Levels of Comprehension

If you don’t read Naked Pastor, you should. No, it’s not related to the Catholic sex scandal. Yes, it is a Christian leader courageous enough to bare his thoughts, doubts, and concerns open to the world. If only all religious leaders were so introspective and committed to the health of their congregations.

Pastor Hayworth recently applied Bloom’s Taxonomy to spiritual development. It’s a brilliant exercise, because it provided me with a very simple way to evaluate how useful a belief system is in truly helping its followers achieve their greatest potential. After some thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that the higher up the ladder your belief system pushes you, the greater its value to you individually and to humanity as a whole. Any system that attempts to stop people on one of the lower rungs is probably more interested in power than in truth. The God it serves desires obedience and not enlightenment.

I’d love to see some comments applying this system to various beliefs. I’ll go ahead and provide my old perspective as a Mormon and contrast it with my current belief as an atheist. Quotes below explaining each step on the ladder are from Brother Hayworth.

Knowledge is the lowest form of thinking. This is the accumulation of facts. At this lowest level you can recall data or information. For instance, you might know your scripture verses and be able to recite a creed or know the facts about doctrinal theology.

Mormonism definitely encourages this. We learned songs in Primary, memorised scripture as we got older, chanted in Young Women’s, and at BYU religion courses were required. I had to memorise the Articles of Faith when I was baptised, the Mormon equivalent of Catechism. This is reflected in the culture; Mormon parents generally encourage their children to do well in school. My tendency to gobble up facts is something I’m grateful for, although ironically it set me on the path to seeing through it all.

Comprehension is the next level. Here you begin to understand the meaning of verses and creeds and doctrines. You understand it at a level where you can actually state them in your own words and discuss them. This shows you have a deeper understanding of them than the simple rote knowledge of the first level.

This is also encouraged in Mormonism, although I’ll add the caveat that understanding tends to be guided carefully toward officially accepted interpretations. Lip service is paid to the idea that anybody can read and interpret scripture for themselves, but in general everyone is expected to arrive at fairly uniform conclusions. It’s not a good sign that cognitive dissonance is going to happen at such an early level of thinking skills. It’s a fracture that goes almost all the way to the foundation.

Application is the third level. At this level you not only know your scriptures and some doctrinal theology, but you begin to understand how to apply it to your personal life and real life situations. In other words, scripture and theology is a kind of second nature to you because you apply what you know to novel situations in your life.

Mormons are highly encouraged to apply their religion to their daily lives. Speech, food and drink, clothing, home décor, entertainment, social activities, and friends are all selected based on religious teachings. “Second nature” is a good way to describe the stamp that Mormonism places on members’ behaviour. At this level knowledge and comprehension are fully integrated, but at this level only the exercise of the faith system is going on. There isn’t any self-scrutiny or thinking going on about the larger picture or the significance of these actions. At this level, a Mormon pays tithing, attends church, goes to the temple, and slips slang like G’s (garments), GA (general authority), RM (returned missionary) into daily speech, but without deeper thought than that needed to execute the motions. For example, at this level a Mormon will pay tithing, but will not think about what happens with tithing money once it is paid into the system, nor will that person think about whether or not they approve of what those funds are used for.

Ignorance is bliss, and this is the highest someone can go whilst remaining ignorant and happy. This is the highest most members of my family have ever gotten, which is why they are able to spout out things they have learned from rote repetition, such as “Everyone is born with weaknesses. Some people are born with a risk of becoming alcoholics, and others have the temptation to be gay. They don’t have to give into those temptations.” They neither believe nor disbelieve the things they say, because at this level true belief is impossible. They simply don’t grasp the significance of anything they say, and also don’t grasp the significance of their knee-jerk reactions when somebody challenges the rubbish they spout.

Analysis is the next highest level. The first 3 levels (knowledge, comprehension, application) are the most common levels achieved. Analysis is a more advanced kind of thinking because you can separate the concepts into parts. You begin to see the framework, the under-girding, the skeleton, and the connections in the texts and doctrines. You are beginning to be able to critique the texts and doctrines and their relationship to one another.

