Monday, November 22, 2010

Two Ways of Seeing One Reality

One of my favorite works of music is the Sonata quasi una Fantasia by Ludwig van Beethoven.   The first movement is best known as the Moonlight Sonata.  I’ll give a brief description of it.

The piece begins with three pitches produced simultaneously.  Each pitch is produced by a hammer striking a string.  When the hammer strikes the string it causes it to vibrate.  In the case of the Moonlight Sonata, the first three pitches vibrate at frequencies of 69.2957 Hertz, 138.591 Hertz, and 207.652 Hertz.  The frequencies at which these strings vibrate are determined by their length, thickness, and tension.  These pitches are produced at about 50 decibels.  The strings producing the two lower frequencies remain undamped for the first measure continuing to vibrate while the string at the highest frequency it damped by a damper as another string is struck, vibrating at 277.183 Hertz.  This string is then damped and replaced by another string vibrating at 329.628 Hertz.  The three pitches at 207.652 Hertz, 277.183 Hertz, and 329.628 Hertz are played in succession four times for equal values of time.  Each “triplet” lasts 1.154 seconds.  This is the first “measure” of the piece.

The beginning is hauntingly soft, so soft it is almost imperceptible.  The repeating treble line lulls you into peaceful stillness as the bass notes descend slowly.  The tone is distinctly minor and then shifts briefly into major chords as the intensity increases and falls back into the repeating minor chords.  Finally the slow melody breaks the monotony of the repeating patterns.  The melody is slow and soars over the substructure of the supporting broken triplet chords.  The melody follows the same minor chord pattern but then begins to surge forward into major chords and receding back like a wave.  Each time the melody pushes forward with greater intensity, climbing toward immanent resolution and falling back into the same repeating cadence.

Both descriptions I have presented of this piece of music represent reality.  However, their approaches are markedly different.  The first, objective description was actually easier to write, although more technically rigorous.  Music has measureable, physical properties.  Music is sound and sound has frequency and amplitude.  Sound waves can be measured, quantified, and characterized.  These sound waves can be plotted with respect to time and give a completely accurate demonstration of what the music is.  But the second approach is the subjective relation of the experience of the music.  The physical properties explained in the first description are the same whether or not any person is listening or not.  But the emotional and sensational effects of music depend on the person hearing it.  These effects, while real, are much more difficult to describe.  But it is because of the emotional and sensational effects of music that we even bother to produce and listen to it.

These are two ways of seeing one reality.  Reality is the same regardless of how we choose to look at it.  One definition I like was put forward by Phillip K. Dick: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.”  If I am listening to the Moonlight Sonata there are real sound waves traveling through the air and entering my ear.  From there, the sounds are interpreted via various chemical processes in my brain.  The emotions produced in my brain are just as real as the sound waves that led up to them.  Emotions can be explained by chemistry but I don’t generally bother to think about them that way.  I just feel them.  All these things comprise the whole sum of reality, which is vastly more complex than we can ever take in at any one time.  There are so many ways to look at a single reality but I group them into two categories. 

The first way I think of looking at reality is the way of science, including logic, mathematics and so forth.  Everything in the universe can be reduced to the particles that make up matter, their vectors of motion, the forces acting on them, and their configuration with each other.  Science is able to explain a great deal, and even with its obvious limitations it is quite probable that those things that cannot now be explained are at least explainable

The second way of looking at reality is to see things as whole things, in entirety.  While a person is indeed a complex configuration of particles organized in a living body, a person can also be viewed as a person as such.  A person can be loved in a way that particles in their body cannot.  Or to use my example of music, the Moonlight Sonata is more than a series of combined sound waves.  It is also a beautiful work of art.

The most interesting description of these two methods I know of was written by Martin Buber (1878-1965).  He said, “The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.”  He described these two attitudes in accordance with two basic words, or word-pairs.

1.  I-It
2.  I-You

The I-It attitude is the way we relate to an object.  These objects can be people or things.  The difference between the I-It and the I-You is not the specific parties involved but the attitude we take toward them.  The I-It view is not bad or wrong.  In fact, the I-It is the way we usually live.  In order to survive we need to understand the general order of things and find our place in that order.  We live in a universe of cause and effect, and the better we can understand this pattern the more successful we will be.  This is the attitude of analysis and in its formal application, science.  The objects we experience in the I-It relationship are seen as the sum of their components rather than as whole entities.  This is the dissection of the sonata into its physical description and it is one way of looking at Beethoven’s music.

The I-You attitude is the way of encounter with our whole being.  The “You” can be a person but can also be inanimate, even a sonata.  If I relate to you as an “I” to a “You” I see you not as the sum total of the particles that make up your body but as “You”, your whole being.  This encounter (Buber describes it as an encounter as opposed to experience) is acutely centered in “You”.  For that moment the entire universe as far as I am concerned is centered in “You”.  Rather than the dissection of the sonata into physical descriptions, The I-You encounter with the Moonlight Sonata is a relationship to the music as a whole.  It is seeing the reality that transcends the sum of its parts.  I believe it is the way Beethoven viewed his music, which is why he was such an exceptional artist.

How is it possible to be spiritual in the wake of the tremendous successes of science?  Science can so accurately describe the universe.  To live in the life of the spirit can almost seem superfluous.  But the two world-views are not different explanations of the universe.  Rather, they are two unique ways of seeing the same universe, two ways of seeing one reality.  Both are correct and both are important. The Moonlight Sonata is a collection of sound waves.  But it is also something more, and to know what that something is you have to encounter it for itself.  The first view is necessary in order to live successfully in the world.  But it is the the second view that really makes life worth living.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Atonement Theory, Part 2: In Christ

If there is one thing to understand about Jesus it is that he was a man, a real human being.  Jesus did not float above the ground as he moved form place to place.  He walked like anyone else and his feet got dirty.  He did not have a halo hovering over his head but looked like everyone else around him.  He got dirty, tired, hungry and thirsty.  Sometimes in our efforts to emphasize Christ’s divinity we gloss over one of his most important attributes—his humanity.  I believe that to understand the Atonement it is crucial to understand that Jesus was a real human person just like us.

The Book of Mormon says: “And he [Jesus] shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.  And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.  Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.” (Alma 7:11-13)   I believe this passage from the Book of Mormon is the most complete and descriptive explanation of the Atonement anywhere.  Jesus, the man, learned in the experiences of mortality how to succor his people.

