Friday, May 25, 2007

God is smarter than you

Given the sudden turn in comments in my last thread, I decided to throw out a quick thought.
  • God knows everyone personally.
  • God knows them better than you know your best friend, spouse, or children.
  • You are smart enough to recognize your friends, spouses (for the Mormons), or children as individuals--you do not judge, bless, or discriminate against them based on some arbitrary classification beyond their control (e.g. race, gender, etc.)
Ergo, God would not judge, bless, or discriminate against you, or blacks, or women, or Egyptian children, based on arbitrary abstractions of society (e.g. race, gender, etc.)

So, if you want to know if a concept is really divine in origin, ask yourself: Would I be just as happy if the blessings/withholdings were reversed? If my bishopric and church leaders were always non-white or always women? If I had to pledge obedience to my spouse, but she did not have to reciprocate? If you were expected to marry someone you weren't attracted to?

This is a great judge of moral advancement--the ability to act in such a way that you would not mind being any member in a transaction, relationship, or society that you deem moral. In other words, the golden rule, but for everyone.

Instead, we often stereotype: women are better at parenting, men are more authoritative speakers, etc. This obviously isn't true in the whole--every women isn't a better parent than every man. Every man isn't a more authoritative speaker than every woman. Humans rely on these simple heuristics because we're too limited to do otherwise. We can't know everyone. (But we like to imagine we can.)

God cannot discriminate using the simple stereotypes of humans. I don't think God could be so stupid.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Shame vs Love

About 6 months after my epiphany regarding the church, I found my mind turned to the nature of mainstream Christianity vs LDS Christianity. Now, I'm no expert on the mainstream church (and obviously there's a good bit of diversity of thought), but one morning, just as I was stepping into the shower, it hit me.

Mormons obey to receive grace.
Christians obey because they have received grace.

I'm no mainstream Christian, but somehow that second approach rang so much better in my heart and mind. As soon as I realized it, I suddenly saw how pervasive this approach was in Mormonism. Hardly a GC talk goes by in which you don't hear the caveat, "if we are worthy," or "if we are obedient." Salvation comes through Jesus, but only once you've earned it. It makes Jesus like the token collector at a train station--he's deciding whether or not let you in, but the fare is the fare, so pay up. Obedience comes from knowing that you will not get to live with your family if you miss tithing by 1% and then die too quickly to make amends.

Contrast that with the idea that Jesus has, in his infinite mercy, reached down and pulled you from the depths of your human weakness. As a result, you will obey him in a show of gratitude. Clearly you'll mess up, but he'll help you out anyway. Obedience comes from knowing that you are saved and being thankful for it.

We'll let the search engine take it from here (in my completely scientific study!):

"obe*": 7,136
"worthi* worthy": 4,636
"grace": 1,816, including phrases such as, "We cannot be saved by grace alone."

It's an emphasis that really bothers me, in that it promotes a judgemental attitude in others and a deeply negative sense of shame in the believer. I do not find Christ as a valuable symbol if I am using him to promote shame--I much prefer the parental love image of the second approach. My children exist because my wife and I gave them life, a totally free gift. If my children disappoint me, I do not reject them--certainly not for the rest of their lives! Instead, I show them how to live better lives and recover from their stumbles. And I seek their obedience out of respect and love, not fear of punishment.

Just some liminal blather on what Jesus means to an agnostic...

Friday, May 18, 2007

My Spiritual Witness of Humanism

Last night I was having an extended philosophical conversation with my wife and some good friends. They, like us, are "so-called intellectuals," although they're not Mormon. (Does that make them "real intellectuals?") Whenever we get together it immediately turns into a deep dive on politics, religion, current events, etc. This time was no exception.

We were discussing Fowler's Stages of Faith, which they are going to read on our recommendation (do I mention this book too much?), and I was trying to explain the idea around shared centers of value and power. I explained (hope I didn't mutilate the message too much) that a driving force behind our quest for purpose is the desire for validation of worth in the face of death. That it is the inevitability, incomprehensibility, and finality of our impending end that is in a constant battle with our desire to have intrinsic worth. Nobody wants to think of himself as a random lump of biomass, here one year and gone the next. (Not that we're not random biomasses, just that we don't like using that as our primary construct for existence.)

