Tuesday, December 28, 2004

How Much Difference Can One Person Make?

Marginal Revolution has a great story on how the mayor of Bogota implemented a number of seemingly bizarre strategies to try and make the city into a friendlier place. His first hand spanish account is fairly interesting.

For a bit of reference from another perspective

Monday, December 27, 2004

Exposition or Change

In what ways are the scriptures revolutionary to us? From my perspective, it seems like the topical guide and easily accessible ensign stories dictate the content of talks. In this regard, I think mormons are quite different from evangelical churches that seem to favor expositional approaches.

By faith online discusses this issue quite well. Since the best Elder’s quorum teacher I ever had was a cognitive psych PhD who’s lessons revolved around getting us to look at things from new perspectives, I found the following quote interesting:

“In a similar way, a preoccupation with psychological theory has in many cases eroded confidence in the Scriptures. When the essence of the human predicament is redefined in terms of a lack of self-esteem, it is almost inevitable that people will be directed toward a couch but not a cross, a psychologist but not a Savior. The extent to which this has happened can be gauged by listening to various strange blends of psychology and theology, some of which are even offered as attempts at expository preaching!”

While reading it though, a few things struck me as fundamentally limiting.

When pastors become convinced that the central issue facing the church is political or psychological rather than theological, exposition will be forsaken in favor of political speeches and calls to wage war for “the soul of the nation.

Obviously most people would agree that the purpose of religion is to expound theology. Where theology focuses on the works vs faith continuum is perhaps less important than the fact that there are certain issues that should be learned and then implemented. However, I wonder if we don’t err when we start thinking that the fundamental purpose of the scriptures and even religion in general is to lay out a correct set of beliefs.

I think it is often assumed that having a correct set of beliefs leads on to a unique perspective. The refining of this perspective is what religion is all about. Basically its aim is to provide us with a God centered philosophy. Hence, the etymology of theology. However, I wonder if this approach doesn’t give the appearance of making exposition worthwhile, while missing what may be one of the central points of religion. Is religion about the doctrines associated with theology or is it about change? Obviously many would say the action involved in the true comprehension of doctrine subsumes the type of change I mention. However, I wonder if this belief doesn’t present the same type of trap that is found when mingling the doctrines of men (psychology and all) with God. As is quoted in this article,

Sinclair B. Ferguson wrote of such preaching, “While it is denied that additions are being made to the canon of Scripture, it is nevertheless implied that an actual addition is being made to the canon of living. Otherwise the illumination of Scripture and the wisdom to apply it would be sufficient” (The Holy Spirit [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996, p. 231).

As believers in modern revelation, I don’t think mormons are as concerned about this as Ferguson is. To my way of thinking the world view of Biblical times certainly doesn’t make the inevitable slants that come with revelations any more correct than the same slants that have happened with modern revelation. There is always filtering that occurs in the transmission of things from God to man, especially when this gets transmitted down to other people. Fundamentally, I would say the whole case depends on whether or not the purpose of religion is to produce cannon, or whether it is to affect something else.

Of course some would say that the scriptures are to establish the agenda. However the most profound parts of the scriptures aren’t the expositories of other verses. In fact, for the most part, the scriptures we have are expositionary in nature. With an open cannon, focusing in on exposition then seems very counter productive. It, in effect, closes the door to a revolutionary mind set. For the religious conservatives, this is exactly the point. However, if religion is about increasing what we have, it is exactly the wrong track to take. The flip side would involve using scripture as a way to realize that personal perspectives, popular philosophies and well developed theologies really amount to nothing when compared to the outlook needed to understand God. If there really is such a large gulf between man and God, what is needed is a way to get these paradigms to constantly change and evolve.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Problems In Education

This year I have been trying to do a little more general research in the field of education. Having now worked as a teacher for four years, I am starting to get a handle on teaching. New classes are still lots of work (1 to 2h extra per class per day), but I am coming to the point where not being able to create anything substantial and lasting is getting more frustrating than the extra work involved with being bumped around.

Being split between two schools obviously hasn’t helped things. It has put my goals of working with student teachers on the back burner. In return, this has thrown off a possible time line for getting my Masters. However, I have started working more with the local and divisional professional development committees. I am also presenting at Teacher’s Conference, and have a couple of demo trial projects on the go for our division (in addition to my regular unstaffed tech hours). What this means, is my eyes are getting more opened to what is going on around me.

As I have been going through and seeing what other educators do, I am a little dismayed by how much flying by the seat of one’s pants there is. Perhaps this is not as much in lesson prep as in overall vision. Now obviously some people are better able to grasp the whole picture than others. Some just like to plod along, content to let someone else choose their path. However, education has some real problems. Just look at some of the personal education blogs that are floating around here and here. It is hard to imagine many other jobs where professionals work through such harsh conditions. And yet the difference between a successful classroom and a failing one is huge. As any teacher knows, classroom dynamics has a balance point that is tangible. As much as we may fool ourselves, there really isn’t any middle ground. There are only successful coping strategies, disguised as classroom management. And yet all the extra expectations that are thrown into the mix really only serve to water down the ability to break over the top. In military terms, education is suffering a division of force.

What education seems to be based on is re-enforcement of weakness. More effort is spent on remediating efforts than on anything else. Obviously education doesn’t work if competency levels get spread too far. This, however, shouldn’t mean that success comes by preventing the spread of competency. And yet, I think this is precisely the (un?)intended consequence of education today. Let’s do things that look like they encourage diversity, but make sure that no spread in society occurs. Eventually intelligent people reach a point where the fundamental axioms of these methods get rejected. To my mind, this is where tribal tendencies starts to occur.

The “goth” dogma as I call it seems to be what society really wants – an appearance of uniqueness with rebellion that never makes it out of the old status quo.

I think this is the light by which many people interpret the gospel. It is made into something that is really not revolutionary. Jesus really didn’t mind an emphasis on the letter of the law rather than spirit of the law. Doctrinal mysteries are more about finding the correct cannon than they are about getting us out of our comfort zone. Obedience is a means to itself. Orthodoxy is a fine alternative to orthopraxy because at least one will let you fit into an established group that supposedly is going somewhere.

Once in a while don’t we eventually have to accept the fact that the evolution of some structures make them counterproductive to their original aims? Or perhaps I just had a taste of too much kitsch and self-righteousness at my local bookstore. After all, how can someone, educators or saints, ever be missing something as long as they are working hard, sacrificing and feel good about what they are doing?

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Seinfeld Is No Laughing Matter

This last year I have been assigned to teach a Spanish class. Now this wouldn’t be a problem if I was fluent in Spanish. However, going to a Portuguese speaking mission isn’t necessarily the best qualifications for the job. For those who jaws are now on the floor, welcome to the world of rural teaching. Add in 3 new courses, each of which requires a solid hour a day to prep, add in “voluntary” extra curricular work, and other sundry positions, and time is pretty busy. Of course, I am sure it is similar to what most people now days seem to be doing. However, in this career, with no advancement possible, the extra effort one puts relies almost exclusively on intrinsic motivation. Hence today when I got a complaint from two parents I was pretty miffed.

Obviously in a school setting there are always things that aren’t very appropriate. After searching high and low for 30 min videos that had a Spanish audio track (in Canada everything is only in French), I had pretty much given up on finding anything interesting and costing under $300 – at least with the time I had to ferret out deals.

While on a recent trip to the states, I had bought a Bullwinkle DVD and some other Spanish cartoons. For one reason or another, these didn’t work as a classroom aid. A number of students suggested DVD’s that they had recently bought. With prime time shows being pretty much all one can buy on DVD, I thought I would give it a try. I took a look through the Seinfeld series, and found the most innocuous episode I could find, The Library. Aside from Kramer flirting with the Librarian, this show is pretty mild. I also figured things would get watered down for the kids as they watched it is Spanish. it seemed to fit in quite nicely with some lessons we had on figurative vs. literal translations.

Next week we watched a Friends episode. Now, I don’t like Friends very much, and was leery about showing one. However, we have a number of smokers in class, and I figured the episode on Rachael trying to smoke to fit in at work would be a good multi-use of class time. Again, this was not an episode with sexual innuendos or crass jokes. However, I got a couple of forthright complaints from parents that day, on the moral degeneracy I was teaching. Now I can see people suggested that this may not be appropriate for class, but supporting moral degeneracy? Come on. I won’t get into the nit picky details to try and defend myself. However, it does annoy me that some people take such a prideful stance based on reasoning that may be faulty. After all if I told my kids that watching the 10:00 news was evil, chances are if they saw it in school they would think it was the most offensive thing ever, regardless of the content.

Now I can understand how difficult it is to keep kids away from many aspects of society. I can also understand how frustrating it is to have that stance breached at every opportunity. But doesn’t there come a point where the level of segregation one seeks turns every exposure into a conflict?

I think this recent drudge headline sums up some of the consequences I see happening as a result of this type of correctness.

Monday, November 22, 2004

A Convergence of Disparate Complaints

It seems different people always have different complaints. Over the last few weeks I have been reading Bigler’s “Kingdom of the West”, Mormon, and of course, Dave’s Blog. In the comments section of the latter, one post mentioned how church leaders have usually refused to let doctrine be pinned down. The usual complaint against this point is that people want to be seen as always having the right answer by having an escape route if things turn out wrong. Bigler’s book seems to have the underlying idea that being too convinced that one is right can result in problematic consequences. Part of Mormon’s complaint about the people of his time seem to be that they had lost their desire to build a kingdom, theocratic or otherwise.

