Monday, February 24, 2014

On Faith: or Why I Still Believe in Spite (or because) of Receiving a Liberal Education.

Let's be honest with one another, dear reader. In the following essay, I will be writing about my own faith and convictions. I understand that many who read this will have already left behind the beliefs and practices which I hold dear and true, and if this is you, I want you to know that I love you and hold no ill will nor judgment of any kind. At the same time, I would be dishonest if I did not acknowledge that I write this with a hope that all who read, including those who have lost faith, may feel a rekindling of spirit in one way or another. Simply put, this is a testimony and an invitation. If you find my words unpalatable, I simply ask that you recognize that I come in peace.

I was born into a faithful, practicing family of Latter-day Saints. Growing up, I learned to love every aspect of my religion. Religion, for me, was a great quest which offered untold rewards for those who were diligent. I occasionally stumbled in my quest, seeking siren songs instead of saintliness, but in most things, I was diligent, and my faith was unshaken.

If I were to describe this young faith, I would say that it was a fiery certainty of right and wrong. There was no gray and no doubt in this faith of mine. The whole world was divided between good and evil, and my confidence in telling them apart could not have been more sure. Not coincidentally, I learned at this time that such a faith can place a painful wedge between saints and sinners. Although I drew many people to me through my faith, I also drove many others away. This was my first awakening.

As an LDS missionary, my faith triumphed and was tested in more ways than I can adequately describe. Living among sinners whom I was also commanded to love and serve, I became keenly aware of the difficulties in deciphering good from evil. Questions concerning the meaning and practice of obedience entered my mind. Does one live the spirit or the letter of the law? What is the importance of obedience? What does it mean to “obey with exactness?” In spite of questions, I remained unquestioningly obedient and faithful to the calling I had received.

After my mission, I returned to the University and began studying the wisdom of men in earnest. I learned to think critically and reason through philosophical questions. I became more aware of the seemingly arbitrariness of human suffering in the world. In time, I turned my critical edge toward my religion, and I began to pick apart and criticize the practices that seemed to me, in some way, violent or unnecessary. For the first time in my life, I began to feel alienated from the church of my youth.

At church on Sundays, the simple practices of simple people, which once brought me joy and wholeness, made me feel annoyed and alone. The church to me seemed to be full of so many haughty and smug pigs, engorging themselves on the surety of their own righteousness. Hearing the testimonies of others was the hardest of all. I secretly began to loathe those to whom I referred as “brothers” and “sisters.” This was my darkest point.

Despite my troubling thoughts and feelings, I never lost faith in the promises of testimony and wholeness. I did, on occasion, feel tempted to rewrite in secular terms my history of spiritual experiences and miracles, but I doubted the phenomenological accuracy of such revisions. Although my spirit was troubled, I never completely doubted religious truth as its most basic level as I had experienced it. To doubt my past experiences would have been, for me, the greater lie. I could not justify a complete withdrawal from religious life, because I could not deny that I had witnessed miracles and felt things unique to my religious experience.

I was thus in a difficult position. I still believed in my religion, but I found the church unpalatable in many ways. A song lyric captured my sentiment: “I hummed the 'Dies Irae' as you played the Hallelujah.” My faith was weak because I saw nothing but sorrow and death and pride and ignorance.

Gradually, things began to change for me. My emergence from isolation came when I figuratively “beat swords into plowshares.” I learned that my education was a box of tools to be fashioned and used however I saw fit. I turned away from critique and judgment, and I applied myself to studying the Gospel of Jesus Christ. During this time, I left aside all of the ill feelings I had harbored toward others in my church, and I focused specifically on my relation with my God.

