Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Seeds of Divinity

Sister Rosemary M. Wixom said in her October 2015 general conference talk that "we come to earth to nurture and discover the seeds of divine nature that are within us." That image resonated with me. When I reflect on it, I come to the conclusion that these seeds of divine nature in us are bits of divine light--or even of divinity itself--that nestle in us just like a seed does in the ground. What are these seeds? To me, they're any and every good impulse or true idea. In this sense, seeds constantly blow into us from other worlds and form the basis for our thoughts and actions. At the moment I go out of my way to say a kind word to a fellow ward member, I'm acting from a good impulse that is actually a seed from heaven--a seed of light, of love, of divinity. On the other hand, if you say mean things about another or indulge in pornography, you're acting from a bad impulse or a seed of darkness and selfishness.

I can tell when a seed has planted itself in me and has begun growing when I discern a slight tendency to go a certain way in my consciousness. Have you ever felt a sudden peace or surge of goodwill come upon you? Or by contrast, have you ever felt a sudden burst of lust or hatred? I don't think that these sudden surges of emotion come from you: they come from their source in higher world's and have planted themselves in you like a seed floating on heavenly winds. It's your job to nurture the good ones and uproot the bad ones. The Little Prince described this well when it showed how the main character had to regularly uproot baobab saplings lest they get too big and destroy the tiny planet where they had rooted themselves.

And based on the religious thinkers and visionary experiences I've read, I think there's good reason to believe that one's "resurrection body" is made out of the seeds you choose to nurture. When you're resurrected, "that which ye do send out shall return unto you again" (Alma 41:15), meaning that every impulse of good (or evil) you make real in action becomes a part of your eternal being. That's not to say that we can't repent, of course. Swedenborg explained this well when he described how the evil choices we make can never be entirely eradicated from our being, but are "relegated to the side" of heaven into hell so that we only see and identify the good parts. The only perfect being is Christ, and only He lacks the evil that is inherent in human beings.

In this sense, the resurrection "turns around" the world so that everything is seen not by how they appear but by the inner being they have declared through their choices. When we are resurrected, the ground passes away and only the plants (or better the fruits) that came from that ground remain. Paul actually says this in 1 Corinthians 15:36-38 (NIV):

"You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies; and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body just as He wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own."

This world is where we grow the seeds that blow in from higher worlds. And we can't take anything from this world except the fruits that grow from those seeds. So choose the right seeds and grow the right fruits.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Fictional Love

I've always been interested in the philosophy of fiction (see this link, for instance), but until recently I'd put it on the back-burner, so to speak. However, nowadays my interest in fiction has redoubled, and questions like "what is fiction?" and "is fiction real?" have come back to the front of my mind. And I posed these questions to myself alongside some developments I've had in reading fiction: reading Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker or The Well of Ascension in the past few months, I've made a real effort to immerse myself in its story. In essence, that means putting my own concerns out of my mind so that I can occupy my concern with the characters in Sanderson's books. This took some effort, but the experience that came of it was amazing: I effectively became his characters. I not only felt their emotions, but I could see what they saw, hear what they heard. Sometimes I even got a sense of the characters' location in space, as if I was physically there in Luthadel or Hallandren.

I could write a whole post on the topic of vicarious sense experiences when reading fiction, but I'm going to focus on something else today. Specifically, I'm going to discuss the idea of a love that can exist between you and a fictional character. To begin, consider this passage from James Hillman (in his book Lament of the Dead: Psychology after Jung's Red Book) that talks about a psychological function for fiction reading:
"You read Dostoyevsky, you read Tolstoy, you read Tennessee Williams, you read whatever you want to read, you read the Greeks, you read literature, drama, theater, plays, and you see the human comedy, the human tragedy presented to you in specific characters with whom you can identify, witch whom you can feel the same things going on in them that are going on in me....You'd still be able to use all your diagnostic terms but you'd be able to see obsessions, you'd be able to see them in terms of figures that help you carry your personal load of this weight, because you can't carry these things alone. You do need something to help you carry them, and the concepts help you carry them. But they don't feed you. These figures can feed you in the same way as the figures fed Jung through his dialogues with them [in the Red Book].Personifications can be nourishing."
And he continues these observations a few pages later when he gives a specific example of this principle:
"In literature, if you read Trollope or Jane Austen, it doesn't matter, these nineteenth-century novels that people read and which contained their psyche. How did the housewives of then nineteenth century contain their crazy psyches in their oppressed conditions of being women in the nineteenth century? They read novels, they had backgrounds, they had stories, in which they could hold what was happening to them, they had figures. That's what's missing."
Fictional figures like those in Brandon Sanderson's books nourish me in the way that Hillman discussed. This is especially true with Sazed, a character from his Mistborn series who resembles me in many ways. When I read those books and use them to enter Sazed's perspective, I get a chance to "feel the same things going on in [him] that are going on in me." He helps me not only articulate my own experience but to reflect on it, to see it with different (perhaps Tin-enhanced) eyes. But I don't just get insight; as I said above, I feel love when I discover myself in fiction.

