Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Confronting Doubt: Notes from Terryl Givens' talk at Harvard Divinity School

This past Saturday, I had the marvelous opportunity to listen to Richard Bushman, and Terry and Fiona Givens speak on confronting doubt. This blog post will be a 3-part series, devoted to the main takeaways from this conference from each speaker. I'm going to start with Dr. Terryl Givens.

Terryl Givens:

No question comes in a vacuum. It comes with presuppositions, worldviews. Sometimes we may not be getting answers to because we are not asking the right questions. Several paradigm shifts may be helpful for us to ask the right questions.

1. Analysis of utterance of prophets.

According to someone not of our faith, prophets are those who experience sympathy with a divine pathos. They feel God's voice and hear his heart (I'll get the direct quote).

Perhaps many of our questions would be answered if we saw God in this kind of fashion, not as a transcriber or secretary writing down God's words verbatim.

2. Use/Abuse of Reason.

We don't rely on reason to the extent that we think we do. Art, love, and conscience are all vital for us for us to interpret reality.

Art does not merely entertain, but gives human emotion its due. It gives us the sense that we need another kind of reality.

Love is another form of knowledge. Certain aspects of reality become visible through love. Love does not blur reality, it enhances it.

What gives a better understanding of who I am: a DNA mapping, or my relationship with my spouse and children?

3. Provocation/Peace

As a church, we have a horror of loose ends. We want pressing questions answered.

Think of William Blake's "Little Lamb" from Song of Innocence. The author asks "Little Lamb who made thee," and then answers the question directly by explaining who God is.  Conversely, think of his other poem "Tyger Tyger," from Song of Innocence. This poem asks who could possibly have created such a beast with "fearful symmetry." Unlike the aforementioned poem, the question is not answered.

One of the great strengths of Mormon theology (and often overlooked) is that we don't expect every question to have answers.

Think of John chapter 6, when many of Christ's followers were defecting. Christ turns to his disciples and asks "Will ye also go away?" Peter replies, saying, "To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life."

Peter did not stay with Christ because Christ could answer all of his questions.

Religion does not offer cheap solutions.
We want a script--we are given a blank canvas instead.
We want a road map--we get a compass (or a Liahona).

Don't close the shutter of your camera because you can't see the entire mountain.

4. True Worship/Function of Church.

Worship first appears in the Old Testament when Abraham is about to sacrifice his son. It first appears in the New Testament when the three kings are about to give their gifts to the Savior.

Perhaps worship is not about what we are receiving. It's about what we are voluntarily giving up.

The organization of a ward may be viewed as a replication of a family--you can't run away from your brothers and sisters at church. It's one of the best places where we can learn to love our neighbor.

Dietrich Bonhoffer: "Cheap grace is the moral enemy of the church."

5. Perils of Hero Worship (or putting our church leaders on a pedestal).

Dostoyevsky articulated this problem well: "The devout are convinced that they are seeking what is good, true, and holy--while they are actually seeking a keeper of their conscience."

When George Albert Smith was prophet, an article stated that "when leaders speak, the thinking has been done." President Smith repudiated this statement, saying that this was a gross misinterpretation of our doctrine.

Look to Gideon in the Old Testament as a great example of the perils of hero worship. Or look at Doctrine and Covenants 124:1. The Lord clearly states that Joseph is a prophet so he can perform miracles through the weak things of the world. Joseph's flaws are evident throughout the scriptures.

Principle of Delegation: when God gives fallible humans to act in his place, we should expect and assume that flaws will arise. We need to look to our leaders "in all patience and faith." (Doctrine and Covenants 21:5).

6. Use/Abuse of Scriptures

Interesting how the word "canon" if you add another "n" has the same sound, but completely different meaning (cannon). Our scriptural canon can become a "cannon"when we wrest them for ourselves.

Joseph Smith had a horror of literalism when it came to scripture. 

Lots of people wonder why the Old Testament God is such a fearful, vengeful God.  Our church would do well to look at the Documentary Hypothesis: the theory that four authors wrote the first four books of Moses.

The Bible is full of uninspired moments.

7.  Mormons and Monopolies.

Lots of people have a problem with Mormon exclusivity--that we are the only people to be saved That's not what Joseph Smith taught.

Look at Revelation 12, where they speak of "the woman fleeing into the wilderness" and being nourished for 1000 years. The woman is supposed to represent the church. What does this mean?

"When God have prophets, he speaks to poets." (don't know who said that). God certainly inspired musicians, poets, artists during the Great Apostasy. (Totally agree--who can doubt Milton, Donne, Shakespeare, Michelangelo were not inspired).

We have a lot of spiritual generosity when it comes to salvation. Prior to Mormonism, other sects were thinking of God being more generous in terms of how many people could be saved (Universalists, Campbellites, etc). So what is the role of ordinances when it comes to a more generous view of salvation?

It comes down to baptisms for the dead!

