Sunday, December 25, 2011

Stories from My Mission: Reading the Christmas Story

A year into my mission I was in a city named Oberá in the province of Misiones. The church there was struggling and we were there on special assignment to help fix some of the problems and revive the struggling branch, but that is another story. At the time this would be my first and only Christmas in Argentina, since my first Christmas was spent in the Missionary Training Center in Provo.

Christmas in Argentina is very different than it is in the United States. I remember when I was growing up there would always be talk of a "white Christmas" (always jokingly, I lived in Arizona). But everything about Christmas, all the decorations, the things we colored in school and things we talked about in primary were associated with a "cold", "snowy" wintertime Christmas. But in Argentina Christmas falls in the middle of the summer, thus there it was associated with BBQ's, and fireworks and parades (processions). There were a few things that were odd and out of place that obviously had been imported from the United States (if not physically imported, then culturally imported), such as pictures of snowmen and "holiday" specials on TV that mostly consisted of Tim Allen's The Santa Clause or Arnold Schwarzenegger's Jingle All the Way dubbed in Spanish. For some reason those were popular in Argentina.

At this time of year as missionaries we would also have the opportunity of celebrate. The missionaries in my Zone (a group of about 10-16 missionaries) decided to get together for Christmas and have a BBQ. Only 6 of the 12 missionaries in my Zone were actually in Oberá so the others would have to travel in from other cities to spend Christmas with us. This meant that we would have to go pick them up at the bus terminal (we walked, we didn't have cars) and show them how to get to our apartment and where the hotel was and everything. This meant a lot of walking around making sure no one got lost. We also had to go out and buy the meat that we wanted, the seasonings, and all the other food we were going to make. So like many Christmas get-togethers, and us as the hosts, we were busy. Very busy.

In the middle of all of this my companion got sick and was out of commission for most of the day before Christmas. With all of the stress, illness and commotion I was failing to feel the spirit of Christmas and feel like it was something special. I was, we all were, being overwhelmed by too much stuff.

In my family we had the tradition that we would get together at my grandparents house and my grandfather would read the Christmas story from the book of Luke in the Bible. In the middle of all the commotion I was missing this special tradition and felt that I should do something.

Because everyone was going every which way I never really found the time to get the missionaries together to read the Christmas story. But my companion was sick and immobile so in a brief moment of pause I sat down with him and said that I thought it would be a good idea to read the Christmas story from Luke. He agreed and I opened my Bible and began to read.

As I read the story there was a change in both of us. Whereas we had been frenzied and distracted, as we focused on the reason for Christmas and read the story of Christ's birth we returned to a more peaceful and calm spirit that brought us a measure of relief. When the story came to a close my companion looked at me as said, "Thank you, that is what I was missing. We have been worrying about too much stuff, but this really brought us back to the true meaning of Christmas."

Even though there were still things to do we had come back to the true spirit of Christmas and that made it all worthwhile.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Stories from My Mission: I Get Hit by a Tornado

I have decided to share some of my more memorable stories from my mission on my blog. For those who might read this who are not aware, the young men of my Church are expected to serve a two year mission where we proselyte for our faith (i.e. we share with people what we believe and invite them to believe as well). We do this when we turn 19 but some choose to wait a few years before they go. I left on my mission shortly after I turned 19 after completing one semester of college. I served my mission in Argentina in a part of the country known as el Litoral, which is one of the poorest parts of Argentina. It is a region characterized by hot, humid climates, rain forests, swamps, bogs and palm forests in the east, and flat, dry quebracho forest in the west. The Litoral is cut into the east and west halves by the Rio Paraná, which is the largest river in Argentina. I'll share more about the Paraná in future posts.

As I mentioned above, this part of Argentina gets a lot of rainfall, especially the part I was in at the time of this story. I was in a city called Eldorado in the province of Misiones (yes, I did serve my mission in Misiones, and I am an official resident of the city of Eldorado so in more than one way I was and still am a Misionaro ;-). While it is not uncommon for it to rain, and rain fairly hard, it usually doesn't have extremely hard storms like the one that hit us that day. Now I will say up front that for those who live in tornado alley the tornado that hit me was no F5, or even an F2 or maybe even an F1, but it was still pretty hard. It did take trees down, and cut power and caused problems all over the city.

We had been eating lunch with the branch president (the leader of our local congregation) in the city and were just leaving their house when it started to rain. We had umbrellas and ponchos so we weren't too worried but we immediately knew that this storm would be a little more intense than normal. We immediately set out for our apartment, a 15 minute walk, to see if we could beat the worst of the storm. We walked up to the end of the street and turned the corner when the rain started to come down harder. As we walked up the next street I started to become concerned that we would not make it back to our apartment before the rain got too hard, but we kept on going.
Google Earth image of where the rain started to hit us. Arrows indicate our direction of travel.
Note: For scale, each block is 100 m.
It was windy and the rain was starting to come down harder but it still wasn't that bad. I had been in worse. Still some of the leaves were blowing off the trees and were whipping across the road and I was wondering how far we could go before we had to find shelter, but my companion kept walking. (As a note for those who don't know, as missionaries we work in pairs and we have a very strict rule that we should never leave our companion no matter what. So when he kept walking I had to go after him.) When we got to the end of the second street and crossed the road I turned to my companion and said that we needed to find shelter somewhere, but he kept walking. At about that time the wind really picked up and the rain started coming down sideways. 
Google Earth image of the next part of our journey in the storm. Path starts where the path on the previous image ends. Arrows indicate direction and path ends where the tornado hit us. The houses on the left side of street were not there when this happened (back in 2003) so the tornado had a clear shot at us.
By this time I had given up on my umbrella since I realized that it would probably break if I kept it open so I closed it, but I still had my poncho on, even if the rain was now so hard that my poncho didn't do much. My companion kept walking so I kept following him. The wind and the rain kept picking up and I kept thinking, "It can't get much worse than this." It did. I was beginning to desperately look around for a place to take shelter, but there were no good places. I didn't want to be right next to a tree since the branches might break and fall on us, so we kept walking. That was when the leaves that had been flying across the road turned into twigs, and small branches. I was getting concerned. At the end of the block we took a right and kept on going.

During most of this my companion was walking in front of me so I could not see his face, and he was walking rather quickly. I thought he was just trying to hurry so I let him lead the way. I again told my companion that we needed to stop and look for some shelter, but it was like he didn't hear me. At this point the wind got really strong so I had to start shouting to make myself heard, but he kept going. I was wondering what was wrong with him since he didn't seem to acknowledge anything that I said.

At this point the small branches that were now flying across the road turned into large branches. I could hear the trees starting to crack and break around me. I thought, "OK we really have to stop." But I remembered that just up the next street only 2 blocks away (200 meters) there lived a family that we knew, and I though we could take refuge there. So I thought, "OK we only have to make it to the end of the street." So we turned the corner and pushed on. That is when it got really bad.

The wind became so strong and the rain was so thick that I could barely see. My poncho was being pushed so hard against me and the rain was coming so fast that it did little to keep anything dry. The large branches that were running across the road were in danger of ending their run inside of us. At this point I screamed to my companion to stop. At that instant we had come to a point in the road where the houses on the left side of the street had stopped. The street was also on the crest of a hill and the left side of the street dropped off sharply which meant that from our position we could see quite a distance (maybe 100-200 meters) which is unusual since our view would normally be blocked by trees or houses, which also meant that the storm had a clear shot at us without any obstacles. At the instant I screamed at my companion to stop I looked out through the gap in the trees and could see it coming.

