The Perks of Philosophical Fluidity

The most beautiful skill I’ve been working on developing lately, and of which I’ve come to find the world is in desperate need, is that of philosophical fluidity.

Not to be confused with being convictionless or foundationless, philosophical fluidity means setting aside one’s biases, judgments, and agenda in order to more sincerely understand and connect with another person, especially one who differs in religious or political ideals. It’s the result of a healthy mixture of open-mindedness, genuine curiosity, and—most importantly—human empathy. It is taking a bold step outside one’s theological comfort zone as opposed to remaining rigid within a single way of thinking.

Philosophical fluidity is what allows me talk to my atheist friend on the phone one night about how God just doesn’t make sense and that it’s probably better for a lot of people to just leave religion behind, but go the next morning with my mom to an LDS Relief Society meeting and genuinely enjoy the heartwarming stories of faith and sisterhood, and then, later that evening, be spiritually uplifted as I attend an informal, non-denominational Christian sacrament gathering with my fellow heretics. While it was, at first, inconceivable for me to willingly participate in these vastly different interactions all in one lifetime (let alone in one weekend), I have since learned how beneficial and eye-opening it is to temporarily adopt the mindset of those around me for the sake of human connection.

Although it’s become more and more difficult to make doctrinal claims with the certainty I possessed three years ago, I’ve found that my habit of looking down upon people is crumbling, my capacity for appreciation has grown, and my list of enemies (or, rather, people I fear) has shrunk significantly.

Getting to this point took months and months of deep introspection and intense brain-stretching. Philosophical fluidity is very freeing, as it allows me to connect with people I never would have thought I could associate with in an open, unguarded, and beautifully vulnerable manner. It’s something I’m still working on, and it’s still a struggle, but the effects are absolutely worth it. My goal one day is to be able to comfortably have a deep conversation with someone of any culture, background, or theology, and walk away with my eyes more open, but my mind at peace despite our differences.

Philosophical fluidity doesn’t mean adopting every opinion one comes across, nor is it simply listening to the other side of the argument. It is the willingness and ability to look through a different lens of perspective and being content with it changing the way one thinks. It is accepting the possibility that the discovery of new information will affect one’s core values, and (this is the scary part) allowing one’s moral compass to adjust as needed by the acquisition of new knowledge and understanding.

In the art of empathy and human connection, the ability to step boldly out of one’s philosophical and theological comfort zone is paramount. It’s also risky business because doing so can change everything. While significant effort and discomfort is often involved (at least in my experience), there are beautiful benefits of stepping out of that comfort zone that will serve us as individuals and our communities as a whole. Here are three of them:

Benefit #1: You Develop Resilience in Dealing with Doubt

Perhaps the most obvious turn-off for taking the time and effort to bother with stepping out of one’s theological comfort zone is the discomfort of doubt. No one likes the feeling that they might possibly be wrong about something, and putting oneself in the position where that uneasy feeling is experienced is generally not a desirable course of action. In the face of doubt, it is important that we act on courage. Act despite that discomfort and face that fear of the unknown by seeking wisdom. Ask the deep, difficult questions, even if the answer might be something that’s hard to hear, or worse, it turns out that there isn’t really a clear-cut answer after all.

In my previous article, I elaborated on the importance of doubt in our lives, and how it really isn’t the scary poison we tend to think of it as.

Stepping outside the bounds of your ideological comfort zone is an important part of philosophical fluidity because it will give you plenty of practice with coping effectively with doubt. Dealing with doubt, as opposed to evading interactions during which you will encounter it, is precisely how faith is developed.

Benefit #2: You Stop Getting Offended

When a person or group of people does something we disagree with, we have the tendency to disregard them completely. If we want to practice empathy, however, we can’t write off everything else they say as false or immoral.

Humans are creatures of amazing complexity. No matter where you look, you’re not going to find someone who you can consider an infallible source of truth. While it’s cognitively easier to sort people into black and white boxes—liars and truth-tellers, protagonists and antagonists, good guys and bad guys—we need to accept that there’s beauty and truth in everyone.

When someone behaves in a way or makes a statement that offends us, it’s our natural response to discredit every other thing they say and do. While it may be natural, this is a very illogical attitude. True statements or beneficial principles are not tainted (they don’t become any less true or beneficial) because a false statement or harmful principle happens to come from the same source. If someone openly supports a corrupt politician and is also an advocate for healthy diet and exercise, their misguided support of that politician doesn’t make their stance on healthy lifestyles any less beneficial.

If someone thinks the God I worship is purely a figment of my imagination, this does not mean I need to disagree with them on all aspects of their philosophy. If they make an insensitive remark about my belief in a God, I can get distracted by their offensive remark and forever consider them a jerk who I’ll never agree with in a million years, or I can keep talking to them and discover that they have a fascinating humanist philosophy dedicated to creating a more peaceful and service-oriented society. I can then adopt the principles of their ideology which resonate with me, even though the same source from which I learned those principles happens to disagree with me on a very fundamental belief.

In developing philosophical fluidity, you’re going to be listening to a lot of conflicting viewpoints and, if some of those viewpoints include values you hold dear, you’re probably going to get offended. The good news is: when you’re continually stepping out of your comfort zone and allowing yourself to be exposed to offensive statements, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to get better at not allowing those ideas distract you from the good ideas.

Understanding the reasons for a person’s potentially offensive behavior makes it much harder to hate or be offended by them.

Benefit #3: You Make a Difference in Creating an Empathetic Society

Exercising and developing philosophical fluidity does something amazing to how we see people: our innate social concept of “Us vs Them” dissolves. When “Us” understands, connects, and empathizes with “Them,” you can’t have the conflict required for bullying, persecution, or violence.

If a teenager cuts you off backing out in the Walmart parking lot, it’s easy to sort him into your collection of personal antagonists. “Stupid kids these days! So selfish and inconsiderate. You can tell him a million times to watch where he’s going and look out for other cars, but it won’t work because he just doesn’t care. That’s his problem. He doesn’t care about other people. He just wants to hurry home to his parents’ basement and play video games for ten hours…”

This is the cognitively easy option: to respond in anger and categorize him on “their” side of the fence.

But what would happen if you somehow later found out that this was his first time driving on his own, that his mind was nervous and racing because his driving instructor was an incompetent teacher, his name was Hunter, he was on his way to pick up his little brother, Jason, from kindergarten, that he plays the tenor saxophone, and he has two hamsters? In other words, what happens when we take “stupid, inconsiderate teenager” and look at him as “Hunter, my fellow human trying to live his life the best he knows how?” You don’t need to retract your observation that he made a dangerous maneuver and should probably improve his driving skills, but he’s suddenly a lot harder to hate now that you see him as a complex human with memories and talents and personality, yes?

Now let’s apply that to a scenario of philosophical differences.

Having a relatively small circle of friends growing up in very Mormon Utah in very Christian America, I didn’t personally know any atheists, nor did I take any interest in atheism whatsoever. Atheists and agnostics were definitely a “them” group, and I saw almost no point in attempting to understand their line of thinking. Like all humans prefer to do, I continued to surround myself with like-minded individuals.

It wasn’t really until several of my friends, all of whom I considered strong believers during their time of religious activity, revealed to me that they weren’t sure they really believed in God anymore. But here’s the problem: Atheists, to me, were a “them” group. These friends, of course, were included in my “us” group. What happens when members of “us” become members of “them?”

The thing about the “them” groups we create in our minds is that we’re innately tuned to think they’re all the same, that they all possess the negative qualities all antagonists possess: pride, laziness, selfishness, immorality, et cetera, because we dehumanize them into scapegoats for easy blaming. It’s an easy and comfortable cognitive shortcut.

Just like humanizing new-driver Hunter made it harder to stick him in the “them” group of “stupid, inconsiderate teenagers,” I couldn’t bear to see my friends as “them” because I knew too much about my friends to dismiss them as all the negative traits I mindlessly applied to all atheists and the rest of “them.” Among other aspects of their lives and personalities, I knew they were hardworking, thoughtful, open to knowledge from a higher source, and had very advanced moral characters. Particularly after listening to their stories and placing myself in their (what I deemed to be) frightening perspective of the world—learning why they believed the way they did—there was no way I could dismiss my newly-atheist friends into the morally-degenerate category of “them.” This not only aided me in viewing my friends in better light; I could better understand atheists from all over the world in addition to my friends. My “us” circle grew and my “them” crowd of enemies shrank.

While my own theological beliefs were questioned and shaken through this exercise in empathy (which was scary), it also helped me to discover and strengthen my core values. I could have stuck with the easy, comfortable way of thinking by automatically sorting my friends into the “them” crowd and continuing to associate only with those who reflected my own worldviews, but by following the path of empathy, I gained far more than I sacrificed.

Seeing why people believe the way they do, listening to their points and reasoning (even if they disagree with us), diminishes “them-ness.” Yes, we will still disagree on many things, but the moment we are able set aside our fiery emotional reactions and tendencies to blame is the moment we can take objective action in finding real solutions.

