Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Useful Fiction

(Artist: Maxime Le Conte des Floris)

Fictionalism is the philosophical notion that a statement could be fiction, considered fiction, treated as fiction, yet still serve a useful purpose. In Grover Maxwell’s The Ontological Status of Theoretical Entities, he tells the parable of the “crobes” to illustrate the tangible effects fictionalism has on reality.

In a time not too long ago, but before the invention of microscopes, there was a Pasteur-like scientist who was concerned with a rampant disease that was killing large portions of the population. The Pasteur-like scientist speculated that the mechanism for transmission of the disease were tiny bugs he called “crobes” that could not be seen by the human eye. The concept of viruses and bacteria were well beyond the scope of human knowledge at this point. However, the Pasteur-like scientist thought there was an obvious, observable mechanism of transmission, even though he also simultaneously postulated that these “crobes” were, in fact, unobservable to the naked eye. He postulated that most, if not all, infectious disease was transmitted by “crobes.” The Pasteur-like scientist created preventative measures and convinced others to adopt them, as well. He encouraged people to not be in close contact with the diseased person, and practice disinfecting contaminated articles through high temperatures or cleaning them with toxic preparations he called “disinfectants.” Within ten years of implementing these measures in the community, the death rate declined by 40 percent.

The interesting part of the parable is that the “crobes” were a fictionalism. Though the “crobes” didn’t actually exist, they served a useful purpose in preventative medicine. Philosophers and scientists of the day expressed anxiety over the contradiction of the Pasteur-like scientist’s “crobes.” Scientific realism is built upon the observations of the physical world, but the “crobes” were in fact unobservable. The “crobes” were not scientific, yet it cannot be denied that the fiction of the “crobes” yielded tangible results.

Philosophers that consider the “crobes” to be an instrument for organizing observable scientific inquiry, are called instrumentalists. When fictional instruments collide with reality it may be the case that a certain amount of time later, with better technology, we are able to see why certain fictions served a purpose. With major technological advancements in medicine, we have been able to better understand disease, viruses, infections, and bacteria. We haven’t found any “crobes,” but that doesn’t mean “crobes” weren’t an important instrument in public health and scientific discovery.

I have often wondered what kind of “crobes” are being used today in the scope of religion. Could religion, as currently practiced, be a useful fiction that leads to greater understanding? Could priesthood power, baptisms, and temple sealings, be instruments in the understanding and harnessing of the power of our human potential? Even if they are fiction, that doesn’t mean they can’t yield tangible results? Furthermore, if these fictional instruments yield tangible results, were they true all along? Could the effects of religious ritual on human bodies be observed, measured, understood, calculated, and controlled through a better understanding of science and the use of better technologies? If so, what is the best way to engage in fictionalism if it yields results? For example, by rejecting specific children from baptism, or excluding portions of the population from full priesthood participation, we are misusing the power of fictionalism and instrumentalism. There is tangible power in fictionalism, we should engage wisely.

The ultimate goal of Mormon theology is to become Creators ourselves, by progressing eternally with our sealed, loved ones in a community of celestial glory. What a beautiful piece of fictionalism. Sure, there are details, practices, and policies that depict less utopian versions of this trajectory, but there is plenty of room for a more inclusive and robust interpretation of scripture. Sure, there are less inspiring, passive, irresponsible, or superstitious ideas of how these events are to come to pass, but there are also others that take a more practical approach to religion, faith, and ritual.  Sure, the fictionalism of Mormon transcendence may seem like sci-fi fantasy, but what if we actually worked toward these ends with an immersive and robust participation of religion? What if we actually believed faith without works is dead enough to drop the death rate by 40 percent? Does it sound like fiction? It should. But the really crazy part is, I actually believe it.

*Published at Rational Faiths on Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Monday, October 2, 2017

Dear Elder Oaks

(Artist: Brooke Cagle)

Dear Elder Oaks,

You don’t know me. We’ve never met, but I’ve listened to you speak from the pulpit since I was a child. You’ll likely never read this, but I feel compelled to express myself anyway. You see, something sad happened a couple months ago.

I was in the car with my husband, Drew, when he reluctantly handed me a manila envelope. He had it in his possession for a few days and wrestled with whether or not to give it to me. He knew what was inside and I know his intentions to withhold the contents were coming from a place of love and paternalism. Even so, he eventually gave me the envelope.

I opened the envelope and pulled out the contents that were carefully enclosed by a family member from another state. The top page was a brief letter expressing their disapproval of my queerness and orthopraxy of Mormonism. They said they have “a better understanding of [my] viewpoints” after reading one of your Ensign articles on homosexuality. It baffled me how a person could think they understand me better by reading your words, as if you had some hidden insight into how I experience queerness and Mormonism. It hurt that they gave you authority over my experience. They can’t end a letter with “we have great love for you” and expect those words to have any significant meaning when an expression of their “great love” feels like a dagger to the chest. If that’s love, I don’t want it. I cannot believe that is what an expression of “great love” should feel like. I recalled the times I spent with them as a child, and wondered if this could really be happening.

