Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Evolution of Rules

Rules that seem simple and logical can become problematic when rigidly applied or applied without understanding the principles behind them. Something to keep in mind. Without a focus on principles, rules may be abandoned or become overly complex as they evolve.

Rules can help reinforce principles, but success requires mastering and living true principles, not just a patchwork of rules.

What has worked for you in teaching rules and principles to your children or to others?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Pastor of Hermas on Fasting and Obedience: Excerpts from an Early Christian Document

The Pastor of Hermas, a.k.a. the Shepherd of Hermas, is an early Christian document that was even cherished as scripture by some early Christians. It relates visions and parables given to a man named Hermas by an angel acting as his shepherd or guide. It is one of several early sources referring to the practice of baptism for the dead, but today I'd like to quote from a section on fasting to help remind Latter-day Saints and others that evolution that has occurred over the centuries in understanding the conditions for salvation. Hermas also offers a familiar perspective on the importance of fasting, and the need to use funds saved in fasting to help the poor in our midst. I'm also intrigued by hos own version of the parable of the vineyard. The passage below comes from the 5th Similitude in the Third Book of the Pastor of Hermas:
"I say to you," he continued, "that the fasting which you think you observe is not a fasting. But I will teach you what is a full and acceptable fasting to the Lord. Listen," he continued: "God does not desire such an empty fasting. For fasting to God in this way you will do nothing for a righteous life; but offer to God a fasting of the following kind: Do no evil in your life, and serve the Lord with a pure heart: keep His commandments, walking in His precepts, and let no evil desire arise in your heart; and believe in God. If you do these things, and fear Him, and abstain from every evil thing, you will live unto God; and if you do these things, you will keep a great fast, and one acceptable before God."

Chap. II.

"Hear the similitude which I am about to narrate to you relative to fasting. A certain man had a field and many slaves, and he planted a certain part of the field with a vineyard, and selecting a faithful and beloved and much valued slave, he called him to him, and said, 'Take this vineyard which I have planted, and stake it until I come, and do nothing else to the vineyard; and attend to this order of mine, and you shall receive your freedom from me.' And the master of the slave departed to a foreign country. And when he was gone, the slave took and staked the vineyard; and when he had finished the staking of the vines, he saw that the vineyard was full of weeds. He then reflected, saying, 'I have kept this order of my master: I will dig up the rest of this vineyard, and it will be more beautiful when dug up; and being free of weeds, it will yield more fruit, not being choked by them.' He took, therefore, and dug up the vineyard, and rooted out all the weeds that were in it. And that vineyard became very beautiful and fruitful, having no weeds to choke it. And after a certain time the master of the slave and of the field returned, and entered into the vineyard. And seeing that the vines were suitably supported on stakes, and the ground, moreover, dug up, and all the weeds rooted out, and the vines fruitful, he was greatly pleased with the work of his slave. And calling his beloved son who was his heir, and his friends who were his councillors, he told them what orders he had given his slave, and what he had found performed. And they rejoiced along with the slave at the testimony which his master bore to him. And he said to them, 'I promised this slave freedom if he obeyed the command which I gave him; and he has kept my command, and done besides a good work to the vineyard, and has pleased me exceedingly. In return, therefore, for the work which he has done, I wish to make him co-heir with my son, because, having good thoughts, he did not neglect them, but carried them out.' With this resolution of the master his son and friends were well pleased, viz., that the slave should be co-heir with the son. After a few days the master made a feast, and sent to his slave many dishes from his table. And the slave receiving the dishes that were sent him from his master, took of them what was sufficient for himself, and distributed the rest among his fellow-slaves. And his fellow-slaves rejoiced to receive the dishes, and began to pray for him, that he might find still greater favour with his master for having so treated them. His master heard all these things that were done, and was again greatly pleased with his conduct. And the master again calling together his friends and his son, reported to them the slave's proceeding with regard to the dishes which he had sent him. And they were still more satisfied that the slave should become co-heir with his son."

Chap. III.

I said to him, "Sir, I do not see the meaning of these similitudes, nor am I able to comprehend them, unless you explain them to me." "I will explain them all to you," he said, "and whatever I shall mention in the course of our conversations I will show you. [Keep the commandments of the Lord, and you will be approved, and inscribed amongst the number of those who observe His commands.] And if you do any good beyond what is commanded by God, you will gain for yourself more abundant glory, and will be more honoured by God than you would otherwise be. If, therefore, in keeping the commandments of God, you do, in addition, these services, you will have joy if you observe them according to my command." I said to him, "Sir, whatsoever you enjoin upon me I will observe, for I know that you are with me." "I will be with you," he replied, "because you have such a desire for doing good; and I will be with all those," he added, "who have such a desire. This fasting," he continued, "is very good, provided the commandments of the Lord be observed. Thus, then, shall you observe the fasting which you intend to keep. Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord. If you observe fasting, as I have commanded you, your sacrifice will be acceptable to God, and this fasting will be written down; and the service thus performed is noble, and sacred, and acceptable to the Lord. These things, therefore, shall you thus observe with your children, and all your house, and in observing them you will be blessed; and as many as hear these words and observe them shall be blessed; and whatsoever they ask of the Lord they shall receive."
Interesting passage. It calls us to keep the commandments and obey the Father that we might become joint-heirs with the Son. Fasting is a tool to help us grow in spirituality, if we are striving to keep the commandments. And be sure to let the savings in food from fasting be given to the poor.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Over at Mormon Scholars Testify . . .