I don’t believe world peace can come from the top down—that is, by a powerful worldwide program, set of policies, or some perfect form of government. Our hope in peaceful society lies in the individual. We all have the responsibility to make the changes within ourselves to affect the people around us, which will, in turn, influence entire communities, cultures, and nations. If we all were to take a stand in refusing to see our fellow human beings as enemies—choosing the harder, higher path of sincere understanding—large populations would no longer be swayed by passionate and hate-inspiring propaganda which divides people into “us” and “them.” Empathy is absolutely key in creating the change our society desperately needs, and this sort of empathy requires the mental rigor of not only listening, but allowing our worldviews to change according to the new understanding which we acquire.

We Need to Change the Way We Think About Doubt

In the exploration of philosophies and deep consideration of various worldviews, I experienced a lot of doubt surrounding the beliefs I held before my search began. Unfortunately, I (like many others who sincerely question their faith) lacked the tools needed to address these doubts because of my misunderstanding of what doubt actually is. It’s alarming how those harmful paradigms concerning doubt were and continue to be fostered by the religious culture in which my faith was born, and I firmly believe it to be extremely important that we correct the way doubt is defined and treated within our spiritual communities.

COGNITIVE DISSONANCE

Listening to the perspectives and beliefs of others whose ideas contradicted mine was (and continues to be) a magnificent experience in empathy, but understanding other people—especially those whose ideas directly contradicted my own—caused some major cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is that conflicting feeling you get when you have attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors that aren’t in harmony with each other. For example, let’s say I’m a huge fan of a particular brand of chocolate and eat it all the time, but then I read an article about the company being in hot water with the Fair Labor Association. So now I have two conflicting attitudes causing myself a bit of discomfort. I like consuming cheap, tasty chocolate, but I’m also a decent human being and am strongly against forcing children to operate dangerous equipment without fair pay. My attitude of “I like this brand of chocolate and want to buy it” is now at odds with “I don’t want to give business to companies which profit from unfair child labor.” These ideas don’t fit together. So what do I do now? Whether I mean to or not, I’m going to make cognitive adjustments to return these conflicting attitudes to a state of harmony and consistency.

Attempts to restore cognitive balance can happen in different ways. I have choices. I might change my attitude and behavior about the chocolate company (“Huh, I guess they’re not such a responsible corporation after all! I’m going to stop buying from them.”), I might rationalize the behavior I disagree with to justify my continued business with them (“You can’t perfectly manage every little thing with such a large corporation. I’m sure the company has it under control now. It’s fine.”), or I might reject the new information entirely (“This article is obviously full of lies. This is a great company and would never allow such atrocities to happen!”) that I may continue to consume their chocolate free of guilt. Whether I do so consciously or not, I’m going to adopt one of the above attitudes and behaviors in order to eliminate that state of uncomfortable dissonance.

In general, we don’t like things to be inconsistent. Inconsistency leads to uncertainty; uncertainty leads to fear. We like things to be organized, easy to comprehend, and predictable, so that we aren’t defenseless against things we cannot comprehend and predict. With cognitive dissonance, we get feelings of denial, anger, and—of course—doubt.

Doubt, undeniably, is an uncomfortable feeling. It makes sense why we might make attempts to “get rid of it.” Doubt is something everyone experiences in situations both secular and spiritual, and is generally viewed as a very negative thing.

OUR METHOD OF ADDRESSING DOUBT IS MAKING THINGS WORSE

The word “doubt” is surrounded by some serious stigma, especially in the world of religion. The fear of doubt is what kept me from not only looking into other faiths and ideologies, but more deeply exploring my own. It took several years to realize that doubt might not intrinsically be a bad thing. In some cases, it can be a good thing. Doubt is a catalyst for change, and whether that change is positive or negative is determined by our reaction to it.

Addressing doubt unwisely can discourage honesty, vulnerability, and genuineness. Doubt is often seen as a weakness, especially by believers whose interpretation of their holy texts condemns doubt as something that will bar you from salvation.

The LDS or Mormon church (from which I received most of my religious instruction) often addresses the subject of doubt by referring to the King James Version of the Bible as well as its own scriptures (The Book of Mormon, the book of Doctrine & Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price). At a first glance, the LDS scriptures seem to make an obvious point in condemning the doubters.

6 But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.
7 For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord.
8 A double minded man is unstable in all his ways. (James 1:6-8)

Before I learned a little more about doubt, I interpreted this scripture as follows:
God isn’t going to answer your questions or help you out if you doubt him.
Also, people who doubt are double-minded and unstable.


“Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

My old interpretation for this one:
Believe something without seeing it. → You get blessed. Bam.
Don’t be like silly old Thomas.

Here’s another handful of scriptures concerning doubt:

  • “And he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned;…And whosoever shall believe in my name, doubting nothing, unto him will I confirm all my words, even unto the ends of the earth.” (Mormon 9:23-25)
  • “Behold, I say unto you that whoso believeth in Christ, doubting nothing, whatsoever he shall ask the Father in the name of Christ it shall be granted him; and this promise is unto all, even unto the ends of the earth.” (Mormon 9:21)
  • “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not.” (Doctrine and Covenants 6:36)

 

It would seem that how we ought to think about doubt is rather clear-cut: Doubt is bad, and that’s all there is to it. The scriptures say so and God has spoken, right?

Not so fast, there, Sandi.

Personal experience and further pondering suggest otherwise. Over the past couple of years, I’ve experienced a notable portion of doubt, and my attitude about this internal phenomenon has changed drastically. To me, doubt used to be something of a spiritual poison, and I did my best to avoid it by suppressing those feelings. Unfortunately, this only caused further problems.

Philip Yancey, a Christian author, beautifully explains the harm that can be caused when doubt is addressed in an unhealthy manner:

“Doubt is something almost every person experiences at some point, yet something that the church* does not always handle well.  I’m an advocate of doubt, because that’s why I became a Christian in the first place.  

“…I want to encourage those who doubt, and also encourage the church to be a place that rewards rather than punishes honesty.

“…The church* has sometimes chastised people who admit their weakness and failure, and our society has an aversion to suffering.  So Christians naturally tend to hide behind a thin veneer of cheerfulness and health, while they secretly hurt and doubt.”

*It ought be be noted that Philip’s use of the word “church” is referring to Christian believers as a collective, not to any specific institution or organization.

By treating a very normal and healthy mental function as something to be feared and avoided (else you lose your faith and be left to Satan), we make the mistake of unintentionally encouraging dishonesty within our places of spiritual refuge. Instead of talking about their doubts, people will be more likely to avoid asking questions and hide their pain because they don’t want to be perceived in their community of believers as weak or faithless. If we continue to condemn doubtfulness as a sinful condition, people will continue to fear it and feel that they are alone in experiencing it. Doubt is nothing to be ashamed of. If we can remove that shame, we can remove the fear and fill the absence of helpful, healing dialogue.

DOUBT AS AN EMOTIONAL RESPONSE

A very important thing to remember about doubt is that it’s an emotion. Emotions can be very useful indicators that things are going really well, or they can be alarm signals to warn us that something isn’t right, that bits of information aren’t connecting to fit a conclusion conducive to our well-being. By paying attention to our emotions, doubt included, we are able to get a good sense of how our body system is doing as a whole. Emotions grab our attention by their physiological effects, being the release of chemical neurotransmitters which allow us a wide variety of sensations ranging from gentle pleasure to fiery anger or crippling terror. It’s like a quick report, a summary of the massive amounts of information our brain is taking in so we can react quickly to situations requiring immediate attention.

For example, you might experience an uncomfortable emotion as you hear a strange noise while walking through a dark alleyway at midnight. You’re not consciously processing all the bits of sensory information you’re taking in, such as:

  • “My vision is significantly reduced by insufficient lighting.”
  • “That particular combination of vibrations detected by my ears is not connecting to any memory of a likely nonthreatening source of those vibrations.”
  • “My hands are empty, I have no object in my possession which could be used in self-defense, and thus I can conclude that I am at a severe disadvantage if attacked.”
  • “I have many memories of watching situations in TV shows which are very similar to the situation I currently find myself in, and the people in those situations did not fare well in the end.”

You don’t have time to list this multitude of objective observations, create an organized, detailed response, and react accordingly to achieve the desired result of safety from bodily harm. By the time you’ve finished all of that predicting and calculating, you’ll have provided plenty of time for a potential attacker to do his dirty work while you were distracted by meticulously organizing a plan of defense.

That uncomfortable emotion which attended you as you started walking down the alley, though unpleasant, turned out to be your savior as your subconscious mind sorted through the many bits of objective information picked up by your sensory organs, alerting you to the danger you were in by sending a response package we know as fear. Emotions, especially uncomfortable ones like doubt and fear, are essential to our survival.

However useful, emotions do not always yield positive results. They can be deceiving.

