Tag Archives: God

We are all a bunch of babies

Parenting, I admit, has made me incredibly jaded.

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

Actually, let me back up a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under life stories, parenting, religion

Scriptures, the Tarot, and other universal archetypes

I’ve recently been reading a lot about (and collecting) Tarot decks in conjunction with a project that I’ve been working on. The Tarot deck has always fascinated me, even since my childhood, not because I believed that such cards held some kind of mystical clairvoyant power, but mostly because of the archetypes the Major Arcana represented. Concepts such as Judgment, The World, Temperance, The Sun, The Moon, The Emperor, The Fool — they all felt like symbolic poetry, a world of ideas and feelings and connotations packed into a single card with a single image.

In retrospect, my fascination with  Tarot cards most likely stemmed from my strict religious upbringing, especially one such as Mormonism which is still obsessed with the idea of symbolism. We continue to, like many other religions, employ symbolism within our worship, and also within the way we speak about and act out our faith. How could I, a kid raised to automatically ferret out symbolism and derive great joy and satisfaction from decompressing it, resist the rich symbolism of the Tarot?

"Okay, I tap The Emperor and sacrifice the Nine of Cups to deal five damage to your Hierophant."

"Okay, I tap The Emperor and sacrifice the Nine of Cups to deal five damage to your Hierophant."

While learning about the symbolism of the Tarot, it was inevitable that I learned a little in how to use them in the traditional sense of fortune telling. So when some friends came over, I offered to do some Tarot readings as a sort of parlor trick. They agreed and said it sounded like fun. I proceeded to lay out spreads for each of my friends. Some of them mirrored their life situations perfectly while others, predictably, did not. All in all, however, I was very surprised to see how invested people get into Tarot readings; they automatically seek out to relate their life to the cards, or extrapolate meanings in the symbolism to apply to their own life.

One friend, who recently got out of a bad relationship, took the Tarot spread’s interpretation to mean that he needed to stop dwelling on the past and look forward with an attitude of healing. My wife, whose spread told her that her life had recently seen massive changes (like a baby perhaps), interpreted it to mean that she needed to look at her situation at different angles rather than trying to fix problems by just trying harder. My spread told me that I needed to be more careful with how I spent my money, and that perhaps my life is not in accordance with the values of modesty and temperance.

We all sat back afterwards, somewhat surprised but satisfied by our readings. As I contemplated this later that night, it struck me at how optimistic and even — dare I say it? — helpful these readings were. I’ll admit that lately, I’ve been a lot more wary about where my money goes. My wife has been a lot more diligent and creative in her approaches to personal problems recently. And our friend who had just left a bad relationship felt almost a sense of relief and a much more positive outlook for the future. None of these things are really bad.

In fact, this is a lot like reading the scriptures.

Now, before every Mormon decides to crucify me for daring to compare the occult like the Tarot with the scriptures, let me explain.

Scriptures are mostly story. They are intensely human stories rich with symbolism and meaning. We often must sit back and work to decompress the sheer amount of knowledge, information, and advice within them. And most importantly, like a good Tarot reading, we extrapolate those symbols and appropriate them for our own, working hard to match them with what is happening in our personal lives. I could read the conversion story of Alma the Younger in the Book of Mormon and derive a completely different interpretation than my father would, and we would most definitely apply them differently in our lives. But when Mormon sat down to write the abridged account of Alma the  Younger, he could not have had all of these things in mind. Yes, the Book of Mormon is for our day thematically, but that’s exactly why it’s so successful as a piece of religious literature — the themes are broad, universal, and archetypal. They are applicable to every situation and station in life.

Like Tarot readings, the person giving the reading does not have to work hard. In a Sunday School class, one simply has to read the story out loud and people will immediately begin to draw connections to their own lives. And often, these lessons are beneficial. The Alma the Younger conversion story tells parents to be patient and trust God. It warns against the personal sorrows and pains of sin, but it also extols the virtues of forgiveness and love. It’s a treatise on the fallen nature of man and the dependency one must develop on God’s grace. It talks about the hurt errant children can inflict on parents. It talks about social consequences in not only ignoring family and religious traditions and customs, but also in actively rebelling and fighting against it. This is not even a comprehensive list of what this simple story can teach.

