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Christians increasingly live on a spiritual island; new and rival ways of life surround it in all directions and their tides come further up the beach every time. None of these new ways is yet so filthy or cruel as some Semitic Paganism. But many of them ignore all individual rights and are already cruel enough. Some give morality a wholly new meaning which we cannot accept, some deny its possibility. Perhaps we shall all learn, sharply enough, to value the clean air and ‘sweet reasonableness’ of the Christian ethics which in a more Christian age we might have taken for granted.

C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

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Fall of Adam

I’ve been thinking about original sin a lot over the past few years. Right now my beautiful and sexy wife and I are working through Credo House‘s Discipleship Program, and in Session 2: Mankind, Michael Patton and Tim Kimberley (going back to Augustine and Calvin, of course) break mankind’s sin problem down into three categories:

Particular Sin: This is the easiest one to buy into and, as a Mormon, it’s the only one I grew up believing in. Weirdly, for orthodox Protestants, it’s actually the least important. Our particular sins are the specific sins we commit during our lifetimes. No big stretch at all to imagine that God will hold us accountable for them; even Pelagius agrees. It seems fair.

Inherited Sin: By inherited sin I mean a sinful nature, and this is more than just being born into an environment where people sin and we learn by example (Pelagius again), but an inherent sinful nature that we are born with. Not just nurture, but actual nature: an inherent propensity to sin that we can’t overcome on our own. This I did not grow up believing in (as Mormons are pretty Pelagian), but I have grown convinced of it since coming back to Christianity. I even wrote what I consider to be one of my better blog posts about it back in 2012. I really hope that you will go back and read it, but to briefly summarize in case you don’t, I believe that the idea that we are subject to inherited sin is actually a far more just doctrine than the Mormon/Pelagian idea that we are guilty for our own sins only, because it acknowledges the reality that we really do lack the power to obey God’s law:

You didn’t choose original sin; you inherited it. You didn’t choose darkness, you were born into it. And that is why the atonement makes original sin also a just doctrine. Injustice would be if God expected you to overcome your broken nature through self-discipline, which is impossible precisely because of your broken nature. Instead, God came into the world to free you from your broken nature: you didn’t break yourself, and you are not responsible for fixing yourself.

So far, so good. Original Sin: I’m on board. But then we get to the idea of imputed sin, and that’s a sticky wicket.

Imputed Sin: The doctrine of imputed sin holds that we are not only guilty of our own particular sins and guilty of having a broken and sinful nature, but that we are actually each individually and personally guilty of Adam’s sin. That absolutely flies in the face of our contemporary cultural ideas about individual responsibility, justice and fairness. Why should we be guilty for someone else’s particular sin? How is that fair? And I don’t know if I’m one hundred percent sold on it, but I am starting to lean towards it based on Romans 5 (and a drift towards believing in Biblical infallibility). The idea that one person can be held responsible for another person’s particular sin sounds ridiculous at first, but then, hang on, because it turns out that’s precisely how the Atonement works. If imputation of sin is not possible, then Jesus can’t die for our sins. And that sure sounds like what Paul is saying in Romans 5, if you read him carefullly and allow him to communicate to you with the precision that he intended (I think that Mormons are able to gloss over Paul by treating his wrigint in the sort of broad narrative sense that you can treat most of the rest of the Bible, but that doesn’t do Paul justice because unlike, say, the Evangelists, Paul was writing precisely and theologically, so we need to do our best to read him that way).

So I’m grappling with the doctrine of imputed sin, and I am coming around to the idea that it may in fact be a Biblically sound doctrine, even though it’s hard to swallow. The fact that it sticks in my craw a bit shouldn’t be a good reason to just discard it–if I do that then really I’m just giving authority to some other influence (my culture, my upbringing, popular culture, my political values) that I have less reason to trust than the Bible. And Jesus’s disciples were constantly telling him that his sayings were hard to accept–having to deal with “hard sayings” is a part of Christianity and means exercising faith when things might not make sense (and I think we need to avoid the kind of easy and arrogant read of Jesus that tames him to our modern cultural values and then assumes that the disciples just thought his sayings were hard because they were primitive and backward and didn’t want to forgive people or love one another like we are totally cool with doing).

