Miracles Reappraised

I feel as though my prior, cursory treatment of spiritual experiences and the miraculous was inadequate, especially since it only addressed healing. In this post, I will seek to define a miracle, lay out modernist/philosophical objections, and conclude with a postmodernist/perspective-based model of miracles with God in the panentheistic sense being assumed.

The courage of being even in despair.

The courage of being even in despair.

What is a miracle? Assuming a theistic deity, a miracle today involves a God who intervenes from “out there” (outside of the universe?) in order to alter apparent laws of nature. The interventions occur randomly, often appearing to have little rhyme or reason; but more on this in a moment. Thus a miracle today consists of outdated perceptions of deity, in which accruing God’s favor through supplication is the primary vehicle for effecting a miraculous occurrence.

The modern era has yielded scientific and philosophical objections to this concept of a miracle. Scientific objections include a Newtonian-based reality in which the universe operates mathematically and is therefore closed to intervention. That is the primary reason for the emergence of deism in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a God of science. Although the Newtonian worldview has been challenged, the idea that there are scientific laws in the universe still retains a level of legitimacy. Beyond laws of nature, the problem of the potentially infinite vastness of the universe poses another problem to traditional ideas about miracles. From where does God intervene? As I alluded to earlier, is it outside the universe? How distant is God? Such is the problem with the theistic emphasis on divine objectification and transcendence, rather than a balance between immanence and transcendence. Finally, and perhaps most critical, is the philosophical problem of evil. Why does God let people suffer continually? How can God help some while letting others suffer? Though it has been stated before, how could God have allowed the Holocaust to happen without preventing millions of deaths? What about the genocide in Darfur today? Perhaps the words of the Epicurean Paradox will summarize best the conundrum of the theistic deity:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Perhaps then, the miraculous needs to be reappraised and understood differently. In this sense, phenomena deemed inexplicable due to the boundaries of science and the modern worldview are instead seen as “marvels” (see Crossan, “Birth of Christianity”). The postmodern understanding which I propose sees the miraculous in light of both the modern worldview and the power of perspective. In illustrating the power of perspective, the late author DF Wallace recounted a story of an atheist and a believer:

“There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.'” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was, was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

In sum, the miraculous is in the eye of the beholder. However, I believe this dichotomy can be transcended. For one thing, God as both immanent and transcendent addresses the problem of where God is located. To illustrate this concept of the divine, I use this analogy (I think Marcus Borg has used it as well):

All that is (ie all that is part of being) is represented by a circle. God is represented by a larger circle which surrounds the first one.

This also addresses the issue of the Newtonian worldview. Marvels occur within the creative structure of being. In other words, the Newtonian world is merely the product of being itself. As I discussed in a prior post, they come about in moments of grace in which a person experiences the power of the divine through courage (which I use synonymously with faith).

The problem of evil also becomes irrelevant, as instead of the onus being placed on God to act as we endeavor to manipulate through prayer and other methods of gaining favor, the onus is on us to courageously move beyond all anxiety and experience the divine within; or, in a different sense, we experience the full potential of our humanity. With the theistic understanding, God interfered with free-will. However, with a panentheistic understanding, our free-will both enables us to experience (and exude) the divine, and, unfortunately, make us responsible as agents of suffering and tragedy. One who choses the latter option has surrendered to the despair of existence and only serves to spread it on to others. Natural tragedies as well are the unfortunate products of the structure of being. Suffering is a part of existence. Yet an immanent God is always within and around us when we suffer. We have the ability both within and without of ourselves to overcome 1) the negativity of anxiety and 2) estrangement from the divine throughout. That is the meaning of a participatory Kingdom of God, in which we transcend the perceived limits of ourselves to overcome the evils which appear to dominate.

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A Mormon’s Survival Guide

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This blog entry is specifically for my friends who are LDS and may be contemplating attending Community of Christ. I hope this also is able to bring a new perspective to my friends in Community of Christ, so that they may become better at reaching out to our LDS friends and truly making them feel welcomed at the table. I hope that both communities can use these tips and hopes that we can come together in “community” of Christ.

Survival Tip One: Don’t Trust Everything on the Internet.

