Saturday, April 17, 2010

Religious Integrity and the Church

Thomas Merton.  New Seeds of Contemplation.  2nd edition (originally published in 1961).  New York: Abbey of Gethsemane, 2007. ISBN 081120099X.

(4) The theme of individual freedom and integrity is one that Merton comes back to repeatedly.  Here is one passage that really struck me: 
We are free beings and sons of God.  This means to say that we should not passively exist, but actively participate in His creative freedom, in our own lives, and in the lives of others, by choosing the truth.  To put it better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity.  We can evade this responsibility by playing with masks, and this pleases us because it can appear at times to be a free and creative way of living.  It is quite easy, it seems to please everyone.  But in the long run the cost and the sorrow come very high.  To work out our own identity with God, which the Bible calls 'working out our salvation,' is a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears.  It demands close attention to reality at every moment, and great fidelity to God as He reveals Himself, in the mystery of each new situation.  We do not know clearly beforehand what the result of this work will be...The seeds that are planted in my liberty at every moment, by God's will, are the seeds of my own identity, my own reality, my own happiness, my own sanctity.  To refuse them is to refuse everything; it is the refusal of my own existence and being: of my identity, of my very self (32-33).
I have spent a fair amount of time "playing with masks" as a closet doubter in the LDS church.  I went through the motions of orthodox belief, even as my view of reality made it impossible for me to believe honestly.  I felt isolated and alienated at church, where I could not share my problems with anyone for fear of arousing anger, frustration, and increased alienation (not to mention the possibility that others might take my revelation as a catalyst to radically destabilize their own lives: I did not want to bring anyone's life crashing down by revealing that much of what is taught at church is patently "untrue").  But I needed to express my spirituality positively.  I needed a place where I could share my thoughts and feelings freely, knowing that others would respond affirmatively and constructively (instead of telling me to shut up and get back in line, reading scriptures and attending endless meetings where we are spoon fed pat answers).  I felt my spirit dying at church (from lack of positive nurture), and so I ended up fleeing to other places in search of spiritual refreshment.  It felt so good to take off the mask and be honest for a change (proving that I can still believe in the concept of a resurrection after all, even if I mean something different by it than the old bodily resuscitation).

(5) Another telling passage speaks about the pointless meeting (reminding me of my mission):
We have said that the solitude that is important to a contemplative is, above all, an interior and spiritual thing.  We have admitted that it is possible to live in deep and peaceful interior solitude even in the midst of the world and its confusion.  But this truth is sometimes abused in religion.  There are men dedicated to God whose lives are full of restlessness and who have no real desire to be alone.  They admit that exterior solitude is good, in theory, but they insist that it is far better to preserve interior solitude while living in the midst of others.  In practice, their lives are devoured by activities and strangled by attachments.  Interior solitude is impossible for them.  They fear it.  They do everything they can to escape it.  What is worse, they try to draw everyone into activities as senseless and devouring as their own.  They are great promoters of useless work.  They love to organize meetings and banquets and conferences and lectures.  They print circulars, write letters, talk for hours on the telephone in order that they may gather a hundred people together in a large room where they will all fill the air with smoke and make a great deal of noise and roar at one another and clap their hands and stagger home at last patting one another on the back with the assurance that they have all done great things to spread the Kingdom of God (83).
Reading these words, I am taken back to zone conference (where sugar replaced the smoke: the mission is a great place to pick up "clean" vices).  I am also reminded of other experiences (such as the first priesthood session of General Conference that I attended without my wife) where I found myself asking, "Why do we need to have this meeting?  What are we accomplishing?" and being dissatisfied with the answer.  The church is certainly not the only organization that persists through pointless meetings (as the faculty at my university will attest), and not all meetings can be avoided, as long as I am trying to be a part of society in any useful capacity.  Nevertheless, reading Merton confirmed me in my desire to avoid a useless meeting whenever possible, and made me even more skeptical of the alleged benefits of such meetings (increased "spirituality" at church; magic improvements in "efficient educational delivery" at college: too often it all boils down to a lot of hot air whose import is at best insubstantial, at worst an impediment to real learning and growth).

