Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Getting Ready to Pop the Question? Read This First...

This post is a special gift to my bachelor readers, who might not realize that marriage--and especially marriage to Mormon maidens--is now within their financial grasp.

Like any other man, I had to show the future Mrs. Monk a glistening chunk of carbon before she would consent to marry me. For the last 150 years or so, Mormon bachelors have spent many an hour toiling away to buy the rock that would convince their girlfriends to marry them; toil no more, my brothers! Turns out that engagement rings are meant to purchase something that you don't want to buy--and that any morally upright Mormon maid doesn't want to sell.

Apparently engagement rings are a fairly recent invention, an insurance policy meant to decrease the likelihood that a jilted maiden would file a breach of promise lawsuit. We all know that young men are willing to lie in order to get young women to agree to have sex with them, and one of the lies that young men used (and probably still use) quite frequently involves a promise of marriage--"Of course, we're going to get married, so it's okay if sleep together tonight..." After convincing the object of their affections (read: lusts) to sleep with them, many of these young men reneged on their promise.

The engagement ring was intended to act as proof that a man had promised to marry a woman before deflowering her. If he canceled the engagement, he also forfeited the wedding ring, meaning that the young woman was not left empty-handed (although this legal jargon seems to indicate that men--at least in Connecticut--are now likely to recover the wedding ring if an engagement is canceled). So here's my question: If the engagement ring was basically conceived of as an insurance policy for young women who engaged in pre-marital sex under the belief that the young men who stole their virtue would marry them, why on earth would a Mormon bachelor give--or a Mormon woman expect to receive--such a thing? If the goal is a temple wedding, then he doesn't want to have pre-marital sex, and she doesn't need to worry about him leaving her in the lurch.

Seems to me that Mormon bachelors need to stand up for morality and boldly explain to their girlfriends that engagement rings represent a tradition of lust and concupiscence that a temple-going people should shun. Of course, it also seems to me that any Mormon bachelor who takes my advice should have a shiny carbon backup plan in his pocket, just in case his beloved doesn't take the news as well as one might hope. After all, as anyone who's ever seen a DeBeers commercial knows, diamonds--like temple marriages--are forever (even if the engagement isn't!).

Monday, September 28, 2009

"Bridle All Your Passions," Part II

It's not too hard to figure out why Alma's counsel to Shiblon on avoiding sexual temptation is a good idea, but Alma provides an explicit reminder of the stakes of this particular commandment in his subsequent rebuke to Corianton: "Know ye not, my son, that [sexual sins] are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?" (Alma 39:5). The negative consequences of sexual sin are made quite clear, but what are the spiritual blessings that naturally come to those who bridle their passions? After all, as King Mosiah teaches, there is a blessing--a positive externality--tied to every act of obedience: "he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you" (my emphasis; Mosiah 2:24). So by bridling "all your passions"--and not just your sexual passions, mind you--we do more than guarantee that we won't be spending the eternities with David in the telestial kingdom; we also earn certain blessings that are available to us in no other way, because "when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated" (D&C 130:21).

Most of us can easily connect the act of subduing our passions to improved social relationships, especially in marriage; the late President Gordon B. Hinckley taught a gathering of young women that "[i]f you can thus discipline yourselves, you will be grateful for as long as you live. Most of you will marry, and your marriage will be much the happier for your earlier restraint" (Discourses V. 2, 67). The Doctrine & Covenants also teach that controlling our passions--controlling the impulse "to exercise unrighteous dominion"--is important because doing so allows to have more natural and permanent social and familial relationships:

"No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness ... reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing for afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; that he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death" (D&C 121:41-44).

Both President Hinckley's exhortation and the Doctrine & Covenants understand the act of "putt[ing] off the natural man" as a means of social improvement (Mosiah 3:19), but I would like to emphasize a different spiritual blessing that is closely tied to the bridling of passions. When we bridle our passions, we are also given "pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul," and when we "let virtue garnish [our] thoughts unceasingly; then shall [our] confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distill upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. ... and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever" (D&C 121:42, 45-46). In these verses, the benefits of bridling our passions are less concrete and, apparently, less immediate: our soul expands, we are steeped in the doctrine of the priesthood, and everlasting dominion--the nature of God's existence--comes naturally to us. What does all this mean, and how is it connected to bridling our passions?