My journey with Community Christ started with the internet. I had been vaguely aware of Community of Christ growing up, but I had heard lots of rumors. Rumors such as: “they no longer believe in the Book of Mormon, they believe Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet, and they no longer believe in the restoration.” There are many other things I’ve heard said, but these are the main falsehoods that are spread about Community of Christ. As you search the internet, you will find some Community of Christ members who may back up these claims, but keep in mind they only speak for themselves. The church’s official webpage acknowledges the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and The Restoration. All of them are seen as very important parts to the development of Community of Christ. There are countless of people who believe in the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and The Restoration just as strongly as LDS members, but there are those who don’t. This at first can be very confusing to us who share an LDS background. It’s hard for us to understand how this can possibly work and at times it can be frustrating to Community of Christ members on both sides, but remember Community of Christ affirms the Worth of All People and all our welcome at the table. If you have an LDS background and you have a strong testimony of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the Restoration don’t be afraid to share that with others. There are plenty of Community of Christ members who feel just as strongly about it as you.

Survival Tip Two: Open Yourself to Receive God’s Message

When I first started attending my local CofC congregation I was listening for someone to reference the Book of Mormon. Week after week passed and I heard nothing. Then one Sunday someone spoke from 3rd Nephi and I was like “finally!” Looking back on it, I missed a lot of important messages because I was fixated on wanting a book referenced. Remember that Community of Christ does affirm the Bible as the scriptural foundation of the church. The Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants serve as additional witnesses of Christ’s love and mercy, so don’t be surprised if the Book of Mormon is not mentioned the Sunday you attend or if you attend for awhile and don’t hear it. Be patient and allow yourself to receive God’s message. Remember scripture is not to be worshiped.

Survival Tip Three: Introduce Yourself

When you attend the LDS church for the first time everyone wants to talk to you and they want to know what they can do for you and if they can share with you the “gospel.” The Community of Christ does not proselytize, so it may be likely that no one will pressure you to sit down, so they can share the “gospel” with you. Don’t take this the wrong way. They’re just not that interested in converting you. However, you may want to speak to someone about the church in further detail especially the church in your local area. There are a few things you can do. Some congregations have slips that you can fill out with your information you can do that and wait for someone to contact you, or you can introduce yourself to the “pastor” or a person presiding. Tell them you want to know more, and they will share with you. So, don’t be shy and don’t wait for someone to actively pursue you. Pursue them first!

Survival Tip Four: Jesus Must Be Your Foundation

John 14:6 clearly states: “I’m the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the foundation. While there are many things and mediums in which we can communicate with God we must acknowledge that ultimately he is what he says he is. Joseph Smith when asked about his religion said: “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it. But in connection with these, we believe in the gift of the Holy Ghost, the power of faith, the enjoyment of the spiritual gifts according to the will of God, the restoration of the house of Israel, and the final triumph of truth.” (Elders’ Journal, July 1838, p. 44) We make things so difficult. Tip Four is simply have Jesus as your foundation.

Survival Tip Five: What would Joseph Smith Do?

By this time you probably have a lot of questions and you probably have been dealing with the questions “What Should I Do?” “Where should I Go?” “What is right for my family?” etc. Remember you’re not alone with these questions and great men and women have struggled with the questions for centuries. When Joseph Smith was faced with these same questions, he turned to James 1:5-6 “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting…” As we know Joseph went into the grove and he prayed. He had an experience that changed his life and forever changed the lives of those who would know him as prophet. Final Survival Tip: Pray.

A Blessing for Life?

Recently, I was reading an article about the life and death of the presiding patriarch in the LDS church Eldred G. Smith. He was quite an amazing individual and during his life it’s believed that he performed over 20,000 blessings for individuals. Quite an amazing thing. I’m sure that all 20,000 blessings were unique and specifically for the individual receiving it.

When I was a teenager roughly around the age of fifteen I prepared for my Patriarchal Blessing (Evangelist Blessing) in the LDS denomination. I had only met my Patriarch maybe twice. He was not a member of my particular ward (congregation). The blessing he gave me too this day still holds meaning. I often pull out the hard copy and read it from time to time. Occasionally, I read things that were not evident to me 10 years ago or even a year ago. This man who I barely knew shared with me things that only God himself knew. The blessing stands as one of the most significant events of my life.

About eight months ago I pulled out my patriarchal blessing and began reading it. Some of the promises that were given to me at age fifteen seems to have come to past, however, there were other aspects of it that did not seem to hold the same meaning as they once did. Andrew at the age of fifteen was a very different person than Andrew of twenty-seven years of age.

