Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Happy Birthday To Me

"Happy Birthday to Me," what could be more tacky? I promise I won't do this often, but I just wanted to say a few things commemorating this blog getting its toes wet.

The Spinozist Mormon is, "in all material respects," a week old. (Borrowing a precious qualifying phrase there from the report of the Audit Committee we'll hear again in General Conference in a few days!) Thanks to those who've commented, and---in the spirit of the conducting brother who thanks the congregation for testimonies both uttered and unexpressed---I'm grateful to all who have visited, read, and commented silently to themselves.

Technically, I put the first post up Saturday, 19 March, but I didn't make this site's existence publicly known until Wednesday, 23 March. I choose to draw the starting line from the moment of christening---its ceremonial entry into the community that is the Bloggernacle---marked by the contribution of the first comment at 9:45am that day. Thanks, Rosalynde.

When I checked the number of "unique visitors" in the sidebar at around 9:30am on Wednesday, 30 March, the count was 738---a little over 100 per day, for the first week, a nice milestone. And Wednesday was the busiest day yet, with the count topping 1000 before the day was through. (The definition of "unique visitors" is a little plastic. The setting I'm using is the least stringent on offer, which helps pad the numbers: anyone who comes to the site after being away for at least 30 minutes is a "unique visitor.")

Many of you found your way here because of the generosity of other bloggers. Some I noticed: Kaimi included me in a post on new blogs, and Nate drove traffic here with post responding to The Elusory Breath of Life. Dave put me on his blogroll---even though it's now on a separate page in his "Sidenotes"---and so did David. Geoff and his friends added me to their real-time overview of the Bloggernacle. Links to specific posts were provided by Ronan---and by Lisa, who happens to be famous. Thanks, everyone.

I also tried to make my presence known this week by spending a truly unseemly amount of time commenting promiscuously and at length, occasionally linking to my posts, and flirtatiously signing my hyperlinked name Christian Y. Cardall (TSM), hoping the trailing tag would lure people in out of curiosity. Does this trailing tag drive everyone batty? Is it rude?

Let me remind you how to stay aware of my presence, for now that this first week is out of the way and this space's presence is known, I'm going to slow down. I won't always be as active as I was this past week, so unless you choose one of two steps, I may be "out of sight, out of mind." The modern way to stay aware is to use a newsreader or aggregator to remain apprised of new material from sources to which you "subscribe"; for more information, click on Syndication: SmartFeed under "Practicalia" on the sidebar. Or, just under that is a "Notification" link, where you can sign up to receive email notices of new posts.

Stay in touch!

[UPDATE, 14 April 2005: As noted in this erratum, I discovered that my counter had been set to page loads after all, so that is what the above numbers actually indicated. The counter is now set to display unique visitors.]

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Protecting our Sisters

Admittedly, the allusion to feminist perspectives in my official blog description is quite a stretch. I've not studied feminist theory, even informally. Apart from general kindness and "respect for womanhood," being raised in a historically patriarchal worldview did not leave me particularly sensitive to the world's list of "women's issues." Making good on the promise of delivering on feminist perspectives will be a challenge (perhaps I should try and outsource it). But a policy announced by our good bishop this past Sunday gives me an opportunity, so I'd better take it.

"Brethren, we need to protect our Sisters." (I think he used the possessive "our" instead of neutral "the"---for whatever discussion that might generate.) Three incidents giving rise to legitimate concern were listed. Two young women taking garbage out to the dumpster after an activity heard a cellphone, and thought it came from the darkness of a nearby grove of trees. An unfamiliar man showed up when only a few sisters were left cleaning up after Enrichment Night, asking where the Bishop was. A scraggly man in an old beat-up van watched in the parking lot as the sisters arrived for another Enrichment Night.

Obviously, everyone agrees that preventing untoward events involving women is of highest importance; the bishop's solution was to institute a policy of women never being in the building alone, but always having two Priesthood holders present, and making that presence known around the building. I am happy to take my turn in helping with this.

One question: Is this an explicit policy in the Handbook that our ward has been neglecting?

Another question: Is this the only (and best) possible solution? Thinking outside the box, we might note that we have women in combat, because it's more about technology these days---a situation that renders brute strength less important. What about providing self-defense classes, equipping women with mace, or even firearms training? Does the fact that such alternatives sound ridiculous in a Mormon context say anything about how we perceive women, their strengths, their weaknesses, their potential to take care of themselves?

A final question: Women, how does this policy make you feel? Are you grateful for the concern and protection? Do you perceive condescension, or experience resentment at needing permission to gather at the Church as women, and only at the convenience of, and with the enabling presence of men?

