Sunday, February 19, 2012

The God Debate

Please forgive me for what I'm about to write. I am very aware that my feelings and opinions are controversial and offensive to many people, especially in regards to religion. You have been duly warned. If you choose to continue reading, use what I have to say as a springboard toward a greater understanding of your own feelings and opinions, whatever those may be. I promise to give you as much room as you afford me.

One benefit of growing older is a greater ability to understand myself, and to accept those parts of me that have in the past only brought confusion and/or pain. One of the more problematic aspects of my personality is the propensity to see both sides of an issue. This has at times made me feel wishy-washy and weak. (Maybe Mitt and I have something in common?!) In debating deep, philosophical topics, such as religion and politics, I can be easily swayed to consider another's viewpont as valid, and have been known to change my mind mid-debate. Needless to say, I am not a champion debater! I have developed strong opinions on a variety of topics as I've matured, but I still find myself thinking, when confronted with someone else's well-thought out approach, "Huh, makes sense. Hadn't considered that." What is that old proverb about not keeping such an open mind that all the smarts leak out?

The point of this post is that I'm a fence-sitter, a position that is frowned upon in most religious circles. Isn't there a scripture that says you're either with us or against us? Paraphrased, of course. You can't serve God and Mammon? I remember hearing about those who were borderline neutral in the war in heaven (a misnomer, by the way). They came to earth and received bodies, but are relegated to living out their mortal existence in lowlier circumstances than those of us who chose Jesus' plan, and were privileged to be born to latter-day-saint homes. Most people I know reject this idea as it smacks of elitism, and leads us to judge others unrighteously. But I do recall being taught this as a child; it was a way to maybe understand why we were born to such privilege, as opposed to those born into a life of starvation, deprivation, and spiritual darkness. Maybe they were fence-sitters, unable to decide between Jesus and Lucifer, but enough in the right camp that they were allowed to continue on to the second estate? Neutrality is not encouraged by anyone on either side of the God debate.

I do find compelling evidence of God's existence. Having grown up in the mormon church, I've been taught all of my life that He is there, that He is my father in heaven, that He knows me personally, and that He is interested in my every thought and action. I have had experiences that felt spiritual in nature, and at times I have felt certain that He was in charge and was watching over me, directing my life from afar. I can't be sure if what I felt was a result of lifelong conditioning to believe, or if God is really there and really notices each hair on my head. I have felt at times a yearning for 'home', a desire to be in the presence of unconditional love and acceptance. This God, however, is not the God I learned of in church. The mormon God (my own interpretation!!) does not feel loving or accepting. He feels judgmental, condescending, self-righteous, demanding, narcissistic, capricious, egotistical, cruel, vain, arrogant, haughty. So, if the mormon God is the real one, I'm really not interested in a relationship with him, I don't want to return to live with him, and I don't want to become like him.

I've listened to many people talk of their relationship with God, and they certainly don't agree with my assessment of His personality. They speak of feeling loved, accepted, guided, inspired, lifted up, supported in their weaknesses. When I hear this, I am sometimes persuaded to consider that I am wrong. Just this week, I read an account written by someone who had given up on God, only to have an experience with the spirit that felt otherworldly to her, and confirmed to her that He did indeed exist. She cannot account for the experience in any other way than that God spoke to her heart, and she felt a desire to remain a member of the church, even though she continued to take issue with many of the practices of church members. I did feel something while reading her story, a small flicker of desire in my heart to have a similar experience. I want to feel God too. However, I don't want to hear from the mormon God; too much baggage, in my opinion. But it is experiences like these that convince me that there is something out there beyond our understanding, some higher power or entity who is interested in what we are up to here on planet earth.

