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Why I Believe

Tonight I had a dream. It was of little consequence other than the opportunity I was given within the dream to say why I believe in God, in Jesus, and in the Mormon Church. In my dream, I was very eloquent. I have gotten out of bed, hoping that some of that eloquence will remain with me, as I feel that it is something that needs to be said persuasively.

I get it. There is a lot to be cynical about with religion today. There are plenty of bad actors out there, who want to use religion as a tool of control. It is a very effective tool for that purpose. But, just like technology, it can be used for both evil and good.

Nobody can prove the existence of God through science. It is one of, I daresay the most important of, a whole class of questions that can neither be proven nor disproven. Science generally considers these questions useless, as they don’t fit into the framework of the scientific method, where knowledge is gained by repeatable experiment. So, some scientists ignore the question, or worse, assume the proposition false, and refuse further consideration. There is no question more important.

So then, we have a choice. What do we choose to believe? Do we choose to believe that life is random, that the only purpose in life is what we make of it? Or do we choose to have hope that a loving God gave us life, that we have been sent to this world for a purpose, known to Him, and that He can guide us through to find peace and joy amid this otherwise chaotic world? I chose the latter long ago.

Something interesting happens when you choose to believe — you find reasons to believe. Some would dismiss this as confirmation bias. Undoubtedly, much of it is that, maybe even most — at first. However, as you learn about Jesus, you will discover that He is goodness incarnate. Philosophers may argue semantics and methods and perspectives all they like, but when you see the life Jesus lived, you will understand what goodness is. I want to be like that. There is no bias there.

I am trying to follow Jesus. It’s very hard; I fail frequently. I need to read the scriptures — particularly the New Testament and the “newer” testament, the Book of Mormon — daily. They remind me of the things I need to do to follow Him. I need to pray daily, as it gives me an opportunity to assess myself and consider who I want to be.

I also need to go to church every week. I need the support system of others who are doing their best to follow Jesus. I need the opportunities to serve them that arise through that community. I also need an outside, friendly perspective, on occasion, to break me out of the ruts I so easily sink into. They need me, too.

Through my experiences with these things: studying the life of Jesus and the Scriptures, prayer, service to others, and church attendance I have learned and grown as a follower of Jesus. I no longer hope that God exists. I know that God exists. I know Jesus.

While not a repeatable experiment in the traditional scientific sense, my experiences have been repeatable to me, and are evidence enough to me. I know many others who have gotten the similar evidence. I do not know why some people don’t seem to find the evidence convincing. Maybe they are doing the experiment wrong. I can only speak to my experiences, and God has proven His existence to me.

Jesus lives. I know this not because of a single spiritual experience. I know this because He is part of my life every day. He lives in my life. He lives in the lives of so many other good Christians out there. I know this. I also know this is not the literal life that we usually talk about when we say someone lives, but there is an undeniable power in the life of Jesus that exists in my life, and connects me with my family, friends and community.

I also know that Jesus really lives — that He is God, and hears my silent prayers. Yes, this brings me back to that un-provable question. However, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has provided additional doctrine to that found in the Bible. Through the combined doctrine, I have been able to construct a viable and consistent mental model of reality that both matches reality as understood by modern scientists and which allows for miracles to be real. This may not sound like a big deal, but for me, it is.

Reality is what is. If my religion could not be consistent with it, I might be a member, but not a follower. There is a powerful motivation that comes from having a consistent perspective on reality, life and who I am in relation to God, and it helps me maintain both my sanity and my efforts to follow Jesus.

This modern world is hostile to religion in many ways. To disregard God and religion because they are misunderstood and misused by many is unwise. To assume that all those who “cling” to religion are doing so blindly is plain wrong. My faith is what it is because I see. I understand what goodness is. I understand my own failings. That knowledge is because of religion, not despite it.

I am grateful for the path of my life that has lead me to where I am today. I am fully aware of how fortunate I am to have had the privilege and opportunity to learn of Jesus and follow Him. I don’t expect I would have come to this religion if I had not grown up in it. There is too much of it to understand before it makes sense in the way that I have needed it to make sense. At this point, to me, it is my reality. To abandon it would be to abandon everything that I am.

