Suspending Judgment


moroni-manti-templeI’ve decided to go to the Remnant Family Retreat in a couple of weeks. A reader invited me to visit the Dream Mine next weekend for a rare tour. I’ve read a lot about it over the years but not being from Utah, have never been to see it. It’s also known as John Koyle’s Relief Mine. The story is quite fascinating and a bit heartbreaking, ending in yet another LDS excommunication.

Because there is a week between the Dream Mine tour next Saturday – sorry, not open to the public – and the Remnant Family Retreat on the 15th, I’ve asked a few Utah folks for interviews. These are all interesting people, each involved in writing and publishing. I’m grateful Carol will be joining me on some of the interviews. I hope to post something to the blog after each one.

Keep Thinking – Keep Learning

I’ve always been attracted to critical thinkers and writers, meaning I enjoy considering differing points of views on subjects. I appreciate a persuasive argument written by those who have taken the time to study both sides and have come to a careful, thoughtful conclusion. I have discovered I’m persuaded by folks who invest themselves in their positions, who practice what they preach.

Holding onto an idea or a belief as being inviolate simply because that’s the way you’ve always believed, or the way your family has always believed doesn’t cut it with me. We are here on this earth to discover for ourselves what we think and what we believe about important issues. I am convinced we can only do this by continuing to think, study and learn long after school is over.

Openly Consider Opposing Views

RemnantFamilyReunionFrom the day we agreed as a team of bloggers to announce it, the pros and cons of the planned gathering have been discussed on this blog and elsewhere. There have been some hard questions asked, apologies offered and in general, people have divided into two camps. One group seems convinced this is “rushing into the pass,” while the other seeks a spiritual worship experience.

I have thought about it, pondered it, prayed about it and still have not felt it is a bad thing. I had originally planned to not go, mainly because of the travel expense and because I didn’t want to add any more stress to my marriage. My resignation from the LDS Church has not been easy on Carol. I think getting away from our daily routine for a couple of weeks will be good for us both.

Asking Questions is a Good Thing

I offer my thanks to all those who participated in the dialog here and elsewhere. I don’t always join in but I always read and consider every comment. I think we should have to struggle with the implications of questions when they are raised. I appreciated Lynne’s posts, as well as those from Adrian and Bret. I think we should also deal with fears raised no matter who raises them.

I suppose fear is the greatest impediment to agreement. One side is afraid of something. It could be based on past experience, observation, or private knowledge not openly shared. I don’t know anything about sacred dance, but there are plenty of people who do. I willingly consider what they have to say. If I am fearful of being deceived, I close myself off to learning opportunities.

Long-Suffering, Gentleness and Meekness

7-elevations-of-wholenessOne of my readers opened my eyes recently to an unpleasant reality. She could read fear in my writing. She shared it with me. I reacted badly. Her response was so filled with love I could not help but be persuaded by what she wrote. I went back and reconsidered my judgement. I found I was wrong. Fear was crippling me. She recognized it and pointed it out. I didn’t want to face it.

I am grateful for her courage and her loving response. She is one of the people Carol and I are going to meet with in that week between the Dream Mine tour and the Remnant Retreat. My point is this: she expressed an observation out of love. I reacted out of fear. She responded with kind words. I was persuaded by her gentleness and meekness. I now have a new friend and am very grateful.

Keep Fear Out Of The Conversation

Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? Isn’t that what dialog is all about? I watched some of the discussion about the Remnant Retreat go poorly because of fear. I suppose if there’s anything I want to get across in this post it is this: Fear will kill faith every time if you let it. Fear will keep us from learning and growing. Fear will cause us to judge. When we judge, darkness follows.

My personal experience with fear and the pain it has brought into my life has taught me more about myself than I wanted to know. It was not pretty. I know why some of my long-standing prayers haven’t been answered. I have discovered I still carry fear from years past that cripples me. I have wasted too many years listening to this fear. Ask yourself: do you carry any fears?

Faith and Fear Cannot Coexist

Casting Away Satan by Carl BlochFear prevents us from opening the heavens. Fear allows the adversary to keep us in the dark. Fear keeps our minds closed and causes them to shrivel. Fear prevents us from reaching for the things we desire most in life. Fear is irrational. It is based on a lie. Fear has only the power we give it. Fear causes us to judge without having all the facts. Fear keeps us from agreement.

Faith is a risky business. It requires us to step outside our comfort zone. It requires us to reach out in ways we have never done before. Faith is blessed of heaven and always will be. Any act of faith is encouraged by the angels. It takes courage. It takes a willingness to go beyond previous exertions. Faith is always rewarded. Faith can be its own reward. It brings confidence and light.

May God Bless Our Fellowship

I look forward to meeting many of you at the Remnant Retreat in two weeks. Carol won’t be there. She will be at the LDS Story Makers writer’s conference in Provo. I am so pleased with the amazing growth Carol has made in developing her writing talent over the past few years. I have watched her turn criticism into triumph. She amazes me. I’m so glad she still loves me.

