A Defense of the Mormon Mind

HumanmindHere are some thoughts I composed in response to an online debate. In an effort to be non-contentious (and to spare strangers the burden of reading a novel), I’m posting them on my blog instead.

I find it funny how points of minutia are turned into all-or-nothing arguments. How often, at church, do the exact age of the earth or the origins of race come into discussion as topics pertinent to salvation? In light of the arguments for the need of science to adapt and refine, why criticize religion for doing the same? Religion was never meant to be in the business of answering “how”, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find many Mormons who view nineteenth-century speculations that rightfully belong to the realm of science as final. BYU has a fantastic evolutionary biology program, because Mormons aren’t afraid of discovering truth, whether or not it appears at first glance to be scripturally-supported. Of course there are exceptions to this rule as we’re all only human. But Joseph Smith defined the word Mormon as literally meaning “More good.” If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report (including any and all scientific data that sheds greater light about the origins and destiny of our planet), we seek it out. Whatever you think of Joseph Smith, nearly every section in the Doctrine and Covenants came as a result of asking a question and seeking an answer.

Much has been said of cognitive dissonance. But every time you point a finger, four point back at yourself. What about the cognitive dissonance that would come from abandoning a moral framework, a purpose to life, a family bond, a tie to our ancestors, a world-wide force for good, a personal accountability to God, and a quest for eternal progression and perfection … solely on behalf of the appearance of intellectual incongruities? There is no scientific principle or historical fact that I can’t learn and internalize as well within the church as without it. From my experience, this so-called Mormon thought-policing doesn’t exist. Yes, church isn’t an appropriate place to discuss contraversial history or the latest in string theory any more than lobbying for Rand Paul is appropriate at a Democratic rally. But those who really understand the Gospel know that the acquisition of knowledge and truth is entirely up to the individual. Are we going to search for information that fits within our world view and be skeptical of information that doesn’t? Of course. Everyone does this, because anything less would be unscientific. We have to stick with what we know, not what we don’t. People stay in the church because of an abundance of evidence that the fruits of the church are good.

Furthermore, it’s ironic how these appeals to the finality of science are, in themselves, nothing short of religious. Can science tell me how to live a fulfilling life, how to raise a family, or how to build a strong society? It’s possible that the answer to all of these questions could someday be yes, but in the mean time, are we going to live out our lives as lab rats? In his documentary “The God Delusion”, the famous atheist Richard Dawkins makes the argument that children are wired to receive instruction from their parents, because children can’t afford to learn through scientific observation. E.g. a child cannot test whether or not it’s a good idea to crawl off a cliff. To use this same logic, what if Dr. Freud concludes that sleeping around is perfectly natural and acceptable, and a few years later, everyone’s dying of STD’s? Do we not all need a roadmap that transcends the latest worldly opinions? Science is a terrible epistamology for determing moral frameworks. To state otherwise is nothing short of a religious opinion.

Genetic research has not disproven the Book of Mormon. There is overwhelming evidence that Joseph Smith possessed gold plates, just as the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the best-attested facts in ancient history. It’s not science that contradicts these points, it’s religion, a religion that believes that such fantastic claims could not possibly be true. While this is a perfectly understandable belief, my point is that pure religion is not un-scientific anymore than what’s often deemed as science is non-religious. It is a matter of faith to say that we know that all life evolved from a single cell on earth. This appears to be plausible, but there are so many unknowns. How do we account for the anomalies of the Cambrian Explosion, for evolutionary advantages that appear out of order, for the apparent introduction of a new species every million years or so, and then the sudden cessation of such upon the arrival of humans? Perhaps a better question is how do we explain how these facts seem to mysteriously align with Genesis 1?

When you look for contradictions, you’ll find them. When you look at the bigger picture, there is so much harmony. Photons that mysteriously behave in consequence of human will … evidence of paralellel universes that could be interacting with our own … the question of what it was that could have incited the big bang … a mind-blowing number of expolanets that could harbor life … the nearly-perfect calibration of Earth … the fact that only 5% of the known universe is even observable … It’s not just that the universe is wide-open for the existence of transcendent beings or that no one can disprove their existence. Those aren’t good arguments for faith. It’s that either way you look at the universe, you’ll see what you want to see. Science presents us with little more than an open book with which to define our purpose and destinies. We can’t escape religion. We can only choose what to put our faith in.