Right then my companion, who had been walking about a step or two in front of me the whole time, finally turned towards me, and I realized why he had not stopped earlier when I yelled at him. He was panicked. I had never seen someone panicked like that before. It was something I had read about or heard about in war documentaries or in news stories of natural disasters, but I had never actually seen someone so panicked that they literally could not think or function. The look on his face was one of pure panic. For the last 400 meters he had been so scared that he didn't know what to do so he had just kept walking, but finally he turned towards me, reached out and grabbed my wrist. As soon as I saw the look on his face and his death grip on my arm I understood. We were not far from the edge of the road so I grabbed his other arm and moved him to the side of the road where there was a low brick fence topped by metal bars about four feet tall. I grabbed on to the metal bars and motioned for him to grab on (words were useless since he would not have been able to hear me over the roaring wind). In the last moment I tightened my grip on the fence and on my companion and looked up in time to see the tornado move into the street about 50 meters away. And then it hit us.

I don't remember having to fight to stay upright, but it was enough to knock us into the fence and hold us there. I don't know how long we were there but it did pass by rather quickly. The wind was still strong and the rain was still thick but at least we weren't in danger of being blown away. I noticed that we were just a few feet from the front gate of the house we had stopped in front of. I moved us over to the gate so that we could go into the yard and take advantage of the small, covered porch in front of the house, but being the overly polite, socially conscientious person that I was, I paused to clap first. In that part of Argentina all the houses are set back from the road and most have a fence around the yard. So you can't go up to the door and knock, instead if you want to get the attention of the occupants of the house, you clap. It's standard practice. Most people don't even know how to knock on doors since they never do it. So there I was clinging to the fence with my companion soaked to the bone, and I had to pause and clap before invading some stranger's yard in order to take shelter. I clapped and then thought, "This is ridiculous, they can't hear me and it's not important." So I grabbed my companion and hauled him up to the front porch of the house, which was covered enough that we could take shelter.

We sat there for I don't know how long before the wind slowed and the rain let up, and when it finally did we continued on our way. We walked up the street, another 80 meters or so, to the home of a member of our church (the house I had been trying to get to in the first place). When we walked up to the door and clapped the mother opened to door and saw us and her eyes went wide as if to say, "You were out in that?!?!" We asked her if we could come in and she invited us in. In her front room we took stock of the damage and considered ourselves lucky. From a previous experience I had learned to always keep my scriptures in a plastic bag, but my companion had not, so his scriptures were soaked. Mine were thankfully dry (mostly, even with a plastic bag the rain got in). We waited a few more minutes until the rain stopped entirely and then we set out for our apartment.

All over the city we saw trees down and broken branches. Cars got smashed and roofs damaged, but we had managed to get through it unscathed. From the time the rain started to the time we finally were able to take shelter took about 8 minutes, and then the rain stopped 15-20 minutes after that. It was a very short but very intense storm. For the next few months I would walk by the fence where we held on for dear life and think, "It's amazing that that fence is sturdier than all the other fences on the street, yet that was the one we stopped by and grabbed onto." I also remember that the house had a very large planter where they were growing carnivorous pitcher plants that were about 4 feet tall. I never met the people who lived in that house. I did stop and clap there a few times, but no one ever answered the door.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Disingenuous Arguments About Religion

A while ago I was reading an article about Mitt Romney and I happened to glance at the comments below the article. There was one comment, which had nothing to do with Mitt Romney running for president, that caught my eye. It said, "Religion is the worlds biggest war maker and hate inciting machine ever invented."

Now that struck me as quite a claim. I am well aware that several wars have been started and fought because of religion, but to claim that it was the "biggest war maker" in history seemed like quite a stretch. This got me thinking because I like to read about history, historical figures, historical events such as wars, so I was wondering just how many wars in history could be attributed to religion. Just off the top of my head I could think of a few religious wars (or at least some "religious" wars), but I could also think of several more non-religious wars (including whole periods of history where empires expanded and which had nothing to do with religion). But to flesh out my investigation I thought it best to look into a more complete list. So I went and looked up a lists of wars.

There certainly were a lot of wars in history. I also very quickly realized that the list of wars presented on Wikipedia was heavily skewed towards the European wars, since the only wars included there were wars to which we have adequate historical (written) records for. This immediately excludes so many wars of which we have archeological evidence for, but no written record of, even if they occurred during the same time period. For example the list of wars from 1000-1499 includes so many European wars, but not a single Native American war, despite the fact that there is ample evidence that wars occurred in the Americas during that time period.

So the list provided by Wikipedia should be considered to be a biased sample since it relies heavily on a certain subset of historical documentation (as a side note if you consider just the list of wars on Wikipedia then that would seem to indicate that Europeans cause a lot of wars, which has also been argued by some people wishing to show how terrible Europeans are. If you use histories written by Europeans to construct the list of wars then of course Europe will have "more" wars. In effect if you use a biased sample then that will determine the conclusion that you can draw.).

But the list provided (even if it is incomplete) should do for our purposes. Even though there is no single citation for the entire list (individual wars have several different citations), I found that there are several books published that list the recorded wars in history. For example there is the Encyclopedia of Wars, and the Dictionary of Wars, both rather extensive. The Encyclopedia of Wars lists a total of 1763 wars. It is noted that in the Encyclopedia of Wars only 123 (about 7%) can be classified as religious wars. That seems to be a far cry from being the world's "biggest war maker". It would seem that the political forces that were the driving the world's empires have had a more devastating impact on history in terms of number of wars fought and people killed. So to make the claim that religion has been the single biggest cause of war throughout history is to grossly misrepresent or just plain ignore history.

Returning to the original comment that prompted this post, I realize that it was just one random comment and as a wise man once said, "A single grasshopper does not make a plague of locusts." But I have been finding that there are more and more comments like this that rely on a very skewed view of history that deliberately leaves out some or most of the critical details. I find it rather ironic that the very people who reject and ridicule religion because of "it's beliefs of a false history" or because it is full of "things that aren't true" are committing the exact same errors that they accuse religious people of committing.

Now I am not arguing that all people who criticize religion fall into this group, or even that they constitute the majority, but this group does exist and it is growing (or they are just getting internet connections for the first time). But in the end these ideas get passed around and repeated as a modern type of town gossip and just like so many other forms of gossip it usually isn't substantiated or true. For those of us, like me, who are religious it gets a little old and tiresome after a while to constantly deal with comments like the one that prompted this post. Normally I wouldn't be too concerned, but the single grasshopper is starting to show up with more friends. And I'm just curious how far they will go and how it will impact my life because it can get a little awkward when someone I have to deal with in normal (real, non-internet) life thinks that I am part of a massive "hate inciting machine". So far I haven't met anyone that will say that to my face but I really don't want it to come to that. Until then I will keep reading watching how things are going.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Quick thought on particle-wave duality

Just a quick thought on particle-wave duality today.

So how should we think about fundamental particles? Are they points in space or are they waves of probability? One person I read recently said that it just depends on the type of experiment. If you want a wave then make a wave experiment, but if you want a particle then make a particle experiment. This may seem like a simple explanation except for the fact that in some cases they behave like particles in wave experiments and also behave like waves in particle experiments.

So how do I think of particles in the particle-wave duality debate? The way I see it, they behave like waves when they travel, but they behave like particles when they interact with other particles. So when I explain it to students I say, "It travels like a wave, but interacts like a particle."