Consider this insight from Clement of Alexandria (the earliest, and therefore most authoritative, of the post-apostolic Christian fathers): "The whole creation is to be understood as a synthesis: the imposing of inner order on outer material" (from Nibley, Temple and Cosmos, 273). Clement's claim is consistent with revealed truths about the creation; as we learn in Abraham, the Gods (monotheism is another subject I'll bite my teeth into one of these days...) "counseled among themselves to form the heavens and the earth" BEFORE they actually "came down and formed these the generations of the heavens and of the earth" (Abraham 5:3-4). The act of creation is the act of translating mental images and understandings onto physical matter.

What does all of this have to do with bridling our passions? Consider: 1) Our passions are the products of a fallen, physical body. 2) When we "bridle" them, we impose a mental or spiritual order on material substance. In other words, the act of bridling our passions IS an act of creation. We are creating ourselves--or at least our future selves--by organizing and ordering our own bodies. It is in this sense that I understand Elder Bruce R. McConkie's suggestion that "[i]n a real though figurative sense, the book of life is the record of the acts of men as such record is written in their own bodies. It is the record engraven on the very bones, sinews, and flesh of the mortal body. That is, every thought, word, and deed has an affect [I think he means effect] on the human body; all these leave their marks, marks which can be read by Him who is Eternal as easily as the words in a book can be read" (Mormon Doctrine 97). As previously noted, apostles are entitled to express opinions that may not reflect official doctrine, but I believe that this particular opinion is consonant with scripture (see Revelation 20:12 on the books of life, and Alma 41 on the principle of restoration, as those who live celestial law are restored to celestial bodies, etc.). So--when we bridle our passions, our soul expands because we have extended our control over our physical bodies, and we are blessed with an everlasting dominion, because we have already begun to wield the creative power that we will exercise in the eternities.

If we believe that the act of bridling our passions is an act of creation, then we are practicing all the time for a future as gods and goddesses who will move from internal (physiological) creations to external (cosmological) creations. Bridling our passions--projecting an internal order onto unruly external material--is the best approximation in this mortal world of that which God did when he created the world. Understanding this truth provides insight into just why it is that "if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come" (D&C 130:19). The advantage that comes to those who diligently discipline their bodies and passions is not a reward or prize; it is a natural expansion of their abilities as creators that will allow them to be and create like God sooner than those who have not practiced imposing their will upon matter during their time on earth.

To sum up: there are serious negative consequences for individuals who do not bridle their passions, but for those of you who like to "accentuate the positive," just remind yourself that there are few things in which you come closer to the glory of God's creative power than when you exercise a little discipline and constrain your desires, appetites, and passions within the bounds that the Lord has set forth for us in the scriptures.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Bridle All Your Passions," Part I (Parental Guidance Advised)

In the Book of Mormon, Alma offers his second son Shiblon some advice that--given his third son's interest in the harlot Isabel--might have been better directed toward Corianton. He tells Shiblon to "bridle all your passions." We commonly interpret this counsel as advice that is particularly applicable to cases of sexual temptation, and secular research has recently confirmed the wisdom of making decisions about sexual morality well before the time to actually make such decisions is nigh.

Dan Ariely--the author of Predictably Irrational, and a man with interesting fashion insights--has done important research on the bridling of passions. He asked a number of male undergraduate students to take a survey rating their propensity to engage in a number of different sexual behaviors if and when they were sexually aroused. A sample of some of the questions:

"Is just kissing frustrating?"
"Would you tell a woman that you loved her to increase the chance that she would have sex with you?"
"Would you keep trying to have sex after your date said no?"
"Would you always use a condom if you didn't know the history of a new sexual partner?"

The students who answered the survey gave the same answers that most men would probably give:

59% said that "just kissing" was not frustrating.
70% said that they would not lie to have sex.
80% said they would respect their partner's refusal to have sex.
88% said they would always use a condom with a new, unfamiliar sexual partner.

