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Posts Tagged ‘Integrity’

I served a full-time, two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from 1998-2000. For two years, I spent every waking moment (when I wasn’t in the bathroom) with a missionary companion. I got up in the morning every day for personal and companion study. I spent all day proselytizing, with short breaks for meals. I didn’t watch TV. I didn’t use the internet. I was only supposed to read Church-approved books and publications. I talked to my family back home on the phone only on Christmas and Mother’s Day. I had (part of) one day a week off from study and proselytizing to spend cleaning my apartment, doing my laundry, going grocery shopping, writing letters to my friends and family, and then, if I had any time left over, for recreation or relaxation. I wore a suit and tie (or at least a shirt and tie) and a name-tag every day. For two years, I was not Kullervo; I was Elder Kullervo.

And even though I am no longer a Mormon, I don’t regret it at all.

I was reasonably faithful, I worked reasonably hard, and I did my best to follow the rules most of the time. I matured a lot, I learned a lot, I made a lot of great friends, I learned a foreign languauge, I had a lot of life-changing experiences, and I’m a better person for having gone.

There were a lot of downsides to it, of course–I struggled with feelings of depression and unworthiness the same as many (most? all?) missionaries, but it wasn’t like a constant, horrible black cloud. I manifested the first signs of some problematic anxiety issues that would plague me for years to come, but honestly they run in the family, and so I figure I was prone to them anyway. There were good days and bad days, same as any other time; maybe a little more intense on both sides of the spectrum but it’s an intense couple of years, so it’s sort of to be expected.

One of the reasons I don’t regret my mission (or anything else I did as a Mormon), is that now, in retrospect, I don’t question my motives for leaving the Church. I don’t second-guess myself and wonder if I “decided” the Church wasn’t true in order to give myself a break for being unfaithful. I did everything right. I wasn’t a superhuman (supermormon?) but I did all of the things a Mormon is supposed to do, up to and including an honorable mission and a temple marriage, with reasonable effort and a basically good attitude. So I am confident that I am not now making excuses to cover my guilt, and nobody can tell me that I am. I can look at myself in the mirror and say that I’m an ex-Mormon now because I don’t believe that the Church is true, and I don’t think it’s a good church if it isn’t true, not because I am too cowardly to live up to the expectations of Mormonism.

Are there other, better things I could have done with those two years? Other ways I could have spent my time? Sure. And maybe some of them would have been fantastic. And maybe I wouldn’t have had to make some of the sacrifices I did. But you know what? I was born into the Church. I was raised Mormon. I was always going to go on a mission and get married in the temple, and it’s pointless to imagine fantasy scenarios where I didn’t.

I did what I did because I thought it was the right thing to do, even though, in retrospect, I was wrong. I’ve grown and changed since then, but I am proud of myself for acting with integrity. I strongly suspect that we’ve all done a lot of things like that, both related and unrelated to religion. It’s part of growing up: you do the best you can with the tools you’ve got, and maybe with more experience or maturity you would have done something different but hey, you didn’t have more experience or maturity back then. So no sense regretting it now.

I regret the times in my life when I have acted out of selfishness or cowardice, not the times when I did what I believed in. When I served my mission, I was doing what I believed in, and so I have no regrets.

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Zeus is our Heavenly Father, but let’s face it: most of us have shitty relationships with our fathers, and that can carry over into our relationships with our Heavenly Father.

It’s alright though, ’cause we’ve got Ares.

Ares is the older brother who tells you all about girls and the real deal about sex, who turns you on to heavy metal and cars and gives you your first beer and your first cigarette.  But he expects you to keep your cool, to be tough, to roll with the punches and not to be a mama’s boy.

Ares is the upperclassman you respect and admire, who lets you be one of the guys, who shows you how to tie a tie and button your cuffs, who makes you feel accepted and doesn’t treat you like a dumb kid. But he expects you to do the right thing, to study hard, to treat girls well, and to show respect and earn the respect of everyone around you.

Ares is the uncle who takes you camping and shows you how to build a fire, to hunt and fish, to shoot a rifle and take care of yourself.  But he expects you to do hard things, to not complain or whine, to learn fast, to try hard and to tough it out when things get shitty.

