Friday, September 30, 2011

What is Pornography?

In honor of the upcoming General Conference, I offer my own talk on pornography, created from a very rambling essay I posted a while back on a message-board for Mormons.

What is pornography? This question is actually really hard to answer. (I could bring up the Supreme Court justice who summed it up with an aphorism to the effect of, "I cannot define it, but I know it when I see it.") The way we use the word in the LDS church, it often seems to refer to images of people that cause sexual arousal. This causes a lot of confusion, since what causes arousal for one person does not always do much (or anything at all) for another. Some people are excited by the sight of a foot; others are impervious to full nudity. Some Mormons are "offended" by the J. C. Penney catalogue. Others can "endure" (and even be inspired by) much "wilder" stuff. (Here I remember a course in Western Civilization that I had at BYU: the teacher, a woman, announced at the beginning that students would be required to study in detail works of great art, including nude paintings and statues, and that anyone who objected to that should drop out before the semester got underway.)  Generally speaking, official church pronouncements ignore these niceties and refer to pornography as some kind of monolithic thing, with universal (and universally evil) effects.  In other words, we objectify art along with everything else!

In the real world, outside of our religious fantasies, people are sexually stimulated by a variety of mundane and unavoidable things.  Sex is woven deep into our being. Like every human practice, it sometimes comes out "evil" -- not because there is anything inherently wrong with it in the abstract, but because there are things wrong with particular individuals, things which sometimes find expression in the sexual habits of said individuals. While it makes no sense to censor the world to fit some imaginary Platonic standard of what constitutes "beauty" and what constitutes "smut" (since the standard is inevitably arbitrary and incoherent), it makes a whole lot of sense for the individual to avoid images that make his life worse (and do whatever he pleases with images that do not). No one can write the book telling us what images are universally safe to look at, because the same image speaks to each one of us in a different way. We have to be our own censors. Some people have no problem with the Venus de Milo. Other people find her the bane of their existence. That is OK. Let the hedonists enjoy and the ascetics abstain without mutual recrimination. As long as no one is being tortured to make the art (as sometimes happens in some of the seedier parts of the sex industry), it is all good.

My line of thinking is perhaps best illustrated with an analogy from physical culture. Years ago, there was widespread fear of working out with (heavy) weights. People who thought nothing of a day's work on the farm somehow got it into their heads that picking up moulded pieces of iron with no practical aim beyond increasing strength would render them unsupple, impotent, and just generally physically degenerate. Since then, we have learned that this is not the case. That does not mean, however, that every person in the world should immediately drop whatever he is doing, run to the nearest gym, load an Olympic bar with all the plates on the rack, and throw out his back. To get the benefits of strength training (which, like sex, is neither good nor bad in itself), you have to ease into it, listening to your body and responding with more or less load as you feel pleasure or pain in the aftermath of your last workout. There is no one program that will work for all trainees (elite athletes in a variety of sports, hardcore gym rats, and the rest of us at all stages of physical development and degeneration). It is not that really heavy squats or deadlifts are evil, by any means, only that you should not decide to start your training career tomorrow with the poundage that (say) Konstantin Konstantinovs uses (unless you happen to be a reincarnation of the Hulk).

Sex is not evil. It is not even that dangerous, provided you come at it with a modicum of preparation and good sense (i.e., it is no more dangerous than a heavy deadlift). The church's mistake here is to rush into generalities without realizing that the nature of the problem is inherently specific. (Masturbation is not a problem. Porn, with the exception of anything produced under duress, is not a problem. Strength training is not a problem. The problems are human beings, who respond differently to all of the above in unique situations, often unmappable without recourse to intensive individual scrutiny.) Instead of recognizing that exercise must be tailored to the individual, the church qua personal trainer gives us "the one true workout" complete with "true" exercises and "true" poundages that every trainee (beginner to advanced) must put up for the required, "true" number of repetitions. Anything less is sin; more usually earns commendation for going above and beyond the call of duty (even when the trainee all but kills himself). This is ridiculous, and harmful if you happen to be one of the people for whom the one true size is a particularly bad fit.

One more word for those who think I am not being hard enough on evil porn (which I see as existing only for the individual). Let's take another analogy, this one dietary. I am reasonably certain that every murderer has drunk water regularly. But wait, all of us do too! Are we all running a terrible risk of becoming murderers every time we sip that deceptively refreshing beverage? Are we slowly changing inside, gradually morphing into the next Jeffrey Dahmer? Fortunately, the answer is no. Water is one variable of many that go into the making of a serial killer, but correlation is not causation. Sex, like thirst, is a pervasive human need. Some people think about it, make pictures of it, have it, and then use it to commit terrible crimes (or at least make themselves and others miserable), but that is not the fault of images (which may or may not match someone's definition of pornography), or the romantic partners of the criminals, or their victims. It is the fault of the criminals. Until we approach the person, we cannot address the problem.

One more personal story, and then I will shut up. 10 years ago, I was young, extremely scared of my sexuality (which I wanted to tear out by the roots: I used to fantasize about cutting off my genitalia or killing myself), and very, very devout (the reason I hated sex so much was because persistent erections made me feel "unworthy," requiring endless rounds of confessing my sin to the bishop, being chastised, and feeling like crap). I was also extremely sensitive in a sexual way: anything could set me off, even things that have nothing to do with sex (like pull-ups). I could barely talk to girls my age and avoided activities where young women participated. I attended a stake dance one time (only one time) and did not have the nerve to go inside. I never dated. Then, I went on a mission. The women of Spain did not care that I could not bear the sight of nubile females, and they were not going to cater to my weak eyes by going about in burkhas. They let it all hang out, and (what amazed me at the time) I was perfectly fine. My fear receded as I realized that seeing nearly naked women did not automatically turn me into some kind of lustful monster (think of the Hulk again). Gradually, I learned that acceptance was a much better strategy for healthy sexuality than avoidance. Getting married was a huge leap forward for me (and required some deprogramming which I won't bore or titillate you with). Today I accept my sexuality, and that of everyone else, and I make a point of never imposing myself (and my images of beauty, truth, etc.) on another person. Nakedness is no excuse for lack of manners. Intimacy is no excuse. Pretty pictures are no excuse. Ugly pictures are no excuse. There is no excuse.

Pornography is just pictures (or stories, i.e. verbal pictures), some good, some not so good, and some frankly awful, but most of it is nothing to be deathly afraid of (unless you are trapped in a ridiculous worldview that makes objectification, abstractions, and stereotypes the most important things in the universe, idol gods that all mere mortals must worship). If it bothers you, there are many other things to hold your mind and take your time. The less you care about it, the less power it will have over you.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

House of Submission, House of War

Bernard Lewis.  The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror.  New York: Modern Library, 2003.  ISBN: 0679642811.

A second essay on terror and holy war.

This book provides a detailed discussion of the historical background from which modern Muslim fundamentalism arose (e.g. organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the religious government of the Ayatollah Khomeini).  It contains many insights, offers many different perspectives, and presents overall a complex, realistic picture of the worldwide phenomenon that is (and has been) Islam.  Lewis is not anti-Muslim at all, but (like most Muslims) he cannot condone the modern guerrilla war on civilians that we in the West have lately dubbed terrorism.  The Islamic thread holding the book together is jihad, the Muslim crusade, which began as actual, literal war with geographical and political conquests (undertaken during the life of Muhammad) and became a metaphor for the believer's struggle to offer his best service to God.  (Remember that Islam means submission to Allah.)

Lewis emphasizes that the Muslim jihad has resisted criticism (as a historical movement) and secularization (no modern Muslim uses jihad the offhanded way we Westerners often use crusade, e.g. as a synonym for cause).  Whereas Christians took up the original crusade relatively late (after suffering as a persecuted minority for centuries) and dropped it relatively early (after several military disasters), the jihad started with Muhammad and was never dropped (in part because it was met, at least initially, with unbroken success).  Today, many Christians are embarrassed by the idea of holy war (which they see as barbaric and somewhat foolish); fewer Muslims are so embarrassed.  Many Christians are concerned with avoiding the unnecessary imposition of their values on other people: they create walls between church and state (which some of them then doubt and want to pull down).  In Muslim culture, there is (ideally) no wall between church and state.  There is no church, really, only the faithful believers, who are united in obedience to God.  In a good Muslim state, the law of Allah is the law of the state, and vice versa.

