Sunday, July 10, 2011

Thoughts on the 4th of July

“The possibility of coherent community action is diminished today by the deep mutual suspicions and antagonisms among various groups in our national life.

"As these antagonisms become more intense, the pathology is much the same. . . . The ingredients are, first, a deep conviction on the part of the group as to its own limitless virtue or the overriding sanctity of its cause; second, grave doubts concerning the moral integrity of all others; third, a chronically aggrieved feeling that power has fallen into the hands of the unworthy (that is, the hands of others). . . .

"Political extremism involves two prime ingredients: An excessively simple diagnosis of the world's ills and a conviction that there are identifiable villains back of it all. . . . Blind belief in one's cause and a low view of the morality of other Americans--these seem mild failings. But they are the soil in which ranker weeds take root . . . terrorism, and the deep, destructive cleavages that paralyze a society.”

-Hugh B Brown quoting John Gardner. From an address given to the BYU student body on May 13, 1969, when Hugh B. Brown was First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jeusus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

“If I say to an American that the country he lives in is a fine one, aye he replies and there is not its equal in the world. If I applaud the freedom its inhabitants enjoy he answers ‘freedom is a fine thing but few nations are worthy of it.’ If I remark on the purity of morals that distinguishes the United State he declares ‘I can imagine that a stranger who has witnessed the corruption which prevails in other nations would be astonished at the difference.’ At length I leave him to a contemplation of himself. But he returns to the charge and does not desist until he has got me to repeat all I have been saying. It is impossible to conceive of a more troublesome and garrulous patriotism.

-Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835

“[There] are…perils which can be understood only if we realize the ironic tendency of virtues to turn into vices when too complacently relied upon; and of power to become vexatious if the wisdom which directs it is trusted too confidently. The ironic elements in American history can be overcome, in short, only if American idealism comes to terms with the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historic configurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue. America’s moral and spiritual success in relating itself creatively to a world community requires, not so much a guard against the gross vices, about which the idealists warn us, as a reorientation of the whole structure of our idealism. That idealism is too oblivious of the ironic perils to which human virtue, wisdom and power are subject. It is too certain that there is a straight path toward the goal of human happiness; too confident of the wisdom and idealism which prompt men and nations toward that goal; and too blind to the curious compounds of good and evil in which the actions of the best men and nations abound.

“A too confident sense of justice always leads to injustice…Genuine community, whether between men or nations, is not established merely through the realization that we need one another, though indeed we do. That realization alone may still allow the strong to use the lives of the weaker as instruments of their own self-realization. Genuine community is established only when the knowledge that we need one another is supplemented by the recognition that the “the other,” that other form of life, or that other unique community, is the limit beyond which our ambitions must not run and the boundary beyond which our life must not expand.

“In the present situation even the sanest of our statesmen have found it convenient to conform their policies to the public temper of fear and hatred which the most vulgar of our politicians have generated or exploited…Constant proof is required that the foe is hated with sufficient vigor. Unfortunately the only persuasive proof seems to be the disavowal of precisely those discriminating judgments which are so necessary for an effective conflict with the evil, which we are supposed to abhor. There is no simple triumph over this spirit of fear and hatred. It is certainly an achievement beyond the resources of a simple idealism. For na├»ve idealist are always so preoccupied with their own virtues that they have no residual awareness of the common characteristics in all human foibles and frailties and could not bear to be reminded that there is a hidden kinship between the vices of even the most vicious and the virtues of even the most upright.

“There is irony in the Biblical history as well as in Biblical admonitions. Christ is crucified by the priests of the purest religion of his day and by the minions of the justest, the Roman Law. The fanaticism of the priests is the fanaticism of all good men, who do not know that they are not as good as they esteem themselves. The complacence of Pilate represents the moral mediocrity of all communities, however just. They cannot distinguish between a criminal and the Savior because each violates the laws and customs which represent some minimal order, too low for the Savior and too high for the criminal.

“We…as all “God-fearing” men of all ages, are never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire. Even the most “Christian” civilization and even the most pious church must be reminded that the true God can be know only where there is some awareness of a contradiction between divine and human purposes, even on the highest level of human aspirations.

“…[I]f we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”

--Reinhold Niebuhr in The Irony Of American History, 1952

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Theological Interlude 01: Imperfection and the Atonement

Recently my mind has been in a more explicitly theological place rather that political (don’t worry I’ll get back to politics soon.) So, for the next little bit, I’m going to focus on more “spiritual” things (whatever that means.) These may not seem directly political or liberal, but it is these spiritual teachings that inform my values, including (and perhaps especially) my politics and my embrace of a liberal world view. If you want know why I’m liberal and what that means to me perhaps this and future ruminations may help.

Christ told Peter that “Satan hath desired to have you, that he may shift you as wheat.” The same can be said for any of us. Like the ancient farmers that sat and shifted the wheat to separate it from the chaff it is Satan’s goal to separate us from our Father in Heaven and the Love of Christ.

I worry that we underestimate the cleverness and the subtleness with which the Deceiver goes about his work of attempting to separate us from God.

In the Book of Mormon the Prophets Lehi and Nephi each had similar dreams. In their dreams they saw the Tree of Life and wanted all of their family to come and sit with them and eat the fruit that they found growing there. But as they looked for their family they saw that everything was covered with a mist of darkness and yet in that curious way of dreams they were able to discern a guiderail leading through the darkness to the Tree of Life. They also saw a terrible ravine with a dangerous river at the bottom, and, within shouting distance of the Tree, they saw a building which they described as “great and spacious.” They saw many people pushing forward in attempt to get to the Tree of Life, but they also saw many others push forward in an attempt to get to the building, which Nephi was told represents “the pride of the world.” Then they saw this building collapse destroying all that were in it.

