Sunday School Lesson – Acts 16-28 – Part 1

I think most of us Christians take Paul for granted. I’m not sure how many of us, especially those of us swimming in a Christian context the entirety of our lives, believing as we all do in a resurrected Jesus as an inevitable fact, can fully appreciate the world the early Christians were reckoning and the mission Paul, in particular, chose to embark on.

Trying as I am to get a crash course on the contextual world at that time, leaning heavily as I am on NT Wright’s biography of Paul has helped me a bit to put myself into that world.

First of all, consider Paul, he grew up a devout, in his words zealous pharisee in the cosmopolitan city of Tarsus, a city teaming with intellectual diversity, Romans, pagans, philosophers, and Jews spanning that devoted spectrum. Paul, notably, was a Roman citizen but also notably a devote, perhaps a prodigious scholar of the Hebrew scriptures. His knowledge of philosophy, scripture and languages become evident in his writings and interactions on his multiple missions.

But early on, his zealous membership in the pharisaical tradition placed him in a violent collision course with the early Christians. The Jews at this time were desperate to shed themselves of Roman rule and reinstate the Jewish kingdom in Israel. They knew the scriptures, and they believed what it would take to get their was complete devotion to the one true God, and complete adherence to the law of Moses. Any deviation from that path could not be tolerated and in that vein, violence was deemed necessary to stamp down heresies.

We know what happened next. Paul has the miraculous encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. He’s blind for three days, in total darkness, realizing his worldview has been completely turned upside down. He’s miraculously healed, joins the early Christians and re-absorbs what this means. Acts traverses this time period rather quickly, but in reality, he spends quite a bit of time reorienting himself with this new paradigm. Restudying the scriptures, discovering fulfillment of prophecy in Jesus, but in a way he never anticipated.

Soon after, Peter receives the revelation to share the message of this gospel to the entire world.

So, now consider the world at this time. Paul is about embark on multiple missions, walking hundreds of miles, talking to zealot Jews desperate to overthrow the Romans, expecting a Messiah to help them get that job done, conversing with Romans and non-Jewish pagans, who have established complex societies steeped in a deep historical culture of philosophy, multiple gods and a Roman empire whose head is considered near deity.

Many, likely, never heard of Jesus. Many who had, knew him as a radical, sentenced to death by crucifixion, one of the most ignominious punishments at the time.

In Acts 17, Paul spends some time in the synagogue in Thessalonica. He ends up organizing a small community of believers here but not before incurring the wrath of the Jews. In verse 6 they say, “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also;”

They were right about that. Paul’s mission was to turn the world upside down. And for those of us now living in it, it’s easy to forget just how successful he ended up being in that mission.

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Sunday School Lesson – The Resurrection and Acts 1-5

Imagine what it was like for Jesus’ closest followers, loved ones and family members the day after he was unjustly crucified. He had a remarkable and revolutionary three year ministry – took on the Jewish power structure, amassed loyal followers and left an imprint of service, revolutionary teaching and compassionate action culminating with an ignominious crucifixion among thieves.

Jesus was buried on Friday, the Jews observed the Saturday sabbath. Then, early Sunday morning Mary Magdalene, another Mary – likely Jesus’ aunt and other women came to the tomb with spices to prepare the body of Jesus. The four gospel accounts differ on the specifics. In Mark and Luke, they arrive to find the stone already moved. In Mark, a young man in a white robe sits in the tomb and tells the women that Jesus is risen. In Luke, they find an empty tomb and pause in wonderment when two men appear near them to announce the news. In Matthew, a great earthquake erupts, while an angel moves the stone in what seems to be timed roughly at the moment the women arrive. Mark and Luke make no mention of guards, but Matthew does.

John has the more fully fleshed out resurrection narrative that drives the way it’s typically described in church talks and movies. In this narrative, Mary Magdalene arrives alone to discover the moved stone and immediately runs back to tell Peter. Peter and another apostle run to see for themselves. They discover the empty tomb and then leave. Mary returns to the empty tomb, but lingers, weeping. It’s here Jesus appears unrecognized, mistaken for a gardner, asking “why weepest thou”?  When Jesus calls her by name, she recognizes him and is told he must ascend to his Father but tells her to tell the events to the disciples.

The narrative proceeds similarly in the four gospels. The women see the angels, then Jesus. They tell the disciples who often don’t believe at first. Jesus suddenly appears, to Mary, to different disciples and finally to them all in various ways. Invariably, he’s unrecognized at first. Luke describes the two disciples on the way to Emmaus who unknowingly discuss the events of the past few days with Jesus. They don’t recognize him until when urged to abide with them longer, he joins them for a meal. In the act of breaking and blessing the bread, they recognize.

In John, only Thomas is shown to disbelieve until he can see for himself. In John, when Jesus appears, they recognize him. Later, though when some of the disciples decide to fish, while on the boat out in the water, Jesus calls out to them. They don’t recognize him until Jesus suggests they throw their net on the right side of the ship, echoing the events when they were first called to be his disciples. At that point, catching so many fish they are unable to haul them all in, they realize this is Jesus.

