On Free Will

I recently attended a Catholic men’s group in the evening, where we sit around and read a quick scripture passage and then just talk about family stuff or Catholic topics or whatever comes to mind. It is simultaneously painful for me as an introvert, and probably healthy for me for the same reasons.

A topic came up that in consideration for ordaining older married men to the diaconate, one of the considerations is whether or not your kids are practicing Catholics.

As you might imagine, I immediately took exception to the idea.

This thinking bothers me as much in Catholicism as it does in Mormonism. To attribute the strength of someone’s faith or examine their spiritual commitment as a function of how religious their children are is like giving a father a traffic citation because his long-grown son or daughter drive recklessly.

The fact that I am Catholic does not represent some failure of faith or teaching from my parents – in other words, my Catholicism does not reflect on my dad’s Mormonism. Likewise, if I were still Mormon, that shouldn’t necessarily be a reflection on my parents – after all, what if I simply wasn’t an inquisitive person? What if I was more content with status quo than doing my own research?

Any other position than this denies free will.

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Gaudete!

The third Sunday of Advent has historically been called “Gaudete Sunday” in Catholicism, and in Latin means “rejoice.” For many parishes (mine included), it is also when the Rite of Acceptance occurs – when those who have gone through the initial instruction and have come to accept the gospel of Christ’s atonement and resurrection will receive their Christian baptisms at Easter. It is also the first blessing received by those looking forward to baptism. In my case, it was a simple message: as the priest traced the Sign of the Cross on my forehead, he said “Our savior Jesus Christ loves you immensely.”

What an appropriate message for Advent! These four Sundays are spent in anticipation for He who will take away the sins of the world because He loves us. Gaudete indeed!

The Retcon

When comic books gained in popularity and were no longer a niche market for nerdy enthusiasts, writers were faced with a problem: they had established stories and universes that weren’t ideally situated for sequels or derivative works. Thus, the “retroactive continuity” or retcon was born; authors changed characters or storylines that had already been written to facilitate expansion of future material. Some novel retcons appeared in the form of parallel universes or time travel.

In Mormonism, members and nonmembers alike are probably aware that for the majority of the Mormon church’s existence, blacks were not permitted the same spiritual rights as whites – a policy that was overturned in the late seventies. What most nonmembers and younger members are probably not aware of are the supporting doctrines of the Mormon church that supported this view: Mormons not only taught that these people were less valiant in the “premortal war” before they were born, they taught that their skin color was actually an indicator of how righteous they were. “White and delightsome” was how this was described, and Mormons took literally the idea that becoming Mormon could literally make someone “white as snow.” This doctrine was taught as recently as 1960:

“I saw a striking contrast in the progress of the Indian people today… The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised. In this picture of the twenty Lamanite missionaries, fifteen of the twenty were as light as Anglos, five were darker but equally delightsome. The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation. At one meeting a father and mother and their sixteen-year-old daughter were present, the little member girl–sixteen–sitting between the dark father and mother, and it was evident she was several shades lighter than her parents–on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather….These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness.”
~ Spencer W. Kimball, Future Mormon Prophet, General Conference 1960

From whence had this “white and delightsome” phrase promulgated? From the Book of Mormon, of course! Until 1981, 2 Nephi 30:6 read “they shall be a white and delightsome” people, and was edited to “pure and delightsome.” As recently as 2010, the Mormon church removed comments regarding race from the Book of Mormon’s chapter headings, which originally read that Lamanites (the claimed Jewish ancestors of native Americans) were “a dark, filthy, and loathsome people” and that a curse of “a skin of blackness” was placed upon them.

white-and-delightsome

The result of the “race retcon” in Mormonism has been very effective – I find very few people who weren’t at least 12 in 1978 who are aware of these doctrines. LDS leaders have been hard at work removing any specific references to these prior doctrines from any “faith-promoting source.”  The prior doctrines are simply not talked about – like so many other troubling aspects of Mormon theology – and so faithful members who remain are left to wonder what happened to the doctrines taught by prophets that baptism would make people whiter or that black people were less valiant, and younger members are never exposed to it. It goes down the Memory Hole, and before too much longer, younger generations may even believe the idea that a Mormon prophet ever said that baptism could make your skin lighter to be an anti-Mormon lie, similar to the seer stone that was denounced as such a lie for generations.

