August 28, 2009

Plural Marriage: Why Are We Still Talking About It?

"Consecrate Your Brain," part 4
Continuing series with Greg Smith.
See also the Introduction, and parts 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7.   

In a recent address to BYU graduates Elder M. Russell Ballard encouraged Church members not to allow the subject of plural marriage to dominate conversations about the Church. He stated:
Our Church members have too often allowed others to set the conversational agenda. An example is polygamy. This ended in the Church as an official practice in 1890. It’s now 2009. Why are we still talking about it? It was a practice. It ended. We moved on. If people ask you about polygamy, just acknowledge it was once a practice but not now, and that people shouldn’t confuse any polygamists with our Church. In ordinary conversations, don’t waste time trying to justify the practice of polygamy during the Old Testament times or speculating as to why it was practiced for a time in the 19th century. Those may be legitimate topics for historians and scholars, but I think we simply reinforce the stereotypes when we make it a primary topic of conversations about the Church.1 
Plural marriage is not only a concern members have difficulty explaining to others, but one some have difficulty understanding in their own lives and faith as you discussed in your recent FAIR presentation. You described your feeling that
...even the idea of plural deeply hurtful for some people, especially women. And it's more, I'm convinced, than just some kind of social or cultural revulsion. I think sometimes it's speaks to the things that we have experienced in our lives. It brings up memories of the abusive power or of men who mistreated us or sexual abuse or inconsiderate spouses or a host of other things. And it also is easily made to seem a textbook example of the abuse of religion for power—the preacher who wants sex with you and your daughter in exchange for salvation. And I sympathize with all those reactions because I know something of them.2 
While discussing Elder Ballard's recent address, one sister responded to his question about why plural marriage would still be discussed today by explaining her own concern:
It will be talked about because most members seem to believe that it isn't over at all. If everyone really thought it was just a past practice it wouldn't be of much interest beyond a historical quirk. I think women just choose not to think about it because it doesn't make eternity too appealing. It is kind of like telling members they will be slaves in heaven "but don't worry about will be owned by someone who will treat you just fine and you will actually love losing your freedom."3
LifeOnGoldPlates: Greg, can you address this concern? 

Greg Smith:  That sister's concern is a good description of what I think the problem is. On the other hand, being male, perhaps anything I have to offer will somehow miss the point. I'll share a few random thoughts on it.  

I simply can't conceive of God requiring or asking us to do anything in the hereafter that would make us the least little bit uncomfortable.4 The slave analogy is actually a good one—like it or not, the New Testament frequently refers to us as the Lord's or Jesus' slaves.  Despite the KJV translation, we are not "servants"—we're not free labor that has opted to take a given employment for wages, with a union, or whatever. The Greek word is doulous, which is "slave."5  So, the New Testament is full of this sort of thing, in which God will say "Well done, thou good and faithful slave, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord."  So, in a sense, we are told exactly this—we will be (and should already be) someone's slave, but they treat us better than fine and we actually do love losing our freedom: for it is only in losing it that we find it, is the idea.6 A nice example of the Christian paradoxes at work—you make yourself a slave, only to become a king and priest and so forth.

Now, of course, this strikes us as dramatically silly on one level—but, it should illustrate an important point.  We are God's slaves ("unworthy servants," as King Benjamin insists at length)7 but the human concept of "slave" really only goes so far in describing what the relationship is really like—and, the kind of slavery we think of as associated with southern plantation life in the 19th century also further misleads us from the kinds of relationships in the ancient near east that "slave" should call to mind. We're also people who offer ourselves as slaves as in the parable of the prodigal son, and it turns out we're welcome back as sons and daughters of the household, heirs to everything.8 While the status as slaves may be very real, to draw a direct mortal analogy is to miss the point fantastically.

LoGP: So we are still stuck with some “cold comfort” on this one, where there remains a certain ambiguity on the subject, though Church leaders have specifically stated plural marriage itself is not a requirement for exaltation.9 But how does this apply to the general concept of “eternal marriage?”

GS:  Quite simply, we don't have the vocabulary or experience to really conceive of what's being talked about here.  This is all symbols and rough approximations.  "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him" (1 Cor 2:9).  We couldn't imagine it if we tried.  However good you think it could be, you haven't scratched the surface.  And, however inferior you conceive of yourself before God and Christ, you haven't appreciated the degree of separation—but, slave to king is as good as we can do.