The Muslim world is conceptually simple.  All people live in one of two "houses" -- the house of Submission (i.e. the house of Islam) or the house of War.  Historically, Islam reaches out to the house of War with violence, with conquest, and with the revelation of a better way to live (which the more enlightened inhabitants of the house of War embrace willingly).  This violence comes with strict rules, however, rules which Lewis (and others, including many Muslim authorities) interpret to forbid the kind of tactics (e.g. suicide missions against civilians) employed by groups like al-Quaeda.  Even with this caveat, I am still not entirely comfortable with it.  But I am not a Muslim, so my opinion matters little, especially to those Muslims who have already decided that I am a servant of the Great Satan (owing to the accident that I was born in the United States and raised as a Christian).  This brings me to an interesting problem.

I have known or at least interacted with various Muslims personally over the years.  Most of them have been really good people (moral, upstanding, respectful, helpful).  I even have several American friends who have converted to Islam (including some who are at least as doubtful about the literal truth of ancient mythology as I am).  What am I to make of these people?  Are they secretly plotting the violent overthrow of my life?  Do they only pretend to value other people, other cultures, other ways of being that do not come to us from the only God and his last Prophet?  As a result of long-standing personal interactions with them, I really, really don't think so.  And yet they react with pain and aversion when the state of Israel comes up in conversation, or when a discussion of the United States' historic involvement in the Middle East gets serious.  What causes my good friends to flinch?  Could it be the same thing that drives many of their co-religionists homicidally crazy?  Lewis answered this question in the affirmative, and it was painful for me.

You see, the track record of our government in the Middle East is not that great.  Terrified by every shadow of a threat against our power in a region we don't control, we supported anyone carrying gun against our perceived enemies (e.g. Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini, whom we attempted to play against one another; and Osama bin Laden, whom we supported against the Soviets).  We didn't really care if these people were nice to the rest of the neighborhood or not: it turns out, they weren't.  Not only that, we didn't even support our allies reliably: when the last Shah of Iran agreed to be our puppet (as the locals saw it), we repaid his loyalty by refusing to offer any kind of aid whatsoever; when his government collapsed, we were so eager to pander to his successors that we let him go into exile outside our borders.  By associating with thugs (Hussein, bin Laden, etc.) and then treating our allies like dirt (even the relatively harmless ones, like the Shah), we pretty much killed our reputation with a sizable population of foreign Muslims.  These people fail to understand how it is acceptable for the United States to blow them up (or send some local thugs to blow them up), but not for them to retaliate (in some way: not all of them fly planes into buildings full of innocents).  They don't see how it isn't hypocritical of us to claim the moral high ground as agents of freedom and justice and then throw our support to the likes of Saddam (whom we don't even support reliably).  This does not mean that jihad is not a problematic concept, or that al-Qaeda was justified in attacking the Towers.  Far from it.  But it does reveal that calling such attacks unprovoked is a little naive.  We knew there were religious people in the Middle East.  We knew their sacred texts preached holy war.  We knew they had a history of fighting for honor and religion.  We knew they were outfitted with weapons and training (a lot of it from us).  We knew that, and we went and kicked the beehive anyway.  Is the honey really worth it?

For me, the most shocking and scary thing about Islam (including the "malfunctioning" Islam branded as terrorism in the West) is how normal it is.  I grew up in a conservative Christian environment: though many Christians would deny me fellowship as a Mormon, I spent a good portion of my life living in their company, learning from their textbooks (including the King James Bible), and aspiring to be like them.  I wanted to break down the wall between church and state, putting prayer in the schools and the government in the marriage bed.  I thought the United States of America was a nation that depended on God the way the idealized house of Islam depends on Allah.  I thought life would be better worldwide if all people converted to Christianity (and ultimately to Mormonism, the truest form of Christianity).  I was not overtly violent in my enthusiasm to convert the world, but how much of that was historical accident?  Many Mormons of the nineteenth century were violent (as some Christians have always been), and I personally was never provoked.  What if someone had treated my leaders (religious or political) with blatant disrespect and bombed my house?  Who knows how I might have reacted, especially if someone whose authority I respected had responded with a pious American, Christian, or Mormon version of the original 1996 ultimatum published to the West by al-Qaeda?  The more I think about the 9/11 attacks, the more it seemed to me that I am in no way categorically different from the Muslim terrorists whose violence I naturally abhor.  If the shoe were on the other foot, who knows what awful crimes I might have laid on the altar for the United States of America, for Christendom, for my God?

The attacks of 9/11 were one of many factors that ultimately forced me to re-examine my loyalty to all human institutions (and my relationship to God).  As a result, I have become simultaneously less violent and less trusting.  The good guys look a lot like the bad guys to me.  We are all simply human, doing what we think the situation demands (in the Middle East this means blowing stuff up) and spinning stories to justify it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Myth as Language

Someone recently wrote to me about my discussion of C. S. Lewis.  In responding to this person's insights, I came up with something I would like to share more generally.

The problem with the claim for Christ (as the one and only way to God, or the Good) is that it is not really stronger than a claim for Balder (or Osiris, or any other dying and rising god).  Today we know a bit more about the gospels than we did in Lewis' day, and they are very clearly myth (just like Egyptian myth or Norse myth or any other myth).  They aren't history (any more than the changing story of Joseph Smith's First Vision is).  This does not mean that they do not express important human truths, but those truths are not historical (i.e. accounts of what really happened at some moment in the past) or particular (i.e. stories of a particular person doing particular things).  Myths are about universal truths like love, loss, and moving on into the great unknown.  They are about what happens all of the time to all of us (and each one of us). 

Just like you can speak of these universal things in any language without losing important meaning (since Spanish is no truer than English or Russian or Chinese as an expression of human reality), so you can put them in any myth: they are the timeless truth; the myth is just an accidental vessel that holds them.  Lewis' mistake was presuming that Christianity was somehow categorically different from other religions.  It isn't.  This doesn't diminish its importance: English is still important, even if it is not categorically superior to (say) Spanish (which is also important, right? why should we pretend that Spanish is inferior to English? why pretend that Christianity is categorically superior to Buddhism, Judaism, or Islam?).  This doesn't mean that the real truths it teaches are not important or universal.  But it does allow us to check them against other versions of themselves (as it were), and to compare our myth-makers with other storytellers out there (who may pick up on some important things that we leave out of our stories, for one reason or another).

From my perspective, Lewis just made the choice at some point to speak English (Christian), i.e. to make English (Christianity) the language through which he expressed himself.  That is perfectly fine, and English (Christianity) happens to be my native language as well.  But I like other languages.  I don't see them as categorically inferior to mine (though there are speakers of each who claim it as the one and only true language, and treat those ignorant of it as babbling idiots, no matter how well they speak their own language; I think this is wrong).

I can make an emotionally charged argument that anyone who chooses to dismiss the Buddha or Muhammad (or Osiris or Balder) is willfully rejecting the one true prophet or the one true God.  I can make an emotionally charged argument that English is the one true language, that there is no such thing as a cultured human being who has never read Shakespeare in the original.  Both arguments have a gigantic flaw.  They ignore the humanity of other people, a humanity evident in the facts (1) that there are many prophets and many gods (including many as good as ours), and (2) that there are many great human cultures entirely ignorant of Shakespeare (who did not live early enough to bestow his genius on the Upanishads, the writer of Ecclesiastes, the Homeric poets, or countless others widely and rightly acknowledged as having achieved high levels of culture).

What is good in my culture (English, Christianity) does not have to be qualitatively superior to what is good in other cultures.  People do not have to speak my language (English, Christianity) to me before I acknowledge them as true human beings.  I think even C. S. Lewis is willing to concede this on some level (with the story of the saved Calormene in the Last Battle).  The only difference between us is that I see the saved Christian as being more like that Calormene: God is a mystery that all human cultures (including every form of Christianity) seek in vain to capture and own for themselves (and their little languages), but he is not ours.  We can be his, but he cannot be ours.  He can speak for us, but we do not speak for him.  When we try to do this (speak for him), what we say has a disturbing tendency to become fascist nonsense.