Shared an anecdote of being on a radio station with a Jewish host who asked "Why is the Mormon church still baptizing all of my dead Jewish ancestors?" (This was when the news reported that our church was still baptizing Holocaust victims). Givens referred to Christ's parable that invited all to the wedding feast, explaining that baptizing for these dead Jewish ancestors was like putting them on a guest list. They are not obligated to attend the great feast, but they are on the list, if they want to attend.
The Jewish radio host said, "That's one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard."

8. Evil/Suffering (I think this was another paradigm shift).

Referred to Edward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, famous theologian).
Beecher believed in a pre-existence, war in heaven. He taught that other spirits who did not want mortality were afraid of the specter of suffering they would experience. That should be a sobering doctrine for us--the knowledge that our earth life would be an immersion of suffering made 1/3 of God's spirit children to rebel.

9. Principle of Invisible Church
The world is sprinkled with truth everywhere. God told Joseph Smith about "holy people which we know not of" (D&C 49). We can find a spiritual brotherhood with all mankind.

D&C section 10--seems to be instigated by the sense that there is a larger community that our church should be a part of.

Response to Questions:

Our Doctrine of the Fall:

We are the only church that teaches that the Fall was not a catastrophe. Eve had to make a difficult decision between security of the garden and obtaining wisdom. Life is not often a decision between good and evil. We best form our characters when we are choosing between good, better, best. Life is the most formative when we are making impossibly difficult decisions.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Why I am becoming uncomfortable with the Ordain Women Movement

When first hearing of the Ordain Women's Movement's desire to attend the General Priesthood session, I was intrigued. While I do not agree with their views, I nonetheless saw them as faithful sisters who had a genuine question to ask our church leaders: could they attend? And could they be viewed as prospective elders? I believed their planned event to be respectful, as they sought no deceptive means of entry and did not intend to carry signs or banners. Most important, I believe in asking questions to God as well as our church leaders to achieve greater clarity and understanding. And from my perspective, I perceived that they were doing just that.

On Tuesday morning, the Church announced its decision regarding the Ordain Women's request. They were denied tickets, but remarkably, our leaders implemented a seminal adjustment: they would allow the General Priesthood session to be broadcast live, and invited these women to watch it, should they choose. For a church that institutes changes at a glacial pace, I was surprised and pleased. I immediately felt the love of our leaders who heard these women's earnest desire and enacted a decision that I think works well as a compromise. 

The Ordain Women Movement then, has received an answer to their posed question. However, the response given by Kate Kelly (the movement's founder) made me wince:

"We will be in the line for standby tickets to the priesthood session on Oct. 5 to demonstrate our continued willingness and desire to attend. We are demonstrating our faith by standing at the door and knocking."

Kelly's statement, I believe, now marks her as a protester (a title that she was ironically trying to eschew in the first place.)  But what makes me uncomfortable is that she considers flouting our church leaders' decision as a sign of faith. And I cannot stand by that. When our church teaches, "Ask and ye shall receive, knock and it shall be opened unto you," it does not necessarily always mean that we will "receive" the answer that we want. Rather, when auxilary church leaders state their answer (and show a willingness to adjust), I believe that they represent the Lord's voice on earth, giving me reason to hearken. Unfortunately, I don't believe these women's decision to stand in line will help create a spiritual ambiance for an important meeting.

Instead, I believe that the Ordain Women Movement will be more effective if they continue to propagate civil dialogue on this issue. It is obvious that they are smart, faithful women, and I respect their ability to articulate their points. And in return, I pray that disagreeing members will display charitable measures toward their opinions (see my post on toleration). They are, after all, our sisters in the gospel. While I do not support female ordination, I stand behind cultural and institutional changes to help women better understand their divine potential (see this post). I am not sure if all of my envisioned changes will ever be realized. But with the recent lowered mission ages for women, thoughtful conversations on chastity and modesty, and adjustments to the Young Women Program, I believe that I have many reasons to be optimistic.

Perhaps we are not going to have every change we want on our timetable, if ever. But if we believe that this church is led by Christ himself through a prophet and apostles, then let's stand by what they say. And if our received answer to a desire is "no" or "not yet," let us pray for greater faith and understanding--as well as an increased willingness to yield to the Lord's timing.*

*This sentence has been slightly changed to include the phrase "or not yet."

Photo by David McConeghy

Monday, September 23, 2013

Beyond Hemlines: How I plan to teach my daughter about modesty

I am a single woman with no daughters of my own. However, in reading several recent articles about modesty, from a father using creative measures to teach appropriate dress, to even an exploration of how Pope Francis is a paragon of a modest lifestyle (a view that I especially appreciated), I have been musing how I plan to teach my girls this principle. While I recognize there is a place to teach women modesty in terms of their relation to men, I believe that our modesty discussions can be more enlightening when they are more grounded in the scriptures. I wish to teach my daughters that modesty is an necessary attitude that is prerequisite to receiving personal revelation.

