New article: Review of a paper on “Mormon Transhumanism”

For my reader [emphasis on the singular] out there, I have a new article recently published.

 

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Misrepresenting Church leaders for fun and profit

I have a guest post regarding a fairly egregious misrepresentation of Elder L. Whitney Clayton’s BYU Commencement address.

I’ve noticed the same false claims on other anti- and ex-Mormon sites, which suggests that either none of these folks are bright enough to check the original citation, or they are intentionally distorting the record for their own purposes. Or, perhaps some of both is going on.

http://blog.fairmormon.org/2016/04/29/9425/

A note on a proposed Book of Mormon geography

This is a somewhat technical and fairly esoteric essay.

But, given how badly the author I review stumbles, and given the rather unpleasant way he engages in the discussion and treats those with whom he disagrees, I think it was worth doing.

I don’t expect it will alter any views, but I think we need to at least call attention to bad reasoning and problematic claims, especially when authors or those selling a product use them as a springboard for other things.

http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/from-the-sea-east-even-to-the-sea-west-thoughts-on-a-proposed-book-of-mormon-chiasm-describing-geography-in-alma-2227/

In defense of Bruce Springsteen and Bryan Adams

Recently, rock musicians Bruce Springsteen and Bryan Adams announced that they are declining to hold concerts in two states who have laws which they find morally objectionable.

In other words, Springsteen and Adams are willing to forgo income they usually receive because they do not wish their participation to give the impression that they support or agree with something.

One might ask whether the rockers hope to instigate change by their refusal to offer their services.

I suspect that they would answer that they hope that they do cause change, but taking a moral stance is worth doing for its own sake.

They will presumably sleep a little better at night knowing they were true to their deeper principles, putting a value on something transcendent (freedom of conscience) that is higher than the almighty dollar.

A preemptive response to cynics

Now, it would be easy to be cynical about such actions, but I do not think that warranted.

To be sure, we could label this as merely the social posturing of men who do not really need the money, and will not miss it. A cynic might claim that they will gain more in good will from the rest of their audience than they lose from those whom they exclude from their commerce. These claims might even be true.

But, that isn’t really fair, and it’s hardly relevant anyway. We can’t access their hearts and minds; we can only take them at their word: their sincere convictions mean that to offer their particular service under the circumstances that currently prevail feels immoral to them. And, we might look at their past behavior or expressions of belief to determine if they are sincere in their moral concern. They seem to be.

Hypocrisy?

Now, surely Adams and Springsteen have performed in states or in nations which have laws with which they did not agree. Our cynical observer might therefore accuse them of hypocrisy. Again, I don’t think this is warranted. We all pick the battles we think worth fighting. No one might have assumed that Springsteen (for example) agrees with New Jersey’s tax code simply because he agrees to perform there. But, if Springsteen were to decide that the tax code in New Jersey was egregious enough to warrant speaking out, if only through a refusal to participate in his profession under those conditions, we cannot and should not claim that his moral scruples deserve no respect.

It would be wrong to compel Adams and Springsteen to perform in venues or circumstances which they believe would morally compromise them, even by implication. As Springsteen put it, “some things are more important than a rock show.”

Indeed, few things are more important than the free exercise of conscience.

Fines or jail-time?

Therefore, I wholeheartedly reject any calls to fine them or penalize them with jail-time if they don’t comply and won’t pay up–after all, they have already taken a financial hit for their stance, and there are very possibly other concert-goers who don’t live in the affected states who will choose not to attend a concert because they in their turn disagree with the rockers’ boycott or the moral code which drives it.

So, there will always be costs and risks to such a stance, but those are clearly Adams’ and Springsteen’s to run. The government has no business penalizing them for a sincere expression of conscience. If anything, government exists to prevent anyone from hampering their rights of conscience.

The slippery slope is unlikely

I think worries about a slippery slope (“if we let them do this, soon there will be no music in those states at all”) are farcical. There are other bands and orchestras. Worse case scenario, people can perform their own music locally. Sure, it’s not Springsteen, but it proves that they’re hardly going to have to go without any music at all, even in an implausible worst case scenario.

No one, after all, has any inherent “right” to attend a rock concert. There might well be industries where the bar might be considerably higher: people need food, fuel, housing, lodging, transport, clothes, and the like. If, say, Exxon-Mobile was to stop shipping gasoline to Alabama based upon a moral stance, we might be more troubled. (Boycotts by large companies feel inherently less defensible–Adams and Springsteen are individuals, inseparably connected to their ‘brand’–they are the brand.)

But, even if a large conglomerate like Exxon-Mobile tried something similar, other providers would likely step in and fill the gap. It’s actually much easier for someone to replace Exxon-Mobile than Springsteen or Adams. (Music purists might well debate as to whether this is a compliment, but let’s assume that it is.)

All of this surely means some inconvenience for those in the states embargoed by the Boss and the Canadian Boss. But, despite what some seem to think, none of us has a right to be free from inconvenience–especially at the cost of making someone do something to which they have sincere moral objections.