(6) The problem with meetings is not that they exist per se.  They have a disturbing tendency to substitute relatively ineffectual learning methods (in the form of passive listening and empty rhetorical posturing) for effective ones (practicing empathy with another person, undefended by artificial codes of conduct that narrowly prescribe action: it is easy to be "charitable" when this involves nothing more than sitting quietly or uttering platitudes at a podium; if we want to strengthen our charity, however, we should seek out situations that test it a little more).  So the church (whether LDS or Catholic) becomes something of a paradox:
Human traditions all tend toward stagnation and decay.  They try to perpetuate things that cannot be perpetuated [e.g. naive myths about the nature of reality].  They cling to objects and values which time destroys without mercy [e.g. human infallibility, institutionalized celibacy, polygamy, racist and sexist doctrines of supremacy].  They are bound up with a contingent and material order of things--customs, fashions, styles, and attitudes--which inevitably change and give way to something else.  The presence of a strong element of human conservatism in the Church should not obscure the fact that Christian tradition [which for me includes Mormonism], supernatural in its source, is something absolutely opposed to human traditionalism (142).
So the Church (as Merton calls it), in order to avoid becoming just another human organization, must foster life of a kind that does not occur elsewhere--a life that takes what is good from the tradition of the past and adapts it in revolutionary fashion to the challenges of the present.  It must be open to losing some things its members like, and embracing some things they hate. 

(7) Ideally, the Church provides social space in which the individual saint can build his own integrity and simultaneously improve that of his neighbor:
Very few men are sanctified in isolation.  Very few become perfect in absolute solitude.  Living with other people and learning to lose ourselves in the understanding of their weakness and deficiencies can help us to become true contemplatives...Even the courageous acceptance of interior trials in utter solitude cannot altogether compensate for the work of purification accomplished in us by patience and humility in loving other men and sympathizing with their most unreasonable needs and demands (191).
How can I achieve this ideal of iron sharpening iron when I cannot even speak my concerns about righteousness without being removed from the community as an apostate?  How can dialogue exist when one side of the conversation has no voice?  The moment I express doubt in anything spoken from the pulpit by an imposing man in a business suit, the community (including some close friends) assumes I have no integrity and tells me to repent or go away.  Contrary to what I have heard others say, I have no desire to impose my beliefs (or the lack thereof) on the imposing man in the suit or those who elect to hang on every word he utters.  I am perfectly willing to put up with the nonsense of others.  Why can they not put up with mine?  Does Christ make us all brothers and sisters of equal worth to the community, or does he just give some of us a convenient excuse to lord it over the rest of us?


  1. I found these quotes interesting and somewhat more relevant to my own experiences in and out of the LDS Church than the last set. The one about useless meetings and senseless activities is especially challenging, as I know I should not be laughing or nodding in agreement when I read it. On a more serious note, I also ache inside as I begin to understand better your frustration with the LDS Church. I am accustomed to thinking of a church as a group of people who share a set of beliefs, and the point of church meetings would be to teach those beliefs and to make plans to carry them out in the lives of the members. If your comments and contributions tend to undermine those beliefs, then I am sure you can see why they would not be welcome, or even appropriate. When I visit Grandma and Grandpa's church, I try not to say anything which would undermine the faith of others, however much I might doubt myself. But I do not feel frustrated there, or have an unquenchable desire to enlighten everyone with my new point of view - having once been a Presbyterian. You are asking a lot from a church, if we look at it from this context. So perhaps the family would be one place where you could channel your energy in a positive way, and I pray that you will also meet wise and good friends along your way that will be able to give you that spiritual validation which we all need and seek. We humans are all so mismatched in so many ways, that finding a true friend is a rare event indeed, in my experience. I might also observe that you seem to have been most fortunate in your choice of a wife, so to cling to her would be my (unsolicited) advice. As for Christ, I fear that the answer to your last question would be that He never intended to make us all "of equal worth to the community" in the way you are speaking of. He Himself certainly seems to claim the right to "lord" it over the rest of us, doesn't He? And He certainly did not imagine that His teachings would bring peace and unite the world (from Luke 12):
    51 Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:
    52 For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.
    53 The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

    These are very hard things to deal with, but they certainly seem to be true, in my experience.

