Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Notes on the Sunday Sessions

It's an unwavering requirement of Christian disciples and Latter-day Saints to show true love to one another. 
Sharon Eubank, Sunday morning session
I swear I'm trying to make this General Conference roundup more than just thirty-five entries of, "but what about how you treat gay people," but when the pitcher lobs a lazy change-up like this straight through the sweet spot, you don't just politely step back and take a called strike.

What about how you treat married couples who aren't heterosexual and cisgender?  What about how you treat members who point out problems in the church, even with good intentions?  What about how you treat doubters and rape accusers and depressed missionaries?  Please explain how this shows true love.

...President Hinckley put his hand on Otto's shoulder and said, "Otto, that's not good enough.  You ought to be a member of the church.  This is the Lord's church."
Quentin L. Cook, Sunday morning session
Hinckley had known this man less than twenty-four hours and thought it was okay to tell him how to live his life.  This was no mere "bring us your truth and let us add to it."  This was a full-blown "you're doing it wrong and you should do it my way because I say so."  Congratulations, Cook, you just made a prophet look like a dick.

This is not a sweet story.  This is encouraging people to ignore social boundaries and more forcefully push their religion on friends and on new acquaintances.  That could result in member missionary work becoming a bit more obnoxious and no more effective.

I promise that lovingly performing ordinances for ancestors will strengthen and protect our youth and families in a world that is becoming increasingly evil. 
Quentin L. Cook, Sunday morning session 

I found it a bit sad that Cook's talk was about how missionary work is an act of love and he spent what seemed like half of his time extolling the benefits of missionary work for dead people.  Aren't we going to be doing temple work nonstop in the Millennium?  Won't we save ourselves more time in the longrun by converting more living, breathing people in the present?   Won't someone please think of the living?

But I like how Cook decides to throw in a little fearmongering to seal the deal.  The world is becoming increasingly evil and your families need protection from it.  You can get protection by doing holy busy-work in the temple.  Guess what you need to do so your family can spend all that time in the temple?  You guessed it—give us money.

It's interesting that he uses the word "promise," too.  Normally, apostles will opt for something more grandiloquent, like "I testify," or "I bless you," or "I bear my apostolic witness" (looking at you, Holland).  The fact that he uses something plain and something bearing real-world familiarity makes me think he's not messing around.  He wants to pack people in those temples and he's worried that his highfalutin Mormon-speak isn't earthy or visceral enough to get the job done.

Like many of my more conspiracy-theory-esque, accusations-of-sinister-villainy arguments, this one really doesn't have much I can point to as evidence, but I'm fairly certain Cook chose the word "promise" very carefully to maximize the possibility of keeping the tithing flowing. 

Homes filled with love are a joy, a delight, and a literal heaven on earth.
Quentin L. Cook, Sunday morning session
That's not what "literal" means and you know it, you week-old sugar-free donut.

But it IS an infinite atonement because it encompasses and circumscribes any sin and weakness as well as every abuse or pain caused by others.
Tad R. Callister, Sunday morning session
I love this.

Because it's a perfect example of how Mormonism loves to make grand, earnest, inspiring statements that it knows are false.   It's not an infinite atonement, and we all know it.  It doesn't encompass any sin and we all know it.  I mean, sure, since few people are going to reach the level of knowledge and understanding required to properly deny the Holy Ghost, it's likely that any sin little old you or little old me can commit is going to be circumscribed by the atonement.  But the fact remains that there is a teaching in Mormonism about the dreaded unpardonable sin.  And that's not exactly a secret.  The unpardonable sin is not one of those things that nobody except church critics and church apologists know about.

That doesn't really matter as far as the meat of Callister's talk, though, because he's trying to tell us that Jesus suffered everything we suffered and can cleanse us of anything we might do.  And that's true—but there is one notable exception, which means there is a limit placed on the atonement, which means the atonement is not infinite.

But it just doesn't lift your spirits the same way when you say the atonement is almost infinite, so even though probably just about everyone in the Conference Center knows he's lying, he lies anyway because it sounds better.

Awesome.

If we feel the spirit, that is our witness that we have been forgiven or that the cleansing process is taking place.
Tad R. Callister, Sunday morning session
This is his explanation for how we can tell we've been forgiven.  And he basically says, "you can't be sure."  People asking this question are asking because they want to be free of the worry.  They want to have the peace of knowing they've been absolved.  And Callister tells them that when they feel the spirit, that's their sign that they've been forgiven.  Or that the cleansing process is taking place.

Wait, so if I feel the spirit, it's a good sign, but it doesn't necessarily mean I'm done?  How do I know when I'm in the clear?  How do I know the cleansing process is completed?

When I was a teenager struggling to repent of masturbation, this would have been a spear to the heart.  I would never be sure if the presence of the Holy Ghost was confirmation that I had done my penance or a reminder that my penance was ongoing.  Callister is really telling us that the guilt and stress and worry and self-loathing and self-doubt and longing for peace should never really stop.

Wow, that's shitty.  The church makes rules, shames people who don't follow them, and then keeps them in that state of shame for as long as possible.


Some have asked, "But if I have been forgiven, why do I still feel guilt?"  Perhaps in God's mercy, the memory of that guilt is a warning, a spiritual stop sign of sorts, that at least for a time cries out when additional temptations confront us, "don't go down that road, you know the pain it can bring."  In this sense, it serves as a protection, not a punishment.
Tad R. Callister, Sunday morning session
And this is a classic example of Mormonism's tendency to present things that are damaging as things that are beneficial.  And a classic example of how general authorities like to change the question so they can answer it the way they want.

Guilt and the memory of guilt are not the same thing.  The question is about current guilt.  The answer is about the memory of guilt.  I remember lying to my mom about how late I stayed up reading in bed on a school night.  I remember feeling guilt for that.  But it's been fifteen years or so, so I'm over it.  I no longer feel guilty.  But I remember how bad I felt knowing that I was lying to my mom.  The question Callister presents is asking, "why do I still feel like shit for being dishonest with my parent?"  He pretends that the question is "why do I remember what it was like to feel like shit?"

