Saturday, April 27, 2013

La Scrittura Invincibile

I was reading from my High School Italian Literature book (of course, I got it  from an Italian High School student, not from my High School), and it is titled based on a Bertold Brecht poem. I found the poem (great website, huh!). It is set in an Italian prison, so it is fitting as an Italian lit. title. It is also about the power of writing, and delightfully so. So, in honor of National Poetry Month, I give you the above link and my edited Google translation from the Italian:

The Invincible Inscription--Bertold Brecht, 1934
At the time of the World War
in a cell in the Italian prison of San Carlo
filled with arrested soldiers, drunks and thieves,
a socialist soldier engraved on the wall with indelible pencil:

High, near the top, in the semi-darkened cell, barely visible, but
written in enormous capital letters.
When the guards saw him, they sent a painter with a bucket of lime
and he, with a long brush, whitewashed the threatening writing.
But since, with the lime, he had just followed the characters
Now it said in the cell, in white:

Only a second painter covered the whole with wider brush
so that for some hours nothing could be seen. But in the morning,
when the lime was dry, the inscription reappeared:

Then the guards sent against writing a mason with a knife.
And he scraped one letter after another, for a good hour.
And when he had finished, there was in the cell, now without color
but deeply engraved in the wall, the invincible words:

Now lift up your wall! Said the soldier.
I hope you found as much enjoyment in this as I did. I don't have a poem to complement this one, so I'll have to post one of mine another day.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Disambiguating "pure in heart" as a divine trait

Scriptural/Transhumanist Speculations on the Universe Part 7

LeGrand Baker has made his and Steven Ricks's book, Who Shall Ascend, available electronically, so if you are interested in reading my primary secondary source text in evaluating the Beatitudes, it is now available. I continue with the paraphrasing from the section on the Psalms in the Book of Mormon found in the pp 900s in the printed text, and mid 600s in the pdf version. I will omit specific page numbers at this point because I am switching between the two depending on when and where I write these posts.

Of the state of the gods are all the pure in heart for they shall see God.

This idea of being pure in heart has troubled me, at times. I have wanted to understand the purity as freedom from sin, believe that sinful mortals could achieve it, and doubt my own ability to be pure in heart at any given moment. The ambiguities have largely seemed overwhelming in coming to any practical understanding. Who Shall Ascend spends a number of pages on this topic and in discussing how it can be achieved. I wish to only summarize a couple of more measurable traits I could glean from the associated scriptures and discussion. I don't think I've resolved and ambiguities, despite my post title, but I think I see some points to build on.
  • Psalm 24:4 reads: "He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart;
    who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully." The second line may not be a restatement of the first, bit it feels like one to me. If it is, then vanity is not part of God's character, and he does not swear deceitfully. (This second is in keeping with God being unchanging.)
  • Purity of heart indicates a unity of thought and emotion within an individual, a keeping of promises made to God, and ultimately a unity of community in creating Zion.
What does this say about the characteristics of evolved gods? They will keep their promises, and they will belong to communities united by promises they make to each other and keep (the definition of faith I subscribe to), and by love, patience, temperance, and kindness.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

My Father's Response to "My Testimony vs. Science"

My father sent me a response to a recent blog post I wrote about reflecting on our testimonies in light of the psychology of religion. I shared some opinions about things we might consider in deciding what we believe and in sharing it. My father responded with some balanced, and sincerely written elaborations and criticisms of my post. I asked if I could share what he wrote, and he said yes. I think it is valuable. He might be embarrassed for me to make these links, but you can read more about him and his beliefs at Mormon Scholars Testify, in Expressions of Faith, and on Wikipedia (although only specialists, of which I am not one, will understand everything on the Wikipedia article. He tells me whoever wrote it was pretty accurate). Thank you, Dad, for sharing this.

I enjoyed your thoughts, Jonathan. Since you have often asked that I respond to what you write, here are some of my thoughts:

Most of the issues we concern ourselves with miss the more important things in life, namely, love for and gratitude to God, love for neighbor, love for the beauties of the world, service, kindness, purposeful and graceful contribution to the family and community. Such things are the “weightier matters.”

As to conformity, much of what we do is, and should be, based on convention. Convention frees us to pay attention to things that need more attention. As Thomas Kuhn’s work on the nature of scientific revolutions suggests, we make radical changes only when the evidence makes it clear that something seriously needs modification. Even then, the evidence is often ambiguous and unclear. There is no value in speaking against convention or conformity per se. The best we can hope for is to remain as clear sighted as possible.

