There’s a tendency in posts about Church for people to see them as either positive or negative. It’s very hard to be neutral in describing anything, even if that’s the goal. Part of the problem is the writer’s lack of neutrality. Part of it is the lack of neutrality in the audience.
If you say it’s raining, your audience may perceive your description of rain as being either pro-rain (if they hate rain) or anti-rain (if they love it). It may just objectively be raining. You may honestly feel neutral about rain. But the audience isn’t neutral, so your neutrality will code differently based on their own perception of rain.
But you might also be in one of these two camps, or leaning that way. Maybe rain gives you a headache, or you stepped in a puddle, or got splashed by a car. Maybe your windshield wipers need to be replaced, and now you’re irritated. Or on the other hand, maybe it’s been a heat wave, and the rain is a welcome relief, lowering the temperature and making everything vibrant again. Maybe you have a yard that’s been dying, and the rain will revive it. Maybe you live in a place where the water cisterns are only refilled and refreshed with rain. Maybe you love the smell of rain that reminds you of your childhood and happy memories. You might think you are neutral about rain, but in reality, it might stir feelings in you that are so familiar you ignore them.
Neutrality is very hard to achieve, even if we think we are being neutral. There are some tactics that you can use to appear neutral, such as:
- Both sidesism. You try to be more neutral on a topic by giving air time to both sides of an issue, even if you have a strong opinion or consider one side wrong or even dangerous on a specific issue. If you are quoting people, you can quote them from opposing or different perspectives.
- Passivity. You can use passive word choice to seem more impartial, like here’s a thing or a set of facts, but it’s not doing anything. You avoid explaining how this thing “acts” in the world, its impacts to people, or how it operates.
- Decontextualization. You can also decontextualize events so that they are seen without the weight of past actions or trends, or without the prediction of future outcomes which might show an event as positive or negative based on being part of events in a continuum.
I was recently listening to a podcast that was talking about the idea that technology can be neutral. There are those who believe that technology is neutral, but that the way people use it is what makes it not neutral, either beneficial or harmful to individuals or society or the environment, for instance. But there are others who claim that technology cannot be and never is neutral. Technology was created for a purpose, usually to solve a problem, and its very design will lead to a specific type of outcome.
A technology is not morally neutral. It embodies a set of values, a framework and an ideology. Technologies include intellectual technologies, such as cataloging and indexing, and software technologies, such as search engines, metasearchers and subject directories on the Internet. Search engines have intrinsic properties that make them inherently and irredeemably flawed,https://asistdl.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/meet.14504201162
because they attempt to infer intellectual properties, such as the meaningful content of a web site, from physical properties. Search engines rely primarily on query term location and query term frequency, sometimes boosted by other computable factors, such as link popularity.
For example, a gun is technology. It was created to make killing easier. You can say the gun is neutral, but what you really mean is it’s a passive object. The reasons it was made, and its design, both make it not neutral. It’s no good for chopping up vegetables. It’s not adept at transporting messages quickly from point A to point B. It’s not a great substitute for a babysitter. It’s good at projecting small hard objects through more porous surfaces.
For another example, consider the self-checkout lane at the grocery store. It wasn’t designed to improve human interactions with cashiers; it was designed to allow shoppers to check out without human intervention. It reduces staffing needs for the owners of the stores by deputizing shoppers to do the work the staff used to have to do. It also benefits shoppers by speeding up the checkout process by removing a human bottleneck. The potential downside is that it makes shoplifting easier or there might be a higher instance of mistakes made by untrained people in the checkout process, so other methods have been used to minimize those risks. There is usually a human there to assist the self-checkouts (reducing the staffing need from six cashiers to one is quite a feat!), and there may also be a technological cost by adding sensors at the exit to ensure products aren’t leaving that haven’t been paid for. If these are likely to fail, a random check of receipts by a human may also be implemented to prevent theft.