Not the same thing.

But he pretends it is, and if a repentant member is listening and doesn't realize he's changed the question before answering it, they'll consign themselves to continued guilt because he's told them that their emotional suffering is one of God's mercies.

That's kind of shitty too.

I understand why God weeps.  I also weep for such friends and relatives.  They're wonderful men and women devoted to their family and civic responsibilities.  They give generously of their time, energy, and resources, and the world is better for their efforts.  But they have chosen not to make covenants with God.  They have not received the ordinances that will exalt them and with their families [sic], and bind them together forever.
Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session
Why doesn't God care that much about whether the world is better for our efforts?

Why does he place such a high premium specifically on people who make covenants?  An omniscient, benevolent god really gets more excited about rituals performed and loyalty pledged than about improvements made and suffering ameliorated?  If these people are wonderful and devoted and generous, what's the problem?  If God sees into our hearts, why can't he look at these people and say, "Wow, they're wonderful, devoted and generous.  The world is better for their efforts.  They should be greatly rewarded for exhibiting these characteristics."

When ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God, right?  Covenants can be coincide virtue, but they do not create virtue.  It's weird that the Mormon God doesn't see that.

The Savior said, "In my father's house are many MANSIONS."  However, as you choose not to make covenants with God, you are settling for a most meager roof over your head throughout all eternity.
—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session
So this is one of the things that doesn't really make sense about the doctrine of eternal progression:  progress is only eternal for some people.

If you sided with Lucifer in the War in Heaven, you'll never progress past that point.  If you don't make covenants in this life, your future progress is also limited.  If our whole purpose is to become more and more like our Father in Heaven, why are there brick walls between who we are and who we're supposed to become?  If this church stresses forgiveness through the atonement and talks about how the sins of your youth don't need to taint your life forever, why do sins in your mortal estate inhibit your ability to grow in the hereafter?  This is similar to putting a toddler in a time-out for life because of a tantrum—only infinitely worse, considering that the hereafter is eternal.

I would further entreat to my reticent friends, pour out your heart to God.  As him if these things are true.  Really study.  If you truly love your family and if you desire to be exalted with them throughout eternity, pay the price now through serious study and fervent prayer to know these eternal truths and then to abide by them.  If you're not sure you even believe in God, start there.  Understand that in the absence of experiences with God, one can doubt the existence of God.  So, put yourself in a position to begin having experiences with him.  Humble yourself.  Pray to have eyes to see God's hand in your life and in the world around you.  Ask him to tell you if he is really there, if he knows you.  Ask him how he feels about you and then listen. 
 —Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session
Oh, cool, that makes sense.  If someone is "reticent" about the gospel, that simply means they have not yet put in the work to find out that the church is true.

False.

I poured out my heart to God and asked if these things were true.  I really studied.  I humbled myself and prayed to see God's hand in my life.  I even asked God if he was really there. And I listened.

Crickets, man.

This guy doesn't know what he's talking about.  He hasn't walked a mile in an apostate's shoes or an agnostic's shoes or an atheist's shoes.  Initially, I thought he was being compassionate here and trying to destigmatize atheism a little, explaining that atheism isn't an indefensible stance.  Reading more carefully, I realize that while he's talking about doubting the existence of God, he's not talking to the active members—he's still talking to his reticent friends.  So what he's really doing is trying to explain people's atheism to them.  "I know why you doubt the reality of God," he's telling people.  "It's because you haven't  had experiences with him yet."  Jesus Christ, that's condescending.

It's kind of like that time I sat my sister down and explained that I understood why she believes in Mormonism.  "Understand that in the absence of critical thought," I told her, "one can be brainwashed into believing all kinds of manipulative nonsense."  Oh, wait, I didn't do that, because I try to avoid being an asshole.  But the prophet of the Lord isn't concerned with such trivial things as whether he's an asshole, so he's given himself more freedom to talk down to those who disagree with him and to tell them how they feel.

But even when he's doing all of this, he still can't really bring himself to admit that atheism is real.  He presents it as a passive matter of doubt or uncertainty, instead of an active disbelief in the existence of God.

He's got no clue.

Then he asked me, "Once I die, please do the necessary temple work for my wife and me so we can be together again."  Thankfully, I am not this man's judge.  But I do question the efficacy of proxy temple work for a man who had the opportunity to be baptized in this life, to be ordained to the priesthood and receive temple blessings while here in mortality but who made the conscious decision to reject that course. 
Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session
This was a laugh line.

The prophet of God is cracking jokes about someone's cavalier attitude toward exaltation.  That doesn't seem very becoming of the Lord's mouthpiece.  God's work and glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.  This is serious business.  Why are we pretending like this man's misguided attempt to find a loophole in the Plan of Salvation is less dangerous than it is funny?

Also, why is the Lord's anointed using such weak-ass wording as "I question the efficacy"?  Isn't this a doctrinal question that he should have an answer to?  Because it sounds like he's leaving it in a gray area.  What's the point of a prophet who uses his pulpit to question the efficacy of temple rituals under specific circumstances?  Isn't that something he should have brought to the Lord first to receive revelation before he discussed it with the membership?

Now as president of his church, I plead with you who have distanced yourselves from the church and with you who have not yet really sought to know that the Savior's church has been restored—do the spiritual work to find out for yourselves, and please, do it now.  Time is running out.
 —Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session
Fear is only a powerful motivator among people who are afraid of you.

Also, many of us did do the spiritual work to find out for ourselves, and that's exactly why we've distanced ourselves from the church.  Of course, now that you've given a relentless fearmongering speech to the worldwide membership, loved ones who are consumed with panic that we'll be separated from them in our benevolent Father in Heaven's kingdom will try to drag us back to the church kicking and screaming, so thanks for respecting our precious free agency.

