Tuesday, July 5, 2016

We seek after these things

The Articles of Faith

Defining characteristics

In 1842, John Wentworth was the editor of the Chicago Democrat. One of Wentworth's friends, George Barstow, was writing a history of New Hampshire and was interested to know about the Mormons, so Wentworth wrote to Joseph Smith to ask what it was that the Mormons believed. Joseph Smith responded with what is now known as the Wentworth Letter. Among other things, the letter includes the Articles of Faith: thirteen statements about what members of the Church believe. For example, the first article of faith states that

We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.

As the Church has never formally adopted a creed, the Articles of Faith are the closest thing there is to a formal definition of Latter-day Saint theology.

Excepting the eleventh article (which asserts that all people should have freedom of religion), all of the articles begin with the words, "We believe". The conclusion of the thirteenth, which is the basis for this article, describes both belief and action:

If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.

We seek

The primary verb of this sentence is not "believe", but "seek". This means that this goal – seeking after things that are virtuous, lovely, and so on – is as central to one's identity as a Latter-day Saint as are their beliefs.

The goal may seem obvious or insignificant. On the contrary, this goal has enormous philosophical and theological implications. Understanding and applying this principle can transform religious life from tedious conformity to exhilaration and liberation.


Many people see religion as a prison. This is particularly true of religions that emphasize obedience (take, for example, this T-shirt). This perception reflects a common misunderstanding.

We often use the word positive to mean good and the word negative to mean bad. But this pair of words has another meaning: positive can refer to the existence of something and negative can refer to its absence. The word posit (which is likely to be familiar to students of logic) means, in essence, the same as assert. The same words are used in political theory; for example, a negative right is an assertion that a person may not do something to another (we're not allowed to kill each other), whereas a positive right is an assertion that a person must do something to another (employers must pay certain taxes on behalf of their employees).

The only negative statement in the entirety of the Articles of Faith provides contrast:

We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.

In every case, then, the Articles of Faith express something positive. Instead of stating what we do not do, they state what we do.

"Don’t be evil"

I spent a summer as an intern for Google, whose motto at the time was "Don't be evil." This statement is negative; that is, it asserts that Google as a company and its employees are not to do something. Alphabet, the successor to and parent company of Google, has adopted a positive motto: "Do the right thing."

I struggled a bit with Google's motto, partially because I could sense the weakness in the negative statement. Merely avoiding evil sets one's sights on nothing higher than moral neutrality. Also, focusing on avoiding evil means that behavior can only reflect the motto as evil is identified and addressed; things that aren't clearly evil can be ignored. Perhaps most importantly, morality becomes a distraction and therefore an inconvenience. Imagine an engineer who conceives of a product that uses a smartphone's location to provide personalize shopping recommendations. She could easily leak personal data with this product – intentionally or by accident. If her focus is on engineering, the technical challenges will take the bulk of her attention and users' privacy and security will be afterthoughts. If she determines that the cost to users' privacy is too high, she would have to abandon an interesting engineering challenge with some real potential to provide value.

In contrast, the goal to do good things forces us to ask different questions. Instead of deciding what we want to do and then allowing morality to veto our decisions as necessary, the goal of goodness means that morality is a part of the decision-making process from the beginning. We choose to do good things; engineering is simply the means to that end. In our engineering example, questions of user privacy would guide decisions from the outset.

Obedience to the unenforceable

In a world where we "walk by faith, [and] not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7), we cannot define all that is right or wrong in an objective sense. "There could never be enough rules so finely crafted as to anticipate and cover every situation, and even if there were, enforcement would be impossibly expensive and burdensome" (D. Todd Christofferson, Moral Discipline). Ultimately, each person must police himself or herself.

Neal A. Maxwell's classic talk Swallowed Up in the Will of the Father borrows the phrase "obedience to the unenforceable" from Lord Moulton's Law and Manners. Moulton explains that there is a "middle land" that lies between Positive Law (the realm things that we are legally obliged to do) and Absolute Choice (the realm of things where individuals may decide without any repercussion). This middle land is the realm where choices matter but are not legally regulated. Obedience to the unenforceable refers to good behavior in this middle area and is a requirement for civilization.

