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.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A few thoughts on the LD26 debate

I wish I had more time this election season to carefully watch and blog about each debate in detail. As it stands, I'm having to watch debates sporadically usually while doing something else pieces at a time. And I'm only going to be able to post quick thoughts about them here.

Here's the LD26 debate for the benefit of those living as I do in that district:

A few quick points:
Nothing against those running against the Democrats in this district but it seems like the Republican party has given up on it. I say that because it just doesn't seem like the Republican party candidates are getting the same kind of backing and support as the Democrats. The Democratic candidates have more experience. Obviously because all of them are incumbents, but they all just seem to understand politics deeply. All three have an obvious and deep passion for it and seem to be it in for the long haul.

The two Republican candidates (well the Senate candidate, Dale Eames is really running as an independent), are just citizens of the community, to use their words, who had to be talked into running largely because no one else would.  Eames literally decided to run at the very last minute and scrambled to get the necessary signatures. Neither have much in the way of political experience. The Democrats, by contrast, have a stronger grasp of the technicalities of each issue.

In the debate, of the Republicans,  James Roy did make one really good point that I wish would have gotten vetted better, that increased access costs are squeezing funding for schools. We can't fund everything, keep tax rates low and close are coming deficits - a few brief mentions on the looming deficits were mentioned, but mostly only by Andrew Sherwood.

I'm not one to enjoy a fight (ok, maybe a little), but I want the candidates to go at each other a little bit, I want views to be challenged and defended, but very little of that went on in this debate. There was a lot of agreement around more laws to prosecute animal cruelty (I wish there would have been more representation to the idea that we tend to over-punish reflexively).

Andrew Sherwood come off a little arrogant to me. Very knowledgeable and passionate. I'm not sure how he behaves with his colleagues and there's a place for a bull dog, but an ounce of humility wouldn't hurt. I'm not sure if that was more of a performance?

Juan Mendez showed the most humility of three democrats which is good. He made some really good points about lobbyists and legislative pay. He's young and I doubt he's making much on the side, so he's really trying to squeak by on the legislative salary which is tiny.

Ed Ableser apparently has no campaign website? I guess he doesn't need one this go around. He was easily the most experienced and knowledgeable. Has strong command of the issues and seemed the most comfortable with the debate. He has impressive credentials, but he misses a lot of time in the Senate, though this likely has a lot to do with the Senate salary requiring an active professional life, his family obligations, and the fact that Democrats don't have much of a voice in the legislature currently.

I expect the Democrats to win easily. I know James Roy personally. He used to be a member of my church congregation. He admitted nerves, early in the debate, but I think he did well all things considering. He says that immigration is his most important issue and I disagree pretty strongly with his position. I'm likely to vote democrat for this race. Sorry James.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Getting Along With Others

I just finished reading remarkable book co-written by a remarkable LDS couple, Terryl and Fiona Givens. The book challenges me to approach my Mormonism in a different way. Each week is my opportunity to offer up my personal gifts in the spirit of true worship and it's my obligation to find my own watering holes outside of church, especially when the church service itself fails to do so.

There are two qualities of Mormonism that make it remarkable and unique: 1) The church is run in large part by a local congregation of unpaid volunteers. 2) These local congregations are organized purely geographically and its members are strongly encouraged to attend the congregation they happen to live. From this membership, the leaders are called, so quality and personalities vary.

This provides a unique opportunity to meet people you might not otherwise meet and it forces global regions to self-bootstrap and to learn how to take care of themselves. A couple of quotes from the book illustrate the power of this approach:
Although not all family relations are idyllic, most are remarkably strong and a primary source for the individual's identity. Surely that is, in part, a function of the cost of individuals pay to make a relationship work. Love is a product of what we put into a relationship. We love our families because of how much we have invested in them, how many times we fought, argued, simmered, and stewed but were forced back to the negotiating table by an unavoidable proximity and by a connection that transcended personal choice. We love that irritating brother and that infuriating sister because we couldn't simply walk away in a moment of frustration. We had to submit to the hard schooling of love because we couldn't transfer to another class with siblings more to our taste.
Like Robinson Crusoe on his island, Mormons implicitly recognize that any resource they need to employ for the building of Zion must be found within themselves or their immediate environs, not among more congenial fellow Saints or under the tutelage of more inspiring leaders the next block over. These wards and stakes thus function as laboratories and practicums where we discover that we love God by learning to love each other.
and finally
Certainly it is in the nature of institutions to homogenize disparities, to stifle individualism. But the Creator God of Genesis is a Being who revels in distinctions, difference, and variation, an Artificer who separated man from woman as surely as He severed earth from sky. And love is the spark that fires across the chasm of difference, not the plane of sameness. This is as true of Zion as it is of marriage. The poet Coventry Patmore wrote that the bonds that unite us in community consist 'not in similarity, but in dissimilarity; the happiness of love, in which alone happiness resid[es]...not in unison, but conjunction, which can only be between spiritual dissimilar.'
This got me thinking about how I've fallen short in my church membership over the years.  I've always had an internal drive to live up to my church callings, to really feel like I am a strong contributor in my congregation and to really feel like I could be there to help and uplift. I've always wanted to feel like I was in a congregation that could use me, that appreciated my family, where I felt useful and needed.

