Battling Rhetoric: When Did Faith Become a Dirty Word?

Although the posts on this auxiliary blog are usually devoted either to education or religion, this post will address more than either. My concerns address a cultural (human) behavior that affects religion, not a religious behavior that stands alone.

The behavior under review is the tendency for humans to move between intense experiential informality (I feel very strongly about this; I'm going to find out more!) and rigorous formality (I know I'm right because I've met these criteria), the latter often accompanied by an up-tick in the use of rhetoric to denote belonging (Moreover, I say all the right things).

Regarding religion specifically, Rodney Stark summarizes the work of researchers regarding sects and churches: "When [groups] move towards less tension with their sociocultural environment, they are church movements (although a group may remain a sect during a long period of movement in this churchlike direction). When groups move towards [higher tension with outsiders], they are sect movements" (123-124, Stark's emphasis).

Keep in mind that Stark is not criticizing the alteration of sect to church (or vice versa); he perceives it as normal and human. Human nature being what it is, it is inevitable for an organization to lose some of it fanaticism over time while also gaining a level of  bureaucracy and formalized rhetoric that (may) contradict the original soul of the organization's mission. (Oddly enough, a church with lesser tension towards the "outside world" will often adopt more demanding/formalized rhetoric in an effort to bolster insider allegiance.)

The cycle doesn't end there. Businesses, religions, and non-profits often undergo a kind of "shake-up" or "reformation" or "rebranding" (depending on one's perspective) in order to prevent the organization and bureaucracy from stagnating, the formalized rhetoric from taking over. 

Both Jesus and Paul the Apostle are aware of the problem of a message being lost amid formalized behaviors or rhetoric. Neither condemns structured religion, which they both appear to perceive as inevitable and necessary. Yet both of them warn that the formalization of doctrine into rhetorical absolutes can send the cycle out of control.
John the Baptist--If he's not what you think,
that's kind of the point.

Jesus states, "But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows . . . We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented/For John [the Baptist] came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil/ The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children" (Matthew 11:16-19).

Keep this quote in mind; I'll be returning to it.

Rather than demanding adherence to ritualized rhetoric (we pipe-you dance; we mourn-you lament), Jesus and Paul preach a simple doctrine of love of God through Jesus Christ.

To the questioning lawyer, Jesus states, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind/This is the first and great commandment/ And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself/ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Mark 29:31).

When he's not tearing his hair out over the nutty behaviors of his converts, Paul reiterates the above  message over and over again. In 1 Corinthians 3, in an effort to calm the prideful behavior of the congregation (imagine high school cliques, only worse), he reminds them that it is largely unimportant who converted them, whether Paul or another missionary, Apollos:  "For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (verse 11).

Paul is attempting to create a community of loving saints, a temple as he describes them (later, he will compare the saints to a physical body), based on the good news of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, in the end, whatever their differences, they all depend on the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

In Romans, Paul tackles the problem of piling up rules and regulations (who's in, who's out, who's following the rules, who's not). His specific context--debating the law of Moses--grows beyond the argument's beginning. He is critiquing (not criticizing) the concept of propitiation as it appears in many cultures: the idea that threatening gods or God will punish humans in the absence of obedience.

This obsession with appeasement leads, Paul argues, to being "carnally-minded," to seeing the world entirely in terms of sin and the errors of the flesh: "For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace." (Romans 6:14).

Paul argues that propitiation had its place; like John the Apostle, he maintains that Christ, as the ultimate propitiation, removes the necessity of constant debt, doubt, and fear: "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:24). The "good news" is that mortals no longer need to fear constant judgment or revenge by an angry deity.

In typical Paul fashion, Paul then ponders, Okay, yes, but that doesn't mean everyone should run around behaving badly. After all, if you are Christ's--as he tells the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 3:23)--it would behove you to behave like Christ.

Nevertheless, ultimately, Paul's message is about the good news. Back in Romans:
Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 9:37-39).
In other words:
If ye [believe in God and know of his goodness] ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; and ye [will] grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true . . . ye will not have a mind to injure one another" (Mosiah 4: 12-13). 
Paul, perhaps naively, appears to believe that a honest love of God and thankfulness for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ will lead to decent and kindly behavior. He is echoing Jesus Christ, who preaches the same but somewhat less naively since He anticipates the (very human) difficulty of turning the other cheek, hungering after righteousness, and forgiving one's enemies.

"With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible," Jesus states in Mark 10 after teasingly scaring the snot out of the Rich Young Man (who wasn't satisfied with simply being a good person, yet behaved as if Jesus was going to challenge him to nothing more difficult than checking out a really good Hallmark movie). 

It also bothers Jesus less (than it bothers Paul) when people utterly fail to live up to the goal of loving out of loyalty to a larger belief rather than obedience to a group of rules. 

Paul's troubled reaction is understandable. People don't always live up to the goal of naturally desiring to be kind, no more than businesses always make a profit, organizations always achieve their goals, people in workplaces always get along, and governments always make the best decisions.  

And no one but God and Jesus Christ (and maybe Cesar Millan with dogs) has ever had the entire capacity to say, "Okay, well, start over. And don't get so mad when people are imperfect." 

The Prodigal Son might screw up again. The father doesn't care. He'll still kill the fatted calf. He'll still be happy. He still wants everyone to be happy. That's the point. 

And yeah, I respect that, but honestly, who wouldn't behave more like the Elder Son and get a little ticked?

Human nature being what it is, the challenge to love God (or create a successful business or educate everybody or help the poor or save the environment) can't help but get confused with the end results of those missions.

Loving God, for example, should result in people being kind and moral; a successful business should result in people getting rich; educating people should result in (presumably) smarter decision-making; helping the poor should result in everybody in the world leading a yuppie lifestyle (I jest); saving the environment should result in cleaner air and water.

When people aren't kind and moral, when they don't get their own 401K, when they don't vote "properly," when they don't volunteer for United Way, when they don't start saving their plastic bags . . . it's easy to skip forward to "Let's make them!" (Or, in the case of Enron, "Let's take the money!")

The thinking goes that if the results are enforced, then those people will love God, know how to lead co-workers, appreciate education, want to help the poor (or be helped), and wish to save the planet.

Whether governments, groups, entities, institutions, and work places have the right to establish policies and rules which ensure decent, civilized behavior is a topic for another time. Arguably, it will happen anyway (like traffic laws).

The problem occurs when chasing the results fails to produce the mindset (or appears to fail to produce the mindset) that would have (hopefully) set those results in motion. This failure is inevitable--as Jesus and Paul knew. Jesus is entirely unimpressed by rigorous efforts to define inner righteousness by external performance. And Paul spends far more time in his letters begging his converts to leave each other alone (ohmygosh does that thing you're so upset over really matter?) than this master of theology clearly wanted to spend.

It is one thing to require that people in a given organization remember to clean up after themselves. It is another to require people to feel an inner commitment or, for that matter, become "good" in an entirely unseeable way.

Trying to back-create mindsets appears to occurs (most often) when a culture (from a religion to a workplace) no longer has external conformable markers, ways to test its adherents' belonging--that is, when a culture is no longer homogeneous enough for its members to "know" that someone else really loves God (or money or education or the poor or the environment).

My Concerns
 
The best solution, I maintain, is to accept the new situation (lack of consistent markers) and find out a person's moral beliefs, positions, and behavior from that person.

Unfortunately, often people begin to rely on rhetoric instead. And the rhetoric is almost always political.

What I mean by this is not that political names are (necessarily) invoked. Rather the rhetoric is used to confirm party allegiance. Plant one's flag! Declare one's position! Say the words that indicate belonging!

Eventually, declaring one's position (dancing on cue; mourning on cue: see Matthew 11) becomes more important than the moral purpose.

Actually, to be fair, the two positions (moral purpose versus rhetorical declarations) are always battling each other, the one hedging out occasionally over the other (then retreating). The ship rocks from side to side. In the meantime, has anyone been lost?

