Mental Gymnastics

by: hawkgrrrl

April 23, 2013


People refer to weak apologetics as mental gymnastics, being willing to cling to the improbable or outright absurd rather than cutting through the crap to the logical (yet possibly faith-shaking) solution.  And yet, we are also told that truth is stranger than fiction and that with God nothing is impossible, which gives eternal hope to believers, as well as ancient alien experts, conspiracy theorists and cryptozoologists alike. When it comes to confirming what we already believe, the standard for our arguments is naturally a bit lower than the standard to convince us otherwise.

Within the church,  some defenses of what the church teaches (or what members think the church teaches) are better than others.  Starting with a premise the church doesn’t even teach almost always results in mental gymnastics.  The rationale becomes even more far-fetched the more insulated from outside perspectives the person is; the culture reinforces their sense of rightness.  In other words, like gossip, speculation and folklore are hard to take back, and like Tribbles, they seem innocent enough but pretty soon they multiply and take over the ship.

What rationales do you find indefensible?  Here are a few I thought up from discussions I’ve heard at church or seen in the bloggernacle.  Your results may vary:

. . . or was it? Yes, it was.

Why blacks didn’t have the priesthood until 1978.

  • Simple answer:  Some early church leaders were racist.
  • Middle ground:  The church wasn’t ready for it.  Too many members grew up with racial prejudice to accept the change.  Societal norms forced the change eventually.  Or, “we don’t know why.”
  • Mental gymnastics:  Although we don’t believe in predestination and many people are of mixed race, blacks are being singled out and punished for things they did or didn’t do in the pre-existence.  Apparently the rest of us were all awesome, as evidenced by these privileges we’ve continued to give ourselves.

I tend to believe a mix of 1 and 2 on this one, although #3 was essentially the party line for decades even though it didn’t make doctrinal sense.

Why women don’t hold the priesthood.

  • Simple answer:  Men run the church and don’t see the need.
  • Middle ground:  Reliance on traditional roles and gender essentialism feels like a safer route to promote and protect marriage (especially for those who married very young) than creating full independence (educational, financial and spiritual) in both sexes.  Instead for now we can focus on respect and equality (while throwing a bone to the codgers with the word “preside” after stripping it of all meaning).  We can leave the door open for future change.
  • Mental gymnastics:  Women are not lobbying for ordination.  Coincidentally, when they did lobby for it in the past, they were excommunicated, but those people were bad seeds in other ways so I’m sure it was pure coincidence.  Motherhood is the equivalent of priesthood, which is why crack hos and girls who give birth in the bathroom at prom are basically equivalent to priesthood holders in using God’s sacred creative powers.

I probably lean toward the second one, with a dash of the first one thrown in.  However, the third one is definitely getting pulpit time.


Evidence doesn’t support the Americas as geography for the Book of Mormon.

  • Simple answer:  The BOM is not historical.
  • Middle ground:  We don’t know where the Book of Mormon took place.
  • Mental gymnastics:  Tapirs and deer are kind of like tiny weird horses.  Tally ho!

I’m for the second one on this one.

The earth is obviously older than 6,000 years.

  • Simple answer:  Creationism is unscientific malarkey.
  • Middle ground:  The church has no official position contradicting science; evolution is taught at BYU.
  • Mental gymnastics:  God is a prankster who put false scientific evidence like dinosaur bones in the earth just to mess with us.  Good one, God!

First one all the way for me, although I believe the 2nd is the church’s “official” stance.

Puzzle: square this circle.

The Book of Abraham doesn’t match the funerary texts from which it was purportedly translated.

  • Simple answer:  Joseph Smith made it up.
  • Middle ground:  There are other source materials missing.  Or conversely, Joseph was “inspired” but didn’t use a source to “translate.”
  • Mental gymnastics.  The Book of Abraham is more accurate than the Rosetta Stone.  You’ll see.

I’m about 50/50 between 2 and 1.  I tend to think it’s pseudepigraphical.

Why women shouldn’t wear pants to church.

  • Simple answer:  Jesus supped with harlots and tax accountants.  Surely we can deal with women in pants.  And don’t call me Shirley.
  • Middle ground:  The church just says wear your best and doesn’t care if it’s pants or a skirt.
  • Mental gymnastics.  If you don’t like the church’s dress code, get out!  In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Well, 1 and 2 are probably the same thing.

