And I said, “Is truth, therefore nothing, because it is not diffused through space–neither finite nor infinite?”
And you cried to me from afar, “I am that I am.”
-Augustine, Confessions 7.10.16
Posted in Religion, tagged Augustine, Christianity, Confessions, Divinity, Existence, God, I Am, Infinity, Literature, Mysticism, Personal Revelation, Religion, Revelation, Saint Augustine, Spirituality, Truth on April 23, 2013 | Leave a Comment »
And I said, “Is truth, therefore nothing, because it is not diffused through space–neither finite nor infinite?”
And you cried to me from afar, “I am that I am.”
-Augustine, Confessions 7.10.16
Posted in Spirituality, tagged Aphrodite, Ethics, Evil, Fanaticism, Friederich Nietzche, God, Gods, Good, Herman Melville, Israel, Life, Love, Meaning, Moby Dick, Monotheism, Morality, Mythology, New Age, New York Times, Nihilism, Paganism, Polytheism, Postmodernism, Sean Kelley, Spirituality, Theology, Transcendence, Truth, Venus, Worldview on December 28, 2010 | 3 Comments »
There’s an excellent opinion piece at the New York Times by Sean Kelly on polytheism’s place in walking the road between Fanaticism and Nihilism.
Drawing heavily on Nietzche, Kelly discusses the waning role of objective, monotheist religious consensus in defining our social norms. We are quickly reaching the point where it is difficult for a rational, educated critically-thinking person to believe that a single, objectively knowable, unified supernatural moral order emanating from a single, all-powerful sovereign creator god is an unquestionably correct foundation to build society and give human existence meaning. Certainly we are past the point where a majority of people in our society can confidently claim that. On the most basic level, we are simply confronted too often with the reality of good people who believe different things to maintain the fantasy that there is only one true way to be good and right.
We are often cautioned by the religious that the alternative to monomorality is nihilism: if there is no sovereign god to set the rules, define meanings, reward the good and punish the evil, then there are no rules and there is no morality and we will have no choice but to descend into chaos and madness and a violent maelstrom of murder, cannibalism, rape and suicide until we are utterly annihilated.
And while the extremes of that scenario are unreasonably alarmist, I think the concern that nihilism is the alternative to monotheism is a legigimate concern. Particularly for a society that has held onto a dichotomy-worldview for centuries. When you have grown up believeing that the only alternative to the God of Israel os meaninglessness and despair, it is easy to slip into meaningless and despair when you lose the God of Israel. While this does not necessarily mean an orgy of destruction, it may mean depression and moral loss. While believeing in nothing may not mean you go on a killing spree, it is sort of easy to start justifying lesser immoral and even evil self-serving deeds.
So what’s the alternative?
Writing 30 years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity”; to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived. The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events. But they are nothing like the kind of universal meanings for which the monotheistic tradition of Christianity had hoped. Indeed, when taken up in the appropriate way, the commitments that animate the meanings in one person’s life ─ to family, say, or work, or country, or even local religious community ─ become completely consistent with the possibility that someone else with radically different commitments might nevertheless be living in a way that deserves one’s admiration.
Kelly goes on to describe this way of life that finds meaning and fulfillment in “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” polytheism, and I think he is not wrong. Melville may not have been describing the Olympians, but I think he was only a stone’s throw from them. When we sacralize the fundamental mysteries and values of human experience–which is what Melville was talking about and what I understand to be the essence of real paganism–it honestly does not matter if we name them or not.
I believe that the gods are real personalities that have some kind of existence of their own. But I think that reality is not actually very far removed from the pieces of human existence that those gods are related to. In other words, while I do not believe that Aphrodite is merely a metaphorical anthromorphization of human love, I do think there is a fundamental closeness and a fundamental union between Aphrodite the goddess and the emotional experiential phenomenon of love. There’s a blur at the edges where the real gives way to the super-real, and somewhere within those borders we find the gods.
And while I think that a person can find happiness and meaning in “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country” as things in themselves, I think that the desire to engage with those things in a sacred way, to relate to the things that are most important and give our existence meaning in a way that is transcendant, because those very things by their very natures straddle the line between immanent and transcendant. They seem weightier than other things. Human intuition senses enhanced meaning and wants to make contact with it in some kind of fitting way.
Thus, I believe that Melville’s polytheism is a road that eventually leads to some kind of real polytheism. It doesn’t need to have anything to do with the New Age movement. It doesn’t even need to be connected with ancient paganism, although I suspect that at least connecting this new polytheism to the old polytheism, those gods of old that have held such power over our imaginations for so long despite the intellectual monopoly of monotheism, would yield an incredibly rich spiritual harvest, and might be the kind of thing that happens inevitably.