It’s interesting that Hayward notes that most people do not progress beyond application of their belief system. I believe this is because beyond this level you have to commit a lot more intellectual resources than most people can handle. It’s not that most people aren’t smart enough to do it; more likely most of them are busy or just don’t care. If they fall within the mainstream of people who are readily accepted by their belief system (for Mormons, this means white, middle-class, straight, cisgender, conservative) then the system probably works for them, so there’s little need to examine it or want to address the parts that are broken. It just works. Very few people comfortable with their system are going to have the time or interest to progress beyond application. This means a disproportionate number of people who progress to analysis are going to be misfits of some kind.

When Mormonism failed me, the sparkle of fairy-dust began to wear off the system that I had believed magic and all-knowing. I began to see the man behind the curtain, and I could not ignore him. I saw how the machine operated, and I saw that it had no safety valves to catch women like me. All it had was a structure that kept me pinned beneath the authority of whatever random man the machine assigned, and my psychological and physical health was in the hands of that man. I was paired up with a bishop who was convinced that if I just prayed a little bit more and tried just a bit harder, my (soon to be ex) husband would come around. He didn’t, and when I stopped coming to the bishop for counsel I suddenly found that there was no place for me in the machine. Unsupervised women in Mormonism are like bolts that have come loose from the machine and fallen to the factory floor. They either need to be screwed back in or discarded.

Whether or not one remains a believer, it is impossible to achieve the stage of analysis without becoming disillusioned. The perfect fairy-story world that existed in stages one, two and three shatters. This is the phase where there is the most anger, as one’s worldview has been completely turned upside down. This is also where those at lower phases dismiss those with legitimate concerns as “angry apostates,” again because they are unable to comprehend anything larger than their world of ingesting knowledge and performing prescribed duties.

I believe that the LDS Church is hostile to this level of thinking and all the levels above it. There is superficial lip service to “progressing in knowledge” but even this term just shoots you back to step one — knowledge. “I know this church is true” is not a belief statement for most Mormons — it’s a statement of fact. Church = true. Anything that would cause a Mormon to examine the structure of the Church will also inevitably lead them to notice its conflicting doctrines and practises with regards to women, polygamy, non-white people, and sexual minorities. The farther up we go from here, the less able a person will be able to be the good little True Believing Mormon that LDS, Inc. wants them to be. The open hostility the Church shows to “the philosophies of men” and the pride Mormons take in its uneducated, anti-intellectual prophets is strong evidence of this.

Synthesis is the fifth level where you begin to build your own structure and pattern of thinking out of the diverse elements from the texts and doctrines. You unite different parts together to form a new kind of whole. You create a new meaning or structure of thought that is uniquely your own. You find a way to assimilate and integrate various elements of thought, even from outside your own tradition or system, into your own way of thinking (or some might say “believing”).

Building your own structure can only come after the spiritual applecart has been upset. After the shattering process of Analysis, we begin to pick up the pieces. Imagine a broken teapot; some people will glue it all back together and put it back to use. It isn’t as pretty or elegant as it once was, but it still makes tea. Others, disgusted with the teapot’s failure to endure the bumps and rattles of scrutiny, scoop it all up and toss it in the bin. Still more will keep some of the prettier shards, repurposing them for a new function or keeping them on the shelf as an artefact of a completed phase of life. This phase is where formerly ideal Mormons realise that there is no going back, and that they must choose a pragmatic approach to their faith system or leave it for one that better matches their new worldview. This is where people begin to figure out labels such as “ex-Mormon,” “Post-Mormon,” and “Formon” (my personal favourite).

Evaluation is the final level. At this level you not only are able to critique the texts and doctrines and their relationship to one another, but you are able to make judgement about the whole thought system and belief system altogether. You can even make judgement about the value of the religious ideas you were taught or that you possess. At this level you evaluate not only the entire system, but its value and relation to other systems. This is the most mature level.

