Sunday, March 22, 2015

Grace Is Not God's Backup Plan: My Paraphrase of Adam Miller's Urgent Paraphrase of Paul's Letter to the Romans

Those who know me, know that I'm prone to obsessions. It's just part of my personality I guess. I get exposed to one thing that blows me over, some real gold, and I dig and dig in that one area, mining it for all it's worth. I did that when I was younger, with Bob Dylan, eventually owning and listening to nearly all of his albums. I was enamored by Barack Obama's 2008 presidential run. Now, I just can't get enough of Adam Miller. He speaks the language of Mormonism and brings to it something new and original pulling truths from everywhere and anywhere he finds it.

Growing up Mormon, I felt like I've often been in a defensive posture. Proving to others and to myself that I have the necessary levels of righteousness to be considered worthy and accepted and valued. I thought if I could just claw myself up the ladder of righteousness just a little bit higher, than I could finally feel pure, accepted and worthy. In my youth, going on a mission seemed like the impossible goal. I imagined myself sitting on the stand for my mission farewell, totally clean, pure and worthy, finally feeling acceptable to the Lord enough to serve Him.

But oddly, this feeling never came. I entered the mission field still feeling doubts about my worthiness, not sure if I really belonged. I "confessed" to both of my mission presidents while out there, both assured me I was worthy which was a blessing. But this feeling of never feeling quite right about myself persisted both on my mission and when I got home.

But as a Mormon, I was in a defensive posture in another way, in my association with broader Christiandom. I've had many moments both on my mission and off when I've discussed and debated the relative merits of grace and works with my Christian born again friends. Those Christians would accuse us Mormons of trying to work our way toward salvation and we countered back that they were offering nothing but cheap grace. Looking back, I wonder if they had the better argument.

I think there is danger on both sides of this debate, thinking all you have to do is to declare Jesus is Lord and then no matter what you do gets wrapped up in the grace of Christ and real Christ-like living is not actually required. I don't think anyone actually believes this, but I think there is some danger here. And you can read this theological debate when you contrast  the words of James with Paul.

But I think Mormons are too quick to dismiss this idea of grace. Or we misinterpret 2 Nephi 25:23:
 23 For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.
The common interpretation is to believe grace comes next, after we give everything we have. Grace becomes to some a backup plan to be used after we've tried everything else. I think that's a mistaken way to read it. Rather, after all we can do, it will never be enough. Ultimately, it has always been and will always be grace. It's why I think Adam Miller's interpretation of Mormon theology is so important because he argues that grace is foundational to Mormon theology and that it's all over Mormon scripture.

In his book "Letters to a Young Mormon", Adam Miller states in his chapter on Sin:
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. 
Miller, Adam S. (2014-01-22). Letters to a Young Mormon (Kindle Locations 145-147). Neal A. Maxwell Institute. Kindle Edition. 
He goes further in hist latest book, in the introduction:
To make sense of Romans, we have to surrender a very natural assumption. We have to stop pretending that the world revolves around us. We have to let God be the center of the universe. We have to stop looking at God’s grace from the perspective of our sin and, instead, let sin appear in light of grace. And this grace is everywhere . God’s work of creation is a grace. His work of sustaining that created world is a grace. His willingness to shape us in his image and let us make our own way is a grace. His gift of the law is a grace. His Son is a grace. And his willingness to stand by us, regardless of our weakness or wanderings, is a grace.
This, though, is what sin can’t abide. Sin wants to be the star of the show. From the perspective of sin, everything is about sin. As Paul describes it, sin is an active suppression of God’s already obvious glory. It’s a rejection of his already offered grace. Sin likes to think that it came first and that grace , then, is God’s stopgap response. Sin acts as if God’s original plan was for us to bootstrap ourselves into holiness by way of the law and then, when this didn’t quite pan out, God offered his grace— but only the bare minimum—to make good the difference and boost us into righteousness. 
Miller, Adam S. (2015-02-26). Grace Is Not God's Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul's Letter to the Romans (Kindle Locations 66-70).  . Kindle Edition.
Adam Miller goes on to "paraphrase" the entire book of Romans not only in his own, modern language, but as a reinterpretation with the intent of pulling out the sophisticated, beautiful theology of Paul's Romans and place it directly into the heart of Mormon theology. It's urgent because I think many Mormons at the ground level get grace wrong, at least I did and do.

And this has been what I've been trying to do. I'm trying to become born again and again and again. It's not, in the end, about me, it's about Christ. My life given to Christ is all that really matters and that's what it means to truly be a Christian. When Adam Miller talks about the law, he describes it as a grace because the law points us to Christ. It's why Christ says that love, both for God and for our fellow being wraps up the law, it's at its foundation.