Through believing in God, I have found peace. Through following Jesus I have found joy. Through membership in the Mormon church I have found hope. These things are real. They are not delusions or bias. They are the natural consequences of the laws of the universe, and of the laws of God. They are available to everyone, but they are not free. They require that we choose them and work toward them.

My hope is that by sharing this perspective, I might open some few hearts and minds that are currently shut to faith. Please see that there is value in faith. Please understand that un-belief is a choice, and so is hope. I chose hope. I hope you will too.

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The Creation, According to Me

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.

Repost: Book Review of Mormon’s Codex

Jeff Lindsay wrote a very useful review of John Sorenson’s book “Mormon’s Codex” on his blog, Mormanity. As we as Mormons believe the Book of Mormon to be a true  record by people who lived in the Americas between 600 BC and about 350 AD, theoretically, archaeological findings should generally align with certain details in the Book of Mormon. This has been somewhat problematic in the past, partly, it seems, due to relatively limited studies of the peoples and sites of Central America (compared to, say studies of Israel or Egypt.) Sorenson seems to indicate that new studies are starting to have more and more potential points of agreement.

Here is the review: Mormon’s Codex: Rich Support for Book of Mormon Plausibility

Was Blind But Now I See

By Lisa Hains Barker, PhD

My sister wrote this essay a few years ago, and shared it with me. A conversation brought it to mind recently, and I asked if she would permit me to post it here, which she did. Lisa is a practicing neuropsychologist, who specializes in helping people recover from brain trauma.

“But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people: that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

I love the story of Jesus healing the man who was blind from birth (John 9), because of its wonderful insights into the Savior’s perfect ability to love and heal us. John wrote, “Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind” (John 9:32). John was trying to call our attention to the distinctiveness of this particular miracle. While wondering about why this event was different from Jesus’ other healings, I realized the reason stemmed from basic principles of neuroanatomy and brain function. We don’t really see with our eyes, we see with our brain. Our eyes are sensory organs that take in variations in light, and details from the world around us, then transform that information into electrical impulses. These electrical impulses are sent to some very specific areas in the back of the brain (the visual cortex & surrounding areas) that allow us to see and make sense of what we are seeing. While our eyes and the visual cortex of the brain are formed from birth for the very particular task of seeing, our vision and understanding of what we see develop as we interact with our environment. Vision is acquired in much the same way language is, in infancy and early childhood. For example, a young child learns names for visual details like colors and shapes, and eventually that a red, round shaped object might be an apple, or a pomegranate, or even a ball. But if a person is blind from birth, those parts of the brain which are supposed to do the work of “seeing” don’t develop in the same way, and can be encroached upon by other, working senses.

Applying this modern understanding of neuroanatomy, we can appreciate the complexity of Jesus’ miracle. It is more than just the man’s eyes that needed healing. If the Savior had only healed his eyes, the man would likely have been confused by the images he was “seeing” because his visual cortex wouldn’t have developed normally. He would have no frame of reference to understand depth or color or other visual details. In fact, there are modern examples of this very problem. But that is not what happened. The Savior anointed his eyes with clay and told him to “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” We are then told that the man went and washed “and came seeing” (John 9:7). The Savior did more than heal his eyes, he healed his brain. He made up for a lifetime’s lack of visual input – almost instantaneously. He restored, or completely repaired the man’s whole visual system.

Isn’t that a profound foreshadowing of later events? That through his atonement, Jesus can completely make up for our lifetimes of weakness and sin; and through his death and resurrection, he will restore our living physical bodies. He can and will make us whole again.

And yet another sweet bit of familiarity comes from this story… when the man was later asked by the Pharisees, repeatedly, about how this miracle could have occurred, the man defended Jesus and defended his works; “Why herein is a marvelous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes…If this man were not of God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:30, 33). His genuine testimony resulted in him being cast out. But John was able to capture his words, “One thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”

Spirits and Dark Matter

Ever since it was postulated in the early 1930’s, dark matter has been a mystery of physics and cosmology. Scientists have proposed countless theories and have done nearly as many experiments trying to detect and explain the phenomenon.