Fluffy, but insidious.

While I understand the allure of Occam’s Razor, some of the simple answers may in fact be simplistic, not accounting for the complexity and nuance of context; in other cases the simple answer is probably the accurate one.  These are just a few of the things that strike me as indefensible arguments I’ve heard.

The list is by no means exhaustive.  Let’s give you a chance to try it (in comments below).  Pick one of the below topics, then write what you think is a simple answer, a middle ground answer and an answer that is convoluted requiring mental gymnastics.  Here are some topics:

  • Why did the church practice polygamy?
  • How can spouses be equal when one of them presides?
  • Why are temple workers, BYU students, and GAs not allowed to wear beards?
  • Why doesn’t BYU sell caffeinated beverages on campus?

Or choose your own topic and give it a go.

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12 Responses to Mental Gymnastics

  1. Hedgehog on April 23, 2013 at 2:13 AM

    The polygamy one:
    1. Quoting Lord Melbourne (thank you Ardis
    “All these sects tend to getting people’s money”, said Lord M., “the 1st Article of their religion is Community of Goods; and the 2nd is, no marriage, that they might have the Women as they like; these new Sects always tend towards those two”
    2. It was to look after widowed or otherwise unmarried women.
    3. Polygamy is an eternal principle that will be practised in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, and you won’t get there without it mark my words (go and study D&C 132) – OR – Joseph Smith was working on a way of building dynastic and familial connections between the membership.

    I guess I lean towards number 1, with perhaps a smidgen of 2 and a pinch of 3. JS wouldn’t be the first founder of a religious movement to fall into that particular trap: Lord M mayn’t have been quite right with the no marriage in this instance, but the ‘have women as they like’, would be the simplest answer I think. Still, I think he was on to something, various sects have risen up through history, apparently including the two elements he mentions. There was the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit in the 13/14C – a movement which apparently endured in pockets for at least 5 centuries, though some of the records about them may be propaganda. Then Jan Bockelson declared himself king of the New Jerusalem in the early 16C and introduced communal living and, apparently, OT polygamy… (though again much of the records come via his enemies).

    And on the beards question:
    1. Leaders were keen to dissociate themselves from a ‘bearded, patriarchal, polygamous’ past, and present themselves as the fresh-faced monogamous, businessmen who appreciated women for their womanly graces (blurgh) of the 50s. Apparently this obsession with image worked, and they gripped it so tightly, releasing that grip is going to take one heck of a lot of prising of fingers.
    2. We need to present our best appearance, particularly when attending (all those numerous) church meetings, and fulfilling priesthood duties, and of course that means a beard has to go. They are unkempt. Not smart.
    3. It’s all about learning to be obedient. Obedience is the first law of heaven, and we simply need to do what our leaders ask. Its a small thing to be asked to do, so just get on with it. Shave that beard off now!

    Number 1 for me.

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  2. Howard on April 23, 2013 at 7:15 AM

    Well written, well explained, interesting topic! Did we have these mental gymnastics under Joseph? Certainly not in the same way!

    By repeatedly approaching God with the assumption that plural marriage was commanded by God (not by Joseph alone) and persistently asking why? over the course of several years I’ve learned that it was commanded to refine the faithful over several generations by transcending the immature emotions of jealously, possessiveness and selfishness making them more selfless and therefore more Christlike in preparation for entering the celestial kingdom. And it was commanded to include otherwise unmarried women. And for Joseph it taught taboo breaking which expands one’s understanding of the reasons for divine taboos to be commanded in the first place.

    It is absurd, intellectually indefensible and intellectually dishonest to believe today that a paradigm shift is coming that will prove religion and it’s apologists right and science wrong! Which is why holding this belief results in considerable cognitive dissonance requiring one to close their eyes, put their hands over their ears and hum hymns and chant Packer quotes! A 6,000 year old earth? BoM historicity? Please!

    The requirement for mental gymnastics comes from the brethren side stepping these great questions by using sleight of hand black and white thinking and major conflation; “Well, it’s either (all) true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud”. This rolls church doctrine, history and controversy into one big conflated ball that we are led to believe can be answered as a total package by a single brief Moroni’s challenge type hot/cold spiritual confirmation to be remembered and lived as a peak spiritual experience for the rest of our lives as we endure to the while end working on Santa’s check list and cleaning the chapel! The problem is we’ve lost our way allowing the power of spiritual gifts to be watered down and the pharisees have taken over. Nothing this complex can be ALL true! So get into the nuance and parse it out!!! Black and white thinking is seriously unhealthy see: How Studying Extremist Psychology Can Help Prevent Another Bombing . Conflated thinking is seriously confused.