It's why I think perhaps it's counterproductive to try to white knuckle our way to repentance. Rather we must look at repentance in the way described here in the LDS bible dictionary:
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...
But let me get right into it, let me show you an example of what Adam Miller actually did in his book. Just one sample, here's Adam's Miller restatement of Roman's 3:
19– 20 This is harsh, but it has to be said. It has to be said so that you’ll finally shut your mouth about how good you are. It has to be said so that the whole world, without exception, can be brought to stand naked and defenseless before the truth no one can be made right with God by way of the law. The law gives a totally different kind of gift: the law shows you you’re a sinner.
Miller, Adam S. (2015-02-26). Grace Is Not God's Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul's Letter to the Romans .  . Kindle Edition. 
31 Does faith then abolish the law? No, that’s ridiculous. The law can reach its end only by way of faith. The law was never meant for the sake of itself and so it’s impossible to fulfill it just by keeping it. The law was given for the sake of grace and so, as a result, only grace can fulfill it. Be absolutely clear about this. Grace doesn’t grease the wheels of the law. Grace isn’t God’s way of jury rigging a broken law. It’s the other way around. The law is just one small cog in a world animated entirely— from top to bottom, from beginning to end—by grace. 
Miller, Adam S. (2015-02-26). Grace Is Not God's Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul's Letter to the Romans .  . Kindle Edition. 
From Romans 3 King James Version:
19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. 
 31 Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbidyea, we establish the law. 
There's more in here that I'm still trying to mine. I feel like I've only scratched the surface. I think this is urgent, important stuff and I'm just getting started.

Friday, December 26, 2014

I know the church is true

As a follow up post to this one, I wanted to dive deeper into one principle of religious belief that bothers many, especially in the age of secularism and pluralism, this idea of "knowing truth". It's tough in the age of secularism because we are forced to hold onto faith that at times comes into deep tension with scientific or historic evidence. Pluralism, because we hold onto our faith while we love others who hold onto theirs even as there are foundational contradictions between the two.  Before I dive into it, let me flush out a bit of what it means to have faith. First, from a very secular historical take on the life of Christ that so far I've only been able to get part of the way through.
"Religious faith and historical knowledge are two different ways of 'knowing.' When I was at Moody Bible Institute, we affirmed wholeheartedly the words of Handel’s Messiah (taken from the book of Job in the Hebrew Bible): 'I know that my Redeemer liveth.' But we 'knew' this not because of historical investigation, but because of our faith. Whether Jesus is still alive today, because of his resurrection, or indeed whether any such great miracles have happened in the past, cannot be 'known' by means of historical study, but only on the basis of faith. This is not because historians are required to adopt 'unbelieving presuppositions' or 'secular assumptions hostile to religion.' It is purely the result of the nature of historical inquiry itself— whether undertaken by believers or unbelievers— as I will try to explain later in this chapter."

Ehrman, Bart D. (2014-03-25). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (p. 132). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The idea here is that you can say you know something is true without having historical or scientific evidence that it is so. This knowledge is a statement of faith. Adam Miller in his book, Letters to a Young Mormon, says it another way:
"When your faith falters and you're tempted to run, stand up and bear testimony instead. A testimony is a promise to stay. A testimony gives form to your great faith, it gives direction to your great doubt, and it publicly commits you to the great effort of trying to live what God gives. It is less a measure of your certainty about a list of facts than it is a mark of your commitment to bearing truths that, despite their weakness, keep imposing themselves as a grace. In this way, bearing testimony is like saying 'I love you.' A testimony doesn't just reflect what someone else has already decided, it is a declaration that, in the face of uncertainty, you have made a decision. Saying 'I love you' or 'I know the church is true' commits you to living in such a way as to make that love true."
 I think for me as a religious person, both of these quotes resonate. I know that "my Redeemer liveth" is a statement of my faith but it's also an expression of my faithfulness to Christ as my personal savior. Mormonism raises the stakes, though. In the very first section of the Doctrines and Covenants, Joseph Smith comes out boldly:
30 And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually—
This isn't just a statement of faith in this church, it's also a statement of how it compares compares with all other religious institutions that exist. I'm not sure what to completely make of this statement. I heard Terryl Givens in an interview once say that this was the language of Joseph Smith's day, that every church was making claims to exclusive truth in this way.

This is possibly true, but this expression of exclusive access to revelatory truth, or maybe that's too strong a phrase, but the idea that Mormonism has something within it missing from other faiths, that sort of self-confidence gives Mormonism some amount of spiritual power that would be missing without it.  It was through that confidence that Joseph Smith was able to, from nothing, build a church that covers the globe and that through humble beginnings, many thousands of early Saints were willing to risk their lives to move the church across the plains to begin something amazing in Utah. It's this confidence that inspires thousands of young men and women to give up several months of their prime years to share the gospel on missions. Or to spend countless hours in service in our temples, or to give up 10% of their income to the church. This sort of confidence in one's faith is obviously not unique to Mormonism, it's what motivates evangelicals to go on missions to convert Catholics in Spain. It inspires Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.

