In 1783, Benjamin Franklin wrote an essay called, “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North-America,” in which he chronicles an exchange of views about religion between a Swedish minister and the chiefs of the Susquehanna Indians. The man of the cloth began the conversation by reciting the biblical creation story and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. When he was done, a spokesman for the tribes stood and thanked him, and then proceeded to share his tribe’s origin story.
“In the Beginning our Fathers had only Flesh of Animals to subsist on,” he said, but relying on a single source for food was precarious for the tribe. One day, two young hunters, having slain a deer, were roasting the meat over an open fire in the woods. Just as they were about to begin their repast, a beautiful woman descended from the clouds and sat upon a nearby hill. This spirit, the warriors concluded, must have smelled the venison, so they offered her some.
In November 1972, I arrived in Chile to commence my two-year stint as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My first posting was to Linares, a small town of around 38,000 people about 200 miles south of Santiago.
To say that I was not in Kansas anymore would be an understatement. At least the Munchkins spoke English. I, on the other hand, struggled mightily with the local Spanish dialect, Castellano, notwithstanding the intensive language training I had received during the previous eight weeks. While my mouth was grappling with a foreign tongue, my stomach was trying to come to grips with an unfamiliar cuisine. And sometimes it lost its grip.
Around 1:00 am on Monday, June 20, 1987, I awoke with severe chest and abdominal pains. When they failed to subside, I asked Margaret to call an ambulance. By the time we arrived at the hospital in suburban Maryland, I was nauseous, running a high fever, and experiencing chills.
Later that morning my personal physician arrived. After reviewing the results of my blood work and other tests and conducting a physical examination, he ruled out a bleeding ulcer or any problem with my other body organs. But he still could not identify the source of the problem. All the while, the pain began to worsen, and I was given nothing to alleviate it for fear that the medication would mask my symptoms, thereby making it more difficult to diagnosis my condition.
Anyone who has been paying attention knows that organized religion has not been fairing well lately. According to a recent Gallup survey, church membership in the United States last year fell below 50% for the first time since the company began gathering data over 80 years ago. Religious affiliation held firm at 70-75 percent until 2000, at which time a steady decline began. Similar trends can be found in Europe and other western nations.
The LDS Church, while not experiencing a net loss in members, has witnessed a steady decrease in its growth rate over the past eight years, to the point that it is virtually flat. And there is no reason to believe this will change anytime soon.
Several years ago Martin Marty, a prominent scholar of American Religion, in response to a question posed by the church’s Public Affairs department, said “The most important issue facing Mormons in the next ten years is maintaining the posture that you are the only true church, to the exclusion of all others, and then trying to get along with those you exclude.” For those who believe he has a point—and I do—there is a solution to this problem, but it will require us to rethink two of our foundational truth claims:
What is Character? Is it something that can be identified, described or developed? Is character fixed or can it be changed? Does it determine our fate, as the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, declared? Are the events in our lives merely the manifestation of our individual and collective character, as postulated by Henry James? For centuries, philosophers, theologians, scientists and others have wrestled with the enigma of human character.
A person’s character traits include not only his virtues and flaws, but also morally neutral qualities, such as tendencies, preferences and quirks. And when we assess character, we do not limit ourselves to individuals. We also assign character traits to families, associations, religions, and nationalities.
The Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—are so called because they each relate many of the same stories when recounting the life and ministry of the Savior, and do so in a similar sequence. John’s gospel, by contrast, is different. Radically different.
The Gospel of John is a meticulously structured work that is more symbolic than historical in nature. His account of Christ’s ministry is highly schematic. It consists primarily of: (1) “seven signs,” the last of which—the raising of Lazarus—foreshadows his resurrection, and (2) seven “I am” discourses where Jesus forcefully lays claim to his role as the Messiah.
In March 2013, Margaret and I toured Israel with the assistance of our able guide, Daniel Rona. He is, among many other things, a Jew who lost several family members in the Holocaust and who converted to Mormonism when he was young.
Daniel is also knowledgeable, energetic, and entertaining. And quite opinionated (unlike moi). We often debated, history, religion and politics, and loved every minute of it. He said I would have made a good Jew because whenever two Jews argue, they always end up with three opinions (at least). That made my day.
The reality of the first vision occurring precisely as described in the Pearl of Great Price is deeply ingrained—some would say, inculcated—in Mormon culture. Instructions given to church leaders and educators by Ezra Taft Benson on this point were unambiguous:
“You should always bear testimony to the truth of the First Vision. Joseph Smith did see the Father and the Son. They conversed with him as he said they did. Any leader who, without reservation, cannot declare his testimony that God and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith can never be a true leader, a true shepherd.”
In 1858, a young woman named Louisa walked to the edge of the Mill Dam in Boston, Massachusetts and contemplated suicide. A self-described spinster, unemployed, and having recently lost a sister to rheumatic heart disease, she didn’t see a way forward. But, as she later told a friend, she stepped back from the abyss because she realized, “There is work for me, and I’ll have it.”
The work she desired was that of a writer, but little was to be found. Her family’s impoverished circumstances, her gender, and the inherent difficulty of penetrating the world of publishing were formidable obstacles. Nevertheless, she did have the good fortune of growing up in the heart of literary New England and, through friends, had access to a vast array of books. In addition, her father interacted socially with poets such as Longfellow and Lowell, and considered Emerson his best friend. Henry David Thoreau even took Louisa and her siblings on nature walks.