Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Consecrated Brain: Greg Smith's Intellectual Journey in Dealing with the Challenge of Polygamy in the Early Church

One of the best sources on the complex topic of Mormon polygamy is "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage* (*but were afraid to ask)" by Greg Smith. That link allows you to play an MP3 file to hear Greg Smith's hour-long talk on the topic. You can also read his words at FAIRLDS.org, complete with footnotes. He treats many aspects of this complex issue, including polyandry and young wives.

While I rejoice in the detailed scholarship and carefully reasoned insights Brother Smith offers on this topic, I am especially intrigued by the approach he took in dealing with the issue. The long-terminated practice of polygamy offered much that bothered Brother Smith, such as charges from critics that Joseph was a sexual predator. As he struggled with the issue, yearning for answers and wondering if he should delve into all the historical details to come to his own conclusions, he turned to God in prayer.

But, the problem was, in that moment, when I first approached God with this, was that my spiritual life did not have four or five years, which is how long I've been doing this now, to sit in the church archives. My spiritual life could not be put on hold for that long. How long could I halt between two opinions? If Joseph be Baal or a sexual predator, don't follow him. Jesus called the apostles and did not tell them to spend three or four years with the primary sources before deciding to answer the call to "Come, follow me."

And for me, ultimately, the question (I see now) had nothing to do with plural marriage at all. Plural marriage was only the catalyst for a much more fundamental question and that question was, "Do I trust Father?" And I see now, by the grace of God, that my instinctive reaction was to do that, to express my trust and, amazingly, to mean it. I did not realise it at the time, but what I effectively chose to do, if I can put it crudely, is I chose to "consecrate my brain." I value my brain—we all do—nobody likes to be thought foolish or na├»ve or ill-informed or duped or cognitively dissonant or any of the other labels people can put upon us.33 I'm a doctor, I'm regarded as a reasonably smart person, I love science, I love evidence, I'm a sceptic, I'm a rationalist. I say all this about myself—I am all those things, that's part of how I conceive of myself.

I could have gone before God and I could have demanded answers, I could've told him I want the evidence and I want it now, I want closure. I could've issued him ultimatums. I could've told him that if this didn't work out, I was quitting. But, I chose instead, to consecrate my brain. I was willing to sacrifice my self-image, my years of learning, my intellectual effort and my social respectability on the internet (which I'm sure is crashing as I speak!) because I trusted Father.

But, you know, it's the funny thing about consecration, you always get back everything you consecrate, with interest. Once my Father and I had an understanding which took, maybe, 10 minutes, I was back to thinking again. And immediately, I began to get more answers and perspective that I know what to do with, and it hasn't stopped yet. It's like trying to drink from a fire hose and I apologize for spraying you all but I haven't exactly got it controlled yet.

I got "good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over" (Luke 6:38). I cast my bread upon the water and God sent back an aircraft carrier with a bakery on top.

My only fear in saying all this is that some people will think I'm offering a pat answer—I'm not. Abraham was asked to consecrate Isaac. And with Isaac went all the precious promises, everything that made Abraham, Abraham. But he put his son on the altar and he got him back and so much more. We know how Abraham's story ends but Abraham did not. And as Elder Maxwell observed, even when we know it's a test, we can't say, "Look ma, no hands."34 You can't consecrate your brain while crossing your fingers and hoping that we can somehow trick God by going through the intellectual motions and that he will support our demand for proof. You can't ask for a sign, but I bear you my witness that "signs follow them that believe," in this as in everything (D&C 63:9).

And so, I've tried to answer some questions today but I will leave you with one. And that question is, "Do you trust Father?" If you do, I have no worries, and if you do not, or if you've forgotten how, or you fear you may be starting to, you must start there because no answer from me or anyone else will satisfy you on a historical matter. And if plural marriage doesn't trip you up, something will. Settle it up with Father and then you and I can talk.
Some will assume that a "consecrated brain" means making up your mind and ignoring the evidence, but that would be gross injustice to the complex grappling with history and detailed scholarship that Greg Smith has put into this issue. It has been a journey of discovery and new insights, not a close-minded reiteration of what he thought he already knew. Trusting God as we open our minds and do the heavy lifting of studying and thinking is not weakness but brings intellectual and spiritual strength.

18 comments:

Glenn Thigpen said...