So, when we talk about "eternal marriage," and "eternal families," I think we're getting a very rough, hazy out-line of what's involved.  Its sometimes as if we think "married life" in the eternities will be pretty much like it is here, except with fewer quarrels and no bills to pay.  And, that's useful, because we can't live on rarefied, inconceivable ideas—so "families can be together forever" is the closest we can get—but, let's not fool ourselves, whatever we feel about our families and those promises, they are pale, hollow outlines of the glorious reality of the promises.  We can't even begin to conceive of what's involved, and what those relationships will be like.  The closest we can come, and the ones that teach us what we need to enjoy it, are husband/wife and parent/child.  So we focus on that, but its all "through a glass, darkly."

To conclude the argument, its difficult to conceive of any arrangement on earth in which our freedom and liberty was constrained by slavery that we would enjoy—better to be poor and free, we might well think, than pampered slaves. 

Yet, clearly there's nothing more wonderful than to be God's "slave," because that's merely a poor symbol for a reality too glorious to contemplate. 

Likewise, then, it may well be impossible to picture a plural marriage scenario that would meet our ideals or comforts on earth—but I suspect that says at least as little (if not less) about what any post-mortal "plural sealing" would involve as my current status as slave of the Most High God.  (And, we're described as "married" to Christ10—obviously, there are some things that obtain in mortal marriage that have nothing at all to do literally with our  relationship to Jesus—but, "marriage" is as close a symbol as you can get, and it does double duty because it can teach you both what marriage ought to be, and what the relationship with Jesus ought to be.)

Comments for this post are especially welcome, including any questions about plural marriage. Further, if you don't find the arguments compelling, feel free to let Greg know why, or propose an alternative answer, or ask for further clarification.

M. Russell Ballard, "Engaging Without Being Defensive," (Speech given at the Brigham Young University graduation ceremony on 13 August 2009, Image adapted from Giulio Casserio (anatomist, ca. 1552-1616) and Odoardo Fialetti (artist), "Tabulae Anatomicae," Venice, 1627. Copperplate engraving. National Library of Medicine,

Greg L. 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, transcript at

Anonymous email to author 17 August 2009.

This is similar to an argument I have made in the past and I realize it may be far from satisfactory for many people. In the eternities we have been promised happiness. We also know our vision here is limited, we see "through a glass darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12). If plural marriage were to be a hell for someone in the eternities, it would not seem to be something expected to be present in the place deemed to be happiest. Either it will not be required at that point, or something will occur to shift our understanding so as to make us realize there is happiness in it. Because my answer is similar to Greg's it is difficult to challenge him in order to draw out a more nuanced explanation. If readers of this post have counter questions, or wish to explain why they feel this approach is inadequate, please leave a comment and it can be passed along to Greg for further discussion.

See Strong's entries for "doulos" at "Dictionary and Word Search for 'servant* G1401' in the KJV," Blue Letter Bible, 1996-2009 25 Aug 2009. (The related verb "doulow" is here.)

See Matthew 10:39: "He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it" (cf. Matthew 16:25).

For instance, see Mosiah 2:23-34.

See Luke 15:18-24.

See the FAIRwiki article "Polygamy a requirement for exaltation?" here. Parenthetically, I think an explicit pronouncement in a current General Conference to reiterate this point would be welcome.

"For thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth shall he be called," (Isaiah 54:5). See also Hosea 2:19-2; Revelation 19:7, etc.

August 26, 2009

Alma 32 and the Relationship of Doubt and Faith

"Consecrate Your Brain," part 3
Continuing series with Greg Smith.
See also the Introduction, and parts 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

LifeOnGoldPlates: Continuing from part 2, it has been said that where there is faith there cannot be doubt. Others argue that there cannot be faith without doubt. What are your views on the interaction of doubt and faith?

Greg Smith: I think Alma 32 is the best description of the dynamic. In that chapter Alma talks about planting the seed, and clearly, that is an act of faith (or trust—I've been inclined to use "trust" as a near-synonym for "faith" because I think it captures an essential aspect, and avoids the difficulties of thinking "faith" just means "belief"—it's belief coupled to action, based on trust on a relationship with God/Christ). It's also clearly got some doubt or uncertainty with it, since Alma argues that you can start with only "desiring" to believe (v. 27).

