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Posts Tagged ‘Holy Ghost’

(thanks to my favoritest pagan for pointing it out to me)

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I go to Church to experience the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the eucharist.

For Mormons, the sacrament is a covenantal rite: you take the bread and water as symbols, in rememberance of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and in order to renew your baptismal covenant. It’s a sacred ordinance, but it is purely symbolic. Plenty of Mormon literature discusses the Roman Catholic doctrine of transsubstantiation and why it is a false and apostate doctrine, but that’s it, really. As a result, for most of my life I didn’t have the slightest inkling that there was such a massive excluded middle between those two polar ends of the eucharistic doctrinal spectrum.

But now, years after leaving Mormonism, I have discovered the middle, and it is absolutely amazing. I don’t buy that the bread and wine literally transform in my stomach into Jesus’s flesh and blood. But when I take the eucharist, I know that God’s presence is literally there in a unique, incarnational and mysterious way. And it blows my mind and makes me actively and impatiently look forward to it all week. I hunger and thirst for it.

I’m no theologian, so I couldn’t tell you the ins and outs of the doctrine, but what I can tell you is that when I understood that God was literally and uniquely present in that bread and wine, all the awkward and troublesome pieces of Christianity fell together for me. I knew it was what I was missing.

Like most liturgical Christian churches, the service at the church we attend is completely centered on communion. The eucharist is the climax of the liturgy. Everything else points to it or builds up to it. If you, like me, have spent your life in a sermon-focused (or talk-focused, whatever) worship tradition, you have no idea what a eucharist-centered liturgy is like. The sermon is nice, but I don’t go to church to for the sermon. I go to church to take communion. If the sermon winds up being a flop, that’s sad, but it’s really not that big of a deal. The sermon is only a small part of the worship. The real message is the bread and wine, and the unique presence of God in it. When we eat it and drink it, we eat and drink grace itself. It is a physical, tangible thing, and it is completely and utterly infused with Spirit. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t bother.

The other day I was chatting with Katie L, and I told her that I felt so strongly about the doctrine of real presence that I didn’t think I would even be willing to take communion at a church that taught that it was only a symbol. I surprised myself not only by saying that, but by really meaning it. It was like revelation.

My last serious attempt at Christianity as a post-Mormon, in 2008, was a frustrating and sadly dissatisfying experience. To put it simply, I was in it for new life, for transformation, for the experience of God, and it kept not happening. I got a lot out of the theology and the worship service, but on a personal spiritual level, I was waiting for something like a click in my head, something to happen that made me feel changed. I was waiting for Grace to so something, something I could feel. I felt like I should know when I was forgiven or when I was accepted as Jesus Christ’s, like I should feel something that would mark the transition from the old life to the new life.

But it kept not happening, and I didn’t know what was wrong. I wanted to become a Christian, but I didn’t know what to do to become a Christian. Or how to know when I had become one.

I know that there are a lot of Christians out there, especially Evangelical Protestants, who would say that all I had to do to be a Christian was to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Well, I tried that, but it didn’t feel any different. I prayed sincerely and told Jesus that I accepted him, that I wanted to follow Him, that I was His, and it just didn’t click. Nothing happened. I didn’t feel any different after praying than I did before, and I didn’t understand why.

So eventually I just lost interest. The transformation I wanted to happen wasn’t happening. As appealing as I thought church and Christianity were, Led Zeppelin gave me a heavier buzz than Jesus christ ever did. So I drifted away from Christianity. Explored other options. Looked for spirituality in unconventional places.

Here’s the thing though: while I was going to Church, praying, and grappling with scripture and theology, what I was not doing was anything that was sacramental. I didn’t get baptized. I didn’t take communion. I was waiting for something inward to happen first.

In Mormonism, the religious tradition I was raised in, the conversion process is neatly prescribed: you read the Book of Mormon, you pray to ask God if it’s true, you feel a “burning in the bosom” that tells you it’s true, you become a member of the church by being baptized, you are confirmed a member and you are given the Gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, and then you take the sacrament (what they call communion) every week as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice to renew your baptismal covenants.

The critical variable in the equation was that “burining in the bosom.” The expectation that you will be converted by a personal mystical experience–a click that makes you feel different–and then you respond to that mystical experience by ritually making and renewing covenants.

For better or worse, that is how I have approached religion ever since I left Mormonism, and that is how I approached Christianity in 2008: I read, I prayed, I worshipped, but nothing mystical ever happened. And I held back on making commitments or taking part in sacraments because I felt like that click should come first. That’s how I was raised: the click happens first, and you memorialize it with ritual second. The click is conversion. The click is how you know that things have changed, how you know you have been changed from a non-believer to a believer. And since the click never came, I I felt like it wasn’t taking. So I observed. I prayed along. I sang. I crossed my arms and let the priest bless me. But I never pursued baptism, and I never considered actually taking communion, because to me, sacraments were secondary. Sacraments were for people who already felt the click.

I was totally and completely wrong. The sacraments are the click. I was waiting for something to happen in a vague and inward way that was being offerent to me right up at the front of the church in a literal and physical way. I was praying for Jesus Christ’s presence to enter into me without realizing that Jesus Christ’s table was set liberally with his presence right before my eyes and I was invited to eat and drink my fill, but I kept saying no.