In fact, both scriptures and Tarot rarely communicate anything new in our lives. Instead, they work with the material that we do have, roiling beneath our conscious thought, and give it some kind of metaphysical form. It allows us to access feelings deep within us, some joyful, others uneasy, and bring them up to the surface to face and examine. Deep down, I knew that I should be more careful with my money, but “finding it in the cards” gave me a little bit more of a kick out the door to actually do it. My wife knew that trying the same old things to solve her perennial problems wouldn’t work; the Tarot interpretation that she created for herself helped her to finally face up to it and act out on it. And my friend, reeling from a personal loss and trying to patch up the wounds he sustained from it, found the reading helpful in fighting back the personal insecurity that can sometimes haze over a good, if not difficult, decision.

Now, I know that there is no actual, real power in the Tarot. I know that the deck has been around forever but it was only in the 19th century when people began creating mystical interpretations of what was once an absurdly complicated card game (like Bridge) to build a way to tell fortunes with it out of whole cloth. I know very keenly the somewhat dubious history of the Tarot, and especially how this Tarot undermines the idea that there can be no good that comes from it. However, the Tarot’s power, I believe, is not because it has some kind of inherent occult-devil power, or because there is power infused within the cards, but because they happen to depict universal themes that speak to everyone in some way. The cards do not tell the future; we tell the future for ourselves, using the symbols provided by the Tarot as prompts.

What is interesting to note about the power of scripture is that they, too, do not have to be “factually true” to have such power. I don’t want to re-open a whole “Is the Book of Mormon historical or not?” debate. In fact, my main point is that such a debate is counter-productive. The mythological figure Mormon (and he is more mythological than historical in our religion), despite his historian status and profession, did not compile the Book of Mormon to provide factual dates and statistics and observations for any kind of academic reason. Rather, he compiled his civilization’s mythos, from its mythical founding father Nephi, to various characters with superhuman abilities. How is Ammon the arm-slayer any different from the heroes of old? Mormon understood that encoded within the genetic material of these myths were powerful human emotions and archetypes that could motivate us to realize what we already know what we must do but were too afraid to face.

Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Whenever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret a mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved.” When we argue about whether or not the scriptures are historical, and when we get offended when people point out that there’s not a whole lot of scientific evidence for the Book of Mormon’s historicity, we shouldn’t bat an eye. Because historicity only matters if you’ve based your faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ on carbon dating and archaeological digs. We derive religious meaning, significance, and utility from accessing instead what Carl Jung called the collective imagination and consciousness of humanity. True efficacy of the scriptures comes not from whether or not it actually happened in the past, but whether or not these stories continue to play out in our everyday lives.

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Filed under fokltale, life stories, religion, wordsmithing

Determinism is the future

Recently on Facebook, some friends made comments on determinism, calling it a worthless theory and simply an excuse to avoid responsibility or keep the masses down by explaining away things like poverty. This caused me to rip my hair out and gnash my teeth, because I firmly believe that the sticky question of biological determinism is the future we are headed towards and a massive seismic paradigm shift that will occur especially within religious circles in the future.

Determinism is already here

When taking a cognitive psychology class, the very first day my professor explained that psychology, in order for it to work in any kind of rigorous, scientific way, must assume that the human brain is deterministic. “Imagine it this way,” she explained. “Suppose as a chemist you are trying to figure out how hydrogen and oxygen atoms combine to make water molecules, and one day, the molecules decide, ‘You know what? I’m gonna make dirt molecules instead just because I want to.’ Then the other day, they combine to make water, and then the next day after that, they decide instead they want to turn into ice molecules. You wouldn’t get very far.”

