Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A change of plans

"How long can rolling waters remain impure? What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints." - Doctrine and Covenants 121:33

I think the river of my life may have just been turned upstream temporarily. More to come.

Monday, August 22, 2011


I've made a lot of friends here in Cambridge, and I have been happy to share their company. It has been intellectually stimulating to return to an environment that is not predominantly LDS, and to discuss various topics - including morality, faith, the role of women and men in society, intimacy, and relationships - with people from backgrounds very different than my own.

Today, I was struck by the truth of Pres. Monson's words from the last General Conference:

"We have come to the earth in troubled times. The moral compass of the masses has gradually shifted to an “almost anything goes” position. ... Where once the standards of the Church and the standards of society were mostly compatible, now there is a wide chasm between us, and it’s growing ever wider."- Priesthood session

Indeed, I am somewhat amazed by how very different we are. This was impressed to me the other evening at a formal hall; some friends and I began to discuss the role of sexuality in relationships. Many of my friends here - wonderful people with whom I enjoy spending time - don't seem to value abstinence or virginity very highly; rather, sexual experience and skill are held as more important than sexual purity.

I can understand where my friends are coming from, of course; I have passed puberty myself. Still, I am grateful for the law of chastity. I do not wish to imagine the sorrow I would feel were I to engage in the frequent sexual activity that seems, from conversations here, to be completely socially acceptable.

I look forward to sharing sexual intimacy with one woman, with whom I will also share my entire life. I look forward to consummating, physically, an already-developed emotional union of hearts and a previously ratified social union of lives.

Some have said I can achieve this outside of marriage -- I disagree; I believe that I can only fully give myself to someone when we are both committed to each other completely: socially (marriage), spiritually (marriage in the temple), emotionally (best friends), financially, and physically.

I think that premarital sexual activity blunts my ability to connect emotionally and physically with the person I want to spend forever with; uncommitted sexual experience makes sex more of a skill than an act of union. I don't want to practice that - I want to practice becoming one with my spouse, and that requires a lot of premarital, NON-sexual work - getting to know each other, establishing a relationship, and deciding to commit to that person for ever (in Mormon doctrine, marriage is not till death, but even after) - and, perhaps most importantly, discovering that those feelings and efforts are mutual and equally strong.

How wonderful, then, to have the law of chastity! How grateful I am that I was taught to abstain from sex before marriage!

Forward, then: though I walk through paths I do not know, I shall fear no evil - for God is with me. - Psalm 23:4

"Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils - for wherein is he to be accounted of?" - Isa. 2:22; 2 Ne. 12:22

"Therefore, hold on thy way, and the priesthood shall remain with thee; for their bounds are set, they cannot pass. Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever." - Doctrine and Covenants 122:9

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Existential Religion

The big question that has been on my mind, of late, is this: what is the nature of God? More specifically, does He create the law or does He obey laws that supersede Him?

At one level, this really doesn't matter: either way, if I follow God, I will come round right. But in another way, it matters very much: should I be striving for a Greek-philosophic "universal ideal" - that applies in the same way, to all people, everywhere? Or is perfection individualized?

I've been battling this back and forth in my head for a long time, but it came up again today in a debate on Facebook. Sunday, I finally came to the conclusion that I would never know unless I prayed; how better to find out the nature of God than to ask Him?

I did. You should too; I am certainly not a reliable enough source on my own for this topic.

Since praying about it, though, it seems clear to me that God pre-existed this mortal realm in which we live. Joseph Smith taught that intelligence is eternal, and I believe that; we are co-eternal with God, always having and always continuing to exist. Our Heavenly Father organized us, rather than creating us ex nihilo.

For everything else though - the laws by which our reality operates, the "laws" of nature, what we observe and deduce, and read in our scriptures, were given by God, not forced upon Him as some sort of necessity. God is not, for example, bound by the law of gravity - even and especially if He was the one who put it into place.

