Saturday, August 6, 2016

Attempted Robbery

In my last post I mentioned that in the week before my baptism, several events occurred that I believe were intended to distract me from my purpose. I was able to recognize and reject those temptations because I had been forewarned by the wise counsel of Bishop Lawson. In addition, he also warned me that throughout my life Satan would try to distract, divert and derail me in my progress in returning to Heavenly Father. That it was a lifelong battle I was now engaging in. He pointed out that Joseph Smith talked about that people who have not heard the Gospel are on neutral ground and the adversary doesn't much care about us at that point, but once we hear the Gospel and accept it, we leave neutral ground and can never regain it. (reference) He (Satan) will work on someone who has left neutral ground until he has drawn that one to his side in the war that began in heaven and continues down here. Over the ensuing days, weeks, months and years, my appreciation for that counsel has grown. Not only did I have the direct temptations to do wrong things that week, but after my baptism, the challenges entered entirely new areas.

The day after my baptism, I was talking to a friend, a good Catholic girl that I had met in a college class. When I told her about my baptism, she expressed her disappointment with me, asked me not to call her again and hung up. Many of the friends of all religions that I had made while searching for the truth gave me similar treatment. With one exception, none would talk to me and I was essentially left with just the few friends I had made in the LDS Church. The one exception was a former co-worker who was studying at LA Baptist to be a pastor. He eagerly wanted to meet with me, so we arranged to meet at a place called "Sambo's". His whole purpose for the meeting was to give me a stack of anti-Mormon literature about 6 inches tall. In essence he said that after I read all that I would come to my senses and then he would be glad to talk with me again, but don't bother calling him if I didn't see the error of my ways.

I had already read about half of the material he gave me while I was looking into the Church. For me, the amount of literature specifically against the Church was a sign that there was more to the Church than I had originally thought, and it had actually motivated me to look deeper. Before I joined the Church, when I found literature in the library that brought up questions, the Andersons and Bobby Apperson had been able to give me answers that satisfied me. However, some of the material my "friend" had given me was very disturbing, and I didn't want to burden the Andersons nor Bobby with these things. However, I also wanted to cling tightly to the Gospel which had brought me so much joy, so I needed answers. Perhaps I should have gone to my bishop with these things, but I hadn't really met him. I started attending the Van Nuys 2nd Ward the day after my baptism because I moved into those boundaries, but they did not received my records for another 7 months, so they didn't really know about me. I am naturally very shy, so I would show up for my meetings, sit in the back for priesthood Sunday School and Sacrament (3 separate meetings on Sunday in those days) and then leave immediately after the closing prayer. I didn't talk to anyone and no one talked to me.

After my baptism, in addition to Group, which I continued to attend, I also started going to meetings called "Institute". These meetings were for the "Young Adults" in the Church (single members aged 18-30) and consisted of a short lesson on religion, followed by a small social activity (dancing, games, snacks, etc). There were 2 colleges in the area that I attended Institute in, Cal State Northridge and LA Valley CC. Those programs were each run by an employee of the Church Educational System, and both men were very knowledgeable and extremely approachable. I took my questions to those 2 institute directors, and they always had answers for me, and books that I could read answers from. Both of them gave me some very wise counsel also, I always remembered it, although it took me a few years to actually follow: spend time each day prayerfully studying the scriptures, learn to recognize the Holy Ghost and when I read or hear anything else, see if the Holy Ghost is confirming what I was learning--if not, the things were false.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I was actually suffering from a severe handicap my first 7 months as a member of the Church. As I stated, my ward had no idea who I was, but more importantly, they did not know I had not been ordained to any priesthood office. As a result, I was not given the opportunity to home teach, hold a calling or have the strength that ordination brings. I found all this out because Bobby Apperson, the leader of Group asked for me to called and set apart as his 1st counselor. That was a regional calling that required the Melchizedek Priesthood, so the Regional Representative went to my Stake President, who went to my Bishop, and they found out that no one had my records. When they got them, they found out I had not been ordained at all, but because of the calling, my Stake President interviewed me, walked me over to the High Council meeting, got their sustaining vote and then conferred the Melchizedek Priesthood and ordained me an Elder right there. That night I was sustained in Group meeting and set apart. I did notice that my studies became more effective once I had priesthood and a calling, and the answers to a lot of the questions people raised came much more freely, without having to talk to people about them.

On those questions: Group was originally set up as a place for Bishops in the Region to send Mutual-aged (12-17) kids in the Church who had problems with drug, alcohol and tobacco usage. We followed the 12 steps of AA, just like the Church's Addiction Recovery Program does now for adults. Over time, some of the Group attendees continued hanging around even after they were too old for Mutual, and some of the Bishops were sending kids that had other problems with their faith besides addictions. Many of the kids who were attending had friends who had given them anti-Mormon literature, so my exposure to that material before had put me in a good position to help them, even when they got material I hadn't seen yet. The kids soon learned that I would not get defensive or argumentative when answering their questions or referring them to people who could answer them. As a result, I was forced to keep a close relationship with Heavenly Father to keep the joy in my life in the face of all that negativity.

