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Practice of Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The revelatory power of Gentiles

Imagine this scenario, if you will:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Designing modesty

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupry

Recently, there’s been a lot of hullaballoo surrounding an article in the June issue of the Friend magazine. I’m not going to discuss the virtues of whether or not you should allow four year old girls to wear sleeveless sundresses — that has been discussed in the Bloggernacle ad nauseum. My main concern about the modesty issue (concerning the Church) is how convoluted our stance on modesty has become (especially for girls). Here are some rules (though they are not limited to this list), as codified into our culture by the For the Strength of  Youth pamphlet and the hallowed Honor Code of BYU*:

– No sleeveless anything, whether it be tank top, spaghetti strap, or otherwise. Halter tops are right out.

– All shorts must cover the knee

– No more than one pair of earrings for girls, no more than zero pair of earrings for boys

– Do not wear tight-fitting clothes

– Always cover your stomach

– Avoid extreme styles and colors (I’ve always wondered what they did in the 1980s with this rule, what, with the preponderance of lime green and hot pink)

– Guys should have well-trimmed, non-shaggy haircuts, no facial hair, and, if mission standards are to be followed, a part in the hair as well

– No tattoos, even if it’s like, a totally radical tattoo of a Chinese character

– Clothes should not be low cut in the front or back

– One piece swimsuits for the ladies

– And now, apparently, no sleeveless for little girls either

I’m a big believer in simplicity. Though I fail at it many times, I try to live as simple and as modest a life as possible. I believe that ultimately, a well-lived, modest life will have trimmed away the gluttony and excess and spend its time doing that which has the greatest and most value. I believe this concept applies in many situations, including my spiritual and religious life.

The modesty rules we have currently today are anything but minimalist. In fact, most of the rules we have concerning modesty are reactions against cultural trends of which we disapprove. Few, outside of the more vague ones, such as “avoid extreme styles or colors” or “no tight-fitting clothes”, contain any kind of gospel principle (and even then we’re stretching it); rather, they sound similar to the edicts of Cosmo’s fashion section, a list of do’s and don’ts to stay “in fashion” with the latest LDS style.

I like to think that Jesus is the prime example of a minimalist. When asked which of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) were the greatest, Jesus boiled them all down (all 613 of them!) into two great commandments:

Jesus said unto him, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 22:37-40

The minimalism behind this is breathtakingly beautiful. Yes, commandments and standards are important, but instead of creating a “modesty checklist” (which the Friend also did), couldn’t we instead emphasize that our bodies are gifts from God? If we love God, we will respect and cherish that gift. Empowered by the love of God and a perspective of our place in the universe, we would refuse to abuse and exploit that gift when propositioned to do so by others. Such thinking would allow the flexibility and breathing room for cultural fluctuation but still provide concrete understandings of what is right and wrong. Rather than measuring ourselves against a list of rules, we measure ourselves against our worth prescribed to us by God. We use personal revelation to guide our way. Modesty, like all other commandments and standards, hang from those two great edicts.

Rules are more comfortable precisely because they are so specific and inflexible. We can hide our ignorance of the gospel, our insecurity in our faith, and our anxiety before God’s presence behind the wall of man-made law. We can be mean-spirited, bitter, judgmental, rude, spiteful, proud, back-biting, or all of the above, but as long as we pay our tithing, attend Church services, and do our home/visiting teaching, we’re still “righteous,” even if the love of God is not within us. It is easier to teach and instill skirt length, sleeve length, midriff coverage, one-piece swimsuit expounding, and one-pair-of-earrings exposition in 30 minute bite-size increments in Sunday School than either the love of God, or the love of others. Yet it is exactly the latter that saves and has eternal worth.

So what would Jesus say? Suppose a faithful disciple approached him and asked, “Master, which of these modesty rules are the most important? No bare-midriff? No knee-cap flashing?” The great thing is that deeply embedded in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, we already have such a minimalist statement that Jesus could possibly make:

Ask yourself, “Would I feel comfortable with my appearance if I were in the Lord’s presence?”

I propose that we eliminate all else in the “Dress and Appearance” section of the For the Strength of  Youth pamphlet and teach our youth this one basic principle above all else when teaching modesty. All in favor, please manifest in the comments. Any opposed do so by the same sign.

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* I’m not sure if including the BYU Honor Code in our list of unofficial official cultural standards for modesty will garner controversy or not, but BYU is possibly the single greatest exporter of Church culture, and so I have included it as most Mormons would probably agree to the standards espoused in the Honor Code anyway concerning modesty.

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Semantic slavery

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

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

It’s semantic slavery.

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

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

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

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

First, why the increased popularity? Because of this:

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

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

Except this “solution” is intellectually dishonest.

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

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

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

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

Suddenly, the bathrooms are definitely not the same.

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

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

Apparently, all the difference in the world.

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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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Mormons dating heathens

I listen to a podcast called Catholic Stuff You Should Know (because I am a closet Catholic wannabe), and at the end of the podcast during their email section, a Catholic dating a Jewish girl asked, “Am I allowed to date outside the faith?”

I perked up to listen. Inter-religious dating and marriage is such a touchy subject in the LDS Church, so I wanted to hear the Catholic perspective. The answer they gave shocked me.