How important are the contradictions and discrepancies between the narratives. Not much. Each author felt the urge to record this important event highlighting different details. What’s interesting to me is that Jesus’ closest followers didn’t expect any of it. They didn’t recognize at first, they often doubted. Recognition often came in Jesus’ actions, when he acted in ways that he had acted before, or when he calls Mary, in particular, by name.

It took them time to understand and appreciate the implications of Jesus’ resurrection. In each of the gospels, most poignantly and personally in John, they are called deeply into the ministry. In John, Peter is commanded that if he truly loves Jesus he would feed his sheep, three times.

Finally, in Acts 1, Jesus leaves. Some had hoped Jesus mission would be to restore the kingdom of Israel to its previous glory. They ask Jesus in Acts 1:6 “Is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”. What they got, instead was a call to do as Jesus did, to serve, to talk truth to power, to heal, to organize a church, to speak with boldness and authority and to spread the good news.

In Acts 1-5, we witness that transition in action. In chapter 1, they call a new disciple to replace Judas Iscariot. They narrow the field to two worthy candidate, emphasizing the need to choose someone who had personally witnessed the resurrected Jesus. The leave the final selection to revelation, ultimately selecting Matthias.,

Acts 2 highlights the fact that these early Christians were still Jews, gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Pentecost. The spirit rushes in like a wind, the disciples begin to teach and everyone, many who have gathered from foreign lands, understand language in their own tongue. Some assumed they were drunk and its to them Peter delivers his first address, testifying of Jesus, quoting scripture and accusing them of the crucifixion.

They heard this and ask the question each of us should ask, “What should we do?” Three thousand people are baptized that day. With these new converts, they organize a community focused on mutual care, sharing all things in common.

In Chapter 3, Peter’s new life continues to echo Jesus. With John, as they enter the temple, they encounter a lame man from birth begging for money. Peter gives him so much more, healing, telling him to arise and walk. Peter continues into the temple with the newly healed man and teaches those within of Jesus.

Speaking truth to power gets them arrested in Acts 4, where they are questioned. Here, the narrative takes note that neither Peter or John are educated, they are common, but speak boldly anyway. Not sure what to do with them, they release them with an admonish to quit this preaching.

Finally, the last chapter, Acts 5 describes a rather disturbing story. Converts Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead for failing to honestly report the sell of property, echoing a bit the old testament story of the man who was struck down trying to steady the arch. It’s harsh punishment and difficult to understand. I get that this kind of deceit could undermine the community they were trying to build up. But capital offense for it seems uncharacteristic and out of step with Christ’s core message.

Acts 5 finishes with another imprisonment of the apostles. An angel releases them at night and they go to the temple to testify despite previous orders not to. They are brought before the council for more questioning. They continue to testify with boldness enraging those in power. Gamaliel talks the others in the council out of killing them, saying if their work is of man, it will fail, if it’s of God, you will not be able to stop it.

In that, Gamaliel is right. And that is the story of Christianity. From these humble beginnings it has filled the entire earth. Its a message that could not die with the death of even Jesus. But it’s through that death, ironically enough, that the message has touched an untold number of lives, multiple generations later.

 

Prayer: A Quick Autobiography

I remember most the loneliness of the weeklong scout camp some time during one of those long summers between junior high grades. I didn’t have a close friend in the group which means, as a desperately shy kid, I trusted no one. I did not trust the scout leaders in charge of this event. Well, I trusted they wouldn’t kill us, but felt like I was always on the edge of angering or frustrating them in some way. I especially did not trust my parents, who while they did not come on this trip, had no idea how to make sure I was properly prepared for a week long trip in the woods. I did not trust myself to say or do the right things to win the respect or friendship of the other boys on the trip. Given all of this, I determined to make myself as small and unnoticed as possible.

I have passing memories of that week in the woods. I remember getting my own tent and taking some comfort in having control of that little space. I was (and still am) a bit of a weakling. I remember attempts on a lake on a row boat, trying to manipulate the oars to move across the water. I remember the other junior high boys’ impatience with my unsteady efforts. I remember in my chore rotations, my turn to help wash the dishes, accidentally cutting a towel while trying to dry a knife and hearing the leader ask accusingly, “didn’t your parents teach you how to wash dishes?” No they didn’t actually, feeling horrified that I had been found out, shrinking a little more.

I remember working on our Wilderness Survival badge requiring each boy to build a shelter in the woods using only found material, then sleeping in it overnight. No way did I trust myself with this task. I found a couple of other boy I could hitch myself with, doing whatever they wanted me to. I do not remember anything about the night. I do remember another kid, that next morning, pulling himself out of a little cave he made by covering a couple of down logs with sticks. I remember feeling really grateful I wasn’t that kid.

What I remember most of all, though, was a lost shovel. The leaders called on all the boys to help find it. I felt responsible, probably the culprit. I prayed desperately to find it. Almost immediately I felt a prompting where to go and then finding it and returning it to the leader grateful that this particular disaster was averted. The lost keys prayer that everyone kind of makes fun of.

I’m not sure the accuracies of these memories. I trust how I felt and how I interpreted the situation more than I trust the specifics. But I remember more than anything that I felt especially close to God that week. I felt God’s love and no matter how small I tried to make myself, God noticed and cared anyway. I trusted implicitly God heard and answered my prayers. I leaned heavily on that. When I trusted no one else, I trusted God.