Playpens vs. goals

Our culture (both Mormon culture and the culture of our larger society) frequently falls short of this lofty ideal. We allow others to define the boundaries of moral behavior. We interpret the rules literally and, as long as we find justification for a desired course of action within those rules, we proceed. In other words, the area outside the playpen is what Moulton might have called Negative Law. We assume everything not proscribed by rules or laws to be in the realm of Moulton's Absolute Choice. Like children who rely on their parents to tell them what to do and not to do, we stay in our playpen and trust that it will protect us.

In contrast with the moral mediocrity of a playpen, the vision of the thirteenth article of faith points us to a higher goal. The goal of seeking after everything good allows us to reach greater moral heights. It also keeps us as safe as would a playpen. If I am focused on expressing myself in an uplifting way, the question of which words or phrases are too vulgar to utter is moot. If I spend my time and energy seeking after things that are lovely and praiseworthy, I will avoid things that are degrading and I will find beauty that delights the soul and enriches the mind.

When we choose to pursue things that are right, we allow ourselves to act wholeheartedly. In stark contrast with the soul-draining feeling of complying with external pressure, a decision to strive to do what is right enlivens and enriches us. Karl Maeser invokes this imagery with his timeless quote: "The law is made only for slaves[;] a free character ... does right because it is right" (BYA domestic department records, 1879-1881, 51, UA 239, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, accessed via http://educationinzion.byu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Education-in-Zion-Text.pdf).

An example

Perhaps the most common playpen used by members of the Church is the set of standards put forth in For the Strength of Youth. Originally a printed pamphlet and now also available in hypertext, For the Strength of Youth was written for teenagers but is applicable to people of all ages. It seems to me that as newer editions of For the Strength of Youth have been published during my lifetime that there has been a greater emphasis on teaching principles and a diminished emphasis on delineating the rules for appropriate behavior. Even so, there is a tendency to ask whether a behavior is appropriate or not based entirely on the rules in the pamphlet.

It is appropriate, of course, to turn to our inspired leaders for counsel as we determine the best course of action for us to take. But we should not assume that anything not prohibited by them is acceptable. If we use the standards they describe as illustrative examples of the principles they teach and if we give our best efforts to understand and apply these principles in our lives, we will find that the Lord will teach and guide us and bless us for our efforts.

Some practical observations


I have described incredibly lofty goals here – goals so lofty that they cannot be achieved in mortality. Happily, perfection is not asked or expected of us now. It is a goal for the eternities.

Our inability to do everything in our finite time means that we must prioritize. Some things are more important than others. Some prioritizations will be suggested by personal spiritual guidance, while other choices are entirely up to us. For example, I might be prompted to learn a particular language or to focus on my schooling right now, while you might decide (in the absence of a specific spiritual prompting) to focus on your family's particular needs for the time being. By seeking to understand universal truths, listening to the Holy Spirit, and choosing things that matter to us, we invite the Lord's guidance. This guidance sometimes comes in the form of spiritual communication and sometimes in the form of silence. Regardless of how He answers, we can rest assured that the things that matter most will be taken care of.

Beauty is an end unto itself

One of the most exciting conclusions we can reach from our responsibility to seek after everything that is "virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy" is that beauty is a goal worth pursuing. There is a feeling common to the human experience that we want to experience, share, and create beauty. In some cultures, however, that pursuit is shunted to the side to make room for more "practical" things, like educational and financial development. For Latter-day Saints, those practical needs are important as a means to an end. Beauty, on the other hand, is a characteristic of godliness and, as such, is an end worth pursuing in its own right.

What we seek trumps what we have done


One of my favorite characters in all of C. S. Lewis's Narnia appears towards the end of The Last Battle. Emeth is a young warrior from Calormen, the nation that invades Narnia. The Calormenes worship Tash, who is Narnia's devil. Emeth, unlike many of his countrymen, is a sincere, honorable man. He was raised worshipping Tash and was thrilled to be invading Narnia, the land he'd heard so many stories about. As events unfold, Aslan comes to meet Emeth.

Emeth knows that he has served Tash all of his days and expects that he will die immediately. And yet something in his soul recognizes that Aslan was worthy of his honor all the same. As Emeth tells others his story, he says, "Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be [king] of the world and live and not to have seen him." Much to Emeth's surprise, Aslan greets him with the words, "Son, thou art welcome." Aslan explains that Emeth had sought after what was right all of his life and that that service, misplaced as it was, could only be service to Aslan. "Unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek."

