Category Archives: religion

“If thou art sorrowful” – A homily on trials and tribulations

This is a homily I wrote for Sacrament Meeting this Sunday. It’s the first talk I ever wrote out beforehand (I usually just rely on a constellation of talking points and loose outlines the other times) and got a lot of great responses from it so I thought I’d share it with y’all.

The main reason Peanuts is still one of my absolute favorite comic strips is because of its common theological musings (always in humorous fashion). All credits to Charles Shultz.

The main reason Peanuts is still one of my absolute favorite comic strips is because of its common theological musings (always in humorous fashion). All credits to Charles Schulz.

Today’s scripture theme comes from Doctrine and Covenants 136:31, “My people must be tried in all things.” Section 136 is my third favorite section, next to 121 and 93, mostly because 136 is a very practical guide to every day life. It is also one of the few sections not given to us through Joseph Smith but through Brigham Young, on January 14, 1847, according to the section heading, at “the Winter Quarters of the Camp of Israel, Omaha Nation, West Bank of Missouri River, near Council Bluffs, Iowa.” At this point in Church history, their beloved prophet Joseph Smith had been brutally assassinated along with his brother Hyrum, the Assistant President of the Church, by a bloodthirsty gang of thugs just two and a half years before this revelation was given. The previous year, persecution had become so intense that the Saints decided the most rational response was to evacuate an entire city and abandon a temple they had sacrificed so much for, a temple that was fully operational for less than three months. At the time of the revelation, a large body of the Church was camped out at Winter Quarters, where their diet consisted mainly of corn bread, salt bacon, a little milk, and occasional meat, usually from any game they could hunt nearby. There were little to no fruits and vegetables. Scurvy, known as “blackleg” during the time (which gets my vote for most terrifying disease name in the 1800s) was rampant, along with tuberculosis and malaria, all horrifying diseases. Hundreds died that winter (see Wikipedia, “Winter Quarters”). Trials and tribulations no doubt were forefront on the Saints’ minds, and it’s understandable to me if at that point some were thinking after hearing the revelation, “Tried in all the things? You’ve got to be kidding me. What did I sign up for?”

Thankfully, we live in very different times and circumstances, yet of all the problems, controversies, and public media battles and scandals, I would venture to guess that the most difficult question the modern-day Latter-day Saint must grapple with is, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” The doubt that many experience when grappling with this question stems not from disbelief, as some of the orthodoxy suspect, but from an intense belief in the goodness of God and a selfless love and compassion for all people, a love born from their faith in the promises of the gospel. You will never meet a mean-spirited, uncaring person ask this question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”, unless that person believes himself to be a “good” person who was wronged.

Part of the anxiety we experience with this question comes from this cognitive dissonance, but much of it also comes from the fact we live in a society devoted to and obsessed with comfort. The existence and even any mention of death, disability, suffering, weakness, and helplessness makes us nervous and want to quickly change the subject or shush the speaker on the grounds that such topics are impolite to talk about — unless, of course, you’re trying to sell a new product. Our government, our economy, and our civic ideologies are based upon rugged individualism, maximized personal freedom to do as we choose, and the conceit that everything good that happens in life is a direct result of our own actions and only our actions with the opposite belief that everything bad that happens in others’ lives is a result of their own personal decisions. But the existence of pain, suffering, setbacks, trials, death, disease, and disability destroy our carefully constructed and clever contrivances. In the end, despite our diet plans, medical advances, scientific breakthroughs, and accumulated GDP, the death rate for humans remains stubbornly at 100%, and large portions of our economy are devoted to either trying to escape this sobering fact, or to forget about it through distractions and temporary indulgences.

Perhaps what makes this question so enduring in its difficulty is because many of the more philosophical answers ring as false or trite in our ears when we are in the midst of suffering and pain, especially when it’s ours. Unsurprisingly, trials and tribulations is one of the most popular topics in the scriptures because trials and tribulations refuse to become simply an abstract idea, no matter how hard our current society tries. While suffering and pain is often distributed disproportionately in our world, every human will experience some form of pain, whether physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social, or otherwise. This truth — that everyone must feel pain — and, more importantly, the implications of this truth and what we do with this truth forms the foundational bedrock of almost every religion, faith, and philosophy, our religious faith included.

Our Church’s early history is well acquainted with suffering. Joseph Smith’s life could be described as a continuous stream of devastating personal tragedies punctuated with the occasional spiritual triumph. Our people have experienced historical persecution, have lost lives, property, and sacred places because of this persecution. The Book of Mormon, the keystone of our religion, deals with people “whose lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days” (Jacob 7:26). The first prophet-author Nephi, in the very first chapter, says he writes this record to “show unto [us] the tender mercies of the Lord [that] are over all those whom he hath chosen” (1 Nephi 1:20) and the final prophet-author Moroni urges the reader to “remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down unto the time that ye shall receive these things” (Moroni 10:3), yet the contents in between these two statements seem anything but merciful. Nephi witnesses his extended family torn apart by jealousy and fear, becoming the basis of two warring nations. Moroni experiences the ultimate conclusion of this family rivalry as he sees his entire people slaughtered and he is left to eke out an existence wandering alone. Ancient scripture gives us plenty of instances where good people suffer and question out loud, culminating in God Himself being born into the world and experiencing first hand rejection and persecution and even torture and execution as the ancient Roman equivalent of a modern-day terrorist despite preaching a message of radical peace and love, an irony crowned by the ultimate irony that it was the leaders of the religion based upon Him who helped to betray Him.