Over the last twelve years I had been married, had two beautiful children, graduated from college, and at this time of reflection I was going through one of the most significant events of my life. My relationship with Christ was changing and I was about to join another faith. I was discussing with my friend of how the blessing of my youth seemed to be a little dated and seemed to speak to a different person.My friend told me “why don’t you get it re-done?” This was something that I was a little skeptical of doing at first. Though I felt my blessing was for a young teenage boy; it still held promises that are dear to me and I believe they’re promises to be fulfilled later in life. My friend explained to me that the Evangelist Blessing would not be replacing my Patriarchal Blessing it would just be another opportunity to hear what message God has for me.

I decided I was to accept this invitation and prepare for my Evangelist Blessing. I met my Evangelist for the first time in a loud and noisy Chinese restaurant. It was extremely informal and it was nothing like my first meeting with the LDS Patriarch of my youth. Roger told me of his life and his experiences and I shared with him mine. I really didn’t know Roger. Roger is part of my congregation, but prior to our meeting I had only known Roger through his sermons. I was a little apprehensive about this meeting. My fear was that my understanding of the blessing was different than his. Roger had grown up in the Community of Christ where I had my experiences in the LDS church, but during our meeting I realized we had a lot in common. Our theologies were similar and our stories were similar. Meeting after meeting I began to trust Roger and not only did I see him as this man who was going to be used as a tool of God. I saw Roger as my friend.

Despite all this positive feeling; I was having a hard time of letting the spirit work with me. I really was fixated on how this was going to work in relation to my Patriarchal blessing. I also was fixated on what message might Roger share with me. I thought about what I wanted to hear.

I stumbled across a video made by Bryce Veazey entitled “Journey of a Blessing” the video touched upon many of the same things I was struggling with in my preparation. I was struggling with what I wanted the blessing to reveal to me instead of clearing my mind, so that God can reveal to me what I needed revealed. I decided to do as Bryce did clear my mind and await to hear the message that was intended for me.

At the end of my blessing I felt an overwhelming sense of peace come over me. I was joyful and I knew that God loved me. I had just received a sacrament that came from God. It is unique and in my case it meshes very well with my previous Patriarchal Blessing. Roger was someone who I barely knew prior to the blessing, but during the experience he shared with me a sacrament that will stay with me for the rest of my life and through the power of God he knew me better than I knew myself.

If you have never received an Evangelist Blessing I encourage you to do so. You do not have to be a member of Community of Christ (I was not a confirmed member at the time). If you have received one in the past and it doesn’t quite speak to you in the same way that it used too consider getting another one. If the one you received means everything to you and you have no need to get a new one or an update. I encourage you to read it often.

This sacrament is such a blessing that those of us in the Latter Day Saint tradition are able to partake of. Please feel free to write about your experiences below or share any thoughts that come to mind.

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Forever Mormon

In life, we often have things that define us. People are often defined by events, education, and contributions given to society. We are defined by the people we keep and the associations we make or have been apart.

I grew up in Iowa and in my opinion Iowa is much like the rest of the midwest in that it’s very average. It’s not bad, but it’s not stellar either. For the most part, people in Iowa have the same amount of education, income, and their faith’s are pretty close to one another. Most Iowans are either Catholic, Lutheran or Methodist. My faith was very unique I was a Mormon.

Growing up “Mormon” in a place like Iowa brings a lot of questions. Questions ranging from “Do we have electricity?” to “Do you drink Coke?” I have always been met with curiosity and amazement from those who find out that I’m a Mormon.

In the last ten years America’s awareness of Mormonism has been heightened. This is in large part to South Park, Sister Wives, Glenn Beck, and Mitt Romney. I used to get questions about electricity and now I’m getting questions like “how many wives do I have?” and “why do we hate homosexuals?” These perceptions are not only damaging to the larger LDS church, but I believe it’s damaging to all who are part of the restoration heritage.

Recently, I have undergone a transition in my life. I no longer attend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and now I attend Community of Christ. Although, the place where I worship has changed, I still see myself as a “Mormon.” I’ve always defined Mormon as one who believes in The Book of Mormon as scripture and is associated with a restoration heritage. Many of my Community of Christ friends do not see themselves as “Mormons” they see themselves as either Latter Day Saints or simply Christians.

