“Making obedience your quest” can sometimes be a faulty objective function

I served an LDS mission in Hamburg, and later Frankfurt, Germany. A mission is an absolute transformative experience. For many, it is the first “away of from” experience, and requires a bit of growing up. It is also for some the first time that faith gets real, and not just something you do because you grew up with it.


One quote that got me through my mission was a well-known one from President Ezra Taft Benson: “When obedience ceases to be an irritant and becomes our quest, in that moment God will endow us with power.” It captured what I considered retrospectively the hypocrisy of my youth– every time I said “do I have to?” to a youth activity, service project, or temple trip; every “this is boring” in Sunday School or sacrament meeting. Serving as a missionary made me appreciate my faith and the spiritual experiences I did have, but I was still ashamed that obedience was yet an irritant. I sought to make it a quest.

But a mission is hard. I was dead-set on being obedient, and I invented many ways of battling through the rejection on streets and at doors. I tried making my American accent super-obvious as a back-up conversation filler if talking about the gospel didn’t get a positive reaction. I tried making games, like getting off at random bus stops when inspired to do so and talk to everyone in sight. At one point, I even tried pretending failed conversations were orcs slain in an epic battle in Middle Earth. In short, in my quest to make obedience my quest, I sometimes lost sight of the true goal of representing Christ as a missionary: it wasn’t how many people I talked to, but whether I came to love the people I talked to and served.

In any case, I am getting better at doing so now. In that sense, my mission was perhaps similar to the way Paul described the law: “our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” It helped me get out of my shell– something I struggle with personally– and to wear the trappings of service, even if I was still training my heart to be in it. Fake it till you make it, right?

I’m going to be sharing some thoughts from the Russian Christian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev in an upcoming book review soon on this very topic, but here’s a sneak peek that inspired this post:

A false interpretation of “good works” leads to a complete perversion of Christianity. “Good works” are regarded not as an expression of love for God and man, not as a manifestation of the gracious force which gives life to others, but as a means of salvation and justification for oneself, as a way of realizing the abstract idea of the good and receiving a reward in the future life. This is a betrayal of the Gospel revelation of love. “Good works” done not for the love of others but for the salvation of one’s soul are not good at all. Where there is no love there is no goodness. Love does not require or expect any reward, it is a reward in itself, it is a ray of paradise illumining and transfiguring reality. “Good works” as works of the law have nothing to do with the Gospel and the Christian revelation; they belong to the pre-Christian world. One must help others and do good works not for saving one’s soul but for love, for the union of men, for bringing their souls together in the Kingdom of God. Love for man is a value in itself, the quality of goodness is immanent in it.

And for a beautiful, funny, and honest reflection on serving an LDS mission, I highly recommend Craig Harline’s memoir Way Below the Angels.


Book review: Godless Morality

Rating: 4/5

Godless Morality is, perhaps surprisingly given its title, written by Richard Halloway, Bishop of Edinburgh. The book was another well-calibrated recommendation from my Goodreads page. The title both intrigued me and perhaps disgusted or frightened me. A book written by a Bishop suggesting we take God out of ethics? It sounded like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a bishop who had lost his faith and yet retained his clerical position as a means of spreading his opinions and influencing people, an attempt to challenge a religious tradition from the inside, or to strip Christianity of what is deemed unessential leaving a weak-sauce humanism. A quick Wikipedia search on Halloway describes him as “having taken an agnostic worldview… has become increasingly radical and has described himself as “after-religionist.” I was reminded of the “Three Pale Men” from C. S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress, who offer John, the protagonist, some shelter:

Mr. Neo-Angular: “You will fare badly here. But I am a Steward, and it is my duty according to my office to share my supper with you. You may come it.”

Mr. Neo-Classical: “I am sorry that my convictions do not allow me to repeat my friend’s offer. But I have had to abandon my humanitarian and egalitarian fallacies.”

Mr. Humanist: “I hope that your wanderings in lonely places do not mean that you have any of the romantic virus still in your blood.”

They sit and till a patch of soil that is too thin and weak to grow anything but a few rotting potatoes, symbolizing the over-diluted nature of their modern philosophies.


And, I have to admit, that is in part what you will find here if you are a member of a rich religious tradition. The book, however, does have its merits. Halloway is attempting to create a space where we can engage in ethical discussions and all be on the same page in a pluralistic society. Too often if our political and ethical debates, we are talking over one another. We don’t have the same set of assumptions or values, and we de-humanize those with whom we are talking. Political discourse today is composed of a series of echo chambers, not really engaging with those from the other side in any meaningful way. I appreciate the attempt to revive true discussion, seeking to understand the values of those with whom you disagree.

But creating this space doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our own moral systems. Halloway admits this, but he speaks rather condescendingly to those who choose to remain in what he calls “intact moral communities”:

People have the right to opt for what is called an intact moral community, if they want to. An intact moral community is a body, such as a religious group, that chooses to maintain an existing tradition in its entirety, in spite of the critical erosions of time and change upon it. Choosing to submit to an intact moral system is one way of avoiding the pain and expenditure of time that moral dilemmas place us in. We rarely reach final, universally compelling conclusions in moral debate, but we do have to make decisions for our own lives and the lives of others. The root meaning of the word ‘decide’ suggests the activity of cutting through, rather than painstakingly unravelling, a tangled knot. One way of dealing with moral complexities is to opt into a system and let it decide for us. This does not deliver us completely from intellectual argument, however, because we will continue to live in a larger culture that embraces a number of other moral approaches, but our act of submission to a particular system removes moral uncertainty from our lives by transferring it to an external authority whose judgements we obey. In other words, opting into an intact moral community will not deliver us from the pains of disagreement with others, though it may, as a decision in intellectual economy, release us from personal doubt. There may be friction with other intact moral communities that operate from different premises, and there will be certainly conflict with groups that maintain an open approach to disputed questions.

That description perhaps fits Mormons to a T. He makes religious persons sound weak, because they have chosen to outsource their morality to authority figures. I admit that this is often done. To use some lingo from another book I just read, Halloway is describing a Stage 3 faith where religion is used as a source of identity and authority. Halloway himself speaks somewhere between a Stage 4 and Stage 5 faith that recognizes inconsistencies within belief systems and seeks to live in the reality of paradox.

I like that Halloway expects a lot of people. If we were to attempt to implement Halloway’s system, people would have to respect others’ differences of opinion, and they would have to give up easy solutions to moral dilemmas. Both of these are often not the case on both the right and the left.

Some may immediately accuse Halloway of moral relativism. I was concerned about that as well. One of his first chapters is called “Ethical Jazz.” You are meant to improvise in the realm of ethics. Ethics is more often than not a choose between good and evil, but a choice between competing goods, and there has to be room for sway in one direction or another. Halloway seeks to distinguish his approach from moral relativism:

The situation of moral pluralism is not at all the same thing as absolute moral relativism. We can acknowledge and even celebrate the fact of different moral systems, without falling into the trap of believing there are no moral principles that help us to define what it means to be human. The challenge that faces us is to separate the basic principles that might help to guide us through what has been called the moral laze from the kind of absolute systems that claim to know the right answer to every moral dilemma that faces us.

I appreciate this approach, and I think it challenges both religious and non-religious folks to take ethical dilemmas seriously. He challenges relgious folks to not be morally condescending to those who are not:

Religious moralists, in practice, flit between empirical and absolute justifications for their assertions, moving from the former to the latter when the argument is going against them…
That is why the use of God in moral debate is so problematic as to be almost worthless. We can debate with one another as to whether this or that alleged claim genuinely emanated from God, but who can honestly adjudicate in such an Olympian dispute?

Halloway proposes several solutions to ethical issues in the public square from sex education, gay marriage, abortion, and drug legalization. In all cases, he suggests leaving ethical choices to individuals within a few clearly defined boundaries. Traditionalists will probably gripe more than others at these solutions. But i he does try to examine the values at stake at all positions involved, and seeks to find a responsible compromise. He never simplifies matters, he is very compassionate, and seeks to engage in a wrestle rather than retreating into pre-packaged solutions.

Despite his attempt at playing fair, Halloway clearly has some beef with traditional religious groups, and describes them as essentially power structures. He gets many of his ideas from Nietzche that I wholeheartedly disagree with e.g.

From a psychological point of view ‘sins’ are indispensable in any society organized by priests: they are the actual levers of power, the priest lives on sins, he needs the commission of sins’… Supreme law: ‘God forgives him who repents’– in plan language: who subjects himself to the priest.