But there are times, in this striving, where I mess up, when my personality comes across a bit too strong, or anxious, or annoying. I can certainly relate to the comedian Nathan Fielder who uses a socially awkward personality as a tool for laughs:

The point, here, though is that there will always be people who you will anger or annoy, or people you dread seeing in the hallway because of some past unresolved conflict. This is normal and human. When it's a member of a family, you are forced to deal with it. You just can't pick another family to belong to. Mormon congregations have to a lesser extent, the same dynamic. You can pick up your family and move to another area, but that's not always possible and certainly not easy. Better to learn the art of reconciliation, repentance and forgiveness. Better to face those awkward and difficult moments head-on. Here lies opportunity for growth.

I had this experience recently. Two of my oldest children are in a community children's choir and the director is amazing, pushing the kids, working hard and striving for high musical quality. She also provides some interesting opportunities. Last spring, they had the opportunity to sing the National Anthem at an ASU basketball game. I love basketball, so I took the kids and my other 5 year old daughter to the game. After the anthem was sung, the kids met me so we could watch the game together.

We had to arrive early and I misunderstood my seat number, so we sat in the wrong section. The true owners of our seats arrived late, so we didn't realize our mistake until after the game had begun. They were nice and there were plenty of open seats so they just sat elsewhere. Well, being a little obsessed about correcting my mistakes, at halftime, we got some food and returned to our real seats. Well, of course, someone else was sitting in them, so we took seats nearby those which happened to be directly behind an older couple.

So I had my five year old sit next to me, then my two other children next to her. This put me and my daughter directly behind an older couple. My five year old is short and her legs stick out a bit, precariously close to the man in front's back. I was aware of this fact and sensitive to it, but was hopeful she could constrain herself enough. Besides college stadium seating is packed, I didn't think too much of it. And of course I quickly got absorbed into the game.

After about 10 minutes of this, the man in front just lost it. Here's the exchange as best as I can remember:

  • The man, turned around angrily, exclaiming "Look, I just about had enough of this".
  • Me to the man: "I'm sorry, I'm sorry". Me to my daughter: "Please be careful with your feet".
  • My older daughter to me: "What's going on?"
  • Me to my older daughter: "I wasn't totally aware, and my daughter was poking his back".
  • The man to me even angrier and louder: "Man, I'm about ready to pop you one."
  • Me to the man: "Take it easy, she's only 5."
  • The man to me: "Well, how old are you!"
  • Me to the man: "Sorry, sorry". We finally move to another seat far away.
Unfortunately for me, the man and his wife also happen to be connected to the choir. After the game, we walked to the parking garage and I noticed he was parked close to where we were parked. And it was packed and busy, so I took the kids to a grassy area far away to play for a long while.

Worse still, we had three more concerts that year, and yes he was at every single one. I would look for him, inevitably find him and try to keep myself situated as far from him as possible. I have effectively banished a stranger from my life.

The new year has arrived and he may or may not be at future concerts (I will never forget his face). But why is it my job to avoid him? Perhaps a better strategy is to engage fully in the choir. And if I run into him again in the future, maybe I don't say hi, but I certainly don't walk in the opposite direction.

Maybe he was having a bad day, perhaps he was dealing with a personal tragedy and just didn't have the patience. It doesn't matter. Dealing with people, day in and day out as we do, there are times when tempers are triggered. It's our job to work through them the best we can and to keep striving for more goodness. And in the future, I will try to be more sensitive to those around me so that my young children are not inadvertently poking my neighbor in the back.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

On Liberty

In my Mormon congregation last week, a member of our stake high council spoke on the subject of liberty which is one of those principles that where politics mixes with religion. To be honest, I can't say I was able to absorb his talk completely. It was long and meaty and we have four children that have a hard time sitting still through church meetings. But I did want to summarize bits of it I was able to get and to also add a few extra thoughts of my own.

Many politicians act as if freedom can only be granted or taken away by the government. Our founding documents act as a rebuttal to this, describing the unalienable rights of each person granted to them by their Creator. Government can attempt to take away these rights and have throughout history, but oppressive government is not the only way to limit one's liberty.

