Monday, July 19, 2021

Spiritual Scientist

Like many latter-day saints, I was taught in the church that the way to know if something is true or not is if it feels right. In talks and lessons I was told that the Holy Ghost speaks with a voice that we feel more than we hear, and so I learned how to "listen with my heart" and to trust my feelings. I believed that I could feel my way back to Heavenly Father. Growing up happy in the gospel as an easygoing and sensitive young boy, I quickly felt that the gospel was true, and that was enough. It was, I suppose, a great way to start learning about faith.

However, by the time I was a teenager, I started having some new feelings. These were confusing feelings, because they went against the teachings of the church, the scriptures, and the covenant path that I was expected to follow. These feelings were sexual attractions towards men. If feelings were really the way back to God, what on earth was I supposed to do with these ones?

I soon found myself at a crossroads between two contradictory feelings:  my love for the church on the one hand, and my desire for a same-sex relationship on the other. Choosing between them was excruciatingly difficult. The two feelings seemed irreconcilable. How could I choose which feeling was right? Finding a way forward meant I had to look for a different path to find truth besides relying solely on my feelings to point the way.

I was just starting seminary when all this happened, and in the scriptures I made a surprising discovery:  they didn't teach me to rely on my feelings. The scriptures did speak about feelings, of course—the "gospel of peace" (Ephesians 6) and the "happy state of those who keep the commandments" (Mosiah 2:41) 'the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace" (Galatians 5:22) etc. But those feelings corresponded to a confirmation, one that generally comes "after the trial of thy faith." (Ether 12:6) Feelings from the Holy Ghost can be a part of the process of learning truth by faith, but spiritual feelings are not the process itself.

So what is the process?

In the scriptures, I read that God invites me to "prove [Him] now herewith" (Malachi 3:10) and to "experiment on the word" (Alma 32:7) in order to find out for myself "if these things are not true." (Moroni 10:4) The invitation to find spiritual truths sounded not all that different from the scientific method I was learning about in high school.

I began to realize that living by faith is not always the same as following your heart. While expressing and receiving validation for my feelings in healthy ways was and is an important part of my mental health, it is not the way to accurately measure spiritual truths. We are taught that God speaks to us in our "mind and in our heart (D&C 8:2) and both methods are sources of external evidence that go beyond regular and expected human emotions. I read that faith is "the evidence of things that are not seen." (Hebrews.11:1) Faith is the "substance" of my hope, not merely hopeful feelings that come and go. 

In saying this, I don't mean that faith is meant to invalidate our feelings, but to contextualize them, to help us to see ourselves beyond what we may feel at a particular moment. To a teenage boy, all this pointed me to evidences outside of myself, and motivated me to seek for faithful ways to reconcile my testimony with my sexuality. I did not have to choose one over the other. This empowered me at a time when I was trapped in a cycle of crippling fear and anxiety about who I was.

I have now come to believe that we do a disservice when we tell members who are struggling with their faith to simply follow their feelings. What if they deal with depression or anxiety? What if they feel like there is no place for them in the church? What if they feel like Heavenly Father couldn't possibly love them because of something they did? What if they feel not good enough? What if they feel disillusioned when they read criticisms about the church? How do we help each other reconcile feelings when they conflict with the gospel of Jesus Christ?

I believe that we must do better at teaching what faith really is—that it is not a feeling. It is a proactive choice to move forward in the dark, often without a clear witness of what the outcome will be. It is not about requiring or expecting a particular emotion as we do this. Sometimes we feel nothing, or even negative emotions as we move forward in the gospel—at least initially. While we should find ways to work through our feelings, whatever they may be, and seek to validate them as needed, sometimes with the help of a mental health professional, we can and must also learn to separate our mortal, transient feelings from our faith. When spiritual questions arise, as they are bound to do, God's invitation for us is to become a spiritual scientist with Him, and to engage directly with the evidence for ourselves. Like science, questions without answers is how the process of faith begins.

C.S. Lewis wrote that faith is "the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods." This is good counsel, especially for me at a time in my life when my feelings were frequently tied to my hormones. My feelings about God and His love for me, or that my church is guided by revelation, or that keeping my covenants is worth it—all of these have fluctuated greatly. The strength of my faith is not measured in my ability to feel blissful about something indefinitely. I am a human being. Even now, sometimes my testimony burns brightly within me and I feel it strongly, and other times it dims down to almost nothing. My feelings can be easily affected by what I read in my social media feed on a particular day, or by the actions or doubts of those close to me. But as I consider the evidence, giving it more weight than I do my unstable feelings and mortal biases, my perspective changes. I go from passive feeler and consumer of faith to an active participant in my own spiritual experiment—changing from an object to be acted upon, to an agent to act. (2 Nephi 2:26)

I believe strongly that science and faith are both evidence based belief systems. The evidence is measured differently of course, with faith being the gathering of "evidence of things not seen"—the kind of things that may end up in a personal journal, as opposed to observable results that may end up in a scientific journal—but they both take us outside of our own bias, attempting to suspend our own preconceived ideas in order to measure the results that come only after rigorous testing. Furthermore, faith and science both invite others to replicate the experiment to determine the validity of the findings.

