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Posts Tagged ‘Truth’

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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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.

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As a little kid in elementary school, I was obsessed with Greek mythology.  In high school I branched out into Celtic and Arthurian lore, and then in college I fell in love with Vikings and Norse mythology, but the pattern is fairly consistent: for most of my life, myth and legend have resonated strongly and deeply with me, and I mostly haven’t known what to do about it.  To emphasize, this stuff has hit me deep, much more so than just cool stories.  I felt there was a transcendent truth to mythology–especially the mythology of my genealogical and cultural ancestors.

As a Mormon, the best reconciliation for this was that the world’s mythologies contain truth but in a corrupted form.  All nations in the world can trace their ancestry back to Adam and Eve, in other words to someone who knew the truth of the gospel, and thus their religion and lore contained bits and fragments of Eternal Truth.  This is a decent attempt at reconciliation, but never really flew for me, especially since myth and legend worked its magic on me on a deep, primal level that Mormonism never could reach.

C. S. Lewis attempted a similar reconciliation in Miracles by claiming that these myths, especially inasmuch as they had parallels or thematic similarities to Christianity, were a kind of “good dream,” sent by God as a kind of mental preparation for the message of Jesus Christ.  This makes a lot of sense in the larger context of Lewis’s work, since he gives a lot of credit to the wisdom of our pagan ancestors and feels that it is applicable to Christianity.  More than once he claims that you can’t convert someone from atheism to Christianity, but that you have to learn to be a good pagan before you can learn to be a good Christian.  That works better for me than the Mormon version, but since I still have significant problems with Christianity, the need to reconcile the two sort of fades away over time.

Since leaving Mormonism and trying to figure out what I really do believe, I have gone back and forth because I have to reconcile a lot of different values, interests, and spiritual feelings that are not necessarily tied together in a neat package.  This came to a head last fall when I went to see Amon Amarth and Ensiferum in concert.  At the time I had been mentally committed to Christianity for awhile–I was doing my best to figure out how to proceed as a Christian even though progress was sort of slow and fumbling.  But I went to this overtly pagan heavy metal show, and it reached deep and struck those primal chords that are always compelled by myth and legend.  I walked away form the concert deeply confused and troubled, because here I was trying to be a Christian, when paganism is, at least spiritually speaking, so much more compelling to me.

So I was left muddled for a bit.  The viable options seemed like continuing on with (probably Episcopal) Christianity, AODA Druidry (still), and some kind of pagan reconstructionism.  The problem with all of them was that I had different reasons to find them all compelling to different extents, but none of them had provided me with an experience that was sufficiently Dionysian to make me want to commit spiritually.  Even my romance with mythology was not concrete or well-formed enough to compel me to some kind of spiritual action and/or commitment.  It was just another inconsistent piece of the puzzle–something that seemed really important but I didn’t know what to do with it.

In particular, the concert left me thinking about Ásatrú and Germanic neopagan reconstructionism generally.  There was something there that reached me spiritually, but for some reason, I couldn’t get my head into a place where I felt comfortable saying “this is my spiritual path.” I couldn’t shake the feeling that 1. it just seemed too much like LARPing, and I wanted to have a real, relevant spiritual direction, not to play Viking, and 2. as compelling as I found it, I just… didn’t really believe in the existence of the Norse gods.

Then a series of epiphanies hapened, that have resulted in monumental change in the way I think about religion.  First, my wife and I watched Battlestar Galactica through again, starting with the miniseries.  The human refugees in the show believe in the “Lords of Kobol,” which, at least in the reimagined series, are the Greek gods–they actually pray to Athena, Zeus, and Ares, and it doesn’t seem strange.  What I am saying is that thei belief in the Greek gods did not seem anachronistic.  It opened my eyes to a kind of ongoing universality to those gods–as a western person, the Greek gods are so embedded in my heritage that it was plausible to see the Colonial survivors believe in them and worship them without it seeming inconsistent or like they were playing Ancient Greek.

