Friday, February 20, 2015

Is Reincarnation Cruel or Merciful?

What can we infer about the details of how evolved Gods would help their children arrive at godhood? We've already seen how love is essential. Atonement is a wonderful gift given by our Savior, but it is also essential to the creative and reproductive success of our Heavenly Parents. I've argued that selfish gods can't be allowed or it would artificially limit creative and reproductive rates. This implies the need for a test for love--an environment where the benefits of loving are seemingly equal, or at least ambiguous--very much like the world we experience. The need for this test came when Gods started short-cutting the "natural" process of slow, incremental evolution directed by environment and unintelligent, random events. Through intelligence they gained the ability to make long-lived creators who had not necessarily gone through the evolutionary crucible that ensured the compassion and altruism required for the first generation of Gods to avoid self-destruction and gain their godly knowledge. One very natural question is, how good is this life test, really?

For someone like me, with no extreme trials to warp my perceptions or steal my agency, a long life with numerous paths open to me, a generally loving and supporting social and family environment, and various other benefits, I have plenty of opportunities to show how selfish or selfless I am. I can show compassion or I can show disdain. I can produce good fruits or ill. Seems like a pretty fair test. But we all know the test fails. Little children die. People have brain problems that make them do evil with no conscious will to do otherwise. People are mistreated, abused, and controlled to the point that they lose their agency to even think in god-like ways. So what are the solutions?
  1. The Gods take care of it. They know what every person desires and can justly give them their best reward after this life, like we Mormons believe is done for every child that dies before age 8. Except in our Cosmos where the future is not predetermined, the Gods can't possibly know exactly what every being will choose in every possible future. We might still say that everyone needs to get a body, but is the only way to give people bodies by going through this miserable and unfair existence? A body is just a physical construct. The Gods aren't smart enough to make some without inexplicable pain and suffering? I don't doubt the Gods have a way to take care of it, but it's not by circumventing the test or by reading people's minds.
  2. The test is only for a few. Only a small minority of potential Gods really need to be tested. Most (the third of the host who were cast out without coming to earth, all the children that have ever died before age 8, all the mentally incompetent, and likely a good portion of those who live normal lives but just agreed to help out with the test) had already shown their true colors without ever needing the test. However, this implies either that the Gods are fine with making lots of beings who won't ever or can't ever become Gods (lets lay lots of eggs and hope they don't get eaten), or implies that the Gods aren't capable of designing a more efficient system for making Gods. Such beings are either not the loving creators our cosmic model predicted, or it's really easy to make lots of Gods by just having lots of children and letting them fend for themselves. I don't think so.
  3. People can't change. It's fine that people get divided up into relatively static kingdoms of glory after this life, with only a few becoming creative, reproductive Gods. There's no advantage to making lots of Gods as opposed to making just a few, really, really good Gods and limiting every other being, so it's better to weed out too many than to let one bad apple through the test. Of course, this implies inability or incompetence among the Gods in designing an effective test, or that the Gods don't really, deeply love their creation. Or it implies that beings can't change. That sometime in this life or the premortal life each of us shows (or showed) exactly where we would end up and there is no human or extrahuman way we will ever change that. It's not that God wants us stuck, but that it's against the laws of nature for us get unstuck.
  4. The test is efficient. It could be that the Gods can figure out who is loving and who is selfish without this earth-life test, but that it takes a whole lot longer. Agreeing to the test means we are willing to take a chance on speeding up our progression to godhood. Except for it to be really efficient on the cosmic scale, the time savings would have to be some significant fraction of eternity. I'm not sure that's possible, but I still get a little tentative trying to comprehend the relative sizes of really big numbers. Maybe the test isn't necessary--it's just a lot faster.
  5. Do over. You can take the test again. Didn't pass it the first time? Do some extra prep and try again. Try as many times as you need to. I used to think the ideas of reincarnation and "multiple mortal probations" (MMP) didn't fit with the Plan of Salvation. I thought they implied inefficiency or cruelty in the plan. Why make people come back rather than just going forward? Why take away our memories again and again? I'm certain I don't advocate for one particular conception of reincarnation in all of its details. I don't know about coming to earth as plants or animals. I don't know about making multiple mortal lives a requirement. I would expect we each get to choose. And if a person can show what they need to in one life, why make them suffer repeatedly? I also objected to MMP on the grounds that it would make a mess of sealings and families. Recently I realized that the organization of sealing bonds is a mess already. Either the Gods can figure it out despite the additional mess reincarnation would produce, or it's hard to understand believing in eternal families at all.
I know I'm far from the first person to have had these thoughts, but I can't picture evolved Gods damning most of their children by any definition of damnation. It's not in keeping with their great love unless the laws of nature make it a necessity, and the inability to shape the laws of nature for the benefit of their offspring is not in keeping with their great knowledge and power. It might be cruel to make a child suffer a second time, but it would be far more cruel to not let a child take the test again. I may have just become a believer in reincarnation--on this world or another.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Who Is Samuel the Lamanite?