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Spring's Great Truths: Stranger than Fiction

An idea in Newsweek's cover story this Easter Week, From Jesus to Christ, reminded me of the old adage: "Truth is stranger than fiction." It also reminded me of a Saturday Night Live skit featuring Mormon missionaries. (You don't have to read the Newsweek story to read on, but you should at least watch the short skit.)

Now that you've had a laugh, I am obligated to cash out the connection.

In discussing the despair and confusion of the disciples during and after the Passion, the Newsweek article argues that the story of Christ's resurrection was so strange, so foreign to the cultural context, that it's not something the disciples would have simply made up in order to win friends and influence people. On the contrary, an arresting painting in the article depicts the crucified, burnt, and torn bodies of the Coliseum. The resurrection must have a historical basis, the argument goes; for if the PR department were designing a promotional campaign, they would have come up with something more easily sold.

The Saturday Night Live skit reminds us how strange talk of gold plates and seer stones is in our own day. Hence the Newsweek theory could be replicated as an argument for Joseph Smith: His story is so strange, it must be true; why would he make such easily-ridiculed stuff up? Joseph himself may have had this in mind:
No man knows my history. I cannot tell it: I shall never undertake it. I don't blame any one for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself. (TPJS, p. 361)
Not unexpectedly, neither do the writers of Saturday Night Live---which in this case serves as a much milder, but no less public, Coliseum.

Strangeness for its own sake as a marker of truth is a foreign notion to a physicist. As a discipline, physics seeks the elucidation of a cohesive set of a few key principles, a tight logical basis that unifies (and hence "explains") diverse phenomena. In this enterprise, it is elegance, simplicity, and beauty that are prized as hallmarks of truth (second, of course, to empirical confirmation of predictions).

I can imagine that systematic theology might strive to be like physics or philosophy in this respect, but early Christianity and its Restoration are not really about "system"---at least, not primarily. Instead, they are history, narrative: compelling stories of God's power at work in the world. The disciples with their doubts, confusion, and frailties, and the sectarian war of words and tumult of opinions: The likes of these are too much for elegant, beautiful "system." Instead, they are the birth pangs of new stories---stories that more "overcome" than "solve."

The opening of a tomb, and the opening of a new dispensation, are hailed by millions as great truths of Spring. They are so perceived not because of their coherent elegance, but because of their surprising strangeness. Truth is here discerned not in the clean logic of man, but in the wonderful and strange power of God.

[Thanks to Rusty at Nine Moons for bringing the Saturday Night Live skit to the Bloggernaccle.]

Friday, March 25, 2005

The Elusory Breath of Life

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7). Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust (Psalms 104:29).

On one hand, the nature of the "breath of life" has been clarified: it is a man or woman's spirit, whose existence both antecedes and outlasts mortality. On the other hand, the lack of revealed specificity regarding the breath of life's arrival and departure constitutes a distressing doctrinal lacuna---distressing, not for the sake of mere unslaked curiosity, or an unsatiated taste for arcane mysteries, but because of a failure to illuminate ethical dilemmas ranging from abortion and embryonic stem cell research to the Passion of Terry Schiavo (for whom unslaked thirst and unsatiated hunger are literally matters of life and death).

Life's universally ambiguous beginning: We have been counseled (for example, here, and particularly here) that life must be protected from the moment of conception. Yet for at least several days after conception---something like 10 or 14 days, I seem to recall reading in Science---the embryo cannot be considered an individual, because the possibility remains that it may divide into twins. One wonders if such considerations play into Mormon Senator Orrin Hatch's support for embryonic stem cell research, which raises eyebrows among some Church members. Moreover, the ambiguity of life's beginning is sometimes tragic. Many (perhaps most) of us have faced either miscarriage or stillbirth, or know someone who has. Some find comfort in doctrinal interpolations, but the official bottom line is that unborn children---while individual enough to protect from conception---are not individual enough for temple work to be performed for them. Such matters will be worked out by the Lord later, we are told, due to a present paucity of revelation on the subject.

Life's sometimes ambiguous end: My understanding, based on ground as firm (or not) as an NPR story, is that the medical condition of "persistent vegetative state" involves wakefulness without awareness, a counterintuitive combination to say the least. Provided a feeding tube, basic autonomic functionality---metabolism, homeostasis, reflexes---can continue indefinitely. But higher cortical functions required for life as we know it---consciousness, thought, purposeful response to external stimuli---are entirely lost. Less extreme, but more familiar, are the likes of senility, dementia, Alzheimer's.