“Proclaim your most examined beliefs.” We are admonished by Peter (1 Peter 3:15-16)…”be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear: Having a good conscience; that whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.” I love many things about this scripture. First, I love Peter’s acknowledgment that we need good conscience and both meekness in our convictions but also a dose of fear. I also like the acknowledgment that, despite our best intentions, it is likely that others may accuse us of evil – or foolishness--, that it is better to be maligned for doing good than to be maligned for doing evil.

As to the traditions of the fathers, each of us has to act (or not) on the basis of incomplete knowledge and evidence. We are all dependent upon the experiences of others. We all have to decide what and whom we trust. Since my “fathers” (and mothers) are among the kindest, most open, honest, and conscientious people I have ever known, I give their traditions high weight, and give little weight to the nay-sayers.

I like your comment that “Everything is known through eyewitness testimony.” In science, seeing is often very indirect and mediated by many deductions. Juries of necessity have to weigh the credibility of an eyewitness account. Of course we often judge unjustly, but we still have to make judgments based on what we see or experience or are told. We make our judgments with “meekness and fear”.

We are aware enough of the methods of manipulation that we can factor that into our judgments. The experiences of Nazi Germany show how almost impossible it is to go against the opinions of state, community, family, and church when they are unified in their voices. Manipulations go in many directions. As social opinions change in our country, it is very hard to think independently. Since we live in more than one culture, the things that are “obvious” to one culture are likely to be “clearly wrong” to another culture.  I  think the only way around that problem is to try to formulate and test correct principles and their consequences and examine things in the light of those principles, with the continuing thought that we are often wrong despite our best intentions and methods. Even in a subject as simple as mathematics, we often make mistakes. What we do then is not only check our reasoning but also check the consequences against all of the other things that we know. There is likely to be apparently contradictory evidence that we have to live with in anything, such as life, that is more complicated than mathematics.

Testing certain religious beliefs is certainly beyond us at this point. We do not know how to create worlds. We do not know how to resurrect people. We are not all visited by the Father and the Son. We know that mental illness can cause people to hear voices. Nevertheless, we do test our religious beliefs essentially every day as we pray for guidance, listen for the promptings of the Holy Ghost, try to serve others, read the scriptures. Though I have never heard voices, I believe that my mother did when her mother died. Though I have never seen a vision, I believe there are people who do see visions, real visions. I trust Joseph Smith’s experiences. I trust Sister Litchfield’s accounts. I have experienced things that I consider miraculous. I trust Theodore Burton, a close friend of my father who served as assistant to the quorum of twelve, who told my father that he had never, in the higher councils of the church, seen even a hint of deception, but had seen rather a complete integrity, even in the acknowledgment of the presence of angels and other miraculous things. I choose to trust these things.

When I read the Book of Mormon, the very text itself shouts out to me its own integrity. I have personally written and published thousands of pages [Editor's note: mostly of mathematics. See the Wikipedia link]. I have read many hundreds of books [I would have guessed thousands, but maybe he didn't want to overestimate]. There is simply not an author among those of my reading acquaintance who could write such a book. (See Doctrine and Covenants 67.) It is, as Parley Pratt used to say, “the book of books”. When I add to that the observations about societies and languages that Nibley brings to the book, I feel strong confidence in the authenticity and worth of the Book of Mormon. The complaints I hear about the book seem weak to me. Though I cannot give definitive answers to those complaints, I can see many ways in which they might be explained. Whatever is true with regards to those complaints is true. I have enough confidence to postpone knowing.

Mormon (in Moroni 7) says that revelation comes to “them of strong faith and a firm mind in every form of godliness.” And the purpose seems not to tell people the future but rather to bring us to faith in Christ, to teach us the purposes and plan of life, the covenants of the Father, to teach us what it is that we are to learn, do, and be, and to give us enough confidence in Christ and the atonement that we can proceed in faithfulness to do what we are sent to earth to learn, do, and be.

And so, right or wrong, this is what I am committed to. I am overwhelmed that the great being in the universe invites us to partake in his great work: to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. There could be no greater aspiration.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Trust in God's Prophets

I grew up believing in prophets--men who speak with God. Men who guide the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the way that Christ would have it go. They told me lots of good things.

They told me. . .

They told me to be a Boy Scout, and I earned my Eagle Scout award. I did the merit badges and learned first aid, swimming, safety, knot tying, and other skills I use frequently but might not if I hadn't been pushed to learn them as a youth. I went to town hall meetings and got a better sense of how local government works. I did lots of hours of service projects and grew to love that part of Mormonism. Helping someone move, or cleaning up their yard, or working in one of the welfare facilities, or giving someone who doesn't get around too well a ride, or taking a meal to someone who is sick are still among my favorite things to do (and if anyone wants a chance to experience what I have, I've got a list of things that need fixing at my house. You're welcome to visit).

