behold, this is a sin which is unpardonable; yea, and whosoever murdereth against the light and knowledge of God, it is not easy for him to obtain forgiveness; yea, I say unto you, my son, that it is not easy for him to obtain a forgiveness.
In spite of the adverb “unpardonable,” the sentence concludes, “it is not easy for him to obtain a forgiveness.” “Not easy” means hard but not impossible. It is in the context of polygamy that Joseph Smith would claim a revelation (D&C 132:27) that is less forgiving:
The blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which shall not be forgiven in the world nor out of the world, is in that ye commit murder wherein ye shed innocent blood, and assent unto my death, after ye have received my new and everlasting covenant, saith the Lord God; and he that abideth not this law can in nowise enter into my glory, but shall be damned, saith the Lord.
Those who change their mind about Mormon knowledge claims are murderers of Jesus Christ and “shall not be forgiven” ever. It is fascinating that Smith threatens eternal damnation when he can no longer hide his sex life from his supporters.

Elevating faith to knowledge, the Mormon leadership can extract extraordinary devotion from its followers. That ability comes at a price. Where other religions shelter theology within the confines of faith, Mormonism has abandoned that refuge when it claimed knowledge. Defenders of Mormonism can respond to reasonable criticism only by attacking the messenger rather than engaging the argument.

In 1976 apostle Ezra Taft Benson disparaged realist history as “slander and defamation.” By the time the September Six get excommunicated in 1993 for their historical and theological research, Mormon apostles and members of the First Presidency have pointed out that
• only faithful history is accurate (Packer),
• historians are demeaning and belittling the Saints (Packer),
• criticism of officers of the Church is unjustified even if true (Oaks),
• publishing historical facts about Church officers amounts to blackmail (Oaks),
• “When the prophet speaks the debate is over” (Tanner),
• “Whether one's a bricklayer or an intellectual, the process of coming unto Christ is the same: ultimately it demands complete surrender. It's not a matter of negotiation” (Maxwell),
• members should not listen to alternate voices (Oaks),
• no Christian could possibly debate religion for discord is not of the Lord (Nelson),
• LDS Church leaders must be alert to small signs of apostasy (Hinckley),
• symposia are threatening the LDS Church (joint statement by the fifteen),
• participation at symposia is dangerous (Packer),
• “There is no place in the Kingdom for unanchored brilliance” (Maxwell).
The campaign culminated in the 1993 excommunications, a practice continuing today. In the eyes of LDS leaders, independent scholarship is a sin and loyalty is more important than truth.

Since doubt is taboo, social relations between corridor Mormons are rarely intimate. People are friendly but do not become friends. They meet at LDS activities but do not invite each other to their homes. We read the scriptures but would rather cite Seven Habits. We become missionaries but are uncomfortable meeting strangers. Though some Mormons can, Mormon society cannot tolerate a difference of opinion over religion. Mormonism cannot bear the threat to the illusion of knowledge.

The lack of intimacy in our neighborhoods and congregations extends to our families. As biographies of Mormon dissenters emerge on the net, a recurring theme is the inhibition of spouses to discuss their thoughts and feelings about their religious affiliation. Family members have become the most effective enforcers of discipline of Mormonism. The doctrine of eternal families means that doubts of my children, my parents, and my spouse risk not only the salvation of a loved one but that they are compromising mine. Reassessment of Mormon knowledge claims often estranges parents and children, and believing spouses frequently respond to questions with threats of divorce.

Most fascinating, however, is the silence within individuals. In my case, the mission emaciated me emotionally. The minority experience has benefited me intellectually but one thing that I did not learn was how to manipulate relationships. The mission experience is about gaming the system, playing the numbers, creating impressions, and conforming to expectations. Though I knew what pained me, I could not make sense of that experience because of the illusion of knowledge called the testimony. The fact that I would have advised any young men to serve, fully aware that my experience had been devastating, is a measure of the self-betrayal’s extent. It would take me some seventeen years to work things out because I believed that I knew that the Church was true. Only when I realized that LDS leaders are as self-interested as anyone else, was I able to rees-tablish common sense and put the pain behind me.

I remember my youth in the LDS Church fondly. I have benefited from the generosity of Mormons in many different ways. Though I could have done without the sacrilege pervading the missionary program, I could have dealt with that. But no matter how true the Church may be, it is wrong to bully our members to lie. The pressure to lie does not end at the confines of the ivory tower. Our priesthood leaders are the abusers. And the lies reach into our communities and families where fear of honesty undermines communication. Policies that discipline scholars in terms of “orthodoxy” corrupt everything that is good about Mormonism. It didn’t used to be that way. It doesn’t have to be that way. Mormonism can be better than that.

14 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Some alternate voices are those of well-motivated men and women who are merely trying to serve their brothers and sisters and further the cause of Zion. Their efforts fit within the Lord’s teaching that his servants should not have to be commanded in all things, but “should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.” (D&C 58:27.)

Other alternate voices are pursuing selfish personal interests, such as property, pride, prominence, or power. Other voices are the bleatings of lost souls who cannot hear the voice of the Shepherd and trot about trying to find their way without his guidance. Some of these voices call out guidance for others—the lost leading the lost."

--Dallin H. Oaks

Sound rather more nuanced than you suggest...

10:20  
Blogger Hellmut said...

Thanks for your post, Anonymous. Oaks's quote that you are providing attributes good intentions only to loyal Mormons. Everybody else is selfish, greedy, arrogant, power hungry or confused.

It seems to me that this text makes my point.

22:23  
Blogger annegb said...

I appreciate your exquisite honesty Hellmut.

