Jesus: Savior or Symbol

This post is extremely long. Consider yourself warned, and skim through quotations if you want. Or just read the final section.

Here I will reconcile three seemingly paradoxical points:

I love the doctrine of Atonement.

I have difficulty believing in it literally.

My (dis)belief does not remove the power of the Atonement from my life.

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Hopeful Agnostic Sympathetic Mormon

I appreciated Chris H’s post and wanted to respond regarding the boundaries of Mormonism, the needs of individual and community, and especially the role of criticism within the Church. I hope to build on the deep respect that Chris and I have for each other and the positive tone of this site to foster a productive discussion.

The Role of Criticism and Needs of the Individual

To start with the most controversial of Chris’ points… the need to “shed the poisonous elements which claim to be part of Mormon liberalism, but which, in fact, have no interest in promoting faith and are in many ways very harmful to the [liberal Mormon] movement”. A few points we agree on: I agree that individuals who feel the LDS Church needs to be *destroyed* should not be a part of the institution. To be part of the institution with that perspective would truly constitute a double agent, wolf in sheep’s clothing, viper at the hearth. I also agree that it should be a given (though we too rarely implement the principle) that we should focus on the approaches that will most likely meet with success. I fully agree that we need to focus on loving each other, working together, and giving weight to positives.
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The Blessings of an Unknown God

This post could be called anti-Areopagean, since in a reversal of the Acts 17 narrative, I write to those who inherited a supremely certain God and extol the virtues of a God unknown. I propose that agnostic theism actually results in a win-win situation, yielding rich rewards in return for handing over so-called certainty. I am not advocating that everyone adopt this philosophy, but I would like to lay out the advantages as I have experienced them.

This approach not only takes seriously the limitations of our knowledge, it could, if implemented widely, diminish religious conflict both interpersonal and national, and contribute to a healthier worldview overall. Agnosticism built around a theistic framework encourages resilient faith that easily assimilates new knowledge and allows for tolerance and appreciation for differing beliefs.

One of my goals in life is to model and champion religiosity that maximizes the benefits of spirituality while minimizing the harm that comes from most, if not all, forms of religion. I believe that an open agnostic theism that appreciates the value of spirituality allows one to enjoy a religious life while also becoming a better, more understanding and effective member of society. So in a Mormon context, I pray, enjoy Church, the scriptures, the temple, and the other details of religion, but my openness leads me to reject or at the very least complicate the idea of the “One and Only True Church” that I find divisive and spiritually stunting. (I am ok with a “most true” approach but that is a different post.) With a humility and caring that comes in part from my open agnosticism, I can engage with those around me without the automatic value judgments of traditional Mormonism kicking in. I very much respect those who understand God and religion more concretely, and I have had my own spiritual experiences that keep me in the category of believer. At the same time, I find an open, even agnostic approach to religion to be very beneficial and affirming.

My definition of the divine remains fluid. I live presupposing a caring and engaged superior Being, but I would classify that worldview somewhere between hope and belief. I am open to the idea that God represents some quantum connection between all things we do not understand, or a collective unconsciousness. Whatever created the world, whatever makes humans so different that we can have philosophical questions such as these, I call that God. God could be the name for natural laws that make choice and consciousness and love possible. God could be these attributes themselves–anything that increases consciousness, love, freedom, growth, peace, and joy–these are Divine. Perhaps we humans are the greatest gods within our grasp. I challenge you to find anyone who could not accept at least one of these definitions of “God”. I find this open characterization of the Divine useful.

My agnostic theism stems from several factors:

1) If there really is a supreme Creator of the Universe who interacts with all things, it is logical that He/She/They would be far beyond our comprehension.

2) Study of the religions of the world and human history demonstrates that humans conceptualize gods and the divine in their own image.

3) Mormon theology (and I would say theology in general) supports the idea that whatever God’s form or nature, God adapts Himself (I use the pronoun flexibly) to our understandings, expectations, and limitations (see 2 Ne. 31:3, Ether 12:39; D&C 29:33; 50:12; 88:46, which all imply that God speaks to us in a way we will understand more than the way “things really are”).

