Does Religious Faith Have to be Literal?

Christianity at its core is a religion of historical narratives. It’s sacred text is a history of the world starting at its creation up through and past Christ’s life, ministry, death and resurrection. To be sure, there’s plenty of theology and doctrine in these stories, and not just stories, the book contains plenty from ancient prophets, their epistles, poetry, warnings and prophecies. This book and the people who produced it are at the root of three major religions – so there’s a power in these stories and in the history and traditions. But fundamentally Christian scripture is a historical narrative of God’s interaction with ancient people and prophets.

After the last Biblical narrator died, it was up to later believers to collect, interpret and translate the sacred text. It has made its way from its original form through the many translations and editions to its present form, not as a single book, but as a variety of alternative translations. The text is complicated, vague, multi-layered, and contradictory, opening itself up to different interpretations and variety of religious offshoots and doctrine that all claim authority from this book of scripture. The confusion and disagreements begin I believe, almost from the beginning, which is no surprise. We’re all stumbling through, we all “see through a glass, darkly”. A few hundred years after Christ, the council of Nicea was organized to bring together diverging thoughts into a single, unifying Christian belief.  The Nicean Creed drives much of Christianity’s core doctrine today. But even still, we have numerous Biblical interpretations, creeds and churches all claiming authority back to Christ.

So, Christianity is fundamentally rooted in ancient history. Modern day churches are tied very closely to ancient ideas. And as a believer this makes sense because God is the same yesterday, today and forever. The same religious beliefs and principles that applied then should apply the same today. God loved and guided His people then, He should do the same today.

And Mormons up the historical ante. Joseph Smith born in the early nineteenth century in upstate New York, translates a book of ancient American scripture about a people who originated in ancient Jerusalem, but migrated by ship to the Americas bringing a belief in Christianity and a portion of Old Testament scripture with them. As with the Bible, this book is historical, filled with stories of wars, preaching and migrations. The major portion of the book spans 1000 years, straddling in time the visit of the resurrected Christ to the ancient Americas, where Christ shared some of the same teachings that was recorded in the New Testament gospels.

But Joseph Smith did not stop with the Book of Mormon. He re-translated portions of the Bible, making inspired corrections, adding additional books including stories about Moses.  He also produced a new book of Abraham, produced from an inspired translation from found ancient Egyptian papyrus. He formed a church, gained converts, taught the sacred nature and destination of the American land, pronounced Missouri the historical destination of the garden of eden and predicted a New Jerusalem will be eventually be established there. I could go on, but fundamentally, Mormonism is at its core, Christian, but Christianity with an American twist, rooting Christianity not just in Jerusalem but in America as well.

But something happened on the way to modernity.  While God is the same then as now, humans evolved and advanced. We know much more now and we continue to learn. Scientific and secular thought has helped us understand the world as it is and as it once was and where it might be tomorrow. But as we evolve and learn and gather. As we understand more and more, we find a growing tension between religious truths and scientific discoveries. More often than not, religion, not science has had to make room to accommodate these new discoveries.

We all know the story of Galileo’s run in with Catholic church over the earth’s rotation around the sun. We also know the still on-going debate between evolution and an old earth and those who believe biblical creation story literally and those who believe the earth to be 6000 years old. More controversially is the debate among scholars, both believers and unbelievers, of the historical evidence surrounding Christ’s life. Mormons have to come to terms with the DNA evidence in indigenous American population that shows an ancestry from east Asia, contradicting the story of an ancient migration from Jerusalem, or the evidence that the papyri scrolls were nothing more than “standard funerary texts” with no evidence of Abraham’s actual writings.

So, a religious faith rooted in historical narratives and traditions passed down into modernity from ancient times can be vulnerable if literal belief is held too tightly. Faith that stands on literal interpretations is vulnerable to scientific or historical advancements that challenge those interpretations and then is a faith on shaky ground.

In Letter’s to a Young Mormon, Adam Miller has what I think is one key here in his letter on science:

I believe in a literal reading of this text. I believe the Hebrews literally thought the world was like that, and I believe that God literally ran with it and revealed his grace at work in their lives through it. More, I believe that God is just as literally showing himself to us in and through that continually rolling revelation that is science as we know it. The world given to us is not the same world given to them. We have two worlds here. But though our worlds diverge, it is the same God peeping through. Believing that the God of their world is just as surely the God of ours doesn’t commit us to believing in their version of the world. Rather, it commits us to believing in a God whose grace is full enough to fill them both.

Miller decides in this short passage to remove the tension between science and religion and instead unify them into a single revelationary stream. God talked to us through prophets 2000 years ago and does so still today. But the revelations look different today than they did back then. Back then, He came in burning bushes or expansive visions, today we are taught to be kind over an internet stream from Salt Lake City. But God is also talking to us in all sorts of ways, through each discovery in our laboratories or universities. Our scientists and historians are also prophets in their own way. But not just them, each of us as we receive bits of God’s grace in the simplest of ways as we muddle through the challenges of our every day lives.

