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

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Weighing Mormonism: Thoughts for Mormon Doubters (and Readers of the New York Times)

The New York Times and Shaken Faith in Sweden

The arguments that weigh against Mormonism and the LDS story of a divine Restoration came to the front page of the New York Times recently in an article about Mormon doubters, including a former Area Authority from Sweden, Hans Mattson, who found negative information on the Web which undermined his faith. While I'm surprised that this would be a front page story for the Times now that the election is over, I personally find it interesting and important for Mormons to understand. The story is "Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt" by Laurie Goodstein, July 20, 2013.

According to Goodstein, Brother Mattson didn't get the help or answers he felt he needed when he raised some concerns that other Swedish people had, so he began his own online investigation and soon had his faith undermined. I would say that he experienced the phenomenon that Michael Ash calls "shaken faith syndrome" in his excellent book of that name. The Times describes the troubling results of his search:
But when he discovered credible evidence that the church's founder, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist and that the Book of Mormon and other scriptures were rife with historical anomalies, Mr. Mattsson said he felt that the foundation on which he had built his life began to crumble.
This paragraph was especially painful for me to read. How can this happen? I suspect that the reporter is missing something here, and perhaps it was details of polygamy that shook Brother Mattson more than merely discovering that there was polygamy. After all, on my mission in Switzerland and Germany, not all that remote from Sweden, polygamy seemed like the first question that came up with many educated investigators, so how could our own members in the north not know of it? Yet it is said that there are members in various parts of the Church who don't yet realize this.

I do recognize that the Church is not keen on that aspect of history and does not do much to bring it up these days since, frankly, I think we are all glad it's over. But our link to polygamy in the past is hardly invisible. In fact, it's in the LDS scriptures, where Official Declaration-1 from the First Presidency in 1890 declares that polygamy is over. This is placed right after Section 138 in the printing of the Doctrine and Covenants. There is also Section 132 which introduced plural marriage, and while that practice has been ended, I think it's hard to avoid some discussion of it during years of Church membership.

Some discussion, for example, occurs on the Mormon Newsroom site of the Church which has a page on polygamy, explaining that it was introduced in 1831. It is mentioned in the popular Church booklet, Our Heritage (PDF file) as well as the Doctrine and Covenants Sunday School manual (PDF) in treating Section 132. President Hinckley fielded some questions about polygamy in his famous Sept. 1998 interview on Larry King Live, and he again mentioned polygamy in his well-known October 1998 General Conference address, "What Are People Asking About Us?" He reminds us that the Church has stopped practicing polygamy for over a century, with more detail in the Larry King interview. Of course, King's questions were polite and not nearly as troubling as they could have been, but they served to remind anyone listening that the Church was tied with polygamy in the past.

I recognize, of course, that if one's understanding of Church history comes from basic LDS video clips of the Restoration, it would be too easy to think that Joseph was just another ordinary monogamist. Ditto for Brigham Young. But I somehow thought that the first thing Europeans learned about Utah and Mormons was that Brigham Young had numerous wives and that Mormons practiced (and allegedly still practice) polygamy. That's why I think Brother Mattson's issues were certainly deeper. Polygamy was a complex, sometimes messy matter in my opinion, and I'm so glad it's over.

Polygamy is certainly a sensitive subject that we have perhaps been too shy to address with our own members. Without some basic "inoculation" and frank discussion, as in Michael Ash's Shaken Faith Syndrome, we may have left too many prone to a shaken faith when their mistaken vision of Joseph as a monogamist is toppled with a long queue of wives, including some controversial marriages that require some careful consideration to sort through the messy and troubling issues. Resources for dealing with some of the most troubling and puzzling aspects of polygamy include Greg Smith's 2009 article, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage* (*but were afraid to ask)" and other information at FAIRLDS, including the FAIRMormon Wiki on polygamy and their material on the issue of polyandry. Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling also confronts many of the troubling issues of polygamy and other non-ideal aspects of Church history and reminds us that a scholar can dig into the controversies and maintain a vibrant faith.

Some Thoughts for Those Struggling with Doubt

Regardless of how Hans Mattson and other Saints may have been blindsided by some of the controversies of our past, including polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, or by challenges to our scriptures, such as attacks on the Book of Abraham, there are some things I'd like to say to them and to any of you struggling with related doubts.

