Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Dumbing-Down of Truth

Imagine a jigsaw puzzle with 25 pieces. It would be pretty simple to solve, right? It might be fun for a 5-year-old, but probably not for you. Now imagine dividing each of those 25 pieces into 10 pieces, making a grand total of 250 pieces. A little more complicated, but basically still for kids. But imagine you divided each of those 250 pieces into another 10, making 2500. That’s more like it. But imagine that when you’ve finished your 2500 piece puzzle, your five-year-old cousin comes up to you and says “I could have done that, easy!” You’re confused for a bit, but then you realize that your cousin can’t see the 2500 pieces but, instead, only the outlines of the initial 25. He can’t tell that each one of those larger pieces is actually a collection of 100 smaller ones!
This is like the nature of truth. Like the meta-puzzle in my parable, each true idea implies the millions/billions/+ of other true ideas that make it up. There are nuances and new revelations to eternity; truth in itself is more complicated than a human being can ever grasp. Swedenborg said this a lot: like how a human body gets more complicated with the higher level of microscope you use, he says truth gets more and more nuanced the deeper you look. There is no bottom here.
We need truth – that isn’t up for negotiation. It’s the only thing that saves us from our ignorance and our dangerous misconceptions – “the truth will set you free.” But if we can’t grasp truth in itself, what does that mean for our salvation? Absolutely nothing; God makes up the difference, and he does this by dumbing down the truth for us.
This is a lot like teaching Sunday School lessons to young children. If you were to teach them out of the Gospel Doctrine manual, you’d get nothing but blank stares and cheerios all over the floor. It’s only by using really simplified truths – the “Sunday School” answers – that you can make an impression on their young minds. And this is, crucially, true even though those Sunday School answers are relatively untrue compared with the more advanced “meat” of the Gospel. We’re all like those little kids. Every doctrine we receive from a church (or even scripture) is a simplification that adapts truth to our ability to understand. If doctrine didn’t get simplified like this, we would be just as confused as those little Sunbeams.
What does this look like practically? Well, it means that scripture is always “clothed” in details appropriate to the time and place it was written. That’s why Genesis talks about a firmament (basically an upside-down bowl that’s also the sky) dividing the ocean from heaven: that was a commonsense belief to Semites of the time, and God would have done nothing but confuse them if he’d mentioned dinosaurs, quantum fields, and primordial ooze.
We’re just as naive as those ancient Hebrews were, and we are just as convinced that we’re not. We know just a little more than we did then, like a fourth-grader coming home and bragging to his parents how smart he is after winning his science fair. This is as true with our doctrine as it is with our science. Does it upset me that there was a doctrine prohibiting black people from receiving the Priesthood in the LDS Church for a long time? A little bit, but not much; racism was a political institution in the United States for centuries, and if God didn’t adapt himself to that racism, He wouldn’t have been received. And yes, that does mean God can consecrate immoral acts to be done to worship Him. He doesn’t like it, but He does it often to help people trapped in widespread cultural immorality to come to Him. Swedenborg said that animal sacrifice was like this: the earliest people hated killing animals, but when they developed a taste for blood, he co-opted that grossness toward a good purpose. The violence in the Old Testament done for God was like this too. If people can’t help doing bad things, God might as well “bend” it toward a good purpose. Otherwise they’d reject the good outright and dive headlong into their evil.
Something else follows from this idea: the differing doctrines of the world’s religions don’t mean that one is true and the rest are false. It just means that the same truth “put on” the different assumptions and biases of the peoples who received it. It’s not surprising that India – with its repressive caste system – developed religions preaching the eternal insignificance of an individual personality (like with reincarnation). And it also makes sense that the Judeo-Christian God was portrayed like a Persian or Babylonian Super-King: that’s what mattered at the time. This works with the Book of Mormon too: so what if it was written in King James English with New Testament idioms all over the place? That’s what people in 1800s white America thought of as sacred; they wouldn’t have accepted anything else. The Book of Mormon is weird enough as it is without the immense weirdness that a direct translation of 4th century Native American culture would have brought.
And you can think of the “planet” weirdness of Mormon teachings like Abraham 3 in this way. The worldwide spiritual mindset from the eighteenth century till the early twentieth century was “planet-crazy”: Swedenborg spoke of “the inhabitants of the planet Jupiter” (who, oddly enough, resemble humans pre-Homo-Erectus in his descriptions), Rudolf Steiner said that human souls originally lived on the Moon, and Gurdjieff taught that the Sun and the planets in our solar system are spiritual organisms we “grow out of.” So if you’re a Mormon and you’re self-conscious about your weirdness, don’t be. “Planets” were exciting at the time; God facilitated our obsession and bent it toward a good purpose.
But what does all this mean about the people who stubbornly stick to the literal meaning of Genesis or who insist, despite everything, that every General Authority is infallible? According to Swedenborg, it’s the intent that counts, and I believe him one hundred percent. If it works for them and they’re in a good place, you have no right to claim that they’re doing anything wrong. God speaks unto people “according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Nephi 31:3), and that includes the language of concrete, literal-minded people. In the words of people who make fun of Christians for sticking with Bronze-Age nonsense, I hear nothing but pretentious intellectualism and more than a little contempt for the general mass of people. That’s why you’ll never hear me furiously raise my hand in a Sunday School lesson about Noah’s Ark: let people believe in whatever relatively untrue truths work for them, since that’s a luxury God gives to all of us.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Play of Love

Read this post on A Sea of Glass and Fire.

