Thursday, March 28, 2013

Beyond Opposition

I have just finished What We Talk about When We Talk about God, the latest book by pastor/pop-theologian Rob Bell.

Not since I read C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity have I encountered a work so comprehensive in its scope and vivid in its portrayal of the Christian religion. Whether he speaks of God's relationship with Man or even of God's nature, he seems to get far more than others of what Christ was talking about in the Gospels. In fact, I believe he managed to sum up the most important themes of Christianity in a single paragraph. Here it is: 

"This is what Jesus does: he comes to integrate, to make whole, to take all the bits and pieces and disintegrated parts and bring them together, reconciling us to ourselves and to the God who never stops inviting us forward - the God who, reintegrating and reintegrated, finally is truly all in all."

In other words, Bell says that God brings the pieces of the world together into a transcendent, all-encompassing whole. This may not be what you have heard about the Christian or the Mormon religion. Growing up in the Church I had the impression that we placed an emphasis on separateness - between man and God, between man and man, and between the members of the Godhead. After all, don't we all have bodies? Doesn't that mean that "oneness" is out of the question? Actually, divine embodiment implies exactly the opposite, (more on that later) and we can find evidence for Bell's interpretation throughout scripture. For example, take this prayer by Jesus from the New Testament:

"[I pray] that they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us:  that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me." -John 17:21-23

and this remark from the Doctrine and Covenants:

"For the fulness of times, in the which I will gather together in one all things, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth." -D&C 27:13

and finally, this rather humorous short story from the Gospel of Thomas:

"A man said to him, 'Tell my brothers to divide my father's possessions with me.' 
He said to him, 'O man, who has made me a divider?'
He turned to his disciples and said to them, 'I am not a divider, am I?'"
 -saying 72

God takes the various separate bits and pieces of the universe and glues them all together, and in the process transforms all conflict into harmony and unity. This is what Christ taught, and this is the essence of Christianity. After all, the phrase "at-one-ment", which all Mormons are no doubt familiar with, isn't just a trite play on words - it is the actual origin of the corresponding term. The glorious good news of the Gospel is that conflict and fear need not dominate our lives, for God puts us at one with Him, with one another, and with all other things.

This oneness goes deeper than you might expect. For we are now speaking of a God who unifies opposites, one who isn't found in, say, only "the beautiful" or "the inspiring", but the "ugly" and the "gut-wrenching", too. This God doesn't only stay on one line of the demarcation, but acts equally from both sides to bring them both together (good and evil are an exception, but I won't go into that at the moment). But God transcends one set of opposites which are particularly relevant, which I will treat next.

In mainstream Christianity, the second member of the Trinity has an odd characteristic - he is both fully Man and fully God. This seems a little odd, doesn't it? After all, mustn't it be an either/or situation? This is actually an excellent example of the tendency of which I speak, for God and Man in this conception are opposites, unified by Jesus Christ in a simultaneously paradoxical and glorious synthesis. In this conception, the finite and the infinite, the sacred and the pedestrian, the divine and the human become completely and entirely one. But Jesus Christ is of course only one individual, leaving the rest of us out in this glorious fusion of divinity and mortality. It make one wonder: why not have it apply to all of us? The doctrines of Mormonism describe precisely this, as in the Mormon conception of the universe Gods, men, and angels are all one and the same species. Anything you can say about one you could potentially say about the others, and so we too would be included in this union, this majestic dance between the limited and the limitless.

The real world is not divided, separated, or divvied up in any way, shape, or form. It is seamless,  moving from one part to another without any barrier separating them. After all, "all spirit is matter", (D&C 131: 7) meaning that nothing separates the spiritual from the physical, or indeed any extreme from its supposed opposite. This does lead to contradictions; how can an infinite being dwell in a finite body, after all? But I believe that rejecting contradictions does entirely the wrong thing, for it builds up walls between the various parts of our experience. To quote Christ, one could say that by refusing to accept contradiction and paradox, one "serves two masters" - acknowledging the existence of two realities which completely deny each other. You see, it is only by embracing conflict and contradiction that we can ever hope to transcend it.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mysticism in the Media: Journey, Part 2

Since I published my first analysis of Journey last May, I have played the game several more times. Through these playthroughs I have discovered that Journey is a near-endless well of insights. This, as well as the fact that today is the one-year anniversary of the game's release, leads me to make a few more analytical observations in this post, focusing mainly on the game's mechanics.

Journey concerns exactly what its title suggests: the trips, treks, and voyages which constitute our lives, all involving struggle and transformation in pursuit of a goal. The Mountain is designed to represent that goal, the endpoint at the conclusion of any such personal journey. However, at least for me, the most poignant interpretation of the Mountain is God, his grace, or heaven. In fact, I have found that the various mechanics and elements of the game parallel almost exactly what this specific "journey" is like. Take the "scarf" for instance. In my quest for God, I find that the more I strive to be godly, the happier and more free I become, almost as if I were no longer constrained by the gravity of the natural man. Much like this, the longer the scarf is, the farther you can "fly", metaphorically meaning that you can reach higher places and cross larger gaps. To further the similarity, just as a righteous person needs regular exposure to godly things (such as scriptures or prayer) in order to exercise their freedom, a long-scarfed player needs to regularly "recharge" from the floating red-and-gold cloth encountered throughout the game. 

However, this scarf-lengthening spiritual buildup is far from a one-way process. We will inevitably be led into the temptation that pervades the world, and we will all fall to it at one time or another. In Journey, this principle is represented by the flying stone creatures.

Though we have built up our "scarves" as a result of endless righteous pursuit, it can be instantly torn off when we succumb to the wiles of the adversary. Such spiritual amputation is not easy to repair - it requires the long process of rebuilding your scarf, or in other words, repentance. However, even though these scarf-shortenings can and do happen, it is far from the end. You see, in Journey, you cannot "die"; no matter how far you fall, or how short your "scarf" becomes, you can always proceed in your trek to the divine mountain.

The final scenes of the game reflect yet another spiritual principle. Specifically, I refer to the Gospel's insistence that if we try and inevitably fail to reach God by our own tremendous efforts, God will make up the difference. This idea is called grace, and it is the central climactic theme of the game. When the Journeyer and his companion trudge through the snow, they use every fiber of their being to reach their mountain goal. However, despite their gargantuan effort, they ultimately fail: the Mountain fades from view, and one seems to give up hope. But the brilliance of this part of this game is that it is not the end. This beautiful scene depicts a being who has tried as hard as they can, and though they fail, is elevated by the grace of the divine power which helped them from the very beginning - illustrating magnificently the principle that "we are saved after all that we can do". 

After this resurrection, both symbolic and literal, the game uses this spiritual symbol even more. When we are filled with the grace of God, or with the Spirit, it suddenly becomes natural to live righteously and avoid sin. Things that would be infinitely hard without it become suddenly easy, and what took great effort suddenly become effortless. And what is the Journeyer's dance through the clouds if not effortless? Due to its new, extremely long scarf (and all the connotations that entails) it is able to traverse extremely large gaps, something inconceivable in earlier parts of the game. But the final "chasm", the one ending in the Mountain peak itself, is the most illustrative. When he lives that final archway, he become filled with "light". What cloth had infused in him temporarily all along his journey is now present in him in its fullness, allowing him to soar to his divine goal without pain or even effort. 

As the Journeyer settles on the Mountaintop and walks into the light, you cannot help but feel the godly relief that comes from the Spirit, of a being that has suffered through endless struggles, and finally rests in God.