An open dialogue about “open dialogue”

 

Anyone who’s been listening to the public back and forth about John Dehlin and Kate Kelly has heard some mention of “open discussion” or “open dialogue” – and whether or not members of the Church are allowed to explore openly and ask “hard questions.” Speaking of his disciplinary proceedings, for instance, Dehlin recently commented, “I fear the message this is sending is that the church doesn’t want people who question openly…or have hard questions” (Kenley Fry, Herald Journal, 2014). In the past, he has stated that promoting this kind of dialogue was his main hope: “I’m honestly not  trying to push people out of the church, I’m not trying to convince them to stay, I just want there to be an open healthy dialogue” (Steadman, et al., 2011, 16:28).

In all the attention to a need for more open discussion and dialogue, there seems to be one interesting question getting lost:  What exactly do we mean by “open discussion” or “open dialogue”?  We act as if we all know what that means in practice…do we?  Or might there be very different ways of going about it?  If we disagree on the particulars, does that matter?  And most importantly – could a more thoughtful “conversation about the conversation” make a difference in clarifying some sticking points?

One view.  From my own reading, it seems that the most common use of the phrase “open discussion” or “open dialogue” is in reference to bringing some kind of attention to a thorny issue in the Church – whether historical or doctrinal or socio-political or all-of-the-above.  From this vantage point, any increase in exposure for a neglected issue is a step forward.

The details of how that “open discussion” happens are less important than whether it happens. What matters most from this perspective is that we move past a limited or “closed” discussion with implicit (or explicit) restrictions on what can or can’t be discussed and what questions are encouraged or allowed.

When an “open discussion” like this takes place, the overarching goal seems to be educating and helping open minds – this, as part of an attempt to bring to pass some kind of broader change.  As Dehlin once argued, the Church’s behavior is “dysfunctional,” “misguided,” and “broken,” but “I stay [in the Church], because maintaining my membership increases my ability and influence to effect positive change within the church” (Sunstone, 2012).

Those who promote this kind of open dialogue are, at times, heralded as almost heroes or pioneers for showing the “bravery” of actually being open.  One reader on Dehlin’s site posted, “What I love about you is the fearlessness you have shown in publicizing and talking about these difficult issues” (“LB” comment under Mormon Stories, 2013).

Given all this, virtually anyone who brings more open attention to hard questions – Dehlin or otherwise – may be considered part of the movement towards “open dialogue.”  Whether or not everyone feels welcome at the dialogue is not as relevant – as long as the tough questions are being explored in some way.

Another view.  From another perspective, bringing greater exposure to an issue is not the only thing that matters.  What’s also important are the details of how exactly we go about raising attention or awareness via “open discussion.” In this sense, the phrases “open discussion” or “open dialogue” reflect more than simply “bringing greater exposure to an issue” – with equal attention given to whether the space is experienced as literally “open” – and to whom:  do diverse individuals feel genuine space to explore a particular question openly?

And unfortunately, the answer to that question is too often “no” – for various reasons that deserve exploration.  One kind of open exploration is describe above.  Another kind pushes for something a bit more specific, and more “dialogical.”

The word “dialogue” intrinsically refers to the free exploration of different views. As defined in a research article on liberal-conservative exchange: “genuine dialogue entails the “bilateral, free and un-manipulated engagement of at least two persons and two unique perspectives. The moment a space becomes, in actuality, a site for unilateral, instrumental and manipulated engagement, it arguably ceases to be ‘dialogue’” (Hess, et al., 2009).

From this vantage point, if a dialogue aims to be a legitimately open exploration of a contested issue, then by definition, the terms of the dialogue cannot blatantly favor only one perspective. To illustrate, I recently organized a conversation exploring gay rights and religious freedom at the upcoming national conference of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation.  Knowing how silly it would be for an active Mormon to try and convene this discussion on my own, I’ve reached out to a thoughtful group of other colleagues to help me frame the conversation – including a gay Christian man, Arthur Pena and a lesbian woman, Tracy Hollister, one of the national leaders in the organization Marriage Equality U.S.A. Most inspiring has been Heidi Weaver – who has worked for years bringing together conservative Christians and the LGBTQI community into open-hearted dialogue (see Love Boldly).

This is the same pattern reflected in the ground-breaking Boston abortion dialogues in the 90’s convened between pro-life and pro-choice leaders facilitated by the Public Conversation Project. Once an open, gentle (and legitimately fair) space is created, remarkable things can and do happen – starting with new insights and usually consummating with shifts in practice itself.

The primary goal of open discussion or dialogue, in this sense, is not to persuade and proselyte – but instead, to deepen understanding on both sides. This is not simply my personal view – but that of a large community of dialogue and deliberative professionals (see National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation).  Harold Saunders writes, “Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. Each makes a serious effort to take others’ concerns into her or his own picture, even when disagreement persists” (A Public Peace Process). Tom Atlee adds,”Dialogue is shared exploration towards greater understanding, connection, or possibility” (The Co-Intelligence Institute).

While participants can still hope that others in the dialogue will gain new perspective and education about your position – this goal necessarily remains secondary to the primary focus:  your own education and deepening understanding.  And when this kind of exchange happens, buckle up:  the learning, insight and deep education happening on both sides can be profound. I’ve never had a more refreshing, honest, open and in-depth discussion about the gospel than with my dear friend Phil Neisser – an atheist and leftist who disagrees vociferously with most things I hold dear, but still manages to call me his friend (see You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought – But You’re Still Wrong on This American Life).

The challenge.  This latter kind of “open dialogue” is not for the faint of heart.  Dialogue across real divides is hard work – especially internally.  Like beginning meditators, we learn to “sit with discomfort” as we hear someone out fully – not reacting to push away the person in front of us.  We are stretched and invited into a visceral trust and vulnerability as we hold space for ideas (and people) that may be hard to hear.

And let’s be honest:  None of us do this very well.  We’ve all got struggles in this regard, depending on the issue (my issue being “open dialogue!”).

Given all the subtle barriers that can crop up, it can be remarkably difficult to hold a space like this.  In 2006, I was part of a team that developed the first university-level liberal-conservative dialogue course in the nation.  As the conservative co-facilitator, I was joined in teaching the class by a facilitation partner who was socially progressive. The course was carefully planned – with ground-rules and a progression of hot-topics that students voted on.  We soon discovered, however, that virtually everyone signing up identified as politically progressive: the conservatives were simply not showing up! As we re-examined our marketing materials, I noticed the invitation to “open dialogue” was being framed as a part of “social justice education.”

Bingo! Similar to the infamous Democrat-sponsored health care town-halls, the terms of our dialogue space sent a subtle message of this-is-really-motivated-by-a-hidden-agenda to half the people we were trying to reach. The dialogue felt disingenuous.

This seems to be how Dehlin’s site feels to many members of the Church – calling for a dialogue, but not making real space for it.

And in fairness, that also must be how the Church feels to many people struggling with certain questions – agenda’d in the other direction.

