One Thing I Like

Hi gang. I’m delighted to accept Steve’s invitation to come blog with Bcc’s talented crew. I think I’m the only West Coast blogger on board, so for those of you sitting in the Eastern time zone I’ll be the late night PJ (post jockey), spinning out Top 40 posts after midnight. When I first started blogging (here’s my first post way back in August 2003) it was fun just to publish something Mormonish to the web and the world, but with the emergence of the Mo-Blog I have really enjoyed trading comments and ideas with fellow bloggers. And if I ever said anything too blunt or even a little ugly to any of you in times past, I swear it was my evil twin.

To get started on a pleasant note, I’d like to take up Richard Bushman’s recent challenge “to name one concrete, personal thing [I] like about the church.” I have noticed that Church members extend full fellowship and friendship to those individuals who are physically or developmentally disabled. In classes, in choirs, in sacrament meetings, if these folks don’t quite fit right in, adjustments are made rather seamlessly and no one bats an eye. It’s not even a case of “making special arrangements,” which can take on a condescending tone sometimes, it’s more like just recognizing them as equal members of the group.

By contrast, I was sitting in a Berkeley bookstore one evening a few years ago as one of the 20th century’s finer philosophers was starting to share some selections from his latest book with a few dozen assembled fans before a book signing. A young man with Down Syndrome was browsing at an adjoining bookshelf and began calling loudly across the bookstore to an attendant, asking a question three or four times, oblivious to the fact that he was distracting the group. The philosopher, not quite sure how to handle the interruption, directed a couple of comments at the young man. Not mean, but not kind either, kind of “hey, can’t you see we’re busy here?” I recall feeling troubled, more than just uncomfortable. Not to judge, but I think this was a “kindness and decency” test that the speaker failed on that day (perhaps he did better on other days). Funny, I can’t think of ever hearing similar remarks in an LDS setting, even for one who was rather distracting or who missed all the notes or even who missed easy grounders or layups. On this score, at least, Mormon culture hits all the right notes.


  1. “I still think that many variants of the idea that God matches people up with exactly the right trials in life are simplistic and posit a micromanaging kind of God that I think it is very stupid to worship.”

    I think that the idea God sets us up with *exactly* the right trials is problematic due to the nature of free will. It verges on determinism and I find it unfortunate so many members believe it.

    However the idea that God sets us up with the right *general* class of trials seems very uncontroversial. Indeed it would seem to be entailed by our view that this life is for our growth and development. If it is for our growth and development it isn’t that big a leap to say God puts us where we need to grow. I certainly acknowledge the idea that God also uses us according to our strengths and to bring about his ends. So the two of them are competing.

    It may well be that God sends one person to a handicapped body because he knows they can handle it and because that general history will be beneficial for other reasons. It may be that for an other they *need* the development that being handicapped offers.

    The idea that God prefers to send us all to the best bodies possible seems mitigated by the fact that he doesn’t appear to have provided terribly good bodies. One needn’t think hard to come up with far better bodies and environments if that were God’s purpose. The LDS answer to the problem of natural evils that they are for our development is quite powerful. In a way I think you are rejecting one of our greatest theological strengths.

  2. “If you posit a God who deliberately puts spirits into limited bodies, you end up with a pretty ugly theology.”

    Kristine, do you really mean that? After all aren’t *all* our bodies limited? It seems that relative to resurrected people, we’re all handicapped and the only issue is the matter of how much.

    I tend to be very sympathetic to the view that God sends us to the kind of experiences we need to grow. Our limited view here where our life seems so long is probably to blame in our judgments. Of course this view can be taken to unfortunate extremes. (i.e. beliefs that verge on predestination or the like) However the opposing view that our body and environment is entirely an accident and completely unrelated to our state in premortality also seems very problematic.

  3. Kristine says:

    Aaron, can you post the statement?

  4. Clark, I’m not rejecting the notion that natural (i.e. inherent in a fallen physical world) evils are for our development. I’m rejecting (or at least questioning) the idea that God wills those evils on us. I think God *allows* them to befall us, but I don’t think willing and allowing are the same.

