Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Making God in Our Own Image to Cast Aside His Prophets

They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall. (Doctrine and Covenants 1:16)
Lori Burkman has a piece at Rational Faiths entitled “Disgracing God to Save a Prophet,” in which she essentially argues that God simply would not have commanded polygamy—it is too hard, too painful, too immoral for it to be from God—and therefore, polygamy must be Joseph Smith’s mistake. Whether it was a sincere misunderstanding between him and God, or simply Joseph Smith wanting so bad to have lots of sex and women that he abused his power and became a fallen prophet makes no difference to her.

Reading her piece, I can sense a lot of anger toward Joseph Smith and the Church over polygamy. I suspect that anger comes from a place of pain, anguish, and genuine distress that trying to grapple with polygamy has caused her. I am genuinely sorry for her hurt. I do not have the same feelings about this issue, but I have been deeply hurt before, I’ve felt betrayed before, and felt the anger that comes from those feelings. So I get, on some level, where she is coming from.

Because I’ve had similar feelings, though, I also know that it can affect the way we see, understand, think, and interpret. This applies to history as much as it does to personal relationships. As a student aspiring to become a historian, I get frustrated when I see history and historical sources so seriously misused and misunderstood. To give but one example, Lori declares that, “In fact, polygamy is proven to be less effective to “raise seed” than monogamy; so not even that purpose holds weight.” Yet in her footnote, just before telling us “just think about this a bit,” she admits, “Fertility at the societal level, however, was enhanced because of the near universality of marriage among women and the abundant opportunities for remarriage among previously married women of childbearing age.” In other words, polygamy does help a community—like the Saints of the 19th century—raise up more seed.

That, however, is not what I wish to comment on here. There are plenty of good resources a person can go to for the history, including this new website from Brian Hales where all the primary source documents on Joseph Smith’s polygamy are being made available free of charge. Instead, I would like to comment on what I see as a very concerning trend among certain types of “Internet Mormons,” particularly more “liberal” types, for lack of a better term. I’ve noticed a certain type of thinking among them, and I’ve seen it several times. Lori’s post is but the latest example. It goes something like this:
X is just too unpalatable in some way.
Therefore, God could not be involved in x.
Therefore, it must be the fault of prophet y or z, etc.
In most cases, x is polygamy, or the priesthood ban, or the Church’s current and continued teachings regarding same-sex attraction or women and the priesthood, and so on. And prophet y and/or z, and/or prophets a, b, c, and so on is/are the prophet(s) perceived as responsible for whatever x is. This is clearly manifest in Lori’s post, when—after describing Joseph Smith’s polygamy in the most scandalous terms possible (accuracy be damned!)—she declares, “So this… THIS is the God of Mormonism. Those who wrote and approved the latest essays would rather have the aforementioned paragraphs be Godly-mandated acts rather than admit that Joseph more than likely got something wrong in a big way.” She then goes on:
“I could never believe in a God for whom polygamy is a requisite to win His favor or earn eternal reward. I am enough of an adult to understand that people, even good people, fall prey to their lesser impulses. I freely recognize that all of us have tried to find a way to justify our sins so we don’t have to face the fallout that would follow a true admission of our fault. I’d be willing to love Joseph despite the spiritual coercion he used to gain possession of women he desired as long as he admitted his guilt at some point. Many charismatic leaders and great activists had documented extramarital affairs: Thomas Jefferson, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton (the list goes on). The biggest difference is that none of those people removed their responsibility for their actions by claiming God forced them to do it. All I ask is that we are allowed to see polygamy for what it was. I ask that we can place the blame where the blame belongs: at the hands of Joseph and those who supported and perpetuated the “doctrine”.”
So, there you have it. Setting aside the fact that Lori is confusing her (very emotionally charged) interpretation of the origins of polygamy with the actual facts, what is truly concerning to me is how Lori—and so many others—have fashioned for themselves a God after their own image, and then cast aside the prophet(s) in favor of this idol of their own making. It is not the idea that prophets can be wrong that is concerning, but rather the staunch insistence that they, the bloggeratti of today’s Mormonism,  know better what God’s will is than do his chosen prophets, past and present. Such a view is not faith of any kind, except perhaps an over developed sense of self-faith (faith in oneself). By demonstrating a lack of confidence in God’s prophets, she also betrays no confidence in God’s ability to actually guide and direct his prophets, to correct them when they are in error, and to this day can’t seem to get the right message about polygamy to his chosen leaders. She would replace a God who commands polygamy under some circumstances with one that is inept in actually guiding his Church, or alternatively chooses (for some reason) entirely inept leaders.
Faith, true faith, requires that we put our trust in a God who may not always see things “our way.” In fact, it seems to me that more than a few prophets have reminded the people that the Lord’s ways are not ours, nor are his thoughts our thoughts, and so on (see Isaiah 55:8–9). A God who always sees things the way we do is far too easy to have a truly meaningful, life-transforming relationship with. How can such a God transform our lives if he always takes our side? Repentance involves aligning our will and desires with God’s, reshaping ourselves into God’s image, not reshaping God into ours. This can be hard. It can be painful. It is often difficult. In his recently published meditation on the 4th Article of Faith, Sam Brown reasons,
“Loving and trusting God when we do not see eye to eye, when God appears hostile or distant is the measure of true faith. God is easy to love and seek out when we see him as a heavenly Santa Claus, filling our stockings with wonderful presents on Christmas Eve. The real God can be quite a bit harder to see and to love.” (Samuel M. Brown, First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple [Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2014], 37.)
Brown was speaking more to personal experiences than history, but I think the principle still applies. After all, what is history other than the personal experiences of those in the past? Particularly in regard to polygamy, we are talking about the difficult, faith-challenging struggles of many brave men and women (and as a man, I resent the insinuation, made by Lori and many others, that polygamy must not have been very hard for the men, or it was just some great opportunity for them—that is not what the historical documents suggests, but no room for that here). Sometimes God does things we don’t understand, things that are hard for us to accept, things that we might even feel are wrong and immoral. That does not mean that they are wrong and immoral, only that we see them that way. It is these things that try our faith, and it is by facing those things, in all their difficulty, that we can learn to see as God sees.  