Though I don't deserve to be there by any means, MormonScholarsTestify.com includes a contribution from yours truly. If you've followed my thoughts in the past, you can imagine that it was difficult selecting just a few areas to discuss when there's so much I want to say on many issues. I hope my choices were OK, but I left so much out. Naturally, any statement of faith will seem bizarre to those not interested in understanding why others believe, but I hope there might be some useful food for thought for some people.

More importantly, I hope you'll read some of the statements from the real scholars over there. You'll see a surprising diversity of thought and experience converging toward some common affirmations. Really an intriguing site, even if they did lower the bar once.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

First Vision Update

Wesley Walters was a noted anti-Mormon minister who went to great lengths to criticize Joseph Smith's account of the First Vision. He crafted some of the most popular but misguided arguments used against the First Vision. In "Probing the Lives of Christ and Joseph Smith," Dr. Richard Lloyd Anderson mentioned him and his zealous work with a note that leaves me wincing as I think of him and all the people that have bought his arguments without stepping back to reconsider possible errors in the assumptions behind their work. There are lessons here that we need to consider. Here's the relevant excerpt:
The other main negative claim against the First Vision is also historically wanting because it oversimplifies Joseph Smith's story and then refutes the simplification. Reverend Wesley Walters died probably believing that he had disproved Joseph's First Vision story because he so well documented spectacular religious conversions in Palmyra during 1824 and 1825. The oversimplification emerged when he made a point of finding no evidence of such religious activity in Palmyra just before 1820, when Joseph Smith dated the First Vision (JS—H 1:14). By contrast, Brigham Young University professor Milton V. Backman Jr. showed that critics were not careful in reading the Pearl of Great Price account, which did not mention one localized revival but a sustained "unusual excitement" with the most substantial conversions not in the Palmyra area but in "the whole district of country" (v. 5). Yet a Walters associate still thinks that "the excitement of religion that Joseph Smith mentioned in his official account was the Palmyra revival of 1824–25." However, according to Joseph Smith's handwritten 1832 history, such a conclusion is based on looking for the wrong thing in the wrong time period. Even the Pearl of Great Price account shows that Joseph Smith had been investigating churches over a "process of time" (v. 8). But Joseph's 1832 report states that his period of confusion lasted "from the age of twelve years to fifteen," which would extend from December 23, 1817, to December 23, 1820.

These broad brackets mean that Joseph was intensely searching during the years 1818 and 1819, up to early 1820, the time of the First Vision (JS—H 1:14). We now know that a large Methodist camp meeting was held near Palmyra during June 19–23, 1818. This is found in the diary of Aurora Seager, a young circuit rider who left entries concerning these dates: "On the 19th I attended a camp-meeting at Palmyra. The arrival of Bishop Roberts, who seems to be a man of God and is apostolic in his appearance, gave a deeper interest to the meeting until it closed. On Monday the sacrament was administered; about twenty were baptized; forty united with the Church, and the meeting closed." The harvest of forty new Methodists indicates an estimated crowd of at least 400 on the campground, with saturated sermons during five days from the visiting Methodist bishop and about a dozen senior preachers, all declaring to a largely unchurched crowd the need for Christ and personal repentance. None in the small village of Palmyra and vicinity would be ignorant of this great gathering for that area, broadly coinciding with the family's settlement on their farm. According to Joseph, in that period an unusual religious excitement arose with the Methodists (JS—H 1:5), and the 1818 Palmyra camp meeting shows that his recollection had a factual basis. [Footnotes in Anderson's article.]
Information from Aurora's diary is found in Reverend E. Latimer, The Three Brothers: Sketches of the Lives of Rev. Aurora Seager, Rev. Micah Seager, Rev. Schuyler Seager, D. D. (New York, 1880), 21–22, microfiche at Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.

The slam-dunk arguments Walters offered were ultimately based on sloppy reading of the text, a pattern I have seen far too often. When one is looking for the wrong thing at the wrong time, the lack of evidence found does not sound a death knell for believers. When those challenging arguments come, it may just pay to exert a little faith and patience before getting too far bent out of shape.

Threading the Needle of Doom: My Alternator Adventure

There's a curse that follows me in life. Though I have so much to be grateful for, when it comes to the small stuff like home repairs and computers, I seem to have the strangest luck--bad luck. Sometimes it seems like a cosmic conspiracy against me. My bad luck coupled with my natural flare for incompetence leads to some entertaining and occasionally educational moments. My most recent example came while attempting a car repair on my own (insert laugh track here), when a simple alternator repair would be enhanced with a series of unlucky coincidences and chance events that would lead me to thread the needle of doom and learn a few painful things about myself and life.