Earlier, I reviewed some of the historical theories of Atonement.  They can all work very well as analogies.  But with the exception of Ostler’s Compassion Theory they all seem to be using the Atonement as an answer in search of a problem.  My main critique here is of the Penal Substitution Theory because I think it is the most common and because it is the understanding of Atonement I grew up with.  The critical question is this: why can’t God just forgive sins?  Why are death, blood and suffering required?  Many of the theories construct elaborate conceptual scaffolding around the issue to make the suffering of Christ seem more necessary.  But these explanations are generally extra-scriptural; making the issue more complicated then it needs to be. 

Here I’d like to invoke the insights of William Ockham (1288-1348).  The famous principle of Ockham’s razor states: “Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate” meaning “Plurality must never be posited without necessity”.  The basic idea is that you generally should not add additional layers of complexity to explain something; rather a simple explanation is more likely correct.  Ockham was one of the earliest nominalists, maintaining that universals like “Justice” do not exist as actual entities but rather are descriptions of common traits held by particulars like a just man or a just God.

Something held in common with the Satisfaction Theory, the Governmental Theory, and the Penal Substitution Theory is the use of some universal like Honor, Law, or Justice.  Justice is almost personified as an entity more powerful than God himself.  Since this ethereal entity of Justice is so unbending even to God, he must sacrifice his Son to meet its demands.  This relates strongly to the Problem of Universals.  When Justice is understood as an actual entity it’s as though the conservation of mass and energy apply: all this sin and guilt have to go somewhere, so Christ absorbs it for us.

The way I learned the Penal Substitution Theory was something like this.  We are sinners and have offended God and deserve his punishment.  God cannot deny justice or he would cease to be God (Alma 42:13).  So God sent Jesus to suffer for our sins to fulfill the demands of justice.  Therefore, Jesus suffers the penalty for our sins so we don’t have to.  This allows God to satisfy both Justice and Mercy.  Justice is satisfied because Christ has paid the penalty.  Mercy is satisfied because we are not punished for our sins.

This theory seems to work pretty well with scripture.  But it also begs certain questions.  The first question, again, is why does God have to punish somebody at all?  Why can’t he just forgive?  This gets into the question of what justice actually is.  Another question is this—how is it just to punish someone for a crime they didn’t commit?  Isn’t that the very epitome of injustice?  Then again there is the Problem of Universals.  Is Justice actually something that exists in itself, independent of the particulars it describes?  Does it actually have power over God?  My own experience is that I can simply forgive someone who has offended me.  I don’t have to require punishment.  I would never even think of punishing a person for someone else’s crime.  And I don’t believe that Justice, as a universal, as an entity, actually exists.  Rather, justice is a word used to describe just things and just people.

Of course, all understanding of the Atonement is going to employ analogy and metaphor to some extent.  This is why I don’t want to disparage the classical theories of Atonement, because they have good insights that we can learn from.  The idea of Christ taking the punishment for us is very emotionally compelling.  But I think there are other ways to understand the Atonement that work better with scripture and with our most basic moral sensibilities.

In the Book of Mormon, Amulek explicitly contradicts idea of Penal Substitution: “Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another.  Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother?  I say unto, Nay.  But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world” (Alma 34:11-12).  I believe this verse, if taken at face value, rejects the Theory of Penal Substitution. 

Now, one could object that Christ wasn’t really a man, so this condition doesn’t apply.  The divine and human nature of Christ, the hypostatic union, has been a hot topic in Christian history.  However, I believe there is a wealth of scripture to support the real, actual humanity of Christ. 

Another objection could be that punishing one man for the sins of another is normally not allowed, but since the Atonement of Christ is infinite, it is an exception.  In other words, an infinite atonement is super special and will directly contradict the other imperative in this verse—that no person can be punished for the sins of another.  But first, this doesn’t sit well with me simply because of the direct contradiction.  More importantly, there is no evidence in scripture that this is what “infinite” means.  The word “infinite” is never used to mean something capable of making the impossible possible.  Rather, in this verse, the word “infinite” is used in the same way it is always used.  It means without limitation, duration, or bounds.  The Atonement is infinite in its scope—it is “infinite for all mankind” (2 Nephi 25:16).  The Atonement is infinite in love, mercy, and compassion.  It reaches all who have ever lived and all who ever will live.

So what of the man who murdereth?  If the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered and will not allow another to take his place, how can this man be spared?  The answer is forgiveness and mercy.  I come back to the critical question: why can’t God just forgive sins?  Actually, I believe that is precisely what he does.  And that is what the Atonement is.  Atonement is reconciliation, an at-one-ment with God.  Christ came to live on earth as a man to bring us back to God.  The suffering of Christ is not a substitute for our punishment, because God can’t forgive us.  Rather, Christ suffers precisely because he forgives us.  Entering into a close intimate relationship with broken, sinful beings like us causes him tremendous pain.  All the pain and suffering of the world affect Christ just like they do everyone else.  And it is through this shared experience that Christ is able to succor his people and transform them.

But the Book of Mormon does say “the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:13).  But what exactly is the work of justice?  One interpretation is that every sin that has ever been committed must be punished, even if the offender repents.  At the end of our lives, even if we have repented we will have collected so much sin and guilt that we will be damned unless Christ takes the punishment for us.  But this begs the question—why does this guilt from our past sins follow us around even after repentance?  Are sins like ghosts hovering over us even after we have forsaken them?  I don’t think this is correct.  Alma explained the concept of justice, that for every sin there was a punishment (Alma 42:18-20).  But then he says: “But there is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; otherwise, justice claimeth the creature and executeth the law, and the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:22, italics added). 

It is important to understand what Alma is actually saying.  There are three operatives: law, punishment, and repentance.  The problem with the Penal Substitution Theory is that it leaves out repentance.  God is just to punish sinners but it would not be just at all to punish people who have repented.  In fact, for the penitent, justice demands that they not be punished.  It is implied that if God were to punish people after they repented he would cease to be God.  Alma says “mercy claimeth the penitent” and all men are brought back to the presence of God “to be judged according to their works, according to the law of justice” (Alma 42:23).  God still acts justly towards the repentant, but now justice works in their favor.  “For behold, justice exercises all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved” (Alma 42:24).  God is both just and merciful.  He is justified to punish the sinners, but if they repent and reform he is merciful to them, and justly so.  Again, I understand the personal pronouns here to be figurative descriptions of God’s attributes rather than separate entities of Justice and Mercy.  However, I do like the subtle use of the masculine for Justice and the feminine for Mercy.  A nice little tidbit.

