August 29, 2009

Choosing Our Truths

Many years ago, my church was involved in a pissing match with its own academics who were examining church history from a dispassionate scholarly perspective. Before taking drastic action (eventually several professors were excommunicated) one of the church's Apostles, Boyd K. Packer, gave an address that was meant to rein in activities that had been deemed overly critical. His remarks have haunted me ever since. Among them Packer made several statements that have since been repeated at various times when the church experienced one embarrassing episode or another. The central theme of his address can be summarized by the following excerpt.

There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.
This begs a question: Useful for what purpose? Packard goes on to describe the effort to explain church history as a kind of war--a war in which members should take strong positions.
In the Church we are not neutral. We are one-sided. There is a war going on, and we are engaged in it. It is the war between good and evil, and we are belligerents defending the good. We are therefore obliged to give preference to and protect all that is represented in the gospel...In an effort to be objective, impartial, and scholarly, a writer or a teacher may unwittingly be given equal time to the adversary.
(The entire discourse can be found at:

There is so much in his comments that sadden me, as it's a perfect example of the problem of apologetic thinking. Packer profers the Mormon view that the church is "true" (i.e. perfect and correct in all its particulars) as an undisputed fact and condemns any action that would question it. By getting members to agree to this thinking, the only option they have is to build upon the premise without ever considering its value. He essentially says, "Don't worry about the truthfulness of the church. That has been established. Your duty is to do everything in your power to depict the church as true--even by ignoring evidence that contradicts the premise."

This idea reminds me of what happened during China's cultural revolution (not to mention other horrific episodes in our earth's history). Ying Chang Compestine, who was a child living in China during the 60s, summarizes the advent of the cultural revolution by saying: One day children were encouraged to ask questions--the next day, they were told they didn't need to know. In this way, to tell members that there are things they don't need to know about their church--things that are perhaps true, but not useful--is little more than an attempt at mind control.

There are all kinds of ways to effect mind control. All it takes is to prevent otherwise curious people from asking questions. Today's debate on healthcare, which appears more focused on ideology than fact, is a case in point. Recent coverage of town hall meetings record a public discourse that has become a shouting match full of unproven and hollow assertions, where people seem more concerned with scoring points--even to the extent of distorting the truth--than in ascertaining what is best for the public good. Arguments are couched in terms of their consistency with the ideals of our nation's founders, when those who make such claims are clearly no more familiar with the Constitution as they are with Shinto scripture. Shouting down people's questions and misquoting Jefferson are two ways to prevent an "un-useful" truth from getting heard.

August 28, 2009

The Only Excuse

I used to think there was only one excuse in life and it was this:

I didn’t want it badly enough.

I honestly believed that the only thing keeping people from achieving their greatest aspirations was the kind of desire that led to perseverance and hard work. For myself, I literally thought no accomplishment was beyond my grasp. If I so desired, I could be a billionaire or president of the United States (not that either was ever my goal). All it would take is uncompromising single-mindedness and hard work.

That personal philosophy made me incredibly intolerant. (Actually, my wife had a better word for what it made me: an asshole). I had no patience for the castoffs of the world. I reckoned they had nothing to complain about, since they simply hadn’t wanted the alternative—a productive and fulfilled life—badly enough. And now that I think about it, that viewpoint led me to believe all people got what they’d wanted most. So what if after a few life lessons and their attendant consequences, the castoffs would now opt for a different set of circumstances. That, too, was obtainable. All they had to do is want it.

Then something happened. First, one of my sons got sick. That was certainly something I couldn’t will away. Though he has since recovered and is fine today, dealing with the illness and its aftermath stole much of my former optimism and replaced it with a recognition that there’s something deceitful and mean in my old worldview. Other disappointments followed, leading me to understand that humans are incredibly fragile creatures, despite their chest-pounding demonstrations of toughness. The truth is, for all of us the difference between a good life and a miserable existence will occasionally be measured in a second’s hesitation, or an inch in the wrong direction.

Many accomplished people believe their successes are the rewards of great desire and stick-to-itiveness. Since that’s partly right they’re welcome to their belief, but they should also know that many others are just as deserving, but didn’t get the luck of the draw. This idea is central to Robert Frost’s wonderful poem, The Road Not Taken. It's not so much about the value of choosing the less-traveled path, as how much of life is left open to chance. Seemingly innocuous decisions (should I go right or left?) can “make all the difference.”

That’s why we must do everything in our power to make sure all people have access to medical care. Perhaps you won’t need the guaranteed coverage, but you can never tell about the luck of the draw. Besides, someone you love might need it and all you'll be able to do is watch and wonder why there isn't help available.

August 12, 2009

Heal the Sick

I've been on vacation the last week, which partially explains why I haven't written here lately. I was in the American heartland, in an area where the majority of people seem to think our president is a Muslim terrorist. Despite that prevailing worldview, I enjoyed my vacation, but there was an unspoken agreement between me and those I'd gone to visit: We would not broach the subject of politics. In the past, doing so had only lead to rancour between us.

Yet, I suppose the temptation was too great and the topic did come up once when I was asked if I was still glad that I'd voted for President Obama. My answer lead to two follow-up questions, both of which were asked with utmost incredulity:
  • Even with respect to cap and trade?
  • Even with respect to healthcare?
There was a lot I could have said about both topics, but I didn't. I knew a response would lead to no good and I'd promised myself that I wouldn't be goaded into any arguments. So I walked away.

But my inquisitors don't read my blog--just like I don't read their emails speculating about where the president might really have been born--so let me offer a couple of observations. Regarding the first follow-up question, as I've mentioned elsewhere in this blog, though I don't believe the Bible to be the final arbiter on the subject, I can highly recommend its commandment to replenish the earth. While the history of civilization suggests we're more inclined to rape and pillage the world we live in, the least we can do is to put limits on our actions and minimize their effects. Apparently, however, there are a great number of people in the world who don't believe global warming is caused by our rampant consumption of natural resources.

If anything, I'm even more emotional about the second follow-up question--so emotional, in fact, that I'm willing to offer this bitter pill and risk offending others: Anyone who is working to derail our chance at making healthcare available to all, cannot in good conscience call him or herself Christian. I base this assertion on the following claim Jesus made:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

Isn't it clear that Christ would have us minister to all the sick? But even if I didn't believe in His gospel, I would still be an ardent supporter of any reasoned attempt to make heathcare available to all. Why? Because: 1) I have empathy for people and 2) I know that despite the best of intentions and plans, human beings--through no fault of their own--occasionally find themselves in the most precarious of circumstances. Here is how it can happen.
  • Despite the messages of their schmaltzy commercials, the objective of most insurers is to make money, not to help people. They will rescind policies any time it makes economic sense to do so. The possibility of losing public trust is all that stands in the way of capricious behavior on the part of insurers. When they get in trouble, policy rescission becomes an integral part of their business strategies. And it happens at the worst possible time--when a health condition has been diagnosed and the policy is most needed.
  • Insurers occasionally go bankrupt, in which case policyholders with pre-existing conditions are left with few--if any--options.
  • For young people just starting out, health insurance premiums can be prohibitively expensive. My son, Matthew, can't get his wife covered by his graduate school's insurance policy due to university budget cuts. The cost of private insurance is over half his take-home pay.
  • Coverage can change or be eliminated with a boardroom decision made by an insurer or a group policy sponsor. If you're diabetic (or suffer from any range of chronic ailments) and you lose coverage, where do you go today for healthcare?
  • And at this time in which an unprecedented number of people are unemployed, how can anyone say they're safe from a loss of coverage? Of course, there is COBRA, but in the event that coverage was curtailed due to job loss, who can afford to pay COBRA premiums (not to mention mortgage payments) without a job?
  • During any temporary loss of insurance, the development of pre-existing conditions can limit people's insurance options and even render them uninsurable. Chances are by the time a typical child becomes an adult, he or she has undergone a surgical procedure or drug regimen that can be indicative of a pre-existing condition. Someone I care about dearly was recently denied coverage because of a drug regimen prescribed to her that might have indicated the occurence of OCD.

At the very least, we should be engaged in a thoughtful conversation about healthcare and avoid screaming epithets and clever sound bites at each other. Before derailing the effort, let's put a face to the problem and think of what we might do if one of our own children were sick and uninsured. But as a final word, I'm going to repeat my earlier assertion: Anyone who is working against the effort to bring healthcare to the least of these, cannot in my mind be called a Christian.

July 28, 2009

Things that Bug Me

Here are a few things that really bother me. Tell me if they bug you, too.

Wine tasting snobbery—Even if I were a drinker, I’d still be annoyed by the pompous comments made by the literati of the wine world. They make me want to scream: Just drink the damn thing. To me, the descriptions are tedious: It’s supple, yet verging on austere, in a way that dances on the palate, with a heady taste of something earthy—like mushrooms—and a cedarwood finish. You know what? If that’s what you like, barbeque some shiitakes on a two-by-four, but spare me the color commentary, okay? Someday I hope to see a Saturday Night Live skit about people at a wine tasting. After sipping and spitting, each person offers an obligatory observation that increases in haughtiness. And then it’s Elmore’s turn. He takes an enormous swig and swallows—apparently having been doing so for much of the morning—and pronounces: “Oh, yeah, I can taste an undercurrent of sweaty tee-shirt in this one. “

Today's cycling—I used to peddle everywhere on an old Schwinn that lasted me until I graduated from high school. Then, while living in Tokyo, my wife and I bought matching okusan cruisers—Japanese three-speed bikes built for packing kids and groceries. Most weekends we would split the boys up between us and go sightseeing, stopping wherever the fancy hit us. We found some great parks and eateries that way. But today cycling isn’t a leisure activity. It’s a sport you have to train for—one that has been completely co-opted by Madison Avenue. You can’t ride without the right clothes, which require bright colors and a logo written in a European language. When did that happen? The development has put me in a quandary: I refuse to succumb to pack mentality and buy the necessary crotch-padded leotards and $200 shoes, but I’m too self-conscious to ride in trousers. It’s a shame really.