I look forward to praying with you. I look forward to hearing from the speakers. I look forward to seeing so many of you again. Please forgive me if I don’t remember you right away. I met so many people at the lectures last year. May God bless those who come to the retreat with a desire to learn, to grow, to fellowship and to find comfort in shared meaningful worship experiences.

 

In Defense of Virtue Ethics


Of the “Big Three” moral philosophies, virtue ethics seems to be the most problematic. Criticisms and rebuttals of the other two theories, utilitarianism and deontology, are relatively simple to state and understand, or at least I found them so. On the other hand, I was able to easily compile a dozen criticisms of virtue ethics from a very few professional papers on the subject in a short amount of time. That intrigued me. In this paper I intend to defend virtue ethics as the best moral philosophy by addressing several of the excellent criticisms.

The theory is straight-forward: Moral life should have a purpose and lead to happiness. Virtue ethics is about building character. Developing good moral character leads to contentment that comes from “doing the right thing.” This moral theory is not about rules or something called “utility.” Virtue ethics requires a lifetime of practice to develop. The way to become a moral person is to be moral. This theory is more about being or becoming, not so much about doing. It’s about who you are. The concept of the “mean” is crucial to this philosophy. The focus is on balance, moderation and avoiding extremes. Aristotle taught in order to achieve a virtuous and potentially happy character, we must first be taught by teachers and by experience. Later, we then consciously choose to do the best or virtuous things when presented with moral choices. This requires a lot of pondering of our choices and ultimately, feeling about things in a certain way. It is this feeling which causes, motivates or empowers virtuous or good actions.

Perhaps it is this component of feeling that raises such criticism. Those who practice virtue ethics are seeking eudemonia (Greek), a state meaning well-being, blessedness, or for our purposes, a state of human flourishing. That makes it hard to measure and hard to determine when such a state has been reached. How can virtue ethics be useful in a society if the objective is so subjective to the individual? This is just one of the criticisms I will address in this essay. Of course, just because a theory has legitimate criticisms does not negate the value of the theory, especially if favorable rebuttals can be presented. I am going to assume you are familiar with the theory beyond the basics presented in the preceding paragraph and will therefore focus on the rebuttals as the core of the argument advocating my position.

Let’s address the applicability problem right up front. What sorts of actions are morally permitted and which ones are not? What sorts of measureable outcomes are desired with virtue ethics? What are the duties or rules of virtue ethics that can be used in specific moral situations? The difficulty in this objection is that it focuses on a lower functioning level of human nature – having to be told what to do in all situations. Such a lower level is indicative of immaturity. Virtue ethics works best as one seeks to do the virtuous thing partly by avoiding vices. Let’s take the specific example of a raped fifteen year old girl trying to decide whether or not to have an abortion. The moral guidance of virtue ethics would have her avoid vices such as selfishness, irresponsibility or short-sightedness. Abortion is a personal choice but has consequences that reach far beyond the individual. Adoption is an alternative to abortion. Virtue ethics provides moral guidance in this situation by allowing the young mother a choice. She can make a very difficult situation better by applying the moral guidance afforded by seeking the virtues of love, patience, unselfishness, forgiveness, tolerance, kindness and charity. She may choose to raise the child herself but is probably not yet suited to provide the child the best care. She can have the abortion but perhaps she has strong feelings that she might regret her decision. Action guidance from virtue ethics allows her to choose to endure the unwanted pregnancy and give the child up for adoption as being a better choice. The criticism that virtue ethics does not provide action guidance in specific moral situations demonstrates an unwillingness to think things through, weigh the alternatives and make a choice, a process that rule-based systems don’t do well.

Now let’s address the cultural relativity problem. This is not unique to virtue ethics, but seems to be made less difficult by the unique aspects of this theory. You are probably familiar with the example of the differences in how some societies treat their dead. With virtue ethics, we can readily see that something abhorrent to Western civilization like cooking and eating a piece of flesh from your recently deceased grandmother might actually be an acceptable practice because it embodies the virtue of honoring your ancestors. Such a virtue is applicable to most cultures even though we may disagree with the way a specific culture implements it. Another example is the idea of slave-holding. In some cultures it was considered morally acceptable, even virtuous to enslave human beings. Virtue ethics does not necessarily require a static ranking of virtues over time. In the slave-holding example, there is an obvious conflict of virtues at work, which in the minds of some, justified the vice of enslaving another human being against their will (I’ll address the conflict problem and justification problem next). Virtue ethics embraces the idea of community. Our values are determined in large part by the communities to which we belong: nation, family, school, church and private and public associations. We accept that some virtues will hold a greater influence upon us according to the time and place in which we live. We are social animals, grounded in a particular place and time. The ethos of our society shapes our moral views and moral activity. The application of virtue ethics allows for the influence of our community to determine the ranking of our values according to our circumstances.

A good moral system must address dilemmas. The requirements of different virtues can bring about conflict because they seemingly point to different courses of action. However, this conflict is only apparent and can be resolved by those possessed with phronesis, translated as practical wisdom. This wisdom comes only with time and through practice, which of course means making mistakes. In reality, virtues do not make opposing demands. One course of action, which some may consider a rule, may outrank another in a particular case. Or it may be that there is an exception to a standard course of action based on the specific circumstances of a moral choice at hand. Over time, the practitioner of virtue ethics will come to know instinctively, or by a feeling, what is the right course of action in this situation. Since the complexities of every dilemma cannot be determined in advance, virtue ethics teaches the skills needed to study the problem out, ponder the choices and make the best decision. At first, this is difficult and prone to mistakes, but over time, it becomes second nature to know the best course of action.

