Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Way Things Ought to Be

Just now I was reading through a defense of the church’s doctrines and policies on gay marriage written by a believing member. As I read, it was difficult for me to put myself in a frame of mind in which the arguments presented made sense, and I began to contemplate why that was. Lately, it’s seemed to me more and more that my reasons for disagreeing with the church have changed. Originally, it was historical reasons. Joseph Smith and polyandry, blacks and the priesthood, the teachings of Brigham Young, and more inspired me to question the legitimacy of the church’s truth claims. Now the history matters less to me than the approach to living inherent in orthodox Mormonism. The further I step away from it, the more harmful it seems.

Let’s take a step back and think of the human experience broadly. Slowly over the course of the first years of life, a sense of self begins to dawn within us. Toddlers begin to understand what it means for something to be “mine.” They wake up to find themselves a living, breathing self in a human body. Freud divides their newly developing psyche into three parts: the id, superego, and ego. The poet Rumi often referred to the what Freud calls the id as the “animal-self” that lives in nafs, or body-driven compulsions. The superego is the set of prohibitions and admonitions ingrained into the child by parents and others as they grow up; it’s a socially constructed conscience. The ego is the battleground of the id and the superego. It’s the consciously active area of the mind that makes sense of and orders daily interaction with the senses, the nafs, and the conscious.

We live and build our societies within the confines of a material world. Our bodies, too, are material. And yet, we are also a symbolic self—we understand ourselves in terms of the ego. This creates the primal dichotomy—the self that is both material and symbolic, both subject and object, able to choose, and yet subject to its environment. We do not have control over the laws that govern the material world. We do not have ultimate control over the conditions of our environment. But we do have at least a degree of control over the system of symbols we construct to create our worlds of understanding, social interaction, and personal development.

That’s a large claim—that we have control over the meanings of words and systems of morality we inherit. A large part of the history of western philosophy has been an argument over this question—is moral law predetermined? Or is it created? The traditional position of Christianity is that it is predetermined by God. The answer to the question “what ought to be done?” has already been decided, and it is our job to discover the answer that is ultimately true. This position of moral essentialism, however, seems to me to be weakened significantly by examining different moral systems over time.

Different moral systems have different prohibitions and admonitions—a completely different construction of the superego. A man living in late imperial China would likely feel neither guilt nor shame about having extra-marital sex with either a man or a woman, but if he did not produce male offspring with a legal wife to continue the family name and bring honor to his ancestors, he would feel deeply ashamed. A monk living an ascetic life in medieval Europe would feel no shame at producing no offspring, but would be deeply shamed at having sexual relations. The difference is not in the nafs; though varied, biology produces similar urges in the “animal-spirit” of all people. The difference is in the cultural construction of symbols: the construction of the superego, which in turn changes the experience of ego.

Many people receive inherited systems of morality without question. They have very clear images of what is right and what is wrong. Questioning these systems can be very psychologically taxing, because it involves questioning a part of our own psyches. But doing so is deeply rewarding. When we question the framework of the superego, we learn that it was inherited, but also constructed. Because its nature is fundamentally that of a construction, it can also be altered.

Because we have control over our systems of morality, we also bear responsibility for them. If our superego and id interact in a way that creates negative outcomes, we bear responsibility for them. If our system of thinking marginalizes people, creates anxiety, stress, or fear, then we bear the responsibility.

And this brings me to my ultimate qualm with the morality of Mormonism: the prohibitions and admonitions are is seen as determined and hence cannot be questioned. Any negative outcomes are placed as the fault of the individual, only increasing the shame and guilt that is already caused by the system of thought itself. And I don’t just mean this for gay and lesbian Mormons. It works for everyone. It creates unrealistic expectations on the path to "perfection," and then makes you feel guilty if you don't achieve them. The system views itself as the end-all -be-all of truth, and therefore forces the individual to regard other systems as less pure, less holy, and less true. It limits the span of human creativity, because it does not allow for one of the most important types of creativity—moral and theological creativity.

When presented with the question of how to best survive, life answered in a million different ways. It answered with bushes, mosquitoes, elephants, and sagebrush. It answered with cherry blossoms, humpbacked wales, elk, and humans. When confronted with how to make sense of the world, the human mind answered in a thousand ways, with Paganism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, Hare Krishna, Islam, Christianity, and Mormonism. Each environment demands a different ecosystem, and each species adapts in unique, unprecedented ways. Mormonism in its current form is like an animal that looks out at all of creation and says “there is only one answer to the question. All living things were intended to be like me. I must change all ecosystems to fit the demands of my own.”

The conclusion I have come to in my study of history and of the natural world is that there is no way things ought to be. We are the creators of our societies. We choose our systems of morality. We shape the superego.

And so reading explanations and justifications of the church’s stance on one issue or another just don’t make sense to me anymore—they’re like birds telling fish they should have wings or like trees telling chipmunks to grow leaves. They just don't make sense.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic post! As someone who also loves the logical, scientific explanations for life, morals, etc., I can empathize with how you felt reading the defense of the church's stance. It's endlessly fascinating to me that a devout believer in orthodox Mormonism (or any religion, I guess) could read your post and shake his or her head in frustration and/or disdain, just as you would reading theirs. Our ability to create truths and discount all other information presented to us astounds me. (Confirmation bias?)