Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Letting Go of God

Letting Go of God is a monologue by comic, cancer survivor, and Saturday Night Live alum Julia Sweeney. (imdb.com calls it a "one-person-monologue." Heh.) I'm a fan of one-person shows, and Sweeney is great at combining comedy with philosophical depth.

I'm watching it on Showtime cable TV as we speak. Sweeney talked about being visited by some fresh-faced Mormon missionaries. She was stunned by how stupid their lead story was: a tale about Jesus visiting America on his way up to Heaven, about Joseph Smith learning of this visitation when he dug up golden tablets conveniently buried in his neighborhood, how Smith conveniently found a magic rock that allowed him alone to decode the writings on the tablets, which for some reason were in ancient Egyptian. Etc.

Like most things in life, the story of Mormonism is explained most incisively by South Park. The half-hour episode All About the Mormons is available in full on several sites, including MySpace. If you haven't seen it, do so immediately.

Yes, reasonable men cannot deny that the story is stupid. Sweeney feels like telling the Mormon kids, "Even Scientologists know they shouldn't start out with stories about Xenu the alien volcano master!" But later, she realizes that she can hardly feel superior, as her own Catholic faith, if viewed through fresh ears, would sound equally preposterous.

I'm less than 1/3 through the show, but based on the title, I assume she's on a path towards some sort of Atheism. I love Atheists, at least the ones who challenge the dominant mindset in a clever way, like Sweeney and Richard Dawkins.

It's not that simple a matter for me, though. For some odd reason, the question of God is strong in my mind at this time of year. I blogged two Decembers ago about being asked, at a Christmas party, if I believed in God. At that time, I wrote
I ended up saying something like this: There are times when I get this sense that all of existence is already in perfect balance, harmony, and resolution. These experiences come only now and then, but they're strong enough to color my life at other times. I sense that there's truth in the perspective of perfect balance, whether or not I'm seeing it at the moment.

That was as honestly as I could communicate it. Though I rarely talk about "God," I realized that someone who says, "God is all-powerful and perfect, and He's taking care of everything," is pointing to a perspective that's not so different from what I had expressed.
I'll add now: lots of the time in ordinary life, I most definitely don't see a universe of perfect harmony. My thoughts are on the frustrations and difficulties and suffering of life, at least as much as the average Joe. It's also true that during the rare times I do see that perfect balance, it's a wider perspective. That is, from that elevated(?) viewpoint, I can see how the ordinary perception of imbalance is itself part of the whole. The balanced viewpoint encompasses its opposite, in a way the imbalanced viewpoint doesn't.

It's like camping in the wilderness, and marvelling at the trees and such. I know that something made the sun, the moon, and the stars, and it sure doesn't seem like that something is understandable by my ordinary mind. Some people would say the Source is randomness. To my mind, calling something random means precisely, "I don't know anything about it." I heartily agree with that sentiment, but I submit that calling the origin of existence randomness fails to explain anything at all.

When I gaze at a clear night sky long enough, I start to feel like I'm in no position to quibble with whatever made all that, as if I could do a better job. (I think the Book of Job reaches a similar conclusion. The Lord, in so many words, tells our hero, "Can you make a universe, buddy? Come back when you can make a universe, and then maybe you can question My actions.")

Anyway... particularly after some discussion about belief and doubt in the comments section of a recent post... I'm at the moment again attracted by that question. When I recall a viewpoint of perfect, complete balance, even in the midst of life's sufferings... is my mindset all that different from someone who believes that God is all-powerful, and takes care of everything? I don't even know if it matters, but that's my question of the moment.

Follow up... the day after posting this, I found a video of Sweeny discussing LGoG, in an audience Q&A from the time of the filming:

Even better... is Sweeney's speech to the Freedom From Religion Foundation a couple years ago. An audio download and transcript is available on the Friendly Atheist blog. She talks about ten things she's learned since the monologue, living as an atheist.


EddieO101 said...

Hey Stuart, I just read this LGoG post and decided to follow your blog. I greatly enjoyed your writing style.

I've been a big fan of Julia Sweeney's for years now and share much of her thinking about the Catholic Church and organized religion in general. For more insight into my own youthful church encounters you should check out the following post...


Former Berkeley Girl said...

Hi Stuart - I just watched the south park episode on the mormons. I'd never seen it before but I had lived in Utah for a few years. This was priceless - Thanks for the recommendation.

Stuart said...

One beautiful thing about the South Park Mormon episode is that a solid majority of viewers, I'd guess, thought that the show was making up stuff about the history of Mormonism for the sake of satire. But they were just reporting the facts.

Former Berkeley Girl said...

One thing I found when I lived in a town that was about 70-80% mormon, is that most mormons don't know the real history and the details of the book of mormon. The most accurate thing about the southpark episode is how the kid says he doesn't care when he is confronted with the facts - that really is what mormons will say. They love their community and lifestyle, and are convinced that it is so much better than anything else the world has to offer, that the facts don't interest them very much. And in most of Utah, of course, if the facts do interest you, you will become a social outcast very quickly.

