Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Exercising my religious brain muscles

I've had some things on my mind about my faith and I just wanted to talk (write) out loud about them.

When I was online searching for photographs of President Hinckley a couple days ago, I stumbled upon many offensive things about the church and other blogs discussing people's waning testimonies amidst questions about prophets and other doctrines in the church. One blog caught my interest because it talked about controvercial things in church history and how that affected people's testimony.

Why is it that people think prophets have to be perfect to be true prophets? If I recall my Sunday School lessons correctly, Jesus Christ was the only perfect person who ever walked this earth. Many people have difficulty accepting that Joseph Smith was called of God, that he saw God and Jesus Christ, that he was called to restore Christ's church to the earth as it existed in ancient times. They site mistakes that Joseph made in his life and say, "well, he couldn't have been a prophet if he did such and such..."

Dan and I had an interesting discussion a couple weeks ago about Joseph Smith. If you're God, and you have to choose a mortal to be strong enough and bold enough to restore your full gospel, what kind of person are you going to choose? Someone who's the sit-in-the-back-quietly kind of person, or a 13-year-old kid who's got the guts to question preachers 3 times his age? Do you choose someone who is meek and quiet, or someone who is bold, outspoken, and has the charisma to inspire courage and faith in tens of thousands of people? If you plan to send out missionaries to preach about the restoration of your gospel, expecting them to leave in the dead of winter with a sick wife, a bunch of little kids and no food on the table, who are you going to send to call that man on a mission? Someone with a commanding character. Someone strong.

Joseph Smith wasn't perfect. He pissed a lot of people off. But that does not mean he wasn't called of God. He had a monumental task to complete. He did the best he could with the kind of personality he had. I think one problem is that many members of the church have been raised to view Joseph Smith as an uneducated country boy that was merely a pawn in the Lord's hand, when really he had an amazing intellect and was a very powerful person. These are not bad character traits. Joseph withstood incredible adversity, yet he remained true to the God that required it all of him. Who would want to practice polygamy if asked? I wouldn't. And he didn't want to either, but he obeyed. None of the apostles wanted to practice polygamy when it was introduced, and none of them ever really understood why the Lord required it of them. But they did it anyway and tried to handle the difficult lifestyle with as much grace and dignity as they could.

I read a very interesting book a few months back, Saints by Orson Scott Card. It's a historical novel (fiction, people!) about a woman who joined the church in England and left her family to follow the Saints to America. While I don't agree with the main premise of the book, that God called the heroine to leave her children to follow the Saints (God would never call a mother to abandon her children), it was a very interesting look into polygamy and the personalities of the early church leaders. It was a refreshing perspective; the early church leaders weren't all quiet and pious. They were men of humor, they were feisty, and they were loyal to God and to his prophet Joseph Smith.

I grew up in the church, went to Seminary (a scripture study class for teenagers) and pretty much believed everything that was taught to me. Things were very cut and dried in my eyes and it seemed very easy to distinguish truth from falsehoods. As I got older and faced more experiences in my life, accepting things on blind faith became harder. And in some ways, after marrying Dan and learning more about his conversion and his mission, I started to feel like it was somehow inferior or taking the easy way out to just accept everything without a lot of struggle. But my patriarchal blessing tells me that gospel principles will be easy for me to embrace.

I did go through a period of struggle, a trial of my faith, when Lily was a baby. My brother and his wife had a stillborn baby just a few months after Lily was born and that really shook me. I questioned to what degree God was involved in our lives. Here's something from my journal:

I get so irritated when people tell stories in testimony meeting like how their dog was missing so they fasted and he came back. Now why would God answer that prayer, but not answer the prayers of a couple asking him to protect their full-term baby? For awhile I wasn't sure if my prayers, especially the ones concerning the safety of my family, even made a difference. But I figured they couldn't hurt. But then I started thinking that maybe I am praying for the wrong things. Maybe instead of asking God to protect my family from harm I should be asking him to give me faith and strength to face whatever trials come to us...I was praying a couple of nights ago and I just have the feeling that I have to grasp on to the parts of the gospel that make sense to me and just have faith that understanding of the other things will come with time. I remember that when I was a teenager embracing the gospel seemed so simple and uncomplicated. I just simply accepted everything and believed in the feel-good sunday school answers to all of life's questions. But the concerns of an adult, a parent, are different and I realize that life is not so black and white.