In particular I was struck by one scene, in the miniseries, where Starbuck quietly prays to idols of Athena and Aphrodite.  There was something so genuine and authentic about it, and so spiritual and intimate, that it really touched me, and set wheels in motion–maybe the Greek gods have a relevance to me that–as cool as I think they are–the Norse gods don’t?  It made me curious, at least, to look into it more, which led to my next powerful epiphany.

I was on the subway reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and listening to my iPod.  For the most part, Hamilton is kind of dry, but when I came to the chapter on Dionysus, there was something about the writing that seemed, I don’t know, different somehow.  Out of nowhere, the book grew vivid, compelling, vibrant, and relevant to me.  And then my iPod–on shuffle–started to play the Passacaglia from Battlestar Galactica’s soundtrack.  The combination of the two did something to me.  It was like it moved me into another state of consciousness, almost a trance.  I felt a closeness to Dionysus, I felt his reality.  I could tell you what he smells like, even.  I can feel in my mind what it is like to be in the presence of this god and physically touch him.  It was amazing.  It left my head reeling.

For the next several months I just kind of let that stew.  It was important to me, but I wasn’t sure what t do about it.  I started pouring out libations to Dionysus, and even to some of the other Greek gods, and it seemed fitting and proper. But I wasn’t engaged in any actual practice other than that, and putting together a playlist of songs (including the Passacaglia) that were particularly evocative of divinity in general and of Dionysus in specific.

The next, and perhaps the most significant event happened months later, about five or six weeks ago.  Iw as studying for a Tax exam and I was letting myself get distracted.  My experience with Dionysus had me looking a little more into Hellenic polytheism, mostly courtesy of executivepagan‘s blogroll, and I was thinking about the involvement of the gods in my life, what gods seemed more real than others, and what gods wereparticularly relevant to me.  I was thinking about war gods actually.  I’m an infantryman in the Army National Guard, and so warfare is a significant factor in my life.  The main war gods of the Greeks were Ares, not a very well-liked or sympathetic god, and Athena, who despite the fact that I am a law student and part-time soldier, just doesn’t seem real or accessible to me.  I was reading about Aphrodite, who I had had in mind recently in terms of love, romance, and sex in my relationship with my beautiful and sexy wife, and I came across something interesting: there is a warlike aspect to Aphrodite.  Some of her names include “well-armed,” “warlike,” and “bringer of victory.”  The more I thought about this aspect of Aphrodite, the more excited I became.

What happened next was nothing short of amazing.  My excitement built and built, overflowing the boundaries into a kind of rolling epiphany, and from there it kept exploding inside me until it was full-blown euphoria.  I felt the presence of a goddess.  It was like being high, and it wasn’t fleeting or momentary; it lasted for hours before it finally subsided.  It was like falling in love with a deity–it felt so warm and my pulse was racing and it was all I could think about.  It was classical mystical euphoria–the paradigmatic experience of divinity.  It was the thing I had been waiting for, and it happened to me.

So there I am.  The way forward is not necessarily obvious to me: I can think of a lot of different possible ramifications for these experiences, and I intend to write a post about them later.  But I have had vivid spiritual experiences with these gods, this wasn’t the kind of “spiritual experience” I had grown so skeptical of because of my history with Mormonism.  I wasn’t trying to provoke these; I wasn’t dead set on feeling something, looking for any emotional condition that I could ascribe a spiritual dimension to.  These came almost out of nowhere.  These were surprises that I was neither looking for nor expecting.

The end result is that I not only believe in god, but I believe in gods.

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I mentioned a few posts ago that I was considering shutting down this blog. The fact is that I have had a great deal of things developing on the religious/spiritual front for the past several months, but I have been reluctant to blog about them for a number of reasons. When I stand back and think about that, I seriously consider whether there is a point to this blog anymore. From the beginning, my intention was to chronicle, in an admittedly incomplete fashion, my search for God. Thus the “sailing” motif–my search for the holy city.

However, over the past year it has become increasingly the case that I have had important spiritual milestones, breakthroughs, significant thoughts, interesting developments, and just not blogged about them. One reason is that, frankly, the more personal and spiritual something is to me, the more vulnerable it makes me feel and the more I am reluctant to talk about it. I can talk about religion in a detached, intellectual fashion all day, but when it starts to get personal and real, I clam up. I’ve always been that way. Ask my parents.