Salvation by grace

In all of our discussions of virtues and goals and salvation, we must always remember that Aslan's graciousness to Emeth is the Lord's graciousness to each one of us. Nothing we can say or do or be or seek after can save us; salvation is His. In His graciousness, He offers to take our best efforts and reward us with virtues and blessings. He freely gives us the gift of the resurrection and freely offers us redemption from our sins and He invites us to follow Him, knowing that the process of trying to be like Him will teach us. As we try, His grace changes our nature – from bad to good and from good to better. I have experienced this change in my life and hope to continue to experience it. Come with me and together we will seek after the One who is virtuous, lovely, of good report, and worthy of all praise.

A new series

I have decided to begin including some of my more religious writings on my blog. This new series of articles (which will be published individually and with considerable time between each one) were originally written as outlines for sacrament meeting talks (sermons to be given in weekly worship services). Although I have made every effort to be doctrinally correct and to cite authoritative sources that are correct, this article should not be taken to be an authoritative statement on LDS doctrine. Since my blog has a more general audience, I've attempted to write in such a way that my meaning will be clear to people of all religions and philosophies.

As I write on spiritual matters, my thoughts become clearer and I gain more understanding. My hope is that, by sharing these thoughts publicly, I can share some of that benefit from others.

As is the case with all articles on my blog, I welcome my readers' insightful comments. I've learned a great deal from these comments in the past and hope to learn more in the future.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Correcting sexism in Mormon culture with doctrine

This article focuses on Mormon culture and doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as I understand them). Although its primary intended audience is members of the Church, I hope it will be of interest to all of my readers. We members of the Church are not perfect and our actions and culture do not always measure up to the doctrine we believe in and strive to live by.

A week ago, I attended a discussion with a congregation I frequently visit about dating. It was suggested that it's now 2016 and that women ought to feel free to ask men on dates if they're so inclined. A friend of mine replied that when she's done so, she's been told that asking was outside of her gender role. In some cases, she lost friendships as a result.

My friend feels stuck. She wants to date but isn't currently being asked on dates. Being proactive, it seems, has only caused problems. While I hope that some of my thoughts help her, my primary goal is to change our culture so that it aligns more closely with our doctrine, which I believe to be true.

I take exception to many of the ideas I've come across, but I care about the people who subscribe to these ideas. My purpose is not to tear any person down – but I have no respect for sexism and won't waste words talking around it.

Genuine concerns

I'm sympathetic to men who struggle to deal with situations like this gracefully. It's certainly more common for a woman to ask a man out now than it was a generation ago, but it's still not an everyday occurrence. I'm guessing that most Mormon men who are asked out are caught slightly off guard. In Mormon culture, it's particularly difficult for men to handle situations where they might hurt a woman's feelings; sayings like, "Take care not to make women weep, for God counts their tears," permeate our culture. (The quote itself is taken out of context from a talk by President Monson.)

Even when men aren't worried about hurting feelings because they've been taught to be, they're well aware that if they get in the habit of doing things that are perceived as unkind, word will get around. In a community like the Salt Lake Valley, reputation is golden and many men are careful simply for self-preservation. In smaller communities of single Mormons elsewhere, reputation is even more important.

These concerns are genuine and I feel for the people who find themselves in uncomfortable situations. However, no amount of discomfort or surprise or any other explanation that makes a flaw understandable suffices to make that flaw excusable. We strive for perfection (Matthew 5:48), so it becomes us to find ways to improve when we find that we are at fault.


One fundamental problem here is honesty. Although I have no doubt that the men in question believe in gender roles and such, I imagine that if they were interested in the girl asking them, they'd oblige a little oddity. In many cases, the real reason they're turning down the date is that they're not interested.

I've said before that we owe it to each other to be honest. It's not enough to make statements that are factually true; we must also mean their implications and be honest in our silences.

It's perfectly understandable to be ill at ease when asked on a date you don't want to go on. But hiding that discomfort behind disingenuous statements about gender roles is not just disrespectful; it complicates dating for these women. They may come to fear asking other men out because of the reaction when a clear, gentle rejection might not. It's unfair to these women and to other men.