So then that brings us to evolution.

I’m not really sure about how the Biblical account of creation and scientific models of the origin of life are reconciled. I don’t really think that my salvation depends on it one way or another, and I am comforted in openness by the fact that we know that some of the church fathers, including Ambrose of Milan and no less than Augustine, didn’t believe in a literal reading of Genesis. But if Paul actually described imputed sin in Romans 5, how does that work if there was no historical Adam?

I think that it’s a bigger issue than just creation vs. evolution, because if (1) there was no real Adam, (2) you can’t have imputed sin without a real Adam and (3) Paul preached imputed sin in Romans 5, then I think we have a problem. Because that means Paul preached something impossible in the middle of the logical argument of the book of the New Testament that constitutes pretty much the theological bedrock foundation of the Protestant Reformation. If Romans goes, a whole lot goes with it.

The issue is in my head right now because it has come up on Tim’s blog (in the comments to the post that I vote “Sounds Most Like A Death Metal Band”). I admit that I haven’t done all of my homework on what people are saying about a historical Adam in light of scientific theories of the origin of humanity and its theological ramifications, so I’m sort of asking the internet to fill me in. So, internet, tell me: can you have imputed sin and no historical Adam?

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mormon-jesus-gethsemane

[After posting this, my beautiful and sexy wife pointed out the huge hole in my thesis, so I am going to re-tool the post and re-post it in the near future, but I am leaving it up for now even though it is massively flawed.]

So, in light of some frustrating discussions lately with Mormons about the nature of the Atonement (most particularly this one), I think I have managed to nail down two competing Mormon Atonement narratives or models:

1. Heavenly Father requires your perfect obedience in order for you to qualify for exaltation (“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—-and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.D&C 130:20-21). Mortals are born innocent and fully able to obey Heavenly Father’s commandments, but we have free will and we are subjected to temptation, and so each of us will inevitably, sometimes, break the commandments. Jesus came to earth and suffered in Gethsemane to pay the price for all of our sins and transgressions, and because of his sacrifice, we are able to go through the repentance process and have our sins effectively erased, so that we are counted in Heavenly Father’s eyes as if you had kept the perfect standard (so mercy satisfies the irrevocably decreed demand of justice). However, over time, in the eternities, we will stumble and fall short less and less, and eventually progress to where we, like Heavenly Father, no longer need repentance.

Put simply, we qualify for exaltation by never deviating from the standard of perfection. If and when we do deviate, the Atonement erases the deviation so that it is as if we had never sinned. So our exaltation is something that we earn by perfect obedience, and to the extent we are unable to be perfectly obedient, Jesus takes up the shortfall if we have faith in him, repent and have our sins washed away by baptism (and regularly renew our baptism through taking the sacrament).

I think that this model is internally consistent, and generally more supportable from Mormon sources across the standard works and the words of latter-day prophets and apostles. I think that it reflects a Mormonism that can be found in Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness. I suspect that older Mormons, Mormons who live in more homogenous Mormon communities and more traditionally-minded Mormons are more likely to espouse this first model. If you had asked me to explain the Atonement as an adolescent or early on my mission, I would have explained it in terms of this first model.

I also think that this first model is thoroughly Pelagian.

2. Heavenly Father wants to bring about our exaltation, which is a thing of infinite worth and so it comes with an infinite price. We have no means of paying an infinite price, so justice demands that we can’t be given an infinite gift that we did not earn. Jesus came to earth and suffered in Gethsemane, paying an infinite price on our behalf, essentially purchasing our exaltation for us. We can then take part in the exaltation that Jesus has bought with his sacrifice when we fulfill the requirements that he has set: faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the holy ghost and enduring to the end.