As a side note, this is an interesting way of looking at it since it would seem that particles travel like they have mass, but when they interact, they interact like they have no mass. Hmmm... so the wave nature of particles give them mass? There's an interesting thought.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why I haven't heard a good argument against religion yet, Part 2

This is a continuation of a previous post of mine about arguments against religion. In my previously post I (some what imperfectly) tried to point out that the reason why I have not found any good arguments against religion (in general) is because of the fundamental approach taken in most of the arguments. Most of the arguments against religion center around a basic attempt to disprove, ridicule, or point out the obvious flaws of some of philosophical pronouncements of religions. When these flaws are pointed out the person then making the argument then insists that that specific religion, or even religion in general should be done away with, because the "foundational" philosophies are misguided or naive (at least in the opinion of the arguer). When these arguments fail all too often the arguments quickly devolves into less sophisticated attacks.

My point in my previous post was to point out that the actual foundation of religion is not in the esoteric philosophical statements and syllogisms that are typical of so many theologians, but is in fact grounded in a way of thinking about others and in governing how we act towards others. The philosophical "foundations" that are the subject of so many attacks on religion are actually derived from the more, shall we say, central aspects of religion, that of how we treat each other. There can be no true attacks or arguments against religion that do not address this central point. All other things are incidental.

So if someone is to argue with me about religion, they would do well to realize that no philosophical argument against some particular point of doctrine will convince me. This is not because I live in denial, it is because that is not why I believe and why I follow a religion. If someone were to argue with me about why I should not believe, or why I should not follow a religion they must first and foremost convince me that I should not strive to have a positive way of treating other people. In effect they must convince me that the simple things of religion, such as how we treat each other, are not desirable and should not be endorsed. In effect, if someone is to convince me that religion is useless they must first convince me that the ideas taught in the simple children's song I'm Trying to be Like Jesus are not admirable or they are not a desirable way to live. If you can do that then you just might have a case to begin to argue that I should reject religion. Until then, I have not heard a good argument, because this is the foundation of religion, not the myriad of technical, philosophical arguments that have been used at one time or another in defense of religion.

I’m trying to be like Jesus;
I’m following in his ways.
I’m trying to love as he did, in all that I do and say.
At times I am tempted to make a wrong choice,
But I try to listen as the still small voice whispers,

“Love one another as Jesus loves you.
Try to show kindness in all that you do.
Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought,
For these are the things Jesus taught.”

I’m trying to love my neighbor;
I’'m learning to serve my friends.
I watch for the day of gladness when Jesus will come again.
I try to remember the lessons he taught.
Then the Holy Spirit enters into my thoughts, saying:

“Love one another as Jesus loves you.
Try to show kindness in all that you do.
Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought,
For these are the things Jesus taught.”

Monday, September 19, 2011

Why I haven't heard a good argument against religion yet

By argument against religion I mean an argument against religion in general and not against a specific religion. This is something I have been thinking about for a while, but I was inspired to write this post after reading an opinion piece on the BBC that dealt with the same topic.

Most of the arguments against religion that I come across generally consist of "This particular proposition about religion is either false, unfalsifiable, unprovable or I consider it to be silly, therefore religion is false." In other words, the arguments treat religion as a series of propositions, or logical syllogisms, that can be proven or disproven through rational argument. But as the commenter on the BBC put it,
"The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn't come from religion. It's an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which shaped much of western Christianity and led to practitioners trying to defend their way of life as an expression of what they believe."
What it comes down to is there is an attempt made to disprove some key aspect of religion (i.e. God created the world, Jesus' resurrection, the ex nihilo creation, the immutability of God etc.) and then conclude that religion is therefore wrong. But despite all the arguments, some in depth and intricate, others not so much, there are still rational, logical, well-balanced, well-educated, people who still believe and follow a religious way of life. Perhaps the most common response given by critics of religion when these kinds people are encountered is, "Well they must be crazy or delusional or both, because I proved [blank] and disproved [blank] and they still accept religion. They must be ignorant."

But these people, such as myself, are not ignorant. It's just that religion to us is not just a set of propositions that must be logically proven in order to be acceptable of belief. Religion is more about a way of life than it is about being able to accurately and completely describe reality in a set of well formed philosophical propositions. It is something that inspires us to become better people and to do things we would not naturally do. So when ever I come across arguments against religion I realize that the people making the arguments think they are attacking the core of religious belief by forming their best arguments, but in reality they are only attacking the inconsequential philosophical fluff that is mostly wrong anyway.

The core of religious belief is (or should be) a morality that guides our interactions with others. From my perspective, and experience, most arguments against religion are not ultimately motivated by philosophical doubts, but are instead are arguments against moral systems in general. When ever I am confronted by arguments against religion, my thought is not, "Hmm. I will have to think that one through to consider how this argument fits with all the other propositions of my religion." but I think, "Why would I have to give up being nice to my family, and other people just so all my logical propositions can 'fit together', based solely on my current understanding of the world (which will definitely change)." This is because religion for me, and many other people as well, is about how we treat other people. So an argument against religion is essentially a statement that we should not have a consistent set of rules that govern how we treat other people. From this perspective, religion is an effort to avoid moral and social anarchy, and it would be illogical and irrational to reject religion simply because of some esoteric philosophical argument (which ultimately may or may not be valid anyway).

So while those who bring up arguments against religion may think they are being quite cleaver, they are unfortunately missing the point of religion and the basis on which it stands. Religion works not because it has a complete set of philosophical propositions that have been rigorously argued and logically thought out, but because its moral system is self propagating and allows for stability and happiness.

I believe because religion allows me to find comfort when I feel sorrow, find help when I need it, find peace when the all around me have none, and inspires me to treat others better than I naturally would. Why would I give up all that because of some philosophical argument to which there is no real answer? That is why I haven't heard a good argument against religion yet, and probably never will.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9-11

Now ten years later it is interesting to see the course that history has taken since September 11, 2001. At the time no one had any idea the course that history would take, or the outcomes that we would see. At the time there seemed to be an unrestrained movement towards national unity in response to the terrible acts of that day, but ten years later the legacy of that day, and all its effects, have left us more disunified than at almost any other time in our nation's history.

I remember it was a Tuesday morning. I had slept in a little and I had just gotten up and was getting ready to go to class. It was my first semester in college and I had to be to Mission Prep. that morning when my roommate, Ryan Weaver, came in and said that something had happened. He told me that two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. I stood there in my room for a moment trying to decide what to do since I had to be to class in 5 minutes, but after a moment of thought I decided that class wasn't that important anyway and I made my way into the lobby of the dorm (we didn't have a TV in our apartment). There were two or three people out there watching the news and I sat down with them and watched the events unfold.

By the time I got out there both towers had already fallen and the news was showing footage of the strikes and the collapse. At the time I had a sense that this would be a defining moment in history, but I really didn't know what the end result would be.

I had just graduated from high school and while I was there I had the opportunity to have the same history teacher for both my sophomore and junior years. His name was Rob Helsel and he instilled in me a sense of the important moments of history that determine future events. I realized that I was living to see one of those important events that would determine so many things in history. It was one of those, "Because of _____, this happened, which caused this and that and all this other stuff, which led this happening because of these things that were going on here." moments in history.

Perhaps the two things that put the whole thing into perspective were two speeches I listened to that were made in the days and weeks following 9-11. The first speech I listened to was President Bush's address to Congress. I remember thinking, "Uh oh. This may turn into another Vietnam." In one sense I was right, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not approached the level of the Vietnam war (despite what some people would have you believe). Mostly I was concerned that it would never end.