Blake Ostler, in The Problems of Theism and the Love of God, writes: “God could justly punish us now for our sins, but he is merciful in placing us on probation instead and giving us time to repent before judging us.  Because we will be judged at the end of this probationary period, God is both just and merciful.  The entire discourse of atonement focuses on the central truth that the purpose of life is to give us a space in which we can choose to freely enter into relationship with him or reject him.  The atonement is construed as God’s every mode of being in relationship with us in every moment, with Gethsemane and Calvary as the preeminent instances of a supremely loving being sharing our mortality with us.  Such a view avoids the problems of the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, which I believe is a morally reprehensible way of explaining God’s love and reconciliation through atonement” (p. ix-x)

So why does Christ have to suffer?  The short answer is that he suffers because we suffer.  The Atonement is not about substitution; it’s about union.  Christ doesn’t step out in front of our burdens and deflect them, he shares them as an intimate companion.  Jesus said, “take my yoke upon you” (Matthew 11:29).  The yoke is a symbol of union, being joined in our labor and finding rest in his strength.  Jesus called himself the bridegroom (Matthew 25:1-13).  It is helpful to think of union with Christ like a marriage.  Husband and wife share in each other’s burdens and sorrows as well as their happiness and joy.  Christ, as God incarnate, weeps with us, sorrows with us, and if we allow it, rejoices with us.

To be in Christ is to be in it for the good times and the bad.  Paul said, “we are children of God; And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:16-17).  To be in Christ means that we suffer with him and that he suffers with us, but we will be glorified to together.  This union, Atonement in Christ, is symbolized in baptism as we symbolically die and are buried in his death but then rise in the likeness of his resurrection.  “Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Romans 6:8).  This union is completely transforming: “Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  By the Atonement, we are actually transformed into the likeness of Christ.  We are conformed to his image (Romans 8:29) and receive his image in our countenances (Alma 5:14). 

To see how the Atonement of Christ is significant it is important to understand the other part of Jesus’ nature—his Godhood.  The Atonement doesn’t work unless Jesus is everything that we are and feels everything that we feel.  But in Christ we also see God as a man, descending to earth to live among us and to see what it is like to be one of us.  Jesus showed us what God is truly like (John 1:18).  God is not off in an ivory tower looking down from on high.  God is down here with us.  He doesn’t just send us down to live in the gutter and then wish us good luck.  He is here, in it with us for the long haul.  And God is on our side.  “What shall we then say to these things?  If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

It is important to state here that the Atonement is absolutely necessary for us.  The Atonement is essentially the union and reconciliation between God and man.  If the Atonement does not happen there is no union or reconciliation and we are cut off from God forever.  Furthermore, it was necessary for Christ to be born, live, and die in the world.  The Atonement is Christ reaching for us and sharing his life with us.  Not only is it essential for us; it is also essential for him.  “For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham.  Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.  For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted” (Hebrew 2:18).

My understanding of the Atonement is very similar to the Compassion Theory of Blake Ostler.  This theory takes advantage of additional scripture of the Book of Mormon, which I really like (we should take advantage of it).  I think it is also consistent with the Bible.  I totally recommend checking it out.  You can read more about it in his book, The Problems of Theism and the Love of God, or in a shorter paper I have linked at the bottom.  Any theological doctrine is going to be an approximation and will need further development.  But that shouldn’t prevent anyone from keeping away from the discussion.  The most important thing about Atonement theory is its ability to help us appreciate the Atonement in a way that is meaningful to us.  Ultimately, I don’t know exactly how it happens.  It defies comprehension. But I am grateful that it does happen.


Atonement in Mormon Thought by Blake Ostler

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Atonement Theory, Part 1: A History

It might be surprising to find out that something as foundational as the doctrine of the Atonement has been interpreted very differently throughout history.  Here I would like to review the history of Atonement theory in Christianity.  It would be interesting to extend this back into the history of Judaism but that is another topic on it’s own.  In Reform Theology and in most LDS discussion the dominant theory of Atonement is that of Penal Substitution.  However, this theory was not developed until the Reformation.  There had been several other theories before this one.   I’ll go through some of these theories here as well as one more modern theory.  Later on, I will discuss my own understanding of the Atonement.

The Ransom Theory

According to the Ransom Theory, Christ’s Atonement was a ransom payment made to the devil to deliver our souls from Hell.  Satan was tricked into thinking that he could keep the soul of Christ captive after this transaction.  But since Christ is divine Satan was unable to hold him captive.  Scriptural basis for the theory comes from a few sources.  In Mark, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  From Paul, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6).  This theory was promoted by Origen (185-254) as well as Irenaeus (d. 202) and Tertullian (160-220).

The Satisfaction Theory

According to the Satisfaction Theory, Christ suffered to satisfy the demands of God’s honor and merit.  This theory is best understood in terms of the feudal society in which it developed.  This theory was put forward by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109).  Anselm compared God to a feudal lord who had been wronged by his surfs and needed to maintain his honor.  No mere mortal, or surf, could satisfy the injury to the honor of a lord.  Only a lord, or God, could satisfy God’s honor.  This theory emphasizes God’s justice, which must always be satisfied.  It’s emphasis on justice makes it very similar to the Penal Substitution Theory.

The Governmental Theory

This theory is very similar to the Satisfaction Theory and the Penal Substitution Theory.  The Governmental Theory says that God is the great lawgiver and that he must uphold the law.  Whenever a law is broken there must be a punishment to sustain order in the universe.  Christ thus suffers the penalty for the broken law.  This Theory was developed by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) who was, incidentally, a jurist.

The Moral Theory

In this theory, Christ’s sacrifice is not so much intended to affect God the Father at is intended to affect us.  The Atonement of Christ demonstrates the supreme love of God for us and thus moves us to repentance and love for God.  This theory was developed by Peter Abelard (1079-1142).  A similar idea was promoted by Faustus (1539-1604) and Laelius Socinius (1525-1562).  They saw the Atonement was the most beautiful demonstration of God’s love.  It also an example of supreme love for God, inspiring us to love God to the same degree.  “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his footsteps” (1 Peter 2:21).

Penal Substitution Theory

This is the dominant view in the Reform Tradition and probably the most common explanation of Atonement given today.  According to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, penal substitution is “the view that Christ in his death bore the just penalty of God for our sins as a substitute for us” (p. 1251).  “This view is sometimes called the theory of vicarious atonement.  A ‘vicar’ is someone who stands in the place of another or who represents another.  Christ’s death was therefore ‘vicarious’ because he stood in our place and represented us.  As our representative, he took the penalty that we deserve” (ibid. 579).  This theory was largely developed by John Calvin (1509-1564).

