Friday, December 27, 2013

Observations on the Book of Mormon, Part 1

Hello there! As you can probably tell, I've taken another extended leave of absence from this blog, and I am only just now returning to it. But that's OK, because I'll make up for it by giving you guys some really interesting tidbits about the Book of Mormon.

I'm currently beginning my fourth read-through of this piece of scripture. While the text is still didactic and awkwardly-worded, it becomes more and more clear to me with each reading that it is an amazing piece of work. To quote a phrase by Grant Hardy, I would go as far as to say that the book is "better than it sounds", as it contains many wonderful elements which only become clear upon repeated readings. I intend to explore some of these elements in the next few blog posts. By going through some less-than-obvious facets of the Book of Mormon text and its reading experience, I hope to more fully convince the reader that it is as amazing as I know it to be.
Also, I expect this post to be spread over three parts or so. Just a heads up.

1. Reading the Book of Mormon is a form of meditation 

This observation will almost certainly strike you as counterintuitive, or else downright silly. However, because I have recently spent a great deal of time both meditating and reading the Book of Mormon, I have noticed some remarkable similarities between the two processes. For instance, both activities require that the participant  be non-judgmental. In the case of meditation, (specifically mindfulness meditation) the practitioner is supposed to silently observe the various sensations arising in their body and their surroundings, all while gently avoiding thought or other forms of mental categorization. Similarly, a reader cannot get much out of the Book of Mormon if they have constantly-running interior criticism. In addition to the lack of enjoyment that naturally comes with a less accepting mind, they will get hung up on the awkward language, the anachronisms, or the sometimes-condemning tone inherent in the text. However, the Book of Mormon itself can actually assist the reader in becoming less judgmental. In similitude to meditation's emphasis on breathing, the Book of Mormon's sincere plainness and simplicity acts as a focus for the mind, a sort of "mantra" by which the intellect learns to both wander less and find value in the here and now. I myself am a testament to the effectiveness of the Book of Mormon in this regard. As I learned to accept the Book of Mormon for what it is, I have become far less critical of everything else I encounter in the world. This means that I tend to enjoy things much more than I have in the past, for I am more willing to experience things as they are, rather than bemoan what they are not.  My life is thus a clear example that, even within our minds, "by small and simple things are great things brought to pass".

2. The Book of Mormon is a psychological text

If you were brought up in the Church, you are probably very familiar with the two figures named Laman and Lemuel. These prideful and hard-hearted older brothers act as Nephi's foil, resisting the progress of righteousness every time he wishes to "choose the right". But I have noticed something extremely interesting about these two, something which will require the examination of a few Book of Mormon excerpts. For example,

"And now when they saw that I began to be sorrowful they were glad in their hearts, insomuch that they did rejoice over me, saying: We knew that ye could not construct a ship, for we knew that ye were lacking in judgment; wherefore, thou canst not accomplish so great a work. [...] Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance; yea, and we might have been happy." (1 Nephi 17:19-22)

Does this sound familiar to you? Barring your memory of the passage itself, I find it highly likely that you have experienced criticism like this in the past. I don't mean to say that you have all had mean older brothers, but rather that each of you has an annoying voice in your head whose sole motivation is to make you think less of yourself and your efforts. You know the one. When you have just finished a recital or a presentation, it's the nagging thought that you did horribly or that you shouldn't even have participated. It's what tells you that you're stupid, ugly, or any other negative adjective, and it is often what dissuades you from trying to do the right or most important thing.

Next, take this discourse spoken by a young Nephi:

"How is it that ye have forgotten that ye have seen an angel of the Lord? Yea, and how is it that ye have forgotten what great things the Lord hath done for us, in delivering us out of the hands of Laban, and also that we should obtain the record? Yea, and how is it that ye have forgotten that the Lord is able to do all things according to his will, for the children of men, if it so be that they exercise faith in him? Wherefore, let us be faithful to him. And if it so be that we are faithful to him, we shall obtain the land of promise [...]" (1 Nephi 7: 10-13)

In an attitude which is almost directly opposed to that of Laman and Lemuel, Nephi encourages his brothers to remember the many blessings which they have experienced in their lives. I would argue that you are familiar with this kind of voice, as well. Whenever you are about to do something that violates your normal code of ethics, there is a voice in your head which tells you to stop and correct your course of action to something more virtuous

My point is this: in many places 1 Nephi uncannily resembles a battle between the mind's inner voices. Naturally Nephi corresponds to the conscience, the part of a person which encourages them to do the right thing even when it's hard. On the other hand, Laman and Lemuel seem to represent the parts of the psyche which both criticize the person and encourage them to be ethically lazy - in short, everything opposed to the "still, small voice". This observation would of no particular significance if it were not also true that people can and do identify with these mental dialogues. Because everyone experiences this kind of psychological conflict, I speculate that the beginning chapters of the Book of Mormon will often strike the reader as a reflection of their own spiritual journey, and thus come across as particularly powerful and emotionally potent. In other words, 1 Nephi offers a written model of how a person can overcome temptation and internal criticism, a roadmap which a person can follow to reach the promised land of inner peace.

It is not only 1 Nephi which bears this kind of psychological watermark. Take this passage from 3 Nephi, for instance:

"And it came to pass that thus did the three days pass away. And it was in the morning, and the darkness dispersed from off the face of the land, and the earth did cease to tremble, and the rocks did cease to rend, and the dreadful groanings did cease, and all the tumultuous noises did pass away. And the earth did cleave together again, that it stood; and the mourning, and the weeping, and the wailing of the people who were spared alive did cease; and their mourning was turned into joy, and their lamentations into the praise and thanksgiving unto the Lord Jesus Christ, their Redeemer." (3 Nephi 10:9-10)

The three days of darkness before Christ's resurrection almost immediately remind one of the times in our lives when all hope seems lost, when the knowledge and peace that one had before has fled, to be replaced with only obscurity and doubt. I would wager that most people who seriously strive after spiritual light have experienced such "dark nights of the soul", and so 3 Nephi too can capture the heart with its symbolic resemblance to the reader's life. The amazing thing, however, is what comes next. As in the above quotation, those who persist with faith inevitably come out of this "spiritual dryness" into the love of God, meaning that the passages about Christ's coming to the Americas give hope and comfort to those still in the midst of darkness. If you allow me to speak mystically, Christ does not only appear to the Nephites, but forever appears to us through the hope offered by the Book of Mormon itself.

Other parts of the Book of Mormon have psychological aspects, as well. You might think of the Jaredite barges as an example, for we too are on a journey to a promised land, (i.e. the peace of God's love) and we have a tiny bit of God's light to illuminate us while we are beat upon by the storms of life. The famous "pride cycle" is also a psychological correspondence, for it is human behavior to become spiritually lazy when one has forgotten the taste of the Spirit.

To clarify, I am not saying that the Book of Mormon is exclusively psychological, and I don't want you to think that the Book of Mormon is not the historical record which it claims to be. While it is true that this work of scripture has many correspondences with psychological experiences, these could be attributed to either the inspiration of God or to the book's actual authors, (Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni) and thus do not mean that that Joseph Smith wrote it on his own.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about these psychological aspects of the Book of Mormon is what it says about the religion which holds it to be sacred. This book gives a roadmap for the soul hidden in historical images and stories, and so acts as an examplar of the participative form of spirituality which is the Mormon religion. Like the LDS church's lay clergy and its monthly institution of fast and testimony meeting, the Book of Mormon forever declares that you are a part of its story, for your life is forever reflected in its pages. In other words, there is nothing which makes you less important than those Nephite or Lamanite prophets, for their story and yours are the same.
That's that for this post. Thanks for reading, and see you for part two!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Swedenborg and the Sun of Love

I want to introduce you to someone.

