Pondering contemplative Mormonism

The Mormonism I experienced as a youth was kind and supportive and pervasive in its influence in my life – both on a personal level and in my community (I moved to Provo, UT when I was 12). Despite my heavy involvement in the church as a kid and teen and while serving a two-year mission, I often felt as though there was a disconnect between my spiritual self (what I felt at my core as expansive and in communion with the divine) and how I perceived spirituality was experienced and gained by those in my faith community. I couldn’t help but feel like I was somewhat spiritually delinquent. My scripture reading was too infrequent, my prayers too mundane, and though I went to church it felt more like a family habit than a time for deep spiritual communion. Now this wasn’t always the case, scripture reading, prayers, and church attendance had all produced experiences that moved and transformed me – and yet even though I knew I was a spiritual person – I didn’t really feel it in the ways and places that I was supposed to (or so I thought). Church was not a place that I felt very “spiritual” and I figured I (or the church) was doing something wrong.

After some time I let go of judging my spirituality based on if I had read a verse in the canonized scriptures that day. I realized that the concept of “pondering” gave me the chance to see my spiritual identity through a more affirming light. I recognized that I felt a communion with the spirit in a variety of places – walking, listening to music, creating some kind of art, driving, thinking, talking with friends, and just basically noticing the world around me in a particular way. I love to ponder – I can sit and think about ideas all day – and they usually wind up revolving around how better to love God and my fellow humans. And how to engage in building Zion – both internally and externally. To realize and accept that spiritual communion can and should look different for everyone was very freeing to me and helped me to expand my spiritual practice and to engage more confidently in my faith community.

When I came across it a couple of years ago, the tree of contemplative practices was a welcome manifestation of a testimony that I had already gained from the spirit. My spiritual practice is not limited to the big 3: read, pray, and go to church. In fact, those very three things that had begun to feel desolate and dying with cultural baggage and misplaced guilt, were actually a part of a much bigger system of practices that facilitate communion and connection to God and people and life itself.

The image below is titled, The Tree of Contemplative Practices. In a following post or two I’d like to explore correlations to Mormonism as it is and can be (as experienced by me of course).

The tree designed by Maia Duerr consists of roots and branches and leaves (like most trees do). The roots seem to form the base or purpose of all contemplative practices. The branches organize different practices into sub groups and the leaves consist of the specific practices named. Some of them have links to further description or a Wikipedia definition. The tree does not contain a comprehensive listing of contemplative practices.

As you notice the different branches on this tree, think about how these practices may have been present or absent in your own religious experience at various times in your life. I wonder as a Mormon, if this kind of representation of individual and communal spirituality could help us to further enrich our relationships with each other and our methodology for seeking truth and communing with the divine. Would this expansive perspective of spiritual practice be seen as something new and different (a threat to Mormon truthiness) or as a continuation of the ongoing restoration of the gospel which has been spoken about by church leaders in recent months.

 

Tree of Contemplative Practices

***This particular blog post was hastened by my listening to Adam S. Miller interviewed by John Dehlin and then the week later by Dan Wortherspoon. In the interviews, Miller (whose writings are among the most exciting in Mormon thought right now), expresses his affinity for contemplative practices. This was not surprising to me as his writings are littered all over with the admonition to trust that “now” (the present moment that is given) is all that we have and that our waking up to that is what religion is all about. His reading and constructing of Mormon theology invites us to notice how Mormonism is open and ready to embrace much of the enduring ideas and truths more fully fleshed out in eastern religions and contemplative approaches. Listen to the podcast with John Dehlin here and the one with Stephen Carter and Dan Wotherspoon here.

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How great the wisdom and the love!

How great, how glorious, how complete

Redemption’s grand design,

Where Justice, love, and mercy meet

In harmony divine!

-6th verse of the Mormon hymn: “How Great the Widsom and the Love”

In the Heavens are parents single? No! The thought makes reason stare. Truth is reason, truth eternal tells me I've a Mother there.

In this stirring Mormon hymn, Eliza R. Snow expresses her wonder at the glory and completeness of a grand plan that brings opposing characteristics of Godliness into a complete whole – harmony divine.

This harmony divine can be understood as a kind of ultimate dialectic that describes the nature of God. Rather than either merciful or just, Snow’s deity exists as both merciful and just. The Book of Mormon prophet Lehi takes this idea further in his sermon to his son Jacob recorded in 2nd Nephi chapter 2. In it all truth is seen as a divine dialectic that balances all things in one congruent whole – a compound in one.

This balance of all things can at times appear to us as moral opposites along the lines of good vs. bad, righteous vs. wicked. In the same chapter of 2nd Nephi 2, Lehi outlines the necessity of this kind of opposition. Yet if we expand our definition of opposition beyond moral opposites (good vs evil) to include competing virtues (type A good vs type B good) we confront the tragic and yet necessary contradictions that underlie the richness of the Mormon view of existence and deity.

