Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Confession of a Dumb Bird-Watcher

Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets.  New York: Random House, 2004.  ISBN 0812975219.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.  New York: Random House, 2007.  ISBN 1400063515.

This essay takes me a little distance down memory lane, since I encountered Nassim Taleb before my crisis of faith had become truly critical.  Still not really concerned by the cognitive dissonance that would eventually become unbearable, I was happily engaged in my graduate school work, taking classes and preparing for examinations.  As an outlet for stress, I maintained an active lifestyle and sought the best information I could find on human health and performance.  I had knocked around enough to know that the people from whom I had the most to learn were older athletes who maintained high activity levels: they had something I wanted.  So I found myself visiting the web site of Clarence Bass, who introduced me (figuratively speaking) to economist Arthur De Vany and his brain-child "Evolutionary Fitness".  De Vany's ideas about complex systems (of which the human body provides one instance) are very interesting and changed my thinking in many ways (before his blog became available by subscription only; as a poor student, I have little cash to spare).  It was on De Vany's blog that I first learned of Taleb, whom (as I recall) De Vany approved as presenting a useful model for understanding how the real world works.  I was intrigued enough that I tracked down some cheap copies of Taleb's books and began reading.

In both of his books, Taleb outlines a world very different from the over-determined one in which I grew up.  Who can say when my dalliance with determinism began?  I remember my mother putting me to bed one night, back when I was about four years old.  I looked up at her and asked, with real emotion, "Mama, why does everybody do what they do?"  Maybe that was the beginning.  In any case, I spent the next several years learning from a deterministic point of view.  When I studied palaeontology as a nine-year-old, I tended to assume that dinosaurs (and other extinct life-forms) evolved a certain way out of necessity, adapting in some definite way to meet a definite need.  When I read the Book of Mormon as an eleven-year-old and experienced a very powerful emotional conversion, dinosaurs and evolution receded into the background (for several years I rejected evolution entirely!), but deterministic thinking remained: God had a plan which he played out in human life; free will in this plan existed from our point of view (since we were not coerced into making decisions), but not really from his (since he knew in advance what decisions we would make).  So life was controlled by prophecies.  There was the uncomfortable fact that many of these prophecies seemed to come "true" in so many different times, and in so many different ways.  Could God really have deliberately intended so much?  Taleb makes it really hard to think he did, particularly if you think of God as a glorified man, which as a good Mormon (and Christian, though some will doubtless protest) I once did.

Instead of writing about "the great chain of being" in some form, with all life ultimately determined by some Aristotelian unmoved mover (whether God or "nature" or anything else you please), Taleb writes about man, i.e. homo sapiens, though when you are knee-deep in Taleb's work he looks a lot more like homo stultus.  For Taleb's man is not the pinnacle of evolutionary history or the capstone of God's creation.  He is a garrulous fool with a penchant for telling stories to explain why things happen.  Caught between a rock and a hard place, Taleb's man does not reason our way out step by logical step: like any good cowboy, he takes a gut check and gets the hell out of Dodge!  Then, seated at a cozy table with friends, he tells the story of his escape as though he had calculated every step precisely, as though his salvation were determined by consummate skill (or calculated divine intervention) instead of dumb luck.  The rational element is here completely subservient to the emotional, which provides the real, unexamined, unexplained source for human action.  I was fascinated by this (for me) new vision of humanity, to the point that I decided to follow a hint from Taleb and take a special examination in ancient astrology, comparing it to modern economics as practiced by the big-shots that have been going broke recently (and using the government's muscle to take food from my children's mouths to get back on their feet). It is uncanny to me how similar ancient astrologers (still extant in old manuscripts that few people read) are to modern economists: both use the language of science (geometry, mathematics) to speak a kind of hyper-articulate gibberish that always makes perfect sense of the (determined) past but cannot say anything really telling about the (undetermined) future. The bogus nature of their predictions is revealed when something really unexpected happens (the unfolding economic crisis, for example): Taleb refers to these unlooked-for events as "black swans", drawing on the old European notion that all swans are white, a notion which persisted until the late 17th century, when black swans were discovered in western Australia. 