Jesus Christ, the bread and water of life, is offered to me every week, and I am welcome to it.

That’s why I go to church. Well, one of the reasons, I guess.

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I was a faithful Mormon for nearly three decades, and while I definitely busied myself spiritually, and tried to be close to Heavenly Father, I never actually wanted to worship him. Worship in Mormonism is problematic anyway: in my experience Mormonism is much more about trying to experience certain things, trying to feel the Holy Ghost. What that winds up meaning is that the individual personal relationship with God is one in which the believer receives from God without responding worshipfully. Instead, the appropriate response is supposed to be obedience and righteousness, not praise and adoration. I believe that true worship is an almost foreign concept to Mormon belief.

So when I tried to make post-Mormon Christianity work for me, and I didn’t exactly feel as worshipful towards Jesus as I thought I probably should, I blamed Mormonism. My Mormon upbringing had taught me to believe without true worship, I said to myself, and so it had stunted and retarded my spiritual senses.

I no longer really think that is the case. When I think of or experience the Hellenic gods, I want to worship them. I want to fall down on my knees and subject myself to them utterly and totally. They are gods and goddesses who are truly worthy of worship, and they provoke a response in me that is supremely and almost painfully worshipful.

It’s kind of odd, really, because there’s a lot of material out there in Neopagan literature suggesting that an attitude of total worship is not only not required, but perhaps not even appropriate. Much more emphasis is given to the reciprocal nature of our relationship with the gods: we give so that they may give. Utter worship and submission to the gods is treated, at best, as a lingering bad habit from a Christisn upbringing.

But here I am, and that cannot possibly be the case with me. I was raised sort-of-Christian (it depends on whom you ask), but in a tradition that did not emphasize the kind of worship that gets the Pagan stamp of disapproval. Wherever I learned to worship, it certainly was not in my own religious upbringing. And during my post-Mormon Christian explorations, I never really felt the urge to worship. So I didn’t get it there either. I honestly believe that my desire to worship the gods is purely and simply because they have revealed themselves to me as proper objects of my worship. They are my gods, they are real, and they are incredible.

Furthermore, the more I think about it, the more I think that the submission-versus-reciprocity meme is a false dichotomy. If a proper relationship with the gods is one of kharis (hospitality and reciprocity), wherein we give to the gods and the gods give to us, then what greater gift can we give but total worship and utter submission? Perhaps such a gift is not mandatory, but certainly a gift to the gods is not inappropriate because it is too great.

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Back in April when I first started to come out as a Pagan, I mentioned that one of my goals was to figure out some good ways to celebrate the Wheel of the Year.  Although my emphasis is typically on the Hellenic gods, and my personal practice draws more from reconstructionism than anywhere else, I do not necessarily self-identify as a hard reconstructionist.  I’m suspicious about extensive New Age influence in Neopaganism, and I am cranky about eclecticism generally, at the same time I feel drawn to multiple strands of pagan worship and theology.  To make a long story short, I feel drawn to celebrate the eightfold Wheel of the Year (solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days) despite the fact that as a whole it is a recent phenomenon.  As John Michael Greer is fond of pointing out, the validity of a spiritual practice comes from whether or not it works, not whether or not it is ancient.

One of my earliest specific pagan epiphanies was with the Wheel of the Year.  As a teen, I was immensely interested in mythology and pagan religion (ancient and neo-), but was often nervous about telling other people about it, so I did a lot of reading and research in secret.  One day I was sixteen or seventeen or so, I was looking at a calendar with the eight pagan holidays on it, and I was calmly and peacefully but intensely struck by the rightness of it.  It was particularly significant to me because that kind of spiritual reaction was the kind of thing I had always been raised to believe would be the Holy Ghost’s witness of the truth of Mormonism.  And there I was having it over a pagan calendar.  I called up my best friend John (maybe he’s reading this?), and told him about it.  It was really the beginning of my secret adolescent religious rebellion.

Anyway, since I have felt comfortable ebracing my Pagan identity, I have let three of the eight major holidays pass by without doing anything about them, because I don’t know what to do.  I don’t really have a group of fellow-believers to practice my religion with, so most of my spiritual expression winds up being in a personal or family context.  Luckily, my beautiful and sexy Christian wife is more than willing to be supportive and take part, but since it is my thing, I really have to take the lead.

I like holidays and festivities a lot, and that’s what I am looking for here.  Not rituals, but traditions, the things that make the day and the season feel festive and special: decorations, meals, traditions, things to think about.  The eightfold year is a cycle, so it lends itself well to that kind of thing, but it can be hard to find resources about it.  Most of what is available on the internet is either too generally stated to be useful, or it is presented in ritual form, which is definitely not what I am loking for.  While ultimately I do plan on engaging in seasonal religious ritual as part of my Wheel of the Year celebration, I really want to also lay a festive foundation for said ritual.  Maybe I’m going about it backwards, but this is the way it makes sense to me, and it is the best way to share with friends and family.  Over time, I expect my religious and ritual explorations would influence and affect the festive traditions.  But I want something to start with.

