Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Nature of Love

While contemplating the nature of love, a friend said to me that “In English, a whole range of feeling is stuffed into that stupid word ‘love.’” It made me think of how love is expressed in other languages. In Spanish, for example, there are different words that are used to describe different types of love that—when translated into English—reveals what my friend calls its “semantic inadequacy.” To say, “Te amo” in Spanish is to say “I love you” in a sense of the love one has for a close friend or family member but to say “Te quiero” is to express a much more intense sort of love, as one would have for a spouse. It literally translates into “I want you” but the intended meaning is still one of romantic love. The best we’ve been able to come up with in English, it seems, is to make a distinction between “loving” someone and being “in love” with them. But what’s the difference between those two types of love? Are they two different emotions or just two variations of one emotion?
Christ was once asked, “Which is the great commandment in the law?”
His response: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second [is] like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matthew 22:36-39)
Christ also said, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all [men] know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:34-35)
One might assume that “one another” refers only to love among Christ’s disciples but the Savior also says to, “...Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you... For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?...” (Matthew 5:44,46-47)
So, we’re supposed to love everyone. And from these commandments, we can infer that that love is to be unconditional, no different from the love we have for God and that God has for us, “As I have loved you... love one another.”
But this still begs the questions, what is love? And can it really be given unconditionally?
I posed this question to some friends. One replied, “[Love] should be unconditional, but it isn't. In real life, people always setup conditions to their love, to how they feel, where they go in their relationships, friendships, acquaintances. They are more guarded if they've been hurt. even more so when they are selfish. It's human nature. There is romantic love, crazy love, foolish love, there is doomed love, even faked love... Love has conditions. In the people we hang out with, people we want to date, or marry. In acceptance or rejection. We always have conditions.”
Two statements stand out to me from those remarks: “Love has conditions” and “We always have conditions.” So what is the true source of those conditions? Love itself or us? I think it’s the latter, rooted in our own unwillingness to love unconditionally as we've been commanded.
Another friend wrote, “The only one that will truly have unconditional love for us is our Heavenly Father, and Jesus Christ. As a natural man (Mosiah 3:19) or women we will feel it in moments. But to truly have it all the time, it's a life long processes, and something that we probably won't have until the next life?”
The reference to Mosiah, is an interesting one and is worth exploring here.
“For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (emphasis added)
This friend seems to be hedging a bit when they say that having unconditional love is “a life long processes” and “we probably won't have [it] until the next life?” But the very scripture they referenced says nothing about achieving a capacity for unconditional love in the next life. The natural man can yield to the Spirit and put off his natural tendencies and become “full of love” in this life.
So, what is love? It’s a difficult question to answer because we’re all trying to define love within two very limiting constraints; that of human language and human experience. I want to understand love not as it’s defined by the OED or humanity in general but how it’s defined by God. Of course, trying to explain how God defines love requires us to filter our understanding through our language, “semantic inadequacies” and all.
The simplest definition of love that I could find in the scriptures reads, “...God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.” (1 John 4:16)
God dwells in us through the Holy Spirit. If we are striving to feel the Holy Spirit—which is God—and God is also love, then doesn’t it make sense that we should strive to love all the time? To embrace the idea of unconditional love as a means to Spiritual awareness? And yet so many of us are resistant to the idea of unconditional love. We’ve become cynical about love, which means we’ve also become cynical about God. Is it any wonder that we feel so alone? That when presented with the idea of unconditional love, we fall back to a place of defensiveness and suspicion? Especially those of us who have been hurt.
So, we’ve come to believe that there are different kinds of love that are applied in different ways to different situations and relationships. But if God is love then which of all the different kinds of love out there is God? Some might argue that it’s Charity—the pure love of Christ. But charity has such a broad definition that can be applied to so many different situations and relationships, I contend that all those “different kinds” of love aren’t separate things from Charity just different applications of it, thus love is a pure thing, it just gets diluted, applied in different levels or degrees—usually within the context of differing relationships—and even manipulated for our own purposes.
I believe that love is more than just a human emotion. I believe that love is a force in nature. Albeit one that is extremely difficult to measure. So, let’s compare it to something else that we can easily find in nature.
Love is like water.
Like love, water can take many forms. In other words, there are many different kinds of water. It exists in nature as a gas, as a liquid and as a solid. Usually we just think of this solid water as ice but there are 15 known solid phases of water. Water is also a conductor of heat, we use it for cooking, cleaning and sanitizing. Under intense pressure, water can be used to cut hard materials, everything from solid rock to steel. Dam a river and water pressure can power a city. Add salt and water becomes an excellent conductor of electricity. It also becomes unfit for human consumption. We need water to live but it’s possible for water to kill us if we drown in it. Spill boiling water on your skin and you can receive a severe burn but we can use cool water or ice to relieve the pain. Fall into a frozen lake and you can get hypothermia. Water is also a solvent. Many other chemicals, minerals and elements are miscible in water, making it an effective carrier of medicines or poisons.
Despite all of these factors, one thing remains constant: it's still water. Hot or cold, gas, liquid or solid, pure or polluted. Almost anything you add to water just gets dissolved in it, it doesn't actually become bound to the water molecules. Thus saturated and even poisoned water can be purified through various processes.
Like water, love is pure but can exist in many different states. It can be casual, platonic, deep, romantic. What changes it? Just as one applies or subtracts heat to water to change its state or dissolve other chemicals and elements in it for different purposes, one can apply different attitudes, emotions and motives to love to change how it is used and how it affects people. Love can even be poisoned with our fears, our neuroses, our addictions and our agendas. But through it all, love is still the same. Any negative effects we feel are a result of psychological, emotional and even rational—or irrational—impurities that get applied to it. But if we can learn to filter out those negative impurities—like fear, selfishness and base motives—then we can experience and express love in its purest form and if we add anything to it, we add the humor, fellowship and affection that we enjoy in the love we have for family and friends, the romance, bonding and connection we seek in the love we reserve for our eternal companions.
Perhaps love is a kind of energy. We certainly feel it. When people love each other very much, they feel bound to one another; whether it’s family or between individuals. They sense each other’s needs and desires without having to speak them. Love is a means of communication. And just as we use both visible and invisible frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum to communicate, then love is the means by which God communicates to his children and a means by which we can better communicate with one another, if only we are willing to love unconditionally. That’s what God commanded: “As I have loved you... love one another.” (John 13:34) And that love is the same, it’s not a mortal love differentiated from God’s eternal love. It’s just love.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Celestial beauty

