Author: Nathaniel Givens

Aspirational Obedience: Obedience is a Process

2013-09-23 Obedience

Our Mormon faith places a great deal of emphasis on obedience, and to great (and mostly positive) effect. It’s quite common, especially in the Bloggernaccle, to fault the Church and its members for being too conformist, and as I’ve written there is some legitimacy to those complaints. But I’ve also been struck in my life–more and more as I get older–that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as it exists in practical reality does a pretty darn good job of making decent folk and/or making folk decent. There’s a culture of practical service that is easy to take for granted as it is pervasive. It also invariably fosters a perception of obedience as being defined by outward, practical behavior. So we’ve got ourselves a conundrum. There’s an intrinsic tension between an emphasis on obedience and an emphasis on the atonement. Between an emphasis on following the law and the reality that it’s a doomed endeavor from the start.…

Paradigms and Stumbling Blocks

2013-09-23 Tipping Point Graph

I started thinking about the phrase “stumbling block” recently. It’s such a common phrase that it’s easy to take its significance for granted. And maybe miss its meaning and current relevance. The literal meaning of the words is obvious, and “stumbling block” is in that sense basically the same phrase as “tripping rock”. But “tripping rock” is fresh and so it forces you to take a look at what the words actually mean: a stone that causes people who are walking somewhere to fall. Why should such an apparently innocuous concept be so deeply ingrained in scripture that it becomes an integrated part of our religious lexicon? I thought I’d consider another such phrase for comparison. If you used the phrase “tipping point” in the first half of the 20th century, the literal meaning would be clear. But as the graph below (created using a simple Google tool that searches a vast library of books and checks frequency of use),…

Temple and Observatory Group At NYC

TOGVerticalSmallRGB

The Temple and Observatory Group, which sponsored an event in July in Provo featuring Richard Bushman, Fiona Givens, and Terryl Givens is bringing the same lineup to New York City. Come listen to the three speak about negotiating LDS history and faith challenges on Saturday, September 28th from 10am – 3:30pm at 390 Broadway 3rd floor in Manhattan. (Here’s a copy of the official flyer.) Additional events are being planned for the East Coast in coming months including Washington, D.C. (October 19) and Boston (November 9). You can visit the website to keep informed (and learn about the groups’ name) 0r follow the group on Facebook.

A Game Theoretic View of the Atonement

2013-09-09 John Forbes Nash

The Prisoner’s Dilemma came up in the comments to a post of mine from about a month ago. I outlined my thoughts very briefly there (see comment #12), but I’d like to return to them in more depth today. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is perhaps the most important scenario studied in game theory, and “it shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so.” To understand the analysis, however, I’ll need to back up and give a very brief game theory primer.   In game theory, a game is a situation where two players each face two or more options in pursuit of goals which are at least partially in conflict, and where the outcome of the situation depends on the choices that each player makes. This interdependence is what game theory from more general decision theory. In traditional parlance, games are won and lost, but in game theory game are solved when you understand exactly…

The Abyss of Nothing and Everything

2013-09-02 The_Scream

I often heard, growing up, that teenagers think they are immortal. I always thought this applied to other teenagers. For the most part I didn’t get into the sorts of shenanigans that make adolescence famous. I felt I had a perfectly rational aversion to death and dying that manifest itself in, among other things, a general trepidation about learning to drive. Passing other cars at a cumulative speed of 100mph with only a few inches and some yellow lines as separation is still a kind of scary thing, I think, if you stop and consider it. It wasn’t until I was nearing my 30s that I for the first time encountered a new and heightened fear of death. It forced me to reconsider whether or not the old saying had applied to me after all. I remember the specific day–an ordinary week day after an ordinary day on the job–when I lay on my bed for a few minutes in the…

