Saturday, July 5, 2014

Some Thoughts on History

About six months ago, the LDS stake I belong to organized its fiftieth anniversary since its organization. I've actually been a member of this stake for quite a long time beginning when I first moved here after college graduation. We were not sure we were going to attend, but our newly called stake president visited our ward and strongly encouraged it and so we did. Dragging our four young children a long with us for, if my memory serves me correctly, a two hour presentation that mostly involved a survey of every stake president that served in the stake since its inception. It covered slightly more ground than this, but that was mostly it.

Now, this was interesting, and there was something to be learned from it and it would have been much more challenging to do this differently. But obviously, the stake is much, much more than its president and most of my experience within the stake involves much more my relationships with individual members than with those who lead it.

But if you look at the history of anything, you will mostly find that history to be dominated by the leaders of the relevant institutions. Study world history, and you'll mainly be studying kings, monarchs, dictators, and presidents. Study state history, and you'll be learning about mayors and governors with some other notables mixed in. The point here is that the least notable you are the more likely you will be forgotten, which is actually a very depressing thing to consider.

This is one reason why I think family history is so powerful. Family history is the art of giving life to your own ancestors, no matter how obscure they were to the world at large, they definitely have a preeminent role in your own personal existence and largely had a more interesting life than you realize.

But let me make an even bigger claim. In learning about the life of the obscure, the neglected or the forgotten, you will actually get a better sense of history than in the far more common study of the elite. Even more controversially, the famous and the elite take a far too prominent claim on the course of history than they really should. In other words, individual people, no matter how powerful their position may have been, have far less control over world events then our history books would have us believe.

I will make a far too feeble attempt to prove this hypothesis here, but let me at least provide a couple of pieces of evidence to provide at least some reason for this claim:

First, for some time, I've been wading my way through the book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. One of the themes of the book as I've been able to make sense of it, was that this massive century affecting war actually came about out of an array of contradictory forces that no one individual could control. And the result of those forces led the world into a war that nobody had the power to stop. I'm over-simplifying a bit. But the point is that it was cultural forces that were created primarily from individual members of mostly European countries that pushed the world into war and leadership were powerless at best or unwilling at worst to stop it.

But then, you could point to World War II as having a single bad actor - Adolph Hitler - who was principally responsible. There may be some truth to this. But anti-semitism was rampant in Europe at this time and Germany was punished harshly after World War I. Some may say that Hitler simply took advantage of the forces already set forth and if not him, than someone else may have kicked off the second world war with all of the atrocities that occurred along with it. What I'm saying is that world leaders get their power from the large number of people who hand it to them.

Another example, from American History. Recently I listened to this podcast with Danielle Allen author of a recently published book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. In the interview she makes the point that this country was based on the principle of both freedom and equality. That all of us, every single one of us is responsible to make sure the government is created to provide opportunities for all, "laying on its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

I think we make this mistake often, paying the CEO's of companies more money than they could possibly hope to spend while forgetting about the contributions of the folks within the company who have a role in executing the vision but in many ways even creating the vision of the company. Apple was never just Steve Jobs.

Recently, I began another attempt to read Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy. I'm interested in it because I am interested in those who tend to be marginalized and obscured in our society and by history. And this was especially prevalent in 19th century England. I've read the first three chapters which describes the central character of the book, Jude. In chapter two, he's given the job of scaring crows away from the corn fields, something he ends up not doing well:
He sounded the clacker till his arm ached, and at length his heart grew sympathetic with the birds' thwarted desires. They seemed, like himself, to be living in a world which did not want them. Why should he frighten them away? They took upon them more and more the aspect of gentle friends and pensioners - the only friends he could claim as being in the least degree interested in him, for his aunt had often told him that she was not. He ceased his rattling, and they alighted anew.
They (the crows) stayed and ate, inky spots on the nut-brown soil, and Jude enjoyed their appetite. A magic thread of fellow-feeling united his own life with theirs. Puny and sorry as those lives were, they much resembled his own.
The problem here is that it's really hard to get into the lives of the obscure. They typically are not writing memoirs, nobody is writing their biographies, movies are not being made about them. Fiction is where you can learn about them, perhaps. And that is what I'm doing here.