And it is from this strand that Halloway pulls most of his criticisms of traditional religion from. Chesterton has my favorite response to Nietzche:

If we said what we felt, we should say, “So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world: but what a small world it must be! What a little Heaven you must inhabit, with angels no bigger than butterflies! How sad it must be to be God; and an inadequate God! Is there really no life fuller and no love more marvelous than yours; and is it really in your small and painful pity that all flesh must put its faith? How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!”

But there are plenty of moments when I find Halloway to be profound. I like it when he acknowledges the need of authority to maintain moral systems and not devolve into moral relativity:

For moral systems to work, we have to accord them some kind of authority over us. The dilemma is that they then work too well, so that reforming them becomes difficult. But this, paradoxically, is a sign of their effectiveness. If they could be overturned without much of a struggle, they would lack the very authority they need if they are to condition us into some kind of conformity. Moral change is always bound to be contentious, though it seems to characterize human history. There are always those who defend the status quo, because it provides stability and continuity, and there are always those who push against it, because they experience it as morally stunting and imprisoning.

In this respect, I believe we shouldn’t try to undermine traditional sources of authority, but we should try to teach people to approach them in more nuanced ways.

I like his challenge to all to stop advocating for moral positions from dogma, whether it be political or religious, and engage in the reality of moral dilemmas:

“For a moral judgement to be respectable, it must have something to say about just why a supposed wrong action is wrongful. If it fails to meet this test it is a preference and not a moral judgment at all.”

I like his advocacy for a morality based on moderation as well as consent that works well for adding nuance to competing values:

In the sense defined by Aristotle, a virtue is a mean between two extremes of a good thing. There can be no virtue of an activity that is clearly wrong in itself, such as murder. Virtue applies to things that are good in themselves or morally neutral, but which we can easily abuse, if we are not careful. Virtue lies in finding the mean, the balance, between the two. The virtuous person lives a balanced life.

The book is well-written and gives a very ambitious vision of what ethical discourse could be. Despite disagreeing with him on religion and on some of his proposed solutions, but I find his approach to be refreshing. Which is exactly the point of the book.



Religious voices in the public square: Response to the Salt Lake Tribune opinion piece

The LDS church recently weighed in on the marijuana debate in Utah releasing a document raising a number of legal issues surrounding the legalization of medical marijuana. The action predictably drew calls for the Church’s tax exempt status to be removed for engaging in overtly political issues. An opinion piece in the Salt Lake Tribune stated:

The LDS Church has once again shown its inability to keep its hands out of the political process in Utah.

The LDS Church has a long history of this behavior, and in this case, it is telegraphing — if not explicitly instructing — its members how to vote on a potential ballot issue or to block the measure from reaching the ballot in the first place. This is not an indictment against Mormonism qua religion or any individual adherent of the faith, but rather against the institution itself, which must decide whether it wants to be a tax-exempt religious organization or a taxpaying advocacy group for the Utah Republican Party.

If a lawsuit is necessary to help the LDS Church make that decision, I would encourage an enterprising young lawyer to get to work.

I can understand that some disagree with the Church’s stance on marijuana. Heck, I often get frustrated at some of the positions that are officially or unofficially endorsed by members and leaders alike. But I don’t want to address the merits of marijuana legalization, gay marriage, or abortion. I would like to address whether the church’s weighing in on political matters is legal and whether it has a right to do so.

I thought I would check what the IRS’s policy actually is regarding churches and other tax-exempt organizations and political advocacy. You can check out their website here. The specific law regarding churches and political advocacy is outlined in the Johnson Amendment stating that 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations do not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statement(s), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

The IRS website also states that churches and other tax-exempt organization can engage in some forms of lobbying (including ballot measures), and advocate for or against issues that are in the political arena. It also specifically emphasizes a different between advocating for political candidates (which they cannot do) and advocating for legislation (which they can “to a limited extent”).

A little further digging gives a specific list of what they cannot do:

  • Contribute to campaign funds of political candidates
  • Public statements in support of or in opposition to specific political candidates
  • Engage in “excessive” amounts of lobbying.

The definition of “excessive” is hazy, and a rule called the Substantial Part test (which is determined on a case-by-case basis and looks at the timed devoted to political activities and the total expenditures) is implemented to decide infractions. The IRS also sends an annual reminder to churches and other tax-exempt organizations regarding these rules, which you can read here.

From my experience, the church adheres strongly to the restrictions regarding political candidates. Other than an exhortation to civic responsibility occasionally to get out and vote, you don’t hear much about elections. But the Church does have a few issues that it is committed to including gay marriage, drug legalization, abortion, and pornography. As there isn’t a clearly defined line in the law as to what is “too much” influencing legislation, I think that the Church has struck a good balance. In my experience, the LDS Church is relatively quiet in regards to political matters. At the local level, you rarely hear politics come from lay leaders. You do occasionally get a rant from a member in Sunday School, but these are usually recognized as straying from the purpose of the lesson. My wife has recently become involved in a pro-life organization, and she was surprised at the involvement of Protestant and Catholic church leaders. They are much more politically engaged than LDS church leaders, at least from our experiences in Utah and Washington.

Second, I wanted to address not only the legality but also the “rightness” of the Church’s chosen involvement in politics. Just because it is legal doesn’t make it right. Right? I can sympathize with non-religious folk who feel a sense of impropriety when religious folk try to impose their standards on other people. I recently began reading a book by an Anglican bishop called Godless Morality calling for an ethic completely separate from religion. He addresses this problem:

That is why debating with religious people about the morality or immorality of certain activities can be frustrating… Religious moralists, in practice, flit between empirical and absolute justifications for their assertions, moving from the former to the latter when the argument is going against them.

He further argues that moral judgments must be able to stand on their own; they be based solely on “because God said so.” Otherwise, how can they be applied in a religiously pluralistic society? He quotes John Harris: “For a moral judgement to be respectable, it must have something to say about just why a supposed wrong action is wrongful. If it fails to meet this test it is a preference and not a moral judgment at all.”

He does, however, suggest that believers shouldn’t be required to “leave their religion at the door” when entering the public square. It is in this light that I believe the Church had a right in submitting a legal opinion regarding medical marijuana. It is suggesting a moral argument, and it should be evaluated on its merits. It is OK to bring your sense of right and wrong, and not try to imagine what you would vote for if you didn’t believe in God. This sounds much like what Dallin H. Oaks suggested about the intersection of religion and politics:

No person with values based on religious beliefs should apologize for taking those values into the public square. Religious persons need to be skillful in how they do so, but they need not yield to an adversary’s assumption that the whole effort is illegitimate. We should remind others of the important instances in which the efforts of churches and clergy in the political arena have influenced American public policies in great historical controversies whose outcome is virtually unquestioned today. The slavery controversy was seen as a great moral issue and became the major political issue of the nineteenth century because of the preaching of clergy and the political action of churches. A century later, churches played an indispensable role in the civil rights movement, and, a decade later, clergymen and churches of various denominations were an influential part of the antiwar movement that contributed to the end of the war in Vietnam.

There is also a historical suspicion of the Church’s hold over its members. From the Church’s early days in Missouri, Mormon neighbors were concerned that they would dominate local politics by voting in bloc. Mormons would vote as their leaders dictated. This fear continued into the 20th century after Utah had received statehood. At one point, church president Joseph F. Smith was called before the Senate for questioning regarding the continued practice of polygamy despite it being outlawed. One contentious topic was whether the church president could direct church members to do illegal acts under the authority of divine revelation:

Senator Hoar: “I want to go a little farther. Suppose you should receive a divine revelation, communicated to and sustained by your church, commanding your people tomorrow to do something forbidden by the law of the land. Which would it be their duty to obey?”

Joseph F.: “They would be at liberty to obey just which they pleased.”

Mormons do have religious reasons for why they vote the way they do. But they are allowed their freedom of conscience, and are not institutionally coerced into voting a certain way. To quote a more recent source, D. Todd Christofferson remarked regarding gay marriage: “There hasn’t been any litmus test or standard imposed that you couldn’t support that if you want to support it, if that’s your belief and you think it’s right.

I think we should definitely keep the discussion going regarding the role of churches and other organizations in politics.  I believe it is important to have checks to power.  But I do believe that both institutional churches and religious believers have the right to voice their opinions in the public square.