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  3. BJohnson on April 23, 2013 at 10:24 AM

    Ok, I’ll take a stab at one.

    Why BYU Doesn’t Stock Caffeinated Beverages

    1. Given the schedules that most college students keep, there is no substantive reason to not stock such products on campus. So why don’t we? Pure inertia. Reading from the bureaucrat’s playbook, we in BYU’s officialdom hope that the whole thing will blow over if given enough time and we can just get back to our inherited culture of “caffeine is bad.” It is also not worth the potential headache of a backlash from parents/donors who spent their entire BYU experience convinced that caffeine=heroin.

    2. “There is no real demand for it around here.” BYU students operate on a higher level of personal conduct that does not require the use of such stimulants. If we stocked it, we’d simply lose money.

    3. Having had to correct an NBC documentary’s statement that the WoW explicitly prohibited caffeine, the church was obliged to point out the simple truth that caffeine is nowhere mentioned in that section. However, a careful reading of statements made by the brethren over the years allows one with “eyes to see” to discern the higher law that all truly faithful saints should be keeping. Under this law, caffeine as such was a reason (though perhaps not the only reason) that “hot drinks” were banned by the Lord. Thus, caffeine and any other substance that can produce a dependency effect is utterly prohibited in any quantity by WoW Mk.2. DISCLAIMER: Dependency inducing drugs dispensed by licensed physicians are A-okay regardless of dosage. Also, please visit the Twilight Zone section of our bookstore where fine products packed with sugar, chocolate, and saturated fats are available for purchase.

    For those playing along at home (who have ever pulled an all-nighter in college) the answer is #1.

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  4. Brian on April 23, 2013 at 11:19 AM

    Not up to the full play-along, but I have to say the older I get (just turned 60), the simpler I live my life. All the number one answers resonate with me.

    Whenever I hear an apologist, my mind goes numb and I envision Richard Gere in the movie Chicago, tap dancing before the court as he delivers his legal BS.

    When I joined the church, I was on the sidelines cheering when some members talked about god transporting dinosaurs to earth to simply test our faith. Wow, how cool. Now I laugh at myself and in astonishment ask, “Really?”

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  5. Paul on April 23, 2013 at 12:57 PM

    Well, I suppose there’s another alternative, and that is simply to ignore the questions, recognizing that some answers we just don’t know.

    Of course that only works when we can accurately determine which of these questions doesn’t matter now. The social questions (for lack of a better word) like blacks or women and the priesthood will always have activists seeking answers.

    The scientific questions (age of the earth, Book of Mormon geography, historicity) will take care of themselves in time.

    The policy questions (beards, pants, Coke at BYU) are nuisances; I happily wear my beard to church each week, and if someone asks me to shave it, I will. Not a particular fan of Coke (either the taste or its effect on me), I couldn’t care less if BYU sells it, and I’d happy to have women attend church however they choose to dress.

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  6. Chris on April 23, 2013 at 2:00 PM

    Great post, hawkgrrrl.

    How can spouses be equal when one of them presides?

    Simple answer: Men in the Church have always been counseled to preside in their homes but their wives are equal partners in every other way.

    Middle ground: Gender roles are a culturally established tradition. Eve was co-equal with her husband in every way, since help meet in Hebrew (ezer kenegdo), means equal savior or partner. In any strong marriage, husbands and wives respect one another as equal partners where both are respected and where both share duties and responsibilities equally. In the future, we can hope that the brethren will recognize the need to change verbiage in the temple and family proclamation to reflect the true value of women, whom the Savior clearly honored and cherished as equals.

    Mental gymnastics: Women want their husbands to preside over them and tell them what to do. It’s a women’s nature to want this. Husbands are entitled to receive divine inspiration about what their wives should do and their wives should obey them, whether they feel it is right or not. Because women do not hold the priesthood, they cannot preside in Church or in the home. Wives are totally equal with their husbands when their husbands are presiding over them because they have the opportunity to bear and nurture children, even though some of them are infertile and some of them would prefer to work than be full-time homemakers (which goes completely against their divine calling as mothers).

