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Brigham Young’s Nonsensical Formula for Enlightenment

I want to share some thoughts that I heard last Sunday in church. The topic was “otherness,” which sounds as ambiguous as the lesson was. At first I couldn’t understand what the teacher was even talking about, but by the end, I felt thoroughly enlightened.

It began with a story about Brigham Young (warning to the scholarly reader: I’m too lazy to search for references). Some people came to him with difficult problem, asking for his advice. He told them to go read the scriptures. These people were taken aback, unable to understand how reading the scriptures related to their problem. They asked which book or passage they should read from. Brother Brigham replied that it didn’t matter. What was important was that they immerse themselves with the of the scriptures (a language that was not of the world), and that in so doing, they would be touched by the Spirit of God and attain a state of sufficient intelligence and discernment through which they could solve this particular problem.

It’s as if Brigham Young were saying, “You’ll find the answer to your equation by plugging the variables into a completely unrelated formula.” This logic doesn’t jive well with our modern world, where empiricism reigns supreme.

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts and watching a lot of documentaries on world history. Though the commentators and subjects are unrelated, one theme that works its way into nearly every presentation is religion. Though religion is still a big part of most people’s lives, a hundred or two years prior and straight back to the beginning of humanity, religion was a HUGE part. By modern standards, practically everyone in the middle ages was a religious fanatic. In short, you could say that the ancient world was generally Platonic, and the modern world is generally Aristotelian. By generally focusing on the real world instead of the spiritual and abstract, we’ve been able to make rapid strides in civilization and science. But have there been any costs in abandoning the religious “fanaticism” of our forebearers?

One evidence that we’re missing something is our obsession with fantasy. The teacher of this lesson has been a film and TV director. He told us his observation that movies with intense fantasy elements generally sold much better than movies that were more realistic. It’s evident that not only are we tired of the practical world and long to escape into something more exciting, but we have an inherent longing for a word beyond that which we can perceive with our natural senses. And yet, day-to-day, we fully invest ourselves in the practical world. Especially in matters of controversy, it’s become unfashionable to defend one’s opinion with, “It just feels right,” or “this is my belief,” while far more acceptable to say, “According to such and such a study …”

For the devout Platonist, the temptation could arise to flip to the other extreme and say, “The world as we know it is nothing but an illusion, and only by freeing ourselves from it can we achieve enlightenment.” Mormonism takes a unique stance somewhere between these two extremes. It’s our belief that up until a few years ago, each and every one of us were resident beings of this other world, and that there were some things we simply could not learn without having a physical experience. After all, you can’t learn Spanish by reading about it in English. You have to immerse yourself in a Spanish environment. Thus, as we are truly spiritual beings having a physical experience, to seek to free ourselves from the physical world would be a mistake. And yet, at our cores, we do belong to the “other” world. Our purpose, it seems, is both to learn how to be physical while simultaneously rediscovering our spiritual roots.

The challenge is learning to achieve this balance. It’s an inherent challenge, because “the natural man is an enemy to God.” In other words, being born into physical bodies, spirituality comes anything but naturally to us. According to this article, our right brain is responsible for selfishness, and the less we focus on it, the more “spirituality” we feel.

Perhaps one reason why our world has become less spiritually-minded is because in a day of instant communication, loud music, and fast food, as opposed to the slowness and quietness of the days of yore, we have little patience for ambiguity, and at a quick glance, the “other” world simply doesn’t compute. As a beginner¬† immerses himself in Spanish, most of it won’t make sense. But to the diligent student, the mysteries will gradually be replaced by understanding, knowledge, and eventually power.

The Holy Ghost is that little ear bud that helps us to make sense of this other world, communicating things to our understanding that we can’t yet explain rationally, helping us to make the transition from the “natural man” to the enlightened man, until we’re no longer driven by our flesh but by something higher. When we achieve this state of enlightenment, we find that that the things of the “other” world, are in fact, fully rational, but had we never taken the plunge into what seemed at the time as irrational, we would have never known.

And that, I think, is what Brigham Young meant.

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Faith and Science, a Divine Paradox

My favorite Christmas tradition, which I’ve upheld for many years, is to take a midnight walk on Christmas eve. Perhaps more than on any other night of the year, the city is virtually still. The frozen world around me is pristine. The stars appear sacred. It’s a perfect time to sort out my thoughts and commune with God. I think about the young Stephen Gashler, the current Stephen Gashler, and the old Stephen Gashler, and I’m not content until I’ve gotten the three of them to agree.

