Reflections on Guilt, Shame, and Neurosis

This morning I listened to the ever-delightful Econ Talk podcast, this time featuring Mike Munger speaking with Russ Roberts on Econ Talk.

I commend the entire episode to you, as it’s a delightful little romp on the topic of how economists view morality. (Okay okay fine, I’ll give you the quick version: economists view morality as a simple set of fixed preferences. Roberts and Munger argue that we can change our preferences, and in fact, have an obligation to. In short, we have an obligation to become better people who do not merely “respond to incentives” but rather “create their own objective functions.” [That’s fancy econ-speak for “choose to desire better things.”])

Anyway, in the discussion, Munger mentioned something that caught my attention, and I think is worth repeating and elaborating on.

Munger gives two examples.
• Imagine you do something wrong. You feel bad about this.
• Imagine you do something wrong and someone finds out. You feel bad that someone found out.
Munger then calls the first guilt, and the second shame.
The conversation quickly moved on, but I kept thinking about it.

Read more

Information Security and the Temple Endowment

For about twelve years I worked information security for a few different software companies. We sold our software to companies and government agencies concerned with making sure those accessing their sensitive systems were (a) who they said they were, and (b) only accessing information they should have access to. The first concern is called authentication (“are you who you say you are?”), and the second one is called access control (“do you have access to the information that you need and are you denied access to the information you shouldn’t have?”). Solving these two problems have always been a challenge. And though their implementation has changed throughout time, the solutions are basically the same.

While the temple has ancient roots, it contains features that are used in the most modern and secure computer systems.

It was only a few days after I’d completed a computer security certification when I went through an endowment session again. It occurred to me that you could look at the endowment though an information security lens and gain some valuable insights. I’ll explore some of them in this post. Some of my discussion will necessarily be oblique, and may only make sense to those who have been through themselves. I take seriously the desire to keep these things sacred, and I hope my post here will be in harmony with that.

Read more

Do You Understand The Plan?

In April 2019 and again in April 2020 General Conference, President Dallin H. Oaks offered members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints an insight into one of his assignments as a member of the First Presidency.  President Oaks said in his April 2019 talk on repentance:

My message today is one of hope for all of us, including those who have lost their membership in the Church by excommunication or name removal. We are all sinners who can be cleansed by repentance.

A year later in April 2020, President Oaks said in a talk on the Plan of Salvation:

In conclusion, I share the conviction that has come to me from many letters and by reviewing many requests to return to the Church after name removal or apostasy. Many of our members do not fully understand this plan of salvation, which answers most questions about the doctrine and inspired policies of the restored Church. We who know God’s plan and who have covenanted to participate have a clear responsibility to teach these truths and do all that we can to further them for others and in our own circumstances in mortality.

In light of what President Oaks said here, do we understand God’s Plan? Obviously there are a lot of aspects of it that we can’t understand, but what are the things we can understand from scripture, from prophetic teachings, and from our own experiences? The following is a set of questions we can ask to gauge our level of understanding of the Plan of Salvation.

Read more

On Secret Combinations, Conspiracy Theories, and Looking to the Prophet of God

I’ve been listening to the Maxwell Institute’ Brief Theological Introduction Series on the Book of Mormon which is all available in audiobook form on Deseret Book’s Bookshelf Plus. I really wanted to read these books but could not justify spending the money for each one, so I am so grateful that I get the chance to listen to them all now. I have really enjoyed the series and I just finished Kimberly Matheson Berkey’s book on the Book of Helaman and hers is definitely one of my favorites so far.

Berkey offers a really poignant critique of the topic of secret combinations in the Book of Helaman. Berkey notes that so many modern readers approach the Book of Helaman trying to identify secret combinations that are external to us. And when we find them, we normally identify them in our political or social enemies. We therefore use the fear of secret combinations as a form of self-justification. We indulge in conspiracy theory thinking. And we therefore create division, partisanship, and fragmentation.

But that is not what the Book of Helaman is calling us to do. Rather, the prophets in the book are directing us to self-examine and probe our own weaknesses. We are to turn inward rather than outward in our examination.