Someone has come up with a nice parable that illustrates what reading Taleb did for me.  Imagine the human mind as a house full of windows to the outside.  As long as you are in the house, your understanding of the outside is dependent on your access to the windows.  Assuming the outside is important to you, would you not want access to as many windows as possible, preferably clean ones?  Reading Taleb showed me (1) that there were many windows in my house, not just the one or two I had been using, and (2) that all of them were very dirty, such that it was better to talk about the potential rather than the actual when speaking of things outside.  Essentially, reading Taleb turned me into an epistemological agnostic: I became more aware of the powers and limitations of my mind, and consequently less certain of everything; some things dropped off my radar almost entirely.  Why talk seriously about saving the universe or some eternal essence of me long-term when I do not even know how to save the bacon here and now?  I began to shut up and listen even more than I used to; other points of view became valuable when they disagreed rationally with an emotional judgment of mine, and useless when they made emotional appeals against my rational judgment.  Returning to the parable of the house helps make sense of what was going on.  Before I knew about the multitude of windows, I had only one or two (that were really dirty, remember), so when someone said, "Look, there's a little pink unicorn in the garden!" I would peer through the glass, get a glimpse of something and think to myself, "Yeah, that could be a unicorn, and it does look rather pink."  After Taleb took me on the grand tour of the house, the process of verification became more complicated.  I had to visit all the windows before making a pronouncement.  Comparing one view with another, I would say something like this: "Yeah, the smudge on this window creates a blotch that makes whatever-it-is look horned, and the tinge of the dirt makes it seem pink, but that other window upstairs has a different pattern of smudges in different colors, and everyone up there is convinced we have a brown rabbit in the garden, rather than a pink unicorn.  Seen from the west wing it looks more like a blue panda."  A quicker way to convey this shift in perspective is to emend the famous quote from Descartes, who should have said cogito, ergo idiota sum ("I think, therefore I am an idiot").  Thinking no longer confirms what I already know (in my gut); instead, it provides evidence that I don't really know anything (because gut-sense is really nonsense; unfortunately, it is also the inalienable factor in most human decisions).

So, there you have it.  Before reading Taleb, I was living out my life as just another philosophical footnote to Plato, chasing a vision of "absolute truth" whose reality I was prepared to rationalize any way I could.  After reading Taleb, "absolute truth" disappeared as a meaningful variable on my epistemological map of the world. Though I still went through perfunctory motions of "believing" in it, I ceased using it as a heuristic in dealing with new data input: it became the relic of an irrecoverable past.  Little by little, I shed the persona of the know-it-all expert, crafted in the image of God with clear insight into eternal reality, and recognized that I was just a dumb bird-watcher with a knack for leaping to unjustified (and unjustifiable) conclusions.  Like many prognosticators before, I looked around and saw omens: eagles, meteors, planetary conjunctions, stock quotes, sacred books, a burning in the bosom, etc.  Sometimes I read the omens "correctly" (meaning I got the outcomes I wanted after seeing the holy birds and making the proper sacrifices), and sometimes I did not.  Then one day I saw a black swan.  I have never really looked at the world the same way since.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Unbinding the Lord

Thomas Merton.  Seven Storey Mountain.  New York: Harcourt Brace, 1948.  ISBN 0156010860.

Thomas Merton.  Mystics and Zen Masters.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967.  ISBN 0374520011.

Buddhism was not the only place I looked for insight after my LDS worldview collapsed.  I had several good friends who were Catholic: like the Buddhists, they provided me with a figurative shoulder to cry on, hearing my story and validating it from a neutral perspective.  Talking with these friends confirmed my conviction that there is something good in Christianity, even if Christ is "just" a myth.  I became interested in the possibility of being Christian without believing in a historical Christ.  I was also very interested in learning about Christian attempts to meet other religions affirmatively rather than antagonistically.  Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that I eventually found myself reading Thomas Merton.

I started with Seven Storey Mountain, which tells the story of Merton's conversion from a lackadaisical atheism to a very fervent Catholicism that eventually saw him enrolled as one of the monks at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky.  I found his story compelling on several levels.  First of all, it reminded me of my own journey into faith, which as a teenager I deliberately constructed as an escape from the world (where all was chaos) into the kingdom of God (where divine order prevailed).  It was hard for me to fall from the kingdom back into the world (though the chaos was not as much or as bad as I remembered).  Above all, I did not want to bid an eternal farewell to the bliss that comes from being aligned with some kind of "higher" purpose.  Merton gave me hope that maybe I could find that again.  More importantly, he opened a window onto a different kind of religious experience than the one the LDS church teaches, a religious experience in which the nature and character of God remains an eternal, unfathomable mystery.  Whereas my LDS faith taught me to approach God as a concrete thing defined precisely by direct revelation to human authorities, Merton's faith did not.  His God was always outside precise definition: no formula of words or intellectual concepts could hold him.  As an LDS missionary and a scholar of church history, I had often heard this particular aspect of Catholicism derided as proof of weakness ("How is it possible to relate meaningfully to something or someone without definite characteristics like body, parts, passions?").  Now I experienced it as a bastion of strength.  The unknowable God existed for me (in the untold mystery of life) in a way that my knowable God no longer could (since I was pretty sure that neither Joseph Smith nor any Mormon prophet since ever really saw or handled him in an experience that I could relate to or have for myself).