I shared a quote on Facebook by Garrison Keillor recently that sparked some interesting conversation.

"Beauty isn't worth thinking about; what's important is your mind. You don't want a fifty-dollar haircut on a fifty-cent head."

One individual spoke out in support of Mr. Keillor's remarks thusly, "...there is a lot of freedom when you loosen up your visual standards. By being less concerned with looks—there's a world of people and qualities that you get to embrace. It's wonderful not being so limited. I can't help when I'm not attracted, but I enjoy having a smart confident man change my initial view of him because he is so awesome."

Another brought up a point in favor of aesthetics by saying, "When you wake up to a face every day it's nice to generally like what you see. (yours or someone else)."

I couldn't help but think of the Jack Black movie "Shallow Hal" when I read these comments. If you haven't seen it, Black's character—a pudgy, nihilistic, narcissistic and superficial individual—is hypnotized into being able to see people's inner beauty (that of both men and women) and he falls in love with a morbidly obese woman played by Gwyneth Paltrow (as her svelte self when in the presence of Jack Black and with prosthetics and/or a heavy-set body double when viewed by others). The inner beauty of others is interpreted by Black's character as aesthetic beauty but we discover through the course of the story that it works both ways. People who are otherwise physically attractive but have ugly personalities appear to Black as physically repulsive.

I love the message of that film. That it's important to seek out an individual's inner beauty before anything else.

I know from personal experience that seeing someone's inner beauty—or inner ugliness—has a genuine effect on how they appear to someone. A pretty face can only take one so far in a relationship, a beautiful soul has the potential to take one into eternity.

I like to think of inner beauty in terms of the degrees of glory: Celestial, Terrestrial and Telestial. I'm trying to find celestial beauty in a partner. The challenge is that Celestial beauty can't be seen with Telestial or worldly eyes. We need to put forth the effort to see someone spiritually and the only way to do that effectively is to love them unconditionally. To love someone, is to be one with them. To be one with someone, is to know them and see them as they really are. If we get so hung up on Telestial standards of beauty that we don't allow ourselves to love someone despite their outward appearance, then we can't know them for who they really are, regardless of what degree of inner beauty they may possess, which may say something about our own inner beauty.