But I don't see my battles with leaders (and boy do I have them) as having anything to do with my faith--or theirs. I think I've said here that imperfection is a necessary component of church life.

Another thing, the general authorities seem to be between a rock and a hard place to me, they know there are exceptions to the rule, but they must speak to millions. So they generalize and come off sounding unsympathetic.

Ultimately, I think if they are wrong in the way they treat scholars, the problem will be between them and God, not between them and the scholar, or even, them and you. God is going to make this right.

09:07  
Blogger Hellmut said...

Thanks for your post, Anne. I love your picture!

The problem is if we follow abusive leaders and provide them with resources then we become complicit in the abuse.

Think about it. Any suffering becomes meaningless if we rely on God. Whoever we hurt, it does not matter because God will make it right.

That may be true but it's not the gospel.

We need to take responsibility for our actions. That's what Jesus Christ taught us witht the parable of the talents.

14:08  
Anonymous Buck said...

Hellmut, I appreciate your perspective. As a "lifer" I didn't have the same experiences you had growing up, but Mormonism still provided some of the same things: a place to grow, a group of young people with leaders who mentored and protected us, and plenty of opportunities to learn and to serve others. That's the core of the Gospel.

It is ironic that as we mature those same good experiences turn on us. That place to grow and learn seems to turn its back on scholars who think and speak too deeply. The protection we experienced as youths disappears and we are left to protect ourselves. If we don't conform, the opportunity to serve others in the Church is taken away from us.

The old saying that we can only be truly hurt by those we love holds true here. To hear Elder Packer list off the three great dangers to the Church--feminists, homosexuals, and "so-called intellectuals"--really stings. I am saddened to think that I am dangerous because I fit into all three categories. But I don't care about his vision of what the Church should be. You and I--and thousands like us--may be dangers to his particular brand of the Church, but we are the greatest strength the Gospel has.

As you know, I'm currently tangled in a very painful struggle with my local Church leaders. But I don't need to have a testimony of my stake president. I only need a testimony of the Gospel, the Good News. He is trying to take away Zion, my place of peace and safety. But he won't succeed because Zion is inside me where he can't touch it.

Don't let the abusive leaders take away the Zion you have found for yourself. It is a place of strength we all need to share.

17:18  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, I thought that your claim was:

"• members should not listen to alternate voices (Oaks),"

This did not seem to be what Elder Oaks was saying. Incidentally, I don't know why one should understand "well-meaning men and women" to refer only to loyal Mormons. It seems to me that he is saying that some alternate voices are good and some are bad; avoid the bad and benefit from the good.

19:27  
Blogger Hellmut said...

Good to have you back, Anonymous. If you read the rest of sentence it becomes clear that Oaks refers to Latter-day Saints.

The sentence continues: ". . . who are merely trying to serve their brothers and sisters and further the cause of Zion." Oaks is quite clear. Your voice is only acceptable if you serve the ends of the LDS Church. For everyone else, there is only condemnation and condescension.

Oaks's carefully worded language may well be intended to allude to openness. When one looks at the language closely, unfortunately, there remains little evidence of tolerance and openness.

20:03  
Blogger Cynthia E. Bagley said...

ummm... I enjoyed your thoughts on this matter. Both my husband and I were shocked at the attacks on these scholars and the current attack on Dr. Quinn.

It is an evil act when an organization or individual do their best to ruin an man's or woman's reputation. :-(

18:40  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps the LDS leadership doesn't act in Christ-like ways because Joseph Smith in league with others made it all up and there is no truth to the claims of divine authority or truth. Why try to save that which is rotten to the root? If the Mormon church listened to you (which they will not) and did as you say, that would not change the untruths. Why be a part of all this? I don't understand the attraction

23:38  
Blogger Gojira Gaijin said...

Hellmut--great thoughts, especially on the difference you perceive between the LDS church of your youth, and that of today. I had very similar impressions during my mission in Peru, in the early 1980s, about how the members truly were enthusiastic in their support for one another.

Unfortunately, my impression is that in its zeal to pursue correlation and impose business management practices, the church has moved away from the Zion ideal.

Like you, I have distanced myself from full commitment of time and talents to the LDS corporation, for various reasons. It will be interesting to see what our family's experience in Japan brings--both from the LDS, but also from the Asian cultural perspective.

19:17  
Blogger Cameron said...

I realize this is very after the fact, but I recently came across this post and comment line after reading similar thoughts in other places and I feel a need to express a dissenting view.

In reference to many comments made here to clarify and expound on the original post, I think the one comment that didn't merit a reply was actually the most meaningful:

"Perhaps the LDS leadership doesn't act in Christ-like ways because Joseph Smith in league with others made it all up and there is no truth to the claims of divine authority or truth."

The Anonymous poster has it exactly right. Either Joseph Smith was called as a prophet by the Father and the Son, or he was not. Either he received divine authority and the priesthood was restored to him or it was not. If it was, then the same authority rests in today's prophet. The foundation of the LDS Church rests on this principle. The authority of its leaders rests upon this principle. To testify of one's faith in the Church but not in its leaders is impossible. All the doctrines of salvation we now possess have sprung from duly ordained prophets.

02:26  
Blogger Hellmut said...

Hi Cameron,

I just discovered your reply. Sorry for leaving you hanging for such a long time.

Jesus Christ taught us that we shall recognize the false prophets by their fruits.

I don't know about you but where I am from, requiring scholars to lie about their research, that's a pretty lousy fruit.

20:41  
Blogger castaway said...

It takes a heap of courage, intellectually and emotionally, to make this kind of a break. You have written of this exceedingly well ... thanks for putting all of this into print.

11:09  
Blogger Hellmut said...

Thank you very much for the compliments, Castaway.

12:18  

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