Love Believes All Things

Activist and psychologist Kristy Money has a smart op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribunethat responds to a conference recently held at BYU regarding intellectualism and faith. She reports that there were frequent accusations of intellectual laziness and moral defectiveness among those who leave the LDS Church. Not only are these accusations untrue, she says, but they are completely ineffective. Trying to change someone else’s beliefs never works, and in fact only reinforces their worldview. Instead, unconditional love is the only thing that will preserve relationships, which is the putative purpose of the Gospel in the first place.

Are people who leave religion morally defective? Hardly. Usually, people who purposefully leave demanding religious institutions (as opposed to those who simply drift away over time) have an almost overdeveloped feeling of personal moral conviction. Of course moral positions themselves are always debatable, but rarely do you see a case of some kind of conscious ideological embrace of immorality. Intellectual laziness? Also quite the opposite (though intellectual activity is not of itself the same as being intellectually rigorous). Deceived by Satan? Sure, why not. Yet those who launch those accusations are hardly in an epistemic position to judge whether demonic influence is at play, any more than anyone is in a position to judge someone else’s spiritual convictions.

Of course most of us have probably encountered a healthy number of exited religionists who display precisely the same problematic intellectual and moral approaches they once did as religionists, only now obviously to different moral and intellectual objects. As should be frequently expected. We rarely adopt new cognitive tools for interpreting the world just because our fields of belief have changed. But again, this does not equate to moral defection or intellectual weakness.

As always–as much for our current political crisis as our more familiar religious crises–the primary battle hinges on what we mean by love and how we enact what is meant. We consider love to be so central to human relations, yet perhaps its near universally accepted importance is why it’s a surprisingly underdeveloped concept compared to other shared values. We think we know what it means to love intimately, and our inability to fully describe this process functions as a sign of how real and powerful it is to us. So love is in a sense a mystical transcendence, something we do not fully understand, are not fully in control of, and that comes upon us, something that’s not wholly generated from inside us, and whether we are theists or atheists it is in that sense our God, that which we ultimately worship because it is, to paraphrase Paul Tillich, the object of our ultimate concern. And as our ultimate concern, one of the main problems–particularly for religious communities–is that we want to separate love from belief. Ideally, we think, we should love people “in spite of” what they or we believe, or we believe what we believe “in spite of” who we think we should love. In either case, love is ultimately Supreme. When all is said and done, we collectively affirm that we should choose love above all else (though what this amounts to can be vastly different from one person to another). But in reality, usually what we end up doing is merely loving those who share our beliefs and believing those who demonstrate their love.

Kierkegaard has a fascinating take on what real love should be capable of. “Love believes all things—and yet is never deceived,” he wrote. Of course he’s echoing Paul, who wrote the same to the Corinthians. He contrasts this belief with mistrust, which believes nothing and yet is nevertheless deceived. People act upon knowledge, he says, but they do so out of either faith or mistrust. We might think, for example, that the religious act purely out of faith, but this is not the case. The religious will faithfully affirm certain religious propositions and enact faith in particular contexts, but they will usually act on general knowledge no differently than the non-religious do–with at least initial skepticism and mistrust. Because as human beings we live in a world of constant deception, illusion, and partial understanding. We cannot always even trust our own senses or intuitions.

Nevertheless, Kierkegaard insists, this move is deceptive because it assumes that from a cautious vantage point of safe and secure mistrust (and only from this vantage point) can one act upon knowledge. When faced with something new, something unknown or unfamiliar, something never seen or experienced before, our default orientation is mistrust and skepticism. Skepticism and mistrust are thus seen as essential in order to both appropriately know and to act on that knowledge. This transforms knowledge itself into mistrust, insisting that one can only know something through an initial stance of disbelief, through a kind of skeptical scientific experimentation and therefore that everyone must come to the same conclusions about our world based on this deceptive initial disbelief. In this sense communities initially form as much due to shared mistrust of the world as faith or belief in a set of shared values. The assumption, then, is that everyone mistrusts and therefore everyone learns knowledge (or truths) through this same process.  But, Kierkegaard argues, by virtue of love one can conclude the opposite based on the same knowledge, meaning that such knowledge need not be gained mistrustfully. This was simply the epistemic mode through which knowledge was originally acquired, but it needn’t be the only mode. Kierkegaard insists that love is just as knowledgeable as mistrust. True subjective living confronts you, tests you with these two possibilities–love or mistrust.  It forces you to choose, and in doing so you reveal yourself to yourself and to the world: “what dwells in you must be disclosed.” To live and love, then, is to become so disclosed. It is to constantly make judgments of yourself, and to judge others is to make a particular judgment on yourself. To choose an existential stance of belief through love allows one to believe all things without being deceived; even if one is lied to or encounters a deception (a falsity about the world) one is nevertheless not deceived because one loves and does not come by this knowledge through mistrust. Love is not naive; it knows what mistrust knows. But it simply loves, affirms, builds up. In this sense it is infinitely beyond all deception because of a certain orientation toward all things: that of honest self-disclosure.