Love someone unconditionally and you will see—with purer eyes—whether they have Celestial qualities or not. Make the choice not to love someone that way and you won't. Making that choice to love unconditionally is the key. Unconditional love is—itself—a Celestial quality. If one is incapable of it, then one may be limiting themselves not only to a lesser degree of love in their life but to a lesser degree of glory in the hereafter.

I don't think a Celestial relationship can be built on a sandy foundation of superficial aesthetic standards. We need to find the bedrock of Celestial qualities to build on. And what should a couple build? Zion in their relationship—being of one heart and one mind and it all starts with unconditional love (heart) and honesty (mind).

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Godly sorrow, the atonement and perceptions of time

My thoughts turn more and more to the atonement in recent weeks. That tends to happen when we're hurting. Though I realize also that we should probably consider it whenever we hurt others—and we're all guilty of that from time to time.

LDS Doctrine teaches that the key part of Christ's sacrifice for us wasn't His death on the cross but His suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was there that He not only pleaded with His Father to find another way to bring about the immortality and redemption of mankind—and then immediately submitted to the will of the Father—He also experienced all of man's suffering. It was there that He paid the price for every sin ever committed, not just up until that point but into the future as well. He also experienced all of the physical, emotional and psychological pain of mankind. Again, not just up until that point in time, but into the future.

But how is that possible?

As beings who exist in a linear universe where time always moves forward, it's difficult for us to grasp just how God perceives us and time. Being omniscient, God knows all that has happened, is happening and will happen. From time to time God reveals truths about events—past, present and future—to His prophets. As Latter-day Saints, we're privileged to be in possession of more information about the future than any other faith. We often don't know what to do with it, but it does create in us a certain sense of urgency that motivates us to magnify our callings and be more diligent in our work for the Kingdom.

Christ's mortal existence in our universe was largely linear. He did not come to the earth with a complete understanding of who He was and what His mission consisted of. It was something that He grew to understand. As His ministry progressed, He became more aware of His relationship with Heavenly Father, not just as the first Son of God but as a god himself. "Before Abraham was, I AM."

There is a great deal of confusion—even within the LDS community—about the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ. We often get into arguments—even with each other—about the "Oneness" of God and Christ. We know that they are separate and distinct individuals and yet they are "One." A lot of Mormons like to say, "They are one in purpose," which one may suppose is true but is an incomplete answer to what their oneness actually means.

If both God and Christ are omniscient then they are both fully aware of each other's thoughts, actions and will. Their oneness suggests that they are not just one in purpose but one in thought and still remain physically individual and distinct.

God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, exist eternally. This doesn't just mean that they are immortal—suggesting an endless existence in linear time—they exist outside of time. They perceive all that there is not because of any clairvoyance but because they are able to observe everything, everyone and every when as part of an eternal "Now."

I bring up this characteristic of the Father and Son as a means of trying to understand how Christ was able to perceive and endure all of mankind's suffering—past and present—while on this earth in a mortal and linear state. I believe it is through His oneness with God the Father that—even though Christ lived in the meridian of human time—He was able to perceive and experience all pain and suffering. In other words, He existed physically in this universe—perceiving time, events and people linearly—but during his time in the Garden, through his connection with the Father, He was able to have an eternal—nonlinear—perception of the universe. He was able to see and experience all of the suffering that ever was and ever will be because through His spiritual Oneness with God, He was able to perceive it all in the eternal Now, existing both within and outside of time.

Consider what that means.

Christ not only suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane nearly 2000 years ago; in a sense, He is suffering there "Now." When we feel pain—whether its the Godly sorrow we feel when we have sinned, the pain of physical illness or the hurt when someone else has inflicted their anger upon us—Christ didn't just feel it ahead of time for us all those years ago, He feels it concurrently. Consider the choices that we make: to sin, to inflict physical and emotional pain on others; now consider the fact that those conscious decisions are affecting the Son of Man in a garden and we have the capacity within us to choose not to do those things and by making those choices, we can—in a sense—alleviate Christ's suffering just a little bit.

While we're at it, let us consider the last time that we hurt someone. Perhaps it was an unkind word, a passive aggressive statement or action, and think about the way it made that person feel. Now consider that the pain that they are enduring is also being endured by the Redeemer. If you can, seek them out, look them in the eyes and see not just them but the Savior and consider saying, "I'm sorry for having caused you this pain. Please forgive me."

