The Third Event
The third event on my mission, the one that truly altered my outlook on life, occurred in a Buddhist temple in a remote location in the mountains of central Taiwan. We had been taken to this special place by some local investigators/friends (more friends than investigators though) who wanted us to see it. They felt it to be a place of rare beauty, and they wanted to share it with us. Tucked away as it was in the hills, it probably received very few foreign visitors. In fact, we were the only foreigners, of which we were aware, anywhere in the vicinity. And when I say vicinity, I am talking about mountain ranges. But this was indeed a setting where inspiration could occur.
The customs of the Chinese were still new to me at the time, and I tended to look down on them in many instances. To give a frame of reference, I was in the process of assisting in the writing of our "mission song," which kicked off with the phrase "For my brother in the dark I've come..."
Anyway, with this frame of mind I watched the Buddhist monks go quietly about their gentle business. The monks wore sun bleached orange robes. Like all monks, their heads were shaven and bore eight small burned-in circular scars in a pattern of two parallel lines. For some reason, I had the impression that the monks were not overjoyed to have us big nosed, hairy, self-righteous, photo-snapping foreign missionaries in their sanctuary. Rightfully so. Actually, I don't know that we were so bad, but we may have seemed like gawking idiots to the residents. They may have politely acknowledged us, but didn't engage us in conversation or anything.
The temple was set on a mountainside. Looking out over the valley from the temple courtyard, one could see the beautiful patchwork of rice fields and hills. The sun was just beginning to set, and the colors were reflected in the broken patterns of the flooded rice fields. Looking inward, thin lines of smoke were slowly and delicately curling up from the large iron incense burners on either side of the altar where the GRAVEN IMAGES stood. Directly before the altar sat an offering of food for the Gods of the temple. A selection of fruits and cooked dishes. I always got a chuckle out of this absurd practice. In the dark indeed.
On this particular day I saw a monk going to attend to the offering. As he rearranged a dish of oranges, I thought to myself, in a sarcastic way, 'well, it appears that once again the gods weren't hungry enough to eat any of their food . . . I guess you monks will just have to eat it . . . isn't it funny how it always works out like that?' The gods never seemed to eat their offerings. Missionaries loved this fact, as it proved the silliness of the Buddhist religion. The monk took away one of the oranges. 'Stealing from the gods, eh?' As I relaxed on a bench across the courtyard, I absent mindedly watched as he peeled and prepared the orange on a small red plastic plate. Like a child's toy plate. How did the gods feel about being served on a cheap kid's plate, I wondered.
He finished then walked across the courtyard. Before I comprehended what was happening, he approached me and kindly presented the prepared orange. He didn't do this for anyone else. Only me.
I was quite devastated. That small moment had a large impact on my life. I will always be humbled by this memory. I began to think more carefully about the civilization and people around me. As the recollection of the event swirled around in my head over the following months, it eventually set in motion a rethinking of my previously presumed spiritual superiority to anyone who wasn't a Mormon. Was it really the case that if I 'knew' a spiritual thing to be true, that any contrary spiritual thing he 'knew' was actually false? Could I, or anyone, unilaterally lay claim to a superior ability to 'know' truth? To make matters worse, I am ashamed to say that it probably wouldn't even occur to him to care about which of us had the greatest capacity to know what is true.
