Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Moral Agency (Invited to Speak in Church)

[Clementium is the National Library of the Czech Republic in Prague.]

Sacrament Meeting Talk: Moral Agency
Delivered June 28, 2009

It has been three years since I have been asked to speak in church and I guess Brother Jimenez was absent on that Sunday when I last spoke because he has asked me to speak again.

Since our Ward seems to change constantly there are people that I do not know and that do not know me, so please allow me to introduce myself. We have lived in El Centro for 17 years. I usually sit over there [pointing to the pews on my right]. Those are some of my kids [pointing]. And most importantly…I am married to…THAT GIRL [pointing at the music director on the stand]. I am married to “the girl” that leads the music. The one my daughter talked about on Mother’s Day. The one with no gray hairs and no fillings in her teeth. The unpretentious one. (Alison referred to her mother as “the girl that leads the music” and made some humorous descriptions of her that I allude to here). Although she looks like she could be another one of my daughters, she is my wife. Her name is not Ann Marie and I am not Donald Hollinger. We are merely Pam and Todd.


Now I hesitate to tell you what Brother Jimenez has asked me to talk about because it’s from the same ol’ short list of topics that we always seem to talk about, and I don’t want to loose your attention immediately by telling you.

Have you ever heard of Free Agency?

Well, you can relax because I’m not going to talk about Free Agency--that’s the old term. Moral Agency is the new term. And here's my take on it.

I grew up in the Church and have heard countless lessons about Free Agency. But in the last few years the Church has been making a conscious effort to replace the term Free Agency with Moral Agency. So my topic is not Free Agency. I am going to speak on Moral Agency. Perhaps someone, somewhere might associate the word “Free” with some wanton connotation, it’s hard to be sure. This “Free Agency” versus “Moral Agency” issue may seem like just another case of “tom-A-tos”/“tom-AH-tos,” but this really is an excellent example of progress at the micro level in the Church--no kidding. Add up 10,000 such advances and we are moving nicely into the future, improving upon the religion of our ancestors, one jot or tittle at a time, one talk at a time, one conference at a time, one generation at a time.

If we were to do a little research we could probably trace this change of words,“Free Agency” to “Moral Agency,”to one specific talk given by someone, somewhere. Said talk marks a turning point for the church about which we soon forget. And there are thousands of such talks in the history of the church where new terms are coined and old terms are retired, or new policies are introduced, and old policies are retired. Even doctrines can be retired and replaced. [See Moral Agency by D. Todd Christofferson, BYU devotional address given 31 January 2006.]

But for every change of ideas that is evoked by some talk given somewhere, the innovative idea had to first be conceived or “received,” and incubated in some human mind. And it can be very enlightening to discover when and where ideas originate.

Uncovering and tracing the genealogy of ideas in the church, and in the world, is a very fascinating endeavor, though sometimes disconcerting, it is always rewarding. As I have done MY genealogy--that is, the genealogy of ideas--I am astounded at how many different individuals have made some contribution to the evolution of ideas and progress in the church, and the world.

Jesus Christ stands at the head of the church, of course. But I have come to know that the Lord is not a micro manager. He expects us to study things out in our minds (D&C 9:8), read out of the best books (D&C 109:14), not be told what to do, or compelled to do things (D&C 58:26), but to be anxiously engaged in good causes, and do many things of our own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness (D&C 58:27).

Each one of us is an AGENT of the Lord. Each one of us is an “agent of change” in the church. Each one of us has “eyes to see and ears to hear”, and each one of us is the eyes and ears of the whole, and of each other. Each one of us has hands to do good works, and since we are agents of God then our hands are God’s hands. We are agents of God, and agents of the world. And we are agents of each other in this great enterprise of building the kingdom of God—which Kingdom is for God AND for US—“It is the same” (D&C 1:38).

Every agent in the Kingdom of God can and should make a difference. Anyone can be among those members to conceive of one of the next 10,000 good ideas to improve the church. For example, any agent can be the one to point out a hidden iceberg in the path of the Church. Or any agent can write the next “I am a Child of God.”

The Church Headquarters in Salt Lake City is the official clearinghouse of good ideas for the Church. To be sure, there will always exist a formal chain of command, and formal communications channels that one could plot on an organizational chart. Yet, there will always exist the informal communication channels that are also a necessary and important part of communicating. Both formal and informal communication channels are needed and normal.

