My personal code for life

This is my personal code for life.  It’s a bunch of obvious things that most people already know.  I am sure I’ve missed some significant things, but I still like it:

  • Anything that leads to love is good. Anything that leads away from it is not.
  • I claim the god-given right to be imperfect.  I also claim the inherent right to have “issues.”  I recognize that everyone else has the exact same rights.
  • I cannot control other people and if I try to do so, I will make both them and me miserable. I do have the right to set boundaries for the treatment I will accept from them. It is my responsibility to communicate those boundaries to them. I have the inherent right to disassociate myself from them if they refuse to honor those boundaries. If someone still tries to hurt me, I can seek out appropriate protection.
  • The universal golden rule still applies: treat others the way you want to be treated. It is wrong to harm others. Allowing someone else to come to harm through inaction is also wrong. And one way we cause harm through inaction is choosing to remain ignorant of the harm we cause to others.
  • It is also wrong to cause harm to ourselves, through action or inaction.
  • I am never responsible for another person’s behavior, but I am responsible for the temptations I create for them. I will inevitably tempt others to be angry, to lash out, to be jealous, to seek revenge, etc., but if I choose to ignore the temptations I create for others I am harming them through inaction.
  • I have the right to decide to believe in God or not. If I believe in God, I have the right to decide what expectations that being has of me. I also have the right to follow those expectations. What I may not do is harm others through either action or inaction in order to satisfy God.
  • It is more important to be wise than to be happy. Seeking happiness over wisdom is likely to lead to neither one, but seeking wisdom over happiness is likely to lead to both. Wisdom is the key to happiness. Understanding is the key to wisdom. Knowledge is the key to understanding.
  • There may be nothing in life I can truly control. Life is a matter of probabilities and odds. I cannot change that. What I can do is change the odds.

My struggles with a new policy of my church

To begin with, I have to say that I love the doctrines of my church. I love the things found in our scriptures: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. I love the temple ceremony, which we are not supposed to say much about, but which basically teaches the same doctrines found in our scriptures.

While there are some members of my church who think every word of our highest leaders is gospel truth, it has been a long time since I believed that the leaders of my church were perfect or that everything they ever said was true. I have not believed it was necessary for them to teach absolute truth 100% of the time. I have not believed that God required them to be perfect or to always do his will.

In the past several years, however, my relationship with the church has become more and more strained. Personal events and local matters turned my involvement in the church into a burden and a source of pain, rather than a source of healing.

Then, at the same time as I was experiencing personal difficulties that pushed wedge after wedge between me and the church, its leaders were doing everything they could to support a political battle in the United States: the fight against same-sex marriage.

When the U. S. Supreme Court decided to end the battle over same-sex marriage in this country recently and required it in every state, it had already been legal in some other countries and some parts of this one for years, without any negative effects.

Initially, I opposed it as a huge experiment, but over time all of the non-religious arguments to stop same-sex marriage seemed completely disproven to me. I also knew that gay and lesbian people are no different from others except for the gender they are attracted to, so they have the same desire to have family relationships as other people. When only religious arguments remained in my mind, stopping gays and lesbians from marrying seemed like forcing other people to follow someone else’s religious beliefs.

So my views on this issue evolved, as President Obama said his did, but I did not expect the church to change its position on homosexuality or the acceptability of same-sex marriage. I did wish they could speak with more kindness and empathy, or even perhaps acknowledge the level of sacrifice that the church’s teachings require of people who experience same-sex attraction.

All of these things and more were behind a recent blog post I wrote about several passages from the Book of Mormon. One of the passages I cited was the one that said “Charity is the greatest of all and whosoever is possessed of it at the last day, it shall go well with him.” I complained that many Mormons seemed to misread this scriptures as “Chastity is the greatest of all….”

Then, just a few days after I posted that wish, the situation became worse. The church formulated a new policy for dealing with members who were married to someone of the same sex. The new policy was leaked to the public and a furor began.

One part of the new policy declared that anyone in a gay marriage was an apostate and their local leaders would be required to hold a disciplinary council to decide if they could remain members of the church, but what really pained me and some other members were the restrictions placed on the children who live with them.

Children living with same-sex parents can no longer be blessed as babies, be baptized or be ordained to the priesthood. (We bless babies after birth instead of baptizing them. We baptize children when they are eight years old or older. Boys are generally ordained to the priesthood when they turn 12).  Now minors who live with a same-sex couple cannot be baptized. They may only be baptized when they turn 18 if they say they believe homosexuality and same-sex marriage are wrong. This is not a statement that is required of anyone else.

After the policy became public knowledge and some members expressed their outrage online (including me), the church leaders made three attempts to calm the waters. First, one of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was interviewed by the spokesman of the church. He tried to explain the reasons for the policy, but his words did nothing to calm the rising rhetorical tide. Instead, horror stories began to accumulate on the internet about how the policy was being applied, and some people speculated it would apply to many more situations.

The following week, the highest leaders of the church, the First Presidency, released a letter clarifying the policy and offering further justifications for it. They said it was aimed at children who lived primarily with a homosexual couple (which is how I had originally understood it). They said children who had already been baptized could receive the priesthood and continue forward. They said that bishops could contact the First Presidency if they had questions about special circumstances.

