Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Theology of a Mormon Christian Atheist

A reflection on my faith in God, past and present, and a response to missionaries who try to recruit me to their faith.

Investigating the history of early Christianity did much to reshape completely the way I think about religion (all religion). I began my research believing that the Great Apostasy was historical, that there was a primitive church of Christ identifiable in history whose form was somehow perverted between 30-33 AD and 1820. When I read people like Martin Luther calling for a return to primitive Christianity, I thought they were speaking historically (as I think they often meant to, though neither they nor Joseph Smith ever really separated history from theology as much as moderns do). But the more I learned about early Christianity and the branches of the faith that survived to the present (and those that died), the less my original narrative made any sense. Today, I think the Great Apostasy is just the Mormon version of a widespread early Protestant delusion (that there was a unitary primitive Christian church and that our denomination represents its only or at least its most legitimate successor).

Paradoxically, I find myself agreeing with G. K. Chesterton, who called the Reformation an atheist movement. I see where he was wrong (not all Protestants are atheists), but for me (and many people I know, Mormon and not) he was right. Taking faith away from God (a mystery outside time and space) and putting it in history (specific events that happened or didn’t) and historical things (e.g. the Bible) leads people like me inevitably to atheism (when we read the holy books and the history and discover incoherence and human vanity masquerading as divine certainty all over the place).

I am not against God. I rather think I am for him, insofar as he represents good things about humanity. But when he represents pieces of humanity that I find abhorrent, I cannot support that (e.g. most of the OT, and even many sentiments in the New: the only books that I consistently read with enjoyment are Ecclesiastes, the Gospels, and James). The repeated claim that someone understands God better than someone else I find historically extremely problematic, since it is traditionally advanced in order to make one person subject (in ways that I find immoral) to another. Also, I don’t see the hand of God in history. A Deist god (the Platonic demiurge who sets the world going and then steps back to let it unwind ad libitum) I might admit as a possibility, but the problem of evil appears in my mind too large and glaring to be undone by the reassurance that poor children dying in agony as a result of natural disasters (leaving aside manmade ones for the moment) will be rewarded in another life. Why would a personal, loving God send tsunamis or tse-tse flies to torture small children, too little and ignorant to have done anything to warrant that kind of punishment? I cannot answer, and try as I might I don’t see God providing one in history. (All history provides is theologians telling Job to quit whining and consider that he is an idiot to trust his eyes. I don’t dispute that I am an idiot, or that my eyes can play tricks, but that doesn’t actually make life better--for me or the kids dying out there. I have spent years asking God, “Where is the pavilion covering thy hiding place?” and the only answer I get is that it is everywhere, everywhere and nowhere.)

I will confess too that I prefer models of divinity which make it less powerful (and/or less good), since these seem more like reality to me. I actually like the Mormon god(s) more than some versions of the Abrahamic one (worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims), precisely because he is not (at least not necessarily) all-powerful, all-knowing, and the rest of it.  He is just a being like us, only at some remove. (Maybe he doesn’t send the tsunamis and tse-tse flies. Maybe he would block them if he could.) I like “pagan” gods (who like the universe are sometimes just dicks: Apollo gets mad for no real reason and starts killing people because he can, just like the tse-tse flies). But I also like the idea of God as something ineffable and impossibly remote (the reality outside our limited ability to understand or express): I just don’t see this reality as necessarily kind or cruel. Like the world, it is simply there, giving some of us sunshine and others tsunamis (kind of like Zeus reaching into his two jars and tossing blessings and curses at random on everybody).

The more I have interacted with believers and non-believers in all kinds of different traditions, the less I believe in the utility of “missionary work” (at least as it exists in most traditions historically). There is a place for sharing with others. We can help each other, and we can talk about the thoughts and practices that give our individual lives meaning, but it is presumptive and wrong-headed to insist that others come around to our ways and leave their own (against their will). There is nothing inherently superior in any historical religion, nothing that makes it objectively better for all people everywhere than whatever other religion they happen to be practicing at the moment. There are superior people, people who practice their religion better than other people, but their superiority is not a matter of transferrable doctrine or ritual but something integral to themselves, an expression of their individually outstanding moral character. We can learn from these people. We can respect them. But real learning and respect is not about wearing the clothes they wear, saying the prayers they say, believing the doctrines they believe, etc. It is about cultivating our own moral excellence, looking into the depths of our own spirit and bringing out the best aspects of the humanity that we find there. That humanity is not all-knowing or all-powerful or anything similar. It is weak. It makes mistakes. But it can learn from those mistakes. It can be kind as well as cruel. It can repent. It can find and cultivate all kinds of beauty in the strangest places. I believe in it. I believe in people, even if I find our gods mostly fictions (some more infantile than others, but in the end we are all just children playing in the sand, building castles that the tide washes away the way it always has).

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Taming Human Nature

This morning a vivid image came to my head as I was walking home in the rain after dropping my boys off at preschool.

