Friday, December 19, 2008

Divine Wrestling Match

This past week has had amazing ups and downs for me. Partly because I've been under the fog of a nasty cold, and my head is only finally clearing up today, and life always feels more dangerous when your head aches and your body isn't fully functional. But in the past week we celebrated our one year anniversary of having Glen as a foster son by taking him out to a fancy restaurant, which he loved! We have entered a new phase in our relationship in which the teenage rebellion of months 7 through 11 of our relationship petered out and has resolved itself into steady growth. I think Glen finally believes that we are there for him, come hell or high water. The social worker who placed Glen with us has resigned her position so she could move to Utah to be closer to her grandkids, which entailed great sadness for all of us (we will very much miss having her steady and supportive presence!), but also a sense of transition and the healthy passage of time, and an opportunity to be grateful for what she brought into our lives (a kid!) and reflect on how our sense of family has evolved in the past year as a result of becoming foster parents.

But through this all, as my head cleared itself of my cold, and as I shook off residual resentments from the whole Prop 8 nastiness, some renewed understandings crystallized for me.

1) I am and always will be a Latter-day Saint. My faith commitment is grounded in a living relationship with God, and the on-going gift of revelation. In my daily prayer life it is evident to me that the place where I belong is my local ward, the Lake Nokomis Ward. When I attend there, I am blessed with outpourings of the Spirit that give me strength and clarity for everything I need to accomplish in my life as a father, as a husband, and as a teacher. The fact of my excommunication (and my inability to be reinstated so long as I remain committed to and care for my family); the lack of understanding many Saints have about homosexuality; the Church's destructive and demoralizing political engagements on this front; all of these are mere mortal contingencies that will eventually be worked out to the eternal joy and satisfaction of me, my family, and all who turn in faith to God, our father and the author of creation and of our eternal destinies. This is a time of probation, so mistakes will be made. I am a sinner, and am too much in need of forgiveness to cling to judgment or resentment. I am loved, and my sole obligation in life is to offer that same love to all I encounter.

2) My family is eternal. I am a child born to Heavenly Parents whose love for me is eternal. I am sealed to earthly parents in the eternal pattern of Heaven. I love and cling with my whole heart to an earthly husband, who reciprocally loves and clings to me, and in this relationship I have listened to and obeyed the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and so live in hope of greater things than have been presently revealed. I have, at the prompting of the Spirit, accepted the task of parenting and have put my whole heart into that task, parenting our son with all the love and passion I would parent with if he had been born to our flesh and sealed to us in the temple. Any child of God deserves no less. I'm proceeding under the assumption that, if you want something eternal, you have to believe it and live it and abide by eternal principles. And we have been blessed, beyond my words to describe. I have no earthly promises: no church approbation, no temple sealings, our names not written in any earthly ecclesiastical books; not even sure if the marriage certificate hanging framed on our bedroom wall is legally valid in the wake of events in California. All I have is a voice in the dark, whispering in the quiet of my heart from beyond the veil, encouraging me to keep going, and promising me good if I do.

Strangely, that is enough.

3) One of the basic, fundamental, unalterable conditions of our existence within this mortal coil is that if we want a blessing, we must wrestle God for it. It's why we are here. It's the only way we will advance. If we think that blessings will come to us just because somebody -- a parent, a prophet, an institution -- hands it to us on a silver platter, we are in for a painful education. This is why God is masked to us in this life; this is why the unclear, mixed messages; the confusing contradictory commandments, commandments impossible to obey: Adam being forced to decide whether to obey the commandment to be fruitful and multiply or whether to obey the commandment to abstain from the fruit of the tree, Abraham being asked to sacrifice the child of the promise on an altar of cruelty; this is why, in the deepest, darkest most painful dilemmas we face in life, none of the advice offered ultimately helps; because God put us here to let us see what we are made of; to let us decide what we really want, and then fight him for it. He knows this is the only way we can grow, the only we have have any hope of becoming the kind of being he is, the kind of being he hopes each and every one of us will become.

We can get pissed off and throw a tantrum and turn away from God, pretend he doesn't exist for us. That won't ultimately help us. It will leave us disconnected and lost, trying to make do without hope, not really knowing who we are. OR, we can surrender, "stifle" our "self," mortify the flesh, acknowledge God's unalterable decree, and then spend the rest of our lives in warfare against ourselves. But that's merely a different kind of abandonment, a different kind of faithlessness. That is mistaking the mask of God for God himself. That's burying the one talent in the ground out of fear, instead of investing it in something having worth. God gave us the gift of a living soul so that it could grow, become something amazing and eternal, become like him!

The only way we can help ourselves is to turn back, face the darkness, face the unknown, take the leap of faith, and then live, love, engage! Get our hands dirty. Get our face bloody. Live! And find God! Take no one's word. Be satisfied with no one's doctrine. Tear away every mask, denounce every idolatry, not be satisfied until we have found him, true and living and real, more real by far than the flesh and matter we think we can take for granted because we see and feel and taste it. When you are in the presence of God, you will know how far more, surpassingly real the world of spirit we come from is than all of this.

4) Truth is in the testing of it. Alma was right: we only know if the seed is good by planting it in our heart. And then we don't even see it grow. We feel it. We feel the sprouts pushing up, the roots deepening. Eventually it bears fruit. This much is true: from the planting of the seed on, no matter what the pain of the cultivation, things only get better and better. Life only tastes sweeter and sweeter. We just need patience!

Patience and infinite quantities of love, quantities only possible if we go to the eternal Source of Love!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Gathered around the Great Unknowable

I like The Religious Case against Belief by James P. Carse (The Penguin Press, 2008). In my last post, I explored one of his key arguments about the nature of argument, and what happens when the advocates of different belief systems clash. Here I will explore the central theme of the book, namely that there is a difference between "belief" and "religion" and that there is a "religious case against belief."

I first learned of Carse's religious case against belief by reading an interview between Steve Paulson and James Carse about his book on I was, of course, already familiar with a religious case against belief that comes from within my own faith, and from within the Bible. That religious case was made most succinctly by a different James, and goes something like this:
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. (James 2:14-18)

The term that I prefer to describe what Carse calls "religion" is "faith."1 As a young, naive child, I easily confused "belief" and "faith." This is natural, since when people discuss religion they almost always focus first on the distinctive belief systems of people who adhere to those religions. Thus, what people "believe" becomes synonymous with their "faith." This is also natural, because in general parlance, many people use the terms "belief" and "faith" interchangeably (e.g., "I believe in Christ" and "I have faith in Christ."). But the terms are actually quite different in meaning. Understanding the difference is crucial, because, I have learned from hard experience, confusing "belief" and "faith" leads to severe distortions, misunderstandings and, more significantly, bad behavior.

As I have come to understand these terms as a mature adult, I understand "belief" to consist of intellectual assent to some proposition. "I believe that the earth is in orbit around the sun." Or, "I believe that Jesus Christ was an actual historical personage." Or, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God." All three of these statements are statements of something that I accept as true in some objective sense, but that I cannot personally attest to based on direct observation. I do not, in practice, differentiate much between knowledge that comes through personal observation as opposed to many things I know by some other way. Most things that form my reservoir of beliefs about the world are things I have not directly observed myself.2

In the LDS community, we frequently also use the term "know" interchangeably with the term "believe," depending upon the source of our "knowledge" or "belief" and the relative strength with which we hold it. Since Mormons hold direct revelation of spiritual truth through visionary experience or through the testimony of the Holy Spirit as the most reliable source of knowledge, when we assent to some proposition as the result of that kind of testimony or witness, we almost always say, "I know." But as I will emphasize later, in terms of the function played by belief in our lives, there is no significant difference between "belief" and this kind of "knowledge." From the viewpoint of those who have difficulty experiencing the kinds of spiritual gifts that permit "knowledge" of this sort, this is good news because what it says is you are not seriously disadvantaged in relation to those who have such gifts. From the viewpoint of those who claim such "higher," "more spiritual" knowledge, it suggests the need for humility.

If belief is intellectual assent, faith on the other hand, is the ability to apply what we "believe" or "know" in the real world. Faith is where the rubber of belief hits the road of the world. This is more than to say simply "faith is belief in action." That truism is applicable if we also accept that faith is where the validity of belief is put to the test. Faith is where we learn that certain beliefs don't hold up. Belief is the road map. Faith is the journey itself. As I learned getting lost in Iowa last summer, road maps don't always give us the whole picture, even fancy, high tech, GPS-based road maps! Belief tells me who Jesus Christ is. But it is only through faith that I come to know Jesus Christ. Again, the support from within my faith tradition and from within scripture for this understanding of faith is ample, but one of the most commonly cited formulations comes from the book of Hebrews: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (11:1, emphasis is mine).

