Suffering and Time

galen-apologue2.jpg

There’s no guarantee that suffering will produce greater empathy and compassion, but suffering creates optimal conditions for these to take root because it arrests time–our experience of time–in a particular way. The very thing that makes suffering feel so interminable is also that which clears the space we need to notice details about the world (including the conditions other people are in) that we wouldn’t have otherwise paid any attention. We move and think more slowly when we are in pain. Of course, the source of our pain is initially all we can concentrate on. Everything fades into the background as all our senses combine to eradicate whatever is causing us intense discomfort.

But suffering is different. Suffering is pain indexed by time. Suffering is the relentlessness of physical or emotional degradation that tears at the innermost caverns of our being. Suffering tries to undo the intricate, focused weavings of time and space that constitute the essence of who we believe ourselves to be and how we believe the world is ordered. Suffering makes it feel precisely as if all of reality has fissured into chaos and disorder. Simone Weil put it this way:

When we strike the head of a nail with a hammer, all the shock received by the head of the nail passes through to the point in its entirety. If the hammer and the head of the nail were infinitely huge, all of this would still happen in the same way. The point of the nail would transmit an infinite shock through the point to that which it is nailed.

Extreme affliction, which is at the same time physical suffering, distress of the soul and social degradation, constitutes the nail. The point is applied to the very center of the soul. The head of the nail is all of necessity spread across the totality of space and time.

Time’s slow crawl in the midst of suffering is what allows us to be singularly attuned to others’ distress, if we can pay attention. The world looks different when we suffer. We move and speak differently. Suffering pulls and stretches our understanding, poking and prodding what we thought we knew to be true, making the possible impossible but also transforming the impossible into the possible. It takes a lot of effort (and often our strength fails us) but within this time displacement we can often find a way to sit with ideas and people in ways that before would have seemed foreclosed to us.

Mormonism, Purity, and the Conditions of Truth

4c4c10acc559c92408a0b720fded9ac2

Ecclesial Secularism, Fundamentalism, and Authoritarianism
In essence, secularists are those who advocate separation of state from religious institutions. In this sense, most religious Americans might be considered secularists. Even those who self-identify as secularist do not usually actively seek religion’s dissolution, nor are they of necessity temperamentally hostile to religion and religious peoples. They merely wish to be free from religious conceptual and institutional imposition. However, I’m more interested here in a more narrow and specific subset of secularism, what I have labeled “ecclesial secularism.” Ecclesial secularists see in secularism an all-embracing or universally encompassing worldview, the shape and contours—obviously not the content—of which look quasi-religious or ecclesiastical, whose adherents are devout, organized, and committed to not simply maintaining a separation between religions and states, but to actively promoting the erasure of religious institutions and ideas throughout all of human culture, not merely as they touch on political and otherwise non-religious institutions. Like many churches, ecclesial secularism:

  • claims ideological universality. Its ideas aren’t meant to only apply to certain regions or cultures or groups, but to everyone everywhere as the sole possessors of the “truth” of enlightenment and rationality.
  • accepts the legal reality of separation between church and state (in those areas of the world where such exists), but actively works to undermine and ghettoize religion where possible with the ultimate purpose of eliminating it from competition in the arena of ideas and loyalties. Likewise, churches historically sought to maintain religious monopolies in order to eliminate their competition.
  • attempts to be closely allied with cultural, academic, and political institutions in order to diversify and intensify the enforcement of its beliefs and ideas. Churches have also almost always tied themselves to state and/or secular powers for the same reasons.
  • attempts to gain converts through aggressive proselytizing.

Continue reading

Here We Will Sit Down and Weep When We Remember Zion

Any essay of mine published last year in an anthology, A Book of Mormons: Latter-day Saints on a Modern-Day Zion. 

Here’s a review of the book that also includes a short review of the essay.


Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together. Eugène Ionesco

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. Psalm 137:1

Could there be any ideal farther out of reach than Zion? For thousands of years various peoples have tried to build city-versions of it, only to have them captured or destroyed. Jewish and Christian communities have longed for it with such prolonged intensity that numerous locations both past and future have borne its designation: Zion was a ruined, once glorious city left behind in ages past; or it was a mountain, or a temple. Zion is simultaneously a future utopia, where the righteous will dwell in peace forever.

In the midst of seemingly eternal remembering and waiting, Mormons have found a place for Zion in the present: within the pure in heart, those who dwell together with one heart and mind. But who are the pure in heart? Where are those communities of people who willingly live side by side, who think and feel as one? Would any of us dare to number ourselves amongst these godlike beings, who dwell in the company of angels?

Seemingly the one place in scripture where Zion is a successEnoch’s legendary citywas taken by God to heaven without a trace. Yet we learn from Enoch that even (perhaps especially) such a paradisiacal association is not without its cost. Before God removes Zion from the world, he shows Enoch the immense suffering and evil among the peoples of the earth, and Enoch is filled with sorrow and bitterness. He would eventually receive a fullness of joy, but not before he was burdened with the sorrow and despair of the world.

Continue reading

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”

friedrich_nietzsche_1

“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