Neither guns nor self-checkout lanes are truly “neutral” technologies. Both were created to solve a problem in a specific context by a creator with an intent and a set of values. Both can be used in different ways depending on the interest of the person using the technology, but their uses are constrained by their design. You may love guns or hate them. (I have no use for them, personally.) You may love self-checkout lanes or hate them. (I love them!) But these technologies aren’t really neutral. If someone’s personal experience with them is negative or positive, your view of their opinion will depend on whether or not you feel the same. Even if the stakes are low, neutrality is nearly impossible.
Organizations, including Churches, are also not neutral. Like technology, they were created to solve a specific problem, based on a set of assumptions, by individuals with agendas, and in order to provide a certain range of experience. Evidence for this is that churches are not all the same, even if they are based on Christianity and share the same religious texts. They differ greatly in terms of how they are structured and how they understand divine and human nature, and the experience of the divine that they try to create for their adherents, in the tactics they employ to grow or retain membership, and in their measures of success. They are not created neutrally. They can be created based on values of universalism or elitism, personal revelation or authority, expertise or egalitarianism, a view than mankind is depraved or divine, flexibility or consistency, or any other set of values. A church can be designed to focus on meetings and group experiences or personal study and personal spiritual quests. It can be high church with rituals and ceremony or low church with donuts and jeans and rock music (or business church in our case). It can cater to the children or the elderly, to the women or the men, the business people or the blue collar workers, the house-spouse or the career-minded, the single or the married; it’s a rare church indeed that caters to all of these groups equally well. It’s designed to do one thing, or to do what it does in a specific way for a specific audience, and while it may be able to do other things, these are work-arounds.
As with using a gun to open a suitcase, technology can be used in ways that are different than intended. The best example I can think of is a family we met on my mission. They heard us teaching outside their window and asked us to come inside. They were very poor, and it seemed clear to us (and to the members) that their interest in baptism was really just because they wanted church welfare. The thing is, they could have had that anyway; baptism wasn’t required. A kind member who lived in the same town immediately bought them groceries for the week the day after we met them. But they were convinced that’s what they needed to do, and that’s what they did. Another “off-label” use for Church is affinity fraud. Members of close-knit communities are always vulnerable to having their trust exploited by those posing as insiders who will fleece them on the premise of being “one of us.” A recent Sunstone podcast included an excellent talk by Ryan Knight giving an overview of several affinity frauds that occurred in Utah, which is apparently a great place to commit this type of fraud.
- What values do you see at play in the way the Church was created? Have some of those changed over time?
- What does the Church’s design do best? Where does it fall short?
- Can you think of ways to use the Church (as a technology) that are unintended but work? Have you seen anyone do this?
- Have you listened to or read something that you considered completely lacking in neutrality? Was it upsetting?
- Have you checked your own lack of neutrality in listening to or reading something?
 I know two people who work in retail who attest that self-checkouts are rife with shoplifters. One, who works at Walmart, has heard customers justify their theft as “payment for doing the cashier’s job.” A friend who works at Target said that their policy is to never confront the thief due to claims of “profiling” that shoplifters often make, so people are just allowed to walk out with hundreds of dollars of merchandise. The stores must really be saving on staffing for this to still be worth it! For the record, I always use self-checkout, and I don’t steal, so maybe I’m the norm, and workers (who are probably anti-theft from a fairness perspective if nothing else) just notice the exceptions more than the norm.
One way to measure the Church’s values is to simply review the temple recommend questions. After all, the answers to this list of questions is what the Q15 have decided qualifies one to enter the sacred House of the Lord or not. The temple is the gateway to the highest levels of what others would refer to as sainthood but what we call exaltation. If you didn’t know anything about the Church, you might guess that this list of questions would reflect our basic Christianity. For example, we might be asked about our service, charity, love of fellow man, desire to be like Christ.
