Tuesday, December 16, 2014

5 Years as a Mormon Mystic

Hello everyone! Exactly five years ago today, on December 16th, 2009, I published this blog's very first post. The post is called "Mormon Mysticism?," and it represents the very beginnings of my still-growing impulse to share the thoughts, insights, and ideas I have with the world. Looking back on it now, I've realized that my decision to make a blog was nothing less than a prompting from the Spirit. Even if I don't consider the effects it has had on other people, the blog has helped me to develop as a person, a thinker, and an individual in more ways than I can count. True to its name, it effectively acts as a giant journal (or series of journals) for me to record and revisit my intellectual insights and the progress I make as I pass through them. When I testify of the gospel's truth in its pages, I effectively testify to my future self and help him with the doubts that may have creeped in since the relevant posts. This blog has also helped me develop confidence in myself in a writer and as a thinker, for some of the favorite things I've ever written can be found here. Finally (and a little surprisingly), this blog indirectly led to my first romantic relationship.

But as far as I'm aware, I think that my blog has helped other people, too. From the people that contact me or comment on the links to my posts on Facebook, I've gathered that this blog has given light and insight to people in the midst of the dark times of doubt and isolation. I don't say this to boast. Instead, I (like Ammon) boast in the majesty and mystery of God, who I believe used me as a simple tool to assist other people in their time of need. In that sense, my experience resonates with Adam S. Miller's statement that, “working, you will find that you are not your own and that God is at work in you. You will find that God, in both rough and subtle ways, is working in and through you to do things you can’t do and create things you don’t entirely understand.”

And that's precisely the thing: oftentimes I don't understand the full meaning of what I've written here until months after I post it. To use another Book of Mormon idea, I believe that many of my blog posts are like seeds, which only grow into their fullness and their relevance with time. As to where these seeds come from, I can only say that I have often felt "carried along" by my impulse to write a post, but even that doesn't give a true picture of what it's like. In fact, I suppose that one could best describe these posts as the "pneuma" of John 3:8, of which you hear its sound, but can't tell where it came from or where it's going.

In summary, my blog has probably been the biggest way in which I've come to see God's hand in my life. The posts I write here help me become aware of the divine currents constantly nudging me to go where I need to go and to believe what I need to believe, and without it I wonder if I could have ever found my way to where I am right now. Writing this, I now see that the Spirit working invisibly within me knew that all these wonderful things would happen when it gave me an impulse to write my first blog post. And knowing that, how can one not wonder what mysterious blessings lie hidden in a seemingly insignificant prompting followed today?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Quotes on Childhood, Innocence, and Pre-Existence

I think that most of us have felt a certain nostalgic longing for the joys of childhood. The inevitable loss of childhood innocence is what I consider to be the tragedies of life; despite the freedom of adulthood and all the joys it brings, something is definitely lost when we grow old. However, as a result of my voracious reading, I have discovered several thinkers who, in one way or another, espouse a return to the state of childhood. This is not infantile retrogression, by any means. On the contrary, it is a reconnection with the joyful fire at the depths of our memory. By reconnecting with our childhood, they say, we reconnect with the heart of being.

I won't explain the nuances of this idea myself. Instead, I'll just present quotes from the visionary Emanuel Swedenborg and the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard (examples of these thinkers), figuring that they could explain it better than I could. Also, be on the lookout for connections between the thinkers--they are there, and they reveal profound truths about the what lies at the depths of our memories (or rather, what lies before our birth).

"And now, verily I say unto you, I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn; and all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the Firstborn. Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth" -D&C 93:21-23

"In our dreams toward childhood, in the poems we would all want to write in order to make our original memories live again, to give us back the universe of happiness, childhood appears, in the style of the psychology of the depths, like a real archetype, the archetype of simple happiness. It is surely an image within us, a center for images which attract happy images and repulse the experiences of unhappiness. But this image, in its principle, is not completely ours; it has deeper roots than our simple memories. Our childhood bears witness to the childhood of man, of the being touched by the glory of living. From then on, personal memories, clear and often retold, will never completely explain why reveries which carry us back toward our childhood have such an attraction, such a soul quality. The reason for this quality which resists the experiences of life is that childhood remains within us a principle of deep life, of life always in harmony with the possibilities of new beginnings. Everything that begins in us with the distinctness of a beginning is a madness of life." -Gaston BachelardThe Poetics of Reverie

"To meditate on the child we were, beyond all family history, after going beyond the zone of regrets, after dispersing all the mirages of nostalgia, we reach an anonymous childhood, a pure threshold of life, original life, original human life. And this life is within us--let us underline that once again--remains within us. A dream brings us back to it. The memory does nothing more than open the door to the dream. The archetype is there, immutable, immobile, beneath memory, immobile beneath the dreams. And when one has made the archetypal power of childhood come back to life through dreams, all of the paternal, maternal forces take on their action again. The father is there, also immobile. The mother is there, also immobile. Both escape time. Both live with us in another time. And everything changes; the fire of long ago is different from today's fire. Everything which welcomes has the virtue of an origin. And the archetypes will always remain origins of powerful images." -Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie

"Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God." -D&C 93:38

"When we are being regenerated, we are brought first into the innocence of infancy, which is realizing that we know nothing of truth and are capable of nothing of good on our own, but that we long for what is true and good simply because it is true and good. These gifts are  granted by the Lord as we advance in age. We are led first into knowledge about them, then from knowledge to intelligence, and finally from intelligence to wisdom, always hand in hand with innocence, which is, as already noted, the recognition that we know nothing of truth and are capable of nothing of good on our own, but only from the Lord." -Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, 279

"For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father." -Mosiah 3:19

"People who are in the inmost or third heaven, though, are in innocence of the third or inmost level; so they are the very innocent of heaven, since they above all others want to be led by the Lord the way infants are led by their father. This is why they accept divine truth directly into their intent and do it, making it a matter of life, whether they receive it directly from the Lord or mediately through the Word or sermons. This is why they have so much more wisdom than the angels of the lower heavens. Because this is the nature of these angels, they are the closest to the Lord, who is the source of their innocence, and they are also distanced from their self-centeredness so much that they seem to live in the Lord. In outward form they look simple--even like infants or little children in the eyes of the angels of the lower heavens. They look like people who do not know very much, even though they are the wisest of angels. They are in fact aware that they have no trace of wisdom on their own and that to be wise is to admit this and to admit that what they know is nothing compared to what they do not know. Knowing, recognizing, and perceiving this is what they call the first step toward wisdom. These angels are also naked, because nakedness corresponds to innocence." -Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, 280

"I have also been told that true marriage love derives its origin from innocence because it comes from the union of the good and the true that engages the two minds, the minds of husband and wife. When this union descends, it takes on the appearance of marriage love because the spouses, like their minds, love each other. This is the source of the childlike and innocent play in marriage love." -Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, 281

"Thus, taken in the perspective of its archetypal qualities, put back into the cosmos of great archetypes which are at the base of the human soul, meditated childhood is more than the sum of our memories. To understand our attachment to the world, it is necessary to add a childhood, our childhood to each archetype. We cannot love water, fire, the tree without putting a love into them, a friendship which goes back to our childhood. We love them with childhood. When we love all these beauties of the world now in the song of the poets, we love them in a new found childhood, in a childhood reanimated with that childhood which is latent in each of us." -Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie

Friday, November 21, 2014

My Experience with Self-Esteem

For long stretches of my life, I really didn't like myself. By all objective accounts, you'd think that a National Merit Scholar and produced playwright like me would have every reason to think highly of himself, but that's simply never been the case. For no matter how awful or how favorable my circumstances were, a feeling of self-dislike always bubbled under the surface of my mind. It was more visible at some times than others, sure, but it was always there waiting for a sudden disappointment to set it loose. 

However, I have recently found some really helpful strategies to help with those feelings. These strategies may or may not be what you'd expect from such a piece of advice, but they are what has helped me, and so I hope that it can help some of you.