Ares is the team captain who gives his all, who holds the team together and who understands exactly what you’re going through because he is right in the middle of it too.  But he expects you to train hard, to play hard, to keep your head in the game, to take care of your teammates, and to win.  

Ares is the squad leader who laughs with you, drinks with you, teaches you to be a warrior, and leads you into battle.  But he expects you to fight hard, to have integrity, to have courage and a good attitude, to take care of your battle buddies, and to kill every last one of the enemy motherfuckers.   He does his damnedest to make sure you make it back home, but he makes damn sure you are never forgotten when you don’t.

Just because you’re born with a penis doesn’t mean you know how to be a man. Don’t worry; Ares will show you.

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Mormons have no shortage of sexual sins they can commit: pornography, masturbation, premarital sex, extramarital sex, unwholesome thoughts, and even depending on who you ask, possibly oral sex, anal sex, and anything else but vaginal intercourse, even between a married couple.  If you’re not married, anything sexual at all is a sin.  Making out too heavily might even be a sexual sin.  The justification for all of these proscriptions is that in the Mormon worldview, sex is a critically important gift given by Heavenly Father to serve the goals of cementing family relationships and providing bodies for Heavenly Father’s spirit children.  As it is so intimately connected with bringing about Heavenly Father’s work and glory, it is treated with the utmost seriousness, and for Mormonism that usually means “a lot of rules.”  Mormonism isn’t anti-sex the way some segments of Christianity have traditionally been, since Mormonism does not hod that the body is evil but a necessary component in Heavenly Father’s plan.  Nevertheless, sex in Mormonism is pretty tightly straitjacketed.

Part of the process of leaving Mormonism for me was figuring out what my values are, and what behaviors I think are okay and what are not, independently of Mormon teachings.  I was lucky in that I always had a strong internal sense of moral reasoning: my personal values were informed by my Mormonism, but they were never dependent upon my Mormonism.  They were sufficiently independent that, with Mormonism gone, my core values essentially remained strong and intact.

What went out the window, however, were all of the rules.  As a non-Mormon, I have absolutely no reason to follow a bunch of restrictive and often arbitrary commandments.

In terms of sex, leaving Mormonism (retaining my principles but feeling free to discard the rules) had very little immediate practical impact.  One of the values I hold most highly is marital fidelity, and I am married to a beautiful and sexy woman.  Most of Mormonism’s sexual rules either did not apply to me as a married person (like “no premarital sex”), I paid little enough attention to anyway (like old guidance from Church leadership about not having oral sex), or were redundant as rules since I was going to behave consistently with them anyway because of my own core values (“no extramarital sex”).  In practical terms, our sex life got a little bit better when we left Mormonism because we could let go of some guilt and repression that had crowded our sexual psyches on the fringes, but for the most part our sex life was already pretty good.

But what applies directly to me is not the only thing worth considering.  First, morality in general is a topic that interests me and that I have visited before on a number of occasions as a part of the process of figuring out my values, where they come from, what they mean, how they interact with each other, and so on.  So the question is theoretically interesting.  Second, on a practical level, I know a fair number of postmormons whose value systems did not survive Mormonism as intact as mine did. In general, they were better Mormons than I was, and as such they had completely internalized Mormon values as their values.  As a result, having jettisoned the Mormonism, their whole house of cards has come crumbling down, and they have been left picking up the pieces and trying to figure out what their values and morals really are, from square one.  Because I am in a position to provide guidance and help to people close to me, it is more than worth thinking the issues through so that I can provide meaningful insight.  Third, the question comes up periodically around the post-Mormon blog-o-sphere, so I feel like it’s worth addressing.  Finally, and most importantly, I have kids.  Two of them! They’re five years old and three years old right now, and they’re growing up fast.  Since leaving Mormonism, the question of what do I teach my kids has weighed heavily on me, especially regarding sex.  I know what my values are, and my position as a happily married guy means I don’t have to stretch my values very far to figure out what to do in almost any situation in which I am reasonably going to find myself.  But my kids won’t necessarily have that luxury.  For that reason alone I wanted to figure out what the deal really is about sexuality, without a handy dogma to give me simple and convenient (if often harmful and self-destructive) answers.

