18 September 2012

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Atheism and Wiley Coyote

Adherence to atheism stuns me.  I have empathy for the individual who struggles to find God as there have been plenty of times in my life where I, too, have felt spiritually bereft and alone; however, I have genuine trouble accepting one of the core tenets of the atheist worldview that is born out of its original God-less premise:  If we are solely a product of cosmic randomness, then there is no inherent purpose to our existence.

Many folks around the world wonder what will happen to them when they die.  They (we) also want to know why we are all here.  The former question doesn't intrigue me as much as the latter because if I cease to exist after I die then there won't be any of my consciousness around to continue wondering the question.  If there is an afterlife and that afterlife is governed by God, then really the more important question is the latter and its corollary:  What does God want me to do while I'm alive? What is the purpose of my existence?

In an atheistic worldview, there is no inherent purpose to life.  In atheism, you define the purpose of your existence, which sounds nice and empowering.  Really, though, such an approach to our daily endeavors is the same approach that Wiley Coyote takes to be able to run off the cliff without falling.  Eventually, he looks down and realizes that there is nothing there to hold him up.

An interesting case is that of Richard Dawkins, a renowned biologist and atheist.  He stated in a recent interview that the answers that science gives to how the kangaroo came to be is much more interesting than the idea that God spoke and there it was.  (By the way, I as a believing Latter-Day Saint agree with him on this point.)  Manifested in his religious works like The God Delusion is the irony that Mr. Dawkins's purpose in life is to demonstrate that there is no purpose to life.  How long will a man like Dawkins be able to not look down and see that the purpose he has derived for himself is not sustaining?  What happens to any of us who trick ourselves into believing that a finite purpose is worth it only to find that it is only the case so long as we are able to compartmentalize our purposeful thinking away from our eternal nature?

The frightening conclusion to the principle that life here on earth has no supernatural origins and thus no purpose is that should the entire human race give up right now and engage in a nuclear holocaust, or otherwise make Earth inhabitable for life, then it wouldn't make a difference in the grand scheme of things.  The universe may never create life again and it wouldn't matter.  Maybe it will, but that wouldn't matter either.  If a supernova tree falls in the universal woods and no one is there to hear it, and all of that.

And, yet, it feels wrong to go blow up the Earth, doesn't it? The evolutionary biologist explains this by stating that the reason that humans are here right now is because of inherent survival mechanisms in our genes.  We wouldn't be here if we didn't have an overwhelming urge to preserve our own race.  But, how long can intelligent, conscious beings be satisfied and motivated by self- or other-preservation when science states that it doesn't really matter either way?

Interestingly, though, Mormonism gives an nod to the concept of self-derived purpose, though it isn't tied to self- or other-preservation.  As mortals and as spiritual offspring of an Eternal Father in Heaven, we derive purpose encapsulated within His dominion.  With eternal purpose in mind for His children, He places them into mortal bodies with the intent that a mortal experience is vital to our eternal progression.  In Mormon theology, the ultimate destination for an individual is to become like God.  And where does God derive His purpose from? He derives it from Himself, and if we are to become like Him, we will one day derive purpose solely from within ourselves just as He does.

The finite motivation of self- or other-preservation, though, is not present for beings who are eternal in nature.  The motivation, instead, is self- or other-improvement or self- or other-progression.  Only from an eternal standpoint can purpose be derived from within an individual; otherwise, the universe will just snuff it out in its unimaginable expanse.  Only infinite circumstance can matter in infinite time and space.

Of course, science deals with the finite as nature itself is finite.  Science itself cannot be considered a faulty system, especially as it has done so much for our society as a whole to this point.  However, to consider a system that can only answer "how" questions and not "why" questions as complete is faulty.  As Victor Frankl pointed out, people need a "why" to get through the "how", and unfortunately all atheism can offer is that the "why" must come from "within".  If we are truly soulless, though, our within is finite and cannot possibly contain a "why" big enough to truly matter, even if that why is family, friends, or the mission to prove to the world that the why must come from within.

Do folks that declare themselves as atheists know what they are saying? I believe that what most people mean is that they are agnostic (they don't know) or even maybe apatheistic (they don't know and they don't really care).  I believe that one of our greatest challenges in society over the next few decades will be growing apathy, so the latter one does bother me, but overall, I can empathize much better with these two than straight-up atheism.  In fact, I believe that a healthy amount of agnosticism in everyone will go a long way towards establishing peace in the world.  Wide-spread atheism, however, is a somber and dim future for the human family that will hinder our progress for lack of a "why" big enough to bear us through.

Theism, however ineffable you may perceive your higher power to be, gives us a "why" that is bigger than the finite universe and its infinitesimal human race.  God is my reason, my purpose, and my motivation, and it is my goal to align myself with His will, because it is the only will that is big enough to matter.  Theism is what carries me through the times in my life that seem too easy as well as the times that seem too hard.  To me, atheism just says, "hey, your alone in this, now get over it and move on."  That's just not big enough for me.

13 September 2012

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Does President Clinton make it to Heaven?

