Friday, April 15, 2011

Why I am a Mormon in spite of Cognitive Dissonance

[This picture was taken in the summer of 2000 at the Alpine Family Campground]

The bible is full of parables, myths, analogies, metaphors, similes, and imagery. Some people today still try to interpret scriptures using a pre-Darwinian and literalistic worldview. It can be painful to watch them engage in mental gymnastics to make sense of their understanding of the scriptures, while using outdated notions and scholarship.

I too have been an exegetical gymnast, until one day I had to admit to myself that all of the details of doctrine and history that I was trying to circumscribe into one great whole, just wouldn't fit together in the way that I was trying to fit them together. I realized then that I was trying to fit together pieces that didn't fit. Furthermore, the steady discovery of new facts has changed many of my premises. In time I could confidently see that the scriptural stories and doctrinal ideas that I thought I had understood, took on new meanings as I learned more about the context of the scriptures and religious narratives.

I also have seen others arrive at this point of "discovery" and I have noticed that many become disillusioned. I too have felt disillusionment but I decided not to react rashly about it. For years I watched how other people handled their religious disillusionment (a sort of intellectual coming of age) and have noticed that there are really only a few ways that people can react. I decided that I would try to react with the steadiness of a surgeon's hand. That image, the steady hand of a surgeon, frequently pops into my mind. Steady.

I wondered at the nature of religious pedagogy.

Jesus said,
Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.
—Matthew 13:13
He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
—Matthew 11:15
You see? The tradition of speaking through a veil of stories is not new.

But I found myself unhappy that there was no one in the Church that was poised and able to guide me through some of the more advanced issues of Mormonism, as well as Christianity. I still see this as a failing of the Church.

There are many reasons why I do not simply distance myself from religion altogether and escape the incoherence and mental gymnastics. One reason is that I equate religion with my father. My father is a true blue Mormon, through and through, Mormonism personified, and I love him, and I would never turn my back on him, even if we disagreed about something. And by looking at the Mormon Church and my father, side by side, I can see the good in the Mormon Church in spite of whatever shortcomings exist in it or him. So I decided that I would treat the Mormon Church with the same degree of love, understanding, and respect as I naturally want to treat my dear father. Just as I would never abandon my father, I would never abandon the Mormon Church, but will try to make it a better Church as much as I am able. However, that does not mean that I will be orthodox in all of my beliefs or pretend that Mormon orthodoxy is completely coherent as it is presently constituted.

I see Mormonism as a deep, human striving to know God. But I also see traces of the divine in Mormonism. My proximity to Mormonism and considerable introspection have enabled me to recognize its peculiar goodness (and oddness too).

I have often reflected on what exactly it is about religion, not just Mormonism, that produces a certain distinct goodness that I have learned to easily recognize in my college students of whatever religious background, as well as common Mormon folks at Church. Such goodness, I think, is developed as a result of their striving to know God and to live a Christlike life. Of course, there are many who say that ethics is not the exclusive domain of religion, and religiosity may lead to fundamentalism, etc. Nevertheless, based on what I have observed over many years as a college professor, working closely with young adults, I believe there is some certain benefit derived from participating in a religious community--be it the structure, the discipline, or the wholesome camaraderie, or all of the above.

But whatever it is about Mormonism, or any religion, that fosters the development of these wonderful qualities, this distinct goodness, should not be so easily abandoned by humanity even as the Christian world seems to be turning its back on its religious heritage in favor of a more "authentic" lifestyle in the name of secular humanism or science--which humanism may be undisciplined, spoiled, immature, egocentric, and brash (perhaps for lack of training) when it rather could be more world-centric, or universe-centric, altruistic and charitable (though sometimes it is). But to become so broad-minded requires training and new language to reinvent the sacred in ways that will inspire more people to reach towards the heavens (metaphorcally speaking) and the future, with optimism, and thus spur on our evolution toward something great, something divine.

I was an orthodox believer in the past but through no fault of my own I have found myself ahead ("ahead" invites criticism, I know) of the mainstream orthodoxy of the religion of my youth. Now, I can no more believe like I used to believe, than I can fit into my childhood clothes. Herein is the dilemma...How to proceed?

While I was pondering this dilemma I found the logic I needed from Ken Wilber's A Brief History of Everything,
"Transcend and include...go beyond what went before and yet include what went before..."
—Ken Wilber
So I decided that I don't have to separate myself from people or my religion with whom I don't completely agree, for to do so would leave me completely alone. Then I reasoned that the more educated one becomes, the more rare will be one's views. And yet it must be good that young and old, rich and poor, and the more and less educated, live together. And it would be selfish of me to be impatient with others for merely believing as I used to believe.

I'm still a believer, however, because it is my nature. I just believe differently now. And I care about different things now than I used to care about.

I am also fully capable of healthy skepticism, and like Spinoza,
"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them."
—Baruch Spinoza
In both the Old and the New Testaments there are many references to the lame who shall walk and the blind who shall see. I loved reading the words of Albert Einstein when he alluded to the lame and the blind, and said,
"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. "
—Albert Einstein
And so, I will embrace the good in religion as well as science and will not insensitively pit one against the other, though others may do so. I will look for the good and the progressive in both, and overlook the rest that will find no place in the future anyway.

Mormonism is like a third parent to me. And although I am now grown and am my own man, I will never forget that I was born of "goodly parents" and I will always appreciate them for their goodness toward me and their sacrifices on my behalf. I will show my gratitude by paying forward, with added value, all that was given to me. I’ll endeavor to be a strong link in the great chain of being and do all in my power to point the correct way, as near as I can tell, into the future.