Friday, 14 September 2007

The World Today

No, this isn't an article on The Last Days, although I should probably do one of those someday. Instead, it's a commentary on three news articles I've just read. All three are from the BBC.

What future for Anglicanism?

When the American branch of the Anglican church appointed an openly gay bishop in 2003, conservatives said it could lead to a split in the worldwide denomination. Now African churches are taking the matter into their own hands.

As the story goes, an Anglican parish church in the state of Virginia has declared its opposition to 'the American church's liberal approach to homosexuality' in a most unusual way: it has left the Episcopal Church (the US branch of Anglicanism) and instead joined the Church of Uganda. The vicar of the congregation in question has been appointed a bishop (Anglican). This, according to the article, means 'abandoning centuries of Anglican tradition, where national churches act only within their own boundaries, and bishops are responsible for defined geographical areas.'

I have two things to say about this. First, I find it absolutely hilarious that a US congregation is now part of the Church of Uganda. It just amuses me immensely.

Second, and more importantly, I have to wonder about the definition of the word 'denomination' as applied to the Anglicans. When they were originally formed, by King Henry VIII, they were a united denomination -- the Church of England, with one leader. Now, though, they... aren't. To define two national churches as the same denomination when they have distinctly different beliefs -- 'The problem for Anglicans is that they cannot agree on how to interpret the Bible, and therefore they arrive at very different views on a number of moral issues' -- should be impossible. If having different views on moral issues doesn't make you separate denominations, what does? Should we class Catholics as separate from Anglicans just because they believe in a different mode of church governance? Muslims as different from Christians because they have different beliefs about the nature of God? How different do two groups have to be before they become separate denominations? It's not that they have different names -- 'Episcopal' and 'Church of Uganda' are fairly different. It seems to me that many so-called 'denominations' are nothing of the kind -- they are diverse churches which band together in order to appear larger than they actually are.

How different, then, from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Each and everyone one of our Wards and Branches believes the same things, follows the same moral code, and looks to the same leaders. We paid heed to the words of Paul, who praised the Corinthians 'that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you'. And again, in the opening of the same letter, he said, 'I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.' Can the Anglicans claim as much? Clearly not, if they're 'arriv[ing] at very different views on a number of moral issues'.

(For those of you who thought I was going to bring up homosexuality in this post, don't be silly -- I already did that one)

Onto the next piece of news, which originally prompted this post:

The trials of Ramadan fasting

Let me say, straight away, that I have no problem with Ramadan or Islam in particular. In fact, I'm not even commenting on either. I'm commenting on what the writer of the article revealed about their own preconceptions.

Imagine going without food or water for the entire working day, and several hours more. With Ramadan about to start, that's the challenge facing Britain's 1.6 million Muslims. How do they cope?

Oh, the horror, having to go without food for the entire working day! How do those poor Muslims survive such a thing?

Allow me to clarify: on the first Sunday of every months, year-in, year-out, a faithful Latter-day Saint will fast -- completely, no food or drink at all, just like the Muslims -- but not only from sunrise to sunset. No, we fast for twenty-four hours, straight through. Twenty-four hours. That's 'a full day' to the rest of you. Generally it starts at lunchtime on Saturday, and then finishes around the time we get back from Church on Sunday -- also lunchtime. And yet, unlike what the writer of this article seems to think, we don't spend all our time wishing we were allowed to eat. It's a fast for religious reasons -- to bring us closer to God -- and though we do, naturally, slip up occasionally, most of the time the lack of food doesn't really register. I would imagine many Muslims feel the same way.

Meh. Onto the last article.

Report on Hindu god Ram withdrawn

The Indian government has withdrawn a controversial report submitted in court earlier this week which questioned the existence of the Hindu god Ram.

I have to admit, I'm not really including this for any religious reasons. I just love the article.

In their report submitted to the court, the government and the Archaeological Survey of India questioned the belief, saying it was solely based on the Hindu mythological epic Ramayana.

They said there was no scientific evidence to prove that the events described in Ramayana ever took place or that the characters depicted in the epic were real.

Hindu activists say the bridge was built by Lord Ram's monkey army to travel to Sri Lanka and has religious significance.

I simply adore the fact that a religious belief concerning a piece of landscape is causing this much trouble. Further, there's this beautiful quote:

In the last two days, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has launched a scathing attack on the government for questioning the "faith of the million".

Do you suppose the mass of Hindus particularly care what a group of scientists think about their beliefs? Okay, so there's no archaeological evidence that Ram's monkeys had anything to do with it -- so what? They still believe it happened that way, and if their faith is going to be shaken by a group of scientists saying there's no evidence that it did, what sort of faith is that?

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

John 11:35...

... or, in other words:

"Jesus Wept"

Now, I have to say, this article was not inspired by the above verse, and isn't even going to refer to it. Instead, it's the result of a couple of lines from a song (His Love, Jake Rau, as found on the CD Stand in the Light):

Eyes that saw so far ahead
Never turned away from a crown of thorns before his head

This is a fact which we frequently forget. The Lord knew what was coming. Every moment he lived was conscious preparation for that one event, the infinite Atonement.

It's not something that has much attention drawn to it. It's not that Jesus doesn't mention it -- he makes reference to the fact that he's going to be betrayed in John 6 ('Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?'), and again in John 12 ('This he said, signifying what death he should die'), and it was even a prophecy of Isaiah ('when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin'), but it's not something that's ever emphasised. I'm surprised by this; doesn't it make the Saviour far more impressive if we think that he knew he would have to suffer, to be humiliated, to die... but still had the strength to say, after years of thinking this way, 'nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done' (Luke 22:42)?