So, the seed begins to swell and grow, and this increases faith, but is not "a perfect knowledge," according to Alma, so it seems to me there are still some grounds for doubt or uncertainty at this point (v. 29).

Then, says Alma:
And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good. And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand (v. 33-34, emphasis added).
So, when you're having the experience of revelation—the fruit of your faith—doubt is really not on the table. Faith is "dormant"—an interesting choice of words, since it implies the faith is not (at that moment) active, yet it will be required again. Indeed, Alma says:
...after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect? Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good (v. 35-36).
After revelation, one can go back to doubt. You could doubt the experience. You could decide not to trust. So, you can't lay faith aside (in other words, cease trusting, cease acting upon what you knew). So doubt again becomes a viable option—during revelation one cannot doubt. Afterward—well, you have a choice. And, you have to persist in that—as Alma says, you look forward to the fruit of the tree "looking forward with an eye of faith" (v. 40), this requires "great diligence" (v. 41), "patience" (v. 42), and "long-suffering" (v. 43).

And, think Alma is perceptive in that we often get the boost to our faith fairly early in the process—and then, we are left to see what we will do with it.

As an aside, this seems to be a scriptural pattern—Moses gets his great theophany, and then "was left unto himself" (Moses 1:9), only to have Satan show up and offer doubt. And, Moses then makes the active choice to trust in what he had before experienced, and rely upon it, even though at the moment he is having no such experience—indeed the experience with Satan becomes terrifying and horrible, yet Moses continues to trust. 

Image adapted from Jean-Galbert Salvage (anatomist; artist, 1770-1813), "Anatomie du gladiateur combattant, applicable aux beaux arts," Paris, 1812. Two-layer copperplate engraving, color. National Library of Medicine.

August 24, 2009

Knowledge, Expectations, and Reactions to Difficult Questions

"Consecrate Your Brain," part 2
Continuing series with Greg Smith.
See also the Introduction, and parts 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.  

LifeOnGoldPlates: Some members of the church have described feeling shocked at certain things they learn about Joseph Smith or other aspects of Church history, including polygamy. Others don't seem to care, and others aren't bothered at all. Why the variant reactions, and what would your advice be to individuals who struggle to reconcile the new information?

Greg Smith: I suppose there are a number of reasons why some people react more than others to something they hadn't expected. There are probably as many reasons as people, but some general reasons might include the following (in my experience):

1. The context in which the "false" or "incomplete" view of things was taught—if, for example, someone came from a home in which Joseph Smith was made out to be superhuman, or virtually without flaw, then discovering that this is not the case threatens a whole host of emotional past experiences. One doesn't have to just re-evaluate one's view of Joseph, but one's view of one's parents, one's upbringing, and perhaps an entire world view. This is, to say the least, frightening (or at least intimidating).1

2. Many of us crave certainty. If we can simply read what a Church leader says, and obey without question or thought or struggle over some of the messy complications of life, there is a certain comfort to that. Realizing that a Church leader is not perfect suddenly throws the responsibility back on our shoulders. And, people often over-react to that sort of discovery. If they find that a Church leader was fallible in their understanding of a certain (usually peripheral to the gospel) issue, they suddenly decide they can't be trusted about anything, ever. It's a sort of all-or-nothing thinking that in fact does not change, but simply swings between poles.

3. I think it matters where they hear the new information, and by whom. Many critics are very happy to lead their marks part of the way and then abandon them. Context matters, and it helps a great deal if they can see others model how a revised understanding is not just workable, but actually advantageous to the old view.

4. To some degree, I think experience and secular education matter—for good or ill. From what I have seen, the people most at risk are those who fancy themselves intellectuals or "smart," but who are at best only at the beginning of their intellectual development. These people tend to have an exaggerated idea of how much they know and an overconfidence in their own conclusions. To be truly wise, as Socrates noted, is to know that you know nothing (or relatively little, anyway!) With more experience, people can appreciate the fact that they (like everyone) have their biases, cognitive filters, and blind spots—its then easier to understand why history can be difficult to sort out and even the evidences we use are not pure "facts," but interpretations made by people on the scene, and then in the present day. One still sees this problem in some LDS historians who claim to be "objective" or "functionally objective"—an absurd claim that betrays a complete unawareness of their own fallibility and an over-confidence in their conclusions. As someone trained in the sciences, I'm always amazed at those in the humanities who assume a pose of far greater certainty than a scientist ever would, based on far more nuanced, incomplete, and biased data sets. If science is "forever tentative," then history and the social sciences even more so.

