Sunday, October 31, 2010

Wickedness Never Was Happiness, Part 2

In Wickedness Never Was Happiness Part 1, I noted that Arthur C. Brooks has made a persuasive empirical case that acts of righteousness--charitable giving, marriage, labor, service, etc--cause an individual to experience happiness. For Part 2, it's time to look more closely at the other side of the coin: unhappiness.

Prophets and apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have long warned that watching television can have a detrimental impact on our lives; in 1989, Elder M. Russell warned about the deleterious effects of watching inappropriate material on television, while also acknowledging that "Philo T. Farnsworth, back in 1927, must surely have been inspired of the Lord to develop this remarkable medium of communication" (Seriously--go check out the link; it's the most extensive General Conference talk ever given on the subject, and the picture is priceless.). So saying that "TV is bad for you" is less than revelatory.

But researchers at the University of Maryland have just released a new study that is a little more nuanced. According to the research of John Robinson and Steven Martin, watching television is an activity best compared to smoking cigarettes or other addictive behaviors. Television viewers almost always feel that the show they are currently watching--or that they just finished watching--provided significant pleasure, but when asked about their viewing habits at a chronological remove, they indicate that watching television is a waste of time and resources.

Robinson explains that "What viewers seem to be saying is that while TV in general is a waste of time and not particularly enjoyable, 'the shows I saw tonight were pretty good. . . . The data suggest to us that the TV habit may offer short-run pleasure at the expense of long-term malaise." This fleeting burst of pleasure can be addictive. "Addictive activities produce momentary pleasure and long-term misery and regret," Martin says. "People most vulnerable to addiction tend to be socially or personally disadvantaged. For this kind of person, TV can become a kind of opiate in a way. It's habitual, and tuning in can be an easy way of tuning out."

Watching TV, Robinson and Martin argue, does not provide the same satisfaction and happiness that social interactions--or good books--do. Their research shows that happy people spend more time in these two activities (socializing and reading) while unhappy people tend to spend more time watching television. I guess there's a reason that we're commanded to "seek . . . out of the best books words of wisdom" (D&C 88:118) and that the commandment to "watch ye the best sitcoms" hasn't come yet.

Again, I acknowledge that many, many church leaders have expounded on the beneficial aspects of television--it can be used for educational purposes, enjoying the performing arts, and broadening our cultural horizons, among many other purposes. For these reasons, it seems something of a stretch to say that watching television is wicked. But after having been exposed to the research of Robinson and Martin, I feel perfectly comfortable making the assertiong that watching television never was happiness.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Creative Power of Faith

In his epistle to the Hebrews, Paul explains that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). Paul emphasizes the materiality of faith when he describes it as a “substance” with “actual [physical] existence” and an “evidence” or physical “proof” of that which is “hoped for” and “not seen,” but too often we treat this foundational description of faith as though it meant simply a mental belief in things hoped for and not seen. Alma reminds us that faith requires that we, as believers, take physical action and conduct an “experiment” (Alma 32:27) that will give substance to our beliefs and eventually lead to “a perfect knowledge” (32:26). Faith is, as Elder Richard G. Scott taught us in his most recent General Conference address, “a principle of action and power.”

During my years as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, I spent many nights wooing the woman who would eventually become the beautiful Mrs. Monk, and I remember one night in which she taught me a powerful object lesson regarding the active character of faith. As we walked through an on-campus parking lot on our way to some event, the future Mrs. Monk and I found ourselves asking one another a series of hypothetical questions. She queried, “If I was falling, do you think you could catch me?”

Without much thought I replied in the affirmative—after all, she was a foot shorter than me, and couldn’t weigh much more than a hundred pounds—before following up with a question of my own: “Do you believe I could catch you?” She likewise replied in the affirmative, but I must have heard some hesitation in her voice, because I immediately challenged her to demonstrate her belief. Pointing to a nearby pickup truck, I invited this girl whom I had known for all of a week to prove that she really believed I could catch her: “You climb up,” I said, “face forward, so that your back is to me, and fall backwards off the truck. I’ll catch you.”