As emotions are memos pieced together out of facts your five senses are able to observe, they are not an apt representation of reality as a whole—only the representation of the facts which your senses happen to be exposed to. When watching a horror movie, you have the knowledge that you are safe in your house with sufficient security precautions and that the events occurring on the screen are simply an illusion created by Hollywood artists, but your emotions are telling you otherwise. While your eyes and ears are doing their job perfectly by presenting you with facts such as:

 

  • “That was the sound we’ve come to recognize through experience as a woman screaming”

and

  • “That is a human-like figure with very unfamiliar and distorted features”

 

Your subconscious is fitting the pieces together rapidly to send you reports via emotions that “something is wrong and you are in danger,” even though you know on a more conscious level that you are perfectly safe within your own home. Your emotions, while based on factual and accurate observations so rapid you don’t even notice them, are sending you a conclusive summary report that isn’t entirely true. Emotions say “danger,” but reality says “safety.”

Emotions, such as fear in the example above, are useful and needed, but they’re not going to tell you everything. Doubt may be a bit different from terror, but is still an emotion and thus subject to the tendency of emotions to send us a skewed or downright false perception of reality.

Doubt as an emotion can prevent us from moving forward in healthy and reasonable decisions. If we allow it to paralyze us in making decisions, it can keep us from taking healthy risks (i.e. exercising faith) and developing relationships built on trust.

DOUBT CAN BE HARMFUL OR HELPFUL

So how can doubt be both harmful and helpful? Here’s an example:

Let’s say I fall in love with a man and we decide to start dating exclusively as a couple. It isn’t long before I begin wondering about his fidelity after observing troubling changes in his behavior. My emotions are sending me red flags and I begin to experience doubt.

Is this doubt good or bad?

I might, in the name of trust, immediately dismiss my doubts as poisonous and detrimental. But what if that emotional signal of doubt is a warning that there are patterns in my partner’s behavior which indicate infidelity? If I find out that he was cheating on me after all, wouldn’t the doubt I was having then be considered good and useful, something I should never have ignored?

Alternatively, I can, instead of ignoring my doubts, mindlessly heed their warning. I can angrily accuse my lover of being a cheater or abandon the relationship without further investigation and resolution. If it turns out that the emotional red flags were a false alarm and my boyfriend was not cheating on me, giving into those doubts would prove a very unwise action with heartbreaking consequences for the both of us.

The best option I have, then, is not to act recklessly upon feelings of doubt or ignore them completely, but to investigate. What, exactly, are these red flags indicating? What specific factors are the cause of these doubts? If I ignore my doubts, I risk continuing a harmful relationship. If I blindly obey my doubts, I risk losing a potentially beneficial relationship.

While doubt is essential in helping us identify toxic relationships, it can certainly get in the way of developing fulfilling ones. That’s where faith comes in. I can use my best judgement and do everything I can to ensure that I choose a partner who I can confidently say will never cheat on me, but no matter who I choose (let’s face it), I’m not going to have a perfect knowledge that he won’t. I can’t control his actions, read his mind, or see the future. I don’t know for sure that he won’t change or turn out to be a liar all along. But if I don’t take the chance, I’ll never get into any relationships and experience the fulfillment they bring because I’ll never know for absolute certain that my significant other won’t end up hurting me. Faith requires vulnerability. It requires taking the risk and going forward with an action or relationship without complete knowledge.

Depending on the situation, there are times in which doubt is useful and there are times in which faith is useful. We need both.

When we ignore our doubts, even with the intent of being “faithful,” we stifle an important part of our God-given emotional intelligence system. We need not be a slave to our emotions, but we shouldn’t ignore them, either.

Doubt is like a warning siren. If you’re in a building and you hear an alarm go off, you don’t run blindly to the nearest exit or pretend you don’t hear it. You stop what you’re doing, observe your surroundings, identify the reason the siren might be going off, then act accordingly. It could be a false alarm—a curious 6 year-old playing with the emergency switch—or it could be a deadly fire. There’s no way of knowing until you accept the existence of your doubt and then investigate the cause. Just as you wouldn’t trust completely in a loud siren to give you all the information you need to act on a situation, we can’t interpret a feeling of doubt to tell us everything.

We must keep in mind that, just like a siren isn’t going to tell you everything about the situation, feelings of doubt aren’t going to list the details, either. Having doubts doesn’t mean you should jump ship and discard your beliefs, nor does it mean you should pretend that there isn’t any problem in the first place. Having doubts is an indication that you are picking up information which contradicts what you originally thought to be true, so examine that information and seek new information in order to react in a way that will bring you closer to the truth. Instead of interpreting a feeling of doubt as a signal to act, perhaps we should identify doubt as a warning to stop, investigate, and then act.

DEFENDING SCRIPTURE

So if doubt can be useful, then why would God tell us not to doubt? Can my findings on the concept of doubt be reconciled with the strong possibility I’ve accepted that what these scriptures are saying have truth and value to them?

While false and harmful teachings may be prevalently justified with scriptures, this doesn’t mean that the scriptures are necessarily false or purposely written to mislead. Scriptures, just like all records and forms of communication, are misinterpreted all the time through lens developed from personal experience and cultural conceptions. The scriptures I listed above seem to directly contradict my current standing on how doubt is not a bad thing, but I believe that the following observation of doubt makes everything fit:

I’ve noticed that, even after investigating my doubts, those uncomfortable emotions will often persist. It’s like when you’re watching that scary movie and your fearful emotions remain despite the knowledge you have that you’re safe in your own home, and that Freddy Krueger is not hiding in your bathroom. You have full consciousness of where your fearful emotions are coming from and that you have no logical reason to act on those fears by arming yourself and blockading your bedroom door, but your pulse is still elevated and you continue to exhibit a physiological response. You still need to overcome and act against your fear to walk down the hallway and to the bathroom. Your emotions are telling you “bad idea, don’t go there,” but your conscious reasoning needs to take over and bravely act despite those uncomfortable emotional responses. The red-flag response that once served a purpose in igniting an investigation is no longer helpful once you’ve attained the knowledge you needed, so now those emotions must be overcome and acted against.

I believe God commands us not to doubt for the same reason he commands us not to fear. He is not telling us to ignore those red flags or to take an impulsive blind leap without thinking. He is telling is that when we have sufficient knowledge to act upon and we still have the emotional setback of doubt, it’s time to act according to the knowledge that doubt led us to find, not the doubt itself.

When that emotional discomfort tends to linger, we require courage to move forward. When God condemns doubt, he is condemning mindless, cowardly heed to emotion and refusal to change according to newly-acquired wisdom. He isn’t telling us to stop having uncomfortable emotions; he is telling us to address them. When we are commanded not to fear or not to doubt, God isn’t telling us to get control of our neurotransmitters. He’s telling us to be strong and act despite that lingering fear conflicting with our informed, conscious decisions.

Don’t hide from your doubt; look it in the eye and question it mercilessly. Once you’ve investigated and weighed your options, don’t allow the residual doubt and fear to paralyze you. God is not saying “Deny your feelings whenever you encounter doubt;” He is saying, “Don’t let those feelings of doubt and fear be the motivation behind your actions. ” He is teaching us to rise above a tendency to rely upon instinct alone, and instead develop mastery over and understanding of emotional impulses, not to ignore them or to act upon them without conscious reasoning.

When we refuse to listen to our doubts because we don’t want to deal with the discomfort of questioning our beliefs, we are giving in to the impulsive reaction of fear. Is fear not the opposite of faith? God gave us the tools of emotions to inform us and the tool of reasoning to determine the validity of that information that we may make decisions based upon that information. Should we not trust in the tools we’ve been given and in our God-given ability to learn and develop a moral compass through constant correction? Corrections that need to be made are often brought to our attention through the emotion of doubt. When we need to change, it is seldom made known to us by comfortable feelings. If we want to change for the better, we must accept that discomfort (like that of doubt) is going to happen. There’s simply no avoiding it. Introspection is painful work, but we can’t let fear keep us from progress.

A CHANGE IN ATTITUDE

What if we stopped teaching in churches that doubt is like a disease or a naughty thought—something to be feared and stifled immediately upon detection? What if, instead, we treated it as something we encounter with the potential to spark change in us if we allow it to? I believe doing so would open doors to more vulnerability and honesty in religious settings. Treating doubt as a neutral catalyst will end the shame associated with it. We can stop pretending that doubt only exists in the weak and faithless and instead treat it as a normal and healthy feeling that we can work through and pick apart.

Perhaps the next time someone expresses doubt in their current ideology, whether we share that ideology with them or not, we should encourage them to investigate and figure things out for themselves. Perhaps then, believers experiencing doubt will cease fruitless attempts to bury their problems until they resurface as something harmful.

The purpose to doubt is to lead us to investigation. Investigation leads to change. Yes, change is scary, but if that change takes place upon the reception of knowledge and empathy, how can you claim that such a change is anything to avoid?

Doubt is not weakness. It is our built-in safeguard against the danger of that stubborn, foundationless certainty which shuns new knowledge. It is not an enemy requiring immediate extermination; it is a tool requiring careful application.