One of the principles taught in the talk is why obedience to God's law is the way to find both personal happiness and somewhat paradoxically, preserve liberty. This principle can, in some ways, be a rebuttal to the more libertarian view that society is free insomuch as we are able to reduce government's role to an enforcer of contracts. Rather it's a recognition that in our choices we can limit our own and another's freedom in ways that may not be obvious at first glance. One example of this is when we fall into an addiction. It's hard to feel free when we are compelled to behave in ways that cause us personal shame, embarrassment or worse.

But another less obvious way that sin inhibits our freedom is that it blunts our ability to experience the kind of growth we would otherwise have. This will limit our ability to develop talents and improve our capacity. And in the end, our life's experience will become muted and our choices limited.

But our country has in some ways done a poor job in ensuring liberty, especially for the poor and the non-white.

Unjust Sentencing
In a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, there are so many examples of how we limit liberty by coming down far too harshly on crime. Much of this was an overreaction to the get tough on crime movement of the 1980's that still plague us today.

Three Strikes Laws

Matt Tabbai:
"Despite the passage in late 2012 of a new state ballot initiative that prevents California from ever again giving out life sentences to anyone whose 'third strike' is not a serious crime, thousands of people – the overwhelming majority of them poor and nonwhite – remain imprisoned for a variety of offenses so absurd that any list of the unluckiest offenders reads like a macabre joke, a surrealistic comedy routine."

"Like wars, forest fires and bad marriages, really stupid laws are much easier to begin than they are to end. As the years passed and word of great masses of nonviolent inmates serving insanely disproportionate terms began to spread in the legal community, it became clear that any attempt to repair the damage done by Three Strikes would be a painstaking, ungainly process at best. The fear of being tabbed 'soft on crime' left politicians and prosecutors everywhere reluctant to lift their foot off the gas pedal for even a moment, and before long the Three Strikes punishment machine evolved into something that hurtled forward at light speed, but moved backward only with great effort, fractions of a millimeter at a time."
The War on Drugs

This is an interesting one because drug addiction can cause enormous damage to an individual afflicted, but to think the solution is to lock up people, primarily poor people of color, for minor drug offenses is not the way to stop it... Well, it's like trying to protect liberty by limiting it. And it has had devastating affects. After spending $1 trillion fighting the war, we are left with this:
About 40,000 people were in U.S. jails and prisons for drug crimes in 1980, compared with more than 500,000 today. Excessively long prison sentences and locking up people for small drug offenses contribute greatly to this ballooning of the prison population. It also represents racial discrimination and targeting disguised as drug policy. People of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than white people -- yet from 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested for drug law violations at rates 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates.
Our Juvenile Detention Center

Nell Bernstein, author of Burning Down The House:
"'The greatest predictor of adult incarceration and adult criminality wasn't gang involvement, wasn't family issues, wasn't delinquency itself,' Bernstein says. 'The greatest predictor that a kid would grow up to be a criminal was being incarcerated in a juvenile facility.'"
Our Sex Offender Registery

Sexual offense is a crime that's really tough to write about because it has such a high level of stigma in our country today. But the laws around sex offenders is getting irrational:
"American policies regarding sex offenders mark them as a special category of criminals for whom no stigma is too crippling, no regulations are too restrictive, and no penalty is too severe. This attitude, driven by fear and outrage, is fundamentally irrational, and so are its results, which make little sense in terms of justice or public safety. Like the lustful predators of their nightmares, Americans pondering the right way to deal with sex offenders seem captive to their passions."
I encourage you to read the article in its entirety but I will quote the conclusion:
"In a 2004 Criminal Law Bulletin article, William Mitchell College of Law professor Eric Janus argued that 'sexual predator laws provide a model for undercutting…constitutional protections.' The process, Janus said, starts with a universally despised group of people who, like suspected terrorists, attract no public sympathy. He warned that 'we are at risk of becoming a ‘preventive state,’ in which the paradigm of governmental social control has shifted from solving and punishing crimes that have been committed to identifying ‘dangerous’ people and depriving them of their liberty before they can do harm.' To most Americans, I fear, this prospect is not nearly as scary as the possibility that a sex offender lives down the street.'"
 Development As Freedom

The nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen, makes the compelling case in this book that the government should be proactive not just eliminating unjust imprisonment, but also in enhancing freedom and equality among it's citizenry. Sen summarizes this position here:
"On the other hand, the freedom of agency that we have individually is inescapably qualified and constrained by the social, political and economic opportunities that are available to us. There is a deep complementarity between individual agency and social arrangements. It is important to give simultaneous recognition to the centrality of individual freedom and to the force of social influences on the extent and reach of individual freedom. To counter the problems that we face, we have to see individual freedom as a social commitment. This is the basic approach that this work tries to explore and examine."
Similarly, social opportunities of education and health care, which may require public action, complement individual opportunities of economic and political participation and also help to foster our own initiatives in overcoming our respective deprivations. If the point of departure of the approach lies in the identification of freedom as the main object of development, the reach of the policy analysis lies in establishing the empirical linkages that make the viewpoint of freedom coherent and cogent as the guiding perspective of the process of development. 
I wholehartedly agree with my high councilor who taught us why obedience to God's law is essential for personal liberty. But often times this is not enough. For one, none of us is perfectly obedient, and it's why the doctrine of grace runs hand in hand with obedience. Personal liberty requires a climate of compassion when we make sincere efforts to overcome past mistakes. A world where someone is locked up 25 years to life for stealing a pair of socks is a world where one's liberty has been unjustly taken away. Rather we need to live in a society where punishment truly fits the crime. Where there is a pathway for people to overcome their past mistakes so that they can live good, productive lives. This requires compassion and sympathy and a degree of sophistication.

But also, I might add, personal liberty comes hand-in-hand with social justice. We are free or we are bound together. A world where some of our population is deprived access to basic health care or adequate education is a world that is not free. Freedom requires a functioning community, society and government. Where resources are sustainable, the environment is protected, where basic infrastructure is developed and adequately maintained, and where everyone has the opportunity for self-development and personal growth.

No one is truly free individually.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Logic, History and Islam

I recently saw this video in my facebook feed.

I wasn't comfortable enough with the friend to dive into a discussion about it with her on Facebook and to be honest, I'm not confident enough with the subject matter to have a competent opinion from which to defend. But that won't stop me from taking the argument on from my blog, so here goes.

First of all, read the wikipedia entry about the speaker. She's definitely legitimate. Her passion comes from experience and she knows more about this topic than I do, that's for sure. But before reading anything about her, watched the video. And through it, alarms kept ringing in my head with words like "no", "stupid", "bad logic".

You see she speaks with emotional passion, energy, and rhetorical flourish, so it's understandable that she gets the applause and the facebook shares. But there's danger there. In their book , Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise talk about how to study history during the logic phase and they make the following point:
Creating a time line teaches the student to trace chronological connections; outlining trains the student to look past rhetorical smoke and mirrors in order to find the "bare bones" argument of a speech or essay; the use of primary sources teaches the student to interpret the material himself instead of relying on "experts"; organizing information into divisions of the history notebook helps the student to classify similar events and historical trends together.
The point about outlining is important here.  So, let me apply it now. What were Brigitte Gabriel's main point and what were arguments she was making to prove it. Unfortunately the clip is taken out of context so this will be a fragmented analysis.

First, the questioner makes the point that it's erroneous to paint all 1.8 billion worldwide followers of Islam as bad. Further, there are 8 million Muslim Americans in this country and not one on of them sit in this particular panel. This leads her to ask, how can you expect to win and end an ideological war with weapons, when it seems more appropriate and effective to win an ideological war by taking on the ideology. Ms. Gabriel responds:
  1. She denies anyone on this panel mentioned anything about Muslims. Rather they want to know why four Americans died in Benghazi and who will be held accountable for that.
  2. She then pivots to the religion itself (since the questioner brought it up). She sites the statistic that 15-20% of Muslims are radical.
  3. Then because that's true, that means 300 million people are dedicated to the destruction of western civilization.
  4. The reason why we should worry is because that also means that there are 300 million people who are either currently killing or want to kill.
  5. She sites other examples in history that we should consider. 
    1. The Nazis drove the agenda in Germany and as a result 60 million people died.
    2. Most Russians were peaceful, yet the Russians killed 20 million people.
    3. Most Chinese people were peaceful, yet the Chinese people killed 70 million people.
    4. Pre-WWII Japanese were peaceful, yet the Japanese killed 12 million people across SE Asia.
    5. It took 19 radical hijakers to bring America to its knees.
Ok, I'll attack the logic by simply diving into these points with further questions:
  1. Where did the 15-20% statistic come from? What actually constitutes a radical Muslim. Do all 15-20% of them really want to destroy western civilization and are they all brutal murderers?
  2. For those who are classified as radical Muslisms, is their religion the predominant factor driving their radicalism. Or are their other more important drivers - say, the region where they live, it's history, culture and whether they are or recently have experienced war.
  3. If their religion is the primary driver, can we expect to enter a random mosque anywhere in the world and encounter 20% of the congregation as possible murderers? If not, why not?
  4. Since most predominantly Islamic countries are in the Middle East and in portions of Africa, what could we learn about its history that may teach us some lessons about what's driving the wars that seem to dominate these regions in recent history? 
  5.  She brings up Russian, German, Chinese and Japanese examples to further her point. How do these examples compare and contrast with the terrorism we're seeing in the world today? 
  6. Could it be, to use one example, the problems were not the Russians, but the Russian leadership (Stalin), his control of the government and its military? What drove Stalin to massacre his own citizens and how are those motivations relevant to the problems facing the Middle East? 
  7. What of fascism and Hitler? It's interesting that Fascism in Germany and Communism in Russia both took off only after the catastrophic first world war that destroyed Europe. How is that fact relevant then and today?
These are not easy questions and I don't have easy answers. But what I know for sure, is this video snippet was not helpful to the discussion at all. And that is why, while listening, I kept thinking, "stupid", "bad", "no"... I don't deny Ms. Gabriel's passion and I know she's experienced some stuff that I hope I nor my children ever have to. And I'm sure she has smarter arguments to back up her opinions than this. Let's dig into those instead.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Primary Election

