Sunday, January 27, 2008

President Hinckley's Legacy

Surprisingly, the first emotion I felt when reading of President Hinckley's death a few minutes ago was relief. Since the passing of his wife, it has seamed to me that he has dearly missed her, understandably. I admire his diligence in enduring to the end, but I can't help but think he is relieved to have done his work (at least on this earth).

In our stake conference today, there was a lot of talk about temples. I can't think of a more fitting way to honor President Hinckley's contribution than to strengthen our commitment to temple worship.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Things I Don't Know

If I were ever to run for public office, this post is likely to ruin my campaign. "I don't know" is a seen as a weak position, especially in politics. Candidates often get criticized for daring to admit that they would consult with advisers on certain issues. But enough of politics. Cultural and religious discussion is often characterized by passionate discussion from all sides that claim to have a monopoly on the truth.

I, for one, love the position of "I don't know" (of course, only when I actually don't know). I feel it allows me room to grow in understanding.

So, lest anyone mistake me for a guru of all knowledge (I know you were beginning to wonder), here's a far-from-comprehensive list of some things I don't know, in no particular order:
  • When human life begins

  • How much global warming is caused by humans, whether it will result in catastrophe, and how much we can realistically do about it

  • Whether doctor-assisted suicide should be legal in some cases

  • Whether I'm pro-life or pro-choice (only because apparently the definitions vary depending on perspective)

  • Whether Brigham Young knew beforehand about the plans for the Mountain Meadows Massacre

  • Whether there was a global flood

  • Whether I support embryonic stem-cell research

  • What a fair, yet compassionate, solution to the illegal immigration problem would be

  • Why gravity works

  • Why God intervenes to prevent disasters in some cases, but not in others

  • Whether Mitt Romney as president would be good or bad for the LDS Church

  • How much you really need to know something before you can say that you know it

I may have some ideas about the things on this list, but that's just the short list of things where my knowledge falls short. I'm reminded of 1 Nephi 11:17:

"I know that [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things."

Well said, Nephi.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Cultural Pseudo-Truth

Last night my wife and I watched a television program on the civil rights movement (No, this is not another MLK/Mormon post, it just starts there). I was not alive during the heart of the movement, so it's very foreign to me. It's hard to imagine that all of this happened not so long ago, and that racism was so recently acceptable in our society. How do we explain this? Were all those racists bad people, and now we are so much more moral? I don't believe so. I believe most of them were generally good people. So how could they be so wrong about race issues? I believe it is because of a phenomenon I'll call cultural pseudo-truth. (If there is already an accepted term for this, please let me know.)

In general there are two sources of truth: science (or, more generally, reason) and religion (or, more generally, faith or revelation). Some questions are best answered by science, and some are best answered by religion. However, I think we overlook the influence of a third, false source of pseudo-truth: culture. I believe that, unfortunately, much of the "truth" that we take for granted comes from this third source. Racists in the past accepted that blacks were inferior. Not many people, even good ones, thought to question this cultural norm. It took a revolutionary leader, Martin Luther King, along with other brave individuals to bring scrutiny to this belief.

When I accept the reality that at least some of the things I believe are a result of my culture, and not based on some more sure source, I think of two important questions related to Mormonism:

First, how does cultural pseudo-truth affect how others view us? I think most of the reasons some people think that Mormons are "weird" is a result of the culture that we are compared against. The Word of Wisdom, temple worship, and the missionary program are a few things that are pointed out as things that make us weird. I could go into why I believe each one seams weird when viewed through a cultural lens, but when viewed from cultural neutrality are not all that weird. Not to dwell on a sensitive topic, but I'll just point out that our culture views clothing as an expression of our light-heartedness (Think Joe Boxer and t-shirts with sarcastic comments on them that are all the rage with the kids these days). In such a culture, it's no wonder why Mormons are considered weird for associating some spiritual significance to an article of clothing. However, such a view is not unique in the world, as demonstrated by orthodox Jews wearing yamacas, and other current and historical examples.

But, before we Mormons start congratulating ourselves that we have risen above cultural pseudo-truth, let me explain my second important question: How does cultural pseudo-truth affect how we view the world? Are there things in our culture that we accept as true which cause us to view those who do things differently as wrong? Not surprisingly, it's harder for me to come up with examples of this. Clearly it's harder to recognize cultural pseudo-truth in myself than it is to recognize it in others. One possible example is family size. Mormons traditionally have large families (although this is less so recently). If we assume, for a moment, that this is a cultural phenomenon, and not doctrinal in some way, should it influence how I view someone who chooses to have a small family, or no family?