The other consideration I have is the similarities between some of the holidays on the pagan calendar and Christian and civic holidays.  Christmas is similar to Yule, Samhain matches Halloween, the Spring Equinox parallels Easter, etc.  For most pagans, this is not a problem: they give rpesents on Yule instead of christmas, and they decorate eggs and such on the Equinox instead of Easter (shoot, the Easter Bunny actually makes a lot more sense as a part of a pagan holiday than a Christian one).  But my family is interfaith, which means we’re celebrating both sets.  So I don’t want two Easters.  I want to figure out how to celebrate Easter and the Spring Equinox, etc., in a way that makes them both not only enjoyable but also sufficiently distinct.

I finally sat down about a week ago to start hammering all of this out.  I showed it to my wife, and she thought it all seemed interesting and fun, but she also pointed out that the problem for her was that it was not always clear what all of these traditions actually mean.  It’s a fair question, and one that I can’t easily answer.  This list is really something I have cobbled together from a lot of different sources, whatever sounded good to me, and from things I intuited on my own.  Unfortunately, my own personal theology is still in development, so it is not easy to weave my own meanings into these traditions.  That gets us back to the long view: as my spirituality develops, I imagine I (we) will tinker with these holidays and alter or replace traditions that do not make sense in my own pagan context, and emphasizing those that do.

So without further ado, here is my Official Wheel of the Year Resource.  Feel free to add your comments, suggestions, insights, questions, whatever.

Beltaine
Date:
May 1.
Description: A time to light bonfires and revel, to celebrate fertility and sexuality.
Traditions: Most importantly… hot sex. Possibly sex outside if practical. Hot sex and huge bonfires, lit on a hilltop (toss juniper sprigs in the fire, and leap through it for good luck)..
Holiday Food: Rabbit, Strawberries (strawberry pie or strawberry shortcake), Mead
Decorations: Flame, wildflowers, rowan crosses, may boughs hung over doors and windows.

Midsummer
Date:
June 21
Description: A second bonfire—bonfires on the water (the ashes bring good luck), and active holiday where the sun is at maximum power and energy is strongest.
Traditions: The veil between the otherworld (or the un/subconscious) and the waking world is thin, it is a good time for resolutions, and for putting plans into effect. Keep vigil through the shortest night, waiting for the rising sun. It is also a good time to gether fresh herbs.
Holiday Food: Lamb, fresh produce, lemon merangue pie.
Decorations: Wheels, sun symbols, St. John’s Wort.

Lughnasa
Date:
August 1.
Description: The first harvest festival, Lughnasa is a time for being outside, for celebrating the physical world with games and physical activity. It’s a time for dancing and bonfires, for blessing the fields. And it’s a good time for marriages.
Traditions: Bread is baked in the shape of a man and eaten to represent the Dying God (Cernunnos, Dionysus, Odin, Osiris, Jesus, Arthur, the Green Man).
Holiday Food: Bread, beer, watermelon, barbecue.
Decorations: The Green Man, a flaming wheel.

Autumn Equinox
Date: September 21
Description: The second harvest festival—the harvest of fruit—a time of thanksgiving and recollection, the in-gathering of experience.
Traditions: Make and burn a straw or wicker man, to represent the burning of the Harvest Lord.
Holiday Food: Corncakes, Nuts, Berries, Fruit Pies (not apple), Wine.
Decorations: Pinecones, acorns, gourds, gold, red, orange, and brown.

Samhain
Date:
November 1
Description: A night when the borders between the living and the dead are the thinnest, the last harvest. Time is abolished and the spirits of the dead walk free. A time for remembering those who have gone before. The time of year when livestock were slaughtered.
Traditions: Leave an extra place at the dinner table for dead ancestors. A perfect time for divination. The day after Samhain is a day forcleaning and getting rid of old things.
Holiday Food: Pork Roast, Apples, Apple Pie, Cider, Hazelnuts, Pumpkin Bread
Decorations: Leave a candle burning in a western window to guide the spirits of the dead.

Yule
Date: December 21
Description: The shortest day of the year, this is a time to celebrate the rebirth of the sun. It is a time of rebirth and stillness, a time to celebrate intuition. There is a lot of symbolism between intuition, the Pole Star, the Great Bear, and King Arthur.
Traditions: A Yule log is burned for ten days (Yuletide lasts from December 20 to December 31), and then the ashes are strewn on the plantings in the spring. The wood from the log is yept to light the yule log the next year. Give libations to the fruit trees.
Holiday Food: Baked goods in sun shapes, and mulled wine.
Decorations: Sun wheels, decorated trees, candles, wreaths of mistletoe, holly, and ivy.

Imbolc
Date: February 1
Description: The holiday of the lambing, or childbirth (it is no accident that Imbolc is exactly nine months after Beltaine…). It is a time for initiations, and purification. It is a good time for meditation.
Traditions: Write and read poetry. Share it, have a poetry competition.  Leave a white cloth out a window for the goddess to bless, and when the first light of the sun touches it, it gains healing properties throughout the year. Candlemaking.
Holiday Food: Milk, honey, dairy foods (a massive cheese smorgasbord).
Decorations: Hundreds of candles, and pools of water.