If we are to undertake this magnificent task of reaching out to others and hearing their side of the story and what they believe, doubt is inevitable, and we need to learn how to deal with it effectively without sinking into denial or stagnant inaction in our own convictions. The world needs more empathy, more understanding of multiple conflicting perspectives. If we investigate it instead of fear the doubt that comes with obtaining that understanding, we will find ourselves on the path to peaceful society.

When exploring perspectives different from our own, we are going to face the discomfort of cognitive dissonance and doubt. Empathy is not an easy or comfortable path. It stretches our minds and changes our hearts. No one enters the pursuit of sincere understanding with the intent of getting their minds changed (I know I certainly didn’t), but it definitely happens. Inner change is rough, but I believe that a brave movement of individuals intent on this practice of obtaining understanding with open minds in the face of certain doubt is what the world ultimately needs.

Surely our individual efforts in trudging through discomfort and unpredictability of doubt, rather than attempting to evade and bury it, are worth the outcome of empathy to be gained, the human connections to be made, and the strength of moral character to be fortified.

An expressive illustration of the concept of cognitive dissonance

Featured image “Cognitive Dissonance”
by DeviantArt user Ant1-Her0-Project (Travis J Gibbs)

The Weird and Magnificent Art of Religion

  Cover Art of Campbell's book As irresponsibly destroying my own sleep schedule seems to be my favorite talent, many of my adventures in thought occur during the wee hours of 2-3 AM. A few months ago, around this time, I was reading outside on the balcony of my apartment so as not to disturb my roommates who have reasonably-adjusted circadian clocks. The book was The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, a lovely gift from my theologian friend.

 

   

A painting depicting Christ in Ancient America

Detail of a painting by Greg K. Olsen from the LDS Image Library

Now, I was already aware of the many similarities between the religion I grew up in and religions that were foreign to me. This occurrence was commonly brought up in the Mormon world to support our own claims of a single God working with all of mankind, Christ having “other sheep” (of which Mormons claim the ancient Americans to have been included in) which were “not of this fold” (referring to the Jews among which he was born). Some other Mormons I’ve spoken to regarding this concept suppose that the Ancient Americans were not the only civilization to which God dispensed the Gospel of Christ, and speculate that the similarities between our doctrine and those of radically different faiths are due to the idea that the other religions must have derived these teachings from a purer dispensation of truth at some point in their history (though I supposed that we were the most correct because we believe that God restored his pure gospel and it continues to be dispensed in its pure form through living oracles).

   Anyway, those were the Mormon teachings I was familiar with. As one whose attitude has grown fairly agnostic over the past couple of years, I later adjusted my assumption to speculate that shared and roughly consistent values across cultures would lead to similar ideas of good, evil, and heroism, and thus we have similar stories despite the separation of these religions in their development. While I didn’t really look into it, I was still intrigued by the idea and thus found Campbell’s analyses of mythical archetypes in The Hero With a Thousand Faces particularly appealing.

   Recent shifts in perspective have allowed me to view Christianity from the outside, almost like someone who’d never heard the story of Jesus before. This new perspective has proven very valuable to me. Growing up, I used to take for granted much of the rich symbolism in the biblical narrative because such rituals as “eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of God” through plastic thimble-cups of tap water and little pieces of Wonderbread was a completely normal part of my week. Yes, I was told over and over again what the sacrament was “for” and what it “meant,” but interpreting ordinances and traditions as I would a cryptic work of art was never something that had crossed my mind.

   Speaking of art, let’s talk about that.

   Many people are surrounded by the same type of art throughout our childhood or even their entire lives, and thus prefer that specific kind of art because it is what they’re familiar with. For example, pretend for a moment that this was the only type of art you were exposed to and taught to appreciate for the first twenty years of your life:

leonardo_da_vinci_-_vergine_delle_rocce_louvre

“The Virgin of the Rocks” (1485) by Leonardo Da Vinci

wooded-landscape_john-constable

“Wooded Landscape” (1801-1802) by John Constable

children-running-from-the-storm_konstantin-makovsky

“Children Running from the Storm” (1872) by Konstantin Makovsky

 

   Now pretend that you’re visiting a gallery and come across these:

An abstract painting

“Constelación Fantasia Cromática” (1954) by Gregorio Vardanega

soft-self-portrait-with-fried-bacon_salvador-dali

“Soft Self-Portrait with Fried Bacon” (1941) by Salvador Dali

war-series-another-patrol-1946_jacob-lawrence

“War Series: Another Patrol” (1946) by Jacob Lawrence

 

   You might not be a fan of these newly-introduced works. I mean, that’s some pretty weird crap going on, yeah? Gross.

   Perhaps these artists were never taught proper technique and they simply didn’t know any better. Maybe they started out knowing the true ways of painting and, over the years, those skills were lost or went unused as they went off the deep end and started doing their own thing. *glares at Picasso, whose art was quite proper and normal before he went crazy in the 1900’s*
   Or maybe they’re just sick in the head. (I’m looking at you, Salvador. What’s with that creepy melty mask? That is just downright disturbing, man. Go take some pills or something.)

   I used to look at foreign religions this way. Beliefs and ritualistic traditions that were strikingly different from what I was familiar with were easily met with disdain, dismissal and sometimes disgust. At best, I’d look upon them as interesting, but only interesting in the way that a children’s fairy tale is interesting. Never mind that these stories are rich with powerful symbolism, albeit symbolism I wasn’t used to. Never mind that these stories perhaps contained just as many insights into human thought and culture as my own religion’s scriptures.

 

dattatreya_raja-ravi-varma

“Dattatreya” (1910) by Raja Ravi Varma, depicting a Hindu deity

Basically, rituals and symbolism to which I was partial were more comfortable and sensible to me because they were what I was accustomed to. When I developed the capacity to see Mormonism from the outside looking in, I realized my religion was was just as weird as everyone else’s, and certainly not superior. Mormon Sandi’s perspective on the weirdness of Buddhism was probably very comparable to a Buddhist’s perspective on the weirdness of Mormonism.

 

   Think back to the gallery scenario. This new and different art might make you feel uneasy, disturbed, uncomfortable, or confused. You might scoff at their simplicity, oddness, or unrealistic aspects. (Hate to tell ya, Jacob Lawrence, but humans aren’t actually shaped like that.) Clearly, these emotional reactions are negative and thus undesirable, so why even try to understand, especially when we have plenty of art that already makes sense?

   Overall, religious thought which differed from what I regarded to be the purest truth, I’d perceive as either inferior or downright evil. Non-Mormon religions never “felt right” to me. What I didn’t realize was that these uncomfortable emotions and general disinterest were not indicators that these different beliefs were necessarily wrong or evil, and that I was being “warned” away from even touching that filth. The reason behind my discomfort after glancing tentatively at other ideologies was most likely the same reason one would shy away from an unfamiliar art style after years of sticking to the same genre.

   In the art world, we use these concepts which we call elements and principles. The elements of art are line, shape/form, color, value, space/perspective, and texture. The principles of art are pattern, rhythm/movement, proportion/scale, balance, unity, and emphasis. Artists across all styles, genres, and periods compose these elements and utilize these principles to bring their inner desires, emotions, thoughts, and devotion into the outside world for further self-reflection and/or reaction from others. Whether you’re looking at Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks or Vardanega’s Constelación Fantasia Cromática, both of these pieces are using these artistic elements and principles. They may seem like they’re nothing alike, but the basic building blocks of design are present in both pieces.

   

   What if we looked at religion in the same way?

    I’m not saying that you have to convert to every religion you come across or take every mythological story literally. (That would be exhausting. Please don’t do that.) Nor am I saying that you should appreciate all religions equally. All I’m asking here is that instead of immediately sorting all religious beliefs into two slots (true or false) and leaving it at that, we allow ourselves to set aside any contempt, disgust, or unease we initially react with (while not ignoring those emotions outright), and really ponder what the believer might be thinking, why they’re behaving in that manner, and what that might symbolize. It’s also important for us to exercise some introspection as to why we reacted the way we did (which is why we don’t ignore emotions). What is it, exactly, that is causing us to feel uneasy about this practice/belief? Why might our values and thought processes differ from theirs?

A Japanese painting depicting Taoist Immortals

“Taoist Immortals Celebrate Longevity” (1923) by Tomioka Tessai

   I believe we would find that, just like the elements and principles which are the building-blocks of art, religions around the world share basic principles, archetypes, symbols, and morals which may be applied differently, but the unique combinations of these elements which are grouped into pieces which we call “religion” must be explored, appreciated, and analyzed to understand human thought and behavior.

    Religion, like art, can be a beautiful and powerful expression of human thought, emotion, and experience. Art and religion are my two favorite subjects because they both make me think, and they make me feel. They allow for expression and connection. They are a lens through which, with skill and great care, we can view the world a way that before, we would never have been able to fathom. Art and religion are stepping stones into the minds of humanity.  

   I’m not asking you to delve deeply into studying every religion you hear about. If theology isn’t your thing, please don’t feel obligated to spend excessive amounts of time reading about something that doesn’t interest you. What I am asking is that you, before criticizing a belief system you know little to nothing about, make a sincere attempt to understand where people are coming from and what they truly believe.

