Sunday, July 29, 2007

Mormons, God & Mammon

Today I taught the lesson in Elders Quorum, and it drained me. It was the Pres. Kimball lesson on having no other gods before God (#14). I framed it in terms of Christ’s teaching to choose between God and Mammon, as one can only have one master. Then I wanted to go through Pres. Kimball’s thoughts to figure out how to live a life devoted to God in a world where subsistence depends on Mammon.

As some history, I stopped going to church for a year, and was only half-active for a few years before that, because I couldn’t see how this church related to Christ’s teachings or Joseph Smith’s project any more. Christ clearly taught to take care of the poor and never taught anything close to seeking riches. Joseph constantly strove to establish Zion, or at least societies without poor.

For the past many years, I’ve seen modern Mormonism as being thoroughly polluted and dominated by cold war philosophies that have nothing to do with the teachings of Christ or Joseph Smith. We are so afraid of ‘socialism’ that any talk of helping the poor on a societal level makes people nervous if not reactionary. Our current rhetoric concerning the family is also thoroughly infused with cold war ideas (completely unrelated to the teachings of Christ and only tangentially connected to any of Joseph’s teachings).

Thus, we are able to believe that it is the poor’s fault for being poor, it is evil to want to do anything about it on a large scale, and all we have to do to be disciples of Christ is create a comfortable, bourgeois existence for ourselves and our kids. Then we marvel that other groups in the Christian right happen to believe the same things we do, not recognizing that our current religion comes from the same source as theirs.

Anyway, this is what I came to be convinced of, and it is why I couldn’t stand to be around Mormons for a long time. I’ve since realized that my view was too dogmatic and that there is clearly more going on in the church than this. Since I’ve been back, I’ve seen a lot of truly Christian beauty in Mormonism.

Nevertheless, the stereotype of the Mormon cold warrior who thinks that focusing on the strictly-defined ‘nuclear’ family protects him from any leftist tendencies to consider the poor is not without some basis in reality. My EQ consists almost entirely of grad students. Some of us are in academic disciplines, but the majority of elders are in programs that will provide them with fantastic incomes and that don’t require them to really question or analyze too much.

Well, today I tried to prepare a lesson for everyone. Here I have quotes from Pres. Kimball saying that we shouldn’t focus on money, that we should help the poor, that wealth (capital) is dangerous. I thought I could use them and some passages from the scriptures to gently nudge the more fiscally-minded members of the quorum to consider what will be a truly Christian use of the considerable wealth they will one day enjoy.

But then my academic buddies kept wanting to expose the machinery of capitalist thinking and the protestant work ethic within LDS thinking. I didn’t disagree with anything they said – I’d already taken a break from Mormons as one firmly believing it. But was this the way to reach the members of the EQ who probably do believe that Jesus actually taught that men need to make a good living (which He didn’t), that women need to stay home and nurture within a comfortable bourgeois home (which He didn’t) in order to raise a righteous, ‘blessed’ family – and that this is the sum of the ‘gospel’?

Is EQ the place to expose all of the philosophies of men, clung to during the cold war, that still have such a negative effect on LDS thinking? Should one (teacher or participant) charge directly into all of the ways that such thinking contradicts the NT, D&C, BoM and other scripture? I opted to take a gentler approach, but I think I only managed to anger my more analytic friends while still alienating the future wealthy of America. My goal was to bring in the spirit and create quorum unity as we explored how to use the great wealth we all have to do God’s will.

How do you teach this lesson, or approach this topic in a church class?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Whom Does God Respect?

There is an interesting story in the Acts of the Apostles where Peter proclaims that “God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” (Acts 10:34-35). This proclamation, and Peter’s antecedent vision, are considered the official doctrinal change to take the gospel to the Gentiles. (Please disregard Christ’s own commission years earlier to “go ye therefore, and teach all nations…”)

The Acts account poses an interesting question about the primacy of circumcision; namely, is the commission to proselytize among the Gentiles a new policy? Or Peter’s enlightened interpretation of an eternal law?

