Tag Archives: Christian

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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Semantic slavery

My friend recently wrote a blog post about his uneasy tension between what he feels is legally right and what he feels is morally right about gay marriage (synopsis: He thinks it’s morally wrong, but legally speaking the government should make it available for everyone, regardless of his feelings). The common thread among the against-gay-marriage comments is that we should allow civil unions for gay people, but just leave marriage for the religious people.

I used to be a big fan of this compromise myself, since I saw two sides desperately unwilling to budge, and this was a compromise, some kind of middle ground. However, over time I’ve come to realize what this little bit of semantic juggling — calling it civil unions instead of civil marriage — is.

It’s semantic slavery.

“Is there a legal difference between a civil union and a civil marriage?” my author friend asked as we talked about this later in the day.

“Yes,” I responded. “A civil marriage is for a man and a woman. A civil union is for whatever with whatever. It’s the only legal difference, but it speaks volumes.”

Let’s be honest. If Christians (because it has been mostly Christians who have been incredibly vocal about this issue) really felt that this word change was an appropriate solution, then (a) it would have been hastily adopted ten plus years ago when it first came up, and (b) we could have easily solved the problem by having a Super Secret Christian Meeting and declaring we replace all instances of the word marriage and use the made-up word egairram instead. Ha, we would sneer admist the cigar smoke and dark lighting in the backroom of an Itallian restaurant in New York City. They can have their marriage, but they can’t have their gay egairrams!

No, this is a ridiculous idea, because we all know that Christians are not opposed to the vocabulary issue of gay marriage, but the very principle of gay marriage itself. Still, this has become an increasingly popular solution amongst Christians — civil unions, a half-way compromise, is the answer! But they are not.

First, why the increased popularity? Because of this:

Gay marriage is quickly becoming an acceptable thing, and opposition is dropping over time. In short, in our post-modern, enlightened society, people who oppose gay marriage are being labeled as bigoted, and honestly, even conservative, sometimes-fundamentalist Christians bristle at the idea of being labeled bigoted. The nerve.

Because of this, you can’t openly oppose gay marriage anymore. We saw what happened to the Mormons who supported Prop 8 — the death threats, the hit lists, the blacklisting and protests and vandalism. If this is what it means to stand up for what I believe, no thank you, sir. Thus, the civil union solution gaining traction in the Christian community. It’s the perfect solution! Gay people get all the legal rights of marriage, but we get to keep the word marriage all to ourselves (as if that was the problem in the first place). And we all go home happy!

Except this “solution” is intellectually dishonest.

To fully answer my friend’s question, why does the difference between civil marriage and civil unions speak volumes?

The same way that whites only and blacks only bathrooms speak volumes.

Suppose we have two public restrooms. Both are architecturally the same. Both are furnished exactly the same. Both are sanitized and functional exactly the same. For all intents and purposes, they are identical, cloned bathrooms.

Except one has a “whites only” sign and one has a “blacks only” sign.

Suddenly, the bathrooms are definitely not the same.

What the proposition of instituting civil unions over civil marriages does is institute the idea of “separate but equal” all over again, except this time it’s not blacks and whites, but the straight community versus the queer community. There is no such thing as separate and equal, especially in the Christian community. Let’s all be honest — in our minds, civil unions are not the same as civil marriages because civil unions are not as good. They’re not as legitimate. It’s the old issue all over again — we don’t think homosexual relationships are as real, as legitimate, as honest and right as heterosexual relationships, and we want to codify this in law. This isn’t a compromise — it is proposed capitulation for the other side disguised as semantic splitting hairs coupled with some good old fashioned Christian mercy and American compromise-making. Otherwise, we would not have a problem making the jump up from civil union to civil marriage, if they were really the same thing minus the fact that we used a thesaurus for one of them. In a religion where Christ urges us to be one, we understand all too well what separation really means.

So let us not engage in these sneaky semantic gymnastics. If you’re against gay marriage, say so. If civil union is really, for all intents and purposes, the same as civil marriage, then why not just call it civil marriage? What’s in a name?

Apparently, all the difference in the world.

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The Light of the World

This week is perhaps the holiest week of all Christendom. The culmination of the Lental season begins this Good Friday (the celebration of Christ’s crucifixion) with a spectacular Easter Sunday (the celebration of Christ’s resurrection). Even more interestingly enough, Good Friday coincides with Earth Day this year, combining my love for the environment with my love for spiritual rituals.

To celebrate this Good Friday, the wife and I will be holding a traditional Passover Seder (or, at least, to the best of our goyim ability). However, to also commemorate Earth Day, we will be unplugging all of our unnecessary electrical appliances at sundown, the start of the Sabbath. So computers, the Wii, our television, lamps, lights, electric mixer, toaster oven and griddle will be physically unplugged. We will hold our Seder in candlelight, not only to help us appreciate the modern-day luxuries we have today, how dependent we’ve grown on them, and how to use them responsibly, but also to represent how the motif of darkness is oft repeated in the scriptures to signify the death of the Savior and the world’s rejection of God’s light. Both the Bible and the Book of Mormon speak of darkness, and for us, we will plunge ourselves into a type of darkness in modernity, to disconnect from the world and reconnect with each other and the Divine.

