Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Why I'm going on a mission

“I can think of all the frameworks I want to [for my life], but until I write the central one of ‘God can work wonders in my life if I come with a broken heart & a contrite spirit’, it’s not going to matter much.” – Journal entry, July 15, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

It’s Thursday night, and I’m laying down on the couch of my apartment at Stanford, relaxing. I’ve just completed my weekly academic sprint, and this one’s been a bit more grueling than typical.

Due Monday: a prepared 25-minute presentation, with Powerpoint. Due Wednesday: an accompanying 16-page rough draft. Due Thursday morning, mostly completed: two problem sets filled with partial differential equations, taking about 15 hours between them. Due Thursday afternoon, not turned in: an easier economics problem set. I had a freebie and needed a nap. I’ve slept 12 or 13 hours in the last three nights, none of them in my bed.

Possibly, this madness couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m awaiting an envelope that contains my fate for the next two years, and distraction isn’t such a bad thing right now.

The envelope contains a letter, a letter that beginning: “Dear Elder Samuel Mohun Bhagwat...”

It will contain two pieces of information: First, a date: when I am to begin two years of missionary service. Second, the location to which I will be dispatched.

Two years of my life.

When I joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it was pretty obvious that going on a mission was The Thing To Do for young men. And my age as I emerged from the waters of baptism: 19 years, two weeks, and one day.

In the intervening months, I’ve heard a lot of people implicitly and explicitly urge me to go. And a lot of people explicitly urge me not to. But I don't that wasn’t the deciding factor.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has the experienced, senior demon write that in the past, “men still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning.”

Hyperbole aside, I humbly hope to be numbered among said men.

This is the chain of reasoning. In basic form, it’s the same as for other forms of Christianity.

1. Jesus Christ really lived and died and rose again, and so forth.
2. Having or believing this message benefits people. It’s important that they hear it.
3. Like, really, really important.
4. Jesus told us to love our neighbors and to spread His message.
5. Therefore we should love our neighbors and spread His message.

A preacher and evangelist was once inspired to preach by the column of an atheist who pointedly wrote:

If I firmly believed, as millions say they do, that the knowledge and practice of religion in this life influences destiny in another, then religion would mean to me everything....I would go forth to the world and preach to it in season and out of season, and my text would be: “WHAT SHALL IT PROFIT A MAN IF HE GAIN THE WHOLE WORLD AND LOSE HIS OWN SOUL?”

Logic, perilous logic. It entrapped me, forcing me to face my own evasion.

We Mormons make pretty radical claims. As one tenth of one percent of the world’s population, we accept as scripture a 450-page record that no one else does. We believe that, having this book, as well as other knowledge, we are under covenant to God, a covenant “not for your sakes only, but for the sake of the whole world.”

The next passage in that quote, publicly received by Joseph Smith and claimed as revelation from God, explains: “For the whole world lieth in sin, and groaneth under darkness and under the bondage of sin, [because] they come not unto me.”

Then, after being chastised for “treating lightly” the Book of Mormon, Mormons are commanded: “Go ye into all the world.”

Go ye into all the world. Go ye into all the world. Is there any reason why I shouldn’t? Any reason? Any reason at all...please?

One counter to chains of logic: there are most certainly classes of bad arguments from religious authority, where an argument, however logical, should be disqualified based on sheer incompatibility with moral intuition or evidence. One can use technical arguments reminiscent of medieval scholasticism to create inflexible and dogmatic positions. That doesn’t mean they are right.

On the moral intuition side: a non-Mormon Christian might say: ‘Jesus said that you had to be baptized to be saved. Jayu, a woman born in the interior of Borneo in 370 B.C., was never baptized. Therefore, she is destined for hell.’ Umm...does that seem fair to you?

On the evidence side, a Mormon might say, ‘Willford Woodruff [a past LDS Church president] said that the prophet would never lead the Church astray. Therefore, our leaders are never wrong.’ That doesn’t follow, plus it’s out of context...and besides, ‘never wrong’? Have you studied Church history? Or, say, the life of Moses?