Faith, it should be clear by these working definitions, is far superior to belief or "knowledge." But now here's the rub: is it possible to have faith without belief? Faith without knowledge? Can I profess that I do not "know" if Jesus Christ is the son of God and still walk faithfully in his footsteps? And the answer of course is yes. We always walk by faith. Belief is nothing in comparison to faith. Belief is sitting around and jabber-jawing. Faith is getting up off your ass (pardon my French) and going somewhere. The only value of belief/knowledge is if it somehow sparks in us the desire to get up and "practice" what we know. And we always engage in that "walk" more or less in the dark, more or less having to feel our way along and learn by experience what is right and what is wrong. We're always putting belief to the test through faith.

OK, so back to Carse. Now Carse is concerned about the more destructive manifestations of "belief." Carse points out that not only are "belief" and what he calls "religion" not the same thing, but belief can actually be corrosive of religion. Belief can undermine and destroy religion. Carse makes no attempt anywhere to distinguish between "true belief" and "false belief" or "true religion" and "false religion." That is because whether the proposition being believed in is in some sense objectively true or false bears no relation to its destructive force. What matters is the extent to which the upholding of a proposition requires us to suppress doubt in ourselves, and to project that suppression of doubt on the world around us. In other words, belief becomes destructive when we refuse to approach it in the open-ended fashion that is enjoined by the walk of faith. It is when we treat belief as a closed system which must be defended at all costs, when we treat it as a given that cannot be questioned or explored or subject to the on-going verification of the walk of faith, that belief becomes a bane and a curse, the source of all the most bloody and destructive conflicts in the world, both past and present.

Carse's approach to religion is interesting, and potentially off putting if you focus on the surface definitions he puts forward. But I find his approach fundamentally sound. Carse posits that it is actually impossible to truly "define" religion, because religion is always built up around some great mystery, some "unknowable." Because religion is defined by this relation to the "unknowable," it is itself in some significant sense undefinable. Knowing that his readers will get impatient with a refusal to define religion in a book that has as its core concept the differentiation between "belief" and "religion," he takes a stab at it by suggesting that, like great art, we might not be able to "define" religion but we will know it when we see it. He offers some clues as to when what we're looking at is religion.

He suggests, for instance, unlike "belief systems" which come and go in relatively short time frames, a religion will be very old, its age measured in millennia rather than years or decades. That is because only a truly powerful and engaging mystery can hold the attention of believers long enough for their interest to last thousands of years. A religion will never be defined by the boundaries of a single community, because even when believers divide into rival sects or excommunicate one another, the larger mystery always draws them back into a common path. Interest groups and communities of scholars not sponsored by the official hierarchies of religious communities or institutions will form on the margins of every great religion. A religion spawns numerous educational institutions and communities, as people of faith and intellect seek to explore the great mystery to which that religion points. Religion attracts great poets and artists, who find it grounding them in a source of untiring fascination and inspiration. In fact, religion itself is, Carse suggests, a kind of poetry. Like great art, religion defies singular definitions.

Mormons might be annoyed to learn that James Carse is not sure whether Mormonism is actually a religion. That despite the fact that it seems to display all of the classic "signs" of a true religion (by his definition) except great antiquity. It is not that he does not think Mormonism is a religion, but simply that he does not know if Mormonism is a religion yet, since as an organized community it has only existed for slightly less than two centuries. But that should not be off-putting to those of us Mormons who, in relation to "the Restored Gospel," confess with Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life..." (John 6:68). For myself, despite the fact that I am gay and excommunicated, and stand little chance of full acceptance in the LDS Church for as long as I live, I cannot turn away or deny my testimony. So let that stand for what it may.

I love Carse's book because, in a time when there is so much violence, conflict and confusion between believers, Carse encourages us to dig deeply within the riches of faith in order to respond. The solution to the problem of religious violence is not the denial of religion, but the right application of religion. Denial only digs us more deeply into the conflict we're trying to avoid. In other words, we can't get out of this mess going backward, only by moving forward. But even more, I love this little book for what it reminds us of the nature of our life journeys, pointing out that we are never truly lost until we refuse to take in and enjoy and be grateful for life's inexhaustible wonders.

1. Carse prefers the term "religion" because it is more applicable to systems like Buddhism or Hinduism in which the term "faith" is rarely used, or seems inapplicable. I use it because I am speaking from within my own tradition, where it makes eminent sense to use the term "faith" as a synonym for "religion."

2. Even knowledge acquired through direct observation, as the philosophers warn, can be suspect. How do we know what our observation is actually telling us? What if we're only seeing part of the picture? Furthermore, what we observe is always interpreted by us. So it may not relate to the "truth" that we think it relates to. Knowledge based on observation always depends on what kinds of observation we consider to be authoritative and convincing. We usually bring to our observations a set of rules that tell us how to differentiate between an authoritative observation and one that is not authoritative, so, it could be argued, it is our epistemological rules that tell us what we "know" as much as what we observe.

Science provides us with a set of epistemological rules that has proven very powerful. Those rules include experiment (ability to verify a proposition through tests), objectivity (verifiability from more than one point of view), and reproducibility (the same circumstances will produce the same observations every time). But even these epistemological rules run up against limits in situations, for instance, where we have learned that observation itself has an impact on what is being observed, and that observation may have an effect on an experiment's objectivity. Also, as Thomas Kuhn has argued, scientists operate with a set of assumptions (or "paradigms") that govern what they count as valid observations, and what they consider to be "anomalies." Scientific paradigms typically change, he points out, when what was once assumed to be an "anomaly" is considered as data requiring explanation.

Nevertheless, this is not to undermine the validity of science as a source of knowledge vis-a-vis religion. All of the difficulties that apply to the acquisition of knowledge within a scientific paradigm apply with equal force to knowledge aquired within a spiritual or religious paradigm. Rather, such an awareness of the problems inherent in "observation" should caution us to be humble in relation to all knowledge, no matter what the source.

As a Latter-day Saint, I trust that eventually all sources of truth will converge into an appreciation of the truth as one great whole, in which there will be no meaningful distinction between scientific and religious truth.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Holy Argument

I've been reading a remarkable little book lately, by James P. Carse, entitled The Religious Case Against Belief (The Penguin Press, 2008). I may eventually publish a fuller review. But I wanted to comment on a key insight in the book, especially given its relevance to those of us who have been caught, in one way or another, in the debate over Proposition 8. The relevant insight has to do with his examination of the nature of belief, and the impact of conflict or opposition on belief.

Carse convincingly demonstrates how belief is not only immune to debate, but how it literally thrives on it. Anyone who has engaged in a passionate argument with somebody else knows from experience how this works. Each combatant has their own strong beliefs about a subject -- no matter what the topic -- and enters the debate firmly convinced that their opponent is wrong and that, by the light of reason, they will be convinced of their error. The debate is thorough-going. Each side rehearses all the multitude of reasons why their position is right and their opponent is wrong. Any one of these reasons, they think, should convince a rational person. How much more will they be convinced by this veritable arsenal of reasons?

But is anyone convinced? Of course not! At a certain point in the debate, the combatants begin to repeat what they feel are their most convincing arguments again and again and again. Neither side is really talking to the other any more, just re-stating their arguments with ever-increasing loudness and passion. Finally the debate not so much ends as it is cut off, with each side furious that the other side won't see the light of reason, each side more convinced than ever that their side is right and the other side is wrong.

Within the LDS tradition, there is a strong ethic against debate. The scriptural basis, cited frequently by Latter-day Saints, are the words of Jesus Christ himself as recorded in 3 Nephi: "For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another" (11:29). But apart from this scriptural admonition against contention, a central spiritual practice of Mormonism is conducive to the reduction of debate, namely the practice of encouraging the believer to seek wisdom from God on his or her own.

Mormons believe that God is the ultimate source of all wisdom and authority. In a significant sense, the founding text of Mormonism is James 1:5: "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him." This is of course the admonition that led Joseph Smith to ask God himself which of all the "contending" religious parties of his day was right. And God's answer to Joseph: None of them. All the combatants were wrong.

Joseph himself attracted followers not by browbeating them or seeking to prove the wrongness of their ways, but by encouraging them to do the same thing he did: Go ask God yourself! Don't listen to me. Study it, think about it, and then ask God and listen to what the Holy Spirit tells you, if anything. The Book of Mormon is remarkable among the world's religious texts for doing the same thing in writing that Joseph did in person: literally inviting its readers not just to believe the book on its own authority, but to ask God if it is true: "And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost" (Moroni 10:4). For many, many Latter-day Saints (including me), the acceptance of that challenge was one of the most significant events in our spiritual biographies.

Because Mormons are wary of contention, which they see as emanating from the Evil One, and because of their bedrock foundation that every human being has direct access to the One Source of All Truth, which will ultimately be the only way anybody can or should be convinced of religious truth, they are rarely willing to enter into vigorous debate over spiritual matters. Thus the notoriously dull and boring Mormon Sunday School lessons and Priesthood and Relief Society meetings, where nobody dares offer a peep of disagreement with whatever is being presented. But, when we read James Carse's account of all the evils that have flowed from religious contention and war, we might find in that at least some validation of the Mormon ethic of avoiding all contention as the product of the Devil.

