Sunday, November 30, 2008

Peter, Social Capital and Understanding Agency

Peter and Social Capital

Two and a half months ago, I (briefly) told the story of Peter, a young man who moved from BYU, Utah and a predominantly Mormon culture to NC State, Raleigh and his non-member girl-friend Chelsea (again, all names have been changed). I explained that my job as a ward missionary is to provide Peter with social capital that is supportive of his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Social capital is important, because it is the number one predictor of religious belief or conversion. To use a secular example, I'm much more likely to believe that the world is round if I'm around lots of other people who believe the world is round, regardless of whether or not that belief is accurate. So too, are we much more likely to believe specific religious doctrines and churches if we are around other people who believe in the truthfulness of those doctrines and churches.

Since my initial observations on the importance of providing Peter with social contacts supportive of belief in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Alana and I have met with him and Chelsea once (and we will meet with them again next week). I feel cautiously optimistic that we are developing a good relationship, and I hope that our relationship will eventually provide both Peter and Chelsea with the social capital that will make her baptism in the church and his reactivation seem like natural and logical steps (the assumption is that social capital normalizes behavior that might otherwise seem strange--like paying 10% of your income to the Church, for instance).

Now, I recently received an anonymous comment on the post that originally described Peter and Chelsea's situation asking of social capital, "but isn't this afterall just what one might call 'peer pressure'?" The answer, to be blunt, is no. The relationships which make up our social capital may occasionally be used to exert peer pressure, but social capital exists regardless of whether it is used to influence an individual in one direction or another. Let me illustrate this point with a personal example:

I have a brother Rich who graduated from Princeton. My relationship with Rich made it seem natural and desirable to go to Princeton even though he never encouraged me to do so. The social capital of our relationship made Princeton seem like a desirable option for my own education simply because Rich had gone there--for no other reason. Now, I also have a mother who loves me and who wanted me to go to Princeton (or some other Ivy League college) because she thought that I would never achieve my potential otherwise. My mother used her relationship with me to try and persuade me to apply for and attend one or another of these colleges. She took me on campus visits. She hounded me about application deadlines. She exerted pressure. (Ultimately, I never completed a college application for any institution other than Brigham Young University, a decision which I am very pleased with but one which my mother still bemoans. I love you Mom!)

I have social capital (good relationships) invested both in my brother Rich and in my mother, but only one of those individuals tried to use their social capital as a means of influencing my decision as to where I should apply for college. Developing a good relationship with someone generally means that you will view the behaviors and beliefs of that person with more respect, regardless of whether or not you try to pressure that individual into changing their behavior or beliefs. Peter is very well educated and has more than enough information; I'm not trying to provide new information or persuade him of anything--I'm only trying to develop a good relationship with him, in the hope that he will have one more reason to come to church each Sunday.

Understanding Agency

The same anonymous commenter (thanks for reading, by the way!) also had this to say:

"if we as mormons are truley persons of "free agency" then we should let peter find his own way back to the church. we should not lean on him, make him feel pressured, or overtly encourage him to stregthen his testomony. we should not question his motives, his peers, or his doubts. we should not undermine his conceptual maturity by reducing it to social interaction. peter may be at a crossroads in his life. we should treat him with the same love, respect, and adoration that was offered during his most pious state. if he indeed is a true believer, he will find his way back to the gospel."

Let me make a few comments on the concept of agency (notice I didn't use the word "free"--my wife gave an excellent talk on the subject of agency in church today, and she addresses that point here). We typically think of ourselves as agents, beings with agency, or "the power or authority to act" (from the American Heritage definition of "agent"). But there is another definition of agency that is, perhaps, even more applicable to our status as agents. Agency is also "the office or function of an agent or factor" (Oxford English Dictionary definition), where agent means "one that acts for or as the representative of another" (American Heritage).

When an individual becomes a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, they exercise their agency as individuals, and they agree that in the future they will act as an agent or representative of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we are baptized, we exercise our agency for the last time--we contractually obligate ourselves to act for and in behalf of Jesus Christ at all times and in all places. Doctrine and Covenants 64:29 teaches us that "Wherefore, as ye are agents, ye are on the Lord's errand; and whatever ye do according to the will of the Lord is the Lord's business." The word agents here clearly does not refer to our ability to make whatever choice we want; it refers to our status as agents of Jesus Christ who should be on his errand at all times and in all places, so that whatever we do is "according to the will of the Lord" and is therefore "the Lord's business." Until individuals have been baptized, "they are agents unto themselves" (Moses 6:56), but after they have made covenants, they become the Lord's servants, and "he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned" (D&C 58:29; see also verses 27-28).