Now because every single thing remains in being from the Divine, that is, is constantly coming into being from Him, and every single thing from that source is inevitably a representative of the real thing by means of which it has come into being, the whole visible universe is therefore nothing else than a theatre that is representative of the Lord's kingdom. And this in turn is a theatre representative of the Lord Himself. - Emanuel Swedenborg, "Arcana Coelestia," 3483
Have you ever noticed that things in your life happen just the way they're supposed to happen? You meet that person, you read that book, or you run into an idea at just the right time? Or maybe things don't happen so easily; your boyfriend might break up with you or maybe you fail a class. But have you still discerned the way those painful events are good for you? I have. The world is on my side; if I'm on the wrong track, it will remind me in blunt or sometimes painful ways. But if I'm going in the way I'm supposed to go, things will happen in surprisingly easy ways. I'll meet the right people, I'll find the right books, and I'll say the right things
But though the world is on my side, the world isn't what's really on my side. The world is a theater. Every person, book, website, idea, or tree is a part played by something more real than it, something spiritual. The relationship between the spiritual world and our lives is the same relationship as between an actress and the character she plays.
‘Each grain of sand,
Every stone on the land,
Each rock and each hill,
Each fountain and rill,
Each herb and each tree,
Mountain, hill, earth, and sea,
Cloud, meteor, and star,
Are men seen afar.' - William Blake, "To Thomas Butts"
In each "tender mercy" that pops up in your life, whether a smile from a stranger or a book that tells you just what you need to hear, there are "spiritual actors" doing their work in it. When that person smiled at you, they may not have known what they were doing, but you can bet that angels were subtly pushing her to help you in that way. Even chance meetings on the sidewalk are managed by those angels working together to help you. This means that you play a part in the "spiritual drama" as well. Though your conscious mind doesn't know even a tenth of what's going on, it "portrays" the purposes of angels in the actions you deliberately choose to do. Your good deeds are the deeds of higher, wiser beings than you.
And even these angels are "characters." Like a play within a play, the angelic actors that play in our skins are also "acted out" by a higher being: the divine fire of love, what some call God.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces. - Gerard Manley Hopkins, "As Kingfishers Catch Fire"
Your life is a dance. This dance shows up in each "role" you play; it is the dance between you and the fire within every being, the fire you are, but which you have forgotten you are. This fire of God is like the man who, flinging you out as the woman, separates itself from you only to see you better. This fire loves you - it delights in you, finds every part of you infinitely wonerful. And the to-and-fro movement of that dance helps each rejoice in both the ecstasy of union and the delight of the gaze that can only come when you stand apart. Both positions are needed. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a dance.
This dance plays out in every moment of your life. Every time you are shown a tender mercy - in each smile, each synchronicity, each inspiring word - the divine fire is revealing itself to you. The parts are becoming transparent to the love that plays them; you are remembering who you are, or, to put it in another way, who you belong to. The dance is to and from that fire: toward the ecstatic oblivion of love and from it to the consciousness of being yourself. For we can't be under any illusions: the life you are living - with all its faults, flaws, and weaknesses - is desired. The divine fire within you wanted it. But since that fire also wants what you want, and since you long for its flame wherever it shows itself, the divine shows itself to you.
Like two lovers meeting, the love within our heart merges with the love within the world. And in this meeting we realize that it is the same love: we are a part of the same oneness flowing into different forms and yet remaining one. Love shows us the illusion of separation and reveals the meaning of the interconnectedness that is all around us. Love can show us the patterns within life and what they mean. As love flows from form to form it leaves a trace of its source, a trace which we can see with the eye of the heart. This trace is the meaning of his love, the underlying purpose of life. When we recognize it, we become awake and directly participate in life's knowing of itself. -Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, "Spiritual Power: How it Works"
There is a love deeper than words, deeper than thought, deeper than perception. We long for it in all our desires, though we almost never realize what we want. That love is our Being, and that Being desires us as the flawed people we are. But that love isn't just in your heart. It is within everyone, in everything, but it hides itself from you both inside and outside because it doesn't want to hurt you. But if you purify yourself, making yourself a clean and bright vessel, the fire of love can show itself to you in a way you never thought possible. Your Being will become transparent to you. You will see the love in all things that loves you more than life itself. And you will realize the innocent, blissful joy that plays in everything that happens to you.