Certainly, covering oneself appropriately has been in place from the very beginning. Consider how Adam and Eve, when, finding they were naked in the Garden of Eden, made makeshift clothing from fig leaves prior to speaking to God. In doing so, I believe that they both established a precedent of covering oneself appropriately prior to receiving further divine instruction. The act of dressing modestly then, may be viewed as an outward manifestation of one's willingness to hear the voice of the Lord in our lives. Moreover, God continues to enforce this principle of modesty as he prepares coats of skins for them to wear, prior to their exit from Eden (Genesis 3:19).

But modest dress is only half the equation when it comes to acquiring divine counsel; it involves our spirit as well. While we do not emphasize it enough, our church also teaches that modesty includes appropriate language and behavior. In acquiring a spirit of modesty then, we can look to Philippians 4:8:

"Finally brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and and if there be any praise, think on these things." (Phil. 4:8).

When our outer dress is mirrored by our inner spirit, we can teach young women that they will feel God's peace within them (Philippians 4:9). And just as the temple is a sanctuary for hearing the Lord's voice, so should we take care to ensure that our physical body is a safe edifice for our spirit to receive divine guidance.

I hope that our modesty discussions can look beyond explaining the length of a skirt, a shirt's degree of tightness, or a shirt's neckline. Rather, we can give our young women a sense of empowerment as a they learn that they are indeed capable of seeing God's hand about their lives--provided that they are willing to prepare themselves, both in body and spirit.  
Photo by Wikipedia.

Monday, September 16, 2013

"In All Patience and Faith": The Need to Sustain Our Leaders

This evening, I had a humbling moment when I was gently reminded of the importance of sustaining our church leaders "in all patience and faith" (D&C 21:5). It is important to recall that our church leaders, though I believe them to be divinely called, are nonetheless fallible people. Yet as I have also expressed, I believe that generally speaking, a church leader's willingness to spend ample time on their calling throughout the week is a strong indication of their sincerity toward their flock. I would like to share an example.

This evening, I attended a forum hosted by our stake president (a leader who oversees several congregations of our churches), where he invited us to ask questions about two controversial issues the church is facing: priesthood ordination for women and homosexuality. One woman asked him a question about why priesthood ordination is not available to women, and our stake president attempted to answer this question briefly through what he called a "business management" comparison, which I and some other women found perplexing, if not troubling. While I do not believe in female ordination for women, I wanted further clarification as to what he meant by his comment. I raised my hand and politely asked if he could expand his comparison further, so that I could gain further insight.

I never could have predicted what happened next. He immediately stated that his comparison fell flat, and apologized for making it in the first place. I was surprised and slightly embarrassed, as I certainly did not intend to make a stake president appear foolish in front of an audience. But as I sat down, I saw a priesthood leader whom I could support wholeheartedly.

Why? some may ask. After all, he did not answer the question. But as I sat down, I saw a priesthood holder who cared enough about our group to the extent that he was willing to be hurled questions that did not likely have a clear answer. I saw a priesthood holder who is trying to grapple with difficult questions his congregation members have and attempting to articulate them to the best of his capabilities. Finally, I saw a priesthood holder who was courageous to admit his fallibility.

I did not come away from the meeting with answers that necessarily absolved all of my questions. But I did leave with a greater resolve to sustain and support this priesthood holder who, alongside us, is trying to comb through a torrent of complexity that does not involve simple answers. How can I not show love and patience to this leader who, an engineer by profession, has a position where he becomes a marriage counselor, therapist, disciplinarian, and a perceived expert on church doctrine? And how can I not offer my sustaining hand to a leader who is striving to fulfill all of these titles to the best of his capabilities?

Let us be merciful and forgiving to our leaders who are in a position that they did not ask for. Let us attempt to show support toward their efforts, "in all patience and faith."

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

How I Confront Doubt: Part 2

Since responding to Hans Mattson's experience with encountering doubt, I have been interested to read the range of responses both here and elsewhere, ranging from effusive praise to vitriolic criticism. I would like to take this opportunity to respond to readers' concerns from my post:

1. Whether or not our church has the responsibility to teach members its history.

With the Internet's all-encompassing presence in our society, I am confident that our church will become more transparent about our past. And I think that more frank discussion and openness about these issues can be accomplished in two ways:

 1. Talking about these issues outside of church meetings, such as Institute (weekly church education classes) and special firesides (Sunday evening meetings).
 2. Members being willing to put forth additional study into Mormon scholarship.

I believe that official Sunday meetings, however, are an arena where we should continue to primarily focus on our doctrine, not on controversial historic events.

2. Why I only chose Mormon authors as resources.

Some were irritated that I only chose Mormon scholars as resources to draw from. I included those sources to demonstrate that other Mormons have seriously contemplated and researched the issues that Mattsson brought up. I definitely understand that part of scholarship is drawing from multiple perspectives to ascertain truth. However, Mormon studies has traditionally consisted of either active Mormons or scholars with an obvious ax to grind. There have not been many non-Mormons who can describe the faith in a dispassionate fashion (Jan Shipps is an obvious exception).