The second speech was actually a conference talk (you can hear the audio of the talk here) by President Hinckley given on October 7, 2001. It was at the end of the Sunday morning session of General Conference and President Hinckley got up and said, "I have just been handed a note that says that a U.S. missile attack is under way." At that moment I knew that my life and history had changed again. But it was definitely that talk that put it in perspective for me. I will share a few of the highlights from his talk here. You can find the full text (and audio) in the above links.
"You are acutely aware of the events of September 11, less than a month ago. Out of that vicious and ugly attack we are plunged into a state of war. It is the first war of the 21st century. The last century has been described as the most war-torn in human history. Now we are off on another dangerous undertaking, the unfolding of which and the end thereof we do not know. For the first time since we became a nation, the United States has been seriously attacked on its mainland soil. But this was not an attack on the United States alone. It was an attack on men and nations of goodwill everywhere. It was well planned, boldly executed, and the results were disastrous. It is estimated that more than 5,000 innocent people died. Among these were many from other nations. It was cruel and cunning, an act of consummate evil.
"Recently, in company with a few national religious leaders, I was invited to the White House to meet with the president. In talking to us he was frank and straightforward. 
"That same evening he spoke to the Congress and the nation in unmistakable language concerning the resolve of America and its friends to hunt down the terrorists who were responsible for the planning of this terrible thing and any who harbored such.
"Now we are at war. Great forces have been mobilized and will continue to be. Political alliances are being forged. We do not know how long this conflict will last. We do not know what it will cost in lives and treasure. We do not know the manner in which it will be carried out.... 
"The terrible forces of evil must be confronted and held accountable for their actions. This is not a matter of Christian against Muslim. I am pleased that food is being dropped to the hungry people of a targeted nation. We value our Muslim neighbors across the world and hope that those who live by the tenets of their faith will not suffer. I ask particularly that our own people do not become a party in any way to the persecution of the innocent. Rather, let us be friendly and helpful, protective and supportive. It is the terrorist organizations that must be ferreted out and brought down. 
"We of this Church know something of such groups. The Book of Mormon speaks of the Gadianton robbers, a vicious, oath-bound, and secret organization bent on evil and destruction. In their day they did all in their power, by whatever means available, to bring down the Church, to woo the people with sophistry, and to take control of the society. We see the same thing in the present situation. 
"We are people of peace. We are followers of the Christ who was and is the Prince of Peace. But there are times when we must stand up for right and decency, for freedom and civilization, just as Moroni rallied his people in his day to the defense of their wives, their children, and the cause of liberty.... 
"Religion offers no shield for wickedness, for evil, for those kinds of things. The God in whom I believe does not foster this kind of action. He is a God of mercy. He is a God of love. He is a God of peace and reassurance, and I look to Him in times such as this as a comfort and a source of strength....
"No one knows how long it will last. No one knows precisely where it will be fought. No one knows what it may entail before it is over. We have launched an undertaking the size and nature of which we cannot see at this time.... 
"Let us be prayerful. Let us pray for righteousness. Let us pray for the forces of good. Let us reach out to help men and women of goodwill, whatever their religious persuasion and wherever they live. Let us stand firm against evil, both at home and abroad. Let us live worthy of the blessings of heaven, reforming our lives where necessary and looking to Him, the Father of us all. He has said, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). 
"Are these perilous times? They are. But there is no need to fear. We can have peace in our hearts and peace in our homes. We can be an influence for good in this world, every one of us."
I think the most important measure of our lives is not what happens to us, but how we respond to it. If we respond with hate and fear then we will have hate and fear all the days of our lives. But there is no need to fear, and no need to hate. If we strive for the good then we can can heal the hurt and pain of the past and present and overcome all things. Simple kindness has done more to overcome barriers than any army or weapon devised by man. Perhaps by pausing a thinking a bit, and by offering simple kindnesses and forgiving the faults and failings of others, and by holding the lives of others as more precious than gold, or land (or oil), or even ourselves, we can begin to heal the hurt, and close the divisions we have in our society.

I will end with this video of remarks by President Bush from the memorial service yesterday.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My Ride to Work

I know I haven't been posting a lot lately, but I have been busy and most of my mental energy is going into my research at the moment. Which means I don't have a lot of time to write. I just wanted to post something simple.

This is a graph of my ride to work. On the days that I can (or want to) ride my bike to work I have to go up and down a few hills. Using Google Earth I figured out distance and altitude for the path I take to work. It takes me straight through campus and is quite nice except for the one big hill and the last long hot stretch.

The x axis is the distance that I ride (in meters). The y axis is the altitude (in feet).
Each dot represents a place where I have to turn (even if it is a slight turn, it is somewhere I can't just go straight). I start at 400 ft. and I end up at 500 feet (there is a reason why they call the place Chapel Hill, where I work is a short distance from the location of the original chapel on Chapel Hill, now home to the Carolina Inn), with a minimum altitude of 352 feet. I have a total altitude change of 276 feet and an absolute change of 100 feet, over a distance of ~2.1 km. The worst part is one long hill with 60 foot climb at a 9% grade. It's great coming down, not so fun going up.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

I think little children instinctively know what is right

Today I was teaching my Sunday School class, which is a class of kids who are 7 or 8 years old, and we have a time in class when each child can tell the rest of the class about something fun they did that week and also how they had one opportunity to Choose the Right. After all the children had had an opportunity to share my co-teacher turned to me and asked if I had anything I wanted to share about something fun I had done this week. I said, "Well I did something that I thought was fun, you may think it a little strange, but this week my boss gave me some money so I could go out and buy some books and computer stuff for my work." (I have a grant that I can use for textbooks and other "research materials").

One of the girls in the class asked, "So you could go out and buy whatever books you wanted?" And I explained that no, I couldn't buy whatever I wanted because I had to only use the money for books and stuff related to my work. She thought for a moment and then said, "Oh, so you also were able to choose the right!"

She was able to recognize that the money was given to me to use for a specific purpose and that it wasn't right to use it in a way that I wasn't supposed to even if no one would know. She instinctively knew what was right.

I feel blessed to be able to "teach" children like this, because they can teach me so much more.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Book Review: The Extraterrestrial Life Debate by Michael J. Crowe

This is actually two reviews in one. The author, Michael J. Crowe, wrote two books that dealt with the debate on extraterrestrial life. The first book, published in 1986 and the second in 2008, give a comprehensive view of all of the scholarly, religious, and popular writings about extraterrestrials from antiquity (i.e. the Greeks) until about 1915.

His first book, entitled The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900, is more narrative, meaning he does a lot of the explaining and tells the history of the the ideas behind extraterrestrial life. The second book, entitled The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, Antiquity to 1915: A Source Book, contains large portions of the source material that he used to write his first book. Thus it is not narrative, but more informational, with long quotes and brief explanations. Combined both books are a great resource for anyone who wants to know what people thought about extraterrestrials before they became little green men.

I think that if you asked the typical person on the street when was it that we first got the idea that there might be extraterrestrials, they would probably say that the idea of extraterrestrials has only been around for about 100 years, or maybe 150 or so. Very few people would realize that the discussion of extraterrestrials goes back to the Greeks (such as Epicurus and Democritus (yes the guy who thought up atoms, and lost the debate to Aristotle, at least until they found atoms again)). Few people would also realize that the debate about extraterrestrials was also on going through out the middle ages, but that it got much more coverage during, and after, the Enlightenment.