But more than that, throughout my faith journey, I have never been asked to root my faith in scientific evidence or literal historical belief. I was baptized when I was eight and was asked then and since if I have and will continue to renew my baptismal covenant to “mourn with those who mourn”. I’ve been asked if I have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, of Christ, of God, of His prophets, in the restoration. I was never shown the evidence. I was simply asked to read and pray and to do my best to commit myself to discipleship.

Miller in Rube Goldberg Machine says this of testimony:

It is in this context – in the context of the Atonement’s power to meaningfully impact the world by restoring to it the possibilities that our sins had foreclosed – that Ballard notes how a testimony depends on the humble, sincere clarity of an ‘I know’. A testimony must be purified of every sign precisely because a testimony expresses a kind of unconditional certainty that is foreign to every objective sign that belongs to our thoroughly conditioned world. A testimony can express this kind of certainty because it depends on a direct experience of the Atonement in which the world, in its strictly conditioned chains of cause and effect, is contradicted by the gracious restoration of lost or impossible possibilities

In other words, to try to place scripture in a role better suited for historical or scientific text is to try to force conditional signs onto a faith meant to transcend them.

My sins and mistakes may disqualify me in all kinds of ways, Christ’s grace restores the rich possibilities of infinity so abundantly felt as a child. As I walk in faith, I become as a little child, full of grace and hope. Testimony transforms the soul.

Importantly, we live in a different world today than Joseph Smith, Peter, Moses, Noah or Adam. We have biblical text and a rich religious tradition passed down to us from our ancestors as a “speech [that] whisper[s] [to us] out of the dust.” We can believe their offerings literally in that we can believe believe Joseph Smith literally believed he was writing the words of Lehi, Nephi, Abraham and Moses. We can believe ancient Hebrews literally believed the world was created in a week and that Adam and Eve literally walked out of the Garden of Eden.

We can read and pray over these historical texts and come to love these stories. Whether or not they are literal renditions of actual people and events is beside the point. The point is whether or not we experience grace through them. The point is whether or not our lives are transformed by knowing them.

If we can give up the need for these stories to be literal, something else can happen to us. We can make room for this world as well. Our hearts and minds can be open to all the revelations that are now pouring down on us as if as a flood. More on this point from “Letters to a Young Mormon”:

God has been rushing to show us more of this strange world. You name it: fossils, black holes, x-rays, DNA, set theory, one-dimensional strings, Neanderthals, dark matter, brain imaging, big data, evolution, retroviruses, interplanetary travel, the Higgs boson, non-euclidean geometries, Mars rovers, etc. God used to send us an occasional rain. Now the revelations come as a flood. We live in a postdiluvian world, and the rain falls harder every day.

What I’ve been trying to say is this: a faith rooted in the atonement, rather than literal stories, is a faith big enough to make room for both our ancient world, it’s traditions and truths, as well as this world, it’s secularism, academics and scientific discoveries. And that is the kind of faith I aspire to.

General Conference is This Weekend and What Does That Mean for This Mormon

Every six months, Mormons from around the world find ways to participate in General Conference, where possible, live, streaming over the internet or later reading the published words. For those of us in time-zone proximity of Utah, this means we have the chance to sit in front of a screen streaming video originating in Salt Lake City, for six sessions, beginning with the women’s session, four additional sessions for the general audience and a session for men and boys jammed in between.

It’s in these sessions that something prototypically Mormon takes place. Mostly men, but some women, nearly all white, nearly all from Utah, with some exceptions, speak for about twenty minutes or so each in these six two hour blocks. Mostly the talks are on very mainstream Christian subjects, mercy, repentance, and Christ. Occasionally they can get controversial, stepping into topics like feminism or LGBT issues. The speakers without exception are substantive people, all with a long pedigree within the church, many having or have had successful careers in business or academia in a variety of disciplines.

This is a church after all, so they have all been called into lives of discipleship. They approach these talks with prayer and study, tapping into the reservoirs of a life-long commitment toward service to God and man. They have strived for holiness and come to these talks prepared to offer some of themselves inspired as they are by God.

Mormons believe in prophets. We believe in modern day revelation. We believe in modern day scripture. We have a scriptural canon that extends beyond the Bible and includes religious texts composed in modern times. Most Mormons believe General Conference acts as a kind of scripture, though none of these talks have ever found their way into the official canon.

Mormons believe that ““whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation“, so in that sense, to the degree conference speakers are moved upon by the Holy Ghost, they do speak scripture. In that sense, so are the things I might say. But I’m not sure any one particular conference talk carries the same weight as our holy books.

Before we go any further, I want to make a point not often made but I think is important and perhaps obvious. Not all scripture is of equal importance. I would place the words of Christ above everything else. Joseph Spencer in his book The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record, makes a really good case that Nephi considered the Isaiah’s portion of his record more precious than what he wrote before or after.  And certainly some of the drudge of the Old Testament doesn’t carry the same inspirational power as say the beatitudes.

