Saturday, July 27, 2013


-   Photo is courtesy of Amy Logan Wengreen, used by permission.

In Utah, the biggest parade of the year is the Pioneer Day parade on July 24th, celebrating the 1947 and later pioneers who came to Utah to be free of religious persecution in the east and midwest.  Each year, communities including religious groups march and exhibit floats, bands, and other stuff to represent something they're proud of. 

This year, a group in Springville, UT marched as the 2000 stripling (young) warriors of Helaman.  This story, from the Book of Mormon, tells of a number of very young men who were recruited to defend their country.  While untrained militarily, they were very believing and faithful, obeying each order with exactness, leading them to be successful in every battle with no loss of life on their side.
Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.  And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it.  (Alma 56: 47-48)
For some who saw this parade, the idea of not having any doubt was deeply troubling to them -- we all have doubts of one kind or another.  Doubt is a very important emotion -- it prevents us from accepting things that aren't true.  It helps us survive against deception.  It helps us question our assumptions, and move to a position of knowing truth, if the facts are available to us.

Unfortunately, our culture doesn't countenance doubt.  Within religions, particularly the fundamentalist kind, doubt is a sign of weakness in the faith.  So, the story of Helaman's 2000 stripling warriors is a signal to the doubters to cast aside doubts and march with the faithful...

And that can be painful, indeed.

I have a different view of doubt.  To me, "doubt" is a temporary, unresolved negative feeling toward a given belief. If I no longer believe a given thing, it's no longer in "doubt".  If I decide that the evidence is insufficient to make a belief decision, then I can suspend judgment, but again, I am no longer in 'doubt'.  Doubt is the moment of hesitancy, the point at which one feels that a thing believed may not be 'true'.  I see doubt as a necessary, temporary feeling, motivating me to resolve the area of doubt, and there is a time and place for doubt.

Where "doubt" doesn't make sense.

The story of the 2000 stripling soldiers equates a lack of doubt with success in a military setting.  This is entirely reasonable.  "Doubt" can impair the warrior's ability to act decisively and courageously. If I have been given an order to take a hill, then my exclusive focus is to take the hill without questioning or doubting the merit of taking the hill. This does not mean that I think that there is merit in taking the hill: what I believe is irrelevant to the action taken in faith--therefore I suspend both belief and disbelief and simply do what needs to be done.

Yet, I wonder in a military situation whether 'not doubting' is appropriate in all military situations.  No soldier in a modern, ethical army should obey an order that violates law.  For example, I would hope that soldiers have enough doubt as to question wether their actions might harm civilians, and indeed, in modern armies, soldiers are trained over and over to recognize illegal and unethical situations, and to act accordingly.

Battle is often a difficult endeavor, and decisions are often clouded by the fog of war.  In the actual engagement of battle, the thinking has often to be set aside in favor of training.  In this sense, the training of the 2000 stripling warriors, paradoxically by their mothers, was effective in making correct decisions in the instant of the battle -- they did not doubt, because their training had been effective.  I suspect that part of that training, by mothers who did NOT typically go to war, was to make prudent moral decisions: their training had been sufficient to act morally and effectively without having to ponder and hesitate.

In leading people, establishing a direction for the future, I find that I often doubt as to what direction I should go, fearing failure if I make the wrong choice.   But to the extent that this doubt remains in my mind, hesitating my choices as a leader, I am also making a choice -- to do nothing.  And, such 'doing nothing' can be the wrong choice.  Leadership isn't being certain about the direction, it's about being decisive on the direction when such is necessary.  Leadership demands, at times, decisiveness, as noted by Paul:
For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for battle? (1 Corinthians 14:8) 
Yet, again, Paul is invoking the battle metaphor for a non-military situation.  In fact, when the metaphor is read in context, it has nothing at all to do with doubt or inability to take action: it's about the futility of speaking in tongues in a preaching situation, because the hearers won't understand the words -- it's about the opposite of doubt: clarity.

