Monday, December 7, 2009

Individuality vs. Conformity

My blog for today consists of an e-mail dialogue I had with my daughter Juliana concerning the issue of individuality and conformity in our relationship to God and eternity. This is a very “Mormon” blog, so it may prove confusing at times to those without a good acquaintance with the doctrines and teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My initial contribution to the dialogue has reference to a talk (sermon if you will) that Juliana gave in a church meeting and reported to us--her parents. There are references here to Latter-day Saint scriptures as well as to the Bible (which we share as scripture with the Christian world as a whole).

We start then with my opening salvo:

Dear Juliana,

Wonderful talk and right on. I haven’t finished reading it yet, however, because one little passage, either yours or President Eyring’s slapped me along side the head, dredged up an issue I thought I had well laid to rest: “Then our spirits will be changed. We will become able to want what God wants, to think as he thinks, and thus be prepared for the trust of an endless posterity to teach and to lead through tests to be raised up to qualify to live forever in eternal life.”

My very upsetting outburst to your mother was, “I don’t give a bleep what God wants!” Of course I do give a bleep what He wants but only on condition that it is good, which of course it is–always. What I want is what is good, regardless of what He or any other being may want. And since all He wants is good there’s no problem.

A problem I thought I had laid to rest is reconciling individuality with conformity to God’s will. Ever since reading George Orwell’s “1984,” I have been haunted by the transformation of Winston Smith–essentially the cloning of Winston Smith (if it is possible to clone an already existent human being) after the image of what Big Brother expected of everyone. I have lived in mortal fear of being cloned, of ending up a Winston Smith, emasculated as it were, a gin soaked tear running down his face, his individual identity totally effaced.

For the longest time the hymn, “Come Follow Me” has been a bugaboo for me. “Is it enough alone to know that we must follow him below while traveling through this vale of tears? No this extends to holier spheres. We must the onward course pursue as wider fields come into view.” Etc. We must look neither to right nor left, we must not veer off course no matter what attractions are out there. Why the bleep have the wider fields then, why the heck exist as separate entities at all? What the bleep kind of heaven is it to be if all these identical clones are running around doing and thinking and saying identical things and producing clones who produce clones who.... Ad infinitum.

In regard to the hymn, I thought, why tell us that we must hold to that track eternally? Won’t we have come to the point at some point where we follow him not because we “must” but because we want to, it being the desire of our hearts? And the reconciling answer for me has come to be that we are not given that counsel for future reference but for girding us now. An important part of so many things–such as strokes or moves in sports--is the follow through. The follow through itself isn’t the important thing but the movement toward it. If we were arrested at the point of follow through the movement toward it would have accomplished the purpose of the follow through. The hymn motivates us I think to move beyond the objective itself, to follow through. If you follow that! I think I sort of do.

Well, I do give a bleep what God wants. I do so not because He wants it but because I have faith that He knows better than I what I want deep down, what is best for me as an individual and that all he wants is what is best for his children in the grand scheme of things, what will fulfill them not efface their individual identities.

Enough of my tirade and back to finishing your excellent talk. Isn’t it funny how things we think we have laid to rest prove alive and kicking? As Yogi Berra famously commented, “It ain’t over until it’s over.” We can’t shove our concerns under the rug and be done with them, evidently.

Your cantankerous daddy

And Juliana replied:
I've had my moments of wrestling with the conformity thing, but not lately, or at least not in this sense. I, too, would have issues with it if President Eyring had said that we would have our hearts changed to "want what [LDS prophet and] President Monson wants"--or any other man or woman, no matter how amazing they were. Throwing God into the mix totally changes it for me. He isn't a man and doesn't think or act as we do (no matter that we are created in His image). Therefore, I don't really think of becoming one with God in terms of conformity at all. It isn't just that He has never been wrong before (although that certainly is a comforting and faith-building concept).
I have a notion that the eternal concept of unity is something rather different from our mortal concept of the term. I don't have a good analogy for it at the moment or even a rudimentary understanding of it. But I do believe that our spirits (beginning with our "intelligences," whatever that means) are eternal, with individual characteristics given to us that are equally eternal.
Actually, I think perhaps the reason I don't worry so much about conformity at this point in my life probably doesn't have so much to do with any laudable amounts of faith or understanding but rather more to do with the fact that I'm a bit egotistical and can't possibly imagine that the essence of Juliana is something the world could live without. :)

to which I responded:

