Monday, August 14, 2017

Questions, Doubts, and Faith Crises

By all accounts, quite a few Mormons are leaving the faith, and many more are entertaining serious questions about the Church. I certainly belong to the latter group. It sort of comes with the territory, I suppose.
Most of my ward members and probably most of you out there in the blogosphere live a very different life than I do. If you work full time, you may go to your job every day and write computer code or teach biology or install heating and air conditioning or help people with wills and trusts or manage a restaurant or build cabinets or do any number of “ordinary” jobs that keep the economy humming. But I go to work every day and deal full time with Mormonism. I am the editorial director at BYU Studies, where we publish the oldest Mormon studies journal as well as a variety of books on Mormonish topics. We don’t do Mormon romances or rah-rah inspirational books. We’re a scholarly publisher, so I deal primarily with articles and books written by professors or certain nonpedigreed scholars. BYU Studies Quarterly is also a multidisciplinary Mormon studies journal, so I get quite an education. I’ve edited articles on everything from cosmology and engineering to music and translation theory. And we publish a lot of LDS history. I have to learn enough about these topics to ask intelligent questions and get a sense for when the authors may be stretching the evidence too far or perhaps giving a one-sided account of some issue. In other words, I get paid to be a skeptic. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Experienced editors tend to look for inconsistencies—in grammar, in usage, in logic, in reasoning, in content, and in sources. So, much of what I read raises questions in my mind.
A significant part of my job is to keep abreast of what’s going on in Mormon studies, and the field is exploding, so this is no easy task. I counted up the other day, and I figure I’ve read over sixty books in the field of Mormon studies in the past ten to fifteen years. I also read Dialogue, Sunstone, Journal of Mormon History, Mormon Historical Studies, and pieces of The Religious Educator. In addition to all this paper reading, I spend a little time each day reading what interests me in the bloggernacle. All this is to give me enough context to judge between what’s reputable scholarship and what is a stretch. Looking into Mormonism in that sort of breadth and depth tends to produce lots of questions. Honestly, I have more questions than anyone I know.
But I have a little trouble relating to some of the terms the Church uses to describe people who ask questions. We often hear the terms “faith crisis” or “doubt.” But I’ve never felt these terms really describe my mental state. “Doubt” is especially problematic, since it is rarely defined or placed in any sort of useful context. We talk vaguely about those who doubt, but everyone doubts something (if not, then they’re just gullible). Church leaders use this term in a nebulous way that perhaps refers to people who aren’t sure that the Church or the Book of Mormon is true or that Joseph Smith was right all the time. But this word usually isn’t defined in a helpful way. If you’re going to talk about doubts, you’d better be very specific about what it is exactly that you think people doubt, because not all doubts are created equal. That’s why I don’t really consider myself a “doubter.” Of course I have doubts, lots of them. But I never doubt anything that I am certain is true. It is the notion of certainty that is problematic for me.
I prefer to frame things in terms of belief. I believe all sorts of things. And my beliefs are not set in stone. When I learn something new—and I am learning constantly—my beliefs inevitably shift. I’ve said before that if you believe the same things you did last year, then you haven’t learned anything new in that time. New information inevitably shapes what we believe. In essence, the more I learn, the less I am certain of, because I see more context, more possibilities, and more connections. I realize that something I may have been sure of at one point in my life isn’t as simple or as cut and dried as I assumed. So I have learned to be cautious, to think things through more thoroughly. This isn’t doubt. I see it as just being responsible with information. When, for instance, I encounter two doctrines that seem inconsistent, I have to reconsider all the data in order to decide what I believe, and this inevitably results in a more nuanced understanding of what I believe. The gospel is neither simply beautiful nor beautifully simple to those who take it seriously enough to dig beneath the surface. It’s all rather complicated.