Mormonism values obedience above all else. “Follow the Prophet, Follow the Prophet, Follow the Prophet, Don’t go astray,” they teach us in Primary. “Praise to the Man” we sing in Sacrament. I don’t know if I’ve fully reached this level, but I think that I’m prepared to begin thinking about the value of the religious ideas I was brought up with. I do not believe the Mormon church offers the best plan available to humanity. I believe its teachings and practises make it very efficiently self-sustaining. It offers comfort to those who fear death and obliteration by telling them death isn’t for real, and that they don’t have to say goodbye to their families, ever. It’s perfectly understandable why people would want that. But LDS, Inc. uses lies to sell that idea. Even if there is a god and even if there is an afterlife, dishonesty shouldn’t be used to draw people toward it. There are numerous flaws in the process that demonstrate that although LDS, Inc.’s stated goal is to get people into Heaven, what it’s better at is enriching itself as an organisation and leveraging its power over its members. It unapologetically marginalises women, minorities, sexual minorities, intellectuals, and nonconformists, and that is a fatal flaw. It sets its members up for deep distress if they ever dare to venture beyond the first three phases of Bloom’s taxonomy.

Pastor Hayworth always delivers up so much food for thought. If you don’t follow him, he’s @nakedpastor on Twitter and blogs and cartoons regularly at nakedpastor.com.

Polygamy, What Will We Do With You?

Warning: long post. However, if you carry on you’ll get to the part where I use the word “shagging”.

If the LDS Church is a house, polygamy is the creepy clown doll sitting on the top shelf of the spare room that you can’t discard because your granny gave it to you way back when. It’s also the trending topic in Outer Blogness this week thanks to the fact that it gets a prominent mention in this month’s copy of the Ensign. Filed under the heading “irrelevant issues,” Ballard encourages Mormons to avoid thinking about what used to be considered an absolute requirement for exaltation:

Why are we still talking about it? It was a practice. It ended. We moved on. If people ask you about polygamy, just acknowledge that it was once a practice but not now and that people shouldn’t confuse any polygamists with our church.

I suppose it takes a used car dealer to sell that hunk of junk. Mrs. Jack does a bang-on job of calling out Mormons who try to sweep their plural wives under the rug, but I’d like to address the more direct fallout this has on the membership. Ballard’s statement is incredibly misleading, and this approach to LDS history is exactly the cause of so many Mormons feeling anxiety, anger, and frustration when they find out history is more complex than the Church Office Building wants us to believe. Ballard was born in Salt Lake at a time when there were still living LDS polygamists, is a colleague with the polygamously sealed Dallin H. Oaks, and is an apostle of the LDS church. He should know better. Yet, he wrote an article about Joseph Smith’s family that makes no mention of any wife but Emma Smith, in keeping with the current policy of sanitising polygamy from LDS history. Either he’s a maestro of Doublethink or unforgivably dishonest.

Mormonism used to be much more clear, assertive, experimental, and creative with its doctrine. Since the formation of the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop a century ago, there has been no innovation in doctrine, merely a blanding down and consolidation of belief and ritual. The establishment of Correlation in the 1960’s was the first nail in the coffin of doctrinal innovation in Mormonism, and ongoing correlation efforts have tried to muddle and mix and sanitise what Mormonism used to be until what is left is a bland, globally palatable spiritual gruel. This process is not without difficulty when it comes to awkward historical artefacts such as polygamy. Consider:

  1. 19th century Mormons called polygamy “the Capstone of Mormon Doctrine” and considered it as essential as temple ordinances to progress to godhood. Polygamists fled from authorities, went to prison, and gave up personal property because their religious convictions were so strong.
  2. Modern Mormons dismiss polygamy as a “practise” and either believe it was only temporarily commanded as a test of faith or to “build up the kingdom”, or that it was a mistake and never should have been practised at all.
  3. Either 19th century Mormons were wrong or modern Mormons are.
  4. This leads to an uncomfortable conclusion that the modern church can’t be “true” because it was either wrong to establish polygamy as a point of doctrine or wrong to abandon it.
  5. In response to this problem, a lot of Mormons rely on materials pumped out by the Ministry of Truth to help them Doublethink it away, and the rest hope it will all just go away.

