Sunday, October 7, 2018

Notes on the Saturday Morning Session

Russell M. Nelson might be proving himself the busiest prophet in recent memory, making public statements and procedural changes left and right.  The big news as we began this general conference of the church was that the rumors were indeed true—the three-hour-block is going the way of polygamy.  Nelson announced the two-hour Sunday schedule taking effect in January and then let his enthusiastic underling Quentin L. Cook discuss the dry administrative details.

I wasn't able to watch all the sessions of conference this time around (aw, shucks).  But that doesn't mean there wasn't a lot I disagreed with.  I'll jump right in, as usual.

I testify to you that in the deliberations of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the temple and after our beloved prophet petitioned the Lord for revelation to move forward with these adjustments, a powerful confirmation was received by all.
—Quentin L. Cook
My issue with this is that Cook talked about pilot programs in Brazil and in other unspecified locations around the world.  He talked about getting feedback from members who had used the brand new manuals for the "home-centered church-supported curriculum."  I get the sense that when God told us to "study it out in your mind" before praying for guidance, he wasn't talking about pilot programs or polls or focus groups.  Did Nelson really need to supply God with numbers and spreadsheets and projections before receiving revelation?   Cook's description of how this decision was made sounded distinctly corporate and hardly revelatory.  

We can and should find joy when we face hard things.
—M. Joseph Brough
I sort of liked what he was saying, although I wish he'd avoided using the phrase "hard things" so frequently, especially when he discussed people who might have caused our "hard things."  It was a nice sentiment to remind us that we shouldn't let our struggles blind us to the good things in our lives, and I certainly respect his ability to avoid any hackneyed metaphors about darkness, sunlight, clouds, or maybe eclipses.  But his message fell a little flat because so many of the "hard things" his audience faces find their genesis in his institution.  It's as hollow a platitude as your boss telling you to keep your chin up and focus on how great your next paycheck will be because you're working twelve hours of mandatory overtime today.  I get what you're going for, and it's nice of you to try to say something encouraging, but...I'd greatly prefer it if you hadn't caused me this trouble in the first place.

He described to me the heartache he experienced in his life while vainly seeking lasting joy amidst the momentary happiness the world has to offer.  Now, in his later years of life, he experienced the tender, sometimes nagging whispering sensations of the spirit of God guiding him back to the lessons, practices, and the feelings and spiritual safety of his youth.  He expressed gratitude for the traditions of his parents and in modern-day words he echoed the proclamation of Enos:  "Blessed be the name of my God for it."  In my experience, this dear man's return to the gospel is characteristic of many and is repeated often among God's children who leave for a time only to return to the teachings and the practices of their youth.  
—Steven R. Bangerter 
Stop.  Giving.  My.  Parents.  False.  Hope.  You.  Assholes.  

You're just making this worse.

Yeah, my mom and dad did a terrific job teaching me the lessons, practices, and feelings that a good Mormon couple should teach their kids.   That doesn't mean I'm going back to church.  I'm not about to fall back into the same mindsets and attitudes that shaped me as a child because I understand how false, manipulative, and damaging those mindsets and attitudes are.  And, as far as Bangerter's experience goes, which is implicitly conceded to be anecdotal evidence, I think it's time to dust off this old gem that seems to make an appearance here every six months or so.

I believe it is less a question of whether our children are "getting it" in the midst of our teaching, such as while striving to read the scriptures or to have family home evening or attend mutual and other church meetings.  It's less a question of whether in those moments they're understanding the importance of those activities and more a question of whether we as parents are exercising faith enough to follow the Lord's counsel to diligently live, teach, exhort, and set forth expectations that are inspired by the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is an effort driven by our faith—our belief that one day the seeds sown in their youth will take root and begin to sprout and grow.
—Steven R. Bangerter
This is basically an admission that the brainwashing is more important than the comprehension.  It doesn't matter if your children understand what you're telling them, it just matters that you're telling them anyway because God says so.  And then the nonsense you're feeding them will be so deeply ingrained in their mortal experience that it will form the foundations of who they are and make it that much more difficult for them ever to abandon the worldview you programmed into them.

That's totally healthy.  This guy should write a book on parenting or something.