If God were God simply by virtue of knowing all the rules by which the universe operates: 1.) He wouldn't have to be a good person; he would just have to know a lot and be effective. There would be no need for God to love, unless the laws of the universe are based on love. 2.) Ostensibly, God could be replaced, someday, by technology. Once we get sufficiently far advanced, we don't need our Heavenly Father anymore. 3.) The answers to our problems are not unique; rather, they are just the interactions of a large number of variables.

I don't believe any of these things. I don't believe that God looks up the solutions to our problems in a large book of answers. Rather, I think He simply acts, and reality corresponds to what He does.

Thus, He said "Let there be light," and there was light. He did not push the correct button which, according to celestial law, forces light to appear.

This has a huge number of ramifications for our personal religion. If God were essentially a being who "doled-out" bits of eternal law to us as we became ready for them, there would be no need to have God be a person. A computer of even our mortal processing capacity could perform the very routine monitoring of what we do and/or think, and then dole out the appropriate bits of information - like a scavenger hunt, where the clue for the next item is found at the site of the item before. There's no need for God there.

If, instead, God is a living, emotional, perfected person - then we try to be like Him, and follow what He tells us to do because it helps us to do so. It's obedience for obedience' sake, vs. obedience as a means to become like our Heavenly Father. And that changes everything. We still obey - more strictly than before, in some ways - but that obedience has a higher goal. And that higher goal is God.

In pursuing my Facebook debate, I found a quote from Joseph Smith. "Hear it, all ye ends of the earth —all ye priests, all ye sinners, and all men. Repent! Repent! Obey the gospel. Turn to God; for your religion won’t save you, and you will be damned." It's not the law which saves us: rather, the law points our minds to Christ, and He saves us.

A note here - this does NOT mean that we can do whatever sin we want, and God will take care of everything. God's grace is sufficient for the meek; God does not force-feed us salvation. We have to be humble enough to accept it, and accepting God's mercy means changing our lives so that our wills are in harmony with His.

The person who is trying to become like God through the grace of Christ thus has a lot MORE responsibility to seek out and follow the will of the Savior than someone following only a code of rules; without that following, the one who knows that Christ's way is the best and then DOES nothing is under more condemnation than the unknowing. As the Pharisees demonstrate, rules themselves do not produce righteousness. Christ produces righteousness, and He produces it in us BY inviting us to follow Him.

Righteousness is produced when we do so, and only when we do so. There isn't some kind of magical change that suddenly turns us from bad to good - rather, the Lord exercises His power to give us chances to change, and then we act upon those for good or ill.

The point of all this is that God is not a machine, nor a set of tablets made of celestial stone with commandments carved on them. He is a living, loving, personal Being, who invites us to learn of Him by following Him and His ways and His Spirit, praying to know what He would have us do. Then, the Savior helps us to do it. It's personal, it's individual, and so is HE - He is personal and individual as well.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Pictures: Ireland

Here is a more full spread of the famine figures from Dublin. They were amazingly evocative. I don't think I fully understand how much the potato famine affected Ireland - apparently, 1/4 of the population died or emigrated. I saw and heard references tot he famine - a hundred years later - everywhere. It feels almost as if the potato famine was as defining a moment for Ireland as the Second World War appears to have been for England.

Queens University in Belfast was beautiful. I got up very early one morning and took some picture just after dawn; since my computer is having trouble resizing them, this is the only one I'll post for now. These gargoyles especially caught my attention.

In the Queen's University Botanical Gardens, I found an interesting example of globalization. The other side of this billboard was another lion, with more of an English/Irish flavor. When I walked around the bend and found myself face-to face with this artwork in the garden, I was so arrested by it I decided to "share the beauty of this graceful moonlight."

This begins a series of photos of what I consider one of the most beautiful places on earth. I believe this is Sheep Island, which is the island next to Rathlin. Rathlin, as I saw it and heard it described, completely captured my imagination; I want, incredibly much, to go there and stay for 6 months or so.

Here is the famous Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge. I'd heard a lot about this place, and I was really glad I came; as I said, it's one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. That said, the bridge was NOT scary in the slightest. It's made of high-tensile steel cable, plastic and metal slats, multiple wire guidelines, and

More of the coast at Carrick-a-rede.