To that end, I’m not sure individual General Conference talks rise to the level of importance of our sacred text. Most of the talks lean heavily on scripture, so in large part this is a distinction without a difference. But not everything that gets said over the pulpit at General Conference is inspired. Some of it is wrong, misguided, and even hurtful – at least to some.  We’re all human beings and we make mistakes. And General Conference is necessarily general, meant for the general population as a whole. It’s up to us to find resonance into the messiness and complexity of our individual lives.

Errant scripture is fundamentally part of Mormonism. The Book of Mormon’s title page admits, “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.”  Joseph Smith, under periods of persecution, took the time to attempt to correct significant portions of the Bible. The Doctrine and Covenants makes a point often to chastise the early leaders of the church. And Joseph Smith readily recognized his own weaknesses and frailties.

Given all of this, General Conference is a special event, giving believers an opportunity to sit with these (mostly white, mostly male) church leaders and absorb the messages I know they’ve agonized over ahead of time. It’s to my benefit to prayerfully consider what they have to say.

The Doctrine Covenants describes how we should listen to a prophets words this way:, “5 For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.” I don’t think this means that every word uttered this weekend will be 100% prophetic or even inspired. I think very human opinions often get mixed in. But we should listen to their words as if God was uttering them, “in all patience and faith”. I think this is true each Sunday in Sacrament meeting. My 12 year old son spoke in sacrament meeting last Sunday. I think it is to my benefit to receive his words as if from God’s own mouth, in all patience and faith.

Patience because I may not agree. Patience because they may be delivered in a way that is not inspiring or is hurtful or in ways that contradict my own beliefs. In faith because even with and because of all this, I may need to hear what is being said. Mormon Matters has a good podcast about General Conference. Included here is a discussion with Carol Lynn Pearson, Patrick Mason and Mark Crego. I think they all give good advice some of which has inspired this post.

I love General Conference week. I believe that General Conference should challenge us. If we too readily agree with every word, we are probably not thinking hard enough. We are probably given up too much of our agency. We are probably placing these (mostly) men and a few women up too high on a pedestal meant only for God. If we are too cynical, then we risk dismissing the things of God and will lose out on the blessings that come in that.

Conference should challenge us and we should challenge conference. We need to own our own agency while be willing to sustain, listen to and be convicted by the good word of God, whether it comes through scripture or whether it comes from the words of an inspired speaker over an internet stream on an early April weekend.

Mormon Temples and the Worth Of a Soul

The central theme of Christianity and Mormonism is that the worth of every single soul is great. There’s not a person alive that is not of value. The sole point of religion is to help each of us recognize the worth of others, no matter who they are, where they are from, what they look like, or what they do. Christianity really emphasizes the message through the life of its central figure, Jesus, whose life was anticipated in Old Testament scripture as someone coming from a place of little consequence.

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

The story of Christ’s birth and life is obviously well known. A virgin birth in a manger, in poverty and obscurity to a people subjected to Roman rule who came not to bring political deliverance but rather living water with a promise that those who drink will never thirst again. Consistently, he hung out with the poor, the underclass, the sick, the afflicted and the sinner and saved his most severe condemnation not for those who are weak, but for those with power, authority and money.  His theology is both hyper-personal and revolutionary, proclaiming that the last shall be first and the first last. This is a challenging example to follow. To take it seriously means we need to take every single person on this planet as individuals with worth.

With that as a backdrop I recently finished the book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”. Here the author describes individual lives in an Indian slum situated near an airport in Mumbai. The author goes out of her way to bring to light the poignant, beautiful lives of the people struggling to survive under severe poverty. Thousands of people crammed between a sewage lake and an airport, neglected, ignored and dismissed by the broader society.

This quote from the book is typical, but also remarkable in how it echos the story of the Good Samaritan only without the Samaritan and with the miserable backstories of each person passing by the injured man:

“One dawn in July, Sunil found a fellow scavenger lying in the mud where Annawadi’s rut-road met the airport thoroughfare. Sunil knew the old man a little; he worked hard and slept outside the Marol fish market, half a mile a way. Now the man’s leg was mashed and bloody, and he was calling out to passersby for help. Sunil figured he’d been hit by a car. Some drivers weren’t overly concerned about avoiding the trash-pickers who scoured the roadsides.

Sunil was too scared to go to the police station and ask for an ambulance, especially after what was rumored to have happened to Abdul. Instead he ran toward the battleground of the Cargo Road dumpsters, hoping an adult would brave the police station. Thousands of people passed by this way every morning.

Two hours later, when Rahul left Annawadi for school, the injured man was crying for water. ‘This one is even drunker than your father,’ one of Rahul’s friends teased him. ‘Drunker than your father,’ Rahul retorted unimaginatively as they turned onto Airport road. Rahul wasn’t afraid of the police; he’d run to them for help when his neighbor dumped boiling lentils on Danush, his sickly baby. The man on the road was just a scavenger, though, and Rahul had to catch a bus to class.