A religious painting of Christ

“Icon Of Christ Emmanuel” 1920) Petro Kholodny (Elder)

     Here’s a good rule of thumb: Partake in the level of research you would ask of someone who ignorantly dismisses your religion as ridiculous, confusing, or evil. If you identify as a Mormon and hear someone ignorantly mocking your faith because they haven’t bothered to educate themselves on what Mormons really believe, how much and what kind of searching would you request on their part? How much courtesy and thoughtfulness would you expect from a decent investigator of Mormonism? Before criticizing someone else’s faith, do the kind of research in their religion which you would want them to do in your religion.

  Remember that we don’t have to take myths and spiritual accounts literally in order to appreciate the beauty and complexity of them. We do not need to agree in order to understand. The point of learning to appreciate religion is all about empathy and connection. If you think taking the time and effort to “appreciate something” is wasteful and useless, there is much more to this than having a lovely time at an art gallery. Developing empathy and connection is not just a personal benefit so you can “like more things.” If we can all develop the ability to set our emotional biases aside, turn off that tendency to mentally polarize everyone into protagonists and antagonists, we can understand people and, through that understanding, analyze what causes people to behave the way they do. With that understanding, a knowledgeable and objective approach can be taken in order to effectively reach solutions on the ideological battlefield. Understanding is key to peaceful acceptance, agreements, and compromise.

the-buddha_jahar-dasgupta

“The Buddha” by Jahar Dasgupta

Please, Tell Me Where I Sinned

So much has changed in the past two years.

Sometimes I wonder where I fit in terms of religion, particularly in the Mormon world. After a lot of self-reflection (sometimes I feel like that’s all I do, haha), I’ve come to this conclusion regarding my spirituality:

There are aspects of Mormonism I love, and there are many parts of it I disagree with and truly believe to be harmful. I don’t fall neatly into the LDS church anymore, just like I don’t fall neatly into Buddhism, New-Age Spirituality, Paganism, Hinduism, Christianity, Atheism, or Mormon Restorationism. Although I have learned from and adopted philosophies from all of these ways of thinking (and I fully intend to study into as many more as I can), I do not confine myself to any of these ideologies. I listen, analyze, take what seems good and true, and leave what feels false and harmful, trusting my moral compass to develop and improve along the way.

Getting here, going through these changes, was difficult and frightening. Not only was I questioning my entire worldview countless times, from the validity of my church to the very existence of God, there were many moments (mostly just in the beginning) when I feared my very salvation was at stake. I feared that I would lose everything: my good standing in the church I knew and loved, my place in the celestial kingdom, and—worst of all—my sense of right and wrong.

But now, I do not regret the choices I made. I know I have said and done some insensitive things here and there and I know that I have unintentionally hurt some feelings due to my weaknesses in communication, understanding, and tact. I apologize for these follies and moments of disrespect. However, while I accept the consequences of my unwise actions and do not deny responsibility for any of them, these instances are simply inevitable in a complex mortal life such as mine. Of course I did stupid things; I would have done stupid things regardless of the path I chose because I am human and I do a lot of stupid things, and I will accept responsibility for these offenses and always try to do better.

But I will not apologize for the carefully-deliberated steps I have taken. From my first re-entry into the waters of baptism one chilly February morning at Saratoga Springs, to my first cup of coffee in a little Layton café, to my many agonizing considerations over whether I should leave God altogether, I am confident that these experiences have shaped my character for the better. There were plenty of difficult moments, but my story is anything but a tragedy. My journey was not a steady decline into apostasy, nor was I carefully led away by Satan into a life of sin.

When some people leave the church (or theism entirely), they are often demonized in varying degrees by some believers for very understandable reasons (I know this because I was one of those demonizers for a long time, haha). Okay, perhaps “demonize,” in most cases, is an unfairly strong word, but my point is that when someone makes a choice that we deem immoral, we instinctively assign our own reasons for that person’s actions. It’s just what we do; we have an inherent need to make sense of the world. These reasons we assign are often harsh in order to allow us to rest in the notion that if we can remain moral and righteous, such devastation will never happen to us. Here are some reasons I used to give for people leaving the church while I was an active believer in it:

  • They don’t care about truth or about God
  • They want to live a materialistic and self-indulgent life
  • They were offended by something some church member or leader said at some point (or some obscure event in church history), and allowed their anger and bitterness to get the best of them
  • They caved into the temptation of peeking at anti-Mormon literature and were ashamed because “the world” frowned down upon their beliefs
  • They were too lazy and selfish to commit to their promises to God
  • They’re in a temporary phase of confusion and will get over it soon

A quick disclaimer: This concept of unfairly assuming people’s reasons for actions which we deem as “immoral” or “sinful” is definitely not exclusive to the Mormon world. I’m pretty sure it’s a very human thing and everyone does it. still do it (though, hopefully, not as much as I used to)!

Go to someone who’s left the church, sit down with them, and ask them about their journey. If they’re not an eloquent speaker, ask them to speak their mind via writing (or read what they’ve already written). That’s the easy part. The hard part is listening (or reading) with the intent to understand, and not to “understand” just enough so you can spot weakness in their reasoning or find a way to “get to them” and make them rethink their ways. Check your fault-finding device at the door and understand them for the sake of learning from them. Once you think of that interaction as a re-conversion opportunity, you’ve automatically installed a filter. Put down your teaching agenda; take notes instead.

Another disclaimer: I am super awful at this. It’s a freaking difficult thing to do, alright? 95% of the time I begin a discussion with someone I know I disagree with, I’m already compiling defenses and warming up my own fault-finding device so I can rest in self-reassurance that am in the right, not them. I’m not allowing myself to learn from them; I am not allowing myself to be wrong. Rather, I am spending all my listening-energy on organizing a plan to convert them to my perspective. But, on the bright side, now I see this problem in myself and I can make a conscious effort to change.

I realize that the intent behind most conversion attempts are innocent and benign (“I just want them to understand me,” or  “I just want them to choose a path that will make them happier”),  but there are times when we need to step down from our soapboxes and allow ourselves some critical self-reflection in light of the perspective gained from listening to an opposing voice.

Yes, there are moments when we must speak up, be bold, and be heard. We can’t mentally afford to question ourselves every moment of every day—we would all go insane. But too often we reject our duty of subjecting ourselves to periodical self-reexaminations, of seriously considering that we might be wrong.

Again, I really suck at this practice. I’m just really, really bad at it. Heck, there are probably sections in this very article that prove that fact. But I’m working on it, and I want to tell you all that sincere listening and critical self-reflection has taught me immensely and has improved my character overall. It is tough, but it really does work. I know because I’ve done it. I sat down with friends who disagreed with my dearly-held beliefs, listened without judgement or agenda, and then analyzed my own beliefs through my newly-gained perpectives.

I ask you to please listen to my story as well as the stories of anyone else you may disagree with. Please don’t dismiss my—or anyone else’s—religion (or lack thereof) without an attempt at empathy. Please don’t assume that you already know why I am the way I am, and please do not assume that I’ve become so because of pride, bitterness, pettiness, or selfishness.

Please do not pity me, either, for such sorrow is needless. I am truly happy. I am happy now because I am learning to live without fear.

During times at which I feel there is a God (which I’d say is probably most of the time, to be honest), I no longer fear the threat of damnation. I am no longer tormented with the worry that I have stepped over the line, that I am in need of dire repentance because of my separation from the LDS Church’s teachings.

This is why I am no longer afraid:

In the beginning of my journey, I just wanted to find God. Endless hours of prayer and following revelation was what led me to a Mormon Restorationist movement community, where I made lifelong friends, learned so much about the character of Jesus, and realized that no church institution could rightfully place limits on how I choose to worship and commit to God (neither should I dictate how anyone else should worship).

When some of my friends decided to become atheists, I just wanted to understand them. I wanted to understand how they could still be happy and loving and giving when they’d seemingly abandoned God. Now that I have listened to them and walked in their shoes, I understand.

My crimes of reading “unapproved” material, questioning authority, openly disagreeing with church policies, and doubting the existence of God were not motivated by apathy, laziness, bitterness, pride, or selfishness. It was love all along. I loved God enough to step outside of my religious comfort-zone to look for him. I loved my friends enough to empathize and deeply consider their points of view. I loved truth enough to be willing to leave God if doing so made me a freer and more altruistic individual.

Tell me where I went wrong. Show me the point on my life’s timeline where Jesus will, at the judgement bar, say, “Here. This is the event where your selfishness, recklessness, and bitterness got the best of you and you started down that slippery slope. If only you’d chosen to be more caring, more loving, more careful. But, alas, you failed this brief test of mortality, you have failed me, and there is no turning back.”

If there is a God, I am at peace with him, and I firmly believe that if he’s a god worth worshiping, he’ll be satisfied enough with my sincere attempts at self-improvement that he isn’t going to allow me to be consigned to a state of post-mortal misery or separate me from my family in the eternities. Even if there is no God (still a strong possibility in my mind), I am at peace with the transformations within me that have opened my eyes to greater compassion, acceptance of philosophical fluidity in myself, and respect for differences in others.

