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“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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Legalistic Mormonism and the Mystic Savior

One Sunday School, the teacher introduced the subject of the Sabbath. As a huge fan of anything Judaism, I flinched reflexively as the class devolved into what can only be considered as “Shabbat bashing,” the usual litany of railings detailing why the Jewish interpretation of the Sabbath had become burdened with “made up rules” restricting the specific number of steps you could walk and whether or not you could heat a kettle of water. “They even criticized Jesus for healing a sick man on the Sabbath!” the collective cried out. “How backwards can you get?”

How backwards can you get indeed? If the first part of the lesson consisted mainly of “Shabbat bashing,” the second part (which made up the majority of the hour) could only be considered as “Sabbath legislating,” a most ironic twist of events that couldn’t get any more ironic even if a hipster attempted to be as intentionally ironic as she could possibly be. Not even stopping to take a breath, the entire class devolved into quarreling schools of thought debating what exactly was allowed and what was not allowed on the Sabbath. Are video games okay? Television? Movies? What if it’s a Church movie? What if it’s not a Church movie, but it’s a family movie like Disney? Should they be Disney movies that have morals or not? Is secular music allowed? What is more Sabbath appropriate (and thus more righteous), Mormon Tabernacle Choir or Mindy Gledhill? Are walks allowed? Should walks be restricted in some way, such as only with family, and you have to take a walk as a family in church clothes? Should you wear church clothes all day? Is that respectful, or disrespectful to the sanctity of the Sabbath? Should we schedule Church meetings on the Sabbath? What about Family Home Evenings? Are multi-generational family gatherings too boisterous and chase away the Spirit? And don’t even bring up the idea of napping.

Even when the presiding priesthood leader, our local bishop, stepped in and said under no certain terms you should play video games on the Sabbath, people still continued to argue. We never really progressed any further in the Sunday School lesson.

If you’re a Mormon, this should sound pretty familiar. Like the Jews, we have a lot of commandments — maybe not comparable to the 413 Mitzvot, but still pretty close — and a lot of them sound like the “legalistic Judaism” so often cried out against in Sunday Schools and Priesthood and Relief Society meetings everywhere. How many earrings should girls wear in each ear? At what age is it appropriate for a teenager to start dating? Is facial hair appropriate for upper-echelon positions in the Priesthood hierarchy? Should men wear a white shirt and tie or not when performing public Priesthood functions?

Granted, some of these seemingly silly rules help protect the wholeness of symbolism within our sacred rituals (“An entire body must be submerged during a baptism. If so much as a pinky toe pokes out of the water during the submerging, re-do the ritual”). But others are often criticized as stumbling blocks for members already struggling with larger problems and weapons for the self-righteous (“No flip-flops in church meetings”). And others seem to exist simply to drive a Mormon into a frothy, contentious rage (Mention caffeine around a Mormon and watch them hastily express their very strong-worded opinion about it).

Our Church, in short, has become incredibly parallel to the legalism we oft criticize Jesus-era Judaism for having. We have an interview before baptism — the candidate must undergo a thorough questioning process in order to determine whether the person is “ready” to be baptized. The same thing occurs if you wish to enter the temple of the Lord. Interviews, in fact, are a frequent tool that Mormon leaders use to “keep their fingers on the pulse” of which they are now accountable for, but interviews (especially standardized interviews) are rarely flexible or creative enough to assess the needs of every person (which doesn’t stop us from designing some especially thorough interviews). And all too often, we use the interview more to keep certain people out rather than to assess need. Discontent with the freedom Christ won for us and which Paul celebrates over and over again in his epistles, we are quick to saddle ourselves with more and more rules in order to (let’s be honest, here) parse out who the “real Mormons” are as opposed to the false ones, the weak ones, or at the very least, the ones who are trying really hard but just aren’t quite to the level of Mormon we as a collective whole are satisfied with in order to qualify for such a ranking title.

Which is quite curious when one of the main themes of the Book of Mormon spoke harshly against this very type of extreme codifying the rules. Alma’s explanation of the baptismal covenant does not include a waiting period to see if you are really committed or not. And that Alma’s son of the same name certainly stood stupefied and flabbergasted at the discovery of the apostate Rameumptom and its correlating prayer, which included such classically diabolical lines as, “And thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell” (Alma 31:17).

