Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Tea Party and Civil Rights Leaders

Recently I was reading a news article about the reaction of some "civil rights leaders" to some of the recent activity of the Tea Party movement and there was a statement from one of the civil rights leaders that made me realize why many in the civil rights movement have a problem with the Tea Party. In the article the civil rights leader was quoted as saying something to the effect that black people enjoy their civil rights because of the federal government. This realization may seem rather obvious (or pointless) but when I thought about it I think it went right to the heart of the problem that civil rights leaders have with the Tea Party.

One of the most repeated accusations of the Tea Party is that they are racist. This accusation is particularly annoying to the Tea Party members because in their minds race has absolutely nothing to do with why they are upset with the government. The main unifying idea behind the Tea Party is individual freedom, but the direct cause that catalyzed the growth of the Tea Party into a viable movement was a concern over the economic state of the country. So it may be argued that while the unifying force behind the Tea Party is individual freedom, the main driving force is economics. They see the fiscal irresponsibility of the government as a direct threat to their personal freedom and thus they have united to oppose what they view as excessive government spending and interference (read taxation). Because their primary concern is about economics it is a non sequitur to accuse the Tea Party of being racist. Thus when civil rights leaders accuse the Tea Party of being racist from the point of view of the Tea Party members it is as if the civil rights leaders are either just not understanding what they are saying, or worse they are fundamentally irrational and crazy. Essentially the conversation goes something like this:

Tea Party member: "I think the government is spending too much money."

Civil rights leader: "You are just being racist!"

Tea Party member: "Huh? What does race have to do with the government spending too much money?"

Civil rights leader: "You're racist!"

Now to most of the Tea Party members they are more than willing to lump all the civil rights leaders in with the "tax and spend" liberals and to consider them to be fundamentally crazy. That would certainly be an easy thing to do because at least at first glance the response of many of the civil rights leaders to the Tea Party movement is rather irrational. It makes no rational sense to accuse someone of being racist when the issue of race never came up in the first place.

While I said that it would be easy to consider the civil rights leaders as nothing more than a bunch of irrational power mongers, in my personal opinion most people will usually act in a way that is in their own opinion, rational. The key here is that the standard of what someone considers to be rational is determined by their own knowledge, experience, and society. Thus what may be an entirely rational decision for one person would seem to be entirely irrational for another person. For example, for me it is entirely rational to sit here staring at a glowing flat surface hitting small squares with my fingers, while for another person it would seem the height of irrationality, and if I tried to explain why I am doing it, they may treat me like a crazy person (as a philosophical side note, this way of thinking may seem to be a form of Relativism but that would only be true if there were no external, objective measure of rationality, but there is (it's called reality) and while the individuals may act in a manner that seems to them to be entirely rational, it may be possible that their apparent "rational" acts are actually most irrational. Think of any teenage boy who has done something stupid to impress a girl. At the time they did it, it probably seemed completely rational to them. But this is another matter for a different post). So when I come across someone who is doing or saying something that seems to be entirely irrational I try to see things from their perspective and usually I can eventually understand why they view their own actions as entirely rational.

Now for the civil rights leaders to accuse the Tea Party of being racist may seem irrational but if we return to the beginning where I mentioned a statement from a civil rights leader about how it was the federal government that gave black people their civil rights, we can begin to see the rationality of the civil rights leaders in calling the Tea Party members racist (stay with me on this one). If we think about it, in the mind of many of the civil rights leaders the individual states were the ones that violated the civil rights of black people. It was the individual states that enacted and enforced the Jim Crow laws that actively discriminated against black people. It was incidents like the riots in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 that convinced early civil rights leaders that the individual states would not do anything to guarantee the rights of black people. It was only in the 1960's when the civil rights leaders found friends in the federal government that they began to realize that if they were to have any rights at all then it would have to come from action at the federal level. What this effectively did was instill the mentality in the civil rights leaders that the only way could have, and maintain their civil rights would be through the support and protection afforded them by the federal government. They lost all faith in the ability of the states to protect them and instead placed their faith in the federal government. Thus in their minds they view any attack on the federal government as a personal attack on their civil rights, because after all it is the federal government that is the guarantor of their civil rights. For them the main role of the federal government is to maintain and preserve their "rights", whatever those may be (either the right to vote, or the right to have a house, or the right to have a job etc.). As this is the primary role of the federal government they view any attack on the federal government, or even on the powers of the federal government, as an attack on their rights.

