Sunday, August 28, 2011

Finding purpose… and peace

This morning I had a moment of true transcendence.

In the last couple of weeks I have been heavily engaged in dialogue with a very, very intelligent guy about the objective reality (or lack) of morality as it relates to God’s existence (note to self: if this is what you do in your spare time, you can be sure that you are a complete nerd).  I’m in the middle of Guns, Germs, and Steel,  my wife just read Under the Banner of Heaven, and in the last few days I’ve been able to graphically revisit the degree to which I come off as a violently angry asshole when discussing The Mantle Talk by Boyd Packer (which talk makes me violently angry).  Given that I have a stated objective to NOT come off as an angry apostate, but rather, a charming and happy, even gregarious, apostate, this state of affairs has prompted further frenzied thinking about WHAT TO DO (in the cosmic and mundane sense) with regards to my Mormon-ness.

Late last night, during the lightning storm, my wife and I talked about evolution, and morality, and purpose, and (of course) Church.  I realized how sad she (at least sometimes) feels at the loss of easy-to-identify purpose in life.  I think it has been different for me.  At the point that I realized some questions will NOT be answered, I stopped asking them so much.  I am much more comfortable with some combination of existentialism, nihilism, functional hedonism, secular humanism, deism, atheism, agnosticism…  Let’s just say I like my isms dry, with a full body and slightly bitter aftertaste.

Maybe she prefers her isms to be sweet and comforting, with warm notes, and chocolate overtones.  (I made olive oil ice cream the other night.  She thought it was interesting, but she told me she wants her adventure in the meal, but her desserts to be familiar, comforting, and traditional… how much does this say about our relative approaches to these larger problems?)

A quick summary of the salient points:
Internal points
  1.          Let’s admit to ourselves that we are evolved beings.  (Alert: If you are invested in the literal Garden of Eden narrative, you might not like the rest of my points either.)
  2.          We don’t expect the animals around us to adhere to external rules of morality.
  3.          At some point we were among them.
  4.          Our self-consciousness, and sense of morality evolved with us.
  5.          If you believe in an objective, eternal, God-driven morality, then you must conceptualize a day when God flipped the switch on humans, and we became morally culpable to those eternal realities.  I mean this literally. 

External points
  1.          Let’s presume God exists. 
  2.          Morality is connected to God’s existence.  In other words, God cares about it.
  3.          If that connection is internal, if morality is contained in the being of God, then it has no greater significance than simply being an arbitrary set of rules that God decided.  This is to say, if the truth EMANATES from God’s being, then it cannot be properly called truth, it is simply God’s preference. 
  4.          It the connection is external (as I think Mormons believe), then it does not depend on God to exist.  God could go away, and morality is still there.  Thus, whether or not God exists has no impact on morality. 
  5.          The internal problem makes morality meaningless, the external problem makes it impossible to identify a source of morality, and it begins to look (to the horror of my friend) like simple human preference.

I don’t know if I am covering all of the points very well, but the point is, it gets really difficult at times to figure out if there is a purpose to life, or some real sense of right and wrong, and for a variety of reasons, that can be depressing to contemplate.

Transcendent epiphany this morning:  If we are all part of God, interconnected in a giant web of time and space, then all of these problems disappear.  If instead of being a discrete being/presence/personality, God is the (admittedly kooky sounding) web of life, progressing forward, evolving into self-consciousness, striving for perfection, creating what perfection is… then suddenly I’m ok.  This blows up the anthropomorphic vision of deity (and I will be the first to admit that it is rather appealing to self-worship), but let’s face it, that vision of deity has its own problems.  It blows up the idea that God is perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, etc. 

I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.  And I know I’m not really saying anything new, but I had a legitimate (Mormon worthy) spiritual experience as I contemplated all of that.

It makes God… everything.  And then, morality (at least as I see it) becomes tenable again.  It becomes external and internal to us.  It connects us with the object of morality (each other, and the earth, and the other living things).  It gives purpose to life and to evolution, and gives room for moral improvement.

It also fixes the problem of my assessment of God’s most obvious characteristic: absence.  If God is everywhere, then I don’t have to fret so much about the fact that he is not there. 

It gives space for the narrative weight of divine experience for individuals without requiring me (or anyone) to give heed to the attempts some make to control the behavior of others through the (false) authority of those experiences.  It allows those experiences to take shape in an infinite number of ways without having to call them wrong (or right).

Finally, it gives space for empathy.  I can regard the Church as a piece of the whole process of moral evolution.  As it evolves (it does, and it has), I will be able to see it moving to greater moral strength.  Perhaps I can find a way to influence that moral progress.  Perhaps I can understand how I fit into the Church as an apostate.  Perhaps I can find peace with my family and community (both in and out of the Church). 

