Monday, March 18, 2013

Clarifying Transcendence

In my previous post, I discussed the idea of transcending religion. I don’t think I said anything too outlandish, but I worry that I wasn’t careful enough in presenting my ideas. For the record, I’d been wanting to write the post for several days before I started, and even when I did write it, I did so in piecemeal over a two- or three-day period. Admittedly, I feel that my original thoughts were not captured as beautifully as I’d hoped. In the interest of beating a dead horse, I’d now like to reiterate my ideas in a way that will hopefully clear up any misunderstandings to which my post may have given rise.

Firstly, let me say that when I refer to a person transcending religion, I do not mean that one no longer finds religion necessary or important. As I said in my previous post, transcending religion involves not an abandonment of one’s religion, but a shift in how one relates to it. This shift occurs as one’s convictions become more firmly rooted in personal experience and less in the authoritative declarations of the Church. One knows that a given doctrine is true not because it is decreed by some particular institution, but because one is personally acquainted with its truthfulness. One has lived the principle and found it to be correct, one has reasoned it out and become convinced of its truthfulness, and/or one has confirmed the reality of the teaching via God Himself. One might be introduced to the principle via a religious institution, but over time, one’s acceptance of that principle is no longer a matter of religious affiliation. Instead, it is underwritten by personal experience. It is no longer a religious tenet, it is a personal conviction.

It seems evident to me that this is what’s required of a thoughtful, meaningful, and mature faith. The religious institution declares X as a truth, the religious adherent tests X, and then the religious adherent either adopts or rejects X. Many people leave out that middle step, and as a consequence, they adopt X without giving it much (if any) thought. But the mere embracing of that middle step is, in my opinion, precisely what it means to transcend religion. Significantly, one cannot authentically embrace this middle step without allowing for the possibility that X will be rejected. If one cannot sincerely accept that X may prove false, then one cannot sincerely test for X’s validity. The point I was trying to make in my previous post is that it’s incredibly difficult for a religious adherent to do this. One might adopt X into one’s life and ultimately gain a fervent testimony of it, but one is not really testing X if one rejects the very possibility that X is false. One way that Mormons are taught to test the teachings of the Church is via prayer. However, one cannot sincerely approach God in prayer if one is willing to accept only one answer. In effect, such a person can offer prayers only that amount to something like, “God, please confirm to me that X is true, for I know that it is. I know that you can’t possibly confirm to me that X is false, since the Church teaches X. Thus, I already know how you’ll respond, and I know that if I feel that X is false, those feelings aren’t coming from you. So, really, it doesn’t much matter how you answer this prayer. I’ll continue to believe X, as I should since it is correct, as evidenced by the fact that the Church teaches it. In other words, I know this prayer won’t influence what I believe. But I do enjoy feeling doubly assured that I am right. So, send those confirmations my way. Or don’t. It doesn’t really matter.”

As I use the term, to “transcend religion” is to fully extricate oneself from the possibility of offering prayers like that above. The key word here is “fully.” I think that is so much harder than we can appreciate. As Mormons, we trust that the Church is led by God. But this is a surprisingly ambiguous claim. For some, it means that anything the Church does is a direct and precise manifestation of God’s will. For others, it means only that God stands ready to correct the Church should it ever threaten to veer off into a spiritual ditch. Others fall somewhere in between these two views. Needless to say, where a person falls on this spectrum influences just how easily that person can transcend religion. While I think the former view is clearly misguided, I’m not certain that the latter view is necessary for transcending religion. And yet no matter how liberal the believer’s relationship to the Church may be, conformity provides an ever-ready safety net that it is hard to relinquish. Few of us are truly prepared to let it be dismantled.

Now, to clarify a couple of quotes from my previous post. At one point, I said:
Lately, I’m wondering if the ultimate test of faith doesn’t come in rejecting all other authorities but God. It seems obvious enough that we shouldn’t have any authorities above God, but neither should we have co-authorities.
Taken out of context, this may sound like a denunciation of religion altogether. But it’s not. Notice that I reject the idea of there being co-authorities with God. By co-authorities, I mean equal authorities. I believe that God is the ultimate authority, and I believe that no religious institution or leader is equal in authority to God. Thus, I shouldn’t treat any religious institution or leader as such. This doesn’t mean that I can’t recognize a religious authority as a religious authority, however. The important thing is to recognize the distinction between God and religion in the first place. God is the authority. Religion is not. At best, religion is a courier service for God. This is why I followed the statement quoted above with “Religious leaders are meant to be servants, delivering us messages that we can confirm by our own access to Divinity.”

A moment later, I said:
…what better way [for God] to test [our allegiance to Him] than to reveal to us personally a truth that is at odds with the current practices of the Church.
Some will find this kind of statement unsettling. Perhaps when you read this, you imagined some crazy person who gets a vision in the middle of the night, where an angel appears to the person to tell him that the Church has gone astray and is teaching false doctrine. Perhaps you imagined some zealot getting it into his head that some fundamental teaching of the Church is entirely wrong. Perhaps you imagined some fanatic believing it is his role to correct the Church of its wicked ways. Well, I certainly didn’t mean anything so dramatic. But the fact is, the Church has been wrong about things. And that means that throughout history, prayerful members of the Church very well could have received spiritual confirmations that the Church or its leaders were mistaken about something. Brigham Young offers us a handful of examples. Brigham was fond of declaring things in the name of the Lord, including very racist things. He also implemented certain teachings into the LDS temple ritual that later prophets decried as heretical. Presumably, sincere seekers of truth could have prayed about these things during Brigham Young’s tenure as President of the Church, and if they had, presumably God would have led them to recognize Brigham’s teachings as false. It is woefully arrogant to suppose that we in the Church today have somehow arrived at a magical time when everything that is taught over the pulpit is correct. But unless one is open to the possibility of the Church being wrong, how could God possibly protect you from those errors? How could you transcend those errors, if you’re not willing to transcend the Church?

Points to ponder.

1 comment:

  1. Ben, you have really grabbed hold of my poor brain and given it a good shaking. I would love to spend an afternoon talking to you about all this.