Thus in their minds it is entirely rational to accuse someone of being racist if they insist on decreasing the power and influence of the federal government. Because it logically follows that to decrease the power and influence of the guarantor of their rights, is to decrease their rights. And as the sole function of the federal government is to guarantee their rights, therefore anyone who wishes to decrease the power of the federal government must have as their only motive to decrease their rights, for there is no other function to government. And anyone who wishes to decrease the rights of the civil rights leaders must be motivated by racist tendencies because there is no other possible reason for someone to want to limit the rights of black people. Thus we can see that in the minds of many of the civil rights leaders the demands of the Tea Party are tantamount to racism. For the civil rights leaders the Tea Party wants to limit the very thing that gives them their civil rights, and therefore wants to limit their civil rights. Because the Tea Party wants to limit their civil rights the only possible explanation is that the Tea Party is racist.

Now for the other side. The fundamental assumption of the Tea Party is that their rights and freedom come because they are living breathing rational beings, not because any government gave them to them. Thus for them the federal government is an appendage of convenience for society and not the guarantor of anything. Thus to decrease the power and influence of the federal government is simply like remodeling an old and decrepit wing of a house. It is not an attack on the foundation of rights for anyone. Thus when the Tea Party members propose some revisions to how the federal government works, they are (in their own minds) in no way, even indirectly, attacking the foundation of anyone's rights. Because for them their rights are not guaranteed by the federal government.

Thus what we have here is a fundamental disconnect in ideas. On the one hand the civil rights leaders view the federal government as the guarantor of their rights and thus must be maintained at any cost, while on the other hand, the Tea Party views the federal government as a convenience that must be paid for in taxes, but if the federal government becomes too onerous then it will attack the foundation of their rights, and this is unacceptable. The real problem here is, how can both sides be made to see the issues and concerns of the other. Both have legitimate concerns and valid points. On the one hand, black people had little or no recourse for redress of wrongs until the federal government stepped in to help. While on the other hand, the Tea Party has a point that if too much power is concentrated in one place then the rights and freedoms of individuals can very easily be violated. Thus we have this dichotomy, of remembering the pains and problems of the past and holding to that which fixed it in the past, and looking to the uncertainty and possibilities of abuse or pain in the future, and somewhere we must find a common ground, because I do not believe that either side is entirely devoid of reason. I hope that someone, somewhere can find the understanding to reconcile the two sides.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Experiential Theology vs. Syllogistic Theology

I was thinking of making the title of this post "Narrative Theology vs. Syllogistic Theology" but I found that the phrase "Narrative Theology" is in current use by a small group of theologians so I settled on "Experiential Theology" because it seems to be slightly less used and thus might cause less confusion. I also considered the title, "LDS Theology as Narrative", but while technically the title conveys the correct idea, at first glance it seems to be grammatically incorrect (it's actually not, but I won't split hairs over that) and that might give some people who read this blog a bad case of hives, so I went with the current title. But after writing the title I thought that it might imply that one of the two is better than the other and that we should reject one and embrace the other, but that would be a false dichotomy, so I again thought about changing the title but then I decided to just go with it because by worrying too much over the title I would be expressing a syllogistic approach rather than an experiential approach to the topic, and thus would be going against my whole purpose in writing this post.

So in church today one of the speakers mentioned something that I found to be very interesting. He said that LDS Theology is narrative driven as opposed to driven by logical arguments and prepositions. As he explained it I realized that he had a very good point. What he meant by it being narrative driven is that we focus on the stories or the experiences behind the doctrine rather than focus on fundamental principles, or prepositions, like so many other Christian religions do. He made the distinction between traditional Creedal religion and the way we approach and learn our doctrine in that we do not take logical prepositions and then create a logical argument out of those to form the basis of our beliefs. There were many other points that he made, but I will not cover those here.