Even more curious is that we worship a Jesus who was more rebel than authority, more mystic prophet than clean-cut salesman. Sometimes I wonder what Jesus would do if he came down today? I imagine that he’d shock a lot of Mormons. Imagine going to the temple for your weekly temple trip and watching in shock as Jesus drove out the temple workers with a homemade whip, roaring about moneychangers, or some business like that. Imagine walking into a restaurant and noticing Jesus sitting a table, gently reassuring expensive escorts that God loves them and wants them to come to the local ward while sipping a glass of wine (of his own make, of course), and then startling the entire restaurant by standing up suddenly and denouncing publicly your Stake President that he and his cohorts were a den of vipers. Imagine watching Jesus walk into a McDonald’s (on a Sunday!) to buy some hamburgers to give to a homeless man, or Jesus chiding your father for working too hard to provide for his family and not taking the better part, or taking your iPod, throwing it into the ocean and telling you to render unto Steve Jobs what is Steve Jobs’ and to God what is God’s, or Jesus sitting down to play Halo if it meant the surly seventeen year old priests will talk to him about what they want out of their lives, even if it’s a Sunday?

Which is not to say that our current temples need cleansing, or that your Stake President stands in need of rebuking, but this is the kind of anti-establishment stuff that Jesus did all the time. He was a jobless, hairy hippie wandering the streets of Jerusalem, convincing people to quit their jobs and leave their homes and spouses and children and to literally follow his wanderings and help him spread a message of peace and love. When he walks up to you and extends his hand, his jeans dirty and his t-shirt ragged, and tells you that the birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to place his head, would you invite him into your home? And would you then sell all of your belongings and leave your spouse and kids and walk away from your house and your job and your responsibilities to preach the bigger message that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand?

Often, we forget how absolutely radical our religion is, and I don’t mean this in some terrible 90’s slang way, but in the revolutionary sense. We work hard to dumb things down and to dress things up, to make our doctrines more palatable to the American markets (and markets and consumers we treat them). We can recite our religion’s “specs” and special features and what makes our product so unique and enjoyable and valuable and we design ad campaigns and pamphlets and websites and Twitter accounts and YouTube videos, but I would venture that very few of us could muster the courage and sheer grit to really commit to to the gospel, to do the things that Jesus asks us to do, to really walk away from the world and all of its trappings and shiny things and prizes and bells and whistles and really live it. We do what we can with the lives that we have, making small compromises here and there, promising ourselves that even if we seem (and feel) a little self-centric now, we’ll serve a senior mission later and besides, we served a mission already so will you please leave us alone we’ve done our time, darn it. We live uncomfortable double lives, one foot firmly planted in Babylon and one foot firmly planted in Zion, trying to negotiate some middle way. And in order to feel like we still belong to this tradition, even though we’re not fully committed just yet (though we are working very hard to get to that point, promise!), we must legislate who is in and who is out, even though, really, all of us are never really in and never really out. We’re all just grasping, trying to reclaim and model after the divine which has touched our lives in some form at some point in some way that transcends space and time.

And so, in the midst of all this legalistic battling over what is and is not permissible for a good Mormon on the Sabbath, may I suggest we take a page from Judaism’s book? I suggest that when such a fight begins in a Sunday School, one of us brave folk will stand up, throw out his or her arms wide and declare, “We shall have a large dinner tonight at our house; all are invited and will be treated as family! If you know anyone, bring them along! Come, celebrate the Sabbath with us and share with us our food and love and company! We shall light candles, give thanks to the Lord, break bread, and raise our glasses of wine (of our own make, of course) and shout with all of our muster in the company of angels, To life! To life! L’chaim!”

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The problem with Abraham

My friend over at Catchy Title Goes Here recently wrote about the story of Abraham and Issac. This story, to me, is rich in complexity, contradiction, and just plain harebrained bizarreness. The story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his firstborn son is considered one of the most problematic in all of scripture, theology, and philosophy; yet, three major world religions base their belief on this ancient patriarch. Unfortunately, in Sunday Schools everywhere, the story of Abraham and Issac is reduced to overly simplified messages about sacrifice and obedience — no matter what. This, I believe, does a huge disservice to the story (especially if the story is real). In this post, I wish to introduce several “problems” that add a layer of complexity to the story that, I believe, is spiritual fat we must all chew thoroughly and thoughtfully.