It is not enough to believe that God is––exists. Says Paul in Hebrews (11:6), "Without faith it is impossible to please [God]: for we must believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him." That "and" is crucial, isn’t it? I think I have never not believed that God is. But I have had difficulty from time to time believing in the second part. If I am to be made over into his likeness, warped out of my own identity into a clone as it were of deity, is that being rewarded? Was Winston Smith rewarded or was he rather punished, annihilated indeed and replaced by a being with his DNA who was something completely other than he had been?
No, if God is to be a rewarder of those who seek him then surely he will enhance rather than destroy and replace their identity. And that is how I believe that things stand. Two analogies come to mind to help me understand and accept the transformation that is asked of me if I am to be saved in the best sense of the word: exalted. These are Heraclitus’s notion of self-identity and the direct positive process of developing photographic images.
For Heraclitus, as I understand him, there is an underlying identity that remains as entities are shaped and reshaped and undergo all sorts of metamorphoses. There is a me-ness that will not be destroyed as I surrender to God’s will and undergo all that he seeks to inflict upon me. In direct positive development of film, as I understand that process, the image on the film is eradicated and then restored not as a negative but as a positive, so that a piece of film becomes a slide projecting the image we would see after the developed negative had been printed on photo paper. Nothing had been lost in the eradication, nothing had been changed in the least. Nothing essential, I would say, in relation to the application of this analogy.
That is, I can submit without fear of utter demolition and replacement, of losing the least iota of my self-identity. Gold, to resort to another analogy and a biblical one, in the refining process loses nothing of itself. Only the impurities inhering in it, the dross. So I shall be purified, I Norman, relieved of all undesirable accretions, will be present, myself, with God, I not another. I will indeed be rewarded as I diligently seek God, seek entirely to please him.
This I believe! And I love my Heavenly Father and want above all things to please him--above all things, that is, except losing my essential self. Hopefully that is not a damning exception. I don't believe that it is.

Then Juliana again:

One last quick thought, which is probably neither here nor there and which I probably won't articulate well. Yes, God was once as we are (to some extent, at least). But the change from man to God is not like the change from water to ice. That is, it isn't a simple, reversible change of state. I'm forgetting all of the little bit of chemistry I ever knew (which wasn't much to begin with), but my thought has something to do with the difference between physical changes (water to ice) and chemical changes. The latter result in a product that often has very different properties than the reactants that combined to make it, and the product is not reversible.

Thus, saying "God is a man" (which is true, in the celestialized man sense, as you suggest) is perhaps akin to saying that "chocolate cake is flour and milk, baking powder and cocoa." Yes, cake started out as the separate ingredients, but it is nothing like them now. (There are much better examples involving just a single reactant, but my brain is in weekend mode.)

The Eyring quote, by the way, is from his talk on Adversity in last April's general conference.

Like you, I am periodically surprised by my reactions to things. That can be awfully frustrating, but if I chew on them long enough, sometimes those frustrations yield useful insights. And sometimes I just get more frustrated...

Speaking of which...if Sarah Palin pursues the run for presidency that it looks like she will, I am going to have to move abroad for a couple of years. Ugh.
Te amo!

And to her last quick thought I replied:

Don't move abroad unless, horror of horrors, she actually wins the office itself. Winning the nomination will be scary enough and hopefully not at all likely.

The chemical change analogy is good and well-taken--and very comforting. D&C 131: 5: "The more sure word of Prophecy means a man's knowing that he is sealed up unto eternal life, by revelation and the spirit of prophecy, through the power of the Holy Priesthood." What I said about it not being over until it is over does not, it appears, preclude one's being irreversibly changed while yet in this life. Nephi of Helaman 10 [Book of Mormon reference] seems to have earned and been granted that status because of his "unwearyingness" in "declar[ing] the word which" was given to him of the Lord. He was absolutely empowered by the Lord so that whatever he asked for he got because the Lord could see that he would "not ask that which [was] contrary to [the Lord's] will."

So, yes, it appears that it will ultimately be over; we will attain through the atonement and our valiancy to a complete and irreversible triumph over all our weaknesses and destructive predilections. So comforting! Enduring to the end means, I would think, enduring until that point--after which we will be secure in righteousness and be as God, be, in your metaphor, chemically changed--no going back from chocolate cake to its separate ingredients--thank goodness!


And so our dialogue went.