Lest you think me crazy for feeling loved by a fictional character, let me explain myself a bit more. Think of a character like Sazed as a mirror in which I can see my own being from a removed perspective. To use an idea from Sufi Islamic thought, my being is "a hidden treasure that longed to be known," and through the Mistborn series' "mirror," that hidden treasure becomes known by knowing itself. If we were to strictly follow the Sufi parallel as I've explained it, that would make me into God and Sazed into one of God's creations. But it's not so simple. In reality, Sazed and I are both revelations of one of God's "eternal names" (an aspect of His being), and by my seeing myself through Sanderson's character, the divine name that makes up my being discovers itself. To use the mirror metaphor again, Sazed and I are like the double mirrors in the temple's sealing room. Whereas Sazed reflects my being and, through me, the infinite chain of celestial beings that incarnate in my life, each of these infinite reflections is really just manifestations of a single light that bounces back and forth between the two mirrors. The light, in itself, is invisible. It is "a hidden treasure that longs to be known" and it can only "be known" by realizing itself in two-dimensional glass.

That metaphor is imperfect, but it demonstrates the idea I'm trying to get across. When I discover myself through a fictional character, it's not that I'm narcissistically lusting after my own being. Instead, the reality which expresses itself through my life becomes further manifest through someone like Sazed, and when I discover my being through him, in all reality the metaphysical reality "behind" my life is discovering itself. Fiction, then, is a way to glorify God.

But why did I say that I feel "loved" by Sazed? Well, if we're to believe Emanuel Swedenborg's theological metaphysics, the invisible "substance" of all the forms that we encounter is love. And he writes that love in its essence is a focus on the "other" (whether as the neighbor or as God. When I read The Well of Ascension and see my life reflected in its pages, I see myself as the other. My own being empties itself into Sazed's life, and I get it back, only richer.

And finally, doing this is a way to emulate Christ. Speaking of Christ and His atonement, the apostle Paul writes in 2 Philippians:
"5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name[.]"
When I read fiction and forget my own life, I "make myself of no reputation" and "take upon myself the form of a servant." I become a fiction, something unreal in the normal sense of the word. I undergo what the Bible calls kenosis--self-emptying--and re-enact Christ's descent from the heavens to "become obedient unto death." But in doing this, I also re-enact the purpose of creation as described by both Joseph Smith and mystics such as Swedenborg: to become an "other" so that I can truly love myself in him. For love can only really be love if it's selfless and if all "self" has been emptied out into the other. Fiction, therefore, is a private kind of selflessness. Through your regular mass-market paperback, you can lose your own life so as to save it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Marriage of Spirit and Soul

The Marriage of Spirit and Soul

I was just re-reading psychologist Thomas Moore's book Care of the Soul and his description of religion that isn't just spiritual but also soulful. For him and other students of "archetypal psychology" (a school founded by James Hillman), "soul" is a central part of life and yet is hard to define. Whereas in spirit, "we reach for consciousness, awareness, and the highest values," soul "has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart and personal substance." If spirit wants to go toward every unseen horizon, soul wants to remain in the world and its complexity. Spirit wants to go beyond; soul wants to stay within. Spirit wants transcendence; soul wants immanence. If a spiritual perspective wants to leave all worldliness behind to escape to heaven, soul wants to find heaven on earth and in all the earth's messiness.

In any case, the passage I was reading in Care of the Soul talks about how neither spirit nor soul can work without the other. In fact, they need to be married to each other:

"Spirit tends to shoot off on its own in ambition, fanaticism, fundamentalism, and perfectionism. Soul gets stuck in its soupy moods, impossible relationships, and obsessive preoccupations. For the marriage to take place, each has to learn to appreciate the other and to be affected by the other--spirit's loftiness tempered by the soul's lowly limitations, soul's unconsciousness stirred by ideas and imagination."

In other words, any quest to "go beyond" through spirit needs to be aware of the soulful mess that it leaves in its wake, and any attempt to revel in worldly pleasure needs to be mindful of the larger spiritual context of that pleasure. Transcendence must remember its immanent context, and immanence must remember its transcendent implications. However, this marriage isn't just a metaphor. According to Jungian psychology, spirit and soul have definite masculine and feminine correspondences, respectively. The archetype of spirit is what Jungians call the animus, defined as the archetype of masculine being, whereas soul corresponds to the anima as the archetype of primordial femininity. This association deeper than any superficial definition of gender. In fact, you can read it from human bodies: whereas the man's body is physically stronger and "thrusts out" in more ways than one (transcendence) the woman is more agile and receptive (immanence). Masculinity and femininity as they manifest in the physical world are representations or correspondences of deep metaphysical realities.