Rather than branding everyone who hasn’t abandoned their faith for your faith as brain-washed simpletons, tell us what we could actually gain — not lose — from leaving the church. I’d love to know. Statistically, being Mormon makes me pretty well off as far as health, income, education, and happiness. Mormons report among the highest of answered prayers. Mormons, in contrast to much of the religious world, present an anomoly where higher education does not result in decreased faith. Mormons live longer. They’re among the most charitable. They’ve introduced a huge number of invdentions and scientific advances. There’s something good going on here, and I have yet to learn of anything better.

Socialism, Capitalism, and Parenting … What I’ve Learned

monopoly-manIf ever you’re in question of whether capitalism or socialism is the better system, I suggest the following experiments:

Experiment 1

  1. Have lots of babies; the more the better.
  2. Wait a few years.
  3. Tell your children to clean their room.
  4. When, instead of cleaning their room, they lie on the floor, pout, and procrastinate for endless hours, motivate them by offering a guaranteed and fixed allowance, your generous and non-discriminatory compensation for the working class, for which they, of course, should be grateful.
  5. When, after they receive their allowance, they continue to lie around and do nothing, motivate them with speeches about the good of the family and the evil of the individual. Promise them more and bigger benefits of which they’re fully entitled to solely on behalf of their births, and urge them to zealously give back to the welfare family.
  6. When, after receiving said perks, they continue to lie around and do nothing, and you realize that your house is sinking into a bog of chaos, it’s time to administer some good, old-fashioned discipline. So as to prevent them from predicting patterns, inconsistently switch between guilt-inducing talks, vociferous shouting, and endless varieties of chore charts. Of course, all the while continue to pay them their allowance, of which they’re fully entitled to in your enlightened, egalitarian household.
  7. When you grow exhausted of policing your children and discover that your tactics have only made their behavior worse, still continue to pay them their allowance, buy them whatever they demand at the grocery store, and show your kind-hearted benevolence by letting them essentially rule your household, because after all, the working class should have the say. Accept that they will grow up to be brats and propagate the abuse cycle.

Experiment 2

  1. Complete steps 1 – 3 of Experiment 1.
  2. When your children don’t clean their room, don’t pay them.

Wives who force husbands to shop for clothes

Tonight Teresa insisted that she wanted to be my fashion consultant at the University Mall in Orem. I insisted that I absolutely detested shopping for clothes, and she parried this with my oft-quoted motto: “do what  you hate”.  So we went to the mall, and after she had selected a pile of shirts for me to try on, we found out that the dressing rooms were locked. Teresa flagged down an employee, who fetched a key with which to open the dressing rooms. As we waited, another guy got in line behind us. Teresa said to him, “Hey, you’re trying out the same shirt that my husband is.” I added, “Only your wife isn’t forcing you like mine is.”

He responded, “Actually, she is.” Then he pointed to the employee who was opening the dressing rooms. “She’s my wife.”

Finding One’s Self With Minimal Effort

048-048-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler-full“Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake, the same shall find it.” The swinging bachelor rejects this principle as he refuses familial responsibility and service, instead expending his energy on himself. As he advances, he feels the inevitable loneliness and lack of fulfillment that follow a life of hedonism. He desperately searches for a philosophy, political or religious affiliation, or charitable service by which to fill this void. He finds justification in knowing that he’s somehow contributing toward a better world. He surrounds himself with friends and tries to forge meaningful relationships. However, all this brings only a vague sense of fulfillment as he misses out on what might have been his greatest opportunity for influence. He has lost himself, but he hasn’t found himself.