I occupy a situation where I don't think I've gone overboard, but I'm not so sure the other people in the boat around me think the same (about me). Whenever I refuse to use rhetorical markers, I feel out of sync (and I'm no rebel; rebellion for the sake of rebellion bores me). 

Which is why I don't discuss politics, religion, or the news with practically anybody.

The connection to faith (see the title of the post) is this: the rhetoric of party politics is almost always the rhetoric of absolutes: absolute knowledge, absolute surety, absolute trust. But the rhetoric of party politics doesn't necessarily advance human endeavors or understanding. As a good libertarian, for example, I prefer to ask, "What is the purpose of government?" I believe that a honest discussion based on that question can result in moral comprehension, which is deeper than rhetoric. In order to ask that question, a degree of faith--unknowingness--is required.

Unfortunately, unknowingness makes people uncomfortable. I'm continually bombarded with the demand that I stake my flag through a "knowing" declaration: "This is what the good group says is true! If you don't think that, you are obviously one of the . . . "
commies, tea partiers, Trump mouthpieces, Obama fans, liberals, racists, fascists, elitists, pinkos, left-wingers, right-wingers, hippies, brainwashed masses . . .
Take your pick. Fill in the blank.

This type of thing--defining who the bad people are, creating a rhetoric that claims moral superiority based on form rather than substance; linking people's language choices ("climate change" versus "global warming") to their state of deservedness--creeps into all institutions, including religions. Lifestyle is mistaken for Godly (political) approval; declarations of what one opposes become the equivalent of belief; the means to heaven (utopia) develop into ends unto themselves.

I see this tendency in my own church as much as I see it everywhere else; it is very natural. I also, luckily, have seen a retreat from that tendency as citizens, members, and leaders ponder issues, extol the need for personal understanding, and, religiously speaking, declare the love of God. As Jesus and Paul state again and again and again, the goal is not rules for the sake of proving allegiance; the goal is love of God with the outcome of demonstrating one's allegiance. That is, if one has a positive belief (in something), then with patience (and an enormous amount of goodwill), positives may follow.

But no threat of failure or institutionalized rhetoric in the world can make it so--no matter how well-stated or well-enforced.

In Matthew, Jesus delivers the parable of the ten virgins. Those five who came prepared with filled lamps don't have to wait to join the wedding party while those who didn't must rush off to the marketplace to get the lamps filled up.

Many times, this parable is interpreted as the need to act immediately, to not wait to learn more of the gospel, read the scriptures, go to church--and there's some justification for that interpretation (the parables are never just one thing).

However, in context with the New Testament's subsequent parable (the parable of the talents or coins), the parable of the ten virgins could also be interpreted to mean that collecting rhetoric and formulas in the marketplace--rather than developing an understanding of God over time--is ultimately useless. The groom does not say to the five hurried virgins, "You're late." He says, "I don't know you."

Consider that Matthew also contains the beautiful verses: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened" (7:7-8).

What if instead of rushing to collect baubles of rhetoric, the five had exercised faith and gone and knocked? If they had confessed, like the father in Mark, "Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief" (9:24)? If they had considered, thought, pondered their options first? What if "knowing" isn't something that can be created through use of the word but through an individual journey that starts with trusting God, and continues with questions, mediation, and pondering?

What if God is there to listen?

What if faith--the desire to figure things out in the absence of absolute clarity--is, as Jesus promises the woman in the crowd, the thing that makes us "whole"? What if trying to understand--not think we already know--is the entire point?

What if scientists have had it right all along: life is less about declarations of surety and more about testing the hypothesis?

"Wherefore, there must be faith; and if there must be faith there must also be hope; and if there must be hope there must also be charity" (Moroni 10:20).

* * *

Stark, Rodney and William Sims Bainbridge. "Of Churches, Sects, and Cults: Preliminary Concepts for a Theory of Religious Movements." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 18, no. 2, June 1979, pp. 117-131. EBSCOhost.

Battling Rhetoric: Is the World Becoming Less Spiritual?

As detailed in the prior post, rhetorical phrases are often symptomatic of ideology--that is rhetorical phrases are used not to detail behavior or communicate beliefs but to establish arguments: If X is true, then Y must also be true.

Unfortunately, a common rhetorical argument in today's society is, "The world is becoming more secular and therefore less spiritual; consequently, the world needs more religion."

The first part of this statement is not true. (I tackle the second part below.)

The mistake often centers on the assumption that a state-religion or a homogeneous culture by default produces more spiritually-minded people. While one could argue that "spirituality" is not automatically tied to "church attendance," for the purposes of this post, I will connect the two.

Does a state-religion or homogeneous culture result in more church attendance and/or more sincere belief?

No.

A substantial number of people in the past, including during the Middle Ages, did not go to church despite the expectations of the state. Even the Puritans suffered in this regard (and it is helpful to remember that the Puritans only required other Puritans to be faithful churchgoers; the Massachusetts Bay Colony was filled with non-Puritans who were not part of that covenant).

When Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in America in the 1800s to observe American culture, he was stunned by the number of churches and by the fact that people attended them: it was so different from home! He praised religion as a positive influence on American politics; he also clarified that the number of "sects" ensured that positive influence:
In the United States, if a politician attacks a sect, this may not prevent the partisans of that very sect from supporting him; but if he attacks all the sects together, everyone abandons him, and he remains alone.
[All the clergy I interviewed] attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America, I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point. 
In Europe, de Tocqueveille argued, religion and politics marched in opposite directions. Discussing religion in general, he distinguished the "habit" of religion from sincere belief. When "habit" and politics mix, the result is less than positive:
As long as a religion rests only upon those sentiments which are the consolation of all affliction, it may attract the affections of all mankind. But if it be mixed up with the bitter passions of the world, it may be constrained to defend allies whom its interests, and not the principle of love, have given to it; or to repel as antagonists, men who are still attached to it, however opposed they may be to the powers with which it is allied. The church cannot share the temporal power of the state without being the object of a portion of that animosity which the latter excites.
Hence, de Tocqueville argued, the power--and proliferation--of religion in a democracy. To those who worried about declining religious commitment in Europe, specifically France, he pointed to American democracy as a solution.

To put this in the most basic terms: separation of church and state plus competition ensures that more people will go to church--and believe in a theology--not less.

The Gallup Poll and/or the Gallup Poll for the Baylor Religion Surveys back up this lack of spiritual decline in the U.S.: weekly church attendance in the United States from 1974 to 2014 held steady at approximately 40%. Church attendance in the U.S. in the 1940s was slightly lower while the 1950s was something of a fluke with attendance in the high 40s. 66% of Americans in 2005 declared that "religion [is] important in my daily life."

40% is higher than church attendance in most European countries, including Greece, but not higher than in Ireland or Italy. 66% is also higher than in most European countries except, interestingly enough, than in Greece, Italy, and Portugal.

Japanese  Home Altar
For those wondering about the supposedly non-religious Japanese, although few go to church, 64% pray on certain occasions while 54% visit a temple regularly and 72% believe it is important to have spiritual beliefs.

The difficulty here is separating church attendance from spiritual belief and spiritual belief from a particular type of devotion/adherence.

In recent years, Americans expressing allegiance to specific denominations has decreased, prompting declarations of "decreasing spirituality"--however, atheism in America has remained steady (4% since 1944) and church attendance has not declined. The reason: Nondenominational Evangelical congregations have risen spectacularly (these are individual congregations that vary from liberal to conservative, tending more towards conservatism, under a broad Protestant umbrella).

Setting aside church attendance, in America in 2005, 74% of participants in the Gallup Poll said they believe God is directly involved in the world. The connection between church attendance and spirituality here again is iffy since I go to church regularly, have strong opinions about theology, and I'm not sure I would have answered yes to that question.

