A few days later in my almost daily scrounging for books at thrift shops and on clearance aisles I found Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith. I needed a break from my intense study of the bible so I picked it up yesterday as I was on my way to a Drs. appointment, hoping that a brief sabbatical would bring me back to the book of Isaiah refreshed. I was pleasantly surprised at both how fascinating and how familiar I found the story of the man that Mormons refer to as the Prophet.
Raised in poverty and living an indigent lifestyle due to his fathers need to move around for work, Joseph Smith says that he was; born... of goodly parents who spared no pains to instruct me in the Christian religion. I would suspect that the King James Version may have been the sole book the family owned, and certainly the one most treasured. Teachings goes on to say that Joseph's parents recognized that some of the gospel principles taught by Jesus and His apostles were absent from contemporary churches... Though only a boy, Joseph was deeply concerned about his own standing before God and about the confusion among the various religious groups.
This background led Smith to ultimately found his own religion. While I have opinions and theories on why he did this and, perhaps, how, those opinions and theories are irrelevant to my topic. What interests me is the pattern by which most of us, being concerned about the confusion among the various religious groups, come to the opinion that all or most of them are wrong.
I found in Smith a kindred spirit, both admiring and even perhaps envying his dedication to finding piety and truth in God's word. I understand completely his dismay at the seemingly meaningless variation of the views of God's word. Seeing my own thoughts so clearly written on the life of a man who ultimately took a path at odds with virtually every other Christian denomination forced me to look deeper into my own thoughts.
Follow me briefly while I endeavor to define a few terms:
What is religion?
DeityDeity is what we call that for which we all yearn; the 'God shaped hole' in our soul, the need for something more. Call it Jesus, God, Father, Yahwey, Enlightenment, the Great Spirit, the Holy Ghost, or the Great Turtle; virtually all humans yearn for something that we cannot find in either ourselves or in relationships with others. This is deity.
SpiritualitySpirituality is how we define the way that we both commune and communicate with deity. Meditation, prayer, silence, stillness, listening; we all have a way that works best for us, a means of becoming one with and understanding deity. Spirituality is our understanding of deity.
ReligionReligion is the codification of spirituality such that it may be shared with (or forced upon) others. Religion is the Bible, the Talmud, the Torah, the Koran, the Gnostic scrolls, the Essene scrolls, and the Hindu Song of the Lord. Religion is the tool by which we communicate first the spirituality of an individual, then the spirituality of a group.
Knowledge of deityNo one person can ever fully comprehend or understand deity. Deity is by definition greater than a mortal being. If any one mortal being could fully comprehend or understand deity, it would either not be deity or that mortal being would also be a deity (re: the Son of Man).
The will of deity for the individualEach individual has a unique path defined by her skills and experience, her intelligence, suffering, and characteristics such as humility and empathy, and her spirituality; her relationship with deity. No two people could be expected to ever have exactly the same directive, mission, goal, or objective from deity; as each of us is unique, no two of us could fulfill exactly the same requirements. Nor could any two people be expected to understand a directive, mission, goal, or objective in the same way even were they both given the same!
The parable of the blind men and an elephantFrom Wikipedia:
The story of the blind men and an elephant originated in the Indian subcontinent from where it has widely diffused. It has been used to illustrate a range of truths and fallacies; broadly, the parable implies that one's subjective experience can be true, but that such experience is inherently limited by its failure to account for other truths or a totality of truth. At various times the parable has provided insight into the relativism, opaqueness or inexpressible nature of truth, the behavior of experts in fields where there is a deficit or inaccessibility of information, the need for communication, and respect for different perspectives.
19th century Hindu mystic Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used this parable to discourage dogmatism:
A number of blind men came to an elephant. Somebody told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, ‘What is the elephant like?’ and they began to touch its body. One of them said: 'It is like a pillar.' This blind man had only touched its leg. Another man said, ‘The elephant is like a husking basket.’ This person had only touched its ears. Similarly, he who touched its trunk or its belly talked of it differently.
The common reaction to difference views is to proclaim that that one of the views must be correct, while the others are wrong. Our society is based on teaching children to strive for first place, the blue ribbon. At the Olympic ceremonies winners of the Gold medal stand triumphantly in the center and above the winners of the Silver and Bronze, who are often crying hysterically that each was only second or third best at her chosen sport in the entire world. Game shows have winners who make thousands or millions (re: Slum Dog Millionaire), and losers, from second-place loser down. You are either the winner, or you are a loser. You are either right, or you are wrong.