  5. Clark, it’s one thing to put somebody into a normally functioning human body, knowing what that means. But I think it’s entirely another to say that God deliberately assigns people to bodies with severe cerebral palsy, or Downs Syndrome, or whatever. That seems wrong to me both in the degree to which God would have to be involved in human affairs and in the notion that God deliberately chooses what kind of suffering we get. It’s the difference between me letting my kids climb trees, even though I know there’s a risk, and actively pushing them out of the trees because I think a broken arm or two might be good for children’s development. One is a possible action for a loving parent who wants his/her children to learn, two is monstrous.

  6. Dave et al,

    What do you make of the scripture where the Brother of Jared saw Christ prior to his birth, and his spirit looked like his eventual physical form? Can we draw any conclusions as to our own “spirit bodies”?

  7. Dave, welcome aboard. Interesting post.

    I’ve often wondered about the quasi-doctrine being circulated around to explain handicapped people — i.e., that they were so righteous in the pre-existence that they didn’t need to be tested here (or some variant of this). For some reason I’ve always felt uncomfortable with this idea — do you think it’s a platitude, or do you think there really could be something to it?

  8. Kristine says:

    Dave, you’re right, of course, and the difficulty of the question is thrown into graphic relief by my awkward and completely inadequate attempt to answer. But, outside of “Saturday’s Warrior,” which surely most of us could agree to call “folk doctrine” (:)), has the question been addressed?

  9. Grasshopper says:

    Do you think it’s possible that it’s a volunteer system? “Okay, who’s willing to take on the challenges of this next body coming up, along with its corresponding circumstances?” It may be that spirits are anxious enough to receive a body that they will accept even a less than ideal situation.

    I think it’s worthy of note that the same objection applies not only to the flaws of the physical body, but also of the family situation, socioeconomic status, race, country, etc., etc., etc.

  10. Grasshopper & Dave,

    Your comments remind me of the earlier thread about God’s involvement in our lives. Aren’t your respective views irreconcilable?

  11. I agree with Aaron’s assessment, which is why I’ve been a little hesitant to discard the ‘doctrine’. I don’t like it very much, but it’s out there, and up to us to wrestle with it.

  12. I have to admitt that I get a bit suspicious of the distinction between “folk doctrine” and “real doctrine,” which is not say of course that I don’t use the distinction myself from time to time. My problem is not so much that we dismiss some widely held Mormon beliefs as wrong, but rather than we do so on the basis of some sort of implicit criteria of authoritativeness. I am just fine with differing levels of authority (scriptures, conference talks, GA antedotes, my uncle’s pet theory, T&S blogging, etc.). My problem is that I suspect that the use of the term “folk doctrine” is not really tied to any worked out theory of authority, but simply becomes a stand in for “doctrines I don’t like” or more charitably “doctrines that I just think are wrong.”

  13. I think Clark just threw a monkey wrench into the whole discussion with his two-line comment, wherein he asks, “How do you think bodies get spirits?”

    I object to the notion that God plays a causal role putting deserving spirits into flawed tabernacles. But if God assigns spirits to bodies, then He plays a causal role by choosing. If He plays no role, then we need an alternative or natural process of some sort to explain how spirits get matched to bodies. How would that occur: Randomly? By Preexistence Identification Number (PIN)? Was one drafted (like the Selective Service drawings) based on a spirit-birthday (when preexistent intelligence morphed by some birth process we do not understand into a spirit)?

    I hate to say it, but denying God a direct role (thus some responsibility) in the spirit-to-body process, while continuing to assert the preexistence of spirits, leads directly to Clarks’ uncomfortable riposte which (to my knowledge) has never been addressed.

  14. I’m with you all on most of these issues, but I would like to point out that the notion that our performance/faithfulness/loyalty/etc. in the Pre-Existence has some bearing on our state in mortality has too much historical precedent and support to warrant dismissing it as a “folk doctrine.” For example, the First Presidency issued a Statement in the late ’40s basically tying our choices in the Pre-Existence to certain outcomes in mortality. Now, I’m not a fan of these ideas any more than any of you are, but they aren’t just silly speculations/rumors that spontaneously generated out of the Mormon masses.