"Is it still safe and wise to bring children into this seemingly wicked and frightening world we live in?"  Now, that was an important question for a mom and a dad to consider with their dear married children.   We could hear the fear in their voices and we felt the fear in their hearts.  Our answer to them was a firm, "Yes, it's more than okay!" as we shared fundamental gospel teachings and our own heartfelt impressions and life experiences.  Fear is not new.
—Ronald A. Rasband 
And, pray tell, Ronald, who was it that introduced such fear into your children's lives by convincing them that the world is wicked and frightening?  Was it prophets and apostles, who preach fear from the pulpit so that their followers will carry the message into their homes and teach their children to be afraid too?  So you're basically trying to sell us the cure for the disease you're spreading?

Fear is most certainly not new, that's for sure.  It's been a useful tool in Mormonism going back to the days of having to let your husband marry other women so that God doesn't destroy you.  Today, when we're taught to fear the wickedness of the world, we become more likely to insulate ourselves from the practices and beliefs of the general population, which helps us stay true to those seeds our parents sowed at the church's behest so many years ago.

It's a testament to the depth of the fearmongering within Mormonism that Rasband's daughter actually asked him this question.  Every Mormon knows that one of the very first commandments God gave us was to multiply and replenish the Earth.  How much terror must have gripped Rasband's daughter for her to, as a faithful Mormon, have actually thought that maybe the right decision was not to have children?

And this isn't important enough to merit an actual quote, but I also found it amusing that Rasband made reference to "stand ye in holy places" like 20 minutes after Nelson and Cook told us they were lowering the expectation for how much time we should spend in the chapel each Sunday.

We must not allow procedural details to obscure the over-arching spiritual reasons these changes now are being made.
—David A. Bednar 
With that one line, he essentially invalidated the entirety of his buddy Quentin's address.

Rather, the power of the savior's gospel to transform and bless us flows from discerning and applying the inter-relatedness of its doctrine, principles, and practices.  Only as we gather together in one, all things in Christ, with firm focus upon him, can gospel truths synergistically enable us to become what God desires us to become and endure valiantly to the end.
—David A. Bednar
How can an apostle use a form of the word "synergy" without a trace of irony and still maintain that he represents a religion and not a corporation?  Perhaps I'm a little over-sensitive to this kind of talk because I've recently had to listen to a lot of company propaganda at my new job, but this just reeks of meretricious nonsense.  It's designed to sound impressive, but it's almost entirely filler.  "Applying the inter-relatedness?"  Come on.  All he's doing is trying to make his Nelson sycophancy sound as sickeningly fancy as possible.

I believe that the sequence and timing of these actions over many decades can help us to see one united and comprehensive work and not just a series of independent and discrete initiatives.
—David A. Bednar
The moral of the story here is that God plays the really, really, really long game.  If you can cite the different approaches and focuses of the "administrations" of different prophets across the generations and twist that data into a demonstration of an underlying trend, I applaud your logical flexibility, I suppose.  Because that's always a great trait to have.

I think this was a risky approach to take, anyway.  I remember sitting in my BYU religion class before I'd started to drift away from the church and wondering why it was that President Howard W. Hunter was particularly gung-ho about the Book of Mormon.  And why Hinckley was so obsessed with building temples.  It was still God's church the whole time, so why should the changes in focus align so perfectly with the changes in mortal leadership?  Bednar's review of procedural shifts from prophet to prophet should serve as a reminder that the church is led by men without any divine hotline at their disposal.  If God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, the simplest explanation for why his church doesn't mirror that characteristic is because we had a different prophet yesterday than we do today and we won't have this current prophet forever. 

We need to be cautious as we seek truth and choose sources.  We should also be cautious about the motivation of the one who provides information.  That's why the scriptures warn us against priestcraft.  If the source is anonymous or unknown, the information may also be suspect.  Our personal decisions should be based on information from sources that are qualified on the subject and free from selfish motivations. 
—Dallin H. Oaks
I might be able to write an entire book about everything I despised about this hateful man's speech, but let me try to hit the major bullet points.

Yes, we need to be cautious as we seek truth and as we choose sources.  Yes, we should also be cautious about the motivation of the one who provides information.  But the person echoing the scriptural warning against priestcraft fucking practices priestcraft himself!  We know thanks to MormonLeaks that apostles earn a six-figure stipend.  Plus, let's see if Oaks makes any money by, I don't know, selling his theological musings in book form.  I wonder if Deseret Book, the publishing arm of the church, has anything for sale written by—oh look:
It takes an unbelievable level of arrogance for this guy to preach against priestcraft.  But Oaks, as I've come to understand, can always be counted on to be a pompous mouthbreathing dickhead.