And no one can take that peace from me.

Thank you, friend, for listening.

 


featured image from the LDS Media Library
https://www.lds.org/media-library/images/category/salt-lake-utah-temple?lang=eng

Thoughts on Illusions, Compassion, and the Reality of God

If you think it would be an amazing, beautiful experience to see beyond the veil (i.e. to behold angels, heaven, spirits, and the like), then you are a normal person with a very human sense of awe. This has been a desire of mine for a long time, but I’ve recently developed some hesitancy in wanting manifestations like that.

Kay, lemme explain.

Looking in the possibility that God is not a real, tangible Being outside my imagination and wishful thinking: if I start to physically see and hear things, it would be an indication of such drastic emotional commitment that my own mind is creating its own reality to support what I desperately want to be true. I may not act like it outwardly; I may continually claim that I am being even-handed and, in a way, agnostic, but the truth is that I am terribly desperate. There is nothing I want more than for God to be real.

Well, that’s not entirely true. More so than I believe in God, I believe in compassion, beauty, and wisdom. As I have found these traits to be perfectly manifested in the God I’ve come to know, it is because I believe in the utmost importance of these things that I have come to love God more than anything else. If God turns out to not be real, at least I will have an idea of who I want to become. All will not be lost, for compassion, beauty, and wisdom are everything to me. It would indeed be harrowing to lose a perceived friend who was the embodiment of those traits, but I would still have those traits to guide me, even if they were not attached to a conversational god-person.

Thing is, it would take a huge change in mindset to re-frame my way of thinking in accommodating the approach that I am no longer following a person, but simply the set of ideas that this divine individual represents. Would it be worth the time, effort, and agony to abandon God as a person and maintain that He is only an idea, a mere symbol of all that I consider good? It would be extremely hard and painful, but would it be the noble, courageous thing to do?

I have attempted to let go of my attachment to God multiple times before. It hasn’t really worked out.

This is what happens: Either a) I cave into selfishness. Being kind and compassionate gets a hell of a lot harder, and when I do nice things, it’s often forced and ingenuine. Or b) I focus on embracing compassion, beauty, and wisdom, but can’t get God out of my head. As hard as I try, He won’t freaking leave me alone. He just keeps talking to me.

From an atheistic point of view, one could easily say that I’ve simply never given it enough time. Perhaps if I moved out, associated with less-spiritual friends, read more books about how supernatural stuff is nonsense, and stewed in that lifestyle for half a year, I’ll successfully discard my reliance on the illusion of my God.

But I don’t want to. I guess I just love God too damn much.

So does that make me a coward, I wonder? Is it egoistic and spineless of me to not give atheism a better chance because I don’t want to go through the pain of letting go of God?

When I talk to God, ask Him for help, and listen to His advice, I am simply a more loving, appreciative person. Perhaps I can be just as loving and appreciative with the acknowledgment that this “Being” I “commune” with is all in my head, that I don’t need a brain-God to be my best self. If that’s true, wouldn’t it be a nobler and more impressive pursuit to progress without that sense of accountability to an all-powerful Being?

In all honesty though, going about living the “noble” and “impressive” way is not nearly as appealing to me as living life the compassionate and appreciative way.

And now that I think about it, my pursuit of progress isn’t really inspired by a sense of “accountability” to God. I mean, it definitely used to be, but not anymore. It’s just love. When you truly love someone, you’re willing to take risks for them. All it takes is a kind suggestion or request. I don’t really receive commandments from God; They’re more like instructions or guidance. I don’t do anything God instructs me to do out of fear of punishment or of being left out of the exaltation party. There’s really no obligation or guilt involved in this relationship.

Back on topic, I suppose all that matters to me now is finding that way of life which allows me to be the most compassionate. I am even willing to live in an illusion if it will make me more compassionate. But am I willing to let go of God?

Hm.

Good talk. I’m going to bed now.

PEACEOUT.

The Baptism of Coffee

On Friday night, I wanted to go to the library, so I drove down and saw that the parking lot was empty. Disappointedly remembering that the library closes early on weekends, I parked anyway because I suck at dealing with life when things don’t go according to my plans. I didn’t feel like going home, neither did I want my excursion to be entirely in vain.  

I then had an idea to spend the evening with Jesus, to find somewhere away from home to sit, meditate, and talk to him without obligations and distractions. As it was dark out, I couldn’t go sit on a park bench or take a drive up to the mountains. So, since I had not yet eaten, decided to make it a dinner date.

I pulled out of the dark parking lot and drove a short distance to Sill’s Cafe and took a seat at the bar. As I do not interpret the Word of Wisdom as given to Joseph Smith in the same way the Church does, I am not opposed to what the mainstream members refer to as “hot drinks,” namely, tea and coffee. Tea has been my best friend for a couple years now, but has always been a weird exception with fuzzy lines in my family. Like many Mormons, my parents seemed to assume that tea and coffee were against the Word of Wisdom because of the one similarity which is caffeine. (Of course, there was also the fact that they were both liquids and served hot, but then that brings in completely-allowed substances like soup and hot chocolate. Like I said: fuzzy.) As herbal tea does not contain caffeine, it was allowed in my home without judgement (though there were a few points as I was growing up in the Church where I worriedly questioned my maté-loving mother’s faithfulness to the Word of Wisdom and sometimes internally freaked out about it), however, caffeinated sodas were generally frowned-upon. Mormons are weird, guys. 

Anyway, the only thing that was keeping me from partaking of the forbidden bean* was the fact that I kept hearing it was an acquired taste, and I didn’t want to waste my money on some disappointing brown liquid and then feel obligated to drink the rest because I’d paid for it, nor did I want to spend a load of money in order to acquire a taste for the sake of giving coffee a fair chance. As coffee is one of those supposedly grand, memorable new experiences for many people trekking out of Mormonism, I wanted my first cup to be special. No way I was wasting this moment in a Starbucks drive-thru, sir. That’s like going on a honeymoon and stopping at a McDonald’s as your first meal together as man and wife. It is taking a potentially memorable experience and tossing it out the car window.

My first cup of coffee was to be made by a coffee artisan in a classy French café, served to me by the love of my life on a quiet Sunday morning, or delivered to me personally by the heathen goddess of hipsterism. I wanted it to be special, people.

Okay, setting excess ridiculousness aside, allow me to explain the reason that I am treating this as a bigger deal than it really is. (I mean, it is just coffee. I realize that. Quit rolling your eyes.)
I believe I’ve picked up a lot of traditions from growing up (e.g. the modern interpretation of the Word of Wisdom) that, while not intrinsically bad, I’ve found particular achievement in leaving them behind. In my journey out of mainstream mormonism (i.e. the Church as an official institution), I’ve let go of a lot of things that are actually important, as opposed to coffee, which really isn’t important. A lack of coffee was not barring me from God, but the following attitudes certainly were, to name a few:

  • Judgement of apostates and atheists as critical, bitter people insincere in truth-seeking
  • Determining the validity of a message based solely on the messenger (and the messenger’s “official authority”) rather than the integrity of message itself
  • Believing that my way of living was the only true way of living that will bring one as close to God as possible in this life.
  • A cold, businesslike relationship with Jesus as a distant elder brother and head of a divine corporation of which I was a mere lay-member

Letting go of these attitudes was an internal, invisible act. As a human, I find that spiritual events are far easier to commit to memory when they are translated into visual, tangible symbols. This way, while the spiritual change is not exactly measurable, we can be encouraged and motivated as physical events act as distinct landmarks in our journey through life.

An example is one Sunday I attended my parents’ LDS ward. I decided to, instead of the traditional formal skirt, go in jeans. My actions may have been falsely interpreted as a statement of rebellion against the Church (especially with the Ordain Women movement going on, haha) and irreverence towards God, but that wasn’t important. It was no concern of mine what the ward-members felt about my casual outfit, nor was it my intent to make a statement or prompt stares. True, clothing can be a symbol of who we are on the inside, but the only thing that mattered was what my choice in apparel meant to me and my God.

You may remember in the above list of damning attitudes I’ve been working on overcoming, I included the idea that my relationship with God was distant and businesslike. By attending church in my casual day-to-day clothing, I was saying to myself and God, “Jesus told me to come as I am and that He would receive me. Well, here I am. I don’t need to impress God with fine clothing. God is my Father. He is family, He is my Friend, and He addresses me as such. He accepts me as I already am. He doesn’t want to wait for me to curl my hair to perfection or force myself into a pair of uncomfortable pantyhoes.”

Now, as a quick note, this is not to say that all the other folks attending in their lovely Sunday clothes are sending the opposite message. They dress the way they do to symbolize what fine dress means to them. My dad, despite the fact that he hates wearing neckties, wears them to Church anyway to demonstrate respect for God and the fact that he’s content to undergo a little discomfort to show that respect. It’s how he expresses love for God, and that’s great. It’s personal, between God and the individual; neither of us are wrong.