In a nutshell, scientists discovered that everywhere they looked in the universe, gravitational laws indicated that the observable motion of celestial bodies (stars and such) behaved as though there was more mass out there than we could see – a lot more. This invisible matter was dubbed “dark matter.”

As the measurements and calculations have been refined – assuming our understanding of the law of gravity is accurate on the scale of galaxies – the estimates of the amounts of dark matter and dark energy in the universe have been calculated to far outweigh the amount of visible matter and “normal” energy. See the graph (from Wikipedia) below:

While science has not been able to come up with much in terms of explanation or even detection of dark matter and dark energy, in 1843, Joseph Smith recorded a revelation that at least partially explains dark matter:

“There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” (D&C 131:7-8)

That spirits were matter at all was a revolutionary concept at that time, but if we consider spirits to be made of dark matter, this becomes a key intersection between religion and science as to what can be real.

Although there are a lot of forms of invisible matter, the attributes of spirits indicate that they are made of a type of matter not yet understood by science, hence my classification of it as a form of dark matter. There is also some anecdotal evidence of spirits having a measurable weight in the experiments of Duncan MacDougall, which would support this theory.

While this is a mildly interesting thing to contemplate by itself, when we start considering the ramifications of this assertion, we find a number of potentially useful insights that could lead to greater understanding of dark matter.

First, let’s consider the nature of spirits. A spirit is the essence of the consciousness.  To be complex enough to contain a consciousness, we need to have matter with properties that both allow aggregation and binding together, as atoms and molecules do with regular matter, with substantial complexity. To attain such a level of complexity requires particles which can be combined in many different ways. This would be further enabled by the existence of different types of particles. So, there are likely at least several different kinds of dark particles with different properties, which may be able to be combined into many different dark elements, and dark molecules.

Dark matter is affected by gravity, as that is how we know of its existence. We also know that spirits animate the physical body, so there is likely some potential for these dark particles to interact with the other forces (electromagnetic, strong force, weak force) that govern the behavior of regular particles. Alternatively, there could be some other force between dark particles and regular particles that allows them to affect each other – perhaps dark particles could affect quantum spin, for instance.

Considering these points and the fact that spirits are animate, it should be no wonder that the scientific community has had little luck detecting this kind of dark matter. The tests typical of the general scientific community look for as-yet-undiscovered particles consists of breaking apart or fusing known particles or waiting for stray particles to pass through their detection devices by chance.

I don’t know how to best to detect particles that may or may not be affected by the forces we currently understand and which may or may not be collected together in regular patterns. However, much of scientific progress starts with a hypothesis.

On the religious side, the quantity of dark matter in the universe indicates that there could be a lot more to the spirit world than we might guess.

Ultimately, the key point here is that spirits are real. Despite the inability of modern science to detect them, we have very good, logical explanations for how they can exist that fits the observed facts.

Terminology Change

A Facebook friend of mine, Matt Browning, pointed out to me that the term “Scientific Fundamentalism” has already been defined as the opposite of religious fundamentalism: believing that there is no knowledge but that provided by science, and that nothing else has any value whatsoever. (Pardon my paraphrasing.)

Since this is definitely not what I meant by it, I will begin using the term “Enlightened Fundamentalism” instead. I will be revising my previous posts and tags accordingly.

Special thanks to Justin Kunz for his suggestion.

 

Reconciling the Creation, part 2

So, in part 1, I started it off explaining how I believe in the Creation, but not quite literally as outlined in the scriptures. I was just getting started explaining how the story of the Creation might apply to how the Earth was actually formed.

I don’t believe the Creation started from nothing. In describing the Earth as “without form and void,” (Genesis 1:2) why should we assume the void of space? I’m not an etymologist, but I’m pretty sure the term “void” has not meant a vacuum until fairly recently, historically speaking. I interpret it, therefore as “empty” or “without purpose.” Without form, I interpret as being in a state of raw materials. So, in my opinion, the earliest the Creation would have started in terms of the “days” was well after the formation of the planet.