However, my limited experience backs up the claim that secular freedom aids in the growth of religious feeling and that spirituality is in fact increasing rather than decreasing. It is not simply that religion is discussed more in the political arena (a reality about which I have intense reservations), it is that I encounter more discussions of religion in my workplace and among my acquaintances than I did twenty years ago. Students discuss their local church services (see nondenominational congregations above); friends discuss wanting to belong to a religious community or belief system; co-workers sincerely reference God and prayers when discussing another co-worker's family difficulties. I would be remiss not to mention the growing number of immigrant Muslims and Christians who discuss faith in their essays and conversations in heartfelt and genuine ways.

Proclaiming that "secularism" is harming religion and the "world is getting less spiritual" is rhetoric, not truth. As Rodney Stark points out, it is rhetoric that originated in Ivory Tower academe, not in religious thought (although many religious people have adopted it). He points out, for instance, that in surveys about religion from the twentieth century, the academic survey planners did not include questions about the paranormal because they believed that modern people don't believe in the paranormal. When the surveys were revised by more objective scholars to include such questions, the results were astounding: "82 percent told Gallup in [2007], 'I am sometimes very conscious of the presence of God.'" 61% responded that they believe in angels, and 55% that they believe in guardian angels.

The solution regarding this piece of rhetoric is not to pour scorn on the latter part of the rhetorical argument--"therefore, the world needs more religion"--or argue that it is false (the world isn't going to give up religion, anyway). The solution is for religions (and, I should add, all institutions plus politicians) to abandon rhetorical devices that plead a "lack" in order to offer a "more."

This type of argument smacks of con-artistry. Besides, as both C.S. Lewis and Dieter F. Uchdorf point out, fear is a lousy way to bring people to a knowledge of God.

C.S. Lewis discussing joining a church: When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong, they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.

C.S. Lewis discussing tyranny: My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting [to impose "the good"] would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. (My emphasis.)

Dieter F. Uchdorf: It is true that fear can have a powerful influence over our actions and behavior. But that influence tends to be temporary and shallow. Fear rarely has the power to change our hearts, and it will never transform us into people who love what is right . . . People who are fearful may say and do the right things, but they do not feel the right things . . . Unfortunately, this misguided approach to life and leadership is not limited to the secular world.

Thoughts on Religion: Ideology versus Theology

First, definitions:
  • Theology is a set of beliefs regarding the relationship between human beings, the universe, and deity.
  • Ideology is the system of ideas surrounding any subject from politics and the environment to unions and religion.
  • Theology is what people think about the universe and deity.
  • Ideology is how people think about what they think.
Actually, this is a Chinese depiction of
Jesus and the rich young man.
  • Theology is about inner systems that lead to behavior/action/culture.
  • Ideology is about how people talk--their rhetoric about what they say they believe.
A parable in the New Testament depicts a young man who refuses to work in his father's vineyard, then changes his mind. The second son states he will go and work, then doesn't. Jesus challenges his listeners, "Which one did the will of his father?" When they answer, "The first," he uses the opportunity to instruct his audience that "tax collectors and prostitutes are entering into the Kingdom of God before you" (Matthew 21:28-32).

I imagine a daughter who says, "I'll give you two hours," then shows up and works for two hours. What astonishes me is how often this solution upsets people. It isn't so much that they want the worker to be the first son--that would make a kind of sense. It is that they want the worker to TALK like the second son.

When Jesus compares the two sons, he is comparing theology to ideology. The first son, Job-like, grapples with what he wants to do and whether he wants to do it and maybe even why--and then does it. The second son says all the right stuff but doesn't bother to show up.

The daughter that I imagined also behaves in accordance with theology; she says, "This is exactly what I believe and this is what I mean to do based on what I believe."

In all scenarios, including Jesus's, the reasoning matters (how a person thinks) while the behavior matters more. And in all scenarios, especially Jesus's, the rhetoric (ideology) by itself is deemed meaningless. Who really cares what someone is saying if the saying is simply a bunch of "right" words?

Bumper stickers are all about ideology.
"Lots of people" is the answer to that question. It unnerves me how often how someone speaks about the economy, the environment, politics, and religion determines others' reactions. For instance, I have occasionally been accused of not being committed or aware enough, not because my behavior differed in any way from that of my accusers, but because I didn't throw out the proper verbiage.

Generally speaking, I dislike doomsdaying rhetoric: arguing that the "end is nigh" and blaming that "end" on the corruptive nature of atheists, fundamentalists, liberals or Republicans. In addition, I try to abstain from hysterical language regarding the so-called moral turpitude of the above groups, Hollywood, secular entertainment, television, etc. etc. etc.
Pete Seeger refused to name names. Eliza Kazan, On the
Waterfront, did and maintained the morality of that decision
his entire life. Acknowledging the deliberate choice by
each man is far more interesting and helpful than
condemning either one on ideological grounds.

The people who rely on such rhetoric often fall back on the moral obligation to CHOOSE a position. In religious terms, this is the "a man with two masters got spewed out of God's mouth" mental framework (and if you think secular, non-religious people never use this language, try talking to, oh, anybody with an axe to grind).

This perspective entirely misses Jesus's point--it is trying to SERVE two masters that causes problems. It is actually impossible to help your dad in his vineyard while you are at the movies watching The Hobbit, which is why the daughter measures out her time (and Hermione gets a time travel device to take more classes). Trying to protect one's career in Hollywood while testifying before a Congressional committee ultimately leads to deep tensions within a person's soul (it can also produce great art, but that's another post for another time).

The point: decisions based on what one believes ultimately lead to actions that serve a particular master, even if that master is oneself. Using rhetoric to argue in favor of a particular master is NOT indicative of an actual position; it is simply indicative of the capacity to argue. For instance . . .
  • Claiming that people who use language that favors evolution are anti-God is not in fact a theological position; it is an ideological one. 
  • Likewise, claiming that "good" people only vote for politicians who preach about "women's rights" is more about ideology than finding a suitable candidate. 
  • Claiming that a religious person should be upset by all the "filth" coming out of Hollywood is an ideological stance. 
  • Stating that everyone who really "cares about our planet" would blame climate change on man-made causes is about as ideological as one can get (especially since I used "climate change" rather than "global warming"). 
On the other hand . . .
  • Claiming that a religious person should not steal from his or her employee is an obvious if sometimes challenging (does that include pens?) moral position that ultimately comes down to theology (although the argument itself is behavioral). 
  • Likewise, claiming that people who worship God people should never vote for anyone who is pro-abortion is an extreme (in my view), highly problematic position in an imperfect world, yet it is in fact moral rather than ideological.
The remainder of this post presents why ideological arguments are ultimately counterproductive and non-moral.

Why: A great many religious and philosophical disciplines rest on the proposition that humans will, if they are not careful, slide back into the mud. Call it the natural man, original sin, the id (and ego), Paglia's dangerous nature, or Stephen King's hungry alligators, what we call civilization--including art, religion, and social order--keeps us reasonably kind and reasonably sane and reasonably able to feed ourselves and others.

I tend to be more optimistic, seeing the physical experience as a gift rather than an experience fraught with incipient dangers. But I cannot deny that I live in a reasonably kind, sane, and safe world. I am the recipient of civilization. And in a bid to keep it going, I credit the separation of emotion/belief from action. We feel/we think--that does not mean we should automatically act. How I carry out my rage or love or confusion or distaste or pleasure relies on a moment by moment series of challenging choices.

In the tension between "real things did really happen" and "but every human has a subjective experience," I present problem-solving as the answer.

Humans are remarkably capable--when they choose to be--at problem-solving. They take context, personalities, beliefs, past experience, and future needs into account. I'm not saying that every time we express ourselves, we actively think, "Ah, I am now sorting through all the variables!" Truth: the brain is quite ready and willing to sort through these variables on a continual basis. It wants us to survive.
I don't actually believe this--but it's better than the usual
type of bumper sticker.