I only have room to address one other criticism of virtue ethics known as the justification problem. In short, how do we justify or ground our ethical beliefs of what is moral? Which of all the character traits are the virtues? Perhaps this is where the idea of the mean comes into play. We can make lists of all kinds of character traits and then note the extremes of each end. While this may be an exercise to teach the skill for the uninitiated, I do not recommend it as a regular course of action. At one end of the spectrum is excessiveness, while the other end represents deficiency. For the virtue of courage we have recklessness and cowardice. For the virtue of work, we can consider laziness on one end and frenetic on the other. The Golden Mean is the virtue that is to be found in between two corresponding vices. As virtue ethicists, our objective is to be somewhere in the middle. Plato gave us the four Cardinal Virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. Aristotle then added five additional virtues of wisdom, courage, liberality, magnificence and magnanimity. There is no master list of virtues because it could never be all-inclusive. This moral theory is not grounded in a list of rules, desired outcomes or even specific virtues, but rather on the idea of balance, moderation and avoiding extremes. Virtue ethics is grounded on a skill of how to choose wisely, which only comes with practice over time.

In conclusion, it is my contention that virtue ethics is a superior moral system because it is more flexible and embraces a wider range of possibilities than rule-based or outcome-based systems, mainly because of the central component of endorsing agent-based choice as the best way to guide one’s life. Just because a person is continent or falls short of a perfect virtue does not negate the value of virtue ethics. There is something particularly admirable about people who manage to act well when it is especially hard for them to do so. They may not yet have achieved eudemonia, but they are still practicing, which is a major part of the theory of virtue ethics. They may fall short of the ideal again and again but continue to seek the goal of perfection through an ever-so-slightly different approach. This may seem repetitive or even counter-productive, but perhaps that is part of the beauty of the theory. Eventually, given sufficient time and effort and with encouragement from teachers and leaders, practice will pay off. The performance will be complete and the practitioner of virtue ethics will reap the benefits of a moral life well lived.

We Have Limited Free Will


We have limited free will. Within certain limitations, we can make choices and act upon those choices. Our choices are partially controlled and determined by outside forces and by the laws of physics. But we have agency to act within certain bounds of natural laws that exist. We can exercise that agency, make choices and act upon those choices. Logic dictates there is no purpose or meaning to life if we do not have some free will. We instinctively know we have power to act in some things without constraint of necessity or fate. We are bound or limited by physics but we are independent agents within our sphere of influence. We intuitively think or feel we are free. We therefore act at our own discretion. We are capable of responding to random chance with purposeful choices. Thus we can be held morally responsible and accountable for our choices and actions in both the deterministic world of physics and the indeterminate world of observable quantum mechanics that we are still discovering.

Absolute free will is logically incompatible with determinism because we do not control the universe. However, as individuals, we are able to take more than one possible course of action in any given scenario. There are obvious choices in life we can choose to follow. We can conceive and believe things. This proves some free will even though there are limitations on the choices available to us. For example, because I am not a fish, I do not have the choice of living underwater without some sort of breathing apparatus. It is determined beforehand that human life is incompatible with living unaided under water. I am therefore limited to certain pre-determined boundaries if I want to sustain life. In like manner, in some situations I have a limited number of choices I can make because of the randomness of life. I hope I never have to decide what to do if I am in a plane that is about to crash. I would have no control of the physics causing the plane to crash, but I still have some obvious choices I can make and act upon, like remain calm or panic.

As an argument against any kind of free will, consider the views of hard determinism. Determinists believe that our thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviors are all predetermined from the moment that time began at the big bang. A determinist advocates that we do not have any control over the state of the universe or the laws that govern the universe. Free will is an illusion, they say. You may think that your choices and actions have an effect on the universe but you are really no more than an observer. For a determinist, free will is a nothing more than a necessary delusion that allows us to build a society where praise and punishment actually mean something. Compatibilists hold individuals morally responsible for their actions as if they had free will. Although it doesn’t really exist, they say, we can act as if it does, thus providing a necessary condition for moral responsibility – accountability.

Following this logic, the universe is deterministic and bound by the laws of physics. Our bodies are bound by those same laws. If you are a materialist, you believe that all behavior is caused by chemical brain states outside of our control. In order for free will to exist, there must be a supernatural agent that is not bound by those laws to inject an input from outside the system; in other words, a God. I wish I could develop this further, but for now I will propose that there are only two arguments against free will. First, if determinism is the true state of things, then the will is not free because all events are caused and our actions are predetermined. Therefore, there is no moral responsibility or free will. The second argument against free will is indeterminism of random events or chance. If all our actions are caused by chance then we have no control, and therefore, again, no free will or moral responsibility. True free will requires we have control of outcomes. However, we do not control the universe or the laws of physics. If you think about it, we control nothing of this world or the universe. To prove free will, we must prove that we can control at least some things, thus becoming independent agents with power to act.