There is definitely danger in this kind of self-confidence that can lead to prejudice, abuse and obviously war.  I think rational thought and an understanding of science provides a good check on unfettered faith, forcing the faithful toward humility. I think pluralism does the same. Having deep relationships with those whose faith contradict your own puts a check on faithful over-confidence.

But there is something beautiful about many people expressing a deep internal faith in one's religion to a degree that leads them to sacrifice their time, talents and resources to build up this faith while at the same time developing love, respect and relationships with others who are doing the same thing in their own faith.

I know this church is true. It's my own statement of faith. It's a commitment of faithfulness. It's an expression of love. But at the same time, I honor others who lay claim to a faith that takes them on a different journey than my own.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Choose to Have Faith in Miracles


One of the challenges with being a religious person in this modern age of scientific advancement and its trend toward secularism is that at times you have to figure out how to hold onto crazy stories that contradict whatever you learned in science and history. It would be an interesting project to dig into why nearly every religious tradition has these crazy stories sitting at their foundation. Perhaps it stems from ancient tradition before science was well understood when there was a tendency to mix superstition with a desire to understand the world. But come on, there’s some crazy stuff. I don’t know a lot about the tradition stories of other religions, but I know my own, let me give a few examples:

From the Old Testament, Jonas was swallowed whole and then sat for three days in the belly of a whale as punishment for failing to preach to Nineveh. When he finally consented he was spit out onto the shore so he could convince the cities inhabitants to repent.

Or God created the earth and the water and the animals and then Adam and Eve in a garden where they would live forever in a state of innocence. Until, of course, Eve partakes of an apple that brings to the world sin and death.

Or of course, Jesus born to a virgin woman, lives a sinless life, healing the sick, turning water to wine, raising the dead up until his own crucifixion, when 3 days later he, himself rises from the dead and from this event starts a world wide religion that would sweep the earth.

Or later, in the 1800’s, an uneducated farm boy, Joseph Smith, guided by an angel, finds gold plates in a hill near his house. Then in a period of 3 months, produces another book of scripture detailing the events of Christians living in America spanning 1000 years before, during and after the life of Christ. And then in his lifetime, he produces another book revealing new revelations from Abraham’s life.

So, why not a belief in Santa Claus as well?

How do I as a Christian make sense of this? For one, my course of life has not really forced me to reckon with the craziness too much. I don’t study evolution in my day job; I’m not a physicist, nor really a scientist. I’m in software, I build stuff; I solve real world problems, making the mundane a little easier for people. That’s where I spend most of my day. I can go to church on Sunday, pray day and night, read my scriptures and just accept the possibility that a being in another world with more power than my mind can imagine cares for the daily mundane problems of my life. So, I accept these stories at face value because at times I have to. I just cannot believe that I’m left to my own devices to face the world alone. It feels so much better to believe I have a God who loves me and is willing to help me navigate the world.

But you know what, I love these stories. But what’s more, they aren’t just stories. Scripture describes both science and history in ways that make a mockery of both. It’s almost as if God said, I’m going to make it as hard as possible for some to believe just so I can make it as easy as possible for as many people to believe as possible. The creation story is breathtakingly simple. And through the story, a theology of the fall and the need for a Savior and an explanation of sin and grace and justice comes out of it. We learn why it’s important to work and why we have trials. It gives us a reason for the weeds in our garden or cars that break down or software with bugs or periods of unemployment or rejection. The existence Adam and Eve make no scientific sense, but it gives our lives meaning in a way that evolution would never be able to.

Apologists and Mormon academics have tried to find archeological proof of the Book of Mormon. Skeptics point out the lack of  DNA evidence that would show an ancient American link to Jerusalem. But the Book of Mormon turns Christianity into both an ancient and global religion. The book explains that the idea of Jesus was known not only to those in Jerusalem but also to those in America. And as a result provides a second testimony of the resurrection and shows that God loves all those who inhabit the earth.

There is actually historical evidence that contradicts the crucifixion and resurrection story of Jesus. But it’s the resurrection that is at the heart of Christianity, showing that through it, death will not be victorious and that through it we will all live again.

I love the story of Santa Claus. My older kids have lost their faith in Santa, sadly. Our young kids still believe. My son is right; Santa is really hard to believe in, the story makes no sense, as you get older. He doesn’t believe because how in the world could Santa travel to every house in the world in a single night. It defies physics. But he thinks he might believe because would his parents really buy that many presents for him and his sisters (we have a history of going a bit over-board). So, Santa is difficult, but still worth believing in perhaps.

But you know what I love more? A God who is also my spiritual father with a capacity to love and look out for me, his child and that this God would send His son to save me, a sinner, providing hope for change and growth. As a father myself who feels the very real weight of four children to care for, it’s good to know that I have someone with both the capacity and the will to help me.

None of this makes sense scientifically.  Evidence points in the opposite direction. I choose to believe anyway.