Spring Equinox
Date:
March 21
Description: A time to celebrate planting and prepare for the gifts of the summer, and to recognize the power and presence of spring. A time of emergence, fertility, and balance. A time that is sacred to Persephone, to celebrate her return from the Underworld and her reunion with her mother Demeter.
Traditions: Decorate eggs.
Holiday Food: Twisted bread, honey cakes, eggs, carrots.
Decorations: Flowers (honeysuckle, iris, peony, violet, lily, daffodil), in baskets or garlands.

FOLLOW-UP: I have put up a new post about trying to piece together the ritual and religious aspects of the Wheel of the Year, specifically from a Hellenic polytheist perspective.

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It should be clear by now that I passionately believe that real spiritual/mystical experiences happen. People experience the presence of divinity. I don’t know for sure whether they are merely experiencing a neurological or psychological phenomenon, or whether they are actually contacting a real deity, or whether the distinction is meaningful. What I am sure of is that mystics throughout history have reported eerily similar phenomena and labeled them as divine contact.

Mormonism has taught since the days of Joseph Smith that such mystical experiences–jargonically termed “personal revelation”–are available to Mormons, basically on demand. Modern-day Mormon prophets have consistently promised that every earnest seeker who asks God for a personal confirmation of the truth of Mormonism and/or its components will receive it. The problem with these promises is that inasmuch as mystical experiences exist, that’s just not the way it works. No matter what your theology promises, God is not on tap. God is not predictable, as much as we would like it to be.

To reconcile the irreconcilable–theological promises about the availability of mystical experience and the unpredictable reality of mystical experience–Mormonism has lowered the bar on personal revelation. Mormons believe a priori that mystical experience is there for the asking, so when experience prove otherwise, experience must be wrong. Mormons tell each other things like “I think you have had personal revelation; you just don’t recognize it,” and they tell themselves stories about how subtle the Holy Ghost’s influence is.

But they’re wrong. They’re ridiculous, even. The real experience of the presence of God is not subtle. It is not difficult to discern. It is like a hurricane: massive, beyond control. Like a roller coaster, but you can’t really be certain that it is going to stay on the tracks. Real contact with God is total loss of sense of self, a total absorbtion into something so huge and so other that it can’t be described.

But like I said, that kind of thing is rare and unpredictable, and so it doesn’t really do a good job of fulfilling Mormonism’s promises about the availability of personal revelation. So, to make up for God’s failure to deliver on Mormonism’s promises (which can’t possibly be true because then Mormonism would be false, and Mormons assume that cannot be the case), Mormons recast completely mundane experiences as “personal revelation,” and thus save themselves from having to face the unfortunate disconnect between Mormon theology and the real experience of God.

What follows is a list of things that do not count as spiritual or mystical experiences, but that are often characterized as such in Mormon testimonies. They are in no particular order.

1. Negative Confirmations: These happen when I either want to do something or thought I should do something, and so I prayed for guidance, and God did not definitely tell me “no,” and afterward I felt an increased desire and/or obligation (as the case may be) to do the thing. But that’s not personal revelation; it’s what I wanted to do anyway. Silence from God can’t possibly be evidence of God’s influence in my life. The increased motivation post-prayer is just excitement or resignation in the absence of a contrary instruction from God, along the lines of “God didn’t say ‘no,’ so it is definitely the right thing to do, and it’s coincidentally what I wanted to do anyway! Hooray!

2. A Burning In The Bosom: Mormon scriptures describe prayers being answered by personal revelation in the form of a “burning in the bosom”: a warm sensation in the chest. This happens to Mormons, and it shouldn’t be a surprise at all, because it is basic Classical Conditioning at work. Let’s say that for my whole life I am told that I will feel a warm sensation when certain triggers happen (when I pray, when I read the scriptures, when I go to church, when I am with my family, whatever) and that this warm feeling is the Holy Ghost. When this warm feeling inevitably results, it is not the Holy Ghost at all. I have conditioned myself. I have spent my life looking for a particular sensation whenever the appropriate trigger is present, and eventually my body obliges my mind by producing said sensation. This makes me happy because it confirms my religion to me, and it is the thing I have been wanting to happen. Thus, my body learns that producing a warm feeling in response to certain triggers makes me happy. This is not called God. This is called Pavlov’s dog.

3. Intense Emotional Responses: When I watch a Church movie, I may indeed get choked up and emotional when something poignant and magical happens. But this isn’t personal revelation of the gospel truth being presented in the movie; this is my emotions being manipulated. TV shows and movies do this all the time. Filmmakers, directors, artists, composers, musicians, and writers can and do purposely arrange this stuff to tug at your heartstrings and make you feel certain emotions. And it happens in other situations, too (the kinds of legitimately emotional situations that these filmmakers are trying to artificially provoke): when I bear my testimony I might cry because I am sharing something deeply personal and emotional, so I have emotions when I talk about it. But that’s not the presence of God; that’s just having feelings.

4. Contentment And Happiness: Feeling generally happy and content about the spiritual tradition and related community that I have been brought up in is just normal. It’s a classic case of the grass looking greener on this side of the fence, and it results from a basic human complacency with the status quo. People are comfortable with what they know, and being comfortable feels pleasant. On the other side of the coin, converts to Mormonism may feel happy and content with their adopted faith tradition, but again, this comes from natural and expected feelings of gratitude and newfound belonging. Belonging feels good, whether it’s a church or a street gang. Being happy with your religion is a perfectly good reason to stick with your religion. But is isn’t a mystical message from God that your religion is the one true path, because pretty much everyone feels that way about their own religion.