We should not expect the church as an organization to teach or tell us everything we need to know and do to become devoted disciples and endure valiantly to the end.  Rather, our personal responsibility is to learn what we should learn, to live as we know we should live, and to become who the master would have us become.  And our homes are the ultimate setting for learning, living, and becoming. 
David A. Bednar, Sunday afternoon session
I feel like this may be a rare example of the church leadership actually planning ahead with a degree of sense.  Twisted, manipulative sense, perhaps, but sense nonetheless.

Twenty years from now, when you find out that the priesthood ban wasn't just a priesthood ban but also banned faithful black members from the temple, think how much stronger the argument that you should have known this already will be.  By shifting the responsibility for doctrinal education onto the members, the church will be better equipped to absolve itself of wrongdoing when someone learns something unsettling and accuses the church of hiding the information.

I wonder if this will backfire in some ways, though.  Because if the church isn't supposed to tell us everything we need to know, what is the purpose of the church?  If we're now supposed to be responsible for our own gospel learning, why do we need a religious institution?  Will this be used in the future for members to try to pay their tithing in the form of actual charitable offerings instead of donations to the church itself?

Bednar's approach was also a little confusing because moments after he was telling us to take responsibility for our own learning, he was directing us to the church website for videos we can use to explain temple garments to our children.  Did you want us to take charge of our own education, or did you want us to absorb official, correlated material?  Make up your mind.

When the Lord or his servants say things like, "not many days hence" or "the time is not far distant," it can literally mean "a lifetime or longer."  His time—and, frequently, his timing—is different from ours.  Patience is key.
Kyle S. McKay, Sunday afternoon session

Wow. That's good to know. God created us and made sure we could have his ancient words translated into modern tongues, but he can't be bothered to translate his eternal perspectives into words that stay true to their human definitions.

"Patience" shouldn't mean "wait for it to happen after your lifetime." That's not requesting patience, that's passing the buck further down the historical timeline. Basically, accepting that God may be completely ignoring you is key.

The immediate goodness of God comes to all who call upon him with real intent and full purpose of heart.  This includes those who cry out in earnest desperation when deliverance seems so distant and suffering seems prolonged, even intensified. 
 —Kyle S. McKay, Sunday afternoon session
Man, "earnest desperation" is a pretty apt description of my prayerful struggle to gain a testimony. I called upon God with real intent and full purpose of heart. Doesn't the "immediate goodness of God" sound like there should have been a feeling of peace or love or warmth as soon as I ended my prayer? Because that didn't happen.  Which makes sense, because normally church leaders advise us that we shouldn't expect to receive immediate answers to these kinds of prayers.

This is an empty promise.  It contradicts what we hear in Sunday school classes all over the world.  But it sounds better than the truth and it comes from a general authority, so I'm betting this sentiment will be parroted in innumerable sacrament meetings, even by those who have cried out with real intent when suffering seemed prolonged and did not receive comfort or deliverance.

We should have integrity in all that we do.
Ronald A. Rasband, Sunday afternoon session 
Yes, Rasband, let's talk about integrity. Integrity includes, by most people's definitions, a willingness to be accountable for your actions and the capacity to admit your mistakes.

Does the church behave with integrity?

The church doesn't offer apologies—Oaks said so. The church doesn't acknowledge its institutional flaws and failings—just look at how it treated Sam Young and McKenna Denson. The church doesn't admit that after so much dehumanizing anti-LGBT rhetoric that it's contributing to an epidemic of suicide. The church refuses to show financial transparency so that its members can hold it accountable for its spending. And, of course, it regularly gaslights its adherents by pretending it has been blameless throughout its history.  It's presented itself as above reproach when it comes to depictions of the translation process, the character of Joseph Smith, divinely sanctioned racism, excommunications it insists are handled on a local level, and of course the November 2015 policy and its glib reversal.

This is the church saying, "do as I say, not as I do." Because the church has no integrity left.

What a terrific beat to end on.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Notes on the Saturday Sessions

General Conference season is underway again and we have yet another weak lineup for opening day.  There were a few unremarkable entries on the scoreboard—Oaks thinks there are better things we could be doing with our time than watching TV, Carl B. Cook thinks it's a miracle when multiple boys are baptized, and Holland felt it necessary to have a meeting about how we need to have fewer meetings.  

But let's get to the real highlights.

We need to show our beliefs through the way we live.
—Ulisses Soares, Saturday morning session
This doesn't sound bad when I take it out of context...but he goes on to stress that, in particular, the belief we need to model in our behavior is that we sustain the prophet.

Didn't we just go through a whole thing about how we need to emphasize Christ in the name of the church because that's what this religion is all about?  Who cares about our toothless declarations of support for a leader we had no say in selecting?  Shouldn't we be focusing on living in a way that shows we believe in the kind and compassionate teachings of that ancient Messiah whose name currently escapes me?

Jesus.  Right, his name was Jesus.  I keep confusing him with Mormon for some reason.

It is hard to understand all the reasons why some people take another path.  The best we can do in these circumstances is just to love and embrace them, pray for their well-being, and seek for the Lord's help to know what to do and say.  Sincerely rejoice with them in their successes.  Be their friends and look for the good in them.  We should never give up on them but preserve our relationships.  Never reject or misjudge them.  Just love them.
—Ulisses Soares, Saturday morning session

It shouldn't have needed to be said, but it is needed and it is important that he said it.  It really makes it sound like kicking your apostate children out of the house or keeping gay family members at arm's length isn't okay—which is something that some members really need to hear.  Also encouraging is that the phrase "all the reasons" subtly implies that people leave because of complex motives—not merely because they were offended or lazy or wanted to sin.

If we are not careful in living our covenants with exactness, our casual efforts may eventually lead us into forbidden paths or to join with those who have already entered the great and spacious building.  If not careful, we may even drown in the depths of a filthy river.
—Becky Craven, Saturday morning session
I just know she was jamming to Pink Floyd before she stepped up to the podium:  "One slip, and down the hole we fall/It seems to take no time at all/A momentary lapse of reason/That binds a life for life."  