We Are All the Work of Thy Hand

2013-08-26 We Are All The Work Of Thy Hand WITH TEXT

A number of years ago, a friend wrote me an email that included this reminiscence: Friday was my last day of spring break. I had worked all through the break, and really wanted to do something fun, something indulgent. I immediately thought of the only thing I have ever done when I wanted to be indulgent in past years– go to Barnes and Noble. I have always been haunted by a trip to the temple 20 or 30 years ago, and an old mission friend was along. We went to the book store, and he just loaded up with an armful of good books. I almost cried as he checked out so casually. I of course couldn’t even afford to buy one on our budget at the time. My happiest birthday memory was about 10 years ago, my wife took me to B&N, where I spent a few hours and I bought two books and we went home and lit…

Maybe We’re All Right

2013-08-11 Blind Monks Elephant smaller

The story of the blind men and the elephant is as useful as it is widespread. It features in Jain, Buddhist, Sufi and Hindu lore and has also  been applied in modern physics and biology. In case you haven’t heard it before, the essence of the story is that a few blind men each touch a different part of an elephant (like the tail or ear or leg or tusk) and each conclude that the elephant is like the part that they see (brush, fan, pot, or spear). Depending on the version of the story, they either cooperate to understand the elephant as a whole or get into a fight because each clings to his own perception to the exclusion of all others. Thus the story of the blind men and the elephant has a happy resolution, or at least it can have a happy resolution, because the different perspectives can all be resolved. The function of the blindness in the story…

Further Thoughts on Sin

Deep down, we all think we're Spaceman Spiff.

Last week I wrote about the conflict between a basic axiom of human behavior (we tend to see ourselves as heroes in our own stories and rationalize our behavior accordingly) and the requirement that sinful actions be in some sense deliberate in order to be sinful. I did this primarily by suggesting that, while the original commission of a sinful act often occurs under duress of some sort (thus mitigating against it’s nature as a deliberate choice), we frequently compound that sin by subsequently trying to rationalize it. I’d like to conclude (for now, anyway) my posts on this subject by looking the other direction: backwards in time. One response to my original argument may simply be to deny the premise that people don’t view their sinful actions as sinful at the time that they commit them. In one sense, this must be true. We aren’t held responsible for violations of moral laws we are really and truly ignorant of. But…

Some Thoughts on Sin

2013-07-29 Milgram

The textbook definition of sin is doing something that you know to be wrong. And yet, as has been frequently noted in fiction, villains (almost) never think to themselves, “Gee, I’m doing something wrong now.” We each live out narratives in which we star as the protagonist. We are the heroes of our own stories. How can we reconcile these two notions: first, that sin requires a knowledge that what we are doing is wrong and second, that no one really believes what they are doing is wrong at the time that they do it? I’m going to rely once again on Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Killing. (As I’ve written about before, his work has had quite an impact on me.) The primary thesis of his work is that human beings have a strong aversion towards killing other human beings, and that as a result most combat soldiers will not willingly take the life of their enemy even when their lives…

Faithful Obedience or Malicious Compliance?

2013-07-22 Wheels Within Wheels

Malicious compliance is the idea of using the letter of the law to intentionally violate the spirit of the law. It is perfect obedience. It is also sabotage. Since so much trouble seems to arise from the gap between the letter and spirit of the law, we might reasonably ask: why not close the gap? Why not just write down the spirit of the law in the first place? I think the answer is at least in part that whatever is written down and then read and interpreted by a human being is necessarily going to fall short of the spirit. If by “the spirit” we mean the ultimate truth upon which some particular edict of God rests, then “the spirit” is like the actual, true laws of physics that govern the universe and the letter is like whatever the current best interpretation of those rules might be. If this analogy holds, then right off the bat we should be deeply…