5. “Impressions”: When I suddenly feel impressed to knock on a door, to approach someone on the street or a train, or to get up and bear my testimony, I may think something along the lines of the following: “hey, I just had a thought about doing that–I wonder if it was God telling me to do it. No, it was just a thought. Bt wait, what if I am talking myself into ignoring the Spirit? Is the Holy Ghost telling me to do this and I am just brushing it off? Why would I do that? Of course this was an impression; of course this was the Holy Ghost!” That is not personal revelation from God; that is a hilarious mind game you are playing with yourself.

6. Good Ideas: Sometimes, I suddenly have a great idea, out of nowhere. I might therefore want to attribute it to God, especially if it is related to church, religion, or my calling. But here’s the thing: people just have good ideas all the time.

All of these things are normal, basic humanity stuff. They happen to everyone. So the only way they come from God is if everything comes from God, and then we have to invent a new word for the mystical peak experiences that seem to be something wholly other, and from which these normal human life experiences are qualitatively distinct. And even then, if I have to concede that these things do come from God, they definitely don’t come from God in a “personal revelation that proves that the Church is true,” because they happen to everybody.

Even if I take Mormonism at its word and accept that feeling the presence of the Holy Ghost (i.e. the presence of God) is conclusive and unimpeachable proof that all of the Church’s truth claims are true–which I most certainly do not–these six types of experiences just don’t count.

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This one isn’t about Jesus at all, but as it’s kind of a continuation of my last post, and I’m feeling silly, well… hey, I don’t have to justify the names of my own blog posts to anyone.

Like I’ve said before, although I haven’t been blogging, I have been continuing to think things through and to engage in conversation with people about my standard topics of life, the universe, and everything.  In particular, I have had some interesting discussions with my brother (who comments here periodically under the nom de plume Racticas), who is a grad student in religious studies.  One of the idea sets we’ve been tossing around lately is Neopaganism.

When talking paganism, the issue of polytheism naturally comes up.  Polytheism is definitely an idea that has to be accomodated rather than assimilated, because as western people we come into the picture with a fairly heavy bias towards monotheism.  My Mormon background gets periodically accused of a polytheistic bent by some Evangelical critics, but even as an ex-Mormon, I don’t think the accusation is appropriate.  Although Mormonism posits a comparatively limited God, believes that the members of the Godhead (father, son, and holy ghost) are completely distinct in substance, and accepts the possibility (or even necessity) of the existence of other gods coequal to, subordinate to, or even superior to Our Heavenly Father, in practice Mormonism is still thoroughly monotheistic.  The existence of other gods is an academic possibility for Mormons, and the only god they deal with and the only god who has ultimate power over this world is God the Father.

I go into detail about the Mormon perspective because it’s my background and thus informs where I am now, and accusations to the contrary notwithstanding, my background, and thus my default position, is monotheistic.  And I bring all of this up in order to admit my preexisting bias when I then explain why I don’t believe in literal polytheism.

Which brings me to my point: I don’t believe in literal polytheism.  I have enough trouble accepting the existence of one personal god; the idea of many personal gods seems even less plausible.  As figures of myth, the gods and goddesses of ancient people seem much more plausible to me as either metaphors of the human condition or as metaphoric personifications of different aspects of the transcendent divine, i.e. Masks of God.  I simply do not believe, however, that there are a bunch of real literal distinct divine beings living on Mount Olympus or in Asgard or another dimension or a spiritual plane or something.  I just don’t buy it.

Now that’s not to say that I think the gods and goddesses of myth (including Jesus and the Father) are useless things.  If there is a real transecndent divinity, I am inclined to think it impossible to deal with it directly in any kind of meaningful way.  Thus, we may need personifications and metaphors to be able to approach the divine in a way that our psyches can handle.  In other words, we may be putting the masks on God because otherwise God is so far outside of our experience and existence that the unmasked God would be meaningless, inaccessible, and incomprehensible to us.  I think of it like this: if a two-dimensional being existed, it could never comprehend us in our fullness as three-dimensional beings.  The best it could do would be to imagine a two-dimensional representation of us, but even then it could never be a complete representation.  Being two-dimensional the best it could do was approximate a certain aspect, slice, or facet (or simplified agglomeration of several aspects) of our three-dimensional reality.  If God exists at all outside our psyches, then so it is with God.

At its heart, this is what Christianity is all about–God become man so that man can relate to God.  Its the essence of Hinduism as well, where all things, the gods and goddesses especially, are merely aspects of Brahman.

Alternately, if “God” is just something in our heads, something embedded in the human psyche, then I still think that anthropomorphized representations of God or gods are the best way for us to make sense of it.  This is the Joseph Campbell route.  We make sense of existence primarily by metaphor and symbol, and that includes conceptualizing symbolic and metaphorical gods.