Fortunately for me, since I'm a registered democrat, I only have to figure out the Tempe City Council and the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The rest are running unopposed (or simply nobody is running). There are a a couple of more candidates on the ballet, but I'm only listing those that have a contended primary race. A couple of points:
  1. Really nobody should be voting in an early ballot. Why rob yourself time to figure out the candidates - unless you know for sure ahead of time, but who does?
  2. Really everyone should be voting in the primary. Some key electoral decisions are happening here and those choices are gone in the general election.
Get informed and vote.

PositionMy PickArizona Republic's OpinionBrief Explanation
Republic Primary CD 9NeitherNeitherWendy Rogers is extreme and incompetent and Andrew Walters is just incompetent. Kirsten Sinema has been gifted the race this year - strange.
Republican GovernorScott SmithDoug DuceyI didn't like Ducey in his run for treasure and I still feel that way. The Arizona Republic thinks he did a great job as treasurer and likely that's the case. He's just a bit too conservative, red-meat for my taste. Meanwhile, Scott Smith was effective as Mesa mayor - which actually is a much better forum to prepare for governor and he's a more moderate voice.
Republican Attorney General>Mark BrnovichMark BrnovichAnybody but Tom Horne
Republican Secretary of StateMichele ReganMichele Regan Regan seems like the best of the bunch for this position. Pierce is getting some questionable funding and Cardon is too extreme.
Republican TreasurerHugh HallmanHugh Hallman
I liked Hallman as Tempe mayor. The other candidates do not have the right temperament for the job.
Democratic Superintendent of Public InstructionDavid GarciaDavid GarciaThe Republican candidates are terrible. This will be a true test to see if voters are awake if they continue to elect Huppenthal for this position. Both Democratic candidates have deep education experience. Garcia seems to have more relevant experience for this particular position.
Republican Arizona Corporation CommisionUndecidedLucy Mason and Tom Forese
Tempe City CouncilUndecidedShana Ellis, Dick Foreman, and David SchapiraI like the AZ Republican picks, but I also like Lauren Kuby and I'm sorry to say but I simply don't know enough about Robin Arredondo-Savage to have an opinion. This one needs a bit more careful study before I decide.

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.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Religious Discussions

I have been meaning to write about religious faith (well I did once a long time ago) for some time because one, religion means so much in my life, but two I seem to spend far more time writing about politics. The problem, for me, though is that religious conversation does not work as well on the web. I have been wanting to explore why and how I personally handle my own spiritual life in more depth on a blog post as kind of a companion article to this one.

But then someone on my facebook feed posted this Natasha Helfer Parker criticism of an article found in March 2014 Ensign on morality. What's interesting to me is that, even though Parker was pretty critical of Ensign article, I found myself agreeing with both articles. I think as I dive into the two, I will be able to get at some of the topics I've been wanting write about. So, what I'll do here is quote from each article, Elder Callister's point, Natasha Parker's counter-point and then provide my own commentary on why I think they are both right. Let's see how it goes.

So it is with God our Father—He needs to speak only once on the issue of morality, and that one declaration trumps all the opinions of the lower courts, whether uttered by psychologists, counselors, politicians, friends, par­ents, or would­ be moralists of the day.
The problem with this approach, of course (discussed in General Conference by Uchtdorf), is that God’s “declarations” have been communicated and interpreted by fallible men – Callister included. This is why it is so important to rely not only on prophetic teachings but also such doctrinal principles as personal revelation, intellectual study, spiritual study, and the influence of healthy approaches from therapists, parents, loved ones and others who would have our best interests in mind when coming to conclusions on such an important and sacred topic as sexual morality.
While I agree with Parker here, I think her point is mostly relevant when the issue is personal. Elder Callister is talking about standards here. Standards set by the church, which are set high on purpose. This is a tricky distinction and I'm not sure I will make it well. Religious faith serves many purposes, but its primary purpose is to try to bring each of us closer to God. It's that relationship that is so important. We strengthen that relationship through personal prayer, scripture study and fasting, but we also have to strive to live a more holy, sanctified life. If religion is to mean anything for us, it has to be transformative, and Christ is the model we are trying to follow.

