Thursday, May 31, 2012

Guest Post: Reclaiming Tragedy As Our Natural Birthright



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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 and his first guest post here.

Image via Wonderlane.

We sat in silence. My psychologist was not writing anymore, his hands folded neatly on his lap. He stared at me, breathing slowly, unable to speak. For months I had been meeting with him to discuss my addiction to pornography, my crisis of faith in the LDS Church, and the growing divide between myself and my wife, which had recently brought us to the brink of divorce. For months we had worked together, my psychologist and I, trying to to find a middle ground, a workable solution to these divisive tensions within me. Maybe I needed a new profession in academia, a place to vent my intellectual steam in ways not related to the Church. Maybe I needed to move to a more liberal city, where I wouldn't feel so alone in my Ward. The other option, one which we were loathe to even mention, though it screamed silently from my falling tears and wringing hands, was the possibility that I needed to leave my wife and the Church, and pursue my intellectual interests without fear or compromise.

I felt like an outsider in the Church. For years I had devoted myself to the contemplation of philosophy and poetry. At first I looked in these writings for validation of my own religious teaching. When I read Socrates espouse a theory of learning as recollection, my mind went immediately to the Pre-Mortal realm and the veil of forgetfulness as taught by Joseph Smith. When a physics instructor challenged the Christian notion of creation ex nihilo on the basis of the First Law of Thermodynamics, I smiled and remembered that we Mormons understand that God only organized existent matter to form the Universe. But with time, I wondered if seeing everything through a Mormon lens might limit my understanding of these important ideas. I began to develop the ability to set aside my religious biases and encounter these thinkers on their own terms. Fidelity to dogma became replaced by permeability and open-mindedness. This led naturally to questions about the fundamental tenants of the faith of my youth: What if there isn't a God? What if Joseph Smith's claims to revelations and the origin of the Book of Mormon are better explained along naturalistic, rather than miraculous, lines?

We had stewed together for a month, my psychologist and I, over what seemed an impossible situation: I desperately love both my wife and my Church, and yet these represent an all out war on my most natural physical and philosophical inclinations.

We sat across from each other, in shocked silence, trying to understand the strange proposal I had offered: I would choose to live a compromised life, with so many essential needs left unfulfilled, because I believe such a life to be good for me. It is the business of psychologists to help their patients relieve the tensions pulling them this way and that; I would choose this tension as my home and the place in which my soul would expand. Such is the nature, I said, of all great artists. The poet who suffers under unrequited love would probably feel so much better if he allowed himself to masturbate to assuage the pain, but instead he chooses to settle into his tragic position and he writes his immortal poems. The philosopher who abandons his family for a community with whom he is completely understood and accepted has lost the haunting beauty of his voice crying in the night. Such a one will not write the book which his pain might have provided. The art of mental health therapy, which consoles so many hurting people, is antithetical to the artist, to the great man who needs his pain to inspire him to the heights of the sublime.

My psychologist listened patiently to my account, and conceded some truth to what I had said. We both decided that continuing our sessions did not make that much sense anymore. I stepped out of his office into a new world I had yet to become acquainted with.

*****

Perhaps the most important innovation in philosophy of the 20th Century is the thesis put forward by Leo Strauss in his now classic book, Persecution and the Art of Writing. In it, he distinguishes two types of people: philosophers and non-philosophers. The former are marked by their freedom to question any assumption underlying reality. The later are marked by their need to rely on dogma and culture in order to make sense of things. For most of human history, the non-philosophers have demanded the blood of philosophers, and rightly so. The unique path of philosophy, with its readiness to abandon any idea, no matter how important and fundamental to political life, threatens the very foundations of civilization. If the masses knew what the philosophers really thought, they would destroy them. And so philosophers have adopted in their writings a coded language which pays lip service to the dogmas of society. But the careful reader is able to detect where the philosopher is leading the masses astray in order to uncover the esoteric message left exclusively for the philosopher. The adept practitioner of the Straussian method discovers heretics and atheists masquerading as believers in times of religious persecution. As we read Thomas Hobbes or John Locke, we can no longer take any statement about the validity of Christianity at face value, for this might be another example of the philosopher leading his contemporaries down the wrong track to avoid persecution.

Some might conclude that we are so much better off today because our modern political culture espouses diversity and tolerance above all else, and so our contemporary philosophers have the freedom to speak whatever it is that they believe. I don't agree, for two reasons. First, human nature has hardly changed in the last few thousand years, and our dogmas are just as firmly rooted as in Medieval Europe. Ask Larry Summers what happens when you question women's natural abilities in math and science at the bastion of academic freedom, Harvard University. These supposed free thinkers rode him out of town on a rail. We have our sacred cows we must pay homage to just as Maimonides had his.

Second, if we grant that life is indeed easier today for philosophers to speak openly regarding their doubts, it does not follow that this is either good for them or for us. The fully formed philosophers themselves do not fare well under a regime of toleration. Philosophy is a dangerous game, especially if you're playing it right, and philosophers always do their best work under a hangman's noose.