This relationship with God has blessed me so many times. In 1974, when I was first accepted into BYU, I got a revelation that I needed to put that on hold, go home and save up to serve a mission. I felt so in tune when my first Sunday home, after talking with the Bishop and setting up a plan to get on a mission, that afternoon, President Kimball announced that all worthy and able men should serve a mission. On my mission that relationship continued to help as companions, missionaries in my district, local members and investigators had questions that challenged their faith, I was able to find answers that soothed their souls.

For the next few years, I really didn't have much come up that challenged my faith, other than my own lack of faithfulness. As I said, the two institute directors that helped me so much had recommended I prayerfully study the scriptures daily. I was not as faithful at that as I could have been. I would go in spurts where I would be really faithful, and then weeks or months at a time where I would not even crack open my scriptures. As this happened, I began to notice a pattern: when I wasn't studying as I should, I would sometimes feel that my membership in the Church was a burden, that the commandments seemed hard, that I just wasn't measuring up. I began to see that I was much happier when I was in the scriptures regularly. Even so, studying regularly was proving to be a hard habit to start. Fortunately, an article ran in the Ensign magazine in September of 1984 that talked about a family who set up a competition to see who could read the scriptures the most days in a row. One family member went for 440 days. I am very competitive, so I immediate said, "I can beat that." and sure enough, since that day I only have missed one day of scripture study. Not that this is any big deal, but later, when I had to delve into anti-Mormon literature to help loved ones, the strength of having that familiarity with the scriptures helped me tremendously.

When my own children reached their teenage years, some (all?) of them had questions about the Church. Some of my kids came to me, others did not. Some let those questions hurt their testimonies, others let finding the answers. But given some of these questions, I felt the need to review the criticisms they were seeing so that I would have answers should they ask. I came upon the Mormon Apologetics web site which is now called FairMormon. Nowadays, many people do not know what apologetics are. It is a branch of philosophy that deals with false allegations against a philosophical position. It has nothing to do with apologizing. For those things which I had not been exposed to before, this gave me a lot of good background. But the most important way for me to deal with anti-Mormon literature a websites is:
1) Remember the happiness the Gospel brings
2) Remember the feeling of the Holy Ghost confirming truth
3) Keep in the scriptures daily
4) Bear testimony frequently
5) Pray morning, noon and night, more if necessary
6) Find joy in service

There will always be people who want to steal the joy of others. Those people have succumbed to the influence of Satan. True friends will help you find joy.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Opposition begins

So, on Friday night, August 10, 1973, I committed to be baptized a member of the LDS Church. I didn't really understand all that meant, just that I had to do it. The missionaries scheduled the baptism, told me I should meet the bishop on Sunday and that I had to receive all the discussions (there were 7 lessons that were supposed to be taught, and I had only received 1), but we went ahead and scheduled it.

On Sunday I attended an LDS Sunday School service for the first time. In those days, Sunday School was held in the morning, everyone went home and came back for the Sacrament service in the afternoon. The Andersons introduced me to the bishop, Bishop Lawson, who invited me into his office during Sunday School class time. As we chatted, he gave me the best advice I have ever received. Following his advice has helped me immeasurably throughout the years since.

He said something along the lines of: Now that you have decided to join the Church, Satan is going to do everything in his power to stop you. And if he can't stop you from being baptized, he will never stop trying to take away the happiness you are feeling right now. Don't let him do that. Learn to recognize when he is trying to steal your joy. The sooner you learn that, you will have the power to weather any storm.

I left the meeting very impressed by Bishop Lawson. I had learned he was not paid for being a bishop, that he had a regular job and that some day he would be released and someone else would be bishop. He also confirmed everything I had learned from Donna, her family, Group and Jerry, and showed a depth of understanding that surpassed any of the full-time, professional religionists with whom I had ever talked.

When I went back to work on Monday, within an hour of work starting, I had a couple of experiences that showed me how inspired Bishop Lawson had been. A female coworker called me and asked if I wanted to spend the night partying with her, and a delivery driver offered me a whole sheet of acid hits as well as a lid (a baggie of marijuana). That sort of thing never happened to me. No woman had ever propositioned me, and the drugs were worth about $50 back then (drugs were cheaper in those days). I recognized that this was an attempt to divert me from the path I had determined to go down. The rest of the week had similar weird attempts, most a lot more subtle, but I was now on the alert.

In another attempt to thwart my progress, the missionaries did not show up for our appointments for the remainder of the lessons on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. On Thursday they did show up with the district leaders who were to interview me to make sure I was prepared and repentant enough to be baptized. Since I didn't know the commandments or even what the Atonement of Jesus Christ was all about, to this day I cannot fathom why they let the baptism go through. Whatever the case, I am the sort that once I make a commitment, I follow through, if I have any way to fulfill that at all.