    Since my marriage is #2 and I like it that way, I’m going with that one.

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  7. Douglas on April 24, 2013 at 11:48 PM

    (Hawkchick, you’re just begging for long-winded responses from those like myself who “suffer” from diarrhea of the keyboard)

    (Voice of the ficitonal Archibald J. Bunker, formerly of 704 Hauser Street, Brooklyn, Kings County, New York)…”Dawwjeez, Edddith…dat wimmen’s libbah gal izzatit again!”

    Point by Point response and/or rebuttal:

    1. Why blacks didn’t have the priesthood until 1978.

    “Simple” (racism of early Church leaders)..a condescending, self-righteous, arrogant judgement, based on subjective standards of our day, not necessarily applicable to their time. If some leaders might reasonably be considered bigots even IAW the standards of their day, it’s proof that early Church leaders were picked from the “hew-mon” race. Deal with it.
    “Middle” – Church body not “ready” due to conformance with societal “norms”. Thus saith the Lord, “My ways are not your ways…” Again, a pathetic supposition, not necessarily revelation, that HF over this issue was concerned about winning a popularity contest.
    “MG” – Punishment of pre-1978 Black LDS males for misdeeds allegedly committed in the pre-mortal existence (I HATE the term “preexistence” which is an oxymoron). Like the previous, a pathetic explanation not necessarily supported by canon or official doctrine.
    THE ANSWER: The affairs of the Church are run by a living prophet guided by the Lord. If He wants to deny conferral of the PH, He need not explain himself. Likewise, He can rescind said restriction for whatever reason and need not explain Himself.

    2. Why women don’t hold the priesthood
    Simple: Misogny (brevity is the soul of wit). Yeah, tell yourself that. Tell yourself why this father of four lovely daughters (ages 36,26,25, and 12) would want ANYTHING less for his daughters, or why HF would likewise settle for less for His girls.
    Middle: Not bad, but I would have simply said that for NOW it’s a “boys club”, that it doesn’t seem to be on the table, but we can’t presume the will of HF nor the influence of HM. If it’s revealed that women get the PH, then we’ll likewise receive testimony that it’s the Lord’s will and had better get on board with it.
    MG: The likening of motherhood even by a “crack ho” to a sacrament or equivalent of the PH is demeaning and insulting to all members, male and female alike.
    THE ANSWER: For now, it’s the Lord’s will that only worthy MALES get the PH, but we should be always open to His will in case He wants to do things differently. Men aren’t afforded the blessing of the PH b/c they’re somehow ‘superior’ to women, in fact, it’s precisely that attitude that the Lord and His servants utterly abhor and consider “unrighteous” dominion. Men are conferred the PH to SERVE, not to be adulated. Any man who is blessed with an eternal companion ought to exercise his PH to bless her and their children, and likewise any man that fails to uphold it and/or use his PH and other God-talents to care for his bride and family is what the fictional Douglas Niedermeyer would have called a “GD” disgrace!

    3. Evidence doesn’t support the Americas as geography for the Book of Mormon.
    Simple: NOT historical? IAW whose terms? If you mean it was never intended to be a comprehensive work on pre-Columbian history and geography, correct-a-mundo. Since so little on both the Americas AND the actual BoM setting is unknown, we have no frame of reference from a scholarly view.
    Middle: Ditto. And what, pray tell, artifact did you expect? A Kilroy-like graffito on a Pre-Columbian temple saying “Helaman wuz here”?
    MG: So some think that a once-supposedly anachronistic reference to horses might mean “deer” or “tapirs” explains the BoM being supposedly contradicted by everyone “knowing” that there “wuzzunt naw hosses in the Americas befoh Chris Columbus”? In fact, the existence of pre-Columbian horses has been demonstrated. For that matter, show me archaeological evidence of the Golden Horde and all the horseflesh they rode on to hassle Europe!
    THE ANSWER: We find out more and more fascinating things every day about the Pre-Columbian Americas that we thought we “knew”. Still, no artifacts will prove the BoM as the Word of God. They may pose interesting food for thought, but do not of themselves bring about a testimony of the BoM as inspired scripture. Only reading it, and pondering its intent, as challenged by Moroni himself will do that.

