Monday, August 5, 2013

Letter to a Jesuit

Below is part of a letter I wrote recently. As an attempt to capture my spiritual path over the last 10 years or so, it seemed worth saving. I have removed anything that might identify the recipient.

I was born into a very devoutly religious family. My parents are both converts to Mormonism (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with headquarters in Salt Lake City), which they found in early adulthood and have adhered to faithfully since before I was born (the eldest of six living children). I grew up Mormon, far away from Utah, in a small and close-knit congregation of Saints (as they like to call themselves, perhaps a bit pretentiously from your point of view). I went through the entire cursus honorum that contemporary Mormonism offers young men—attending weekly meetings faithfully, receiving and carrying out the duties of the priesthood (first Aaronic then eventually Melchizedek), graduating from seminary, receiving my endowment in the temple, serving a two-year proselytizing mission in northern Spain (I spent many months working in Galicia), graduating from Brigham Young University (the LDS church's university in Provo, Utah), and eventually marrying in the Salt Lake temple (which you may have seen: it is rather pretty, especially when compared to more modern Mormon architecture). Experience has taught me to beware of judging the quality of one's faith in terms of external career. In my case, almost everything I did from the age of about twelve came from a motivation informed somehow by my Mormonism—a Mormonism that was very sincere and earnest, perhaps too much so as it happens.

As part of my Mormon formation, I was taught church history and doctrine (I hesitate to call it theology, but the term is not utterly inapt) formally and informally. My formal schooling took place in church, in seminary, in special retreats held for missionaries, at BYU (my alma mater), and in the temple (where Mormons take part in complex rituals that dramatize the creation, fall, and redemption of the world). Informally, I did a lot of reading on my own. I was drawn very early to scripture, and over the course of my youth became very familiar with the King James Bible, in addition to other books the LDS church regards as holy scripture (including the Book of Mormon, which I have read many times). I was naturally interested in the history of the books I read—the context out of which they arose and took their first meaning before being handed down to me. Before I went out as a missionary, I had already begun studying religious history and had even decided that I would need to study biblical languages (Latin, Hebrew, and Greek) in college. As a youth, I did not notice any great imbalance between my personal religion and the religion preached and practiced at church. The more contact I had with the institutional church, however, the more this changed. My two-year mission in Spain was revelatory in this regard: I saw the church doing things that made no sense to me, things that seemed to me to cheapen the gospel in the interest of gaining converts to it (superficial converts, with no great understanding of what it was they were committing themselves to). At BYU, I began studying church history in great detail, on my own and in company with others, and I slowly came to realize that the church history I had been taught throughout my youth was by and large a complete fairytale—a transparent hagiography of the early Mormon movement that transformed men like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young from nineteenth-century mobsters (with good and bad traits) into modern Saints (with no evil qualities worth noticing).

By the time I was married and about halfway through graduate school (far from BYU), I realized that I could not participate actively in LDS Mormonism any more. Under the influence of my ongoing studies into church history (early Christian history as well as Mormon history), I could not see the LDS church's version of Christian history as anything but an increasingly transparent fable (as literal history: as a symbolic narrative, it has some merit). To make things worse, the church demands that the individual conform his private thought and (at the very least) public utterance to its versions of events. It does this by controlling access to temples (etc.) through a process of ecclesiastical confession that involves meeting regularly with local church authorities (the bishop or one of his counselors, and then the stake president or one of his—perhaps a bit like talking to your local parish priest and then the bishop). These gentlemen inquire into your orthodoxy (“Do you believe in the divinity of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost? Do you believe Joseph Smith to be a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator?” and so on). If you cannot answer questions to their satisfaction, then your status as an active Mormon is revoked until you repent. I cannot answer questions as they would like, and I cannot repent (for when I look into the historical record, I do not see what they want me to see—viz. that I must subject my opinion on doctrinal matters to theirs, whatever it may be, without critical judgement).

When I was no longer able to practice Mormonism actively, I did not cease to have a spiritual vocation. I needed to feel myself part of something larger than myself, but I also needed the freedom to express myself openly and honestly, even when others might possibly construe my expression as a threat to faith (not the way I construe it, but I can certainly appreciate that I am not the only person with a point of view that matters: we all see things, and we all matter; I am certainly as open to taking criticism as I am to dishing it out). Fortunately, my wife was not a dogmatic Mormon: she was one of the few external things that remained constant in my hour of confusion; I am very grateful for her unflagging moral support. Initially, I felt something of a gulf between myself and institutional Christianity. (To be completely candid, I still sense that gulf today, but experience has prepared me to confront it with curious interest rather than defensive hostility.) As a result, my first spiritual home outside Mormonism was a small Buddhist sangha in the Kagyu tradition (Tibetan). I found (and contine to find) Buddhist rhetoric very liberating (it is nice to be told that the self is impermanent when your own has just been brutally shattered), and I continue to enjoy the Kagyu liturgy (which involves meditation and chanting prayers, with or without the aid of tools such as a rosary or icons). But there is something important missing in my Buddhist experience, something that I cannot help but call Christianity.