While I was explaining this--the idea that "fear of death" drives the quest for meaning, I was almost moved to tears by the Spirit. So, I guess that was True. Since it was in the context of religion as a human construct, it doesn't really jive with the other stuff I thought the Spirit told me was True, but I experienced what I experienced.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

I am God. No, wait, you are God.

I posted about this on NOM a little while back, but I wanted to comment on it here, too, so that I can always find it.

The University of Chicago Magazine published a fascinating article on how people tend to see themselves in agreement with God on moral issues. While this seems a truism at first--people naturally align their morals with what God "teaches" them--the interesting thing was that when those moral beliefs were manipulated in a laboratory setting, God's beliefs changed right along with them.

This has played out in my own life, where I cannot believe that God is an exclusivist when it comes to religions. At the same time, I saw God in a totally different way as a believing Mormon, and I can actually remember that.

My take-away from this is that "God's teachings" are synonymous with "your personal beliefs" in the majority of situations. Which means if someone says that "God wants us to do such-and-such," it's identical to saying "I want us to do such-and-such, and ALL CREATION agrees with me."

Seems like a hard pill to swallow if you're a believer in God. But then, you're different, right? You actually do understand what God teaches; the idea that you project your beliefs onto God is ludicrous...right?

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

I gave a talk today, oh boy...

I gave a talk today about motherhood. It went over very well--I don't think anyone noticed that I didn't do the typical "bear my testimony" bit at the end, nor did I actually use any scriptures. (I did use quite a few GA quotes though.) I got very emotional toward the end, which tends to happen every time I speak in church about something I care about.

Not long ago I would have attributed these feelings to "the Spirit." Now I have every reason to believe they come from me, like all of my other feelings. But for what purpose? I can give an "objective" purpose for love (procreation), fear (self-preservation), or hope (also self-preservation). But getting choked up in a talk? Less clear. But then, jealousy, excitement, pity, and frustration are also less clear. We obviously can assign whatever meanings we want to the things we feel, but I would expect that there should be some evolutionary advantage for any common feelings (although they could always be spandrels).

I told my wife that it was my "Good for Society" feeling. In other words, the feelings that choked me up were similar to those I feel when singing the national anthem with a group, or watching Extreme Home Makeover, where they renovate a home to help a suffering family. To that end, these feelings seem to serve a very useful purpose--preservation of the tribe, with preservation of the individual as a result. I don't think she thought that was nearly as inspirational as attributing them to the Creator of the Universe. I have to agree, my "Good for Society" feeling isn't the kind of thing you find in songs or poems.

Perhaps I would agree with the statement, "the Spirit testifies of the goodness of something," but not "of the truth of something." That's getting pretty metaphorical, since I don't literally believe in a disembodied supernatural being that plays with my emotions. In this case, though, a more correct way to put it would be, "the Spirit testifies the goodness of something, as I define good, and as I understand the something." When referring to this particular feeling, I can't count on the Spirit to correct me in either the definition of good or in my understanding of reality. But I can still seek out the feeling.

Believers will doubtless point out that, to them, the Spirit does send sudden thoughts into their minds to correct misunderstandings, etc. That I find much easier to explain, given the fact that so much of our brains work is done subconsciously, with the conscious mind seeming to more, perhaps, tell a story about what is happening (even though it thinks it's in control). For more on this, I refer you to the great essay, A Ghost in the Machine.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Lines in the sand

I got an email recently from the Relief Society presidency, looking for a Priesthood holder to attend the next Enrichment night. Apparently, women cannot be alone in the church. I responded with an offer to show up with a key if that was what was needed, but that I would conscientiously object to supporting any such policies by actually chaperoning adult women. I was sure to include the bishop in the response, since he was included in the original inquiry. So, although it's no bus boycott, I have been feeling more empowered to "call it like I see it" in the church.