    4. The earth is obviously older than 6,000 years.
    SIMPLE: “Unscientific”? Perhaps, since the though process of supposing the reason and looking for evidence is bass-ackward to the scientific process. Malarkey? It’s a conviction of faith that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” It’s not “malarkey” to HF!
    MIDDLE: No official position. Correct. Whether something akin to what we call “evolution” is part of the “creation” process has not been revealed. I suspect that it’s irrelevant to developing our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ anyway.
    MG: “Gawd” (or ol’ Beelzebub) puts phony bones supposedly from Dino Flintstone in order to screw with us. Whatever you were smoking when you thought that up, please share!
    THE ANSWER: A slavish devotion to Archbishop Usher’s chronology isn’t necessary to assert faith in the Bible. An earth history more in line with the APPARENT archaeological record doesn’t contradict Genesis. Of course, just as Dr. Zaius (whom I’m convinced was actually the good guy in “Planet of the Apes”) questioned Cornelius’ dating method when discussing the dig in the “Forbidden Zone”, so I question many of the dating methods promulgated as secular “Gospel”. Maybe Fred Flintstone DID have both a pet Sabre-Toothed Tiger and a purple spotted dinosaur! (Wonder why Dino only talked in his first appearance, maybe being around Fred dumbed him down?)

    5. The Book of Abraham doesn’t match the funerary texts from which it was purportedly translated.

    Simple: Made it up? You may as well just say that JS was either a false or fallen prophet. If you believe that, resign your membership pronto, you have no business remaining in it if you wish to be true to yourself.
    Middle: Possibly the best answer but we’d need ol’ Joe himself to tell us how he did it.
    MG: More accurate? Even if so, we can’t prove it to reasonable scholastic satisfaction. So why go there?
    THE ANSWER: The Book of Abraham is an inspired scripture, and we have some fascinating facsimiles which may of themselves be subject to multiple interpretations. Hugh Nibley covered much of this in his time and I’m satisfied that he made the best explanation with the limited information that he had.

    6. Why women shouldn’t wear pants to church.
    Simple: A little over-the-top. At least the women are clothed, and probably in a matter that if not considered “modest”, might be considered dowdy enough not to put “bad actors on the stage of the mind” as Boyd K. Packer would put it.
    Middle: Gee, it seems that in the end we teach correct principles and the the (female) members govern themselves.
    MG: Judging by the Church hierarchy’s non-response, I say you were 180 degrees out on this one.
    THE ANSWER: We have better things to do than worry about some LDS would-be “Feminazi” stunt. I’d be more worried about the female membership doing a “Lady Godiva” thing en masse. Not because of likely offense (never mind that it’s still the Lord’s House and how does HE feel?), but that if some women did that we’d be visually repelled, and other’s we’d reluctantly cast out, and what contention THAT would raise.

    The greatest “mental gymnastics” is to believe that any of this matters than receiving a testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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  8. Moss on April 25, 2013 at 7:57 PM

    What happened to the ‘unlike’ button?

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  9. hawkgrrrl on April 25, 2013 at 8:31 PM

    Moss – good question.

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  10. Andrew S. on April 25, 2013 at 9:21 PM

    re 7,


    If you cannot be helped from your ‘diarrhea of the keyboard,’ we permas of W&T can certainly help you with that. Believe it or not; the comment box at W&T is not your soapbox. The W&T’s permabloggers’ blog posts are not your blog posts.

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  11. Neal on April 26, 2013 at 6:37 PM

    Hawkgrrl – Brilliant! Love your posts. I was checkin’ the same boxes you were. :)

    I realize you included just a few items, but I would have to include the Great Apostasy on my list of topics that induce excessive amounts of mental gymnastics.

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  12. Douglas on April 26, 2013 at 7:25 PM

    (Ala Frank Oz as “Master Yoda”) – “GREAT Apostasy? Losing testimony and power of Priesthood not make one GREAT!”. Couldn’t resist that one.
    More Seriously, I do oft roll my eyes at the gross oversimplifications explaining the “fall” of the early Church, especially when we oft impugn the faith of Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Copts, etc, albeit usually w/o malice. Just a primer on the Byzantine Empire and Greek Orthodoxy lends, if nothing else, a great appreciation of what that nation and Church did for Western civilization. Regardless of the need for the “restoration” of the Gospel via Joseph Smith, we can’t dismiss so easily the contributions of Christendom over the ages, most of which, IMO, were made in good faith.

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