Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Candid Comment to an Ex-Mormon...

Darrell, I understand what you're saying. The important distinction to make is that just because that was your unfortunate experience does not mean that this necessarily represents the status quo. I'm very sorry that you had such an experience that caused you to feel hurt and now bitterness towards the Church. You really probably feel that you know the “real truth” and feel duty bound to share what you know with those of us who just don’t see it and are trapped. I can't blame you for feeling the way you do. I only blame you if you've become too blinded to see that opposite perspectives exist, or if you feel justified in polemics rather than simply having a civil and honest dialogue.

I deeply love my experience being a Mormon, as happy and as frustrating as it can be at times. I can’t help but detect goodness when I see how faithful Latter-day Saints live their lives. And after all, isn’t that “end product” the best test for any religion? Now, I’m under no illusions that Latter-day Saints have a monopoly on goodness, I’m just expressing that I personally feel grateful to belong to the Church and also that I believe in the doctrines of the Church. But for me, it's not even really about the Church--it's about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that the Church is not perfect. It can't be because it's made up of imperfect people. But I still believe that it is inspired. For me, it truly is about coming to know my Savior and serving my brothers and sisters. I also recognize God's hand, His truth, and His power. I've had too many experiences to deny this.

I don't know how long it's been since you left the Church, but I'll assume it was before Richard Bushman's landmark biography of Joseph Smith came out. I think that this book has helped all kinds of people see the issues that can be so disturbing about Joseph Smith, and also to see them in context. I learned some uncomfortable things I didn't know before, but I never felt the Church was lying to me for not having made them a big deal. Yes there are things that can be a little jarring to members of the Church who are under-informed about the past, but I was able to adjust my paradigm just fine. For example, see my post One Year After The Paradigm Shift--"Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling".

I concede that many people are badly under-informed, but then again we don't use Sunday School as the place to spend time on controversial issues. Who likes to dwell on messy issues? Furthermore, just because there are controversial issues doesn't automatically rule out the "truthfulness" or the "usefulness" of the Church, nor of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which it proclaims. I, for one, am proof that it's completely possible to know about the controversial episodes in Joseph's past yet till maintain belief in the inspiration of this work. I feel it’s added a more realistic depth to my faith.

The more I've learned, perhaps the more philosophic and less dogmatic I've become in how I approach my faith, but I can still believe Joseph was a prophet even though there are a lot of things about him and his past that make him an easy target to dismiss as a fraud/false prophet. Some people can work through these and some cannot. The more I've assimilated them, the less of a "big" deal it is, and the more I can focus on all the great and truly amazing things about the Church and its doctrines. And at the end of the day, the focus isn't on Joseph Smith anyway; the focus is truly on the Savior (although some members and wards do better at balancing this than others.)

When all is said and done, is the Church obligated to talk openly about the disturbing things? Does anybody want to focus on just the warts? I welcome this new era of openness that I'm seeing in the Church, but I can also understand why many would hesitate to talk about these things openly. We shouldn't ignore the warts entirely but we also can't focus in so much on them that we fail to see all the goodness, truth, and inspiration that came about as a result. To do otherwise would be to create a caricature. In all fairness, both sides can be satisfied and multiple perspectives shared, although we would probably disagree on how this should be done. But I'm fine with that.

I'm perfectly happy with you having your perspective of truth and me having mine and agreeing to disagree. After all, I'm not interested in converting anyone to my "side". I don’t hesitate to share what I know with others, but I recognize that good people truly know the Savior with or without my Church, and that He often uses them right where they are. I personally just enjoy the benefits and education that come from seeking out mutual understanding in having interfaith dialogue.

A Very Funny [Religious] Blog...


So if you ever happen to have a few spare minutes and you want to have a few good laughs, check out this blog. Thanks to Ray for the link!

This guy really is hilarious! (And no, that's not a picture of him. He's actually a monkey).