That twice-blest gift: On giving and recieving mercy

I wish you all a beautiful Sabbath Day! I am sharing with you my remarks from sacrament meeting this morning on giving and recieving mercy in our lives.


Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they than mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

These are the beautiful opening verses of Christ’s Sermon in the Mount. What makes them feel so true, and bring us such a profound peace? I want to point out two reasons that I find them so awe-inspiring. First, they completely contradict the common wisdom of the world that we breath in every day. Have you ever seen meek as a character trait in any self-improvement regimen? And would any lawyers have jobs if we were all content being poor in spirit and merciful? Second, many of these traits are unexpected for a list of ones you think God would refer to as “blessed.” This is not “if you keep this commandment, you will receive this blessing”, and it doesn’t easily reduce itself to a checklist mentality. Being blessed, by Christ’s own word, isn’t a meritocracy.

Blessed are the poor in spirit recommends to us the self-effacing publican over the proud Pharisee and the humble widow tossing in her mite over the well-to-do churchgoers filling the coffers.
Blessed are they that mourn recommends to us to those who are most vulnerable over those who have become past feeling.
Blessed are the meek refers to those small and simple things by which great things come to pass.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness reminds us that our righteous desires– even when we are imperfect– bring us closer to God.
And blessed are the merciful reminds us that it is only by giving mercy that we can fully realize Christ’s Atonement in our lives.



It is this specific attribute– mercy– that I would speak to you today. And I would speak of both halves of the coin: both giving and receiving mercy.

Giving Mercy

Mercy is divine. But it is a divine attribute that can be attained. Many of you are familiar with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In this play, the protagonist Antonio bargains with a moneylender Shylock for a loan, but the contract has the unfortunate stipulation that should be not be able to pay by the appointed time, he must instead pay with a pound of his own flesh. When the loan comes due and he can’t pay it, Shylock insists on collecting his due. As tensions rise in the court, the judge describes the blessings of mercy:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

Why can it be so hard for us to give up what we see as our rightful dues? Perhaps we have never insisted on a pound of flesh, but we daily insist on maintaining an air of moral uprightness and superiority, or we have a very clear vision of what is fair that we hold sacrosanct. On my ride to the bus station every morning, I drive on a two-lane road. And every morning, there is a driver who just can’t take my relatively slow pace, moves into the lane of oncoming traffic, and speeds past me. I vent all sorts of angry thoughts out against this vile speed demon, who you would think had committed a sin next to murder by the feelings I harbor against him.

Another example: the other day, I was waiting at the bus stop. A man walks up, gives me a push and a rude “move!” as he tries to get the posted bus times. I was a little irritated, but I ignored him. Then, he turns and asks “Where does the 571 come?” I’m pretty sure it doesn’t come here, and I’m not familiar with that line so I answer that I don’t know, and that I don’t think it comes here judging by the posted routes. He snaps back: “Did I ask you what buses come here? No, I didn’t, so just shut your mouth!” As he left, another bus passenger sympathizing with me responded: “Some people!”

These are two small negative examples of where I have sought to be more merciful. Perhaps the man in the car would never know that I had let go of my angry feelings towards him. And perhaps the other man would have only yelled at me more if I tried to get a few more words out. But if we want to live in a world where we don’t take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we need to start in these small and simple things. One example Elder D. Todd Christofferson shared from the book Les Miserables is the kind of mercy I would like to reflect in my own life:

Near the beginning of the story, Bishop Bienvenu gives food and overnight shelter to the homeless Jean Valjean, who has just been released from 19 years in prison for having stolen a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. Hardened and embittered, Valjean rewards Bishop Bienvenu’s kindness by stealing his silver goods. Later detained by suspicious gendarmes, Valjean falsely claims the silver was a gift to him. When the gendarmes drag him back to the bishop’s house, to Valjean’s great surprise, Bishop Bienvenu confirms his story and for good effect says, “‘But! I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?’ …

“The bishop approached him, and said, in a low voice:

“‘Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.’

“Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of this promise, stood confounded. The bishop … continued, solemnly:
“‘Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!’”

Jean Valjean indeed became a new man, an honest man and a benefactor to many. Throughout his life he kept the two silver candlesticks to remind him that his life had been redeemed for God.

Receiving mercy

Our greatest example of mercy is Jesus Christ, from whose hands we all receive mercy. When visiting the Nephites, he said, “Behold, my bowels are filled with compassion towards you. Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy.

His hand is stretched out all the day long, and he never will turn us away.

In one parable, Christ taught just how much mercy he is willing to extend. I would like to quote Elder Holland’s account of the parable of the two debtors:

A servant was in debt to his king for the amount of 10,000 talents. Hearing the servant’s plea for patience and mercy, “the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and … forgave … the debt.” But then that same servant would not forgive a fellow servant who owed him 100 pence. On hearing this, the king lamented to the one he had forgiven, “Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?”

There is some difference of opinion among scholars regarding the monetary values mentioned here—and forgive the U.S. monetary reference—but to make the math easy, if the smaller, unforgiven 100-pence debt were, say, $100 in current times, then the 10,000-talent debt so freely forgiven would have approached $1 billion—or more!

Jesus uses an unfathomable measurement here because His Atonement is an unfathomable gift given at an incomprehensible cost. That, it seems to me, is at least part of the meaning behind Jesus’s charge to be perfect. We may not be able to demonstrate yet the 10,000-talent perfection the Father and the Son have achieved, but it is not too much for Them to ask us to be a little more godlike in little things, that we speak and act, love and forgive, repent and improve at least at the 100-pence level of perfection, which it is clearly within our ability to do.

We as Latter-Day Saints sometimes struggle though understanding the depth of that mercy and grace towards ourselves and towards others. We can be painfullly aware of our inadequacies and our guilt, and too often we get caught in the game of keeping up with the Jones’. We also take great pains of maintaining an identity that is separate from the world, and by so doing can unintentionally become condescending and unmerciful towards others who don’t believe according to our own will and pleasure. To give one example from my own mission, I was teaching a young student who was an enthusiastic member of a born-again Christian church. When discussing Christ’s redeeming power, the student gave us missionaries an example. He said that Christ grace was like a lifesaving tube tossed to us on a stormy sea saving us from drowning. Sensing what I felt to be an erring doctrine and feeling a rising sense of endearing condescension, I clarified: “Yes, but we can’t be saved unless we reach out and grab it. We still have to do something.”

We Mormons are careful to explain that there is no such thing as “cheap grace”, you can’t get something for nothing, and we almost have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that pegs grace above works in the scales of God.

As another example, I remember on seminary class where, the teacher playing devil’s advocate, asked us what percentage of our salvation was from us and what percentage was from Christ? We played the game for quite a while, trying to whittle it down to some fraction of a percent. If Christ took all 100%, what were commandments for?

I think we inherit some of this fear from a strong Protestant background in America, our own sort of “traditions of our fathers.” For example, when Brigham Young first read D&C 76 and heard that all would inherit a kingdom of glory, it did not go over well:

Some outside observers scoffed at the newly revealed doctrine. One Christian newspaper responded to “the Vision” by sarcastically claiming that Joseph Smith sought to “disgrace Universalism by professing . . . the salvation of all men.” But more disconcerting to the Prophet were the reactions of some Church members.

“It was a great trial to many,” Brigham Young remembered. “Some apostatized because God . . . had a place of salvation, in due time, for all.” Young himself had difficulty accepting the idea: “My traditions were such, that when the Vision came first to me, it was directly contrary and opposed to my former education. I said, Wait a little. I did not reject it; but I could not understand it.” His brother Joseph Young also confessed, “I could not believe it at first. Why the Lord was going to save every body.”

But perhaps it’s not all our Protestant forbears. Alma himself from the Book of Mormon seems to put limits on the work of mercy in the famous scripture:

What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God.

Taken out of context, that does sound like a clear win for works against grace. But you have to remember who Alma was. Alma has one of the most powerful conversion stories ever. Alma was the one going about seeking to destroy the Church of God. He later considered himself one of the “vilest of sinners.”  But in a supreme moment of grace, an angel appeared, chastising him and knocking him out for three days. During that time, he has a vision where he accepts Christ. He says:

And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.

Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.

And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.

And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!

Why don’t we all get an angel to set us straight?