Coming from a later point in Merton's career, Mystics and Zen Masters deepened my respect for the unknowable God.  Because Merton was willing to acknowledge a God without precise limits, he was open to perceptions and experiences of "the divine" (as formulated by Christians) that came from traditions radically different from his.  Instead of trying to convert Zen Buddhists to Christianity (let alone Catholicism), he asked himself, "What can Christians (and Catholics) learn from Zen Buddhists?"  In Mystics and Zen Masters, the response to this question takes the form of a beautiful tapestry of blueprints for experiencing God (or "enlightenment," if you are a Buddhist).  Merton productively engages Catholicism, eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Zen Buddhism, and even existentialism in a dialogue where all parties have valuable information that they can share without forfeiting their status as equal partners.  The common thread that Merton finds uniting all these variations in human religious behavior emerges as a concern for connecting with reality (which one may call God, or enlightenment, or anything one pleases, as far as I am concerned).  He records two experiences of reality that strike me as being particularly beautiful. 

The first is his impression of the feelings motivating the Irish monk to leave his home on pilgrimage in the eighth and ninth centuries CE: "His vocation was to mystery and growth, to liberty and abandonment to God, in self-commitment to the apparent irrationality of the winds and seas, in witness to the wisdom of God the Father and Lord of the elements" (97-98).  The second comes from the world of Zen Buddhism: "A Chinese Zen master, Hui Neng, said: 'If you cherish the notion of purity and cling to it, you turn purity into falsehood...Purity has neither form nor shape, and when you claim an achievement by establishing a form to be known as are purity-bound [i.e., imprisoned by your limited and illusory concept of purity]'" (221).  Merton follows this story up by observing that "Zen is a full awareness of the dynamism and spontaneity of life" (222).  Both Irish pilgrim and Zen master experience reality as something dynamic and fluid, an erratic, evolving entity that is irreducible to definite form.  Rather than demand order, both ride the wave of chaos with faith that order will appear: spontaneous order, divine order, the order of God.  This is a kind of faith that I can live with because it matches the chaos (and serendipity) of real life as I experience it.  For better or for worse, my world can never again come together around a personal God who is completely knowable (but never chooses to reveal himself directly to me, preferring to speak through corporate handlers).

Merton's final message is a word of warning to organized religion.  Speaking primarily to Catholics, he points to the disasters of the Crusades, to the destruction of the Jesuits' early work in China, and discovers a moral lesson: the church cannot afford to join secular society in suppressing the need of individual human beings for authentic connections with reality.  If it is to exert a positive influence on social trends (rather than slap its label on whatever shenanigans happen to be going on), it must build individual integrity rather than institutional complacency.  Speaking to Buddhists, Merton takes a similar tack, enlisting Thich Nhat Hanh as an ally.  The following quote, while long, is one of the best passages in the book:
"Traditional Buddhism, formal, rigid, doctrinaire, is sterile, fit for a museum, irrelevant to the modern world, not because it is out of touch with current realities, but because it is out of touch with human experience itself [original emphasis]...To set up party, race, nation, or even official religion as absolutes is to erect barriers of illusion that stand between man and himself and prevent him from facing his own reality in its naked existential factuality.  In this case, says Nhat Hanh, the various world views, whether religious or political, may concur in the error of providing man with a refuge, and with stereotyped formal answers which substitute for genuine thought, insight, experience, and love.  One must break through these illusory forms and come directly to grips with suffering in ourselves and in others.  The aim of Buddhism is then the creation of an entirely new consciousness which is free to deal with life barehanded and without pretenses.  Piercing the illusions in ourselves which divide us from others, it must enable man to attain unity and solidarity with his brother through openness and compassion" (286-287).  

Here, in one paragraph Merton (with help from Nhat Hanh) brings together all the elements that went into my disaffection with Mormonism as practiced by the LDS.  The hardest part of coming out of my Mormon shell was recognizing that the LDS church subverted my moral integrity by convincing me to outsource it to them: instead of looking for God in the unknown as I experienced it, I was told to seek it in pronouncements from absolute authorities with power and knowledge that I could never really control for myself.  Like a tree with a wedge inside it, I grew up twisted and warped, with a hole in the center of my ill-developed faith that did not become apparent until "the brethren" could no longer supply me with absolute truth.  Now I find myself struggling to construct a worldview oriented towards the unknown instead of the known, toward God the mystery rather than God the celestial grandpa.  Sometimes it is a happy struggle.  Sometimes it is sad.  Always it is my own, and God (however I see him) is there with me, thanks in some measure to people like Thomas Merton: ordinary believers who experience God without trying to define or control him for others.    

Monday, March 22, 2010

Not a Buddhist

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse.  What Makes You Not a Buddhist.  Boston: Shambala, 2007.  ISBN 1590305701.

When my testimony of Joseph Smith crumbled, I found myself in a very strange situation.  On the one hand, I felt very ambivalent toward organized religion: I had trusted church leaders, starting with Joseph Smith, and they had lied to me (from my perspective).  I was afraid of falling into the same trap again.  On the other hand, I still felt the need to participate in some kind of religious activity.  I wanted to do something to connect with the sacred mystery of life, and I definitely needed something to fill the gaping hole Mormonism had left in my heart.  At once attracted and repulsed by religion, I felt it would be best to start my quest for a new faith by coming at it from a completely different angle than the one I had had before.  Thus I found myself attending Buddhist prayers and meditating at a local temple (in the Tibetan lineage of Karma Kagyu).  While I felt really good about my participation at the temple, I resisted the temptation to "take refuge" (the Buddhist version of conversion).  Some of the credit for this wise reticence goes to Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche and the book that is the subject of this essay.

