On Forgiveness and Liberation

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One of the significant downsides of internet communications broadly, and social media specifically, is the perpetuation of what some have termed “outrage culture.”  That is, a culture driven by a selfish need to feel angry, bitter, indignant, self-righteous, and enlightened.  Individual “tweets” of 140 characters or less drive major primetime news coverage where not just celebrities are condemned and criticized, but also regular folks who may have had the audacity to voice an unpopular opinion or — *gasp* — commit some faux pas perceived as offensive, insensitive, hateful, you name it.

This intentional outrage, the eagerness which often attends it and the apparent Schadenfreude this faux outrage produces, has caused me to ponder both the nature of anger, and the necessity of forgiveness.  I should state quite clearly that there is a place for anger and outrage; these emotional responses can potentially drive us to combat injustice and come to the defense of the helpless or oppressed.  Outrage and anger are incredibly powerful emotions.  They can easily overshadow our other cognitive faculties such as reason and compassion.  In the heat of anger many of us have said or done things we later regret; sometimes quite deeply.  As such, our willingness to embrace, rather than eschew anger, must be tempered by a desire to remain in control of both our actions and our minds.  It is far too easy to let anger overtake and engulf us; depriving us of our ability to think clearly or morally.  Again, this is not to say that we should never be angry or outraged.  But these are the “nuclear option”, so to speak.  An important tool to have but destructive and counterproductive if used inappropriately or to the point of excess wherein anger and outrage lose all substantive meaning.

It is easy to be angry when we feel personally wronged, disrespected, or insulted.  Especially so when we feel our personal injury has been intentionally inflicted as some sort of punitive insult.  And, even when we have been wronged unintentionally, we may still feel anger and frustration.  When we believe we have been insulted, it is simple and rather effortless to fall into the mindset of ancient Israel wherein “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” was a driving ethical principle.  As Ghandi once observed, if we were to accept this precept of reciprocation, the whole world would eventually be without both teeth and eyes.  Why?  Because any injury inflicted on us — based on our own previous behavior or not — will always be perceived as injustice; an act to reciprocate in kind.  Thus the pattern continues endlessly with disputing parties hurling insults and accusations; each convinced that their position is the correct one being completely unable to see that injustice and insult can rarely be pinned on just one individual or group.  Rather, injustice is often a vicious cycle of anger, insults, and the desire for revenge or vindication.  And yet, even when these things do come, we often find that we still feel slighted; believing that the apology, vindication, retribution, what have you, was insufficient.  Our so-called opponents feel the same way and thus entering back into the cycle of trading insult for insult is all too easy.  All too human.

The root of the problem, then, is not insult or anger.  As human beings we have very little control of what happens to us but we have complete control over our reaction to any insult or injustice.  The Buddha expressed the idea this way in the Pali Sallatha Sutta using the example of a painful physical sensation followed by mental duress:

When an untaught worldling is touched by a painful (bodily) feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. He thus experiences two kinds of feelings, a bodily and a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by a dart and, following the first piercing, he is hit by a second dart. So that person will experience feelings caused by two darts. It is similar with an untaught worldling: when touched by a painful (bodily) feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. So he experiences two kinds of feeling: a bodily and a mental feeling.

The experience of a “noble disciple” is notably different:

But in the case of a well-taught noble disciple, O monks, when he is touched by a painful feeling, he will not worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. It is one kind of feeling he experiences, a bodily one, but not a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by a dart, but was not hit by a second dart following the first one. So this person experiences feelings caused by a single dart only. It is similar with a well-taught noble disciple: when touched by a painful feeling, he will no worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. He experiences one single feeling, a bodily one.

Jesus too, similarly taught that, in wisdom, we may choose a response to insult that nullifies or eradicates internal pain and perceived injury:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (Matthew 5:38-41)

And:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48 NRSV)

Above anything else, both the Buddha and the Christ have taught us that we are in complete control of our own reaction to insult, injustice or injury.  If we unwisely choose to react to insult in kind, we will do nothing but amplify the negative and bring nothing of any value, whatsoever, into our lives.  Elsewhere in the Pali Canon in the Brahmajala Sutta  (part of what are known as the Long Discourses of the Buddha), we are told of a story of monks traveling with the Buddha as he moved from Rajagaha to Nalanda.  Part of this company was a teacher, Suppiya, and his student, Brahmadatta. Throughout the journey Suppiya criticized the Buddha and his teachings while Brahmadatta offered vigorous praise.  When the company of monks reached their destination they began discussing Suppiya’s criticism of the Buddha and began to counter it by heaping great praise upon the “Exalted One, he who knows and sees, the Worthy One, the perfectly enlightened Buddha.”

When the Buddha heard what these monks were discussing he came to join them and said:

If, bhikkhus, others speak in dispraise of me, or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Sangha, you should not give way to resentment, displeasure, or animosity against them in your heart. For if you were to become angry or upset in such a situation, you would only be creating an obstacle for yourselves. If you were to become angry or upset when others speak in dispraise of us, would you be able to recognize whether their statements are rightly or wrongly spoken?

Here the Buddha reminds us of the absolute futility of resentment, displeasure, and animosity.  Harboring such feelings only creates unnecessary “obstacles[s] for [ourselves]” and robs us of the ability to see and speak clearly.  The Buddha counseled members of the Sangha (Buddhist monks) to only answer criticism (or praise) with dispassionate truth.  The Buddha understood, and Christ later taught, that it is the truth that will ultimately make us free.  Free from the shackles of anger and resentment.  Free from the need to “keep score” against those who speak or act against us.