Of course we need to stay clear of this “great and spacious building.” But one of the things that Satan wants us to forget is this: It doesn’t matter to him where we end up so long as it isn’t the Tree of Life. He doesn’t care if we end-up in his supposedly great and spacious building, drowned in the river, or just wandering aimlessly through the dark, any of those would suite him just as well. It is his goal to keep us from the Tree of Life which is the Love of God.

As a church community we are very good at understanding that sin can lead us way from the Love of God and to places that will ultimately prove, like the building in Lehi’s dream, to be without foundation. But we are not always so good at recognizing that there are other tricks that the deceiver uses to separate us from God.

It strikes me as both ironic and cleaver that for Satan to get maximum benefit from his great and spacious building he has to place it within shouting distance of the Tree of Life. And so it is with many of the more subtle tricks that he plays on us. Some of the deceits of Satan will only work against good, faithful members of the church. He twists our desire to reach the Tree of Life into a hyper-awareness of the “great and spacious building”, and thus we turn our efforts from seeking God to avoiding Satan. He makes us fear his “great and spacious building” so much that we let go the guiding words of the Lord and end up wandering lost in the dark, unable, to find the Love of God. He works hard to turn our righteousness into a snare and to use our understanding of the commandments against us to push us beyond the mark.

Although Satan has many such specialized lures in his tool kit I want to touch on just one. Remember, his goal is to separate us from God anyway he can. And so he works to get us to believe that we are unworthy of God’s love or his help. If he is successful in getting us to believe that because we are imperfect, or that because we have sinned, or are weak in some way, we are unworthy of the love of God, then he can prevented us from using the very tools that the Lord has provided for us to us heal from our shortcomings. If he can convince us that we are unworthy of the promptings of the Spirit of the Lord then we may not hear those promptings when we are buffeted by temptation and need them most. If he can convince us that our weakness disqualifies us from the Atonement, then he has denied us the only tool that can overcome that weakness.

During the time of the Apostle Paul there were many followers of God who believed that it was possible to “obey” their way into heaven. In fact, prior to his conversion Paul was one of these. But Paul learned that this is just not possible, we can not be righteous enough to be saved on our own merits. His letter to the Romans was written to help those that where struggling with this false belief understand the True doctrine of the Atonement. In chapter 3 verses 10 and 12 he quotes from the Old Testament when he says: “There is none righteous no not one…They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good no, not one.” And in verse 23: “…all have sinned and, come short of the Glory of God.” We cannot earn our way into heave by our own works of righteousness for as King Benjamin tells us in Mosiah “…[the Lord] doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him and are and will be forever and ever; therefore of what have ye to boast?...Can ye say aught of yourselves? I answerer you Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth.”

If God where to require us to be without sin before receiving the Holy Ghost, receiving revelation, or receiving forgiveness, then no one would feel the Spirit, receive revelation, or be forgiven. No one would be saved and nothing would ever have been able to be reveled. Satan’s attempt to get us to believe that our human weakness disqualifies us from the Spirit of the Lord is an effort to deprive us of the very tools we need to overcome, or transcend that weakness. He wants us to believe that we need to perfect ourselves before we can qualify for the blessings of heaven and then sits back and laughs as we fail at the impossible task that he has set before us.

Unlike Satan, the Lord doesn’t place before us impossible tasks. The Lord knows and understands the effects of the fall. He knows that we will fall short of the standards that he has set for us, and of the standards that we set for ourselves. He knows about the briars, thorns, and noxious weeds. And so he provided a way for us to transcend our struggles. He provided us with our Savior.

Satan wants us to believe that to qualify for the help of the Lord we need to be perfect, but the Lord teaches that to be perfect we first need his help. In other words we need his help now, before we are perfect, before we “repent,” before we change. It is the Atonement that allows us to change. This is what Paul was talking about in his letter to the Saints at Ephesus when he said: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.”

Do we need to qualify for the Atonement? Of course, but we need to understand the qualifications as revealed by Lord. The Prophet Lehi in speaking to his son Jacob taught about qualifications and the Atonement this way: “Behold [Christ] offereth himself a as sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.”

In other words the Atonement of Christ becomes effective, not after we have fixed ourselves, but once we have shown a desire to do be fixed-even though we may lack the capacity or skills needed to make the corrections ourselves. When our desire is sincere, the power of the Atonement can cleanse us of sin and guilt and can help us through the process of healing. He can help us carry our loads and he can help us to grow and develop the skills we need in order to become increasingly like him. We do not have to do this alone, we don’t need to struggle by ourselves, or worry that we are not doing enough. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, complained of a thorn in his flesh which he had begged the Lord to remove. The Lord responded, not by removing the thorn but by telling him: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

We don’t need mountains of faith to move mountains. As Alma taught the Zoramites, sometimes all we need to start is only a desire to believe, and by letting that desire work in us we can turn our hearts to Christ and he can heal us. The gospel of Mark tells of man who brought his son to Christ to be healed. The savior told him that if he believed then his son could be healed. “And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” That was enough- the Savior healed his son.

Satan will do anything he can to separate us from God. He will miss-quote and miss-use the scriptures and teachings of the Prophets. Like the friends of Job sometimes the carriers of his messages of despair may be well intentioned, but misinformed people close to us, whose misguided attempts at comfort, add to, rather lighten our burdens.

Do not be deceived, Christ’s grace is sufficient for you. Embrace it now and then work with Christ to be healed. As long as you are moving toward him he will be with you however small your steps and however long it takes, until he has perfected you in and through his Grace.