A certain middle-eastern carpenter named Joshua approached a group of fishermen as they toiled on the banks of the Mediterranean Sea. "Follow me," he said, "and I will make you fishers of men."
"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood," wrote one of those man-fishers in a letter to Ephesus a few years later, "but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."
Yesterday I read something disappointing. There are plenty of other words to describe it. Tone deaf. Misinformed. Unaware, thoughtless, devoid of compassion. But if I have to distill all of that into a word for the sake of brevity (he writes as he finishes an entire paragraph just to say one word), I'd go with disappointing.
On August 23, BYU announced the creation of the Office of Belonging, with the stated mission to combat “prejudice of any kind, including that based on race and sexual orientation.” The same day, an apostle of the church that owns the university, while directly addressing that university's faculty, said this:
"We hope it isn’t a surprise to you that your trustees are not deaf or blind to the feelings that swirl around marriage and the whole same-sex topic on campus. I and many of my brethren have spent more time and shed more tears on this subject than we could ever adequately convey to you this morning, or any morning. We have spent hours discussing what the doctrine of the church can and cannot provide the individuals and families struggling over this difficult issue... If a student commandeers a graduation podium intended to represent everyone getting diplomas in order to announce his personal sexual orientation, what might another speaker feel free to announce the next year until eventually anything goes?"
You can find the whole transcript of the address here, which overall seems to be a frank admonition of BYU professors who criticize church policies, leaders, or doctrines. "There are consequences to this," the speaker warns.
I won't spend time dissecting how intellectually dishonest I think it is to suggest to the faculty of an accredited institute of higher education that they should ignore fact, history, or schools of thought that criticize the ever-evolving and changing policies of their donor organization. I'll share only this, from BYU alumnus and current VP of academic affairs at the University of Evansville, Michael Austin:
"The canons that govern scholarly activity and research stipulate that the research be conducted without bias, and the results published, regardless of whether they confirm any particular hypothesis or doctrine. What this talk seems to be saying is that academic research should begin with the desired conclusion in mind and either reach that conclusion or be dismissed. That is not scholarship; it is propaganda... There is nothing wrong with a church having a think tank with Ph.D. researchers paid to defend its positions. But that isn’t how universities work."
Funnily enough, it isn't how faith works, either.
But I want to talk about the one individual that this apostle chose to single out as an example of what the university's intellectuals should target with their "musket fire" instead of feeling free to experience a nuance of personal opinions. The student who "commandeered" a commencement speech. His name is Matt Easton. I found out yesterday that he and I had been in the same singles ward in Salt Lake for a year or two. I never met him.
In response to an apostle's public denouncement of the University-approved valedictorian address he'd given two years previous, Matt said, "I am proud of what I did two years ago... I wasn’t trying to grandstand or ‘commandeer’ the event. I drew on my personal experiences because they shaped my time at BYU — authenticity is not the same as ‘agenda pushing."
I echo that sentiment, along with the words of this same apostle in 2013: "Though we may feel we are 'like a broken vessel,' as the Psalmist says, we must remember, that vessel is in the hands of the divine potter... [and] While God is at work, the rest of us can help by being merciful, nonjudgmental, and kind."
Speaking of agendas, I'm not sure what we can possibly hope to accomplish by tearing one young person down in the service of, maybe, "saving" some other straw-man youth who might not have renounced their faith if only their Biology professor had told them the Earth is actually only 6,000 years old instead of encouraging critical thinking. I'm not sure why we are so stubbornly, consistently devoted to a semantic enforcement of specific points of doctrine while ignoring the greater principles of the gospel. I do not understand why we consistently demonize and categorize progressive opinions as evil or threats to the church, while ignoring the increasingly boisterous conservative voices who seem all to eager to take that "musket fire" analogy literally — particularly when it comes to our gay, lesbian, and trans brothers and sisters.
This doesn't feel like fishing. It feels more like hunting.
As one of the speaker's colleagues recently said, "Brothers and sisters, not throwing stones is the first step in treating others with compassion. The second step is to try to catch stones thrown by others."
The leadership of the church consistently demonstrate that they are sheltered from the reality that exists in the trenches of social media. They do not seem to recognize what a threat the alt-right and deznat movements are to a Christ-centered theology. While LGBTQ members must have their labels parroted in that condescending, emotionally immature "love the sinner but not the sin" tone Sunday after Sunday, regarding the anonymous conservative members who target, harass and abuse these same members there is a cavernous silence.