This time in the woods was a common childhood experience. I prayed before every test, the prayer intensity increasing with the stake of the test, but really every test felt high stakes to me. I remember praying each night that my dad would find a job during those years of economic instability. I don’t ever remember praying about what my church told me to pray about, whether the church was true or Joseph Smith was a prophet. I took that as a given, immersed as I was in that world view.

But then I went on a mission. For the first time in my life I had two years when I did not have to think (much) about finances or grades or what I should be doing with my time.  For two years I committed nearly all my time serving for my church and giving all of my time to the rigidity of someone else’s rules and schedules. Up by 6:30am, three hours committed to prayer, scripture study and daily preparations, then another ten hours trying to find people to teach.

I prayed as a manner of course. I prayed because I was told to. I prayed because I did not want to waste my two years and of all the many areas I lacked control, whether someone joined my church, or whether my companion and I got along, I controlled my prayers. That habitual, follow the rules type of praying continued after my mission, like clockwork before every meal, before I left my house for the day, before I closed my eyes at night. My prayers were most intense when I needed them the most or when I felt scared or lonely. I prayed for others sometimes, but most often I prayed for myself.

But I didn’t pray when I met the woman who would be my wife, at least I don’t remember it. At first, I obsessed over it. Talked through it over and over again with friends. I kept asking her on dates, dutifully so, liked how I prayed. I wanted to see where it would go, date a girl until it either worked out or didn’t. Rinse and repeat. Despite my algorithmic dating, I fell in love anyway. Right before proposing, I thought maybe I should pray about it, but I don’t remember doing it, I’m sure I did. I don’t remember an answer but I proposed anyway. From the moment we held hands, I felt sure about it. I wasn’t rewarded with an overwhelming emotional response – the way my church teaches me answers to prayers come. Well, until on my wedding day, kneeling as we do wedding ceremonies in our temples, looking into her eyes that day in the Salt Lake temple, saying yes to those commitments, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and joy. It felt right. It felt like God sanctioned the decision.

I continued to pray, of course, after marriage. It was part of our wedding goals we made on our honeymoon. But now eighteen years into marriage, some time along the way, I stopped praying. Not completely and not completely for reasons I can put my finger on. My faith has changed. I have read a lot of Mormon history, got involved in a lot of social media discussions with skeptics. I know friends and family members who left the church. I also feel less desperate, more in control of my life more confident in the generous nature of the world.

Mostly, it didn’t feel that necessary, too transactional, too habitual, too rote, too self-interested. Or was it? I definitely believe I lost something significant when I lost prayer. But I also felt like I never really had prayer either, not really. Because I think prayer is necessary, but not in the way I was doing it. There are too many ways life can go sideways if we’re not paying attention, careful, thoughtful attention. Prayer done right is a way to help one pay attention. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I really want to rediscover prayer anew. And I’m being too hard on myself. I trust my positive experiences with prayer.

What I want to do is a kind of a deep dive on prayer, both in study and in practice. I want to dive deeply what the Mormon tradition says about prayer. Mormonism is part of the larger Christian tradition, so I want to explore prayer in broader Christianity as well. From there, I want to see what more progressive, secular and eastern perspectives say. Prayer and God are inextricably linked, so I think to understand prayer, one must understand God.

Finally, I want to bring prayer more fully back in life but in a more meaningful, thoughtful less self-centered sort of way. I hope to do so in a series of posts. Wish me luck.

We Need to Deal with MMT

download (2)Introduction

A rising segment of the democratic party is taking a left turn which means, apparently, proposals for huge spending increases without necessarily increased taxes to pay for it. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) provides justification for what would otherwise look like a reckless buildup of national debt. Critics claim MMT’s proponents use it to justify never-ending government expansion without compensatory revenue streams. In fact, proponents also believe this, allowing liberal politics the freedom to run on sugar without any of the medicine.

I joined the democratic party in order to vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 democratic primaries and because I felt the party acted as a moderate response to the more radicalized Republican party. That party under George W. Bush of the early 2000’s or Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh in the 1990’s has grown more ideological and uncompromising. It was the party of reckless foreign interventions, growing military spending, a callous shredding of the safety net and ever growing debt and deficits.

Barack Obama’s candidacy promised compromise, responsible governing, a more modest, realistic foreign policy, and more fiscal constraint. Unfortunately, Obama inherited a global economy in collapse that required massive stimulus and bailouts and a military enmeshed in two seemingly intractable wars in the middle east. Liberal economists felt his stimulus was too small and the resulting economic recovery was as a result too long and too slow, incurring painful social consequences, placing large segments of our workforce in painfully long bouts of unemployment.

Ezra Klein Hosts a Debate on MMT

With this background, and in response to a disastrous two year Trump presidency, three years if you include his insane candidacy, a wave of young, liberal and vocal rising stars of the democratic party have swept into Congress eager to set the agenda for both the party and the country writ large.  The rising liberal faction’s first objective is to take control of the democratic party by taking on the more moderate old guard, using kids if necessary.

