Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ideas Man and the Mormons: Act V scenes iv and v

N.B. earlier scenes are here and here. The prequel is here.

Act V scene v

On February 24, I received a letter informing me that I was no longer a member of the Mormon Church:

Dear Brother Ideas Man:

This letter is to notify you that, in accordance with your request, your are no longer a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Should you desire to become a member of the Church in the future, the local bishop or branch president in your area will be happy to help you.

It was brief and to the point and even struck a conciliatory tone, right?

Let's back up a bit.

Act V scene iv

It was only as I drove home from my colleague's house that I realized that the Mormons' coming over obviously wasn't just a random occurence. As dumb as it might seem, it didn't even occur to me at first. And it wasn't as though this was the first time they had dropped by (although it was the first time that they had dropped by in Toledo).

FLASHBACK

Going to college at BYU, Ideas Woman and I were required to go to church regularly, although we managed to do so far less than you'd think (every year BYU students have to get an "ecclesiastical endorsement" from their bishop stating that they are in good standing with the church, but there's good standing and then there's the perception of something close to good-enough standing. It was the latter that we managed to barely achieve...) We were also semi-involved with the church our first year out in Philadelphia --- and these two facts created an opening of sorts.

What I mean is this --- after we stopped going to church at all in Philadelphia, we were still technically in the local ward (equivalent to a parish or congregation) and in every ward, 2 men (well, usually one man and one teenage boy) are assigned to be "home teachers" for the whole family and 1 woman (I think maybe 2) is assigned to be a "visiting teacher" for the wife specifically. They are supposed to come over at least once a month, give some sort of "lesson" and help out with anything the family needs --- in practical terms this can mean just stopping by to visit occasionally if the people you are assigned to teach is an active, "functional" families, but for active needy families it can actually translate into a lot of assistance. And for inactive families, it amounts to a regular check-up.

Here's a quick chronology to help make sense of the next part of this post:

The Ideases lived:
In Philadelphia from 1998-2002 (and went from being "active" to "semi-active" to "inactive").
In Harrisburg from 2002-2005
back to Philadelphia from 2005-2008
and in Ohio from 2008-present.

So when we were in Philadelphia during that first chunk, I wasn't particularly surprised that we got harrassed by the home teacher (who was actually a nice enough guy --- an art history PhD student at Bryn Mawr --- the nice guy thing is of course a very important part of the job because it means that you don't have the heart to be rude to them and tell them to stop calling so instead you make lame excuses for why they can't ever come over....) But I thought when we moved to Harrisburg we were home free. Then, one day the missionaries and "our" home teacher just showed up. And to make matters worse, it was right during the middle of American Idol when they were about to unveil "The Worst Singer in the World" (Keith, for those of you who were watching all the way back in Season Two). This was before we had Tivo, so I was understandably irked and basically just shut the door in their face. This short interaction was enough for me to say "I don't want to talk to you guys" and for the hometeacher who seemed like a total douche (so that's what we'll call him) to respond with something like "if you don't want us to come by you'll need to have your name taken off the church's records."

About 10 minutes later I got a call from my mom who said "I was just talking with a guy named Brother Douche who said you slammed the door in his face." My mom lived about 3000 miles away but I still shouldn't have been surprised. Brother Douche had called her to figure out what my problem was (because he was concerned for the well being of my soul, not because he was a douche). My mom had patiently explained to him her situation to explain why I was so hostile to him. This little bit of narcissism on her part irked me somewhat but since I didn't feel that Brother Douche was owed any explanation a wrong explanation that would at least get him to leave me alone was hopefully good enough.

Still, though, that didn't answer the question as to how they had found us. And that answer requires yet another excursus (even though I'm starting to feel a little like Tristram Shandy).

The Church runs a "Member Locator Service" whose job it is to find people who have dropped off of the radar. They do this using essentially the same methodologies as debt collectors, relying on a mixture of public records and calls to friends and family (I should say that unlike the debt collectors they don't rely on outright deception --- they are mostly nice little old ladies who identify who they are and why they are calling --- Ideas Woman's grandmother had done this for many years before she passed away.)

