Saturday, September 26, 2009

On Faith: The Parable of Quartus

There once was an old man who had four servants, whom he wished to reward before his death. So he gathered the servants around him and told them of a great treasure that he had placed in a keep in a far country. He had the servants pack his belongings and lift him into his chair. As they journeyed he told them of the wondrous things he had in store and the measures he had taken to protect them. He told them of jewels and gold, silver and pearls, and of great collections of books, all the wisdom amassed since the world began. He told them of the walls and pits, obstacles and traps, and wild beasts that surrounded his storehouse. Some he had placed to keep his treasure safe, others had been placed by his enemies to prevent anyone from reaching the treasure; still others, because of the harshness of the land, existed naturally.

Soon the party crested a hill, and spread out in the valley below them they could see a large wall stretching east and west from horizon to horizon and behind it a dark forest, and far off, almost to the northern horizon, they saw the keep where the Master had stored his treasure.

As they journeyed down into the valley they quickly lost sight of the keep. Then they lost sight of the forest as the wall began to fill their view. For days they traveled, and the wall continued to grown in their vision. As they approached the base of the wall, the top became lost in haze above them. Soon they came to the single gate, the height of a man and just wide enough for one person to pass through.

“Now my servants, we have come to a place where I can go no further. From here you must travel alone. It will take three days’ journey to pass through the wall, and inside the wall the trees have grown so tall and so thick that most often it will be too dark to see. I give each of you a gift: I have traveled these paths many times in my younger days and so I can guide you, if you will let me. If you need my direction just ask and the wind will carry your words to me and it will carry my words back to you. As you pass through this gate continue in the same direction and the keep will be directly ahead”

The first servant entered through the gate. As he walked the way began to grow dark and as it grew dark the servant began to be afraid, and as his fear grew he slowed down. The more fear he felt the slower he walked until finally he stopped altogether.

“What is this place? I’ve not even made it through the wall and already it is too dark to see. I will be killed by something I cannot see before I can even begin the journey. The old man is crazy, nothing is worth this.” And he turned around and left.

When he reached the others he told them of his conclusions and tried to talk the other servants out of making the journey. But they refused and the first servant left.

The second servant listened to the words of the first and said to the Master:

“I trust you – I know that you love us and so would never send us some place that could cause us harm.” And he began his journey down the tunnel to the forest. After a time he too began to be afraid. As he journeyed through the dark he thought about calling to his Master, but decided that the Master’s instruction had been given: “Continue down the tunnel and straight on to your reward.” The darkness must a test, he decided and so, to avoid the unnerving sensation of walking in the dark while unable to see, he closed his eyes, faced his goal, and ran. He left the tunnel at a jog, with his eyes tightly shut. As he ran he became more and more confident. The more confident he became the tighter he squeezed his eyes shut and the faster he ran until he was running faster than he ever had, when, without notice, he ran off the edge of a pit and he was crushed on the rocks below.

The Master and the other two waited for many months for the second servant, but he didn’t return, and the Master said that he had never called. And so they presumed that he would not return.

The third servant began his journey down the tunnel. He too was unnerved by the dark and closed his eyes, but unlike the second servant he was carful to keep his hand on the tunnel wall. After days of travel he felt the tunnel end on each side of him. It was still too dark to see so he called to his Master to ask for direction. Faintly, faintly on the wind came the Master’s reply. And the second servant took one step forward. He called for is Master and again the reply, and one more step. Call, reply, step, call, reply, step. For days and weeks this went on: prior to each step the servant would check with the Master and do exactly what the Master had told him to do. He made it further and further into the forest, much further that the second servant. He avoided obstacles, scaled walls and was directed around pitfalls and traps. But soon he began to hear another faint voice on the wind. At first it told him the same things that his Master was telling him, so similar were the voices that servant could not tell them apart. Soon one of voices began to get a little louder and other voice began to fade, and the servant found that when he listened to the louder voice the way was easier and when he listened to the fainter voice the way was difficult. “I am getting better and discerning my Master’s voice.” he told himself. And so he began to follow the louder voice and as he did it became easier and easier to hear, and his confidence increased, and the path became easier and easier to follow. Until the loud voice led the servant into a den of lions where he was torn to pieces.

The fourth servant began his journey down the tunnel. He too was discomforted by the dark, but unlike the other servants he kept his eyes open. He too kept his hand on the tunnel wall; he too called to his Master when the tunnel opened up. But his question was different. Instead of asking his Master which way to go, he asked him how to make a light.