Ezra Klein recognizing this inter-party disagreement, recently hosted a debate between an MMT proponent, economist Stephanie Kelton and President Obama’s chief economist, Jason Furman, an advocate for the more traditional economic theories that drove Obama’s presidency. Living through the 2008 economic crisis forced me into quite, a bit of deep analysis on the causes and appropriate responses to the economic down-turn. Obama spent eight years governing slightly left of Bill Clinton in the 1990’s, who actually triangulated his way into a moderately conservative presidency. Despite Obama’s moderation, he faced unprecedented obstruction and a mindlessly angry conservative response for daring to take even baby steps away from the 1980’s conservative Reagan consensus.

I think the debate between the more moderately constrained old-guard of the democratic party and the more liberal and energized newcomers is both important and interesting and echos pretty closely the 2016 primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

MMT, according to Kelton, proffers that monetary policy should be more focused on inflation rather than debt. In this view, taxes do not have to match spending as long as inflation stays within acceptable targets. Too much money chasing too few goods and services raises prices causing inflation. Government pulls money out of the economy through tax increases using it to pay down its debt, reducing the supply of money and therefore reducing inflationary pressures. Raising taxes or cutting government spending during low inflation is counter-productive and results in higher unemployment and risks deflation.

When asked if tax increases should accompany the massive spending proposals within the Green New Deal, Kelton’s answer to this is “it depends”. She would ask for six months and a team of economists to evaluate how much inflationary pressure such spending proposals might cause and then introduce just enough taxes to keep inflation in check. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez believes the Green New Deal investments funds itself and so at this extreme the bill requires no increases in tax revenue to pay for it at all. “For every one dollar invested in infrastructure we get six dollars back.” This statistic may or may not be true and depends largely, I assume, on the effectiveness of the infrastructure spending.

Furman responds in a number of fairly subtle ways. More traditional economic models already does the work MMT attempts to do. The government should respond to deflationary pressures and low unemployment through temporary spikes in deficit spending rather than permanent spending programs. Furthermore, the Federal Reserve keeps inflation in-check by altering interest rates, so tracking inflation is the wrong metric anyway.

Furman believes the US should follow the European model in that all new and especially permanent spending proposals, such as medicare for all or a jobs guarantee should be paid for 100%. It’s not that Furman is a deficit hawk. He believes in Keynesian stimulus especially in times of high unemployment, but he denounces the idea to assume high unemployment in future projections.

Republican Counters?

In practice, MMT provides an economic framework that tracks what actually happens in government under both political parties. Politically speaking, the voters demand high deficit spending, they want government to do stuff for them, but they don’t want to pay for it. We all want free stuff and politicians respond to these political incentives accordingly. We’ve been in this mode for a long time now, decades in fact, and we haven’t seen high inflation since the 1970’s and that happened for a number of complicated reasons we have yet to replicate since.

In practice the two parties behave like they believe in MMT although they play lip-service otherwise. What differentiates the two parties is in policy. Republicans want a large federal government devoted to security enforcement, walls on the border, a lot of resources policing the streets and a lot of prisons for those we can’t tolerate in our society. They also advocate a large military, policing the globe attempting to promote US interests and to keep terrorists threats far from our borders.

The Democratic party prefers a large federal government devoted more to domestic concerns, providing universal access to education, health care, strong infrastructure and enough money to aggressively reorient our economy to avoid the devastation climate change may cause.

Deficit hawks and a shrinking libertarian wing of the Republican party would like to see a smaller government, lower taxes and a balanced budget, but they are moving more and more to the fringe of the party.

Where I Stand

I’m sympathetic to MMT’s promises and I believe they’ve largely been confirmed in practice. I believe lip service to fiscal prudence and a more humble approach to what the federal government can actually accomplish provides a much needed constraint on aggressive government expansion that comes from both parties.

In theory, the government can mobilize the country to effectively respond to global and environmental challenges. In practice, government tends to behave inefficiently and with a significant amount of corruption.

Obama governed softly, using the markets to do much of the heavy lifting, nudging it in one direction or another. This seems appropriately right to me. Will it be enough to correct global warming? Probably not, but you never know. I’m not sure government will ever be up to the task on its own either. And it’s possible this is a problem we really cannot adequately solve.

The Green New Deal – A Few High Level Thoughts

I’m obviously not an expert on this, but here are the best points from different sources.

The Argument

First of all, if you want to get a really good, high-level vibe on a policy proposal or other national political controversy, “The Argument”is a really great podcast. It’s concise, extremely civil, a smart, thoughtful panel, and a diverse point of view. Their latest is on the Green New Deal and I recommend listening to it for a basic overview.

Ross Douthat compares it to some of the wackier ideas that have come from the right during their presidential primaries – the flat tax, the 9-9-9 plan, the elimination of entire departments, etc. The left has historically mostly shied away from moonshot primary proposals, but it looks as if they feel emboldened to make bigger policy statements if only for symbolic purposes to potentially get long-term movement in this direction.