The event of me going to church in jeans was not the moment my heart was changed. That change of heart took place over a long period of time, but the event of me expressing that change served as a highlight in the memories of my spiritual journey. I can look back in greater confidence that, yes, I am moving forward. God is working wonders in my heart, and they are made visible by representative physical actions.

That is why I think Jesus was so big on rituals like baptism. It isn’t because the water itself magically washes away our sins. The movement of being dunked doesn’t activate a chemical process in your brain that will transform the desires of your heart. The event of baptism is rich with symbolism, and that symbolism is for us. When you are baptized, those images and movements will stick with you. Being buried in the water. Cleansing, renewal. Rebirth. That memory full of images, the sound of the baptist’s voice and his words as he says the prayer, and the feeling of your body being immersed in the water leave strong impressions on your mind. These impressions will mark a time in your life that you can look back on as a representation of the change and growth that took place in your heart.

That said, buying a cup of coffee and drinking it was not a step, but symbolic of a step. Just like it wasn’t about the pants when I wore them to church, this isn’t about the coffee; it’s about what’s going on in my heart. Buying my first cup of coffee was just one more case of me forsaking unnecessary and harmful false traditions. It was about leaving that fearful part of me—the part of me so obsessed with following every Pharisaical letter of the law—behind. It was letting go; letting myself be free, unafraid of some imaginary God I’d invented who would be petty enough to give a damn about a friggin coffee.

I ordered my forbidden substance somewhat hesitantly (like, do I just say “coffee” or are there a ton of different kinds or is there some secret code you heathen coffee-drinkers use…idk?). A minute later, a plain white mug with a teaspoon was casually set in front of me with little packets of half-and-half. I wasn’t terribly impressed with the appearance of it.
I don’t know what I was expecting. This, maybe?

fancycoffee

I’d say this is fancy enough to be served to a heathen goddess.

And la realidad:

plain-cupofcoffee-wood2.jpg

“Meh” is an apt description.

Then I actually tried it

and

it was the most beautiful-tasting thing ever to grace my palate.

I’ll just leave it at that.

But, as magnificent as that plain cup of coffee was, the small glory of that beverage itself paled in comparison the that beautiful moment alone with God. We simply sat there together, and as I ate my dinner and drank my coffee, we exchanged a few words every now and then. He spoke in His way that is charmingly simple yet fantastically profound. We didn’t have long, deep discussions as we sometimes do. We simply enjoyed each other’s company. It was what I needed that night, and Jesus is always who you need him to be.

Goes to show that a moment doesn’t need to be intense and dramatic to be memorable and precious.

*As I googled the term “forbidden bean” to make sure I wasn’t unintendedly using some irrelevant or sexual innuendo (because I am naïve enough that this is a real problem for me), I was quite delighted to see that there is a cafe in Australia called The Forbidden Bean.

LOOK, YOU GUYS.

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If I ever move to Australia, you’ll know where to find me.

When God Destroyed My Block Tower

Oh, what is this? Sandi is actually posting things again?

It’s remarkable how dynamic a person’s philosophy can be. I’ve seen some surprising transformations over the past year, not only in myself, but in some of my friends as well. (Like these wonderful crazies, if you’d like a specific example.) I appreciate updates from my friends every once in a while so, if something crazy happens like resignation from the Church, baptism into a polygamous group, or denouncement of religion altogether, it’s not too much of a shock for me. As my own religious devotions are fairly ambiguous at this point in time, I should perhaps make attempts to spare myself (and maybe other people) future shock and keep things updated.

My relationship with God has been very interesting lately. Putting it into words will not be easy. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t actually know what in the heck is going on with it all, so maybe I’ll figure it out as I go. I may even reach a solid conclusion (ha, keep dreaming, self).

When I began this journey of shifting theology, I became firm in the belief that the time to develop a relationship with God was now, in this life. I discovered that doing so would require me to unlearn certain beliefs.

The problem with unlearning beliefs is that it’s not so simple as picking an undesirable topping off a slice of pizza or erasing a mistake on a chalkboard. You see, every belief you have is connected to a more basic foundational belief, which then branches off to other beliefs. They’re all tangled up and stacked onto each other, which means if you try to remove one, there’s a good chance a bunch of other beliefs are going to topple to the ground along with it. So it’s really more like a Jenga tower.

Now, when it comes to the Jenga tower-like structures which are belief systems, we could, theoretically, simply remove the blocks from the top of the tower quietly, without making a mess.

You’d think God would just do it that way.

spiritual_jenga

I guess Jesus is just too cool to follow the rules of Jenga.

But no. Apparently the non-messy way is too slow for Him.

Or maybe it’s too slow for me.

Allow me to explain the above italicized epiphany:
A couple years ago, as I really began to dive into scripture study, self-improvement, and what I hoped was drawing nearer to God, I remember having this feeling of wanting to be so much more than I was; more kind, more wise, more obedient, more Christlike. As your typical Mormon believer, I had a firm hope that this kind of spiritual progress was absolutely possible through the grace of God. I also believed that this progress would come through great sacrifice, dedication, and experience. If this mortal life, as we were taught in Church, was the ideal place in which to learn everything we could, I wanted to take full advantage of that. I remember feeling so ready to give my everything in order to become what God wanted me to be, I knelt and asked Him to put me through the “rigorous course.” Whatever path would lead me to God the fastest, I wanted to take it. I knew at that time that I didn’t really know what pain was (I still know very little of suffering), but I believed that God would never put me through any trial He wouldn’t help me overcome. I don’t recall any response from God at the time I made this request, but perhaps His manner of Jenga tower-destroying is precisely what I asked for when I prayed for the rigorous course.

And then, around the time I realized that unlearning things would be necessary, I went to God and told Him that I wanted all my false beliefs rooted out from me. I begged Him to help me let go of them. I don’t want them anymore. Get rid of them. They are stupid. Set them on fire.

While I was hoping for some instant cure (like everyone always does, I suppose), it just doesn’t work like that. False beliefs are more than statements that can be made on paper with words; false beliefs permeate into our attitudes and perceptions of everything. They’re so deeply rooted inside of us, it’s going to take a lot more than reproving words to destroy them.

Over this past year, this force which I call “God” has inspired me to connect with people and communities who have introduced to me uncomfortable ideas that have forced me to perceive the world in a completely different way. There was no way I could have learned the things I did by reading an essay or listening to a simple answer like “Sandi, you see things in this way, but this way is false.” It wasn’t to be a brief vacation-tour; I had to live in that world.

And down the tower came.

Despite the undoing of my entire worldview (and as bad as this may sound to most devout believers), the uncomfortable idea of God not existing has done me a world of good. I can no longer judge atheists or agnostics as people who are insincere or uninterested in finding out the truth. I understand where they’re coming from because I’ve been there (and in a way, I still kind of am). Their reasoning makes sense to me, and I respect them for it. Yeah, wrestling with these idea was spiritually agonizing and it really just sucked overall, but I honestly believe that going through that internal chaos was absolutely worth reaching that level of empathy for agnostics, atheists, and people who just weren’t interested in religion.

Empathizing with people is worth every bit of the discomfort required in sincerely hearing out those whose philosophies differ from mine. Perhaps the most damaging and permeating of my “false beliefs” were not errors in dogma or creed, but my lack of understanding about people I used to fear.

God could have told me outright to stop being afraid of people and their ideas. That probably wouldn’t have been effective, though. I guess the best way for Him to teach me that was turn me into one of them by knocking down my carefully-constructed tower of religious doctrines. I needed to see and understand for myself. I needed to see my religion from the outside looking in.

In this mess of scattered Jenga blocks, I’ve learned that more valuable than belief in God is plain-old human compassion. Granted, if you’d have come to me two years ago and asked, “Sandi, what’s more important to you: your belief in God or the compassion you have for others?” I honestly would have answered the latter, as it’s always been the nobler choice to me. In that sense, it seems that nothing has really changed, and yet it has. I value compassion tremendously more than I did two years ago, and I believe that’s because I realized in my earlier adventures in agnosticism just how essential and foundational charity is to everything I hope to be.

There’s a major difference between theorizing life without belief and actually living it. After I blogged about that little adventure and the conclusion I came to, I assumed my struggles with that sort of serious doubt were over and done with. But it simply wasn’t so. I was just getting started.

I’m not saying that everyone has to struggle with doubting God’s existence in order to learn about compassion and empathy. I’m saying that apparently, I (with my personalized lesson plan) did need to struggle firsthand. I needed to see theism through a different pair of lens, and now I have a much deeper understanding of God as I’ve been able to see different facets of who He really is (assuming He even exists).

It’s been a quite a ride through alternating stages of belief and doubt. And then, along with that, there are alternating stages of peace and discouragement. Contrary to what many would assume, those stages of peace and stages of discouragement don’t always properly correspond to whether I’m believing or doubting. You’d think that when I’m accepting the reality of God, I’d feel at peace; and, alternatively, when I’m doubting His existence, I’m discouraged. Not so. Sometimes I’m at peace with there not being a God. And there are times when I really truly feel like there must be a God, but I’m drowning in discouragement. If I’m trying to find the factor which determines my peace, I don’t think that factor is accepting or rejecting God’s reality. Heck, if you have any idea of what that factor might be, I’d honestly love to hear it. Because life just insists on being complicated all the time, there are probably multiple factors.