I could tell from the look on her face that this was the not the anticipated or desired result of her question. But, to her credit, she gamely climbed up into the truck bed and perched herself precariously on the tailgate’s edge. Craning her neck, she inquired if I was ready. I confidently replied in the affirmative and invited her to look forward and fall back blindly. After several seconds which, she later confessed, were quite nerve-wracking, she allowed the substance of her body to fall backwards into space, hoping that someone she could not see would catch her and provide evidence that her trust had not been wholly misplaced. I did, in fact, safely catch her in my arms and found her face just inches from my own—which was exactly the result that I had anticipated and desired.

I set her down gently, and we quickly left the parking lot, but the powerful object lesson that she provided to me that night has never left my thoughts. It was easy for her to verbally express a mental belief in me and my ability to catch her. It was much more difficult for her to physically climb into the waiting truck, let her body fall backwards, and exercise her faith in me, but until she began to take action, she had no faith, and only through an exercise of faith could she come to a perfect knowledge of my ability to catch her. In order to exercise our faith we must physically act; for this reason James teaches that “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works” because “by works [is] faith made [a] perfect” knowledge (James 2:17-18, 22).

As we appropriately exercise faith, our actions make a substantial difference in the physical world around us. When a man exercises faith in the commandment to “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom” (D&C 88:118), he acts by finding the best books and reading from them. As a result of this physical act, new chemical pathways will develop in his brain to record the information he has learned; he will literally become a different person. When a woman exercises faith in the word of wisdom, she acts by eating “every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof” (D&C 89:11). As a result of this varied diet, she will acquire a fullness of the nutrients which our Father in Heaven has provided on this earth; the very cells of her body will change, and she will literally become a different person. When we act on our beliefs and exercise faith, we impose the internal order of our minds onto external matter.

Clement of Alexandria, the earliest of the post-apostolic Christian fathers, once observed that “The whole creation is to be understood as a synthesis: the imposing of inner order on outer material" (from Hugh Nibley, Temple and Cosmos, 273). Clement's claim is consistent with revealed truths about the creation; as we learn in Abraham, the Gods "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; it is an act of faith.

Paul testifies that “we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God [through faith]” (Heb. 11:1), and Elder Scott recently added his witness that “[f]aith is a foundation building block of creation. . . . The Master used it to create the most remote galaxies as well as to compose quarks, the smallest elements of matter we know of today.” As children of our Heavenly Father, we enjoy the opportunity to exercise our faith in mortality and to become, with Him, co-creators. The “exercise of faith in true principles builds character," and as we actively seek to “become what we want to be by consistently being what we want to become,”we participate in the creation of our future bodies and souls (Scott).

When we faithfully follow Alma’s counsel to Shiblon and “bridle all [our] passions,” we impose a mental or spiritual order on our physical flesh (Alma 38:12), and President Packer recently testified that “[t]hrough the righteous exercise of this power [to create life], as in nothing else, we may come close to our Father in Heaven and experience a fulness of joy.” When we exercise our faith in the law of the fast, we likewise discipline our physical bodies by refraining from food or drink for twenty-four hours so “that [our] fasting might be perfect, or, in other words, that [our] joy may be full” (D&C 59:9, 13). In the scriptures, being full of joy—or having a fullness of joy—is a phrase used to describe exaltation, when the body and soul are perfectly united. The Doctrine and Covenants explain that “man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 93: 33). We can only receive a fullness of joy when our spirit and our flesh are in perfect harmony with each other, when they are inseparably connected and united in purpose. Currently, the flesh or “natural man is an enemy to God” and our spirits (Mosiah 3:19); we are engaged in a struggle to “not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate” (2 Nephi 2:29). But when we bridle our passions, when we fast, when we exercise faith in Jesus Christ and subject the flesh to the spirit we win that battle and experience—if only briefly—the fullness of joy that will characterize our existence as exalted beings with a perfect, immortal body inseparably connected to our spirits.

