About Corazon

Friday, December 28, 2012

"Help Thou My Unbelief:" My Journey Through Mormonism

In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Mark we learn of a father whose son was afflicted with a "dumb spirit" that caused the child to violently convulse, foam at the mouth and seek death via fire or drowning (some sort of mental illness?). The father, who had already desperately asked Christ's apostles for help, but were unsuccessful in their attempts to assist the young lad, turned to Jesus in his darkest moment of need. After explaining the situation to the Lord, and pleading for his help, Jesus replied to the father that "If thou canst believe, all things are possible." The father, perhaps hoping to hide his frustration and apparent lack of faith, quickly replied "Lord, I believe." But after pausing, or perhaps perceiving that Jesus could sense his lack of faith, the father finally came clean and implored the Lord to "help thou my unbelief." Instead of condemning the young father for his deficiency of faith, or haranguing him on the importance of steadfast devotion, Christ took the father's son into his arms and rebuked the spirit from him, making the child (and almost as certain his father) whole for the very first time.

This "routine" act of kindness on the part of Jesus is common throughout the New Testament. Whether it be those afflicted with leprosy, blindness or "evil" spirits, thousands of faithful believers sought the Christ if for nothing more than to touch the hem of his garment, sincerely believing that such an act would cure them of their frailties. And more times than not, the faith of the afflicted made them whole. When I read these stories I grow to admire the unshakable faith of those who never wavered in their quest for Christ. They are to be applauded for their remarkable allegiance to the King of Kings in the face of tremendous personal difficulty.

And while I recognize the worth of these miraculous accounts, I personally find the story of the frantic, faithless father in Mark 9 to be of particular value. Not because I too have a son suffering from an incurable infirmity, nor have I made personal appeals for aid to God's chosen apostles. I love the frantic father because I too, while cowering in the coldest corners of my own soul, have implored of the Lord not for personal healing or spiritual blessings, but rather, in the naked honesty of my own shortcomings, I have issued this simple petition:

"Help thou my unbelief."

For those who know me, this admission may come as a bit of a surprise. Throughout the majority of my life, I suppose that I appeared very much like the typical "True Blue" Mormon. I attended church, graduated from Seminary, served an honorable two-year mission, married in the temple, served in the church, yadda, yadda, yadda. By all accounts I was very much on the path of "persevering to the end." But as is often the case with life, perception distorts reality and the truth really is stranger than fiction. Reality is that I have, for roughly a decade now, struggled mightily with my faith. It has been one of the most difficult things I have ever had to deal with. To make matters worse, it seems as though the Internet and other media outlets these days are filled with stories of people who have left the church, while the tales of those who have chosen to stay can be hard to find. Perhaps this is due to the fact that many members who have struggled with faith are reluctant to admit so, since some within the church choose to look down upon those who admit to having a crisis of faith. Whatever the reason, I too have been reluctant to "own up" to my own personal crisis of faith, but have chosen to "come out" here and now, in the hopes that my story might be a source of peace or hope to friends, family, eventual descendants and even strangers who tread the sometimes turbulent waters of doubt. To borrow from Enos of the Book of Mormon, "I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God."

With this being said, I must admit that my personal "wrestle" with the Lord has not ended with a profound heavenly manifestation, a voice from on high or any other from of absolute personal conviction. Instead, I have had to learn how to find solace in the ambiguous nature of faith itself and in the desolate gift (and yes, it is a gift) of honest doubt and uncertainty. What follows is my personal story of struggle and striving with the divine. Please note that you will not find a happy conclusion to my tale because this struggle is still ongoing with no apparent end on the horizon.  But instead of looking for that conclusion, I have found that it isn't a glorious end in sight that we should seek for, but rather simply finding joy in the journey.  I believe that this is what my story is ultimately about.  I have elected to not discuss the particular historical/theological issues that caused my crisis of faith, simply because I don't want to create doubt in others or to come across as "bashing" the Mormon church. In reality, I believe that the specifics are irrelevant, since a crisis of faith can be the result of any number of factors. The compelling matter at hand is how one chooses to deal with the crisis when it comes. Here is how my particular crisis played out:

My Faith Crisis

My crisis of faith began almost immediately after returning home from my mission to northern Chile. Like many return missionaries I decided to begin college (where I chose to study history) and attended my local single's ward and Institute program. As fate would have it, one of the courses I was taking on early American history discussed Mormonism in a way that I had never before heard. I remember listening to my instructor talk about some of the particulars regarding the origins of Mormonism and wanting to call my professor out for his "ignorance." I would leave class feeling angry, confused and determined to prove my teacher wrong. But as I studied the details further, I quickly began to realize that my professor wasn't making stuff up. Of course he may have left out a lot of the "meat and potatoes" of Mormonism from his lecture (this was an introductory class on American history so he couldn't dwell on it too long) but the gist of his argument was sound. As you can imagine, this revelation hit me hard. I immediately wanted to find credible answers that didn't come from "cookie-cutter" Mormon sources, so that I could refute what my professor was saying. But the more I studied, the deeper the proverbial rabbit hole went. I quickly found myself surrounded by mounting evidence that seemed to oppose the very church I had defended during my two-year mission.

Perhaps it was mere coincidence, but the class I had immediately following this particular American history course was Institute. Needless to say, it was an interesting experience to juxtapose what I was hearing from school with what I was being taught in Institute. The two were not agreeing and something had to give. In an effort to come to a resolution on the matter, I began to "conveniently" show up at the Institute building at a time when I knew the instructor would be alone in his office. I would then start up a conversation on Mormon history and would make certain comments that drove at the heart of my growing concerns. The institute director, who I believe really was an inspired man, could tell that I was beginning to question things, but to my surprise he didn't offer me the typical Mormon solutions to these problems. Instead of telling me to pray or fast about things, he provided me with copies of No Man Knows My History, Mormon Enigma, and other books that are well known for their emphasis on the less-than-pleasant aspects of Mormon history. To make a very long story short, these experiences started me down a path which led to my discovering virtually all of the ugly facts of Mormon history.

Side Note:
***I think it is worth noting here that my crisis of faith had NOTHING to do with some sort of personal sin or having been offended by a member of the church. Too often we Mormons assume that anyone who leaves or questions the church does so for these and other trivial issues. And though I am certain that many do leave for those reasons, I also know that many do not. Every day scores of good, honest and virtuous people leave the church for the very issues I am talking about here. These are real, factual and undeniable truths that are often extremely painful when discovered by the sincere believer.***

Over the next decade or so I kept my doubts private and chose to continue down the path of a "righteous" Mormon believer.  I held callings, attended the temple and did the other "dutiful" things that were required of me.  But the doubts lingered, like an itch on your back that you just can't quite reach.  Regardless of the doubt, I was able to effectively keep these issues on the back shelf of my mind, perhaps hoping that they would go away or that a magical answer would reveal itself as I continued down the straight and narrow path.

But the answers didn't come and the itch kept getting worse.  Fast forward to 2011.  I had recently completed my Master's Degree in history, writing a number of papers on Mormon history and always seeking to defend the church in each of them. But lurking in the private confines of my mind were those same issues that had plagued me for a decade. To make matters worse, I had nobody in which I felt I could confide. My dad, who was himself a big history buff, had died, as had the institute director that I had trusted in the past. I was hesitant to bring this stuff up with others because, as any devout Mormon will tell you, to publicly acknowledge one's questioning of the faith can lead to a number of problems. In addition, I had made the determination that I would NEVER be the cause of somebody else questioning their faith. The dark abyss of doubt and uncertainty can be lonely, ugly and incredibly depressing. I didn't want to introduce anyone to it.