But seriously, though, this is a horrible thing to teach people.  Life is difficult enough without someone convincing you that you're living on a tightrope across a bubbling lava pit.  The central concept of her talk was that if you almost do everything the gospel teaches, you'll be almost following the iron rod, but you'll be just a tad off so that you'll walk right past the Tree of Life and into the fetid water.  

You know in those thriller movies when the hero is inching wire cutters into the innards of an explosive to disarm it?  And the director makes sure to get a nice shot of the beads of sweat forming on his brow or maybe him biting his lip in concentration?  And the score is suffocatingly tense to really drive home the point of how nerve-wracking and life-threatening the situation is?  What Craven is really doing—I'm debating whether I should make a joke about her name or whether that's too ad hominem for a church leader I've never heard of.  What Craven is really doing here is shaking the action hero roughly by the shoulders in the middle of this scene and shouting, "Wow, you better not cut the wrong wire or we'll all die!"  You think our action hero's hands are going to be steady after she scares the shit out of him?

When people are already trying to do the right thing, how is ramping up the anxiety quotient about everything going to help them be better at doing the right thing?  I mean, sure, it'll probably keep a lot of people paying their tithes and fast offerings, but is it actually going to make them better people?

Any time we say "however," "except," or "but," when it applies to following the counsels of our prophet leaders or living the gospel carefully, we are in fact saying "that counsel does not apply to me."  We can rationalize all we want, but the fact is there is not a right way to do the wrong thing.
—Becky Craven, Saturday morning session
I disagree.  Ulisses Soares just did the wrong thing the right way.  He was preaching in support of a wrong religion, but he was really nice about it.  In fact, if everyone in his audience followed his advice about loving apostates, Soares could accomplish a lot of good.  It wouldn't mean he wasn't propping up a moneygrubbing ecclesiastical tyranny though.

But what really bothers me is this distaste for complexity.  "However," "except," and "but" are pretty important words.  They allow us to express support for our beliefs and still acknowledge that there are other concerns, other approaches, or unresolved problems.  Using these words not only allows people to share their uniquely personal opinions, but they probably help keep some people in the church—because, for a religion that has so much trouble making up its mind about gay people, black people, polygamy, translation processes, and so many other things, forcing people to make black-or-white, on-or-off, fact-or-fraud decisions probably isn't going to work out as well as the apostles would like.

 Why had God abandoned him in his righteous desire?
Brooke P. Hales, Saturday morning session
The person's righteous desire in this story was a professional position he felt he'd more than earned.  Imagine how exhausting life must be when every setback makes you question why you've been abandoned by an all-powerful being who's supposed to be watching over you.

I've failed to get jobs I felt I deserved too.  And you know what?  Sometimes you don't get the job because there's someone even more qualified, or because the person hiring doesn't recognize real talent when he sees it, or because you grossly misjudged the strength of your qualifications and the strength of your interviewing skills.  God allows children to starve and to get sold into sexual slavery.  I think it's fair to say that he's not necessarily going to give you everything you want and I think it's also fair to say that if that's your biggest complaint, you have no grounds to consider yourself "abandoned."

Tell about the little children who stood in front of the congregation and sang with eagerness how they are trying to be like Jesus.
—Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Saturday morning session

Uchtdorf is trying to teach us to spread the gospel in ways that are conversationally organic instead of in ways that make us seem like pushy fundamentalists.  This is not what he's accomplishing, though.  In all the times I've asked coworkers about how their weekends went, not once has one of them shared details about what the children at their church were doing on Sunday.  If someone were to follow the suggested script he's providing, they're going to convince their friends they belong to a cult.  I suppose, if the person's audience is made up of die-hard Christians, they may succeed in dispelling the misunderstanding that Mormonism is not a form of Christianity.  But I don't think we'll be convincing people to come get baptized with these kinds of tactics.

This is not "natural" or "normal," Dieter.  People are going to stop asking Mormons about their weekends.

 If someone is on a list that says "not interested," don't give up.  People change.
W. Christopher Wadell, Saturday morning session
The speaker attributed this quote to someone else, but he presented the line as an admirable philosophy.

When I went to a concert a few months ago, apparently my ticket purchase put me on some stupid list and the venue started calling me every few weeks to offer vacation packages.  After receiving one too many obnoxious voicemails, I called the number back to explain that I wasn't interested.  And they gave me kind of the same approach as Wadell's:  if we keep you on the call list, then when you do want to go on a cruise, we can help you get a great deal!
Yes.  People change.  But if I ever decide to go on a cruise, I know exactly who I won't be calling—the obnoxious people who won't leave me alone and don't know how to take no for an answer.  If someone's on a ward list that says they're not interested, let them stay not interested.  If they come back to you and express an interest again (because people change), then hit them with both barrels of your religious sales pitch.  But don't blast a guy full of spiritual buckshot if he didn't willingly present himself as a target.

Sure, Wadell, keep them on the list.  But respect people's wishes—especially if that's a do not contact list. 

They began to see each other as classes, above and below each other.
—Henry B. Eyring, Saturday morning session
He's speaking of the prideful Book of Mormon peoples here.  And you can probably guess where I'm going with this, too, but...how are LGBT people not second-class citizens in Mormonism?  How were members of African descent not second-class citizens in Mormonism prior to 1978?  How are non-priesthood-holding women who gain access to the celestial kingdom through their husbands and are fated to eternally bear his children while he creates worlds not of a lower order than the Mormon men?  

Loving God and loving our neighbors is a doctrinal foundation of ministering, home-centered church-supported learning, sabbath day spiritual worship, and the work of salvation on both sides of the veil supported in the relief societies and the elders quorums.
M. Russell Ballard, Saturday afternoon session
You can probably guess where I'm going on this one too.