When does the spirit enter the body? Is it responsible for all functionality of life, both "low" and "high"? Has Terry Shiavo's spirit perhaps already departed---and if not, should it be allowed to?

Such questions seem ripe for revelatory answers. We know enough to ask specifics; the need-to-know seems obvious, given current technological capabilities; and just a little bit of knowledge could reconcile honest people of goodwill who find themselves bitterly divided, not because some are good and some are evil, but simply because the nature of the cosmic realities in play have not been adequately revealed.

Or, perhaps, have they?

Life's rarely ambiguous middle: Consider movies as stunning and wrenching as Awakenings, Memento, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (I confess, this last I've not actually seen), and even as puerile as 50 First Dates. Consider also books by such authors as Oliver Sacks and Antonio Damasio. Such depictions challenge us to think hard about what "human life" is, and what it means to be a "person." On exhibit are drastic loss or alteration of such human features as awareness, responsiveness, personality, and memory, that constitute the bread and butter of the "breath of life"---but that in these cases are associated with physically identifiable brain disorders. I get the sense that most (though I imagine not all) specialists who study these afflictions are convinced of a conclusion that in some ways seems to cut Gordian knots: There is no spirit, it's all the body and its brain. Whether this is a trustworthy hunch justifiably based on long and intimate experience, or simply the proverbial nail perceived as such by specialists having particular hammers at their disposal, I cannot say.

What I can say is something about my struggle, in composing a title for this post, to choose an appropriate adjective to describe the spirit, the breath of life. In order, as I see it, of increasing severity: elusive, elusory, illusory (yes, elusory really is a word, not just an idiosyncratic compromise of mine between the other two). I don't want to be dogmatic about unbelief, but I struggle with outright belief in the reality of spirits. Corrosive is not so much the second part of Psalms 104:29 quoted above. Death's decay is a known and observed certainty, and being known, perhaps can be faced head-on. (I may feel differently when it seems more real to me personally!) More acidic, at least for now, is the seemingly unnecessary uncertainty evoked by the first phrase. We claim the mantle of Continuing Revelation, but when it appears that it could help calm our collective paroxysm over the fate of Terry Schiavo (and other issues of similar magnitude, if not urgency), it seems not to be forthcoming. Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

A Place at the Table

Why is evolution unpalatable to many Mormons? Unlike more fundamentalist devotees of the Bible---who tend to lump an "old earth" and evolution together---most Mormons seem capable of swallowing the former, while still choking on the latter.

Of Elder McConkie's litany of traditional doctrines to which evolution might be noxious, the first item on the list---God's creative role---wields a particularly potent psychological impact, and has far-reaching implications.

One of these implications---the question of God's existence---will be explored here.

At the Church's electronic interface to the world, one of many questions answered is How can I know that God exists? The answer's opening sentence states that there are many such evidences, but only one is explicitly cited and discussed: "the testimony of His creations." References to Psalm 19:1 and Alma 30:44 buttress the argument.

God's relationship to nature is seen differently by the believer and the skeptic. As exemplified above, for the believer, the creation is prima facie evidence of the existence of God. The skeptic turns this argument on its head: gods were invented to explain forces of nature beyond humanity's comprehension.

Evolution is anathema to so many because in the context of this argument over the existence of God, it is perceived as a potent weapon in the skeptic's hands. By telling plausible stories of man's origin without reference to God, the believer's usual prima facie evidence for God's existence is invalidated. (An "old earth"---merely stretching out the time scale of creation---is not usually perceived by Mormons as having the same effect, though it could: If there is such a powerful god, why did he take 4.5 billion years to create the world instead of six days?)

Any reconciliation between Mormons and evolution must begin by giving God a place at the table. At its etymological roots, 'reconciliation' is 'to sit down together again.' Evolution's disposal of the prima facie case for God's existence is perceived by many as the equivalent of banishment of the King from his own banquet hall, a rebellious expulsion at the hands of the generously invited lowly subjects! Reconciliation requires that the King be explicitly invited back in. To gain widespread traction for evolution among believers, the shock of this rupture must be soothed, the apparent breach of protocol resolved: The first task must be to identify evidences for the existence of God other than the wonders of nature, and compellingly articulate why they should be given primacy.

As this post is sufficiently long, and this author insufficiently qualified, these tasks are left as exercises for the comments---and for other posts, and sermons, and articles, and books.

[This is cross-posted from Mormon Evolution: A Quest for Reconciliation. Please go to the original post to comment.]