It is easy for many of us born in amazing, unprecedented prosperity, comfort, and opportunity to forget that while we worship the God of Peace and the God of Love, we also worship the Abandoned God, the Forgotten God, the Rejected God, the Humiliated God, a God who experienced all of this and submitted Himself willingly to these experiences with explicit purpose to love us more fully. We believe in a God who weeps because of the hatred amongst His children. We believe in a God who cries out, “What more could I have done for my vineyard?” We believe in a God who, when He appears in our own personal lives, does not come to us as a powerful person or a wealthy person but as a prisoner, as the poor, as the fatherless and the widow. We admire prophets who’ve begged the Lord to show himself, to stop hiding, to unstay his hand and listen to the cries of his people. Even “patient” Job declares (and if you actually read the Book of Job, you realize that he is anything but patient), “I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak to the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul…My soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than life. I loathe it; I would not live always: let me alone; for my days are vanity” (Job 7:11, 15-16).

All credits to Charles Schulz.

All credits to Charles Schulz.

The most poignant, memorable, and beloved passages of scripture, both ancient and modern, are passages in which the author questions, challenges, or downright begs God for relief, for comfort, for explanations. In these passages are often revealed the frailty of humanity and its reliance on God, but also revealed is God’s unlovable hand in both mercy and justice as well as power. Even for Jesus, one of his last words in His mortal ministry was the opening line of a psalm, a hymn and prayer, “O Lord, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, see also Psalms 22:1). Even silent acts, such as the woman who reaches out in hopes of brushing her fingertips against just the edges of divinity or the woman who, without words, bathes the Savior’s feet in her tears — these images and other similar stories etch the deepest grooves in our memories and our souls.

But what does this all have to do with the question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” At the end of the Book of Job, contrary to popular belief, one of Job’s friends actually does get the better of him. We usually hear the narrative with Job as the silent, eternally graceful and patient sufferer while his friends rail against him and accuse him of sin and tell him to curse God and die (only his wife says that). It is true that Eliphaz relies on simplistic, overly moralistic, “Gospel of Prosperity” heuristics to accuse Job of sin because bad things only happen to bad people. Bildad indulges in his Deistic Nihilism and the worthlessness of man. And Zophar spouts tone-deaf, Hallmark-esque, even nonsensical cliches that don’t even relate to Job’s situation at all! For those who have experienced suffering and received well-meaning advice from people, you may recognize some of these archetypes.

This remains my most absolute favorite Peanuts comic strip to date. All credits to Charles Schultz.

This remains my most absolute favorite Peanuts comic strip to date and prompted me to actually closely read the Book of Job, which is now my favorite Old Testament book. All credits to Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown’s baseball playing theological seminary.

But Elihu, youngest of the bunch, finally tells Job, “Look, bro. You’ve spent this entire time justifying your own righteousness in the face of adversity, but you have spent little to no time sincerely justifying the goodness of God.” Elihu ignores the question that Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Job discuss ad nauseum for over 30 chapters: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Instead, he says to Job, “You asked earlier in this conversation, ‘What’s the point of righteousness if you still have bad things happen to you?’ The answer is because righteousness blesses others (see Job 35:1-8, Job 22:2-3). God cannot be unjust, He cannot pervert justice, and He cannot be a respecter of persons. And if you have faith in this God, you stay righteous to the end not because it blesses you but because it blesses others. God will make up for the rest.”

To bring it all back, Doctrine and Covenants 136:31 tells us that “My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom.” But only three verses before, the Lord tells us, “If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.” But “If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with supplication that your soul may be joyful” (D&C 136:28-29), mirroring that beautiful one in The Book of Mormon, “men are that they might have joy.” Even in the midst of suffering, or perhaps even because of it, we must seek out joy in the kindness of others and exercise kindness ourselves and therein see the righteousness of God.

Brothers and sisters, my faith in God is not knowledge or some secret truth I hold. Rather it is a faith born out of hope and desperation. In the face of seemingly infinite sorrow, pain, and suffering, I cling to the promises of the gospel because no other philosophy, economy, ideology, or theology has worked for me — and I’ve tried to find one that does. I have no other choice. Like the Apostle Peter, if the Lord asked me if I, too, shall go like the others, I have no brilliant logical defense or proof or even experienced some majestic, divine manifestation. All I can reply with is, “To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:68) — I hope. Because I have no other options.

It is my hope that in face of adversity, whether our own or others, we ignore our instinct to justify our own righteousness but instead justify and demonstrate the righteousness of God. This is not easy. In fact, it is immensely difficult. But it is exactly what we signed up for according to our baptismal covenant, which, if it means anything to us, “commands us to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). It is my hope that in face of pain and suffering, we can pull together as a ward family and as the family of humanity to find joy in kindness from others and showing kindness to those around us.