What I enjoyed most about my time at the temple was the overwhelming peace I felt while chanting (in incomprehensible Tibetan) and sitting quietly in front of the altar.  My discovery of LDS church history had taken away my ability to feel that peace in Sunday School or Priesthood meetings, where the disconnect between history (as I knew it) and myth (as the church teaches it) made me really uncomfortable, almost to the point of physical pain.  The LDS temple was not a place I could visit for peace either, guarded as it was by a mandatory confession of faith that would be hypocritical (coming from me).  So I was really happy to find an outlet for my angst among the Buddhists, who expected nothing from me beyond quiet concentration on whatever ritual was at hand.  But even among the Buddhists I was not entirely at peace.  Every now and then I caught glimpses of "religious behavior" that I found vaguely disturbing (because of what I had just gone through): one that sticks out in my mind is the tendency some of the good people at the temple showed to venerate teachers like the Karmapa or the Dalai Lama.  Having just escaped the veneration of prophets, I was not ready to commit to the veneration of gurus (I saw Richard Baker and Chogyam Trungpa as modern Buddhist versions of Joseph Smith).  Nor was I eager to "take refuge" in Buddhist vows, which are dictated by the community and are entered into for life.  I wanted to be religious without committing myself sight-unseen to any shenanigans.  To be fair to the Buddhists with whom I interact, I must say they have never pressured me to do anything; in that regard they are much better missionaries than I ever was as a believing LDS.  I regard them as good friends, and, circumstances permitting, would like to continue our association.  But I digress.

Early on in my stumbling journey away from the wreck of my Mormon faith, I had the good fortune to come across Khyentse's book, which considerably eased my anxiety vis-a-vis Buddhism and religious life in general.  Peeling back the facades of myth and tradition that Buddhists cast in front of their own faith, Khyentse reduces it to four ethical truths that stand independent of any historical claim.  I include them here with my commentary:

(1) All compounded things are impermanent.  As I wondered what to make of my life (not to mention afterlife) in the wake of my lapse from Mormonism, it was comforting to find that the alternative to "permanence" (in the form of eternal life) was not "annihilation" but "evolution."  The atoms that make me up do not cease to exist when I die, anymore than they began to exist when I was born: they just experience a re-configuration, with the result that the constructed persona I call "me" appears and disappears.  That persona changes all the time: over the past 25 years it has gone from Mormon to almost Buddhist, from conservative to libertarian, from statist to anarchist, from scientist to humanist, from infant to child, from child to adult.  Within Mormonism, the doctrine of eternal progression provides a handle on which to hang this kind of thought: what sort of life does an intelligence have before it becomes a spirit or a human being?  what sort of life does a glorified, resurrected being have?  Having recognized as a believing Mormon that there are no fixed answers to these questions, I was ready to admit as a post-Mormon that the mask of my human persona might not survive my physical deathMaking this realization explicit relieved me of a great weight of fear and responsibility that I used to feel when contemplating my believing Mormon life "from an eternal perspective."  Too often, the latter exercise involved getting worked up over tiny difficulties in my life that required nothing more than a slight change to my persona--just a little shift of the mask, so to speak--but because I saw these details as inalienable parts of "me" (the imagined eternal personality) whose permanence could only be altered by abject repentance and scared obedience to divine authority, I was too afraid to do anything.  When I was disturbed by wet dreams as a teenager, I spent years (figuratively) cowering in fear of eternal damnation when what I should have done was recognize that sex, like other compound things, comes and goes.  You should not get attached to it, and you should not be afraid of it either.  It is impermanent!