Absolutely, they said, absolutely you are allowed to date outside of the faith. You need to understand that God put this girl in your life for a reason, and you need to explore that reason, one of the hosts said. The other, about to become a priest in a few days, also said that they should seek out activities they can do together; for example, one cultural crossroad is reading the Old Testament together. Try to pray together to the best of your ability. Because Catholics see Jesus as a fulfillment of Judaism, there’s a lot of history and commonality together, so you should take advantage of the opportunity to explore Judaism and learn more about your own faith at the same time.

Of course, it’s all not unicorns and rainbows. They also told the young couple to really talk seriously about marriage and what they would do if they did tie the knot. What religion would they raise their future children in? Are they okay with the other not attending religious services with them? Understand, they warned, that there will eventually be divisive cultural issues between the two of you that you will have to work through if you want to be with this woman, but it can be done, if you work hard.

And lest you think these are a bunch of liberal hippy Catholics (they’re not), immediately, they root their advice in scripture. The first thing you need to do, one of them said, is read the story of Ruth.

This, I admit, shocked me quite a bit. Mormons are incredibly insular, and dating is no exception. We warn against dating outside of the faith, and that if you get married outside of the temple, woe, woe, woe be unto you! You will probably get boils and your husband will probably get leprosy, and don’t be surprised if your kids turn against you and try to raise up an army to overthrow your kingdom or something. Seriously, some of those warnings can be that dire.

Catholics want Catholics to marry each other, and they want Catholics to get married under the Catholic tradition, of course. Marriage for Catholics, just like for us, is an essential sacrament. On top of that, they don’t believe in second chances after this world, like we do with the spirit world. So why the liberal attitude?

If any religion were to be open to inter-religious dating, you would think it would be ours. We believe that one can receive essential sacraments after this life (that’s what half of the temple is all about). We believe that we believe in anything that is good, lovely, virtuous, or praiseworthy, even if it’s outside of the faith. So why are we so terrified of our kids dating outside of the faith?

I can think of two reasons.

The first reason, we can’t really help right now. We’re a small demographic. We just are. There are only 12 million of us in the world, in a world of 5 billion people. We literally make up 0.24% of the world. That’s not a lot. Because of this, we’re constantly in self-preservation mode — if we let too many of our numbers get diluted, we stand a good chance of disappearing forever.

The second one is a little more disappointing. We’re incredibly, totally, wholly insecure about our religion and beliefs. We don’t really believe in its power.

I had an experience on my mission that changed my life forever. I was talking to a colleague of mine about how I was afraid to talk to people about my faith because they might tear it apart. It’s a legitimate concern every missionary has, an existential terror we carry with us every time we knock on a door. He thought for a minute and asked, “Do you really believe that this can help people in their lives?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Then why are you scared?” he asked. “Truth is truth and beats lies and falsehood. Truth has the unique ability to stand on its own. If you really, honestly believe that it is true, then what are you really afraid of? If you really, honestly believe that it is true, then who can prove you wrong?”

I want to say that after this advice, any anxiety disappeared and I went on my merry way. Of course, not true. But it did make me think about why I was on a mission and what my role as a missionary was. Did I come out here because I was expected to, or do I really think the gospel can improve someone’s life?

I don’t think we really believe in what we say we believe in. We’re constantly afraid people will think we are weird — probably because we understand that we really are weird. We’re constantly afraid people will think we’re a cult — probably because at some fundamental level we feel like one sometimes. We’re constantly afraid people will think our church services are boring — probably because we are bored ourselves. We’re constantly afraid people will reject our gospel — probably because we reject it ourselves every day on a minute level that builds over time. I’m not saying we should be closed minded and cocky; that will definitely make less people join the Church. But do we really believe in what we believe in?

It’s the same reason why parents are terrified of letting their kids make decisions. They don’t really trust their children. I know that my parents trust me in some areas because they give me independence and leeway; but when it comes to areas in my life they don’t trust me in, they will open the sluices and unsolicited advice comes gushing out. I know that I will do that to my children, too, because it’s human nature.

Let’s take it back home to dating. We’re constantly talking about how strong our youth are. We talk about how our youth stand for right and morality, how they are so brave and honest and strong. We talk about how valiant they are. But when you look at the litany of rules and regulations we plaster our youth with, do we really believe in them?

LDS youth -- valiant, charitable, wonderful, strong, capable -- and ready to bolt and run away from the Church at a moment's notice. (Image via Church News)

These guys who run Catholic Stuff You Should Know are self-assured that Catholicism can enrich anyone’s life and will bring peace and happiness to those who follow its precepts. To them, they have no real reason to think that their Catholic inquirer will feel compelled to follow after his girlfriend’s “competing” faith; Catholicism already provides everything he needs. Why would he need more? Date outside the Church if you run into people you happen to fall in love with, they say. Be a good influence on others and allow others to be a good influence on you. No need to be reckless, they warn, but at the same time, there is no need to lock yourself up like a monk, ironic since between the two of us, they’re the ones with monks, and we’re the ones with strong youth and young adults we don’t really believe in.

This leads me to wonder sometimes. Are all of these rules and regulations really there to protect us and hedge up the law, or could they be symptoms of an overall dissatisfaction with our spirituality and a way to keep people firmly inside the tent so they can’t wander or run away? Do we really believe the gospel is powerful enough that anyone who encounters it should obviously see its power, or are we worried that we might be proven wrong someday by another system of thought that might provide more fulfillment than we  can?

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