Commuting in a Hummer—I know what some people think: If it’s legal and you can afford it, go ahead and do what you please. While I support people’s rights in this way, there’s a message we have to deliver to owners of Hummers (and other people who believe bigger is always better). That fact is when we use a scarce resource in a willy-nilly fashion, it does two things:

  1. It raises the price of the resource, because as any economist will tell you, prices are established by the marginal transaction
  2. In so doing, it puts the resource out of the reach of others, some of them poor, but deserving

There was a time when civilized people thought nothing of killing as many buffalo as they could. Someday, future enlightened generations will put us in the same category as the buffalo hunters, who laid waste to a resource for purposes of entertainment.

Famous for being famous—Why does Paris Hilton get so much attention? While people are being laid off in unprecedented numbers and losing their homes, let’s occasionally put a spotlight on Joe and Jenny Rest-of-Us and see real stories about perseverance in the face of awful luck. We don’t need more tales about silver spoons and wasted lives. And as long as I’m on this rant, let me ask you this: Did you see Kobe Bryant’s interview at the end of the NBA championship? Did you hear him talk about how much he’d sacrificed to win? He’s getting paid $20 million a year (not including his endorsements) and he’s talking about sacrifice? Hard work is what’s expected for any pay at all. $20 million should demand an extra mile, or two. I don't mind him earning more money than I'll ever see in a lifetime, but for heck's sake, he’s playing a game for a living. Let’s not call it sacrifice.

The pretense of knowing—As they flew into the Twin Towers on that terrible day we remember all too well, those who were at the controls apparently proclaimed, “God is Great!” Who were they trying to convince? Did God need to know He was great? To assume so is to believe God suffers from low self-esteem. Perhaps the terrorists were only trying to convince themselves of the point. From that perspective, I’m not sure we’re much different. People speak on and on about their love of God and His goodness, as if words rather than actions are important, and sometimes it strikes me as the spiritual equivalent of muscle-flexing on Venice Beach. It’s as easy to say, “God is great” as it is natural for a bully to boast, but to me, one's spirituality is a deeply private matter that is as intimate as the events of a wedding night—neither of which should be shared casually. What takes true courage and integrity is to admit: I don’t know if God is great, but I will emulate what I believe to be great in Him.

Our notion of perfection—Ask a person what his idea of perfection is and he’ll say something like this:

Perfection is having a body like a youthful Arnold Schwarzenegger, the creativity of Albert Einstein, the wit of Woody Allen, the magnanimity of Mother Teresa, the athletic prowess of Kobe Bryant, the knowledge of William Buckley, and so on.

Notice that no one ever says perfection is having Woody Allen’s physique and Kobe Bryant’s magnanimity. The truth is we gather into a ball what we admire most in others and call it perfection. If that’s the way we judge ourselves, we’re in a sad state. As Allan Bloom says in the Closing of the American Mind:

Man is a being who must take his orientation from his possible perfection. As it now stands, students have powerful images of what a perfect body is and pursue it incessantly. But…they no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one. They do not even imagine that there is such a thing.

July 26, 2009

The War in Heaven

According to Mormon theology, we all lived prior to our mortality as spirits in God's presence. In this condition (referred to as the pre-existence) God sat in counsel with those who would go on to be great leaders in mortality, among them the premortal Jesus and the spirit whom Isaiah would one day call the Son of Morning.

At some point, God decided to enact a plan that would give His spirit children the opportunity to progress and be like Him. It required that they take on physical bodies and come to earth to live by faith and be tested. After hearing the plan, however, the Son of Morning sought to modify it. Essentially, he said: Put me in charge and I'll ensure that all mortals live sufficiently worthy to return to heaven as exalted beings.

God, however, would have none of it. Rather, He wanted all mortals to be free to choose their own paths, a condition that required them to make choices: good versus evil, virtue or vice. Angered by the decision, the Son of Morning left God's presence and took with him a third of the hosts of heaven. In the process he became Lucifer and--again, according to Mormon theology--the source of all evil, an enemy to God and the one who tempts mortals to sin.

If you're confused by this, you're not alone, since according to the account, a former stalwart in heaven:
  1. Heard the particulars of God's plan, but wanted to modify it so that all his spirit brothers and sisters would return to heaven (not such an evil objective--after all, missionaries hope to convert us all, too)
  2. Then, not getting his way, he became so angry that he left heaven to fight against God's plan
  3. But due to his new role as tempter and source of all evil, he makes it possible for mortals to have and make choices (after all, there is no freedom to choose evil, if evil doesn't exist)
  4. So each time he is successful at tempting a mortal, he works against the objective he proposed in council with God
When will it ever occur to Lucifer/Satin (i.e. the devil) that he can thwart the cause of heaven and end God's plan by withholding temptation? In other words, if he stops tempting people, they don't sin. If they don't sin, they return to God unblemished. That's exactly what he'd hoped to achieve in the first place! When I've pointed this out to my Mormon friends, they say, "Well, Satan is stupid and angry." But does that sound like someone who was once called Son of the Morning and a fallen angel? He has to be smarter than that.
Clearly the account doesn't make much sense, but that on its own doesn't concern me. As I've said elsewhere, many of the narratives included in the scriptures fall in the same category, yet may still contain lessons of value. While I don't take them literally, they can provoke productive thought. This one, however, is a bit different because of the worldview it engenders. While people should be worried about exacting some amount of discipline over their own passions and appetites, many are instead concerned about a shadowy tempter who is only mentioned obliquely in a handful of scriptural references. Let's not worry about the devil. Whether you do or don't believe in him, let's agree that it's in our control to live unselfish and compassionate lives.

The Road Map and the Compass

My son, Matt, tells me that all of quantum mechanics can be written down on a half-sheet of paper. In fact, he did it, and here it is:

  • The state of a system is entirely represented by its wave function, which is a unit vector of any number of dimensions (including infinite) existing in Hilbert space. The wave function can be calculated from the Schrodinger equation.
  • Observable quantities (like position, momentum) are represented by hermitian operators, which function as linear transformations that operate on the wave function.
  • The expectation value (in a statistical sense) of an observable quantity is the inner product of the wave function with the wave function after being operated on by the observable’s hermitian operator.
  • Determinate states, or states of a system that correspond to a constant observed value, are eigenstates of the observable’s hermitian operator, while the observed value is the eigenvalue. (ex. energy levels that give rise to discrete atomic spectra are eigenvalues corresponding to energy determinate states.)
  • All determinate states are orthogonal and all possible states can be expressed as a linear combination of determinate states.
  • When a measurement is made, the probability of getting a certain value is the square root of the inner product of that value’s determinate state with the wave function.
  • Upon measurement, the wave function “collapses”, becoming the determinate state corresponding to the value that was measured.

I know it all sounds complicated, but Matt assures me that as a body of scientific discovery, it’s all quite elegant and conceptually simple. A person need not be a physicist to understand the laws. Physics undergrads are required to master them before they graduate.

People who seek common ground between science and religion often say that God works through (or at one time defined) the physical laws that we observe in nature. If that’s the case, why didn’t He take the opportunity to jot down the half-page in Genesis? Why did He water down the truth by claiming the world was created by “His word”?

If you’re a religious person, you’re likely to answer what is obvious—that, in short, people weren’t prepared to hear about such laws at the time Genesis was written. Given the scientific advances our world has experienced recently, we can all relate to the notion. Furthermore, our interactions with kids, too, teach us that due to human limitations the facts can’t always be apprehended. As I’ve mentioned before, we seldom divulge the full truth on any topic to children and this isn’t because we’re devious. If a three year-old boy asks why the sky is blue, for example, do we explain the nature of light—how it travels in waves, with each wave length corresponding to a color? No, that would be too much information for him. Whatever answer we do provide won’t be a complete reckoning, because the child isn’t prepared for it.

Now, despite what my son says, I think the majority of people today—and that includes me—are ill-prepared to understand the physical concepts he has described above. Yet, can’t the same be said regarding a range of topics that continuously advance beyond general understanding? For this reason, I think of the gospel as something more akin to a compass than a roadmap. Though ultimately we may want to head in a specific direction, a compass will sometimes point us to impassable terrain, around which we must detour. Christ’s gospel says precious little about how we should love our neighbors, only that we must. Though circumstances may cause us to meander, compassion is the true north that establishes our orientation.

That, however, begs a question: Why didn’t Christ offer a roadmap instead of a compass? The Mosaic Law, after all, was an attempt to answer any and all questions about correct and moral behavior, and it would seem logical that Jesus would attempt to accomplish the same. Perhaps the reason is due to the fact that the world changes and the terrain of our lives morph constantly in terms of complexity and degree of difficulty. The problem with a map is that it’s static and doesn’t account for washed out bridges and pathways that are subject to redevelopment. If you happen to be in a new city and need directions to get around, will you refer to a map commissioned by the city’s founders? It would be better just to know an ultimate heading and improvise a way there.