Short version: Encouraged by a mechanic, I replaced the alternator on my son's car that he has named "Lucky." With my characteristic bad luck, the alternator didn't quite fit and took much longer to install than promised. That bad luck led to temporary loss of a protective cap on a highly charged electrical connection. But after many hours of struggling, the alternator was installed and worked properly. Then, foolishly yielding to temptation fueled by unusual circumstances, I threaded the needle of doom while replacing the protective cap. I apparently managed to find a natural and logical way to blow up the car, or rather, to destroy the car's electrical system with a dangerous electrical shock. Hours of work wasted, a functioning car destroyed, all by one moment of risk taking contrary to the written directions I had. I narrowly escaped physical injury, but mentally was sorely jolted as I reviewed the errors I had made. After two days of shaking my head at my foolishness and the many chance events that had conspired against me to lead to the loss of the car, I would learn that the damage I had done was not catastrophic, but only required a 50-amp fuse to be replaced. I'm just amazed at how lucky I was -- or rather, how lucky my son was once again. "There's a reason I call it Lucky, Dad." Several insights about life are drawn from this story, including the importance of paying attention to details, following the written directions for life, not taking foolish risks, and recognizing how quickly hours, days, or years of work can be negated by a foolish act.

Fixing an alternator on my son's car proved to be one of those educational moments as the cosmos united to challenge my plans once again. I'll let you under the hood for a moment, sharing some very personal pics to help you understand my experience. The first picture shows the engine of Lucky, my youngest son's name for his 1990 Toyota Camry with about 250,000 miles. I bought it with used with about 18,000 miles on it in 1991. It has been a terrific car for my family and a good one for my sons. Part of the luck has come from using competent professionals to repair the car. My natural luck kicked in, of course, when I decided to try a repair that a mechanic encouraged me to do myself.

My mechanic friend observed that the battery wasn't being charged and determined that the alternator wasn't working. It was actually quite fortunate that he caught it, otherwise my son could have been stranded somewhere. Good luck for my son. He explained that I could save a lot of money by changing it myself, and gave me a quick explanation of what was needed. Loosen a bolt that applies tension, remove the belt, disconnect the cables, take out a bolt, pull out the old and put in the new. Insert bold, attach belt, connect cables, tighten things up, and voila. The location of the alternator made this "ridiculously easy." It's just sitting there in the open, a guaranteed piece of cake. I had a lot to do that Saturday, but figured I could spare the 30 minutes to switch out an alternator and save a wad of cash. A nearby Autozone had just the alternator I needed. I headed home and began the simple DIY project.

The new alternator had printed directions. I didn't really need to read them since I had absorbed all the directions from a pro, but took a look anyway. I noticed that the written directions had one step I don't recall hearing: first disconnect the negative cable to the battery. Well, maybe it wasn't needed, but why take chances? A simple safety step--why not? I disconnected the cable. The removal of the old alternator was just as easy as described. Just a few minutes -- sweet! This project was on time and on track. Now I just had to place the new alternator in the mounting area where a bolt would pass through the alternator and join it to the engine. Just place it right here, uh, push it right here, push, shove, shove, hmmm. It wouldn't fit. Perfectly in line with my luck. It was close, but just a little too wide to fit. After numerous attempts, I realized I would have to get a file and physically shave down the metal of the alternator to help it fit. This began a tedious process of filing, shoving, pushing, and even hammering on the alternator. Just getting in into the frame that holds it took over an hour. Then came the hard part: getting the big bolt through the alternator and both holes in the engine block. The clearances were so tight that almost perfect alignment of the hole through the alternator with two holes in the mounting area was required. There was no guide to force it into place. After another hour, it seemed hopeless. It was also cold -- about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps part of the problem.

After using a mirror to look into the bolt holes and determine where the error in alignment was, I decided to get a little more forceful and used a hammer to gently knock the alternator in the desired direction. Bingo -- the shaft began to go in.

In the process of pushing and shoving the alternator and rotating it back and forth relative to the partially inserted bolt, a protective plastic cap (marked with an arrow on the photo below) on an electrical connection fell off. I heard it fall and thought it had landed on the garage floor. Not so. It landed in precisely the right location to later play a key role in the cosmic conspiracy against me. Had it been easily found, everything would have been different. Had it been too difficult to find, everything would have been different. Like several other parts of this story, every thing was just perfectly set-up to let me thread the needle of doom and leave me humbled and horrified.

The brute force technique with all its pushing, shoving, and hammering eventually succeeded and I got the alternator into the car. Connecting the other components wasn't hard and everything finally looked great--except for the missing protective cap, but I figured I could worry about that later.

I reconnected the battery cable, tightened it up, and took a deep breath. Would everything work? I turned the car on. It started perfectly. The alternator appeared to be working. Hurray! I felt rather proud of myself.

It was now 7:30 pm. I kept the car running to charge the car battery while we had dinner before I took the car over to Wal-Mart. Oh, yes, that's an important part of the cosmic conspiracy. My mechanic friend that day had observed that the battery was showing serious performance problems. They might be related to the alternator trouble, but could be something else. He gave me a printout of the battery test results and encouraged me go back to the vendor of the battery, Wal-Mart, and do it that day because that happened to be the last day of the 3-year warranty on the battery. That day was the last day of the warranty. Bizarre. What lucky timing, eh? If there was a problem not related to the incipient alternator issue, then it might be covered by the warranty. (Someone else had gotten the battery at Wal-Mart, for the record.)

