Monday, July 30, 2012

The Celestial Smorgasbord

Imagine that you are at a banquet, where you were told that your favorite meal is being served. Naturally you are very excited, and, when the menu arrives with that favorite delicacy on it, you are eager to order. However, your server never comes back. You wait....and wait....and wait. Eventually, you pull a passing waiter aside to ask him what's up. He seems amused at your confusion, and he says, as if it were obvious: "But sir, the menu is the meal."

Naturally, if that happened, you'd be sorely disappointed: what you thought would be a delectable meal ended up just being a few layers of laminated paper. However, though it seems silly, this scenario (originally envisioned by Alan Watts) is just an example of the many real-life confusions that happen every day. 

For example, my friend recently began giving me drawing lessons by asking me to draw a CTR ring. However, even after my most valiant efforts, my attempt looked like the most hideous of caricatures. As I watched my friend (a skilled artist) successfully attempt the same illustration, I realized something: my drawing was of my conception of the aforementioned ring, and not of the ring itself. I had spent so much time looking at these items that my mind naturally focused on certain parts at the expense of others, merely out of habit, or convenience. What my friend is able to do, and about which she is continuing to teach me, is the ability to see things as they are, as opposed to how her mind describes them.

Moreover, have you ever noticed how your first impressions of a person rarely indicate who they actually are? Or have you perhaps ever wondered why the more you listen to a song, the more it "gets old"? All of of these are manifestations of the above principle. This is because, in each case, there is a discrepancy between something's appearance and its essence, between how it is described and how it tastes.

A more important manifestation of this confusion dominated my life until very recently. For, as this blog indicates, I have always loved to speculate about spiritual matters. Now, there's nothing wrong with spiritual speculation in and of itself (it's great fun), but it does become a problem when you confuse it with actual spiritual experience. That is what happened to me. I would search and comb doctrines of my religion (and others) for spiritual confirmation, expecting somehow that the pieces would fit together and that things would make sense. But they rarely did. You see, I was deluded; I didn't realize that the Gospel isn't intellectual - it is experiential.  I was at the greatest banquet of all, the titular celestial smorgasbord, but I foolishly tried to eat  the menu, and not the delicious fruit laid out before me.

This expresses a principle very similar to a story you've probably all heard. Very early in the Book of Mormon, the prophet Lehi has a dream where an iron rod leads him to a tree, which has a fruit more delicious than any other he had tasted. Now, as later revealed by Nephi, this dream has a very profound interpretation: the rod is the word of God, while the tree, and its fruit, are His love. However, you should notice that they are not the same thing. In my obsession after doctrine and doctrinal theories, I was trying desperately to bite onto the rod, something that only leads to spiritual toothaches, when all the while the delicious fruit of God was only feet away. It is only when I stopped trying to eat the rod, and instead to hold onto it as a guide, that I actually tasted God's love.

However, despite the rod and the tree's existence as two separate entities, it is also unambiguously true that the former leads to the latter. In fact, this is true for every manifestation of the menu-meal dichotomy. You see, appearance leads to essence - you cannot reach to the heart of something without passing through the many layers that surround it; you can't see the light of a distant planet without looking through a lens; you can in no way eat a meal at a restaurant without looking through the available options in a menu.

This has myriad real-life applications. Returning to art, you can't learn to see things as they are without first seeing them as they appear. Furthermore, you cannot know a person well without having first impressions, and you can't understand the meaning of a book without reading the text. But, most importantly, this principle applies to the Gospel as well. For we cannot experience the love of God without first experiencing his word - reading scripture is necessary for feeling the Spirit. What's more, this principle also applies to the problem of God's body, which I have written about very frequently on this blog. You see, God's body is the outward shell of the eternal, living Reality that is the Light of Christ. However, to experience that light, we must first acknowledge (or even partake of, as in the sacrament) God's corporeal existence.

In conclusion, remember this: the world is a wonderful banquet containing the most delicious food that you can imagine. There are soups of color, salads of sound, and delectable meats of emotion. But, to taste of this smorgasbord, we must first peruse the menu. There is no other way.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Middle

In the July Ensign, Dieter F. Uchtdorf gave a message that I found fascinating. Entitled Always in the Middle, this intriguing article explains how considering ourselves "in the middle" of things can help us live more meaningful lives. But this idea isn't merely useful: it is metaphysically, philosophically, and mystically profound. In fact, by analyzing Uchtdorf's lesson, I believe that I can make connections that would be difficult to make any other way.

First, let me establish a fact about human existence: we long for the satisfaction that comes from extremes. Knowing that by "extreme" I mean the end of any given spectrum, examples of this satisfaction include the "fresh start" of a beginning, the finality of an end, the assurance of holding an idealistic political view, or winning an award. As a part of this, we long to resolve opposing extremes, as happens when two people become friends, when an argument is resolved, or when you watch a crossover (like the Avengers). 

However, this next quotation (from the concerned message) suggests this quest may be problematic:

"We may feel we are at the beginning or end of our lives, but when we look at where we are against the backdrop of eternity—when we realize that our spirit has existed for time beyond our capacity to measure and, because of the perfect sacrifice and Atonement of Jesus Christ, that our soul will exist for an eternity to come—we can recognize that we are truly in the middle."

There is no such thing as a temporal extreme. We may feel that a graduation is "the end" or that a marriage is "the beginning", but ultimately they are transparent phantoms through which you can see infinitely into the future or the past. But there's more:

"For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. [...]" (2 Nephi 2:27) 

The desire for extremes is also a longing to get rid of conflict. Whether (as in politics) we want to utterly destroy the other side, or (as in friendship) to completely merge with it, our lust for extremity manifests itself as a need to eliminate the metaphorical "no-man's-land" between the conceptual foes. Knowing this, the above quotation makes us even more uneasy. "Opposition in all things" necessarily means that there is no such thing as an "unchallenged" extreme, that "resolution" is a fantasy. Since everything has an opposite, there will be no end of conflict between the extremities of any given spectrum, and no one will ever completely belong to either end.

Essentially, humanity is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Whether it be past and future, beauty and ugliness, or happiness and misery, humanity is wedged in the middle of two unmovable opposites. He will never completely partake of either side, and he will never reconcile anything. Grim, eh? So, what are we to do? The answer is simple: we must accept where we are, in the middle.

The doctrines I have elucidated are really very clever, as they force those who really believe in them to come to terms with the here and now. You see, thinking about our eternity makes all measurements of time insignificant. Because the future will never come, and because you will never "arrive" anywhere, you have no choice but to be content with what you have right now. Similarly, since you will always be between extremes, the only rational choice is to be content with being somewhere in the middle. 

Living in the middle leads a person to be infinitely happier than trying to live on either side. Rather than expending your energy in the impossible quest after extremes, it is much better to be content where you are, as you will never be anywhere else.