The realization just came to me one day–and this is going to be kind of anticlimactic now because I’ve got all this buildup for what is going to be disappointingly little payoff–that there is no reason for there to be special moral rules for sex at all.  Period.  Sexual ethics are not a special case for ethics.  The usual rules apply.  And it is that simple.

What do I mean about the usual rules?  Basic human ethics and basic human decency.  Don’t hurt people.  Don’t betray people.  Don’t demean, degrade, or belittle people.  Treat people with respect.  Love thy neighbor as thyself. Basic, more-or-less universal moral principles found in almost every religion or ethical system, when applied to sex, produce the correct results.  Cheating on my wife is not morally reprehensible because it violates the special rule of “don’t cheat on your wife” or “confine all sexual behavior to the marriage-bed,” but because it is a personal betrayal of an intimate relationship, a violation of serious promises.  It is wrong because it hurts my wife.  There doesn’t need to be a special rule, because hurting my wife is already wrong (credit is admittedly due here to C. S. Lewis who kind of talks about this a bit in Mere Christianity).  Degrading myself sexually is bad for the same reasons as degrading myself any other way.  There doesn’t need to be a special rule.

The only special consideration with sex–and it is a serious one–is that we need to be cognizant of the fact that, for whatever reason, sex is an area in which human beings are particularly vulnerable, and so it is a moral setting that invites particular care.  Sexual betrayal hurts a lot more than garden-variety betrayal.  Sexual self-degradation leaves us feeling more degraded than garden-variety self-degradation, and so on.  But the increased potential for serious injury does not mean we need a whole new set of specific rules to deal with morality in a sexual context.  It just means we need to be extra-serious about following the moral principles we already have.

So the question is not “is premarital sex acceptable?” because that would be a special rule for sex and it would be nonsense.  The question is “is it okay to hurt myself and others?”  And the answer is no.  Having sex with your girlfriend, fiancee, or even a casual encounter may be perfectly okay–wonderful and good even–assuming that you are not carelessly hurting yourself or the other person (people?).  Even extramarital sex might be just fine if the context is completely consensual (though I would advise being pretty fucking careful about it, because people could very well think they’re going to be okay with something that turns out to be an emotional disaster, and generally the potential for pain is so high and the possibility that your spouse is saying yes but meaning no is so significant that you probably just should not go there).  Since sex is not a special case, the question of moral appropriateness simply does not pertain to the sexual act itself, but to the interpersonal relationships that contextualize the act.  Its not the deed you do that is right or wrong, but the way it affects yourself and other people, and that is realistically always going to be a case-by-case determination.

That said, it would not be unreasonable for a person to set sexual boundaries that are a bit far back away from the edge of the cliff of pain, because the vulnerability and the potential for catastrophic injury is so high.  Nevertheless we need to keep in mind that the boundaries you set do not in and of themselves have moral significance.  It’s not a sin to cross the safety-zone boundaries you might have reasonably set for yourself; it’s a sin to hurt people.  You’re staying on the safe side so as not to run risks, but that’s pragmatic, not moral.

Why is sex an area where we are s vulnerable and so easily hurt?  I personally think it is because sex lies at the very core of the bundle of experiences that make us truly human.  Sex is a part of the universal human experience, and it is intimately bound up with things like birth, death, and family.  These constants transcend the particulars of society and culture and lie at the heart of who we are as human beings.  When we are close to birth, close to death, or expressing our sexuality, we are in touch with soemthing mystical and primal, and we are the closest to who we really are that we ever get.  These are intensely powerful places, and they are also places where we are intensely vulnerable.  Figuring out what these things mean and what to do about them is what religion and spirituality are really about, because these things are what we are really about.  This is the essential heart of human existence, and as such it is delicate and should be treated with the utmost care.  Even so, our basic, universal moral principles should be sufficiently applicable that there is no need for specialized rules.