Another important battle metaphor from another faith tradition is that of the Bhagavad Gita, in a battle between two kindreds fighting for the right to rule, Arjuna, the leader of one goes with his charioteer to observe the battlefield.  His charioteer is Krisha -- god -- and he does not want to fight.  Arjuna has doubt.  But Krishna helps him overcome doubt to understand that there is a time and place for decisiveness - in any battle.  Later in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that the "field" of battle is really "the body", or in other words, the battle is within us.  The warriors on the battlefield are our attributes -- our gunas -- the things that may serve in some time and place, and in others, not.  When it is time, it's important to kill, or cast aside, our "gunas" -- our desires, our appetites, our passions, and do what is needed. 

But these stories are myths and metaphors: whenever we literalize them, or take them too far, we run the risk of absurdity: we are not military.   For years I set aside the Gita as having a very narrow worldview of killing one's kindred -- I had been taking the text literally.  But when I realized that the Gita is absolutely metaphorical -- a myth that never was but always is -- I learned that the war we are fighting, if any, is with our own selves, to overcome the gunas (worldly attributes) that bind us down and limit our freedom to act with authenticity.

So, to the extent that doubt impairs our ability to act when action is demanded, then doubt is not appropriate.  I might go so far as to say that at this point, it is too late for doubt -- a decision is required, and the time for training has long passed.  In these moments, making a choice, being confident in that choice, and moving forward.  Yet these moments of decisiveness are few and far between.  Our lives are filled with time where we can make considered decisions, where we have time, and where that time allows us to...doubt.
Where doubt is absolutely necessary

Doubt is an integral feeling within our emotional mind.  It occurs when we encounter thoughts or sensory input that call into question what we have already stored in our belief structure.  To be precise, I will use the term "schema" to refer to the structure of our stored beliefs. 

We don't store information in our schema in nice neat folders.  We receive input from our senses and our thoughts, and our minds need to store them somewhere.  Instead of an image or recording of those thoughts or sensory impressions, we store associations to what we already have in our schema.  We see a chair made of brown wood in a particular location and we associate that object "this chair" with our sense of what "chair" means, as well as to other objects: wood, "brown", etc.  We may store this chair in our episodal memory -- with this place and time.  Each of these data add to our schema by association. 

Importantly, if we have discovered something about this chair, we may have a positive or negative experience about the chair.  As we sit on a chair, we learn it's usefulness -- we trust the chair.  This feeling of certainty is important, because we have identified "chair" as being something that keeps us alive, it helps us -- we trust it... We have faith in the chair.  As we have come to understand the neurological workings of our minds, "faith" is a neural link to the "certainty" emotion within our mind's schema.

What happens when we sit on a chair and it breaks?  We hurt ourselves, or we certainly see how we could have hurt ourselves.  Within our minds, this new data causes a negative emotional association within our schema about this chair, and potentially all chairs we have associated into our schema.  The link to "certainty" is now in conflict with the link to "fear".  In fact, our minds utterly detest this feeling of fear about something we formerly held as certain.  On a large scale, this feeling of contempt is called "cognitive dissonance", but on the scale of a singular event, it is called "doubt". 

Thus, we cannot avoid "doubt".  It is part of our ability to learn. It keeps us alive, as we learn, through our own experience, to distinguish things that are good for us, or evil for us.  While all other chairs may be ok, there is something now that causes us concern about the integrity and safety of that chair.

But here is the thing: if we allow this negative emotion to paralyze our feelings about all chairs, then we have made an incorrect association within our schema.  Curiously, the permanent neural associations are not made immediately within the mind -- neural connections take time to establish themselves.  Thus, in a learning experience, when something negative happens, it's important to sort out quickly what the cause of the problem was.  For example, when a child learns to ride a bicycle, if s/he falls, it's important to get the child back on the bike quickly in order to complete the positive nature of the experience.  Removing the child at the point of negative experience tends to leave in place a negative experience about bicycles. Thus, when we allow guilt to fester, to remain unresolved, there is a danger of extending the neural negative association beyond where it is appropriate.

Returning to the chair, if I allow the experience of the broken chair to sit in my mind, or to affect my impression of all chairs, then my doubt is harmful to me.  On the other hand, if I come to realize that "this chair" has a specific attribute or flaw, then my "doubt" is resolved: I have a justified belief that such attributes or flaws are the issue, and not all chairs. Once I know the truth, then my faith is restored in chairs, albeit with a new-found exception.  My schema has been altered by this experience, or in much simpler terms: I have learned something.