5. I think a huge blind spot is presentism—most people just aren't interested in history, of any sort. They have, at best, a very vague historical understanding of even the most basic things. History is a foreign country. Those of 1800 probably have more in common with those of 1300 in their overall worldview and experience than they do with people in 2000. And so, people tend to project modern experiences and expectations on the past—Lehi is no more than an LDS stake president who happens to be in the desert, rather than a pre-second temple Israelite.2 We try to liken scriptures "unto ourselves," but often miss the step of figuring out what the meaning of the scripture was to those who received it, so we can profitably extend the lesson to ourselves. Accustomed to a society and culture of rapid change, we have difficulty understanding how foreign Joseph's time was to ours.3

6. Reactions to difficulties also depend upon whether people have any "rock solid" things they are grounded on.4 Those with a firm personal witness of Jesus' divinity and the Book of Mormon's truth may be momentarily rocked, but they are rarely shaken. When I read people who have left the Church over these issues, I'm always surprised at how superficial their knowledge of scripture (especially the Book of Mormon) seems to be. (I've even noted that tendency in material written while they were still active, practicing members.) Sometimes a difficult historical fact is a "wake up call" when we have been in spiritual slumber, just coasting along. It suddenly brings the problem to the fore, but its not like the problem wasn't grumbling along beneath the surface—this just brings it to our attention, and demands action.5 Many such things can do that—illness of a loved one, divorce, financial reverse—sudden historical awareness is just a subset of a broader phenomenon. People sometimes like to adopt a more noble "brave thinker" pose when describing it.

7. People who expect (even if unconsciously) to be "spoon fed" seem to become more troubled. Some expect to learn everything they need to know about Church history in their D&C class in Sunday School once every 4 years. If people have a long practice in learning outside of an official Church context, they are simply less surprised and less troubled by new information because they expect to constantly be finding new information. If I read a book and don't learn things and have my expectations reversed, I consider it a wasted effort. The most profitable way I've found to read scripture is to constantly ask, "What deep-seated notion of mine should be challenged?" The scriptures generally offended those who heard them—so, I try to be a bit offended too. If the scriptures are always confirming and praising what we think and do, I suspect we are not reading them properly. For me, they are an on-going rebuke coupled with invitation.6

Richard Bushman discussed this problem in his Introductory paper to the 2008 Bushman seminar. See "Bushman's Introduction to 'Joseph Smith and His Critics' Seminar,", August 14, 2008. The image is adapted from Edwin Hartley Pratt (author) and Frederick Williams (artist), "The composite man as comprehended in fourteen anatomical impersonations. 2nd ed.," Chicago, 1901, National Library of Medicine,

On first and second temple Judaism and the Book of Mormon, see Stephen D. Ricks, "Adam's Fall in the Book of Mormon, Second Temple Judaism, and Early Christianity," Chapter 18, The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson (FARMS, 2000). See also Kevin Christensen, "The Deuteronomist De-Christianizing of the Old Testament," FARMS Review 16:2, pp. 59-90.

See 1 Nephi 19:23. See also BHodges, "Liken With Care,", August 29, 2008.

President Spencer W. Kimball spoke of "reservoirs of faith" to assist us during difficult times. See Spencer W. Kimball, “President Kimball Speaks Out on Planning Your Life,” Tambuli, Jun. 1982, 38; or Faith Precedes the Miracle, (Deseret Book, 1972), pp. 110–11.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell noted a similar idea at the October 2000 General Conference: "We can also allow for redemptive turbulence, individually and generally (see 2 Ne. 28:19). Hearts set so much upon the things of the world may have to be broken (see D&C 121:35). Preoccupied minds far from Him may be jolted by a 'heads up' (see Mosiah 5:13)," Neal A. Maxwell, “The Tugs and Pulls of the World,” Ensign, Nov 2000, 35–37.

A brilliant little book that calls for better study of the canon is James E. Faulconer, Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions (FARMS, 1999).