I realized a while ago that all intelligent beings have a drive to somehow see themselves in their experience of the world. This is not narcissism (at least as the Narcissus myth is conventionally interpreted), but rather a concrete desire to know that you really exist, that you are not just a subjective phantom, but are real. In ignorance of this desire's existence, many people try to satisfy it by recklessly trying to prove themselves to others. In these cases they look to their actions and others' opinions of them as a mirror in which to see their worth, for they secretly believe that they would stop existing if they stopped their figurative reflection-gazing (Thomas Merton talks about this in his book No Man is an Island). I did this extensively, but I didn't realize that this way of going about it is not only futile, but misses the whole point of the matter. 

You see, I have recently found that the best "mirror" to use for this purpose is love. That might sound like a trite cliché, but when you look into the nuances of the idea, you realize that it's quite an effective solution to the problem. As Swedenborg explains, we are all beings of love, and so each person sees herself in what she loves. Love effectively projects one's being onto the outside world, and so as a consequence of this, all a person has to do to effectively see himself is to love somebody else. I learned this only slowly, but I eventually discovered that I could only really get a sense of my true worth by externalizing my concern onto the lives of others.

In that sense, you could say that your heart wants to roam far and wide across your experience of the world, but that if you limit its range to your own experience and concerns, you will stifle it and force it into the captivity of your selfishness. Selfishness, then, amounts to nothing more than an act of self-negation, for by it you force your being to only reside inside your own skin.

However, I will say that serving others often isn't quite enough to fully establish my self-esteem. While it is true that love externalizes your being, it is not the only emotion to do this. Feelings ranging from anger to despair to anxiety are all images of a person's being, and so it is also true that you can see yourself in all of them. And this is the crucial point, for if you don't value those emotions, you neglect valuing yourself.

On this point, I have discovered that it greatly helps my self-esteem to treat every emotion I feel with value. And I do mean every emotion--whether I feel despair, guilt, spiteful anger, or even lust, I have found it incredibly helpful to respect those feelings and the parts of me from which they come. If I don't do this, I find that I don't feel at home in my own skin; indeed, if I don't trust my emotions, how could I ever learn to trust myself?

Practically speaking, I realized that this means respecting both the physical sensations and the fantasies that the emotion causes in me. I talked about the sensations and fantasies of sexual hunger in the post Letters to a Doubter: on Gender and Sexuality, but it is also true that they exist for every emotion. Take a feeling of anger, for instance: though you may resent the intense sensations involved with anger (for me, they are mainly in the chest) and its sudden fantasies of revenge, for me, forcing these manifestations down only makes the problem worse on a long scale. The same works for despair, its feeling of depressed panic, and its fantasies of emotional self-flagellation: if I aggressively fight those feelings, I fight the only part of me I can concretely see while in the midst of that pain.

To reuse an idea from Adam S. Miller's Letters to a Young Mormon, I have found that it is best to experience the emotional sensation or fantasy without either losing yourself in it or forcing it away. I try to just sit with it--letting the emotion and its manifestations come and go without passing judgment. And as I let this activity of emotion simply happen, I get the sense of increased well-being. I feel more solid, more alive, more real. And I guess I shouldn't expect anything else, for I had just respected the only manifestation of myself I could access in such a dark moment.

So, as far as I can tell, self-esteem is a question of truly believing you exist. If you can't see yourself somehow in your experience of the world, I suspect that you will feel somewhat ghostly and unreal. Fixing this can involve letting your love so shine as to illuminate the whole world of your experience, but it also helps to shine upon your entire emotional life the light of value. Doing these things really make one feel embodied and at home in the world, while without them no one can feel at home anywhere.

Friday, November 7, 2014

An Esoteric Islamic Take on Eternal Progression

ARMCHAIR SCHOLAR WARNING: Though I've become an enthusiast of various kinds of mystical thought, know that at least for Islamic spirituality I am far from an expert. What I present here I gleaned largely from books by the orientalist and scholar of comparative religion Henry Corbin. So if you find mistakes here, don't be surprised--I'm still kind of new to this topic.

Mormonism is, without a doubt, an odd religion. Not only do we believe in seer stones and Liahonas, but we also affirm the existence of a human God, complete with hair, a nose, and toenails. But by far the oddest belief we hold is that of a hierarchy of gods, or rather, that just as God was once a man, you can someday become a God or a Goddess yourself. 

However, at least with the last belief, it may console the self-conscious believer to know that another, completely independent belief system believes in almost exactly the same thing. This system is the Ismāʿīlī sect of Shia Islam, and though it may seem exotic, there are actually few things closer to the Mormon worldview.

As opposed to many other branches of Islam, the Ismāʿīlīs place their emphasis on esoteric and mystically-minded interpretations of the law and the Qur'an. As such, they have a concept of ever-deepening spiritual interpretation (what they call ta'wil) that they hold in especially high regard.  But ta'wil doesn't just mean the act of interpretation. At least in an Ismāʿīlī context, ta'wil refers to the act of bringing something back to its eternal origin. To do this with a sacred text means seeing through the text to the aspects of divinity that manifest through it, but it is far from a mere textual exercise--even events in the world can be spiritually interpreted this way.

Here we have the first inking of a connection with Mormonism: in both perspectives all things strive to go "upwards" toward God, to connect in actuality with the eternal potential they had pre-existently ("the measure of its creation," to quote D&C 88:19). In the Ismāʿīlī perspective, this happens because what they call "the angel of humanity" was himself cut off from the ultimate divine source and thus  longed "nostalgically" to go back to it. Much like Joseph Smith's presentation of God the Father, this angel of humanity acts as the creator of this world, its window to divinity, and the "image" off of which each person's own angelic potential was based. Again in alignment with Mormonism, this angel is not ultimate--he is actually relatively far down the chain of spiritual hierarchy that pinnacles in who Muslims call Allah.

And though I don't know much about this particular aspect of Ismāʿīlī belief, I have read that once a person dies, they believe he or she is able to indefinitely progress with that angel of humanity back to the divine source from which all emanates. Hence here we have something strikingly similar to the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression.

It's worth noting, however, that this indefinite spiritual progression happens in a way you might not expect. The process actually occurs through ta'wil, or the attempt to return to the source of something's being by ever-deepening interpretation. Ta'wil lets one encounter the divinity manifest through an object, animal, or person; instead of being opaque, they become transparent to divinity. By doing this with your life, you get "drawn up" to divinity, while divinity becomes glorified in you. Thus ta'wil, as a method of seeing the source of things through an object of perception, lets one reconnect with that source both here and in eternity.

Though people might find it distasteful to believe that the process of eternal progression happens through ever-deepening interpretation (i.e. in a Mormon context, too), I don't see any reason why somebody shouldn't. After all, Joseph Smith talks about "all things [having] their likeness, that they may accord one with another--that which is earthly conforming to that which is heavenly," and insists that rituals like baptism for the dead act as such a salvific window to heaven. In fact, to view the concept of eternal progression in terms of ever deepening insight into the nature of reality echoes Joseph Smith's oft-repeated declaration that man is saved through knowledge.

In fact, if one recognizes the eerie similarity that the Ismāʿīlī system has to Mormon doctrine (it strikes me as hard not to), one might gain insight by reading certain Mormon concepts in an Ismāʿīlī way. For instance, to the question of how "progression" can occur in a timeless state, we might turn to the Ismāʿīlī notion that "past," "present," and "future" mean different things when separated from lower, "earthly" time. Namely, in higher spiritual echelons the present simply means eternal being. Similarly, in such a state the future refers to that eternal being in an active sense, while the past refers to the same eternal being as utilized toward action. Naturally this is quite difficult to understand, but the gist of it is that eternal time is nowhere near as absurd as time is here (in which we chase forever after ever-receding future satisfaction); there the past, present, and future exist together, only differentiated in mode of being.

One might also compare the Mormon notion of "many worlds" to its Ismāʿīlī parallel. These Muslims also believe in many worlds that are all presided over by the same overarching divinity, but they avoid the common Mormon way of interpreting these worlds as literal planets (which I think is in error). Instead, they declare that they are independent emanations from other angels, which themselves are emanations from higher ones. In other words, these worlds aren't just separated by quantitative distance--they are different from our mode of being in a qualitative way (in which one could never travel there in a spaceship, for instance). To use a crude metaphor, one could compare them to the parallel universes of science fiction, though that image is too materialist for my taste. But most interestingly, they declare that these parallel worlds (which, by the way, can be "higher" or "lower" in the spiritual hierarchy) connect with ours through the spiritual archetypes/aspects of divinity that manifest in both. It's the same image in both places, so to speak.

