An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for November, 2009

Evolving Mormon Thought on Evolution

Evolution was not a big deal in my Utah education of the 1950s. We studied the ancient geology of Utah in elementary school and learned about rocks and fossils millions of years old. The subject might have come up in seminary, but I spent class time passing notes to friends and pretty much ignored Brother Devowt’s instruction. Somewhere I heard the line, “Science tells you how, religion tells you who” about the creation of the earth and that satisfied me.

When I transferred to BYU from a state college, I noticed that on Day 1 of each science class, the prof gave a prepared spiel about evolution being a useful theory for the study of chemistry, bacteriology, or whatever—but that using the term in class did not mean the instructor lacked faith in God or accepted the theory of evolution as an absolute truth.

I began reading the Improvement Era in the ‘60s and noticed strong anti-evolutionary views. The Era ran articles “proving” the earth was created in 6000 years. It suggested that the deluge at approximately 1800 BC and earthquakes and volcanoes at the time of the crucifixion accounted for the changes that scientists attributed to eons of time. I bought a copy of Joseph Fielding Smith’s Man, His Origin and Destiny. My faith in an apostle of my church and my lack of sophistication at evaluating an author’s relevant credentials caused me to accept everything Smith wrote as truth from God.  I finished the book convinced that all skeletons of prehistoric man were potential Piltdown hoaxes.

Several years later, a recent BYU graduate was giving the obligatory “new move-in” speech in our ward in Renton, Washington and chose to speak on evolution—this was in the day before topics and resources were assigned to speakers. Brother Newcomer outlined the history of the LDS position on evolution—B.H. Roberts vs. Joseph Fielding Smith with David O. McKay in the middle. I was surprised to learn that the only official First Presidency statement on evolution was from Joseph F. Smith’s presidency, affirming Adam as the “primal parent of our race,” but leaving  the question of geological and non-human biological evolution open.

LDS official discourse has been relatively quiet about evolution for many years although that has not prevented members from expounding their own beliefs. A high school student in my Sunday School class once gave an unprompted testimony that even the thought of evolution—of humans descending from apes—made him sick to his stomach. Probably the kid was quoting a seminary teacher since neither parent exhibited much interest in either Church doctrine or science. I left class glad our own kids had skipped seminary frequently. At least their science grades didn’t suffer.

I suspect Church teachings on evolution in most wards have swung to the right in the past decade. The Ensign even reprinted the 1909 First Presidency Statement in 2002.  In science as well as on many social issues, Latter-day Saints seem hell bent on following the evangelical model. A couple of years ago, my visiting teacher informed me that carbon-dating was unreliable science.

The Roman Catholic Church survived Galileo’s discoveries. Latter-day Saints could take a lesson—focus on positives of LDS philosophy without denigrating modern science research that creates paradox. The leadership for this focus, of course, must come from the top. Hopefully, we’ll evolve in that direction.




Black Friday

Thanksgiving doesn’t even officially end before Black Friday begins this year. Wal-Mart is staying open on Thursday in hopes of preventing shoppers from crushing each other to death as they storm through the doors on Friday morning.  The adrenaline rush of beating other shoppers to the one-day-a-year bargains must be addictive. A couple we know spend Thanksgiving with an aunt in southern California each year. Their family tradition includes dividing into teams and spending Friday dashing from mall to mall pursuing hot sales. Auntie peruses the newspaper ads, makes an assignment list for each team, checks to see that gas tanks are full, and awakens everyone a few hours after midnight to start the predawn marathon.

When we had a large family and small budget, I joined the post-Thanksgiving crowd and enjoyed the competition. Shopping for grandkids still satisfies my materialist instinct, but shopping for adults who have discretionary income is about as much fun as giving a cat a pedicure. Anything our kids want or need, that we can afford, they already have. And money and gift certificates are so impersonal. I covet the talents of handy people who create thoughtful, handmade gifts. My cousin Krafti made quilts for each member of her extended family last Christmas. She started in September and made 26—including one for a daughter’s significant other that she wishes would drop dead.

Nobody wants a gift I might stitch up. Even a fancy, computerized sewing machine would not help. I’d probably just stitch my thumb to my index finger and go around with my middle finger sticking straight up.

My biggest gift problem is my sister-in-law, Kato, who makes and sells jewelry for a living. I love receiving original silver earrings for gifts, but how to reciprocate? To add to the misery, her and my brother’s birthdays are in December. I have to think up two gifts for each of them in the same month. Two weeks ago I sent them an e-mail suggesting that we forego Christmas gift giving this year and donate to the needy instead. I have received no answer. Maybe my problem is solved.