So, here’s the challenge: if we assume each complaint has merit, what does this tell us about the type of truth we find in the Gospel? In other words how do we rationalize these perhaps disparate ideas? More so, is it even possible or worth while?

To the latter, I would tend to say, yes. However, this is because I think each of the complaints do have some validity. I think the validity comes about because these are all themes that I see playing out either directly or indirectly in the Book of Mormon, in the latter part of the 19th century church, and in our present confrontation with social progressiveness.

Friday, November 12, 2004


Normally I don't like to just post links with short comments. I also try to avoid talking non religious posts. However, I found this link from belmont club interesting. Perhaps in our zeal to promote democracy, we fail to see the cultural baggage we bring with it. Perhaps this was one of the problems the Nephites had. They may have had a tough time figuring out the parts of religion that were and were not compatible with their neighbours' cultures. Perhaps there is always an assumption that sharing one ideal means that everything on the periphery should be the same. For instance, is organ music and choral singing the only way to worhsip God in song? What about the drums and dancing that many Africans tend to do? Are they sharing the same ideal with a different sent of supporting paraphernalia?

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Quotes from “Medieval Theology”

I managed to raid my brother’s book supply the other week. Among some of my finds was The Growth of Medieval Theology by Jaroslav Pelikan. While my schedule means it will be some time until I manage to finish it, I figured I would try and post some of the more interesting quotes I come across. Well read individuals may find most of these quotes old hat.

The authority of this one catholic church was guaranteed and maintained by those who held ecclesiastical office. Christ had ordained offices of varying dignity in the church. ... This identification of Christian ministers as priests in the Levitical succession, which had begun in the early church, did not obliterate the teaching, likewise a part of early Christian doctrine, that by virtue of their baptism all Christian believers participated in a priestly ministry. The “royal priesthood” described in the New Testament pertained to all, not only to the ordained clergy, for “all those who have been elected by grace are called priests.” Neither functionally nor doctrinally, however, did this idea of the universal priesthood of believers modify the concentration of theologians and churchmen on the ordained priesthood and its qualifications for the ministry of preaching and administering the sacraments.

Perhaps it is my ignorance, but I find the emphasis given to authoritative teaching quite remarkable. From my reading, it appears that fitting in to the “catholic” tradition of what the apostles handed down was considered the most essential thing to maintain in the church. Thus all the councils can be seen as attempts at preventing this tradition from an inevitable wandering. In this sense, priesthood authority matters less than an acceptance of tradition. The latter guarantees the former. The former does not guarantee a continuation of the latter. Indeed a previous quote summarizes this view quite nicely.

As a result, one could go so far as to charge that “any one who disturbs the unity of that holy church which Jesus came to bring together is striving as far as he can to undermine Jesus himself.”...So fundamental was the unity of the catholic church to Christian faith and life that apart from its fellowship all faith was vain and all good works were devoid of reward; only within “the unity of the catholic church and the concord of the Christian religion” could either faith or works have any value.

Sunday, October 10, 2004


A friend of my parents recently forgot a very important list, necessary for their day’s work at the temple. To get the list, they needed to race back to their house. On the way back they prayed that they wouldn’t be stopped by the police. Hence the day’s session could run according to schedule. I wonder how fundamentally different this idea of prayer is from the norm? Are prayers a way to call down select blessing and miracles from heaven, or is this just a particularly noticeable aspect of their potential? Where we believe prayer lies on the meditative / petinionary continuum is most likely illustrative of the type of involvement we think God takes in our lives.

The most common way of interpreting the purpose of prayer is found in Jesus’ discourse “knock and it shall be opened unto you”. In this vein, prayer is about getting God to give us something we need. His infinite goodness ensures, that as long as we invite his influence into our lives, he will be able to work miracles. In this way prayer is one of the means through which his power gets actualized in our lives. Daily prayer would therefore be essential because of our continual divergence from him and his path. In this way of thinking, asking for grand things like world peace, safety to all the missionaries, etc are useful. They are representative of a developing sense of charity. They help us to get involved in the work, by opening the door to God’s direction. In this sense, these lofty, but ultimately directionless petitions are necessary. This is a very traditional view of prayer.

Prayer may also be seen as an organizational tool. The communion we have with the divine enables us to see the direction we should be working. It is a tool to help us figure out what we need to do reach certain ends. As we run through problems or ideas, we try and determine how they line up with what God would have us do. In essence, we try and emulate a portion of God’s thought process on the issue. His spirit enables or quickens this emulation. Following ideas through into action is an essential part of emulation. It is also essential to enable us to understand the language or motivations underlying the whole process. It can be thought of as bringing a new level of understanding that enables deeper comprehension. In this light, it is fairly meditative in nature. Asking for grandiose things is useful for getting us started on the path to accomplishing the little things that may lead to their completion.

As we decide the motivations we may have for prayer, it is useful to ask which type of communication is facilitated by either end of the spectrum. Petionary prayer seems to be best suited for those wishing yes-no type answers. It is hard tool to use if one wants to ferret out many greys. However, distinguishing between yes-no answers is easier than figuring out a maybes. The knowledge we gain about God though this type of prayer comes by connecting the dots of right and wrong. I wonder though, if this doesn’t encourage a knowledge of God that is more behavioural in nature than anything else. Our understanding of God is supposed to be about what is right and wrong. It is about the things we should cause to happen, and those things that we shouldn’t. In this sense prayer may be a method of Pavloviann conditioning. Of course we may end up so well trained in asking that we forget about listening, leaving the decisions of our petitions in God’s hands.

Meditative prayer seems poorly suited to discovering black and white directives. Decisions may be less important than the motivations and reasoning behind them. This type of prayer requires an ability to accurately critique and deconstruct. In listening to God’s inspiration, we may be more susceptible to mistake it for our personal or cultural dispositions. God’s greys may be our memes. It may also be easy to reason away our existence, forgetting the importance of material discovery.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Milk & cookies vs. the adult world

There was a very good post over at intellecxhibitionist concerning a close reading of the proclamation on the family. Luckily this isn’t another SSM debate. Instead it revolves around the asymmetrical expectations of how spouses assist each other.

I think most family oriented people would agree that the main purpose of a family is to raise children in the best way possible. Obviously everyone has a different perception on what constitutes the best method. In an issue so dependent on personal experience, preference and philosophy, it is ironic that many people strive for a universally applicable interpretation of this directive. Even more ironic is the way people boil the issue down to whether or not a wife should work outside the home. To me, this black and white screen misses the emphasis of the preamble on parental responsibilities.

“Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children.”

It is hard to imagine that there is only one correct way to love and care for your children. Obviously some ways are probably more effective than others. But doesn’t the effectiveness of the method depend on individual characteristics?

For example, my mother stayed at home to raise me. By the time I hit junior high, I was pretty independent. She however, still felt obligated (or still wanted to) to stay at home with me. She took a part time job as a lighting consultant, but always felt guilty about not being around. Personally I quite enjoyed having the house to myself. I enjoyed the space it gave me. I also was quite happy that my mom was out doing something she enjoyed, rather than being tied down by me. However, she felt unable to pursue her career because of her conflicted responsibilities. Should she use the job to develop her talents and interests (I don’t think money was really much of an issue), or should she stay at home for the half hour or so of extra time we would spend together? She sacrificed her personal development for the chance that it would help me. I am not sure on the way this choice was framed.

It is easy to see that staying at home was the safe bet for fulfilling her parental responsibilities, but what was really taught by this choice? I think the lessons one learns always depend on the interpretation the listener gives.

On one hand my mom was there to support me if anything critical happened. Of course for this to work, one needs to have a fairly open relationship developed. I was always pretty closed about things. Staying at home also gave my mom a chance to see if I was heading into trouble. Of course some kids get into trouble precisely because no one is watching them, or sometimes if people are watching them too closely. Staying at home also let me see the sacrifices my mom was willing to make just to give me a tiny bit of support. I do appreciate those sacrifices. However, what lessons didn’t I learn?

I didn’t get to see both my parents fully developing their talents. I didn’t get to see the potential of what could have been. I didn’t to see the joy of my mother progressing as she did seeing me progress. Who she was, to one extent or another, was dependent upon me. My perceived needs controlled what she did. For her to always be a mother, I would always have to be a child. But for a child to be an adult, what does a parent need to become?

Monday, August 30, 2004


Typically when we hear a lesson in church about service we think about helping people who are having a rough time. Usually it is families who have a sick member, people who are having financial or emotional difficulties, etc. While this class of acts certainly falls in the realm of Christ like behaviour, I wonder if broadening the range of what we consider service to be doesn’t fit in with what general authorities have been saying for a while.

Normally mormons are considered pretty industrious. Nibley’s oft referenced article, Zeal Without Knowledge prods us to think that perhaps we worry more about the energy expended in the name of service than the end results achieved. It often seems like the main motivation of service is to increase our capacity to sacrifice our time and effort. While obviously good, isn’t this attitude quite different from the mormon view of industry.

Our industrial roots are easy to see. The saints were always encouraged to build, develop and create. The cities and houses built and abandoned by the saints are a testament to this. So how come service seems to be more about stop gap helping measures rather than developing and improving civic resources? Does the industrial aspect of our culture still apply to type of service we idealize?