In his book Anima: An Anatomy of a Personified Notion, James Hillman talks about the way in which the animus or spirit always appears alongside the anima or soul, and vice versa, whether we like it or not:

"At the very moment of a new psychological move, we hear animus voices, driving us from it by spiritualizing the experience into abstractions, extracting its meaning, carrying it into actions, dogmatizing it into general principles, or using it to prove something. Where anima is vivid, animus enters. Similarly, when at work intellectually, or in spiritual meditation, or where courage is screwed to the sticking place, then anima invades with images and fears, with distractions of attachments and connections, telephoning, natural urges, suicidal despairs, or disturbing with ever deeper questions and puzzling unknowns. Moved by a new idea or spiritual impetus, anima is right there, wanting to make it personal, asking 'How does it relate?' and 'What about me?'

The anima--as soul, relatedness, immanence, the "thick of things"--always appears together with the transcendent animus. You can't separate them even if you tried. When I meditate, for instance, any thought that I have works as way to "transcend" the "givenness" of the "right here, right now" that I want to experience in my meditation. In that way, the effort to still the mind and experience the richness of the present moment is a feminine activity, but as any practiced student of meditation will know, thoughts will always come. The best you can do is to help the thoughts and the immanent context of the thoughts--spirit and soul, animus and anima, respectively--get along. As Thomas Moore pointed out, they need to be married to each other: my thoughts about the given pairing with the given to reconcile the conflict they had before.

This also turns up, in all places, in the reading of scripture. Thomas Moore writes elsewhere in Care of the Soul about the soul or "anima" of sacred texts:

"The infinite inner space of a story, whether from religion or daily life, is its soul. If we deprive sacred stories of their mystery, we are left with the brittle shell of fact, the literalism of a single meaning. But when we allow a story its soul, we can discover our own depths through it....In Jungian language, we could say we need to find the anima in these stories--their living, breathing soul. Bringing soul to a story entails de-moralizing our images, letting them speak for themselves rather than for an ideology that restricts and slants them from the beginning."

I can read the Book of Mormon in one of two ways. The animus-oriented, "spiritual" way looks through the text in order to bring forth a single, pre-determined meaning, but the anima-oriented, "soulful" way lets the text speak for itself in all its messiness. For the animus, there can only be one (transcendent) meaning, but the anima sees the many nuances and overtones in the text. Anima is comfortable with multiplicity, but animus can only rest peacefully in singleness. To put it another way, animus wants a single, definite truth, whereas anima revels in the richness of a text as it is.

Reflecting on this observation, we can ask: how does "baring a testimony" relate to these masculine and feminine archetypes? Is it spiritual or soulful, masculine or feminine? Testimony declares a knowledge of truth, and so in that way it speaks from the "spirit" of a masculine anima. But to the extent that this declaration of truth reflects deep experiences of the heart, it is a spirit that comes from soul. Though a testimony may seem rigid, single, and unwavering, beneath the "transcendence" of its certainty there is a rich, multifaceted matrix of soul. Tom Cheetham once wrote that the function of transcendence is to make immanence liquid, like light," and so the function of a testimony is to let us appreciate the richness of the immanent soul of our Gospel from a removed enough perspective to see it clearly. It's a kind of dance: when I go up to the pulpit to bare my testimony, the spirit takes a step back from the soul to behold her beauty. And then, in the unutterable richness of scripture, a sacrament meeting, or a temple visit, they reunite to consummate their love in the warmth of silence.


Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Book of Mormon's Inner Meanings: 2 Nephi 5

The Book of Mormon's Inner Meanings: 2 Nephi 5

Hey everyone! 2 Nephi 5 probably has the most controversial passage in the whole Book of Mormon: the verses where Laman, Lemuel and their children are cursed with a "skin of blackness." Even if a passage like that wouldn't have seemed remarkable in 1830, today it reads like extreme racism. The modern reader inevitably asks: why would God curse an entire race because of their ancestors' sins? Don't the Articles of Faith say that we don't believe in that sort of thing?

This situation shows us why it's important to take the Book of Mormon at more than face value sometimes. If you read this passage literally, you can only get confusion and a sense of injustice out of the passage. But if you take these verses as a way to symbolically represent a deep spiritual principle, it becomes enlightening. Specifically, I'll argue that this passage represents the process of separating spirit and matter from a state in which you confuse one with the other. This parallels the alchemical process of separatio--where the alchemist "separates" the material in the vessel into the elements that make it up. This principle also corresponds to what psychologists call "differentiation," the act of separating various mental complexes from each other so you can deal with each one individually.

