I’ve always been fond of puzzles and logic. In many ways this has shaped my view of the world and my approach to life. When met with a question or problem I treat it as something to be answered or solved, not an obstruction. All questions have answers and all problems have solutions – for those who are willing to take the time to find them and who are willing to accept the answer or solution they find.
I have always enjoyed the process of using logic to answer a question or solve a problem: starting with a set of assumptions and then using knowledge of relevant facts to reason out a set of possible answers and then examining each solution to pick the best fit. When I was growing up, I assumed that everyone approached questions this way.
Growing up, I used to think that I could show someone the truths of the Gospel through logical argument in a way that would make it impossible to disbelieve, if only they would take the time. I was awfully naïve. However, this naïve belief was a product of a religious upbringing that embraced logic and reason.
It is a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church or Mormon Church) that “all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole.” The only difference between truths of the Gospel and truths of the laws of physics are in the way they are discovered and how they are applied to our lives.
I hope to use this blog as a platform to both help other members of the Church who may have questions about seeming incongruities between science and the Gospel and also to explain our beliefs to people who are not members of the Church in a hope of fostering better communication and understanding.
I do not pretend to write on behalf of the church. Though I believe everything I plan to write to be in harmony with the teachings of the church, there may be points that other members or leaders of the church might dispute if they happen to read them. In particular, one of the things that I hope to do is discuss the reasoning behind my belief in the doctrines, which is something that is generally very different for each individual. I will try to make the distinction between my thoughts and Church doctrine clear.
I started a series of posts a couple of years back on the Creation. My motivation to finish them fizzled out, mostly because I wasn’t sure where I was going with them. However, I’ve been thinking about the topic again, and am going to try a different approach, which is simply to walk through what I believe about the origin of people on this planet. My goal is to help anyone who might be struggling to reconcile the scriptural accounts with what is now considered to be scientific fact.
Mormon theology actually makes this a little more challenging than it might be for some Christians. It would be easy to take the story of Adam and Eve, and in the light of modern science consider it simply a symbolic myth, or to consider the story of the creation of the Earth as worshipful poetry. I have spoken with many Christians, and a few Mormons who take this perspective. Unfortunately, one of the many angels Joseph Smith claims to have been visited by was Adam. Furthermore, the creative power of God is very explicit in a number of Mormon scriptures.
So, if we believe Joseph Smith, and I do, we have to find some way to reconcile the stories of the Creation and of Adam and Eve to some form of coexistence with the creation of the world as we understand it to have come into being based on our scientific observations.
For the Creation, honestly, it’s not that hard. Any astrophysicist can tell you how astronomically small the chances are of a world forming in a region of space that will allow life to take root and thrive. The planet has to be close, but not too close to a stable star, it has to have sufficient water, the right kind of composition to have a reasonably strong magnetosphere, etc., etc. And, it has to not get completely demolished by some gravitational hazard or stray comet long enough for life to form.
Scientists typically use probabilities and a principle called Occam’s Razor to conclude that the reason life evolved on Earth was that in the billions-to-one odds, we just happened to be the one. You can’t really argue with that logic, as there’s nothing really to argue against. However, you can propose another plausible reason life evolved here: God made it happen. It’s equally impervious to argument, but given a reasonably powerful entity, and the will to do so, there’s no scientific reason that God could not have changed the trajectory of asteroids, planted the seeds of life, nurtured those seeds and protected the planet from ill-timed Armageddon-sized asteroids until it was ripe for human kind to populate. In fact, if you believe in God, it is far more likely to have been God’s intervention that allowed Earth to produce life, than that He just happened to be passing by as humans evolved, and took an interest.
So, we have a choice: choose to believe that enough infinitesimally unlikely things finally happened on our planet in the proper sequence to start life, or choose to believe that life was placed here, and cultivated, much as many a sci-fi writer has imagined humans might someday terraform other planets.
