Face to Face with the Unknowable God

Given how frequently we come across other people in our day-to-day lives, it’s somewhat shocking how rarely the depths of their humanity become manifest to us. Even walking down the street in a crowd, as often as not we perceive people primarily as objects to be taken into consideration as we navigate the spatial world. Through mindfulness and other such techniques we can, in the novelistic manner advocated by David Foster Wallace, work toward empathy by imagining stories for the people around us. While there’s much to be said for this approach, in the end it only makes the prospect of our really coming to see another person seem all the more improbable. [Read more…]

Galileo Galilei

Galileo-Galilei-z3“The Book of Nature,” wrote Galileo (d. January 8, 1642), “is written in mathematics.”

“Philosophy [i.e. physics] is written in this grand book — I mean the universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.”1

In these words from Saggiatore—his mid-career manifesto setting out the principles of the scientific method—we find one of many examples of Galileo’s genius. Everyone knows him for his adaptation and improvement of the telescope and for the astronomical discoveries he immediately began to make as he pointed it toward the sky. But he revolutionized more than just astronomy. It was Galileo who brought the promethean fire of celestial mathematics to the dark labyrinth of the Earth and physical bodies in motion here below. [Read more…]

Epiphany

MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

The Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12, 1 Nephi 13:40-42

The Collect: Our Father in Heaven, we thank thee for the life of thy Only Begotten Son who is our Good Shepherd leading us through the darkness in the paths of salvation just as the light of thy star led wise men in ancient days, and all people, to thy Son’s presence; and we ask thee to ever fortify our faith in Him, through the latter-day revelations of Him and the Restoration of thy Priesthood authority, by which we as disciples of Jesus Christ may join in the act of anointing each other kings and queens, priests and priestesses unto thee, the Most High God, as our Lord was once Anointed as the Messiah to reign with thee and thy Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. Amen. [Read more…]

Holy Innocents

The Mormon Lectionary Project: Holy Innocents

Jeremiah 31:15-17Revelation 21:1-7Matthew 2:13-18Psalm 124, Moses 7:28

The Collect: We remember today, Heavenly Father, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Let us not deceive ourselves: The collect is wholly at odds with the narrative in Matthew 2:13-18. We pray, of course, that “innocent victims” be received into God’s eternal love, but we sadly wonder why God’s “great might” does not actually seem to turn very often to the “designs of evil tyrants” despite our prayers. As I write this I am thinking of the recent slaughter of the innocents in a school in Pakistan. No doubt if the Christ child had been born in Peshawar, an angel would have warned his parents to flee before the bullets started to fly. No matter that the murder of so many children in Bethlehem by Herod is historically questionable; the fact remains that innocents do die “among wailing and loud lamentation” every single day. Could not God have saved all of the children of Bethlehem, helped them all “escape . . . the snare of the fowler” (Psalm 124)? [Read more…]

Christmas and Sacred Time

Every year the same thing happens. Once Christmas week arrives, the profane calendar stops. No more Wednesday or Thursday, just Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Yesterday was Sunday but didn’t feel like it, just Christmas + 3. The effect lasts until about New Year before we return again to the rhythms of the sun and the times and seasons bequeathed to us by the Romans. This is why marking sacred time is so important, not because we are fundamentalists who despise the secular calendar but because we are Christians who need to find some way to extricate ourselves from its utter dominance. Christmastime offers a glimpse of how this works. [Read more…]

Christmas II

MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Christmas II

Isaiah 62:6-12, Psalm 97, Titus 3:4-7, Luke 2:1-7, 8-20, Mosiah 5:7-9

The Collect: Heavenly Father, as we celebrate thy Son’s birth of the virgin Mary this day, we thank thee that thou hast sent him as a beacon in the gathering darkness, and we ask thee to lead us to this light, granting us power through thy Spirit to overcome the natural man as we learn to trust the Grace available to us through the Atonement of thy Son in our effort to create a Zion based on the teachings of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom we give honor and glory, together with thee and thy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. Amen. [Read more…]

Christmas I

From Luke’s account of the shepherds we get the idea that Jesus was born at night. In telling us of a people walking in darkness, the reading from Isaiah invites us to see this circumstance of Jesus’ birth as symbolic of our lives without him. If the babe in the manger is Isaiah’s “great light,” though, why does such darkness persist in our lives, even for us who believe? Should not the holy event have wiped forever the tears from our eyes?