However, as this New York Times article describes, Mormon studies is becoming a more promising field, with more non-Mormon scholars making strong contributions. One of them is John G. Turner, who recently published Brigham Young, Pioneer Prophet with Harvard University Press. Interestingly, he stated in this article that our church leaders gave him "unfettered access" to historical documents, which gives me more confidence of our church's increased transparency. I genuinely look forward to how Mormon studies continues to emerge and shape itself in intellectual circles. 

3. The argument of a faith-based choice not being an intellectual act
In the future, I will elucidate further on this topic. In short: I believe it is unfair to criticize those who make faith-based choices, as religion is certainly not the only place where we cannot necessarily "prove" everything. Philosophy, for example, is inherently based on axioms. And science, though ostensibly the area of "hard evidence," is also a field where scientists have to exercise "faith" in their colleagues as well. A friend with a PhD in computer science from MIT, for example, affirmed that she has to assume that scientific observations are truthfully represented and that, often, claims from other scientists go unverified. We often choose to think and make choices based on confidence in someone or something, not necessarily on hard proof. Yet, as theologian Marilynne Robinson explains, "The world would be a very empty place if it were not in fact axiomatic." I definitely agree.

In closing: I believe that members struggling with doubt deserve respect and understanding. After all, as I have stated in a previous post, doubt is not inherently bad, but rather, an experience that can deepen our understanding of our faith. I pray and hope that with increased conversations and acquired knowledge, members can better walk the road of faith and doubt.

Image by mattpeel10.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Need to Fight Spiritual Complacency

Do I stay in this church simply because I am content to remain in the same state that I have always been? How do I know if I am really on the road to spiritual progression?

For me (and I think for all long-time members), these questions are important to ask. In my case, my family has been in this church for five generations, my immediate family members are all active members, and, to some extent, I find it almost impossible to separate my identity from my lifelong faith. I think that we all have a responsibility to counteract the drone-like attitude of "we-have-always-done-this-so-we-will-keep-doing-it." This is what I call "spiritual complacency." So what do we do?

Attending church and performing our church responsibilities are not enough. In fact, even enthusiasm for this gospel is not sufficient. In his essay,  "Zeal Without Knowledge," Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley discusses Mormons' effusive attitude toward the church, and while important, is ineffective--even dangerous--without knowledge. Rather, Nibley argues, every member has the responsibility to be an earnest spiritual seeker. If Mormons teach that we can someday be like God, it means that our minds one day have the capacity to be like his as well. If that is the case, it appears that we have a divine obligation to be lovers of knowledge.

So, what makes us forget this responsibility? I think a problem can arise when we, in typical "zeal-like" fashion, express our appreciation for our gratitude of the truths we have. While I am immensely grateful for gospel principles I have learned, I think that this enthusiasm can obstruct us from seeking even greater knowledge, which can be found through purposeful prayers and gospel study.  In short, we are so content with the truths that we already understand (or think we understand) that we don't probe and explore the gospel like we should. "True knowledge never shuts the door on more knowledge," says Nibley, "but zeal often does." I couldn't agree more. I think that being a truth seeker to the best of our abilities is an important antidote to spiritual complacency.

Being a prior recipient of important truths should be a door to perpetual exploring and searching upon additional truths. Our capacity for obtaining knowledge appears to be infinite: if we ask, we shall "receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge" (D&C 42:61). Part of the heart of Mormonism is (and should be) asking questions, as an inquiry is prerequisite to receiving a divine reply. Indeed, we would not be members of this church without a boy's simple question--who wasn't afraid to ask God for an answer.

Photo by Jo Naylor.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What an Orthodox Jew Taught Me About Zion

When coming home from Israel last year, I had an enlightening four-hour plane conversation with a young Orthodox Jew named David. After commiserating on our sadness on leaving Jerusalem, as well as the dating difficulties within our respective faiths, David then invited me to ask him any lingering questions I had about Judaism. When I asked him to tell me of his feelings about the temple, he naturally told me of his desire to have it rebuilt. His next comment, however, struck a chord within me, as he explained that every good deed a Jewish person did added a stone to the temple. And the opposite held true too: every poor action removed a stone.

I think that David's perception of rebuilding the Jewish temple easily applies to the Mormon doctrine of establishing a celestial community dwelling in love: Zion. Too often, I perceive Zion as a sort of utopia: an idealistic, if not unrealistic, place. It's hard for my telestial brain to imagine a place of "one heart and one mind" with "no poor among them."  However, the scriptures make clear that establishing Zion is indeed possible; it is only contingent upon the state of purity within our hearts. Like David, I would argue that every righteous action a member does adds to building Zion, and every poor action takes us further back from accomplishing this goal. Indeed Zion is a collective and not an individual endeavor. So, what do we have to do?