The “ignore it and hope it goes away” stance, which the Church has been clinging to for the last several decades, is not paying off as a good long-term strategy. It makes Mormons angry, confused, and/or neurotic. I’ve seen four basic types of response to this issue, which will continue to fester until the Church makes an open, clear declaration on the subject:

1. Ignorance or Indifference

Thanks to the careful manipulation of history that takes place in Sunday school, many Mormons are ignorant of the fact that polygamy was ever practised by LDS people. Some are vaguely aware but don’t take interest in the subject. The danger is that ignorance can lead to Mormons saying misinformed things that reflect badly on the Church. I was told for years by LDS teachers and priesthood leaders that rumours of polygamy were just vicious lies made up by anti-Mormons, and felt quite the fool when I found out I’d been repeating their lies for years.

2. “Please Don’t Let it Be True”

Many Mormons, particularly women, find polygamy a source of great anxiety. (Men, because they don’t get quite the shortest end of the stick, tend to worry less about it.) Faithful Mormon feminists, who have enough cognitive dissonance to deal with, are usually stretched to the limit when considering polygamy, as reflected in The Exponent’s latest musings on polygamy. The author believes that polygamy will be disallowed in the next life, which is a bit of a slap in the face to many people, Mormon and not, who were polygamous or polyamourous for personal, cultural and religious reasons. More telling is this bit:

“I view polygamy in this life as the result of a fallen world”

This is a rather narcissistic creation of God agrees in the image of the author’s personal views of modern liberal egalitarian Western-style monogamy. (An utterly new and uncommon marital arrangement in history.) But I have compassion for this position as it was the one I held when I was desperately trying to force my beliefs in Mormonism to coexist with my hopes for equal treatment. It ended up not working because the deity of Mormonism, a male who sent his male offspring to redeem humanity and have his male worshippers oversee women everywhere, even in their own homes, didn’t seem likely to turn out to be someone “who appreciates and acknowledges the fundamental equality of human souls, who values men and women of various races and classes equally.”

3. Acceptance

Some Mormons realise what polygamy means in LDS doctrine, see that it has gone away for now, but believe that it did work in some way as part of God’s plan and yet has a part to play in the future. These types accept that LDS Apostle Dallin H. Oaks is sealed to two women, making him a polygamist. (The first wife happens to have died before #2 was added, but that’s irrelevant in the eternal scheme of things.) There are plenty of LDS who have studied and accept all of the following:

  1. Early Mormons asserted polygamy as a civil right and an important point of doctrine.
  2. There is a subtle difference between salvation and exaltation. Salvation means having your soul saved by Jesus. Exaltation means the process of becoming a deity, which requires temple ordinances, and as taught for the first 80 years of Mormonism, with three wives per man being the popularly held requirement for godhood.
  3. When LDS authorities say we are the literal offspring of God, they understand that this refers to Brigham Young’s teaching that souls are created through “natural action,” which is why a god would need lots of baby factories exalted wives to help him populate his worlds without end with worshippers.
  4. Sexual relations are an important part of the Mormon concept of godhood, so important that to be the Saviour, Jesus needed to be literally half god. LDS authorities have consistently taught that Elohim was married to Mary and shagged her in order to produce Jesus. Oh, and there are temple records listing Mary as God’s wife.
  5. The Proclamation on the Family, the temple ceremony, and the temple marriage ceremony use very carefully chosen words that do not disallow polygamy by God or man. Women give themselves to men, who receive them. Our spirits are the offspring of God and one of his wives. There are currently practicing polygamists in the form of male divorcés and widowers who marry additional women in the temple.