Monday, January 23, 2012

Free agency and the multiverse

A friend asked me to consider the outcome of a past situation had different choices been made by those involved. I don't think they realized just how profound and interesting a question that was and it got me thinking about all sorts of things from the idea of personal choice to God's omniscience to Quantum Mechanics and multiverse theory.

I'm a bit of a science nut, ever since I watched "Cosmos" as a kid on PBS. I love watching "Nova," The Science Channel, Discovery and documentary films. I'm also a fan of science fiction but "hard sci-fi" absolutely fascinates me... at least when it's done well.

Image CC BY geralt
But this idea of considering alternate outcomes drew my mind to multiverse theory. According to said theory, all of those alternate choices aren't just possible scenarios, they actually happened and they are all playing out in alternate universes. The number of universes is determined by the number of possible choices, resulting in countless outcomes that present countless more choices. It's interesting to consider the possibility that somewhere, there's a universe where I decided to stay in the Navy. I'd be approaching retirement about now. In another universe, perhaps I served a mission. In another, I never moved to Utah. The possibilities are literally endless.

Now, do I personally believe that there are an infinite number of universes out there with an infinite number of Joe Puente's living out an infinite number of versions of my life? No. But this theory does offer us some insight into how God may perceive his own creation.

One favorite argument against the idea of an all-knowing God floated by self-described atheists* from time to time is this: "If God is all knowing, then He knows what choices I'm going to make already and has judged me for it. Therefore, there is no free will so why should I bother believing in God anyway?"

That's a perfect example of linear thinking. That everything is playing out in a predetermined way that we have no control over. But the doctrine of Free Agency—our God-given right to make our own choices—is so integral to the Plan of Salvation that the idea of an all-knowing God seems almost incompatible with the very concept of free will... almost.

Enter the multiverse theory. I suppose it's possible that if there is in fact a multiverse than an omniscient and omnipotent God created it and He is aware of what's happening in it at all times, including the deeds and misdeeds of every iteration of Joe Puente therein.

I prefer to think that God doesn't need to create an infinite number of universes to know every possible situation, choice and outcome. Being omniscient might preclude the need to create all those universes for the sole purpose of observing them to know how every possible choice could play out.

So, does God know what choices I'm going to make in my life? Being omniscient, the answer is a resounding yes. But does that take away my right to make my own choices if God already knows what choices I'm going to make? No.

That last sentence is where most "atheists" probably stopped reading and blew me off as just another addict to the opiate of the masses.

For those of you who have stuck with me, allow me to explain.

It doesn't matter that God already knows what choice I'm going to make because He knows what the outcome would be of all the possible choices I could make. He knows how my life would have turned out had I stayed in the Navy just as He knows how my life is playing out now but the choice was still mine to make about whether or not I reenlisted.

He knows what effect my decisions will have on the world around me before I even realize that I have a decision to make and He doesn't need to create infinite universes—each with a predetermined plan—to know all the possible outcomes of our choices. He just knows us each that well.

To illustrate my point, consider a house. A structure of your own design. You decide to choose how many rooms there are, how many bedrooms, how many bathrooms, where to put the kitchen, the living room, the den, the garage, etc. You furnish the house, you stock the fridge and pantry, make it ready to move right into and you decide to rent it out—as is—with the stipulation that whoever moves in must make use of only the things that you've put into it.

Since you've designed this house and have chosen every detail of its design, construction, decoration and even the type of food that's in there, you have a pretty good idea of what kinds of choices a person can make when they move into it. You know that once they enter this house, there are only so many rooms they can go into and use. You know exactly what choices they have when they get hungry and want something to eat. Now, this is pretty abstract because no one really knows a person well enough to be able to consider where they'll go, what they'll do or even what they'll eat when left alone in a random house—or do we?

What if the person placed into this house is someone that you know very well? Extremely well, even. Like your own child. Someone who you've raised and observed for their entire life. Someone that you know so well, you could very well predict how they'll behave and what choices they'll make. Who would know better than a parent what particular foods in the pantry will not get eaten—at least right away. What books will be read and reread in the library and which will be completely ignored. Whether a closed door will be opened or left alone. Whether the attic or basement will be explored or even feared. As a parent, you may know the answers to all of these questions and possibilities but that knowledge has no effect on the ability of your child to make their own choices, even when you know every possible outcome.