I think Parker is speaking from her role as a therapist which is valid. And there are many people who struggle with addiction, depression, and anxiety sometimes made worse when trying for an ideal that seems impossible to achieve, especially given the temptations we all endure. Thank goodness for therapists to help us make sense of these contradictions and provide us with practical tools to help navigate them.

However, should we rely solely on science or psychology or popular opinion? If so, then we don't need religion. Is our own personal revelation sufficient? If so, than we don't need religious institutions or religious leaders. The point of religious leadership, I think, is to recognize that there are certain people among us who have been blessed with certain spiritual gifts and have by virtue of these gifts, been able to lead a more sanctified path and by virtue of that, have been called into spiritual leadership where they stand as special messengers and spiritual leaders for the rest of us to follow.

Does that make them infallible? No. Should we also test what they say with our own thoughtful prayer, analysis and intuition? Yes. But we should listen and consider what they have to say. I think that is what Elder Callister is saying here, but even more than that. He is making what I think is an obvious point, that God knows more than all of us. And as we try to tap into God's word and will, it should preempt anything we get from other sources. Of course, we don't blindly assume everything a person says comes from God. We have to get a confirmation for ourselves, but we definitely should be mindful of our own limitations and be willing to set aside our own opinions when they contradict our spiritual confirmations of God's word.

The Lord con­demns self­-abuse. Self­-abuse is the act of stimulating the procreative power of one’s own body. President Boyd K. Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said: “Do not be guilty of tampering or playing with this sacred power of creation. . . . It is not pleasing to the Lord, nor is it pleasing to you. It does not make you feel worthy or clean."
Callister refers to masturbation as “self-abuse.” This is not an appropriate clinical term. Self-abuse is a term currently used to describe unhealthy coping behaviors people use in order to manage overwhelming depression and anxiety (i.e. ritualistic cutting of the skin, pulling of hair, picking of scabs, burning of skin, etc.). If you’re going to take a stand either for or against masturbation – please call it masturbation. Also, to refer to masturbation as self-abuse shames a natural developmental process that begins in the womb and hinders an important relationship with self that needs to be developed in a shame-free environment in order to facilitate the transition into healthy marital sexuality.
Her first criticism is one of vocabulary and I won't step on that. I take Parker's point and I wish we could be more straight-forward with the vocabulary and call it what it is, masturbation. "Self-abuse" does not even seem to accurately portray the experience anyway.

But I don't think Elder Callister's larger point is wrong and I believe Callister is condemning a narrower set of behaviors than what Parker is describing. Touching your genitals for comfort (say in the womb) is not masturbation at least not in the way Callister describes it. Rather his specific words are significant, the act of stimulating the procreative power and that is what is prohibited. I think there is a distinction here.

The second point is one of shame and sexual sin seems to carry with it more taboo and shame than other kinds of sin especially in our church culture. But most people are guilty of crossing the lines in one way or another for nearly every kind of sin. The trick as always is how can we seek holiness and sanctification even as we fall short daily.

Elder Callister:
Now I share some danger signals that precede some of the sins I have mentioned. In some regards, Satan is like an octopus trying to capture us. If one tentacle does not work, he will try another and another until he finds one that takes hold. Following are some of the tentacles of the evil one designed to cause us to break God’s standard of morality.
Callister uses fear-based language and overall approach that is inconducive to healthy sexual education. Although there is correct principle behind understanding the gravity of sexual responsibility towards others and self – using a fear-based approach to get this point across is not effective and usually contributes to problems rather than solving them.
This is a tough one. I agree with Parker that the over-use of the addiction paradigm to address pornography and sexual sin is sometimes psychologically not appropriate. Addiction has a very specific psychological definition and we tend to over-apply it, especially when pornography is the issue.

And there is danger in using over-the-top fear based analogies to describe the temptations that surround us and that can cause unnecessary anxiety and especially shame for those who struggle - and we all struggle.

But fear is a legitimate emotion and often a useful one, especially when there are dangers lurking. I think there there are legitimate reasons to be afraid, especially with the way sexuality is used and abused in our society. There are some people whose lives are ruined by sexual or drug addiction. Pornography is rife with abuse, where some of the participants are participating under force, and pornography exposure does affect the brain and can damage a person's ability to have healthy sexual relationships with another actual person. I think, or at least I'd hope, Parker would agree with all of this.

But our society is saturated by it and many good people fall into it. So, care and sensitivity is appropriate. And we can certainly exaggerate the danger and create far too much guilt for the behavior than is warranted. And this guilt can cause hopelessness which can be counter-productive to our ultimate goal of sanctification and a closer more loving relationship with God.

