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.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Life Outside of Time and Space

Of all the ideas I've gleaned from the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, none have struck me as deeply as his teachings about time and space. He taught that time and location do not work the same way in the spiritual world as they do here--instead of existing as the end-all, be-all of our existence, there they only function as an "appearance" of something deeper. This specifically means that spiritual time and place only appear as something that corresponds to someone's internal state. Or more simply--the more two people are internally similar, the closer they draw to each other in spiritual time and place. Two angels with a similar state of mind would therefore be closer to each other than two angels with discordant internal states, meaning that in the spiritual world we are grouped into communities according to how similar we are to each other (heaven and hell being the two largest such groups).

But there is a deep philosophical principle underlying these concepts, for by presenting the above ideas Swedenborg paints a picture of two possible relationships between place and state. While I established that the spiritual world favors the latter more than the former, in the physical world it is exactly the opposite--we are often never in the place or time that our seems to fit how we are inside. How often, after all, do we have to leave a vacation before we're ready? What about the annoyance of long-distance relationships and the necessary travel for them to work? Both situations are examples of how physical time and space are more fundamental here than how we are inside, and they both  illustrate how this world can make us feel "out of place".

As a matter of fact, one of the biggest arguments you could give for the existence of a spiritual world is that the physical world so often frustrates our desires. If we are just physical beings (as many people claim), why do the limitations of physicality frustrate us as much as they do? If physical evolution were the only force acting in our makeup, then it would seem far more biologically convenient for us not to get upset over, say, the death of a family member. But in reality, the reason we get upset over death is because it interrupts our timeless experience of love with the limitations of a finite lifespan. Thus, any anxiety we feel from endings in this life (whether spatial or temporal) is evidence that we are not made to fit a world that contains them (reference a very similar argument in President Uchtdorf's talk Grateful in Any Circumstances).

(As a side note, another argument you could give for the existence of Swedenborg's spiritual world is the existence of the Internet. For though he lived in a time where mail was the fastest form of communication, his description of the spiritual world featured things like a) the instantaneous communication of ideas with anyone else, b) the sharing of thoughts and knowledge with the totality of heaven, and c) the organization of people into communities based on what their members love. Each of these descriptions reflects our everyday experience of the Web, for the Internet is really a world whose geography is rooted in mental states. But this is precisely what you would expect of displaced spiritual beings given limitless technological power--to inadvertently recreate their native country within the foreign world of space and time.)

But there is a sense in which we can be free of the constraints of time and space even in this world. You see, both place/time and state are a part of our experience of the world, and we can choose which one we want to focus on more than the other. To focus on time and space at the expense of state is to fall under the constraint of sequence. By foregroundong places and events instead of emotions, we find ourselves restlessly seeking after whatever situation we think will make us happy. Whether it's the promise of a new possession or a new relationship, or whether it involves the end of something that we hate about our present situation, time and space entices us with the mirage of the "not yet". We seek after anything and everything that will lead us from our seemingly miserable circumstances, never stopping to consider that something new has never made anyone lastingly happy.

If we wish to become happy, it will not happen by a change in the physical world. When we foreground state, we accept whatever is given to us by the happenstance of time and space as only secondary in importance to the demands of one's internal state of being. The Mormon theologian Adam S. Miller expresses a very similar idea when he says:

"The givenness of life (and with it, the grace of Christ's atonement) appears to the degree that the present moment is received as unconditionally imposed without regard to how  one arrived there or where one is going. The atonement, as what gives life, is what calls us back to the living grace of the present moment."

We are here--we have never been and will never be anywhere else. As such, we will never find happiness there, for "there" only exists in the world of time and space. Peace will only come when we embrace our current state--if we seek after change (even spiritual change) in space and time, we will only end up on a wild goose chase. If we are going to really change, it will only come in what Miller calls the "everlasting fire of the present moment", or rather, independent of space and time.

When we are free of the constraint of sequence, we can truly have a taste of what life is like beyond the veil. Eternal life, not as everlasting time but as the kind of life that God lives, occurs when we disentangle ourselves from the bonds of attachment to the past and the future and, instead, see the eternal world of state beyond the world of place and time.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Notes on Fiction, Possibility, Love, and Truth

For the past several months, I've been keeping a philosophical journal on my computer. In it, I reflect on intellectual problems that have been troubling me and, through that reflection, try to find a solution to them. However, though many great insights come out of that process, I end up forgetting about them as the months go by. In fact, it was just today that I decided to revisit some of my old entries, and I couldn't have been more surprised--they were full to the brim with tremendous connections and probing insights. I eventually came to the conclusion that these connections were too powerful to keep to myself, and so I made this post as a combination of some of my favorites.