When Zehrunisa Hussain passed an hour later, the scavenger was screaming in pain. She thought his leg looked like hell, but she was bringing food and medicine to her husband, who also looked like hell far across the city in the Arthur Road jail.

Mr. Kamble passed a little later, milky-eyed and aching, on his tour of business and charities, still seeking contributions for his heart valve. He had once been a pavement dweller like the injured man. Now Mr. Kamble saw nothing but his own bottomless grief, because he knew miracles were possible in the new India and that he couldn’t have one.

When Rahul and his brother returned from school in the early afternoon, the injured scavenger lay still, moaning faintly. At 2:30 P.M., a Shiv Sena man made a call to a friend in the Sahar Police Station about a corpse that was disturbing small children. At 4 P.M., constables enlisted other scavengers to load the body into a police van, so that the constables wouldn’t catch the disease that trash-pickers were known to carry.

Unidentified body, the Sahar Police decided without looking for the scavenger’s family. Died of tuberculosis, the Cooper Hospital morgue pathologist concluded without an autopsy. Thokale, the police officer handling the case, wanted to move fast, for he had business with B. M. Patil Medical College in Bijapur. Its anatomy department required twenty-five unclaimed cadavers for dissection, and this one rounded out the order.”

The nameless scavenger who lost his name and significance from birth. Shutoff from education off from an education and eventually even a home – his life is not told in this story. As an old man, he’s hit by a car and left to die on the side of the road. But then, even after death, he’s severed from all ties to whatever family he may have had, discarded and forgotten to history, forever.

And I get why this is so difficult. It’s easy to race on by a homeless man pushing a shopping cart slowly on the sidewalk. In India, more so. I spent three and a half weeks there, in 20001 and felt overwhelmed by the crowd of people and especially the masses of poverty. How do you consider the one individual when there were so many.

I’ve already described Christianity’s core mission. To offer hope, significance and worth to the poor, forgotten, diseased and sinful. That was Christ’s core message and mission. Mormonism  came along much later, founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, an American Christian church. Among Mormonism’s innovations is its emphasis on familial relationships. Joseph Smith taught the eternal nature not just of our lives but of our relationships and built temples in which Mormons perform sacred ordinances and make sacred covenants to remember our dead – all of our dead. It’s one of the core missions of the church to bind and seal the entire global family to each other. Not one person forgotten, not one person lost.

But the only way for this to happen is if each one of us noticed just a few more people. And this is why Mormons are asked to do family history work. To bring out of obscurity those in our family tree who would be forgotten otherwise.

Big Tent Mormonism

It’s not news that more and more people are leaving organized religion. Mormonism is not immune, although I think the overall growth rate  trends upward, perhaps largely because of growth in Africa. Personally, I know people who have left Mormonism. And I get why some choose to leave the church, really I do, but I still believe religion matters. Nonetheless, here I’m not going to get into why people should stay, rather I want to dig into what type of person Mormonism is meant for. The answer is, and I hope this is obvious – that Mormonism is for every type of person, and we should want them exactly as they are.

Now this sounds obvious, but I think we are too often terrible at this. There are aspects of our religion that make this kind of openness challenging. For one thing, the first Sunday of every month, we have what basically is an open-mic meeting we call “Fast and Testimony”. For about 30 to 35 minutes of this meeting, random members of the audience, at their own discretion, get up to extemporaneously share something of themselves. Needless to say this can be interesting and beautiful and strange and everything in between. We also rely on lay leadership. Nobody except for, I suppose, the very top leadership, gets paid. In congregations throughout the world, men and women give up precious hours of their own time to pitch in to the church congregation to make it run. Additionally, you cannot choose your congregation, you attend based on where you live. And then every member is asked to visit and serve and befriend other members in that congregation. This all requires some number of highly-functioning, engaged, committed enough to spend hours of their own time individuals to make this all work.

But it’s challenging to accept everyone because everyone is difficult, some more than others. We naturally want to be with people just like us. And church is not a building, it’s made up of people and relationships, working and serving each other. Sometimes we simply do not fit in to the ward we’re assigned, for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps we find that we’re politically liberal in a congregation filled with nothing but Glenn Beck listeners. Or we can’t quite accept polygamy was ever of God and wonder how a prophet could have introduced it over his wife’s objections. Or we’re upset that women don’t have more of an equal seat at the table. Or we have a gay brother who will have to fight and work and demand acceptance. Or we struggle with employment or poverty in a congregation filled with those with more success. Or when we’ve been down, we’ve looked at pornography and can’t stomach the shame and the guilt that can come attending church after having done so. Or we just can’t kick the cigarette habit and are afraid others may smell the smoke on us. I could go on and on and on.