For this reason, I’m not impressed by assertions that God commands this or that. In my mind, there are two rules of thumb that, if followed objectively and sincerely, will invariably lead to what is decent and lovely, albeit with some allowance for meandering.

Of course, you know what those rules are.

July 12, 2009

Go ahead--treat me like a dog

I once had a dog named Jesse. He was a long-legged black lab, who loved the long walks we took along the oak-line trails of an old rancho not far from our house. He was a gentle and affectionate companion and I used to think there was nothing quite as graceful as the sight of him leaping through tall grass.

One day we were out early before the day broke and while I was studying a strange object on a hill, I realized too late that it wasn’t a plant with a white stripe down its center, but the tail of a skunk held straight up in warning. I yelled for Jesse to come, but my effort was in vain. He leaped after the creature, only to paw at the air mid-stride in an effort to spin away. When he landed, Jesse was blind and sneezing, having taken a hit of skunk spray to the face. It probably goes without saying, but he stunk so awfully that it hurt to stand next to him.

It was a bad day not to have a leash with me. Since Jesse couldn’t open his eyes, I had to lead him by the collar, both of us gagging each step of the way. I directed him to a pond and coaxed him into the water, where I gave him a good dunking. The drive back home was not fun and my thoughts were not charitable. I kept muttering, “That damn dog,” while he rubbed his face on the upholstery. Though I opened all the windows and hung my head outside, the smell was as insidious as a swarm of angry bees. The Jeep, as you might imagine, has never been the same since.

Today I laugh about the episode, proud of the fact that the next time we saw a skunk, Jesse obeyed my directive to stay. The memory resides beside others—like the time we scared a flock of vultures off a steer carcass and watched horrified when two stragglers crawled out of a hole in the steer’s brisket before following their kinfolk into the sky. Jesse looked at me as if to ask: “Did you see that?” and I told him I had.

A few years later, he was diagnosed with a tumor in his hip. Lori and I were beside ourselves and unprepared to say goodbye, so we opted for surgery and chemo treatments. For the next year, Jesse was as active and enthusiastic as he’d always been—except now as a three-legged dog—and we took joy in his apparent recovery. Once again he could leap unaided into the Jeep. He even found a way to lift his remaining hind leg to pee.

Eventually, however, the cancer returned in a more virulent form. Lori and I told ourselves that we would know it was time to let him go when he couldn’t enjoy his food or walks anymore. That day came all too soon. During his last week, he took to wandering off—to die, we speculated. At night I slept with him, listening to him whimper and wondering if the pain medication was doing him any good. I prayed that he would be spared, but he was clearly in pain. Rather than let him suffer, we took that difficult drive to the vet, hoping we were doing the right thing.

Why am I telling you this?

This story isn’t unusual, rather something we all relate to. The fact is people are capable—and even susceptible—of developing great love and compassion for the fellow creatures sojourning with us here on earth. If so, why do we expect anything less from our Heavenly Father? It disturbs me, when we use guilt as a sledge to pound out conformity in others. At some point we stop saying, “bad dog,” to our goofy canine friends and overlook their indiscretions born out of exuberance. It horrifies me when we warn children that God will punish them for their disobedience. If these acts are appropriate, God is not as great as we assume. Children, like puppies, are better motivated by love than constant badgering and warnings of impending doom.

Adam's Transgression

There are aspects of the biblical account of Adam’s transgression that I’ve always found disturbing, but never heard addressed—never, that is, except once in a youth Sunday School class that I attended thirty years ago.

The teacher, Sister Brownlee, had handed out Bibles and asked us to take turns reading the story of Adam and Eve. You’re familiar, no doubt, with the account. It tells of how God gave His first human creations a fertile garden and only two conditions regarding its use. First, He told them to multiply and replenish the earth. Second, He forbade them to eat a certain fruit, even warned them not to touch the tree bearing it or they would die. Though God’s mandate was clear, Satan—disguised as a serpent—slithered into Eden’s tranquility and tempted Adam and Eve to break that important second commandment.

He told them, “Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” In the end, the temptation was more than Adam and Eve could ignore.

Of that day the Bible says:

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

Sister Brownlee asked us to consider the charity of our Creator. Adam and Eve had everything they needed, but do you see what they did? They stole from the source of their good fortune. She seemed ready to complete the thought and offer a comparison to our own lives, to say that God has given us much, yet we turn on Him in disobedience. Before she could do so, I raised my hand.

“God told Adam and Eve that they would die if they ate the fruit,” I said, “but they didn’t. Why is that? Was God just bluffing to make His children obey?”

Today, the question still seems like a good one to me, but by Sister Brownlee’s reaction, it was clear that I’d treaded into sensitive theological territory. Perhaps she thought I was accusing God of lying. “God speaks only the truth,” she said, frowning. “In a way, Adam and Eve did die because their offense robbed them of life with God. They became sinful and unworthy of His spirit. They were so guilt-ridden that they hid themselves from their Creator. The real liar was the serpent, Lucifer, who convinced Adam and Eve to transgress.”

It occurred to me as I pondered Sister Brownlee’s answer that it hadn’t really addressed my question. In fact, if anything, it had only suggested other questions that I couldn’t wait to ask. Without raising a hand, I said, “The serpent told Adam and Eve that they would learn the difference between good and evil, and that happened. Their eyes were opened. The Bible says so. The serpent led them to knowledge—a knowledge God seemed happy to keep from them. Why is that?”

There was a nervous twitter in the class, but Sister Brownlee forced herself to smile and explained. “Your confusion is understandable,” she said, “but this is an example of how the devil uses half-truths to confuse people. That’s why we need faith to keep from being deceived.”

Suddenly a thought entered my head, like traffic noise through a thin wall. At first I tried to ignore it, but it got my attention. Sister Brownlee had been dealt a question for which there was no answer, but she wouldn’t admit to the deficiency. Instead, she used the same wedge that has separated humankind from a great deal of worthwhile inquiry: the admonition to accept without questions. I knew even then that logic leads to intellectual canyons into which we must take a leap of faith. Yet our teacher had couched that leap in terms of truth and that wasn’t right, even if she could create an ignorant bliss by doing so.

But I digress. For those of you who believe the Bible to be the unadulterated word of God, let me reiterate the two questions:
  1. Why did God warn Adam and Eve of a consequence that ultimately did not occur?
  2. Why did God seem to want Adam and Eve to remain ignorant? (Not until they ate the forbidden fruit were their eyes opened, which was exactly what the serpent promised would happen).

July 5, 2009

The Physics of Immortality

Frank Tipler’s book, The Physics of Immortality, came out in 1994 to mixed peer reviews and much hoopla. I read it that same year, hoping it would point to a future in which science and spirituality might rest together in harmony. While I’m still hopeful that the two disciplines will find common ground, to me, Tipler’s book points to some of the difficulties in getting there. In case you haven’t read it, let me offer my take on the book.

Tipler is a mathematical physicist and former agnostic, who while attempting to debunk the notion of a resurrection, inadvertently convinced himself that life after death was not only possible, but inevitable. His methodology was similar to a process mathematicians have, for centuries, used to disprove a false premise: First accept it as true and then show how such acceptance leads to a logical inconsistency. In this manner, Tipler considered ways the resurrection might occur, looking to prove its impossibility. Along the way, he developed a theory that he subsequently called the Omega Point, which he claims is a logical proof of life after death. How is the resurrection to occur? Essentially, we’re brought to life as part of a computer simulation that is so accurate that all possible quantum states for all human beings—including everyone’s DNA—is part of the code. Tipler shows how this could happen by “proving” that:
  • At some point in the future there will be sufficient computing power to accomplish the task
  • Until such time, all information about the universe will be preserved
  • The preserved information will be used in a virtual reality emulation of infinite experiential time that will simulate the universe and all the intelligent creatures that have lived in it
  • All of this must occur to avoid breaking known physical laws.

To me, the thesis is intriguing, but it doesn’t make me any less uncertain of immortality than I was before reading the book. Specifically, I have two problems with it. First, I don’t understand the logical leap Tipler makes by showing how the resurrection is possible then asserting it’s inevitable. After reading a few peer reviews, I can happily say I’m not alone in this regard. The theory includes what Tipler calls an Omega Point Boundary Condition that results in the inevitability of the resurrection, but other physicists have not found the idea compelling. Second, the theory assumes that any emulation that precisely models the DNA of individuals will essentially create (or recreate) the humans emulated. In other words, there is no perceived difference between reality and a perfectly accurate simulation. As a consequence, Tipler claims there is no such thing as a soul—that DNA determines everything about a person that experience does not, including sentience and self-awareness.

While I’m open to the possibility of the non-existence of the soul, I’m disturbed by the idea that DNA describes everything about us. It seems to me that while DNA puts constraints around our development, growth is representative of a chaotic system that leaves considerable variability, even if the genetic code is identical. One need only observe identical twins to find proof of that notion. While they share the same DNA and may resemble each other, they can exhibit a range of physical and behavioral differences. The same can be said of a cloned pet that may have different mannerisms—even coloration—than the Fifi who provided its genetic material.