Saturday, the Sabbath, will be spent not only in the company of each other, but in the activity of unburdening our lives of the physical things which weigh us down. The Gospel of Thomas has a great parable in which the Kingdom of Heaven is likened unto an old woman carrying a bag of grain, which represents the precious things of the world. As she approaches her destination, a tear develops in the bag, and the grain trickles out. When she reaches the end of her journey, her bag is empty. We will make an inventory of all of our physical possessions and decide which we should keep and which burden us unnecessarily in our journey through life. We will also clean our apartment thoroughly, which has fallen into disrepair since both of us have sold ourselves to the pursuit of mammon (for the kid! I tell myself), as if in preparation of receiving Christ Himself into our home.

Saturday, we will also work and bustle to put together our garden. Our seedlings have recently sprung into life, and we need to transfer them into the pots we’ve prepared for them. We may even take the time to meditate on our little second floor apartment porch. Or maybe we’ll just set up some chairs out there and read. The day is open to whatever we decide.

Of course, Easter Sunday, we will attend church (though Mormon meetings usually lack some of that traditional Easter…oomph) and then spend the time together with family. At sundown, we will plug in all of our electronics again, and once again artificial light will re-enter our world. Then again, maybe for our Easter dinner, we’ll just light all of our tea candles and scatter them all throughout the house, so to remind ourselves one last time who the real light of the world is.

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Stumbling over the scriptures

“To explain, nowadays we have mountains of scriptures by our side, both the text and the commentaries thereof. We study religious literature with weary and dewy eyes to such an extent that our heads are full of ready-made facts seen from various angles, say, from the viewpoint of religion, philosophy, literature, etc. And this manifold knowledge of ours, with reference to the scriptures, fails to enable us to effectively choose what suits us best and in which we can take refuge. The more we study the scriptures the less we know of the essence of religion. As a matter of fact the essence of religion can only be reached by genuine practice alone.”

– Bhikku Buddhadasa Indapanno, “Mutual Understanding of Each Other’s Religion”

“The best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching.”

– Joseph Smith

I thought this was an incredible quote from a series of lectures given by Bhikku Buddhadasa Indapanno called Christianity and Buddhism. In it, Bhikku attempts to create a level playing field of dialogue between Christians and Buddhists, as well as just between two different religions in general. In it, he makes this surprising assertion that perhaps scriptures only muddy the waters, rather than lead us to cool, pristine wells of knowledge and faith. He compares it to climbing a tree from the top to bottom — starting with the scriptures first before practice is, to him, simply the opposite way to explore a faith.

In a way, Bhikku has history on his side. Many religions schism because of, among other reasons, differences in scriptural interpretation. In Christianity, Martin Luther’s pronouncement of sola scriptura has led to some of the worst excesses of fetishistic Bible worship, creating an untouchable status with little actual knowledge of how the text came to be. Of course, us Mormons are not innocent either; many times over prominent Mormons would promote false, misleading, or ignorant interpretations of scripture in order to “prove” correlation between two completely different texts. Prooftexting is not just a Mormon phenomenon; I’ve had people try to drag the scriptures into any kind of discussion — biology, politics, economics, etc.

The funny thing is in the beginning of every religion, those scriptures didn’t exist. The early Saints didn’t have Doctrine and Covenants; they were writing it. The original Twelve Apostles didn’t have the New Testament; they were the New Testament — literally! In fact, in almost every religion, the act of writing scripture down usually didn’t happen for years until after the founder’s death — take the history of the Qur’an or Buddha’s teachings. The founding (and the usual explosion of growth) didn’t require the need for scriptures. It’s only after they’ve been written, and each successive generation groans under the ever growing body of scripture and commentary and interpretation, that people begin to drift away and the religion struggles to maintain the holy fire that once burned in their hearts.

But do you personally agree with this statement? On the one hand, prophets in the LDS Church have repeatedly told us that reading out scriptures is incredibly important. However, on the other hand, we also say that the Bible, and even our current open canon, is still a work in progress, and much more new information could be added to the ever-growing corpus of revelation, possibly even nullifying previous statements. Could we grasp onto the scriptures too tightly to cause a stumbling block for us? Obviously, anything done in excess is unhealthy, and surely the scriptures do provide worth when used for rich, meaningful study. But just how useful can they really be?

My mission president once addressed the complaints of some missionaries that studying Preach My Gospel, the missionary manual, every day for at least 30 minutes was too boring and repetitive. He responded by telling the mission that “If you read Preach My Gospel right, you will spend 90% of your time in the scriptures. If you read the scriptures right, you will spend 90% of your time in prayer. I would gladly take ten minutes of earnest prayer over an hour of reading the scriptures.” This statement floored me. As someone who has traditionally seen learning from books and study, the idea that you could learn more by “talking to yourself” in a closet caused me to reel.

In the course of my life, I have relied on the scriptures for a great many things, learning especially; however, recently I’ve found that earnest prayer, the heartfelt song of a psalm, the act of sitting meditation, or the performance of service has helped build my faith more than any scripture could. Like my mission president, I have found ten minutes of earnest prayer to be much more effective than reading the scriptures for knowledge, and I have learned more about God within one minute of genuine service than ten minutes of prayer or an hour of scripture study. As I’ve grown older, I love the scriptures even more than ever. They are beautiful pieces of literature, and both poetry and rhetoric can reach sublime heights. But maybe Bhikkhu is on to something. Maybe the scriptures sometimes get in the way. Maybe, just maybe, sometimes we’re climbing the tree backwards.