But really, it's not that hard to get into the lives of the obscure because in the end, it seems like most of use at times feel this way (or will eventually). Feeling forgotten, alone, or neglected is likely a part of the human condition and something we will all have to endure at some time or another.

It's too bad we fail to recognize the contribution of the masses because in the end, they likely have far more to do with the course of our world than we realize.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sin, Repentence, and Stories

This is mostly going to be a recap of a couple of different ideas that I've very recently encountered and need to find a way to absorb and apply.

Thanks to Mormon Stories, I was exposed to Adam Miller's remarkable nugget of a book, Letters to a Young Mormon, and because of the remarkable interview, I immediately bought and downloaded the electronic book. Adam Miller is a professional philosopher, author and a faithful and devout Mormon who you can tell, by virtue of his background and training has put into practice something he encourages in his book here in his chapter on scripture. In the chapter he encourages the reader to continue the work of Joseph Smith by translating over and over again the scriptures into our own life:
You'll need faith to undertake these translations as acts of repentance. You'll have to trust that the books can withstand your scrutiny and you'll have to trust that God, despite their antiquity, can be contemporary in them. The Lord counseled Joseph that, "as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning even by study and also by faith" (D&C 88:118). This is good, though circuitous, advice. On one hand, if you lack faith, seek wisdom out of the best books. On the other hand, if you lack wisdom, seek learning by faith. Your ability to translate with power will depend on your faith and it will be amplified by your familiarity with the world's best books. The wider you read in Laozi, Shakespeare, Austen, Dogen, Plato, Dante, Krishna, Sappho, Goethe, Confucious, Tolstoy, and Homer, the better off you'll be. The more familiar you are with Israelite histories, Near Eastern archaeologies, and secular biblical scholarship, the richer your translations will be rendered. Don't be afraid for scripture and don't be afraid of these other books. Claim it all as your own. Doubtless, the world's best books have their flaws, but this just means that they too must be translated. You'll need to translate them so that they can contribute to your own translations. As long as these other books help you to translate repentance, then you're still doing it right. Don't balk at this responsibility or hand it off to church leaders. Our minds go dark and our hearts go cold when we set this work aside. "Your minds in times past have been darkened," the Lord told Joseph, "because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received - which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation" (D&C 84:54-55). Our minds go dark because we've treated this responsibility lightly. We don't sit down with the scriptures and we don't study them out in our minds. And, to our discredit, we've often dismissed the world's best books rather than translate them. As a result, we'll "remain under this condemnation" until we repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon" (D&C 84:57).
 This is a good quote to set up this blog post because you get the sense that these are not idle words by Miller, you just know that he's lived them. Admittedly, he's a professor of philosophy and is a credentialed reader who had to do a lot of it to get to where he is. And unfairly, he just has more time to do this than a normal person. But still, good advice.

I have two points to make from this quote. He uses the word repentance twice in this quote in unexpected ways and I'll get to that later on. Secondly, he doesn't exclude anything. He's willing to learn from all sources. There's no ego in it. He recognizes not just that there is truth in every church, from every culture and country, but he treats the products of other sources on an almost equal footing as scripture themselves. And as we put in the hard work of translation, they become just that for us. We should not reject anything that comes from God and so much more comes from God than we realize.

