Category Archives: Religion

Merry Humanity to You!!

Today my mom and I engaged in what is becoming a Christmas Eve ritual for us: noshing on burgers and fries at Gott’s Roadside diner in the Napa wine region of California. We’ve spent Christmas week in Napa for the past four years, gently sipping and eating and wondering what it would be like to spend the other 360 days of the year doing the same. During previous visits I had noticed the custom at Gott’s to use pseudos for your pickup name: “Fang, your order is ready, Fang!” I’d been anticipating all year what I might call myself the next time I visited Gott’s. I settled on a category: Greek philosophers.

I’ll let my tweets record what happens next:

How did Aristotle become Eristonald, I wonder? The person taking my order didn’t flinch when I said Aristotle. Didn’t ask how to spell it; in fact just confidently keyed my chosen name into the computer. Now, as is the case in fast-food jobs, this person was quite young and it is entirely conceivable and understandable that Aristotle had yet to enter her consciousness. But why ERISTONALD?

Does she know an ERISTONALD?

How could she so confidently type in a name she was clearly only guessing at?

There’s something lovely about her phonetics (or quirky about my pronounciation.). The ERIST syllables seem to suggest another language.

Is correct spelling just an eccentricity these days? or  Is correct spelling not a core Gott’s competency?

The poor person who had to announce to the world: “Eristonald, your order is ready, Eristonald” looked at me for an explanation. When I told her it was supposed to be Aristotle, she was relieved but only shrugged.

And then it all struck me as charming. Just another lovely example of sweet human imperfection. And how silly it is for us to get caught up in conceits, however small.

Which gets me to Christmas and religion. This time of year some of us think more about religious and spiritual matters than we normally do. And the pleasure I got from the sweetness of “the mistake” made me think about one of my main problems with most religions–the insistence that the goal of existence is human perfection.

I can’t help but think how silly this idea is. Human perfection seems perfectly pointless. Our charm lies in our clumsiness. Our grace is that we forgive each other our mistakes–or at least we should. And our passion comes from the desire to improve. Without the desire to improve, I just don’t understand how we can be very human.

There’s nothing profound here, I’m sure; it’s just one of the ways that the emotional logic of mainstream religions escapes me.

Like the promise of eternal life. First, I REALLY hate being bribed into religious belief. Sure, just play upon my fears. Second, I can’t think of a worst fate for humanity than eternal life. And if it’s eternal, perfect life, I’m really trying to understand what could possibly be the point of that.

I’m much happier just trying to be a productive member of the human team, making sweet mistakes that in time others may learn from.

Merry Humanity to All.

Advertisements

Mormons Are Not The Borg

“Mormons are not The Borg.” That’s what Matthew Bowman answered (author of the new book The Mormon People) when I asked him a couple of weeks ago what was the most common misperception about Mormons. I was at a talk/signing for his new book at the plucky independent bookstore in Arlington/Falls Church: One More Page Books. (This book store in only one year has become the hub of all events literary in Northern Virginia in part because of the decline and fall of almost all the other bookstores in the region but also on account of the great attitude and hard work of the staff.)

I’ve been hesitant to write about my impressions of the book signing lest I come across as mean-spirited, snarky and/or somehow offend my Mormon friends and colleagues. But I keep thinking about the experience, largely because I do not understand the Mormon phenomena in America. (I think a lot about what I do not understand. Are there people who only think a lot about what they do understand?) Last night I was watching this excellent (but more than an hour-long) interview of Brian Dawson, an ex-Mormon who is star and producer of the Mr. Deity video podcast series. (If you haven’t seen these they are a real treat: funny and yet sophisticated inquiry into what the God stories really mean. It tackles all the questions you’ve always wanted to ask. I promise.)

Back to the greatest misperception about Mormons. (Now I consider this my favorite trick question–the one you ask when you really, really want to know the truth. So for example, if I’m interviewing someone for a job, I often use it when I want to really find out someone’s greatest weakness. If you ask someone that question in an interview, they’ll undoubtedly answer with a weakness that is invariably a strength: I work too hard is popular. But if you ask someone what the most common misperception is about them, they’ll often say something like: Well, that I’m not really a people person. BINGO!) Generally speaking, there is no such thing as a misperception.

