Tuesday, October 18, 2016

On Anti-Faith

"And if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you." 
Friedrich Nietzsche

Like many other words in the contemporary vocabulary, I worry that the word "faith" has lost its potency. Too often it is a passive, nebulous idea: we have faith that things will work out in the long run; we have faith that God is in control; we have faith that divine justice will eventually replace injustice. Certainly these things can be said and still work within our definition of "faith," but I think that we too often resign the idea of faith to an attitude that looks into the distant future and rarely in the present.

Sure, we know that "faith without works is dead," but (and I think this is because we look so far off) these "works" are often lazily associated with our knee-jerk "read your scriptures, say your prayers, go to church."

In reality, faith is a much more active process. So active, in fact, that I don't think it ever turns off. 

We are always concerned with "developing faith," as though we can actually be a person who has no faith and therefore needs to develop it. Actually, faith is necessary for our daily operations. Because of the nature of time, nothing is empirically certain until after its originating decision has been made and acted upon. We take every literal step in faith that our body will be able to support itself, for example. Obviously we have taken thousands and thousands of steps successfully, and this reinforces our decision to take another, but we have never successfully taken this step, and therefore must do it on faith. This is true in every decision we make over the course of a day: we get in our cars in faith that they will work; we hand our debit card to people in faith that we still have money; we acquire college degrees in faith that they will benefit our socioeconomic status.

If this is the case, and we are truly perpetually acting in faith, what does it mean to "develop faith"? Too often we consider the opposite of faith to be doubt, or an uncertainty that results in standing on neutral ground. Unfortunately, there is no possible neutral doubt, only faith placed elsewhere. "I doubt we win this game" is the same as "I have faith the other team is better." Obviously one could claim that this is simply an argument of semantics, but even Descartes, in his attempt to doubt everything, settled on one irrevocable truth: "I think, therefore I am."

This thinking (in its diverse forms) is the foundation of faith. Joseph Smith taught in the 7th Lecture on Faith that "faith, then, works by words; and with these its mightiest works have been and will be performed." Some of these mighty works are given a specific frame throughout the scriptures, but I particularly like this section in the Book of Jacob, which reads: "we truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea." (4:6) While these examples illustrate an intensity of faith that may feel unobtainable to us, the guiding principle is there: a belief in faith is a belief that our inward, personal thoughts (in this case vocalized) can impact, alter, and even override the circumstances of our existence and the laws of the universe.

Obviously our every thought and passing whim doesn't manifest itself instantly. (Could you imagine?) But those thoughts that are reinforced with imagination, purpose, determination, spiritual aggression, and endurance will, in time, become hope, faith, reality. 

Unfortunately, faith elsewhere benefits from this truth as well-- especially since negative thoughts are more easily reinforced and obsessed upon. I believe, from personal experience, that faith elsewhere is the cause of a number of mental, spiritual, and emotional issues. We struggle with depression and anxiety when we have more faith in our negative perceptions of ourselves and the nature of the universe than our positive ones. We struggle with addictions when we have more faith in drugs/alcohol/pornography to provide peace in our problems than we do in our own power to solve them. We struggle with pride when we have more faith in a myopic self-will than we do in a divine order. Naturally we distance ourselves from responsibility from these things by blaming the circumstances of a mortal existence, but a belief that our negative thoughts can exist without consequence is a belief that our positive thoughts can exist without consequence and that eliminates any possibility of Godliness. 

Most of us have spent entire lives singing "I am a child of God," yet somehow seem to forget the implications of that statement. It doesn't merely mean He has our back when the going gets tough; it means that we, like him, are creators and that requires accountability. He, like us, operates on faith but it has become a faith that is refined enough to be self-directed and irreversible. Since we are like Him and faith is the governing principle of our existence, we know that developing faith doesn't mean an acquisition of faith, a strengthening of faith, or any other number of verbs that we consistently pair with "faith." Developing faith is a redirection of faith, a focusing. This is well-illustrated in D&C 4:5, which tells us to keep "an eye single to the glory of God." 