When Mitt Romney was going to do a press conference about his faith, my non-mormon boss took me aside and said something to the effect that Mitt Romney is NOT going to explain mormonism on national tv, because "mormonism is just too wierd." If you remember, the content of the press conference was pretty "plain vanilla" about his faith. My boss was right, he did not explain mormonism at all. And if he had, the reaction may have been like the people who see it from your blog - disbelief. Someone must be making this up - yes indeed.

Doug said...

Dum de de dum dum dumb. =D

One of my favorite episodes, for sure, not least because it's actually pretty fair to the Mormon faith, more so than most of the other religions/people/places/things that South Park pillories, usually without any mercy whatsoever. Contrary even down to their contrarian nature!

Honestly I really like Mormons. Most of the ones I know are genuinely kind and caring people, and I know enough of them that I'm left to conclude that their faith is the common thread. Not faith in terms of whether they believe the silly stories about Jesus coming to America and all that, but something in the book of Mormon must lay out some pretty good guidelines about how to be civil and decent to your fellow human beings, because an awful lot of faithful Mormons seem to have it figured out. Even the ones who have approached me out of nowhere with a feverish sales pitch seemed genuinely kind, if not a bit on the loony side. Most of the missionaries I've encountered aren't quite that brazen, thankfully.

People believe so many silly things. Trying to explain the tenets of Buddhism to people who had no real previous exposure has always been an enlightening experience for me (pun not originally intended =). Buddhists are helped that we have such an amorphous religion, it's easy to make it sound like nearly anything you want. There is no central authority about which silly stories a Buddhist must believe in order to consider himself one of the faithful, so we can just pick our favorites.

Generally speaking I avoid the topic of my own faith unless it comes up, but a good friend recently asked me if I believe in God. He's a devoted fundamentalist Christian and has always been very open about his faith, so it was easiest for me to explain Bhuddism in familiar terms. "Some Bhuddists certainly believe in God, and it's probably fair to say that most believe is a higher power of sorts. That is, a sense of the underlying unity of things, of something greater than ourselves."

Former Berkeley Girl said...

The mormon people who lived near me were unfailingly nice and friendly - pretty much like in South Park. I have no idea if it is laid out in the Book of Mormon to be this way - but it certainly is laid out by the LDS church and it is strongly reinforced by the individual family life. I always imagined that you would have to push these people pretty far to get them to be rude or unpleasant in any way. No doubt, they are friendly and nice folks.

Other groups also believe some zany stuff and are not particularly interested in the facts, or scientific evidence. And some of them are not nearly as polite and pleasant as the mormons in general.

I used to kind of think that mormon missionaries were freaks - now I realize they are young boys, mostly going through a rite of passage in their community. Something most are told they need to do to become grown men. And many are not treated very well - people shut doors in their faces, throw rocks at them, try to run them off the road while they are riding their bikes. It is surprising how hostile people can be to the mormons.

I don't mean to belittle their efforts to be nice and polite people. But I remain impressed with how accurate the South Park episode is on their aversion to the facts, and their faith in their own lifestyle and community, rather than having faith in their supposed scriptures.

Doug said...

My Boss is a Mormon, and I've heard of him getting riled up but once in several years. You're right, it takes a LOT. :)

My point was more that it doesn't really matter whether the stories of a particular faith are true or not. In my humbly uninformed opinion, the historical, factual content is really not the point of most religious stories, so much as what they are trying to teach. Many people do take their faith at an extremely literal level, but that's their loss as far as I'm concerned, as they are probably missing the deeper meaning.

It seems to me the point South Park was trying to make at the end of the episode is that for most Mormons, the story of the origin of the book of Mormon is basically just a literary convenience, a peripheral footnote and not the prime content of their faith. The same could be said for many of the more fantastical stories found in Buddhism, e.g. how when prince Siddharta was born he took seven steps (right out of the womb, mind you) and uttered "I alone am the world-honored one." Or some such thing. Are we to believe this really happened, that he was born walking and talking? Or is it a fantastical story meant to illustrate a religions point, regardless of it's historical truth? I opt to believe the latter.

Former Berkeley Girl said...

Perhaps that is my problem with religion in general. I do have this overwhelming need to get the story straight - and it never really is. But your point is interesting. Why do you seem to get past the goofiness of the story, and I just can't seem to? Interesting to examine...

Doug said...

Part of my outlook comes from the quirky nature of zen. In many zen traditions, the aspirant is instructed to ponder stories or riddles that deliberately make no sense at all, or seemingly contradict some important aspect of Buddhist doctrine. One of the purposes of this method is to break one's reliance on words and stories. If I interpreted Zen stories purely literally, the only possible conclusion would be that all the great teachers of old were stark raving mad. And yet (as of today) I'm pretty sure they weren't, and I'm still practicing Zen. ;-)

Katie said...

I enjoyed reading this entry on your blog. I liked the parts about Sweeney and South Park. It got me thinking about my own cult experience-Self Realization Fellowship and how Yogananda puts the fairies and golden castles right in the Autobiography and it still manages to suck us in.....sigh....