I think that this kind of Melvillian polytheism is probably developing spontaneously anyway. People increasingly identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” and I think that identification has nothing to do with belief in a supernatural otherworld that exists in tandem with the physical world and everythign to do with an intuitive recognition that there is profound meaning and spiritual sustenance to be found in the fundamentals of human experience. Whether we worship a pantheon of gods or not, we as human beings experience the transcendent all the time. Life and death are everywhere, and I believe that there is an intuitive need to sacralize it somehow. Believing in the gods, engaging in spiritual practices and theology gives us a way to talk about that and a way to interact with it within a structure, and ultimately to develop a deeper connection to those things we feel that we feel; are important. But even without that structure, the fundamental recognition of meaning and fulfillment in basic human existence is still a thoroughly pagan experience.
As a side-note: Hrafnkell wrote some commentary on Kelly’s piece from a heathen perspective over on A Heathen’s Day. You should check it out.
Posted in Spirituality, tagged Aeschylus, Christianity, Christmas, Death, Deification, Deity, Evil, God, Gods, Good, Herakles, Hercules, Jesus, Jim Morrison, Monotheism, Mystery, One True God, Polytheism, Religion, Ressurection, Salvation, Sin, Solstice, Spirit, Spirituality, Theology, Truth, Winter Solstice on December 25, 2010 | 5 Comments »
I am not a Christian. I don’t believe that I am guilty of sins, or that I need to be saved from hell. I don’t believe that Jesus was the unique incarnation of a monotheist god. And I don’t even necessarily think that Jesus was a great moral philosopher. I utterly reject the notion that Christianity is the One True Religion of the One True God, but I explicitly acknowledge the divinity of Jesus and the truth to be found in Christianity.
In the most basic sense, I have no reason not to acknowledge Jesus’s godhood. I believe in the deification of mortals. I believe Aeschylus, Herakles and Jim Morrison are gods, and there’s certainly not a limited number of spaces at the banquet table of gods that exist. Probably billions of people over a space of two thousand years have fervently believed in the divinity of Jesus. Why should I doubt them? What would motivate me to rule out one deified mortal and not another?
But more than that, I believe there is divine truth to be found specifically in Christianity. No question. And that’s not just me saying “yeah, yeah, there is divine truth everywhere so why not in Christianity too,” I’m saying that I believe that Christianity in particular speaks of the divine in ways that are important, compelling and sublime.
I believe Jesus was born, that Jesus was killed, and that Jesus lives again. The mysteries of Jesus teach us that God is real, that good overcomes evil, that God is always with us, and that death is not the end. We can argue the fundamentals of theology all day long, but those things are truths that are ready to be revealed to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Too many religions and traditions have taught us these exact same things for us not to think there is something to them.
So on the night that his birth is celebrated—and its no accident that it is celebrated not on anything resembling the actual date of his birth, but close to the Winter Solstice, a thin time of the year when darkness gathers and then finally gives way to the light of the sun—I say Hail Lord Jesus! Hail Emmanuel! Hail the Lamb, hail Savior, hail Son of David and Stem of Jesse! Hail the Newborn King! Hail, and Merry Christmas.
Posted in Spirituality, tagged Bible, Church, Deconversion, Idenitity, Jesus, Jesus Christ, Mormonism, New Order Mormon, Objective Truth, Paganism, Postmodernism, Religion, Self, Spirituality, Truth, Values on December 21, 2010 | 3 Comments »
1. Many Mormons decide to stay Mormon even after deciding that the Church is not “true.” Why didn’t you?
When I first started to seriously question the truth of Mormonism, I still believed that Christianity was true–in fact, my growing dissatisfaction with what I perceived as an extremely wide gulf between Mormonism and Biblical Christianity was one of the major factors in causing me to question my belief in and commitment to Mormonism.
I continued at that point to believe that Christianity was true, and so upon deciding (or beginning to decide) that Mormonism was not the true expression of Christianity, I proceeded to look for that instead. Whether that meant finding a different Christian denomination that was “true” or whether that meant simply finding a different Christian denomination where my understanding of Christian truth fit better than in Mormonism. In any case, as a believing Christian who was convinced that Mormonism was incompatible with true Christianity but was struggling to figure out what true Christianity really was, staying Mormon was not a viable option.
2. Then why didn’t you come back to Mormonism once you decided that there wasn’t a one true church or one true faith out there?