The study of such chaotic systems (sometimes referred to as chaos theory, which is a misnomer since it hasn’t resulted in a practical or workable theory) is the study of systems that are bounded but unpredictable since they are not subject to any physical laws we understand. These systems include, for example, weather and turbulence. To illustrate their unusual qualities, let me mention that the great physicist, Werner Heisenberg, once said he had two questions for God. They were:
  1. Why is general relativity so weird?
  2. And how do you explain turbulence?

Heisenberg claimed he was certain God would know the answer to the first question, but not so the second. This is from the man who, as author of much of quantum mechanics—including the Uncertainty Principal that bears his name—was arguably as familiar with bizarre physical systems as anyone. To him, however, turbulence went beyond weird into the realm of inexplicable. It’s not a deterministic system. In other words, try to predict the movement of a grain of sand moving through a water pipe, and it quickly becomes apparent that there are no discernible physical laws guiding it. Such is the case no matter how precisely one models the imperfections in the pipe, the weight and dimensions of the grain of sand, the flow and pressure of the water, and all other possible variables.

Weather, too—which has been modeled with as much precision as is humanly possible—is another chaotic system. Climate simulations that measure the precise interactions of thousands of variables, including geothermal, solar, air current, tidal and others, have done little to accurately forecast weather more than two to three days into the future. In fact, time and time again, such simulations have predicted that the earth will freeze over and remain in that condition. Why? In the course of its normal range of climate variability, the earth will eventually receive an unusually high amount of snowfall, which will deflect the sun’s rays and lead to a cycle of even greater precipitation and falling temperatures. Yet, experience teaches us that there are moderating influences directing changes in climate that we don’t understand.

The same lack of predictability is true of growth. After inception, the subsequent division of the fertilized cell first resulting in a zygote, then an embryo, then a baby, is a chaotic process that is subject to great variability. This variability can’t be understood by referencing known physical laws—including DNA replication or even the probabilities associated with quantum fluctuations. Like weather, growth can’t be simulated in a computer, no matter how sophisticated the program. That’s just my opinion.

I suppose in the end, Tipler’s book contributes to a debate that the writings of Plato and Aristotle first introduced. Do we have souls independent of our bodies as Plato claimed? Or are our souls simply the actuality of our bodies as is the opinion of Aristotle? These are perhaps more examples of questions that can only be answered on an individual level through a leap of faith. Like I said earlier, Tipler’s book is intriguing, but it doesn’t reduce the uncertainty of life after death. Maybe uncertainty was always meant to be.

July 3, 2009

The Courageous Thing To Do

During my last year at Lehman Brothers, I wrote the following short story that appeared in Razorfish, a now defunct literary journal. Please don't think of this as autobiographical, but when I read it today, it speaks volumes about my mindset at the time.
I hold the birthday gift my wife gave me: star-spangled red, white, and blue boxer shorts with the inexplicable picture of a bulldog on the front. Earlier Beth convinced me to model the garment, promising with a wink to chase the kids out of the house. I did as she suggested and stepped upstairs, naked but for the patriotic underwear, and posing like Atlas. That’s when a crowd of our neighbors leaped from behind the living room furniture and yelled, “Surprise!”

Surprise? More like shock—more like a heart attack. My father, who was decidedly blue-collar in his choice of vocation and amusements, used to describe his moments of astonishment by saying, “I could’ve shit.” Suddenly the phrase made sense to me.
Then something on the coffee table caught my eye. It was a pile of wrapped packages waiting to be opened. I left to get dressed and returned to a chorus of birthday congratulations, a cake, and presents. My favorite gift (other than the bulldog underwear, of course) is a bottle of Chinese folk medicine purchased by my best friend, a lawyer who travels to Asia on business. The label has this inscription: Sea Horse Gonads—For Genital Strength and Energy. The accompanying card includes a poem written in his neat cursive script.

Hey there, Gary, you’re over-the-hill.
So we suggest you take this pill.
Sea horse gonads really hit the spot.
They make you amorous (and that means hot).

No need for Viagra with a bottle of these.
You’ll be transformed—more able to please.
Be careful though, Gary, there’s a lot in store.
Don’t hurt yourself, when Beth asks for more.

The guests are gone now and the house is still. I’m forty-five-years old and sitting in the room that serves as my personal study. Life is good, I tell myself (hasn’t the evening been proof of that?) and I repeat the phrase while opening a cedar box in my lap. To the hodgepodge of keepsakes inside, I add my new underwear, when the temptation to relive old memories causes me to search among the items.
There are various awards and certificates, the first baseball I ever knocked out of a little league park, a ten-year old photograph of Beth napping with our three daughters, and several diplomas. A folder, however, causes me to take pause. It contains the product of my earliest aspirations, a nearly forgotten collection of music I composed in high school.
The first piece is a motet. I study it and hear the music in my head. It begins with a tenor solo, Gregorian in simplicity and style, before the other voices emerge like the weave in a tapestry of sound. The words are from Proverbs: With all thy getting get understanding. In the pensive minor chords are occasional hints at resolution, but it builds in a way that fills me with longing. Eager to see how it plays out, I turn to yet another page, but the notation ends unfinished.
Disappointment smacks me head-on. How had I meant the composition to end? Should it, to its final measure, be a melancholy reflection on human understanding? Or might it reach a point of inflection, a magical change from minor to major key that offers a determined ray of hope?
I am still musing over the question, when Beth appears and asks if I’m coming to bed. She leans against the doorjamb, wearing a kimono that she opens to expose her breasts and flat belly. Her real present, she says, is ready for unwrapping. I put the box away, but tuck the folder under my arm and go downstairs. Life is good, I tell myself again, but it’s a personal affirmation rather than a statement of fact. If life is so good, why do I sometimes wish I was dead?


Shadrach, my twelve-year old black lab, wakes me in the morning. He makes a noise that is equal parts woof and a drawn out whine, his endearing attempt to produce human speech. I ignore him, but he lays his head on the edge of my pillow and breathes on my face. Except for his confusion over daylight savings, the dog is an uncanny keeper of time and infinitely more persistent than the best snooze button. I rise, knowing he’ll be on the bed otherwise.
While I put on shorts and running shoes, the dog waits with his head on his paws. He stands as I emerge from the bathroom, and bounds upstairs to the front door. Our house, a six-bedroom Tudor, sits on the Connecticut coast with an unobstructed view of the sea. We cut through the garden past the greenhouse and pool, and run to the beach.
Forty minutes later the sky is still dark, but we’ve been to the marina and back. Beth is in the kitchen now, fixing lunches for our girls. She talks to Shadrach in a way meant for babies and feeds him a slice of lunchmeat. Though I’m perspiring, she kisses me and asks about my run. Her dark hair is wet from her shower, but she’s beautiful. I could stay here forever, even if work wasn’t my alternative.
A limousine, however, arrives just as I finish getting dressed. I holler goodbye to my girls, step into the car, and grasp the folder of music from my satchel. The driver knows I prefer quiet and doesn’t speak. He closes the door behind me, and soon we’re on the narrow road leading to I-95 and the city. While we travel, I study my unfinished motet and decide it should end in a resolute, albeit subdued, manner. I hear the last shining chord, but a logical transition eludes me. Before I can consider options, the phone rings.
It’s Awano, the head of fixed income in Tokyo, and I know what he wants. We’ve talked about little else in two days. A trade I endorsed, one we call the “kitchen sink” deal, has soured. It’s backed by a pool of our old inventory—mortgage derivatives mostly—that we couldn’t unload any other way. Despite its single-A rating, it has lost a boatload of value. From my perspective, however, the deal was a runaway success. We disposed of the paper before the problems arose.
Awano wants to know where the deal is trading and I tell him we had a bid of 80 for it yesterday, but today, who knows?
“80?” he says. “Shinwa can’t take that kind of loss.”
“Well, it’s not our fault.” I allow exasperation to seep into my voice. “You got to know how to tread water before jumping into the deep end.”
“But can’t we cut him a break? The guy’s been a good client, and he didn’t understand the trade. Hell, listen to the marketing material: A duration-neutral combination of IOs, POs, inverses, and Treasury options. I’m not sure I understand it, either.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Can’t we buy him out at par?”
I allow a moment of silence to pass and let the man sweat in his own juices. “Sure, Awano. And let’s take the difference out of your bonus.”
My words have their intended effect. The man sounds beaten and offers a last argument that comes out like a whine. “But he’s threatening to take legal action,” he says.
“I don’t give a damn. It’s your job to keep that from happening. So don’t call me again, until you’ve fixed the problem.”
I hang up the phone and take a deep breath. My driver doesn’t look back or even glance in the rearview mirror. Awano, I tell myself, is a smart man. There are a dozen things he can do. (I know, because for three years I worked in Tokyo and was a party to them all). He might, for example, exchange the paper for a Cayman Island trust, hide the loss by taking advantage of lax Japanese accounting standards, and engage the client in risky trades to recoup. If that doesn’t work, another opportunity will fall into Awano’s lap. Behind every problem is a profitable solution. He’ll figure that out and thank me later.