Faith Crisis in a Secular Age: We’re All Thomas Now

2013-07-15 Secular Age

The principle behind Mathew 10:34 (“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword”) is not that Jesus came to foster contention (see, e.g., 3 Nehi 11:29), but that the presence of the Savior forces people to make decisions. C. S. Lewis’s trilemma is an example of what I have in mind: we must accept that Jesus was mad, that he was evil, or that he was divine. That he was a nice guy who taught good principles but was not divine is not compatible with the textual description of his words and actions. The easy path is ruled out. If we take seriously the millennial aspects of Mormonism–that there is a day of Christ’s returning and that it is drawing closer–then it would make sense to apply Matthew 10 to the world at large. That’s what occurred to me, in any case, when I read David Brooks’ “book report”…

Free Will, Existence, and the Uncreated

2013-07-08 George MacDonald Quote

I’ve written about theology before for Times And Seasons, but I haven’t actually done very much theology here or elsewhere in public. I have two reasons for finally taking the plunge. The first is selfish: I don’t think my ideas are going to get any better closeted in my own head. No one who creates really likes criticism, but ultimately its necessary if you want to get any better. The second is perhaps a bit more altruistic. I’ve written that theology is a kind of worship, and I’d like to illustrate what I mean by that. Mormons believe that this mortal existence is a phase in much longer life story. We have histories and identities that predate our mortal birth, and the arc of our destinies lies beyond the horizon of the grave. The purpose of this life is to test us, but not so much as a process of evaluation as one of deciding and creating. The ultimate goal is,…

Mormonism and Embodiment: Learning from Killing

2013-07-01 On Killing

This week I finished reading On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War in Society, but I knew I would be writing about the book on Times And Seasons long before I finished it. Despite the seemingly narrow focus of the title, On Killing has broad and sweeping implications for understanding human nature, and it has particular if unexpected relevance to Mormon theology. I  must start with the central thesis of the book, however, which is that humans have an incredibly strong inhibition against killing other human beings. The first quantified research in this field came from the work of S. L. A. Marshall who, in post-action surveys during World War II, found that only 15% – 20% of infantry rifleman in close quarters combat fired their weapons at the enemy. This result seems shockingly counter-intuitive, but Grossman draws on a wide range of data from other wars–everything from the campaigns of Alexander the Great to the American…

Reconciling Modesty with Feminism

2013-06-24 Jessica Rey Power Ranger

Some folks enjoy poking a hornet’s nest, but just writing that title has me quoting Shakespeare in my head: “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more.” I’m going to go ahead, however, because even though I may be about as welcome in most feminist circles as Feminists for Life (or as my friends at Secular Pro-Life when they showed up at the American Atheist Convention) the reality is that as long as women face staggering rates of sexual assault and systematic discrimination–things I’ve witnessed second hand through friends and family–I will consider myself a feminist. So tough luck all around; it looks like we’re stuck with each other. The most recent modesty/feminism Internet brouhaha was kicked off by former Power Ranger and current swimwear designer Jessica Rey. In a video for Q (apparently the Christian equivalent of TED), Rey cited a Princeton study to argue that bikinis disempower women via objectification. The video was applauded by religious social conservatives,…

The Great Expectations of Mormonism

2013-06-16 Best Two Years

I’m going to wander a little farther from familiar territory in this post. I hope you’ll willingly entertain some speculation and tentative analysis about the institutional nature of the Church in a changing society and indulge my focus primarily on American culture. I’m interested to see what others make of these ideas. First, only institutions that develop successful methods for continuously bringing in new members can survive over the long term. Since the Church has survived and thrived in the centuries since its founding, it stands to reason that the Church must have developed reasonably effective recruitment practices. Of course the Church’s missionary practices are well-known, but in this post I’m interested in how the Church contributes to the education and socialization of Mormon children. Second, I think that Mormon adults who are married and have children are relatively secure in their Church membership relative to younger, single Mormons. Young parents are already heavily invested in the Church as a…

