Sunday, June 30, 2013

Potpourri No. 37

Current events from my life, made quick n’ easy:

Back in School
I’ve completed my first week as a TA for symbolic logic. This is the same course I taught myself two summers ago. The class is small. So far, there are only 9 or 10 students showing up regularly. The instructor for the course had to leave town for a wedding, so I actually taught Wednesday through Friday’s classes. That means I’ve taught more than the instructor at this point. In a way, it makes it feel like it’s my class. I feel some ownership of it, and it’s almost sad to be handing over the reins to someone else. The students have also been quite kind in their reception of me. They say they like my style of teaching and are concerned to see it go. I’m flattered. But it makes things kind of awkward, no?

Cold as Ice
A few months ago, the fridge in our apartment died. They replaced it with a fridge from a vacant apartment, but that fridge soon demonstrated problems of its own. The inside roof of the fridge would start dripping every once in a while, sometimes copiously. The bottom interior of the fridge would get flooded. The maintenance crew came by and messed with the fridge, but after a week or two, the problem would start again. Every time we called on it, the maintenance guy would come by, clear out our fridge, pull off some interior walls, and chip away panes of ice that had formed. He’d then say something like, “Let’s see if that solves the problem.” When Melanie pointed out that this is what the guy had already done and that it didn’t resolve anything, he told her he hadn’t. We knew he had, but he insisted this was a new technique. Well, finally, after reporting the problem again early last week, they gave us a brand new fridge. Like, brand spanking new. It’s basically the same model, but a slightly updated version that is enough to excite us. There’s an extra shelf in the door, and a high shelf in the freezer that allows you to put something above the ice maker and so utilize more space. It’s not taller, but it’s deeper and so has just a tiny bit more room. Fridge items have also felt colder than they have in a long time, despite the fridge not being turned up as high. It’s nice.

Homeward Bound
The deal is done. Melanie and I have officially purchased airplane tickets to travel to Utah in August. We’ll be there twice as long as we had anticipated, which is fun in theory but also slightly unnerving. I won’t get much (if anything) done on my dissertation during that time, so I’m taking a hit when it comes to productivity. The trip will also overlap with the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, both for me and for Edison and Peter (who are beginning 2nd grade and Kindergarten, respectively—holy crapanolli!). There wasn’t a convenient, cost-effective way to avoid this, however. We need to be in Utah for my little sister’s wedding, so that’s that. We toyed with the idea of me flying back to Florida and then returning to Utah a few days later, but that’s obviously ridiculous and not something we could even afford to do. And so we’re forced to have an extra long vacation. Sigh. What can you do?

Golden Slumbers
For whatever reason, I have slept better over the last several nights than I have in years. Our oldest child is about to turn 7, which means it’s been approximately seven years since I’ve had a full night’s sleep. It’s incredibly rare—rare enough that it’s safe to say “never”—that I don’t wake up multiple times in the night. Kids are one large part of the equation, but they’re not the only problem. Having my arms go dead, having too much light in the room, and other factors frequently come into play. But, somehow, I have slept more deeply and soundly during the past week than I have in the better part of a decade. It feels absolutely heavenly. I still wake up a few times in the night, but it’s brief and I don’t feel agitated and restless. I quickly slip back into a deep, heavy sleep, and when I wake up in the morning, I feel satisfied and as though I’ve just indulged in something. I hate to report this and somehow jinx it. I can’t imagine it will last, but I desperately hope it will. It would be a dream come true.

Friday, June 21, 2013


Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)

Nobody’s perfect. This is a familiar adage, one with which most of us readily agree. And yet sometimes religious folk have a difficult time accepting their imperfections. “I’m not perfect, but I should be. It’s my fault that I’m not. I need to work on it. I could be perfect if only I’d make better choices. Perfection is always a possibility, even if I constantly choose not to make it a reality.” So the thinking goes. All too often, this can lead to shame, hopelessness, and other negative feelings that I do not believe God endorses.