I read an article today about President Clinton's investigation of Mormonism where he said he:
"admires the church for its high ethical standards and belief in a celestial kingdom but said the idea of being in heaven without his non-Mormon friends was too much to give up."
Fair enough.  I'd probably give it up, too.

Sometimes missionaries get it wrong.  Sometimes investigators misunderstand.  However, one need only go so far as the common misinterpretation of who can attend LDS worship services to remember that we Mormons have a reputation for being a pretty exclusive group.

(To set that record straight for the three people who read my blog:  Anyone can attend.  Services are every Sunday morning in LDS chapels, most of them are buzzing with believers by 9am.)

Anyway, what about heaven? Do our scriptures bear out the idea that President Clinton's "non-Mormon friends" won't be in heaven with him?  Let's check it out.

Doctrine and Covenants, Section 76 - What is Heaven shaped like?


This is a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith about the "topology" of heaven (among other things).  Specifically, it goes into detail about the characteristics of three kinds of people:  Those that fit in the Telestial Kingdom, those that fit in the Terrestrial Kingdom, and those that fit in the Celestial Kingdom.

The very idea of "fit" might bother some folks.  I suspect that God would like all of His children to reach their highest and best potential.  It saddens me to know that some of my children might not reach their full potential, but wherever they are in relation to that, my love and relationship with them will accommodate.  I suppose it is the same with God.

Anyway, Christ taught Abraham that such is the nature of our spirits.  They are independent beings with free agency, which God will not strip from us.  Thus we have in Abraham 3:19 (note that the word "intelligence" here roughly refers to spiritual growth):.
19 And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.
Given that, I don't see anything in section 76 nor Abraham that preclude someone from another faith getting into heaven.

C.S. Lewis compared the topology of the afterlife to the size of our spirit.  In The Great Divorce, hell is a very, very small place where only the smallest of spirits can fit.  The protagonist of the book, as he grows spiritually in the afterlife, finds that hell gets smaller and smaller to his eyes, but it is actually he who is getting bigger and bigger.  Spiritual growth is ultimately up to the individual, and all options are open to him as to whether he would like to ascend or descend.

I think this description of heaven fits pretty well with LDS doctrine.  It certainly isn't a perfect fit, but it offers a good rationale behind the idea of a hierarchy in heaven.

Doctrine and Covenants, Section 88 and Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pg. 356 - Who can go there?


Section 88 is called "The Olive Leaf" by many Latter-Day Saints because Joseph Smith referred to is as "an olive leaf...plucked from the tree of paradise".  I'm no scholar, but this has always been one of my favorite sections of the D&C.  In fact, it holds my favorite D&C verses, D&C 88:63-64.

In this section, I believe we find the overarching qualification in verses 22-24:
22 For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide celestial glory.

23 And he who cannot abide the law of a terrestrial kingdom cannot abide a terrestrial glory.

24 And he who cannot abide the law of a telestial kingdom cannot abide a telestial glory; therefore he is not meet for a kingdom of glory. Therefore he must abide a kingdom which is not a kingdom of glory.
I like these verses because they plant the individuals ultimate destination back in his hands.  To what degree did you use this mortal life to prepare yourself to follow these heavenly laws? Depending on your own abilities there is a kingdom prepared for you by God.  Again, it depends on your own choices whether you ascend or descend.

To go further, Joseph Smith explains in a discourse found in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith:
All sin, and all blasphemies, and every transgression, except one, that man can be guilty of, may be forgiven; and there is a salvation for all men, either in this world or the world to come, who have not committed the unpardonable sin, there being a provision either in this world or the world of spirits.
The plan the Lord has for his children is big.  It is much bigger than what religion you are.

Doctrine and Covenants, Section 21 and 128 and Alma 34 - Then, can't I just be a good person?


There is a corporate part to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  There are doctrines, but there are also covenants.  To be able to "abide the law" in any land, it is important to understand the law, but citizenship in that land is also important.  While covenants are much richer, more meaningful, and more nuanced than a simple driver's license or social security card, these serve my purpose for the time being.

Christ asks from us that we exhibit faith, repent, are baptized, and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.  The last two are related to covenants that we make with Christ, which act as evidence of our membership in the body of Christ.  Christ requires these of everyone (John 3:5), lest they not be able to enter the kingdom of God (the Celestial Kingdom, in LDS terminology).

While LDS doctrine expands on this common Christian belief, I think it is good to note here that it is the Bible that states that the covenants made at baptism are the gate by which all must enter the kingdom of heaven, if they are to enter at all.

So, what about Latter-Day Saints? It comes down to a question of authority.  C.S. Lewis talked at great length about the importance of authority, which I really appreciate, but is not my topic here.  You can find a good rendering of it in The Weight of Glory.  For brevity's sake, please accept my notion that authority or permission to do something in God's name is important.

Anyway, Doctrine and Covenants 22 states that baptism must be done by proper authority in order to be valid.  The main premise of the LDS Church's existence is one of Restoration; the authority to baptize was lost, and it was restored to Joseph Smith by God.  Doctrine and Covenants 1 teaches that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the one church with that authority.