Then he decides to warn us that anonymous sources should be judged based on the anonymity instead of on the substance of the claim or the supporting evidence behind it.  And then he doubles down on his hypocrisy by making sure we know how crucial it is to make sure our sources have no selfish motivations.  He's revered and fawned over worldwide by church members, might soon wield more power than any other apostle, has what is clearly above average financial stability because of his ecclesiastical position, and supplements whatever the church gives him with his Deseret Book deals.  But I'm sure he has no selfish motivations when he tells us to toe the company line, right?

I'm always sad when I hear of one who reports a loss of religious faith because of secular teachings.  Those who once had spiritual vision and suffer from self-inflicted spiritual blindness, and as President Henry B. Eyring said, "Their problem does not lie in what they think they see, it lies in what they cannot see." The methods of science lead us to what we call scientific truth, but scientific truth is not the whole of life.  Those who do not learn by study and also by faith limit their understanding of truth to what they can verify by scientific means.  That puts artificial limits on their pursuit of truth.
—Dallin H. Oaks 
For giggles, let me concede this point briefly.  Let's say seeking verifiable scientific evidence puts artificial limits on our pursuit of truth.  Inversely, wouldn't seeking supernatural confirmation imply an artificial expansiveness of the truth?

But now onto my real argument.  Not every flaw in the church-approved process for determining truth is based on a clash with the scientific method.  I didn't abandon my faith because of cosmology or archaeology or evolutionary biology.  It was fucking logic.  There are too many contradictory doctrines, too many emotional atrocities inflicted on faithful Mormons by a supposedly loving God, too many scriptural ifs with non-functioning thens and conspicuously absent elses.  I didn't put the Book of Mormon in a centrifuge and run tests on it.  I didn't examine its chemical composition.  I read it and applied its principles and discovered that too little of its instructions made rational sense and most of what did make sense didn't work.

Not to be that guy who likes to call people on their specific logical fallacies, but I think it's fair to say that Oaks's entire line of reasoning here is what you'd call a strawman if he and I were talking face to face.

I will now speak of restored gospel truths which are fundamental to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Please consider these truths carefully.  They explain much about our doctrine and practices, perhaps including some things not yet understood.  There is a God, who is the loving father of the spirits of all who have ever lived or will live.  Gender is eternal.
—Dallin H. Oaks
Wow, he's not pulling any of his punches today.  Apparently, the second most fundamental doctrine of the church is pretty unkind to the transgender crowd.  There's no ellipses in that quote because this is precisely the order in which he presented these "gospel truths."  Here are some fundamentally important things to know:  there is a God, and don't get that sex change operation.

There's really not a lot to say about that other than...goddamn, what an asshole.  Even considering the Mormon doctrine that gender is assigned of God and an eternal individual characteristic, did he really have to be so unkind as to make it sound like the second most important thing he had to say?  Couldn't we at least push it a little further down the list so that maybe some people who feel that they were born in bodies that don't reflect their true identities don't feel marginalized and disrespected and, I don't know, maybe unloved?   Can't we maybe soften the hateful rhetoric towards this group of human beings because the way they've been treated, especially within Mormonism, has put them at a drastically higher risk for suicide?  Okay, so maybe there was more to say than goddamn, what an asshole, but it's worth saying again.

Goddamn, what an asshole.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is properly known as a family-centered church.  But what is not well understood is that our family-centeredness is focused on more than just mortal relationships.  Eternal relationships are also fundamental to our theology.  Family is ordained of God.  Under the great plan of our loving creator, the mission of his restored church is to help the children of God achieve the supernal blessing of exaltation in the celestial kingdom, which can only be attained through an eternal marriage between a man and a woman.  We affirm the Lord's teachings that gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose and that marriage between man and woman is essential to his eternal plan.
—Dallin H. Oaks
Just a quick pivot to hating on the gays, and then back to bashing transgenderism.  It's a flawlessly executed move.  Even if all these horrible doctrines were legitimately ordained of God, he's completely incapable of finding kinder, softer ways of presenting them.

I suddenly understand why Oaks was a jurist and not a doctor.  Can you imagine this guy's bedside manner?  Dr. Oaks would sweep into your hospital room, ask you how you're feeling, and then when you complain about the pain, he'd reply without a trace of humor, "Then you probably shouldn't have had pancreatitis, then."  His approach is unbelievably cold—this is how it is, if you don't like it, that's your problem.  He has no trace of empathy, no interest in understanding what other people with other experiences have gone through, and clearly no patience for anyone who believes differently.