On the one hand, I believe that God has not graduated from the realm of personal development and is himself learning as he goes along at this stage of his existence. I understand the ipsedixitism. However, I cannot understand the principle of eternal progression without this belief. In many ways, it seems that God has tried several different approaches to managing the gospel on earth, much like an entrepreneur peddling a new product. Maybe this is one manifestation that God is still learning.

That being said, it seems silly that God wouldn't be able to foresee the problems of the extremely exclusive society of circumcised Jews under the law of Moses. And the idea that God is still learning is very difficult to reconcile with the personal accounts of several prophets who claim that God showed them the history of the world from beginning to end.

In our contemporary setting, I'm not quite sure how to interpret Acts 10. We laugh at the closed-minded Jews who were befuddled at the prospect of sharing their rites with the uncircumcised. "It must just be a societal thing" we tell ourselves. "Discrimination is not eternal." So Paul breaks down the barriers of nationalism and ethnicity, and later (much later) President Kimball reaches out to blacks. And our justification remains: "those crazy out-dated societal traditions of discrimination. God is truly no respecter of persons." What I don't understand (anybody?) is why we don't extend this same rationale onto the exclusionary barriers of gender and age. While the "Jews-only" and "blacks are less noble" policies are written off as unfortunate anachronisms, we believe that our adult-male-only policy is eternal. This fascinates me. Especially considering that our scriptures include stories about priestesses and child prophets.

So, should the policy change in Acts 10 be viewed as a step in God's development, or a step in our own development (or both)? What is the great take-home message? This has been on my mind today.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Should my Son be Circumcised?

My wife and I are expecting a baby boy in October. It's our first. I never anticipated the dialogue that has been sparked by our inaugural pregnancy: Will a pink burping towel really offend our son's burgeoning masculinity? Will dolls with long hair send the wrong message? How much do I care about other people's reaction to my parenting style?

Most recently the question came up: should our son be circumcised? Note the passive voice - I don't intend to do any snipping, nor do I know who will. However, I will be asked for permission. Nothing makes men shift uncomfortably in their seats more than a discussion about circumcision. And with good reason - the penis is important (and, incidentally, very sensitive).

Should I be making this decision? Would it be considerate or cruel to wait until our son could make this choice for himself? (I am willing to pay). I am circumcised. My father is not. Although I broached the awkward topic with my mother once, I'm still unsure what prompted them to make the choice for me. Sure, it's customary in America. But she claims that the nurses didn't pressure them. Maybe my dad was made fun of. That didn't seem to be the reason either. It seems that I was circumcised because, you know, why not?

The cost-benefit calculus is unclear to me. While circumcision used to provide a connection to God, that isn't the case anymore (at least not officially). And while circumcision is arguably more "modern" it is unarguably less natural. It is true that some studies point to unclean, uncircumcised penises as the cause of high rates of childhood urinary-tract infection. Sure, it's hard to clean behind the ears, too, but we don't cut them off. Proponents of circumcision point to studies that conclude the procedure can protect against the transmission of HIV, or the development of penile cancer. Opponents point to studies that claim circumcision can lead to an increased risk of developing gonorrhea and chlamydia. And nobody is sure about the traumatic effects on the infant. (Traumatic effect on parents negated by progressive insurance plan).

One recent study claims that an uncircumcised penis is significantly more sensitive; the removed foreskin contains five specific regions that are more sensitive than the most sensitive location on a circumcised penis (the circumcised scar on the ventral surface). Another study claims that women who have dual experience prefer "anatomically complete" men overwhelmingly to circumcised men. And the Jewish "Circumcision Resource Center" points to medical and psychological research when they "conclude that circumcision is not advisable."

Ultimately, the evidence in favor of circumcision seems no more compelling than arguments against, in which case I am inclined to leave my boy the way he comes. Circumcising our son seems like a pretty severe response to "everyone's doing it; it's a social more." On the other hand, my wife points out the aesthetic advantage of snipping. And I hear her on that: purple mushrooms unite! Is it wrong to conform to cultural convention? We won't be circumcising our daughters, and will probably encourage them to limit their body piercings. So maybe I'm a pawn after all, a rambouillet to my peers.

Or maybe I'd just like my son to look like me.