One of the most fascinating Bible stories, in my opinion, is that of Adam and Eve. Never mind how much of the story, if any, is to be taken literally. I think Adam and Eve teach us profound truths about our fundamental role as human beings who stand in some sort of relationship to God. I’ve been amazed at just how many insights the Adam and Eve narrative has provided me. There are some intriguing possibilities lying between the lines of the Genesis text, many more than I’m sure I’ve even realized. That being said, I’d like to explore just one of the ideas that recently occurred to me, which considers what Adam and Eve can teach us about perfection.

Within the first couple of chapters of Genesis, God issues two commandments. At Genesis 1:28, God tells Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth.” In the second chapter of Genesis, the tree of knowledge of good and evil is introduced (see verse 9). This results in a second commandment at verse 17, where God prohibits eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. When Adam and Eve subsequently partake of the tree’s fruit, they are banished from the Garden of Eden. This is frequently referred to as “the fall.”

Some have suggested that prior to the fall, Adam and Eve were incapable (whether biologically, psychologically, or otherwise) of having sexual intercourse. If it is true that the Adam and Eve story should be understood in this way, it raises an interesting question as to how Adam and Eve were supposed to fulfill the commandment to multiply and replenish the earth. It would seem that the fall was a necessary stepping stone to discharging this particular duty. This may appear unproblematic at first. If God is all-knowing, then presumably God knew that Adam and Eve would partake of the forbidden fruit. It may even have been a part of His plan. But what concerns me is not the de facto inevitability of Adam and Eve partaking of the fruit. It’s that, on this interpretation, God issued a set of commandments that could not be mutually satisfied. It isn’t just that Adam and Eve undoubtedly would partake of the fruit. It’s that they could not obey every commandment that God had given them. They were literally incapable.

Was God being unfair to issue Adam and Eve commandments that they were not capable of satisfying? Not necessarily. Perhaps as a perfect being, God must demand perfection. That is, perhaps God cannot endorse less than perfection because … well, that would be imperfect. If it was best that Adam and Eve multiply and replenish the earth, then that is what a perfect being would demand of them. That would be the standard to which Adam and Eve must be held. Interestingly, if Adam and Eve themselves were perfect beings, then presumably they could have complied with all of God’s commandments. They would have had the knowledge and/or abilities necessary to multiply and replenish the earth, and they wouldn’t have needed to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They would already be knowledgeable, and so the fruit would have served no purpose. (Likewise, the serpent could not have beguiled them.) The point I am making is that God issued a set of standards that complied with perfection but which imperfect beings therefore could not—and not just would not—live up to.

In my mind, this shifts the way we should think about perfection. Or, perhaps more importantly, it shifts how we should think about imperfection. We are imperfect beings. That is our nature. Because this is our nature, we literally cannot satisfy all of the commandments. We don’t know how and we don’t have the means. The best that we can do is venture forward, doing our best to satisfy the commandments as well as we understand them, knowing we will forever fall short. That is why we need a messiah, a redeemer, someone in whom we can be made perfect. It is not because we are inherently awful, but because we are works in progress. What we must keep in mind is that, even as we progress, we are imperfect. We aren’t omniscient, omnipotent, or omnibenevolent as God is. And so we cannot live up to His perfect standards. Not yet anyway. For us perfection must wait until the next life, when we become “heirs of God” (Romans 8:17) and “inherit all things” (Revelation 21:7). What this tells me is that imperfection is fundamentally a matter of our mortal nature, not a matter of choice. Granted, we can make poor choices. We can willfully do terrible things. And we can’t excuse these actions simply by citing our imperfect natures. And yet it’s also true that not every instance of failing to live up to the commandments is an instance of being a bad person or of doing things “wrong.” Yes, you’re imperfect. But all that means is that you’re not done progressing. It means nothing about the direction in which you’re headed.

Interestingly, when we look at key passages in the New Testament (such as Matthew 5:48, which is quoted at the top of this post), we find that the original Greek term that is translated as “perfect” is τέλειος (or teleios). This word suggests being in a state of completion. Indeed, even Jesus speaks of being perfected in this sense. Alluding to his forthcoming resurrection, Jesus taught: “The third day I shall be perfected” (Luke 13:32). If we take Jesus at his word, then even he was imperfect. Why? Because there was more work for him to do.  He hadn’t yet fully satisfied the demands of God. If we are in the same boat, it should come as no surprise. At the very least, we shouldn’t consider it such a strike against us if we are, at any given moment, undeniably imperfect.

