Monday, September 23, 2013

Agreeing with the Critics

      The last time I posted, I berated what I called a "horrible piece of journalism" from the New York Times. This time, the criticism comes from Slate. But in contrast to the Times piece, my answer to the Slate critic is "Good point."
      As I've noted before, criticism has its place. That's true both on this blog and of an institution like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It should be respectful and aim to help the target of the criticism improve. Most criticism in public discourse, by contrast, aims only to denigrate and insult the subject. That's why my policy on this blog is to only allow sincere questions in the comments, not argument or attacks on Mormonism. And this blog's comments have set me straight a few times.
      This article from Slate is what I would call an example of fair, constructive criticism. It makes some mistakes, which I'll get to. But the basic gist is this:

1) Mormon weddings that take place in temples ("sealings") are a sacred Mormon tradition. "The point of the sealing today is to establish a covenant for a marriage that survives death."
2) Because sealings are so sacred, they are only open to practicing adult Mormons who live the standards of their religion. No one should demand that the LDS Church change this fact. "That would be analogous to, say, Catholics asking their church to let a non-Catholic administer the Eucharist, or to let anyone who wants to visit every area of a cloistered monastery: It invalidates doctrine and violates not only concepts of holiness but something fundamental about the commitments and blessings inherent in joining a church."
3) But there is a policy that ought to be changed: Mormons who are civilly married in a secular ceremony (so that family and friends can attend) must wait a year before their marriage can be sealed in the temple.
4) The purpose of this policy is to shame couples, since it creates the impression that they didn't marry in the temple because they weren't the prerequisite upholding moral standards. (My thoughts on this claim in a bit.)
5) In countries where the law does not recognize a wedding performed in a temple, however, couples are allowed (in fact, required) to be married civilly first, and do not incur the one-year waiting period. Thus, the policy appears not to be a point of fundamental doctrine or practice, since it only applies in the US, Canada, and South Africa.

Housekeeping: A Few Corrections
      The point of this post is not to criticize the Slate article, but I need to voice a few points of disagreement. First, I have a distaste for appeals to the general public which attempt to change the internal practices of a religion. I understand why people take this approach, but it feels like meddling, and it bears an ironic resemblance to the practice (of leveraging shame in order to manipulate behavior) that the article condemns. Second, the description of the interview to enter the temple is inaccurate. (The interview actually emphasizes faith in basic Mormon beliefs, and far from delving into the lurid details of sexual behavior, simply asks, "Do you live the law of chastity?") Third, a temple sealing is not "absolutely crucial to salvation," as the article says. It's absolutely crucial to exaltation. That distinction may be a fine doctrinal point, but as phrased, it gives the impression that Mormons believe that condemnation awaits all who are not married in a temple, and we do not believe that. Fourth, and most significantly, I think the article misrepresents the reason for the policy. Its goal is not to shame anyone, nor to reward couples for ostracizing friends and family members. The purpose is to encourage couples to place a high priority on their temple marriage. While shaming nonconformists and leaving friends and family members left out may be unfortunate side effects, they are not the goal.

Criticism: You're Doing it Right
      Now that I've gotten those matters out of the way, let me get to the point: This article is making a valid point. It's not attacking Mormon beliefs or doctrine, but it's highlighting a matter of policy which has changed before and which creates some very real difficulties for many families. It even acknowledges the revelatory nature of change in the church and the need to work within that framework. It highlights a problem, suggests a solution, and shows how the solution does not conflict with doctrine or dogma.

The Other Side of the Story
      Why hasn't this policy changed? The article doesn't explore the reason, so I will speculate: If there were no waiting period for couples who marry civilly, the temple ceremony would become an afterthought. Couples might throw a large, traditional wedding, with a perfunctory temple ceremony squeezed in later. The civil ceremony will be the main event, not the sealing. And legally, that was the ceremony in which they were actually married. The sealing would lose its power to symbolically impress upon the couple's minds the importance and priority of the covenant they had just made. Interestingly, the only differences between this scenario and the typical Mormon wedding are that currently, the sealing comes first instead of second, and the sealing is the legally efficacious ceremony. Mormon couples almost always hold a reception, and sometimes save the ring exchange for a ceremony in front of the larger group. But those two details--which one comes first and which one is the ceremony in which they are legally married--are significant. If friends and family feel left out, it's because the current arrangement succeeds at emphasizing that the sealing is the wedding, not an appendage to it or a mere formality. If a policy change succeeds at making families and friends feel included in the wedding, it will succeed by downplaying the sealing's status as the wedding--the sealing that is the most sacred and crowning sacrament in the Mormon religion. That's the hangup.

Room for Disagreement
      I'm not writing this post to advocate one view or the other. If the change came, I would welcome its benefits, but I'm not sure I want this church to be run by petition drives. Some people might think it's wonderful and democratic for a religion's membership to be able to alter the church's positions and policies, but to others it sounds uninspired, non-revelatory, and bureaucratic. Nonetheless, a belief in revelation through living prophets should be tempered by a realization that even prophets are fallible humans who sometimes unintentionally filter divine revelation through their own perspectives. If the church were to change its policy, would it be due to popular pressure, to the individual judgment of senior church leaders, or to inspiration from God? If from inspiration, would that be an indication that the policy was wrong all along, or that what was appropriate for one era was ill-suited for a later chapter in the church's development? There is room for respectful disagreement on these questions, even among believing Mormons. By not giving us all the answers, God invites us to develop our own faith through a personal, prayerful relationship with Him.

In summary
An article from illustrates how to criticize a policy in Mormonism while still being respectful of Mormon beliefs. The article's attempt to influence church policy raises larger questions which emphasize that faith must be based on an individual relationship with God.


Anonymous said...

Hi Travis. I have very much enjoyed reading your posts, and I've learned of some wonderful insights as a result. However it looks like you're running out of ideas as of late, so I submit to you some potential topics you can address in future blog posts:

Viewpoints on evolution
Viewpoints on Noah and the Ark (how literally should we take this story?)
The facsimiles in the Book of Abraham (discrepancy between the given explanations versus the actual translations)
What is the second anointing?
Is the earth really 6000 years old? /explanation of D&C 77
What's the story with polygamy during Joseph Smith's time?
How was the Book of Mormon translated? (something about a rock in a hat?)
Why does the Book of Mormon have nearly exact wording with the KJV Bible in some places?
What's up with women and the priesthood?
What is the law of consecration?
What distinctions do play-goers need to know between The Book of Mormon play and actual church teachings?
What distinctions do viewers of South Park need to know between mormonism as put forth by their episode, "All about the Mormons," and actual church teachings?
What is the church view of other Christian and world religions? Do they have anything to do with the great and abominable church as mentioned in the Book of Mormon?
What is the Mormon view of the Fall? Is there such a thing as original sin?
What do we know regarding the location of Book of Mormon events, and what insights do DNA tests reveal about the nature of the Book of Mormon peoples in the Americas?

I hope that gives you good material for your blog for the next few years

Travis Brinton said...

I've been shorter on time than ideas recently. It takes me far too long to write these blog posts. So I'm going to throw quality control to the wind and write a wholly inadequate post answering your questions, and have it up today! Hold me to it!