Does that mean that President Clinton (or those missionaries) were right? It is true that we need to be baptized by property authority, which narrows the options, especially for those who were born before the LDS Church existed or those who never heard Christ's message.  Fortunately we have D&C 128 which teaches the doctrine of vicarious ordinances.  It means that one person can perform the physical ordinance for someone else when they are not able to.  LDS doctrine teaches that when a person has already passed, but did not get baptized, an individual may be baptized on their behalf.

We believe in an afterlife and in a soul's continuing agency in that afterlife.  After a living person has been vicariously baptized for a deceased person, then that soul can make the covenant with Christ which allows that person through the same heavenly gate.

So, why not just let the Mormons baptize everyone vicariously and stop bugging everyone with missionaries at the door? There are several reasons, but the main one is because it is everyone's duty as a child of God to do their very best with the time that has been given them here.  A Book of Mormon prophet, Amulek, said:
32 For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.

33 And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.
So there you have it.  Latter-Day Saints teach that you need to be baptized by proper authority, that there is a contingency plan for the imperfection of our mortal missionary efforts, and that we all need to
do the best we can to get there each day.

Do LDS say that only they will be in heaven?


No, though there is a bit of confusion, I think.  Everyone needs to exhibit faith, repent, be baptized by the proper authority, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and endure to the end; Christ said as much, and I believe Him.

I think the confusion comes in because the modern Latter-Day Saint culture has embedded within it a high level of work ethic, productivity, and community involvement.  To be a Latter-Day Saint is hard but rewarding work.  Because of that, we as Latter-Day Saints will fall too much on the side of works every once in a while.  I think if you were walking along the straight and narrow path and saw someone whiz by on a bicycle, you might think that such is the way to get there.  Some Latter-Day Saints might inadvertently demonstrate that if you don't can veggies every year, do your family genealogy, and like BYU football, that you won't be saved.

God doesn't ask for that, though (thank heavens, cuz I went to the U).  He asks that we exhibit faith, repent, be baptized by the property authority, and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.  He asks for endurance in our belief in Christ thereafter, which implies willingness to obey His commandments (e.g. you can't just get baptized and then lift all the candy bars you want from the Kwik-E-Mart).

So, I'll get baptized in all the faiths, and then I'll be covered, right?


This is kind of a silly side note since I'm not sure if anyone has seriously considered actually doing it, but to come full circle in this post, there is a qualification for the kingdom of God apophatically defined  in Doctrine and Covenants 76:79:
79 These [in the Terrestrial Kingdom] are they who are not valiant in the testimony of Jesus; wherefore, they obtain not the crown over the kingdom of our God.
I'm definitely not the right guy to judge whether you can be valiant or not with this sort of an approach, but joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is hard work (see James 2:17-18).  I'd be pretty doubtful of a person's chances who go baptized for the "checklist" aspect of it.

Does he go to heaven or not?


Happily, that isn't up to me! The qualifications are faith, repentance, baptism by proper authority, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and endurance to the end.  The road is the same for everyone however you may have gotten there in the first place.

It does occur to me, though, that we individual Latter-Day Saints might inadvertently put some Country Club gates in front of "Heaven's Gate" that communicate an air of exclusivity that simply is unattractive to the onlooker.  Really, Christ's banquet is big enough for everyone to sit down and feast at.

I think President Hinckley summarized it best when he said:
This must be our great and singular message to the world. We do not offer it with boasting. We testify in humility but with gravity and absolute sincerity. We invite all, the whole earth, to listen to this account and take measure of its truth. God bless us as those who believe in His divine manifestations and help us to extend knowledge of these great and marvelous occurrences to all who will listen. To these we say in a spirit of love, bring with you all that you have of good and truth which you have received from whatever source, and come and let us see if we may add to it.
Sounds pretty inclusive.  May we all do the very best we can today on our journey home.  May we find each other there at the end.

01 August 2012

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Chick-Fil-A

I recently read an article about Chick-Fil-A's socially conservative reputation, and I thought I'd write out my thoughts.  In the original article the writer makes five points.  Below, I've aligned my paragraphs accordingly.  Enjoy!


While I think that any business should be evaluated against their contribution to the community in addition to their products, these points sound a bit shrill.

Before I share my thoughts on the writer's points, I'll disclaim that my wife is a stay-at-home mom, and we will sacrifice to the bone to keep it that way.  We eat dinner with our kids every night.  We believe our kids need Mom and Dad there as often as possible, and that children are entitled to a mom and a dad.  http://www.lds.org/family/proclamation/  We believe that practicing homosexuality is a sin and that condoning said sin individually or collectively will not result in a social good.  We don't pretend that homosexuality is something that can be prayed away, but we believe that all temptation can be overcome through Jesus Christ.