How could I be so self involved to think that what I 'know' automatically triumphs over anything that a non-Mormon thinks he knows? We are exasperated that people from other religions could claim to 'know' truth inconsistent with our beliefs, yet we are immovable in adopting that stance ourselves. Do the works and sacrifices of our best outshine the works and sacrifices of their best? Gee, what do we even know about the works of the icons of other religions? Actually, we seem to go to great lengths not to know anything about them! We don't even know a single thing about the people who the Catholics revere as Saints! Let alone Buddha!10
Additionally, from that day on, the more I observed, and the more I learned about the Chinese race and civilization, the more I became convinced that the cosmic focus of the universe was not necessarily centered upon Utah. Or upon any one place or people or culture or history. I had been taught, in so many words, that until these Chinese people had the honor of meeting us, they were essentially living an irrelevant existence. Not to worry though, in spirit prison it would be explained to them:
About all those long years you spent upon the earth . . . Remember the spiritual experiences that led up to your decision to dedicate your life to the religion of your people? Remember the challenges you faced? The temptations? The things you forever released from your hands in order to fulfill your covenants? The traditions of centuries? The tears you shed? The sweat of your brow? The slow but awesome growth of your spiritual self? The seemingly insurmountable tests of your character? the moments of indescribable peace and fulfillment? your 'testimony?' Well . . . you were about a million miles off base! As it happens all the keys to truth were held by this group in Utah, which, unfortunately, was on the other side of the world from where you were. They have a bunch of nice houses on the foothills of the Wasatch mountains. Actually a couple of kids on bikes were in your vicinity once, but apparently you WEREN'T READY to accept the truth. Actually, consider yourself lucky. If you had perturbed these kids, they might have dusted their shoes off on your doorstep and you would have been cursed.11 Also, how could you not realize that God is a Caucasian?? What WERE you thinking?As you might guess, many lives have been lived out in China. I just don't see all those lives, however spent, being totally out of the loop. The same obviously goes for India and other populations and cultures in regions that don't happen to figure into the Mormon view of history that matters.
Getting back to my experience at the Buddhist temple, what did I know about this man's religion? Essentially nothing. Aside from the cartoons, there had been no room for that kind of study in the MTC. We had been too busy memorizing the names of all of the Church presidents in chronological order while doing sit-ups. How in the world could I sanely be in a position to tell him that he was completely wrong and I was completely right, when I knew virtually nothing of what he believed and why? I was familiar only with a few of the outward trappings of his beliefs. As to these, we missionaries found artificial faith for ourselves by belittling them.
Could my hesitance be resolved, or have been avoided altogether, by simply repeating to myself that I knew the Church was true? Is doing that really a cosmic shortcut that removes the need to seriously attempt to understand the things others believe, or profess to know? But the question would keep coming back to me... what makes something I know any more true than something he knows? Like me, he was a human being with a brain and body and feelings. Perhaps he had gone through experiences every bit as compelling as those which caused me to say I knew that the church into which I was born and which was overwhelmingly popular in my hometown was true.
As convenient as it may have been to assume my own superiority, how could I be so sure that those South Eastern Idaho experiences, acquaintances and studies which gave rise to my feelings and produced my testimony could not possibly have any equivalent in his life?
Is it safe to say that a person's actions are reflective of what he knows? Between the two of us, who had demonstrated more faith and sacrifice? Who had truly dedicated his life to selfless service? Granted, I, as a little missionary in the machine, might not have been the greatest person to compare. So how about our church's leaders? Did the leadership figures in our church lead lives of this kind of dedication? Which of our leaders doesn't come home at night to a nice warm home, in his more than adequate automobile? Which of them do not enjoy plenty of nice meals in nice restaurants? Which of them forgoes such luxuries so as to better feed the poor instead? Which of them doesn't have something of a nest egg spread around in a few banks and brokerage houses? My guess answer is "none." That kind of sacrifice shows up in our teachings, but that's about it. The camel through the eye of the needle discussion is basically limited to temporary guilt trips in Sunday school discussions.
You may respond "but that kind of sacrifice is not required. Our Church leaders work very hard and sacrifice much." Which I don't dispute. Nor do I plan on donating my own (meager) savings to the poor any time in the near future. I'm not condemning our leaders or suggesting that they should give their money to the poor. Maybe its not fair to hold these various representatives of their religions up and compare their values, lifestyles, sacrifices or actions to those of Jesus. Or Buddha. I just don't see our actions giving us clear ground to claim a monopoly in the area of personal revelation, moral supremacy or knowledge of truth. Of the two lifestyles, which is closer to that which Jesus would live if he were on the earth today? Obviously I don't know the answer to that question.
Looking at Church History
With these kinds of questions and experiences floating around in my head, later in life, I did a fair amount of reading and investigating about the Church. I don't mean investigating like missionaries use that term, but real investigating. My reading included materials authored by persons not in the pay of the Church, and not dependent on Deseret Books as the vehicle for sales. I wanted a more balanced view of what really went on. I wanted to read from sources who would not hesitate to mention that Brigham Young prophesied that there were little people living on the moon, if indeed he said such a thing. You may think that this means I was reduced to reading seedy "anti-Mormon" literature. Actually, no. The sources I eventually held in esteem and found persuasive were authored by active Church members (in one case a general authority) and respected scholars and historians.
