Saturday, December 20, 2008

then I developed a drinking problem

For as long as I can remember, I have had a leaky epiglottis. Even as I started to write this post, some of the hot chocolate I was sipping started going down my trachea, causing me to cough uncontrollably. I’m not complaining too loudly about this physiological quirk—when so many people inherit higher risks for diseases like diabetes, heart disease, or cancer, I got lucky and only inherited baldness, poor circulation (which causes me to wear gloves 9 months out of the year), and an epiglottis that sometimes makes a weak seal.

Growing up thus with the habit of choking on beverages, I very often heard the phrase “it looks like your drink went down the wrong pipe.” Because of this turn of phrase I envisioned metal pipes in my body (floating in cavernous space), one for food and one for air throughout much of my young life. As I grew up and learned more things, my vision of the two-pipes-theory was corrected and expanded; the original model I had been given was not necessarily incorrect, just too simple to be functionally useful or to mesh with deeper understandings of biology and anatomy.
As many of you know, the last few months have been very contentious in the world of Mormonism. I’ve devoted most of my blog time to arguing against the Church’s position on gay marriage and I’ve been in e-mail and phone debates with a few of you about the role of women in society and the Church. Although I am a fierce debater when I want to be (or when I am doing it competitively), I also pride myself on being fairly respectful and even-handed with the other side, conceding points readily, admitting where my argumentation is weakest, and not being purposefully manipulative (although I think I could do it better than some, if I really wanted to). One argument I’ve been hearing a lot of lately, and one that I want to clarify here, is that the gospel is simple.

Elder Caussé gave a rather good talk on this subject in the Sunday morning session of General Conference. He points out that, although God will always work on our level of understanding, and that faith and righteousness do not require a PhD in theology, that God does expect us to constantly be improving our knowledge if we expect to attain salvation. Simplistic, pat answers, laundry lists given during Sunday School (“go to Church, read your scriptures, etc.” given as an answer to every question), or a profoundly weak understanding of scripture or doctrine are good enough for those who are new in the Church, but are unacceptable for members who should have learned more in their time in the Church. I feel that there is the erroneous belief in the Church that a “simple faith”—complete with an understanding which is totally stripped of any nuance or individual opinions—is somehow superior in a gospel or righteousness sense to what those fancy-pants intellectual members believe. If you can’t already tell from my tone what I think about this stance, I would simply like to point out that Christ knew the scriptures on a very deep level and debated it often with the students of the law.

At its most fundamental level, there is an amazingly simple beauty in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Faith in the doctrines and examples of Jesus Christ can provide the basis of ethical, socially-responsible behavior and can lead to well-adjusted, psychologically-stable development. When followed appropriately, the teachings of Jesus coordinate very well with just laws, many different political systems, and within the confines of different cultural backgrounds and perspectives.

The belief that “the gospel is simple,” however, is currently being used as poetic license to oversimplify complex issues and defend a reductive, reactionary worldview. Even if “the gospel is simple,” ethical, political, or philosophical decisions rarely if ever are. In any case, the self-satisfied, check-and-mate-attitude the Christian right exudes when debating their points is unbecoming, both to reasonable, thoughtful people but also to those who follow Christ’s examples from the scriptures (but not the political movement that has attempted to co-opt His name). Evangelicals might smugly point out that Paul preached against homosexuality, but they must then be able to defend the fact that he also recommended against marriage of any kind. I’m not trying to say that the Bible is too contradictory to serve as a basis for argument, simply that the Bible is an incredibly complex book with a complex history. You will have to forgive me for finding it scary if people believe that the Bible is a word-perfect transcript from the mouth of God, uninflected by history, culture, or the opinions and weaknesses of the individual writers.

When all is said and done, there really are two pipes that my hot chocolate can go down—the trachea or the esophagus. Although further nuance or understanding of the glottal system do not fundamentally change the two-pipe model, they do allow for an understanding why the epiglottis works like it does. If someone were to perform a surgery on my epiglottis to fix my propensity to choke on water, I would demand that they know a lot more about the organ (can I even call it an organ?) than I did when I was six (what nerve innervates it, how it interacts with its surroundings, how surgery might affect it, etc.).

We need to trade in our child-like understanding for a child-like faith. We need to trade in a culture which glories in ignorance for one that seeks to understand everything that God would have us understand. We need to abandon the notion that a testimony of the truth is based on feeling the spirit, rather than having the spirit teach us through our minds and our hearts. We need to come to a fundamentally sound understanding about what the Bible is and what it teaches before we use it as a weapon against societal change. In the long run, such tactics will only lower the credibility of the Bible as a holy book and our Church as a voice of faith and reason. If we collectively make religion a simpler, less well-thought-out alternative to science and reason, we may just find that science and reason will eventually replace religion in the public sphere entirely. There are intelligent arguments and philosophies that can be based upon Christian thought. In as far as Christians insist that the gospel is simple, and thus not worth serious argumentation or analysis, they will continue to fallaciously defend misogyny, racism, homophobia, and theocracy in the name of the "simple" gospel. Important parts of the gospel are undeniably simple; defending bad arguments by an appeal to a tacit orthodoxy, however, is worse than blasphemous--it’s simple-minded and just bad debate.