My Religious Blog--The Substandard Works of a Utah-Mormon

Sample:

Biblical Pranks:

"If I lived back in the Biblical days, I would have changed my name to Begat. And then I would have named my kid Begat and encouraged him to name his kid Begat. So that when the guys who write the Brass Plates were writing out my lineage, they would have to write something like:

“And Bob begat Begat. And Begat begat Begat. And Begat begat Begat”

Then every time people read the scriptures, they would remember me as the guy who was always messing with the guys who wrote the brass plates."

More Biblical Pranks:

"I was thinking about what it would have been like to have lived back in the days of the Tower of Babel, when the Lord got mad and made everyone speak different languages.

And I was thinking how if I was friends with the brother of Jared and I was one of the people who did not have my language confounded, every morning when I got up and he said good morning to me, I would pretend I was speaking a different language.

Like one morning I would say something like “Buenos dias, hombre. ¿Como esta?” and the next morning I would say “Gutten tag, mien freund”.

And each time, he would be scared and think I had had my language confounded, but then I’d be all “nah man, I’m just goofing with ya.”

And that’s just an example of how my good humor would help to make the journey to the city of Moriancumer just a little more enjoyable for everybody who had to share a barge with me."

Ideal Meeting Time:

"Some people think the best meeting block is from 9:00 – 12:00 because they like to take a nap after church.

Other people think the best meeting block is from 11:00 – 2:00 because they like to sleep in on Sunday morning.

But I think the ideal meeting time would be 11:30 – 12:00 because seriously…"

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Root of Christian Doctrine


I didn't have to go far to find my "object lesson" for my 16-17 year old Sunday School class. Right outside of the Church building was a tree branch that was already mostly severed from the rest of the tree--sadly dangling, dying and obviously no longer receiving the nourishment it needs to stay alive. I took this branch into my class as part of the suggested lesson on the Atonement of Jesus Christ; how it brings us life and gives meaning to all other gospel doctrines.

Naturally I thought of the scripture in John 15:5: "I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing." I can't help but be struck and amazed by the symbolism.

"[The Atonement of Christ] is the very root of Christian doctrine. You may know much about the gospel as it branches out from there, but if you only know the branches and those branches do not touch that root, if they have been cut free from that truth, there will be no life nor substance nor redemption in them. [Boyd K. Packer, “The Mediator,” April Conference, 1977.]

(Parenthetically, I highly recommend the "The Garden: An Allegorical Oratorio". Several years ago a small group of fellow freshman in my BYU ward performed this for our stake. Put simply, it's spiritually powerful to listen to that music and ponder the personal relevance of its symbolism and of the Atonement.)

There can be no more motivating and powerful doctrine than this. I deeply hope that we Latter-day Saints, in wards and stakes all across the world, will continually and constantly focus all we do on the Atonement of Jesus Christ. After all, this is foundational and central--the very gospel of Jesus Christ.

Joseph Smith taught:

"The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it. ["Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith".]

Today as I was reading some thoughts from a fellow blogger about the power of the sacrament, my thoughts turned to a devotional address by Justice Thomas B. Griffith, which highlights the transforming connection between the sacrament and the Atonement, as well as some suggestions on how we might place the Atonement at the core of all we do and teach. It's a talk I've thought about many times, especially during sacrament meetings, entitled: "The Root of Christian Doctrine".

He highlights the fact that "contact with the emblems of Christ’s suffering should shock us, humble us, and evoke in us a deep sense of gratitude." He then quotes "the only first-person detailed account of the suffering [the Savior] endured so that we would not need to suffer the full effects of our disobedience":

For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; . . .

Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink— [D&C 19:16, 18]


Justice Griffith goes on to say: "Knowing this ought to be enough to move us to submit our lives to him in obedience and gratitude."

When I step back and contemplate the magnitude of Christ's love for us, I literally "stand all amazed." And indeed it is wonderful to me--in the full meaning of that word.

