Sunday, February 22, 2009

Angels, Gold Plates, and Miracles

It struck me quite unusually today. I have a testimony of angels, gold plates, and miracles. And because I believe in the gold plates and the Book of Mormon, I believe in a truly awesome God; a God who reaches out to bless us and help us. In my view, the Book of Mormon is really one of the most remarkable miracles in the history of the world. I realize that from the outside, angels and gold plates must seem like pure madness. But on the inside, it makes complete sense. To quote Richard Bushman, I "find God in its pages", and I'm inspired every time I read it. And believing in angels and gold plates isn't really any more unusual than believing that a man rose from the dead. And for the record, the Book of Mormon confirms that miracle too. It's true, and it is powerful. That's my testimony. Simple really. And quite miraculous.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Forthright Conversations: Blacks and the Priesthood

As reported by CNN today (Holder: U.S. a 'nation of cowards' on race discussions), Eric Holder, the nations first black attorney general, gave some counsel we should take to heart. In giving "a blunt assessment of race relations in the United States", he "called the American people 'essentially a nation of cowards' in failing to openly discuss the issue of race."

He also suggested that Americans of all races use Black History Month as a "time to have a forthright national conversation between blacks and whites to discuss aspects of race which are ignored because they are uncomfortable. The attorney general said employees across the country "have done a pretty good job in melding the races in the workplace," but he noted that "certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks at best embarrassment and at worst the questioning of one's character."

I got to thinking about how this could also be appropriately applied to discussions within the Church about blacks and the priesthood ban.

"It's a question of being honest with ourselves and racial issues..."It's not easy to talk about it. We have to have the guts to be honest with each other, accept criticism, accept new proposals."

So in that spirit, here are some very good "conversations", each dealing with issues of race and the priesthood ban. Do yourself a favor and take the time to read not just the posts themselves, but also the conversations that take place in the comments section:

Blacks and the Priesthood, a Request to the Media--Times and Seasons

Teaching About Racism (Including the Priesthood Ban) in Sacrament Meeting--Juvenile Instructor

More Unbridled Speculation — the Priesthood Ban--Mormon Matters

Commemorating the Revelation--By Common Consent

Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons-a documentary about African American Latter-day Saints, headed by Margaret Young and Darius Gray

Monday, February 16, 2009

"You hear the Good Shepherd's voice, and you follow it."

The following is one of my favorite passages (and I have many) from On the Road With Joseph Smith. Richard Bushman implicitly addresses the frequent boast of certain evangelicals that their beliefs are based in reason and evidence, while Latter-day Saint faith rests merely on subjective and irrational "feelings." This August 2005 note to Quincy Newell, a teacher of religious studies at the University of Wyoming, comes in response to an inquiry about having problems believing in the Book of Mormon due to a perceived lack of "corroborative evidence":

I wish I could strike a responsive chord in Christians like you. Mormons wonder why all Christians don't understand that we believe in the Book of Mormon on the basis of a spiritual witness. It is very hard for a Mormon to believe that Christians accept the Bible because of the scholarly evidence confirming the historical accuracy of the work. Surely there are uneducated believers whose convictions are not rooted in academic knowledge. Isn't there some kind of human, existential truth that resonates with one's desires for goodness and divinity? And isn't that ultimately why we read the Bible as a devotional work?

We don't have to read the latest issues of the journals to find out if the book is still true. We stick with it because we find God in its pages—or inspiration, or comfort, or scope. That is what religion is about in my opinion, and it is why I believe the Book of Mormon. I can't really evaluate all the scholarship all the time; while I am waiting for it to settle out, I have to go on living. I need some good to hold on to and to lift me up day by day. The Book of Mormon inspires me, and so I hold on.

Reason is too frail to base a life on. You can be whipped about by all the authorities with no genuine basis for deciding for yourself. I think it is far better to go where goodness lies.

I keep thinking other Christians are in a similar position, but they don't agree. They keep insisting their beliefs are based on reason and evidence. I can't buy that--the resurrection as rational fact? And so I am frankly as perplexed about Christian belief as you are about Mormons. Educated Christians claim to base their belief on reason when I thought faith was the teaching of the scriptures. You hear the Good Shepherd's voice, and you follow it.

...I am a believer and I can't help myself. I couldn't possibly give it up; it is too delicious.