Now consider how our Heavenly Parents know each of us better than our earthly parents do. Most would agree that God knows us better than we know ourselves and thus has a perfect knowledge of how we think, how we reason, how we react, how we make our choices AND how we deal with their outcomes. This is how I believe God knows every possible outcome of every possible choice we can make—but the choice is still ours.

*I'm of the opinion that Atheists are just agnostics in denial.

Friday, January 20, 2012


I had the opportunity to give a friend a blessing. She has been in quite a bit of pain—both physically and emotionally.

We spoke a bit about the propriety surrounding giving blessings for the sick, normally a two part process consisting of anointing the head of the person receiving the blessing with a drop of consecrated oil and then sealing the anointing with the blessing itself.

I had no oil with me so I simply suggested that I consecrate a small amount prior to the blessing. This made our blessing experience a three part process.

This was the first time I had been asked to give a blessing in years. I honestly don't remember how long or who I gave my last blessing too. Thank goodness for the technology in my phone that allowed me to double check the proper modus for each of these steps.

I remember the first time that I was ever asked to give someone a blessing. I was serving in the U.S. Navy in Panama and a friend who I enjoyed discussing topics of faith with had invited me over for dinner. She later asked me to bless her. She was having back problems. Every day that we went to work, we all traveled on a bus from Fort Davis to Galeta Island and the horrendous Panamanian roads made the trip very painful for her.

When the time came for me to offer the blessing, I was nervous. I remembered other blessings I had received and witnessed and thought of all the beautiful and powerful things that were said and realized that I had no idea what I was supposed to say to this woman. I started to speak and I stumbled and then I felt prompted... not to speak, but to listen. Then the words entered my mind, "Let the Spirit speak." And soon, the words that needed to be said came to me.

I had a similar experience with my friend recently. I wasn't nervous, nor did I plan on saying anything in particular. I just listened, first to her and then to the Spirit and the words that she needed to hear just came to me. There were pauses and I asked—in my mind—is that all? And a moment later, more words came until all that was needed to be said—all that she needed to hear in that moment—had been spoken.

I think many of us spend too much time worrying about details like protocol. This is ironic, because it was the Law of Moses that required strict adherence to ritual and the Gospel of Christ is more focussed on the spiritual. While there are specific ways of doing things in the church, either administratively or within the context of performing priesthood ordinances, outside of the Temple and the Sacramental prayers, it isn't always about the words that are spoken or the order in which they are said, as it is being open to the promptings of the Spirit.

When I was a boy, I had a severe allergic reaction to some weeds and pollen that were kicked into the air when I had mowed the lawn outside of our house. My eyes itched and teared profusely and I was in a great deal of pain. I was exhausted but I couldn't sleep. I cried and cried and my Dad decided to give me a blessing.

There are a few things I need to say about my Dad, first. At the time, he was in his late 60s. He was born in the U.S. but grew up in Spain. English is his second language and he speaks it with a thick Castilian accent. His education is very limited and when he writes in English, he often uses Spanish grammar. On top of that, we had only been members of the Church for a few years at this point. I'm not sure if Dad had ever given anyone a blessing up until then. But he saw that his youngest son was in pain and he knew that as a priesthood holder, he could give him a blessing.

Dad got his consecrated oil and he anointed my head with it as I kept crying and my mother held my hand. I don't think that Dad followed standard blessing protocol. I don't recall him saying one prayer to anoint and another to seal the anointing. I don't think he even spoke a word about acting under the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood. He just placed his hands on my head and began to pray. By the time he said, "Amen," I was no longer crying. My eyes still hurt but I was no longer in excruciating pain and was able to finally get some sleep.

In the end, God didn't care about the words my Dad spoke. He cared about what was in his heart and acted through him accordingly.

The next time any of us consider the manner in which we officiate in a priesthood ordinance, it's okay to think about the proper way to do it, but don't let that overshadow the most important parts of officiating in it: Our own spiritual awareness and the sincere and loving desires of our hearts. If we make that our primary focus when magnifying our callings and officiating in our priesthood duties, then God will not concern Himself with whether or not we were wearing the "right" colored clothes or whether we followed the directions to the letter. The power of the Priesthood is real and cannot be hindered by our human imperfections. Indeed, it's the Priesthood itself that is key to helping us overcome them.