And all these ideas that flow through these channels that I am talking about are all revelations. And while these revelations may originate at Church Headquarters, they may also originate in many other places. Improvements in communication means improvements in revelation. And that is why I am so excited that the information age is now upon us.

Now, I would like to share with you a recent discussion we had in my economics class.

I was talking to my students about the many biases and points of view in the world. Every group has their own bias. Al Jazera has its point of view. The Jerusalem Post has its point of view. The NY Times and Washington Post each have different points of view. Time Magazine, Newsweek, and CNN are much different than Fox News. English Majors seem to see the world differently than Business Majors. San Francisco seems to be the home of distinct ways of thinking. Hollywood types have their own cultural perspective as do Texans. The same goes for Latin Americans, African Americans, Anglo Americans, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics, Latter-day Saints, Quakers, Mennonites, Pharisees, Puritans, Atheists, Agnostics, scientists, paranormal enthusiasts, Apocalypticists, Millenarian Christians, Americans, Europeans, Asians, our parents generation, this generation, the founding fathers, The early saints, ancient societies, secret societies, males, females, the young, the old. This Ward and that Ward. This Stake and that Stake. Utah Mormons, California Mormons, Converts and those Born-in-the-Covenant.

All these groups have different ways of seeing the world, and based on their experiences and subset of knowledge with which they are familiar, they form unique opinions.

Then suddenly, one student who was sensing the dilemma, asked me in class, Who can you trust? And how can you find truth? The whole class seemed eager to know.

I said to this student, and to the class, it is not always easy for one to know the truth, or the whole truth. But if we are lifelong learners--and that is a big key--we can get closer to the truth no matter where we begin our search for truth. I challenged my students to start with the truth that they have inherited from their parents. They should start their quest for truth by first trying to understand what their parents believe. I told them that I am not one of those radical professors that tries to undermine their parents’ teachings, and snuff out the faith that students hold dear, and replace it with nothing. I told them to honor their fathers and their mothers (Exodus 20:12). I told them to first adopt the faith and the opinions of their parents and then--slowly but surely, one idea at a time, and over the course of their whole lives—try to see if they can make some improvements on those ideas. I told them to very carefully update and upgrade their opinions so that they can say that their opinions are getting better and better each year of their lives. Never stop learning and NEVER stop improving their opinions. And I warned them about being overly entrenched in their opinions. And that one’s opinions should evolve and continuously get better over the course of a lifetime. But opinions cannot get better if one never accesses new information to consider. The only way to improve an opinion over time is to be a lifelong learner. The obvious impediment to improving one’s opinions is to believe that one’s opinions are already certain.

If everybody would do this—be lifelong learners--then all traditions would eventually converge at the same point, the point of the knowledge of all things. The point I like to call, “Absolute Truth.”

Of course it may be true that not all the faith traditions or branches of science will find absolute truth together. Some will probably get there first. I am less concerned about who arrives at Absolute Truth first than I am concerned about everybody arriving eventually. This search for truth is really a collaborative effort that includes the whole world and every tradition in it.

Now I want to read some of the words of Brigham Young who essentially said the same things that I am trying to say now:

“…from the very start of my life to this time, I have never received one particle of intelligence, only by revelation, no matter whether father or mother revealed it, or sister, or neighbor…“Do you [Brother Brigham] have revelations of the Lord Jesus Christ? [some people ask]” I will leave that for others to judge. If the Lord requires anything of this people, and speaks through me, I will tell them of it; but if he does not, still we all live by the principle of revelation. Who reveals? Everybody around us; we learn of each other. I have something which you have not, and you have something which I have not; I reveal what I have to you, and you reveal what you have to me. I believe that we are revelators to each other…but the revelations which I receive are all upon natural principle…The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible, for the poor, weak, low, groveling, sinful inhabitants of earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities…The construction of the electric telegraph and the method of using it enabling the people to send messages from one end of the earth to the other, is just as much a revelation from God as any ever given…Men who know nothing of the Priesthood receive revelation and prophecy…and yet these gifts belong to the Church…and all [of us] ought to live so as to enjoy the spirit of [revelation]…continually.” (Discourses of Brigham Young by John A. Widtsoe, pp 60-62)

Brothers and Sister, it is not possible to receive continuous revelation, like Brigham Young has admonished all of us to do, without being lifelong learners.

