Part I: Doughnuts, Divinity, and Disillusionment
I attended an LDS Church meeting today for the first time since Christmas.
I wrote down a bunch of notes and thoughts. Here are some metaphors I heard from speakers that I thought were particularly striking:
- Life is a doughnut? Sometimes there's a hole and we've got to deal with some disappointment, but if we're optimistic, then--and this is a direct quote--we can recognize "all the yumminess surrounding the holes in our lives."
- God is a meat tenderizer and we are the meat? That's a pretty brutal metaphor! The speaker must have had a very hard week.
- Trying to live the Gospel is like going to a fast food restaurant and getting the wrong food? Sometimes God might surprise us by giving us something that we didn't know we needed or wanted, but it's exactly what will help us grow?
I sort of loved all of these. I think that there is beauty in seeing sacredness in the mundane. Why wouldn't God teach us life lessons in our own languages--and if we are to construct or discover some kind of inspiring truth in the objects and scenarios around us, why not in a doughnut? I imagine Homer Simpson would agree.
On the other hand, there were a few aspects of today's meeting that I didn't love. Some folks were too eager to pin everything on God--all of their hardships, all of their blessings, all of their attributes and skills and thoughts and shortcomings, everything--and I believe that sort of rhetoric is pretty harmful. If God is the author of all your pain, all your happiness, and all your ideas, then God becomes omni-responsible--not just for your sins but for the wickedness and calamity of the world in general.
Put bluntly: a God who micromanages enough to help you find your keys (or to cause you to lose your keys) could have just as easily stopped the Holocaust, and chose not to.
At any rate, it was an interesting afternoon. I liked some things and I disliked other things. And I was excited to experience some familiar sights and sounds again (sacrament meeting, for example, has often reminded me of John Cage's controversial post-modern composition, "Four Thirty-Three"). However, I was a little dismayed to find that my core beliefs and feelings about Mormonism have definitely evolved over the past couple of years such that my connection to its services, to its rituals, and to its sermons seems to be, well, a little disconnected.
That is to say: even though I felt plenty of intellectual engagement with the service, I didn't feel any emotional engagement. Nothing moved me--either in a positive or negative way. Maybe I'll go back a couple times. Maybe I won't. Maybe I'll stop attending for another few weeks or months again. I don't know.
To be clear: this isn't the post where I come out as "ex-Mormon" or "post-Mormon" or anything like that. I know identity is fluid, but I can't imagine ever getting so far removed from my Mormon roots that I would stop identifying as Mormon altogether. There are parts of Mormonism (e.g. its ever-open canon; the strange mix of universalism and legalism in its soteriology; its expansive and radical cosmology; its roots in Wild West Americana and folk magic; its emphasis on personal revelation; its grassroots visions-in-the-woods theology; etc) that will always feel like they're rooted deep within my heart.
And yet, there's definitely a disconnect these days. I felt it on Christmas Day, too--when I attended church with my folks (even when members of my own family bore witness, sang songs of praise, and shed tears of exuberant spiritual joy).
This emotional/spiritual detachment is strange. Disorienting. Makes me feel like a tourist in what used to feel like home.
When I was a kid, attending LDS Church felt like a training ground, like a place full of wise older men and women who could teach me the deeper truths with which I needed to equip myself so I could face the challenges of my life.
When I was an older adolescent and young adult, attending LDS Church felt more like a refueling station, at which I'd gather the strength I needed to keep fighting the good fight. This felt especially true when I served as a missionary from 2006-2008.
And then, in my mid-to-late twenties, attending LDS Church felt increasingly like going to a workshop and trying to build something with people. It was push and pull; it was give and take; it was tooth and nail; it was blood, sweat, and tears; it was collaborative, complicated, constructivist theology. We were doing a sort of group therapy. We were applying doctrine to politically and socially relevant topics. We were analyzing and criticizing our narratives. It wasn't always comfortable--in fact, sometimes it was downright hostile--but it was home.
Now, things feel different.
Part II: Martin Scorsese and Stephen Cope
I'm not going to make this whole post about specific things I disagreed with this afternoon, nor am I going to give you a summary of a bunch of issues I have with the Church in general. (Besides, I've already done posts in both thematic territories several times throughout the years: the former here and here, and the latter here and here, for example.)
Instead, I'm going to talk for a moment about Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). I re-watched this a couple days ago and it stuck with me.
The portrayal of Christ in this film is unique--and a little off-putting at first. He's portrayed as a person with self-doubt, with fear, with genuine human emotion and uncertainty. He misspeaks. He confuses people and even confuses Himself at times. He often feels lost, unworthy, and powerless.
And yet, it's a very faithful film (Scorsese, a Roman Catholic, is deeply interested in issues of spirituality, redemption, violence, and doubt). Christ, in this film--even though He suffers many temptations--is resilient, thoughtful, and wants to do well. He might make mistakes now and then but He wants to learn from them and do better. He wants to improve and get ever closer to God.
This is beautiful. We'll get back to it in a moment.
Stephen and I used to go to the same congregation a few years ago. At the time, I taught Sunday School and I loved it. I tried really hard to be a philosophically all-inclusive kind of teacher, the kind who could leave room on the table for everyone's ideas. I wanted people to feel safe exploring their own complicated feelings about God, about themselves, and about Mormonism; I wanted people to truly dialogue with one another without feeling censored or demonized. And I wanted to ask the kind of open questions that would lead to discussions like that. It was really, really tricky.