They told me to study hard, and I've got a good job. Teaching Chemistry is very likely to change, but very unlikely to disappear.

They told me to be chaste and to get married, and I have a beautiful family.

They told me to study the scriptures, and I have found much inspiration there.

They told me they loved me and wanted me to be happy.

They told me about the Zion we are to build. I can imagine no more beautiful future.

They told me to serve a mission, and my life has never been the same since. Just speaking and reading Italian has opened me to new joys. What would life be like without Guareschi's Don Camillo? How could I have survived studying Dante if his meanness hadn't been overshadowed by his mastery of language that didn't carry over into English? Who would I be if I hadn't met Mario Ricca, Alfredo Tancredi, Milva DellaCalce, Fratello e Sorella Alberganti, and dozens of other Italians and missionaries? Who would I be if my mission president hadn't taught us that the Spirit makes hundreds of occasional exceptions to the rules if you are obeying the rules and listening. That the best leadership is two way--standing up for those below you to those above AND representing the word from above to those under you. If you only do one, you're only half a leader. That if you have the chance to listen to one of God's servants, you would do well to take it. That if that servant tells you to do something wrong you had better ignore it and do what's right. That the next time you get a chance to listen to that servant, you show up again and listen just as seriously as the first time. That it is really hard to recognize and understand the Spirit, and really easy to misinterpret it. That there are natural consequences for not listening to revelation when you get it. In short, that revelation is really beautiful and really messy. That I should study not just the scriptures, but the doctrine and history of the LDS church. This included Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (free annotated version here) and Discourses of Brigham Young (multiple formats here), two books that continue to shape my views of these men and of what Mormonism means to me. My mission president taught that I shouldn't just study the LDS church, but lots of good books. He gave me permission to read anything I felt was worthwhile during my language study time. This ended up including Neruda's Il Postino, whose content I couldn't handle at the time, so it went in the suitcase for a future day. It included a biography of Saint Francis, borrowed from a bookstore owner, that I judged rather harshly because it didn't fit with my conception of a servant of God at that time. It included some Guareschi that I put down because I didn't want to stop reading it. It included two short books introducing me to Islam given me by some young men I met in Bergamo (I think). My family really deserves the credit for my love of reading and of searching, but the permission my mission president gave me, in the very strict, limited context of a mission, freed me to explore and question in ways that before I might have worried were unrighteous. Because I could explore and question as a missionary, it never occurred to me that such questioning could be considered unfaithful.

Unfortunately, my prophets had also made me feel that many who did not belong to our faith were less than us, or even lost. They made me feel bad for being a sexual being, for finding girls attractive, and for even thinking about it. They made me feel like black and white morality and truth were the realities of this existence (although having a young brain certainly favors this approach). They made me feel that I was either nearly perfect or damned. Unfortunately, these things still influence how I think and feel.

What do I believe now?

I believe God speaks to many people in many places according to their own language and understanding (culture, education, assumptions about what is real, concept of the divine, etc.). God calls people to belong to churches other than the LDS church. God even calls some people to leave the LDS church. The goodness of a person's life is to be judged by his or her fruits, not his or her affiliation.

I believe teaching about sexuality the way we do in LDS (and American) culture hurt me and hurts lots of people. It blesses many in some ways, but we could do a whole lot better.

I believe, to quote my friend, Tony, in between black and white is not shades of gray, but a rainbow.

I believe I am damned if I'm not growing. It is stopping, not sinning, that will keep me from my potential.

I still believe in sin and that it is to be avoided. I still believe in good and evil and that not all choices are of equal value, and that sometimes there are clear right and wrong choices. I still believe that sexuality has great potential for harm when unbridled, and that sexual standards are valuable. I still believe God has called prophets to lead the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I reject a handful of things they teach, but still feel like I sustain them. They themselves planted many of the seeds for my willingness to disagree with them. How does that work?

My Trust Issues (or lack thereof)

Trust involves being vulnerable. When I was young, I didn't get to choose who I was vulnerable to. I was vulnerable to my church leaders. Fortunately, they taught me well, protected, and loved me. They also hurt me a little. As adults, we are often able to choose whether we make ourselves vulnerable. I choose to be vulnerable to my prophets. I choose to listen to their words, even when they unjustly accuse me of error. I also choose to trust them beyond just listening, again and again, to their calls to repentance and action. I choose to trust them with the pain I feel. I chose to privately tell them that their teachings on pornography and addiction were harmful. Others did the same. We were told we were loved and were being heard. The tone of talks and Ensign articles on addictions changed, if not their frequency, and the twelve step programs were introduced. I don't think we're close to where we could be, but we've improved a lot. I think the groundwork is there for much greater improvements in the next generation.

