Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My Mormon Testimony

Someone asked me if I consider myself Mormon still.  I do, and here I am going to try to explain how and why.

I have always thought, and think still, that it is impossible for me to escape from my past. I can respond to the past. I can grow from it, away from it even, but in the end I am always going to be a product of it.

I am a product of Mormonism. I was raised Mormon, by devout converts. I converted myself as a little boy, reading the scriptures on my own and coming up with an adolescent identity that was very Mormon. My adult identity is also Mormon: I served a mission honorably (with real intent and honest effort: I say this to talk about myself, not to denigrate anyone else); I earned my BA at Brigham Young University; I was married in the Salt Lake temple, to a woman I still love very much (more and more each day). I still construct my identity in dialogue with ideas I learned as an active, devout Mormon (e.g. the Mormon canon of scripture). Even as I have moved beyond my Mormon-ness, compelled by personal need to seek help for problems to which our culture currently lacks useful solutions, I have never transcended it completely. I don’t think I ever will. I don’t even want to.

Unlike some people, whom I in no way judge unfavorably, I don’t wake up wishing I had never heard of the church or that I could escape its influence in my life. I see the good and the bad in my own personal journey as a Mormon, and I embrace both. If I am strictly honest, I have never left Mormonism, and I don’t plan to leave. I have stepped away from the church, because I found the doctrine and practice there hurting my soul more than it healed me, but I retain many of the core values I took from my time as an active Mormon. I still believe very strongly that people require community, that we need ways to offer service (even when that service appears trivial to others or even to us), that rituals are an important constant in human life (an anchor for our wandering minds full of fear of the unknown and irregular), and that people must be free to receive new insight from their individual experience (i.e. “personal revelation”). While I am comfortable with the label atheist, I am equally comfortable with the labels agnostic, believer, Buddhist, humanist, deist, theist, Christian, and (yes) Mormon. I see religion as language. Just as I can speak various languages, I can practice many different religions (rites, ways of expressing human values, including the values we construct to respect things we don’t understand, e.g. God). One language is not categorically better than another, and the point of language is not perfect grammar but meaningful communication--and the minimization of evil (which we all know from our own experience as well as that of others around us). How you practice religion is more important to me, infinitely more important, than what religion you happen to practice.  How you speak says more about your individual character than the language you happen to use.  I do not write in English here because I am superior, and anything good I offer is good for a reason that transcends its being expressed in English. The world would certainly not be a better place if we all forgot how to speak any language but English.

There are things I love about Mormonism: its history contains a lot of heroism to go along with the mafia politics, bigotry, and small-mindedness, and I honor that heroism. I admire the successes of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and I weep for their failures (the same way I do for my own). I respect the moral integrity of other Mormons, including those in power (in the church or outside it), even when I firmly disagree with some strong moral stance that they have taken (e.g. the stance that brands all explicit criticism of priesthood leaders as evil: I do not believe this, and I never will; I see it as a betrayal of everything good in Mormonism, but I respect the right of other Mormons to hold it and defend it). I still get a kick out of watching General Conference (for more than just the eye-rolls), and I think BYU represents a valuable educational experience (for me and other students, Mormon and not)--provided the administration does not curtail academic freedom there.

Even though history has separated me from full activity in the church, probably forever, I am not above making common cause with it, and I will always have a cultural affinity with people who self-identify as Mormons. I wish them and their churches well, even when they do things I would not do, say things I would not say, reveal the will of God as I would not reveal it. Like Joseph Smith, I know what I know, and I have to stay true to that (even when the church doesn’t like it).

Reflections on Sex (and Pornography)

Some friends were discussing Mormon approaches to sex and pornography recently, and this inspired me to write another retrospective reflection on my own experience.

It makes absolutely no sense, in my experience dealing with myself, to validate a worldview in which seeing erotic images (anywhere, everywhere) is sinful (let alone a sin on par with serious offenses like lying to one's spouse, coercing people into sex they don't want, etc.). All this approach does is make me angry--with myself, for being incorrigibly weak, and with others, for being incorrigibly sexy. Neither option is good. I realized early on that I was not cut out for the second kind of anger (directed outward against things that "trigger" sexual thoughts, in my case women): it leads ultimately to slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and a kind of active misogyny (for straight men like myself) that I find utterly disgusting. The first anger, meanwhile, leads to self-loathing, inability to form romantic attachments (owing to the fact that intimacy is evil), and eventually some kind of suicide (the literal thing, or a metaphorical murder of one's masculinity--e.g. by castration). I spent most of my adolescence struggling to contain this self-directed anger (without cutting off my balls or killing myself, since I had reason to believe neither option would be very pleasing to God, whom I was determined to please). It was very hard. It wore on me. While my friends went out with girls, I stayed home and read scriptures. My LDS bishops weren't pervs, looking for excuses to quiz me in-depth about my sex life, but that was no help in my case, since I went to them voluntarily to confess every "impure" episode that seemed "serious" (by which I mean that it made me anxious, angry, in doubt of my ability to serve the Lord worthily as a priesthood holder).

