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Posts Tagged ‘Syncretism’

Over the past few weeks it has become more and more apparent to me that, in a very real sense that will never go away, I am still a Mormon.

It’s been more than a decade since my de facto exodus from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and nine years since I formally resigned my membership. I am not likely to become a member ever again, and I disavow many of the church’s truth claims. I never, ever wonder if I made the wrong choice, or if the Church is Really Actually True After All.

But as I continue to struggle to find my way spiritually through the world, and to navigate my relationship with God (and it’s a big struggle, and one I hope to talk more about in the coming few days), I have realized that one of the many issues I have to work through, spiritually speaking, is how to integrate all of my pieces.

The reality for me is that, as attracted as I am to unidirectional zeal, I am never just going to be One Thing. I’m never going to be a Methodist, and nothing but a Methodist, through and through. (I mean, I don’t think I’m ever going to be a Methodist at all, but that’s just an example). Every time I try to be just one thing, I wind up only able to hold it together for a little while and then I disintegrate again. Because it’s always a lie. The truth is that, spiritually speaking, I contain multitudes.

I have a lot of pieces and I have to figure out how to integrate them.

Some of my pieces are bigger than others, and one of the biggest pieces is that I am a Mormon, regardless of my membership status in an organization or my belief in a given set of truth claims. I am still, in a real and deep sense, a Mormon. I was raised in a devout Mormon family, I went to primary, I was baptized and confirmed at age eight, I was ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood at age twelve, became a deacon, teacher and then priest, I was active as a youth, I passed and blessed the sacrament every week for years, I graduated from Seminary, I received a Patriarchal Blessing, I was ordained an elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood, I made covenants in the temple, I served a full-time mission for two years, I returned with honor, I went to Institute, I met a girl and married her in the temple, I read the Book of Mormon fifteen times in two different languages, I prayed, fasted, and sought the guidance of the Holy Ghost, I spoke in Sacrament Meeting, I taught Sunday School, I served as Ward Mission Leader, I blessed my firstborn child in front of the congregation. I can walk away from that in the sense of formal disaffiliation from an organization, and my beliefs can evolve over the years, but come on. How am I going to say that all of that didn’t form and shape who I am as a person? Of course it did. To claim otherwise would be absurd.

My ancestors crossed the goddamn plains. How am I going to say that I am not Mormon?

When I talk about integrating my pieces, I am not talking about combining religions into some sort of weird syncretism, so much as I am just talking about figuring out a way to hold those pieces loosely together and not neglecting them completely. Because I am all of these pieces and if I just pretend I am not, then I think I will never be satisfied and never know God the way God knows me, becaue God knows me in all of my multitudes.

Of course, this also means, on some level, dealing with the fact that I will never be a full-insider in any religious community. And that makes me sad, because it’s something I want, but it’s also something that I wind up never really wanting, because the shoe never really fits right.

And I worry that it means that real spiritual depth might be elusive. I have an intuition that commitment to a spiritual direction is the key to truly diving deep. I hope that’s not the case, but I am afraid it is, because I want spiritual depth, but I just can’t pursue it at the cost of neglecting who I am spiritually. (Like, I literally can’t–I have tried and I always fail.)

So then, what does being a Mormon mean to me? Because, like I said above, it certainly doesn’t mean re-affiliating with the Salt Lake City church. Mostly, I don’t know what it means in terms of the big picture. I don’t really know what it means to hold all of my pieces together, even loosely, and still try to find and know and experience God in the middle of that. And I don’t know what it means in terms of navigating Sunday mornings, which are always complicated for me, no matter what I do. But I do know a few things that it means:

-It means I’m allowed to listen to “Come, Come Ye Saints” and still get choked up about it. And I can claim it as mine.

-It means I’m allowed to find this crazy nineteenth century prairie vision of Zion incredibly compelling. And I can claim it as mine.

-It means I’m allowed to still believe that families can be together forever (whether or not that has anything to do with what a bunch of octogenarian men say about The Temple), on a gut, visceral level. And I can claim that as mine.

-It means I’m allowed to find the Book of Mormon’s imagery and symbols compelling and meaningful. And I can claim them as mine.

-It means I can identify with and align myself with the people on the fringes of Mormonism (in and out). There are some pretty great people out there doing some pretty great un-correlated things. And I can claim them as mine.

I am a Mormon. I have always been a Mormon. I will always be a Mormon. It’s time that I made peace with that.

Postscript: I guess it’s interesting that I am thinking through this right at the time when the Salt Lake City Church, under Russell M. Nelson’s leadership, is distancing itself from the name “Mormon.” As silly as I think that is, I think it is infinitely preferable to the SLC Church trying to claim the term for itself alone and zealously police it’s use. Mormonism is a lot bigger than one organization.

Second postscript: My good friend Katie wrote a great post recently on similar themes, except hers is way more poetic, generous and Christlike and way less navel-gazing than mine.