In this model, we do not directly qualify for exaltation. We qualify for it only indirectly through Jesus, who pays the entire price to obtain it, and then grants it to us (or gives us access to it) if we, in a separate transaction, meet the requirements he sets out. Mercy thus satisfies justice twice: once when Jesus pays an infinite price for our exaltation that we cannot pay, and once when he gives it to us for a price we can.

I also think that this second model is generally internally consistent, but I do not think it is as consistent with historical Mormon sources. We could probably have an argument about the degree of tension it has with other Mormon ideas, doctrines and texts. I think that it reflects a contemporary, PR-conscious and interfaith-dialogue-minded Mormonism that emphasizes the role of Jesus Christ and the Atonement, minimizes historic Momronism, and is influenced by Stephen E. Robinson’s Believing Christ. I suspect that younger Mormons and Mormons who live in diverse, pluralist urban centers and Mormons who are more engaged with postmodern culture are more likely to espouse this second model. I would not be surprised if, in a generation or two, this second model becomes overwhelmingly the norm among Mormons and will be taught consistently from the pulpit as if it had always been the norm. I would have explained the Atonement in terms of this second model towards the end of my mission and as a Mormon adult.

I’m not sure if the second model is Pelagian or not (kinda doesn’t matter since it’s still based on a completely and thoroughly heretical Christology). I suspect that Mormons who espouse the second model would assert that it is consistent with Protestant ideas about salvation by faith through grace, but I think you would have to look hard to find a Protestant who would agree.

Given the Mormon tendency to eschew systematic theology, I think that many Mormons probably hold oth models without giving it a lot of thought and without thinking about whether the models are consistent (not that Mormons lack the intellectual rigor to do so; I think they are just more likely to approach the atonement devotionally instead of theologically, and be satisfied* with any illustration or explanation of the Atonement that is sufficiently moving, reverent, and not obviously inconsistent with other Mormon doctrine).

To my Mormon readers: Do either of these models fairly represent your beliefs about the Atonement? Which one do you think is the most consistent with scripture and the teachings of latter-day prophets and apostles? Do you think that these models are mutually exclusive? If not, why not?

To everyone else, let me know your thoughts and observations. Let’s discuss.

*Did you see what I did there?

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Someone posted the following to our neighborhood message board last night:

Missionaries Knocking at Door

Tonight at 8:54pm, I heard a knock at my door. When asked who was at the door a man answered, ‘We are missionaries.’ Who ever heard of missionaries coming to your door at 8:54pm after dark? After refusing to open the door, I immediately went upstairs and looked out of my window and saw two people with very short hair dressed in long pants and long sleeve shirts with backpacks on (I assume they were both men). Can anyone shed some light on this?

Fair enough, right? I know who they were, obviously, but this lady doesn’t. I know that their curfew is 9pm, and that, while knocking on doors at 8:54 is an impolite exercise of bad judgment, it happens sometimes (I did it myself a time or two, but usually when it was still light outside in July in Germany). The lady’s concern and question are reasonable–strangers are knocking on her door and she wants to figure out who they are and why.

But the first response on the message board was this:

[T]his is extremely suspicious. I think you were wise to do what you did. Solicitors are allowed by County law only to approach homes before sunset or 5 PM, whichever is earlier. Moreover, church groups who engage in door to door proselytizing typically make the rounds in the morning hours, and I have never known any group of this kind to approach homes this late in the evening. In addition, I would be extremely suspicious of anyone identifying themselves as a missionary going door to door in this area, as missionaries typically work in underprivileged areas and underdeveloped countries. I suggest you call the police to report this so they are aware and can investigate.

Sigh. I’ll admit, I had a laugh. And then I did my best to set the record straight, clear up peoples’ concerns, and ask them to please not pester the police about it. But I don’t think I did any good: sadly, my neighbors seem intent on being scared even when there’s a perfectly good explanation for why they shouldn’t be.

