Tuesday, April 28, 2015

All Types of Lives and Experiences Are Legitimate and Valuable

I have had a handful of experiences in my life that I believe were truly miraculous and that testified to me of the existence of God.  I have mentioned that a number of times online, and I have been asked more than once to share those experiences.  Occasionally, in the right setting, I have shared one or more, but, generally, I have respectfully declined to do so.  

I have absolutely no desire to share my experiences in order to be dissected and analyzed to see if they can be proven to be objective miracles - especially by someone who is coming into the conversation strongly convinced that they aren't. I know what I have experienced, and I have examined those experiences as analytically as I can and can find no way to explain them logically (without factoring in the possibility of the miraculous, which is not traditionally logical).  However, I also am dead certain that many people wouldn't accept them as incontrovertibly miraculous, including many people whom I count as good friends.

If someone doesn't believe in unexplainable power of some sort that can be accessed by humans, particularly if he has never experienced anything of that nature, I am fine with that. I really am. As I've said here numerous times, at the most fundamental level, we only can "know" (to any degree) what we have studied, witnessed and/or experienced personally - and, even then, we can't know some of it objectively. We certainly can't explain to others adequately enough for them to believe if they can't see what we've seen. I also am fine with that. I'm not looking for unanimity of experience or belief here or anywhere else online where I comment; I are participating in communities of diverse people from whom I can learn - particularly in ways that are not natural (that are "foreign") to me. I'm looking for unique perspectives I would not be able to see naturally. 

I have shared the example of Laman and Lemuel and why I think they get a bit of a bum rap in the Book of Mormon. The example that related to this post is when Nephi asked if they had inquired of the Lord to see what Lehi saw - and they responded that the Lord didn't make those things known to them. If Nephi (and Lehi) had been open to that as a factual, honest, acceptable answer, we might have a different narrative than we have - if they had understood that some people simply don't have visions or hear voices or feel soul-burning impressions. Those who have those experiences tend to discount or reject the idea that others don't have them, while those who don't have them tend to discount or reject the experiences of those who do have them.

I'd rather be open to both types of lives and "experience-orientations" as legitimate and valuable - as well as all points between those extremes.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Moroni's Promise: "True" Doesn't Have to Mean" "Factually Accurate in Every Detail"

Based on the wording of Moroni 10:3-5, Moroni's invitation is about gaining a spiritual witness, not an intellectual one. That is an important distinction, and it is worth considering carefully.

Verse 3 focuses intensely on looking back in time and recognizing how merciful God has been to his children throughout time - then pondering that mercy.  It doesn't ask the reader to ponder what the Book of Mormon has said up to that point; rather, it asks the reader to ponder God's long-suffering mercy.

Focusing on God's mercy puts the reader's prayer directly into the realm of asking if the Book of Mormon is "true" in a spiritual sense - more like "true north" than "factually inerrant". Given how often the book includes comments about overlooking the mistakes in it and the weakness of its writers, I think that's not accidental. Thus, the prayer request becomes less, "Tell me if this book is historically accurate," and more, "Be merciful to me, as you have been to others throughout time, and answer my prayer." It's more of a connection to the divine than receipt of a factual answer - and I believe too many members and missionaries approach it as more of an intellectual question that asks if the details in the book are "accurate / right".

I think that simple difference is more than just significant.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Why I Believe in Creative and Controlled Honesty

About "creative honesty":

I believe in being honest, but I also believe in being careful and intentional in how I express that honesty – and that applies to ALL my interactions, not just (or even primarily) my religious/church ones. I believe in creative honesty – and I don’t think that’s a paradox in any way. (I also believe in being flat-out, unambiguously, blatantly dishonest in some rare instances, like protection cases. If I was hiding a Jew and a Nazi asked me if I knew where any Jews were hiding - or if I was being asked by a criminal where my wife and/or children were, I have no problem whatsoever lying to protect someone else in that type of situation.)