Should we in Community of Christ, who are comfortable with the name, still refer to ourselves as “Mormons”? I believe we should continue to refer to ourselves as Mormons. Mormons should not be defined by the church in Salt Lake, Sister Wives, or Mitt Romney. I believe that we have an obligation to share with others what a “liberal” Mormon might mean. We may be surprised with the reaction we get. What an opportunity that we have to show that we are “Mormons” who believe women can have priesthood, accept homosexuals, and at the same time love the restoration as much as our LDS cousins. Mormonism is what attracted me to Community of Christ and although I’m very much a Christian, I cannot deny that I’m at heart by my definition a “Mormon” and will forever be.

Mapping the Community of Christ Terrain of Identities

Recently, Matt Frizzell posted an article on this blog reflecting on the differing possible identities for the Community of Christ. I have been reflecting on his article for some time now and considering what the dimensions of the Community of Christ identity are. Too often we have simplified the conflicts in the church down to a “Liberal-Conservative Split” which I think misses a lot of nuance. I have come up with a basic typology (ever the political scientist!) based on two dimensions:

1) a “Latter Day Saint/Protestant Axis”, based on a person’s attachment to the RLDS tradition, scripture, doctrine and story as opposed to a more conventional Protestant theology.

2) a “Fideist/Rationalist Axis” based on a person’s trust in reason, science and scholarship versus a sense that faith must come before and above reason (a kind of scholasticism).

This is what I get:

Latter Day Saint Protestant
Fideist Traditional RLDS Evangelical/Pentecostal
Rationalist Post-Modern RLDS Liberal

Continue reading

What is the future of the Community of Christ in a North American post-RLDS perspective?

I just published a long-ish blog post that responds to the question, “What is the future of the Community of Christ in a North American post-RLDS perspective?” The post focuses on questions of Community of Christ identity in light of its North American heritage.

I share the link here to invite reactions and comments to my observations about the nature and limits of RLDS identity and how I believe Community of Christ logically fulfills essential non-sectarian strands of RLDS heritage in Restrationism and early American Christianity.   I welcome responses from Mormonites, ex-Mormons, Community of Christ members, Restorationists, historians, theologians, and others.

CLICK HERE to go directly to the post, or follow the links above to my blog.

Blessings,  Matt Frizzell

Appalling…

The Quran

On September 11, 2010, the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida is hosting International Burn a Quran Day.

From 6-9pm “Christians” can burn the Quran at the local church.  The city of Gainesville has refused a burn permit for safety reasons, however the church has vowed, “BUT WE WILL STILL BURN KORANS.”

Dove World Outreach Center’s pastor Terry Jones is quoted by CNN as saying, “We believe that Islam is of the devil, that it’s causing billions of people to go to hell, it is a deceptive religion, it is a violent religion and that is proven many, many times.”

Dove World Outreach Center's Pastor Terry Jones

Some other local religious leaders have organized a Gathering for Peace, Understanding and Hope to occur near the same time to counter this book burning.  At least there is some attempt being made to counter the Quran burning.  This story is attracting some media attention, and likely moreso as the planned date approaches–assuming the Outreach Center sticks with the plan.

To me, this is appalling.  The very concept of this idea is contrary to everything I see the Community of Christ standing for, or atleast what it should stand for.  I see this as an attack to an entire religion of people, and just one day after the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadan at that.  And worse yet, this is being done in the name of Jesus.  Shameful.

I’ve been blessed in my life to get to know many people intimately of very diverse religious backgrounds.  I have worshipped in Islamic mosques openly before, with no hesitation or concern.  I have celebrated Ramadan with Islamic friends three seperate years and endured the month-long fast, multiple times.  I know personally of three other Community of Christ members who engaged in Ramadan at least once as well.  It is a complete test of mind, body, and will.

I cannot believe that if Jesus Christ was with us at this moment that he would join in or approve of the burning.  Same as I do not believe, as others argue, he would join them holding up GOD HATES FAGS signs.  This is not the Christ that I’ve come to know.  And this is not the Jesus that the Community of Christ knows.  I pray this is not the Jesus known by most of Christianity.

We proclaim Jesus Christ and promote communities of joy, hope, love, and peace.

We have a special calling, and the world needs to hear the “liberating truths of the gospel.”  Jesus is hope, not hate.