So in other words, I am developing spiritually without writing about it in what was intended to be my online spiritual journal. Why is that? I can think of several possibilities. First, a lot of people are reading this blog, including a lot of people in know in real life, and a lot of people in my extended family. Most of them don’t comment, but they have told me that they periodically check my blog. At no point did I intend for this blog to be a place to write anonymously, so when things come up that I don’t necessarily want to share (for fear of real-world rejection, fear of real-world judgment, and just plain not wanting to offend or hurt real-world peoples’ feelings), I leave them out. That obviously defeats the purpose of the blog.

Second, a related point, is that the more personal and dear something is to me, the less I am inclined to want to feel like I have to debate it or justify it to other people. I have made a lot of friends in the blog-o-verse, and a lot of them have vastly different opinions about religion. Furthermore, a blog with open comments necessarily attracts strangers, hit and run commenters, or people just eager to debate their pet spiritual points. But the more meaningful my religious experiences, the less interest I have in debating them. Again, this is a kind of self-censorship that makes me question whether there is much point to the blog. If I’m censoring the real meat of my spiritual journey, then why chronicle my spiritual journey?

Third, I may just be too lazy to write. If that’s the case, it’s not really a good excuse. fair enough. But hey, if I don’t want to write a blog, I don’t have to. I have had some really nice comments from people lately telling me that my blog has helped them. I’ll be honest–that kind of thing is really touching and makes me want to keep it up. But really the point of this blog never was to help other people. This blog was always first and foremost something for me, a place to work out my own thoughts and feelings. Other peoples’ needs–at least in terms of this particular blog–have to come in at a distant second.

Fourth, I may simply be at a point where I no longer have the need to blog about my spiritual thoughts and feelings. When I started this blog, it was a useful tool because it helped me think things through, investigate options, and the driving need to write kept me from growing complacent about my spirituality. I wanted to have something to write about, so I did a lot of thinking, reading, and investigating. It was important and formative for me, but if I no longer feel the personal need to write about my spiritual life, then the blog simply may have outlived its usefulness.

All of that, however, is a lot less important than this final, critical point: I believe that I am done sailing. I actually think I have landed ashore, spiritually speaking, and I can no longer claim to be searching. I have had a series of experiences over the past few months in the wake of which I no longer feel comfortable claiming that I am still shopping for religion. I’m not saying that I have found the one true truth, but I have been given something mysterious and important, and I have decided that it is more than I have been expecting, and I have decided to commit to it.

I admit that I have a fear of spiritual commitment–once burned, twice shy. And I struggle with my “tomorrow morning this will probably seem stupid” hesitancy. But from the beginning, I laid out the conditions under which I would be willing to commit myself to a spiritual path, and those conditions have been more than met. So I’m at a critical juncture. I believe that if I second-guess myself now, I will never find what I am looking for. If I am going to ignore powerful, intense spiritual experiences in favor of “sailing on,” then I am really making an affirmative decision: the journey in favor of the destination. And while I think the journey is important, and in some sense the journey never really ends, I also have a powerful hunger for the divine. It is a hunger that I yearn to fill, and I am certain that it will never be filled by Sailing to Byzantium, but by Byzantium herself.

So where does that leave me? I have considered starting a new blog, focusing on where I am at now, and one that would allow me an amount of anonymity that I feel is necessary at this point. On the other hand, I sort of tried that last year with my Dharma Bum blog and it turned out to be a silly blind alley. I’ll admit that I am worried that this will be another blind alley, but I am determined to commit–like I said, I am actually kind of tired of sailing.

In any case, I do not intend to continue to chronicle my spiritual journey here on this blog. I won’t delete it, because I feel like the archives are useful, and every now and then I get a wave of hits from Google which means someone out there is looking for what I am writing about. And it’s not like it’s costing me anything. I may even put a post or two here every now and then, especially if I do not start a new blog, because it’s nice to be able to post stuff that I want to tell the world about, and honestly I like my blog better than I like my Facebook profile. But in terms of this blog and my spiritual journey, well, like I said, I’m furling my sails and setting down my anchor, because I have some exploring to do.