Take spirit birth as an example. You may not have read my recent Dialogue article on “The Source of God’s Authority.”1 In the first part of this article, I give an overview of how our doctrine of premortality has changed and developed over the years. After considering all this information, I have decided that what makes most sense to me is what Joseph Smith was teaching in Nauvoo, not what he was teaching in Kirtland or what the Church eventually landed on in the early twentieth century. Joseph taught in Nauvoo that our spirits cannot be created. This is in direct conflict with, say, the book of Moses or what the Proclamation on the Family says, but it’s what makes most sense to me at this point. To the best of our current knowledge, Joseph never taught spirit birth, at least not publicly. For this and other reasons, I prefer the notion that God found us in our spirit state and covenanted with us to become our Father, through adoption. The numbers contribute to my current belief. I’ve estimated that, according to Mormon assumptions, God must have had between 200 and 300 billion children, just for this earth (counting Lucifer’s host, whether one third or just a “third part,” whatever that means). And that is in many ways a conservative estimate. The data is in the appendices to my article. This figure, of course, is just for one of God’s numberless worlds. Having that many children through some process similar to mortal conception, gestation, and birth is problematic, to say the least, even with polygamy gone galactic.
Anyway, this is what I do. I come upon conflicting doctrines or beliefs or historical accounts that somehow don’t add up, and I have to work out what makes the most sense to me. And as I get more information, of course my beliefs shift. So, you could say I doubt, I guess, if you mean that I doubt some of the standard doctrines of the Church or the notion that prophets never make mistakes or teach things that aren’t exactly true. But I prefer to frame these things instead as evolving beliefs, not doubts. I’m just trying to understand truth. And there has never been a “faith crisis.” That term just seems off to me. I’m not experiencing a crisis. What I do is very methodical and patient. I’m not in a hurry, and I’m not going anywhere (like leaving the Church). I just want to understand truth as best I can. And this sometimes gets me, as former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan would put it, crossways with the Church.
Several years ago, I reached the conclusion that it wasn’t my responsibility to defend either Joseph Smith or the Church on everything. This is what apologists do, and as Patrick Mason put it, it has resulted in us defending some forsaken outposts that we never had any business defending. It has caused a lot of problems for the Church. So I figure it is my responsibility to defend the truth, whatever it may be. But before I’m going to defend something vigorously, I have to be pretty sure about it. Truth is not that easy to know with any degree of certainty. I’ll talk about my beliefs and even write articles arguing for my point of view, but I’m not insisting that I’m right. I could very well be wrong, although in the “Source of God’s Authority” article, I explain how I really don’t see any other options than my conclusion, given what we do know and assume.
So, for you doubters out there and you people going through supposed faith crises, don’t be afraid of your doubts. We have every right to doubt things that don’t make sense. And maybe a faith crisis isn’t a crisis after all. Maybe it’s just a step along the path to gaining more knowledge—and more context, more nuance, more depth, more awareness of life’s inherent complexity. Often more knowledge translates into less certainty but more humility, less comfort but greater curiosity, less rigid loyalty to institutional thought patterns but more freedom to believe.
1. Roger Terry, “The Source of God’s Authority: One Argument for an Unambiguous Doctrine of Preexistence,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 49, no. 3 (Fall 2016): 109–44. A preliminary version of this article can be found on this blog in three consecutive posts beginning at

Monday, August 7, 2017

Taking a Gamble on Prayer

I don’t know about you, but most of my prayers are not answered in the way I want. Maybe this is just evidence that I don’t know much about prayer. We’re sometimes told that if we have the Spirit with us, it will teach us what to pray for. Then we’ll pray for only those things that God wants us to have. But that seems to defeat the purpose of prayer. If I pray for only what God wants to give me, then where’s agency? Are we just supposed to go mute in the face of terrible needs that only God can satisfy but refuses to? No, I don’t buy that approach to prayer. In the Book of Mormon, Amulek tells us to pray for everything under the sun—your flocks and fields and crops, your household, even your situation with your enemies (Alma 34:18–27). He doesn’t say to just pray for prosperity if God tells you to pray for prosperity. No, you’re supposed to pray that your crops and flocks will increase (maybe today that would be our salaries and stocks). So I’ll just go right on praying for lots of things God apparently doesn’t want to give me.