Moreover, one might productively understand Mormon conceptions of gender difference as do the Ismāʿīlīs. For them, the feminine principle represented the esoteric side of reality, the principle that, though hidden, is so because it is closer to God. Naturally, then, the masculine principle would represent the exoteric principle, that which is concerned with outer appearance and literalisms (Gaston Bachelard, whom I quoted in a recent post, says something similar in his Poetics of Reverie). As I mentioned in my post Letters to a Doubter: On Gender and Sexuality, one can read human anatomy in this way--though the woman's reproductive organs are more hidden from sight than the man's, they represent the origin of all human life. One might even say that, just as human life has an invisible origin in the woman, the human spirit itself rests upon and derives its entire being from the less-talked-about feminine aspect of the divine. Such would be an understanding of the feminine that, while symbolically manifest in the female body, does not necessarily determine the woman's personality or destiny (again, see the post mentioned above).

Finally, one might compare the Ismāʿīlī idea of the "The Final Imam," who will come at to initiate the final resurrection, with the Mormon/generic Christian idea of the Christ of the Second Coming. For Ismāʿīlīs, the final Imam will come as the embodied summation of the entire human spiritual community. In that sense, he is the manifestation in the world of the "angel of humanity" mentioned above, of whom we are all images. Naturally this conures images of "the body of Christ" and of Paul saying that "when Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory." (Colossians 3:4). In a very real sense, we are in Christ. Though this might strike you as needlessly sectarian, even the Book of Mormon says that "in Christ there should come every good thing," implying that Christ is indeed the recapitulation of all the good in the world. What comes from this observation, one which says that Christ's coming is really the coming to earth of the fullness of all good, is that we contribute toward that coming's fulfillment by manifesting that good within ourselves. Indeed, you could say that every manifestation of that good brings Christ back in miniature. The Ismāʿīlīs certainly thought this of their Imam, of whom they declared "may we be those who bring about the transfiguration of the world." But lest you think I'm eschewing or the personality of Christ, know that, as far as I'm aware, the Ismāʿīlīs thought of their Imam as a very real, concrete figure to come (whose body they spoke of in very real ways). Likewise, though I think that Christ will bring all good things with Him when he comes, I don't think that's opposed to the idea of his literal body. Oppositions of that sort are only exclusive to the mind attuned solely to the everyday.

In summary, l think we as Mormons have a lot to learn from the esoteric parts of Islam. As If have tried to show above, I believe that these two systems represent different perspectives of the same eternal landscape, if you will. By comparing the two, we may get a better intuitive grasp of what the landscape looks like in itself.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Adam S. Miller's "Letter to a CES Student"

Hello all! This post will be extremely short, as in it I'm just redirecting you another post. Here it is:

It's written in response to the (in)famous Letter to a CES Director, and I think the author (Adam S. Miller, who I've referenced often on this blog) hits the nail on the head. Mormonism is not about Mormonism--Mormonism is about grace. If we look for Mormonism we will not find it; if we look to the grace that Mormonism aims us to, we will find both grace and Mormonism to boot.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Seeing Through the World

Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century Swedish visionary whom I have written about often on this blog, once wrote the following:

“The earliest people, who were heavenly, did actually see everything they looked at on earth and in the world around them, but their thoughts were devoted to the heavenly or divine attribute it symbolized or represented. Vision was just a means." (Secrets of Heaven, 241)

According to Swedenborg, the earliest group of people to inhabit the world saw everything in it as a symbol that represented heavenly realities. When they saw a mountain, they didn't just see a large hunk of rock--they saw implicit in it a representation of mankind's coming-close to God. Likewise, he says that when this people saw bodies of water, they understood them to represent divine truth, and when they saw the sun they understood it as a representation of God Himself. In that respect, their attention didn't rest upon any concerned thing in itself; rather, they would see it as a window through which they could discern a unique aspect of God and Heaven. He even goes on to say that they understood the world through these symbols like we understand a person's vocal sounds through the meaning inherent in them, to the point where it likewise required no effort on their part.

Honestly, Swedenborg's claims are not that outlandish. The ethnologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and later Carl Jung made the well-known claim that primitive people (that is, cultures similar in kind to what we can assume that Swedenborg meant by the "earliest people") engage in what they call a "participation mystique" (mystic participation) with the objects, animals, and people around them. This essentially means that they don't divorce their inner psychic life from their life in the world--what goes on "inside" and what goes on "outside" completely overlap. Just as Swedenborg's first people "saw through" everything to the spiritual realities underlying them, Jung and Lévy-Bruhl claim that primitive humans see through every outside object to the symbolic processes occurring in either an individual or a collective soul.

Moreover, the fact that nearly all mythologies share in the same basic archetypes and images also provides support to Swedenborg's claim. Whether in tribal or more developed contexts, the sky god is almost always male and a father, and the earth goddess is almost always female and a mother (this even shows up in our language: the root for "matter" is "mater," as in "maternal"). And as Jung often pointed out, archetypes such as "the wise old man," "the hero," "the trickster," and "the Shadow" occur repeatedly not only in mythology, but also in literature and pop culture. Again and again, one sees the proliferation of these archetypal symbols in both our culture and those of others, and it gives the impression that Swedenborg's claim of our innate connection to a world of divine symbols may not be so crazy.

And Swedenborg claims exactly that: that our native heavenly world is an innately symbolic place, where a state of mind cannot occur without the projection of an image that corresponds to it. Moreover, that world "symbolizes with" ours, for Swedenborg repeatedly asserts that one draws closer to something in the spiritual world the more similar in state to it one becomes. And it is this divine faculty for symbolic association that his  "earliest people" used to see through the physical world, for by doing so, they would come into contact with the heavenly reality that symbolically underlies them.

Nor is this symbolic perspective entirely alien to Mormon thought. Not only does Alma the Younger speak of people receiving God's image in their countenances (Alma 5:14) or Joseph Smith speak of "all things [having] their likeness, [...] that they may accord one with another--that which is earthly conforming to that which is heavenly" (D&C 128:13), but one can even understand the central concept of priesthood ordinances in such a symbolic way. According to this perspective, a priesthood ordinance such as the Sacrament is a symbolic manifestation of a heavenly reality, relating to that reality much in the same way that a spoken word does to its meaning. Christ's body and his sacrifice shine forth from "behind" the bread and water, and if we have but eyes to see, we can discern their manifest presence in the ritual sustenance.

Indeed, one could say that our emphasis on ritual ordinances actually invites us to see the world in symbolic terms. If there is something more to the Sacrament than a paltry meal, and if a priesthood blessing is more than just a bunch of sweaty palms, the world must be innately more than the common literal perception of it suggests. For just as an ordinance may convey divinity, nothing stops you from seeing a divine hand in an outwardly insignificant act of kindness by a stranger, or even from seeing the countenance of a dead family member in someone alive (as routinely happens when we do ordinances for the dead).

But the question arises: if we have become disconnected from our natural capacity to discern heavenly realities through the physical world, what can we do to get it back? The answer is very simple, and I can give it in one word: love. To echo The Little Prince's  resounding maxim, the eyes are blind to higher spiritual realities, and one can only discern them with the heart. It is by cherishing, nurturing, protecting, and caring for the beloved that one can discern the spiritual realities exemplified through him or her. Indeed, one can say that by shedding the light of care upon this person, one "frees" the latent spiritual realities from their hiddenness within him or her, for love really is a process of unveiling the hidden spiritual potentialities within a person. Of course, it doesn't even have to be a person--I believe that animals too can be discerned in such a way, as anyone who has loved a pet will know.