Here's a common example of what I mean by creative honesty:

If my wife asks if a dress makes her look fat, and if the dress does, in fact, make her look fat, I’ll answer her honestly and say, “Yes, it does.” I’ve been married for 27 years, so I have the social capital to answer that direct question honestly. If, however, she says, “How do I look in this dress,” I’m NOT going to say, “Fat!” I’m going to say, “It’s not very flattering” – or something ambiguous like that. If she says, “Do you like this dress,” I’m going to say, “Not really. It does’t bring out your best qualities very well” – or something similar. 

The scriptural reference I would use to highlight this concept (Matthew 10:16) is about missionaries, but I believe it applies to the general principle:

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.

About "controlled honesty": 

In the temple recommend interview, I can be totally honest in answering the questions the way they are asked – with a “Yes” or “No” – or, in two cases, “Not always, but I try hard.” My more extensive answers (those that detail exactly how I view each question and what my answers mean philosophically to me) might be different than the Bishop’s or Stake President’s – but I don’t care, because the questions don’t ask about that type of difference. They only ask if I believe, do, accept, etc. – with no deeper digging required unless I open the door and give the interviewer the shovel. I have no desire to do that, since I am totally sincere in my simple “Yes” and “No” answers

This principle of controlled honesty is best summarized in the Lord's words in Matthew 5:37:

But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Undersatnding God: The Lens of Modern Technology and Embryonic Gods

There are a number of prophecies and general theological statements that become extremely interesting when viewed in terms of modern technology.

Just a few examples to consider: 

1) We now can conceptualize and accept the possibility of the creation of life completely outside of traditional sexual intercourse.  Thus, we can envision Heavenly Parents creating "spirit children" in ways that would have been called science fiction in the past. 

2) We now can conceptualize and accept the possibility of being so inter-connected and aware (satellite news feeds, Facebook, video chat, text messages, etc.) that it is possible to see and know everything that happens around the world - and, by extension, eventually, throughout all creation;

3) We now can conceptualize and accept the possibility of lots of "godly" things that were dismissed as unknowable and mysterious only a relatively short time ago, much less hundreds or thousands of years ago. 

I'm going to say this carefully, but we, as "normal humans", now are closer in some ways to how God has been described in ancient scriptures - and that is both an exhilarating and frightening thing. For example, it's one thing to fight like animals, unaware of the world at large and with little effect on it, but it's another thing entirely to fight like mythological gods, with the literal power to exterminate the entire species (and more) while understanding it is being done.

"Ye are gods, and children of the Most High God" is more understandable now than at any previous point in history.  The central question for me is:

What kind of gods will we be - or, through our actions, who will be able to say:

I am the God of this world. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Why I Don't Worry about the End of the World

A belief in the Second Coming obviously is not just a Mormon or modern belief. It is clear in the Old and New Testaments, as well as in the Book of Mormon - and lots of non-Christian texts, as well. People all throughout history have thought their time was so wicked that the world would be destroyed. We (modern Christians, not just Mormons) have reinterpreted Biblical warnings about "the last days" to be about our time, but they weren't seen that way when they were written and spoken back in the day. At that time, the warnings weren't seen as being about a long-future time; they were about the immediate or relatively near future. 

I don't believe strongly this is the beginning of the end - but I believe we now have more power to cause the end than humans ever have possessed. In that regard, I understand modern millennial prophecies and beliefs well enough not to ridicule and dismiss them. We have the capability of annihilating ourselves, so end time prophecies make more sense now than they have at any other point in history. 

Also, it can be useful to understand that our individual earthly end is near - but that reading is based on a recognition that classic end-of-the-world prophecies have not been accurate for thousands of years. It's a productive repackaging of the statements, if you will, so I have no problem whatsoever with it and have used it on occasion, but it still is a repackaging. 

When it comes to "the end times", my own standard is, "No man knoweth the time" - so I can chalk up everything else as generalized messages about preparing for the end of the world, whether that be my own life or the literal end of human existence on this earth.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Faith and Uncertainty vs. Doubt and Certainty

I will never "teach doubt" - but I teach the need to accept uncertainty and limited knowledge, and the subsequent need for inquiry and searching, all the time. Teaching doubt simply means teaching people to close their minds and avoid exploration and wait for others to do their searching and deciding and, as a result, allow someone else to do their acting for them.  Ironically, teaching doubt, in the end, is exactly like teaching certainty - and that ought to be contemplated in theological terms much more than it tends to be. 