Warning: Just the  very consideration of this story (let alone experiencing the actual decision-making process personally) has both tempered and shattered peoples’ faith. This is not  for the faint of heart.

1. Abraham is committing his father’s sin

Mormonism’s new scripture on Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price adds a huge double-whammy to the story which I believe most Mormons blithely overlook — Abraham was saved from the very crime he was about the inflict on Issac. Abraham’s father, Haran, offered up Abraham as a sacrifice to false gods, which Jehovah then delivered Abraham from in a miraculous experience. Imagine the bitterness Abraham must have felt when God commanded him to deliver that blow to his son. It’s akin to almost being raped by your father and being saved by an angel at the last minute, and then being asked to now rape your firstborn and only son by God, the very person who saved you from it.

Some have suggested that Abraham had this past experience in mind and hoped that God would stop him from sacrificing Issac at the last minute as well, but this idea has been rejected by most conservative and orthodox theologians. If Abraham knew he wouldn’t have to actually carry through God’s revolting commandment, it would not have been an ultimate sacrifice. It’s like driving home knowing beforehand your friends will throw a surprise party for you; you just have to feign ignorance and act surprised. This takes away from both Abraham and Issac’s burden as well as his relief.

All in all, this cyclical, past connection Abraham has to sacrificing your firstborn makes the entire episode a thousand times more bittersweet.

2. The story makes God and righteousness arbitrary

There are two general theories in ethics that compete with each other in theology — divine command theory and natural law theory. Divine command theory says that whatever God commands is right; the very act of God issuing forth the command is where the “rightness” derives itself from. Natural law theory says that whatever God does must happen within the bounds of a law higher than even God — he must act within the boundaries of a natural (or eternal) law of goodness. This natural law is where God derives his goodness.

Mormons would do well to consider which we subscribe to. On the one hand, we have aspects of divine theory that permeates the culture of our Church. Consider, for example, this oft-quoted tidbit from Joseph Smith:

That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’; at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.

However, at the same time, we have this scripture (D&C 130:20-21) which is also oft-quoted (it’s a scripture mastery!) and suggests the existence of some kind of natural or eternal law:

There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated— And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.

Most Mormons I know don’t see how either idea is incompatible with each other, and at first glance, it doesn’t appear as so. However, one massive ramification of divine command theory is that it renders ethics and the human concept of goodness completely irrelevant and arbitrary. Here’s an example to illustrate: Because anything God commands is good (and he can apparently change his mind), tomorrow he could send forth an edict that says, “It is a commandment that we take puppies and babies and kittens and stab them in the eyes with needles.” Because this commandment comes from God himself, the font of all goodness, it is, according to divine command theory, good ethically to do so. And yet, a fundamental part of us shrinks. How could this be good?

And thus it is with God. If God is good (a fundamental truth in Christianity and the mantra of so many terribly composed Christian songs), then how can taking puppies and babies and kittens and stabbing them in the eyes with needles or mutilating your son’s body and then burning his corpse be intrinsically good?

Personally, I subscribe to a natural law theory of ethics, but for many Mormons, they are comfortable with the idea of a divine command paradigm for ethics. However, I would argue that if divine command theory is, in fact, some kind of divine truth, it makes God an incredibly difficult deity to believe in. He could, at any time, revoke any of his “irrevocable decrees” such as the Atonement or the law of the harvest. People who think they are divine command theorists would say, “No, God would never do that because he’s good,” to which divine command theory would say that the only reason it’s good right now is because God said so. If God decided that the Atonement or the law of harvest is bunk and bad, then ethically it swaps places because God decreed it so and nothing more. Otherwise, God must be held to a higher standard, an eternal law, which dictates that even God must follow some kind of universal or eternal concept of goodness.

I would venture to say that most Mormons probably subscribe (whether they believe it or not) to a natural law worldview, and that’s what makes Abraham and Issac’s story so problematic — it suggests that God’s ethics is divine command theory ethics. When he saves Abraham from child sacrifice, that act is evil. When he commands Abraham to do it to Issac, that act transforms to good. When he prevents Abraham and forbids it, the child sacrifice reverts back to evil status. Ethics (and righteousness) has suddenly become pliable in the hands of a jealous, ancient god.

