Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Imagination: The Secret and Often Missing Ingredient in Charity

A formative experience for me earlier in my career was collaborating with two professors from Georgia Tech with similar technical interests. Both of these professors are Muslim. One from Egypt, one from Iran. One night at dinner, the topic of religion came up. One of them, a highly educated and widely respected man of great intelligence, told me of his love for the Koran, for the unearthly beauty of its language and the power of the text to enlighten and inspire. We could understand one another, I felt, because we both had experienced the power of a sacred text. I would later spend more time with one of them, staying overnight with his family and seeing a faithful Muslim family in their interactions with each other. I saw so much of what we Latter-day Saints aspire to: love and kindness, respect between husband and wife (a highly educated woman in this case, also with a Ph.D., as I recall), family fun together, and, yes, good food. Yes, of course I know there are severe problems in parts of the Muslim world and a lot of movements and trends that are disappointing to many of us, including many devout Muslims, just are there are problems and disappointments in our own faith and in Christendom in general. But I saw abundant evidence that intelligent, talented, loving, happy, tolerant, peace-loving people can be faithful Muslims.

There are some who would ask how any intelligent person could possibly be Muslim. A better question is to ask intelligent Muslims what their faith means to them. There's much to learn and appreciate. We don't have to accept it and agree with it, but there's benefit in understanding.

There are intelligent Muslims who sincerely wonder how any intelligent person could possibly be Christian. After all, the idea of God being born as a baby boy and then allowing Himself to be killed can just seem crazy at first blush, and the idea of God asking us to ritually drink his blood and eat his flesh might even seem offensive to some. Isn't that all just a little bizarre and backward? So it can seem. I hope they will ask us to explain and seek to understand, not just condemn. I have the same hope for our Christian peers who are outraged at what they think they know of Mormonism. How can Mormons be so stupid? Instead, I hope they'll ask us in order to understand what our faith means and why we find so much intellectual beauty in LDS theology and so much joy in our faith. (I'm not necessarily including bishopric or ward council meetings in the "joy" part.)

One of the things I really like about the Book of Mormon is its condemnation of anger and its teachings that lead to charity and peace. When the Resurrected Lord visits the Nephites in 3 Nephi 11, for example, one of the first teachings out of His mouth was condemning the anger and contention they had among themselves in their disputations over religious doctrine. The spirit of contention is not of God, He explained, and it is Satan who stirs up the hearts of men to anger against one another. Those who do the mocking in the Book of Mormon, those who give in to anger and hate, whether "religious" Nephites or apostates or Lamanites, are always on the wrong side.

At the request of someone else for a fair reason, I recently visited the Great and Spacious Website (one of several, actually) where the animosity shown in Lehi's vision was clearly evident. The anger and bitterness that some people express toward the Church and toward its defenders can be rather breathtaking. The tone of smarmy anger may be viewed as confident discussion of the truth by some, I'm sure, but it was disappointing. On a particular topic of minor importance, I engaged in dialog for a few rounds, just long enough to get a fierce dose of accusations and list of all things wrong with Mormonism, followed by the thread being swiftly shut down before I could reply any further. The party line that dominates the Great and Spacious Website and its cousins is that Mormonism is laughably ridiculous and the only way someone can defend it is to be a depraved liar, deliberately deceptive and knowingly blind. Mockery and contempt are the only worthy attitudes a reasonable person can have against so foul and disgusting a religion.

Yes, we have a ridiculous religion--from the world's perspective. If you don't believe in God, the First Vision story is appalling. If you don't have faith to accept the idea of angels, then the whole Book of Mormon story only makes sense as obvious fraud. And if you begin with a "sure knowledge" that Joseph Smith was a criminal perpetrating fraud, then the way we resolve all sorts of conflicting testimony and evidence about his life will surely only further confirm the negative and leave one wondering how anyone short of being brain dead could possibly be Mormon, much less a serious, faithful Mormon. But that approach misses the real questions that people should be asking, questions if asked sincerely could lead to understanding, perhaps even a touch of respect, and in some cases, much more.

Sadly, some Latter-day Saints in their zeal make similar mistakes. Their are religions and doctrines of others that seem far removed from the Truth as we think we know it, and it's easy to view those foreign perspectives as silly. It's easy to mock. This takes almost no mental effort and certainly no imagination. There is something much more difficult, though, and actually much more elevating. Rather than mocking, what if we sought to understand? What if we imagined that some of those who disagree with us aren't mindless robots or cesspools of deception, but might have a somewhat self-consistent framework for their viewpoints that doesn't require a frontal lobotomy? What if we imagined that they were intelligent people trying to find and understand truth, just like us? What if we asked them what they think and why, not to expose their stupidity, but to understand?