Nor are even inanimate objects excluded from love's "freeing" effects. Just as one can find God in a piece of bread or a small cup of water, nothing prevents you from "seeing through" an everyday physical object to the spiritual realities latent within it. This, at least, makes sense of Joseph Smith's exhortation to:

"Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy!" (D&C 128:23)

In a very real sense, we can bring the inanimate to life through our attention and care for it. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard says volumes on this subject in his work The Poetics of Space (link), where he speaks of how one's childhood home has a living character that, though lost, can come to life again through our feelings of intimacy and at-home-ness. In the same work, Bachelard pens these moving words about the freeing of the material world from its literal confinements:

"When insomnia, which is the philosopher's ailment, is increased through irritation caused by city noises, the hum of automobiles and trucks rumbling  through the Place Maubert causes me to curse my city-dweller's fate, I can recover my calm by living the metaphors of the ocean. [...] If the hum of cars becomes more painful, I do my best to discover in it the roll of thunder, of a thunder that speaks to me and scolds me. And I feel sorry for myself. So there you are, unhappy philosopher, caught up again by the storm, by the storms of life! I dream an abstract-concrete daydream. My bed is a small boat lost at sea; that sudden whistling is the wind in the sails. On every side the air is filled with the sound of furious klaxoning. I talk to myself to give myself cheer: there now, your skiff is holding its own, you are safe in your stone boat. Sleep, in spite of the storm. Sleep in the storm. Sleep in your own courage, happy to be a man who is assailed by the wind and wave. And I fall asleep, lulled by the noise of Paris."

To me, the most unfortunate fault of modern humanity is its unwillingness to leave the literal perspective. For without a perspective that symbolizes meaning out of the literal world, that world will remain dead. But that is not its destiny. Out of the seemingly immovable world of parking lots and queues of people at the grocery store, we should instead discern a divine drama enacted at every moment and in every seeming insignificance. My desk is not just a chair--with my love and attention it becomes a throne or a cathedral pew. Likewise, in my friend's compassion I can see Christ Himself reaching out to the young woman caught in adultery, and in my significant other I may perhaps discern both her latent divine individuality (talked about in this post) and the feminine aspect of divinity (talked about in this post).

But there is more to be said. The scriptures speak of a time in the indefinite future when all things will return to their original state, uncorrupted by the accidents of this world. In this, the resurrection, the physical and the spiritual will completely coincide with each other. The spiritual and the physical then finally meet together as equal partners, ready to take their places side by side in the eternities. But how does this happen? The science of a resurrected world is not very clear, but Swedenborg gives us another perspective to consider: that just as the ancient peoples saw the heavenly realities through the world's seeming opacity, we are destined to do so again. Then Christ Himself will step out from behind his veil of shadows and reveal to us that He had always been there with us, for even now He says that "I am in your midst and ye cannot see me" (D&C 38:7). Then all the hosts of heaven will unveil themselves and fall upon our necks, just as we will fall upon theirs (Moses 7:63). Finally, the earth will reveal itself as what it always was for those who had eyes to see: a great Urim and Thummim, "a globe like a sea of glass and fire, where all things for [our] glory are manifest, past, present, and future" (D&C 130:7-9).

I look forward to that day, and I look forward to the miniature versions of it that happen every time I show love to a person, an animal, or even a cherished object. For this is our duty: to show love to God's creations, and, by doing so, setting them free to dance before us in the light of God.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tips on Reading the Book of Mormon Effectively

Hello, all! I'm getting close to the end of my sixth read-through of the Book of Mormon, and I feel compelled to write another blog post singing the work's praises. But this entry will be a bit different. In this post, I intend to submit another entry in the "how-to" genre, and tell you all some strategies that have really helped me get the most out of that amazing work of scripture. There are seven "tips" below--read them, ponder them, and (if you like) tell me what you think.

1. Don't let yourself get attached to any one interpretation of the book, even if it's an orthodox one: This first one might seem a little counter-intuitive. One might ask: aren't there definitive, true ways of understanding the Book of Mormon? To that I say: well, yes and no. The Book of Mormon is most definitely true, quite possibly more so than any other text on earth. But "truth" here is something more than anything you can put it words. Reading the Book of Mormon as an ancient text (i.e. what the Church teaches) is a very fruitful method for understanding the text, but it actually falls short in a lot of places. With that interpretation in mind, any and all anachronisms (i.e. things like elephants and horses--elements of the book's text that don't make sense in its historical context) will catch you off guard. Quite a few people have fallen away from the Church because of these contradictions, and it's quite a shame. You see, instead of using an interpretation as they should have, they let it break free from its reins and trample them.

However, I'm not saying that you should regard the Book of Mormon as a positively a-historical. Reading the text as a fiction or as an allegory also constitute interpretations, and they will endanger your testimony even more surely than the one above. In one sense the Book of Mormon is neither history nor allegory, and in another sense it is both. Likewise, the Book of Mormon is both a simple text and a profound one, and it contains the voice of both the human and the divine. 

Quite simply put, the Book of Mormon is alive. Like any creature (animal or human), it resists being put in boxes, and so its spiritual sense will flee if you try to encapsulate it in any category. To really get to know the Book of Mormon, you must respect its autonomy as a being with vitality and boundless life. Let it dance in front of you--don't tell yourself that it should be doing one thing and not another, but simply enjoy the parade of images, connections, and emotions that it brings before you.

I didn't always follow this advice. For a long time I was committed to understanding the work symbolically, and I would comb the work for ways I could understand its stories as allegories for spiritual or physical realities. It's true that you can understand the work this way in many places, but there are also many places in which that interpretation does not work. Though I didn't realize it at the time, I was trying to put a leash on the text's indwelling life, and as such it distrusted me. It only gifted me with superficial spiritual pleasures, and I thus missed out on its deep-dwelling inner riches.

To know the Book of Mormon as it is, you have to trust that it means something independent of any one point of view. Put away your leash, your bridle, and let the book approach you on its own terms. So doing you will find something remarkable--instead of encountering the buzzing, booming confusion you expected, you realize that the Book of Mormon's power and grace is simply too grand to be contained by any category. It is expansive, full, transcendent, and any attempt to reduce it through description will be met by the work's distrust of you.

If you encounter the book in the way I describe, you will find something even more remarkable: by meeting and getting to know each other, you and the Book of Mormon transform each other. In the first sense, you will come to know the book as something that means something specific to your life and interests. Though you can never describe that "something" in its fullness, by continuing to read the book you discover that it is essentially a "personal seer stone" (to use a phrase from Adam S. Miller) that gives you insight into yourself, your world, and your relationship with God. 

But more powerfully, the Book of Mormon will transform you. As you read the book more and more, you'll find that its spirit pervades your day-to-day life. Its principles (more often the unspoken ones than those deliberately mentioned) will creep into your mind and start affecting the way you think and act. Instead of viewing things while in the midst of them, you'll suddenly start seeing them from a more divine point of view. But then you realize that this is just the book lending you a bit of its transcendent vitality. The  Book of Mormon stands above all categories and distinctions, and by reading it you slowly climb the ladder to share in its eternal perspective. 

2. Beware of your anticipation for climaxes: When I read the Book of Mormon for the first time back in 2012, I looked forward to 3 Nephi with eager anticipation. It seems to be everyone's favorite part of the book, and I wondered to myself what it was that was so powerful about it. When I got to 3 Nephi 11, I was pleasantly surprised by the story of the still, small voice proclaiming Christ's coming, as well as his invitation for the masses to come and feel his wounds for themselves. But to my annoyance, Jesus followed this well-known incident by giving a repetitive, didactic exposition on baptism. Now, there's nothing wrong with teachings on baptism. It just seemed to me at the time that it was poorly placed, for its irrelevance to the situation interrupted the flow of literary power I was expecting.

There are other places like this, too. The beginning and end of 2 Nephi are some of the deepest parts in the entire book, but they are separated from each other by the difficult Isaiah chapters. Moreover, the end of the book is interrupted by a sudden treatise on infant baptism, frustrating hopes that it would end on an organic climax. And finally, the book doesn't end with 3 Nephi--after Christ comes, everything (eventually) goes very, very wrong. 

But this perspective misses something incredibly important about the Book of Mormon. If what I said in the previous entry is true--that the Book of Mormon is a living, breathing reality that resists encapsulation in categories--then do you expect it to submit to any one thread of "literary flow" (for lack of a better word)? For the Book of Mormon doesn't fit fully into any interpretation, and this includes temporal ones.