As I thought about what he had said the more I realized that he was right. In the Church we use our experiences or the stories that we tell as the basis of the doctrine that we know and understand. For example, when ever we teach about tithing we always use the scripture in Malachi 3:10 that says, "Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it." This scripture is then always followed by the explanation, "If you want to know whether or not the law of tithing is true, you have to try it first, and just pay your tithing, and then you will know that it is true." This approach to determining whether or not blessings can be received by paying your tithing is not based in logical arguments but rather it is based in our own personal experiences. Quite frequently this teaching is combined with a personal experience about how it has worked for the person teaching about tithing. All of this is part of what I am calling Experiential Theology (or Narrative Theology) because the truthfulness or efficacy of the doctrine is not based on a logical syllogism but rather in the experiences of those involved.

The same holds true for other points of doctrine in LDS theology. In terms of our knowledge regarding the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, we do not typically prove it through logical arguments but rather encourage people to read it for themselves and to gain their own "witness" that it is true. We tell them to pray and to have their own spiritual experience to confirm that it is true. When we teach about other things, such as the Word of Wisdom, or the Law of Chastity we encourage people to live those laws so that they may know by their own experience that they are good laws and induce us to happiness. This approach is almost unique in organized Christian Churches because it places more emphasis on our own experiences as the foundation of our beliefs than on some well thought out logical argument, in the style of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Anselm and other christian thinkers.

But what is also unique about the LDS approach is that while we use our own experiences as the foundation of our knowledge we do not reject Syllogistic Theology. As a matter of fact we strongly embrace logical, rational approaches to explain our beliefs, but we do not take the syllogism or even logical prepositions to be the foundation of our religious knowledge. That comes from our own experiences.

Now there are some interesting results for having this approach to our theology. First: No professional clergy. Because we focus on our own experiences rather than a well thought out syllogism there is not so much need to get everything "said correctly". That is, if some one is unable to express an idea clearly and coherently then that is not frowned upon in our church because the important part is the personal experience and not the well stated argument. Churches that rely on a professional clergy are founded on a syllogistic theology because they need to have the teachings "correct" and the way the ensure this is to have a professional clergy that knows the proper things to say and teach so that there are no unclear or possibly false teachings. This does not mean that in the LDS church we are not concerned about "correct" teachings, but rather we are more interested in "correct" personal experiences rather than an orthodox and clear articulation of the doctrine.

Second: How we "prove" things in the Church. This is related to the previous point and I have already covered this before, but we "prove" things in the Church by relating our personal experiences and contributing to the narrative of the doctrine. If someone demands to have something "proven" to them we tell them to try it out in order to "prove" it. This response tends to frustrate some people because they are looking for a logical syllogism and our response is, "Try it out for yourself and gain your own experience." Ultimately we consider the personal experience with the Holy Spirit to be the only valid method of "truly" learning the truthfulness of something.

Third: Compared to other Christian traditions we appear to have a non-existent theology. Some observers say that this is due to the relative young age of the Church, but I think that this has more to do with the fact that our theology is fundamentally different from other traditional Christian theologies. In effect critics look at our theology and because it is fundamentally different they do not see any of the typical hallmarks of a Christian theology, and thus they summarily conclude that we have no theology, when in reality our theology is much more extensive and robust then they could possible imagine.

So those were some of my thoughts on the matter. I may look into this more later on.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

What is a Mormon?

This post is intended as an introduction to people who really don't know what is meant by the term Mormon, and for those who have heard the term, and may have even known a Mormon, but still have little or no idea of what a Mormon is.

