The Lord’s University taught me a new tongue, one that enables me to do three things: (1) delineate between spiritual discourse and worldly discourse; (2) recognize when I have slipped from the spiritual into the worldly and rectify the slippage; and (3) check my tendency to hijack the language of the spiritual to suit my convenience in the worldly.
I returned to BYU for a graduate degree because of the abundance of the spirit on its campus. Partaking of this spirit creates the courage to dream, and consequently there are dreamers aplenty here. So I returned to the machine shop to mend the tires, knowing that I must leave again to go elsewhere for a Ph.D. But this time I will leave understanding that unless one is careful, there is a negative correlation between advanced intellectual inquiry and spiritual preservation. When I went away the first time, I found that the more I pursued only the nuances of political, economic, and social history, the more the spirit eluded me. When I go away the second time, I will do so understanding that it doesn’t work the same way if the two factors are turned around: Beginning with the spirit, no depth of intellectual inquiry is outside of one’s grasp. It is possible for disciples to do first-rate intellectual work, work that has meaning. Indeed, to use religion to excuse substandard academic performance and intellectual sloppiness is to strengthen the false dichotomy of faith and reason.
What is my dream? I want to be part of a counter-renaissance of men and women who call themselves servants of God who will reclaim from the world the arts and sciences. I dream that the abundance of spirit at the BYU campus will, even in the face of apathy and materialism, initiate a resurgence of learning where disciples will once again create the standards for meaningful intellectual inquiry. Of course this is a grandiose dream. But there are dreamers aplenty at BYU in body and in spirit as embodied in the history and unique heritage that is BYU’s. If one is not careful, one can be infected with their vision. I stopped being careful a long time ago.
The two typical men of genius whom I have mentioned here, and with whose names I have begun this book, are very symbolic, if only because they have shown that the fiercest dogmatists can make the best artists. In the fin de siècle atmosphere every one was crying out that literature should be free from all causes and all ethical creeds. Art was to produce only exquisite workmanship, and it was especially the note of those days to demand brilliant plays and brilliant short stories. And when they got them, they got them from a couple of moralists. The best short stories were written by a man trying to preach Imperialism. The best plays were written by a man trying to preach Socialism. All the art of all the artists looked tiny and tedious beside the art which was a byproduct of propaganda.
The reason, indeed, is very simple. A man cannot be wise enough to be a great artist without being wise enough to wish to be a philosopher. A man cannot have the energy to produce good art without having the energy to wish to pass beyond it. A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything.
Lately I’m more and more coming to the conclusion that my own writing has little potential to be great unless I let my belief in Christ be the fire fueling it.
Now, I don’t mean that I’m going to start writing missionary tracts thinly disguised as fiction, nor do I believe that every story needs to be overtly Mormon or Christian, and I certainly don’t harbor any ill will toward fiction whose end goal is pure entertainment.
That said, I feel like my own stories need to be more religious in nature — science fiction and fantasy exploring themes like sin, redemption, pure love, selflessness, families, Zion, priesthood, godhood, and so on. (Some examples of this kind of thing that come to mind: the Zion-building theme in Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series, and the leadership/godhood themes in Brandon Sanderson’s books.) And of course the goal is to do this while writing stories that are still good, well-wrought, and satisfying — that’s a given.
I recently finished Mindhunters, John Douglas’s account of his work as an FBI criminal profiler catching serial killers. It’s a fascinating book. What stood out to me most was this paragraph towards the end:
In all my years of research and dealing with violent offenders, I’ve never yet come across one who came from what I would consider a good background and functional, supportive family unit.
On a related note, a passage earlier in the book:
At the request of Buffalo SAC Richard Bretzing, I came up that weekend. Bretzing is a very proper, solid guy, a real family man and a key member of the FBI’s so-called Mormon Mafia. I’ll never forget, he had a sign in his office saying something to the effect of, “If a man fails at home, he fails in his life.”