This letter didn’t help much, either, and hundreds of already-disaffected members of the church organized a mass resignation from the church (most people who leave the church don’t bother to formally resign their membership).  This propelled the news about the policy into the national and international media.

After another week, the First Presidency released a revised letter, which seems to be their final communication on the matter. This time they did not include any justifications of the policy and they added a statement that all children should be treated with love and respect. They also said that children of homosexual couples should be welcome at church.

I don’t know what someone reading about all this for the first time would think about their latest words. I know that it did not change how I felt. So, I would like to explain why this still bothers me.

As I think some people will already understand, I cannot see how you can treat children with love and respect at the same time that you tell them they cannot be baptized, especially when both they and their parents want that to happen. I don’t know how you can tell a child that the true church will not allow them to be one of its members without communicating to them that God does not want them, or at least that the church does not want them. I don’t know how you can say that to an adult without communicating the same message, for that matter.  To me, this seems like the opposite of love.

As a parent, as someone who worked at elementary schools for a dozen years and as someone who has taught children of baptism age at church, I cannot see how this policy can do anything but hurt children. The number of children involved will be small, but I do not want to see one child hurt this way. My understanding of the words and actions of Jesus Christ is that he would not want that either.

Even so, I have basically decided to remain in the church. Its doctrines mean too much to me and I have had too many deeply spiritual and deeply meaningful experiences in the church to walk away. Yes, some parts of my journey in the church have been difficult, but I think those parts come from the imperfections of human beings rather than from any doctrine. I claim the god-given right to be imperfect, and if I have that right then so do the leaders of my church.

In my church, speaking out against our leaders is a potentially serious thing and I am uncomfortable doing it, so I will finish with the words of blogger Rachel Held Evans, who wrote about a part of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huck believes he will go to hell if he protects Jim, a runaway slave…and chooses hell over betraying his friend.

“‘Your feelings don’t matter,’ they say.

“‘Your feelings cannot be trusted,’ they say.

“‘Once you start listening to your feelings, over and beyond the plain meaning of Scripture, it’s a slippery slope to hell,’ they say.

“A part of me agrees. I want to be faithful to the inspired words of the Bible, not bend them to fit my own desires and whims. Being a person of faith means trusting God’s revelation, even when the path it reveals is not comfortable.

“But another part of me worries that a religious culture that asks its followers to silence their conscience is just the kind of religious culture that produces $200 rewards for runaway slaves. The Bible has been ‘clear’ before, after all—in support of a flat and stationary earth, in support of wiping out entire people groups, in support of  manifest destiny, in support of Indian removal, in support of anti-Semitism, in support of slavery, in support of “separate but equal,” in support of constitutional amendments banning interracial marriage.

“In hindsight, it all seems so foolish, such an obvious abuse of Scripture.

“…But at the time?

“Sometimes true faithfulness requires something of a betrayal.”

Why I cannot be silent

I would like to relate an experience I had while I was a student at Brigham Young University. I had many good experiences there, but I had a few bad ones as well.  And since painful experiences stay with us in ways that positive experiences to not, this event left an impression on me that has never gone away.

It happened in a religion class, almost 25 years ago. All students at BYU are required to take religion classes as part of their General Education requirements, no matter what their beliefs may be. If this sounds odd, you may ascribe it to the fact that the church subsidizes the tuition of all students, even those who are not Mormon.  The tuition non-Mormons pay may be higher than the rate members of the church pay, but it still does not cover the total cost of their education, or at least it did not do so when I attended the university. The religion classes are part of the deal.

It may seem unusual to people from other Christian traditions, but even though BYU religion teachers teach church-designed classes at a church university, they do not have any kind of official capacity within the church. Our church does not have trained clergy or any training program (which sometimes really shows) and BYU religion teachers are all professors who have been trained in other fields. As professors, they have some freedom to teach whatever they would like, meaning that while their lessons usually conform to established church doctrines, this is not always the case.

This particular professor, on this particular day, decided to talk about birth control and how wrong it was. That is not the position of the church, either then or now. In fact, while it is true that some Mormons eschew birth control, it is actually a common practice among faithful members of our church, which means that it is also common at BYU, where a large percentage of the students are married.

One of the women in the classroom decided to express her disagreement with his lesson and included the fact that she and her husband practiced birth control and why they did so. The teacher responded by condemning her for not having sufficient faith that God would take care of them if she became pregnant. A few of the members of the class joined in and ganged up on her. It was ugly and she left the room in tears.

While several people attacked her faith, no one stood up for her. More importantly to me, I did not stand up for her, even though I agreed with her completely. When she left the room crying, that hit me more than anything else could have. I resolved never to let such a situation go by again. I was determined to stand up for people who were being unfairly attacked.

I am sure I have not been perfect in following this principle, but I have tried. One of my strongest memories was when I once defended my church and my own beliefs. Defending my own group wasn’t quite what I had determined to do, but it was close enough to satisfy me. It happened a few months after my experience in that religion class.