"I think it is far better to go where goodness lies." Amen, Brother Bushman. Amen.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Richard Bushman

My copy of On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author's Diary just arrived yesterday. I immediately opened to a random page and began to read and did not want to stop reading! There is already so much I would love to share, but alas, time and space. Here, however, (starting on p. 104) is an absolute gem:

Feb. 6, 2006

Elder Holland wrote a generous note last week. I was pleased to have him say “You knew (and I knew and everybody else knew) that you would have to deal with things as honestly and forthrightly as you could. Nevertheless, your faith and loyalty are apparent on every page.” That implies General Authorities appreciate the value of candor. I no longer worry about an effort to close down [Rough Stone Rolling]. There remains the problem of becoming a rival expert in the interpretation of doctrine, but I can avoid that by not talking doctrine when asked to speak. My mind is aswirl with doctrinal ideas which do not need to be vented, especially when I acknowledge their speculative nature myself…

…I wrote to Elder Holland about a rough patch ahead as animosity to religion keeps growing. I am coming to envision a new persona for the Church as humble followers of Jesus Christ. Instead of speaking triumphantly of the gospel sweeping the earth, could we think of ourselves as the leaven in the lump, standing for righteousness and serving others? I wish we had a long record of kindness and friendship to fall back on, with less stress on proselyting. Then when the storms break around us, we would have friends to turn to.

Our covenant with God is to bless the people of the earth. That should be our motto. Establishing Zion does not mean sweeping vast masses of people onto our membership records but creating a people of God dedicated to blessing others. Joseph and his early followers came forth with lots of triumphalist rhetoric, but I think we need a new voice, one of humility, friendship, and service. We should teach people to believe in God because it will soften their hearts and make them more willing to serve.

Friday, February 6, 2009

“Behold, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (3 Nephi 5:13)

The motto on my blog ("Whatever I am...Trying to be a good one") echoes the great Abraham Lincoln, who said just that: "Whatever you are, be a good one". I am many things; a husband, a father, a Latter-day Saint, an American, a teacher, a student, a brother, a son. But above all things, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. And as imperfect as I am, I'm trying to be a good one.

My faith is grounded in Jesus Christ. The restoration scriptures ensure that we be linked to Christ; our loyalty to His Church is a byproduct. Several critics of the Church recently expressed to me their concern over those who are "losing faith in the LDS church", and about "Mormons having their faith in the Church rather than Christ". One of the first things I usually do in evaluating critical comments is to ask myself if there is any truth to them. "Can/should we be doing better?" That their perception is not an accurate description of "all Mormons" is beside the point. The real point, and it's a good point, is that having faith in anything other than Christ is not building on a sure foundation.

Indeed, placing faith in the Church is not necessarily the same thing as placing faith in Christ. Those Saints who have properly placed their faith in Christ and who truly seek to "come unto Christ, and be perfected in Him" (Moroni 10:32) must help the others so that their faith won't fail when they finally realize, or become disillusioned, by the fact that they can't be "perfected" by themselves or by a church.

Recently there have been some discussions about what was meant by the "rock" upon which Christ said he would build His church. There are various interpretations for the meaning of "rock" which have legitimacy. These certainly include our personal testimony through personal revelation. After all, this revealed testimony of the Savior is what led Peter to declare "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God", and Christ to say "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven...upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:16).

The prophet Helaman added his own testimony about how to prevent the gates of hell from prevailing against us. He also cleared up any doubt about on which rock we must build our personal foundation:

"Remember, remember, that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall” (Helaman 5:12.)

Inevitably there will be times when winds of doubt come our way, or when it seems the devil himself is trying to beat us and drag us down. So of all the interesting and important things in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, these self-reflective questions must be the among ultimate imperatives: Are we building upon this "sure foundation", or upon something else? Above all else, are we truly striving to be disciples of Jesus Christ?

I, for one, am sure trying.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Convicted and Civil

Civility: the act of showing regard for others; formal politeness and courtesy in behavior and speech

A couple years ago, Richard Mouw, President of the Fuller Theological Seminary, called for more convicted civility in our interfaith dialogue. It was a challenge to be true to our own faith and convictions, not compromising our doctrine or way of life, while at the same time striving to better understand and respect our neighbors of other religious persuasions. So on the whole, how do you think we're doing?

I've enjoyed my short experience and have been amazed at all that I've learned, both in my own faith, and from others. We can gain a lot by learning the lessons that Robert L. Millet and Pastor Greg Johnson have demonstrated here in this YouTube video on Convicted Civility. Greg Johnson summarizes what's different about the "Faith Dialogue" he wants to foster here, and here's a link to a similarly applicable and interesting article by Robert Millet.

In addition to deepening my own religious understanding, I've learned from recent conversations not to jump to conclusions, to give the benefit of the doubt, to not be quick to take offense but to seek understanding, patience, how I come across to others and how I am perceived, to think things through more deeply, and that we can still be civil while sharing (as well as solidifying) our convictions. "Aquinas", a Latter-day Saint I have much respect for, explains why he enjoys this approach here on his blog, Summa Theologica. I was also quite inspired by Richard Bushman and the way he conversed with the national media and answered their probing questions at this Pew Forum's faith conference.