How can we love God in our hours of darkness, when we feel that God’s presence is nowhere near? To have Jesus born at night means that God chose to become present precisely when the world was dark. His coming, though, divides the night into before and after, absence and presence—and yet many of us still await him, as though he were absent, the manger everlastingly empty in anticipation. The world, which should be light, taunts us with its continuing darkness. Although the Book of Mormon peoples were treated to an exception, the very moment of Jesus’ birth did not bring the dawn. Night persisted still. [Read more…]

The Mormon Lectionary Project: Fourth Advent

Mormon Lectionary Project: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 7:10-16Romans 1:1-7Matthew 1:18-25Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, 1 Nephi 11:16-22

The Collect: Heavenly Father, purify us through the Spirit, that thy Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; and if not a mansion, then a manger, for there is room for him with us.

[Read more…]

The Importance of Advocates

All of us, as Paul said to the Romans, sometimes do the very things we hate. We measure with wicked scales and bags of dishonest weights, and the consequences are just as Micah predicted: we eat and are not satisfied. The thing about injustice is that it harms everybody involved—both oppressor and oppressed—and yet the power dynamics of this relationship serve to perpetuate it. Oppressors enjoy the profits of deception, while the oppressed often lack means to improve their situation, no matter their personal qualities.

Such situations call for advocates to serve as mediators. What makes a good advocate? While Jesus is the model advocate, I believe that the life of Esther Eggertsen Peterson usefully illuminates what Jesus did for us all—both oppressors and oppressed. [Read more…]

al-Ghazali

Jerusalem_dome_of_rock_2_1880Today we celebrate the life’s work of the Persian jurist and mystic al-Ghazali (d. 18 December 1111), one of the most important intellects in the history of Islam. In his autobiography, Deliverance from Error,1 he describes what we would today call a faith crisis during his youth. Like many who have had such an experience, he began early with a “thirst for grasping the real meaning of things.” He was devout, inquisitive, and quick to observe. He says, “I saw that the children of Christians always grew up embracing Christianity, and the children of Jews always grew up adhering to Judaism, and the children of Muslims always grew up following the religion of Islam.” Al-Ghazali figured that this was because each generation in each different community was basically following in the footsteps of their parents without really questioning. So, he decided to question everything. He wanted to know the truth for himself. But the more he questioned, the less certain he became of everything he thought he knew, eventually reaching a point of doubt so deep that he lost confidence that he could know anything—even the nature of his own existence—with any certainty. He continued to write and speak as always, but inwardly, he wrote, “I was a skeptic.”2

[Read more…]

Third Advent: Joy

Isaiah’s phrase—“Strengthen the weak hands, / and make firm the feeble knees”—has become, in LDS parlance, a key expression of our obligation to serve others. In the context of Advent, the most striking aspect of Isaiah 35:1-10 is the repetition of “shall,” which directs our expectation toward the Messianic Age, when “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, / the desert shall rejoice and blossom.” As Latter-day Saints these verses often turn our minds back to the pioneers’ cultivation of the Salt Lake valley, but Advent reminds us that something of this prophecy remains unfulfilled, calling us to rejoice now in anticipation of the rejoicing then.

Indeed, today’s readings use unfulfilled prophecy precisely to keep us in joyful expectation. The psalm tells us that the Lord “gives justice to those who are oppressed, / and food to those who hunger,” that he “cares for the stranger” and “sustains the orphan and widow.” Certainly the Lord does these things, but the work is just as certainly not complete. We must yet look forward to the time when we might with finality echo the Canticle, replacing Isaiah’s future tense with the past: “He has filled the hungry with good things.” Our memories shadow forth the taste of divine nourishments past, stoking our present hunger for the banquet to come. [Read more…]

Eliza R. Snow and the Gospel of Work

Eliza R. Snow reveals much about herself when she describes her early search for religion:

[W]hen I asked, like one of old, “What must I do to be saved?” and was told that I must have a change of heart, and, to obtain it, I must feel myself to be the worst of sinners, and acknowledge the justice of God in consigning me to everlasting torment, the common-sense with which God had endowed me, revolted, for I knew I had lived a virtuous and conscientious life, and no consideration could extort from me a confession so absurd. [1]

By claiming freedom from hell on the basis of her own merit, Snow transgressed against a standard trope of Christian autobiography dating back to Augustine’s Confessions and evidenced in the title of John Bunyan’s 17th-century classic Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners: instead of a life radically transformed by God from the grossest depravity to a state of grace, she understood her life as basically good and freely oriented toward God. From the perspective of Augustinian or Calvinist orthodoxy (not necessarily shared, to be sure, by other participants in the Second Great Awakening), Snow’s position might appear in the suspect guise of works-righteousness. Rather than claim to merit heaven by her works, I believe that she worked diligently to show her love for God. This energetic life of serving God by serving other people is why we honor her today, on the anniversary of  her death.