Or perhaps there is something even more dire. Perhaps I, like the racists of times past, hold some deep conviction rooted in my cultural that is actually dead wrong and deeply harmful. The problem is: how would I know?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A Prophet's Reward

The grace vs. works debate (which has been the subject of several recent posts in the bloggernacle, here, here, and here), and also the discussion about the important of being average, has got me thinking about the following scriptures:

Matthew 10:41: He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward.

2 Nephi 1:28-29 And now my son, Laman, and also Lemuel and Sam, and also my sons who are the sons of Ishmael, behold, if ye will hearken unto the voice of Nephi ye shall not perish. And if ye will hearken unto him I leave unto you a blessing, yea, even my first blessing. But if ye will not hearken unto him I take away my first blessing, yea, even my blessing, and it shall rest upon him.

Surely, few people can claim to have done more righteous works than a prophet, but yet somehow if we accept the teachings of the prophet, we receive a reward equal to his. Apparently our reward is not proportional to the works that we do, which can only be explained by the fact that it is by the grace of Christ that we are saved. But of course, in order to receive that grace, we must do what Christ told us to do. By our faith, obedience, and repentance we receive grace, and by grace we receive a prophet's reward.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Unplanned, Simple Service

Mormon Matters has an interesting article on the affect that the Preach My Gospel system will have on future church leadership. The article linked to one sentence in the manual on page 167. Second on the list of ways to find people to teach is "Look for opportunities to offer simple service."

I couldn't agree more. I served the first part of my mission in a very poor country. My trainer was a good missionary and a very hard worker. I remember learning to speed-walk/run to keep up with him as we went from appointment to appointment, most of them dogged (read: the person didn't show up, for those not familiar with the missionary lingo).

One day we were walking up a hill on a cobblestone street. The road was busy but I noticed an old man pulling a cart behind him. As fast as we were going, the man seamed to be standing still. His face seamed lifeless. He was probably headed to the marketplace to sell whatever was in his cart. The thought came to my mind, "Perhaps we should stop to help him pull his cart up the hill." But then I thought of the appointment we were headed to and how my trainer was already a few paces ahead of me. So as quickly as the man had entered my mind, he was left in our dust.

But the man never left my mind. I don't remember what happened in the appointment, but I'll never forget the man we could have helped and didn't. I don't remember him out of guilt, but rather out of a desire to remember to not be so busy that I forget the simple acts of service that are available to me every day.

A Peculiar People or a Peculiar Nurse?

At a recent trip to the doctor's office, the nurse tried to convince my wife to get the HPV vaccine. For those that don't know, the vaccine prevents a certain sexually-transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer. My wife didn't know much about it and so she resisted the nurse's attempt to push it on her. She isn't anti-vaccination, but she understandably does like to know what she's doing before she agrees to such things.

The nurse could not believe that she would refuse. She explained that if she had multiple partners, this could protect her from getting cancer. My wife explained that she was married.

"Well, I was married once too," the nurse responded. My wife continued to refuse, although I wouldn't have judged her if she decided to comply (I have nothing against the vaccine).

The nurse left and came back a few minutes later. "How was I supposed to know that you were married? You're 25." Probably realizing how rude she had been, the nurse turned defensive.

The conversation turned to other matters, and it came out that she has a son. Fortunately my wife didn't reveal that we also have a daughter, or else the poor lady probably would have had a heart attack.

So in the matter of minutes, my wife was told she was weird in 3 ways:

1) She didn't consider it a realistic possibility that she would have multiple partners in the same time frame.

2) She's married at the young age of 25 (has been for 5 years, but she didn't tell the nurse that).

3) She has at least 1 child, again at the ridiculously young age of 25.

Are we really that strange, or is this nurse just crazy?

Friday, January 11, 2008

The AP on the BOM Change

The Associated Press has reached a new low in their recent article on the change to the Book of Mormon introduction. (Thanks to bigidybone for pointing it out.) May I point out the inaccuracies?

"After thousands of years all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians," the new introduction reads.

In previous editions, the phrase was "are the ancestors."


Actually, that's not what it said. Way to research.

What's the big deal? Church defenders say there is nothing important in the change.

But skeptics view it differently. The issue is that church missionaries have long portrayed Book of Mormon stories as fact. To them, it looks like the new wording is a quiet concession that DNA research accurately contradicts the scriptural claim.