The appropriate exercise of faith in Jesus Christ will literally change our very natures, as we experience his grace and “receive strength and assistance to do good works that [we] otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to [our] own means. This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts” (BD, “Grace”). When we act in faith and obey the commandments of Jesus Christ, we create ourselves—or at least our future selves—by organizing and ordering our own bodies. It is in this sense that I understand the late 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 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).

If we believe Paul; if we believe Elder Scott; if we believe that the exercise of faith is an act of creation, then we are practicing all the time for a future as gods and goddesses who will advance in their capacity for action from internal, physiological creations to external, cosmological creations. 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 exercise their faith by studying the best books, by obeying the Word of Wisdom, by bridling their passions, by obeying the law of the fast is not a reward or prize, a place at the head of the heavenly bread line; it is a natural expansion of their abilities as creators that will allow them to use their faith in the same way that God uses his sooner than those who have not exercised their faith to the same extent during their time on earth.

When we understand that an active “[f]aith in the power of obedience to the commandments of God will forge strength of character,” that our “exercise of faith in true principles builds character," and that our character is the only product of mortality which we can take with us to the judgment bar, the true relationship between faith and salvation, between faith and exaltation, becomes clear (Scott). Peter taught that “the end of your faith [is] the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:9), and Elder Scott explains why: “In the next life your righteous character will be evaluated to assess how well you used the privilege of mortality.” When we exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, we qualify ourselves for the blessings of eternity; when our actions evince a lack of faith, we condemn ourselves to a lesser kingdom of glory.

During my time as a ward missionary in Raleigh, North Carolina, I met many individuals struggling to reconcile common Protestant interpretations of scripture with the revealed truths of the Book of Mormon. John Wycliffe and other Protestant reformers who objected to the corrupt Catholic practices of selling indulgences for sin taught their followers that they could be saved by faith alone, and pointed to Paul’s letters as proof: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). I remember one particular young man named Jacob whose belief in this Pauline doctrine of faith made it particularly difficult for him to accept the words of Nephi, who teaches that “we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God, for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). What Jacob failed to comprehend—because he did not understand that “faith in the Savior is a principle of action and power”—is that Paul and Nephi teach the same doctrine. Salvation “through faith” is not, as Jacob supposed, salvation ‘through belief’; rather, salvation “through faith” comes as we “labor” to express our faith in Jesus Christ through meaningful service and produce the “works” that James teaches are the inevitable fruit of true faith.

As we do so, we build righteous character. We discipline the natural man and our physical bodies. We experience a brief foretaste of the fullness of joy that characterizes the existence of exalted beings. We begin to exercise the powers of creation that are ours by birthright, as sons and daughters of God. Through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and the active engagement (D&C 58:27) that faith implies, these blessings and all other blessings of the gospel are available to us.

I have faith that this is so.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Immersion of Alma

After writing about Ammon's LACK of priesthood authority, as recorded in Mosiah, it only seems fitting that I address Alma's apparent SURFEIT of priesthood authority; after reading our last entry, the lovely Miss Jan asks, "Why was Alma able to baptize after fleeing from King Noah?" So glad you asked, Jan . . .

Mormon's description of Alma's baptism in the waters of Mormon has provoked a lot of thought in me throughout the years, and while I'm not sure that I have THE answer, I certainly have come up with a lot of answers to explain the (apparently) unorthodox events of this passage:

12. And now it came to pass that Alma took Helam, he being one of the first, and went and stood forth in the water, and cried, saying: O Lord, pour out thy Spirit upon thy servant, that he may do this work with holiness of heart.
13. And when he had said these words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he said: Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God, as a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve him until you are dead as to the mortal body: and may the Spirit of the Lord be poured out upon you; and may he grant unto you eternal life, through the redemption of Christ, whom he has prepared from the foundation of the world.
14. And after Alma had said these words, both Alma and Helam were buried in the water; and they arose and came forth out of the water rejoicing, being filled with the Spirit.

