Thursday, November 24, 2011

My Religion

I composed this statement in response to a series of questions posed by a Christian on one of the Mormon sites I frequent.

I see religion as a kind of poetry, an expression of human life that takes its form in gestures aimed at creating and preserving meaning.  For me, there is really no hard distinction between religion and other systems of culture that encompass entire lives: religion includes politics, economics, and all kinds of culture.  What is more, people are born into religions the same way they are born into language.  You can learn a new language, and you can take up a new religion, but traces of the old one will be with you always (even if you don't like it: I cannot get away from the fact that I was born into twentieth-century American English; in the same way, I cannot escape the fact that I was born and raised into twentieth-century Mormonism).  I think every religion, like every language, contains means for expressing human reality: as a medium of human expression, Mormonism is no truer or falser than Catholicism or Buddhism, just as English is no truer or falser than Spanish or Chinese.  They are different tools for accomplishing the same purpose.  Some languages come easier to some people than others, and some people prefer one to another: this is natural and good, and there is really nothing to be done about it.  That said, I don't think the world would be better (or even fundamentally different) if we all spoke the same language, or professed the same religion.  People would still be people, which means that some of us would use religion to express things that others would find offensive, and vice versa.  The world would be a lot more boring, too, in the same way that international airports are (with endless iterations of the same stores selling the same merchandise, muting the idiosyncratic at the expense of the universal as much as possible).  So I am actually glad that there are many different religions out there in the world: the ones I fear the most are those that see their mission as wiping out others.  That is like wanting to cut down the rainforest in order to plant lots of soybeans: it might be profitable short-term, but in the long run everybody loses.

With that in mind, let me offer my answers to your questions.

(1) Do you see yourself living Joseph Smith's restored Christianity?  Yes and no.  First for the negative.  After many years spent investigating early Christianity, I do not believe Smith (or any of the reformers over the centuries) has restored it.  More than that, I do not believe that it is something that can be restored.  I see Christianity as a bundle of competing movements that was never really united under one banner: historically, all of us claim Christ, but none of us owns him.

Now for the positive.  I grew up Mormon, which means that I grew up praying (alone and with my family), singing hymns, and reading the Bible (which I read through several times on my own as an adolescent, along with the additional holy books recognized by Mormons: the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrine and Covenants).  When I was about eleven years old, I had a powerful experience reading the Book of Mormon: I finished reading it the first time, prayed to know whether it was true or not, and had a strong inner witness: to me, this confirmed that Jesus was the Christ, and Joseph Smith was his prophet.  Since this experience, I have had a few more (including two years as a missionary in northern Spain) which have led me to conclude that my emotional witness was not indicative of objective reality.  Subjectively, though, it gave me moral strength to make decisions that have improved my life, while at the same time leaving me vulnerable to some bad decisions too (like the decision to hate sexuality, and to think that confessing every sexual experience to my local bishop would help me erase this indelible part of my human character).

As a result of my experiences with Mormonism and religion in general--the good, the bad, and the ugly--I do not think that any one religion is as good as its most fanatical followers claim.  I don't believe in absolute truth as something that can be expressed by human beings: we can allude to it, we can dance around it, but the moment any of us tries to define it, "amen to the priesthood or authority of that man" (from Doctrine and Covenants 121, one of my favorite Mormon scriptures).  But I do believe in "continuing revelation" (as Mormons say): I think that it is important to leave oneself open to new insight, no matter what its source.  Part of my personal experience growing up Mormon was embracing this aspect of the faith wholeheartedly: for me, Mormonism was never entirely restricted to the correlated, soul-destroying mush produced by LDS church headquarters.  If it had been, I would probably be more of an atheist than I currently am.  But the Mormons I grew up with were better than their leaders: they intuited the difference between rigid obedience to leaders and thoughtful membership in a faith community that nobody owns.  (Mormonism is free from corporate ownership the same way French is: despite attempts by controlling bodies to own and define the language, it exists organically outside definition.)  Also, I think there is something to the old Mormon doctrine that Lorenzo Snow expressed more or less as follows: "as man is, God once was, and as God is, man may yet become."  My study of religion has led me to conclude (with Xenophanes, the Greek philosopher-poet) that we all paint God in our own image (even when we try not to).  Others will disagree, and that is fine: I learn from their disagreement (and am enriched by it).  Since I still embrace these (and a few other) core principles of my early Mormonism, I still feel comfortable calling myself a Mormon.