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Welcome to The Spinozist Mormon

The title "The Spinozist Mormon" exposes me to the charge of false advertising. Those looking for technical analyses of Spinoza's philosophy will be disappointed at not finding it here (at least initially); those looking for discussions that presuppose a believing Mormon viewpoint will also be frustrated (at least initially).

But a desire to try my hand at blogging requires that I come up with some title; and as I intend to blog about my thoughts, questions, studies, and attempts to discover truth, meaning, and beauty in life---in short, because this blog begins as an egocentric exercise of exploration I embark upon to iron out my identity---I have chosen this title as a concise attempt to convey something about where I'm at presently.

Taking upon myself the name of Spinoza began with the scantiest of justifications: my personal resonance with a book review in Nature (subscription required) of Antonio Damasio's Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. According to this review,
Spinoza stands out from his contemporaries by virtue of his resolute adherence to the rational, an attitude that makes him a supremely modern figure. He dared to deny the validity of the Bible's revealed truth, a stance that threatened every political structure that was underpinned by religious belief and dogma. He went so far as to argue that faith was "a mere compound of credulity and prejudices — aye prejudices, too, which degrade man from rational being to beast". Not surprisingly, such radical views made him an outcast from his family and community, culminating in a ritualistic excommunication from his synagogue.
I did eventually read the book; while I'm not bold to say it's a "must read" for everyone, I certainly recommend it warmly. Containing a neurobiologist's modern understanding of the nature of and distinctions between emotions and feelings, it also describes how Spinoza anticipated some of these views centuries ago. Spinoza's humanity---as well as Damasio's---are conveyed better than the reviewer's rather stark quote above manages. Upon reading the book, I found my initial resonance with Spinoza amplified; hence friends and relatives perplexed by the changes in my thinking, who find it uncomfortable to discuss them with me directly, might find an entree to understanding by proxy through a reading of this book.

I am also, indelibly, a Mormon born and bred. Whatever adjectives might ever describe me, I suspect they will remain modifiers to one noun---Mormon---that forms a core part of my identity. I have been produced from distinguished Mormon stock, passed the standard milestones, partaken of the usual experiences, and continue to attend Church weekly and participate in many of the rituals of Mormon family life. Whatever else my interests may encompass, some sliver of my attention will always be fixed on the history and doctrine of the faith and culture that shaped my early sensibilities and channeled the choices of my youth and young adulthood. Like intimate underclothing worn daily, Mormonism is more than the external Sunday best donned but weekly. It is the air one breaths, one's all-encompassing milieu. It sustains all things, it demands all things, it "explains" many things, and hopes to be able to explain all things. The shock and pain of detachment are such that I can barely bring myself to declare myself "apart", finding the heart to say so only elliptically and tentatively, through partial identification with a book review!

Let me, then, summon the courage to characterize my situation a bit more directly: I have not suffered Spinoza's fate, but still wish to avoid it; and while heterodoxy is too mild to describe my current state, my hope is that there is discernable daylight to be found between heresy and apostasy.

While this blog may turn out to be mainly an exercise in soliloquy, I would be much gratified by colloquy. I am particularly interested in thoughtful responses from the faithful, who might help me see alternative views on vexing issues. Because the gulf between secular and sacred perspectives often feels vast (I hope bridges may be built!), it is probably unavoidable that some of what I say will grate on the sensibilities of typical believers. I can also have a tendency to 'hammer away' in forceful argument. Should this happen, and offend anyone, I apologize in advance. I will try not to sound like I have a chip on my shoulder; in return, I ask that those who "[suppose] me to be deluded to ... [endeavor] in a proper and affectionate manner to ... [reclaim] me" (Joseph Smith---History 1:28). Feel free to disagree passionately---but strive to do so without anger, defensiveness, or condescension. Strive for elevated (or at least playfully witty) language, which covers a multitude of sins---at least in my book!

The Spinozist Mormon stands at the crossroads of the sacred and secular, where values are chosen and truth claims are strictly evaluated---all upon the sacred ground of individual minds and hearts, with their tentative thoughts and fragile feelings---a process fraught with profound consequences for precious relationships. May openness, curiosity, free expression, understanding, and mutual respect hallow this space. Let all who cross its threshold share a fearless love of truth, an abiding passion for its pursuit, and bold courage in expression; but recognizing that we are all thrown together headlong into a world short on manifest cosmic truth, but nevertheless impatient and insistent on forcing daily choices upon us, may any and all who pause here for deliberation find sweet refreshment and warm companionship---regardless of the particular paths arrived from, or chosen upon departure.

Welcome, and enjoy!