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Practice of Meditation

My friend Jill recently starting asking me questions about Zen Buddhism, which has stoked my curiosity once more. I’ve been wondering what to do with this blog for quite some time now; I guess posting various stuff about things from Buddhism for the time being isn’t a bad use of the digital space here.

This excerpt is titled “Practice of Meditation” in Teachings of the Buddha: Revised and Expanded Edition edited by Jack Kornfield (Shambhala Press, pp. 150-152). The excerpt is from Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, translated by Senzaki and McCandless.

I have a huge man crush on Dogen, and I have always loved his very to-the-point sensible writing style when it comes to talking about meditating technique. In the West, we have a tendency to fetishize the practice of meditation; Dogen’s simple explanation punctures that fantasy and replaces it with something very mundane, but very real. As he writes, “The practice of meditation is not a method for the attainment of realization — it is enlightenment itself.” Now go meditate.

Truth is perfect and complete in itself. It is not something newly discovered; it has always existed. Truth is not far away; it is ever present. It is not something to be attained since not one of your steps lead away from it.

Do not follow the ideas of others, but learn to listen to the voice within yourself. Your body and mind will become clear and you will realize the unity of all things.

The slightest movement of your dualistic thought will prevent you from entering the palace of meditation and wisdom.

The Buddha meditated for six years, Bodhidharma for nine. The practice of meditation is not a method for the attainment of realization — it is enlightenment itself.

Your search among books, word upon word, may lead you to the depths of knowledge, but it is not the way to receive the reflection of your true self.

When you have thrown off your ideas as to mind and body, the original truth will fully appear. Zen is simply the expression of truth; therefore longing and striving are not the true attitudes of Zen.

To actualize the blessedness of meditation you should practice with pure intention and firm dedication. Your meditation room should be clean and quiet. Do not dwell in thoughts of good and bad. Just relax and forget that you are meditating. Do not desire realization since that thought will keep you confused.

Sit on a cushion in a manner as comfortable as possible, wearing loose clothing. Hold your body straight without leaning to the left or the right, forward or backward. Your ears should be in line with your shoulders, and your nose in a straight line with your navel. Keep your tongue at the roof of your mouth and close your lips. Keep your eyes slightly open, and breathe through your nostrils.

Before you begin meditation take several slow, deep breaths. Hold your body erect, allowing your breathing to become normal again. Many thoughts will crowd into your mind, ignore them, letting them go. If they persist be aware of them with the awareness which does not think. In other words, think non-thinking.

Zen meditation is not physical culture, nor is it a method to gain something material. It is peacefulness and blessedness itself. It is the actualization of truth and wisdom.

In your meditation you yourself are the mirror reflecting the solution of your problems. The human mind has absolute freedom within its true nature. You can attain your freedom intuitively. Do not work for freedom, rather allow the practice itself to be liberation.

When you wish to rest, move your body slowly and stand up quietly. Practice this meditation in the morning or in the evening, or at any leisure time during the day. You will soon realize that your mental burdens are dropping away one by one, and that you are gaining an intuitive power hitherto unnoticed.

There are thousands upon thousands of students who have practiced meditation and obtained its fruits. Do not doubt its possibilities because of the simplicity of the method. If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?

Life is short and no one knows what the next moment will bring. Open your mind while you have the opportunity, thereby gaining the treasures of wisdom, which in turn you can share abundantly with others, bringing them happiness.

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Zen and the Art of Slicing Virtual Fruit

I recently got the Fruit Ninja app a million years after it came out because it was free in the app store because I am a cheapskate like that. My toddler son, of course, quickly discovered this new game and wanted to play with me, so we sat, him in my lap, the iPad in his lap, slicing fruit.

He opened up a new game in Zen Mode, which is, I guess, just a bunch of fruit falling down that you have to slice for a while (which is, in a nutshell, every game mode in Fruit Ninja). However, my son decided to take this Zen Mode and turn it into legitimate, infuriating Zen practice. Every time I would try to slice a fruit, successful or not in my attempt, my son would quietly pause the game, and restart it. Over and over, he did this, and I found myself inexplicably frustrated beyond proportion. Why would my son not allow me to just cut the stupid fruit as it popped up on the screen?

And then I realized, how appropriate for a “Zen Mode” game. Every time I gave into my impulses (impulses conditioned over decades of gaming) to cut the fruit, to mindlessly perform an action without any real cause, reason, or understanding, my son would start the game over. “Again!” I could hear him say in an uncharacteristically gruff voice, forcing me to sit in meditation, watching the fruit fall, resisting the monkey mind to act and simply let the fruit fall.

If you have Fruit Ninja on your electronic whatchamacallit thingy device, I suggest trying this. Set your device on a stand, where you can see it clearly while seated in (half-)lotus position. Open Zen Mode. Let the fruit simply fall. Refuse to take action. Resist your monkey mind. If you are as restless and deluded as me, you will find this non-activity immensely and disproportionately difficult.

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We are all a bunch of babies

Parenting, I admit, has made me incredibly jaded.

Specifically, parenting has made me jaded towards children (babies, especially). But it has also made me jaded towards humanity as a whole, too, which is a feat considering I had managed to maintain a cheery, upbeat attitude towards humanity until now.

Actually, let me back up a bit.