One day, I was teaching a lesson about the Caananite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). The general idea of the story is: a woman comes to Jesus and the disciples say "send her away" (because, you know, she's a Caananite). Jesus is about to do just that--indeed, He sends her away with some fairly harsh language (comparing her to a dog who's not fit to receive the meat from the table at a feast)--but she pushes back a little. She says that even dogs can receive crumbs from the table. Jesus relents and blesses the woman.
This is a tough story. If you're James Talmage, you could shrug it off and say that Jesus clearly didn't say anything offensive (see Jesus the Christ, chapter 22). If you're Fatimah Salleh, you could use this story as a metaphor that explores what it's like to try to live the Gospel from the margins (in fact, in my lesson I used an audio clip from her Sunstone speech to illustrate that point of view).
I presented the story and its complications. I opened the floor for discussion: why would Jesus say something like that, and what can we learn from this somewhat troubling story? I tried to emphasize that this story allegedly happened two thousand years ago, so it's fine if we all bring different interpretations to the conversation. Maybe it was translated incorrectly anyway. Maybe it never happened. But the important thing is that we internalize healthy and thoughtful ideas about it, whether or not it's true.
I got a variety of responses. Some people said "maybe Jesus was testing her faith." Others said "maybe it was sacred wordplay." Others said "maybe the disciples wrote it down wrong because it doesn't sound like something Jesus would say."
Then Stephen Cope raised their hand. "Maybe Jesus just misspoke," they said.
I could hear the rest of the room get uncomfortable. Other hands immediately shot up into the air, wanting to offer counterarguments. But Stephen continued: "Jesus didn't sin; that's clear in the scriptures. But making a mistake--saying something wrong--isn't a sin. Maybe Jesus had a lot on His mind and He was in a hurry and He just misspoke."
Stephen went on to explain that this interpretation of the story leads us to examine what Jesus does AFTER misspeaking. The Caananite woman calls Him out on His dismissiveness and Jesus immediately changes His tone and blesses her. Jesus doesn't get defensive. Jesus doesn't get hostile. Jesus doesn't gaslight. Instead, Jesus acknowledges, face-to-face, the need of the Other.
This was years ago and I've been thinking about it ever since. You could say Stephen's comment changed my life. I'd probably say, if you were to ask for my favorite week at Church, or my favorite lesson I've ever learned in Church, this was it.
(Of course, immediately after Stephen's comment, plenty of people expressed frustration, disdain, and indignation; it took a lot of work for me to keep the tone civil and open-minded for the remainder of the lesson. And less than an hour later, an ecclesiastical leader went behind my back and--instead of confronting me in person about the lesson--instructed the ward's Relief Society teacher to "undo the damage," so to speak, that my lesson had supposedly caused. The Relief Society lesson during that third hour, according to reports, started with an announcement: "just so everyone knows, Jesus never made any mistakes." It felt a little like a slap in the face, a complete [not to mention covert] reversal of the sense of openness and interpretive freedom that I'd tried so hard to cultivate. But that's a topic for another day.)
Part III: The Sanctity of Mistakes
I make mistakes every day. I'm probably making mistakes right now as I write this--perhaps some folks will feel like they've been misrepresented. And who knows, maybe writing anything is a mistake.
Maybe all the music I've ever composed, every photo I've ever taken, every essay I've ever written, and every lesson I've ever taught has been full of mistakes. But I'm going to keep composing music, taking photos, writing essays, and teaching lessons.
Maybe every relationship I've ever had has been full of mistakes. Maybe everything I've said to my parents has been full of mistakes. Maybe every prayer I've uttered and ritual I've performed has been full of mistakes. Nonetheless, I'm going to keep having relationships, speaking with my parents, uttering prayers, and performing rituals.
I'm going to keep doing all of these things, and so are you, because even though you and I make mistakes every day, that's okay--and it doesn't mean we're unworthy of love or existence. It doesn't mean we shouldn't get a chance to improve and to put forth some real effort in this world.
Therefore I love the idea of a Jesus who sometimes misspeaks, or who has momentary doubts, or who gets a little reactive and angry when He probably ought not to.
Because those things aren't sins. They don't make Him any less of a Savior or an Exemplar.
It's what Jesus does in response to His mistakes that makes Him holy. It's how he bounces back, learns, changes, grows, and increases His empathy.
I want to be like Jesus. But I don't want to be perfect. I don't want to have a life without any missteps, without ever accidentally hurting someone's feelings.
I'd rather have a life in which I keep doing all those stupid things, but in which I always learn from them really well and I try really hard to do better and to help people and to rebuild bridges that I'd unintentionally burned down in my clumsiness, in my selfishness, or in my distractedness.
I want to be the kind of person who, when he learns a new fact, doesn't stubbornly and insistently dig in his heels in the face of evidence. I want to be the kind of person who can listen and change. The kind of person who, when presented with a bitter cup, despite all my pushback and pleadings, ultimately decides to submit to my inner voice, to my spiritual truth, to my personal and subjective connection with the divine.
If I can do that, then I will be at one with the Universe. It doesn't mean my life will be easy. I feel like I've been at one with the Universe a few times in my life before. And it's not necessarily simple or comfortable. But it feels purposeful and powerful.
In other words: there are holes, but there's also sweetness. You know, like a doughnut.