In this time of study and meditation, my faith was rebuilt in a more stable, humble, loving form. On one hand, I saw more clearly than ever before the love of God for his children. On the other hand, I recognized with greater acuity the breadth of mysteries for which I had no satisfying answer. I felt like the prophet Nephi who said, “I know that [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” I took comfort in the example of Mary, who, although she did not understand the meaning of all the things she witnessed, “kept these things in her heart.” I sincerely believed in God's words that, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Also at this time, I saw more clearly the vision of Zion. I understood that Zion could only be built on unrestrained love and understanding, rather than careful judgment and critique. I knew that truly becoming like Christ would require the abandonment of all resentments and feelings of superiority. Mocking would need to be replaced with reverence. I could not change others, but I could purify my own heart, and then others would see and feel and desire to change. I can say now that this is real. This is the most powerful kind of sermon. I've seen it happen.

And so here I am today. I still sorrow for the suffering of the world and the imperfections of my church, but rather than jumping ship, I chose to embrace the gifts I have received – scriptures, covenants, prayer, communion, intellect – and become the disciple my religion deserves. Of course, choosing a path does not mean that I have “made it.” I have my struggles, but I also have my convictions. I simply cannot deny that when I humbly, sincerely, seek the Lord, I find him and feel his love. I still cry for the evil and violence in the world and I hope that we as Christians will more fully live up to our prime exemplar, but I recognize that all is not evil here; our challenge in the world is not to find Zion and unite ourselves with it, but to build it from the ground up, starting with ourselves. We have a long ways to go as a people, but I still believe in Zion. I have caught glimpses of its shadows, and for me, that is enough. I will work for this cause all my life.

For further reading, look up the speech “Love Is Not Blind.” 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Faith in Humanity

"Faith in humanity restored!"

This is going to make me sound like an awful curmudgeon, but the "faith in humanity" cliche drives me crazy. Let me explain.

Faith in humanity is a serious deal. Faith in humanity is what allows us to reach our human potential and build what Vincent Harding calls "the beloved community." But faith in humanity is of little worth if it is nothing more than an aesthetic cliche. 

I don't want to claim that people who proclaim their faith in humanity restored in response to touching videos are being superficial, but I do worry about that possibility. I worry that faith and humanity will become (or has already become) something that is not cultivated and enduring, but something that happens sporadically, at random moments of purity. A faith that only arises in the best moments is worth precious little. We need a faith in humanity that endures in the presence of the violence that so constantly surrounds us. Sporadic faith feels nice, but enduring faith makes changes. 

We need to restore, and keep, our faith in humanity.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Doubt everything you think you know about doubts and faith and junk.

Here we are again in the aftermath of another General Conference. Pinterest is exploding with sparkly quotes ripped innocently out of context and redesigned as meaningless fluff. Ex-Mormons and Mormon critics are pouring over conference talks like bloodhounds, scanning for any whiff of injustice or offense. Anything they find is then blown up in 96-point font in all-caps and splattered over the blogosphere. All the while, the core messages of the conference talks fade into relative obscurity. It seems we have little appetite for anything more than sappiness or scandal. There are some things that need to stop happening.

President Uchtdorf gave a brilliant talk at the end of the first session. Unfortunately, the message of his talk has been eclipsed by a single line: "doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith." Ironically, eager pinners and Mormon critics have both latched onto this same line. For faithful aesthetes, this line is just about as perfect as you can get. It's short, punchy and uses simple-but-genius wordplay. For critics, this line undermines everything that President Utchdorf said previously; it's the part that if you just ignore, the rest of the talk is really great.

In true postmodern fashion, just about everyone that is talking about this talk rips out some of the key words and either applies their own definitions or throws out definitions entirely. You. Can't. Do. That.

At least, not if you want to learn anything new.

The phrase "doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith" is meaningful in the context of the entire talk. If you rip it out of context, you lose everything that President Uchtdorf did to define 'doubt' and 'faith.' Without that context, the words are just meaningless aesthetic, or vessels to be filled with your own meaning. This is a real setback for gospel learning, but it applies to education anywhere. If you don't allow other people to challenge your understanding of a concept, then you will only translate their ideas into what you already know. Obviously, that is a problem if you want to be instructed from a prophet.

So here's a contextualized reading, in brief.