[Read more…]

Finding Harmony amidst Cultural Change

The sixteenth century was a cruel and confusing pendulum of religious change in England. Henry VIII, erstwhile Defender of the Faith, broke with Rome in the 1530s, albeit more in church government than in doctrine. (The irony: Anne Boleyn was a Protestant.) His son, Edward VI, took things in a more Protestant direction, although his brief reign was followed by his half-sister Mary’s (also brief) attempt to return the country to Catholicism. Her half-sister Elizabeth then returned England to a firm but moderate Protestantism, eventually prompting pressure for further reform. Thomas Tallis, the greatest English composer of choral music during this period, lived through all of these changes and managed not only to stay a firm Roman Catholic through all of them, but also to remain in royal favor. Tallis’s achievement has much to teach Mormons as we navigate the shifting currents of the cultures in which we are embedded. [Read more…]

First Advent: Hope

Today, with the start of Advent, we begin a new liturgical year—a new cycle of sacred time that anticipates by a month the beginning of a new secular year. During Advent we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth while also stirring up our longings for the time when he will come again. Along with the traditional identification of this Sunday with hope, this double expectation makes Advent a good time for new beginnings. Unlike the secular new year, Advent gives our resolutions a clear focus: Christ. Because he came once, he can come again—and, more importantly, he can be with us now. [Read more…]

Mormon Lectionary Project: Year 2

With a new liturgical year beginning this Sunday (the First Sunday of Advent), the Mormon Lectionary Project has completed its first cycle. As we enter into the project’s second year, here are some brief notes on what to expect. Our goal is to collect the project in book form after this year, and these plans reflect that goal. [Read more…]

Transcending Mere Toleration in November’s Friend Magazine?

York Minster, the largest gothic cathedral in northern Europe (source: http://tinyurl.com/o3je4gm)

York Minster, the largest gothic cathedral in northern Europe (source: http://tinyurl.com/o3je4gm)

November’s Friend Magazine has a remarkable entry that cultivates an attitude transcending mere Toleration in favor of genuinely accepting the religious pluralism that is essential for true religious freedom to exist in democratic societies. That is, the article takes the step from Toleration, or merely tolerating the differences around us (in the case of the Friend essay, religious difference), as the lowest common denominator necessary for a free society to accepting and even appreciating people’s differences on their own terms. Such a perspective strengthens the robust and beneficial pluralism that the Church has argued before the European Court of Human Rights “has been dearly won over the centuries” and is “indissociable from a democratic society.”[1] [Read more…]

Christ triumphant at the end of the year

Genesis 1 is probably a liturgical text from the ancient temple that celebrated God’s enthronement as lord of the heavens and the earth. On the seventh day he comes to rest, his work done, his Person triumphant. This is the king of kings, lord of lords. Such a notion — God’s royal prerogative — is not on the face of it particularly difficult for Christians, but we ought still give attention to two issues, one theological and one practical: how is it that it is Christ who is the King, and what difference ought that belief make in our lives?

[Read more…]

Sunday thought: Family history

2nd Sunday before Advent

In five days I have gone from little interest in family history (or better put, feeling I had no time to prioritise it) to burning the midnight oil trawling through old censuses and BMD records. Tolkien once said that all cosmic music — even the bad — will eventually bend to God’s harmony; in the case of the evils of the Great War it seems that one small positive is a renewed interest in family history in Britain. This was my conversion: I went to a talk on Remembrance Day about the battle of Gheluvelt fought in 1914 by my local regiment (the Worcestershires). My interest piqued — and being a Worcestershire man — I typed some family names into Family Search and became aware of the service of a number of g-grand uncles.  One was badly injured at Ypres in 1917 and reading his medical records was a grim experience. My aunt remembers he had a dent in his skull; now we know why. It’s compelling stuff.

Why do we do family history? [Read more…]

Sunday thought: Remembrance and reconciliation

3rd Sunday before Advent; Remembrance Sunday

Amos 5:18-24

Today marks Remembrance Sunday across the Commonwealth, the Sunday before Armistice Day. The focal point of the commemoration is London’s Whitehall, where the Queen and other senior royal, political, and military figures laid wreaths at the Cenotaph. For the first time since 1946, the Republic of Ireland has played an official role, with the Irish ambassador laying a wreath in memory of the 30,000 Irish who died in the Great War. [Read more…]