Does that make my position a little clearer?  I don't think I am calling Lewis (or any Christian) stupid.  I think Christians are by and large good people, with good stories in a good language.  But I see in us (and other human beings of all faiths) tendencies towards a kind of cultural absolutism which others use and prey upon to bad effect (in the history of the world, which it has become my job to read).  For what it is worth, I have the same tendencies.  So if we are fools, then we are all fools together.  I have not become someone who sees other cultures as magically superior to his own: we all have human flaws that can be dangerous.  But I do think that acknowledging the flaws in ourselves (as we cannot help seeing them in others) is an important first step towards getting along better with everyone (including our very selves).  Moral improvement cannot really begin until we are entirely honest (at least with ourselves).  For me, that means admitting that Christians (and English-speakers) are neither better nor worse than other human beings.  Our story is one of many.  It is not the only story in any way.  It can be special because we love it, and that is enough.  It does not have to be true history, or the source of imaginary superiority that we enjoy over those who have different stories.  As I read Jesus (including some of the words attributed to him outside the New Testament, e.g. in the Gospel of Thomas), he was not necessarily interested in declaring himself the one true God (though some disciples were eager to claim him as such) or in founding a missionary church (though some disciples were eager for that as well).  The core of Christianity, as I understand it, is cultivating love for the world (God and one's fellow human beings, which are not artificially restricted to those who speak the same language or tell the same stories).  To me, this message is more important than the messenger (who may or may not have been a god on earth: why does this matter? is his message somehow false if he didn't rise from the dead or turn water into wine, etc.? I don't think so.  If Lewis does, then we disagree there.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Kale Borroka

Mario Onaindia. Guia para Orientarse en el Laberinto Vasco.  Madrid: Temas de Hoy, 2000.  ISBN: 8478808396.

This essay starts a series of reflections on terrorism and the concept of holy war.

Ten years ago, I was preparing to serve as an LDS missionary in northern Spain.  Right before I left for Utah en route to the LDS Missionary Training Center in Provo, the Twin Towers were attacked.  Living at home away from the television, it was some time before I learned of the attack, and my first reaction was not very emotional.  I remember a vague fear that the attack would impede my upcoming international adventure, but when it did not I promptly ceased to care too much about the political kerfuffle that followed (as the United States declared her War on Terror): the issues of right and wrong, forgiveness and retribution, fear and loathing that the attacks raised were relegated to stew somewhere unnoticed in the back of my mind.

Less than a month later, I found myself living with three other LDS missionaries in Bilbao on the northern Spanish coast.  I had not been there more than a few weeks or so when another terrorist attack disrupted my life.  This time, I could not just brush it off.   It had been a long day, but I was feeling happy.  We had already returned to our comfortable little apartment in the Begona district, and I was standing alone in the main room, looking out at the city, which was lit up for the night.  Everything was quiet and still: our window was open, I think, and the air was crisp and clear.  Then, suddenly, there was a massive sonic boom, and the floor underneath me shook.  I thought someone was dynamiting our building!  Fortunately, I was mistaken.  The next day, there was a blast crater in the park (Etxebarria Parkea) across the street (including a few shredded trees), and people were talking about how the target had been some local police (the Ertzaintza).  Another attack took place several months later.  A fellow missionary and I were visiting one of our local LDS sisters (with her family), and she happened to have the television on.  No sooner did we reassure her that it would not destroy our ability to focus than the scene cut suddenly to downtown Bilbao, and we were upstaged: La Gran Via Don Diego Lopez de Haro was practically empty (unheard of for the hour), and all windows near the train station (and the nearby post of the Guardia Civil) were smashed.  Throughout my stay in Bilbao (about six months), these events never left me: when I went to the municipal police station to hand in paperwork for my empadronamiento, the wall held a giant plaque commemorating officers killed in combat, and one of our regular walking routes took us right past an official station downtown (either police or Guardia Civil) where men with machine guns guarded the roof as well as every entrance.  It was strange to see them standing there, watchful and alert, scanning the crowds of shoppers, business travelers, and schoolchildren, who parted naturally to step around their large guns, but never interrupted the flow of countless conversations.  It was like they were not there.  Until the terrorists blew them up, again.

Who were these terrorists?  I learned quickly that they were Basque nationalists, members of a group known commonly as ETA, an acronym for Euskadi ta Askatasuna ("Basque Homeland and Freedom").  I knew they fought for freedom from Spanish and French rule (this much the graffiti told), that they targeted military and police preferentially (this much the gossip told), and that their role in Basque society was hotly contested (this much the continual demonstrations in the street told: some hotly demanded the release of political prisoners; others decried the use of violence by Basques).  That was all I got.  As a young foreigner still very adolescent and very much involved in my own mission (which had everything to do with sharing Mormonism and as little as possible to do with Basque terrorism), I was not exceptionally receptive to the deeper currents moving the masses of people then around me.  I thought that Basque people were quirky (with traditional language, dress, and other forms of culture that came out especially on holidays), stubborn (because few of them wanted to talk religion with an American teenager determined to convert them), and good (since they seemed to value things like family, integrity, and honor).  I did not really see where terrorism fit in this collage.  But, years later, Mario Onaindia showed me.

Onaindia's book is a fascinating history of the nationalist movement(s) in Euskadi (Basque Country). It starts with two seminal events: (1) the abolition of the fueros vascos (roughly the Basque equivalent of the English Magna Carta) by the democratic reforms of Antonio Canovas del Castillo (1876); and (2) the creation of the Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea (i.e. "Basque Party of the Supporters of God and Old Laws," or, more prosaically, the Partido Nacionalista Vasco) by Sabino Arana (1894).  The aftermath of these events occupies an entertaining cast of historical characters all the way through the twentieth century (right up to the day I felt the floor shake under my feet!).  The story is long and very dense, and I am still struggling to understand it all, but I have enough to notice some interesting things.  Basically, canceling the fueros created a more or less permanent fracture in Basque society.  Some Basques gave the old laws up for lost and started working to secure their place in society by other means.  These people accepted more or less peaceful interaction with successive Spanish governments that came and went over the last century, using legal means to establish boundaries between Basque society and the larger Spanish commonwealth.  Nationalists in this category include the current Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV), which operates today like any other political party in a modern representative democracy, attracting voters who elect officers who enact policies (which might include measures designed to secure greater autonomia for Basques in Euskadi).  However, a significant minority of Basques felt that no government (neither the Spanish republic, nor Franco's dictatorship, nor the restoration government that followed under Juan Carlos I) had any right to treat with them at all without the fueros.  The intransigence of these hardliners was radicalized early on as a result of the brutal industrialization of Vizcaya (starting in the nineteenth century under the republic), which destroyed not only the local landscape, but also much of the peasant culture so dear to some Basques.  As a result of this action (and others like it), the tough minority lost all respect for any government, which they saw as intractably foreign and oppressive (Onaindia nicknames this caricature of the Spanish government Neguri, after the wealthy neighborhood in Bilbao where the original industrialists who destroyed the old Vizcaya built mansions with their ill-gotten gain).  Thoroughly disillusioned with Spain, the radicals became warriors, kidnapping and killing targeted enemies (government officials, police, Basques who were too cooperative with the Spanish government, and even wholly innocent and helpless bystanders like Miguel Angel Blanco) and engaging in regular bouts of public mayhem (the kale borroka).  ETA is the most active, high-profile group formed in modern times by these insurgents.