I finally found peace through an experience with the healing power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. After many years, I was able to forgive and feel genuine love and compassion for someone close to me. That power, given by Jesus Christ, was so strong, that for the rest of my life I will always draw upon that experience to know wherein my faith lies. I still don't understand how God works; who does? But you know what? It's OK because I know the Atonement is real and all the other things are not essential to understand. It's one of the things I look forward to about dying- having all those questions answered!

I guess my point is that if you're waiting to have a perfect understanding, then you've missed the whole point of what faith is. Not all of your questions are going to be answered to your satisfaction. Not everything will make sense. But when did God ever promise that? Yes, He said Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. But there is no promise of perfect knowledge. There is only the promise that God will give you what you need, nothing more, nothing less.

I was telling Dan about this post and his comment was, "Just make your choice. Are you going to be in the church or not? And if you are, stop constantly revisiting that decision. Most of the things people get hung up on are just extraneous and they don't matter." Dan is very big on committment. He'll be the first to tell you that he hates going to Elder's Quorum meeting. It drives him crazy to listen to all the platitudes. He dreads testimony meeting. But that does not mean that he has a weak testimony or that he's not committed to being the kind of person that Jesus Christ wants him to be. It's something about Dan that has taken me a long time to understand. He is not driven by outward displays of faith. He doesn't feel compelled to go through the motions to prove to everyone else that he has a testimony. He simply lives the basic principles of the gospel: work hard, help people out, and love your family.

We had an interesting discussion a couple of years ago about the Word of Wisdom. Yes, studies have shown that following the Word of Wisdom gives you better health and generally lets you live longer. So it makes sense why God would give it to us. But is this the only reason He prescribed this health code? There are equally as many studies out there that say drinking a glass of wine a day is good for you or other things like that. What if God just gave us the Word of Wisdom as a code to follow to show that we are committed to Him? Thinking back to the Israelites, they had very specific foods they could eat, very specific ways they were supposed to worship, etc. Orthodox Jews don't eat pork. Is this because pork is bad for you? I would say no, rather, it is an outward sign of their obedience to God's laws. Dan joined the church when he was 19. He drank coffee before that. He told me, "I just can't understand people who have such a problem with the Word of Wisdom. When I joined the church, I committed to follow it and I have never looked back. I don't miss drinking coffee; I chose to give it up and I don't have to constantly revisit that decision." This really got me thinking. Perhaps it's not so critical what specific things are in the Word of Wisdom, but rather how committed we are to following them. That is more of what God is interested in.

While I'm on the topic of my smart husband and interesting gospel discussions, a week or two ago I was reading in 3 Nephi in the Book of Mormon and there was a verse about how the converted Lamanites joined with the Nephites and they "became pure" so that even their physical traits changed. I asked Dan, scientifically, what this meant. What were the genetics or scientific implications of this statement. It started a long discussion about scientific evidence supporting or negating the truth of the Book of Mormon. Several, so many as to virtually eliminate doubt, DNA studies have been done with the American Indians to find their genetic origin and it has been proven that the ancestors of today's Native Americans came from Siberia. But the Book of Mormon says that Lehi and his family came from Jerusalem. So if the Book of Mormon is true, then Native Americans should have Jewish or Middle Eastern DNA. I asked Dan how he reconciled the two. I loved his answer. He said, "Look, we have no idea what other civilizations lived on the American continents that were completely separate from the Nephites and Lamanites. And while the Nephites generally did not intermarry so they kept their bloodline pure (Jewish), the Lamanites never lived by this standard. Who knows how much intermarrying among unknown peoples went on." So just because science contradicts a mainstream LDS notion (that today's Native Americans decended from the Jews since Lehi in the Book of Mormon came from Jerusalem) it doesn't have to crush your faith. The two can coexist and contradict each other, and yet, truth is still truth. It's just not all revealed. For instance, I believe that God and Jesus Christ created the earth, but that doesn't mean I can't accept evolution and natural selection. Who are we to say we know for sure the method that God used to create the earth? Who knows how long those seven creative periods were and what happened during them?