Jeff,
Thanks for that little tidbit on Greg. I read the linked presentation. And I guess that Greg's insight "do you trust the Father" is the way I approach all of the questions that we do not have definitive answers for, whether it be polygamy, the priesthood ban, the Old Testament killings, Noah and the flood, etc.
Without the data to fill in the blanks, we are left with having to trust someone, man, or God. I think that trusting in the Father is the safest.

Glenn

Larrin said...

For me the issue of Joseph lying about polygamy is more troubling than the practice itself, but I've found few discussions of that topic. Anyone have any good resources?

Mike Parker said...

For me the issue of Joseph lying about polygamy is more troubling than the practice itself, but I've found few discussions of that topic. Anyone have any good resources?

Larrin, see Greg Smith's paper, "Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication: Frequently and Rarely Asked Questions about the Initiation, Practice, and Cessation of Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

Mormon Women: Who We Are said...

I love this idea of a consecrated brain. Another phrase that comes to mind is being 'firm of mind.'

Glenn, I also like this: "Without the data to fill in the blanks, we are left with having to trust someone, man, or God. I think that trusting in the Father is the safest."

Anonymous said...

"Consecrated brain", sounds like mental gymnastics of the highest degree. There are too many issues like polygamy that require us to do all kinds of mental gymnastics. Why can't the prophet just speak to these issues and let us decided if the spirit speaks to us. You know, let us make a choice instead of letting us come up with ways to convice ourselves to live with the weirdness.

"Consectrated brain", putting things "on the shelf" and whatever else we do to live with our weird history/doctrines is just baloney.

I do like your blog.

Bookslinger said...

anon at 4:44 PM:

All religions or belief systems generally require the same thing, a degree of faith on something that can't be fully proven objectively.

If you reject Mormonism on this basis alone, then you would logically have to reject all religions.

The funny thing is, hard sciences pretty much have their not-objectively-proven theories that have to be taken on faith in order to understand other beliefs based on those theories.

Take the theory of the evolution of man. There is no conclusive proof that man evolved from a lower order species. Sure, there are various old bones that have been found, but the theory of the evolution of man is based on _interpretation_ of that fossil evidence. It's still all conjecture and supposition, as in: "Based on what he have found so far, we *think* this is what happened."

But there is no objective _proof_, there are no _witnesses_, there is no written _record_ of what happened. The best we can do, is look at what pieces of evidence there are, and _extrapolate_ backwards, based on _interpretation_ of the evidence.

Even in the hard(er) sciences such as physics, Relativity went beyond Newtonian physics. Before Einstein's relativity, scientists had to "put things on the shelf" until a better understanding came along.

But Einstein's theories brought about more questions. New experiments brought about more evidence that needed interpreting. And those interpretations had to be put on the shelf until even further understanding came along from Stephen Hawking.

If I've learned anything from "science", it's that when you get to the edge of current or generally accepted scientific understanding, you STILL find things that you have to "put on the shelf" until further discoveries come along.

And *sometimes*, those new discoveris invalidate previous understanding. Or, at the least, expand the knowledge to the point where it becomes obvious that the previous interpretations of physical evidence were not exhaustive or universal as previously thought.

Anonymous said...

I didn't say I reject Mormonism. I reject ridiculous ideas and theories. I also reject any explanation for our weird history that doesn't come from the prophet as he is the only one who can speak authoritatively for the church and it's doctrines and history. I prefer to approach the things I don't understand by saying "I don't know." Why come up with a plan to consecrate your brain to accept foolish ideas. Bro Smith's idea that polygamy was given to Joseph Smith to set the Mormons in opposition to everyone else is just strange to me. Anyway I did not say I reject Mormonism or religion.

Anonymous said...

I'm not at all impressed by Brother Smith. He might have a consecrated brain, but in at least one way he's got a rather simple mind, one seemingly incapable of understanding some of the most basic aspects of our humanity. Take this statement:

"How long could I halt between two opinions? If Joseph be Baal or a sexual predator, don't follow him." I take this to mean that if Joseph were a sexual predator, he could not also be a prophet. But why should anyone assume this? Why not just accept that Joseph, like all human beings, was a complex and sometimes self-contradictory mix of good and bad?

Two main points here. First is that the question of Joseph's personal morality is separate from the question of his prophetic status. Second is that, knowing the foregoing, we can proceed fearlessly in the historical investigation of Joseph's life, without fear of what we might turn up.