In another chapter, he talks about sin in another completely unexpected way:
Being a good person doesn't mean you're not a sinner. Sin goes deeper. Being good will save you a lot of trouble, but it won't solve the problem of sin. Only God can do this. Fill your basket with good apples rather than bad ones, but, in the end, sin has as much to do with the basket as with the apples. Sin depends not just on your actions but on the story you use those actions to tell.
Like everyone, you have a story you want your life to tell. You have your own way of doing things and your own way of thinking about things. But "my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9). As the heavens are higher than the earth, God's work in your life is bigger than the story you'd like that life to tell. His life is bigger than your plans, goals, or fears. To save your life, you'll have to lay down your stories and minute by minute, day by day, give your life back to him. Preferring your stories to his life is sin.
Sin is endemic to the story you're always telling yourself about yourself. This story shows up in that spool of judgmental chitchat - sometimes fair, sometimes foul - that, like an off-stage voice-over, endlessly loops in your head. This narration follows you around like a shadow. It mimes you, measures you, sometimes mocks you, and pretends, in its flat, black simplicity, to be the truth about you. This story is seductive. It seems so weightless and bulletproof and ideal. But as a shadow it hides as much as it reveals. You are not your shadow. No matter how carefully you line up the light, your body will never fit that profile. Sin is what happens when we choose our shadows over the lives that cast them. Life is full of stories, but life is not a story. God doesn't love your story, he loves you.
If you get down to it, this idea of stories forms the foundation of the entire book and the primary objective of life is to learn about ourselves, the world and our life within the world as it is, unfiltered. And the lure of an alternative identity, a story to define ourselves is as common as it is limiting. In politics, our positions are defined more by our party membership than by an honest analysis of the issues at hand. We spend more time vilifying our political or religious opponents, rather than spending the hard work of really listening to them, understanding their positions, and using the discussion as an opportunity to wake up, shed our stories and learn more.

And this work of translation should be happening all of the time. The core of any church is not in its leadership, it's in its members. In fact, the pope, prophet, the pastor or the bishop is perhaps the least important member of a particular church institution. These often are positions of management and organization, but "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." James 1:27. In other words, the true power of a religious body comes from the collective action of each and every member of the church. In their willingness to be kind, loving, to assist and to help. Then the church callings that are most vital to the success and vitality of the church, are those callings that put individuals in contact with other individuals, providing teaching, support and kindness.

Today in our church congregation we had ward conference, where church leaders in our stake leaders taught us. In our Elder's quorum lesson today, we had a lesson that seemed to be lifted right out of this book I've been quoting on this blog. The core of the lesson was taken out of the LDS bible dictionary passage on repentance, here:
The Greek word of which this is the translation denotes a change of mind, a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world. Since we are born into conditions of mortality, repentance comes to mean a turning of the heart and will to God, and a renunciation of sin to which we are naturally inclined. Without this there can be no progress in the things of the soul’s salvation, for all accountable persons are stained by sin and must be cleansed in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Repentance is not optional for salvation; it is a commandment of God (D&C 18:9–2220:29133:16). The preaching of repentance by John the Baptist formed the preparation for the ministry of our Lord.
So, isn't that just another way of staying that repentance happens when we shed our own stories for reality. Where we wake up, in other words, become born again, embrace the world as it truly is. If we look at religion this way, it changes the dynamics of our lives in profound ways. For examples, what of guilt? Again from Miller:
Shame and guilt are life's way of protesting against the constriction of the too-tight story you're busy telling about it. The twist is that shame and guilt, manifest in this pinch, end up siding with your story and blaming life. Guilt doubles down on the self-important story you're telling about yourself. Guilt is sin seen from perspective your sinfulness. Even if you feel guilty about how you've hurt others, that guilt remains problematic because your guilt is about you and about how you didn't measure up to your story. Guilt recognizes your story's poor fit and then still demands that life measure up. It recognizes that your shoes are too small and too tight and then blames your feet for their size. Repentance is not about shaving down your toes, it is about taking off your shoes.
Finally, in the church we often talk about how the goal of our life is to return to live with God, to achieve eternal life. Miller has an interesting alternative interpretation of what eternal life means:
If eternal punishment is God's kind of punishment, then we might, as others have, try this same reading of eternal life. Eternal life is God's kind of life. Rather than just checking a life span, 'eternal' names a certain way of being alive, a certain way of holding life as it passes from one moment to the next. Life itself involves the passage of time and, in order to be faithful to it, we must bless rather than dam that flow. We must do as God does and allow the world and our parents and our children and ourselves to grow and change and die and start again. In heaven, all the world's many parts continue moving. Being sealed to those we love doesn't seal them off from change. Rather, it binds us to them as, in their living, they never cease to change. 
Have no doubt, these costs are high. Each of us will sacrifice everything. We will lose everyone and everything and everyplace we've ever been given. Even if we stay put and stay together, neither we nor they will stay the same. All of it will change and all of it will pass into what comes next and there is no going back. The question is, will we greet this passing with a closed fist and a hard heart or with an open palm and a consecrated life?
What is eternal life like? It's like this. It's like now. Eternal life is always for now and never for later. Eternal life is a certain way of holding in our hands the hunger of a human life. It is a certain way of doing whatever you're already doing. Eternal life is just like doing what you're doing right now, but doing it the way God himself would do it.
 And that's what it's all about. To become more like God and we don't have to wait, we try every day to learn more, to grow closer to God. To live our lives like God would have us live them. And this process of waking up, this lifetime process, is hard work and we should leverage all of our resources. Practice acting like God in our homes with our children. Practice accepting gifts of knowledge from all sources. Learn from everyone. The most thoughtful sermon might come out of the lips of a child or out of the lips of the aged, the poor just as easily as from an educated person. As we translate and internalize, we grow and expand.