The panel describes it as more vision than policy, a kind of a blueprint that anticipates a political realignment away from 1980’s Reaganism that has dominated our political system for more than three decades now. This realignment is a long time in coming. Although, the vision has been uniformly supported by the democratic presidential candidates, there’s a lot of room for differentiation as the vision gets more specific. Although the candidates support the idea of a “Green New Deal”, they may not support every policy proposal found within.

As far as practicality, Goldberg believes it has just as good of a shot at getting passed as the more centrist ideas proposed to fight global warming, most notably the carbon tax. Imposing a broad tax in order to make carbon consumption more expensive is obviously going to be politically more difficult than simply spending money on green infrastructure. It’s a long shot but everything is in these hyper-partisan times. And spending money, verses spending cuts or raising taxes is an easier political pill to swallow.

The Atlantic

One way to look at this proposal is within the context of how most liberals view global warming. If you see it as a slow-moving global disaster that will likely impose catastrophic costs on the global economy on the order of our previous centuries’ global wars, then re-orienting our economy along those lines seems imminently reasonable.

A re-orientation of our economy around climate friendly technologies will be naturally disruptive so there are a slew of seemingly unrelated policy proposals thrown in to make that transition less painful.

VOX

Just to repeat the point above, we have two completely opposite political party responses to the potential global warming catastrophe. One party denies its existence and the other is certain of its catastrophic consequences to human existence. That neither party has any coherent response to it only makes sense for the Republican party. It’s imminently reasonable, then, that the democratic party is organizing itself around a proportionate response to the perceived danger.

Although many of these ideas have been percolating around the democratic party since the early 2000’s, some of which made it into Obama’s stimulus, and further back within Ralph Nader’s campaign, or in op-eds in liberal and even centrists opinion papers over the years, this particular proposal has been crafted by legislative newcomers who swept in during the 2016 anti-Trump wave election. Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leadership have, so far, given it the “stiff arm”, believing, likely rightly, the bill is too extreme, too ambitious, and gives too much ammunition to Trump’s reelection campaign.

Forbes

One salient criticism of the Green New Deal is that it’s an aggressive spending program with no viable way to pay for it. Robert Hockett has a nice breakdown in this article explaining why it’s more complicated than a simple matter of aligning outflows with inflows. The bottom line here is that the US treasury can print all the money it needs. The trick is to make sure we properly balance the money supply with the goods and services our economy produces. Spending money on infrastructure, if done right, given this calculus, is kind of a magic trick in this regards. The government prints money and then uses that to generate the goods and services the new money can chase. This, in effect, keeps inflation in check.

The primary problem in our modern economy has not been inflation, but deflation. As our economy has become more efficient through automation, globalization, specialization, and education, we have not properly increased the money supply to match an increase in our production capacities.

Investing in ambitious new programs like the Green New Deal, is a way to counteract that to a degree.

National Review – Jonah Goldberg

The conservative criticisms of the “Green New Deal” are rather obvious, but Jonah Goldberg makes a less obvious criticism here. That government spending programs almost invariably favor big corporations with the political clout to influence and divert those funds in their favor.  I’m not sure how you can really work around this inevitability. In a marketplace, big businesses have all sorts of disadvantages to more nimble upstarts. They are entrenched in a business model that may become obsolete as the markets shift. New companies built from the ground up can drive market shifts and respond to them much faster.

These disadvantages can be assuaged in a couple of ways and big corporations use them all the time. They can collude and dominate market niches by forming oligopolies or monopolies and use their market power to either acquire or bury smaller, less resourced competitors. Or they can influence the government to prefer them in both regulatory laws or investments. Our politics is oriented right now in a way that makes these consequences inevitable.

For the Green New Deal to be effective, the benefits have to outweigh this likely negative.

Goldberg Again

This criticism echos the first alluding to the dangers of massive government intervention in remaking the economy as drastically as this vision lays out. Goldberg likely rightly describes the vision fantasy. But then, notably, pushes back on AOC’s assessments of the free market’s failure to address environmental concerns. His push backs are fair. We are and have been pretty successful at navigating powerfully effective markets while, in many cases, imposed regulation that effectively cleaned up our act without destroying the markets ability to function. Even with climate change, we have and are making improvements in CO2 emissions.

The American Conservative

I think this article is representative of the most straight forward criticism – it’s too expensive, we can’t afford it, and AOC’s plans to pay for it are accounting gimmicks that won’t work in reality.

My Take

First of all, we’re a long way to get anything as comprehensive as this passed. The Republican party as we know it would have to disappear. Given the way the electoral map is organized right now, the Republican party has basically locked themselves into a pretty stable minority-rule position. As long as they can get close to 50% of the popular vote, they get access to considerable power in the US government.

I personally don’t take the proposal seriously, politically, but it doesn’t make it a non-serious proposal. It is. The Democratic party is organizing itself for the long-haul as demographics potentially shift in their favor.

I believe that global warming is a significant threat worthy of significant proposals to address it. I don’t believe free-market only forces are ever going to be adequately aligned to address problems like these effectively. It’s going to require more broad-based cooperation to resolve it. I don’t believe our government or our corporations are hopelessly and so thoroughly corrupt that they can’t be trusted to do the right thing for the right reasons.

It’s incredible the Republican party has so fully bought into anti-science global warming denying that they have not only have failed to come up with policy solutions of their own but they actively block any attempts by the opposing party to do so as well. That’s a crime.