One of the shoes of the giant Finn MacCool's wife scared off. According to legend, he was so frightened through a ploy Finn's wife used that he ran back across the causeway to Scotland in such a hurry as to be unable to stop and collect his shoe, shown here. He was also so worried about Finn that he tore the causeway up behind him, leaving the current gap between Scotland and Ireland.

More of the Causeway. I'll eventually crop this image. It was made up of amazing hexagonal stones, in layers like steps or some kind of surrealist landscape sculpture. You can see here how the ground ripples rather than flows.

And two great friends from the trip! I met them both on our trip over and around the causeway, and we had a lot of fun together, and talked for hours.

A scene from Belfast.
Here is an example of the long-standing Irish conflict. Even the name of Derry is in question - those with Catholic ties refer to the city as Derry; those with Protestant or English ties, Londonderry. Actually, the British built a wall around the city for the Irish in exchange for the Irish using the Londonderry name. That said, the English all seem to call the place Derry because of a recent vote on the matter. But the NOrthern Irish I met IN Northern Ireland were very insistent as well. So, when in Derry/Londonderry, use the term "Maiden City" (which is only slightly better, as it too has British connotations) or ask someone's religion at the VERY beginning of the conversation.

Our friend here had worked in a Mars factory; our female friend had never had a Mars bar. So, he gave us the breakdown on European and Australian chocolate. We enjoyed his demonstration, and asked him to pose for a picture.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Narrative: Spain

A Summary of the last of my Pre-England travel... as my time in Cambridge draws to a close.

Granada was phenomenal - the Alhambra was itself worth the trip to Spain. Although I liked Cordoba better and could see myself living there, Granada still gave me a great feel for Spain. It's also slightly more mountainous, which plays into my story better. After hiking around the Alhambra for about six hours - pictures, I promise! - I sat and talked with a lady I toured with; we had a great conversation about life and God.
That night, I climbed the mountain behind the Alhambra and, although I did not make it to the ruins of the Islamic aqueducts that lead into the palace, I did manage to get back to the Alhambra gardens. I was VERY tempted to hop the little fence on top of the wall I was walking along (technically, it's not trespassing if I don't cross the fence, right? So I walked along the outside edge, along a three inch ledge over a thirty foot drop. Yeah, I'm pretty stupid sometimes.) I decided that I didn't want to be deported for trespassing on a national monument and World Heritage site, though, so I turned back around and climbed back down the mountain.

So, this trip I managed to ALMOST climb mountains in Ireland and in the original Sierra Nevadas. I would have made the attempt both times, but felt like I needed to go back down the mountain - in Ireland, that allowed me to BARELY catch my train (with some divine intervention and a lovely family that gave me a ride to the station), in Spain, that allowed me to not fall while climbing through the woods at night. Moral: Follow your intuition, even it does mean you don't summit.

And then, the next morning, I was on a bus bound for Malaga, chatting for three hours in VERY broken Spanish (but hey, my friend didn't speak English, so I thought it was an accomplishment) about physics, sociology, second language learning, Spain, and the national stereotypes of Spain, France and Germany. We came to a good question in our discussion: is it better to be considered kind (Spain) or effective (Germany)?

And now, the pictures. One final note: for reasons I will relate in greater detail, I will NOT post my designs for a new school here. I can send those of you who are interested an email describing my specific plans, but I won't post my invention to the World Wide Web, especially not if I'm going to try and sell it this fall.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Summary Post

I have missed a lot of blogging whilst I have been in Cambridge. Let me sum up;

Germany was a lot of fun. I finished the research I needed to do there in a single twenty four hour period, and caught an earlier train than I intended to Italy. The Germans in my hostel were friendly and courteous, and orderly almost to a fault: as I was climbing into my bed as evening approached, ready to simply wrap up in the duvet, one of them had me get out of bed, and then had me help him make my bed. It was kind, and very unusual to my American sentiment, but the other two German men in the hostel seemed to find it the expected or understandable thing for him to do. I was grateful that they would be so helpful to a stranger, and puzzled that they would take the trouble to have someone else's bed made – with hospital corners, no less. I presume that German culture emphasizes order.