Monday, March 24, 2014

More Religious Discussions

In the subject line of this blog I state, "General musings about mostly national politics, religion, and how I try to manage my day to day life." I wish this blog could be more about how I manage my day to day life where I dwell on issues where I have some influence and that directly affect me and my family - and that most definitely includes my religion, my community, my job. Then, I would then spend much less time on national politics. Funny how in reality this blog has spent far too much space on national politics and so I changed my subject to reflect this reality over wishful thinking.

National politics is just so much of what the national conversation is all about, at least the conversation I usually pay attention to. And I want to be a part of it, despite the fact that my voice is really a whisper compared to the shouting that is happening all around me. But nonetheless, that whisper, for reasons I can't really explain, gets me going day to day.

But I'm not the only one to be tempted to jump into the political debate, and over the years I've been a part of some lively on-line discussions, and those experiences got me to write this post a few months ago. But believe me, it's true, religion is a major part of my life and I really do enjoy writing and discussing it. But why do I do so little of it? I used to talk religion all of the time. I grew up doing it. I did it on my church mission and I've done it since with plenty of people. Along the way, I've learned that the internet may not be the proper forum for intense religious talk, definitely not in the same way I do political talk. Let me explain while realizing that perhaps some of this is pretty obvious.

First and most important, is that religion mostly transcends vocabulary and language. The Christian faith teaches that the fruit of the spirit is joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.  These are feelings, emotions, character attributes none of which are easy to explain or describe. And my faith also teaches that good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

I once was in a grocery store and this lady taught me another principle that rang true and stayed with me and I have no memory what prompted her to make this point to me, a stranger. She said that it's all about relationships. Religious faith is less about what you know and more about how you feel. Religious faith is less about knowledge and more about one's relationship with God. There's really nothing to argue about when it comes to religion, in fact my faith's scriptures forbids it because really, you are really going to convince me that my personal relationship with God is not authentic? You're going to try to tell me that my emotions and feelings are misguided or wrong? You simply can't do it.

And it's why this post is meant to be somewhat of a complementary post to the one I wrote about political debate. In a free society, our country and economy thrives on lively debate to move the country forward. Scientific papers are peer reviewed, scrutinized every which way for flaws. Political candidates are mercilessly attacked, looking for any possible reason why a person may be unfit for office. Political ideas receive similar scrutiny and abuse. This scrutiny is vital to smooth off the rough edges as we seek to solve our major problems. That post was trying to outline ways we can optimize the discourse without damaging relationships.

To have the most fruitful conversations requires humility, the willingness to abandon our own bad ideas and prejudices while being courageous enough to push our own good ideas forward even in the face of this relentless scrutiny.

But none of this really makes sense when talking about our religious faith. Some time ago, I spent some time enrolled in a martial arts class. The leader of the school said something that again has stayed with me. That religion is really a personal journey that all of us must take on our own. So true. It is a personal journey and to make progress on that journey it has to be done with humility and authenticity - a willingness to be led by and drawn to God. And we can't get there through debate, in fact that's the opposite of what we should be doing.