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So, quick caveat: this song has nothing to do with my tenth wedding anniversary yesterday. Just putting that out there.

It has everything to do with me having a shitty day at work and feeling tense and taut like a wire. My first year here at the Firm was pretty rough: I was absolutely miserable and stressed constantly, to the point where I was sick all the time. Things have gotten better, but sometimes a day is nothing but a series of minor disasters and it feels like my first year again.

A lot of things got me through that first year when it was rough every day. My amazing wife. My wicked cool kids. Counting down the days until I could quit my job and not owe money to the Firm. Stuff like that. One of those things was Waylon Jennings.

I discovered Ol’ Hoss last summer when I got in a mood to throw more country music into the mix instead of just all metal all the time. I was starting to read western novels, and I was starting to get homesick for the South, and both of those deserve a country soundtrack. But I don’t really like suburban pop-country (I’m talking to you, Keith Urban), so I set about discovering all the old outlaw country legends, and Waylon Jennings jumped out at me like few things ever have.

You know how sometimes you hear a song and immediately, right from the first listen, you know it just knocked about three other songs from your top ten to just make room for it? That’s how it was with “This Time.” I first heard it on the bus on the way to work in the middle of one of the worst times of last year–I had an absolutely disastrous year-end review that I had been mortally dreading for months, and I was insanely busy right around a holiday when I had made plans to spend time with family. But this song came on my headphones and it changed my life.

So here it is, because today’s the kind of day when I need this kind of song.

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Before you dismiss this post as just being about music and not spirituality (again), hang with me for a few minutes, because I’ll get there. “Pancho and Lefty” is a song written by Townes Van Zandt, one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and like Jim Morrison, one of the tradition of young musicians who bit into something too intense somehow, too young, something too big for them to handle, and it raged through them, used them up, and left them dead too soon. If you haven’t listened to Townes Van Zandt much, shame on you.

This song is the kind of song that worms its way into your head and just gets more interesting the more you think about it. The lyrics have a gloss of conventionality, but it’s a trick–Van Zandt wrote a song that comes across as simple but is anything but. Once you get past the impression of the words, you see that the songwriting is far more complex and poetic. This is not a generic ballad. This is something interesting:

Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath’s as hard as kerosene
You weren’t your mama’s only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dying words
That’s the way it goes

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose

Lefty he can’t sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty’s mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain’t nobody knows

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
So the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true,
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he’s growing old

A few gray federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him go so wrong
Out of kindness I suppose

Most interpretations of this song that I have encountered seem to assume that it is about two different people: Pancho, the Mexican bandit who is betrayed and killed by one of his own men, Jesse James-style, out in the desert, and Lefty, the one who killed him, who fled Mexico and settled down to an ordinary life in Cleveland, Ohio.

But I think they’re wrong. That’s much too easy, and it’s also not clear from the lyrics. Nobody heard his dying words. His death was told of by the poets, not the witnesses. Pancho “died” out in the desert, after a hard outlaw’s life, and then, from nowhere, this Lefty flees to Ohio. What’s Lefty fleeing from? Where did Lefty come into the picture? Was anyone chasing Lefty? Was anyone after him to get revenge? Does Lefty live his life nervously like the Ford brothers, reviled for killing a popular outlaw? The song says nothing about that.

That’s because Lefty is Pancho. Pancho let the poets tell of his death because it was the only way out. And he moved to Cleveland and lived under an assumed name and spent the rest of his life living in a cheap hotel with his demons and his regrets, wondering who he is and what could have been. And if anyone could have tracked him down, nobody tried too hard. They let him go because it was enough.

So what’s spiritual about this? Why does this matter? The thing is, this story is mythology. It’s not non-fiction, but there’s a bite and a life to it that crackles with something more than just a made-up story. It might not have actually happened, but it’s certainly true.