We cannot avoid seeing every improper billboard or immodestly dressed person, but we can drive out the improper thought once it arises. The sin is not in involuntarily see­ing something improper; the sin is in entertaining the thought once it comes. The scrip­tures tell us, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he”
(Proverbs 23:7).
Callister allows for no level of arousal or sexual thought outside of a spouse as a natural part of being a mortal human. He speaks of avoiding material that is “pornographic in ANY way.” For many of my OCD clients this becomes an impossible feat (because it is defined rigidly) – they cannot enjoy a museum where fine art depicts the human body, they cannot go to work where there exists “walking pornography” through what is considered immodest dress, they cannot develop any tolerance to the sexual nature of the human experience.
Again, I think both are correct here. But Callister is talking in terms of an ideal to strive for and Parker is dealing with the human condition as it actually is. It's an impossible standard to go through life without a single lustful though, but this is the standard Jesus himself set forth. And again, the goal of this life is get to that point, to direct all of our sexual yearnings solely toward our spouse, the one place where sex can deepen and strengthen the intimacy and power of an extremely important relationship. If we can succeed at that, we can see every person we encounter as more than a body, we will have a greater capacity to recognize the precious spirit that each of us have, allowing us to treat every person as the children of God we all are.

Men and women can look sharp and be fashionable, yet they can also be modest. Women particularly can dress modestly and in the process contribute to their own self­ respect and to the moral purity of men. In the end, most women get the type of man they dress for.
Callister’s statements on modest dress are sexist and offensive to both men and women.  First of all “modesty” is only talked about in the context of clothing and it is only addressed to women.  He participates in classic “rape culture” ideology where the woman is responsible for the man’s sexual thoughts and actions. 
Of all of the parts of Callister's article, this is possibly the most difficult for me to defend, mostly because I realize a lot of feminists are deeply troubled and offended by the church's teaching on modesty and I'm not totally sure why. Our family has accepted the modesty teachings mostly on faith, but having three daughters I probably need to ramp up on this issue.

Just a couple of thoughts. I hope it's obvious that men and women are different in terms of sexual desire. Men are more quickly aroused then women and visual stimulation seems to be more powerful for me, generally speaking. Men are definitely responsible to keep that desire in check, but it seems sensible to me that both genders should make an effort at modest dress and that it's likely that it's more important for women to be mindful of this than men, based purely on their differences. Take that for what it's worth.

Two oft ­repeated rationalizations are used to support moral transgression. The first is “I loved her.” Satan is the great counterfeiter. He tries to palm off lust as love. There is a simple test to detect the difference. Love is motivated by self­-control, obe­dience to God’s moral laws, respect for others, and unselfishness. On the other hand, lust is motivated by disobedience, self­-gratification, and lack of discipline.

Secondly, there are many more complicated issues that contribute to sexual choices than “selfish lust”: past sexual, physical or emotional abuse, personality traits or disorders, mental health diagnoses (i.e. bipolar disorder), trauma of any kind – just to name a few. A very typical scenario I see is that of young women or men who have been sexually abused in their childhood: they are now dealing with complex and confusing dynamics as they try and navigate their own developing sexuality as teens and young adults.
Parker gets a bit picky over linguistics again in the section right before the quote above. Is sexual desire for your spouse lust or love? Who knows, but there is certainly a distinction between it and the desire one feels when looking at an attractive stranger dressed provocatively.

But Parker's larger point is spot on and it's why, especially in today's climate, it's very difficult to generalize about sexual issues. There's so much complexity around it especially considering the highly sexualized culture we are trying to navigate our lives through. I think the standards are clear and everyone should strive to live up to them. But compassion and consideration is required when dealing with someone who has struggled with past abuse or mental health issues. Again, thank goodness for therapists.

Those with same ­gender tendencies have a duty to (1) abstain from immoral relationships and (2) do all within their power to avail themselves of the refining, perfecting powers of the Atonement. In the interim, however, those who have same­ gender tendencies but do not act on them are worthy to hold Church positions and receive a temple recommend.
Callister speaks to the LGBTQ community where a life of celibacy and singleness is the expectation as a condition to worthy participation in the service of the Lord. It is my strong position that this is not a healthy stance for any human who naturally craves and needs the communion of partnership.
This is another tough one that I'm not qualified to take on. But I will say that Callister is simply repeating the official doctrine of the church and it's important that the church be clear on what their official position is. I will say that a life-time (or large portion of a lifetime) of singleness is something that does happen to some people, gay or straight. And navigating decades of a single life while maintaining complete celibacy is a challenge, and we should have compassion and understanding for those who fail. Again, the way of holiness and sanctification is not easy and nobody lives up to it fully and mostly we're just trying to grow and evolve over our lives.