No doubt it was “No other success can compensate for failure in the home,” often attributed to David O. McKay, who was quoting James Edward McCulloch’s 1924 book Home: The Savior of Civilization. I hunted down the book here at the BYU library and, for curiosity’s sake, I present to you the full paragraph (p. 42):
When one puts business or pleasure above his home, he that moment starts on the down grade to soul ruin. The loss of a fortune is nothing compared with the loss of home. When the club becomes more attractive to any man than his home, it is time for him to confess in bitter shame that he has failed to measure up to the supreme opportunity of his life and has flunked in the final test of true manhood. No other success can compensate for failure in the home. This is the one thing of limitless potentialities on earth. The poorest shack of a home in which love prevails over a united family is of greater value to God and future humanity than the richest bank on earth. In such a home God can work miracles and will work miracles. The greatest miracle that King Herod ever saw was John the Baptist. The religious home, though poor, produced John the Baptist. The most dazzling miracle of all history is Jesus of Nazareth. His education was that of a united religious home. Pure hearts in a pure home are always in whispering distance of Heaven. In such a home there is always a key which one may use in opening the reservoirs of the Infinite and start a Pentecost. The great, good God who made this world ordained man and woman for the home and He is seeing to it that they may search the whole world over but will never find the sweetest joys of life anywhere but in the home. In obedience to God’s law for human life, one should make it his highest ambition to build an ideal home. Make home your hobby; for, if anyone makes a loving home with all his heart, he can never miss Heaven.
I was reading through C. S. Lewis’s letters the other day and came across this bit in a letter to Genia Goelz on 20 June 1952:
I would prefer to combat the “I’m special” feeling not by the thought “I’m no more special than anyone else” but by the feeling “Everyone is as special as me.” In one way there is no difference, I grant, for both remove the speciality. But there is a difference in another way. The first might lead you to think, “I’m only one of the crowd like anyone else.” But the second leads to the truth that there isn’t any crowd. No one is like anyone else. All are “members” (organs) in the Body of Christ. All different and all necessary to the whole and to one another: each loved by God individually, as if it were the only creature in existence. Otherwise you might get the idea that God is like the government which can only deal with the people in the mass.
I loved this quote from chapter 10 of the Joseph Fielding Smith manual:
So far as the philosophy and wisdom of the world are concerned, they mean nothing unless they conform to the revealed word of God. Any doctrine, whether it comes in the name of religion, science, philosophy, or whatever it may be, if it is in conflict with the revealed word of the Lord, will fail. It may appear plausible. It may be put before you in language that appeals and which you may not be able to answer. It may appear to be established by evidence that you cannot controvert, but all you need to do is to abide your time. Time will level all things. You will find that every doctrine, every principle, no matter how universally believed, if it is not in accord with the divine word of the Lord to his servants, will perish. Nor is it necessary for us to try to stretch the word of the Lord in a vain attempt to make it conform to these theories and teachings. The word of the Lord shall not pass away unfulfilled, but these false doctrines and theories will all fail. Truth, and only truth, will remain when all else has perished.
First, what I believe: that there is a God, a kind, loving Heavenly Father who created the universe and who is the father of our spirit bodies. Further, I believe that he cares about us and that we can have a personal relationship with him, for before we were born we lived with him in heaven, and we’re now on Earth in a mortal probation for the purpose of becoming more like him. And, most importantly, I believe that someday we will return to him.
This post won’t cover all of that, but I’ll talk about some of the rational reasons I have for believing these things — arguments that provide enough plausibility to persuade the logical side of my brain that I’m not completely irrational for believing in a hyperintelligent extraterrestrial.
Who is God?
To clarify terms, when we ask whether God is real, we mean an intelligent, all-powerful, all-knowing being who created the universe, and beyond that we mean the particular God who talks to Judeo-Christian prophets, according to said prophets. In other words, we’re asking whether our particular conception of God is real.
First, could a God exist? There doesn’t seem to be any reason why not. It’s easy to imagine that there are other living, sentient creatures that we can’t see right now. Seeing the power spectrum among us, it’s also not hard to conceive of beings more powerful than we are. Given how much we don’t know about the universe, both in structure and in other solar systems and galaxies, I don’t see how anyone can rule out the possibility of a God, at least in theory.
