Monday, March 31, 2014

What if One Spouse Leaves the LDS Church? What Should the Other Spouse Do?

I think perhaps the greatest command given "outside the law" was the first command given - to "cleave unto her and none else". Adam chose to be cast out of the presence of God to stay with Eve. In other words, in a very real way, Adam chose his wife over God - exercising faith that God would take care of that separation somehow.

In the context of church activity and membership, I'm NOT saying one spouse has to or even should leave the LDS Church if the other spouse leaves or isn't a member. I'm not saying that at all. For some, that might be the only option - but I don't think it is even close to the "ideal" solution for the vast majority of people, and I would not recommend it for the vast majority of people who are in that type of situation. I believe people need to be as true to their own consciences as is possible, while being willing to make acceptable sacrifices to stay together. (I'm not including abusive situations in any way when I say that - which is a totally different discussion.)

So, my advice to all who are or will be married is:

Cleave unto her / him, regardless of religious differences.

- or, as a friend whose wife left the Church said years ago, work to make your marriage stronger despite your differences in whatever way you can.  

Work to become truly "one" - since I believe God won't split two-become-one. Our temple work (for the living, but especially for the dead) is the tangible "proof" of our belief in that principle. I believe it applies just as much to any two living people as to any other two dead people. Become "sealed" in practical terms, and I believe you will be "sealed" by divine declaration in the end.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sunday School Lesson Recap: The Atonement as Taught in Our Hymns

Last Sunday, we talked about how the Atonement is taught in our hymns. We used the sacrament songs as the text, going through as many as we could (in numerical order in the hymn book) in the time we had - having each student read one verse at a time and summarize the message of that verse.

It was interesting to lead them through a study of what is taught in the hymns and point out how many atonement theories (lesson from earlier this month) were mentioned. I won't go into detail for all the hymns, but it is a fascinating process I recommend highly.  I do want to mention, however, one thing that hit me and about which we talked in more detail at the end of the lesson.

A number of the hymns we read talked about partaking of the sacrament with clean hands and/or a pure heart. (e.g., "Let us remember and be sure our hearts and hands are clean and pure." "In Jesus' name we ask thee to bless and sanctify, if we are pure before thee . . ." etc.)

"O Lord of Hosts" (#178), however, in its entirety, says the following, emphasis added:

O Lord of Hosts, we now invoke thy Spirit most divine to cleanse our hearts WHILE we partake the broken bread and wine. May we forever think of thee and of thy suffering sore, endured for us on Calvary, and praise thee ever more. Prepare our minds that we many see the beauties of thy grace - salvation purchased on that tree for all who seek thy face.


I pointed out the contrast between the idea that we need to be pure to partake and be blessed and the idea that partaking is part of the process of cleansing wrought by the Atonement - that we don't have to be perfectly clean and pure but, rather, are required merely to be actively and sincerely seeking God.

I told them about a dear friend who went to the temple for the first time and was overwhelmed by the covenants he made - who was a wonderful man but didn't return to the temple for about 15 years, since he felt fundamentally unworthy. I told them that I hoped they never latched onto the idea that we need to wear ourselves out and become "perfect" before the Atonement can benefit us but that, as the song above teaches, strive to "seek (his) face" and allow the Atonement to be a force for progress in that pursuit - that we see it not so much as a reward in the next life but more as a guiding light in this life.

Friday, March 28, 2014

To Some Is Given Not to Know or Believe

According to our scriptures (D&C 46:13-14):

To some is given to know . . .

To some is given to believe on those who know . . .

I would add:

To some is given not to know or believe, but to do the best they can, regardless.


I've said before that I feel sympathy for Laman and Lemuel when they said, "He maketh no such thing known unto us." (1 Nephi 15:19)  Maybe they just were being totally honest and snapped when Lehi and Nephi couldn't understand that. Maybe they couldn't handle the constant, unrealistic expectations and got pushed over the edge. On the other hand, maybe they really were nothing more than wicked jerks - but I tend to think it was WAY more complicated than that.

So, I'm left with the belief that people perceive and feel and intuit and know differently - which is why "all men everywhere" (including inside the LDS Church) must be allowed to "worship almighty God according to the dictates of (their) own conscience".  It's why I love the simple words of Jesus in Matthew 7:20 when he focused away from professed belief and zeroed in on actions:

Wherefore, by their fruits ye shall know them.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Strong Should Be Humble and Kind

The being that has comparatively no strong passion to overcome ought constantly to walk in the vale of humility, rather than boast of his righteousness over his brother... Those who have not strong passions to contend with, day by day, and year by year, should walk in the vale of humiliation [humility]; and if brethren and sisters are overtaken in fault, your hearts should be filled with kindness—with brotherly, angelic feeling—to overlook their faults as far as possible. (Brigham Young, remarks made in the Bowery, Great Salt Lake City, July 22, 1860. Reported by G.D. Watt.)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Literal Foundation of Symbolism and Figurative Teachings

I have come to accept lots of things within the teachings of Mormonism as symbolic and figurative, things that most members see as literal, but, at the heart of it all, my faith is very literal and focused on the concept of the relationship between God, as a real Father, Jesus, as a real Son, and all of us, as real children - that, "I am a child of God, and He has sent me here," and that, "As God is, (hu)man(s) may become." For me, that foundation is literal - even, again, as I have come to view many aspects of our "details" about that foundation as symbolic or best approximations. 