Personally, I think it is easy to loose sight of what does and does not constitute service. For example, does maintaining a page of church resources count as service? I would imagine that there are numerous people have been more helped by these things than they would have been by a number of apple pies and casseroles.

What about secular community resources that people develop? Are these things as valuable as helping out a sick neighbor? Is making a new map of mountain biking trails, or hiking guide as important as visiting the sick? I would think probably depends more on the motivations one has going into those projects than anything else. It seems like including motivation and direction in service gets one closer to a good combination of industry and Christ like aid, however, does this still take advantage of the potential of industry?

Perhaps the best example of what I am thinking about is the parable of the talents. If we start thinking of service as being judged by what we do with our talents and abilities, I think it puts a different spin from what we normally hear. With this view, if we aren’t actually creating something lasting then we are falling short. Now, this is not to say, simple acts like shoveling a sidewalk, making a dinner, etc aren’t important. It is just that perhaps ideal service needs to something that pushes all the talents we have. Perhaps those three or four year projects maybe the type of thing we are after.

For me, maybe it means the sacrifice of getting a kayak club going in my small town. Maybe it is the years of effort it will take to make a scrambling guide for the mountains around my home. Maybe it is promoting the tourist attractions of the town. Personally, I tend to think these are the things that draw in a community. Not only that, they are not religion dependent. After all, I don’t think mormons have the market cornered on service.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Moral Relativism - 4y or 20y mortgage debate

Dave has posted his reaction to Geoffrey Biddulph’s article on moral relativism. It seems like this is one of those areas that could highlight the polarization between various levels of social conservatism.

Usually the two sides see each others views as follows. One side views relativism as bad because it is a slippery slope that leads to a loss of absolutes. If unchecked, soon nothing will be a sin. Absolutes do exist because we know, due to revelation or obvious social consequences, that some things should not be done. From what I gather, the other side seems to take the view that there are relatively few, if any things that can be judged out of context. Relying on absolutes is a sure way to replace the wisdom of God with the social constructs and biases with which we have been raised. Eventually one side cries “self-righteousness”, the other side cries “subtlety of the devil”.

So how does one avoid the problems inherit in judgment? First off, I believe the politically correct movement of the late 80’s and 90’s has made the debate on sensitive social issues awkward. Many minorities, or social liberals who fight for “marginalized” groups, tend to view any debate on these issues as a personal attack. Critiques are viewed not as attempts at getting to the truth, but as a way to push a set agenda. An abstract, idealistic view on issues make it easy to categorize others as either completely for or completely against things. Which way one lies depends on which paradigm one accepts. Differences are not so much due to minutiae as they are due to different paradigms. Thus, ironically enough, the debate gets framed in a way reminiscent of a fundamentalist religion.

Personally I don’t think moral relativism means that one looses (theoretically or not) the ability to judge. From Jesus’ New Testament comments, the idea I get is that one has to realize that in our imperfect world, everyone decision we make will have both good and bad consequences. Moral relativists would, I think, say that what is good and bad depends on situation, environment, or history. For instance, not cracking down in the import of sex slaves into the states may mean these poor girls have more of a chance of getting out of this oppression than they would have had in their home countries. Of course it certainly will have a large number of negatives associated with it as well. Relativists would just say you need to look into as many of the negatives and positives as you can before making the decision. Absolutists would say that God has already done this. Over the long haul the case has already been decided.

So what does the debate really boil down to? I think it comes down to a choice reminiscent of a 4 year versus 20 year mortgage. It is better to go with a sure thing knowing that at times you will be loosing out in the short run? Or is it better to play the specifics of a short term, hoping that you can take advantage of good situations and minimize bad ones. As mormons, with our view of eternal progression, perhaps we need to worry about more than the final outcome. After all, for us, the most important thing is what we become as a result.

Monday, August 23, 2004

The Bureau of Righteousness?

Section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants makes it rather clear that we are to support our government. Often, tension surrounds this issue. People must face the question of what to do when their government pursues un-righteous policies. It seems like most church leaders sustain the idea that we are to push for what we feel is correct, but obey the directives of our government. If the government errs, then the burden of guilt lies with those who have made the decision. But does this really help us figure things out in when complications arise?

Often this line of reasoning gets criticized as being too simplistic or naive. It is hard to see the line between a push for change and an active undermining of the government. When is it okay to disagree with the government’s position? Is it limited to discussions of abstract ideals? Are minor acts of civil disobedience (like strikes) okay? Are elections the only time one can really be critical in a constructive way? Unfortunately I think it is easy to get caught up in this pharasitically prone wrangling and miss the more radical nuances in a mormon view of government.

When individuals are instructed to support different governments along different paths, it is natural to glean a rather universalist view of government. Basically one is as good as another. Every government is going to have some good and bad points. What matters is that by supporting them, they will tend to get something accomplished that will ultimately help us out. In other words a government should be supported not necessarily because of its rating on a scale of absolute righteousness, but rather because it can provide organization for its citizens. I think the oft used examples of saints in the former soviet union (particularly East Germany) come to mind.

But what are the consequences of acknowledging and even fighting to support various morally skewed governments. In other words, in what directions can a relativistic view of government lead us?

1. It may be that we put too high a value on the importance of a morally correct government. We may err when we judge the absolute morality of a society. Attempts at judging the righteousness of a society or government are pretty much useless. This happens because judgments are made from outside of the rules and conditions that spawned the government. For instance a view that democracy is the best solution for many poor African or Islamic countries may be will intentioned, but ultimately naive. One type of government is rarely more absolutely correct than another. However, can’t we argue that any time two moral choices exist, one may lead to greater good than another? If this argument holds then one government must provide its citizenry with a greater chance for good than another. If there is a greater chance to do good within one society then there is most likely also a greater chance for righteousness within that society. Of course this argument assumes that righteousness is highly correlated with freedom.

2. Another consequence of a universalist take of section 134 is a progressive view of government. Over a long enough time period most governments will tend to a create a better state for its citizens. In other words maintaining a strong government through some long or short periods of oppression and despocy will eventually lead to a better and perhaps more righteous government. In this case one would probably have a view of righteousness as that which ultimately leads to the greatest good for the most number of people.

3. Government may be functionally irrelevant to righteousness. This builds on the separation of church and state that occurred during the end of the 1800’s. This may also mean that one’s gross environment has relatively little effect on righteousness. To be extremely righteous in this lifetime may not be related to the morals within one’s society. This would mean a fairly strong relativistic view of sin. It would also mean that the only function of government is to keep us free enough to exercise some level of agency. Most any government can reach this level.

Monday, August 16, 2004

When do personal politics become a religion?

What is really the difference between religious beliefs and political beliefs? While the superficial differences are obvious, are there really any fundamental differences?

For instance, some people are beginning to view the difference between European social liberalism and traditional religion as rather artificial. To quote from Bawer’s article from the Hudson Review,

“Europeans mock American religiosity. But American religion, for all its attendant idiocies and cruelties, has never prevented Americans from acting pragmatically. Secular Western European intellectuals, however, have their own version of religion. It is a social-democratic religion that deifies international organizations such as the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and, above all, the U.N. Not NATO, which is about waging war, and which has for that reason been the target of much European criticism in recent years; no, the NGOs are about waging peace, love, brotherhood, and solidarity, and, as such, are, for the elites of Western Europe, beyond criticism, for they embody Western Europe’s most cherished idea of itself and of the way the world works, or should work. The elites’ enthusiasm for these institutions, whether or not they are genuinely effective or even admirable, is a matter of maintaining a certain self-image and illusion of the world that is intimately tied up with their identity as social democrats; America’s unforgivable offense, as Kagan notes, is that it challenges that image and that illusion; and the degree to which the reality of America is distorted in the Western European media is a measure of the desperate need among Western European elites to preserve that self-image and illusion.”

So when do beliefs, like political preference, start reaching the level of religious conviction? Perhaps it is at the point when more and more decisions start to get based on a dogmatic view of ethics. For instance, if I truly believe that every person is fundamentally good, the more I base other decisions on this view, the more “religious” like my humanism becomes.

Of course this may perhaps get turned upside down if one starts moving away from a dogmatic view of religion. If religion is more than believing everything in the bible because it is THE BIBLE, the similarities between religion on political thought start to merge. They do so according to the degree for which they are used in value based judgments. In this case, it is more the amount of uncontroversial evidence that determines the importance, or “religious” level of an ideal.

In either case, perhaps things reach the stature of religion once we start actually believing in their infallibility. The more fallible we think religion is, the easier it is for the philosophies of experience to take its place. Of course, I guess whether or not this is a good state of affairs depends on how trusting one is of the applicability of experience. Does the error introduced in accessing God’s perfect experience through imperfect religion outweigh the error introduced in accessing the imperfect experiences of this world?

Tuesday, July 13, 2004


I am on vacation for the month of July.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Sacrosanct Change

There isan interesting post (as usual) over at Belmont Club on progressiveness. In particular, the first paragraph struck me as interesting. The idea presented is that many people think of social progression as irreversible (at least if one is sane). This idea basically assumes that any hard fought social change has overcome a mountain of natural corruption. In other words, significant changes are leading us to progressively better social laws. While these may not always appear better, eventually once these things become invisible within society, society will be better off.