What follows is written aphoristically (like two other posts on this blog, the most recent being my worldview). I acknowledge that this post may be hard to understand--not due of my language but because of the abstractness of my ideas. However, I echo Wittgenstein when I say that this post will have acheived its purpose if there is one person to whom it offers insight, pleasure, or peace.
  1. What is fiction, really? It is unreal, but it lets the light of reality shine through in a curious way.
  2. What is this way? How does fiction refract the light of being?
  3. Fiction displays unmanifest possibilities--this much is unambiguous
  4. Unmanifest possibilities are always striving toward the light of actuality. They want to be real.
  5. The world is pregnant, always giving birth to possibilities.
  6. Fiction creates a fact [i.e. a grouping of possibilities in our perception]; it sees in connection those things that appear separate.
  7. Fiction imposes itself upon the world. From the moment they take on a ghostly form in our imagination, fictions will creep in until they are supplanted.
  8. Connection is akin to copulation. It results in the reproduction of these possibilities together to create a synthesis.
  9. The poles of the connection strive toward each other. They lust for each other.
  10. Consciousness is the only place where they can satisfy their lust. We are the meeting ground of possibility.
  11. We are the boundary between actuality and possibility. 
  12. If we take possibility and fiction to be the same thing, then because all actions are possible before they are actual, all reality comes from fiction.
  13. This, perhaps, is the meaning of the doctrine of pre-existence.
  14. What evidence is there for the existence of possibility? Could there not just be an actual world, after all?
  15. The metaphysics of possibility is merely a way of saying that there are different "here"s. In order for a possibility to become actual, two "here"s must connect.
  16. When Swedenborg says that truth "clothes" love, he means that every "here" becomes manifest as a "there". "Here"s reveal themselves as "there"s through truths [i.e. a perceived state of affairs; a fact].
  17. Every truth conceals a disguised "here". Thus, truth is a means of connection.
  18. In other words, truth is the means of love, for love and connection are the same thing (as in Swedenborg).
  19. Love seeks to separate itself from itself (through truths) so that it can connect with itself in actuality.
  20. Truth distinguishes a set of loves from itself. Without sufficient truth, we perceive only a single mass.
  21. Truth reveals "there"s, and through them, "here"s
  22. Truth separates seemingly identical "here"s  and allows us to see and connect with them as "there"s.
  23. In other words, truth lets us grow in distinctness.
  24. Swedenborg says that usefulness [his term for "action" as a metaphysical phenomenon] combines love and wisdom together, but what does this mean?
  25. If I am right, usefulness connects things that are already distinct.
  26. Usefulness is the act of participating in a fact as if it were you.
  27. Reading a book, bearing a testimony, being in a relationship with another person, etc. are all ways of behaving as if the corresponding states of affairs were part of your identity or being.
  28. When we believe in a truth, we let the corresponding love become manifest--we are a midwife to it.
  29. This is why faith is the root of all action: all actions come through beliefs. But they do not originate there.
  30. Actions originate in loves.
  31. Everything is ultimately a form of love. Love strives toward reality through truths.
  32. Love is possibility and connection as it exists in itself.
  33. Fiction is merely the attempt of various loves to strive toward the light of usefulness.
  34. When we have faith in the reality of something, we let the corresponding love use us to bring it about.
  35. Love (i.e. connection and possibility) seeks out truths (or perceived "there"s) in order to connect to itself more fully. It wishes to become embodied in distinct multiplicity so that it can become more substantial in its connection. In other words, it wishes to become embodied.
  36. Reality is moving through ever-increasing degrees of connection and embodied possibility. The evolution of mankind's consciousness was such a huge step, as was writing, the printed book, and (most recently) the Internet. 
  37. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin alludes to with his concept of the Omega Point, unmanifest possibility and connection are working toward their biggest breakthrough yet: what we call the Second Coming.
  38. This ultimate incarnation of possibility and connection will let us see past the boundaries of past and future. It will join the living and the dead as one body. It will reveal everything that ever was, is, will be, or might have been as a single, intricately connected whole (see D&C 84:100-101 and 130:6-9 for scriptural support of these ideas).
  39. This does not mean that time will end. Time will continue, but we will see all of its moments pervading each other.
  40. Though the Second Coming will happen collectively, I see no reason why an individual can't experience this breakthrough of possibility on his or her own (this is perhaps what we mean by those who are taken up into Heaven without dying).
  41.  We can experience this now, even if only in miniature. All we have to do is practice faith, hope, and charity. These three virtues let us perceive unmanifest possibilities and bring them into our experience of the world (reference Moroni 7:25's declaration that we can lay hold upon every good thing through faith).
  42. By having faith in the unknown, trusting in the future, and doing good to those whose minds are hidden from us, we can issue forth into our world connections and possibilities that would remain hidden otherwise.
  43. By acting as if reality's unknown parts were a part of our world, we make that belief true. This is what faith, hope, and charity have in common--they stretch our souls beyond where we can now see.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Why I am both Nothing and Everything

I've always been very upset that there is separateness in the world. I thought, "Why is it that one person gets one experience, but I get another? Why can't I experience it all, even the things that my individuality, my species, and my gender preclude from me?" I thought it was extremely unjust that I was separate from other people at all; I wanted a chance to be anyone and everyone.