My sister Tamara was working as a nanny in New York City and I made some extra money over the summer.  Instead of spending my extra cash on something practical like a well-used car, I kept walking and riding my bike round town and flew to New York City  to tour it on the cheap (still not a cheap trip). Tamara set me up in the apartment of a friend and arranged for people to take me to interesting places during her work hours. It was an amazing trip that included seeing Les Miserables on Broadway. The actor who had originated the role of Jean Valjean on Broadway had returned for a special visit that night and we took in the show from the fourth row. I remember a lady we met in line praising my sister for the low price she had found for those prime seats. The musical and the entire week were an incredible experience for me and I have never properly thanked her for what she did for me.

One of the things we did together was go to her Institute Class. Institute classes are religion classes for Mormon adults of college age, but outside of a formal university setting. They are similar to the BYU classes and follow the same textbook.  I do not know whether or not the teachers have the same freedoms that BYU religion professors have, but I doubt it.

New York City did not have a large number of Mormons or Mormon chapels at the time.  The lack of church buildings meant that my sister’s institute class was held in a public building at West Point, a military university campus. At the same time we were there, another religious group was meeting just down the hall. Someone in our group realized the others were watching the movie The Godmakers. This is a piece of anti-Mormon propaganda that was very common at the time and there probably weren’t any two words in existence that could raise Mormon hackles the way the title of that movie could then.

And it certainly raised mine. I stood outside the door of that antagonistic meeting, listening, not daring to go in…until it ended. As soon as it was over, I went in and confronted the group and told them that the movie they had been watching was full of half-truths and lies. They were fairly polite in their responses. For my part, I felt I had followed through on my recent determination to stand up for those who were unfairly attacked.

Generally speaking, my determination to stand up for others has not led me to be so bold, nor has its focus been on defending my own religion, though I have done that as well. Occasionally it has led me to confront members of my own religion regarding their treatment of others.

In the end, no matter who I am defending from whom, it all goes back to that day in my religion class at BYU when I saw that woman leave in tears. I guess I already kind of knew how it felt to be an outsider, to feel like everyone was against you. After seeing bullying like this happen as an adult, I could never be a part of it again. I could never again be comfortable remaining in silence and let other people treat another human being that way without raising an objection.

This matters to me. It is one of my personal rules. And even if I am not perfect in following it, I do try and I intend to continue.

Four passages from the Book of Mormon that I wish more Mormons would liken unto themselves

One of the best-known verses from the Book of Mormon is this one, which the Book of Mormon says was written by one of its first and best prophets, Nephi:

Nephi is the founder of the protagonist group of the Book of Mormon, the Nephites. At this point in the story, his people are quite small in number and are separate from another small group led his oldest brother, Laman, who does not share the religious beliefs of Nephi and their father. In this verse, Nephi explains what he teaches his people from the scriptures and why.

“And I did read many things unto them which were written in the books of Moses; but that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.” (1 Nephi 19:23).

This verse is used fairly frequently to teach members of the church to apply the teachings of the scriptures to themselves. It is used to teach us not to just read the scriptures for intellectual understanding, or just to feel closer to God, but to find in them some relevance to our own lives. It is advice that is too often ignored, as too many members of my church read the scriptures only to feel the Spirit and stay close to God and not to find any new understanding in them, whether that understanding is practical or intellectual in nature.

So, here are four well-known passages from the Book of Mormon that I wish more members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would apply to themselves.

Passage Number One

The Book of Mormon says this chapter was written by Nephi and that Nephi had visions of the modern era. In his visions, he saw the Bible being brought to the Americas by the Gentiles and distributed to his descendants. He then saw his own words being brought out of the dust and delivered to the Gentiles. He did not care for their reaction.

“(3) And because my words shall hiss forth—many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible….” (8) Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word?….(9)…for my work is not yet finished; neither shall it be until the end of man, neither from that time henceforth and forever….(10) Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words….(11) For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them….” (1 Nephi 29).

I included quite a bit from this chapter. It is one of the most-cited and most-remembered chapters in the Book of Mormon. It lays out the justification for the book’s existence and answers some of the criticisms of the book that are still being made today. I have included the points that I wish Mormons would pay more attention to and left out other points that Nephi made, where he says that God reveals the same things to different groups, especially to different branches of the house of Israel. Mormons don’t have any problem remembering those.

It is easier for all of us to remember the things that support our opinions, beliefs, feelings and convictions, and this chapter not only expresses the opinions and beliefs of Mormons, but gives voice to the same frustrations that many Mormons have felt since the book was published in 1829, although–consistent with Mormon politeness–that frustration is rarely expressed.

So, Mormons love this chapter and use it to tell each other how wrong their critics are. I wish they would turn and apply it to themselves a bit. Sometimes I feel that Mormons are identical to the people being criticized in this chapter, but instead of saying something like “A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible and there cannot be any more Bible!” I think they say “The Truth! The Truth! We have got the Truth and there cannot be any more Truth! (unless the prophet comes out and says so.)”

I have been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints my entire life. I am now 47 and have been present at something like 2,400 Sacrament Meetings (the main worship service of the church). I have heard it all. One of the things I have heard far too many times is that we have “the fulness of the Gospel.” It’s not that this isn’t true. It’s that we misunderstand what it means.

Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon contains the “fulness of the Gospel.” We believe that God himself said so in at least one revelation to Joseph Smith. Some people point out that the Book of Mormon does not contain all the important things that were taught by Joseph Smith after the Book of Mormon was published. Here are two fairly well-written, but unnecessarily academic articles that explain why this is not a contradiction, one from FairMormon and another from famed Mormon apologist Daniel Peterson. Their point is that the “fulness of the Gospel” refers to the basic truths about Jesus Christ and what he taught. This is perfectly consistent with the origin of the phrase “the gospel of Jesus Christ”, which as many people know, meant “the good news about Jesus Christ.”

So, when we say we have “the fulness of the Gospel,” it definitely does not mean that we have all the truth about God that is important or good to know. We just talk and act like it does. We end up closing ourselves off to many precious and valuable truths that are known and loved by our neighbors, friends and family. We are too-often certain that if there is anything else we need to know, our beloved prophet will stand up and let us know during a session of General Conference.

General Conference functions as something of high holy days for Mormons. Outsiders rarely grasp its importance. Even some members might ask themselves why it is so important to them and why they enjoy it so much. It is just 12 hours of talks and hymns, after all, spread out over one weekend and a piece of another. Yet for Mormons it can be a deeply personal and deeply meaningful experience.

The Conference Center of the church holds less than 30,000 people and is located in Salt Lake City, Utah. Few members can attend the meeting itself, so it is broadcast live over TV and the internet. For most Mormons, one of the pleasures of General Conference is not having to get dressed up and go to church. You can attend church from the comfort of your living room and watch in your pajamas. If you wish, you can just roll out of bed–or not–and turn on the TV.

We look forward to hearing from our favorite church leaders, and especially our prophet and president of the church, currently Thomas S. Monson. Sometimes there are surprises, like when Gordon B. Hinckley announced the church would build dozens of small temples to serve members in far-flung areas of the world, or when Thomas S. Monson announced that missionaries could serve at younger ages. The changes these announcements brought to the church are difficult for outsiders to appreciate and they stunned the members who heard them.

Our passive viewing of General Conference reveals a common Mormon attitude about additional truth: we don’t need to do anything to receive it. We just need to turn on the TV or log onto the internet and it will be presented to us in a nice, easy-to-understand and possibly humorous fashion. This is very different from the way it has actually happened at any time in the history of our own religion.

God didn’t just appear to Joseph Smith and tell him what to say. Joseph Smith didn’t just go to God and ask. He struggled with the truth. He did everything he could to find it out on his own. He didn’t just open up the famous Gold Plates and read them. He tried to find a way to translate them by himself first. He didn’t just receive revelation, he read and questioned and thought first.

And he wasn’t alone. The Christian world was full of people who were seeking more, who were asking questions, who were thirsty for more of God’s word. Throughout his journey, Joseph Smith was accompanied by others who thought and debated and asked questions. They looked to him for the final answer, but they did not just sit and wait.

I wish modern Mormons wouldn’t just sit and wait. I wish it was more common for Mormons to think, question, debate and then ask. How can we expect to receive truth if we don’t do those things? Even more importantly, if we reject the truths that other people know, if we even fail to consider them, how are we worthy to receive any more truth from God? We aren’t. The fact that we don’t receive more doesn’t mean there isn’t more. It means we have stopped looking for it.

Passage Number Two

This passage comes from the beginning of the Christian church among the people of the Book of Mormon.  Most of the book’s stories take place in a long period that started around 600 BC and ended shortly after the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In this portion of the book, the people somewhat resemble Messianic Jews or Jews for Jesus. They have less in common with rabbinical Judaism. The Book of Mormon says they lived centuries before Christ was born, but while they followed the Law of Moses, they also believed in an atoning savior who would die and be resurrected. After the visit of the resurrected Christ, they stopped following the Law of Moses and became more like Jewish Christians than the Christian Jews their ancestors were.  (The religious boundaries in the Book of Mormon are a little fuzzy and contribute to the difficulty Mormons have in drawing a line between the two religions.)

The dates in the text indicate that the following event happened more than a century before the birth of Christ.  In the early part of the Book of Mormon, government and religion were combined. Then, when a local king led his people astray, a prophet was sent to them to call them to repentance. He was burned at the stake, but one of the king’s corrupt priests repented, defied the king and his soldiers and led a secret religious movement that became a church and spread throughout the Nephite people. This priest was named Alma, which is apparently a Hebrew word and possible name meaning “young man”, and thus sounds like a rather anonymous pseudonym.

As Alma led his people into the waters of baptism, this is what he said:

(8)… 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 have eternal life—(10)…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)

This is one of the best-known passages from the Book of Mormon. It is read to every potential new member of the church before they are asked to be baptized. Mitt Romney even seemed to quote from it during his presidential campaign. It expresses some of the most beautiful things about our church and our beliefs. And by now, you probably can imagine where I am going.

We are asked to bear one another’s burdens and mourn with those who mourn. We believe we promise to do so. There are times when we rise up and do that. Those are the best moments in our church and countless members hold treasured memories of comfort and support.