To create a lasting and meaningful harmony between ourselves and those who may oppose or insult us, we must be willing to unloose ourselves from pointless anger and forgive.  In a seeming paradox, it is the act of forgiving and praying for our opponents and “enemies” that is the most empowering;  an act which brings internal harmony regardless of the actions or words of others.

Substantive Belief

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As Latter-day Saints we may find ourselves falling into the trap of searching for a “correct” understanding of the Gospel in an abstract sense; as if our abstract beliefs or notions are of some great importance in themselves.  In truth, we best come to know God and the Gospel through our collective and individual practice.  Reading the 23rd Psalm is one thing.  But experiencing God’s love as we “walk through the darkest valley” is something else altogether (Psalm 23:4 NRSV).  It is the experience of practiced theology — an experience with God — which creates lasting spiritual ties not just to the divine, but to each other as well.

Seeking direct experience with divinity sits at the very heart of Mormonism.  From the earliest converts to those whom the missionaries teach today, all have been invited not just consider the Book of Mormon cereberaly, but more importantly — and most essentially — to seek out and receive a direct spiritual experience regarding those things which have been pondered with a “sincere heart” and “real intent.”  As a result, Mormon faith is not based on a reasoned analysis and careful scrutiny of empirical evidence as this is but one, of many, methods employed to ponder and consider questions of truth.  This is both an individual and collective experience.  Thus, Mormon pastoral theology cannot be based solely on logic and reason but rather, it must be borne of our desire to experience God; directly, with our families and ward members, and without mediation.

And yet, Mormon culture drives us towards abstract correctness wherein tremendous value is placed on certain “facts” which may have very little bearing on the direct experience of divinity.  It may well be that God the Father has a body of flesh and bones but this conception is both illusory and fleeting.  When we face moments of darkness or difficulty we do not yearn for an abstract idea of God but rather, we seek an experience with divine and compassionate love.  The knowledge or belief that God is an anthropomorphic being who resides in both space and time is no source of comfort;  it does not bring peace and, in itself, is certainly no indication of God’s steadfast love — a love most often demonstrated by the charity of others.  This is not to say, of course, that abstract beliefs are unimportant or hollow.  Indeed, our abstract beliefs may strongly influence both our self-conception and moral choices.  But we must not lose sight of the motivating force at work.  It is not the belief or conception which motivates our faith but rather, it is the underlying principle of what that belief represents which is of ultimate importance.  In other words, a belief in the anthropomorphic nature of God has no practical or real-world impact absent its implications.  Understanding God as anthropomorphic — an exalted man — helps us to feel more connected to Him and gain confidence in His love and willingness to answer sincere prayers.

This manner of approaching religious belief can be turned on its head and be used to counter beliefs in their abstraction.  For example, many Christians feel and experience the love of God, not because God is anthropomorphic but rather, because he is seen as a loving, kind, father-figure who in his infinite goodness yearns to comfort those who approach Him in humility and faith.  Mainline Christian beliefs about the nature of God are generally trinitarian and as such could not be more different than beliefs held by Latter-day Saints.  But both Latter-day Saints and mainline Christians approach God seeking answers and comfort; an experience.  It becomes clear, then, that abstract beliefs, when it really comes down to it, are meant to imply or convey certain meaning.  This is their essential, practical purpose.  Therefore, two very different very beliefs may, in fact, imply a single deeper, experiential truth.  It is for this reason that Latter-day Saints should be most concerned with what their beliefs imply rather than on if these beliefs are abstractly correct in isolation.

To approach belief in this way, however is to work against our most basic and common modern assumptions.  Indeed, it goes against the unfortunate dichotomy often presented within the institutional Church of “it’s either a fraud, or it’s the greatest thing in the world!”  Such a dichotomy is not only false, it is anathema to faith.  In the minds of many, for example, the Book of Mormon has been proven as a clear product of the 19th century.  It is only a minute handful of scholars and intellectuals familiar with ancient America who maintain that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text.  So what is Latter-day Saint to do?  When 99.9% of scholars adhere to the idea of an ahistorical Book of Mormon should we simply throw up our hands and proclaim all of Mormonism fraudulent?  Or, do we need to wait for 100% agreement before such a conclusion is warranted?  My point, of course, is that belief in the divinity of the Book of Mormon is a matter of faith, not fact.  It is the experience of the Book of Mormon that brings joy to the lives of Latter-day Saints, not the several evidences offered by LDS scholars to support its plausibility.  Clearly, then, our faith must not be based on empirical evidence or arguments for plausibility.  To base our faith on such would be to 1) create the impossible task of defining just how much empirical evidence is required to retain faith and 2) create expectations which can only serve to erode faith, not support it.  And besides, faith is believing and hoping for things unseen and unknown.

Faith, and our understanding of the beliefs borne of that faith, is ever-changing.  It adjusts to new circumstances, new information, and various challenges.  Beliefs and conceptions change.  But what remains is a core, foundational faith which adheres to certain broad, and I would argue, holy principles.  I believe a significant portion of this essential core is lived, practical, pastoral theology; understanding human need in the present and acting to meet those needs.  It is only by acting on our beliefs — or rather, their implications — that these beliefs are stripped of abstraction and become substantive.

Apologetic Ethics: Defending the Faith Without Losing Your Soul

This past weekend I had the opportunity to present a paper entitled “Apologetic Ethics” at the annual Sunstone Symposium held in Salt Lake City, Utah.

I have posted the full text of this paper here, at Academia.edu

Many thanks to Loyd Ericson, Managing Editor at Greg Kofford Books, for providing a thoughtful and insightful critique/response.