Naturally, this perspective doesn't mesh with the world very well. I'm stuck with my body and its limitations for the rest of my life--I simply can't peer into someone else's mind or trade identities with another person. As I put in another post, I am doomed to forever wander the corridors of my mind alone.

And yet, that last assertion isn't quite true. It certainly is true that I can't see the the mind of another person perfectly, but, in truth, neither can they. You see, people assume that we know ourselves completely, that we are an expert on what goes on in our heads. But that's simply not the case. How many times have you forgotten something, only to remember it again sometime in the future? Was that information gone? No; it was a part of your mind, but you just didn't realize it.

That goes for many things: do you consciously know how to beat your heart? Do you have any deliberate notions of how the mechanics of your muscles work? What about dreams? That's a part of you, but they can surprise you as much as anything in the external world. The same is true for any sudden intrusion into the mind, whether it be a fleeting thought or a sudden mood. 

It's true that, at least in one sense, I'm a stranger in the world. But it is also true that, in the same sense, I'm a stranger in my own head. I might not know what's going on in another's mind; however, it can sometimes take great effort to know what's going on in my mind! When I realized this, I suddenly began to see that I'm only as separate from other people as I am from myself. Or rather, I began to realize that what I had thought of as "my self" didn't really exist at all.

When most people use the word "self" in a philosophical context, they tend to mean something that belongs to you. Even I thought this, though I didn't realize it. Though I may have professed to believing that the self was an immaterial light of consciousness, I actually thought of it as identical with the contents of my consciousness (i.e. my thoughts, sensations, and emotions). But that is a mistake.

If you, like I did, define your self as the impersonal witness of the contents of your consciousness, that's fine. However, as soon as you start identifying yourself with any of these contents, you immediately open up the door to misery and anxiety. To see this, let's say you get a disfiguring illness they leaves your body looking hideous. If you identify yourself with that body, then you are hideous. If you identify yourself with your thoughts and have an evil thought, then suddenly you are evil. Moreover, if you identify yourself with your sensations (as have many philosophers) and you suffer endless, miserable pain, then you become that endless, miserable pain.

I repeat the meditative recitation of many Dharmic practitioners: I am not my body, I am not my mind, I am not my feelings, I am not my thoughts. Identification with these things only brings misery--anxiety over maintaining them, and despair over being limited to them.

But there is an even deeper layer here. To express it, let's turn to a quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein's notebooks:

"As I can infer my spirit from my physiognomy, so I can infer the spirit of each thing from its physiognomy. [...] Only remember that the spirit of the snake, of the lion, is your spirit. For it is only from yourself that you are acquainted with spirit at all."

I am separate from myself--I know my character by observing how I act in certain situations and learning about the way I think, feel, and behave. Exactly the same is true of how I know anyone else. I learn about my behavior; I learn about their behavior. I see myself getting angry; I see another person getting angry. There is no essential difference here.

In one sense, I am nothing--I can't point to anything in the world and undeniably say "that's me". For precisely the same reasons, I am able to say to anything that "I'm just as much you as I am anything else!" Nothing in the world belongs to me; I am its transcendental witness, its Wittgensteinian limit. But because I have shrunk myself to a mere nothing, other people and their emotions belong to me just as much as the stuff going on in my head. There is no essential boundary--only a single continuum that includes me, you, and everything else.

One of my favorite songs has a lyric that I profoundly resonate with: "I can be anything that I see" (link). And it's true. I am not just Christian Swenson. In the same way that I am him, I am also my friends, my family, my neighbors, and my pets. I am man, woman, girl, and boy. I am the stars and the ocean and the mountains. But so are you! And in the end, that's the greatest news I could have asked for: that we are each other, and that together we share the totality of our being, our world, and our selves.

That's that. You may have found this post odd or unnecessary--indeed, this seems to be a complicated way of solving an unbelievably simple problem (like Adam S. Miller's Rube Goldberg Machines). But it has brought my peace, and I post it here that it might do the same for one of you.