Zion Theatre Company’s Kickstarter Campaign

2013-06-10 Evening Eucalyptus

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Mahonri Stewart’s two plays The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun. I liked them both. I’m also reading the anthology of plays that he compiled and edited Saints on Stage. So far it’s been fantastic just for the historical overview of Mormon drama from the Restoration until today, and I’m just getting into Robert Elliot’s Fires of the Mind. So, when I learned that his theater company (Zion Theatre Company) was putting on a Kickstarter campaign, I jumped at the chance to back it. Zion Theatre Company is currently in its third year, and you can check out reviews of past productions on their website. They do plays by Mahonri Stewart as well as other talented Mormon playwrights, and even though I haven’t been able to see a production in person yet (they are in Provo, after all, and I’m in Virginia) I was happy to see that the $25 backer level comes…

Don’t Debate the Trinity

Detail of a manuscript illustration depicting a knight carrying the "Shield of the Trinity." (Wikpedia)

Against my better judgment, and to the detriment of my workday, I allowed myself to be temporarily pulled into a Facebook debate on Friday about Mormonism and orthodox Christianity. This went about as well as could be expected, of course. The word “cult” was used in earnest, the Tanners were quoted, and all in all it was a horrifying flashback to my high school days as an Internet messageboard crusader. (Thank goodness those days are over!) I eventually came to my senses and retreated like Luke Skywalker fleeing the Mos Eisley Cantina. I did, however, gain some insight into the futility of arguing about the Trinity. The problem is that when Mormons and mainstream Christians argue about the Trinity, the real conflict has almost nothing to do with the subject at hand. This was underscored when a non-Mormon friend of mine posted the following YouTube video on Facebook along with the comment: “For the record, St. Patrick does rightly define…

Review: The Fading Flower & Swallow the Sun

2013-05-20 Fading Flower And Swallow the Sun

Mahonri Stewart recently released two of his plays–The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun–together in a single volume. I found both of them to be so compelling, that I’m truly sad that no productions have been put on or are scheduled within 1,000 miles of where I live on the East Coast. More than just enjoyable, however, I found that they presented a strong and compellingly Mormon artistic perspective. While there is no doubt that the subject matter of both plays is Mormon, what really struck me was less the viewed and more the viewpoint. The Fading Flower centers around the faith struggles of Joseph Smith’s youngest son David, who was born after his father’s death. As he grows older, he is  caught between the rival factions of the RLDS Church (with whom he was raised and with his brother serving as President) and the Brighamites (the objects of his missionary endeavors). So the setting is clearly Mormon, but what…

Another Post about Mormons and Science Fiction

2013-04-29 The Host

The topic of Mormons and science fiction seems to crop up with decent regularity every couple of years, and with the recent release of the film adaptation of The Host and the impending release (finally!) of the film adaptation of Ender’s Game, we’re probably about due for another round. This is a topic that I particularly love because it involves two of my greatest passions. I’ve read lots of really good ideas about what it is that makes so many Mormons write science fiction, why Mormons ought to write “fairy-tales”, and of course the caveat that Mormons might not actually write that much science fiction: they might just be really visible when they do. The empirical question of whether or not Mormons are actually over represented in sci-fi will have to wait for someone feeling more ambitious than I am at the moment, but even if they are not it might still be interesting. As Scott Parkins said: If you look at the…

An Ensign Is Not A Roadmap

Goal-setting is a perennial, and for some perennially frustrating, part of Mormonism. I count myself among the frustrated. I have been setting weekly goals for myself since I was a teenager, and I don’t think I’ve ever achieved them all for a single week. I’m getting closer, however. Although I believe that goals are positive and necessary, the costs–especially if expectations are misaligned–can be high. Something to keep in mind is that Church leaders of our generation are selected from a group of very high-achieving professionals. Add to this the willing Mormon tendency towards hagiography, and it’s easy to see how, despite their protestation that goals ought to be realistic, there’s a tendency for members to overreach. Goal-setting is not just a common theme in counsel from the leaders, however, it is also embedded in our institutions. The entire church program seems designed around shuttling children (especially boys) from baptism to a temple marriage through a series of regular milestones:…

