Tag Archives: theology

Praises

When I was younger, more rash, more hot-headed, more impudent, I considered the book of Psalms inferior to some of the other scriptures. “It’s just a bunch of feel-good poems,” I would complain, and would instead delve into some extracurricular Isaiah speculation. I’m an apologist, I would say, puffing my chest out in pride. I’m a theologian. I don’t need this sissy poetry stuff.

How wrong I was.

Lately, my wife and I have taken to reciting psalms before bed and in place of the usual traditional singing we both experienced in our respective family home evening meetings. For one, we don’t really feel comfortable singing together (we feel kind of dumb), and two, the longer we’ve been Mormons, the more comfort we find in a lovely book such as Psalms.

For example, an interesting footnote during Christ’s crucifixion ties his famous utterance, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” to Psalm 22. Specifically, it starts out:

My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.

But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel. Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them. They cried unto thee, and were delivered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded.

But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of people. All they that see me laugh me to scorn; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.

But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts. I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly.

Be not far from me: for trouble is near; for there is none to help.

Psalm 22:1-11

This isn’t feel-good wishy-washy stuff. This is some serious religious existential angst. Why Jesus chose to cry out in psalm during His darkest hour I do not know, but for even the Savior to have felt like this, a feeling I can certainly relate to, makes me love Him all the more.

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The blurring lines between fact and folklore

So, lately I’ve been working on a blog with a friend of mine where we chase down and document Mormon folklore. Usually, when people get past the idea that we are saying “These stories are true” and merely “We heard this story,” they also enjoy it, both those in and outside of the Church.

Lately I have been contemplating what exactly constitutes folklore and what constitutes doctrine. For example, I wrote about how some people say that similarities in the shape of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers’ junction and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers’ junction show that the Garden of Eden may have been in Jackson County and then Noah relocated to the Middle East during the Flood. This got me interested in the whole concept of the American Garden of Eden and especially Adam-ondi-Ahman.

Adam-ondi-Ahman is one of those things where it’s established as pretty solid doctrine in our Church — sort of. We have a hymn about it, which is about as solid as you can get when it comes to “Is it official doctrine?” A lot of the information we can piece together from journals and sermons from Joseph Smith, but when it comes to the Church saying, “This is the official definition of Adam-ondi-Ahman,” we don’t really find many contemporary sources, if any. So what is it? Is it doctrine or is it folklore?

The more I look into Mormon folklore, the more I begin to believe there might not be much of a difference. Our Mormon doctrines and Mormon narrative intertwine with each other until they are inseparable. Joseph Smith’s vision of his older brother Alvin’s eventual fate in the next life has greatly influenced our understandings of agency and the Atonement. And our unique eschatological timeline (such as Adam-ondi-Ahman) relies heavily on a patchwork of sermons and statements pieced together like an incomplete puzzle.

Storytelling is an integral part of our Mormon theology. Stories such as the famous “milk and strippings” story concerning Thomas B. Marsh and his wife (and their eventual apostasy) or the transfiguration of Brigham Young may not actually be factual, but we tell and re-tell it as a warning against personal ego interfering with the greater good of the community or to show God’s approval of prophetic succession. The Book of Mormon, which we purport as the complete gospel of Jesus Christ, comes to us not in the form of a bullet-point presentation or a treatise on Christian theology; it comes in the form of stories. And as we interpret and re-interpret those stories, so goes our doctrine.

So what do you guys think? Adam-ondi-Ahman — is it folklore? Or is it doctrine? Is it even possible to separate Adam-ondi-Ahman folklore from Adam-ondi-Ahman doctrine?

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Apologies, clarifications, and assertions

The title of this post could very well be the title of my blog (or the title of my life).

Last night, I made a regrettable error. We had several people over for an impromptu homemade pizza party, and one of the parties involved were our local missionaries. When talking about a person who had been attending our church, they mentioned that he had moved on from reading the Book of Mormon to reading philosophy, to which I blurted out (more loudly than I wanted), “Well, that’ll never work.”

I then spent the next five minutes back-pedaling and hedging my way as some of my more astute friends held me accountable to this assertion.

I’ll admit, what I said surprised even myself. Just one year ago, had the missionaries told me this, I would probably had said, “Good for him!” I suppose this outburst reflects some massive overhauls in how I view religion, philosophy, and science over the past months, and it starts with my wife.

As many of you good, consistent readers probably know, the search for a Grand Unified Theory of Mormonism drove most of my thoughts and actions for the last few years. I thought and thought and thought and thought some more, trying to figure out how to create a consistent Mormon worldview from the hodgepodge of Mormon literature and thinking we have inherited from the last century and a half. In the end, this failed catastrophically, mostly because of my wife.