I have personally not seen, first hand, much in the way of virulently anti-Mormon literature, but I know it is out there. On the other hand, I have seen writings that, although based on verifiable historical information, are clearly agendized to cast the Church in a bad light. Although I recognize these attempts for what they are, I don't necessarily view such material as "anti-Mormon." To me, anti-Mormon literature would be something employing falsehoods to defame the Church. Something making assumptions unsupported by facts, or belittling in a cruel way that which is sacred to Mormons. None of the sources persuasive to me had those characteristics.
I have read enough arguments in legal briefs, advertising copy and communist propaganda to know when an author's goal is to persuade; to relentlessly push an agenda.12 On the other hand, I have read enough scholarly writing, judicial opinions and historical analysis to perceive when an author is endeavoring to make a balanced presentation of the relevant facts reasonably available, leaving the reader to form conclusions. Ironically, the former species of literature, although persuasion is not its aim, ultimately has the greater persuasive effect. In my reading on Mormon matters, I found I was not much persuaded by writings that were tethered to a predetermined end, that were designed to persuade, or that left out important facts (unfortunately, this describes most Church sanctioned writings).
I have repeatedly pondered how best to handle this portion of the letter. Initially, I just went on in narrative form about the historical issues that have posed problems for me. But the letter was turning into a treatise. Then I tried briefly listing the issues in headline fashion, but that also went on for pages. After much reflection and the passage of time, I have calmed down, and come up with this summary: The issues basically stem from (1) the many disturbing facts which are a part of the Church's history, and (2) the attempts by the Church to revise its history to hide the truth. You could subtitle these categories, respectively, "truth" and "honesty." More on that line of thought later.
Avoiding a pages long list, some of the matters coming under these headings include: The origin, doctrine, practice and current status of polygamy; Joseph Smith's actions and character; changes the Church made to Joseph Smith's own writings after his death; the disowned teachings of Mormon prophets (not just polygamy); the issues which have arisen with the Book of Abraham; the actions and statements of more recent prophets and apostles; contradictions between Mormon teachings and the sciences (including history, linguistics, geology, geography, anthropology, archeology, Egyptology, forensic sciences, etc.) and numerous other matters of this general character.
These matters (as well as numerous others not listed here) never came up in my childhood or adult education within Mormonism. Upon learning of them on my own, I find them to be highly relevant, and they affect my assessment of Mormonism. Again I emphasize, the information I have found influential came from objective, carefully documented historical works, not "anti-Mormon" attacks. Furthermore, to my knowledge, the Church does not deny any of the factual assertions upon which my current conclusions are based. Instead, the Church simply makes no mention of them. Sorry for the lack of detail, but that is not the mission of this letter.
While of course there are many "good" facts that would balance the negative, in my opinion, no matter how much good was or is also going on, at this time, it isn't sufficient to tip the scales and convince me that Mormonism is what it claims to be. When the matters listed above are considered cumulatively, they create a mosaic which is not at all consistent with what I believe would be the handiwork of the Lord. Although I won't go into much detail about the specific facts I have found troubling (this out of respect for the readers who would rather not be apprised of such information), I will discuss some of the principles I have employed in exploring the foundations of Mormonism. I do this, I suppose, to at least convey that my conclusions are based on more than my falling under the spell of an "anti-Mormon" tract and becoming a confused lost sheep. I am not necessarily out to defend my conclusions, but I do defend the manner in which I reached them.
Separating Objectivity from Negativity
My reading about Church history has forced my attention to many troubling issues. Issues that are generally not discussed in Church culture, and which may not bear on the day to day activities in the modern Church. Even without my setting out the details here, the reader may question "why bother to explore or focus on negative things? Why not just focus on the good things the Church has to offer today?" If we were talking about the Lions Club, the Boy Scouts, or some other confessedly temporal institution, the comment would be well taken. However, we are talking about an institution claiming to hold, exclusively, the power of the eternal God on this earth. A belief system which, if accepted as proffered, must have your lifelong commitment. It enters and affects virtually every aspect of a believer's life. It governs your choice of mate, what you read, what you say, who you associate with, how your money is spent, what you eat and drink, what you teach your children, your political beliefs, etc.