I believe one of the geniuses of profound prophetic vision is the ability to take the literal and the symbolic and meld them into a cohesive narrative that allows individuals to see either (or even both) within that narrative.  I think Jesus was the Master at that - with the Biblical parables as a great example, but Joseph Smith also was phenomenal at it - with his repositioning of Heaven within the temple, the placing of Eden in his own land, etc.  Literal and/or figurative, those narratives have great power - and they all are centered on the literalness of our intimate relationship as a human family. 

I really don't care all that much about how individuals see the "details", but the literalness of the foundation itself is very important to me.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

From the Mouths of Babes, Indeed: Hilarious Also Can Be Profound

In at thread at Real Intent, MS Keller shared the following story: 

I remember when my youngest turned 8, and we began to talk baptism. We asked him when he would like to be baptized. (His birthday is in May.)  

He said, “I think. . . . . . November.”

We were a little curious as to what significance that had, but when asked he replied with a cheery smile:

I want to live a little first.” 

Sometimes, children sum up complex things in amazing and insightful ways.  We tend to laugh, but we also ought to pause and contemplate how profound their statements are.  

Monday, March 24, 2014

Defining Spiritual Maturity

As a framework within which to discuss spiritual maturity, I think it's important to recognize that there are things that can be said privately that can't be said publicly - in ALL groups of any kind. That's just social communion and sensitivity. On the other hand, I say things all the time in church that others would have a hard time saying without push-back, because I've had to do so all my life and have become fairly good at doing it in a productive, acceptable way - and because everyone knows I'm a "faithful", orthoprax member and not a threat in any way.

Spiritual maturity, to me, is about being comfortable with reality (mine and others'), even when there are parts of reality (mine and others') that I am trying to change. It's not expecting more than people can do and be (including myself). It's an empathetic orientation - even when there are things that bother me and that I am trying to change. It's judging carefully and minimally (only as much as is absolutely necessary) and always remaining open to the possibility that I might be wrong in even those judgments.

Spiritual maturity, to me, is close to "perfect faith (whole, complete, fully developed hope)" - or, recognizing the limits of my (and others') understanding and being at peace with those limits. That "limitation peace" is the foundation of growth, since it allows me to pursue "further light and knowledge" while being okay with my (and others') dark sight in the moment.

Spiritual maturity, to me, is knowing what you know, believing what you believe, understanding that you don't know what you don't know, etc. - and realizing that every one of those lists is subject to change - and being at peace with that possibility.

Spiritual maturity, to me, is being totally fine that not everyone is spiritually mature - and that some people are really, really spiritually immature.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sunday School Lesson Recap: The Atonement: Questions about Becoming Like God

My wife, my oldest son and I spoke in Sacrament Meeting today on the Atonement (outlines of our talks coming when I get the time), so in Sunday School we held another question and answer session about the Godhead, the Plan of Salvation and the Atonement. Two week ago, one of the students had asked a question that we didn't have time to discuss adequately, and I told them we would do so in a different lesson - so we started with that question.

1) When we talk about becoming like God, do we mean that we will end up as "equals" to Heavenly Father - or is Heavenly Father the "top God", so we always will be subject to / below Him?

First, I asked how the students would answer that question - if any of them had a particularly strong belief one way or the other. Two of the students said they tend to see it as becoming like God but always being subordinate to Heavenly Father, and one of them used the example of studying Greek mythology and how Zeus, Poseidon and Hades were the "ruling Gods" among the broader group of gods. I mentioned how interesting it is that our Godhead / Trinity concept is so similar in that regard, being composed of three gods, and then I described how members differ in how they answer the question - that, like so many other topics, faithful members can disagree or reach different conclusions.

2) Where does God live? Isn't there something in the scriptures that talks about a planet where God lives? Will we live on our own planets and create / manage our own universes?

We read from Abraham about Kolob, and I pointed out that it is said to be "near unto God" - NOT the actual dwelling place of God. We talked about our Article of Faith that mentions the fate of this Earth - that it will become a paradise and that we tend to interpret that to mean that it will become the Celestial Kingdom for those who lived on it. I mentioned the Church's recent statement that says we don't teach officially that each couple will get their own planet, and I said that we have no idea, really, if Heavenly Father lives somewhere with Heavenly Mother on a planet of their own - or if they were once human (the famous couplet) and live somewhere with other God-couples who also lived on whatever "Earth" was their mortal home - or if there is some other arrangement for them and us. I had mentioned in my Sacrament Meetings talk Elder Maxwell's quote about the dimensions of the cross not being as important as what happened on it, and I told them that this sort of discussion was a great example of not getting so caught up in the details that we miss the central message - that it's FAR more important that we believe in becoming like God than exactly where and in what situation we will be living.