Social conservatives like myself and the Cathy family are at a crossroads.  I say that I don't condone the practice of homosexuality, but what amounts to condoning it? If I allow the redefinition of marriage by not fighting for traditional marriage, am I part and parcel of the consequences?  If the Cathy's hire someone who brings a gambling culture in the workplace, are they condoning gambling? It is the challenge that any employer is faced with when they consider workspace culture, brand, and morale as part of the overall product that they are selling.

Okay, here goes.

1 & 3.  Yes, it does bother me when I see businesses and charities supporting causes that I don't agree with.  However, I still donate to the United Way, to my church, and I still use the cashback bonuses from my credit cards despite my discomfort with some of the things that each organization supports.  Part of participating in society is compromise and I think the good outweighs the bad in a lot of cases.  For the record, I do think that the descriptions here sound contrived for shock value.  As a faithful Latter-Day Saint, I have heard a lot of mischaracterizations against my faith and understand that the above snippets probably don't tell the whole story.  Anyway, I think everyone has their threshold, which I think is the crux of both points here, even if the writing sounds a bit like an expose.

2.  Yes, I do believe that our individual actions can add up to collective judgment; I believe we reap what we sow, e.g. the 2008 financial crisis.  This writer's line of reasoning, though, seems to associate that principled statement with the idea that God sent Hurricane Katrina.  I believe in both God's blessings and his cursings, and I see the protection of traditional marriage as an important individual decision that will add up to a collective good.  I might use different words than Cathy, but I do believe that the practice of homosexuality is a sin and that any time a people collectively condones sin (or collectively embraces righteousness) the people reap what they sow.

4.  Lots of stuff here.

First, IANAL, but I suspect a great many organizations are sued all the time.  From the linked Forbes article:  "There are no federal laws that prohibit companies from asking nosy questions about religion and marital status during interviews. Most companies don't because it can open them up to discrimination claims."  Chick-Fil-A sees their employees as part of their brand; they have chosen a more difficult road, indeed, but, as a social conservative, I like the incentive that they create by hiring wholesome, clean-cut, God-fearing individuals.

Second, I don't really care what "some call" anything.  Millions of people call my faith a "cult", but what they really mean is "socially not mainstream".  If you then mean to ask "do you want to support what some call 'not mainstream'", I say, I stand by my convictions regardless of the name-calling.

Third, there is a lot of data that shows that married people *are* more productive, stable, etc. than those who are not.  Homeowners are, too.  I realize that this statement is skewed with the fact that many are seeking to change the definition of marriage itself as we speak.  Perhaps a study about civil unions would show the same levels of productivity and stability.  The point is that I myself prefer to hire those who are more stable and productive, and it is prudent for a business to keep itself in business by taking in as many reasonable indicators as possible when evaluating a candidate.

Fourth, Apple puts a lot of demands on its employees to maintain a certain image.  It is Apple's perogative to extend their brand through their employees as well as their products, and they have generated a lot of success because of it.  I applaud any business that incentivizes productive, wholesome behavior, and if a business wants to hire drug-tested, background-checked, clean-cut individuals as part of their overall brand, I applaud them for that.

5.  I think we should save the Big Brother references ("against their will" and all that) to entities that actually have real sway over our lives, like the government.  Besides, isn't firing always against the will of the employee? Good businesses make value judgments all the time, and that extends to who they hire and fire, including whether they need to make room for a one-breadwinner family over a two-breadwinner family.  During the depression, people were let go if it was discovered that it was a second job; the employer wanted to make room for a breadwinner that didn't have a job at all.  If given the option between hiring a person from a one-breadwinner family vs. a two-breadwinner family, I'd hire the first.

03 May 2012

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Motivation for Dishonesty

I was reading about a recent conference held at UVU called Mormons and the Internet.  While I wasn't able to attend, I found a number of online discussions and "play-by-plays," and I really resonated with a number of things that I heard.

One of the interesting points that was brought up was that the Internet is where different groups of Latter-Day Saints are fighting to own (or contribute to) the definition of what it means to be a Latter-Day Saint.  Because the Internet is now the first source that people look to for information on just about anything, it is prime real estate for staking claims of identity, and a great many individuals who feel repressed by the top-down nature of the LDS Church have interpreted such as an opportunity to make their voice heard.

I think that this was brought to light by a question that Allen Wyatt asked of John Dehlin during a panel discussion (thanks, Allen, for posting the question and answer online):

People often study the same facts or issues and come to vastly different conclusions—some have their faith strengthened, while others have their faith destroyed. To what do you attribute this difference in outcome, and why do you feel that the stories of those who have suffered a negative outcome should be privileged over those with a positive outcome?
And here was John's answer (again, via Allen):

That’s a really hard question for me to answer. I’m one of the ones who have lost faith, and so my perspective is going to be really biased. What I can say is that to some degree disbelief appears to be a luxury. 
We even saw this a little bit in our data—the more income you have, the more freedom you feel to question and to be honest with parents and siblings and children, etc. You can just imagine that if you are financially independent and you don’t have to worry about losing your job and you don’t have to worry about being written out of an inheritance, you might feel the freedom to inquire without reservation a little bit more than somebody who’s got a job that may be associated with the church, and who needs that inheritance, and who can’t afford to sever social ties that the church might benefit them from. 
So, I also think that if we were to do sort of a multi-factorial analysis—what is the person’s spouse like, are they open-minded or are they kind of rigid and harsh and dogmatic? That might be a factor in whether someone’s really willing to look honestly at the data. What happens when they look honestly is a totally separate question, but I think there are factors in one’s environment that are going to make it more or less likely that they can actually look objectively at the data. 
Other factors might include… Just imagine if you are making $30,000 a year, struggling to raise your kids, maybe you’re a single mom, and your ward is just this critical social support for you—and you enjoy it—your interests in actually looking at the data objectively are going to be very different. So, I think those are sort of the barriers to just being able to look at things objectively.