Friday, December 19, 2008

shaken, not stirred

Last night I experienced my most unique, and also unwanted stories I have ever collected. While traveling home on the train, I was robbed at gunpoint. Although the robbers only took my wallet and Zune, and the Zune was recovered when one of the suspects was arrested by the police shortly after the robbery, I had to spend almost 8 full hours identifying the suspects, filing reports, waiting for the state attorney to arrive, and then making another statement. Perhaps if I went to bed right now, rather than staying up to write this post, I might have a much more flippant or jocular take on tonight's events. As it is, however, I can't help but feel immensely lucky and maudlin in my gratitude for almost everything in my life.

For as much as I like to complain and whine about the way things are in this world, I cannot imagine loving my life any more than I do. Fear of death probably always reminds people just how much they owe to the people and organizations they love. I am no exception to this. If I haven't told you just how much I love and appreciate you all lately, shame on me.

I am pained to tears that 3 people felt that the best possible use of their time and energies would be to take and gun onto the red line and try and make their own luck. Before any of you judge these people too harshly, try and imagine how much of your own life would need to be stripped away before you would seriously consider such an option to be your best possible choice. With a gun to my chest, I realized just how much I had to lose, and how little the robbers probably felt they had to lose. These individuals are ultimately responsible for their own actions (probably to the tune of 5 years in prison, to be exact), but I cannot help but feel sad and a bit ashamed that society has left these people with such bad options. When the choices I make revolve around whether to study for a few extra hours or to watch a Tarkovski film from Netflix, there's a pretty stark difference between the life opportunities and paths afforded to me versus what was afforded them.

I am grateful for a relatively just and responsive society. When I called 911 after the robbers left the train, I was expecting my story to be filed under the crime statistics and a half-hearted search effort to be made in a few days. Instead, a dozen police responded within minutes and two out of the three suspects were arrested within half an hour of my call. They say that there are no atheists in foxholes. I would submit that there are no Lockeans in police stations; society and how we get along matters a whole lot when civility breaks down and crimes are committed.

My sleepiness is starting to overwhelm my emotions and excitement, so I will end this here and go get some sleep. I plan on returning to my normal, philosophical, sometimes belligerent posts soon. Before I had time to really reflect upon, edit, or even rationalize my thoughts and feelings, however, I felt I should get them down. It normally takes me days or weeks to find the inspiration to write and edit a post for this blog. Today, all it took was a pistol.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A new leaf

If any of you have ever kept up a correspondance with me--any form of relationship which does not involve me seeing you and offering you food--you know that I tend to write in spurts. When I have the time, I check my e-mail every hour, write back immediately when written to, and do my best to find pithy things to say or funny things to link you to to illustrate my points. When time is not so plentiful, however, my inbox fills up with friendly letters that I want to respond to, but which I put off until I have more time to kill.

As far as I can tell, this pattern is pretty normal behavior. I read everyone's blog who reads and comments on this blog (if there are more of you who read this, let me know so that I can keep up with your blog too. I didn't realize that most of you even had blogs until you posted and I could see your profile) and I notice that my reader fills up much slower when schools have finals or midterms coming up.

My problem has always been that I have a hard time writing short e-mails or posting something here without devoting a lot of my time and chi to it. When I forget to write one of you for six months or more, I feel like it would be inappropriate to re-establish contact with a "hey [insert neglected friend's name here], how's life? I'm doing well. Talk to you later." Instead of writing something polite, yet managable, however, I feel like I need to write something epic to make up for my jerkiness in not having written in so long. Inevitably, said epic e-mail rarely gets finished; it sits in my draft folder until the details and wittiness have withered away and I delete it in shame. The longer this cycle goes on, the more awkward it becomes for me to re-establish contact with you. I usually just wait for you to write me and tell me that you've gotten married and had 2 children since I last talked to you. Somehow this seems less awkward to me than writing an e-mail that I can finish in one sitting.

So, in an attempt to combat this neurosis, and in celebration that my first quarter at Northwestern has come to a close, I decided to finish a post, just to prove to myself that I can. I have significant starts on posts on half a dozen subjects I've been thinking about for the last month but most of them will probably never materialize into a form that I would post it here.

So for those of you who still read this (I know that my mother has dropped out), I really appreciate that you still want to keep in touch with me and read what I write. If you're reading this to see how I've been doing since the last time I wrote you an e-mail allow me to apologize--there's a long message waiting for you in my draft folder somewhere, I promise.