3. It contradicts the nature of Abraham

Abraham (and most of the Old Testament prophets) are famous for his close relationship with God. It is my belief that this close relationship is born from bickering and debate. Consider, for example, the famous story of Abraham negotiating with God for the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham deals and wheels and barters with God, accusing God of injustice and even haggles with him. In the end, Sodom and Gomorrah were too wicked, and they’re nuked, but not until Abraham has a say and is completely satisfied that God’s action is morally right.

Again, the Mormon perspective of Abraham emphasizes this even further. Abraham desires the priesthood of God, the very power and authority God wields. He desires it, he seeks it, even to the point of traveling to the high priest who can give it and paying his tithing to him. Abraham is proactive, and if he disagrees with God, he will speak his mind until satisfied. This is one of my favorite part of the Old Testament — prophets who not only asked for blessings and knowledge, but demanded it, as per the irrevocable eternal law cited above about blessings and such.

And this is where the scriptural record becomes problematic. God tells Abraham to do an ethically abominable act (which we have discussed in the last two points) and Abraham…is silent. He’s sad, sure, but that’s all. He’s a mopey depressed guy who goes, “Well, ooookayyyy, I gueeessss” and tells his son they’re going on a trip and proceeds, exceedingly sorrowful.

Where’s the argument? Where’s the debate? Abraham is willing to risk his standing with God and disagree with him when complete strangers’ lives (who he acknowledges are very sinful) are at stake. And now, God commands him to sacrifice his own son and he rolls over without a single word of dissension. Did Abraham get old? Is he just tired of it all?

In the end, we’re left with a highly problematic, complex story with lots of different things going on. People have debated this for millennia, and I don’t think we’ll be getting an answer anytime soon. Still, this is thick, meaty scripture and doctrine which we must (it is our prerogative!) consider carefully, chewing slowly, savoring its many flavors, and try to make sense of it for ourselves, even if it means ultimately throwing up our hands from time to time and shouting to the heavens, “I just don’t know!”

Instead, we often treat this story blithely, as just another devotional story about sacrifice and absolute obedience. “Oh, how faithful Abraham was!” we coo, not even thinking about the absolute magnitude (and natural abhorrence) we feel at the idea of sacrificing a child. Sacrifices back then involved ritualistic slaughter (we’re talking cutting Issac up into pieces) and burning at an altar. Even the idea of stabbing my child with a knife sickens me, let alone cutting up the limbs and disemboweling him. In Sunday School, the instructor suddenly posed the question to my mother: “Would you sacrifice your son, Ted, if God told you to?” Immediately, tears sprung up and freely flowed from her eyes. She could not answer. How could someone answer such a question?

And that’s the reaction we should have with the story of Abraham and Issac. We shouldn’t have feel-good warm fuzzies about obedience and sacrifice. We should react at our most instinctual, gut reflex level – revulsion, disgust, terror, agitation, perplexity, and distress. This story should keep us up at night. It should be haunting, not a 45 minute once-every-four-years Sunday School lesson in which we gloss over the details and ignore the “hard” parts. Because the story of Abraham and Issac deals with the perennially difficult (perhaps the most difficult) parts of any religion, and Christianity (and Mormonism) in general: Why does the gospel require such terrible acts of depravity to advance the goal of goodness? And what, exactly, is the very fundamental nature of ethics?

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Belief, Faith, and Knowledge

In our church culture, we tend to value knowledge over faith. In our testimonies, we assert that we know the Church is true, for example. People, when they hear that you merely believe that the Church is true, or have faith that the Church is true, will pat you on the back, tell you to pray harder, and someday, you will know.

