Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Galaxies and God - A Lesson on Disbelief and Faith

Perhaps the technical difficulties with the blog post on not seeing stars were well-timed. The next Conference talk down the line is President Uchtdorf's Receiving a Testimony of Light and Truth, which opens with a quick lesson on the history of astronomy"
It was less than a century ago that most astronomers assumed that our Milky Way galaxy was the only galaxy in the universe. They supposed all that lay beyond our galaxy was an immense nothingness, an infinite void—empty, cold, and devoid of stars, light, and life. 
As telescopes became more sophisticated—including telescopes that could be launched into space—astronomers began to grasp a spectacular,almost incomprehensible truth: the universe is mind-bogglingly bigger than anyone had previously believed, and the heavens are filled with numberless galaxies, unimaginably far away from us, each containing hundreds of billions of stars. 
...before mankind had instruments powerful enough to gather celestial light and bring these galaxies into visibility, we did not believe such a thing was possible.
President Uchtdorf  goes on to explain that it's hard to believe in that which we cannot see. Though those other galaxies were there all along, we couldn't see them, so we didn't believe that they existed. In Why We Can't See Stars, I hope I made it clear that while I was talking about seeing God's light, I meant seeing evidence of God's existence and love for us, not literally seeing the light that God generates when He appears to people. Only a very few people in the world's history have been privileged to literally see God. The rest of us just have to trust that He really is there. Even when we do everything we can to cut out the distractions in our lives, humble ourselves, and try to attune our eyes to the light of God, we still probably won't see Him, and some measure of faith will always be required.

I do not know that other galaxies exist. I've been told that they exist, and I've been shown images of them, but I do not know of their existence for myself. Even if I was allowed to look through a telescope and see galaxies other than our own, I probably couldn't help thinking of how easy it would be to embed a computer screen into a device than merely looks like a telescope. There would always be some doubt, and I would always need some faith.

The same goes for knowing that God exists, that there is life after death, and that the scriptures and words of the prophets are true. The prophets and our own hearts may tell us that certain things are true, just as astronomers and telescopes can tell us about other planets and galaxies, but it will always take some faith to believe them. And some people have trouble coming up with that kind of faith. In fact, I think we all do sometimes. Sometimes, we can't bring ourselves to believe in things that we haven't observed for ourselves. Sometimes we feel that we need to see a thing ourselves to believe in its existence, and while that may be a wise course of action in some situations, like needing to personally see a platform before jumping halfway across a chasm to land on it (or miss it and fall to you death, as would happen if the platform wasn't really there), but some things are better when we accept them by faith, even if they aren't really there.

I'm pretty sure that God exists. Since there's always some need for faith and some room for doubt, it's hard to be 100% sure, but I'm pretty darn sure He's out there somewhere, and even if He isn't, I think it makes sense to believe in Him anyway. A belief in God encourages people to behave righteously. Believing in God generally makes people better people. Even if there is no God, believing in Him will help make the world a better place for everyone. It doesn't truly matter whether other galaxies exist. We're never going to reach them and I doubt we'll learn much from them, so whether they exist or not doesn't have much of an impact on us and our world, but believing in God, and encouraging others to believe in Him, will make life better for almost everyone. I haven't seen God. I don't know that He exists. But I'm going to act as if I do know, partly because it'll make me a better person, and partly because I'm still pretty darn sure that He exists.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Why We Can't See Stars

(This is yesterday's blog post. I don't know why it wasn't published yesterday. I thought the computer said it was.)

I just saw an inspirational quote that says "Stars can't shine without darkness," but I think I'd rephrase that. The stars are always shining. It's just that we can't see them if there's too much other light around us (or maybe it has something to do with whatever sunlight does to the sky to make it blue. I don't know anything about light or astronomy). Anyway, my point is that the stars are always shining - it's just that we can't always see them, just like God is always there, but we don't always see that He's there, and I can think of at least two reasons for that.

First, I'd like to give a little bit of credibility back to the quote I just argued against. "Stars can't shine without darkness." God is always there for us, but we don't always turn to Him. Sometimes, we foolishly think that we're doing well enough on our own, or that God wouldn't bother to help us. It's when things get really bad in our lives, our darkest moments, if you will, that we turn to God for help, and discover that He's been there with us all long. We just couldn't see Him because we weren't looking for Him, and sometimes things have to get really bad before we start looking.

Another reason we can't see stars all the time is that there's usually too much light around us. Look at the night sky when you're in the city, then look at the night sky when you're out in nature, and you'll see what I mean. Sometimes, there are just too many mortal distractions keeping us from focussing on God. There's too much hustle and bustle, keeping us too busy to think about eternal things. If we can cut out some of those distractions from our lives, or find a quiet moment to meditate and pray, we can look up to the heavens and see the subtle light.