Berkey points out one serious danger with the outward search for secret combinations. When the sign of the coming of Christ begin to be fulfilled, the people of Nephi are skeptical not towards the forces urging them to doubt, but towards the very prophets who God has placed as guardians on the watchtower.

This past year I have observed a very alarming trend among more conservative and formerly stalwart members of the Church. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic so many members embraced conspiracy theories regarding the evils of masking or the perils of vaccination. Accordingly, when our Prophet is vaccinated or apostles urge us to wear masks, people respond with hostility or skepticism. People are also so politically attuned to their own favorite pundits that when an Apostle of Christ declared Black Lives Matter, people respond with derision and a hard and skeptical heart. I have even seen people suggest that the Prophet is part of the “deep state” or has fallen pray to the ways of the world.

In the Book of Alma (in Alma 30) when Korihor argues that the servants of Christ are working to manipulate and trick the people into bondage, few people initially seem to embrace that idea. By the end of the Book of Helaman (in Helaman 16) roughly 70 years later, the greater part of the people rejects visible signs and angelic manifestations by concluding that the prophets of God are trying to keep them into ignorance. It is as if in this period of Gadianton Robbers and conspiracies the people have grown more skeptical not towards the wicked institutions that ensnare them, but against those called of God.

The Book of Helaman calls us to question the things that we hold certain in politics and social policy and instead to look to the Savior and to His Prophets as they reveal God’s will to us in our days. It is only if do so that we can truly be kept safe from the snares of the world.

Avoiding Spiritual Burnout

With all of the variety of things we are asked to do in our church service, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.  We have

  • Our callings
  • Our ministering assignments
  • Requests to help out with our kids’ youth activities
  • Special assignments for ward activities
  • Encouragements to participate in missionary work
  • Encouragements to participate in temple and family history

…and more. It’s very easy to see these things as an impossible stack of chores that constantly looms over us and drains the joy out of our discipleship. And we know that church commitments are not supposed to be as high on our priorities list as our families and our employment, but it’s hard to draw those lines clearly sometimes when other people draw their lines differently and sometimes even apply social pressure to mirror the way they draw their lines. Sometimes we just need to say no to things, for the sake of our own well-being and that of our families, and it’s hard not to feel guilty in those situations.

Read more

Notes on Murder Among the Mormons

“But as you cannot always judge the righteous, or as you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous, therefore I say unto you, hold your peace until I shall see fit to make all things known unto the world concerning the matter.” (D&C 10:37).

For believing-and-sustaining Latter-Day Saints, the Netflix special Murder Among the Mormons is a lot to process.  I was already familiar with the story from hearing it in various venues over the years, but for church members who operate with culturally-formed assumptions of prophetic infallibility, this series is going to be a hard dose of reality.

Read more

The Reliability of Divine Revelation

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the question of how we can know truth. I have had a few friends and acquaintances recently move away from the Church for a variety of reasons. But there has been a common thread.

Unsurprisingly, I am not persuaded by these arguments.

Each has come to believe that their past spiritual confirmations and experiences were too subjective or unreliable to form a continued foundation of belief. They have each described reliance on these experiences derisively as simply relying on emotion and feeling. Rather than relying on these experiences, they point to some other foundation that they see as more sturdy or immovable be that logic and reasoning, or the words of the Holy Bible.

I recognize that human emotion and feeling can be highly subjective and manipulated. But I reject the suggestion that is all that divine revelation is or can be. Rather divine revelation is a force that is beyond ourselves which pierces through the darkness and sheds true light.

In reaching this conclusion I rest on my own personal experiences with divine revelation and the experiences of others.

One of my favorite accounts of the reception of divine revelation comes from Oliver Cowdery.

In early sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, we learn about Oliver’s wrestle to know if the spiritual experiences he had were truly from God. He had been led by what he felt was a revelation to meet Joseph Smith and began to assist as a translator. But he was unsettled. He wondered whether he truly was following God’s will.

In a series of revelations through Joseph Smith, the Savior spoke to Oliver’s concerns.

In Section 6, the Lord blessed Oliver for seeking revelation and for following what he had felt. He reassured Oliver that the feelings of enlightenment that he had experienced had come from God.

