Tuesday, June 30, 2015

We Aren't As Elect As We Think We Are

I personally don't believe in a "Judgment Day" - where each person stands before a judge in a court room and hears a verdict about their life. I believe "The Final Judgment" is nothing more than the natural end of our progression and growth - that point where we no longer learn and grow. I also believe that point is FAR further out into the future than most people assume, and I think FAR more people reach "godhood" or "perfection" (a state of wholeness, completion and full development) than most people assume.

I think God's grace, mercy and charity (long-suffering patience, especially) are as universal and expansive as is possible, and I think lots of people will be shocked in the end as they look around and finally realize they aren't as "elect" as they thought they were.

Monday, June 29, 2015

"WWJD" and the Word of Wisdom

"What would Jesus do?" is a stupid question in lots of situations.

Jesus drank wine, and so did the early Mormon leaders, but that is irrelevant to whether or not we should do so now.

I believe Jesus also wouldn't have voted Republican or Democrat, probably even if either option had been available to him. I have no doubt Jesus would have drunk tea if it had been available to him - unless he didn't like the taste or smell - but I don't know if he would have drunk coffee, for multiple reasons. I can't stand the smell of coffee, and, my religion aside, I would never have started drinking it due to how horribly I react to the smell alone.

"Strong drinks" have been ramped up significantly in the last century or so. Wine and beer both are good examples of this, as are energy drinks. In and of themselves, I don't think drinking wine and beer in moderation is objective and eternal sin (and mild barley drinks were allowed in the original revelation), but "conspiring men" certainly have done a number in the area of strong drinks in our modern times. There is no doubt in my mind that addiction peddling has been expanded in ways that were unimaginable to most people hundreds of years ago and more. I see the beginning verses in D&C 89 as absolutely prophetic in that regard, regardless of what Jesus and Joseph Smith drank.  

Friday, June 26, 2015

Some Complaints about the Book of Mormon Are Stupid

The following is perhaps the best example of how far some people will go to criticize the Book of Mormon: 

"The Book of Mormon is made up because Joseph Smith wrote that Jesus was born in Jerusalem."  

The early books in the Book of Mormon talk of "the land of Jerusalem". Likewise, I lived in a suburb of Cincinnati for years, but we often told people we lived in Cincinnati. I was raised 20 miles south of Provo and 60 miles south of SLC, but I often told people in college that was born and raised "in the Salt Lake City area" - and I often tell people I lived in Boston while I attended college there, even though I lived in Medford, Somerville and Woburn (and actually attended college in Cambridge). If someone is speaking to a group of people who have never been to the region being described, it is totally natural for them to use a nearby, well-known city as an approximate substitute.

Joseph Smith knew that Jesus was supposed to have been born in Bethlehem, so there is no logical reason for him to have written Jerusalem if it meant within the actual city limits.

This is one case where I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with the passage in question, and I actually believe it bolsters authenticity more than it decreases authenticity (or, at least, is completely neutral). In other words, I would expect a record like the Book of Mormon reference Jesus' birth being "the land of Jerusalem" in that way. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Going Beyond the Church Handbook of Instructions

I want to make a simple, short point in this post, after talking with a friend whose Bishop imposed his own view and interpretation in a temple recommend interview (dealing with caffeinated sodas) and, as a result, my friend lost his recommend when he was fully worthy to have one.

There are lots of instances where problems would disappear if local leaders simply understood what the handbook says and didn't enforce personal rules that are stricter than the handbook. I'm not saying the handbook is perfect, but, at the very least, we shouldn't impose stricter standards than it contains. 

Note: I updated the information above as a result of the first comment below. This was not a case of a violation of the Word of Wisdom; it was a case of a leader imposing a stricter standard than what the Church itself requires - both in the handbook and in official statements issued recently about the exact issue in question.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Parable of the Unjust Steward: A Profound Message that Gets Butchered Often

The parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-8) is one that many people have a hard time understanding and accepting.  I've heard lots of arguments over the decades trying to explain why Jesus  couldn't have said it - that it just has to be something that was written into the record by someone else - or that there has to be some deeper symbolism that isn't obvious in the parable itself.  I don't agree with those arguments, since I think it's a pretty straightforward story with a fairly simple meaning.  In the spirit of parsing, to which everyone knows I'm inclined, here is how I see this parable:

1 And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods.

The "steward" is a manager - someone who has stewardship over (responsibility for) something. This manager had been given control over the handling of some of the rich man's goods - and had failed miserably. In fact, it appears he had lost everything with which he had been entrusted - since the goods had been "wasted".