But what are we asked about in a temple recommend interview? We are asked questions that reflect a loyalty to leaders and a loyalty to the institution (COJCOLDS). I really find it quite amazing that they get away with this. Your willingness to abstain from coffee is more important than your efforts to love your fellow man? Your willingness to pay 10% of your salary to the Church is more important than your efforts to be charitable? Your willingness to sustain leaders of the corporation is more important than your efforts to strive for personal revelation from God?
We can argue that what the Church really values is Christ. Look at the name of the Church. Look at the logo. Look at General Conference talks. But if the entry ticket to the temple focusses on our diets, our money, and our loyalty, I opine that the Church values those things more.
Can we make arguments about the church from a position of neutrality? No. And I’ll explain. Now can we make arguments about the church from a position of objectivity? Yes. I believe in objectivity in history and the social sciences. I think that people who dismiss these subjects as all too bias-laden are acting cynically and do not fully understand nor have experienced much good history writing. For while bias is inherent in everyone, some people and narratives are simply more biased than others and others rely more heavily on evidence to make their cases. Narratives that have more evidence, take into consideration as many pieces of evidence as possible, and properly weight the evidence are more likely to be objective. Does that mean that their neutral? No. In fact, well-evidenced and well-crafted narratives may fly in the very face of traditional narratives and be so overwhelming against them that proponents of traditional narratives have to adjust the traditional narrative in order to maintain some semblance of coherence and validity in the eyes of their believers.
The traditional narratives of the church simply aren’t based in evidence and the apologists who try to defend these narratives on their merits resort to poor argumentative tactics that do not take into consideration all evidence nor do they properly weigh evidence. Furthermore the apologist narratives aren’t crafted in a way to convince a wider professional/academic audience outside the already believing. To seek all evidence about Mormon history and properly weigh that evidence out is by default to challenge the traditional narrative of the church thereby making it non-neutral, even though it is objective.
Look at it this way. Imagine the debate between flat-earthers and spherical-earthers. A neutral position tends to, by default, hold both sides in equal regard. In fact, a neutral position might entertain the idea of the earth possibly being oval-shaped. Neutrality is not what we want here. An objective would consider all the evidence in this “debate,” recognize the delusion of the flat-earthers, and use that overwhelming evidence of a spherical earth to steamroll over the flat-earth position.
We need objective thinkers in relation to Mormonism, not neutral thinkers. Now on many aspects of history we do have a good number of believers who are objective thinkers. Consider Richard Bushman. Extremely knowledgeable and informative about history. But unfortunately when it comes to controversial issues such as BOM historicity, he ceases to be objective and writes in By Common Consent that seerstones are the “technology of revelation.” We needed an objective viewpoint from a heavy hitter in the field of Mormon history when it came to seerstones. One who would consider the evidence or lack thereof of the power of seerstones. Not someone who cowers in the face of possible church discipline, social reprisal, and possibly damaging his reputation among the believing community for boldly stating the obvious: seerstones are an ineffective and unproven way for seeing what happened in the past and the idea that seerstones allow a window into history and reality is based on incorrect folklore.
But are you for or against neutrality?
>We can argue that what the Church really values is Christ. Look at the name of the Church. Look at the logo. Look at General Conference talks.
Look at the temple recommend questions. What are the first two?
Do you have faith in and a testimony of God, the Eternal Father; His Son, Jesus Christ; and the Holy Ghost?
Do you have a testimony of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and of His role as your Savior and Redeemer?
Rockwell: You win!
Mike S: Yes, those questions are there, but I think the real question is what the totality of the process points to. Anything that prevents a temple recommend from being issued is considered “core” or required, and there’s a whole lot more than just a belief in God or the atonement. But your point is accurate, that among many many other things, faith in Jesus is also a requirement. It does seem a little off to me, though, that it’s equally emphasized with faith in Joseph Smith and faith in current church leaders.
Mike S: I know you think you got me and you are technically correct. But think about those temple rec questions again. Is there anyone in the history of the Church who walked out of the interview without a recommend because they could not answer yes to the first two? Meanwhile, how many members can’t get on the Covenant Path due to coffee / tobacco/ money?