Our culture tends to fetishize children. We ascribe a certain type of wisdom to children, one which can pierce through the guile and treachery of adulthood, revealing the heart of the matter. We argue that they are pure and innocent, that they are wildlife preserves that deserve the most utmost protection from anything nasty, even though the very world we’ve brought them into is the epitome of just that sometimes. Our Church culture, especially, promotes this fetish, mostly because of scriptural stories of Jesus saying we should be like little children, that heaven is made up of little children, and just in general being very protective about little children.

Now, I’m not saying that Jesus didn’t like children. I’m pretty sure he loves all of the children, like he says. But now that I am dealing with a child every day of my life, I have begun to wonder how Jesus actually thinks of us.

I cannot wait until my child grows up. I do not understand how parents can look back on these years with any kind of affection or wonderment (maybe I will later, but I cannot see it now). These past three months have been one of the most difficult months of my life. I rarely get more than four hours of sleep. My train of thought is generally interrupted at least once every thirty minutes by a wail that could chill the blood of a Nazgul. There are large stretches of my life where I am at the mercy of this baby, feeding him (and thus rendering myself useless; it is incredibly hard to do anything without hands), changing him, dressing him, bathing him, playing with him.

Meanwhile, this child could be termed as ungrateful, if he could even feel the difference between ingratitude and gratitude. Babies are a bundle of nerve cells and a very strong, healthy id. Everything the baby does involves him communicating to me that he wants something and he wants something now. He will scream until he gets it. And sometimes he doesn’t want anything. Sometimes, he is just tired, and all he does is scream. He can’t seem to calm himself down; I need to step in and soothe him and reassure him, and even then, he will struggle in my arms and scream at me as if it is all my fault. But eventually, he will calm down, and he will smile and coo at me as if the past hour scream marathon never happened.

There are many times in the day when I will stare into the eyes of my son. I love him fiercely, something that hurts physically sometimes, as if all the emotion in me is squeezed tightly in a vice. I will defend him to the death, if I have to, and perhaps my love will even reanimate me as an undead ghast in order for me to continue protecting my son. It’s that strong.

But there’s always this underlying baseline of frustration. My son begins to scream. I call out to him, let him know a bottle is forthcoming, and he only screams harder. Sometimes, he’s too busy screaming to even notice that I am trying to feed him. What a baby.

Yes, I stare into his eyes and think, This is how God sees us. We are a bunch of babies, a pack of humans that are bundle of nerves and very strong, healthy id. We scream and cry and howl and that’s all we do. I’m sure of it; we are a bunch of babies. And therein lies the predicament God finds himself in. “Come, let us reason together,” he says. Instead, we just scream at him harder, because there is no reasoning with a baby.

Babies are rarely cute. Well, my baby is cute (this has been empirically proven), but most babies I just don’t find that cute anymore. Maybe it’s that lingering baseline of irritation. Maybe constant exposure has taken the shine off of it. But babies are not cute. Babies are infuriating. Babies are ridiculous. But, very importantly, babies represent potential. Unlimited potential.

I’m excited for when my baby grows up. Then I can say, “Come, let us reason together,” and he’ll say, “Just keep the heals coming dad, then we’ll talk,” because we’re playing games. We can talk about religion. I can tell him about my experience and tell him about folklore and language and he will understand. Someday, he will be my equal and peer. He will develop from a screaming id to an adult, with passions and interests and sorrows and joys. We will share them together.

Within us lies a powerful potential as well. God did not create us with the intention of using us as his mere playthings, and I don’t think he really desires us to stay babies. He wants us to be like children, because children hold potential. They are a wellspring of opportunities that unfold slowly over time. God wants equals, peers which he can share creation with. He wants us to reason with him, to converse with him. He wants us to understand as he does. The problem is, we’re sometimes too busy screaming to realize that. But that’s okay; he’s patient. He can wait. He realizes that sometimes all you can do is wait for your child to stop screaming and notice that the nourishment is already there.

There will be 7 billion people on this Earth by the end of the year. 7 billion mouths to feed, 7 billion mouths screaming at God for something. God resides in yonder heavens on a golden throne of holy fire, but sometimes I wonder if every now and then, as he sees us, wailing miserably and selfishly, he feels like he’s in hell.

I am only just beginning to understand you, o Lord, as well as my own imperfections. Forgive me of my screaming and tantrums, for I know now what I do sometimes. Hopefully, it’s a phase, and I’ll grow out of it.

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Mormons, Hipsters, and how we forgot about Jesus

My friend David and I have a sort of dueling blogs kind of relationship. He writes over at Catchy Title Goes Here, and we tend to have pretty divergent views on Mormon culture and how it should interact with the world around us. I guess we can get away with this sort of thing because we avoid name-calling and we’ve known each other since forever.

Recently, our circle of friends is talking about the New York Times article To Be Young, Hip, and Mormon. My friend David talked about how he felt this was an affront to what the Church stood for, that it’s just an article about how to compromise with the world and avoid following certain commandments:

And the most offensive part of the article was at the end where the New York Times writes about What the Church Says and How to Get Around It. The very idea that you want to “get around” the commandments and doctrines of the church, just so that you can fit in with the cool kids, is just unthinkable to me. Either you are a Mormon, you want to be a part of the faith, you want to believe and accept the tenets of this faith, or you do not. And if you do not, then don’t. No big deal. There’s no one forcing you to be Mormon, there’s nothing, other than social pressure, which is, ironically, the only thing encouraging people to be hipster.