Emanuel Swedenborg was an eighteenth-century nobleman, scientist, and inventor. He designed a flying machine, had an IQ of 205, and would have been famous for his technological and scientific innovations had he died before his fifites. But as it turns out, he is famous for something else. You see, Emanuel Swedenborg claimed he could visit heaven and hell whenever he wanted to.

Right now your crazy-person-alarm bells are probably going off. But there is a lot of evidence supporting his claims. On the one hand, he taught the principe of right-and-left brain hemisphere lateraliztion centuries before it could be verified scientifically, and told of many other things which were only accepted scientifically in the very recent past. 

He also taught many things in accord with Mormon doctrine. For instance, he asserted that God appeared to angels in Heaven as a man. He also declared that heaven was divided into three parts, and called the highest one the Celestial Kingdom. And he went audaciously against the teachings of his time by saying that angels could only acheive the highest happiness in heaven by joining with another in eternal marriage.

But though these facts are compelling evidence that Swedenborg learned things from Heaven, the best evidence I could give for the truth of his claims is his effect on me. When I read Swedenborg's writings, I am suddenly reminded of the Book of Mormon's teaching that God speaks to men in their own language. You see, I am an academic. I think of things in terms of abstract ideas and concepts, and so the simplicity of the Gospel has often been a stumbling block for me. While not denying the importance of this simplicity, I cannot help but think that God used Swedenborg to show me that the Gospel isn't necessarily anti-intellectual, and that He can speak to us scientists and philosophers. When considering this, and the profound Spirit I feel when reading his writings, I feel very strongly that God led me to him as a part of a profound tender mercy.

He taught amazing things about the world to come. For instance, he says that in Heaven, emotional and physical distance are one and the same. This means that the closer you are to someone emotionally, the closer you actually draw to them in the literal, perceptual world. This gives me the profound comfort that I will be forever tied to those who I am close to, and that not even death can separate me from my friends and loved ones. He also taught that the things in Heaven form a living, symbolic reality, where everything exist both in a literal and a figurative way. Virtuous people in Heaven are beautiful, while sinful people are ugly. Everyone in Heaven actually turns their head to God, while everyone in Hell looks away. And your place in the afterlife is a symbolic representation of your joy and love on earth.

But by far, the most profound of these symbolic realties is Swedenborg's teachings on the sun in Heaven. I will quote his words on this subject in the book Heaven and Hell as follows:

"Even though neither this world’s sun nor anything derived from it is visible in heaven, there is a sun there; there is light and warmth, there are all the things we have in our world and many more—not from the same origin, though, since things in heaven are spiritual while things in our world are natural. Heaven’s sun is the Lord; light there is the divine truth and warmth the divine good that radiate from the Lord as the sun. Everything that comes into being and manifests itself in the heavens is from this source. [...] The reason the Lord in heaven appears as the sun is that he is the divine love from which all spiritual things come into being—and, through the agency of our world’s sun, all natural things as well. That love is what shines like a sun.”

God's love is the sun of Heaven. Everything you can see there you see by its light, and all things there are warmed by its heat. But this light is actually truth, for there we see something when we understand it. Similarly, the heat there is good, meaning that we will gain an inner warmth whenever we encounter something virtuous, lovely, or of good report.

But Swedenborg doesn't just say that this will happen, for he declares that we dwell in Heaven already. In a sense we live in both worlds, allowing both the suns of love and of flaming gas to affect our senses. But if this is true, why can't we see God's love? Why can't we access the joys of Heaven now? I have thought about this question, and I believe that we can.

To see Heaven, we must learn to see with new eyes. While our normal optical receptors provide us with aesthetic joys and delights, you can't deny that there is something lacking in everything we perceive with our five senses. The world as we see it always disappoints, leaving us to search after something more susbstantial. In truth, we can find this when we learn to see not with our earthly eyes, but with the eyes of our spirit. And this will happen when love, and when we feel love.

If everything in Heaven derives from love, should we be surprised that the most meaningful experiences in our life come when we love another person, or when we feel loved by them? When we do this, we open our spiritual eyes just a little, and we can peer ever so slightly into the grand vistas of the next life. But what if we were to ignore our earthly eyes altogether? What if we saw by love, and by love alone? We would not be bilnd, but we would actually see for the very first time. 

When we live by love, we cannot be denied the joys of Heaven. We will see the magnificent buildings and wildernesses of that place, reunite with lost loved ones, and even see God. But this will not happen with our natural eyes. To see this magnificent world of love, we must use a new sense, one which is at best only loosely connected with the other five, one of pure affection and devotion. Then we will know that this new world is the only real one, and that everything else was just a dim dream.

Surely Antoine de St. ExupĂ©ry was tapping into this world when he penned that "what is essential is invisible to the eyes. It is only with the heart that one sees rightly". When we love, we see people as they really are, as God sees them. It doesn't matter if they are ugly or awkward, and it doesn't matter if we are lacking where other people aren't - in love's light, we see both others and ourselves in the splendor and glory of Heaven. In this light, everything is of infinite worth, and nothing is forgotten. 

Swedenborg says that people only go to Hell if they willingly refuse this love. So if we are to learn anything from him, we must remember to see not with the eyes, but with the heart. We must see the love which ever and always emanates to us from Him, and use this love to see others for who they truly are. Truly this is eternal life, life as it should be - to live forever in the love of God,  and sharing that love with those who mean something to us.

I pray we will all someday experience that love, and see things not by the light of our sun, but ever as God sees them. I hope with all my heart that we can have this sight, and that we will not be forever limited to the dim joys of our senses. But until that day, we must have faith. We must trust to God that He will lead to this promised land, and will show us salvation.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Two Prayers - A Dialogue

I've gotten some really good feedback on the previous two posts, so I've decided to make these dialogues a continuing feature on my blog. However, what follows is a little unusual. In the space below, I imagine what the two characters from my first dialogue would say in their nightly prayers, and so delve into their motives and hidden feelings. It will also hopefully serve as a testimony to the power of a personal relationship with God,

Nevertheless, you should keep it in mind that neither of these characters is me. These characters are fictional, so don't  go inferring anything about me from them.

Ezekiel Snider opens the door leading into his dorm. He notices that his roommates are busy watching some inane television show. No matter; he has bigger fish to fry. He slowly and deliberately unlocks the door to his bedroom, steps inside, and closes it again. He kneels down in front of his bed, and offers a sigh. Eventually, he closes his eyes and begins to pray.

Ezekiel Snider: Father, I'm sorry for not going unto you in prayer as often as I should have. It is really quite an oversight on my part, and I ask you to please forgive me for it. 

A pause

ES: I suppose that I'm thankful for the opportunity you've given me to attend's really been quite a junction for me to develop as a person. I'm also thankful for the friends I've come to have there.

He sighs

ES: I realize that I may sometimes be more condescending to people than is proper. I'm sorry for that. I try...I really do try very hard to be considerate and kind. But this is quite difficult. Father, please give me the strength I need to be understanding and empathetic, to show people that I care for them, and that I am listening. 


ES: Father...I ask you humbly for the ability to show love unto the people I meet. I met a man today, I think his name was Philip, and he did not strike me as a very happy fellow. Please bless him. And Father, if you ever grant me the pleasure of meeting him again, give me the strength to be more of a light in his darkness.

Another pause

ES: I...I realize that I don't have much of which to boast. I'm intelligent and witty, yes. But I lack even basic levels of kindness, and I know that I come across to people as conceited and aloof. Father, please give me the strength to deal with my weakness. No...please grant unto me the humility I need to be blessed with your....thy...Spirit.