Yet, more and more often, what we do is similar to this:

Instead of bearing one another’s burdens, we sometimes say “It is the individuals’ responsibility to care for themselves. We are dong people a favor by allowing them to be independent, grow and progress.” I have even heard a Relief Society President (a woman in each congregation who runs its charitable efforts and has other significant duties) express concerns about the church’s welfare program to an important leader of the church, saying it ran counter to her beliefs that people should take care of themselves.

Or we say to the discouraged and overwhelmed, “Forget yourself and go to work.” This was the advice a father gave to his discouraged missionary son. It worked well for that young man. He grew up and became a leader of the church, told everybody how wonderful the advice was and now it is almost doctrine. It is not universally good advice, however. It is unfortunate how often it is inappropriately applied. Too often, instead of bearing up each other’s burdens, we add to them with additional church responsibilities to administer and carry out church programs that are designed to support general needs, rather than focusing on the actual individual needs of our members.

Then, instead of “mourning with those who mourn,“ or “comforting those who stand in need of comfort” too often we tell people “If you obey the commandments, you can be happy whatever your circumstances.” We end up dismissing their sadness, their anguish and their grief and manage to blame them for it in the process. The strong implication is that if you are not happy it is your own fault and that you would be fine if you just followed the commandments more closely or had more faith in Jesus Christ. I wish this would stop entirely. The idea that we can be happy in any circumstance is untrue. We are not even meant to be happy in every moment. We are meant to experience the full measure of life’s emotions. Trying to be happy in every moment is unhelpful, at the very least.

Passage Number Three

These words come from a passage that describes the advice that a prophet named Helaman gave to his sons. It sounds like deathbed advice from a loving father. According to the Book of Mormon, Helaman was the great-grandson of Alma, who founded the Nephite church, and was the grandfather of the Nephi who led the church when Jesus Christ visited them some time after he was resurrected.

Here are his most-remembered words:

(12) And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.  (Helaman 5)

This is another well-known verse from the Book of Mormon. We cite it not just to encourage each other, but to show people outside of the church that we really do believe in Jesus Christ, that he really is the center of our belief. And he is, or at least he should be.

Too often, Jesus Christ is not our foundation. The church is. Too many members build their foundation on the church, its teachings, its leaders and its members. This is not a good idea. The church is made up entirely of imperfect people. If we emulate the leaders of the church, who are all good men and women, we will sometimes emulate their weaknesses and imperfections as well as their strengths and virtues. Then, if certain weaknesses and imperfections are common among the leaders of the church–which is not unexpected given that they have relatively similar ages, personalities, backgrounds and beliefs—those weaknesses will automatically multiply among members of the church.

It is Jesus Christ and his teachings that ought to guide us first, not our leaders or fellow members, no matter how inspired they may be. No one is so perfect that they can substitute for Christ.

Passage Number Four

The Book of Mormon says that this passage includes words Moroni wrote, quoting from a sermon his father Mormon gave in the temple. A quick explanation: Mormon was a Nephite prophet who compiled and abridged the records of his people, which by then covered a period of about 1000 years. He died leading the great final battle between the wicked Christian Nephites and the less-wicked non-Christian Lamanites. The Book of Mormon is named for him due to his efforts (he, himself was named for the place where Alma baptized the first members of the Nephite church).

Moroni was the son of Mormon.  He added to the work of his father while he was hiding from the Lamanites, who were killing every Christian they could find. If Mormon scholars are correct, he fled thousands of miles from Mesoamerica to the area of the Great Lakes in upstate New York, where he buried the record he and his father had engraved on gold-colored metal leaves. He then appeared to Joseph Smith as an angel many centuries later and led the young man to the place where he had buried his priceless record some fourteen centuries earlier. The Mormon attitude towards others’ skepticism of this story is basically that if it sounds impossible, so do general relativity and quantum physics. So there.

That small bit of levity aside, this is the passage that I really wish was more emphasized in the church.

(46) Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail—(47) But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him. (48) Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen.  (Moroni 7)

As non-Mormon Christians will recognize, this chapter repeats some of the words written by the Apostle Paul. Critics, finding Paul’s words in the Book of Mormon, accuse Joseph Smith of plagiarism.  Mormons, who believe the same God inspired Paul, Mormon and Joseph Smith, are not particularly concerned.

Instead, their repetition should make Mormons sit up and pay attention. Some things from the Bible are repeated in the Book of Mormon: a large section of Isaiah, the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, words written by Paul about spiritual gifts, and some of the words he said about love. These are key things. Their repetition should underline them in Mormon minds.

Most importantly, please note that this verse does not say “Chastity is the greatest of all and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.” It says “Charity is the greatest of all…and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.” Listening to members talk these days, you would think the book  contained that first sentence.

Mormons quite rightly argue that chastity is a part of love, that if you love yourself and others, you will be chaste. But this glosses over the fact that chastity is only a part of love. It is not higher than love.

Sometimes, Mormons seem to read the words “charity is the pure love of Christ” and hear “charity is the perfect love of Christ.” They seem to believe that it is unattainable and they move on to something they can actually achieve. This is a misunderstanding of the scripture. If Mormon had meant to say “perfect love,” he could have said so. It is more likely that his use of the word “pure love” is simply a way of separating the love of Christ from other kinds of love, like romantic love.