Despite the above considerations, Jesus is not the perfect example of an imperfect person. Only an extremely radical Christian—one that deviates sharply from the traditional Christian narrative—would suggest that Jesus was ever guilty of sin. A good case can be made that Jesus’ sinless nature is essential to the Christian faith. That sets him quite apart from his followers. But my point is that the relationship between sin and imperfection is not as clear-cut as it is often supposed. Sure, sin entails imperfection. But imperfection does not entail sin. It is my view that part of what we are meant to do on this earth is learn how best to allocate our finite spiritual resources, knowing that we cannot—and not just will not—do all that we are asked. Putting it crudely, we must decide which commandments we will obey on a moment-by-moment basis. And we must choose which forbidden fruit we will partake of, living as we do in a world where even the best available fruit rarely comes without blemish.

Saturday, June 15, 2013


I watched an amazing documentary on Netflix last night. Kumaré is about a man, Vikram Gandhi, who poses as a guru in order to see how easily he can attract religious followers. As it turns out, religious devotees are a dime a dozen. Virkam’s experiment begins as a personal journey to find religious truth. Having grown up in a New Jersey home steeped in Hindu tradition, Vikram is something of a skeptic. When the academic study of religion only increases his doubts about religious truth, he travels to India and meets with various self-proclaimed gurus. The experience solidifies Vikram’s disbelief in religion, a conviction he seeks to exploit by demonstrating on film just how readily people seeking for truth will follow someone who claims to have special access to it.

What follows is sure to defy your expectations. Kumaré is funny, profound, moving, and, with Vikram ultimately planning to reveal his charade to his disciples, surprisingly intense. What I plan to offer here is not a normal review, however. Instead, I wish to speak to some of the important truths that I feel Kumaré illustrates. I strongly suggest that you read no further unless you have already seen Kumaré. While I do not plan on giving away anything too significant, I strongly believe that both the movie and the discussion below will be more enjoyable if you watch the movie first. Go ahead. I can wait. When you’re done, come back and join in the discussion.

The thing that surprised me most about Kumaré is that it doesn’t come off as anti-religious. I expected the film to suggest that all religion is a sham, that we believe what we want to believe, and that truth is ultimately irrelevant to religious conviction. Roger Ebert seems to interpret the film this way. He sums up his review by stating that “the film’s implication seems to be: It doesn’t matter if a religion’s teachings are true. What matters is if you think they are.” I saw matters quite differently. I took the film to demonstrate just how important it is to differentiate between message and messenger, and to emphasize the fact that the assessment and acquisition of truth is in the end an individual and personal endeavor. As anyone who has read my blog over the last several months can tell you, these points really resonate with me. I see them as among the most fundamental religious truths there are. And yet these are two areas where we are especially prone to make mistakes. Roger Ebert himself blurs the line between message and messenger when he fails to distinguish the fabricated character of Kumaré from Kumaré’s teachings. Sure, Kumaré was a fraud in one very obvious sense. But were his teachings false? Not clearly. From my perspective, what made Vikram’s experiment such a success is that he promoted good and true principles—principles of love, tranquility, and self-empowerment—that other people quickly latched onto. What’s more, Kumaré frequently told his followers, “This is all an illusion. This isn’t who I really am. I’m just like you.” It was, in part, Kumaré’s penchant for honesty that made his superficial shenanigans so fascinating.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past year, it’s that once you recognize the difference between message and messenger, religions aren’t such easy things to discredit. Say what you will about Vikram’s willingness to deceive those who trusted him. It doesn’t follow that the Kumaré religion was altogether bogus. I found a lot in common with my own religious beliefs. In a nutshell, I saw Kumaré as offering unconditional, non-judgmental love and support to others. He encouraged them to lay claim to their own limitless potentials. Does this sound like anyone else you know? Jesus taught us to “love one another” (John 13:34), including our enemies (Luke 6:27), to “judge not” (Matthew 7:1), and that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). Not that these things are unique either to Christianity or to Kumaré. On the contrary, they are familiar to and accepted by many. It’s not surprising that Kumaré could sell such precepts with ease. And it’s for this reason that I do not see Kumaré the film as particularly disparaging of religion. If anything, it highlights what is fundamentally true about most religions.