For instance, sexism may be viewed this way. It is assumed that a society that doesn't discriminate based on sex is better than one that does. Anything that goes against this idea is considered barbaric. The problem with this idea is that things that ask for a reformulation of basic tenets are also struck down. They are usually considered equally barbaric because they could destroy something considered so valuable. What happens is that the difficulty inherit in creating change leads people to an overly zealous appreciation of its inherit worth.

Now many changes may in fact be quite valuable, and quite worthwhile. However, believing that these changes are absolutes is rather naive. Many changes may be better within their context, but not necessarily if another. For example, a move from nationalistic sentiments may be appropriate in many political situations, but it does not mean that lack of nationalism is better than the converse in an absolute sense.

This means, the problem as I see it is that many social changes are taken as being correct in an absolute sense. For example, personal freedom is taken as an absolute value, lack of racism is seen as an absolute value, lack of sexism is seen an an absolute value,...etc. To me the interesting corollary arises when we compare this to religion.

I think many protestant religions end up believing that, over the long run, the changes made will be positive. In effect, they lead closer to absolute truth. Perhaps this is the case. Perhaps what this also does is just make it harder for them to accept any flaws on their initial reasoning. In effect they reject any reformulations of significant ideas in much the same way that social progressives may refject any reformulations of social change.

This presents some interesting problems if we view religion as something that is designed to get one to change as efficiently as possible. One must ask the question, what is more valuable, getting 10%, 20% etc closer to an absolute truth, or being more pliable to change? I really wonder if the value we give to hard fought change is worth the consequence it carries?

As an aside, I believe there are a couple of people who are now wondering if ideas on the big bang have become so sacrosanct that they are leading to the unecessary creation of things like dark matter and dark energy. I think the new scientist had a couple of articles on this if anyone has the link.

Friday, June 18, 2004

A non-liberal definition

Freedom means being able to do what one wants. It, however, does not mean being able to pick and choose the consequences of your actions.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Favorite Posts

Are Mormon Christians - Gary Cooper has a nice summary of why Mormons usually don't return the slander to the un-Christ like name callers. Personally I think God must just shake his head at the things that usually go on in the name of Religion.

Bible Literalism Usually this debate seems to end up in philosophical meta-speak or a dogmatic pushing match. I find the stats pretty interesting. It is hard to be a literalist unless you literally believe everything you read.

Over Zealousness Obviously I have a fixed interest on this topic, however it really is a fairly interesting point.

Thoughts on the U.S. army How can you not enjoy a post that points out some over arching trends? Now if it can just help me win Axis & Allies...

Stun Guns And who says science is never pratical. Who would have thought joule lasers could be exciting to anyone other than a physicist on a Friday night.

Terrorist Racketeering As always an insightful post about thw current world situation. The last paragraph is the most interesting. Pretty soon it is going to be very beneficial to countries to have a small terrorist network so they can use it to start to extort money from the States.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Funny Church Sites

Perhaps I have too many serious posts. I thought a bit of humor would be nice. Here is a brief list of some of the funnier sites I have stumbled accross.

Landover Baptist
I found this one from Dave's Inquiry some time ago, but didn't appreciate it much initially. Once I started browsing the site more, it just kept getting funnier and funnier. Here are some of my favorite sections.

How does God recognize a Christian I scored a 6/10 on this. I found this hilarious after all the talk on how you can instantly recognize a Mormon by the glow on their face.

I hate cute cuddly stuffed animals I think the caption is pretty funny. I liked this one because of how often people take scriptures out of context. If I can figure out a moral stance on genetic engineering from the Bible, perhaps I am taking things just a mite further than they were originally intended.

Happy Birthday Cards I laughed quite outloud with this one. I have to admit the title seemed a bit irreverant, however the captioning got me. Things to think about if you go to hell for never having known about Christ. Perhaps it was also an amalgamation of the Wise Men's offerings and an idea of what you would hope for in return. That and I also get tired of Hallmark style cards.

Harry Potter As a teacher this is a regular concern. Ender's game was just banned by a parent because of the language. I am fine with the idea that a student may choose to not complete a unit, however the endless exceptions that start to occur in a class are truly starting to become problematic. How can you ever expect to do nothing offensive to people who take offensive at everything. Perhaps I am glad we have a good Home School program.

Halloween After the Harry Potter debacle around here, I found this more than a little too true. My fellow teacher's have had to wade through more than a few holidays with their consciouses (or better yet, phone lines) burdened by thoughts of hellfire.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Top Down Theology

Las week there was a good discussion on at T&S by Damon Linker. It really made me think how stupid it is to try and determine whether or not someone is Christian based on an acceptance of a creed or established theology. Whether or not someone is Christ like is determined by how they behave not what abstract beliefs they hold. Some lone African from 4000BC who never had heard of Christ or a Christian God could have been much more Christlike than a modern evangelical who has the Bible memorized. What matters is how similar they will be to Christ. Perhaps I am a bit too much of a universalist here, but I really dislike the relative importance given to "well established" theologies. Just because it is logicaly consistent doesn't make it any more real.

The thing I dislike about top down theology is the error that rapidly gets introduced as you branch out on topics. For instance every 5 years my church builds upon a previous belief using the best reasoning it has available. Let's assume that there is a 99% chance this new idea is correct. In 2000 years there is only an 18% chance that the new beliefs are now correct (.99^400). This is the poblem I see with undue emphasis on traditional theology. It usually doesn't take into account the amount of error that can get introduced. It assumes that God is directing things enough that new things never get built upon incorrect foundations.

I think constant reformulations are necessary to prevent people from getting carried away with religion. Everyone once in a while people have such a groundwork of tradition built up that mild pruning won't work. I think this happens because our natural incliinations for religious like institutions may be quite different than the way God wants us to practice religion. Basically I think we get too carried away with the letter of the law and whether or not people "beleive" the same things we do. We end up in the equivalent of a religious crusade rather than engaging in a constant effort of helping each other out. Hence I find the whole "are mormon christian" debate rather ironic. I don't think Christ ever gave much emphasis on the imporatance of theology over attitude and action.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Education Freedom

I thought I needed a break from endless Book of Mormon commentary. Luckily today’s math class gave me some motivation for another topic.

We are entering into the last two weeks of regular classes. This is the time all teachers start reviewing for their final exams. I give daily assignments and simple quizzes during this week to force students to do at least some review for their exams. In the past I have found that not taking this work in for marks meant that very few students would actually study for their exams.

The question raised by a number of students was “why do we need to spend time reviewing if we are going to get tested on it at the end anyways”. Basically some students thought that this would create a double penalty for those that didn’t feel like doing any work. They would get penalized this last week, and then penalized again during the exam. On the other hand, students that worked hard this week would, in effect, get a double bonus. In other words, all that this review week would do is to accentuate the value of the final exam.

Being the good teacher I am, I said something to the effect “ Yes, that is the way it works. You need to learn to work around the rules that have been set up”. As much as some would say this is nothing but forcing pupils to conform to the established hegemony, I think it is quite different. I next explained that I was doing this because in the past review that wasn’t marked meant that students became noisier making it impossible to do effective review, few students studied when marks weren’t taken, making the class average drop. In effect, I said I was making up for lack of motivation and a natural tendency to procrastinate in an effort to raise their marks. Of course I didn’t use those exact words. Of course a number of students still wondered why they weren’t being given the freedom to choose to do what they wanted with their grade. I responded with the most honest answer I could give them, “the whole idea of freedom that you have is an illusion. There is no freedom in the real world”.

I think that sums up why so many students see the world as unfair. Their idea of freedom requires an ability to create the consequences they see as appropriate for any given set of actions. Thus their idea of freedom gets mixed with experience, expectation , and idealism. I think in general, people tend to live in an idealistic world. If you don’t like the way things are, change it. In other words, people believe that they can change the consequences to most any set of actions. If you don’t like the idea of getting run over by a train at the station, set up so many gates and safety precautions that it becomes an impossibility. If you don’t like people being homeless, get some taxes that everyone has to pay that can be used to try and solve the problem.

The problem as I see it with this thinking is that this idea of freedom is way to individualistic. In order for you to be free, many people around you have to change. I think this is the big problem with liberalism; it only works if most people buy into it.

From a religious point of view, do the daily interactions of God in our life actually limit our freedom? Are they equivalent to the double review before the exam? Does God’s influence only affect our freedom if we take note of it? Personally I tend to not worry about changing anyone else’s beliefs or behaviour. I would rather just go out and do something, rather than worrying about getting everyone to buy into it. Thus you could say relative to some of my students, I create my own reality. To me the big question is, why do so many people expect everything around them to change instead of vice versa?

Monday, May 31, 2004


One of the obvious motos in Gospel Doctrine Lesson 21, is the difference between a monarchy and a democracy http://deseretbook.com/mormon-life/curric/story?story_id=1099 . Sometimes I really wonder why we are so convinced that the Nephite system of judges was similar to our current style of democracy?

Alma became the first chief judge and served simultaneously as high priest, governor, and military chief captain. Because these offices required the approval of the people, who had rejected monarchy, critics have tended to confuse the Nephite system with the democracy of the United States. However, there was no representative legislature, the essential institution in American republican ideology. Also, the major offices were typically passed from father to son, without elections (Bushman, pp. 14-17); "the voice of the people" is reported many times as authorizing or confirming leadership appointments and other civic or political actions.

By Noel Reynolds

Approving a group of people who enforce laws is not a democracy. As far as I can tell, the Nephites had no say in what the laws were. In fact, assuming that the Nephite system of judges arose due to the people’s righteousness is even a bit much of an assumption for me.