The offending portion is in the end of the article, where they write a tl;dr version:

Rebelling, If Only Just a Little

WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS

Many adult Mormons follow the practice of wearing the temple garment, which for men, means long boxer briefs and a scoop-neck T-shirt and, for women, knee-length shorts and a top with cap sleeves.

HOW TO GET AROUND IT

For men, tank tops are out, but you can stay on-trend in a button-down plaid shirt, rolled selvedge jeans and boat shoes. For women, one popular option is the “Zooey Deschanel look” — ruffled blouse, bow collar and a high-waisted pencil skirt.

WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS

Mormons are told not to “disfigure” themselves “with tattoos or body piercing.”

HOW TO GET AROUND IT

Cover up the tattoos or at least try a compromise, like getting a tattoo of a beehive, a Mormon symbol of working together for the common good.

WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS

No beards on missionaries or Brigham Young University students.

HOW TO GET AROUND IT

An allergic reaction to shaving, demonstrated by razor bumps, can score you a “beard card” at B.Y.U.

WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS

No consumption of alcohol, even at social functions.

HOW TO GET AROUND IT

Drink Pellegrino and don’t bother to correct other party guests who assume you are in recovery.

What I found so interesting about all of this is that outside of the tattoo advice (which blatantly defies the “no tattoos” rule our Church has), none of this actually advocates breaking any of the commandments. A beard card is a legitimate tool at BYU for wearing beards. No one said anything about altering or forgoing garments; they suggested clothing options that were still “hipster” yet modest. And nobody advocates drinking at parties; the author advocates drinking fancy bubbly water. In fact, if you simply changed the setting (say, for some bizarre reason, this appeared in the Ensign), this is all legitimate advice in being a faithful member but participating in this subculture (which, for some reason, you wanted to).

I actually found this to be a fun, if not somewhat banal, fluff piece. Why the New York Times is interested in Mormon hipsters (outside of the incongruity with our public image and the hipster fashion movement) is beyond me. Why do they care so much about us? I suppose we really are experiencing some kind of Mormon Moment.

However, a lot of people were really offended by this (or at least upset). David wasn’t the only one; my “Mormon Folks” Google Plus circle was all a-Buzz (see what I did there?) with commentary on this article, mostly negative. They view this as compromising our Church’s core values with the desires of the world. And this is the part I get upset about, for two primary reasons.

First of all, let’s not pretend that the Church has never compromised our core values with the world (see also: Polygamy). Speaking of the document that is now known as the Manifesto (and is actually, very curiously, canon), then-current Church President Woodruff wrote about the Lord’s justification on why we stopped practicing polygamy — the opposition was too much. We’d lose control of our temples; all of our leaders would be jailed; the entire religious movement would collapse under the strain. The impetus was revelation, that God said it was okay, but the explicit justification given (by God, if you are inclined to believe so) is to compromise to the pressure of the world.

Or let’s even talk about tattoos. In certain cultures (such as in Polynesia), tattoos are a vitally important part of their society. It marks rank, age, social prestige, etc. So what did the Church do when large numbers of Polynesians joined the Church? They compromised. Polynesian men can still get tattoos which are important to their culture and standing in society, but with Church permission on a case-by-case basis. This is hardly a strong, black-and-white stance that we often advocate here in the United States.

Now, yes. The key point to every Mormon here is that all of these “exceptions,” if you want to call them that, are regulated by the Church ecclesia proper. Yes. But there are other compromises that were not exactly brought about by revelation. In the beginning, the early Church Fathers taught vehemently against the idea of rampant capitalism; they taught that the nuclear family (a product of the Industrial Revolution) destroyed traditional kinship relationships and was a product of selfishness. They taught that communitarianism was more important than making money. Well, we’ve mostly forgotten those lessons. Sure, you see shades of it here and there, but we’ve actually gone and sacralized the nuclear family structure (See also: Proclamation to the World: The Family) and a good part of States Mormons embrace capitalism wholeheartedly.

Or take women and working. Twenty years ago, President Ezra Taft Benson said by no circumstance should women ever work outside the home. Ever. Then, in the 2000s, we had prophets saying it’s okay when necessary, but should be avoided. Now, in the 2010s, we have an I’m A Mormon ad celebrating a Mormon who is…you guessed it, a working mom who loves her job and doesn’t intend on quitting any time soon.

But this is not what really irks me and really more of a side point than anything else. Here’s my real beef and my second point. The New York Times article is banal and trivial; don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a fluff piece and nothing more. I think the whole hipster movement is kind of ridiculous. But that’s the thing. Our negative responses by and large have done the same thing — we’ve reduced our vibrant, beautiful faith into a banal list of outward appearances.

