Tag Archive | nature of god

Chapter 8: Prayer

On one level, I really like the idea of prayer. Regardless of who or what is listening in, a practice of daily reflection on the beauty of the world around us and perhaps a sincere attempt to rise above our daily cares is great, and to the degree that the manual focuses on gratitude and opportunities for daily course-corrections, I can get behind it 100 percent.

The rub for me is the idea of petitionary prayer.

This first started to break down for me in connection with priesthood blessings.

An aside

Any discussion of priesthood blessings quickly treads into some very tender places, and I know several people who have a great deal of faith in the power of a priesthood blessing to heal. Indeed, I have participated in giving blessings (even after I have lost my faith in their efficacy) that I count as profoundly sacred experiences. I hope that no one will take what I say next as denigrating or discounting their experience in any way.

I no longer have (never really had?) what most people would consider a “testimony” of many of the important truth claims of the Mormon church. However, I continue to participate in ordinances. I prepare, bless, and pass the sacrament, stand in during ordinations and settings apart when called upon, and, when asked, I help administer blessings to the sick. My bishop generally knows my position due to a conversation we had about (not) renewing my temple recommend, and he doesn’t seem to have a problem with my participation.

Sometimes I feel like I am misrepresenting myself or something by continuing to participate in these ceremonies, but in general, I don’t feel bad about it. Indeed, some of my most profound spiritual experiences have come from taking part in these rites that I barely believe in anymore, and I don’t feel as if those who are on the receiving end are worse for having me officiate.

When a friend called to see if I could help him administer a blessing to his child who had a serious accident, I was privileged to lay my hands on top of his and offer some support at a tremendously difficult time. When another friend was laid low by an aggressive cancer (to which he eventually succumbed), I was privileged to take the sacrament to his bedside, kneel down, bless and administer it. These are important memories to me and I am grateful for them, but they haven’t changed how I think about these ordinances.

(I would welcome any thoughts about the proper level of disclosure that should be made in these kinds of situations — is the doubter obligated to announce the fact that he probably doesn’t share the believer’s perspective about a particular ordinance?)

Back to the main event

With all that said, I find petitionary prayer — prayer where we ask and expect to receive some kind of specific blessing — increasingly problematic. The priesthood blessing is just one example of this kind of prayer.

Why should it be the case that a priesthood blessing has any extra power than a normal prayer? Is it really true that God would withhold a blessing that He would have otherwise granted had only it been asked for in the proper way (as the LDS Bible Dictionary seems to suggest)? That seems kind of petty for a supreme being.

From priesthood blessings, we can move on to the usual kind of ‘blessings’ that we commonly ask for in daily prayer. Is a plea for “safety in our travels” really responsible for fewer traffic accidents? (In principle, this is an empirical question… Utah roadways ought to be demonstrably safer on Sunday afternoons as church is letting out given the sheer volume of prayers that ask that we “return to our homes in safety”).

What about ‘blessings on the food’? Is Mormon cooking transmuted in some way by all of the requests that it “nourish and strengthen our bodies”?

Some of this criticism is unfair — at its best, these types of petitionary prayers direct the mind of the pray-er toward fulfilling the asked for blessing. You’ve probably heard the injunction: “pray like everything depends on God, but work like everything depends on you” (or something like that — the internet doesn’t seem to agree on the source or the proper formulation)… we are Christ’s hands in the world… it is usually through another person that God answers our prayers…. All variations on the same theme.

And so, in the end, God get’s the credit for everything good that happens, and we are to blame for everything that goes wrong. Heads, He wins; tails, we lose.

That’s kind of a downer — sorry… maybe I’ll have something nicer to say about it all tomorrow.

Chapter 1: The Nature of God

Once we allow for the possibility of the divine, it is only natural to try to understand just what it is we are talking about.

I don’t think it is entirely controversial to say that we Mormons don’t do mystery very well. In fact, I have sat in many Sunday School and early-morning seminary classes where the very idea that Truth could be mysterious was ridiculed. One of the founding principles of the faith was that many “plain and precious” had been lost. Mormons talk about the “Great Apostasy” — the period of time from shortly after the death of Christ and his original disciples up until 1820 and Joseph Smith’s divine encounter — as  a time when evil and designing (or perhaps well-intentioned but Satanically influenced) men twisted the meaning of simple gospel truths and transmogrified them into something mysterious and incomprehensible (for a more charitable discussion of the relationship between Mormonism and the creeds of the wider Christian world, see this).

This is a compelling narrative (and would have been perhaps especially resonant with the virulent anti-Catholicism of Joseph’s day), but I think it is at least possible that the pendulum has swung too far away from the mysterious.

The manual’s very brief discussion of the nature of God first makes the point that man was created in the image of God, and therefore, to quote its anonymous authors, “[God’s] eternal spirit”–like ours–“is housed in a tangible body of flesh and bones.” This straightforward, but radical, reading of Genesis seems to shock and scandalize the broader Christian community (do a google search for Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet for a taste of the controversy).

I really love some of the implications of this heretical theology. Terryl Givens enunciates this well, “That God has a heart that beats in sympathy with ours is the truth that catalyzes millions—that he feels real sorrow, rejoices with real gladness, and weeps real tears. This, as Enoch learned, is an awful, terrible, yet infinitely comforting truth” (from this article).

But I think we sometimes take this to ridiculous extremes.

On one hand, it is sometimes often used as a way to deny the empirically demonstrable reality of human evolution (ask yourself if you really believe that God has nostrils — lungs? lower intestines? For that matter, is God fully equipped with vestigial organs?).