I think Sunday School lessons that emphasize apparent democratic parallels with the Book Of Mormon show a preconceived belief that democracy is always a superior system. I think the worldbank graph below,

taken from their excellent paper http://econ.worldbank.org/prr/CivilWarPRR/text-26671/ on the causes of civil war shows that perhaps we should be a bit more careful about our assumptions on the inerrancies of democracy.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Separation of Church and State

The motivation for the separation of between church and state seems pretty obvious, I think. However, it seems like people aren't really willing to face all the consequences of this decision. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, people want the freedom to have state support when and where they want it, and get rid of it when and where they want it. Like many issues in education, people seem to want to have their cake and eat it too. I think as a society we are spoiled. Idealistic liberalism can lead us to believe that living up to a new ideal is a way to avoid natural consequences.

The recent SSM debate shows us just how well people understand the degree to which we are affected by the morals of our society. In this case, many people want their moral views on the issue enforced by law. Whether or not these morals arise from religious conviction of social justice is really irrelevant. The more our beliefs are separated from our reality, the more unstable our position becomes. Like Jesus said, "ye cannot serve two masters". I think the conflict between church and state is typically not noticed because we are rather indifferent to the areas in which they overlap. To live in two worlds, indifference is un-avoidable. However, once we touch on issues that matter, friction occurs.

For us, hot topics may be SSM, abortion, Islamic fundamentalism, school prayer, creationsim, etc. But what were the hot topics during Alma's expansion of the church during Mosiah's reign (Mosiah 25-26)?

"therefore it became expedient that those who committed sin, that were in the church, should be admonished by the church"

I tend to think King Mosiah was cognizant of the difficulties associated with a large church (Mosiah 25, 19, Mosiah 26:12). This may be especially true if the heart of Nephite religion at this time was kept within a theocratic priest class. The problem Alma faced amounted to what we are experiencing now. What type of punishment should be given for actions that a specific group thinks are wrong, but others do not? In other words, where does the line between church and state blur? Is it all right for a church to stone a person committing adultery even if the state doesn't think so? Is it all right for someone to live a polygamous lifestyle if the state doesn't think so?

I think things get even more complicated if the tenets and beliefs of a religion are not well established. For instance, what should be done if a large sect of today's church starts believing that drinking coke is an abominable sin? What happens if the church hierarchy, perhaps like Alma (Mosiah 26:13), isn't ready to deal with the situation, and the people are demanding something get done?

Looking at this situation, it is interesting that Mosiah, whom we suppose to be the religious leader chose not to judge religious crimes. Why? Well perhaps he was politically astute enough to know that playing with religion and politics is a sure way to loose support of half your population. Perhaps the people were expecting religious crimes to be treated the same as societal crimes? With the literal way I see the mosiac law possibly being enacted, I find it rather easy to believe that the trouble Alma got into involved deciding what to do for sins for which God had given no clear punishment. For instance, if someone was to declare that God was a black jaguar that wasn't going to get resurrected, what do you do? To a church member, this heresy probably is as bad as adultery, but should the punishment be the same? I am sure some people would think so.

I find the solution to the problem quite interesting. The Lord doesn't give a legal answer. There is no mediation of sin. It is basically "if you are sorry, forgive him, if not, remove his name from the church". There is no attempt to maintain religious morals through law. In other words, we have religion running in the exact opposite way a state would. Perhaps this is why it was so easy for people in Chapter 27 to persecute the church. It had no bite, and hence no real power. The only power it could exert only occurred if you accepted it.

So does the separation of church and state make sense? I think it only matters when you have to choose between the distinct methods each use for behavioural control. Moral decisions are so personal any attempt to prevent religious interference runs the risk of religious tyranny. It basically removes a non-desirable group from the decision making process for no other reason than that their views are considered too unpopular. Whether or not this is done in the name of religious purity, and social liberalism is irrelevant. What matters is that if we try too hard to separate church and state, we may end up with a state that acts as much like a religion fundamentalist as any Islamic state. Of course those who are in the "in crowd" will never think so.

Friday, May 28, 2004


Well following in the footsteps of my brother I finally set things up for comments. I was a bit hesistant about this because I don't like the idea of people taking anything that I say too seriously. The main reason I write is to force me to think a bit more about my random thoughts. I don't really go into the "popularity" thing as determined by the number of hits. However... I thought I would try this for a while. I have a feeling I will be spending some more time talking about education as the end of school stress starts to mount.

I think I may also try and find a random picture to go with each post. This one is from last easter down in Boise. It was a fun kayaking trip, even if my brother did miss meeting us by 15minutes. Whoops.

Personally I find this picture funny because of just how cheesy it is. It reminds me of some of the worst album covers of all times (a few PG shots). If only I could make a kayaking video, I am sure this shot could be up there on the list.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

How to Develop A Bad Attitude

With the end of the school year coming to a close, students are busily dreaming of anything besides schoolwork. Patience is wearing as thin as the tank tops. What causes students, or people to reach the point where they stop caring? Perhaps an example or two will help explain.

A number of students in my class have absolutely no clue what is going on. They do not have any idea where we are in the textbook. They have not opened a book to take notes. They have no desire whatsoever to do work. All they want to do is sit and talk to their friends. They get rather frustrated where it is pointed out to them that this is not acceptable within the class. Thanks to the great social reform programs we have, successful teachers are somehow supposed to find a way to motivate these lost souls. We are supposed to find a way to make even the most wayward student come to appreciate the intricacies of geometry and simultaneous equations.

Normally a few tricks and techniques can make some see the light. Sometimes though, the atmosphere is such that no matter what you do, the negative outweighs the positive. In those cases, what is a body supposed to do? Having more fun isn’t an option because students can’t handle the extra freedom – well at least in a way that gets anything done, and doesn’t further delay those that still want to learn. So you are left either putting up with negative comments, disruptions, and a trickle down contamination, or exerting mind-numbing authority to force some sort of discipline.

Of course, idealists will have an answer that will work. To be honest though, once a relationship has been set, unless it is meaningful, there really is no incentive to try and fix it. Most student teacher relations are like this. Why bother changing who you are for something that only lasts 1 hour a day for 5 months? Once a dynamic has been developed, change is very difficult.

Ignoring the educational solutions and problems, I wonder what causes people to get to the point where they don’t care and don’t want to change? For my students, I think for many it is the realization that they aren’t going to pass unless they make a huge change that they are unwilling, or unable to do. But the development of a bad attitude has a number of triggers; triggers that I think are pretty universal to any bad attitude.

One trigger seems to be an apparent inability of other people to get it right. For students, it may be a complaint that the teacher just can’t explain the material on the board. From a teacher’s perspective it means that students get bogged down by a rather simple stumbling block, rather than trying to work around the problem. It might be that grade 9 math you thought you could get away with ignoring. Since a teacher can’t explain every possible step over and over again, no presentation will ever seem to make sense. In the church it may be that a leader just can’t explain an idea in a way that suits your frame of reference. Because of this, everything they try to do eventually seems rather pointless and flawed.

Another trigger occurs when you try and see what you can get away with. As mature as parents like to think their students are, most students view school as more a social than educational institution. Teachers are there to enforce the rules, students are there to see what they can get away with. Students feel quite comfortable lying directly to a teacher about homework, absences, etc because, well it is the teacher’s job to call them on it. In this case, the onus of control is definitely put on the authority figure. If this happens, anything that goes wrong must be the fault of another. In the church perhaps many see our leaders as being there to lead us to happiness and righteousness. If we aren’t getting there, perhaps we view it as the fault of our leaders’ directions. Perhaps some people also see some directions from the church as rather pointless and out of date. Ignoring these may unconsciously cause some to experiment with the limits of acceptable behaviour.

To me though, I think the biggest trigger occurs as hope is lost. Hope is the last straw we can hold on to. A belief that change is impossible makes even going through the motions seem useless. Attempts to get us on track are viewed as instigatory and intolerable. Believing that our actions have no effect on an outcome is a state that many students get into. While it is true that in many circumstances, actions won’t change an outcome (for example getting 95% on the last quiz of the year when you have a 28% average), actions aren’t’ always for an specific outcome. In school, and in life, many of the things we get taught have little intrinsic value. Their worth lies in what they force us to become. The point of most Math classes, really isn’t to get a 55% or 80%, it is to get us onto to something else. The whole reason the specifics have gotten chosen is because of their relation to a far reaching end goal. Belief that minutiae are more important than becoming will almost always result in despondency. Unfortunately the whole concept of becoming require a certain level of abstraction that often must get developed through, well minute details.

A circular development like this is always tough to deal with, especially if people have been around the loop long enough to loose the ability to jump out of it.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Absolute Leadership

Does it really make a difference if a leader has clear objectives, set goals, and refined thought about issues, even in significant issues? I think initially most people would say, of course it does. A lot of good can happen when the HT, VT, SS etc programs are running smoothly. But how *correct* do the leader’s ideas have to be in order to make this work?

A few months back I read Robert Keegan’s analysis of intelligence in war. An interesting conclusion he reached was that, for a variety of reasons, having accurate intelligence about a battle historically makes little or no difference to its outcome. While fairly contrary to common sense, he does go a ways to defend the point. For instance even in the risky German invasion of Crete, the Allied generals had all the German objectives and time tables marked well ahead of time. This was as thorough an intelligence coup as they ever was. Even though they came very close to repelling the Germans, the intelligence couldn’t swing the outcome, even though it was entirely based on surprise and deception.