For the first time I began to consider the possibility that I (and every other believing Mormon) had been duped into believing in a fraudulent faith concocted by the cunning of Joseph Smith's mind. This was a horrific thought to consider. After all, I had staked my entire personal tent of eternal salvation on the grounds of Mormonism. If this wasn't true, what was going to become of me? Was my family really eternal? Were my missionary efforts in vain? Were the ugly historical truths about Mormonism being covertly swept away in an effort to "perfect the saints?" "Was there even a God?"  If so, I needed to know. I didn't want to waste any more of my time, energy and money supporting a work of fiction, and I needed more than a "warm fuzzy" to answer these legitimate concerns. 

But as my mind continued to consider what I believed was a rational and objective approach to the history of Mormonism, my heart (or soul) was on a different journey. Despite all the ugly things I had learned, I could also recall the feelings of peace, love, community, joy, service, charity, sincerity and holiness that had been the result of my membership in the church. These feelings were every bit as real to me as the history I had been learning. They were the feelings that made me love going to church, want to serve a mission and attend the temple. I agreed with President Hinckley when he said that Mormonism makes "bad men good and good men better."  But were these positive feelings simply the result of happy endorphins firing off in my brain? Did I love the church simply because I loved the feeling of belonging? Something had to give. The objectivity of my mind was telling me one thing, while the sincerity of my heart said something different. What was I to do? There was only one thing I could do. Like the frantic father before me, I too had but four simple words to utter to God:

"Help Thou My Unbelief."

And though I knew darn well that God wasn't going to rewrite history, nor was he going to give me my own personal Angel Moroni to sort it all out, I do feel as though this crisis of faith has taught me some key truths that I am forever grateful for.  They are:

1.) Doubt, Like Faith, is a Gift, Not a Curse: As Doctrine and Covenants 46: 11-14 teaches us:
For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God.  To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby. To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.  To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.
It is a mistake of Mormon culture (and there are MANY mistakes in Mormon culture) to quantify doubt with sin or error.  Doubt can be a powerful force for good in the world.  It is both right and proper that we humans question EVERYTHING about the world in which we live. I firmly believe that one of the greatest purposes of this life is to learn as much as we possibly can.  How is this to be accomplished without sincere doubt?  Is not doubt the primary ingredient to the scientific method? How can one possibly exercise faith unless he/she also has doubt?  As Joseph Smith himself taught, "By proving contraries, truth is made manifest" (History of the Church, vol. 6, Pp. 428).  Honest doubt is every bit as important as honest faith. Don't ever feel bad for questioning things. 

But as is the case with all things (the law of opposition), doubt can also destroy faith if taken to an extreme.  Much like peanut butter and jelly, we need equal and healthy doses of both faith and doubt to make the perfect sandwich.  In his book, The God Who Weeps (a book which everyone should read) Terryl Givens aptly illustrates the importance of both faith and doubt when he writes:
The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true and which we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true.  There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief, in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore the more deliberate, and laden with personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads. The option to believe must appear on one’s personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension. Fortunately, in this world, one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our egos. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance.  
The call to faith, in this light, is not some test of a coy god, waiting to see if we "get it right." It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions, which can allow us fully to reveal who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire. Without constraint, without any form of mental compulsion, the act of belief becomes the freest possible projection of what resides in our hearts. Like the poet’s image of a church bell that only reveals its latent music when struck, or a dragonfly that only flames forth its beauty in flight, so does the content of a human heart lie buried until action calls it forth. The greatest act of self-revelation occurs when we choose what we will believe, in that space of freedom that exists between knowing that a thing is, and knowing that a thing is not.
2.) We Humans Aren't That Smart: Homo Sapiens consider themselves (appropriately so) as the dominant specie on this planet, but the arrogance of this declaration pales when we consider the immensity of the cosmos. Being the top dog on an insignificant little blue rock in the corner of an insignificant galaxy means little to the Master of space and time, especially when only 1% of our genetic makeup separates us from a simple primate. Yet despite this fact, we humans love to pat ourselves on the back for having "discovered" so much. We boast of our technological achievements as if we have become the masters of all knowledge. Reality is that we have as much to boast about as does the simple caterpillar, which does little more than crawl around eating whatever crap it can find to stay alive. We have forgotten the sound words given to us by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12, which states:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
The imperfections of humanity prevent us from seeing (literally and figuratively) the reality that surrounds us at every moment of every day. Now, I am not suggesting that we humans are incapable of ever discovering reality, or that our minds cannot be trusted. Humanity has made some pretty remarkable advances. In addition, humanity's small place in the universe doesn't negate Mormonism's problems by default. But it does help us to realize that there is much more than meets the eye. We caterpillars may be capable of nothing more than aimless crawling and scavenging (in the grand cosmic sense), but with the help of metamorphosis, we have the capacity to grow wings and one day soar above the trivial nonsense we once esteemed to be of great importance. But it takes a lot of work.

3.) History, Science, Mathematics, Philosophy, etc. are Wonderful Things, but They are NOT the Crystal Balls to All Truth: As somebody who has passionately studied history for several years now, it is sometimes hard for me to accept the fact that there are many things that we will never be able to explain about the past. In addition, much of history (and other disciplines) is subjective, meaning that depending on one's perspective, intentions, source material, etc., you can easily end up with multiple opinions for the same topic. Besides, we cannot forget the fact that these human disciplines are imperfect and will never be able to explain the deep abiding realities of human existence that many "professionals" esteem as "fantasy." Again, from the words of Paul:
But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
History, science, mathematics, etc. are all wonderful things, but they are not perfect things. There is much to our existence that cannot be proven or explained through the philosophies of men.

4.) Truth, Regardless of its Source, is a Precious Commodity: It has always puzzled me when I see scientists, theologians, etc. arguing over who has the "most truth" or who comes closest to the truth. Truth is not a palpable track of land waiting to be staked, but rather is a pervasive, all-encompassing force that penetrates everything.  One cannot "claim" truth as being something that is exclusively theirs to distribute.  Instead, truth is to be found in the public domain for all to enjoy.  For me, this means that I am not confined exclusively to the truths of Mormonism, Catholicism, history or science, because truth is not in the domain of Mormonism, Catholicism, history or science.  Truth is truth, independent and free of all dogmas and disciplines.  It is our job to grasp hold of this truth, wherever we find it, like an iron rod. 

For Mormons, this notion has been somewhat distorted over the years.  Joseph Smith NEVER taught a rigid, dogmatic faith but was rather a Universalist at heart.  He created a Mormon faith that was a big tent with an open door to all, with any and all forms of truth being granted immediate entry.  As my all-time favorite Joseph Smith quote teaches us:
"We believe ALL things, we hope ALL things, we have endured many things and hope to be able to endure ALL things.  If there is ANYTHING virtuous, lovely or of good report or praiseworthy, WE SEEK AFTER THESE THINGS(13th Article of Faith. My emphasis). 
Which truth claims was Joseph Smith NOT wanting to incorporate into Mormonism?  This should be a clear lesson to all members who want to sweep away the TRUTHS of evolution, science, physics, other religions, other holy books, etc.  Mormonism is but one small (yet beautiful and important) instrument in the grand symphony of life, and the music of that symphony is what we call truth.  The better we can all play our instruments in harmony with one another, the more likely we will be able to discover the truth that lies before us. For me, all truth really can be circumscribed into one great whole.

Should I Stay? Or Should I Go?