So I don't respond the same way to the police officer who stops my car as I would to my boyfriend or my best friend. I don't speak to a co-worker the same way I speak to my cats (arguably the entire world would be nicer and easier to manage if I did . . . but no). I don't (usually) start arguments in situations that could hurt me later. And I do try to remember to say, "Thank you" when I know it might please the other person and also to convey something of my inward feelings.

Do I make judicious judgements every time? No. Have I sabotaged my own best interests in work meetings? Uh, yeah. Do I have the capacity to judge a new scenario better? Absolutely! Will I? Maybe.

The point is, the brain is geared to do this. Consequently, I argued in a prior post for the need to maintain different methodologies/understandings in one's head at the same time. The more tools I have at my disposal, the more likely I am to problem-solve intelligently. Or at least in my best interest. At most to a moral end.

Problem-solving eschews rhetoric.

To shortchanged this operation--to throw out problem-solving in the belief that an ideological stance is enough to ensure moral behavior--is, in my mind, highly immoral. To substitute, "Okay, in this situation, how do I handle this particular issue/disagreement/event/person?" with "But this is the way I talk about the bad people" indicates a loss of integrity.

Ideology is the refuge of debate without soul.

And yes, that's simply a nice piece of rhetoric :)

Thoughts on Religion: The Lousy Equation of Faith and Proof

Religion is about faith, not proof. There is a fundamental difference between believing in something based on an invisible/unknown/indeterminate quality and trusting in something because it underwent multiple testing in a lab.

The Puritans in Salem learned the hard way that accusing people of a crime based on nothing more than "my personal deep feelings"--not matter how spiritually described or felt--is a terrible idea. And it was Puritan ministers who questioned the validity of the accusations: without tangible proof, how do we know what really happened?

On the other hand, a smart, questioning atheist like Camille Paglia extols the power of religion to stave off the dark, arguing that a positive affirmation in deity, art, and the value of life far outstretches--transcends--the most stringent, academic theorizing. Humans are drawn to religion and art and non-provable experiences because they speak to something "other" within us and, possibly, outside of us. 

Yet people on both sides of the faith/science equation continue to insist on "proving" or "disproving" religious truths; "proving" or "disproving" doubt--sometimes to bizarre extremes. And it almost always backfires into disillusionment.

"Proving" or "disproving" the religious perspective has nothing to do with faith. It almost always results in reliance on "points" that are largely immaterial. Getting defensive in the face of scholarship or archaeology or theories like evolution does not strengthen the religious mind; it hampers it. Likewise, feeling threatened by beliefs in deity creates scientists and academics who develop odd blind spots and consequently end up missing the larger context of many issues. 

Case in point: every year or so, the History channel or National Geographic or Time magazine will present historical/environmental explanations for events in the Bible. For example, some archaeologists/historians hypothesize that Moses arrived at the Red Sea during a particular season when strong winds blew a path through the connected Sea of Reeds, allowing the Israelites to safely cross. Inevitably, some (not all) skeptics will use the opportunity to crow about the invalidity of religion. Equally inevitably, some (not all) religious people will feel it necessary to wall themselves behind a protective bulwark, claiming that scholarship is specious, anti-religious, and denigrating.

And the rather pointless argument continues.  

From a faith-based perspective, it is entirely unnecessary and peremptory to pooh-pooh the "Sea of Reeds" explanation. I suppose Charlton Heston tends to stick in the brain, but a faith-based belief in a safe crossing across muddy, reedy waters at just the right time of year strikes me as equally miraculous, if not more so.

From a historian's perspective, Bible scholarship is a legitimate discipline. It admittedly contains its own degrees of defensiveness. But it is neither intrinsically atheistic nor intrinsically evil. It relies on a different methodology than faith--and must if historians are going to be trusted within their own discipline: reliance on sources is the point.

I often find such scholarship cool, interesting, even fascinating if one will allow a Spock moment. I don't start questioning everything I've ever thought because everything I ever thought doesn't ride on the scholars being right--or wrong.

Keep in mind, I am not arguing that faith means, "I believe this no matter what anyone says!" I am arguing something more basic: the disciplines of faith and scholarship do not need to be treated as either/ors. Believing everything people say is a logical fallacy (ad populum) and not a terribly intelligent way to deal with data. Along the same lines, disbelieving whatever people say is simply a variation on that theme.

In a future post, I will address the extraordinary capacity of humans to problem-solve by not confusing "feeling" with "method." Suffice to say for now, one type of understanding does not automatically cancel out the other, no matter what academics steeped in theories about dominant this-and-that try to tell you. It is possible to see the world as more complicated than one-winner-takes-all (i.e., one should only think like this).

I sometimes find scholarship (on any topic) woefully inadequate according to its own standards. I have also often found it helpful to my faith. Several decent scholars have recently written about Paul. They have taken issue with some of the letters (as being authored by him) and with the relation of events in Acts. In keeping with their methodology as honest historians, they utilize the primary texts/letters they are sure of to reconstruct their understanding of Paul's personality, journeys, and relationships. They carefully show that this man did exist, did write letters, and did extensively journey while making great sacrifices of time and energy. They also place a large amount of his commentary in context.

I come away enlarged: Paul is no longer a symbolic scriptural character or an untouchable commodity. He is a person who truly lived: flawed, passionate, committed, erudite, faithful, and--here's that word again!--fascinating.

If I turned my reaction into a defense-against-a-threat, I would miss out. Consequently, in my thesis, I mention that I can appreciate the Nativity Story for its literary appeal; I also can wrap my faith around it; I also can acknowledge that there is no proof for the story in any empirical sense. Along the same lines, the story of Exodus as detailed in the Old Testament (I am using Christian terminology); archaeologists' and historians' theory of the Sea of Reeds; even Prince of Egypt--easily and successfully reside in my brain next to each other.

Unfortunately, doing this--or admitting to doing this (allowing different methodologies/understandings to exist next to each other)--upsets a surprising number of people on both sides of the religion/science equation. There is this insistence that a person *must* choose. And that failure to choose puts someone like myself irrevocably in one camp or the other (depending on to whom I am speaking) or "outside the pale" entirely. But to choose is to instantly confuse faith with data. To throw out one or the other almost always results in ideology, rather than theology or science. Bad theology and corrupted science are the inevitable results.

Faith has its own role: it is belief, hope, trust, a gleeful acceptance of transcendence, wonder, even doubt and questioning--without descent into ridicule, cynicism, disillusionment, or dogma. Research has its own role and when done properly is held to fierce standards of honesty, propriety, and big-picture understanding. 

War from either side results is nothing constructive. 

Raw Personal Histories: Mark, Paul, and Joseph Smith

One of the reasons that conspiracy theories flourish is that humans have a hard time with incompleteness. In Numb3rs, Charlie points out that humans tend to replace mathematical randomness with deterministic patterns that only appear random. As Science Daily states, "The brain doesn't like visual gaps."

This unease with incompleteness extends to other areas of our lives. My personal theory is that this need to "finish" the puzzle is a survival mechanism, a way of ordering the world, no matter how uncooperative it proves to be. 

Unfortunately for the brain, information about the world is often incomplete, uncertain, lacking corroborative details. Primary evidence specifically is the opposite of complete, tidy, detailed. In the moment of relating a fresh experience, people fail to realize that they are supposed to be providing context, countering possible arguments, underscoring their experience with precise descriptions. They are vague, making allusions and references without explanation. They can also be surprisingly cagey.

Hence the reason translation is such a difficult process--and why writing historical fiction (from a contemporary perspective) never sounds exactly the same as the fiction written during that history: Jane Austen never explains herself. 

The following examples are not meant to answer questions of faith. Faith and evidence will be dealt with in another post. They are, rather, meant to reveal a similar quality regarding primary evidence and spiritual experiences. (Keep in mind that these men believed their experiences, whatever others might think.)
In the earliest of the gospels, the Gospel of Mark, Mark or someone interviewing Mark (there is no evidence to the contrary) breaks off in Chapter 16 after presenting the reality of the empty tomb. The chapter resumes with scriptures that were possibly--though not conclusively--added later.