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The Prop 8 Overturn – A Personal Sigh of Relief

Disclaimer: I understand that this is a very controversial, emotional subject. I am a practicing, faithful Mormon. I love the Church, I love its teachings, I love the prophet. I have great respect for him as a person. However, I also have a firm belief that faithful dissent is possible within the government of the Church and so I offer my reasons of why I was never a fan of Prop 8, since the subject has once again come up in our society’s limelight. I offer these reasons because I believe that Prop 8 is more motivated by discrimination and misunderstanding of the plight of the gay community than a desire to follow God and His basic commandment to love one another. I am not trying to attack anyone, but only to lay out my doctrinal reasons of why I find something like Prop 8 troublesome. If you decide to post comments, keep them civil. Normally I am about freedom of speech at all costs, but if anyone begins to spew hateful vitrol or refuses to exercise even a modicum of charity in this difficult discussion, I will wield the Ban Hammer of Sensitivity without prejudice or discrimination. You have been warned. If you do not read this whole article carefully and then proceed to write comments that betray this ignorance, I will call you out. Possibly rudely, all depending on if I’ve had lunch yet or not.

A crowd of Prop 8 supporters.

A crowd of Prop 8 supporters.

Prop 8 has bothered me for a lot of reasons, and a lot of it is because I’m a Mormon.

And now that it’s overturned, a lot of old wounds that started to scar over and heal have been ripped open once more, gaping sores just waiting to be infected with hate and intolerance. But hopefully, we will have some patience when it comes to these issues. Personally for me, when news came out that it was overturned, I breathed a sigh of relief. I’m hoping that this will pound the final nail into the coffin and we’ll move on from this issue and leave it behind and just deal with the fact that gay people exist and kinda wanna, you know, have loving, monogamous, stable relationships, but I am probably being very idealistic.

I am not a fan of Prop 8. I think it’s done much more damage than any net good we could have gained from this endeavor. I think getting so heavily involved might have been a mistake on our part, such as our skipping around in Missouri in the 1800s, not sensitive to the local social customs and belief systems which eventually inflamed the paranoia and brought about the horrible tragedies and injustices in Missouri. But it’s not because the backlash scared me, or that my public education has “conditioned” me to be a liberal (as some people claim), or because I am not a faithful member who doesn’t believe that the prophet can speak for God, or not even because I have gay Mormon friends and know of the personal hell they sometimes go through because of our insensitive actions (though they all influence the turmoil I experience right now because of Prop 8).

I disagree with Prop 8 on some very fundamental doctrinal issues. And those are the hardest for me to reconcile.

Vocal dissent at a No on Prop 8 rally.

Vocal dissent at a No on Prop 8 rally.

1. Agency

I’ve written before why I’ve disagreed with Prop 8 on an agency level. Ironic, then, that people in the Church claim that gay people have agency and so they “chose” to be gay (people who say such silly comments do not understand the gay experience). Agency is one of the most fundamental principles of Mormon theology. We believe that we are agents to ourselves, that the atonement of Christ has freed us to choose good to our salvation, or to choose evil to our damnation. Our coming to earth would be nullified if God had already decided who was going to hell and heaven (we reject predestination), since he could have just decided that in the beginning, separated the goats from the sheep, and we would never have to go through the difficult experience known as life today.

Remember the story of Alma and Amulek in the Book of Mormon? They’ve just taught the rebellious city of Ammonihah the gospel, but the non-believers became so angry that they threw all of the scriptures into a giant bonfire. Then, forcing the imprisoned missionaries to watch, they begin to throw women and children who believed in Jesus into the fire as well. Amulek, the green one, cried out in understandable agony to his senior that they should stretch forth their hand and save the people from destruction and punish the wicked, for God surely has the power to. Alma replies that it’s not whether God can save the people being thrown into the fire. God allows horrible things to happen to good people because then those wicked people cannot have any defense in the Final Judgment. It’s like Minority Report – how solid is your accusation if you said they were going to be wicked but you stopped them last minute? But if they had already committed the crime, they have no defense. Thus it is with God who has an eternal perspective, as does Alma. The prophet tells his newly commissioned missionary that though those thrown into the fire suffer for a season, they are ultimately taken up to the presence of the Lord where they will know peace and happiness for eternity.

This is how important agency is to God – he only intervenes if there is some absolute importance in saving someone. The Book of Mormon is all about people who meet grisly deaths – Abinadi the prophet is burned at the stake without seeing a single convert in his entire mission. The titular prophet Mormon is forced to lead his wicked people to their own destruction in a war and is slaughtered along with the people who broke his heart so many times. God preserved Nephi while traveling to the promised land, but once that goal was established, it was open season on him – he was forced to flee along with anybody who would follow him and hide within the wilderness until they could defend themselves against their jealous, murderous brethren. God preserves our agency by allowing wicked people to do bad things.