The advice in the article is really, really shallow. Mormonism isn’t about beards and blouses and skinny jeans and glasses and drinking sparkling water at loft parties and tattoos. Not really. Mormonism is about a beautiful cosmology, about a God who is our Father and who loves us, who sent His Son to die for us in an attempt to save us all from our wretched natures and exalt us to his level. We believe in a religion that not only saves us, but extends the salvic power of Jesus through the chains of our ancestors and our descendants, in infinite web of humanity all embraced and linked together through the power of God so that we can all become kin, and all re-enter into our inheritance as the offspring of deity.

Nowhere in the article (or in the complaints) is this idea. The article is not advocating denouncing Jesus, or abandoning baptism or membership. They’re talking about wearing modest clothing and still looking hipster, for Pete’s sake. And here in lies the Big Problem, both for our perception to the outside world, and our own perceptions of ourselves.

What makes a Mormon Mormon? Is it the way he dresses? What she drinks and where and why? Is it whether or not she has a tattoo or whether or not he has a beard? God forbid this is what we think of ourselves. But this small slip reveals a lot — we don’t require that you just believe in Mormonism, you need to look the part, too. Which I think is sad. How sad is it that we see a guy with a beehive tattoo and we think, “He must not believe in the core doctrines of this Church.” How sad is it when we see a girl drinking sparkling water at a loft party and dodging questions about why she doesn’t drink to avoid social scorn and then looks dejected when everyone else around her is drunk and she’s not having any fun, we think “She has no moral values. I bet she doesn’t even believe in Jesus.” Because that’s what we’re saying. We’re drawing the line in the sand on what makes you a “good” Mormon, and it’s not what you believe, but it’s apparently how you dress and your attitudes towards loft parties.

Sure, people will extrapolate motivations from actions. If you want to get a tattoo but the prophet told you not to, then you obviously believe in the prophet. But then again, I’ve yet to meet a Mormon who is perfect in everything the prophets tell you to do (in fact, every General Conference, my feeds are flooded with Mormons publicly confessing that they could always do better). Whence did all this judgment come from? And why do we keep doing it?

We’re all sinners here. To pull an old card from classic evangelic street preaching, have you ever lied? Have you ever thought an inappropriate thought? Have you ever called your brother a fool? Then you have sinned, and we all stand in need of the atonement of Christ. I love the I’m A Mormon ad campaign precisely because it broadens the idea of what it means to be a Mormon. Sure, they hook you in with the fact that this guy is an edgy photographer, or this guy makes handmade books, or this lady raises bees or this guy skateboards professionally. But when you get to the center, what makes them Mormon? Is it the leisure activities they do? No. It’s what they believe. It’s how they structure their worldview, and what they hope for in this life and the life to come. That’s what makes you a Mormon.

But we’ve yet to absorb the message. We ignore the message entirely, in fact, and often descend into a destructive, futile attempt at brand control. When a newspaper writes a fluff piece about Mormons trying to look hipster while trying to keep the faith and working around commandments that clash with their cultural surroundings in the least conflicting way possible, suddenly we descend, upset and angry, that they have somehow misrepresented us, as if Mormons struggling to blend in with the crowd while maintaining their faith makes you imperfect, a sinner, less than us, and unworthy to carry the Mormon name. The fact that an article which never mentions their faith in Jesus but mentions maybe getting a tattoo or complaining that loft parties aren’t fun (don’t our “strong” youth always complain about how worldly parties aren’t fun in the New Era anyway? When did this suddenly become a sin?) gets us so riled up is sort of telling, and what it’s telling is not pretty. In fact, to me, it’s really ugly.

We’re all trying. And every day, we have to make little compromises here and there, in hopes that our neighbors don’t burn down our houses and drive us out of the country to, oh, I dunno, Nunavut or something. Our compromises just aren’t visible ones; we’re the lucky Mormons. Let’s have a little bit of faith and a little bit of charity. Even for hipsters.

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What part of the brain is agency located?

A massive foundation of Mormon thought and theology rests on the firm rejection of predestination, the idea that God has already chosen who will and who will not go to heaven before the end of someone’s mortal life. Rather, we espouse the idea that we are free agents unto ourselves, and we work out our salvation with fear and trembling on an individual level. God cannot force anyone to heaven, and He coaxes us through love and kindness.

This idea of agency permeates our theology more than many Mormons might realize. It is our solution to the Problem of Evil (and a better one than most Christian theologies can offer). It’s also the basis of our rejection of Original Sin, a very important Christian concept (and also the basis of our rejection of infant baptism). It’s really quite the game changer.

Which then makes cases like Phineas Gage hard to, well, process and understand.

Phineas Gage was a railroad worker who lived in the 1860s. During work, he was struck by, ironically, a large iron rod, and by struck I mean it went clean through his head, destroying his left frontal lobe. Whereas before he was a most conscientious worker, a kind person, and a devoted family man, he became erratic, irresponsible, and seemingly incapable of making any kind of good decision. His professional life suffered greatly, as well as his personal life. In essence, though Phineas Gage the biological organism survived, it’s arguable that Phineas Gage the personality had long been destroyed.

Phineas Gage is used often in psychology textbooks around the world as the  classic example of how personality, as well as the ability to make decisions, is often rooted in biological causes.[1] This also raises some very profound theological questions for Mormons, specifically, (1) did Phineas Gage lose his agency?, (2) how easy is it to hamper the use of agency?, and (3) how much is agency connected to biological constraints outside of our personal control?