Temples and Exaltation

To me, the Gospel of St. Luke is the superior of the four. Fortunately for me, most of the gospel readings for Mass readings come out of Luke this year. This last Sunday was a particularly easy-to-digest parable.

Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’

But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’

Of course, in this story, Our Lord praised the Pharisee, right? He was living the most holy life! He had a position of prominence within the temple, and even fasted and paid tithes on his whole income! Surely this holy man, who was doing all that was asked of him, would be praised by Jesus!

I tell you that [the tax collector], rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Nope! That would be totally out of character for Christ, who is both predictable and poignant in this teaching – but it did get me thinking about temples and tithing.

In Mormonism, you are not even permitted to enter a Mormon temple unless you attest to your local Mormon ecclesiastical leader that you paid tithes on your whole income, which has evolved from the initial requirement in Mormonism to pay a tithe only on your surplus. Even more astounding is the Mormon church’s own edit of the Bible in Genesis 14:39 stating that God defined Abraham’s tithe as “more than that which he had need.” Note that this version of the Bible – with Joseph Smith’s own edits – is not accepted as canon by anyone other than Mormons, and even they do not implement this edit in their own policies, leading to more paradoxical credibility issues within Mormon canon.

Regardless, the very fact that Mormons are not even permitted to enter their own temple without attesting to a tithing on their incomes would on the surface makes their temples appear to be full of Pharisees who are boasting of their righteousness before God, especially when one considers that Mormons believe that true exaltation cannot occur without going to a Mormon temple – which means in Mormonism, you must attest to a Mormon leader that you’re paying the Mormon church 10% of your income before you’re allowed to access the ordinances that Mormons believe are required for exaltation. The “unworthy” Mormons and non-Mormons are not even allowed to sit in the back of a Mormon temple and pour out their humility to God. This goes even beyond the detestable practices of simony implemented by certain Catholic bishops in the form of paid indulgences in the middle ages before they were banned by the Pope in 1567.

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Fortunately, temples in Christianity are not necessary thanks to Christ. He fulfilled the law. My friend John wrote a fantastic post about how the pre-Christian Jewish temples worked. An excerpt from his article:

The New Testament records that when Jesus died, the veil of the temple which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple was rent in two. The symbolism is obvious. […] The Epistle to the Hebrews explains that Jesus Christ is now that one High Priest who makes intercession for his people at the throne of God.

A core tenet of Mormonism teaches that the doctrine of the necessity for temples was one of many truths lost through Catholic meddling in early church doctrine; if that were actually true, then Paul and the original apostles were part of the conspiracy.

The Onion of Faith

For many years after I was “mentally out” of Mormonism, I was a “cynical agnostic.” If God existed, he certainly didn’t care about humanity, and if heaven existed, I wasn’t going there.

For years I sat in the Mormon three-hour block, attending out of obligation. I didn’t want to disappoint my wife or my family. It was the expectation, and I would fake it as long as I could bear it – but I was miserable. I felt like with every meeting I attended out of obligation, the more cynical I became.

Years later, I was in Europe for work. It was September and cold and rainy; I hadn’t packed an umbrella or even a jacket, because I had arrived in the swelter of August and hadn’t planned on being away from home that long. I was already the optimal mixture of damp and cold to maximize misery, and as I got off the train, it started to pour, and sought refuge in a nearby cathedral to wait out the rain and warm up.

I sat there and pondered the nature of God – perhaps for the first time in many years. And as I did so, I had a singular epiphany: what if Christianity was true, but Mormonism was not?