The result is a bizarre situation, in which passionate Basques on both sides say words that sound the same (at least to outsiders like me) even as their actions are noticeably different.  One man is proud of his Basque heritage and declares that pride by voting for a local politician.  Another is similarly proud and declares it by blowing up a car near the police station.  Each thinks the other is nuts.  Each thinks his expression of cultural pride is the only "true" one (the only one worthy of a real Basque).  At certain moments in historical time, each has declared the other to be a traitor.  And yet they say they want the same thing: freedom, dignity, and self-determination for Basque people.  One seeks that prize through negotiation, admitting the fact that different Basque people want different things (i.e. that there is no single definition for "freedom, dignity, and self-determination" that all Basques would recognize: some of them want Euskadi to maintain affiliation with the Spanish government, and see that government as standing for something more than ruthless exploitation).  The other opts for violence, even violence directed at his own people, because he thinks that his vision of "freedom, dignity, and self-determination" must prevail at all costs.  (He does not see any good in the government, which is forever tainted by certain moments of its past.)  If other Basques cannot see it, he must show them.  If they cannot accept it, he must punish them (just as he punishes the servants of the Spanish government, e.g. politicians, policemen, and officers of the Guardia Civil).  Neguri must not win: if she is brutal (killing and enslaving innocents), then he must oppose her with the same brutality.  War hurts everyone, but you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, right?

The warrior sees the negotiator as a compromised coward, a weakling who abandons real freedom for a specious pretense (the diluted autonomia within the larger commonwealth that the Spanish government allows).  The negotiator sees the warrior as an uncompromising fool, a danger to himself and to everyone else who comes near him (like Blanco, mentioned above, whose "crime" was being in the wrong place at the wrong time: he did nothing to oppress Basques, and his death brought no obvious victory for the separatist movement).  But when Onaindia stripped off the warrior's mask and showed him to me in his native habitat, with the ghosts of Neguri looming down over him, threatening his traditional way of life with a faceless and horrible modernity (the end of Spanish hegemony abroad, industrialization of the Basque countryside, and the post-modern desert of globalization in which the wealthy take all and the poor turn to bankrupt governments for economic help rather than retaining the means and skills to serve themselves), I saw that he is not necessarily an inhuman monster.  Instead, he looked a lot more like a rather ordinary human being responding to a not entirely irrational fear that his whole way of life is disappearing.  When democrats offer him a seat at the common table of the new Spanish order, he fears a trap (a repeat of the rape of Vizcaya).  He does not want to move forward to a new society.  He wants to go back to the good old days (which have only gotten better since we left them).  He does not see where the emerging order created by the Spanish government and the negotiators has any room for him, really.  They speak to his head (arguing that the Basque people have freedom, dignity, and self-determination now), but they have not managed to persuade his heart (which cannot help feeling that today's freedom is not what the old freedom was, before the abolition of the fueros and the coming of Neguri).  

And so Euskadi remains riven, people go on dying, and visitors like me have to tread carefully.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Remembering 9/11

I recently posted the following on another website, where various people (mostly Americans) were sharing their feelings about 9/11.  Mine seem germane to a lot of the things I say around here, so I thought it might be good to repost them. 

I remember 9/11 every day. I remember that all people, myself included, are dangerous morons, liable to believe ridiculous nonsense and to express those beliefs with wanton violence. I remember my own naive faith in God and country, and reflect that I was once as fanatical and irrational as the most raving Islamic terrorist.  

Not too many years ago, if my God (or my commander-in-chief) had ordered me to ship out to the Middle East and shoot up Muslims there, I would have gone, and I would have pulled the trigger. Of course I would have lamented that my victims couldn’t see the light and join God’s side (embracing the “freedom” that I brought at gunpoint). I would have said that my ideals were high, because they were. They were so high that I had lost contact with more mundane things, like the value of forgiving others and living in peace. I was so committed to freedom as an ideal, that I was willing to deprive myself and others of it in real time. I would give up my ability to make moral decisions (to kill or not to kill, to forgive or not to forgive). I would kill other people for specious crimes that boil down to nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (If you had the misfortune to be born an Iraqi or an Afghani, you automatically run the risk of dying violently by my hands, as a civilian casualty, no matter what your individual attitude toward other people might be. Hey, at least you die “for freedom.”) I had no more moral integrity than those criminals who blew up the Towers. And I was a blue-blooded American (descended from people who immigrated before the Revolution).

9/11 was the beginning of a really painful realization for me. I slowly began waking up to the fact that my ideals, like the ideals of those terrorists, are toxic. Today, I am still American. But I am no longer a tool that others can manipulate with the word “freedom.” I don’t kill on command. I don’t let anyone take away my moral responsibility for whatever it is that I happen to be doing. I will never be as naive, as thoughtless, or as stupidly patriotic as I once was.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Double-Minded Man

Dallin H. Oaks. "Truth and Tolerance." CES Fireside.  20 September 2011.

I listened to this talk (for fun), and I found it frustrating.  The first half of the talk was a paean to absolute truth.  Oaks said that LDS believe in absolute truth, asserted that moral relativism is bad, and strongly implied that atheists are morally insensitive (since they lack the connection to God that provides access to absolute truth, i.e. they are necessarily moral relativists).  According to Oaks, we Saints have a responsibility to stick up for the absolute truth, no matter what, especially since we live in a society of moral weaklings who don't understand that tattoos and gayness are really serious business (i.e. damnable, at least in some sense of the word). 

The second half of the talk seemed like a retreat from this uncompromising position: apparently, God doesn't want us to be too insistent in our (necessary) crusade for absolute truth.  Somehow, some kind of tolerance is still a virtue for believers, even though they aren't allowed to be really happy with anything less than absolute truth.  According to Oaks, we are supposed to forgive sinners, saving the adulteress from stoning with Jesus (John 7:53-8:11), but then admonishing her sternly never to do it again (or what? would Jesus have thrown her into outer darkness for a relapse? would he at least have taken her to court? would stoning have been back on the table? Oaks does not say).  The final part of the talk was a defense of Proposition 8 (denying marriage to homosexuals), which Oaks construes as a bid for religious freedom.  I confess I am not buying this (or most of his talk, really).  Let me see if I can explain why.

It is easy to denounce moral relativism (which comes from godless heathen) and exalt absolute truth (which comes from God) when you deal purely in words.  But what is moral relativism in action?  What is absolute truth in action?  What do these words look like in real life?  As an adolescent, I believed in absolute truth the way Oaks does.  I don't believe in it any more (having fallen from grace, as Oaks would see it).  But much of my behavior as a moral being has not materially changed.  (I don't have tattoos, or drink, or smoke, or even commit adultery.  I could pass the moral worthiness portion of a temple recommend interview, with the exception that I don't always wear the one true brand of underwear.)  So what changed?  Well, I started looking carefully at how humans make (and imagine) moral decisions, and I discovered something funny: in practice, we are all moral relativists (both atheists and religious, including Oaks!).  Let me explain.  Better yet, I will tell a story from the Book of Mormon.

Remember how Nephi got the brass plates?  He went to Laban (the guy with the plates), told him the absolute truth that almighty God wanted those plates in his hands right away, and Laban said, "Okay!"  Not really.  Instead, after asking for the plates nicely and getting violently rebuffed, Nephi came across Laban drunk in an alley, and God told him to do something he really didn't want to do (1 Nephi 4:10-18):
And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him. And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold, the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he had also taken away our property.  And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him ... Therefore, I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword.
Why was righteous Nephi hesitant to obey an order from God (who gives out absolute truth, remember)?  Maybe it has something to do with this other command from God: "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13; Mosiah 13:21).  Maybe Nephi was confused by his schizophrenic God (Don't kill!  Kill!).  In any event, the text shows him reasoning things out contextually (like anyone would): Given that I have already struck out being nice, and that this guy is a really dangerous jerk, maybe it is morally acceptable to kill him after all.  Take that, absolute truth!

Nor is Nephi the only Mormon hero forced to become a moral relativist in light of God's schizophrenia.  His brother Jacob suffers the same fate.  First God tells Jacob that the Nephites must be monogamous: "For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife" (Jacob 2:27); but then he throws in a caveat to this absolute truth: "For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise, they shall hearken unto these things" (Jacob 2:30).  God's absolute truth so far: Don't kill anyone (unless I tell you to) or marry more than one wife (unless I tell you to).  What's this?  Does God believe in absolute truth or not?  Why can't he provide a simple rule that covers all cases, absolutely?  (That would be absolute truth, right?)  The more you read the scriptures, the worse this problem gets.  A few examples:

(1) Absolute truth about polygamy: "Behold David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord" (Jacob 2:24). "Verily thus saith the Lord unto you, my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David, and Solomon, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines ... David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants, as also many others of my servants, from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me" (D&C 132:1, 38).  God's absolute truth: You can marry anyone you please as long as I say so, but do be aware that my mind changes from time to time.  Today's abomination is tomorrow's principle and doctrine (the new and everlasting covenant of marriage!). 

