Monday, April 23, 2018

Explicit and Implicit Doctrines in the Book of Mormon


There are doctrines in the Book of Mormon that are taught explicitly, and there are doctrines that can be inferred from the event described in the narrative. Sometimes these explicit and implicit doctrines do not square with each other. Let me give two examples. And let me mention at the outset that all Book of Mormon quotations will come from Skousen’s Earliest Text, because I want to come as close as I can to what Joseph actually dictated, not what decades of editing have produced.

The Memo Problem
A dilemma for Christian scholars over the centuries has been referred to as the soteriological problem of evil, or the memo problem (billions of God’s children didn’t get the gospel memo). This dilemma results from the incoherence of two Christian doctrines and one irrefutable fact: (1) God is loving and just and wants all of his children to be saved; (2) salvation comes only through an acceptance of Jesus Christ; and (3) billions of God’s children have lived and died without ever having heard about Jesus. This is a perplexing problem, about which much has been written. And the Book of Mormon weighs in on it very explicitly.
Jacob, Abinadi, and Mormon all agree that those who die without hearing the gospel are saved through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Abinadi even goes so far as to say that these people receive eternal life, although in the Book of Mormon that term does not mean what it means in modern Mormonism. It is simply another expression for salvation, or going to heaven, the ultimate reward in Book of Mormon theology.
Jacob declares: “Wherefore he has given a law. And where there is no law given there is no punishment, and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation, and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel hath claim upon them because of the atonement, for they are delivered by the power of him. For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who hath not the law given to them, that they are delivered from that awful monster, death and hell, and the devil and the lake of fire and brimstone which is endless torment; and they are restored to that God who gave them breath, which is the Holy One of Israel” (2 Ne. 9:25–26).
Abinadi agrees: “And now the resurrection of all the prophets and all those that have believed in their words—or all those that have kept the commandments of God—these shall come forth in the first resurrection; therefore they are the first resurrection. They are raised to dwell with God, who hath redeemed them. Thus they have eternal life through Christ, who hath broken the bands of death. And these are those who have part in the first resurrection, and these are they that have died before Christ came, in their ignorance, not having salvation declared unto them. And thus the Lord bringeth about the restoration of these, and they have a part in the first resurrection, or hath eternal life, being redeemed by the Lord” (Mosiah 15:22–24).
Mormon, in his letter to Moroni about child baptism, includes a similar claim about those who died in ignorance: “For behold that all little children are alive in Christ, and also all they that are without the law, for the power of redemption cometh on all they that have no law. Wherefore he that is not condemned—or he that is under no condemnation—cannot repent, and unto such baptism availeth nothing” (Moro. 8:22).
This is of course a problematic doctrine, one that we completely reject today in the Church. If those who died without hearing the good news of the gospel are saved, or given eternal life, through the mercy and grace of Christ, then missionary work is not only unnecessary but ultimately counterproductive, because people would be accountable and may be damned if they hear the word and reject it. But if they never hear the gospel, they are automatically saved. Likewise, family history and temple work would be completely unnecessary.
Because this is an unsatisfactory doctrine, Joseph Smith rejected it. Charles Harrell, in his book This Is My Doctrine, shows how this doctrine went through at least three stages of development before arriving at what we now accept. The first step came in February 1832 with the Vision, now recorded in D&C 76. Here, those who die without the law inherit the terrestrial glory (D&C 76:72–74). The next stage came in January 1836 with Joseph’s vision of his brother Alvin in the celestial kingdom. Here those who die without the restored gospel receive the celestial kingdom if they “would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry” (D&C 137:7). They are judged “according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts” (D&C 137:9), without any need for the ordinance of baptism or the as yet unrevealed temple ordinances. The final stage in the development of this doctrine began in 1840 with Joseph’s introduction of baptism for the dead. This evolved over the years into our current program of baptizing, endowing, and sealing the dead. A far cry from what we read in the Book of Mormon.
But it appears from the Nephite narrative that they didn’t believe Jacob, Abinadi, or Mormon. There is an implicit doctrine that carries through the entire book. Preaching the gospel to the ignorant is seen as a necessity. The sons of Mosiah were “desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble” (Mosiah 28:3). But if Jacob, Abinadi, and Mormon are to be believed, this was a needless anxiety. In fact, by going to the Lamanites and preaching to them, they ensured that thousands who heard their words and rejected them would suffer eternal torment. If they had just stayed home and ruled the kingdom, all those Lamanites would have been automatically saved through the Atonement of Christ. And their missionary effort is not unique. The theme runs through the whole Nephite narrative. Preaching the gospel to the ignorant is viewed as a high priority. Amulek insists that this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God” (Alma 34:32). It is obvious from the Nephite narrative that the implicit doctrine is at odds with the explicit theology taught by three different prophets.

Modalism among the Nephites?
The second example is a bit messier. For this doctrine, there is only one extended explicit theological explanation, but there are several brief references, some of which can be interpreted in various ways. I became aware of this second example when LDS theologian David Paulsen sent a book manuscript to us at BYU Studies. The book has not been published, but in the manuscript Paulsen and two coauthors attempt to refute the notion that the Book of Mormon teaches modalism.1 They are mostly successful, but I think their blanket conclusion does not fit all the evidence they present. The notion of explicit teachings not exactly matching the implicit teachings comes closer to the mark, in my opinion.
According to Theopedia, “Modalism, also called Sabellianism, is the unorthodox belief that God is one person who has revealed himself in three forms or modes in contrast to the Trinitarian doctrine where God is one being eternally existing in three persons. According to Modalism, during the incarnation, Jesus was simply God acting in one mode or role, and the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was God acting in a different mode. Thus, God does not exist as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the same time. Rather, He is one person and has merely manifested himself in these three modes at various times. Modalism thus denies the basic distinctiveness and coexistence of the three persons of the Trinity.”
The most obvious place where the doctrine of modalism appears to be taught in the Book of Mormon is again Abinadi’s preaching to the priests of King Noah: “I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God; and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son, the Father because he was conceived by the power of God and the Son because of the flesh, thus becoming the Father and Son—and they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and earth—and thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation and yieldeth not to the temptation, but suffereth himself to be mocked and scourged and cast out and disowned by his people” (Mosiah 15:1–5).
Some of this doctrine is admittedly confusing, but portions of it definitely do sound like a form of modalism. Paulsen and his coauthors grant that this passage is hard to not see as modalism, but they also try to spin it in a different direction.
Other passages in the Book of Mormon also appear to lean toward a modalistic concept of God. For instance, in 3 Nephi 1:14, Jesus, speaking to Nephi4, says, “Behold, I come unto my own to fulfil all things which I have made known unto the children of men from the foundation of the world, and to do the will both of the Father and of the Son—of the Father because of me, and of the Son because of my flesh.” This language is somewhat confusing, but a plain reading of it has Jesus claiming to be both the Father and the Son.
Amulek, in his debate with Zeezrom, claims that Christ “is the very Eternal Father of heaven and earth” (Alma 11:39) and that “Christ the Son and God the Father and the Holy Spirit” are “one Eternal God” (Alma 11:44). These verses can be read modalistically, but they can be interpreted in other ways too.
Another seemingly modalistic passage appears in Ether 3:14: “Behold, I am he which was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have light—and that eternally—even they which shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters.” Here it is possible that Christ is saying he is the Father because those who believe on his name become his children, but it can also be read with a flavor of modalism.
Another example comes again from Abinadi in Mosiah 16:15: “Teach them that redemption cometh through Christ the Lord, which is the very Eternal Father.” Moroni also uses similar language (Morm. 9:12).
Finally, there are a handful of passages in the Book of Mormon that originally referred to Jesus as “God” or “the Everlasting God” or “the Eternal Father,” but these were changed by Joseph Smith in 1837 to “Son of God,” “Son of the Everlasting God,” and “Son of the Eternal Father.” For example, 1 Nephi 11:18 originally read, “Behold, the virgin which thou seest is the mother of God after the manner of the flesh.” A few verses later, 1 Nephi 11:21 read in the original, “Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father.” And 1 Nephi 11:32 once read, “And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people, yea, the everlasting God was judged of the world.” All these had “Son of” added to them to remove any apparent modalism.
Paulsen and his coauthors argue that the Book of Mormon does not teach modalism, because the book contains an overwhelming number of verses that not only imply a trinitarian or tritheistic reading, but cannot be read any other way. I agree with this assertion for the most part. There are scores of passages in the Book of Mormon that strongly indicate separate divine beings in the Godhead. But because of the few verses that do seem overtly modalistic, I see this as another example of explicit doctrines teaching one thing and implicit doctrines teaching another.
The most prominent (perhaps only) passage in the book that actually spells out a doctrine of the Godhead is Abinadi’s sermon to the priests of Noah. Other verses imply modalism. But the vast majority of passages referring to members of the Godhead do not support a modalistic interpretation of the Book of Mormon. So here again we have an explicit doctrine that seems at odds with multiple expressions of an implicit doctrine.
I’m not going to draw any conclusions at this point about what this seeming inconsistency between explicit and implicit doctrines means in terms of how we should consider the Book of Mormon, but it is valuable to note such examples. By considering them with all the other evidence, we can hopefully come to a more complete understanding of what this complex book is.
I haven’t really thought carefully yet about other doctrines in the Book of Mormon that may show a similar disconnect between their explicit and implicit forms. If you’ve noticed some, maybe you can mention them in the comments.