Perhaps the most prominent driver of the extraterrestrial debate was religion, mostly because the question of whether or not there are extraterrestrials directly impacts many religious doctrines and ideas. The author, Dr. Crowe, points this out, but while he does not take a side on the issue, he readily admits that this is a very important question because the discovery of extraterrestrials would radically change the way we view ourselves, our ethics, our culture and religion. One thing that is interesting to note is that while religion has been a major driver in the debate, religion as a whole, or even just Christianity and a whole has not universally taken a side on the debate. Many (almost all) of the theologians in the middle ages took the stance that there were no extraterrestrials, but since the Enlightenment there have been just as many theologians (and even non-theologians) that have taken the view that there were extraterrestrials.

One of the most interesting things I got out of these books was the very different view of extraterrestrials that people had during that time period. Our current view of extraterrestrials has been so radically changed by H. G. Wells, Star Wars, Star Trek, Sputnik, Buck Rogers, E.T., Alien, Roswell and others that it is difficult to get past our current view of extraterrestrials to understand how people viewed extraterrestrials before 1900. Their conception of extraterrestrials was so radically different that most people would not realize just how much our views have changed in 100 years. These books give an excellent insight into how people though of extraterrestrials before there was "The War of the Worlds".

The difference in ideas, and thinking is so profound that any attempt by modern people to understand what was written about extraterrestrials before 1900 will most likely result in misunderstanding, and a severe misconstruing of what people thought and believed. Any attempt to retroactively project our modern ideas of extraterrestrials on what was written before then would be a severe intellectual disservice. The types of questions, dilemmas and motivations in the extraterrestrial life debate are so different from what they currently are that the possibility for misunderstanding and fundamentally missing what was talked about are very high. These books are supposed to bridge the gap between the historical and modern views of extraterrestrials.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lightning Struck a Tree

Recently lightning struck a tree near by the building I work in. I took a few pictures of the lightning damage to the tree before they cut it down. The tree is very old and UNC was considering removing it anyway, but with this much damage they will just have to remove it as soon as possible. I spoke briefly with someone who works for the grounds crew and he said, "The tree is already dead, it just doesn't know it yet."

I would like to point out the distinct spiral pattern of the lightning strike. From all the trees I have seen that have been struck by lightning, they all have the same distinctive spiral pattern. I don't know why follows the spiral pattern, but I do know why lighting causes trees to explode like this. If the tree is dry (i.e. no rain has fallen) then the lightning will travel down through the living part of the tree, where the sap and water is. The water super-heats and expands rapidly (it literally explodes) causing the outer layer of the tree to blow out. In some cases, such as this, the damage is extensive enough that it will kill the tree outright or do enough damage to severely reduce its ability to survive.

You can see two separate spiral patters here where the lightning traveled down the tree.
If you look carefully you can see the splintering going all the way up the tree.
From the exact opposite side of the tree from the previous picture.
A close up of where the lightning traveled down the tree. The section where the bark has been removed is about 8-9 inches wide, and you can see two groves where the lightning actually traveled. One is at the extreme left of where the bark has been stripped, and the other is slightly off to the right from the middle of the stripped area.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Why Google+ Gets Human Relations and Facebook Fails Miserably

A couple of years ago I signed up for Facebook. I had been resisting it for a while, even when people kept asking me if I was on Facebook and promptly treating me like a leper when I told them I wasn't. It wasn't until one of my roommates (who was also staunchly anti-Facebook) got on Facebook that I broke down and got my own account. For a while I only had one Facebook "friend" (my roommate) but eventually I got more. At first I was slightly amused, but mostly annoyed with the trivial tripe of Facebook such as the pokes, surveys, polls, games and flashing lights (some of that has toned down over the years).

But eventually I sort of stopped using Facebook because really it was just one more thing to bother with when I had other things (such as two blogs) to think about, and that fulfilled my "social networking need". So I kept up with a once yearly update on Facebook and called it good, and if I ever needed to actually get in contact with someone, I could look them up on Facebook and find their email address. That worked for me.

One of the things that I could never really get into with Facebook was the way everyone I knew was thrown into one big pot. Everyone, from my wife, to my parents to my in-laws, to high school or college friends to that random guy in my class were put into the same big pot of "friends". It was kind of like Facebook couldn't conceive of anyone having any relation other than "friend". At some point they kind of implemented this thing where you could declare someone as part of your "family" but other than being cosmetic I could see no use to it.

If I wanted to post a status update I had to keep in mind that everyone from my parents to high school friends to graduate students that I work with could see it. If I wanted to post about family reunion stuff, why would my high school friends want to read about that? Everyone was being blasted by the same fire hose and there was little that could be done to redirect that stream so that it could be manageable. Over time Facebook was working on improving that but it seemed that they still functioned with one driving principle in mind, that one person had one status and one stream of thought to the entire world. And that all human relations are fundamentally equal and indistinguishable. That there is nothing inherently different in a human relation between a parent and a child than there is between two associates at work. Human relations, according to Facebook, are a nondescript pipeline of information flow (or at least a flow of stuff, if you don't want to call what happens on Facebook information) with information constantly flowing from one person to another, and the more the information flows the stronger the human relation.

This way of thinking may make sense in a college setting where everyone is meeting someone new and people are forming new relations, but in the real world there are pre-made relations that are formed for different reasons. Some relations are not based on information flow but on other things, such as marriage or blood relation. I may be "friends" with my wife's aunts and uncles on Facebook, but I would not characterize our relation as one based on information flow, or even on a desire to network. I have interactions with them because I married their niece, not because we met and decided that we should be "friends" (that doesn't mean  I have a problem with them, it just means that the connection was made for reasons other than the ones the Facebook team think of as being fundamental to human relations). The thing is Facebook fails to comprehend this. To them the connection to my wife's cousin's husband (who I have never met in person) is considered to be of the same order, or importance, as the connection I have to a roommate that I lived with for 3 years, or that mission companion that I was with for 3 months, and survived dog attacks, torrential downpours, floods, cold weather, broken ribs, and several unforgettable teaching experiences with. How does that compare? Yet Facebook fails to understand that and just wants to lump everyone into one big group of "friends" and you are given one fire hose to turn on them and drench them with your pictures, status updates and stuff.

Today when I got onto Google+ the first thing I noticed was that I could very easily put people in different categories. I could also control the streams of status updates, photos and stuff. I could separate the photos of family from friends, and from acquaintances. That way the pictures of my nieces and nephews would not be mixed in with the pictures of "that one guy" from high school playing guitar at some random party. In short, the Google team made it so that my interactions on a social network could be organized into real human relations that reflect the real world. That right there puts them light years ahead of Facebook.

I don't know much else about how Google+ works, but that one feature of being able to separate friends from family, acquaintances from people I know from work, and my 20+ aunts and uncles-in-law from my cousin that I haven't seen for about 20 years, is enough to make me want to give it a shot. And I might just stick with it because it may actually be useful.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Cool Video from the Cockpit of an Air Tanker

Just wanted to share this cool video shot from the cockpit of an air tanker fighting the Monument Fire in Arizona.

Also I found this cool time-lapse video of the fire.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments" Scripture Chain

One of the reoccurring themes in the Book of Mormon is the idea that if the people follow the commandments of God then they will prosper, but if not then they will be cut off from his presence. This theme is so prevalent that it is mentioned at least 18 20 times in the Book of Mormon in almost the exact same way. If there is something that is mentioned so many times in the Book of Mormon then I think it should be something to take note of.