I knew about this service but I didn't realize how efficient it was in keeping tabs on who had moved and relocating them. So once I realized we had been found out, the next question was "which of our family members had ratted us out?" Many of them have their own problems with the Mormons and those in our immediate family that are active members all (mostly) respect our decision and so my immediate thought was that it was probably my dad because even though he (mostly) respects my decision he is inordinately, even comically, naive. When I called him, he insisted it wasn't him. When, in the course of this narration, I mentioned the bit about "having to get my name removed from the church's records" he freaked out, though. He's a mild mannered person so I was a bit taken aback. I was especially surprised by his claim that our family couldn't handle going through something like that right now --- the thought of me removing my name from the church's records apparently being worse than my parents' near but nonetheless acrimonious divorce and our family house burning down, both of which and inter alia had occurred in the previous two years. All of this, of course, weighed heavily on me when I decided to take my name off the church's records last year.

But I digress. The point is that they had a way of keeping tabs on you. When we moved back to Philadelphia the Mormons of course found out and assigned a very nice husband and wife team with whom were on good terms to home teach/visiting teach us --- they were nice, open-minded folks and made sure never to mention that they were "home teaching" us so it wasn't such a big deal.

END OF FLASHBACK

So I had initially just assumed that we had been found out again. It took me fifteen or so minutes to realize that the timing, and the fact that they were asking for just me was too close to be co-incidental. Oh, well, I figured, they were probably scared enough and wouldn't want to come back.

But the next day I got a letter that made me realize that I was probably wrong and that my renunciation of the church hadn't necessarily taken.

[Sadly, I have apparently recycled this letter in the 6 month hiatus between receiving it and finding the time to write about it --- my good-faith reconstruction nonetheless follows.]

Dear Brother Ideas Man,

We have received your letter requesting to have your name removed from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, such requests need to be handled on the local level. Please contact your Bishop [whom we'll call Bishop Blank and whose contact info followed].

Please remember that what you are requesting is very serious and has grave eternal consequences. If you choose to go through with your request and later want to come back through the church, you will have to go through the process of baptism.

Sincerely,

Brother Josef K

In case it isn't amply clear yet, one of the main source's of Mormonism's strengths is its tremendous organizational power, so I knew that this sort of mistaken address could cause a real snafu (Although I had sent the address to precisely where I had wanted to send it. More on our competition to define my apostasy will follow). So I felt like I had basically given away our position without even accomplishing what I had meant to do. I would have to contact the bishop now, and that could potentially entail other problems, as I'll discuss below.

And it was accompanied by a lovely pamphlet. It had a picture of a statue of Jesus on the front. It opened with a generic apology: "If we have offended you, we are sorry." and ended with an invitation "the path to return is the same for all."

Let's stop and reflect on the message of the pamphlet and the letter. Once we are clear on what it means, we'll be in a much better position to understand the letter I quoted in scene v above.

First of all, I have no doubt that the apology is very sincere but it is very sincere in apologizing for one kind of offense, to which it reduces all other forms of offense. The generic apology serves to put my decision to leave (and presumably to become inactive 9 years earlier) in a certain context. It's the context of what I'd call, to echo something I said in scene iii, private offense. Because Mormonism is a religion that is both very hierarchical and primarily run by the laity it can often run into the problem where a local leader offends one of the people he (or in certain limited contexts she) is responsible for, and this is often the cause of people becoming inactive (one bishop I had growing up practically caused a ward schism over the fall-out from his attempts to interfere in his daughter's dating life...) The church hierarchy is aware of this, recognizes it as a problem and has a mechanism in place to deal with it. You might think of this like a company with very good customer service where bad applications of corporate policy by low or mid level employees is actually corrected by people at the top who are correctly applying corporate policy. But the people at the top cannot be causing offense because they are by definition correctly applying policy that is by definition good. (Notice how my letter to Church Headquarters was "referred" to the local leader who must really have been the person I meant to address...)

So when they say that they have offended you, they mean it in this context. It is part of a larger message to not let personal or private issues get in the way of your relationship with the Church (and therefore with God). And you cannot have public or political issues with the leaders of the Church because they are by definition right (if you don't like what they say, it's your job to re-interpret it --- and this is often easy enough to do because they are often both intentionally and unintentionally vague).