I found a video clip in which M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles addresses the question Is There Scientific Proof Authenticating the Book of Mormon? It is a MUST see. Click here to view.

Well, I have certainly said a lot. Some food for thought. I'm interested to hear what you think on these subjects or other random musings about religion or faith.


Dan said...

Since what Sue has written about are just snippets of our conversations, I'd like to clarify a couple points.

First, is that I'm not a proponent of blind faith and don’t think people should make decisions and then never reconsider them. However, when considering whether to be a member of the LDS church (and religion in general) people get hung up on unimportant or extraneous issues. I’m often surprised that people rarely ask themselves, “does it really matter; is it essential?”

“It’s all true or none of it’s true.” “The Book of Mormon is the most correct book on the face of the earth.” “The Gospel is perfect.” Frankly, I believe these to be stupid statements that unnecessarily establish the church as a house of cards. The outcome of those positions is that if you can impugn or disprove a single principle, then it’s all false. The facts are these: the Book of Mormon can not possibly be the most correct book and nothing on this earth is perfect or 100% true.

If sometimes Joseph Smith was a cruel and greedy person, so what? It means he was human. What does that have to do with me trying to figure out what gives me and my family the best chance for happiness in life?

However, if being a member of the church makes a person feel guilty, put upon, and that they are making sacrifices that they begrudge, then they need some justification for either being a faithful member or rejecting the church. To that person, whether Joseph Smith was known to be a shyster matters. Whether the Book of Mormon accurately reflects archaeological findings becomes a pivot point on which the person’s participation in the church balances.

If on the other hand, a person does what they think they should do, what they are capable of doing, what they are willing to do, and strives to improve himself, then they need no justification for staying with or leaving the church.

I don’t revisit my decision to live the word of wisdom because it isn’t the church that is making me live it. It is a personal decision that I made and an agreement between me and God. I follow it because I think that I am better off by living that way, and therefore, whether Joseph Smith was divinely inspired to write it has no part in my decision. It’s my word of wisdom, not Joseph’s.

The second clarification I’d like to make is that I believe in science, and I don't think that scientific findings should be disregarded just because a particular finding or principle doesn't fit in with your personal beliefs. When science tries to speak on religion (and vice versa), there are a couple things to consider:
1) The science itself. What was the hypothesis, were appropriate techniques employed to answer the hypothesis, was a sufficient amount of sufficient quality data gathered to allow for the hypothesis to be tested, and what was the confidence interval of the result?
2) Is a set of scientific data really applicable?
3) Does it really matter?

In my opinion, people often misunderstand that the spheres within which science and religion are valid to render opinion and sway behavior don't overlap that much. Science=logic. Religion=emotion.

Science is the wrong tool and has the wrong skills to evaluate religion. If you try to use logic or scientific data to justify your belief in God or membership in a church, you are using an orange to drive nails. Likewise, if you use science to justify not believing in God, you are asking a plumber to perform your vasectomy or tubal ligation (it’s all tubes, right?).

Ok, I really need to get back to work!

Dan said...

I should have added a 4th point to my numbered list of things to consider when trying to apply science to religion:

What are the alternative explanations?

Sue said...

Man, I love being married to a really smart guy!

Anonymous said...

Ironically enough I just refinished the book you loaned me by M. Russell Ballard. I can't remember the name of it but what a koinkydink!


The Nelson Family said...

I have had too many friends, especially as they got older and not married, fall slowly away over small things that become big in their minds. The gospel is pure and faith is essential if we are to try and understand the changes the Lord sees fit to make, and yet the overwhelming solidity of it all.