That was not difficult in Greek, which was the language Paul spoke and wrote. Greek had a word for pure love like Christ’s: agape. And there is a reason the King James Version translates “agape” as “charity.” The translators of the King James Version learned ancient Greek as children and used it for most of their lives. They were practically native speakers of the language. Translating the more specific “agape” as “love,” with its multiple meanings, would not have seemed right to them.

The reason charity is described as the pure love of Christ in this passage from the Book of Mormon may be similar. It describes charity as the kind of love Christ had, as opposed to romantic love or other kinds of love, not the degree of love that he had. We do not have to be the same as Jesus Christ to have charity and receive the blessings promised in this scripture.

Bonus Passage Five

This is not a passage that is frequently quoted in the church. It is almost unknown, in fact. Neither does it express anything that members ignore. Instead, it sums up Mormon attitudes quite nicely.

At times it has brought me great comfort and, because it is so overlooked, I would like to mention it here. It is from a letter that Mormon wrote to his son Moroni while terrible battles raged between the despicable Nephite Christians and their slightly less despicable non-Christian enemies. According to the letter, Mormon wasn’t entirely sure he would see ever see his son again. In it, he describes the war crimes of the Lamanites and the even worse war crimes of his fellow Nephites. Those crimes are horrific and would disturb anyone in any war zone today or in any time and place.

But, after listing the worst of those crimes, this is the advice Mormon gives to his son, Moroni.  It is found in the last few pages of the book.

“(25) My son, be faithful in Christ; and may not the things which I have written grieve thee, to weigh thee down unto death; but may Christ lift thee up, and may his sufferings and death, and the showing his body unto our fathers, and his mercy and long-suffering, and the hope of his glory and of eternal life, rest in your mind forever. (26) And may the grace of God the Father, whose throne is high in the heavens, and our Lord Jesus Christ, who sitteth on the right hand of his power, until all things shall become subject unto him, be, and abide with you forever. Amen.” (Moroni 9)

If anyone is curious why the Book of Mormon actually appeals to people in Uganda or war-torn parts of Africa, it is not the positive attitude of the missionaries.  Instead, this chapter reveals the nature of book’s attraction and its relevance to people who might think God has forgotten them: no matter how awful your life is, here are some people who had it just as bad and worse, and here is how they managed.  It offers some reason to hope in the face of the greatest suffering we can imagine.

The Book of Mormon is one of the most under-appreciated books currently in print. It is not for nothing that Ezra Taft Benson, former president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, repeatedly and frequently scolded the members of the church for not taking it seriously enough. Its words are profound. They are not easily absorbed in a single reading, or even a dozen readings. You do not even have to believe that its story literally happened to appreciate it (there is a whole church, The Community of Christ, that takes the position that the book is inspired, but not historically accurate in any sense).

I genuinely love this book and believe all people could find benefit by reading it and thinking about it, whether they believe it to be the word of God, like Mormons do, or total fiction, like everyone else.

My name is Allen Warner. I like to think. And I am a Mormon.

Speculation Unlimited Part VIII: The Future

The future is a wonderful thing to speculate about. You can say anything you like and by the time it gets here, almost everyone will have forgotten about it. Just don’t market it too loudly or you will be on the receiving end of movies like Tomorrowland.

Before we get to the future, I want to say a few things about the present. We live in a remarkable age. This blog post could theoretically be read by most of the adults on Earth, or at least those who can read English, which is still an amazing number of people. There are people who cannot access the internet, but grand efforts are currently being made to reduce that number.

Not only that, but there are seven billion people on the planet, and that number is expected to reach nine billion or more. The possibility of communicating with so many people and with every corner of the globe means we have just started to really think as a human race. We have only just begun.

It was Douglas Adams who spread the idea of the human race as a thinking machine. He probably invented the idea as well. Of course, he pointed out that this world does a much better job of creating questions than it does of creating answers, but it is still a remarkable concept.

Human beings do not think by themselves. Everything we think is a synthesis of a mishmash of other people’s thoughts. We pass along knowledge to the next generation, primarily our children, but not exclusively so, and they keep working on the problems and ideas we leave to them. The human race really does resemble a massive supercomputer.

Increasingly superior methods of communication have allowed people to exchange ideas like never before. First, postal systems democratized long-distance communication, then the telegraph, the telephone, radio, movies and television all ramped up the possibilities. Now, the internet explosion has made long-distance communication so easy and so democratic that it is hard to imagine communication methods improving much from here on out.

The current barrier to communication is now language, so I suppose once everybody learns English the possibilities will multiply several times more. (That was actually intended to be a joke, since it is a rather common and arrogant assumption among my cultural fellows that English is all we need. Strangely, it didn’t really sound like one.)

Still, we can now trade ideas almost without limit. Someone from China or Nigeria or Chile or Samoa or Egypt could read this post and correct me or point out something that turns my thoughts in a new direction. Or it could stimulate their own thoughts and allow them to come to a better conclusion or to understand something entirely different.  Or they could mention one of my ideas to someone else, possibly in Chinese, Yoruban, Spanish, Samoan or Arabic, and that could trigger a new idea in the mind of that third person, who could go on to transmit that new concept to someone else, possibly in a completely new language.