3) When I mentioned the quote about the cross, that lead to a discussion of different views about the cross - why it happened that way, questions about the form of the cross used, where the cross fits in our theology, etc.

The main take-away from the discussion that I want to record here was that we do NOT reject the cross and shouldn't reject or ridicule others' use of the cross as a symbol of their faith, even if we don't use it as much as or like they do. I told them that the cross for most faithful Christians is like our temple garment - that they wear it as a manifestation and reminder of their faith. I told them that if we don't want people to mock the temple garment, we shouldn't mock their use of the cross.

That ended our question and answer period, so I used the remaining time to discuss again the Beatitudes and what they mean in our lives - since the main point of my Sacrament Meeting talk was that Jesus' life is just as important a part of the Atonement as the Garden of Gethsemane and Golgotha - and that we limit the Atonement and miss one of the most powerful elements of it when we focus exclusively on the Garden and the Cross, as important as they are.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Why I'm OK with a Fairly Large Number of Mediocre Talks in Church Meetings

I've had great church meetings, really good ones, good ones, mediocre ones, bad ones and really bad ones - probably on a fairly standard bell curve. (meaning that most of them have been in the middle categories)  I've had more that were a variety of multiple designations (and occasionally pretty much all the designations) than could be classified in only one way, since most of them involved multiple speakers, multiple topics and multiple speaking abilities. I've heard more mediocre-great talks than bad-horrible talks - and the ratio probably isn't very close, even if there were more mediocre-really good talks than great talks.

I view it kind of like I view my high school classes and the blessings I've given in my life:

I'm willing to put up with the bad and the merely good in order to experience the great and the paradigm-altering -- even if the ratio is 9:1 or higher. I don't expect a better ratio, so I'm not disappointed - at least, not in the aggregate. My mind still is blown occasionally by an incredible talk, even after over 40 years in the Church, and, often, it is by someone whom I would not have expected to blow me away.  It not only is a mind-blowing joy when that happens, but it also is humbling in a powerful way - since it illustrates to me again how badly we often judge others

What I'm saying is that we can't expect meetings where lay people speak to be full of amazing talks. We should expect a wide array of skills - and a number of talks that just don't apply or appeal to us. That's not depressing to me in the slightest; it's reality - and it's charitable, which is really important.

I don't have low expectations, overall. I don't mean to imply that in what I've written.  What I mean is that I don't expect mind-blowing, superb discourses most of the time, so I'm not disappointed when it only happens occasionally.

Just to illustrate my point a bit differently:

I am a very good public speaker. It's a strength and a natural gift. Most people aren't like that, and the only ways to change that are to give them chances to learn. So, I put up with "merely good" talks most of the time and thoroughly enjoy the ones that rock my spiritual world.

Having said that, I know people who weren't inspired much by talks I've given, despite my natural ability in that area. I don't think it's depressing that they have to accept me as a speaker to experience the ones that really stir their souls.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Confessions of a Mormon Bishop

Confessions of a Mormon Bishop - Russ Hill (Russ Hill Media)

Interesting post, with some really thoughtful things. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Those Who Are Ready for Meat Can Be Malnourished If They Are Served Only Milk

"When I was a child, I thought as a child," is easy to understand and perpetuate - but Paul also said, "When I became a man, I put away childish things."

I know it's cliche and too broadly quoted, but there really is great wisdom in the idea of milk before meat. The problem arises when it's time for meat and only milk is still being served. The lure and temptation is to focus on those who still need milk and call it a reasonable sacrifice for those who are ready to eat meat; the problem is that those who can eat meat need to eat meat to remain strong - or, to be more precise, to grow stronger.

Our ultimate goal isn't for everyone to be reasonably healthy - or even for nobody to be sickly; it's for everyone eventually to be incredibly strong.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Breastfeeding and Modesty

Last year, a debate erupted about the appropriateness of public breastfeeding - particularly in church.  It was a sad commentary on how deeply Victorian attitudes about the physical body and sex still influence the way we see and talk of topics that are, at the core, quite simple. 

In a thread on Real Intent, Silver Rain wrote the most concise, profound comment I read anywhere about the issue.  The post was entitled "Modesty & Breastfeeding", and I am copying Silver Rain's comment in its entirety, with the thesis statement bolded for emphasis:

"The answer to the question [Is breastfeeding in public modest?] is in the original post. You were taught that body modesty is not using our bodies to get attention and approval. (Which throws female attractiveness into the realm of debate, but it’s another debate.) If someone is publicly breastfeeding in order to attract attention or dis/approval, it is immodest. If they are just trying to feed their baby and accomplish other tasks as well (listening in Church, running a meeting, travelling from one place to another,) it is modest. It has nothing to do with what the reactions of OTHERS are.

That is the fine line between body obsession and modesty."