But Mormonism needs every one of us and our messy lives and our imperfections and our crazy ideas and our diversity. We all need each other. A few quotes:

“Let me say that we appreciate the truth in all churches and the good which they do. We say to the people, in effect, you bring with you all the good that you have, and then let us see if we can add to it. That is the spirit of this work. That is the essence of our missionary service” President Hinckley (meeting, Nairobi, Kenya, 17 Feb. 1998).

“If you experience the pain of exclusion at church from someone who is frightened at your difference, please don’t leave or become inactive. You may think you are voting with your feet, that you are making a statement by leaving. [Some may] see your diversity as a problem to be fixed, as a flaw to be corrected or erased. If you are gone, they don’t have to deal with you anymore. I want you to know that your diversity is a more valuable statement.”
-Chieko N. Okazaki

“Engaged in this work, theology has only one strength: it can make simple things difficult. Good theology forces detours that divert us from our stated goals and prompt us to visit places and include people that would otherwise be left aside. The measure of this strength is charity. Theological detours are worth only as much charity as they are able to show. They are worth only as many waylaid lives and lost objects as they are able to embrace. Rube Goldberg Machines, models of inelegance, are willing to loop anything into the circuit – tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, Democrats, whatever. This is their joy. Here, the impromptu body of Christ is a Rube Goldberg Machine. In charity, the grace of a disinterested concern for others and the gratuity of an unnecessary complication coincide. Charity is a willingness to have our lives made difficult by people we did not have to help, objects we did not have to save, thoughts we did not have to think. Theology is gratuitous because theology is grace, and grace, by definition, is unearned, unwarranted, unnecessary, unconditional, gratuitous. Theology is free. Theology isn’t gratuitous because it receives without giving but because it gives without thought of return.” – Adam Miller from Rube Goldberg Machines

And finally, the baptismal covenant:

8 And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

9 Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—

10 Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?
Mosiah 18:8-10

So, let me offer a caveat. I think the one general condition is a willingness to participate in good faith in a way that’s cooperative and faith-promoting. I get why the church would not tolerate those who are disruptive or dangerous. But beyond the most extreme examples, yes, we need each other…

3 Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work;

D&C 4:3

And that’s it. Mormonism at its core requires desire, a desire to serve God and that’s basically it.  A desire to serve in our imperfections.

How Ashamed Should Trump Supporters Feel?

Anyone on Facebook should know the obvious about me by now. I am not a Donald Trump supporter. We’re approaching two years now, when he threw his name into the ring to run for the Republican party nomination, I assumed it was a publicity stunt that would soon flame out and die quickly. When he started to rise in the polls, I assumed as had other fringe figures in past elections, he would say or do something stupid turning off would-be supporters and be replaced by someone more presidential and acceptable. He did say, do and propose plenty of stupid things, but nothing hurt him. His popularity in the primary rose quickly and just stayed there, no matter what he did. Probably only Trump understood that he could literally say or do anything, perhaps even  shoot someone and not offend his supporters.

The Republican field seemed to have some relatively heavy-weights, at least on paper – Jeb!, Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio. But watching the debates unfold, none of them had the presence or the charisma or the ideas to really excite the base. They all seemed to be reciting the script Ronald Reagan wrote meant for the problems of the 1980’s. Only Trump sounded like someone who believed what he was saying – no matter how idiotic the content of his message – at least he was sincere and authentic. Trump wasn’t afraid to criticize Bush’s Iraq war while everyone else not named Paul defended it. Trump promised to preserve social security and medicare, while other Republicans were promising to gut them. Trump consistently and with passion promised to reverse trends by massive global market forces – trade and immigration – and return America to the glory days of… when exactly? 1950? He never said how, but people believed he could do it.

Meanwhile Donald Trump made horrifying campaign promises, made horrifying comments, and over the course of his life was involved in numerous scandals. Never believing he could actually win the presidency, most people until after the fact, never anticipated the scale and extent of his conflicts of interests and how he’s now in the position to enrich himself through the power of his presidency. Not to mention, his attacking, divisive style guarantees he’ll use his office to push the country into an even harsher, more divisive political environment.

A big part of me kind of gets how Trump resonates with a segment of American voters. A big part of it was that he ran against Hillary Clinton, who was not a good presidential candidate. Everyone had their own reason to vote for Trump or to opt out of this election entirely (many stayed home, others voted for people who had no shot of winning). Some saw the rise of political correctness and saw moments of liberal speech stifling. Hate speech seemed to cover and ever-broadening list of topics now considered off-limits. Others saw threats to religious liberty and the rapid acceptance of gay marriage as a threat to Christian values. The first black president with a Muslim sounding name (and likely a secret Muslim) who once attended church services of the America-hating Jeremiah Wright, who couldn’t even bring himself  to call out the global sins of extremist Islam.