I don’t disagree with all the views of materialists or determinists. In fact, I readily concur with determinists that the laws of the universe are outside our control. I also concur that a large part of our body processes are apparently outside the control of at least our conscious mind and will. I can’t control the motion of the planets, the effects of nature, or prevent myself from dying someday. These things are determined. My bounds are set in these matters and many others. I also concur with indeterminism as it relates to many of the choices with which I am presented in this life. So many things are just random and purely by chance. I come across an object on the freeway that gives me a flat tire. It was pure chance that I happened to come upon that object and embed it in my tire first because I just happened to be there at that place and at that time. Random chance is just part of this life. So many things – most things – are out of my control.

So what do I control? There are many things over which I have control and thus free will. I control my responses to the choices I am presented in life. I can control my thoughts. I can control the things I put into my body. I control the things I say and the things I do. Nobody forces me to act a certain way or respond in a specific manner. I control my attitudes and my beliefs. I decide what I will do with my time, who I will go visit, what work I will do, what I choose to study. I may not choose many of the things that happen to me in this life but I can and do choose how I respond to those situations. I determine the character I build by using my free will adequately. My free will is limited to those things over which I have some control and have choices. I do not have free will when it comes to the laws of physics and nature. They are out of my control. In the things over which I do have control such as thoughts, beliefs and opinions I choose what I want to think about or believe. My thoughts are not caused and are not random. They are purposeful and demonstrate free will, especially when I act upon them. Therefore, my conclusion is that we have limited or adequate determinism and limited but genuine free will.

We Have Limited Free Will


We have limited free will. Within certain limitations, we can make choices and act upon those choices. Our choices are partially controlled and determined by outside forces and by the laws of physics. But we have agency to act within certain bounds of natural laws that exist. We can exercise that agency, make choices and act upon those choices. Logic dictates there is no purpose or meaning to life if we do not have some free will. We instinctively know we have power to act in some things without constraint of necessity or fate. We are bound or limited by physics but we are independent agents within our sphere of influence. We intuitively think or feel we are free. We therefore act at our own discretion. We are capable of responding to random chance with purposeful choices. Thus we can be held morally responsible and accountable for our choices and actions in both the deterministic world of physics and the indeterminate world of observable quantum mechanics that we are still discovering.

Absolute free will is logically incompatible with determinism because we do not control the universe. However, as individuals, we are able to take more than one possible course of action in any given scenario. There are obvious choices in life we can choose to follow. We can conceive and believe things. This proves some free will even though there are limitations on the choices available to us. For example, because I am not a fish, I do not have the choice of living underwater without some sort of breathing apparatus. It is determined beforehand that human life is incompatible with living unaided under water. I am therefore limited to certain pre-determined boundaries if I want to sustain life. In like manner, in some situations I have a limited number of choices I can make because of the randomness of life. I hope I never have to decide what to do if I am in a plane that is about to crash. I would have no control of the physics causing the plane to crash, but I still have some obvious choices I can make and act upon, like remain calm or panic.

As an argument against any kind of free will, consider the views of hard determinism. Determinists believe that our thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviors are all predetermined from the moment that time began at the big bang. A determinist advocates that we do not have any control over the state of the universe or the laws that govern the universe. Free will is an illusion, they say. You may think that your choices and actions have an effect on the universe but you are really no more than an observer. For a determinist, free will is a nothing more than a necessary delusion that allows us to build a society where praise and punishment actually mean something. Compatibilists hold individuals morally responsible for their actions as if they had free will. Although it doesn’t really exist, they say, we can act as if it does, thus providing a necessary condition for moral responsibility – accountability.

Following this logic, the universe is deterministic and bound by the laws of physics. Our bodies are bound by those same laws. If you are a materialist, you believe that all behavior is caused by chemical brain states outside of our control. In order for free will to exist, there must be a supernatural agent that is not bound by those laws to inject an input from outside the system; in other words, a God. I wish I could develop this further, but for now I will propose that there are only two arguments against free will. First, if determinism is the true state of things, then the will is not free because all events are caused and our actions are predetermined. Therefore, there is no moral responsibility or free will. The second argument against free will is indeterminism of random events or chance. If all our actions are caused by chance then we have no control, and therefore, again, no free will or moral responsibility. True free will requires we have control of outcomes. However, we do not control the universe or the laws of physics. If you think about it, we control nothing of this world or the universe. To prove free will, we must prove that we can control at least some things, thus becoming independent agents with power to act.

I don’t disagree with all the views of materialists or determinists. In fact, I readily concur with determinists that the laws of the universe are outside our control. I also concur that a large part of our body processes are apparently outside the control of at least our conscious mind and will. I can’t control the motion of the planets, the effects of nature, or prevent myself from dying someday. These things are determined. My bounds are set in these matters and many others. I also concur with indeterminism as it relates to many of the choices with which I am presented in this life. So many things are just random and purely by chance. I come across an object on the freeway that gives me a flat tire. It was pure chance that I happened to come upon that object and embed it in my tire first because I just happened to be there at that place and at that time. Random chance is just part of this life. So many things – most things – are out of my control.