So I was baptized on August 18, 1973, and on that day Bobby Ford & I moved into the apartment that we ended up sharing for the next few months. My baptism was a great day. In those days people believed that if you took LSD, your DNA in your reproductive system was permanently altered. I had taken LSD 2 times, and I was very concerned that maybe I shouldn't have children due to heritable mutations. I was seriously troubled by this and other changes to my body from using pot. After I was baptized, I was confirmed at water's edge, and during the confirmation, as I felt the Holy Ghost flow into me, I felt knowledge pour into my brain that all ill effects from the drugs were removed, except that the eidetic memory that I once had enjoyed and lost to pot use would not be coming back. Instead, now all I have is a really good memory. So even though I had not been breaking covenants by taking drugs, I still have to suffer a little of the consequences of doing harm to myself.

As a result of moving, I was now in a different ward, so I never attended the Northridge 2nd Ward again, instead I was in the Van Nuys 2nd Ward, in a different stake. It took a long time for my records to get there, which caused some interesting challenges that I will describe in a later post, when I write about attempts by the adversary to rob me of the joy I had found.

In the meantime, I faithfully attended my official church meetings, as well as my Group meetings. I got my own copy of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, and began reading them. To me, they were like cool well water for a desert traveler. I just wanted to absorb all I possibly could. As I read and attended meetings, I discovered that I should keep the dietary restrictions called "The Word of Wisdom" (no coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco or illegal use of drugs). I also learned that I shouldn't swear, that the 10 commandments were still in effect, that I should pay 10% of my income as tithing, that there was a thing called "The Law of Chastity", that I should fast once a month, taking the money saved and donate it to the poor, and lots of other things. Some have commented that the Church demands a lot from us. I disagree. The Lord has a lot to give us, and we can free Him up to give it to us just by doing a few simple things. I am glad that I learned about these expectations gradually, as I was ready. For one thing, it didn't seem like a huge burden that hearing about all of them at once would have been. For another, as I started intentionally keeping each one, I saw the blessings in my life associated with each. Had I done them all at once, I would have noticed changes, but I would be hard pressed to correlate blessings with commandments.

In the next installment I will discuss attempts by others to destroy my new-found faith.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Deciding...

There are some previous posts (3 to be exact) that you may want to read, but I will quit putting links in... Just select "Older" to see the previous posts.

In my previous posts, I recounted how I came to a journey to search for truth, and how I could not get satisfactory answers to the questions I had from anyone, particularly not from professional purveyors and dispensers of religious knowledge. Actually, that whole idea that a religion had to have people who made a living by interpreting their doctrines to the common folk disturbed me greatly. It seemed to me that most religions started with people from the ordinary walks of life. Abraham was a shepherd, Moses was cast out of pharaoh's court and turned to shepherding, Jesus was a handyman, His apostles were fisherman, laborers, tax collectors and the like. Paul was a tent maker. Muhammed was a merchant, and on it goes. The first adherents were also simple folks, but eventually this structure of paid preachers almost always rose up. Wouldn't the truth of God be simple enough that we would not need to have professionals teach us? I should be able to read the sacred books and discover the truth on my own.

That reading and discovering on my own was what had caused some of the problems with my Carmelite teachers at Crespi. I had been reading the Bible and many of my questions came because of disconnects that I saw between scriptures and the 3 great creeds of Christianity. I had not read the entire Bible, just most of the New Testament, all of the Pentateuch and several other books of the Old Testament. When I read in the holy writings of other religions, I did find myself holding what I was reading up to the Bible for how I felt as I read. I had a good friend who was Jewish, whose dad, a Rabbi, let me read his English version of the Talmud, I got a copy of a translation of the Koran (I know, the Koran must be read in Arabic, that attitude bothered me HUGELY), I went to the library and read in the Bhagavad Gita, I also read some of the writings of the Baha'i, as well as Buddhist writings. None of them had the "feel" of the Bible, at least for what I felt were dignified translations.

After talking with Donna Anderson, and finding out that there was a Christian church that did not rely on professional preachers, and that a 15-year-old girl could give me better answers than all of them, I started asking more questions about this now interesting religion. The man who introduced me to the Andersons also introduced me to a man by the name of Jerry Capps. Jerry and the Andersons had one trait in common that meant a lot to me: the husbands in both families treated their wives with great respect and love. Most of the married men I knew complained about their wives, or had unflattering nicknames for them around the guys. Not Jerry or Dick Anderson. Their wives were #1 in their lives. They treated their wives the way I felt wives should be treated. And Susan Capps and Marge Anderson treated their husbands with love and respect. If I were to ever get married, I wanted a marriage like those two families. That was another thing that made me take note of this religion. The only two good marriages that I knew of were both Mormon families. One was a pair of newlyweds and the other a family with 7 children, but it could not be coincidence. Those marriages were obviously strong because of the commitment of the couples to their religion.