Now, gay marriage will probably not do violence to the social institution of marriage. Television programs like the Bachelor and Bachelorette probably do more violence to the social notions of love and marriage more than two gay people in a monogamous, loving, stable relationship. Our obsession with celebrity marriage and divorces which parade in our supermarket checkout aisles do more violence to the social institution of marriage. Or what about divorce? Should we start banning divorce, which obviously destroys marriage relationships? Of course, most reasonable Mormons would say absolutely that’s ridiculous. But why? Because we instinctively understand a principle Augustine wrote (which Thomas Aquinas later re-emphasized in the Summa Theologicae): “human law cannot punish or prohibit every evil action, because in trying to eliminate evils it may also do away with many good things and the interest of the common good which is necessary for human society may be adversely affected.” Thus, Aquinas writes, there is a difference between divine law (religion) and human law (politics). If churches wish to bar homosexualities from certain services they provide, I suppose it’s in their perogative if they feel it is evil, but human law should take care in not trying to eliminate an evil and thus introduce a far greater evil. In this case, we may be trying to do away with the sin of homosexuality (if you so believe) but by fighting it with human law and not just divine law, we have opened up the Pandora’s Box of very deadly, dangerous sins – intolerance, anger, wrath, hate, fear, paranoia, and violence.

Which, then, we ask, is the greater sin?

God feels that agency is A Very Important Thing. So much so, that if we take the example of Alma and Amulek, even if the gay population were to round up all the Mormons and toss them into a fire, he wouldn’t intervene unless things got really dire – and I think we can all admit we’re not to that point.

The problem with a church with polygamist history saying marriage is between one man and one woman.

The problem with a church with polygamist history saying marriage is between one man and one woman.

2. Polygamy

I am not a fan of polygamy; I agree with President Hinckley when he said in an interview with Larry King that it was not doctrinal. However, many people in the Church still believe polygamy was mandated by God and a true principle and this, then, brings out the true logic pretzel we’re forced to twist into if we want to support Prop 8.

Polygamy nearly destroyed the Church. The Federal Government was all up in our grill to the point that they actually sent a battalion of the U.S. Army to invade if we proved to be terrible people (fortunately, we avoided an all out war). We stuck to our guns, but soon things became horribly intolerable – the government started seizing all of our temples and assets and forcing most of the Church leadership into the underground. John Taylor, the third prophet, was in exile for two and a half years. Imagine then, if for five General Conferences the prophet didn’t speak from the pulpit because we had no idea where he was. That was how much of a disarray this situation sent the Church into.

Eventually, Wilford Woodruff issues the official declaration rescinding polygamy but this takes actually multiple official declarations because so many people were so used to practicing it and for the Church officials to tell the government that we don’t practice polygamy anymore but then tell everyone to practice celestial marriage (wink wink) that it took several decades (almost an entire generation) for the clean break between the LDS church, which no longer practices polygamy and the FLDS church, which does.

Many members today still believe that polygamy is a true principle and that we will someday come back to that practice (I don’t believe we will and if we do, I’m out!) and if that’s true then Prop 8 doesn’t allow for that to happen. To me, this destroys any real logical consistency we have in supporting Prop 8. It just doesn’t make sense.

Policing a Prop 8 rally.

Policing a Prop 8 rally.

3. We don’t really care about any other marriage except our own

Do you remember that super long scripture that might or might not have been a scripture mastery verse?

And verily I say unto you, that the conditions of this law are these: All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, of him who is anointed, both as well for time and for all eternity,…are of no efficacy, virtue, or in force in and after the resurrection from the dead; for all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead.

Doctrine and Covenants 132:7

This is why if you don’t get married in the temple, it’s not for time and eternity. It’s just until death do us part (and most Protestant Christians don’t like the idea of eternal marriage anyway). So, we would teach, that while marriage is nice, unless it’s done in the temple, it’s not eternal. It’s null and void once we die.

So why do we care about gay people getting married again?

I think it’s safe to say that knowing a gay person will only probably better you. I know that my intolerance of homosexuality dropped dramatically after I found out one of my close church member friends was secretly gay. Suddenly, I started seeing them as a human and my capacity for charity swelled. I consider my life enriched by my friendship with this person. I know many Mormons who would also attest to this fact – knowing gay people can only enrich your life, never destroy it. If that person happens to hurt you in some way, it’s not related to his or her sexual orientation but personality instead.

If we decide to go after gay marriage, why do we not care about Protestant marriages, or Catholic marriages? In our religious zealotry, are they not also sham weddings, mockeries of the true order of marriage revealed to us by God? But we wouldn’t even dream about it! Why? Because, well, let’s be honest. They’re not gay.

The idea that the government would also force the Church to marry gay people in the temple is absolute garbage. Absolute garbage. If this was true, they would have forced us to marry non-members in the temple, too. This hasn’t happened yet, and it probably never will. As much as people hate this sentiment, religious freedom has never been more alive and vibrant in America than today. How do I know this? Because a mob hasn’t broken into my house, burned it down, and raped my wife. This used to happen to us. It doesn’t today.

If we don’t care that Catholics and Protestants or Hindus or Buddhists or what have you conduct marriages without the priesthood of God, then why do we care if gays get married, too? According to our belief, it’s not like God will honor those marriages in the next life. So why do we care of what happens here? Allow them the agency to do what they wish, and God will sort it out in the end. If you think they’re doing something wrong, then by all means, attempt to teach them what’s right. But remember that “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-42). Otherwise, amen to that man’s priesthood. And you know, Prop 8 doesn’t really fit (in my opinion) any of those traits. It kinda looks like compulsion to me.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

4. Sodom and Gomorrah was about injustice, not homosexuality, and we’re committing their sins

This is perhaps the biggest beef I have. There’s something about Sodom and Gomorrah that sparks the dark side of human imagination. Perhaps it’s the lurid allusion to homosexuality (sodomy, after all, comes from Sodom). Or maybe it’s the frightening shock that God would nuke two of the biggest cities on the plain off the face of the planet. Who knows. Either way, the common traditional Christian view on Sodom and Gomorrah is that their sin was homosexuality, but this actually probably isn’t the case.