Anyone who understands these eternal truths can understand why we members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints think as we do and do as we do.
Dallin H. Oaks
What I don't understand, though, is how a member of any religion can believe that "think as we do and do as we do" is a well-penned turn of phrase. 

First, we honor individual agency.  Most are aware of the restored church's great efforts to promote religious freedom in the United States and across the world.  These efforts do not promote just our own interests, but according to his plan, seek to help all of God's children enjoy freedom to choose.
 —Dallin H. Oaks
Yeah, legal freedom to choose and divinely granted freedom to choose are not the same thing.  Free agency, in the doctrinal Mormon sense of the term, can't be taken away by any government.  Exercising it in certain ways can be outlawed, but we don't yet have the technology to proactively force someone to make a particular choice.  So I don't even understand what point you think you're making here.

And your little crusade for "religious freedom" absolutely was for your own interests.  Let's not pretend you don't stick your nose into politics whenever gay marriage might become legal or whenever a hot-button issue like immigration or medical marijuana seems to intersect with the church's priorities.  Let's not pretend like you don't have an unhealthy level of influence in the Utah state house.  Let's not forget that your #FreedomForAll videos a few years ago were basically whining not about any actual legislation but instead about perceived cultural persecution for your homophobic beliefs.  At least in the United States, there's no growing movement that I'm aware of to make Mormonism illegal or even homophobic doctrines illegal.  You're just tired of being hit on the nose with a rolled newspaper whenever you spread your shit around and this is your way of trying to save face by protecting your reprehensible interests a little more gracefully.

We're sometimes asked why we send missionaries to so many nations, even among Christian populations.  We receive the same question about why we give many millions of dollars of humanitarian aid to persons who are not members of our church and why we do not link this aid to our missionary efforts.  We do this because we esteem all mortals as children of God, our brothers and sisters, and we want to share our spiritual and temporal abundance with everyone.
Dallin H. Oaks
I'm...sorry, this is a thing that actually happens?  People ask the apostles why they give humanitarian aid to non-Mormons?  Why the hell would anyone ask that kind of question?

Also, even if you claim to esteem all mortals as children of God, you certainly do not want to share your spiritual abundance with all of them.  You don't excommunicate people because you want to share your spiritual abundance.  You don't declare those in non-heterosexual relationships as apostates because you want to share your spiritual abundance.  You certainly don't force children of people in those relationships to postpone saving ordinances because you want to share your spiritual abundance.  And let's not forget that, prior to 1978, it was clear that you weren't interested in sharing any spiritual abundance with certain racial groups.

And you certainly do not want to share your temporal abundance with everyone either.  The church is notoriously protective of its financial information, and this year's MormonLeaks discovery of 32-billion-dollar investments of probable church-owned companies implies that the "many millions" Oaks is so proud of constitute a small fraction of the church's temporal abundance (and, unlike in past years, Mormon Newsroom no longer publishes the dollar amounts of the church's monetary donations).  Sure, it appears that the church does a lot as far as humanitarian aid, but much of it is the volunteer work of selfless local members, not necessarily huge cash donations by the organization itself.  We don't know exactly how much cash the church does donate, however, because the leadership is so tight-lipped about their finances.  Personally, I think a valid theory for this tendency is that they know that their humanitarian donations are a mere pittance in comparison to what they have the resources to give.  At the very least, Nelson and the apostles are smart enough to realize that releasing financial details and donation details would expose their parsimonious ways to an embarrassing level of scrutiny.  But, again, since they don't release financial information, that's only a theory.  If they're as wonderful as they say, it would be easy for them to exculpate themselves by sharing details.  

Third, mortal life is sacred to us.  Our commitment to God's plan requires us to oppose abortion and euthanasia. 
 —Dallin H. Oaks
Interesting.  Doesn't your commitment to God's plan mean you support the freedom of choice?  As in, women should be free to choose what to do with what is, for a time, part of their own bodies?  And terminally ill people should be free to choose how to deal with their own suffering?  And Mormons should be free to choose their own opinions on topics such as these without being required to take any particular stance?

I care very much about mortal life too—about preservation and quality.  That's exactly why I disagree with Oaks on both issues.  And I'm not preaching pernicious doctrines that lead teenagers to take their own lives, so maybe my claim to hold the value of life in such high regard is a little more believable by default.

