Friday, March 31, 2006 

What the heck does Occam know, anyway?

My brother flew into town last night and ate at a dinner for LDS doctors where Elder Ballard spoke. The other people at his table included an older couple named Wirthlin. They asked Rob about his schooling and, when he told them where he went, they asked him about a son of theirs. It turns out that their son was the only other LDS med student at Rob's university.

Afterwards, Rob and I sat around and talked about Mormon doctrine (sad, but true). We began to talk about Elder Hinckley, the son of President Hinckley. Neither of us had a problem with Elder Hinckley being called to the Quorum of the Seventy. I theorized that the fact that he was well known to the Brethren was a factor that contributed to his being chosen, but it wasn't the only factor. Rob felt that God had put him in that family so that he would be known at the time that God needed to call him into the Seventy. We may be looking at two sides of the same coin, but mine feels less pre-determined to me.

In our church, we believe in an active, involved God who is responsive to prayer and action on our part. As a result, we search out connections in the events and encounters in our life in order to discern the divine meaning that they communicate to us. We are encouraged to look for signs and omens and we believe that responses to our prayers can take many forms, some obvious and others less-so.

Others choose another path, one of demystification. Events that coincide simply coincide. Any meaning that we assign such coincidences is arbitrary and, therefore, without objective meaning. The patterns in tea leaves are determined by that vagaries of fluid in motion, not the unseen pattern of the universe. That drops of water create fractal patterns is interesting, but really only for the pretty pictures created. This is the strong belief that there is no man behind the curtain, so it is fruitless to search for one.

Some find in this an enticing economy of belief. Why manufacture supernatural causation when everything can be explained by experiment, human ingenuity, elegant rationality, and sufficient time?

To be frank, I don't know if my brother or I am correct in the Elder Hinckley argument. I doubt it is statistically unusual for my brother to meet the parents of an acquaintance at an LDS medical function, but it fascinates me that of the 50 or so tables available he got seated with them anyway. It isn't that I object to the search for the science in coincidence, it is that I just don't find the answers satisfying.

In high school, we read The Stranger. I was impressed by my teacher's description of the existential hero on a tight-rope over death, refusing the safety of religion or anarchy that would be found at either end of the rope. His own honesty and clarity of vision was so important that it was more important to maintain his dangerous position than to flee to the easy answers or the complete nihilism that would be found at either end of the rope. Above all, this convinced me that Camus, Sartre, and the lot were blowhards. Never buy from the salesman who assures that anyone who disagrees with his sales pitch is stupid or insane. I am sure that they are patting themselves on the back for the bravery of saying that everyone else is wrong, but I remain unconvinced.

In truth, I love connections, coincidences, and unseen forces. James Burke recently spoke at BYU and I have long been fascinated by his ideas. I believe that there is magic in the world, a mystery beyond all our understanding. Coincidence is reflective of this. May we all have the humility to admit, as in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. This is my prayer today.

Thursday, March 30, 2006 

Co-inky-dink

The world of Mormonism is so small, and the descendants of polygamy are so numerous, that you, reader, know a cousin of just about any Mormon on Earth. That is, if they actually knew all the names of their 80 or so cousins.

My family is not like that. My mother was a convert and my father's family converted when he was a kid. I have a few cousins, but not that many. I've never discovered a secret connection between myself and another Mormon. One of the things I worried about/secretly hoped for when I started blogging was to run into someone I knew in real life. I shouldn't have worried; so far, I haven't met a soul.

I somehow avoided attending BYU through a stroke of sheer luck (and the good folks at [censored]'s scholarship office), so I don't have that hub of connections. I served in a large mission, but my fellow RMs seem to be singularly incurious about the bloggernacle. My father served as a mission president, and I must have known hundreds of missionaries who filed through that mission, too. Apparently, they can't read. I grew up in suburban Salt Lake, for heaven's sake! And there's nobody I know online? Well, we did have a terrible student/teacher ratio, but I refuse to believe that no one from my childhood has a computer and an interest in Mormonism.

The closest I've ever come to a Mormon coincidence happened during my (very) brief re-activation last spring. At the time, I was working in a very large law firm. If you'll remember, I would show up at the chapel just as Sacrament Meeting started and then leave immediately after the closing prayer, to avoid having to talk to anyone. As the ward was overflowing, no one ever paid me any attention.

The second Sunday I was attending, I noticed a blond man who looked very familiar entering the chapel just ahead of me. He had his wife and several kids with him and he held the door for me. There weren't a lot of spaces left in the chapel, so I ended up sitting in the pew right in front of his family. I couldn't place the man, and I thought that maybe I knew him from the mission or from growing up in Utah.