He breathes in, deeply.

ES: Father, I love thee. I am so deeply thankful for all that thou has done to bless and show love unto me. I know that I am nothing on my own. But when I become filled with thy Spirit, I feel an indescribable love that seems to descend from heaven itself. When I feel this love, I know that thou art there with me. I still feel my weakness, but its gone. Father, please show me how I can have thy Spirit to be with me. I have tasted it, and its goodness has overwhelmed me. I...I feel thy love so strongly even now. Please let me know how I can cultivate it, or rather, please show unto me how I can share it with others.

He smiles, amidst the beginnings of tears.

ES: I thank thee for all my many blessings, and I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Meanwhile in another part of the city, Philip Delacroix enters his bedroom. He too kneels down at his bedside and begins to pray.

Philip Delacroix: My Father in heaven, I thank thee for the many tender mercies you have given me. I know I don't deserve them. Father, I'm sorry for my transgressions. I've done so many bad things, and I wouldn't blame thee if thou shut off all forgiveness from me. But I know that thou will not. 

He smiles

PD: I'm so amazed at the forgiveness which thou gives to me. To myself, I am worthless, but I know that I am glorious to thee. I am the lowest of the low, but I know that my worth is great in thy eyes.

A pause

PD: Please bless those who are dealing with the same struggles as me. I know that my trials have been good for me, but wouldn't wish them on anyone else. Please give them the hope which I know thou can give. Please show them thy love.

He sighs

PD: Please let me know what I can do to help people. I know that I focus on my own trials a lot, and I ask thee for the strength I need to show love to others. 

Another pause

PD: Father, I am so thankful for everything which thou has done for me. To think of a person like me getting all the glorious blessings that you've given's worthy of awe. Father, I am what I am because of thy tender mercies, and I thank thee for everything. I only ask for the strength to give it all back to thee.

He smiles again.

PD: Father, whenever I pray...I receive an increased testimony of thee and thy gospel. And I feel loved. I thank thee for that love, and I say these things in the name of thy beloved son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Dialogue about Bus Stops, Dead Fish, and the Value of Life

I've decided to continue my dialogue experiment. What follows is the encounter between Ezekiel Snider (a character from the previous post) and a character named Maude Patterson about suffering, life, and death. Also, if you're interested in Ezekiel's ideas, know that they were inspired by my reading of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation.

Ezekiel Snider is sitting at a bus stop. He has an air of restlessness about him, and you could easily infer from his expression that the bus is quite late. Suddenly, a young woman walks up and sits down (almost) next to him. Ezekiel looks at her as s
he pulls out a magazine and begins to read. 

ES: Greetings! I'm Ezekiel.

Ezekiel looks at her expectantly. Maude peers over her reading, hesitantly.

Maude Patterson: Hi.
ES: I'd like to ask you a question.
MP [confused]: OK...
ES: What are your thoughts on suffering?

A pause.

MP: Wait, what?
ES: I have just returned from an encounter in yonder park. There, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting someone in the throes of distress, who made me think quite deeply about the nature of pain.
MP: I'm sorry?
ES: But I wonder - what are your thoughts on the nature of suffering? 
MP: OK - I'm just waiting for the bus. I'm not your therapist.
ES: Are you perhaps a philosopher?
MP: You're not serious.
ES: Quite.
MP [sighing]: No. I'm a nursing major.
ES: Have you perhaps experienced any pain recently?

Maude puts her magazine completely down.

MP: Do you normally ask girls at the bus stop if they're "suffering"?
ES: No. Only the ones who seem intelligent enough to respond meaningfully.

She looks at him, skeptically.

MP: If you're trying to flirt with me, you're doing a piss-poor job.
ES: Not primarily...perhaps only in an auxiliary or tertiary sense...

A pause, while Maude's face grows more dumbfounded.

ES: But the question remains: have you recently suffered in any meaningful way?
MP [sarcastic]: I fish died yesterday. 
ES: Was it exceedingly tragic?
MP: Not really...
ES: I offer you my deepest consolations. If I can offer anything to ease your suffering, I would gladly do so.
MP: No thanks, I...
ES [interrupting]: I have a theory about death, you know.
MP: Oh. Great.
ES: Time, you see, is an endless striving after satisfaction.
MP: Striving, huh?
ES: Yes, most relevantly on the part of your deceased fish.
MP: And what was he striving after?
ES: Satisfaction, primarily after food.
MP: Well, he's not eating anymore.
ES: Yes, and that necessarily means that time has stopped!

Maude looks oddly at him

ES: For him, at least.
MP: That doesn't really make me feel any better.
ES: But don't you see? Time stopped for your fish because he transcended it. He is free from the bonds of temporality and the chains of cause and effect.
MP:'re saying that if I stop wanting things, I'll die.
ES: Well, that's the only way you can cease to want things. As long as you're alive, you'll always want food, water, and air, and you won't be free of them until you're free of life.
MP: I like those things, though.
ES: But that's only because you've never been free of them. The prisoner is fond of his jail if he's never left it, after all.
MP: My life isn't a prison. I happen to enjoy it.
ES: But of course it is! The same is true of everyone who's ever lived.
MP: OK...then what's so great about life after death, according to you?
ES: It is ultimate freedom. The world, you see, is only an illusion. When to die you shrug off the veil of falsity you bore for your entire life, and you see the world as it really is.
MP: Does that mean that those mountains aren't real?

She points at Mount Timpanogos

MP: What about laughter? Or hot chocloate? Or Disneyland?
ES: They're illusions on all fronts.
MP: You're crazy.

She starts reading her magazine again.

ES: And why do I deserve such a descriptor?

She puts it down again, frustrated.

MP: Life is awesome. Anyone who doesn't think so is insane.
ES: On the contrary, my dear. Life is full of suffering, and the only ways we can escape it is when we come closer to death. Death is the great liberator, and by quieting the unceasing barrage of life, we can come closer to its paradise.

Suddenly a bus pulls up. Maude begins to get on, when she notices that Ezekiel isn't coming.

MP: You getting on?
ES: No. I'm waiting for a different bus.
MP: OK. Have a good life, I guess.
ES: I won't. But good luck with your endeavors, in any case.

Maude rolls her eyes as she steps onto the bus. It pulls away, and leaves Ezekiel sitting alone.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Ruminations on Suffering - A Dialogue

I've always had somewhat of an aptitude for dialectic, and so I've composed a few theatrical scripts and philosophical dialogues in my time. But I've never actually posted one of these dialogues on my blog. I intend to change that. 

What follows is my attempt to project the philosophical views I've held at different times onto paper, so as to better understand how these perspectives relate to each other. To do this, I've invented two personas: Philip Delacroix and Ezekiel Snider. By their exchange, I hope that both their characters and their philosophical backgrounds become developed enough to judge rightly. Let me know how I do.

Also, know that neither of these charactes is a reflection of me, per se. I am not as despairing as Philip is, and I only make him so because it seemed right for his character.

Philip Delacroix is standing in a park. Dressed in shabby clothes and donning a mop of long untidy hair, he walks hesitantly along a gravel path until he arrives at a bench. There sits a man dressed in a tweed bow-tie outfit, looking intensely off into space. Philip is about to pass him, when he says...

Ezekiel Snider: Excuse me!

Philip does a double take, but then notices the man.

Philip Delacroix: Sorry?
ES: You were about to spoil a magnificent view! Please desist from crossing my line of sight.
PD: Oh, sorry...

Philip goes to move behind the bench.

ES: Wait! What's your name?
PD [Stopping]: Philip.
ES: Excellent. Mine's Ezekiel. How do you do?
PD: I'm...fine.