I almost didn't go on a mission because I wasn't sure I could be "worthy"--and I remember really hating myself at that time. My thoughts ran something like this: "I really want to serve this mission. I want to do something with my life. I want to speak up for things important to me. I want to share love and wealth with the world, not sit in some dark corner crying because I have a stupid penis that won't stop working. I am going to live in spite of that terrible thing, that worthless piece of trash that always manages to ruin everything simply by existing. Why did God even create it--or me, for that matter?" When I read the story of Origen taking a knife to his genitals and hacking them off (he was a young fanatic rather like me), I was a little envious: part of me wished I could solve my problems this simply and neatly (since the most anxiety-inducing experiences for me were wet dreams and persistent erections, experiences impossible without a penis). But Mormons believe you have to have a family, so I hung on. I never dated. I was too ashamed, too afraid of staining women with my impurity. I look back and cringe at how rude and aloof I was. Some of that is no doubt my own fault--I have always been something of a jackass, a cynic, and a misanthrope--but church certainly didn't help.

When I did finally manage against all hope to find my wife, still having no romantic ability or experience to speak of, I continued "taking things slow" in a manner that most people would find intolerable (with good reason). Until we were married, I never kissed my wife (for kissing was practically sex, i.e. murder). I wondered if I should confess to the bishop every time I found myself thinking about sex again--though I was older and wiser, and it was about this time that I realized the confession ritual was a piece of destructive adolescent folly rather than any kind of help. I ditched it, and told myself I would never do that again, no matter what might happen to me over the course of my life. The first year or two of marriage was very eye-opening for me. I learned so many things about myself--and my sexuality--that completely gave the lie to everything I tried to do as an adolescent. I realized that I couldn't live my whole life hating something that is an inescapable part of me. I realized that the sex I hated didn't have to be hateful--that it didn't have to make me destructively angry or horny. I could learn to control it the same way a toddler learns to use the potty. Yes, I would make mistakes, but these need not be felonies (or come anywhere close). Contrary to everything I taught myself as a teen, I was not a rape-machine, though some people will always see me that way (and I understand: I saw myself that way for years). I realized that sex is like language or sport, that I could approach it as an interesting game instead of a fight to the death (in which there is no such thing as valuable "failure"). I realized that perfect sex does not exist--that sex is about process rather than results, and that the process is more about playing nicely with other people than rendering abject homage to some arbitrary list of rules (mistakenly taken for the final word of God).

As for God, I came to realize that he need not be as hard and unyielding as I took him to be. After years of reading Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount (i.e. "whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after he hath committed adultery with her already") as an angry accusation ("stop seeing women, you evil bastards!"), I realized finally that they were merely pointing out that we all lust. There is no such thing as a slut in the conventional sense, Jesus says. We are all sluts. We all have limbic systems. We all desire something, and we follow that desire, the way dogs follow interesting scents. Without denying the reality that our lust can prove dangerously poisonous to ourselves and others, I can nevertheless learn to see how this is not inevitable--and even if it were, the best response is not anger (homicidal or suicidal). I learned to accept my lust, as I never could when I was younger, and in acceptance I found that I could turn it to very good use. I could use to make relationships stronger instead of weaker. This required some effort, of course, some mistakes, but as long as I maintained respect for myself and others the pay-off was always greater than any damage (in hurt feelings or unmet expectations). If you can learn to be respectful, to take turns, to be safety-conscious, and to listen thoughtfully and attentively when other people talk, then lust doesn't have to be a big deal. Sex can be murder, but it definitely doesn't have to be. I wish somebody could have told me all this when I was younger. I wish I could have realized the futility of hating myself sooner. But we all have regrets. I am just glad I finally found a way to live without hating myself and others, or causing too much hurt.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Problem with School Today

The problem with school these days is that it over-values success, at the expense of process (which always involves failure, especially if one is ever going to succeed in doing anything really, practically useful--as opposed to aesthetically pleasing). School wants us all to look like winners without actually doing the work required to win (i.e. losing over and over). 
I like grappling, so I imagine wrestlers. School wants you to have the achievement record of Alexander Karelin without his medical record (lots of injuries on the road to that much Olympic gold).