Imagine that pleasure and pain are the same thing: emotion.  Now imagine that your soul is a nice little valley, and emotion is a large river running through it (providing fresh water, fish and other wildlife, hydropower, etc.).  Naturally, the nature of the river Emotion is going to vary over time.  Sometimes, when the winter snows melt or heavy rains fall, the river will become rough and turgid, rising up and flooding the valley of Soul with dark water.  It will destroy things.  Other times it will be smooth, clear, and peaceful.  It will create things.

Human nature is to observe things and react.  We see the river Emotion.  We observe how it changes over time, and we naturally want to minimize the harm its flooding causes and maximize the good that comes from its calm.  For some of us, this means building a giant dam to hold it back (and maybe release some of its energy in a controlled fashion to accomplish some specific tasks, like creating energy for the community and washing out wastes from the artificial lake created by the dam).  There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, nothing at all.  But not all rivers are easily dammable (because nature makes each valley unique), and sometimes damming brings unexpected consequences (drastically altering the environment in the soul valley in ways that might be worse for its health than some seasonal flooding).

In my valley of Soul, I built the strongest dam I could come up with.  I followed the best blueprints I could find to construct a wall that would tame the river Emotion completely and indefinitely.  But my river was not one of those easy to dam.  The artificial lake I created became a breeding ground for bad things, anxieties that festered and spread like noxious algae, poisoning the atmosphere of my little soul valley.  Then, to make matters worse, my perfect dam began to leak.  At first, the leaks were small and manageable: all I needed to clean them up were a few Dutch boys with some basic engineering skills.  But as time progressed, the viability of this maintenance crew proved less and less, until one day, the dam broke, and my valley was hit with the flood of the century.

The flood utterly destroyed my old dam, along with many of the improvements and opportunities that that dam afforded.  Because of this experience, I was obliged to rethink everything I thought I knew about soul valleys (mine in particular) and dams.  I went back to the drawing board, with a new team of engineers, since my Dutch boys had no clue what had happened or what to do about it (other than rebuild the old dam and hope that the recent flood was simply a fluke).  As I rethought things and consulted with new engineers, I learned many things about the nature of soul valleys and emotional rivers (my own and those elsewhere in universe of humanity).

Meanwhile, my valley began to recover from the massive flooding.  Life returned to an equilibrium.  Time passed, and I still had not replaced the old dam.  I had spent years in terror of what would happen to me without the protection of that dam, of the seasonal flooding that some said would utterly destroy life in my valley.  As it turned out, the seasonal floods were nothing compared to the collapse of the dam: my valley recovered nicely from them.  In fact, they were actually kind of pleasant, a much tamer version of the wild water that destroyed the dam.  Also, I realized that the environment was much better without that great stagnant lake of fear around, the lake whose black darkness the dam had created and then vomited all over my valley of Soul.  Why remake that lake, I wondered to myself?

Everything I heard from the engineers convinced me that my valley was always going to be flooded at one time or another, and it seemed to me that regular seasonal floods were much easier to manage (and much more pleasant) than occasional tsunamis.  The deciding factor in my decision not to rebuild the dam was how lovely life without the lake was, though.  Some people like lakes.  Some lakes are really quite likable.  But mine wasn't.  I did not like it.  Why rebuild something unnecessary and unpleasant?  People who like artificial lakes in their soul valleys are always telling me how much fun they have in them, how they make so many nice and convenient things possible (advanced hydropower, irrigation, fishing, water-skiing), and I don't deny that.  But my lake was not like that (or perhaps better, was not just that).  It was also a home for the Loch Ness Monster, whom I am very glad to be rid of.

People who want absolute control over their valley of Soul see me as backwards, chaotic, primitive, and uncivilized because I have not dammed the river Emotion.  I let her follow her natural currents.  When she floods, I am flooded.  When she dries up, I am dry.  It is not always easy or pleasant.  But neither was having a dam.  Every choice we make in dealing with Emotion will necessarily involve both pleasure and pain.  Every valley is different, with different inhabitants who value different things (and have different traditions, different types of culture that allow them to live in the unique habitat nature has given them).  In my valley, we live better with natural rhythms, and no dam.  We aren't out to dynamite your dam, at all, but we aren't going to build one for ourselves, either.  We know what it will do to our valley.  We have seen it, and we did not like it.  Much as you like dams (in your valley), we dislike them more (in our valley: we like them fine in yours, if you want them there).  Much as you hate seasonal floods (in your valley), we like them more (in ours, where they are part of the rhythm that gives our life shape and meaning: we need them for the same reason that you need dams).

Recently a number of people have reached out to me, offering to help me build dams (or at least attend meetings where teams of Dutch boys tell us how to make the sort of dam that once graced my valley).  Much as I appreciate the offer, I really don't need a dam (certainly not one like that), and I am not really interested in spending a lot of time discussing the proper design for something that is useless to me.  (One does not go to study with a master trumpeter if one wishes to learn the violin.  As beautifully as you might play the trumpet, it is not my instrument, and I am not going to spend hours learning it, though I am happy to listen to you play sometimes.)  To quote a venerable old book, your love and interest are much appreciated, but I would be at Jerusalem.