I called Wal-Mart to see if they could look at the battery. It was almost 8 pm. Yes, they were open until 9 pm and I could bring the car in, but I needed to hurry. Might have to leave it over the weekend as it was, but perhaps they could look at it right away. This might be a waste of time, since whatever problems the battery had were likely to be due to the alternator, but what if there was something else wrong? Well, why not check? That was a mistake, in retrospect, and even if the battery was defective on its own, bringing it in on the last day of a warranty doesn't quite seem fair, which is part of what I had to ponder as I reviewed this whole event. But it seemed like Wal-Mart was in the cards for me and without thinking carefully, I assumed I needed to rush over there, just 5 minutes away. So I went back to the car intending to zoom over to Wal-Mart.

Wait, what about that missing protective cap? I looked under the car and didn't see it. I backed the car out a little to get a different perspective. I looked around the floor some more and saw nothing, but when I looked into the engine again, now I could see the precariously lodged cap at the side. I turned the car off, retrieved the cap and decided to quickly replace it, afraid that it might be dangerous to leave the electrical connection on the alternator exposed--wouldn't want a mechanic at Wal-Mart or somebody getting shocked or anything. I can still remember the time when my father got a third degree burn on his hand from a big electrical spark while helping to jump a dead battery when something went wrong--dangerous levels of current can flow in the electrical system of a car when it is running (and I would soon be reminded that dangerous electric charges can still be stored in a car that is off).

The protective cap could have been snapped onto the exposed terminal of the alternator and onto the cable leading to the terminal, but I missed that detail in the design and thought that the right way to put it back would be to remove the connection that was screwed onto the exposed alternator terminal and slide the cap onto the cable, then reconnect the cable to the terminal and then slide the cap forward and snap the big end of it in place onto the terminal. (The rear end of the cap had a little opening to receive a cable, but that opening could actually snap onto the cable without having to disconnect it.) With the car off, I figured it would now be safe to work with the alternator again. (Some of you may sense the danger here. Yes, I took an electrical engineering class in college and have a Ph.D. in chemical engineering--but that doesn't necessarily mean I can do actual stuff or be trusted with electrical devices or power tools.)

As I began unscrewing the nut that held a cable in place on the exposed terminal of the alternator, I felt a little tingle in my fingers. Hmm, maybe some residual charge. Perhaps I should disconnect the battery terminal before messing with the alternator, as the written directions said. I tried to disconnect the cable but realized I had secured it quite tightly and couldn't get it off easily with my pliers. I would need to go downstairs and find the right wrench to remove the cable. Time was running out--what that really needed? The mechanic didn't mention that--must not be important, probably just one of those redundant safety directions. No need to disconnect the cable, but to remove any risk from working with the tingly connector, I put on gloves. Simple. So I removed the bolt, lifted up the cable with the connector that had been bolted to the alternator, and now just needed to slip the plastic cap onto the cable. The cable slipped a little as I tried to put the cap on--my gloves made it harder to do delicate work--and the exposed end of the cable contacted the body of the alternator. ZAP! A small ball of lightning erupted as contact was made. The loud spark was followed by my horrified silence as I considered what I had just done. Had I fried the car's computer? Destroyed the alternator? Trashed the battery and the ignition system? Maybe all of that?

The car that had started and run beautifully just moments before gave no sign of life when I tried to turn it on. A desperate attempt to jump it gave no signs of life either. The headlights could turn on, so the battery hadn't been completely destroyed, but it wouldn't start. For all I knew, I had just trashed my son's car. I had become the Dr. Kevorkian of automobiles.

I knew the destruction was my fault. I had written directions that I had ignored. All that work, a whole afternoon and evening, trashed by my foolishness. But at the same time, I also felt cheated by the cosmic conspiracy against me as I considered all that it took to bring me to this painful state where victory had been so thorough shoved back into the jaws of defeat. The mechanic urging me to take on the repair, forgetting to warn me about the importance of disconnecting the battery cable, the improper fit that required all sorts of extra efforts to get the alternator to fit which caused a protective cap to be dislodged, the perfect landing of the cap making it hard to find at first but findable after the car had been charged up with destructive electrical potential, the strange coincidence of the battery being on its last day of warranty and the pressure to hurry to get the car into Wal-Mart, and my own clumsiness in letting the cable slip at the key moment to short a circuit with destructive power. So much seemed to conspire against me to put me in a situation where I could fail so dramatically.

This is an important lesson to me. All of us are and will be in situations where in spite of all our joys and successes, we will have unusual opportunities to fail dramatically. If we let unusual concidences make decisions for us, we may become unwitting architects of our own downfall, especially when we violate sound principes and written directions.

We will face unusual temptations that seem custom made to lure us in, where tragic errors may seem like the right thing to do IF we make the mistake of compromising our principles, taking improper shortcuts, or ignoring the directions we have in the scriptures. Then, when we give in, we can find that years of effort can be vaporized in one brief burst of improperly discharged potential.