Wrapped up in this mythic ballad is some powerful stuff about strength, manhood, what it means to be human and alive, and living life close to the quick. More importantly, it’s about the hard choices that lead a man to give all of that up, and what’s left when he does, for better or for worse. There’s an authenticity to Pancho and Lefty that radiates significance because at the end of the day it cuts into the heart of the big things, the raw, the stuff that makes us remember we’re alive. And I say this over and over again, but that’s what spirituality is really about: making sense of mortality.

And then there’s this, from an interview with Van Zandt: “I realize that I wrote it, but it’s hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue. It came through me and it’s a real nice song, and I think I’ve finally found out what it’s about.” This song came to him from out of the blue. He put it to paper but he didn’t make it up. Don’t believe in the Mousai? This stuff comes from somewhere. Someone out there is trying to tell us something important and they are using people like Townes Van Zandt to do it.

Chew on that while you listen to a live version the song:

And then there’s the popular version by Willie Nelson and Merle haggard. Listen to it, too:

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You may remember my recent post about the possibility of the State of Florida pardoning Jim Morrison for his indecent exposure conviction. Well, Florida officially pardoned Jim Morrison today. This is great news.

Here are Governor Crist’s comments on the topic, courtesy of the New York Times Arts Beat Blog.

Remarks by
GOVERNOR CHARLIE CRIST
to the Florida Board of Executive Clemency
Tallahassee, Florida

December 9, 2010

James Douglas Morrison – we know him as Jim Morrison – appealed the judgment and sentence he received after being convicted 40 years ago of two misdemeanors. However, he died before his appeal could be heard.

Because he us unable to state his case for clemency before this board today, I offer to do so for him.

The charges against Mr. Morrison stemmed from his alleged actions at a now-famous 1969 musical performance by The Doors in Miami. During the trial, the prosecution attempted to prove that Mr. Morrison indecently exposed himself, simulated indecent acts, and uttered profanities.

Mr. Morrison admitted to using some of the alleged profanity; however, he denied the other charges.

During the trial, some witnesses testified they saw the alleged acts for which he was charged; however, many others testified they observed the entire concert and never saw them. In fact, so many witnesses corroborated Mr. Morrison’s testimony that the judge eventually stopped the defense from presenting any more – because their collective testimony became, what is known in legal terms as, “cumulative testimony.”

Nevertheless, a jury convicted Mr. Morrison. The judge then sentenced him to six months of hard labor.

Much controversy surrounds this conviction, and not only because many witnesses testified they did not see Mr. Morrison expose himself.

Controversy also exists because Mr. Morrison was not arrested until four days after the concert. A case was brought against him only after newspaper articles recounted the alleged events at the concert, based on a complaint filed by an employee of the state attorney’s office who attended the concert.

In addition, Mr. Morrison may have been improperly prevented from presenting evidence of “community standards” of other rock performances of the era. Such testimony would have offered cultural context for the allegations against him.

Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Morrison himself did not exercise his right to remain silent. Instead, he forcefully denied the charge that he exposed himself on stage.

Mr. Morrison appealed his judgment and sentence; however, he died before the appeal was heard. His death prevented him from exercising his right to a direct appeal, a right given to every American by the United States Constitution. If his appeal had been heard, a reviewing court could have resolved the controversies surrounding his conviction.

In addition, at the time of Morrison’s death, a convicted defendant who died before his appeal was heard was entitled to have the conviction dismissed so that he was again presumed innocent. This doctrine, known as “abatement ab initio,” wiped the slate clean – as though the conviction had never taken place. A pardon corrects the fact that Mr. Morrison is now unable to take advantage of the presumption of innocence that is the cornerstone of the American criminal justice system.

The words of an appellate judge, penned a decade before Mr. Morrison’s trial, provide insight into the question before us today: When death prevents the accused from appealing his judgment, the conviction is “a nullity” and “[j]urisdiction to determine the issue of guilt or innocence is now assumed by the ultimate arbiter of human affairs.”