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1. David L. Paulsen, Ari D. Bruening, and Benjamin B. Brown, The Earliest Mormon Understanding of God (1829–1844): Modalism and Other Myths, unpublished manuscript, in my possession.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Alternative to Alternative Facts


The alternative to alternative facts is, of course, real facts. So, in the interest of straight talk, let’s list a few facts.
1. Fact: Contrary to the alternative fact repeated often by the GOP, the United States is actually one of the most undertaxed developed countries on the planet. Among the 35 member countries of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), only four have lower taxes as a percentage of GDP than the US. Total tax revenue in the United States rings in at 26.0 percent of GDP. The average among OECD countries is 34.3 percent. I’ll do the math for you. That’s 32 percent higher than the US. The UK is rather low at 33.2 percent. Germany is at 37.6 percent. Norway, 38.0 percent. Sweden and Finland, 44.1 percent. France, 45.3 percent. Denmark, 45.9 percent. Of course, these countries provide health care for all citizens and provide a far better social safety net, even though the United States spends a far larger percentage of GDP on health care than these other countries.
2. Fact: The US national debt is just north of $21 trillion. This bothered the Republicans when Obama was president. They were so bothered, in fact, that they were preaching austerity at a time when we needed government stimulus to keep the economy afloat. Now, however, when we really ought to be reducing the debt, Republicans don’t seem to care about the debt.
3. Fact: The Republican tax “reform” is estimated to increase the debt by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. The lion’s share of this tax cut will go to corporations and to the wealthy.
4. Fact: The wealthy do not need more money. In 1989, the top 10 percent owned 20 percent of the nation’s wealth. In 2013, their share had risen to 51 percent. They did not need a tax cut. If they keep raking in an increasing share of income, wealth will soon be so skewed that the consumer classes will be unable to purchase all the products corporations need to sell in order to stay afloat, and a rapidly increasing number of Americans will be dependent on government to survive.
5. Fact: 12.7 percent of US families live in poverty. That represents 43.1 million people. 41 million people struggle with hunger. This number will increase substantially as wealth migrates to the top.
6. Fact: 35 percent of all adults in the US have only several hundred dollars in their savings accounts, and 34 percent have zero savings. Even older workers who can see retirement on the horizon aren’t prepared for it. The median savings for families whose wage earners are between 50 and 55 years old is only $8,000. For those who are between 56 and 61, it’s $17,000. In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s not enough to live a year on. Most of these people will be almost entirely dependent on Social Security.
7. Fact: Roughly 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 today. On average, that same number will turn 65 every day until the Baby Boom generation is all over 65. An increasing percentage of the population will be over 65 through 2050 because people are living longer and the birthrate has dropped. This will put an increasing strain on Social Security and Medicare.
8. Fact: Our infrastructure is crumbling. Almost 10 percent of our 612,000 bridges need to be replaced or repaired. Our airports are outdated and inadequate. Our highways need maintenance, as do our city streets, our water and sewer systems, and our electrical grid. We can’t pay for this the way we paid for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (with tax cuts).
Conclusion: We cannot continue funneling money to the top, undertaxing the wealthy and corporations, building up a massive federal debt, and cutting aid to the poor, the elderly, and the disabled. The notion that taxes are evil is simple propaganda. Taxes are how we pay for the things we expect government to do for us.
And let’s deep-six one other alternative fact. Money that goes to government through taxation does not simply disappear into a black hole, as conservatives sometimes insinuate. It is infused back into the economy, which is a much more efficient method of paying for what we need than borrowing that money.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Economic Insanity: Chapter 6 (part 2)


A Nation of Wage Earners (Part 2)

The Individual versus the Human Resource
The fundamental question we must resolve when contemplating the individual’s place in organizational America is, once again: “Which is more important, the individual or the organization where he or she works?” Do individuals serve the organization or does the organization serve the community of individuals? In spite of our traditional American ideals, the sorry answer is that in twentieth-century America, individuals are less important than and serve the organizations to which they belong.
Human beings are viewed, even in these days of enlightened organizational thinking, as property. Human resources. Resources are things we buy and then use to make a profit. Our employees are our most valuable asset. An asset is a piece of property, something you own and use until it is either depleted or obsolete.
This sort of talk is intended as a compliment, and, as such, it sheds light on the status of workers in today’s economy. I hear from all quarters the apparently sincere belief that the only way American companies can be competitive in the current global marketplace is to train the American workforce to be more productive. “We must invest more in our workers,” I hear. “We must give them the mathematical and statistical and scientific training that will make them more useful to corporate America.”
This generous offer to educate and train workers is admirable, but it is also misdirected—because it is motivated solely by the organizational imperative of survival. It has virtually nothing to do with the needs and desires and talents and values of individuals.
Our society is so bottom-line oriented that we feel we cannot afford to cater to the whims and preferences of individuals. Organizations must thrive, therefore we must learn to view individuals as resources and assets, things to be used, and not to be improved for their own sake. It doesn’t matter what innate talents or proclivities they might have, they must sacrifice their dreams on the altar of corporate profitability and become what corporate America wants them to become. And because of the faulty assumptions that drive our economic institutions, we have created an increasingly high-tech, fast-paced world in which only one kind of intelligence—quantitative—is rewarded, almost to the exclusion of all others. Consequently, everyone must excel in that area, or the organizers of economic enterprise regard (and discard) them as useless.
Many, perhaps even most, Americans are being crammed into jobs that do not fit them very well. Not everyone is in the 90th percentile of mathematical aptitude. Most of us, truth be known, are not very good at numbers. We would rather be doing something more meaningful (which usually means something in which we have some innate talent, where we feel we can offer something to society). But in our increasingly high-tech world, we focus more and more narrowly on that one particular type of intelligence. Those of us who are intelligent and talented in unmarketable areas may find ourselves unemployable, or at least grossly underpaid.
Human beings, in other words, must subordinate their own talents and desires, not to the good of society, but to the welfare of organizations that have an intense need for nothing other than survival. Organizational exigencies determine what areas I can pursue as a career, as my life’s work. This is the common lot of a “human resource” in organizational America. But simply giving everybody rigorous math, science, and technical skills is as unindividualistic as making everyone a good communist. People should be free to choose how they will make a contribution to society. So, instead of running hell-bent after every new technological wonder, just so the economy can be more productive and competitive, a society that ranks human beings above organizations, I argue, would look at the diverse nature of individuals and make room for all, so that they can contribute in ways they are best suited for.
To try to make everyone adept at high-tech, mathematical work is to pursue the fallacious theory that human beings are perfectly malleable and have no innate talents and tendencies and can consequently be shaped to fit the organization’s (or nation’s) needs. Perhaps we need to mold organizations instead to fit individual needs. Is this possible? What might happen if we expended our money and energy in helping individuals discover and develop the areas where they are truly gifted and assisted them in finding useful outlets for the expression of those talents?

