Monday, December 21, 2015

"Give", Said the Little Stream

In his last General Conference address Elder Neal A. Maxwell shared several memories with little lessons that were important to him. One included a song he sang as a child.

In my Primary days, we sang “‘Give,’ Said the Little Stream”—certainly sweet and motivating but not exactly theologically drenched.

I like to think that Elder Maxwell was indirectly inviting us to look deeper into the song. It may not be theologically drenched but I think it's simplicity is quite beautiful.  It sounds like a song that Jesus would sing. Jesus was a master of simplicity. This song sounds like it could have come out of the Sermon on the Mount.

What does this song say to you?

"Give," said the little stream,
"Give, oh! give, give, oh! give."
"Give," said the little stream,
As it hurried down the hill;
"I'm small, I know, but wherever I go
The fields grow greener still."

Singing, singing all the day,
"Give away, oh! give away."
Singing, singing all the day,
"Give, oh! give away."

"Give," said the little rain,
"Give, oh! give, give, oh! give."
"Give," said the little rain,
As it fell upon the flow'rs;
"I'll raise their drooping heads again,"
As it fell upon the flow'rs.

Singing, singing all the day,
"Give away, oh! give away."
Singing, singing all the day,
"Give, oh! give away."

Give, then, as Jesus gives,
Give, oh! give, give, oh! give.
Give, then, as Jesus gives;
There is something all can give.
Do as the streams and blossoms do:
For God and others live.

Singing, singing all the day,
"Give away, oh! give away."
Singing, singing all the day,
"Give, oh! give away."

Words: Fanny J. Crosby, 1820-1915
Music: William B. Bradbury, 1816-1868. Arr. (c) 1989 IRI

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Rationality in Tradition

The Book of Mormon says that the prophet Nephi spoke with such great power that is was not possible for the people to disbelieve his words.[i] Somewhat irreverently, this reminds me of Robert Nozick’s quip that it would be great to come up with an argument so powerful that people would either have to accept it... or die![ii] Amusing as the comparison may be I don’t actually think that’s what was going on with Nephi. I think there was something much deeper in his preaching; he wasn’t arguing in the way we usually do. When we reason about things we move from premises to conclusions in steps that logically follow one another. If all men are mortal and Socrates is a man then it follows that Socrates is mortal. But this only works if you accept the premise that all men are mortal. For the big questions the difficult part is getting to premises that everyone agrees on. On the most important issues like morality and religion our premises are given by tradition. This seems like a problem because the most difficult disagreements are between people from different traditions, people who start from different sets of premises[iii]. Tradition seems to be a great gulf.

Although our different traditions separate us this doesn’t have to preclude productive communication on important issues. Natural barriers like gulfs and canyons are most treacherous when we don’t see them. But with some familiarity with the terrain gulfs and canyons can be crossed, though still with difficulty. This reminds me of a fictional correspondence written by the Jewish thinker Samson Raphel Hirsch. In Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel, a university student writes home to his rabbi with some challenging questions[iv]. The student challenges various tenets and rituals of Judaism and wonders how anyone educated in a modern, scientific society could continue to be Jewish. The rabbi responds that it is not possible to understand or appreciate Jewish rituals and tenets in isolation from each other; Judaism most be understood in its totality. The beliefs and practices are intelligible only in the context of the whole tradition. What Hirsch gave here was a method for understanding specific teachings, rituals, and norms of a tradition—you have to dive in deep and view these things from within the tradition, seeing how the parts fit into the whole. Crossing the divide between traditions is possible though not simple.

I think a better understanding of our traditions and the different premises that lead to different conclusions could help to avoid some of the misunderstanding and offense that sometimes results in our discussions. Speaking to each other from different traditions is a little like speaking in translation from different languages. If you consider all the things we do in English to make things sound more polite you can see how a person learning to speak English could inadvertently sound rude. When we make requests or express disagreement we have various ways to soften our language: “Would you mind…?”, “Do you think you could…?” But knowing how a language feels requires some extensive experience and immersion into it.