This is what I might call "experiential learning", or "learning through our own experience to distinguish good and evil".  It is a powerful method of teaching and learning.  It involves making mistakes, experiencing doubt, and by resolving doubt at the point of experience, we become more intelligent and enlightened beings.  Being open to doubt allows us to be humble: to recognize that we could be wrong, and then to correct it based upon the new facts.

Doubt as the Antithesis of Authoritarian Faith
In the military metaphor and in the example of the chair, "faith" was a learned behavior -- a trust in something that empowered action.  For stripling warriors, their action in faith, without doubting, empowered them to be successful in their military endeavors.  In the case of the chair, my faith in the usefulness of a chair means I can confidently act -- to sit down on the chair and make use of it.

I have no doubt that unresolved doubt is nearly the opposite of faith.   One cannot trust in faith that which one does not trust due to doubt.  But what kind of "faith" fears doubt?  If doubt is a necessary part of learning, then shouldn't doubt be part of the enhancement of our faith?  Once I understand what flaws there are in certain chairs, then is not my faith more mature in chairs?

To answer these questions, we need to go back to the concept of our mental schema -- how we construct what we believe within our minds.  There is another type of learning than "experiential learning".  We call it "indoctrination", and it is used by authoritarian systems to instill the principles required by the system. 

Authoritarian systems dictate a specific, hierarchal schema of knowledge and behavior.  The hierarchal nature of the schema is due to the underlying core principles of the authoritarian system -- the autocratic rule it must instill upon its adherents.  Within fundamental religions, the core principles are that an authoritarian god has dictated his will verbatim to his prophets, and that this prophetic word is infallible and inerrant.

Authoritarian systems often try to monopolize the education process.  We see examples of this in the way the Taliban have attempted to terrorize teachers and children within secular schools, and the push toward teaching creationism or "intelligent design" in order to preserve the infallibility of the literal interpretation of the Bible. 

Authoritarian systems use the process of "indoctrination" to create in the minds of adherents their specific hierarchal schema, or tree-structure, of knowledge of good and evil.  Concepts such as infallibility and inerrancy are used to connect this schema with the emotional feeling of certainty.  Distinctly illogical concepts and behaviors are taught as being essential, in order to alter the adherent's ability to use logic as a means to determine truth -- instead, "truth" is defined within the bounds of the schema, and anything else is suspect.

Doubt in the authoritarian teaching is considered a weakness, and is never countenanced.  Thus, adherents in an authoritarian system tend to have to put aside feelings of doubt, and embrace the authoritarian schema without questioning or doubt.  Manipulative techniques such as splitting ("You're either for us or against us", "It's either all true or the biggest fraud in history"), combined with lock-in techniques holding entire families into the system and shunning those who doubt create a hostile environment for any doubt.

When Doubt Leads to Faith Crisis

Authoritarian control over doubt does not last forever, particularly in today's climate of open information sharing via the internet and other means.  As the adherent to an authoritative faith schema shelves doubt, at some point, the doubt is too overwhelming to ignore. 

I think of this moment of faith crisis is a collapse of the authoritarian schema.  When the core principles of infallibility are questioned and found wanting, and when the authoritarian approach has been to split the adherent with the false, "all or nothing" dichotomy, then all the values and doctrines associated with the hierarchal, dogmatic schema are likely to collapse as well.  The adherent in such a condition finds him or herself without an anchor within the faith.  To those friends and family still within the authoritarian system, such a faith collapse is seen as simply the working of evil "doubt" or the influence of "Satan", "the World", or other such sources.  To those still in the system, faith collapse and doubt are simply weaknesses or trials to overcome.  Friends and family will hope and pray that the doubter will return to the blissful position of full faith.

This forces a choice on the doubter: either to ignore the cognitive dissonance caused by flaws in the core principles of the authoritarian system, or to leave the system entirely, if no middle ground is found. 