This year I’ve decided to forget about trying to please people who have everything and buy what I enjoy. I love buying books, plants and groceries. They come in every size and I don’t have to try them on. Now, plants and groceries don’t really work as Christmas gifts but books are fun to buy— and I’m supporting the hard-pressed publishing industry.  My Christmas shopping dilemma is solved—unless Santa fills stockings with Kindles this year.

Thanksgiving Nostalgia

Turkey was not a Thanksgiving tradition during my early childhood. A roasted hen served our small family quite well. We didn’t spend Thanksgiving with either grandmother although we all lived in the same town. Since my brothers and I didn’t grow up with the family reunion kind of Thanksgiving, we didn’t miss it. Our family dined in elegant simplicity, setting the gate-leg dining table in the living room with a linen table cloth, china, and crystal stemware. I actually enjoyed washing the once-a-year dishes after our dinner. Crisply browned chicken skin, fruit salad and black olives were my favorite parts of the holiday meal.

After my mother’s death, Aunt Dutie invited our family to join theirs for Thanksgiving. Aunt Dutie had seven children, baked everything from scratch, and set a plentiful table despite Uncle Grump’s relatively small salary. Children were not welcomed in Aunt Dutie’s kitchen. No chance to snitch a piece of turkey skin before dinner.  What a disappointment when the platter of turkey was passed around—dry white meat with not one scrap of browned skin. Where did Aunt Dutie put the good stuff? And no olives—they would have been an extravagance for that many diners. Instead of my mother’s fruit salad made with marshmallows and thickened juice folded into the whipped cream dressing, Aunt Dutie served red Jello with fruit cocktail and bananas. At least the mashed potatoes and gravy were familiar. I took a second helping of mashed potatoes, poured gravy over the top, took a big mouthful, and nearly gagged. The bowl contained mashed parsnips, not potatoes. That Thanksgiving was not the same as our mother’s, but it was definitely better than what our dad would have served up. We were grateful for Aunt Dutie’s invitation each year.

When my dad remarried, we spent Thanksgiving with my step-grandmother—a white-haired, storybook grandmother who loved feeding her gathered family—even when it grew to more than 30 members and strained the seams of her house. Male relatives created a table stretching across the entire living room while the women cooked vats of food. We were crammed shoulder to shoulder, but everyone had a place at the table. Grandma had beautiful dishes in her china cupboard, but Thanksgiving was not the occasion for their use.

This year our own nuclear family has grown to 16 members and they will all be coming for Thanksgiving. Like Grandma, I won’t be using good china. The dishwasher is hard on gold rimmed plates and I don’t have a set of 16 of anything. We will enjoy our Thanksgiving feast using turkey-themed paper plates, napkins and tablecloths. Not traditional, not environmental, but nobody wants to spend unnecessary time in the kitchen when we’re all together.

Talking to God

I found an interesting suggestion for prayer recently. A minister recommends the following four steps:

  • Thanks
  • Gimme—asking for needs and wants
  • Oops—admitting mistakes.
  •  Wow—praise and adoration.

The first two steps are common prayer ingredients, but the third and fourth stirred new thoughts in my mind about talking to God as a parent.

I suspect for most people, “Oops!” for mistakes is more relevant than repentance for transgression. Violating an arbitrary set of rules does not equal sin in my book. Sin is intentionally harming others—I could expand that to intentionally harming any of God’s creations, though I do recognize a hierarchy. As Ken Wilbur says, it’s better to kick a rock than an ape, better to eat a carrot than a cow.

Normal people do not intentionally sin, yet all of us unintentionally cause harm on occasion. We hurt feelings with harsh or critical words—usually to gratify our own egos. We neglect saying kind words or doing kind deeds that might help a person struggling with problems—I’m not talking about failing to offer service beyond the realm of our capability. We all have finite amounts of strength, means, and time. I am talking about acting upon our own self-interest while ignoring or even trampling the needs and rights of others.

Buddhism calls negative behaviors “unskillful” rather than “sinful.” Labeling ourselves as sinners and beating ourselves up is as likely to make us defend our  unskillful actions as to actually improve our behavior. But when we realize we’ve behaved selfishly to any of God’s creations, we owe him an “Oops!”

The fourth step of prayer, “Wow!”,most intrigues me. The minister defined “Wow!” as praise. I have a problem with that. If I were God, I wouldn’t want to be praised. Praise embarrasses me—especially if it’s obligatory. I suspect God is free from the human need for ego food. While gratitude is always appropriate, God undoubtedly knows of his own goodness. But I do like the idea of “Wow!”—expressing excitement and enthusiasm for small miracles of the day—for gold, pink and coral clouds mounding into a perfect sunset, for an unsought flash of insight, for the softness of a child nestled on my lap, for the warmth of an unexpected hug—for friends, family, love, beauty—all that makes life a wondrous experience.