Monday, March 17, 2014

Boredom and Sacrament Meeting

I had a good friend who struggled to feel the Spirit in her ward.  We were talking one day, and she asked the following question:

So, if you're bored in the speaker portion of Sacrament meeting, does this simply mean you're not spiritual enough?

My response to her, knowing her as well as I do, was:

Not necessarily. It often means that the meetings aren't spiritual enough - and that can be for a number of reasons. Maybe the speaker just didn't prepare diligently and seek the guidance of the Spirit.  Maybe the speaker tried but doesn't have any good public speaking skills and the delivery simply was awkward and hard to follow.  Maybe the topic of the talk was not "worshipful" in nature and, therefore, would have been hard even for an experienced speaker to present in an uplifting, spiritual way. 

Having said that, if you are bored on a regular basis, you might need to focus on your own spirituality in some way.  If you are bored during a sincere attempt by a non-professional congregant to share his or her heart in a talk that was prepared with fear and trembling and who simply suffers from anxiety, lack of experience and/or poor public speaking skills - I'd say, maybe, you aren't charitable enough.

In practice, it usually is a two-way street, especially over the long haul.

Having said all of that, I have said that the single biggest detriment to spirituality in the Church often is non-spiritual Sacrament Meetings and non-educational Sunday School lessons - things that could stretch our understanding and enlarge our souls, but that can dull us if they stagnate for long stretches of time.  Making our meetings more spiritual, enlightening and satisfying is the best antidote for boredom - and it is much more constructive than blaming the congregation for feeling bored during meetings that don't live up to their purpose and potential.  

Friday, March 14, 2014

What is "The Church"?

"The Church" is many things, depending on the application and what is meant by the person using the term.

I know that's incredibly vauge, but it has to be - since it's such a subjective, abstract, malleable term.

When I use the term, I usually try to differentiate by using "The Church" to mean the entire LDS Church - or the global church leadership - or the prevailing doctrinal viewpoint - or something like that vs. "the church" to mean the local church unit or simply the meetinghouse. However, just like I did in the last sentence, I almost always have to use disclaimers or modifiers or descriptors when I make such distinctions - since they generally aren't going to be understood on their own as isolated terms. ("The Church" vs. "the church") Therefore, my most common shorthand is "The global Church" or "the local church".

Those two entities are radically different organizations. For example, all LDS members and I share membership in the same Church, but our churches sometimes are very, very different. I have found that most members can overlook a lot of things that bother them about "The Church" to which they "belong" as long as "the church" they "attend" is a welcoming, accommodating place. I also have found that many members can overlook a lot of things that bother them about "the church" as long as they have had an experience (or experiences) with "The Church" that is transcendent in some way. When the two are aligned positively, it's Nirvana; when the two are in conflict, it's manageable (and even can be uplifting and growth-inducing); when the two are aligned negatively, it's very difficult. There is a baseline "tipping point" in this balance that varies for each individual - and those who leave generally do so, in my opinion, when NEITHER "The Church" nor "the church" provides enough growth, empowerment, peace, etc. to make the required sacrifices worthwhile to them personally.

Therefore, the initial pursuit for many who struggle is the search for a paradigm that will allow them to find balance in the force, so to speak - something positive about their interaction with "The Church" and/or their involvement in "the church" that will counteract the negative in the other. That is a good and necessary endeavor, but it isn't the foundational pursuit I believe is the best endeavor for those who don't want to leave. Fundamentally, I believe the ultimate endeavor is to figure out one's view of God and "true religion" and then to pursue THAT objective within "The Church" and/or "the church" (and it really can be one or both, depending on which one works best for each person).

So, to reiterate, "The Church" can be whatever we individually make of it - understanding that it isn't just one thing, even though it really is "something" or "some things". We really can become agents unto ourselves in how we navigate our own path within both - and that truth really can make us free.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Being an Instrument of Change: Differing Scriptural Examples and Our Personal Responsibilities

Many people have asked me what they need to do to be an instrument of positive change in their sphere of influence.  My response is very simple:

We need to do the best we can, regardless of the outcome we expect or for which we merely hope. Period.

We have to be willing to work for change even if we believe it won't happen.  Changing the world, even on a small scale, requires a degree of faith that change can happen.  Sometimes, it happens; sometimes it doesn't; either way, we have to be willing to try. 

The best examples of this in the Book of Mormon are the Alma, the Younger, and the sons of Mosiah, who succeeded far beyond anyone's expectations - and, conversely, the general, Mormon, leading his people out of love for them even though he had absolutely no hope that they would repent and watching them get slaughtered. In the Bible, it might be Elijah - who preached for years and only saw one conversion.  We aren't in such a radical, bleak situation - and we might just have a Jonah experience where people we assumed were too hard-hearted to repent actually do repent. (which, btw, is what I beleive to be the main point of that story - that even the very wicked can change, and we shouldn't begrudge them that change or think we are better than they are just because of their wickedness, since we might have no idea the cause of that wickedness and their ability to repent) 

We can't serve only in situations where we reasonably can expect great results - at least not if our objective is to make radical changes on a (relatively) broad scale.  Being effective has its place, and it is an important place, but calculations of effectiveness rob of us the opportunity to make a real, widespread difference in the world - again, no matter how broadly we define that world.  