Work versus Labor
David K. Hart points out a subtle distinction between work and labor. Labor, he says, is what all animals do, what human beings must do, to eat and survive. Labor is drudgery. There is nothing ennobling about it. Work, on the other hand, is the opportunity for individuals to place their unique stamp upon whatever it is they are producing—whether it be an oak table, a book, a car, a haircut, or a music lesson. Work not only shapes the produce of an individual’s time and energy, it shapes the individual.
We define ourselves partially by the work we do. And if we must labor instead of work, we are less than human. This, I submit, is the greatest abuse perpetrated on individuals by modern organizations: that they deny them the opportunity to work. They require individuals instead to fit themselves into some preconceived pattern; to think and behave in certain approved ways; to be a function; to give up the things they are passionate about and adopt stale organizational goals and mission statements and pretend to be excited about them; to produce to someone else’s specifications products they care not one iota about; to trade their time, their lives, and large portions of their souls for sterile security and the hollow promise of marginal prosperity.
And we wonder why people feel powerless, why there is a growing sense of despair, or worse, indifference, regarding our future. Most of our population has been turned into a huge, collective “human resource,” and yet we wonder why they are not happy and optimistic and motivated. How long can we expect people to be satisfied with fading security and dwindling prosperity while offering more and more of themselves on the altar of organizational dependence? How long can we expect people to shelve their innate talents and deny their rightful desires to be fully human?

Democracy, Power, and Ownership
Corporate America has finally come to realize on a subconscious level that it has deprived its employees of certain basic or integral ingredients. Intense global competition has revealed that something is missing from the modern capitalist recipe for success. Consequently, three popular buzzwords are making the rounds in corporate America: empowerment, democracy, and a sense of ownership. But these terms are deceptive. Most of what passes itself off as democracy in organizational America is actually only a token sharing of responsibility. It’s a half-baked, watered-down version of self-rule. Likewise, empowerment in corporate America, of necessity, involves the bestowal of a tractable, emasculated form of power. And the “sense of ownership” that management talks about is simple make-believe.
Democracy implies equality, the shared power to combine with your equals in making decisions, in governing the group to which you belong. But democracy of this sort exists only where ownership is divided equally among those who spend the days of their lives serving together in the organization. Such equality is also the source of appropriate, accountable power. If there is always someone, or a group of someones, whose actual, legal ownership gives them more power than the employees, then they can make arbitrary decisions without being accountable to the body of individuals who work for the organization. In such companies there is no real democracy, no true empowerment, and the political structure of the organization is by definition authoritarian in nature.
In the current “cutting-edge” management literature, I read repeatedly that management is supposed to give employees a “sense of ownership” or, stranger yet, that employees are supposed to take upon themselves this “sense of ownership.” The reason, of course, is that organizations cannot survive in today’s ultracompetitive marketplace without dedicated, intelligent, motivated workers. This “sense of ownership” is supposed to give employees the commitment they need to be truly valuable to the organization. But what on earth is a “sense of ownership”? It is, in truth, a pretense, an illusion. It is management asking workers to pretend they own something they don’t actually own. It is the illusion of ownership, a bald-faced attempt to conceal the true nature of business relationships, to make workers think that the authoritarian structure of capitalist business does not really exist.
But ownership is ownership. A “sense of ownership” is a lie we tell one another and ourselves to make us feel better about the inherent injustice and inconsistency of our organizational relationships. If management wants workers to have genuine commitment, then it must give them actual ownership, the only real source of commitment. And the consultants who roam the hills and valleys of organizational America telling workers that they must take upon themselves “ownership” of the business are selling a bill of goods. You can’t simply “take” ownership, not unless the current owners give you a piece of it.
And the reason all this talk of “empowerment” and “sense of ownership” is empty rhetoric is that those who sit in power and who possess today’s corporate kingdoms are not simply going to give up their power and ownership out of the generosity of their hearts. Peter Block tells a story that pretty much sums up the sham of corporate “empowerment” programs.
A friend of mine who works for a big telecommunications company was asked to devise ways for people at the bottom of the organization to take more ownership for the success of the business. One of his recommendations was to eliminate reserved parking for the top executives . . . a symbolic gesture to communicate we are all part of the same team working toward the same goal. He suggested this to Bob, the general manager, and Bob’s response was, “If you ask for my parking space now, you will want my salary later. I don’t want to give you my salary, I know you don’t want to give your people your salary. The answer is no.”1
      Bob was at least honest. Most executives and owners are not. They are using the same manipulative marketing tactics we see in the consumer arena to sell their employees on the idea that they can have ownership without really owning anything and without sharing equally in the profits created by their increased dedication. They are merely constructing another elaborate illusion to milk their employees of whatever it takes to keep the business in business. And please note that they are not asking employees to develop and apply their intelligence, ingenuity, and good judgment because it is important for individuals to cultivate and use such qualities in their lives. They solicit increased dedication for the express reason that the organization simply cannot succeed without intelligent, versatile, creative, motivated workers. It is the organization’s welfare, not the employees’, that matters.

The Avalanche
Now that I’ve stated my position on token democracy, empty empowerment, and imaginary ownership, let me turn this same argument on its head for a moment and suggest that some good might actually come from the empowerment movement, misdirected though it is. It is quite possible that the proponents of this movement have unleashed a force more powerful than they understand. It is possible that they have started an avalanche that will not stop halfway up the slope where all the empowerment gurus and progressive managers believe it will.
If you understand their argument, what these theorists are saying, without actually saying it, is that the movement underway today to empower employees and democratize the workplace will eventually lead to actual employee power, real democracy, and genuine ownership. This is the logical conclusion to their arguments, even if they haven’t yet arrived at that conclusion. They are talking about a revolution, if you listen carefully to their rhetoric. The forces that have been unleashed in organizational America, they claim, are inexorable and will change the face of business from one end of this country to the other. If this is true—and we have no reason to doubt that it is—then these relentless forces will not stop at token empowerment and democracy in name only. The avalanche won’t stop midslope. It may, however, run into some determined and resourceful opposition.
The increase in token democracy, the push for employee empowerment, and the creation of a “sense of ownership” are certainly steps in the right direction, and it may be glibly argued that they are merely waystations along the inevitable path to true democracy, real ownership, and full employee power-holding, but try fitting that theoretical shoe on the foot of any capitalist or million-dollar-salaried CEO. They may agree to cosmetic empowerment and the illusion of democracy that is currently in vogue, they may even give up their parking spaces, but see what happens when you ask for their salaries, their offices, their bloated staffs, their golden parachutes, their mansions, their separatism, and their prestige. And don’t deceive yourself into thinking those things won’t be asked for. They lie on the lower slopes, below where the consultants and progressive leaders think the avalanche will stop. But it will not stop until it reaches level ground.
Who will win? No one can say. Someday the capitalists and popular consultants may wake up to discover that they have been playing with fire, that this token democracy and the illusions of empowerment and the “sense of ownership” they’ve supported have put ideas into people’s heads, correct ideas. And they may get burned. People in general are a lot smarter than they are given credit for. Someday it will dawn on them that if token democracy is good, then real democracy must be better. If watered-down empowerment is their right, as they have been told, then why not real power? And if their organizations can’t succeed unless they develop a “sense of ownership,” then certainly real employee ownership should be even better for their organizations. They will eventually realize that someone has been stealing their lives, and they will demand what is rightly theirs.