Philip goes to move again.

ES: Hold your metaphorical horses! You need to calm down.
PD [Stopping again]: Excuse me?
ES: You're obviously upset about something.
PD: What makes you say that?
ES: You've given a very audible sigh three times in our brief conversation. What's wrong?
PD: It's none of your business.

He moves away again, but is stopped by Ezekiel's umbrella.

ES: A debate! That's what you need.
PD: What?
ES: A good dose of dialectical exchange ought to do the trick. Always does for me.
PD: But I'm not interested in a debate.
ES: Doesn't matter. Now, here's a question: what is suffering?
PD: But I don't...
ES: Don't think! Just speak!
PD [sighing]: I said I wasn't interested!
ES: Fine. would argue that all pain and suffering are the result of being overly involved with particular things. The pain simply goes away if you learn to let go, and abandon yourself to the flow of time.

Philip sighs and shakes his head.

PD: And I guess you're free of all that, huh?
ES: What, suffering? Far from it! I still struggle with it every day.
PD: And what is suffering for you?
ES: That's a bit personal.
PD: Do you know what it's like to fail at everything you try? Do you know how it feels to be shunned by people you thought were your friends?
ES: No. 

A pregnant pause

ES: Do you?
PD [wincing]: It doesn't matter.

Philip goes to walk away again.

ES: Wait! Have you ever tried just relaxing? Being like the lilies of the field? Trusting your well-being to the hands of the morrow?
PD [Stopping again]: No.
ES: Why don't you try it?
PD: I don't want to. Who said suffering was a bad thing?

Another pause.

ES: Uh....most people?
PD: You don't understand.

Philip goes to walk away again.

ES: Hang on! What do you mean?

Philip sighs again

PD: I have become the person I am because I have suffered. If I abandoned it, I would lose everything that I hold dear.
ES: But you said it yourself - suffering is pain. You want pain?
PD: I want to grow and love, and pain's the only way that happens.

Ezekiel stops to think

ES: Growth I can understand. It's like a workout, right? You break muscle fibers to grow.
PD: I guess.
ES: But how can you love through pain?
PD: Pain is humility. When I am hurt, I learn to forget myself in favor of others. I remember that I am only a sinner, just like everyone else. That's the great equalizer.
ES: But you are a child of God! You're glorious!
PD: I'm wretched. That makes me glorious..

Philip pauses, and looks off into the distance.

PD: I've got to go.
ES: Alright. That wouldn't be a bad idea.

Philip goes to leave

ES: Philip!

Philip turns around

ES: I can't say I agree with you, but you certainly are glorious. God bless you.

Philip smiles

PD: You, too.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Zombies: The Specter of Materialism

I have recently had the pleasure of playing Telltale Games' interactive masterpiece The Walking Dead (I'm not done yet, so refrain from spoiling it for me).

And one thing that continues to astonish me about pieces of media such as this is how much our culture is fixated on the idea of a flesh-eating animated corpse. From World War Z to Zombieland to Warm Bodies, our society obviously finds something intensely fascinating about zombies, to the point where it is perhaps the most identifiable facet of today's mass media. But why? Why do zombies, of all things, capture our imagination so? We obviously don't idealize them, but rather find in them something unnerving and disturbing. And I think I have figured out exactly what it is.

Now, I have often wondered why anyone would fear becoming a zombie if you die before you turn. Isn't it just your body that gets up and eats people? But that's just it - until recently I didn't realize that modern man thinks he is his body. According to him, the mind is just a chemical reaction in a lump of flesh, combined with other lumps of flesh to make a whole. In short, I believe that people today fear the zombie because they fear they already are a zombie.

For what is secular materialism but a belief that we are the living dead? It states that you are a moving, disintegrating lump of flesh, and that you only have life because some accident gave it to you by chance. You are nothing more than a desire to eat, to propagate your kind. And you can only be killed by the destruction of the brain, for our being resides there.

You may accuse me of being unfair to the materialist, but notice that everything in the previous paragraph could be used both as a description of a zombie and a typical critique of the materialist point of view. These points of view came about independently, and unless Christian apologists wrote The Walking Dead as a tool for their own ends (which I find unlikely) I believe that there is some deep unconscious material welling up here.

This is not something unprecedented, for this very thing has happened in another period of the West's history. Just as zombies are the specter of materialism, you see, vampires are the specter of Christianity. Vampires live forever, and they derive their well-being from the drinking of blood. Vampires are a perverted representation of everything Christianity professes to be, and represent the Christian's anxiety over how desirable eternal bliss really is.

But a new age means a new monster, and the fears of eternal life have replaced themselves with a fear of being purely material. We see ourselves in the zombie, for just as we are afraid of becoming a member of the walking dead, we fear the thought of aging more and more, only to rot and decay in the grave. For just as there is no cure for being a zombie, there is no cure for death. For the materialist, death is the end of all things, and the fact that zombies dominate our culture is evidence that we find this very terrifying.

Given the fact that vampires and zombies represent two fears which have dominated the western psyche, I ask you: which is worse? Would you rather be a vampire, cursed to only walk at night, but still blessed with intelligence and emotion? Or instead a zombie, lacking all thinking or feeling other than an instinctive desire to eat? I'd choose to be a vampire, for it seems to me that eternal life is much better than slow decay, whatever the cost.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Lightness of God

The scriptures say that "God is light". While the more conventional interpretation of this phrase (i.e. that God is identical with light) is true enough, I'd say that the less obvious interpretation of this phrase needs to be heard among people today. For God isn't heavy

To impress upon you what I mean, I'm going to present you with two different models of God in a Mormon context, one light, and one not so light.

The Heavy God lives on a planet called Kolob, located at the center of the universe. He can only dwell at one place at one time, and so he must travel between this planet and Earth fairly instantaneously. This naturally means that Einstein's Theory of Relativity is incorrect. God also has a physical body of flesh and bone, free of all imperfection and blemish. Except the prints in Christ's hands, of course - He needs those. He also lacks any blood, for blood is the mark of a mortal body. Further, the Heavy God hears our prayers by means of a sort of divine telepathy, and can manage all prayers at once because his brain uses the 90% left unused in ours.

The Light God is an exalted man, and by following Him we can learn to be better people. When we pray He answers us and fills us with the Spirit, and He loves us unconditionally. Christ sacrificed Himself for us, and we can cast all of our sorrows and pains upon His back if we turn to Him. He is love, and we experience Him whenever we show love. God is our cosmic parent, and loves us and cares for us as any loving father would.

See the difference? One of them is full to the brim with the Spirit, and one of them lacks any spirituality whatsoever. One of them embraces the truths of the Gospel wholeheartedly, and the other seems like it wants to be a facet of science more than one of spirituality. But there is a common feature here - the former tries to combine spiritual beliefs with truths found outside of spirituality, and thus ruins the emotional value of the Gospel. On the other hand, the latter sees only the meaning within the Gospel, keeping outside truths in their own separate compartment. Or if I might phrase it differently - one of them values objective truth, and one of them values meaning.

In my life, I experience the peace of the Gospel only when I consider the meaning of spiritual principles, doctrines, and stories. If I start to wonder how these things fit in a cold, rigid external world, the Gospel loses all of its inherent warmth, and its meaning goes away.

You see, this meaningful God is light. When we see Him as a loving Father and not as a super-powerful alien, He can fit through the narrow door of our Spirit and fill our thoughts much more readily than something heavy. Heaviness means friction. The Heavy God must squeeze through this door to come in at all, but this does not really ever happen. The light God is also a piece of art. We think of this type of deity in much the same way in which we think of a painting, a piece of music, or a movie - full of beauty and warmth. And yet, this God is much more than a work of art, for he is a work of art come to life. He has leapt from the canvas, and become real.