In his letters, the Apostle Paul twice details his vision, the Damascene Conversion, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 and in Galatians 1:11-16. In both cases, he is brief, detailing only enough of his experience to prove a point to the fellow believers to whom he is writing.

Joseph Smith's 1832 written account of his First Vision focuses almost entirely on what he was told in the vision rather than on context and details.
In all three cases, later accounts flesh out the original. And here's where a good historian (and a non-conspiracy theorist) acknowledges that fleshing out after the fact is perfectly normal--it is not indicative of some dark agenda or desire to deceive. After all, we do this with our own lives all the time: we look back and see connections that weren't apparent to us in the moment. I have written short stories that were obviously dealing with an issue in my personal life--nothing terribly profound, merely something that was bothering me at the time--yet I didn't "see" what I was doing until months or years after the time of writing.

A good historian (and non-conspiracy theorist) rather than proclaiming disillusionment will try to balance various accounts, starting with the inconclusive, vague and difficult-to-decipher primary evidence. Later, the scholar may add in or consider later accounts since later accounts may include information and even accuracies lacking from the primary accounts (Agatha Christie argues this possibility in several of her mysteries--over time, clues not apparent at the time rise to the surface). The entire process involves discernment, honesty to the principles of research, and recognition of how little humans in fact comprehend about the past.

What strikes me about the above three accounts is that whatever the men experienced struck them as so profound and untellable, they felt the need to keep the knowledge and details to themselves. I'm afraid that I don't see this in theological terms (though some scholars do). I see it in purely human ones. It makes perfect sense to me that someone like Mark would pull back at the awe and heart-wrenching relief of the Resurrection, only returning to the event when other oral versions had entered every-day discourse; that Paul would be reluctant to boast about such a seminal experience regarding his chosen and transformative path; that Joseph Smith would focus his attention on what he--in the moment--thought most important to his understanding of religion and God.

True histories do not in fact anticipate questions, concerns, debates, criticisms, nitpicking, or the need to compete with other versions--not even to relieve doubt.

This happened to me, and this is what I got out of it! is the primary concern. How that information (data) is handled in terms of faith and in terms of evidence is a topic for another post. Suffice to say for now, tackling incomplete histories as some kind of personal insult ("How dare it not be exactly the version I demand for proof!") is poor scholarship and indicates a naïve understanding of the world.

Church Talk: Jesus and Paul

I gave this talk May 21, 2017. It is my (positive) rebuttal to religious arguments that focus (instead) on legalities and rules, obedience and dogma.

As described in the talk, I read through the Gospel of Mark first, focusing on what Jesus did; then again, focusing on what he said (I used the King James translation, red letter edition, online--the web is an amazing thing). I approached the project with a surprising number of uneasy expectations (you'd think a person who taught seminary would remember better) and finished with most of those expectations gratifyingly overturned.

The three consistent messages from Jesus in Mark (and for that matter, across the four gospels) are "I am the Son of God," "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (many debates on what exactly this means since Jesus seemed to perceive it not as a future event but as something that was being created with his ministry and later with his Resurrection), and "Try to be good and kind in a way that goes beyond mere lip-service" ("goodness" is both a more generous and--let's be real--ballsy thing than the word sometimes implies).

There's very little about rules for the sake of rules. What's even cooler is how much the Jesus described in Mark--the most action-based of the gospels--practices what He preaches. My own written list of Things Jesus Did is far longer than the items I selected for the talk.

In reference to the talk's context, I've always had a soft-spot for Paul, mostly for being such a complicated guy--besides which, David Suchet would like to play him :)

2nd Corinthians 3:3: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.
2nd Corinthians is a letter or group of letters written by the Apostle Paul to members of the church in Corinth, Greece. He previously wrote a letter of rebuke to the Corinthians for infighting: they were engaging in “debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults” (2 Corinthians 12:20). So things were pretty bad! Paul had also visited Corinth recently, and some members had challenged his authority; in Second Corinthians, he is stating that he doesn’t need letters of recommendation to uphold his authority or to prove himself. The Saints, the members, are his recommendations.

A letter of recommendation is used when someone applies for a position. The person writing the letter will praise the prospective employee’s character, virtues, and abilities.
POSSIBLE ADDITION BASED ON TIME—NOT INCLUDED: I am sometimes asked to write letters of recommendation for students, either for a job or for a scholarship or for an academic program to which they are applying. I use what I know of the students to write my recommendations—I reference how often they attended class; whether they were on time; whether they handed in their work. I use past behavior to suggest how these students will behave in the future. If I needed a letter of recommendation, and I wanted to behave like Paul, I would also refer to my students’ behavior in the classroom. Their behavior would decide whether or not I was a good teacher. This is a scary thought! Yet this is exactly what Paul is doing.
In Second Corinthians, Paul is saying that he doesn’t need outsiders to defend his character. He’ll know that he succeeded in teaching the gospel when he sees members practicing Christ-like behavior. When the Spirit of God is written on their hearts, they will become letters of Christ. A modernized version of this would be that when the Spirit of God is written on their hearts, they will become websites of Christ: that is, what they have in their hearts will show up where people can see.

Paul wants the members to have a loving attitude towards each other, an attitude that comes from the inside—he wants them to naturally wish the best for each other. In essence, he wants them to behave as described in First Corinthians 13.

I will read First Corinthians 13 in the original King James version, which is very beautiful, and then in the King James modernized version:
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth:

Love is patient, kind, not jealous, does not brag, is not arrogant, does not behave rudely, does not demand its own way, is not easily angered, keeps no grudges, does not rejoice in wrong but in truth and right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.
Another word for what Paul is describing is a great vocabulary word: magnanimity. Magnanimity is sometimes defined as “generosity of spirit” or “bigness of heart.” It is all encompassing.

In this last General Conference, Elder Robert D. Hales discusses this idea of being Christ-like or magnanimous:
The attributes of the Savior, as we perceive them, are not a script to be followed or list to be checked off. They are interwoven characteristics, added one to another, which develop in us in interactive ways. In other words, we cannot obtain one Christlike characteristic without also obtaining and influencing others. As one characteristic becomes strong, so do many more.
Goodness then is about internal integrity—not just outward behavior. Goodness is a way of being.

This can be difficult, not to say overwhelming! I know I am not always as good and kind as I would like to be. I struggle with how much better I should be. How do we become completely good/kind people in our hearts, not only our actions?

It comes down to a grammar or logic issue—an if-then statement. If one thing is true, then another thing must also be true.

The scriptures are full of if-then statements. If you love God . . . then . . .

Sometimes we get caught up on the “then”—we try to force it to happen. We need to back up to the “if.”

In Mosiah 4, for example, King Benjamin states, “If ye have known of [God’s] goodness and have tasted of his love and [felt the joy of God’s forgiveness] . . . then . . .” the following happens:
Ye shall grow in knowledge,
Ye shall not wish to hurt others,
Ye shall be kind to your children and teach them to love,
Ye shall be generous and forgiving.
All these behaviors and attitudes result from loving God. Jesus affirms this truth in Mark 12. When questioned, “Which commandment is the most important?” he answered that the most important, the place to start, is to “love the Lord thy God with all [our] hearts and souls and minds.”

To return to the Corinthians, Paul hoped to help the Corinthian congregation by having them adopt a more generous way of thinking and being. And he wanted them to do this by emulating Christ. Jesus and also King Benjamin tell us that the first step to emulating Christ is to love Heavenly Father.

How do we do that? How do we love Heavenly Father so completely that He and Christ will be inscribed on our hearts? I have three suggestions:

1. Accept God’s love. It seems an obvious thing to do. But we sometimes don’t do it because we “get in our own way” or sabotage ourselves.