But then Ariely asked the same students to take the same survey again. This time, however, he asked them to answer the questions while actually in a state of sexual arousal--and boy, did their answers change. While aroused,

69% said that "just kissing" WAS frustrating.
51% said that they WOULD lie to have sex.
45% said that they would NOT respect their partner's refusal to have sex.
31% said that they would NOT necessarily use a condom with a new, unfamiliar sexual partner.

Ariely's findings suggest that we make decisions much differently when our passions (and especially our sexual passions) are aroused. Just as important--we're really bad at predicting how we will react when our passions are aroused. The students who answered the questions about how they THOUGHT they would react if and when sexually aroused VASTLY underestimated their willingness to engage in questionable behaviors when they ACTUALLY were aroused. Our minds consistently miscalculate the danger of allowing our passions to become "unbridled"--as Alma would say--and it is much more likely that we will make a bad choice in that condition than we believe before we allow ourselves to become aroused. Ariely writes:

"There are most likely many situations where teenagers simply won't be able to cope with their emotions. A better strategy, for those who want to guarantee that [they] avoid sex [or any other immoral behavior, from gambling to pornography], is to [learn] that they must walk away from the fire of passion before they are close enough to be drawn in. Accepting this advice might not be easy, but our results suggest that it is easier for them to fight temptation before it arises than after it has started to lure them in. In other words, avoiding temptation altogether is easier than overcoming it." (Predictably Irrational 101)

The lesson? Listen to Alma. "Bridle all your passions"--because you're fooling yourself if you think you can limit or accurately predict the amount of damage they will do once unloosed.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Why Buying--or Even Wearing--a Fake Rolex Could Cost You Your Temple Recommend

A must-see (and thought provoking) video from the author of one of my favorite works of non-fiction (about which you will hear more soon):

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Barack Obama and William Perry: Two Theories of Education

Before I get to my thoughts on Barack Obama's speech to school children (which you asked for), let me briefly note that as of today I am the creator and subject of a new website designed to aid me in my quest for full time employment as a college professor. Your feedback is welcome (particularly if you are a departmental administrator looking for an early Americanist).

Now--as to President Obama's speech. I think there are two important points that should be made up front:

1. This was not a new idea. The first President Bush and President Reagan both delivered addresses to school children.
2. This was not a politicized speech. There were no partisan statements in there; in fact, the most political sentence was his suggestion that "maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team." Hardly a call to elect activist judges and socially liberal government officials.

Obama's speech was full of run-of-the-mill inspirational stories and phrases; his "theory of education" was anything but exceptional, promising that success would follow hard work. Notwithstanding the rather blasé nature of his address, conservative commentators across the country were up in arms over Obama's alleged attempt to introduce socialism into our schools. Given the precedents of Republican presidents Bush and Reagan (about which these conservative commentators surely would not have complained, any more than they would have complained if it was President McCain addressing the kiddies instead of President Obama), I can only assume that these shining stars opposed Obama's speech because of his political party. This is to say that those who condemned Obama's speech in advance view the political spectrum as a dualistic system: There is a party of truth (Republicans in this case) and a party of error (the Democrats).

This dualistic reaction to President Obama's speech on education got me thinking about another educational theorist (okay, Obama's not an educational theorist; work with me, people) named William Perry. Perry studied male college students at Harvard and concluded that between adolescence and adulthood, we pass through four (nine actually, but this is a simplified model) intellectual phases:

1. Dualism. Adolescents see the world in black and white. There is no gray; everything is either right or wrong.
2. Multiplicity. There are lots of different viewpoints, but they are all equally valid. You have your opinion, I have mine, and it takes all kinds of nuts and dips to make a party.
3. Relativism. The merits and drawbacks of different opinions are recognized, but this recognition does not lead the investigator to alter his or her original position.
4. Commitment. Having analyzed the pros and cons of each alternative carefully, the individual makes an informed decision as to their relative merits and makes a commitment to the most sensible alternative

Now, it seems to me that President Obama's speech--and the cries of socialism that it prompted--are pretty good evidence that the two party system has promoted appallingly adolescent political thinking: "Obama is giving a speech to school children. Obama is a Democrat/socialist. Therefore, giving a speech to school children must be wrong." If commentators dislike Obama's healthcare plan or his approach to affairs of state, they should say so; but who, having rationally considered the precedents, pros, and cons, can oppose a presidential speech to school children in the way that Obama's address was opposed? Where has reason gone?