First, know that you are not alone in your concerns. There are challenges to our faith and misconceptions that many of us had for years that need correction, and sometimes this updating can be painful. Some simple assumptions that seemed OK in the past are not accurate and not even doctrinal, such as the common old assumption that the Book of Mormon describes all the ancient origins of all Native Americans, or the idea that the limitation on the priesthood for many (but not all) blacks must have been a doctrinal matter based on some official revelation (there is no evidence of such a revelation being given).

Second, know that there are some helpful answers and new perspectives that can strengthen your faith as your grapple with these challenges. Resources such as FAIRLDS.org, the Maxwell Institute, the Mormon Interpreter, and BlackLDS.org can supplement the vast resources at LDS.org and help clarify some of the issues. None of that is going to make the controversy of polygamy disappear, but you can see that many faithful LDS people have dealt with these issues in various ways and found their faith still intact. I take on some of the controversies also in my LDSFAQ area.

Third, in weighing Mormonism, don't just add the controversies of history to the balance. There growing evidences for the Book of Mormon need to be considered. The big picture of the broad answers that the revelations of the Restoration provide need to be considered, including their marvelous fit into the ancient world, even down to details such as modern discoveries on ancient covenant patterns which we find beautifully present in the Book of Mormon and the restored LDS Temple. I discuss my journey in some of these areas on my LDSFAQ pages such as my pages on the Book of Abraham, my pages on Book of Mormon Evidences, and on my Mormanity blog.

There is room for doubt and a need for all of us to grapple with doubt. But know that there is still plenty of room for faith and plenty of room for rejoicing in the majesty of the Restored Gospel, including some remarkable evidences for the Restoration that the Lord has allowed to come our way. There is much to weigh and many perhaps overlooked or not yet noticed treasures that can swing the balance to the side of strengthened, not shattered faith.

To Hans and all others in the process of weighing Mormonism, I would encourage you to step back and see the bigger picture and then fairly consider the many positives at the same time as we update our perspectives on the trouble spots. While what really happened in history is rarely clear and easily misjudged, we can more easily judge what happens in our lives as we live the Gospel and experiment with the Word. There is a power, joy, and indeed, even intellectual fulfillment that comes with steady service and study, even after facing some of the disappointments that come when some unfounded assumptions we long held require correction.

Finally, for those who have friends or loves ones experiencing shaken faith, be patient and loving, even if (or perhaps especially if) they leave the Church. While the issues they are facing may not trouble you, perhaps because you haven't faced them or perhaps because you have already moved past them or perhaps because your have a firm testimony based on other factors, do not discount the severity of the challenge your friends or family may be facing.

Do not assume that the real issue is some hidden moral sin or being offended by some trivial "spilt milk" issue. That is often not a fair comparison to the real issues and real pain that doubters who want to be believers can face. Love them, help them find useful resources if they wish, do not just brush off their concerns (at least put them in contact with some of the LDS folks who might have answers or at least thoughtful perspectives to share), and maintain your friendship even if they leave the Church. Friendships and family relationships are precious and we should try to not let religion get in the way when religious differences arise. Our faith should strengthen our ability to be good friends and family members, even when others don't share our views. Yes, I know that's easy to say but often hard to do, especially when a doubter feels a need to spread the doubts and fight against the Church. But let's do the best we can to follow Christ in these challenges and be who we are supposed to be.

We do not need to be the judge, just the friends and perhaps helpers (when help is wanted) of those who doubt. But may those doubters find their faith again and come home. There are many good reasons to come home again, and many treasures to weigh on the side of faith.

Update, July 27, 2013: The concerns of the Swedish Saints turn out to be deeper and more serious than the New York Times article indicated, and the frustrations raised are more well founded, in my opinion, though consideration of the pro-LDS resources cited above help to address many of the specific concerns. In the end, faith and tempered expectations are required.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Limited, Finite God?

"Do Mormons believe in a limited, finite God, not the all-powerful, unlimited God of the Bible?"

Ever get that question? Sometimes we are accused of worshipping a limited, finite God because we believe He has a tangible body in whose image we were created (this is definitely a biblical teaching, by the way, per Gen. 1:26-27 and many other passages). So if that is a concern to a fellow Christian, we might in turn ask this: Was Jesus Christ suddenly less divine when we took up His physical body at the moment of the Resurrection? Did his divine powers shrink and his glory recede? Did His authority wane? We don't think so, and I don't think anyone teaching that Resurrection made Christ less divine could claim to have biblical support.