These are the major theories of Atonement throughout the history of Christianity.  However, there is one more theory I would like to mention since it is my favorite and the closest to my own view.  It is called the Compassion Theory, developed by Mormon theologian and philosopher Blake Ostler in the second volume of his series Exploring Mormon Thought: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God.

Ostler defended his theory in another paper titled Atonement in Mormon Thought (see link below).  In this paper he listed five questions he felt that any theory of Atonement should address:

1. How are Christ’s life, death and resurrection either necessary or uniquely beneficial to expiate or eradicate the effects of sin in our lives so that we are reconciled to God here and now?
2. Why can’t we just be forgiven without someone suffering?
3. Why does Christ’s suffering and experience atone for our sins in a way that the Father and the Holy Ghost do not?
4. How could Christ “bear our sins” or “take our sins upon him” that we commit in the here and now in a way that caused him to suffer?
5. How do the ordinances of sacrament and baptism (among others) signify what occurs in atonement?

He also proposes that any theory of Atonement should meet Abelard’s Constraint, that is to say it be “neither unintelligible, arbitrary, illogical, nor immoral.”

Compassion Theory

The Compassion Theory takes advantage of the meaning of the word “com-passion” which etymologically means “feel in union with”.  In The Problems of Theism and the Love of God, Ostler says: “The purpose of Atonement is to overcome our alienation by creating compassion, a life shared in union where we are moved by our love for each other.  ‘The Passion’ also refers to Christ’s suffering—and thus com-passion is to share in Christ’s suffering and he in ours, that we might share also in the unsurpassable joy of each others’ lives… The purpose of the atonement in LDS scripture is to ‘bring about the bowels of mercy’ so that God is moved with compassion for us and we are moved with gratitude to trust him by opening our hearts to him.  The result of the Atonement is that we are free to choose to turn back to God, and he is free to accept us into a relationship of shared life.  Atonement removes, casts out, and releases the guilt that alienates us; and it also brings us together into shared life.  When we let go of our past and release the painful energy of alienation, Christ experiences that release and receives into himself the pain that we have experienced to be transformed by the light of his love.  If we refuse to let go of our past histories and the pain that arises from our sins, we will continue to experience pain.  If we let go of that pain; however, then Christ experiences the very pain that we release, but we no longer have to.  In his Passion we find compassion.  He literally feels our and pains is thereby filled with compassion for us.  In this sense, Christ suffers for our sins and bears our iniquities” (235-236).

So there is a brief review of the major theories of this most important doctrine.  Later, I will talk about my own understanding of the Atonement in response to scripture and in response to personal experience.


Blake Ostler’s Atonement in Mormon Thought

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Faith And/Or Works

When I was in college I liked to pass through the main mall going by the food court and library.  Sometimes I would take the long route just to see what was going on.  There were usually a handful of demonstrators and preachers and it was always an interesting diversion.  I remember one time I heard a preacher yell out: “for all you people who think you’re gonna get to Heaven by being nice people and doing good I’ll tell you the only way to be saved is through Christ.”  The college kids weren’t responding very well.  It might have been because his friend had another poster detailing why every group and subgroup on campus was going to Hell.  But regardless of what people may think, college kids are pretty morally conscious, sometimes hyper-morally conscious.  College kids are always getting involved in efforts to help alleviate poverty and protect the environment out of altruistic, idealistic motives.  And here was a guy telling them that all these good works were a waste of time and that they should instead be focusing on Jesus.

It’s great to testify of Jesus, but why downplay the importance of good works and good character?  Are good works and faith in Christ mutually exclusive?  The question is often framed “are we saved by works or by grace?”  This has been a big theological debate for hundreds of years.  Augustine was probably the most prominent theologian to discuss it in early Christianity.  During the Reformation Martin Luther brought this question to the forefront and it was continued by John Calvin.  But I think this whole discussion is presenting a false dichotomy and actually distorts the meaning of faith.  We don’t have a choice of either faith or works.  If you have faith in Christ you have faith and works.

This whole debate seems like a distraction to me.  Why worry so much about this?  Doing good is never bad.  It sounds silly to even say such a thing but it sometimes seems necessary.  Good works, genuinely good works are never bad and they are never condemned in scripture.  Scriptures only condemn pride, doing good things for glory and honor.  Jesus never said not to help the poor.  He just said to go and do it in private rather than make a big scene for the appearance of piety (Matthew 6:1-4).  Even Paul never condemned good works.  Paul just stressed that despite our efforts to do good work, we fail; but we can still be accepted by God through his grace (Romans 7:19-25; Romans 8).  Paul also warned about pride: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is a gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

There is a certain nuance in the scriptures, especially in Paul.  We sometimes have a difficult time with nuance.  But the tension is this—we are saved by grace and not by our works, but good works are still essential.  We can’t just say “I’m saved” and then live a life of sin.  “What shall we say then?  Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?  God forbid.  How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer in therein?” (Romans 6:1-2)  This is nuance taught in the seminaries and is well understood by the educated clergy.  But unfortunately the message sometimes get’s lost on the rest of us.  It’s easier to avoid the tension and break things down into black and white—faith or works, take your pick.

Theologian J.I. Packer said: “Faith cannot be defined in subjective terms, as a confident and optimistic mind-set, or in passive terms, as acquiescent orthodoxy or confidence in God without commitment to God.  Faith is an object-oriented response, shaped by that which is trusted, namely God himself, God’s promises, and Jesus Christ, all as set forth in the Scriptures.  And faith is a whole-souled response, involving mind, heart, will and affections.

Reformed theologians actually had a very developed understanding of faith.  They broke down faith into three parts: notitia, assensus, and fiducia.

Notitia is the knowledge of the content of the gospel.

Assensus is the agreement, recognition that the gospel is true.  We usually focus primarily on this aspect of faith. 

Fiducia is trust and reliance in God.  It is trusting that although we sin and fail at times, we can trust in the grace of God and in the Atonement of Christ.  This is the element of commitment and dedication.

The idea that we don’t need God or God’s grace is the heresy of legalism.  The people the get all worked up and condemn the idea of salvation by works are very wary of the doctrine of legalism.  The danger of legalism is that it can be very damaging to our individual esteem.  If we think we have to be perfect we are apt to compare ourselves to others and feel we are not good enough.  Or we might get an inflated ego and feel like we are better than everyone else.  Both attitudes are alienating God.

The opposite end of legalism is antinomianism.  Antinomianism (literally “against+law”) is the idea that after we declare our faith in Christ we no longer need to abide by any rules.  The dangers of this doctrine should be obvious.  My big question to antinomianism is—what’s the point?  So God saves a bunch of vile, wretched people who stay that way forever.  That doesn’t even seem like salvation at all.  There is no progress.  It is eternal degeneracy.  I find it hard to admire a religion that doesn’t uplift and ennoble people’s lives or somehow make the world a better place.