Who Really Creates Capital?
In the next chapter, we’ll look in greater detail at what I’ve already suggested briefly—that we must consider redistributing capital rather than income. The capitalists, who now claim ownership, will undoubtedly cry foul. “That would be stealing,” they will certainly say. I would respond, however, by asking, “Are the police stealing when they take back your car from the person who stole it from you?” It is only stealing when you take something that doesn’t belong to you. To take back what is rightly yours can hardly be called stealing.
The real question regarding ownership is the one asked by John Steinbeck in this chapter’s epigraph. What constitutes ownership, especially of capital? Shouldn’t ownership be related somehow to the question of who creates it, who works and slaves and toils to bring it into existence? Is it the person who plants the seeds or the person who works the land and pulls the weeds and nurtures, fertilizes, and irrigates the soil who should reap the harvest? The answer, I submit, is that both deserve a share.
The capitalist invests a sum of money, but that money will not create a product and generate a profit without the time and energy of other human beings. Don’t they have just as great a role in the creation of new capital as the one who invested the money to start the venture? And if they aren’t given a fair share of the capital, hasn’t someone been stealing from them? Says Michael Ventura:
As a worker, I am not an “operating cost.” I am how the job gets done. I am the job. I am the company. . . . I’m willing to take my lumps in a world in which little is certain, but I deserve a say. Not just some cosmetic “input,” but significant power in good times or bad. A place at the table where the decisions are made. Nothing less is fair. So nothing less is moral. . . . It takes more than investment and management to make a company live. It takes the labor, skill, and talent of the people who do the company’s work. Isn’t that an investment? Doesn’t it deserve a fair return, a voice, a share of the power? . . . If the people who do the work don’t own some part of the product, and don’t have any power over what happens to their enterprise—they are being robbed. You are being robbed. And don’t think for a minute that those who are robbing you don’t know they are robbing you. They know how much they get from you and how little they give back. They are thieves. They are stealing your life.2
Indeed, they pay themselves as much as possible and pay you as little as possible. By contrast, an equitable redistribution of capital would eliminate this double-standard pay system. It would also abolish authoritarian economic organizations, foster true democracy, and bring our out-of-control economy back into harmony with our political aspirations and social ideals. As I hope I’ve made clear in the preceding chapters, this is not merely something we should consider because it is the moral thing to do—and it is the moral thing to do—we should move rapidly in this direction because it is also perhaps our best hope for averting economic ruin.
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1. Peter Block, Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1993), 38–39.
2. Michael Ventura, “Someone Is Stealing Your Life.” Utne Reader, July/August 1991, 78, 80. Reprinted from the L.A. Weekly.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Economic Insanity: Chapter 6 (part 1)


A Nation of Wage Earners (Part 1)

Sure, cried the tenant men, but it’s our land.
We measured it and broke it up.
We were born on it, and we got killed on it.
Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours.
That’s what makes it ours—being born on it, working it, dying on it.
That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster.
The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there.
The bank is something else than men.
It happens that every man in a bank hates
what the bank does, and yet the bank does it.
The bank is something more than men,
 I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it,
but they can’t control it.

—John Steinbeck,
The Grapes of Wrath


Ownership. The ground-level assumption of modern American capitalism is that individual ownership of capital should be unlimited. This assumption gives shape and direction to our wayward economic system and opens the door to the other faulty assumptions we’ve talked about. When we peel away all its window dressing, capitalism isn’t really about free markets or free enterprise, as the economic elite would have us believe; it is about ownership of capital. Period. Capitalism, like communism, is a philosophy about ownership. Over the years capitalism has come to mean “unrestricted private ownership of capital,” a condition that is decidedly incongruent with our political precepts and our social ideals. This, however, was not always the case.

A Misconception
The great misconception about modern capitalism is that it is a democratic economic system. We’ve always equated communism with authoritarianism and capitalism with democracy. The logic goes something like this: since democracy is the opposite of authoritarianism, since capitalism is the opposite of communism, and since authoritarianism and communism always seem to go together, then democracy and capitalism must be one package—you can’t have one without the other. This is nonsense. It is theoretically possible to have political democracy without capitalism. It is also possible to have capitalism without political democracy. Any dictator who allows his subjects to own property and accumulate capital has created capitalistic authoritarianism.
Most capitalists would be shocked, however, to learn that modern capitalism is, in practice, as incompatible with democracy as is the enforced cooperation of communism. Capitalism, technically, is the unlimited private ownership of property and the means of production. The italics here are important, because they point to two conditions that conflict with democracy, create increasing inequality, and spawn a host of problems in society. The fact that I can own a piece of property, build a house on it, and reside there is of little consequence. But the unlimited ownership of capital, the means of production, is exactly what places capitalism at odds with our political and social ideals.
In an unlimited capitalist system such as ours, ownership of capital, although it can take any form, tends to be either concentrated in the hands of one or more active individual owners or dispersed among a large, shifting, external body of passive owners. These two types of ownership are very dissimilar, even opposite, in form, but in effect they are actually quite similar.

Concentrated Ownership
Concentrated ownership, the more traditional form, produces people we generally think of as capitalists: individuals who have accumulated or inherited such large amounts of capital that they can hire others (buy their time and energy, a portion of their lives) to produce products for them. The employees are paid a nominal amount that we call a “fair wage,” the products are sold, profits are reaped, and the owner then uses these funds to increase his capital—so that he can purchase the time of more individuals and further increase his wealth, his capital, and his distance from those whose lives he more or less owns.
And he does own them in more than a metaphorical sense, because he owns the produce of their hands and minds, a literal part of them. And they can’t escape his employ (except to flee to someone else’s), because they don’t have capital. They’re not paid enough by the capitalist to become independent, as he is. He doesn’t share his capital with them. Instead they’re paid just enough to stay one step ahead of the bills (if they happen to be prudent money managers), and for this they should be grateful, or so they are indoctrinated.
Now, you may argue that this is a gloomy, Marxist view of our relatively prosperous economic conditions, especially considering the perceived outcome of the Cold War, but let’s take a closer look at democracy. One would have to be hallucinating to suggest that capitalist businesses of any size are democratic institutions, even those that seriously are trying to “democratize” the workplace. Do the people hired by an industrialist or small business owner have an independent voice in the fundamental decisions or direction of the business? Are they equal with the owner in either pay or power? Of course not.
“But,” some may protest, “many employers are benevolent and treat their employees well.” Certainly, and there have also been many benevolent monarchs throughout history, but their subjects didn’t enjoy democracy, government by the people. The employees of an industrialist don’t govern the organization. Even when they are empowered, they still live in an authoritarian system. There is a world of difference between employee empowerment and employee ownership. You don’t have to “empower” owners. The key here is that someone else is able to exercise arbitrary power in the employees’ lives, even if that person elects not to. It is the ability, the possibility, that is relevant here. The owner, if he chooses, can even require them, if they want to keep their jobs, to conform to trivial or demeaning rules and customs.
A benevolent business owner can easily become a tyrant if the company experiences a few setbacks. WordPerfect Corporation, mentioned in an earlier chapter, was a very good company to work for, or so many of my neighbors have informed me. Employee salaries were above industry average, the atmosphere was relaxed, and year-end bonuses were consistent and generous. Then the atmosphere in the software market, dominated by Microsoft, grew ominous. WordPerfect owners announced that they would terminate 21 percent of the workforce. They deemed this necessary, but that is irrelevant to this discussion. The point here is this: Did these terminated workers have any recourse, any real power? No. They discovered the hard way that they didn’t belong to an organizational democracy. They couldn’t maintain their corporate citizenship by virtue of the fact that it was their business. They couldn’t vote the owners out of office. All they could do was pack their things and hit the pavement. One day they were under the illusion that they were valuable and happy citizens of a wonderful corporate kingdom; the next day they were gone, with a new understanding of why corporate citizen is an oxymoron. Republics have citizens; authoritarian systems have subjects.
Employees in most businesses are trapped. Because they don’t own capital, they can’t just walk away and declare their independence. They have to make a living in some way, unless they prefer to either starve or live off government handouts. Independence and equality have been withheld from them by a system—capitalism—that is overtly authoritarian in nature. And even when it wears a benevolent mask, it is still structurally authoritarian and retains its oppressive potential.
The question today’s progressive business leaders and consultants are asking is: How do we make authoritarianism palatable? Or worse: How do we disguise authoritarianism to make it seem more democratic. These questions will never yield a satisfactory answer.
We extol the virtues of the free-market system, because it is largely (as its name suggests) free; at the macro level, it is consistent with our democratic ideals. But that system ends at the front door to most businesses. The free market exists between businesses, but not within them. Companies in the market are free, but employees within those businesses are not. Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot have coined the term free intraprise to describe a free-market system that ought to exist within organizations. “The alternative to corporate bureaucracy is not merely training managers to behave in an empowering way within a bureaucratic structure; it is developing a system of freedoms and institutions analogous to free enterprise.”1 It is my contention, however, that free intraprise cannot truly exist unless ownership patterns change within organizations. Ownership is the entire question where liberty and democracy are concerned.