As Kumaré illustrates, most of us are concerned not only with getting to the truth but with how we get there. Would Kumaré’s followers have embraced his message if he had delivered it independent of the guru persona? It’s unlikely. But would the message have been any less true? These questions should give pause to any sincere seeker of truth. So should the flipside to these questions, which asks how many of Kumaré’s students, once hooked, would have accepted anything Kumaré told them? I believe these are questions that any religious adherent would do well to apply to his/her own situation. From a Christian perspective, I think of Jesus’ counsel to “beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matthew 7:15). If a person has the right appearance and the proper religious credentials, whatever you consider those things to be, do you accept that person’s teachings without a second thought? Conversely, do you seek after truth with enough diligence that you can accept finding it in unexpected places? Or do you dismiss anyone and anything that doesn’t fit the mold you have constructed in your head? The frightening thing to me is that many, if not most, of the prophets and religious leaders I accept from the past were marginalized and even rejected by a majority of their contemporaries. This includes those who belonged to the “correct” religious tradition of the time. As just one example, Jesus was, for all intents and purposes, an apostate Jew. I don’t think this is something to shrug off. Some may counter that Jesus had the authority to apostatize because, after all, true authority is found in Heaven and not in earthly institutions. But to that I would simply say, “Yes, exactly.”

I firmly believe in personal responsibility when it comes to religion. I firmly believe that one cannot and should not rely on others as the final arbiters of truth. I reject the idea that truth is relative, and yet I concede that one’s access to truth necessarily is relative. For that reason, one cannot shirk the responsibility of assessing whatever is presented to one as truth. I also believe that one can come to truth in a variety of ways and that seeking truth with an open mind is essential to its discovery. I believe that when we conflate the vehicles for truth with truth itself, we run a twofold risk: we can miss truth that comes from unexpected and/or unfamiliar sources, and we can all too easily accept as truth falsities that come from sources we trust. Whatever the intent of the filmmaker, I believe Kumaré deftly demonstrates each of these points.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Father’s Day: Sneak Preview

A few days ago, Eddie made me an early Father’s Day card. It brought me great joy. It’s two-sided. I’ve scanned it and included the scanned images below.

Note: The words circling the sun read “Love to Dad” (written in reverse).  Eddie says the words are meant to look like the rays of the sun.

Like any good dad, I think I’ve got the greatest kids in the world. When I put them to bed at night, I almost always recite to each of them individually: “I love you so much. You make me smile. I’m so glad I’m your dad. You make me soooooooo happy.” It’s a standardized phrase at this point, but it is my hopes that the standardization will help my boys to grow up remembering exactly what I always told them. More importantly, it is my hopes that they will believe and know that what I told them is true. (All of the glaring shortcomings of their father notwithstanding.)

In related news, Melanie has already agreed (at her suggestion) to make a pot roast, “funeral potatoes,” and apple cobbler for Father’s Day dinner. I can hardly wait.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Seeking the Strait and Narrow

Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Matthew 7:14)

Seek, and ye shall find. (Matthew 7:7)

How much do we seek “the way which leadeth unto life”? I am genuinely concerned that very few of us do. Jesus said few people find the way, and yet he gave us good instruction on how to find the way: seek it. Tellingly, it was the disciples of Jesus—those who followed him “up into a mountain” and away from the goings-on of the world—to whom he gave this counsel (see Matt. 5:1). These were people who, you might say, were already converted to Christ. And yet they were the ones instructed to seek, because the path to eternal life isn’t going to be an altogether obvious one. What this tells me is that following Jesus and hearkening to his words is just the beginning. There is more to be done, more truth to discover. This point is made even more explicit in Mormon scripture: “Seek not for riches but for wisdom, and behold, the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich. Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich” (D&C 6:7). In either instance, Christ is addressing a body of believers, and the directive to seek is left fairly open-ended. To presume that belonging to a certain religious tradition absolves one of the need to seek truth is to overlook the fact that Jesus was speaking to those who had already embraced him as their teacher.