A writer of religion, Philip Yancey, discusses the greatness of Apostle Peter by comparing him to Judas Iscariot. Both Judas and Peter betrayed Jesus—Judas did it deliberately for money; Peter did it impetuously out of fear. However, on the cross, Jesus forgave all those who betrayed him. The difference between the men is that Peter did not reject that forgiveness and love. He turned back to Christ.

2. Show gratitude. Like me, you may find comparing yourself to Peter, an Apostle and Head of the Church, a little daunting. A more everyday example of someone that I can relate to is the 10th leper.

Jesus cured 10 lepers. Luke 17 tells us, “And when [Jesus] saw them, he said unto them, ‘Go shew yourselves unto the priests.’ And it came to pass that as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God. And fell down on his face at [Jesus’s] feet, giving him thanks . . . And Jesus said unto him, ‘Arise, go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole’” (14-16).

Jesus didn’t remove the cure from the other 9—the scriptures make it clear that “they were cleansed.” They all received his love. The 10th turned back and accepted that love by thanking God. His gratitude, his faith and love, made him whole—more than simply in the physical sense.

Gratitude is a powerful attribute. In Sunbeams, the class for the 3 to 4-year-olds, we—the students and the teachers—learn to thank God for water, fish, prayer, our bodies, families, and of course, Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. Gratitude is a way to accept God’s love and to “know of his goodness.”

3. As well as acceptance and gratitude, we can love God by learning about Him—the best way to learn about God is to learn about His Son, Jesus Christ.

I recently had a wonderful experience where I went through the Gospel of Mark twice. First, I looked at only Jesus’s behavior—then I went back and read what Jesus said.

I discovered, first, that Jesus did AMAZING things during his ministry:
• He was happy for other people’s happiness—he enjoyed their enjoyment, such as when he attended the Wedding at Cana.
• He willingly spent time with and was interested in everyone from fishermen to intellectuals, children, the poor, the wealthy, the middle class, outsiders, military leaders, even tax collectors!
• I find it personally encouraging that he inspired women. Dorothy Sayers wrote:
“It is no wonder that women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. [Jesus was] a prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, who never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious.”
• As Sayers mentions, Jesus was entirely self-aware and self-confident. Early in his ministry, he gave up being a “celebrity” when he resisted Satan’s temptations. He wasn’t concerned with how he looked or what others thought of him.
• He was practical as when he fed people who had come to hear him speak (unmentioned in my talk: this extremely astute handling of a potentially unruly mob prevented a riot).
• He was introverted and extroverted. Sometimes, he spent time alone; sometimes, he took his apostles away on “retreats.” He taught people one-on-one and adjusted his teaching to their circumstances. He also enjoyed social activities and was capable of handling large crowds.
• And he performed miracles in many different ways—sometimes at a distance; sometimes up close; sometimes with words; sometimes with actions and words.
We are not perfect like Jesus, so we may not be able to deal with people and situations as variously as he did. I think he approached people and events in so many ways as an example to the different kinds of people that we are. If I need an example of how to be kind or how to deal with others that fits my personality, I can find it in the gospels.

The foundation of all Jesus’s behavior is love. This last General Conference, Elder S. Mark Palmer gave a talk about the rich, young man who asks Jesus what he needs to do to obtain eternal life. Jesus instructs him to follow the commandments. The young man says he has kept them all.

I confess—at this point in the conversation, I would roll my eyes. Really? You’ve kept ALL the commandments?

Jesus didn’t roll his eyes. As Elder Palmer reminds us, “Then Jesus beholding him loved him.” ("To my astonishment, I instead heard six words before that part of the verse [about following Jesus] that I seemed never to have heard or read before.")

Jesus’s love is echoed in the things that he said, specifically in the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount seems radical. Am I truly supposed to not complain when someone “shall smite [me] on the right cheek”? I have to admit, I would complain!

It helps to realize that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is deliberately pushing the commandments, such as forgiving one’s neighbor, to the furthest degree—NOT in order to make the commandments more legalistic but to make the point that kindness and goodness should match what is in our hearts. We should actually wish to get along with our neighbors, not simply hope they stay off our lawns. We should actually try to forgive our enemies, not make token statements about how nice it is to love everybody.

The scriptures assert that we can come to love God through accepting His love, showing gratitude, and learning more about His Son, Jesus Christ. We then become better people because we wish to be better people. In the book The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck writes, “When we love something, it is of value to us, and when something is of value to us, we spend time with it, time enjoying it and time taking care of it. Observe a [gardener] with a beloved rose garden, and the time spent pruning and mulching and fertilizing and studying it.”

I get a kick out of Peck’s analogy. I am not a gardener myself, but my parents are. They moved a year ago to a new, smaller home. Already their new home has a big garden. As the weather warms, they spend more and more time outside, digging up stumps, expanding the flower beds, and watering the shrubs. Their yard is flourishing and looks quite unlike everyone else’s in their cul-de-sac. It is obvious who the real gardeners in the neighborhood are. An if/then statement for my parents would be: If you really love gardening, you shall have beautiful and healthy plants to look at all day long.

When we spend time loving God and Jesus Christ, who witnesses to us of God’s love, we begin to fulfill Paul’s instruction to write Christ into our hearts. We also begin to fulfill the first part of the if/then statement from Mosiah: If we know of God’s love...we shall improve...

A wonderful example of a big-hearted person who became better out of love is Zacchaeus. He heard about Jesus and was quite excited to see him. Unfortunately, there was a large crowd and Zacchaeus wasn’t very tall—I can relate!—so he climbed up into a tree. When Jesus “came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, ‘Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for today I must abide at thy house.’ And [Zacchaeus] made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully.” After they ate, Zacchaeus stood up without prompting and announced, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold” (Luke 19:5-6, 8).

This is one of the passages where Jesus refers to finding those who are lost. So an outcome of loving God is not only becoming a better person but being found (I am here).

In Second Corinthians, Paul adds another outcome of loving God: we shall have “such trust . . . through Christ to God-ward” that we will be “troubled yet not distressed” (2 Corinthians 3:4, 4:8). I love the practicality of that last line! Paul doesn’t say, “Your life will be perfect.” He says, “You will be troubled yet not distressed.”

Paul wanted the Saints in Corinth to not be distressed. He wanted them to get along. He wanted them to stop arguing about status and to stop challenging each other. He wanted them to behave like Christ, not only for the sake of each other but for their individual sakes—so they could each feel more peace. That peace starts with loving God.

Remember the 10th leper. The moment he was healed, he thought not of all the places he could go or even of all the people he could hang out with. I’m sure he thought of those positive things later! But immediately, right away, he thought of glorifying God and thanking Jesus Christ.
NOT INCLUDED IN THE TALK DUE TO TIME (AND BECAUSE IT IS KIND OF A TALK IN ITS OWN RIGHT): Loving God doesn’t mean defending God--He frankly doesn’t need us to defend Him--or forcing people to believe in Him. It means being open to His perspective. Interestingly, in Alcoholics Anonymous, Step 2 is "to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity." For the non-denominational participants, the Power can be anything from God to a mountain to space. Believing in a Power is about getting a fresh look at our little selves. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love” (12-13).
In April’s General Conference, President Uchtdorf restated these ideas in his own energetic way:
So, how does God motivate His children to follow Him in our day?

He sent His Son!

God sent His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to show us the right way.

God motivates through persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned. God is on our side. He loves us, and when we stumble, He wants us to rise up, try again, and become stronger.

He is our mentor.

He is our great and cherished hope.

He desires to stimulate us with faith.

He trusts us to learn from our missteps and make correct choices.

As we fill our hearts with the love of Christ, we will awaken with a renewed spiritual freshness and we will walk joyfully, confidently, awake, and alive in the light and glory of our beloved Savior, Jesus Christ.
When I thank God for my blessings and remember the bigger picture of behaving with magnanimity, I become a more balanced person. I become more like the 10th leper who slowed down and looked around and remembered God’s love. I sometimes even have the patience of Christ although that happens less than it should. I have to keep reminding myself, and I falter a lot but reminding myself always pays off in the long run.