In both science and faith, evidence is not the same as proof. This is an important distinction, because they can be easily confused. It is neither the intent of science nor religion to prove anything. Anyone looking for proof in either the scientific world or religious one can lose their way in the experiment, and usually end up relying on simplistic narratives, avoidance of difficult questions, and a reliance on prepackaged platitudes and dogmatic certainties. This happens when we fall off either side of faith, as either rigid non-believer or rigid believer.

The underlying cause for demanding proof is always pride, and both disciples and scientists are vulnerable to it. If you refuse to change your mind or your heart in spite of growing evidence, you are no longer participating in the experiment with the humility that both discipleship and scientific research demands.

Nothing is ever settled, and one always recognizes the possibility of human error, but just as a scientist cannot throw away the weight of centuries of scientific evidence to make his own way, neither can the faithful treat lightly the weight of the recorded scriptural evidence from the great spiritual scientists: Moses, Isaiah, Nephi, Joseph Smith, and of course, the teachings of Jesus Christ.  There is unity in their theories and incredible evidence to their works, and to ignore them in order to create one's own theory for living is the spiritual equivalent of dismissing Einstein as irrelevant in order to write your own equations and develop your own theories of moral relativity.

In my experience, when there are contradictions in faith, as there always are, this is an indication there is a need for further testing and experimenting. I have dealt firsthand with many troubling things in the church, and I have grappled with uncertainty and inconsistency for many years. Everyone must address them in their own way as they come up in their own lives. For me, these inconsistencies and contradictions are an invitation to move out of the classroom and into the laboratory. Go to it, Christopher. Try the Lord. See if He delivers on His promises. 

These crises of faith may even be a sign that God believes in you enough to go beyond the theory of the classroom in order to do your own fieldwork. After a long struggle, the moment when we get to shout "Eureka!" for ourselves after grappling with a painful question becomes even more sweet and meaningful than if the answers were handed to us without ever having to engage in the process for ourselves.

The scriptures and living prophets provide us with the evidence we are asked to consider. It is the "evidence of things not seen." It isn't just whether we feel it is true or not. It is a matter of historical record. For example, the Book of Mormon itself is adamant that it is not just a book about feelings. It was extracted as tangible evidence written on gold that God remembers to keep His promises to gather His people. While we can believe or disbelieve the evidence, we cannot discount its existence.

I worry sometimes that many, especially faithful church members, talk about the whole gospel experience as some kind of "feeling" rather than simply accepting faith for what it is: an invitation to engage head on with the spiritual evidence offered to us. Faith is step 1 in the gospel, to study and "experiment on the word. The feelings and witness of the Holy Ghost do not normally come until step 4. This is a cycle that repeats itself with every new hypothesis that arises in our lives.

I also admit to feeling alarmed, even more so lately, that the religious people around me have even gone so far as to make their feelings the measuring stick for scientific claims, and even the key to interpreting current events. There is a reason why church members are frequently duped by baseless nutrition fads, vaccine hesitancy, and conspiracy theories. More than ever before, evidence is losing its importance in our society as we learn to filter it through our feelings and preconceived beliefs, preferring to believe only in the things that resonate best with us and rejecting the rest. Perhaps this is because we have been taught at church to believe that our feelings have more weight than the evidence. But how a person feels about controversial topics such as vaccines, or the presidential election, or a piece of spurious Mormon folklore, church history, or whether the earth is flat or round, is irrelevant. Spiritual truth, but also and especially scientific and historical truth, is ultimately determined by evidence, not by our feelings.

For my part, I take seriously the evidence of the historical record in the scriptures. I have read the witness of those that handled the golden plates and I believe their words have weight that cannot be dismissed. I also have read the written record of my grandparents and other ancestors who have gone before me, men and women who have tested the theories of the gospel against all odds and found them to be good, and wrote about their experiences. I have the monthly witness of people who live in my little neighborhood who get up on fast and testimony meeting to (hopefully) share real evidence from their own lives the truths they have learned in their own spiritual experiments. When my experience contradicts their evidence (which it does more than a few times) I can do my own fieldwork and find out for myself "whether it be from God, or whether [they] speak for [themselves.]" (John 7:17) Sometimes I change my mind, and sometimes I have to wait for others to change theirs.