I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me
Confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me
I tremble to know that for me he was crucified
That for me, a sinner, he suffered, he bled and died

I marvel that he would descend from his throne divine
To rescue a soul so rebellious and proud as mine
That he should extend his great love unto such as I
Sufficient to own, to redeem and to justify

I think of his hands, pierced and bleeding to pay my debt
Such mercy, such love and devotion can I forget?
No, no, I will praise and adore at the mercy seat
Until at the glorified throne I kneel at his feet

Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me enough to die for me
Oh, it is wonderful
Wonderful to me

(“I Stand All Amazed”, Hymns, 1985, no. 193.)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

One Year After The Paradigm Shift--"Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling"

*Just over one year ago I finished reading a landmark book that shifted my paradigm of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling is a book I recommend even more highly now than when I first finished reading it. For me it was a watershed in terms of more fully understanding Joseph and early Church history. In simple commemoration I'd like to re-post it here in full:


One thing that I've been doing recently is trying to see Latter-day Saints from the perspective of others. This has been an eye-opening experience. I've become a lot more sympathetic to those not of our faith, or at least more aware of how we may be portraying ourselves for better or for worse. The days are over that we can simply dismiss our quirkiness as being because we are a "peculiar people". We can do better than that to articulate our beliefs and to build bridges to others willing to venture into conversation about religion.

Here's a quote that's especially applicable now that it's somehow become a national pastime to disparage and/or criticize Mormons simply because one of them is running for President and it puts the Church in the spotlight:

“We may never become accustomed to untrue and unjust criticism of us but we ought not to be immobilized by it.”
-Elder Neal A. Maxwell

Something that has actually helped to "mobilize" me recently is to face some of those criticisms head on. I figure we ought to know more about our history (and doctrine for that matter) than our critics. Looking back on it now, reading Joseph Smith-Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman was a perfect platform on which to do this. For those who haven't read it yet, let me fill you in by quoting from a Times and Seasons blog that reviewed the book and then interviewed the author (who I happened to meet on his doorstep, but that's another story):

"Rough Stone Rolling is the definitive biography of Joseph Smith for this generation. Bushman does an able, if not artful, job of telling the prophet’s story. His reading of Joseph’s use of seer stones, of his troubled relationship with his financially unsuccessful father, of the Book of Mormon’s countercultural take on Native Americans, and of the changing place of women and blacks in unfolding LDS theology are gems. But Joseph Smith, in this book, is not a majestic, triumphant, haloed, barely-mortal dispensation head. He is, by Bushman’s portrait, a flawed man—one making many mistakes and subject to many weaknesses. His straightforward style might be a little jarring to those used to sanitized Church history, but this book is and will be the benchmark biography of the founding prophet for a long time." (http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=2759)

I happen to agree with this review, except for the word "troubled" to describe Joseph's relationship with his father. However, I could certainly use the word "troubled" to describe Joseph and Emma's relationship as a result of the murky plural marriage picture. That could very well be added into the review. I don't say this to dwell on controversial topics (although I'm certainly not afraid of them.) On the contrary, I invite questioning because out of questioning come answers, growth, and revelation. It can also prompt valuable discussion. And this book does just that. So I thought I'd share some thoughts I have about my experience with Joseph Smith-Rough Stone Rolling, and how it has shifted my paradigm of Joseph Smith.

First off, here's where I now stand with my paradigm: Joseph was a man who did incredible things in his life. Some of the things he did bug me. Most of the things he did amaze me. This I know: Through it all, he was a prophet called to restore the gospel of Jesus Christ and build the foundation for God's kingdom in the last dispensation of the world. Perfection was never required to be a prophet. So while my testimony has never been stronger of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, I'm no longer under any false impression about Joseph Smith the man being nearly without fault, which is the impression that sometimes has been given in Sunday School or on those BYU-TV commercials trying to sell you something about "the Life and Times of the Prophet Joseph Smith." Nor does this take away from my testimony of the greatness of the restored gospel. In fact, I think it actually adds to it.