The Sacrament meeting passed without incident (except for the always embarrassing refusal of sacrament that makes you feel like you're in a white-hot spotlight) and I left without approaching or being approached by the man. By now I was certain I'd met him before, but I had absolutely no idea where.

Imagine my surprise when I saw him in the bathroom at work on Monday. Not only did he work at my firm, he worked on my floor, about ten feet from my office. He was a lawyer and I was support staff, so we never had any interaction. He must have been so familiar to me solely from passing him in the floor's only bathroom.

Even though I recognized him, I didn't say anything to him, and he didn't say anything to me. And even though we ran into each other a couple times a week coming or going from the bathroom or elevator for the next six months (until I finally moved away), we never exchanged words.

I still don't know if he just never recognized me, or if he recognized me at church the first time, and since I didn't approach him there, assumed that I didn't want to talk about it (I didn't, really). Or maybe he is just extremely introverted, like me.

At any rate, it was the only time I experienced the very small world of Mormonism. And, odds are, he is somebody's cousin. Probably yours.

Posted by Ned Flanders.

Friday, March 24, 2006 

Doling out height

The truth is that I, like most people, am really good at giving up. I haven't played piano or volleyball in years. I have a list of friends who I am "meaning to get in touch with", but whom I will probably never contact. I can think of a thousand opportunities that I haven't pursued because I could see my eventual failure coming from a mile away. Why bother? Don't start and you won't get hurt.

God doesn't ask much of us, really, but he does ask us to not give up. I attended a Zen Meditation Session once in Salt Lake City led by a man with the title Genpo Roshi. His basic idea is that we are all already perfect. Within our self is the complete person and if we could just quiet all the white noise of life, we could be that person. I think that there is a healthy dollop of truth in that and that it relates.

How often have we given up on ourselves? I, for one, do it all the time. When I eat junk food, instead of some fruit or when I watch TV instead of playing with my kids I give up. Whenever I do anything that is less than what I think I ought to do, what I am saying is, "Don't start and you won't get hurt. It'll all fail anyway."

Belief in God entails risk. You have to enter a relationship whose boundaries and responsibilities are undefined. Some people find this overwhelming; others fulfilling. No matter what, it seems, like all relationships, to risk pain. Giving up feels safer, because the pain you know is better than the pain you don't. You have survived this; that may kill you.

Christ uses the image of the yoke. I think this is because we often feel ourselves beasts of burden, carrying not only our problems but also all those relationships along behind us. We are the glue that holds our world together; without us, things fall apart. Christ, in offering to share or replace the yoke (depending on how you read the promise), isn't freeing us from our burden, he is just shifting it slightly. He can bear our burdens, but only to the degree to which we let him. He will keep the cart going forward, but only to the degree that we trust him to take over for us.

So, should we give up? I don't know what that means. Giving up to God seems laudable. Giving up in isolation seems like a failure to be responsible. The church is meant to relief burdens, not multiply them; nonetheless, many find only additional weight in our church. I wish I knew how to relieve their weight and am reminded of my inadequacy in their struggle.

The promise of the gospel is not to those who have it together; instead, Christ calls to those who are messed up and in pain. Where you place yourself on the spectrum of self-sufficient to screwed-up says a lot about the meaning and the necessity of Christ to you. That we are all screwed up is my testimony. Giving up is the proof.

To give up is inherently human; it isn't something that God does. The long history of the house of Israel is one of God's constancy and humanity's deviance. There is a verse I like, that may apply:

But now I go unto the Father, and also to show myself unto the lost tribes of Israel, for they are not lost unto the Father, for he knoweth whither he hath taken them. (3 Nephi 17:4)

No matter where we are, no matter how much we have given up, God knows us and loves us. He does not give up, because he knows us. There is something real and divine in each of us. If we will return, he will have us. No matter what.

Thursday, March 23, 2006 

I tried, I gave up...

If there's one thing I'm good at, it's giving up. I quit my AYSO soccer team when I was five, along with the rest of my team, The Whip-Creamers. We quit at mid-season and were able to get our parents a decent refund, though I was reluctant to part with my shin-guards. I quit playing the drums not that long after my parents had bought me a new drum set. I quit my high school wrestling team after I failed to score a single point in any match.

One thing that I couldn't bring myself to give up on was the mission. After just a few weeks, I desperately wanted to go home. I knew, however, that if you left early, you had to pay for your own plane ticket. Since I knew my parents couldn't afford a $1500 flight from Argentina, I stayed on the mission and ended up costing them $10,000 instead. (Somehow my nineteen-year-old brain couldn't figure out that at $400 a month, a plane ticket home is the equivalent of just four months on the mish.)