Sifting the Sacred from the Mundane

2013-04-08 Panning for Gold

Of all the deaths in Harry Potter, Dobby’s strikes many people the hardest. It did me. There was absolutely no way I could have kept my eyes dry. If John Locke is right, if actions are the best interpreters of mens thoughts, does this mean that my grief was, in the moment, real? Did I believe, at some level, that Dobby had really lived, and then really died? Did I believe the events of the book were true? Obviously I’m not confused about whether house elves do in fact exist, let alone whether or not Harry Potter is fact or fiction, but there’s good reason to believe that our beliefs are not always as tightly under our rational control as we think they are. Consider a mind-bending experiment reported at Nature.com in which participants were easily duped into employing their rational faculties into the defense of a positions that were diametrically opposed to their real views. The experimental setup was…

Giving Up On The Feminine Divine

An Asherah figurine.

Not long ago I wrote a piece about mommy blogs, feminism, and the publishing industry. My basic thesis was that if you believe in the reality of historical oppression of women, you ought to be deeply skeptical of the current trend to define gender equality as equal representation of men and women in institutions which are inextricably connected to the historical oppression. To the extent that women have to conform to the expectations of those institutions, our haste to create a better world for women may in some cases be doing the exact opposite. I realize that part of the argument is often that the institutions need to change, but in practice the benchmark one hears is simply “how many women CEOs are there?” and not “how successfully have we reformed corporate culture to be accepting of women?” The benchmarks don’t matter if they aren’t measuring the right thing. It turns out that there’s some solid research to back the…

Theology, Worship, and Children’s Games

2013 03 18 Carl Bloch Christ and Child

I believe in theology as a kind of worship. To spend time and effort in the attempt to reason out the philosophical context for and implications of Mormon doctrine is an affirmation of the authenticity with which we embrace that doctrine. Intellectually wrestling with the angels is thus properly seen as an individual responsibility rather than an institutional prerogative. Theology can never take the place of other forms of worship–from music to service–but it can and should exist alongside them. One of the important things to note about this conception of theology is that, in this as in all endeavors, we are ultimately unprofitable servants. One small disagreement I have with Adam Miller’s Rube Goldberg Machines is that I don’t believe theology to be uniquely pointless. In all that we attempt in this mortal life, we are little children in the truest sense of the phrase. Our attempt to reason out the true nature of God is no more prone to…

What the Church Is Not For

2013 03 11 The Prodigal son

The hardest time of my mission, and one of the hardest time of my life, was serving as an office elder. The job was incredibly stressful. I had days that started at 4 AM and did not end until after 10 PM. The worst part of the job, however, was that there was no teaching. Neither the office elders nor the AP’s had had a teaching pool in the memory of anyone in the mission. In the 6 months that I served in the office, I had time to go tracting exactly once. I vividly remember getting on my knees one Saturday evening, and telling God that if he did not find someone for me to teach, that I would not make it. I went to sleep confident that there would be an investigator for me to start teaching at church the next day. There was. Teaching that family became the most important part of my life. I did not have a regular companion and so sometimes I…

Mormonism and Secularism: Fiery Trials and Surprises

2013 03 04 Fire In The Sky

Over the last two posts I’ve outlined a view that a religion is a system of beliefs and institutions that serves to help people find meaning and make sense of the world, and that in modernity a secular religion has emerged. (I used the “scientism”, but Alvin Plantinga uses “naturalism”, that’s probably better.) I also argued that all religions come in essentially two varieties. Authentic religion emphasizes the struggle to respond to life’s questions. Inauthentic religion promises relief from the struggle with easily attained answers. It effectively outsources our existential struggle: to an inerrant Bible, to an inerrant Church hierarchy, or to an inerrant march of scientific progress. The two are related, but not because scientism (or any secular philosophy) must necessarily be inauthentic. That’s not the case. What is true, however, is that the very denial that scientism could be functionally equivalent to a religion makes it particularly susceptible to the tendency towards inauthenticity. What is additionally true is…

