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Monday, January 23, 2012

Guest Post: Searching For God In All The Wrong Places

godasman served a mission for the Church in the Philippines and now has three beautiful children. Having taken seriously the injunction to study from the best books, he secretly carries with him to church a copy of Moby-Dick alongside his quad. For a long time he has considered himself a Mormon not in the traditional vein, though he has heretofore maintained a respectful silence about his less-than-orthodox views. Ever the self-justifier and amateur Church Historian, he has a ready defense for all of his oddities of opinion. You can check out his blog here.

It is an accidental product of my openness to many different alternatives of spirituality that I am frequently invited to convert to other religions. Whenever I find those burning with religious zeal, confident atop a sure spiritual foundation, with a radiating countenance (Perhaps they have just left the presence of God!), I feel a promise of completeness in them that they have found what, in my more sober moments, I no longer believe to be possible. I ask them the whence’s and wherefore’s of that look they have, and they believe me to be an earnest spiritual pilgrim, looking for the One True Church to which I intend to swear my allegiance. (Maybe that is exactly what I am, though I doubt it.) It’s really quite cruel what I put people through by my questions. Everything I say leads them to believe I am on the path to the waters of baptism, when really I am a thief in the night, looking only for insights which I intend to incorporate into my own Mormon spirituality.

While pursuing my degree at a Liberal Arts College in the West, a fellow student had that very look. Whenever he deigned to break the silence of his heavenward gazing, he spoke of God and of life and of the immortality of the soul with such confidence that I hoped his child-like faith sprang from the depths and not from the shallows. He was a member of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, a congregation made up entirely of converts, and most of those came from the school I was attending.

It wasn’t just this friend which led me to their Sunday liturgy one summer morning. I had for a long time been interested in Orthodoxy. It was Father Zosima from the novel The Brothers Karamazov who first planted the seed. We are all guilty of everyone else’s sins, he proclaimed. If I were truly righteous, then this murderer before me maybe would never have murdered. We cannot calculate the extent of the consequences of our actions. A black look in my eye as I unconsciously walk to work may have unwittingly put some child on the road to perdition. The most honest gesture is to fall down before the sinner and beg his forgiveness for the wrongs I have done him, though I may have never met him, and then to beg God to forgive us both. Zosima even secretly prays for the devil, though he admits this is forbidden.

Next, I read The Way of a Pilgrim, and wondered how I might dedicate myself to a life of Orthodox meditation and still retain a family and Mormon identity. In the short work, an anonymous Russian peasant discovers the Jesus Prayer and repeats it so often it becomes his essence. (The words of the prayer are not rigidly fixed, and one variant is Alma’s prayer in the middle of Chapter 36: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.”)

In our long conversations about religion, my friend spoke of the differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the most fundamental being that Catholicism dictates from the top down, whereas the truths of Orthodoxy spring from the bottom up. This appealed greatly to my American sensibilities. We smiled together at the childish notion of the infallibility of the Pope, though I realized later that he would similarly dismiss the entire office of the First Presidency as papist.

So I followed him to his church one morning, a few minutes late. Though I wanted to sit in the back and silently observe, a friendly man in a beard silently passed between the pews from his seat in the front and, throwing one arm around my shoulder, he held up a book between us from which the words of the liturgy were taken. He whispered that this congregation has greatly abridged and amended the original, and that I could expect to jump around from page to page, but not to worry, I’d catch on to what was going on. I never did. A brief note about beards among the Orthodox. It’s all the rage in their fashion sensibilities. The longer the beard, the better, to these grizzly Samsons. The clean shaven comes to church with an askew look and an air of obstinate independence, as if his razor indicates a clinging to the vestiges of Babylon and an unorthodoxy of opinion. Mormons well know it is the exact opposite with us. One man had never been without a beard his adult life, but when he was called to serve in the bishopric, he dutifully shaved it off. After twenty years of marriage, it was the first time his wife had seen his chin. Our ethic is to look like the Brethren: white shirts, dark suits, close haircuts, no facial hair. And this corporate ethic of dress we export to the third world by means of our missionaries. In the Philippines, where I served my two-year mission, young Filipinos hoping to serve missions themselves inherit their neckties from Americans going home, as those are the only neckties that ever make it into that country. We have let much culturally specific prejudices into the pure teachings of the wandering Nazarene. But I digress. Suffice it to say that just as the Orthodox are frequently mistaken by their long beards for the homeless, Mormons are mistaken by their clean cut appearance for the CIA. Or homosexuals.

A wispy ancient with green and white robes moved around a pedestal, singing all the while, as if to himself. He swung the incense and read from a book. He retired behind a partition and, I believe, prepared the Eucharist. The whole time he sang. Sometimes the congregation would sing over his song. Sometimes a small choir would sing over the rest of us. Sometimes everyone would be singing different songs at the same time. What struck me was that the whole thing was done in song. A not particularly melodic song, at that. We stood. We sat. Some came to the front and were blessed. Some never said or did anything but just sat and listened. I would have been more comfortable in their company, but my new partner was a vigorous Orthodox convert, and we belted out our ‘Blessed Diatokos’ with the loudest of them.