I thought that John gave a biased answer and did a good job warning his audience of such.  He basically seeks to stake the claim that active Latter-Day Saints are more inclined to interpret facts or issues positively because they are somehow socially or financially invested in legitimizing their continued relationship with the organization regardless of the validity of its truth claims.

I wasn't really pleased with three aspects of his answer, though.

First, I think that his example of financial freedom is a bit snooty and probably wrong.  While I can understand where he is coming from regarding Church employees who would lose their job--or be converted to a contractor position--if they left the Church, I don't really agree that those who have a lower income and are dependent on the welfare program of the Church won't look honestly at its legitimacy because of that financial tie.  The fact is that in the year that I served as our ward secretary, a great many individuals dependent on church welfare came in and told the Bishop straight up that they weren't interested in church activity but still needed assistance.  I don't think that financial dependence on an organization keeps one from disagreeing or even disdaining that organization (just look at the welfare program of the United States).

On the other hand, I personally have no financial reason for staying a member of the Church and have what some might think is strong financial incentive for leaving--my 10% raise and all that.  Even if I believed that donating 10% of my income a good idea strictly from a financial perspective, I can donate that to any good-doing organization I want; I don't need the Church to be true for financial reasons.

Second, I think what he was really saying was that the more invested an individual is in an organization, ideology, or other construct, the harder it is for them to look at it objectively.  I agree with this statement in much more general framing than the financial or social ones he placed on it.  But, I think that the tone of John's answer seemed to exclude those individuals that Allen was trying to highlight in his question, i.e. those who favor negative outcomes for the very reason that John was saying that others favor positive outcomes.  It brings to light what Joseph Smith said about leaving the Church:

When the Prophet had ended telling how he had been treated, Brother Behunin remarked: ‘If I should leave this Church I would not do as those men have done: I would go to some remote place where Mormonism had never been heard of, settle down, and no one would ever learn that I knew anything about it.’ 
The great Seer immediately replied: ‘Brother Behunin, you don’t know what you would do. No doubt these men once thought as you do. Before you joined this Church you stood on neutral ground. When the gospel was preached, good and evil were set before you. You could choose either or neither. There were two opposite masters inviting you to serve them. When you joined this Church you enlisted to serve God. When you did that you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve, it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant.’

John effectively answers the second part of Allen's question by his answer's form, if not its content.  The reason that John favors negative outcomes over positive outcomes is because he is invested in those outcomes legitimizing his position.

The fact is that I do the same thing.  I favor positive outcomes, conversion stories, and the continued growth and good influence that the Church has on the world in part because I am socially invested in its  success.  I like giving gospel doctrine lessons.  I like working with the missionaries.  I like blogging online about my faith.  If I left, I wouldn't get to do those things anymore.  I don't really have many social reasons to keep the faith, but I believe that these form a minor bias in my faithful position in the Church.

However, I do have a biggie that I have trouble overcoming.  It was brought to my immediate attention while I read The Reason for God by Timothy Keller a couple years ago.  It is the dark conclusion just beyond the corner of my eye that God isn't really there or that He doesn't love really me or that the world doesn't really need Him.  I realized that this is a line that I cannot cross and be emotionally safe.  Because of this, I believe that I do cater more to evidences of God's existence than evidences to the contrary for my own protection more than I might like to admit.  Again, neither financially nor socially motivated, but perhaps biologically.

Anyway, I think that the key is to not pretend that we are being strictly objective.  Of course John is going to be biased towards favoring negative outcomes over positive ones because he is not being strictly objective.  In fact, I think the best answer that John could possibly have given is:  "I favor those because I am a member of The Church of Lost-the-Faith Saints, and my desires to evangelize that are part and parcel of the same human nature that possesses those members of other faiths."  I'd have given him props for the pun, too.

I think that Henry Eyring (President Eyring's father) puts it most honestly when he states that to believe his conclusions you have to believe his premises.  Indeed, Henry admits that he sees things through the lens of his premise that God exists, that he spoke to the boy Joseph, etc., etc.

Third, while I agree that thinking about one's life choices correlates with the amount of perceived free will one has in the matter, I disagree with the view that those who have interpreted the Church in a positive light have done so largely for social or financial reasons.  In fact, I believe a great many rationally thinking individuals have indeed looked at certain aspects of the Church and interpreted it positively or negatively based a great deal more on the premise that they either believe Joseph Smith or not rather than the negative financial or social impacts.