One thing I find particularly interesting is the difference between what is promised for keeping the commandments, and what the consequence is for not keeping the commandments. On the one hand those who keep the commandments are promised that they will "prosper in the land". But on the other hand those who do not keep the commandments are not warned that they will be destroyed, instantly, slowly or otherwise, but they are warned that they will be "cut off from the presence of the Lord." So the warning for not keeping the commandments, interestingly enough is not instant, immediate, absolute and eternal destruction, but rather that they (those who do not keep the commandments) will be left to their own devices, and will be left to fend for themselves. They will stand or fall by their own strength and will no longer receive the sustaining influence of the Lord.

A number of years ago one of my sisters loaned my a set of scriptures to use in seminary. It was the same set of scriptures that several of my sisters had used in seminary (sorry I don't know the full history of this set of scriptures, but it does have two of my sister's names in the front). Somewhere along the way someone had written a scripture chain which included every instance where the promise and warning is given in the Book of Mormon. I just wanted to include that scripture chain here, with links to the scriptures on Hopefully this will be helpful to someone.
  1. 1 Nephi 2:20-21
  2. 1 Nephi 4:14
  3. 2 Nephi 1:9,11
  4. 2 Nephi 1:20
  5. 2 Nephi 4:4
  6. Jarom 1:9
  7. Omni 1:6
  8. Mosiah 1:7
  9. Mosiah 2:22
  10. Mosiah 2:31
  11. Alma 9:13
  12. Alma 36:1
  13. Alma 36:30
  14. Alma 37:13
  15. Alma 38:1
  16. Alma 48:15
  17. Alma 48:25
  18. Alma 50:20
  19. Helaman 3:20
  20. 3 Nephi 5:22
[Author's note 8/23/15: After going back and checking these verses I found two more references that were not in my original list. Alma 48:15 refers to the original prophecy found in 2 Nephi 1:20. 3 Nephi 5:22 is commentary by Mormon about the fulfillment of that prophecy. As near as I can tell this list is now complete. Also note the interesting difference in Omni 1:6.]

Bound for the Promised Land

Bound for the Promised Land is a song written by Samuel Stennett in 1787. The tune for the song was written by a "Miss M. Durham" of which nothing else is known. The song became a well known Christian hymn, and most recently it has been arranged by Mack Wilberg. Below is a video of the hymn as arranged by Mack Wilberg, performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, directed by Mack Wilberg.
When I looked up the lyrics I found that many of sites that had the lyrics did not have all of the verses. Some had three, others four, but they all seemed to have different verses, and none of them had all of the verses in the Mack Wilberg arrangement. So put together the lyrics as found in the Mack Wilberg version. He has four verses, and includes the chorus six times (first two verses, chorus twice, next two verses, and repeat chorus four times).

On Jordan's stormy banks I stand
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan's fair and happy land,
Where my possesions lie.

There generous fruits that never fail
On trees immortal grow;
There rocks and hills and brooks and vales
With milk and honey flow.

I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land
O who will come and go with me
I am bound for the promised land.

Repeat Chorus

O the transporting rapt'rous scene
That rises to my sight;
Sweet fields arrayed in living green
And rivers of Delight.

When shall I reach that happy place,
I’ll be forever blest,
When shall I see my Father’s face,
And in His bosom rest.

I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land
O who will come and go with me
I am bound for the promised land.

Repeat Chorus

Repeat Chorus

Repeat Chorus

In addition to the four verses in the Mack Wilberg arrangement I was able to find four additional verses to the song. I will include them below.

Soon will the Lord my soul prepare
For joys beyond the skies,
Where never-ceasing pleasures roll,
And praises never die.

O’er all those wide extended plains
Shines one eternal day;
There God the Son forever reigns,
And scatters night away.

No chilling winds or poisonous breath
Can reach that healthful shore;
Sickness and sorrow, pain and death,
Are felt and feared no more.

Filled with delight my raptured soul
Would here no longer stay;
Though Jordan’s waves around me roll,
Fearless I’d launch away.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Book Review: Venezuela's Chavismo and Populism in Comparative Perspective by Kirk Hawkins

If I had to sum this book up in one word it would be "dense". This is not a book that you would (typically) want to curl up with on a lazy afternoon to relax with. This book has an incredible wealth of information, complexity, and analysis. This is not a book written for a general audience, but the things it talks about are incredibly important for the general audience. Perhaps the only way I could begin to understand what the author was talking about was because I have at least a minimal familiarity with Latin American politics and I spent four years studying philosophy, that way I could understand a lot of the technical terms and their proper context.

Perhaps I can give a brief overview of the book (kind of like trying to explain the history of Western Civilization in 1000 words or less), so here goes:

As the title implies the book deals with the Chavismo movement in Venezuela (it does not provide a breakdown of Hugo Chávez himself, as the Chavismo movement, while centered on Hugo Chávez, is much more complex than a single movement lead by one man). Furthermore, the book looks at Chavismo as a populist movement rather than an expression of a particular political ideology. The movement does have a particular ideology, but to think of it in such narrow terms is to miss what is really going on.

One of the first things Dr. Hawkins does is set out an understanding of three critical ideas; populism, worldview and discourse. In terms of worldview, Chavismo movement has what is called a Manichaean outlook, which means they view their own actions, plight and work as being part of a larger cosmic struggle between the Good and the Evil. In this case the Good is interpreted by them to be the unified will of the people and the Evil to be a conspiring minority. In this sense their worldview is a populist worldview. The discourse refers not to a set cannon of political tracts or works, but a more elusive and set of vocabulary, tone, metaphor and broad themes that drive the movement.

After laying this foundation Dr. Hawkins then proceeds to give an in depth analysis of Hugo Chávez's use of populist discourse and also gives a method of measuring the populist discourse quantitatively. This is compared to other countries and leaders to give a sense of where Chávez and Chavismo in general falls in the populist spectrum. Not surprisingly it falls at the extreme end of the populist spectrum.

Then Dr. Hawkins looks into the historical causes that lead to the rise of populism in Venezuela. While there were a number of factors that contributed to the formation of the societal forces in Venezuela, Dr. Hawkins clearly states that it was the break down of democratic norms and the underlying violation of the rule of law that allowed for the creation of a populist movement in Venezuela. This assertion is accompanied by a number of studies and surveys (presented in a number of tables) to measure the level or the perceived level of corruption in government. This measure is compared against the causes of populism across several countries and areas of the world.

The book finishes up with a look at how the introduction of a populist movement has affected Venezuela in general. Specifically the author looks at the effect of Bolivarian Circles on the fundamental political organization of the country. The Circles are characterized by four attributes: low institutionalization, movement structure, disruptive tactics, and insularity within the larger society. These four things both defined and drove the populist movement in Venezuela. The effects of populism on public policy are also considered where it is asserted that the ideology of the populist movement drives the economic policies rather than economic policies driving the movement.

The book concludes by emphasizing the importance of the ideas developed in the course of the book, namely that of populism as discourse and worldview that can be used to understand and apply to different situations across the world. It is important to understand how the system works because that will determine future outcomes and/or determine how the society interacts with other societies. How that particular society responds to external forces and influences will be highly dependent on the strength and amount of populist fervor in the country. Definitely important things to consider when interacting or studying the country in question.

Overall I found the book to be very informative and interesting. I realize that I could never give an adequate summary of the book here as it is very complex, but it does provide a wealth of ideas, analysis and understanding of populism.