  2. I have noticed that I feel better about the church when I find other places to express my spirituality positively. Attending Buddhist ceremonies and writing this blog make me much less cranky in sacrament meeting.

    When I think about the reason for Christ, it seems to me that we are the ones who determine why he came. We decide whether to use his image as a club (to protect us from our fear of the other) or a balm (to replace that fear with love and reach out to the other). Both approaches are attested in the scriptures (and the larger record of Christian history). The important question is, "Which will I choose to live by?" and "What form will my devotion take?" Denying the duality and suppressing those who point to it is not really helping anything (from my point of view).

  3. Hoosier is entirely right on at least one point: you have indeed been "most fortunate in your choice of a wife."

    I think the Luke verses H cites are also interesting in light of this post: there is a continuing struggle between loving God & neighbor first in a world (or church) that so often causes internally divisive feelings. Hence the need to "work out our own salvation" through times of anguish and joy.

  4. @Kirsti. Your comment leads me to summarize my feelings as follows.

    (1) Individual spiritual integrity demands authentic individual experience: we have to be free to doubt and experiment for ourselves. Communities are helpful insofar as they provide constructive feedback and support to our individual experiments (which may or may not mold us in ways that please others). Individuation is painful and dangerous, but in the end it is the only way to produce the kind of integrity that will endure as long as the individual.

    (2) Too often churches (and other organizations) assume that the outer trappings of integrity are worth more than the internal reality, precisely because outer trappings are things we can control externally (via meetings, "anti-this, anti-that" campaigns, and excommunications). They create an illusion of righteousness that is very dangerous to those who put too much stock in the idea that "looking good" means "being good." When an ethical black swan hits these poor folks (in the form of a wicked priesthood leader or a personal crisis of faith), their moral foundation is revealed to be incredibly shallow. They must then start over from scratch (building individual integrity) or continue in the illusion that one day doing what everyone else does (wearing the right clothes, saying the right words, reading the right books, etc.) will somehow make them wonderful, ethical people.

    To summarize: churches (and communities) exist best when they facilitate individuation (not the same thing as pandering to selfish individuals, since individuation demands that the individual discard all facile answers to difficult moral questions and think them through laboriously for him or herself). The illusion of absolute truth is death to this process, since absolute truth always takes the form of something that transfers responsibility from the individual (where it belongs) onto someone or something else (the community or some construct of the community). I will try to make this more articulate later.

  5. @Hoosier. Funnily enough, individuation provides a scenario where Christ as divider works constructively. As individuals we should "rub each other the wrong way" some. As a community, we should not reject one another for this friction (which ultimately makes us stronger by putting a clean edge on our individual integrity).

  6. I have dabble with Mormonism for some time. I actually converted;however, it hasn't been exactly to my liking. But other religions are not any better. Witness the scandal rocking the Catholic church. The Mormon church being small relative to, say, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism hasn't face that kind of morale dilemma,i.e., leave the Catholic church because of the cover up. But I have thought that if a scandal does happen in the future(Black Swan) it would be devastating to a lot of believers of that particular congregation. Anyway, happy to read your thought on religion and Taleb's The Black Swan, which is how I found this blog. Thanks.

  7. Welcome, David! I agree with you that most problems in the LDS church are not really unique ones. I see them there most clearly because of my upbringing (and the fact that I was a very committed believer: a little too committed for my own good, as it turned out).