What does this have to do with whether the Book of Mormon is historically accurate? The Book of Mormon does not make the claim that the Lamanites are the principle ancestors of the Native Americans. And whether they were or were not the principle ancestors does not in any way hurt the claim that the Book of Mormon stories are true. If the author understood even vaguely what the Book of Mormon is about, she would know that. Instead, she uses the rest of the article to discuss this change as evidence that the Book of Mormon isn't historically true.

I understand that there is something to be said for creating a balanced story, but that doesn't mean we should accept both sides without challenging erroneous reasoning from opportunistic activists.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

And There Came a Certain Poor Widow...

Mark 12:42 ...and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.

43 And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:

44 For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.

My second post on this blog is my favorite. In it, I ask the question, "Who is my neighbor?" I believe that question is much more nuanced than many believe. Who do we serve? Why am I so concerned with my friend who is in trouble, but not as concerned about the millions that suffer throughout the world? That question remains on my mind, but today I turn my attention to a different but related question:

As for how much to serve, how much is too little and how much is too much? By service, I'm talking about all forms--giving of time, effort, and resources for the benefit of those in need. To answer this question I'll start by examining the extreme viewpoints.

One defendable philosophy is that we should be fully engaged in service as long as there are people less fortunate than ourselves. Such a philosophy is grounded in complete self-denial. How can I justify have any luxury while there are people who are hungry and sick? How can I justify eating when there are people who are starving to death? Such a person would indeed succeed at reducing the number of those less fortunate to zero, but not because he helped any one person very much, but because in his Herculean effort to lift others, he reduced himself to the least fortunate person on earth.

Most of us would consider such a person to be foolish, although well-intended and maybe even admirable. But what about the widow who gave everything she had? Imagine you are a bishop who knows an old widow in your ward. She has barely enough to pay her rent and buy the basic essentials. One Sunday she hands you her fast offering and you discover that it is a great deal of money for someone so poor. You are confident it must be her entire savings. What would you do? I don't know what I would do, but I would seriously consider paying her a visit and urging her to take it back.

One the other hand, imagine the child of the person I described before. Resentful of growing up with nothing because of his parent's complete selflessness, he decides that everything he earns is his own. Giving to others denies the law of justice, which says that we reap what we sow. Most of us would consider this person selfish and unchristian, but it is this philosophy that is at the heart of capitalism, which most of us support.

Of course, the correct way is somewhere in between these two extremes. But where is the line? How do we know if we're being too selfish, or giving too much? I don't have the answer, but here are a few thoughts:

We should give all we can, but should provide for ourselves and the needs of our families first. This is supported by Mosiah 4:24. This seems like a reasonable approach, except that it is not always clear what is a legitimate need. Do I need to own a car? Well, if I want to get to work I probably do. But I could have just moved closer to work so that I could walk, and probably get a cheaper house too. So the line is still vague.

So I'm back to the old stand-by: follow the Spirit (I know you were thinking that the whole time, right?). There is no cookie-cutter answer. We should give as much as we feel we can, and pray to have the guidance to know how to balance our needs with our charity. Great, problem solved. But, that answer, although the most reasonable, is not very settling to me...

Would the Spirit approve of the things I bought last year: a new patio set, a swing set, a laptop computer? Does the gospel allow for luxury? Surely I'm not alone in considering this question, as I know many members who live in relative luxury, but who I still consider good Christians (and I'm sure they give a lot as well). How do we reconcile this? Are we fooling ourselves?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

In the Mists of Darkness

One of my family's New Year's resolutions is to read the Book of Mormon every night as a family. This being the 8th of January, we are on the 8th chapter of 1 Nephi. (We're on schedule so far!). You may know that the 8th chapter deals with Lehi's vision of the tree of life and the mists of darkness.

The mists of darkness seemed more real to me this time, since we've had dense fog for about a week now where I live. I can attest to the fact that fog can play tricks on the mind. It can make one feel claustrophobic, and also has the tendency to play tricks on the mind. Sometimes, what you think you see in front of you isn't really the truth.

On Sunday there was a 100 car pileup on the interstate near here, due to the fog and people driving too fast. It's no wonder that Lehi saw many fall into the river in his vision. Perhaps they were looking for shortcuts or going too quickly, over-confident in what they thought they saw in front of them.

I hope I always remember to slow down and take the sure routes in the mists of darkness of this world, both literal and spiritual.