On the train to Italy, I found a friend in a half-Swiss, half American girl who had a lot of questions about the Church. We had a very enjoyable conversation. In Italy, the trains moved unbelievably slowly west from Milan; I didn't arrive in Torino, near the French border, until nearly 11, after getting into Milan at 7. In Torino, due to a mix up, I spent the night trying to sleep in a train station. It was very hot, and a lot harder to sleep than I thought; I would have pulled it off, but a beetle thought that I was providing it dinner and so managed to bite me every time I would almost drift off. I don't think I even managed to squish it. I also discovered that calling cards are absolutely worthless from pay phones. This strikes me as very odd, as phone cards are for when one is traveling, as are pay phones.

That morning, I was dead tired of course, so I caught another incredibly slow train into Nice, or Marseilles, or somewhere that began with a P along the southern French coast. Actually, all of those places. The countryside was beautiful, and our train usually looked out over the sea. In that last place, I finally found a grocery store in a mall connected to the train station, and bought fresh fruit, bread, cheese, water, and carrots, and supped on them with relish for the next few days. It was a LOT cheaper, and I was very tired of train station food, no matter how good the Panini had been that morning in Italy.

In this location, our train broke down, so I rode with two Swedish girls to Barcelona on a bus replacement. We got in VERY late, and so I went with them to their hostel where – fortunately – there was another bed available in one of the men's rooms.

The next morning, I bade them goodbye and traveled, through Madrid, to Cordoba on a fast train; sadly, I didn't have time to stop or sightsee in Barcelona, though my hostel there was amazing. I will post a picture, blurry as it is.

Cordoba was amazing, and I had a blast there. My hostel, Senses and Colors, had a great atmosphere and was right in the heart of La Juderia, the old Jewish quarter; a few of the buildings dated back to the time was Cordoba was the capital of the Western Mediterranean. One of the restaurants nearby was actually housed in the ruins of the Muslim baths from Al-Andalus that I wanted to research. I visited every Muslim site I could find in preparation for writing one of my novels: the Tower Museum of Al-Andalus, the Caliphate baths (both the restored, museum ones and the ones converted to other uses), the ruins of Medina Al-Zahara (the governmental/administrative city built as palace community for the Caliph during the height, and then decline, of the Caliphate. It only lasted 70 years or so, or about 30 years after it was built). Also, I went to The Mezquita de Cordoba, which should rank as one of the architectural wonders of the world. Imagine a forest of columns, in perfect rows on both the horizontal and diagonal axes, in different colors, leading up into arches of alternating white and black or red marble, under a high ceiling with latticed skylights. I couldn't take a picture to do it justice. It was incredible.

The Tower and Medina al Zahara were probably the most useful for my research; the Tower was a testament to the advances, tolerance, and philosophy of the Islamic Renaissance as centered in and led by the city of Cordoba. I don't doubt that a lot of what I heard was historical propaganda, and that many of the messages from ancient Islamic philosophers had been adapted for a modern, Western, primarily Christian audience. Still, as long as the information presented wasn't an outright lie (and I sincerely doubt that) both the doctrinal and technological advances documented there were very impressive.

The Muslim sites were loaded with story hooks – huge sewers under amphitheatres, a succession of leaders murdered by slaves, and an empire that rose on the back of an orphan washed ashore and then fell in two generations under his great-grandsons deserve more literary attention than that which Cordoba has as yet been given. I made more friends in Cordoba, too, including a Thai student studying Spanish in Seville, and a Cuban gentleman with whom I discussed Kierkegaard, Stoicism, Hedonism, and becoming agnostic in a Calvinist paradigm.

More on Spain and the transition to England tomorrow. Also, a justification for not putting anything about education in this post. This post may be edited as well, probably to add pictures.