Hopefully, it won't take an hour of darkness to drive us to our knees. Hopefully, we can be the kind of people who try to attune ourselves to God's light anyway, whether times are good or bad. Let us try to find God, even when it seems that we don't need Him, because we always need Him, and it's better to remember that now than it is to wait for God to remind us.

Prayer and Priorities in Goal-Setting

In the Pathway program, we're currently learning about choices and goal-setting. As part of this learning, we're participating in a discussion in which we of us responds to one of a number of prompts, and then we each respond to each other. For my initial discussion board post, I had to choose between writing about prayer and goal-setting, and priorities in goal-setting. Right now, I'd like to blog about both.

In my discussion board post, I wrote about how our priorities shape our goal-setting and our individual choices. If you have to choose between doing either of two things in one afternoon, you have to choose whichever one you want to do more than the other. This pattern holds true on a larger scale as well. If you have to choose between doing either of two things with your one lifetime, you have to choose whichever one you want to accomplish more than the other. Then, you should set goals and make plans to remind you of the priority you set for yourself.

The trouble is that there aren't only two choices. There are thousands, and picking the best set of priorities and goals to match your own talents, abilities, personality, and future opportunities can be impossible, especially if you make your choices at random, or based on your own thoughts and feelings. It's better to set our goals on priorities established by Someone with greater foresight than ours, Someone who knows us and our futures better than we do, and Someone who desires less for us than the best future we could possibly have.

By seeking God's help in setting our goals and priorities, we can make more wise and inspired decisions, leading to a better future than we could have had by making choices at random. Must successful people became successful by making plans and following them with determination. If we enlist God's help in making our plans, all the better. We need to establish our priorities before we set firm goals, and we're far more likely to set the right priorities if we try to do so through prayer.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Agency and Accountability at War

While we're still blogging insights gained from Elder Christofferson's talk, I want to address the debate he cited at the beginning of his talk. The debate was between a disguised King Henry and his troops:

At one point King Henry declares, “Methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the king’s company; his cause being just.” 
Michael Williams retorts, “That’s more than we know.” 
His companion agrees, “Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough, if we know we are the king’s subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.” 
Williams adds, “If the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make." 
Not surprisingly, King Henry disagrees. “Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own.”
According to Elder Christofferson, the playwright, William Shakespeare, never answers this debate, and for a time, I thought that Elder Christofferson didn't either, since we went on to talk about who's responsible for what happens to us, which in my opinion, is an entirely separate matter than who's responsible for what we do, though I suppose it deserves consideration, as Elder Christofferson certainly thought it did:
When things turn bad, there is a tendency to blame others or even God. Sometimes a sense of entitlement arises, and individuals or groups try to shift responsibility for their welfare to other people or to governments.
This is contrary to the nature of God's plan. He expects us to provide for ourselves as much as possible, and to forgive others if they, in any way, make life more difficult for us. When difficult circumstances arrive, it's our responsibility to endure them as well as we can, and see if we can make something positive out of the negative situation, rather than to try to pin the blame on whomever we think may be at fault. In that sense, the responsibility is ours.

But who is responsible for what we do? The answer seems obvious: we are; but what if we're just following orders, or acting as required by the laws of the land? Tying the concept back to King Henry's soldiers, who would be morally responsible if King Henry ordered his men to slaughter innocents, and they did? Would the king be responsible because he gave the order, or would the soldiers be responsible because they carried it out?

Elder Christofferson said:
God intends that His children should act according to the moral agency He has given them, “that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.” It is His plan and His will that we have the principal decision-making role in our own life’s drama.
This seems to pin the blame on the soldiers, who, according to D&C 101: 78, are "accountable for [their] own sins." If they do something, the responsibility (good or bad) for that thing falls on them, no matter who or what told them to do it.

But what of the king, then? Is he off the hook for what his soldiers do because they're accountable for themselves, or is he at least partially responsible for what they do, given that he ordered them to do it? My opinion is that he, too, is responsible for how his soldiers act while under orders. We are each responsible for what we do, but that includes what we do to influence others. If I encourage someone to write a kind letter to someone, that's a good thing, even though they, not I, are the one writing the letter. If I advise someone to rob a bank, then that's a bad thing, even if I never get directly involved in the robbery. If someone has the ability to influence others for good or for evil, they have the responsibility to influence them for good, just as a person who has the ability to do either good or evil has the responsibility to do good.

So, if King Henry gave an order to slaughter a village full of innocent people, and his soldiers carried that order out, they'd both be responsible to God for what they did. Is that how it is in our own military? Do our soldiers have the moral responsibility to follow orders, even if those orders are evil, or do they have the moral responsibility to disobey evil orders? If one of our military commanders gave a soldier an order to kill an innocent person in cold blood, what should the soldier do?