I find James 1:26 fascinating in answering this question, as he seeks to define "pure religion." Interestingly, when James explains this term, he does not mention prayer, reading the scriptures, or even going to church. Rather, pure religion is "to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction." Pure religion, then, is about our unselfish treatment toward others, especially those in dire need. If we work toward living a "pure religion," we move closer to achieving  a "pure heart," which, as Doctrine and Covenants 97:21 explains, is the prerequisite to Zion. I would argue  that "pure religion" and a "pure heart" are perhaps one and the same.

In the Book of Mormon, Alma's perception of living one's religion strongly mirrors James' description. When asking others whether or not they wish to be baptized in Mosiah 18, he reminds them that they are entering into a community of believers, and telling them to "mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort." Like James, Alma understood that a follower of Christ must contribute to the building of Zion through treating fellow community members as the Savior would. Perhaps our treatment toward others is the necessary step for a  believer to "stand as a witness of God at all times, in all things, and in all places." (Mosiah 18:9).

Building Zion may seem like a distant--if not impossible--goal. But perhaps if we think of our own life as a stone that is part of "building" Zion, it may appear less lofty. Hopefully, we can progress from imagining what heaven must be like to concentrating our efforts on literally establishing a heaven on earth--right now.

Image by Amoruso.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Responding to others' comments to "Why I am Staying"

With the burst of accolades, acerbic criticism, as well as Google+ and Facebook notifications that erupted from this post, I am even more cognizant that retaining millennials in church is very germane to current religious discussion. I would like to use this post to respond to others' comments and criticism:

1. The exhibition of members' and church leaders' poor behavior.
Many people immediately described how they have been emotionally hurt by other members. Certainly, we should ensure that we are not stumbling blocks to others' faith. But I don't pretend that the Mormon church as an institution is infallible. It will never be perfect, because the people in it are not perfect. I have certainly been frustrated by members' behavior numerous times.  However, we are still taught to view our fellow members as brothers and sisters because we need to learn to work together, forgive freely (see my previous posts on forgiveness and toleration), and strive to view them as God sees them. Being a member of this church has challenged me to reach out to others whom I don't think that I would befriend otherwise, and served as an ideal laboratory for me to take the precepts of Christ's teachings into practice. I realize that this model is not unique to our faith. But I appreciate that it is in place for us to potentially develop the strong bonds of sisterhood and brotherhood that the gospel can help us achieve.

2. The issue of nonpaid clergy.
I realize that I may have offended others who have seen other leaders of other faiths genuinely care about their congregations. Like I said before, I am merely referring to my own faith experience, and I am very aware that leaders of other denominations have genuine intent. I certainly don't assume that church leaders won't make mistakes (see a previous post on this), but I do believe that for the most part, a local church leader's willingness to spend a substantial amount of time on congregations' needs with no monetary compensation is a strong indicator of their genuine intent. And as I have stated before, we need to listen to our leaders' words in "all patience and faith" (Doctrine and Covenants 21:5).

3. The issue of asking questions.
Many people perceive Mormonism as a religion where we blindly follow local church leaders, irrespective of what they say. This is simply untrue. We are a church that heavily focuses on personal revelation. Professor Kathleen Flake at Vanderbilt even refers to Joseph Smith as the "Henry Ford" of revelation, wanting everyone to have access to it.

For example, we are specifically told to receive a personal confirmation from prayer that what church leaders are saying are true. Moreover, we are taught that we can obtain a relationship with God, which comes through inquiring to him about our decisions and our concerns. I don't know whether we will receive answers to every question that we will have (see my previous post on doubt). But I have found that the more more I inquire and search the gospel for answers, the more knowledge I am capable of obtaining. I believe that God is one who earnestly wants to impart His knowledge to us, provided that we are ready to receive it.

4. Whether or not our doctrine can be reduced to a "laundry list."
For many people, our church is ostensibly a commandment-driven religion. However, I perceive these commandments as helping to refashion me into the person that God wants me to be.
A previous post of mine explores John Milton's poem "On His Blindness," where Milton decides that it is our desires of our hearts, not our talents, that make us valuable to God. I agree wholeheartedly. Like I said before, God will judge us by our hearts; not by our "church resume."

Image by Philip Newton.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Why Millennials Need Religion: Continuing the Conversation

This past week, I published a post on my blog, "Why I Am Staying: Replying to CNN's 'Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church." My roommate, who happens to be MIT's social media specialist, suggested that my post incite a campaign of young people sharing their reasons for staying in their faith across various forms of social media, followed by the hashtag, #whyimstaying. To my pleasant surprise, my post was soon picked up by Deseret News, Real Clear Religion, and, as of this morning, LDS Living. While I recognize that plenty of those in my generation are not interested in church, I hope to spread my message that there are millennials who are still interested in making religion part of their life.