Thus it is with the science of psychology. We cannot get very far if we discover that certain parts of the brain simply just “decide” that they are going to act differently today. “I know that I’m usually in charge of basic emotions and memory retention,” your hypothalmus reports. “But today, you know, I really just feel like an amygdala. Maybe the amygdala can take my job and I’ll take hers for a change.” This simply doesn’t happen.

People believe in deterministic behavior to a certain point because, like anything else in life, if it lacks consistency, it lacks any relevance or usefulness to our lives. In an extreme example, we as a society do not like it when children see graphic depictions of violence or sex. Why is this? Aren’t children, as people, free enough to determine for themselves what is right and wrong? No, we respond. They’re children. Already we understand at an instinctual level that age (and physical brain development) has something to do with cognitive functioning and imprinting.

In less extreme examples, I know that when I’m hungry, I get cranky. I snap at my wife, I become irritable, and I drive more aggressively. Because of this, when I feel this mood coming on, I understand it is imperative that I should eat something in order to prevent this unpleasant mood. I understand at some basic level there is some determinism involved. I certainly could try to will it away, but I’ve discovered that eating some crackers work just as fine and in a quick manner. There is something biological happening here — my lack of blood sugar and my emotional mood — and it would be difficult to deny that exists.

Everyone is already a determinist; they just don’t know it

Everyone, to an extent, is a “soft” determinist. As parents we attempt to raise and discipline our children, because we understand that the environment they grow up in determines some characteristics. While most of us will not throw our hands up in the air and say, “It’s all genetics, whether we try or not!” and walk away, the vast majority of parents will try to influence a child’s current and future behavior, though we should not think this the case if we believe in free will.

And even while most Americans may not abdicate personal responsibility to genetics, we understand there are hard, biological limits to free will. We may become frustrated with Down Syndrome or autistic children from time to time, but we would never tell them today that they can become “normal” if they just “tried hard enough.” Hopefully, most of us are educated enough to understand that telling a depressed person to just “get over it” does not work, especially if hard biological components are involved. The advent of psychotropic drugs which help medicate conditions from depression to schizophrenia are a miracle of our modern scientific world — all based on the premise that human behavior and cognitive thinking is deterministic. They follow strict scientific laws, even if we cannot understand all of them right now.

The evidence continues to mount that much of our behavior can be deterministic. The infamous Mischel’s Marshmallow Study showed that child behavior at ages as early as two can indicate how successful that person will be in our society today (even President Uchtdorf of the LDS Church cited it in General Conference, somewhat ironically). I have friends who are suicidal, anorexic, or violent without their medication. We’ve found that we can influence and condition somatic responses (via Pavlov’s drooling dog experiments), that certain substances like cocaine, ecstasy, and LSD can drastically alter behavior, mood, cognitive thinking, sensory perception, and all other facets of our personalities. Someone who is drunk should never think they can just “will the drunkness away”; I would hope even the most ardent foe of determinism would take away his keys.

At some point in time, everyone has done something that predicates on a deterministic mindset, whether or not you did it yourself for deterministic reasons, or if you treated someone in a deterministic way. People would, I hope, think the idea of “willing away” a high while taking LSD is patently ridiculous. Why, then, do they ridicule the idea that some people are more biologically predicated to alcoholism, or the idea that kids who are less patient with marshmallow waiting at the age of two are more likely to end up in trouble with the law? People would, I hope, think that children should not grow up in abusive homes because it can psychologically scar them. Why, then, do they ridicule the idea that people growing up in a culture of poverty find it hard to break out of it, or the idea that gang behavior is stronger in certain cultures over others?

God is a determinist

While many religious people who believe in the concept of free will or agency, especially in context with the Christian concept of sin, will scream for my blood and head on a pike when I say this, this does not sway the fact that the Christian God is a determinist. He tells us all that we are sinful, flawed creatures — this is a fate that not a single one of us humans can escape.