Throughout human history, groups have brandished the sword of certainty to compel and even destroy others. Though religion provides many answers that are satisfying on an emotional and spiritual level, theological ideas if taken to literally obstruct the increase of knowledge and compromise relationships. We all know what it is like to debate with the dogmatic and converse with the thoroughly convinced.

Mormonism enjoys a God defined to a striking degree. We not only know what God looks like, his job description (Moses 1:39); his family situation (including the elusive but tremendously beneficial theology of a Heavenly Mother); we know where he lives and where he comes from! I delight in the idea of a Heavenly Father and Mother to whom I can pray (well, the latter if I admit it only selectively) and with whom I can imagine a loving reunion in the afterlife. I love imagining embracing my Heavenly Parents when this life is done. Equally potent is the idea that humans and God differ only in degree, not nature. We are Gods in embryo, literally children of God and can become like Him/Her/Them. Since on a practical level religion is a symbolic system to conceptualize and interact with ourselves, each other, and the environment, I find these ideas powerful and productive. I would submit, however, that little is lost if we allow that such conceptions might not perfectly correspond to Absolute Reality, while simultaneously appreciating the benefit of such ideas in our lives.

Relaxing our cultural conditioning allows us to hear other ideas with more sympathetic ears and hearts. Paradoxically, agnosticism can lead to better understanding of truth. If we open our minds, we can be given new myths, corresponding more closely to Reality. If we are humble like children, ever seeking to learn how things are instead of projecting our desires of how we would like them to be, we can grow in light and knowledge and allow God to reveal truth and himself to us as it and he is, instead of constraining him to lovingly and patiently humor our prejudices until we are mature enough to surrender them. Again, this is win-win: if God and reality conform to our expectations, we will be pleased, but neither will we be shattered if life or learning lead us to doubt our conceptions.

A final and one of the greatest benefits of agnosticism would emerge from accepting the responsibility for our own divinity. As far as we can tell, humans are the most developed and influential beings of which we are aware. Our consciousness spreads across the planet and beyond. We can restore and even replace organs and limbs, even bring back the dead to a degree. We have the power to destroy or (hopefully) heal entire ecosystems.

Though belief in God can be heartening and helpful, it can be equally disempowering and destructive. We can wait around, shaking our hands at heaven, impatiently waiting for God to fix all our problems. I certainly don’t want political leaders to factor the Second Coming into environmental policy!

I suggest we accept this power and responsibility and turn the accusations of theodicy back on ourselves. Why does God allow so much suffering? Why doesn’t He DO something about it? Well, why do we? Why do WE allow so much suffering? Why do we perpetuate it? Why do we humans, godlike in our ability to do good and literally answer prayers, instead squander that potential by sacrificing others and even the planet upon the altars of apathy, greed, and selfishness?

With this conception and acceptance, the goals of religious and humanist align. We are either the most advanced beings around or share a special relationship with a God who is greater. In both cases, we should emulate and adopt the characteristics of Divinity and care for the people and world around us. Several of the world’s scriptures teach us that we are Gods*, His children, or at least servants. It is time for us to put aside differences in our symbolic conceptions and start acting like it.

*I was going to reference John 10:34 where Jesus says “ye are gods”, but that passage takes Psalm 82:1, 6-7 so radically out of context that I could not include it. This post is dedicated to TJ and the conversation that started it.

The Problem of Santodicy

I love Christmas. I love the chance we have to celebrate our relationships and take the time to think of and give to those close to us. I could listen to Christmas music all year.

I freely admit to not liking Santa, however. More precisely, I think the “Santalogical” problems far outweigh the excitement that children have as they wait for reindeer to alight on the roof and a fat mystical man to come through the chimney (or through the heating vents of my childhood, as I concluded he must do when I was in a home without a fireplace). Further, we can enjoy all substantial benefits of the Santa myth while avoiding the problems.

I don’t like how the Santa myth, at least as it is expressed in the US, encourages a binge of consumerism. I like pointing out that “X-Mas” does not remove Christ from Christmas, as Christ starts with an “X” (Chi) in Greek. The only way to remove Christ from Christmas is to write it the way many live it, $-Mas. And that is exactly what $anta Claus does. He is a consumerist replacement for Jesus. One conceptualization of God is that God is watching us all the time, so we need to be good so we will be blessed. Well with $anta, Santa is watching all the time, so we need to be good so we get presents. I am deeply disturbed by how our culture conditions us to thoughtlessly and endlessly consume, and Santa feeds into this.