Like I said, that’s the easy part to reconcile. The Adam & Eve story is a bit more complicated. Adam is supposed to have been the first man, and Eve, the first woman. As I’ve implied in my previous paragraphs, I’m pretty well sold on evolution. So where does that put Adam & Eve? My current thinking is that they were the first children of God on the Earth. Homo sapiens prior to Adam and Eve may have been biologically compatible with them, but their spirits were more like the spirits of animals. Humankind as the spirit children of God sent to Earth began with Adam and Eve.
Were they created from the “dust of the Earth?” I could go either way on this one. I think it matters little whether this is a symbolic/metaphoric reference to all life being literally composed of molecules that were once part of the planet’s crust, and passed up through the evolutionary chain, or whether God literally assembled Adam molecule by molecule. On one hand, that doesn’t seem to be God’s typical MO. On the other, it would make the 1000 year lifespans of the patriarchs much more likely to be literal. Of course, merely believing that the latter is possible increases the likelihood that 1000 year lifespans would have also been possible due to miraculous modifications to existing patterns.
So, yes. I believe in the Creation, but I also believe in dinosaurs. God’s plan for us to grow through this Earthly experience requires that scientific proof of His existence be out of reach. He wants us to have faith, which, at times, requires that knowledge be withheld. The spirit of the Creation story is true, but it is not a science textbook. Its primary goal is to teach us about God and His relationship to humankind, not to teach us about the Earth and the universe.
So, an interesting thing you might not know about me: this past year I taught the primary class at church for the kids who turned 9 in 2017. Sunday is my last lesson with this class. This year we were assigned to teach church history. So, I want to ask them what they’ve learned this year. I also plan to tell them a little about what I learned.
I have been changed by what I learned this year. Not by the facts – those were all at least vaguely familiar. No, it is the recurring theme of sacrifice that changed me. As we talked about the sacrifices made by the early members of the church, and how the history of the church is really a story of sacrifice upon sacrifice. Whether it was to leave home to gather with the saints, laboring on the temples when people did not even have their own homes built, leaving wives and children to preach the Gospel in far-off places, crossing the plains on foot, or even giving their lives rather than betray their beliefs, sacrifice was very much a part of what it meant to be a member of the church.
I think that in many ways, we’ve lost sight of the role of sacrifice in our worship today. It was because of the sacrifice of those members that they witnessed the miracles they did. Sacrifice has the power to build us spiritually in a way that cannot be replaced. Many modern Mormons look back on those pioneers with gratitude that we are not asked to do anything quite so physically difficult. I think that sentiment misses the mark.
We live (speaking of the average American) in a world in which there is almost no need to sacrifice anything of consequence, ever. As members of the church, a little more is asked of us – tithing, fast offerings, serving in church callings, etc. Rarely, however, do these “demands” interfere significantly with everyday life. Some might think of it as heaven. I have begun to see it as a missed opportunity.
We have been blessed in abundance. The challenge set before us as members is, can we voluntarily sacrifice sufficiently to produce the faith and spiritual growth to match that of our pioneer forefathers? There is need all around us, if we open our eyes. If we stop judging others and causes to first determine their worthiness of our help, and just help all our brothers and sisters with the gifts we’ve been given, opportunities to sacrifice will be abundant.
It does not matter if our sacrifices make a material difference in others lives, though we hope we can make their lives better. No, the reason we serve is because that is the example the Savior gave us. There is no instance in scripture where Jesus was petitioned in vain. He did not always do as asked, but he always served.
My hope and prayer for the new year is to find more ways to sacrifice, and to help those around me to find joy in sacrifice and in the service of others.
I want to post something specifically for my fellow Mormons today, as we embark upon this new year.
We Mormons, American Mormons in particular, tend to be fairly well off. The Church, thanks to the principle of tithing, operates completely in the black, and is constantly building elaborate temples, lovely meetinghouses, running schools and even investing in corporate endeavors. The average Mormon also tends to be better off financially than our peers,* perhaps due in part to fiscally conservative teachings by modern church leaders. However, the typical Mormon view of this prosperity is that we are blessed of the Lord. If that is indeed the case, we may be shirking our responsibilities, and now may be the time to repent.