Going back to J.I. Packer he says: “But if ‘good works’ (activities of serving God and others) do not follow from our profession of faith, we are as yet believing only from the head, not from the heart, in other words, justifying faith (fiducia) is not yet ours.  The truth is that, though we are justified by faith alone, the faith that justifies is never alone.”  A good way to get a deeper understanding of faith is to observe the different comments by Paul and James.  James famously said, “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:17).  So does James contradict Paul?  Well, it’s possible that the two themselves got into arguments over this; we don’t know for sure.  But even if they did, they didn’t have to.  J.I. Packer said: “When James says that faith without works is dead (i.e., a corpse), he is using the word faith in the limited sense of notitia plus assensus, which is how those he addresses were using it.  When he says that one is justified by what one does, not by faith alone, he means by ‘justified’ ‘proved genuine; vindicated from the suspicion of being a hypocrite and a fraud.’  James is making the point that barren orthodoxy saves no one (James 2:14-26).  Paul would have agreed, and James’s whole letter shows him agreeing with Paul that faith must change one’s life.  Paul denounces the idea of salvation by dead works; James rejects salvation by dead faith.”

This leads into another key concept in Christian theology—sanctification.  Sanctification is “an ongoing transformation within a maintained consecration, and it engenders real righteousness within the frame of relational holiness” (Packer).  The “born-again” experience is regeneration.  But regeneration is just the beginning.  Sanctification is the continuing process that follows.  As Packer says: “Regeneration is birth; sanctification is growth.”  If you stop your spiritual progress right after you’re born again you remain a spiritual infant.

So maybe someday I’ll run out to the University and start preaching “All you people out there trying to live good lives and do good works, keep it up.  And don’t be discouraged when you make mistakes, God loves you anyway and wants to help you.  Trust God and follow Christ and you can have a great life.”  Or something like that.  We don’t need to have these extreme distinctions, choosing either a life of faith or a life of good works.  It’s not faith or works; it’s faith and works.


Packer, J.I. Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Children of Abraham

Although it was a week ago I wanted to talk about my experience at the interfaith event in Tempe on September 11th.  The Islamic Community Center of Tempe hosted the event.  The night was centered on the sacred stories of our traditions and was inspired primarily as a response to a plan by a church in Florida to burn copies of the Qur’an in mass on that same day.  The pastor conducting put it well—that rather than burn books of scripture we should let the words of scripture burn in our hearts.

There was a moment of silence in which everyone stood as the Torah, Bible, and Qur’an were carried around the courtyard for everyone to see.  They were then placed on the front table for everyone to look at for the rest of the evening.  It turns out that this Torah scroll had a very interesting story.  It came from Czechoslovakia and was confiscated by the Nazis during the Third Reich.  The Nazis preserved it as a relic to be held up for contempt.  After the war it was salvaged and eventually made its way to Arizona where it is kept today.

Reverend Reller of the United Church of Christ showed us his family Bible that had been passed down for over 200 years.  He said that it looked like it had never been read but had a lot of interesting documents inside the front cover from his family history.  For example, an 18th century newspaper clipping revealed that they descended form Jewish immigrants.  This Bible was given to him by his grandmother.  He told story of his childhood when he asked his grandmother why she loved her grandchildren.  She said that God loved them so she should love them too.  Then he recounted the story of Hagar and Ishmael, ancestors of the Muslims.  When Hagar and Ishmael were about to die in the desert God sent and angel to save them.  Then years later when Joseph’s brothers were about to kill him they decided to sell him instead to the Ishmaelites who were passing by.  So if there are too many Jews and too many Muslims we can thank the Muslims for saving the Jews and we can thank God for saving the Muslims.  And since God loves them, we’re just going to have to love them too.

The Imam shared a story of a young Russian boy who participated in a competition in Dubai for reciting the Qur’an and won.  The young boy told about his father and grandfather who lived under the communist Soviet Union that prohibited owning a copy of the Qur’an.  The grandfather had taken this boys father to a cave in his youth where they had hidden copies of the Qur’an and taught him to memorize it.  Going to and from the cave the grandfather would blindfold him so he would not know where these illegal books were hidden.  This boy passed on the Qur’an orally to his son.  It was found that in Russia copies of the Qur’an were often hidden in dry wall and buried in empty caskets.  Decades of communist oppression were not able to wipe out the words of the Qur’an in Russia.  They killed 30 million people but couldn’t destroy the Qur’an.  Then the Imam said what we need to burn are candles of love and peace.

It was a really great night and it just felt great being with so many people of good will.  It is easy to be depressed with all the negativity in the news about religion but being with this people just wiped all of that away.  This is what America is really about.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Upcoming Event: Children of Abraham

The Islamic Cultural Center of Tempe is hosting an event September 11, 2010.  It is called Children of Abraham: A Celebration of Our Sacred Stories.  Some fliers were passed around in my fiance's ward and that's how I first heard about it.  So Heather and I will be going and I will write about it afterward.

The event participants include Reverend Doug Bland, Rabbi Andrew Straus, and Imam Ahmad Shqeirat.  It is a gathering of the three Abrahamic faiths--Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  It should be really interesting.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Zion: A Radical Vision

Jesus taught of two ways.  “Wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat.  Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”  (Matthew 7:13-14)  Lest any disciple fancy the possibility of dual loyalties Jesus said this: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.  Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”  (Matthew 6:24) 

“Mammon” in both Late Latin and Greek meant “wealth” or “riches”.  Mammon was personified here as another master, another god beside the Lord God.  Jesus followed up by illustrating the way God cares for his creations.  “Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.  Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?  Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.  Are ye not much better than they? …But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.  Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.  Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”  (Matthew 6:25-26, 33-34)

Living this way takes tremendous trust.  I don’t think many of us have that kind of faith and it seems quite opposite to the way we actually live.  But this is the way of the Lord God.  The other way is the way of Mammon.  Mammon has been a very popular god and has had very charismatic and powerful prophets.  The god of Mammon promises power and influence.  Worshippers of Mammon see the world in way that makes these things seem most important.  All other norms and standards are contingent and can be altered and amended if needed in the drive to pursue wealth.  Murder, theft, plunder, laundering, extortion and other heinous acts become virtues in a world-view dominated by the love of money.  But in the way of the true God the love of money is the root of all evil.

Consider this passage from Paul.  “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.  And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.  But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.  For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.  But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness” (1 Timothy 6:7-11).