Alma’s conversion story is one of the most powerful examples of Christ’s grace in the Book of Mormon. Alma knows personally how much he relies on Christ, that Christ preserves him day by day and lends him breath. It cuts away at the false dichotomy of grace and works. Christ ransomed us entirely– and in that sense, his mercy accounts for “100%” of our salvation. Our works are a sign, a token of the change within us.

God is merciful. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God. But neither is God a grandfatherly man with a beard handing out salvation like lollipops. In LDS scholar Fiona Givens’s The Christ Who Heals I have found my favorite example of explaining the disposition of God towards us:

God’s reputation has suffered wild pendulum swings throughout Christian history. As we have surveyed, we find the sovereign deity of vengeance and wrath, and we find at the other extreme an indifferent God who will “beat us with a few stripes” and then award us all heavenly bliss. To use another analogy, some have seen God as a stern schoolmaster. He sets the standards, we take the test, and few of us pass. Only occasional A’s are handed out, while for most of us, slack and mediocre as we are, a perpetual detention is our destiny.

At the other end of the spectrum, some protest that the only alternative is a saccharine-steeped schoolmarm of a God who indulges her students, pats them sweetly on the head, and gives everyone an A in the end. This is the God of cheap grace, who tells us to eat, drink, and be merry, and expect at most a light caning before we are automatically saved in the end. In fleeing the God of wrath, some have found refuge in this version of the ever-indulgent God.

These options constitute a false dichotomy. We should not think they are the only alternatives. In this book, we are arguing for a third way, because our scriptures and our prophets alike have suggested both views are wrong. We believe our Lord is, rather, the persistently patient master teacher; he is the loving tutor who, devoted to his students, remains with us, staying after class for extra lessons, giving us individualized attention, practicing sums again and again, late into the night, for as long as it takes—until we master the material. And we are transformed in the process by his “long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge.”

Worshiping such a loving God, can we try to not be so hard on ourselves or on others? To borrow a passage from another scripture, if we know we are living our lives with a sincere heart and real intent, and are anxiously engaged in a good cause, God will be there to tutor us, to show unto us our weakness, and to help make weak things strong unto us. We should be setting righteous goals, we should be accountable to ourselves and to God in daily prayer, and we should do everything we can to avoid the lethargy of routine worship and daily living.

Let us take time every Sabbath day to ponder the profound depths of Christ’s mercy, as expressed in the hymn:

I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me,
Confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me.
I tremble to know that for me he was crucified,
That for me, a sinner, he suffered, he bled and died.
Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me
Enough to die for me!
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!

Following your still small voice, being yourself, and finding your light: David Archuleta in concert

I got tickets to the David Archuleta concert last night at a cute small old movie theater in downtown Olympia. I got to know the two sitting next to us, striking up a conversation with “So which one of you is the David Archuleta fan?” When they posed the same question, I had to admit that between my wife and I, I am the David Archuleta fan! I know David Archuleta from my high school days at Murray High, where I got to know him briefly before his American Idol tryout jumpstarted a career into music. Since then, I have enjoyed listening to his music, but it was really his song from the movie Meet the Mormons “Glorious” and his newest album “Postcards in the Sky” that I have come to appreciate his music on a deeper level for its spiritual themes that ring true to me. When I first heard Postcards, I thought kind of approached it like JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings: it isn’t explicitly Christian and perhaps you shouldn’t read too deep into it, but it’s Christian origin gives it a new level of meaning.

But I was surprised at the concert by how much David was willing to share with the audience about the stories behind the songs, and the growth experiences behind each one. David, in his own quiet and humble way, took control of the stage and did it his way. You could tell that many in the audience wanted to fan-boy him– and he gave them a few moments– but that’s not what defines him. He talked the difficulty following your still small voice in the face of popularity, a fan base, and career planners all pushing you for something you aren’t sure that you want (“You have to do a love song, because that’s what sells the most”). He talked about the difficulty coming home from his mission and having to re-immerse yourself in a selfish career path: “I have to admit, this is a very selfish job description: I have to convince you all to buy things with my face on it, and post about me all the time, get as many likes as possible, because the job depends on it.” And he talked about the moment when he realized that he could put himself and what he valued into his music. When he came back from his mission, he was meeting with his manager, and expressed that he wasn’t really sure that he still wanted all this, and whether a music career was right for him. The manager responded that he should at least sit down for the writing session he had scheduled the next day. He went, and he was very blunt with the writers when they asked what was on his mind: “I just got back from my mission, I have a new set of priorities, and I’m not even sure I want to be here today.” The writers answered sympathetically, “Well, why don’t you write about that?” And that’s how “Postcards in the Sky” started.



David sang a few songs from other artists as well. My favorite was singing along to The Greatest Showman, which I also have listened to enough times to have memorized. When he asked the audience, “How many of you like Disney?” he pulled out a song from Lion King 2. The audience laughed a little disappointedly at first because no one probably knows the soundtrack to Lion King 2, but the song itself fit in with his overall theme and was very touching:

Hear these words and have faith,
have faith,

He lives in you
He lives in me
He watches over
Everything we see
Into the water
Into the truth
In your reflection
He lives in you

He also sang a song from a movie I was unfamiliar with (“Mercy Me”?) about a son who was abused by his father, but in the end was able to forgive him and witness as his father changed. David talked about the people in our lives that we see as monsters– and sometimes perhaps rightly so. And while we may need to distance ourselves from them, we should see them as fellow travellers with their own set of problems and challenges, and give them room to grow. I loved the lyrics:

I can only imagine what it will be like,
When I walk, by your side,
I can only imagine what my eyes will see
When your face is before me
I can only imagine.
I can only imagine.

I felt a measure of peace from David’s message, and a connection to my own life. It may not be as eye-catching as a career in music, but academia is just as competitive and can sometimes demand moral compromises, doing things just for the prestige, and re-aligning your priorities. I have felt a similar disharmony between my values and the supposed requirements of my career choice. In one seminar discussing preparation for a tenure track faculty position, I brought up a concern that teaching doesn’t seem to be as high a priority as I had anticipated. I had naively thought that going into education, teaching would be at the top of your list. I have had a range of responses from different mentors. Some said if I wanted teaching to be important to me, I would have to make it important to me. One cynic told me teaching was “like taking out the trash.” While a career in science seems rewarding for its apparent unbiased approach, its use of the scientific method, and its call for curiosity, it has a darker side that some never see: it is motivated by prestige, pursuing widely read journals and high impact factors, and background politics in funding and advancement. David’s stories were a reminder to me that I don’t need to make moral compromises, and that even if it takes a sacrifice in terms of worldly status, being at peace with yourself is of far greater value.

“Nothing will take them out of the circle of our family’s love”: Tom Christofferson’s book on being Mormon and gay

I have been waiting in anticipation to read Tom Christofferon’s book That We May Be One ever since it was announced. Tom Christofferson is the brother of the LDS apostle D. Todd Christofferson. He is gay, and spent 19 years married to a same-sex partner outside the Church. Now as a member in full fellowship, he has shared his story in a desire to help LGBT brothers and sisters and their families. I was able to meet Tom last year at the Northstar conference where he was a keynote speaker. To me, he had a quiet and humble faith about him that gave one a sense of his spiritual maturity. I feel that comes out very well in his book. He doesn’t try to draw attention to himself. He also is very charitable in his remarks about Church members and the institutional Church. He states at the end that “I am not a psychiatrist or a trained mental health professional. I am not a general authority. I do not hold myself out as a role model… I am simply one who aspires to become steady and trustworthy disciple of my Lord. I am a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend.



Tom’s sharing of his experiences to me is holy. It is in such moments of vulnerability that we can come to grow and embody Christ’s love. Tom’s story is ultimately a story of conversion, not just a story of being Mormon and gay. When I first put my own story to paper, I tried to express this concept myself, that my experience being gay is an integral part of the faith I have today.

The book begins in a poignant moment with Tom and his partner driving past a local LDS church building as they looked for a new home in New Canaan, Connecticut. Tom comes back to this moment multiple times in the book, and I think that moment reflects the draw that all LGBT members feel towards their membership in the Church. Even when we distance ourselves because we feel hurt or rejected or lost, we feel drawn to our spiritual roots and a place we called, call, or wish to call home.

The part I found the most moving in Tom’s story was the depth of his family’s love, and their willingness to express it. I was trying to calculate when these events were occurring– perhaps in the seventies or eighties. Even in a time when the topic of homosexuality was still anathema, his family in their own private circle were showing a mature and full level of Christlike love.

