Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Threat Within

In the past, my brother’s and my topics of choice varied considerably for this blog. Generally, he addresses the social issues surrounding the Gospel and the Church, while I address the doctrinal. However, stimulated by the comments of someone on both my brother’s and my earlier postings, I believe I will tackle a social topic. This person, only known as Jeremy, gave forceful, though amazingly vague criticisms of my brother’s and my writings (attacking our interpretations of th Fall, anti-Mormon literature, our relationship with God, our views of our leaders, etc.). Instead of really criticizing with any meaning, he instead contributed an idea.

Satan has used many methods to defeat the purposes of God. Using the sensationalistic, tabloid-like methods of J. Edward Decker (The Godmakers) can frighten people away with its claims. They become so scared of Mormons that their ignorance of the religion prevents any rational learning about it. Others, like Jerald and Sandra Tanner (Mormonism, Shadow or Reality), take a more conservative and scholarly approach, giving their own slant or interpretations to the words and events in Church history. But those are professional anti-Mormons. Are there others? Well, Signature Books is an interesting publishing company, who bring forth the works of people like D. Michael Quinn (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View). These take the approach that the official Church history is replete with errors, assumptions, deletions, and changes. Contributing authors are from the Mormon and non-Mormon camps. They take it upon themselves to rectify the Church’s faulty history through their scholarly means.

How do I feel about these different people and their writings? They can be very damaging to the faith to be sure. Ed Decker, to me, is without any credit. Even most anti-Mormons denounce his work, as they feel he damages their crusade more than he helps. The Tanners bring some interesting documents to light, bring up interesting points, and really can enlighten us to things we may have turned a blind eye to. However, as I said, they do a great deal to twist interpretations to the ways they see them. To write without bias is impossible, but it’s as if they don’t trust their readers to draw the “right” conclusions for themselves. Therefore, they tell you how you are supposed to take their exposures. Writers in the vein of Signature Books are dangerous as well. Good scholarly research is a valuable thing. It’s good to see what aspects of history we may be lacking. Who here knows that Joseph Smith had a Council of 50, his political council that even had non-Mormons in its ranks? Signature Books authors bring the details of such things to light. But these authors are not concerned with building faith. They will point out that Church leaders have made mistakes (something that many in the Church refuse to believe), and they go on a purely historical basis. In other words, they address the issues of Church history as if it was not inspired (whether they believe it or not), and target an audience that assumes the same. They use complete historical context, and not necessarily in an unbiased way. They present ideas that even they know might not be true, but they present them as true. Such things can also destroy faith, if we are to assume that Church history was shaped entirely by surroundings and not by the will of God.

But do the things that destroy faith always come from without? Or are there those forces that can come from within?

My recent experience has driven me to comment on certain personality traits of those within the Church. Many of us can assume stances of this nature at one point or another. Some of us may only carry one or two of these attributes, yet others of us may be permeated with these dangerous views and jeopardize our own salvation. But the great Deceiver may make use of those who are “extra-righteous” within the Church as those who deliberately seek its downfall.

A serious flaw within many members is a feeling of great doctrinal knowledge. They have studied the scriptures for years, have read books like Jesus the Christ, have argued in their high priests group (okay, there are many other forums of debate, but this seems to be a popular choice), and feel they have a supreme understanding of the Church and its doctrines. Though I am highly in favor of seeking knowledge about the gospel, these people seem to take a very a very condescending view towards those “of little faith,” or “the babes in the gospel.” They take it upon themselves to correct all the “false doctrine” they see out there, and call those wicked perpetrators to repentance. These spiritual vigilantes should beware of such an attitude. There are a number of pitfalls in there path.

First, they can become very caught up in pride. Some may feel they know so much about the gospel that they can call their bishop in for an interview. There are a number of falls from pride, well addressed elsewhere. Suffice it to say that humility is a hard thing to maintain, no matter our strengths and weaknesses. With greater knowledge comes a greater responsibility to disseminate such knowledge appropriately and in humility.

Second, these views of one’s greatness can alienate him/herself from others within the Church, and even outside. He or she might start looking at those beneath him as unworthy. They become judgmental, critical, and find themselves saying things that may hurt others. They may teach the principle that everyone is a child of God using a dozen different sources, and forget what such a principle really means. They begin treating them as lesser mortals.