So why bother to explore negative things? With stakes like these, I think you may as well ask "why bother to check fuel gauge before taking off in an airplane?" The information you find, whether positive or negative, will be crucial to your preservation. Nothing could be more relevant than learning all you can about the system of belief to which you commit your soul. Even the "negative" things. Especially the negative things.
In attempting to discuss my findings with other Mormons, I have been accused of "looking for warts," the implication being that we should ignore warts. I think this attitude reflects a frightening willingness to be defrauded. When a building inspector visits a construction site and points out safety hazards and code violations, is he or she guilty of "focusing on the negative" or "looking for warts?" Should the inspector instead focus on and praise the good work elsewhere in the structure, then simply have faith and ignore the problems? The conditions at the site are what they are. They are not created by the inspector's pointing them out any more than they are eliminated by his ignoring or hiding them. In fact, the greater good of the society is served by the inspector's "negativity." Why should these principles apply to the structures to which we entrust our physical well being, but not the structures to which we entrust our spiritual well being? In fact, wouldn't we want to take even more care with the spiritual than with the physical? Which has eternal implications?
Actually, as Mormons we do rigorously employ these standards and principles of discernment with respect to other religions. But not to our own. On which kinds of elements and evidence do we focus when discussing, or even inwardly considering the religious claims of the Jehovah's Witnesses or Catholics? Not to mention Hare Krishnas. In that context are we shamefully looking for warts, or are do we view it as astutely avoiding snares?
You may be thinking:
Yes, yes, fine, but this is spirituality, not a construction project. With all this nit-picking, you are missing the most important element... TESTIMONY! Of course you can't be expected to sustain a belief without cultivating and nurturing the burning witness of a testimony. To ignore the role and power of a testimony is to assure that your analysis will sputter and founder in the realms of man's inadequate intellect.Fair enough. But is it not reasonable, prior to seeking a spiritual affirmation, a testimony, to first get a solid grip on the dimensions of the beast that is to be the subject of this testimony? To ascertain certain basic objective standards, including whether it is wholesome? Honest? Honorable? I think it is not over-reaching to satisfy one's self about these questions before battening down the soundproof hatches of testimony and hunkering down for the nuclear winter. We shake our heads in pity when we hear about impressionable people who join cults without asking these questions (or, even if they do, ignoring important evidence in the answers, or answering them based entirely on spiritual "feelings," without including an objective look at the facts). But why do we view it as a sign of weakness to even think about undertaking such an inquiry of the religion into which we were born?
I feel that it is essential, a duty to one's self, to learn the dimensions, contours and nature of the matter about which a testimony is to be sought. In fact, I can't imagine not wanting to know as much as possible about the thing which is professed to be the truest thing in existence. Furthermore, I think the objective recognition and thoughtful processing of information should be an ongoing process. One shouldn't be fearful of reassessing one's position, even if it involves discomfort. Wouldn't I be alarmed to hear I was flying on empty, or eating spoiled food? Then why would I not be alarmed, or at least interested, to hear troubling facts about my religion? Should I use "faith" as a vehicle to bypass my own sense of right and wrong? If I do, then I'm no different from the members of Jonestown or Heaven's Gate. My sense of right and wrong is a valuable tool. One in which I have confidence, and one which, much to my initial surprise, can exist independently of religious convictions (kind of like governmental checks and balances). A commitment to a religion is too important of a matter for us not to bring that tool to bear. In a way, doing so is bringing works to faith. In the same sense that faith without works is dead, faith not founded on a solid foundation is unreliable. Or, as Thomas Edison said: "Faith, as well intentioned as it may be, must be built on facts, not fiction. Faith in fiction is a damnable false hope."
I eventually got the feeling that the challenge "so are you going to lose your testimony over it?" was trotted out as a substitute for actually thinking. A way to banish inconsistent data with macho stare-down, instead of thoughtful reflection. Or even, if warranted, reevaluation.13 A way of saying "That's nothing! Just watch me, I won't even give that a second thought! In fact, you'd be amazed at the things that wouldn't make me lose my testimony. You name it. When I flex my spirituality, I can ignore ANYTHING!"14
I believe that learning about the solidity of the foundation of your faith is not "looking for warts" or "being negative" or being a wimp. It is good sense. It reflects the most real concern for your spiritual welfare. It reflects a healthy respect the quality of the tools God gave you to discern right from wrong.