For me, being gay and a faithful member of the church has been a very tricky experiment. I learned early on that while I do not necessarily need to follow my feelings, they cannot and should not be ignored. My attractions to men have not changed, and likely will not ever change as long as I have a mortal body to feel them with. To be clear, I am not advocating that anyone stuff away their feelings in order to live by faith. These feelings are what make us human, and denying them can lead to very real psychological damage. But, for me, there is always a way to keep my feelings "within the bounds the Lord has set."

By following along in this gospel experiment, I have learned that there is a kind of freedom that comes from "schooling my feelings" rather than letting them take control of my life. I interpret that phrase to mean I can take my feelings to school with me in my discipleship classroom in order to study them. I can be curious about them, let myself feel them without feeling shame, and I read in the scriptures and from the words of living prophets about other similar tests of faith, and see how my "truth" fits into the other truths I am learning about in the gospel. I have discovered some surprising results.

The first finding is that the church, speaking both generally as a culture and also ecclesiastically is, most definitely, not always right. Leaders and even prophets themselves can sometimes go amiss, especially about secular things—things like the age of the earth, the origin of man, or the origin of sexual attractions. We don't believe in infallible prophets, but for some reason we act like we do. 

Instead, I have learned that God will "yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God." That means that incorrect doctrines, beliefs, and traditions will necessarily fall away and be replaced with more revealed truths. I do not have insight on what those changes will be, but I do believe this will be a painful process, and pride exists now in the church as it has at every other time when God has had a people. We cling to false gods and wicked traditions of our fathers as much as any other Israelite nation, and God will teach us, one way or another, how to repent. Refusing to give up these "wicked traditions" will scatter us as it always does, and regrettably it usually ends up hurting the most vulnerable. At times, they have hurt me. The church's policies, and especially the cultural practices in the church about homosexuality, past and present, have sometimes been wrong. There is clear evidence to support that. And so there is no reason to believe that we have it all figured out now.

But I have a growing body of evidence, supported and cross referenced by the literature, that I truly have a resurrected Savior who knows how to succor His people. I have evidence that God does His work of salvation in this church in spite of the imperfect people who run it. I have evidence that the "power of godliness" is manifest in the ordinances of the priesthood. (D&C 84:20) I have the witness of many miracles in my own life that I have recorded and refer to when my feelings try to take me away from my covenants and my Savior. I have a considerable amount of evidence, from my own life and from the records of my ancestors, that keeping temple covenants brings blessings. I have a growing witness that I am truly a son of God, and that I fit into His divine patterns of family even with my same-sex attraction. 

On the other hand, I also have a large body of evidence that not everyone in the LGBT community finds their place in this church. In fact, most do not. Right now, the evidence suggests to me that this is not due to Christ's failure as a shepherd, or due to the lack of faith of latter-day saints with SSA or are transgendered (the faithfulness of our LGBT members who try their hardest to stay is overwhelming) but it is mostly due to our faith communities' lack of charity, our many insensitive cultural practices and teachings, and, regrettably, our persistent, lingering homophobia.

All this is based on my own experience. I recognize that there is enough evidence for another person to arrive at a different conclusion. There is more experimenting to be done. But I think, for now, God is content to leave some things open to interpretation. Too much evidence one way could be taken as proof, and this would remove our need to exercise faith and be tested, and the way we interpret and interact with the evidence often says more about us than it does about the evidence itself. The evidences we choose to ignore or step over in order to support our own ideas can condemn both the believer and non-believer equally well. I also recognize that as a gay man who has chosen to marry and been able to stay committed to his wife and children, I have considerable bias that shows up in my findings.

My feelings, all of them, are still an important part of who I am. I am grateful for the problem that brought me to test my initial hypothesis, which was to find out if a gay person like myself can belong to the body of Christ as much as a straight one. Nothing is proven yet, but I have more evidence now than I did when I started. I also have evidence that the church will need to make adjustments, some of them major ones, in order to make this happen better.

But in the end, Christ's invitation is always for all to "come and see." Come see the bubbling test tubes of a consecrated life, and look into the microscopes of His laboratory for yourself. Take samples from your own soul and bring them to the lab to decode them and decipher and see how they fit into Christ's tapestry of atonement. Read deeply and consistently from the published and peer-reviewed literature of the scriptures, whose authors "delight in plainness." They are written for us to understand. Come fit your story into the greater gospel conversation, and see if it broadens your understanding of eternal truths.