(2) Absolute truth about adultery: "If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die" (Deuteronomy 22:22); "He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone" (John 8:7).  God's absolute truth: Kill adulterers, until I tell you not to.

(3) Absolute truth about genocide: "When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee ... thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them nor shew mercy unto them" (Deuteronomy 7:1-2); "Thus saith the Lord of hosts ... go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass" (1 Samuel 15:2-3); "And when [Jesus'] disciples James and John saw [that the Samaritan village would not offer Jesus hospitality], they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them" (Luke 9:54-55).  God's absolute truth: Kill your enemies mercilessly (including their women, children, and domestic animals), until I tell you not to (finally!).  I guess the real question is what God thought about the Holocaust or Rwanda.  Was he for or against genocide in either case?  How do we know?  It would be so much easier if he could just tell us something consistent, instead of talking out of both sides of his mouth.  (Maybe the Holocaust was a criminal mistake, but Rwanda was just a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah getting its just come-uppance?  Do we even want to wonder about the Mountain Meadows Massacre or the World Trade Center attacks here?)

(4) Absolute truth about what we should eat: "Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among beasts, that shall ye eat. Nevertheless ye shall not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the hoof: as the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you. And the coney, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you; and the swine, though he divide the hoof, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean unto you. Of their flesh ye shall not eat, and their carcase ye shall not touch; they are unclean unto you" (Leviticus 11:3-8); "And [the apostle Peter] became very hungry ... and saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean. And the voice spake to him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou unclean" (Acts 10:10-15).  God's absolute truth: Don't eat pigs!  Eat pigs!

(5) Absolute truth about keeping the Sabbath: "The seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work" (Exodus 20:10); "And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day ... And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp" (Numbers 15:32-35); "Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold thy disciples do that which is not lawful ... But he said unto them ... the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath" (Matt. 12:1-8); "And [Jesus] said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27); "And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them" (Acts 20:7).  God's absolute truth: The sabbath is the seventh day of the week.  No wait, it is the first (for some of you, anyway). If you even pick up sticks on that day, then you die.  No wait, you can do good things on the sabbath: the sabbath was made to help you, not to kill you.  Please make up your mind, God, preferably before somebody decides to kill me for picking up sticks on the wrong day!

We could string this list out to absurd lengths (what clothes does God like? what business is he in? what would he do with four billion dollars?), but you get the picture: on just about any ordinary moral dilemma, the Judeo-Christian god (like any god with more than one human follower) is all over the map.  He stands for one thing today (polygamy! genocide!) and another tomorrow (monogamy! peace!).  In other words, he is a moral relativist!  But wait a minute.  There is one thing about which God does not admit any relativity, ever.  The single genuine absolute truth of God is a pragmatic principle well known to ruthless dictators of every ideology: You must always do what I say, no matter what.  And the only really moral answer to this principle is what it has always been: "Bullcrap!"  Really moral people don't hand their agency over to someone else carte blanche (unless they are infants or very small children).  They do not obey authority with no good reason.  They make (and are answerable for) their own decisions.  And, like Nephi above, they have to sort out those decisions in context: sometimes it may be right to kill another person (e.g. when your life is in serious jeopardy); other times, not so much.  There is no absolute truth here, folks, just contextual truth (what Oaks calls moral relativism).  I wish life wasn't so hard.  I wish it were as simple as memorizing some absolute truths or submitting to an all-wise, benevolent dictator, and that these practices would get us out of every moral dilemma unscathed, but that wish is a hopeless fantasy.  No one, not even Oaks, really lives that way.  To the extent that people pretend to, they are just ignoring their personal responsibility for the decisions they make, passing the buck to God (who speaks to them in the voice of another human or the personal revelation of their own moral intuition).

This is the rock upon which Oaks' talk really founders, for me.  The only non-ridiculous absolute truth he can offer as coming from God is Do as I say, and don't ask why: I speak for God, who is above giving reasons to mere mortals.  What about all of God's other spokespersons?  Some talk about the virtues of tolerance (like the Muslim cleric Oaks quotes at one point).  Others talk about its dangers (like Oaks).  Some talk about the virtues of truth (like me).  Others talk about the dangers of truth that is not useful (e.g. Boyd K. Packer, whom Oaks praises as a champion of truth: the irony kills me, until I remember what kind of truth Packer is standing for).  The fact of the matter is that truth and tolerance are meaningless without context.  The truth that you had oatmeal for breakfast this morning rather than pancakes does not interest me too much.  The truth that Brigham Young takes at least some of the blame for causing the Mountain Meadows Massacre does.  Same thing with tolerance.  I have no problem tolerating fires in the fireplace, but if you throw me into a furnace while it's hot, my tolerance suddenly shrinks.  What can I say?  God made me a moral relativist?  (That doesn't guarantee he won't cut me off mercilessly at some later point, does it, since he is historically a two-faced waffler?  Man, what a post-modern, avante-garde punk God is.  We already know that he swears, and that he has body piercings, at least since Golgotha.  What if he wears tattoos?)

Contrary to what Oaks says, atheists are not necessarily morally insensitive, any more than Mormons are.  All of us are moral beings with ideas about what kinds of behavior are right in certain contexts.  Some of our ideas are vindicated by experience.  Others are not.  There is no easy cheat-sheet out there somewhere with all the harmless behaviors on one side and all the harmful ones on the other.  If many of us are much more tolerant of homosexuals than of serial killers, maybe it is because we find that, in our experience (which may or may not contradict an idea we had at some point), homosexuals are much less dangerous (particularly when we treat them with human dignity, respecting the desire that many of them have to form lasting pair-bonds and rear families).  If many of us don't get angry or even upset when Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, or atheists break the Sabbath (or pick up sticks), maybe it is because we find that, in our experience, breaking the Sabbath is a perfectly innocuous thing (like picking up sticks, as long as the sticks are not intended for beating out the brains of unbelievers).  If your experience is different, then share it, by all means, but don't bring in God as some kind of sanctimonious bully on your side (since, as we have seen, he seems to be on all sides of every question: what makes you so sure he agrees with you all the time?).  My sense is that if Oaks could deal with the first part of his talk better (the claim that LDS Mormons recognize and defend God's absolute truth), then the second part would make more sense (as an explanation of what we Mormons stand for in practical terms, i.e. when we contribute our two cents on what laws should govern the larger collective morality).

Monday, September 12, 2011

Deconversion Story

Evid3nc3. "Why I Am No Longer a Christian." Youtube, 2011.

This series of videos is a very interesting look at deconversion from Christianity.  I really enjoyed it, and I can personally identify with many of the experiences the author documents (both good and bad).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

First Love

Flogging Molly. "Laura." Whiskey on a Sunday.  Borstal Beat Records, 2006.

The last few posts have shared a little of the hurt I feel as a result of my unique experiences with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).  This hurt is understandably strange to people who have not felt it, especially those LDS close to me whose experiences have been very different from mine.  Contrary to what some might think, I do not deny (or even begrudge) others' positive experiences with the LDS church and culture.  I know that not every LDS suffers the way I do.  I do not want every Saint to experience for him- or herself the betrayal and the pain that I experienced.  But I don't want to pretend like my suffering never happened, either.  I need the freedom to express that suffering, if I am ever to turn it into a positive stepping-stone instead of a negative stumbling-block.  I need to be able to share my real self (and the real pain that I feel) with the people I am close to and care about.  But I need to do this without hurting them too much, too.  With that in mind, I have come up with a gentle metaphor for my experience with the church.  (There is no profanity in this post: it is not necessary.)