If Jesus were just resurrected today, and were appearing to the faithful at General Conference, whose teachings would he tell us to pay attention to? Who would he say, why haven't you written down the words of Samuel the Lamanite? Why haven't you said in your congregations and in your hearts, these are the words of God for us? These are the prophecies to prepare us for today and tomorrow? Who have you called an outsider to Mormonism and ignored, despite her having been called by God to call you to repentance? Why did you wait until after all this turmoil and destruction to repent and really start building Zion?

Seriously, who would it be?

Would it be teachings of other religious leaders? Which ones?

Would it be the warnings of political or economic thinkers (pick your favorites)?

Would it be scientists who are understanding society and the human mind and giving us tools to shape the world toward greater happiness, understanding, and justice?

Would it be futurists who are seeing the potential of humanity and mapping a path toward that expansive future?

Would it be voices from our own tradition that we have ignored or marginalized?

Who is Samuel the Lamanite, today? And most importantly, why do you think so? How will following his teachings bring us closer to Zion?

Monday, February 9, 2015

Nephi and the Doctrine and Covenants

And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God. Mark 10:18

Shortly after my mission I was teaching a Sunday School lesson on 1 Ne 17. Our Stake President had asked us all to memorize the Doctrine and Covenants 121:33-46, and being a dedicated return missionary I had done so (and frankly have often been glad I did, although I've forgotten most of the scripture mastery scriptures I memorized and not been too bothered by it). It was on my mind, so when I read Nephi's story this time I saw something a little different. I'll illustrate.

Nephi decided he needed to build a boat and take his clan away from the little, secluded paradise they had found after many years of fearful wandering in the desert. His older brothers were thrilled neither with the prospect of building a ship nor with Nephi's presumption of leadership. They resisted. But Nephi, having been moved upon by the Spirit, reproved his brothers with sharpness. It appears he was righteously angry with them for several days. Terrifyingly so. He even got to zap them a little while he told them to be more helpful and better behaved. Afterward, as they asked his forgiveness, it's possible Nephi showed forth an increase of love. He did say, worship God, not me. He did say, we're brothers, we ought to get along. He did work with them on the ship. I gave Nephi the benefit of the doubt, his being one of my heroes and all. But Nephi doesn't really tell us if he increased his love or if he just felt a bit awkward, or indignant, or something, and tried to go on as if nothing had happened. It certainly doesn't tell us if he apologized for being so righteously furious for so many days. We just can't tell if Nephi quite followed God's counsel to Joseph Smith:

Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy. . . .

Or Jesus's counsel:
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him. . . .

But whatever criticisms we may have of Nephi, he was pretty amazing. He had a beautiful vision of Christ's birth. He wrote inspiring psalms and stories. He managed to lead his family across a desert and an ocean, and founded successful colonies with them--integrating themselves with the native populations and even becoming their rulers. Quite the guy. Even as a young man he managed some unusual feats--going all James Bond to steal the sacred treasures from the villain Laban. If it were a James Bond story, we wouldn't have so much problem with it. We might vicariously get a thrill from the womanizing, trickery, and murder that Bond regularly engages in, but few of us view Bond as a moral guide. That's why Nephi is disturbing. He says he's following God and God told him to kill a defenseless man.

Now if you flatly reject the idea that God would ever tell anyone to kill anyone else, okay. I'm sympathetic to your view but haven't been able to adopt it completely, myself. For others with some degree of Mormon belief, yet some realization that we all make mistakes in interpreting God's will--even when it seems really clear--I invite you to revisit Nephi's story with me yet again. Here goes. . .

Blessed art thou Lehi, because of the things which thou hast done; and because thou hast been faithful and declared unto this people the things which I commanded thee, behold, they seek to take away thy life. 1 Nephi 2:1
And from Joseph Smith's revelations:
Now, I speak unto you concerning your families--if men will smite you, or your families, once, and ye bear it patiently and revile not against them, neither seek revenge, ye shall be rewarded; D&C 98:23
What did Nephi's family do? Ran away. No revenge for your family. Good job Nephi. Then the boys go back, and Laman goes to ask Laban for the Brass Plates.