I’m on the trading floor during the calm before the storm. The market hasn’t opened yet and the squawk boxes are silent. The expanse is filled with hushed phone conversations and the hum of computer screens. Traders and salespeople are conferring with their clients, checking out the firm’s inventory, and studying our research. They’re getting a sense for how the day will shape up and formulating the sales talk they’ll use to push our offerings.
I walk past the commercial paper and mortgage desks, and unlock the door to my office. A hundred eyes watch me step inside, and I know what people are saying behind my back. Occasionally they express their feelings directly—like last month, for instance, when I laid off sixty of their colleagues. Bastard was the epithet of choice then.
That’s fine, because since I began managing the firm three years ago, our stock price—and the perquisite shares I was given—have quadrupled in value. That doesn’t occur by chance, or by winning popularity contests, either. It happens when a man knows what he wants and is driven by achievement. As for me, I abide by a single notion. There’s only one excuse in life: I didn’t want it badly enough.
Based upon our success, you might assume deal volume has increased, but that’s not the case. Investment banking is a competitive business and you can’t gain market share without buying it. The fact is I don’t care about league tables, those high-brow measures of banking prowess. You can’t eat that kind of prestige. Cash is all that matters to me.
What I have done is pay attention to how our results look on paper. I’ve cut loose a quarter of our people, sold off the retail unit, and focused on a handful of strategically connected businesses. We’ve incurred restructuring costs—no doubt about that—but they’ve been small compared to the savings in our bonus pool. And I learned long ago that on Wall Street a man’s future is determined by how well he slices the pie.
That’s why I’ve changed the way we compensate people. Today, everybody gets a third of their bonuses paid out in stock, but here’s the catch: the shares don’t begin to vest for three years. We say it’s to insure behavior beneficial to the long-term interests of the firm—a compelling half-truth—but even I see the irony. While the company’s capital base grows, our long-term interest in people diminishes. We jettison even good employees and pocket the value of their compensation not vested. It’s a course I hesitate to take, but the courageous thing to do.
These thoughts are at play in my head for a reason. Our bonus pool is skinny this year and my compensation interviews will begin in a few hours. I sit down at my desk, having already determined who among our employees we can afford to lose. For those on the list I’m cutting pay. I plan to take their verbal abuse, then suggest they find work elsewhere if that’s how they feel. We sacrifice the weak in order to retain the strong. Isn’t that what nature teaches us?


My first meeting is with Greg Emissary, the head of our government desk. Greg usually does a good job, but he was on the wrong side of a bet when the Fed raised interest rates earlier this year. He’s been working himself out of a hole ever since.
Six years ago he joined us to trade the belly of the curve—that’s what we call seven to ten year Treasuries. It’s tough work with a lot of action. Every couple of seconds someone asks for a bid or offer, and while you hope to make a half-tick on each trade, you struggle to keep your position hedged. The work will frazzle you, but Greg keeps his cool.
After his first day on the job, a few of us took him to dinner and one of the guys inquired about the name Emissary. Greg said it was Polish, but a corrupted version of the way it’s pronounced in the old country.
“So, you’re a Pollack, huh?” someone said.
Greg laughed and asked if we knew how a fellow of Polish descent pulled up his socks. Before anyone could speak, he dropped his trousers—even let them hit the floor—then bent to give his stockings a tug. He did this in the middle of a crowded bar, wearing briefs for God’s sake. It was hilarious.
Now Greg walks into my office and he has the springy gait and physical size of a linebacker. He used to play football for Stanford, but who on my trading floor didn’t play ball? I motion for Greg to sit and his dark eyebrows furrow. His mouth forms a taut line across his face. People don’t smile in my presence. It’s an occupational hazard.
He takes a seat and I don’t waste any time. I slide a sheet of paper toward him and there’s a number on it. Salaries on Wall Street are designed to keep you hungry, so we all work for what comes at yearend. When a trader dreams of leaving the street, it’s the number of bonuses—not the years of work—he counts before making a getaway. Greg takes the paper. He looks up and his face is impassive.
“You seem to be missing a zero,” he says.
“I’m afraid not.”

He shakes his head and I wonder: If it came to blows, could I take him? All I know is it would be a good fight, one plenty of folks would pay to watch. They would root for Greg, of course, but that’s okay. Being liked isn’t everything. Someone has to take a stand and create value. Someone has to do the courageous thing.
“What am I supposed to take away from this?” he asks.
“No particular message. It was a tough year for us. You might do better elsewhere, but that’s for you to decide.”
I can guess what he’s thinking: A whole year wasted. But Greg doesn’t say a word. He only stands and walks out. The guy will be missed, I tell myself. Hell, I’ll miss him, and my stomach turns at the thought of another empty seat on the floor.
A minute later I hear a knock and Marta Calloway enters. Marta is the head of research. She’s lean and lanky—a redhead with startling green eyes. I hand a paper to her and she smiles. “Are you staying in the city tonight?” she asks.
I nod.
“Where did you say your place was?”
The address spills off my tongue as I get a key from my desk and toss it to her.

That evening I go to my loft in Chelsea, a place I rent for the nights work keeps me late. I open the door—unsure of what awaits me there—and the scent of Chinese takeout wafts from inside. In the time it takes to slip off my jacket, Marta emerges from the bathroom dressed in a cotton bathrobe. She fidgets for a moment, then motions me to the breakfast nook where there are cartons of food.
“I wasn’t sure what you liked,” she says.
We sit together and I recall an anecdote regarding the inhabitants of heaven and hell. In both places a daily banquet is prepared and served with eating utensils that are six feet long. While the devil’s minions are frustrated by their predicament, angels in paradise feed each other and leave the banquet satisfied. That’s the difference between the two worlds: It’s in the way people react to them. I try to keep that in mind as Marta grasps a pair of chopsticks and lifts a bite of lemon chicken in my direction. I take it in my mouth, when a dizzy mix of desire and guilt passes through me. If you’re smart, I tell myself, you’ll back out now.
But how can I do that?
“I hear you’ll be writing a new emerging market piece,” I say, hoping the nervousness in my voice isn’t apparent.
Marta chuckles. “You heard wrong then. That’s not a priority for me.”
“Maybe it ought to be. It could generate business. We have inventory to unload.”
“Then why don’t you write it?”
Marta feigns haughtiness. She rests a fist on her hip and inserts her chopsticks into a carton, letting them protrude from the mu shu pork like hands on a clock. I pick up the utensils and rest them across the container. In Japan, I tell her, placing chopsticks upright in food is taboo and tolerated only at funerals.
“Why?” she asks.
“Because it invites spirits of the dead to eat.”
Marta rolls her eyes and says in an almost breathless way, “Shit, Gary. This is Chinese food. Will you relax?” She extends a hand to loosen my tie, then her eyes seem to lose focus. She touches my chest and her fingers work to unbutton my shirt.
I don’t love Marta. In fact, I’m not even sure I like her, but adrenaline clouds my judgment. Seeing her here for the first time is akin to closing a high-profile deal. The secretive glances that led to this moment—the intimate disclosures and weeks of waffling and acquiescing—were titillating beyond measure, but nothing compared to the feeling of power that flows over me now. I pull on the terrycloth tie at her waist and reach inside her robe. She shudders and scoots toward me.
You’re almost mine now, I think. I’m going to own you.
We shower together before tumbling into bed, a tangle of limbs and tongues. At first I’m lost in lust and free of guilt, but all too soon an inexplicable moment arrives and my most urgent desire becomes my deepest revulsion. I roll off of Marta, but she clings to me and immediately falls asleep. With all thy getting get understanding. The motet plays in my head as I stare at the ceiling, but the tortured sound defies reconciliation.

I’m up before sunrise, trying not to make a noise. Marta is still asleep—one of her long legs stretched over the covers and arms akimbo. She’s on her back, vulnerable and owned. Through the dim light and thin blankets I can see her every contour. How many times have I imagined this scene and been aroused by it? Yet no such feeling possesses me now. I get ready for the day and leave without speaking.
From the office I call my wife and her surprise is obvious. “Is something wrong?” she asks.
Beth’s question is disarming and leaves me at a loss for words. The truth is too difficult to relate—that I need to hear her voice and know I haven’t put an end to something dear between us—so I lie. “There’s a message here on my desk,” I say. “The handwriting is illegible. Was it you who called?”
“No, Baby,” she says and laughs. “I know better than that.”
Her answer bruises me and I ask what she meant by it.
“Come on, Gary. You’re busy. We all know that. There’s no criticism in what I say. It’s just how things are.”
I allow too much time to pass without a reply, unsure if I can handle the conversation.
“Are you okay?” Beth asks.
“Just bummed about being a year older, I guess.”
“Uh huh. And bonus season doesn’t help. The decisions you have to make—all those people and their families to consider—it can’t be fun.”
I close my eyes and tell Beth that something has come up. I hang up the phone and swivel in my chair. Beyond my office window the Hudson River passes thirty stories below me. Lady Liberty is to my left in the distance. I gaze across the water into New Jersey, puzzled by words that escape my lips.
“It’s the courageous thing to do, Beth.”