I’ve been working on The Articles of Faith by James E. Talmage for the Mormon Texts Project, and I thought this was an interesting thought by Brother Talmage:

We frequently hear it said that faith is imperfect knowledge; that the first disappears as the second takes its place; that now we walk by faith but some day we will walk by the sure light of knowledge. In a sense this is true; yet it must be remembered that knowledge may be as dead and unproductive in good works as is faithless belief. Those confessions of the devils, that Christ was the Son of God, were founded on knowledge; yet the great truth which they knew did not change their evil natures. How different was their acknowledgment of the Savior from that of Peter, who, to the Master’s question “Whom say ye that I am?” replied in practically the words used by the unclean spirits before cited, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter’s faith had already shown its vital power; it had caused him to forsake much that had been dear, to follow his Lord through persecution and suffering, and to put away worldliness with all its fascinations, for the sacrificing godliness which his faith made so desirable. His knowledge of God as the Father, and of the Son as the Redeemer, was perhaps no greater than that of the unclean spirits; but while to them that knowledge was but an added cause of condemnation, to him it was a means of salvation.

It strikes me funny that for Talmage, faith, not knowledge, is what saves. For Talmage, saying “I know that the Church is true” is a good start; however, Talmage would probably respond, “That’s great that you know that the Church is true. Now, what are you going to do about it?”

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Literalistic imagery

Most people know the story of Prometheus. He took pity on mankind and so he stole fire from the gods and used it to teach man, especially in technology and the sciences. For this, the gods chained Prometheus to a rock where his liver was picked apart by birds everyday. Because Prometheus was immortal, he suffered immense pain, but could never die. And thusly he suffered until a Greek hero named Heracles rescued him.

Prometheus also becomes a time-traveling robot who helps save the world and eventually sacrifices his life in a vain attempt to stop Fate from taking over humanity's destiny.

Prometheus also becomes a time-traveling robot who helps save the world and eventually sacrifices his life in a vain attempt to stop Fate from taking over humanity's destiny.

Prometheus plays a proto-type trickster figure, representing both the good and bad of humanity. He became a symbol of technology and progress, willing to defy the very gods in order to improve the lives and lots of common humans everywhere. There are symbols and imagery within this myth, rich and glorious, which convey important lessons and warnings to future generations.

There’s much in the Prometheus story for the modern-day reader to swallow in order for it to be true. For one thing, Prometheus was a titan, and we’re pretty sure titans don’t exist. Also, supposedly, the gods lived on Olympus, but we’ve had people hike up the mountain and have not found any pantheons yet. There’s not a lot of scientific evidence for it, even though we know many people back then believed this story to be factual. We try not to fault our ancestors too much for believing such an outlandish story, but if someone said they truly believe the Prometheus story to be absolutely factual, we would laugh. Still, despite the fact that this myth is not true, we can still derive much from it. The fact that this story is fiction does not take away from its timelessness or lessons taught.

So how come when somebody tells us that Noah’s global flood is probably not factual, that the Abraham sacrificing Issac story makes no sense within the Abrahamic narrative and could just be made up, or that Job might not have been a real person or Jonah probably didn’t actually spend three days in the belly of a whale, we as members of the Church become defensive about it? Like Prometheus, a lack of factual evidence certainly doesn’t detract from the morals of the story – such a parameter for usefulness would have rendered Aesop’s famous fables completely void.

When my wife tells me that she doesn’t believe the Garden of Eden is a factual situation but is instead an allegorical representation of every human’s experience being cut off from God’s presence, why does it bother me? I know that the fact that it might have never happened doesn’t take away from the spiritual significance of the story; it certainly doesn’t bother my wife. In fact, I’ve had spiritual experiences which tell me that such an interpretation is not only fine, but commendable. So why does it nag at the corners of my prideful, foolish heart?

"Guys, you should totally think about maybe wearing some clothes sometime - oh, never mind. I'll tell you about it when you're older."

"Guys, you should totally think about wearing clothes sometime - oh, never mind. I'll tell you about it when you're older."

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Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card

JEKYLL JEKYLL HYDE JEKYLL HYDE HYDE JEKYLL

JEKYLL JEKYLL HYDE JEKYLL HYDE HYDE JEKYLL!

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of books from the library. I love it; I’ve sold most of the books that I don’t read/haven’t read that I’ve purchased, and with the library card, I now have access to thousands of books which I can read at my own leisure. Surprisingly, I’ve been reading a lot more than when I’ve been buying books. I have a theory that the library puts a huge risk on not reading (you have to return it soon), but at the same time dampens the risk of not reading (you got it for free anyway). This makes reading a lot more fun and relaxed, as opposed to shamefully averting my gaze every time I make eye contact with the stack of books I purchased six months ago but haven’t cracked open yet. Oh, the shame!