In their first family meeting after Tom came out, his mom expresses their family’s resolution to love and keep Tom and his boyfriend in the family circle: “I’m ashamed to say it, but there was a time when I thought we were the perfect Mormon family… I thought we really had it all figured out. But then life happens, and I realized that there is no perfect Mormon family. The only thing we can really be perfect at is loving each other. The most important thing your children will learn from how our family treats their Uncle Tom is that nothing they can ever do will take them outside the circle of our family’s love.” The family embraced them, not shying away or hiding it from the kids. This gave me a deep sense of awe.

The part I found most profound was Tom’s theme of living in paradox. This has been my own experience, and reminded me of similar discussions found on LDS Perspectives and Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Tom included a quote from Bob Rees that expresses that sentiment:

I distrust two kinds of Mormon: those who only think, and those who never think; I distrust two kinds of Mormon: those who only feel, and those who never feel; it is living the tension– any member of any religion will tell you if they are vitally engaged in that religion there is tension, and we can’t escape it and so therefore we should embrace it. Christ’s life is an embracing of tension, Christ’s life is an embracing of paradox and conundra and enigma, it’s trying to make things work that don’t seem to work.

On some days I have felt that being gay and Mormon doesn’t seem to work. But Christ’s incarnation, the ultimate paradox of being both god and man, shows that God is big enough to contain multitudes. We really do believe in an infinite Atonement, and it is in such experiences when I get vertigo from realizing what infinite really means.

I was also touched when Tom included a chapter entitled Daily Bread. I first came across this concept from Tom’s brother Elder Christofferson in a video of the same name. This principle has given me hope and sustained me in times of trouble. Elder Christofferson explains through his own personal experiences that we can only live one day at a time accepting the daily bread that the Lord provides, as the Israelites did with the manna from heaven. When I first saw this video, I felt a deep and abiding confirmation that I would be a faithful member and disciple of Christ if lived by daily bread. Daily bread reminds us that we can’t be perfect all in a day, neither will we ever have all the answers. The just live by faith.

The one aspect I wish Tom would have been able to express more is his experience during his 19 years outside the Church. He spends very little book time here, partly for understandable reasons of wanting to respect his partner’s privacy. In the end, choosing to exclude those chapters of his life perhaps make the book an easier read for members just barely beginning to wrestle with the complexities of the LGBT-Mormon interface. Tom’s book adds a lot to the discussion imbuing it with both honesty and charity without a need to speak with a “tell it how it is” tone.

“The fish will be the last to discover water”: Book review of Fowler’s Stages of Faith

Rating: 5/5 stars

I originally found Stages of Faith on a Tumblr post a few months ago, and the systematic approach to faith development immediately sparked my interest. When I additionally found that a speaker at the annual Northstar conference (a venue for Latter-Day Saint LGBT individuals to interact and reflect on the intersection of their faith and sexuality) would be presenting on Fowler’s faith stages, I knew that I wanted to look deeper into the topic.


How does one construct a model of faith development that isn’t limited to one faith tradition? Most faiths are unique enough that they have their own envisioned path (“strait is the gate and narrow is the path that leadeth to eternal life”). In the Latter-Day Saint tradition in particular, we are eager to emphasize the uniqueness of the Restored gospel as opposed to the many Christian sects we generalize as “having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.” From an early age, we are taught the basic principles of the gospel (faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end) that eventually blossoms into a covenantal pathway that peaks at eternal marriage. Perhaps the idea that some psychologist somewhere thinks he can put our faith in a box and compare it to other religions seems belittling.

For me, I found it absolutely empowering. I am normally very wary of systems and structures that try to divide up people into types or personalities. First, they seem overconfident in their ability to capture the complexity of the human experience (see this Adam Ruins Everything episode on the Kaplan-Meier personality test). Second, I feel that we see what we want to see when we use such systems, and they can ultimately become self-fulfilling prophecies (“My horoscope said I was going to have a bad day, so don’t try to make me feel better!”) And while it may be fun to find out if you’re a Slytherin or a Gryffindor, would it really be a good thing to split up a school like that? If I am skeptical of such systems, I take them with a grain of salt and try to find what explanatory power they can offer. One system of faith I have found very useful is the concept of centers offered by Stephen Covey, and the aspiration of attaining a divine center. In regards to faith, I found Fowler’s stages of faith also very powerful in explaining certain observations about my faith experience.

To explain how Fowler manages to attain a developmental theory of faith that generalizable, Fowler focuses on the structure of faith rather than its content. The content of faith, he explains, are the values, images of power, and master stories used in each faith tradition. In Mormon lingo, this would be doctrines and principles. Fowler proposes that the structure of faith is generalizable, and he demonstrates a 6-stage system of increasing complexity. They are, in brief:

1. Intuitive-projective faith: the child-like faith where reality and fantasy are mixed
2. Mythic-literal faith: the ability to construct narratives emerges
3. Synthetic-conventional faith: organized faith, used to maintain identity
4. Individuative-reflective faith: able to think outside the box and view faith externally
5. Conjunctive faith: return to symbols of earlier faith, comfortable with paradox

In a separate post, I have included Fowler’s in-depth descriptions of each faith stage if you are interested in learning about them in more detail.The idea of faith stages implies that there are others who are more developed in their faith. This might come off as condescending to some extent, and Fowler acknowledges this in his text:

…the implication that more developed structural stages of knowing are, in important ways, more comprehensive and adequate than the less developed ones; that the more developed stages make possible a knowing that in some sense is “more true” than that of less developed stages. Instinctively many of us reared in a pluralistic, democratic ethos and saturated with an implicit values relativism feel offended by claims like these…

I was also hesitant to try and place myself in any faith stage for that very reason. I mean, a self evaluation probably isn’t fair in and of itself. And I also was also tried to be conscious of such biases when drawing my own conclusions based on Fowler’s theory. I wanted to reflect on a few conclusions I arrived at while reflecting on these faith stages.

Most Mormons have a Stage 3 faith, synthetic conventional. Again, you can read the full description here. One of the primary roles of faith to Mormons is providing identity. To a larger extent than many other Christian denominations, Mormons create a distinct identity for themselves marked by the way they dress, act, and the standards they exhibit in public. We tend to be conformist in the same sense that Fowler outlines: there are expectations and judgments within our wards and stakes that are fairly influential in how we choose to live. We don’t keep the Word of Wisdom just because we feel it is morally wrong, but because we are concerned about how our family and ward members will react if we were to break it. We tend to have tacit beliefs; Mormons don’t often reflect on their beliefs from “outside the stream” meaning being able to look on our faith critically. If a critical evaluation of faith does come up in conversation, it is often looked on with suspicion as out of line, and possibly on the road to apostasy. And Mormons hold their church leaders as the ultimate authority in all things religious.

Being at Stage 3 isn’t “bad” either. Fowler remarks that the majority of adults, regardless of their faith, find an equilibrium in Stage 3. He also states that religious institutions “work best” if the majority are Stage 3 individuals. But he also acknowledges in later chapters that it can be limiting, and, when explaining his own ideas of the content of faith in Christianity, explains that Christ is calling all of us to a Stage 6 faith. Mormonism currently fits into this explanation of modal synthetic conventional faith:

The average expectable level of development for adults in a given community. In faith terms, it refers to the conscious or unconscious image of adult faith toward which the educational practices, religious celebrations and patterns of governance in a community all aim. The modal level operates as a kind of magnet in religious communities. Patterns of nurture prepare children and youth to grow up to the modal level– but not beyond it. Persons from outside the community are attracted to the community because of its modal developmental level. The operation of the modal level in a community sets an effective limit on the ongoing process of growth in faith. My observations lead me to judge that the modal developmental level in most middle-class American churches and synagogues is best described in terms of Synthetic-Conventional faith or perhaps just beyond it.

But we are much more anchored in our faith when we progress to further faith stages:

The further one moves from a Synthetic-Conventional structuring of faith, the more likely one is to exhibit increased commitment in faith. The incidence of extrinsic motivation (utilitarian commitments to religion which serves other interests one has) virtually disappears. Intrinsic motivation (loyalty and commitment to one’s world view as true, regardless of whether it brings benefits or blame) characterizes postconventional faith.