It sounds to me that the Lord is suggesting we hitch our wagons to the scientific method, and statistical analysis, with the reminder that we must have intellectual honesty, or in other words, “real intent” (Moroni 10:4), and “faith,” in order for the revelations to come. We must always bear in mind that greater light and knowledge are not ours just for the asking, but the result of our efforts.

D&C 1:30 says we are a “living church.” We are a living church, aren’t we? And everything living is changing. And I think we are changing for the better, mostly. And if we are changing for the better, then we must not have been perfect before, and if we will change again for the better, we must not be perfect now.

It is my testimony that if all people in all the world will seek truth without regard to their own vested interests—if all people will seek truth without regard to any inconvenience that the discovery of new “light and knowledge” may require--then truth WILL be discovered because truth is DISCOVERABLE.

It is my testimony and understanding of the gospel that we should be anxious seekers of knowledge for “The Glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.” (D&C 93:36).

Seeking after God requires “seek[ing] learning, even by study [using the scientific method, statistical analysis, and learning] and also by faith, [real intent, and intellectual integrity] (D&C 88:118), and to study things out in our minds (D&C 9:8).

If we knock it shall be opened. If we seek, we shall find. But we must do more than just ask, we must knock and we must seek. And we must study.

Every one of us is a moral agent to bring about this marvelous work. Every one of us must make some contribution to build up the kingdom of God—not the contribution that a robot could make—but the contribution of a thinking, conscious agent of God. It is incumbent upon all members of the Church, as agents of God and each other, to make some intellectual contribution as we are able--even if our contribution merely consists of not being an obstacle to progress--we must contribute to this ever brightening body of knowledge. For the Kingdom of God is not bricks and mortar, it is light and truth

Thursday, August 13, 2009


[Pollo con Mole en Cholula]
My old friend, Tom Seymour, was in town for a few hours and somehow Tom, Pam, and I made a spur of the moment decision for me to go visit Tom and his family in Puebla, Mexico for a week (Aug 4 thru Aug 11, 2009). Since Pam is already going to Hawaii (without me) to take Alison to BYU Hawaii, it seemed appropriate that I could go on this little trip that I had long wanted to do (and Pam had no interest in going). The following are some of my thoughts about the trip.

While driving from the Mexico City Airport to Puebla, I vocalized my first impression of Mexico. Esta es la landia de la barilla (This is the land of rebar). Almost every structure is made out of a concrete and rebar framework with bricks embedded later within the framework. Most concrete columns had about three rebar stubs shooting up out of the concrete in anticipation of another floor. Structures are built in modular boxes that can be added as they can be afforded. I saw no wood used in rough construction except as form boards and temporary support for pouring concrete. No trusses. No rafters. Roofs were made of concrete, even the occasional pitched roof. Mexico will never burn down. It may fall down in an earthquake, but it will never burn down.

Between Mexico City and Puebla are two beautiful toll freeways that show Mexico at its best; there is a mountain range to cross with pine forests.

The best sites that I saw were, the pre-Columbian ruins at Teotihuacan, the ruins at the Templo Mayor (Tenochtitlan), El Zocalo in Mexico City and the surrounding buildings, El Zocalo in Puebla and its surrounding buildings, and the town of Cholula, home of the largest pyramid in the world that is also unexcavated.
I walked so many miles in Mexico City that I think I should be worthy of some kind of ribbon.

La Merced Market in Mexico City was scary. I never knew people could be packed together so closely. I walked there from the Zocalo, a long way, with the intention of boarding the subway there. I walked past the subway entrance a few times before I finally found it. It looked like a rabbit hole. Dos pesos (20 cents), and five stops later I was in the Zona Rosa, just six blocks from my hotel room.

The Zona Rosa was a nice night club and restaurant zone that in recent years has become a gathering place for gays and lesbians, and maybe 50% straight folks. The revelers looked very young to me. At first I was disinterested in the gay scene of the Zona Rosa but I decided that I might as well check it out…as a spectator/tourist. I peered through some of the windows to watch the various bands. They were all good. Then down one side street I could hear what sounded like a perfect Slash guitar sound. I followed the sound to the sidewalk below a second story club where the most captivating rock band was supporting a howling lead. I stood listening for a while. Then, after moving back to the corner, I watched a leather lesbian band nonchalantly thrash out some song with a good beat while the angry singer was drowned out. I moved along and soon found my way to the Hotel Bristol, two blocks north of Avenida Reforma, and two blocks out of the Zone. The Zona Rosa is far tamer than Bourbon Street in New Orleans; but then again, I was in bed by 9 o’clock.