If I could preach one truth loudly from the rooftops, it would be this: do not pursue facts, but seek after meaning! If you only look for the objective, you will only find the objective. And because meaning must come subjectively, this life of this seeker after truth will lack any warmth, color, or beauty. But if you seek after love, beauty, compassion, and emotion, you will find a truth much more powerful than anything seen through the lens of a telescope or a microscope. 

As a closing note, it is incredibly important that the D&C describes God as being seen through "the light of our understanding". For if we seek for God using the light of day, we will not find Him. But if we seek him using this more divine illumination, we will see that He has never left our side.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Rod and the Tree

It is obvious that we live in darkness. Like one whose sight becomes obscured by a lack of light, we feel around our worldly abode like a bull in a china shop, running the risk of colliding with those beings and things who remain stationary. What are these objects, you ask? They are ideas, pieces of knowledge, and supposed truths, all acting as obstacles in our quest to find our way to the light. Of course, these intellectual stumbling blocks can also act as a guiding post, something to cling to as we make our way through the darkness. But you can only grasp onto an object for so long - sooner or later we must break free of them, or else run the risk of never reaching the delights of illumination.

But we suddenly find something new, a sturdy piece of material without adornment or texture which blazes its way through the darkness. It is a metal rod. We initially cling to it without thought, as it seems as good a method as any for finding our way. Some of us may even find its inherent metallic rigidity appealing, but those who dislike its bland monotony soon see the apparent foolishness of clinging to it for longer than a few moments. But if we persist in clinging to this piece of metal, we find that it extends much farther than we expected. In fact, as we continue to press our way forward into the darkness, something happens: we see light.

Far off in the distance, we perceive a source of illumination faintly piercing through the dark obscurity. This will understandably make us very eager, and may lead us to press forward all the more quickly to the light. Others of us, excited by their new vision, may deem the rod entirely unnecessary and obsolete in their quest out of darkness. But alas, the light is still so dim that those who abandon the rod soon find their way back to darkness and again become lost. 

Those who persist soon see the shape of the light's source: a tree. This gives us pause, for we then begin to wonder if the light we so eagerly sought after may not actually be the only thing that drives us forward. Could there be something else at the end of journey? If this light comes from a tree, does it have a fruit? 

Soon we reach the end of the rod, leaving the tree almost within arm's reach. As we pluck the fruit off of its luminescent foliage and take a bite, we feel something entirely new: not light, not knowledge, but pure love. We soon realize that light is a paltry pleasure compared with this joy of joys, and that none of the objects we clung to in our quest provides the peace we find here. Knowledge, we see, is not the end of all things. Though we previously sought after the light of truth and understanding, we begin to realize that these are only tools, used to bring us to the source of this celestial fruit. 

The natural reaction upon eating this fruit is to share it with the others who struggle in the darkness. You want more than anything for them to feel what you feel, to let them know what joy comes from this transcendent love. But this proves problematic. Though we want to go back into the darkness to aid those who have not tasted love, we would risk the greatest danger by returning to obscurity. If we did this, substituting the dim light of truth for the great joy of love, we would only risk our own ability to return to the tree. Both the savior and the saved would be lost, and all would be for naught.

We can only ever call through the darkness, and hope that the other has ears to hear. Notwithstanding the danger of venturing back into the mists of darkness, to lead another along the iron rod would be coercion, causing them to press forward to something in which they have no interest. The only person who can appreciate this fruit, this love of God, is one who takes the journey of faith on their own. Only then can we be sure that they will remain by the tree, and ever bask in the radiance of its love.

The iron rod is the word of God, and only by clinging to its doctrines, stories, and commandments can we begin to experience the fruit of God which lies at the end of its path. This will prove difficult, and may cause frustration or despair. The word can be monotonous, boring, and unfairly rigid at times, but it is the only real way out of the darkness and toward the light's source. But light is not the end of all things. Blazing behind it all is a roaring fire of love, and by reaching the tree we can taste it and take it into us. For love alone is our goal, and love alone is real.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Spiritual Aphorisms

Hello again! If you, dear reader, wonder as to the cause of my absence of several months, I can only say that I have taken a "sabbatical" to develop myself in ways that have heretofore been lacking. In this process, I have had the privilege of experiencing feelings and emotions which I had never felt before, and have found myself becoming better at things in which I had always assumed I had an inherent lack. In short, I have had what one can only term a mystical experience. I do not mean this to boast of myself, but only to testify of God's greatness and glory when extending His merciful arm toward his children. But in recent days a thought has run through my mind: "how do I share this experience with others?" Clearly a mere description will not suffice, for direct words fail at everything they try to do. Instead, I wish to use words indirectly, and to show you what I have gone through. How will I do this? I will follow in the footsteps of Nietzsche and Heraclitus, and use a series of aphorisms/maxims (short phrases) intended to convey my experience in a way that lies beyond words. Let me know how I do!

On Truth

1. To speak the truth is to be an idolater. To show it is to be a mouthpiece for God.

2. To put it differently, words must die before they can be resurrected; truth can only come through lies.

3. Is The Book of Mormon true? It depends on how you mean it. If by "true" you signify something that concretely exists independent of the believer's faith, then no - nothing does. But if you mean something that is real, then the Book of Mormon is true without question.

On Heaven

4. Where may one find the Kingdom of God? On a distant planet, you say? In a temple? But you forget - you can only see any of these places because of light. From where does it shine? Discover it, and you will find what you have sought.

On God

5. Three separate and distinct personages? How absurd! And yet, it is only through this absurdity that we can even speak intelligently about God.

6. The Holy Ghost is certainly mysterious, for all the doctrine on his person would not fill up a single paragraph. Is it because, like any ghost, he is translucent?

7. Why do we not speak of the Heavenly Mother? Is it, as many suppose, because she needs to be protected? Or is it perhaps because she finds our language distasteful?

On Men and Women

8. The Proclamation on the Family says that gender is eternal - men will always be men, and women will always be women. It speaks the truth - for who ever heard of a bank-less river?

9. Gender is good business for bridge-builders...and commuters.
On Marriage
10. Every married man is a polygamist, and every married woman a polyandrist. What is a living soul, after all, but an eternal marriage?

11. Marriage is a mirror, or better yet, a double mirror.

12. For we see outwardly in the other what we inwardly are.

13. Our existence began in love, and our lives make up a continuing love story.

On Love

14. Love accompanies all the senses, as it is preparing to replace them.

15. Wherever you love, there God is revealed.

16. The universe did not start in a dense singularity or a divine flash - our world began with the blood and broken flesh of Gethsemene.