However, I still was not very eager to find out if God really existed, because that would be inconvenient. My guess was that I would have to stop some of my favorite behaviors if He existed and I knew about it. But, my experience with these Latter-day Saints totally drove the suicide option out of my head. I started to think God might possibly exist. So I started hanging out with these 2 families more. Jerry & Susan gave me a key to their apartment so I could use their piano to practice between my lessons. One afternoon, after going through all my exercises, I started looking at their bookshelf. On it I saw a book entitled "The Book of Mormon". In my searching, I had learned that several religions consider it a sacrilege for a nonbeliever to even touch a copy of their sacred books, much less read it, but I decided to take the book down and start reading. First thing, I noticed that the "feel" of this book was identical to the Bible. By the time I got to Lehi's vision of the tree of life, I knew that if the Bible was true, this book was true. And if this book was true, then the Bible was true. I still maintained my agnosticism, but I sensed that the 2 books were equivalent in Truth. When Jerry got home, I confessed that I had started reading his Book of Mormon, and I was very relieved when he was not angry, and in fact gave me my own copy. At this time, my soon-to-be roommate, Bobby Ford, was interested in Donna's sister, so he agreed to take the missionary discussions over there. I attended one lesson with him, and was due to come back to another.

Also at this time, the Andersons were attending this thing called "Group". I didn't know what it was at the time, but Bobby would go with them. By then, I was in college and was studying to be a hypnotherapist at UCLA. Bobby told me how they talked about the evils of hypnosis at the Group meeting that night, so I decided to attend the next meeting to set them straight. There I met another key person in my journey to the truth: Bob Apperson. Bob was the leader of Group, and was such an interesting and humble guy, he turned out to be a great role model for a single guy in the Church. It turns out they never talked about hypnosis again, but a couple of things happened at that first meeting I went to: 1) I met a lot of warm and accepting people who were very forgiving of my rough edges (I swore a lot, I wasn't tactful at all, and I drank a fair amount) and 2) this older man, Brother Lamb, was talking to the kids there, and I was blown away by the respect they showed toward him. This was the early 70s! Don't trust anyone over 30! He was THE MAN! Why were all these teenagers and young adults showing him so much deference? These Mormons kept surprising me. I don't believe I ever missed another Group meeting until I left the area.

At one point during this time, I had been asked to leave my mom's house, and having nowhere else to go, I ended up sleeping in a shed behind Bobby Ford's house, along with their 4 dogs. That was the lowest point in my life up to that point. I came home from a Group meeting one Wednesday evening, and for the first time in my life, I said a true prayer. Up until that time, most of my prayers had been the memorized prayers of my youth. That night, I finally felt humbled enough to ask God to let me know if He existed. With that prayer, I committed that should I find out He did, I would try to change into whatever He wanted my to be. I felt nothing at the time, crawled into bed, and cried myself to sleep.

Two days after that prayer (Friday, August 10, 1973), the company I worked for, Spacelabs, Inc. was having an anniversary celebration. The workday was to end at noon, they brought in several kegs of beer, several cases of champagne, and we had a party. Some of us went behind the building where we smoked a joint or two, but then I remembered that I was due at the Andersons' for a missionary discussion, so I hopped on my motorcycle, both drunk and stoned (how stupid was that!), and headed over there. When I got there, I pulled Bobby aside and told him my condition, and asked him to cover for me, telling them that I was sick. The missionaries decided not to teach the lesson they had planned that night, and instead showed a filmstrip (the 1973 version of a video). I slept through it. When I woke up, Bobby had left and the missionaries were playing around with the Andersons. One of them noticed I was awake, and in a very jocular manner asked, "So, Mike, when can we baptize you?" At that point, I got my answer to my prayer. I went complete sober, and in a moment of clarity unmatched before or since, I knew. I KNEW that I had to be baptized, that God exists, that this was His Church that taught His Truth. There was much more to this experience, but it is far too sacred to share. At the time, I just asked the missionary, "When do you do your baptisms?" He thought I was joking back, so in his teasing manner, he said, "On Saturdays." I replied, "I guess tomorrow would be too soon." He, still joking, said, "Yeah, just a little." Then I said, "Well, what about next week?" He then realized the miscommunication, started fumbling for his materials and said, "You're not joking, are you?" I answered, "I've never been so serious in all my life."

I'll save the rest for a future installment...