Hotel Bristol was a very good bargain and I’d stay there again without any reservation (maybe I should rewrite this sentence).

From the Hotel I walked to the Museo de la Antropologia, and stayed most of the day there. This museum is the best attraction in all of Mexico (in my humble opinion).

The vendors tried to sell us all kind of stuff at Teotihuacan. One guy approached and said, Quieres ver mi Junk? Cuesta almost nothing.” I laughed and said I am only interested in obsidian sacrificial knives. Really. I found some but the handles looked cheap.

One vendor in Cholula showed me his obsidian necklaces. I asked if he had any in some other color than black. He hesitated…then we both smiled.

Fields of corn are planted everywhere. I saw no means of irrigation. I think all the crops are watered by rainwater. Summer is the rainy season. It’s no wonder, then, why people settled the high planes of Mexico. The weather was much cooler than I expected, and the altitude much higher.

The cities (not the colonial parts) looked like a concrete jungle but after looking and thinking, I commented to Tom, “If everybody would just finish plastering their blocks, and paint their plaster, this town could look beautiful. It really wouldn’t take very much.”

Although I saw much trash on the ground, I noticed many signs warning against throwing trash on the ground, and even threatening fines. It seemed to me that Mexico is awakening to the “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” mentality.

There is an active “No Smoking” movement in Mexico, yet too much oil is still used in cooking.

I was unimpressed with the food. I don’t know exactly how to describe this feeling I have about the food. When I tried to express this thought to Julie (Tom’s wife) she said, “You mean it looks the same as it probably looked 100 years ago?” Yeah, I guess that sums it up. I have eaten Mexican food all my life in Southern California and Mexicali, but I am going to admit something perhaps blasphemous. I didn’t like the Mexican food that I ate in various restaurants during this trip. San Diego Mexican food (even Mexicali Mexican food) is different and I like it better.

I ate the two most famous traditional dishes of Puebla: chile en nogada and pollo con mole (see picture).

I found it interesting how the Mexicans have so much love for Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo, while outside of Mexico they are largely unknown. Perhaps the reason that I find the Mexicans’ admiration for these artists so odd is because in the U.S.A. there really is no contemporary painter that has reached the attention and admiration of the masses like they have. In Mexico, Diego and Frida are like the Beatles and their legend keeps growing.

Prices are not necessarily cheaper in Mexico. In fact most materials are more expensive. Only labor is cheaper in Mexico.

Books are ridiculously expensive in Mexico, perhaps because they are not a labor intensive product, or perhaps because people don’t read very much. But at those prices it is understandable why people don’t buy books. For instance, laborers earn between US $1.00 to $1.50 per hour yet the good paperback books easily cost US $20 to $30. Crazy. I would hate to be a bibliophile in Mexico.

When I was walking down a street in Puebla, in the colonial sector, I glanced into a courtyard and saw two women making brooms by tying thin sticks to broom handles. I barely registered what I had seen. But when I saw many people in Mexico City using the same kind of brooms to sweep their sidewalks in the morning, I realized the brooms were not for tourists.

Mexicans love to sweep in the morning.

August is cactus apple (called “tuna”) season in Mexico and of course I had to try some. So Tom pulled off the road near Teotihuacan. I got out and approached the Indian woman who was selling cases of tunas. Before I got up close to her, she already had pealed a tuna and was handing it to me. I told her I was a tourist and was anxious to try a tuna for the first time. I wanted to buy just one, but she said just one would be free. I stood there and ate the whole thing, seeds and all. It was mild and sweet. A real treat. I picked out a couple more and paid her.

There were large agaves everywhere in the countryside, also nopales. What struck me was the random agave, nopal, or tree in the middle of a plowed field. They seemed out of place, yet it was a common sight.

Pedestrians are targets and have no practical right of way.

The Mexicans of Mexico City and Puebla seemed more friendly than the Mexicans in Mexicali and El Centro. At least at first. Pam suggested the difference would probably have something to do with the way Mexicans might encounter some kind of disrespect (at least at times) in the United States. Hmmm.