Right and Wrong
My estimation of the Church is grounded to a great extent on my own internal instincts about right and wrong. Ironically, these instincts have their origins, at least in part, in my own Sunday school upbringing. Lessons from my daily life as the years have passed reinforced and refined them. If principles of righteousness are not used to measure the integrity of persons and institutions, then of what use are they? If we apply them rigorously in rebuttal so some, but politely set them aside for others, then how can we ever gain true perspective? In the same way that a government should be ultimately beholden to the rule of law, so should a religion ultimately be beholden to the principles of right and wrong.
Many of my conclusions about the Church come from simply examining history and doctrine in the light of my own sense of right and wrong. A big issue that comes under this heading is polygamy. To give some context, when I look at the Catholic practice of forbidding priests from marrying, I don't think it is "right." My sense of right and wrong tells me that this is an unhealthy state of being; for the priests, their parishioners and the Church. I believe it is in man's destiny and best interest to procreate and have the comfort of his mate's companionship. The chronic problems the Catholic church has with sexually repressed and disoriented priests molesting alter boys and parishioners seems to bear this out. Likewise, when I look at the subject of men amassing collections of wives (including both Joseph Smith's secret adventures with the women and young girls of his household and his city of Nauvoo, and the later public practice of polygamy by others), my sense of right and wrong tells me it was wrong. The more I learn of the actual facts which constituted and surrounded the practice, the more convinced I am that my assessment is correct, and that spiritual wifery, as it was called, was, at its root, hatched out of something other than an innocent request for a clarification about a trivial point of doctrine from the Old Testament.
This letter is not going to be an anti-polygamy tirade. However, for purposes of this supposedly brief letter, I will relate one personal experience which I think illustrates the point about navigating by one's own sense of right and wrong. In recent years I came into possession of a diary of one of my family's ancestors. He was a Mormon in the days of openly practiced polygamy. I was previously aware that he had more than one wife, and I was curious to know what his diary might have to say about that situation. At the time I leafed through the diary, my curiosity was mild and basically voyeuristic. I hadn't really started to investigate the foundations of the Church. I was kind of in my historical apathy phase. In reading the diary, I wasn't on a quest for truth or anything, but I did think it would be interesting, if utterly irrelevant, to read about his having multiple wives.
At that time, I hadn't given that much thought to the subject of polygamy. Having grown up being taught about the doctrine, it wasn't sensational to me. Plus, I am quick to admit that I can conjure up pleasant scenarios involving two or more women, so from my perspective as a male, It didn't seem so bad. No problemo. Anyway, I read the diary. But when I got to the part about this man adding women to his household, to my surprise, I found that it wasn't pleasant reading. I came to a part where his wife of many years was called away to a relief society meeting out of town. While she was away, wouldn't you know, he managed to marry a new and younger woman. What a stomach turning surprise that must have been for his proper wife when she returned. Later, he acquired still two more women. Each one was younger than the last. Funny how that works.
There was a photograph of him standing surrounded by his collection of females. No one was smiling. From an early age I was taught that polygamy was the proper order of marriage, and that eventually, we would all practice it again. I was taught that it is commanded in the Doctrine & Covenants. Since I had internalized this idea as a child, it was never shocking to me. However, as I looked at this photograph, and read the diary, I was overcome by a sad feeling. Maybe even a kind of sick feeling. I felt sorry for each of the four women crowded around this one man. I even felt kind of sorry and ashamed for him. As I looked at the photo, something inside of me said "not right." This feeling caught me by surprise. I hadn't expected it. I really wasn't expecting anything. The same feeling came to me as I read the text about his getting another woman while his wife was out of town. In fact, the way he wrote about it was so brief and cryptic, I got the feeling that something inside of him also said "not right." It was almost as if he was ashamed to mention it, but felt obligated to say something, given that he kept a journal, and given that it was a "marriage." But it was the briefest mention, utterly inconsistent with the feelings of purity and joy that would attend a legitimate marriage.
I shudder to think of my wife, or any other self-respecting woman finding themselves forced into a polygamous situation. And from all the reading I have done, I think "forced" is the most apt word. In a woman's heart of hearts, she does not want to be part of a gaggle of wives. Given her druthers, this is not the arrangement a balanced and self-respecting woman would choose.