That evening it’s nearly eleven-thirty when the driver pulls into my driveway. I step through the door and Shadrach meets me there, head lowered, his eyes half-closed and tail wagging. These are the expressions he reserves for me, his way of paying homage to the alpha male.
“I love you, too,” I say and mean it.
Beth is sitting in an armchair. Her head is back and she’s asleep with a magazine in her lap. She stirs and smiles when I kiss her cheek.
“I thought you might’ve stayed in the city again,” she says.
The idea had occurred to me, but I’ve been craving what’s here at home, a refuge away from the chaos. On bad days, I long to hold Beth. She’s a rare source of comfort and solace. I stoop to hug her, and she seems to sense my need.
“Bonus season,” she says. “It takes a lot out of you, doesn’t it?”
Her words sting for their tenderness, and I know I’ll be crushed if Beth ever learns of my infidelity. She’ll think I don’t adore her, but the truth is more complicated. On the trading floor cold logic and adrenaline guide me. I sever feeling from conduct, never allowing one to clash with the other. It’s the only way I can survive at work. Yet here and now I honor the sanctity of our marriage, and across a battlefield in my heart everything I believe observes all that I’ve done and grieves.
My wife rises to get a plate of dinner from the refrigerator and set it in the microwave. We talk briefly about the kids (they’ll all make honor roll again) then Beth apologizes, saying she’s helping at school tomorrow and needs to rest. She heads downstairs just as the microwave beeps. I get the food—roast chicken, wild rice, and red potatoes—and sit down to eat.
Shadrach joins me at the table and rests his head on my knee. I give him a piece of chicken that he gobbles without chewing. The dog, I recall, accompanied us to Tokyo when the firm transferred me there. He tolerated the two-week quarantine and the dearth of leash-free walks. The whole time he never drank from standing rainwater (aware, I suppose, of pollutants washed out of the city sky) and I felt sorry for him. That was long ago, but I haven’t forgotten a promise I made—that we would give him daily walks on the beach once we returned home.
I decide to treat Shadrach to a midnight run and change into sweats. Outside, the moon is full and it lights the trail ahead of us. We race along the ridge overlooking the water and New York in the distance. I try not to think about work, and my unfinished motet comes to mind. Suddenly I’m humming all the notes to the final tight chord and the words fill my head. With all thy getting get understanding. Various transitions occur to me, but I like one in particular. The alto line retains the minor third that gives the piece its angst. Then as if by a strange alchemy, the final syllable is reached and the alto part resolves to the base note. It’s subtle, yet grand.
I’m so caught up in the music, that I almost miss the fact that Shadrach is no longer beside me. I turn, and the dog is a few yards back squatting below the rim of a steep rise and facing downhill with his tail extended. He drops a round turd. It’s firm and rolls between his legs past him. Even in the dim light I can see Shadrach’s reaction. His eyes brighten in a way that seem to say: It’s alive! He gives chase, but before taking the dung into his mouth, he sneezes and turns away.
I begin to laugh, and the sound of it is swallowed up by the surf. Suddenly I realize how alike we are, Shadrach and I: We’ve both been led astray by the crap of our own making. My laughter turns to a groan, and I fall to my knees and cover my eyes.
Once I believed work and home were separate worlds, and I could pass through one without conveying its taint to the other. But how can I believe that now, when the music of life is all but snuffed out of me—when each day is tolerable only with its dose of adrenaline? Understanding finally comes, but there’s no resolution, no shining and resonant chord. There’s only the taste of bile in my mouth and a war in my chest, everything I believe finally clashing with all that I’ve done.

June 28, 2009

In Answer to WK

WK asked after a previous blog:
What do you think of the Time article entitled The Storm Over the Mormons? I'm interested to know where you stand about the prophet. If Mormons believe a prophet told them to do something, shouldn't they do it, no questions asked?

Let me first say that I read the article. In fact, if you go to the Letters to the Editor section of this week's Time, you'll find my reaction to it. But let me answer in more detail. I completely understand how a member who believes that God speaks through a prophet might feel an absolute obligation to obey his directives. In my mind, however, even if that's what you believe, there are at least two reasons to justify disobedience:
  1. You believe the prophet is in error
  2. You believe living in a manner consistent with the directive is more distasteful than the consequences of disobedience
In my case, I have never been able to accept the Mormon claim that the church is led by a prophet, and since I believe prohibiting gay men and women from experiencing the most love-inspiring of human relationships to be distasteful and contrary to Christ's higher law, the decision to vote against Proposition 8 was easy for me.

Proof of Uncertainty

Kurt Godel proved that in any axiomatic mathematical system there are propositions that cannot be proved or disproved within the axioms of the system.
You’ve heard me say that logic invariably leads to faith, but don’t take my word for it. There’s considerable evidence to support the idea and people who love the hard sciences will especially appreciate it, because the confirmation comes from logic itself.

As an introduction, consider the 19th Century worldview and how it changed going into our modern age. Throughout the 1800s, there was great enthusiasm and optimism in the power of logic. Earlier scientific and mathematical discoveries—Newton’s classical physics, for example—had uncovered what seemed to be an elegant symmetry in nature, which gave intellectuals a view that all things could be understood in terms of scientific laws. In fact, people (the great Emmanuel Kant, included) believed the logic inherent in science would eventually lead to an understanding of the mind of God.

But cracks began to appear in this deterministic construct. One of the first was the development of non-Euclidean geometries that rejected a postulate used in the plane geometry we study in high school. The possibility that other postulates might be incorrect or of limited value ushered in an age of uncertainty that additional scientific and mathematical discovery only amplified.

The study of physics, for example, added to the disquiet. As physicists delved more deeply into the interactions of subatomic particles, they discovered that such relationships were based upon probabilities rather than strict rules as had been previously supposed. To make matters worse, one implication of the discovery was that the result of any subatomic interaction didn’t finalize until a sentient being observed it. To understand what this means, consider that old philosophical conundrum: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Well, according to one interpretation of quantum mechanics—the Copenhagen version first posited by the Nobel Laureate, Niels Bohr—the tree doesn’t even fall! Its subatomic particles remain in what is referred to as a probability wave until a sentient observer comes along. Thereupon the particles “choose” one of the infinite range of possibilities available to them. (My son, who is working on a physics PhD, tells me no one really believes that’s what happens, although it is consistent with the inexplicable results of various experiments. For more on this, see the book Schrodinger’s Kittens and the Search for Reality, by John Gribbin, which in my opinion is the best book about quantum mechanics written for lay people).

Perhaps one of the most significant discoveries that increased the uncertain worldview of our time was made by Bertrand Russell, a man who had once been a proponent of mathematical determinism. Russell discovered a logical inconsistency in set theory that is evident in the following question:
A man of Seville is shaved by the barber of Seville, if and only if, the man doesn’t shave himself. Does the barber shave himself?

The paradox can be described in a rigorous mathematical way, but consider the following simplification: Obviously, the barber of Seville either shaves himself or he doesn’t. Regardless, however, the result is illogical. If he shaves himself, he cannot be shaved by the barber of Seville, but since he is the barber of Seville and he shaves himself...well, you get the point. The problem, as Russell was able to distinguish, can occur anytime a set is an element of itself. For example, the set of men shaved by the barber of Seville (let’s call this A) is not an element of itself, because A is not a man shaved by the barber of Seville. However, let’s create another set (which we’ll call R) and include in it everything that is not in set A. Since set R is also not a man who is shaved by the barber of Seville, it is an element of itself, a characteristic often called self-referencing. This may seem like a trivial matter, but self-referencing can lead to serious logical problems and points to the limitations of logic.

Finally, let me describe a theorem that is simplistically sneaky, but has implications that have essentially put an end to strict mathematical determinism. I’m talking about Kurt Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which like Russell’s Paradox, has a rigorous mathematical rendering, but can be described in simplified terms.

Let’s say you create a computer that you call the Universal Truth Machine (or UTM for short) which you’ve programmed to tell the truth. Before approaching it, you write the following words on a sheet of paper:

The UTM will never say this sentence is true.

Now, you turn the UTM on, show it the paper and ask if the statement is true. What happens? First, the UTM can’t say the statement is true. Can you see why? If it does, the statement will be rendered false, which is contrary to the UTM’s programming. In a paradoxical way, the fact that the computer will not say the statement is true is your greatest evidence that the statement is, in fact, true. On the other hand, the UTM can’t say the statement is false, either, since as we’ve already demonstrated, that would be untrue. (Another way to look at it is if the UTM said the statement was false, it would render the statement true).
Again, the result seems contrived and trivial, but the math is sophisticated and full of implications. In short, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem suggests that rational thought can never penetrate to the ultimate truth, or said another way: There are truths that cannot be discerned, or proved, strictly through the use of logic.

June 24, 2009

Meeting My Granddaughter for the First Time

This is the star I orbit. I'm trapped in her gravity. There is no escape.

The Rap on Religion

Religion gets a bad rap. We blame it for every awful event in our history, from the Inquisition to 9-11, with slavery and the holocaust as examples that occurred in between. It’s not difficult to find fault in faith-based devotion, since it appears to be an element of much of the revolution and organized violence that occurs in the world. Yet while religion is certainly a part of the cultural tableau that permeates such sad historical events, can we really say it’s the underlying cause?

Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith and an ardent critic of religion, says we should recognize organized faiths—particularly, Islam, Judaism and Christianity—as institutions that threaten to undermine civilization due to their taboos against any questioning of their beliefs. The upshot of his message is that we should, in turn, question the ideal of religious tolerance. In fact, he encourages what he calls conversational intolerance, which demands that faith be put on the same plane as the study of physics or history in terms of our willingness to question its theories and conclusions. Anyone who has read from my blog knows that I embrace this idea completely. However, Harris goes too far (for my taste) by fostering a degree of intolerance that is as dangerous as the religious fanaticism he opposes. More importantly, he sees religion as the cause of the world’s problems, rather than a tool that corruption employs.