My metaphor begins with a personal story.  I was about fourteen years old.  I remember being at my local church building before or after a meeting (I think it was a Sunday afternoon, though it might have been Wednesday night).  The lights were dim in the building, and there were not many people around.  I was on my own for the moment, but was heading toward the genealogical library (I think) to look for my dad, so that we could go home together.  Like many LDS meetinghouses, ours was built with three central rooms (chapel, overflow, and gym) circumnavigated by a long, horseshoe-shaped hallway.  I was on one side of the horseshoe (by a water-fountain in the foyer), and the genealogical library was on the other.  Without thinking much about it, I decided to cross over toward the library via the overflow.  As I opened the door to the overflow and began to step through, my life changed suddenly.  There was a girl approaching the door I had just opened.  I had seen her somewhere before.  Her family were recent converts, and she was a little younger than I was.  Up until this moment, she was nobody special (as far as I was concerned), but something happened when I opened the door and she was just right there, coming the other way and looking me straight in the eye.  Before either of us could swerve or apologize, our eyes met and something happened.  I fell in love.

In the wake of this disaster, we (the girl and I) managed to avoid collision, mumbled incoherent apologies at one another, and hurried on our respective ways (toward opposite ends of the building).  But it was not over.  In the weeks, months, and even years that followed, she was always somewhere in the background of my thoughts, torturing and enchanting me with her impossible (and utterly unexpected) beauty.  She attended church meetings, Sunday School, and youth activities.  I was never safe.  Of course I was desperate to talk to her, but (being who I was) I couldn't.  Lacking any real idea of her character, I imagined her as a kind of angel (morally and aesthetically), a perfect being who by some miracle managed to coexist with mere clod-hopping churls such I was.  I spontaneously reinvented the medieval game of courtly love, with this girl playing an exalted Guinevere to my lowly Lancelot, only the complete lack of any real relationship between us meant that we were more like the Grail and Perceval.  I longed always for a glimpse of the sacred Beloved, but would never presume to speak to her, let alone have any carnal knowledge of her (such as touching her hand or, heaven forbid, kissing it).  Too incorrigibly wicked to be a Galahad or Bors de Ganys (as I was beginning to realize from my inability to keep from waking up during wet dreams), I had to take Perceval's route of penance and tears, of hair-shirts, self-flagellation, and perpetual exile in the service of the Holy Beloved.  I spent many hours weeping on my knees, begging God to forgive me and remove my sexuality from the picture, so that it might not taint the impossibly pure affection I felt for this perfect being.

Oddly enough, despite all my fervent prayers (which were as much on her behalf as mine), the object of my affection was rather perplexed by me (and perhaps a little put out).  Looking back, I think she might have liked it if I actually dared to say more than two words to her.  I think she might have appreciated it if I had had the guts to get to know her (maybe even dance with her at one of those creepy church dances, which for some reason were always done in the dark to really awful music: was it to make us think that dancing really is devilish?).  But I was oblivious (and psychotic).  There were times when she made valiant efforts to break down the barrier between us, inviting me to youth activities in person and once even volunteering to read the scripture "Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you" (D&C 88:63) right after I had read in class.  But these attempts only made me feel vaguely uneasy.  Though I was naive, I was fortunate to have wiser people around me.  I remember one older lady in our ward in particular, who happened to be my Sunday School teacher when all this was going on.  One day in class she casually remarked that many of us thought we were in love now, even though we weren't really: "You think you're really in love, but it's just puppy love.  In a few years, it will blow over and you'll laugh at it!"  I snorted inwardly and recoiled in horror at the blasphemy to my Lady (who as a perfect being could only be loved perfectly, i.e. eternally, chastely, and without any rival: one does not "get over" a goddess).  But, as often happens, time eventually vindicated my teacher's pragmatic realism over my youthful idealism.  After several years, I realized that my initial love, my first true love, was not really that girl.  It was Love itself (or herself, if you want to personify it).  I was in love with Love.  The girl (poor thing) was just an object onto which I projected my naive ideas about Love.  I did not love her (how could I when I didn't even know her!), but my idea of her (Love).  Her real attentions disturbed me because they revealed that she had a personal identity outside the angelic mold I had created for her, i.e. that I was not in love with her (the real her), but with a phantasm of my own creation.  There were some funny moments of cognitive dissonance which also pointed this fact up to me, like the time when I realized that she liked rock music.  (How could my pure Lady like rock music!  Inconceivable!  She might even have normal bodily functions, too.  Gross!  Is she only human after all?  I'll have to start praying that I can help her overcome these flaws.  These thoughts are utterly ludicrous now, but when I had them they were serious business.)

As things turned out, I survived my first love without hurting anyone too badly.  I annoyed the girl, yes, but at least I never managed to make her expect too much (since all I gave out were long looks, sighs, and prayers that she could not receive).  I caused myself some grief, but I also learned important lessons about human relationships, the most important being that I need to deal with other people on their terms (trying to see them as they are as much as possible, not as I imagine them).  Now, let's do a thought experiment. Imagine that my Sunday School teacher was not wise.  Imagine her telling the class that first love is the only true love, that we have to maintain it no matter what, that it is wicked to get over it.  Assuming I took this advice, where would I be today?  If the girl was as naive as I was (as I have no reason to suppose she would not have been), I would be unhappily married to a person unknown to me, a person whose real character I would always be trying to overlay and stifle with impossible adolescent illusions of perfection.  Our relationship would be completely dysfunctional, with one or both of us failing to engage the other meaningfully.  It would also be a perfect metaphor for my relationship with the LDS church.

My love affair with the church is much like my first crush.  It began relatively suddenly and even unexpectedly, when I was eleven years old.  My mother was put on bed-rest early in her last pregnancy (which ultimately resulted in my youngest siblings), and my father had to work, so I was detailed (as the oldest child) to look after making everyone breakfast and overseeing most of the daily housework.  I would get up early in the morning while everyone except my father slept and go to work making oatmeal in the kitchen.  Waiting for the stuff to cook gave me an extended period of free time, which I spontaneously decided to fill with scripture study.  I had no real reason, no motive for this decision, and what followed from it was largely unexpected (just like my accidental encounter with the girl and everything that resulted from that).  I became a scripture junkie.  I was hooked.  Reading from the Book of Mormon every morning gave me this incredible emotional high.  It was so powerful, that when I finished I went on to read the King James Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price (all of which I eventually read through several times).  I prayed fervently to God about the scriptures, just as I did about my Beloved, and I had a firm testimony that they and the organization that produced them were true (just as I knew my Lady was true and pure and everything else wonderful).  I believed that God wrote these books (whatever imperfect human tools he might have used to pen the actual words and then typeset them for me), just as I believed that he created me to worship my Lady (an unworthy servant to a perfect angel).  When the scriptures mentioned God and his servants (prophets, seers, revelators, apostles, and so on) as active figures in real history, I took them at their word.  I believed in the magical powers I found in the scriptures: I thought that servants of God really could heal diseases with their staves (Numbers 17) or their saliva (John 9:1-7), that they brought people back from the dead (2 Kings 4:32-35Luke 8:49-56), that they could call fire down from heaven and burn up God's enemies (2 Kings 1:5-15Luke 9:51-56).   And when the church added that such divine servants exist today and preside in perfect righteousness over the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I took them at their word.  In other words, I projected my own, naive ideas about Divinity onto the church and its leaders (the way I projected my naive ideas about Love onto the girl).