And though I would love to be able to report that my faith crisis has led me to a concrete and absolute assurity of the validity of my beliefs, I am forced to admit that doubt is still very much a constant companion in my life.  I question things all the time.  I occasionally doubt my own personal convictions. I regularly revisit the issues that bother me. But what I have learned, and believe 100% in, is that doubting is NOT a sin, nor is it the same thing as fear.  It is a gift to have a questioning heart.  Such was the case with Thomas, one of Jesus' original Twelve.  It wasn't enough for Thomas to simply see what appeared to be a resurrected Lord.  He had to touch, smell and examine Jesus before he believed.  But once he did believe, Thomas was the first of Jesus' apostles to fall to his knees and proclaim, "My Lord and my God." So, to those with a doubting heart I say, "God bless you!"  You are the gatekeepers who gleefully sift through the mire of blind religious devotion and staunch scientific rationalism to recover those small but precious pearls of truth.  Though Mormon culture may, at times, make you feel uncomfortable, know that you have a very special seat at the table. 

But most important, know that you are NEEDED! 

Mormonism has never been (or at least shouldn't be) about conforming to a very narrow view of life.  Jesus' original apostles were a diverse collection of fishermen, tax collectors, and political activists.  They argued, fought, disagreed and even betrayed/denied Jesus.  But they, like President Hinckley, understood what the main point of Jesus' message was: make bad men good and good men better.

We doubters may never have all of the answers to our legitimate questions and that's ok. We must always keep in mind that those answers (along with the questions themselves) are often irrelevant when the rubber of life meets the road of God. Remember, the first principle of the gospel isn't faith in Mormonism or faith in Joseph Smith, but FAITH IN THE LORD JESUS CHRIST. Mormonism saves nobody. For all of their beautiful and inspiring messages, no book of scripture is capable of delivering you to heaven. Only the Alpha and Omega is capable of that.

So, what would I say to the person who has struggled with their faith like me? What would I advise the person who is at the crossroads of staying in the faith or leaving the church? Here are just 10 quick tidbits of advice:

1.) Time is on your side. Nowhere is it written that you must decide right now whether you fully believe or fully disbelieve. You may never fully make up your mind. You are in no rush.  Don't let pressures dictate your course of action.  This is YOUR choice so be thorough.  Be calculated.  Don't rush it.

2.) Don't shun the members. When people experience a crisis of faith (especially when it centers on historical matters) they often think to themselves, "If only the general membership knew what I know, then they might sympathize with my plight." This is nonsense. There are lots of good, faithful members who have been EXACTLY where you are. And even if you can't find any, it is wrong to assume that there are no members out there who care. Sometimes we doubters can become a bit cynical, assuming that all members are cut from the "Utah fabric" and therefore are unwilling/incapable of understanding where we are coming from. This is the wrong way to think. Most members really do care.

3.) Scripture may be bad history, but history is terrible scripture. And yes, there is a difference. Both have their place, but both are not dependant upon the other. One inspires, the other informs.  History has its place but so does scripture.  Use them both and know their purposes.

4.) Don't follow the crowds. This goes for those who leave the church and those who stay. There is no reason to become the stereotypical Mormon or anti-Mormon. For all of its teachings on communal harmony and responsibility, I am convinced that being a good Mormon means being an individual. You are the captain of your own ship. Decide what Mormonism means to you and then do it. As Dr. Seuss said, "Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind." And if you choose to leave, don't become the cynical post-Mormon who leaves Mormonism but then can't leave it alone.  And if you decide to stay, don't get on your high horse, acting like your decision was somehow a reflection of how wonderful and virtuous you think you are.  Be an individual and not another member of the pro or anti-crowd.  Own your decision.

5.) Pray like you mean it. The last person you should try to sugarcoat things for is God. Be raw. Be real. He can take it.

6.) Humility ALWAYS pays off, but is a pain to practice. Remember that you don't have all the answers and never will. Get over it. The fact of the matter is that you aren't entitled to all the answers. God doesn't owe you an explanation but you owe him every explanation. Even if you choose to leave the church be humble about it. And if you choose to stay, be more humble about it. Your experience, and the knowledge you have gained, make you no better than anyone else.

7.) The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Don't lose sight of this. The church isn't about missionary work, memorizing scriptures, giving cool talks/testimonies or having "high" callings. The church is about Christ.  Mormonism saves nobody. Christ is where salvation is to be found. Mormonism may be the vehicle to get you there, but in the end it is just an imperfect means to a perfect end. Keep your sights where they need to be and don't get distracted by the rest. Learn to separate sound from noise. Christ is the purpose behind every flavor of Christianity. The rest is just colored bubbles.

8.) Prophets Aren't Perfect.  Too often I have heard from people who leave the church that they were "appalled" to discover that J. Smith, B. Young, etc. weren't perfect men and did questionable things.  And though I can understand why they feel that way I have to ask: where is it written that a prophet must be a perfect man?  Quite often the opposite is the case. Many prophets are (frankly) pathetic men.  Abraham was, at times, a coward, Moses killed an Egyptian and then covered it up, Enoch was sort of dumb and not a good speaker, Jacob stole Esau's birthright, Jonah wanted God to kill everyone in Ninevah, David slept with Bathsheba and then sent her hubby to the front lines to die, Peter denied Jesus 3 times, Paul killed Christians and was often a jerk, and yes, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, etc. were often messed up as well.  But remember what the Lord told J. Smith in Doctrine and Covenants 124:
for unto this end have I raised you up, that I might show forth my wisdom through the WEAK THINGS OF THE EARTH.
Perhaps it would be easy to believe in Herculean demigods as the Lord's chosen prophets, but when he chooses the weak and the simple...now that requires some faith.  What other reason would God have to tell us all to receive the words of the prophets, "in all patience and faith" if not because he knew they were imperfect men? (Doctrine and Covenants 21:5)

9.) The Lord Expects Progress, Not Perfection. We all need to beat ourselves up a little bit less.  I for one am the GREATEST offender of this.  There is no harsher critic of each of us than the man/woman staring across from us in the glass.  We would all do well to take a collective chill pill.  We serve a loving, caring God, not a lightning-throwing, finger-pointing jerk.  The god that endowed us with reason and intellect doesn't get pissed when we choose to use it.  As I have said before, doubt is a gift.  But when things do get a little too much to handle, just remember the words of this famous nursery rhyme:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King's horsemen and all the King's men,
Couldn't put Humpty together again...
BUT THE KING COULD!

God will work wonders with you...if you let him.

10.) There is Beauty in Desolation. I think that anyone who has undergone a crisis of faith can relate to feeling as though they were walking through a spiritual world of desolation. Prayers seem to go ignored by the heavens, "inspired" leaders give no inspiration, scripture provides no guidance, fasting just makes you hungry and blessings/miracles seem to disappear.  In short, anything divine feels more like a fairytale than reality.  And though I think much of this boils down to perspective (there can be an abundance of faith, inspiration, etc. if we open our eyes to it) there is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling the emptiness of desolation.  In many respects, desolation can be sanctifying.  It's easy to have faith when there is an abundance of faith-promoting/spiritual experiences taking place in one's life; it's quite another thing when we experience desolation.

But have no fear.  This is normal.  Even the great Mother Teresa confided to her journal that she felt as though "heaven from every side is closed." and that she had "Such deep longing for God" but that she was repeatedly "repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal."  Before partaking of the desirable fruit, Lehi reported that he was forced to travel "for the space of many hours in darkness." (1 Nephi 8:8).  And before experiencing the amazing wonder of seeing the Earth rise over the lunar horizon, Astronaut Buzz Aldrin described landing and walking on the moon as, "Magnificent desolation":


And make no mistake; desolation can be magnificent.  As C.S. Lewis stated:
God allows spiritual peaks to subside into (often extensive) troughs in order for ‘servants to finally become Sons,’ ‘stand[ing] up on [their] own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish… growing into the sort of creature He wants [them] to be.
How else are we to be molded and shaped if it isn't through those tough, desolate times?  There are many ways to make a sword, but the best way of all is by using fire to manipulate the metal.  Sometimes the fires of life appear as desolate valleys instead of triumphant mountains.