While military intelligence does help generals prepare for what is coming, the real outcome of the battle lies in how the command structure and underlings have been trained. This is why the Werhmach’s use of manuever wafare made the Germans such formidable opponents. Since micromanagement isn’t a viable option in war, all the specifics in the world mean little. Even supposedly precise information may become useless as it gets interpreted from another frame of reference. A seemingly benign omission may make information useless, or even harmful.

I often tend to view revelation from leaders in this regard. The specifics have so many what if’s and caveats associated with them that they are great for looking back and kicking yourself with, but serve more as confidence pieces during real time events. What matters is what people are trained to do when confronted with a tough situation or unusual event. Appealing to *absolutes* that the Holy Ghost can reveal to us, is in my mind tantamount to expecting military intelligence to always win the battle. It definitely may make us feel better, but eventually it won’t come through when needed.

Now I firmly believe that God will always be there for us, but I doubt that we will always be in a position to listen, or more likely, understand what he is saying. Living on absolutes always sets one up for a fall if you truly interact with the outside world. To me, things in this world are so subjective and grey that constantly expecting *correct* revelations or guidance from even divinely inspired mortals should be well tempered with an ability to act for one’s self in a suitable manner.

So the question is why follow a leader if their inspiration is misled? The specific way that lower level church administration works is similar to war time intelligence. Because of this specifics eventually matter for little. What determines the eventual outcome is how well people respond to each other. It is how well they are able to achieve the overarching aims of a conflict. Hence, I think that for us in the church it only matters how charitable we are and how well we are able to help those around us. Specific directives are merely one way to try and get us to accomplish this.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Everyday Zealotry and Cultural Cults

What are the human institutions that we would consider most cult like? Most people would say it is the ultra right wing religious extremist. Some staunch conservatives would argue that many liberal groups like the anti-globalism crowd fit the bill. But what is it that makes a group or institution a cult? Previous discussion mentioned the fact that it may just be exceptional people joining a group that re-enforces specific extremes. However, don’t most groups encourage group defined behavioural expectations?

For instance, lets take a group of colorful university art students. Most are proud of their individuality and the freedom they feel to express themselves. Many like to express this freedom and individuality through particularly “artst” clothes, accessories, and behaviours. Belonging to this group usually requires similar expressions of “freedom”. Like many other science students, I found the irony in the position rather amusing. Of course many art students also found the behavioral code of the science majors equally as amusing. Stereotypes whether people want to admit it or not, usually develop for a reason. Useful ones also tend to apply to a sizeable portion of the group they assess.

Groups need something around which to coalesce. Often behavioural codes and attitudes reflect this coalescence. As these groups solidify, something within them seems to generate behavioural expectations, common mannerisms, similar world outlooks, language nuances, etc. The degree to which this happens, is of course a matter of opinion and study. Perhaps an example from the other night will help to illustrate this. Stupid Mormon games. Whether we are proud or ashamed to admit it or not, most members have at one time or another participate in this phenomenon.

For me, it was last demonstrated at a mormon party – a ubiquitous ceremony more mysterious than any temple rites could possibly be. Out of a group of 20 people, I knew the girl hosting the party and one other. The host’s roomate got everyone together to play a game. I could feel the dread creeping over me like a polyester sacrament sheet sliding over a pressboard altar. Some eyes darted around with a nervous twitch. For some, YSA family home evenings had foreshadowed what was about to unfold. Others were placid, still chewing their cheesecake cud. “Everyone hold out 10 fingers”. I attributed the growing excitement of the group to the naked fingers that were now exposed, erect and devoid of any matrimonial bands.

Instructions continued with a well rehearsed enthusiasm trained to motivate the most recalcitrant pubescent math student. “You need to say something that you have never done that other people have. If they have done it, they need to put down a finger, you then get to keep yours up”. While thoughts of the Jennifer Garner movie (30 going on 13) danced through my head, I knew a decision was at hand. This was not just a subtle interrogation technique designed to separate the outgoing or rebellious from the arrogant or timid. It was a test of my theories of cult behaviour. Either I somehow made a good show to keep my standing with the host I was vainly trying to date, or I would have to leave, sequestering myself in a prison of non-comformity and eternal celibacy.

To me the irony of the game was the only interesting thing. “10 fingers” or its equivalent social constructs are based on an open ended, informal way of judging social norms. They let people turn a group into a live version of the movie “The singles ward”. If you are wild we still accept you. You just fit the jack mormon side of our group. If you are uptight, you are still accepted, you just fit the molly side of the group. However, deviation gets accepted on one condition– people can figure out a reason for it. In other words, people know that you understand the unspoken rules of the game.

I could have said something like “I have played 10 fingers and never enjoyed it”. The resulting condrum people would have faced deciding if they too agreed with this statement would have expressed my disdain for mormon culture and secured my place in the group. Whether or not my response was kosher is beside the point. By participating I was expressing an understanding of the hidden cultural rules. I was giving others the chance to understand me. No matter how rebellious the answer, one would still be conforming. Anything is OK as long as you play by the group rules. The group can encourage everyone to take part, by accepting most any behaviour. All that is required is awareness of the unspoken rules. Basically it is “Do what you want, as long as we can understand it”. In broader terms it amounts to “anything is acceptable, as long as we can see that you are using the same memes that we are”. To me, this is the key point in everyday zealotry or cultural cults. (by definition memes are an unconscious way of looking at things. They are the “how could it ever be any different” type of thoughts. For liberals it may be things like “genocide is bad”, for conservatives it may be things like “liberals are short sighted” :)

Society is based on cults. It is the only way it can function. Society must be able to tolerate large differences between individuals, yet still have a glue that lets one treat their neighbours as them self. This can happen as long as we can see the motivations or reasons behind another’s actions. For instance when a serious crime is committed we somehow feel more at ease knowing why it was done. A murder in a neighbourhood isn’t nearly as disturbing if it is “solved”. If we know the underlying rules people play by, we can assume that behaviours within these bounds will be rational. Unexpected things won’t happen. In evolutionary terms, knowing that a neighbour won’t suddenly attack us out of the blue, lets us feel at ease with their presence. The more defined and consistently applied the underlying rules get, the more at stable we feel within that group. Now, I am not saying that behaviours have to be the same, only that the rules from which they arise have to be highly intelligible (again not necessarily in a conscious way).

So what are examples of these “societal cults” and institutions? From the 10 fingers example, I would say that there are a variety of levels. The smallest would be the nuclear family. Some people think that frequent arguments are a normal means of discussion. Telling someone off doesn’t really mean you want them gone, it is just a vehicle to express emotion. On the other side, a disapproving look by a parent may be all that is needed to send a child to their room crying. Unless the rules or memes are understood, you can’t function as a part of the family. Because memes are based on non-overt thinking patterns, it is very hard for outsiders to fit in. Because individuals are rarely aware of them, memes are difficult to teach. To become part of a family like this, you have to accept the underlying ground rules. Because this group is so small, the rules are usually fairly numerous and specific. Because so many memes are available from which to interpret action, a wide range of divergent behaviours can be accepted without loosing status as a member of the group. Here I would say that divergence is based on a standard deviation from the group (ie take the average distribution of all members and see how much an individual compares)

Peer groups also fit into the “societal cult mode. There is an underlying way of seeing the world that is usually common to a peer group. Members may have various ways of expressing this, but there is always some common basis for the group. Often members can be seen fitting into a normal distribution ala “The Singles Ward”. Members still have to be able to interpret your actions in a way that makes sense to their world view. In other words superficial things like wearing black, lots of makeup, and enjoying piercings, would still mean rejection from a Goth group if you could fundamentally not see anything wrong with the current hegemony and thought student body president or cheer leader was a noble aspiration.

As we move into larger social groups it seems like specific behaviours are used as a way to try and quickly judge what memes others are playing by. I don’t think behaviour is necessarily the trump card that determines whether or not one fits in. Instead I think it is what causes the behaviour that makes this determination. What this means is that cults are judged not on some arbitrary measure of “normalcy”, but instead on a level of rationality – rationality based on our memes and our world view. I would argue that any behaviour is rational from the frame of reference of the individual doing it. In fact I remember reading an interesting book that analyzed numerous “random” acts of violence to see why they were committed. Each had quite clear, though not immediately apparent motivations. Perhaps this is why some fundamentalist christians still consider mormons cultists. From their biblical inerrant frame of reference, the things mormons come up with may not be logical. We may look like we have the same values, morals and behaviours, but to them, our underlying rule book is incomprehensible. It may be like a Jesuit missionary trying to figure out blackfoot tribal religion. It just doesn’t make sense.

So how does this discussion of cults matter? If societal norms are cultish, and all cults are bad, then their influence on us is probably just a matter of degree. But how do we figure out the degree? I don’t think looking at the behaviours encouraged is very efficient. They may not reflect the memes underlying them. I also don’t think looking for perceived levels of conformity is very good. What may seem like conformity may just be an amalgamation of similar minded people. I think the degree of cultish influence in our lives is determined by how willing we are to go with the flow - in what ever venue or group this may be. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean how likely we are to go along with superficial behaviours. Instead, it probably is how likely we are to conform our world views, our memes, to any given group. If playing “10 fingers” at a mormon party is incomprehensible to me, doing so to fit in is as cultish as donning an orange harri-krishna robe and shaving what is left of my hair.