The story of Cain is a parable to us about the root of evil in this world.  We have accounts in Genesis and Moses.  Cain loved Satan more than God and Satan commanded him to make an offering unto God.  However, this offering was not accepted and Cain was very angry.  Thereafter, Cain made an unholy covenant with Satan.

“And Satan swore unto Cain that he would do according to his commands.  And all these things were done in secret.  And Cain said: Truly I am Mahan, the master of his great secret, that I may murder and get gain.  Wherefore Cain was called Master Mahan, and he gloried in his wickedness.  And Cain went into the field, and Cain talked with Abel, his brother.  And it came to pass that while they were in the field, Cain rose up against Abel, his brother and slew him.  And Cain gloried in that which he had done, saying: I am free; surely the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands.” (Moses 5:30-33)  Cain’s reason for covenanting with Satan was to “get gain” and he murdered his own brother so that he could take hold of his flocks.  The next verse is instructive.  “And the Lord said unto Cain: Where is Abel, thy brother?  And he said: I know not.  Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Moses 5:34; Genesis 4:9).  Cain’s question is an important one.  Though most of us have not murdered to get gain we have neglected to be our brother’s keeper.  What is the responsibility we have to our brothers and sisters in this world-wide family?

We often think of the Law of Moses as cold and unfeeling.  In truth, the Law of Moses was in many ways more compassionate than the norms of our modern society and culture.  Under this law, all debts were released every seven years (Deuteronomy 15:1-2).  There could be the temptation not to lend near the time of the seventh year because the debt would never be repaid.  But the Lord admonished thus: “If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, not shut thine hand from thy poor brother: But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth.  Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest nought…” (Deuteronomny 15:7-9)

Under the Law of Moses, strangers passing through someone’s fields could eat their grapes or pluck of their corn (Deuteronomy 23:24-25).  But they could not carry it away in a vessel because they would already have sufficient for their needs.  Jesus reminded the Pharisees of this law when they tried to corner him (Matthew 12:1).  Under the Law of Moses everyone was his brother’s keeper.  “Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ox or his sheep go astray, and hide thyself from them: thou shalt in any case bring them again unto thy brother.  And if thy brother be not nigh unto thee, or if thou know him not, then thou shalt bring it unto thine own house, and it shall be with thee until thy brother seek after it, and thou shalt restore it to him again.” (Deuteronomy 22:1)  “Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates.” (Deuteronomy 24:14)  Even punishments were restricted: “Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed: lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee.” (Deuteronomy 25:3)  There was reservation for human dignity even for criminals.  Always, in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, the people were asked to remember the mercy of the Lord upon them in the days of their captivity and so show mercy to each other.  “Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  (Deuteronomy 10:19)

But that was the old law right?  Now we are supposed to live the higher law brought by Christ.  And what is this new law?  It in no way frees us from our obligations to each other.  In the new covenant we are brought into even closer fellowship.  We are asked to become Zion—the Lord’s people.  “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18)  In the latter days, very early on, the Lord said to “seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion.  Seek not for riches but for wisdom, and behold the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich.  Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich.” (Doctrine and Covenants 6:6-7)  Zion was always the vision and the goal of the early Saints.  It was for Zion that they worked, suffered, and even died.

Jesus came to fulfill the Law of Moses, to complete it (Matthew 5:17).  It is understood in Latter-Day Saint doctrine that the Law of Moses, though good, was incomplete.  The Lord had originally wanted to give the law in its fullness but was not able to do so because of the hardness of their hearts (Exodus 34:1-2, Joseph Smith Translation; also Jacob 4:14-18).  But Christ brought the fullness though most still could not receive it.  We see this in a famous story.

“And, behold, one came and said unto him [Jesus], Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?”  Jesus said to him, “if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.”  “He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”  Arguably, the last commandment in the list was the most important and Jesus was to expand on it because the man inquired further.  “All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?  Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” (Matthew 19:16-21)  The man was saddened and could not follow this commandment.  Jesus was saddened to and lamented that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”  (Matthew 19:24)

Hugh Nibley noted: “The word perfect (teleios) does not mean perfect digestion, perfect eyesight, perfect memory, and so on; it is a special word meaning keeping the whole law.  What remained for the young man, before he could be really serious (teleious), was keeping the law of consecration.  If he did not keep that, he could not be perfect in keeping the others either, in other words, the whole law, for he could not become one of the Lord’s disciples.  So there was nothing but for Jesus to dismiss him—and a very sad occasion it was when they parted… The Lord did not say, ‘Come back: perhaps we could make a deal.’  No, he had to let the young rich man go.  One does not compromise on holy things.” [1]

This is a radical vision and very difficult to swallow in a culture that honors capitalist virtues of self-interest and competition.  In our culture the ideal is that hard work is always rewarded with material success and the lack of it is a reward for slothfulness, or so we think it.  But in the scriptures our independence and self-reliance is called into question.  For are all dependent upon God for all things.

King Benjamin said: “And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance onto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.  Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent… For behold, are we not all beggars?  Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have? …And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain?  Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy… O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.”  (Mosiah 4:16-21)

The great cause of downfall for the people of the Book of Mormon was their treatment of the poor.  To use a modern term they neglected any responsibility toward social justice.  Mormon also saw our day and said this of us: “And I know that ye do walk in the pride of your hearts; and there are none save a few only who do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts… For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted…  Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not?” (Mormon 8:36-39)

The Lord has high expectations for his people.  He expects us to live the Law of Consecration, to live celestial law and establish Zion.  In a revelation for our day the Lord said: “But behold, they have not learned to be obedient to the things which I required at their hands, but are full of all manner of evil, and do not impart of their substance, as becometh saints, to the poor and afflicted among them.  And are not united according to the union required by the law of the celestial kingdom; And Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself.” (Doctrine and Covenants 105:3-5)

These are piercing indictments of our time—and they are unfortunately perennial.  But if we would be Zion the Lord expects greater things of us.  I in no way endorse or support communism or aggressive seizure of wealth—this is not consecration.  Consecration is the “association with the sacred”.  It is voluntary and it is brought about by pure love.  If Zion is to be established it will be on the principles of love and fellowship.  There are ways in place to impart of our substance—through fast offerings, charities, or general alms.  The true Saints of God are those who have a grand vision of what the world could be like.  To say “Jesus is Lord” is to envision a world in which Christ is king and the present rulers of the world are not.  It is a world of unity where the Lord’s people have “one heart” and “one mind”.  It is a world in which we “lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees.”  (Hebrews 12:12)  It is a world of peace in which the swords are beaten into plowshares and the spears into pruning hooks. (Isaiah 2:4)  When these things are realized and lived the Lord can again call his people ZION.