So when I asked Dr. Bowman to volunteer the greatest misperception about Mormons first he said he didn’t know what to say because there were so many. But then he quickly offered that the Mormons were seen as The Borg. Which wasn’t at all the case.

The Borg

At that moment I looked around the rather small space of One More Page Books, which was filled with, by their count, 85 people–the largest turnout they’d ever had for a book talk/signing. I had arrived early that evening because Author Whisperer @TNebeker had told me they were expecting a large turnout. Nevertheless at about ten minutes till seven, there were maybe 4 people waiting for the talk, including the author. In the next 8 minutes, the other 81 appeared almost instantaneously, like…well…The Borg. The crowd represented all age groups, from teenagers to the author’s uncle but as best as I could tell I was the only non-Mormon in the room.

What struck me right away about the group, what has always struck me when I’m around Mormons, is how positive they are. I’m one of the I believe growing legion of non-practicing Catholics, and I can tell you from experience that when  Catholics are together in a large group they cannot exactly be described as positive and cheerful. (Bowman by the way thought the Mormon and Catholic religions had many similarities, more so than Mormons and Protestants.) But the Mormons were uniformly pleased one of their own had written this important book that was being seriously reviewed. Their questions reflected their pride in their religion and culture, and gentle in-jokes. Afterwards several of the Mormon missionaries (I could tell because they were wearing badges) approached me to ask if I wanted more information about the Mormon church or to further elaborate on answers to my other questions. (Q: Why do Mormons appear to be so prosperous? A: If that’s true, it’s because, unlike members of other religions Mormons become more religious as they become wealthier!!!) But when I told them that I wasn’t interested and wasn’t really a believer, they couldn’t have been kinder or more generous. (Unlike many other Christian evangelicals I’ve experienced who react to a demurral much like the Toro reacts to the Red Cape.)

So I left the event more puzzled than when I entered.  Many of the questions from Bowman’s Mormon audience reflected what appeared to be real inner spiritual experiences. (Did you feel the hand of the Divinity while you were writing?) I left the event with the same respect for the Mormons I’ve always had. Considerable.

And yet when I listened to the interview with Brian Dawson, the former Mormon now Atheist who speaks quite eloquently about his spiritual journey, I’m again confronted with what I consider to be the profound mysteries of the Mormon Church. The Book of Mormon ‘s purported historical accounts of the pre-Columbian civilizations and conditions of North America have now, to the satisfaction of many, been disproven. (Most recently, DNA tests show no trace of semitic-linked genes in indigenous North American populations.) The theology, which is complex and still developing, posits a pre-life and after-life that are significantly different from that of most other monotheistic religions. (In my admittedly brief scan of Mormon apologetics prior to writing this, I was struck by their argument that critics must remember Mormonism is still a young religion, less than 200 years old. After all, Islam certainly did not have its act together in the 8th century. The comparison was valid…and surprising.)

By the way, the Brian Dawson interview I’ve linked to is part of the Mormon Stories podcasts. These interviews feature prominent Mormons talking about their faith. From what I could tell all the others interviewed were true believers. I can’t imagine any other denomination that would allow a non-believer more than an hour of quality air-time to express his opinions. Mormons strike me always as very secure in what they believe.

My puzzlement over the Mormon religion also affects my views about Mitt Romney. (Bowman had heard that John Huntsman is actually a non-practicing Mormon,) Romney famously describes himself as a man of data. And yet he says he is proud of his Mormon faith, which implies he accepts the founding documents of the Church, which appear to me to be data-free. What can I conclude from this? Either he is not really the empiricist that he claims to be (i.e. he really believes) or he is in fact somewhat of a religious hypocrite.

Well, I’ve rambled enough. I’ve been thinking about the Mormon religion for almost 40 years now. (I went to high school in West Texas where we were always fending off their ministries.)

I’m afraid I have yet to achieve clarity.