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william-adolphe-bouguereau-the-birth-of-venus

To honor Aphrodite, Sannion has put up three goddess-related posts on his Livejournal, and as I am myself a devotee of the Cyprian, I wanted to share them with my readers. First, he shares a meditation he wrote on the cosmic significance of Aphrodite:

We think of her primarily in connection with our courtships and pleasant dalliances – and she is certainly there. But she is also a cosmic goddess (Aphrodite Ourania), driving on the heavenly bodies in their eternal dance through the bleakness of space, and she is the force that bonds communities together on both the familial and political level (Aphrodite Pandemos), and she governs form itself (Aphrodite Morpho), for all bodies are a collection of random molecules following an ordered pattern, and without her influence they would spin off into nothingness. And no less importantly, Aphrodite is the source for our yearning for the immaterial, for something greater than ourselves, something spiritual, eternal, beyond what we can see, and feel, quantify and categorize. The mystic fervently praying for union with god, the poet dreaming of another world, the philosopher seeking to plumb the mysteries of the universe – are not all of these, in their own way, under the spell of Aphrodite?

It is love that makes life worth living, love that allows us to conceive of “life” as something more than just biological existence, love that opens our eyes and hearts to the wonder of existence and fills us with a longing for more and more of it, until our souls are quenched and our being spills over with an abundance of experiences and emotions and everything else that makes us human and more than human.

I think there’s more to it than that, even, especially when you consider that some myths of the birth of Aphrodite have her emerge from the sea, spawned by the severed genitalia of Uranus himself. Aphrodite emerges from the most primal of cosmic sources (both from the ur-god of the universe and from the sea i.e. the murky and mysterious origin of life on earth), moreso than any of the other Olympian gods or goddesses, and that can be neither mere coincidence nor quirky, meaningless tale. As a goddess she is fundamentally connected to the primordial cosmos and the beating heart of what it means to be alive and a part of the universe.

Sannion’s next post of the day is an exploration of conceptions of Aphrodite in Greco-Roman Egypt, a natural place for him to go since he’s pretty much explicitly a Greco-Egyptian syncretist. Although I myself am not, I do think there is a lot of insight to be gained from ancient Egyptian religion, especially for a worshipper of the Hellenic gods. In any case, Sannion focuses on the funerary aspect of Aphrodite. As usual, I am interested in any conception of the goddess that goes beyond pigeonholing her as a living embodiment of Valentine’s Day (especially since I originally came to know Aphrodite in her aspect as a goddess of war). I think one of the trickiest things about the Hellenic gods in general is that most of them have an easy handle as “the god of [something],” and it is easy to forget that they are all complicated, multifaceted figures with diverse personalities, correspondences, and significances. Sannion explains, however, how these different conceptions and seemingly diverse or even unrelated aspects can be tied together:

Concerns with death are an organic outgrowth of being a goddess so intimately, so fundamentally connected with the processes of life. (You can’t have one without the other, and if you dig deep enough you’ll discover why.) The abundance of life that is her blessing was so great, so powerful that it could transcend the artificial boundaries of death – opening up onto an even greater fullness of life. This was done by aligning themselves with her, by becoming suffused with her divine identity until it was their own… [s]tuff like this really makes you wonder.

Finally, Sannion treats us with a description of his visit to a rose garden as intentional worship of the goddess:

As I walked down the rows and rows of flowers I was struck by the beauty and complexity of nature – and how much Aphrodite is involved in all of it. I mean, why are there so many different colors of flowers? It serves no definite purpose … except that it does, really. Seduction. The flowers are trying to attract the plump little bees to come and rub up against them so that their pollen will spread and their species survive. And further, they’ve learned to produce colors that appeal to us humans so that we will plant more of them and protect them and ensure that they thrive. I kept flashing back to things that Michael Pollan had said in Botany of Desire (which is a really great book that you should read if you haven’t already) and how charming Aphrodite was behind it all. I mean, those flowers first sprang up when her delicate feet touched the earth as she rose from the waters in primordial times…

So, I just sat there blissing out and overwhelmed with gratitude, and then all of a sudden I could feel Aphrodite, and she was so warm and beautiful and loving and soft, and I basked in her presence for a while, feeling so peaceful and content and happy.

The way he describes Aphrodite pierces me to the center of my heart because I know the feelings he is describing so intimately. Whatever the true nature of the gods is, I am certain that they are at least in some sense real in a way that transcends the individual’s purely subjective experience. While different people experience different facets of the same deity at different times, there seems ot be just too much that really is the same about people’s experiences. Sannion and I are tapping into the same force or presence, whatever we want to call it. She is real, and she is powerful, and she exists at the very quick of what it means to be a human being:

That is who Aphrodite is – one of the greatest and most important goddesses that man has ever known.

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