That's what I wanted to say today. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go into an explanatory article about the Atonement itself.

Much of Christendom assumes that the Atonement is synonymous with the crucifixion -- that Christ suffered for the sins of the world while hanging on the cross. Some even go so far as to say that crucifixion in and of itself causes that pain -- a ridiculous idea; thousands of people were crucified, and we know that the Atonement was something special. But in truth the whole equation of the two moments is flawed: we see nothing in the accounts of the crucifixion to indicate that it included suffering for all of mankind's sins -- by the accounts, it's simply the way a crucifixion of a horribly abused man (and no, that abuse doesn't qualify as infinite suffering, either) should go. The events following it are different, true, but not during.

So where do we go to find a time when Jesus suffered in a visibly unique way? How about Luke 22?

And he was withdrawn from them about a stone's cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.

And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, stengthening him.

And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

In this short sequence (four verses) we see at least three indications that something special was happening:

1. The Savior actually asked his Father to allow him not to do something. As far as I'm aware, this is the only instance in which Christ demonstrated any reluctance to go through with the Plan. Even here, however, he immediately adds that he will go ahead -- it is his Father's will.

2. An angel appears to strengthen him. To my knowledge, there is only one other instance of angels ministering to the mortal Christ, and that comes after he has suffered temptation and starvation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:11 -- 'Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him'). If Heavenly Father thinks that this incident is one in which Christ needs help from an angel, something special must be up.

3. He sweats drops of blood. Completely out of nowhere, with no (physical) torture or anything, he sweats drops of blood. This is what he needed an angel to strengthen him through -- this is suffering, infinite suffering: the sins of all the world falling upon the shoulders of one mortal, perfect man. This is it, my friends -- the one moment that all the world before was leading up to, and which everything following has depended on. This is what the prophet Abinadi was talking about when he said, 'were it not for the atonement, which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people, that they must unavoidably perish'.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Is religion old-fashioned?

This is a question and/or implication that I've seen a lot: are religions prone to becoming out-of-date? Do they 'live in the past', with their rules and such serving no purpose in today's world?

Well... no. No to all three. The problem here is twofold. One problem is general, while the other allows me to bring an LDS perspective to things (as ever).

The first problem, then, is that the world keeps moving on. That's indisputable. The thing is, people think this means religious laws should move on, too, in accordance with the current fashions and ideas of morality. If people in general say that it's acceptible to wear skirts that only go down to mid-thigh, then it must be okay (so the thought process goes), the religions that forbid it are out of date, and they should change.

The flaw in this argument is that it assumes society's ideas of morality are the same as God's ideas. Okay, sometimes it assumes that there is no God, or that he doesn't care; those have the same practical outcome -- the assumption that no higher power will mind if people wear mid-thigh skirts. In short, it assumes that morality is subjective, and decided by consensus.

That's simply not true. God does care, and has given us scriptures and prophets in order to let us know that he cares. It's not a matter of religions becoming out of date, decrepit -- it's the world that is in decline, falling away from divinely decreed standards. The churches should stand firm against this, not accept and condone it.

Incidentally, this is why I've never been able to get worked up about the 'horror' that is the Islamic idea of female modesty. Sure, they may be wrong, but they think they're following rules given to them by the creator of all things. If they're not breaking any (just) laws thereby, can we really complain about it? (Matter of fact, the only problem I have with mainstream Muslims is their attitude towards those who convert away from their religion; but this is not a post about Islam).

The second problem with the idea that religious laws are out-of-date concerns the reasons the various laws were instituted. If -- to take a historical example -- the Lord commands his people to practice polygamy/plural marriage, then we don't necessarily know why he did so. It could have been to increase the population rapidly, to ensure that the women get taken care of, to bring the community closer together, to prevent immorality (a common reason for divine laws), or because it is a requirement to attain eternal life. We simply don't know. If we assume it's for the first reason -- to increase the population -- then it's a law that could be discarded after a generation or two. If it's to take care of the women, then it's irrelevant once they're out of danger. However, if it's essential to salvation, then discarding the practice would be disasterous. Mortal man simply cannot know the mind of God unless he chooses to make it known.

This particular story had a happy ending, though. The institution of plural marriage came about through direct revelation, and it was through direct revelation that the Lord later revoked it -- because its reasons for existence had been fulfilled, one assumes. If it were merely that it were too dangerous, he would either leave it in place, or ask that it continue in secret. No practice essential to salvation would be made an excommunicable offence.

To regeneralise: the problem is that we cannot know why certain laws were created, and therefore, we cannot know whether they can be discarded. The solution, assuming that a completely explanatory book of scripture cannot be located, is active, current leadership through revelation. A doctrine of 'sola scriptura' is insufficient (nor is the Catholic position of 'sola verbum Dei' appropriate), because without revelation from God in the ever-moving present, we cannot know which former laws can be ignored, or the appropriate response to new threats. The Bible comes down against fornication and adultery, but do those terms include cybersex? Phone sex? They didn't when they were written, because there was no concept of such things. No scripture (or tradition, to add the second thing accepted in the Catholic church) can make mention of such things; the only way to know the Lord's mind on such subjects is for him to tell us.

I am supremely grateful that God has seen fit to restore leadership through revelation to the Earth in these latter days, and here testify that the Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the First Presidency of the Church and the Quorum of the Twelve -- are that leadership. Trust in their words; they will not lead you astray, for the Lord is on their side. I promise you this is so in the holy name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, Redeemer of all the world. Amen.