Let me explore concrete examples.  For those in Christian fundamentalist systems that insist in biblically inerrancy, infallibility, and literalism, the creation stories are not to be questioned.  Miracles stated in the New Testament that are clearly outside of scientific possibility are literal facts.  When a person within that system learns the history and origin of scripture as taught by sholars, coupled with legitimate science, then the literalism becomes untenable: The earth was not created in six days or even six thousand years.  Adam and Eve did not live at the same time based upon DNA analysis, and death was not introduced into the world by virtue of partaking of forbidden fruit.  These are clearly and unambiguously myths, embraced by a semitic tribe and incorporated into the Torah used by Jesus and his followers.

To Mormons, the sacred experience is the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham.  These are posited as absolute evidence that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God and restored the original Church of Jesus Christ on the earth.  Doubters in the literalism of the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham are effectively shunned in the Church: the former apologists who left the Maxwell Institute to form their own self-appointed "Interpreter of Mormon Scripture" categorically reject any non-literal approach to the Book of Mormon as incoherent and apostate.  Yet, the evidence against Book of Mormon literalism is overwhelming, and the evidence against the Book of Abraham is concrete and absolute: Joseph Smith did not know how to translate egyptian heiroglypics.  Period.

Mormons are particularly attuned to prophetic infallibility.  Questioning leaders or doubting that which is proclaimed at General Conerence will find one on the way to apostasy and within a church court if one is not careful.  Statements like "The Lord will never lead the prophet astray" must be reconciled with flawed principles such as "Adam-God" and "Blacks and the Priesthood" -- indeed the Prophets did lead the the prophet astray and all the members along with him in many occasions.  Early leaders warned against the principle of prophetic infallibility, but today's church instills it in children from the earliest years of primary.

Where does that lead the person who no longer can accept scriptural or prophetic infalliblity?

As I see it, there are some ways through this faith crisis:
  1. I can return to full faith, ignoring the evidence that these texts are mythological qne that prophets have always been fallible.  The challenge is that doubt will always be in the my schema.  I will have to live with unresolved doubt, trying to reconcile scientific fact with scriptural and prophetic infallibility and literalism.  Living with such cognitive dissonance and doubt can adversely affect the soul, and prevent me from embracing the full spectrum of truth and life.
  2. I can pretend.  This is to live in constant conflict with the faith system, and to struggle constantly with personal integrity and authenticity.  While I may have resolved cognitive dissonance by simply rejecting faith, the lack of authenticity of this path is cancerous to the soul.
  3. I can leave the faith system entirely.  True, there may be consequences to friends and family who remain behind in the faith, but if personal integrity is important, then perhaps my friends and family will understand.  They often do not, and this path often does not retain those family and friend relationships.
  4. I can adopt a Middle Way -- one where I am in charge of my spirituality, and while I may participate in a given faith system, I no longer am bound to its authoritarian control of my personal faith schema.  I am honest about my personal beliefs or lack thereof, but at the same time, compassionate and accommodating of those who don't share my beliefs. Of the three, this is not only the least common, it may be the most difficult.
It may be obvious that I favor the Middle Way approach.  I have tried all of them, and found them wanting.  On the other hand, the Middle Way has helped me embrace the good things of my chosen religion, while being open to many possibilities from many different sources.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


I've always been intrigued at the Jewish idea of Atonement: once a year, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Book of Life is opened, and Jewish people draw inward to determine where their life does not fit into the Book of Life, and then, identifying behaviors that aren't consistent with what is expected by God, they place their 'sins' on what was a 'scapegoat' -- a type of sacrificial lamb, and make a determination to live in tune with the better life.  The scapegoat, no longer sacrificed or sent afield as in ancient days, is symbolic of where we set aside our sins.  What is fascinating is that "Atonement", to the observant Jew, involves deep personal responsibility.

As the Jewish Christian community evolved, and the temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the community came to associated Jesus Christ as the "suffering servant", the "scapegoat", in a symbolic sense, that would take upon himself our sins.  It was clear to the Jewish Christians that Jesus Christ as the "Atonement" symbol was deeply symbolic.

On the other hand, Paul proclaimed the Corinthians that he had taught them that "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures." (1 Cor 15:3)  To the Greek converts, who became the majority of Christians by the end of the first century, the idea of "Atonement" had departed from the association with Yom Kippur.  Paul had seen in Christ a relief from his personal feelings of depravity, that the unredeemed man was condemned to death.  Later, Augustine would magnify the concept of original sin and guilt, leading to the Calvinist concepts of total depravity of mankind.