In either atmosphere, an “open exploration” can sometimes be remarkably difficult – even on simple questions!  My father tells the story of a Sunday School lesson where he mentioned research that suggests Christ’s birthday was on December 25th (and not April 6th).  An older woman on the next row grew visibly upset and effectively agitated to shut down the discussion.

Do we have things to learn about openness in the Church?  Absolutely.  For a faith that began with Joseph and Brigham’s pronouncements that one of the “fundamental principles” of Mormonism (Bradley, 2006) is accepting truth “no matter who has it” (BY Teachings), we have plenty of room to grow!

My mother used to bring up in Relief Society how helpful mindfulness meditation was in coping with her cancer – but typically only found awkward silence.  One friend writes that it can be hard to discuss hard questions in the Church, because “it seems to infer that our religion does not have all the answers.”

So let’s talk about this kind of hesitancy and resistance!  Let’s really explore what’s going on there – so we can move beyond it.  What better time than now, to embody as a Church the radical truth-openness that Joseph and Brigham taught?  Isn’t this something that both LDS apologists and LDS critics could agree on?

Dehlin once thought so –  stating in 2006: “In the end, I believe that they [the apologists and the critics] are all both fighting for very similar things, and almost united in a common cause…e.g., a love for the truth.”

In that same blog post, Dehlin spoke about having an awakening after a multi-hour, open-hearted encounter with an LDS apologist – and deciding that his “new hope and mission” was to build “more bridges” (Dehlin, 2006)

According to many of Dehlin’s readers, he has succeeded in that over the subsequent years. For others – including that same apologist – the hoped-for “new mission” didn’t ever materialize fully (Midgley, 2007).

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Dehlin’s attempt.  Like most human beings, Dehlin’s is nuanced and complex. One individual who calls John a friend wrote this in an e-mail to me, “I think he can’t really be pinned down. I think he’s lots of things – I think he vacillates between faith and doubt, and expresses each as it comes…I think he encourages people to stay and to leave [the Church], depending on where he’s at at the time….[this] reminds me of some of the things we all do when we’re searching around in the dark for answers that we really feel like we need. Fits and starts, and he just happens to be doing all this bumbling in a public arena. I don’t think he’s malicious, I really don’t. I think he’s a good man with a terribly messy process.”

That description was helpful to me.  As an interview researcher and a dialogue lover, when I heard years ago about Dehlin’s work, I was naturally excited – “wow, a narrative-based inquiry into our culture!”

Right from the beginning, however, something felt fishy.  As I listened to the interview he was conducting, all sorts of research red flags went off for me – from the type of questions being asked to the underlying tone of the interview itself.  “Hold on,” I thought, “isn’t this guy trying for an objective, open exploration?”

Others have raised similar concerns.  One individual remarked on the “undertone of doubtful pessimism and manipulation” on his website:  “Why do the sources he directs members to, all have a feeling of negativity?” In one thorough 2013 review of Dehlin’s work, Dr. Gregory Smith describes how often “normative beliefs and certainties of the general Church membership are the focus of relentless negative analysis, dissection, and criticism” (p. 25).

Dehlin’s own suspicion goes beyond Mormon history details or social issues of our day – right to the very marrow of Mormonism.  Commenting about Jesus, Dehlin states in one interview, “This idea that we have to punish someone else for a bunch of other people’s mistakes—that just bothers me…punishing that guy over there for what I did doesn’t make sense at all.”  Reflecting on repentance and the atonement, Dehlin continues, “the idea that God makes us imperfect and then we’re supposed to beat ourselves up over our imperfections just seems screwed up to me” (Larsen interview, 2012, 17:40./ 17:10–18:00).

Please don’t misunderstand:  It’s not a problem to have serious, thoughtful questions about Christ or his message. Surely we ask too few questions – not too many – when it comes to His work and message.  Neither is it a problem to arrive at questions about God’s nature or existence (don’t we all have our own journey of faith?)

The problem is when someone (anyone!) tries to facilitate dialogue on such intense and important questions – without any co-facilitation or counter-balancing voice -e.g., like me trying to facilitate the gay rights discussion on my own.

Everyone has bias – and no one can escape their bias completely.  That’s why we need collaborators to press us, challenge us and help us be honest about our standpoints.

If Dehlin wants to facilitate a genuinely “open dialogue” on issues throughout Mormonism  – why not partner with someone who firmly believe in the faith’s core message?  Why not lay out some ground-rules and clarify intentions enough to draw in the full diversity of perspectives?  These elements are best practice in the world of dialogue and deliberation:  co-facilitators, ground-rules, and consulting with all sides to ensure a safe space.

Of course, Dehlin hasn’t been trying to facilitate “dialogue” in the most formal sense – instead, conducting interviews in hopes of somehow stimulating dialogue by exposing people to certain ideas.  The same need for balance and accountability applies to the interview process.  As an interview researcher myself, I know that depending on the questions asked and the frame of the conversation – one can lead the person interviewed (and others listening) in profound ways.  That’s why when we conducted interviews with citizens on gay rights, I collaborated with my gay classmate in deciding on the questions and conducting the interviews.

If Dehlin was open to it, I would welcome a chance to explore co-facilitation.

Once again, some of Dehlin’s readers tell me he’s done all these things on his own – or least tried to create a safe forum on his website for exploration.  I respect that intent.  And yet, when I listen to his interview work, I hear him portraying members who don’t wonder about questions like he does as “asleep” (Dehlin, 2006) and not having “intellectual integrity” (2014 Facebook post) about their faith.  Church leaders and LDS apologists are likewise sometimes characterized as unhelpful, ignorant and even harmful.

No wonder Dehlin’s space is not accessible to most Mormons – even many who might appreciate a chance to explore these questions. [But in fairness – these are the kinds of things we say about others when we don’t have someone to hold us accountable…I’ve done the same thing about Dehlin himself in prior versions of this post, but his readers have called me out].

Maybe a different conversation is not what Dehlin wants – which is fine.  (And maybe, as my friend Heather pointed out, Sunday school isn’t the place for open dialogue – which is also fine).

But if so, then who else is facilitating this kind of  “open conversation” (the second variety) – e.g., open dialogue about tough issues in Mormonism with enough space for anyone interested in the questions?  Where else is it happening?  I’d like to know…I’ll bet it’s happening in more places than we know – within a marriage here, a family there, or a bunch of friends. And if we work at it – maybe that style of “open dialogue” can become more mainstream.

Towards more robust dialogue. What would it take to multiply open dialogue about tough issues in Mormonism that is more productive (and safe) for anyone?

1.  Laying down our swords.  It might start with appreciating that we’re more alike than not.  Writing of Dehlin and similar bloggers, one of my friends “they assume I don’t have my own difficult questions and thoughts, and that because I simply address them [differently] that I’m somehow lesser than they.”

Challenging questions are more universal than we realize.  As Dieter Uchtdorf said in 2013, “There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions.”

My default assumption is that most human beings have thoughtful questions (whether religious or not).  Why not approach each other in this way – and brainstorm ways to explore them together?