Aren't lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people our neighbors?  The way they're treated now doesn't seem very loving, and the way they were treated a week ago was even less loving.  In fact, I'd say—bear with me, here—I'd say that the treatment was...hateful.  Which is pretty weird, considering that's the opposite of loving.

I guess the relief societies and elders quorums must've dropped the ball on that one.

Let's not complicate things with additional meetings, expectations, or requirements.  Keep it simple.  It is in simplicity that you will find the peace, joy, and happiness that I have been talking about.
 —M. Russell Ballard, Saturday afternoon session
Haha, but Ballard, an overabundance of meetings, expectations, and requirements is the basic building block of Mormon existence!

But also, I take issue with simplicity generating peace, joy, and happiness.  Not everybody needs the same things to be happy, there, Champ.  Some people do dream of their own little Walden Pond, but other people thrive on chaos and complexity.  We don't all find our centers by stretching out a tropical beach in a modest swimsuit with a non-alcoholic drink in our hands.

Hasn't Ballard traveled the world and met people from a bunch of different cultures?  Weird that he hasn't figured out that different people feel fulfilled by different things.

A church that does not have a paid clergy, but where members themselves accept assignments and responsibilities.
 —Mathias Held, Saturday afternoon session
This was mentioned in a list of things the young Held and his wife learned while trying to rationally consider joining the church.  His point was "ye shall know them by their fruits."  Interesting that a guy advocating that the actions of an institution point to that institution's value is up there on the stand lying about the same institution.  The fruit of this particular tree is...deceit.  Yummy.

This church doesn't have a paid clergy, but that's only true when you don't count all the clergy who are paid.

Only the combination of both views can give us the true and complete picture of all truth, and of everything we experience in our lives....
—Mathias Held, Saturday afternoon session
Okay, so this ocular object lesson of his is just a mess.  Here's why.

He's trying to say that we have two ways of seeing the truth:  rationally and spiritually.  He's trying to equate this to eyesight in that you can see fine with one of the two, but with both you can see depth.  The problems begin when he disembowels his own metaphor by quoting Moroni 10:5, which explains that through the power of the Holy Ghost, you can know the truth of all things.  The Holy Ghost, of course, represents the spiritual eye.

You can see fine with one eye, but seeing with two is better.  Except if you only have one eye, the rational eye is basically useless because it can't see the truth of all things.  So if you're going to be stuck with only one eye, it had better be the spiritual one.  But if you can know the truth of all things with only one of the eyes, then you don't need a second eye for depth perception because you can see everything you need to.  This makes the rational eye completely unnecessary, and therefore the entire fucking metaphor is pointless.

This is my version of his analogy, broken down in a way that doesn't try to sugarcoat the fact that he doesn't actually want us to trust in rationalism:

You have two credit cards.  The Discover has a limit of $1000 and the Visa has a limit of $2000.  Your objective is to buy a computer.  The computer costs $1500.  You can't buy it with the Discover.  You can only buy it with the Visa.  There's no way to purchase the computer without involving the Visa.  But wow, look how high your credit limit goes when you add the limit of the two cards together!  It's meaningless as far as your ability to acquire the desired machine goes, but doesn't $3000 sound like a really fantastic number?

The arguments of the adversary are always the same:  listen to these voices from two thousand years ago.  You cannot know things that you do not see.  Whatever a person does is no crime.  It is not reasonable that such a being as Christ would be the son of God.  What you believe is a foolish tradition.  Sounds like today, doesn't it?
Neil L. Andersen, Saturday afternoon session
Andersen wins Most Punchable Face of the Day.

Okay, let's dive headfirst into this pool of rhetorical excrement.  The argument that the arguments of the adversary are always the same is always the same.  If you had to go back and re-read that sentence, that brings a smile to my face.  Confusingly worded as it was, it was a fun way for me to say that the response of "these criticisms are nothing new" is tired and overused—by church apologists and church opponents.  Let's be honest and admit to ourselves that people are coming up with new arguments and new approaches all the time.

I, as one of the people who probably represents the adversary in Andersen's book, don't tend to advocate for listening to voices from two thousand years ago.  I suppose I do often make arguments along the lines of "you cannot know things that you do not see" and "it's not reasonable to believe the supernatural story of Christ" and "what you believe is a filthy goddamn lie."  But "whatever a person does is no crime"?  Hold up—I don't think there is a very large portion of the human population who would agree with that statement, so maybe good old Lucifer isn't really hitting his numbers on that one.

But the most bizarre and maddening part of this quote is his ridicule of those who urge you to listen to these voices from two thousand years ago.  Okay, so should we not be reading the scriptures, then?  Don't those contain words that supposedly come from people who lived in the distant past?  Does the era in which the words were spoken determine their spiritual validity?  What planet do you live on, Neil?

As you blithely compare the Biblical arguments to today's and pause for laughter with that smarmy grin, I can't help but wonder how we ever got to a point at which this kind of inane drivel passes for apostolic oratory.

I did not know the subject of Elder Hale's talk until he just gave it.  But didn't he teach us beautifully about the eye of faith?
Neil L. Andersen, Saturday afternoon session
Bullshit.

That delivery was terrible.  Are we trying to manufacture our own little miracle here?  Like, "oh, wow, look how well these two general conference talks align, the Lord must truly be inspiring these men to talk about the pressing issues of our day!"  Come on.

Especially since you're about to use the phrase "eye of faith" again in this talk.  You really expect us to believe that this wasn't planned and rehearsed?  Try not to look at the teleprompter while you lie to us, okay?

Should we really be surprised when the Lord's prophet declares his will, and for some, questions remain?  Of course, some reject the voice of the prophets immediately.  But others prayerfully ponder their honest questions—questions that will be settled with patience and an eye of faith.
Neil L. Andersen, Saturday afternoon session
Okay, first of all, there are a lot of issues with vague pronoun usage in here.  It's very easy for me to intentionally misinterpret the first line without the Ensign transcript capitalizing the H in "His."  Because I fully believe that the prophet is declaring his—that is, the prophet's—will.  And are the people who don't immediately reject the voice of the prophets pondering their own questions or are they pondering the questions of the people who were doing the rejecting?