    (Of course, maybe by “folk doctrine,” Dave meant anything less than “real doctrine,” as currently defined. If so, then his point might hold.)

    Aaron B

  15. Kristine says:

    It does seem “strange,” or maybe just difficult, to not have knowledge about the pre-existence, but I think that’s the situation we find ourselves in. Apparently, God is serious about “the veil.” The fact that people can reach diametrically opposite conclusions about what happens to the “noble and great ones”–they become leaders, prophets; they end up in bodies with Downs Syndrome–ought to suggest, at least (!), that we just don’t know.

    Interestingly, in the matter of baptizing and performing other ordinances for the developmentally disabled, we seem pretty comfortable saying “we don’t know how this works; we’ll let God sort it out later.” Perhaps this is also why we do well culturally with handicapped people–they confront us so forcefully with our own uncertainty and ignorance that we are jolted, willy-nilly, out of the smug knowingness that is Mormons’ least appealing cultural characteristic.

  16. Kristine says:

    It’s not a platitude; it’s just stupid! I think genetic accidents and physical limitations of all kinds are easily and obviously attributable to the effects of the Fall. If you posit a God who deliberately puts spirits into limited bodies, you end up with a pretty ugly theology.

  17. Krisitine I don’t quite understand your reasoning then. How do you think such bodies get spirits? It is almost as if your complaint isn’t with God’s assigning people but with the very existence of handicaps.

  18. Kristine,

    Yes, I can, but I think I’ll use my blogger’s perogative, and post it as a new entry, so as to not further hijack this post….

    Aaron B

  19. Kristine, you’re clearly right about how to approach things as a practical matter. But it seems strange that we have to disregard the pre-existence, doesn’t it? Does seeing the “noble and great ones” in heaven before they were born mean anything at all?

    Sumer says that it all sounds like something we just tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better. She could be right.

    Getting back to Dave’s original post, though — extending fellowship to the handicapped is definitely one of our strengths. I do wonder, though, how accountability and choice figure in to the baptism of the mentally disabled.

  20. Kristine: Does your last conmment constitute a retraction of “It’s not a platitude; it’s just stupid!”?

  21. Nate, I’ll grant that “folk doctrine” is a loose term. I would loosely label all beliefs that are held by most or some Mormons but have little or no scriptural or “official” basis as folk doctrines–the kind with persistence but no visible means of authoritative support. Of course, for any given “folk doctrine” you can almost always find at least one scripture which might be viewed as supporting it and probably a sympathetic statement or two by an LDS leader.

    No doubt other denominations have their fair share too. I’ll bet Catholicism is just riddled with that kind of thing.

  22. Kristine says:

    No–I still think it’s stupid to say what Steve said in his first comment, that some people were so righteous they didn’t need to be tested. As if it weren’t a test to be developmentally handicapped? Given the kind of frustration I’ve witnessed my 1- and 2-year-olds experiencing, I can’t even imagine how frustrating it would be to be stuck at that level of comprehension for a lifetime. Different test and temptations, but certainly not a pass on the difficulties of mortality.

    Also, although I have now recognized more difficulties with the question of if/how God matches up spirits with bodies than before, I still think that many variants of the idea that God matches people up with exactly the right trials in life are simplistic and posit a micromanaging kind of God that I think it is very stupid to worship.

    So, yeah, I could have been more diplomatic, and there are a couple of interesting questions in there–back-pedaling, perhaps, but no retraction ;>)

  23. Off topic but from Dave’s post. Dave continues to refer to the Bloggernacle as Mo-Blog both at Mormon Inquiry, and now here at BCC. Guess you better read the latest T&S post Dave – “The Bloggernacle – It’s Official” :-)

  24. Grasshopper says:

    On the question of handicaps being a consequence of premortality, I think it is possible that some instances could be connected to premortality. But I don’t think all are, and I don’t think we have a good way to know which are which. In this way, it’s similar to the question of God’s intervention in natural disasters: Generally speaking, could God bring about a natural disaster? I think so, but that doesn’t help me in knowing whether he did in any particular instance. Since there isn’t a way for me to know (short of revelation), Kristine’s practical approach seems correct.