NOTE: I ultimately wound up changing my mind.

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Within the limits of possible knowledge, epistemologically speaking, I am as certain as a person could reasonably be that Mormonism is not True. Assuming, arguendo, the truth of Christianity, I believe that Mormonism’s claims to truth cannot possibly be true because of fatal flaws in the fundamental Mormon teachings about the Great Apostasy and the Restoration. As the new “discussions” reflect, Apostasy and Restoration are Mormonism’s lynchpins: without a Great Apostasy there was no need for a Restoration, and without a Restoration, Mormonism’s self-justifying truth claims fall apart.

For the Apostasy-Restoration to have happened, the following must be true:

1. Priesthood authority must indeed work the way the Mormon Church claims it does. This actually means that, in fact, the concept of priesthood authority is actually the most fundamental Mormon doctrine, because Apostasy-Restoration presupposes the existence of a priesthood authority that functions the way Mormonism teaches. The thing is, there is almost no evidence from the apostolic era or before (i.e., from the Bible or other contemporary sources) that priesthood authority–if it exists at all–works like that. Mormon scriptures do not count, because for them to be acceptable, Mormonism must be true which means that priesthood must work the way Mormonism says it does (which is what we’re trying to decide in the first place). That is, unless Mormon scripture was somehow independently verifiable, which it most certainly is not.

2. Said priesthood must have been lost in the manner that Mormonism claims. This requires us to believe a claim of Mormonism at face value, which we have no reason to do unless we first accept that Mormonism’s concept of priesthood authority is true and that the Apostasy-Restoration actually happened. Again, if we could verify this loss of priesthood independently, Mormonism would be more credible. But we can’t. Change in doctrine does not evidence loss of priesthood authority, because that requires us to first accept a Mormon understanding of how priesthood works. Ditto for basically every other Mormon evidence of the loss of priesthood leading to the great apostasy. The Bible verses appealed to by Mormonism do not really help, either: taken alone, without presupposing Mormon priesthood authority, and Apostasy-Restoration, they do not by any means necessarily mean what Mormonism says they mean. The fact that the idea of a Great Apostasy was common in the 19th century is also not dispositive. Nobody thinks that anymore. A vague semi-consensus among some–but by no means all–Protestant Christians in the 1800s that something like the Great Apostasy had happened cannot possibly be credible evidence now that it actually did happen. Furthermore, Mormon claims about the loss of priesthood–and what would have had to have happened for such a loss to occur–are facially implausible. Even if we do accept Mormon ideas about priesthood authority and how it works, the likelihood that it would be lost while Christianity would survive is completely unbelievable. I wrote a post awhile back explaining exactly why. I think it is well worth the read.

So we have no reason to believe that priesthood works the way Mormonism says it does or that a Great Apostasy happened, except for circular logic that requires us to first assume the truth of Mormonism. That means Mormonism’s claims are simply not credible unless we believe Mormonism’s claims of authority based on nothing but… Mormonism’s claims to authority. Even the official Way To Truth (read, pray, feel-the-spirit-confirming-the-truth-and-banishing-all-doubt-and/or-contrary-evidence, rinse, repeat ad nauseum) requires us to begin by assuming that Mormonism is right regarding how you find out what is true. Unless you independently think that the Mormon Way To Truth is the right way to truth, or even one of several reliable ways, we have no reason to trust Mormonism when it tells us the way to truth, since it does it based on its own authority, which is what we’re trying to verify in the first place. This is textbook circular reasoning.

As far as independently thinking–i.e. based on something other than Mormonism’s teachings–that the Mormon Way To Truth is in fact the right way, I have a lot to say about that. But for the moment I will merely point out that no other religion or religious leader teaches it. If it was independently verifiable or somehow self-evident, the chances are pretty good that someone would actually have come up with it on their own (and then if Mormonism was really true, it would have to lead them to Mormonism). Good luck trying to argue that this in fact happens.

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