Third, they seem to forget that we know so little about the gospel. If David O. McKay can say, referring to the endowment shortly before his death "I think I'm finally beginning to understand," I believe it is safe to say we all fall short of complete knowledge of the gospel. Though numerous doctrines are solid, not everything is set in stone. There is plenty of flexibility of interpretation. Someone whose opinion differs from yours needn’t be considered a threat to the Church or oneself. The gospel is a learning experience for all of us, and you might be wrong about a few things, yet, you probably won’t discover most truths until you’ve passed into the next life. Right or wrong, it often isn’t essential to our salvation, and we don’t need to always present our views as if we have cornered the market on proper understanding.

Fourth, a person so stiff in his interpretations may end up apostatizing. A belief that the prophets are infallible, for instance, is not only rubbish, but can be quite detrimental. Most everyone must come to an understanding that their leaders are not demigods. Moses made mistakes, and couldn’t enter Canaan. Jonah disobeyed God, and received solitary confinement (so to speak) for his defiance. Joseph Smith drank wine on occasion. Brigham Young sometimes taught Adam was God. Bruce R. McConkie said blacks would not receive the priesthood before the Second Coming. We must trust our leaders, and we have the promise that we won’t be led astray. Yet, when Pres. Hinckley or Elder Nelson does something that exposes his humanity, such as an incorrect statement or teaching, we must be wise enough to acknowledge that humanity while maintaining our trust in that leader’s inspiration. We cannot afford to be na├»ve about this fact. Many have fallen away from the Church because they expected more out of their leaders.

Taking that matter further, a number of former members have figured that they knew everything more than their neighbor about the gospel of Christ. They have done so much “research” that they ultimately conclude that they are the elect of God. There are seriously a number of churches that have splintered from the truth simply because they believed that God had called a new prophet out of his proper order. You can see a list of the various splinter groups here. These are all that we have managed to catalogue with any significant information on the Web. This list is by no means an exhaustive list of all splinter groups. Though cases like these may be extreme, one must still be cautious as he grows in knowledge. Again, responsibility and humility must prevail.

Fifth, they thwart any intelligent investigation of the gospel. As the Church has aged, so has its understanding. Our understanding of ancient America has changed in even the past decade. To shun new ideas or interpretations is foolish and narrow-minded. Many of these greater understandings are due to those willing to defend the Church. And those who defend must know what the critics are saying. True, it is unwise for most to read anti-Mormon literature. I wouldn’t recommend it to most. Some leaders have even termed it “spiritual pornography.” But the Church cannot possibly be wholly against it. FARMS is a branch of BYU, the Church’s university. This group is very studious, learning great things about the archaeology of the Book of Mormon and Christianity in general. They also devote work to defending the faith against the “anti” clans.

If one ventures into the minefields of anti-Mormon studies, he or she must enter with faith. An understanding that the opposition is strong, with balanced studies on defense is essential. But again, most key is intense faith, because questions will arise, some that may not get answered in this life.

As a final note, these people must realize that not all the damage they can cause will be self-inflicted. They can drive potential investigators away as self-righteous attitudes are perceived. They can set up false expectations in fellow members. They might offend others and drive them to inactivity. They may actually instill the same views in others, who then are subject to the same potential downfalls I’ve already enumerated.

The blessings of God are not for the wise. Though wisdom is a virtue, it is not the key. Such blessings are for the humble.

Monday, March 06, 2006

My Father, My God, part III

My Father, My God, part III

In this series, I have aimed at trying to help the reader better understand our relationship with God. I wonder if through it all, I have still placed too much emphasis on static doctrine, and missed the real point: we are in a very literal and personal sense children of our Heavenly Father. In this third and final installment, I will try to establish how such a knowledge can make us become so much more. As children of God, we can understand our true worth before our Maker, and our incredible potential to be like him.

How much are we worth? I am awestruck when I think of it with this perspective: We live on the planet Earth. To me, this planet seems gargantuan. Yet, it is a rather small planet, especially when compared to Jupiter or Saturn. But every planet, asteroid, comet, or other object that orbits our Sun comprise a mere 0.2% of our solar system. The Sun alone takes up the other 99.8%. But our sun isn’t a particularly large star. It’s actually on the smaller side. There are estimated to be over a hundred billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. In the known universe there are at least four hundred billion galaxies. Imagine how many stars that means exist in this universe! Each star is undergoing an incredibly powerful fusion reaction, each consuming billions of tons of hydrogen every second. The total amount of energy put out is a grand number, far greater than what we could possibly imagine. Yet, when a single star goes supernova, it releases more energy than all the stars in the universe combined. We are but specks of dust in an infinite room.