On the Zelophehad’s Daughters blog, Ziff has recently posted his confession that he doesn’t believe in a God who intervenes in daily life. This caught me off-guard at first glance. But he posits that every faith-promoting story is also a faith-destroying story, because for every miracle someone claims, “multitudes of other people have faced the same conflict and have not gotten the same miraculous resolution.” How do we reconcile that? I think I’d have to agree with his statement, but I’m not sure I agree that God doesn’t intervene at all in daily life. I do believe in occasional miracles. For every miracle healing I’ve seen, though, there have been dozens of similar cases where God has seemingly turned a deaf ear to the prayers of not just the afflicted, but also his or her family, friends, and fellow ward and stake members. And it’s not a matter of faith. Faith seems to play no role at all in the outcome.
Don lived in our ward until a few years ago. He was miraculously cured of cancer after priesthood blessings and chemo. There’s really no way he should have lived, but he did. And he’s still alive and kicking almost twenty years later. He insisted that everyone could be likewise healed if they just had faith. I disagree. We’ve had other members of our ward whose faith was every bit as strong as Don’s, who also received priesthood blessings, whose family members prayed with great faith, and who had what they felt were spiritual confirmations that they would be healed. But they are dead. Their prayers were not answered the way they were sure they would be. Same with my dentist, who was in a stake presidency and was one of the finest men I’ve known. But he too is dead, after an excruciating and expensive battle with a horrible form of cancer—despite great faith, priesthood blessings, ward fasts, and what he took as spiritual assurances that he would be healed.
In my own life, for every rare instance where I feel my prayer has been answered, there have been hundreds of other instances where my equally desperate pleas have bounced off the ceiling and faded into oblivion. This can be perplexing.
I once read a statement that I just can’t get out of my head: “God is more like a slot machine than a vending machine.” You can find this bit of wisdom in various Christian books and websites. I’m pretty sure I came across it in a Dialogue article. I have to admit that the longer I live, the more I agree with it. Sure, it sounds a bit sacrilegious, but it comes as close to explaining my observations of God’s interactions with his children as anything I’ve seen.
Let’s look a bit more closely, though. God is certainly not like a vending machine, where you insert your money, push a button, and out comes the candy bar or sandwich or soda of your choice. Now, Don claims that for his stepmother God was indeed like a vending machine. He claimed her prayers were always answered, often in bizarre and improbable ways. Once, for instance, when she and Don’s dad were driving to Alaska, they blew out a tire on a stretch of highway some 200 miles from the nearest town. They had already used the spare, so they were rather stuck. Of course, Don’s stepmother prayed and asked for help. Don’s father, meanwhile, had to take a leak, so he wandered off through trees on the side of the road to find a more secluded spot. On his trek through the undergrowth, he literally stumbled over something. Lo and behold, it was a tire on a rim that exactly fit their truck. It was even inflated. Don claimed this was just par for the course for his stepmom. I am a bit skeptical. For most of us, prayer is not at all like a vending machine.
But what about the slot machine analogy. The more I consider it, the more I like it. Slot machines do actually operate on random chance, to a degree. The spin of the wheels (which nowadays are usually not wheels at all but computer-generated images, is random, sort of. What comes up on each spin is based on a random number generator, but the house can determine the frequency at which each image will appear. It’s all based on probability theory. So, with relatively high accuracy, the casino knows how much money its slots will pay out, even though there’s no way to tell when it will happen. Over time, of course, the payout is always far less than the money being fed into the slots. This is why they are so profitable.
Well, what about God? I suppose that even though answers to prayers may look fairly random to us, they really aren’t. Just as nobody outside casino management sees the par sheet that determines slot machine payout, we are also not privy to whatever algorithm God may use to determine which prayers get answered and which don’t. There are obviously a lot of factors in the equation that determines when a prayer is answered. And understanding these factors is far above our pay grade.
For me, this makes faith in God a rather severe challenge. It’s hard to exercise faith when you know that the odds of having your prayer answered are rather slim. I’m at heart an idealist. But when reality keeps blowing holes in your idealism, the common result is cynicism. I have made the observation before, for instance, that God protects his missionaries . . . except when he doesn’t. I saw this firsthand, since two of my fellow missionaries in Hamburg died while I was there, one from a brain aneurysm, the other from being hit by a car. You can make a similar observation for almost every aspect of our dealings with God. There are always exceptions to blanket statements, sometimes thousands of exceptions. And we don’t get to see God’s par sheet.
