Friday, December 9, 2011

Gospel Principles #1 - Our Heavenly Father (NOM version)

See my previous blog entry to read how I taught this lesson in Relief Society.

For most of my adolescent and adult life, I had a strong belief in God. When I was 14, I had a transcendent experience (probably what some Christians would call the sensation of “being born again”) in which I prayed to God and felt strongly that he was real and that he loved me deeply. I remember feeling like I was on a spiritual high for nearly an entire week---just so utterly happy to feel God’s love and see his hand in my life.

For most of my life, I saw God as a loving parent who knew me more perfectly than I knew myself. I believed he was intimately aware of every detail of my life and that he regularly intervened on my behalf. And I furthermore believed he did this for everyone else on earth too---but not all of his children were fully aware of his love and his presence. This belief gave me a sense of purpose, an elevated self-esteem, and a feeling that everything would turn out okay for me in the end.

Those days are over now. It's interesting how far I've come from that too. I recently became a member of a private agnostic/atheist Facebook group for Mormons. (Funny---the person I was 2 years ago could not have even conceived that such a group existed, let alone become a member of one.) This morning a group member posted an interesting question:
Hey everybody, I was just curious about the spectrum of belief/disbelief in this group. Where do you guys fall on this 7-point scale? (Borrowed from Richard Dawkins.) All viewpoints on the issue are welcome. I just think that it might be interesting to clarify what each of us means when we say we are agnostics/atheists/nonbelievers, etc.

1. Strong Theist: I do not question the existence of God, I KNOW he exists.
2. De-facto Theist: I cannot know for certain but I strongly believe in God and I live my life on the assumption that he is there.
3. Weak Theist: I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.
4. Pure Agnostic: God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.
5. Weak Atheist: I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.
6. De-facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life under the assumption that he is not there.
7. Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God.

I thought about it for a long time, and eventually I responded: "To be honest, my answer would probably change depending on which day you asked me. But on most days I would put myself at a solid 5. On my darker days, I'm a 7 and on my more optimistic, socially-amenable days I'm a 3."

Simply put, although today I am highly skeptical of God’s existence, I am willing to make room for the possibility that God might still exist. I do, however, feel confident that if God exists, he/she is probably very different from how I used to imagine him/her to be when I was younger. I'll explain why I've come to feel that way in this blog entry.

NOTE: The topic of today's blog entry is of course a very sensitive issue. It was actually very difficult to write this post since I knew so many people would see it differently than I do. So, let me just make it clear that I am in no way advocating that others adopt my views on God. You are welcome to retain your particular beliefs and I will respect them and even validate them. I just want to explain what my views are in order to make sense of it for myself. Also, I will refer to God using the male pronoun "he" for the sake of convenience---but not because I actually believe God is a male.

Contradictory Premises
As I already mentioned, I used to see God as a parent figure who was actively involved in my life. If I were to summarize my previous views on God in the form of a theorem, it would look like this:
  1. God is a loving being who is fair and equitable, who wants the best for all of his children.
  2. God is an all-powerful being who is capable of influencing the world and human events on both a large and small scale.
  3. God is aware of each of his children’s lives and is actively trying to nurture them and influence their lives for the better.
While I feel it is possible for God to have any one of these three qualities, I’ve realized that you can’t have all three---you have to pick two. As soon as you choose one of those qualities, it immediately nullifies one of the other two.

Let me illustrate my meaning. Let’s take Theorem #1 which says that God is a loving being who is fair and equitable and who wants the best for his children. If that is true, it becomes very difficult to make sense of the extremely stark inequities and brutalities that exist in the world.

Take, this image for example:

This is a picture of thousands of shoes that used to belong to the Jewish men, women, and children who were systematically murdered in concentration camps by the Nazi soldiers during the Holocaust. When you watch films such as Night and Fog and read other accounts of the atrocities of the Holocaust, it is quite natural to ask: how could a loving and equitable God allow an estimated six million individuals to be heinously tortured and murdered solely because of their ethnicity?

The Book of Mormon attempts to answer this question in Alma 14. In this chapter, Alma and Amulek witness believing women and children being burned to death by the wicked unbelievers. When Amulek pleads with Alma to let them intervene using the powers God has given them, Alma replies in verse 11:
The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.
In other words, the righteous and the wicked will have their just rewards in the after-life. By that same logic, God doesn’t intervene in egregious human events such as the Holocaust so that Hitler’s wicked deeds will serve as a testament against him in the next life.

I suppose I could logically accept such an explanation (even though it is admittedly very unsatisfactory on an emotional level). However, this explanation makes Theorem #3 impossible because it suggests that God does not intervene in our lives for the most part (even though he has the power to do so). Perhaps he does so out of a respect for human agency or something to that effect.