I know it's not the exact same thing, but I've seen cynicism destroy people's lives - and it is ugly. I prefer to teach things related to doubt in a positive, solution-oriented way - so my approach is to acknowledge the universal nature of doubt / uncertainty / ambiguity / non-understanding / whatever and "teach" positive approaches to deal with and gain from it. In other words, I teach about the unavoidable existence of uncertainty (which sometimes is called "doubt") and its ability to encourage growth, but I actively teach constructive, productive ways to negate its potentially harmful effects.

Especially in matters of religion, that allows me to teach in a way that doesn't dismiss statements like, "Doubt not; fear not" - or anything else that casts doubt in a negative light. I can say, "Yes, doubt (a foundational attitude of disbelief) can keep someone from the benefits of faith (a foundational attitude of belief)." Even the scientific model is based on a willingness to believe that research of the unknown can produce new knowledge - and, at the heart, that is a vital, non-religious application of the core concept of faith.

Also, it's easier, always, to teach an extreme - on either end. It doesn't take much effort at all to do that. Thus, the extremes - on both ends - get taught more often than a more comprehensive understanding of the "perfect" (complete, whole, fully developed) concept and principle.

Anyone can "teach doubt" or "teach faith" in isolation. Not everyone can teach how they are inter-related - meaning not everyone can teach "eternal progression" and how both uncertainty and faith are integral to it. The ideal isn't to teach one of the extremes; the ideal is to teach the perfect concept. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Teaching Faith Relative to Doubt and Uncertainty

When I teach about faith, I draw a distinction between doubt and uncertainty - and between doubting and questioning / seeking.

To me, "doubt" is used in the scriptures often as a verb ("to doubt") or to describe an orientation/mindset ("Doubting Thomas"), and it doesn't mean to be uncertain, to question or to seek. It means to have a disbelieving mindset - to start from a foundation of, "I have to see to believe," rather than, "I can believe while I question and seek, until I find evidence that leads me not to believe." Doubt is the suspension of belief amid uncertainty; faith is the suspension of disbelief amid uncertainty. Viewed that way, they are polar opposites.  Uncertainty isn't bad or evil in any way - unless it becomes a default setting that hardens into intractable doubt and removes one's ability to move forward amid uncertainty.  Acting on hope amid uncertainty is the non-religious term for the principle of faith.

Thus, I'm not a doubter; I'm a believer.

When I try to understand and decide what I believe and don't believe, I don't focus first on trying to figure out what I don't believe; I focus first on figuring out what I do believe. Once I figure out what I do believe, I don't doubt everything else. Rather, I simply don't believe it at that time - with the understanding that I might believe some of it at some point in the future as I continue to hone what I do believe.

I see doubt as restrictive and constricting; I see faith as liberating and empowering; I see questioning and seeking as essential - and doubt undermines that process. It's a subtle difference, but it's an important one to me, since it influences my attitude more than just about anything else of which I'm aware.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

My Sacrament Meeting Talk: Faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ

I spoke in a small branch today, and a sister in my ward was the other speaker. I asked her to  read  Pres. Wixom's talk Sunday morning and Pres. Uchtdorf's talk in the Priesthood session and speak about whatever she took from them.

She shared two stories: one about a relative who was away from the Church for years due to a really bad experience with some members and a local leader and one about herself and her struggles to accept that she doesn't get answers to prayers like most people who speak and teach and lead in the Church. It was heartfelt, personal and moving.

I changed my talk almost completely as I was sitting on the stand during the meeting. The assigned topic was "Faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ", and I prepared a talk combining elements of talks in General Conference from Pres. Uchtdorf, Elder Holland and Elder Nielson. As I sat on the stand and looked at everyone in the chapel (about a dozen people), I decided to scrap that talk and talk about two things, primarily: looking at who Jesus was as a mortal and whom he served during his ministry.