This command wouldn't be as necessary if doubt meant neutrality, like we often think it does. No, our thoughts and words have more power than we often wish they did. They require constant redirection in a world that would take them any other way than where they belong. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Provo Problem

Every semester in my Writing 150 class, I assign an essay that is directed towards the (half dozen) readers of the BYU Universe. Because one of the keys of rhetoric is to have an understanding of your target audience, I ask my students to describe the BYU community-- the more specific, the better. I always get the same standard answers: members of this community are typically religious, conservative, family-minded, educated, etc. But in every single class I've had another set of answers that is less empirical (but just as true in the minds of my students): they're naive, socially awkward, sheltered, shallow, and marriage-hungry.

What interests me is that each of my students agrees to this description of the community on the whole, but if I were to ask one of them to point out another student in the class that represented the type of person they had just described, they wouldn't be able to do it. It wouldn't be an issue of cowardice-- it's just that there are rarely students in my class who can be accurately described as naive, socially awkward, sheltered, or shallow. And there's certainly not one who fits all of those descriptors.

Since that's the case, I wonder why my students are so consistently motivated to make this unjustifiable claim. What bothers me is that, in order to argue for this analysis of BYU culture, one has to elevate oneself above an entire group; nobody can claim that someone is naive or socially awkward unless they are personally immune to those afflictions. Any time someone points to someone else and says "look how naive that person is," what they are really saying is "look how much more experienced and wise I am compared to that person."

Think of all the ways we do this. I know you've all heard or used terms like "Vivint Bros," "Belmont Tools," "Utah Mormons," or "Hair School Girls." We do the same with the places people live. "They live at the Village? Someone's got a rich daddy."

Somehow, we've turned into a community of individuals that carries this misconception that we are somehow superior to all the other individuals in the community. This is, of course, absurd.

Maybe everyone really is marriage hungry and that's the problem. Maybe we use these nebulous phrases to medicate our way through the often painful dating process. We see our exes with someone else and are so rarely happy for them-- we say "She's with him?! But he's such a tool...." We often have a very limited idea of what these people are like, but we are so frequently willing to sacrifice our compassion towards others so that we can maintain our high opinions of ourselves. If he's a tool, then the ex has bad judgment. If the ex has bad judgment, then their rejection of us was just another example of that. Who in their right mind would reject US? Unfortunately, this kind of destructive thought pattern, though initially aimed outwardly, always finds a way inside. By placing all the blame on others, we prevent ourselves from recognizing the possibly painful, self-directed truths that we need to acknowledge in order to become a better person.

The best approach to eliminating this mindset comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (go read about his inspiring life), who claimed that “we must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

Do people do things that live up to the stereotypes we give them? You bet. Do they say things that make us cringe? Daily. But none of us are willing to let ourselves be judged simply on the things that we have done or said in our lives, unless somehow that judge is also able to perceive our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions at the time that we did or said those things. We would beg for that right vehemently, and often do. So why are we so quick to deny it to other people? Why are we so unwilling to consider the possibility that other people actually have good intentions?

At the end of the semester, I have my students do a makeshift version of their own TED Talk. One of the few students I've had that could be described as "socially awkward" or "reclusive" was obviously terrified at the prospect of speaking for five minutes in front of all of his peers. It was hard as a teacher to watch him visibly struggle through his presentation. I'd asked all the students to memorize what they were going to say, and he was willing to take a point deduction (don't worry, I didn't deduct anything) in order to have note cards with him. His whole body was shaking and his voice was so tremulous that it sounded like he was about to cry.

When the semester had started, his classmates probably considered him among the "naive, awkward Utah Mormons" that are apparently so rampant in Provo. But if you were to accuse him of that or make fun of him directly after his presentation, those same students probably would've jumped you in the parking lot.

What changed? They watched him suffer.

It's not always visible, and it's not always communicated, but it's always there. Maybe the local "tool" has always struggled with body image and that's why he's constantly at the gym. Maybe the awkward kid comes from an abusive household. Maybe the Vivint Bro is trying to provide for a family when his parents are currently incapable.

Maybe NONE of those things are true. But if we make it our genuine goal to learn about each other then we will always find something to admire. At that point, this ridiculous impulse we have to say harmful things about people will disappear, along with the stunting influence it has on our relationships with others and ourselves.