Does it fix all of my problems?  No.  I still have to work out what my relationship to the Church looks like in practical, mundane terms.  I have to continue to deal with (and attempt to diffuse) my anger.    I have to think through the implications of this further.  I need to continue to read the philosophies of men, so that I can mingle them with scripture, and thus attempt to circumscribe all truth into one great whole.  I have to continue to do my best with what I’ve got. 

Maybe the biggest problem; if I’m going to embrace this kind of thinking I have to figure out how to (unironically) wear amulets, patchouli, and sandals.  Do I have to get dreadlocks?

(It should be noted, not for the first time, that I owe a debt of gratitude to Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God for helping me think through some of this.)


  1. I have seen this vista before, and I agree that it is better than some of the alternatives. I like God as everything.

  2. if I’m going to embrace this kind of thinking I have to figure out how to (unironically) wear amulets, patchouli, and sandals. Do I have to get dreadlocks?

    Ix-nay on the dreadlocks. They're just too ugly, even for touchy-feely mystic types.

    Pachouli can simply be one of the primary varieties of incense you buy, and amulets are easily hidden under your clothes. And everyone needs a pair of birkenstocks.

    Seriously speaking, though: this is the general direction I'm headed with all the god stuff. I like it. But it makes it very difficult to say "I believe in God," because so few people have any sense of what you mean by "god." I've spent a lot of time trying to explain what I mean by "god," and even when I begin by saying, "This definition is, I realize, not like most people's," there's always some point, well into the matter, when someone says, "But your idea of god is nothing at all like most people's! So how can you even call it 'god'?"

    And believers call me an atheist and atheists call me someone who just can't let go of her conditioning, and no one lives happily ever after.

    But it still sorta works for me, despite all that.

    And I already liked pachouli.

  3. p.s. Here's what I just had for dessert:

  4. "I need to continue to read the philosophies of men, so that I can mingle them with scripture, and thus attempt to circumscribe all truth into one great whole. " Love that. :-)

  5. Thanks Katrina, one of my more startling temple moments was realizing that those two concepts are completely indistinguishable in any kind of objective sense. My apostasy train was gathering pretty serious steam at that point, but I don't know how much I realized it.

  6. Please, for the love of God, no patchouli. =)

  7. Besides that, dreadlocks are a giant pain in the ass.. Use to develop 'em accidentally as a long haired biker. Finally cut my damn hair off. Tryin' to figure out how to do the same thing with commielibs. I'd still like to hear an atheist (agnostic myself) explain why morality matters.. or anything for that matter. I mean REALLY matters.

  8. ibaconi, that's the point of the question, right?

    I ran into an interesting question as I pondered that, though: Even if God does exist, why does morality matter? How does God's presence create morality that is true in the broad sense. Everyone just kind of takes it for granted that God makes morality work easily, but as you start to dig into it, I would contend that it is not easy to figure out a reason that morality exists, even in a theistic paradigm... Hence, my speculative stab.

    OTOH, there is this little gem. Morality exists because we all (including the atheists) accept that it does. People are, by and large, moral, and becoming more so (if you accept the liberal position that morality has nothing whatever to do with masturbation and everything to do with respecting the autonomy and value of others).

    Someone on one of the FB discussions made the comment that as the world has become more secular, it has become more moral: a controversial position that I wholeheartedly agree with.

    Morality, in that light, is also more and more consistent. The evolution of human society and consciousness is making us more and more sensitive to each other.

    I have pointed out to various people that atheists are (arguably) more moral than theists because they know the buck stops with them; there is no one to clean up their messes for them, so they actually take more moral responsibility. I got myself into a little bit of trouble recently for pointing out that a (subtle) tradition of Christianity is to not care very much about the future state of the world because we all know Jesus is coming back any day; an immoral stance propagated by religion (I am open to the possibility that I am wrong on that, or that people may be offended, even if I am right).

  9. Your "quick summary of the salient points" was well done, especially the "external points". I was one of those that criticized you on the ME podcast board for being overly aggressive. I'm glad to see you're not really a "violently angry asshole". haha

    In Joanna Brooks' talk at the MS SLC Conference, she said, "Mormon identity is, most importantly, the way you wake up every day feeling responsible to make sense of it." I've thought about that a lot since I listened to her talk. Your post goes right along with that. I've been finding myself identifying with the phrase "we're all in this together". In that sense, and in what you're saying here, we can find the common values with Mormonism and co-exist, as the bumper sticker of your sandal-wearing avatar would say.