Coming out for LGBT Mormons can be a precursor to a faith stage transition to Stage 4 Individuative Reflective faith. Fowler explains that a transition to Stage 4 often begins with a “leaving home” experience, either physically or emotionally. When LGBT members first confront their sexuality, which seems so foreign to the Mormon narrative, they are almost forced to examine their faith from outside the normal perspective. This can perhaps lead to a change in the content of faith if they choose to leave the Church. But it can also cause them to become more reflective of their faith and confront paradoxes that could eventually lead to another transition to Stage 5 faith. I found this to be a particularly powerful explanation of the LGBT Mormon experience.

I would also like to make a note regarding relativity. Particularly for Mormon readers, the discussion might arise questions of moral relativity. I think Fowler does a beautiful job throughout the book addressing these concerns. For instance, in his discussion of Stage 5 faith, he states: “Stage 5 also sees however, that the relativity of religious traditions that matters is not their relativity to each other but their relativity– their relateivity– to the reality to which they mediate relation.” And in Stage 6: “Particularities are cherished because they are vessels of the universal, and thereby valuable apart from any utilitarian considerations.” Respecting other people’s faith, finding value and meaning in it doesn’t have to devalue your own or cause you to question your own values and principles. I love this, and I think we need more of it in the world.

I highly recommend this book, and I hope I can convince a few people to give it a look.

P.S. A few other excellent quotes:

Holding ourselves responsible for quality images:  Our research convinces me that education at this age– in home, in synagogues and churches, in nursery schools and kindergartens– has a tremendous responsibility for the quality of images and stories we provide as gifts and guides for our children’s fertile imaginations.  Because the child’s appropriations of and personal constructions of meaning with these symbolic elements is unpredictable and because insisting on conceptual orthodoxy at this age is both premature and dangerous, parents and teachers should create an atmosphere in which the child can freely express, verbally and nonverbally, the images she or he is forming.

Stage 3 faith:  With the emergence of mutual interpersonal perspective taking God undergoes a recomposition.  Both the self and the chum or young love come to be experienced as having a rich, mysterious and finally inaccessible depth of personality.  God– when God remains or becomes salient in a person’s faith at this stage– must also be re-imaged as having inexhaustible depths and being capable of knowing personally those mysterious depths of self and others we know that we ourselves will never know.  Much of the extensive literature about adolescent conversion can be illumined, I believe, by the recognition that the adolescent’s religious hunger is for a God who knows, accepts, and confirms the self deeply, and who serves as an infinite guarantor of the self with its forming myth and of personal identity and faith.

Defining tacit beliefs:  …. the system of informing images and values through which they are committed remains principally a tacit system.  Tacit means unexamined; my tacit knowing is that part of my knowing that plays a role in guiding and shaping my choices, but of which I can give no account.  I cannot tell you how I know with my tacit knowing.  To say that Stage 3’s system of images and values is tacitly held reminds me of a statement attributed to the philosopher George Santayana: “We cannot know who first discovered water.  But we can be sure that it was not the fish.”  To live with a tacit system of meaning and value is analgous to the situation of the fish.  Supported and sustained by water, it has no means of leaping out of the aquarium so as to reflect on the tank and its contents.  A person in Stage 3 is aware of having values and normative images.  He or she articulates them, defends them and feels deep emotional investments in them, but typically has not made the value system, as a system, the object of reflection.

Stage 3 faith isn’t introspective:  As his statement of a personal philosophy his view is not genuinely the result of an introspective process.  Rather, it makes him one with the community– or his perceived community of hard-working men.  This is the central meaning behind the term synthetic-conventional.  The Stage 3 individual’s faith system is conventional, in that it is seen as everybody’s faith system or the faith system of the entire community.  And it is synthetic in that it is nonanalytical; it comes as a sort of unified, global wholeness…. the discussion of values and convictions is a means of asserting his solidarity with the community he calls his own.  He does not discuss values to distinguish himself, or to examine the values, or to be sure that his views are correct.  Rather, in such discussion he seeks to establish a sense of commonality or relatedness with the other person present.

Stage 5 faith accepts paradox:  Stage 5 accepts as axiomatic that truth is more multidimensional and organically interdependent than most theories or accounts of truth can grasp.  Religiously, it knows that the symbols, stories, doctrines and liturgies offered by its own or other traditions are inevitably partial, limited to a particular people’s experience of God and incomplete.  Stage 5 also sees however, that the relativity of religious traditions that matters is not their relativity to each other but their relativity– their relateivity– to the reality to which they mediate relation.  Conjunctive faith, therefore, is ready for significant encoutners with other traditions than its own, expecting that truth has disclosed and will discplose itself in those traditions in ways that may complement or correct its own.  Krister Stendahl is fond of saying that no interfaith conversation is genuinely ecumenical unless the quality of mutual sharing and receptivity is such that each party makes him- or herself vulnerable to conversion to the other’s truth…

The scandal of the particular:  The particular is time-bound, the concrete, the local.  The particular means this relatively undistinguished group, and not another.  The particular has warts, and dust from the road; it has body odors and holes in its sandals.  The scandal of particularity arises from the fact that over and over again disclosures of ultimate moment find expression to and among very finite, undistinguished, local and particular peoples.  Cryptic phrases and questions express our sense of the scandal of the particular: “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”… These particulars are scandalous precisely because something of transcendent and universal moment comes to expression in them or through them.

James Fowler’s Stages of Faith

In connection with my book review of James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, I have included his summaries of each faith stage here. You will find that they are organized into a brief description, an emerging strength, a limitation or danger, and a sign of transition to the next faith stage.

Stage 0: Undifferentiated faith. The seeds of trust, courage, hope, and love are fused in an undifferentiated way and contend with sensed threats of abandonment, inconsistencies and deprivations in an infant’s environment. Though really a pre-stage and largely inaccessible in empirical research of the kind we pursue, the quality of mutuality and the strength of trust, autonomy, hope, and courage (or their opposites) developed in this phase underlie (or threaten to undermine) all that comes later in faith development.
The emergent strength of faith in this stage is the fund of basic trust and the relational experience of mutuality with the one(s) providing primary love and care.
The danger of deficiency in this stage is a failure of mutuality in either of two directions. Either there may emerge an excessive narcissism in which the experience of being “central” continues to dominate and distort mutuality or experiences of neglect and inconsistencies may lock the infant in patterns of isolation and failed mutuality.
Transition to Stage 1 begins with the convergence of thought and language, opening up the use of symbols in speech and ritual play.

Stage 1: Intuitive-Projective faith. The faith-filled, imitative phase in which the child can be powerfully and permanently influenced by examples, moods, actions and stories of the visible faith of primally related adults.
The stage most typical of the child of three to seven, it is marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns. The child is continually encountering novelties for which no stable operations of knowing have been formed. The imaginative processes underlying fantasy are unrestrained and uninhibited by logical thought. In league with forms of knowing dominated by perception, imagination in this stage is extremely productive of longlasting images and feelings (positive and negative) that later, more stable and self-reflective valuing and thinking will have to order and sort out. This is the stage for first self-awareness. The “self-aware” child is egocentric as regards the perspectives of others. Here we find first awareness of death and sex and of the strong taboos by which cultures and families insulate those powerful areas.
The gift or emergent strength of this stage is the birth of imagination, the ability to unify and grasp the experience-world in powerful images and as presented in stories that register the child’s intuitive understandings and feelings toward the ultimate conditions of existence.
The dangers in this stage arise from the possible “possession” of the child’s imagination by unrestrained images of terror and destructiveness or from the witting or unwitting exploitation of her or his imagination in the reinforcement of taboos and moral or doctrinal expectations.
The main factor precipitating transition to the next stage is the emergence of concrete operational thinking. Affectively, the resolution of Oedipal issues or their submersion in latency are important accompanying factors. At the heart of the transition is the child’s growing concern to know how things are and to clarify for him- or herself the bases of distinction is between what is real and what only seems to be.