I don’t like polygamy any more than you do. Personal experience of my own makes it very hard for me to cope with the idea that God would command his prophet to do something that could so deeply hurt and seemingly betray his wife Emma. I very much feel for Emma and admire the courage she showed during such a trying part of her life. I am not saying God is to blame for every action (related to polygamy) of Joseph Smith, or Brigham Young or anyone else trying to live this difficult command from God. But faith requires that we come to terms with the things God does that we don’t really like—not pawn all the blame onto his prophets who are imperfectly but sincerely trying to follow his will.

18 comments:

  1. Very well written. With your permission I'd like to link this on my blog.

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    1. I should mention that I would ask that you be sure to provide proper attribution and a link back here to the original source.

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  2. "By demonstrating a lack of confidence in God’s prophets, [Lori] also betrays no confidence in God’s ability to actually guide and direct his prophets, to correct them when they are in error, and to this day can’t seem to get the right message about polygamy to his chosen leaders. She would replace a God who commands polygamy under some circumstances with one that is inept in actually guiding his Church, or alternatively chooses (for some reason) entirely inept leaders."

    How is this description of Lori any less accurate if we replace "Lori" with "President Monson"? Doesn't the fact that senior LDS leadership commissioned and published the recent Statement on Race -- a statement that essentially invites LDS church members to consider the possibility that all claims of divine origin behind the priesthood ban were in error -- suggest that senior LDS leaders themselves believe in an inept God, or a God that chose inept leaders for 130 years, for whatever reason?

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    1. Aaron,

      No. For starters, since President Monson is the current prophet, he is entitled to special insight into God's mind and will, unlike Lori. But there is also the inconvenient fact that the recent LDS.org essay does NOT dismiss divine origins of the ban. While I've see you rhetorically ask, elsewhere, why wouldn't they explicitly support the divine origins, if that is what they intended, one can just as easily ask why they don't explicitly reject the divine origins of the ban, if that is really what they intended. I have it from a semi-inside source that they did NOT intend for the essay to be read as repudiation of the ban.

      There is also the fact that David O. McKay did privately receive revelation that the ban should continue for the time being. So, clearly the Lord did communicate his will to one of his prophets in that time span, and since at that time the Lord told him to continue with the ban, it seems safe to assume that previous prophets were likewise acting according to the Lord's will in not having lifted the ban before President McKay. I see no reason, therefore, to assume utter ineptitude on the part of the prophets in this matter.

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  3. Spot on!!! Thank you for explaining true faith.

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  4. This is so refreshing. Thank you! Have you ever heard a woman defend polygamy? Well, get your shocker face on because there are TWO women who have finally stepped up to defend a faithful LDS accounting of plural marriage in a newly launched endeavor at thewonderwomen.squarespace.com. The discussion is just getting good with the latest blog post "Picking Up the Pieces: The Possible Link Between An Unpopular Principle and the War in Heaven (and Earth) http://www.thewonderwomen.squarespace.com/blog/2014/12/10/picking-up-the-pieces
    We would love to provide a link on our site to this article. So outstanding.
    Merry Christmas!