Following this line of thinking through, perhaps the most important thing to be aware of with cults, is how much of my world view originates from them. If this is the case, the most powerful cults in the world are the ones that deal with our day to day lives. It is the social protocols and cultural biases we inherit from our society that are the most cult like. These create outlooks that we could never imagine being different. They are so fundamental to our way of being that we can barely identify what they are. They are so fundamental and important that there is no real way of escaping from their influence. They have as much, if not more, effect on our lives than the lunatic that believes their nose is a space alien giving them instructions as they sneeze.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Fundamental Change and Reformulation or Superficial Change and Suffrage

A good discussion on Belief and Practices over at Times and Seasons brought a smile to my face. I am always amazed how the ideas of other members seem to go to the same place despite little formalized theology. Some of my personal views on progression seem to get brought up rather well in this post. Instead of rummaging around to find the link of those posts I just summarized some of my ideas below in “Progression and Stucco”.

To me, belief is a subset of practice. In other words, when compared to what we say, what we do is a more accurate representation of our beliefs. For instance I can profess to want to be in a serious relationship, but if I am unwilling to do any of the things necessary for it, what I tell people I want is at odds with my actions. If belief is a subset of practice, this means that I fundamentally don’t want a serious relationship. I may want the fantasy of one, but not the real thing. The problem is that, as much as people try, we don’t live in a fantasy world. I think one of the big hindrances to spiritual growth is the idea that living up to a belief or doctrine will lead to real progression.

Now I know this may appear as a rather radical statement. I agree that there are many instances where one could argue that good beliefs leads to good actions which result in spiritual progression. In most cases though, I would say that this train of thought leaves out one of the major tenets of the gospel, the power of change.

Of course one would normally answer “isn’t anything that leads to worth while change good”? Perhaps, but it does not mean it is very effective. It also does not mean it is very good if it keeps us from using more the more powerful tools at our disposal. I think Hugh Nibley’s essay Zeal Without Knowledge, discusses this issue quite well. Is it better to spend a 100 hours digging a hole by hand, or sleep for 10 hours, get a bobcat and dig the same one in another hour? I guess it depends on whether we are trying to did a hole, get strong, look like we are working, or get an extra 89 or 99 hours of time to do more important things. Hopefully we can see this life as being such a rare opportunity to learn and progress that we want all the extra time we can get.

In his T&S post, Jim Faulconer mentioned that “belief is not central to LDS religion”. The way he interpreted this statement sums up my views. The holy ghost probably isn’t there to give us the power to discover an infinite number of rules and commandments. To me, the Spirit is not a tool to the implementation of a legalistic religion. Instead it is a tool that lets us unlock the inherit power we have to change. A power that is activated through the authority Christ has given us, and the example and atonement he has offered.

I think too often the puritanical idea of suffrage has made us blind to the power of change had by spiritual beings like ourselves. Being born again (a repeatable event which I think happens any time we truly accept Christ and/thus repent of our sins) is a chance to reformulate who we are. The strong presence of the spirit gives us a chance to move a little further away from our natural tendencies. Of course being born again doesn’t make us a perfected being. The reformulation process keeps almost everything that we are. We may loose ourselves in Christ for a moment, but the reality of who we are quickly takes over again. However, the relative amorphous nature of our spirit lets us change our desires to such an extent that they become inherit within us. In essence, it isn’t thinking abstract ideas that change who we are, it is changing the spiritual side of our being so that the rest of who we are matches with it.

For this to happen, I wonder if the more physical aspects of our being have to, in effect, see a motivation for this change for it to become effective. Of course around here is where all the philosophical views of Leibiniz thinking particles, or Cartesian Dualism, Thomist souls, etc come into play. Ignoring those considerations and leaving them to my brother I think one still comes up with a conclusion that fundamental change and reformulation is much more effective that superficial change and suffrage.

This again gets back to some of my views on whether there is more than one right choice in any decision. Superficial change does not really alter our world view. Usually we can keep the same basic outlook on things. We are just trying to make everything fit a bit better. Fundamental change results in new world views. While these world views will usually be quite similar to old ones, they do give us a new perspective on things (both old and new). This change in perspective is representative of a fundamental change in who we are. From my original example, we have changed what we get out of R movies, we have changed what we want to get out of the Sabbath, etc. With this change we also escape from much of the rather pointless suffering and decomposition that can result from struggling to live up to something that we either don’t fully believe, or can’t realistically sustain.

Progression and Stucco

In Portugal we used to come across lots of building whose stucco was coming apart. For the first few months this gave all the building their European charm. After a year and a half I started to see them for what they were, decomposing slums. Of course you can either take the romantic or pragmatic view. What they are doesn’t change, only their apparent value.

The outer stucco of these buildings was very hard and brightly colored. Underneath was about 3 inches of a very soft sandy cement facing the brick behind. Once the outer stucco had been punctured, the porous sand underneath would quickly wash away, leaving behind hollow crust. This would quickly bubble and crumble. The erosion would then spread.

I think there are two distinct ways to try and grow. You can build with a foundation of sand or of stone. A foundation of sand is created when we try and “endure to the end”, suppressing consequences that come from living something that is not us. Perhaps it is trying not to watch R rated movies when we still feel like there is a lot to be gained from them. Perhaps it is trying not to play sports on Sunday when that is the only day we can manage to be active. Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these struggles. I would probably say trying to live these ideals is impressive. However, I think what we get from these struggles may not be what we expect.

Many people expect that being able to discover high ideals and then enduring through the struggles that ensue as we try to live up to them is the way we progress in the gospel. I have my doubts about the universality of this idea. To me it is the same as the outer layer of stucco on those Portuguese buildings. If you can keep it together you will be fine. Indeed, you can get a pretty big building covered that way. However, a person walking by with a tiny stick can poke a hole that will erode the entire foundation. “Enduring to the end” shouldn’t be about putting up with the misery of living something that is not you. It shouldn’t be about repression. It should be about sustainability. Not just sustainability for two or three years when “God will take away our trials”. It isn’t about sustainability throughout this life. It is about being able to sustain something eternally. To me, this only happens through the process of becoming or embodiment. In essence it is a long slow process where we actually change who we are and what we want so that there never is an “enduring to the end” in the puritanical sense.

I have seen lots of people in my life with lots of energy go out and reach big goals very quickly. I have also seen lots of them burnout or crumble. Beliefs and doctrines are not another pail of solidifying stucco to apply over an insecure foundation. They are not righteousness. Getting a list of them won’t make you perfect. Getting a list of them and having the fortitude to act them out won’t make you perfect. To me, all it can do is teach the commandments of men but deny the power thereof (JSH 19).

Friday, April 23, 2004

Tribal religion notes

One interesting thing to consider when reading the Book of Mormon is the way in which religion was or was not integrated into their culture. From some reading I have been doing, it seems like religion that is fully integrated into the culture is basically invisible. It is hard to say what things are cultural and what are religious. Distinctions don’t make sense. I think our society is anything but this. The other end of the spectrum is termed by some to be governmental religion. In this case religion is viewed as distinct from the culture. It may intermingle in many ways, but it is highly visible. Our society would view religion in this way. One of the things it can be seen as doing is teaching an ideal set of morals or behaviour. Now what was the Nephite religion like? It is hard not to interpret their religion in terms of our cultural and govermental religous views. Of course, I think many people would say that trying to interpret tribal religion is fundamentally impossible unless you have grown up in that culture.

Here are some notes I made on the topic

Encyclopedia of American Indians
- rituals done by whole group
- can’t separate religion from culture
- no external moral educational institutions
- community based
- little frequent contact with external groups
- group survival
- reciprocity
- items have no meaning outside the community. This is because the goal of religious activity is to have an event that benefits the community. It is not trying to meet an external standard.
Based on commonly shared and commonly understood experiences

Tribal religions are best understood on what they are not. No
- universal salvation
- do not need to dialogue with outside groups
- no unique insight into gods
- not universal
- conversion is discouraged
- unless you are born into it, you can’t ever be expected to fully grasp it
No distinction between natural and supernatural

Georgia South University

- Christian religions are based on an ideal of government, tribal religions are based more on an ideal of person
- Tribal religions tend to be more gender equal, not necessarily in our modern view of role equality, but rather in the voice each gender has in the religion

Tribal religion in the Book of Mormon

Along similar lines I think looking at the distinctions between government based religions and culture based religions is quite interesting. Which one were the Nephites? If we assume that the religion of the Nephites permeated every aspect of their life and culture, it would tend to have characteristics of a tribal religion. If the religion was distinct from the culture, it would tend to follow the lines of a government based religion. Now I think it is obvious that over time, the Nephites varied in the degree to which their religion was infused in their society and culture. However, the question raised by the scientist at Metaphysical Elders some time ago “I also wonder about the use of the word "church" in Nephi's vision” maybe needs to be analyzed in these terms. Thus the question becomes, was the Jewish religion of Lehi’s time more a tribal based or government based religion?

From what I can gather, tribal religions, like those represented by many Native American cultures tend to have a few common characteristics.
1. Religious acts are meant to assist the group, not the individual. There is little if any concept of individual salvation.
2. The idea of living up to abstract rules, values or standards is foreign. Things are always relative to the societal environment.
3. There is no distinction between religion and culture. They are inseparably intertwined. Hence religious distinctions are artificial.
4. The religion has no meaning outside of the group. Ideas, values and concepts are not functionally transferable to other cultures. There is no pretense to a universal application.
5. There is no proselytizing. There is a very strong sense of “us and them”. You either are or aren’t a member. There is no grey in between.
6. The only way to fully understand the religion / culture is to be born into it. Converts, if they exist, can never truly become part of the tribe.