First of all, the term Mormon is most often applied to people who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As the name of the church implies, we follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, and recognize Him as our Lord and Savior and we accept the writings in the Bible as scripture. In addition to the Bible we use the Book of Mormon as another book of scripture to confirm or demonstrate our faith in Jesus Christ. It is because of this book we have the nickname "Mormon", which is perfectly acceptable to us, though formally the members of the church are known as Latter-day Saints, or LDS for short.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, who we consider to be a prophet, much like the prophets in the Bible. While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was officially founded in 1830, we claim that the church is a re-establishment of the original church founded by Jesus Christ almost 2000 year ago. We do not claim to be a break-away sect of any church, or a Protestant denomination, but literally the re-establishment of the ancient church. Thus we believe that we teach those things that were originally taught in the ancient Church of Jesus Christ.

As a members of the church, Mormons meet in their respective congregations every week where everything is done by the local church members. In the church we have what is called a lay ministry, meaning there is no professional, paid clergy. All talks, sermons, lessons and organization is done by members who volunteer their time and effort. The local congregations are lead by someone who we refer to as a bishop, and like all other leaders in the church they are not compensated monetarily for their work. The local bishops have normal jobs just like everyone else. My current bishop works for Microsoft, and I have had other bishops that were plumbers, college professors, architects, anesthesiologists and a used car salesman.

Perhaps some of the things that we are most well known for is the fact that we do not drink alcohol, tea or coffee. We also do not smoke or use tobacco. This general code of health is referred to by Mormons as "The Word of Wisdom", which includes general advice on living a healthy lifestyle. As a side note, while coffee and tea are expressly forbidden by the Word of Wisdom, most members have extended this to include all caffeinated beverages though this is not required by the church. Still, most Mormons refrain from drinking anything caffeinated, though it is not unusual to meet some Mormons who do. Mormons do not have any prohibitions against eating meat of any kind, and other than having the general rule to live and eat healthy, it is largely up to the individual members to decide for themselves what that means.

As for holidays, Mormons celebrate them. We do not have any prohibitions against celebrating any holidays. We celebrate Christmas as the anniversary of Christ's birth and Easter as the anniversary of his resurrection. All other holidays Mormons celebrate depend on the country in which they live. For example in the United States Mormons celebrate the Fourth of July while in Argentina they celebrate the 25 of May (and July 9th and October 26th, I mean who has three independence days??? That is, other than Mexico and France.). In the US we even celebrate Halloween by going trick-or-treating (I mention this because someone once asked me about this). With all of these holidays while the individual members celebrate them, there is no official church doctrine mandating the celebration of particular holidays (i.e. unlike for example, the Catholic Church, or Eastern Orthodox Church which observe holy-days, or saints' days as a matter of religious observance). In short, we celebrate holidays like most other people around us.

As individuals, Mormons get involved in politics like anybody else, but as a church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes it a very strong policy to not get involved in political matters, and will only speak out on topics that we consider to be of extreme moral importance, or in matters that will damage our freedom to worship. Other than that the church does not endorse any politician, political party or platform. While individual Mormons tend to be conservative politically, this is not a rule. Some famous Mormons include well known conservatives like Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and well known liberals like Harry Reid (D-Nevada) (Currently Harry Reid is the Senate Majority Leader).

One of the things Mormons focus on a lot is family. We place great importance in taking care of and teaching our families. For us there is nothing more important than taking care of our families. We encourage fathers to love and respect their wives and their children, and we teach wives to love and respect their husbands and their children, and we teach children to love and respect their parents. We believe that families and family ties will survive beyond death, which means that when Mormons are married they are not married "'Till death do you part." as is common in other churches, but for "Time and all eternity". It is because of this we place so much importance on our families.

And this brings us to the last thing I wanted to mention and that is Mormon church buildings. Our standard church buildings are called chapels, and this is where we meet every week for our church meetings. We also have church socials there and other activities, such as Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts. The local Cub Scout district holds the annual pinewood derby in the chapel that I go to. Thus the local church buildings are general, all-purpose buildings for anything church related. In addition to our local church buildings we have buildings known as Temples. These are different from our local church buildings in that only members of the church who actively try to live the principles of taught by the church are allowed to enter. There are no typical church meetings that happen in Mormon temples, but they are intended to be places of where we learn and pray and commit ourselves to God. Temples are also where Mormons go to be married. This shows the importance we place on marriage in that we only perform it in our temples, which we consider to be among our most sacred spaces. While there are literally thousands of our local chapels in the world, there are only about 130 temples in the world. The closest one to where I live in located in Raleigh (actually Apex), North Carolina.