To address the first question, I believe most Mormons would say that severe brain damage certainly leads to a loss of agency, especially when it’s accompanied with such drastic personality changes. This falls into line with the idea that mentally handicapped children, for example, cannot exercise full agency and so fall under the category of “without the law” and are automatically covered by the Atonement of Jesus Christ (per Jacob and Moroni).

The second question falls into more chilling territory. Situations such as children dying at an early age (before the age of eight) and children born with mental disabilities such as Down Syndrome are what some might call “extreme” cases. Outside of these unusual circumstances, the Mormon standpoint argues that the vast majority of people in the world still can and do exercise their agency. But can someone else take it away? Gage’s condition came about by an accident, but what if it was intentional? The thought certainly seems frightening.

Of course, there are less extreme implications. What about age, such as dementia? As people get older, and some develop signs of dementia, does their agency diminish? As our understanding of psychological conditions, ranging from depression to anxiety to manic depressive disorder to psychopathy to just plain old neurosis, and their connection to real deficiencies in the body rooted in the physical realm (and not just an attack of a spiritual or more ethereal emotional nature) increases, how do we judge their effects on agency? Is someone truly free if they suffer from dangerous mood swings? And if psychotropic drugs solve the problem, it brings up a new problem, which comes to port full steam with the third question.

As Mormons, we acknowledge that agency can be taken away for biological reasons. We’ve already mentioned early childhood death and mental disabilities. We also acknowledge that substances which alter our brain chemistry can rob us of our agency, which is where a big defense for the Word of Wisdom comes from. Addictive substances such as alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and most illegal drugs will steal away our ability to make decisions, be our own masters, and also to listen to the whisperings of the Holy Ghost.[2]

From here, it’s really not a large leap of faith (or logic) that there are reasons we lose agency that might not necessarily be our fault. We’ve already discussed psychological disorders, such as depression, dementia, manic depressive disorder, and psychopathy, which all often have deep biological causes.[3] But we have not yet discussed the plasticity of the brain in reaction to not just other chemicals (via nicotine, caffeine, or Percocet) but also to emotional events. For example, we acknowledge that children (and adults) who undergo traumatic, stressful events suffer some kind of psychic, emotional damage. How in control (or, in other words, how much agency) does a Vietnam veteran suffering from terrible Post Traumatic Stress Disorder really have? And if a teenager who has had a troubled past suffering consistent abuse (whether physical, emotional, or sexual, or a combination) falls into trouble, or has a difficult time trusting authority figures or making good decisions, how much really lies in the fault of the teenager?[4]

People will accuse me of trying to absolve blame from guilty parties, but that is not the point (though that is a good question to consider — if we acknowledge that agency must be present for true guilt to also be present, how much guilt should we assign to those who may lack some grade of agency?). There is a more fundamental, troublesome consequence of what we’ve observed to be true as far as the human brain is concerned: If agency is such a fundamental part of God’s plan, why did God make agency such an incredibly fragile thing? A person’s ability to choose can be stolen away by a freak accident on a railroad, and, in some cases, people are not born with the capability for agency at all.[5] What are we to conclude when God presents a plan where agency is paramount, and yet creates conditions in which so quickly it can slip out of our grasp without any fault of our own?

I present not these questions to argue against the Plan of Salvation (I am a huge fan of the Plan of Salvation), but rather I point out these questions to perhaps fill in gaps that we have left unfilled, or to re-examine what we believe to know about the plan in order to truly account for who is accountable. Justice and mercy cannot be fully exercised otherwise, and we may unwittingly be condemning too many of our brothers and sisters for actions that may possibly be out of control. In fact, it’s arguable whether we really have much control at all.[6]
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[1] Whenever I mention to people in church that I enjoy studying psychology, I often get suspicious looks. One member asked if it was possible to be a good, believing Mormon and a psychologist at the same time. I believe that it is potentially world-turned-upside-down, status-quo-challenging questions like these that makes psychology unpopular amongst a church with a strong, rigid, hierarchical structure and obsession of eternal doctrine consistency.

[2] This seems to suggest that an ability to commune with God could be based in a biological component (if biological substances can hamper Spirit reception, certainly that means Spirit reception is based somehow biologically). This would explain how many of my friends who suffer from depression mention that they have never had a prayer answered in their entire lives, despite (very) desperate attempts to do so.

[3] I say “often” because of depression. I understand that it is common for people to feel depressed, especially after the death of a loved one, or some other similar traumatic experience. This depression definitely has a biological component, but often goes away on its own. This is very different from the deep-seated, extremely debilitating depression that has strong biological components that simply cannot be “prayed” away.

[4] I have often had people tell me free will does exist; otherwise, how could you have two different people in the same situation but grow up to be so different? For example, some people who come from abusive families vow to break the cycle of violence (and succeed) while others try to break the cycle of violence (and don’t succeed) and others simply (sadly) continue the cycle of violence unhampered. Certainly, free will plays into the occasion. Well, perhaps not entirely. There is an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO) which regulates the breakdown of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. In The Personality Puzzle by David Funder, “A gene that promotes the action of MAO in breaking down these neurotransmitters seem to help prevent the development of delinquency among children who have been maltreated (Caspi et al., 2002; Moffit, 2005).” While this doesn’t mean everything is determined by genetics, it does suggest that even those success stories who overcame difficult origins against all odds may have had help from their biological makeup, something outside of their immediate control, and the inverse should be true — some people’s genes seem to simply stack the odds against them even more.