School today inverts the old Latin dictum esse quam videri (briefly translated "be rather than seem," i.e. it is better to have real experience than to look experienced). People are afraid to study things they aren't good at, because it will show up on their record, and people reading that record will say, "Loser!" and give whatever prize they have to somebody else. What gets lost in the shuffle is the reality that we are not all going to get the same prizes no matter what happens (life exists by creating winners and losers, always)--and depriving oneself of loss just makes the inevitable that much more painful when it comes. When you talk to guys like Karelin in the locker room, most of them aren't stuck-up assholes (who think they are where they are because they are somehow superior in every fashion to every other human out there). They see the costs of their success. They see its precariousness (a few points ground out on the mat after hours of sweat in the gym, getting pummelled by team-mates and berated by coaches).

Many people whose success is not the result of actual physical hardship have a much less humble view of themselves (and a much more arrogant attitude toward their fellowman, especially when he loses). Worst of all is the academic, politician, or economist who never lost a debate (or an election or a buttload of money). These types are insufferable--convinced that they have figured life out and that the rest of mankind are just worms who somehow fail to appreciate their excellent example and stop failing. "Why should you flunk calculus, Billy Stupid? I never did. Just try harder next time! (And no, I will not hire you to take out my trash: only A-level garbage men on my team. I cannot have your loser-ness bringing down our morale and/or killing our phenomenal performance, which is entirely the result of our own excellent moral qualities.)"

Monday, December 2, 2013


Teaching ancient philosophy this semester, I finally read through Augustine's Confessions entire and was very impressed.  Like him, I spent a great deal of time as a young(er) man trying to find some good that was not also evil.  Like him, I came late to the realization that this sort of thing is not of this world.  Like him, I still love telling stories, but I no longer read them as materially true, simply true, arguably true.  Matter is always false, it seems to me, the only thing falser being the mind that pretends to understand how this is not so. ("You think matter is evil, but I have discovered how it is good!  I have transcended material limits to see clearly and precisely how the Good exists objective and absolute!"  I am not interested in understanding God, for I now know that this is impossible.)

Here are some rambling reflections regarding my journey (to which I may add as time goes on: I just didn't want these particular ramblings to vanish into the void as quickly as most of my Internet ramblings).

Teaching chapters 7-9 of the Confessions, wherein Augustine discusses how Platonism leads him to Christianity) has led me to a possible positive aspect of Academic philosophy (i.e. Platonism, a philosophy which values the immaterial over the material, contemplation over application). As practised by people like Augustine (not people like Dion, remembered in Plato's Seventh Letter), this philosophy exists to inhibit controlling actions rather than inform them. The "skeptical" Academy (which arose after Plato and Dion and the rest) earned its name by undermining positive arguments (arguments for action, e.g. the arguments offered by "Socrates" in the Republic or the Athenian stranger in the Laws). It made "the Good" something immaterial and only imperfectly accessible to humanity (which finds itself cumbered by matter, inherently unable to understand immaterial reality with the precision necessary to play God). Augustine approaches God much as these guys approach the Good--as mystery of reason whose rationality exists (as other schools of thought deny) fundamentally outside human ability to understand, predict, or control in any way. We can be grateful for blessings and suffer through punishments, but we cannot know that either is bad for our character: the punishment (even when it is fatal to us) should be counted a blessing from God. We should not court it--or blessings--and we should not take pride or shame in it. We should accept with grace whatever God gives, seeking to control things as little as possible (specifically by avoiding "public life"--Augustine retires as a professor of rhetoric to become a Christian in company with several close friends; being bishop was an accident, it seems, and does not appear anywhere as part of his program for goodness). Looking back over his professional and religious career (as a heretic on the fringes of Catholicism), Augustine sees his persistent effort to make his ideas material as sin. He wanted to concretize good and evil, to quantify them rationally and then conduct a just measurement that would yield material virtue (the Good in some particular material form). Reading Platonist literature of the time (he is vague, but I might try looking at Plotinus) convinced him that this was wrong-headed (that the Good is not that kind of good). Reflecting on the reality that one can read Plato either to be a fragilista (when we apply the dialogues literally to life, e.g. trying to create a society like Kallipolis) or something different (when we see him as pointing up the impossibility of such projects, e.g. Socrates' repeated remarks in the Republic that his experiment is one that would never be practicable) reminds me of the quote from Heraclitus (earlier than Plato): "The way up and the way down are the same." How one reads Plato is more important than what Plato says.