Mormons (and I use them as an example because I am most comfortable with their theology) reject the Calvinist concept of predestination, the idea that God has already chosen who will go to heaven and hell. However, we also believe in an omnipotent God, who knows everything — including who will go to heaven and hell. So we have concocted the doctrine of foreordination — that God understands us children so much that he can predict behavior, but he does not force us to do right things. He gives us the choice to come to him or reject him, but because he knows us so well he puts us in situations that suitably test us and give us the appropriate chances to embrace him (or at the very least, embrace goodness, for those who never come to know him in this life).

To explain, my wife gave the example of her younger sister. Her younger sister loves sprinkle donuts. If given the choice between many kinds of donuts, she knows her sister will choose sprinkle donuts. My wife knows this, yet she is not forcing her sister to do so — her sister chooses sprinkle donuts out of her own “free will” — and my wife knows this future information because she understands her sister’s personality enough.

But while this may eliminate the idea that God forces us to do certain things, it merely shifts the burden of determinism from God to us as flawed people. My wife’s sister will choose the sprinkled donut because some facet of her personality forces her to do so. To like or not like a sprinkled donut seems arbitrary, and even silly, as an example of determinism, but it shows how pervasive it is in our lives. If my wife alerted her sister to this fact, she may choose to eat another donut out of rebellion (and if my wife knows her to be especially rebellious, she can predict this, too, because of the principles of basic human determinism). But her sister will have very little in her power to enjoy the alternative donut more than her favorite, sprinkled donuts. This lack of free will becomes even more apparent when presented with the choice of broccoli over sprinkle donuts; her sister would have to be a Zen master in order to truly feel that broccoli is as tasty, let alone tastier, than a sprinkle donut. She is a prisoner to her unique brain mapping.

Foreordination does not provide any form of free will as many of us believe in it; in fact, it only reinforces the fact that God himself understands that we are deterministic creatures that will respond in predictable, specific fashions to specific stimuli. A good Mormon like myself would argue that God knows what is good for me and what is bad for me; what will help me grow and what will break me. But all of these rely on the idea that I am a predictable, deterministic being. If this isn’t the definition of determinism, I don’t know what is.

Because of this, God can make sweeping edicts that hold true in every situation, one of the most important being this — all of us are sinful creatures in need of his mercy. None of us can break free of this edict. None of us (except for Jesus Christ, if you swing that way in religion) can do this; it is bar none an impossible task, undoable no matter how much will or effort you put into it. Something inside of you, something embedded deep within you, some physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual shard of imperfection will compel you to sin. God cannot be God and lie at the same time. Whether it is God that is forcing you to sin, yourself that is forcing you to sin, or the environment that is forcing you to sin, all of this is immaterial to the fact that something will cause you to sin, and that is predictable behavior because humans are deterministic.

The Religious Implications

This puts people who love (yes, even worship) the idea of free will as we currently understand it in a very difficult pickle. Everyone, at some point in their lives, must admit that something they’ve done had some form of deterministic cause. Everyone, at some point in their lives, must admit they treated someone in a certain way because they believed it would have some form of deterministic consequence. But we must also adhere to the principle of free will! We must all have some form of personal responsibility, or should we just forgive rapists because “they couldn’t help it, they were born that way?” Our society’s moral fabric will fray apart!

These are all very serious and very true problems. But hoping determinism goes away is not the right way to address these issues. Science cannot explain everything; even with all of the advances of science today, the combined efforts of psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, and all the other -ologies cannot explain much of anything. We have only begun to scratch at the surface, slowly shifting away the dirt beneath our feet to find we are standing on an intricate and priceless mountain of gold. We can, and some would argue that we must, assert that the idea of personal responsibility must exist somewhere in the universe — but to deny a growing tidal wave of scientific evidence only serves to alienate religion especially from the newly discovered realities of our world.

Just as heliocentric models of the universe forced us to re-consider our position in the physical universe, just as how biological evolutionary models and modern geological techniques forced us to re-consider the creation of the physical universe, so the new deterministic behavior models of humans will force us to re-consider our relationship and influence from and to the physical universe. We may all possess some form of free will; personally, I believe this shard of free will is a birthright from our perfect spiritual Father. Still, we are imperfect through and through, and where the gaps of our free will exist, determinism fills it in.