17. For love can only grow from the seed of pain, and pain can only find its meaning in love.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Tree of Life, Love, and Doors to Eternity

Yesterday I finished watching Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, and I can now say that it is my favorite film of all time. For me, this masterpiece is for cinema what Cloud Atlas is for books, and Journey for video games - it is, to paraphrase a quote from my first analysis of the latter work, "a mystical experience in cinematic form". I make this claim quite seriously. Through a masterful juxtaposition of symbolic imagery, along with a very large dose of humanity, this film transcends the limits of its medium and becomes something altogether more

But this film also touched me in a very personal and emotional way. You see, for me this film most directly and relevantly concerns the discrepancy between the meaning which we seek after as human beings and the immensity of a vast and seemingly unforgiving cosmos or God. I find myself asking to that effect, "what does any of this matter?", or to quote the film, "who are we to You?". We seek frantically after something which will make our life meaningful and will make us seem somehow "big" in the face of this infinity, but we ultimately fail to do so and are constantly reminded of our nothingness. What are we to do, then? How are we to deal with the our inevitable insignificance when compared to this expanse? To give an answer, let me digress for a bit from The Tree of Life and revisit another transcendent work - the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Wittgenstein is well-aware of mankind's inability to find more than fleeting meaning in their lives, and he offers a stunning solution. Here it is. in two parts:

"The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value - and if there were, it would be of no value. If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world." (6.41)

And this:

"The temporal immortality of the soul of man, that is to say, its eternal survival also after death, is not only in no way guaranteed, but this assumption in the first place will not do for us what we always tried to make it do. Is a riddle solved by the face that I survive forever? Is this eternal life not as enigmatic as our present one? The solution to the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time." (6.4312)

We cannot, in other words, flee to something in space and time in order to find refuge from its absurdity. This problem seems really quite simple now that it's been stated so clearly, right? After all, the proposition that we must flee from life in the accidental world is almost self-evident when looked at in the right way. But how are we to do this? How can we escape from this world and reach something higher? To answer this question, let's return to the film we started out with, for The Tree of Life depicts nothing else then such an ascension.

In The Tree of Life, Sean Penn's character is a man troubled by his past. Inspired by the overboard strictness of his father, he follows, or at least did follow, what the movie terms "the way of nature" - being self-centered without concern for others. His brother and mother, on the other hand, followed "the way of grace" - being happy and loving despite abuse to one's self. But this brother tragically died when he was young. It forced everyone in his family to come face to face with their lives, but more importantly with the aforementioned absurdity of the world of space and time, of life and death. This leads Sean Penn's character and his Mother to deeply ponder their life and its meaning. It is after the bulk of these recollections, interspersed with gorgeous symbolic imagery, that they seem to reach a conclusion. The mother's voice says this:

"The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by. Do good to them. Wonder. Hope."

To escape from space and time, we must love. This does not mean to just be nice to people or to merely do "good deeds", as it goes much deeper than that. No, to love is to adore and cherish every single thing you see and encounter in the world, to the point where you regard it all as a gift from and an extension of God. This is what people mean by living for the moment. We must not ignore what is in front of us - to be happy we must see it as a manifestation of God's glory and magnificence, to love it with all of our heart.

To turn like this from spite to love can begin in a single moment of uninvited awe. This is what happens to Sean Penn's character, for immediately after the Mother says the above words he begins to have what can only be termed a mystical experience:

As the camera focuses on a sunlit sky, he rides a glass elevator up a countless number of floors. It then cuts to him in a barren desert, where he is brought in front of an empty wooden door frame.

He walks through, and immediately finds himself on beach where a multitude of people are ambling around. But they do not do this meaninglessly, for you can tell by their actions and expressions that they are immensely happy and relieved to be there. But most importantly, his family is on the beach with him. He embraces his mother, lovingly pats his father on the back, and carries his brother around on his shoulders. It seems very clear that what is happening here is nothing less than love incarnate. It is the place where love comes from, a place gloriously outside of space and time, independent of all happening and being-so. It is Eternity. As the scene ends, he rides the elevator back down and resumes his life, now seen through different eyes.

We too can walk through doors to Eternity. All it takes is for us as human beings to adore without reservation everything in our field of experience: every person, every blade of grass, and every single particle. This transcendence happens when we truly appreciate the world for what it is, and allow the light of the infinite to shine through. It happens when we love, for God is love, and love lets us enter his presence.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Beyond Opposition

I have just finished What We Talk about When We Talk about God, the latest book by pastor/pop-theologian Rob Bell.

Not since I read C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity have I encountered a work so comprehensive in its scope and vivid in its portrayal of the Christian religion. Whether he speaks of God's relationship with Man or even of God's nature, he seems to get far more than others of what Christ was talking about in the Gospels. In fact, I believe he managed to sum up the most important themes of Christianity in a single paragraph. Here it is: 

"This is what Jesus does: he comes to integrate, to make whole, to take all the bits and pieces and disintegrated parts and bring them together, reconciling us to ourselves and to the God who never stops inviting us forward - the God who, reintegrating and reintegrated, finally is truly all in all."

In other words, Bell says that God brings the pieces of the world together into a transcendent, all-encompassing whole. This may not be what you have heard about the Christian or the Mormon religion. Growing up in the Church I had the impression that we placed an emphasis on separateness - between man and God, between man and man, and between the members of the Godhead. After all, don't we all have bodies? Doesn't that mean that "oneness" is out of the question? Actually, divine embodiment implies exactly the opposite, (more on that later) and we can find evidence for Bell's interpretation throughout scripture. For example, take this prayer by Jesus from the New Testament:

"[I pray] that they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us:  that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me." -John 17:21-23

and this remark from the Doctrine and Covenants:

"For the fulness of times, in the which I will gather together in one all things, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth." -D&C 27:13

and finally, this rather humorous short story from the Gospel of Thomas:

"A man said to him, 'Tell my brothers to divide my father's possessions with me.' 
He said to him, 'O man, who has made me a divider?'
He turned to his disciples and said to them, 'I am not a divider, am I?'"
 -saying 72

God takes the various separate bits and pieces of the universe and glues them all together, and in the process transforms all conflict into harmony and unity. This is what Christ taught, and this is the essence of Christianity. After all, the phrase "at-one-ment", which all Mormons are no doubt familiar with, isn't just a trite play on words - it is the actual origin of the corresponding term. The glorious good news of the Gospel is that conflict and fear need not dominate our lives, for God puts us at one with Him, with one another, and with all other things.

This oneness goes deeper than you might expect. For we are now speaking of a God who unifies opposites, one who isn't found in, say, only "the beautiful" or "the inspiring", but the "ugly" and the "gut-wrenching", too. This God doesn't only stay on one line of the demarcation, but acts equally from both sides to bring them both together (good and evil are an exception, but I won't go into that at the moment). But God transcends one set of opposites which are particularly relevant, which I will treat next.

In mainstream Christianity, the second member of the Trinity has an odd characteristic - he is both fully Man and fully God. This seems a little odd, doesn't it? After all, mustn't it be an either/or situation? This is actually an excellent example of the tendency of which I speak, for God and Man in this conception are opposites, unified by Jesus Christ in a simultaneously paradoxical and glorious synthesis. In this conception, the finite and the infinite, the sacred and the pedestrian, the divine and the human become completely and entirely one. But Jesus Christ is of course only one individual, leaving the rest of us out in this glorious fusion of divinity and mortality. It make one wonder: why not have it apply to all of us? The doctrines of Mormonism describe precisely this, as in the Mormon conception of the universe Gods, men, and angels are all one and the same species. Anything you can say about one you could potentially say about the others, and so we too would be included in this union, this majestic dance between the limited and the limitless.

The real world is not divided, separated, or divvied up in any way, shape, or form. It is seamless,  moving from one part to another without any barrier separating them. After all, "all spirit is matter", (D&C 131: 7) meaning that nothing separates the spiritual from the physical, or indeed any extreme from its supposed opposite. This does lead to contradictions; how can an infinite being dwell in a finite body, after all? But I believe that rejecting contradictions does entirely the wrong thing, for it builds up walls between the various parts of our experience. To quote Christ, one could say that by refusing to accept contradiction and paradox, one "serves two masters" - acknowledging the existence of two realities which completely deny each other. You see, it is only by embracing conflict and contradiction that we can ever hope to transcend it.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mysticism in the Media: Journey, Part 2

Since I published my first analysis of Journey last May, I have played the game several more times. Through these playthroughs I have discovered that Journey is a near-endless well of insights. This, as well as the fact that today is the one-year anniversary of the game's release, leads me to make a few more analytical observations in this post, focusing mainly on the game's mechanics.