The moral of my story is that if I were to be a pagan of any stripe, I couldn’t be a strict, literal polytheist.  And even if I were to have a mystical encounter with a god or gods, I would still strongly suspect that I had merely put a mask on something otherwise completely transcendent and incomprehensible so that I could comprehend it, as opposed to thinking that whatever god I had encountered had a real, literal, separate and distinct existence of its own.  Unless it told me it did and struck me with lighning for being an unbeliever or something.  I have a pragmatic streak, as well: at my house, people who didn’t believe in Santa Claus didn’t get presents from him.

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I’m a little bit angry with a particular aspect of Mormonism today. Mostly, I find myself just caring less about the Mormon Church all the time, but when something directly affects me or my relationships, it’s hard to just grin and bear it.  even if it means coming out of blogging semi-retirement.

Mormonism teaches that if you pray to ask with a sincere heart, that God will tell you that the Church is True. It’s a guarantee- you do x and God will do y. That seems innocuous enough, until you apply it to the real world, to real people, and discover that actually plenty of people have prayed about the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and Mormonism in general, and have not gotten a satisfactory answer. This is difficult to reconcile. God has supposedly made a promise, right? So either God breaks his promises, or the people who aren’t getting an answer are the problem. And Mormonism teaches that God is a God of truth and cannot lie. Therefore, people like me must be lying. It’s the only logical conclusion- or something like it. Either we’re being dishonest with ourselves, we’re blinded by our pride, we’re too far in sin or too caught up in the world to recognize the Spirit, or something like that. But any way you want to fold it, the result is offensive and insulting. This line of logic means that everyone who doesn’t join (or stay in) the Church is either lying or has allowed themselves to be in the bondage of Satan.

There are two ways out of this for Mormons. One is the fairly common idea that God answers prayers in his own time, and you’ve just got to have faith. That is total crap. Why should I have faith that God is eventually going to give me a satisfactory answer? How long do I wait? Forever? Why? Why would I do that? There’s a point where it just becomes more likely that the reason why God’s not telling you Mormonism is true is because it isn’t. If I don;t know the Church is true, what possible reason would I have to keep asking and persevering for my entire life until I find out that it is? If I want it that bad, I’ll wind up manufacturing it myself.

Plus, by that same logic, I should be just as persevering with any other Church or religion, if my only assurance is the testimony of others. What makes the people testifying the truth of Mormonism any more trustworthy or reliable than the people testifying the truth of Catholicism, Islam, Quakerism, or Atheism?

Furthermore, what good is a promise that will for all intents and purposes never be fulfilled, or fulfilled in a way that is completely unlike what you expect or is completely unlike what the plain meaning of the promise is, the reasonable interpretation of the promise. If God does that, then he’s wiggling out of his promises on technicalities, and that isn’t really being a God of Truth. Promising something that reasonably sounds like x when you really mean y isn’t honest, even if y is technically one possible interpretation of the promise. That’s not honesty and Truth, that’s deception, which is the opposite.

There’s one other way Mormons can escape the insulting reconciliation that forces them to brand everyone else a liar, and that is the ability to live with paradox. This is the best way, the most productive way- reconciling God’s promises with people who don’t get answers to their prayers by not reconciling it at all. By chalking it up to something they just don’t understand. This allows the Mormon to be a believer without assigning dishonest or evil motives to everyone else. It allows the believer to take people like me at face value, to not have to assume that I have a hidden motive or agenda when I say I just don’t believe the Church is true and I just don’t believe that the Holy Ghost has told me it is.

Unfortunately, not everyone can do this. Living with paradox means maintaining a kind of cognitive dissonance, and cognitive dissonance makes people uncomfortable.

So instead of just accepting the paradox, most Mormons reconcile a (God’s promises) and b (people who don’t get answers) by assigning ulterior motives, by questioning peoples’ integrity, and by assuming that there’s some hidden but grievous sin. In short, reconciling Mormon doctrine with reality requires Mormons to pass exactly the kind judgment that Christ commanded us not to pass.

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I’ve tried to articulate one particular problem I have with Mormonism, and it never seems to go over very well. The topic came up on one of my favorite blogs, Dando’s Mormon and Evangelical Conversations, and while discussing it (and being accused of spouting ridiculous nonsense), I decided to try explaining it using a strictly Mormon point of view, and I think I did a pretty good job (although nobody has responded to it, so I might be dead wrong):

Mormonism stresses the importance of gaining a testimony of critical principles of the Gospel, right? That testimony is theoretically gained by praying for a manifestation from the Holy Spirit of the truth of something.

Lets say I’ve read the Bible and I want to know if Jesus is really my savior. According to Mormonism, if I pray and ask God, he’ll tell me, and I’ll have a testimony of it, right? Now, that testimony is sufficient to infer the truth of the bible, because history places Jesus squarely in the middle of it. Sure, I could also pray to know that the Bible is true, but I don’t need to. Because if I know that Jesus is the Christ by the power of the Holy Ghost, the that means the New Testament must be true, and since the New Testament affirms the Old Testament on a number of occasions, I can also therefore infer that the Old Testament is true. I certainly don’t need to pray for a specific testimony based on a spiritual witness of each book of the Bible, each apostle, each epistle, and each prophet, do I? Again, I could if I wanted to, but it isn’t critical. If God has witnessed to me the truth of Jesus Christ’s divinity and mission, then the rest can be reasonably inferred.