As for my personal opinion? As I’ve grown more and more aware of the environmental, internal, biological, and social pressures that influence me in a myriad variety of ways that can only be described as the largest, most complex cocktail ever devised, I’ve taken the time to sit down and meditate, to pick apart the reasons why I do things. If personal responsibility exists, I must find it for myself; I cannot have anyone hand it to me. If I am to create any semblance of true freedom, I must first acknowledge all of the pressures and influences and forces that work in my life. As I’ve walked down this difficult personal path, I can see, for the first time in my life, why I act like this — my rebellion against my mother’s Confucian values; my Buddhist feelings and thoughts coming from my father’s “seminars” during weekly family nights; my love of Nibley’s anti-money ranting over my own complicated childhood experiences with money; my unique Mormon lens derived from the unique Mormon congregations I attended as a child and unique, Mormon experiences I had as a teenage missionary.

When I look into myself, I see American social values clashing with internalized Korean social values. I see how my parents’ desire for me to succeed in education drove me to intellectual elitism, while my father’s background growing up as a subsistence level chicken farmer in Paraguay drove me to decry American consumerism and materialism. I can see how the unique biological makeup of my brain that has revealed itself over the years shows me perennially optimistic and yet deadly anxious around personal interactions. I see challenges and confront them because I believe I have some kind of personal responsibility and free will, but I look at my biology and socialization to discover them. And when people fail in life in whatever sense, I find myself deeply sympathetic and my heart swells with mercy because, with just a few tweaks in my brain chemistry or genetic string of proteins, that drunk in the street or that socially incompetent and painfully awkward co-worker could have been me.

When I see these threads that weave a very unique tapestry inside of me, I’m amazed at the beauty of humanity. We are intricately complex, deeply beautiful, and infinitely flawed machines. I personally believe there is a clock maker out there, some master architect, watching and from time to time personally intervening in the lives of his clockwork creatures. True freedom, for me, does not come from burying my head in the sand, denying that there are impulses and traits in me that are difficult, if not impossible to control. True freedom comes from examining within, finding the “bugs” inside of me and either repairing them or learning to work around them, like a self-modifying computer program. Imprinted in me is the master architect’s hand, his own personal flourish. I, for one, as a determinist and a Christian, intend to find it and praise it.

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Filed under philosophy, religion

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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Mostly Correlation Friendly Prayer Alternatives

During one memorable Sunday School lesson, the instructor proudly spoke on how our Church discourages “rote and memorized” prayers. He emphasized that we encourage prayers to come from the heart instead, spontaneous and sincere. “Except in important instances, such as in the priesthood ordinances like baptism and the Sacrament, we don’t use memorized prayers.”

“But we do,” one student responded. “’Please bless this food so that it may strengthen and nourish our bodies,’ even when we’re eating ice cream for refreshments.”

“How about ‘Please bless us that we’ll all drive home safely’?” another student said.

“Or ‘Please bless those who are not with us today that they may be with us next week,’ when we don’t even know who they are, or have any intention of encouraging them to come,” said another.

It’s clear that even though the Church does not give out prescribed prayers for every instance of the day and night, we still fall into the trap of rote, memorized prayers that we recite out of habit, but not from the heart. Prayer, at least prayer available in the lowest common denominator of Church culture, just hasn’t been cutting it for me the past few years. I’ll admit, my prayer practice began to fall apart over time, until it was almost non-existent. This isn’t to say I had nothing to discuss with God, nor that I had grown cold and unappreciative of life. My life was actually getting better in every single way. But I didn’t know how to communicate with God sincerely when I found myself saying the same phrases over and over again. I didn’t know how else to communicate.