Disclaimer: Dr. Kirk Hawkins is my brother-in-law, which is why I decided to read this book. I don't typically go and pull random Political Science books of the shelf and read them. But I really did enjoy reading this book.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Philosophical Implications of the LDS Doctrine of Works

Previously I had written about the purpose of our Christian works. In that post I discussed how one of the critical ideas that set Latter-day Saints apart from many other Protestant theologies is how we view our personal works being a part of our process of salvation. One of the things that Mormons find interesting or noticeably different when talking to Protestant Christians is how much emphasis they place on "being saved". Quite often LDS members are bemused by how frequently they are asked if "they have accepted Jesus" or "have been saved". For many LDS members they view these questions as nonsensical or at least don't understand why the question has to be asked so much. More often you will hear Latter-day Saints say that they are "working towards salvation" or that they are "in the process" of being saved. In wards (congregations) that I have been in it is not uncommon to hear the phrase "it's a process", about once a month in reference to salvation.

Too many times when the subject of salvation comes up in conversation between Mormons and Protestants (especially Evangelical Protestants) the Protestants come away thinking that Mormons do not believe in Jesus, or think that Mormons do not accept the saving grace of Jesus Christ. The truth is Mormons readily accept the saving grace of Jesus Christ, it's just that we have a different perspective on what it means "to be saved" or rather, "the process of salvation" (there's that word again, "process"). What it comes down to is a fundamental difference of philosophy. Just as Mormons do not typically talk about "being saved" (as a single act), Protestants do not frequently talk about "the process of salvation", and this, I think, is a insight that would be of great interest to those who are philosophically minded.

Essentially what it comes down to is that LDS theology is fundamentally related to process theology. This is to say that while we view God as the creator of the world, we also hold that we have creative power, or the power to reshape . The common way we express this is to say that we are "co-creators" with God (but I must emphasize that that phrase is only used in a limited sense and in specific circumstances. This does not extend to the creation referenced in Genesis, but only to current, specific creative acts.). This approach to theology fundamentally puts us at odds with the majority of Protestant (and most Catholic) theology which is fundamentally based on substance philosophy (i.e. an emphasis on being, or states of being, rather than a process).

To understand this difference we need to understand the difference between process philosophy and substance philosophy. Perhaps the best way to explain substance philosophy is to start with Aristotle's Categories (both the book and the topic).
"[Statements about a subject (or a thing)] which are in no way composite signify substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time,position, state, action, or affection. To sketch my meaning roughly, examples of substance are 'man' or 'the horse', of quantity, such terms as 'two cubits long' or 'three cubits long', of quality, such attributes as 'white', 'grammatical'. 'Double', 'half', 'greater', fa;; under the category of relation; 'in the market place', 'in the Lyceum', under that of place; 'yesterday', 'last year', under that of time. 'Lying', 'sitting', are terms indicating position; 'shod', 'armed', state; 'to lance', 'to cauterize', action; 'to be lanced', 'to be cauterized', affection." (1b25-2a4)
The point is that all things, even actions, exist in a state of being. Thus any and all qualities that a thing has is simply a succession and collection of states. But the ultimate reality, the ontology, is that things exist in specific states or have specific qualities, even when in motion (because motion itself is a state of being).

One of the consequences of this way of thinking is that change in a substance (as in, from cold to hot, or from white to black) is of a lesser reality than the actual states. The flux, or change, in states does not constitute a form of reality. This way of thinking is so pervasive that it can even be found in certain interpretations of quantum mechanics. In the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics the common description is that the wavefunction of a particle describes all possible states. The uncertainty involved quantum mechanics is not considered to be an aspect of reality, but rather is ignorance of reality.

On the other hand process philosophy takes the view that the fundamental change in states, rather than being an inferior aspect of reality, is an integral part of reality. That is, the creative process is an aspect of reality that creates reality, just as much as the substance of things makes up reality. With this way of thinking, reality is not made up by a set of states, or collection of substances, but by interactions of processes that act on things, to produce states.

There are of course philosophies that go to the other extreme and say that all things are flux, and that there is no substance at all (as is common in Eastern philosophies). But the LDS concept of process theology, while avoiding substance philosophy, also avoids a complete rejection of substance, and makes no assertions that all things are in flux, but in fact says that the elements are eternal. Thus LDS theology contains a rather unique view of process and being that is not found anywhere else.

The way this process philosophy manifests itself in LDS culture is in the idea that (individual) salvation does not come in a single act, but is a process that we must go through. Hence the difference, and often misunderstandings, that Mormons have with other Christians. For most Christians (especially for Protestants) to be saved means entering into the state of salvation. The actual change to the state of salvation is a mystery performed by God. On the other hand, for Latter-day Saints, to talk about "being saved" does not make sense because salvation is fundamentally a process, and is not achieved in a single act of believing or confession.

Thus we can see that this fundamental difference in philosophy can create a misunderstanding between Mormons and other Christians, because Mormons treat salvation as a process that must be worked through, but other Christians (especially Protestants) treat salvation as entering into a state of being saved. This difference is more than just a difference on an abstract level, but affects the way we interact with our own religion. For Mormons, because salvation is a process, our (Christian) works are not simply a result of being "saved", as some Protestants put it, but our works are the means by which we become worthy of entering into the presence of God (i.e. being saved).

The end result is a strong emphasis on doing good works, and living a moral life. Thus this process theology, which many Christian theologians consider a heresy, results in and encourages Mormons to do good works, and is what makes us known for our moral lifestyles. This is the real effect of this way of thinking.

Now as a final point. While process philosophy is gaining some ground, especially in the United States, I should point out that while many of the things that are fundamental to LDS theology are similar to the writings of process philosophers such as Whitehead, Hartshorne, James and Pierce, these ideas were expressed and taught more than 50 years before some of the process philosophers were even born, and definitely before any of them began writing. The common perception in philosophy is that philosophical frame works drive theology, but in the LDS case, the theology drives the philosophy. Again I think that this is an interesting point that those who are philosophically inclined should take note of.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Building bridges in my community

A few weeks ago I participated in a community service project organized by my church and a few other churches in the area. There were many, many different projects and I participated in one that had us putting together benches and two bridges for a local park. Here are some pictures of the benches and bridges I helped build.

These are the three benches that we put together. They still have the supports on them, to keep the upright until the cement sets.
This is the largest bridge we built, about 40 feet long.
The same bridge from a different perspective.
This is the second, and much smaller bridge. I did not help build this one, but I helped put it in place. 
I was able to help on just about everything, from putting the benches together, to digging the holes, to pouring the cement, and helping construct the larger bridge. The service project was on Saturday, April 16th, which incidentally was the date that a large storm came through and spawned a number of tornadoes in the state. Several people died and a number of homes and businesses were destroyed. It was the worst outbreak of tornadoes in the state since the 1980's. We did all our work in the morning, and we were just finishing up when the storm hit and some of tornadoes passed just north of us (several miles north, not just north of us).

Here is the NOAA storm reports map for that day.
That bright concentration of red dots in the middle there, that's about where I live.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

What is the point of our (Christian) works?

Recently I was reading a post on the Mormanity blog about perfection, and down in the comments came up the discussion of whether or not Mormons believe that they are saved by their works. The implication was that if Mormons believed they are saved by their works, then that would preclude us from relying on the grace of God for our salvation. Although the discussion also focused on other things the question of the status of our works, and whether or not they are necessary for salvation, was mentioned briefly. At one point someone insisted that, "Your salvation (which means living eternally in the presence of God) is NOT dependent on what you do." To which the natural response would be, "Then what is the point of our works? What is the point of having commandments to follow?"