It's personal

Not everything that's cultural is doctrinal and not everything that is doctrinal is cultural. Furthermore, not every person will apply doctrine in exactly the same way.

The most concise exposition on the doctrine on the family is The Family: A Proclamation to the World. I'll quote the portion of the proclamation that specifically addresses gender roles without abridgement:

By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners. Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.

To many of us, this quote conjures pictures of stereotypes from the 1950s. But a careful reading makes it clear that such stereotypes are not justified. The statements about the primary responsibilities of fathers and mothers are immediately followed by two crucial statements: First, that fathers and mothers are equal partners; Second, that some adaptation is necessary.

Since the statement about doctrine specifically allows for individual adaptation (and since not one of us fully knows the circumstances of anyone else's life), we are unjustified in telling anyone else how they should apply these doctrines in their own lives. This means that no man is in a position to tell a woman whether or not she should ask men on dates; not only is nothing said in authoritative statements about who asks whom, we know that individual circumstances necessitate individual adaptation. Every person (or couple) should prayerfully study the doctrines and consider his, her, or their circumstances. As we ask questions like, "What is right?" and "What will bless my family?", we are likely to receive individual guidance.

What are you looking for?

And since husbands and wives are equal partners, any interpretation of gender roles that makes a partner superior or inferior to the other is incorrect – and interpretations that make partners feel superior or inferior are probably incorrect for that couple. Many couples have mom stay at home and that works well for them. Others have circumstances, possibly including emotional issues tied to traditional gender roles, that may change how the ideal fits onto their lives.

I think we all ought to be extremely cautious about any conception of gender roles that makes either sex passive (such as one that requires that men do the asking). Our doctrine makes it clear that "the children of men ... have become free forever ... to act for themselves and not to be acted upon" (2 Nephi 2:26). Sadly, it seems that many Mormon men misunderstand this doctrine and follow instead a culture that teaches them to look for maids instead of wives.


I'm also concerned by the fact that my friend lost friends by asking them on dates. The fact that one person expresses romantic interest in another shouldn't, in most circumstances, prevent their friendship from continuing as it is – and a date needn't always come from romantic interest (see especially page 5). This, of course, requires maturity and good communication. What were these friendships really like? Are we so afraid of frank conversation that we can't get over little hurdles like this? Can men and women be friends without romance, even if one is romantically inclined and the other isn't? We all owe it to ourselves and to our friends to examine the way we approach our friendships. We likely can all focus a little more on other people and less on ourselves.

Be courageous

Interacting with other people, especially when romance gets involved, is tricky and sometimes painful. We can alleviate much of the pain in these interactions by seeking out true doctrine and choosing it, even if following the doctrine means violating social norms. It takes courage but allows us to be true to ourselves, kind to others, and faithful to God.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Essential freedoms

A few months ago, I found myself frustrated by a confluence of changes in my life and changes in laws regarding health care. As frustration always does, it caused me to think. When I said something about it, a friend of mine suggested a book about health care policy that he quite liked. He tends to lean much further left than I do but his opinions are well reasoned and I jumped at the chance to understand solutions to the problem.

A few pages into the book, it became clear to me that the book mentioned and then didn't address what was, to me, the most important question about government involvement in any area of life: what is the government's role? This book probably tried to be impartial but because it ignored that question, necessarily only considered solutions palatable to progressive thought.

I don't identify as a progressive, so the book completely failed to convince me. But I don't identify as a conservative or as a libertarian, either. This led me to the question of what, exactly, my political theory is. I can shoot holes in the political theories that I see around me for days, but it's counterproductive to do so. I wanted to make a statement about what I actually do think. This has taken considerable thought and yet will probably develop over time. It's an exposition on what I think and what I believe. I encourage my readers to consider my ideas carefully and weigh them against other political ideologies. That said, there is plenty of room for disagreement and I also encourage my readers to stick to what they believe.

I'm unable to form ideas about what government should and shouldn't do without a framework of philosophy. I make no apology for basing my political theory on religious doctrine; whether or not our conceptions of life and of humanity are religious, we all have our own ideas and they affect our thoughts on related subjects. I believe that people live on this earth for a purpose: to learn by experience. Before being born, we lived with our Father in Heaven. He was so good and so perfect that choosing to live by the righteous laws He embodies was the obvious choice. To illustrate, if a single lie immediately destroyed all of our relationships, we'd all be scrupulously honest. The consequences for our actions were inescapably clear and although we chose to do correct things, this was not entirely due to our own spiritual strength.