I'm not calling for relativism or saying that every religion and philosophy is valid. But there is good in every religion and beauty that we can learn from. There is intelligence in almost every religion and intelligent believers that might have something we can learn from. To have charity, the pure love of Christ, for those who disagree with us and have strongly different religious views, a vital and often missing element is imagination. We need to imagine that our opponents are, in most cases, not just trying to be evil, that they haven't sold their souls or surrendered their mind to a cult. We need to imagine that those who disagree with us, whether religiously or politically, might be just as intelligent as we are and trying just as hard to be good and to do good. So what do they see that we don't? How do they resolve the challenges they face? Why not imagine that there is something there, then ask and understand?

This attitude can save souls. I think of those in the Church who sharply disagree with some position the Church has taken or some action of its leaders. It is easy to mock. That takes no imagination at all. The wiser approach, the more charitable and imaginative one, is to ask, "What do they see? Is there something I'm missing? Is the problem, perhaps, me and my lack of understanding? Is it possible that those men are good men trying to do what's right? Is it even possible that God doesn't see things my way?" To at least enter into this inquiry can lead to surprising results. We may continue to disagree, but if we can resist the temptation to think of those we disagree with as morons and throwbacks, we may be able to hold onto the iron rod that brings us to the tree of life in spite of the mists of darkness--or, more often, the "miffs of darkness" that block our vision along the way.

27 comments:

Jeremy said...

Great thoughts, Jeff. Some people are surprised to learn, maybe after years of marriage, that men and women just think differently. An so with religion, politics, etc.

The real lesson to learn, is that our faith and understanding is a spiritual gift. And Mormons certainly don't have a monopoly on gifts of the spirit. And charity is the greatest of them all.

Joseph Smidt said...

Like always, great post. I know what you mean. I would always cringe when people (especially in my mission in the Bible belt) would mock other religions when if one isn't careful their same line of reasoning could come back to critique us.

And I know what you mean by these intelligent Muslims. I had roommates at BYU who were Muslim and then went on to get a PhD at UC Irvine alongside muslims and the whole way I could see they were both very smart and loved their religion.

ji said...

Mocking and point the finger are two of the greatest sins a man or woman can commit. One who does it has no charity.

Connor Carpenter said...

I really appreciated this post Jeff :). Thanks.

Paul Senzee said...

Great post, Jeff!

Mormography said...

A refreshing moderation from your previous positions that label people as anti-Mormon merely because they are not pro-Mormon.

hnhoj said...

local-16Mormography,
Your post reveals that you are new to Jeffs blogs. An example of his respect for nonmormon/nonpracticing mormons can be found in a previous post, A Little
Slack For Ex-Mormons.
Posting at 4:42 AM can cloud your thoughts. My employment works me through the 'graveyard' shift, I know.

Anonymous said...

What do they see? Is there something I'm missing? Is the problem, perhaps, me and my lack of understanding? Is it possible that those men are good men trying to do what's right?

Wonderful questions. I'm wondering (seriously), do you ever ask them of the atheist, or only of other theists? Do you ever ask, "Is it even possible that there is no God at all?" Or is that particular question off the table?

-- Eveningsun

Jeff Lindsay said...

Atheism is not off the table. I have had that dialog in various forms with some of my friends. It's important to realize that being atheist, contrary to the stereotypes offered by some believers, does not necessarily mean living a life without morality, without spirituality, without charity and altruistic service. I've been deeply impressed with the high values, altruism, and loving service I find here in the officially atheist nation of China, for example. And though I know very little of it, the literature of humanism seems to be be filled with a focus on moral issues, some of which even religious conservatives might find very enlightening and agreeable (e.g., Irving Babbitt).

So Eveningsun, what does atheism mean for you and do for you?

Jeff Lindsay said...

Mormography, are you sure I equated "anti-Mormon" with merely not being "pro-Mormon"? I've explicitly renounced such use of that term, so if I made or appeared to make that mistake somewhere, I'd certainly like to correct it. Can you point to the offending passage? Or is this just not quite fully pro-Mormon gainsaying?

Mormography said...

Here the assessment that I am anti-Mormon is made essentially because I am not pro-Mormon, declaring Mormons to be flawed as the rest of humanity equates to declaring "as bad as you say", and for some bizarre reason using comparative religion terminology also makes anti-Mormon to which I responded here

Jeff Lindsay said...