My wife is astute, and one of the reasons why I married her is because she knows how to poke holes in my arguments in a disarmingly cute way. Every time I would present a new idea that would be the one that would tie everything together, she would shred it to pieces. “There is no such thing as Mormon theology,” she would say over and over, and I’m starting to agree.

I guess I’ve mellowed out a bit in the religion front. Instead of looking for religious truth, I’ve been focusing more on religious good, and we have a lot of religious good in our church. We are in an incredible ward, and it has provided much stability for my family, both now and in the past. I am a better person because of the teachings of the Church, and I believe that the real reason for religion is not to explain events in the world, but rather a way to overcome the natural shortsightedness of man.

Humans are very shortsighted creatures. Science has proven this with a battery of tests that show humans will take advantage of short-term gratification rather than long-term gratification, even if it’s self-destructive and harmful. As humans grow older, I’m sure they saw how instant gratification hurt them, and wanting their children to avoid the same mistakes, they began to codify teachings and observations in life that evolved into religion.

When you think about it, at least for Mormonism, we have a terrible theology. It’s internally inconsistent, full of holes, and constantly changing. We have a difficult time trying to explain why certain things happen in life, especially bad things.

But as a way of life, Mormonism does a really good job. A lot of my friends mention that they could never live the lifestyle, but they admire the strong, happy families Mormonism usually produces (this isn’t to say it’s a guarantee, but we do seem to do a pretty good job in the family department). We appear to be perpetually happy (which some people view as smugness) and we tend to have strong, conservative, community and family-oriented values. Along with love your neighbor and God, we have prescriptive rules such as be clean in dress and language, love your spouse, prepare for a rainy day, get out of debt, take care of the weak, sick, and despised, and so forth.

The way Mormonism does this is it provides a reason, which we take on faith, to live life. We work hard to have strong, happy families because we believe that the family unit has the potential to stay together for eternity. We tell people to be loving and hospitable because you never know if someone is an angel in disguise. We tell people we should forgive each other because God died for our sins and we must then love everyone. We tell people to curtail sexual desire for maximum stability in human relationships because our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit.

None of these ideas really explain why things are in the world. They only give reason on why we should do certain things.

Philosophy is a different animal. Explaining why things are in the world is what philosophy strives to do. Logic, for example, is an entire specialized branch of philosophy dedicated to extrapolate truths from the universe. From time to time, philosophy branches into prescriptive advice, such as utilitarianism or Nietzsche’s ubermensch or the classical idea of eudaimonia. But for the most part, philosophy is dedicated to understanding why things in the universe are.

Science, for example, is philosophy’s direct child which now cruelly turns its back on its parent. Science takes the basic principles of philosophy (mostly logic) and applies it (via the scientific method) to the natural world. And because we now pay more lip service to science than philosophy, we have relegated philosophy to the dustbin, the direct opponent of theology (even though theology is simply using philosophical principles with spiritual underpinning – a desperate, maybe impossible endeavor). Many people see philosophy as a mindless exercise, a sort of mental gymnastics that is only appropriate for stuffy intellectuals, posing hipsters, or aging New Age hippies. This is a travesty, and it needs to be stopped.

I guess that comment I made was born out of my frustration at how people view philosophy. Philosophy’s main tenet is logic; science’s main tenet is the scientific method and empiricism; religion’s is faith. They don’t mix well. I cannot use logic to “prove” eternal families exist, and I can only observe the effects of the belief through empiricism. Faith in such a principle is all I have, and it’s what my religious belief in such a doctrine runs on. To me, using logic to ascertain prescriptive living is futile, just as I believe that faith makes a poor scientist. If you seek for “truth,” use philosophy. But if you’re seeking for peace, or happiness, or stability in life, study religion seriously, and all types of religion. And, of course, use logic and empiricism to determine whether it may be right for you. But eventually, no matter how you look at it, you will have to take that leap of faith. Using philosophy or science to try and find religion is like constantly, hungrily circling a chocolate cake, wondering if it’s right for you, but never actually eating it. Eventually, you must take that first bite.

But I apologize publicly all the same. I did not mean to say that philosophy is somehow inferior to religion. Philosophy, religion, and science all work together to somehow find a Grand Unified Theory for Life, and without each other, they easily devolve into soulless, destructive fanaticism.

I am, like everyone else, a walking contradiction sometimes.

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The Prop 8 Overturn – A Personal Sigh of Relief

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

A crowd of Prop 8 supporters.

A crowd of Prop 8 supporters.