FWIW, I've never thought the evidence supported the claim that Joseph was a "sexual predator." I do suspect he had a lot of trouble separating business from pleasure, so to speak, in his efforts to restore the ancient practice of polygamy. (I also think that adding that bit in D&C 132 about Emma being "destroyed" was absolutely the worst thing Joseph ever did.)

Overall I think the polygamy issue is overblown. If we're talking about the moral failings of the early prophets, I think by far the worst was Brigham Young's handling of the aftermath of Mountain Meadows. No, I don't think he was in on the massacre beforehand. But after the fact he had both a legal and a moral duty to do his utmost to investigate the event fully and bring the perpetrators to justice, and it seems pretty clearly to me that he didn't do that. It appears he put politics and the reputation of the Church ahead of the simple demands of justice, a truly shameful thing that dwarfs anything we might find troubling about Joseph.

But bad as Brigham was re Mountain Meadows, it has no bearing on his prophetic status. It just means that he, like Joseph and the rest of us, was a human being. Understanding this hardly requires a consecrated brain; it just requires a basic acceptance of the human condition.

--Eveningsun

Lamdaddy said...

"First is that the question of Joseph's personal morality is separate from the question of his prophetic status."

I beg to differ. If Joseph was committing sin and polygamy was not based on commandment and revelation, he would have been guilty of adultery and fornication, etc., hardly qualifying him from even administering the sacrament much less build temples and dictate scripture. The "half in, half out" approach just doesn't hold water. I do agree that was fallible and made mistakes, but I do not believe that polygamy was his choice.

Anonymous said...

The real question here isn't "Do I trust Father?" It's "Do I trust that Joseph Smith was doing Father's will?" Hardly the same thing.

If you can get otherwise intelligent people to set aside their reason and moral instinct by convincing them that their God-given conscience doesn't inform them of the will of God, then you can get them to do just about anything, can't you? It's a standard technique for breaking down people's defenses. The Church hasn't used it much for a long time. Sorry to see Greg Smith bring it back.

Lamdaddy said...

"The real question here isn't "Do I trust Father?" It's "Do I trust that Joseph Smith was doing Father's will?" Hardly the same thing."

It isn't and it is. When Noah built the ark and was trying to get people onto it, how much good would it do them to do nothing while debating that question?
However, a prophet is not infallible.

"If you can get otherwise intelligent people to set aside their reason and moral instinct by convincing them that their God-given conscience doesn't inform them of the will of God"

Any adherent to religion is required to suspend their reason and moral instinct at some point. I'm sure the Israelites felt that when they were required to contend with giants in Canaan. I'm sure Moses felt that way when told to contend with Pharoah. I'm sure that Christians felt that way when told to abandon the Law of Moses. I'm sure that all people feel that way when choosing between an antiquated system of belief that deifies a man who was killed on a cross and modern progressive philosophies and science.
Mormonism did not invent this requirement, but it does require the individual to acknowledge that they do not know all things and must often walk by faith.

Anonymous said...

"Any adherent to religion is required to suspend their reason and moral instinct at some point.”

Even if that were true, it wouldn’t be justified on that basis. But it generally isn’t true. Despite its apparent acceptability in the Bible, polygamy seems wrong to the average Christian. They don’t practice it because their moral instinct trumps whatever the Bible says. Maybe you know of other practices in mainstream Protestantism which run similarly contrary to the average conscience, but I don’t.

Whenever a charismatic leader seeks to convince people to relinquish their moral instincts, he is practicing a dangerous form of mind control. The fact that the Bible seems to sometimes endorse practices that would offend the average Christian only goes to show how good people are at compartmentalization.

Anonymous said...

"Any adherent to religion is required to suspend their reason and moral instinct at some point.”

Even if that were true, it wouldn’t be justified on that basis. But it generally isn’t true. Despite its apparent acceptability in the Bible, polygamy seems wrong to the average Christian. They don’t practice it because their moral instinct trumps whatever the Bible says. Maybe you know of other practices in mainstream Protestantism which run similarly contrary to the average conscience, but I don’t.

Whenever a charismatic leader seeks to convince people to relinquish their moral instincts, he is practicing a dangerous form of mind control. The fact that the Bible seems to sometimes endorse practices that would offend the average Christian only goes to show how good people are at compartmentalization.

Lamdaddy said...

I have to ask, Anon: Are you a Protestant?

"Even if that were true, it wouldn’t be justified on that basis. But it generally isn’t true. Despite its apparent acceptability in the Bible, polygamy seems wrong to the average Christian."