The traits of God
If God does exist, what would he be like? A concept or abstraction? A cloud? Spacetime itself? In theory, God could be anything.
While I don’t discount the possibility of finding sentient life in forms wholly foreign to us — like an intelligent comet or galaxy cluster or a lifeform that only achieves sentience near black holes — I have to say that based on what we can observe, namely that the only sentient thing around is humans, it follows that if there is an intelligent, all-powerful being that created something as complex as the universe, it’s not unreasonable to think that such a being could also be humanlike. It’s not mandatory, but it’s not impossible, either.
So we have a God who could be humanlike, albeit much advanced. If God is a person, the next question is this: is God good? Bad? Something in between?
If God is evil, selfishly bent on causing pain and getting gain — if an insanely powerful, demented, corrupt being had created this earth and is manipulating everything — wouldn’t things be far worse than what we see? In spite of all the darkness in the world, we still see rampant love, hope, friendship, kindness, compassion, service, and more. If God were a dark god, I don’t think he’d allow much of that.
If God is a mixture of good and evil, like all of us, then we’d expect to see both kindness and capriciousness, love and jealousy, sacrifice and selfishness. It wouldn’t be hard to interpret things this way (especially the Old Testament), and I think it’s a possible scenario.
If God is good, then we’d expect to see lots of good in the world, and we do. I think we would also expect to see pain and suffering, and in a moment I’ll explain why. God being good means God is kind, loving, full of compassion, building things up rather than tearing them down. This is the kind of God I naturally want to believe in, because things are too bleak otherwise. It also matches with what I see around me.
The children of God
If God is a living creature, it stands to reason that he, like almost all living things we’re aware of, would procreate. It’s possible that superintelligent beings are all sterile, but it’s more likely that they do reproduce.
Procreation perpetuates species — horses give birth to horses, not cows; apple seeds make trees that make apples, not monkeys or daytime television; humans give birth to humans, not mountains or stars or dolphins. (Sidenote: are there any biological examples of creatures that don’t follow this pattern? I’m curious. It wouldn’t negate what I’m saying here, but it would certainly be intriguing.)
So, based on what we saw all around us, it makes sense for the offspring of God to be of the same kind as God, and to start as infants in godhood, eventually growing up to be adult gods.
For the children of God, are the godlike powers innate, like breathing and sleeping, or are they learned, like walking and doing calculus and building a house? Given what I see here on Earth, I’m led to believe that the children of God — us — inherit a small amount of godlike power (love, procreation, etc.), but must learn or earn the rest.
Now, if God is good, and if he wants us to become like him, it stands to reason that he would only want us to gain full powers of godhood if we too are good and wise. If he were to give these incredible powers to irresponsible, wicked, selfish people, they would naturally become evil forces of destruction, wreaking war across the universes (Hitler + omniscience + omnipotence = bad), and God would be complicit — he would be their enabler. So it makes sense to me for God to vet us thoroughly, limiting these powers to those of his children who prove that they really are truly good and not just putting on a show.
The plan of salvation
A good way for God to vet us seems to be to put us in a sandbox and give us lots of opportunities to choose between good and evil, to make choices that matter. To be worthy of godhood, people have to love goodness — it has to be who they are at heart, something that won’t change once they’re uplifted (to use science fiction terminology) to godhood. Otherwise you end up with cruel gods creating worlds and populating them with children just so they can watch them suffer.
So we’re here on Earth in the middle of the vetting. I don’t know why a test like this requires that we don’t remember what came before, or why we have to relearn everything about God and goodness, relying on faith and belief. I suspect it’s partly because of God’s compassion and mercy — if we know full well that God is there and that good and evil exist, and if we then choose evil, we’re far more culpable. At that point it’s more likely that we’d keep choosing evil, stuck on a track that ends up being irredeemable almost from the beginning (cf. Satan and his angels). If we can’t see God, however, then there are more opportunities for us to repent and decide to start choosing good. Less damning, more hope.