President Uchtdorf spends much of his talk connecting faith to action. Consider these words:
"Believing in God is commendable, but most people want to do more than listen to inspirational sermons or dream of their mansions above. They want to put their faith into practice. They want to roll up their sleeves and become engaged in this great cause."
"We see assignments not as burdens but as opportunities to fulfill covenants we gladly make to serve God and His children."
"Come and add your talents, gifts, and energies to ours. We will all become better as a result. "
When President Uchtdorf speaks of faith in his talk, he is usually talking about faith as action. He knows and testifies that this kind of faith brings blessings - "we will all become better as a result." In other words, To have faith in Christ is to do as Christ would do, and when we do as Christ would do, we are all blessed. Have you heard of that primary song that goes, "Reverence is more than just quietly sitting--it's thinking of heaven above?" Well I would say, "faith is just more than just blindly believing--it's emulating Christlike love."

So when President Uchtdorf tells us to "doubt our doubts before [we] doubt our faith," I think he's referring to faith as action. In other words, don't doubt that trying to be like Christ will bring about miracles and love. There's a good chance you already know that Christlike love brings pure joy. Don't doubt it. Everyone knows that when we share our talents, gifts, and energies, "we all become better as a result." Put your faith in that. Do it.

So now I want to try to blow your mind a little bit. I already told you that you need to be open to new definitions if you want to learn anything new. Consider it this way:

"Faith requires self-doubt."

I don't know why I put that in quotes. I just made it up. Maybe I'm just anticipating that it will be ripped out of context. Before that happens, however, let me clarify what I mean. (and please note that my line would make no sense out of context.)

Faithful learning requires being childlike. It requires the student to recognize that he/she doesn't know everything about a topic. Have you seen that crazy kung-fu movie The Forbidden Kingdom? There's a part when Jackie Chan pours tea into his student's cup that is already full of tea. Tea spills everywhere and makes a big mess. The metaphor is simple: if you know everything, you can't learn sweet moves from Jackie Chan.

So please, stop taking things out of context, and come listen to a prophet's voice. For real though.

Sunday, September 29, 2013


Good music is instrumental in making one happy, and there is much of such music in the world. Truly excellent music, however, is much rarer, and has a much more profound effect. Indeed, the only possible way to describe it is rebirth. To hear such excellent music is to hear music for the very first time.

I try to avoid unnecessary hyperbole, but seeing Gothen perform at their cd release show was one of the most special experiences I have ever had with music. The passion, talent, and love reverberating throughout the room was enough to make this cynical grad student melt with feeling. Now give me a chance to qualify this melodrama with some details.

I first discovered Gothen when a link to their Kickstarter page appeared on my Facebook feed. The plea on the Kickstarter was simple, if not a little pretentious: "Support Gothen in creating a wildly beautiful debut album." Putting my reservations aside, I watched the promotional video.

I don't know how, but a one-minute preview of a song from a band I had never heard of caught my attention in a way that few songs ever do. There was something special happening here that I didn't understand. I pledged immediately.

In the coming weeks I followed the campaign like an anxious teenager follows a crush. As the deadline grew closer, I was sick to think that they might not reach their goal. What would happen then? It was crazy, but I felt wholly committed to the success of these strangers. In my own small way, I helped by posting links to their Kickstarter page on my own wall. I know at least one of my friends pledged after seeing the link. Gothen reached their goal mere hours before the deadline. Though I had no idea what the end result would be, I felt like I had helped something important.

Fast forward about seven months. On Friday Gothen had their album release show at the New Echo Theater in Provo. The building, previously the location of the Provo Library, was the perfect venue. In a large room on the south side of the building, rows of chairs sat facing a large stage. It felt like going in and sitting down to hear a recital. As it turned out, the recital ambiance was exactly right.

The show was perfect in every way. I don't say that lightly. It began with the audience. The audience was not made up of a bunch of cynical twenty-somethings looking to be entertained. Rather, these were friends, family, and strangers like me who all had some degree of sincere support for these musicians. Smiles abounded from start to finish. I've never felt such a positive environment at a concert.