Let me be clear on this topic: I like the idea of conversational intolerance. Spirituality, in my opinion, should advance just like science and there’s no way to do so without changing the norms of the past. The religious codes by which we live, after all, were first proffered thousands of years ago to people living in circumstances little resembling our own. We should be willing, therefore, to measure our religious beliefs in the same way we probe our mathematical assumptions, by asking: Does this have value and how do I know it does? To do so, however, requires our ideal of faithfulness to eschew blind acceptance and be open to the kind of inquiry that may result in an occasional adjustment to core beliefs. If we can grow in this way, we accomplish what Harris wants without undermining the need for faith.

In contrast, a strict intolerance for faith that leads to its knee-jerk rejection (which I sense is what Harris is chomping at the bit to recommend) will only result in the creation of other gods. As I’ve argued before, a leap of faith is inevitable. We can only change the direction of that leap. The reason I believe this has its basis in the following two premises:
  1. Bad people—not bad religions—cause the world’s atrocities
  2. If faith can’t be used as a tool, bad people will create other “gods” to get what they want

I can’t think of any religion that demands its followers to live the law of the jungle. In fact, they all aspire, in some way, to raise people from a primal condition into some state of enlightenment. A religion may condone episodes of bloodshed to accomplish its objective, but in the end it hopes for social order. In this context, a recent article in Time Magazine, entitled Decoding God’s Changing Moods, points out that the God of scripture often vacillates between periods of belligerence and tolerance. The common theme behind the back-and-forth is this: When the scriptural worldview posits a non-zero-sum game, God tends to be more tolerant as a way to encourage a win-win. On the other hand, when a projected outcome sums to zero (such as a gain to the Palestinians is deemed a loss to Israel) watch out.

For that reason people can find scriptural rationale to act out their religious zeal as either angels or assholes. Some choose the former. Some choose the latter before discovering a moderating discipline in faith. Still others start out as assholes and adopt justification for their base desires in tortured interpretations of scripture. It wasn’t, therefore, religion that demanded the Inquisition. It was the same greedy and self-indulgent men who could overlook murder through the sale of indulgences that built the racks and established the tribunals. Their intent was to gain power and control over the masses, conditions for which there is no scriptural imperative. God didn’t want coerced professions of faith. To assume otherwise is to think He’s not very bright. Yet, to those men of the cloth who hungered for authority to the exclusion of Christ’s mercy, faith was simply a tool. If it hadn’t been available, they would have found another one like it.

Eliminating religion, therefore, only causes evil to recruit other gods. There are many from which to choose. Let me suggest a few:

  • Cultural or Ethnic Superiority
  • The Law
  • Economic Systems
  • Military or Technological Prowess
  • Hatred

Let me give you an example of how an alternative god can be held hostage and forced to participate in an atrocity. Some people blame the Catholic Church for turning a blind eye to the holocaust, but there was far more going on than Christianity taking a dim view of the descendants of those who were said to have crucified its Savior. As Hannah Arendt is quick to point out in her treatise, Eichmann in Jerusalem, the holocaust was authorized by a carefully crafted mountain of secular laws and legal interpretations. One such law permitted euthanasia for the physically and mentally handicapped. It apparently didn’t take much consideration to put Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals in that category. Yet, we don’t say the German legal system caused the holocaust. We understand that people determine and enforce laws.

In short, let’s not blame religion for the world’s ills. We might as easily say the devil made us do it. In the end, we have only ourselves to blame.

June 21, 2009

Touched by the Spirit

In response to one of my earlier blogs, Jack said the following:

I think you've overlooked the fact that when the spirit testifies of something (like, for example, that God lives) then you have your proof. That's more proof than anything a mathematician can show on paper.
To Jack and anyone else who cares to listen, let me relate a personal experience.

After Lori and I were married, we attended church at a Mormon ward that was comprised of young married students. I was asked, at the time, to organize regular events during which the ward members could gather and listen to speakers address issues of secular interest. Soon after accepting the responsibility, I heard of a man who’d uncovered numerous historical documents from the church's early days. I gave him a call and asked if he would speak to my congregation. He agreed without reservation.

On the evening of the event, the man came at the appointed time and brought several examples of documents he had uncovered. They included a fragment that contained Queen Isabella’s signature and another that came from an original Declaration of Independence. However, the document he showcased was a letter written by Lucy Mack Smith, the mother of the Mormon Church’s first prophet, Joseph Smith. He handed out copies of the letter printed on expensive parchment paper. I wish I still had my copy, but alas, I’ve lost it.

The letter was addressed to one of Lucy Mack Smith’s relations and told of the work Joseph was accomplishing to bring forth the Book of Mormon. He had, according to the letter, translated over 100 pages that Lucy referred to as the Book of Lehi. Two aspects of the letter’s contents are noteworthy. First, the over 100 pages (actually 116) were subsequently lost and never recovered. According to Mormon theology, God instructed Joseph to, rather than retranslate the work, replace it with a translation of another source document. Therefore, the contents of the original manuscript are the subject of much speculation. Nowhere that I know of, aside from the letter ascribed to Lucy Mack Smith, are there any claims that the lost pages were known as the Book of Lehi.

Second, the letter gives insight into Book of Mormon events that aren’t recorded in the current version. For example, the Book of Mormon talks of a prophet Lehi, who after prophesying of the destruction of Jerusalem, took his family into the desert to await further instruction from God. There, God ordered Lehi to send his sons back to Jerusalem to convince a man named Ishmael to accompany them into the wilderness. This was necessary, according to the account, so that Lehi’s sons would have Ishmael’s daughters to marry. As part of the letter’s commentary on the event, Lucy Mack Smith told her relation that Ishmael was Lehi’s brother and therefore knew of Lehi’s standing with God. That information is not included in the Book of Mormon today.

The reason this remains so clear in my memory is because the man who shared the document with us, became quite emotional as he referenced this section of the letter. He told us that he’d always wondered what would cause Ishmael to walk into the desert (after all, the invitation of a few young men who were hungry for his daughters seemed insufficient) but the letter answered his nagging question. When I say the man became emotional, what I mean is he shed tears of what appeared to be joy and gratitude, and with a wavering voice he shared a powerful testimony that the Book of Mormon was what it claimed to be: God’s word. I have to say that I was moved by what the man said, and judging from the sniffles and smiles from others who’d come to listen, I wasn’t alone. By the end of the evening, I was being congratulated for organizing a wonderful faith-promoting experiencing.

Why am I telling you this story?

If you’re familiar with events that shook the Salt Lake Valley in 1985, you’ll know that the Lucy Mack Smith letter is a forgery created by the very man who came to speak at the gathering I'd arranged. That man, Mark Hoffman, was the creator of dozens of similar forged documents, including one that is now known as the Salamander Letter, which supposedly quotes Joseph Smith and is an account of a white salamander that gave Joseph directions to where the source record for the Book of Mormon could be found. Yet, that’s not Mark Hoffman at his worst. In an effort to protect the secret of his forgeries, the man murdered two people and is now behind bars for the rest of his life.

My question is: Why would I—and others, too—have felt the spirit, if it confirmed what amounted to a lie? Perhaps it wasn’t the spirit, after all, but an emotional response based upon William James’ will to believe. The fact is, as I’ve asserted elsewhere, we can’t know if God is speaking to us, although it would be nice to think He does.

What I’ve written here isn’t an isolated case, as I could give other examples. For instance, my first spiritual experience was in the Vatican, while I sang with a choir in Saint Peters Basilica. Most Mormons would object if I were to say that the spirit had come to testify of Catholicism. Then, a year later, I decided to go on a mission after hearing a church leader, Paul H. Dunn, speak. Dunn was an extraordinary orator, who had tremendous influence over the youth of the church. During his address he spoke of once being a pitcher for the Saint Louis Cardinals and of his exploits as a decorated soldier in the Korean War. Though I was filled with what I presumed then to be the spirit, subsequent developments have cast a shadow on that special moment in my life. You see, a journalist began looking into Dunn’s background and discovered that he’d never played professional baseball, neither had he fought in a war. When this information came to light, Dunn was quickly put on emeritus status by the church.

In a future blog, I’d like to use Mormon scripture to show how difficult it is to “hear” God’s instructions, but for now, let’s acknowledge the difficulty and the underlying uncertainty involved. At the very least, we might admit that such an experience is not proof at all, but a jumping off place for our leap of faith.

June 18, 2009

Happy Fathers Day

My father first took me fishing before I could grasp a rod, and for more than a decade of summers thereafter, he made it an almost daily practice. Until this year I'd come to think our excursions were a thing of the past. Yet when I needed it most, Dad found a way back to tranquil water.

I grew up in Southcentral Alaska, where salmon filled the rivers and gave themselves up to a hungry food chain. My father and I caught more than a few fish together, but that was never our primary interest. Spending time outdoors in a place shaped by mammoth tides and glacier-fed streams was at least as important. For Dad, it was also an opportunity to put theory into action. He worried about me--knowing the problems kids face--but he figured: Boys who are busy fishing won't get into trouble.
Today I understand his reasoning, because I recognize fishing as a remedy for a host of ills. I planned my life on the banks of turquoise rivers, a fly rod in hand, casting flesh and egg patterns to monster rainbow trout and char. Dad would point to interesting water and muse aloud at how he might fish it. Being a serious angler, he didn't say much otherwise, just smiled in my direction when he hooked something big.