Monday, March 10, 2014

Helping Only Those Whose Plight I Can't Help but See

I have been struck by how we (the generic "we") ignore others who are different than we are - and how we justify that rejection by citing all the other things that crowd our lives and take away our time.

If someone had asked all those who passed by the injured Samaritan why they had done so, I'm positive they would have had "reasons" for why they didn't stop and help. At heart, though, I wonder if they felt superior to the man lying on the side of the road - if they felt like the man had brought it on himself - if they felt disgust or revulsion or fear or arrogance at a higher level than they felt compassion and concern and love and humility.

In the past I've dealt with some people who made it really hard for me to live what I preach and believe - and I wonder how I would react if I was in a hurry and saw one of them in such a situation. I'm sure I would stop - but I wonder what I would do if it was someone I didn't know who appeared to be a dirty, smelly, jobless, drunken bum. Would I be the good Samaritan - or would I be one of the others who found an excuse to walk by on the other side?

More broadly, should I be seeking more diligently to find and serve those who are the modern equivalent of the poor, the lepers, the publicans, the sinners, etc.? Am I missing the point of the parable even if I do stop and help one person whose plight I can't help but see - and is the reason I might only see "the one", perhaps, that I don't value "the ones" that are harder to see as much as I value myself and those I know and love?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Classic Atonement Theories throughout History

Warning: This is a LONG recap, since I am including the handout verbiage I gave each student.

First, however, I want to highlight the purpose of the lesson today and make a few points about how it went. This is not going to be the typical chronological review of most weeks' summaries.

1) I wanted the students to be exposed to classic Christian atonement theories over time - to see how theologians have framed the atonement in various ways. In a way, I approached this lesson as a condensed college class in Atonement Theory 101.

2) I wanted the students to realize that Mormon theology, in practical terms, does NOT have "the one true atonement theory" - that, rather, the way we talk about the Atonement encompasses all of the official theories to some degree. Our framing is much more a comprehensive puzzle or mosaic of all recorded theories than it is a distinct theory of its own. It is kind of the "we seek after these things" version, in which elements can be taken from otherwise competing theories.

3) I wanted the students to think about each of the seven theories we discussed and see which one resonated the most deeply with each of them individually. Interestingly (and gratifyingly), when I summarized each of them at the end and asked the students which one was their favorite, six of the theories got at least one vote - meaning only one theory (the "ransom theory") didn't receive any votes. (That theory didn't get any votes simply because none of them liked the idea that our sins brought about a payment to Satan as our captor. One student said that he couldn't accept that Satan was successful in kidnapping us and getting rewarded for it.) Also of interest is that the penal substitution theory received only one vote.

With that overall summary, the following is the material from the printout I gave each of them. We read most of it and discussed it as we read.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
From Wikipedia - one case where it does a good job of presenting accurate information:

In theology, atonement is a doctrine that describes how human beings can be reconciled to God. In Christian theology the atonement refers to the forgiving or pardoning of sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which made possible the reconciliation between God and his creation. Within Christianity there are, historically, three or four main theories for how such atonement might work:

The ransom theory / Christus Victor (which are different, but generally considered together as "classical", it being argued that these were the traditional understandings of the early Church Fathers);

The moral influence theory, which Aulen considered to be developed by Peter Abelard (called by him the "idealistic" view),

The satisfaction theory developed by Anselm of Canterbury (called by Aulen the "scholastic" view),

The penal substitution theory (which is a refinement of the Anselmian satisfaction theory developed by the Protestant Reformers, especially John Calvin, and is often treated together with the satisfaction view, giving rise to the "four main types" of atonement theories - classical or patristic, scholastic, and idealistic - spoken of by Aulen).

There are other theories of atonement, but the above are the main ones. Other theories include the recapitulation theory, the "shared atonement" theory and the scapegoat theory.

The English word 'atonement' originally meant "at-one-ment", i.e. being "at one", in harmony, with someone. It is used to describe the saving work that God did through Christ to reconcile the world to himself, and also of the state of a person having been reconciled to God. Throughout the centuries, Christians have used different metaphors and given differing explanations of the atonement to express how the atonement might work. Churches and denominations may vary in which metaphor or explanation they consider most accurately fits into their theological perspective; however all Christians emphasize that Jesus is the Savior of the world and through his death the sins of mankind have been forgiven. The four most well known theories are briefly described below:

The earliest explanation for how the atonement works is nowadays often called the "moral influence" theory. In this view the core of Christianity is positive moral change, and the purpose of everything Jesus did was to lead humans toward that moral change. He is understood to have accomplished this variously through his teachings, example, founding of the Church, and the inspiring power of his martyrdom and resurrection. This view was universally taught by the early church leaders in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, along with what is called by Aulen the classical or patristic view, which can be variously interpreted as Ransom or Recapitulation, or under the general heading of "Christus Victor". The moral influence theory also enjoyed popularity during the Middle Ages and is most often associated in that period with Peter Abelard. Since the Protestant Reformation it has been advocated by many theologians, including Kant, Hastings and Tillich. It remains the most popular view of atonement among theologically liberal Christians.