I refrain from any analysis of the liturgy, as I consider all of it to be a mystery to which I am no initiate. Suffice it to say that the events of the worship seemed to center around the movements of the priest, though this ran counter to the impression I received of the democratic tendencies of the Orthodox Church. My feelings at this time resembled another spiritual seeker in literature, who ruminated the following, while he sat in an unfamiliar church: “I pondered some time without fully comprehending the reason for this. Father Mapple enjoyed such a wide reputation for sincerity and sanctity, that I could not suspect him of courting notoriety by any mere tricks of the stage. No, thought I, there must be some sober reason for this thing; furthermore, it must symbolize something unseen.”

After the service, I was detained for lunch, though I knew this meant I’d miss Mormon sacrament meeting. I did not mind. I was brought to the front and announced as a visitor. Warm smiles escorted me to the head table beside the priest. I told him of my Mormon faith, but that I had not yet encountered all of the ingredients I believe make up a complete spiritual life. He indicated humbly he had traveled a similar path, but had found everything he was looking for here in Orthodoxy. He asked me to excuse his proselytizing zeal, it’s just that the Orthodox are so excited about what they have discovered, they instinctively want to share it with others. It was an argument I was very familiar with. “Mormonism,” he said, “has struck upon a great truth which has long been cherished in the East. That is theotization. Man can become God.” I did not know what he meant by this. I assumed it could not be the same thing as what Mormons believe: Eternities of organizing chaos, creating worlds, extending one’s dominion, and (this is the best part) having sex (with perhaps multiple partners), thereby making spiritual babies to inhabit these infinite worlds. I assumed he meant a oneness with God, something like the Nirvana of Buddhism, an eternity of Divine Contemplation. I assumed that’s what he meant, but I never asked. I don’t know why I didn’t ask him to elaborate. I wish I did.

Spurred on by his generosity to my own religion, I confessed that I was dissatisfied with what my church has to offer, as a sort of implied compliment. Much is lacking in Mormonism, I said, such as meditation, theological investigation, and philosophical speculation, all qualities which seem to be manifest in abundance here. Mormons no longer search out the mysteries, I complained, because they assume all of the important questions have been answered. A few congregants sitting near me exchanged knowing glances, for similar declarations had preceded their conversions. The priest looked at his hands for a moment, as if searching for the right words. “Many have experienced the same perplexities you speak of. And many have found the answers in the Orthodox Church. You are welcome here whenever you like, whether you intend to join us or not. But we hope you will consider becoming a catechumen, that you may better understand the Orthodox way of life.” My friend from school was beaming at me with the joy I remember feeling as a missionary.

I knew that look too well. And then I realized I had already experienced what it was I had found here. I had known the Mormon Chruch to be true with just as much certainty as anyone in that room knew the Orthodox Church was true. Life is sorrow. But by adhering to a series of formulas which sublimate those sorrows into a divine scheme, one can achieve real joy. No one really knows whether or not their formulas actually correspond to anything outside of themselves, but we all hope and persist, gambling our entire existence on insufficient evidence. The crisis is brought to the fore, we search our hearts for some sign that our commitment is not in vain, and then the miracle happens. We are able to convince someone else to believe in the formulas we believe. We draw certainty from their certainty. We testify to each other that our creed is divine, and the crisis of doubt is transformed in a communal bath of shared belief. Orthodoxy springs from the bottom up. Well, so does Mormonism. The Church isn’t true because Joseph Smith said it’s true. It’s true because my dad says it’s true, my mom says it’s true, the people I converted say it’s true, and so I too say it’s true. It’s the democratic principle, pure and undefiled. Thank you for your insight, Mossier de Tocqueville.

But uncertain formulas, never mind how many believe in them, continue to be uncertain. At least that’s what I think in my more skeptical moments. Should a man convince a whole nation that God lives on one of the moons of Jupiter, this does not increase the probability that God lives on one of the moons of Jupiter. The Orthodox find comfort in the continuity of their tradition. Their beliefs, one priest explained to me, have continued unadulterated since the earliest church fathers. But this is only the democratic principle temporally understood. It does not matter how long people have believed in uncertainty; it remains, and will continue to remain, uncertain.

My friend smiled at me over the table, but I looked down at my fork stirring through the coleslaw. I knew I could never muster the faith to believe in any of their creeds. It would feel intellectually dishonest. Besides, I am Mormon to my bones, and I have yet to encounter anything better than the tradition I have received. Though I know it is not an adequate description of the modern church, I hold on to the saying of Joseph Smith: “The only creed of Mormonism is that we have no creed.” There is an openness implied which I take with me in my search for truth. President Gordon Hinkley invited new members to bring the good from their home religions to our church, and see if we can’t add to it. My modus vivendi is to anticipate the converts, and go and find their truths before they come over to our way of looking at things. It’s a ridiculous practice, I know, considering that my philosophy precludes any commitment to dogmas. But my heart yearns for God, and I don’t know what else to do.

The Kingdom of God is like a women looking for a precious coin. She cleans her whole house, but never finds it. She has heard there are precious coins in her neighbors’ houses, and she goes and cleans there. She has been cleaning now for a long time, without finding her coin. In the quiet moments of the night, she wonders if precious coins even exist. But her heart says yes, and she continues cleaning houses, looking for coins. Those who claim to have coins do not inhabit the Kingdom of God. Thus says my faith.

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