Within this kind of dialogue, perhaps active members could learn that questions from critics need not be feared.  And maybe those outside the Church could learn that tough questions really are “okay” in the Church.

2. Clarifying intentions.  Maybe we can also – you guessed it – talk more about what we mean by open exploration or open discussion or open dialogue:  What are our intentions and hopes?  How do we plan to go about it?  In a day when even Syrian President Assad call for more “dialogue” – we desperately need to draw some boundary lines.

Once we do so, I think there are real possibilities for what could unfold in and around and through the vast, diverse Church membership.  It can be as simple as asking (that person in your family or ward that you totally disagree with), “Help me understand” – with absolutely no other agenda at stake.  As Louise Diamond writes, “Dialogue means we sit and talk with each other, especially those with whom we may think we have the greatest differences. However, talking together all too often means debating, discussing with a view to convincing the other, arguing for our point of view, examining pro’s and con’s. In dialogue, the intention is not to advocate but to inquire; not to argue but to explore; not to convince but to discover”(The Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy). Tom Schwandt adds, “Parties to the encounter are not viewed as opponents who seek to expose the weaknesses in each other’s arguments. Rather, the conversation begins with the assumption that the other has something to say to us and to contribute to our understanding. The initial task is to grasp the other’s position in the strongest possible light. . . . The other is not an adversary or opponent, but a conversational partner.”

This goes beyond simply a “tone argument” – as Kate Kelly insinuates characterizes her Bishop’s concern with her work – to exploring the core intention that shapes the sharing and communication itself.

3. Building the space.  In the world we’re living in, genuine space for healthy dialogue doesn’t just happen.  We have to be mindful and deliberative about shaping it – and making sure the essential qualities of that atmosphere aren’t inconsistent.

The best way to ensure that happens – just as in the American government – is checks in balances.  Rather than pretend one individual (however well-intentioned) can be objective and unbiased – this would entail getting two (or three or four) inescapably biased individuals who disagree on the issue at hand – but agree on the need for high-quality exchange.

Those facilitators could ensure the ensuing space was equally spacious for those with various perspectives on Mormonism.  Glenna Gerard writes, ‘Dialogue is about expanding our capacity for attention, awareness and learning with and from each other’ (The Dialogue Group).

John Dehlin’s own open-hearted extended conversation with an LDS apologist is a excellent example of this dialogue (see Midgley’s summary).  Why not helping that that kind of conversation happen over and over and over again – even when it’s hard (especially when it’s hard)?

Of course, dialogue may not always be appropriate – or may not feel enough.  At times, something more may be called for…Kate Kelly certainly thought so.  Open dialogue was not enough.  She needed to advocate and organize.  She is after all, a civil rights attorney – turning to the tools of social movements in her own church.

If nothing else, I can at least understand her impulse to do so.  Whether or not it’s helpful or the right thing to do – can then become another topic of open dialogue.

4. Having fun.  And for those of us who want dialogue across this divide (and others) – well, let’s have it!  Heaven knows, we’ve got plenty to talk about!   I, for one, want to explore how we approach mental illness in our church community – and more broadly, exploring the implications of means-end religion where the gospel becomes a kind of cut-and-dried algorithm.

What would happen if Church members really sought to understand concerns that motivated Kate Kelly?  What if her concerns became another difference to explore – allowing the diversity of voices on the subject to speak for themselves?

There is so much potential for “open dialogue” in Utah that it’s killing me!  “In place of the relentless, wearying battles to persuade and convince,” Dionne and Cromartie (2006) write, “we may thus increasingly approximate what Tinder calls ‘the attentive society'” – a place “in which people listen seriously to those with whom they fundamentally disagree” and where is cultivated a “widespread willingness to give and receive assistance on the road to truth” (p. 8, in Hunter & Wolfe, 2006). 

 How cool would it be to have a diverse group come together to attempt this at ground zero here in Utah – a kind of Public Conversation Project in our own state.  Let me know if you’d be interested considering something like this…I’m actively looking for collaborators interested in launching something (write me at jzhess@gmail.com).

Why Mormons Could Totally Fall for Mindfulness (En Masse)

I get questions now and then about barriers Mormons may have to mindfulness and contemplative practice. From my own conversations and personal experience, what I’ve come to see is that Mormons may have far fewer barriers to contemplative practice than individuals from other faith traditions.  Here I’d like to point out three main reasons why I think Mormons are predisposed to “fall in love” with this stuff.

1.  If we understand our doctrine, we should be radically open to ALL truth – no matter who teaches it.  As many people know about Mormons, for us, truth is contained not just in the Bible alone.  In addition to the Book of Mormon and other books we embrace as scripture, Mormons see many other books as containing inspiration.  The extensive “canon” of eastern contemplative traditions then, can easily be approached by us not as a threat – but with an openness to offering further light and knowledge.

To wit, Orson F. Whitney described “Confucius, Zoroaster, Buddha, Socrates and Plato” as “servants of the Lord in a lesser sense” – good and great men” who possessed “profundity of thought, great wisdom, and a desire to uplift their fellows” and who were “sent by the Almighty into many nation” to “give them  truth that a wise Providence had allotted to them.”  Whitney emphasized that God is “using not only his covenant people, but other peoples as well, to consummate a work.”

At the heart of Mormonism is a radically expansive openness to truth in every direction.   As Joseph Smith first stated, “One of the grand fundamental principles of “Mormonism” is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 313).  John Taylor reiterated:  “We are open to truth of every kind, no matter whence it comes, where it originates, or who believes in it” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church:  Eternal Truth).  And Brigham Young elaborated:  ” Be willing to receive the truth, let it come from whom it may; no difference, not a particle….“Mormonism,” so-called, embraces every principle pertaining to life and salvation, for time and eternity. No matter who has it….“Mormonism” includes all truth….I want to say to my friends that we believe in all good. If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it.”  Brigham summarized:  “It is our duty and calling, as ministers of the same salvation and Gospel, to gather every item of truth and reject every error. Whether a truth be found with professed infidels, or with the Universalists, or the Church of Rome, or the Methodists, the Church of England, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Quakers, the Shakers, or any other of the various and numerous different sects and parties, all of whom have more or less truth, it is the business of the Elders of this Church…to gather up all the truths in the world pertaining to life and salvation, to the Gospel we preach, … to the sciences, and to philosophy, wherever it may be found in every nation, kindred, tongue, and people and bring it to Zion” (Teachings of Brigham Young:  The Gospel Defined).

Could this include mindfulness itself?  You bet!

More than a general openness to more truth, we believe this is a day of new truth being given to the earth.  Our scriptures are full of reminders and promises from God that we are living in a day when “all truth” is being restored to the earth. For instance, Joseph Smith recorded a promise that “God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, yea, by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost, that has not been revealed since the world was until now; Which our forefathers have awaited with anxious expectation to be revealed in the last times, which their minds were pointed to by the angels, as held in reserve for the fulness of their glory; A time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld (D&C 121: 26-32).

