Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Are Mormons Moral Relativists?

Recently I got into an argument on Facebook (shocking, I know) about whether everyone is capable of being Mormon. Because I feel the God has told me that the church is wrong for me, and because of the many who leave because Mormonism feels wrong to them, I said that not everyone can be Mormon. Not everyone is capable of believing the teachings of the church (which is a good thing in my mind.) I was then accused of being a moral relativist for thinking that God can give different answers to different people.

First, here's a definition of moral relativism: "The philosophized notion that right and wrong are not absolute values, but are personalized according to the individual and his or her circumstances or cultural orientation."

When I was accused of being a moral relativist, it was because I believe God can say different things to different people. Do I think that God will tell someone to kill someone, to mistreat someone, to judge someone? No, I do not. The basis of most religions and philosophies is being kind to and serving others. If God is behind all religions and philosophies that tell people to love others, then God is being consistent, and my morality is based on loving other people.

The problem becomes that Mormons have left the two great commandments of the New Testament behind in favor of minutia like the Word of Wisdom, temple attendance, church attendance and tithing. Look at the temple recommend questions:
1. Do you have faith in and a testimony of God the Eternal Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost?
2. Do you have a testimony of the Atonement of Christ and of His role as Savior and Redeemer?
3. Do you have a testimony of the restoration of the gospel in these the latter days?
4. Do you sustain the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator and as the only person on the earth who possesses and is authorized to exercise all priesthood keys? Do you sustain members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators? Do you sustain the other General Authorities and local authorities of the Church?
5. Do you live the law of chastity?
6. Is there anything in your conduct relating to members of your family that is not in harmony with the teachings of the Church?
7. Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
8. Do you strive to keep the covenants you have made, to attend your sacrament and other meetings, and to keep your life in harmony with the laws and commandments of the gospel?
9. Are you honest in your dealings with your fellowmen?
10. Are you a full-tithe payer? Do your keep the Word of Wisdom?
11. Do you have financial or other obligations to a former spouse or children? If yes, are you current in meeting those obligations?
12. If you have previously received your temple endowment: Do you keep the covenants that you made in the temple? Do you wear the garment both night and day as instructed in the endowment and in accordance with the covenant you made in the temple?
13. Have there been any sins or misdeeds in your life that should have been resolved with priesthood authorities but have not been?
14. Do you consider yourself worthy to enter the Lord's house and participate in temple ordinances?

In my interpretation, the only questions that deals with how we treat others are 9 and 11, and 11 only applies to specific circumstances that not everyone is in. The rest are about the orthodoxy of your beliefs and behaviors that relate to the church. Even fast offerings, which are designed to take care of the physical needs of individuals, are not required, whereas tithing, which can be used to build expensive temples and malls, is required. (Yes, I'm being snarky.) But in all seriousness, a temple recommend is what gets you access to saving ordinances and loving your neighbor and serving others doesn't seem to be as important as orthodoxy of belief.

So I reject the idea that orthodoxy trumps kindness, because I find kindness and service at the heart of religions, and therefore believe God's morality is love and kindness. I am just a relativist when it comes to the things that are attached to religions and become more important then service, but believe that morality is love and service. My God tells everyone to love and care for the people around them, and if religion will help them to do that, then that religion is right for them. God will not tell someone to mistreat another. (This is my world view, and I'm open to the idea that I'm totally wrong, but at this point this makes sense to me, and allows me to try to be a better person.)

Mormonism, on the other hand, strikes me as morally relative. There seems to be nothing that is totally wrong in Mormonism; it's wrong until God says
it is okay. I'm pulling this from places like the story of Nephi killing Laban in the Book of Mormon. Nephi shows the inherent abhorrence that most people have for murder, an inherent quality that I believe is divinely inspired. But because God said murder is okay, he does it. There is something similar in a discussion of polygamy in the Book of Mormon; there is a verse that says having multiple wives is wrong, unless God says it's okay. This is after a discussion of the damage having multiple wives and concubines does to families and how those who have done so have been punished by God. But the caviot that it's okay when God says so seems to say that the damage and pain caused by polygamy and adultery would be okay if God condoned polygamy. So the morality of Mormons seems to be "X is wrong, unless God says otherwise." And God can say anything is okay. In Mormonism, and other faith traditions, God has okayed murder, rape, incest, theft, arson, lies, polygamy, genocide, and on and on. These are things that most people shy away from and agree are immoral things to do. God appears to have no moral code at all if you want to look at it that way.