I understand that religion has instigated myriad conflicts. And I readily acknowledge that many agnostics and non-religious people I know are kind, genuine people. So, why do I think millennials need religion? Here are my thoughts so far, though, as I have often state, my lists are seldom exhaustive:

1. Religion helps millennials diminish their self-absorption:
We live in a society where people easily fall into the mentality, "it's all about me." First, we are generally told at high school and college graduations that we are special, and that the world should be grateful to have someone like us. Then, we are bombarded by commercials and messages explaining why we "deserve" to have a certain product, deal, whatever. Is it any wonder that many people my age often have attitudes of entitlement? Religion, on the other hand, can challenge you to think beyond yourself. It has taught me, for example, that I am subject to the consequences of the choices that I have made. It has also taught me the value of serving others to the best of my ability, and to view others in the same way that Jesus Christ did. Finally, it reminds me that in the end, I also have God to thank for my numerous blessings and accomplishments.

2.  Religion helps millennials establish a moral anchor.
Religious institutions are not perfect. In fact, they'll never be perfect because they are full of imperfect leaders and churchgoers (see this post for further elucidation). But that's what religion is about. It is to help fallible people like us to become better people, through teaching principles of good living. What kind of world would we have if more husbands and wives were respectful to one another, employees were more honest, and people viewed others as people of infinite worth? Like I said, I know many good non-denominational people. But I still believe that religion can be an arena where people can learn and develop integrity and respect.

3. Religion helps give millennials hope.
We live in a tumultuous and degenerate society that is replete with distress and despair. While I seek to keep abreast on current events, reading the news often leaves me incredulous with the world's cruelty. But my religion gives me hope that I can live by. While I believe that I am responsible for helping those within my sphere of influence to the best of my abilities, I believe that there is a loving and caring God who is also aware of His children. We are his most cherished creation. And I believe that in the next life, every cruelty, injustice, or malice will be made right. 

Why else do you think that millennials need religion? Your comments are appreciated.

Photo by Kevin J Steinberg, U.S. Navy

Monday, July 29, 2013

Why I'm Staying: Replying to CNN's "Why Millennials Are Leaving The Church"

As a part of the "millennial" generation, I read CNN's religion blog post "Why Millennials Are Leaving The Church" with great interest. The author explains how churches are trying to appeal to my generation through casual services, pastors in skinny jeans, and coffee shops in the meetinghouses--at the cost of teaching what constitutes the heart of Christianity. With the ongoing cultural wars, pretentiousness, and seeming exclusivity, young people my age are struggling to find Jesus when they go to church.

Reading this article made me think carefully about how my faith, the Mormon church, is instituted. While I admit that our church leaders have their own struggles in retaining some who are my age, I think that the Mormon institution solves many of the problems that other millennials experience when attending church. This is my list so far, though it is hardly exhaustive:

1. We are taught to view our fellow members as our brothers and sisters.
Just as we don't choose who our siblings are, neither do we choose whom we will worship with (it's all contingent on location). In fact, the first feature a visitor to a Mormon congregation may notice is that we address our fellow members as "brother" and "sister." This practice consciously reminds us that we should love and accept others in our faith as part of an extended family--regardless of socio-economic background, political affiliations, race, etc. To partially accomplish this, our bishop (our congregational leader) assigns each member to visit fellow members at least once a month to share a spiritual message, as well as watch over their spiritual and physical welfare. Moreover, we feel a sense of responsibility in helping our fellow members who may be experiencing health difficulties, family crises, or just need an extra hand with housework. I believe that this set-up has taught me to be more loving and accepting towards others, as well as emulate Christ's behavior in my life.  

2. We are asked to participate in a given capacity to help the congregation.
Every member is given a "calling" or responsibility to help sustain the congregation's needs. While being a member, for example, I have had callings that range from directing the ward choir, planning monthly activities for over 200 people, and arranging musical numbers for church meetings. It has not always been easy balancing these callings while pursuing graduate studies and working part-time. But I believe that my personal efforts to assist my congregation has reminded me that religiosity is far more than simply attending church; it requires sacrifice on my end. Moreover, since Christ spent His life serving others without worry of "purse or script," I am grateful that I can learn to become more like my Savior through serving His children.

3. Having a nonpaid clergy, our church leaders are refreshingly sincere.* Being a bishop or a Mormon church leader can be emotionally and physically exhausting. Without monetary gain, however, I know that my leaders are serving me because they genuinely care for my well-being. I don't expect my church leaders to be perfect (see my previous post on this), but their efforts to do the best they can for my sake makes me greatly appreciative of them in my life.  

4. We are taught to ask questions. 
Joseph Smith's first vision (and subsequent visions) occurred because he had a question to ask God.  One of our books of scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants, is a collection of revelations based on someone's question. Moreover, we are taught to seek for personal revelation from God, through asking God questions in our prayers, or through searching for answers in our scriptures. In some ways, I would argue that the heart of Mormonism is asking questions. I would also say that my faith has helped me answer the deepest yearnings of my soul.

5. Our doctrine is not a laundry list of what we can and cannot do.
Ultimately, we believe that we are on this earth to return back to God, who is our Heavenly Father. While our faith, actions, as well as certain ceremonies play a significant role in our salvation, God ultimately judges us by our hearts. Our church then, strongly emphasizes a gospel that is based on becoming like Jesus Christ. 