Through the majestic Resurrection, we believe Christ was actually adding to His glory and becoming more fully like the Father. In fact, the Resurrected Christ is said to be in the "express image" of the Father, meaning that He looks just like Him (Heb. 1:1-2; see also 2 Cor. 4:4 and John 14:9). God's power extends across the universe. He does not need to be a dilute incorporeal wisp of cosmic ether to have such power, nor does He need to comply with man-made Neoplatonic fiction about the philosophical advantages of lacking a body.

In fact, the glorious physical body of God apparently contributes to His power and majesty, if we are to believe the words of Paul in Philippians 3:21 as he foreshadows our own divine potential:
[20]  ... we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:[21]  Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.
Through the workings of His glorious physical body, the Resurrected Lord is able to subdue all things. This sounds like an amazing tool, not a burdensome limitation. The loathing of the body is something some of our fellow Christians need to get over. Though enshrined in some versions of the post-biblical creeds manufactured by bickering philosophers long after apostolic revelation ceased, it is time to recognize their limitations and restore the ancient recognition that God has made us to look a little like Him because, after all, He is our Father and we are His offspring (Heb. 12:9-10; Acts 17:28-29).

God is all powerful, but that does not mean there are no limitations. He does not do evil. He does not do the logically impossible, such as making the circumference of a circle equal to twice its radius (the number pi is defined by mathematical reality, not by God, and cannot be changed by God). The idea that there might be some limitations on God should not be all that surprising. Indeed, we have clues to that effect in the Bible. In Mark 10:40, Christ tells James and John that there is something He cannot do: determining who will "sit on my right hand is not mine to give." And then in Mark 13:32, the all-knowing Son of God explains that there is something He did not yet know: "But of that day [the specific day of the Second Coming of Christ] and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father." These limitations on Christ did not make Him less worthy of our worship or less divine.

I should also add that even God cannot not dump unlimited amounts of money into a nation's economy without harming its economy and debasing its currency, making Him in the eyes of some to be far less majestic than Ben Bernanke. But I think God will prevail in this matter.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

For Reference Only: A Serving Suggestion from a Shanghai Restaurant

For lunch last week I strolled into a nice restaurant on Henan Street a little north of the Bund Center where I work and decided it was time to try a more expensive and seemingly interesting dish. The menu had a picture of large sea cucumber in a yellow sauce that looked pretty tasty, for those of us who like sea cucumber. It's a delicacy here that I've had just a few times. The sea cucumber in the photo nearly spanned the diameter of a dinner plate, so it appeared. It also came with a little broccoli and a sushi roll that was maybe 2 inches in diameter, clearly less than half the length of the sea cucumber. 88 RMB, about $13--pricey, but I was tempted and ordered it. 

When the sea cucumber came about 20 minutes later, the plate was a tiny saucer that one might use to serve dessert, barely bigger than a tea plate, and the sea cucumber was barely 2 inches long, spanning half the little saucer. There was no broccoli and no sushi roll, but a tiny wisp of a cabbage leaf was buried in the sauce. By taking small bites, I was able to stretch the sea cucumber out to make it last for two bites. Only two. I also had a few dainty spoonfuls of the pale flavorless sauce. That was my lunch. (Dining tip: sea cucumbers can be delicious, but they pretty much just soft cartilage with very few calories. If you are hungry before eating one, you could still be hungry after, even with a giant serving.)

When the waitress came by, I asked her why the sea cucumber was so much smaller than the photo. She found a large dinner menu that I had not ordered from and showed me some fine print in English inside. It said something characteristically helpful like, "Some photographs the reference time to consideration customers." I remained friendly but explained that this did not remove my concerns and that I was quite unsatisfied, but went ahead and paid in full. 

In China, employees usually aren't trained to do anything to resolve customer complaints, so when there is a problem, they might make excuses or just shrug it off or maybe say they are sorry but rarely take any steps to deal with concerns, so I didn't expect her to do anything. But before I left, I did go talk to the boss, a middle-aged woman behind the front counter. Staying friendly, I opened up the menu and explained that there seemed to be a problem with my order. The photo looks like a big sea cucumber, but what they bring is very small. Plus there was no sushi roll and and broccoli. 

The boss said that all their sea cucumbers are that size, and then kindly pointed to a string of text in Chinese on the little lunch menu I had used. The Chinese said what I think the English on the dinner menu was trying to say: "Photographs are only for reference." Oh, sore of like photographs on food packaging in the States having the disclaimer "serving suggestions only."