Above I said, "We cannot know that punishment or reward is good for our character."  This is probably not what Augustine would say.  He would say we can always know that whatever happens to us is for our good, even when we cannot see how. He would affirm that we should not judge others for their outcomes (condemning the failures or worshipping the successes)--preferring instead to see both as the grace of God (who exists outside our ability to comprehend, though we can perceive his existence if we try).

Some Mormon Mysteries

I interrupt a long hiatus to offer the following responses to two simple questions: (1) What is God to you?  (2) Are families forever?

(1) I would say that God to me is uncertainty, probability, unpredictability, the blind spot in my human mirror onto the vast thing that is reality. I am a machine for looking into reality and seeing discrete variables causally: I see X, and I see Y, and when one follows the other I can always tell you why. Unfortunately, I will not always be right. But this does not mean that life is utterly purposeless (or utterly random: we experience things that are regular all the time, even when there is no possibility of doing a scientific study to rule out coincidence as ultimate "cause").

I can do many things with my blind spot. I can paint it to look friendly or scary. I can personify it, pray to it, wear little trinkets and whatnot to remind me of it, or I can take an opposite route--depersonifying it, refusing to pray to it, finding some other reason for whatever little trinkets I want to wear. The approach I take is heavily influenced by my personal history. Who are my mentors? What books do I read? What music do I know? Do I interact more with Jesus or the Pharisees in my particular faith tradition? (Every cultural tradition includes people focused on broad principles, that can become too broad to make useful sense, and people focused on narrow laws, that can become too narrow to be useful. If I am poisoned by hippie Jesus' lackadaisical approach to life, then I am likely to react by running towards a more strict Phariseeism to correct my fault, whereas if I am poisoned by strict Phariseeism, I become more likely to course-correct by running towards hippie Jesus. I am in the latter category, but I have met quite a few people on the opposite trajectory.)

Eternal families? I don't really know what eternity is. If it is temporal, then it is just time going on and on and on without stopping (physicists, is that really even possible? I doubt it, since time is something that exists relative to other things that change, e.g. when universes bang in and out of existence). What would one do forever? How would one live (without going insane)? I don't know. I like some change, some narrative, some regrets, and an end to life's story (with possibilities for new stories: who knows what comes after my story? not me, surely). When I see "the eternal perspective" invoked in Mormonism, I also note a disturbing trend towards preserving some (galling) injustice in the status quo: "From an eternal perspective, it does not matter so much that you are currently unsuccessful (unmarried, female, black, enslaved, etc.). Just live with that, and God will eventually set it all right" (by having some king and priest who isn't a loser like you look after it? this isn't what is meant always by any means, but it is often the message transmitted, unfortunately).

The useful eternal perspective for me exists outside time. Eternity is not time going on with no end, but a space outside time, a metaphorical space where possibility exists untapped, unexhausted, unreached (and in some sense unreachable) by human understanding. It is what Buddhists call emptiness (not nothingness, but the indefinite possibility that something might happen--or not). Instead of inspiring us to come up with self-serving stories to justify evil in the status quo ("blacks are roughing it here because they were fence-sitters in the pre-existence, women because Eve ate that damn apple," etc.), it reveals to us the poverty of material success. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, and I choose to love him (and life) anyway. Replace "the Lord" with Nature if you like. Feminize him (it, them). Do whatever you like! It is your life's work to make art of your religion. But you will not exhaust reality; you will not escape the blind-spot built into your humanity. That is not a bug, I fear, but a feature--and the only cure we have found is death (not really so bad, when one approaches it correctly: I can have really happy thoughts about rotting somewhere in the ground, providing nourishment to the biota all around me--the same way so many other beings have died to keep me alive through my mortality; I want to give something back).

(2) Families? I don't know how they exist or last universally (for all observers everywhere). I don't think I ever will, but I know that I love mine. I know that I value them in a way that I cannot value others (not because I have no use for non-family, but because I cannot be that intimate with all humanity, let alone all sentient life). In the context of my own life-story, they are essential: they are the people who hear my story, who share it, who find meaning in it, and who enrich me with their own stories--stories that contain meaning I can see (because I am close to them, for whatever reasons). I don't know how we are together. Forever? What would that mean? My sons eternally in diapers? Eternally squabbling because someone threw up or punched someone? Eternally meeting with relatives each Thanksgiving to spread diseases (and good cheer)? I prefer to think that we are together now, and that I hope to remain with them for the duration of my story: no matter what happens, they will always be important to that story. That is all I can say.