Chronologically, the second explanation, first clearly enunciated by Irenaeus, is the "ransom" theory. "Christus victor" and "ransom" are slightly different from each other, since in the ransom metaphor Jesus liberates mankind from slavery to sin and Satan and thus death by giving his own life as a ransom sacrifice. (Matthew 20:28) Victory over Satan consists of swapping the life of the perfect (Jesus), for the lives of the imperfect (mankind). The "Christus Victor" theory sees Jesus not used as a ransom but rather defeating Satan in a spiritual battle and thus freeing enslaved mankind by defeating the captor. This theory 'continued for a thousand years to influence Christian theology, until it was finally shifted and discarded by Anselm'.

The third metaphor, used by the 11th century theologian Anselm, is called the "satisfaction" theory. In this picture mankind owes a debt not to Satan, but to the sovereign God himself. A sovereign may well be able to forgive an insult or an injury in his private capacity, but because he is a sovereign he cannot if the state has been dishonoured. Anselm argued that the insult given to God is so great that only a perfect sacrifice could satisfy, and that Jesus, being both God and man, was this perfect sacrifice. Therefore, the doctrine would be that Jesus gave himself as a “ransom for many”, to God the Father himself.

The next explanation, which was a development by the Reformers of Anselm's satisfaction theory, is the commonly held Protestant "penal substitution" theory, which, instead of considering sin as an affront to God’s honor, sees sin as the breaking of God’s moral law. Placing a particular emphasis on Romans 6:23 (the wages of sin is death), penal substitution sees sinful man as being subject to God’s wrath with the essence of Jesus' saving work being his substitution in the sinner's place, bearing the curse in the place of man (Galatians 3:13). A variation that also falls within this metaphor is Hugo Grotius’ "governmental theory", which sees Jesus receiving a punishment as a public example of the lengths to which God will go to uphold the moral order.

The less prominent atonement theories include:

The “recapitulation theory”, in which Christ is seen as the new Adam who succeeds where Adam failed. Christ undoes the wrong that Adam did and, because of his union with humanity, leads humankind on to eternal life (including morality). According to William Barclay, man’s disobedience the process of the evolution of the human race went wrong, and the course of its wrongness could neither be halted nor reversed by any human means. But in Jesus Christ the whole course of human evolution was perfectly carried out and realized in obedience to the purpose of God.

The “shared atonement theory”, in which the atonement is spoken of as shared by all. In this view, God sustains the universe. Therefore if Jesus was God in human form, when he died, we all died with him, and when he rose from the dead, we all rose with him.

The “scapegoat theory”, in which Jesus took the place of the tradition goat that was loaded with the sins of the people and driven into the wilderness to die with those sins – which, therefore, could not return to the people. In this view, Jesus took upon himself the sins of the people (going backward and forward in time to encompass all who ever have lived) in such a way that their sins cannot return to them.

Kevin Barney’s post “Atonement Stew” on By Common Consent  (March 2009)

When I was young, I thought there was something wrong with me. I didn’t have any idea how the Atonement worked. So far as I could tell, I was the only one who suffered from this malady. Others would say how glad they were that we had the perfect understanding of the Atonement, and I would always wonder what they were talking about, because I just didn’t understand it. I still remember feeling embarrassed about this ignorance of mine and wondering why everyone else seemed to have a handle on this doctrine that I just couldn’t grasp. This state of my (non)understanding continued throughout my mission.

At some point after my mission I read the chapter on the Atonement in Sterling McMurrin’s Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, and my eyes were finally opened. What had always seemed to me a meaningless jumble of ideas and concepts actually reflected discrete theories (or metaphors) that developed historically over time. People acted as though there were a single Atonement theory that we understood well, and I could never see it. But now I knew the reason I could never see it is that it didn’t exist. People would mix and match concepts and vocabulary from these different concepts as though they were part of a coherent whole, apparently without realizing that they were doing so.

(We skipped Kevin's summary of the main theories, since we had discussed them from the Wikipedia article.)

After I learned about this, I still didn’t really understand the Atonement, but at least now the way we talked about it made sense to me, and I could appreciate the historical development of the different ideas people tossed around. I at least understood why I hadn’t understood it before.

While I was in law school, my EQP was Michael Hicks (now a professor of music at BYU), and he had a terrific handout in which he illustrated each theory by snippets from different LDS hymns. The handout was maybe three pages long, and each theory had about 3/4 of a page (single spaced) with illustrations devoted to it. I wish I still had that handout, but I looked and couldn’t find it among my papers. But it scarcely matters; anyone could go through our hymns and create one for oneself.

Next time you’re sitting there singing the sacrament hymn in church, think about this. For example, “Behold the Great Redeemer Die” is immediately followed by the lines “a broken law to satisfy/he dies a sacrifice for sin,” mingling concepts from the satisfaction and substitution theories in adjacent lines.

