Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Radical Rethinking of Religion

On occasion, I moderate online groups supporting those who stuggle with religion and faith. My point of view is that faith within a faith community is a "good thing", because when I tried the alternative in my sojourns to India, I really missed the communitarian aspect of Church and religion.  Maybe I was just brought up that way.

But I think another element is involved.  Religion, with all of its dogma and ritual, have a place in the community, if for nothing else but to fulfill a deep human need to be connected one to another.  Good religions foster this sense of community, and the best of religions tend to serve the needs of members and others through service.  This can represent the very best in humanity.

When I felt most isolated on my personal faith journey, I came to a conclusion that something inside me, very primal, needs the connection with others -- needs a place to call my "home".  For me, this is the LDS church, because that is the faith of my fathers (mothers, family, etc.).  As well, I have had deep spiritual experiences binding me to that faith in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Yet my sojourns through other faith traditions has given me a deep respect that as much as I self-identify as Mormon or LDS, I deeply respect that others, too, have an exclusive sense of connection to their respective faiths.  I share a lot with a colleague in Ireland who is a devout Catholic, and like me, conducts music in his congregation on occasion.  His family and mine could be identical: five children, deep commitments to family and to community, obviously the same kind of work. 

One weekend, I stayed with him in Dublin, going to a rugby game, participating in Irish folk music until late at night, and on Sunday, working with his folk choir as they prepared for and participated in the Mass.  It was a lot of fun, but also, a contest of egos as to who was in charge.... hard to give up old patterns, I'm afraid.

I had explained to him that once in Montreal, I had participated in Catholic communion, and did not understand how we can be exclusive in our religions as to who participates fully in the ritual.  He was mortified, because such a sacrilege by a non-Catholic is entirely inappropriate.  So, he explained that I could participate in the communion, but not take the host -- by crossing my arms in the form of an X.  During his mass, I did so, and the priest blessed me instead of serving me the host -- it was a remarkably spiritual moment.

There is something about the ritual that speaks to the soul.  Whether it be the Mass, or a Shaivite fire ritual, or the LDS temple, or elsewhere, the ritual stirs something inside -- a unity, a connection, a deep sense of awe.  I have been transported to another realm in hearing the Shema, or the recitation of the Qur'an.  Perhaps there are many paths to the top of Mount Fuji (as the buddhist expression goes), but to me, there is a path I'm on.

Why is (or was) religion necessary?

So what is religion anyway?  In speaking of the term, I'm refering to the organized, cultural construct whereby we worship together.  While individual spirituality and faith are often present in the organized religion, they are distinct, and indeed personal.  Religion serves a distinct purpose, to bind a community together through ritual, common caring, and identity.

I do not believe that any "religion" was and is a god-dictated construct.  I'll go with "inspired", but I also will say that in being 'inspired', some aspects of religion reflect that inspiration, but ALL religion is also a man-made construct, and arose necessarily out of the need for the tribe to survive.

Speaking from an evolutionary point of view, humans are not well equiped to survive as individuals in the wild.  Our evolutionary strength comes not only from our minds, but also our ability to form mutually-protecting groups.  It's evident to me that our rituals went back at least 100,000 years even among the related Neandethals, who dressed their dead with ritual and omens indicating some kind of community beliefs.

I would imagine, or theorize, that rituals helped bring a tribe together.  The unique languages of ritual practice, whether social or otherwise, would help identify a member of the tribe, as opposed to someone whose rituals differed.  A member of the tribe might be trusted, whereas the stranger in the midst would be distrusted.  Such behaviors did not develop because people are inherently racist or bigoted, but rather, the primitive society used these protocols to identify friends/family from foes/foreigners.  Our personal preference to those who speak and look like us, who pray like us, and who act like us is a result of hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary natural selection -- we are programmed to need the identifying rituals, whether we like them or not.

Today, religion stands at the gate between our tribal identities and our emerging global identities.  In fact, the more we globalize, the more desperate religion is to re-assert tribal identity among the still-faithful in the religion.  Indeed, the vast majority of the world's problems have to do with the assertion of tribal identity as a means of survival over globalization, especially in the presence of perceived scarcity of critical resources.  The global war on terrorism (GWOT), along with its partner, fundamentalist religious terrorism, dominate the world scene and serve to bring down progress and pluralism.

The Tipping Point has Arrived.

So here we are, in a world where religion stands in opposition to progress.  As I mentioned at the beginning, I moderate groups where people struggle with faith and religion.  I have been dablling in this since the 1990s, but during the past year or so, I have never seen more people flooding the gates of leaving religion.  When I was involved in early mormon-focused usenet groups (,, we had a few people join us on occasion -- one or two per month, maybe.  Of course, usenet was not as popular, say, as facebook or other fora (or is it "forums"). 