I said above that the Book of Mormon sees the world from an eternal perspective, but by "eternal" I don't mean with an eye to "everlasting time". Instead, I mean that the Book of Mormon is essentially timeless. The spiritual sense of the book stands outside the chronology of the text, and as such its appearance in the text isn't inhibited by restraints of causation and temporal succession. It will, so to speak, peek through the text in multiple places at once. By this I mean that certain parts of the Book of Mormon are far more connected with each other than with the bits that chronologically surround them.

Take the death and destruction in 3 Nephi, for instance--something very similar (down to specifics) happens in Helaman 5, where a group of Nephite and Lamanite prisoners pray to have a mist of darkness be lifted from over them. Moreover, when they eventually dispel the darkness through their faith, the fire that surrounds them is very similar to the harmless fire and glory that surrounds the children later in 3 Nephi. On a different note, there are at least three separate instances in the book of prisoners escaping captivity by getting their captors drunk, and at many points (especially in Alma), newly converted people fall to the ground as if they were dead, only to leap upon their feet a while later.

You could interpret these repetitions to mean that Joseph Smith composed the book himself and was just too lazy to come up with new stories. However, this perspective doesn't reflect the effect that these repetitions have had on me as a reader. As I read and re-read the Book of Mormon, I eventually found myself thinking less in terms of time, and more in terms of state. I choose the word "state"  for the lack of a better term, but by it I mean a perspective with an eye toward the state things are in, as opposed to the place or time in which they are located. Not only does the Book of Mormon explicitly reference past or future events within the text, but the aforementioned repetition in the text constantly calls us to see elements in the story in connection with other elements. And when the reader becomes acclimatized to the book's perspective, they find what I found: that the Book of Mormon shows you how to see things in a way independent of space and time (see this post for a deeper exploration into the relationship between place/time and state).

At least in this respect, the Book of Mormon is very much like a dream. I quote from the Neo-Jungian psychologist James Hillman in his book The Dream and the Underworld (link):

"The image [dream] approach to 'then' is quite different. This approach always puts 'then' into relation with 'when,' rather than into a series of other 'thens.' The events that occur in a dream are imagined to be taking place without concern for time, as if all at the same time, where their temporal succession doesn't matter, rather than in the straight linear connection of a story. [...] From the imagistic perspective that reads the dream as a statement of essence, neither chicken nor egg comes first. For we are not in a story-time but in an image-space, where chicken and egg mutually require each other and are simultaneous correlatives.  Notions of origin and of causality are also invalid constructs in an underworld [dream] perspective, for which time does not enter and the image presents an eternal (always going on, repetitious) state of soul."

According to Hillman, the dream's purpose is to move you away from the concrete, literalistic perspective of day-to-day life and toward the elastically imagistic perspective that he believes lies beyond death. We are not supposed to hold on to absolute nature of day-to-day truth, he says, but instead view the world in terms of autonomous images or archetypes that peek out at us from behind the curtain of daylight. And like the dream, the Book of Mormon does just this. By presenting an inwardly disjointed tale full of repetition, internal prophecy, and recollection, the reader starts loosening her grip on the apparently absolute character of time and space in the world. Just as the events of prophecy are causally ambiguous (i.e. did the prophecy ensure a future event, or did the future event "reach back" and create the prophecy?), you start seeing the world not in terms of causation, but in terms of timeless meaning. And just as various Book of Mormon characters share names with other Book of Mormon characters, you start seeing your life (at least in part) as a repetition or extension of people with whom you have a connection.

But this will only happen if you're willing to adopt such a timeless perspective. If you read the book hoping for a gripping or moving story, you'll be disappointed (except on a very small scale, perhaps). If you really want the Book of Mormon to change your perspective on life, you'll have to read it in terms of depth, and give up anything more than the most basic sense of forward momentum. Ponder how events of the Book of Mormon connect to each other (both explicitly and subtly), and reflect on how these events connect with the events of your life. So doing, you'll find that your willingness to "liken the scriptures" will bring you into a perspective above all accidents of space and time.

3. Don't speed-read: Some of you may have developed the ability to read books very quickly, and if you have, you'll know that certain books can be very exhilarating when read that way. I struggled for many years to develop my capacity for speed-reading, and when I finally achieved it, I used it on as many books as I could. I read fun books, non-fiction books, and even serious works of literature and scripture at top speeds, but I didn't realize until later that (at least with the latter two) I was missing out on a lot.

You see, I didn't realize that speed-reading is inherently opposed to a reading that understands a text's deeper meaning. In that respect, speed reading is like a motorboat skimming the surface of the water--it can go quickly, sure, but it knows nothing of what lies beneath the surface. On the contrary, the reading I have found helpful for scripture goes deep, plunging beneath the surface to find the mysteries that lie hidden in the depths of meaning.

More specifically, if you speed-read the Book of Mormon you will only discover the outward, exoteric text, while the inward, esoteric text will remain hidden (see this post for an exposition on the "internal" and "external" Books of Mormon). You'll read about wars and voyages and sermons, but if you read too quickly, those events will simply remain events, devoid of the spiritual light that shines through them when they are read thoughtfully.

Of course, you shouldn't read too slowly either--read just quickly enough that you get a sense of what's happening, but slowly enough that you let it sink in to your faculty of understanding. Doing this becomes meditative after a while (see this post for a further explanation of how reading the Book of Mormon is a form of meditation), and you'll eventually find yourself getting lost in the book--not just in the external text, but also in the internal well of emotions and connections--so that you feel at one with it.

4. Don't let anything objectionable stop you from reading it: It's unavoidable--there are parts of the Book of Mormon that will offend many people. The most obvious example of people taking offense has to do with how God cursed the Lamanites (supposedly the future Native Americans) with "a skin of blackness" for their incorrect traditions, so as to separate them from their more righteous brethren. People could also take offense at how harshly Nephi speaks of the Jews at times (though at other times, like 2 Nephi 29, he goes extra lengths to sing their praises) or at how readily God and the prophets condemn the unrighteous. These issues are a valid concern, but it's worth noting that they're only problems with certain interpretations of the text, mainly the historical one. If you interpret the text symbolically, you could interpret the curse of dark skin as an allegorical correspondence to unrighteousness itself (indeed, the parts of the text that associate white skin with purity support such a symbolic interpretation). While many people would say that one can only believe the Book of Mormon to be true historically, it's far better to read the text symbolically than to stop reading it altogether.

But as I said, one best reads the Book of Mormon by leaving interpretation out altogether. Doing this, you simply experience what the text brings before you, neither judging nor condemning it. You have faith that it has value, and even though that faith may at first appear fruitless, the time will come when it will pay off. You'll start seeing the unsavory parts of the Book of Mormon in new ways; though it may appear as something one day and as something else the next, gradually you'll find that the Book of Mormon becomes more palatable to your spiritual sensibilities. I'm not saying how this will happen--and it probably happens in a different way for each person--but the continued process of reading the book will inevitably result in your acclimatization to its unique brand of truth.

A metaphor to explain this point: God is like the sun, and all of us who orbit Him have a light side and a dark side. This is not due to any fault on our part, but simply because part of us faces Him, while part of us faces away. Now as a result of our elliptical orbits, you may see another person as any instance of a spectrum of phases--they may seem completely bright to you, meaning that you hold them as a paragon  of virtue and goodness. But on the other hand, a person may appear as nothing more than a black eclipse, meaning that they strike you as an abominable waste of humanity. In fact, this doesn't only work with people, but also with ideas, works of art, and even scripture. But what's important is this: even though something may seem like nothing but darkness, on the opposite side from the one facing you it shines with all the glory of divinity.

I believe that the process of understanding something (or someone) involves turning yourself around enough so as to see its "good side". With the objectionable parts of the Book of Mormon, that good side may very well lie hidden from your sight, but know that it is most certainly there. To see it, you have to enter into a dance with the book itself, turning your perspective around enough for you to see it for what it is: a manifestation of God's light and glory.

So essentially, keep on reading the Book of Mormon, even if it strikes you as offensive. You can take my word for it--the more you read the book, the better it gets.

5. Read it with an eye for connections: I vaguely recall someone telling me that the Book of Mormon is a keystone--the top piece of an archway that allows it to all fit together. To be honest, truer words have never been spoken. Because the Book of Mormon exists, is true, and has unique properties (which I'll discuss), reading it effectively lets you see and accept the good in all things. In that sense, the Book of Mormon's truth ensures that everything else is true, for it shows us the illuminated side of all things.