Nice work guys!

Sue said...

Lori, look at you doing your Mormon homework! Good girl! Be careful, though, someone might accuse you of being a brown-noser.

The Queen Vee said...

Sue and Dan thank you for sharing these great thoughts with the rest of us. I too noticed that there were so many negative comments out there on the internet this week about President Hinckley and the church. I wasn't surprised but saddened for those who hold such anger and hate for the church and for President Hinckley.

I feel that our testimonies are constantly being tested either in small or large ways which helps us hopefully to gain more spiritual knowledge and a stronger testimony.

Spymommy said...

You have known me for a really long time, Sue. So you know that living the Gospel and being a member of this church is something that has come easily for me. I do not know why. I feel sad when people point an unknowing finger at me and say that I follow out of blind faith with no true conviction or questioning. I follow because I have had witness borne to me and I don't have to spend my time worrying about all the little hang ups you mentioned in your post. I have never felt swayed, worried, or concerned by those things. I am grateful for that blessing.

Now that my dad is in the greatest trial of his life, I feel no anger or resentment, no drawing away - I only feel a need to draw closer to the Lord and understand His will in it all. It is the very love He has shown me, throughout my entire life - and I don't believe I even deserve all of it - that has led me to where I am today . . . my goal and desire is to prove my obedience and willingness to Him to do with my life what He has asked me to.

Thank you for this post. It really made me reflect internally about why I do the things I do and why I believe.

Don Boy said...

Sue, I appreciated your sharing of thoughts about Hope and how that experience brought you to greater faith.

On the Book of Mormon and DNA...Alma 63 describes an emigration of Nephites by ship to unknown places...we always assume they ended up peopling the Polynesian islands, but could some have ended up in Siberia? Or, we all know that the lost ten tribes were carried captive into the land northward...whose to say Siberians aren't Israelite? I would recommend caution when using limited scientific evidence to evaluate the validity of one's limited faith.

Becky in Wyo said...

I think you're everybody's hero this week (at least mine anyway), for saying a lot of stuff that needed to be said, and generally taking the time to discuss your beliefs. I'm kind of at a point where I'm kind of just hanging on, not super-valiant, just going to church every Sunday with my family and doing my calling. But my issues are with myself, not with the Church or any particular gospel principle, and I know when I get my head back on straight, Heavenly Father will be waiting for me with open arms.

I would never presume I know as much as He or the Savior do, let alone what church authorities with so much experience with people and church organization do. I don't have authority issues like some people inherently seem to. How can you say to a being who has organized worlds without end, who has perfect vision and understanding of people and eternity, "I know better than you!"?

To me, it's simple: Does God exist? (Yes) Does he have a particular church or organization he wants us to belong to, with particular ordinances and rituals (Yes, the LDS church) What does he expect of people? (See scriptures and living prophets). That's pretty much it guys. For me, everything else fits in that framework, and I don't have to keep revisiting that decision of which Church is right. I don't really get bogged down in the details. I appreciate and love studying the details, but I don't let them get in the way of my basic testimony in Jesus Christ and his gospel. If you love the Savior and Heavenly Father, you do what they want you to do. How can you show gratitude and please them, by bailing out on the plan they have set forth for us? It's their show, people, not ours. And they totally deserve to run their own show. Period.

And I love what you had to say about Joseph Smith, about how it doesn't matter whether or not he was a perfect guy. So what if he picked his nose, yelled at his kids, or whatever? (Don't know if he's particulary been accused of any of that, but you get the point.) Heavenly Father needed somebody strong enough to reveal true doctrine and stand behind it, someone willing to bend to His will, and do what was right for the Church. Besides, whether or not you believe he was a prophet called of God, what he accomplished in his lifetime is nothing short of amazing. The amount of people he organized, the cities he built, the things he suffered and still kept going, it's just incredible. He was a great man.

Might have to copy all this on my blog, just so I can remember down the road what I thought and felt.

Thanks, Sue