In this case, guilt or innocence is in God’s hands, not ours. That is why I ask my colleagues today to pardon Jim Morrison.

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Outgoing Florida governor Charlie Crist has hinted at giving Jim Morrison a posthumous pardon for his Florida indecent exposure conviction.

I’d rather see Jim Morrison pardoned than acquitted, honestly. An aquittal would be an attempt to legally say “Jim Morrison did not do that,” and I don’t think that’s right. Jim pushed the boundaries intentionally. It’s what he was all about, the influence of Dionysus, the god who steps over the boundaries and pushes us through–breaks on through, even–to the other side.

As human beings and as a human society we have a deep need for that kind of channeled transgression. We need rules and order to survive and prosper, but we also need a way to break through and shatter those rules completely, to remind us of who we really are and what is really going on. We have to be able to grapple with darkness, to embrace the shadow side of our existence, to shake off constraints and boundaries. Pushing us to our limits, pushing us past those boundaries in every way, is what Jim Morrison’s life was all about.

And so I say hell yes he exposed himself on stage. I say hell yes he simulated fellatio. And good, and well done, and do it again.

But he should be celebrated, not condemned. If our society expressed through the state can not understand the context and the importance of Dionysian transgression, and the role it plays in keeping us sane and healthy, then we are all Pentheus, and we are setting ourselves up for a violent and savage downfall.

So nothing could be more appropriate than a pardon. Try him if you want, convict him if you must, but punish him? Smear his name? Nonsense. We’re not talking about a pervert in the parking lot, we are talking a high priest of Dionysus, a prophet of the God Who Comes. Jim Morrison brought the law of liberation written on tablets of vinyl. I can think of few better ways to honor him than to wipe his name clear.

So, hail the Lizard King triumphant! Euoi!

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Instead of putting up a bunch of tedious posts about political issues that I feel the need to get off my chest, I’m just going to boil them down to little pearls of wisdom and put them all in one post, so if politics makes you retch, like it does me, you can safely and conveniently ignore all of it.

Religious Gay Marriage Alarmism:

No, legalizing gay marriage will not force churches to stop preaching that homosexuality is a sin or start performing gay marriage, for the same reason that the Civil Rights Act didn’t stop churches from preaching white supremacy or refusing to perform interracial marriage.

Freedom of Religion at Ground Zero:

I can be staunchly against the Ground Zero Mosque but still believe in freedom of religion for the same reason that I can be staunchly against you telling my four-year old son that Santa Claus is not real but still believe in freedom of speech.

X-Treme Presidents:

President Obama is not a communist for the same reason that President Bush was not a fascist.  Stop being fucking ridiculous.  When you wrap up your legitimate criticism in paranoid rhetoric, nobody takes you seriously except the other paranoid whackjobs who already agree with you.

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“Here stranger, this’s none of your mix,” began Tull. “Don’t try any interference. You’ve been asked to drink and eat. That’s more than you’d have got in any other village of the Utah border. Water your horse and be on your way.”

“Easy—easy—I ain’t interferin’ yet,” replied the rider. The tone of his voice had undergone a change. A different man had spoken. Where, in addressing Jane, he had been mild and gentle, now, with his first speech to Tull, he was dry, cool, biting. “I’ve jest stumbled onto a queer deal. Seven Mormons all packin’ guns, an’ a Gentile tied with a rope, an’ a woman who swears by his honesty! Queer, ain’t that?”

“Queer or not, it’s none of your business,” retorted Tull.

“Where I was raised a woman’s word was law. I ain’t quite outgrowed that yet.”

Tull fumed between amaze and anger.

“Meddler, we have a law here something different from woman’s whim—Mormon law!… Take care you don’t transgress it.”

“To hell with your Mormon law!”

-Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage

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