This is a really tough question because, on the one hand, we don't want soldiers who'd heartlessly obey evil orders. We don't want to be that kind of country. On the other hand, we can't afford to have soldiers who disobey orders. I think I'd forgive a soldier who did something evil that he didn't want to do, but did anyway because he was commanded to do it. I wouldn't forgive his commander as easily, but I'd forgive the soldier. But would God? "God intends that His children should act according to the moral agency He has given them, 'that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.'" I don't think God would let the soldier off the hook for "just following orders."

But then, what should he do? Should he just do nothing? Should he act against his commander somehow? If so, how? Not violently, I hope, but depending on the situation, that may be necessary. Hopefully, a soldier who has desires to do what's right and obey God would receive inspiration from God as to what he should do in that situation, because I certainly don't know what would be the best course of action would be. If I ever found myself in that situation, I don't know what I would do. Except pray. If I were ever in that situation, at the very least, I would most definitely pray.

Friday, October 17, 2014

God's Immutable Laws

I'm sorry that I wasn't able to post this this morning. I've been having computer problems.

There’s one thing that I wish more people would understand: Truth exists. There is such a thing as unyielding, unchangeable truth that is not at all influenced by anyone’s opinions, interpretation, or disbelief. Certain things are true. Period.

In his talk Free Forever, To Act For Themselves, Elder D. Todd Christopherson gave a brief example, citing the law of gravity: Resenting the law of gravity won’t keep a person from falling if he steps off a cliff. The same is true for eternal law and justice. We can ignore or disbelieve in God’s laws, but the consequences of breaking those laws will follow, whether we believe they will or want them to or not. Truth is not subject to our acceptence of it.

Nor is it subject to reason. In the hymn, O My Father, the third line of the third verse asks a yes or no question of some doctrinal importance, then answers it “No, the thought makes reason stare.” However, I fail to see what reason, especially our limited, human reason, has to do with eternal truths. Immagine if reason DID stare at an eternal truth, saying that it couldn’t possibly be true because it doesn’t make any sense. Would the truth become untrue if it refused to comply with reason? Does the law of gravity not work because I don’t understand it? The law of gravity states that all objects in the universe are pulled on by every other object, but why? There are no strings connecting them. I’ve been told that everything has a gravitational “field,” but what about objects outside of the range of that field? And how could a small, simple object like a block of wood generate any kind of energy field at all. It doesn’t make sense to me; Therefore, it must not be true.

But it is. The law of gravity is true whether I understand it or not. And God’s laws are true whether sinners and atheists agree with them or not. Truth is not subject to reason or belief. God is God, and He’d still be God even if everyone unanimously decided that He isn’t. It doesn’t matter what we believe; God’s truths are not contingent on our faith. We can disbelieve in the hardness of a rock, but it’ll still hurt if we stub our toe on it.

So, what’s the purpose in having faith in God’s truths? If they’re not dependent on whether we have faith in them, why doesn’t it matter whether we believe in them or not? Ask your stubbed toe why it’s important to have faith in the hardness of rocks. This is just my personal opinion, so it may or may not be true, and the truth (whatever it is) is unaffected by this opinion’s existence, but I think that God didn’t make the rules any more than Newton invented gravity: he just found out about the rules and told us what they are. Another way of saying it is that God didn’t put a rock in front of our feet and make it hard so it’d hurt when we stub our toes on it. The rock was already there and it was already hard. God just told us about the rock and warned us about the pain it could cause because He doesn’t want us to get hurt. The laws of God are so immutible that I don’t think even He could change them. Perhaps that’s because they aren’t really His rules to change any more than the law of gravity belongs or is subject to Newton. We call it “Newton’s Law of Gravity” because he told us about it. Perhaps we call them the “Laws of God” for the same reason.

What’s true is true, regardless of our belief or disbelief in it. It’s unshaken by human reason, and it is not at all affected by our opinions or preferences. We may not like, understand, or agree with the law of gravity or the hardness of rocks, but that will not change the effect those laws will have on us if a rock falls on our head. The commandments are like a street sign telling us to watch for falling rocks. We can heed the warning, or we can ignore it, but I’ll tell you this: We may choose to disregard the laws of God, but we will not be able to ignore them for long.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Day of Undeserved Miracles

Yesterday went surprisingly well - much better than it should have. It started with me arriving at Math class a little late, but it was Test day, so being late didn't matter a heck of a lot as long as I was able to complete the test on time. The problem was that I couldn't. I got stuck on a problem that should have been easy, but I kept making dumb mistakes. I should have studied for the test, but I though that I already knew the material well enough. Apparently, I need to keep practicing, because that one question took me forever, and I mentioned to the teach that, though I was sure I had gotten all the questions I could answer right, I was going to get a bad grade on the test because I hadn't been able to finish it.