My testimony has never been linked to whether Joseph was impeccable or not. It's also certainly not linked to whether the Church is perfect, for it certainly isn't. My testimony is linked to the power of the Book of Mormon to bring me to Christ. Because the Book of Mormon is true and it does bring me closer to my Lord, Savior, and Redeemer-Jesus Christ-it also consequentially is proof that Joseph was called of God; imperfect man he was notwithstanding. He himself admitted that he had many rough edges. Such as loosing his temper or getting angry. I can relate to that. I like the image of a forceful prophet. I can see some of that in myself. So knowing the truth not only makes you free, but it gives you hope because you realize that the Lord still can make something great out of your life even if you're not presently the most "Christ-like" person.

I loved my experience reading this book because it is enlightening and it was right up my ally with a mixture of historical, biographical, and religious reading that still is causing me to ponder. I recommend it as excellent reading, at the least to join in the conversation. However, this isn't a book for those members of the Church that rely solely on a sanitized version of Church history. Nor is it for those who teach that Joseph and Emma had a model relationship, or for those who cling to the belief that Joseph Smith was almost "barely-mortal". His human mistakes and frailties come out. But I like that, because it helps me relate better to all people in history who also faced struggles and problems--just like us. We can learn from both the good and the bad, the majestic and the not so majestic.

Just because there are some uncomfortable aspects in our Latter-day Saint history (and there are) doesn't mean we shouldn't face up to them or pretend they're not there. Our critics certainly won't ignore them, and they won't allow you to plead ignorance either.

So even for that reason alone, I am grateful that I read Joseph Smith-Rough Stone Rolling. It was a great, unique, one-of-a-kind experience. I certainly now have more knowledge. And knowledge truly is empowering. I also have a deeper appreciation. But I didn't feel a sense of conclusion immediately after finishing the book. I felt like I needed to ask the author something. I wanted to know essentially: Where do I go from here? What do I make of some of the disturbing facts that I hadn't previously fit into my neat little paradigm? What should my new paradigm be now? Part of my answer came by the Spirit through teaching the Elders Quorum lesson one Sunday on The Prophet Joseph Smith out of the Spencer W. Kimball manual. That was a sacred experience that hit me at exactly the right time. The other part of my answer came when I stumbled upon the following question and answer that I'm now sharing with you because it's the very question I would have wanted to ask the author after I finished reading the book:

Question: "By way of prefacing the book you write: 'For a character as controversial as Smith, pure objectivity is impossible. What I can do is to look frankly at all sides of Joseph Smith, facing up to his mistakes and flaws. Covering up errors makes no sense in any case.' This is, obviously, not the approach of official, correlated Church history. What are the benefits and drawbacks of your approach—and what would you say to a Church member whose faith has been jarred by the disconnect between what s/he learned about Joseph Smith in Sunday School and what s/he learned from reading your book?

Answer: "I believe the disconnect can damage young Latter-day Saints who learn later in life they have not been given the whole story on Church history. They are tempted to doubt the credibility of their former teachers; what else are they hiding, the shocked young people want to know? On the other hand, are we obligated to talk about Joseph’s character defects in Sunday School class, or his thirty wives? That may defeat the purpose of Sunday School or Institute. I am hoping that a book like mine will help to introduce all aspects of Joseph’s life into common lore about the Prophet the way most people know he had a seerstone. These now disturbing facts will become one more thing you accept along with visitation of angels and gold plates. People will wonder, question, and eventually assimilate."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Robinson on God and Deification

The following is an excerpt of Stephen E. Robinson I've typed out from "How Wide the Divide?" It addresses a key difference between Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints:

"Prof. Blomberg asserts that a key concern for Evanglelicals is to preserve the distinction between the Creator and the creatures. This may be the heart of the disagreement between us, for Latter-day Saints maintain that God's work is to remove the distinctions and barriers between us and to make us what God is. We do not deduce this by philosophical argument; it is flatly stated in the New Testament:
...That they all may be one; as thou Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one even as we are one. (Jn 17:21-23)

"We become one in them as they are one in each other. Whatever the relationship is between them, we can share it. Assuredly not as fallen mortals, but as saved, resurrected and glorified sons and daughters of God, we can participate in the life of God through God's grace and the atonement of Christ.....