The problem of pain
This is often seen as a reason to think God isn’t there, because how could a loving God allow bad things to happen? But given the reasons for the test — to see if we’ll stay true to God and righteousness no matter what — I don’t see how it could be any other way. Bad things have to happen. Otherwise our loyalty to good can’t be fully tested, and we can’t be trusted with those powers of godhood. We have to be tested and tried through a wide variety of experiences.
People ask why God doesn’t prevent more bad things from happening (because it’s clear that he does, from time to time). But I wonder why God ever interferes at all. Don’t get me wrong — I’m very grateful for answered prayers and averted danger. But we talk about pain and suffering as a refining fire, and it’s true: the really hard trials are the things that push us most toward godhood, strengthening and clarifying our loyalties. Since that’s the whole point, it would make sense for life to be one massive trial after another. And yet for most people it’s not that way — it’s an alternating flow of good and bad, blessings and sorrow. I suppose if life were a continual flow of bad, after a certain point in the barrage we’d just give up. Whatever the case, God often lets wickedness and natural disasters and disease and death run their course. It’s all part of the test.
Also, suffering provides more opportunities for people around the sufferer to have love and compassion and to serve. Our family has been on the receiving end of that with our daughter’s cardiomyopathy. While I certainly wish she didn’t have this heart problem, I can see how God uses it to bring about more good in the world, and to test not only me and my family but also those around us.
I have too many answered prayers on a regular basis to chalk it up to placebo effects or wishful thinking or even chance.
Evidences of God
In general, it strikes me as exceedingly unlikely that all of this — the universe, Earth, etc. — happened on its own. Even with an infinity of universes where probability dictates that something like this must happen, I have a hard time believing that what I see around me is merely the result of billions of years of iteration and blind evolution. If any of this is real in any way, it’s far easier to believe that there is an Architect behind it.
A sample of other evidences:
Our universe just happens to have all the right parameters so life can exist.
Gravity. Not only does it make it so galaxies and stars and planets can form, but simpler things like the fact that we can walk and run and jump with relative ease, and the fact that there’s a ground for us to do those things on, and that the atmosphere is there so we can breathe.
The sun happens to be at the right distance to give us just enough heat and light. And the photons that stream from the sun at such a high speed, bouncing off things in such a way that it not only lights our world (which is a miracle) but also gives us colors (which is a second miracle). And by the way, we just happen to have these rods and cones and eyes to receive all that data, and we just happen to have brains that can interpret it. Ditto for sound waves and ears. This is crazy. (Sure, there are still real things we can’t see or hear, but the fact that we can see or hear at all is amazing.)
The complexity of human physiology. Considering how many things can go wrong at any point, it’s a miracle that anyone ever stays alive at all, period.
The way we can eat and digest a vast variety of food, enabling us to live all over the planet. And to have delight and joy in our daily sustenance. And the fact that things like delight and joy exist as emotions.
The relative lack of accidents on freeways.
Consciousness and thought, which is why we’re able to talk about all this in the first place.
Love and friendship.
It’s entirely possible to look at all the things I’ve listed and interpret them as natural phenomena, as odd facets of human neurology. In the end, I choose to see it as God. I don’t yet understand everything about him or why he set things up the way he did, but I know that believing in God and living his laws makes me happier (I know this because the periods of doubt and sin have unquestionably been the least happy parts of my life). And I’m okay with not having all the answers yet.
We were always a peculiar people, but the culture of the world seems to be diverging more and more from the doctrines the prophets teach, which means those doctrines (and those prophets) will keep growing more embarrassing and unpopular and awkward.
And yet I think this is good for the Church. It helps people with lukewarm beliefs decide whether they really do believe that God speaks to prophets today and that we can trust both the prophets and their message. It’s all about the prophets.
As for the fallibility card, I’d rather play it safe and follow the current prophets, because assuming that they’re wrong and that future prophets will correct them is, as Max said, a shaky, dangerous path. Yes, continuing revelation means some things have changed since Joseph Smith’s time. But a lot of things haven’t. Yes, future revelation may allow same-sex marriage and ordination of women and even a lesbian, female prophet. But it may not. To my understanding, God has told us to live by the revelation we’ve actually received, not the revelation we hope we’ll receive someday.