We now go to Jewish folklore, and since the Jews (or more accurately, the Hebrews) were the first to pen this story, they probably are closest to the actual record.

Did you know that Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin is not homosexuality, but brutal injustice? It’s true. This was the surprise that awaited me when I perused through my first book of folklore, A Treasury of Jewish Folklore compiled by Ausubel. The sins of Sodom was not salacious homosexuality, but “the genius of evil” and “diabolical cleverness.” For example, one story, A Sodom Trick (p. 366) details how a rich man comes to Sodom and stays with one of the inhabitants. The wicked man asks him to store a fragrant flagon of oil with the rich man’s treasures because he is afraid someone will steal it. The rich man unwittingly agrees in exchange of the Sodomite’s “hospitality.” Later that night, the Sodomite follows the scent of oil to where the rich man’s treasures were hidden, and takes off with all of them.

Or what about the illustrative story called “Charity in Sodom” (p. 367) where the people of Sodom practiced charity in a horribly cruel way? Whenever a poor stranger would come into town and ask for alms, they would give him a gold piece with the name of the giver engraved on the coin. But there was a rule that no stranger could buy food and so in time, he would die of hunger and they would come to the corpse and take back their gold pieces. In another illustrative example, “A Very Ancient Law”, Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, chasties the town when they try to pass a “new” law that would propose that poor Jews living outside the city of Vilna should not be allowed to come into the city to collect alms. ” ‘Do you call that a new law?’ asked Rabbi Elijah scornfully. ‘Why that law was introduced more than five thousand years ago in Sodom and Gomorrah!’ ” (p. 80).

Not a single story is about homosexuality. In fact, after reading several tomes of Jewish folklore, I have yet to come across a story tying the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah to homosexuality. However, every single story detailed how the cities of the plain demonstrated great lengths of inhumane cruelty to their fellowmen – especially the poor and downtrodden – and, here the “diabolical cleverness” and “genius of evil” comes in, often their cruelty they try to disguise as charity.

Isn’t that what we’re doing right now? Utah recently finally passed a law that allowed gay people the protection of property. Before, you could kick a gay person out of their own apartment which they signed a contract with you simply because they were gay. Could you imagine the fear they might have lived in? Finally, a law was passed that prevented this which Utahns took as controversial (it shouldn’t have!) and it’s a sad day when that kind of late legislation is considered “a victory” for gay rights. A lot of members I knew acted like this was some sort of concession, as if we were doing the gay community a favor by saying, “Okay, fine. We won’t kick you out of your homes simply because you’re gay.” This is not charity – this is inhuman treatment wherein when we finally stop beating and torturing them, we say, look how nice we are that we stopped. This is a sickening attitude, and it’s exactly what Sodom and Gommorah would have done.

We do not show gay people any charity by implying that they cannot love as we do, that they cannot have monogamous, stable, loving relationships. We don’t show them any charity or respect when we deny them the same concepts, rights, benefits, and blessings that all straight people have. Instead, we act like Sodom and Gommorah, pretending to hand out charity, but in reality, we demonstrate real cruelty and injustice to a percentage of the population who have been downtrodden, beaten, and had their faces ground upon (as Isaiah would put it). These people need the brilliant light of the gospel of Jesus more than ever, and what do we do? We belittle them and tell them they are subhuman, that we are protecting them from themselves, when in reality, if we were to be perfect and not sin ever to gain the benefits of marriage, no one would be married because are we not all sinners in the sight of God?

This is not good PR.

Abraham meets Melchizedek.

Abraham meets Melchizedek.

To close this point, I share one last Jewish folktale called “God Protects the Heathen Too” (p. 456). The great patriarch Abraham was known for his generosity and hospitality (he’s famous for it), and so it’s no surprise that in this story, he sees an old tired man afar off and runs to him, inviting him into his tent. He fed him a great feast, gave him his fill of cold water to drink, and then begin to teach the man the gospel.

However, this man was pretty intent on his heathen ways and politely declined any of Abraham’s missionary work. And so in anger, he promptly drove him out of his tent for not accepting the gospel.

Later that night, God visits Abraham and teaches him this final lesson:

Then spoke God: “Have you considered what you have done? Reflect for one moment: Here am I, the God of all Creation – and yet have I endured the unbelief of this old man for so many years. I clothed and fed him and supplied all his needs. But when he came to you for just one night you dispensed with all duties of hospitality and compassion and drove him into the wilderness!”

Then Abraham fell upon his face and prayed to God that He forgive him his sin.

“I will not forgive you,” said God, “unless you first ask forgiveness from the heathen to whom you have done evil!” (p.457)

In turn, Abraham runs out into the desert, finds the old man, falls at his feet and, weeping, begged for his forgiveness. The old man, moved by Abraham’s pleas, forgave him, and the two were reconciled. Later, God appears and tells Abraham, “Because you have done what is righteous in My eyes I will never forget My covenant with your posterity. When they sin I will punish them, but never will I sever My covenant with them!”