A gentle man, acquainted with pain

swkMormon Lectionary Project: President Spencer W. Kimball, d. November 5, 1985

One of his several biographies bears the subtitle A Short Man, a Long Stride. In his physical prime he stood at five feet six inches. His voice, soft sandpaper. The result of a throat surgery. Having neither the appearance nor the bearing of your prototypical leader, Spencer W. Kimball served for twelve years as the twelfth Church president (1973-1985). It was an unexpected presidency, considering his advanced age and health problems compared with the relative vigor of predecessor Harold B. Lee. It was a presidency of unexpected developments. President Kimball oversaw some of the most significant changes in the modern Church—doubling the number both of operating temples and missionaries, inaugurating what would later become the General Women’s Session of General Conference (October 1978), and extending the priesthood to all worthy male members and temple blessings to black members of African descent (June 1978). The Lord has said “I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth.” [Read more…]

How the Church calendar works: The Case of St. Jerome, whom no-one really likes

Followers of the Mormon Lectionary Project may have an inkling that our base calendar comes from the Anglican tradition, which we then adapt in Mormon-y ways. The Anglican calendar itself closely follows Roman Catholic tradition but in ways more acceptable to our WASPish aesthetics (no Feast of the Conception of the Most Holy and All Pure Mother of God for us, thank you very much Pius IX). If we ever have an MLP entry for St. Jerome, we might find ourselves ahead of the Church of England whose liturgical commissioners remain unmoved by a campaign to reinstate him in the calendar.

The feast of St. Jerome is currently a “Commemoration” according to Common Worship, whereas his fellow Doctors of the Church enjoy “Lesser Festivals” — a higher rung on the ladder (Principal Holy Days enjoy top spot). Jerome used to share their position in the Book of Common Prayer but was demoted in 1980. The importance of St. Jerome’s scholarship is not doubted — cf. the Vulgate! — but he was, according to Oxford church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, “an extremely disagreeable man.” It seems that Jerome, whatever his God-given intellectual talents, was seen by many as less than saintly.

What say you? VOTE: [Read more…]

Reformation Day

On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. The act itself was not terribly momentous, because this was a usual way of announcing an academic disputation. More conspicuous was the subject: the formal title of the theses was “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” signaling a challenge to Church doctrine and power. Print technology then facilitated the rapid spread of Luther’s words throughout Europe; within two months they were widely available on the Continent. From this apparently simple beginning ushered forth a world-changing series of events. [Read more…]

Helmuth Hübener on the Day of His Execution

Announcement of Helmuth Hübener's Execution, October 27, 1942 (source: http://tinyurl.com/pxu3u3v)*

Announcement of Helmuth Hübener’s Execution, October 27, 1942 (source: http://tinyurl.com/pxu3u3v)*

Helmuth Hübener, a 16-year-old Mormon youth living in Hitler’s Germany, exhibited unprecedented moral courage in opposing the propaganda machine of the Nazi regime in the summer of 1941. For his trouble he was arrested on February 5, 1942 (less than a month after turning 17), brutally interrogated and later tortured in Gestapo prisons in Hamburg and Berlin, and then finally beheaded by guillotine in the Gestapo’s Berlin Plötzensee prison on October 27, 1942 as the youngest person (at age 17) to be sentenced by Hitler’s special “People’s Court” and executed for conspiracy to commit treason against the Nazi regime. [Read more…]

The Festival of Lights

slide_376716_4433620_compressedDiwali is a festival of renewal and celebration observed by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs around the world and by just about everyone living in India today. The festival follows the lunar calendar, so its dates vary from year to year, but generally fall in mid-autumn (late October/early November). This year, Diwali begins on the night of October 23 and continues for the next five days. During this time, families come together, the house is given a thorough cleaning, new clothes are bought or made, and neighbors exchange treats or other gifts with one another. But most of all, there are lights.

In religious traditions and cultures across the world, the triumph of good over evil, of order over chaos, and of love over fear are all represented by the universal symbolism of light, and Diwali is known as the festival of lights, celebrating all of these themes. People hang lights in their homes and across streets, they light lanterns, kindle fires; and in the evenings, fireworks light up courtyards, patios, rooftops, and the night sky as people celebrate their lives together. [Read more…]

On Persecution

As Mormons we believe strongly in the principle of agency. Modern scripture tells us that the War in Heaven was fought over it. [1] And yet this belief sometimes leads us to believe that, as W. E. Henley famously put it, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” [2] Aside from the doctrinal insistence that Jesus should be the captain of our souls, and acknowledging that Henley’s poem can be of use when we need to rouse ourselves against the troubles that surround us, the reality remains that much about our lives remains outside our control. [3] It may be true in the ultimate sense that we control our destinies, but in many ways we simply don’t have such control in the short, medium, and even the long term of our mortal lives. The unexpected has a way of occurring, no matter how righteous we may be. And in this respect, it sometimes seems as though Life—or its nefarious human agents—is out to get us.