And yet, in all of God’s creation, we are by far his most treasured. Nothing to him is more valuable. His glory does not derive from his ability to create “worlds without number.” His work is not to produce incomprehensible quantities of energy. “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). In other words, every action God performs, it is for our benefit. The creation of this massive powerhouse of a universe was simply for us. Every thought in his limitless mind is how he can serve us, and what he can do to bring us back home.

For all his effort, many of us will not return to our Maker. Why? Because, according to God’s plan, we must have agency. That is how we grow. He is eager to give all that he has, but we cannot be prepared to receive that until we’ve overcome the opposition (see 2 Nephi 2). That means we will be tempted and tried, and only those who give their all, and cast all the rest on the eternal grace of Christ can be redeemed and inherit their mansions.

What must we do to overcome our opposition? What must we do to obtain eternal life? We must know God. We must establish a relationship with him. “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3) The truth is, without knowing the Father and the Son, there is no life eternal. And we must begin establishing that relationship in this life.

God is always reaching out to us. We are children who have disowned our Father, have given up our inheritance, and our now wandering prodigals. Our sinful lives, even if we’ve been nearly perfect, completely cut us off from all access to God. Knowing that all of us would cut ourselves off, God offered his Son. Through the merits of the Messiah, we can again communicate with our Heavenly Father. Again, imagine that we have willfully broken ties with our parents. Our Father, wanting us to return to him ever so badly, sent his only faithful Son to intercede on behalf of the rest of us. Through the infinite-reaching efforts, each of us can be restored into proper standing with our Father. By his own laws, God cannot force us to return to him. But he reaches out in every way he can, including offering his one righteous Son, so that he can reconnect with his wayward offspring.

But what do we do to reinstitute our bonds? How do we get to know God again? The Lectures on Faith offer this:

Let us here observe, that three things are necessary, in order that any rational and intelligent being may exercise faith in God, unto life and salvation:

First, the idea that he actually exists.

Second, a correct idea of his character, perfections and attributes.

Third, an actual knowledge that the course of life which he is pursuing, is according to his will. For without an acquaintance with these three important facts, the faith of every rational being must be imperfect and unproductive, but with this understanding, it can become perfect and fruitful, abounding in righteousness unto the praise and glory of God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

(Lectures on Faith 3:2-5)

Since parts I and II thoroughly covered the former two necessities in sufficient detail, the latter deserves the most attention here. Restated, it is by living a godly life that we find ourselves in true communion with our Divine Parent. Through sacrifice, service, and righteous living, we develop a faith in God. And with that faith, we again become Father and child. “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). We must develop that faith through our efforts.

If, through our minuscule offerings and the Atonement of Christ, we are brought to stand before God at the Day of Judgment, our Father will embrace us, kiss us, and welcome us home through tears. We will spend eternity in his presence, in one of his numberless mansions prepared by the Son (John 14:2). We will be filled with his Glory, and we will become what he is. We will be gods, forever worshipping the Almighty God (D&C 132:20, Revelation 3:21, and many other scriptures)!

I know of no way to make it clearer. We are the children of God! So what does this mean to us as individuals? If we have truly grasped the true significance of this knowledge, we begin to change our lives. We live like princes and princesses. We make use of the offering of the Son, and bring our lives into harmony with the Father. If we truly know this, our lives are forever altered. We will comprehend ourselves and our destinies (King Follett Discourse). We reach out for communication with God, so he can guide us back to his presence.

It also means that we look at others as divine. As Christ best exemplified, we can serve and love those around us. Some may not dress well, may have less enjoyable personalities, or have bad hygiene. Some may be old, ill, or unattractive. Yet, God loves all his children. Christ served anyone accepting of his service, even the lowest castes. Knowing that we truly are looking at our brothers and sisters, with the same divine sparks in their souls, we should remember to treat everyone with love and dignity.

Unlike the first two parts in this series, I have been reserved in my scripture and quote usage. I have relied heavily on my testimony. And it is with my testimony that I will close. I truly know that I am a beloved son of God. I know that it is his joy, his pleasure, his work, and his glory to give to me all that he has. I know that he loves me with such a certainty that it has changed my life. Even since first attempting to tackle this topic, I have felt him change me. I know that we are all his children, and I have learned to love my fellow man more because of this realization. And I know that all of this is made possible by his gift of his Son (John 3:16), and his Son’s eternal sacrifice. Christ knew his Father, and addressed him as such throughout his life. Then the Only Begotten Son suffered and was crucified for all of us. And when he rose on the third day, he spoke with Mary Magdalene, making his and our relationship with God clear: “Go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father, and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17). He is my Father, my God.