Dispersed Ownership
As indicated above, our authoritarian system of ownership also has another face. Dispersed ownership, the opposite of concentrated ownership, results in an even more insidious state of affairs. Here we’re talking about the massive corporations that dominate the economic (and physical) landscape of twentieth-century America. These conglomerates are owned (sometimes indirectly through mutual funds and pension plans) by a mass of faceless names that usually play no role within the business as employees or managers and may even have no direct contact with the business as either suppliers or customers. They are strewn from one end of the country to the other, almost as if a big wind had swept them up like autumn leaves and scattered them across the countryside. Some have called them absentee owners. Normally we call them stockholders.
Since these absentee owners are little concerned with the day-to-day operations of the business—taking specific interest only in stock prices, dividends, and earnings per share—they hire professional executives to run the show. And since professional executives actually have more power than the dispersed body of owners, they represent the corporate equivalent of the individual capitalist, the industrialist. They perform the same function, enriching themselves on the labors of others, paying themselves exorbitant wages, acting as rulers and decision makers for the masses of employees whose workaday lives they have purchased (albeit with someone else’s money).
But there are significant differences between an individual capitalist or industrialist and a professional executive. The industrialist invariably has a knowledge of both the product itself and the process by which it is created; he (or sometimes she) is more community oriented, more aware of the lives of his employees, often seeing himself as some kind of benevolent, provident feudal lord; and he is the legal owner of the business.
Most professional managers, on the other hand, are generalists, often having no specific knowledge of the products and processes they are hired to manage. Instead, they’ve been trained in modern business schools; they have white collars and are dressed for success. They know finance rather than the nuts and bolts of a particular industry; and their financial training, they firmly believe, qualifies them to work in any business with any product—because they don’t really deal with products, only with the numbers that surround them.
So they play with ratios and financial statements, dream up marketing strategies, and acquire other companies and products that they don’t begin to understand, secure in the knowledge that their jobs are safe as long as the bottom line, market share, and dividends are on the increase. This is why a company like General Electric, with its relentlessly return-crazy chairman, “Neutron Jack” Welch, now sells bonds, makes jet engines and locomotives, hawks a direct-broadcast satellite service, markets industrial diamonds, and runs a TV network.
Because professional executives see themselves as exactly that—professionals, hired specifically to make tough and perhaps unpopular decisions—they add up the numbers, and if the numbers tell them to lay off thousands of workers, that’s exactly what they do. Neutron Jack, for instance, has at this writing erased 170,000 jobs at GE, sometimes going so far as to send lower-level managers packing on the spot and then shipping their personal effects home by UPS.2 This from the man who once said, “Any company that’s going to make it in the 1990s and beyond has got to find a way to engage the mind of every single employee. . . . What’s the alternative? Wasted minds? Uninvolved people? A labor force that’s angry or bored? That doesn’t make sense!”3 Neither does amputating 170,000 people from the body of those supposedly valuable employees.
For fundamental reasons, professional executives have little personal interest in the impact their decisions and policies—from plant closings to pollution—have on communities. They generally don’t live in the communities affected by their decisions. And because they don’t actually own the business, they’re free to look out for themselves, preferring loyalty to career over loyalty to employees or even the organization, usually leaving themselves an open door and a golden parachute, just in case the organizational plane takes a nose dive or the pilot’s seat in a larger aircraft becomes available.
So which masters do you prefer, industrialists or CEOs? As for me, I prefer freedom, for either form of capitalism is at odds with democracy and human dignity. Should this statement surprise us? Of course it should. We’ve always been taught that capitalism is morally superior to communism. In reality, these competing systems are more similar than they are different. They are two sides of the same rusty coin—both outdated, both authoritarian in practice, although, ironically, it is communism, not capitalism, that claims to be democratic in theory.

Times Have Changed
The rise of capitalism actually brought favorable changes in its early years—greater freedom, equality, and democracy—but with no inherent restriction on ownership, capitalism was doomed to its present course. In hindsight, it is perfectly logical that communism should have arisen in reaction to the injustices and abuses that resulted from unlimited capital ownership. It’s interesting to note in this context that Karl Marx’s monumental work, which laid the theoretical foundation for the communist revolution, was titled Das Kapital. Capital ownership was always the central issue. The communist mistake, however, was to swing the pendulum too far—from unrestricted private ownership of capital to no private ownership at all—and then to enforce this arrangement with authoritarian government.
Capitalism, originally, was a liberal economic doctrine, a rebellion against the monarchic and aristocratic systems of Europe. In those days, capitalism was seen as a great tool in dispersing property, wealth, and power among a much broader group of citizens. But capitalism soon developed its own authoritarian and aristocratic classes, and power, wealth, and property soon became restricted and concentrated, just as they had been under the old monarchies.
“Right-wing economics,” according to Christopher Lasch, “conceives of the capitalist economy as it was in the time of Adam Smith, when property was still distributed fairly widely, businesses were individually owned, and commodities still retained something of the character of useful objects.”4 But much has changed since then. The rise of large, impersonal economic bureaucracies, the increasing inconsequence of owning private property, and the shift from a production ethic to a consumption ethic have transformed capitalism into something far different from what it might have become.
The most notable manifestation of this transformation appears perhaps in the life of the common man or woman. As the captains of industry consolidated their power, and as their organizations increasingly became employers of the masses, people felt great pressure to change, to trade independence for supposed security and marginal prosperity, to fit the functional corporate mold, and, consequently, they became systematically dehumanized. “The division of labor, John Ruskin argued, was misnamed. It was not the labor that was divided but the men, who were ‘divided into mere segments of men—broken into small fragments and crumbs of life.’ . . . Men were now condemned to forms of labor that made them ‘less than men’ in their own eyes. ‘It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure.’”5 This happens when people do not own the produce of their hands and minds. They become something less than human, and the market mechanism is crippled.
Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” cannot function properly in either the unbalanced power structure of corporate America or our undisciplined “shop till you drop” marketplace; it works best in an ambience of widespread and limited (relatively equal) property ownership. Well into the next century after Smith’s death, it was generally agreed that freedom could not thrive in a nation of hirelings.
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1. Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot, The End of Bureaucracy and the Rise of the Intelligent Organization (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1993), 114.
2. Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 124.
3. Noel M. Tichy and Stratford Sherman, Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will: How Jack Welch Is Making General Electric the World’s Most Competitive Organization (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 251.
4. Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven (New York: Norton, 1991), 519.
5. Lasch, True and Only Heaven, 137.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Cost of a Kidney Stone