2 And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.

In other words, the rich man said, "Tell me what you've done with my goods. You're in danger of being fired."

3 Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.

This wasn't a "poor man" naturally; he wasn't even necessarily a poor man until he was threatened with being fired. (It appears he had no other marketable skill and relatively little physical strength - and he also was a proud man. It also is implied that he knew there was no way he could keep his job, since he knew "my lord taketh away from me the stewardship".)

4 I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.

He said, essentially, "There is no doubt I will be fired, so I better ingratiate myself into the good graces of those who owed money to the rich man while I can (before I am fired officially and still have the authority to make a deal)."

5 So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord?

6 And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty.

7 Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore.

These verses simply say that he cut deals with the debtors, so they would appreciate him and be more likely to hire him when we was fired.

8 And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.

There is nothing in this verse whatsoever that even implies the man kept his job with the rich man. There is nothing in this verse that says anything the steward did was "right" or "good" from a moral standpoint. There is nothing in this verse that says the rich man approved of the steward himself (since he still called him "unjust") or that the rich man kept the steward on as an employee (that isn't stated anywhere). All it says is that the rich man "commended" the "unjust" steward for doing wisely - BUT it doesn't say toward what the commendation for doing wisely was directed. In other words, it doesn't say WHY the rich man commended the steward, other than that there was something "wise" about his actions.

My take is quite simple - though not short (*grin*):

When he heard about the wasted goods, the rich man knew what kind of man the steward was. He also knew that, given the way the steward had "wasted" the goods, he was unlikely to get much, if anything, from his debtors once the steward was fired. (Again, "wasted" carries that connotation - that there appeared to be no getting anything of worth out of them.) So, even as the rich man fired the steward he commended him for at least getting as much as possible out of an otherwise wasted situation - for minimizing his losses and putting himself in a position to get work once he left the rich man's service, even if such an approach was "unjust" - which simply means "not in accord with a normal understanding of what is right or lawful". In other words, the unjust steward didn't demand justice, but rather, in order to get what he could, he extended mercy - thus getting more by being merciful than he could have by sticking strictly to the letter of the law.

(Contrast this parable to the one where the man who owed his master money threw people in jail who couldn't pay him what they owed him in order to get out of his own debt. That man was condemned for being totally "just" - while this "unjust steward" was commended for not adhering strictly to the demands he could have made. Those "just" demands would have put others in jail, not done the rich man any good in the process and reduced the steward himself to death - since he had no other option, given his unwillingness to beg.)

The steward apparently learned an important lesson from his previous failure and successfully carried out a plan to minimize the damage to both himself and his "lord". He started to turn his life around (by being merciful, getting the most out of a bad situation and positioning himself to have another shot at it with someone else) and gave himself an opportunity to do somewhere else what he had been tasked to do in the first place.

I don't think there's a "higher" moral to this story than the obvious one - that it's better to tackle mistakes and bad judgments head-on and try to change your future in the here and now than to leave yourself unable to function in the world as a result of past mistakes (or to rely on the mercy of someone whose "goods" you've wasted). I think the point is simply:

Do the best you can to make the past and the future right - even if you've wasted your stewardship up to this point. Get out of the clutches of those who have claims over you and start fresh with a clean slate - and do a better job with your second chance than you did with the first.

or:

Repent and be merciful toward others, and God will commend you for your efforts.

I don't have to believe this parable actually was taught (although I do believe that), and I don't have to believe it's message is divine in some way. However, I think there are lessons that can be taken from it without "wresting" it in any way.

I think there are two main issues that have to be addressed in order to do so:

1) I think we modern people get hung up on the word "unjust" - and I don't see the steward's actions in the parable as "unethical" in any way. The dictionary definitions of "unjust" are:

a) not just; lacking in justice or fairness;

b) unfaithful or dishonest.