Consequently, one who believes in and through love sees goodness where others cannot. She sees many things that the loveless, or the deceptively loving do not see. Indeed, one can be deceived that one is loving. False love blinds itself to the other, ignoring weakness and fault in order to project a fantastical image of itself on the blank screen that the other becomes. True love loves the other because the other is other, and valued for itself, not merely as a means to my personal advantage. The true believer (the one who believes all things through love) no longer sees opposition between appearance and reality, no longer encounters difference as a threat. As Slavoj Žižek wrote, trying to describe the fragile absolute of Christian love, “precisely in trusting appearances, the loving person sees the other the way she/he effectively is, and loves her for her very foibles, not in spite of them.”

Most importantly, the love that believes all things does not produce certainty. It does not make things easy; on the contrary, in an important sense it makes things more difficult. Love is not a blissful escape into the Romantic idealized universe. Christian charity, says Žižek, is “rare and fragile, to be fought for and regained again and again.” Both Kierkegaard and Zizek refer to love as the work of love. Zizek writes, “love is the work of love—the hard and arduous work of repeated ‘uncoupling’ in which, again and again, we have to disengage ourselves from the inertia that constrains us to identify with the particular order we were born into…Christian unplugging is not an inner contemplative stance, but the active work of love which necessarily leads to the creation of an alternative community.” Original Christianity, he argues, was the creation of an erotic community of lovers, where the social hierarchy was flattened and destroyed precisely by loving and elevating the lowest member of the community, instead of the sole maintenance an epistemic community of knowers.

Love and belief are not, therefore, separable. You cannot bracket what you believe in order to love another who does not share your belief. Your belief, in any case, is not volitional. It came upon you as a way of understanding the world, not as a menu option you consciously and rationally selected among other options. It remains with you, something you cannot simply dispose of at will. If your love is in conflict with your belief, it is because your love cannot see, not because your belief demands that you cannot love. And if your love cannot see, then it is not truly love. True love can believe all things without fear.

Love and Belief

“There’s no ‘should’ or ‘should not’ when it comes to having feelings. They’re a part of who we are and their origins are beyond our control. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings.”

–Fred Rogers

The same applies to beliefs generally. Feelings and beliefs are closely linked. Belief is something we find ourselves in the midst of, not something we freely chose among genuine options. Unbelief isn’t quite the same–it’s not that we stop believing in particular things per se but that prior beliefs are gradually or even sometimes suddenly replaced by new beliefs that aren’t compatible with the former beliefs. Continue reading

Together Forever: God, Suffering, and the Paradox of Heaven

The omnipotence paradox in the philosophy of religion is meant to be a logical exploration of what makes sense to say of a being who is all-powerful (a primary requisite of godhood for classical theism). Different versions of this are something like, “Can God create a stone so heavy God can’t lift it?” Or, “Can God create a burrito so hot that even God can’t eat it?” Continue reading

Carry On the Night

“Or if on joyful wing Cleaving the sky
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, Upward I fly…”
–Sarah F. Adams, “Nearer My God to Thee”

“Carry on, the night”
 
Carry on, the night
and without the stars
in this telestial blackened ruin.
But I will lie here and trace the constellations.
 
Carry on, the night
and without the moon
in this terrestrial lonely crater.
But I will sit here and pull the tides.
 
Carry on, the night
and without the sun
and the sure comfort of its gravity
Yet by casting shadows it decided
What I cannot and cannot see
 
No, I will stand here.
In the crushing darkness, full and mighty and without stars.
I will stand.
I will be the light.
Waiting for the Light.
So carry on, the night.
 

Bodies and Shoulders, Carry and Bear

We are experts at measuring the distance of fathers

And weighing the lightness of mothers.

When fathers quarter the distance

We clasp our hands in pride

Like seeing a baby walk a few steps

Without the aid of the sofa.