I felt my heart jump a little. It seems like such a benign concept in retrospect to consider. You must understand that the nature of Mormon doctrine is defined in absolutes: other churches are absolutely false. Even after being “mentally out” of Mormonism for years, I had still not cast this mental shackle from my mind. I had been caught in a paradigm where I no longer believed in Mormonism, but also didn’t believe that any church besides Mormonism was true because I had been taught that since birth. My faith paradigm was fundamentally broken.

What followed was a deconstruction of most of my religious beliefs. I held onto the core of God and Christ’s atonement, but threw everything else out the window.

  • Did I really believe that secret handshakes are required to get into heaven?
  • Did I really think that my wife won’t be saved unless I call her by her secret new name when we’re resurrected?
  • Did I really believe in a God who wants 18-year-old kids to go in the temple without knowing beforehand that, once inside, they are going to covenant to die for the church?
  • Did I really believe in a God who created temple weddings where the wife gives herself to her husband, but the husband never gives himself to his wife?
  • Did I really believe in a God that keeps parents, grandparents, siblings and other family members from attending weddings because they aren’t Mormon?
  • Did I really believe that a prayer in the temple for people “whose names lie upon the altar” in a zipped-up pouch, will be heard more than a non-Mormon mother’s prayer for her sick child?
  • Did I really believe that God wants me to spend more time each week serving the dead than I spend serving the living poor?
  • Did I really believe in a God who makes covenants with me, but then won’t make those same covenants with my wife unless she first covenants to follow me as her husband?
  • Did I really believe in a God who ever thought so little of women that he would force the doctrine of polygamy for salvation?
  • Did I really believe in a God who ever thought that black people were worth less than white people?
  • Did I really believe in a God who gives men the right to give other people “Their Callings and Elections Made Sure” and bypass Christ’s atonement?
  • Did I really believe that God was once a man?onion

I did not. I could not. I peeled these doctrines away like the dead skin of an onion, and with each layer removed, I found myself closer to having a real relationship with God. I never imagined that there would come a time I’d enjoy going to church, or that I’d care about scripture, or that I’d feel like I had a shot at salvation.

Much like the peeling of a real onion, my faith transition hasn’t been without its share of tears. I kept my feelings from my wife for years in fear that she would leave me, as is the case with so many Mormon marriages where a spouse leaves Mormonism. I still haven’t told many of my Mormon-pioneer-stock relatives, who will certainly judge me as a failure for leaving the LDS church. As time goes on and I find more comfort in my faith, I am able to open up more to others; the news isn’t bad! I haven’t lost my way after leaving Mormonism, but quite the contrary – I have found it for the first time in my life.

Illumination of the Soul

On the recommendation of a friend, I’m currently reading renown theological author Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain – Merton’s life story of how he was raised without religion and was particularly anti-Catholic and eventually became a Trappist monk after spending years searching for faith and peace. In some ways, it mirrors my own journey; I routinely ridiculed Catholicism as a teenager, and much like Merton, my first reconsideration of Catholicism as an adult was through Catholic architecture and art in Europe.

One passage of the book that struck me was Merton’s description of the human soul, and its poignant relationship to the Divine:

The soul of man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal in the darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from the outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed, and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.

What a powerful analogy that highlights not only the value of the human soul, but illustrates what it can become when illuminated by God!

One of the defining characteristics of light’s interaction with crystal after it passes through it is that a certain amount of the that light is transformed through dispersal. The properties of the light after it passes through the crystal, while still light, are expressed in different wavelengths and are unique based on the properties and dimensions of the crystal – but will output seven colors. Extending Merton’s analogy further, the beautiful and intricate crystalline structures that are our souls, when illuminated by Christ, can radiate the Seven Heavenly Virtues – Purity, Temperance, Charity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, and Humility.

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Eve’s Fall and Mary’s Triumph

I generally don’t like the tale of the Garden of Eden. It’s difficult for a Catholic who believes in evolution (as I do) to determine what non-literal value the story has; Catholic dogma on it is sparse, and theory I tentatively hold to is that Adam and Eve were the first two biological ancestors capable of rational thought – or the first imbued with immortal souls.