Traditions are a lot like languages. They have words, symbols, rituals, roles, stories, texts, and values. These things taken as a whole are what make the tradition intelligible. As a Mormon American the traditions I think about most, because I live in both, are Mormonism and what I’ll call American individualism. These two traditions overlap at points but there are important differences. The traditions share many of the same words but the words have different meanings. For example, “freedom” is an important word in Mormonism and in American individualism. But the word doesn’t have exactly the same meaning in each tradition. As an American individualist I understand freedom to be my right to do what I want to do and to be what I want to be. I am free do whatever I want as long as I am not hurting anyone else in the process. Whatever I achieve or become in life is up to me and I am not limited by anyone else. As a Mormon I understand freedom, or agency, as my power to act toward my divine purpose. My freedom expands as I act in accordance with divine principles but contracts as I deviate from them[v]. I also understand that my freedom includes accepting the results of my actions. These understandings of freedom are not diametrically opposed. They can be syncretized and often are. But they are different.

There are certain concepts in Mormonism that don’t translate easily into the tradition of American individualism and it is at these junctures where conflicts arise. Mormonism is a much more communal tradition. We think in terms of not only ourselves but also our families, ancestors, and descendants. Who we are and what we become is not solely up to us. We are all connected. In the parlance of scripture there must be a welding link of some kind between the fathers and the children, our ancestors cannot be made perfect without us and we cannot be made perfect without them.[vi] The signs and symbols of Mormonism, the ordinances, the temple rituals and liturgy, the stories and practices in which we take part immerse us in this understanding of our eternal relationships with each other and of our own identity. It is in this totality that family, marriage, husband, wife, sexuality, and love are to be understood.

The tradition of American individualism is not necessarily opposed to this dense field of relationships and symbols in Mormonism but it is different. For example, in Mormonism sex outside of a marriage is not only wrong; it doesn’t make any sense. The Mormon understanding of sexuality is made intelligible by the way it fits into the practice of eternal marriage and the understanding of our divine nature as paired beings in the image of God, our heavenly parents. But outside of this context, translated into the tradition of American individualism, this view of sexuality could be understood principally, or exclusively, as just a prohibition, even an arbitrary prohibition[vii]. And for something as important and personal as sexuality such a prohibition feels like quite an unwarranted intrusion. There is conceptual content lost in translation. The translated version of a concept may not mean the same thing as the concept in the context of its original tradition and this shift in meaning can lead to offense. This can happen with many issues.

What can I do as a Mormon to communicate more effectively with people outside my tradition? Part of the process is mapping out the terrain, understanding our own traditions thoroughly, and understanding enough about other traditions to see the differences. We are usually so embedded in our traditions that we don’t think about their foundations; we hold our premises unconsciously. This is usually fine. But to communicate effectively with people from other traditions we need to understand our own better.[viii] This is a process of reasoning and investigation. It’s a process of making connections between concepts, practices, and values and seeing how they come together as a whole. What is the connection between our physical bodies and the sacrament[ix]? How does marriage relate to the Atonement of Christ? How is our agency both individual and social? How does baptism bring us into the community of the church? How does the Spirit of Elijah[x] affect the way I understand my own identity? Some of my favorite conversations about Mormonism have been with people who weren’t Mormon. They have asked me things I never would have thought of asking. And I’ve learned a lot after thinking about their questions.

This process of reasoning and investigation is very rewarding for another reason: it empowers us to participate more effectively in the conversations within our own tradition. Traditions are not static, at least not if they are in good health. There are different ideas within traditions but unlike the differences between traditions the differences within traditions work with shared concepts, symbols, rituals, roles, stories, texts, and values. This means that as an American I work with the heritage of texts like The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. As I Mormon I speak with the language of The Bible and The Book of Mormon. The relationships between all these texts, symbols, and values are complex. Some passages of scripture may not fit easily with other passages or with other aspects of the tradition. For example, Mormons have a conception of what kind of life is of greatest value: marriage between a man and women, raising children together in the ways of the Gospel of Christ. But this ideal is not available to everyone for various reasons. What are we to make of this? Fortunately, the scriptures have resources we can use. For example, in the Gospel of Luke we find the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the prodigal son, and the parable of the lost coin. These parables directly address the repentance of sinners but could also be interpreted more broadly to address other issues. This kind of language—the language of scripture, symbols, and the values of a tradition—is the kind of language that will be effective and intelligible within a tradition.