Unlike some former and dissenting Mormons who have active presences on the internet, I never felt like Mormonism was at the core of my identity. As a result, I did not necessarily have a total loss of everything when I lost Mormonism. I had the same values and was the same person whether I belonged to the Mormon Church or not, because my identity and values, and even most of my core intuitions about spirituality, were developed independently from Mormonism. I’m not really sure how I turned out that way, because I know it’s not what the Church wants and I know its not what my parents tried to instill. They did their best to try to raise me Mormon to the core, with a thoroughly Mormon sense of self. I don’t really begrudge them that–they were living out their religion the way they believed they should. But it just didn’t take.
Furthermore, Mormonism as a faith was simply never all that compelling to me. Mormon theology and the Mormon concept of God just never resonated with me the way other forms of spirituality did. I guess it’s my native religious language because it’s how I raised, but I never felt like it was my native spiritual language. So when I left Mormonism, I felt spiritually free in an amazing way. Even though I was still frustrated and still trying to figure out what I believed and how to express my spirituality, not having to subordinate my spiritual intuitions to the Church’s doctrines was amazingly liberating.
That’s not to say that being a Mormon had no appeal. I still feel “at home” when I go into a ward building or attend sacrament meeting services with my family. There’s a familiarity and a good feeling there that is comfortable and happy to me. Mormons are good people, and they’ll always be my people. But I have no desire to try to force my spirituality into the Mormon box, at all. And as nice as the social/cultural aspects of Mormonism are, they are more than balanced out by the extreme demands of time and effort that the Church places on its active members. Furthermore, to continue to attend despite not believing and not really participating on a spiritual level would have ramifications. People would know, and they would react. There would be talk. And attendance would be limited to just that–attendance. Fuller participation in Mormonism requires a member to be willing to affirmatively profess certain beliefs that I am not willing to affirmatively profess and live according to certain rules which I am not willing abide. The position of the honest, openly dissenting Mormon is not an easy one, and not one that is particularly appealing. Honestly, it’s better to just go to sacrament meeting when we visit my parents and enjoy myself completely a couple of times a year. Sort of how you might be happy to go back and visit your home town, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to move back.
Since I do not feel like my core identity is Mormon and since I do have affirmative spiritual intuitions and spiritual needs that are not compatible with Mormonism, being a Mormon simply is not something I am interested in. Although I do not believe that there is One True Church, I do have specific personal spiritual beliefs and intuitions that are decidedly un-Mormon. So just because I don’t think there is an objectively right answer when it comes to religion, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I think therefore all choices are equally good. There might not be any one objectively, universally right answer, but that doesn’t mean there are no wrong answers, especially when it comes to my personal spiritual life.
For me, there might be more than one right answer, but Mormonism is not one of them.
Posted in Religion, tagged 2008 Presidential Campaign, Belief, Bible, Blogging, Catholicism, Christianity, Church, Conservative Christianity, Conversion, Description, Discrimination, Dishonesty, Evangelicalism, Evil, Faith, Fear, Framing, God, History, Interfaith Dialogue, Jehovah's Witness, Jesus Christ, Latter-day Saints, LDS, Lutheran, Missionary Work, Mitt Romney, Mormonism, Persecution, Politics, Presidential Campaign, Protestant, Protestantism, Public Relations, Reading, Religion, Religious Discrimination, Roman Catholic Church, Roman Catholicism, Salvation, Semantics, Slander, Sociology, Soteriology, Southern Baptist, Teaching, Theology, Truth, Uncategorized on August 19, 2009 | 15 Comments »
The question of whether Mormons can be considered Christian is fairly central to interfaith dialogue, and is significant enough to have garnered national attention during the 2008 presidential campaign. It comes up every now and then on Tim’s most excellent blog, and as an ex-Mormon non-Christian who is nevertheless widely read and confident in his basic grasp of the world of religion and religious belief, I thought I would take a stab at untangling some of the mess. Fundamentally, the question and ensuing argument is an issue of semantics/framing: both sides are talking about something different when they talk about whether Mormons are Christians, and both sides feel like they have something extremely important–but again, totally different–at stake with regards to the answer. the resolution to the dispute is probably not as simple as forcing one or both sides to re-frame their dialogue, since the way it is framed is not arbitrary. But an awareness of the semantic mismatch and an understanding of why it matters to both sides would go a long way into at least setting the issue aside and reducing its potential for causing a ruckus.