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Twists on the Journey

This is the third installment of my story. The previous installments are:

As I mentioned in those posts, my search for truth was not the ordinary one. I was not motivated for any noble purpose of truth for truth's sake, but more to find out if I really needed to continue enduring the pain I was experiencing in life. I had talked with pastors, priests, and other leaders of every Judeo-Christian tradition that I knew about. None had been able to give me acceptable answers to any of my questions. All seemed to teach of a totally incomprehensible God, founded more in the pronouncements of Greek philosophy than in the most direct reading of the actual words of the Bible. As a result, I had given up on Christianity. Then I met a Mormon. My girlfriend, a baptist preacher's daughter told me that Mormons weren't Christian, so I decided to look into the teachings of that church.

The Mormon I met was not actively participating in the Mormon Church, but he introduced me to a few of his friends. Some of those friends were members of the Anderson family. I owe much of my current happiness and success in life to things I learned in the Anderson home. When my girlfriend told me Mormons weren't Christians, I called the Andersons to maybe find someone I could talk to about their theology. The only person home when I called was their 15-year-old daughter, Donna (now Donna Williams), but I told her what my girlfriend said. Donna said, "Well that's not true, we do believe in Christ, our Church is 'The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.'" That taught me something important: never, I mean NEVER listen to someone outside a religion about that religion. I should have already known that, based on my experiences learning about other religions, but it was good to get confirmation.

I told Donna that I was a little disappointed to hear the Mormons were Christian, because I had pretty much decided that all Christian churches suffered from some fatal flaws in their teachings. She asked me what teachings those were, so I unloaded the hardest question on her, one that not one of the religious leaders had been able to answer: how can a loving God individual create the vast majority of people to just burn in hell? Instead of not knowing what to say, and having to talk to someone about it, she explained what the Mormons call "The Plan of Salvation" to me. She taught me about the pre-mortal existence and that God is not creating spirits with each birth. She also taught me that those who don't hear about the Gospel in this life will have the opportunity to hear about it in the spirit world. She taught me how heaven was a much more complex concept than the Greek concepts that got incorporated into the official creeds of Christendom.

I was astounded. I had asked these questions to some very learned religionists, professional priests and preachers, that had no clue how to answer me with any kind of coherence. For more than 4 years I had not found anyone who had as clear an answer as this 15-year-old girl. Although, just because she had answers, I realized that those answers may not be objectively true, that would require verification. However that may be, it was important to me that the true Gospel teach truths that hung together as well as these did, it was also important that all the members of the religion have access to such important concepts. I had never seen that in any other religion, so all this was very impressive. But it was very inconvenient to me. All of a sudden, I came to realize that there was a group of people who taught of a believable God with a reasonable plan, with good answers to the tough philosophical questions. I had to respond. My well-established agnosticism made it hard to accept that a god actually existed, but I was coming to realize that I felt that way because I had made the very childish assumption that there was no god because the tradition I had grown up with was false and the traditions that the majority of people accepted were either wrong or useless in the grand scheme of things. That was nearly as bad as basing agnosticism on a faulty understanding of a religion.

In any event, I had new information, and that caused new questions to come up, but their answers were not to be found in doctrines:
1) What difference can/will these teachings mean in my life?
2) How do I determine if these things are true?
3) What will I do if I find out they are true?
4) Do I really want to know the answer to these questions?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Journey Continues...

This is the second in a series. Part one is located at: My Journey

In that post I recounted my experience beginning a search for truth. What I didn't mention before, was that my reading included the writings of all the major western philosophers, with a big emphasis on Greek philosophy. During my conversations with the Jesuit Monsignor, this was often where our discussions centered. Although most Christian churches, including the Catholics will tell you that their doctrines are centered in the Bible, my questioning and searching have caused me to feel otherwise. It seems that in the first few centuries after Christ, many different factions sprang up, each with its own interpretation of how the Hebrew writings were to be viewed and what emphasis to place upon the different tracts that were circulating amongst those factions.

But before I go into that, I want to quickly review the questions that started percolating in my head, and that I ended up asking every priest, pastor, rabbi, imam, minister, devotee and the like when I would discover a religion or philosophy that I did not know. The purpose to asking these questions was described in my previous post.

1) Is there a God? That includes information as to the nature of God. My assumption was that there probably was not one, but should one exist, it seemed like God would want us to know that. I also assume that He would want us to understand His nature. A God that cannot be fathomed is not a God I can form a relationship with, nor that I can ever hope to please. It also seemed that the confusion I saw in the world was not something that a God would want. What about the problems of evil in the world? Who was the creator of that evil?

2) Does God have requirements for individuals? It seems clear to me that He would. If not, belief or non-belief would have no meaning. It is also important for me to be able to understand and meet those requirements. Are there rituals, ordinances and commandments I must follow? If there are, are there penalties for not following? Are there rewards for adhering to the requirements? How have those requirements been communicated?