In many ways, this Buddhist teaching looks like a complete reversal of LDS doctrine about eternity, and I admit this did not always sit easily with me.  Nevertheless, I had no good response to arguments like the following:
[E]ven after a devastating reminder like the tsunami, the death and devastation will soon be camouflaged and forgotten.  Luxurious resorts will be erected on the very spot where families came to identify the corpses of their loved ones.  The people of the world will continue to be caught up in compounding and fabricating reality with hopes of achieving long-lasting happiness.  Wishing for 'happily ever after' is nothing more than a desire for permanence in disguise.  Fabricating concepts such as "eternal love," "everlasting happiness," and "salvation" generates more evidence of impermanence.  Our intention and the result are at odds.  We intend to establish ourselves and our world, but we forget that corrosion begins as soon as creation ends.  What we aim for is not decay, but what we do leads directly to decay (20).  
I look at my own life, and my own quests for happiness, and I have to admit that Khyentse has a very good point.  What if the best way to create a healthy marriage is to cherish it like a blossom that might die tomorrow rather than assuming that because of priesthood power it will last forever (barring murder or adultery)?  The Buddhist perspective is more realistic when we look around and acknowledge that we are not different from other people, that relationships within the LDS church require as much effort to succeed (and are as likely to fail) as relationships outside it.
(2) All emotions are pain.  This Buddhist teaching has always resonated with me.  I recognize with most of the world that emotions like pride, jealousy, and rage are painful to those who experience them.  I also know that joy and love include suffering as a necessary component.  To experience great joy or happiness is to feel a proportionally great sense of loss when the feeling is over, as I learned when my joy in Mormonism came to an end. As for love, Anglicans marry "for better or for worse" because love includes suffering.  To love is to feel what the beloved feels, to desire the beloved more than you can express, to suffer great pain when the beloved is taken away (whether forever or even just for a relatively little while): all of these experiences necessarily entail pain.  Khyentse's last words on the essential unity of pleasure and pain are profound:
When you begin to notice the damage that emotions can do, awareness develops.  When you have awareness--for example, when you know you are on the edge of a cliff--you understand the dangers before you.  You can still go ahead and do as you were doing; walking on a cliff with awareness is not frightening anymore; in fact it is thrilling.  The real source of fear is not knowing.  Awareness doesn't prevent you from living, it makes living that much fuller.  If you are enjoying a cup of tea and you understand the bitter and the sweet of temporary things, you will really enjoy the cup of tea (54).  
When you embrace love with the knowledge that it will hurt, you are not surprised (or put off) by the pain.

(3) All things have no inherent existence.  This principle entails a renunciation of the quest for absolute perfection.  Everything beautiful is ugly from a different point of view.  Everything ugly is beautiful.  The practical application Khyentse takes from this is that we should not be too upset when our plans go awry, when our vision of beauty is marred by someone or something.  Instead of dictating to the world what is beautiful and what is ugly, we should work with the material it provides, making things as beautiful as we can without expecting others to agree or getting our panties in a bunch when they disagree.  I take great comfort in this principle, which on looking back I recognize at the root of all my successful relationships (Mormon and post-Mormon).  Inside Mormonism I have seen some people take their vision of beauty and attempt to apply it forcibly on others; this usually results in wrangling and bad feelings.  I have also known individual Mormons with a great ability to appreciate the wealth of beauty that exists outside their own narrow view of the gospel.  I aspire to join their number, and try as honestly as I can to see other people's beauty and respect it, even when it appears diametrically opposed to my own. 

(4) Nirvana is beyond concepts.  The highest expression of what it means to be human, something that Buddhists often refer to as "enlightenment," lies outside the realm of happiness and unhappiness, according to Khyentse.  It is something unique to the individual that can be experienced but not defined, since every definition ends up as nothing but somebody else's inconclusive description.  This means that no authority known to man can claim to control it through access to special knowledge or power, and there is no recipe for it beyond waiting in patience and non-expectation, following the lights of love and compassion wherever they may lead.  Khyentse is careful not to make love and compassion into concrete ends of enlightenment: they are means whose regular, intuitive exercise points the individual toward a personal revelation beyond the power of words (or institutions) to convey or contain.  This teaching resonated very strongly with me as embodying everything I found most compelling about Christianity generally and Mormonism specifically: the more I think about all that I love most about both of these faith traditions, the more I see that I value the authority of the Spirit over that of the Word, and the integrity of the individual over that of the church.  I am thus very much at home in the egalitarian Buddhist universe that Khyentse inhabits:
It is normal for religions to have a leader.  Some, such as the Roman Catholic Church, have an elaborate hierarchy, led by an all-powerful figure, to make decisions and pass judgments.  Contrary to popular belief, Buddhism does not have such a figure or institution...There is no one authority with the authority to decide who is a true Buddhist and who is not for all the forms and schools of Buddhism that exist in Tibet, Japan, Laos, China, Korea, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the West.  No one can declare who is punishable and who is not.  This lack of a central power may bring chaos, but it is also a blessing because every source of power in every human institution is corruptible (122).  
My time as a Mormon has taught me the value of establishing a religious environment where doctrine is not narrowly prescribed, where the integrity of the individual quest for personal revelation is respected and facilitated even at the expense of the authority of ecclesiastical leaders.

The sum of Khyentse's message is that the real heart of Buddhism lies outside the accidental cultural background of particular Buddhists (including the Buddha himself, if we assume he existed as a historical individual). Regardless of vows, veneration, vegetarianism, or any other "Buddhist" practice, everyone who accepts the four truths is a "practicing Buddhist," in Khyentse's formulation (124). What those four truths offer is not an answer to all problems; they merely provide an interface through which the Buddhist interacts with reality as he (or she) perceives it. In the words of Khyentse:
The Buddhist masters believe that however you choose to label yourself, unless you have faith in these truths, you will continue to live in an illusory world, believing it to be solid and real.  Althought such belief temporarily provides the bliss of ignorance, ultimately it always leads to some form of anxiety.  You then spend all your time solving problems and trying to get rid of the anxiety.  Your constant need to solve problems becomes like an addiction.  How many problems have you solved only to watch others arise?  If you are happy with this cycle, then you have no reason to complain.  But when you see that you will never come to the end of problem solving, that is the beginning of the search for truth (115).  
Embracing the four truths allows one to begin the personal quest for enlightenment.  Having accepted the four truths provisionally (until I have something better, as Khyentse says at one point) and begun that quest, I do not see the point at present of going through ceremonies or changing my daily habits drastically in an effort to become more Buddhist than I already am.  Thank you, Rinpoche!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Unraveling the Great Apostasy

Bart D. Ehrman.  The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.  ISBN 0195102797.