If you have never had a kidney stone, count yourself blessed. I had one in 1999 after returning from the Philippines. It was small, excruciating, and gone within 24 hours. The doctor said it may have been caused by dehydration during my trip to the Philippines. But he also told me to avoid spinach and asparagus. It turns out the advice on spinach was good. It’s extremely high in oxalate, one of the two substances that combine to form about 85 percent of kidney stones. The other substance is calcium. Asparagus, however, is pretty low in oxalate. But I followed doctor’s orders and didn’t have another kidney stone . . . until a week before Christmas 2017. So I went 18 years without one.
When the pre-Christmas stone hit, I was pretty sure what it was, having had some experience with that sort of pain. I might add that I’ve now had three different mothers inform me that they have had both children and kidney stones, and the kidney stone was definitely more painful than childbirth—and the result was not nearly as cute. I’m not speaking from experience here on pain comparisons, of course, just repeating what I’ve been told.
Anyway, this time around I was not so lucky on passing the stone quickly. My wife drove me to Orem Community Hospital, part of Intermountain Healthcare, where they gave me some opioids for the pain, did a CT scan, and sent me to a urologist. This stone, they said, would not pass on its own. They estimated it at 9 mm. That’s about 3/8 inch. So the urologist scheduled me for lithotripsy, which is the technical term for blasting kidney stones with sound waves. They thought they’d pulverized it, but when the dust settled, I still had some pretty impressive chunks left, and they caused significant pain before they finally decided to pass.
I want to talk about a different kind of pain today, though. This past week I finally received the itemized bill from Intermountain Healthcare for my little trip to the emergency room. Ouch. I’ll forego the little stuff, but I was pretty impressed with the outrageous costs of our health-care system. For instance, they charged $2,048 for the CT scan. It took maybe five minutes. Japan has figured out how to do this for under $200. The cost of what I’ll call room and board for my short stay in the ER was $1,180. That’s one heck of an expensive hotel. And they didn’t even have a swimming pool or offer me a continental breakfast. I know, I know, they have to cover their overhead, not to mention malpractice insurance. But the item on the bill that really floored me was the IV. They poked me in the arm, pumped in a bag of sodium chloride, and gave me the aforementioned opioids. Counting the medications, this routine IV was billed at $884.
The total damage for my short stay in Orem Community Hospital was $4,361. And that didn’t count the ER doctor, who billed separately—$792 for the perhaps 15 minutes he spent with me. And after all this extravagant billing, I still had a 9-mm kidney stone when I left the ER. Fortunately, I have good insurance, and Deseret Mutual has an understanding with Intermountain Healthcare that they will pay only a portion of the charge. In fact, they paid just $2,212. My portion of the bill was a copay of $75 and another $242 out of pocket for the various elements of my short stay at Orem Community. I owed the ER physician only $38.
If I had known what that ER visit would cost and what the rest of the ordeal would cost, I certainly would not have gone to the emergency room. I would have taken some Tylenol and called the urologist. If I have another kidney stone, that’s what I will do. (Note for anyone planning on having a kidney stone: don’t take aspirin or ibuprofen, because they can’t do lithotripsy within a week of your last dose. These medicines thin the blood, which puts you at risk to lose a kidney.)
So, what about the rest of the adventure? The lithotripsy, counting the urologist’s fee came to about $8,000. Because we had already purchased plane tickets to visit our daughter and her family in Houston over NewYear’s and I didn’t want to have an attack on the flight, or in Houston, the urologist put a stent in for a couple of weeks. That was billed at $4,400. There were also several relatively small charges, for things like x-rays and their interpretation, prescriptions, and office visits. In total, this little piece of human-created rock resulted in initial charges of about $18,000.
If you’re thinking that’s pretty crazy, you’re right. And we’re the only developed country on earth that does this sort of thing. Yes, the insurance and I together paid maybe $11,000. But still, that’s pretty crazy. I couldn’t help thinking about those people we’ve decided to exclude from our health-care system, who can’t afford insurance or who otherwise slip between the cracks. A simple kidney stone could bankrupt some of these people. Only in America. And only because of the Republican Party.
My experience with the kidney stone reminds me of two medical encounters our family had in 2005 (back when health care was relatively cheap in America). My oldest son managed to experience a ruptured appendix while serving a mission in Germany. His abdomen was full of peritonitis, a life-threatening condition. He spent a week in the ICU while the doctors got the infection under control. Then he spent another week in the hospital recovering. When he was released, because he was still quite weak, the mission president assigned him to the mission office as financial secretary, which means he got to pay his own hospital bill. We figured that the German health-care system, because both we and the Church had insurance, would charge us a pretty pfennig. The entire bill came to $6,000. That included surgery, a week in the ICU, and another week in the hospital. The doctors were highly qualified. In fact, the one I talked with most often, as we monitored Matt’s progress from afar, was educated at the University of Chicago. We spoke in English because his medical English was a lot better than my medical German.
At about this same time, I had nonemergency outpatient surgery in Provo to repair a hernia. For that routine half-day experience, our insurance was billed $12,000. Twice as much as the two-week treatment for a ruptured appendix in Germany. Yes, I know that the Germans pay taxes so that they can enjoy relatively inexpensive universal care. But overall they pay far less than we do, all because of government involvement. In 2014, Germany spent 11.3 percent of GDP on health care. The United States spent 17.1 percent. Canada is at 10.4 percent, France at 11.5 percent, Denmark at 10.8 percent, the United Kingdom at 9.7 percent, Norway at 9.7 percent, Sweden at 11.9 percent, Finland at 9.7 percent, Switzerland at 11.7 percent, Australia at 9.4 percent, Netherlands at 10.9 percent. You get the idea. We spend 44 percent more than the highest of these countries, 82 percent more than the lowest. But we’re not comparing apples and apples here. These countries all cover everyone. We don’t. And they get better overall results than we do. Yes, conservatives love to point out how bad the care is in these other countries, but this is largely myth, not supported by either statistics or personal sentiment. Granted, no system is perfect, and people love to complain, but virtually no one in these countries would trade their system for ours.
There really is no rational argument against America adopting a system based on the best features of our foreign neighbors. It would be more humane, better for our overall health, and far less expensive. And here’s the biggest irony. My German friends have a lot more freedom in selecting health-care options than I do. Republicans love to play the freedom card. But in health care, government involvement in creating a system that covers everyone actually gives everyone more freedom. Everyone, that is, except those who would prey on the sick to make exorbitant profits. The biggest difference between our “system” and our neighbors’ systems is that we are the only country that allows the profit motive to control (and restrict) medical care.
Republicans get all up in arms about Bernie Sanders and the “extremists” on the left who want to implement “socialized medicine,” that old bogeyman the right wing loves to throw verbal darts at. But this isn’t extremism. It’s common sense. It needs to happen. We gave the Republicans their opportunity to “repeal and replace” the ACA. They couldn’t do it. All the options they came up with made things worse, not better. It became obvious that their whole “repeal and replace” dog and pony show was just political theatre. They never wanted to replace the ACA. And they couldn’t, really, because it was already built upon a flawed conservative foundation. The Democrats would have chosen a single-payer system that covered everyone, but they knew the Republicans would never go for it. And look at the political price they paid for implementing even a conservative health-care plan. But now things have changed. The GOP has had its chance to come up with something better. They couldn’t. We still need to fix health care. Our only reasonable choice at this point is to follow the example of our foreign neighbors and embrace a lower-cost system that covers everyone and gets the profit motive out of health care. That means raising taxes. But as I’ve explained on this blog before, we are one of the lowest-taxes countries in the OECD. And overall, we would end up saving a lot of money by doing this. We need to start being responsible and practical instead of ideological.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Dealing with Difficult Questions


Sorry I haven’t posted anything for a while. I’ve been busy going over page proofs for a couple of my recent writing projects. BCC Press will be publishing what I can only describe as a very atypical missionary memoir. I’m calling it a true novel, but everything in it actually happened (at least as I remember it forty years in the rearview mirror). The title is Bruder: The Perplexingly Spiritual Life and Not Entirely Unexpected Death of a Mormon Missionary. The other project is the first of a two-part article series that will appear in Dialogue. The title of the first article is “Authority and Priesthood in the LDS Church, Part 1: Definitions and Development.” It will appear in the Spring 2018 issue. The sequel will be titled “Authority and Priesthood in the LDS Church, Part 2: Ordinances, Quorums, Nonpriesthood Authority, Presiding, Priestesses, and Priesthood Bans.” It should appear in the Summer 2018 issue. These two articles present some ideas on priesthood that I posted in preliminary form in a seventeen-part series on this blog about two and a half years ago, beginning in September 2015.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to. And laboring over a high council talk that I spent a lot of time on. I received the topic some time ago, but felt strongly about taking it in an unexpected direction, addressing specifically those who are struggling over questions about various aspects of Mormonism. Because the response to the talk was so positive (several members of the ward I visited asked for a copy), I’ve decided to post it here. I should mention that this ward is somewhat like home to me. I’ve known many of the members for over thirty years. So, here is the text.