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, blessed art thou for what thou hast done; for thou hast inquired of me, and behold, as often as thou hast inquired thou hast received instruction of my Spirit. If it had not been so, thou wouldst not have come to the place where thou art at this time. Behold, thou knowest that thou hast inquired of me and I did enlighten thy mind; and now I tell thee these things that thou mayest know that thou hast been enlightened by the Spirit of truth;”

The Lord further explained to Oliver that the feelings that he had felt were from him and that he could know that because God had spoken peace to him and had addressed his concerns.

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the        matter? What greater witness can you have than from God? And now, behold, you have received a witness; for if I have told you things which no man knoweth have you not received a witness?”

In Section 8 it is nevertheless clear that Oliver is still struggling with these same concerns.  The Lord assures him:

“[T]hat assuredly as the Lord liveth, who is your God and your Redeemer, even so surely shall you receive a knowledge of whatsoever things you shall ask in faith, with an honest heart, believing that you shall receive a knowledge concerning the engravings of old records, which are ancient, which contain those parts of my scripture of which has been spoken by the manifestation of my Spirit.Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.

God also warns Oliver that he will need to rely on his revelatory experiences because they will deliver him “out of the hands of [his] enemies, when if it were not so they would slay you and bring your soul to destruction.”

From these verses (and others in these sections), it is obvious that Oliver struggled with many of the same questions that my friends have struggled with. He wanted to know whether he could truly rely on past revelation or whether it was possible that he was being deceived. He had powerful experiences but was worried that he was being led astray by his emotions.

But soon afterwards in May 1829, Oliver Cowdery had an experience that changed his feelings towards the power of revelation. On May 15th Oliver and Joseph retreated to a spot near the Susquehanna river in Harmony Pennsylvania and prayed to know the Lord’s will concerning baptism. John the Baptist appeared to them and ordained them to the Aaronic Priesthood.

Writing after this experience Oliver Cowdery described the impact of this revelatory visitation on his doubts.

And as we heard we rejoiced, while His love enkindled upon our souls, and we were wrapped in the vision of the Almighty! Where was room for doubt? Nowhere; uncertainty had fled, doubt had sunk no more to rise, while fiction and deception had fled forever!

Oliver spoke of how this vision was an answer to his “anxiously looked for message” and contrasted his feelings with the world which “was racked and distracted” and where “millions were groping as the blind for the wall” and “resting upon uncertainty.”

Because of his experience, Oliver realized that the spirit of revelation was precisely the antidote that God had given to cut through that uncertainty. He understood that human reasoning, rhetoric, and eloquence could deceive and distract. But that God could cut through all of that noise with “the power of the Holy Spirit.”

“I shall not attempt to paint to you the feelings of this heart, nor the majestic beauty and glory which surrounded us on this occasion; but you will believe me when I say, that earth, nor men, with the eloquence of time, cannot begin to clothe language in as interesting and sublime a manner as this holy personage. No; nor has this earth power to give the joy, to bestow the peace, or comprehend the wisdom which was contained in each sentence as they were delivered by the power of the Holy Spirit! Man may deceive his fellow-men, deception may follow deception, and the children of the wicked one may have power to seduce the foolish and untaught, till naught but fiction feeds the many, and the fruit of falsehood carries in its current the giddy to the grave; but one touch with the finger of his love, yes, one ray of glory from the upper world, or one word from the mouth of the Savior, from the bosom of eternity, strikes it all into insignificance, and blots it forever from the mind.

I love these words so much. That has also been my experience with divine revelation. The joy peace and wisdom that I have received from the Holy Ghost is far beyond anything that the world offers. When one truly experiences divine revelation there is no room for doubt. Rather, revelation causes doubt to flee or to whither into insignificance.

It makes so much sense to me that God would primarily speak to his children through direct personal revelation. The scriptures are incredible treasures of divine wisdom. But they were received in a particular time and place and in response to the spiritual needs of their audience. And when we read them we bring our own preconceptions and experiences. Reasoning and logic are wonderful tools. But when we reason we do also do not do so objectively. Rather, we bring our own biases and world view. More often than not, we interpret facts in a way that satisfies our own desires or confirms our opinion.