One of the voices that I hear on the Internet lately is one touting the concept of a "reform" Mormonism that basically admits that they don't really believe the Church's organizational aspects at best or its truth claims at worst, but they really like the social or financial benefits or the fact that its rituals help them to be better people, kind of like reform Judaism or the Masons.  To me, this concept and sites like staylds that promote it are exchanging one kind of dishonesty for another.  John's allusion to social and financial reasons for intellectual dishonesty sound almost like an advertisement for this movement as opposed a rational explanation for why people come to different conclusions about certain outcomes in the Church.

In the end, I believe that you stick to your guns, and it is much better if one has thought about what one believes instead of just following the path of least resistance.  If someone has decided that "the Church isn't true", then I at least applaud that individual for having carefully considered the matter.  If someone has avoided thinking about it because of financial or social reasons, I hope she finds the courage to decide what she really believes and is ready to change her life accordingly.  If someone has thought about it and he is only sticking around for the financial or social benefits, I believe he will find more of that fulfillment elsewhere.

I believe that our relationship with God should consume a much greater portion of our thoughts than our worries about the societal or financial backlash we might experience by allowing that relationship to change our outward behavior.  The inverse boxes our relationship with Diety into convenience, which is a pretty small God after all.  In my humble opinion, a great many faithful Latter-Day Saints do allow their relationship with God to be paramount and have chosen to stand where they remain in spite of financial or societal motivations that compete for common ground in their hearts.  They have thoughtfully considered what they believe and conclude to look at the Church in a positive light.

02 February 2012

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Posted in Arrangement, Art, Business

Pierced With Deep Wounds

This post is inspired by an article that I read today in the Deseret News about churches losing members, specifically the LDS church of which I am a faithful member. It hit close to home for me, and I wondered if someone out there might benefit from my own story.

Way back on New Year's Eve in 1999, I was surfing the Internet to find some information for my calling as Elder's Quorum Secretary. In the middle of my search, I found an article that brought to light some teachings by Brigham Young that future Church leaders rejected. The site claimed that prophets would never teach anything that was false and that this history had been suppressed because of its fatal nature to the LDS faith. To my 18-year-old mind, the arguments were persuasive.

Needless to say, it was a moment that I desperately wanted to forget. I ran upstairs into my bedroom and cried and cried. Like the filth of pornography, it stained my mind and wouldn't let me at peace. Was all the happiness and joy and certainty that I had felt over the years founded on falsehood? Was God even there at all? I had just entered a crisis of faith.

Ironically, I was just about to turn in my mission papers that Sunday. Out of sheer force of will, I kept my commitment to do so. In the same stroke, I scheduled an appointment with my Stake President to talk to him about. Certainly, I wasn't going to spend two years of my life telling people something I felt was false.

In the meantime, it seemed that everywhere I turned was another challenge to my faith. Where was I to go but online, and it seemed that all that was there was people telling me that I was wrong. It was literally terrifying. I was ready to decline my mission call.

Though I don't remember the exact day, it was a Sunday evening when I met with him at 9 o'clock. I told him about my dilemma, about the church history I'd read about and what it had done to my outlook. He was so understanding. He asked me what conclusions I had drawn. He asked me other questions and he gave some answers of his own as well. He never once made me feel guilty or that I wasn't exhibiting enough faith. We talked and talked for two-and-a-half hours. I am amazed to this day to think of what a busy man he was and how much time we was willing to invest at what must have been the end of a very, very long day for him.

I didn't walk out healed, but at least he'd stopped the bleeding.

(There are some cynics out there who will choose to believe that the SP's motivations were driven out of a desire to not lose a missionary who would go out and convert more souls. Frankly, I was going to a mission where each missionary averaged 0.4 baptisms a year. My Stake President did it out of love, thank you very much.)

At the same time, I was taking an Institute class from Craig Frogley. From him, as part of his class curriculum, I learned about the four different accounts of Joseph Smith's first vision, the Council of Fifty, the Kirtland Safety Society, and many other things that polemics will use to try and shock a faithful Latter-Day Saint into doubt. It was fascinating to discover the Church's many dimensions, and it was comforting to hear Brother Frogley's candidness. While it took me years to realize what he was really doing, at that time it was just helpful to hear a Latter-Day Saint who, when faced with some of the not-so-romantic parts of Mormon history, still kept his faith.

The happy ending is that over time my wounds healed. I learned and accepted the fact that our prophets are fallible and that the LDS Church makes no requirement in its doctrine for us to believe that a prophet is infallible. I learned a lot about Church history, too, and I came to not fear it but instead embrace it as part of my heritage. Knowing the history helped me in the future to put back into perspective what online bullies might try to distort.