I hope that this post has be helpful in answering some of the most basic questions about who Mormons are. I have most definitely not covered everything about Mormons, but if you have any questions feel free to contact me or to leave a comment.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Keys of the Priesthood

[Author's Note June 23, 2014: Since I wrote this post I have written a more extensive post dealing with priesthood keys. You can read it by following this link.]

The doctrine of the keys of the priesthood is perhaps one of the most important, but least understood of all the doctrines of the Church. It is also one of the most difficult to explain to people who are not members of the Church, but it is a very important doctrine and has had and will have a great impact on not only the Church but everyone else as well.

Before writing this post I looked up a few reference articles about the keys of the priesthood and found a few excellent resources about priesthood keys. Here is a link to the chapter on priesthood keys in the Melchizedek Priesthood manual. There is also a good talk about priesthood keys by Elder Nelson that appeared in the October Ensign in 2005. For those who want to learn more about the priesthood keys that is a good place to start. The rest of this post assumes that the reader has some understanding of the priesthood and priesthood keys.

Usually in the Church when we talk about priesthood keys we are referring to the active aspects of priesthood keys, that is, what they are used for in creating the structure and organization of the Church. While this aspect of priesthood keys is very important, there is another aspect that is very commonly over looked and very poorly understood. This aspect is more passive in its effect, but is still just as necessary and central to the doctrine of priesthood keys. It also brings together many other seemingly disparate doctrines of the Church and acts as central tie that binds the doctrine together.

First I will explain the more commonly known active aspects of the keys and then I will use that to explain the less well understood passive aspects of the keys. The active aspects are those things that have to do with priesthood authority and the power to organize the various stakes of Zion, organize the work of preaching the gospel and the functioning of temples. In all these cases priesthood keys are needed in order to preside and to allow for proper functioning of the organization. In each organization (i.e. stake, mission, temple) there is a president who has the keys, or the power, to order the formation of the organization. Typically when we talk about the keys in the Church, this is what we refer to. These aspects of priesthood keys involve the calling and setting apart for callings, the blessing of the sick, the performance of ordinances and the authority to interpret doctrine and give counsel and guidance. Without priesthood keys, none of these things could legitimately be done, with authority, and with efficacy. The keys are separate from the ordination to the priesthood, in that only certain men who hold the priesthood can hold and exercise keys, and they can only exercise the keys in a presidency, in order to preside, whereas all men can hold the priesthood.

The key here (no pun intended) is that in order for the priesthood keys to become operative there must be some action taken by those who hold the keys. Without the active participation of the person who holds the keys then the keys are dormant and of no effect. In order to use the keys the holder must exercise them within a presidency, which means they must have the proper authority and calling to exercise the keys first.

The second aspect of priesthood keys is what I will refer to as passive, although there must still be action taken on the part of someone in order to make the keys operative, but the actual holder of the priesthood keys need not do anything, or even be entirely worthy to allow this aspect of priesthood keys to work. The purpose of these particular priesthood keys is not dealing with the organization of the church but rather with the spiritual blessings of the priesthood as outlined in D&C 107:18-20.
18 The power and authority of the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood, is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church—

  19 To have the privilege of receiving the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, to have the heavens opened unto them, to commune with the general assembly and church of the Firstborn, and to enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father, and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.