Last month I took a little vacation to San Diego. My wife, our second son, and I drove there from our home in Orem. We stopped overnight in Mesquite, Nevada, and I decided to try an experiment. We wandered into the casino. I hadn’t played the slots since I was a kid. My, things have changed. The one-armed bandits still have a lever that spins the wheel, although this could just as easily be accomplished with the push of a button or the touch of a screen. The slots have changed too. They no longer accept quarters or nickels. They’ll take your credit card now, a marvelously efficient way of transferring your money to the casino. But they’ll also take federal reserve notes. So my son and I each spent a dollar on this experiment. Troy struck out on his four spins (we were at the quarter machines that don’t accept quarters). On my third spin, I struck it rich. It’s not like it used to be, though. No coins come clattering out of the machine. No, the machine just notifies you that you have received a credit. In my case, I received a credit for one extra spin. Whoopee! So I got five spins for my dollar. And the casino still got two dollars.
My experiment was to see if the slot machine would be any more profitable than my prayers. And, actually, one in five is probably a lot better than my “winning percentage” with prayer. I’m pretty sure, though, that if I’d been more adventurous in Mesquite, my percentage would have dropped to the house average.
I’ve often wondered why some people burn a lot of money playing the slots. Maybe they don’t really expect to win. Maybe they’re like my old business partner, Rich. We went to a trade show in Reno one year, and he wanted to play 21. He took one $20 bill with him, and I went along to watch. For Rich, it wasn’t about trying to get rich. He was already Rich. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) For him, it was just entertainment, like going to a movie. My entertainment was watching him lose money. He allotted $20 for the evening. His entertainment was to see how long he could make that $20 last. As I recall, it didn’t last long. Maybe that’s how some diehard slot players see it. It’s just entertainment, and they don’t expect to win. But somehow I don’t think so. I suspect most are hoping for that rare payout—hitting the jackpot.
I also wonder how often my prayers are based on just such a hope. I must admit that I have hit the jackpot a couple of times in my life—at least I believe so. But my winning percentage isn’t very good. And I’ve never known whether it was my prayer that brought about the “win” or whether it would have happened anyway without prayer. Whatever the case, I suppose I’ll keep on dropping quarters and pulling the lever. You never know what might happen.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Trump Is the Best Thing That Could Have Happened to America

If you’ve been reading this blog for the past year, you are probably wondering if I’ve gone off the deep end. But I’m serious. And let me explain why.
First, let me suggest that even though I voted for Hillary Clinton, I think a Clinton presidency would have been a disaster. Not because she would have been a bad president who favored policies detrimental to the country. No, but because she would have enabled the Republicans to continue on the same path they had become so comfortable with, gaining power by spreading nonsense, obstructing good policy, and blaming the Democrats for the dysfunction in Washington. It would have been four more years of what we saw under Obama. And I believe Obama was an excellent president. But his presence made possible what the Republicans do best: obstructing and creating meaningless legislation (ACA repeals, for instance) just to score political points.
But now, with the GOP in control of both houses of Congress and the White House, they are in a position where they actually have to govern. They have to put their ideology into practice in the form of policy. So now the American people are getting a full view of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the Republican Party as they try to turn political sloganeering into governing. It’s not pretty. And it’s not going to get any prettier.
Exhibits A and B are the House’s AHCA (which I have dubbed the Abominable Health Care Act) and the Senate’s BCRA (the Beneficial Care Reduction Act), two legislative Siamese twins that are so horrendous that every medical association and retiree organization and insurance provider is vehemently opposed to them. The AHCA was polling at 12 percent approval when it was rammed through by the House Republicans and then celebrated in the Rose Garden with the Tweeter in Chief. These shameful pieces of legislation were concocted in an effort to repeal the ACA, but they showed a devastating ignorance of the complexity of our health care system, as well as a disturbing lack of compassion for the neediest in our society. What these health-care bills did, however, was to reveal the real priorities of the GOP. The Republicans were perfectly willing to take health insurance from over 20 million Americans so that they could give massive tax cuts to the wealthy. Of course they tried to spin this in a positive light, but almost everyone saw through the charade.