So what do I control? There are many things over which I have control and thus free will. I control my responses to the choices I am presented in life. I can control my thoughts. I can control the things I put into my body. I control the things I say and the things I do. Nobody forces me to act a certain way or respond in a specific manner. I control my attitudes and my beliefs. I decide what I will do with my time, who I will go visit, what work I will do, what I choose to study. I may not choose many of the things that happen to me in this life but I can and do choose how I respond to those situations. I determine the character I build by using my free will adequately. My free will is limited to those things over which I have some control and have choices. I do not have free will when it comes to the laws of physics and nature. They are out of my control. In the things over which I do have control such as thoughts, beliefs and opinions I choose what I want to think about or believe. My thoughts are not caused and are not random. They are purposeful and demonstrate free will, especially when I act upon them. Therefore, my conclusion is that we have limited or adequate determinism and limited but genuine free will.

How Americans View Mormonism


We spent an hour with Gary Lawrence last night. He was gracious enough to come up to visit our stake in Camarillo from his home in Orange County. Dr. Lawrence is an American opinion pollster who also happens to be a Latter-day Saint. He has been travelling around the church sharing the results of a poll he conducted in the spring of 2007 on American’s perception of Latter-day Saints in the United States.

He published a book in 2008 with the findings of his poll, How Americans View Mormonism: Seven Steps to Improve Our Image. Dr. Lawrence received a PhD in communications psychology from Stanford University in 1972. He said that of over twenty doctoral candidates in his group, he was the only LDS, Republican, conservative hawk among them. So he knows a little about being in the minority.

Lawrence Research

Now if you know anything about recent events in California, you’ll recognize that Gary’s business, Lawrence Research was the opinion polling company that was heavily involved in Proposition 8. Gary was also the state LDS grassroots director for the Protect Marriage coalition. Brother Lawrence, who has served as a bishop has spent over 35 years studying opinions and behaviors of the American public.

From the results of his survey, Dr. Lawrence maintains that the misconceptions, distortions, and untruths being told about Mormons have slowed the growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that the average member is best positioned to turn things around. By the way, the name of his next book, due from Deseret Book later this year is “What Part of Our Name Don’t You Understand?”

Survey Results

For me, the most interesting result of the survey was that our perceived image is upside down. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed had an unfavorable impression of Mormons. Only thirty-seven percent had a favorable impression. They say that we have weird beliefs and are secretive. Yet they also say we are good neighbors, hard workers, believe in clean living, have high moral standards and help others.

Lawrence said that thirty-seven percent of all Americans do not know a Mormon, and fifty-five percent of all Americans do not know an active Mormon. In fact, those who know one Mormon have a worse opinion of us than those who do not know any Mormons. We are viewed unfavorably more than Jews or Baptists (3.5 to 1) and Catholics (2 to 1). Mormons, less than 1 to 1. That’s a terrible ratio.

Negative Image

Simple ignorance is often blamed for Mormonism’s negative image, but Gary also concludes that it is driven by fear — fear of a supposed political agenda, wealth, organizational ability, unwavering doctrine, and a unique vocabulary that is often misunderstood. He gave some wonderful examples but I’ll have to defer in sharing some of the better ones until I receive his book that I ordered from Deseret Book.

His book explains that individual members in their daily interactions with others are the key. In his presentation, which he has probably delivered dozens of times, he pointed out that friendly and natural conversations, the facts, simple claims, individual latitude, non-threatening invitations and gentle mentoring are the ways Mormons can combat distortions, improve our image, and spread the gospel.

Unique Vocabulary

A central claim of our church is that we have the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Gary explained that this phrase is not well understood by those outside our faith. They equate the word restore as something you do to an old car or a piece of old furniture. He suggested that a better phrase to use would be: “We claim to be the re-established Christian Church.” I like that. It is simpler and easier to understand.

He even broke it down for us into three bite-sized pieces: 1) Christ organized a church. 2) Men changed it and 3) It has been brought back. Amazingly, 84 percent of Americans have had exposure to our church, yet only 14 percent can tell you that this is our main differentiating claim from other Christian churches. While people may not agree with our claim, we want and need them to understand it.

Meaning of Gospel

They can then decide for themselves how they will respond to that claim. But if they never get the real message, how can they make a legitimate choice? Naturally, some people will reject the gospel truth once it has been presented to them. And that’s another word that we use differently from the rest of Christianity. To us, the gospel means more than the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter and Paul.

Most Mormons equate gospel to mean the overarching plan of happiness that was presented in our pre-earth life. We have come to see the gospel as more than just a theology, but as a way of life, and that it encompasses all truth that we embrace. But in reality, the gospel is the good news of the doctrine of Christ, that all will be resurrected and that we can be forgiven of sins through repentance and ordinances.

Higher Education

That’s why we can say that the fullness of the gospel is contained in the Book of Mormon even though there are many additional doctrines we believe that are only found outside the Book or Mormon. In fact, some within our church have gone so far as to claim that obtaining a degree of higher education is a part of the gospel. Does that mean that early saints and prophets without a B.A. degree are not saved?