I was crying by the time I finished reading the letter. I wanted nothing more than to run to the mountains to be alone. Anymore “expressions of love” would surely be the death of me. Unfortunately, the safety of solitude would have to wait.

Nothing prepared me for what came next. I removed the letter from the top on the stack and there was a printed copy of your October 1995 Ensign article, “Same-Gender Attraction.” I looked at my husband and broke down in uncontrollable sobs. This was not the first time I was sent a copy of your talk. Over a decade ago, my husband—and best friend—gave this talk to me with a note expressing the necessity for me to gain a testimony of the prophets’ counsel concerning matters of homosexuality. This talk kept finding its way back to me. I remembered when my husband asked me to read “Born that Way? A True Story of Overcoming Same-Sex Attraction,” which, sadly is still being sold at Deseret Book. I remembered the arguments we had over Prop 8, but mostly, I recalled the pain. It was clear, even a decade later, that the people I loved were still giving authority to your words—that somehow what you were saying about my experiences as a queer woman were more valid than my actual experience. Somehow it was unquestionably understood to them that your perceptions of God’s will were more valid than mine. It’s as if their belief in you somehow absolves them of accountability for their actions.

Thankfully, my husband feels differently now, which gives me hope that someday my other family members might feel differently in the future, but in that moment all I could feel was the overwhelming pain of having to legitimize my existence to my family for the last 15 years.

There was no distinction between the sadness, pain, grief, sorrow, and anger. The passions came rushing to the surface without consent. My face grew hot as I screamed my frustrations at my husband. I yelled, “I wish Elder Oaks would just die already, so he would stop spreading these false, hurtful messages!” I rationalized that “It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” Drew kindly gave me the space I needed to express myself. I’m not proud of what I said. Unfortunately, a patriarchal gerontocracy makes death a gateway to progress by way of structural deficiencies, which is a truly horrid thought.

Whether people want to recognize it or not, LDS policies on marriage have changed, including polygamy and interracial marriage. Lest we forget interracial marriage in the United States has only been fully legal since 1967. About a decade later in 1978, black men were ordained to the LDS priesthood, and black men and women were allowed to enter the temple. Until that point an interracial couple was denied the blessings of an eternal temple sealing. In the U.S., gay marriage became legal a little over two years ago. I wonder if it will take a decade for the LDS Church to adapt policies again? How many more people must die before we overcome these senseless oppressions?

While listening to your most recent talk, I can’t help but question if you know what you’re doing? Are you aware of the rifts you are provoking? Do you know the harm you are causing? I want to believe that you love the members of this Church, but I don’t hear or feel love from you. When you paint a picture of heaven, salvation, and exaltation that doesn’t include the people we love, your heaven starts to look like hell. Too many of my queer siblings have given credence to your depictions of heaven to the point where they feel like death is the only way out. I wish they would take upon them the empowerment of personal revelation. I wish they believed “we ought to obey God rather than men,” and realize that the men who lead this organization are, indeed, men. I wish they believed Joseph Smith when he said, “a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such.” I wish they could see the radical beauty of Mormon theology, eternal progression, and life beyond the oppressions of patriarchy.

Aren’t you tired of this yet? I am.

With all the horrors in the world—with all the pain, injustice, suffering, sin, and death, why do you still choose to give talks that unnecessarily divide families? We have members all over the world struggling with poverty, war, and disease, and you choose to speak about same-sex marriage? What a waste of time and resources.

Like I said, I don’t know you. You don’t know me. We’ve never met, and likely never will. However, if you do read this, I want you to know that I disagree with your interpretation of doctrine concerning eternal families and gender. I disagree with this distribution of resources. I disagree with the message you are attempting to justify in the name of God. Mormonism is bigger than you or me. Mormonism is more than its policies on marriage. Mormonism is the radical idea that the love and life of the body of Christ will lead us to godhood in an ongoing process of eternal progression. I believe in Mormonism, and I’m not going to sit by idly and let this issue separate me from my family and faith.

I also want you to know I would like to reconcile these differences. My door is open to you, it’s a standing offer. You are welcome into my home to break bread. From one Mormon to another, atonement means that nothing is beyond reconciliation, and I believe in the power of atonement. Mormonism is more than its worst moments. Just as you are more than your worst moments, I am more than my worst moments. I still believe in forgiveness. Come, break bread with me. I’ll have a fresh loaf waiting.

Sincerely, a Queer Mormon Sister

*Published at Rational Faiths on Monday, October 2, 2017