I reveal all mysteries, yea, all the hidden mysteries of my kingdom from days of old. As Joseph writes in our Articles of Faith:  “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”

2.  We believe in contemplation and enlightenment…big time.  Everyone knows that Mormons look to prophets for guidance and revelation.  What they may not know is that these same prophets continually encourage everyone to seek their own enlightenment through various contemplative practices – including prayer and meditation itself.

Joseph Smith himself was described as his mother growing up as, “much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of the children, but far more given to meditation and deep study” (Smith, Lucy. Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet. Liverpool, 1853, p. 84; more here on Joseph’s history).

While we typically use the word “ponder” when describing this contemplative state, meditation is also frequently referenced. President David O. McKay, for instance, once said: “I think we pay too little attention to the value of meditation, a principle of devotion. … Meditation is the language of the soul. It is defined as ‘a form of private devotion or spiritual exercise, consisting in deep, continued reflection on some religious theme.’ Meditation is a form of prayer. …“Meditation is one of the most secret, most sacred doors through which we pass into the presence of the Lord” (Man May Know for Himself, comp. Clare Middlemiss [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1969], pp. 22–23).

In regular temple attendance, we also seek a deep, contemplative state of worship, adoration and focus.  In that stillness, as I explore elsewhere, we believe that we’re most able to commune with God.

3. Finally, we believe human beings are children of God in the spiritand therefore, fundamentally good.  For us, the evil comes from being born into a fallen world that corrupts and degrades us – an idea very similar to the Buddhist notion of being born into “delusion.” For Mormons, then, the emphasis of mindfulness on fundamental wholeness is not a sticking point – as it might be for Christians who believe in the depravity of man.

As children of God, we believe human beings also have a literal divine potential – especially as they yield their hearts and lives to God’s commandments.  Mormons thus embrace many elements similar to those of the Eightfold Middle Path of Buddhism.

From our convictions about knowledge, the process of gaining knowledge and human nature itself, then, Mormons are well-suited to embrace mindfulness.  If mindfulness feels like something that can help build Zion, in particular, then they’ll be all over it!  This doesn’t mean there aren’t unique challenges as well – including our intense focus on HARD WORK! [Hold on…did you say “non-doing?!”] (:

The Darkened Mind

At a 7-day meditation retreat I recently attended, there was a period of question/answer prior to entering into silence.  When asked by a participant “is enlightenment possible,” the teacher quoted a writer who stated “enlightenment is the final disappointment.”

For a tradition that began with at least some talk of “enlightenment,” there seems to be a surprising degree of skepticism about growing light as a result of mindful practice.  Indeed, in all my reading of modern, secular mindfulness teachers, there is hardly any language at all referring to mental light (or darkness).  Why is this?  Is this stemming from a belief that such a distinction is only relevant to the immature mind (and dissolved in one truly enlightened?)  I’d love to hear from people who have insight as to why light/dark seems so “out of style.”

I can only speak from my own experience.  And what I do know is that there are times in my life when I have felt my mind darkened – and other times when my mind has seemed to be infused with light.  Depending on the day and week, I also notice slight or significant fluctuations in the amount of light in my life.  Like the weather outside, I also experience periods where my mind feels overcome with darkness, light or a mixture of the two.

Our scriptures describe minds that have become “darkened” (D&C 84:54), an “understanding” (Eph. 4:18) and “eyes” (Rom. 11:10) becoming “darkened” (see also Ps. 69:23)  – and even the “heart” being darkened (Rom. 1:21). Elsewhere, Christ speaks of bodies being “full of darkness” (Matt. 6:23) and people who “sit in darkness” (Luke 1:79).

The opposite experience is also described in scripture – of the “mind” being enlightened (D&C 11:13), “understanding” being enlightened (Alma 32:28) and  “eyes” (1 Sam. 14:27; D&C 88:11) or the “eyes of your understanding” being enlightened (Eph. 1:18). In the Book of Mormon, it speaks of a “dark veil” cast from the mind (Alma 19:6) and “scales of darkness” falling from the eyes of people (2 Ne. 30:6).

For my purposes here, the details of how this lightening/darkening happens matter less than confirming the phenomenon itself.  In my own experience, times of darkening/lightening have not always (but often) been a result of my own conscious choices.  When my mind is darkened, it results in a kind of literal blindness where I simply do not see things as they are anymore (and sense as much). This becomes especially apparent when the “light comes on again” – restoring a sense of clarity and perspective to seeing things as they actually are (vs. how I want them to be, fear them to be, etc.).

I’d love to hear from people who perhaps do not feel comfortable using such terms – to better understand their experience.

For my part, would this experience of mind somehow evaporate if I saw things more clearly or truthfully?   Are my sensations of mental light and darkness reflections of an immature mind?

I doubt it.  But then again, maybe I’m just not enlightened-enough yet?  (:

The New Church in Town

The New Church in Town

(Based on a true story)

“You should come and try it.  You might like it,” Karl said – with the same persuasive sweetness that had once convinced Michael to join the army with his high school friend.

Home now after a long deployment overseas, Michael was having a hard time adjusting to home life.  Old family relationships were a bit strained – and the church he used to find solace in was feeling empty.

“I guess you’re right – it’s not like I’m getting a whole lot out of my church anymore.  I sit there and just feel nothing.  Sometimes I even feel worse when I’m surrounded by all those people saying how happy they are. And I’m really just not.  I’m not getting a lot of help from this religion right now.”

“So it’s settled,” Karl said:  “you come try out my church tomorrow. I really think you’re going to dig this…it’s nothing like anything you’re used to.”

“Can you tell me a little more about it?” Michael asked.

“You really have to experience it for yourself.  But for starters- you know all that talk about Almighty God and how people need to fear him and keep in line or He’ll be after them?  Well that’s definitely not the God we believe in…”

“In fact, the God we worship wants people to be happy.  And I mean really happy.”

“Well that’s not that different than what people say in my church as well, Karl – so what’s the big difference?”

“Yeah – I know.  I know they talk and talk about the happiness you can have one day – a pie in the sky that’s supposedly “worth waiting for.”  I’m not talking about that.  I’m talking about being happy now.  In this very moment.  Ever thought of that?”

“All right…” Michael said, “so tell me more.  I’m interested.  It’s true that I get tired of hearing everyone talking about being happy one day, when today really does feel so awful.”

“That’s right.  So here’s the thing, Michael.  One reason that people in your religion struggle to be happy is they’re always beating themselves down about the body:  ‘you can’t eat this’ or ‘you can’t feel this’ or ‘you can’t experience this’ or ‘you can’t wear this.’ You know what I’m talking about…”

“That’s where our church really gets good.  We throw all that out the door.”  Karl continued, “For us, if God wants people to be happy, wouldn’t that be crazy to close off all the ways our bodies can feel pleasure? I mean – if you really think about it.  That’s true craziness.”

“So go on.  What do you mean?”

“We’re all about having a good time.  Using our bodies, our emotions and other people around us – to feel good. Does that sound ‘evil’ or anything?  Of course not.”