Yet, one of the things that has always fascinated me about the Jewish tradition is the commitment of Jews to the opposite. Jews love lively debate! When I taught my religious history class last spring and encouraged my students to attend worship in a religious community they were unfamiliar with, a few of my students attended meetings at a Jewish synagogue, where they reported the presence of a spirit of very wide-ranging, open dialogue in which members of the community were encouraged to disagree not only with each other but with their own rabbi! The rabbi wanted her congregants to argue with her! Remarkable! For it seems that within the Jewish tradition, unlike the Mormon tradition, it is believed that the best way to weed truth out from falsehood is to put it to the test of argument. Is this, from the Mormon point of view, somehow evil? Or is it possible for there to exist a kind of holy argument, a sacred debate through which God can reveal truth to us?

Everything, I think, hinges on the way in which argument is conducted. A careful reading of 3 Nephi 11:29 shows that it is not argument itself which is evil, but "the spirit of contention." In other words, contention for contention's sake. Or, applying the insights of James Carse, contention in which the contenders have no interest in or willingness to listen to those arguing with them and are unwilling to reconsider their own opinions. A debate will proceed very differently if the debaters enter it thinking, "Well, I think I'm right, and I have some good reasons for feeling right, but I might be wrong and, well, it will be interesting to see what the other guy has to say. Maybe I'll learn something new!" In such a debate, each side actively listens by trying to put themselves in their opponent's shoes. A good exercise in such a debate would be for each contender to state, in his own words, what he believes his opponent is arguing, and then asking for confirmation from their opponent. Ultimately, in such "sacred argument," it is necessary for each debater to be fully committed to the humanity, rationality, and decency of their opponents. The moment we begin to suspect (much less say!) that disagreement equals irrationality, stupidity, or maliciousness, we have lost the debate.

In a sense we must enter a debate like the ancient Roman Gladiators, with the motto: "We who are about to die salute you!" We who are about to be proven wrong, enter the arena where our assumptions will be challenged and perhaps shattered.

I'm not advocating that Mormons start debating in Sunday School; nor am I suggesting that Mormons ought to change their ethic of avoiding "contention." It has served us well, and trying to argue more might be disastrous if we don't have a strong culture (like Jews) that supports the right kind of argument. Nevertheless, in those situations where Mormons do argue -- as they have over Proposition 8 -- it might be worthwhile to ask, first of all, Why have Mormons abandoned their traditional insistence on avoiding debate on this particular issue? And second, If we must debate, can we do it in a way that does not banish the Holy Spirit from our hearts and from our communities?

Is there a way to make our arguments a sacred opportunity for the Holy Spirit to enter and convince us not of the other's error, but of our own?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Why I Like Atheist Morality

In my review of the Hitchens-Wilson debate I said that I liked Douglas Wilson's argument about how Christianity provides a narrative framework for concepts of good and evil. Christopher Hitchens chose not to take this argument on directly, except by reiterating several times throughout the debate his belief that human beings had evolved an innate moral sense which might stand us in good stead if it were not periodically hijacked and perverted by organized religion.

After reading and reviewing the debate, I learned a bit more about the morality of Douglas Wilson. I posted a link to an account of Wilson's biblical defense of slavery, and the divisive effect his fundamentalist church has had on the small Idaho community where they are located. Among other things, I learned of Douglas Wilson's commitment to the literal extermination of people like me. I felt sick to my stomach. I felt sick for a couple of days actually, sick and depressed. On the basis of my reading of the Hitchens-Wilson debate, I had concluded that Douglas Wilson was a decent man, a man of "passion and compassion." I'd like to go on record saying I don't think that any more.

Part of me wants to be able to separate the man from the argument, the man from the affirmation of Christian faith. The most generous thing I could think to say on that score, however, is that Douglas Wilson has very skillfully co-opted Christian language about love and morality in order to promote an agenda of profound hate. At best he's a wolf in sheep's clothing. He certainly had me fooled. But what does the vicious agenda of the man say about the arguments he used? Does it say anything about faith in general? Is Douglas Wilson living, walking proof that Christianity is in fact very bad for the world?

I was exposed to atheist philosophy in a significant way for the first time at, of all places, Brigham Young University, in a modern French literature course. A unit of that course was devoted to the existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. These men came face to face with the terrible fact that they could no longer believe in God. Not that they did not wish to believe or would not believe, but that they could not believe. The angst in their works is driven, in large part, by the collapse of the over-arching narrative that Christianity had provided, which offered the framework for notions of good, evil, and meaning. Camus compared the task of modern man in the absence of God to the fate of Sisyphus, damned to roll a boulder up the mountainside each day, only to find the next morning that it had returned to its place at the bottom of the mountain. Atheists had to continue to be good even in a world where they could no longer find any overarching justification for goodness. On what could they rely as a moral guide? Only the innate sense of compassion and morality that Hitchens (and Dawkins, and other modern-day apologists for atheism) insist on.

That innate sense is what Christians call "conscience" and what Mormons call "the light of Christ." Within the Christian/Latter-day Saint framework, that conscience is guided by "the still small voice" of the Spirit, which speaks to us not outwardly in strident, stentorian, coercive tones, but inwardly and quietly, so quietly we can miss it if we pay too much attention to the "earthquake and the fire" (I Kings 19:12). It is those quiet, inward sources of morality that move all human beings, regardless of religious affiliation or non-affiliation.

In the LDS framework, human beings are believed to be children of God living in an amnesiac exile. Why the veil of forgetfulness? Because God is testing us to see what kind of beings we are in his absence, with nothing but the light of conscience to guide us. In other words, from a Mormon perspective we might say that atheists who strive for moral conduct in the absence of God have accurately perceived and are "faithfully" responding to the best of their ability to the human condition as understood in Latter-day Saint theology.

LDS scripture warns that in the "last days" "there shall also arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch, that, if possible, they shall deceive the very elect, who are the elect according to the covenant" (JS-M vs. 22). A false Christ or a false prophet would be not someone denouncing Christ, but someone putting Christ on falsely, someone exploiting people's faith in Christ in order to lead them down dangerous paths. Someone, say, using the overarching Christian narrative of good and evil in order to pervert people's native sense of compassion and fairness, and enlist them in campaigns of hate.

I personally do not reside in a world where God is absent. God is very much present in my daily life, in a way that guides, strengthens, and comforts me, and in a way that opens my heart, that strengthens my commitment to love and fairness for all. I choose to disarm, to walk with nothing but faith and love. This is a dangerous path, a vulnerable path. I am especially aware of how dangerous and vulnerable it is in the face of wolves who believe -- no, who know -- that God sanctions slavery and commands the extermination of infidels.

I believe in some sort of cosmic good and evil. I trust that good will eventually triumph. But I am willing to say that this overarching narrative bequeathed to us by religion cannot, should not be used as an excuse to banish pity and compassion from our hearts. We can find comfort in belief, we can let it sustain us through the hard times, but we should always, always follow the light of Christ first, listen to the still, small voice that leads us slowly and steadily, one step at a time, down the path of unconditional love.

Monday, December 1, 2008

"Is Christianity Good for the World": Addendum

More on the "Christian" views of Douglas Wilson.

Check this out this article about his views on slavery.

I confess, I feel a bit duped by his self-presentation in the framework of the Christianity Today debate I reviewed yesterday. (I'm also rather shocked that Christopher Hitchens failed to call him on this!) What I said in my essay yesterday applies, I suppose doubly, to this fellow who has advocated the mass extermination of homosexuals: "The category of 'those who do not know the Christian God' could include many who label themselves as Christian."

Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Is Christianity Good for the World?"

I promised myself I wasn't going to read this debate between atheist Christopher Hitchens and Christian apologist Douglas Wilson. I was certain that the debaters would proceed with simplistic, worn-out arguments, attempting to caricature the positions of their opponent, and that reading it would just irritate me.

But yesterday on a family outing to a bookstore at the mall, I happened upon the Christianity Today-sponsored debate, recently published (2008) in book form by Canon Press. The debate is published with a forward by Jewish agnostic Jonah Goldberg, and includes introductory statements by the respective debaters, followed by six "rounds" of response and counter-response. My curiosity piqued, I opened the book to a random page and began reading ("round 2"), telling myself that if it was as stupid as I feared, I would put it back on the shelf and be content to leave it at that. Long story short, I ended up buying the book.

The entire book took me about forty-five minutes to read. I ultimately decided that all six rounds read together were only slightly more intelligent than "round 2" standing on its own, since the debaters did have a tendency to repeat the same arguments again and again in slightly different iterations. The banter in each round about the true import of the Parable of the Good Samaritan was both mildly entertaining and grating. All the same, the central arguments were good arguments, made broadly, succinctly, and passionately. I enjoyed reading both Hitchens and Wilson, and found myself nodding in agreement with arguments made from the atheist side as well as the Christian side (though more often in agreement with the Christian). I also found myself disagreeing with points made both by the Christian as well as the atheist (though more often disagreed with the atheist). Both debaters wrote in a way that caused me to reflect more deeply on my own commitments.