That tragic zap was the beginning of three days and two nights of personal mourning, from Saturday evening until late Monday afternoon. Not quite Alma-like, but painful. (If I had skipped the gloves, I might have done the full Alma the Younger routine, complete with lengthy unconsciousness.) I tried to be cheerful, but was grieved by my stupidity. I have so little time and so much I'm supposed to do, and to throw away the better part of day and then to destroy rather than repair an automobile that my son really needed just left me horrified and gave me a much-needed humbling.

I contemplated the need to pay attention to details and not take foolish risks, especially when I have so often seen that the cosmic dice are loaded in the house's favor when I am not diligent and careful. I considered all the warnings I ignored, including the tingling in my fingers that let me know there was real danger in what I was doing. Like the promptings of the Spirit, there are hints and warnings we receive in life and often ignore when we are dealing with forces we don't understand. I examined a variety of errors in thinking, in assumptions, and in actions. The loss of the car just seemed so unnecessary and painfully stupid. Shortcuts that violate sound principles often lead to such pain.

I was sure that the car would cost far more to repair than it was worth, but had it towed (thanks to AAA) to my local repair shop on Monday morning. To my amazement, I learned that all that was needed was a new 50-amp fuse. The troubleshooting and repair would only cost $60. It's now back to normal and running great, with no signs of battery or alternator trouble.

Wow--how could I get any more lucky than that?

This also reminds me that sometimes the Lord does give us second chances and helps us get past the worst of our stupidity. Sometimes He can help us repair much of the damage we are tempted to create. Other times we really do cause destruction that is not so easily repaired, which is why we should seek the Lord daily and beware of our own pride that constantly lures us to disaster.

I learned a lot from this experience, so much that I'm ready to take on other car repair jobs. Bring your vehicle by and let me role the cosmic dice as I do some ridiculously easy repairs for you! Hey, what could possibly go wrong?

Monday, February 08, 2010

Love the International Aspects of the Church: China and More

I was asked today if I could help the missionaries visit somebody in Appleton, so I asked them to join us for dinner first and then we'd go. What an international event this evening was! Based on the name, can you guess where Elder Lokboj is from? At first glance I thought it was a Hmong name, but "k" is not a tone marker at the end of syllables, so that wasn't right. Got your guess? Hint: When properly pronounced, his name sounds almost Serbian or Russian to my ears. Well, that wasn't a helpful hint.

Answer: He's from the Marshall Islands and speaks Marshallese, English, and Hmong. Yes, he's a Hmong-speaking elder here in Appleton. His companion is Elder Bonilla from Mexico City. Elder Bonilla speaks English, Spanish, Hmong, German, and Mandarin Chinese. An amazing intellect. These are both two of the finest, kindest, smartest, and most spiritual missionaries you'll meet. I've seen them in action a number of times and have complete respect and admiration for them.

Our visit tonight would be to a home of recent immigrants from China. I was mostly needed to be a third person to help them teach a single woman, but they were hoping that my Chinese would help a bit, too. I've taken a couple of years of Mandarin and study it regularly using Chinesepod.com and books, but haven't used it to teach a real discussion and couldn't say a lot of things right, but it was a wonderful experience and it really motivated me to beef up my study. This was my first real discussion in Mandarin (mix of Mandarin and English, to be fair) and my first prayer in Chinese. Our new Chinese friends managed to be exceptionally polite about the experience.

What made the international flavor of the night all the more memorable was a call that came during dinner with the missionaries. For the first time in several years, I heard the voice of my beloved old friend from China (calling while on a visit to the United States), a now-retired professor from one of their top few universities who is the man who long ago did much to stir my interest in China. Right after my mission, I had a brief job, courtesy of my uncle, Professor Daniel Miles, in the Chemistry Department at the University of Utah (long deceased, sadly - such a wonderful man). I did simple lab work in a lab frequented by a visiting scholar from China, who was a truly kind and gracious man. He introduced me to his other friends from China and invite me and my girlfriend (now wife) to exotic dinners that they prepared. When I later went to BYU and took Chinese their, they came up to Provo and prepared an exotic meal for my whole class one day.

Now, on this unusual night where China was to be a focus for the evening, he chose to call and renew our ties. This is also the day on which I received email from my son in Taiwan telling of wonderful joy in seeing a choice investigator be baptized. And now more joy in making friends tonight with some choice and spiritual people anxious to know more about God and Jesus Christ. There's something special about the people of China and Taiwan.

One of the things I really like about the Church is the international scope, including the diverse mix of its missionaries, the many languages and cultures that its returned missionaries are exposed to, and the experiences it provides to its members to love and serve those of many tongues and nations.

Popular Science: Not Always an Ultimate Authority

In science or in any field of study, things are not always tidy. Roughly a century ago, as some scientists were feeling that the laws of physics were well understood and tidy, along came quantum mechanics with the complex and initially disturbing model of particles having dual natures, sometimes like waves and other times like particles, further compounded by numerous puzzling characteristics, apparent contradictions, and even mathematical absurdities. While the smallest aspects of matter began throwing science for a loop, larger-scale aspects were doing the same as relativity came into play with its conundrums and puzzles.