But let me say, I also believe global warming is one humanity ending catastrophe among many other possibilities. I don’t think we can predict the future very well and it’s possible scientific projections could be drastically incorrect. This is not an excuse to do nothing, but it does mean we have to assess all of the risks, all of the ways we can invest our finite resources, and make smart decisions accordingly.

I don’t think the Green New Deal really does that.

Faith and Doubt

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Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

My church has spent some time lately worried about doubt. What exactly is doubt and is it really something to worry about? If so, why? If we’re going to be concerned with our doubts, we must understand how to identify them when they come. I worry that imprecision in our definitions and understandings may lead to the self-censure of perfectly legitimate, natural and even necessary and healthy feelings and behavior. I also suspect that I have definite points of disagreement with some of the ideas spoken from official church channels, but I want to be as precise as I can to differentiate points where I agree and points where I don’t.

First, I think this talk is pretty typical. If I have to summarize it superficially, the fear is that too many people are leaving Mormonism and religious faith more broadly, for many, the thought might be, they’ve had an authentic faith in early years only to have that faith get destroyed by doubt.

I think to get to the bottom of doubt, it’s important to really understand religious faith. In the Mormon church, we like to use the phrase “I know” before we recite our litany of truth claims: I know the church is true, I know God lives, I know Jesus died to save us, I know our prophets are led by God, and so on and so forth. I think it’s important to differentiate religious knowledge from scientific. Through science, we collect evidence, run experiments, perform causal analysis – we use the scientific method. The goal in this approach is to be led by the evidence. We make an hypothesis and look for data that might backup that hypothesis. If someone finds evidence to contradict it, we scrap it and try again. There is no room for dogma here. The goal of science is to discover the world as it is, digging into further and deeper truths. We know something is true scientifically based on deep experimentation.

Religious truths are different. When Mormon missionaries teach a discussion they ask the investigator about their feelings. Do you feel these things are true? Do you feel greater love, greater self-confidence, do you want to soar? Are these ideas delicious? Do they bring you peace? Do you feel the fruits of the spirit? This is where faith starts. It’s a surrender into goodness. It’s following the light. It’s moving down a path because you feel called into it. It’s an abstraction of sorts. It’s not easily pinned down.

I can have faith in God, but for me this is a faith in something big, universal and relational. I think faith is intimately tied with love and so it’s definitionally relational. Mormons believe in God as a Heavenly Father (and Mother). Which is a move toward specificity but not by much and I think it necessarily describes the way this connection feels. We feel an intimate, devoted love from the one who created everything. This love seems to flow right out of creation.

I can have faith in Jesus. For Mormons this means the atonement and personal sanctification that comes through that atonement. This means grace, in other words, the relational repair that comes from repentance and forgiveness. We don’t emphasize grace in our theology but we live and expect grace practically in our lives. We believe grace stems from the sacrifice and suffering of Jesus, that began in the Garden of Gethsemane and finished at his death on the cross. Nobody understands the atonement, not really. Nobody really can explain how the suffering of one person was required to heal the world. There are many competing theories. The emphasis here is not the how but the what.

I can have faith in my church leaders, our prophets, both past and present, and in the sacred texts of my religion. We recognize their faults and failures. They are just as human as we are and are subject to the same sins and temptations. At times they succumb to them. But despite their flaws, they have been called to lead, organize churches and write our inspired texts. Having faith in other people requires us to recognize the inspired work in others. It’s having the ability to see God working through flawed human beings.

If faith is relational, emotional and a kind of surrender into goodness and beauty, what, then, is religious doubt? I don’t think doubt is the opposite of faith. Doubt, for me doesn’t to describe something that is the opposite of a loving step into goodness. That doesn’t compute. The opposite of faith is acting and behaving in ways that are isolating and destructive. It’s escapism, it’s a retreat into addiction. It’s not getting out of bed in the morning. It’s being critical of the light we find in others because we’re worried it diminishes the light in us. It’s jealousy. It’s a lack of ambition or its too much ambition. It’s self-centered. It’s not getting out in nature enough. It’s too much candy and not enough fruits and vegetables. I am over-simplifying here. Addiction, isolation, escapism and all the rest is a natural reaction to pain and life is full of it. Faith is a loving response to pain and suffering but it’s not something we just have, it’s something that needs to be developed over time. Our entire lives is not necessarily going to be enough time to fully perfect our faith.

Where I think the doubt vs. faith discussion goes wrong, is that we get faith wrong and then, as a result, we get doubt wrong. We over-specify what we have faith in, and in so doing, end up placing our faith in the wrong things. We make highly specific and way too literal claims. The earth has to be 6,000 years old. Noah’s flood happened and covered the entire earth. Jesus literally felt the pains of every sin past, present and future and God demanded someone to suffer for every sin or we all suffer for eternity. The Book of Mormon is literally true. Nephi and Lehi existed. Joseph Smith felt Peter, James and John’s hands physically on his head in order to restore the priesthood. God in a resurrected perfect body visited Joseph in the garden when he was 14 in answer to his prayer.