*  *  *

The stake presidency has asked the high council to address the topic “Reduce and Simplify Our Lives to Minimize the Commotion Prophesied by the Lord.” I’ve felt impressed to talk about a different kind of commotion today, one that the Church and its members are facing in our information-saturated world, and a different kind of simplicity, one that is very elusive and that may take a lifetime to find. I hope you’ll forgive me for following a written text fairly closely, but I’m a writer, not a speaker, and because of the sensitive nature of the topic, I want to make sure I am as precise as possible.
I realize that I am going to be talking to a small minority of you. But I think the topic is important. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but if I did and if I asked how many of you are struggling with questions about the Church’s history or doctrine or scriptures or policies, questions that may be causing you to lose some sleep, I’m guessing I would see a few hands. I would also guess that even more of you know someone—perhaps a family member or a good friend—who has left the Church because of such questions. It’s to you who find yourselves in either of these two groups that I am going to speak today. The rest of you can listen in, because the time may come when you too may find yourselves in one of these groups.
As I mentioned, some of you have known me for a long time. But most of you don’t know what I’ve been doing the past 19 years. It was actually 19 years ago last month that I took a job as a senior editor at the Liahona. After about three years, I was transferred to the Ensign. The two experiences were actually quite different, but I want to focus on one particular difference.
When I worked at the Liahona, the editorial staff subscribed to the Salt Lake Tribune, BYU Studies, and maybe Newsweek. When I arrived at the Ensign, I was surprised at all the publications they subscribed to. There was the Salt Lake Tribune, all three major news magazines, Reader’s Digest, Biblical Archaeology Review, BYU Studies, Dialogue, Sunstone, Journal of Mormon History, Utah Historical Quarterly, Pioneer (published by the Sons of the Utah Pioneers), the Community of Christ’s magazine, Vision (aimed at the Restoration Branches that broke away from the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in about 1984), Billy Graham’s magazine, the Seventh Day Adventist magazine, and probably a few more I can’t remember.
I wondered why they subscribed to so many publications. And as I thought about it, I decided someone must have wanted us to be informed. Well, I wanted to be informed. So I read it. Almost all of it, but especially the Mormon material. In the process, I discovered that I didn’t know nearly as much about the Church and its history as I had imagined. I also discovered what we call Mormon studies. This is a field of study that is simply exploding nationwide. Most of the scholars in Mormon studies are active LDS. But some are lapsed LDS, and some are non-LDS. What they produce, however, is not anti-Mormon literature. Most of them simply want to understand Mormonism more fully. And there is a lot of really good scholarship being done.
In 2006, after about four years at the Ensign, I jumped ship and took a job as editorial director at BYU Studies, the oldest Mormon studies journal. Which puts me in the middle of a lot of very interesting material. I try to keep current—it’s part of the job—but it is really impossible. There is so much being published. In addition to editing BYU Studies Quarterly, I also read the Journal of Mormon History, Dialogue, Sunstone, and Mormon Historical Studies. I attend a few conferences and try to follow what’s going on in the Bloggernacle. And I’ve read about 70 books on Mormonism in the almost 12 years I’ve been at BYU Studies. None of these are what you would call “Church books.” These are mostly serious scholarship on Mormon history, scripture, organization, culture, or theology. So that’s what I’ve been up to.
The challenge is that when you start digging into the details, you inevitably find that nothing is as simple as you thought it was. Our history is often messy. Our doctrine can be something of a moving target. Revelation, both personal and prophetic, is sometimes difficult to interpret. This is just the nature of life. If you get past the surface, pretty much everything is complicated.
The question is, how are we supposed to deal with this complexity? Let me quote Elder Ballard. Speaking to CES instructors two years ago this month, he said, among other things:
“Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it!’ Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue. . . .
“It was only a generation ago that our young people’s access to information about our history, doctrine, and practices was basically limited to materials printed by the Church. Few students came in contact with alternative interpretations. Mostly, our young people lived a sheltered life.
“Our curriculum at that time, though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today—a day when students have instant access to virtually everything about the Church from every possible point of view. Today, what they see on their mobile devices is likely to be faith-challenging as much as faith-promoting. . . .
“For you to understand the doctrinal and historical content and context of the scriptures and our history, you will need to study from the ‘best books,’ as the Lord directed. The ‘best books’ include the scriptures, the teachings of modern prophets and apostles, and the best LDS scholarship available. . . .
“When something has the potential to threaten our spiritual life, our most precious family relationships, and our membership in the kingdom, we should find thoughtful and faithful Church leaders to help us. And, if necessary, we should ask those with appropriate academic training, experience, and expertise for help. This is exactly what I do when I need an answer to my own questions that I cannot answer myself.”1 That’s a rather remarkable statement from an Apostle.
Let me add, though, that the best LDS scholarship will very often raise questions rather than answer them. And that’s okay. As I said, life is complicated. Our history is complicated. Our doctrine is complicated. Church leaders are not infallible. This means that a simple approach to Mormonism is likely not going to produce very good results in the long run.
Years ago I came across a quote that has helped me a great deal. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” It’s sometimes easy and comfortable to ignore the complexity, to be content with a simplicity that is more blindness than awareness. But there are dangers with this approach. Sometimes life doesn’t allow us to be content with this easy sort of simplicity. But the simplicity on the other side of complexity has to be earned. The only way out is through.
So let me address three aspects of the complexity in Mormonism and try to give some helpful perspectives on dealing with LDS history, LDS leaders, and LDS doctrine.
When I started reading books and articles on LDS history, I discovered that my knowledge of Mormon history up to 1847 was rather superficial, and after that, it was pretty much nonexistent, because 1847 is where the Gospel Doctrine curriculum mostly stops. But the Church is radically different today than it was in 1847 or 1890 or 1930 or 1960. How did we get from there to here? Well, that’s a long and complex story. But let me share something that has helped me in my effort to grapple with the difficult aspects of Mormon history. It’s a very simple idea, but I find it profound. “Events do not tell their own stories.”2 Let me repeat that. “Events do not tell their own stories. Instead, historians use their limited understanding of events to create stories about them. Which means that all history is interpretation. Let me repeat that. All history is interpretation. And all historians have an agenda. They pick and choose details, they add a little spin, they let their biases and opinions color their account. And most important, they leave things out. They have to. Sometimes they embellish, they add details. The ideal, of course, is to have a history that is as objective as possible and as complete as possible. But we always fall short of the ideal. So every history is interpretation. And that includes the histories the Church has published. This is not a bad thing. It’s unavoidable. But for many years, the Church published histories that left a lot of detail out, and this created biased or one-sided views of past events. And this has caused the Church problems in recent years, because once some of the details became public, it looked like the Church had been producing a sugar-coated narrative. We all like to put our best foot forward, but if we only talk about how wonderful we are, it’s obviously an incomplete picture, because we are imperfect and history is messy by nature.
Fortunately, the Church is doing better now. It is approaching its history in a much more open and balanced way, especially with the Joseph Smith Papers. Still, since all histories are biased, in our search for truth we somehow need to find ways to recognize the biases and agendas and to see behind the curtain, as it were, so that we can filter out as many impurities as we can. And the only way I know to accomplish this is to simply read a lot of history. When you see events through the eyes of many interpreters, you start to get a more complete picture, you become aware of which sources historians are using, how reliable those sources are, and how the historians are employing them. You also come to recognize the spin historians put on their accounts, or the choices they made in deciding what to emphasize and what to leave out, and this helps you sort out what rings true from what doesn’t.
Now let me say something about fallible leaders. None of us would claim that our leaders, local or general, are perfect. No leader would claim to be perfect. President Uchtdorf addressed this idea a couple of years ago in general conference. But in practice, we tend to treat our leaders as if they were infallible. We treat them as if they are always inspired. This can cause some unrealistic expectations and some real complications when we discover that they aren’t always inspired. I want you to think about the name of the Church. It has two parts. It is the Church of Jesus Christ, but it is also the Church of the Latter-day Saints. We sometimes think that it’s just the Lord’s church and that all inspiration has to come down the leadership pipeline. But Joseph Smith referred to the Church as a theodemocracy. We often act as if it is just a theocracy. Everything is top-down, and it’s all inspired. So we neglect the democracy part. I’ve heard a few comments by General Authorities recently acknowledging the necessity of inspiration coming up from the rank and file. So this view is starting to change.