If that’s the case, I’m pretty sure one of them is my attitude towards other people. It looks to me like the way I see the human race is inseparably connected with whether or not I am “at peace.” Makes sense to me.

So there we have it. I’m not sure if this counts as a solid conclusion, but I feel better now that I’ve written about it.
Yeah, it’s still a struggle, and maybe I’m a mess, but I’m not in a panic. I still find myself positively in love with humanity and all that is beautiful and compassionate, so I can’t be too far down the road to hell. If hell is going to be filled with the kind of heretics, questioners, intellectuals, agnostics, liberals, feminists, and other crazies I’ve had the pleasure of associating with and reading about, I don’t reckon it’ll be such a bad place after all.

Pretty sure I’ve already used this Joseph Smith quote, but I’m going to use it again.

I see no faults in the Church, and therefore let me be resurrected with the Saints, whether I ascend to heaven or descend to hell, or go to any other place. And if we go to hell, we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it. Where this people are, there is good society.

(History of the Church, 5:516–17)

That may seem a little ironic, as my recent associations have gone against what I’ve learned from the Church I attended all my life. Perhaps Joseph meant differently than how I see that quote, so I’m not claiming that Joseph is going to back me on my interpretation; I just like the words for what they mean to me.

In the early years of the Church, the Saints were the outcasts and heretics. Now, because history is such a big nasty mess, I can’t claim with a surety that the people Joseph was associating with at the time of this sermon were “good society.” I wasn’t there.

But I know that the people I’ve come to know are. If I were to gather them all and put them in a room, they probably wouldn’t agree on very much, doctrinally. But they are good society. They are courageous for seeking truth and answers when others were too afraid to dive down the rabbit hole. I love them, and I refuse to believe that a God worth worshipping might see fit to throw these “apostates” into outer darkness for trying so hard to live lives according to truth and love.

If there’s an afterlife, I’m cool with winding up wherever they go.

That awkward moment when I don’t know Jesus

When I embarked on this spiritual journey, I began to find the real Jesus, and I began to love Him as I never had before.

Then in June I began to question His existence as I was exposed to evidence and ideas about the human brain that shook my foundation. The possibility of God being all in my head became vividly possible to me.

In the end, I decided that believing was worth the risk of being wrong because I believed that it fueled my charity. I learned that as much as I value truth, I value charity even more. So while I hate the idea of being disillusioned, at least that disillusionment would be harmless and even beneficial to serving others and finding peace and fulfillment. When I came to this conclusion, I assumed it was over, that my problem was resolved and I could move on.

But lately, I’ve been feeling even more distant from God. It’s a painful thing, and I’m sure you all know how that feels because the majority of you are older and/or wiser and more experienced than I. There have been frequent moments where I’m nearly overcome with this bitter aching and longing. I don’t think this feeling is unique to me.

I realized with horrible disappointment last night that I don’t know Him anymore.

From last August to the beginning of this year, I felt confident that, while I still had much to learn, I was really ACTUALLY coming to know Him and develop a living relationship with Him. It was so exciting!

But not anymore. It’s the most painful admission I’ve ever made. I don’t know my Master. I can’t tell you for sure whether or not He is real. He FEELS real to me and I want so badly for Him to be.

But I can’t see the fruits. I can’t tell whether I’ve become kinder, more understanding, more charitable, and more loving because of this “God,” or simply because I’ve been growing, thinking critically, and educating myself. What if the belief that the only way I can become kinder, more understanding, etc. is through this Jesus, is actually holding me back? Or what if I’m only making myself believe I’m improving as an unconscious effort to support the idea that God is on my side and is truly guiding my paths?

The only good fruits I’m seeing right now are the beautiful souls I’ve befriended and my expanded perspective on Mormonism and religion in general. I regret nothing as to the risks I’ve taken and the sacrifices I’ve made.

I have received no visions. I have heard no voices. The veil has never parted before my eyes. Anything I might call a “miracle,” my skeptic brain is quick to provide a secular explanation for.

But I don’t need these spectacular manifestations. All I need is a reason to keep praying, to keep studying, to keep seeking His face. Right now, I’m seeing plenty of reason to not do so. I’ve been seeking His face for about a year now and while I’ve seen desirable fruit, I have no way of determining whether that fruit is from a Being called God, or simply the inevitable goodness any soul would encounter as she strives to fill her life with charity.

I fully intend to fill my life with charity whether or not I decide to make Jesus part of it.

But this Jesus is offering me opportunities to serve beyond my wild imagination. He’s promised to fill my life with service in ways I never could if I were to try “on my own.” He’s explained to me that He can teach me how to love the same way He does.

I desire this more than anything.

Perhaps that is reason enough to keep on.

Love isn’t like Money (and you’re just a little kid)

I was gently reproved by the Lord tonight because I have this weird and false idea: I am often under the silly impression that I shouldn’t ask Him for comfort during semi-difficult moments because I know it will get a lot worse, and I need him during the really hard times. (And then there are all those people who have it a lot worse than I do.)

You see, I’m one of those people who goes out of her way and risks screwing everything up simply to avoid the awkward task of asking for help. I’ve been warned many times that life is going to get really, really hard for me down the road. Jesus has told me repeatedly that my only hope will be in coming to Him for healing and comfort. He also warned me that when these difficult and painful moments come, I will not be in a state of mind where I will actually want to come to Him. I will not want to accept comfort, let alone ask for it.

So I asked Him what I could do now, before the crap hits the fan, to prepare for these future moments.

How can you hope to be in the state of mind to receive me in the coming darkness when you refuse to be comforted in times of lesser pain?
My love is not an allowance of coins to be saved up and spent only during times of the greatest need.
My love is an eternal fountain blocked by pride and fear. By allowing it to flow freely to you, you only open your heart to receiving more of it.

We need to swallow our pride and ask for comfort when we need it (or even just maybe-kind-of need it). God’s love is infinite, so we need to stop treating it like He intends to withhold it and save it up for tougher times. When we were sent here, Jesus didn’t hand out a set number of little grace-tickets, pat us on the head, and say, “Okay, kids, don’t spend it all in one place!”

It’s hard to ask for help. It’s humbling and, if you’re like me, probably makes you feel like an incompetent little kid again.

Oh, but wait! What was that thing Jesus said about children?

“Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 18:4

We need to realize that we are but spiritual infants in God’s eyes. It was hard enough for me to accept that I’m merely a “fool before God” and that I actually…don’t…really…know…anything.

But to realize that I am never going to survive emotionally or spiritually unless I come to God—as a distressed little child comes to her Father for comfort—did not bode well for my ego swollen with “Yo, I’m a working adult” and “I’m a strong, independent woman who don’t need no parents to look after her.” *cough*still lives with her parents*cough*

It doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter how big and badass you may be. You are just a little kid. You need God. You need His grace. You need His comfort. It takes real courage to make yourself vulnerable, so don’t be ashamed in asking Him for help. Get into the habit of being vulnerable.

And here’s the best thing:

The more love you allow yourself to receive, the more you are able to give to others.

So for all you saintly angelfolk reading this and thinking that asking for help is a waste of time when you could be finding healing in helping others: you still need His grace. It is His grace that will pick you up and keep you going. His grace will transform you into a kinder, more compassionate person. It is the light of Christ which made you kind and giving in the first place, so coming to Him will only make you even better at what you do. God’s grace is the kind of gift that keeps on giving. Receiving Him will only expand your capacity to love and serve.

So you really have nothing to lose. Nothing of value, anyway.

Being Real

After skimming through some of my earlier articles (especially my first one), I realized that I’ve changed dramatically over the past six months. Even my writing voice from last year feels a little foreign to me. It’s not a problem. After all, I am a person and people change.

But I was surprised by how outdated my “About” page felt. I don’t want people getting false ideas about my character and my beliefs (does anyone?), so I felt the need to update it. It turned out to be a ridiculously extensive update (because apparently I have a big ego and like to talk about myself?).  Anyway, I think it’s important to be real with people. Some might worry about me, and I hate making people worried, but I don’t want to hide anything. If people want to know what I really think, they should have access to that. Not that I’m going to be advertising it or anything. It’s just that if someone wants to know the real me, I should be fine with them seeing the real me. No guessing games or secret passwords necessary.

One of my dearest friends once told me that he actually tries to be an open book. I admire that. I don’t think it’s a common thing for people to want to be an open book. We tend to keep our innermost feelings hidden because we don’t want to expose our weaknesses and let people to take advantage of us. So I could keep my beliefs a secret in order to please my LDS friends and family and avoid criticism, rebuke, and touchy conversations; but would doing so be an honest thing to do for myself and everyone else? Sounds cowardly to me. I’d rather be real and accept the fact that some people aren’t going to like it.

Here’s the link if you want to read it.