On this Christmas eve, I was discussing (yes, I talk to myself) the question of faith versus empiricism (or science). In the Book of Alma, we read:

“All things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44).

It appears that this scripture is as an argument for intelligent design,¬† that the natural world is chalked full of evidence of a divine creator. One might conclude that to entertain ideas about the origins of the earth that don’t necessarily include a creator is thus misguided, perhaps even sinful. Yet as humanity progresses and science proves its worth, it becomes harder and harder to ignore evidence that takes us beyond a fundamentalist mindset.

For myself, I’ve come to peace with saying, “Spiritually, I find profound evidence for the existence of God all around me. Scientifically, I find no evidence.” I believe that agnosticism and faith aren’t necessarily at odds with each other. The mere concept of faith is predicated on the belief that God has purposely hidden himself for our good. If this is true, then of course there’s no scientific evidence to support the existence of God … unless God is sloppy. If there was scientific evidence of God, it would directly undermine our need for faith.

I believe that someday, when the veil is removed, there will be a seamless union between our beliefs that are currently scientifically based and our beliefs that are currently faith-based. Until that time, I believe it’s important to separate these two forms of epistemology. On one hand, every returned missionary knows it’s a vain pursuit to try to “prove” the veracity of the Gospel to someone else. On the other hand, science that’s built on a foundation of faith ceases to be science due to an inherent bias.

This paradoxical coexistence of science and faith leads me to an interesting thought I heard recently. You’ve probably heard the axiom that integrity is how one acts when he thinks no one is watching. By this logic, to choose the right, even when we think only God is watching, isn’t a true test of integrity. Thus, by this logic, only one who believes that not even God is watching (an atheist) can truly be tried for his integrity.

So what now? Is the axiom wrong, and one’s integrity can be fully tested whether or not he thinks God is watching? Or if the principle is true, could it be that God has thus gone out of his way to hide himself in order to make planet earth a testing ground of our integrity?

If the latter is true, and God doesn’t want us to find him scientifically, why would he want us to find him spiritually? If we’re here to become more like God, wouldn’t we be better off believing the world around us is our only reality so that we’ll be motivated to make heaven on earth, rather than postponing our happiness and development for some future and ambiguous heaven? What’s the inherent value of faith, if any?

Of course, there’s isolated arguments, and there’s reality. The reality I’ve observed is that godlessness frequently (but not always) leads to hedonism. After all, if there’s to be no judgment of the soul, why not pick up a Playboy and a bottle of beer on the way home from work? How could anything that feels good be inherently wrong so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else? Thus, among the godless, the Ten Commandments are frequently widdled down to the three or four commandments.

It is my belief that science could prove the value of an altruistic life over a hedonistic life. For example, if you throw one-hundred people with altruistic tendencies into Room A and one-hundred people with hedonistic tendencies into Room B, after X number of hours, I’ll bet hat the people in Room A would report a more positive experience than the people in Room B. I believe that if you then asked the people from Room A whether or not faith played a role in their altruistic tendencies, I believe the majority would say yes. Prove me wrong.

While I’m obviously conjecturing, if such a study exists, and its findings are reliable, it would seem that science could prove the need for faith. Maybe. Perhaps a deeper study would reveal that faith is really just a culture, and some other culture of strictly godless people could possess a greater degree of altruism.

In any case, is there really any argument against the value of a belief system that motivates one toward temperance, alms-giving, self-restraint, fidelity, family life, fiscal responsibility, honesty, peacefulness, and so on?  By eradicating the doctrine of a personal judgment of the soul, can morality be just as effectively implemented into a society?

Here’s the only conclusion I can draw: if God lives, and he has, indeed, hidden himself from us, then it seems we’re wasting our time in trying to find him. In fact, it would be blasphemous to try to find him, like trying to be beat God in a cosmic game of hide and seek.

As an analogy, suppose you setup a treasure hunt for someone. You deliver the first clue to this person’s doorstep, knock on the door, and run. This person reads the clue, but instead of following it to the next clue, he focuses all of his time and energy in trying to figure out who had given him the clue. He studies the handwriting, examines the paper, searches for footprints, etc., completely failing to engage in your treasure hunt, let alone find the treasure.

Is it wrong to be as inquisitive as possible? No. The point is that time is limited, and if we get hung up on the foundational questions of “why are we here?” it’s very possible that we’ll find our lives being sucked into a circular hole, because these questions were either intended to be unanswerable or are inherently unanswerable. Then it won’t matter why we’re here, because we didn’t go anywhere.

Can I become my best self without believing in God? Frankly, I don’t care. I’m too busy trying to become like God.