When they halve the distance we parade in the streets

Burden our shoulders with their heaviness

And declare the goodness of men.

Men are good, we dutifully remind ourselves

A necessary magical incantation

To keep civilization in perpetual motion.

“Good men–”

Say it as if your throat is clutching a rosary

Say it to keep the beasts away

And the darkness at bay.

But men ARE good

At least most of them some of the time

And some of them most of the time

Though a few of them none of the time

And none of them all of the time.

Indeed.

Little known fact: Atlas was a woman

A mother, to be precise, so it is assumed

Among those who know.

Only the earth did not rest upon her shoulders

The weight of the world on shoulders–

That’s a man-shaped burden.

No, the earth made contact with every cell of skin

An entire body to bear its endless spin.

But we demanded that any body

That touched the entire earth be light;

Without weight

Without taint

Bodies of light that are light

And God said let there be light

And so came the earth

Held up by light.

But how bodies of light that are light

Can bear mountains and oceans

And cities and wars and darkest night

And every depth and height

And every kind of heaviness and history

And that anonymously?

Unless such bodies are not light

Unless such beings are more and less than bodies

More and less than mothers

But we desire light.

And say with reverence and grave solemnity

Echoing the order of eternity

That, gloriously alone, a sacrifice of gods

Men will shoulder night.

And that’s the story

Of how women became mothers and bodies

And men became fathers and shoulders

Of how men carry

But women bear.

And if heaven is a true reflection

Of earthly versions of love and care

Then how can I not shake and tremble

If I’ve a Mother or Father there.

“There Is No Escape From the Eternal Family”

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“There Is No Escape From the Eternal Family”

By Elder Friedrich Nietzsche

Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

 

This past summer I was entrapped into spending a week with my family and extended relatives. I was informed that there would be poetry readings and plans to attend concerts and the theater. To my naive delight, my sister even told me we would take in a boxing match. As you know, I consider boxing to be the manliest of sports. One man, alone without aid in the ring of life, nakedly defiant, swinging his fists at an uncaring and unfeeling universe, represented in a human, all too human opponent. To stand over that opponent, his bloodshot eyes gazing up vacantly at you, his spirit crushed by your mutinous despair, his soul so haunted and broken that later you find it unremarkable that he took his own life at the first opportunity–there is no feeling that compares to such a moment of triumphant exultation, that feeling of not just destroying a life but annihilating Life itself.   Continue reading

We Thought Love Would Be Enough

We thought our faces would be enough

But these perfect masks never slip

and we never see each other’s eyes

We thought the law would be enough

But its infinite exceptions stripped it bare

leaving a people divided and broken

Relegating oneness to rote demonstrations of loyalty

We thought that doctrine would be enough

to take care of the exceptions the law could not bear

But instead it exiled grace to another world

We thought that time would be enough

We would wait until we evolved and could wash the clay out of our eyes

But the world around us changed and the unwashed clay hardened into masks

And cemeteries continue as the counting houses of our change

We thought that love would be enough

Surely love would be enough

Is not love the essence of everything we believe?

But we turned all things–all words, all actions, all

intentions, all hopes–into love and affirmed that it

was the greatest of all and could not fail

And at our clinical distance

When it failed we could see nothing but victory

Faces were not enough

The Law was not enough

Doctrine was not enough

Time was not enough

Love was not enough

Unless these are not our faces

Unless this is not the Law

Unless this is not our doctrine

Unless time has not run out

And this is not true love

Social Media Is An Empty Graveyard

I wouldn’t call it an addiction to social media, not exactly. Certainly there are senses in which addiction is accurate, but it’s not the whole picture. Social media isn’t giving me a high like it once did. It maxed itself out, used itself up. Now I’m sucking on its corpse, trying in vain to drain it of life fluids that are no longer there. It’s more that social media has me locked in a death grip downward spiral. Even when there’s nothing to see anymore I go back again and again. I have ADHD (whatever the hell that means) but it’s more than that. I go back because at one point it was a home to return to. Now it’s a familiar graveyard, an empty house at the end of the street, but I keep going back in a panic, full of anxiety that I’ll miss out on something, that my virtual “family” is doing something in my absence. And they are. Of course. They never stop. There’s always a brother or cousin or uncle having an adventure or getting arrested or posting vacation photos. I mean, the only way I know about anything in the world is through social media. I don’t have TV for anything other than Netflix, so when I turn off social media, I literally shut out the entire world. I’m dependent on it for nearly everything I know about the wider world.

