Friday, October 21, 2011

Of Veils and Tests

I once had an interesting philosophical discussion with my brother about the nature of moral tests.

I have, over the years, come to the conclusion that many of the moral tests we face here in this life are tests in which God deliberately keeps us in the dark about certain things, to see how we will respond if we think things are a certain way.

I've expressed this idea to my brother, a philosopher who teaches at University of California Riverside, and he has taken issue with me.  He told me that without complete disclosure, without full knowledge of the conditions of a moral test, we cannot truly be tested.  God will judge us and judge our moral decisions based on what we knew at the time that we were being tested.

Now, I like my brother's idea.  It certainly appeals to my sense of justice.  It doesn't seem fair that we should be judged on the basis of decisions that we made without complete knowledge.  Or if we are judged, our lack of knowledge when we made those decisions needs to be taken into account.  It needs to mitigate the final results of the judgment.

Nevertheless...  While I believe there certainly are the kinds of moral tests my brother speaks of in this life, I cling to the nagging suspicion that tests of this sort are actually fairly rare.  My reasons for insisting that God tests us by keeping us in the dark about certain key things and watching to see how we behave are philosophical, experiential and scriptural.

My philosophical reason for believing this is based on the simple fact that the human condition is governed by ignorance.  Compare, first of all, the total knowledge of any one individual -- even a very smart and well-educated individual -- to the sum total of human knowledge.  Take everything that person thinks he or she knows, and filter out all misinformation.  That person will know only the smallest fraction of everything it is humanly possible to know, everything that human beings, collectively as a race, know.  Now compare the sum total, the collective knowledge of all human beings who have ever lived, everything that is gathered in every book that has ever been written, everything that's stored somewhere on the Internet (filter out all the misinformation! which probably ends up deleting something like 99%), and then compare it to the sum total of everything that can be known.  All truth that is out there in the Universe to know, past, present and future.  (This is the D&C 93: 24 definition of "truth.")  If we believe in an omniscient God, that would be, basically, everything that God knows.  And I think we must agree that the collective knowledge of humanity is only a small fraction of the truth of all things.  So any given individual -- the person who is making all important moral decisions in life, the person who is being tested -- is making every single moral decision of any consequence based on the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction of the truth.  From a purely philosophical perspective, one must conclude that human beings as decision-makers decide mostly in the dark.

You might argue, Ah, but the moral decisions that I make are of limited scope!  They are limited to things and people and interactions that are well within the scope of my knowledge, no matter how limited that knowledge may, in the grand scheme of things, be.  Yes, But...  I would argue that there are certain things that we don't know, that we can't know, that have a huge impact on moral decisions even of limited scope.  For example, what happens to me after I die?  What do I know of this?  My brother's favorite philosopher, Heidegger, has had a lot to say about what we can and cannot know of this, and of the impact that this lack of knowledge has on moral decisions.  If I knew that my life would completely end at death, if I knew that there was no part of me that continued on, no immortal soul, that would completely change how I behave in fundamental ways, across the board.  The same is true of how it would change my moral choices if I knew that there was life after death, if I knew my soul was eternal, if I knew there would be some kind of final judgment before the throne of Christ.  Most people act as if they know, but they in fact don't know.  So the moral test is conducted in conditions of ignorance.

Is it that part of the moral test involves seeing which set of unproven assumptions we are willing to go on?  Is it to allow us to set the terms of our own test...?  But I digress...

My experiential reason for believing this is simply because of what I know about my own moral decisions.  I know at some fundamental level that I go through life making the bulk of my decisions based on gut feelings about things.  I often discover that things I thought I knew, that played an important role in making some past decision of considerable weight were actually just plain wrong.  I am often forced to make a decision quickly because there's some time limit built into the decision, and I am often in a situation in which a decision that must be made now would be much easier if I had certain facts at my disposal, and despite my best efforts to obtain those facts, I don't have them, and so...  I make a decision.  Based on a guess about what those all important facts are or how they will unfold to me at some future time.  I'm often aware that information I would like to have, I simply cannot obtain.  And so I must intuit, and go from there.

My experience, in other words, seems to confirm what I posit philosophically...  That I am a being of limited knowledge and limited intelligence, who am forced to make decisions very much in the dark about things of ultimate relevance to my decisions.