I will always be glad that I didn't quit my mission, not for any religious aspect, but because it made me into who I am today. By sticking it out, I also proved to myself that I hadn't missed anything. If you leave the play at intermission, how do you know it won't get really good at the end? Staying ensured that I knew how everything ended up.

Like Kaycee and Hellmut have already commented, I think it's best to give up on something when it's not working for you. I'm glad that I've given up on the church, but I also recognize that I had to give it the old college try before I quit. Maybe I'll take up soccer on Sunday mornings in the park. I've been dying for an excuse to buy shin-guards.

Posted by Ned Flanders.

Monday, March 20, 2006 

Quitter

A couple of years ago I was talking to this kid, a boy, about 13 or 14 years old. We were talking about some random things and it came up that I used to play the piano.

I actually took lessons for a pretty long time--3 years and then I was off for a year, then another 2 years (all before I turned 14). I should have been a pretty decent player with all of that training... all those lessons... but I wasn't. In fact, I was pretty bad.

I told this kid that I stopped playing because it was just too hard for me (I later attributed my difficulty to the fact that I can't keep a beat--clapping in a crowd, I will still get off beat). He said, "So you gave up?" And I realized... I had broken the rule. You can't tell kids that they're allowed to give up on things.

I tried to explain to him that if you really try at something and you aren't good at it, don't enjoy it and it isn't essential for success in life, it's better to give up. I'm not sure if that's the message he got from our converstation, but it's the one I tried to convey.

If you're not good at it, you don't enjoy it and you don't have to have it to be successfull... then you're allowed to give up. Is this good advice or bad advice? Something tells me that there are situations I'm not thinking of where you have to tell someone that they can't give up. I've tried thinking them up, but, following my own advice, I give up.

Posted by Kaycee.

Friday, March 17, 2006 

A Simple Question

25 And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

26 He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?

27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.

28 And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

29 But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?

30 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,

34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.

36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?

37 And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.

Who is your neighbor?

Posted by John C.

Friday, March 10, 2006 

Doubt as a hobby

On a whole, I think that Latter-day Saints fail to appreciate the power of doubt. It may be natural; we are a movement that demands faith and demands acts that indicate our possession thereof. At the same time, we say that it is good to have questions. We seem to approach doubt as a hobby; something that we keep working on in the basement level of our mind; something which we always work on when something more important isn't pressing; something that fundamentally only the individual is interested in and which, therefore, ought not to be widely shared; something that can always be set aside and returned to after an appropriate interval. There is much talk in and out of the church about compartmentalization and cognitive dissonance, both of which seem to accept the hobby form of doubt as the only legitimate form. People often push us to bring the doubts up from the basement; saying that there is nothing wrong with doing it. However, there is a persistent sense that, in so doing, one will become a freak, a stamp-collector or D&D player, unfit for normal company and consigned to only finding like-minded, acne-faced peers at symposia and conventions. The public airing of our hobbies risks real public consequences.

For better or for worse, another consequence of the hobby system of doubting is that, like a dream deferred, there is a chance of explosion. As we perpetually delay going through the accumulated doubts in our spiritual basement, they come to fill the shelves and floorspace. Eventually, there is no more room and the room erupts, flowing into all other aspects of our life. There is no way to contain the doubts anymore, they are too many and too powerful. Our hobby has taken over our life, like an addiction to video games. We may never leave the basement again.

This seems to often be the conclusion of the hobby/doubt system. The thing is that doubt appears to actually be necessary. In this, I don't mean the idealized doubt of the easily satisfied, wherein one reads a single passage of scripture and is suddently convinced of the way, the truth, and the life. God's victories are not so cheaply wrought. Instead, I mean real doubt, the kind that comes from ordinary life. Perhaps it may be the result of years of basement doubts; perhaps it is the result of one horrific event. In any case, all people, at one point or another, are brought to doubt, real doubt, not something affected. Who is this God and what does he think he is doing? Real doubt isn't about how we approach God; it is rather about God himself, life itself, and the meaning we derive therefrom.

We may sometime find ourselves at a point where all of our life has stopped making sense; where clocks starting ticking backwards and dogs walk on their hind legs. Everything that you knew and know is wrong. In the grip of this doubt, there is no turning away or setting aside. One cannot help but make the hole where one's life was a focus. In the midst of this doubt, we may be presented with a choice: to believe. In particular, the choice is to believe when you don't really have any good reasons for so doing. In this moment, if you choose to believe and choose to continue in belief, you will find a new sort of life, one wherein doubt plays a minimal role and God abides with you. Of this, I have no doubt.