And to the member who rebukes, belittles or in any way judges the individual who walks the path of doubt, or has chosen to leave the church, I offer up this small critique:

Do not allow arrogant presumption to convince you that all who question/leave the church do so because of sin.  This simply isn't the case.  In fact, over the past few years, the church has witnessed a massive exodus of some of its finest members.  As former Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen stated:
Maybe since Kirtland, we've never had a period of - I'll call it apostasy, like we're having now...It's a different generation.  There's no sense kidding ourselves, we just need to be very upfront with them and tell them what we know and give answers to what we have and call on their faith like we all do for things we don't understand.
The overwhelming majority of those who choose to leave the faith do not make this decision lightly.  It is usually a heart-wrenching decision that causes extreme stress in their lives.  You may not be able to understand it but you should be able to respect it.  For thousands of devout Mormons, the intellectual and spiritual shock at discovering the ugly aspects of our faith simply becomes too much for them to handle.  As a result, their spiritual and mental shelves cave in.  And don't fall into the trap of assuming that you are somehow more choice because your shelves are intact.  Some of Mormonism's best and brightest have elected to depart.  What they need is love, support, charity and kindness, not judgement, finger-pointing and accusations.  Now is the time to practice your faith: "Love one another as I have loved you."

And to those who choose to leave, I say this: you will be greatly missed!  I kid you not when I say that you are among the best and the brightest; the cream of the Mormon crop.  You are/were leaders, thinkers motivators and disciples.  But please know, the door is ALWAYS open for your return.  Do not allow cultural and social factors to be what keeps you away.  And yes, I will be the first to agree that Mormon culture is often misguided.  But if you do choose to stay away, please do so without malice in your heart.  Whether you like it or not, Mormonism is a part of you and always will be.  Don't let bitterness cloud your mind.  It does everyone harm, especially you.  Depart in peace, knowing that many still admire you and consider you a friend. 

Folks, we are all in this boat together...every single one of us.  The believer and the doubter; the saint and the sinner.  We all need each other.  Besides, in one way or another every single one of us is a doubter.  We all need that extra hand to sweep down and scoop us up when we fall out of the boat.  Life is tough, but there is no sense in making it tougher by passing judgement, making accusations, pointing fingers or allowing personal prejudice to blind our senses.  And when things seem at their worse, and we have nowhere else to turn, when all hope seems lost and we've reached our breaking point, know that you, like the frantic father spoken of in the Book of Mark, can always find solace by proclaiming to the heavens:

"Help Thou My Unbelief."

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Religion v. Science

and the Pitfalls of Literalism
in Both Camps

This past week I purchased a book on my Kindle Fire (thank you, God for the Kindle Fire) that I have been wanting to read for quite a long time: Proof of Heaven by Ebon Alexander. The book chronicles the alleged near-death experience of Dr. Alexander, a revered neurosurgeon who fell into a deep coma that completely rendered his neocortex (the part of the brain that allegedly controls human conscience) completely inactive.

Of course, there is nothing unique about Dr. Alexander's claims of his "spirit" journeying to the beyond.  Thousands of people from all cultures have made such claims.  But there are a few special circumstances surrounding Dr. Alexander's account.  First, it is a documented fact that the "thinking" parts of Dr. Alexander's brain were totally shut down for at least seven days.  Second, as an accredited neurosurgeon, who has lectured at schools like Harvard and Yale, Dr. Alexander was inherently a skeptic of things like near-death experiences.  As a result, Dr. Alexander attempts to analyze his experience through the lens of a scientist as opposed to the traditional approach that most survivors of NDE's take.

With all of this being said, I wish I could report that I found Dr. Alexander's book particularly enlightening.  Sadly, I was very disappointed.  The book, which seemed more like a bio of Dr. Alexander's life rather than an account of his experience, was, for me, a huge let down.  I also found little scientific analysis into his experience (for example, Dr. Alexander stated that "all of his questions" were answered by "god" but he never tells us what those questions were.  Not very "scientific.").  Long story short, the book was a lot of fluff with very little substance (in my opinion).

Anyway, the intent of this blog post is not to provide a review of Dr. Alexander's book.  I mention it here as a lead-in to a much larger and more difficult topic that never seems to go away: the topic of religion v. science and how both sides cooperate/clash with one another.  And whether you believe him or not, Dr. Alexander's story is the perfect illustration of just how messy this topic can be.  Even though most of us will never have the "privilege" of experiencing a NDE like Dr. Alexander, we all come to the same crossroad that he arrived at: where does human reason and scientific inquiry end and divine light and spiritual faith begin?

Of course, there is no possible way to answer this question and my simple little blog post will do little to address it today, but I do think we can clarify a few of the "rules of the game" that I find particularly troubling.  After all, it is impossible to even attempt an honest discussion on an issue like this if both sides cannot agree on a general code of conduct.  This is my goal today.

The first fact we must accept is that religion and science, though operating on fundamentally different playing fields, are essentially two different languages trying to tell the same general story: who are we? where did we come from? where are we going?  Religion, which is inherently dogmatic, resistant to change and often dictatorial in nature, provides a nuanced view on things like morality, kindness, charity and forgiveness, and the eternal value these intangible attributes have over what the palpable world offers.  Science, on the other hand, is self-reflective, always changing and based on verifiable realities, which places almost all value upon the provable, observable and rational.

And though these differences in approach to truth seem to regularly lead both parties into a head-on collision with one another, I believe that most of the wreckage comes as a result of both parties being either unwilling to concede any ground on even the most basic of principles and/or taking ridiculous cheap shots at the other side's weakest elements.

Take for example the works of scientists like Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan: two men whom I admire for their scientific expertise and prowess with the written and spoken word.  Few men in the scientific world have the ability to inspire and persuade as Dawkins and Sagan do.  But their powerful prose notwithstanding, I am regularly disappointed to see these (and other) accredited scientists resorting to childish attacks on the low-lying fruit of religion.  They treat religion with such blatant contempt that it becomes impossible for them to be truly "scientific."  In other words, they take the worst of religion, portray it as a rigid monolith, that when compared with the best of science (which is fluid and evolving) makes any and all believers look like ridiculous, uninformed buffoons.  Such an approach is both unscientific and immature, and certainly unworthy of "sophisticated" minds like those of Dawkins and Sagan.  It is cheap shot, bush league nonsense.  In short, men like Dawkins and Sagan may be/have been great scientists, but they are/were piss-poor theologians.

But as is the case with any dysfunctional debate, it takes two sides to tango.  When we look at religion's contempt for science, we often see reason and common sense being replaced with suspicion and paranoia masquerading as "faith."  Religious leaders, bent on preserving the "integrity" of their holy books, resort to some of the most ridiculous arguments in human history.  Men like Ken Ham, who cannot accept the FACT that the world is billions of year old, have twisted reality to such an appalling level all in the name of protecting the Bible.  Such a narrow-minded view of reality, all in the name of literal biblical Christianity, is an embarrassment to religious people everywhere.  For men like Ken Ham the bottom line is this: Religion has had to concede so much ground over the years because of the FACT that so much has been proven wrong.  To believe, in the modern era, that Adam and Eve were the first human beings, living in a perfect garden only 6,000 years ago, until a talking snake convinced Eve to eat a naughty apple, thereby causing death and sin to enter the picture, which eventually caused a man named Noah to build a magic ark to save all animals from a global flood, isn't an example of a person's faith; it's an illustration of a person's ignorance.