Now on to the next part: What kind of path is the same for all? Why, the path away from apostasy of course. Because, if the Church is truly sorry for your having taken offense, you should have the decency to be sorry for having taken offense. If you cannot recognize your role in your estrangement from the church then you will not be able to return to the fold. And if the path is the same for all who are estranged, the role is the same also. That role, of course, is the role of sinner. What other word would there be for someone who lets their private grievances get in the way of their eternal salvation?

In case you think that I'm reading too much into this, stop and reflect on the following procedural matters.

The reason why my letter needed to be referred back to the local leadership is that the local leadership is responsible for the membership records of its congregants. But the reason why it is responsible for them is because it has authority over those memberships.

Authority in the Mormon church is largely a matter of "priesthood" and priesthood, as I've made abundantly clear is largely a hierarchal thing (who is responsible for who and for what and to whom). The priesthood is divided into two parts: The Aaronic (or lesser) and the Melchezidek (or greater) priesthood. I have (or had until recently) both. The local leadership is also split along these two lines: the bishop is the local head of the Aaronic priesthood and the stake president (probably closer to what would be called a Bishop in the Catholic or Anglican traditions because he is responsible for a number of wards) is the local head of the Melchezidek priesthood. They are "local authorities" --- their authority extends only over people in their area --- whereas other authorities are "general authorities" --- it extends over everyone.

These distinctions become important when it comes to the matter of Church discipline because it determines who has jurisdiction over a church disciplinary court. These disciplinary matters, although regulated by the general authorities, are handled by local authorities, because they are in the best position to exercise sound judgment (since they know their flock.) By referring it to the bishop the central church organization was referring it back to its proper provenance within the church disciplinary system. It's just a procedural issue of course, where the letter goes. But procedural issues can tell you a lot.

In essence, what I was doing by writing my letter was admitting my sin of apostasy. I was acting as the star witness in my own excommuncation. I had thought that I was making a principled stand against what I regarded as a gross injustice, but I was wrong (my specific reasons for leaving of course went unaddressed since they were inessential to them). The proof that I was wrong was that this matter had to be referred back to the local bishop. Nonetheless, the church continued to support me by insisting that, should I want to return, the path is the same for all. It begins with repentance (mine) and ends with forgiveness (theirs). Their apology is not an act of repentance, but an assurance of their willingness to forgive me.

But perhaps I should have been happy that the letter had not reached its intended addressee. This would give me time to reflect on just how grossly I wanted to sin. Because the letter reminded me of this also. It reminded me that my decision would have eternal ramifications.

A List of Ramifications
Just what sort of ramifications would it have? Well, by removing my name from the Church's temporal records I was also removing my name from Heaven's eternal records --- the priesthood, after all, gives the authority for a priesthooder hold to bind and let loose things in Earth and Heaven. By removing my name, I would of course be losing my priesthoods and all the rights and responsibilites that had come with that. But of course, I had lost those anyway by not exercising my priesthood, and presumably I didn't care.

Well, what else had been written in that book of Heaven?

Here's a rough guess:

My blessing soon after I was born, where my father promised that I would be a great missionary and would convert many people who regarded themselves as enemies of God (I am named after a famous missionary in the book of Mormon). My parents place great stock in the stories from the scriptures, and all 9 of their children have names from the Bible or the Book of Mormon. When I was in utero, my mother had had a sense that this was the proper name for me, and Mormons (and my parents especially) place a great deal of faith in these premonitions (personal revelation, referring to their place in the general-local-personal hierarchy referred to above). Mormon babies are blessed somewhere between a month or two after they are born, usually by their father (as long as he is a Melchezidek priesthood holder in good standing), and by giving this name to me and conferring this blessing on me, he wrote it in the Book of Heaven (by having priesthood authority over our family, he was doing the work at the smallest local level).