I used to read a lot more than I do now. It’s hard to spend a consistently long amount of time on a piece of writing without feeling compelled to check my phone, see what happened when I was away for four and a half minutes. I’m now in various stages of progress with about 12 books, but I won’t finish any of them, I’ll just add more as my attention gets more stretched and taxed and interrupted. I think I’ve lost the capacity to savor the world around me, to listen, to hear things in the silences, to read and read and then write and write, to organize and plan and stick to the plan, enrich flesh and blood relationships, to just bloody think for longer than 10 seconds. I read somewhere that ridding ourselves of social media doesn’t seem wise; we should instead learn how to manage it better. That sounds wise, but for someone who so easily drowns himself in it, I’m becoming convinced that mature management isn’t possible. For some of us these are two different worlds and until we can figure out how to create a balance,  we’ll have to choose one of them.

I’ve never been so false as I have on social media (really, just Facebook).  Not lying per se, just hyper-curated. And so is everyone else. Everyone is there in this stream of illicit eliciting. It’s not even necessary to have genuine interactions (with avatars of people, not people, hard to remember/believe that). If your post gets a few dozen silent likes (or loves or hahas or wows) you find yourself satisfied for 5 seconds and then immediately wanting more. But you weren’t communicating, you were being adored. You were reveling in adoration and silent applause. Comments are good too, but they don’t pack the purity of likes. Comments are like diluted heroin. And negative comments? Forget about it. I want my saying to be agreed with, to impress and inspire and amaze. Here are my children, or photos from a recent social gathering (aren’t you jealous I was with so and so?) and this victory and this defeat (please show me how sad you are thank you that feels better) and this mountain of trivial annoyances I’ll complain about endlessly and you’ll agree with me, they’re damn annoying. I just saw the most recent movie of the moment, let me share my experience with you, share share share share everything, everything except for those large swaths of my life that are too ordinary or dark to share, which constitute most of my life, but here’s this sliver of life that will represent all of my life and here’s this impassioned plea for activism or this angry rant, and this isn’t about me though it’s on my wall under my name, this is about this cause or that person or this principle or that value and even though we’re all sick together in this traffic-heavy virtual village of eternally unsated egos, let’s pretend we’re okay and other people are sick, so come on let’s crush this person over here and form a mob against that one over there but we’re not murderers or destroyers, we’re Serious Doers of Justice and Justice will be Done on Social Media and we will feel triumphant and treat one another to another round of likes as a reward. And people will love us and we will feel relieved every time that blue page comes up, like a childhood home that comes into view after being away for a long time and what’s new, what can I like, what issue needs my street-wise expertise, how clever can I be today, just love my my avatar and I’ll love yours and we’ll promise to help one another believe being everything is okay as long as we’re  all here, and eventually everything we do will be an excuse to parade our avatars in front of other avatars (if it isn’t already) and the meaning of life will become whatever can be shared and especially whatever can accrue the most likes. Our biggest regret will be that we’ll never get to see all the sad emojis lavished on photos of our funerals.

And God Said Let There Be

And God said let there be…

Let it all be

And so God let it go

Let it live

Let it alone

Let it move on

Let it take its place

Let it find itself

God gave it up

Gave it over

Gave it space

Gave it to itself

Though God stayed rooted to the spot

Planted in the desert and the deep

Fingers brushing over the wind-bent tares

Brow sweating, lungs heaving, shoulders trembling

As it went where it listed

Did as it willed

Loved or hated

Hurt or healed

Let it go

Let it go

Let it be

There is God–a Sisyphus of stillness?

An Atlas of forbearance?

A Prometheus of self-restraint?

No.

God could not direct its hunger

Nor forge its path

Nor carve its fate into tablets of stone

God is not muscle

God is no army

God is no hero

God knows that if God could have God would have

But leave it, clinging to itself?

Hollowed out by ravenous emptiness?

Abandoned it to its self-devouring?

A gift disavowed and discarded?

So God let herself be

And so loved the world

That God let himself go

A presence in every unspeakable moment

For Love is nothing but presence

If, then, God is love–

A terrifying “if” in any given moment on this

Love-blasted rock–

Then if God is not here God is not anywhere

And here is to be rooted in the soil-less soil

A tree in the desert

An island in the deep

In every terrible moment, deciding anew, again and again —

Let it be

Let it go

Let there be light.