Now, most of the Mormons I know would agree in this day and age God will not command people to rape or murder or whatever. But it is in the doctrine. The story of Laban is used to teach "the children [to] understand that Heavenly Father helps those who trust him and obey his commandments." God was helping Nephi get the plates by telling him to cut Laban's head off. So while most would say that it doesn't happen today, it is still present in the teachings of the church that God can make anything okay. I wonder how many Mormons, if told by the prophet who speaks for God, to attack or harm someone else would do it?

So is belief in a God who is very attached specific rules, but can okay any behavior no matter how inherently wrong it feels to most of humanity morally relative? I don't think that an element of moral relativism is bad, but I've heard many Mormons say that moral relativism is bad. If it is, how do the above examples fit into the notion that relativism is bad?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Christ Didn't Just Exist

As Easter has been coming up, I've been thinking about what my understanding of Christ is. Do I believe he is the son of God, do I believe in the Atonement, do I believe in the New Testament.

I've realized these questions show a very literalistic way of looking at the world, a trait I believe I picked up from Mormonism. In order for something to be true in Mormonism, it had to actually have happened. Joseph Smith must literally have seen God and Christ,, and translated the Book of Mormon from actual plates, and those plates must have carried a record of people who actually existed. If these things did not actually happen, the foundation of the church falls apart.

So getting back to Christ, does it matter if he was actually the son of God, or if the Atonement really took place? On some level, it might, but when it comes to how I live my life I'm not sure it does. I have no control over whether or not the Atonement happened, and if it didn't there's nothing I can do about it. I can choose to believe in it, or feel that it happened, but belief doesn't make something true.

What can have an impact on my life, and what I can control, is how the things attributed to Christ affect my behavior. I haven't done enough study on the subject to form an opinion on whether or not a man called Jesus lived. But the legacy that has become attached to his name is a beautiful thing. The idea of Jesus teaches us to love everyone, not to judge others, to care for those in need. The Atonement, whether it happened or not, is a story of someone loving people so much he was willing to suffer and die for them. the power of that kind of love is amazing to think about. Even if none of it happened, or if Jesus was just a powerful teacher, following his example can lead me to become a better, more loving person, and help me to improve the world around me. Whether or not the Atonement happened, it can still show me how to love others, even those I don't know or don't like or who are cruel to me.

So this Easter I can celebrate the example of Christ, whether he exists of not. I once heard a quote attributed to Mother Teresa: "If there is a God, I will live as he would want me to live." I may never know about the existance of God or Christ, but I can live as they might want me to.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Oh, Body Issues

A feew years ago I wrote an essay for a program called Recapturing Beauty,, sponsored by BYU Women=s Services. Here=s the edited version that may or may not be published this year.

Women deserve to feel beautiful. But how do we go about doing that? How do we see standards of beauty that no one can meet and still feel beautiful? My answer to this is simple in theory, but difficult in practice: I chose to believe that I was beautiful.

This process started during a theatre class taught by Eric Samuelsen. He said that while most men believe that they are in the top 50% of the world’s handsomest men, most women do not believe that they are in the top 50% of the world’s most beautiful women. Most women believe they are less beautiful than half of the women in the world. This blew my mind. I looked around the room; I knew most of the women in it and every single one of them was beautiful. I thought about my friends and my family. I thought about my sister, who struggles with anorexia and bulimia, but who I’ve always felt is the pretty one in the family. I thought about a friend who struggles with depression and low self-esteem whose beauty had struck me the last time I saw her. I thought about my mom, who spent weeks looking for a dress for my wedding, crying because she felt that she looked terrible in everything. My heart still breaks over that. All of these women deserved to feel beautiful, but didn’t, and neither did I. I compared myself to advertisements, to clothing sizes, to my ex-boyfriend’s expectations, and not surprisingly, I came up short.

As I sat in that class I came to a decision. I didn’t want to spend my life feeling like I wasn’t pretty, so I decided not to. Instead of comparing myself to other women, I started looking at myself. When I did that, I found things about my appearance that I liked. I began to appreciate myself on my own merits and to believe I was beautiful.

It’s been a year since I made that decision. There are still times when I look in the mirror and think “Man, I look terrible.” But now I don’t let those thoughts sink in. I know that they are destructive and untrue. So I make myself look again and think “I look good.” I can’t stop negative thoughts from surfacing, but I don’t need to believe them. It’s a wonderful feeling to know I can make myself feel beautiful by believing that I am.

Recently I=ve hit a new snag in body image issues. In general, I feel good about how I look. But since I started working a desk job, and also eating out of boredom at work, I=ve been gaining weight. So while I'm okay with how i look, for health reasons I need to lose some weight. But this has thrown a bit of wrencch in my difficcultly established body image; ccan I still be alright with how I look while realizing that I need to lose wight? It's sad to me that I have to rework my body image again.