Just a reminder, all of this was my fault. I shouldn't have been late to class. I should have studied. I should have been fast enough and smart enough to not make those dumb mistakes and to finish the whole test on time. My comment to the teacher had mostly just been a subconscious request for generic sympathy, like when you tell someone "Of course it would rain on the one day I didn't bring my jacket" or "I stubbed my toe." You expect them to say "that's too bad," or "I'm sorry," or, in my case "better luck next time." You don't expect the person you're asking sympathy from to actually do anything about it, but my math teacher did.

He took me to his office after class and, after a brief, but friendly chat, he gave me a few extra minutes to complete the test. I told him more than once that he was being very generous and that I knew I deserved whatever grade I got. It was my fault that I didn't study and it was my fault that I was late. Had I studied and/or shown up on time, I would have had the 'extra' time that my teacher gave me. It was a really kind gesture, which I shouldn't have needed and certainly didn't deserve.

That wasn't the only undeserved miracle I received that day. I forgot a few papers from home that I thought I needed, so after completing the test, I biked home to get them, and to shave. I should have had the papers already, and I should have shaved that morning, but I miraculously had time to get home and take care of those things. This was miraculous because, when I got home, I noticed that my back tire had a leak, and though I carry the tools I need to repair a tire in my backpack while I'm biking, it's hard to carry a pool of standing water in which to find the leak you need to patch. Fortunately, I was able to create one at home and repair my flat in record time.

With my bike once again in working condition, I raced back to the school so I could get to my tutoring job on time. On the way, in my haste, I almost "tripped" and fell off my bike when I hit a bump, but I was miraculously spared that fate and I managed to get to work quickly and in one piece.

The whole day, I kept seeing little miracles, things working out for me better than they should have, and I kept thinking to myself that I didn't deserve it. God blesses me, and probably a lot of other people also, a lot more than we deserve, because He loves us. We can't pay Him back any more than I could adequately thank my Math teacher for his extra extension of human kindness. But we can express our thanks to God by doing the things that He asks of us, by keeping his commandments and showing kindness to each other. It's the least we can do, but at least it's something.

I think we all get blessings we don't deserve from time to time. Maybe we should pay that forward and be kind to others, even if they don't deserve it. Something like "Do unto others what God has done unto you." I know that's not how the golden rule really goes, but I think this one is an improvement. We should follow God's example in as many ways as possible, including by showing others my kindness than they may deserve.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Irony of the Priorities of Our Desires

In my desire to blog about the Sacrament, I skipped over a Conference talk that I'd like to get back to now. In a talk titled Which Way Do You Face?, Elder Lynn G. Robbins of the Presidency of the Seventy said, "Trying to please others before pleasing God is inverting the first and second great commandments," which are first to "love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind," and second to "love thy neighbour as thyself" (Matt 22: 37, 39). Pleasing God should be among our top priorities, if not the top priority. Pleasing anyone else, even ourselves, should come second to that.

Elder Robbins spoke of some who feared men more than God. Today, I'd like to blog about the temptation and peril of loving ourselves more than God. The temptation is very present and alluring. We want to do what we want to do, not what God wants us to do. We want what we want, not what God wants for us. This is foolish because what God wants for us, what He's offering us, is greater than anything we can imagine or ever hope to obtain by ourselves. What God wants us to do is a wiser course of action and will lead to greater happiness than any path we might find or follow by following our own plans or whims. God can see the future, and He wants our future to be glorious. To that end, He has told us what to do to reach that glorious future. How foolish we would be to desire anything else!

How foolish we are for desiring other things. We don't quite have the vision and foresight God has. We can't see the end from the beginning like He can. We only see the roads that are in front of us. One of them looks fun, but leads nowhere. One of them looks promising, but really isn't. And one of them looks hard and steep, with no end in sight, and this is the road God wants us to follow. Human nature would have us choose either of the first two roads. A foolish man would chart his own course and follow his own plan rather than God's. An even more foolish one would follow the crowd, take the path of least resistance, and try to have a good time... until Judgement day. The only wise course of action for those of us who know God's will for us is to abandon our own schemes and instead follow the path that God has laid out for us. It won't be what we want to do, and it probably won't get us what we think we want, but it'll get us something better than we ever dreamed of obtaining, and in the end, we'll be glad we did it.

Putting God before ourselves is difficult but ironically more rewarding than putting ourselves before Him. Putting ourselves first, we might make more money or have more fun, but it won't last. Putting God first ensures that we'll "lay up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven" that will allow us to experience eternal joy forever. Putting God's desires before our own may seem counter-intuitive, but it's actually the best thing we could possibly do for ourselves. So, in a sense, putting God first means putting ourselves first, because God wants what's best for us, and putting our own desires first isn't really something that we actually want to do.