But there can be a balance between both science and religion.  As Galileo stated during his bogus trial:
The Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go...In my mind God wrote two books. The first book is the Bible, where humans can find the answers to their questions on values and morals.  The second book of God is the book of nature, which allows humans to use observations and experiment to answer our own questions about the universe.
Admittedly, there is a lot wrong with Galileo's summation, but I think that we all can see what he was getting at.  At the risk of sounding insensitive to scriptural literalists, taking the Bible, Qur'an, Book of Mormon or any other holy book as literal, factual undeniable truth is, at best, stupid.  But to discredit the moral lessons found in scripture for those same reasons is equally stupid, and the scientists who regularly slam scripture for such reasons would do well to watch their tongue.  After all, I wonder how scientists might react if theologians were to judge their mistakes by the same standard.  Whether taking the form of alchemy, the four humors, social Darwinism, or bloodletting (which killed our first president), science hasn't exactly batted 1.000 either and would be equally wrong to claim literalism.

Of course, Science doesn't judge itself by as strict a literalist standard and does a MUCH better job of learning from its mistakes than does religion.  After all, science doesn't claim to know the will of God.  But science does make it a regular practice to discredit that which requires faith, as if faith were a hindrance to an honest quest for truth.  But such an approach makes a mockery out of some of the basic elements of humanity...that being primarily our HUMANITY.  As Emily Dickinson wrote:

Faith -- is the Pierless Bridge
Supporting what We see
Unto the Scene that We do not --
Too slender for the eye

It bears the Soul as bold
As it were rocked in Steel
With Arms of Steel at either side --
It joins -- behind the Veil

To what, could We presume
The Bridge would cease to be
To Our far, vacillating Feet
A first Necessity.

So if taking too literal of a religious or scientific approach is a bad thing then what is the solution?  I'm not sure there is one.  Perhaps it would be a good starting point for both religion and science to take the best from one another.  Science would do well to recognize that there is much about the world that is not provable, verifiable or testable but is still a reality (dark matter, dark energy, quantum gravity, etc.) and that much of what religion esteems of worth (kindness, charity, etc.) cannot be tested in a laboratory.  There is real value to sincere prayer, meditation, positive thought, and devout devotion.  To simply say, "I don't need church" is far too simplistic.  Sure, I would agree that one can live a good life without a faith, but a faith doesn't hurt.  In fact, it helps...a helluva lot.  As a recent Gallup poll shows, those who go to church are, by and large, happier, more successful and more charitable.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Attending church, like attending school, helps us to grow our understanding of what faith really is.  Benamin Franklin once stated that, "Genius, without education, is like silver still trapped in the mine."  Might I be so bold as to say that faith/hope/charity, without religion, is like silver still trapped in the mine as well.

On the flip side, religion would do well to recognize that science has CONCLUSIVELY proven some of religion's most archaic ideas and teachings to be completely untrue.  As a result, religion is going to have to learn how to be flexible.  This is where science blows religion away.  Nobody (or at least very few) in the scientific community get as crazy as those of the religious community when their ideas/beliefs are challenged.  Science is about challenging EVERYTHING, and religion would do well to challenge at least a few things.  As Thomas Jefferson apty stated:
Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion.  Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there is one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.
Questioning things is not a sign of weakness or a lack of faith.  In fact, I believe that an argument can be made that any faith, without a healthy dose of honest skepticism, isn't really faith at all.  It is both right and good that we change how we think about the nature of God.  For example the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent god doesn't even exist in the oldest Hebrew texts of the Bible.  It may just be a mistake based on the Aristotelian thought of the Medieval era that God was nothing more than a mystical but simple unmoved mover.  Perhaps he isn't the celestial dictatorial magician we think He is but rather a teacher, motivator and persuader of good?

The bottom line is this: anyone who insists upon taking an absolute, literalist approach to either religion or science could probably benefit from learning a little more about religion and/or science.  After all, there is little REAL merit in the atheist argument that tries to explain away religious belief through reason and psychology.  To the believer know this: you don't have to listen to their ilk.  In the end, all they are saying is something like this:
"I'm an atheist because I am strong, rational and thoughtful; you're a believer because you are all about wish fulfillment and emotional response.  Therefore religious people are weaker, less sophisticated and more prone to deception that us atheists." 
Again, the Carl Sagan's and Richard Dawkins's of the world are far more eloquent in how they say it, but make no mistake; this is EXACTLY what they are saying...and it's bullshit.

And for the religious zealot who rebukes any and all verifiable claims of science by simply regurgitating the line, "because the Bible says so," all I can say is...GOD HELP YOU!  Your INTENTIONAL stupidity does your cause no good, but instead weakens the hand you have been dealt. Instead of taking such a hard-lined stance on what your holy book says, try to simply accept truth wherever it can be found.  I've often wondered as to whether or not biblical literalists believe in Jesus or in the Bible?  Or if Muslim literalists believe in Allah or the Qur'an?  In other words, has your holy book become such an idol for worship that you cannot look past it any longer?  Are you seriously that diluted in your thinking?

I don't mean to be harsh but sometimes harsh speech can shake people from apathy.  I think I have said enough.  Instead, let me leave you with the words of astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, from his excellent book, Death by Black Hole.  He writes:
Let there be no doubt that as they are currently practiced, there is no common ground between science and religion...history reveals a long and combative relationship between religion and science, depending on who was in control of society at the time.  The claims of science rely on experimental verification, while those of religion rely on faith.  These are fundamentally irreconcilable approaches to knowing, which ensures an eternity of debate wherever and whenever the two camps meet.  Although just as in hostage negotiations, it's probably best to keep both sides talking to each other.
I couldn't agree more.  What is most important is that we keep talking...a lot...and often.  Both sides stand to lose too much by backing into their respective caves and relying exclusively on their own "truths."  Or as Albert Einstein put it, "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind."  In conclusion, I leave you with the words of the good Doctor Ebon Alexander.  Perhaps his near-death experience illustrates the strange but important dichotomy that exists between religion and science better than I originally thought:
Today many believe that the living spiritual truths of religion have lost their power, and that science, not faith, is the road to truth. Before my experience I strongly suspected that this was the case myself. 
But I now understand that such a view is far too simple. The plain fact is that the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed. In its place a new view of mind and body will emerge, and in fact is emerging already. This view is scientific and spiritual in equal measure and will value what the greatest scientists of history themselves always valued above all: truth.
Only time will tell I suppose.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Future of the GOP

If we learned anything from Tuesday night's general election it is this: American demographics have changed.  Now, I'm not one of those "doom and gloom" types who think that this change is bad. Quite the contrary.  I think that much of this change is good.  Demographically, America is NOT the country it was, and that's ok.  Throughout our history, American demographics have always been in flux.  For example, Catholics, who were largely detested by our founding generation as an undesirable segment of the population, are now the dominant religion in the nation.  Irish immigrants were also seen as an unwanted rabble who infested the countryside, eroding America's "pure" culture with each new arrival. Yes, it is safe to say that the old cliche of America being a "melting pot" has not written its final chapter.  In today's America, Latinos are, far and away, the fastest growing segment of the population.  And they HATE the GOP.

And rightfully so.

The fact of the matter is that the Republican Party has done little to nothing to accept those who do not fit their incredibly narrow vision of what an "American" is supposed to be.  In short, it seems as though anything outside of being a White, Evangelical, Bible-thumping, gun-toting, flag-waving, Rush Limbaugh-loving, Muslim-hating, meat-eating, apocalypse-loving "patriot" is unacceptable.  And guess what, the GOP has paid the price...big time.  

Last night's defeat (not just in the Presidential Election) reveals just how out of touch the GOP has become.  Instead of being the party of acceptance, they are the party of exclusivity.  Instead of being the party of innovation, they are the party of paranoia.  Instead of being the party of the future, they are the party of archaic irrelevance, and if they don't get their act together soon they will continue to pay at the ballot box.  