The process of reasoning within and between traditions makes rational progress possible. The conversations within our traditions can generate novel concepts and find solutions to problems using the concepts, symbols, and values we already have as building materials. We can also appropriate ideas from other traditions that, by our own standards, we find useful and expand our understanding. Finally our experiences in the world, whether from the natural sciences or the existential challenges of our lives, also affect and inform our traditions. For example, with our expanded understanding of astronomy it would not be possible for one to believe, as did the ancient Greeks, in a geocentric universe with the planets embedded in rotating crystal spheres. Closer to home, our ways of understanding the world and God change as we pass through life's challenges and tragedies. In these experiences some ways of understanding the world and the resources provided by our traditions will be more helpful or more plausible than others. Thus traditions are not impenetrable walls that trap us into rigid, inflexible ways of seeing the world. They can adapt, appropriate, and expand through the history of a community or the life of an individual.

Building relationships with people, within your own tradition or from another tradition is hard work. It requires patience and energy. But I think it can be very rewarding. Paul said that he became all things to all people. To the Jews he became a Jew. To those under the law he became as one under the law. To those outside the law he became as one outside the law. To the weak he became weak[xi]. In this I think he was imitating Christ. The Book of Mormon says that the Lord speaks to people according to their language and their understanding[xii]. There is a pattern in scripture of the Lord coming closer to us to enter into a more intimate relationship with us. He does this by speaking our language according to our understanding and he did this by becoming one of us as a mortal man. There is also a recurring call in scripture to imitate Christ, to die like Christ, and rise again like Christ in his life[xiii]. I wonder if we could imitate Christ in his efforts to speak to others according to their language and understanding, to imitate his incarnation by becoming what other people are to enter into a closer relationship with them.

[i] 3 Nephi 7:171-18                       
[ii] Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations
[iii] My ideas on this subject are heavily influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre.
[iv] Sampson Raphael Hirsch, Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel
[v] 2 Nephi 2:27
[vi] Doctrine and Covenants 128:15,18
[vii] This may be a case where the misunderstanding has worked its way back into the original tradition. Even within Mormonism we sometimes put undue emphasis on prohibition without adequate doctrinal context.
[viii] Doctrine and Covenants 11:21
[ix] The Mormon sacrament is similar to the Eucharist.
[x] The Spirit of Elijah is the inspiration we feel to seek after our ancestors.
[xi] 1 Corinthians 9:20-22
[xii] 2 Nephi 31:3
[xiii] Romans 6:3-8

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Agent in Agency

Agency is one of the most prominent concepts in Mormon doctrine. Put most simply, it is the capacity we have to act. This ability is fundamental to our existence.  Our scripture says, “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence. Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man.” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:30-31, italics added) The Book of Mormon speaks of our ability to act for ourselves and not be acted upon, noting also that our agency can expand or contract, that we are able “to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil.” (2 Nephi 2:26-27)

An important practical question then is, “How can we develop our agency?” To answer this question I like to think a little more about the scriptural connection between agency and existence. Like many things in the Gospel, we can approach agency in multiple ways. We can think of agency as something we have but we can also think of it as a description of who we are. We are agents. We beings who act, beings who do things. We speak, eat, walk, sing, think, learn, plan, love, and many more things. We connect to people emotionally, become friends, and raise families.  To develop our agency then is to develop our capabilities as agents to do all these things and do them well.

Action involves many things including muscles, intellect, speech, emotion, and interpersonal relationships. At the most basic level we act by moving our bodies. A child first learns to act by rolling, crawling, and walking. Athletes act in more complex ways by running, jumping, swimming, etc. We act and make decisions by thinking and deliberating with others. This involves intellectual development that expands our agency. Perhaps most challenging are actions involving relationships and emotions. We are sometimes impeded by our fears and doubts, especially about ourselves. Developing emotional intelligence and confidence is an essential part of growing as agents. Understanding ourselves as agents requires this kind of comprehensive view of ourselves.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Thinking As an Act of Faith and Repentance

I find Phillip Cary’s insights on the role of thinking in Christian life very helpful:

"Questions ought to have a place in our hearts, because asking questions is a way of seeking the truth and the love of truth is an important virtue. The love of truth is essential to making a healthy connection between reason and emotion. Any form of reason that deserves the name desires truth with a passion, and our emotions need reason to stay in touch with reality, to be consistently perceptive about the truth and not blindly self-serving."