Keeping a big smile, I said, "Oh, so the pictures don't really describe what the food will look like." She nodded, pleased that I got the idea. She obviously felt that my problem was now resolved. To clarify, I continued, still smiling: "So the food in the photo can be large, but the food you bring can be small." "Yes, yes," she nodded. I'm sure she wished all foreigners were such quick learners. "Or the photo can show lots of things, but what you give can be missing pretty much everything." Yes, she nodded and smiled. You've certainly got it, Mr. American. Well done.

One important thing to remember in China is that American-style sarcasm is usually incomprehensible. She didn't seem to recognize that I was making a critical statement. So now it was time to be a little more direct, but still friendly: "I see. But I feel, perhaps, that this is a problem, and am not too happy. But thanks anyway." And still smiling, I walked out--probably for my last time. 

"Thanks! Come again soon!"

In the Church, we have related cultural gaps and differences in expectations. We have people walk into our midst from many walks of life who sometimes feel that the way we advertise our religion doesn't match what they encounter. Anxious to be fed, they may walk out missing the feast they wanted to find, disappointed that we didn't do more to understand and meet their needs. 

The Gospel and the Church have a lot to offer, with wonderful, delicious fruits that come from living its principles. There can be many spiritual feasts along the way. But sometimes things go wrong and sometimes our service results in a few empty bites when much more was expected. This is where we need to enhance our own customer service orientation, our own willingness to understand what newcomers and struggling old-timers and all those we minister to are facing and struggling with. When they have disappointments and problems, the correct answer is not to shrug it off and do no nothing. Pointing to the printed text of the scriptures may help, but just telling people to read and pray and deal with everything on their own is not the level of attentiveness that people need. 

I believe that most of the problems and pains of membership in the Church can be faced and overcome by all members, new and old, IF they are given help and attention in their trials of faith. We may not have all the answers, in fact, we certainly do not, but we can serve, love, sympathize, and listen, and that's half the battle. While professing to help those in need of help and and to mourn with those who mourn, we also need some among us who can groan with those who groan over the struggles they face from opposition, from blemishes in our history, from troubling issues and tough questions. These co-groaners, of course, should also be equipped with some of the knowledge and resources that come from   faith in action, serious Gospel study, and familiarity with resources like the Mormon Interpreter, FAIRLDS.org, and the Maxwell Institute. And if you throw in a little of my LDSFAQ (Mormon Answers), that's OK, though it's a weaker resource with plenty of limitations. 

I believe there are some good people who have left our midst who would have been retained if there had been a few people more willing to listen and help in times of difficulty, especially in times of doubt and spiritual crisis. Next time someone feels they've been given a mere bite of cartilage when they expected a feast, let's help them to find more and to want to keep coming back for more. That's my serving suggestion based on lessons from a Shanghai restaurant. 

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Yes, Cookies Can Matter

I want to share a story that might be helpful the next time you wonder if your little acts of kindness, like baking cookies for someone else, really make a difference in the world. This story of cookies was shared today by a remarkable young business woman here in China who learned of it directly from another LDS woman in the United States who baked the cookies.

That LDS woman was home tackling a variety of tasks on a busy day. In spite of being busy, she felt a distinct impression that she ignored at first: "Bake some chocolate chip cookies." She thought that made no sense and went about her day. Then the impression came again: "You need to bake some chocolate chip cookies." Finally she realized that the Lord wanted her to make cookies, chocolate chip cookies in fact, and so, OK, OK, she interrupted her plans and made a batch of cookies. There. Now what?

She had no idea why she was supposed to make them because there was no event or person in need of them to her knowledge. Needing someplace to take these piping hot cookies, she thought of a woman down the street for whom she was the assigned visiting teacher, and thought she would try to take them there. Yes, the woman was home and accepted the cookies. Task done. Now back to her busy day. End of story--for about a year, that is. Then came an interesting piece of information.

On a Sunday roughly one year later, in a fast and testimony meeting, a woman came to the pulpit to share her thoughts. She was moving out of the ward, and wanted to express her gratitude to the members and the Lord for the kindness she had been shown. In particular, she shared a moment that made a big difference in her life. One year ago, on a day when everything was seeming to go awry, with problems in her family, with her car, with everything, it seemed, she was at her wits end and didn't know what to do. She got on her knees and cried before the Lord. She told Him that she didn't even know why she was a member of this Church and why she should keep trying. She said she was frustrated, tired, hurting, and, well, Lord, right now, "I just need a plate of chocolate chip cookies." And then, two hours later, there was a knock on the door and there was her visiting teacher with a plate of freshly backed chocolate chip cookies. Any doubt Who sent them? This was a major milestone in her life.