The moralists among us may not like the sound of the moral rule I am proposing we fall back on when it comes to sex, which basically boils down to “hurting people is wrong,” and the flip side, “if it does not hurt people, it isn’t wrong.”  But honestly, that’s a knee-jerk reaction, because as a moral rule it is simply true.  Actions have consequences, and if we act in a way that hurts other people, we need a pretty damn good justification for it or we are in the wrong.  That necessarily means that if our actions do not have negative consequences for other people or ourselves, then our actions are morally permissible–even morally laudable.  This is not unrestrained permissiveness.  It does mean a lot of freedom and individual accountability, but that’s just a reality of being a morally mature human being.

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I referred to myself as a pagan in conversation with my beautiful and sexy wife a few days ago (we were talking about piddly, meaningless stuff like the meaning of life), and she recognized the significance: it was a casual but meaningful declaration of spiritual identity of the kind that I have not been able to make in years.

It wasn’t just a slip, either. I have been thinking about this and I came to an important realization. One of the issues I have been grappling with in the background of my mind is if at the end of the day I basically think that religion and spirituality are highly subjective and have more to do with assigning meaning to human existence than they do with making objective truth-claims about the universe, why shouldn’t I have just stayed Mormon? Wouldn’t it have been easier, after all, for me to just figure out how to reconcile the religion I was raised with than to try to blaze a completely new spiritual trail? My gut rebels against the idea of staying Mormon, but why? I think Mormonism’s truth-claims are bogus, but that’s not really the issue for me (except it kind of is, because Mormonism spends a lot of time and spiritual effort insisting that its truth claims are literal truth). I have problems with the Church as an institution, but a lot of liberal and New Order Mormons figure out ways to deal with that, and the insistence of the orthodox believer notwithstanding, my relationship with the organizational church should not really affect how I feel about the Book of Mormon and the Restoration, right?

So why do I feel like remaining Mormon, or going back to Mormonism, would just be unacceptable? I think it is because I never really internalized Mormonism in the first place. Sure, I internalized some ways of thinking about religion because I didn’t know any better–some cultural transmission from my parent subculture is inevitable–but in a spiritual sense, I was always torn and doubtful about Mormonism and I was always drawn to mythology, the gods, and the spiritual power of the wild places of the earth. As a little kid I was obsessed with mythology. As a young adolescent I stayed awake all night with my best friend on Boy Scout camp-outs talking about Beltaine. As a teenager I flat-out just wanted to be a druid. As a young adult I was absolutely enthralled by Joseph Campbell, the Arthurian romances, Celtic myth, and the cosmic and spiritual significance of poetry and literature.

Yes, when I was nineteen, I “got a testimony” and went on a mission, and began to live a fairly orthodox Mormon life. But let’s not give my conversion too much credit. The coercive pressure from my family was immense-it was made clear to me that being an adult meant setting aside childish things like entertaining the possibility of paganism, and taking Mormonism seriously as the One True Religion. People I trusted and relied on made it absolutely clear that there was no viable moral alternative, that anything less than fully getting with the program meant personal weakness, laziness, and a lack of integrity. So I did what I was supposed to.

But the pagan inside me did not sleep too soundly. As a young adult I was captured by the power of Norse myth, by the dynamic majesty of romantic-era classical music (I discovered Sibelius, and it was love), and ultimately by the brutal, mythic energy of heavy metal.

On top of this, I have noticed a clear pattern in my life: when I have lived out of touch with nature, I have been depressed, unbalanced, and extremely mentally unhealthy. Proximity and involvement with the natural world are simply things I need for spiritual wholeness. And I have consistently had feelings about love, the feminine, and sex that have been reverent, passionate, and worshipful.

The point is, I have been a pagan all along. It doesn’t matter that I went to sacrament meeting every week. It doesn’t matter that I spent two years as a missionary trying to convert people to Mormonism. Mormonism never really fit. My mother and I had countless discussions and arguments about religion and point of view: in her mind the right thing to do was to completely internalize Mormonism, and subvert your entire mind to it, to relinquish all non-Mormon thought as something unwelcome and alien. I always wanted to take the point of view of an outsider, because I always was an outsider.

I was a pagan, and I always have been.

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