"The strict wall of separation between the human and the divine ("we aren't really his children; we can't really be like him") in my view is not really biblical but, once again, philosophical. It rests on the same objection to the clear sense of Scripture that led to the equally unbiblical doctrine of the two natures in Christ, which was added to historic Christianity by the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. Scripture says that God in Christ became man, that "the Word was made flesh" (Jn 1:14), that "in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his bretheren" (Heb. 2:17). Nevertheless, Greek philosophy, the intellectual fashion of the day, demanded that the divine could not become truly human, and vice versa, since Plato had decreed that the human and the divine were mutually exclusive. So the Council of Chalcedon invented a second nature for Christ, something never stated in the Bible, to satisfy the philosophers by keeping the human and the divine separate in Christ as Plato insisted they must be. According to Chalcedon, Christ's divine nature never became human, never suffered, never died--the claims of Scripture notwithstanding.

"Latter-day Saints reject all that. The Word was made flesh. In Christ, God became man. And if the divine can become fully human and then as human be raised up again to be fully God (Phil 2:6-11), then it is established that what is fully human may also be divine--Q.E.D. And by the grace of God we humans can also be raised up to be joint heirs of God with Christ (Rom 8:16-17). Christ is the example of what God finally desires of us and for us. It is God's intention, through the atonement and the gospel, to make us what Christ is and share with us what Christ has."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Are You Christian?..."Yes, I'm Mormon"

I want to spotlight a fantastic post at By Common Consent entitled Are Mormons Christians? Are Post Toasties corn flakes?. It's insightful and enjoyable!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tensions in Testimony

I think that tension is ultimately a good thing. It causes us to stretch and re-evaluate our presumptions, both true and false. It helps us re-evaluate our faith paradigms. Tension causes some discomfort, but serves as impetus for growth and productivity. Some people deny it, can't see it, or feel it, and others are pre-occupied or burdened by it. Yet tensions exist within Mormonism.

I suppose some would prefer not to discuss these kinds of "testimony tensions" at all--they fear it would be like opening a can of worms. But is it really taboo to talk about reality? I feel it is healthy and therapeutic. I have no fear in talking about how people reconcile and accommodate tensions within their faith.

My faith is such a huge part of my life, so it's only natural that I spend time blogging about it. My biggest hope is that it gets portrayed fairly, in its proper context. There are challenges to this "fairness", both from within the Church and from without. From within, there is sometimes to tendency to gloss over reality in favor of "looking good", as if we're selling a product and we want to be seen in the best light possible. From without there are challenges from those who are very informed but want to put the Church in the worst light possible. Then there are all kinds of light shades in between.

I try to take a more middle of the road approach to living, learning, and sharing the gospel. I stubbornly desire to remain open minded yet filled with faith at the same time. I appreciate what apostle and member of the First Presidency Hugh B. Brown said: "Some say that the open-minded leave room for doubt. But I believe we should doubt some of the things we hear. Doubt has a place if it can stir in one an interest to go out and find the truth for one's self" ("An Abundant Life").

I like the advice of the late Richard Poll, at the end of his Confronting the Skeletons essay: "Don't gild the lily but don't spotlight the swamp". And I love the quote by Dr. Henry Eyring: "In this Church you have only to believe the truth. Find out what the truth is."

I love the truths of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. I'm not pushy about my beliefs, but once people ask I usually have to restrain myself or they'll wonder why I won't shut up. I always try to be very conscientious in learning about the Church and the Gospel. Naturally, I have gradually become aware of some of the tensions that exist. Sometimes those tensions drive me crazy, sometimes I just find them fascinating, and generally I find them to be healthy. It's important not to let those tensions harm those who aren't prepared to confront them, but it's also important not to give off the impression that I'm being disingenuous about the tensions which exist. It's an perplexing balance, and sometimes I wish we could talk more openly about these tensions, despite of, or perhaps because of the wide variety of reactions which result in people.