1.  In Hugh Nibley's speech "Law of Consecration" found in his book Approaching Zion.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Neither Do I Condemn Thee

I would like to talk about condemnation.  A nice, light subject, I know.  It certainly gives the Gospel some teeth to think of all the horrible things that are going to happen to all the people who have been mean to us in our lives.  It gives a kind of satisfaction when you're driving on a crowded freeway and somebody honks their horn for a really long time, cuts you off without using their blinker, or won’t let you into their lane.  You can think, I bet that guy will feel really sorry when he is burning in Hell.  Life isn’t fair.  It’s like watching your favorite basketball team in the finals only to see repeated cheap shots by the other team and the referees never call them on it.  But some day the cheaters are going to get theirs.  Hell-fire and damnation are a kind of vindication.

We want so much for things to be fair.  Good behavior should be rewarded with pleasure and bad behavior should be rewarded with pain.  It is pleasing to think that eventually all of our patience and sustained righteousness will be rewarded.  But what if bad behavior didn’t lead to endless pain and torment?  It would almost take away the pleasure of our own reward.  To me an apt comparison is working really hard to get a nice car, or something really slick.  It takes a long time to save up to get it.  Then I get the new car and I am really happy with it.  But I found out that some slacker was able to get the same thing for half the price.  I would get sick to my stomach.  My car is still just as good but knowing someone else didn’t have to sacrifice as much for it ruins the reward for me.

There is a parable with a very similar story.  The master of the house hires laborers in the morning and agreed to pay them a denarius for the day.  He also went out the third hour, the sixth hour, and the ninth hour.  Finally he hired laborers in the eleventh hour.  When the day was done he paid them all the same.  “But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more… Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.  But he answered one of them and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?” (Matthew 20:1-16)

What an aggravating story!  I would be really ticked off if this had happened to me.  The guys who came in the eleventh hour had just been sitting around all day and got the same benefits.  This is a really challenging parable.  It is supposed to be.  If it doesn’t challenge your sensibilities then read it again.

How can God be so gracious?  It is irritating.  Jonah felt this way.  He went to the people of Ninevah and told them that if they didn’t repent then God would destroy them.  And then something remarkable happened—they repented, so God spared them.  But Jonah was furious (Jonah 3-4).  In Mormonism it’s even worse, because people can repent even after death and be redeemed (Doctrine and Covenants 76:74).  What kind of injustice is this?  So all of these people who have done horrible things can be redeemed?  Salvation can really be a very upsetting idea, not because I can be saved but because other people can be saved who I don’t want to be.

My point here is to illustrate the expansiveness of the Atonement.  The love of God is greater than we understand, not because we are not capable of understanding, but because we are unwilling to understand it.  This really requires a transformation of character and an extinction of pride.  It is in our nature to not like certain people.  And if the people we don’t like get rewarded, then Heaven is not the place for us.  How could we stand it?

The truth is that God accepts everyone who accepts him.  The only people who are not saved are those who refuse to be.  “They are their own judges, whether to do good or do evil” (Alma 41:7).  And God doesn’t refuse anyone, even the people we think he will refuse.  Sometimes we think we know exactly who is going to be saved and who will not be.  That is such a truncated understanding of the Atonement.   “And he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 27:33).  He even remembers the heathens.  So even the robbers, and drug dealers, and prostitutes are invited to come to God?  What an outrageous idea.  This is so much bigger and encompassing than we can imagine.

A final story.  This may be one of the most important stories in scripture.  The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus who had been found in adultery.  They asked him what he thought should be done to her.  “Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?”  Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with his finger as if he didn’t hear them.  They continued pressuring him and he said “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”  Then he continued to write on the ground.  This is the first lesson: none of us are called upon to condemn anyone.  We have no right to do so.  It is not for us to say who is going to Hell and who deserves punishment.  After Jesus said this, they all understood that they could not condemn her and left them both alone.

Jesus then said to her, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?  She said, No man, Lord.  And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:1-11).

This is the second lesson.  It’s a lesson for us as sinners, the accused.  We are all in this situation at some point.  Think of what this would be like.  At one moment you are at the point of execution.  And not just any execution, but an excruciating execution by stoning.  Imagine what that would be like.  It would be slow and the only thing around you in every direction would be disdain and hate.  Then, suddenly everyone is gone and you realize that it is not the end.  The only one left before you is God, the ultimate authority and judge, the only one whose judgment really matters.  What will God say?  Will he spare you and be merciful?  Then he says.  “Where are all those who accused you and hated you?  Have they all gone away?  Does no man condemn thee?  Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more."

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Wrestle with God

“Is he a man?” asked Lucy. 
“Aslan a man!” said Mr Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”
“ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
From C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
One of the possible pitfalls of religious life is claiming to know too much too soon.  After going to Sunday school for several years we may think we have it all figured out.  We have all the doctrines down and some of us even have nice creeds to recite that lay it all out there.  We know exactly what God is like and we know exactly what he wants and how he wants up to behave.  God seems to be very simple and easy.

From my own encounters I have found the reality of God to be quite different.  God is challenging and sometimes terrifying.  The reality of God is often something that we don’t wish to accept and tend to shy away from.  It was like this with the Israelites when Moses came down from Sinai.  His face shined with the glory of God and the people were afraid of him. He even had to cover his face with a veil when he spoke to them (Exodus 34:29-35).  They could not bear to look upon the full glory of God and preferred to cover it up.  How often do we domesticate God in such a way?

The domesticated god is the god fashioned in man’s preferred image.  It has been said that if you find that your god happens to agree with you on everything than you may worship a god of your own making.  Encountering the true and living God entails opening yourself to the reality around you and exposing yourself to the dangers of new visions, thoughts and ideas.  It is very, very likely that you may have gotten something wrong and will find that God will lead you in a direction that makes you uncomfortable.  To come into the presence of God is to be transformed and transformation is as much a process of destruction as it is construction.

There are two occasions in scripture where an encounter with God is described as a wrestle.  In the longer account it is a full out wrestling match that lasts all night long.  The story in the Book of Mormon doesn’t actually describe a wrestling match but it was likely a very similar experience. 