Poor writing aside, this feels like it might be aimed at the reversal of the November 2015 policy.  In case anyone was having trouble processing that jarring and revealing (not revelatory) turn of events, remember that if you're thinking more than you're praying, you're doing it wrong.  And there's a good explanation, but you can't have it now, so just have faith and be patient.

I don't know if I'm really getting across how much I hated this talk.

One purpose of prophets is to help us in resolving sincere questions. 
—Neil L. Andersen, Saturday afternoon session
Are you kidding me?  Name one time Nelson has done this!

Oh, right, I forgot about that time when the prophet spent ten minutes of General Conference explaining exactly why it wasn't racist that the church kept black people from ordinances they'd need for exaltation.  And the time Nelson debunked the CES Letter, point by point, in a public YouTube broadcast.  Or when the President of the Church's official Twitter page spent a day putting out tweets that detailed exactly how Joseph Smith practiced polygamy and responding to members' questions for clarification on the subject.

Seriously, though, when Ballard and Oaks have a chuckle in their livestreamed Q&A session about how they won't be tackling some of the tougher submissions and when Cook keeps passing troubling church history questions off to church historians at his Kirtland Temple presentation and when Rasband [correction:  Renlund] talks about having read so much church history but keeps referring his friend Steven to a historian to address historical concerns, it kind of starts to look like maybe the church leadership doesn't want to even nudge resolutions to sincere questions toward us with a ten-foot pole.

Because the answers are radioactive and they know they can't get too close.

One purpose of prophets is to help us in resolving sincere questions?  Give me a fucking break.

One friend of many years, whom I admire greatly, is not married because of same-sex attraction.  He has remained true to his temple covenants, has expanded his creative and professional talents,  and has served nobly in both the church and the community.  He recently said to me, "I can sympathize with those in my situation who choose not to keep the law of chastity in the world in which we live, but didn't Christ ask us to be not of this world?  It is clear that God's standards are different from those of the world.
Neil L. Andersen, Saturday afternoon session
Okay, so "not married because of same-sex attraction" is a repulsively passive phrase.  I think if Andersen were to say that his friend is gay, he might vomit all over the podium—although, in a figurative sense, he was kind of doing that anyway.  But he treats his friend's homosexuality not like it's part of the man's identity, but like it's some kind of ethereal circumstance haunting the man's life.  Jesus.  He's gay, dude.  It's okay.  You can say it.  I'd even settle for you calling him a "confirmed homsexual" because that would have been a little less awkward.

He refers to this man as his friend, which is cool, I guess.  And he also says he admires him greatly, which is nice.  But then he keeps talking about other good things and it starts to feel a lot like, "He's still a really great guy even though he has the dreaded same-sex attraction!"  I suppose we could give Andersen the benefit of the doubt and decide that he's only trying to illustrate that point fully for an audience that may be hesitant to accept that a gay person can be a good person.  But it's Andersen's organization that instilled that hesitancy in the audience and considering how much horseshit he's hurled at us in the last few minutes, I'm not particularly interested in giving Andersen the benefit of the doubt.  I think he's basically doing the homophobic equivalent of "I can't be racist because some of my best friends are black."

But getting to the meat of this excerpt, yes, it is clear that the Mormon God's standards are different from those of the world.  They're worse.  They're lesser.  They're inferior.  They're shittier.  If there is an afterlife—obviously not the Mormon one—think how devastated this man's going to be when he learns that he didn't actually need to starve himself of a full and fulfilling romantic relationship for his entire life.  Regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other trait, nobody deserves to be forced to live without hope of that kind of intimate human connection.

Some would say, "You don't understand my situation."  I may not.  But I testify there is one who does understand.  There is one who knows your burdens.  Because of his sacrifice made in the garden and on the cross. As you seek him and keep his commandments, I promise you that he will bless you and lift the burdens too heavy to bear alone. He will give you eternal friends and opportunities to serve.  More importantly, he will fill you with the powerful spirit of the Holy Ghost and shine his heavenly approval upon you.
—Neil L. Andersen, Saturday afternoon session
He's still talking about those slimy same-sex attraction sufferers here, by the way.

He freely admits that he "may not" understand the situation of an LGBT person who is essentially forced to stifle part of who they are in order to achieve eternal exaltation.  That's better than I was expecting.  But it points to another problem:  if you guys don't really understand the situation of gay members, why the fuck are you making policies about them?  How do you expect the families of people who have taken their own lives because of the way Mormonism treats LGBT members to respond to an admission that you don't really understand what's going on?  You're messing with people's lives and people's families, but you can't be bothered to fully wrap your brain around the complexities of the issue or to bother educating yourself to fill in the gaps in your understanding.  

I don't know how else to say it, man—that kind of makes you an asshole.  A litany of platitudes about lifting burdens and heavenly approvals doesn't do anything to reverse, mitigate, or even acknowledge the havoc you've wreaked on your fellow human beings.

If we spend too much time in faithless places, seemingly well-intended voices deprive us of the spiritual oxygen we need. 
David P. Homer, Saturday afternoon session
Not to scare you or anything, but if you actually hang out with sinners like Jesus did, you'll asphyxiate. 

Keeping your promises [to sustain your leaders] will take unshakable faith that the Lord called them.  Keeping those promises will also bring eternal happiness.  Not keeping them will bring sorrow to you and to those you love—and even losses beyond your power to imagine.
Henry B. Eyring, Priesthood session

What the fuck?  When did Eyring become so...dark?

Just so everybody's clear, an apostle is threatening everyone that if you vote to sustain the prophet and then later you say something bad about him or you forget to pray for him, then you will suffer losses beyond your power to imagine.  Eyring has gone full-blown Bond villain.  I don't even know what to do with this. I guess maybe the safest thing to do is not to vote to sustain your church leaders.  Because then you won't risk suffering some ominously nonspecific fate.