I agree that Christian service is one of the great hallmarks of Christianity. But what the recommend questions do is promote a basic code of conduct and belief; a starting point as we begin our ascent. And then we go from there and learn how to become more Christlike as we strive to live up to the covenants we make in the temple.
That being said, those who are striving to follow the Savior are not disposed to talk about their charitable service. And including questions in our worthiness interviews having to do with such service might be akin to sounding a trump before making an offering.
>Is there anyone in the history of the Church who walked out of the interview without a recommend because they could not answer yes to the first two? Meanwhile, how many members can’t get on the Covenant Path due to coffee / tobacco/ money?
Indeed, which should indicate that your point is ill-framed. Faith in Jesus Christ is so central to LDS identity that someone who wouldn’t answer yes to those questions wouldn’t even consider trying to get a temple recommend. Can you imagine a Bishop signing off on a person who answered that no they did not believe in God?
The only real difference between these 2 first questions and the ones that you highlighted is that there is a pretty objective answer to the questions do you drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, or pay your tithing. There are some pretty clear end points that a bishop could point to if a person says that they are struggling with one of those principles. Nor is it clear that temple participation would be helpful to one that struggles with one of these principles. This is pretty different from one’s faith in God and Jesus Christ. These naturally fall along a continuum and a large portion of them would be acceptable for temple participation perhaps starting with “I want to believe”. Further, there is good reason to believe that temple participation may help an individual who struggles with the principle of faith in God and Jesus.
In the way that what a gun is for is to kill (or wound), what the Church is for is to give men meaning in this life and exaltation in the next. And I do mean men. All of polygamy sets women up as nice ornaments for men to collect along the way, but their actual experience, their meaning and exaltation, are at best, an “off-label” use (I love your application of this term!).
Apologists for polygamy or patriarchy will make a big deal of the idea that a man must marry (at least) one woman to get to the celestial kingdom. But this doesn’t mean the process is set up with an equal eye to both of their experiences. (See Kiskilili’s classic pithy post “The Ticket Fallacy”: https://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2012/02/28/the-ticket-fallacy/.)
Consider that we men actually get a model for what the afterlife will look like for us. All the people we know about in the afterlife are men. Women are reassured that of course it will be lovely for them too, but all the rhetoric about eternal increase and whatnot gives them real reasons to fear that men are hoping to use them as eternal breeding machines. And when women actually try to work out what the afterlife might be like for them, by say discussing Heavenly Mother more, they get Elder Renlund telling them to kindly shut up. And when they worry about what polygamy means for the afterlife for them, they get President Oaks making fun of them in Conference.
Women may outnumber men in the Church, but the Church is for men. Women are an afterthought, if that.
“Is there anyone in the history of the Church who walked out of the interview without a recommend because they could not answer yes to the first two?”
Well actually, yes. A guy in my stake who no longer believes (and was quite open and clear in his non-belief) was being badgered so much by his irritating bishop about going for a temple recommend interview that he finally relinquished and showed up .The bishop had some misguided notion that the interview process would bring out a latent spark of faith or there would be some revelatory experience:
“Do you have faith in and a testimony of God, the Eternal Father; His Son, Jesus Christ; and the Holy Ghost?”
“Oh! Well….er….I guess there is not point proceeding with the rest of the interview”
And that, folks, was that 🙂
P.S. That bishop is now on the Stake Presidency. Sigh.
I’ll never forget a little something that my father-in-law told me. “I never judge a bishop,” he said. And the reason was: he was once a bishop himself and he knew what it was like to be misunderstood–even by the faithful. We rarely, if ever, know all that goes into the judgments and decisions that a bishop must make.
A year ago our small Utah town had to deal with a Bishop who was a pedophile. Does your father-in-law’s saying work in this case?
One of the creaking floorboards of my testimony as a missionary was discovering what the Christ of the New Testament seemed to emphasize vs. what the church seems to emphasize.
