Monday, August 31, 2009

Sunday School Musings - Leaving Mormonism but not leaving it alone

Since my blog here is pretty obscure and there is not much chance people that know me will be lingering here, I decided to try some therapy by being open about my feelings related to my religion. Religion is such a polarizing topic among people and I find it difficult to talk about in many settings. In fact, it has become a sore point even between my spouse and I. I grew up active in the LDS faith (also known as Mormon, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), served an honorable 2 year mission for the church, married my wife in the Portland, OR temple and was very tbm (true believing Mormon) up until about a year or so ago. My story about coming out of the fog as it relates to my religion, so to speak, is a long one and I will save that story for a future blog post (or a book, probably). Suffice it to say that I came to learn for myself that the religion of my youth was not everything that I had been taught that it was. Of course, the deeper into the depths of the history of my religion that I explored, the more I found a larger pattern of deception and dishonesty. Obviously, this has been a stark experience for me and has caused a major upset in my entire world-view, not to mention the affect it has had on my family. However, the upside is that I feel more genuine, authentic and honest about the circumstances I find myself in, and somehow, I feel refreshed and exhilarated - even in the face of severe discouragement and disapproval expressed by most of my close friends and family when they learn of my position.

This post is specifically about my experience in Sunday School yesterday, which I normally do not attend, because I can't stomach the deliberate misinformation that is presented there. I tried for a little while to call attention to the ways in which myths were being presented as truths and bring balance to the one sided presentation of history, but I soon realized a few things; 1. The people there really don't want to hear the other side to what they are being taught and 2. I don't enjoy the confrontations that invariably result from my opposing viewpoint. So I have relegated myself to keeping my mouth shut and suffocating from the stifled story telling or just not attending altogether.

Yesterday, however, I found myself sitting in Sunday School for a couple of reasons, 1. My 2 year old son had fallen alseep on my lap and, rather than try to move him, I decided to just stay put which lands me in Sunday School. The other reason is the member of the bishopric who was doing the presenting for the 3rd hour combined class had asked me to read a long quote for him (since, apparently, I can read out loud pretty well for an adult). Anyway, as I was sitting there I was doing my usual internal moaning and groaning (but I am also always curious to hear how various topics will be spun wildly out of control by those in the class, since this can also be pretty entertaining.) The topic of the class was on the death of Joseph Smith (founder of Mormonism). 

The first thing that crosses my mind when this is talked about is how Mormons insist on always calling this event in history the "Martyrdom of Joseph Smith". I guess the Mormons want to consider him a martyr for their cause but, the reality is, his death was a direct result of his illegal and unsustainable actions more than anything else. He didn't die in defense of his cause, he died in spite of the cause he supposedly represented. I don't by any means feel that his murder was justified, but I do not believe that he was totally innocent at death either. I also think that the continued emphasis on Joseph as a martyr lends credibility to his work that really should be presented on balance with the problems with Joseph's behavior in acting as a tyrant.

So, here are my observations: One person posed what I think was the best question, which is still very difficult to sufficiently answer and that is, "If Joseph were a complete fraud, how could he have withstood all the persecution (namely, being tarred and feathered, beaten, nearly castrated and imprisoned) and still maintained the charade?" My answer to this question is that either he truly believed he had some sort of divine mandate, which is possible, or he stuck it out because the benefits (or potential perceived benefits) were greater in his mind than the persecution. After all, if you are running a program where you have potentially unlimited power over a very fast growing and influential societal group and you are able to sleep with pretty much any woman you want at the same time...maybe that was just too good to give up. In spite of the persecution, I'm sure Joseph was always looking for ways to get out of the trouble he was in. He eventually was able to escape Liberty Jail by bribing the guard(s) and he was able to convince the jailer at Carthage that he needed protection from mobs and was able to stay in the jailers loft above the normal jail. After all, we are talking about an extremely charming, charismatic, personable and influential fellow. He was a master of spin and deception and whatever he couldn't spin in his lifetime was eventually spun by his successors later on. Persecution was especially well spun by Brigham Young (and, I'm sure, enhanced) because he knew the galvanizing effect of persecution on the saints' resolve. I'm sure the persecution heaped on Joseph became more exaggerated as time wore on simply to re-enforce and sustain belief in his prophetic call. Frankly, I can sympathize with those that openly opposed Joseph and even those that resorted to violence against him considering the effect his teachings were to have on existing or surrounding communities in that day. So, in essence, my position is we need to be sure that the persecution we are citing is not exaggerated, number 1, and number 2, in order to be able to answer that question of how he could keep up the charade, we need to understand Joseph's true mindset at that time, which I don't think very many really did in his day.

My next observation was a bit refreshing and somewhat comical. There is this older couple that attend our congregation that are extremely intelligent (I'll call them Bro. and Sis. R.). He is a former stake president counselor and our resident authority on all things surrounding Hebrew history. He is not shy about providing further insight and enlightenment on symbolism and the history of the scriptures. He very much toes-the-company-line as far as the church is concerned. His wife, Sis. R., on the other hand, is extremely intelligent as well, but she comes across as not being so sure about things, at least not as sure as her husband. She is well read on the history of the church and seems to have persistent doubts about several things. She often chuckles when she hears things said over the pulpit and openly questions things she wants to make sure don't make it into the subculture of Mormonism. I absolutely loved it when she spoke in sacrament meeting a few months ago on the story of Job. She began by saying she found the story offensive, likely untrue and therefore she was going to omit discussing the story entirely, instead choosing to focus on other points surrounding the topic of adversity. She brought up many questions in her talk that remained unanswered when she was done, and closed by reiterating her resolve to remain faithful despite her unanswered questions. I think she is a closet unbeliever, but can't go over that line and stay married to her husband, who is the epitome of a pillar in the faith. I really look forward to her comments in Sunday school because she often says what I am thinking. So, when the instructor asked for someone in the class to give a brief synopsis of the events leading up to the death of Joseph Smith, Bro. R. pipes up and offers a classic version of the well spun church tale...updated to include recently acknowledged events.  He said that "church dissidents" (including William Law, former 2nd Counselor in the church first presidency) published a scandalous newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor. Then the city council decided to not permit the paper to continue to be published so they voted to authorize the destruction of the press. He then went on to say that Joseph as the mayor of Nauvoo was within his rights to permit the destruction of the press because of the powers granted to him through his city charter. Frankly I ignored the rest of what he said, because I was really trying to take in this justification. This is, to me, so classic. Since a man writes up a city charter that could potentially violate the rights of a member of that city, it's OK. And should that sort of behavior be encouraged then? Just because I can set up a local government that entitles me to take something that belongs to you and destroy it, that makes it OK? This is such a slippery slope. I wanted to say, "So if I'm the mayor of our city and I want to destroy your property - and it says it is OK in the city charter - does that make it OK? This is the question that is ignored. People should really begin by asking themselves would the behavior be OK if I were on the receiving end? Would it have been OK for a spiritual leader to come and seduce my wife and take her with or without my permission? These are uncomfortable questions that no one likes to consider, so maybe if we ignore them, they will just go away. And so it goes...

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