Ultimately I've learned that I'm much more into building bridges of understanding than I am into trying to convert people. We can still be respectful and neighborly while discussing our surprising similarities and our unique and striking differences. Stephen E. Robinson and Craig L. Blomberg modeled this and also created a masterpiece in writing "How Wide the Divide?".

President Hinckley once said that "the true gospel of Jesus Christ never led to bigotry. It never led to self-righteousness. It never led to arrogance. The true gospel of Jesus Christ leads to brotherhood, to friendship, to appreciation of others, to respect and kindness and love."("The BYU Experience"). As we strive to portray each other more accurately and more fairly, ultimately we ought to be motivated by the pure love of Christ, which "suffers long, and is kind" (1 Corinthians 13:4)--even when we disagree.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

More Conversation with an Evangelical Ex-Mormon...

[It's] fine with me, really, if you “believe the evidence shows Mormonism to be false”. I believe otherwise. Nevertheless, I don’t think the point here was to try and prove one or the other, but rather explore how you take things and understand things to mean what you say they mean. In that spirit, I want to commend you in the way you describe evangelical belief in God. I think you speak that language very well. But remember that Latter-day Saints have a different theological vocabulary, and I am recognizing a gap between your theological understanding and your ability to translate that understanding into a theological vocabulary Latter-day Saints can agree with and see themselves portrayed completely accurately. There is plenty we can still disagree on and hold our own views on by getting it completely right, without having to include (intentionally or not) caricatures of LDS belief.

For instance, you talk of Christ being a “formed” being as if that rules out his ability to simultaneously be God himself. You fail to recognize that Latter-day Saints do not hold to the strict wall of separation between the Creator and the creatures that factors into your understanding/paradigm. If I had did indeed hold to that paradigm, as you do, then I could understand why you would find your evidence as contradicting “Mormon Theology”. But I do not agree with that strict wall of separation that comes out of creation ex nihilo. I do not find it to be biblical. Again, we must agree to disagree here, but I find that strict wall of separation between God and everything else (including us) to be a product of the creeds and philosophical discussions rather than biblical.

Please don’t misunderstand me to be “attacking” your paradigm nor the cherished doctrine of the Trinity. (By the way, you’re absolutely right that just because it is mysterious doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be incorrect, but this goes both ways. Just because our belief about God is less “complex”, or more “simple”, doesn’t necessarily mean that it must be wrong). I’m just saying that we need to work toward becoming more theologically bilingual, and it seems that you are not as fluent in LDS understanding as you think you are.

I certainly don’t think I’m an expert in understanding both theological vocabularies, but I’m trying. “How Wide the Divide?” really helps promote mutual understanding and getting past the hang-ups that naturally come when we try to impose our unique biblical paradigms onto the others’ beliefs. I think this is what is happening when you say your view of our theology surrounding God does not match well with the Bible. We, of course, feel that the Bible matches very well with the true nature of God. You and I are viewing the Bible through different lenses, and some of what we may be projecting onto the others’ beliefs are non-biblical assumptions. I do not think there is a single verse of the Bible that I would say is “wrong”, as you claim we do. There is not one passage of the Bible I disagree with. (See "Are You Telling the Truth About the Bible?").

You also claim that we try to read something into the Bible text that is not there…Eisigesis. But again, this is a two way street, and we feel that traditional Christians do the same.

You say we “bring God down to a point where they [we] can understand Him. [We] simplify Him”, but this just won’t do. It is not an accurate representation of how Latter-day Saints also believe God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. We just also believe that we are of the same kind, or species, as God. For us, this doesn’t take anything away from God, as you seem to think it does.

You are correct, however, that our understanding “elevates man”, because now we are not a different kind or species than God–we are literally the children of God with divine worth and noble potential. Apparently the LDS take the “offspring of God” scriptures more literally than evangelicals do, because when one literally believes that God is our Father and we are His children, it’s not hard to understand how some consider us “gods in embryo” and that we can become exalted to godhood, too. This is our belief. But even this teaching is much misunderstood WITHIN the church and is taken too far, beyond what our scriptures say, into the realm of speculation.

We will be gods by grace, because God, through the grace of His Son, makes us divine beings and part of the family of God. We will be exalted, but only through Christ who does the exalting and takes away the wall of separation between Divinity and mere mortals through the “at-one-ment” of Jesus Christ. But I wouldn’t be comfortable in going so far as to say we believe that we will become worshipped beings ourselves. That’s not official Mormon theology. The goal is to become LIKE God, not to replace or supplant God. We believe we will always worship Him and be subject to Him, but it will be from a relationship of “oneness” with Him. See my post "Becoming Like God: some things I know and some things I don't".