My mistake for trying to talk to you, Mormography. I guess I should have expected the "more of the same" answer. If you think that a website or blog whose whole purpose is to criticize and belittle another faith and is fixated on criticizing that faith is somehow not "anti" that faith, well, you're welcome to that opinion, but it's silly.

Anonymous said...

So Eveningsun, what does atheism mean for you and do for you?

Well, among other things, not having a divine source for answering the Big Questions means having to think think through questions of morality oneself, by reading up on what others have said about it, discussing it with others, etc.

It also means valuing as much as possible the time one has with friends and loved ones in the here and now. If this mortal existence is the only one we have, then it's crucial to make it count.

-- Eveningsun

James Goldberg said...

We emphasize "critical thinking" a lot in schools, but it often seems to result in dismissive, throw-out-the-baby-over-a-speck-in-the-bathwater thinking.

I wonder whether we should encourage "thorough thinking" instead--take some positions and reject others, but be able to understand both.

Openminded said...

"...take some positions and reject others, but be able to understand both."

This was definitely the original intent of critical thinking/reasoning.

But heck, words come with baggage, and we know it. I avoid saying I'm atheist in public and opt for agnostic, just to avoid the Dawkins reputation

Mormography said...

Yeah, it was too good to be true to think you were actually considering freeing yourself of hate and contention, Mormanity. It was silly of me to think that you might actually be interested in genuine dialogue. Though, you have convinced me that being labeled with deliberate discussion killing terms such as “anti” is the ultimate complement and something to be proud of, depending on who it is coming from (those that incapable of addressing the discussion so they attack the man).

Mormography said...

It appears that in Mormanity’s mind correcting people such as himself equates to belittling another faith. Even the Mormon leadership has grown tired of people such as himself and Daniel Peterson claiming to represent the entire faith. Mormanity must have chosen his handle because in his mind he is Mormonism personified. Now that is just silly.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Another interesting claim you've put in my mouth, Mormography. Representing the entire Mormon faith? As I pointed out in a recent post, I can't even get my normally very supportive LDS wife to agree with me on some issues. I don't speak for her. I don't speak for the entire faith. I speak for me and hope that some of it is accurate enough to help others. Just about every LDSFAQ page of mine has a disclaimer of this sort: these are just my answers, not official viewpoints of the Church.

Daniel Peterson I think would say much the same thing, but I can't speak for him, either.

Mormography said...

Nope, not putting anything in your mouth. You clearly equated my blog whose stated purpose and true to that purpose is “Discussions of Mormanity and other Mormon Apologists reasoning” to “belittling another faith” What other interesting claim have I supposedly put in your mouth?

Fact is, independent of what you claim, you clearly behave as if criticism of your behavior is an attack on Mormonism itself. Have I poked an inflated ego?

Jeff Lindsay said...

I guess my challenge is that I struggle to understand where you are coming from at times and what facts/assumptions/emotions/paradigms/etc are behind the offenses you experience regarding my blog. From my perspective, the repeated emphasis of your own blog on the alleged stupidity of the Book of Mormon story due to your take on the 116 pages story made it a hostile blog that I did not wish to promote using my blog. Direct links to that critical site promote it and that's not what I'm interested in doing. Not directly anyway. Your writings weren't just attacking me or other apologists. You don't see it that way? Are you telling me that you aren't actually opposed to Church or the Book of Mormon, maybe just the antics of a few irresponsible apologists?

Jeff Lindsay said...

Mormography, even if your blog was neutral or even pro-Mormon and I mistakenly equated gentle criticism of me with rabid anti-Mormon behavior, that mistake is not tantamount to claiming that I represent all of Mormonism. Misunderstanding what you are cannot be fairly transmuted into a sweeping claim of global proportions: Jeff claims he speaks for the entire Church because--why was that again?--he, uh, deleted a link to my blog. It's this kind of perplexing mental machinations that make dealing with you really challenging, sir or madam, whatever your gender is. And that tendency to make sweeping accusations and such mountains out of molehills, always wrapped in the shroud of indignation, detracts greatly from any conversation with you. Why am I even trying here? The response is predictable. You'll be outraged and point out how this shows Mormanity thinks he is God or some such charge.

Mormography said...

Suppress links if you must, just be honest about it. Simplistic name calling is not the way to go and was when you drew first blood.

I have gradually decided I am opposed not just to certain antics of apologist, but any form of apologism. It is called faith for a reason. It cannot be reasoned about, it does not make sense, there is nothing wrong with that, and all faiths are in the same boat in this regard.