I love that story. I love the small ways the Lord guides us and helps us. Never doubt the potential for small acts to make a difference, even a life-changing difference, when we follow the Spirit. And never doubt the importance of food, even food high in fat and sugar. Somehow the story just wouldn't be the same if the visiting teacher had brought over a fresh organic zucchini.

One thing I love about China is that it's not considered silly to openly recognize the importance of food. Food matters. Sharing food is part of sharing culture and sharing lives. Food is a tool that can build relationships, show love, and bring joy. Latter-day Saints learn in our scriptures that the Gospel can bring us a fullness of joy. China is closer to that truth than you might realize, for here the people naturally recognize that link between joy and fullness.

Sadly, in the West we often don't recognize how much good can be done with food. Sometimes the work of stay-at-home mothers, for example, is trivialized as just staying home and baking cookies instead of "real" work. When the Lord asks you to bake or share whatever other talents you may have, it's real work. Don't delay and don't doubt.

When the time is right and the need is real, cookies matter. Mmm, I could use a plate right now....

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Shanghai Latter-day Saints Recently on TV in China

Two members of my branch, one of three branches in Shanghai, were recently featured on significant television broadcasts. First, here is a link to a recorded TV broadcast about Jeff Olsen, who actually just returned to the US: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNTE0MjczMDY0.html. A lengthy story giving positive attention to a foreigner who has made a difference in China. Thank you, Jeff!

More recently, Debra Roundy, here teaching English with her husband at Jiao Tong University through BYU's Kennedy Center program, was on TV for a long segment, nearly 5 minutes, that highlighted her involvement with local Chinese people as she shares her passion for dance. She works with many local Chinese as they practice and perform group dances. Dance is such a wonderful part of Chinese communities, and a foreigner with the interest, talent, and energy to be involved and influence the community through dance is an unusual and definitely newsworthy story.

I took some photos of the TV when the program aired and show them below. Wish I had just recorded the broadcast. But it was a thrill to see someone I home teach being featured so positively on TV here. I hope millions of others were paying attention, too.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Stuff of Stars

(Originally posted at The Nauvoo Times.)

An LDS acquaintance of mine has recently discovered science, it seems, and no longer accepts the scriptural account of Creation. Among his online writings, I was disappointed to read a sarcastic dismissal of Earth and its wondrous balance of elements and materials as the fruit of divine Intervention. Instead, he said, the elements of the earth were merely the products of matter from stars. No divine tinkering needed.

Now that he has found science, I am sure he feels that his viewpoint is highly scientific. Sadly, it’s novice science at best.

I am not saying that science forces us to recognize God. God will not take away our need for faith. Yet, while there may be room for atheism among thoughtful scientists, I feel that science properly understood should lead us to wonder and marvel at the nature of the matter we are made of.

Yes, we are in part the stuff of stars. Our tangible stuff, flesh and bone, nails and hair, blood and sweat, is made of a handful of elements. Science tells us that the hydrogen present in water, proteins, sugars, and nearly every compound throughout our bodies, was created in the first few moments of the Big Bang. The rest of the elements that make up this earth were largely formed much later in the core of stars, where powerful processes gradually convert hydrogen into helium.

Later, some of this helium can become converted into carbon, and carbon and other light elements can become converted into still heavier elements, either in stars or supernovas.

It is from this stellar genealogy that we inherit the elements we depend on for life and for the majesty of planet Earth, with its rich crust, mineral-laden waters, life-giving atmosphere, and its magnetic core. That core, by the way, is another of the life-preserving wonders we have inherited from the stuff of stars.

(Ironically, while that mass of metal is located as deeply as possible beneath our feet, its magnetic field shields us far above our heads from the solar wind, deflecting charged particles that would strip away the upper atmosphere and leave us more vulnerable to harmful radiation. A clever design/coincidence indeed.)

Our physical bodies and the earth itself come from elements that were forged in cycles of the birth and death of stars, one of the great engines of Creation. So yes, you can say that we owe our physical existence to stars. But I would suggest a little more thinking and a little more curiosity are needed to understand what that actually means, and to appreciate why our gratitude and wonder should not stop there.

The stellar process that gives rise to carbon is called the triple-alpha process. It’s beautiful and improbable, so much so that I would call it brilliant, if not miraculous. There are two steps in this process where an interesting coincidence is found.