Posted by John C.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006 

No Doubt

You know what I find utterly hilarious about doubt? Every single time I doubt something it ends up working out and I end up feeling like a total shlump for doubting in the first place.

My whole life I doubted someone would be foolish and/or desperate enough to marry me. And then The Most Wonderful Man in the World happened across me, thought I was insane, called me back anyway, and then married me! After we got engaged (a mere 15 days after we met - another thing I highly doubted I would ever do) I felt HORRIBLE for all the times I told Heavenly Father that he was mean and uncaring and had utterly abandoned me. I had doubted the things that had been promised to me time and time and time again. I had had numerous blessings tell me that I would meet a wonderful guy who would love me just the way I am and I acutally SCOFFED at these. I rolled my eyes and said to the heavens, "As if someone could actually love ME!" But low and behold, I sit here today a Mrs. of a Mr. who happens to think I'm highly loveable even when I am cranky. And that is more often than I care to admit.

From my first menstration to about two and a half months ago I highly doubted that I would ever be a mother. I didn't think I would be able to get pregnant, and if I did I would loose the baby and that would be unbearable and I would take to my bed and never again have sex because it would be too painful to try again. (Yes, I was known as a drama queen and yes, I was simulaniously doubting that I'd get married and then thinking that even if I did get married I would be barren. I was on pills for this craziness for a while. Things are better now, don't worry.) But yet again, all that doubt and worry waS for not. I got pregnant the first time we tried with that end in mind. That only happens to 3 in 10 women! And yet here I sit, growing a baby and being married and having a life I never dreamed of.

I always doubted I could be happy. But now I know that's not true. I know that being happy is a choice. I can sit and stew in a life of doubt and uncertinty or I can just try to do my best and see what happens. So far, it's been a far superior way of life.

Posted by Sarah

Monday, March 06, 2006 

I Doubt That

Lest I begin to sound like a broken record, I will not be discussing how I came out of faith and into doubt... again. Instead, I'm going to tell you about the phrase that nearly resulted in commission of homicide against my dear husband.

It started about a month and a half ago. I was telling Felix, my husband of 6 months, about something at work. I said something like, "I think the principal might try to get rid of that teacher," to which he replied, "I doubt that."

Now, since Felix doesn't have an intimate working knowledge of the school where I work, he had no reason to doubt what I was saying. Therefore, I became irritated at him. Somehow, the 10 year old in him found this delightful and it became his favorite phrase to pull out at random moments.

More examples:

Me: My parents asked us to bring dessert to dinner on Sunday.
Felix: I doubt that.

Me: I'm going to get the mail.
Felix: I doubt that.

Me: (at Subway) I'm going to get the roasted chicken breast sandwich.
Felix: I doubt that.

Me: I want to see that "V for Vendetta" movie.
Felix: I doubt that.

Can you see how irritating this is? But why? I knew he wasn't serious when he said it. I think that I hate the idea of people seeing me as wishy-washy, someone you doubt as a matter of course. I've always endeavored to be reliable and trustworthy and being doubted by someone just seems degrading to me.

I didn't spell it out for Felix like this, though. I just told him, in the most stressed and animated tones, that he had to stop or I was going to kill him. Would I really have? I doubt it.

Posted by Kaycee.

Saturday, March 04, 2006 

Gumming up the works

Before anything else, I need to apologize to JP for stepping on her day. I had most of this written yesterday, but couldn't seem to upload it until this morning. Sorry. Go read JP's post!

When I think of "the Mormon Machine," I think about the beginning of some movie that I saw in my late high-school years. It begins in a toy factory where we watch a doll or an action figure being put together piece by piece in a Goldberg-esque assembly line. Body parts are molded, moved about, painted, and stuck together to the beat of a Tori Amos song (I believe the movie was Toys, which also featured LL Cool J hiding inside of a couch). This is how I imagine the people behind the machine imagine it working: taking normal folk, adding layer and layer of spirituality and responsibility until they come out of the other side with a happy marriage, lots of loving grandchildren, and an RV with a painting of the Manti Temple on the side.

Certainly there is a bit of formality to the process. We graduate from Deacon to Teacher to Priest to Elder (insert the female equivalents here, if you like). We are told to do well in school, prepare for a mission/marriage, attend BYU, marry, have kids when you're young, and have missions and family history vacations when you are older. In this idealization, everything happens with the regularity and precision of clockwork. Become a bishop by your mid-thirties, stake president by your mid-forties, GA by your mid-fifties if you are related to one already. For the women, YW president by mid-thirties, Primary president by mid-forties, Relief society by mid-fifties. There is a certain appeal to this doctrine. It lets you know your place in the world and it allows you to judge how far along you have come and how far you have to go. It lets you know when to buy a white suit.