Today it’s all the crazier as science has determined (tentatively, anyway) that the matter and energy we can detect and analyze must be only a small fraction of what actually controls the motion of the cosmos, for there must be large quantities of mysterious “dark matter” adding gravitational mass and also there must be vast amounts of “dark energy” counteracting the gravitational pull of the galaxies, driving the universe apart when science expected it that it should be pulling itself together due to gravity. Our best estimate now is that 96% of the matter-energy of the cosmos is taken up by dark matter and dark energy – by things we can’t see or understand, yet whose influence apparently must be there. 96%.

Science is not necessarily clear, straightforward, and based on observations made with our reliable senses. Just as it becomes comfortable with how well everything is understood, whole new paradigms arise and that which was once simple is seen to be vastly more complex than ever, governed by strange new laws across unimaginable dimensions and pervaded with mystery upon mystery–and something tells me we’ve only just begun the journey into marvelous mystery. I suspect that some of our petulant complaints about God not telling us the full story are because we don’t have the tools to even begin to make sense of the answer.

All the work that has gone into understanding the laws of matter and energy that govern the universe turn our to describe just 4% of the cosmos, at best. But if you tried to explain that to someone twenty years ago, it would sound ridiculous beyond words, unimaginably unscientific, just as germ theory or quantum mechanics or nuclear fusion would have sounded to Aristotle, as brilliant as he was. Science is forever tentative, and tells us only a few things with certainty, which may need complete revision next week. The healthy approach, both for science and religion, is to always recognize that what we understand and think we know may be incomplete, and not to fly to pieces when more knowledge shakes things up in the future. Popular human knowledge or even state-if-the-art knowledge is not always a reliable authority. Likewise, some of our own religious views, especially those things that are extrapolations of revelation, may be based upon popular assumptions that are incomplete or untested, and may need revision as we learn more. I think the safe way in science and religion is to never assume that we have somehow approached omniscience or even perfect understanding in any single area. If we leave that to God, we'll all be better off.

Update: The title refers to the generic concept of popular science, not the magazine.

Update, Feb. 9: Religion has its limits and human science has its limits. They are tested in various ways, leading to revisions and progress or painful paradigm shifts. Neither has a monopoly on truth.

The fun thing about loving science and the LDS religion is that our religion expressly teaches that all truth can be brought together in one great whole. As religious and scientific knowledge advance, they will eventually be in harmony. Along the way, we will have to discard or revise many naive assumptions, many misinterpretations of data and scripture, and many artifacts of tradition (LDS or otherwise), sloppy thinking and poorly considered experiments (not to mention Climategates of various kinds). But with time and faith, we'll get over it and become wiser one day, if we remember we don't know it all now.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Dealing with Noah's Flood: Useful Resource

"Mormonism and Science/Global or Local Flood" is a useful page provided by FAIRLDS.org that might help some of you better grapple with some of the issues around Noah's Flood. I also have a few things to say on my LDSFAQ page about science and religion.

Update: A thoughtful piece on the challenges of understanding the scriptural accounts of the Flood comes from a BYU professor, Duane E. Jeffery, in "Noah's Flood: Modern Scholarship and Mormon Traditions," Sunstone, Oct. 2004, pp. 27-45. The link is to a 3-MB PDF file for the whole Sunstone issue, in which the article on Noah's Flood begins on page 29.

Celebrating a Mother's Decision to Not Abort Her Baby: Is It Really That Controversial?

I'm marveling at the anger and angst created by an upcoming Superbowl ad that will celebrate Pam Tebow's courageous CHOICE to have her baby, Tim Tebow. I've heard some genuine outrage from the pro-abortion camp over this. Does the word "choice" only mean "abortion"? Is the brave decision to not have an abortion somehow an anti-choice that needs to be downplayed? Is the existence of a vibrant human being who lives in spite of pressure on his mother to have an abortion stand as a threat to something? Indeed it does. Not to choice, but to those who see abortion as a good in itself.

Matt Evans at Times and Seasons puts his neck on the chopping block by calling attention to the desperate position revealed in the response of a major pro-abortion activist. Thanks, Matt. Bet you'll continue to get a lot of heat.

A woman or a couple face many conflicting pressures and issues when grappling with some of life's difficult choices. One piece of information that needs to be considered, though, is reflected in stories like those of Pam Tebow. I'm proud of her courage in choosing life and glad that the world will hear that choice isn't a one-way street (or one-way alley).

Friday, February 05, 2010

Surprise Finding: Some Vegetative Patients May Still Have Consciousness

The debate on what to do with comatose patients becomes slightly more complex, perhaps, with intriguing new findings from the New England Journal of Medicine showing that a minority of completely vegetative patients may be able to hear and respond mentally when spoken to, and may even be able to answer questions. Stories in the press include:Do you remember the Terry Schiavo case? Perhaps a brain scan of this kind might have helped resolve a few questions - if anyone really wanted answers.

With this news from medical science, I hope some of you critics out there won't give up on me completely. Sure, I may seem past hope, but stick me in an MRI and ask me the right questions, and maybe you'll see a little cerebral activity after all.