Let me apply this understanding of our agency to Peter's case with a secular example:

Let's pretend that Peter is really Pedro, an Hispanic immigrant who applies for citizenship in the United States. Pedro's application is approved, and he shows up at the courthouse on a Saturday morning to take the oath of citizenship, which requires him to obey, honor and sustain the laws of the land. Pedro takes the oath, and everyone cheers. Sadly, however, after becoming a citizen of the United States, Pedro starts to spend time with and invest social capital in people who do not believe in obeying, honoring and sustaining the laws of the land. Pedro begins to break laws. Now, as Pedro's friend, should you "overtly encourage" him to strengthen his testimony of the laws of the land, or should you allow him to continue breaking them without questioning his motives, peers and doubts about the law? Is it wrong to attribute Pedro's "conceptual maturity" to his interactions with a group of people that don't respect the law? Do I love Pedro any less because I want him to stop breaking the law before he has to suffer the consequences?

Peter has made covenants: in the premortal existence, at baptism and in the temple. He can choose to break those covenants, but he will have to suffer the penalty affixed in the law. Because I don't think Peter would appreciate my concern for him if I tried to remind him of those covenants and the consequences of breaking them, I'm not trying to pressure him--not because I think that pressuring is inherently wrong, but because I don't think it would work. Instead, I'm trying to develop a good relationship with him and hoping that he will choose, of his own will and volition, to act once more as an agent of Jesus Christ at all times and in all places.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Be Fruitful

Each March, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints invites the submission of original music and poetry "to encourage musical talent and bring new musical works to light." Among other categories, the church invites the submission of potential hymn texts. Now, one of the things that hymns do is teach doctrine, and since the last edition of the hymnbook was released, a substantial new statement of doctrine has been issued by the First Presidency--The Family: A Proclamation to the World. This unique document teaches at least eight principles not taught by any hymn currently available in our hymnbook:

1) Marriage is ordained of God.
2) The family is central to God's plan.
3) Gender is an eternal and purposeful characteristic.
4) God's command to multiply and replenish the earth is still effective.
5) Parents are accountable to God for raising their children.
6) The family is ordained of God.
7) Families are encouraged to work and play together.
8) Husbands and wives are to act in concert, as equal partners.

In addition, Elder Bednar's talk from the February 2006 Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting (available here) provides a ninth principle related to the family that had never been explicitly stated prior to the most recent edition of our hymnbook:

9) Each gender complements and perfects the other.

It seems to me that a new hymn which teaches some of this doctrine would be an appropriate addition to our hymnbooks (as would the Proclamation be an appropriate addition to our scriptures). In that spirit, I have composed the following poem/hymn text:

Be Fruitful

All newborn spirits gain at birth
The bodies they will need
To sit upon their Parents’ thrones
And act as gods in deed.
It matters not our gender here;
We owned it long before
We came to earth in our attempt
To live with God once more.

What matters is our real desire
To find and wed a mate
Without whom we cannot progress
To God’s celestial state.
For men and women cannot be
Exalted while apart;
Our better halves must complement
And help perfect each heart.

That marriage was ordained in heav’n,
The scriptures make it plain—
Where Adam, Eve and God all join
To make one flesh of twain.
As equal partners, we too must
Learn to obey God’s will,
And His command to multiply
Remains effective still.

Not surprisingly, I think that the process of writing this poem/hymn has been far more beneficial to me than it will to anyone else--especially since an earlier version of this hymn/poem was already (very nicely) rejected by General Music Committee, which reviews church music submissions. Still--it's been a worthwhile endeavor and learning experience for me. Do some learning yourself--submit your music or text by following the instructions found here.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

PPI: Personal Pornography Interview

In Elder's Quorum today, we had THE TALK. If you are a man, or if you are a woman who has ever been to priesthood session of General Conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, you know what THE TALK is. THE TALK is when a priesthood leader pleads with his male listeners not to view pornography and exhorts those who are consumers of pornography to get ecclesiastical (and potentially professional) help. THE TALK is almost always uncomfortable, but I thought my Elders Quorum President, Matt Willis, did a phenomenal job today. More important, for the first time in a long time--perhaps since I got THE TALK on a monthly basis as a teenager--I actually heard a new idea for preventing pornography use: the PPI.

In Mormon culture, PPI stands for Personal Priesthood Interview, a (supposedly) regular meeting between men and their immediate priesthood leaders where priesthood holders give an account of their lives (in general terms--confessions of sins are saved for interviews with the Bishop) and receive encouragement in adhering more closely to the principles of Christ's gospel. But one member of my Elder's Quorum had a new suggestion that he had received from a relative.

That relative is a newlywed, and each month, he sits down with his wife, and she conducts a PPI--a Personal Pornography Interview--where she looks her husband in the eye and asks him whether he has viewed pornography in the past month. What a marvelous practice! Sexual intimacy is something that should be kept sacred and discussed (in any sort of detail) only between a husband and wife; but if the lines of communication are not kept open on a reliable basis, needed discussion about such a delicate subject may not be passed on. More importantly, I have to believe that such an interview would provide a powerful deterrent for those who are tempted to view pornography.