Our knowledge of God's revealed Plan of Salvation requires us to oppose current social and legal pressures to retreat from traditional marriage and to make changes that confuse or alter gender or homogenize the differences between men and women.  We know that the relationships, identities, and functions of men and women are essential to accomplish God's great plan.
Dallin H. Oaks
You know when you say that it sounds pretty ridiculous to most people, right?

We're on a planet designed by an omnipotent God.  He's had eons to work out his perfect Plan of Happiness.  The plan has the power to exalt us like God himself.  And you're telling me we can still flummox this thing when women take on traditionally masculine characteristics?

That was another West Wing reference (one-minute clip for those who didn't get it, which was probably everybody).  Perhaps it wasn't my best effort, but I think the analogy is valid—the idea that something so comparatively microcosmic as people's personal decisions about gender and identity can foil an omnipotent creator's plans in any way makes about as much sense as a cell phone bringing down a passenger jet.

Finally, we are beloved children of a heavenly father who has taught us that maleness and femaleness, marriage between a man and a woman, and the bearing and nurturing of children are all essential to his great Plan of Happiness. 
Dallin H. Oaks
Dude, you already made your point.  You don't have to circle back to it again just to piss people off.  We get it.  You like traditional gender roles, you like heteronormative relationships, and you like it when people subscribe to rigidly binary and purely biological definitions of gender. 

Opposition is part of the plan and Satan's most strenuous opposition is directed at whatever is most important to God's plan.  He seeks to destroy God's work.  His prime methods are to discredit the savior and his divine authority, to erase the effects of the atonement of Jesus Christ, to discourage repentance, to counterfeit revelation, and to counterdict individual accountability.  He also seeks to confuse gender, to distort marriage, and to discourage childbearing, especially by parents who will raise children in truth. 
Dallin H. Oaks
So many of these "prime methods" are confusing to me.  Can Satan even erase any effects of the atonement?  I feel like that's not how it's supposed to work.  Does Satan counterfeit revelation?  I mean, I guess there were "false" revelations in early church history from Hiram Page and James Strang.  And I highly doubt that Oaks is bothering to take a swipe at the likes of Chris Nemelka.  Is that a veiled shot at Sam Young, who believes he's being Christlike by challenging the church's lackluster approach to sexual abuse and grooming among LDS children?  If it's not that—and it feels like the Sam Young thing is a stretch—then what the hell is he getting at?  

Moving onto the less prime methods, it really bothers me that Oaks chose the word "confuse" to modify "gender."  Listen, your disdain has already been made very clear.  Implying that those who have completed or are considering gender transitions or those who don't agree that men are only to preside and to protect and women are only to teach and nurture are merely confused is needlessly shitty of you.  Even complicate would have been less disrespectful.  Oaks also thinks that marriage has a constant definition and hasn't been distorted in the past to allow prophets to marry teenaged foster daughters, which is a delicious little hypocrisy.  And, by the way, we all have a responsibility, especially as believers, to have a whole bunch of kids because being brainwashed in the covenant is the only method of member retention that seems to maintain any kind of long-term success.

For those who falter under that opposition, I offer these suggestions.  Remember the principle of repentance made possible by the power and atonement of Jesus Christ.  As Elder Neal A. Maxwell urged, "Don't be among those who would rather try to change the church than to change themselves."  As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland urged, "Hold fast to what you already know, and stand strong until additional knowledge comes.  In this church what we know will always trump what we do not know."  Exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, which is the first principle of the gospel.  Finally, seek help.  Our church leaders love you and seek spiritual guidance to help you.
Dallin H. Oaks
Maxwell reminds us that if there's a problem, it's not with the church.  It's with you.  The organization is infallible.  Holland reminds us that when we're confronted with troubling new information, we should ignore it.  Hold fast to the old information.  There's definitely an acceptable explanation, but you can't have it yet. 

And then, like he's channeling an angry middle schooler from the nineties, Oaks lays his last suggestion on us:  seek help.  He doesn't mean therapy, though.  He means turning back to the organization that is causing you to struggle and asking for the solution.  Because we should never entertain the idea of looking anywhere other than the church for information or assistance.

That's...twelve quotations from one talk?  I think Oaks may have set a new record for General Conference bullshit.  

Goddamn, what an asshole.