Here are just a few things that I believe need to change with the GOP:
-Climate change is real, Adam and Eve were not the first Homo Sapiens to walk the earth, evolution is a non-debatable fact and creating public policy based on the Book of Genesis is stupid beyond explanation. 
-Women who get pregnant as a result of rape is not God working in a "mysterious way." 
-Gay people don't cause tsunamis. 
-Corporations aren't living beings and there is nothing "socialistic" or "Marxist" about having them pay more in taxes (unless you want to call Adam Smith, Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, etc. "socialists."). 
-Latinos aren't "taking over" America...but they also aren't going anywhere either.They are, by far, the fastest growing segment of the population.  Get used to it. 
-Dinosaurs were not on Noah's Ark. 
-The "end of days" is not a good campaign slogan, nor is it something to gleefully look forward to. 
-The flavor of the "Tea Party" was just sour grapes and that "party" is now officially over. 
-Being smart, educated, sophisticated  etc. are virtues  not vices.   Joe the Plumber is NOT the ideal, salt-of-the-earth example to put on a pedestal. 
-Conservatives are NOT more patriotic, brave and righteous than any other American of any other "brand." 
-Your future rests not with EXCLUSIVITY but with INCLUSION.  Quit trying to define people by such a narrow and limited set of ridiculous rules. 
-Quit trying to "restore" America to some lost "glory day" when things were better.  Bottom line: America has NEVER embraced what the Tea Party was selling...NEVER!  There is nothing to restore.  Move on. 
-Obama isn't a closet Muslim Kenyan who is going to take your guns and put your family into a FEMA camp. 
-Ronald Reagan would hate your guts.  Sorry, it's true. 
-Glenn Beck is an idiot. No joke, he really is a stupid guy. 
-There is no secret Muslim plot to infiltrate the American Congress and replace it with Sharia law.
But all hope is not lost.  With all of the problems/craziness that has hijacked the Republican Party over the past decade, I still maintain that the GOP could easily become the dominant force in American politics.  Of course, changes (more than those mentioned above) will have to be made, but change is a good thing.  It is time for Conservatism to replace the crazy with confidence.  

The Republican Party is at an important crossroads.  On one hand, they could elect to double down on their wacko "we're mad as hell and not going to take it any more" message of fear, doom and gloom and pseudo-patriotism, or they could return to their "glory days" of old.  Let us not forget that it was the Republicans who were on the cutting edge of innovation in the 50s and 60s.  It was Eisenhower who created NASA, passed the Interstate Highway Act, pulled us out of Korea, avoided entrance into Vietnam, was an early advocate for Civil Rights, encouraged science, math and greater scholastic pursuits, and challenged the Russians on the battlefield of innovation and progress.  This is the REAL legacy of TRUE Republicanism.  

Plus, I still believe that the Republicans could annihilate the Democrats on economic matters.  The free market (when it is truly free for all) is an idea that the overwhelming majority of Americans support.  Sadly, Republicans have done more to damage that ideal in the past 25 years than anyone.  The notion that deregulation, tax cuts for the rich and "trickle down" economics (which is nothing more than a nice way of telling people to enjoy the scraps) simply does not work.  A truly FREE market is one that protects the Middle Class from the greed of those holding all the money.  As Adam Smith, the father of capitalism stated:
The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor...The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess...It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion. [my emphasis].
It is also time that the GOP accept the FACT that it is time to become more inclusive of others.  Let's face the the facts: Latino voters OVERWHELMINGLY supported Obama and the Dems. last night.  This was one of the key deciding factors in the election.  The GOP has done an atrocious job of courting Latino (and other minority) voters for quite some time and now they are paying the price.  If this trend continues, the GOP can forget about residing in the White House (or taking/controlling the Senate/House) for quite some time.  It's just a fact.

But, there is hope.  To my GOP friends, let me introduce you to a man who not only would bridge the Latino gap but would avoid a lot of the pitfalls that have been mentioned above.  He is a man who is pro-life but not in the psychotic way that the Sarah Palin's of the world are.  He is a true fiscal conservative who opposed the stimulus, has passionately pushed for limited spending, cutting entitlements and defense, and demanded the balanced budget amendment.  He is in favor of energy independence, increased funding for NASA, and accepts the reality of climate change.  And though he is far from perfect, he is, in my opinion, the future of the GOP.  Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you all to the 45th President of the United States of America (yep I am calling it now):

......................

......................


That's right; Marco Rubio is the front runner for the GOP in 2016.  This guy is a tough combination of good looks, eloquent speaking and hard-nosed politics.  I don't see anyone on the left who could tangle with him (maybe Cuomo?).  Plus, he delivers Florida AND closes the Latino gap (hell, he probably swings it to the GOP).  This is your guy, conservos.  Mark my words: Marco Rubio will be your candidate (if he wants it) in 2016.  

Let the campaign ads begin...just give us a few weeks.  =) 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Final Predictions for Tuesday's Election

After months of campaigning and speculation, after millions of dollars spent, after all the debates, commercials and bickering of pundits on both ends, the Presidential Election of 2012 is about to come to an end (thankfully!).  It has been a close race.  At times, Obama looked like he would sail easily into a second term.  But just when the race looked over before it started, Mitt Romney made a game of it and began to contend (and even lead) in a number of important states.  Bottom line: this has been a close and entertaining race for quite some time.  Both candidates have a decent shot of walking away with this thing.

With that being said, all good things must come to an end.  Come Tuesday, America will either have a new President-Elect, or will be looking forward to another four years with Barack Obama at the helm.  So, without further delay, here is my FINAL PREDICTION for Tuesday's presidential election:

***This is an hour-by-hour breakdown of how I believe the night will go.  All times are Eastern Standard Time***

-------------------------------------------------

7:00 p.m.:
Polls close in six states (Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont, and the first battleground state of the night: Virginia).  Five of the six states will be declared almost immediately, giving Romney the early lead.  Virginia will take a while before a winner is declared.  It will also be our earliest indication as to how the night might go.  In the end, I think Romney will win the state, but if he wins by more than a few percentage points it might be an indication that he could have a big night.  If, however, Obama wins Virginia, I think it might foreshadow bad news for the GOP. 

After the first hour, I have Romney leading 44-3, with Virginia still yet to be decided.  Too close to call.

7:30 p.m:
Polls close in three states (North Carolina, West Virginia, and the ALL IMPORTANT Ohio). West Virginia will be the only state to be called right after the polls close (for Romney).  North Carolina and Ohio will still be too close to call.  It will take a while before a winner is decided.

By 7:30, I still have Romney leading 49-3.  Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina still too close to call.

8:00 p.m.:
This is the hour when we will finally get a good idea of what things are going to look like.  Polls close in sixteen states, including the important swing states of Florida and New Hampshire, thereby giving us at least 1/3 of all the Electoral College map.  Romney will easily grab Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri, while Obama finally takes his first "real" bite of the map, grabbing Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and (perhaps a bit late) Michigan.  Obviously, Florida and New Hampshire will be too close to call at this point.

At the close of the second hour, Romney still leads 130-107, with Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Ohio all too close to call.   

8:30 p.m.:
Polls close in Arkansas, adding to Romney's lead.  136-107 Romney at this point.

9:00 p.m.:
Polls close in 14 more states, including swing states Colorado and Wisconsin.  Romney snags Kansas, North and South Dakota, Arizona, Louisiana, and Wyoming, while Obama closes the gap by winning Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin (which may be a bit late). Colorado is still too close to call. 

At the end of hour three we have a virtual tie, Romney leading 170-169. (Or Romney 170-159 if Wisconsin is still too close to call -- but will eventually go for Obama in my opinion).