The obedient young woman heeds the counsel of the Savior and is eager to tie a marital knot, settle down, and raise a family. Every day she gives of herself, and every night she lies down in sweet exhaustion. The fruits of her labor are good. She’s happy. However, upon seeing her peers who have chosen worldly paths, she compares her menial labor to their specialized, high level work, their advanced education and superior monetary worth. She sees how they’re making a difference in the world while she’s nothing more than a full time babysitter. With hardly any time or freedom for herself, she watches with horror as her dreams slip away with her fading youth. Meanwhile her children continue to run a muck, eating, screaming, pooping, and terrorizing her so-called life. In retaliation, she pleads, she shouts, she cries. The wrinkles begin to pop up like pimples. When she looks in the mirror, she sees the witch of her bedtime stories. She has lost herself, but she’s only partly found herself.

I’ve heard it said that Jesus Christ had no personal agenda. Though I don’t think this is true. Before he set forth on his three year ministry, as far we know, he spent his first thirty-one years learning, pondering, and praying. He spent long periods of time by himself in the wilderness. He woke up early to be with God. He sought refuge from crowds, climbed mountains, and went off to meditate when he learned of his beloved cousin’s death. He knew that he couldn’t help others unless he first helped himself. He certainly did have a personal agenda. It just so happened that his personal agenda was also his Father’s agenda.

Not running faster than we have strength means realizing that on any given day we can only do so much good, and when we push ourselves too hard, we’ll cross a line of diminishing returns. After that point, what would ordinarily be good becomes destructive. Neglecting our own needs will also diminish our capacity to help others. We’re better off doing less, letting go, and letting God. Thus, I think true enlightenment comes from a balance of outward service and inward development.

The Beauty of Disney’s Into the Woods

Into-the-Woods-charactersDisney’s Into the Woods is a nearly perfect film. The acting is superb, the sets fantastic, the music enjoyable, and every production element done masterfully. Though what interests me the most is the play itself, as crafted by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. My only other experience with this play was a high school production, which was good, though as I recall, a bit tedious. On the other hand, the unparalleled special effect of the close up, as brought to us by this wonderful film adaptation, makes a big difference for me as far as connecting and empathizing with the characters. And this piece is all about character.

First, I love that the play doesn’t buckle to the temptation of simply mixing up and fracturing fairy tales for cheap laughs, as so many other works do (my own puppet shows included). Rather, the play honors these ancients works, stories that belong to all of us and our ancestors. While being true to the details of the Grimm stories, it takes the characters much further, making them more real than they’ve ever been, and in turn showing us a humanity that transcends time.

It takes the epitome of black and white melodrama and makes it gray. Cinderella doesn’t, in fact, live happily ever after with her prince. Rapunzel’s witch-mother isn’t entirely evil. Jack doesn’t get off Scot free after robbing the giant. The story is very postmodern, and the music follows suit; the melodies are subtle and don’t seem as melodic and clear-cut in their emotion as in your typical musical. Yet the music is also bold, with strong characters belting out their pain and confusion, not quickly resolving, not very predictable, often a blend of happy and sad and slightly dissonant. Overall, the tone of the piece is unsettling.

This is especially true in the second act, where, just when everyone’s met their goals, solved their problems, and found joy, the story just keeps on going, which is burdensome for the audience. It’s a bold choice — a dangerous choice. It’s as if the playwright is playing a joke on the audience with a false climax followed by another hour of suffering characters and soul-searching agony, leaving us so confused that we can’t help but stick it out to see what’s going to happen. It can leave people feeling dark and unfulfilled, as was the case with Teresa.

I saw it differently. I realized early on that this is more than a story; it’s an exercise; and I put myself in the shoes of these wandering souls in the midst of a dark and dreary forest. Our quest was to search for meaning. My brother says that life isn’t a test, it’s a school. We take out what we put into it. Similarly, if you expect this show to merely entertain you as just another musical on your shelf between Annie and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,  you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you’re willing to accept that real life — which, ironically, fairy tales can communicate to us so profoundly — is sometimes confusing, dark, frightening, and unsettling, then there’s a lot to be gained from Into the Woods, “where witches can be right and giants can be good.”