The hand of providence hath smiled upon you most pleasingly, that you have obtained many riches; and because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren because ye suppose that ye are better than they.
And now, my brethren, do ye suppose that God justifieth you in this thing? Behold, I say unto you, Nay. But he condemneth you, and if ye persist in these things his judgments must speedily come unto you.
O that he would show you that he can pierce you, and with one glance of his eye he can smite you to the dust!
O that he would rid you from this iniquity and abomination. And, O that ye would listen unto the word of his commands, and let not this pride of your hearts destroy your souls!
Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you.
But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God.
And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.” (Jacob 2:13-19)
If this is not counsel for modern followers of Christ, I don’t know what is. If we have sought our financial stability and affluence for the intent to do good, are we acting in good faith upon that intent, or are we justifying our greed with our pride? Are we free with our substance, or do we treasure our abundance?
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21)
The Church recently launched an effort they’re calling “Hastening the Work.” From what I can see it’s an effort to get members to be more engaged in evangelism and temple work. As we should know from the story of Ammon and the Lamanites, and much of Jesus’ work in the New Testament, one of the best ways to preach the Gospel is through service. From one perspective, it could be argued that the Gospel IS service. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27)
All the Adversary needs to do is to keep us complacent in our contentment. If we maintain the status quo, keep following the normal, expected pursuits of Americans — managing our retirement funds, putting our kids through college, saving up for nice vacations — have we truly invested the talents we have been given, or have we hidden them in the earth? What kind of return do you think the Lord expects on His investment in us?
Perhaps we feel we are being generous with the abundance we have been given. After all, the majority of Mormons pay 10% or more of their income to the Church. Members generally have one or more callings to provide service in the congregation. The church has a highly effective humanitarian organization, funded through our tithing and direct donations. Not to mention all of the social safety nets we support with our tax dollars. However, we cannot delegate our responsibility to show love and compassion to those around us through service and generosity. Surely there is more we can do, though it can often be difficult to figure out how to go about doing it. I would like to offer some suggestions.
1. Consider changing your occupational goal. For those of us working outside the home, the vast majority of our productive energy is spent on our careers. Can you align that productivity to be more in-line with the work of the Gospel? Can you find employment in a company that is making the world a better place? If you are a manager or a business owner, can you make your employees’ work environment more family friendly? Can you organize service projects for your company? Are you in a position to be able to retire and spend your time more fully dedicated to service and family?
2. Take literally the counsel, “Give to him that asketh thee.” (Matt. 5:42) If you live or work in a big city, you certainly can’t escape people asking for money. This doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to give money. There are always gift cards to restaurants, granola bars, gloves, job offers, a listening ear or a smile — whatever you have that you think might benefit them — but given our roles as ambassadors of Christ, the one thing we should not be doing is ignoring them.
Maybe you don’t see panhandlers where you are. Consider applying the counsel to the various charities who are always sending requests. Perhaps change your outlook from deciding whether or not to give something to deciding how much to give.
3. Obey the abnormally nice voice in your head. You know, the one that suggests stopping to help someone on the side of the road, or talking to someone standing by themselves, or offering to make up the difference when the person ahead of you in the grocery line doesn’t have enough to pay for their groceries. You never know when that voice might be the Spirit. Prioritize kindness and generosity over work and punctuality.
4. Get “anxiously engaged” in a cause. (D&C 58:27) We run into societal problems and political challenges regularly. Rather than expecting other people to fight those battles, figure out what you can do to help solve the problem. Maybe there is an organization you can donate to or get involved with. Maybe you can start your own organization. Maybe you can just educate yourself and share what you’ve learned.
5. Simplify your life. Eliminate pastimes, projects, things that require more maintenance than they’re worth, and anything that consumes time without enriching your life. Hobbies and recreation are an important part of a balanced life, but when we feel compelled to make use of things because of the money we have spent or the time we have invested, it may be time to reconsider whether we should make such investments in the future.
6. Redefine “valuable” as applying solely to that which adds to our treasure in heaven. Everything else then becomes means of obtaining this kind of treasure. This kind of paradigm shift can have a powerful effect in our lives.