  20 The power and authority of the lesser, or Aaronic Priesthood, is to hold the keys of the ministering of angels, and to administer in outward ordinances, the letter of the gospel, the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, agreeable to the covenants and commandments.
In verse 19 there are several "spiritual blessings" mentioned, including receiving the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven and  to enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father, and Jesus, but in order to enjoy these spiritual blessings someone must first "hold the keys". These blessings listed in verse 19 are what I am referring to as the passive keys of the priesthood. Not all priesthood holders will hold these keys, but for those that do they play a very important role for the rest of us. Simply by holding the keys, even if the holder do not do anything, or even if they are not entirely worthy, then the keys become operative and anyone who is faithful will have access to the spiritual blessings given in verse 19. Without someone to hold the keys, it does not matter how faithful someone is, or how righteous they are, or who they are or what they have done, if no one on the earth holds those priesthood keys, then they cannot have access to those blessings.

Furthermore, the blessings, because they are part of the Melchizedek Priesthood, are only available through a quorum. This means that in order for a priesthood holder to take advantage of these spiritual blessings then they must be a member of a priesthood quorum where the president holds the keys mentioned above. Without a quorum (and by definition a president who holds the keys of presidency in the quorum) a priesthood holder is without access to these blessings, because the keys are given to the president of the quorum, and the members of the quorum thereby have access through the passive use of the keys. It is interesting to note that this realization means that in order for a priesthood holder to have access to these blessings they must not only be a member of a quorum, but they must also be an active member of that quorum. This is to say that the more they are active and participate in their quorum, the more they have access to these blessings. But the only way they will have access is if the president of their quorum holds the keys to the blessings. The president does not need to do anything for the members of his quorum to access these blessings other than to have the keys conferred upon him.

Previously I stated that the person who holds the keys need not be entirely worthy to allow the passive keys to be operative. What I meant by that is that the ability of the individual members of the quorum to access the blessings is not entirely determined by the righteousness of the president but rather the individual members. This means that someone's ability to receive blessings is not determined by the level of spirituality of the holder of the keys. But having said this, by the very nature of priesthood keys these blessings cannot be accessed by an individual, no matter how righteous or faithful he is. These keys are only operative when the individual is an active member of his quorum. And the quorum is only active and conducive to the dispensing of the these blessings when the members, particularly the president are involved with each other, and living righteous lives. Thus while a faithful individual will not be denied the blessings as long as someone holds the keys, they will only be able to reap blessings in proportion to the activity of their quorum.

A good analogy would be the level of peace in a community. An individual may be at peace with himself and others, but unless those around him are also at peace then the individual, no matter how good, or how peace-like he is, will not have peace in his community and will not be able to enjoy the blessings or advantages of living in a peaceful community. But the more peace-like those around him are, the more peace the individual will be able to enjoy.

So in conclusion, the keys of the priesthood are manifest through the active aspect, namely the calling and setting apart of individuals for the organization and guidance of the Church, and the passive aspect, which requires no action on the part of the holder of the keys, but the level of blessings (as given in D&C 107:19) that are available are directly proportional to the righteousness of the individual members of the quorum and more particularly the president of the quorum. They key lesson here is that while these blessings are given to individuals, and thus depend of the righteousness of the individual in order to receive the blessing, it is not possible to access the blessings as an individual, but only through the community of saints. Individuals receive the blessings, but individuals cannot provide access to the blessings. No man can gain salvation or receive blessings or knowledge from God alone.

As a final note, there are other keys of the priesthood not mentioned in D&C 107 but are mentioned in D&C 110 that are not operative only in priesthood quorums, but are operative through out the world, both inside and outside the Church (some of them more particularly outside the Church). Again these things would not be possible if it were not for the fact that someone holds the keys to these special things. The holder of the keys need not do anything in particular to make these things operative other than hold the keys. These things include the gathering of Israel and the spirit of Elijah, both of which are fairly extensive topics, which I will not cover here. These keys are different from the other keys mentioned, because these keys are not typically delegated to the local quorum presidents, but reside with the presiding high priest of the Melchizedek Priesthood, who is the president of the Church. While these keys are not "local" they are operative because someone holds them. The blessings, the work and the effects of these priesthood keys would not be seen if it were not for the presence of the keys on the earth.