Update, Feb. 5, 2010: I added the NEJM link so you can read the original study yourself. Very cool.

Additional reading to consider: "The Rom Houben Case: Doctor Explains How He Knows Patient is Conscious." Rom Houben is the Belgian man that appeared vegetative, but was actually aware with nearly normal brain function and was able to communicate accurately using a toe. A technology known as PET revealed the nature of his brain activity. That was the same kind of test that a judge denied for Terry Schiavo, a test that might have resolved the conflicting claims about her responsiveness. See "The Schindlers Were Right to Insist on Tests for Terri."

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Burden or Joy of Church Membership?

One critic, allegedly an ex-Mormon, had this to say person offered this criticism of the Church on my recent post about rejecting modern prophets:
Whatever the scriptures say, there can be no doubt that the church is extremely works oriented. By their fruits we know them. The average Mormon has to worry about home teaching or visiting teaching, temple attendance, ward activities, giving talks, giving lessons, service projects, 3 or more hours of meetings each Sunday, meetings during the week, feeding the missionaries, referring friends to the missionaries, paying tithing, generous fast offerings, daily scripture study, personal prayer, family prayer, family home evening, writing in journals, genealogy, getting your boys' eagle project done, etc. And if a good Mormon buckles down and does everything he's supposed to for one month, the very next month he's back to square one. On top of all this, after a Mormon completes his self-financed mission, he's supposed to not delay getting married and having children while attending school and earning enough money to support his large family. I know, there's no scripture telling him when to get married and how many kids to have, so where does the pressure come from? Does it matter? The pressure is real. Then there's the extra meetings and duties associated with higher priesthood or relief society callings. Mormons are strongly encouraged (i.e. pressured) regularly to do missionary *work*, and few of them ever see someone join the church through their efforts. So that monkey's always on their backs. A Mormon can obey the word of wisdom, keep the law of chastity, be honest, etc., but if they don't keep up on their monthly checklists, they don't measure up to the spiritual giants who saw God and angels. No wonder most Mormons I know are dogged by feelings of guilt and inadequacy. When I attended PEC or ward council, the bishop or his councilors would always talk about how we (themselves included) should do more to serve others. The self-flagellation never ceases.
I'm shocked that he left out the need to floss daily, to pay our taxes, to take out the garbage, to show up to work every day, to remember birthdays, to exercise, to shower daily, and to cut down on unhealthy snacks. What a chore life can be!

Actually, what a joy life can be. Yes, there's work to be done, but flossing and all the other things that are good for our bodies, our souls, our relationships with others, and even our 401(k) are things that bless us and make our lives better and magnify the joy we can have (well, scrap the part about the 401(k)).

I'm not ashamed to say that the Church offers numerous opportunities for us to grow, to learn, to serve and to sacrifice. For those who really want to serve the Lord with all their heart, might, mind, and strength, as the scriptures encourage, this Church has opportunities to match the time and talents you can bring to serve the Lord. But the checklist mentality expressed by the critic doesn't fit my experience.

When I was bishop, yes, it was overwhelming and I truly did not get enough sleep. But what rich years those were, years when I know I was sustained and helped along in spite of my flaws and whining by the kind hand of the Lord. I was needed and played a role in helping people - hopefully more than I hurt - and was able to be there when truly needed on many occasions. I wouldn't give that up, though I would do some things differently if I went back in time. My two years on a mission were some of the most precious years of my life and gave me far more education than any other two-year period in school ever did. I saw people's lives change for good, witnessed miracles, felt and experienced the joy that the Restored Gospel brings. Wonderful friendships, experiences, adventures - what a privilege and blessing it was to go and serve. And compared to the daily routine of academic studies or work, it was a pleasure and a vacation of sorts (well, it was Switzerland), although we worked very hard.

It's all about quality of life. We work hard and sacrifice for the future. We do this in school, looking forward to a job, and then when we experience the disappointment of a real job, we work hard looking forward to retirement, and then when we experience the disappointment of age, well, I guess we look forward to the next life. But in serving the Lord daily and monthly, we don't have to always be looking forward - we can experience joy and meaning right now. The work we do in visiting and helping others really matters. It makes our lives of higher quality right then and there. I know of no better way to make a difference and feel joy in life than in living the teachings of the Gospel and serving the Lord with all our heart, whereas the path of selfishness consistently brings disappointment and sorrow.

So yes, I'm going to keep striving to floss, exercise, pay taxes, go to Church meetings, share the message of the Gospel to those who are interested, visit a few people here and there, and maybe even do something with my genealogy some day. Pressure? I feel far more pressure from work and the IRS than I do from my kind and patient bishop. Maybe some leaders are pressurizers, but the leaders I've had have generally encouraged us to do what we can and not run faster than we have strength. The real religious pressure is not from my church leaders, but from the Lord, who tells us to serve Him with all our might, to keep His commandments, and to be perfect like Heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). That's an imposing checklist, I admit, but it's all there to bless us and bring us joy, now and for eternity.