I mean, Andersen said about fifty things that pissed me off, but this Eyring quote was the first thing that made me jerk my head back to the screen like, "Did I really just hear that?"

President George Q. Cannon gave a warning that I pass on to you as my own.  I believe he spoke the truth:  "God has chosen his servants.  He claims it as his prerogative to condemn them if they need condemnation.  He has not given it to us individually to censure and condemn them.  No man, however strong he may be in the faith, however high in the priesthood, can speak evil of the Lord's anointed and find fault with God's authority on earth without incurring his displeasure.  The Holy Spirit will withdraw himself from such a man and he will go into darkness...."
Henry B. Eyring, Priesthood session
Yeah, there's a problem with this.  God seems to neglect to condemn his servants when they so obviously need it.

I mean, he didn't condemn the first twelve prophets for instituting and teaching and perpetuating racism.   He didn't condemn Joseph Smith for trying to assassinate the governor of Missouri, he didn't condemn Brigham Young for teaching the apparently false doctrine of blood atonement, he didn't condemn Wilford Woodruff for lying about polygamy in a very public declaration or Gordon B. Hinckley for lying about polygamy and eternal progression in a very public television interview, and he hasn't condemned any modern prophet for a failure to address issues of sexism, sexual abuse, homophobia, and transphobia with appropriate compassion.  If God isn't going to exercise his prerogative, are we really supposed to just sit here twiddling our thumbs while immoral things happen in God's name?  We really aren't supposed to speak evil of the Lord's anointed under any circumstances?

I guess it's nice to have a second source (with support from a current apostle) for this mindset.

The forces of evil have never raged more forcefully than they do today. 
Russell M. Nelson, Priesthood session 
Wait, wasn't evil raging so forcefully at some point that God had to take drastic action?  Wasn't it so bad that there was literally only one righteous family left on the planet?  Wasn't there something about that in the scriptures?  Something about a flood?

But Nelson doesn't care about scripture.  He just wants to keep his followers scared enough that they'll continue being his followers. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

General Conference Bingo

Inspired by a few posts on Reddit, I decided I'd make myself a little bingo card to keep the upcoming General Conference interesting:


But then I decided I made it too difficult, so I opted to create a simpler version:


I guess we'll see which one wins.

[Edit on 4/4]  Okay, apparently the church just walked back the November 2015 policy:


I guess that's one square we can all cross off.  I clearly didn't see this coming, but then I'm not the one claiming to be a prophet.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Thine Afflictions Shall Be but a Small Moment

One of my sisters is struggling with a personal matter that has dragged on and on and only seems to become more difficult and more stressful for her.  She recently sent out an email updating the family on how the situation continues to develop.  My dad replied to all to give some words of encouragement.  They were terrible.

But they were words of encouragement, so I'm not going to chime in on the email chain to point out why I think he's wrong.  That wouldn't help my sister. It wouldn't help anyone.  And it would be a generally shitty thing to do.  So this is where I've chosen to articulate my thoughts, in my all-too-frequent excerpt-and-analysis format.

Here's some of what my dad said:
Discouragement is not a loss of faith, as long as those who are discouraged continue to try. The scriptures and church history are full of faithful people (i.e., people full of faith), including prophets, who became discouraged because of obstacles and delays. But, they pushed forward - as you are - in spite of the discouragements. That is even greater faith!
I completely understand how a reassurance that discouragement isn't necessarily a spiritual weakness can be a huge support to someone who holds her faith so dear.  So I like how my dad started.  But then he brings the scriptures and church history into it.  And that's where it starts to unravel, I think.

The scriptures and church history are full of faithful people who became discouraged because of obstacles and delays.  But that doesn't really seem comforting to me.  Because the kind of people he's referring to include Job, Mormon, Joseph Smith, and basically every black member of the church before 1978.  Job suffered immensely and even though God restored his blessings, Job's dead children were not brought back to life.  Mormon was clearly discouraged by his civilization's impending doom and even though he followed God's commandments, his people were eventually eradicated.  Joseph Smith was comforted in Liberty Jail, but God didn't put an end to his legal troubles and instead allowed him—and his brother—to be murdered in a different jail five years later.  And even in the present day, black members of the church haven't gotten an apology for racism, an explanation for racism, or even an acknowledgment that the church was wrong to keep them out of the priesthood and out of the temples for more than a century.

So, congratulations on your greater faith, sister, but keeping your faith in spite of dreadful circumstances in no way guarantees you'll see the outcome you so fervently hope for.

My dad continued:
The key to real faith is that is to be faith in the Savior: confidence and trust that He always loves us, that He knows what is best for us, that we accept His will for us, and that He will always help us - even when we see the waves around us and start to sink - if we keep our focus on Him.
The notion that God "knows what is best for us" seems like it's an approach that shouldn't have been viable since the days when many people's worlds didn't expand beyond the borders of their medieval villages.  This is the information age.  The world is bigger and more connected.  We know so much more about what's happening to people six thousand miles away than we used to.  How can we, as citizens of the 21st-century planet Earth, continue to believe that God knows what is best for children in polygamist compounds in Texas and for starving families in Maduro's Venezuela and for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar?

The argument that God can't intervene all the time because that would violate free agency is something I can swallow.  But if God were to apply the "light touch" rule from Futurama, he'd at least be able to mitigate some of the distress and some of the damage.
I have a corollary to this, however—when you do things wrong, people will be sure you've done nothing at all.  These aren't ambiguous situations where we can look at them and say, "Well...I can see how there could have been some divine intervention here and here and maybe there."  These are straightforward situations in which huge numbers of innocent people—including children under the age of accountability—are being saddled with the kind of suffering no human being should be expected to endure.  If God exists, and if God actually knows what's best for us, he's either really bad at trying to help or he doesn't care about whether we actually get what's best for us.  This is driven home by the reminder that we should accept his will for us—which is kind of a back door in the event God doesn't actually help.  Which means we can completely disregard my dad's insistence that the Savior "will always help us."