“It’s actually beautiful,” Carlos offered without skipping a beat, starting to become lost in a reverie as he painted the picture:  “Imagine a church where people aren’t scared of what they do with their bodies anymore, Michael.  A church where we can appreciate the body – in all its exquisite richness beauty.  And where we can do it together.”

“That’s what we’re about – and why I’m excited to have you try out our services.”

“Wow.  That sounds…um…different than what I’m used to.”

“What do I have to wear?”

“Nothing special.  In fact – and here’s the crazy thing.  You don’t even have to leave your home.  The Founders have figured out a way to broadcast services right through your internet.  Anywhere you’d like.”

“All you have to have is high speed internet or cable.”

“Perfect.  We had our installed last week.”

“All right.  Awesome.  Then we’re in business.”

“One thing I didn’t tell you.  It’s free at first, but if you want to continue the Founders ask for a…a contribution.  It will cost you.”

“Oh, that’s no biggie.  My church does the same thing.  I’ll bet my family forked out a fortune in the tithing and collection dollars we gave up.”

“Good.  All right.”

“So let’s go to the website.  It’s time to get you going.  You know all the mumbo jumbo about passion through the holy spirit?”

“Yeah – well I still kind of believe in the Spirit.”

“That’s fine.  But buckle up, because you’re in for the ecstasy and spirit of your life.  Type in the search engine XXX…”

****************

Sound wacky?  Out-of-this-world?

The mammoth media culture loves to poke fun at organized religion for how it invariably invites people to love something, to trust something and to become committed to something.

Supposedly, these are silly things to ask of people.  And supposedly no one else but organized religion does that nowadays, right?

As explored earlier, Americans are clearly being invited on every side to love, adore and commit themselves to other things – many other things.  But especially one thing.

In ancient times, pagan religion competed with the Christian faith by inviting people to come to groves.  At these groves, they would uncover people who showed their bodies and had sex together.

The “lift” from these experiences was enough to become a real draw – leading many away from their own faith, to literally worship at the altar of sex.

But of course, this religion no longer exists in our day, right?

While literally no one would talk about pornography this way, think about it for a second:  The rapture.  The ritual.  The reverence.  The imagery.  The time and money commitment.  The heart and mind and soul required.

And the brilliance!  No groves or physical  gathering needed.  In proxy, people can witness and experience the rush of sex as if witnessing it in person….and almost as if doing it themselves.

“Feeling pain?  No need to feel it!  You can get out of it anytime.  Anywhere.  Just tune in.  Find a screen.  We’ll make you feel better.

SO glad you’re here. How wonderful to have a chance to come together and celebrate our redemption.  Relief.  Freedom from this bondage.  

We warn you:  THEY are going to try and convince you to feel bad about this, to see it as ‘unnatural’ and guilt you into stopping…Some have walked away from the joy we offer – persuaded to follow a path of misery that they promise will one day ‘pay off.’  

You know the truth.  As you’ve found for yourself, the truth is that redemption is available NOW.  Just a click away.  And you can feel less.  Feel more.  Or nothing at all. 

No more in pain.  ‘All tears wiped away.’  Gone. No more.  

Can you say redemption?

And it gets even better:  The ecstasy of your own body and hormones – the feeling that comes over the brain.  Rush.  Overwhelm.  Escape.  

What elation.  What transcendence!”

Freed from the chains of the surrounding culture, throwing off the shackles of all the should’s and ought’s. Free!  To be yourself!  To go and do what you want.  To feel what you want.  To enjoy what you want – anything you want.”  

In all these ways, people are being offered in these Virtual Groves a kind of quasi salvation (see Satan’s Plan of Salvation).  How about seeing this church for what it is?

And for those who are tired of the sheer emptiness and utter depletion of paying devotion to this Great and Abominable Church – maybe seeing it for what it is will help us LEAVE.  And do it for GOOD.

“Those Dumb Religious People”

It’s becoming popular these days to criticize and poke fun at people who are silly enough to be “religious.”  For a variety of reasons, those who put  trust in a Power greater than themselves are scorned as narrow, backwards and parochial, at best.  At worst, those who give their hearts to worship and follow (obey) some kind of Divine being are increasingly portrayed as almost threats to the larger social order.

The insinuation seems to be that the rest of the people – the non-religious ones – are not putting their trusting in something outside of themselves, nor giving their hearts to worship or follow (obey) anything in particular.   Unlike those “religious people,” the rest of the masses like to frame themselves as quite different – not wasting time with either “faith” or “worship” of something outside of yourself.

If not wasting time on God, then pray-tell, what do these people put their hearts and minds?  Well, probably lots of things.

According to recent statistics, over 20 million people in America tune in weekly to watch NCIS, the Big Bang Theory and Sunday football (during the season).  Approximately 16 million people watch Dancing with the Stars religiously, with 15 million loving Two and a Half Men, 13 million adoring Modern Family and 10 million relishing Desperate Housewives.

How does that compare with the pews at your church Sunday?  Is it possible to live without putting your trust in anything?  And is there such a thing as an individual that adores or follows nothing?   

Thanks to songs like, “I kissed a girl,” Katy Perry has become one of the biggest musical stars of our day, and a modern sex symbol everywhere she goes.  Her Christian father, Keith Hudson, shared his feelings about being at a concert of Katy’s attended by 20,000 people:  “I’m watching this [crowd] and they were going at it. It almost looked like church…I stood there and wept and kept on weeping and weeping.” He then added, “They’re loving and worshipping the wrong thing.”

Rather than asking “whether or not” to believe and trust in something, perhaps we should be asking what exactly do we choose to definitely trust in our lives?  Instead of debating whether to worship and love something or not, maybe we can start talking about who we decide to love, worship and follow…and why?

Elder Russel Nelson pointed out in April 2014 General Conference that the word “religion” means to “ligate again” or “tie back” ( re- re- + ligāre).  He then asked, “where is our faith exactly?….Are we tied to God, or tied to something else?”

Is there anyone that doesn’t have to place faith in something…anyone that doesn’t adore or revere or cherish or worship something…that doesn’t follow and obey and yield to something in their heart and mind?

Of course not.  And of course, you can’t escape answering that question in some way.

If turning your back on religion, that’s okay – but then who or what are you going to worship?  Where are you going to find your comfort and give your daily and weekly adoration?  Science?  Sex?  Your partner?  A celebrity?  TV?  Beauty?  The body?  Your appetite for food? Your own philosophies?  Yourself?  A practice?  A guru?

How we answer that question may turn out to be a pretty big deal.  When Nicodemus came to Christ at night, he sought answers to the hunger in his own soul.  In response, Jesus told him what lay behind ongoing torment some people face – where hearts and minds become stuck, even eternally:  “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light” (John 3:19).

Satan’s Plan of Salvation

One of the unique teachings of the Church of Jesus Chris is the notion of a meaningful existence that took place before we came to this earth – a time of growth, a time of learning…and a time of war.

The “war in heaven” described in the Book of Revelation (12:7) was ultimately a clash of ideas.  The children of God had “grown up” as much as they could living with their Heavenly Parents – and like the 20-something playing video games in the basement, it was time to learn what could only be learned after “moving out” and leaving home.