I found this definition enlightening, when viewed in the context of this parable:

not in accordance with accepted standards of fairness or justice

In this parable, one person paid 50% of what he owed, while the second person paid 80% of what he owed. (My guess is the difference was due to the ability of each person to repay the debt immediately - that the steward got as much from each person as was possible in a lump sum at the time.) The steward wasn't being "fair" - since he wasn't applying the same terms of repayment - or "just" or "faithful" - since he wasn't collecting for his boss what was owed to the boss - but he also wasn't being "dishonest" in any way. (See point #2 below for more about that.)

That's smart money management, IF the purpose is to get as much NOW as possible - for whatever reason. That was the steward's objective. Lenders do it all the time, now and all throughout history. If they have lent money and face the real probability that the borrower won't be able to pay it back in full, they work out a compromise, partial payment - and the terms often are "everything you can pay". It's not "unethical" at all - but, technically, it is "unjust". We don't bat an eye at the "unjustness" of it (especially if we are the beneficiaries) - and we generally commend the lenders who understand and try to work out alternate payment options. On the other hand, we generally castigate lenders who don't even try to understand exceptional circumstances and work with borrowers who need to rework their debt payments.

2) It's easy to forget that the steward still was responsible for the distribution of the rich man's goods and the payments for them. That was his job. He did a lousy job of it, but it still was his job. He hadn't been fired yet at the time the parable relates. He had the authority to do whatever he wanted to collect his lord's debts - and he chose to exercise that authority in an "unjust" but totally "ethical" way. He got the rich man as much as could be expected before he was fired, so the rich man understandably commended him for that - even though (I think) he still was fired for wasting his lord's goods.

I don't know exactly what the original point was for this parable, but I can see very good lessons that can be taken from it about repentance and duty.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Exaltation Is a Core Biblical Teaching

Exaltation is the Mormon equivalent of theosis, and the core of theosis is ancient and exists within and beyond Christianity.

It is the same general concept as the Eastern idea of the final state of being after a complete reincarnative existence. In Christianity, it is centered in the Biblical verses and passages that say we can become one with God - and I see that theme running from Genesis through Revelations. It was championed by early church leaders, and it still is taught in the Eastern Orthodox Church - which is my favorite Christian religion outside of Mormonism, for what that's worth. As I mentioned in the post last Thursday about what constitutes "the Gospel", I see Jesus of Nazareth as having preached the concept of theosis as central to his "good news" - and it is found in passages throughout nearly all of the epistles of the New Testament. The Intercessory prayer in John 17 is perhaps the best example.

Frankly, if anyone reads the Bible without theological preconceptions, I think it is very hard not to reach the conclusion that becoming like God is a major thread running through the entire compilation (although it isn't as explicit in the Old Testament as in the New Testament) - and, interestingly, it is not a thread at all in the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith came to believe it passionately (and even radically, I would say), but that belief developed as he focused on his Bible translation efforts, not before or during the publication of the Book of Mormon. I think that's one of the strongest reasons he once said that the main difference between Mormons and other Christians is that we believe the Bible, and they don't. (not "in the Bible", but what the Bible actually teaches)

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Atonement: Sin, Transgression and Accountability

I tend to define sin as conscious choices that pull me away from God in some way and for which I am responsible - and I tend to categorize those things as acting against my own conscience. I tend to define transgression as unintentionally acting in a way that would pull me away from God in some way and for which I am not accountable - and I tend to categorize those things as the gap between my conscience and God's will.

I really love the distinction between sin and transgression in Mormon theology, and I tend to place more things in the realm of transgression and fewer things in the realm of sin than most members.

I believe there is absolute good and absolute bad - but I like James' definition of sin in his epistle: knowing to do good and not doing it.

The reason I distinguish so explicitly between sin and transgression is that I believe in the concept of "atonement" that doesn't punish people for transgressions - those things that are wrong in an objective sense but are not understood to be wrong by the people who do them. I link "sin" to "judgment" and "guilt" - so I define it as acting in opposition to one's understanding and conscience.