Of course, receiving the news that we were expecting changed my lazy dynamic. When the kiddo came around, what family traditions of prayer did I want to teach? I didn’t want my child to suffer under the same lackadaisical, stiff, boring prayer traditions I had found myself mired in. I needed to change the routine up while still keeping true to the spirit of what prayer is supposed to be. And so, I began to experiment.

Prayer of Thanksgiving – I picked up this practice during my time in the Missionary Training Center, and I sadly only practiced this sporadically. We often make a lot of demands in our prayers; in fact, I would think that often our demands outweigh our praise and gratitude in our prayers. We always need something to go well – to find a job, maybe for someone to get better, or for just general safety and wellness. We want to be happy, for our friends and family to be protected, for whatever we’re eating to magically become nutritious and nourishing. But often times, we don’t thank enough. I know for me, I make really general blanket statements of thanks – thanks for this food, thanks for this Sabbath, thanks for the opportunity to be with family, or if I’m in a real rush, thanks for all of our blessings, whatever that means.

The adage to count our blessings really does help lift moods and bring appreciation for everything we have. In a prayer of thanksgivings, lay off on the demands for a while. Only thank God in the prayer. And when you do thank him, thank him individually for everything. Thank him for every friend and family member by name. If there’s a particular favorite food you like, thank him for that. Thank him for the sun, the sky, green grass, a song you heard that especially touched you. Sometimes I find myself thanking him for things that I might never have otherwise brought up in prayer – (thus far) mostly proper DNA replication in the body, or maybe for that really great deal in potting soil to start our patio garden. I have no idea if God made Costco give a great deal on potting soil; I have a feeling he actually doesn’t really care about the market price of potting soil (then again, he could?), but I’m grateful for potting soil and I’m grateful for the ability to grow a garden on our patio, so why not? It can’t hurt.

You’ll be surprised how powerful a periodic prayer of thanksgiving can be. Sometimes we feel like God isn’t really looking out for us. And though times certainly get really tough sometimes, I think the vast majority of us still have an incredible lot to be thankful for (especially if you live in the States!).

Meditation – My first encounter with meditation was during a world religions class in high school. My friend Kim sat next to me, still, silent, serene. I, however, couldn’t tame my highly active monkey mind for more than a minute; my mind kept getting distracted by, yes, shiny things, among other distractions. Over the years, I’ve never developed as strong of a meditation practice as I should, but I’ve noticed the benefits whenever I do it.

I know of Mormons – and Christians, for that matter – who get wary around the idea of meditation. Recently, meditation has come to the American cultural spotlight as a mostly Eastern religious practice. However, Western religions also have a strong meditation practice, especially in the all-important monasteries. One of the activities we are told to do with the scriptures – along with praying, pondering, and reading – is meditating. Meditation is simply the practice of sitting down and clearing the mind. Many focus on a mantra, a phrase or word to repeat over and over in order to train the mind to clear out all distractions.

If any word could aptly describe our fast-paced, post-industrial, modern life, it’s “distracting.” We have a million distractions vying for our attention, and it takes a toll. Meditation is a way to step out of those distractions and focus on the divine. Combine meditation with scripture memorization. Pick out a verse that brings comfort, and use that as a mantra. Many people don’t know how to start. Others are embarrassed that when discovered, people will make fun of them. But meditation is easy. Just sit down, try to clear your mind of thoughts, and be still, and know that God is God. If you’re afraid people will make fun of you, literally take the advice Jesus gives – meditate in a closet. Sometimes I’ll lock myself in the bathroom. And it doesn’t have to be a marathon meditation session. Try meditating for just a minute. Then two minutes. Then five. You’ll be surprised how quickly the time passes, and how often times, how reluctant you’ll feel to leave that peaceful meditative bubble. Sometimes, words are clumsy and fail in communicating to the divine. Wrapping yourself up in the present moment with meditation can help us interact and experience the divine when words don’t seem to come.