But this is a bit of a problem for contemporary Mormons. If you visit a ward on any given Fast Sunday, you will hear many Mormons who provide anecdotal evidence asserting that Theorem #3 is most definitely true. Mormons are fond of sharing stories in which they could see that God had intervened in their life in some way. Probably the most typical example of this is when someone gets up and talks about how they lost something like their car keys, and then they miraculously found them shortly after praying to God for help. I used to enjoy both hearing and telling those kinds of stories because I saw it as evidence of God’s love for us and his personal involvement in our lives. But those stories make me cringe now; I just can’t see how Theorem #3 makes any sense at all when taking into account all of the suffering in the world.

If you have the stomach for it, take a look at this Pulitzer-Prize winning photo, taken by Kevin Carter in 1993:

[Click on this link to view the image]

Truthfully, this image is so disturbing to me that I can’t bring myself to feature it directly on my blog. The picture shows a starving, emaciated Sudanese girl being stalked by a vulture. Carter said the girl was on her way to a feeding center when he took the picture. Fortunately, he chased the vulture away after snapping the picture and the girl eventually made it to the center, but the photograph haunted him so profoundly that he committed suicide in 1994. Looking at the picture, I can understand why.

To put this image into relief, let's contrast it with a personal story told by Elder J. Devin Cornish in the most recent General Conference. He talks about how he was riding his bicycle on his way home from medical school when he felt incredibly tired and hungry. He decided that he would feel better if he could get a piece of chicken at a nearby fried chicken shop where they were having a sale on drumsticks for 29 cents. When he looked in his wallet, he saw he only had a nickel. He states:
As I rode along, I told the Lord my situation and asked if, in His mercy, He could let me find a quarter on the side of the road. I told Him that I didn’t need this as a sign but that I would be really grateful if He felt to grant me this kind blessing. I began watching the ground more intently but saw nothing. Trying to maintain a faith-filled but submissive attitude as I rode, I approached the store. Then, almost exactly across the street from the chicken place, I saw a quarter on the ground. With gratitude and relief, I picked it up, bought the chicken, savored every morsel, and rode happily home.

Why would God help an educated, white, American Mormon doctor find a quarter on the ground so that he could buy a piece of chicken while simultaneously allowing this little girl in Africa---and countless other children---to nearly starve to death?

To answer that question, you need to drop one of the three theorems. One possibility is to drop Theorem #2 and say that God is a loving and equitable being who is fully aware of this child, but he is not all-powerful and is therefore incapable of intervening on her behalf. Mormon doctrine is probably flexible enough to allow for this possibility, but it is certainly not a very popular view of God among mainstream Mormons. For example, Elder Cornish interprets his story this way:
In His mercy, the God of heaven, the Creator and Ruler of all things everywhere, had heard a prayer about a very minor thing. One might well ask why He would concern Himself with something so small. I am led to believe that our Heavenly Father loves us so much that the things that are important to us become important to Him, just because He loves us. How much more would He want to help us with the big things that we ask, which are right?

Assuming that Elder Cornish's logic is sound (doubtful---but I'll play along), then perhaps God can only help the girl if she prays to him for help. Perhaps she didn't pray? Or maybe if she did pray, perhaps she didn't use the appropriate format and structure---using "thee" and "thy" and closing in the name of Christ. Ugh... I really don't like that thought at all. I really chafe at the idea of a legalistic God who needs you to perfectly perform some ritual in order for him to have the power to help you. Because that just leads us back to inequity again since this Sudanese girl didn't have the good fortune to know about the proper way to pray---through no fault of her own. She just lost out on culture roulette.

Let's see what happens when we drop Theorem #3 instead. Perhaps God is a loving and equitable being who is all-powerful, but he is no longer aware of this girl’s adversities. This view of God would be at odds with Mormon doctrine. It's more like in line with the Deist view of a God that initially created the world but then left it alone to its own devices. If this is true, God doesn't intervene in our lives because he is not in our corner of the universe any more and he isn't aware of our needs. If we adopt this view of an absent God, then Elder Cornish was using flawed Post Hoc logic to falsely see a causal link between his prayer and finding the quarter (which is a fairly plausible explanation, actually). The problem with dropping Theorem #3 is that you have to completely realign what it means to pray and what kind of a relationship you can have with God. It just opens up a new can of theological worms.

The only other possibility (and by far the most disturbing) is to drop Theorem #1. Perhaps God is not a loving and equitable being after all. Perhaps he really does favor the rich, the white, the beautiful, the heterosexual, and the male over those who are not. Perhaps God favors these lucky individuals because of the remarkably good decisions they made in the pre-mortal existence. This view of God frankly disturbs me and I cannot accept it. If it is true, then God would not a being that is worthy of my worship.

I guess my point is that it really is impossible for all three of these theorems about God be true. You have to pick two of them. For me, it's a Sophie's Choice to have to decide which two are more to my liking. I wish God could be all three at the same time. But I doubt that he can.

The Historical Development of Monotheism
Although it really does pain me to say this, I find it more logically plausible that God doesn't exist at all. One reason why I find the existence of God to be implausible is because the historical and archaeological evidence seems to suggest that God is a man-made construct. My study of Biblical scholarship has lead me to this conclusion.