More seriously, I think the philosophical, theological, or Santalogical problems cause more damage than benefit. I really wish there were some mystical being giving things to all the inhabitants of the earth. Though why not provide clean water, food, and other basic necessities rather than toys? This is the problem of “Santodicy”, why good children get nothing for Christmas. Why don’t all children get Christmas? And even among children who do get Christmas, why is the distribution so unfair, with some very good children getting so little and some spoiled children getting far more than they ever need? And poignantly, why do a family’s financial problems affect the scale of Christmas, if it is ol’ Saint Nick providing the goods?

Finally and perhaps most importantly, I have a serious problem lying to my children, especially about a mythical character that has quasi-divine elements (he is omniscient, operates out of time, etc). One of my wife’s friends, when told by his parents that Santa does not exist, asked the logical question: “Well, then is God real?” Believing in God can be problematic, but I believe that unlike Santa, the benefits of belief in God outweigh the disadvantages and you can make arguments for God’s existence, in addition to personal subjective evidence. Do we really need to compound the problems of faith by teaching our children about two unseen, all-knowing and caring beings, one of which we know to be false?

I think that we can play the Santa game in our families. That is fun. This is what my wife’s family did, even though she asked her father before memory whether Santa was real and he said no. It is fun to put out cookies and watch Santa movies and partake selectively in Santa culture. But children don’t need to believe that Santa is a literal figure to get this benefit. Besides, most children are excited to get presents, and the wonder about Santa is only a small part of that. Yes, I do have positive memories of contemplating the comings of the Jolly Old Man in Red and his levitating team of caribou. But for the reasons I have outlined, I have not approved of passing along this tradition to my children.

Besides, I am with those who think that emphasis on Santa and presents takes away from the most important parts of the Christmas season. With Santa put in his proper place—a combination of respecting the memory of an altruistic Greek and enjoying popular culture—we can focus on Christ and family, the true importance of the Christmas season.

Conversion, Cultural Conditioning and (the Absence of) Compulsory Means

It is pretty great being a member of the LDS Church. We have a tightly-knit, caring community. We have satisfying, coherent theology. We have a strong organizational structure that provides us with opportunity to serve and grow. I know of no other institution that better fulfils the Divine purposes of transforming our natures and getting us to care for each other. The beliefs and practices of the LDS Church do an admirable job meeting the deep human needs and longings at the core of religiosity.

It is understandable why people would want to be part of this community. Even in an article about why Latter-day Saints aren’t Christian, a Catholic Bishop acknowledges there is “much to admire” in our faith.
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I’d like to bear my nuancimony…

I started thinking about writing this post last testimony meeting. I do still bear my testimony, and several people usually comment on it, though I think only my wife hears what I am really saying. But I wanted the chance to write out what I really believe, to express my nuanced testimony.

Several factors motivated this post. As I stated, I rarely get the chance to lay out what I sincerely believe, and have never done so in writing. I appreciate the opportunity to get this out in the open because usually I am so quiet about it in the community (and am right in doing so I believe). Beliefs are refined as they are discussed and questioned, and this site seems an ideal forum to do so. I also want to explore the “big tent” idea and perhaps begin a discussion of how broad our beliefs and practices can be while we remain a member of the LDS community. All that said, I admit that I am more comfortable expressing these sensitive thoughts behind a pseudonym.
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The Hierarchy of Truth

Narratives wield a power measured not in historical accuracy but in effect on the reader. In many cases, the values expressed in a narrative, and especially the way that narrative moves us to thought and action, outranks the relationship of that narrative to history. In fiction, truths such as love, loyalty, following principles and defending freedoms shine even more clearly as they are unencumbered by the complexities of reality. But when we are reading Lord of the Rings, we know that we are reading fiction. We don’t expect the accounts to match up to history. What about scriptural accounts, where in many cases the accounts did not literally happen, were not intended as historical truth, but where readers are deeply invested in current literal interpretation?
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