As Paul says, God, who made the light shine out of darkness, “shines in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

Church Talk: Joseph Smith and the Importance of a Physical Body

I gave this talk Fall 2015. It and the talk I will post next represent two foundations of my belief system: one, the positive nature of the physical existence; two, the non-legalistic nature of Christ's teachings. 

When I was growing up, the Young Women’s motto was a scripture: “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” from the Book of Moses, Moses 1:39.

Joseph Smith received the Book of Moses as revelation during his translation of the Bible. This translation was never completed though parts of it were published in 1851. The Book of Moses can now be found in the Pearl of Great Price, which includes the Book of Abraham, the Articles of Faith, and Joseph Smith History. The Book of Moses covers Genesis 1-6 (technically, Genesis 1:1-6:13).

Joseph Smith began the translation of the Bible, which led to the Book of Moses, in 1830. He was very busy in the 1830s. The translation of The Book of Mormon was completed in 1829 and published in 1830. The Church was established April 6, 1830. Joseph Smith received numerous revelations at this time, many of which can be found in the Doctrine & Covenants.

These revelations, the translation of The Book of Mormon, and the Book of Moses restore important doctrines—specifically, doctrines related to the physical resurrection.

Members of the LDS church believe that all people will be resurrected after death. They will have a physical, perfected form. I personally believe that when I am resurrected, I will have real red hair (it will involve tweaking only a few genes!).

We desire to have these physical, perfected bodies because Heavenly Father has a perfected body, made of matter. We cannot fully understand His body. After His resurrection, Jesus Christ deliberately kept marks of his crucifixion as a witness to His identity and acts. The exact nature of the perfected body is unknown; we do know it is composed of flesh and bone. D&C 130:22.

Why was the doctrine of the physical resurrection lost?

After Jesus Christ’s ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, the gospel was taught by the apostles led by Peter. Paul, the great missionary, also spread these truths throughout the Mediterranean World. As the apostles were killed one by one, including Peter and Paul, the doctrines were lost or changed. People attempted to put pieces back together without the priesthood, i.e. without prophetic revelation. They were puzzled by many things—such as the physical resurrection.

The physical resurrection was challenged in large part by what became known as Gnosticism, which finds its roots in Greek philosophy. The Gnostics were troubled by the physical body, including the idea that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, would choose to be born to a mortal woman and choose to take on physical form. Dallin H. Oakes explains, “The tangible, personal God described in the Old and New Testaments was replaced by an abstract [being].” The Gnostics saw the spirit as incorruptible and the body as corruptible. They saw the physical experience as a mistake.

Joseph Smith challenged these false ideas when he restored our understanding of the purpose of mortality. The Book of Moses opens with a discussion between Jehovah and Moses. Moses wishes to understand the purpose of mortality: Moses 1:30. In answer, Jehovah reveals God’s plan. How the earth was created is less important than why: Moses 1:39. We learn from the Book of Moses and The Book of Mormon that the physical resurrection is tied to the creation and to Adam and Eve.

We know from the Book of Moses, which restates Genesis 1, that the physical world is good—Moses 3:2—which includes endowing Adam and Eve with physical bodies although those bodies are not yet mortal.

When Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, they gained mortal bodies. In Moses 5, they both reflect on this experience and rejoice in it. As a result of leaving the Garden, their eyes were opened, and they could have children. They also came to fully understand God’s plan. Eve declares in verse 11, “We . . . know . . . the joy of redemption.” Adam states in verse 10, “In this life I shall have joy and again in the flesh I shall see God.”
Sidenote: In CTR class, Logan asked me, “Why did they have to leave the Garden of Eden?” After all, the Primary picture of Adam and Eve strolling through a garden with sprawling tigers looks awfully inviting! I used the explanations from my talk, but they didn’t work on a 5-year-old brain. Finally, I said, “Do you know what it means to ‘progress’? Adam and Eve couldn’t progress in the Garden of Eden.” He looked a little puzzled, so I added, “You know how you grow older and go to school. You progress. Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden of Eden to go to school.” And the light-bulb came on!
When Adam & Eve left the Garden of Eden, two things occurred. They gained mortal bodies, meaning they would die—like us. And they and their children gained the ability to willfully sin. To willfully sin is to sin knowing the difference between good and evil. Wrongdoing committed in a state of innocence is not sin—consequently, Mormons do not baptize children under the age of 8; they are not yet accountable. Moses 6:54 states that “children are whole from the foundation of the world.”

But we adults are liable for our behavior as we know from Article of Faith 2. We are “agents unto ourselves.”

So in mortality, we die and we make mistakes. How can we hope to overcome physical and spiritual death? How can we hope, like Adam, to “see God in the flesh”?

We can hope through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. The Atonement conquers the death of the physical body; it also conquers sin. The physical resurrection is necessary to BOTH parts of this process.

Alma 40:23 reads, “The soul shall be restored to the body, and the body to the soul.” 2 Nephi 9:13 tells us that together spirit and body form a “living soul.” And direct revelation to Joseph Smith in D&C 93:33-34 states clearly that when body and spirit are separated, “man cannot receive a fullness of joy.”

Without a resurrected body, we cannot be judged. Therefore, without a physical resurrection, repentance and spiritual progress cannot be assessed. The physical resurrection is VITAL to what is referred to as the Plan of Redemption, Plan of Salvation, and, my father’s favorite, the Plan of Happiness 😄.

The doctrine of the physical resurrection is extraordinary! How privileged we are to understand—because of Joseph Smith—that the mortal experience is NOT an accident and having a mortal body is NOT shameful.

To gain a mortal body—to go through the mortal experience—is NOT to be corrupted, as the Gnostics maintained. It is a necessary and constructive part of our journey. Both the spirit and body bring positive attributes to our existence as a “living soul”—the spirit because it can receive inspiration from God and be influenced by the Holy Ghost; the body because it is a humbling influence on the spirit. Our spirits are prone to pride and have been since pre-mortality. But pride has a hard time contending with the realization, “I’m getting older. You know, I think I need new glasses.” Practical reality is a steadying influence on the spirit!

The body also enables us to enjoy life.

I have been teaching in Primary for the last six months or so. I teach Sunbeams and CTRs. The lessons in these manuals remind me of the marvelous world we live in. We have lessons about choosing the right and Joseph Smith and prayer. We also have lessons about how God loves all people everywhere. And we have gratitude lessons about the wonderful world we live it, lessons titled, “I am Thankful for Water.” “I am Thankful for Animals.” “I am Thankful for My Hands.”

One of my favorite Primary songs is “My Heavenly Father Loves Me.”

Whenever I hear the song of a bird
Or look at the blue, blue sky,
Whenever I feel the rain on my face
Or the wind as it rushes by,
Whenever I touch a velvet rose
Or walk by our lilac tree,
I'm glad that I live in this beautiful world
Heav'nly Father created for me.

He gave me my eyes that I might see
The color of butterfly wings.
He gave me my ears that I might hear
The magical sound of things.
He gave me my life, my mind, my heart:
I thank him rev'rently
For all his creations, of which I'm a part.
Yes, I know Heav'nly Father loves me.

What amazing reminders these are of the glorious world in which we live!

We are meant to be here. And we understand why in large part because of Joseph Smith. “The mind of Joseph Smith,” said President Hinckley, “tutored by the God of Heaven, encompassed all humankind of all generations.”

I am thankful to Joseph Smith for providing the Book of Moses, so I could have Moses 1:39 to sustain me through my life. “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”

Church Talk: Repentance

I gave this talk in church on January 15, 2012. To be honest, this topic doesn't entirely thrill me. Repentance reminds me a little too forcefully of being obedient, not upsetting the apple-cart, and being mad at myself. Since I was one of those kids born into the world with a guilty conscience, I don't feel like it's a part of me that should be encouraged. In this talk, I attempted to focus on the improving, positive aspects of becoming better. One of my favorite church videos--and one of the most artistic--encapsulates this idea.