[Read more…]

Should Mormonism Have A Theology?

Does Mormonism have a theology? My gut response, as someone who reads 17th-century theological debate for fun, is to say “no.” We do not, as a people, engage in the sort of definitional arguments that characterize formal theology. Ask someone after sacrament meeting what kind of Christology Mormonism has and you’ll probably still make it to Sunday School on time (unless that someone is Blake Ostler). This isn’t to say that your typical Mormon is stupid for not knowing what Christology is, or for not being able to place Mormon belief within the historical arguments about it. The typical Catholic probably couldn’t do that either. The difference is that Catholicism has a long history of philosophical engagement with these questions, and Mormonism doesn’t. Our engagement tends to be more ad hoc, with an Orson Pratt here and a Sterling McMurrin there. At present, in addition to Ostler (and approaching theology in a quite different way), we have the triumvirate of Jim Faulconer, Adam Miller, and Joseph Spencer.

[Read more…]

The Christian Disciplines: Submission

I’ve been a little . . . ill disciplined in continuing this series (sorry, Melody), but the next one seems very appropriate. 

Of all the Spiritual Disciplines, none has been more abused than the Discipline of submission (Richard Foster).

The recent LDS General Conference has served another reminder that Mormons greatly value submission to God through his prophets, which submission is admitted to sometimes be difficult but always right. As the Lectures on Faith suggest, “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.”

One does not need to look far, however, to see the evils to which religious submission can be bent. Foster is probably right: “Nothing can be put people into bondage like religion, and nothing in religion has done more to manipulate and destroy people than a deficient teaching on submission.” Let us be careful. [Read more…]

Just War

I have two memories of war as a child. The first was during the Falkland’s Conflict in 1982. We were on holiday in France and my father would listen to BBC World Service Radio to hear reports about the battle to reclaim the Falkland Islands from Argentina.

The second was in 1991 when the First Gulf War against Iraq began. School stopped as we watched images of the air war on the TV.

In both memories, war was a very big deal. [Read more…]

Chiune Sugihara (杉原 千畝) and the Triumph of Christian Conscience Over Worldly “Obedience”

Chiune Sugihara by Pavlo Sergeyevitch (source: http://tinyurl.com/qd72bfx)

Chiune Sugihara by Pavlo Sergeyevitch (source: http://tinyurl.com/qd72bfx)

In July and August 1940, a Japanese Christian Samurai working for the Foreign Ministry of the Empire of Japan as Consul-General in Kaunas, Lithuania did the unthinkable. Ignoring direct orders from his superiors in Tokyo on at least three occasions, Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara instead counseled with his wife Yukiko and, influenced by old Samurai wisdom[1] and the Book of Lamentations[2], together they issued between 2,500 and 3,500 exit/transit visas[3] to Eastern European Jews desperately seeking to escape the terrifying advance of Nazi armies through Eastern Europe via Kaunas, the temporary capital of Lithuania at the time. The Japanese consulate in Kaunas was these Jews’ last hope because the Soviet Union had annexed Lithuania as its armies simultaneously advanced westward and ordered all embassies and consulates closed. But following his conscience, Sugihara had presciently applied for, and providentially was granted, a 20 day extension to keep his consulate open in Kaunas. Only the Japanese and Dutch consuls remained. That was when the Jews requested Sugihara’s help and, finding him receptive[4], was what led to crowds of thousands of Jews gathering outside the gate of the consulate. [Read more…]

On the Humanity of Saints

If you know a story about Mary Fielding Smith, odds are it’s one of these four: she blessed an ox that was about to die on the pioneer trail; when, on another occasion, a search party had been unable to find her lost cattle, she prayed and was told the cattle’s exact location; when Captain Cornelius Lott gave her a hard time about attempting the trek as a widow, she swore she’d beat him to the Valley, which she did; or, later, she insisted on paying her tithing because she would not be deprived of the blessings.

While these stories have the benefit of being more or less true—on Lavina Fielding Anderson’s search of primary sources, they seem to agree that Mary asked her brother and another elder to bless the ox—the fact that they represent the sum of what we as a people generally know about her ought to give us pause. [1] To say that she was more complicated is obvious, and complicating details aren’t hard to find: letters between her and Hyrum indicating some disagreement over her tactics as a step-parent, as well as other evidence suggesting that her marriages to Hyrum and, later, to Heber C. Kimball as a plural wife left her feeling lonely and not altogether satisfied. [2] I share these details not to point out with gleeful cynicism that Mary Fielding Smith wasn’t all she’s been made out to be, but rather to reflect on what it means for us as Latter-day Saints to honor our forebears.

[Read more…]

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