"And love of truth really is a virtue, one that belongs at the center of our hearts . It’s not just idle curiosity or intellectual pride. Above all, it shouldn’t be confused with the obnoxious desire to be right all the time, which is a vice, not a virtue. The people who love the truth are not the ones who are always trying to prove they’re right and everyone else is wrong. They’re people who are glad to discover when they’re wrong, because that gets them one step closer to the truth. And that shows how rare and difficult a virtue this is. It’s close kin to repentance, because it undermines our desire to justify ourselves and put others in the wrong, and thereby makes us more fair and just in our relationships. Without it morality is just a sham, a game we play to impress people or to persuade ourselves that we’re good Christians."

"The love of truth means that we want reality to rule our hearts. It is based on a deep and rather extraordinary optimism that says ignorance is not bliss, because ultimately the truth about reality is the best news of all. It’s an optimism that hardly makes sense at all unless God is Truth. What is most fundamentally sad about the effort to prevent people from thinking too much is that it means giving up this optimism. It means being afraid that questions, followed honestly, lead to evil, because the search for truth ultimately leads away from God."

"And we should not be so afraid, because the gospel of Christ is true and it is truly good news. The truth at the heart of all existence is the Truth in person, the Wisdom of God who hung on a cross and died, but then rose from death to eternal life and glory in which we too may share. The cross of Christ alerts us to the fact that we must learn some horrible truths if we are to understand this fallen world as it really is, but the resurrection of Christ should give us hope that asking all the hard questions will lead us in a direction that is good for us. For Christian faith should make us optimists about this: that the ultimate Truth is good news, and that the love of truth is therefore good for the heart."

From Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don't Have to Do

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Faith Inside Out

I loved Pixar’s new film Inside Out. I think being a dad with a little girl made me enjoy it more too since the action takes place in a young girl’s mind. I keep thinking about it and noticing things as I replay it in my head. One of my favorite things in the film is the control console. Riley’s emotions, each personified as a character, operate the control console inside her mind. When Riley is born the control console has just one button - so she just coos or cries depending on whether she is happy or sad. But as she gets older the console gets more buttons with more operations.

I thought about the control console while I was preparing to speak in a Mormon church meeting on faith and doubt. We tend to think of doubters as a specific class of people, separate from believers, but I think things are more complex than that. Faith and doubt are both parts of all our lives and faith changes through life. My understanding of God is different from when I was a young child. As we grow our faith changes and we experience challenges that shape our faith. A toddler has a certain kind of faith. She feels safe and secure with her parents. She is scared or sad when they leave. Her faith is simple, like the one-button control console. But as her world expands from parents, to playmates, to teachers, and to God her trust and faith expand and develop.

Our faith goes through periods of reshaping and complication. A child may learn to pray to God and trust that God will hear and answer prayers. But what happens when she doesn’t get something she prays for? This can be a learning moment when she learns more about the way God hears and answers prayers. Her understanding of God becomes a little more sophisticated and the older, more simplistic understanding fades away. We look at these kinds of episodes and understand that they are normal. This kind of thing doesn’t destroy faith. It’s just part of learning. We understand this well with childhood faith struggles but sometimes we are not as adept at dealing with the struggles of teens and adults.

Church is usually a very positive place. We like to share the success stories where everything worked out in the end. We like to be uplifting and faith promoting. That’s not a bad thing. But it’s not the whole program. Sometimes everything is not alright. Sometimes the things we learn in church and in the scriptures, or our interpretations of them, just don’t match our experience. When this happens it is necessary to develop new facets of our faith.

One of the most important characters in Inside Out is Sadness. Joy isn’t really sure what to do with Sadness. Mostly she just tries to keep her out of the way and keep her from doing anything. But when Riley experiences some tough transitions Joy can’t help her. Riley needs Sadness too. Faith is not always about peace and joy. Sometimes it’s about sadness and despair. Both the crucifixion and the resurrection are essential parts of the Christian gospel. The Hebrew Bible is filled with both psalms of praise and lamentations. We may want to keep these things in their own little circle, out of the way. But the darker moments are also part of the development of our faith.

Just like Riley needed Sadness to deal with her new situation there are aspects of faith that we need to develop as we grow. Life involves disappointment, loneliness, anxiety, fear, conflict, doubt, regret, loss, and death. The faith of our childhood may not be adequate to understand and deal with these things. A young child may feel secure knowing that her parents are there for her. But as she grows older she will realizes at some point that her parents will not always be there for her. Life eventually comes to an end and how we face that fact is a crucial part of our faith. How will we spend the time that we have with the people we love, knowing that our time with them is finite?