I also see a big difference between "wrong" and "sin" - and, like transgression, the central difference is intent and/or understanding.

I think the best example in our theology (and law) is the case of diminished capacity, especially with clear cases of mental disability. I think all of us are "disabled" in ways we don't understand fully, so I think "sin" occurs less often than we tend to believe.

Don't get me wrong: I support defining "sin" and "crime" communally and making general standards to ensure safety and stability. However, I believe in recognizing them as generalized communal standards and not eternal absolutes that apply equally to every person - and even the law recognizes that the same action isn't the same thing and shouldn't incur the same penalty when something about the circumstances surrounding the actions is different.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Is There Really Life After Death?

I believe so, but I have never had an experience that allows me to say I know.

I choose to believe in some kind of continued existence simply because I don't want to accept the alternative.

I choose to believe in the concept and principle of exaltation (eternal progression) simply because it's super cool and I want it to be true.  It represents the hope of something I have not seen. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

What Aspects of Our Religion Are Included in "The Gospel"?

At the most fundamental level, I see "the Gospel" as nothing more than the Book of Mormon description: faith (in the Lord, Jesus Christ), repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost and enduring to the end - with divine parental love as the underlying principle on which it all hangs.

I see the Gospel in its simplest definition as the "good news" Jesus preached - and that good news is centered on one concept:

I am a child of God.


I believe every truly unique doctrine within Mormonism, especially compared with Protestantism, derives from that concept, and I believe the zenith of that teaching of the good news is the Intercessory Prayer in John 17 - that all of us can become one with GOD, the Father (and Mother), and God, the Son, in the same way they are one. For me, everything else is variable detail - pieces of various puzzles that people use to attempt to fill the same framework or images on mosaics that we create in order to become a "true and living" replica of God.

I see the good news as the idea that such efforts to become godly replicas are not pointless or in vain - that these mortal caterpillar exteriors we inhabit really will be shed at some point, and we will emerge as the butterflies we were created to be. That requires faith, since, like caterpillars, we don't get to see the process of metamorphosis that makes us what we aren't currently (the cocoon process occurring for us after death - theologically phrased as "the spirit world" prior to becoming new, "resurrected" beings), but I believe it is that belief and hope in the unseen (that "faith") that is the foundation of the gospel Jesus preached - and it is the central "power of godliness" that is mentioned in JSH 1:19 that was denied within the Protestant creeds of Joseph's time (and still is now).

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

"Building on", Not "Contradicting"

There have been a lot of times in my life when someone has said something at church that is different in some way than I see it.  (To be fair, I'm positive that many other people could say the same thing about lots of things I've said at church.)  In some of those situations, I've felt it was necessary to explain to my children why I didn't agree with what was said, but I don't try to contradict them.  I like "building on" rather than "contradicting", since I rarely tell my children that I am right and the other person is wrong.  There are times, however, when I have contradicted something that someone else has said in a meeting or class of some kind. I've tried to do it with humor and a specific reinforcement that I love the person who said it, but I've done it, nonetheless.

I mentioned in a post a while ago an example of a former church leader who said from the pulpit how proud he was that his son chose to date only other members. This was in "the mission field", and my teenage daughters at the time were the only active members in the entire town in which we lived. There were no Mormon young men in their high school - or within a 20 miles radius of their house. My daughters were incredulous, so we talked about the impractical nature of that personal opinion on our way home from the meeting.  I stressed how much I loved and respected the person who made the statement - and I was completely sincere in those statements. He is a wonderful man, and I learned a lot from my time associating with him.

I'm my kids' parent, and, more than anything else, I want them to learn to think for themselves, to wean themselves from needing to borrow my light (or that of anyone else) and to construct their own faith. I hope deeply it is within Mormonism and the LDS Church, but if it isn't, so be it. I'm trying to train them to be adults, and part of that is crafting their own beliefs and perspectives while not ridiculing and rejecting those who craft differently than they do.

I'd rather they start that process early, in their natural "developmental" stage when things still are being molded, than have to help them pick up the pieces when a less mature, more rigid paradigm shatters later in life.