Sunday, January 8, 2012

Philosophy Series: Being Commanded in All Things

I thought I should probably share some examples of things I think fall into the category of being commanded in all things, especially since the original post sounds a little harsh on its own. This started out as a comment on the other post, and then got so long that I decided it should be not only a post of its own, but one in the philosophy series. It essentially is a kind of unorthodox-Mormon manifesto anyway, so I suppose it could be considered my philosophy on being Mormon. I'm bugged by these kinds of things, some more than others:
  • CES won't hire women with children under 18 to be seminary or institute teachers (though they can be secretaries). If a woman is teaching seminary and becomes pregnant, she is fired. What gives CES the right to make this decision for women?
  • CES won't hire single men to teach, or sometimes hires them with the condition that if they're not married within two years, they're fired. If a teacher gets divorced, he (not sure about women) is fired.
    (This is a "more than others." These policies are not just overly-controlling, they're discriminatory and absolutely appalling.)
  • Sleepovers. They've now been discouraged in General Conference (scroll up to the beginning of the paragraph) and alluded to in For the Strength of Youth (in the Sexual Purity chapter, interestingly, as though many LDS teens are throwing coed sleepovers), so to many Mormons this will be considered doctrine. I think that's absurd. It might be good advice, but this barges right in on territory that should belong quite firmly to parents. Religions should not be regulating this kind of activity.
  • LDS funerals are considered church meetings and must be conducted by a bishop or stake president. The bishop tells the mourning family what music can and cannot be played, and the church handbook specifies that no rituals or customs of other religions are allowed. It also says that no digital presentations can be used, and that "teaching and testifying about the plan of salvation, particularly the Savior’s Atonement and Resurrection, is an essential purpose of the services associated with a Church member’s death." In fact, the handbook says, “Funerals provide an important opportunity to teach the gospel and testify of the plan of salvation. They also provide an opportunity to pay tribute to the deceased. However, such tributes should not dominate a funeral service.” Really?? That seems one hundred percent backward to me, and I think it's wrong for the church to restrict how members honor their dead.
  • Mormon culture generally requires that young men wear white shirts to pass the sacrament, even though the church handbook specifically says it is not required. It is also highly frowned upon for women to wear pants, though there is no reason why they shouldn't, and certainly no rule telling them to do so (at least not in regular church meetings). Young men are harassed for having shaggy hair or not wearing a tie, and are not allowed to have earrings. Young women are only allowed to have one pair. In some circumstances men are not allowed to have facial hair or ponytails. In some women are required to wear skirts and pantyhose (missions, the MTC, and working for CES, for example). Why must we care so much about people's appearance?? Every one of those things is completely arbitrary, a matter of culture if anything, and yet it is included as a principle of our religion (whether officially or not).
  • The blanket prohibition against R-rated movies (which, thankfully, is something General Authorities appear to be moving away from; the last time it was mentioned in Conference was ten years ago, though it's shown up in the New Era and Friend plenty since then). You've probably heard it a million times, and for good reason--MPAA ratings are arbitrary and useless. I've seen PG-13 movies that were trashy and vulgar, and I've seen R movies that were lovely and uplifting and beautiful. Please, watch The King's Speech and tell me that there's anything inappropriate about it. It's a beautiful movie and I would gladly sit down and watch it with the entire Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency. Watch Match Point, and compare the sexual content to that of The Notebook or any of the old James Bond movies. Watch Bridesmaids and compare it to What Women Want and Dinner for Schmucks. (I'm not going to say I'd want to watch Bridesmaids with General Authorities--just pointing out how arbitrary the ratings are.)
The thing that people often say in response to some of these points--the thing I myself said until less than a year ago--is that it's "a matter of principle; if the prophet asked us not to do it, then that's good enough for me." Well, I don't feel that way anymore. I don’t think “because someone told me to” is a good reason to do anything, even if that someone is the prophet.

I think we need to make our choices for ourselves. Following the prophet’s counsel is a choice, yes, but the way Mormons often approach it, it's a choice that pretty much absolves you of any further responsibility. Essentially I think we've just misunderstood what “following the prophet” means. It doesn't mean that you make a one-time, blanket decision to always follow anything and everything the prophet says no matter what--I think it means that you take each individual issue and look at it, consider it, see what it would mean for you, and then decide whether or not you’re going to follow the prophet’s counsel regarding that specific issue. And I don't think there's anything wrong with deciding that you feel differently about something, because I believe that our personal relationships with God take precedence over the rules set by the church for its membership of fourteen million. I don't believe that it's only okay to question as long as you end up coming to the same conclusion they do, because that would mean it isn't really okay to question.
The gospel is the substance of the divine plan for personal, individual salvation and exaltation. The Church is the delivery system that provides the means and resources to implement this plan in each individual’s life. Procedures programs and policies are developed within the Church to help us realize gospel blessings according to our individual capacity and circumstances. Under divine direction, these policies, programs, and procedures do change from time to time as necessary to fulfill gospel purposes. Underlying every aspect of Church administration and activity are the revealed eternal principles as contained in the scriptures. As individually and collectively we increase our knowledge, acceptance, and application of gospel principles, we become less dependent on Church programs. Our lives become gospel centered.

...The conformity we require should be according to God’s standards. The orthodoxy upon which we insist must be founded in fundamental principles and eternal law, including free agency and the divine uniqueness of the individual. It is important therefore to know the difference between eternal gospel principles which are unchanging, universally applicable, and cultural norms which may vary with time and circumstance.

--Ronald Poelman, First Quorum of the Seventy
I realize that sounds like I'm saying my life is more gospel-centered than that of people who are Mormon in the orthodox way, so I want to tell you right up front that I am not saying that. In fact I guarantee the opposite is true in countless cases. But I do want to say that the more I think about Mormon culture, the more similarities I'm starting to see between us and the Jews--following rule after rule that must seem, to outsiders, completely arbitrary and pointless, and that don't even have any significance if you follow them for the sake of the letter of the law instead of the spirit of it. As a people, as members of the LDS church, I think that we will become more gospel-centered when we can stop caring so much about the tiny little things and focus on the actual principles of Christ's teachings. I doubt very much if God cares whether we have one earring or twelve, vote Communist in the next election, or try every kind of alcohol there is at some point in our lives. What I think he cares about is that we respect our bodies, be good neighbors to others, and never judge someone who does do those things. LDS culture could make some progress in that area.