More importantly, though, I learned three things:

1. Treat those with concerns or doubts with love. The first thing the Stake President showed to me was love and understanding. One of the funny things about the LDS culture is the reticence that people feel at bringing an honest question or concern to another faithful member of the Church. I think that there are basically three reasons: a. They don't think there is actually an answer or they fear discovering that there isn't an answer, b. They worry about how they will be perceived if they express "doubt", or c. They think that they are the only one who has ever had this concern and don't want to add doubt or burdens to someone else. At least the second one can be fixed with love and understanding. We don't need to feel threatened when someone expresses doubt.

2. Study church history. After that first shock article that I read, I became paranoid and didn't want to study anything about the Church online for fear that I might stumble upon something else that might reopen a still-fragile wound. For me, Brother Frogley provided a safer environment where I could learn the history, warts and all, without fear of someone telling me that such-and-such meant that all my faith was all for not.

Since that Institute class so long ago, I've studied my church's history on my own with an understanding that such knowledge enriches my testimony and arms me with the capacity to help others. There are dozens of faithful Latter-Day Saints and non-vitriolic Mormon historians to pick from. I feel personally indebted to Richard Bushman, Dan Peterson, Terryl Givens, Jan Shipps, John Tvednes, Hugh Nibley, Stephen Ricks, C.S. Lewis, and Timothy Keller for their contributions online and in print. (Okay, the last two aren't Mormon historians, but they were invaluable in my own search for ground during those times it felt ripped out from under me). I am excited to read Stephen Webb, Tom Mould, and Samuel Brown as soon as I find the time.

3. Teach what you know. Finally (and this one took the longest), I realized that I wasn't the only one in the world that wondered how to reconcile Adam and Eve with evolution or why some parts of the facsimile translations are incorrect or etc., etc. Over the years, I've discovered sites like fairlds.org, bycommonconsent.com, mormonscholarstestify.org, and mormonvoices.org (not to mention mormon.org itself) that were all a big help in finding my own voice and encouraging me to find faithful settings where I could perhaps be of help to someone else. More and more, I seek opportunities to teach the gospel and create a faithful atmosphere of questions and (sometimes) answers.

M. Russell Ballard was right when he said, four years ago:

"Now, may I ask that you join the conversation by participating on the Internet to share the gospel and to explain in simple and clear terms the message of the Restoration. Most of you already know that if you have access to the Internet you can start a blog in minutes and begin sharing what you know to be true. You can download videos from Church and other appropriate sites, including newsroom.lds.org, and send them to your friends. You can write to media sites on the Internet that report on the Church and voice your views as to the accuracy of the reports. This, of course, requires that you understand the basic principles of the gospel. It is essential that you are able to offer a clear and correct witness of gospel truths. It is also important that you and the people to whom you testify understand that you do not speak for the Church as a whole. You speak as one member—but you testify of the truths you have come to know."

The article I read today reminds me that more people are having the same struggle I did years ago than ever before. This statement from an apostle combined with the incredible amount of focus given by the media right now to Latter-Day Saints makes it the perfect time to find our voices. There are a lot of people who are being blindsided by misinformation and vitriol right now, and they need our help.

May we find the courage to speak up and heal the broken hearted.

18 January 2012

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Posted in Arrangement, Art, Business

Make Your Voice Heard Through MormonVoices.org

You've heard it before. Mormons wear magic underwear, hide their extra wives in their closet, and believe that they will get their own planet when they die. Sigh. I've read things like this on Wikipedia, the Washington Post, the LA Times, and a number of other places where I would expect a modicum of accuracy from the writers if not from the multitude of commenters who see it as an opportunity to get to the "juicy" stuff about those weird Mormons. It has only increased in the last year and a bit that has been dubbed "the Mormon Moment".

If there is anything that I've learned from this it is the incredible amount of misinformation that is out there on the Internet about the faith that I hold dear. Truly, I've learned that lack of access to the facts of a given matter does not stop a person who wants to say something from making something up in its place. On the other hand, I've also learned that many people are more than happy to be enlightened when they discover that they have been misinformed.

Mormon Voices



All of this is why I was so happy when I found MormonVoices, an online help for Latter-Day Saints wanting to participate in the public dialogue about Mormons. Among a lot of great content, it contains civil explanations of those beliefs of ours that are intentionally or otherwise misrepresented in the media, a news feed to see what is being published by journalists about our faith, and (best of all) a way to sign up as a volunteer to help with the MormonVoices mission!

The last one is my favorite. I signed up just before Christmas and have since been sent a "Call to Action" email each time MormonVoices needs volunteers to hop online to an article where either the journalist or the commenters are misconstruing the facts about the Church.

In the last month, I have participated in 5-6 of these Calls to Action, commenting on articles with the goal in mind of clarifying people's misunderstandings and misstatements or simply making the conversation more edifying.

Bearing My Testimony On the Internet



One such time, a commenter outright asked "So, does anybody out there actually believe this stuff?" Bingo. I responded that I did. Due to the context of the current conversation, I bore my testimony that Jesus Christ visited the Americas after His resurrection. Here is the comment in full:


"First, it is easy to type anything into a form field on a website because you cannot see the sincerity or lack thereof in my eyes, my voice, or my demeanor.