So I no longer feel so self-conscious about my ignorance concerning the Atonement. But I’m also not overly impressed by occasional expressions of our supposed greater light and knowledge on this subject. Sure, we have some insights on the margins, such as a greater emphasis on Gethsemane. But as far as I can tell, we dip our ladle from the very same pot of Atonement stew of theories that all Christians do.

Comments from the post:

1) “It seems like there are two competing ways of approaching the Atonement – the inquisitive approach such as you manifest here, vs the approach that says that the Atonement is inherently mysterious and paradoxically unapproachable. Those who ascribe to this second approach almost make it a point of pride to not look to closely at the Atonement, like giving away the magician’s secrets or something. I confess I waver between the two approaches; sometimes I want to know exactly how it works, sometimes I just want to bask in it.

2) “I’m also of both minds simultaneously. On the one hand, of course I would like to understand the mechanics of how the Atonement works. A Jewish peasant was killed 2,000 years ago–how exactly does that have anything to do with me and my salvation? Part of me would like someone to be able to walk me through the mechanical steps of how that all is supposed to work.

But, despite the various theories and metaphors, I don’t think we really have a handle on the mechanics of it all. Mormons generally aren’t big on the concept of mystery; like curious boys who subscribe to Popular Mechanics, we want to know how things work. And this is one where we don’t really know. I’m at peace with that.

Not all Mormons are, however. A few years ago I taught a lesson on the Atonement in EQ, and one of the quotes I used was from Talmage to the effect that in the end the atonement is beyond the capacity of our finite human minds to grasp. And I almost had a riot on my hands; the elders were highly offended that any part of the simple plan of salvation should be beyond our ken.”

3) “The four theories of atonement seem to present a ‘blind men and the elephant’ problem with each theory grasping different elements of something too big to be described by the smaller pieces, and in some senses the differences may seem to contradict, yet all part of a bigger whole.

I’m drawn to the ‘mystery’ approach, if just because I’ve found so much I don’t understand, I’ve grown comfortable in my cluelessness.”

4) At a Sunstone West many years ago, I heard Lorin K. Hansen deliver a version of what he later published in Dialogue vol 27 n1 (Spring 1994) as “The Moral Atonement as a Mormon Interpretation.” After surveying the various interpretations, he noted that he could divide them into “Objective” theories and “Subjective” theories, that is, “The Satisfaction and Penal Substitution theories of Christian Orthodoxy were predominantly objective interpretations: man and woman, according to these views were, are redeemed by God’s works, not their own works, for they are morally incapable of contributing to their own redemption. And the Moral-Influence theory (the predominant example of a “moral” theory of the Atonement) was a subjective interpretation; that is, man and woman are morally autonomous and are redeemed through their own initiative, responding to the moral example of Jesus Christ. So the polarization in Christian theology is primarily one of moral-subjective interpretation versus transactional objective interpretations.” (Hansen, 201)

So he made the case that the Book of Mormon uniquely includes both objective and and subjective atonement. (Hansen, 209). It’s a provocative piece that I’ve thought deserves more attention.

Recommendations to the students of interesting treatments of the Atonement:

Nibley’s “The Meaning of the Atonement"
Ostler’s “Com-passion Theory"
Eugene England’s “Shakespeare and the At-One-ment of Christ”
Margaret Barker’s “Atonement: The Rite of Healing”
Truman Madsen’s “The Olive Press”
Rene Girard’s “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning”

Friday, March 7, 2014

Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church

I found the article linked below, and I thought some of you who read my blog might be interested in reading it. I only am including here the main reasons the article lists for young adults leaving their churches. Feel free to read the article and excerpt other things for discussion - or simply to discuss any or all of the reasons below.

"Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church"

Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.

Reason #2 – Teens’ and twenty-somethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.

Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.

Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.

Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.

Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

To a Friend: Why I Choose to Be a Mormon

A friend asked me recently a few questions about my membership in the LDS Church.  They were thoughtful, sincere questions, and I thought I would share some of them here, along with my initial responses to them.  There are more reasons why I choose to be Mormon than are listed in this post (many more), but this is what I shared with my friend.  

Just a few, immediate responses:

1. What benefits does your Church provide that can't be provided by other temporal humanitarian or educational institutions?

a) An over-arching, empowering, transcendent theology that is radically different than anything else in Christianity. I've studied just about every other religion in existence (at the very least the large ones, including Christian denominations).  It's similar to the overall end-view of Buddhism, but it also provides a Brother-Savior and a Father-God framework that is MUCH more powerful for me than the more amorphous presentation within Buddhism. I could list many, many aspects of that theology, but it is the theological grandeur, in totality, that captivates and "benefits" me the most.

b) Theoretical balance and abundant paradox. Complexity that is baffling and unsettling to many, but which I value highly.

2. After a person has gained commitment to principles of honesty, charity, clean living, and overall goodness, what benefits does your Church provide? Are they significant enough given the high financial and emotional costs of being exposed to the long checklists of things you must do that you can never accomplish without destroying balance in your life?