I’ve found that Mormons who hold this view point tend to be pragmatic and sex-positive. Those with immature or squeamish views of sex and bodies don’t want to think about Heavenly Father shagging Mary but I don’t know how you can get around the word “literal” and the frequency of its use by General Authorities when speaking of the creation of human souls and the body of Jesus. Which is what brings me to the final category:

4. Denial. Sad, pathetic denial.

This is an old technique, one used by Emma Smith herself in a pitiable and understandable attempt to preserve her dignity from her philandering husband. These are people who cannot come to terms with the idea that they could ever share time with other spouses, or who refuse to accept that Joseph Smith might have abused his position to, er, get into other positions. The ever-witty Eliza Snitch quipped:

I revered and idolised Joseph Smith as a child, and how angry I was when I found out about the glass-looking, money-digging, womanising stuff. I felt like a dupe. It’s embarrassing. Analogy: it’s like if Hitler had been my favourite painter, and then one day somebody said, “Hey, ever heard of the Holocaust?” Obviously that would be a whole new level of ignorance, but you catch my gist.

She was addressing the oh-so-sad claims of the hilariously titled blog “Pure Mormonism” which was jumping on the obscure and easily dismissed conspiracy theory bandwagon that claims Joseph Smith was framed by Brigham Young and never practised polygamy. The theory is as laughable as the writing is dull, but feel free to look into the minds of these sad, self-deluded wankers if you’ve got a few minutes to kill this afternoon. I’ll also repeat my sentiments that polygamy denial is a horrible insult to the men, women and children who endured so much because they believed it was so important.

So let’s consider: why does polygamy still matter so much? Well, that’s the only easy part of the polygamy debate, and here it is:

Mormons believe they will have bodies and they will be shagging with them in the afterlife.

Polygamy, serial monogamy, polyamoury; it’s all the same if you don’t believe people will have bodies or shag after they are dead. To my knowledge, only Mormons and suicide bombers believe they will be able to have a little rumpy pumpy after they kick off. Mainstream Christians believe that heaven will be populated by our souls all dwelling together in the bliss of God that transcends sex, because procreation (and therefore the social institution of marriage) serves no purpose any longer. If grandpa remarried a lovely woman after grandma passed away, in traditional Christian Heaven he can be with all of his family and there’s nothing odd about it. But for Mormons it all gets a bit dodgy because you have to think about how many women grandpa will be bonking.

Some things modern LDS people need to get a grip on:

1. Polygamy is not a dirty word. Polygamous relationships are an important part of human history. There are polyandrous societies and cultures that eschew the idea of marriage altogether. Polygamy is not the same thing as child rape or inbreeding unless you are talking about cultural oddities like the FLDS.

2. The modern LDS ideal of one happy heterosexual lifelong true love government-recognised marriage per person is very much a product of the Victorian era in which Mormonism emerged. This viewpoint of marriage is utterly new in human history. It bears no resemblance to virtually every other cultural attitude toward marriage in history. Even European Christians saw marriage as a perfunctory civil contract until the industrial revolution enabled social mobility and class systems broke down. Yes, that’s right. Marrying for love destroyed society as we knew it. And yet we soldier on. (You can extrapolate this to modern times and see how the LDS crusade against gay marriage is a load of bollocks.)

The LDS Church’s current approach to its unwanted historical artefacts is dishonest. The doctrine of polygamy exists, has never been disavowed, and is still practised by unwitting temple attendees. Denial of its relevance and importance is a betrayal of the immense sacrifices, personal battles, and legal trouble that Mormons endured for almost a century. It treats Mormons’ grandmothers just as poorly as they were treated as second-class plural wives, unable to publicly claim their status and personal property. Treating polygamy as a practice and not a doctrine is a radical departure from what Mormonism originally was, and a student of Mormon doctrine could easily make the case that it constitutes apostasy, which is why the Fundamentalist LDS Church exists in the first place.

Only one thing has remained consistent about the LDS approach to polygamy: lying to protect it. Joseph Smith lied about it to his closest friends, setting off the chain of events that led to his murder. Church leaders lied about it to keep from getting arrested during Brigham Young’s reign. The Church claimed to renounce polygamy in 1890 but kept marrying people and lying about it. Now it’s bad for PR so leaders lie about it to make it go away. I doubt an honest, open approach will be forthcoming, but it certainly would be a breath of fresh air to so many who struggle to understand just why that creepy clown doll won’t stop staring at them.