But my testimony of Jesus Christ alone doesn’t let me reasonably infer the truth of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, or the Latter-Day church.

In order to know those things, I also have to pray to ask if either 1) the Book of Mormon is true or 2) Joseph smith was a prophet of God. Mormonism teaches that once I know either of those things, I can reasonably infer the rest: if I know that the Book of Mormon is true, then I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. If I know that, then I also know that the D&C and PoGP are true. I also know that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is true, that the Priesthood was restored, and that the church is still led by a prophet, that the plan of salvation as laid out in the LDS church is true, that the Word of Wisdom is true, etc.

I can get individual spiritual confirmation of each of these if I want or if I’m having a particular struggle, but the standard answer is that I should be able to get a testimony of just the one thing (either the BoM or the First Vision) and reasonably infer the rest. Latter-day prophets have taught that, and the missionaries teach that all the time.

If all I had was a spiritual witness of Jesus Christ, I could in the same way infer the truth of the Bible and the Biblical prophets, and even reasonably infer the truth of the early Christian church, based on their historical connection to Jesus Christ, either before or after. A testimony of Jesus would be enough to let me be a faithful Protestan, Catholic, Orthodox Christian. But a testimony of Jesus alone isn’t enough to convince me of the truth of Mormonism.

To be a Mormon, I would at the very least need to get a separate testimony of The BoM or Joseph Smith. And I find that problematic because to me it places them on the same level as Jesus in terms of where our faith is placed.

What I find more problematic is that many Mormons don;t have a separate testimony of Jesus and BoM/JS, but that instead they begin with a testimony of the Book of Mormon or JS and infer the rest, including inferring the divinity of Jesus, the existence of God, and the truth (or at least general reliability) of the bible.

That means for many Mormons, the lynchpin of their faith is not Jesus Christ, but Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon. Either that or they have two equal lynchpins, only one of which is Jesus.

If your faith is built on anything but Jesus Christ, you have a house built on sand. I think that’s why it seems that most people who leave Mormonism become atheists: their faith was ultimately grounded in the Restoration, not in Jesus, and when they lost faith in the Restoration, they lost faith in everything.

Put in non-Mormon terms, one problem I have with Mormonism is that it requires separate and independent faith in something other than Jesus Christ. As a non-Mormon, I can begin with faith in Jesus Christ and then because of his place in the Biblical text and his context in history, I can infer pretty much the rest of Christianity, without having to exercise actual faith in anything else. But because the Book of Mormon and the latter-day Restoration occur outside of the continuity of Jesus’s historical and theological context, I actually have to at least exercise separate and independent faith in them, from which I can at least reasonably infer the rest of the truth of Mormonism.

Alternately, and this is the unfortunate path taken by all too many Mormons, I can ground my faith in the Restoration or the Book of Mormon and use that faith to infer Jesus’s divinity along with the rest of Mormonism.

Either way is troubling because it elevates something other than Jesus to at least the same level as Jesus, if not to a higher level, in terms of our framework of faith and belief. Essentially, in Sermon-on-the-Mount terms, that is building a house on sand instead of rock, and it’s why Mormons os often lose faith in everything when they lose faith in Mormonism. Their entire belief system was grounded in Joseph Smith and/or the Book of Mormon instead of in Jesus Christ.

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Maybe this is unreasonable of me, since I have no intention of going back anyway, but it actually bothers me that the missionaries haven’t showed up since my wife and I stopped going to the Mormon church.  I even saw them in our building one time, and I totally expected them to at least drop by and say “hi.”  I mean, we’re less-actives in their area!  Don’t they have an area book or at least a ward roster that they’ve gone over with their Ward Mission Leader to see who they can visit?

The last time I heard from missionaries was in December, around Christmas.  They called a couple of times trying to set up appointments.  They claimed that they were new to the ward and just trying to meet all of the members in their area.  I told them to cut the crap- we all knew that my wife and I hadn’t been to church in months and that was the reason they wanted to visit.  The missionary on the phone played innocent and wounded, but the insincerity was tangible.  That’s the one thing that really bugs me the most about the Mormon missionary program- it tends to foster really insincere behavior on the missionaries’ part.

Anyway, I told them it would probably be a waste of time for them to visit, but that I would talk to my wife and see if there was a time that would be good.  I don’t think they ever called back.  I was just being honest; I was a missionary myself, and I promise that it is extremely unlikely that a missionary is going to say something that would make me suddenly change my mind about the church.  And their sweet spirit isn’t going to do it either since I’m 1) very suspicious about making life decisions based on warm fuzzies that someone else interprets for me and 2) I know they’re doing everything they can to cultivate that sweet spirit, and some of it is genuine, and someof it isn’t.

In any case, we would be happy to feed them and chatand whatever, but probably it wouldn;t be worth the missionaries’ time, unless they just needed ot get in some reactivation hours to report back to the mission president.  Maybe I was too aggressive or forceful about it, and they wrote “wants no contact” in their area book.

In any case, it bothers me.  Maybe it shouldn’t, like I said, since I really have no intention of going back to Mormonism, but to me it makes the whole missionary program seem hypocritical.  Aren’t they suposed to at least be trying?