From my Mormon background, the focus is on how Eve screwed up and so she’s especially cursed for tempting Adam to sin. This narrative typically mitigated by the fact that Mormons teach that Adam and Eve were supposed to sin, but it still remains that women covenant to obey their husbands in Mormon temples while men covenant to obey God.

This week in my Rite of Christian Initiation class – the nine-month course that precedes baptism in Catholicism – I heard a unique take on the dynamic of Eve and women in general in Christianity. In the Catholic search for the meaning of the curse given to Eve in the garden – that the serpent would bruise the heel of her seed, but her seed would bruise the head of the serpent – there exists a powerful allegory that portends the powerful role that God would give a woman in the future. Jesus did not simply pop down as an adult and start hanging out with the poor and infirm, He was born of the most blessed Theotokos. Just as a woman brought about the start of the fall of Man, a woman brought about the start of the salvation of Man.

Hail Mary, Full of Grace
Punching Satan in the Face

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Empty Promises

My wife and I are currently watching the DC Comics superhero TV series The Flash. While the show is entertaining, I have noticed a common trope in these sorts of shows: characters often make promises they cannot reasonably follow through on. The show’s protagonist Barry Allen is constantly making promises like “I’m going to go fight this guy who wants to destroy all the universes, but I promise I’ll come back to you, no matter what.” While I realize this is a case of me taking a show about a guy who can run fast too seriously, it really bothers me when promises are portrayed as something to be flippantly made. Empty promises damage credibility  and can hurt people in real life.

Yesterday, in the twice-annual LDS General Conference – where the Mormon leadership broadcasts several blocks of live sermons from Salt Lake City – the common theme seemed to be addressing apostasy. One can hardly be surprised by this when the number of Mormons who have resigned in the last 18 months has been fairly meteoric. During the last block of sermons on Sunday afternoon, a particularly damaging and hurtful promise was made by LDS leader Brett Nattress to the ranks of believing Mormons with children: that if they read the Book of Mormon to their children every day while they were growing up, they won’t leave the Mormon church. Nattress then went on to say that he was “unaware of anyone who was diligently reading the Book of Mormon each day, with faith, with pure intent who has lost their testimony and fallen away.”

What absolutely uninspired and worthless drivel.

So what are the parents who dutifully read the Mormon scriptures to their children each evening to think when their children fall away? My parents did this; my earliest memories of learning to read were from the scriptures, and it continued until I was an adult and out of the house. Was their faith and intent not pure enough? Perhaps that time we didn’t read them on vacation was the locus of failure. Regardless, Brett Nattress made his promise, and if your kids fall away from the church, it’s surely because you as a parent did something wrong and not because the Mormon church’s doctrine isn’t actually true or that Mormon history is full of uninspired men claiming to be prophets and introducing false doctrine.

Furthermore, for Brett Nattress to claim that he is “unaware” of anyone who read the Book of Mormon every day while growing up and is currently fallen away means that he either 1) is absolutely insulated from real life, or 2) is not telling the truth. Brett Nattress’s talk yesterday was quite an eye-opener; an estimated 70% of the Mormon church’s claimed numbers either no longer attend or have actively resigned, and I’m sure the leadership of the church was wondering why their pure and simple doctrines were being rejected two-to-one by baptized members. Fortunately, King Douche Brett Nattress is here to explain the simple reason why: the parents of all those apostates failed by not reading enough Book of Mormon to them as kids.

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If I seem more angry or direct in this point, it’s because my parents actively struggle with the guilt of my apostasy because of these sorts of talks. They’ve heard for years that the true test of Mormon discipleship is whether or not you can teach your kids to believe. Despite the fact I have a good career and provide for my own family and am an upright and morally-conscious person and am even religious, they have still failed somehow because of “divinely inspired” men like Brett Nattress and his promise.