For a great talk with similar ideas, check out David Foster Wallace's "This is Water":

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Why Musical Theater is a Failed Art

 This is written with a few grounding assumptions in mind:
  • The main purpose of art is to aid in the acquiring of self-knowledge, spiritual understanding, and ethical development.
  • Poor (or cheap) art does this less than great art.
The musical (whether performed on stage or in film) is certainly "cheap art" as it does not convincingly represent the human condition in a way that creates catharsis or new understanding. This failure is a consequence of its irrationality, ineptitude, and inconsistency.

The Irrational Musical

Plato thought that almost all poetry and drama was worthless-- he felt that they were merely flawed imitations that
distanced men even further from the pure "form" of things. Aristotle disagrees with his teacher, and felt that imitation can help people to learn otherwise difficult or unapparent truths. In his "Poetics," he categorizes the different types of poetry (or drama), their purpose, and how they best accomplish that purpose. He writes:

"...For we must not demand of Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents" (Poetics, Part XIV).

According to this quote, a work of drama ought to work through an audience's deep emotions to leave an impression. Aristotle felt drama only does this if it is believable. We are only sympathetic with situations that seem reasonable to us. Who hasn't seen a terrible horror movie that only provokes laughter? Contrast that with a Hitchcock classic like Rear Window, whose plot is completely conceivable, allowing it to create genuine feelings of intensity.

This doesn't mean that good art is confined to strict realism. Great stories like the Lord of the Rings are certainly not rational. But while that story (and its representation in film) is not scientifically realistic, it is spiritually and experientially so. We may not each battle armies of orcs or trolls, but we certainly encounter feelings of inadequacy, fear, and subsequent hope.

Now to the musical. The defining aspect of a musical is, of course, the presence of music that originates from characters in the story. Ironically, there are only a few instances in musicals where a song is appropriate or believable. (There are even fewer times when one is welcome.) For example, in the Sound of Music, it is justifiable for the Von Trapps to sing frequently. That's their thing-- it's been established by the plot. For the majority of musical productions, though, the song is inappropriate. Look at West Side Story-- the instant rival street gangs break into song and dance, they are immediately unbelievable and discredited.

Why? Well what would be our natural reaction to these actions in real life? Someone who spontaneously poured his heart out through song at work, school, or any public setting would be psychologically ostracized. They would not be taken seriously, which is why they would never inspire any sort of cathartic experience for the audience. The same thing happens, though maybe to a lesser extent, in musicals.

The Inept Musical

To say the majority of songs in musicals are lyrically cheap is an understatement. Great dramatists see lyrics and poetic form as an opportunity to strengthen distinctions or amplify sentiment. A great example is found in Act 4, Scene I of Shakespeare's Macbeth. 

The witches speak almost entirely in trochees (emphasis on the first syllable in the foot):

Double,/ double/ toil and/ trouble;
Fire/ burn and/ cauldron/ bubble.

Macbeth, on the other hand, in iambs (emphasis on the second syllable):

I con/jure you,/ by that/ which you/ profess,
Howe'er/ you come/ to know/ it, ans/wer me

This juxtaposition of poetic meter lends itself to the presentation of its characters. 

The Original 'Cats,' and still the best.
Poetic methods are too often ignored in musicals. It's a shame when great literary works like Les Miserables are burdened down by songs with cheap, predictable lyrics that feel even more out of place when they claim to coincide with, or even add to,  the genius of Victor Hugo. It seems ignorant of Andrew Lloyd Webber to put to music the poems of T. S. Eliot in Cats, when Eliot is ironically more musical in poetry than Webber is in his score. 

The mistake Cats, Les Miserables, and nearly all other musicals make is that they are what German philosopher Immanuel Kant would call "overwrought." From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Kant's aesthetics:

"Kant notices that we have a problem with the overwrought-- that which draws attention to itself as precisely an artificial object or event. 'Over-the-top' acting is a good example. Kant expresses this point by saying that, in viewing a work of art we must be aware of it as art, but it must never-the-less appear natural."

This concept of course extends the arguments that musicals are both irrational and inconsistent, but also that they are inept. By re-rendering great literary works and dragging them into a cheaper form of "entertainment" (a dirty word to use when describing Hugo's and Eliot's works) the producers of the musical display a tragic misunderstanding of the original art. By presenting it in an "overwrought" manner, they castrate it.