I was told the meaning of my name so often, and had it drilled into me so much that it became part of my essence, at least while I was growing up. What enemies of God would I preach to? Because it was the 80s, godless communists came to mind. Would it be the U.S.S.R? China? But I hated rice (Mormon mothers use the threat of having to eat exotic foods on their mission to scare young boys into eating their food...) Boys are supposed to go on a mission when they turn 19 (girls can go when they are 21, as a consolation prize if they are not married --- if someone proposes to them while they are on their mission they can leave early with an "honorable discharge.") Because I had skipped a grade and was on the young side even before that, all my friends left quite a bit before I would have, and as I got closer to turning 19, the reality of the mission set in and I began to dread it. As I began to realize I didn't want to go, my name and the promise made to God through it, weighed heavily on me. I don't think it was just a symbol of parental expectation, although there was that too.

My baptism, when I was eight. Baptism is the central event in a young Mormon child's early life. "Junior Primary" (2 hours of Sunday School for children under 8) was organized around the expectation of baptism, summed up in the following couplet from a primary song: "I can't wait until I'm 8 because then I'll be baptized you see." I had forgotten just how important this was until recently, when Ideas Girl was holding the hands of one of my cousins who was explaining to her --- as the first piece of information you'd need to know that next year she'd turn 8 and would be baptized next year (I have lots of cousins, occupying close to a 40 year age span). Ideas Girl shrugged and filed that piece of information in the "words I need to figure out" part of her brain. Mormons don't believe in original sin prior to the age of 8 (they don't believe really believe in it at all, but that's another story) --- prior to 8 one is innocent, untemptable by the devil and with a free ticket to heaven should one meet an untimely end.

Two stories that illustrate just how palpable these realities were:

I remember being 5 or 6 and getting in a fight with one of my brothers. When parents asked why I punched him, I said that the devil made me do it. Can't be, my mother shot back, you're not eight yet.

I also remember being a little older and lying in the bath idly speculating (something I still like to do), wondering what it would be like to be baptized. I had been told that your sins would be washed away. I imagined words floating in the water, there for everyone to see and was horrified that they would know that I snuck candy and lied to my parents and fought with my brothers. And after that, unless I developed the fortitude to give those things up, I'd be responsible for these weighty sins. Wouldn't it just be better to end it? I still remember looking out the window and thinking, "if I jumped now, I'd go to heaven."

My father baptized me when I was eight and then:

My confirmation. Right after getting baptized I was confirmed, which means that I "received the Holy Ghost" (this is described as baptism by fire) --- The baptism and confirmation are the most public events in a young Mormon child's life --- there's a little program with talks and desserts and it's all about you. I had been taught so often that I would feel the Holy Ghost in my heart AND I ACTUALLY DID. Or I think I did. I felt something, and remember trying to puzzle out what it was, lying in a little nook created by a fake plastic tree near the baptismal font, away from everyone else after my baptism and confirmation. I brought this up with my parents when they asked me how I felt afterwards, and they brought it up with me several times throughout my life, like when I was 15 and said I didn't think I believed in God anymore. The confirmation was a public event, and therefore my feelings about it were public feelings, available for anyone to avail themselves of as needed.

My ordination to the Aaronic Priesthood. At the age of 12, the start of young Mormon boy's training to becoming a leader and a full-fledged part of the community. I passed the sacrament when I was 12 and 13 (a deacon), prepared it when I was 14-15 (a teacher), and sat in front of the congregation and blessed it when I was 16-17 (a priest).

My patriarchal blessing. I got this when I was around 17 or 18 (people get them anytime during their teenage years). It was given to me by our stake patriarch, who puts you in a tribe of Israel (I have no idea what their criterion was, but like most Anglo goyim I was part of the tribe of Ephraim) and gives you a series of personal responsibilities, promises and advice. I don't remember what mine were although I have a copy of it written down somewhere. At any rate, it's no longer written in the Book of Heaven.