Of course it's true. If your religion has never required any type of leap of faith contrary to reason, either in belief or in action, then I say it is no worthwhile religion. Where should I start in using examples from the Bible. There's the idea that mankind was doomed because the first man and woman ate fruit. There's the whole Mosaic law. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrha, the Flood (genocide of non-believers and evil-doers), the destruction of Canaan by the hand of the Israelites, the accepting of a crucified man as the Son of God, the Protestant teaching that good non-believers will be in Hell with the devil while mediocre or bad Christians can be in heaven, anti-homosexuality. Do you see how this could go on? These kinds of beliefs go against the moral conscience of many non-Christians when being confronted with having to accept these things.

"The fact that the Bible seems to sometimes endorse practices that would offend the average Christian only goes to show how good people are at compartmentalization."

Call it what you will, but the fact remains that you or I do not know everything. Where do you receive any kind of absolute moral law from deity that states that you must always be comfortable with what God commands?

Anonymous said...

Lamdaddy,

I agree with you that nearly all religions ask people to set aside their reason at some point. I say nearly because I'm not that familiar with some eastern religions. I could have been clearer with my earlier comment. I was referring to their moral reason. Where I disagree is with your statement that all religions require believers to suspend their moral instinct. As you can see from my previous comment, I already acknowledge that the Bible seems to endorse practices that offend the conscience of most Christians. To clarify my point, I'm talking about current religious practices. Practicing Christians are not required to do anything contrary to their moral instinct. Polygamy was a historically recent practice. In order to practice it, people had to set aside their moral sensibilities. I know of no similar "moral sacrifice" in other branches of mainstream Christianity.

I don't think my religious affiliation is relevant to this argument, but since you ask, I'm LDS.

Anonymous said...

"Where do you receive any kind of absolute moral law from deity that states that you must always be comfortable with what God commands?"

We're not just talking about "comfort" here. We're talking about opposition to conscience (light of Christ, in LDS terms).

Lamdaddy said...

Thanks for clarifying, Anon. A couple of things here:

"In order to practice it, people had to set aside their moral sensibilities."

Moral, or cultural sensibilities? If you're talking about moral sensibilities, then I should say that you need something to compare it to? Who dictates Moral Law? I submit that God dictates the Moral Law, that prophets and scriptures assist in our understanding of the Moral Law, and that we have that inner "conscience," or the Light of Christ. Sometimes the revealed word of the Lord does go against what we feel is "right." But we have to remember that we don't always know, only God does in an absolute sense.
Consider also that our environment, upbringing, genetics, and a host of other things can affect how we think and feel about a particular thing. Polygamy, it has been shown in the scriptures, was at times sanctioned or commanded by God. So while it may offend modern, western sensibilities, that does not make a doctrine a form of "mind control."

Anonymous said...

I agree that moral sensibility is influenced by many factors including culture, but it's still moral sensibility, and getting people to set it aside is a form of mind control. Discounting the inner voice leaves one open to all sorts of suggestion regardless of where that inner voice comes from originally.

Now we're drifting toward a conversation about Euthyphro's dilemma. Is something moral because God commands it, or does God command it because it's moral? Even after reading Joseph Smith's letter about polygamy to Nancy Rigdon, I'm still not entirely sure where he would have come down on this issue. But if human moral instinct doesn't inform us of what is really right or wrong, then it doesn't mean anything for us to call God's commandments moral because we don't know what moral is. As you said, we need something to compare it to. Against what do we compare a commandment of God to determine whether it's moral or not? The only recourse that we have is to compare it to our conscience. If that doesn't work, then all we're left with is the rather empty statement that anything that God commands is moral. It's an empty statement because it becomes nothing more than a tautology.

If there is such a thing as a moral law, then it should share some characteristics with other laws. Among these would be consistency and predictability. If morality reduces to nothing but a set of arbitrary commands that can be rescinded at any time, then it doesn't bear much resemblance to a law.

Some will say that it's presumptuous or worse for a human to evaluate a commandment of God as moral or not, but in practice, that's not what we're doing. If we take it as an article of faith that a commandment of God is moral (whether it's moral because He commands it or whether He commands it because it's moral, either way it's moral), then what we're really doing is testing whether a man (e.g. Joseph Smith) is actually a prophet by determining whether or not the commandments that come from his mouth are moral. How do we do that? By comparing those commandments with our conscience. If that same man can convince us that our conscience is unreliable, then he can lead us about by the nose.