It is hard to put into words, but let me try. Buddhism satisfies my intellectual hunger entirely, offering an outlook on the world that appears appropriately wise and skeptical (important to me, given my past history of being gulled into what the Buddhists would call “wrong views”). While it is very beautiful, Buddhism does not satisfy my aesthetic hunger: I find the bodhisattva distant and aloof, rather like the gods of Epicurus. Mormonism such as I grew up with was not a religion of passive acceptance. Mobster that he was, Brigham Young was also determined to build heaven on earth, and while I shrink back from some of the evil consequences of his efforts (e.g. the Mountain Meadows Massacre or the suffering of people involved in polygamy against their will), I still admire the aim. I want to make the world a better place, actively—or at least to see the examples of others engaging with sin or crime or other natural hardships in authentic ways that I might possibly emulate. I love retiring from the world, but I need to build something in retirement (“the kingdom of God”)—and I have years of exposure to Christianity that predisposes me to find meaning of some kind in Christian scripture, discourse, and ritual.

While serving as a Mormon missionary in Spain, I attended a public mass in the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago and conceived a desire that I carry to this day of completing a pilgrimage there on foot. If I ever have money and time, I will certainly carry this desire out, whether or not I become Catholic. I feel a great internal need to do it, to see the places where I came bearing Mormonism and give thanks for the many unexpected gifts I received in return. One of those gifts was a chance encounter with the Jesuit Andres Torres Queiruga, who invited me into his apartment to discuss religion and left a very profound impression on me (as being utterly sincere and good, even if his belief in the resurrection is metaphorical rather than literal—as mine now is, too). Regardless of how I feel toward what are sometimes called “religious truth-claims” (i.e. whether God is personal in some particular way or the Bible a literal history composed in the manner of Thucydides), I feel drawn toward Christian tradition, especially older versions of it that have a sense of their history—a memory of the good and the evil done in God's name over time. I don't know what to do with this attraction, whether I should abandon it to continue on as a Buddhist atheist (see below) or pursue it (as I am trying to do in reaching out to you).

My reading of the historical Buddha is very like my reading of the historical Jesus. What draws me to both is not the idea that they are more real or powerful than ordinary human beings, but the aspiration that they have come to represent to so many of my fellow creatures, an aspiration to make life beautiful where it can be ugly. I share that aspiration, no matter what I may happen to think right now about the ultimate order or disorder of the cosmos. “The kingdom of God is within you” is a statement that I continue to find incredibly edifying (and frustrating, as I seek some means of relating my window on that interior kingdom effectively to others—in ways that edify them and me, recognizing and respecting the reality that we need each other, that we are all part of a vast ecosystem of overt and hidden relationships that have the power to become incredibly beautiful even if they are occasionally also ugly).

Many people whose circumstances appear externally very similar to mine—people whose history has brought them into significant conflict with some fundamentalist, literalistic religious tradition (such as modern Mormonism has increasingly sought to be)—become atheists. Some of them find all the socialization, all the service, all the spirituality they need outside established paths. I have examined their ways of life thoughtfully, and I find much to admire in many of them. But at the same time, I cannot believe that “the old ways” are defunct, dying, or useless. To me it seems that history shows humanity existing with certain constant strengths and weaknesses. Occasionally, these express themselves in ways that are incredibly destructive (and we get something like the Holy Inquisition in Catholicism or the Danites in Mormonism), but that does not deny that they can also be very good—and dropping a particular ideology does not insure us against their destructive recurrence (as the last century has proved to me: atheism or secularism carries the same capacity for evil that religion does, more in an age where science exists to supply leaders of any ideological stripe with WMDs). I see that religion is occasionally poisonous (like all medicines), but that does not mean that I can abandon it (any more than I can abandon eating, though its eventual consequence is death). I value tradition, I am trying to say—even when I disagree with it, even when it challenges me, even when my response to its challenge is more negative than positive. A good man needs good enemies, friends who know how to wear their friendship in disagreement and disappointment as well as concord. I did not find that in Mormonism. I wonder whether I might find it somewhere in the universe of Catholicism.

Is there some way a person like me might become Catholic, or at least engage Catholicism in a meaningful way (mutually useful in terms of building the kingdom of God)?  No matter what happens, I will always be grateful for the faith of men like Thomas Merton, whose books have been a real blessing to me over the past few years as I have sought to rebuild myself in the image of God.

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