I’ve done a lot of seeking over the last year. Have I discovered more truth? I’d say I have. It hasn’t been an easy-going venture. It’s been crushingly difficult at times. I say all this because I think I’ve seen just how easy it is not to seek the hidden terrain of truth and instead stick to the well-worn trails of convention upon which so many seem happy to travel. Granted, the trails of truth and convention can and sometimes do overlap. But that makes it all the harder to know which path you’re really following, to recognize when the two separate, and to determine which path is which once they diverge. If we take the Sermon on the Mount as a travel guide, there are several signposts we can look for that will indicate we’re following in Christ’s footsteps. Looking to the seventh chapter alone of Matthew, we’ll know we’re on the right path when: we no longer view others as inferior to or less deserving than ourselves (7:1-5); we do not take spiritual matters lightly nor breed contention by sharing spiritual insights with parties that aren’t interested, prepared, and/or to whom we haven’t been inspired to share (7:6); we genuinely, actively, and indiscriminately love others (7:12; cf. Matt. 22:37-40). How many people truly seek to cultivate these traits, let alone the further light and knowledge that is promised to those who embrace these preparatory qualities? How much of what we latch onto really has anything to do with walking this path? When one person scoffs, even privately, at another for wearing two earrings in one ear, there is great cause for concern. Not only does it violate the injunction not to judge, but it is unclear how the issue of wearing two earrings in one ear has anything to do with loving and serving others. In my mind, this suggests that God is not the one who is concerned with doubly-pierced ears. Whose path are we on when we insist on following unofficial rules more stubbornly than we do following the Spirit?

I want to be clear. I don’t think I’m suddenly doing things right while everyone else around me is doing things wrong. But I feel like the last 12 months have granted me a sobering dose of 20/20 hindsight. Key among the things I’ve learned is that seeking—really seeking—is a more proactive endeavor than I ever before realized. It requires more than doing things by the book and trusting or even hoping that your understanding of things will grow as an automatic consequence thereof. It requires questioning, pondering, and wrestling with and for the truth—not just when you happen to be confused by something, but also (and especially) when complacency comes cheap, when you could just as easily go on your merry way clinging to the status quo. It requires accepting that your current belief system is undeniably flawed and in need of improvement; there simply isn’t a possibility of growth if your beliefs aren’t amenable to change because you insist that they are already correct. It also requires trust, albeit trust that is properly placed—namely, in God. A good deal of trust must also be put in yourself, because God ultimately speaks to you through you and nobody else, regardless of who that other person is and/or what his/her credentials are. Scholars, prophets, and fellow parishioners—even if God uses these and others as his occasional mouthpiece, He has promised that He will confirm the truth of their sayings by the witness of the Holy Ghost. This is how God communicates to us directly, and that is the only voice we should hearken to obey. Anything else threatens to become idol worship, to place other gods above the true God.

It is less surprising to me than it once was that few people find the strait and narrow path. Who wants to bother? Isn’t it easier to do what everyone else does? To accept one’s beliefs as they stand? To follow modern-day religious leaders, whose words come to us in our native tongues and require no great deal of interpretation? Why should I stress and struggle to figure things out for myself? Why should I go through the laborious process of fine-tuning my spiritual sensitivities so that I can be perfected in knowledge, when I can get most things mostly right just by following the counsel of other human beings?

Few people find the strait and narrow path because few people seek it, and few people seek it because few people really want to bother.