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    1. Please feel free to link to this post on your own blog.

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    2. It's finally done.
      I would love to hear anything else you had to offer on the subject.

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  5. Missing from this discussion is the fact that God has always tried His people with principles in conflict. Adam and Eve were told to be fruitful and multiply, but not to partake of the fruit that would make that first commandment possible in the first place. Abraham, who'd almost been sacrificed to pagan gods as a child, was asked to do the same for the Living God to his son. Nephi, a Ten Commandments-following member of the House of Israel was told to kill Laban. Peter was told to take the Gospel to the Gentiles even though doing so before that point had been expressly forbidden. Etc. Etc. People forget that God asks us to do hard things, or things that seem to contradict His will and even have the effect of hurting others, to see if we will truly follow Him. The marriages to other women were part of that for Joseph Smith AND for Emma, as well as other men and women who were asked to participate in and tolerate the practice of plural marriage. By God's design, there will be a thoroughly justified explanation of His reasoning for it when everything is revealed at the final Judgment. All of us will be forced to admit that, no matter how crazy God's will seemed to be at one moment, it all makes perfect sense in the grand, cosmic, messy chess game that is mortality.

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  6. One who holds the view that polygamy was not of God does not necessarily follow "the image of his own god"; such a view can be reached by considering God's words recorded before D&C 132.

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    1. OK, perhaps, but that is not the case Lori makes at all. Even still though, there is the question: what is the justification for ignoring D&C 132? I mean, to dismiss it requires, as I point out, that one assume that they know what God actually revealed better than God's own prophets do. So how does one justify that assumption? And, ultimately, what is the drive behind wanting to exclude D&C 132 from part of God's words? Almost any answer to this question will boil down to "I don't think God can/would..." but once we start making declarations like that, we are immediately projecting ourselves and our own reasoning onto God, i.e., creating God in our own image.

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  7. When I consider other scriptures, the circumstances under which it was written, and the text itself, it makes more sense to me to attribute Section 132 to Joseph Smith alone than to God. I will provide just two examples.

    First, the impetus of the revelation was a false assumption that God "justified…Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon…as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines. " Nothing in the Old Testament supports that, and neither Isaac nor Moses practised polygamy.

    Second, the second chapter of Jacob clearly condemns polygamy, and I do not believe verse 30 provides for a possible exception. Essentially, the verse could read like this:

    "For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, which is what I have been doing since I led this people out of Jerusalem, then I will be their God and command them to have only one wife, which commandment I am now giving through Jacob; otherwise (or, if I do not give this commandment), then they shall hearken unto their misunderstanding of scriptures and seek to excuse whoredoms because of what was written concerning David and Solomon."

    For support of this interpretation, consider the following points:

    -There is no indication in Jacob’s sermon that “whoredoms” refers to having affairs outside of a marital agreement (I am including concubinage here because concubines were considered to be inferior wives). It does not say that David was justified "save in the case of Uriah and his wife" (D&C 132); his sins of adultery and having Uriah killed were separate and different from polygamy. When Jacob mentioned abominations and whoredoms, he was referring only to polygamy.

    -The people are commanded to have one wife and no concubines (v. 27), for the Lord delights in the chastity of women, and there is an inference that having more than one wife violates chastity. And whoredoms are an abomination to the Lord (v. 28). This people shall keep his commandments or be cursed (v. 29).

    -The Lord had seen the sorrow and heard the mourning of his daughters because of their husbands (v. 31). They shall not commit whoredoms like them of old (v. 33). The sobbings of the hearts of their wives and children ascend up to God against them (35).

    In light of these points, it would be ludicrous for the Lord say there is a possibility of an exception to his commandment.

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    1. Hi Shawn,

      Part of the rub of having prophet is that he is not bound by what the Bible tells us. In fact, Joseph Smith's ministry was marked by his ability to prophetically recover information about the past which had long been lost. So, when you assert that it is a "false assumption" that God justified Abraham, Jacob, etc. in polygamy, I would submit that you yourself are make a false assumption: i.e., that because the Bible does not say they were justified, they were not justified. Yet if Joseph Smith is a prophet, then God can reveal to him that they were justified. So, you also must make the assumption (a false one, if you ask me) that Joseph Smith was not receiving revelation in order to assert that D&C 132 rests on a "false assumption."