The Master provided an answer, and so the fourth servant stopped for many days and fashioned a light as his Master directed him. This light let him see his way through the forest. The fourth servant’s trek was still difficult. He still encountered the counterfeit voice that attempted to lead him into danger, but when the attempts came, because the servant had his eyes open and had light to see, the counterfeit was never able to fool him for long. At times he found himself in new situations, facing obstacles he had not encountered before, at these times he would call for his Master and ask for tools rather than step by step instructions. Then he carried these tools him for the next time he encountered a similar obstacle. And as he went on the light allowed him to see similarities between obstacles before him and those he confronted in the past and he was able to use the tools he had fashioned in the past or, if he needed to, would request instructions to forge new tools. Because he had a light he was able to make better time and was more alert for the most difficult problems. Occasionally he would come to the top of a rise and find himself in a clearing from which he could, for a moment, catch a glimpse of his goal. But most often he trudged through the dark guided only by his light, his past experience, and the voice of his Master carried softly on the breeze. Until after many months of travel he walked into a clearing to find himself standing at the foot of the keep that contained the treasure his Master had promised.

A response to comments

First why respond as a new post? Because it is fun that way, also it is a good way to keep the discussion at the top of the page so to speak.

Unsurprisingly there were a number of comments on my Gay Marriage post. Hopefully I can address some of them here.

First several of you cautioned me to show tolerance even to intolerant Church members. I could not agree more. Everyone has weaknesses and one of the great things about being in a large organization is that we are exposed to others’ weaknesses and strengths. Intolerance is definitely a weakness (and it just happens to be one of very few that drives me up the wall.) Tolerance however is one of those principles that must be handled with care, it should never be confused with condoning bad behavior, nor should it be a reason for staying silent in the face of destructive behavior. What it means is that disagreements should be handled with respect for, and charity towards, those you are in disagreement with, not silence. Tolerance of the intolerant means that I accept that they are children of God, as I am, and are in need of the atonement of Christ, as I am, and that they are deserving of my love. It does not mean that intolerance masquerading as righteousness should remain unchallenged or unnamed.

Several of you recommended that I read the interview with Elder Oaks and Elder Wickman. I have several times, in fact I linked to it in my post and it was one of my main sources of information on the Church’s position on gay marriage. This interview I think address the easy to moderately difficult questions about the Church’s position on homosexual behavior in general (this was a pleasant surprise to me because I expected an interview of Church officials by a Church reporter to only ask the easy questions.) The discussion on gay marriage is several years old at least (the first time I saw it was when the amendment to the U.S. Constitution was proposed.) The interview really only states the belief that accepting gay marriage is a threat to the institution of marriage because it would redefine it (an argument that mostly leads nowhere because the real question isn’t should we redefine marriage but is the new definition better or worse than the old one.) Its main contribution is that it defines the threat as against the institution, not individual marriages. It is in the statement on Prop 8 that the Church more clearly explains why it believes such a redefinition is a problem. And I believe that the reason laid out in the post accurately reflects that position. (If you still think otherwise please let me know what the other reasons are, I really would like to know.)

The interview with Elder Oaks and Elder Wickman I believe was intended primarily as a statement of religious belief, not policy. That is not true for the statement on Prop 8. That statement is an argument made in an attempt to change public policy. And as such it would have been more effective had it been addressed to a wider audience or helped give Church members the tools to talk to a wider audience. The statement was written in such a way that it sounded like an attempt to show the rightness of the Church’s position, but because of the way it mixed the religious and secular reasoning it could not be used in any attempt to persuade a fence-sitter or someone who was in disagreement. It could only reinforce the beliefs of those who already agreed with it. In other words, I could not send it to someone who was not already a Mormon and did not already believe in the Church's teachings and position to that statement and expect them to come away convinced.

This ties into the comment made by Anonymous at 7:06. I have no problem combining secular reasoning with religious belief— in fact I think that it is vital! The point I was making when I talked about the intermingling of the two making the statement useless was not that intermingling was wrong or that the Church was wrong to do it. The point was that it made the statement unusable as a tool to promote public policy. If we want to impact national (or state policy) it cannot be based on religious reasons- that would cause the state to become an instrument of religious enforcement. It can only be based on universally demonstrable truths. Take smoking as an example. If the only reason that we can give for not smoking is that God said not to do it, then those who believe can use that belief to govern their own behavior, but they cannot use it as reason to have the government force people who do not believe to change their behavior. If, on the other hand, we can do an objective study and show that secondhand smoke increases other people’s risk for lung cancer then we can make a strong case for banning smoking in public places. The same holds true for gay marriage. If the only reason for homosexuals not to marry is that God said not to, that is insufficient grounds for using the government to prevent them from marrying. If, on the other hand, it can be objectively shown that gay marriage would be harmful to society (not very likely) or that unique recognition of heterosexual marriage would benefit society (much more likely) then that would be sufficient grounds on which to base public policy.