While this philosophy may appear normal or perhaps even correct in the classical school of thought where f=ma and e=mc2, we only think we're smart. In 1 Corinthians 1 Paul says that; God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong.
Like the blind men who each felt confident based on his observations, we like to pat ourselves on the backs confidently and believe that, since we can see and touch something it must be true. Yet mysteries abound, shaming both our strength and our wisdom.
We can't define the formula by which a zebra's stripes are both completely unique, with no two zebra ever having lived that has the same pattern, yet each pattern even in the absence of the shape of the animal is recognizable immediately as uniquely that of the zebra. We know that there is a formula. We know that it is probably in the DNA; a genetic sequence. But we can't define it. We don't know it's language. We know neither the grammar nor the syntax.
Some of, or perhaps solely, the oldest living things are trees. Bristlecone pines live to be over five thousand years old, thought to be older, for an individual life form, than any other living entity. During the course of millenia each tree persists through flood, famine, fire, ice, storms, and abuse of many kinds. There are no tree firemen, emergency rooms, doctors, or engineers. Each tree must survive the abuse of Time herself to live to the age of Methuselah. When damaged, rather than remove and replace the damaged component or part, the damage is isolated by a barrier zone which both prevents the spread of the injury and supports the structure around it. The damaged area becomes a part of the tree itself, allowed to remain with the whole, but limited in the damage it can inflict.
The damaged, or simply different, part is neither rejected nor does it become unlike a tree. It is contained within the tree itself, accepted as part of the whole for all the millenia that the tree lives. Paul recognized this natural phenomena in 1 Corinthians 12; The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.
Trees respond to wounding or injury in two ways: compartmentalization and the development of barrier zones (Shigo 1986).
CompartmentalizationWhen a tree is wounded, the injured tissue is not repaired and does not heal. Trees do not heal; they seal. If you look at an old wound, you will notice that it does not “heal” from the inside out, but eventually the tree covers the opening by forming specialized “callus” tissue around the edges of the wound. After wounding, new wood growing around the wound forms a protective boundary preventing the infection or decay from spreading into the new tissue. Thus, the tree responds to the injury by “compartmentalizing” or isolating the older, injured tissue with the gradual growth of new, healthy tissue.
Barrier ZonesNot only do trees try to close the damaged tissue from the outside, they also make the existing wood surrounding the wound unsuitable for spread of decay organisms. Although these processes are not well understood, the tree tries to avoid further injury by setting chemical and physical boundaries around the infected cells, reacting to the pathogen and confining the damage.
Life does not operate on the principles of math or science as we understand them. Life operates on a formula so simple that it can be contained within each cell among the trillion, trillion, trillion..., while defining beauty as elegant as the stripes of a zebra or an individual snowflake; yet so complex that it can define the life of a tree, the colors of a butterfly, or the song of a whale.
Life is not binary. Life does not have the concept of right or wrong. Life is a ballet of variation, a dance so chaotic that it defies even the imagination while painting rainbows of beauty among us.
Why would the will of deity, the will of God, be any different? Why would we limit God to only the rewarding of Gold, Silver, or Bronze medals?
There have always been those such as Joseph Smith who will seek to lay the label of right or wrong on the musings of others, and the labels of heretic or blasphemer on those with whom they disagree. The path is well blazed; our earliest writings from every culture seek to define right verses wrong, good verses evil, lawful verses unlawful. Our very society consists of red lights and green lights, with only a yellow light to warn that you are approaching a point of no return, but rarely any intermediate ground between extremes.
I find myself distressingly eager to follow suit, to proclaim that I have figured it out. That I now understand. That I have the answer.
I have begun to question my own faith, not because I question my belief in deity, nor because I question my spirituality. I have begun to question my faith because I am becoming aware that I have based it on religion; the codification of someone else's spirituality. I do not mean that it is my intent to discard my bibles and start meditating while seeking deity without the influence or knowledge of others to guide me. I mean only that I find myself wanting to back away from the categorization of deity and spirituality as if they were a taxonomy of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. I am not sure that I want to know how many angels may simultaneously dance on the head of a pin. I am not sure that I am meant to know. I am becoming more convinced that I do not even wish to engage in that line of rhetoric.