As one of the first four principles of the gospel, repentance can seem overwhelming. Elder Neal A. Maxwell states, “Repentance is a rescuing, not a dour doctrine.” That is, it is a positive, not a negative principle.

Repentance can often seem like a negative principle because it means casting off sins caused by ignorance, weakness, and willful disobedience. Ignorance, weakness, and willful disobedience can be rather discouraging!

There is a process to help us deal with repentance: first, recognize the sin; next, feel sorrow for the sin (not merely the negative consequences of the sin but sorrow for the sin itself); then, forsake the sin, confessing it to Heavenly Father, another person (if necessary) and priesthood authority (if necessary); make restitution; forgive oneself and others; finally, continue to keep the commandments.

This is a good process. What is the purpose of this process? What are the different stages of the process attempting to achieve?

To illustrate the purpose of the process, I am going to compare events in the lives of two men: Joseph Smith and Alma the Younger.

Following the First Vision, during a three-year period, Joseph Smith states that he fell into “foolish errors and the weakness . . . and foibles of human nature” (JS-History 1:28). I’m sure we can all relate to that! Worried, he prayed that he might know of the state of his relationship with God.

Alma the Younger was persecuting the church when an angel appeared to him and commanded him to stop. The angel came to Alma the Younger in answer to the prayers of Alma’s father and members of the church.

These are two very different men. Joseph Smith was undergoing ordinary human failings. Alma the Younger, on the other hand, had actively turned his back on God.

However, both men underwent similar experiences. When Joseph Smith prayed, the angel Moroni appeared to him, and Joseph Smith was given a new mission: to locate and eventually translate the Book of Mormon.

After the angel appeared to Alma the Younger, he was unable to move or speak for two days. During that time, he had a vision. He explains what happened to him in that vision in Mosiah 27: 24-26.
24 For, said he, I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit.

25 And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters;

26 And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.
Both Joseph Smith and Alma the Younger experienced a restart of their spiritual progression. Joseph Smith just needed to be revved out of stall while Alma the Younger actually needed to turn the car around—still, both of them underwent a renewal, a regeneration of their relationship with God.

This renewal or regeneration is referred to often in the scriptures. It is frequently compared to being reborn or receiving a new heart. Jeremiah 24:7 states that the Lord “will give us a heart to know him.” Ezekiel 18:31 states that we should “cast away transgressions . . . make [us] a new heart and spirit” while Ezekiel 36:26 includes a promise from the Lord: “[A] new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you an heart of flesh.” An “heart of flesh” is a heart that is whole and responsive and can appreciate the love of God.

More examples! In Alma 5:26, Alma the Younger gives a sermon in which he wonders if his listeners have “experienced a change of heart and . . . felt to sing the song of redeeming love.”

And, of course, there is the famous passage in the New Testament when Nicodemus comes to see Jesus, and Jesus tells him that to enter into the kingdom of God, he must be “born again . . . of water and of the Spirit” (John 3:3,5).

Rebirth/a change of heart/softening heart: all these images have to do with renewal, regeneration, transformation. The purpose of repentance is not to just follow a list of instructions but to undergo a process that involves progression. Through repentance, we can lose our cynicism; we can gain optimism and feel renewed.

Another story about repentance takes a middle road in comparison to the earlier stories. Joseph Smith in the earlier story was suffering from ordinary human failings while Alma the Younger had actually turned away from God.

We often make mistakes that fall between these two points. One example comes again from Joseph Smith’s life. About the time he finished translating the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith became friends with an older man, Martin Harris. Martin Harris was not only older but wealthier and better educated. He convinced Joseph Smith to give him the 116 pages to show to others. Joseph Smith agreed DESPITE several warnings through the Spirit that it was not a good idea.

The pages were stolen. Joseph Smith was devastated. He took the responsibility for the theft on himself, saying, “I . . . tempted the wrath of God. I should have been satisfied with the first answer which I received from the Lord; for he told me that it was not safe to let the writing go out of my possession” (Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, "Section 3"). Doctrine & Covenants 3 tells us that Joseph Smith ignored the promptings of the Spirit because he feared man more than God. This is understandable; we all often do things that we know aren’t wise out of fear of disappointing a boss or friends or people who seem wiser in the ways of the world.

For a time, Joseph Smith lost his ability to translate, and he experienced a heavy heart. However, he repented and Doctrine & Covenants 10 tells us that he was forgiven. He regained his ability to translate and was commanded to continue in the work, to not run faster or labor more than he had strength, to be faithful and diligent, and to pray always.

Repentance brought Joseph Smith a renewal of his relationship with God; he was encouraged to keep going in the same direction.

Likewise, when we repent, we should accept and applaud the change of heart that comes with the process. In a March 1993 Ensign article, Joseph Walker writes:
Of course, this change of heart isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Nor is it intended only for those who are guilty of major violations of God’s law. It can come every day of our lives as we prayerfully consider our commitment to the Lord and the sacred covenants we have made with him. In doing so, sometimes we’ll feel the need to repent and improve. Other times we’ll feel the confident peace of purity, which in this life only comes through repentance. Those are the times when we will feel most inclined to “sing the song of redeeming love."(“Singing the Song of Redeeming Love”)
The purpose of repentance is to encourage renewal, so we feel like singing. The joy that accompanies the repentance process is one of its gifts.

I think we often have difficulty accepting the gifts of the repentance process. We go through the process, then immediately think, “Time for a break!” or “Got to start over, work on getting rid of another sin!”

I think we feel this way for several reasons--we are afraid of change; we feel we aren’t good enough to accept God’s gifts; we know we aren’t perfect (and we aren’t!). Finally and I think more profoundly, it can be difficult for humans to accept how truly forgiving and generous God is.

The story of Jonah from the Old Testament is a good example of this. We’ve all heard of Jonah and the whale, but AFTER Jonah got out of the whale, he did what he was supposed to do in the first place: he went to the city of Ninevah to tell the inhabitants there that they would be destroyed for their sins.

Surprise! The inhabitants repented. Instead of being pleased, Jonah was upset. He left the city and sulked instead of rejoicing with those he helped. He actually sat outside of the city, hoping it would be destroyed. While he did this, God sent a vine to shade him from the sun, and Jonah was content to sit in the shade. But then God destroyed the vine, and Jonah started sulking again. At which point, God rebuked Jonah for being happier about the shade than about the city being saved. In other words, Jonah was rebuked for not taking pleasure in the process of repentance.

We need to be willing to participate in the gifts of repentance, to be optimistic and positive, because those gifts make future repentance easier. Just like it is easier to exercise when we feel upbeat, it is easier to repent when we have a positive attitude.

In contrast to Jonah, the Book of Mormon tells us of Ammon, one of the sons of Mosiah. He repented of his sins at the same time as Alma the Younger, and he and his brothers went on missions to the Lamanites. After their missions, they met up again, and Ammon spoke to his brothers about what they had been through:
Now have we not reason to rejoice? Yea, I say unto you, there never were men that had so great reason to rejoice as we, since the world began; yea, and my joy is carried away, even unto boasting in my God; for he has all power, all wisdom, and all understanding; he comprehendeth all things, and he is a merciful Being, even unto salvation, to those who will repent and believe on his name. (Alma 26:35, Kate’s emphasis)
What about that for a positive attitude?! Can’t you just feel his excitement?!

Now, we don’t always feel excited about repentance; many times, we have to do what Joseph Smith did and push ourselves out of stall. But if we keep the example of people like Ammon in mind, the process will be easier. If we remember that repenting means enjoying the gifts of repentance, we can use those gifts to help us through the process.

Repentance is happiness.