Moreover, these tools are not universally accessible. For instance, so many people lack the training, education, and access to truly understand the scriptures. But God loves his children wherever they are in the world and whatever their education and background. If God really wants to speak to us we should expect him to do so through a universal language that cuts through educational barriers and cultures. That universal language is divine revelation.

But Oliver’s experience does show that perhaps we might be falling into a bit of a trap as well in how we talk about revelation especially with investigators or those looking into the Church. Oliver had many spiritual experiences before his May 1829 experience. But yet he had many doubts and wondered whether those experiences were really from God. He kept asking and seeking until God gave him a greater and more concrete answer to his prayers.

Sometimes we are content with encouraging people to rely on their initial feelings of peace and joy that they receive from going to Church or reading the Book of Mormon or meeting with the missionaries. Oliver’s experience shows us that these feelings are real, but that they are insufficient. The kind of revelatory experience that God wants each of us to have is the kind that Oliver had with John the Baptist in May 1829. That isn’t to say that we will experience a divine visitation like Oliver did. But we can all receive the kind of manifestation of the spirit that cuts away all doubt.

I have been the recipient of such divine revelation and I cannot doubt or deny it. You could sooner convince me that 2+2=5 or that the sky is purple than convince me that this was merely wishful thinking or my own emotions. Those moments of divine revelation swept away doubt and replaced them with confidence and hope. And I now that if God gave me those experiences that he also wishes to give them to everyone else. Because he is no respecter of persons but loves all of this children. 

If you feel that you have never had such an experience, I encourage you to never give up and continue to seek such an answer. Rely on the answers you have felt and keep seeking greater truth and light. If you have received a powerful answer that swept away your doubt, cherish that memory. Do not allow skepticism and doubt to wipe away what you felt. If it was true when you experienced it, it remains true today. 

What is Discernment?

How can I tell when my thoughts and feelings are my own, or revelation from God? How can I tell if an emotionally-satisfying narrative or activity is good for my soul, or would lead me away from God?

The answer to both questions is discernment.

Read more

Updating the Old Truths

Righteous Traditions of the Fathers

Anti-Nephi-Lehis burying their weapons of war. Artist unknown.

One of the hard lessons of the Book of Mormon is that the next generation does not automatically inherit the righteous traditions of their fathers. Worldly traditions propagate easily, spreading within and between generations like the common cold, but the Gospel is otherworldly. It takes constant energy and attention to thrive in the intrinsically hostile climate of a fallen world. This means that no matter how deeply one generation is converted, there is never a guarantee that the next generation will inherit the legacy. No matter how well they are taught, every generation has to rediscover the truth for themselves.

Although he was talking about the liberal tradition and not the Gospel, F. A Hayek’s description is extraordinarily apt. Here it is, lightly adapted:

If the old truths are not updated for each new age, they will slip from our grasp and lose our allegiance. The terms in which those truths have been couched will become hollow, potted mottoes, will fail to galvanize, inspire, and move us. The old truths will remain truths, but they’ll be dismissed and neglected as mere dogma, noise. And [we] will again face a crisis of faith.

One of the things that tends to confuse people about Latter-day Saint Radical Orthodoxy is that we talk both about loyalty and fidelity to the basic, essential truths of the Restored Gospel and we talk about exploration and innovation. How are these two things combined? 

Read more

Church History and the Present

I’ve had several periods of deep gospel questioning in my life, and one period a few years ago, of crisis-level questioning. But years before that, in college, I first got some exposure to more complicated church history. I took a class on the Doctrine and Covenants that showed me that early members and leaders of the church had 19th century worldviews, and that was something I had not ever considered up to that point. I also learned that church leaders were not always right, which was another thing that had not really disturbed me until that point. I was happy in the church, but I also had a constant nagging feeling of being unsettled.

After graduating, I spent a summer in Southern California where I grew up. In my younger years there in California, I hiked Mount Whitney, which is the highest mountain in the lower 48 U.S. states. I had always wanted to revisit that place, and in my summer after college, I had a short window of time to try. I contacted the ranger station and asked if they had any available permits, and they did. So I got some backpacking gear and drove up to the trailhead to begin hiking the 11 miles to the summit.

Read more