But a bigger part of me is horrified. How could a rational voter consider the span and scope of American successes and problems and think for an instant that Donald Trump was the best person of the available options to address them? Given his obvious misogyny, his racism, his bigotry. Yes, I said it. The man is a racist bigot. There’s no getting around it.

And part of the reason this fact did not sink him was because many Americans just cannot stomach to come to terms with the racism in our country that brought Trump to power, nor do they even want to talk about it.

And even beyond that, Trump’s utter idiocy, in terms of policy and substance.

Let me pause right here. Donald Trump is a great marketer. His business is primarily branding. People pay him to put his name on their stuff – that’s the core of his post-bankruptcy business. He’s good on television. His show, the apprentice, where he could present himself as a successful and wildly rich – the extent of the truth of this is something no one knows for sure because he keeps these facts hidden. But he was unprepared and inarticulate in all three of his presidential debates with Hillary. His schtick worked better in the primary debates when he had to share the stage with far more people and had far less time to defend himself or explain his policies.

But he was never, ever good gaining support beyond a pretty narrow base. He is the most unpopular person ever to win the presidency and he barely won at that. Many people who voted for him, did so for reasons that did not include adoration or support. So, Trump was an obvious, transparent idiot when it comes to running a country and most people could see it plain as day. He was good at marketing, but to be good in business you need to be good at finding a niche. The country is large and diverse, no business needs every citizen to be its customer to be successful. A company just needs a big enough base of support. Trump was good at capturing a loyal base even as he turned off and offended many, many others. You can’t run a country this way, not successfully.

But none of this ultimately mattered. Trump squeeked out a narrow win and I find this horrifying. I find this difficult to understand. I fear for a country that could decide what are country needs is one of the most divisive, hateful, ignorant candidate we ever had. And I’ll say this over and over again, this election just wasn’t rational, but that’s par for the course. Voting is just not rationale.

So let me just say this one more time and hopefully I can stop saying it again and move on to more specifics. History will look back on this election and mark it as a shameful moment in American politics.

I don’t believe Donald Trump will be a disaster in everything. I’m sure he’ll have successes and good ideas mixed in with the regular disasters that will crop up again and again. He has good people on his staff and he has Steve Bannon – among other frightening, unqualified people. The country is a behemoth and a bureaucracy. It’s not easily controlled by a single person and it will largely move along on cruise control. It’s likely we’ll survive Trump. But we shouldn’t have had to.

 

 

Can Atheists Be Religious, Can they Be Mormon?

A few years back I wrote a blog post expressing a literal(ish) belief in Santa Claus. In summary, Santa is real because we all collectively, cooperatively make it so. There’s a lot of magic in this shared sense of cooperation and good-will. There’s a spiritual power that’s in it. I believe in it. I have faith in it. It’s religious for me.

I’m obsessed with community and relationships, partly because they are so difficult, so fraught with trouble. We’re too easily envious, too easily offended, we can be difficult for each other, too prone to gossip, too prone to find fault, difficulties with miscommunication. Sometimes it’s easier to just be by ourselves. To reach out and participate with others is risky, but the rewards are too great not to try. I’m obsessed by them because relationships have always been so difficult for me, and I’m assuming for most of us. And I think it is a religious practice to drive directly into one’s difficulties. I think this is what it means to repent. I’m also obsessed by them because I recognize the power of networks and relationships. We’re all stronger together. We do amazing things cooperatively. We learn quicker. We’re happier in healthy, balanced relationships and communities.

And it’s central to why I believe religion matters.

It’s a point central to Samuel Brown’s book, The First Four Principles and Ordinances of the Gospel, where he takes the principles of faith and repentance and the sacred ordinances of baptism and confirmation and emphasizes the relational power of these practices, principles and rituals. Its through a religious practice we learn to get along with others.

I’ve heard some people complain that we Latter-Day Saints stay too busy to think deeply, as if church leaders conspire to give us callings and three-hour weekly church services to keep us from ever pondering the truth about Mormonism. That perspective misconceives faith, which is a principle of action, of experiment, and experience. Faith is a conscious commitment, often tedious, stretched over the course of our lives. Our participation in the church community is an expression of our faith rather than a distraction from it. Faith does not live in the echo chamber of an isolated mind. Faith grows in strength as we enact it. This close connection between faith and action explains why as we immerse ourselves in the work of the kingdom our faith burns more brightly.

Later in the chapter on the Holy Ghost and the confirmation ordinance required to receive it, Samuel Brown describes a process of committing oneself to the sustaining power of the church community

Confirmation is in its literal sense refers to making hard or strong or firm. At confirmation, you are well and truly a member of the church….

Through confirmation we bring our own lives – our bodies, our aspirations, our wisdom, and our failings – into the community of saints. In that community, we find strength – firmness – that allows us to resist the many miseries that can be inflicted upon us when our brokenness is not yet healed by Christ.