My advice to Mexico is:
1) Get control of the birth rate so that the average education levels of adults can be increased [already happening].
2) Talk up education as a national imperative.
3) Allow foreign investors to bring their capital and management to the country, to buy up the competition or just outright kill it if they can. Mexican companies that survive will necessarily have to change for the better.
4) Consider that dissenting voices who are preoccupied with “raza” issues, may actually be regressive and may ultimately hinder progress.
5) A few other things.
6) Watch Mexico rise.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Guy Murchie

The Seven Mysteries of Life: An Exploration of Science and Philosophy by Guy Murchie.

I can’t remember how I first heard of this book--it was probably from reading book reviews on I must have been impressed with the reviews because I bought one but when I received my first copy I was disappointed to find that the copyright was dated 1978 and every third or fourth page was illustrated with detailed, hand-drawn sketches that reminded me of my high school Biology class where I made similar drawings of cells and plants. My first reaction was that the book was a little less than cutting-edge. Nevertheless it was a new book and I started to read it.

After several nights of reading the book in bed before falling asleep and I distinctly remember that one night I stopped reading, opened my eyes wider, looked at the cover of the book, and I said out loud slowly, “This is a good book.” The next night I said to myself, “Every single page of this book is full of interesting ideas. I could pick any page of this book at random and really enjoy reading each page.” There was no filler in the book at all. Every page, even every sentence was a work of art, thought provoking, and delicious. I reconsidered my opinion of the hand-made illustrations and instead of seeing them as low-tech productions I saw them as the careful drawings of a masterful philosopher, scientist, poet, or artist—I wasn’t sure which.

Guy Murchie began his book’s preface with these words: “When I undertook this work in the spring of 1961, I was quite aware that I would almost certainly be thought presumptuous in attempting to write about all of life in one book. But I have to go ahead in the faith that any such seemingly impossible, if not harebrained, project on such a universal theme could hardly help being worthwhile—largely because of its rarity.”

Rarity is an understatement. Murchie’s book is more densely packed with great ideas than anything I had ever read before. Unlike many popular science books that spend 300 pages restating the same three ideas, or unlike other science books that are impenetrable because of a masochistic writing style that heaps abuse upon any would-be reader, Murchie’s book is a sheer delight to read and constantly surprises the reader with insights about life, the universe, and what it all means—insights that are expressed so freshly that they seem new. Murchie took seventeen years to write this magnum opus and “averaged less than one finished sentence a day during all this time,” he said in his preface. He called his writing, “painstaking” which must be true because I can’t imagine any poet laboring more over word choices than Murchie obviously did. His writing flows, is enchanting and reveals a universe that is more beautiful, rational, and caring than anything I had ever heard from science before--although later I would discover similar joy from guys like Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman.

Unlike a magician who astounds by what he does not reveal, Guy Murchie astounds by what he does reveal that we have not been seeing but which has always been in plain sight. Murchie is, then, in this sense, a revelator.

Toward the end of his book, on page 614, Murchie wrote some kind words about the prophet Baha’u’llah. I immediately started to worry that the author of this great book that I had been falling in love with, would suddenly reveal himself to be yet another unbalanced screwball. I researched the Baha’i Faith religion that Baha’u’llah founded and encountered what seemed to be a peace-loving-enough community. After reading a list of their core beliefs (and after reading Murchie’s book), I honestly felt that I had never read a one-page list of beliefs written by someone else that I could agree with more than this one. Nevertheless, I knew that what looks good on paper may not necessarily be so beautiful when practiced as an institutional religion. So I haven’t attempted to learn much more about the Baha’is except to find out they conduct meetings in San Diego that I would like to attend once just to get an idea about how successful they have been at putting their wonderful ideas into the realm of organized religion. I wish them well.

I searched for “Guy Murchie” on the internet and learned that he was a tall man and just as gracious and charming, by others’ accounts, as I had imagined him to be. Although I would love to read a little biography about him, it is not really necessary for his writing sufficiently reveals the man Murchie to be one of my all-time favorite human beings whose hand I would be honored to shake while expressing a little gratitude for creating a work so beautiful that I can only describe it as art, an odd choice of words for the book that I would most like to take to a deserted island.