These are my thoughts so far. Please respond as to why you are staying in your faith either on this blog or on social media, using the hashtag #whyimstaying.

*In no way did I mean to offend those of other faiths who have paid clergy. I have definitely seen exemplary leaders of other faiths show genuine sincerity to their congregations. I am only speaking from my own experience. For me, knowing that my leaders are working for my sake without any thought for monetary gain is a strong indicator of their sincerity.

Photo by bterrycompton.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How I Confront Doubt: A reply to "Some Mormons Search Web, Find Doubt"

This past week, the New York Times published an article about Hans Mattson, a Mormon leader struggling to understand thorny segments of Mormon history. While this article spurred unusually vibrant discussion online, most of Mattson's questions are ones that many members, including myself, have naturally wondered at times. So, how do I deal with these religious uncertainties? I address my thoughts and include resources for members who are coping with doubt, as well as those not of our faith who are interested in this subject.

1. There are myriad resources available to understanding the "less appealing" parts of Mormon history.
With all due respect to Brother Mattson, I don't think that he is aware of all of the books and articles at his disposal. I would argue that we have the best scholarship in Mormon history than we ever have had before. Those who want to know more about our history should strongly consider the following (this list is not exhaustive):

Encyclopedia of Mormonism click here
A wonderfully comprehensive website on Mormon history and doctrine.
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, by Richard Bushman
A renowned historian's cultural biography of Joseph Smith
The Mountain Meadows Massacre, by Juanita Brooks
A collection of eyewitness accounts surrounding the event
The Latter-day Saint Experience, by Terryl Givens
A thorough reference to Mormon doctrine, history, and culture
Elijah Abel, by W. Kesler Jackson
A book about one of the first black men that Joseph Smith ordained

In addition, BYU Studies has been publishing groundbreaking articles on Mormon studies, including blacks and the priesthood, polygamy, and Joseph Smith's translation process for decades (for more information on Joseph's use of the hat, click here).  I don't believe that it is the Church's ultimate responsibility to hold our hand and teach us our history. We need to be proactive and study it carefully, as well as prayerfully. 

2. Our church leaders, though divinely called, are nonetheless fallible people.
In Doctrine and Covenants 21:5, the Saints are told to accept Joseph Smith's words in "all patience and faith" (my emphasis). The use of "patience"is a clear reminder that Joseph's extraordinary calling did not preclude him from being imperfect. Moreover, God clearly says that he chooses the "weak things of the world" to do his work. Is it any wonder that we are asked to pray for our church leaders, then? Mormons who expect church leaders to be void of mistakes will be severely disappointed. 

3. Take comfort in your past spiritual experiences.
In the Book of Mormon, a prophet named Nephi groans under his present challenges in 2 Nephi 4. Yet he immediately recalls his past encounters with God: "My God hath been my support, he hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness"(vs. 18). Similarly, when we face tumultuous periods of doubt and uncertainty, we need to take comfort in our past spiritual experiences. We often enjoy speaking of righteousness bringing about happiness, but Jacob 7:26 (another Book of Mormon prophet) explicitly describes his righteous family as "a lonesome and solemn people...wherefore we did mourn out our days." Being a disciple of Jesus Christ will not necessarily shield us from doubt, heartbreak, and even anguish. Rather, the gospel is a means to expand our perspective, and gain the proper knowledge to return to our heavenly Father's presence. 

4. Ultimately, the potential for doubt is essential for truly making faith a choice. How in the world could we truly exercise faith if doubt was not a viable option? You can see my previous post for further elucidation on this.

5. Gaining an appreciation for this church does not stem from knowing all the answers.  It comes from living the principles of the gospel to the best of our ability. Even if we are not entirely sure whether we know everything is true, we can still follow Alma's counsel in the Book of Mormon and exercise even "a particle of faith," through trying to live certain principles anyway. I have had confirmations of things that I hope to be true only after I have attempted to make them a part of my life.

In closing: I'm not sure if I will ever receive answers to all of my questions. But I know that I have the most important answers. I have the capacity to understand the nature of God and his son, Jesus Christ. I have access to additional scripture that can give me paramount instruction for my life. I know that I can receive personal revelation, as long as I am worthy to receive it. And most importantly, I have the information needed for me to return back to God. There is no greater blessing I have than to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

Author's Note: A gross oversight on my part: I neglected to include Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and The Juvenile Instructor as additional helpful resources. In addition, FAIR (Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research) provides important scholarship on examining Mormonism's history and cultural issues.

A response to recent criticism erupting from this post can be found here:

Photo by Don McCullough.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Can Secularism Help Make Faith More Meaningful?

 I am an avid David Brooks reader, and one of his pieces made me think more carefully about the correlation between faith and a secular society. Here, Brooks attempts to summarize Charles Taylor's academically dense book, A Secular Age. Whereas most would point to an increasingly secularized society as obstructing faith, Taylor argues that a secular society has made faith more of a choice, making it more meaningful for the believer.