I should probably also say that the “days” are a pretty arbitrary construct. In the LDS Church, they are sometimes referred to as the “creative periods.” It is also my understanding that the original Hebrew word does not translate directly into “day” and also supports the “period” interpretation. So, with these assumptions changed, we’re suddenly looking at a scenario that can be reconciled with science; the Earth was formed from raw materials over a (really long) period of time.

The first thing God does is the creation of light and the separation of it from the darkness. What does this mean? If we take “light” and “darkness” as symbols, meaning jumps out. He separated the good from the bad. He was an engineer and this was the design phase of the project. He defined the purpose, created a plan and organized his resources.

Following on the same train of thought, on the second and fourth “days” He created the foundation and infrastructure for the project. There is a lot here that I don’t understand. Why does he have to create Heaven? What do the waters symbolize? How could plants have possibly come before the sun and moon? I suspect that all of this is symbolic more than literal, still. I’d love to hear ideas on this.

The first living things created are plants. This makes sense, of course given that all energy for life has to come from the sun and plants are how that light energy is converted to chemical energy, thereby making it available to other organisms in the food chain.

The next life created is in the seas and the birds. I’m also not a paleontologist, so I don’t know when birds came along in the evolutionary chain of events relative to land animals.. It could be their mention here is more symbolic, placing them “below” the land animals. Or perhaps it’s just for narrative convenience in order to leave the sixth day for land creatures.

In any event, the sequence of things is similar enough to the evolution that occurred according to the current understanding of the history of life on this world that I do not feel any contradiction of the scientific understanding of things, including the theory of evolution. It certainly does not imply evolution, nor does evolution support the exact narrative supplied, but when we are looking at this from a less literal perspective, the apparent conflict turns into harmony. It is my belief that God used his knowledge and power to cause evolution.

I would also point out that believing that God guided evolution makes evolution itself a stronger theory. According to the second law of thermodynamics, all closed systems gradually decay into a state of the lowest possible energy, in other words, into their most disorganized state. Evolution from random amino acids to single-celled life to human is in direct opposition to this law. Evolutionists will typically tell you this is because the Earth is not a closed system – the sun provides energy for this transformation. Yes, it is true that if you build a solar oven, and put cake batter in it, you can bake a cake. However, if you leave the batter in the sun indefinitely, it won’t turn into cake, it will dry out, and turn into dust. The solar oven and knowledge of when the cake is done is a critical element. Random changes to genomes is far more likely to result in a species’ extinction than its survival. Without God guiding it, evolution does not make sense.

So, the Creation story all leads up to the creation of the human being, and similarly, the most evolutionarily advanced species on the Earth is the human being. Humans are the supreme product of both processes. Of all the species on this planet, only people have the capacity to significantly and willfully alter our environment. Many will tell you this a trait that evolved in us. I, obviously, believe it was it God-given.

I would further argue that it makes more logical sense to believe that our difference from other species is due to our relationship to God, than it is attribute it to evolution. Scientists have studied this a great deal, and have had many theories as to what sets Homo sapien apart from other animals. They once believed it was opposable thumbs which allowed the use of tools. Many other animals have since been documented to use tools. Others postulate that language is the key differentiator. However, many modern studies have shown many animals have a significant ability to use language. There have been other theories, too, but none have achieved broad general acceptance.

On the other hand, if you accept that God made us above the animals you have a new set of possible hypotheses. I’ve heard that some Christian faiths believes Humans are the only life forms with a soul or spirit. The LDS Church teaches that all living things have a spirit, so we can’t rely on that. You could also theorize that it is because God is our Father. That answers the question, but is not terribly specific. I would assert that the difference is that of free will, or as the Church calls it, agency. We are the only living things with the power to make our own decisions and decide our own fate. Animals are bound by their instinct, training and environment.

To sum up, God had a plan. He organized the world in order to create human beings. He guided and controlled natural processes in his creation. It is no less miraculous thus explained, just more real.

So, this gets us through the literal creation. What do you think? I think I’m going to stop here for now and take on the symbolism in yet a 3rd part.