Unfortunately, there was no one to keep me from "marrying" the church, no one to warn me that my devotion was unbalanced, ill-informed, and generally ridiculous (expecting more of humanity than humanity has to offer).  Instead of deflating my naive adolescent enthusiasm, people around me mostly treated it as a kind of virtue, as though it were a good thing to expect impossible things from church leaders, as though they could live up to the excessive esteem and deference I held for them as healers, saviors, and mouthpieces for God.  I might be Perceval (a mere worm struggling to live worthy of the lowest kind of holiness), but here at last was Galahad (my church leaders: the closest thing to human perfection in the world), and the Grail Quest would be won.  We were going to build Zion together, a utopian society in which there would be nothing bad at all.  With God and Christ on our side, who could stop us?  Well, apparently we could.  Unfortunately for my absolute faith in the church, I thought she had no dark side, no serious skeletons in the closet.  When she demanded everything I had (my time, talents, love, and devotion), I gave it to her willingly, because she alone was worthy (as the body of Christ, led by his hand-picked leaders: Romans 12:51 Corinthians 12:12-31).  I wanted to know everything I could about the church (naturally: learning about her in the scriptures made me very happy, and what evil could be known of something as perfect as the very kingdom of God on earth?  Did not the Lord himself command us, "Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith" [D&C 88:118]?).  I was ready to give the church the benefit of every doubt, as I had already done when I gave my entire life to her, first at baptism and later when I entered the temple.  Unfortunately, she had not been entirely forthcoming with me.  I gave her everything of mine, but she held back (a lot, as it turns out).

Here my story becomes very personal.  Different people need different things to be happy in a relationship.  Some people don't need transparency, brutal truth, or the freedom to ask difficult questions.  As it turns out, I am not one of those people.  If you really like rock music, I don't want you to pretend that you don't just to make me happy.  (I might never have realized this if I had been unfortunate enough to marry my first crush: in a worst-case scenario, I would have resented her constantly for failing to live up to my fantasy in which she was the perfect Lady, the Holy Grail of womanhood.  I might have thought that it was her duty at least to seem as "perfect" as I thought she should be.)  If you really have a rather sordid past, I don't want you to pretend that you don't just so that I'll feel good about dedicating a huge portion of my life to you.  I want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  I am at once an idealist and a realist, which means I want to see things as they really are (warts and all) before I start trying to change them for the better (in a way that actually improves them).  Because nobody warned me about idolizing the church and its leaders early on, I had impossible expectations going into my career as an adult Saint.  I wanted my adolescent fantasy of Divinity to correspond to reality, the way I used to want my adolescent fantasy of Love to correspond to a certain young girl.  After years of experience and research, I discovered that my adolescent religious fantasy is not real.  (No working magic props.  No heavenly fire.  No Galahad.)  I'll be honest: this broke my heart.  It turned my world upside down, and I am still struggling to recover.

My feelings are not unlike those of a bereaved lover who wakes up one morning to discover that his beloved has perished utterly (and irrevocably) overnight.  Songs like the one that heads this essay still make me cry:

Feel the words from my lips
To your heart's fingertips
Then you know where I come from
'Cause I know, yes I know
Everything there is to know
'Cause I lost everything I had
See, I could have danced on the sun
But my world came undone,

There's no need for tears
There's no need to cry
The love that you leave
Will never be denied
This pain in my head
Escaped from my heart
No woman alive can touch
Who you were

So bye-bye, Laura!
Nobody can take your place
Bye-bye, Laura!
Your beauty will never fade

My world came undone.  I lost everything (including my dreams of hieing to Kolob, i.e. dancing on the sun).  My head hurts, but my heart hurts more.  It is surprisingly like growing up and feeling nostalgia for the way things used to be (when you were five years old, ten, nineteen).  But I know that my youth is irrevocably gone, and with it my naivete.  I can never trust the LDS church naively again (or any other group of people claiming to speak for God), just as I can never again fall head over heels in love with someone I have never met (a circumstance for which I am sure my wife is grateful).  Growing up and leaving our youthful fantasies behind is a necessary and healthy part of life, I now think, but that does not mean that it is easy or painless, especially when you are not well prepared (e.g. when you think that it is a virtue to hang doggedly onto those fantasies, as I used to).  For all those who think that they have separated reality from fiction and discovered the universal meaning of life at age eleven, I repeat the observation of my Sunday School teacher (with a slight twist): "You think you know, but it's just youthful hormones.  In a few years, it will blow over and you'll laugh at it, unless you make it the defining cornerstone of your character.  Then, you will cry."  The price for taking our naive fantasies too seriously is deep grief.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sacred and Profane: Holy S***!

Mircea Eliade. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. W. Trask. London: Harcourt, 1987. ISBN: 015679201X.

I have read this book several times (in translation and in French). If I could sum up its message, it would be something like this. According to many different ancient human cultures, there are two kinds of activity, one sacred and the other not. Sacred activity has purpose. Profane activity is meaningless. Sacred activity recurs in measured season (as the year passes, the season changes, life progresses: think of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). Profane activity just happens (as my toddler wanders here or there, alternately stuffing food in his mouth and spitting it out randomly). All activity is profane until someone, some god makes it sacred. Space is profane until gods use it to build worlds (of which our mortal temples are just models). Time is profane until gods measure it into regular seasons that construct the year (and repeat it endlessly in expanding cycles). Words are profane (mere noise, meaningless twaddle) until gods use them and give them meaning. In ancient cultures, every meaningful event in human life is presumed to exist as an iteration of divine activity: gods did this, so we do this. (Gods were born, so we are born. Gods ate food, so we eat food. Gods avoided plowing with ox and ass yoked together, so we avoid this. Gods got drunk [or didn't], so we get drunk [or don't]. Gods had sex, so we have sex. Gods killed adulterers, so we kill adulterers. Gods built homes, so we build homes, and so on and on.) Determining what gods did and did not do at any moment in sacred time becomes an important activity in ancient societies, too difficult and time-consuming for the average peasant, and so priests are created: ritual adepts with formulae for revealing what a god did (or would do), and (therefore) what we (as a community) should do. These formulae involve all kinds of interesting craziness, e.g. casting different kinds of lots, feeding special animals (and observing how they eat), performing sacrifices (and examining the entrails for signs left by the gods), watching the weather, performing special rituals in a temple, consulting holy books (the Tablets of Destiny, the Vedas, the Torah, the prophecies of the Sibyl, the Koran, etc.) or astrological charts.

What does all this have to do with four-letter words in English? Plenty! I still remember the first time I came across "cuss words" (as they were then known). I was about five years old, in kindergarten, and during recess one day I happened to be playing with a friend of sorts (we weren't particularly great friends, but I still remember his name--LeGrand--and his long, blond hair) near a trailer that had been set up in the schoolyard (perhaps as some kind of temporary classroom). We had just learned to read (more or less), so when I saw graffiti on the trailer I naturally started reading it off. I read rather scornfully, since the words didn't meaning anything to me: "F***, s***, -- what is all this nonsense?" LeGrand was horrified: "Don't say those words! Those are bad, bad words!" He looked genuinely upset, and I was somewhat surprised: if these words were so awful, how come I had never heard of them? Shouldn't someone have warned me that the world might end early if I uttered one of the deplorable words? We left the trailer, and I forget about cursing. We never cursed at home, so they just did not come up: my family expressed anger and other strong emotions differently (though my mother would occasionally say, "Bull!" when she thought someone was exaggerating the truth: it took me years to learn the rest of the expression, which she was too polite to utter).

For years, then, cursing was a meaningless (profane) activity, as far as I was concerned. I had no need for strong words, as I had no need for strong drink. When people told me God had no use for such things either, this made perfect sense. Then I went on an LDS mission to Spain (one of the most linguistically abrasive countries in Europe, in case anyone wants to know). Suddenly, I was listening to people curse all the time. Everywhere I went, people were constantly calling me out: "Cabrón! Hijo de puta! Maricón! Mamón! Testículo de Jehová! Me cago en Diós y tu madre, boludo! Véte a la mierda, capullo! No me jodas, gilipolla!" The gist of these insults was pretty easy to understand ("Leave me alone, you religious moron!"), and eventually I understood what they were actually saying. The strangest thing was how important context could be in determining what somebody really meant, especially with the word coño (c***), which could be a term of affection or an insult depending on the speaker's tone. While I came to understand cursing a little better (having to deal with it constantly), I still had no real use for it, and the Spanish curse words didn't really mean much to me. They were just words, interesting souvenirs from my journey into an alien culture. (I still laugh when I remember one young elder who naively asked the waitress at McDonald's if he could have an ice cream cone: unfortunately, his pronunciation of the word cono was a little off.) I was not offended by them. (Good thing, too, since if I had been I would have spent my whole time abroad seething and would probably have given myself an ulcer!) Even though I understood cursing better (on an intellectual level) after my mission abroad, it was still meaningless (profane) to me. I had no place for it, no need to express the emotional energy and intensity that I could sense only vaguely in others.