There seem to be at least two major questions that this account invites. 1) Where does Alma get his authority from? 2) Why is he submerged and "baptized" at the same time as Helam?

EXPLANATION #1:

The easiest way to answer these two questions is to suggest that Alma needed no prior priesthood authority to baptize and that it wasn't his choice or intent to baptize himself--that the "Spirit of the Lord" both authorized and acted upon him. This explanation relies almost entirely on the account of Adam's baptism given in the book of Moses. As the first man on earth, Adam could not 1) receive the priesthood by laying on of hands unless an exalted being (and since there were no "resurrected personages" [D&C 129:1], Heavenly Father is our only option here) ordained him, and therefore he could not 2) baptize his family or be baptized. The sixth chapter of Moses explains how the Lord circumvented both of these difficulties:

64. And it came to pass, when the Lord had spoken with Adam, our father, that Adam cried unto the Lord, and he was caught away by the Spirit of the Lord, and was carried down into the water, and was laid under the water, and was brought forth out of the water.
65. And thus he was baptized, and the Spirit of God descended upon him, and thus he was born of the Spirit, and became quickened in the inner man.
66. And he heard a voice out of heaven, saying: Thou art baptized with fire, and with the Holy Ghost. This is the record of the Father, and the Son, from henceforth and forever;
67. And thou art after the order of him who was without beginning of days or end of years, from all eternity to all eternity.

Adam is both baptized and ordained to priesthood authority by the same "Spirit of the Lord" that was present during Alma's immersion; after he "was laid under the water," he became a member of "the order of him who was without beginning of days or end of years"--someone who holds "the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God" (D&C 107:3). While Alma's circumstances are not nearly so constrained as those of Adam (Couldn't a translated Moses/Elijah have appeared to ordain him?), it seems at least possible that the precedent of Adam's baptism and ordination by the Spirit applies here. After all--when Mormon records that "Alma and Helam were buried in the water," he makes it sound very much as though they had no agency in the matter, as though some other force or agent did the burying (not wholly unlike 3 Nephi 19:11, where "Nephi went down into the water and was baptized" by a personage or force unknown--and then began to baptize others).

EXPLANATION #2

For those who are unhappy with the idea that Alma derived so much authority in such an unorthodox manner, there is another, relatively simple explanation. During this period in the Book of Mormon, as at other times, the Nephite king (Benjamin and then Mosiah) was also the highest priesthood authority in the land; he was the prophet. As the head of all civic and religious affairs, the king presumably authorized the original expedition of Zeniff; he certainly authorized the journey made by Ammon to find "the people who went up to dwell in the land of Lehi-Nephi" (Mosiah 7:1).

If we assume that the prophet/king Benjamin authorized Zeniff's expedition, then he surely would have made sure that there was adequate priesthood leadership along--and Zeniff, whose pleading on behalf of "that which was good among [the Lamanites]" prevented their massacre, would seem an ideal candidate as priesthood leader (Mosiah 9:1). He certainly seems to have acted as a priesthood leader, as he led his people to "cry mightily to the Lord that he would deliver us out of the hands of our enemies" (9:17) and to depend upon "the strength of the Lord to battle" (10:10). So if we assume that Zeniff held the priesthood (and he consecrated priests, whether he held the priesthood or not--11:5), then we can almost certainly assume that he conferred it on the son who he appointed to take his place as a prophet king: Noah. Noah, in turn, "consecrated new [priests]," one of whom was Alma.

