I have learned by happy and sometimes sad experience that the mind is a changeable thing and not always the most reliable filter by which to perceive reality. I recognize, of course, that this is somewhat of an odd statement, since it is hard to imagine how else we might be able to perceive reality except through the mind. One of my favorite paintings is by Rene Magritte, called The Human Condition. In it he thematizes the paradox of trying to see the world beyond the constraints of how our eye and imagination already see it. If we were able to see beyond the frame through which our unique capacities for perception were able to see, he seems to say, we would still see the world in the same way. We can’t imagine what we can’t imagine. We can’t, in other words, fully escape or transcend ourselves. It might seem at first counterintuitive, but I believe this is precisely why we need to rely on God. I rely on God because I can’t fully trust myself. I can’t even fully trust my capacity to understand or perceive who he is or what he wants. So faith is both a trust in God and a distrust in my own capacity to make sense of things. To be religious means I must be willing to self-examine and self-question.
And upon self-examination, I have to admit that my worldviews and attitudes seem to change according to my mood, and my mood, although a fickle thing, is generally shaped by how I am living. I might not be able to fully and completely transcend myself, but I can see things differently or in a new way if I will change the way I live and love, if I repent. My experience tells me that improved perception—seeing see more truly and more clearly—comes with improved living. Indeed, the mind is exceptionally vulnerable to profound delusions due to the inherent limits of what one person can see and understand but also because of the mind’s capacity to generate its own fictions. The mind seems to like to generate wrldviews and understandings that conform to how we handle all of our appetites. To use one somewhat superficial and benign example, let’s say that my conscience tells me that I am eating too much ice cream and sweets. I would like to change. I finally find the courage to swear them off. I feel better. I notice an improvement in my self-esteem. “I have discipline!” I proudly tell myself. I start to generate ideas about why this is a better way to live. And then I slip. I eat some ice cream. I feel bad. My conscience bothers me. And there I am in that very common and human place of a guilty conscience and profound indecision about what to do about it. What am I going to do to get rid of this irritation coming from my conscience? Will I get back to my discipline or will I generate other ideas that support the lifestyle of an ice cream eater? How long can I persist in striving to overcome a bad habit that doesn’t want to go away? On what basis can I continue to feel good about myself if I can’t ever quite conquer the weakness? God is that reason: my ability to feel his abiding love for my inherent worth and his perfect willingness to forgive. The risk is that without an acceptance of that love, if I persist in making the same mistake and I can’t find reasons to love myself in my weakness, I will likely adopt a worldview that accommodates the habit so that I no longer have to live in a state of friction with myself. Consider how many worldviews are tailored and designed to justify a selfish will. What a tragedy it would be to have spent a life and held to a philosophy that were both bent by appetite.
To eat ice cream, of course, is not much of a moral issue per se. Perhaps I say this because, well, I like ice cream and I have clearly accommodated it into my worldview, but the general question of how I treat my body and how I live with my appetites certainly is. And what amazes me is how often simple questions about how and what I eat, what self-image I have, how often I judge others by their physical appearance, how I think about sexuality and act on my sexual appetites, and what I think about material possessions can directly influence my ability to have faith in God, to feel charity for others, and to be at my best intellectually. These questions of my own carnality seem to be foundational to how my mind works, what it chooses to perceive, what it wants to ignore, and how much hope I feel about my life and life in general. This is perhaps what is meant by the scriptural warnings against worshipping a God after our own image. Consistently and perhaps not surprisingly, I find that the greater self-control I can muster and the more respect and reverence I can feel for my own body and the bodies of others, the more likely it is that my world is more interesting, beautiful, meaningful and that my mind is truly creative, insightful, and powerful.
In Christianity, we call these feelings the fruits of the Holy Spirit. They are God’s way of teaching us how to live and assisting us in the quest for deep and lasting happiness. And when my self-control fails me, I accept that God’s love and my inherent worth haven’t changed one wit. Hard to believe, but indispensable to accept. Once I did accept it, I found that intellectual doubts and debates within my religious community held little interest for me. Gospel living was pretty straightforward. The fellowship of my church is designed to help broken people. I need good living to be happy and I am grateful for a community that assists me, motivates me, and reinforces the good choices I need to be making every single day about my body and the bodies of others. The church’s efficacy in this regard keeps me close to the body of Christ.
But we needlessly complicate things. For one, we fail to have sufficient faith in the profound love available to all in Christ’s atonement and instead believe our value is increased by our successes in overcoming ourselves. And so we use church life and the rituals of religious practice to prize success at the expense of learning how to maintain love in the midst of failure. In fear of our own weaknesses, we sustain an ideal image of who we hope we have already become instead of as a method for checking ourselves against our standards so that we can see who we actually are. Another error is that we assume that morality does not extend beyond the stewardship of our own body. That is one reason why I refer to the bodies of others. Those other bodies are my wife and children and my friends, but they are also my enemies, my community, my nation, and the populations of the world. They are also the bodies of plants and animals, the very body of the earth. We are in a moral economy, and each and every day I make decisions as a consumer and as a citizen in a democracy about how I will use my body and interact with the bodies of others, and these choices add up to who I am morally and spiritually. If I can only see my own body, even if I am good at respecting it, I am failing to understand the full extent of my stewardship. As the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith in section 49 of the Doctrine and Covenants:
The Lord seems to be calling for an equitable and modest treatment of all flesh, both human and more-than-human, and as is evident in other scriptures, this pertains not only to our capacity to take life in order to sustain ourselves but in our capacity to generate life through sexual union. There is no room here for seeing ourselves above others or for seeing other people or even material possessions as objects, things to be possessed or used for merely selfish gain. We should see them instead as “living souls” with whom we might commune and collaborate in the interest of the health of the entire community of life. It is little wonder that what awakes me from spiritual stupor is invariably a sudden reminder of the presence of another, whether it be the glance I steal at my wife while she sleeps next to me and I feel flooded with love or those moments of discovery that my children are far more complex and beautiful and individual than I had realized. It might be an experience with music or literature where I am lifted up high enough to see a broader landscape of humanity around me or when I have lifted myself up on to a mountain and can catch a better glimpse of the immensity and diversity of this planet. These are all moments in which I discover that I am not alone. Rather than making me feel crowded or burdened in the midst of such presences, the wound of my own solitude is healed and I feel something of what the Creator feels for all life. Even if I still see through a glass darkly, I know in those moments that I see more clearly and more rightly. I will never overcome all of my weaknesses and I will never see perfectly. It took me years to understand that this shouldn’t bother or deter me in my pursuit of proper insight, and knowing I won’t quit trying and that the Lord won’t stop loving me has given me great confidence and peace.