I believe all tensions within Mormonism can be channeled productively. When dealt with responsibly, appropriately, and with patience for that which we cannot fully comprehend, encountering tension can help us become better prepared and equipped with more understanding. How have you assimilated the tensions you encounter in your religious experience?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Becoming Like God: some things I know and some things I don't

I think it's safe to say that various aspects of the gospel fall under differing degrees: interesting, important, and imperative. I usually spend most of my time and thoughts, as well as my gospel teaching, on the important and the imperative. Nevertheless, when I'm blogging I like to spend time on the "interesting" and even find those conversations beneficial; such as what it means to become like God. A month ago I took part in a discussion on a post at the Exponent entitled Becoming Like God and shared some of my thoughts on the topic there.

I certainly don't want to rule anything out that may very well be true, but I also try to be careful not to say more than we know. With that in mind, I feel clearly that the goal is not to supplant God or become God. The goal is to become one with Him--be like him, and share in "all that [He] hath" (D&C 84:38). This makes us gods by grace, and "partakers of the divine nature" in a most literal sense (see 2nd Peter 1:4). I do not see this as an issue of superiority/inferiority or hierarchy. I truly believe that as we become one with the Father and the Son, all hierarchy becomes meaningless. I'm open for new interpretations, but I feel pretty good about the conclusions I've come to after much reading and contemplation.

I think being "one" with Him (see John 17:21) has more to do with love, unity and relationships rather than not having any differences whatsoever in our roles. Although I do not think that we'll be as different from God as Evangelicals believe (since we believe we're of the same kind/species as God), I think it's safe to say that there will still be differences between us and God. My wife and I will be one, but we'll still be different, especially if gender is truly a part of our eternal destiny. I guess I hold the same for God's unique eternal destiny. However, even with some of those differences, as His "offspring" (and believing we're of the same ontological nature) we're already much more like Him than most of the traditional Christian world even recognizes.

One more thing is clear in my mind: sharing in "all that [the] Father hath" doesn't necessarily mean that we must do all that the Father has ever done. I certainly don't believe I'll need to perform an atonement, as did Christ. Would that mean that I'm not going to be sharing in all that Christ hath? Hardly. We don't have to have the same eternal experiences to be "one" eternally. I do believe that we'll share in a measure of creation and in eternal increase (whatever that means). And I have read the scriptures that talk about thrones, principalities, and powers.   But in my paradigm--all of that is but an extension of God and His power and dominion--not independent of Him. We know that as the children of God we will become "gods", but clearly there is a difference between exalted beings and the Exalted One we worship. Thus, for anyone to say that our Church teaches that we will fill the same "Godhead" role for other worlds as the "head God"/Elohim/Heavenly Father would be incorrect because it's not sound doctrine (not to mention saying far more than we know).

The analogy that the "child grows up to be like his father" is helpful to an extent, but it has limitations. As I mentioned on the Exponent blog, the fact that Christ is who He is (even the fact alone that he has 23 chromosomes from his immortal Father and 23 chromosomes from his mortal mother) makes him different--even preeminent over us. Because of all that the Savior has done (and does) for us, I feel that Christ will always be preeminent. Yet the marvel of it all is that he did what he did to make us divine and exalted beings like Him and the Father. I will always praise Him for this--permanently. Although my worship of Them might take on increased significance (for true worship is imitation/emulation), no matter what I become or do in the eternities, it will only be because of the grace of God the Father through His Son, Jesus Christ.

However interesting it may be to think about and reflect on, it still remains a mystery to fully comprehend what it entails to be completely at one with God and live a life of exaltation; but I sure look forward to finding out.