I have also observed that, while I often make decisions in the dark, the consequence of any decision I make is to obtain more light.  I've learned that life decisions are very often a kind of trial and error process.  And it is possible to look at life as something whose end goal is, after all, not to judge us, but to educate us.  So every decision, bad or good, that I make is, well, all good.  It's all part of the process of getting more and more hands-on learning.  But I digress again...  (or do I?)

Finally, there are my scriptural reasons for believing this.  And here I've already somewhat laid the groundwork for this by pointing out that philosophically we posit that we live mostly in the dark, but the scriptures purport to be a source of divinely inspired light.  From a philosophical point of view, I might ask, "But how can I know that the scriptures are what they purport to be?  How can I know they are true?"  I'll leave that weighty philosophical question aside for the moment, and say that by my own process I've come to accept the scriptures as trustworthy.

LDS scriptures in particular present a picture of the human condition in which the state of darkness we posit philosophically and confirm experientially was intended by God.  According to the scriptural account of mortal life, we all entered this life by way of a veil of forgetfulness.  And we are separated from ultimate knowledge of God and eternity by a veil that -- though occasionally briefly parted -- for the most part remains firmly in place.  God purposely set it up this way.  God purposely thought that the best way to test us would be to see what we do and how we react when knowledge of ultimate truth is veiled from us.

Now we can choose to try to live close to the veil.  That is generally what I try to do.  I've had some really remarkable spiritual experiences.  I've experienced at least a partial parting of the veil on numerous occasions.  I can say, based on those experiences, that there is a different state of awareness when we are in the midst of experiencing that parting of the veil than there is before or after the parting.  In the midst of that experience of the divine, it is like dwelling in pure light.  There is nothing like it.  It is life-changing.  After the experience is over, we are in darkness again.  We still have the memory of the light; of how it made us feel, of how it transformed our awareness, and of how it transformed us.  But in the absence of that experience, we are forced to live off of its memory.  We are plunged into the darkness again, and are forced to make our way in the dark.  So the parting of the veil doesn't alleviate us of the basic conditions of mortal life.  We still need to struggle with doubt and darkness.  And this is why it is possible to see and experience incredible things, and to eventually turn away from what we've experienced.  We can lose our grace.  We can lose our testimonies.  Unless we continue in prayer, faith, good works and repentance.


Now, I think this is generally a disquieting thing to reflect on.  It requires humility of us.  Humility as in: I don't know, so I won't judge you.  Just do the best you can do.  I will try to do the best that I can do.  We're all doing the best we can here, under difficult circumstances.

I find there's a natural human tendency to want to deny that there are important things that we need to know that we just don't or can't.  There's a natural human tendency to want to deny that we could well be wrong about everything that matters, everything that's important.  To acknowledge that possibility, forces us to live in a certain way that, I think, is more gentle, is more careful, is more compassionate.  But we generally prefer certainty (and the arrogance that comes with it).

So Mormons -- despite what our scriptures teach us about the conditions of mortality -- have a tendency to want to insist that we of course know all the answers.  And if we personally don't have a direct pipeline to God, our leaders do.  "Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets," etc.  The typical exegesis of this Amos text goes: "We have living prophets, so we know all of God's secrets, if we just do exactly what they tell us."  Well, OK.  But I think another valid exegesis of this is to confirm what I've said about living close to the veil.  Yes, God parts the veil for us occasionally.  But this doesn't change the fundamental conditions of the test of mortality.  Making decisions in uncertainty.

I was reading this morning in the Book of Mark, chapter 6.  And there was a particular turn of phrase that caught me, in verses 51-52.  These verses were speaking of the twelve, and they say: "they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered. For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened."  In other words, even though the twelve had -- just the previous day! -- experienced the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, they had already forgotten, or perhaps even never understood, its significance.  Now the twelve were Christ's chosen leaders, the leaders of his Church, and here is as clear a statement as any that even they did not fully understand something crucial about Christ's nature and about his mission.

What particularly intrigued me though was the turn of phrase, "their heart was hardened," which reminds me of the story of Moses and Pharaoh, and that disquieting phrase repeated several times in Exodus that "the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart."  There are definitely texts in the Old Testament as well as the New that suggest that God sometimes keeps certain information from us in order to accomplish some grander purpose.  God wanted to demonstrate that it was by his power, and his power alone, that the children of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt.  So God hardened Pharaoh's heart, so that Pharaoh would make things as difficult as possible.  Only then would the conditions be right for God to liberate the children of Israel in a way that they always and forever would acknowledge that it was God and God alone who freed them.