The current generation isn't losing faith in the establishment because a teacher shared a contrary opinion with them. We lose faith because you taught us about Jesus, told us to follow him, and we have the audacity to take him at his Word. We lose faith because we see that you will punish a gay man for living while allowing DezNats who spout racial slurs and misogyny to conduct priesthood interviews. We lose faith because like the puritans before you, you'll find any convenient undesirable to blame for the world's problems while you look forward to a Second Coming to whisk you away, all the while ignorant of the state in which your piousness has left your children. We lose faith because you claim to be "in the world, not of the world" while in the same breath you suck up to and suck down the puritanical ideals of American Evangelicalism.
Something that has been on my mind lately is process theology. Like most theories, there are elements I'm skeptical of, but something I love is the idea of prioritizing "becoming" over "being." That God does not exert absolute control, but exerts His influence on all living things to actualize potentialities — both of the individual and of the greater community that all individuals live, grow, create, and die within. It makes me think about how different the theological and moral underpinnings of the early Mormon church were from the one we know now.
Early Mormons were evangelical outcasts. They shunned theories spun by popular Christianity of a God who controlled all, who was unaffected by and disinterested in the world He'd created. Mormon women were some of the strongest proponents of women's suffrage. They held revolutionary positions about consent and sexuality, particularly within marriage. In response to a question about how he governed such a diverse group of people, Joseph Smith said, "I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves."
Then in the late 19th and early 20th century, the world came to Utah. And Mormonism came to the world. And in order to be accepted in it, the church — however imperceptibly at first — had to change. Over time, absolute doctrine was established. Things were said from LDS pulpits that may as well have been lit by Billy Graham's lights and cameras — about black people, about homosexuality, even about subjective, temporal things like capitalism and the American Dream. Because for all their railing against the theology of the world, the church couldn't let go of its evangelical roots. Those ideas about sexuality, race, and equality snuck their way back in. And no matter how many times we learned that these doctrines were false, no one ever apologized or retracted.
The church doesn't understand that it, like all of us, is a thing in the process of becoming something else. It doesn't understand that God can and does change His mind, that He moves as we move, and that even if He didn't, we aren't Him. But we can become.
The church, as an organization, still wrestles with itself over what its doctrine can and can't provide to the people it persecutes and marginalizes, and as it spins itself into existential circles the point goes sailing over its collective head. Watch the wording here.
"We hope it isn’t a surprise to you that your trustees are not deaf or blind to the feelings that swirl around marriage and the whole same-sex topic on campus... We have spent hours discussing what the doctrine of the church can and cannot provide the individuals and families struggling over this difficult issue."
What the doctrine of the church can and cannot provide.
That's just it, isn't it? Doctrine isn't the thing that provides. Doctrine is a construct made by men to consolidate power and control, to limit dissent and provide "musket fire" against undesirable ideas. Doctrine isn't about faith, it's about dogma.
And the church's name isn't "The Church of the Doctrine of Jesus Christ."
The point of this is a plea — to stop arguing about the eternal nature of truth and doctrines like "the family," "the Constitution," and "sexual purity," to let ourselves come to terms with the fact that these things, like all ideas before them, can and will change. And instead, to focus on the things that don't change. Compassion. Kindness. Honesty. Authenticity. Mercy. Justice.
This isn't a call for revolution. It isn't a call for guns and muskets, or to tear down so we can build anew. It's a plea to become comfortable with change, and to recognize that the uncomfortable feeling that you get when an idea threatens your worldview isn't "Satan." It's the process. It's God actualizing potential. It's the feeling of becoming.
So next time, lean into it.
The transcript of Jeffrey R. Holland's Aug. 23 address to a mixed gathering of BYU faculty. https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2021/08/23/we-must-have-will-stand/
A Salt Lake Tribune article covering the address. https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2021/08/23/byu-teachers-are-expected/
"Like a Broken Vessel," an address given by Holland at the church's October 2013 General Conference. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2013/10/like-a-broken-vessel?lang=eng
"Infuriating Unfairness," an address given by LDS apostle Dale G. Renlund at the April 2021 General Conference. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2021/04/25renlund?lang=eng
An article from this year, detailing the rise of the DezNat hashtag and the ways that prominent members of the online community promote violence and engage in targeted harassment of LGBTQIA individuals, minorities, and progressive members of the church. https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2021/01/31/unholy-war-deznat-troops/
A transcript of an NPR radio interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, an early church historian, on the topics of polygamy, suffrage, consent, and equality in the early Mormon church, particularly as compared to the rest of the U.S. at the time. https://www.npr.org/2017/01/17/510246850/how-mormon-polygamy-in-the-19th-century-fueled-womens-activism