10:00 p.m.:
Polls close in six more states, including swing states Iowa and Nevada.  Romney easily takes Utah, Idaho, Nebraska, and Montana, while the President wins (albeit a little late) Nevada and Iowa (which also may be too close to call for at least a while). 

In addition, I believe that by 10:00 we will have Virginia and North Carolina declared for Mitt Romney, while Obama will claim New Hampshire.

We are late into the evening and Mitt Romney still leads 216-203.

11:00 p.m.:
The final states of the west close their polls, all going for Barack Obama.  California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii aren't even contests, and Barack Obama takes his first lead of the night, jumping ahead 263-216.

Key swing states: Florida, Ohio and Colorado are still too close to call, but it is getting close!

12:00 a.m.:
The final state (Alaska) closes its polls, giving Romney 3 more votes.  Obama still leads 263-219.

And finally, late into the evening, the three remaining and all-important swing states (Colorado, Florida and Ohio) are declared. Mitt Romney claims Florida, while Barack Obama takes Ohio and Colorado.  The night is over, and Barack Obama wins reelection, 290-248.

Interestingly enough, if we gave Mitt Romney Ohio, Barack Obama would still win (272-266).  In other words, if Mitt Romney is going to win, he better take some additional states earlier on in the evening (perhaps Wisconsin, Iowa or New Hampshire?).

There you have it.  It takes the whole night, but I am predicting that Barack Obama wins a second term in the White House.  He edges out Romney by 42 electoral votes (and an even closer popular vote).  It will be a close night, but unfortunately for Mitt, I don't see him coming out on top.  Maybe I will be wrong, but I think he has a tough road to the White House.  Close isn't enough.  But if he does win, it will be because Romney picks up a couple of additional key states.  Those key states, in order of importance (bold states I am predicting for Romney), are:

1.) Ohio
2.) Florida
3.) Colorado
4.) Virginia
5.) Wisconsin
6.) Iowa
7.) New Hampshire

Romney MUST pick up at least a couple of the states (not bolded) on this list. If he doesn't, Obama is virtually guaranteed the White House.  The easiest scenario: Romney wins Ohio and New Hampshire.  That would give him 270 exactly. 

In addition, I believe there are two states to watch that could serve as a "barometer" of sorts for how the night might go: Pennsylvania and North Carolina.  N.C. is likely to go for Romney (it is the most conservative of the swing states), but Obama carried it in 2008.  If Obama wins N.C., it could indicate that the night is likely to go his way big time.  Pennsylvania, on the other hand, could be a good indicator for Romney.  The state hasn't gone red in almost 25 years, but Romney has made things competitive there over the past couple of weeks.  If he were to somehow win (though unlikely) that would be a huge (death) blow to Obama.  But if he is even relatively close (within a couple of percentage points) it could mean that Romney will be a bigger competitor than previously thought.  Keep your eyes on those two states for sure.

So, with all of that said, enjoy election night!  There really is nothing like watching history unfold before your eyes!  And make no mistake, that is what Tuesday is all about.  Take it all in and enjoy it!   
And now...finally...NO MORE CAMPAIGN ADS!!!!!

At least for a little while.

50 days until CHRISTMAS!!!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

1,700th Anniversary of Milvian Bridge: The Most Influential Battle in History

Situated just outside of Rome, and stretched across the Tiber River is an old stone bridge named Ponte Milvio.  Originally built in 206 B.C., this bridge served as a main thoroughfare to the capitol city of the Roman Empire.  It is a peaceful and well-preserved monument that serves as a beautiful ornament to the natural beauty of the Roman countryside. 

But 1,700 years ago this week, the Milvian Bridge was anything but a calm and peaceful place.  In fact, it was the sight of arguably the most important and influential battle in world history: The Battle of Milvian Bridge.

To be able to truly understand and appreciate the importance of this battle, we need to travel back in time to an era when Roman might was at its peak.  The year is 285.  The Roman Empire is under the reign of Emperor Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (Dioletian).  Emperor Dioletian had just delivered Rome from a period marked by military and social anarchy, and a long-awaited, but unsettling sense of peace had finally fallen upon the great empire.  Unsettling due to the fact that “Barbarians” lay and wait at nearly all of Rome's borders.  Franks and Goths surround the Rhine region in the North, while Persian invaders are a constant threat in the south.  War was on the minds and hearts of nearly every Roman frontiersman.  Emperor Dioletian was also troubled with the lack of cohesion that infested his army and empire  The Western (Latin) world had all but separated itself (culturally and socially) from the Eastern (Greek) portion of the empire, and both seemed content to live without the other.  In addition, a newly emerging movement, originally started by an unlikely but charismatic peasant Jew named Jesus of Nazareth, had begun to spread throughout the empire, angering pagan traditionalists like Emperor Diocletian.

As a result, Emperor Dioletian elected to open a new chapter in Roman History by creating what he saw as a permanent solution to Rome's problems.  By creating what became known as the Roman "Tetrarchy" (rule by 4), Diocletian divided the empire in half (the Western Latin and Eastern Greek), and assigned two rulers to each half: an "Augustus" to rule, with a "Caesar" to assist.  Diocletian assigned himself ruler of the Eastern portion, while his friend, Maximianus, ruled the west.  Under this system, each Augustus/Caesar duo would (ideally) be able to address the needs of the empire with greater efficiency.  And for Diocletian, he would be able to more successfully eradicate the "infection" that was Christianity.

To assist Maximianus in the west as Caesar was a young but very successful military man named Constantius Chlorus.  Chlorus was your typical rags to riches story.  As the son of poor peasants, Chlorus should never have become a great leader, but his military prowess and bravery proved irresistible to the Empire.  Chlorus quickly climbed the ranks of power, eventually becoming second in command (Caesar) of the West.  To keep him loyal, however (you could never TRULY trust a peasant), Diocletian had Chlorus' oldest son, Constantine, live with him in the East. 


As a "hostage"/guest in the East, Constantine grew up seeing first-hand the progression and attempted suppression of this strange new religion called Christianity.  Like many earlier emperors, Diocletian saw Christianity as a vulgar and lame movement of the ignorant masses.  It's doctrine of forgiveness and suppression of worldly wealth surely appealed to the peasantry, making Christianity a possible threat to the security of the empire.  It is therefore no surprise as to why so many Roman leaders sought its eradication.  In addition, Constantine benefited from living in the East by experiencing a culture different than his own.  It would be an experience that would define him for the rest of his life.  

Now, fast forward a few decades.  Diocletian is dead and Rome has (once again) plunged itself into Civil War.  Constantine, who was finally reunited with his father, was busy fighting the "savage" Picts, who were natives of a strange island called Britannia. Sadly, Constantine's father had fallen mortally wounded on the battlefield, leaving his son in change of the army.  Back home in Rome, things were even worse.  A young man named Maxentius had taken control of the capitol city and proclaimed himself the ultimate ruler of the empire.  There was only one problem: Constantine was his father's son, and he (along with his army) didn't want to see Rome fall into the hands of Maxentius.  Long story short, Constantine turned his army towards Rome to "liberate" the empire.

"BY THIS SIGN YOU SHALL CONQUER"   

For nearly 5 years Constantine and Maxentius remained at constant odds with each other over the throne of the Western Roman Empire.  While Constantine had the love and backing of his father’s army, and had proved a very capable military leader, he still lacked one very important asset: control of Rome itself.  Maxentius had not only the backing of the Roman Senate (who would have backed anyone that ruled the city) but he also had the luxury of being on the defensive.  Constantine had the massive burden of having to bring the fight to Rome’s doorsteps. 