Of course, these are a bit of straw men. Few, I hope, actually proceed in such a manner contrary to evidence.

It’s fairly easy to see the dangers in such narrow-minded, erroneous thinking resulting from believing bad arguments from religious authority.

It’s less easy to see the dangers in failing to trust another kind of argument from religious authority. Suppose the argument is not immoral. It isn’t faulty, nor is it based on incorrect premises, at least as far as you can tell. Yet it is hard to follow, calling you to do something difficult.

And yet – in the religious framework, of course – this often makes it more urgent.

Matthew tells of a wealthy young man whose possessions were a stumblingblock to higher things. Told by Jesus to sell all he had and give the proceeds to the poor, the young man does not comply, and leaves saddened.

The Book of Mormon tells again and again of prophets calling the people to repentance for their sins. In response, they “harden their hearts” and often attack the prophets.

One of the most interesting of these stories occurs in a discourse between the prophet Alma and his son Corianton.

After chastising Corianton for running off after a harlot, Alma warns him that in the afterlife that he will not be restored from this wickedness to happiness. Instead, Alma instructs, men are restored to good according to their desires for good, and evil according to their desires to do evil.

After a bit more doctrinal lecturing, Alma delivers a parting zinger:

“And now, my son, I desire that ye should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance.” (Alma 42:28)

In other words: kid, yer supposed to be preaching the gospel, and here yeh are runnin’ off after a woman of the streets. Yer only sittin’ here arguin’ doctrine ‘cause yer trying to justify yer damned sins. Yeh’d better start gettin’ on yer knees and praying instead – yeh got a long way back.

That Saturday night, I flew home to Michigan to spend the Thanksgiving week with my family. And on Monday, my roommate called and read me the news: I was called to serve in India.

My parents presented some cogent arguments why I shouldn’t go there. The Mumbai terrorist attacks two days later provided some more arguments. And yet I cannot escape the argument for missionary work I laid out earlier. If not me, then who? If not now, then when?

A personal statement: my strongest testimony is in the Book of Mormon, and in the moral and theological framework which the revelations of Joseph Smith lay out. After study and prayer, I know I’ve heard and felt the word of God through later prophets, but still, less strongly. I think they’re inspired, but I wonder often about the degree of this inspiration.

(I do not mean to be glib here; I go into this issue some more in this essay.)

But after all that, I think again about the words of Alma.

“And now, my son, I desire that ye should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance.” (Alma 42:28)

Now, if you’re running after harlots, I’d urge you, as Alma urged his son Corianton, to set aside doctrinal issues and focus on repentance. Thankfully, I’m not. With the knowledge I do have, there is an important work for me to do. And so even if I am not completely “troubled no more” about doctrinal questions I have, there is a message that is my responsibility to humbly deliver to my fellow human beings.

The message: to turn their hearts to God, to humble themselves before him. To grow a faith of which they can say: “it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me” (Alma 32:28). To add unto this faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge. To that temperance, and patience: to that godliness and charity.

A dear friend of mine at school, a teacher, joined the LDS church in college, graduated, and went on a mission. Before we hugged and parted ways for two years, she told me two things. First, that this will be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And second, that it will be incredibly rewarding.

I hope so.

For though I may alter my life largely as the result of a chain of logic, propositional knowledge is not nearly all I have, or that I hope to offer. I hope to give a message that can enlarge another’s soul; give her a relationship with her Heavenly Father. We don’t want just to know of God or about God – we want to know Him.

So why am I going on a mission?

I hope to be an instrument to provide this experiential knowledge for others. But I also hope to partake of it more myself.


Elohim said...

Awesome! I think you've put it very succinctly, 'I hope to be an instrument to provide this experiential knowledge for others. But I also hope to partake of it more myself.'

Elohim said...
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