For example, here’s a list of some of the impressions I had:

No one is evil in their own eyes. Everyone can justify their cause, from the thieving father, who’s just trying to please his relentless wife, to the hungry wolf, who’s just trying to stay alive, to the wicked witch, who’s trying to protect her daughter from a witchy world, to the poor giantess, who’s trying to avenge her murdered husband.

But what of this graying of morality … doesn’t it just blur the line of what should be clear, muddying truth, justifying sin? A friend once said to me, “Oh Steve, always playing the devil’s advocate. The devil doesn’t need anymore advocates.” However, I’ve learned that the more Socratic I get, or in other words, the more I give everyone the benefit of the doubt — and I mean everyone — the closer I feel to truth. Far from being so open-minded that one is empty-headed, I’ve learned that real truth can only be found by comprehending both sides of arguments (and we are all walking talking arguments). Fools search for anything and everything to justify their beliefs. The wise try to prove themselves wrong, and when they can’t, only then do they know something. Everyone else just pretends.

One of the most profound themes was about cutting the wicked circle of tradition and habit. The baker, while still a boy, was abandoned by his father, and a string of bad luck had followed. Though the baker resents his father’s actions, when the going gets tough, he finds himself in his father’s shoes, and seeing no other way, he also abandons his son. Then the ghost of his father meets him in the woods, pleading with the baker to not make the same mistake that he had, to be better than he was. The baker is ultimately touched and returns to his son.

Here I saw a strong allegory. Not only are we wanderers through a forest path, but those who have gone before us are just a few steps ahead. This beautiful depiction strengthened my belief in families that transcend death. I felt that of course our ancestors want us to succeed and, because of them, reach higher summits than they ever could. At the same time, I was impressed at how terrible it is when we let negative legacies carry over generations, when we allow the weaknesses and prejudices of our forebearers to poison our own lives. It reminded me that we’re all free from fate, and whatever we think is in our DNA, our minds are stronger. It reminded me that no matter where we’ve been, we can start fresh today.

The capstone of this theme is when the baker urges Jack not to seek revenge against the man who had inadvertently killed Jack’s mother but to let go of the hate and move on. What had happened was terrible, but the Baker could see where the dark path of revenge would lead … a path that never ends. After everything these characters had suffered, and as the remaining four clung to each other while many of the others had destroyed themselves from the consequences of their actions, it was as if Occam’s razor had cut to the center, dispelling the chaff of the pretenses of humanity, leaving only the solid core of what was unmistakably human. Then, to me at least, the movie was anything but gray.

For me the most vivid image was the scene in which Cinderella went to her magical mother-tree in the forest, who, in answer to a sincere heart — the recurring theme of the movie being the simple phrase “I wish” — transformed the girl’s rags into a beautiful gown. Again, I loved this sense of familial ties, love, and power than transcend death. But I felt a stronger impression, that the universe is magical. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about atheism and questioning my faith against a model of the universe that, as far as we can empirically observe, is godless, soulless, random, and meaningless. And while I gained nothing from this movie by way argument on this subject, what I did gain was a reminder that struck the bottom of my soul: I totally believe in the magical universe. Call it insane, but I do. And as far as I’m concerned, what feels right is so much more apt to conform to reality than what we can logically defend.

Fairy tales are totally where it’s at. Good job, Disney, Sondheim, Lapine, and all.

Three Moments of Brilliance

The Stephen and Teresa Gashler FamillySunday was a day of brilliance for my offspring. Humor me as I relate their tales of discovery, courage, and beautiful non sequiturs.

Moment 1

At church, Teresa gives me our squirming baby Percy, and with a look of exasperation, asks me to take him into the foyer. I do so, where I set Percy down onto the floor and place a little toy not too far in front of him (toy sounds better than the mechanical pencil I found on the couch). Percy’s still learning to crawl, and he hasn’t yet learned to use his legs. He usually just pulls against the floor, and when the going gets tough, throws up his limbs like a beached whale and cries. He’s in this process of accepting defeat when another parent places a baby on the floor. This baby also sets her eyes on the toy, and being an expert crawler, rapidly makes her way toward the loot.