 “Wow!” is more than thanks. “Wow!” is an instantaneous expression of joy for a moment of being. And what better way to please a parent? I delight in an unexpected phone call from a daughter who wants to share the joy of watching her kids coasting on new fallen snow. Or from a son calling to say three frisky goats have just been delivered to his backyard, hopefully to eat his crop of pernicious bamboo. If God is anything like earthly parents, I’m sure he gets a celestial kick when we take joy in the wonders of life, great or small, and direct thanks to the source of all goodness.

Pivotal Books

The best thing about bad weather is the time it offers for curling up with a good book.  An English teacher I know rereads Macbeth every November. Perfect timing! November is so like Macbeth—you know things are going to keep getting worse! I came across a list of favorite novels yesterday and started thinking of my own favorites. My son-in-law often asks what my favorite books are and I never know how to answer. How to choose just one or two or even five? Usually, the best I can come up with is my favorite for this year. But what about all-time favorites? The books I’d choose to take to a desert island. Probably I should take the books I revisit frequently. In recent years I’ve opened Sophie’s World by Norwegian author Jostein Gaardner most often. Although the protagonist is a 15-year-old girl, this novel-within-a-novel is much more than a teen read. As the plot unfolds, a mysterious professor teaches Sophie the complete philosophy of Western Civilization. These summaries are the parts I return to when I need a succinct refresher on the thoughts of philosophers and scholars from Socrates to Freud.

And I should include books that have stirred my curiosity of the wide world. My 8th grade English teacher introduced me to Richard Halliburton. His Royal Road to Romance convinced me to explore the world beyond my birthplace. I couldn’t find Halliburton’s travelogues for my own children, but some have been reprinted and are on my list for my grandchildren.

Memoir is the genre that most allows me to participate in lives more exotic than my own. Some favorites are: Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, a Chinese-American girl growing up in California with immigrant parents. Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Patillo Beals, one of the “Little Rock Seven” who integrated an all-white Arkansas high school in 1957—the year I was a junior at all-white Pleasant Grove High with no idea what was happening to African-American teens in the South. The Road to Mecca by Muhammed Asad, a European Jew who traveled to Arabia as a journalist and converted to Islam in 1926. Asad later became Pakistan’s UN ambassador. And Dust Tracks on the Road, Zora Neale Hurston’s account of growing up in an all-black Florida community in the early 20th century.

Good fiction, like memoir, allows us to experience vicarious lives. Foreign authors teach us how much we have in common with people of different countries, religions and races. Nervous Condition by Tsitsi Dangarembga tells the story of a strained relationship between an African mother and daughter. In “The Bats” from Arranged Marriage by Indian author, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a child narrates the story of life with a mother who keeps returning to an abusive marriage.

I read few LDS authors because I prefer visiting less familiar cultures. Two novels which provide surprising insights into their LDS characters are Maureen Whipple’s The Giant Joshua and Levi Peterson’s Aspen Marooney. Clory, the young plural wife in Joshua, struggles with grinding poverty, sharing a husband, loss of children, and abandonment without the divine intervention and blessings bestowed in traditional pioneer stories. Aspen and her old high school flame ignite sparks at their 40th high school reunion. Though both are active LDS, Church values play little or no part in their decisions.

The wind whips and the temperature drops. What do I care? November was made for good books and a cozy recliner.

Easing Mormonism

My LDS faith and associations have supplied some of the polish my mother would have given me had she lived longer. Church has introduced me to uplifting women who mentored me in faith, service, and social graces.  LDS teachings and programs have lifted me to a higher level of commitment, service and devotion. I have even gained a modicum of competency at tasks I dislike—speaking in front of a group—badgering people to do things they’d rather not.

For years I enjoyed Sacrament Meeting and Gospel Doctrine and Relief Society classes—the camaraderie with ward members and the thoughtful, spiritual lessons. I lapped up gems of wisdom from Stake and General Conferences. As I read each General Conference address, I copied choice passages into a notebook. I saved each month’s wrinkled, dog-eared, underlined Ensign and devoured the scriptures assigned for Gospel Doctrine class. The peace of temple attendance drew me back twice a month. I fasted and prayed for my brothers who were not active church members. I wanted them to enjoy the blessings I received from church activity.