Brett, this is my promise to you: I promise you will gain much more valuable perspective on life if your own kids decide to leave the church than the current ill-informed and backwards perspective you currently have as a Mormon General Authority who claims to be inspired by God.

Voting With Their Hands

This coming weekend is the twice-annual General Conference for the Mormon church, which mostly consists of sermons from the top Mormon brass affirming the truth of the Mormonism. One particular noteworthy event is the “Vote to Sustain” which is called to invite members to publicly display their vote for or against sustaining the Mormon leadership by raising their hands. While this custom of public voting to demonstrate the common consent of the Mormon membership traces itself back to the earliest days of Mormonism, it has become something of a contrivance in the modern day. It’s hard to tell if it’s because of the intimidation of raising a few hands in a sea of 15,000 people in the General Conference auditorium is too much for some people to take a stand, or if it’s because when the few who vote opposed do so, their vote is essentially disregarded and they’re instructed to talk to their local ecclesiastical leadership.

One Mormon celebrity leading the charge for more to vote against (instead of leaving the church altogether) is Sam Young. Sam is in the difficult situation of knowing that much of what the Mormon leadership does is at best uninspired – and at worst, completely wrong – but rather than leave like so many others, he’s trying to rally people to “vote with their hands, and not with their feet.”

This got me thinking about that phrase “voting with one’s hands”, and the first thing that popped into my mind is Saint Nicholas smacking Arius in AD 325 during the Council of Nicea when Arius publicly denied the divinity of Jesus Christ.

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Other than the humor value alone of imagining a theological council in which someone gets the heresy smacked out of them, it sent a powerful message: Nicholas had been imprisoned and tortured for his belief in Christ, and for Arius to dismiss it so casually was indefensible to Nicholas. Nicholas conveyed this in the strongest sense – he voted with his hands against this most-uninspired theory and later, in an odd twist of fate, was memorialized as Santa Claus into the modern day.

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I wish Sam the best in his self-admitted “swinging at windmills” fight to convince the leadership of the Mormon church to more closely follow the principles of Christ. One never knows the impact he will have by voting with his hands!

Something to Hide

I ran across a great quote from author Greg Prince’s recent biography of Mormon Church Historian Leonard Arrington:

The attempt to suppress problems and difficulties, the attempt to intimidate people who raise problems or express doubts or seek to reconcile difficult facts, is both ineffective and futile. It leads to suspicion, mistrust, the condescending slanting of data. The more we deny or appear to deny certain demonstrable ‘facts,’ the more we must ourselves harbor serious doubts and have something to hide. ~ Church Historian Leonard J. Arrington

Arrington said this some 34 years ago about the church, and it hasn’t really gotten better. While the controversial essays that few members are aware of (or outright believe have been placed there via hacking by anti-Mormons) claim to address these issues, they really don’t – no solid explanation is ever given as to why Mormon doctrine was firmly that blacks were considered spiritually inferior for more than a century in the church, or that polygamy was absolutely demanded by God. Academics and historians have been proverbially been telling the church that their zipper is down for several generations, and the best response has been the church saying “Yep! My fly is down. Perhaps my pants were made that way! Or perhaps someone else grabbed my zipper while I wasn’t looking and pulled it down. It may even be that I forgot to zip them up the last time I took a leak!” and leaving the matter unresolved or actually zipping up.

How did it come to be that an official Mormon church historian of all people feels that the church has suppressed problems and difficulties and that its leaders have attempted to intimidate people who raise concerns? Simple: it all comes down to the credibility paradox – Mormon leadership insist they will not and even are physically prevented by God of steering the Mormon church astray, and yet, there are repeated instances of church leaders doing so, and reasonable attempts to reconcile this information results in either coming up with ridiculous explanations unfit for a doctrine that claims it is based on “plain and simple truths” or transitioning into what the church says is apostasy.

Perhaps if fewer Mormon leaders made pronouncements like this at the pulpit (taken from 1934 General Conference) then church historians wouldn’t feel like the church had something to hide:

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