The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity by Martin Palmer:

I was really apprehensive when I picked this up. It sounded interesting, but I’m not a fan of speculative archaeology/anthropology. Too often these kinds of books devolve into a 2012 apocalyptic New Age kind of thing and I hate those. But it sounded interesting enough and connected not only my love of learning more about Christianity, my faith, but also my love of learning more about my Asian heritage. Win-win!

This book certainly was a win. Martin Palmer has done his research. He details the discovery of a highly advanced Christian church established long before most people thought Christianity even reached China through Catholic missions. The texts revealed a mission keenly aware of the different traditions they found themselves in and their attempt to reconcile common Eastern beliefs within a Christian context. It’s a wonderful example of how flexible Christianity can be as a religion and some fascinating history as well. Along with the actual text of the Jesus Sutras, Palmer explains carefully the background of the Christian texts discovered within China. He describes the different schisms within Christianity in its early years, the turbulent history of Taoism, Confucianism, shamanism, and Buddhism within Chinese history, and the possible explanations for various fusions of the two vastly different traditions. The texts themselves are interesting to read, especially as it describes basic Christian doctrines with a very Eastern tone, detailing things such as the resurrection/reincarnation tension, as well as how Christ might work within the context and knowledge of the Tao. In the end, I found whole new branches I was previously unfamiliar with (the Thomarist church in India and the Nestorian churches of the East, for example) which I now have a newfound zeal in learning more about. Overall, the book was highly enjoyable, and despite selling most of my books and trying to pare down my actual physical library, this book I might go out and purchase, since it has high re-readability.

Ecofaith: Creating & Sustaining Green Congregations by Charlene A. Hosenfeld:

This book was kind of a hit and miss. The bulk of the book involves an extensive list of different ecological projects your church can engage in, from the really cool (have a community garden and compost bin on the church grounds) to the somewhat ridiculous (have the congregation sign an “eco-pledge”) to the downright insensitive (during a baby blessing or baptism, try to work in an environmental message). A large part of the usefulness lies in the appendix, where Hosenfeld, a psychologist, details some of the psychology behind mobilizing a group of people towards a common goal, and why people don’t do ecologically friendly activities even though they deeply care about the environment and the health of their families. The appendix also details strong theological reasons for Christian involvement within the environmental movement. All in all, an interesting book, but I found the bibliography a far more fascinating aspect of the book and a great stepping stone for finding interesting things to read about this subject.

Zen in 10 Simple Lessons by Anthony Man-Tu Lee:

I thought this book would be a very superficial skim over the basic principles of Zen. I’m already familiar with most of the basic precepts; one of my favorite teachers in high school was a practicing Zen Buddhist, and he taught my comparative religion class. We had many interesting conversations about the topic and I learned much from him (I almost ran away from home and joined a Buddhist monastery, so enraptured was I with their philosophy. Ultimately, I decided against it, but sometimes, I wonder).

This book actually goes in depth and covers many Zen concepts at length. I was definitely pleasantly surprised; a lot of the principles I studied in this book now govern some of the zazen techniques my wife and I have been practicing the past couple of days. It goes into the basics of zazen and meditation, the source of suffering, how to achieve satori, koans, and how Zen mixes with daily life. It also devotes a chapter to Zen aesthetics, debunking a lot of myths perpetuated by Western minimalists about what “Zen design” is supposed to be. If you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating philosophy, I highly suggest this book as an excellent primer.

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Pinwheels, Lotuses, and Mormonism

My friend remarked, tongue-in-cheek, that with the recent trend of my blog posts people will start to think I’m a Really Bad Mormon. And so, to assure anyone out there who may believe that Brother Ted has gone apostate or has become some kind of anti-Mormon wolf in sheep’s clothing, I want to write briefly about why I believe in the Church.

Some of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had are the intellectual kinds. I’m not a fuzzy feeling, burning in the bosom kind of a guy. Most of the time, when the Spirit communicates to me, it’s a sudden shock of clarity and for one brief, exalting moment, it’s almost as if I can comprehend the grandeur and beauty of Zion and I know – I know – there’s something special about this religion.