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

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

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

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

Vocal dissent at a No on Prop 8 rally.

Vocal dissent at a No on Prop 8 rally.

1. Agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Polygamy

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

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

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

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

Policing a Prop 8 rally.

Policing a Prop 8 rally.

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

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

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

Doctrine and Covenants 132:7

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

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

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

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

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

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

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not good PR.

Abraham meets Melchizedek.

Abraham meets Melchizedek.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The prophet Isaiah receives inspiration.

The prophet Isaiah receives inspiration.

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

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

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

Elder Dallin H. Oaks, for example, taught:

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

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

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

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

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

What faith and humility!

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

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

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

Love will prevail.

Love will prevail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anger at a Prop 8 rally.

Anger at a Prop 8 rally.

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Beer, Coffee, Cooking Wine, and the Word of Wisdom

I admit, I’m a very Thomastic theologian. I think the Summa Theologiae is ruddy brilliant and I appreciate Thomas Aquinas’ vast knowledge of philosophy and logic as well as his willingness to subject his religion under its scrutiny. Because of this, I’ve developed what you could call a very precise, almost mechanical way of studying what we could very well call the Law concerning Mormon theology. Commandments, for the most part, must make sense in some way when framed against the natural laws of God in order for me to verify their veracity and importance.

I’m not saying this to pick a fight. I preface what I’m about to say with this explanation so that people might be able to understand some of my thinking processes.

A recent post by Norbert on By Common Consent spoke of beer-drinking Mormons. It’s a fascinating look into non-American, non-Jello Belt Mormon culture. Basically, five faithful, active Mormons high up in the hierarchy had very differing (but what American Mormons would call unorthodox) views on beer drinking. This got me thinking about a recent discussion I had with my wife.

Most faithful Mormons I know grow uneasy at the idea of drinking non-alcoholic beer – on the other hand, most Mormons I know accept sparkling cider as totally Word of Wisdom friendly, even though they both have roughly the same alcohol content. Concordantly, most Mormons I know agree that cooking wine is probably Word of Wisdom friendly because “the alcohol is cooked out,” while most Mormons I know grow uneasy about the idea of tiramisu – a lovely desert made with cooking wine and (horror of horrors) coffee.

Now, I love the taste and smell of coffee. And I’ve wondered for years whether cooking with coffee was okay. Most Mormons rationalize that cooking wine is fine because the fundamental offending ingredient – alcohol – is mostly eliminated in the cooking process. What, then, is the fundamental offending ingredient in coffee? Most Mormons will instinctively mention the caffeine, but this we know is not necessarily true as the Church holds no official stance on caffeine, instead usually evasively answering that any drink with any addictive substance we should be wary of. Otherwise, drinking colas would be against the Word of Wisdom.

I realize that there are still many a Mormon who feels otherwise – caffeine is to be shunned. Fair enough; however, there is very little historical, doctrinal, scriptural, even revelatory evidence that supports this position. Avoiding caffeine I feel we can safely classify as a Cultural Thing.

So, back to the problem at hand. What of cooking with coffee? A story in David O. McKay: The Rise of Modern Mormonism had this interesting anecdote related to the prophet:

When one guest expostulated, ‘But President McKay, don’t you know that is rum cake?’ McKay smiled and reminded the guest that the Word of Wisdom forbade drinking alcohol, not eating it.

What, exactly, is the problem with coffee? This becomes much more elusive logically. In the end, we cannot say for sure there is any particular substance in coffee which brings about the current ban; rather, it is simply the act of the heads of the Church saying not to wherein the morality of coffee drinking lies. But, if we are forbidden to drink coffee, are we still allowed to eat it?

Bringing this argument and initial thought to a circular close, what of non-alcoholic beer? Uncooked cookie dough, if it contains vanilla extract, probably has roughly the same or more alcohol content than a non-alcoholic beer. How do we divide the line?

Edit: After talking to my friend Jon, he mentioned that the entire spirit of the law definitely starts to come into play – don’t take addictive substances (and he’s not even Mormon; this is after a brief one minute explanation). This, I think, we should also keep in mind when discussing this issue. On the one hand, it makes the cooking with coffee clear – you could get addicted to tiramisu (I know I could!) and so you should avoid it. On the other hand, it tends to make things really murky. Should energy drinks be against the Word of Wisdom? Cola drinks? Root beer with caffeine? Nicotine gum? How much should we leave this to personal preference? The Word of Wisdom could either become a growing experience as a person learns to distinguish good from evil and exercise his or her agency, or it could become a dangerous exercise of rationalization that leads to worse sins. But aren’t all commandments and moral situations like that?