Of course not; that would be a ridiculous example. While we believe in continuing education and encourage our members to get all the education we can, an advanced degree is not a requirement for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. A high school diploma is not required. There is no requirement for any type of certified education to meet God’s conditions to enter into his kingdom; only obedience to his laws.

Mormon Scholars Testify

In our Mormon culture, besides placing great emphasis on education, we also hold those who have received advanced degrees and yet remained faithful in very high esteem. Dr. Lawrence has shared his testimony in greater detail on the website, Mormon Scholars Testify, which was created by another visitor to our stake, Dr. Daniel C. Petersen, speaking about BYU’s involvement in the Dead Sea scrolls.

My fellow blogger Steve Faux introduced me to the site a few years back when he was asked to share his thoughts and feelings about being a believing Mormon who teaches evolution at the University level. I have watched participation grow over the years until there are now more than 200 testimonies recorded there. Compare that to twenty being promoted on the opposing site Ex-Mormon scholars testify.

Opposition in All Things

One of our fundamental doctrines is that we believe there must be opposition in all things. I love the Internet for the very reason that it allows us to see the very best and the very worst of the extremes on just about any issue. I’m not a scholar and will probably never have an advanced degree, but I have come to appreciate both sides of the debate on controversial subjects I have written about over the years.

I can judge for myself when someone is presenting the truth in a distorted manner because I have been counseled over the years to study things out and come to my own conclusions about the truth of an issue. Some things can never be proven and will have to wait until the next life to determine who is right and who is wrong. That’s one of the purposes of life – to exercise faith and choose what we believe.

Choose What We Believe

I recommend you read the testimonies of Dr. Lawrence, Dr. Petersen, S. Faux and any others that you may recognize. They come from a variety of disciplines such as the Arts, Business, Management, Accounting, History, Religion, Social Science, Language, Literature, Law, Medicine, Psychology, Philosophy, Science, Mathematics and Engineering. Yes, Mormons believe in the value of education.

I hope this helps to dispel any misconceptions that Mormons are ignorant, closed-minded, brain-washed or uneducated. We do not follow our leaders blindly, nor do we worship our prophets, living or dead. But we do value loyalty and respect to those who we sustain as prophets and apostles. It is my testimony that they are leading us to Christ. I choose to follow their direction and counsel for my family.

For a great discussion of our image, or rather reputation, listen to what Michael Otterson had to say to Robert Millet on this episode of Mormon Identity on The Mormon Channel.

Thoughtful Discussion of Controversial Topics


I’ve been doing some critical thinking about a couple of recent statements made by J. Michael Bailey. He is the Northwestern psychology professor who has been the subject of so much media attention due to the live sex demonstration in his human sexuality classroom last month. You can Google the story if you want the details.

What intrigued me was the challenging nature of the defensive statements he offered when the story became public knowledge. He said that he didn’t expect everyone to agree with his decision to allow the demonstration to take place and that “thoughtful discussion of controversial topics is a cornerstone of learning.”

I happen to be enrolled in a critical thinking class right now so this idea caught my attention. While I don’t agree with his decision, I do agree with his statement. So I expected someone to take him up on his challenge, because he offered it as such. Maybe it is too soon but I have yet to see a serious response to his justification.

An Argument to Illuminate Reasoning

A couple of days after the story broke, professor Bailey continued his defense by saying that he would give an F to those who objected to his teaching method. He wrote that the responses conveyed disapproval but did not “illuminate reasoning.” Apparently he has yet to receive an explanation as to why his demo was a problem.

I hope someone with more knowledge of this subject will respond to his proposal for a thoughtful discussion and offer a few reasons why his demonstration was not the best choice. I’m looking for arguments that will illuminate reasoning and do more than to just express disapproval. I could use it when I argue this in my class.

The Man who would be Queen

A little more background information on professor Baily might be helpful.  He wrote and published a controversial book in 2003, The Man who would be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism. He admitted that he had sex with his research subjects and said he thought there was nothing wrong with this.

Coincidently, about that same year he found himself divorced and no longer the chair of the psychology department at Northwestern University. According to published reports from students, he is not a great lecturer, but makes up for it by presenting extremely controversial aspects of human sexuality in his classroom.

Teaching Should Benefit Society

I love to teach so maybe this is an area in which we can agree. Professor Bailey is an educator; therefore I’ll assume that it is his intent to help his students learn. As a professor of psychology, I would hope that it is his desire to prevent psychological damage in his students. After all, isn’t that the objective of studying the subject?

We study human behavior to understand it and to be able to deal more effectively with activities that are disturbing, distressing or problematic for the individual or society. For most practitioners, a goal of applied psychology is to benefit society. A university professor is in a particularly influential position upon civilization.

Pornography in the Classroom

Professor Bailey said he uses pornography in his classroom. “I don’t see anything wrong with showing pornography in the classroom provided it has some purpose in the class. Some can be a little explicit,” he said. “I teach the truth – as I understand it…[which] sometimes conflicts with people’s assumptions. That is controversial.”