I believe that Taylor is correct.  People 500+ years ago could only imagine the cosmos from a purely religious standpoint. For them, faith was intertwined with fact, making it less of a conscious choice to believe. Conversely, we have the opportunity to discover and perceive our place in the world from a variety of perspectives. While I am immensely grateful for my religious views, I am edified from Tolstoy's insights into the human condition, a study of photosynthesis to understand the natural world, and Margaret Fuller's philosophies to help me contemplate women's societal place.

Because of our increased access to knowledge in myriad fields, faith becomes a much more deliberate decision. We have the opportunity to consciously choose a faith-based perspective as a means to interpret our world. And that's how it should be. If faith is an imperfect knowledge of things,  it would not mean much if we did not experience a propensity for doubt. I think it is a shame that doubt is often feared by the faithful, while I have come to realize that the greater chance for doubt, the better opportunity I have to increase my faith. Perhaps that is why Joseph Smith's vision is so intensely meaningful for me, as there are myriad reasons to dismiss the story. And yet I do believe it with a fervent intensity.

I am grateful for prayer, probing, and pondering to find the answers I am seeking, to mitigate my gaps in knowledge, as well as confirm what I hope so earnestly to be true. And I am grateful to be on a lifelong search to find nuggets of truth, wherever I find them.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, July 15, 2013

What we can all learn from John Milton's blindness

Having been more acutely aware of my inadequacies recently, it is often easy to wonder if we are really "enough" to do all that God expects of us. Perhaps we struggle maintaining relationships, balancing our quotidian tasks, or exercising sufficient patience. John Milton addresses this very issue in Sonnet 16: "On his Blindness," where he frankly admits that his blindness may impede him from serving God in his fullest capacity.

WHEN I consider how my light is spent
  E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
  And that one Talent which is death to hide,
  Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present         5
  My true account, least he returning chide,
  Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd,
  I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
  Either man's work or his own gifts, who best  10
  Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
  And post o'er Land and Ocean without rest:
  They also serve who only stand and wait.

Here, Milton explains the crux of his struggle: he believes that his blindness may even render him "useless" in God's eyes. He loosely refers to the idle servant in Christ's parable of the talents, as he certainly does not wish to hide "that one Talent" from God himself. Yet Milton's literary prowess is ostensibly useless without his eyes. Or is it?

At the apex of Milton's despair, Patience teaches him that God does not need man's inner gifts. Rather, God is best served by those who "bear his mild yoke," or courageously submit to His will. Then of course, we have the last line that incites myriad analyses: "they also serve who can only stand and wait."  For me, this image conjures an image of a standing servant, actively waiting to perform his or her master's bidding when called. The act of being ready to serve God when called is just as noble as those who "at his [God's] bidding speed and post o'er Lands and Oceans."

I love this poem because it reminds me that a genuine desire to serve, not necessarily talents, makes me useful to God. In harboring this desire, we can further develop that necessary attitude for submission. And in turn, our souls can be recreated to become more than we can possibly imagine. Milton, for example, transformed into a Homer-like writer, composing two of the most seminal works in English literature while in physical darkness: "Paradise Lost" and "Paradise Regained." Though we may not feel nearly as capable as others, we are nonetheless capable of bearing whatever contents of God's "mild yoke" may be.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Why should we know our origins?

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit two small towns in Massachusetts where my 17th-century ancestors inhabited. As my family is composed of ardent genealogists, I have tended to be more passive about family history. However, I am reconsidering why I, a 26-year-old in 2013, should take part in the spirit of Elijah, and study my ancestors who lived almost 300 years ago. This list is not exhaustive:

1. It de-centers me as an individual. In this increasingly self-centered society we live in, I think it is emotionally and intellectually healthy to remember that we are simply a part of a long line of individuals who were born, lived, and died. It also gives me a greater sense of humility, realizing that I can't take full credit for how my life has turned out. I live in this country, for example, as a result of my French Huguenot ancestors who risked a tumultuous sea voyage to settle here and enjoy religious freedom.

2. It puts my struggles in perspective. When peering down at one of my ancestors' graves, I realized that she was buried with 5 of her children, none of whom lived past the age of five. I was immediately ashamed of how comparatively comfortable my life has been. Yet if my ancestor could bear this struggle, I can withstand trials too. It's literally in my blood.

3. It gives me a sense of belonging. Looking at my family history makes me realize that I am inextricably tied to a greater family than I can imagine. As a single woman living far from home, it gives me comfort knowing that that I live an hour away from my ancestors' hometowns.

4. It makes me aware of the impact that my decisions will have on future generations. Having looked at my family history, I am increasingly cognizant of how my ancestors' decisions have affected me. I am an American, a Mormon, and a book-lover, partially because of them. Subsequently, I try to keep in mind that I am living not only for myself, but for later generations.