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Our Lost History: Aquinas and Intelligence

The second in a series of articles where the author discusses briefly of insights had in his History of Christianity class and its relation to Mormon thought. Much scripture wresting and possibly inaccurate historical brevity involved.

Thomas Aquinas, Catholic philosopher, theologian, and all around pimp extraordinaire

Thomas Aquinas, Catholic philosopher and theologian extraordinaire

My current Christian hero at the moment is Thomas Aquinas, great Scholastic philosopher-theologian whose landmark work Summa Theologiae combined the Nomalist and Realist philosophies, Aristotelian thinking, and Catholic doctrine into a systematic examination of the Catholic Church using the natural reasoning and logic of man.

Aquinas was convinced that God could be approached through reason. When discussing the knowledge of God, Aquinas writes, “The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles.” While Aquinas understood the difference between reason and revelation, he also believed them to be inseparable. Both came from God, both needed to be used to come closer to Him.

At the time of Aquinas’ life, Aristotle’s texts had just been re-discovered. The Church had known about Plato and his philosophy for centuries now – countless apologetics and theologians reconciled Platonic thought with Catholic theology several times over. Aristotle’s writings excited Aquinas, however, who had trouble understanding the Church through a Platonic lens. For Aquinas, Aristotle was the answer.

Aristotle, better at philosophy than your mom

Aristotle, better at philosophy than your mom

Why such a focus on intelligence and reason? Influenced with Aristotle, Aquinas did not believe that a soul in the traditional sense existed. He argued that the soul with the body is substantial, but when the body perishes, the soul perishes. However, human beings have unique intelligence that encompasses understanding, and this understanding will live forever in eternal life with God. Intelligence, according to Aquinas, was eternal, not the traditional concept of “the soul.” Because of this fact, Aquinas firmly believed that the purpose of life is to learn as much as we can and gain understanding of knowledge in this life.

Does this sound familiar? It should:

Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.

– Doctrine and Covenants 130:18-19

Joseph Smith, with hardcore cape (i.e., prophetic mantle)

Joseph Smith, with hardcore cape (i.e., prophetic mantle)

Joseph Smith obviously cared intensely about intelligence in general and especially education within the Church. Brigham Young, his successor, also believed strongly in education and intelligence. After all, the glory of God is intelligence (Doctrine and Covenants 93:36). This loss of Mormon scholasticism within the general population of the Church may deny us many gifts and advances in developing Mormon thought. The prevalent Mormon culture today seems to rely on revelation through emotion, supported by an occasional scripture (usually found by “opening the Book of Mormon at random” to find the right verse). This dearth of systematic, studious research in the scriptures and the vigorous application of reason and logic has reduced our General Authorities to begging us to read just one verse a day and widespread “faith-promoting” rumors with very little to no grounding in the standard works whatsoever (i.e., Bigfoot is Cain). For a Church population that continually asserts that we know things, like how we know that the Church is true, we know that Joseph Smith is a true prophet, we know paying tithing brings blessings, we know that the Word of Wisdom is a true principle, we sure don’t know a lot about anything sometimes when it comes to our Church history, theology, and cosmology. While we talk about how our Primary children and youth know such pure, soul saving principles that theologians and scriptorians most undoubtedly wrestled over for millennia, apparently we stop learning after that age. The general Church population may be experiencing a widespread arrested development in religious intellectual thought.

As predicted, Thomas and his teachings troubled the Church, especially those who disliked his marriage of reason, faith, and revelation. The Church threatened to excommunicate him several times – one time they succeeded briefly – and were it not for Aquinas’ association with the Dominican Order, the Church most likely would have successfully squashed Aquinas and his work. Instead, the powerful Dominican Order successfully lobbied the Catholic Church to accept Aquinas’ work as doctrine, and what is now known as Thomistic thought became the prevalent Church theology until the arrival of William of Ockham (developer of Occam’s Razor), who challenged Thomism and the Church’s embrace of it.

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The Decline and Fall of the Lee Library

A couple of weeks ago I had blogged heavily about the books that I planned on bringing with me to Seattle. Because of space limitations and the last minute nature of the move, I couldn’t bring that many books and so I suddenly had to make the choice of which select titles I could carry with me out of the hundreds of books my wife and I managed to collect over the years. This caused no small measure of pain and consternation for me, but, eventually, I felt I had compiled a list that would satisfy me.

But literally the day before the move, I stared at what I would soon pack up and what I had set aside, and I completely changed my list. Aside from my scriptures, Bodies, A Treasury of Jewish Folklore and Jewish Dharma (you can probably detect a pattern by now), nothing else made the cut to come with me. I quickly shuffled the books around and ended up with a drastically new list.