My ordination to the Melchezidek Priesthood. This happens to most young men soon before they go on a mission. Since I didn't go on a mission, I was ordained soon before I went to the temple (all men who go to the temple have to be Melchezidek Priesthood holders), which I did in order to get married --- to be honest, I hardly remember it [you can see by the length of my descriptions how much less Mormonism was becoming to me --- but see below] since it was a minor part of the blur that was one of the most eventful years of my life, and including (most importantly)

My marriage in the temple. When someone is married and sealed in the temple, it is "for time and eternity." Mormon theology holds that righteous people will become gods in their own rights and have spiritual children that will people worlds like our own. Marriages in the temple form the kernel of that family and connects all the righteous families on earth into a massive dynasty, written in the Books of Heaven. We were really conflicted about getting married in the temple. There were lots of reasons for this. We both already had serious issues with the church, and we weren't precisely "temple-worthy," my mother and other people important to us couldn't come to the ceremony because she was excommunicated and only other temple holders could come. But our families (including my mother) really wanted us to and it was both of our life-long expectations. In fact, deciding to get married in the temple and going through all the ropes involved in that did end up marking both of our last rapprochements with the church (averred to in the synopsis of our lives above --- we moved to Philadelphia two months after we were married).

This also meant that we had to go to the temple for the first --- and as it happens, pretty much only --- time, where we were given the keys to go to heaven (consisting ritualistically of signs, words and one's secret, true name --- because I was going to marry her, I was able to give Ideas Woman hers, although I didn't get to pick it --- all men and women who go to the temple for the first time on the same day co-incidently have the same secret, true name).

My grandfather performed the ceremony. He was, until his health recently forced him to stop, a sealer in the Denver temple --- this is a calling given usually to retired, respected older men and although we were married in the Mount Timpanogas temple, he was able to perform the ceremony (there are such provisions for special cases).

So my marriage was also part of the cosmic drama writ in Heaven and is now severed, although the church presumably has the decency to let us remain married during this life, a courtesy they don't extend homosexuals (to bring our story full circle).

As another ironic corollary, I had presumably severed myself from earlier parts of this heavenly dynasty, whose presence I had invoked in my argument against the church. They were, quite rationally, denying one of my premises.

All of these things were surely written in the books of Heaven and no longer are. Another possibility:

My college diploma. If I had left the church (or been excommunicated, which we've already seen are functionally the same thing) while I'd been at Brigham Young University, I would have been kicked out of school Even without those two clinchers, I was almost kicked out of school. But, of course, once I've been granted a degree by an accredited university, that's all that matters, right? Well, temporally perhaps, but not spiritually: a degree from BYU has a certain spiritual significance for a Mormon and surely I was cut off from that. Alumni relationships to the school are quite strong and depend upon the common bond of Mormonism which structures the programs, affiliations, newsletters, etc. that keep those bonds tight (the alumni network of BYU's business school formed the unofficial but very real backbone for Mitt Romney's massive fundraising operations.) BYU's philosophy department (and many other departments) bring back their alums who have gone on to graduate work to give talks, colloquia, etc. --- and for that matter, to staff the department --- even if I were interested in doing so now (I'm in Utah on average once a year), would I be welcome?

I was, in short, cutting myself from virtually every significant mile-marker in my life, from events that had very deeply structured my childhood and that should have structured my teenage years and adulthood also, that hadn't in fact structured them but that had nonetheless existed for me as a shadow-life, the life I knew I was supposed to be leading, the life I'd seen led by so many of my acquaintances, friends and family members. How could I leave all this behind?

To be honest, I think that this is one of the things that is hardest for my parents, that they don't know how to understand me outside of these parameters --- it has been very difficult for my mother to reconstruct herself apart from this identity that was taken from her. That I had chosen to construct for myself an entirely different identity and with relatively great ease (the greatest difficulty was really how little difficulty there was) was bad enough, but now to make it official?

Well, maybe it wasn't. Maybe it wouldn't have to be. The church has refused to listen to your objection, I can hear my father saying, it was admirable (my parents were no fans of proposition 8) but it's over.

Or, as Ideas Woman put it, now you'll have to call the bishop so he'll leave us alone.

Have you noticed how the Church succeeded in making it all about me? This was a personal drama, personal willfulness. Maybe I had my reasons --- the church would respect them and not talk about them. But they were only my reasons.