While I can understand peoples’ arguments that the church’s structure and codes (including temple questions) emphasize members’ belief in Christ- these kinds of arguments requires a Jesus that emphasizes institutional loyalty far over, and beyond what can be suggested was his emphasis from the 4 Gospels.
Similar arguments can also be made of the disconnect between the Jesus of the 4 gospels and and the ‘ John Wayne Jesus’ increasingly emphasized in contemporary Evangelical churches (and arguably even our own).
Are there possible, apologetic explanations for this? Certainly- but these usually seem to require many more skyhooks than the more secular explanations.
The structure of the church is hyper-centralized, and tends to reward or marginalize members/nonmembers according to their institutional loyalty or alignment. Things get tricky however when the positions of said institution rapidly change without any clear, or logical explanation as to why.
My Father was aggrieved many years ago when I relayed the basic arguments of the church’s Race and the Priesthood GT Essay at the dinner-table one evening. The essay’s suggestion that societal racism may have contributed to the church’s institutionalization of the temple- and ordinance ban was a dear affront to his trust own that the ‘Mantle’ was indeed ‘far greater than the Intellect’.
Marshall McLuhan once said that “the medium is the message” and I think the argument applies well to the church.
My apologies for the typos. I need to better prune the buds of any abandoned attempts at an argument and reread before posting.
Hopefully though the crux of my argument still gets through.
Of course that man needed to be routed out–and I hope he was caught before he did too much damage. But generally speaking, when a bishop is acting in the office of his calling (IMO) our inclination should be to give him the benefit of the doubt rather than to assume that his motives or competence are suspect. Even so, what interested me most about my father-in-law’s statement is that it came from someone who had been a bishop; someone who had an intimate understanding of the rigors and burdens of serving in that capacity.
“The structure of the church is hyper-centralized, and tends to reward or marginalize members/nonmembers according to their institutional loyalty or alignment.”
I served as primary pianist for seven wonderful years–the best calling in the church, mind you. Unfortunately I’m no longer able to serve in callings because of mental challenges. I live in my little cave–I rarely leave my house. But I love the church. The blessings that I have received by being a member of the Kingdom far surpass any reward that might come from serving in high” positions or what-have-you. Members are endowed with the spirit of revelation–and those who find their way to the temple receive even greater gifts. The blessings that the Kingdom offers to its members are supernal–and it doesn’t matter if one is a stake president or the ward librarian. The Lord will reveal himself to all who will seek him in faith.
Jack, “Of course that man needed to be routed out–and I hope he was caught before he did too much damage. But generally speaking, when a bishop is acting in the office of his calling (IMO) our inclination should be to give him the benefit of the doubt rather than to assume that his motives or competence are suspect.”
You see the problem, don’t you? You cannot rout out a predator if you always give them the benefit of the doubt.
Jack, off topic but you have mentioned several times the mental challenges you are dealing with. I am sorry you are experiencing this. I hope you are receiving help from a qualified clinician as you deal with this; new treatments are continually developing (including many that do not require medication). At any rate I wish you the best and apologize for straying off topic.
I appreciate your idea of giving leaders the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, if I were serving as a leader I would hope others would come to me with their concerns and let me know when I have made a mistake or error of judgement. I would want to be competent even if it meant some painful conversations and self-reflection. Some leaders welcome that, but unfortunately many do not and the damage that can result can be profound. Members can be left without recourse unlike the experience in other institutions. We can do better.
Kirkstall: “You cannot rout out a predator if you always give them the benefit of the doubt.”
I agree. But on the other hand, that shouldn’t mean we can *never* give a bishop the benefit of the doubt because of the tiniest possibility that he might be a predator. Bishops are typically not predators and predators are typically not bishops. They fit easily in separate categories–though, lamentably, those categories do overlap on rare occasions.
Thanks, Mati. You’re very kind. And yes–I work regularly with professionals. The trick is to learn how to manage mental illness–not to overcome it. Some few may have gotten passed it somehow. But I’m pretty sure I won’t–perhaps not until the resurrection.