The book did not leave me feeling irritated or quarrelsome, but strangely, more human. In fact, the best word to describe the debate as a whole is "humanizing." The debaters are both -- the atheist and the Christian alike -- people of passion and compassion. One is left with the sense that these are two very good people wrestling, each from their own perspective, with large questions of great interest to all human beings, and I felt generally enriched for having given each of them a thorough hearing.

The key to Wilson's argument as to why "Christianity is good for the world" is that Christianity -- in a way atheism is utterly incapable -- provides a narrative within which concepts of good and evil, right and wrong are comprehensible. Within a faith-based narrative, we may not always agree on the particulars of what is moral, but we can agree that a moral structure of the universe exists and we can critique human behavior from that perspective. Arguably, Christianity's unique contribution is to provide a narrative in which the greatest and most powerful being in the Universe does not consider himself greater than the smallest and weakest, preferring to live among us, heal our infirmities, and die for us. The loving, self-abasing God revealed in Christ doesn't sound much like the "tyrant in the sky" described by Hitchens. That God -- the God of wrath and punishment -- sounds like a plausible description of the Christian God only by those who do not know him. The category of "those who do not know the Christian God" could include many who label themselves as Christian.

Wilson's defense has much to commend it, and I find myself largely agreeing with it. All the same, coming from a Latter-day Saint perspective (and this was also my response after reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion), I am struck by the fact that A) these debates are most compelling within the framework of classic Western Christian theology, and B) that is not my theology. For instance, the power of Christopher Hitchens' argument against God depends on the notion of an autocratic Creator divinity who is the sole author and determiner of everything in existence; the sole judge of good and evil and the punisher of creations who stray from his all-encompassing will. The God Hitchens finds deplorable is the classical Judeo-Christian God in general, and the deterministic, predestinarian Calvinist God in particular. That is also the God that Wilson defends. Wilson's defense consists not of denying God's autocratic nature, but in affirming God's goodness, as manifest in the goodness of creation, and suggesting that Christian obedience is not servility, but a form of gratitude.

Wilson's defense is not a bad one, given the constraints of the theological framework within which he mounts it. Still, I found myself agreeing with Hitchens' point that the concept of human freedom is incomprehensible within the classical Western Christian narrative of an omnipotent creator deity. Just as Hitchens could not seem to answer Wilson's demands to make concepts of "good" and "evil" meaningful in a universe without God, so Wilson could not seem to answer Hitchens' demands to make concepts of human freedom meaningful in a universe with God.

Mormon theology is able to answer both demands rather elegantly. The Mormon narrative of "eternal progression" provides a framework within which good, evil, divinity and human freedom are all meaningful together. In the Mormon narrative, human intelligences (our intelligences!) are uncreated and co-eternal with God, and cannot be forced. The nature of God's divinity includes his eternal commitment to uphold and protect the sanctity of those intelligences' independence and freedom, his commitment to preserve our "free agency." The key to God's godhood is his ability literally to move the elements by persuasion, not by force. It is our ability to choose that is the root cause of pain and evil. Moral imperatives are comprehensible within the Mormon narrative as the invitation God extends us to join him in an eternally expanding creative project. We agreed to enter this realm of suffering because we accepted trial and pain as part of the cost of accepting God's invitation. Having accepted this opportunity, we are free at every moment to choose to grow with and "like" God, or to remain in the unevolved state we were in when we entered mortal existence. For Mormons, damnation is not arbitrary punishment by a wrathful God, but simply stagnation, an inability or unwillingness to grow beyond one's limitations. And, before we exercise ourselves about the Mormon notion of humans trying to make "gods" out of themselves, remember that the nature of God revealed in Christ is "suffering servanthood." He (or she) who would master the universe must be willing to be last, least, and lowest. The "will to power" seems automatically to disqualify us from godhood, if section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants is any indication.

The Mormon narrative would have the added bonus -- from the point of view of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others who share these men's love of science -- of making scientific curiosity and progress not merely good, but an imperative. For Mormons, whose God declares that "intelligence" is his glory (D&C 93:36), no scientific theories can be spurned out of hand, especially those that have proven themselves by offering ever more predictive models of the universe. Mormons can embrace science, even when it seems to contradict their theology, because godlike knowledge cannot be acquired without work, and its acquisition begins here and now. All knowledge that we gain in mortality will serve us in eternity. And the fact that the acquisition of knowledge is a process means that at this point our scientific knowledge must always be considered too incomplete and contingent to be viewed as incongruent with faith. Only the insecure will let supposed contradictions between faith and science bother them too much. In other words, not only may Mormons safely embrace the theory of the evolution of species, they already embrace a theology of the evolution of spirits.

To acknowledge that the "God problem" as argued by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens doesn't really apply in a Mormon theological context is not the same as answering all of their arguments about the "likelihood" of a theistic universe ("Occam's razor" and all that). Elsewhere I've suggested (and others have argued better than I have) that those concerns hinge on questions of evidence. That, obviously, is a slightly different debate. I.e., answering the question of whether "Christianity is good for the world" is different from answering the question of whether Christianity is true. The only thing I'll venture to offer along those lines here is my personal conviction that if God did not exist, we most certainly should not invent him, even if to do so would somehow be "good for the world." Because however good goodness is, truth is better. Though it would be hard to make the case that truth that fails to advance the human condition has moral value, except in a universe with God. In other words, only an atheist, I think, could insist on "inventing" God.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sodom or Zion? Nineveh?

One of the bitterest bones of contention in the American culture wars of the last century had to do with the question of how Jesus would come again. The premillennialists believed that the world would necessarily become more and more wicked until God broke the seals on the book of destiny and poured out devouring, purifying plagues and destruction upon the earth. The postmillennialists believed that humankind would gradually become better, until they had perfected society and made the world a suitable dwelling place for God; when Christ had gradually perfected his reign in the hearts of each inhabitant of the world, then and only then could he assume his rightful place as worldly ruler.

Polemicists of these two views of the world portrayed their opponents in the worst possible terms. Premillennialists accused postmillennialists of faithlessness and sin. Postmillennialists accused premillennialists of bigotry and willful ignorance. Churches divided over this issue. The propaganda machines spun in full gear. Hate and fear thrived, and faith... Well, the advocates of the various sides thought they had the only true faith.

The echoes of these culture wars from a century ago still resonate today, though Americans don't fight over this particular issue with the same fervor they did a hundred years ago. The "burning" issues that provide fodder for our cultural cannons are abortion and same-sex marriage. But, even though we may think we are fighting different battles, the truth is, anger, contention and war are always and ever and eternally the same. Contention just assumes different masks to keep us interested in the game.

When I read the accounts of these culture wars from the turn of the twentieth century, I am struck by a profound scriptural truth that seems relevant to the question of when and how Christ will come again. We choose.

Scripture teaches us of Sodom -- the city that became so wicked, God was compelled to wipe it and its inhabitants off the face of the planet. How did it become so wicked? Because that is the path its inhabitants chose.

Then there was the city of Enoch, called Zion, the city that became so righteous, so pure in heart, that there was no hate, no distinction. All things were had in common. And that city became so righteous, God was compelled to bring it up to Heaven, translating its inhabitants in the twinkling of an eye. How did Zion become so righteous? Because that is the path its inhabitants chose.

And I think of Nineveh. Jonah was commanded to go to Nineveh and prophesy: Because of their wickedness they would become like Sodom. They would be destroyed. But Nineveh repented! That prophecy went from a prediction of what will happen to a warning of what might have happened.

Aren't we like Nineveh? Are not both courses always before us? The course of destruction and the course of salvation? Don't we choose which way Christ will come again?

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Bondwoman and Her Son

Nothing about the story of Abraham is normal or conventional. That bears emphasizing, given the tendency in our culture to value normality and convention, and to equate deviance with sin. For one thing, on his travels through Egypt and Canaan, Abraham had this tendency to tell people that his wife Sarah was actually his sister. Sarah must have been extremely beautiful, because even at the age of 90, powerful men wanted to marry her.

The Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price actually has the Lord commanding Abraham to tell Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister, because apparently the Egyptians would have killed Abraham to steal his wife. This story never really made much sense to me, though I accept that it's possible. After all, if the Egyptians would have killed Abraham in order to steal his wife had he told them the truth, why would they suddenly have scruples about killing him once they discovered he had been lying to them? I guess Abraham wasn't lying when he said he was a stranger in a "strange" land.