For a really fabulous introduction to the current views of Biblical historians and archaeologists about the development of the Old Testament, I'd highly recommend watching an episode of NOVA entitled The Bible's Buried Secrets on the PBS website. I'd also recommend reading Richard Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible for a more in-depth examination of the scholarship mentioned in that documentary.

Rather than rehearse the whole argument here, I'm just going to cite a comment I made on someone's blog entry since it mentions a lot of the scholarly concepts that inform my current views about Biblical history. The blog entry I was responding to was partially about how the Mormon concept of Mother in Heaven has fallen by the wayside. A commenter on the blog argued that Catholics were responsible for removing the theology of Mother in Heaven from Mormonism. I know it's both lazy and pompous to quote myself, but here was my reply:

"I apologize in advance for leaving such a long comment, but I want to respond to what an earlier commenter said about the Catholic church (aka the Apostasy) being responsible for getting rid of the theology of Heavenly Mother. It's not my desire to be contentious, but I want to point out that this idea is not supported by the historical or archaeological record. The removal of female goddesses from Judeo-Christian theology could instead be traced to Old Testament times---specifically to the period in which Jews were in Babylonian captivity beginning around 600 BC. Most Biblical scholars agree that it was during this time period when the theological concept of monotheism (one God and no other Gods) was first developed.

"What is important to know about the Iron Age is that they had a very different concept of God than we have today. Most cultures during this time (including the Jews) believed that each kingdom (each nation/group of people) had their own god. That god was believed to fight with them in battles with other nations (other gods). When your god won, it meant your god was superior to their god. It was also customary for defeated nations to stop worshiping their nation's god and begin worshiping the god of the victorious nation.

"The god of the Jewish nation-state was Yahweh. But it is important to note that the Jews would not have believed Yahweh was the only god. Not only did they believe other nations had their own gods, but the Jews also believed in other minor gods whom they worshiped. (Such as female goddesses.)

"All of this changed in 586 BC when the Jews were defeated and captured by the Babylonians. The Jewish priests and scribes did not stop worshiping Yahweh like they were supposed to. They retained their own religious traditions and theology in captivity. It was during this time that they developed the idea that Yahweh was the one and only god. And the Jews reasoned Yahweh had allowed them to fall into captivity because he had been angered by their worship of false gods. And so Jews began to strongly discourage their worship of other gods (such as female goddesses). That's why the Old Testament has so such so many proscriptions against worshiping false idols throughout it.

"I know it's uncomfortable for Mormons to think of Judeo-Christian theology as being something that evolved over time (continuing revelation?). And it's equally unsettling to imagine that the Bible wasn't really written in Moses' time but rather in David's/Isaiah's time, but that's what the general consensus is among Biblical scholars and archaeologists.

"It is the memory of my recently deceased Catholic grandparents that motivates my desire to make this comment. They lived in Utah from the 1950s until this year. Unfortunately, they were often badly mistreated or maligned by their Mormon neighbors---in large part because of strong anti-Papist sentiments that existed in Mormon culture (fueled by frankly wrong-headed statements from LDS leaders from the 1930s to the 1980s).

"I should also mention that I recently attended my Catholic grandmother's funeral and I listened intently as a priest recited the prayers of the rosary on my grandmother's behalf. Most of the prayers in the rosary are offered to the Virgin Mary. Although she is regarded as a Saint (not a God), Catholics pray to her for intercession and see her as a model of holy femininity. I can’t help but feel that Mormons lack something their Catholic sisters have. Mormons have a female goddess in our theology---but we are not allowed to pray to her or to even speak about her in public. There is something to be envied in Catholicism.

"When we speak of the Apostasy, I hope we will be sensitive to our fellow Christian brothers and sisters---even if they do not always extend the same courtesy to us. I think we would be better served by building theological bridges rather than theological walls."

Concluding on a Hopeful Note
This blog entry has probably been a total downer to read. But I wanted to end with a note of optimism since I don't completely reject the idea of God. I'll close by (sigh) quoting myself again from a recent email conversation I had with a friend from another faith:

"I think that if God exists, I feel confident that he has created multiple paths through which we can find him. And maybe God is flexible enough that he can be for us what we need him to be. For example, my sister prefers the Mormon version of God who is intimately involved in every aspect of her life and who guides her every decision. That thought gives her a sense of self-esteem and direction in life. But I personally don't find that kind of a God very appealing because I don't want God to micromanage every aspect of my life; I would prefer a God who trusts me to make my own decisions based on my own sound reasoning on the matter. And perhaps God is both of those things at once. Perhaps God is the loving 'parent figure' my sister needs him to be and the observant, but distant 'supervisor figure' that I need him to be for me. Can God be big enough to be all the things that we as individuals need him to be? My hope is that he can."

Perhaps God is an important part of the human psyche---evolved through cultural and biological processes in response to very real human needs and concerns. As I've said elsewhere on this blog, God might be a blank screen onto which we project an image of our ideal selves. As we look at that ideal image, we are possibly inspired to become better than we already are. And maybe we can achieve more as humans than we ever could have without that distant ideal to guide us.

And so, on that note, I'll close this blog entry with the immortal words of Cake: "Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps."

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