In the Book of Mormon, Enos begins his story by saying “I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins.”  Enos was hunting wild beasts in the forests and as he was doing this the words of his father came to his mind and sunk deeply into his heart.  “My soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul.”  He prayed like this all day and well into the night (Enos 1:1-5)

In the Bible, Jacob wrestled with a man all night long.  It is a very strange story but also very interesting.  If you imagine this happening literally it is totally bizarre.  Prior to this, Jacob was preparing to meet his estranged brother, Esau, for the first time in years.  Then out of nowhere, we get this story: “And Jacob was left alone, and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.”  No explanation of who this guy is, he’s just there all of a sudden.  So dawn is coming and this man isn’t able to beat Jacob so he hits him in the hip and says “let me go”.  Then Jacob says “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.”  What?  I don’t ever remember hearing that in a WWF match.  So this man blesses Jacob and even renames him Israel.  Afterword, Jacob calls the place Peniel saying “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”  Turns out, Jacob’s opponent was no ordinary man but God himself.  The name Peniel is Hebrew for the “face of God” (Genesis 32:24-32).

My guess is that the actual events that took place in these two stories were very similar but that the account in Genesis is much more symbolic.  Enos sought redemption and Jacob sought a blessing.  But for both the wrestling match with God was a quite a struggle though also quite rewarding.

We get the idea from the prophets that if you step into the ring with God you should prepare to be surprised and amazed.  When Moses first met Yahweh he was left limp and almost lifeless and said “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10).  This is what seeing God is like.  When you see God you see everything else differently.

The wrestle with God is a process of dramatic transformation and it is both an event and a process.  Centering more in God and Christ is a kind of rebirth.  “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  This is a gospel of change.  All things are become new.  As creatures of habit and custom, change can be uncomfortable but it is good.  Like Aslan, God can be overwhelming, surprising and fearsome, but God is good.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Who Is God?

It is general practice to begin a study of systematic theology with the question of God.  To start, the most basic question to be answered can be put “Who is God?”  Usually, Christian theologians have stuck with the tried-and-true basic attributes.  For example, God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, impassible, and practically perfect in every way (did I just describe Mary Poppins?).   Now, I don’t necessarily disagree with these statements, I’m just not sure they are so important.  So if God is omnipotent, could he make a burrito so hot that even he couldn’t eat it?  Than one even tripped up Ned Flanders.  Please excuse my playful blasphemy.  But I think there is something more fundamental, more scriptural, and more important to understand about God.

The strongest definitive statement I can think of in all scripture is “God is love” (1 John 4:8).  To me this seems like a very simple, concise and powerful definition of God.  It could even be written as an equation: God = Love.  Blake Ostler is the only philosopher or theologian I know of who has begun a discussion of God from this premise [1].  And I think this is the best place to start for two reasons:

1.  It is accurate.
2.  It is essential.

First, it is accurate.  If you want to learn of God and understand God than learn to love.  Pray to be filled with this love “that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him” (Moroni 7 48).  There is a lot that can be interpreted from this scripture.  Is God literally love?  Is this any more than an abstraction?  I understand it to mean that God is loving, so loving that everything God is and does manifests pure love.  This is very comforting.  Proper understanding of grace and Atonement can be found in the context of a God of love.

Second, it is essential.  Worshipping God means to love God and to love our fellow man.  These are the first and greatest commandments (Matthew 22:36-39).  This directly impacts one’s life.  Worshipping a God of love is essential.  I believe it is essential because to follow any god that is not love is to go after a false god.   To the extent that a religion teaches hate and division, that religion is false.  The more religion approaches the pure love of Christ, the truer that religion is to the one true God.

Christ himself revealed God in his own life (John 14:6-11).  There is a curious passage of scripture that is often quoted but not often noticed for its strangeness.  Jesus said: “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34).  A new commandment?  Isn’t that a basic principle of the Gospel?  Was this something completely revolutionary?  Well, it sort of was and still is actually.  It’s not that this had never been mentioned before, but the message has always been a hard sell.  We have done pretty well with the God of Requirements throughout history, but we have had a harder time following the God of Love.  Slaughter a lamb, cut it up in pieces, burn some parts of it, eat other parts, no problem.  No beer, no smoking, no tattoos, no crazy hair-dos, no blue shirts in church, got it.  But love one another?  That is a new commandment, again and again, because we always forget it.  But Jesus revealed to us the true God, the God of Love.

Who is God?  God is love.  This is the most basic and fundamental attribute of God to comprehend.  It is this attribute that governs all other divine attributes.  Furthermore, it is this attribute that we, God’s children, are to take upon ourselves just as we take on the name of Christ.  “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  This is really hard.  It’s a good thing we have a perfectly loving Heavenly Father to help us along the way.

[1] See Volume Two of Ostler’s Exploring Mormon Though: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God.  The reference is from the first chapter.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hi, I'm Todd

So the LDS church has these profiles of its members up on  I submitted a profile and I thought it would be good to post the contents and a link here.

Hi, I'm Todd

I'm working to solve the world's energy needs and help the environment. I'm a disciple of Christ and I'm a Mormon.

About Me

I am a chemical engineer working to make fuel from algae. I enjoy science, history, philosophy, and music. I also like to spend time outdoors camping or hiking. 

Why I am a Mormon

I am a follower of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. When I was baptized into the Church I made a covenant to take the name of Christ upon me. I love having both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Both of these scriptures deepen my faith in Christ.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can we come to know our Father in Heaven?

We read in the Bible that we come to know our Father in Heaven through his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus said: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me". As we read of Jesus in the scriptures we can learn of the things he did and follow him. This will lead us unto the Father. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his disciples to pray unto the Father. As we pray to our Father in Heaven we can come closer to him.

Are Mormons Christians?

 Yes. There are millions of Christians throughout the world and we all have some different ideas and practices that we follow. But what unifies us as Christians is our faith in Jesus Christ. Mormons believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God and that he is our Savior and Redeemer. It is through the Atonement of Christ that all mankind may be saved and resurrected. In fact, this is the most important teaching of our faith.

Personal Stories

What blessings have come through your faith in Jesus Christ?

There is a great power and peace that comes with faith in Jesus Christ. We have all had times of feeling guilty, inadequate, depressed, anxious, trapped, and without hope. But the message of the Gospel is that God loves us. He loves us so much that he sent his Son Jesus Christ that we might have everlasting life. Jesus is on our side and he wants us to succeed. He wants us to be happy. My faith in Jesus Christ has made brought me peace and happiness. I am no longer burdened with guilt or despair. I feel his strength lifting me up.

How I live my faith

My faith is centered in Jesus Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is my Savior. I enjoy participating in a community of faith when I go to church. There we share our thoughts and feelings as well as our faith with each other. We grow together in Christ. Centering my life and family in Jesus Christ brings me closer to him and to my family.