After finding out that Sarah was actually Abraham's wife (in the case of Abimelech, the Lord warned him of this in a dream), both Pharaoh and Abimelech were understandably miffed at Abraham for lying to them, and subsequently asked him and his wife to please leave. This part of the story does actually make sense to me. Abimelech even made elaborate amends for the wrong he had (inadvertently almost) committed, by giving Abraham sheep, oxen and male and female slaves before sending him on his way.

Abraham excused himself to Abimelech by explaining that, in fact, he and Sarah were siblings. Half-siblings. They were children of the same father, but had different mothers (Gen. 20:12). Again, a bit creepy in the context of modern sensibilities regarding incest. But, one assumes, not unheard of in Old Testament times.

Then of course, there's the whole storyline of Sarah being unable to bear children, and asking her husband to have sex with her slave, Hagar, so that Hagar could have a son for her. It is hard for me to read this without filtering it through the U.S.'s own baleful history with slavery, which included slave masters using their slaves sexually. Certainly there's nothing in the account in Genesis to suggest that Hagar had any more say in the matter than American slave women had in such situations.

If we believe Abraham to be a kind and honorable man, then we must believe that she did have a say and was free to accept or reject his offer. What we read in Genesis may suggest that Hagar saw this as an opportunity for advancement in the household hierarchy. But that is not saying much, considering she was a woman and a slave.

By the way, did I mention that Abraham, prophet and "friend of God," owned slaves? I suppose there are different ways we could interpret that. We could take from this that slavery (or at least the type of slavery that Abraham practiced) is a divinely sanctioned institution, ordained by God. OR we could assume that Abraham, prophet and "friend of God," was enmeshed in the unjust economic and social systems of the time and place that he lived in, and that his status as a prophet did not mean that he automatically rose above every circumstance of the culture into which he was born. But I digress...

What we can say about Hagar and her status, regardless of how much say she did or did not have in this situation, is that she was abused from the beginning by Sarah. Sarah, jealous that Hagar was able to conceive when she couldn't, made life so miserable for her slave that Hagar felt forced to flee for a time, facing starvation and death in the wilderness. Hagar eventually returned "submitting herself" to her mistress, whatever that meant. But when Sarah finally had a son of her own, she furiously insisted that "the bondwoman and her son" Ishmael be banished. Abraham was chagrined by Sarah's demands, but he acquiesced in this supreme injustice. And if we believe the Genesis account, banishment under these circumstances was a virtual death sentence for Ishmael and Hagar. All for the "crime" of having submitted to Sarah's own request that Abraham father a son by Hagar.

This text feels strangely relevant to me in today's charged debate over same-sex marriage. Certainly the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar reminds us what is most painfully evident now in the whole same-sex marriage debate: that marriage is all about rights, but even more about status. Marriage tells us not only what claims a person is entitled to make on society, but who is legitimate and who is illegitimate. Why should anybody be surprised that most gay folks are disgruntled by the offer of the "separate but equal" status of "civil unions," when it is so obvious that it is offered only as a sop to demands for rights that cannot be reasonably refused, while denying the equal status that gay folks understandably feel they also deserve in a democratic society?

The logic of American history and the American political way suggests that those demands will ultimately be impossible to refuse, for the same reason that, in order to be true to its democratic principles, America rejected slavery, segregation, and "miscegenation" laws. Americans reject outright the notion that God favors some over others due to accidents of birth. And Americans abhor unfairness, and believe in the sanctity of individual rights and equality under the law, and they believe that God sanctions that belief.

But God's intervention in the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar is a bit less clean-cut and tidy than should be liked by most Americans with their irrepressible insistence on unambiguous resolutions and happy endings. Isaac does go on -- with God's blessing -- to be the "chosen" son, the son through whom the "chosen people" claim their lineage. But God intervened with Hagar too, sending angels to protect her and her son from starvation and thirst and the other dangers of the desert.

God did not intervene in such a way as to give Hagar the status she probably hoped for (or deserved). God let Sarah have her way on this count. (Though this particular outcome, in any event, probably had little to do with Sarah's desires or Hagar's worthiness.) But he preserved Hagar's life and her son's life, showing unbiased love for them in the face of Sarah's deadly jealousy, and granting them a role in his plan. God had a work to do both through Isaac and Ishmael, both through Hagar and Sarah, despite the peculiarities, anguish and injustices of the particular situations in which they lived.

I take comfort in that.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

How Beautiful Upon the Mountains Are the Feet...

I had a remarkable dream last Saturday, one that made me sit up in astonishment.

I was out West somewhere, in the mountains, on the outskirts of Colorado Springs (headquarters of Jim Dobson's Focus on the Family). In my dream, that's where my home ward here in Minneapolis was located.

I arrived at the ward meeting house for Sacrament meeting, and I was greeted by my bishop. The Saints were all in hiding. They were afraid for their lives, as they believed a terrorist attack against them was imminent. The bishop seemed overjoyed by my arrival. He asked me to go up into the attic of the meeting house, where all the ward's women and children were hiding, and let them know that it was now safe to come down.

I climbed the winding staircase to the meeting house attic, where I found the bishop's wife, and all the other women in the ward, with the young primary children. I told them the threat was over, it was safe to come down. They all then filed down the stairs into the chapel, where Sacrament Meeting was about to begin. I was the last one to go down.

By the time I went down, they were already singing the opening hymn. Then the bishop's wife gave the opening prayer. She named me by name in her prayer, and said, "We give thanks for John, and ask that you help him in the search for his family." I was invited to sit with some friends at the front of the chapel, right in front of the sacrament table, where I participated in worship along with everyone else.

The rest of the dream was extremely long, full of remarkable symbolism -- too long to recount in detail here. The short version is that it involved a pilgrimage to Colorado Springs, in search of my family. On this pilgrimage, I found myself challenged and hounded by armed, self-appointed militia, who saw me as an "illegal alien" and who tried to stop me. And my search finally ended back at the home of my bishop, where I helped his wife bring a dying and withered Christmas tree back to life.

But the most powerful thing about this dream, for me, had to do with my sense of the role I (and we all) need to play in being "bringers of good tidings" and "publishers of peace."

Of course people in the Church are afraid of homosexuals. They are especially afraid of gay rights activists, whom they see as on a crusade to take away their rights. How or why they are afraid or whether there is an ounce of justification to those fears is irrelevant from the point of view of those of us entrusted with the burden of making peace.

We can't be messengers of peace unless and until we disarm. Unless and until we are willing to go places we are afraid to go, unless and until we are willing to reassure instead of threaten. This is a sacred calling, the calling of being a peace bringer.

I know some people will say we can only get peace through strength. We can only convince our enemies to back down if they are afraid of us. And that is true -- but only because they are our "enemies." There's a deeper, more profound, more lasting way of making peace: the way Christ taught us, the way he modeled for us in going willingly to the cross, which is to make peace by ending enmity itself.

How do we know if this is our calling?

If we dwell in a place of warfare, it is our calling.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Living/Losing Zion

In recent weeks, it has occasionally occurred to me that it should be odd for me to continue attending church at my ward as if nothing had ever happened, given the supposed bad blood between Latter-day Saints and same-sex families these days. But such thoughts came to me only as slightly disconnected observations, never as any serious temptation to leave. Really, it has never occurred to me to do anything else but continue to show up at my ward for worship just as I always have, because that is one of my spiritual life lines. My continued faithfulness, come hell or high water, is a condition for keeping the Spirit in my life. So I won't stop. I just have to trust God to work out all the strangeness and contradictions.

And the Spirit has been present, so vividly and powerfully. It's almost as if the willingness to risk, the willingness to go out on a spiritual/psychological/emotional limb, the willingness to give something up, to sacrifice gives me a hotline to Heaven. What have I given up? My defenses. I won't do any special pleading. Won't argue. Won't demand my own. Won't expect people to accommodate me. Won't harbor any sense of self-righteousness or indignation. (Self-righteousness always gives a perverse kind of short-term comfort but, like any addiction, eventually leaves us cold and empty!) And amazingly, the Spirit is there in this most amazing, sustaining, powerful way. I find peace, wisdom, knowledge, comfort. I am never alone. It is so much better than the cheap, worldly substitute of defensiveness.

My former bishop gave a Sunday School lesson on Sunday, in which we discussed Zion. It came up in the context of 4 Nephi; in the context of discussing a civilization that had achieved a Zion society, and then lost it. And there was some talk about what can cause us to lose Zion.

We have to choose Zion. It's always a conscious choice, even when you "have" it. Because you can lose it any day, passively, by failing to choose it.

There is no "right" or "wrong" in a Zion community, not from our perspective. Because there is nothing to be won by "being right." Because it is not for us to judge. It is only for us to love. It is for the Lord to make judgments. It is for the Lord to correct. For us there is only attentiveness to what God would have us do in the here and now. We have to hold to that like the iron rod.