Similarly, Christ's true nature and his true mission seem to have been veiled from the minds and hearts of the apostles.  There were momentary partings of the veil, as when Peter, James and John witnessed the transfiguration.  But even these temporary partings eventually faded into the uncertainty of memory.  The twelve were genuinely shocked, overwhelmed, and surprised when Christ appeared to them alive and resplendent, three days after they had buried him in the tomb.


I have often had a discussion with other Mohos about the challenges of being gay and Mormon.  I have stated elsewhere, and I'll state here again, that I've had numerous very powerful spiritual experiences in which I have plead with God to help me understand why I am gay and how that fits into his plan.  And I've received personal revelations on this score that have helped ground me in my path.  They haven't answered all my questions; nor do they alleviate me of the responsibility of struggling in the dark, so to speak.  But I do feel certain that my gayness is an integral part of my eternal being; that it is a natural and very good part of who I am, and that my relationship with my husband Göran is blessed by God; and that someday, we will all have a full understanding of how my gayness and my family fit into the grand scheme of things.  This has been of great comfort to me.

And I am not the only one who has had these kinds of experiences.  Over the years, I have been able to connect with other gay LDS -- and even non-LDS -- who have had similar spiritual experiences.

But then comes the question: If we know this, how is it our leaders don't know?  How come the Church still treats us as unclean?  How come the Church says that our homosexuality is a mortal affliction that will somehow evaporate in the next life, so we need to remain alone, celibate and single in this life to avoid the pollution that comes from homosexual relationships?  How can the Church's official teaching and understanding be so at odds with our experience?  And if I have a testimony, how am I supposed to deal with this contradiction?

All I can say is that scripturally, there is precedent for the Lord veiling our understanding in a variety of ways.  Just as the Lord had a purpose in veiling his true identity and mission from the twelve until he was ready to fully reveal it after his resurrection, the Lord, I believe, has a purpose in veiling understanding of this aspect of human sexuality from the Church until such time as we -- collectively -- are ready to receive a full understanding of it.

In the meantime, lives are in the balance.  Individual gay men and lesbians have lost their lives over this -- are losing their lives over this -- because of the intense pain and uncertainty created by the Church's condemnation of something that feels not at all like a temporary, mortal "affliction" to us, but like a core and good and key part of who we are.  So we have an immediate need for understanding and knowledge on this.  And I think that if we try to live "close to the veil," if we humbly seek understanding from the Lord on this, we will receive what we need in order to live and thrive and fulfill whatever missions the Lord has individually for us to fulfill.  So I guess that's a way of trying to resolve the contradiction.

Could I be wrong about this?  Well, part of the whole point of this essay is that, yes, absolutely I could be!  Nothing, no personal revelation certainly, could alleviate me of the fundamental conditions of the tests of mortality, which involves walking mostly in darkness by faith.  I'm doing the best I can to find as much light as I can and to live by it.  And I find that the love and the light I have experienced in my relationship with my husband and in being true to him and caring for him nurture hope and faith and patience in me.  And I find that the love and the light I experience at Church and in staying as true as I can to the Gospel also open things up in my life, they help me to be a better, more loving, more patient person overall.  So I can say that it feels right to affirm both my testimony of the Gospel and my relationship with my husband together, simultaneously, as part of a whole.  But I may yet learn many great and amazing things that will totally change my perception of everything.  So I have to learn to accept my limitations with some humility and openness and patience and trust that God will unveil things to us in a way that will work toward some ultimate good.


Trev said...

I love this post! And I am so happy that you have started writing more frequently again, lately.

"I have also observed that, while I often make decisions in the dark, the consequence of any decision I make is to obtain more light. I've learned that life decisions are very often a kind of trial and error process. And it is possible to look at life as something whose end goal is, after all, not to judge us, but to educate us."

I think you are spot on, here. If we accept that everyone all have varying potentials and understandings and that it is only through Christ that we are saved, then the same endpoint is there for everyone (that is, it's available)... so the value of the experience must be in the journey.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Trev. That's an interesting way to put it... Yes, I think the value is in the journey, in this whole experience we have "here below," in mortality. I think the experience of becoming embodied is a challenge, our bodies are a challenge. The present unique opportunities and temptations, and this life is, in many ways, a "test drive." It's our opportunity to master the challenges.

Gay LDS Actor said...

I enjoyed your post, particularly the last few paragraphs.