This also sometimes takes us to places that would really be better left un-speculated upon. For some reason, it was very important to Bruce McConkie’s worldview that God was in the most literal sense the father of Jesus Christ. Now, McConkie was fantastically, spectacularly, and utterly wrong on many, many occasions (you really have to admire the ballsy-ness that led him to publish Mormon Doctrine in the first place), and it is perhaps unfair to trot out some of his sillier ideas. But no one ever accused bloggers of being fair. I won’t delve any further into the lurid details here, but it should be sufficient to say that I think this kind of “doctrine” is entirely unhelpful.

Most seriously however, I think there is a real danger in having a god that is too familiar. Perhaps only because it is fresh on my mind, let me appeal to the mystics once again. Armstrong discusses mysticism as a way of combating the idolatrous impulse–the desire to create god in our image. It seems to me that one of the great advantages of leaving a little mystery in God’s nature is that it restores some of the “divine distance” (to borrow from Givens again) that Joseph Smith enthusiastically closed wherever possible. The mystic traditions acknowledge that God is too big for any one person to hold in his or her imagination. The cocksure pronouncements of Mormons (pest personified in my mind my Elder McConkie) have a tendency to quickly slide into arrogance, and we might do well to back off from overconfidence in the face of the divine.

One of the things that I find most engaging about god in the mystical tradition is the vastness that I find there. It is analogous to what I find great about poetry — by jarring us out of our normal ways of thinking, it hints at transcendent truth. Similarly with the mystical. If we too readily assume that we know what Joseph was talking about when he said that God is “an exalted man” who “sits enthroned in yonder heavens,” we risk closing the door on truths that cannot be spoken.

A masculine god?

A final problem… in the short 11 sentences in this section, I count no less than 11 masculine pronouns with reference to God.

One of the great tragedies of the “mainstreaming” of Mormonism is the way in which we seem intent on erasing some of the most beautiful elements of our theology. I am not the first to comment on the absence of the divine feminine from the most recent edition of the manual. In past editions of the manual, one could find Her between the lines in references to “heavenly parents,” but even those have been removed in the 2011 version.

Others have made the case for a more prominent role for a feminine counterpart to the traditional image of god, and I feel like any attempt by me to add to what has already been said on the topic would be inadequate.

The God that I believe in is far bigger than the parochial, white-bearded kingly father-figure that we have foisted upon us at times.

Chapter 1: There is a God

Chapter 1 of the manual begins with an argument that I am finding less and less persuasive. Alma‘s argument for the existence of God has a slightly more sophisticated corollary among modern deists who argue that the “parameters of the universe” seem too finely tuned to be set by chance (if you are unfamiliar, see this). In a recent general conference address, Russell Nelson made a similar point with his unfortunately smug dismissal of “big bang” science.

These kinds of arguments disappoint me most in their refusal to engage with the strikingly beautiful and fully materialist accounts of man’s (and the universe’s) origins. We can probably forgive Alma as the cosmology of either his time (assuming his historicity for a moment) or Joseph Smith’s time (relaxing that perhaps problematic assumption) really had no plausible competition. Russell Nelson shouldn’t so easily be given a pass.

To me, modern creation myths (like this one by David Christian) are absolutely awe-inspiring. I am almost embarrassingly sentimental about these kinds of things. Corny youtube videos featuring Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking like this one or this one will reliably send chills down my spine. When I contemplate the diversity and unity of life on earth — the fascinating complexity that surrounds us, I cannot help but take a reverential attitude toward the whole amazing story.

But, of course, none of this requires a god.

It seems silly to me to argue that the “finely tuned” parameters of the universe are evidence of some unseen watchmaker. I am not the first to observe that there is some pretty serious selection bias in universes that we are able to observe. It will always only be the case that universes that produce life (and thus the ones that are capable of producing living beings to notice them) will have the precise conditions necessary to support life.

Indeed, I am inclined to find the materialist accounts of life’s origins more inspiring than the traditional creation narratives that I have grown up with. When Carl Sagan says that we are “star stuff” and I pause to reflect on the idea that we are all in some profound way embodied expressions of the universe engaged in a great collective act of self-contemplation… it’s mind-blowing.

With all of that said, I’m not ready to give up on the divine altogether.

I’ve been reading Karen Armstrong’s excellent History of God, and it has greatly expanded my thinking on the subject. She outlines an evolution of thought in the monotheistic traditions that, on balance, I believe reflects well on the religious endeavor. For all of its faults (and there are many), the religious impulse has been a tremendous force for good in the world.

I am particularly drawn to her discussion of mystical traditions in the monotheistic religions. We’ll dive more deeply into the nature of God in the next few posts, but the most compelling “evidence” for me of the divine is wrapped together with the ineffable and transcendent I catch glimpses of from time to time in poetry, nature, and the heart-rending beauty of the human experience.

I am well aware of the attempts at accounting for these types of divine encounters in materialist terms (for example the fine scholarship of Scott Atran or Ara Norenzayan), and we would do well to seriously consider what science has to say about the religious experience. However, a satisfactory explanation of a thing does not allow us to curtly dismiss it. While I think that people take Gould’s “non-overlapping majisteria” too far as a cover for some of the more indefensible claims of religion, there are some realms in which science is not well-equipped to fully understand.

And so it is with God (or perhaps gods). Something beyond reason pulls me toward the divine, and for now that is enough for me.