Historical precedent

In the early days of the American experiment, there was great debate about those who were conscientious objectors–they considered military service to be a grave evil, even in self-defense. Many were also loathe to take “oaths” of truthfulness–this made it difficult for some to trust them in official capacities, such as in positions of public trust or as witnesses in a court case.

It is to the early Americans’ credit that they found a way to handle even these (fairly significant!) inconveniences.

Rather than oaths, objectors were allowed to “solemnly affirm.” That’s an easy fix–a distinction, we might think, without a difference. But, morally, it was significantly different for those affected.

More tricky is the issue of military service. But, even there, those who objected due to sincere religious or moral conviction were exempted from the draft. That’s potentially a major inconvenience to others–I might end up in the army if my conscientious objector neighbor doesn’t serve. And, if everyone is a conscientious objector, the nation might not last long. But, that theoretical problem didn’t materialize in reality, and so the compromise held. If clear disaster is in the offing, we can always reevaluate how much moral objection the society can accommodate without being destroyed.

I think it a great and noble thing to value conscience that highly. The bar for forcing someone to violate their conscience must be high indeed, or freedom and liberty have no meaning. Even–or especially–when we disagree with a moral stance, we must still bow our heads with a bit of reverence to someone willing to cling to it. If nothing else, we’d want the same respect to our own scruples. (And, if we don’t have any such scruples, then we’ve no business lecturing others about theirs, any more than the deaf should explain why Springsteen’s or Adam’s music is junk.)

Conclusion

So, I say “Bravo!” to Springsteen and Adams for declining to participate in a commercial exchange that they sincerely believe implicates them in something deeply immoral. I hope I’d have at least as much courage in similar circumstances.

It’s a great idea, in the spirit of that which is best in the American and liberal (in the traditional sense) tradition.

So great, in fact, that maybe conservative Christian florists, Orthodox Jewish cake bakers, and devout Muslim wedding photographers ought to take notice.

Maybe this is an approach they should look into?

I’m surprised they haven’t thought of it.

Praising and Complaining About an Apostle

A few days ago, Elder M. Russell Ballard gave a timely talk to teachers and parents about promoting and sustaining faith in young people.[1] Many welcomed it as a useful and inspired summary of principles which he and others have long advocated.

One thing troubled me, however, as I watched the reaction of Church members who discussed it on social media. And it troubled me because they were members.

The troubling side-show

In almost the next breath, many of those who were publicly applauding his talk’s content soon switched to complaining. Why complaining? Because Elder Ballard had also mentioned the importance of marriage in LDS doctrine and theology, and this troubled some members who are at present single.

Some wished they had not heard this section. One man faulted the apostle for not providing any concrete examples of how a single member could alter this current state of affairs. Others postured that they had merely been thrown a consolation prize of being assured that life would be better in the hereafter. And so on.

I do not deny—as the leaders of the Church have pain at pains not to deny—that being single can be a painful burden, especially in a Church and theology that holds out marriage and parenthood as a divine summit.[2] (Single members sometimes forget, however, that we currently-married members were once single in our turn, and so do know something about that experience.)

And, I realize that if something touches an area of pain for us, we can occasionally “react” rather than think. Yet, I found the display troubling. People actually went to the trouble of putting their reaction down on digital paper, as it were, and spreading it about. That takes some forethought and intent.

Unsurprisingly, those who were excited by the talk seemed to be those who had long believed in or advocated for a similar approach in the Church’s youth curriculum and seminary program. This too is understandable—it can be gratifying when our concerns, intuitions, or inspirations are validated and publicly endorsed by someone with priesthood authority. This not only confirms our personal strivings and our sensitivity to God’s Spirit, but it can smooth the way to implementing them locally when an apostle endorses such an effort.

There was, however, an incredible irony in this display of enthusiastic praise followed by grumbling and complaining. In the first breath, they were praising Elder Ballard’s talk and saying how wonderful it was. But, in the very next breath, they were criticizing a relatively small section of that talk for being either untrue, or unhelpful, or hurtful, or whatever.

A difficult but necessary question

This raises a difficult question, which we might all do well to ask ourselves—when we rejoice in apostolic or prophetic teaching, are we rejoicing because it is apostolic and prophetic, or are we rejoicing because they happen to agree with us?

From what I saw, I fear that in some cases there was a definite slant toward the latter. “Finally,” some seemed to suggest, “an apostle has got it together and said what I’ve long known needed to be said.” This was swiftly followed by, “Now, if only they would get on board on this other issue of how to give (or avoid) counsel about marriage. Then I could have enjoyed the meeting fully. Close, but no cigar.”

In a sense, such apostolic guidance is thus seen as valuable and praiseworthy not because it represents the inspired word of the Lord to members of the Church, and not even because it is true (though those who praised it certainly believed that it was true), but instead because it allows a somewhat Nietzchean power play—apostles have social power and authority, and so that power and authority can be leveraged by me for my purposes to get my ideas ratified.