      In any case, though, you are actually mistaken on a number of points. There is actually some indication that Moses did practice polygamy since he first marries Jethro's daughter, a Midianite (Ex. 2:21), and then later is scolded by his siblings for marrying an unnamed Ethiopian (Num. 12:1). 2 Samuel 12:8 does in fact say that David's wives, at least, we given to him by the Lord. So there is at least one instance where God approved the practice of polygamy. There are also several legal codes regulating the practice of polygamy, which would be odd if God did not approve of it (see Lev. 18: 7, 8, 18; 19:20; 20:11; Ex. 21:10; Deut. 21: 15-17; 22:30; 27:20). Polygamy is so widely assumed as normal and acceptable practiced, with prophets and patriarchs doing it without condemnation, that I would argue that the idea that God did not approve of Old Testament polygamy is born largely from modern concerns, and especially modern anti-Mormon polemics. I would also suggest, given how widely it is accepted in the OT, that the burden of proof is on whoever would suggest the patriarchs who practiced it were NOT justified of the Lord.

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    2. As for Jacob 2, you fail to note that v. 34 indicates that these were commandments revealed by the Lord to Lehi. But if monogamy was always the rule of God, and had been already, why did he have to reveal that specific command to Lehi? This carries the implication that it is not always God's rule. This undermines your idiosyncratic reading of Jacob 2:30 which I frankly don't think you offer very compelling reasons for. Yes, "whoredoms" refers to polygamy in Jacob 2, but the whole point is it is unapproved polygamy that goes against the community standards God revealed to Lehi. Yes, polygamy violates the law of chastity... when it is not commanded of the Lord. Your reasoning is circular because you are basically saying, "Look, polygamy is said to be unequivocally a whoredom and against the law of chastity, and so it makes more sense to interpret Jacob 2:30 my way." But, those condemnations are only unequivocal and without exception IF we interpret Jacob 2:30 that way, so your reasons depend on your interpretation.

      You can read more on D&C 132 vs. Jacob 2 here:

      http://en.fairmormon.org/Doctrine_and_Covenants/Contradiction_between_Section_132_and_Jacob_2

      To me, though, it is interesting that the people of Jacob's time only appeal to David and Solomon at precedent, and only those two are condemned. There polygamy was more political than Abraham's and Jacob's. This is interesting because Jacob 2-3 couple his preaching against polygamy with condemnations of wealth and pride, and during that general time period in southern Mesoamerica (where I believe this part of the Book of Mormon takes place), social stratification was on the rise, and one means of accomplishing greater socioeconomic status was to have more wives, and hence more children and thus more members of your household to work and produce goods. Wives could also be traded in order to establish political and trading alliances (just as Solomon taking foreign wives improved Israel's trading and political ties). So, what I see going on here (when historical context is considered), is that the people had taken it upon themselves (as the FairMormon article discusses) to practice a particular kind of polygamy that was primarily driven by greed and pride--rather than a desire to keep the Lord's commandments, or even by Love. And that is why this brand of polygamy is abominable, a whoredom, etc.: it treats God's fair daughters and their virtue as a commodity (which, I would argue, is a violation of the law of chastity) which men can use to better there own lives at the expense of the quality of life for the women.

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    3. I wish I had a "like" button to push. I had never heard it explained that way - but it seems very reasonable and consistent with everything else we know.

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    4. "...and neither Isaac nor Moses practiced polygamy."

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      Jewish historian Josephus wrote about Moses' first wife before he married the daughter of Jethro. When Moses was still a prince of Egypt they were at war with Ethopia and had lost several cities in battle. Moses acting as a general led the counter attack and managed to drive the Ethopians out and eventually surrounded their capital city and laid siege. The Ethopian princess saw Moses in the distance from their city wall and Fell in love with him.

      Moses saw a way to peacefully end the war by marrying the Ethopian princess (named Tharbis) and she agreed thereby joining the 2 kingdoms. Moses spent some time with her as her husband before abandoning her and returning to Egypt. It was many years later that he ended up in the land of Midian and married the daughter of Jethro.

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  8. I am reminded of a quote from C.S. Lewis, who said, "God has infinite attention to spare for each one if us. You are as much alone with Him as if you were the only being he had ever created." What, then, is polygamy when we are dealing with the concept of infinity and becoming like God? God is as much a part of a marriage as we are - if it is a covenant sealed with the Spirit. Yet does anyone fault the Spirit for being intimately involved in so many marriages? The bottom line is that God invites us to become as he is - and everything is tailored to that end if we will look and live and not stumble and make the way more difficult than it is.

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