Journey concerns exactly what its title suggests: the trips, treks, and voyages which constitute our lives, all involving struggle and transformation in pursuit of a goal. The Mountain is designed to represent that goal, the endpoint at the conclusion of any such personal journey. However, at least for me, the most poignant interpretation of the Mountain is God, his grace, or heaven. In fact, I have found that the various mechanics and elements of the game parallel almost exactly what this specific "journey" is like. Take the "scarf" for instance. In my quest for God, I find that the more I strive to be godly, the happier and more free I become, almost as if I were no longer constrained by the gravity of the natural man. Much like this, the longer the scarf is, the farther you can "fly", metaphorically meaning that you can reach higher places and cross larger gaps. To further the similarity, just as a righteous person needs regular exposure to godly things (such as scriptures or prayer) in order to exercise their freedom, a long-scarfed player needs to regularly "recharge" from the floating red-and-gold cloth encountered throughout the game. 

However, this scarf-lengthening spiritual buildup is far from a one-way process. We will inevitably be led into the temptation that pervades the world, and we will all fall to it at one time or another. In Journey, this principle is represented by the flying stone creatures.

Though we have built up our "scarves" as a result of endless righteous pursuit, it can be instantly torn off when we succumb to the wiles of the adversary. Such spiritual amputation is not easy to repair - it requires the long process of rebuilding your scarf, or in other words, repentance. However, even though these scarf-shortenings can and do happen, it is far from the end. You see, in Journey, you cannot "die"; no matter how far you fall, or how short your "scarf" becomes, you can always proceed in your trek to the divine mountain.

The final scenes of the game reflect yet another spiritual principle. Specifically, I refer to the Gospel's insistence that if we try and inevitably fail to reach God by our own tremendous efforts, God will make up the difference. This idea is called grace, and it is the central climactic theme of the game. When the Journeyer and his companion trudge through the snow, they use every fiber of their being to reach their mountain goal. However, despite their gargantuan effort, they ultimately fail: the Mountain fades from view, and one seems to give up hope. But the brilliance of this part of this game is that it is not the end. This beautiful scene depicts a being who has tried as hard as they can, and though they fail, is elevated by the grace of the divine power which helped them from the very beginning - illustrating magnificently the principle that "we are saved after all that we can do". 

After this resurrection, both symbolic and literal, the game uses this spiritual symbol even more. When we are filled with the grace of God, or with the Spirit, it suddenly becomes natural to live righteously and avoid sin. Things that would be infinitely hard without it become suddenly easy, and what took great effort suddenly become effortless. And what is the Journeyer's dance through the clouds if not effortless? Due to its new, extremely long scarf (and all the connotations that entails) it is able to traverse extremely large gaps, something inconceivable in earlier parts of the game. But the final "chasm", the one ending in the Mountain peak itself, is the most illustrative. When he lives that final archway, he become filled with "light". What cloth had infused in him temporarily all along his journey is now present in him in its fullness, allowing him to soar to his divine goal without pain or even effort. 

As the Journeyer settles on the Mountaintop and walks into the light, you cannot help but feel the godly relief that comes from the Spirit, of a being that has suffered through endless struggles, and finally rests in God.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Saying to Show: Reflections on Wittgenstein's Tractatus

I have just finished the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein, (pictured above) an Austrian-born student of Bertrand Russell, is widely considered the most important philosopher of the twentieth century. This, and the fact that I am currently taking a class about him, means that I have been led to gorge myself upon his philosophical work, beginning with the aforementioned philosophical treatise. And, let me tell you, there is much to partake of.

The Tractatus is Wittgenstein's attempt, through investigations into logic, language, and mathematics, to solve all the problems of philosophy. And even though he himself rejected a lot of its premises in his posthumously-published Philosophical Investigations, I think he did a pretty good job. This is why: by taking a striking turn toward the "mystical" near the end, he uses philosophy to transcend philosophy. The work itself anticipates this, as seen below:

6.54: My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions: then he sees the world rightly.

In this sense it is not what the Tractatus contains that is important, but what it does not contain. To use a Wittgensteinian set of terms, what it says is irrelevant and ultimately false; what it shows is key.

On that note, let me share with you my favorite proposition from this amazing work:

6.41: The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is not value, and if it were there, it would be of no value. If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world.

What Wittgenstein means by "the world" is unlike the normal definition of the term. Instead of meaning the entirety of existence, of things "as they are, as they were, and as they are to come", he simply intends to signify "the totality of facts, not of things" (1.1). The meaning of this phrase may escape the reader, so let me elaborate by saying that, for Wittgenstein, "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world", (5.6) and that "I am my  world" (5.621). If there is something of which I cannot speak, think, or conceive, common sense says that this thing does not exist to me - it is outside my world. And yet, as the above quotation seems to indicate, these extra-conceptual things are the most important entities of all.

But wait! How can something of which no knowledge is possible give value to the world? How does it even make sense that an un-thinkable thing could make life meaningful? For that, I return to the "say"-"show" distinction mentioned above. There is nothing whatsoever that one can meaningfully say about ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics, etc., for as soon as you try, you run into the problem that you lack a "referent". Take free will, for example. Have you ever seen free will? Even if you were to examine the brains of every person on the earth, combing through grey matter for something which accounts for this nebulous quality, would you then hold free will in your hand, so to speak? Surely not. The existence which our agency possesses cannot be pinned down and examined, and so any attempt to reference it in language would lack meaning. But, as evidenced by our encounters in everyday life, these higher things can be shown.

But what is this "showing", really? If I were to put it simply, I would say that to "show" something is to become a manifestation of that entity. Instead of miniaturizing the thing in your head and then conveying it to another person, (as per Wittgenstein's picture-theory of language and thought) showing involves letting that thing act through you, in as vague a sense as possible. For example, if one were to show ethics, he or she would be an ethical person. Likewise, to show free will, he or she would act freely. 

And now we can see where Mormonism comes in. There are many religions and worldviews that try to bring us into contact with existence outside the Wittgensteinian world. For Hindus, this seems to be Brahaman, while for or others it would be the Tao or even God. But many of these religions or philosophies try to exclusively convey this outside world in language instead of through demonstration. Think of pantheism, for instance. A pantheist believes that God is the reality behind the world, beyond language and beyond conceptualization. While this may sound Wittgensteinian, the fact that this too is a representation of God (however ethereal and abstract) is a form of idolatry, a futile attempt to convey someyhing which cannot be said. The reader then may protest by saying that only a literally thought-less person could avoid this problem - every religion, including Mormonism, seems to have claims about the nature of reality. This is true, but you would be missing a key point: in Mormonism, (and other faiths to varying extents) we say not to say, but to show. When we say that God has a body, it is much more than just a fact: it is a way of getting us to feel our significance as a finite being. Likewise, when we believe that families can be together forever, we are led to experience the joy of the familial life. Both of these are exquisite manifestations of the emotional joy at the heart of reality.

What makes Mormonism unique among all religions is that in it the joy of Reality (capital R) becomes most fully manifest in its believers. These are the fruits of the spirit - it's what you feel when you read the Book of Mormon prayerfully, attend sacrament meeting, or go to the temple. For ultimately, I believe that Mormonism's strength is not is saying the truth, but in showing it.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Accepting Finitude

As a part of the curriculum in my Philosophy of Religion course, I have encountered several definitions for the term "religion". And while they all have a good deal of merit, the most interesting one I have encountered thus far is that "religion is man's response to his finitude". All of humanity has an inherent feeling of inferiority when compared with what could be, whether it takes the form of political dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, or even existential angst, and we want nothing more than to transcend our limitations and become more than we are.