The reason this occurs has to do with the Book of Mormon's overwhelmingly inclusive nature. Not only does the book explicitly state this inclusivity (in verses like Moroni 7:12, which state that all good things come from God), but its very essence resonates with a desire to "come to terms" with everything else. While this may initially sound obscure, I will demonstrate what I mean by way of example. The Book of Mormon is intended for both the simple and the intellectual, and parts of the book exist to serve them both. And as I said before, many parts of the book lend themselves to any number of interpretations (though none completely encapsulate it). Both of these observations point to the idea that the Book of Mormon wants to be read. Whenever it was composed, the living spiritual reality that guided the pen did whatever was in its power to adapt itself to the minds of whoever would end up reading it. And this doesn't just happen in the text--the Book of Mormon will reach out to you invisibly, doing whatever it can to get you to read and understand its teachings.

In that sense, the Book of Mormon has a mission, and that mission includes reaching as many souls as possible with its saving message. However, I would hazard to say that this missionary work is only part of the book's spiritual drive. That missionary work falls under a larger umbrella, and this overarching mission is exactly what I described above: to adapt itself to, unite itself with, and come to terms with everything else. This manifests in many ways, including its desire to be heard. For in that case, it desires to shine into your mind, find what lies there, and return to itself greater than it was before. Of course I'm using metaphor (as I have been doing this entire time), and as such the Book never really travels anywhere. What I mean is that, through you and your reading of it, the Book of Mormon becomes something greater than it was before.

But it doesn't only do this with people. The Book of Mormon wants you to approach it with any number of foreign ideas, and by prayerfully reading it, the book adapts itself to those ideas and enriches your reading. So doing, the Book of Mormon gets what it wants (i.e. ever-increasing inclusivity) and you get a more intellectually and emotionally potent reading of its text. Though other books do this to an extent, nothing else I have read has rewarded me with quite as many and quite as deep of connections as has the Book of Mormon (this is generally true, although to a lesser extent, with works that come from an inspired or archetypal place--I'm thinking of other scripture, the Red Book, the Divine Comedy, and even the Little Prince. I've heard that Goethe's Faust is that way as well).

So, give the Book of Mormon what it wants! When you read it, always do it with an eye for connections, whether those connections concern other places within the text, other scripture, non-Mormon or non-Christian religious texts, philosophical texts, novels, or what have you.  By doing this you'll find that the Book of Mormon really grows into its fullness, for the Book of Mormon becomes more completely itself the more you feed it with foreign good and  truth.

6. Read as many other books as you can, both scripture and non-scripture, fiction and  non-fiction: On that note, you should be reading everything that is in your power to read. Read popular fiction, literary fiction, surreal fiction, works of philosophy, postmodernism, other religions, or even atheism. Read far and wide, from as many different authors and genres as you can, and the Book of Mormon will only become richer and dearer to you.

With the exception of pornography, you should never be afraid to read anything. It's true that many books will disagree with the Book of Mormon's tenets, but  if you reject the work on those grounds, you betray the Book of Mormon's ultimate purpose and reason to be. If you encounter books like The God Delusion or something as equally critical of your faith, your duty is just what it was for the Book of Mormon's objectionable parts--turn it around enough for you to see the part of it illuminated by divine light. With books this often involves seeing where the author is coming from; more often than not, what they write is an expression of genuine human emotions and desires, ones that you have often shared. As an example, I feel this way about Nietzsche. Nietzsche's writings express a deep respect for humanity and the things of the human world, and though he and I may differ in the way we express that respect, the fact remains that it shines through his works, ready to be discerned by the thoughtful reader.

For me, one of most unfortunate faults of modern society is its tendency to reject things based on their appearance. Many people will readily dismiss a person, a text,  or a work of art as worthless, but they should know better. For if you look hard enough, you can use anything at all as a lens through which you see divinity. What's more, reading the Book of Mormon will help you look for this good. It will instill a desire in you to seek out truth wherever it lies, and as mentioned above, it will actively compel you to bring it new ideas and stories with which to become grander. So, read as much as you can, and look for the good in everything that you read. So doing, perhaps "the great and marvelous things which have been hid up from the the foundation of the world" will be revealed to you, as they have been to many (each in their own way).

7. Never stop reading it: All the blessings I have listed in this blog post are conditioned upon one thing above all else: that you regularly read it. Without this condition, the spiritual sense in the Book of Mormon will pack up and leave, hoping that the absence of blessings will jar you into paying attention to the book again. But unfortunately, many people do not make this connection, and as such they grow to forget the sweet taste of the Spirit lying within. Do not do this, I implore you. As you read the book again and again, it won't ever get boring. More so than any other book I have read, the Book of Mormon will stay alive and renew itself for each separate reading. Why is this? Simply because of its mystery, the ambiguity that acts as living space and protection for the spiritual life lying within its pages.

So in summary, do whatever you can to preserve that mystery. Don't kill it with interpretation, but let it present itself in all its obscure fullness to you. Don't read it like a page-turner, but read it with an eye both to depth and to the meaning that transcends context. If you're offended by anything, keep reading, and you will be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the text. Moreover, let the book act as a garden from which you harvest insights and connections with other things--so doing, you'll grow to understand more of the hidden meaning underlying the text with each reading. And finally, don't let anything persuade you to stop reading it. As you do all this, you'll begin to suspect something remarkable: that what you encounter within the text of the Book of Mormon is God Himself, showing Himself to you in a way that brings you, and everything else, together in its fullness.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Letters to a Doubter: On Gender and Sexuality

Hello, everyone! Terryl Givens recently wrote an essay called "Letter to a Doubter", in which he addressed common doubts that occur to Latter-Day Saint youth about the Gospel. I thought that his piece was such a good idea that I felt compelled to write one of my own. So, in this post I will write a letter to a fictional friend of approximately same age about his doubts and worries. In the imagined letter he wrote to me first, this friend asked about the ever-present issues having to do with gender and sexuality in the Church. So in what follows, I will give my perspective on these controversial topics, ones that seem much more relevant now then ever before.

As a side note, I am very aware that I am a straight male and of all the privilege that comes with that status. In what follows I will talk about issues proper to women and LGBT individuals, but know that I don't have firsthand experience of the issues they commonly face. In the case that your experience goes against what I say here, I defer to your judgment and experience. 


My dear friend,

It's so good to hear from you! How long has it been since we last met? Ages, undoubtedly.... In any case, I'm both flattered and a little embarrassed that you sent me this letter. You ask some tough questions (some that I have asked many times myself), but in many ways I don't feel qualified to give you an answer. I'm not much older than you, and I suspect I don't have nearly as much knowledge about gospel questions as you think. But I will try to give you my best answers...solutions that have occurred to me when I've pondered these toughest of questions

Your first question is interesting, and I can't say it's something I haven't wondered myself: "Why does the Church distinguish between men and women in roles and responsibilities?". Here's my crack at it; tell me what you think:

While I don't deign to understand all the mysteries of God, I've done my fair share of reading with religious texts. As such, I've begun to notice a pattern. Wherever they talk about two complementary opposites, they usually will have something of the following in mind: one of the opposites is active, and has more to do with doing than with being what it is. On the other hand, the other opposite is more subsistent, and has more to do with being than doing. If I were to continue this pattern in a list of attributes, it would look like this:
  • Opposite 1
    • Activity
    • Doing
    • Categorization and distinction 
    • Form 
    • Contingency 
    • Transcendence 
    • Externality
  • Opposite 2
    • Existence
    • Being
    • Unity and reconciliation
    • Substance
    • Necessity
    • Immanence
    • Internality
Knowing all this, I'm about to say something that you could very easily take the wrong way. You see, the masculine and the feminine as symbols or archetypes correspond to Opposite 1 and Opposite 2, respectively. By that I do not mean that women can't be active or do things. Likewise, I don't mean that men can't work toward unity and reconciliation. All I intend to say is this:

The masculine and the feminine, as archetypes that manifest themselves in human bodies, are symbols of higher spiritual realities.