How we get there comes again from the fruits of the spirit - joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness faith, meekness, temperance. How do we bring ourselves to a state of mind where these feelings are possible? Prayer, meditation, softness, silence. We get there by serving and loving others - even those, especially those, who have injured us. We get there by seeking holy spaces - in our homes, at our churches, in our temples. We get there when we experience beautiful things, in nature, with art or with music.  We get there when we see in every person someone who is literally a child of God with immense worth and then we treat them as such.

A previous Bishop of a past congregation challenged his audience to, when we see a homeless person on the street, to view him as a child of God and then have a prayer in our heart that the homeless person might be looked out for and blessed. I would add, that doing so may prompt us to act on their behalf. Listening and acting on such promptings brings us to God.

The mistakes I've made in the past were mistakes I made when I treated my religious faith more like my political party. When I've tried to prove, either through scripture (ha) or by my bad logic, why my church is superior to yours. How is that possible, when faith is a journey each of us must take and this journey requires individual adaptation.

This point was brought home to me several years ago after I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I loved that book, and I was impressed with the man. What's more I felt like his life, with all of its twists and turns, was blessed and directed by God. I have no doubt about this. What's more, there's no way he or Martin Luther King or other similar religious leaders in world history could have done what they needed to do had they been a member of my particular church. No way that was possible. God worked through them and they were where they needed to be.

Now my church is definitely an unapologetic missionary church,  and all churches really should be, but that does not mean God wants every person to join it. Many people do find strength, joy and peace in my faith and it's my obligation to offer that opportunity to others, but it's always up to them to decide if this is the route God wants them to take. It's a personal journey and only the individual is qualified to make these decisions for themselves.

One last point. There are some who may read this line of reasoning and say, exactly, and this is why churches should stay out of the political space. But I don't agree. I think society's problems demand every resource we have to solve them. We need science, with its peer-reviewed journals and rigorous, provable laws to solve problems. And we've made remarkable advances by doing so, but our limitations are real and science is far from sufficient. We need our art and our music to push beyond the limits of scientific thought and into ideas that transcend logic. But again this is not sufficient.

Religion brings something more to the table. There are certain people born with spiritual gifts who have chosen a more righteous life. Who have sanctified themselves through sacrifice and obedience. Who have a stronger relationship to God than most. These are the leaders of our churches. And especially those churches with large memberships, religious leaders who have large followers who trust and listen to them. These church leaders need a voice in our national conversation. They should be sought out by our political leaders for advice and input. Almost every political issue has deep moral and ethical components that are difficult to parse out correctly without spiritual input.

We get tied up in knots over an issue like abortion because the issue is difficult. When does life really begin, not in the scientific sense of life, but when does a living soul occupy a body? When does a fetus become a person with a right to life. How can we possibly answer this question without some input from our spiritual leaders? How should we think about capital punishment. Is ending a human life something a government institution should be doing? How can we be so arrogant to assume Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist churches have nothing to say about these and other issues? What about gay marriage? Or war? Or poverty?

I'm definitely not saying that churches should have the final say and definitely not the only say. We are a democracy not a theocracy. I also believe size matters. Fringe churches with few followers should be largely ignored while defending even their right and freedom to worship as they choose. I also think certain faiths have more to say about some issues than others, for example, Muslim leaders have a lot of important opinions on the manner in which we've engaged the war on terror. And these leaders should be listened to. And I hope it's obvious that the civil rights movement was most of all a religious movement.

And that, in the end, is what religion is for me. I belong to my faith because I believe in it, with all of my heart. When I attend church service week after week, I feel the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace. I feel motivated to serve within my church community. My own journey is important, my prayers, my scripture study, the personal insights I get when I meditate. These are all my own and are intensely personal. But I listen to what the leadership within my church has to say carefully because I know these men and women have been called of God and have special insights because of their own personal relationship with God. While this is a personal journey, it's not one I have to make without help from others stronger than myself.

And this is what religious faith is in the end. A recognition of our own weaknesses and a desire for support and help from someone infinitely more capable than ourselves. A recognition that without God we are hopeless creatures. I can't walk the path of faith on my own. And that is why our country needs its churches.