I've been participating on occasion within the "Disaffected Mormon Undeground" (DAMU - affectionately pronouncd "Damn-You") for the past several years.  My obsession with statistics has led me to observe the numbers of people in and out of those groups, and I have informally tracked these for the past four years.  I have seen steady increases in people involved, but within the past few two years, I can quantitively say that the number of requests for support about my particular religion, the LDS church, has not doubled, but rather, quadrupled.  This week, alone, we admitted 42 people into a facebook group after confirming that they had a legitimate concern abou their church adn were trying to make it work.  This contrasts with 20 maximum last year, and half that the year before -- and we were not nearly as selective in the past. 

And we're the ones trying to help people stay in the church.  The popularity of ex-mormon or really disaffected, "on-one's-way-out" sites is at least four to six times as great as those who wish to stay in.  These are quantifiable statistics based upon membership numbers and increase per week of the sites with various constituencies.

I'm reminded of Malcom Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, where he explains how certain social phenomenon achieve a certain critical mass, and after that "tipping point" a massive change in sentiment occurs.  I do not wish for the tipping point to turn against the good parts of religion -- but I can see the "writing on the wall" at this point.  The availability of information readily available on the internet, the social networking that connects people to each other in lieu of the community across global communities of interest -- spell a massive need for change in traditional religions.

A Radical Rethinking

I'm weird, but you know that.   I love religious ritual.  I love putting incense on the graves of the 47 ronin at Sengakuji.  I truly enjoyed the Mass in Dublin.  I enjoy the ritual of the LDS endowment, as well as the quiet, contemplative moments of communion (or what we call "Sacrament").  I love the traditions of Yom Kippur, where I draw near my family and re-assess where I stand in the book of life.  I have recited the necessary suras as part of islamic prayer.  I have chanted in sanskrit. Yet, I have been disappointed in my own efforts to create my own kind of spirituality -- it would seem to me that I feel most at home within the faith of my fathers and upbringing -- it speaks to me.

I would like to propose a new kind of faith -- a faith where we all recognize and appreciate that we don't know with certainty about the divine, but rather, we celebrate the divine in our rituals and in our daily lives.  I would like to stand, side-by-side, with a mullah, an evangelical, a hasid, and an atheist, and instead of arguing about who is right, find ways where we share our common humanity.  I don't want one world religion, I want as many as necessary to speak to our individual souls.

I would like to celebrate the Jesus Christ who challenged my forefathers' and fore-mothers' Jewish and Christian faith, by asking them who their neighbor was.  I would think that James the brother of Jesus could sit at the same table as Paul's greek converts, and while James might stay kosher in his meals, the converts may have a different view -- yet we are all one body of humanity.

Yes, there are going to be many messages in my religion, polemics of the past, that I'm going to have to discard.  I'm going to have to throw away the idea of "one true church" for everyone, except in the metaphorical sense of a unity across diversity.  I'm going to have to realize that the polemics of my church's past are not worthy of defense, but should indeed be apologized for, rather than a subject of apologetics. 

What I'm suggesting is that each church embrace a larger, interfaith community of acceptance.  Yes, our churches will need to change -- not the ritual, not the practices that are compatible with others.  We need to embrace a universal faith, while living within diverse religious traditions.  Our traditions can enrich us, but it is our faith that must unite us.

I am so much of a fool.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Orson Pratt: God as Attributes

Orson Pratt was one of the most brilliant scholars of the early LDS church, and his intellectualism often led to conflict with the leadership of Brigham Young.  Young was authoritarian, whereas Pratt was rational.  In many ways, they were both speculative in their theology, but to Young's authoritarian style, Pratt's approach was entirely too confrontational.  In 1853, it would seem that Young found a solution to this intellectual conflict: he sent Pratt on a mission to Washington DC, to testify to the Gentiles.  As part of this mission, and with the approval of the leadership, Pratt authored an apologetic tract on Mormon theology and practice entitled, "The Seer".

Pratt was a true LDS believer.  As he had learned from Joseph Smith, God was both the one being that created and governs the universe, as well as an exalted man.  God was both unchangeable, according to scripture, the same from everlasting to everlasting, yet the being we call "Heavenly Father" was once a man, and had progressed to become God.  The pre-mortal existence of man was in a realm speaking of the "Sons of God" who were in someway gods, yet there could only be one god.  Joseph Smith taught that god has an immortal, inseparably connected exalted body, and can only be in one place at a given point in time, yet the scriptures speak of god being everywhere.

Indeed, Mormon theology about a God who was once man, and the idea that man can become god is fraught with fundamental conflicts with the mainstream definition of God.  How can god be unchangeable, but the being we call god, either as God the Father transformed from mortal man to Heavenly Father, or as Jesus was once man yet progressed, line upon line in his mortal life, to become god.  If we as humans are fallible, how then can we become unchanging gods?