I learned life's lessons while with Dad. One summer we pulled two grown men from a river after their conoe had capsized. Safe on the bank, they watched their camping gear float away and the first words either of them could muster was: "Hell, there goes my cigarettes." I laughed until I recognized a melancholy side to wanting.

But that didn't stop me from doing the same thing: want things that seemed to drift beyond my grasp. I left Alaska in search of fortunes elsewhere and saw my parents only during the handful of vacation days I could scrape up. The regularity of our fishing trips became further constrained by Dad's age and diminished health. Then a few years ago, my folks moved to the small town in Idaho where my father grew up.

I thought the relocation would mark an end to our time on water, but Dad saw opportunity in it. He reminded me that a day's drive was all that separated us now and that Alaska didn't hold a monopoly on fish. He spoke of trout streams near his new home--places he'd frequented as a boy--and invited me to spend a week with him to try our luck there.

I jumped at the chance, in part, because I'd come through a rough patch. After two decades searching for wealth (and finding only money and position instead) I was disillusioned and unhappy. I'd just quit my job and begun to think of myself as a "recovering" investment banker. I swore to do something nobler than mind the figures in a trading ledger, but I needed time to clear my head and make plans. A week with Dad on a trout stream sounded therapeutic, if not magical.
There were unexpected bonuses to our reunion. Dad showed me the home where he was born, the camp he'd visited as a Boy Scout and the grove where he'd picked chokecherries. We went to a diner and ordered the special--chicken noodle soup on mashed potatoes--and I listened to Dad's recollections of a time long ago.

Early the first full day, he drove us along a dirt road through hay and barley fields until we arrived at a train trestle spanning a deep chasm. The rails had been stripped, but Dad remembered when trains still ran the line. The year 1882 was cast into one of the concrete butresses, but the girders were as clean as if they'd been set in place a month before.

We walked across the span over swirling water a hundred fee below us. Boulders and fallen timber littered the streambed. Cottonwoods and scrub willows covered each slope. Upstream the water curved and left a promising pool along one bank. In the opposite direction swift wter disappeared behind thick foliage. The creek had everything we wanted: deep pockets, riffles, cutbanks and rocks. In a manner approaching reverence, my father spoke its name: Bitch Creek.
When I wondered about its appellation, Dad shrugged. "She's a bitch to get down to," is all he said.

Undaunted, we clambered down the slope through a cloud of dust, hoping we'd eventually find an easier way back. From the bank we threw stone-fly nymphs and hopper patterns into the swirling water behind boulders. Native cutthroats, some as long as our forearms, took with a vengeance and fought like berserkers.
By the end of the day, my therapy had taken hold and I stopped worrying about life's vagaries. Being with Dad reminded me that the riches of a lifetime aren't found in the baubles we collect, but in human relationships. And as long as there are babbling streams and a father's devotion, I figure this boy won't get into too much trouble.

Happy Fathers Day, Dad.

June 17, 2009

Good Answer

In reference to my last blog, Matt said the following:

I think the distinction between religion-based faith and science-based faith is that when I believe in a scientific theory, I do so with full knowledge that it may (and probably will) be supplanted by a more complete theory in the future. This doesn't mean that it was wrong to believe in the theory in the first place. It can be viewed more as a stepping-stone on the way towards the real truth.

Maybe this is the point that you've been getting at the whole time in regards to religious faith. I think what Christ ultimately wants is for us to search for truth throughout our lives. We may not learn everything there is to know about this world, but the mere act of searching (within his guidelines) is what makes us better people. I believe that doing so will bring us farther ahead than those who thought they knew the whole truth from the beginning.

I love this idea and concur with it completely. It raises, however, an interesting view of religious faith. When Einstein delivered his General Theory of Relativity, did people of science throw up their hands and say, "Newton was an idiot. He deceived us."? Of course not. We still revere Sir Isaac for the classical physics he developed (which is still a pretty-darn good description of the world) but we understand that it misses a few ingredients.

Someday, we'll probably learn that there's another physical law--that elusive Theory of Everything--that will combine General Relativity with quantum mechanics. Will we then say, "Einstein was a bonehead. He led us down the wrong path"? No, we will still see him as a brilliant man, whose shoulders we've climbed upon to gain a view to higher ground.

Why can't people of religious faith do the same? Why can't we assume that there is more to learn regarding spiritual matters than what's written in the Bible? To believe it should serve the same purpose for me as it did for a people steeped in superstition who were living a hand-to-mouth existence, defies reason. I don't own an ox that might get stuck in the mud on the Sabbath. Though the Bible is a wonderful guide, we must use it as one of many guides that puts us on higher ground in order to deal with issues the Children of Israel must have thought highly improbable.

June 14, 2009

The Leap of Faith

Someone recently asked me to clarify what I mean about a leap of faith and why I claim that all people experience it. Let me begin by saying that I take a more inclusive view on the nature of faith. To me, it’s any unproven, or un-provable, premise upon which we base our decisions. I realize that most people see faith as a religious construct. However, I recognize little difference in the effect of 1) believing God wills the sun to rise in the morning, versus 2) believing the interaction of gravitational fields causes the phenomenon. Eventually, one has to put trust in a concept that is unseen.

I know what you’re thinking. One might object by saying gravity is a proven physical property, whereby God’s existence is not. To this I say: Proof, at a personal level, is something that occurs in the intellect and heart. For instance, going back to the concept of gravity, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to fathom Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which is sometimes described as a theory of gravity. While Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is quite easy to conceptualize (first-year physics students are required to understand it) the General Theory is dense and requires a background in complex mathematics, including non-Euclidean geometry, to master. To fully comprehend it, one must go beyond the conceptual breakthrough Einstein achieved in equating gravity with acceleration. Though I believe in his theories, I’m relegated to only professing faith in them. Despite much effort otherwise, I don’t understand his work in any degree that I can call knowledge. Furthermore, I can’t see gravity. All I can see of it is what I presume to be gravity’s effects, including the earth’s orbit around the sun.

What I’ve just described is also akin—I might say, nearly identical—to my faith in God. Though in many ways God remains a mystery to me, logic has led me to believe in His existence and the value of the gospel of love and kindness He espouses. The logical pathway that has led me to a subsequent leap of faith is perhaps the topic of another discussion, but for now let me say this: I’ve come to believe in God, not through any willy-nilly process, but through study and contemplation of life’s experiences. Yet, I’m quick to admit that my concept of Him might be wrong or incomplete, which notion keeps me learning and allows my faith to rest comfortably beside Einstein’s (and Darwin’s, as well as other people’s) theories. In fact, I’m convinced that God wants us—above all else—to never end our search for knowledge and to accept what is true no matter where truth is found. That idea is contained in the following poem I penned many years ago:

Drawing its timelessness incapsulated,
As from an apothecary’s jar,
The word stretched me beyond horizons
To give me a sense of God.

For what of Godliness,
Unless it be unfettered, unchained,
Free of horizons constraining mortal men?

Its good news changed this mortal’s course,
Having swallowed
(But being swallowed in return)
And hearing Him, who was more than philosopher say:
“Know the truth,”
I’ve searched.

But the search continues,
For somewhere unbound and never-resting,
The father of my soul urges onward,
To walk the path free of mortal constraints,
To be like him:
Unfettered and unchained.

A belief that the sun will rise tomorrow—whether it’s derived from religious faith, logic, or a combination of the two—results in behavior that plans and prepares for the eventuality. In the same way, if we were confident the sun would never rise again, would we go to work tomorrow? Most of us, I’m sure, would huddle with family and other loved ones in an expression of love and devotion until the end came or we were proved wrong. This result would be the same, whether rooted in scriptural or scientific revelation. To that extent, the effects of our assumptions are similar, no matter how they’re derived.

Here, I must be allowed a digression: Would the holocaust—or the inquisition, or slavery, for that matter—have occurred without religion? In my opinion, immoral and selfish people would have justified such abhorrent acts on the basis of some other philosophy or pseudo science. In each case, it was political gain and wealth that people were after and tortured logic made God a convenient scapegoat. (I’d like to discuss this in more detail in some future blog).

But back to my point: Another way to express a leap of faith is to say thinking people, over the course of their lifetimes, acquire sets of values based upon personal inquiries that little differ whether approached from a religious or secular perspective. These personal inquiries include the following:

  • Is there a God who loves me and can intercede on my behalf?
  • Is there a purpose for me in life? If so, how can I actualize it?
  • What is the nature of human beings? Are they good, evil, or neither?
  • What is proper behavior and what is its calculus?
Notice two things about these questions. First, they have been—and will continue to be—asked by spiritual and secular thinkers alike, and are as important to reason-loving Plato as to the deeply pious Kant. They are the purview of both religion and social science, and are topics central to what Mortimer Adler calls, “The Great Conversation,” which every generation must consider for itself. Second, none of these questions can be answered by pointing to indisputable physical proof, but must be concluded on a deeply personal basis. The process of answering these questions is the universal leap of faith of which I speak.

The resulting faith—the set of assumptions we each acquire—gives birth to core values and becomes the basis for every decision made. However, as I’ve said many times before, these decisions are rooted in beliefs rather than knowledge and we should be open to the possibility that better choices are available.