3) What about those who never heard of him? It was very clear to me that if any one religion taught the true God, the vast majority of people would never have a chance to hear enough about Him and His requirements for us to make even a faint attempt at pleasing Him in their mortal lives. If a religion teaches that all people are created upon birth (or conception), then the number of souls eligible for whatever reward must be vanishingly small. That means that nearly everyone was destined to reap the penalties for not pleasing. This one question was usually the one to which most religions could never give me a satisfactory answer. To be honest, this was the one that became the most important to me as I spoke with people from different religions.

4) What's my relationship with God? If He loves me, why? If He's angry with me, why? Am I just an insignificant mouse running a laboratory maze for His amusement? Am I really His son that He loves as my dad loved me (albeit in a purer and perfect way)? Can I communicate with Him? Will He communicate with me? Why were there prophets in the Old Testament and the New Testament? Are there prophets now? On this one, the Catholics and the various Orthodox churches seem to say there are, in that they each have a head bishop (the Pope in the Roman church, the Archbishops of the various Orthodox churches) whom they recognize as the one to speak for God.

5) What happens after the resurrection? I found out later that I had to ask if the church even believed in a resurrection. But assuming one, just what happens? Is it an eternity of just sitting around praising, or will we be doing anything useful? As a person, I have an innate desire to contribute meaningfully, to be bettering myself. I would view an eternity of being nothing more than I was to be damnation, no matter what I had become.

6) What about my current relationships? Do the relationships I form in this life end up being meaningless? Is there a way for them to continue after this life?

Back to my answers. As I said, I found that many of the doctrines I have discovered in Christian churches are nowhere to be found in the Bible, at least not without some pretty serious mental contortions. For this post, I will ignore my concerns about how the Bible was determined and all of the different ideas of what constitutes the Bible in the several Christian churches. Suffice it to say, whenever I hear someone say that they just follow the Bible, I know that they no little about what that term actually means and how vague it really is. I may post on that later. From this point on, when I say "Bible", I will be referring to the library of books and writings brought together and accepted by Protestant churches (no criticism implied to Catholics, Coptics, Syrian, Orthodox and Aramaic Christians, all of whom have their own set of books in their Bibles). The biggest point I want to make is that just as writing down teachings may or may not be sacred, depending upon the standing of the author, so too does collecting a bunch of writings and deciding that this constitutes the library of the faithful. Both activities seem to be the exclusive territory of a prophet, one who is called to speak for God to the people.

To me, that means that anyone who teaches that Jesus of Nazareth was the last of the prophets and that no more were needed after His coming, is per force denying the Bible as the word of God. So, until the Bible was assembled (in about 325 AD) there was a need for prophets to put together that Bible. If there was a need for prophets until 325, why is there no need now? I find nothing in Holy Writ to justify a teaching that there is no longer a need. Anyone who teaches that is merely rationalizing a basis for their church, despite all scriptural evidence to the contrary. This view isn't just my own, I have read similar sentiments in the writings of many of the founders of the Protestant churches. They are usually using these thoughts to demonstrate why they can no longer follow the Pope, saying that the prophetic power left the papacy at some time in the middle ages. Putting that all together, for me, the typical Protestant position of sola scriptura (only scriptures) as authority is untenable, even without arguing about the many different interpretations of those scriptures. Add that to the fact that no Protestant preacher (pastor, etc) could answer my questions to my satisfaction, I came to the conclusion that I could not believe any of them. The pastors I spoke with were Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Assembly of God, Episcopalian, Seventh-Day Adventist, and a self-proclaimed "Jesus freak" (the 60s were a different time). None could give me good answers, particularly when it came to my first 3 questions.

So I decided, at about 18, that Christianity did not have the answers I needed. I still felt that I didn't know enough to have a free pass to quit living on purpose, so I started to look at non-Christian religions. I looked into Judaism, Nicheren Shoshu, Zen Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Islam. In the end, all of these failed to give me a satisfactory answer as to why I would want to commit my life to following those teachings, as I outlined in my previous post. Nonetheless, I was still running into new religions and philosophies all the time, so I had not yet totally given up.

There was one night when I was feeling particularly lonely and morose, that I actually did attempt suicide. I won't go into the details here, but suffice it to say, at the time I realized that my attempt should have been successful, but now I see that the hand of God prevented my success and I escaped with no harm whatsoever. About 3 days later, I met 2 men, one was a co-worker who belonged to the Watch Tower Society, and the other I met at the Student Union at the college I was attending. He was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I had never heard of either of these religions, but I made the assumption that I would just as handily deal with their doctrines as I had all the other Christian religions. As a result, I didn't really put any effort into looking at either of these religions until I mentioned meeting them to my girlfriend, the daughter of the Baptist preacher with whom I had discussed religion. When I mentioned these religions, she said, "They aren't even Christian." That perked up my ears, and I knew I had to find out more about these two religions.

As it turns out, the Watch Tower Society essentially failed my concerns with what happens after resurrection, so I quit studying them pretty quickly (after about 3 weeks). But I found a completely different story with the Mormons...