Stage 2: Mythic-Literal faith. The stage in which the person beings to take on for him- or herself the stories, beliefs and observances that symbolize belonging to his or her community. Beliefs are appropriated with literal interpretations, as are moral rules and attitudes. Symbols are taken as one-dimensional and literal in meaning. In this stage the rise of concrete operations leads to the curbing and ordering of the previous stage’s imaginative composing of the world. The episodic quality of Intuitive-Projective faith gives way to a more linear, narrative construction of coherence and meaning. Story becomes the major way of giving unity and value to experience. This is the faith stage of the school child (though we sometimes find the structures dominant in adolescent and in adults). Marked by increased accuracy in taking the perspective of other persons, those in Stage 2 compose a world based on reciprocal fairness and an immanent justice based on reciprocity. The actors in their cosmic stories are anthropomorphic. They can be affected deeply and powerfully by symbolic and dramatic materials and can describe in endlessly detailed narrative what has occurred. They do not, however, step back from the flow of stories to formulate reflective, conceptual meanings. For this stage the meaning is both carried and “trapped” in the narrative.
The new capacity or strength in this stage is the rise of narrative and the emergence of story, drama and myth as ways of finding and giving coherence to experience.
The limitations of literalness and an excessive reliance upon reciprocity as a principle for constructing an ultimate environment can result in an either overcontrolling, stilted perfectionism or “works righteousness” or in their opposite, an abasing sense of badness embraced because of mistreatment, neglect or apparent disfavor of significant others.
A factor initiating a transition to Stage 3 is the implicit clash or contradictions in stories that leads to reflection on meanings. The transition to formal operational thought makes such reflection possible and necessary. Previous literalism breaks down; new “cognitive conceit” leads to disillusionment with previous teachers and teachings. Conflicts between authoritative stories (Genesis on creation versus evolutionary theory) must be faced. The emergence of mutual interpersonal perspective taking (“I see you seeing me; I see me as you see me; I see you seeing me seeing you.”) creates the need for a more personal relationship with the unifying power of the ultimate environment.

Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional faith. In Stage 3, a person’s experience of the world now extends beyond the family. A number of spheres demands attention: family, school or work, peers, street society and media, and perhaps religion. Faith must provide a coherent orientation in the midst of that more complex and diverse range of involvements. Faith must synthesize values and information; it must provide a basis for identity and outlook.
Stage 3 typically has its rise and ascendancy in adolescence, but for most adults it becomes a permanent place of equilibrium. It structures the ultimate environment in interpersonal terms. Its images of unifying value and power derive from the extension of qualities experienced in personal relationships. It is a “conformist” stage in the sense that it is acutely tuned to the expectations and judgments of significant others and as yet does not have a sure enough grasp on its own identity and autonomous judgment to construct and maintain an independent perspective. While beliefs and values are deeply felt, they typically are tacitly held– the person “dwells” in them and in the meaning world they mediate. But there has not been occasion to step outside them to reflect on them or examine them explicitly or systematically. At Stage 3 a person has an “ideology”, a more or less consistent clustering of values and beliefs, but he or she has not objectified it for examination and in a sense is unaware of having it. Differences of outlook with others are experienced as differences in “kind” of person. Authority is located in the incumbents of traditional authority roles (if perceived as personally worthy) or in the consensus of a valued, face-to-face group.
The emergent capacity of this stage is the forming of a personal myth– the myth of one’s own becoming in identity and faith, incorporating one’s past and anticipated future in an image of the ultimate environment unified by characteristics of personality.
The dangers or deficiencies of this stage are twofold. The expectations and evaluations of others can be so compellingly internalized (and sacralized) that later autonomy of judgment and action can be jeopardized; or interpersonal betrayals can give rise either to nihilistic despair about a personal principle of ultimate being or to a compensatory intimacy with God unrelated to mundane relations.
Factors contributing to the breakdown of Stage 3 and to readienss for transition may include: serious clashes or contradictions between valued authority sources; marked changes, by officially sanctioned leaders, or policies or practices previously deemed sacred and unbreachable (for example, tn the Catholic church changing the mass from Latin to the vernacular, or no longer requiring abstinence from meat on Friday); the encounter with experiences or perspective that lead to critical reflection on how one’s beliefs and values have formed and changed, and on how “relative” they are to one’s particular group or background. Frequently the experience of “leaving home”– emotionally or physically, or both– precipitates the kind of examination of self, background, and life-guiding values that gives rise to the stage transition at this point.

Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective faith. The movement from Stage 3 to Stage 4 faith is particularly critical for it is in this transition that the late adolescent or adult must begin to take seriously the burden of responsibility for his or her own commitments, lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes. Where genuine movement toward Stage 4 is underway the person must face certain unavoidable tensions: individuality versus being defined by a group or group membership; subjectivity and the power of one’s strongly felt but unexamined feelings versus objectivity and the requirement of critical self-reflection; self-fulfillment or self-actualization as a primary concern versus service to and being for others; the question of being committed to the relative versus struggle with the possibility of an absolute.
Stage 4 most appropriately takes form in young adulthood (but let us remember than many adults do not construct it and that for a significant group it emerges only in the mid-thirties or forties). This stage is marked by a double development. The self, previously sustained in its identity and faith compositions by an interpersonal circle of significant others, now claims an identity no longer defined by the composite of one’s roles or meanings to others. To sustain that new identity it composes a meaning frame conscious of its own boundaries and inner connections and aware of itself as a “world view.” Self (identity) and outlook (world view) are differentiated from those of others and become acknowledged factors in the reactions, interpretations and judgments one makes on the actions of the self and others. It expresses its intuitions of coherence in an ultimate environment in terms of an explicit system of meanings. This is a “demythologizing” stage. It is likely to attend minimally to unconscious factors influencing its judgment and behavior.
Stage 4’s ascendant strength has to do with its capacity for critical reflection on identity (self) and outlook (ideology). Its dangers inhere in its strengths; an excessive confidence in the conscious mind and in critical thought and a kind of second narcissism in which the now clearly bounded, reflective self overassimilates “reality’ and the perspectives of others with its own world view.
Restless with the self-images and outlook maintained by Stage 4, the person ready for transition finds him or herself attending to what may feel like anarchic and disturbing inner voices. Elements from a childish past, images and energies from a deeper self, a gnawing sense of the sterility and flatness of the meanings on serves– any or all of these may signal readiness for something new. Stories, symbols, myths and paradoxes from one’s own or other traditions may insist on breaking in upon the neatness of the previous faith. Disillusionment with one’s compromises and recognition that life is more complex than Stage 4’s logic of clear distinctions and abstract concepts can comprehend, press one toward a more dialectical and multileveled approach to the truth.

Stage 5: Conjunctive faith. Involves the integration into self and outlook of much that was suppressed or unrecognized in the interest of Stage 4’s self-certainty conscious cognitive and affective adaptation to reality. This stage develops a “second naivete” in which symbolic power is reunited with conceptual meanings. Here there must also be a new reworking and reclaiming of one’s past. There must be an opening to the voices of one’s “deeper self.” Importantly, this involves a critical recognition of one’s social unconscious– the myths, ideal images and prejudices built deeply into the self-system by virtue of one’s nurture within a particular social class, religious tradition, ethnic group or the like.
Unusual before mid-life, Stage 5 knows the sacrament of defeat and the reality of irrevocable commitments and acts. What the previous stage struggled to clarify, in terms of the boundaries of self and outlook, this stage now makes porous and permeable. Alive to paradox and the truth in apparent contradictions, this stage strives to unify opposites in mind and experience. It generates and maintains vulnerability to the strange truths of those who are “other.” Ready for closeness to that which is different and threatening to self and outlook (including new depths of experience in spirituality and religious revelation), this stage’s commitment to justice is freed from the confines of the tribe, class, religious community or nation. And with the seriousness that can arise when life is more than half over, this stage is ready to spend and be spent for the cause of conserving and cultivating the possibility of others’ generating identity and meaning.
The new strength of this stage comes in the rise of the ironic imagination– a capacity to see and be in one’s or one’s group’s most powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial, and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality. Its danger lies in the direction of a paralyzing passivity or inaction, giving rise to complacency or cynical withdrawal due to its paradoxical understanding of truth.
Stage 5 can appreciate symbols, myths and rituals (its own and others’) because it has been grasped, in some measure, by the depth of reality to which they refer. IT also sees the divisions of the human family vividly because it has been apprehended by the possibility (and imperative) of an inclusive community of being. But this stage remains divided. It lives and acts between an untransformed world and a transforming vision and loyalties. In some few cases this division yields to the call of the radical actualization that we call Stage 6.