Abraham’s hospitality, charity, and lesson applies to the gay community as well. It’s a wise lesson in love and forgiveness we should all learn. I do not doubt that in the next life, we may seek out the gay community we have hurt, and, falling to their feet, weeping, will beg for their forgiveness.

The prophet Isaiah receives inspiration.

The prophet Isaiah receives inspiration.

5. Sometimes, the prophet doesn’t speak for God but for himself

This is the hardest thing for me to talk about, not because it destroys testimonies (I don’t believe it should) but because people are so violently against this concept. But hear me out.

Sometimes the prophet doesn’t speak for God but for himself. After all, God brought us to earth so we can learn to be more like Him, and sometimes that requires us to do things on our own. If you studied under the best mathematician in the world so that you can become the best as well, it would do you no service for her to hover over you and give you hints to every math problem. When you start struggling with a specifically difficult one and turn to her for help, she may just say, “No, you need to figure this out on your own. It will make you a better mathematician.”

Elder Dallin H. Oaks, for example, taught:

“[A person might have] a strong desire to be led by the Spirit of the Lord but…unwisely extends that desire to the point of wanting to be led in all things. A desire to be led by the Lord is a strength, but it needs to be accompanied by an understanding that our Heavenly Father leaves many decisions for our personal choices. Personal decision making is one of the sources of the growth we are meant to experience in mortality. Persons who try to shift all decision making to the Lord and plead for revelation in every choice will soon find circumstances in which they pray for guidance and don’t receive it.”

Thus, we know God wants us to exercise our agency. What if we made a mistake? That’s to be expected, and God provided His Son to perform the Atonement. Thus, we can exercise our discernment and grow in wisdom and experience without fearing of making just one mistake that will damn us to hell for all eternity. As long as we look to Christ, we can stumble through this life, making mistakes as we go, and continue to learn and grow without living in darkness forever.

So sometimes prophets go out on a limb. They exercise their spirit of discernment and their faculties of reasoning and say things – even teach things – that turn out to be very, very wrong. The most famous and contemporary example is Bruce R. McConkie, who as an apostle, spoke passionately that the priesthood ban on Africans would never be lifted. Ever.

But it was. And in response, the great apostle said:

There are statements in our literature by the early brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, “You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?” And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world…. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more…. It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year.

What faith and humility!

This isn’t the only time it’s happened, though. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young postulated that the lost ten tribes could be on the moon. Brigham Young taught that Adam was God (which McConkie later denounced vehemently as heresy), and everyone just nodded until after his death when people quietly swept that doctrine under the carpet. Another prophet (whose name alludes me at the time) suggested that a space voyage to the moon would never happen before the Second Coming because this earth was all that mattered to our salvation. Examples a plenty!

Does this mean that they’re not prophets? Absolutely not. Sometimes we teach the doctrines of the Church in binary – Church good, other churches not as good. Coffee bad. Prayer good. Prophets true, other religions’ prophets not true. But life isn’t in black and white – it’s in shades of grey. Lots of grey. And maybe even colors. It’s complex, it’s multifaceted, and we have no idea what new truth God may be preparing for us. We believe that God has yet to reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God, so why do we always insist that we have all the truth? We obviously don’t. Joseph Smith didn’t, Brigham Young didn’t, and Bruce R. McConkie didn’t. So what hubris we demonstrate by implying we know everything?

Sometimes prophets make mistakes. Sometimes, those mistakes even get institutionalized. But remember the first point, agency? It’s important to God. Really important. I know the Official Declaration in the Doctrine and Covenants has Wilford Woodruff saying that “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray,” so how can prophets be wrong? Simple. I believe this declaration is pretty flexible when it comes to human error. Should a prophet deliberately try to bring the Church down from the inside out and acts with that intent, God will remove him from his place. But if a prophet really believes in something to be true and teaches it to be true even when it might not be true, God will allow mistakes to happen because of agency. Brigham Young didn’t teach Adam-God theory to destroy the Church – he really believed it. But eventually, as Bruce R. McConkie says, we gain more light and knowledge than our forefathers and we put it to use.

Love will prevail.

Love will prevail.

When the news of the Prop 8 overturn first came to light, a friend of mine who is a faithful member of the Church mentioned to me he felt a little betrayed. But his reasoning surprised me. For this friend, after the letter about Prop 8 and an additional broadcast, the Church leadership didn’t mention a lot. No real mention in General Conference. No articles about it in the Ensign. But members made sacrifices with often horrific results because they felt it was important to do what the prophet says. But there was little support from the higher ups and he felt a little miffed because the rank-and-file members were left hung out to dry.

I believe Prop 8 was more of a political issue rather than a doctrinal one. This doesn’t mean I think the Church will reverse its stance on homosexuality anytime soon. But I don’t feel that this move was inspired by God. I think that the Church threw their hat into the political ring based on conservative family values along with other denominations of Christianity and didn’t expect the virulent reaction from the rest of the nation. I believe that the prophets got together and discussed this situation they found themselves in (offered by the Catholic Church to help support a very controversial proposition in California) and exercised their agency, discernment, and wisdom to try and find a way to hold true to their family principles. I think that perhaps the action they later took might not have been the best solution, but I am also imperfect. Either way, it appears to me we’ve quietly backed away and hopefully, this episode will fade from the cultural zeitgeist. But the damage is done. Families have been torn apart, people have lost their faith, and others like me were forced to reconsider theological concepts and restructure their world view and their view of the Church. Prop 8 marked the beginning of a wild ride where I began to radically reconsider everything I believed and what roles they played in my life. My faith has taken a beating, but I feel I am more faithful and believing than ever.