At any rate--it's a new idea, and if you've heard THE TALK before, you know that those are relatively rare.

The Fourth Commandment

In 1747, a young missionary named David Brainerd died. He had spent the last four years of his life preaching to the Delaware tribe of Native Americans, living among them and teaching them about Jesus Christ. His life story, as recorded in his journal and popularized by Jonathan Edwards was a bestseller in the eighteenth century and is still in print (and read) today.

As a full time representative of Jesus Christ, Brainerd took his religion a little more seriously than most, but as I read through his journal, nothing struck me more than his reverence for the Sabbath Day. On each Sunday that he made an entry in his journal, Brainerd began the entry with the title "Lord's Day" and then described his day's activities. On one Sunday, Brainerd writes that he preached to a group of Christiant "about sanctifying the Sabbath, if possible to solemnize their minds; but when they were at a little distance, they again talked freely about secular affairs. O I thought what a hell it would be to live with such men to eternity!" (63). For Brainerd, keeping the Sabbath day holy not only means avoiding secular affairs such as work, play, etc.; it also means avoiding thoughts and speach about such things. How do you measure up to Brainerd's standards for Sabbath-Day observance? Would you make it to Brainerd's heaven?

Now, Brainerd's standard may not be your own; I'm not even suggesting that it is mine. But, the depth of his feeling for the Sabbath Day was a nice reminder to me of how I ought to feel and think about the day which our Heavenly Father has designated for our worship of Him. With the possible exception of the first commandment to "have no other gods before me," (especially if you're a fan of Spencer W. Kimball's talk, "The Gods we Worship,") I can think of no commandment violated more frequently and casually than the Lord's commandment to "[r]emember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Ex. 20:3, 8). There are only two commandments (of the ten most famous) that ask us to DO something; most are DON'Ts. But that doesn't make honoring your parents and remembering the Sabbath any less important.

Much as a one hundred percent focus on spiritual things is desirable, it may not be wholly practical: if you're leaving for a trip on Monday morning, you might need to talk to your spouse about that and pack on Sunday night, unless you had enough foresight to take care of those activities on Saturday. I don't think the Lord would condemn you for such an action. But--there are standards which modern prophets have given us for Sabbath day observance, and I've collected a selection of quotes on the subject that I'd like to share with you.

“Our observance or nonobservance of the Sabbath is an unerring measure of our attitude toward the Lord personally and toward his suffering in Gethsemane, his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead. It is a sign of whether we are Christians in very deed, or whether our conversion is so shallow that commemoration of his atoning sacrifice means little or nothing to us.”

James E. Faust, “The Lord’s Day,” Ensign, Nov. 1991, 33

“The Sabbath is a holy day in which to do worthy and holy things. Abstinence from work and recreation is important but insufficient. The Sabbath calls for constructive thoughts and acts, and if one merely lounges about doing nothing on the Sabbath, he is breaking it. To observe it, one will be on his knees in prayer, preparing lessons, studying the gospel, meditating, visiting the ill and distressed, sleeping, reading wholesome material, and attending all the meetings of that day to which he is expected. To fail to do these proper things is a transgression on the omission side.”

Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969, pp. 96–97.

“When He instructed us to be unspotted from the world, I believe He not only expected us to stay away from worldly places on the Sabbath, but also to dress appropriately on His day. I often wonder what happened to the good old saying, 'Sunday best.' If our dress deteriorates to everyday attire, our actions seem to follow the type of clothing we wear. Of course, we would not expect our children to remain dressed in their church clothes all day, but neither would we expect them to dress in clothes that would not be appropriate for the Sabbath.”

L. Tom Perry, “The Importance of the Family,” Ensign, May 2003, 40

"...appropriate Sunday activities include (1) writing personal and family journals, (2) holding family councils, (3) establishing and maintaining family organizations for the immediate and extended family, (4) personal interviews between parents and children, (5) writing to relatives and missionaries, (6) genealogy, (7) visiting relatives and those who are ill or lonely, (8) missionary work, (9) reading stories to children, and (10) singing Church hymns.”

Hartman Rector Jr., “The Resurrection,” Ensign, Nov. 1990, 76

"The mechanic will be able to turn out more and better products in six days than in seven. The doctor, the lawyer, the dentist, the scientist will accomplish more by trying to rest on the Sabbath than if he tries to utilize every day of the week for his professional work. I would counsel all students, if they can, to arrange their schedules so that they do not study on the Sabbath. If students and other seekers after truth will do this, their minds will be quickened and the infinite Spirit will lead them to the verities they wish to learn. This is because God has hallowed his day and blessed it as a perpetual covenant of faithfulness."

James E. Faust, “The Lord’s Day,” Ensign, Nov. 1991, 33

Have a happy--and holy--Sabbath.