*****

Nietzsche said that we should not follow our happiness, but rather we should follow our truth, and sacrifice our happiness for it. In prescribing this strange formula, he points us to the Greeks and their honest and courageous sense of the tragic as a worthy guide. For the Greeks, the human condition is an impossible dilemma we are not ever able to escape. The gods laugh at us and tell us it would be better had we never been born. And yet the genius of Greek wisdom is that they somehow consume this insight and are able to invert it by affirming life exactly as it appears. In fact, they believe the highest wisdom becomes available exactly when life is the most intolerable. Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus is a developed account of this tragic wisdom in action.

Christianity, according to Nietzsche, has completely muddled the tragic by making everything low high and everything high low. In the Christian epic poem, The Song of Roland, an otherwise grand story in the tragic fashion of a hero sacrificing himself for his king and country is ruined in the end by angels descending and reclaiming the fallen French warrior back to heaven and God's presence. Christianity reflects an inability or unwillingness to accept life's inherent difficulties by placing all our hopes in a total redemption and resurrection at the last day. In the times of our greatest sorrow, Christianity tempts us to take our eyes off of the mark, away from the moment of pain, and look outside ourselves into some indefinable beyond. It is for this reason Nietzsche did not view Christianity, nor even the existence of God, as a suitable basis for a strong, harsh spirituality.

*****

But in Mormonism, despite our mainstream Protestant doctrines of redemption, we hear distant echoes of this tragic song haunting our heavenly visions. I have written elsewhere that in the grand Mormon cosmos, no being suffers as much as God himself. He weeps at our disobedience, and he weeps at his inability to be of any real help. So when we say we hope to become exactly like he is, we are taking upon ourselves the horrific ability to behold all the suffering of our children without the ability to do anything about it. Exquisite torture, indeed. A beautiful tragedy, undermining our baser, Christian instincts for harmony in the universe.

*****

Incidentally, this is why I don't feel completely at home in the Mormon Stories community. When John Dehlin interviews guests who have real insight into the doctrine and culture of Mormonism, I am enthralled. A few on the podcast have come from places of such depth of learning and wisdom I feel myself opening up into new existential possibilities. But lately it is becoming more and more clear that Dehlin envisions his Open Stories Foundation not as an intellectual bastion but as a place for group therapy. Once we heard from Daymon Smith about the history of Correlation. Now we hear panel discussions about how to navigate a mixed faith marriage.

The subtext of this whole essay is that there is real power in embracing the difficulties of a covert heretic. I cringe whenever I hear Mormon Stories people talk about mitigating the harm done by the LDS Church. It is precisely this harm which is the necessary precondition for becoming a hero in the tragic fashion.

*****

This tragic vision of human spirituality offers more potent moments in history than others for growth and demonstration of strength. The greatness of the warrior is determined by the greatness of the war. Never again will African Americans produce a spokesman as powerful as Fredrick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, nor Martin Luther King, Jr. This is because the war for Civil Rights has largely been won. Their struggles today, when they struggle collectively as a group, strike me as petty and inconsequential. This is not to say African Americans can not become heroes anymore; just not heroes qua African Americans. It was precisely the lynch mobs and Jim Crow which provided the secret to their power. As our enemies are vanquished, so too do the native warrior instincts dull and soften.

Today I look to the LGBT community for the great souls who will emerge from under an oppressive culture, strengthened by their struggle. Ironically, I belong the the very organization, the LDS Church, which poses as the most powerful threat to LGBT rights. Once their Civil Rights have been secured, a silent page will turn in Gay History and they will likely become complacent fat Americans, like the rest of us. The LDS Church, with it's puppeteering of "grassroots" anti-gay platforms, may be the very adversary the gay community needs to achieve their destiny.

*****

To those who reject this message, who fly to Support Groups and Communities of Tolerance and Acceptance; to all those who believe they have found the escape route from this difficult vision, I ask you if you might be deluding yourselves. Life does not offer us a way out of this difficulty. There is no doctrine which will take the sting away from a funeral; no political goal, once achieved, which will bring lasting happiness. There is no community which can make you comfortable in your own skin. Doctrines and politics and supportive groups are all a turning away from an inner reality we are aware of, but a truth none of us want to confront. And that is this. What we want from life and what we get are two different things. We have multiple ropes we pull at, trying to make ends meet, but there is no way to reconcile all of the divergent needs in our lives to our own satisfaction. And that is precisely the point, the first step to a healthy life. The Buddhist says drop the ropes and walk away from all desires. But I don't see that as a sufficient answer. Such is a No to life. I prefer the Greek model, as represented in the myth of Sisyphus. His life seems intolerable, because the stone keeps rolling down the hill. But Sisyphus descends and pushes it up again. Ever laboring. Ever aware of the insanity of his labor. A genius of effort. A genius of wisdom.

*****

I continue to occupy my little space in an obscure corner of Mormonism, doing my home teaching and serving in my calling. To everyone around me, I am the unoffensive Executive Secretary to the Bishop, who wouldn't hurt a fly. And I live my private life of intellectual longing. The thoughts I deign to publish on the Internet, I do so under a pseudonym. The gulf which separates these two worlds can be excruciating. But this tension I claim as my life-force, the essence of my spirituality, of my poetry.

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