From the individual Mormon’s perspective, I think there is a pathological fear of being misunderstood. I believe that a large number of Mormons, fed on Mormon historical accounts of mistreatment in the early days of the church and anecdotal hostility since then, fear that they will be discriminated against or that they will encounter hostility because of misinformation about Mormonism that has been perpetuated. In other words, a significant number of Mormons believe that 1) they face potential or present persecution, because of 2) lies, misinformation, and twisted truth about their religion. Thus, if they could get people to accurately understand who they are and what they were about, they would not be in danger. I think there’s also a belief that a large number of potential converts to the Church refuse to consider Mormonism as an option because of misinformation about it: indeed that the single biggest obstacle to the missionary effort is misunderstandings about the Church.
So, for the Mormon, it is important to promote accurate, descriptive picture of their religion for their safety and for the success of their missionary program. This is underscored and reinforced in the individual Mormon’s mind by the Church’s intensive and explicit public relations efforts over the last three or so decades. If the Church itself has been engaged so desperately in promoting a positive image, then it must be not only important and beneficial, but God’s intention for His Church.
So when the Mormon encounters a conservative Christian that says “Mormons are not Christians,” alarm bells go off. The Mormon, in this encounter, wants first and foremost to be descriptively understood: he wants to correct misunderstandings because he believes misunderstandings lead to persecution and prevent the missionaries from touching the hearts of the people they contact and teach. The Mormon believes, descriptively, that he is a Christian: in fact, he believes that his Church is actually the Church established by Jesus Christ, and from a dictionary/encyclopedia-standpoint, that makes Mormons Christians. To say otherwise is to spread damaging lies such as that Mormons do not believe in Jesus Christ, share Christian values, or believe in the Bible. And if those lies get (further) spread, individual Mormons will be persecuted because they are misunderstood and the missionaries will not be able to reach the people who are looking for the Truth.
(Lurking here is the presumption that if Mormons were correctly understood that they would not be persecuted except at the hands of the truly evil, and that the missionaries would be able to teach and baptize exponentially more people).
This also means–and this is crucial–that when the Mormon confronts someone who still insists that Mormons are not Christians despite being exposed to an accurate description, the Mormon is likely to conclude that the person is being aggressively dishonest, and intentionally slandering the Church.
Now, there may be some people out there like that, but most of them are well-known heads of countercult ministries, or pissed-off ex-Mormons who (whether they are justified or not), are angry enough to lash out by saying anything bad about the Church that they can. whether or not it is true (though they are usually not also conservative Evangelicals, so they are not really relevant to the topic). But most theologically conservative Christians who insist on the non-Christianity of Mormonism despite an accurate picture of what the Church believes and teaches do not do so because of an evil motive. There is a misunderstanding here, because when the Mormon and the Evangelical talk about the question of whether or not Mormons are Christians, they are not really talking about the same thing. The Mormons are talking about “Christianity” from a descriptive, historical, and sociological point of view, whereas the Evangelical is talking about “Christianity” from a theological point of view. I shall attempt to explain.
Conservative Protestants, as a general rule, do not believe that denomination matters. They do not believe that salvation is found in the Lutheran Church, or the Southern Baptist Convention, or in their Evangelical Free Congregation. Conservative Protestants believe salvation is found only in the person of Jesus Christ. Mormons believe that salvation is only available through Jesus Christ too, but they believe that the road to that salvation (or exaltation, whatever, semantics) is only available through the Church’s teachings and sacraments. To a conservative Protestant, a denomination has other meanings, but very few if any would try to claim that any one denomination is the “one true church,” because the one true church is Christianity, in other words, those followers of Jesus who have embraced his gospel and have found salvation through faith on his name. Mormons (and other exclusive denominations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and, more often than not, the Roman Catholic Church) do not fit into this category because their understanding about the nature of Jesus Christ and the means of salvation are radically different: just the claim that it can only be found in fullness in one organization is enough to completely disqualify Mormonism.
In other words, Mormons don’t understand why Evangelicals won’t acknowledge Mormonism’s Christianity because Mormons do not realize what is at stake. Evangelicals do not think of themselves as Lutherans or Presbyterians or Nondenominationals, at least not in terms of their primary spiritual identity. They may recognize that as a matter of history they are members of a specific denomination (if they are) and that they have been designated “Protestant,” but their primary way of thinking about themselves religiously is as a Christian. Again, to a conservative Protestant, specific denomination does not matter. What matters is whether you are a Christian. This means a Protestant is free to move between denominations as much as he wants without worrying about it, as long as the denominations are teaching Christianity. Not Christianity in the sense of “a religion about Jesus,” but in the theologically significant sense of “the way to Jesus.” Mormons may talk about and believe important things about Jesus, enough for sociologists and librarians to categorize them as Christians, but what they teach and believe about Jesus is significantly different enough to make it a different religion than the one that conservative Protestants are practicing. I know of no Mormon that would dispute this. What the Mormon thus fails to understand is that the conservative Protestant calls his religion “Christianity.”