Time to get bothered, methinks.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Potpourri No. 36

Light portions o’ life…

Summertime, Summertime, Sum- Sum- Summertime
While my summer break is halfway over, this marks the first full week that Edison (and thus Melanie) is relieved of school duties. Eddie was very excited for his summer break to begin, and so far it’s going well. Melanie’s planned enough activities to keep the kids fairly busy thus far. But adjustments are never completely easy, and the kids are a bit more unruly now that their days are a little less structured. Oddly, the kids’ freedom is having an effect on me, such that I feel more in vacation mode than I should. I’ve been slacking a bit during these last few days. I’ve loved it, but I need to get back on track. (Writing this blog isn’t helping, but oh well.) It’s crazy to think that in less than three months, Eddie will be in 2nd grade and Peter will be in Kindergarten! I guess it’s just me that isn’t making any progress!

More Summer…
It’s 99.99% official that Melanie, the kids, and I will indeed be heading to Utah for an as-of-yet undetermined amount of time in August. We’ve been wishy-washy about committing to the idea of traveling home this year, but with my little sister planning to get married (!!!) in the next couple of months, how can we not? Details are forthcoming, so stay tuned!

Last night while lounging in front of the TV, Melanie and I opened up some crumb donut gems we had purchased earlier in the day. I took a bite and said something like, “What in the—?” The taste was strange. It had a vibrant flavor, almost amplified in its sweetness but not entirely dessert-like. The thought that came immediately to mind was that the donut tasted a bit like green onion. (Gag!) I swallowed the piece in my mouth, and Melanie immediately showed me what appeared to be mold growing on the donut gem in her hand. I assume it was mold, anyway. Perhaps the preservatives affect the way mold can grow on pre-packaged baked goods, but the growth wasn’t green or blue. Instead, it basically looked like a cobweb had grown in the hole in the middle of the donut. I checked another donut, and it was the same. I then looked at the packaging and could not find an expiration date anywhere, which was both bizarre and unsettling. Needless to say, I felt rather disgusted that I had probably swallowed a mold cobweb. I then drank a lot of Diet Mountain Dew, hoping the soda would kill whatever bacteria had gotten into my stomach. I never puked, so I guess the soda was an inspired move on my part.

Jean-Clod Damn Van
I’ve written numerous times about the problems we’ve experienced with our minivan. Somehow, almost magically, the latter half of 2012 was a miraculous time for the van. There weren’t any issues with the van for several months. Then, out of nowhere, on the day Melanie’s parents flew into town to visit us in February, the van didn’t start. Fortunately, Melanie’s dad got it running for us (as I wrote about here) and there weren’t any problems for over two months. Then, a few weeks ago, a hose burst in the van that sent coolant all over the place. It was at the end of my semester, so I put fixing the van on hold. Well, I went to start the van a few days ago, and it won’t start. The battery seems to have at least some juice in it, but it won’t turn over. Now what do I do? I don’t know about these things, and we don’t have money. We get along quite well with just the Corolla, but I’ll soon be heading to campus five days a week and it would be nice to have two working vehicles. Curse this van. Curse it to heck.

You’ve Got a Friend
I’m not exaggerating when I say that I rarely talk to anyone other than my wife and kids. When school’s in session and I’m a TA, I talk to whatever teacher I work for. That accounts for maybe 10-20 minutes of socializing per week. Other than that, I don’t have much occasion to talk to people. I engage in small talk with some people at church, I say things like “Hi” and “Thanks” to the cashiers at the grocery store or the gas station, and I make the occasional comment on Facebook. But I don’t have friends that I hang out with. For the most part, I’m fine with this. I honestly don’t know a lot of people that I feel inclined to hang out with. This has changed recently, however. Melanie has become good friends with a woman who goes to our church, and I kept hearing things about this woman and her husband that made me think they were my kind of people. I hoped we’d get together sometime as a group, and on Saturday, they spontaneously invited us over to dinner. We had a great time. Eddie, Peter, and Creegan loved playing with this other couple’s kids, while we adults enjoyed conversing about religion and music, two topics that I basically cannot get enough of. As I told the husband, we seemed to share similar “intellectual values.” This allowed us to discuss things quite freely and openly. I found it very rewarding, and I think they did too. I know Melanie and I aren’t likely to be here in Tallahassee beyond next summer, but I’m hopeful that we can foster this newfound friendship in the meantime.

That’s all, folks!