Monday, June 6, 2016

My Journey

I was born and raised Roman Catholic. My family was a practicing Catholic family. We attended Sunday Mass each week (Mass was only on Sunday in those days) and we always attended Mass on Holy Days of Obligation. During my childhood, when possible, my parents sacrificed greatly to make sure we were educated in parochial schools. Our education was far superior to that available in public schools. I attended high school at Crespi Carmelite, which billed itself as a college preparatory high school. I have always appreciated the quality of the education I received, but there were a few teachers at that school that I feel left a lot to be desired, particularly in dealing with a boy such as myself who read a lot more than most people around. When I was 16, my parents split up. That event really shook me, causing me to question the Church, because, at the time, divorce was considered a mortal sin. Looking back, I realize that I went into a depression that lasted about 4 years. But at 16, I started asking questions about the Church. Particularly in religion class, my questions were unwelcome, often went unanswered and, at times, got me in trouble because I was viewed as just trying to cause trouble. It got so bad that during my senior year, the teacher, Father Albert (who was also the principal of the school and rector of the rectory) treated me with obvious disdain and refused to call on me when I raised my hand. As a result, I quit attending his class. After 2 weeks of that, he contacted my parents and I was told I had to attend class. At that point, if he would not call on me, I would just blurt out my questions, which caused him to send me to private religion lessons with Brother Eric, the vice-principal of discipline. To Brother Eric's credit, he recognized that I was not asking questions just to be disruptive. He saw that I had serious questions caused by my situation and the reading I had done. He would research my questions, but soon found himself out of his depth, so, on a weekly basis he started having the head of the Jesuit Order in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Monsignor... (I can't remember his name). The Jesuits are the theologians of the Catholic Church, so I felt then, and still feel, that I got as good an answer to my questions as Catholic theology had to give.

The questions I had then were numerous, and I only remember a few, but before I list them, a little about my approach. Since I was 16, I was at best an agnostic. I didn't then and don't now believe that atheism is a tenable position, since it requires a flat statement that God does not exist. While I strongly doubted the existence of God, I knew enough about logic that I knew proving God did not exist was probably impossible, but I felt motivated to try. My thinking was that God either existed or He did not. If He did not, and I could comfortably convince myself of that, I intended to cease the loneliness and suffering of this life by ending mine. But if He existed, I was fairly certain He would not approve of suicide, so I needed to be sure.

If God did exist, I was certain that He would want people to know about him, so I assumed that there was a religion that taught His truths. The questions I had were pretty much around what I felt those truths must include. It is important to remember that my questions arose from my background, and, after I determined that Catholic doctrines were incorrect, I had to adapt them to the theologies of the other churches I looked at. As far as Christian churches went, all seemed to believe in God as a continual creator, who created a human soul with each person. The major difference here was exactly when that creation occurred. For example, Catholic doctrine teaches that each soul is created at conception. One protestant pastor I talked to told me that the creation of the soul occurs at birth. Everyone else was somewhere in between. When I talked to teachers of other religions, most didn't even talk about souls, or felt that souls were reincarnated. Immediately, if a religion taught that there was no immortal soul, or it taught of reincarnation, I saw that as equivalent to there being no God at all. If there were no resurrection and final judgment, then, in the end, what we do in this life really doesn't matter at all, so any choice I made had no lasting consequence. For my purposes, that was the equivalence to no god at all. In determining this, I am not saying there is anything wrong with these religions or philosophies, I'm just saying that in the absence of lasting consequences of our actions, that religion or philosophy was useless to me for self improvement or for the long-term improvement of humanity in general. There are really long philosophical arguments around this, but that is not the point of this post.

So, for me, the following questions are what I asked about their beliefs, if any question could not be answered definitively, I crossed that religion off my list and moved on:

1) Is there a God?
2) Does God have requirements for individuals?
3) What about those who never heard of him?
4) What's my relationship with God?
5) What happens after the resurrection?
6) What about my current relationships?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Confirmation Bias

I grew up in a different world than today. My teachers at the college prep school that I went to taught me how to have a reasoned debate. That skill seems to be lost today. In speech/debate class we'd be assigned a topic and a side to take. As time went on, our teacher learned our individual opinions and assigned us the opposite position to defend. If I were unable to defend the antithetical viewpoint, he would say, "It sounds like you don't have enough information to justify the opinion you have." The point being, unless you really understand the opposing views, you don't understand your own.

Holding an opinion that you are uneducated about is okay, as long as your mind remains open as you investigate further. Closing your mind to more information, particularly that which disagrees with you, is the hallmark of those who are doomed to living in ignorance and prejudice. Even scientists are vulnerable to this problem of only paying attention to results that agree with their hypotheses, it is called confirmation bias and it is the reason that no scientific experiment is accepted until after peer review, including review of the methods and data of the original experiment and a repetition of the experiment by a team who disagrees with the hypotheses.