The joy of the audience was matched by the confidence and talent of the musicians themselves. They put on an amazing performance, every one. The opening act consisted of a man and woman singing heartfelt songs to the rhythm of a soft guitar. The vulnerable sincerity of it set the mood. When Gothen took the stage, we were already enthralled. They only heightened our collective awe.

From the first notes on the piano to the last strum of the guitar, Gothen's performance was a once-in-a-lifetime display of talent and beauty. Their kickstarter plea was no hyperbole. The album is wildly beautiful. Every few minutes I looked over to my wife, gaping in disbelief. "I can't believe this!" I'd whisper to her. She'd nod in reply.

Gothen is not made up of mere musicians, but storytellers. And they aren't ordinary storytellers, either. These are kind of storytellers that take you to places more beautiful than you thought could exist. When the band (or should I say orchestra?) played its final notes, we, the audience, jumped up in eager exultation. I never felt so grateful for artists. I never felt so lucky to witness an artist's accomplishment.

My wife and I talked quietly as we left the theater, though we mostly just savored the feeling. We both agreed that we hadn't heard anything so beautiful in a very long time. We were only grateful for these musicians for showing us, again, how wildly beautiful music, and life, can be.

Thank you, Gothen, for sharing your gifts with all of us. Thank you everyone for making it possible.

You can check out Gothen on their bandcamp page here. Please do.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Escalante, UT (photos)

In all areas of academia there is a tendency to pursue one's own narrow questions without regard to other perspectives. Linguists ignore engineers, engineers ignore sociologists, and sociologists ignore physical science altogether.

Occasionally, however, a researcher faces a problem so vexing that she cannot solve it on her own. She inevitably comes to realize that the world, in its beautiful complexity, has a way of bringing to light the limitations of specializations. 

I know of a team of engineers, for example, that gave specialized cooking tools to people in isolated villages in South America. The tools were carefully designed to meet the specific demands of the villagers and could handle the realities of the harsh environment. Rationally speaking, the tools were perfect. Truthfully, however, there was a major flaw: the villagers did not use them. In spite of their brilliance and ingenuity, the engineers had no resources for understanding the social dimensions of adopting new technology. They called the sociologists for help. 

I don't think there is anything embarrassing in this. Though we live in a nation that enshrines self-sufficiency and extols the virtue of independent living, I believe there is strength in the ability to recognize our own interdependence. 

I thought I knew Escalante fairly well. After all, I had spent hundreds of hours studying interview transcripts and relevant literature. I read everything from local histories to government financial reports. I knew about their festivals and their origins, their heroes and their villains, their conflicts and their tragedies. And yet, when I finally went there, I realized that I knew very little. There was a life in the town that could never be captured through any kind of methodological reduction. I put my books away and walked around.

As I walked around the town and the surrounding areas, it finally struck me why there is conflict here between new lives and old lives. Intellectually I always understood the conflict and its reasons, but seeing the beauty of the place and its history, in person, opened my mind in a new way. 

It's like your favorite song. You love that song, and because you love it, you protect it from harm. When other people listen to the song you fear that they are unworthy, or that they might not appreciate its beauty, or that they might even defile it. It's more than a song to you. It's something sacred. 

These rural towns are no less than temples. They are holy lands, no less than old Jerusalem. And like Jerusalem, they attract pilgrims and spark controversy. For whenever there is a holy place, there is always the question of power: at the end of the day, who will have control of it?

Sacred space is not easily shared. Indeed, in many cases, sharing is expressly forbidden. How then are we to live, when so much of life is sacred?

We could secularize the world and bring everything under the reign of rational thought and equanimity. But who would want to live in such a world?

At the end of the day, perhaps we need fewer solutions and more understanding. I'm not so naive as to believe that if we just talk about our feelings then everything will be okay, but I do believe that it is much more difficult to murder your neighbor when you know him as a co-existing human being. Maybe then, when we start building relations instead of rhetoric, we will start to have the insight necessary to meet the challenges that seem utterly impossible on our own.

here's to that hope.

(all pictures taken with a canon rebel t3 on 6/1/13 - 6/2/13)