Along with the evolving idea that mankind was inherently evil were an evolving set of ideas around Atonement.  Whether these were "Moral Influence" -- that God needed to send Christ to put mankind back on track, or "Ransom" theory -- that God needed to pay Satan a ransom for the sins of mankind from Adam, to the Penal Substitutionary Model -- where mankind was so inherently evil that someone had to satisfy God's justice by paying the penalty for our sins in order to redeem mankind to the justice of God.

But here is the deal: all the Christian concepts of Atonement, including those taught in the Book of Mormon and in the LDS Church, are based upon man being completely estranged from God: the natural man is an enemy of God.  And while there might be some aspect of our personality that is worldly and evil, LDS beliefs are more that we have divine nature, an uncreated intelligence, co-eternal with God, that is better reflected that we are truly, literally, in ways we cannot fully embrace, children of God.  All of us. 

Given all this history of Atonement and the our true, divine nature, I do not believe the standard definition of Atonement: the concept that God is so hung up on justice that Jesus had to be tortured and killed in order to satisfy his thirst for vengeance for our sins. All the stories told in the church to try to explain this concept simply have failed to convince me that this makes any sense.

As well, I'm also reject the idea that original sin has any relevance to us today.  LDS Doctrine is that Christ's atonement has saved us (past tense) from the fall and therefore man is free. Since all this has already happened, the concept of original sin and fallen man is now moot: we are free agents, and I believe this deeply. The symbolism, however, of fallen man and redemption is very important.

As humans, we seemed to be easily estranged from ourselves, from each other, and from whatever God may be defined as being. The Atonement is an amazing principle: we are forgiven already, so stop feeling guilty and get on with living. Oh, and be One with your self, with god, and with each other. At-one-ment means just that.

If we accept that because of the Atonement of Christ, then the original Jewish principle of the Yom Kippur scapegoat symbolism is deeply meaningful.  Let us cast aside our sins and move on to the enlightened life, each day (yom) can thus be the day of atonement (literally, what "yom kippur" means, when we recognize our deficiencies, cast them onto the symbolic atonement sacrifice, and embrace the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

To me, atonement is best explained in the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery. When Jesus asked where her accusers were, she didn't see any. Then he said, "Neither do I condemn thee, go and sin no more." He forgave her, releasing her from the bondage of her sexual addiction, then charged her to live her life in harmony with the gospel (as it were).

It's important to note that he had already forgiven her before any act on her part. The idea that the atonement is conditional places conditions and limits on God's love, with is both infinite and unconditional. He has forgiven us from the foundation of this world -- we need only accept this atonement: he stands at the door and knocks, we need but to open up the door. We do not earn atonement, we embrace it -- we become one with it.

My testimony of the Atonement is a personal one. I was once addicted to alcohol, mainly because of the guilt I felt when I took a drink. I could never drink moderately, because I felt that I had already sinned, so I might as well enjoy it. It became an obsession -- i simply could not stop. I went into AA, because frankly, all church repentence processes, including going to bishop after bishop, failed to work. At the point that I 'turned my will and my life over' to a higher power, whom I felt was 'christ', I had a complete removal of even the desire to drink at all. ever. I did not have to go through a period of "repentance" and proving myself worthy, although when I did go to the bishop after this release from addiction through the atonement, I had to go through church discipline hell. (given the power of my atonement experience, I have an un-testimony of CD as a result of this). I came to the deep realization that atonement is absolutely real and tangible. I attribute this personal miracle to Christ. While this release from addiction could have been a result of releasing myself from church-imposed guilt, I don't know, nor do I care. The personal, spiritual experience I had from this release was very tangible to me.

Now I really don't know whether Jesus Christ will serve as my judge someday in the eternities as part of an entrance examination in the the "heaven" per the 'standard definition' -- to me, he already has judged me and found me to be acceptable to him. Completely and totally. The arms of his love completely encircled me and he has stood by my side since. So to me, Jesus atoned for me, and is my personal Savior and Redeemer.