My interest in an issues-based politics (an approach which recognizes that the Democratic and Republican parties both may and do take positions that I support/oppose) as oppposed to the partisan politics that now predominates has led me to cheer like mad for the Blue-Dog Democrats. I cheer not because I think that Blue-Dog Democrats stand for TRUTH any more than regular Democrats and Republicans (I don't)--but because I believe that the emergence of a third, substantial bloc of Congressional power will lead voters (and maybe even commentators!) away from the adolescent and dualistic approach that now prevails. Hopefully Democrats will think "Blue Dogs stand for social liberty...they can't be all bad. Let me weigh the pros and cons of their position on X issue," and Republicans will think "Blue Dogs stand for fiscal restraint...they can't be all bad. Let me with the pros and cons of their position on X issue."

Maybe then American politics will grow out of its ugly adolescence into an admirable and mature adulthood. Hey, it happened to me. Anything's possible.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Pilgrimage, Part the Last: BYU Jerusalem

My time in the Holy Land was wonderful, every minute of it. But...for the first few days that I spent walking the streets that Jesus walked and visiting the sites associated with events in his life, I was less than touched. The sights were magnificent and inspiring, but the experience did not inspire me or move me in the way that I might have expected it to. It was, to be frank, a little depressing.

Then, on a Saturday morning, I hired a taxi to take me to the BYU Jerusalem Center for church services. This is what I saw:

And here's an aerial shot that captures the grandeur and magnificence of the building far better than I could do from the ground:

I entered almost an hour before sacrament meeting was scheduled to begin and took a seat, looking forward to a little time alone with my scriptures, but as soon as I sat down an elderly sister missionary approached me and asked me if I would be willing to sing with the ward choir that would be performing that morning. I said yes...and soon found out that I was the only man who would be participating. And that they wanted me to sing a solo. Yikes! Because I knew that my mother-in-law, whom I love, would want me to, I said yes. The organ that accompanied me, and part of the congregation (there were only a few local families; it was predominantly BYU students on study abroad who were in attendance):

The number that we sang was prelude, and it was followed by the administration of the sacrament. And then I understood something that I previously knew to be true but which I had forgotten during my time in Jerusalem: it is the ordinances that commemorate the events of the Savior's life--and not the places where they happened--which are sacred. As I remembered this truth and partook of the sacrament, I wept with joy because I understood that the experience I had hoped to enjoy in Jerusalem was available to me every week in any church building in the world. Only then, as I sat and observed the scene of Jesus Christ's suffering and crucifixion

did I fully appreciate the meaning of the sites that I had visited. I was reminded of this experience tonight by a poem read by the Raleigh temple matron at our Saturday night session of stake conference (author unknown; not my favorite poem, but it expresses the sentiment I had while I ate the bread and drank the water that represented the body and blood of my Savior, while looking out on the city where he lived and died):

If I could go to Galilee and walk where Jesus walked
And sit in tender grasses on the hillside where he taught.
If I could feel a gentle breeze that lifted from the sea
Where he chose the humble fishermen, how full my heart would be.
If I could sit and ponder on a rock that knew his hand,
Or walk along the seashore where his feet had touched the sand.
My spirit yearns within me, but it doesn't seem my fate,
I'll never walk where Jesus walked, I'll never see . . . but wait.
I've worshiped in His temple, where I know he's walked before.
Have His feet been down this hallway? Have his fingers touched this door?
Has He stood here in this very room and looked at what I see?
In the beauty of His temple I feel His love for me.
I close my eyes and picture Him, my worries melt away.
I don't need to go to Galilee or travel far away.
For my tender heart is filled with what He wants me to be taught
And my testimony burns within. . .I've walked where Jesus walked!