I mentioned that Jesus was born in a manger/stable/barn/grotto cave, that his father worked with his hands (that he wasn't a doctor or lawyer or professor but a carpenter), that his mother was (almost surely) an unwed teenager, that he was moved to and raised in Egypt (in order to escape Herod's rage), that he returned in a way as an outsider or foreigner, that he grew up in Nazareth (of which the Old Testament includes a question asking if any good thing can come out of Nazareth), etc. in almost every way, he would not have been accepted as an insider by the "important" people of his time.

I pointed out that when it came time for his ministry he served others like himself in some way: the outcast, the sick, the diseased, the obvious sinner, the poor, the hated and marginalized.

I repeated Pres. Uchtdorf's description of church as a repair shop, not a showroom, and I talked about how we all are fallen, failing, broken, etc. in some way and how we should be able to come to church for help being repaired/healed. I said we exercise faith in Jesus when we recognize ourselves as needing repair and accept other broken vessels to meet with us, no matter the nature of their brokenness - when our congregations are not just geographic wards (and branches) but also hospital wards.

I summarized the degrees of glory as conditions of the heart: unrepentant Telestial, no real effort Terrestrial and best effort Celestial. I explained that nothing in the descriptions includes a required checklist of actions but, instead, focuses on effort only. I talked about the statement, "We  know that it is by grace we are saved, after all we can do," with a reference to Pres. Uchtdorf, and rearranged the statement to say what he taught, "(Even) after all we can do, we know that we (still) are saved by grace."

I ended with the parable of the sower and simply pinted out that the good soil produced different amounts of fruit, some thirty, some sixty and some a hundred. Again, it wasn't the amount produced that mattered, since ALL of it was called good, but simply that it produced good fruit. I told them that having faith in Jesus, at the most basic level, is about accepting that he will call us good if we do our best to produce good fruit, no matter how much we end up producing. It isn't about numbers; it is about loving effort, recognizing and accepting that we already have been saved by God's grace and will inherit the ultimate divine glory simply for trying to follow Jesus' example and love and serve ourselves and others.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Real Faith Cannot Be Built by Using Borrowed Light

Faith is built on what is hoped but can't be seen. Unfortunately, that can lead some people to not worry about seeing anything - or even denying what should be easily visible. It's easy to forget that belief in what can be seen but is not faced is not empowering faith in the purest sense (since the Book of Mormon adds the interesting disclaimer, "which are true") - like someone who continues to believe the world is flat when there is so much evidence to the contrary.  Of course, that can be a tricky thing to say, since many people insist they know, with absolute certainty, some things that might not be fully knowable, but it still is a good thing to remember.  Believing something does not make it correct - and merely believing something does not constitute faith. 

How then should someone of faith help someone else have faith, as well?

We all see through a glass, darkly, but glasses need to be prescription to work better than whatever we have now, and it's really hard for one person to find the right prescription for someone else - especially in an area that is as subjective and individualized as faith.  Therefore, I believe it is most important to encourage others to consider carefully and ponder deeply what they personally believe (independent of what others believe) and, if they are unsure, help them build their own individual faith.  Building faith, ultimately, must be a personal journey, based on what one person sees, does not see and hopes - and, until it is tackled individually, faith is illuminated solely by borrowed light. 

I will attempt to lend light to someone who desires to see, but, ultimately, I must encourage them to put aside my light and search for and find their own - even if that means they end up seeing some things (even things I hold dear) differently than I do.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Fallacy of "God Wouldn't Let Me (____________)"

There are two basic ways we can try to avoid responsibility for our actions, and they are summarized in the following formats:

The devil made me do it.  

God wouldn't let me do it, if He didn't want it to happen.  

I believe both of these formats circumvent agency and are not consistent with Mormon theology. 

As to the second phrasing, the one we tend to hear more within our own faith community, it is no different than if a child said:

My parents wanted me to have a cookie, or they would have put the jar in a place where I couldn't get to it.

At some point, we need to stop being merely children of God, grow up and become adults/heirs of God.