Update: OK, some Church leaders have turned up the pressure on the Saints. For example, the early Christian fathers repeatedly urge believers to keep the commandments, to serve God diligently, and be zealous of good works. Here's one of many passages I could cite, this one coming from the text known as First Clement, one of the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament. The quotes are from sections 2 and 34:
Moreover, you were all humble and free from arrogance, submitting rather than demanding submission, more glad to give than to receive, and content with the provisions that God supplies. And giving heed to his words, you stored them up diligently in your hearts, and kept his sufferings before your eyes. Thus a profound and rich peace was given to all, together with an insatiable desire to do good, and an abundant outpouring of the Holy Spirit fell upon everyone as well. Being full of holy counsel, with excellent zeal and a devout confidence you stretched out your hands to almighty God, imploring him to be merciful if you had inadvertently committed any sin. You struggled day and night on behalf of all the family of believers, that through fear and conscientiousness the number of his elect might be saved. You were sincere and innocent and free from malice one toward another. Every faction and every schism was abominable to you. You mourned for the transgressions of your neighbors: you considered their shortcomings to be your own. You never once regretted doing good, but were ready for every good work. Being adorned with a virtuous and honorable manner of life, you performed all your duties in the fear of him. The commandments and the ordinances of the Lord were written on the tablets of your hearts. . . .

The good worker receives the bread of his labor confidently, but the lazy and careless dares not look his employer in the face. It is therefore, necessary that we should be zealous to do good, for all things come from him. For he forewarns us, “behold the Lord comes, and his reward is with him, to pay each one according to his work.” He exhorts us, therefore, who believe in him with our whole heart, not to be careless about any good work. (The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Michael W. Holmes, 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989, pp. 29, 46-47, emphasis mine.)
High expectations and even a sense of pressure from such expectations are not a new phenomenon, but are part of ancient Christianity (and ancient Judaism). If that really bothers you, you'll need to take it up with the Lord. There's a lot to do in this life. We're not here for constant vacation and games. Like Paul, we need to "press for the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:14) and in this course, we must "not be weary in well doing" (Gal. 6:9). It's not self-flagellation, but seeking joy for ourselves and those around us as we serve the Lord with all our hearts.

Abstinence Education Might Work After All, Says New Study

A major new study on abstinence education is the topic of a story in the Washington Post:
Abstinence-only programs might work, study says
By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sex education classes that focus on encouraging children to remain abstinent can persuade a significant proportion to delay sexual activity, researchers reported Monday in a landmark study that could have major implications for U.S. efforts to protect young people against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Only about a third of sixth- and seventh-graders who completed an abstinence-focused program started having sex within the next two years, researchers found. Nearly half of the students who attended other classes, including ones that combined information about abstinence and contraception, became sexually active.

The findings are the first clear evidence that an abstinence program could work.

"I think we've written off abstinence-only education without looking closely at the nature of the evidence," said John B. Jemmott III, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who led the federally funded study. "Our study shows this could be one approach that could be used."
[read more]
Of course, this study could be wrong or may mask the real cause of the apparent benefits. For example, Todd Feinburg speculates that, "It could be that the regular sex ed classes are really effective at encouraging kids to be sexually active, and the benefit of abstinence only is keeping kids out of those classes." You know, that's not an entirely unreasonable thought.

I don't know all the answers on this or any other topic. However, I do worry that some of the education kids get does more harm than good and is designed not to just give information but to shape behavior and attitudes in ways that undermine what many parents wish to achieve in raising their children.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Hostility to Prayer, or the Sharing of the Results of Prayer

I was thinking about the unfortunate spiritual reflux reaction that some people have to faith-promoting stories about prayer. The pattern goes like this:
  1. A believer faces some problem and prays for help. The problem is minor, even trivial, on a global scale.
  2. A solution is found, and the believer shares the experience to express gratitude for the undeserved blessing received.
  3. Critics and skeptics guffaw, saying how dare someone think that God would answer a prayer about solving a trivial personal problem when thousands are dying and millions suffering all over the globe.
I thought of this frustrating pattern tonight as I was briefly contemplating the Lord's prayer. In this prayer, the Lord teaches us to pray for big things, like the coming of the Kingdom of God, but also minor personal things like bread to eat, as well of some personal issues of a deeper spiritual nature such as forgiveness of our sins and implicitly, help in forgiving others. So I'm wondering how often, over the two thousand years since Christ taught the Lord's prayer, have hungry believers who received God's help in feeding their families were scoffed at when they shared their witness of God's grace in helping them with that problem. "How can you think that God would bless you to find food or get a job when there are much bigger problems in the world?" Somehow that cynical attitude strikes me as very recent. Though I am sure it has been present in many ages, it strikes me as an especially modern result of being so easily in touch with the big ugly problems of the world coupled with the dark influence of big ugly thinkers without a spiritual foundation to understand how God can love mankind in a mortal world where all die and many suffer, a world where we have the terrible freedom to reject God and hurt or ignore one another.

Are things really different now, or has the testimony of believers who feel that God answered a personal prayer involving cosmic trivia always elicited angry reactions from others? I am just wondering if prayer has always been so offensive to non-believers? Or is my perspective overly skewed by the few loud voices one encounters on the Internet?