August 17, 2009

Introduction to "Consecrate Your Brain"

Consecrate Your Brain, Introduction
A seven-part series with Greg Smith.
See also parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

One of the aspects of FAIR conferences I like most is the willingness of some presenters to talk about the implications of their own research in more intimate terms. In a more strict academic setting it can be inappropriate to delve into personal details and feelings. At FAIR, presenters have been known to discuss testimony, struggles, and research methods quite openly.1

Along those lines, a highlight of the 2009 FAIR conference was Greg Smith's discussion of plural marriage.2 The final section of Smith's presentation included his personal story of study and faith. "I did not set out to be the person people ask about plural marriage," he said. Nevertheless, he has become somewhat of an expert on the practice, though it wasn't always so.

Smith grew up knowing abut the practice but when he began a more in-depth study he encountered Richard Van Wagoner's Mormon Polygamy: A History. After only a few pages the "womanizing claims" caused him to pause because he hadn't "done the legwork" needed to responsibly engage the information. He felt Van Wagoner had dumped some information in his lap he wasn't fully prepared for.

Latter-day Saints who struggle with difficult historical information regarding the Church may be interested in his reaction and approach. Whereas some are content to rely on the research of others, Smith knew in order to fully understand the issue that troubled him he must dive in to the historical record himself. At the outset he said he knew three things:
1. I knew that I didn't know enough to answer the questions that this was going to bring up.

2. I knew that finding the answers, if there were any, was going to take a lot of time and a lot of work.

3. I knew that I might not be intellectually or spiritually up to the challenge of finding those answers or recognizing the answers or being satisfied with the answers. And I knew that answers might not exist.
So, while he believed the best way to handle the issue was by a full investigation, he also knew he couldn't put his spiritual life "on hold" in the meantime. Smith decided to pray about the problem, expecting to have a long and repeated wrestle with God: "[M]y spiritual life did not have four or five years, which is how long I've been doing this now, to sit in the church archives," Smith explained. He needed to know up front if a full investigation was right. Instead of a repeated wrestle on that question he came away knowing he could investigate plural marriage completely and come away with faith in God intact.

Smith has since spent several years studying the subject and in retrospect he explained:
And for me, ultimately, the question (I see now) had nothing to do with plural marriage at all. Plural marriage was only the catalyst for a much more fundamental question and that question was, "Do I trust Father?" And I see now, by the grace of God, that my instinctive reaction was to do that, to express my trust and, amazingly, to mean it. I did not realize it at the time, but what I effectively chose to do, if I can put it crudely, is I chose to "consecrate my brain." 

I value my brain—we all do—nobody likes to be thought foolish or naive or ill-informed or duped or cognitively dissonant or any of the other labels people can put upon us. I'm a doctor, I'm regarded as a reasonably smart person, I love science, I love evidence, I'm a skeptic, I'm a rationalist. I say all this about myself—I am all those things, that's part of how I conceive of myself.

I could have gone before God and I could have demanded answers, I could've told him I want the evidence and I want it now, I want closure. I could've issued him ultimatums. I could've told him that if this didn't work out, I was quitting. But, I chose instead, to consecrate my brain. I was willing to sacrifice my self-image, my years of learning, my intellectual effort and my social respectability on the internet (which I'm sure is crashing as I speak!) because I trusted Father.
I wanted to know more about the implications of "consecrating one's brain," so I contacted Smith and he accepted the invitation to participate in this short blog series.

In the next few posts we will talk about academics, research, apologetics, faith, cognitive dissonance, whitewashing, and other related issues. If you have a question along these lines, leave a comment to this post and we'll see about bringing it up. My purpose isn't to talk about plural marriage, but about how difficult issues in general are dealt with in a faithful and an academic context.

Smith received a degree in medical school after also studying physiology and English at the University of Alberta. He completed his medical residency in Montréal, Québec before becoming an "old-style country doctor" in rural Alberta with interests in internal medicine and psychiatry. Due to his research interest in plural marriage he has spoken to the Miller-Eccles study group and published articles in the FARMS Review.3 He also volunteers for FAIR and has written many FAIRwiki pieces.



FOOTNOTES

[1]
Some academically-minded members of the Church seem more reluctant to share expressions of faith and desire to "stick to the facts" so to speak. On the other hand, some LDS scholars have discussed more personal aspects of their research, including Richard Bushman (On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author's Diary), Ronald W. Walker (“Joseph Smith, The Palmyra Seer"), Eugene England ("Enduring"), Leonard Arrington (Adventures of a Church Historian), Davis Bitton ("I Don't Have a Testimony of the History of the Church"), and Richard D. Poll (History & Faith: Reflections of a Mormon Historian).   

[2]
See Greg Smith, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage (but were afraid to ask)," Presented at the eleventh annual FAIR Conference, 7 August 2009. Smith's quotes in this post are from the transcript of Smith's presentation here.

[3]
See Gregory L. Smith, "'Days of Miracle and Wonder': The Faith of Sam Harris and the End of Religion," FARMS Review 20:1 and "George D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy," FARMS Review 20:2. 

8 comments:

Kevin Barney said...

Greg's presentation was absolutely terrific. I look forward to the series.

Kent (MC) said...

This will be a good one. Thanks for your work here!

Sanford said...

Blair, it was nice to meet you, if only briefly, at Sunstone. I look forward to your discussion with Greg Smith and admire his efforts to understand Polygamy for himself.

Perhaps you could discuss the distinction between faith and knowledge. My bishop told our congregation the other day that there is no room for doubt in the Church and that we should not have any. This really had me scratching my head and since then I have been wondering if what my Bishop actually meant was that there is no room for faith in the church -- only knowledge. I lean toward this explanation because I tend to see faith and doubt as different sides of the same coin -- and if there is no room for doubt there is no room for faith. Perhaps Greg might have some thoughts about how his explorations have impacted his faith and or knowledge and what those notions mean to him.

BHodges said...

Thanks, Sanford, that's a topic we'll definitely discuss. In the meantime, I did two blog posts on doubt last year you might like.

See:
http://tinyurl.com/6y8k8o

and

http://tinyurl.com/5fj7e7

rameumptom said...

I look forward to this.

Just a few weeks before the FAIR Conference (which I could not attend), my wife was reading Rough Stone Rolling, and was visibly shocked about the marriages of Joseph to married women. We had some long talks on it, and it was not always easy. I too, had to go back to the concept of: no one in his right mind would have done these things. Joseph did difficult things demanded of God, and we are now responsible for dealing with the after effects and knowledge concerning it all.

I'm seeing that a discussion on this will be important, as there are various things that can shock the brain and system. But how do we consecrate the brain and heart in such a way that it can endure unexpected shocks?

Gerald Smith

BHodges said...

Gerald, I'll include your thoughts in the interview and see where we go.

Kevin Christensen said...

A particularly excellent post. Very thought-provoking and uplift.

Thanks.

Kevin Christensen

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