One of my favorite parables in the Bible is the dying grain of wheat. Unless a corn of wheat falls to the ground and dies it does nothing. But by dying it brings forth new life. I think faith follows a similar pattern. Our faith changes as we grow and become new creatures. Old ways of thinking must pass away to give rise to a newness of faith. Faith allows us to view the deepest, most important structures of our world, the things that have most meaning and are the most important. And faith must have as many shades and hues as the beauty and darkness of the world we face.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Ecclesiastes and Hakuin

Painting by Hakuin, Two Blind Men Crossing a Log Bridge

And the Preacher said, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, ‘See, this is new’? It hath been already of old time, which was before us.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)

Do you ever feel like things that used to be inspiring have become dull over time? Ideas, rituals, and texts that were once profound and rich can later lose their power. Fortunately, this transformation can also go in the other direction.

For the Japanese Zen Buddhist teacher Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768) the path to spiritual awakening was a long, gradual process. Hakuin became a monk as a teenager and in his youth read the Lotus Sutra, one of the most important Buddhist texts. But Hakuin found the Lotus Sutra disappointing, nothing more than simple tales of cause and effect. He went under the tutelage of many teachers and had a partial entrance into enlightenment at age twenty-four. But his enlightenment was incomplete and he passed through several years of doubt, sickness, and mental breakdown. Hakuin finally had his final awakening at age forty-one while reading the Lotus Sutra again, the same text he had found so disappointing in his youth.

I like the story of Hakuin and the Lotus Sutra. I wonder what he might have said to the Preacher in Ecclesiastes.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Credo Quia Absurdum: Turn the Other Cheek

In an earlier post I brought up an idea, inspired by Second Hand Lions, that “the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most.” I want to use this idea to look at the Christian teaching of peace. Consider the these teachings of Jesus regarding violence and conflict:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-46)

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” (Luke 6:27-29)

“All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

Jesus’ teachings about peace are so familiar that we may not appreciate how remarkable they are. If you’re being physically assaulted you should make yourself more vulnerable. If your property is being forcibly taken away you should make it more accessible. Can a person really put these teachings into practice? What about a nation?

For a government a more realistic dictum might be, “peace through strength”. One way of understanding government is as an entity with a monopoly on the use of force. This is a classic Hobbesian view and is also, perhaps not incidentally, a materialistic, deterministic, and rather cynical understanding of the world. “But what is government itself,” wrote James Madison, “but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” This fundamental connection between the government and the use of force was quite evident to Christian anarchists like Leo Tolstoy, who resisted both government and violence out of Christian convictions.

In spite of the arguments for political realism by shrewd thinkers in the tradition of Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli, many religious thinkers persist in taking Jesus’ teachings quite seriously. For example, Spencer W. Kimball, leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said this:

“We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become antienemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching: ‘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; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.’”

As a Christian I think I should trust in Jesus’ teachings about peace but I find that I’m not (yet) able to go the whole way. To appropriate a line from Irving Kristol, I feel like I have been “mugged by reality”. The spirit is willing but the mind is weak. But I still think that love of enemies, turning the other cheek, is one of those ideas that a man should believe because it’s something worth believing in.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Credo quia absurdum: Things that may or may not be true

In Second Hand Lions Uncle Hubs gives his nephew, Walter, a sample of his “What every boy needs to know about being a man” speech:

“Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love... true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn't matter if it's true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”

I think Uncle Hub got it right on what things may or may not be true. When it comes to believing I don’t have a hard time with the supernatural stuff like angels and miracles. I’ve never seen an angel but nothing in my experience contradicts angels either. But the things worth believing in—they do contradict my experience. Money and power mean nothing? Really? Good always triumphs over evil? Not sure about that one.

Christianity teaches these sorts of dubious truths. Jesus taught all sorts of things we might cynically dismiss, about loving your enemies, not caring about material needs, not judging others. Stuff like that I have to stop and ask myself if I really believe in practice and not just in profession.

Believing dubious things for the sake of their unbelievability has a history in Christianity. Tertullian taught, “And the Son of God died: it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.” This is often paraphrased in the pithy line—Credo quia absurdum. The radical Christian existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard, said, "An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for the individual."

I think of Uncle Hub’s speech when I read the words of Jesus. The Kingdom of God he preached seems so dissimilar from the world I see in reality. But the vision is compelling. I want to look at some of Jesus’ teachings through this lens in future posts.