Bart D. Ehrman.  Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.  ISBN 0195182499.

Before taking a really serious look at the history of Mormonism in the nineteenth century, I was heavily engaged in seeking evidence to bolster the Prophet Joseph's claim to have restored the primitive religion practiced by Christ and the apostles in the first.  This quest began when I read the Book of Mormon as a teenager, and led me eventually to the writings of James E. Talmage (the LDS apostle) and Hugh Nibley (a scholar whom many regard as one of the LDS church's foremost apologists).  When I matriculated at the University of Georgia, I chose religion as my major and studied Latin, Greek, and biblical Hebrew before taking a two-year break to preach the LDS version of the Christian gospel in northern Spain.  I returned from Spain to study at Brigham Young University, where I continued working on early Christianity with a number of dedicated professors (and changed my major to classical studies since BYU offers no degree in religion per se).  It was at BYU that I first encountered the work of New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, whose journey out of a 'literalist' evangelical Christianity now neatly mirrors my own departure from the 'literalist' Mormon Christianity practiced by the LDS.

I was introduced to Ehrman in the context of a familiar argument in LDS apologetics.  Both the 1838 account of the First Vision (the account which the LDS church includes in the Pearl of Great Price as Joseph Smith--History) and the earlier (1830) Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 13-14) posit the existence of a massive ideological break between primitive Christianity and what came later.  Talmage refers to this break as "the Great Apostasy," and tries to locate it somewhere between the first and fourth centuries CE, when the collections of doctrines and rituals that define Catholic and Orthodox Christianity (and all their offshoots) were gradually becoming explicit and being systematized.  Somewhere in this process, the primitive institution founded by Christ turned into something radically different and lost plain and precious truths critically important to authentic Christian identity (see 1 Nephi 14:23).  This Mormon story of apostasy is not wholly unique: it has clear historical precedents in the Protestant Reformation, which was originally much like Mormonism in its attempt to bridge a perceived gap between Christianity then (under Christ) and Christianity now (under apostate prelates).  The Reformation in turn has precedents in various 'heretical' movements within the Catholic and Orthodox churches, many of which conceived of themselves as a return to primitive Christianity.  So when the Prophet Joseph said that Christianity had forgotten Christ and that a restoration of the old ways was necessary, he was not saying something completely new or unexpected.  As I understand it now, the Mormon idea of Restoration was Joseph's final answer to a problem that has been with Christianity for a long time.  I did not realize how long until I began to dig into the work of Bart Ehrman.
My LDS professors at BYU found Ehrman interesting because he confirms Mormon teaching that Christianity has evolved radically over time, providing a scholarly platform from which to argue that the Great Apostasy really did take place, and thus that there really was a historical need for Joseph Smith's Restoration.  Unfortunately, Ehrman does much more than this.  He demonstrates very effectively that (1) Christianity was never a monolithic movement, as far as we can tell; and that (2) the New Testament (NT) cannot be regarded as any kind of objective history: it is a collection of myths collated relatively late from a wide variety of sources; its narratives were composed originally in the context of polemical disputes between early Christians who disagreed profoundly and irreconcilably on the essence of Christianity (the divinity of Christ, the nature of the church, basic doctrine and practice such as baptism, Mosaic observance, priesthood, etc.).  After reading Ehrman and digesting him for several years, I can no longer entertain the LDS story of Apostasy and Restoration as a historical reality.  If there never was any monolithic Christian movement, what was Joseph Smith restoring?  Even a cursory glance at the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine and Covenants (not to mention the Book of Mormon) shows that Joseph was leaning heavily on the NT in his reimagination of Christianity, and Ehrman (to my mind) effectively destroys the New Testament's claim to special consideration as preserving "the authentic brand" of Christianity.  Speaking from the historian's point of view, it is impossible for me to agree that the NT looks back to a strain of Christianity that is prior to the other strains that it attacks, ignores, and eventually replaces (for the most part: there are still some obscure Christian sects that do not use the NT as their canon).