Having said that, it's one thing to have the hope of an eventual marriage always before you even if that hope is never satisfied, and quite another to have it removed completely. There should be even more understanding and compassion given to those within the LGBTQ community having to face that kind of choice, especially for those who find themselves within a Mormon culture that gives them very little space for a full and fulfilling life. I hope, we as a church culture, can make more room for these precious brothers and sisters who can and should enrich our lives with their presence within it - even if lifelong celibacy just is not practical for them.

I don't have much experience in this area, but I feel like there should be room even for gay couples. Callister only excludes Church positions and temple recommends, but this exclusion is not really that wide. They are still free to attend services, participate in activities, perform service, and be a part of the community if they choose to do so. Of course, there is a broader issue within church culture that might make this difficult for many and I hope this is resolved and Mormons learn true Christ-like compassion for those who choose not to or cannot live up to these or other standards.

The blessings of living a clean and moral life are over­ whelming. Such a life will bring self­ confidence and self ­esteem. It will result in a clear conscience. It will make us eligible for a spouse of like purity and will make the expression of the procreative power in the marriage relationship sweeter and more rewarding because we have reserved it for the time the Lord Himself has endorsed.

Finally, Callister ends by saying that if we follow the advice given in the talk we will be “eligible for a spouse of like purity.” I cannot emphasize enough how damaging it is for members of the church who have sexually explored outside the realms of marriage, then gone through the appropriate repentance steps to still consider themselves as “impure” because of their past actions.
Another tough one. I completely agree with Parker here. In Callister's article, he just finishes talking about repentance and the power of the Atonement to change one's life when mistakes have been made. And I admit it sounds contradictory when he then pivots to living up to the ideal of not making serious mistakes at all. I think it is better to live a life free from serious mistakes, but its tricky, especially as a parent, to help guide your children past major pits while still conveying the message that if they fall into a pit, you will be there, without judgment, to help lift them up and out.

Again, the goal of this life and it's a life-long quest, is complete sanctification. Thoughts that never waver, eyes that never wander and a complete sexual devotion reserved exclusively for the one you've committed you're entire life too. This is the challenge for everyone and it is a high standard. But I'm guessing most of us have fallen short of that and depend on the repentance process, continuously to get back on the path and to continually strive to live up to the standards Christ has set.

And after all, the church's role is to offer hope. Hope to those who are just starting out that they are more capable than they realize and they have can lean on Christ to get the strength and protection to resist temptation. But also hope to those who have already made mistakes, that they can overcome them and also experience the same blessings of a sanctified, pure and holy life as those who never made these same mistakes.

Parker concludes with this:
The way that sexual standards are presented in this type of talk is unrealistic and sets people up for failure. Very few will be able to achieve them at the level of rigidity in which they are communicated.  And if they can, there may be other factors at hand – such as having an asexual response (an entirely different topic altogether).
I hope I've made it clear that sexual standards, but even beyond sex, the standards our church has set is unrealistic and will set up people for failure. This is completely true and I believe intentional. The standard is to become like Christ, but our doctrine teaches that failure is baked into the experience of life. We will fail but that failure should not lead to despair. And that's the other, complementary message of our church. That there is always hope, and that hope is in Christ.

Will high standards cause more anxiety and depression for some driving them as Parker claims to a therapist? Likely, but again, thank goodness for therapists. The way forward is strive ever higher toward a more holy life.

The Book of Mormon teaches
Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world,  yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men,  which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God. And it came to pass that Ether did prophesy great and marvelous things unto the people, which they did not believe, because they saw them not.
That's true, hope and faith give us charity and compassion, both for ourselves and for others, which lead us to abound in good works and to glorify God. We will keep making mistakes, but we will, over time, come closer to God. That is the goal of this life.

I want to finish by quoting from a beautiful essay from Douthat who covers this topic beautifully:
But Gordis is raising an issue that any tradition-minded religious body needs to think through: Namely, how to make its hardest rules seem like aspirations rather than just judgments, and how to deal with the many fine personal gradations that can exist between orthodoxy and apostasy, fidelity and dissent. And I suspect there are many Catholics who would be classified as “liberal” who want something like what he’s describing in Modern Orthodoxy from their church. That is, they want room to dissent from a teaching or fail to live up to it in practice, but they don’t necessarily want the church to change that teaching so that the dissonance or tension they feel simply goes away.
And that is the essence of how we should take Callister's message, that these are aspirations, not judgments and we all have to deal with "many fine personal gradations that can exist between [complete] orthodoxy and apostasy, fidelity and dissent". We all come with our own personal weaknesses, limitations and misunderstandings.

In politics, this should make us more willing to listen to another who may disagree because likely we are wrong and most definitely limited. With religion, it should make us more willing to get down on our knees and listen to God. Either way, humility, compassion, and patience is what will get us through.