One extra benefit from meditation is a new-found ability to forgive myself. It’s nearly impossible to try to clear your head of thoughts, just as it’s impossible to muck through this life unspotted from the world. In meditation, when a thought enters my mind, I acknowledge its presence, then dismiss it and focus on the mantra. It’s unproductive to self-castigate or flagellate yourself for your failure. This practice of self-forgiveness has spilled into other parts of my life, where if I make a mistake, I acknowledge it, then continue on, refusing to dwell on it. Focus on the larger goal and move on. It’s a nice feeling.

Hymns and psalms – a hymn is a prayer to the Lord, as the saying goes. If you don’t feel like praying (and who doesn’t feel like this from time to time), just sing a hymn. If singing isn’t your thing, try reciting a psalm instead. The book of Psalms is a collection of Hebrew poetry, originally used for singing. When on the Cross, Jesus quoted Psalms. Many Christians memorize their favorite psalm to recite when feeling distressed.

Sometimes, we don’t know what to say. My wife often feels that she doesn’t have any pressing demands, nor is she really bursting and overflowing with gratitude every minute of the day, and so she often prays to simply “check in,” like a college student calling her parents once in a while to make sure they know she’s not dead. But she doesn’t like doing that with God. We’ve decided if we ever feel like we’re shortchanging him, or feel like we’re just simply “checking in” with words, but not with our hearts, we’ll either sing a hymn, or if we’re too tired, recite a psalm. And maybe it’s just years of conditioning from the Church, what, with hymns usually preceding prayer, but sometimes singing hymns just helps you get into that prayer mood.

Change up the time – During the mission, I struggled making the transition from night owl to early riser. The mission schedule is brutal to night owls, with its daily 6:30 in the morning wake up call. Often times, I struggled just to flip over onto my stomach, push myself up, and pray with my face pressed into my pillow. Often times, I’d fall asleep mid-prayer and just lie there, in some kind of twisted, bizarre Child’s Pose, for fifteen minutes or more, sleeping under the guise of prayer.

One of my friends on the mission hated this; I wasn’t the only one who did it. He eventually told me that what I should do is get up, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, and then get down on my knees for my morning prayer. God appreciates a clear head and a sincere prayer, not half-mumbled phrases I can’t distinguish from my dreams the night before. I tried it, and it helped a lot. Not only did my prayers make more sense (I remember sometimes praying for help from the bears that are trying to eat me), but I found my prayers to be a little bit more…different. More real. More about what I was about to do, and less about vague generalities (or man-eating bears).

Sometimes all you need is a break from the routine. The general times of praying are in the morning, at night, and before meals. However, praying outside of those times can help break the monotony. Instead of praying right before bed, try meditating a little in the evening. Instead of praying right when you get out of the morning, try praying in the car right before taking off for work. Often times, limiting ourselves to certain times when we must pray makes prayer start to feel like a chore, our predetermined times as some sort of quota. If we want to make prayer spontaneous and sincere, more of a lifestyle rather than a commandment, we must also break free of the idea that prayer should be done at specific times in the day, an idea that quickly becomes a prison. If you don’t pray immediately in the mornings, but pray during lunch for help in the unexpected things you must finish that day, I wonder if God cares much about the time discrepancy.

Hugh Nibley once wrote that “We think it more commendable to get up at five a.m. to write a bad book than to get up at nine o’clock to write a good one.” We could also amend that to say “We think it more commendable to get up at five a.m. to say a bad prayer than to get up at nine o’clock to say a good one.” This is a dangerous attitude to have about prayer, one that holds us back from any real spiritual progression.

Prayer, and communion with the divine in general, helps us develop a deeper appreciation not just for what is in store, but also for our lives now. One of the greatest blessings of Mormonism is its celebration not only of the future afterlife, but also the nitty gritty, dirty, dusty, mortal life we live today. True, sincere communication can help us secure a place in the next life, but it can also bring love and joy in the now, despite its difficulties and heartache.

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“Divine, Messianic Force”

This is a fascinating video of 10 more obscure Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes. Every quote in this clip is powerful and Dr. King’s rhetoric at its best, but it’s quote number 7 is what I really want to talk about:

And don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, “You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God.”