In contrast, our mortal experience causes us to "walk by faith, not by sight" (https://www.lds.org/scriptures/nt/2-cor/5.7?lang=eng#6). That is, the consequences of our actions are apparent but not clearly and not immediately. We choose to believe in principles and to live by them. Because of this lack of vision, we are not compelled by our knowledge to do what will lead us to happiness; we are free to choose what we want. These choices have a profound impact on us. Not only do they determine the course of our life, they change us. Our purpose here, then, is to choose good things so that we will have progressed spiritually by the end of our lives.

Part of the way that we learn from our choices is by experiencing the fallout that comes from them. Making it impossible for someone to succeed diminishes that person's freedom. But so does preventing failure. Happily, the expectation of each of us is not that we will be perfect; in a sense, God's mercy is a shield from personal responsibility. In another sense, He is lending us strength so that we can take responsibility for our actions. Were it not for this mercy, we would all be doomed and the progression which is our purpose here would be impossible. It is important to note that although He forgives us our sins, He rarely removes their effects from our lives. If I hurt a friend and then turn to Him, He will forgive me and give me strength as I try to mend the friendship, but He leaves our friends free to choose how to trust and how to love.

This freedom to choose defines our mortal experience. The role of government is to protect these freedoms. A government is successful to the degree that its people are free to make choices and take responsibility for them. To this end, governments identify and protect rights, such as the rights to life, liberty, and property (see Wikipedia for more on Locke and the Declaration of Independence).

Of course, rights are not absolute: one person's right to life comes into conflict with another's right to liberty, as either the one person has a right to life and the other is not free to remove it or one has complete liberty that trumps the other's right to life. This sort of conflict is where governments and laws come into play: their purpose is to protect and balance these rights so that their citizens can make choices and take responsibility for them – for better or for worse.

To the (extreme) libertarian, public utilities and accommodations seem problematic because they require government intervention and are not obviously related to the protection of life, liberty, or property. To the progressive, public utilities diminish the overall cost of providing the necessities of life. Although my political theory sounds somewhat libertarian, I side more with progressives on this issue – and it is consistent with my political theory. I'll explain with an example.

The infrastructure necessary to deliver electricity and gas to homes requires flexibility on the part of everyone involved. I would have neither electricity nor gas were it not for lines that go through my neighbors' properties and through my own. I have no natural right to dig up my neighbor's lawn, so if the people who own property all around me chose to not permit it, I could have no access to these things. In a cold climate such as the one where I live (and without a fireplace to burn wood), these things are literally a necessity of life. The same argument could be made for internet access; it is not necessary to sustain life but internet access (inside or outside one's home) is necessary in order to lead a normal life in our society. Accordingly, it is reasonable and consistent for a government to establish and regulate public utilities.

Another counterintuitive example of how government and freedom interact is in regulations of monopolies. For an individual, having only one choice for where to go for a product leads to diminished freedom, especially when the supplier gouges prices because of that monopoly. This is visible today in the way that internet service works in the United States; local governments give monopolies to companies who build, buy, and maintain infrastructure to provide internet service to customers. There is often nominal competition, as one company will have exclusive access to phone lines and another to cable lines. But these companies operate with scarcely any regulation or competition and they take advantage of it.

So although I agree that government power and bureaucracy should be minimized, the point of such minimization is enhancing our freedom to choose – and the current system only serves to guarantee that all options are terrible. Internet service providers have exclusive access to the cables upon which we rely for service. Since the government has granted them a monopoly, it must also regulate the business that occurs through that monopoly to protect its consumers. Yes, regulating these things diminishes the choices available to the companies in question – but it enhances the overall freedom of the people involved.

One natural result of such a definition of freedom is that it is not only impossible to measure; it is sometimes impossible to tell if a change increases or decreases freedom. This subjectivity means that my philosophy is a guiding principle and not a decision procedure. This means that every point of law deserves individual consideration and that there is room for disagreement, even among people who subscribe to the same philosophy. So please, dear reader, take the time to consider as you vote, write, and speak what effects your ideas will have on the freedom of individuals to choose and to take responsibility.