Now I choose to trust and be vulnerable in a different way. I'm not the one being hurt. A private letter isn't enough because it isn't an issue between me and my prophets. I know the prophets love me, but not everybody feels loved. I want to love everyone, but not everyone can tell. It is for me that I take this stand--I don't feel I could do otherwise--but it is not for my pain. Here is what I say to my friends who want to hear it. Hopefully I can help make the church I love safer for them:

My Stand

I'm for marriage equality. I believe it is beautiful, and that it will bless lives. I hope we will also make room for it in our church someday. I hope it will be God's will and that our prophets will keep learning more about what families are like in the eternities. Eternal family composition seems a lot less straightforward than I've thought most of my life.

I'm for breastfeeding in the pews. It's healthy for children, it's healthy for families, and it's healthy for people who are bothered by it to give up their unhealthy sexualization of women's breasts. If mothers want to go to the mothers lounge, let them. It should be well lit, well ventilated, comfortable, and available. It's great if they want privacy or quiet. It's great if they want to sit in class or in sacrament meeting or talk in the halls while they nurse, too.

I'm for equality for women. I don't particularly care about priesthood ordination for women, although I suspect it will have to happen for them to truly be treated equally. When I say I want equality, I mean I want them to have significant, ultimate decision making voices in church policy and use of church funds--hard power in the earthly organization of the church. I believe we men don't need all the positions of power to get us to step up and do our part in the church. If that was true in the past, we can repent and do our part without thought of honor or reward. When women fill a significant percentage of management positions (~half) in scientific research, scientific research improves. When women fill a significant percentage of government offices (>= 1/3), countries are more peaceful. These are just two signs that giving women hard power improves all of our lives. I believe it will be the same in the church. I believe we will become better in ways I can't imagine.

I'm for embracing our colorful history, strange doctrine, and the injunction to search and question. I'm for acknowledging that we do things--as an institution and not just as individuals--that hurt people. These things are uncomfortable for organizations to deal with, but I believe it is both honest and loving to acknowledge them. It's natural for organizations to enforce a degree of homogeneity, and I believe necessary. It is necessary for organizations to choose their focus in this finite, mortal world and to do their best to bless the most people they can. I don't expect any catering to the demands of a minority at the expense of others. However, I believe it is our duty as members to both support and resist these organizational tendencies in loving ways. My reasons for believing this are not easily given in generalizations, but one is to keep families together and keep people we love close to us. Those who question and those who have been hurt need not be driven out of the church, either actively or passively. All the members of the body are needed, and I hope we can show that we believe this.

I'm for loudly proclaiming that we seek to make all humanity gods. This is not hubris. This is love. It is not setting ourselves above or belittling God. It is lifting up all of humanity to the greatest joys that can be known. It is embracing all truth, wherever it is found. It is seeing the best in one another and bringing out even better. It is building Zion where there are no rich or poor and all are of one heart and one mind. It is God's will for us.

And I'm for more cultural variety in church meetings. More music, and more varied music. I'd just like it. It would be fun. Who wouldn't love "A Poor Wayfaring Man Of Grief" played by a brass quintet?

"What do I want?! I want change! When do I want it?!"

I want it sometime. . . if it's right. I'm in no rush to get these things. I can be patient and try to show love and heal hurts caused by institutional policies and personal prejudices. I can even shut up for a while, if it's best. But I want it known that I do this BECAUSE I TRUST AND SUSTAIN GOD'S PROPHETS. I trust them to hear me and the other members of the church. I trust them to be two-way leaders, giving God's word to us and also taking our needs to God. I trust them to love me and treat me with love and respect even when I am wrong. I trust them to be humble in the face of my criticisms--not to back down on what they believe is right, and not even to refrain from rebuking me, but to take what I say to heart and ask themselves if they might have been mistaken. I really trust that they do this all the time. I don't believe that they spend all their time second guessing themselves, but I do believe they are reflective. I don't believe they are superhuman or have any easier of a time getting and understanding revelation than the rest of us. I do believe that they are more practiced at it than I am, and get it a lot more often than I currently do. I trust them not to change the church in the ways I want, if I want what is wrong or if it's the wrong time.

I trust them.

I do.