Two insights on the list – all of them require some form of proactive learning. My greatest strength and curse is my inability to stay focused on one subject for too long. Because of this, I’ve developed a great breadth of knowledge which my wife both loves and rolls her eyes at. I always enjoy learning, and this leads me to my second insight. None of them could be classified as fiction. None of them. Well, one of them, depending on your political persuasion. Fiction rarely captivates me (blasphemy to my friends and wife); because of my personality, I love the world I live in with all of its quirks and inconsistencies, and why explore made up worlds when the world we live in already exudes such fantastic qualities?

Without further ado:

The Intellectual Devotional: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class edited by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim

This book exemplifies my core personality. A devotional to strengthen your intellectualism rather than your collection of religious platitudes, the book divides each day into a category of study: History, Literature, Visual Arts, Science, Music, Philosophy, and Religion (it’s not completely godless). Each day reviews a basic subject from that area, ranging from “Personality of Self” to “The Spread of Islam” to “Sound Waves.”

When I first saw this book at the bookstore, I immediately turned to my wife and emphatically told her that this gift would make a perfect birthday gift. I’m pleased to say that she remembered. And while the consistency of both my scripture study and my study from this devotional book varies with the seasons, I have never regretted this book.

Excerpt:

The real numbers are the numbers that you are likely to encounter in day-to-day life. The set of real numbers consists of all the numbers that can be represented on the number line. It encompasses natural numbers, whole numbers, integers, rational numbers, and irrational numbers.

Ready, Set, Green: Eight Weeks to Modern Eco-Living by Graham Hill and Meaghan O’Neill

This book is the only one I brought that could qualify as fiction, considering your political persuasion when it comes to environmentalism. Moving to Seattle, I figured I should reacquaint myself with the environmental movement, but I also believe passionately in environmental conservation and prudent, simple living. This book works as a great primer, introducing each week with a new area of life that could use a little greenifying. After explaining the basics behind the theory, they then introduce a number of ideas which they categorize according to how time consuming and expensive they are. They also interview authors who’ve written on interesting subjects, such as up-cycling. Plus, the book is printed with recycled paper. Can’t go wrong there.

Excerpt:

There are more than eighty thousand chemical compounds approved for use by the EPA in the United States. Of these, only about a fraction have publicly available reports of evaluations for human safety. Only about 20 percent of the eighty thousand are in commercial use at any time, and federal regulations and liability issues mean that almost all new chemicals have some degree of testing or structural analysis for impacts on human health and the environment. However, these reports are interpreted by companies with financial interests in selling the chemicals and are not required for review by independent bodies. Still fewer tests have been done on how combinations of chemicals affect us, which is how we are typically exposed.

Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs and Values for Today’s Families by Anita Diamant with Howard Cooper

Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been fascinated with the Jewish religion and culture. Many days I wish that I was born Jewish. There’s something about the combination of ritual, scripture, and custom that unites a people together. And with age comes wisdom; Judaism is one of the oldest religions still practiced today. My wife and I have always wanted to live an entire year following the Jewish customs. When someone recommended this book, we bought it and now wait eagerly for the next Yom Kippur to start our Jewish year. This book focuses more on a liberal Jewish interpretation, which at first disappointed me. But after thinking about it, I don’t know if I could last a year as a Hassidic Jew. This fact makes me sad and relieved.

Excerpt:

For liberal Jews, not all mitzvot have the same weight because not all mitzvot provoke the sense of feeling commanded. As one rabbi has written, ‘There will be mitzvot through which my forebears found themselves capable of responding to the commanding God which are no longer adequate or possible for me, just as there will be new mitzvot through which I or my generation will be able to respond which my ancestors never thought of.’ Indeed, for liberal Jews, the increasingly complex modern world may suggest new and binding mitzvot regarding everything from the proper application of medical technology for the terminally ill to the ecological imperative to recycle.

Latin Made Simple by Doug Julius

While looking at requirements to apply for masters programs in theology, I noticed that many of them required the knowledge of either French or German, and Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. Because of this, I purchased this Latin book – I figured I could learn Latin and then knock French out in the process. I still want to learn German, Greek, and Hebrew, but all in good time.

I’m still working on the 1st declension, but I’m almost done and ready to start on the 2nd declension. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Excerpt:

Practice reading this passage aloud, following the English sound guide, until you can read it clearly and without hesitation. Remember that in Latin every consonant and vowel is pronounced.

Pater noster qui es in caelis sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua sicut in caelo et in terra. Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie. Et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et nos ne induas in tentationem sed libera nos a malo. Amen.



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