In his book, The End of the World, Plan B: A Guide For the Future, Charles Shiro Inouye calls for compassion as a solution to injustice. In it, he talks about how to find peace. Too often we choose peace through isolation:

We are simply who we are, and we celebrate our own ways of doing things. We are justified because we live alone and are alike. This is the peace of isolation. Peace of this kind has us living with ‘our kind’, free from the dangers and complications that strangers bring. This is the peace of ‘us’ without ‘them’.

Whether in actuality or in our imaginations, many of us dwell at least partially in this kind of isolation. Some of us live far from the highway, deep in the woods, away in the desert. Others of us keep strangers at a distance by setting up gates and fences, or by employing guards and doormen. We have many ways to isolate ourselves. We join clubs, churches, associations, societies, political parties. Avoiding those who are different is one of the easiest ways to find peace in a world that would otherwise trouble and threaten us.”

Here, Inouye talks about isolation from people generally or just people who aren’t like us. Trying to find safety in conformity and sameness. Instead Inouye calls for a different kind of peace, through diversity and this demands compassion:

It manifests itself as an appreciation of difference. Is there a clearer, simplier definition than this? Peace is a cultivated appreciation of the ways we are different. You and I are not alike. But precisely because we are not, we contribute to each other’s well beling.

The fulness of the Plan B paradigm, which requires us to push through sorrow to discover compassion, eventually brings us the third kind of peace. Beyond the reflex of retreat and isolation, beyond the demand for uniformity, beyond the call for justice, comes an expanded capacity to appreciate difference, including the ways each of us is different from all others.”

Adam Miller walks on more abstract but similar grounds in his book, Future Mormon, in the chapter entitled “Network Theology: Is it Possible to be a Christian but not a Platonist?” In this chapter Adam Miller makes a compelling case for an inter-connected theology where among other ideas Christ’s grace and power comes to us through this relational network.

In network theology, an understanding of grace as an external, sovereign intervention is out of place. The model of a transcendent, sovereign power would be apt only if God were a king perched at the top of a cosmic hierarchy rather than a servant whose power resides in his solidarity with the poor and the outcast. What, then might be an immanent notion of grace appropriate to a flat, network cosmology?

Here, grace can be understood as a systemic excess produced by a complexity of a network’s ongoing, local interactions. In other words, grace is an emergent property of a self-organizing system. Or again: it is the unintended remainder of an unbalanced equation. This kind of ‘free’ emergent excess – an excess that cannot be wholly accounted for by any individual relations or locally intended consequences – is essential to the success of any truth. Truths overwrite banked knowledge by bringing into play the excess of grace.”

Adam Miller is obscure here, but I’d like to tease this idea out more and unify it with the ideas presented earlier. Also, I’d like to return to the originating question of this blog. Can atheists (or at least agnostics) be Mormon? I think the answer should be yes, because Mormonism is fundamentally, in my opinion a religion of relationships that builds its power through a web of connections unified primarily in a shared commitment to one another. It’s true there are specific propositions about God, Jesus, the atonement, the restoration, scripture and part of our membership is predicated open declaring our testimony of these truths. But even in these truths, if there are ways to tease out the relational power of faith as commitment to a community, atonement in finding at-oneness with God through service to others, being able to find God in each other, these truths are inherently more about commitment and relationship, then they are about specific ideas of who or what God precisely is.

In other words, someone could be agnostic about the existence of a God (as an all-powerful king reigning and ruling in heaven) while still feel a commitment toward the daily work asked for when we feel called into Mormonism. Someone may wonder about the literal historicity of the main events of Christ’s atonement, while still find the power of Christ’s grace in our relationships.

Mormonism I feel can, does and should make room for people who find nuance in these beliefs even as they remain unsure or uncommitted to a literal declaration of belief in a white-male all powerful God in heaven.

Can one be an agnostic Mormon? I say yes.

My Name Used to Be Muhammad – Islam, Modernity, and Liberalism

Donald Trump ran a fairly ideology-light presidential campaign. He made a handful of incredible promises with precious few details on how he’d actually accomplish any of them other then to just trust his ability to get deals done. On one point he was consistent, on his willingness to call out Islamic extremism for what it is. He promised to crush it, and the first step in his plan I guess was to name it. Second step is anyone’s guess.

Sam Harris and Shadi Hamid in their latest podcast, make a reasonably convincing case that there was some meat on this Trump bone. That radical Islam does have to be reckoned with as it does present a threat to Western liberalism, that the democratic party generally, and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton specifically have not adequately addressed this fact, and so far, they haven’t even been willing to talk about it honestly.

Shadi Hamid is a liberal Muslim thinker and a thoughtful critic of the religious tradition he belongs to. He makes two points that resonate: First, unlike other religious traditions, the Quran is written with God as the narrator, making the reading of the Quran a reasonably direct interaction with God. The book is also old, a product of a different time and place with cultural norms far different than the ones we take for granted today. Modern day believers of Islam have to wrestle with the tension of bringing God’s words from a place 1500 years ago and finding application for it today.