Hearts are warm in Zion. We love, not out of a sense of duty, but because people are amazing and cool and powerful. Because our love makes all of us stronger. Because love is what defines us as human beings and as children of God. We love not the abstract, not the ideal of a person. We love the real, flesh and blood, warts and all, living, breathing actual humans. Our love makes us sensitive to their hurts, hungry for their successes and their joy, eager to help make their path easier, not harder. Love is seeing clearly, not blinding ourselves, not hardening ourselves, not de-sensitizing. I'm not sure, but I don't think I've ever seen a love that felt genuine accompanied by the phrase "for your own good," a phrase that signals a distinct lack of empathy. Zion is having hearts and minds as one. It's having no poor. There's no VIP table in the dining hall of Zion.

But Zion is the realization that as wonderful as it sounds to be in a place like that, to receive that kind of unconditional love, it is we who must create it first. There's no Zion we can cash in on that someone else has built before us. Zion always takes our willingness to be the first one to give, even when we feel no one cares about us, no one gives to us. The door to Zion is locked so long as we insist on fairness for ourselves. We have to fight for fairness for others, even when it feels unfair to us. Zion is sorrow for our wrongs, our failure to love, not anger for the wrongs or failures of others. That's the gate, the only way in. It takes that leap of faith, that trust. Zion is a city with invisible gates. You can't see it until you are inside of it.

In Zion, priesthood is our way of life. The principles of the priesthood are the bedrock of society. Namely that you cannot use the power of the priesthood for yourself. You cannot bless yourself with it -- except by serving others. Your work is for others. Your hope is for others. Your prayer is for others. You trust your own welfare to God. It's the only way it can work.

Zion is not a place we can find alone. So to a certain extent, sometimes Zion requires waiting. We can't all be ready at the same time. But we always have a work to do, even while we are waiting.

I want to go. Who will go with me?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Plea to the Saints Who Opposed Prop 8

No, I'm not going to ask you to "speak out," or to "educate" your fellow Saints, or to write letters or in any other way lobby Church leaders. In fact, I'm asking you more or less to do the opposite.

Please just be quiet about it. Don't make a fuss. Don't raise your hand in class and make that courageous, lead-balloon-like comment, or make some grandiloquent statement in testimony meeting. You will not convince anyone of anything. You will annoy people. You will also create an opportunity for contention. You or others will be tempted to argue. Or you will be tempted to feel angry and excluded if you don't get the response you hoped for. So just let it go. If someone asks your opinion, and they seem to sincerely want to know what you think, tell them the truth, but don't go out of your way to try to convert people.

If you feel obliged, go ahead and blog about it. But try not to argue with people who disagree with your posts.

This is not the coward's way out. In fact, often it takes more courage to just swallow your pride and keep quiet, and to quietly do what is right, than it does to grandstand. You won't be letting me, or anybody else down. Not so long as you live your convictions.

Do not under any circumstances resign, or even threaten to resign your membership in the Church. It's not because the Church will be poorer without you (though it will) but because you will be poorer without the Church. Your capacity to do good and to minister to gay and lesbian members and non-members alike will be diminished if you cut yourself off from the blessings of the priesthood and the temple. And resigning from the Church will not help me or anyone else who is currently excluded from the Church.

If you are one of the few who has been unjustly disciplined over a matter of conscience -- for instance, by having your temple recommend or a calling taken away -- pray to the Lord to ask for strength to forgive whomever has done this. And then ask forgiveness for whatever anger and resentment you may feel toward them as a result. If you have been treated unfairly, the Lord will doubly bless you if you remain faithful.

If I could, I would do anything to regain my membership in the Church except the two things I cannot do: cease to be gay and/or abandon the family I have made solemn vows to love, protect, care for and stay faithful to. If you are in the Church and have the blessings of the priesthood and the temple, do not under any circumstances throw those blessings away. If I hear one more person say they have resigned their Church membership over this, I am going to cry.

If we are wrong -- and I freely admit that we could be -- perhaps the Lord will forgive us, so long as our heart was in the right place, so long as our primary motives were love and a hunger for fairness. If our motives were a desire to be right or to win, to look less foolish to our non-Mormon friends, or a desire to make the Church or its leaders look foolish, such motives will not be mitigating if we are wrong, and they are not so ennobling in any event.

If we are right, then have faith that the Lord is at the head of his Church, and that he will correct and perfect the Church in his time and in his way. Trust the work of the Spirit. If the Spirit was able to work in you to change your heart and open it to a way of seeing things that once didn't seem so obvious to you, trust that the Spirit is also capable of working in others. Be happy that the Lord's gradual work of correcting the Church has already begun in you! And wait patiently for that work to continue in others!

Pray for me and for others in my situation. Pray for the Church and its leaders. Be grateful that you do not have to stand in their shoes. Pray for yourself. Pray for light and truth and understanding, and pray for correction if you are wrong. Pray for the Spirit to show you the way, and teach you when to speak and when to be silent, when to act and when to wait. Pray for unconditional love. Pray for the Church to be preserved in love and harmony and mutual forgiveness. And then make it so. And in the end, all will we well.

"How Have You Been... With Prop 8?"

This morning, on my way to work, I found myself counting blessings. This is, believe it or not, a very important spiritual practice, especially when facing any sort of loss or disappointment in life. I was remembering that I am not lonely. I have an amazing, funny, generous husband and a fun, energetic, smart, loving foster kid. I have a wonderful, amazing extended family who love me unconditionally -- parents, siblings, the most incredible in-laws. I recently had my annual physical, and was pronounced by my doctor to be in a state of "perfect" health, above average in every category for my age group. In a time of deepening recession, I have a stable job at a workplace where I am appreciated for my skills. My husband and I have a beautiful house and ample food and clothing. I live in a thriving neighborhood in a tolerant and diverse city. And in the ward I attend, I have a growing number of kind, smart, loving friends.

One of these friends is Sister R. She and I met for lunch today, which is becoming a custom of ours. We spent the hour swapping news about our respective families, telling the good news as well as the bad news. We talked about some of our respective child-rearing struggles, and shared insights about how to cope with certain types of situations. It was a warm, wonderful, affirming exchange.

Toward the end of our lunch, she paused. Choosing her words carefully, she said, "How have you been...?" She paused, and then continued: "...with Prop 8?"

Of all the things on my mind and heart, that was the one thing we had not discussed. I deliberately had steered myself away from that topic, choosing instead to focus on the more concrete and immediate. I didn't expect to discuss Prop 8 with a member of my ward. But the fact that she would ask that question brought balm to my soul.

Could she read the gratitude in my face? I told her simply that the news about the referendum had left me heartbroken. I told her how difficult it had been dealing with the flood of mixed feelings that it brought; the elation of seeing Barack Obama win a historic election, with all that implied for my African American husband and his family; and yet that elation being mixed with deep sadness and a feeling of me and my family being left behind. Then I shared with her the experience I had had a couple of days after the election, helping me to find peace.

I had no desire to talk about politics. I had no heart to discuss this at anything but this level, the level of feelings and responses, and what this has meant for my spiritual journey.

Sister R. listened, expressing sympathy at appropriate junctures as I spoke. She shared her impressions and recollections of the sheer happiness I had expressed after getting married last summer (which I had shared with her at a luncheon last summer after our return from Memphis). She then expressed empathy for how disappointing it must have been to have that elation followed by the Prop 8 vote.

As I told about the personal revelation I had received, assuring me that I and my family would be OK and everything would be all right, her face lit up. Then she talked about experiences she's had, where she too has had to learn to just let things go, and not worry about what she can't control.

I'm not sure how she felt about Prop 8 as a political referendum. I don't know whether she would have voted for it or against it had she lived in California. We didn't talk about that. But I was so grateful for this encounter. So grateful that she cared enough to ask that question, and to listen to me express my feelings, and to just be there for me as a friend.

I am grateful that the loving presence and support of the Spirit has enabled me to let go of my anger and resentment about this, and to let go of my expectations of how people should respond to this situation. I am grateful that that letting go has enabled me to find friendships I could not have found otherwise, to grow in ways I could not have grown otherwise, and is opening doors of love that might otherwise have stayed shut.

Gratitude is a key that unlocks so much to us. It is the antidote to so much that would otherwise corrode our souls: impatience, anger, hate.

I am grateful for this journey.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Blinded by Marriage

Last Sunday in Gospel Doctrine class, we read and discussed portions of 3 Nephi 22. This entire chapter is part of Christ's sermon to the Nephites, and is a quotation of Isaiah chapter 54.

After reading the first three verses as a class, Sister J., who was sitting right next to me, raised her hand and drew attention to a rather interesting turn of phrase in the first verse: "For more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord."

Sister J. expressed -- in a rather round about way -- the sentiment that this verse suggested the need for us to be open to, and attentive to the needs of, the "desolate," the less fortunate. She immediately had my attention, as I was still wrestling with the whole experience this past week of having my marriage voted away, and my family denied and condemned in another slew of state referenda.