The question, then, is whether God wants us as a people to urge the prophets to try to receive new revelation on these matters. Yes, revelation usually comes in response to questions, and God does want us to ask questions. But people are acting as if the prophets haven’t already been asking these questions of God all along. Considering that God seems to believe they have good judgment (since he called them as prophets in the first place), I think we can safely assume they’ve asked.
(Sidenote: I don’t feel comfortable demanding transparency from the prophets as to whether they’ve asked God about these matters, etc. Suits notwithstanding, this is the church of God, not a public corporation or a secular government. If we believe they’re prophets, we should trust them to do what God called them to do.)
We obviously need to treat each other with Christlike love and respect in all of this, but some ideas are in fact wrong and dangerous (whether blatantly or subtly so) and need to be spoken against, especially in this day of calling good evil and evil good. In a way it feels like we’ve entered a new(ish) war against the prophets, and that’s no good. God does call prophets and we can in fact trust them. And when what they’re saying is very unpopular, we should then trust them all the more, because it’s far more likely that the world has strayed than that the prophets have fallen.
I initially thought I could knock this essay off in half an hour or so, but it has proven to be somewhat more knotty than that, mostly in figuring out what I actually think since I haven’t spent as much time pondering this as I have with the other topics.
I’m starting this series off with good and evil — morality — because these principles are foundational. If they don’t exist, everything else crumbles.
The meaning of morality
As humans, we have this thing called behavior: we think, we speak, we do. We make choices, hundreds or more each day. We make things happen, on a dizzyingly wide spectrum from very small things to massive, world-changing things. Now, things happen in the natural world as well — the sun rises, water flows, gravity pulls, trees grow, animals eat and mate and die. The difference is that we humans classify our behavior on a scale of good and evil. We have consciences.
Much human behavior is neutral — choosing between two brands of bread at the grocery store, to pick a mundane example — and the actions of both animal and nature also seem to be neutral. Is it good when a rock falls down a cliff? Is it evil when the wind blows the leaves off a tree? It seems to me that the closer animals get to humans in behavior and form, the more we project our morality onto them — a chimpanzee beheading and eating its offspring strikes me as far more horrifying than an ant doing the same — and yet it all appears to be just projection, anthropomorphizing as we tend to do. Animal behavior isn’t good or evil. Those classifications are reserved for humans alone.
What, then, are good and evil? They are the two halves of a scale upon which we measure our thoughts, words, and actions. Intriguingly, you need both for either to make any sense; without good, there is no evil, and vice versa. (Lehi said this more eloquently.)
So, we have this concept of morality. It leads to a number of other questions: whether the definition of the scale is up to us, for example, and whether such a scale should inform our behavior.
The definition of the scale
Are we making this stuff up? That’s the question. I wrestled with this for a while and I don’t know that I have a solid answer yet, but I find that it’s easier for me to look at it from the inverse: does moral relativism make sense?
First, some terms kifed from Wikipedia: descriptive moral relativism is the idea that people see morality differently. Next, meta-ethical relativists believe that “good” and “evil” are relative to the traditions or beliefs of an individual or group. Finally, normative relativists go a step further and believe that we ought to tolerate others’ behavior regardless of whether it falls under our “evil” or not.
Descriptive relativism is of course quite true — there is, to understate it, a difference of opinion on what is good and what is not, across cultures and time. But then again is there really as much of a difference as we might think? Most religious traditions generally agree on what is good — helping others, being kind, etc. — and what is evil — lying, stealing, hurting, killing, etc.
Because of that (among other things), meta-ethical relativism doesn’t ring true to me. There does seem to be an underlying foundation of morality that is universal. Interpretations of it may differ, and we almost always stack our own extra cultural made-up rules on top of it, but there’s something there, something beyond our making. More on that in a moment.
Normative relativism is just ridiculous (and its minions are thankfully few). By its standard, we should tolerate an individual raping, murdering, and eating a child. But that “should” is problematic by their own standards because it attempts to prescribe the normative relativists’ standard of good (toleration of all behavior) onto other people whose standards of good are different (toleration of only some behavior).