That being said, I've found much food for thought in the atheist camp. Richard Dawkin's book, "The God Delusion" was an enlightening read for me. I had never considered the atheist point of view before; as a mormon, my exposure to such an idea was very limited. Atheism is threatening to religious people, a stance I sort of get, but on the other hand (see? wishy-washy!), I don't think God is particularly threatened by a thoughtful consideration of His existence. I have also thoroughly enjoyed reading Sam Harris. He is a reasonable, rational man, who does not denigrate those who believe in God, yet provides compelling reasons to question the reality of a supernatural being capable of moving mountains. Julia Sweeney is another prominent atheist who has given me much to think about. She details her journey away from the Catholic church in a one-woman show titled, "Letting Go of God". So much of what she went through mirrored my own path, and I found myself laughing and crying at her descriptions of delving deeper into scripture in order to understand a God who defies understanding. She finally reached a point where she allowed herself to think the unthinkable, to try on unbelief in God, to see what the world looked like from an atheist point-of-view. And it was okay. She felt peace, and self-acceptance. I had a similar experience when I tried on my un-testimony of the mormon church. It was okay, and I felt peace.

However, when I have considered the atheist position, I find that I cannot make that leap. I cannot not believe in God. I did try on the atheist hat; it didn't fit. Or maybe I just can't let my mind go to a place where there is no life after this one. I cannot accept that it all ends here, that my loved ones and I will simply cease to be. I cannot accept that there is no greater meaning to our existence, no purpose beyond a biological and evolutionary one. For whatever reason, I can't go there. I don't want to go there. So I'm kind of stuck in between camps. Sigh....

I have been accused of choosing doubt as a philosophy of life. I don't think that's true. Doubt certainly fueled my quest for answers, as it does for anyone. By the way, when did doubt become a dirty word? What is wrong with doubt? Yeah, I know, the scriptures say to doubt not; the scriptures also say not to wear linen with wool. I 'doubt' that God cares much about mixing fabrics.

So, what is my philosophy of life, if not doubt? I can't really sum it up in a sound-bite, but if I had to choose one word, that word would be uncertainty. It has a somewhat negative connotation, but it's the word. I am not certain of the existence of God; neither am I certain of His non-existence. I don't know. I don't think I can know. For me, the God question is unknowable. I hope there is something beyond this life. I want to believe that there is something beyond this life. I don't know that there is something beyond this life, but, most of the time, I am content with not knowing. I guess maybe agnostic sums it up best.

One thing I do believe is that, if there is a God, He is okay with my philosophy. If He created me, this cannot have come as a surprise. And I don't feel Godly displeasure at my questioning. In fact, I believe that He applauds my efforts to seek Him. I think He is glad that I am not satisfied with pat answers to the big questions. Somewhere, out there in the vastness that is the universe, there is someone who is cheering me on, who wants me to keep searching and asking, who accepts that I am not content with God as He has been presented to me. I think. Or not.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

I Hope You're Happy, My Friend

I have a very dear friend, who has been part of my life for over 20 years now. We've referred to one another as BFFs, adopting teenage lingo because it seems to reflect how we feel about each other, even though we are very far from our teenage days. We can go for many days, even weeks, without talking, then can pick up our conversation pretty much where we left off, and talk for hours about anything and everything. She is someone I've been able to talk to about every facet of my life, stuff I don't even tell my husband. We once drove to Iowa with our daughters for a dance competition, and literally talked for 1000 miles and back. I thought she might sleep for part of the drive, but we never ran out of topics to discuss! And we both relished the opportunity to hash out life's problems and come up with what we thought were perfect solutions. I miss those days. I miss her.

Life throws many changes our way, sometimes seemingly out of the blue. Such has been my journey the past couple of years. I've discovered things about myself that have surprised me, and those closest to me. I'm no longer a practicing, devout, card-carrying, active Mormon. And I'm happier than I ever thought I'd be, joyfully embracing my beliefs, and lack thereof, allowing myself to explore wherever my heart and mind lead. My new favorite song is Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." It perfectly describes how I greet each new day, and how I feel about this world we inhabit. And the people who inhabit the planet alongside me. I feel lighter, unburdened by other's expectations, more authentic and whole. More me than I've ever been.