Various religions have different responses to this anxiety over man's finite existence. Hinduism promises that by extinguishing the individual soul or ego, we can escape the endless cycle of rebirth and become one with Brahman. In addition, many sects of Christianity believe that through the "beatific vision", one can escape the world entirely by continual direct communication with God. In fact, this is a common thread throughout nearly all religions - one can escape the finite by going to some other realm where it no longer exists. Mormonism, as it turns out, is a striking exception.

Mormonism gives up all notions of transcending the finite world, as we believe that there is no such thing as a realm where there are no limitations or boundaries. Joseph Smith once said, "the same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there [in the Celestial Kingdom]" (D&C 130:2) meaning that in the eternities there will be no blending of essences or merging of being, but only our day-to-day lives continued on for eternity. Furthermore, the doctrine says we will always have this body, and even God himself is and continues to be a man like ourselves.

If Mormonism is to deny one of our most basic impulses, why believe in it at all? Wouldn't it be much more convenient to be a pantheist, believing that you'll merge into the infinite and impersonal well of being once you die? It actually would, but to do so would miss the point of spirituality entirely. This is why: true religion teaches us not to flee from the present, finite world, but to embrace it. You see, if we were to seek after the seemingly infinite "other", it would inevitably end in a wild goose chase. In similitude to a dog chasing its own tail, goals would be replaced by newer goals, and our trip to the infinite would never end. Far easier, and far happier to be content with what you have right now. For this is precisely what Mormonism teaches: the materially limited world is what there is, and by becoming aware of this reality, we can come to accept its glory.

Of course, that doesn't mean we can't fulfill our longing for the infinite in a roundabout way. As seen here, the transcendent and the immanent are not mutually exclusive; the closer we get to God, and the more we accept the here-and-now, and the more the infinite infuses the finite to the point where they become indistinguishable.To do this is to extend not in breadth but in depth, and to see exaltation in the most mundane of circumstances. This is heaven - where the boundless and the bounded come together in perfect symmetry, ensuring that the aforementioned sociality would be, as Joseph Smith said, "coupled with eternal glory".

Monday, January 7, 2013

Ruminations on the Sacrament

The sacrament has become my favorite part of church.

Rivaling scripture-reading and prayer, the sacrament as an intensely real spiritual experience is often the most spiritually clear moment of my week. But why do I find it so powerful? Aside from the obvious fact that the Spirit is present, I wonder what specifically invites it to come, what makes it such a unique weekly event. I give an answer with this post. Here I will endeavor to show what components of the sacrament make it the powerful symbol that it is, and where it invites in the Spirit.

Let's begin with the obvious: the bread symbolizes the body of Christ, and thus his incarnation into the world of flesh. On the other hand, the water (originally wine) represents the blood of Christ, or his all-atoning sacrifice. But this just scratches the surface - there are many levels of meaning for this powerful ritual.

For example, the sacrament exists as a uniquely physical aspect of Gospel worship. The bread and water are not abstract concepts which we absentmindedly ponder - they are real objects, which are both tangible and corporeal. This is above all a reminder that we should never deny the physical or the material; God has a body of flesh and bones, and all spirit is matter. But even the specific traits of these objects remind us what they stand for. The bread has concrete substance, and is quite literally in one place at one time. However, the water can pervade space much more readily than its solid counterpart, having the capability of figurative omnipresence. Here, (as Alan Watts once pointed out) the bread and water symbolize the unity of matter and spirit, of the finite and the infinite. But most importantly, these symbols can literally enter into us, and thus become a very real manifestation of the fact that God lives in us, and that by partaking of his fullness, it can become part of our very being.

There is also very clear resurrection imagery in the Sacrament. The cloth draped in turn over the bread and water is nothing less than a shroud, meant to represent the death which Christ experienced. But for each emblem priests uncover the shroud, thus symbolizing that he has emerged from the grave victorious.

In addition, all participants in the Sacrament ritual partake of the bread and water together. We all, more or less, do the same thing at the same time, hopefully thinking the same thoughts. In a very real, yet also very symbolic sense, we become one with those around us.

Finally, we can apply the traditional interpretations of this ceremony to us, as well as to Christ. We commemorate Christ's suffering, yes. But he suffered for all of our sins, and so by partaking of the water we remember not only the pain of Christ, but vicariously the pain of the entire human race.

The sacrament is an intensely real, intensely present experience of spiritual oneness with God and with our neighbor. This is a time when boundaries between the spiritual and the physical become thin, and when we can connect with God readily.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

D&C 88 and the Gospel of Thomas

SPECULATION WARNING: I am not preaching certain truth. This post contains pure speculation, which could be entirely wrong. 

In 1945, a cache of ancient texts was discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The most important of these texts was the Gospel of Thomas, the first page of which is pictured below.

The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of sayings that the author claims were spoken by "the living Jesus". Now, to many members of the LDS Church, the idea of Jesus-isms that can't be found in the standard works makes one quite uneasy. While we are told that if we wrote everything that Jesus said or did, "the world itself could not contain the books that should be written", a lot of the stuff claiming to be said by Jesus is, without a doubt, crap. Out of this concern, let me assuage the reader by saying that I believe the Gospel of Thomas to be mostly, if not entirely, out of Jesus' mouth. How do I know this? It is simply because the ideas within them seem so profound that I do not believe they could have had human origin.

Interestingly enough, there is a section in the Doctrine and Covenants which, if boiled down to its bare essentials, has practically the same message as the aforementioned gospel. This is section 88. In this post I will essay to show, through side-by-side comparison, that these two works come from the same source, as they are both inspired.

First, let me share with you saying 77 from the Gospel of Thomas:

 "It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the all. From me did the all come forth, and unto me did the all extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there."

Next, for comparison, consider D&C 88:41:

"He comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever."

As you can see, these two are radically similar. Both tell us that God surrounds the universe in different ways, and both tell us that God can be found anywhere and everywhere.

Next, here is Thomas's saying number 3:

"The kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty"

Compare that to D&C 88:47-50: 

"Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power. I say unto you, he hath seen him; nevertheless, he who came unto his own was not comprehended. The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not; nevertheless, the day shall come when you shall comprehend even God, being quickened in him and by him. Then shall ye know that ye have seen me, that I am, and that I am the true light that is in you, and that you are in me; otherwise ye could not abound."

Consider the last sentence in the D&C excerpt. Could there be a more glorious good news that this, that God lives in us, and that we live in him? And could there be a more perfect match for Thomas 3? He is inside us, and by knowing ourselves, we can know Him.

As a brief digression, let me expound on the D&C verses for a bit. It says earlier in the same chapter that "there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space", meaning together with the above quotation that whenever we see, we see kingdoms, and therefore see God. However, it also says that, despite our seeing Him, we do not comprehend Him. God is figuratively camouflaged, visible to all, yet hidden in plain sight. But one day, it says, we will see him for what He is, and we will know that He has never left our view. 

Finally, consider number 5 of Thomas's sayings:

"Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you . For there is nothing hidden which will not become manifest."

Together with D&C 88:66-67: 

"Truth abideth and hath no end; and if it be in you it shall abound. And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things."

Both excerpts offer the possibility of omniscience, if we will only pay attention to the light of God eternally before our eyes. If we become single to the glory of God, we will comprehend all things, and nothing will be hidden from us ever again.

That's about it. There are many more similarities, which I won't go into. You can, though. I urge you to read both works, as they each contain the light of the Gospel.