Here were at least two that did not find the overall conclusion “anti”.
http://mormanity.blogspot.com/2009/12/rejecting-prophets-for-apparently.html?showComment=1263068904357#c2790992471253146172

http://mormanity.blogspot.com/2009/12/rejecting-prophets-for-apparently.html?showComment=1263081752428#c1980656566270184888

Mormography said...

Mormanity,

I have not read Grant Palmer’s book. But from what I gather Grant Palmer is branded anti for suggesting that the discovery of the Gold plates was a visionary experience not a physical one. This explanation helps explain why the box in the ground has never been found. Biblical examples such as Saint Stephen’s theophany suggest that such visionary verses physical experiences are Biblically permissible. Also, even the LDS account suggests that Joseph Smith had such experiences in a room full of sleeping people. However, for some bizarre reason suggesting such a hypothesis justifies slapping a label of defective soul on Palmer. I have read Krakauer’s book, suggesting him anti-Mormon is just silly.

Who was it that said tell me what your definition of God is and I will tell you whether or not I believe it? For every person there is different definition of god. Asking the question do you believe in God is just silly. It like manner asking if the BoM is true is just silly. It all depends what is meant by “true”. 100 years ago, claiming that Native Americans are not Lamanites and that there will never be prove of the Book of Mormon, as you do, would have been considered anti-Mormon. What if true did not mean that there were Nephites, Lamanites, and Jaredites in the Western hemisphere, but rather their ships went through some sort of port hole in the middle of the ocean to another planet? If that was the case, would the BoM be any less true? Of course the next logical extension is what if Nephites, Lamanites, and Jaredites did not live on another planet but only in the head of a particular person who sincerely believed they existed.

Your entire apologetic defense has been one that suggests that the LDS leadership is merely a fallible administrative body not unlike the CEOs that run the Salvation Army. However, you stop at stating this, but with words state how great the modern LDS divine revelation is. I was hardly the first to notice such glaring omission of specific examples revelations in your posts. So which is it? Fallible administrative body or the only authorized divine mouth piece for giving orders to humanity? If that is a false dichotomy, why? Every time someone such as me attempts to engage in such substantive dialogue you tend to sprint away.

I have a somewhat reflexive style, so most complaints you have about me are just complaining about your own reflection. Accusing me of making mounts-out-of-mole-hills, mental machinations, whatever, says more about you than it does me. Accusing me of being easily offend in response to me pointing out incongruence between your behavior and words is silly.

Mormography said...

There it is. Once again, Mormanity sprinting away with a cape of phony and false indignation flowing behind him. I successfully exposed him. Out of frustration he hits and runs with sweeping claims of global proportions, putting words in my mouth (see “alleged stupidity of the Book of Mormon” above), and mental machinations of claims that were never made (see above: single deleted link alone equates to Mormanity speaking for the Mormon Church) Instead of taking personal responsibility, he predictably concludes that he is the victim the misbehavior of others, not his.

The answer to his question above, “Why am I even trying here?” is his “trying” is an attempt to construct an artificial universe where he pretends he is the genuine and objective one, not those who state solid facts which make him uncomfortable (see the-116-pages item above being dismissed as “your take”).

Usually, such repeated orbital assessments with weak to no grounding in retaliation to demonstration of false reasoning are indicative of either incomplete emotional development or deliberate attempts to deceive. Mormanity’s inconsistency has been so consistency demonstrated it is now a matter of established fact that in regards to the subject matter he is nothing more than a broken clock. Too much effort is required to determine the two times day he is not wrong to be of any utility.

Jeff Lindsay said...

You're so puzzling, Mormography. What makes you so angry? There must be more than just my "sprinting away with a cape of phony and false indignation flowing behind" me. Is the cape itself? I've been worried that it makes me look fat.

Jeff Lindsay said...

But seriously, why do you bear such hostile feelings? It's monotonous.

Mormography said...

It has been my observation that fat people tend to invoke feelings of endearment. I hear horizontal stripes can enhance any fatten effect the cape may have.

For some, carefully grounding of assessments can be “monotonous”, but I find the exercise relaxing from time to time. I think you are conceding that we have successfully identified the source of your anger and hostility, that is your frustration with my exposure of your deliberately false reasoning.

To assist you in grounding your assessments of anger and hostile feelings on my part, I will need some more explanation. The last I recall you did not explain why comparing Joseph Smith with David Koresh constitutes hostility. Can you go into more detail regarding your anger and hostility towards the Branch Davidians? This will give me a better understanding what anger and hostility means to you.