To begin, take a look at the passage itself:

21 And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.

22 And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.

23 And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done.

24 And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.

25 And the Lord God said unto me: They shall be a scourge unto thy seed, to stir them up in remembrance of me; and inasmuch as they will not remember me, and hearken unto my words, they shall scourge them even unto destruction.

Notice that Nephi compares the Lamanites to flint. Of the many "black" things that Nephi could have used in describing the Lamanites, he uses a rock. But why? I've never thought of "flint" as evil per se. It's hard, black, and it shatters easily, yes, but it also lets us make fire. I'll actually suggest that Nephi isn't referencing any "evil" in flint at all. Instead, I think he points out the similarity between the Lamanites and flint because of flint's earthiness.

More specifically, I think that the Lamanites symbolize the principle of earth--heaviness, the flesh, the world, etc.--so that the Nephites who they're separated from can represent air or "spirit." In alchemical terms, the Lamanites are the nigredo or the blackened material absorbed in its own materiality, whereas the Nephites are the spirit in the vessel that the alchemist has brought out of gross matter. But it's not that simple, of course. If the curse on the Lamanites represents a separatio of air from earth or spirit from matter, these opposites only get separated from each other so they can reunite later. The goals of alchemy (the famous Philosophers' Stone was among them) demand that spirit be realized in matter, so the apartheid of spirit and matter that the Nephite-Lamanite split represents cannot last forever. And so is it surprising that--in the perfect society depicted in 4 Nephi--Nephite and Lamanite live together side by side? When Christ as the earthly realization of divinity comes, the promised land as a vessel brings about the a perfectly realized material: Lamanite and Nephite coagulated together to bring about the lapis philosophorum, the Philosophers' Stone.

But we can go a bit deeper. Notice how the Book of Mormon tends to pardon the Lamanites for their ignorance. In Alma 9:16, for instance, Alma says: "For there are many promises which are extended to the Lamanites; for it is because of the traditions of their fathers that caused them to remain in their state of ignorance; therefore the Lord will be merciful unto them and prolong their existence in the land." If the Lamanites sin, they do it out of naïveté and ignorance; since they are born in "blackness," they don't have any "light" by which they can know better. However, it's another matter if the Nephites sin. With the light that they receive (paralleling the "whiteness" of their skins), any sin has to be a rebellion against that light. If a sinful Lamanite is just misguided, a sinful Nephite is bitter and hard-hearted. Knowing this, take the above principle non-literally and compare it to your own life. For myself, those who haven't been raised in religion are often kind, generous, happy people like King Lamoni despite doing what would be a sin in the church. However, I've noticed that while these people are often kind and open-minded, those who were raised in a church and go away from it tend to be bitter and antagonistic toward religion. Just go the the r/exmormon subreddit or read the CES Letter and you'll see what I mean.

This even works within LDS contexts. Who hasn't heard stories about how converts are often more righteous and more sincere than those who were born in the church? The convert was born outside the light; he or she is a "Lamanite," but now that they've come into the light they can appreciate the Gospel for what it is. However, the Nth-generation Mormon in Provo has always known the light of the Gospel, and so it's like the mountains around her: astonishing for newcomers, but just "there" for her. The sad thing is that such people are often unfamiliar with the joy of the Gospel because it's always been in front of her. Someone like that may need a crisis of faith in order to appreciate their faith anew. Or to put it differently, they need to be initiated into the Gospel through a "dark night of the soul." Their "skin" must become blackened.

Funnily enough, the converts who really shine in the Church tend to actually have darker skin. I remember talking to someone in my singles ward about this principle, which has grown so prevalent that it became a stereotype: the Latin-American convert who accepts the Gospel ridiculously quickly and who goes on to surpass all the lighter-skinned members in sincerity, spiritual depth, and testimony. Swedenborg said something like this about Africans who, at the time, were still in a tribal society:

"Of non-Christians, the Africans are especially valued in heaven. They accept the good and true things of heaven more readily than others do. They want especially to be called obedient, but not faithful. They say that Christians could be called “faithful,” since they have a doctrine of faith, but only if they accept the doctrine—or, as the Africans say, if they can accept it."

"Behind these, and farther to the north [of heaven], there are sites for the instruction of various non-Christian people who in the world lived good lives in accord with their own religion, acquired a kind of conscience, and behaved fairly and honestly not because of the laws of their nation but because of the laws of their religion, believing these laws to be holy and not to be violated by their actions in any way. All of them are readily led to recognize the Lord when they have been taught, because at heart they have held that God is not invisible but visible in human form. There are more of these than of any other kind, and the best of them are from Africa.

Anyway, that's that. The Book of Mormon isn't being racist; it's being richly illustrative in a way that is all too often taken literally. So let's make sure we remember to look more than "skin deep."