In a perverse way, I almost wish they had succeeded. Then we could have seen in even more graphic detail the effects of their ideology, and it would have been thoroughly rejected by the American people. Hopefully, though, getting that close to disaster will wake a lot of people up. But in the meantime, I am grateful for the belated negative vote of cancer-stricken Senator John McCain.
Health care, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. Republican efforts at tax reform will be extremely revealing. They are certain to follow the same pattern: tax cuts for the wealthy, paid for by reductions in aid to the poor and sick and elderly.
For a few decades now, the Republicans have been in the business of paying lip-service to the poor and the middle class, and then pursuing policies that favor wealthy individuals and large corporations.
Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman explores the roots of the intellectual and moral degeneration of the Republican Party in an editorial this week titled “Who Ate Republicans’ Brains?” Referring to their health-care misadventures, he writes, “When they finally got their chance at repeal, the contrast between what they had promised and their actual proposals produced widespread and justified public revulsion. But the stark dishonesty of the Republican jihad against Obamacare itself demands an explanation. For it went well beyond normal political spin: for seven years a whole party kept insisting that black was white and up was down.
“And that kind of behavior doesn’t come out of nowhere. The Republican health care debacle was the culmination of a process of intellectual and moral deterioration that began four decades ago, at the very dawn of modern movement conservatism—that is, during the very era anti-Trump conservatives now point to as the golden age of conservative thought.”
Krugman identifies a key moment in the 1970s, when “Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism, embraced supply-side economics—the claim, refuted by all available evidence and experience, that tax cuts pay for themselves by boosting economic growth. Writing years later, he actually boasted about valuing political expediency over intellectual integrity: ‘I was not certain of its economic merits but quickly saw its political possibilities.’ In another essay, he cheerfully conceded to having had a ‘cavalier attitude toward the budget deficit,’ because it was all about creating a Republican majority—so ‘political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government.’”
In case you don’t make the connection, Krugman explains it: “The problem is that once you accept the principle that it’s O.K. to lie if it helps you win elections, it gets ever harder to limit the extent of the lying—or even to remember what it’s like to seek the truth. . . . Given this history, the Republican health care disaster was entirely predictable. You can’t expect good or even coherent policy proposals from a party that has spent decades embracing politically useful lies and denigrating expertise.”
And this philosophy runs the gamut from health care and tax reform to climate change and environmental stewardship. There has been a terrible dearth on the Right of any inclination to pay the intellectual price to understand the nuances and complexities of the issues that plague modern society. They have been content to embrace simplistic, politically expedient doctrines and empty, disingenuous slogans that appeal to disgruntled but ignorant voters.
So, how do we connect the dots to Donald Trump? It isn’t hard. Let’s start with Krugman’s term “politically useful lies.” Has there ever been a public figure who is a pathological liar on the level of Donald Trump? At one point during the election, Politifact calculated that Trump was lying at a rate of about 78 percent. If I had to guess, I would say that this has increased since he took over the presidency. If he says something, you can be quite sure that it is false. He doesn’t just contradict his own staff and cabinet. He repeatedly contradicts himself. And of course one lie leads to another. When you can’t admit you’ve been dishonest, you just keep digging a deeper hole, hoping to cover previous lies with more dirt.
Let’s again use health care as an example. During the campaign, Trump promised, among other things, that everyone would be covered. He said in February of 2016 that coverage for everyone was “​just human decency,” an odd statement from someone who has no concept of human decency. In 2015, he stated: “​I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not.” He added: “​The government’s gonna pay for it.” In October 2015, he tweeted, “I am going to save Medicare and Medicaid.” In January of this year, Trump claimed that his plan would include “lower numbers, much lower deductibles.” But of course he has enthusiastically supported both the AHCA and the BCRA, which would strip health care from over 20 million Americans, largely through gutting Medicaid, and would increase deductibles and premiums. These are just a few examples of “politically useful lies.”