How does Ehrman work his magic?  First, he retells the story of the creation of the NT, showing that it was not created in a vacuum: from the first century to the fourth, many books of scripture were written and used by Christians; the NT represents only a small group of these.  Taken as a whole, the books that did not make the NT roster represent variations of Christianity as ancient and argumentatively compelling as what Ehrman calls the "proto-orthodox" faith tradition (the source for Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Mormonism).  Second, Ehrman deconstructs the NT, showing that many books (e.g. 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John) are manifest forgeries, while others (e.g. Revelation) are of dubious apostolic origin and were strenuously denied entrance into the canon until the very last minute.  He also provides extensive documentation of how early fights to establish authoritative doctrine colored and reshaped NT narratives.  I entertained his arguments initially because they matched the Eighth Article of Faith articulated by Joseph Smith in the Wentworth Letter ("we believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly") and the teaching of the Book of Mormon ("they [apostates] have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious" [1 Ne 13:26]), which imply that Christianity as we have it in the records is somehow corrupt.  What Ehrman really shows, however, is that there is no time in history (as far as we can tell) when Christianity was not "corrupt," by which I mean that there was no time when people with legitimate authority did not dispute its most basic essence and interpret it in very idiosyncratic ways.  After reading Ehrman and finally coming to understand him (a process which took several years, since I was not prepared to relinquish my literalist views overnight), I was left without any compelling ancient evidence for monolithic Christianity.  Why should I read Revelation as the inspired word of God but reject the Shepherd of Hermas, an equally "authentic" text that many viewed as authoritative, or the Gospel of Peter, or the Gospel of Thomas, or the Gospel of Philip, or the Books of Enoch, or any number of other holy books written or adapted by early Christians to proclaim so many different versions of the true faith, all of which looked like Mormonism (and Catholicism and Orthodoxy) in some ways, but not in others?  Why do the Gospels contain so many contradictions in narrative and doctrine?  What was I to make of the fact that so much early Christian literature was plainly pseudepigraphic (composed under a false name, usually that of an early church leader or someone thought to have been close to Christ)?

In the end, I think Ehrman's solution to the problem of early Christianity is the most compelling I have seen.  There never was a singular Christian movement: we have been defined from the beginning by schism and "apostasy" as different individuals and groups among us have inherited and adapted myths and practices from others.  Seen from the historian's perspective, we all have equal claim on Christ: all of us are connected to him, but no one of us owns him in any way that precludes or trumps the others.  The Mormon myth of the Great Apostasy is a rhetorical ploy to make one claim appear preferable to others.  It has no basis in history.  Confronting this fact was very hard for me as a good LDS.  It marked the beginning of the end of my literalist Mormon worldview.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Insider's Take on Grant Palmer

Grant H. Palmer.  An Insider's View of Mormon Origins.  Salt Lake City: Signature, 2002.  ISBN 1560851570.

This book offers a thoughtful critique of the version of Mormon history that is taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in missionary discussions and CES classrooms.  While I do not always see eye to eye with the author, I think his approach represents a healthy corrective to the naive equation of myth and history that dominates orthodox LDS understanding of the Mormon story.  As more and more people become aware of the serious discrepancies that separate LDS myth from Mormon history, "inside" attempts like Palmer's will be needed if the church is to remain honest and relevant.  Those LDS who dismiss Palmer reflexively as "just another anti" fail to do justice to the man: he has dedicated his entire life (professional and confessional) to the church, and his book treats the church very seriously and sensitively.  He strikes an essential balance between bearing testimony and acknowledging facts, a balance that has been very hard to find in most LDS apologetic literature, which is typically almost entirely polemical.

Doubting Joseph Smith.  Without attacking the moral integrity of the Prophet, Palmer documents the gap between his history and the mythology that has grown up around him in the LDS church.  Examining accounts of the Book of Mormon, Palmer deconstructs the "translation" process: repeated testimony from the Prophet's scribes shows that this involved Joseph looking at a peep-stone in a hat; the plates were just an accessory, and were often not even on hand while Joseph dictated.  Palmer also discusses Joseph's attempts to translate (1) "the Book of Abraham," (2) the Kinderhook plates, and (3) Henry Caswall's Greek psalter, acknowledging that the Prophet showed no special ability with ancient languages: in the case of the "Book of Abraham," the rediscovery of actual documents used in Joseph's "translation" shows that the Prophet could not read ancient Egyptian.  This is all territory that has been covered before, but Palmer's book is as good a summary as I have ever seen, with ample footnotes (so much better than endnotes), and his presentation of the evidence avoids emotional fireworks.

Understanding Joseph Smith.   It is not enough to question the historical validity of current LDS mythology; the skeptic needs to construct a coherent alternative narrative to explain the origins of the Book of Mormon and the church.  Palmer makes important strides in this area.  He provides considerable evidence supporting a nineteenth-century, American Protestant origin for the Book of Mormon and deconstructs the traditional LDS narratives of the First Vision and priesthood restoration.  Against the argument of LDS apologists that Joseph was a country boy without the education necessary to compose something like the Book of Mormon, Palmer cites the Prophet's early immersion in American evangelical Protestantism and documents the heavy presence of that religious culture in the Book of Mormon (in the form of extensive Biblical quotations from extant printings of the KJV, complete with spelling mistakes, and dramatic stories of personal conversion occurring in the context of spirited public preaching and heavenly visions).  He documents the evolution of Joseph's accounts of priesthood restoration and the First Vision, showing that the original versions of both events read more like ordinary evangelical conversion stories typical of the period.  Like those stories, they make no claims to exclusive authority or revelation; these claims appear later in Mormon history, when they are introduced to confute growing numbers of apostates (e.g. during what Palmer calls "the leadership crisis of 1838," when the version of the First Vision currently endorsed by the LDS church was composed). 