Of course, nobody talks about the prophet being wrong because it opens up this can of worms: how do we know when the prophet is speaking for God?

Well, this is why they counsel us to constantly pray for help and revelation that what the prophet is saying is true. We do not shift all decision making, agency exercising, situation discerning and experience building moments to the prophet. We should not give up our ability to use our faculties of reasoning simply because we believe God has sent us a prophet. As Hugh Nibley pointed out:

“Come, let us reason together,” He invites the children of Israel. Accordingly Abraham and Ezra both dared, humbly and apologetically, but still stubbornly, to protest what they considered, in the light of their limited understanding, unkind treatment of some of God’s children. They just could not see why the Lord did or allowed certain things….

God did not hold it against these men that they questioned Him, but loved them for it: it was because they were the friends of men, even at what they thought was the terrible risk of offending Him, that they became friends of God. The Lord was not above discussing matters with the brother of Jared, who protested that there was a serious defect in the vessels constructed according to the prescribed design…

Plain humility is reverence and respect in the presence of the lowest, not the highest, of God’s creatures….

A discussion with God is not a case of agreeing or disagreeing with Him – who is in a position to do that? – but of understanding Him. What Abraham and Ezra and Enoch asked was, “Why?” Socrates showed that teaching is a dialogue, a discussion. As long as the learner is in the dark he should protest and argue and question, for that is the best way to bring problems into focus, while the teacher patiently and cheerfully explains, delighted that his pupil has enough interest and understanding to raise questions – the more passionate, the more promising. There is a place for discussion and participation in the government of the kingdom; it is men who love absolute monarchies.

I’m not saying I have more light and knowledge than the prophet does. That would be horribly arrogant for me. What I am saying is that this kind of stuff doesn’t add up. I have questions, I don’t understand, I’m in the dark. It doesn’t make sense to me within the theological framework I have discovered for myself and believe to be true. And until someone convinces me otherwise, I will wait patiently until the Lord reveals to me what is actually going on. Until then, I do not offer up these arguments as rebellion against the Church or the prophet, but as points of discussion so that we may ascertain the truth. As the Lord tells us often, let us reason together and figure out just what this mess is all about.

Anger at a Prop 8 rally.

Anger at a Prop 8 rally.

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Etymology on the phrase “peculiar people”

So I had been doing some scripture study and noticed the scripture 1 Peter 2:9 which reads, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”

This should not be us.

This should not be us.

I have always been uneasy with the phrase “peculiar people.” We are supposed to be an example or a light unto the world, but a lot of members I knew would quote this scripture to get away with some truly bizarre and weird behavior that was off-putting to non-members of our Church. “Well, we’re supposed to be a peculiar people,” they would comment. I could not believe that God would want His people to be the equivalent of the kid who ate paste during school art class. While at BYU a professor in linguistics mentioned briefly that the word “peculiar” (referring to that very passage) is not what it we think it is and we should investigate it when we have the time. I never had up until now, thinking “when I have the time” but I decided to finally just go out and do the research. It’s very illuminating.

The word “peculiar” comes from the Latin word peculiaris, which means “of one’s own,” usually speaking of property. It’s derived from the Latin root peculium, meaning “private property,” literally “property of cattle.” Pecu means cattle (which is, I believe derived from the Greek word “peku“). Therefore, the original meaning of the word “peculiar” originated in the 1400-1450s, meaning “property or privilege belonging exclusively or characteristically to a person.”

The word “pecuniary” means “of or pertaining to money.” It’s derived from the same Latin roots, though more specifically pecuniarius (pertaining to money), which is derived from pecunia (money, property, wealth), which, again, is derived from pecu.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky. The idea of the word “peculiar” meaning “strange” or “unusual” came about during the 1600s, the same century the King James Bible was translated. Most likely, it started out with meaning “belonging to one person” which morphed into “belonging to one group” which morphed into “belonging to that one weird group” which finally became just plain old “weird” in general. However, the King James Bible was translated pretty early on in the century, and the new meaning makes a whole heck of a lot more sense. Notice the other phrases Peter uses in the context of that passage: “chosen generation,” “a royal priesthood,” and “an holy nation” (holy being derived from the Hebrew idea of “separate from the rest”).

The New International Version seems to agree with the original meaning of the word “peculiar” than the more modern one (A word about the NIV; I used to be very derisive of the NIV until the late Truman G. Madsen’s wife, Professor Ann Madsen, taught my Teachings of Isaiah class at BYU and we read almost exclusively from the NIV. The NIV is an attempt to make the more archaic translations readable and relies on a more modern knowledge of what we know today concerning ancient Greek and Latin rather than the very poor knowledge we had in the 1600s). The NIV passage reads “peculiar people” as “a people belonging to God.” Very interesting.

This completely changes the general Mormon culturally accepted idea of the word “peculiar.” We move from “weird” or “strange” to “owned by God.” This correlates pretty well with what we know as far as our relationship to God, and it certainly makes more sense in the context of the rest of the sentence. “Owned by God” matches more closely with the idea of being “chosen,” “royal,” and “holy (separate).” It doesn’t really match with the idea of just being plain weird or bizarre.