This massive interaction started about 500 years ago and is now reaching astounding levels. It has enormous implications for the development of culture, philosophy, science and technology. People are exposed to new ideas to a degree that has never been possible. People move around the world in ways that were never possible. People marry outside of their culture more often than was ever the case before. Cultural change is inevitable, everywhere.

This makes the future inherently unpredictable. There is no telling where we will be in a hundred years. It could be a total disaster. It could be a paradise. It will most likely be something in between, because people have been pretty consistent in that respect for a very long time and in every location.

Still, here are a handful of predictions that I am willing to make: in the next two decades carbon-based fuels will go into serious decline and computing power will massively increase. We will also come to understand what our genes and epigenes are and what they do. That’s it. (Ok, “epigenes” isn’t a word, but I couldn’t find one that fit.)

I make these three predictions because I am alive, and also because I am an avid reader of the website sciencedaily.com. This website carries news articles about new scientific research. It is clear that a great deal of time and money is currently being invested in finding ways to reduce the cost of solar power, create better batteries (which are needed for alternative energy sources to be truly viable), increase computing power and study our DNA.

We may have an electronic leaf in the relatively near future that works like plants do. We will certainly have much cheaper solar cells. We will also have much better batteries to run our cars and store our electricity. We may have quantum computers or photon computers that make our electronic computers seem like something out of the dark ages. We will definitely have a much better understanding of our DNA and what it does, although it will probably take longer than 20 years to sort that out.

That is where we are headed. Carbon emissions may mostly disappear, which would be a great blessing. The question is, will it be soon enough? I have hope that we will avoid the worst of the effects of increased carbon dioxide levels, but we may not. The Earth is near a tipping point when it comes to land ice and ocean acidity. We really do not know how well the ecological system can adapt to this new reality. We can only try to make things better and hope. My gut instinct tells me that we will make it, but the future is probably not going to be a total paradise. As human beings, we continually solve old problems and create new ones. That is one thing that is not likely to change any time soon.

Speculation Part VII: Economic growth and the rise of the United States

This is another question that has intrigued me: Why did the United States become so wealthy and powerful? Why wasn’t it some other nation? I did not think of this question on my own, however. I read it as part of my Spanish and International Relations studies in college. The question I read was raised by an Argentinian and it specifically asked why it was the U.S. and not Argentina that grew so wealthy.

The author pointed out all the similarities between the United States and Argentina at the beginning of the 20th century. Americans don’t pay much attention to that part of the world even today, so they rarely realize that Argentina and some other South American countries like Uruguay and Brazil were also up-and-coming nations. They attracted their own share of European emigrants looking for opportunity. They were not impoverished lands of peasants and landlords. They had thriving, vibrant economies that were attractive to people who lived in the less-favored lands of Europe.

I also asked why other wealthy countries were wealthy. Why Japan? Why were the so-called Asian Tigers growing so quickly? How about Israel? I wanted an explanation that would cover everything I saw.

And as now may be expected, I have an idea, or rather four or five (this goes along with my tendency to believe that if you can’t think of at least three reasons something happened, you aren’t trying very hard). I think it was the result of the combination of education, a positive business environment, quality infrastructure and low corruption. I think it also really helped to have close cultural ties with the United Kingdom, which dominated so much of the world’s business in the 19th century.

In essence, I think that these factors had two major effects: they supported internal economic growth and they attracted foreign investment, particularly British investment. As I write this, it seems so obvious to me that I can hardly find things to say to support each factor. Unfortunately, this doesn’t prove I am right, but rather that these ideas are deeply entrenched in my society.

Of course education helps economic growth. An educated population is better able to create innovations, increase productivity and so forth. That is the assumption of the culture I live in. It seems to be true.

Of course a positive business environment helps economic growth. A balanced budget during inflationary times makes it possible to have lower interest rates without increasing the money supply. Reasonable regulations allow people to take risks and innovate. The ability to keep a reasonable amount of your profits has the same effect. A healthy banking sector can give loans that also help people innovate and take reasonable risks. And so on.

A capitalist system does have some downsides. It creates booms and busts and has a tendency to foster inequality, among other things. As a result people challenge it during the down times, but most people love it during the booms.

But quality infrastructure is obviously good for economic growth, right? Infrastructure allows goods and services to be transported from one place to another. (We don’t usually talk about transporting services, but that is exactly what happens when long-distance communication is possible.) That encourages the possibilities for trade and increases the chance someone can find another person who is willing and able to join them in a mutually beneficial financial arrangement. (It’s a win-win situation!)

Now, the economic benefits of low corruption may not be quite as obvious to someone who has lived in a country where corruption is less widespread, but corruption can create a serious drain on an economy. This doesn’t escape anyone who lives with corruption. You can create a great regulatory system, but corruption will defeat it. You can create a great tax system that favors healthy investment, but corruption will negate it. You can create an education system that allows your best and brightest to contribute their all, but nepotism will nullify it. Corruption works against you at every turn.

The least-noticed factor in the growth of the United States, at least if you are an American, is probably the close relationship we had with the United Kingdom. We can see how our economic and political relationships helped Israel, Japan and the Asian Tigers. We can also see how we helped Western Europe after World War II (although Western Europe had been wealthy and powerful for centuries before the war, making it difficult to say exactly how much the United States helped.) What we tend to ignore is how much British investment made America great.