(2) Is restored Christianity important to you?  Yes.  I have family and friends deep inside Mormonism ("died in the wool, true blue through and through"), and at all stages of disaffection.  The former see themselves as "restorationist Christians" and are quite committed to that position.  I don't want to cut them entirely (as I would if at this point I decided to sever formally all ties with the church).  More important, I still see myself as the same person who received a testimony of Joseph Smith at eleven years old.  I don't want my family to think that I am reneging on my commitment to them, and to the values that I learned from them and shared with them, in a very Mormon context.  And, to top things off, I still "speak" Mormon.  My instinctive way of looking at the world is Mormon, informed by experiences with other faiths that I am still assimilating (the way I am still learning Spanish, French, German, Russian, and Arabic), but Mormon nonetheless.  What is more, the Mormon I "speak" is (on my reading) an historical dialect of Christianity, in the restorationist tradition (which includes more movements than just Mormonism).

(3) Is restored Christianity important to the Mormon movement?  It is important to my family and friends.  This is a Mormon movement that matters to me.  I am not sure how important it is to the LDS church.  I used to think it was important, but then I went on a mission, attended BYU, and started understanding more things in General Conference.  Today, I see the LDS church leadership as ambiguous enemies: they haven't attacked me personally yet, but they certainly could, and they assault every ideological position of mine that they can (maligning me to my family as an evil apostate).  There was a time when I feared excommunication, but I have moved past that: if it happens, then I will do my best Martin Luther impression.

(4) Do you regard the Bible as just another phase that someone else went through, or is it something that you consider yourself to be answerable to?  This strikes me as an unfairly loaded question, setting up a false dichotomy.  The Bible for me is a collection of mythology.  As a source of personal ethics, some of it is really good, like Ecclesiastes (which is my personal favorite).  Some of it is OK, like the gospels (though I don't believe in miracles such as Jesus is supposed to have performed).  Some of it is pure crap, like Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and the more violent among the prophets.  As a window onto the human soul, it is all valuable, and we are all answerable for what we carry inside us, including the part of us that imagines and carries out crimes while giving God the "glory."  Thus, in my opinion, the Bible is really only as useful as the people who read it.  In the hands of literalistic, legalistic folk (such as currently rule at LDS church headquarters), it is dangerous.  In the hands of more sensitive folk, it is harmless and may even be helpful (just like other holy books, including the Book of Mormon, the Koran, the Dhammapada, etc.).

(5) Do you aspire to bringing yourself into alignment with the perspective of the New Testament, or is that phase of thinking something that is better left in the past?  I see the NT as containing different perspectives, with Peter disagreeing with Paul, and other writers taking mutually opposed stances whose harmonization is a later historical development.  How do I bring myself into harmony with something that lacks harmony?  Putting the question in context with some analogues, how would I bring myself into harmony with Shakespeare's Hamlet?  I could read it a lot, write essays about it, study it, and know a great deal about it, but in general the more I do these things the less I see the work as a univocal thing.  It is like the original draft of the US Constitution, full of compromises and unresolved tensions, which are interesting without being fundamentally harmonious (the way I use the word: Heraclitus would call it harmony).

(6) Have you got a rationale or philosophy or theology that you use to validate your position?  My philosophy is that I am open to anything that people want to share with me.  If I can understand and apply it with good results, then I make it a part of my life.  The paradigm through which I view truth is that of an ancient skeptic (think Sextus Empiricus), or cynic (Diogenes of Sinope).  Modern thinkers I like include David Hume and Nassim Taleb.  I am all about doubt.  I think the best insights come to those least married to presuppositions about the nature of reality.

(7)  Do you consider your personal outlook to be compatible with the larger Mormon outlook and official teaching?  I think it could be: modern Mormonism is largely incoherent, and could evolve in many directions, some of which might comfortably contain ideological positions like mine.  Right now, however, leadership is most definitely opposed to people like me.  Members are ambiguous, with some tolerant or even sympathetic toward positions like mine, and others decidedly hostile.  Others yet have never noticed that people like me exist.

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