Letter to a student (excerpt #1)

I wish to post a series of thoughts extracted and revised from a letter I once wrote to a very thoughtful and beloved student. I share these excerpts in the hope that they provide edification and insight for anyone needing such.

By way of confession, I think it is fair to say that, despite many liberal tendencies, I also have a cautious and conservative disposition. I move back and forth, almost like a perpetual tide, between a desire to see the world as standing in need of radical change and a caution against my own vain and inflated sense of what I want to believe is my incisive and correct judgment of the world. Given our tendency to accept and even justify a status quo that is harmful and insufficient, I am convinced I and we all must change, and yet I also feel a nagging and honest disagreement that convinces me that deep self-scrutiny is necessary. Which is to say, like everyone else, I suppose, my disposition is both a weakness and a strength. It is what it is. I don’t pretend to glorify it, since all dispositions deserve a healthy dose of self-questioning.

This is because I think we are all poetic by nature. We are world makers. We receive information from the world that makes claims on us about what is real and true and what is fake and false, and with varying degrees of self-conscious awareness, we repurpose that information and project a worldview of our own making that gives meaning to our lives. Some of us, of course, are very bad poets, as it were, because we have not learned the self-awareness that constitutes all great art. But for the rest of us who might consider ourselves at least reasonably well educated, reasonably aware of the world and different points of view, we like to imagine that we are not as determined by our circumstances as others, that the worldview we hold is genuine, well informed, authentically made. This, we want to believe, is what makes our “poetry” better than others. With varying degrees of success, I think it is fair to say that such improvement of human poetics is possible through education, dialogue, and rigorous analysis. But it always seems to me to be the case, as literary history has proven, that no one no matter how accomplished is very far from writing a really bad poem.

Secularists strive to be good world makers by avoiding delusions of transcendence, supernatural power or knowledge, and ideologies of convenience. They like to point to the dangerous religious tendency to identify God with one’s own disposition, cultural circumstance, and ideology, which they remind us can bring to pass all kinds of immorality in the name of deity. All of which is true, of course, but they never bother to explain how they avoid the same problem, or how they will be capable of recognizing or recovering from their own occasional lousy sonnet. Since it is the nature of our minds to make worlds, we are also in the business of being creators and implicitly if not explicitly articulating our conception of what makes the world what it is. This is one reason why it seems to me that you can’t escape the question of the nature of God, since you are either playing one or believing in one, or as the case may be, inescapably doing both. At its root, the human condition seems to be a battle to identify sources of true transcendence so that somehow we can find a way out of the worlds we make and into a reality that proves to exist beyond our limitations or expectations, something that we can believe in, work toward, and in the process hopefully we can transform ourselves and the world we live in into something far better. Our moral challenge, in other words, is to be capable, despite the limitations of even the most well conceived worlds we might make, of recognizing and embracing truth, even if or especially when it challenges our worldview or moves us to change. What I love about Mormon Christianity is that it recognizes the dangers of our world-making powers, admits to the inevitability of bad poetry even in the highest levels of accomplishment (think of how many times the Lord chastises Joseph Smith), and yet welcomes the best our imaginations can come up with as necessary tools to building God’s kingdom and honors the inspired results (think of the brother of Jared and his stones). Mormonism is the dream of transforming weaknesses into strengths, or bringing our will into harmony with God, and of finding ourselves both making and made, human and divine, a process beautifully described in Moroni 7. The only reason to hope that the world that we have imagined can become the world God reveals is the promise of God’s atoning power.

This I believe requires submission to possibility—the possibility that I am wrong about the world, the possibility that I can be instructed through revelation from a divine power, and that I and the world around me can change. I, for one, cannot separate the meaning of such submission from the idea of submitting to God. To believe that I can change the world, in other words, cannot be separated from the need to believe that I can and must change myself, that I can, even if only momentarily, transcend myself and even transcend the world I imagine myself to be in. As much as we might want to admire those who aspire to self-transcendence just by the sheer power of their will or through education alone and as far as such will might take them, in the end it makes little sense to preclude the possibility that we need or might have access to power and insight beyond our natural capacities. My own faith in such power has been strengthened by real, even if small, change I have observed in myself when I have tried to submit my will to God’s. Small and personal change bolsters my hope that larger scale change in society is possible. It is, of course, heartbreaking to have to admit to oneself that change is sometimes illusory, that we prematurely or impatiently declared victory before we collapsed back into our old self. But it is also God’s atoning gift to allow us to move forward in hope after such disillusionments. Forbearing and patient love is required for the fact that our personality for better and for worse has been shaped by genes, history, and culture. It is one thing to see ourselves as products of our time. It is another altogether to move forward in hope after such a realization. Such hope does not come naturally or by will but as a gift from God, a gift we finally ask for when we discover the limits of the will. This then becomes the same patience and hope with which we can enter a world we are determined to change.

I am not saying that we should wait to change or even perfect ourselves before we should try to change the world. We cut our teeth in such attempts to better the world. And besides, we could end up waiting too long. But if we put the cart of societal change ahead of the horse of personal submission to God, we will have no mechanism by which to double check our judgments of others and of society and measure them against our own vanity, insecurities, unresolved conflicts, or biases. In other words, there will be nothing to stop us from creating an image of the world after our own image, a world that sustains rather than challenges our most basic instincts and desires, the very instincts and desires we hoped we had risen above. Some people live in nirvanas of their own making. Others in a hell of their own imagining. I like to think we are answerable for the worlds we chose to believe were real. And the best test of the worth of such worlds is how generously they illuminate potential and actual goodness in others and in ourselves.

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