It used to be that journalism was held to a similar standard. Before a story could be reported, facts had to be checked and opposing viewpoints had to be given at least some air time. Then came the 70s and the best journalists all retired from the broadcast media and the print media became almost exclusively anti-establishment. Journalism began a rapid decline into investigation to confirm the suspicions of the reporters, editors and owners of the networks. With one-sided stories being reported in the mainstream media, our educational institutions began a similar decline, even in the realms of science education. As a result, very few come out of our universities knowing how to adequately form a solid opinion. Those who don't attend a university have very little hope, since our high schools don't even try to teach the acquisition of knowledge.

This sorry state does not stop us from being surrounded by people with opinions that they are all too happy to share. Talk Radio is the only profitable category out there. The generally liberal bias of the media has spawned FoxNews as counterpoint. FoxNews has spawned those who feel a need to respond to it. TEA parties sprout up to respond... and it never ends.

I have relatives, friends, colleagues and acquaintances who only watch CNN, MSNBC and other decidedly liberal outlets. That these folks cannot see that bias is merely evidence of their own lack of perspective. Those same people think that Michael Moore's movies were fair and balanced. They criticize Clinton for being too centrist and anything associated with Bush II is the worst thing that has happened to the modern world. They also cannot understand the existence of TEA parties or why anyone would object to universal health care. And, since they are unwilling to listen to any opinion that differs with theirs, they never will understand. All they will do is become more and more frustrated with those who disagree with the only sound position there is.

I have other relatives, friends, colleagues and acquaintances who only listen to FoxNews, Rush Limbaugh, Christian Radio and other decidedly conservative outlets. These folks exhibit the same bigotry as the liberals I mentioned above. They think that Glenn Beck is the one voice of reason out there, that the President and Congress are out to get us and that universal health care will be the end of the world as we know it.

Each of these groups cannot abide listening to the opinions of others with any attempt to actually hear what they have to say. They only listen long enough to find something to attack about or to give them a good reason to quit listening. Without a listening ear, they are doomed to reinforce their own prejudices since confirmation bias will only serve to strengthen their already entrenched positions. We are locked in intellectual trench warfare, neither side can really advance, yet neither wants to retreat. How do we break this impasse?

Some even go so far as to break friendships and discontinue relations with their relatives because they don't like politics and they no longer want to deal with it. Of course, they also refuse to acknowledge that it is exactly their politics that is causing their stress and is separating them from the relationships that would help heal their wounded souls.

If it were just these politics that caused the problems between people, we could easily hide our problems by just avoiding that topic. Unfortunately, the problem is our loss of ability to carry on an informed discussion. In order to hold these discussions, we have to be able to speak the language of the other side and continue to converse without deprecation nor accusation.

That this is true is evident in other topics besides pure politics. We have politicized science in our discussions of global warming: some argue with the clear evidence that average temperatures are going up and have been for a while. Others take the timing as incontrovertible evidence that the warming is anthropogenic, even the climatologists, supposedly scientists, are falling for the common logic fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc (after which, therefore because of which). Neither side wants to say, "I'm not sure." Conservationists want the results that reducing carbon output will bring, irrespective of whether it is causative or not, therefore they do not want to listen to nor support anything that might show other sources of the warming. Those who see the impact these measures will have on our economy don't want to take the bitter pill until we are sure of the diagnosis. Of course, since our level of debate doesn't allow for such a reasoned position, they choose to question the climatological studies. Back to the trenches, men!

A similar breakdown is happening with religious discourse. While it has always been considered bad manners to speak of particular religions, their tenets and doctrines in polite company, there has historically been a tolerance of the existence of religion, indeed an assumption that most people are religious is built into our foundational documents. Since the mid 20th century, society has been growing less and less tolerant of the existence of religion. In response, Christianity in America has become much more fundamentalist, and on the world stage, radical Islam has arisen. Scientists like Sir Richard Dawkins rally radical atheism to attack religion. Sadly, none of these parties gives one moment study to find out the positions of the other side. A friend who is the pastor of an evangelical church in my area only spends enough time studying any other religion so he can demonstrate its fallacies to his flock. Although Mohamed encouraged coexistence with Christians and Jews to his followers, his nephews and subsequent generations have found it more profitable to sew dissension. Dawkins and his ilk take the perspective that the religious experience they were exposed to as a child is the sum total of religion, so their arguments seem very childish to those of a different tradition. Dig in, we're in it for the long haul!

In the end, unless we can learn to get back to informed discussion, we are condemned to shouting matches that go nowhere, unless the "tyranny of the majority" takes over and a portion of the populace justifiably feels disenfranchised. We must break this cycle before it leads to unfortunate reactions on the part of those who are losing their rights. Breaking the cycle begins with educating ourselves, since our schools are failing in that area.