The first time I experienced this spiritual clarity was in the Missionary Training Center. My parents performed excellently in making sure I knew my stuff – I had read the Book of Mormon several times, I had memorized the Articles of Faith as a child, I had an over 90% early morning seminary attendance record. But during personal study time, while struggling with Alma 42, an especially verbose and weighty chapter in the Book of Mormon, I experienced The Event.

Suddenly, all of the cloudy, confusing thoughts in my mind coalesced into the image of…a pinwheel. Each blade of the pinwheel I instinctively knew represented some aspect of what Alma was talking about – justice, mercy, redemption, the law, eternal life, forgiveness, repentance, obedience, commandments – all of these seemingly random concepts suddenly began to come into shape as the most beautiful pinwheel I had ever seen in my life, with Jesus Christ as the lynchpin holding everything together in the center. The complexity of the gospel spun before me, blending into one single whole, but the center, the Savior, remained unmoving, holding all of the pieces together.

Complexity in parts, simplicity in design.

Complexity in parts, simplicity in design.

This brief vision literally took my breath away. It’s hard for me to explain what exactly happened, and as someone who firmly believes in being rooted in the empirical evidence of science and reasoning, it still bothers me to this day why exactly I had this experience the way I did. Perhaps all of the neurons in my brain aligned for a split second to give me some kind of euphoric super-computer capacity. I have always loved learning, and so I am accustomed to the heady ecstasy of learning something new; this Event was something much more. I have later come to accept that while this experience can be explained by science, this does not lessen the spiritual impact I felt. Perhaps it is within neurons, biochemicals, and the beautiful, constant undulation of ions flooding and receding within the synapses of the brain that God can be found.

Either way, from that point on, I was convinced that I had stumbled onto Something Big.

I’ve experienced more of these Events in my life, always accompanied by days, sometimes even weeks or months, of hard, confusing, clouded thinking and study, straining every capacity of my feeble, mortal mind to comprehend something that seemed to forever elude my grasp. And then, the flash of insight as the heavens open for a split second and I comprehend with a sudden fervor that soon fades and once again becomes ever elusive. But for that single moment, I know. Sometimes, I even forget what I learned and knew almost immediately (silly, yes), while others became the bedrock of my faith and testimony of the gospel, but every single time what startles me the most is that for all of my post-modern intellectualism, for that split second, I knew something confidently, and that feeling refreshes me. Sometimes, the stereotypical Mormon tears accompany these Events, but always I am left in awe, slightly shaken by the brilliance of it all.

Because of this, I love the prophets of all religions, both today and yesterday. The good ones always seem to question (and sometimes get in trouble with God for their impetuousness). They don’t accept the status quo; Abraham was already a possessor of great knowledge and truth, but he always wanted greater knowledge and truth. It didn’t suffice him to wallow in the muddy waters of the world with simple tidbits, the pastiche lessons and faith-promoting rumors that circulate amongst our membership and sometimes replace real understanding of basic, critical doctrines. They became my heroes and I wanted to emulate them all – the curiosity and questioning, as well as the serenity they developed in their later lives because of the knowledge they secured.

The lotus - an important symbol of Asian theology, and an important symbol of my personal theology.

The lotus - an important symbol of Asian theology, and an important symbol of my personal theology.

I have replaced now my image of the pinwheel with the image of the lotus. This symbol is incredibly important to Eastern religion and thought (and as my heritage traces back to such lands, I feel it only appropriate). Not only does the lotus resemble the pinwheel in concept and shape, but the lotus especially holds importance in Asian religions because though it grows in muddy waters, yet it blossoms as if untouched by the dirt surrounding it.

And since then, I have endeavored to become like the lotus – blossoming brightly and cleanly, even if it seems the dirt and muck of the world surrounds me. And to achieve this, I climb greater heights of thought, philosophy, and theology, always seeking that next insight. I can feel the Holy Spirit encouraging me, promising me that the next Event might wait just around the corner, and if I continue to seek that which is good and true, if I continue to ask questions with passion, someday, I will receive those answers that I seek, and my Savior will transform me into a lotus, bathed forever in the brilliant light of His pure knowledge.

This, I believe.

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