I have heard that the American railways were built with Chinese labor and British money. I expect that was true. Britain has invested countless millions of dollars in the United States over a long period of time, in railroads and everything else. There is no possible way we could have developed economically the way we have without British money. The British invested in us for all of the reasons I have mentioned here, because the same things that made it more attractive for Americans to take risks and innovate made it attractive for the British to do the same.

Our shared language, our shared culture, and the shrinking distance between us (due to faster transportation) made our economy even more attractive to British investment. Some of the vast flows of money that were directed to the United Kingdom were diverted to the United States and invested here. I think that the exact portion is likely to have been fairly significant. The U.S.A. was the land of opportunity for Europe’s poor people and even more so for its rich ones.

The combination of all these things gave the United States a growing, thriving economy.  Combined with everything else (its size, its relative isolation from Europe’s wars, the particulars of the moment in time, etc.), it had everything it needed to become the most influential nation the world had ever seen, at least for a few decades.

So, if you are running a country, here is my advice: educate your people, invest in infrastructure, create a reasonable environment for investment, fight corruption and cozy up to the big wealthy countries of the world. It certainly worked for us.

Speculation VI: Competition and the Rise of Europe

One of the questions I have enjoyed asking myself is: Why Europe? Why did Europe colonize the world? Why was it countries from that region and not the equally advanced empires in other parts of the Old World? I suppose that question might trigger the response that they actually were technologically more advanced, but the European innovations that have changed the world so much actually began well after their kings started claiming land in far-off places.

I suppose you could look to the religion, the culture or the economic system of Europe for answers, and I imagine you would find plenty of material in every one. In fact, out of all the things I like to think about, this is probably the one that attracts the most speculation, because there is so much there to work with. To illustrate how broad the possibilities are, one of my favorite ideas on the subject is my own Bland Food Theory, which posits that Europeans took over the world because spices don’t grow there and they had to travel very long distances to find the necessary ingredients for good-tasting food. (Well, would they have started exploring if they hadn’t had a preference for Asian food ingredients?)

I am generally of the opinion that if you can’t think of at least three reasons that something happened, you aren’t trying very hard. In that vein, it appears that there are many reasons for the European conquest and that each of these interacts with the others in a complex web of relationships.  Even so, I think there may have been one overriding factor that pushed the whole enterprise. I believe Europe took over the world because of the specific characteristics of the competition between its states.

This occurred to me when I was taking business classes in the 90’s. I learned about centers of industries, where a group of companies end up making products that are far better than the best efforts of their more distant competitors. I learned that this phenomenon was thought to happen when a number of mid-sized, evenly-matched companies competed in the same city or region: the intense competition drives companies to innovate and do things they never would have done in a less-challenging environment.

So, when you look at Europe in the colonial era, what do you see? A number of moderately-sized, evenly-matched states competing with each other for the upper hand. There was no China, which completely dominated its political landscape. There was no Mughal empire, which dominated India. There was no Caliphate like those that ruled much of the Muslim world for long periods of time. In fact, there was no large empire of any sort that could dominate the subcontinent of Europe. There were, however, several states that were large enough to defend themselves from their rivals, but not quite large enough to conquer them.

I believe that European states began to colonize the world to gain an advantage over their neighbors. This doesn’t actually seem like a particularly new idea. My only addition to it is that it was the number of states and the similarity of their strength that pushed European nations over the edge of the oceans. I think they were desperate to gain any advantage over their enemies (or even their allies).

Europe also happens to have been a very war-like place. This is something we often overlook as we claim that Palestinians and Jews have been fighting each other for millennia. We forget that between the time of Alexander the Great and the creation of Israel after World War II, Palestine was ruled by a rather small number of large, long-lasting empires. Palestine has actually known peace for most of its history. It is Europe that has seen continual warfare since long before the advent of the historians who recorded it. In fact, Indo-European languages contain hints of a prehistoric battle-oriented culture.

By comparing related modern and ancient languages (like Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Old English, Old Church Slavonic, etc.), linguists can reconstruct words that existed many centuries before those languages were written down. With only one exception, those are isolated words. The exception is a short phrase meaning “everlasting fame.” It was a concept that existed throughout the Indo-European world. And how did one achieve this everlasting fame? On the battlefield. This means that Europeans’ tradition of glorifying warfare extends far back into the mists of prehistory.

The tradition of warfare and the similar strength of the major states meant that kings and their allies had very real reasons for trying to out-compete their neighbors. It was a matter of staying in power, keeping your wealth and passing it all down to your children. To say that competition between European states was intense is putting it rather mildly. And the area they competed in most intensely was war. After they had adopted all the science, technology (and weapons) that Asia had to offer, Europeans developed the most effective military practices the world could ever have imagined, and then they improved on them again and again.

They used their abilities in war to almost walk through the plague-stricken American populations. They gradually took over more and more of Asia, and when that was nearly gone they grabbed almost every inch of Africa. Indeed, no island in the world was too small to be “claimed.”

They were good at war. They were good at conquering. They took many centuries to refine their weapons and tactics. And they had the motivation to conquer. So they did. And the world will quite literally never be the same.