My friend has been very distressed at the changes in me. She is very devout, and the trials of her life over the past few years have strengthened her devotion to the church, and her testimony of the Savior. She finds great comfort and strength in actively living the LDS life, and I don't begrudge her this. To the contrary, I think she is exactly where she needs to be, surrounded by those who feel as she does, who provide for her the sense of community that she has desperately needed. In my limited understanding of God, I think it's very possible that He, or She, provides for each of us what we need to thrive here in this life. The universe has seemed to be very responsive to my pleas for help, leading me to people who have assisted me in finding my way, and I believe the same is true for her. This is where I'm supposed to be, and the church is where she is supposed to be. There is no condescension in my position, no feeling that I'm somehow more enlightened than she is. We are each simply where we need to be, where we can figure out who we are in our centers, and how to live with integrity and authenticity.

Problem is, I don't think she has reached the same conclusion. She tries, I have to give her that, but I can feel her condescension. And her grief. She has told me of the many nights she's cried herself to sleep thinking about me and my 'loss of faith'. I know that she disapproves of my position; she has told me so. She has asked, "Why can't you just believe?" And she wanted to know if I felt 'dark' now without the presence of the Holy Ghost in my life. She asked if I was really so stubborn that I could stand in front of God at the judgment day and refuse to acknowledge the truthfulness of his church and gospel. And she looks at me differently now, a look that speaks of superiority, secure in her position as one who is in the right, though still loving the lost sheep. I feel her pity, and I know she does not recognize the joy I feel in my life now. She sees only darkness where she believed there once was light. Her grief is coloring our relationship gray, at least from my perspective. I'm sure she'd say that my unbelief was the game-changer. Herein lies the dilemma. How do we maintain a friendship that was once so rich and meaningful, when we are looking at one another across a deep, expansive, seemingly unbreachable divide?

Early in my journey, I heard the song "Defying Gravity", from the musical Wicked, and it touched me deeply. I felt the words as Elphaba sang them, "Something has changed within me, something is not the same. I'm through with playing by the rules of someone else's game. Too late for second-guessing, too late to go back to sleep, it's time to trust my instincts, close my eyes and leap." I'd belt the song along with Idina Menzel while driving, moved to tears many times by the idea of calling the shots for myself, being my own authority, taking my life into my own hands and making it mine. Mine. Not a reflection of my parents, or church leaders, or friends. Taking the leap, "through accepting limits 'cuz someone says they're so..." It has been one of my favorite faith transition songs.

I heard this song again this week while listening to Pandora radio, and I heard something new this time. The relationship between Elphaba and Glinda is played out from the beginning of the song until the end. Glinda asks, much like my friend did, "why couldn't you have stayed.... I hope you're happy now... you hurt your cause forever, I hope you think you're clever." I hear my friend's voice asking me the same things. I hope you're happy now. With that tone that says, "Of course, you can't be happy now! You're so clearly on the wrong side of the issue!" And Elphaba responds with the same tone, both then singing, "Though I can't imagine how, I hope you're happy right now..." There is that great divide.

Through the course of the song, they both come to understand that what is right for one is not right for both. Elphaba needs to follow where her heart and conscience lead, as does Glinda, though they will not end up in the same place. And they come to understand that the divide isn't unbreachable after all; they can love one another from where they are, and truly hope for happiness for the other. Glinda says, "I hope you're happy, now that you're choosing this..." to which Elphaba replies, "You too-- I hope it brings you bliss." Then comes the refrain that burned itself deep into my heart, sung by both: "I really hope you get it, and you don't live to regret it. I hope you're happy in the end, I hope you're happy, my friend."

(The universe does indeed work in mysterious ways.... this song just started on Pandora radio, playing in the background while I write! Karma, indeed! And I'm in tears again!)

This is what I want. I want my friend to hope that I'm happy, and to let me go where my happiness leads, without judgment or mourning. "I hope you're happy, my friend." My friend. I want her to see my journey as legitimate, right for me. I realize that my hope may not ever come to pass, that her beliefs may not allow her to rejoice with me as I pave new ground. But, until that day comes, I will mourn our friendship with as much grief as she feels for my path. I miss her, and I'm sad as I contemplate a life without her phone calls, and Sonic runs, and long intimate conversations about anything and everything. I miss my friend, and I hope she's happy.