Now to be honest, I have no idea how the Jewish people at Lehi’s time would fit in with these characteristics. In some ways they appear to fit very well. In other areas, less so. However if we assume that Nephi most likely had *some* tribal bias in his view of religion / culture, it certainly would have affected how his visions were presented to him. It would also have affected and how he understood them. A specific example of this is the fight between the church of God and the church of the devil.

To Nephi, the word church, or the original equivalent could be either of two things – a physical building or location where religious rituals were preformed, or the community / tribe of people united by their culture and religion. Like the scientist, I find it hard to imagine someone of this era being able to comprehend the strong divisions we currently have between culture and religion. Thus I don’t think the Church of the devil can be interpreted based upon what doctrines it holds or promotes. Realistically, it would also not be another group or culture either. The key to this is who is doing the interpreting.

As mentioned, tribal religions have a very distinct view of “us and them”. Outside of small details used for trade, I believe, anyone who is not of the tribe is lumped into the a single stereotype. The determining factor is that these other people can never hope to understand the religion / culture of the tribe. If Nephi lumps all the people into two groups, it is pretty likely that his view of religion was definitely on the tribal side of things. Note I don’t think it makes much difference if you try and get around this point by saying that is was an angel leading the vision. I think things always get presented in a way that the interpreter can understand. What is important is that if Nephi came from Jerusalem with a tribal biased religion, this would have gotten carried over to the new world. This is fairly likely since Lehi’s family was isolated throughout their journey.

When Nephi gets to the promised land there is a chance that interactions with locals will force them out of the isolation of tribal religion. I think the classification of people into Nephites or Laminites is a strike against this idea. I also think there are a number other weaker arguments against this that I will have to go into later. Off the top of my head I think the initial motivations for preaching to the Laminites appear a bit more tribalistic than universalistic (govermental style religion)

Tribal Religion Changes

When we read the Book of Mormon, it is usually very hard to get a sense of large scale changes that may have occurred in religious structures. As I am going through the Book of Mormon again, I am becoming more aware of the places where large scale changes could take place. To see where these places may be, it is probably useful to break the Book of Mormon into a number of different religious periods.
1. Jewish with a strong Christ focus – 1 Nephi to Enos
a. Jacob may be seen as representing a definite change to religion as Nephi understood it (of course it may also be seen as a continuation of the same style of religion that Nephi learned in Jerusalem). To see this, look at Jacob 2 and how it might be indicative of a cultural amalgamation with the local inhabitants. Jacob 5 can also be seen as an attempt to try and remove some of the “stumbling blocks” inherit in a traditional Jewish interpretation of religion (see Jacob 4:14) – one that delighted in “things that they could not understand”. Basically it could be seen as using a complicated prophesy to stress the importance of plain prophecies. The arrival of Sherem the anti-christ in Jacob 7 may also be indicative of a fundamental change in religious outlook that created a substantial counter movement. Also Jacob 7:1, 4 may be interpreted to show that Sherem may have not have originated from the center of Nephite control. In other words, he presumably came from some of the societal outskirts that may have spoken a different language or dialect.
2. Exportation of a religious theocracy to the Zarahelmites – Words of Mormon to Mosiah 8
a. After Mosiah had led a group of Nephites out of the land of Nephi, they assimilated the people of Zarahemla. This can be seen as eventually causing some contention between the two groups of people. This would help explain the strong unifying focus in King Benjamin’s speech. His speech can be seen, not just as an attempt to unify the people to the Laminite threats (omni 1:24), but perhaps also as an attempt to unify the two new elements of Nephit culture, the Nephites and the Zalahemlites.
3. Liberalization period from Zeniff to Alma – Mosiah 9 to Mosiah
a. In particular, Zeniff’s concern for the Laminites in Nephi, and his attempts to bargain his way back into possession of the area belie a libertarian tendency. Noah’s reforms, though condemned can also be viewed as the beginnings of a more socialist or bureaucratic regime. Alma’s rejection of the kingship can be seen as evidence of this change. This despite the complete rejection of Noah’s teachings. Apparently some liberal leanings were carried over by Alma.
4. Creation of a “governmental” style religion (one that has a set government structure like most non-tribal religions) Mosiah 25 to Alma 48
a. Mosiah 25:19 indicates that Alma senior established churches throughout the land. Presumably this was due to the large number of non-nephites (Mosiah 25:12,13)
b. The existence of a non-tribal based religion that was separate fro everyday life seems to fit with many of the conflicts that occurred during this time. In particular, the rebellion of Alma’s sons, missionary work to the Laminites, rise in lawyers and beurocratic trimmings, in-fighting for power, etc.
5. Captain Moroni institutes a protestant like reform - Alma 48 on
a. To see the start of this possible reform, look at Alma 48: 10. The parallels aren’t very good. The book of Mormon focuses on the military struggle, not the religious differences. The winners, Moroni’s side did not remain part of the same society as the losers who became Laminites (Hel 4:2). Because of the segregation of Book of Mormon society, it is hard to say what changes Moroni’s conservative movement would have created. Where the parallels seem to work is in the perpetual war between the two religious groups.
6. Christ’s coming leads to a law of communion – 3rd Nephi to 4th Nephi 1:24
a. Everyone appears to be of one mind. Religion may have been inseparable from everyday life. Hence the divisions that eventually occur seem not to be as much doctrinally initiated as cultural. They began to live their communal religion on a class basis.
7. Religion used as a societal separator - 4th Nephi 29 on
a. Numerous new religions develop, each according to what groups of the population desired. Religion has gone from being an invisible part of the society to, presumably, an overt part where practitioners of each sect were clearly identified (4th Nephi 1:36-38)

Since I am now reading Mosiah, I think I will limit my comments to the time period surround King Noah. This is mainly due to the fact that I find the whole cultural changes around the return to the Land of Nephi rather interesting. For instance, there has obviously been a huge change going on in the society, and yet one can easily gloss over this without feeling the least bit guilty. To some, a prophetic connection with diety may be thought of as fixing religious thought to such an extent that it subtends a history of 400 year history of cultural invasion. In more polite language, the whole time period is a speculator’s gold rush.

When looking at changes from tribal religions to governmental ones the best starting question can be asked any 4 year old, why? Why would a culture that has an invisible, or seamless religion move to create a separate and distinct one? Why is there is new need to codify behaviour and convention? Why is there a new need to separate the everyday from the expected ideal? Perhaps the best way to answer these types of questions is to assume that people will usually choose the most effective practices for their knowledge, skills, and attributes. In a rather marxist way, one can assume that cultural evolution will change enough memes so that old ways are seen as blatantly impractical, and current tendencies as the way things always should have been.

As Jacob 7 comes to a close, we see a radical thing for Nephite religion, an anti-christ. Before this, Jacob’s preaching has a definite fire and brimstone feel to it (Jacob 6:6,10,11, etc). From what little I can gather about tribal religions, this is rather unusual. Now this can either be because Nephi and his brother never did get religion perfectly integrated into their society, or because 30 to 90 years after their arrival in the promised land, things had changed.

Assuming that Nephi and his group never integrated with locals is a bit of a hard assumption to swallow. It might be fine for a generation or two, but as time passes, it gets progressively more difficult to accept. Personally, I tend to think of Nephi’s immediate family as eventually forming a large priest class fairly distinct from the culture in which they inhabit. It is the relation of those in and out of this priest class where tribal and governmental religions come into play.

Sherem’s story gives us some interesting tidbits. Here we have a man coming into the heart of Nephi control from the outside. Apparently this wasn’t a big enough deal to warrant much special language (Jacob 7:1). Instead what we find highlighted is his knowledge of the language. His flattery also presumably highlights his knowledge of the customs and social clues of the society (although this latter point can certainly be interpreted other ways). This seems to get presented as a rather unusual occurrence. Now this could be interpreted due to his remarkable proficiency. It can also be interpreted as being unusual due to the fact that an outside could know so much about a tribal religion. Now I don’t believe the people at the time would have used my explanation. Instead they probably would have been surprised that someone from outside of the community could have such a strong grasp of the nuances of a seamless religion and culture.

Now why would this have happened? One view is that it signals a change from the cultural isolation of tribal religion to a more inclusive culture and universal style religion. In other words, Nephite culture was expanding. The assumptions of tribal religion were no longer unquestionably applicable as a result of this expansion. Hence people like Sherem found themselves able to question the hitherto invisibles of the religion. Today we assume that there will always be some whacko’s that disagree with whatever is said. In a tribal religion/society I think this is very unusual, or even impossible. I also find it interesting that a lot of Sherem’s motivations seemed to center around the idea that the people were tied down by their beliefs. In other words, he recognized a distinction between the culture and the religion. He was moving for a governmental religion that could accommodate the different needs, wants and beliefs that he saw being ignored. Now of course he was obviously led astray in his desires. Perhaps this was because as he rejected the culture assumptions he also rejected the relgious assumptions as well. To me, this seems very similar to what happens today with a lot of ex-mormons. As they get frustrated with the cultural aspects of the religion, they tend to also reject a lot of the religious aspects as well.