With that in mind, I do believe the scriptures of the Mormon Church, which for most Latter-Day Saints means the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price.

My small post here won't back up my assertion that belief in these scriptures ranges from figurative to literal for many in the Mormon faith, but I believe that nearly all practicing Latter-Day Saints would agree with a statement from Joseph Smith that is contained in an introductory note at the beginning of the Book of Mormon: “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”

Personally, I believe that Christ was resurrected and that He lives today. I believe that he did visit the Americas after his resurrection as the Book of Mormon claims. I believe the prophets indicated by the Book of Mormon as its authors were real people. Contrary to what Doctor Dan and Tiberius Kirk (other commenters on the same article) may think about the general religious population, I have done a great deal of research about my own faith online, am aware of its *many* blemishes, and still choose to believe. May I recommend http://mormon.org/me/1VHN/ if you are interested in reading more."


A different commenter followed up with "Does such a belief (Christ visiting the Americas) make a difference in your every day life?"

That made me think. Sometimes, people will say that ultimately religion is just a set of moral codes and whatever you believe beyond that is irrelevant.

Here was my ultimate response:


"That's a really good question, and hard to get into the answer here, but I'll take a quick stab.

Yes, it does. It informs my identity as well as brings ubiquity to a set of traditions that are otherwise "then" and "over there". The same is true regarding my belief in living prophets and modern revelation.

Such a stance brings more intimacy to my relationship with God as a visit to the Americas makes sense with my world view that God is a personal God that desires a relationship with each of us individually. I read a great post on this the other day: http://bycommonconsent.com/2011/12/05/for-the-god-wants-to-know-himself-in-you/"


These are the kinds of experiences that I have had since joining MormonVoices.

Today's Latest Call to Action



One just happened today. I got an email yesterday from MormonVoices referencing an article that was particularly derogatory to the Church regarding its standards for sexual purity. As you might imagine, the comments section for that kind of topic--especially with the tone the article had set--was pretty murky. It took me a day to think of what I could do to try and help out. Here was my response:


"The individual experience of each of these children of God is tragic, and I inevitably feel pangs that maybe there was a way that was not seen that could have made each circumstance turn out better.

I liked Kori's video, and the article on wheatandtares was thought-provoking.

What I didn't like was the divisive tone I saw in this article--I don't really think it helps the conversation. Particularly, I think that it misconstrues a number of statistics about Utah demographics in an attempt to validate its rage-against-the-machine attitude.

(To the writer's credit, these stats are often misused in attacks against the LDS Church and he may have just lifted them from a secondary source, so here is my attempt to put them into perspective.)

First, pornography. This statistic is taken from a study performed by Benjamin Edelman that surveyed online pornography use by state. What was not in scope for the study was other distribution channels. Utah has very strict laws regarding pornography access, which Professor Edelman himself posited could account for the discrepancy; that is, since Utahns that are seeking pornography can't get it any
other way than online, it inflates the number. One might argue that Utah should have less restrictive laws, but it isn't clear to infer from this study that the Utah culture drives its residents to pornography. You can read more at http://en.fairmormon.org/Utah/Statistical_claims/Pornography_use_in_Utah

Second, anti-depressants. Again, IMO, this is another that is more about channels than an indication of a culture problem. The LDS Church teaches abstaining from alcohol and tobacco, which is a common channel for individuals to treat their depression, etc. In the absence of these, Latter-Day Saints turn to perscription medications. There are other possible interpretations here, but I again doubt the
intuition that there is a "perfection" culture in Utah that causes significantly more depression cases than in other states. You can read more at http://en.fairmormon.org/Utah/Statistical_claims/LDS_use_of_antidepressants

Third, suicide. Utah is 9th in a recent study. What is interesting is that Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming are all bordering Utah, but have a *higher* suicide rate in the same study. The Rocky Mountain section of the United States is called the "suicide belt". There have been studies over the years to try and evaluate why the suicide rate is higher in these states (one I read recently correlated it with elevation of all things). Among them, though, Utah is the lowest, even though it has the highest concentration of Latter-Day Saints. Again, you can read more at http://en.fairmormon.org/Utah/Statistical_claims/Suicide_rate_among_Mormons

Conclusions are hard to make off of statistics, and my interpretations here may not be correct either, but I think the drive-by use of them in this article distracts from the issue."


I'm not sure what will come of it, but I hope that those who fall onto that article in the future will be able to use my comment to help them navigate the issue instead of feeling up the creek without a paddle.

Such a course is not for everyone; there are a number of mean-spirited people who get drunk on making those of any religious persuasion squirm under a microscope. I find myself sometimes needing to take a step back to keep myself from throwing their incivility back at them. Overall, though, it feels good to be a part of a group that is trying to make the light of the gospel shine brighter on the Internet. I feel like Gideon who withstood the words of Nehor or Abinadi who challenged the priests of Noah. I feel like I'm making a difference.

If that sounds attractive to you, take some time to go to mormonvoices.org and consider whether or not you would like to contribute your efforts!