After about 25 years of dedicated gospel living, my enthusiasm for church meetings waned—beginning with Relief Society. Reading the lesson before class became pointless. I could recite the whole lesson including comments from the audience as soon as I knew the topic. I began sitting near the door for opening exercises then slipping out to avoid the tedium of the lessons. At about the same time, the Gospel Doctrine curriculum telescoped the study of both the Old and New Testaments into one year each and assigned selected verses rather than complete chapters for study. Not learning anything there, I also gave up the second hour of the block. General Conference talks developed a ring of familiarity. I found fewer and fewer passages to underline and copy. Sacrament Meeting talks deadened the senses as speakers reiterated General Conference addresses for our enlightenment.

At the time, I believed the loss of meaningful experience with church meetings was the “milk before meat” approach to instruction. I wanted the church to change, to meet my needs. I tried correcting historical misinformation and sharing new ideas in church classes, but found my efforts unappreciated, even annoying to ward members. Oddly enough, the status quo satisfied most of my church associates.

It’s true the church changed somewhat, but I had changed more. I had gleaned most of what my birth faith offered and needed further spiritual food. My brother had married a Zen Buddhist. My dad sent the missionaries to teach her and I wondered what benefit the LDS Church could give Kato or my brother? Kato’s peace and compassion exceeds that of most LDS women I know. My brother has gained much peace from joining her meditation and yoga practice. What would the LDS Church add to their lives besides increased time and money commitments?

Inspired by my sister-in-law’s example, I began yoga practice and joined a meditation group. I find  answers to my current needs in Buddhist philosophy. For me the concepts of nonattachment and mindfulness work better than trying to keep everybody on board for an eternal Family Home Evening. I value the contribution Mormonism has made to my life, but have eased my relationship with the institutional church. Just as easing myself into a yoga pose allows my muscles to stretch, easing my commitments to Mormonism allows me time and energy to exercise my agency, seeking further light and knowledge.    Spiritual development is a process. A particular religion or organization can facilitate growth only to a certain level. When that level has been reached, wisdom says, “Move on.”

Charity Begins with the Poor

Dr. Toby Ord, an Oxford academic, has pledged to donate the bulk of his lifetime earnings to fight world poverty. He calculates that for each £15,000 (approx. $22,500) donated to effective charities, 55 lives are saved. His website estimates that if the typical US citizen gave 10% of their income to the right NGOs, each year, 1900 cases of malaria could be prevented, 170 people could be cured of TB, and 1100 additional years of school attendance could be provided.

Now donating 10% of income is routine for active Mormons. For years George and I cheerfully wrote checks for 10% of our gross income—even though our kids went without things they really needed. We believed we were obeying the Lord’s will in furthering the work of the Church and that all the world’s problems would be resolved once everybody was converted and the Savior arrived. I did not believe this obedience would unlatch the Windows of Heaven to rain greenbacks upon our family. Experience had proven otherwise. Still, I felt our family sacrifice was making the world a better place. George agreed. Our children did not.

Eventually, I realized that most of our tithing dollars were going for temples, missionary work and CES. Fast offering was an extra donation to relieve the suffering of the poor. I upped that after a General Conference address promised that increasing our fast offerings would increase our blessings, not realizing that “our” referred to the church as a whole rather than to our family in particular.

I cut back on fast offerings about 10 years ago when I learned that nearly all of my donations were going to help Americans who actually have access to government welfare programs rather than to starving Latter-day Saints in developing countries. Church welfare to countries outside the US has increased since that time, but I suspect the bulk of fast offerings collected in the US still remain in this country. Yes, it’s nice to help people in the current economic system with house payments. But to my mind, that lacks the urgency of providing aid to members in countries like Ecuador and Guatemala where children risk brain damage and stunted growth because of severe malnutrition.

I appreciate the assistance LDS Humanities and PEF provide to the poor in other countries. Donations to those funds, however, are in addition to the 10% tithing required by all members who want to maintain worthiness for temple recommends and leadership positions in their wards and stakes. True believers will continue to make tithing their primary or only charitable donation.

C.S. Lewis observed that if we aren’t giving up something we would really like to have, we aren’t giving enough to the poor. But how much is enough? No one else can answer that question for us. And money isn’t the only thing we can contribute. We can donate our time to help others. We can also change our lifestyles so we are not consuming more than our share of the world’s finite resources.

The scriptures are replete with admonitions to remember the poor and to avoid greed. If Dr. Toby Ord keeps his vow to donate the bulk of his lifetime earnings to save the poor, I suspect the Lord has reserved a top spot for him in the Celestial Kingdom regardless of his religious beliefs. I’m less sure of my own placement.

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