Several years ago, I published an essay titled “Why the True Church Cannot Be Perfect.” I want to share a few paragraphs from it.
“A basic principle that, if understood, would help [most Church members] is the notion that the Church not only is not perfect, but cannot be, at least not here, not now in this fallen world. If the Church were perfect, it would fail miserably in its mission, which is, in part, to perfect us. In essence, if God were to spell out specifically for his apostles and prophets and stake presidents and bishops and auxiliary leaders every step in the Church’s onward march of establishing his kingdom on earth, if he were to dictate every decision and inspire every policy, he would defeat his own purpose. What purpose? To help us become as he is.
“As disconcerting as this idea might appear on the surface, both reason and experience suggest that God treats the Church in much the same way he treats each of us. As we strive to learn and grow and follow the Savior, our Heavenly Father intervenes periodically in our lives in ways that maximize our opportunities for growth and service. Sometimes when we pray for guidance, the Spirit gives us quiet promptings and confirmations. . . . But often when we pray for guidance or for knowledge in making decisions, the heavens are perfectly silent. In these perplexing instances, God expects us to use our own intelligence; his revealed word; the counsel of family members, trusted friends, and ordained leaders; the gospel values we’ve accepted; and our best understanding of the circumstances we’re facing to make decisions on our own, and to trust that he will warn us if we go too far astray. And more often than many of us wish, he even allows us to experience the negative consequences of our unwise decisions—so that we will learn wisdom.
“Elder Dallin H. Oaks has taught: ‘What about those times when we seek revelation and do not receive it? . . . Sometimes we are left to our own judgment. . . . Our life’s purpose to obtain experience and to develop faith would be frustrated if our Heavenly Father directed us in every act, even in every important act. We must make decisions and experience the consequences in order to develop self-reliance and faith. Even in decisions we think very important, we sometimes receive no answers to our prayers. This does not mean that our prayers have not been heard. It only means that we have prayed about a decision which, for one reason or another, we should make without guidance by revelation.’
“Someone once quipped, ‘Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.’ Often this is how we learn, as difficult as it seems. . . . If Heavenly Father wanted to impede us in our progression, he would answer every prayer immediately and specifically, spelling out exactly what we should do in any situation. Likewise, if he wanted to cripple his chosen servants—prophets, apostles, stake presidents, bishops, quorum and auxiliary presidents, home and visiting teachers, and parents—he would tell them exactly what to do every step of the way. If he led them by the hand and never let go, they would remain infants.”3
Because this must be so, we have to put up with each other’s failures. And the prophets and apostles are not immune to this. And it’s okay. I realize that this means we will sometimes have to deal with policies, on both the local and general Church level, that are difficult or that even cause a significant amount of pain, but there really is no alternative. So we must be patient with each other and help each other grow.
This reality also affects our doctrine. Some Latter-day Saints have questions about various points of doctrine. I am one. In fact, there’s probably not a single doctrine that I don’t have questions about. Sometimes in the Church we get the idea that we have ALL THE TRUTH—bold, underlined, and in capital letters. But, again, reality is not so simple. Many of our fundamental doctrines have shifted or developed over time. Joseph Smith apparently found some of the doctrines in the Book of Mormon unsatisfactory, because he changed or expanded them. One particular doctrine, about what happens to those don’t hear the gospel in this life, went through at least four different changes to get to where it is today. The doctrines surrounding our understanding of premortality developed over a long period of time as we tried to reconcile the various things Joseph taught at different points in his life. I find it particularly significant that the version of premortality that most Mormons now embrace was first proposed by Elder B. H. Roberts early in the twentieth century, and at that time it was rejected by the First Presidency.4 So, the notion that our doctrines were revealed from heaven pure and whole and perfect does not square with the historical record. Which, in my mind, is a wonderful excuse for us to acquire more humility about what we claim to know and to ask more questions. Joseph Smith was one of the greatest questioners in the history of religion. We could do worse than to follow his example.
So, with our doctrine, as with our history and our leaders, there is a lot more complexity than we sometimes like to imagine. And, again, it’s okay. Apparently, this is how God wants it. Religion, like life in general, is much more ambiguous than we want it to be. In Mormondom, we crave certainty, but certainty about some things is very elusive.
Way back in 1979, when Bruce Hafen was president of Ricks College, he gave a devotional address at BYU titled “Love Is Not Blind: Some Thoughts for College Students on Faith and Ambiguity.”5 I would recommend you read it. When he talks about ambiguity, he means the gap between the ideal, which we focus on a lot in the Church, and the real, which is how things actually are. It is that gap I’ve been talking about today. Sometimes, when we have high expectations, and either the Church or its leaders or its doctrine fall short, we experience frustration. Today, this is often referred to as cognitive dissonance. Whatever we call it, though, it can damage our faith. Bruce Hafen offers a good perspective on dealing with cognitive dissonance or, as he calls it, ambiguity.
Borrowing terms from G. K. Chesterton, Brother Hafen talks about three kinds of people. The first group comprises those people Chesterton labeled optimists. They don’t deal well with the gap between the real and the ideal, which causes them either to be blind to the real problems that exist or to actually erase them from their minds. For these people, everything is wonderful—and simple.
The second group comprises those people Chesterton labeled pessimists. They see the problems, the reality of mortality, but they focus so exclusively on it that they tend to erase the ideal. They see only how things are, not how they should be. Those who are troubled by imperfections in the Church or its leaders and leave the Church often fall into this category.
The third level, and this is where I hope we can be, is the group of people Chesterton called improvers. They see the ideal; they see the real; they recognize the gap between the two; but they attempt to do something constructive about closing the gap. I have recognized in my own life that I can do a lot more to help change things that need to be changed in the Church, at both the local and general level, if I stay in the Church and remain loyal to its ultimate mission. Standing outside as a critic may be intellectually satisfying to some, but it’s mostly fruitless.
So, if you are struggling over some issue or are dealing with a loved one who is struggling, be patient. Don’t bail out when you face ambiguity. Work through the complexity. Be an improver. We believe in ongoing revelation, not in infallibility, and sometimes even things we were certain would never change do change. God has certainly not revealed everything, and he may yet surprise us.
Finally, let me cycle back to what I said about doctrine and offer maybe one insight into how we might reach that simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity. BYU professor Charles Harrell, who wrote a book detailing many of the changes in LDS doctrine over the years, made a very important point at the conclusion of his book. He said simply that nobody is saved by theology. This reminder always brings me back to what we really need to be concerned about, and maybe this is at least a portion of the simplicity we will find on the other side of complexity:
“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the king shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:34–40).
I believe this. I believe this is what God wants of us. The Church may not meet our expectations of perfection in every way. But it does provide us a framework within which we can practice this type of Christian love. And practice is what we need.
So, hang in there. Be patient. It’s okay to have questions. It’s okay if some questions don’t have good answers. At least not yet. Apparently this is the way God wants it. So let’s do the best we can and try to love and serve each other in ways that will make a difference.
God bless you all in your efforts to overcome the challenges of mortality, including the unavoidable complexity of many things. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
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1. M. Russell Ballard, “The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century,” https://www.lds.org/broadcasts/article/evening-with-a-general-authority/2016/02/the-opportunities-and-responsibilities-of-ces-teachers-in-the-21st-century?lang=eng.
2. Henry L. Miles, “An Old Mormon Writes to Harold Bloom,” Dialogue 40, no. 4 (2007): 166, paraphrasing Hayden White, historian in the tradition of literary criticism and retired professor of literature at Stanford.
3. Roger Terry, “Why the True Church Cannot Be Perfect,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 46, no. 1 (2013): 94–107.
4. For more historical background on the development of the doctrines of premortality, see Roger Terry, “The Source of God’s Authority: One Argument for an Unambiguous Doctrine of Preexistence,” Dialogue 49, no. 3 (2016): 109–44.
5. Bruce C. Hafen, “Love Is Not Blind: Some Thoughts for College Students on Faith and Ambiguity,” Devotional Address given at Brigham Young University, January 9, 1979, https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/bruce-c-hafen_love-is-not-blind-thoughts-college-students-faith-ambiguity/.