    On Dave’s original comment: I was in a singles ward for a while that included a guy with Downs Syndrome. Every fast Sunday, he was the first to get up and bear his testimony. Everyone in the ward knew it and stayed in their seats until he had his chance. And very often, people who followed him connected their own testimonies back to what he had said, making his testimony even more meaningful.

  25. One of the downsides of a salvation by merit mindset is it tends to get projected backwards into the Preexistence, making one’s station or condition in this life a just reward for some postulated performance in this pre-Earth life. It encourages the worst kind of ad hoc thinking–the whole LDS folk doctrines surrounding the pre-1978 priesthood ban are a good example.

    I see those who are born without the full set of physical and mental capacities as nothing more than the accidental workings of developmental biology and various environmental influences. It’s hard to give God any causal role in such cases.

  26. Kristine says:

    Steve, I don’t think there’s any way to know, and trying to guess leads to ugly neo-Calvinist thinking that I don’t find useful or consonant with general principles I can accept. As a practical matter, I think “there but for the grace of God…” is a better way to think about people’s earthly situations.

  27. Steve, I’m not sure we can draw conclusions about our spirits (spirit bodies?) based on the experience of the brother of Jared any more than we can draw conclusions about our future resurrected bodies from Jesus’ resurrected body: healed of all the wounds of his scourging, but retaining those of his crucifixion.

    Any conclusions would have to be pretty general: usually two eyes, two ears, hands and feet, etc.

  28. Steve, no I don’t think our views are irreconcilable, although they may be different. Personally, I think few people really maintain a consistent view on this question in all circumstances, the “there are no atheists in foxholes” effect. The general idea that God acts on the world by way of influencing natural events is very broad; different versions turn on the adverb one assigns to “act.”

    God always acts through nature excludes supernatural intervention.

    God generally acts through nature leaves open occasional supernatural interventions.

    God rarely acts through nature suggests God avoids supernatural intervention entirely and only occasionally does more than just passively watch human events. This view does not fit nicely with petitionary prayer, but does avoid having to construct long explanations for why not all are born physically and mentally whole.

    God never acts through nature is the most extreme position, either leaving Him only the indirect act of having designed or set up natural law in the first place (roughly the Deist or Epicurean view) or simply that God simply doesn’t act, He is redundant (the evolutionary view).

  29. Well, I guess you can chalk it all up to the Fall. So do you think that pre-existential behavior has any impact on our current situation? That’s a pretty big chunk of mormon folklore/doctrine, you know. Clearly it was commonplace even 20 years ago. Bruce R. McConkie really liked that line of thinking, I believe.

  30. Kristine says:

    Well, I have often thought that my Haglund eyebrows (my dad and his six brothers have about 10 eyebrows between them–their children are all recognizable by their very, um, distinct brows) were the result of some premortal wickedness ;>)

  31. Kristine says:

    Well, yeah, I dislike the existence of handicaps, and weeds in my garden, and painful childbirth and lots of effects of the Fall. But my specific problem here is that I can’t imagine a God who would not prefer to send his children into healthy bodies. I can believe in a God who is constrained by natural laws and their functioning in a fallen physical world–genetic mutations, accidents, etc.–and who allows his children to suffer through the effects of those working laws, but not a God who would will the assignment of a spirit to a handicapped body if he could will the alternative instead. Just to be concrete (even though it’s a little absurd), I can imagine God observing that something’s wrong with the mitosis of embryo z, which now has trisomy-23, and saying “I’m really sorry, but I need one of you strong ones to go live in that body.” I can’t imagine Him saying “OK, you’re really strong, so I’m going to assign you to the next trisomy-23 embryo that comes along, because that will be good for you.” Maybe that’s not a difference that would matter to anyone but me, but it does to me.

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