Thus Alma--like Zacharias or John the Baptist in the New Testament--would have been legitimately ordained by one who held authority, even though the general administration of priesthood authority was corrupt. In this scenario, Alma already held the requisite authority to act--he simply needed to access the power of the priesthood by repenting and sanctifying himself. In this respect, President Packer suggested last April, the people of King Noah had something in common with us: "We [like King Noah] have done very well at distributing the authority of the priesthood. We have priesthood authority planted nearly everywhere. We have quorums of elders and high priests worldwide. But distributing the authority of the priesthood has raced, I think, ahead of distributing the power of the priesthood." So if Alma had the priesthood, then his self-immersion might simply be understood as a re-commitment to his earlier, baptismal covenants (and re-baptism was not all that uncommon a practice in the early restored church--plenty of analogous examples).

So--take your pick. I think in either explanation there is ample evidence that Alma acted with ample authority when was immersed with Helam and baptized in the waters of Mormon.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Limhi, Ammon, and Priesthood Keys

I recently read the Book of Mormon account in which Ammon (the first one, not the arm-chopper) encounters the people of King Limhi and the descendants of Zeniff after an extensive bit of wandering in the wilderness. After all that Limhi and his people have been through, they are ready to forsake the sins introduced (or at least promoted) by King Noah and to enter the waters of baptism:

"And now since the coming of Ammon, king Limhi had also entered into a covenant with God, and also many of his people, to serve him and keep his commandments. And it came to pass that king Limhi and many of his people were desirous to be baptized; but there was none in the land that had authority from God. And Ammon declined doing this thing, considering himself an unworthy servant." (Mosiah 21:32-33)

These verses always troubled me. Ammon clearly has the priesthood--why doesn't he just baptize them? I've generally been content to assume that Ammon was not personally worthy and neither were any of the other men who came with him. But I've recently changed my opinion; I think Ammon both had the necessary priesthood power and was worthy to use it. So why didn't he? I believe that it is because Ammon, whose grasp of priesthood roles and functions was so great that his instruction that "a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have" (8:16) is still the definitive statement on the subject, understood the need for priesthood keys.

There's no doubt in my mind that Ammon possessed the priesthood necessary to baptize Limhi and his people--but it seems less likely that he had the authority (which the text itself indicates) to preside at such an event. The Church Handbook of Instructions directs that baptisms must be performed "[u]nder the direction of the presiding authority," and in a place where there was no established church, that authority probably reverted back to King Mosiah, who was the head of the church in Zarahemla and thus held the relevant priesthood keys.

And speaking of priesthood keys, I loved the clarity of these principles from Robert J. Matthews of BYU's Ancient Scripture department:

  1. It is evident that a person who holds the keys can 'give' them to another without losing them himself.
  2. There is a difference between holding the keys sufficiently to function and being the person designated to convey those keys to others. Both Moses and Elijah gave keys to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, yet it was still Moses and Elijah who brought them to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in 1836. No doubt Peter had sufficient of 'Elijah's keys' to operate the Church during the meridian dispensation, yet the Lord did not use Peter to convey those sealing keys to Joseph and Oliver. [A more mundane example might be an Elders' or Deacons' Quorum president, who holds keys--but has no power to pass those keys to someone else; that power is retained by the stake president or bishop.]
  3. It is clearly stated in the Book of Mormon, more than once, that the Twelve in the Western Hemisphere were subject and would be subject to the Twelve in Jerusalem (see 1 Nephi 12:9; Mormon 3:18-19). This suggests, again, that a people may have sufficient keys of the priesthood to operate the Church without having the right to pass those keys to future dispensations.
  4. Truly, all of the keys and powers of the priesthood have not yet been delivered to us in our day; much lies in futurity, including the keys of creation, translation, and resurrection.
(From Robert L. Millett, "Prophets and Priesthood in the Old Testament," Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005, p. 65.)

I'm sure that there's still more to the story of Ammon that I'm missing--but at least I don't have that nagging feeling when I read about his "unworthiness" any more.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Reminder from President Packer

This morning, as I listened to conference with the beautiful Mrs. Monk, she and President Boyd K. Packer provided a gentle reminder: it's time for another personal pornography interview with your loved ones. Don't delay--early intervention could make all the difference.