Carrie: about Elder Wickman’s statement. Your question brings along with it a lot of assumptions. First, doctrinally what he is saying is an interpolation (and a very logical one) from our current state of knowledge about the pre- and post- earth life, it is not revelation. As far as I can recall, nowhere in scripture is this taught. There have been other times in the history of the church when ideas were taught that were then overturned as new revelation came forward. One that relates specifically to the pre-mortal life was the teaching that people of African decent were fence sitters in the war in heaven (they refused to support Christ, but didn’t join with Satan either) and thus withholding the priesthood from them was justified. This teaching has now been specifically condemned as false by Elder Holland. Similar situations can be found regarding other doctrines, such as polygamy or the changing of the temple ceremonies. My point is that there is always the possibility that the Lord could provide us with additional knowledge that would overturn earlier assumptions, just like what has happened in the past. Also, let’s be clear in what I was saying, I was not declaring that someone who engages in homosexual behavior will be in one of the lower levels of the Celestial Kingdom, only that that is one possible way that I can see that God could allow for homosexual marriage, without needing to overturn the idea that a continuation of posterity in the next life requires men and women working together in an eternal marriage. I’m sure there are other ways and I’m sure that if that’s the way He’s going God’s already got it all figured out.

John and Pamela: I think you have touched on one of the great (and not entirely unjustified) fears of the religious right with this issue. There are some gay rights activists who are attempting to use the government to force changes in religious doctrine. Just because someone is on the political left does not make them a liberal.

Anonymous at 7:33: Thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog, and for leaving comments! (I’m not being sarcastic, I really am glad you took the time to read!) I have seen many members of the Church with similar beliefs about the incompatibility of Mormonism, Liberalism and Democratic politics. In fact that is one of the reasons why I decided to start this blog. In my experience the belief that Liberalism and Mormonism are incompatible stems from one of several things: a misunderstanding of Mormon teachings, belief and doctrine, or a misunderstanding of Liberalism, or some combination of these. One of my goals is to help correct those misunderstandings. Because you are anonymous I can’t really speak to your level of understanding of Mormonism, as to your understanding of liberalism- let me use an analogy.

I assume that at some point you have stumbled across descriptions of our church and faith made by enemies of Mormonism. Not just people who are ignorant, but people whose goal it is to tear down the Church and our people. They tell outright lies, and they twist the truth so hard it turns into a lie. Such statements aren’t really all that dangerous to those who know the truth; we see them for what they are. Imagine, however, that all you had ever heard about the Church had either been filtered by or explained by its enemies. What would your opinion of the Church be then? If all I knew about the Church came from its enemies I surely would think it was a terrible organization and I’d want nothing to do with it. The same holds true for political discourse. So many people have gotten their entire understanding of liberalism from the conservative media, people like Limbaugh, Beck, and Savage. These people make millions by making conservatives angry at liberals. If you’re not angry they’re not getting their ratings. People like this are a very bad place to get information about what liberals believe. If all I knew about liberalism was from these sources I would not believe that it was compatible with Mormon belief. Fortunately, for conservatives, these guys have just about talked themselves to the point where their silliness is almost universally apparent (death camps for the elderly, from Democrats the defenders of the defenseless and the authors of Medicare? How much more ridiculous can you get?) Hopefully for conservatives real leaders will start to emerge soon. My point is that if all you’ve ever heard about Liberals and Democrats is from people like this or has been explained to you or framed for you by people like this then you don’t actually have any real idea what it is we believe.

I hope that you will take the time to browse back through some of my older posts (I did several posts that dealt with liberalism on a general level rather then on an issue specific level.) Also helpful would be to read about Harry Reid (Democratic Senator from Nevada, Senate Majority Leader and active Church member.) He said that he believed that it was easier to reconcile Democratic values with Church teachings then Republican ones. President James E. Faust (former member of the First Presidency) was a Democrat and served in the Kennedy administration. Elder Marlin K. Jensen (a current member of the Quorum of the Seventy) is also a Democrat. In fact “On April 22, 1998, Jensen was sent by the First Presidency to give an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune in reaction to a recent First Presidency statement and to explicitly state that someone could be a devout Mormon and a member of the Democratic Party.” (from the Wikipedia article on Elder Jensen and footnoted to a transcript of the interview) Further back in the past Elder Marion G. Romney (former member of the First Presidency) served in the Utah state legislature as a Democrat.

I’m with Harry Reid; I think it is much easier to combine Mormon beliefs with Democratic liberal beliefs then with Republican conservative ones. Although I would be thrilled if I was able to convince some people of the value of Liberalism, I’d be quite satisfied with increasing their level of understanding of the issues and helping them to see that despite what Rush Limbaugh and his cronies say Liberalism is not a synonym for evil.

Anonymous at 7:06: I addressed the main body of your comment above. As for the PS, I would be careful about arbitrarily placing limits on God. From what I can tell the only limits on God are those imposed universally by Justice, Mercy, and Love. I would recommend taking a little time to study the history of polygamy in the Church. Remember than many people define marriage as only between ONE man and ONE woman and thus marriage to a second women while still married to the first is not valid and thus adulterous. Adultery is exactly what Joseph Smith was accused of by his detractors. In essence, the Lord allowed for a time what many people believe was adultery.