Stage 6: Universalizing faith. Stage 6 is exceedingly rare. The persons best described by it have generated faith compositions in which their felt sense of an ultimate environment is inclusive of all being. They have become incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community.
They are “contagious” in the sense that they create zones of liberation from the social, political, economic and ideolgoical shackles we place and endure on human futurity. Living with felt participation in a power that unifies and transforms the world, Universalizers are often experienced as subversive of the structures (including religious structures) bu which we sustain our individual and corporate survival, security and significance. Many persons in this stage die at the hands of those whom they hope to change. Universalizers are often more honored and refered after their death than during their lives. The rare persons who may be described by this stage have a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us. Their community is universal in extent. Particularities are cherished because they are vessels of the universal, and thereby valuable apart from any utilitarian considerations. Life is both loved and held to loosely. Such persons are ready for fellowship with persons at any of the other stages and from any other faith tradition.

Book review: The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard

I found The Invention of Love in Spiritual Friendship by the gay Christian author Wesley Hill. Hill refers to it several times throughout, with two particular quotes I found very poignant and meaningful. The first is a description of A. E. Housman’s feelings for his friend Moses Jackson that Hill uses as a model:

Nothing which you’d call indecent, though I don’t see what’s wrong with it myself. You want to be brothers-in-arms, to have him to yourself… to be ship-wrecked together, to perform valiant deeds to earn his admiration, to save him from certain death, to die for him– to die in his arms, like a Spartan, kissed once on the lips… or just run his errands in the meanwhile. You want him to know what cannot be spoken, and to make the perfect reply in the same language.



It evokes a depth of relationship that I have similarly yearned for, and I think others do as well. The second quote is a re-quoting of Sophocles: “Love is like the ice held in the hand by children. A piece of ice held fast in the fist.” The quote is hard to understand, but I loved Hill’s elaboration:

Like a wedge of cold, brilliant crystal, the love you grasp will sear your skin. You’ll want to escape the pain. And before you know it, you’ll be staring at a hand shiny with moistness, but the ice will be nowhere in sight. First pain, then futility. The disappearance of friendship. You’ll read that line from Sophocles and think, That’s the perfect description of trying to love your best friend when he doesn’t love you back, or at least not in the way you wish he would.

The story of The Invention of Love centers on the love of literary critic A. E. Housman for his friend Jackson. Jackson himself doesn’t return the feelings, and eventually gets married leaving Housman feeling bereft for the rest of his life. The book takes place at the turn of the 20th century during the famed trial of Oscar Wilde for sodomy, and thus Housman took his secret to his death. Housman did, however, leave many of his feelings in the form of poems. One such poem captures his inner turmoil:

He would not stay for me; and who can wonder?
He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand and tore my heart in sunder.
And went with half my life about my ways.

The book is a fairly difficult read, and for several reasons. First, the setting. The book takes place in 20th century Britain, and much of the historical context and language can go over one’s head if one isn’t familiar with it. Second, the medium. As a work of drama, one has to piece together the scenes in one’s head. The absence of intonation can make it difficult to interpret. For example, does that “Oh” indicate a sudden burst of realization, or a quaint acknowledgment? A third difficulty arises from Stoppard’s complex narrative. It is anything but linear jumping from young 20-year-old Housman to 70-year-old Housman to dead Housman to young and old Housman talking together in Hades. Fourth, much of the meat of the play is in the language of literary criticism. As one of the foremost critics in 20th century Britain, Housman was very familiar with Greek and Latin authors, and the text uses his work as means of exploring deeper themes.

Despite its difficulty, the book is absolutely beautiful in portraying the human conditions. Life is messy. The difficulty of being gay in a world that rejects your identity is a microcosm in which we can explore the pain inevitable in mortality.

The views of Oscar Wilde and A. E. Housman on homosexuality are interesting to contrast as well. Wilde was the poster boy of the aesthetes: art for art’s sake. One telling quote near the end summarizes his approach to life:

Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.
One should always be a little improbable.
Nothing that actually occurs is of the smallest importance.

I have read several of Wilde’s works, and this attitude is prevalent throughout. The Picture of Dorian Gray for example. Housman, on the other hand, is respectful towards the society he is in. In one conversation, he remarks, “I was a Victorian poet, don’t forget.” I feel like this statement of Housman about his scholarship equally could be used to describe his deep feelings of love:

Scholarship doesn’t need to wriggle out of it with a joke. It’s where we’re nearest to our humanness. Useless knowledge for it’s own sake. Useful knowledge is good, too, but it’s for the faint-hearted, an elaboration of the real thing, which is only to shine some light, it doesn’t matter on what, it’s the light itself, against the darkness, it’s what’s left of God’s purpose when you take away God.

They are something beautiful, even if in the end they don’t lead anywhere.

A great read to get you thinking.

Image credit: The Long Center

Husky pride: Book review of “Boys in the Boat”

We got our Husky pride on this month for our lab book club and tackled the inspiring story of the 1936 University of Washington Olympic rowing team in Berlin. I had heard of   previously– I doubt you can attend UW and not hear about it (the UW library alone has 6 copies of it. Pierce County Library has 11). A fellow graduate student from a neighboring lab recommended we try it for the book club, and we all agreed to give it a shot.



I will admit up-front that the book is a little hard to get into at first, but I quickly fell in love with the setting, the story, and the characters. The author assembled the story from the diaries of the rowers and a personal interview with one of the last survivors of the crew, Joe Rantz. Of all the crew members, you get to know Joe the best. The majority of the book (~75%) takes place in 1930s Seattle (and surrounding area). And it was a very different world. I am used to the crowded streets, the ridiculous housing prices, and the general idea that Seattle is a place on the map. It wasn’t so back then. Seattle was a backwater town with not a lot to its name. A central theme throughout the book is the juxtaposition of the rough-around-the-edges sons of loggers UW rowing team and the rich preppy kids from the East. I found the setting utterly idyllic. Back in the day, people would just buy a plot of land and build themselves a house– probably move in to the first floor when that was done and keep on building. You could start a garden on the banks of Lake Washington, harvest leftovers from logging companies, or fish in the stream without licenses or government interference (well technically not. Each of these happen in the book, and a few end up getting caught haha). It was utterly refreshing from the busy and sprawling city that is here now.

The three characters you get to know best are Joe Rantz, one of the crewmates that struggled at first and had a difficult upbringing (a step-mother who kicked him out of the house and a dad who didn’t do anything to stop her); Al Ulbrickson, the quiet and brooding UW rowing coach insistent on going for the gold in the Olympics; and George Yeoman Pocock, the talented Brit in charge of making the shells (boats) for the rowing team, and a generally inspiring character. I liked the microcosm that the author explores. These are names you aren’t likely to hear in any history textbook. But it makes their story absolutely fascinating. How they grew up, how they worked and scraped together a living even in difficult times, and how they came to be a team.

The book has a parallel story throughout following the Nazi preparations for the Olympics. You learn how the Nazis were intent on using the Olympics as a facade to hide their ulterior motives, and convince their neighbors in the West that they were an upright and civilized people. The level of deception is amazing. One not-so-well-known character from history you meet is Leni Liefenstahl, the ambitious German filmmaker charged by Hitler to film the Olympics and make it the best in propaganda that there has ever been. You can find the video of the Olympics HERE on Youtube.  Fascinating story, and a good accompaniment to the other book I read about pre-WWII Germany Before the Deluge.

The most important theme in the book is the level of unity that was required for the team to be successful. These aren’t just inspirational poster material; it made all the difference whether they got the gold or not. I have a hard time fathoming the level of trust and discipline needed to be on a rowing team of that caliber. Some descriptions begin to sound transcendent:

Don Hume on the port side and Joe Rantz on the starboard were setting the pace with long, slow, sweet, fluid strokes, and the boys on each side were falling in behind them flawlessly. From the banks of Lake Carnegie, the boys, their oars, and the Husky Clipper looked like a single thing, gracefully and powerfully coiling and uncoiling itself, propelling itself forward over the surface of the water. Eight bare backs swung forward and backward in perfect unison. Eight white blades dipped in and out of the mirrorlike water at precisely the same instant. Each time the blades entered the lake, they disappeared almost without a splash or ripple. Each time the blades rose from it, the boat ghosted forward without check or hesitation.

It makes you feel that you are missing out on something essential if you have never experienced the absolute unity and grace of a rowing team.

Each competition, each race, keeps you on the edge of your seat. First, you read about the battle between California and Washington as they compete for the national race back east in Poughkeepsie. Then you read the disappointments and successes there as they fight for dominance. And the final race between the best in the world– Germans, Italians, and Brits. I’m not much of a sports enthusiast, but when you have a narrator like this, it is hard not to be fascinated.

A stunning read. Proud to be a Husky!