Finally in late October of 312, Constantine's army was greeted by the forces of Maxentius on the outskirts of Rome.  The final decisive battle was just days away, and Constantine had to quickly figure out a way for his army (outnumbered 3-1) to defeat the entrenched forces of his foe.  Legend has it that on the eve of the great battle (October 27th) Constantine separated himself from his army to find a moment of solitude and reflection.  It was during those moments that Constantine, according to his historian Eusebius, looked up to the sky and saw a burning cross upon the sun with the Greek letters XP (Or the “Chi-Rho,” the first 2 letters in the Greek word for Christ) entwined with the cross.  Constantine then claimed he heard a voice say to his heart, “In hoc signo vinces” meaning “By this sign, you shall conquer.” 

Knowing that this sign represented Jesus Christ, the hero of Christianity, Constantine took the heavenly manifestation as a sign that the Christian God would lead him to victory.  As a result, Constantine ordered the Chi-Rho image to be placed on the shields and uniforms of his soldiers.  These first "Christian soldiers" would be the first to march into battle with the cross at their vanguard...even though most probably had no clue what it represented. 

THE BATTLE

Very little is known about the actual Battle of Milvian Bridge.  What we do know (again, most coming from Eusebius) is that Maxentius' superior numbers and entrenched forces were unable to stop the onslaught of Constantine's army, which forced Maxentius and him men to flee across the Milvian Bridge.  Unfortunately for Maxentius (and certainly a "divine" intervention to Constantine), the Milvian Bridge suddenly collapsed under the weight of the fleeing army.  Maxentius' body, which had plummeted with his men into the depths of the Tiber, was fished out on Constantine's orders, beheaded, and put on a pike as a trophy for Constantine's triumphant march into Rome (VERY Christian of him). 

But not only did Constantine and a decapitated Maxentius march through Rome's gates on that cold October day 1,700 years ago.  Christianity, which amounted to maybe 10-15% of the population (but was growing fast), received its greatest victory.  With his victory at Milvian Bridge, Constantine (forever after remembered as Constantine the Great) became the premiere leader of Rome.  And remembering his supernatural experience at Milvian Bridge, Constantine granted Christianity the chief seat at his table.  The religion that had primarily been a movement and belief of persecuted peasants was now the sanctioned faith of the most powerful man on the planet.  Eventually the entire western world and billions across the globe would convert to its teachings and embrace the Christ as the one and only true God. 

To truly appreciate the importance of Constantine’s victory at Milvian Bridge one should imagine the world as it would have become had he lost.  Maxentius would have been hailed the supreme emperor of Rome, and the pagan gospel of his ancestors would likely have continued as the premiere faith of the empire.  Christianity would have continued to be an institution that in the eyes of most aristocrats was undesirable and evil.  Its patrons would have most certainly continued to be persecuted and hunted like dogs.  The Nicean Creed, along with the formation of the Papacy (which all took place under Constantine's eye) and other institutions would have never occurred.  This in turn would mean that the invading Germanic tribes, like the Franks and the Goths, would never have become Christians to the massive degree that they became.  

Sure, Christianity was a growing and flourishing movement at the time of Constantine, and one could argue that eventually the faith would have spread even further.  However, there is little doubt that Constantine's stamp of approval gave Christianity an advantage it had never before experienced.  The subsequent evolution and development of Christianity (primarily through its Roman Catholic roots) would never have happened without Constantine and his victory at Milvian Bridge.  As a result, the Christianity we have today would have looked VERY different (if it would have survived at all) without Constantine's initial spark. 

Christians today owe their FAITH to Christ.  His doctrine and teachings are the defining markers in the lives of billions.  With that said, Christians today owe their CHRISTIANITY to Constantine.  The brand of Christianity, with its 1,700 years of evolution and development, all trace back to a random little bridge that spans the Tiber River.  Without Milvian Bridge, it is likely that you, me and every other professing Christian would have a VERY different type of faith today, even if that faith were still Christianity.  Of course, I'm not saying that Constantine was somehow more important than Christ himself; only that his impact (starting at Milvian Bridge) should have its due recognition. 

Milvian Bridge: the most influential battle in world history!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Early Mormon Leaders on the "Evils" of Wealth (Warning: Glenn Beck's Head is About to Explode)

The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (1875) 

THE EXPERIENCE OF MANKIND has shown that the people of communities and nations among whom wealth is the most equally distributed, enjoy the largest degree of liberty, are the least exposed to tyranny and oppression and suffer the least from luxurious habits which beget vice. Under such a system, carefully maintained there could be no great aggregations of either real or personal property in the hands of a few; especially so while the laws, forbidding the taking of usury or interest for money or property loaned, continued in force. 

ONE OF THE GREAT EVILS with which our own nation is menaced at the present time is the wonderful growth of wealth in the hands of a comparatively few individuals. The very liberties for which our fathers contended so steadfastly and courageously, and which they bequeathed to us as a priceless legacy, are endangered by the monstrous power which this accumulation of wealth gives to a few individuals and a few powerful corporations. By its seductive influence results are accomplished which, were it more equally distributed, would be impossible under our form of government. It threatens to give shape to the legislation, both State, and National, of the entire country. If this evil should not be checked, and measures not taken to prevent the continued enormous growth of riches among the class already rich, and the painful increase of destitution and want among the poor, the nation is likely to be overtaken by disaster; for, according to history, such a tendency among nations once powerful was the sure precursor of ruin. 

YEARS AGO IT WAS PERCEIVED that we Latter-day Saints were open to the same dangers as those which beset the rest of the world. A condition of affairs existed among us which was favorable to the growth of riches in the hands of a few at the expense of many. A wealthy class was being rapidly formed in our midst whose interests in the course of time, were likely to be diverse from those of the rest of the community. The growth of such a class was dangerous to our union; and, of all people, we stand most in need of union and to have our interests identical. Then it was that the Saints were counseled to enter into co-operation. In the absence of the necessary faith to enter upon a more perfect order revealed by the Lord unto the Church, this was felt to be the best means of drawing us together and making us one. 

A UNION OF INTERESTS was sought to be attained. At the time co-operation was entered upon the Latter-day Saints were acting in utter disregard of the principles of self-preservation. They were encouraging the growth of evils in their own midst which they condemned as the worst features of the systems from which they had been gathered. Large profits were being consecrated in comparatively few hands, instead of being generally distributed among the people. As a consequence, the community was being rapidly divided into classes, and the hateful and unhappy distinctions which the possession and lack of wealth give rise to, were becoming painfully apparent. When the proposition to organize Zion's Co-operative Mercantile Institution was broached, it was hoped that the community at large would become stockholders; for if a few individuals only were to own its stock, the advantages to the community would be limited. The people, therefore, were urged to take shares, and large numbers responded to the appeal. As we have shown, the business proved to be as successful as its most sanguine friends anticipated. But the distribution of profits among the community was not the only benefit conferred by the organization of co-operation among us. 

CO-OPERATION has submitted in silence to a great many attacks. Its friends have been content to let it endure the ordeal. But it is now time to speak. The Latter-day Saints should understand that it is our duty to sustain co-operation and to do all in our power to make it a success. The local co-operative stores should have the cordial support of the Latter-day Saints. Does not all our history impress upon us the great truth that in union is strength? Without it, what power would the Latter-day Saints have? But it is not our doctrines alone that we should be united, but in practice and especially in our business affairs. 

Your Brethren: 

Brigham Young, Daniel H. Wells, Wilford Woodruff, Orson Pratt, Lorenzo Snow, Franklin D. Richards, Brigham Young Jr., George A. Smith, John taylor, Orson Hyde, Charles C,. Rich, Erastus Snow, George Q. Cannon, Albert Carrington 1875

Source: Edward W. Tullidge, History of Salt Lake City [1886], pp. 728-732.