As we did so, we surely anticipated this life would be challenging – and not as comfortable as “Home.”   I believe that we foresaw some of the agony and despair we would have to face – especially in our own crushing falls and personal bondages. The dangers we would be facing were real – and we knew it.

John describes a pre-mortal vision of a search conducted throughout heaven for someone capable of intervening to open the way for God’s children (metaphorically described as “loosing” a sealed book). During a moment when no one had yet been found, John describes himself weeping “much.”  The prospect of moving forward without help was too much.

God, however, was not worried – all along working to ensure that a Savior would be provided – a literal Super-hero of sorts to help us endure and overcome in this life- so as to return Home.  To fill that role, Father had someone in mind.

Someone else also had that role in mind – proposing himself as the much-anticipated Savior.  In the way we often tell the story, however, Lucifer stepped up in the grand Council of God’s children and proposed another plan – an alternative scheme that would (a) take away human agency and enslave the children of God and (b) ultimately bring him all the glory and power.

Sometimes I’ve wondered, “if that’s how Satan’s plan was described, how in the world did he convince a ‘third of the hosts of heaven‘ to follow him?”:  “Hey – come join the cause!  Lose your freedom – enter slavery and give all your power to Lucifer!”

It doesn’t make sense. And, of course, that’s not how Lucifer described his ideas – since that wouldn’t have swayed anyone. So how exactly did this pre-mortal politician make his proposal?  What exactly did he say to convince so many to follow him?

I obviously do not know the answer to this question – but I can’t resist my own studied guess.  My wife and I just finished an impressive, fictionalized account of the premortal life called “the Brothers,” written by author Chris Stewart.  The most striking scene of the book for me is a grand political rally Satan holds to animate and unite his followers. With music blaring and flags flying, Lucifer stirs up the crowd into a fever-pitched excitement – condemning the “power-hungry” status quo leaders and offering a very different kind of path to “salvation.”

Borrowing that back-drop, please indulge my own rendition of his “stump speech”:

“Brothers and Sisters…I salute you. I’m so touched.  I really am.  Look at you!  The beauty.  The love.  The sweetness.  It means so much to me…it really does.

None of us want to be here today – standing where we are.  None of us would have wanted things to happen the way they have – given how much we loved Father and all our family.

No – this is a dark day.  A sad day.  But it’s also a hopeful day – one full of new possibilities.

Throwing off the chains that bind the minds and hearts of the rest of our brothers and sisters, we stand here today to embark on a new path, as a new people.  This takes guts.  And bravery – indeed, true courage.

You saw how it happened.  You saw how carefully and lovingly I presented these ideas to the Council – a path of salvation with much less pain and so much more help.  A pathway of salvation for EVERYONE – rather than just for those select few who God happens to love. For all of your souls, you saw how I plead and even offered my own life as a show of my passion for the truth.

And yet how did they respond? Not only did they reject  us – they tried to shut down the discussion and threatened to kick us out!! Can you say, “power-trip?” [Shouts, laughter]

Since then, what has happened, dear brothers and sisters?  Intimidation. Attempts to silence us.  Smear campaigns.  Chipping away our freedom of speech – and putting into question the preservation of the very life we love so much.

And so we stand here today for a reason, Brothers and Sisters.  A solemn and awful reality draws us together – with hearts pained at what we MUST do.

When people are pushed too far, there is only one recourse:  rebellion.

They will regret their rejection.  They will regret not joining us – as we move forward in a Plan for All.  In one way or another, I tell you we WILL HAVE our mortal bodies and the freedoms we deserve. And best of all, I can still redeem you.

As long as you believe in me and keep my commandments, I can save you all.  You need to trust me in that.  You’ve followed me this far – and I need you to keep the faith.

“But wait,” some have asked – “the Enemy claims he will save people as well.”  Do you know what that means, my people?  It means people will have to feel pain and suffer.  It means they will be asked to face awful, excruciating  experiences – and then somehow, the thinking goes – through this suffering, ‘one day, eventually – after they’ve learned things and made choices’ yada, yada – Jehovah will step in and save the day.  Sound good to you?  “Sit there and suffer for awhile and then I’ll give you relief.” How brutish – and how uncaring…

I on the other hand – the rightful and true Savior – promise to provide immediate relief.  While Jehovah sits by the side yawning, I’ll be right there showing you and telling you what to do.  I won’t let you wonder or be uncertain or have to think for yourselves. And as soon as you feel any pain or discomfort, I will give you relief – in a thousand flavors.  Drink something.  Eat something.  Watch something.  Make your body do something.  In ALL the glorious ways your bodies are able, I will give you sweet relief and freedom from the pain you will face.

How does this sound?  Let me say again:  I am the one willing to save you – from incredible pain! Who wants to suffer??  [No!!]

Me too.  I’m the one who actually CARES about you – and how much you would be hurting. And it doesn’t stop there.  Who wants to avoid all the things that bring pleasure?  [No!!]

I’m going to MAXIMIZE your pleasure – in ways that are beyond your wildest fantasies. In every way you can imagine.  While Father worries and frets about keeping you away from the many pleasures of life…not me.  All your wildest dreams will come true. How does that sound? [Huge crazy cheering].

Yes – I thought you’d feel that way.  Me too.  More pain.  Less pleasure.  More help. Need I say more?”

That probably does the trick.  In fact, whatever was exactly said, it apparently did the trick for millions and millions of God’s children who chose to ultimately turn away from God’s plan (and embrace another).  Rather than seduced by “slavery” and “losing agency,” my point here is that surely they were duped by something else – another kind of “salvation” from pain and another plausible gateway towards pleasure, power and “freedom.”

And with the same seductive campaign, Satan continues to broadcast his grand “plan of salvation” to our hearts today:  “Feel some pain?  NO NEED.  I’ve got something that will make that go away NOW.  No need to even think about it – or feel it.  Just do this.  Or take this.  Or experience this.  And you will feel relief.”

And we buy it!  Obsessed with whatever we can do to feel good now or to avoid pain now – we are duped to pour all our energy into that which can give us immediate, current pleasure – or at least, temporary numbing of our pain.  Then and now, this offer of  “salvation” from our pain is so hard to turn down.

What Satan didn’t (and doesn’t) tell us, of course, is the full list of side-effects…especially long-term.  As it turns out, the plan presented as “maximizing our pleasure” – doesn’t feel all that good later on. [It’s especially interesting, in this context, that two of the main “causes of suffering” the Buddha taught were avoiding/pushing away what we don’t want – and grasping/craving what we don’t have…two practices forming the HEART of what I’m calling here, “Satan’s plan of salvation”].

And what about that “other plan” – the one that asks us to (mindfully) accept a need for painful experiences and going through struggles – as well as focusing on something besides maximizing our pain?