7. Pray for guidance. Once you’ve decided you want to make a change, and have considered some options, the Lord will guide you if you seek His help.
The prophet has said it is time to hasten the work. We have been laboring in the world to store up resources in good times. Perhaps the prophet’s call is the indication that it is time to open our stores and put those resources to work into reaping the harvest of the Lord.
And from that time forth there were wars and bloodshed among them; but the Lord came and dwelt with his people, and they dwelt in righteousness.
The fear of the Lord was upon all nations, so great was the glory of the Lord, which was upon his people. And the Lord blessed the land, and they were blessed upon the mountains, and upon the high places, and did flourish.
And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:16-18)
We need Zion. We must build it. Each of us has something to contribute. Let’s hasten the work.
These are my posts that got the most views in 2014.
- Doctrine vs. Practice – published June 2013
- A Spiritual Cleanse – published March 2014
- 3 Mormon-ish Principles Anyone Can Use to Change Their Life – published April 2014
- True, Not Perfect – published June 2014
- The Plan of Salvation Part I: Overview – published August 2012
I came across a post on IFLScience the other day, about the likelihood that we will very soon be identifying extra-terrestrial planets that have life of one form or another on them. The author then went on to pose the philosophical and theological question of how our human religions might react to the information. I read through the first part of the article with a bit of smugness, as I am confident the Mormon perspective here is rather unique and robust in the face of this particular “disruption.” I was then rather surprised to see the Mormon beliefs called out in particular, in a section with several examples. I guess that’s progress – people know something about us besides the fact that we used to condone polygamy.
Anyhow, the doctrine about other worlds is not really central to our perspective of the Gospel, so it’s not talked about much, nor are there many details laid out specifically. So, it’s not surprising that IFLScience’s summary of our belief does not appear to be fully inline with my understanding of the doctrine. I do admit, however, that much of my explanation that will follow will be an extrapolation from the revealed word, and so, may also not match explanations other Mormons might give. Nevertheless, as this is probably one of those things that people might classify as cult-ish, I will endeavor to explain how the doctrine fits in with the rest of the Mormon belief system, and how it therefore makes sense.
The doctrine of many worlds is tied to the concept of people as the literal children of God. I went into this doctrine in detail in my series on the “Plan of Salvation.” The key points are that as children of God, we have the potential to become gods ourselves, to continue the life-cycle (so to speak) and create our own progeny and worlds for them. God Himself, as an eternal being, has done this before, and will continue to do it after this world ends. As such, the greatness of His creations is truly unfathomable. It is this superlative greatness that Moses glimpsed, according to LDS scripture, when God told him, “worlds without number have I created… there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them.” (Moses 1:33-35)
There are many supplementary non-canonical discussions about this doctrine that have been documented between early Mormon leaders – the nature of the eternities and of godliness seemed to be a favorite topic among them. There are some perspectives from these discussions that are in-line with the gist of what was summarized in the IFLScience post – that among God’s creations, this world is “special” because His Only Begotten was born on this world. However, I am not fully convinced of that perspective. It seems consistent with God’s established patterns that He would have a “Firstborn” of every “generation” of His descendants, and that each generation might get its own world. It might also be the case that God was trying something new with this world, and that other worlds had previously been handled differently. The doctrine of the “war in Heaven” (Lucifer’s rebellion – also mentioned in my Plan of Salvation posts) seems like it would have only have happened if the plan for this world was unexpected. In which case, other worlds would have developed in dramatically different ways.
Suffice it to say, there are many ways one could look at this doctrine to see different relationships and perspectives about how other worlds might have been organized. The point is that it is not a central point of doctrine, is not entirely clear, and that there are, have been and will be many more worlds of one form or another created for people like ourselves. There may also be other worlds created with other forms of life on them. One could even start to postulate about other universes in relation to this doctrine. The wonderful thing about this in my mind, is that these questions were being discussed and considered long before a definitive scientific answer was even dreamed as possible, and that the answers provided by science will not require any change to LDS theology to bring it in-line.