Another member of the class, Brother M., raised his hand and offered his interpretation of this verse. "The married wife" clearly referred to the sacred, everlasting covenant of eternal marriage. This verse was simply highlighting the fact that very few have entered into the everlasting covenant -- that for this reason, there are far more "children of the desolate" than children of the covenant. Other members of the class seized on this, commenting on how the world has little regard for marriage, and then to the need for missionary work to help convert the "children of the desolate."

But here's the text in its entire context:

1 And then shall that which is written come to pass: Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child; for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord.
2 Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thy habitations; spare not, lengthen thy cords and strengthen thy stakes;
3 For thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left, and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles and make the desolate cities to be inhabited.
4 Fear not, for thou shalt not be ashamed; neither be thou confounded, for thou shalt not be put to shame; for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more.
5 For thy maker, thy husband, the Lord of Hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel—the God of the whole earth shall he be called.
6 For the Lord hath called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a wife of youth, when thou wast refused, saith thy God.
7 For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee.
8 In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment, but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.
9 For this, the waters of Noah unto me, for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so have I sworn that I would not be wroth with thee.
10 For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee.
11 O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted! Behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires.
12 And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones.
13 And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children.
14 In righteousness shalt thou be established; thou shalt be far from oppression for thou shalt not fear, and from terror for it shall not come near thee.
15 Behold, they shall surely gather together against thee, not by me; whosoever shall gather together against thee shall fall for thy sake.
16 Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work; and I have created the waster to destroy.
17 No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall revile against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord.

Here, the Lord is not commenting on the benighted state of the barren and the unmarried, speaking about them to the married. He is speaking lovingly and reassuringly to the barren and unmarried, promising them hope, promising them offspring greater than the powerful and respectable -- who are symbolized in this text by "the married wife": "Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing... for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord"! This text could be cross-referenced with Isaiah chapter 56, where the Lord promises "the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths": "Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off" (Isaiah 56:5).

This text, it dawned on me, was not for all the respectable married, fertile people sitting around me, it was for me, for the one in the room who had been "ashamed" and "confounded," the one in the room under "reproach" because he was unmarried, because he was "barren." "For thy maker, thy Husband, the Lord of Hosts is his name.... For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee."

I understand that this text was originally written to the captive children of Israel, reminding them that despite their desperate, powerless and scattered state, the Lord was watching over them and would protect them, and that this would not always be their state. It was a promise to them to give them hope. And this would undoubtedly have been Christ's reason for quoting the text to the gathered Nephites and Lamanites in the account in 3 Nephi which provided our context for reading it. But I was also reading the text as Christ himself has commanded us to read: likening the scriptures unto me, seeing myself there in those verses. And the Spirit was there to comfort and confirm my reading.

The good Saints gathered in that Sunday School room were so preoccupied with "defending marriage," they had actually read this text in exactly the opposite sense it was clearly intended. What might have been a lesson about humility and love toward those whom the world does not value, turned into something quite different.

I didn't say a word... I let the Saints have their way with the text, though I was grateful for Sister J., who had done her part to point the class in a different, slightly less self-congratulatory direction.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Where Can I Turn for Peace?

Emotionally, this has been a tough week for me.

Sister H., a native Lakota woman in my ward, is one of the few members who, from the beginning, seemed to notice that I was there. The first time we spoke, she just said in a very gentle way, "I haven't seen you around here before..." I explained that I had been excommunicated years ago, but was coming back to the Church. Every once in a while since then, she stops me in the hall to ask how I am doing. She gives hugs and smiles, and promises to keep me in her prayers, for which I'm always grateful. The spirit of these interactions has always been warm, caring, and non-invasive. I've always felt her interactions with me coming from a place of genuine love.

Today at church, this sister bore her testimony. She bore it first in her native Lakota tongue, and then in English. She spoke about some of the trials her faith has come through, and she finished with a simple statement about what it has meant to her to keep the faith. It was a beautiful testimony in itself, but for me the beauty of it was magnified because of the way all her past kindnesses to me were witnesses of the reality of her faith.

The closing hymn (LDS hymnal, #129) seemed to me as if it had been written specifically for me, today:

Where can I turn for peace? Where is my solace
When other sources cease to make me whole?
When with a wounded heart, anger, or malice,
I draw myself apart, searching my soul?

Where, when my aching grows, Where, when I languish,
Where, in my need to know, where can I run?
Where is the quiet hand to calm my anguish?
Who, who can understand? He, only One.

He answers privately, Reaches my reaching
In my Gethsemane, Savior and Friend.
Gentle the peace he finds for my beseeching.
Constant he is and kind, Love without end.

By the last half of the final verse, I had lost my voice.

I was grateful for the quiet, loving presence of my new-found friend Reuben and his wife, who were sitting there next to me. After the closing prayer, I found this dear sister who had born her testimony, Sister H. I thanked her for her testimony, and asked if I could hug her. Then I wept in her arms. I felt she knew better than most what I was going through, and she had shown me she cared, and I was so grateful for her right then and there.

I don't know where or how the journey will end, but I am grateful for the friends I find along the way. My heart is broken over the role the Church played in the passage of Proposition 8. But the Lord has answered me "privately" as the hymn says, has "reached my reaching." And what sustains me is the knowledge that some day the Church will be perfected, and the things that divide us will pass away.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A Bit Disturbed

This morning on CNN I saw coverage of the protests outside the LDS Church headquarters in L.A., and I have to admit I found them a bit disturbing.

It was not the fact of the protests in themselves that upset me. The LDS Church entered the political sphere in a big way, providing half the funding for the Prop 8 campaign, and ordering its members to work to promote Prop 8. If the Church acts as a political entity, then it needs to be prepared to be criticized as a political entity. People have a right to express themselves and have a right to protest actions by the Church that they feel are unjust.

I should add that I do not believe the Church has no right to enter the political sphere or to engage in political action. I do not adhere to the notion of "separate spheres" in which religion reigns supreme in supposedly pure realms of spirit and faith that have nothing to do with what goes on in the real world, while science and government reign supreme in purely material, physical realms that have nothing to do with faith. For me, religion encompasses the whole of life and has ethics as a central concern, which situates it squarely in the "real" world of human relations and politics. Politics and religion are and always have been and always will be inextricably enmeshed with one another. America has established a political order in which religious institutions receive no financial support, are not taxed, and receive no special legal considerations, and in which Americans are free to affiliate or not affiliate with religious institutions. That "wall of separation" between church and state has been an essential foundation of America's religious peace, and I support it without question. But I do not believe it is inappropriate for churches to weigh in on political issues.

I should add, the United Church of Christ (UCC) has expressed strong support for same-sex marriage, and urges its members to work politically for marriage equality. The spiritual streams that come together in the UCC -- the Congregational/Puritan, Christian/Disciples, and Evangelical and Reformed traditions -- are rich with political activism and involvement in America -- from the anti-slavery movement in the antebellum years, to the Social Gospel at the turn of the century, to their present involvement in movements for peace, social justice, and gay rights. They've gotten remarkably little news coverage for taking their recent stance in support of gay marriage. But if I don't complain about that, I have no right to complain about the LDS Church doing the opposite. As I said, of course, a church that wishes to dirty its hands in politics, must expect to pay a political price. That is as true of the UCC, which has been criticized by conservative groups for its pro-gay stance, as it is of the LDS Church, which must now endure criticism from liberal groups.

But there is a line we must not cross. Earlier this summer, a Unitarian Church in Tennessee became the target of a brutal shooting attack because of its pro-gay stance. What disturbs me about the anti-LDS protests, at least as I've seen them, is the anti-Mormon animus that seems to infuse many of them. I got a comment on another post in which someone anonymously used the epithet "cult" against the LDS Church. And the slogans I've seen on some of the signs attacking Mormon polygamy, describing Mormons as "filthy," and so on worries me. Beyond just being counterproductive, for me (and I'm sure for many Mormons) it raises the specter of a time when Mormons were mobbed, whipped, tarred and feathered, killed and exiled in the name of American "freedom."

I wish we wouldn't go there. Let the protesters stay focused on what this is really about: the right to marry, building a society in which all members have an equal stake, promoting love and commitment, and building and protecting real families. If we focus on the good we want, we will eventually achieve it. If we focus on negativity and hate, that may be what we get instead in the end.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Still Small Voice: Have Faith

Yesterday, I posted "We Still Hold a Responsibility... To Ourselves," in which I expressed the sentiment that no matter how dehumanizing the Prop 8 campaign and vote were to me, they could not ultimately strip away my humanity. That was my effort to put on a good face in the wake of a very demoralizing result in California.

But then I saw the picture of the Prop 8 organizers in the L.A. Times on-line, laughing and cheering and holding up clenched fists upon learning that their referendum to strip me of my marriage had succeeded. And I read on the Northern Lights blog the arguments in support of Prop 8 that struck me, at base, as heartless, as inconsiderate of the real-life, flesh-and-blood effect that these kinds of referendums have on me and my family. I felt wounded. I don't want "social acceptance for my lifestyle." What I want is to be able to care for my own, for the ones I love, without having to deal with the kinds of social hurdles that exist when the tax code and health care and powers of attorney are structured around marriage. What I want is the moral and spiritual support that marriage provides for nurture and fidelity.