Then, several years later, I had a faith crisis. My crisis was a long time building and involved many factors. From an intellectual standpoint, it started when I read some Mormon apologetic work and became really interested in church history; from there it took me years, but I eventually had read enough to know that what I learned over years of church meetings (sacrament meeting, Sunday School, priesthood meeting, seminary, institute) was not anything like real history. (The church's versions of its own history leave out or obfuscate important information, e.g. the multiple accounts of the First Vision, the fact that Joseph Smith was a folk magician, Nauvoo polygamy, the fact that the Book of Abraham is in no way a translation of the Egyptian Book of Breathings.) From an emotional standpoint, it began when I hit puberty and started to experience myself as a sexual being (i.e. evil spawn of Satan). Over the years, I put myself through a lot of emotional hell because I was intellectually convinced (1) that the church was what its leaders say it is and (2) that it had the tools to fix my "problems" with sin and guilt. When it finally became clear to me that neither of these was true, i.e. that the church was not what it claims to be (intellectually) and that it could not relieve me of sin or guilt (worse, it would gladly load me with these permanently to make me docile to leadership), I was angry.

I had been angry before, certainly. I had been late somewhere or forgotten something or done something stupid and said, "Bother!" (Even on the mission, I never joined other missionaries in a rousing chorus of "Fetch!" To my ear, this sounded even sillier than ordinary swearing.) But this was different. I felt that I had based my entire adolescent and young adult life on a lie. (I look back with shame on moments like the one when, as a missionary for the church, I mistakenly informed two evangelicals that their story of Joseph Smith's First Vision was historically inaccurate; if I had actually known my church history, after more than a decade studying it actively at church, I would not have made that mistake. I would not have lied to them. I don't like it when an organization I love and trust uses me to tell lies.) Worse than that, I had tortured myself pointlessly for years in a misguided effort to master my sexuality (which was never out of control). I had trusted the most vulnerable parts of my fledgling self to a judge in Israel, winced as he branded them with divine justice (as prescribed by Spencer W. Kimball, prophet, seer, and revelator), and then watched in despair as I had to repeat the process over and over again (since try as I might, no amount of repentance would make the sex go away: I was not sexually active with anyone, nor like to be since I could not stop wondering whether I might have committed the sin next to murder every time I woke up during a wet dream). The more I thought about this, the more betrayed and disillusioned I felt. Not only had the church played me for a fool (intellectually: they got me to fib for them in Spain) and used pathological guilt to control me rather than heal me, they also had the gall to stand between me and my immediate family, who, as faithful members, would be duty-bound to reject their son and brother as an evil apostate now that I was done believing in the prophets' fairy tales and confessing to the prophets' bishops. (Fortunately, my family proved more forgiving than some, but I had no way of knowing a priori that they wouldn't cut me off the way others have.) The more I thought about this, the more I realized that I wasn't just angry. I was pissed. And cursing suddenly made sense. It became sacred.

This brings us to God. The God of the Old Testament (assuming here for brevity's sake that there is only one) has no problem cursing people out, e.g. "I will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall" (2 Kings 9:8) and "Behold I will corrupt your seed and spread dung upon your faces" (Malachi 2:3). Or in other words, "I will kill every last one of those motherf***ers!" (to Jehu, Ahab's successor who fulfilled God's curse by exterminating the old king's family) and "Hey, I'm going to f*** you up and shove s*** in your faces!" (to the temple priests against whom God sent Malachi). While my salty translations are not perfectly accurate (since curse words vary widely in time and space), they are not inaccurate either: God wasn't being nice or polite, and his expressions were most certainly very crude. And even the more circumspect Jesus (who tells us to stick with ordinary "Yes" and "No" in Matthew 5:37) calls the Syrophoenician woman a little bitch (κυνίδιον) in Mark 7:27 (though some have pointed out that the diminutive makes it a term of endearment, i.e. something like cute little bitch). The Apostle Paul continues the tradition of cursing: "I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung (σκύβαλον), that I may win Christ" (Philippians 3:8). In other words, "As I long as I have Jesus, I don't give a s*** about anything else!" So, if God and his ministers swear (as they do), why don't I? Well, until my faith crisis, I didn't really have any need to. I still don't, for the most part, but every now and then my righteous indignation boils over (usually when I think about big corporations using people like tools), and I sing songs like this ("Drunken Lullabies," from Flogging Molly).

Must it take a life for hateful eyes
To glisten once again
Five hundred years like Gelignite
Have blown us all to hell
What savior rests while on his cross we die
Forgotten freedom burns
Has the Shepherd led his lambs astray
To the bigot and the gun

Mormonism is not as old as the Irish conflict, but we Mormons suffer from the same crazy human mentality that sees only black and white, good and evil, Catholic and Protestant, God and Satan (1 Nephi 14). We relentlessly attack the evil in others and in ourselves, refusing to compromise because that would mean the end of civilization (and/or victory for the other side, which we regard as the anti-Christ). We are so drunk on this all-or-nothing idea of civilization that we seem willing to give up almost anything and anyone to save it: we lie about our past; we put ourselves through rigorous emotional torment; we spend time and money gratuitously denying other people the blessings of marriage and divorce; as a church, we write every dissenter off as a wicked apostate, no matter how thoughtful or respectful his (or her) individual position. Like the Irish, we bring war in the name of peace (though ours ceased to be a shooting war long ago, thank goodness). Before my faith crisis, I couldn't really see all of this. More to the point of my subject (sacred and profane), I couldn't appreciate a song like "Drunken Lullabies," with its cursing, its blasphemy (how can the Good Shepherd lead his lambs astray?), and its blatant disregard for the correlated Word of Wisdom. (Though, if we go by the original document revealed to Joseph Smith, beer is actually recommended: as long as the Irish refrain from whiskey, they can have as much stout as they please and still be good Mormons!) Today, this song is sacred for me: it moves me as profoundly as any hymn ever did. It is about a human tragedy that I can personally relate to.

Another sacred song from Flogging Molly is about the mess that is the city of Detroit post-bailout ("The Power's Out"):

Yeah the power's out
Well there's f*** all to see
Yeah the power's out
Like this economy

Guess it's par for the course
Unless you're a blood-sucking leech CEO, CEO

So I guess the Good Lord has forgotten about me, yeah
And me like himself my old trade's carpentry, yeah
I could build him a cross with one hand behind back
And the other three nails 'case he gives me the sack

A few years ago, this song would have meant nothing to me. Before I woke up to find myself betrayed by the church, I didn't worry about betrayal, really. I was intellectually aware that it existed, but I had nothing personal invested in it, no raw emotions on the line. Then, one day, I found myself unexpectedly abandoned by God and excoriated by his leaders (whom I could not approach directly with my problems, because they would just tell me to shut up and repent or get the heck out of their church). At the same time, I was growing up enough to know something about how corporations work, and I realized that God's leaders weren't the only people telling me (and other poor fools like me) to shut up and repent or else. I started listening when politicians and university presidents spoke. I noticed when fellow citizens and students got royally screwed (and then shoved under the rug if they made too big of a stink about it). And I realized that I don't have much sympathy or respect for many of the people who exercise power in modern corporate America. Specifically, I am tired of being lied to (by liberal and conservative leaders alike) and used (to fund ridiculous economic schemes designed to save businesses that should have adapted or died years ago, including our federal government with its Ponzi schemes disguised as social services). To the extent that leaders lie to me and abuse me, I don't like them (no matter how noble they say their cause is). To the extent that I thought I could depend on them before they failed to make good on their word (which is generally too lightly given), I really don't like them. I need a way to express my dislike, a meaningful (sacred) outlet for this righteous indignation. But I am not a violent person. I am actually not a very angry person. So I just sing angry, cynical songs and then go about my work, tending my own little garden with Voltaire's Candide. It is amazing how much better I feel towards lying leaders after I have flipped them off.