Put another way, are some not relieved that their intuitions were correct (because they knew that already), but instead happy that their previous certainties can now more easily be implemented?

Three possibilities

It seems to me that there are three possibilities regarding Elder Ballard’s remarks about marriage. These options are:

  1. They are a summary and reaffirmation of inspired prophetic teachings on the subject, acceptably expressed;
  2. They are a summary and reaffirmation of inspired prophetic teachings on the subject, marred by an insensitive delivery or unhelpful approach;
  3. They are mistaken.

Let us consider these in reverse order.

Mistaken?

We certainly hold no doctrine of apostolic or prophetic infallibility in the Church. But, even if we presume that the counsel was mistaken—why would one undermine an apostle who is also advocating a course that we too endorse? After all, if he is mistaken about the marriage issue—why not assume he’s equally mistaken about curriculum? Why undercut the authority I hope to appeal to on the matter of teaching and curriculum?

This looks like an attempt to maintain superiority and control in our own eyes, or others’: we demonstrate how critical and unsparing we are, how well we distinguish truth from error. No one sneaks anything by us!

Or, it’s an effort that reveals the underlying problem—we see ourselves and our beliefs and priorities as normative. Thus, when an apostle agrees with me, he’s right. If he doesn’t, then he’s mistaken or insensitive at best. We’re back to using our endorsement of an apostle’s talk as nothing more than an exercise of social power.

Correct but insensitive?

All the above considerations apply here—if we don’t agree with prophetic infallibility, we believe even less in prophetic stylistic perfection.

If Elder Ballard was correct, but simply poorly phrased, all the less reason to break out the rhetorical knives on Twitter or Facebook. We risk becoming like those who rejected Peter because he had not been to the right schools (Acts 4:13), or Moses because he was slow of speech (Exodus 4:10), or Samuel because he was a Lamanite (Helaman 13), or Jesus because he came from the backwater Nazareth (John 1:46; John 7:52).

We join those who dismiss a prophet because he has an accent, or a speech impediment, or because of the cut of his clothes.

If what he is teaching is true, oughtn’t we to endorse and push it to all—not murmur and fault-find to give others a potential excuse to ignore the truth?

Correct, full stop?

And, finally, if this is the case—and I personally think that it is—we have even less excuse. We might pause and ask, however, whether our desire to find fault or minimize the authority of apostolic counsel reflects fear that we aren’t doing all we can in an area that pains, saddens, and frightens us.

But really, what other purpose is there in prophets and apostles?

If they are merely instruments of social power to enable us to push our own agenda, why bother? Life is too short to waste on a faith that operates that way, the embodiment of all the worst atheist caricatures about religion.

If they are so fallible that I substitute my conviction of my own correctness whenever I disagree—unwilling even to remain quietly questioning while I wait upon the Lord—why have them? You or I could do as well.

But, if they truly are prophets, watchmen on the tower—who see further and better not because of any innate worthiness or merit[3] but principally because of the divine authority given them and in which we ostensibly sustain them—shouldn’t my discomfort at some teaching or phrasing at least give me pause?

Should my first reaction perhaps not be to rush onto Facebook or my blog to air my grievances or cluck my tongue? Even if I don’t need to hear a particular message, am I so sure that many others do not? And, if they do, am I not guilty of a grave sin if I through my murmuring and complaints impair others’ ability to hear it?

Conclusion

In this particular case, I have it easy. I agreed with everything he said. Rejoicing was easy.

But, the day will undoubtedly come when I do not, at least at first blush. (In fact, I’ve had such experiences in the past, and so fully expect I will have them again. There is not, I think, any shame or sin in that. What matters is how we respond.)

This is the danger and difficulty with living oracles, which religions have always striven to tame: you cannot control a live prophet, while dead ones committed to the page can be massaged and finessed. But, it is also the power and necessity of them. As President Eyring noted years ago,

Leo Strauss, in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophies, had it right when he saw that the prophets give us the greatest gift when they tell us truth which does not square with our reason. He said: “True prophets, regardless of whether they predict doom or salvation, predict the unexpected, the humanly unforeseeable. What would not occur to men, left to themselves, to fear or to hope.”[4]

So, I write this now so that the judge of memory may hold me more strictly to account when my own next trial comes in such a matter, as it must for everyone.

ENDNOTES

[1]An Evening With Elder Ballard: How To Achieve Mature, Lasting Conversion to the Gospel,” lds.org (26 February 2016).

[2] I hope to say more about this another time. For one recent example, however, see Dallin H. Oaks and Kirsten M. Oaks, “Trust in Heaven’s Timing,” 146 stake broadcast from Marriot Center, BYU (16 September 2012), reproduced in Ensign (February 2016).

[3] Though I hasten to add I regard them all as people of great worthiness and merit.

[4] Henry B. Eyring, “Faith, Authority, and Scholarship,” in On Becoming a Disciple–Scholar, edited by Henry B. Eyring (Bookcraft, Salt Lake, 1995), 64.