Percy sees this threat with alarm, and loathing the thought of another claiming his object of desire, finds a second wind. He squirms, rocks, and tugs, but his arms just don’t have the tork he needs. His enemy is drawing nearer. Then, as his desperate little brain reels for a solution, the key finally hits him. For the first time in his life, he raises his baby bum as his knees slip into gear. He finds traction. He pushes from behind. His body propels forward. In awe of his newly-discovered power, he repeats the process. Again and again. Just as the imposter is about to claim the prize, Percy lunges forward and snatches his rightful property. As the would-be usurper is snatched away, Percy rejoices in his spoils. This day he’s become a man.

Moment 2

After church, my six-year-old Ariah wants to play a game with me. I regretfully inform her that I have to study my home teaching lesson. A few minutes later, I’m out the door and climbing into the car. As I pull the car into reverse, Ariah shoots out the front door and cries, “Daddy, daddy, where are you going?” Didn’t I just tell her? Thinking this is a silly game, I continue to pull out of the driveway. Then I hear her screaming my name and crying, so I stop the car an roll down the window. “I’m going home teaching,” I say with confusion.

“Oh,” she says, wiping away a tear.

“Where did you think I was going?”

“Off to war.”

Moment 3

Before church, for no reason that I know of, my three-year-old Aspen surprises me by placing a fez on my head and announcing, “I dub you the king of Uranus.”

My Interview with Author Johnny Worthen

Multi-genre and award-winning author Johnny Worthen shares inspiring advice on finding your muse, getting published, and sticking with it. “Every book needs to be written. Not every book needs to be published.” Also, I face a dark enchantment that threatens his manliness. This was definitely one of the most inspiring discussions I’ve been a part of. If you’re interested in writing, you should definitely give this a listen. Johnny Worthen is awesome!

Of Transcendentalism and Counterculture

Forest pathwayWhen one has spent most of his life lounging and binging, and then, in a time of unprecedented willpower, he pushes himself into fitness, achieving a runner’s high, the world around him starts to glow. His ignorance is dispelled, his perspective irrevocably changed. Suddenly everyone around him who hasn’t yet partaken of this fruit appears unenlightened.

To apply this principle to philosophy, when for years one has been warned against a certain behavior or idea, and then she discovers that this forbidden fruit is, in fact, sweet, she also experiences a high, and everyone around her who hasn’t tasted of this fruit appears unenlightened.

This happens throughout the world. The enlightened seek out those of like-minds. Together they laugh at the ignorance they’d once known. They seek out additional transcendent experiences, wondering how else has their culture suppressed them? Suddenly they are truth seekers on heroes’ journeys, on holy quests against ignorance.

But the world appears to be more random than they’d romanticized. They discover that there’s no dark force trying to keep them in ignorance, that the intentions of those around them are mostly good, if near-sided. Yet the feelings of transcendence are addicting, so the enlightened seek out new thresholds to breech.

They find one, though the afterglow is not as powerful as that of the first. While the first endowed them with pure truth, the second is something of a half truth. But a half truth is better than no truth at all, so they take what they can get, and once again, the feeling satisfies their needs. Almost. With the domino effect in motion, they press forward, though the pickings are getting scantier. Now and then they’re rejuvenated by a full truth, but often they have to settle for more half truths, here and there a quarter truth.

Meanwhile a new culture arises: counterculture. The enlightened spend their time deconstructing the facades of their predecessors. They satirize ignorance. In contrast to sanctimony, they espouse irreverence. To make a point, they replace didactic conventions with a celebration of frivolity. In contrast to unfounded judgment, they cease to make any judgments. They embrace anything that fits the tone of their new culture, always in search of new ideas with which to break up the monotony. Each deconstruction releases a bit more energy, mimicking the glow of that first transcendent experience.

Then there’s a problem. There’s nothing left to deconstruct. The satire is no longer funny. The irreverence is … irreverent. The profane profane. The frivolous frivolous. A culture of counterculture, with no pretenses, no facades, and no judgment is a beginning, but it leaves its citizens wanting. They’re warned against partaking of the forbidden fruits of the old culture.

And then one partakes, and the feeling is addicting.