The person who made this statement then insisted that, "What you do [in response to being "saved"] will be your love response for what God has done in your lives--NOT a prerequisite to salvation." Then continued to explain that, "Good works are the response of a saved soul, and are works God has already ordained for us to do to glorify Him." The central idea being expressed here is that all (good) works come from God and if someone does something good then it is only because God has given that good work to us to do. According to this way of thinking Christians, or anyone else for that matter, cannot do anything good unless by the grace of God they are given that good work, and even then that good work is not theirs but God's. This doctrine is an offshoot of the concept of the depravity of man, which insists that because of the fall man can do no good thing because they are enslaved by the original sin which prevents them from partaking in the goodness of God. There are many variations and degrees of this doctrine in Christianity, of which the version expressed above is just one. The expressions of the depravity of man range from complete (man can never do any good thing, and can never receive any good thing from God) to the more moderate (overall we tend to be bad people, but everyone can do good things) to the rejection of depravity (men are not holden on God for anything, and can do any thing of their own free will).

As the doctrine of the depravity of man is so prominent in Christianity it is natural to ask, "Where do Mormons fit on the spectrum of belief? Do they consider man to be depraved and wholly reliant on the grace of God for every good thing? Or do they reject depravity and think that their good works do not come from God?" The problem of asking the question, where do Mormons fit on the spectrum, is that it necessarily assumes that we fit on the spectrum in the first place. If Christians are used to thinking of good works as originating only from God and are given to man through the grace of God, then it is natural to assume that anyone that emphasizes the good works of individuals would be guilty of rejecting the grace of God. That is, anyone who insists that "doing good" is necessary for salvation runs the risk of being accused of rejecting the grace of God and the Atonement of Christ, because if we must "do good" to receive salvation then we are not relying on the works of Christ, but our own works.

This all of course assumes the depravity of man to some degree as the basis of insisting that we can do no good thing. The reasoning goes something like this, because of the fall of Adam we are all made partakers of sin and thus fall short of the grace of God. Because we are all made sinners we cannot receive salvation through anything we can do and thus we must rely on a savior, and it is only through the grace of God that we can receive any good things from God. The good that we receive from God includes being able to do good works, and because of our fallen state we would not be able to do anything good because we are sinners.

From this perspective if anyone, such as Mormons, suggest that not only can we do good things (without the intervention of God) but also that we are required to do good things to receive salvation creates a catch-22 for Christians who hold to a strong sense of the depravity of man, because man cannot do anything good yet they are required to do good. This usually leads them to rejection of the idea that we must do something to receive salvation (hence the statement, "Your salvation is NOT dependent on what you do."), and by extension they reject LDS theology as valid Christian doctrine because we heavily emphasize the need for personal action (i.e. doing good works) in order to receive salvation.

But the only problem is that LDS theology, in regards to the fall of Adam and our sinful state does not fit onto the standard spectrum used by Christians to measure their doctrine of the depravity of man. Because on the one hand we strongly state that we cannot merit salvation through any actions of our own (see Mosiah 2:21) yet on the other hand we are commanded to do good works so that we may be saved (see Mosiah 5:15). Many Christians (and some Mormons) would see this as a contradiction but if we consider the rest of LDS theology regarding the fall of man, the atonement and salvation we can see this problem from a different perspective, and then we can see why I said that Mormons do not even fall on the spectrum of the depravity of man.

First, how do we view the fall? In the 6th chapter of Moses, Enoch is teaching the people and tells them:
48 And he said unto them: Because that Adam fell, we are; and by his fall came death; and we are made partakers of misery and woe.
49 Behold Satan hath come among the children of men, and tempteth them to worship him; and men have become carnal, sensual, and devilish, and are shut out from the presence of God.
50 But God hath made known unto our fathers that all men must repent.
51 And he called upon our father Adam by his own voice, saying: I am God; I made the world, and men before they were in the flesh.
52 And he also said unto him: If thou wilt turn unto me, and hearken unto my voice, and believe, and repent of all thy transgressions, and be baptized, even in water, in the name of mine Only Begotten Son, who is full of grace and truth, which is Jesus Christ, the only name which shall be given under heaven, whereby salvation shall come unto the children of men, ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, asking all things in his name, and whatsoever ye shall ask, it shall be given you.
53 And our father Adam spake unto the Lord, and said: Why is it that men must repent and be baptized in water? And the Lord said unto Adam: Behold I have forgiven thee thy transgression in the Garden of Eden.
54 Hence came the saying abroad among the people, that the Son of God hath atoned for original guilt, wherein the sins of the parents cannot be answered upon the heads of the children, for they are whole from the foundation of the world.
There are several important doctrines here but I want to focus on just a few of them. First we see that because of the fall we (meaning the human race) exists. Without the fall we would not even be alive. That fundamental understanding immediately changes the way Mormons are disposed to think of the fall.

Because our lives depend on there first being a fall we are more likely to view the fall and what happened in the Garden of Eden as a good thing. Thus our first introduction into the world is not a mistake, but is dependent on what Adam and Eve did in the garden. It is quite common among other Christians to view the fall as having only negative effects. As some Christians put it, "If it weren't for the fall we would all be living in paradise!" Thus it is natural for other Christians to view the fall as having robbed us of our paradisaical state. For them it was a mistake, and it was a mistake that banished us to live in a world that is imperfect and undesirable.

On the other hand the LDS view is that the fall was not a mistake but is a necessary part of our existence on the earth. This causes Mormons to have a more optimistic view of what happened in Eden. This optimistic view means that for Latter-day Saints they fundamentally approach the world in a different way. Rather than view the world as an evil thing that must be escaped, the world is a testing ground where we grow and become good. There is nothing inherently wrong, evil or depraved about our existence, or the things that we do. We do acknowledge that because of our fallen state we will do things that prevent us from returning to the presence of God, but these actions are not guaranteed or inescapable. This is to say that we do not sin by merely existing in this world, as some would suggest (as one person put it, "I sin every day, even without realizing it."). We will not be punished for any sin we do in ignorance, nor will we be eternally punished because of the corruption of this world.

With this in mind, let us return to the concept of works. According to LDS doctrine, all men, women and children who have lived on this earth will be redeemed from the death of the mortal body and any corruption that we might have experienced in this life. This is only just as the corruption of this world is something that we did not create and could not control. So God will not punish us eternally, nor leave us to our inescapable fate that came because of the fall. This is what is meant by the scripture when it says, "the Son of God hath atoned for original guilt". This is the power of the atonement of Jesus Christ. This redemption will come upon everyone regardless of what they have done in this life, whether good or bad, or nothing at all.

Because of this redemption it is not inevitable for us to tin and our fate is not inescapable. We have been given an opportunity to act for ourselves and just as everyone is capable of doing evil, so are we all capable of doing good, and it is given unto us to act for ourselves.
26 And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given. (2 Nephi 25:26)
It is up to us to keep the law and the commandments and it will be the judgements of a just God that will reward us for our actions (see Prov. 24:12). And this is just, because we will be judged according to our own actions, and not the actions of others, or the effects of mortality, ignorance, or accidents of history (see D&C 137:7-10).

Because we are free, and we know good from evil, we are commanded to work righteousness. Only those who choose righteousness and love Christ will enter into the kingdom of God. And to do this we must keep the commandments (see John 15:10-12 and surrounding verses). Thus from an LDS perspective, our salvation is dependent on whether or not we keep the commandments, because that is precisely what God has told us in the Bible, and other scripture. Which means that contrary to what was asserted by the commenter on the Mormanity blog, our salvation IS dependent on what we do, because this this what Jesus taught, as recorded in the Bible, and what is taught to us by His personal representatives.