So when the Evangelical meets a Mormon who claims that Mormonism is Christian, the Evangelical hears the Mormon claiming that they have the same religion. That is flat-out not true, and it’s obvious by even a fairly cursory examination. So the Evangelical concludes that the Mormon is trying to be deceptive: trying to claim to be theologically compatible so as to lure converts into a religious organization that is actually an entirely different animal. It looks like a bait-and-switch, using the Evangelical’s faith as the bait. Understandably, this irks the Evangelical. Furthermore, the Evangelical is justifiably concerned about his friends and family and assorted loved ones: as conservative Protestants they operate in a religious environment where, provided the denomination is Christian (in the Protestant theological sense), one is free to switch from denomination to denomination without necessarily jeopardizing one’s salvation. When the Mormon Church claims to be Christian and insists that Evangelicals agree that it is, the Mormon Church creates a situation wherein Evangelicals may be lured into something they never meant to get involved in. And with Mormonism’s “milk-before-meat” missionary policy, it is not an unreasonable fear. And eternal salvation is at stake.
The Mormon may ask, “why do the Evangelicals get to decide what Christian means? Why can’t they just call their religion something else? Then there wouldn’t be a problem.” But that’s a particularly disingenous claim from a Church that sets a great store by the name of their religion. Like Mormons, conservative Protestants believe their religion is the one true religion. However, unlike Mormons, Protestants do not set theological significance by the organizational boundaries of a denomination. So the conservative Protestant’s religion is not the same thing as his denomination. He may be categorized historically as a Protestant, but he, like the Mormon, believes that he is in fact a true follower of Jesus Christ, a designation which he shares with people who have a common understanding of doctrine and practice, and since they believe they are the only true followers of Jesus Christ, they call their religion “Christianity.”
Posted in Religion, Uncategorized, tagged Authenticity, Book of Mormon, Brainwashing, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Critical Thinking, Cult, Cults, Exercise, God, Golden Plates, History, iPod, Joseph Smith, Missionary, Mormonism, Paradigm, Religion, Running, Spirituality, Supernatural, The Doors, Thought, Translation, Truth, Western Hemisphere on May 22, 2009 | 156 Comments »
When I went running this afternoon, I saw some of the Mormon missionaries doing street contacting outside my apartment complex. As per my usual, I began to have a lively discussion/argument with an imaginary missionary in my head. This time, our argument was about the Book of Mormon (I didn’t bring my iPod, so I had nothing else to do but suffer for three miles; otherwise I would have probably been listening to the Doors).
One of the most frustrating things to me about Mormonthink–and something that I think is evidence of cultlike behavior and cultlike thought in the Mormon church and culture–is how complicated, intermeshed ideas get blurred together into a simple question of “true or not true” that winds up really obscuring and distorting the ideas that are being manipulated.
Specifically, when a Mormon talks about the Book of Mormon being “true,” they mean at least three different distinct things. First, there is the question of whether or not the Book of Mormon is a faithful translation of an authentic ancient document written by Hebrew religious leaders in the western hemisphere. Second, there is the question of to what extent the religious and spiritual concepts expressed in the Book of Mormon (regardless of its authorship) reflect eternal truths. Third, there is the question of whether Joseph Smith Jr. found and translated the Book of Mormon by God-given supernatural means.
In my experience Mormons often conflate these three issues, or insist that they are logically linked so that you can’t have any one without the others, and so they just wind up bearing their testimonies about how the Book of Mormon is TRUE. It’s imposing black-and-white thinking on a potentially nuanced and relatively controversial set of issues, and as such it honestly pushes the boundaries of brainwashing tactics.
Of course I am generalizing here. Plenty of Mormons have thought through all of the questions I have raised here, and have an answer–even possibly a really nuanced answer–for each. Nevertheless to the extent that they simply use the shorthand of talking about the Book’s truth, generally, they are truncating the issues and contributing to a paradigm that discourages or disables critical thinking. And that’s no good.
NOTE: At one time I down comments on this post because it was kind of swallowing my blog and dominating the traffic, but enough time has passed that I decided to open it again, especially since Jonathan Blake has since closed down the comments on his “Convince Me” thread.