How a Western woman can swallow this whole is beyond me--I honestly think that any human being should be offended by this kind of policy. What am I missing?

I know there are some readers of this blog who are more inclined to believe all of these policies are set down by divinely inspired leaders than I am. I'm fairly certain that if you don't believe the LDS church is "the only true and living" church, you'll call out a policy like this for the sexism it is. So to the believers, here's the question--why on earth would such a policy exist? Why are women not to be trusted alone? Might they start to think for themselves?

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Monday, May 7, 2007

Heavenly Mother

I made some comments about this topic on NOM last week, but I want to flesh out my thoughts a little more.

I used to think that Heavenly Mother (HM) was a great doctrine--something that offered a value to believers that they couldn't really find elsewhere. Now I think it's a pernicious doctrine. Not by itself, but in how it's applied.

Traditional Christianity suggests the presence of God, usually referred to in the masculine. This could be because of the terrible stuff He encouraged doing to women (segregation, death for accidentally touching male privates while defending her husband, etc.), but, at any rate, I think modern Western Christians tend to view God as transcending gender. So a person can imagine God being as male or as female as he/she wants to. God becomes gender-neutral.

Joseph Smith threw a wrench into this by suggesting that people become gods, and that God was once a person. As such, God has a gender. One could leave it at that, and say that we happen to have a male God and other worlds have female Gods, but he also introduced plural marriage (more commonly known as Celestial Marriage), meaning that we have both a Father and Mother God.

Mormon doctrine unequivocally teaches that there is a Heavenly Mother (or Mothers), although it provides virtually no details. But one aspect of her existence reign supreme in the modern church--she is an evil topic. People get very uncomfortable in public discussions of Heavenly Mother. If a speaker were to begin expounding on his/her beliefs about Her, a bishop would probably feel compelled to either stop the speaker outright or at least "correct" the talk from the pulpit afterwards. No "good" thing is so completely taboo (even the temple, which is freely discussed in the temple, and isn't really a "doctrine" anyway, but a ritual).

We have no indication that Heavenly Mother serves any purpose whatsoever. There's no question that God was the Creator. There's no question that Jesus is the Savior. The Holy Ghost is the Comforter and testifier of all Truth. So, where's Heavenly Mother in any of this? Making refreshments? Tidying up the CK for our eventual return (as Neal Maxwell once suggested!)? Yes, girls, you get to be a god along with your husband, but that won't mean "God", because God is clearly the male, and His Wife, well, we don't really know what she does, nor do we want to know, nor do we want you to even think about it. In other words, we don't care what she does. You may not be second class citizens in the church (cough, cough), but you clearly will be in the eternities, at least to your children.

This denial of the feminine bothers some believers, even though they may not fully know why. So we see explanations arise for how it can be "good" not to care about women's eternal destiny.

The #1 Mormon explanation for this (as I perceive it) is that God doesn't want her to be criticized. People might start saying, "Oh my Heavenly Mother!" Seems possible--I've heard people "swear" on Mary. So we know one other thing about female Gods--they're emotionally fragile. Heavenly Mother would rather completely distance herself from Her children (even removing their salvation, if necessary) than risk one of them saying something mean about her. Even as a GOD, women will need to be protected by their husbands.

The #2 explanation (and this is a distant second), is that she's the Holy Ghost, or some such thing. (I've also heard that Joseph Smith was the Holy Ghost embodied--whatever.) You know, if this makes someone feel better, I guess I won't get on their case, but the HG has no body. So it can't be the female equivalent of HF.

I wouldn't mind this doctrine so much if women (and men) were free to openly discuss these things, or if Hinckley were to get inspiration to clarify this teaching. Instead, response to spiritual inquiry is hostile. Seriously, if someone feels like they have a spiritual connection to the feminine divine, should that be dismissed as evil? It's just so blatantly wrong! Better to not have Her at all, than to make her a magnet for guilt and self-loathing. If we don't care about the existence or role of Heavenly Mother, what are we saying about the fundamental and eternal value of women in general?

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