Laban was angry, and thrust him out from his presence; and he would not that he should have the records. Wherefore, he said unto him: Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee 1 Nephi 3:13
if your enemy shall smite you the second time, and you revile not against your enemy, and bear it patiently, your reward shall be an hundred-fold D&C 98:25
Laban threatened a second time, and Nephi still refrained from playing avenging angel. Still good. Then Nephi and his brothers took their riches to buy the plates.
when Laban saw our property, and that it was exceedingly great, he did lust after it, insomuch that he thrust us out, and sent his servants to slay us 1 Nephi 3:25
So Nephi and his brothers ran. Nephi still wanted to get the plates, so with the angel's promise of success, Nephi headed back, not knowing what would happen, but here's God's word on what to do with three threats on your life:
And again, if he shall smite you the third time, and ye bear it patiently, your reward shall be doubled unto you four-fold; And these three testimonies shall stand against your enemy if he repent not, and shall not be blotted out. And now, verily I say unto you, if that enemy shall escape my vengeance, that he be not brought into judgment before me, then ye shall see to it that ye warn him in my name, that he come no more upon you, neither upon your family, even your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation. And then, if he shall come upon you or your children, or your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation, I have delivered thine enemy into thine hands; D&C 98:26-29
So maybe Nephi forewent the extra blessings from choosing not to kill his enemy when he had the chance, but good job Nephi. Three threats and Laban was delivered into your hands. Totally righteous and blessed of God. . . except that we just glossed over one little detail. When did Nephi warn Laban? I suppose it might be an oversight. Nephi might have warned Laban sometime. We don't have the whole account of their exchanges. Laban shouldn't really need warning. It's not right to threaten people's lives and rob them of their possessions. He should have known it before his first threat. But we can't tell. He almost followed God's will for how we should treat our enemies. Maybe Nephi was God's judgment, and it was really Lehi's story, and Lehi was the one who gave the warning and bore threats patiently. I would not envy Nephi in that case, with the scriptures telling us how God uses the wicked to destroy the wicked. However you look at it, Nephi once again came close. He was almost a good man.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Why I want to be persecuted

A recent speaker in my local Sunday services quoted a recent reminder from one of our Twelve Apostles: We Latter-day Saints haven't been persecuted for many years, but scripture foretells the day will return when we again will be. Of course, I believe we might yet avoid this, and both we and the rest of humanity could repent of our various evils and avoid destruction--as Nineveh did after Jonah's call to repentence--but if this is true (and I don't doubt it is a possibility) then I want to say what I hope we will be persecuted for.

I hope we will be persecuted because we mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort. Because we reach out to the downtrodden and the marginalized. Because we sup with the sinner and walk among the unclean. Because we make a place at the table for those who don't really belong amongst us--the impure and those we fear--and because we are vulnerable enough to turn the other cheek when they take advantage of our goodness and abuse us.

I hope we will be persecuted because we lay up treasures in heaven and reject the riches of this world. Because we refuse to sell our power for gain, and instead use it to uplift the poor rather than defend and maintain the rich.

I hope we will be persecuted because we believe in God and Science. That those who only see the spiritual will call us unfaithful materialists, and those who only seek the tangible will call us superstitious fools. And despite this we will proclaim the value of religion and science. We will embrace the new revelations of each as we seek out all truth and gather it into a grand view of Mormonism, whatever lowly or impure source might share it with us.

I do hope we might be persecuted for testifying of Christ. His atonement and resurrection, and every one of us partaking in them and making them real for all generations of humanity, are the way for humanity to live on. I hope we will be persecuted for taking on us all the sins and pains and evils of humanity, and willingly bearing them just as far as we can--whether anyone accepts our gifts or not.

If we are to be persecuted, let it not be because we fight change. Let it not be because we assume we know and cease seeking further light about anything. Let it not be because we elevate cultural norms to be the will of God. Let it not be because we construct ideological fences for fear of losing our identity or to protect our fragile hero worship of dead prophets, or our egotistical clinging to creeds outworn. Let it be because of our positive actions in blessing the poor, comforting the rejected, abused, and powerless, endlessly seeking truth, and fearlessly seeking at-one-ment with all humanity.