Authentic Religion, Authentic Science

My previous post centered on the special place religious institutions have historically held in human society. I argued that since religions couldn’t reliably provide public, objectively observable miracles or verify any of their claims about an afterlife, the only plausible explanation for their social capital was their ability to bridge the gap between deeply rooted human longing for meaning and the world’s absurdity. Suppose we fix that as our definition of religion. Any belief system (with accompanying formal and informal social institutions) that attempts to aid us in our quest for meaning is a religion. The interesting thing about such a definition is that it has very little to do with what we might otherwise typically associate with religion, including God, faith, miracles, and the supernatural. According to this definition, otherwise ostensibly secular belief systems could in fact be viewed as religions. Whether or not this is a correct view hinges on definitions, but I think it’s an undoubtedly useful…

Mormonism and the New Religion of Secularism

France Albert Camus 1956

Secularism is a new religion that threatens to overwhelm traditional faiths in much the same way that Christianity and Manichaeism swept away traditional local cults almost two thousand years ago. Mormonism is far from immune to this process, but it is particularly well-suited (theologically) to adapt (culturally) and remain relevant and vibrant. If changes are made. The ship must be turned to face the wave head-on. Since secularism is defined in opposition to religion, either I don’t understand what religion is or the secularists that I have in mind don’t understand what religion is. I’ll argue why it is the latter. First, however, I want to specify that it is not secularism per se with which I have a bone to pick, but a specific subgroup: the New Atheists or New Skeptics (the term “scientism” also applies). I don’t think anyone can read Camus’ The Plague (just as a personal example) and think that atheism, broadly construed, is unreasonable or unlovely.…

Why I Listen to Screamo

So here’s a piece about multidimensional optimization algorithms, a genre of music named after and including a lot of primal screaming, and my mission. Several examples of said musical genre, screamo, are included so I hope you have a broad audial palette. I’ll start with a short story from my Mormon youth. On one particular day I remember being in the backseat of a minivan full of my fellow teenage Mormons as we drove to or from some weekday church activity. We were listening to the radio when Bullet with Buttefly Wings by The Smashing Pumpkins came on and I started to sing along.  This song is sonically tame compared to what we’ll be sampling shortly, but my enthusiasm was met by unanimous horror from the rest of the van. This, it seemed, was not what good Mormons listened to. While someone gave me a mini-lecture on musical standards, the radio dial was hastily changed from alternative rock  to top-40. My own…

The Opposite of Epistemic Humility

[This is Part 4 of a 4-part series. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.] In my first three pieces I’ve spent an awful lot of time talking about epistemic humility. Now I’m going to talk about what I consider to be the antithesis of epistemic humility: extremism. My definition of the term is non-standard, but I believe it both fits as the antithesis of epistemic humility and matches our intuition that there’s something to extremism that is more than merely being far removed from the mainstream. After all, if you live in a society where child sacrifice is the norm and you consider it an abomination you are an extremist in a technical sense, but that lacks the pejorative connotations that we typically bundle in with the term. People believe things for a lot of reasons, but the very last reason is that they have gone through some kind of rational evaluation of the evidence and logic and concluded that the belief in…

On Learning from False Models

[This is Part 3 of a 4-part series. Part 1. Part 2. Part 4] In this post I want to present a secular example of epistemic humility. As with the religious example, I hope that this one will also provide some intrinsically interesting ideas. I also plan on reusing these ideas in the next couple of posts. Like my first example, the second highlights the fertility that arises from knowingly maintaining contradictory views. In this case the conflict is between the highly stylized model of human behavior used by economists (homo economicus or the rational agent) and real, live human beings. It was John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith who put homo economicus through an early beta stage, but it was the generation of economists writing in the early 20th century who created version 1.0 of this model by rendering it mathematically precise. They did this because economics was suffering at the time, and perhaps suffers acutely to this day, from physics…