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