I'm not sure if my dad was intending to reference Peter when he mentioned the waves and the sinking or if this was just a general maritime metaphor, but if he was talking about walking on the water, I think that's a misleading story to use.  Because when Peter was slipping under the surface, Jesus "immediately stretched forth his hand, and caught him" (notice the URL still says lds.org—Satan sure is tenacious).  And as soon as they returned to the ship, the wind ceased.  Where is Jesus's immediate hand stretching forth into Yemen?  Why hasn't the wind ceased in North Korea?

I'm guessing the answer is that, since those countries don't really have a Mormon presence (sorry—Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints presence), they don't have the faith required to save them from their circumstances.  Which makes no kind of sense.  If you see a starving child, does that child's opinion of you determine whether or not you feed him?

On to the next excerpt from my dad's email:
People without faith can be optimistic - in fact I know people who are optimistic that they can be happy without faith. However, people with faith in the Savior tend to grow in optimism (as their faith continues to grow) that things will always work out as the Savior knows is best for us.
This could be one of those things that just depends on how you'd prefer to approach life.  I'm all for keeping things upbeat, but I have no desire to be optimistic about things that simply aren't going to happen.  If I see some strong evidence that a particular event may swing in my favor, then I'm happy to be optimistic about it even though my desired outcome isn't a certainty.  If I see some strong evidence that a particular event may swing in my disfavor, then I absolutely do not wish to remain optimistic about it.  I'll do what I can to change the outcome, of course, but remaining optimistic out of faith that "things will always work out" just seems like lying to myself and compounding my eventual disappointment when things inevitably do not pan out the way I would like.

Props to my dad for mentioning—perhaps a little too magnanimously—that people without faith can be optimistic.  I have a feeling he included that because he knew I was one of the people he was replying to.  And he may very well be right that those with strong religious convictions tend to achieve higher levels of optimism.  But I just don't see the value in living that way.

As a final note, I didn't really like my dad's overall focus on faith.  My sister shared personal, day-to-day, visceral thoughts about specific situations facing her and my father chose to address it as a matter of faith.  If your daughter is distraught because she just lost her job, is your reaction to start explaining economics and the vicissitudes of the job market to her?  If she tells you she's just lost a friend in a mass shooting, do you give her a lecture on the Second Amendment and strict constructionism and federalism?  Of course not.  Regardless of your beliefs on any issues that may underpin the event that drove your kid to crisis, you understand that she needs an empathetic response.  She needs a hug.  She needs kind words.  She needs someone to listen.  What she doesn't need is a florid bird's-eye-view explanation of intangible concepts that don't have direct contact with her immediate emotional needs.

Maybe this will be helpful to my sister.  I hope it helps her keep her spirits up, at least.  But to me, it sounds like a lot of empty platitudes.  And so often, that's exactly what Mormonism comes down to—empty platitudes, promises that can't be fulfilled, and assurances that aren't guarantees.  I guess I struggle to see how that kind of thing is helpful to anyone.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

That's Not My Name

Church websites have finally begun to adapt to President Nelson's prophetic tantrum about the correct name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Predictably, this triggered a bonus round of chucking, eye-rolling, and meme-making for this embarrassingly trivial divine revelation among the ex-Mormon community.  And, yeah, it's funny and annoying and all, but can we talk about how the church wasn't even named properly in the first place?

I'm not referring to the absurdity of the word "Mormon" granting influence to Satan.  I'm not talking about the church having two other names during the first decade after its restoration.  I'm talking about doctrinal, scriptural principles that imply that the church's official appellation should never have been a tribute to Jesus Christ.

Let's go back to the War in Heaven in the Pre-existence.  The key difference between Lucifer and Jesus—other than their divergent plans for our redemption—was that Lucifer wanted to bask in the acclaim and Jesus wanted to humbly cede the credit to his father (Moses 4:1-2):
And I, the Lord God, spake unto Moses, saying: That Satan, whom thou hast commanded in the name of mine Only Begotten, is the same which was from the beginning, and he came before me, saying—Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor. 
But, behold, my Beloved Son, which was my Beloved and Chosen from the beginning, said unto me—Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.
So, if we're supposed to be glorifying God instead of Jesus, then the whole thing about the Mormon moniker being a victory for Satan is completely moot. It's not supposed to be about Jesus. It's supposed to be about worshiping God and following God's plan. Why are we naming the Lord's only sanctioned institution on the planet after our older brother?  God scored, Jesus got the assist, and God's the one we should be carrying off the field on our shoulders, right? This should be called the Church of God or, to be more specific, the Church of Elohim. 

Admittedly, this gets a little muddier in the Doctrine and Covenants, because that's the scriptural source Nelson cites to justify his repudiation of the Satanic nickname (D&C 115:4): 
For thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But...why?  The church isn't about Christ.  Christ didn't create us.  We don't pray to him.  We worship him, but isn't God the Father the greater recipient of devotion in Mormon mythology?  Christ is the vehicle through which God accomplishes his work.  And besides, Christ specifically surrendered his glory to the Father, so why are we disregarding Jesus's express wishes in one of his moments of pure selfless humility?  Why are we making God's church a monolithic namesake of the very person who deflected that kind of adulation?  Maybe Jesus is a flip-flopper.  Maybe he changed his mind.  Maybe he's going back on his word and trying to make a greedy late-in-the-game grab for veneration.

In case you haven't already figured it out, this post isn't really about lobbying to fix the name of the church.  It's just another demonstration that Mormon doctrine is internally inconsistent and that, just like those celebrated Mormon prophets of old who penned the Mormon scriptural canon, Russell Nelson is making things up as he goes, focusing on the insignificant Mormon minutiae to the exclusion of macrocosmic human events, and shaping a Mormon religion into one unworthy of carrying either Jesus's name or God's.

Or Mormon's, I suppose.

Okay, maybe it is a little bit about the name.