Well, it turns out that this plan brings MORE pleasure than we can imagine (yes, eventually) – and more immediately, an underlying peace of life for those who embrace it fully.  Like eating our vegetables and exercising, practices that can feel challenging, “boring” and even unpleasant in the moment (such as prayer, worship, service) – ultimately lead us to feel pretty good over time.  As we yield our hearts completely to Them, Christ and the Father work in us to bring to pass a kind of joy and peace indescribable:  a different kind of payoff – and one that cannot be matched.

Bottom line:  While the fight between “slavery and freedom” is real, at least rhetorically speaking, what we’re looking at (now and then) are competing plans of salvation – two ways of finding relief, two ways of attempting to escape the heartbreak of the world and two pathways towards “our wildest dreams.”  Behind these pathways, are two different individuals still offering to be our Savior.  And like the Father Himself, we face the same question in our lives today:  Who will we choose?

Turning Toward What Hurts

Lest my prior Prozac-posts be misinterpreted, I’m not making statements here against anti-depressants – which have been experienced by MANY as providing some relief for a time.  My mention of medications were incidental to a focus on (a) whether people should be pressured to accept treatment and (b) what high rates of medication use in Utah may or may not say about Mormon culture.
It goes without saying that ALL of us need some kind of immediate relief sometimes – even if that’s just temporarily reprieve via television, food, medications, etc.  This is understandable – and not necessarily a bad thing.
But when distraction and avoidance become the main thing (or only thing) we do when painful stuff happens – well, buckle up.  Because over the long-term, avoidance can actually make our pain and suffering much worse (click the links for video explanations – and here as well).
For this reason, in mindfulness practice we work to begin turning towards what is painful and making room for what hurts. As we begin to “witness the storm,” so to speak – rather than running from it – the mindweather becomes less terrifying.  Indeed, despite the challenge of facing what is painful, this can lead over the long-term to a dramatic lessening of our suffering and a growing capacity to deal with anything that arises in our lives.

“Does God Want Me to Get on Prozac?”

The buzz around Elder Jeffrey Holland’s recent talk started almost immediately:  “it’s the first time someone has addressed mental illness in general conference.” Although serious mental and emotional challenges have been discussed regularly ( e.g., by Elder Richard Scott) and more specific recommendations made in writing by other general authorities (e.g. by Elder Alexander Morrison), this was the first time an apostle had made such explicit statements in General Conference about depression itself.

Perhaps the best thing about Elder Holland’s talk was the gentle, but direct encouragement towards other members to understand that serious mental and emotional problems are legitimate, debilitating conditions – with clinical depression described as “an affliction so severe that it significantly restricts a person’s ability to function fully, a crater in the mind so deep that no one can responsibly suggest it would surely go away if those victims would just square their shoulders and think more positively – though I am a vigorous advocate of square shoulders and positive thinking!” Elder Holland goes on, “No, this dark night of the mind and spirit is more than mere discouragement” – relating his own encounter with some of these intense feelings as well.

For anyone facing depression who has ever heard from a family member, “come on – just look at the sunshine outside.  It’s a beautiful day.  Just think on the bright side!” – these words must have been deeply relieving.  And for the family members trying and desperately wanting to be helpful, Elder Holland’s words offer some exquisite guidance on a more gentle and compassionate and patient and hopeful response.

Indeed, there is so much abundant hope and good counsel in his talk (including about preventing illness wherever possible by monitoring our stress levels better), that it has intrigued me how much attention one part of his talk, in particular, has received. After encouraging members facing debilitating depression to “seek the advice of reputable people with certified training, professional skills and good values,” Elder Holland directs people to “prayerfully and responsibly consider the counsel they give and the solutions they prescribe.”

Fair enough! When offered counsel from a therapist or a medical professional, that’s what anyone should do, right?  Think carefully and prayerfully about what to do in their own situation. But Elder Holland didn’t stop there: “If you had appendicitis, God would expect you to seek a priesthood blessing and get the best medical care available.  So too with emotional disorders. Our Father in Heaven expects us to use all of the marvelous gifts He has provided in this glorious dispensation.”

“Wow, did you hear what Elder Holland just said?!!”  The flood-gates opened….one LDS woman who had not felt right about starting an anti-depressant (but who had faced substantial pressure from her family in that regard), received a text message from a family member moments afterwards, stating simply: “SEE?!!”  For a topic as nuanced and charged as the appropriate role of anti-depressants in sustainable healing, many were lightning quick to interpret his words as a full resolution – even a carte blanche endorsement of anti-depressants as something that perhaps even God was commanding us to use-when-prescribed?

For those who feel it’s the right thing personally to take an anti-depressant, such words may offer a helpful confirmation.  But what about those who feel some level of personal resistance to anti-depressants – who just don’t feel right about it?  Should they be pressured to acquiesce on the basis of Elder Holland’s statement?  Should anti-depressants be incontrovertibly accepted by the faithful as one of the “marvelous gifts God has provided” for us in our day?  And more to the point, should dissenting from a doctor’s opinion be considered demonstrating recklessness or less faith?

These are tough questions – and surely deserving of more open, thoughtful, mindful conversation among us (the very kind of gentle consideration Elder Holland demonstrated himself).  After writing 600 pages about anti-depressants in my dissertation research, I’m well aware of a nuanced and ongoing professional and research debate regarding the appropriate role of anti-depressants in healing from depression.  Researchers and professionals definitely do not agree on the answers – and there is a need for a great deal more evidence gathered on the subject.

There is also a wide personal diversity in experiences. While on one hand, many have experienced some relief and support from anti-depressants, there are many others who feel nothing or worse in taking them and growing concern with the outcomes of long-term use (which appears to make people more depressed after many years of taking them – when compared with those who never tried them).

Given the diversity of both professional and personal opinion, there is a crucial need for more space and openness to discuss these questions.  Once again, it seems clear that Elder Holland’s talk was intended to enrich our Church conversation about mental health and grow more compassion and gentleness among us – more mindful attention and mindful listening.

One thing is clear:  To use Elder Holland’s words as some kind of weapon to pressure someone into any course of action regarding medication is hypothetical to the apostle’s core message – and indeed, to the larger health of the Kingdom.  In my previous post, I have also suggested that a pattern of unquestioning obedience to medical authority may actually underlie our surprisingly high levels of anti-depressants and other prescription drugs in Utah.

Bottom line:  Let’s dialogue.  And how about supporting each other in what feels right in each of our unique circumstances?  As Joseph Smith himself underscored, pressure, control or compulsion “in any degree” is always unrighteous – EVEN when we’re convinced we know what someone else really needs.

Lots of Prozac and Mental Illness in Utah: What Gives?

Last week a new national study reported that Utah, of all places, is home to the highest rate of mental illness in the nation – with nearly 22.4 percent of the state’s adult population purportedly experiencing some kind of mental disorder in the last year (5.14 percent severely). Twelve years ago, a study by a pharmacy company indicated that Utahans had ordered more Prozac than any other state per capita. In both cases, many have been happy (and quick) to proclaim these findings as definitive evidence of the “harmful mental health effects” of Mormonism.