Becoming a Christian should not necessarily mean believing in each one of these propositions literally. I guarantee a Mormon missionary teaching someone who desires baptized because she feels called into the religion, having had powerful spiritual experiences with the Book of Mormon but didn’t intellectually believe the stories actually happened, would still allow this person baptism. These events happened or they didn’t. And if they happened, they happened in a very specific historical way. We have imperfect evidence of the historical events. When we die, something is going to happen to us (or not) that will have nothing to do with what we think will happen to us (or not). These are questions for scientists and historians. Engaging in science or history should not affect our faith.

So, then, what of doubt? If someone tells me a fantastical idea with little or no evidence in the face of contradicting evidence, I will naturally doubt their story. If they have a vested interest in believing that story, I will doubt it further. Doubt, in this sense, is good.

If I feel called into goodness, called to love and serve another, but doubt myself, and use my doubts as a reason to hold back my gifts, then doubt, in this sense is bad. Doubt our doubts, Elder Uchtdorf counseled us, “We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from the divine love, peace, and gifts that come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Choosing to walk a path of discipleship is not an easy choice. It’s easy to say we want to be a Christian, it’s difficult to know exactly what that means and it’s even harder to walk that path well. It takes faith and courage. But that’s a walk into goodness, a devotion to life, and a sacrifice to strengthen our connections, it’s not a literal belief in stories.

Abortion and Why We Believe

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Introduction

I have this memory when I was young, still a child, thinking about my politics and deciding that of course I was a conservative, mostly because I couldn’t fathom the pro-abortion argument. I was pro-life and that, if my memory serves me right, was the pivot issue that moved me firmly on the conservative side of the political ledger. Later, in my adult life I spent a lot of time working myself over and through the abortion issue to justify my democratic votes and eventual transition into the democratic party.

I’m not unique here. Trump won the presidency in large part because of that open Supreme Court seat and Roe v. Wade has been one of the primary animating issues organizing the religious right behind the Republican party. Abortion for many people is the pivot issue moving them into one political party or another.

Why We Believe

Is this universally true? I think it’s complicated. In a recent interview, Daniel Kahneman, author of the book Thinking Fast and Slow, describes the fundamental nature of the way we think. In his analysis, we have two systems at work, System 1 is intuitive, it’s the part of our brain that immediately answers the question 2+2. It’s what we use to get us through our commute every day without even thinking about it. System 2 picks up the 17×24 type of problems. It’s slower and more deliberate but it’s also lazy.

A completely different one, which occurs to me because you mentioned politics, is that one of the important realizations that come from thinking of the world in terms of System 1 and System 2 is that our beliefs do not come from where we think they came. And let me elaborate on that sentence. When I ask you about something that you believe in — whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change or whether you believe in some political position or other — as soon as I raise the question why, you have answers. Reasons come to your mind. But the way that I would see this is that the reasons may have very little to do with the real causes of your beliefs.

So the real cause of your belief in a political position, whether conservative or radical left, the real causes are rooted in your personal history. They’re rooted in who are the people that you trusted and what they seemed to believe in, and it has very little to do with the reasons that come to your mind, why your position is correct and the position of the other side is nonsensical. And we take the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs, and our own reasons for our actions and beliefs, much too seriously.

When I think about how I came to my abortion issue, it goes much further back in time than that memory in that kitchen in my childhood home. It’s rooted deeply within my Mormon heritage, which is rooted deeply in Christianity and in the Catholic’s pro-life stance. The Mormon church’s institutional decision to oppose abortion is a large factor in my early pro-life position. The tradition and culture I was raised in, planted a very powerful seed. As I grew older, the people I associated with, the pro-life arguments I read and heard over the years, over and over again, rooted a powerful pro-life position deep within my System 1 brain. I’ve had a life-long attachment to the pro-life position.

I think this gets to the heart of clustering, we join a political party or some other identifying group and automatically adapt much of the hot-button issues associated with that group. Our identity drives our ideology. Maybe not explicitly, but over time as we develop relationships, hear arguments and aim for alignment and acceptance, these ideas and positions embed deeply into System 1. And that’s why social media interactions can be so fraught. As we engage with people outside our groups, operating as they are within different frameworks, our interactions become both baffling and emotionally fraught.

Social media is a forum driving System One interactions. It’s all visceral and automatic. It’s System One all the way.

Back to Kahneman:

And we take the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs, and our own reasons for our actions and beliefs, much too seriously.

Where I Stand on Abortion?

I think this article gets to both sides of the argument profoundly. It certainly drives home the powerfully emotional reasons why so many women felt Roe v. Wade had life or death stakes for women. The famous 1973 court case extended the right of a woman to have an abortion in the first two trimesters of the pregnancy but then gives the states the right to regulate in the third.

In the article Caitlin Flanagan describes her family history with abortion. First, her mother’s 60 years ago encounter with a botched abortion that happened in her apartment while her and her roommates were away. Or earlier, her grandmother’s likely death caused by an attempted abortion during the Great Depression catastrophe.

She spends most of the article citing the horror stories recounted in two books, The Choices We Made, detailing horror stories in the world pre-Roe v. Wade and The Girls Who Went Away, describing the horrors of forced adoption pre-Roe v. Wade.