I agree with much of what you say in your second paragraph. I think leaders should be willing to accept the counsel of the “Jethros” in their circle of influence–and I think most of them possess enough humility to do so. On the other hand, we should be willing to accept the counsel of our leaders even when it may seem a little counterintuitive–or at least give it the benefit of the doubt for a time.
I’ll tell you a little story: I was once called into the bishop’s office–he said he’d been wanting to talk to me. He straight-up asked me if I had another woman in my life. Whoa! That came out of nowhere. Now I knew this was a good man–I loved him. So instead of resisting him I started to search my soul but I couldn’t come up with anything beyond the ordinary temptations that most men experience–temptations that most men who are trying to live the gospel work against.
It wasn’t until later that I realized that something very profound occurred in that little interview. Because of my challenges with mental illness I can have great difficulties with certain psychological dependencies. And at that time I was struggling with the notion that I had gone off the rails (in terms of destiny) because I didn’t marry the woman I thought I was supposed to marry back in the mid-eighties–and just to be clear I adore my wife of nearly 35 years. This obsession with failure kept nagging at me until it would become almost unbearable at times. And what was worse, I feared that some of that nagging might’ve had to do with unresolved feelings that I still had for her. I hated it.
Well what happened was–I realized that I didn’t have one thought about her when I was searching my soul there in the bishop’s office. That whole drama that was plaguing me never entered my heart.
And so you see, at first glance it may seem like the bishop was out of bounds–but it was really the perfect “medicine” for me at that time. It was the Lord’s way of telling me that I was *not* being unfaithful to my wife (in my heart). And that it was indeed a wild strain of OCD that was pounding at my mental door. And if that weren’t enough–at the end of the interview the bishop said, “you just need to be you.” I don’t think he knew how much that little statement meant to me–someone who had been struggling against such a powerful compulsion that it almost took on an identity of its own.
So there you have it–a good reason (albeit personal) why I try to give bishops the benefit of the doubt.
While I appreciate that you are relaying a sincere expression of your faith- the points you bring up don’t nec. counter my above argument, as you’re missing the orthodoxy-heterodoxy element and I’ve no clue what kind of leadership positions you’ve served throughout your life.
Furthermore, the authority-status of high-low profile callings aren’t the only way in which members are rewarded or marginalized according to their alignment with the church’s policies and positions. Just look at the lack of job security for BYU faculty and how easy it is to lose that security if one even *expresses* doubt to their bishopric.
Is it Pride-attending, and vocally 2SLGBTQ+ rights-supporting members that tend to go up the chain of priesthood and auxiliary offices? Temple presidencies? The corporate management of church assets? Are any critical feminists, ardently striving for greater equality within church institutions, given positions of authority or trust?
Do congregations have relative agency on whom they ordain/baptize, what they teach, how they allot or give church funding? Do local congregations own their own buildings and resources or are these managed according the Corporation of the church’s current president?
Are church policies and appointments formulated, agreed upon, and changed- in a transparent, and fair process so as to reflect the importance of personal revelation and common consent?
Centralization gives the church leadership so much of the power the church has over its members – and that has pros and cons, the latter of which is esp. apparent to those of us (made to be) on the outside.
I served in some auxiliary leadership positions–many years ago.
I guess what I was trying to say (in my previous comment) is–why worry about all of that “political” stuff when we can get right down to the business of making our individual (and collective) ascent? The beauty of the church is that it endows the faithful with everything they need to get themselves (and their fellow travelers) on the high road to eternal life. That’s the business that we should be most concerned about as members of the Kingdom–IMO.
Having said that, I understand that there are real concerns in the examples you mention above. Even so, I think we can sometimes get overly distracted by the more immediate concerns–so much so that we fail to see the sacred path that is emerging beneath our feet.
Just a quick note to point out that this whole rabbit hole has had basically nothing to do with the original post.