Book of Mormon.  In discussing the nature of the Book of Mormon, Palmer is careful to avoid the trap that has caught many skeptics before him.  Instead of identifying specific literary sources (apart from the KJV) from which Joseph might somehow have lifted the Book, he adduces narratives reminiscent of the Book that circulated in early nineteenth-century America, focusing on View of the Hebrews by Ethan Smith and E. T. A. Hoffmann's fairytale "The Golden Pot", and shows how the story Joseph tells in the Book merges narrative elements common to his cultural background (from Bible stories, nineteenth-century Protestant conversion narratives, and legends of hidden treasure protected by otherworldly guardians) with pieces of the Smith family's unique history.  Seen through this lens, the Book of Mormon looks very much at home in the cultural milieu of nineteenth-century New York, and its failure to find any similar purchase in what we know of the earlier Native American cultures it supposedly documents becomes even more striking.  Palmer drives home the wall of separation between the world of nineteenth-century Mormonism and modern-day LDS by deconstructing the testimony of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon.  On their own account, they all saw and handled the records alleged as the source of the Book in a "spiritual" context, outside the bounds of ordinary time and space where the LDS church lives today.  Their visions of the plates, which on some occasions included visits to undiscovered caves in New York filled with records and treasures, occurred outside material, historical reality as we understand it now, just as Joseph Smith's usage of the term "translation" to describe his composition of the Book of Mormon and other texts lies outside the semantic range of that word as it is used today.

Evolutionary Perspective.  Like all the best historians (running the gamut from D. Michael Quinn to Richard Bushman), Palmer does not try to reduce the manifold revelations of Joseph Smith to a single, coherent system of thought.  Rather, he is careful to notice disagreement between early documents (like the Book of Mormon) and later ones (like the Book of Abraham).  His discussion of the development of the materialist, polytheist theology of the Book of Abraham (in contrast to the traditional, trinitarian theology of the Book of Mormon) was particularly interesting to me, since I was not well acquainted with Thomas Taylor's Six Books of Proclus on the Theology of Plato (published in 2 volumes in 1816) or Thomas Dick's Philosophy of a Future State (published in a second edition in 1830 and owned by Joseph Smith), both of which contain material reminiscent of the astronomy and cosmology of the Book of Abraham.  Palmer represents the Book of Abraham as a nineteenth-century, Protestant attempt to assimilate new information (modern neo-Platonic philosophy and Newtonian cosmology) into the faith tradition already started with the Book of Mormon (which itself assimilates the Smith family's life on the American frontier in nineteenth-century, Protestant America to the faith tradition preserved in the Bible).  This kind of layered view of Mormon origins provides a realistic, believable picture of how the private lore of the Smith family ultimately came to lay the groundwork for many churches (not just the modern LDS, whose idiosyncratic understanding of the Prophet Joseph has a tendency to ignore the place of radical development and change in the larger Mormon movement).

Fallout.  Perhaps the most interesting part of Palmer's book is the conclusion, where he discusses the focus of his personal faith in the wake of discovering that the Joseph Smith of modern LDS mythology cannot stand up to historical scrutiny.  He does not renounce the LDS faith.  Instead, he advocates a return to the ethics of traditional Christianity as taught in the Sermon on the Mount (and 3 Nephi).  He enumerates doctrines of the modern LDS (and Joseph Smith) that he finds comforting (including the plan of salvation and eternal marriage), and suggests that the LDS church learn from the example of other Christian movements (specifically the Christian Scientists and the Community of Christ, formerly known as RLDS) that have had to adjust their historical claims in light of new evidence and changing paradigms.  I find this a compelling call to repentance, since it rings true to my own feeling that myth (and history, for that matter) is ultimately only a servant to ethics.  The Book of Mormon does not have to be a true history of pre-Columbian Americans in order to teach correct ethical principles (any more than the Bible or the Iliad or Aesop's fables have to be historical accounts in order to do what they do).  I hope we LDS can separate the actual ethics that define our lives from the stories that we tell to inculcate and illustrate those ethics: Mormon Christian ethics (and our association as brothers and sisters in Christ) do not have to be abandoned merely because our stories are not historically true (pace prominent LDS church leaders who have gone on record saying otherwise).  I am grateful for Palmer's perspective on Mormon origins, and can only hope that it will find sympathetic readers among the LDS community to which I belong.  So far, printed LDS reactions have not been very kind (see the collection of character assassinations at the Maxwell Institute), but that is to be expected.  Only time will tell how the LDS community decides to deal with its past in confronting the present and building a viable future.