This will take some explaining. Many great spiritual teachers (like Swedenborg and Ibn Arabi, for instance) have taught that the physical world is nothing more than a collection of symbols that represent higher spiritual realities. You've heard of allegories, right? Like how the Chronicles of Narnia supposedly symbolize Christian teachings? Well, these teachers say that the entire world is like that--that every little thing you see is a symbolic correspondence of something that exists in the eternities. That might be a little hard to believe, but my experience has told me that they're onto something. Many coincidences in my life have been too meaningful to ascribe to mere chance, and they make it seem like my life is the plot of a story. You know about literary techniques like foreshadowing, motifs, and recurrent metaphors? Well, my life has those, and I bet yours does, too. You just need to look for them.

Along those lines, even you are a symbol. That's how I interpret the idea of the relation between my spirit and my body--my body is a symbolic image in the physical world of an existing being in the world of spirit. Now, there's nothing that stops you from being a symbol of multiple things at once--you're the image of God, aren't you? I interpret that to mean that both God and that spiritual "you" express themselves symbolically as your physical body. 

So too with the masculine and the feminine. If you know your anatomy, you'll see the principles listed above written in each sex's bodily attributes: men are usually physically stronger, and multiple male bodily functions evoke the ideas of directness and force toward the outside world. The woman's body, on the other hand, is far more internal--not only are the reproductive organs more hidden, but the woman's internal body temperature is higher than the man's (just as the man's external body temperature is higher). The idea, then, is that the masculine as an archetype manifests itself in the bodies of men, and the feminine as an archetype manifests itself in the bodies of women.

But again, you are not identical with either the masculine or the feminine--one of them just expresses itself in your body. While it is true that these archetypes can and do express themselves in our personalities, these are inconsistent and have many exceptions. The feminine, after all, can express itself just as fully in a man's mind as in the mind of a woman (and vice versa). Before you are a man or a woman, you are human, and your humanity is the most important symbol making upon your being. Because your mind is not identical with either the masculine or the feminine, there is nothing that stops you from going after your own path. Women should definitely pursue careers. Likewise, I see nothing wrong with a stay-at-home dad. Do whatever you want to do with your life, and don't let stereotypical gender roles determine your destiny.

But while you are identical with neither the masculine or the feminine, it is an unalterable fact that your body expresses one of them far more fully than the other. While this says nothing about your inner nature, it is not an accident that you are the gender that you are.  For a purpose only God can know, He gave you both your body and all the spiritual expectations that come with it. Gender, you see, is a compass. If you do what God tells you to do with respect to your gender, it will open up a window by which the light of heaven can come in and infuse your everyday life.

I speak, of course, of eternal marriage. In God's plan, men and women (regardless of sexual orientation) are expected to cleave together for eternity. And it is this that lets heaven come down to earth. Am I saying that the man and the woman need each other to be complete? Not really, though this often does happen. Instead, I mean something far more spiritual than psychological:

Eternal marriage, and the sexual union it permits, are a sacrament that symbolizes the union of Opposite 1 and Opposite 2 in the eternities.

In this respect, marriage and sex are powerful in the same respect that the sacrament is powerful--they act as symbols that represent spiritual realities and processes. But here's the key point: by approaching this ritual prayerfully, you can use it to discern the nature of eternity and the things of God. Again, you are not identical with Opposite 1 or 2 any more than the bread in the sacrament is literally Christ's flesh--your body is just a living symbol of it. But your sacred duty is to use your body to represent the mysteries of eternity, for by doing so you can find yourself in heaven while still on earth.

This observation is conceptually close to the reason why women can't be ordained to the priesthood in the Church. As far as I can tell...

The reason only men can have the authority of the priesthood is because men, as a symbol of Opposite 1, represent the active aspect of divinity. On the other hand, women represent divinity's subsistent and self-existent aspect.

In a sense, you can think of these differences as you would with ballroom dancing. While it is true that one partner in the dance leads far more than the other, it is only because of this seeming imbalance that the dance is beautiful (i.e. it is the reason that it conveys the aesthetic reality that manifests through it). And there is a beauty in the dance, don't you think? To see the masculine and the feminine so play off of and complement each other is a joy to my heart. And just like with the aforementioned dance of divinity, the fact that the woman acts receptively while dancing says nothing about who she is as a person. She might very well be an athlete or even a soldier, but she chooses to participate in the dance in order to convey beauty that cannot come any other way. Likewise, the fact that a woman doesn't have the priesthood says nothing about her inherent worth, her spiritual power, or her closeness to God.

Before I move onto your next question, let me offer a brief aside. While no one is wholly identical with the masculine or the feminine, it has become clear to me that the feminine is closer to the essence of divinity than the masculine is. It is true that the masculine is associated with the priesthood, or the "power of God"; however, the feminine is associated with something far closer to divinity than power. You see,

The feminine represents the being of God, and as such conveys divinity even more than the masculine priesthood.

I think that this is why we don't speak of the Heavenly Mother. Speaking is an action, an act of conceptualization and categorization, but the feminine in God transcends all of that. To use Wittgensteinian language, we cannot say things of the Mother--we can only show them. The feminine in the divine lies closer to divinity (and to us) than any theory, idea, or unit of speech, and it would be nothing less than idolatry to so convey it. But the Mother is very present in the Church--she shows herself through the unspoken mysteries of our faith, those that all the faithful know but cannot put into words. In that sense, she is the foundation upon which all divinity rests, for without her all action and power would be empty.

Now to your second (and last) question: "Why do you think that God sends some people to the world with same-sex attraction? Isn't that unfair?" This, my friend, is a doozie of a question. If all that I said above is true, it would seem to go against the divine plan to make people sexually desire what is inherently sinful. Some have taken this dilemma to suggest that same-sex attraction is a choice, that we all come straight, but that some of us somehow mess up and become gay. This is a cruel lie, one bred of ignorance, one that has caused far more pain than good. I declare in opposition that just as you did not choose your gender, you did not choose your orientation. But I will go further: no matter who you are or who you desire sexually, that desire was not given to you as a curse, but as a blessing. 

You may think me crazy, but let me explain myself. Sexual desire comes in two core aspects: there are the physical sensations proper to the sexual hunger, and there are the mental fantasies that stoke the fire of those sensations. Both are blessings, and both are there to teach you. Let me treat them one by one:

The physical sensations that come with sexual desire may be the most pressing and urgent drive you've ever felt. You may have fallen prey to these urges at times, finding yourself submerged beneath their rising currents. You may also have learned to forcefully subdue these feelings. As the Mormon thinker Adam S. Miller pointed out in this book Letters to a Young Mormon (link), both of these strategies will leave you lifeless. You were not given your hunger in order either to carelessly succumb to it or to mentally force it down, but to use it for higher purposes. What I'm about to describe is difficult, and may take years of practice, but the time will come when you learn to channel your hunger to something ambitious and constructive.

C. S. Lewis wrote an allegory that explains this point. He says that a man arrives at the gates of heaven with a lizard on his shoulder, one that constantly whacks his face with its tail. An angel at the gate says that he could not enter heaven with the lizard, and offers to destroy it. The man eventually accepts the offer and lets the angel use a wave of fire to kill the reptile. Though it painfully scalds the man in the process, when he looks down at the lizard's corpse, he watches it grow and transform into a magnificent stallion. He then mounts the horse and charges energetically into the wonders of heaven.

The lizard is your sexual hunger, and the horse is the courage, vitality, and energy that will come when you choose not to succumb to it. This will take a great deal of pain and discouragement, but you will eventually realize that the sexual hunger you experience is heaven's boundless energy lying dormant in you. When you bridle your hunger, you will discover more capacity than you would have ever known.

In this respect, straight people are no different from gay people. We both have an incessant sexual drive, and though it may be directed at different objects, we must both learn to master it and redirect it constructively. Thus, the energy and sensations of that hunger are a blessing for all.

But what about the fantasies that stoke the hunger? They are blessings, too, but this will take some more explaining. I own a book (link) that makes a most unusual claim, one that I'll here quote word for word:

"As a rule of thumb, it can be said that what we yearn for sexually is a symbolic representation of what we need in order to become whole."

This is a principle that, though I was initially skeptical, has proven true again and again. In the most normal kinds of sexuality, the man's desire for the woman is a sign that he needs to incorporate the feminine into his mind, as is true with women and the masculine. But it is more comprehensive than this.