Bill Yarber, a researcher at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute and author of the widely used textbook Human Sexuality: Diversity in Contemporary America, said he’s never heard of a naked woman being brought to orgasm in front of a class of students. Watching a video is one thing but seeing a live demo is pushing things.

A commentary from a Catholic blogger about this episode illustrates a typical reaction, “Professor J. Michael Bailey’s Human Sexuality class has nothing to do with psychosexual development, morality, biology — nothing worthy of study; just an excuse for presenting risqué and deviant sexual behaviors as normative.”

Sexual Relations Should be Private

It is my contention that demonstrating the use of a motorized phallus to a group of students is not a legitimate form of sexual education, especially in the classroom. In fact, I will go so far as to say that viewing of pornographic material is equally inappropriate and unnecessary to meet the requirements of human sex education.

I believe that sexual relations should be expressed privately in marriage, between a husband and wife. I therefore believe that all public displays of sexual activity are inappropriate. I believe that pornography is harmful and destructive to the souls of those who create it and those who consume it. It is not needed for sexual education.

Professor Bailey’s demonstration was controversial because as far as I can tell, it was the first time live sex has been used in a classroom setting. But the real issue is how diametrically opposed this is to the values of virtue, modesty and respect for human sexual relations. It is degrading and cheapens it to something undesirable.

Achieving a Fulfilling Love

I think the comment of a student studying to be a therapist who then reported on her human sexuality class says it best for me. She stated that she had become a sexual zombie; that sex meant nothing to her because she had tried it all. She found no joy in sexuality. And yet she wants to become a therapist to fix others like her.

Pornography is any material describing or depicting the human body or sexual conduct in a way that arouses sexual feelings. Pornography degrades the heart, mind and spirit. It robs us of self-respect and the sense of beauties of life. It tears us down and does not lift us up. It does not help us achieve fulfilling human love.

I will be leading a classroom discussion of this current event in my critical thinking class in a few weeks. When I shared my subject with the professor he was pleased and said that I might be surprised to learn how many in the class feel the same way I do. That would be a pleasant discovery that I hope is not limited to my college.

Choosing to Act with Certainty


William Shakespeare was arguably the most influential writer in all of English literature. One of his plays, Hamlet, seems to have become so influential that it has profoundly affected the course of Western literature and culture even after 400 years. From Hamlet, I have chosen three themes that Shakespeare developed so beautifully: 1) The impossibility of certainty, 2) The complexity of action and 3) The mystery of life and death. These ideas are further advanced in Tom Stoppard’s existentialist work, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Through absurdity, we are lead to believe that 1) The world is incomprehensible, 2) We are insignificant and incapable of making meaningful choices and 3) We are but players on a stage.

The very purpose of life

In effect, Stoppard’s ideas are the same as Shakespeare’s, illustrated with an equal amount of wit, but in a much more bleak and sarcastic style. I dispute these ideas and in contrast, it is my contention that 1) We can choose what we believe about and do with our lives, 2) We have power to act and can cause things to happen and 3) We can be certain about our choices to act in this life. In fact, making choices and acting upon those choices is the very purpose of life. The process of choosing and acting brings great meaning and fulfillment to our lives and is of significant value to our mental health and happiness. It is by not acting that we forfeit opportunities for growth.

Removing doubt from our lives

When the ghost appears to Hamlet and makes him swear to avenge his father’s murder, Hamlet does not seek that vengeance right away. Hamlet is not sure that he believes the ghost is who he says he is or if he is telling the truth. He is uncertain. He is placed in a difficult situation and wants to be certain that Claudius is guilty before taking action. In an effort to gather support for his sworn course of action, he feigns madness and causes actions that will help him ascertain the veracity of the events related by the ghost. He asks the players to change the production so he can watch the reaction of Claudius when he sees his crime revealed in dramatic form. These are the actions of a very thoughtful and intelligent man.  It is obvious that his madness is an act. So it is not so impossible to be certain about things. Perhaps it just takes a little time and planning. A little later Hamlet witnesses Claudius confess his crime in prayer, thus his doubts are removed.

Dealing with uncertainty

In response to the confusion expressed by Guildenstern at the incomprehensibility of the events unfolding around him, the Player in Act II of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead says, “Uncertainty is the normal state. You’re nobody special.” Tom Stoppard purposefully demonstrates for us that Guildenstern does not have all the information he needs to make sense of the world around him. Obviously, Stoppard is relating that we are all in the same boat in that we also do not know of everything in the script, so to speak, except for the small part we play.

To act or be acted upon

Of course we are not really in the same boat as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in that we live in the real world where we can seek out and obtain more information if we chose to do so. They are only actors, figments of the imagination of Shakespeare and Stoppard, with no control over their lives.  In a sense, they are being acted upon by the whims of the authors. With their limited viewpoint, life does seem incomprehensible and impossible to be certain about anything.  On the other hand, we can discover, learn and choose to be certain in our beliefs about life around us.