She makes a point I’ve heard Jordan Peterson also make. There’s nothing more misogynistic than Mother Nature. It’s been only in recent history with the advancements of science and technology, that the roughest edges of nature have been smoothed over. Pregnancy is nowhere near the health risks it used to be, birth control has only recently become effective at significant unwanted pregnancy reduction.

Every month, a woman’s womb slowly fills with blood in anticipation of an event that she wants to occur only a few times at most, and that up until 70 years ago had a good chance of killing her. This is nature’s unkind way with women. The sort of man who knocks a woman up and then disappears is nowhere near as heartless as nature, which allows a fertilized egg to implant in a fallopian tube, or arranges a baby’s body in the womb in such a way that it cannot by any natural means escape through the birth canal, or spreads the placenta across the cervix so that it will rupture and cause a hemorrhage almost certain to kill the mother if no medical staff is on hand to stop it. The fact that modern medicine has so radically reduced the incidence of death in childbirth testifies less to the wonder of science than to the crudeness of the dangers at hand.

and

They reveal something about the eternal and dangerous nature of being female, and because of this, they merit a great deal of our attention. The way these stories begin tells us as much as we ever need to know about the profound and complex decisions women make when they decide to have sex.

I think the arguments for the legalization of abortion are still strong, but they have weakened since the 1970’s.

But my sympathy for the beliefs of people who oppose abortion is enormous, and it grows almost by the day. An ultrasound image taken surprisingly early in pregnancy can stop me in my tracks. In it is much more than I want to know about the tiny creature whose destruction we have legalized: a beating heart, a human face, functioning kidneys, two waving hands that seem not too far away from being able to grasp and shake a rattle. One of the newest types of prenatal imaging, the three-dimensional sonogram—which is so fully realized that happily pregnant women spend a hundred dollars to have their babies’ first “photograph” taken—is frankly terrifying when examined in the context of the abortion debate. The demands pro-life advocates make of pregnant women are modest: All they want is a little bit of time. All they are asking, in a societal climate in which out-of-wedlock pregnancy is without stigma, is that pregnant women give the tiny bodies growing inside of them a few months, until the little creatures are large enough to be on their way, to loving homes.

I don’t have a firm position on abortion. I love this fairly brief debate on abortion between Ross Douthat, a firmly pro-life Catholic conservative, Michelle Goldberg, firmly pro-choice liberal, and David Leonhardt a moderate who considers himself pro-choice but has concerns. I learned a few things that aren’t often discussed in our polarized, binary versions of the debate that often happen on-line today.

European-Style Compromise:

It seems like Europe has settled on a really nice compromise position:

In Germany, women seeking first-trimester abortions are subject to a mandatory three-day waiting period and a counseling session. Abortions after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy are forbidden except in cases of grave threat to the mother’s physical or mental health. The Netherlands mandates a five-day waiting period between initial consultation and abortion; clinics must provide women with information about abortion alternatives. Abortion is then legal until viability (legally defined as 24 weeks, usually interpreted as 22 weeks).In Belgium, where abortion was illegal until 1990, there’s a six-day waiting period and the woman must claim to be in “a state of distress” before receiving a first-trimester abortion.

These are the types of laws and restrictions pro-life advocates have been seeking with enormous pushback from the pro-choice crowd worrying, justifiably about slippery slopes and end-goals that extend far beyond this.

Even Pro-Lifers Make Moral Distinctions between early term abortions and late term abortions

Perhaps this is an obvious point with the righteous fervor they bring to the late-term abortion debate, but I think the point is still an important one to make again.

Douthat:

Even from a pro-life premise, there is a particular horror to third-trimester abortions. The pro-life view of abortion is always a form of murder, but there are various forms of murder and murdering a more conscious, a more sentient form of human life is worse than doing it in the first trimester.

Goldberg in response:

Most pro-choice people will say if that’s the compromise we’ll take it. We would happily take a situation which abortion is free, widely available, and uncontested in the first trimester in exchange for these sorts of restrictions.

The reason pro-choicers don’t except the restrictions is because an increase level of restrictions ends up pushing pregnancy into the second trimester where most of them currently happen in the US.

Goldberg gets to the heart of it, the level of social trust between the two sides on this (and many other) issues is so low that compromise is impossible and both camps are pushed to extreme positions – on one side, abortion is illegal except under extreme circumstances, on the other, abortion should be legal under all circumstances.

I’m uncomfortable with either of these extreme positions and it’s why I dislike the abortion argument binaries that inevitably unfold when fought with our System 1 brains as they so often are on-line.

Third trimester abortion is gut-wrenchingly horrifying because it is way too close to outright infanticide. Locking up women and doctors for first trimester abortions seems equally horrifying especially considering the risks and consequences still at stake especially in the weakening social safety nets in the US. Really, I don’t feel comfortable locking up women or doctors for any but extreme cases. Abortion restrictionists usually are vague when discussing punishment.

For me, finding a European style compromise of some sort seems like the end-goal we should try to get to, but it’s also the sort of compromise that seems impossible given our current political environment, which is why the status-quo seems like the most likely outcome for the foreseeable future.