The book I just quoted from gives the interesting example of a man that could only make love to a woman by first kissing her feet. He naturally thought that he was perverted in some way, but when he went to a therapist he eventually discovered that he looked down on women as if he were superior to them. The act of kissing the woman's feet was his mind's way of letting him know that he needed to treat women with more value, for it caused him to act subserviently to a woman, almost as if he were worshiping her.

There are other examples of this principle: one woman who had rape fantasies realized that she was too controlling, and a man who fantasized about becoming a woman realized that he was not using his potential for empathy as fully as he could have. You can imagine many more examples, I'm sure.

But the key point here is that your fantasies tell you where you need to go. By harnessing that strongest of all energies, they forcefully point us in the right direction, even if we can't understand it at the time.

By all means, this should work for gay people, too. Though it would be a gross oversimplification to say that all gay people have their desires for the same reason, in each case it seems true that their desires and fantasies should point them symbolically where they need to go. I don't know what these directions are, by any means.  But I have seen to much to suppose that our innate sexualities are accidents.

However, I'm not saying that gay people should give into their sexual desires in a physical way. That goes against the principles of the sexual sacrament I mentioned above, for sex should primarily be a symbolic conveyance of complementary spiritual realities. What I am saying is that you should pay close attention to your fantasies and heed where they symbolically point you.

You see, nothing in our sexuality should be regarded as perverted or evil. While we aren't permitted to physically embody all of our fantasies, they can all teach you about your mind, your soul, and your life. Likewise, the sensations and energy of sexual hunger can give your purpose, energy, and resolve where other things wouldn't have. So don't feel like you need a sexual outlet in order to be happy--many people before you have gotten along very happily without one. 

But in any case, don't feel like your sexuality is a curse. It is a blessing, whatever it is. You just need faith that it will bear fruit (a lack of chastity is, after all, a sexual lack of faith). Have faith that, if you cleave unto God and His gospel, he will lead you to His kingdom, a place where all the deficiencies that contribute to your hunger will be filled, so that you will be whole.

That's that, then. You may not like my answers, but they are from my heart, and I intend them to help whoever reads them. 

Take care,

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Finding Myself in Another (My Thoughts on Ordain Women)

Hello, everyone! In light of recent events concerning the Church in the news, I feel obligated to tell you all how I feel about the issues they bring up. More specifically, I feel suddenly inspired to give you my take on the halo of controversy surrounding how the Church has reacted to the "Ordain Women" organization.

First, let me say that the initial news of the excommunication threats brought sadness to my heart. Regardless of how I felt about the group's policies, I have never thought it a happy thing to see someone's efforts and passions be reduced to naught. Moreover, it seems likely that these events will cause many people's testimonies to waver, and that is never a good thing in my book. So know that, even though I don't sympathize with the views of Ordain Women, it was a very sad day for me.

That said, I get the feeling that the intellectual foundation upon which Ordain Women stands is a fallacious one. In fact, their premises seem to rest on only a single tenet: that if I am to get what another has, it must be given to me apart from him or her. But this is a lie. In fact, this lie is so destructive, so pernicious, and so evil that it has caused me more pain and sorrow than any other belief I have held. You see, I have a high-functioning form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome. Because of this diagnosis, there are things that will always be harder for me than for neurotypical people: I will likely always find it hard to "be at ease" in social situations, and I fear I will never enjoy the pleasure of playful flirtation that I see come so easily to others. But it isn't just Asperger's--other, more private things have caused me to feel great pain when I see other people who lack my struggles.

But in all this I was missing something. In all the sorrow over my limitations, I never stopped to consider that a life-changing idea was hidden just below the surface. And this idea, which I have come to realize only slowly, is this:

My life was never about me in the first place. Of myself, I am fundamentally limited; it is only in other people, and in God, that I will find myself.

This is the key to everything. Without it, we exist separately and singly for all eternity, never being able to share an intimacy that is more than skin-deep. If this were not true, the being and love others have would forever be locked away from sight, and I would never be able to venture beyond the boundaries of my body and my spirit. But it is true. If I love another person I can find myself within her, and if I look hard enough, I can find her within me. 

The knowledge of this mystery seems to be sorely lacking in what I have encountered of the Ordain Women movement. For they believe that women can only get what men have by getting it apart from men, that we must receive for ourselves the same gifts as anyone else in order to enjoy them for ourselves. But this, as I said, is a lie. If I am not a practiced piano player, must I learn to be a maestro in order to enjoy the instrument being played? What if I don't play soccer--does that man I can't watch the World Cup? The logic of Ordain Women rests upon the idea that I must have something for myself in order to enjoy it. But in truth, I can enjoy others' gifts as much as they do, if not more.

The way I see it, God gave us differences not so that we can protest them and demand that they be taken away, but so that we can learn to depend on, love, and find ourselves within each other. If we were all the same, our ubiquitous self-sufficiency would cause us to ignore each other and only seek out what is for our own good. The bland homogeneity of such a world easily disgusts the imagination, for surely no one would want a world where everyone was exactly the same. But we are different from each other--some are short, some are tall; some are abstract, some are concrete; some are men, some are women. And how much better we are for it! What good does it do to flee from the world of difference? Such a world is colorful and multifaceted, and it seems that the only reason someone would move away from it is because they think that others' gifts do not belong to him or her. But that, again, is a lie.

You may protest me at this point. "Wait!", you might say, "how is it possible for someone to have what belongs to another? I guess it's a nice sentiment, but surely it doesn't reflect the facts!" In fact, it does. It's true that I can't literally enter into someone's mind and see their thoughts, but that state of affairs is but a poor image of what's really possible. Didn't you know that your life is like an iceberg? You see your body, your mind, and your thoughts, but that's only the ten percent that peek above the water. Beneath the surface of what you can see with your eyes, you are more glorious than than even the vastness of the cosmos. The stars and swirling galaxies only shine dimly in comparison to the blazing light that emanates from within you. In the luminous depths within us it is not only we who shine, but others as well--for in this interior vastness we all see each other as we are.

A very wise fox once said that "it is only with the heart that one sees rightly" and truer words have never been uttered since. With your eyes you can see a little ways both into space and into minds, but you can never use them to reach the heights attainable by the heart. For it is love (along with faith and hope) that allows you to see how things truly are. With love, you begin to see the secret reality that precedes everything visible; you learn the secret that all things contain all things, that nothing exists that isn't a window to the entirety of being.

You may see this with your scriptures--how the more you dwell on a verse's meaning, the more the wisdom of God pours out through it. You may also have seen this in your relationships with others--how you can feel suddenly at home with another person, even though you consciously know nothing of what goes on in his or her head. This secret also comes in how something can suddenly remind you of someone dear, perhaps one that has died. For these situations are not mere tricks of memory--the reminder is really a window for you to share love with someone across the boundaries of life and death.

Knowing this, that we are secret neighbors of all that is, what reason have you to despair over not having what belongs to the other person? Sure, you may not have the priesthood in this life, but you have the potential to live many lives. Though you may not see it with your earthly eyes, the depths of your spirit can live the life of another just as well as your own. All that you lack in this respect is a clear vision of what you feel, but that too will be remedied once you pass on from this side of the veil.

I have felt the state I just described, and so this post has turned into my way of expressing what I thought was inexpressible. But there is more to be said. For I have wondered: if we are truly connected to all that is, why is there this appearance of separateness and discord? I meditated on this subject, and the answer came to me in an image: this life, I realized, is a dance. We had always existed in the brightness of eternity, but one day it occurred to us to dim the lights a little so that we could put on a show. We divided ourselves from each other, preparing to take different parts in this elegantly choreographed piece that is the world. Sure, we may have different roles to play--men may have one part and the women another--but none of that is limiting. On the contrary, it is just this limitation that is so joyful for infinity. For the finite and the limited are but a brief interlude in the eternal round of heaven--one that began, one that will end, and one that lets infinity shine through it. But it not a sad thing. On the contrary, it is the very joy of heaven to interrupt its boundless infinity with the constraints of finitude (finitude, after all, is the only thing that infinity lacks). For we are creating a masterpiece for the glory of God, and the fact that we do not now discern its movements does not stop His light shining from within every part of it.