Orson Pratt's laid out a remarkable approach for answering this apparent paradox.  In the February 1853 edition of The Seer, Orson Pratt laid out his understanding of the pre-existence as a child of god, and his destiny as a god, thus resulting in a multiplicity -- indeed "millions" of gods.  How could this be reconciled?  Here are his words from The Seer, Volume 1, Issue 2:
All these Gods are equal in power, in glory, in dominion, and in the possession of all things ; each possesses a fulness of truth, of knowledge, of wisdom, of light, of intelligence ; each governs himself in all things by his own attributes, and is filled with love, goodness, mercy, and justice towards all. The fulness of all these attributes is what constitutes God. "God is Light." "God is Love." "God is Truth." The Gods are one in the qualities and attributes. Truth is not a plurality of truths, because it dwells in a plurality of persons, but it is one truth, indivisible, though it dwells in millions of persons. Each person is called God, not because of his substance, neither because of the shape and size of the substance, but because of the qualities which dwell in the substance. Persons are only tabernacles or temples, and TRUTH is the God, that dwells in them. If the fulness of truth, dwells in numberless millions of persons, then the same one indivisible God dwells in them all. As truth can dwell in all worlds at the same instant; therefore, God who is truth can be in all worlds at the same instant. A temple of iinmortal flesh, and bones, and spirit, can only be in one place at a time, but truth, which is God, can dwell in a countless number of such temples in the same moment. When we worship the Father, we do not merely worship His person, but we worship the truth which dwells in His person. When we worship the Son, we do not merely worship His body, but we worship truth which resides in Him. So, likewise, when we worship the Holy Ghost, it is not the substance which we alone worship, but truth which dwells in that substance. Take away truth from either of these beings, and their persons or substance would not be the object of worship. It is truth, light, and love that we worship and adore ; these are the same in all worlds ; and as these constitute God, He is the same in all worlds ; and hence, the inhabitants of all worlds are required to worship and adore the same God. Because God dwells in many temples, He frequently speaks to us, as though there were many Gods : this is true when reference is made to the number of His dwelling places ; baut it is not true, and cannot be true,, in any other sense. Therefore, in all our future statements and reasonings, when we speak of a plurality of Gods, let it be distinctly understood, that we have reference alone to a plurality of temples wherein the same truth or God dwells. And also when we speak of only one God, and state that He is eternal, without beginning or end, and that He is in all worlds at the same instant, let it be distinctly remembered, that we have no refer- ence to any particular person or substance, but to truth dwelling in a vast variety of substances. Wherever you find a fulness of wisdom, knowledge, truth, goodness, love, and such like qualities, there you find God in all His glory, power, and majesty, therefore, if you worship these adorable perfections you worship God. 
 Shortly after this was published, Brigham Young openly disagreed, saying that we don't worship attributes, but rather, a being.  This disagreement continued from late 1853 until around 1860, after which Orson Pratt was forced into submission by the Quorum of the Twelve to accept the Prophet's word without question.  He then gave a formal apology in a conference address.

Certainly many of Orson Pratt's pronouncements were speculations.  Curiously, the issue that caused the most dissension between him and Brigham Young was the Adam-God concept: Orson simply couldn't agree that Adam was an alien from another planet and who was appointed to be God of this earth.  As well, he couldn't agree, scripturally, that god continues to progress.  Here we have both Brigham Young and Orson Pratt speculating on the nature of god, and one was brought into submission because he wasn't the prophet.  Later, of course, Brigham Young's speculations around Adam-God and the progression of god have proved distinctly non-scriptural and problematic to later prophets.  In the end, who was right?

To me, it's important to observe that Orson Pratt's observations were a valid attempt to rationalize scriptural understanding of god with the god as defined by Joseph Smith.  Orson Pratt was a true believer, yet in his attempt to rationalize mormon theology, he came upon an idea, supported in scripture, that the eternal nature of god is a universal constant: truth, light, power, etc., are godly attributes, and a person possessing such attributes can and should be called "god".

Where Pratt caused confusion is to suggest that the attributes, disembodied, are objects of worship.  They are not.  It is not the attributes that make up god, but rather the attributes embodied in a person -- the "I AM" that make up god.  The body (the individual) and spirit (the attributes, metaphorically) become inseparably connected, and thus achieve the fullness of joy (power, truth, light, etc.).

As I see the Way

I see these attributes in the context of the Way.  The Way, as an abstract concept or attribute, is not god, never was, never will be.  The Way is what makes one God.  In Chinese daoist literature, the "Sage", or literally, "holy person", is characterized as being one who is in perfect harmony with the Way.  To me, Orson Pratt was on a trajectory to understand the Way in a sense that makes it real -- Any being who possesses the attributes (of the Way) and is in perfect harmony with the Way would be and is indistinguishable from god.

Sure, I understand this as being an exalted state, eventually to be achieved in LDS doctrine and theology.   But somehow, Jesus saw it differently: he saw that we could be one with him and with God in a very real, present sense.  To him, Psalm 82 spoke of mankind being gods in this life, not as a state to achieve, but rather, as state of existence in the here and now -- one who defends the poor and the fatherless, who does justice to the afflicted and the needy.  If there were any "Way" that Jesus best demonstrated, it was how we are to care for one another in unconditional love.  This was the Way of Jesus Christ: to love one another.

And this attribute, "Love", is worthy of worship.