My marriage last summer was one of the most joyous occasions in my life, if not the most joyous. It was a loving and intimate time with family. A time when my father prayed for me, put his arm around me and encouraged me. A time when the man I love was embraced by my family. A time when we deepened our relationship with our foster son, laying the groundwork for incredible struggle and growth since. The fact that we had to sacrifice for that event, and the fact that it had meaning beyond what a merely private ceremony would have offered helped to make us more of a family. And the clenched fists and the laughing faces in the L.A. Times and the cold arguments on Northern Lights felt like a kind of heartless mockery in the face of something I experienced as truly sacred.

I felt a sort of creeping depression descend on me throughout the day. Yesterday evening, I was cheered somewhat volunteering at the local homeless shelter, preparing and then serving a meal of sloppy joes, mac and cheese, corn and salad. We talked cheerfully about the Obama victory. Still, my heart wasn't in it; I felt like I wanted to cry. I felt drained. I ended up having to leave early. This morning we had a paralegal meeting at work, and my interactions in the meeting were crabby and short, to the point that I felt obliged later in the day to apologize to the meeting organizer. I felt sad. Just deeply sad.

My marriage had been invalidated by a popular referendum of a majority that was convinced by lies and fear-mongering. The certificate that hangs on the wall of our bedroom and that has given me joy every single day I have looked at it, voided by the successful campaign of people that felt strongly enough about relegating my family to second class status that they donated millions and worked tirelessly just for that. And then they laughed and cheered and celebrated at what they had taken away from us.

Yes, the words I wrote largely to comfort myself in the immediate aftermath are true. They can't take away my humanity no matter what. They can't take away the significance of the act that we sacrificed to make a reality last summer. They can't take away what changed in our hearts as a result.

But I still couldn't help but grieve. And feel angry. Why do they hate us so?

This morning, my prayers, usually peaceful and focussed and centered, were just a kind of mournful outcry: God, please help me! Please! And the day that followed just dull and gray and tired. I know it seems melodramatic. Honestly, believe me, I wished I hadn't felt that way. I wished I'd had the strength to just shrug it off, but I didn't.

I found a certain comfort reading Scot's post, and Mohohawaii's. They were grieving too, and the solidarity of shared grief helped me. And then there were the friends. The real friends at work and at the homeless shelter last night, and of course family, who didn't try to minimize the sadness I felt. They expressed genuine shock and sadness and outrage that a majority of voters in California had done this. How could they!? And their expressions of solidarity were a comfort too. But it still didn't take away the deep sadness.

But then I was heading home after work today, walking down the Minneapolis skyway that connects all the major buildings downtown, toward the parking ramp where my bike was locked. I was walking and thinking and feeling sad and basically just sorry for myself. And in that moment, quite unexpectedly (why then? why not earlier today when I was on my knees begging God to Help!?) there came the still, small voice of the Spirit.

It said simply, "Be not of little faith."

That got my attention. I interrogated the Spirit. "What, what do you mean?"

The Spirit replied, "Don't be angry. Don't be afraid. Everything will be well. Everything will be made right."

And that was about the extent of it. I wanted more than that, but it was clear to me that if I wanted more, I had to be, for the time being, content with merely that. What I did understand is that Being Not of Little Faith meant making a conscious effort to set aside my feelings of anger and self pity. It meant remembering the covenants and promises I had made to my partner in that ceremony, being ever true to them in thought, word, and sentiment. And most of all, I needed to let go of my feelings of resentment toward anybody and everybody (especially those Latter-day Saints) who contributed to the victory of Proposition 8. I needed to let go of those feelings, and Right Now. If I just made that conscious movement of heart, if I simply prayed that prayer of forgiveness and letting go, the Spirit would help me do the rest. It would give me the healing that I needed to make it real. To turn the outward motions into true forgiveness and true inner peace.

And there has been a blessed presence of the Spirit since then as well. The best way I can describe it is it as if time has just stopped. Göran called me and asked me to do an errand for him, and I was walking down the street, feeling the cold damp, the end of Indian summer, smelling the fallen leaves. It felt beautiful. I felt beautiful inside and out. I felt blessed peace. And genuine love. Even for those people with the laughing faces, jeering my loss from the image posted in the L.A. Times on-line.

So I walked down the street and reflected on the fact that the same Spirit that encouraged me and mine to head out to California and get married, the same Spirit that has blessed me with so many spiritual gifts in the aftermath of that marriage, that same Spirit is telling me to "Be not of little faith," and commanding me not to be angry, not to be resentful. That was my task. If I would make some effort in that direction, the Spirit would help me. And it has. And I feel at peace. And I trust that ultimately all will be well, as the Spirit has promised me. It feels slightly miraculous to me. It is as if this enormous burden has been lifted. I feel free, truly free from that burden of sadness and anger I've felt for the last 36 hours or so since the moment I first logged onto the L.A. Times on-line and read the bad news at about 6:30 a.m. yesterday morning.

Does that mean I won't continue to talk about Prop 8, about marriage, and about this very strange journey of mine? Of course not.

But it does mean I need to be ever attentive. And ever faithful.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I'm Happy

In our home there were tears of happiness last night at 10:00 p.m. Central Standard Time.

It means a lot to me personally that an African American is now president-elect. It is a visible reminder to me of what I believe is best about the "American system."

I am inspired to have a president who -- FINALLY -- is not afraid to remind Americans that they need to make sacrifices. Who does not see his own election as "change," but merely as an opportunity for change. Who seems to understand that real change takes consensus and cooperation and consistent effort.

But Obama's victory does not -- it cannot possibly -- mean to me personally what it means to my husband, an African American, and our immediate and extended family and friends who are African American. I can see it in his eyes, and hear it in his voice. In the excitement and happiness he couldn't conceal if he tried. This victory means everything to him.

And for those of us who are not African American, it should mean at least this much: that our African American loved ones, family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and fellow citizens are that much uplifted by this victory. That their lives have a chance of being better because of this. That their hopes have finally been elevated to this level. That their stake in this country which belongs to us all is finally increased to something that looks and feels like equality.

The tears in my eyes right now as I reflect on this are only for the fact that this wasn't much, much sooner in coming.

Praise God Almighty! At last.

We Still Hold a Responsibility... To Ourselves

With over 90% of precincts reporting in California, it looks bad for marriage equality in the Golden State.

That is personally heartbreaking for me, and I'm sure for many others across the country. But as I contemplate the likelihood that California has chosen to amend its constitution to deny same-sex couples the right to marry, I remind myself of a few important truths.

We still have a responsibility to love and care for one another. This is true in our intimate relationships, where our greatest chance at happiness is still to uphold fidelity, and to honor and nurture each other, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health. But it is equally true in our relationship to the larger society, even when that society does not appear to hold us in very high regard. We owe it to ourselves to be charitable, honorable, kind and respectful toward all.

We cannot have marriage outwardly, in the world, until we have it inwardly, in our hearts. What is outward and worldly, people can take away from us. They can treat us as if we are less than human. But they cannot take away from us our humanity. They cannot take away what is in our hearts. So we need to continue to live the marriage that is in our hearts and souls, and trust that if we love and are faithful, the outward and the worldly will someday come to match the inward and the spiritual. On the other hand, if we had the outward, worldly marriage but did not honor it in our hearts -- as much, if not most, of the straight world does -- what would we really have? Would we have anything worth having?

Finally, patience benefits us. It makes us finer, better, more powerful people, people capable of facing and overcoming every kind of adversity. Anger and bitterness only poison our own souls. We alone are the true victims of whatever hatred we harbor against others. So we should not be angry at those who have voted against us.

One of the lessons of yesterday's election has to do with the example set for the rest of America by African Americans. African Americans lived in this country for 250 years in slavery. Then, after slavery ended, they endured another 100 years of legal segregation and disenfranchisement. (For most of that sordid history, African Americans were not legally permitted to marry and/or faced racist restrictions on whom they could marry!) Racism in America is still a reality. Yet, African Americans never gave up. They never quit striving for a better life in this country. And yesterday, the inability of most Americans to imagine having an African American occupy the highest office in the land finally came to an end. Praise God! And how did 220 years of political segregation come to an end? Because this amazing individual, Barack Obama, was more concerned with service than with self. That's how all great things in life are achieved.

So we need to have patience. We need to love. We need to honor one another and live worthy of honor. We need to be grateful, and cherish the gifts we already have. And we need to continue to cherish and live worthy of the gifts we hope to receive. When we truly live marriage in our hearts and in our souls, and when we build our families on the principles of fidelity and nurture, no one will ultimately be able to withhold that outward gift from us.