Unfortunately, these same critics have disregarded other various studies showing active Mormons less depressed and less suicidal than the average population – and even living 5-10 years longer than most Americans. Even so, it’s still worth wondering why Utah would show itself anywhere near the top of any of these negative lists:  So what’s going on?

After finishing my own study on depression and anti-depressants several years ago, I was asked during my dissertation defense, “why is there such a high rate of Prozac in Utah?” After pointing out the studies confirming mental health benefits for active Mormons, I suggested that the answer may be more complex than it initially seems.  For instance, since Mormons don’t turn to alcohol and illegal drugs like most Americans do to “self-medicate,” there may be more of a natural impetus towards legal avenues.

Another contributor that doesn’t often get acknowledged is that Utahans are very conservative, by and large:  We trust authority.  When my liberal friends hear from their doctor they have a certain diagnosis and need to take this or that, they’re likely to respond, “Whatever…I’ll go get a second opinion from my naturopath.”

But that’s not what we say in Utah.  We listen.  And more than likely, we obey.  (Several people I interviewed told me how they went along with their doctor’s suggestions, even though they felt uncomfortable with them because…after all, “he’s the doctor”). While there are obviously many exceptions, I would argue that conservatives as a whole are more likely to accept a doctor’s prescribed counsel and more likely to become medical consumers as a result (Brent Sharman, a local psychologist, has argued for the same possibility).  This would explain why Utah also ranks seventh in overall prescription totals – including higher than normal rankings in use of penicillin, insulin, thyroid hormones, antirheumatics, and anticonvulsants.

So what’s responsible for high prescription rates?  Mormon culture?  Or doctor-following culture?

Perhaps a little of both.  Most important questions have a complexity that is unacknowledged.  And yet it’s clear in this case, that most of the inquiry on this particular issue focuses on the “easy target” – Mormon culture.  Mindfulness is about acknowledging and opening to anything arising – and not selectively focusing on our preferred answers (whether for or against the Church). If we balanced out the discussion more, perhaps we would notice how readily Utahans are also turning to national advocacy groups for information about mental health – groups with strong ties to the Pharmaceutical Industry.  Perhaps we could notice how different the messages of these groups are, when compared with the science itself.  And maybe we would notice what an impact some of these messages may be having on actual individuals and families.  For instance, once you come to accept the notion of a permanent chemical deficiency in the brain, you are clearly more likely to pursue certain treatments (and less likely to try others) (for an academic examination of this connection, see my in-press article here with colleagues at Florida State, Brown University and BYU).

So what’s the answer?  How about a more balanced, open dialogue – for starters? The problem isn’t trusting doctors – who can be a crucial support to our health.  The problem is when the terms of the health discussion are being set by large companies, rather than by individual patients and their doctors.  As my colleague Jeff Lacasse and I recently argued, “If the general public is to make treatment decisions that are fully informed of the entire scope of costs and benefits, they deserve a picture independent of those standing to profit from those treatments” (Hess & Lacasse, 2011).  In collaboration with a number of colleagues, we also just released our own online mental health curricula – without any ties to industry and with LOTS of ties to the actual scientific research:  Mindweather 101. Check it out!  And I’d love to hear your own thoughts on how to get a bigger dialogue going about mental health…and yes, that means bigger than glibly blaming it on “Mormon culture.”

Are Questions ‘Okay’ in the Church?

My dear friend (and mindfulness teacher), Rosa, recently asked my thoughts about a New York Times article profiling a member of the Church and former area authority, Brother Mattsson – who was publicly raising concerns about historical details he hadn’t been aware of.  The article insinuates that the Church had attempted to hide things from members – and raises questions about whether hard questions are really “okay” to explore in the Church.

I agree that transparency and openness make for a uniquely healthy organization; most organizations I know (including the U.S. government), wrestle with how to address uncomfortable or painful aspects of its past (and present). And I would say the Church of Jesus Christ is no exception.

Historians exploring many communities are also getting more transparent and balanced (including Church-focused historians) – which is another positive development happening.  That being said, this article’s portrayal of a Church hiding away things and whitewashing its history seems quite overblown and overstated.  In order to fit our community within this narrative, one must ignore a great deal of nuance and counter-evidence.

To their credit, I do think we’re seeing lots of evidence for a new and growing openness and directness among Church leaders, affiliated-historians and members to address and examine uncomfortable questions.  For instance, essays on race relations, different accounts of the first vision, the doctrine of becoming like God and plural marriage all appear on the Church’s main webpage (go to “browse alphabetically” under “Gospel Topics” for more).  In that same section, there is also an essay on Book of Mormon translation that explores the “mechanics of translation” – including the seer stone in the hat.  These “official essays” reflect intense, ongoing and thoughtful efforts within our community to explore and grapple with some of the more difficult questions raised by critics (see FAIR and FARMS).

Outside of the official website, historians connected to the Church have recently published a respected, and “unflinching” account of the Mountain Meadows Massacre – as well as encouraging Richard Bushman’s book, Rough Stone Rolling where the historical evidence around Joseph’s Smith’s wives is examined with detail that makes some Church members uncomfortable.  The Joseph Smith Papers, as well –  a 12-volume set of books aggregating and publishing all manuscripts and documents created by, or under the direction of, Joseph Smith.

More broadly, Latter-day Saints are also not fearful of education or truth.  Church members being encouraged to get ‘all the education you possibly can’ (Hinckley, 2007); studies showing that Latter-day Saints with higher education tend to become more, rather than less faithful.

So is it okay to ask questions in the Church?  The New York Times author shares her answer, of course – insinuating throughout the article that questions are discouraged and feared by leaders and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints alike – e.g., “why are you afraid of the truth?”

But is that true?  Let me put it this way:  has the author ever sat in a Sunday School class and tried asking an honest question?  Did she ever approach a Church leader with a curiosity or concern?  If she did, what would happen?  Would she be told she was “impertinent” for asking?  Would we run her out of Sunday School with pitch forks?

I think not.  In fact, I think we might actually listen!  We might even express appreciation for the question – and maybe start a conversation together (and enjoy it).

Now, we may not be as adept and skilled at the whole question thing as the Jewish community (they rock at this!) – for most of us, questions really aren’t that fearful.  The whole Doctrine Covenants came out of Joseph Smith’s radical questions – and there is plenty of support in our doctrine for holding space for doubts and learning from them (see Terryl Givens’ powerful essay on the topic).

But what about the current leaders?  (You know – those old guys who have been trying to hide the full history of the Church from all of the membership for so many years).  What would they have to say about questions?  In our recent General Conference of the Church, Elder Jeffrey Holland offered a clear answer – functioning as a de facto “Proclamation on Doubt and Questions in the Church.”  Check it out when you have a chance (click here to view).  You won’t regret it.

Mormons believe in a God who loves questions.  I will never get tired of saying that.   And yet, I frequently get accused of being a “different kind of Mormon” – with my particular interests and ideas…unlike “those others.”  Is that true?  Or could I simply be a good representative of a community with a radically inclusive, exciting theology?   I’d love to hear others’ thoughts…and questions – on the subject!