The next question is whether this universal morality is just a byproduct of evolution. To my understanding, this would mean that being “good” would help you live longer and make more posterity (life must go on). “Good” would mean maintaining a healthy relationship with those around you — knitting societies together — for greater protection against danger and for a greater chance at reproductive success. A lot of the human behavior we classify as good makes sense under this rubric, but some of it doesn’t — for example, it doesn’t explain why we consider it good and noble for someone to lose their life saving that of a perfect stranger.
So, as I’ve found moral relativism lacking in substance, and as evolution doesn’t quite explain morality to my satisfaction, I find it easier to believe that this universal morality comes from outside of us humans, namely from God.
Whether it matters
If there is in fact a standard of good and evil, and if it’s something real outside ourselves and not just whatever we want it to be to suit our convenience, then yes, of course morality matters. Some ramifications:
First, we ought to know what the standard is — what is good and what is evil. This requires going to the source of the standard, rather than relying on flawed, distorted human interpretations of it.
Second, we ought to listen to our consciences. We all seem to have one (the exceptions are rare enough that we won’t consider them here), and that conscience urges us to choose good over the evil that we naturally tend to choose.
Third, we ought to relentlessly strive to ensure that all our behavior is good and not evil, for our own sake and for the good of those around us (because it’s good to care about others’ needs above our own). When we do think, say, or do evil things, whether small or large, we ought to stop and never do it again, and fix whatever mess we’ve made.
This wasn’t quite as personal as I’d hoped it would be, but I suppose that’s part of talking about things this way, aiming for objectivity instead of subjectivity (if that’s at all possible). Let me just say that beyond all this, the idea of good and evil resonates with me, especially as I look at my thoughts, words, and actions. I can see how what I do has an effect for good or ill on myself and on those around me. It makes sense.
With that foundation, we can now move on to the source of this standard of good and evil: God.
I don’t know why it never occurred to me before (because it’s rather obvious in retrospect), but this morning I realized that closing our eyes when we pray has a purpose beyond just showing respect for God and being the way we’ve always done it, a purpose I’d forgotten till today: focus.
Closing our eyes shuts out visual signals, getting rid of most external distractions. With the visuals out of the way, our ability to listen — physically, but hopefully spiritually as well — seems to get amplified. And then we can work on clearing our minds of internal distractions as well.
Without my noticing, I’ve recently been subconsciously discounting the physical aspects of prayer — closing your eyes, kneeling, folding your arms or clasping your hands — as being less necessary, but I see now that I’ve been wrong. These physicalities of prayer are in fact essential to good praying — to communing with God in a meaningful, sustaining way and not just mentally dictating a quick memo to him. (And yes, in some situations the physical aspects aren’t possible — closing your eyes and kneeling while driving a car would fall under the “Not Very Wise” category of things to do. I suppose you would get to meet God face to face fairly quickly, though…)
Also, creating this meditative environment for prayer, along with staying on your knees afterward to listen, is a great antidote for Internet ADD.
At the request of one of my friends, I’ve been writing down the reasons I believe in the Church from a rational, intellectual perspective. I’ve decided to post those reasons here as a series of short essays, mostly to help me clarify my thoughts.
First, a disclaimer: these are not rigorous mathematical proofs. They are crutches I use to think things through when I’m not as spiritually in tune as I ought to be, a way to silence the occasional doubts so that I can see clearly again. They work for me, but they won’t be convincing for everyone. It’s also possible that they are convincing only to me. Keep in mind, too, that my main reason for belief is feeling the touch of God upon my mind and heart — numinous, spiritual experiences throughout my life. Aesthetics are also part of it, and I hope to touch on that as well. Logic is very much a part of my thought patterns and my beliefs, but it’s not the backbone of my testimony.
Disclaimer about the disclaimer: I’m not saying that doubts come about because of being spiritually out of tune. It does seem to be the case in my own life (usually when my scripture study gets too casual and skimpy), but I don’t think I can generalize beyond that.
With that introduction, then, here is the tentative outline for the series (I’ll update this page with links to the essays as I post them):