On my mission, I was a junior companion for the first two companionships. After this, my mission president, who believed that "senior" and "junior" companionships were unnecessary after a certain amount of experience, never put me into a junior or senior position again (well, I trained a greenie, but aside from that, nothing). I became a District Leader at about 8-9 months (clockwork) and then, a few months later, I was called into the mission office. I was on the inside, on track to become an AP or, more likely, a ZL (office elders had a certain reputation). At the end of my office tenure, I learned that I would be one of the first (young) elders to work in Armenia. I would be there for a month or two and then I would return to certain glory (in my mind's eye, my mission president, a buddy now, wouldn't let me down). I came back, got a greenie, and with that ended all mission responsibility for me. I was a rank and file missionary from then on out.

I don't know if I was offended by this. People I had come to the field with were AP's and ZL's. I was just a missionary. I didn't think much of it at the time, aside from a vague feeling that I had failed somehow. I hadn't progressed in the straight line that I thought I was supposed to. Maybe my mission president didn't like me as much as I thought. Maybe I should tract harder or improve my Russian. There must be something wrong with me, as I was no longer on the fast track to being a mission president at 50.

Herein is the problem with the machine idea, we forget that we don't earn callings like we earn diplomas (by making no waves and sitting still for a few years). We don't earn callings at all. That I wasn't called to be an AP was no reflection on me (at least, I hope not); it just meant that God needed the people who were called to that position in that position. There is no regular schedule for life, in the church or out of it. People do not have to be missionaries at 19/21; People do not have to be married before their thirties.

The regularity of the machine makes it easy to comprehend and easy to use as a measuring stick; however, it isn't a measuring stick that God uses. He looks at the heart of people and makes decisions based on what he sees there; we look at the machine and decide how others are doing. The machine as measuring stick only matters to those who believe its regularity is the most important of all doctrines. God isn't to be found in that camp.

Of course, this may all be my opinion; I remain off the fast-track. At the moment, I am a nursery worker. I am happy with my calling and, I think, doing a good job at it. Maybe being a cog in the machine isn't so bad, after all.


Posted by John C.

 

Another Brick in the Wall

Recently, a friend of mine had a very spiritual experience, not in a church, but in a martial arts (Aikido) studio. This person is going through a very trying time in his life and was looking for a way to “center” himself while he dealt with things. As I listened to him recount the experience, I heard him describe a joy that he had never felt before. He described his experience of feeling a connection and comforted by this newfound spirituality. But as I listened, it seemed that he gave full credit to the art of Aikido and the situation instead of himself. And from somewhere…somehow, I found myself advising this friend. I told him that while Aikido didn’t give him spirituality...it did allow him to find it in himself. It was the vessel, if you will, for finding his spirituality.

When I was active in the church, I never really saw the Mormon Machine image. I was part of the Mormon Machine and I relied on it. I went through the motions…held callings because they asked and because I felt like I should...received the Gospel in Action and Young Womanhood Recognition awards because it was expected of me… had a testimony of The Church because that’s what you did. I looked to the Mormon Machine for my spirituality because that’s how things were done. The Mormon Machine should have only been the vessel for my spirituality…not the basis for it.

I can stand here today (or, you know, sit here and type at my computer) and tell you that I’m so glad for the experiences in my life that have allowed me to find out who I really am and not rely on tradition, rules or The Mormon Machine to dictate my spirituality. I am on a continual quest for my own personal spiritual revelation that will, then, define what I believe or how I believe it. I’ve never denounced the Mormon religion and there is a possibility that my quest for personal revelation will lead me back that way. I’m okay with that. What I’m not okay with is me not questioning anything and following blindly. I’m not okay with me getting “sucked in” to the Mormon Machine instead of being a moving, working, thinking, feeling, individual part of that machine.

Posted by JP.

This Week's Topic:

  • The Sabbath Day

Various Authors

  • Monday:
    Kaycee opted out of Mormondom 4 years ago. She calls herself agnostic.
  • Tuesday:
    Sarah is not your average Gospel Doctrine Teacher.
  • Wednesday:
    Carrie Ann comes from pioneer stock, and lives in Provo, but is open minded and fair.
  • Thursday:
    Ned Flanders hasn't been to church in a while, but maintains an interest in all things Mormon.
  • Friday:
    John C. is an academic with a sense of humor and a testimony.
  • Saturday:
    JP's not going to church and feeling okay about it.

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