We haven’t heardfrom the bishop in months, either.  Our home teachers call every now and then, but  that’s it.  They’re good guys, and we’re happy to have them visit.  We had some friends in the ward, but they moved.  Our babysitter is a new member, but that doesn’t really count.

I’m just saying, it seems for all the bluster of saving sould and perfecting the saints and whatnot, that our ward and the missionaries seem perfectly happy to let us fall between the cracks.  That’s what bothers me. I don’t want to stay in the church, but it’s kindof insulting to have nobody even care when I leave.

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I had a great discussion with my mother a few days ago (she’s a true believing Mormon) about the difference between faith and testimony in Mormon theology, and I’ve been mulling around some thoughts about it ever since.

“Testimony,” as commonly used by Mormons, is an unfortunate term. It’s an umbrella term, a thought-construct composed of several different distinct but related concepts, but they’re all blurred together into one conglomerate noun in the Mormon vernacular. When the Holy Ghost bears witness of the truth of x, a Mormon calls that your testimony. When you tell others the religious things you believe or “know,” that’s also your testimony. Those two I can handle, but the third main use is the most vague and elusive, and the one least based in (even Mormon) scripture and theology. It’s this idea that a testiony is a thing, a noun, an intangible object that you actually have and need to nurture and work on so it grows.

It’s not the same thing as Faith, which is given some pretty clear and basically consistent definitions in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. Paul (or whoever wrote Hebrews) said “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (NIV). In the Book of Mormon, Alma said faith “is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true,” and Moroni said faith is “things which are hoped for and not seen.” None of those are really the same thing that Mormons are talking about when they talk about their testimony. Testimony is the assurance of the truth of Mormonism via mystical experiences.

Faith is consistently couched in terms like “hope.” Your testimony is the things you know. You might talk about faith in terms of certainty, but you would never describe a testimony using the word “hope.” Sure, the terms are similar, but they’re not identical.

In Mormon theology, such as it is, the requirments for salvation are faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the holy ghost, and enduring to the end (which includes getting the necessary ordinances and priesthood, and continuing to develop faith, repent of sins, and renew your baptismal covenant by taking the sacrament). Testimony per se is not a requirement for the Celestial Kingdom. There’s not testimony checker at the pearly gates. Nevertheless, Mormons constantly talk about the necessity of having a testimony, as if it is basically the most important thing in Mormonism.

It has no real connected place in Mormon theology, so why is it necessary? All of the critical steps (the principles and ordinances of the gospel) for salvation are obtainable without ever once feeling the Holy Ghost, much less Getting a Testimony.

There’s a weird inconsistency yhere that bothers me. Basically, what it boils down to is that Mormonism in practice focuses almost obsessively on the need for the individual to experience successive, ongoing conversion experiences. No wonder Mormons are able to simply ignore their doubts and criticisms of the church that they hear! They are spending their time and effort constantly converting themselves. Why? I think it’s because without constant conversion-as-reinforcement, Mormonism doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Testimony may not actually be a requirement for salvation in Mormonism, but if you aren’t constantly cultivating mystical confirmations of the Church’s truth, you’re far less likely to stay a member of a Church that is heavy-handed, authoritarian, wildly implausible, and extremely demanding.

I don’t really believe there is such a thing as “having a testimony.” I think that you can experience God through the Holy Spirit, and I think you can yourself bear witness to things you believe are true, but as far as this nebulous thing that you have, I think it’s a mental and cultural construct with no real existence. It’s a doublespeak term tat obscures what’s going on. Faith is something that you have. Testimony is something you hear or give.

Given that opinion, why then does it bother me when people say I must not have ever really had a testimony, seeing as how I left the Church. I mean, if I don;t believe that testimony exists, at least the way they’re talking about it, why do I care if they say I never had one? Again, it comes down to the nebulous doublespeak use of the term. When someone says I never had a testimony, they’re actually questioning whether I ever was really ommitted to the Church, and that pisses me off. I was raised in the Church, and I was a faithful member. I scrupulously tried to keep the commandments. I graduated from early morning seminary. I served an honorable mission and I worked incredibly hard, both physically and spiritually. I read the Book of Mormon again and again, not as a skeptic, but as an earnest believer. I married in the temple, which took great personal sacrifices on my part and on my wife’s part. I always paid a full tithe, and I gave generous fast offerings. I magnified my callings. I prayed daily. When doubts came, I did my best to resolve them. I tried to me a member-missionary, and I even tried my best to do my home teaching. I did everything I was supposed to do to “get a testimony,” and I did it with pure intentions, because I honestly thought it was all the right thing to do.

The Church promises that if you do this stuff, you’ll Get A Testimony. Thus, when people say I must not have had a testimony, they are insinuating that I never did the things that were required to get one, and that impugns my integrity and my earnestness, and that bothers me a lot.

I have to say that I believe that the Church is simply not true, at least it is not true the way it claims to be. It may be a fine place for some people, but it is certainly not God’s one true church, restored in these latter days in preparation for the second coming, led by living prophets, etc. I have no problem with people disagreeing with me, but I do have a problem with people assuming that the only reason I came to the conclusion I did is that I wasn’t really genuinely committed and faithful in the first place. That’s just insulting.

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