I have begun to question whether it is possible that both Joseph Smith and I can be correct in our understanding of deity, in our spirituality. Can the faith of the Methodists be just as true as the faith of the Baptists? Can Greek orthodoxy be no less true than Catholic? Can Mormons be just as righteous as Presbyterians? Can Buddhists know what Christians do not and can Christians share knowledge with Muslims? Could Jehovah's Witnesses and the Metropolitan Community Church understand the same truth? Can we all be blind, or are we simply myopic?
Can it be true both that it is not a sin for me to be gay, and that homosexuality is a sin? Can it be true both that it is a disgrace for a woman to speak in the church, and that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Can it be both that whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and that there are those who can piously say; I exhort you, be imitators of me.
In Romans 14 Paul admonishes us to; Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall.
He continues to make the thought more comprehensive; One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.
He makes the radical statements that; I am convinced... that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean... But whoever has doubts is condemned... and everything that does not come from faith is sin.
He summarizes with; Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. If your brother or sister is distressed [by what you do]... you are no longer acting in love... Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of [belief]... it is wrong for a person to [do] anything that causes someone else to stumble...
I have applied some selective editing to Paul's statements, but it has been primarily to consolidate his comments into categories and understand them as pertaining to and about more than just culinary issues. You may, of course, read them directly from your own bible and see them in the order intended by the apostle...
He includes an interesting remark; Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil.
Is he referring to the faith of the individual? Is he exhorting us to respect the spirituality of each person, and her right to her own communion with and understanding of deity? Reading much of Paul's writings you may not be able to draw this conclusion from his message here. But consider that he wrote the following two passages both in the same letter, 1 Corinthians:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.
Paul was quite capable of holding multiple opposing thoughts in his head simultaneously, or at least within a short span of time. I wonder if I should, rather than dislike him as an egomaniacal, homophobic, misogynist with psychotic tendencies; perhaps I should instead admire his insanity, his passion, and his dedication, accepting the thread of madness, the break from reality, that seemingly bonds us to a common refusal to accept both the extremes and the simplistic judgment of a traffic light.
Does Paul make the the lunacy of the Book of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine seem mundane by comparison? Was Paul's spiritual gift the ability to both see and have compassion for the extreme positions of the omnivore and the vegetarian, the prostitute and the pious, the priest and the plebeian? Should I pay more attention to Paul, or am I doing the equivalent of finding messages encoded in the letters running diagonally in the scripture, of hearing the voices of dead men by playing the music of the Beatles backwards?
Mystic Paramahamsa finishes his version of the parable of the blind men and the elephant with this:
In the same way, he who has seen the Lord in a particular way limits the Lord to that alone and thinks that He is nothing else.
What I have begun to understand and which I have written about here may impact my own studies and my own beliefs little. I still believe the best way for me to understand the word of God is through the filter of the words, actions, and meanings of Jesus of Nazareth. What is changing for me, and I think may lead to a new understanding of deity and of my own spirituality is the acceptance of others. And that may impact my own studies and my own beliefs dramatically.
I have always been willing to listen to the opinions of those with whom I did not agree. I have always maintained that, were I to make the effort to understand their perspective, their opinion, albeit right or wrong, would be of value to me. I have had trouble applying this same principle to my spirituality. The orthodoxy of the inerrant and infallible Bible has dogged even me, who has run the gamut from outspoken atheist to evangelical Christian.
What I think may be the most profound change that this new awareness will impact upon me is the way I share my beliefs and my experience with others. If I, by what I eat, may cause another to sin, should I not eat what is set before me as Jesus admonishes the seventy in Luke before sending them out? Perhaps even if I am correct in my understanding of His word, I can be incorrect in sharing it with you if I do not do so with compassion for your beliefs and your spirituality.
What if my interpretation and understanding of His word are less important to my doing His will than are my acceptance and encouragement of the faith of others? What if I I can be a better servant of His word by encouraging my Mormon friend to refresh her own faith than I can were I to try and convert her to mine?
In John 13 Jesus tells us; By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
What if He really meant all that stuff He said?