Of course, Trump didn’t fool any of the Republican establishment with his boasts and falsehoods. Obviously, no Republicans in the House or Senate took any of these statements at face value when they concocted their horrid health-care bills. They have supported and enabled him primarily because they assumed he would rubber-stamp any cockeyed bill they sent him, regardless of how awful it might be.
And this symbiotic relationship shows just how morally vacuous the Republican Party has become. They knew exactly who and what Trump was from the outset of the campaign. If you want a sampling of what Republican leaders said about Trump on his road to the presidency, click here.
These statements are pretty brutal, but Trump’s presidency thus far has shown that all of them are accurate assessments of the man. If anything, his presidency has revealed that he is actually worse than advertised. We knew he was a sleazy businessman, but I think the corruption and depravity we have seen in the White House thus far exceeds even our worst expectations. He did indeed drain the swamp. But he turned it into a cesspool.
And yet all of these Republican leaders, with the possible exception of John Kasich, have fallen in line to one degree or another and have been Trump’s apologists, cheerleaders, and enablers. All because they think he might enable them in return to enact legislation that will harm the needy, enrich the already wealthy, and turn businesses loose to pollute and create other problems for individuals and society. This is the result of what Krugman described above—a party that determined some time ago that it would embrace politically useful lies in order to win elections and gain power. And don’t fall for the myth that this is simply the way things are in Washington. That is another Republican lie. Yes, the Democrats are imperfect. But the disease afflicting the Republican Party has not been contracted on the Left. For the most part, they are focused on policy that can enable government to serve the needs of the people.
Sometimes Democrats have a difficult time explaining their policies and intentions in catchy soundbites, but this is because they are so concerned with the details, which happen to be extremely complex and nuanced. Because of this, they often do not agree with each other, and so they do not have a conveniently simplistic ideology that can be summed up in catchphrases, bumper stickers, and tweets. Disagree with their positions, if you will, but don’t accuse them of the sort of moral and intellectual vacuum that the Republicans have nurtured.
Whatever moral superiority the Republican Party has claimed in the past, with its supposed devotion to “family values” and its catering to the evangelical bloc of Christian voters, any moral standing is now entirely lost with the party’s embrace of Donald Trump. And what concerns me is how many of my fellow Mormons have followed the Republican Party down this path of corruption and dishonesty without blinking an eye. All because they belong to the Republican tribe.
LDS Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has just released a book that takes his own party (and himself) to task for these very faults. Most political commentators shrug this off as a last-ditch effort by a Never-Trumper who is about to get the heave-ho in Arizona. And it is highly unlikely that the Republican establishment will pay any attention to his warnings, but the highlights from his book that appeared on sounded pretty accurate to me. I rarely agree with a Republican, but I’m on board with Flake.
The Republican Party has a dilemma. They have adopted and enabled Trump, who appears to be not just a narcissist, a bully, and a pathological liar, but also mentally unbalanced, vindictive, authoritarian, ignorant, bigoted, amoral, corrupt, incompetent, and dangerous—all the things his challengers in the Republican primary accused him of being. But the party elders have embraced him, slime and all, and now he is the face of their party, ugly and pathetic and losing popularity fast (approval rating down to 33 percent this week). They can do one of two things—get rid of him through impeachment or ride his limousine to their own demise. Either way, though, they will not come through this intact. The Republican Party is at a crossroads. There will be one sort of drastic change or another, neither of them what they hoped for, and neither of them capable of keeping the party in power. They will either excise the malignancy of Trump and in the process lose a large part of their base that still supports the madman. Or they can continue to pretend he is acceptable and lose the more rational portion of their supporters, including pretty much all independents, who by now are disgusted with the chaos and corruption coming out of the White House.
Either way, the GOP is going to have to finally rethink some of its favorite principles, which simply do not work in the complex and increasingly unequal modern society we inhabit. This is a good thing. And Trump has hastened it, perhaps the only good he will accomplish in his presidency.