Philosophies and belief systems

When the Player in Act III of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead says, “Life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it,” he is implying that the universe is unfair and does not discriminate between good people and bad; that rewards and punishments are entirely random. But is the world such a chaotic place as Stoppard seems to believe it is as expressed through the words of the Player? We go to great effort to create meaning in our lives, developing belief systems and philosophies that give us comfort and a sense of order. It’s true that we cannot control the elements and we cannot control what other people say or do, but we, all of us, have created philosophies or adopted religious ideas to help us cope with the seeming disorder and confusion. Thus, we create our own sense of order and fairness, especially if we look at this life as only a small part of our existence, a mere blip on the timeline of eternity.

To be or not to be

In what may be the most famous speech in the English language, Hamlet examines the mystery of life and death, weighing the moral ramifications of living and dying. “To be, or not to be,” he poses; to live, or not to live. Is it nobler to suffer a life full of “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or to seek to end one’s suffering through death? He compares death to sleep and thinks of the end to pain, suffering and uncertainty that it might bring. In fact, he decides that it would be better to die than to live with the heartache and shocks of life.

Philosophical inquiry not enough

But then he considers the afterlife and the dread of possibly trading one miserable existence for something unknown but conceivably worse. He concludes that this dread makes “cowards of us all,” and so we thus continue to suffer through lovesickness, hard work, political oppression and a host of other undesirable afflictions common to all in this life. This speech connects several of the main themes of the play, including the idea of uncertainty, inability to act and the mystery of death.  Hamlet is deeply passionate and relentlessly logical but he has demonstrated for us the difficulty of knowing truth through philosophical inquiry alone.  There must be another way.

The power to act

There is a better way. When we are presented with something new or different from what we previously believed, we can choose to believe it or to reject it. When we choose to believe a piece of information, a theory, a philosophy or even a religion, we then have the power to act upon our new belief, thus causing results either within ourselves or the world around us.  We have that power because we are agents unto ourselves.  We can cause things to happen of our own free will.  In effect, it is the ultimate in scientific inquiry and the empirical method.  Once we act or cause action, we can then see the results for ourselves.  We then have knowledge.  We can now be certain about our choices to act in this life based on the results they bring about.

Experience brings knowledge

Let’s apply this to Hamlet. Presented with the news from the ghost that his father had been murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, he decided to believe it, at least partially, but also decided to obtain greater evidence. He caused the players to act as accusers which rattled Claudius into a confession overheard by our hero. Hamlet then had confirming knowledge, obtained by his own actions. He no longer needed to believe what the ghost said. He was certain of this thing.  He acted upon his belief and learned something for himself through his own experiences. He no longer needed to believe what someone else said was true. He now had a personal knowledge.

Ask the right questions

Now let’s apply this to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as presented by Tom Stoppard. These confused gentlemen are small players in the big picture, but we are made privy to some of their thoughts and actions while they are not on stage. When they encounter the Player, we sense that they have an opportunity to learn more about their purpose and meaning from him as he seems to know far more about what is going on than he reveals. If only the pair would ask the right questions, they might get some answers. Alas, they do not and continue to march through the entire book just as confused and bewildered as they began. Because they do not actively seek understanding from a potentially knowledgeable source, they therefore have nothing in which to believe or act upon. Consequently, they are unable to make any significant choices and obtain no confirming knowledge to make sense out of their life. They die meaningless deaths.

Choose what we believe

Finally, let’s apply this to us. We come into this world with no knowledge of the purpose or meaning of our lives. Over time, we are presented with a multitude of explanations, beliefs and philosophies to explain the events that are going on around us. Unlike players or actors on a stage who have no control of their lives, we have been given the ability to makes choices and act upon our beliefs. For example, we can choose to believe that there is purpose and meaning to life and that there is someone who knows the beginning from the end. Acting upon this belief, we seek for more knowledge from others who profess similar beliefs. Again, we are presented with choices as some will claim that their answers are the best. They invite us to act upon their beliefs as well as their requests to support them, often financially. They even invite us to participate in their cause in spreading their views to others.

Act upon our beliefs

Choosing to believe something and then acting upon that belief gives us experience. We can then decide if we like the results of our experiment. We can be certain that something is of value or not based upon our own experience. In the process, we learn a lot about ourselves. We discover what will satisfy us and what makes us happy. We rise to the level of our own desires for knowledge. The critical part of the process is to take action. Unless we act upon our beliefs we can never know for ourselves if it is of any value to us. For example, someone may tell you that seeing a Shakespeare play is an enjoyable and enlightening experience. But unless you go see one for yourself, you will never know. Similarly, the best way to learn something about a life philosophy or religion is to participate in activities that practitioners of that way of life follow.

We can be certain

We can choose what we want to believe, act upon those beliefs and then be certain for ourselves if those beliefs have merit or value. Life does not have to be so complex, uncertain or mysterious, especially if we reduce it to a serious of choices and actions. We choose to believe that an education is of value and act upon that belief by paying for an education and doing the hard work required to get a degree. We are then certain of the value of an education. We may decide that it was a waste of time and money or we may choose to believe that our life has been improved and enhanced by our achievement. After all, most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. The world is not so incomprehensible.  We are significant and more than just actors on a stage.  We are here to gain knowledge through our choices in life.

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