The Bible, by contrast, is a historical narrative of a people and their prophet and how they struggle to connect with God through their trials. This scriptural indirection allows a greater degree of freedom to find nuance as Christianity has been more successful in its shift into modernity.

Second, Islam was never just a political movement, but a religious one as well. Muhammad  and those that succeeded him, used the unifying power of Islam to unite the Arab world and extend its reach and influence into Europe, Africa and Asia and now, of course, worldwide.This history of a God-ordained political movement carried out by a prophet sanctified a set of behaviors that fit nicely within a first century world.

By comparison, Christianity was born from weakness, poverty and suppression. Rather than revolt, Christ taught peace, meakness, submission and then ultimately submitted himself completely, submitting himself to an unjust mob culminating with his crucifixion Christ came not as a ruler but as someone who was ruled and ultimately overcome. His victory and his kingdom was never part this world.

Given the out-sized importance Islam is currently playing in our world and politics and the threats many feel it imposes to western, liberal values and the recent trends to pre-world war European nationalism and tribalism, there seems to be something interesting going on here worth exploring.

With this as context, I finally got around to reading a recent birthday present given to me last summer, “My Name Used to Be Muhammad, a true story about a man born in Nigeria, raised to become a Muslim cleric, who eventually risked his life and lost his freedom converting to Mormonism while attending university in Egypt. The author of the book was born Muhammad Momen, but eventually changed his first name to Tito upon leaving the religion of his youth. The book describes a life of intolerance, brutal misogyny and horrifying abuse.

He was his father’s favorite son to his second wife. Although polygamy was common, his father didn’t practice, he had re-married after his first wife passed away. “It wasn’t unusual for women in northern Africa to die before middle age. Conditions were rough, and women were perpetually pregnant. Plural marriage was also common, so the loss of one wife didn’t work a hardship on the husband. His children were simply raised by his other wives.” But his father saw in him something special and felt like he was destined to be a powerful Islamic cleric and groomed him for it. Starting at age five, he was forced to begin to memorize the Quran, and although his education was broad, his focus was always Islam. And this straight path was enforced with violence, suffering beatings whenever he strayed, banned from anything that could be a distraction – soccer, art.

It’s a long story and I’m leaving plenty of details out, but he eventually makes his way to Egypt to attend college in Islamic studies. There he meets who in a different set of circumstances, would have become his wife. He describes what sounds like a beautiful, authentic romance. They were soon engaged. But his life, his training, his culture was deeply problematic. He was on a path he did not choose. Their love was strong and the relationship survived his neglect, his alcoholism, his infidelities, but was split in two when he converted to Mormonism.

His conversion happened by chance, a friend of his introduced him to it but only when pressed. He want to church, saw and felt some things missing from his own life experiences. And this may not have been enough but he had also discovered cracks within Islam that caused him to questions life-long assumptions.  Conversion to Christianity in a deeply Muslim world was a risky thing to do. Not only did he lose his fiance, he eventually lost his freedom, receiving a life sentence but eventually serving ten in prison.

The book did not fully address Tito Mommed’s current feelings of the religion of his birth. For him, it was obviously excruciating and tragic. But Islam has 1.6 billion adherents or 23 percent of the global population. It’s a religion that’s not going away, not now, likely not ever. And for good reason, there are plenty of healthy, strong, committed, good Muslims through out globe. Muslim communities thrive in many places. It’s a deep, thoughtful, beautiful religion.

How much of the real damage Tito Mommed both experienced and witnessed can be blamed on the religion? How much of it is cultural, historical or just deeply human. Tito’s father had a dream that his son would one day grow up to become an important cleric in the community. He drove him hard to achieve that goal. How different is that from say Andres Agassi’s father, who drove him to tennis excellent in ways that were similarly obsessive and abusive.

I was disappointed when his relationship severed after his conversion to Mormonism. I thought it was a tragic result. It would have been legitimately beautiful for the path he was walking to have completed successful. A beautiful marriage, a wonderful family, a committed spiritual journey as a respected leader in a major world religion. I understand why it couldn’t happen, it simply was not a path he wanted. Suffering life-long abuse to stay on a path, no matter how potentially good it may have been, is really no life at all.

At the end of the book, in what sounded like a real miracle and after Tito spent ten excruciating years in prison, he meets his dad on his dad’s deathbed. Here his dad apologizes and expresses regret for all the damage and pain he inflicted. It’s easy, I can imagine, it the last moments of one’s life, in a moment of reflection and regret, to free yourself of the real drag this world places on one’s soul and think higher, deeper, more compassionate, generous thoughts. It was tragic and sad this moment couldn’t have come sooner but it was a precious gift it came when it did.

I personally believe Islam can reform and make a significant and important  contribution for good in this world. In fact, it already is in many places and in many ways. What’s not needed are not national databases to track Muslims in this country, a war on Islam generally in foreign lands, or excessively restrict immigration restrictions on Muslims seeking to come here.