– Martin Luther King Jr., in a sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967 titled “It’s a Dark Day in Our Nation.”

There’s a fairly popular teaching in our Church that ebbs and flows with the cultural winds on American exceptionalism. It’s the idea that this land is a choice land, blessed above others, a promised land where good people are led and blessed and become prosperous as long as we follow God. Because of this, the United States of America is God’s chosen country for bringing about His work[1], and this, of course, includes the Constitution and the Founding Fathers springing forth from the well of Divine Inspiration. For many Americans, the Restoration and the last dispensation of the latter-days could not happen anywhere else because specifically America is just that awesome with religious freedom and all. Imagine, we say, if the Restoration happened anywhere else before it did? It would have been squashed like a tiny bug by giant, oppressive, narrow-minded governments! It would have never been given the time and ability to flourish like it would have in America! According to this mind view, no new deviations of Christianity ever occurred between the establishment of the Catholic church and 1830 (hint: This is not true; see also Reformation).

Some members see this as problematic as the Church transitions from an American church to a global one, and most non-US members either ignore it or see it as a quixotic American quirk that doesn’t really hold as much importance as principles like agency, the plan of salvation, the family, or saving priesthood ordinances. However, in the US at least, many Mormons fiercely hold on to this cherished ideal almost as much as guns, and especially in dark times such as recession, the fall of our capitalist banks, and the fact that our president is a fundamentalist Christian turned Islamo-Kenyan-non-American terror-bomber-in-chief, this sentiment is experiencing a great deal of popularity currently within the Jell-O Intermountain Corridor.

Martin Luther King, Jr., however, sees a massive problem in this kind of American exceptionalism, and that is arrogance. This sermon was given in the height of the Vietnam War, a time when America truly saw itself as the policeman of the world, stomping the Commies where’er they be found. Of course, hindsight if 20/20 and we saw the ultimate aftermath — a humiliating military defeat tactical withdrawal, and a massive humbling experience for the United States that would last until Ronald Reagan, who gave the US the wonderful gift to feel smug about itself again. For Dr. King, exceptionalist thinking brings about arrogance, and we should never let anyone think that we, for one minute, are some kind of messianic force for good in the global community. It leads to dangerous thinking, and it leads to lost lives.

It was a big problem with the Nephites, too, the previous recipients of God’s double-edged promise regarding the Promised Land known later as ‘Merica. Repeatedly, the Nephites were warned that only when we follow God’s commandments would God continue to let them even exist on this sacred ground. And what was the number one problem with the Nephites?

Pride. We even have a cycle named after them in Mormon terminology.

I can’t help but wonder if Dr. King is right. Maybe the whole exceptionalist thinking, the feeling that we’re living on special land and somehow that in turn makes us special, is incredibly dangerous and we should do away with it all together. Maybe this land really is special. Maybe it really does have some kind of special blessing-inherent property. Maybe the Constitution really is God-inspired, 3/5 included. Maybe even the Founding Fathers, warts and all, were inspired as well. But! Does that make us special, just by association? Just because we won the birth lottery and happened to be born in some specific, man-made, artificial political borders?

I don’t think Dr. King thinks so. And I’m inclined to agree with him.
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[1] This conclusion is not a very solid one. Does the scriptures mean that North America as a continent is blessed? Then what about Canada? Is Canada the chosen land, too? Sadly, this question would cause many American Mormons to hesitate or say no. Then why America? Because we wrote the Constitution?

In addition, most scholars seem to agree that the Book of Mormon stories, if they ever occurred, would have occurred more likely in the Mesoamerican region. So does that mean in all actually we were wrong and Mexico is actually the blessed nation? Many people point towards the fact that many patriarchs declare South Americans descendants or adoptees of the tribe of Mannaseh as spiritual proof that they are Book of Mormon descendants. So…maybe the blessed messianic nation is actually south of the border?

Or maybe the promise of blessings for obedience and destruction for disobedience isn’t necessarily geocentric?

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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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