Once I realized that the true experience of Jerusalem was available to me at home in Raleigh or anywhere else there are authorized priesthood holders, everything else that I saw became a little bit sweeter. My time at the BYU Jerusalem Center gave me an entirely new perspective on the artifacts and buildings of Jerusalem, both figuratively, and literally (that's the Dome of the Rock in the midst of the flowers):

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Religion Off Campus? LDS Institutes of Religion

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently issued a somewhat generic press release describing the back-to-school experience of "hundreds of thousands" of college-age students who attend institute. There are some interesting factoids hidden in there (Did you know that there are 55,000 more institute students outside the US than in?), but I found the press release much more interesting because of a book I'm currently reading: Religion on Campus, by Conrad Cherry, Betty A. Deberg, and Amanda Porterfield.

The book is an in-depth examination of the religious culture at four different universities (whose identities are made anonymous), and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is conspicuously absent from its pages. I understand why the Church might not be a robust presence at three of these colleges; you are unlikely to find an overabundance of LDS students at "a Lutheran liberal arts college, ... a Roman Catholic school" or a traditionally black college that was once "a denominational institution but now defines itself as a private, non-denominational school with Presbyterian roots" (6). I understand why the church would not be an important part of the religious culture at these institutions. But the fourth university picked for study was "a large, public state university" set in the west (6).

I looked at USC as a representative school, and the Los Angeles institute currently has 183 students enrolled. Other public universities in California--CSU Long Beach, CSU Fullerton--have enrollments well over 300, and the Spokane Institute that serves Washington State has more than 500 registered students. It seems highly unlikely that the public western university studied by Deberg lacked an institute of religion, but the only mention of the Church in the entire book describes a religion class "into which [Schyller, the teacher,] invited practitioners of several religious groups. These religious groups--Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--are considered exotic or misguided by many more traditional Protestants and Roman Catholics. Schyller gave religious leaders from these communities a chance to present their religious beliefs and practices in their own way, and he gave students a chance to encounter these religious 'others' and ask them questions" (64). That's it. That's the entire presence of the church at a large, public, western state university in a book devoted to the study of religion on campus.

I have two problems with this limited description for what I think will be obvious reasons. First, Deberg describes a number of different religious traditions with relatively few religious practitioners, including paganism, Buddhism, and Taoism, whose theology would, I think, be perceived by "Protestants and Roman Catholics" as much more "exotic" or "misguided" than Mormon beliefs without feeling it necessary to attach the same sorts of stigma-inducing labels. Second, Deberg found official representatives of these smaller religious groups, without finding a significant LDS campus presence? I find that hard to believe. At UNC-Chapel Hill, where enrollment at the institute is 133, there is a robust Church presence on campus. There are two full-time missionaries assigned to the UNC campus, and I see them almost every week. Deberg describes other campus preachers; why not the missionaries? There are also fliers advertising Institute events regularly posted in a number of buildings on campus. I think it is unlikely that UNC is an outlier, an exceptionally well-publicized institute program--especially since a number of the Western institute programs are so much larger.

Now that I've had a chance to vent my spleen a little, let me consider the other side of things. What if Deberg is right? What if that brief encounter with the "exotic" Mormons was the only chance a college age kid had of encountering the Church at a time when most students are deciding who they want to be for the rest of their lives? THAT would be sad. It's possible that the Church--or LDS culture--may even be promoting a sort of isolationism on college campuses in order to maintain their independence. I'm not sure about this, but I don't think that Institute is an official college-sponsored activity or "club" on most campuses. I would imagine that the Church maintains some separation in order to preserve its autonomy, but it may sacrifice a more visible place on campus as a result. Alternatively, it might be that the Institute students themselves are simply not enterprising in the same way that other campus organizations are. While I've seen fliers up on campus, I've never seen an Institute table with LDS students sitting behind it in the same way that I've seen tables for every other campus organization. Have we, while trying to shut out the world, also shut out those who are looking for a new church?

I don't know whether the situation in Religion on Campus is a product of Deberg's sloppiness/distaste for the Church or a product of Institute student apathy/isolationism, but I do know that neither scenario is acceptable. The Church needs to be a visible, inviting presence on college campuses, and I'm just not sure that a press release will do the trick.