In the first step, two alpha particles (the nucleus of helium-4) combine to form beryllium-8, and in the second step, beryllium-8 combines with another alpha particle to form carbon-12. The coincidence is that the energy levels of these particles seem perfectly tuned to allow this reaction to occur in abundance, when otherwise it would be rare. Wikipedia’s article on the triple-alpha process explains:

Ordinarily, the probability of the triple alpha process would be extremely small. However, the beryllium-8 ground state has almost exactly the energy of two alpha particles. In the second step, 8Be + 4He has almost exactly the energy of an excited state of 12C. These resonances greatly increase the probability that an incoming alpha particle will combine with beryllium-8 to form carbon.

The existence of this resonance was predicted by Fred Hoyle before its actual observation, based on the physical necessity for it to exist, in order for carbon to be formed in stars. In turn, prediction and then discovery of this energy resonance and process gave very significant support to Hoyle's hypothesis of stellar nucleosynthesis, which posited that all chemical elements had originally been formed from hydrogen, the true primordial substance

As a side effect of the process, some carbon nuclei can fuse with additional helium to produce a stable isotope of oxygen and release energy....

This creates a situation in which stellar nucleosynthesis produces large amounts of carbon and oxygen but only a small fraction of these elements is converted into neon and heavier elements. Both oxygen and carbon make up the 'ash' of helium-4 burning. The anthropic principle has been controversially cited to explain the fact that nuclear resonances are sensitively arranged to create large amounts of carbon and oxygen in the Universe.

Schematic of the triple-alpha process from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triple-alpha_process.

Wikipedia’s article on Fred Hoyle, the leading British astronomer who first realized that stars were the engines for creating the elements, discusses how this atheist realized that chance alone seemed inadequate to describe the universe we lived in.

In trying to work out the routes of stellar nucleosynthesis, he observed that one particular nuclear reaction, the triple-alpha process, which generates carbon, would require the carbon nucleus to have a very specific resonance energy for it to work. The large amount of carbon in the universe, which makes it possible for carbon-based life-forms of any kind to exist, demonstrated that this nuclear reaction must work.

Based on this notion, he made a prediction of the energy levels in the carbon nucleus that was later borne out by experiment.

These energy levels, while needed to produce carbon in large quantities, were statistically very unlikely. Hoyle later wrote:

Would you not say to yourself, "Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question."
It is not just the supremely tweaked energy levels of certain particles in the triple-alpha process that commands our wonder at the improbability of carbon-based life. For one of many other factors, the very existence of stars themselves should make us profoundly suspicious of chance alone as an explanation for the universe.

The fission and fusion occurring within the core of a star are processes releasing such massive amounts of energy, like billions of atomic bombs erupting simultaneously (100 billion hydrogen bombs per second is an estimate on one physics website). This massive release of energy would cause a star to explode violently outward if it were not for the massive gravitational forces holding it together, forces that could cause the star to collapse into a black hole or dead neutron star where it not balanced by the energy release.

Gravity is needed to pull matter together so intensely that fusion starts and the star comes to life in the first place, yet it’s a remarkably delicate balance between the strength of gravity and the strength of electromagnetic and other forces that are required for a star to exist at all.

Physicists have marveled at the delicate balance of fundamental properties that is required for stars to operate and make life possible.

The properties of matter and energy that make life possible arise from a handful of fundamental constants, like the strength of gravity and the strength of the weak and strong nuclear forces, that influence numerous aspects of the cosmos. The properties that allow stars to exist and carbon to be formed are also linked to the ability of DNA to function, of proteins to operate, and of liquid water to transport nutrients in cells while also giving vapor and ice to govern the climate of the planet.

When I contemplate the challenge of fine-tuning fundamental properties of matter to allow stars and planets to form, to allow clouds and rivers, ears and eyes, chlorophyll and sugar, bacteria and great whales, and brains that can create and appreciate music, I am overwhelmed with wonder and surprise that it was even possible, no matter how intelligent a Being was who wished to create.

I am dumbfounded that a solution, such a brilliant optimum in the balance of forces could be found among the countless possibilities, almost all of which would lead to lifeless universes populated with scattered, lonely wisps of sterile particles or little but raging black holes or other dreary possibilities devoid of the brilliant and diverse engines of creation we see in the stars that fill our skies and gives us the stuff from which we are so delicately crafted.

We are the stuff of stars, but don’t stop there. Stars are the handiwork of a brilliant and loving God, or the result of unbelievably fortunate accidents. This is where a touch of faith comes in. Knowing through many personal experiences that a loving God exists, I lean toward stars as yet another brilliant product of His work rather than a crazy byproduct of randomness.