Eugene England said it well, “Mormon theology, revealed through Joseph Smith, claims that the universe is essentially, as well as existentially, paradoxical—and is therefore irreducibly tragic.”

Terryl Givens quotes England in his book People of Paradox and goes on to paraphrase the German philosopher whose body of work articulates a comprehensive system of a dialectical universe, “In the classic conception of tragedy first articulated by Hegel, tragedy is an irredeemable loss or renunciation necessitated by the collision of competing goods. In a teeming universe where many values with equal claim to legitimacy struggle for supremacy, it is inevitable that the good will often suffer at the hands of greater or equivalent good.”

Mercy cannot rob justice. But neither is God’s justice delivered without respect to mercy. They exist together and are manifest contextually and interpreted through our limited heuristics bound in culture. God’s love for me as His child cannot rob me of my agency. His love will be manifest both through His law and His spirit according to the understanding of men/women. In this way He seeks to direct me and yet His love and hope for me is also manifest through the gift of agency and the ability to direct myself. This paradox brings us back to those first contradicting commandments given to Eve. The Mormon view that Eve’s disobedience was wise and ushered in sin and death as well as growth and progression are central to Mormonism view of the nature of God and man.

Each of us are loved children of God and are free to choose in ways that can hurt ourselves and hurt His other greatly loved children.  In fact, the conditions of our mortality make it inevitable that I will be hurt physically and emotionally and that in my struggling I will very likely hurt others whether purposefully or not. Pain and tension create the fertile ground for growth – or more simply put – no pain no gain.

In Mormonism we know of God’s nature primarily through what we know of Christ, who is part of what our theology refers to as the Godhead. We know that Christ is both humble and strong, meek and confident, merciful and just. These traits seem hard for humans to embody with a both/and approach. In Mormon theology human nature (natural man/woman) mixes with divine origins and potential. Our human nature leads us to the inevitable embodiment of corrupt versions of Godly attributes. Christ’s humility finds it’s human mirror take on fallen qualities of passivity and then to an often offended posture of perpetual victim-hood. Christ’s strength and boldness finds it’s fallen reflection in human arrogance, corruptible power, and the individual and institutional oppression of other living things (most notably the historically marginalized – women and children and minorities). In either case the natural man leads to bondage – of ourselves and others. Whereas Christ’s kingdom and way of being leads to ultimate freedom from oppression, survival from offenses, and perpetual growth – individual and collective.

The title of Snow’s hymn, “How great the wisdom and the love” is a title that succinctly portrays for me academic/philosophical and religious/spiritual sources of influence into my beginning to explore a dialectical way of being.

Wisdom:

  • Wise mind found in mindfulness practice in Eastern Religion and third wave psychotherapy modalities. Wise mind describes a dialectical balance between emotional mind and reasonable/logical mind.
  • The serenity prayer which I utilize with clients in my professional practice as a therapist. Acceptance vs. Change and the Wisdom to utilize both appropriately.
  • In Mormonism it brings to mind for me the “word of wisdom.” A temporal guideline pertaining to the nourishment of the physical body which is not separated from the nourishment of the spirit as both body and spirit join to comprise the soul of a living organism.
  • In Mormonism it also brings to mind the gift of the spirit known as the “Gift of Wisdom” – which is later characterized as not as important as the gift of charity (see below)

Love:

  • The central message of Christ’s gospel is love . Love God and love thy neighbor as thyself.
  • Brings to mind Charity – the greatest of all spiritual gifts – which endureth forever.
  • Christ’s pure  love (charity) is the mechanism of the atonement which is believed to overcome both physical death and spiritual death for all who open themselves to it.
  • My academic and professional understanding of Christ’s pure love is best identified by the term ’empathy.’ I studied empathy primarily through Carl Rogers’ writings and learn experiential empathy as a therapist and a human being in relationships. Empathy describes a way of being where one individual understands the internal frame of reference of another being as if they were experiencing the other’s experiencing without losing one’s self completely.
  • Christ’s condescension below all things “to know how to succor his people” describes this well.

In our striving toward wisdom and love we face new personal and global opportunities and obstacles.  Increasing convenience of “innovation” and the age of limitless information transforms the relational realms of our existence at intrapersonal, interpersonal, intercultural, and global levels. Information seems to have become valued above knowledge which perhaps became valued above native wisdom during the 20th century. We can point to much progress that has come with these changes in human ways of knowing and yet the impact of disembodied information replacing wisdom is not readily talked about. As we are confronted by more others we are faced with the choice to try to understand and accept others or to judge, label, and fear them.

Exploring and experiencing a dialectical way of being is my effort to increase in wisdom and love.

Be excellent to each other and party on dudes!