So the next time you want to impress your Sunday School class, bring this up! Unfortunately, it takes away our excuse and mandate to be that really bizarre, goofball religion (there’s a reason why our Church is so concerned – almost obsessive – about our public relations) and more towards acting like a people chosen and owned by God. However, in the end, I’m sure the trade off is worth it.

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Sin Boldly! – Part Eight: Personal Salvation, Personal Qualification

So how does one qualify for the Atonement? This is the obvious question people ask when they realize the awesome power the Atonement holds. Here lies the battlefield of a hundred denominations, and the crux of the issue for many, many Christians. At this very doctrinal issue we argue and gnash our teeth and condemn and hate and deride and bully. How exactly does one qualify for God’s redeeming grace?

At the extreme end we find utilitarianism, the idea that anyone can qualify for God without even necessarily believing in God. At the other extreme end we find those who believe that strict obedience and perfection is the only road to heaven. Most people remain in the grey middle, drawing up lines denying access to the Atonement for some while allowing others into their hearts.

However, vengeance is mine, thus saith the Lord, and He also remains the sole arbiter for the fate of mankind. Only He can look into our hearts and read our intent. A common turn of phrase in our Church says we’ll all be surprised who ends up in the Celestial Kingdom – and who doesn’t. However, few people believe this. I’ve met many a Mormon who feels that those who drink coffee won’t make it. This is, albeit, definitely one of the more extreme and ridiculous notions, but it isn’t indicative of just our denomination. I’ve also met Evangelicals who believe that people who love Harry Potter won’t make the cut. I hope that all good, loving, thinking Christians realize this is rubbish.

When God tells us not to judge, He means to tell us not to judge who will make it and who won’t. Many a breath has been spent, many an inkwell spilled, about whether or not Emma Smith will make it to the Celestial Kingdom or not. If we spent just as much time continually asking ourselves if we feel we qualify and how we could improve ourselves and help others, our Church would grow in stature and maturity. Such speculative thinking damages us on a twofold basis. First of all, the entire exercise wastes a monumental amount of time. Only God knows, and we won’t know everything until the end. Wondering who will make it and who won’t based on limited knowledge is like trying to game the stock market with a limited understanding of economics – even those who obtained a vast understanding and corpus of knowledge about the stock market will never beat it. Those who try simply because they read one investment book or watched Mad Money will get burned, simple as that. Secondly, we begin to gossip of others and worry more about how others act than ourselves. Gossip is dangerously corrosive; Satan wants us to deflect attention from ourselves towards others. This way, we lose focus of why we’re here in the first place and begin to look down on others – a dangerous trend, the scriptures teach us.

The relationship with God should be an intensely personal one – for a case study, look no further than Alma 5. Alma 5 has the reputation as the “interview chapter.” Alma desires the reader to ask him or herself a series of questions concerning his or her relationship with God. He asks them, among other things:

And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts? Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body?

Notice Alma doesn’t ask a lot of questions about various specific commandments. He doesn’t ask if you keep the law of chastity, or if your sleeves cover your shoulders and midriff. He doesn’t ask about our specific media consumption. Alma asks about intent, he asks about feeling, he asks about change. He wants to know if we’ve changed our hearts and our intentions, if we’ve experienced God’s mercy and the power of His Atonement, and (very importantly) if we remember it. Then, and only then, does he ask if we continue to do good works, because Alma understands that a desire to do good is a symptom of God’s good infection. How does he detail disobedience to God? As defiance and pride. Defiance because they refuse to hearken to God’s call, despite it being open to everyone, and pride because they feel better than others. We are “too good” to accept the Atonement – we simply cannot accept or come to grips with the fact that we – we in all of our worldly glory! – make mistakes all the time and cannot save ourselves. We cannot bring ourselves to understand that we need God everyday. This thought process contributes directly to the idea that tapping into the healing, forgiving power of the Atonement is shameful and weak, and that those who make mistakes should be shunned. The world constructed from these premises is not only delusional; it is cruel.

But most importantly, notice that Alma only asks about you. He doesn’t ask you to ask your neighbor. He doesn’t say, “Want to know if you’re gonna make it? Ask your bishop and pastor. He’ll know.” Only you can know the answer, because ultimately, salvation comes from God, not man.

So how do you know if you qualify for the Atonement? Ask God – read, pray, listen, talk to others who claim to have had similar experiences of God’s cleansing power. But ultimately, no one can tell you whether or not you qualify except for you (and God). You will know in your heart what you need to do. He’ll let you know – and only you. Are there general basic principles to help us develop a closer relationship with God? Absolutely. But can we use these basic principles to gauge where a person stands in the eyes of God? Absolutely not. Does this make it messy? Yes, it does. Does it make religion a little hectic, possibly even subjective? Maybe. But just as how Christ visited the Nephites in the Book of Mormon one by one, the Atonement is a one on one process (2 Nephi 11:15). Hierarchy, bureaucracy, theocracy – neither of these can package up and parcel out salvation. We utilize the priesthood to administer saving ordinances, but there’s a reason why we also administer saving ordinances to the dead – God understood that by leaving a portion of His work in our hands and our initiative, we would make mistakes (we are human, after all). But He didn’t plan on leaving anyone behind on account of our own mortal pettiness; we can see so little of the plan in our current position and with our current scope. God’s cosmic plan encapsulates more than this mortal life, and He made sure the Atonement was more broad, eternal, and timeless than our own temporary, human mistakes.

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