Whether it is same-sex attraction, depression, anxiety, or any other lens that comes with a particular set of feelings that affects the way we see the world, we always need more spiritual scientists. I believe that taking our place as scientists of faith will help us reconcile every valid and human feeling with the gospel of Christ to create a more perfect and inclusive theory of faith, one that will lead us toward greater unity.

There are some clinical trials that seem to test us beyond our mortal limits, but I have personal evidence that we are working under our Savior Jesus Christ, who is the greatest scientist of all, the Creator of the world. He has already worked out for each of us the unique equations in Gethsemane, and He won't give up on any of us until we all get it right. I believe this with all my mind, and also with all my heart.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Hiking after the Fire

The first thing that hits you is the silence. There is no buzzing, no nattering or background chirping. The trees might as well be posts in the ground. Even four years later, they are locked in a silent scream. The experience is inorganic. It could be the moon. It is the silent numbness that comes before the mourning. It is apocalyptic, like the eerie silence after a nuclear bomb, of twisted metal and melted glass.

It is hard to describe the difference between this kind of silence and the one that existed before it, the quiet growing. It is a sound that is felt more than heard. How does one measure the decibels of a thousand inaudible conversations between trees, or the quiet construction sounds of light being framed diligently into lumber? How might you record the sound of a butterfly's wings as it zips from flower to flower in the dappled light of a meadow? Or calculate the silent tension of animals hiding in the thick undergrowth, watching and waiting? All I can say is you notice it when it's gone.

I wander off the path for a while and note that, even now, it is like walking through an ashtray. My son takes considerable joy out of kicking the soot up, and it follows behind us like a mist. The delicious smells of decay and growing, of sharp pine and humus, are replaced with stale memories. All oxygen that flows into our lungs is imported. The air is without satisfaction. The welcome shade of the trees is gone, and we are exposed to the scorching sky.

I think to myself, How impatient, how unyieldingly cruel is a forest fire! I see how it leapt from tree to tree, sparing none, no time to fully consume any of them. It leaves them all behind, humiliated and with their skin still burnt and hanging. It has no regard for centuries of painstaking labor. It is a stone through a stained glass window, an arsonist let loose at an art gallery, a pillager without mercy. It takes so little time, so little effort to undo all that has been done here. Entire ecosystems falter to its destructive power, and the wildlife dwindles. Fireweed rushes in like a uniform to cover the shame of the naked earth that was once teeming with so much diversity. A forest in a fire crumples like a Rembrandt or a van Gogh.

But a forest is not really a piece of art anyway. It is a drama. Every child knows that both failure and redemption is written into the storyline. You can't have a good story without the struggle and the setback. Every villain has their day, every forbidden fruit is eventually eaten, and every child of God will yield to the animal inside them. But with fires so in life, there is always a resolution, however long or painful it might be.

Time is grace, and seeds that lay dormant for years awake to weave new tapestries out of ancient patterns. Saplings rise all around me directly beside the bones of their ancestors, and old things are made new. Nutrients that were locked away in the forest canopy are returning again to the matrix of the soil to give life back to the young. Earth proves her power once more because in a forest there can be no real Armageddon. Only rebirth.

You can always find hope in a forest.

Nevertheless, it has taken me four years to write down the nagging question I have held onto ever since I beheld the aftermath: What if this is all more than metaphor? The Kenow fire in Waterton was caused by chance lightning that fell from the sky, but I still remember how dry it was that year, and how long the clouds held onto the rain. What if the fire wasn't meant to be? What if it was our fault? This year is already so dry. Record breakingly so. Is there a lightning bolt from heaven in store for us? Do fires, floods, earthquakes, wars and rumors of wars, seas heaving themselves beyond their bounds always come as part of a natural cycle? Are we following a natural course? When will my forest fire come?

The whole world feels like kindling now, and all around me I see sparks. We know the world is getting warmer, but even more than this I fear indifference, hubris, greed, and our insane divisions that are more persistent than ever as we retreat more and more to our fortresses. The world is drying up. Our abuses toward the earth, toward each other, could be reaching a point of no return. What happens when we no longer see the forest for the trees, when our collective spirit fades? Will rebellion always be given a second chance? Is it already too late to stop the blazes?

I know I am prone to melodrama, and not everything is as it seems. A fire is, after all, just a fire. Life heals itself. I return home sunburned and filled, hug and kiss my kids who race to meet me at the door, and run for my son a bath. Everything looks like it will be alright. But even here, safe in our fire-insured home, I can picture a lightning storm in a dry space, see it strike in my own dry heart, and I wonder if I am really trained to put out this kind of fire.