Gaining those things is a foundational benefit that causes someone to "become" those things - and people who have become those things find a way to mitigate the general demands and find a balance that works for them, even if that balance is different than others' balance. Yes, the benefits are significant enough - IF a workable balance is found.  I have found such a balance for myself. 

3. What value do you see in participating?

Great, lasting, immeasurable value - as long as that participation is meaningful to me.

I know myself well enough to know that I need structure and general stability in order for my kite to fly without getting unhooked and burning up in the heat of the sun. I could jump off the theoretical / theological deep-end if left to myself.  I need my personal, pondering kite to fly (since I need to contemplate the cosmos, so to speak), but I also need the string that keeps it safely tethered - and my wife and kids and the LDS Church provide the tether to my kite.

Finally, I find GREAT value in trying to help others learn to fly - and I would feel extremely . . . ungrateful . . . if I didn't make that effort within the community that gave me wings.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

We Should Strive to Understand People As They Are

There is one principle I wish to urge upon the Saints in a way that it may remain with them - that is, to understand men and women as they are, and not understand them as you are.  (Remarks by President BRIGHAM YOUNG, made in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, April 6, 1860. Reported by GD Watt)

Monday, March 3, 2014

Service: Focus Is More Important than Specifics

I had a friend tell me once that he had experienced a particular crisis of faith that resulted in his being released from a position of leadership in his ward.  He told me he was struggling to figure out what to do to serve now that he no longer had the former structure that gave his service focus and meaning.  The following was my response to him: 

It doesn't really matter exactly what you do, as long as you are doing something to serve in a way you feel is important and meaningful.

So, pick something about which you can feel passionate - or about which your family can feel passionate as they serve with you.

Who knows? Maybe your faith crisis was God's way of prompting you to have an impact on a greater scale than you could have had solely in a leadership position in the Church - and maybe, just maybe, it will turn you into someone who actually can provide leadership on a broader scale in the Church in the future, since it might help you understand better others who struggle for whatever reason. I don't care about that as much as what you can do in the here and now, since I believe what you can do in the future will be influenced greatly by what you do in the here and now.  So, find a passion now and do it.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Student Questions and Answers Regarding the Plan of Salvation

Last Sunday, I wrote on the chalkboard the various elements that get outlined when we draw the classic map of the Plan of Salvation:

Pre-existence, veil of forgetfulness, creation, Garden of Eden, The Fall, birth, mortality, agency, death, The Spirit World, Judgment, Resurrection, Exaltation.

I told the students we had discussed the Plan of Salvation last February and this month in a lot of detail, from multiple angles, so today I had no prepared lesson plan and, instead, was opening up the entire class time to any questions they had about any of the topics on the board. I told them that they had heard "lessons" about this topic all their lives, so today was going to be nothing more than a free-flowing discussion about possible ways to answer any questions they have.

It was good for them to hear how many of their questions were answered first with, "We don't know, but . . ."

I can't recreate all of the conversations we had, but the following is a list of the questions they asked - and a summary of some things I want to highlight for this forum:

1) The veil of forgetfulness = Is it complete immediately at birth, or does it fade gradually?

We also talked about how some people simply are more spiritually inclined than others - like my wife's experience seeing and feeling her recently deceased father in the temple a couple of days ago, while I got no inkling of it whatsoever.

2) Near death experiences = Are they real?

Why can people remember what happened after they "died" but not what happened before they were born - if the veil is allowed to stay open for one experience, why is it still closed to the other experience?

3) Garden of Eden = Why did God create a mortal world and then place immortal Adam and Eve in it? How could immortal beings live in a mortal world?

We talked about multiple interpretations of the Garden narrative. It led to the next four questions.

4) How old is the Earth?

We talked about differing views of the age of the Earth, then we talked about how our teachings on the subject don't need to conflict with settled science. We also talked about how religion too often has been used as a club against science (with specific examples of the shape of the Earth and the rotation pattern of the solar system based on readings of the Bible) and how we can't let ourselves fall into that trap as further light and knowledge is revealed through scientific discovery. I told them that I view scientific discovery as revelation in every important way, since it uncovers what previously was unknown - the classic definition of revelation.

5) Where was the Garden of Eden, and how long were Adam and Eve in it - if it was a literal place on Earth?

The summary: "We don't know, but here are some opinions."

6) How do we view dinosaur bones? (The student had heard the idea of them being transplanted from a different world.)

See the summary of #4.

7) Was the material used to create the Earth already there, or was it brought from somewhere else?

We talked about the nature of matter according to Mormon theology, our rejection of ex nihilo creation and the visual presentation in the temple. ("Here is matter unorganized. Let us take it . . . the other worlds . . .")

8) When we say we can become like God, do we mean that we can become like Heavenly Father - or is Heavenly Father like the ultimate God who is different than and superior to all other Gods?

We only had about two minutes left in the class, so I told the students we would tackle that question and any others they have next week.