There is a fundamental question that religion needs to answer if it expects to survive in an increasingly secular world. The question is, “how is your religion better at making the world a better place than ethical atheism?” Now, I’ve never heard this question stated outright like this; many atheists (and some others, too) seem to take it as a given that religion is inferior to ethical atheism and that religion is a “crutch” for the unintelligent. I, naturally, disagree. I would like to address this assumption and answer the question from a Mormon perspective, generalizing to wider Christianity when appropriate.
Let me begin by saying, I have a great deal of respect for ethical atheists. By “ethical atheists” I mean people who believe in right and wrong and who do their best to follow their understanding of how to be a good person – helping others, being productive, advocating for education, making the world a better place, etc. These people tend to contribute substantially to society. Christians could learn a lot from them. A good atheist can be just as good for society as a good Christian.
Ethics, as understood my most Christians, is rooted in love for your fellow human beings. However, we also acknowledge that people are “fallen” and require salvation, because our nature is, as stated in the Book of Mormon, “an enemy to God.” (Mosiah 3:19) A post I read recently by Michael Sitman described this state well:
This isn’t because we all fail to uphold certain ideals on occasion, but because we are sinners, meaning that even our supposed good works are tinged with self-interest or self-regard. Nothing pure issues forth from human hands, nothing escapes from the fallibility and brokenness in which we are inevitably implicated. Jesus didn’t just talk about our deeds, but our motives. He told us to pray in closets and not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, such is our capacity for arrogance and self-congratulations. He didn’t just talk about adultery, but lust, and asked those of us who have never murdered someone if we’ve ever been filled with anger. I wish more churches would preach about sin this way – not as some kind of list of what not to do, but rather as the impossibility of being truly good.
The science is pretty clear to support this. Our Darwinian instincts and survival mechanisms make us inherently selfish and self-centered. Even our desire to do good is nearly always rooted in “what’s best for me?” So, even when we have excellent standards and ethics most of the time, there are always times when we will fail to follow our principles, and will take an easier or more appealing path. Do that a few times, and you will be in a rut that can be hard to get out of.
Salvation, particularly the Mormon interpretation thereof, not only raises our sights to the ethics taught, but gives us hope and help in striving to meet those ideals, despite our past and inevitable future failures. We believe that even failed efforts to do what is right will be rewarded in the end. In this way, our efforts to do good are never wasted. This can be a great comfort in difficult or dark times in our lives, thereby encouraging us to keep trying.
On top of that, there is an excellent support structure in the LDS church, for those willing to accept the help, consisting of the leadership, the home teaching and visiting teaching programs and fellow members. Because the church is run by the members, people are involved in the congregation and in each others’ lives. Wherever you go in the world, you will find a congregation with shoulders to cry on and backs to help carry your burden.
Another area where religion surpasses ethical atheism is in teaching the next generation. There’s a simple reason for this – Christianity has an absolute moral authority. While most atheists see a lack of authority as a positive, the level of knowledge and wisdom necessary to turn that into a positive is a significant barrier to teaching children ethics. While the litmus test of “can I predict any negative consequences from my actions?” may, for a mature adult, be a good way to make decisions in an unforeseen scenario, for children or teens, this could be potentially disastrous. Even if a parent claims to be the ultimate ethical authority, that authority will be mimicked and challenged eventually.
People need an ethical authority when they are growing up. A parent can be an ethical authority, but our children know us far too well for that to be consistently effective. To have God and the scriptures as an ethical authority takes that burden from us, and helps us to teach kids even when we want them to do what we say, and not what we do. When we teach our children how to reconcile ourselves to that moral authority when we make mistakes, we can even help kids become better through our failings.
I guess you could summarize my argument in one word: sustainability. Devout Christianity, and Mormonism in particular, are more sustainable systems for perpetuating ethical behavior than ethical atheism. It is for this reason that I truly believe that following Jesus Christ to the best of our abilities is the best way to bring about a better world.
Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God. – Ether 12:4