What I had wanted to do (what I want to do) is force them to talk about it: to make them acknowledge what they have done and what they continue to do and not hide behind a mask of corporate neutrality. The truth is that they forced me away --- I don't pretend that I ever would have been a believer or active member, but there are all sorts of ways that I would have and could have found something approximating a Jack-Mormony truce if only they had let me. They first forced me away by wasting their presence in what Mormons regard as Zion (the Utah-y parts of the world that roughly include Utah, big chunks of Idaho and Arizona and tentacles in Oregon, Washington, Colorado and California) to enforce a rigid, unthinking and obnoxious orthodoxy and orthopraxy, the result of what I think is their palpable anxiety: They have been called to speak for God, but they have nothing to say (they should talk to Nietzsche about why). But when I left Zion behind I thought I could perhaps maintain a distant non-relation, at least --- an uneasy truce. But then they took that away by moving their anxiety outwards. Because they had nothing to say they figured they'd better line themselves up with the social conservatives, the most hateful wing in our country. They hitched their identity to that wing and made the persecution of homosexuals the most visible face of that. And because their identity is my identity, they forced me away by forcing my to be with them or against them. I do not regret my choice, but I regret that I had to make it.

I do not regret it even if it meant having to give up so much of my own identity.

Nonetheless, I found muself putting off calling the bishop for a few days, and fortunately in the meantime got another letter from Bishop Blank:

Dear Ideas Man,

I have received a copy of your letter, where you have requested to have your name removed from the records of the Church of Jesus Chirst of Latter-Day Saints. Please understand the seriousness of this request, and consequences that arise from this action. This will cancel the effects of baptism, confirmation along with priesthood and temple covenants.

You could be re-admitted into the Church by baptism only af
ter a thorough interview. A person who requets re-admission must meet the same qualifications as others who are baptized into the Church.

I am forwarding your request, for name removal to the Stake President [this is necessary because I was a Melchezidek priesthood holder]
. You may rescind this request by sending a written request within thirty (30) days after receiving this letter. If the Stake President does not receive a written request to rescind, he will forward the request onto Church Headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah and your name will be removed from the records of the Church.

We also have Ideas Woman, your wife, listed on our records, is this still her desire? We would welcome her to our services and could assign home teachers and visitin
g teachers. However, if she would like her name removed she would need to send me a letter stating her wishes [she would not, however have to send it to the Stake President].

Sincerely,

Bishop Blank.

Hopefully you have the tools now to understand all the elements of this communication from a non-presence, the mere conduit by which my message could get back to its proper recipient but now through the proper channels and with all improper content removed. It was kind to give us a thirty (30) waiting-period. The Church, however, did not use this time to apologize for its role in passing Proposition 8 and so there was nothing to do but wait.

Act V scene v

On February 24, seventy-one (71) days later, I received a letter informing me that certain things written in the Book of Heaven had been erased. Promises that had been made had been rescinded, covenants that had not been kept had been cancelled, the orders of souls in the intimate chain of being that ties all humans to one another had been re-arranged.

The world, however, remained to all appearances the same.

Postscript

If you thought that was the last we'd hear from Bishop Blank, you'd be wrong. One evening, a few days after the final letter, while Ideas Woman was pouring us drinks to enjoy the few minutes of quite between when our children went to bed and when we did, we realized that someone was knocking on the door. It was someone I didn't recognize but who called me by first name. It was "Bishop Blank" --- apparently he is still my Bishop despite my apostasy. "I don't want to talk to you," I said, "What about Ideas Woman?" "She doesn't either," I said and shut the door.

A few days later someone called to ask for Ideas Woman. "May I ask who's calling?" "Bishop Blank." I realized he wouldn't stop calling so I gave Ideas Woman the phone. He talked for a second and then she essentially said "thanks but no thanks."

Ideas Woman thinks that that's the end of it, but I'm not so sure. How do they know I wasn't forcing her to say 'thanks but no thanks?" I was in the room, after all. And they care so deeply about her soul (wasn't it an excess of concern for her soul and the souls of all bright Mormon women that made her have to leave in the first place). They're probably waiting to call her sometime when I'm not home. This will be difficult, becaues Ideas Woman doesn't stay at home, like God wants her to. We have, despite our loving and strong marriage and our two fantastic children who are the center of our lives, no family values.