[5] The trickier problem occurs not in people whom we readily acknowledge to have no agency, but people who may have only been born with (to put it crudely) 50%, 40%, 30%, or even just 15% agency than the average person. Where do we draw the line between accountable and unaccountable? While judging is strictly for the Lord and we are told to refrain from such activity, the cold, hard truth is that the ecclesiastical church must judge, specifically for disciplinary reasons (though also for activities like temple recommend interviews). And when someone is disciplined or denied blessings, rumors start and harsh, hurtful judging begins, even if the fault may lie in “faulty” genes, such as someone born with Down Syndrome.

[6] There’s a fascinating cognitive experiment which recording the typing speed of professional typists. A most surprising result was that the typist would actually hesitate (albeit, for only milliseconds) before typing a typo (that is, hitting the wrong key). However, the typist would still make the typo. This suggests that the brain understands for those split milliseconds it’s about to make a mistake, but for some reason (momentum, perhaps?) makes the mistake anyway. Theologically, the results mirror Jesus’ charitable observation on his overzealous apostles that the spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak. This also resembles (in an exaggerated way) the one instance where no person has any choice in the matter — we will all sin. It’s a decree from God; it’s what makes the Atonement necessary in Christianity. In this one area, we must all abdicate our agency, or at the very least, understand that there may be more powerful biological (fleshy?) forces at work here that override any pitiful attempts on our part to exercise our agency.

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The revelatory power of Gentiles

Imagine this scenario, if you will:

Somewhere, on the East Coast of the United States, a young, prominent feminist, well respected by her peers and community and considered a good, honorable person, is sitting in the breakfast nook of her Boston home, meditating. She is meditating on how she could heal the bridge between the patriarchal (in a bad way) influences in Western religion and women who seek spirituality within the Christian context but cannot feel like they are full participants in certain denominations. As she is meditating, the Holy Ghost descends upon her and she sees a vision. A man clothed in a white robe appears before her and says, “Your meditations have been heard by God and you will receive your answer. Send word to a man named Thomas S. Monson, in Salt Lake City, Utah. He will tell you what to do.”

At the exact same time, President Monson is sitting in the celestial room of the Salt Lake City temple. He has been fasting for several days now, and in the middle of his prayers, he falls into a type of trance. He sees the heavens open up above him and a strange vision appears before him wherein God commands him to do something He explicitly told the Prophet not to do. President Monson refuses, wanting to stay strictly adherent to the rules. This vision appears three times, each time God commanding President Monson to disobey a previous commandment. After the third time, President Monson puzzles over this when President Uchtdorf, one of his counselors, comes in and tells him someone wants to see him.

President Monson meets with the messenger, who tells him of our stalwart and good feminist, and of her strange request to receive word on what to do. President Monson decides to return with the messenger to Boston and meet this faithful sister who was not of our faith, and when he meets her and finds out what she seeks, President Monson is moved upon by the Holy Ghost and decides that now is the time for women to receive the priesthood. He baptizes the feminist and ordains her to the office of a priest.

This story sounds kind of crazy, huh? And yet, it basically happened 2000 years ago, according to Acts chapter 10. Of course, then, it was the centurion Cornelius, and the prophet at the time was the apostle Peter. Still, this chapter in The Acts of the Apostles presents an interesting conundrum, and that is, a Gentile (someone outside of the faith, even marginalized at that point) not only receives visions and is visited by heavenly messengers, but helps to interpret a vision the head of the Church had received, which results in the historical reversal of what was once considered God-ordained procedure.

Could this happen in our Church today? Theoretically, yes. But is it feasible? That’s for you to decide.

When Peter decided to reverse the current long-standing tradition that Jews and Gentiles not mingle, and instead declared the famous stance that God supposedly takes, specifically that He is no respecter of persons, it was not only a seismic cultural shift wherein this strange Nazarene cult would eventually break away from its parent Judaism and become a world religion and a force to be reckoned with on its own, but it also led to explosive growth in the Church, the charge spearheaded by Paul.

However, it also did not take long for Paul to issue this warning in Romans to those very Gentiles who helped the Church’s ranks swell with larger numbers. Comparing the Gentiles to wild branches grafted into a host tree, Paul warned, “Boast not against the branches…. Thou wilt say then, the branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. Well: because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee” (Romans 11:18-21).

Paul’s warning and Peter’s experience with Gentiles brings about a good lesson that we as Church members could learn for ourselves. We sometimes as a culture take a combative stance towards anything not Mormon. We forget, like some white Americans do today, that we are all immigrants, and essentially, our religion is a religion of converts. Cornelius is a good example that the world is full of people who, Gentile as they are, can be good people. In fact, they can be good people that have the potential to receive the Holy Ghost as well as we (Acts 10:47) and even spur massive cultural shifts in the Church for our own good.

Be not highminded, but fear — for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he spare not thee.

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