The Inconsistent Musical

More from Aristotle:

"As in the structure of the plot, so too in the portraiture of character, the poet should always aim either at the necessary or the probable" (Poetics, Part XV).

There are certain characters for whom music is appropriate, like the aforementioned Von Trapps. Another instance of great character development through song is in the first Hobbit movie, in which the dwarves sing one of their traditional songs around a fire before beginning their journey. That song reveals more about their culture and increases the viewer's understanding of their situation. 

Unfortunately, most musicals neglect the fact that a tendency towards song is, in itself, a character trait. Characters that are given this trait when it isn't consistent with the rest of their other behaviors are aesthetically self-destructive. It's an even bigger problem when every character is given this trait. Hero and villain. King and tramp. When you attempt to create contrasting characters and then have them both sing, the effect is entirely ruined. In order for a drama to satisfy the classification of "musical," it immediately fails to create characters that are built on the "necessary or the probable."

I'm not saying that music has no place in these productions-- it certainly is valuable for its unexplained ability to reach mankind's emotions and spirits. However, for Aristotle and a lot of the great early dramatists, the "song" of the presentation almost always comes from a third party, such as the chorus. Such is the case with a lot of modern films-- the soundtrack, while nearly always present, does not originate from any of the characters and therefore enhances, not interrupts, the presentation of plot.

Aesthetic Responsibility

"The Artist is the antennae of the Race"-- Ezra Pound

I had a drama teacher in Junior High that was convinced that the Roman Empire collapsed because they stopped loving drama and instead favored gladiatorial spectacle. This is obviously not the case, but I think the point is important. Like Pound says, the artist's responsibility to his race is to measure where his race is going and help in its direction or re-direction. Because musical theater is aesthetically and morally deficient, it ought to be exorcised from our culture and replaced by genuine art that demands more from itself and its audience.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Truth, Religion, and the Voice of God

We all speak a failing language. "Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal," wrote Nietzsche in his On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense. For an example of what he means, think of the word "cat." There is nothing about the word itself that gives us meaning. It is only because we have been taught that the combination of lines or sounds that represent that word are intended to signify our concept of a cat. Of course, there are an infinite variety of cats-- the cat that I think of when I hear the word is different from the cat you are thinking of. The same problem exists with colors. I could be seeing the world through completely different eyes and would never be able to communicate that; my blue may be your green, but since birth I was taught that what you see as green is really called "blue." We would both say the sky is blue while looking at completely different colors. 

Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche claims that our attempts to categorize the world into something like language also compromise the integrity of the subjects. "We obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual; whereas nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts, and likewise with no species, but only with an X which remains inaccessible and undefinable for us."

Obviously these are small issues and life goes on. For Nietzsche, however, the problem spreads into bigger areas, namely the realm of truth: "truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins." Nietzsche's argument is that even if universal truth where to exist, language would be unable to communicate it.

While I feel that universal truth does exist, I agree with Nietzsche's claims about language. I agree that humans are incapable of perfectly communicating with each other. 

This has troubling implications in a lot of areas of life, but most importantly with religion. The fact is when someone says "God is like..." they are immediately constructing a failing metaphor, but a metaphor that is necessary. This is especially true with the truths that religion tries to teach, because they are often grand, abstract, and border on incomprehensible. Because of this, nobody will ever be able to successfully teach another man who God is. Spiritual experience is too personal. Any attempt at communicating it with others is an attempt at "equating what is unequal." This is how it should be-- if each of us is truly unique, than in order for God to have truly personal interactions with us it is required that each experience is also unique. 

Rodin's "The Thinker"
What function, then, does religion have? Are we a large group of people aimlessly attempting to agree with each other and trying to fool ourselves into thinking that subjective truths are really objective ones? To some extent I am worried that this is the case. When church functions merely as a social facilitator, as an abstract code of ethics, or a type of psychosis, it is as Karl Marx described it to be-- "an opiate of the masses," a numbing agent. Effective religion requires that each individual comes to know God for himself, deeply and personally, and can only rely so much on what others teach. The pursuit of truth is a difficult process-- Nietzsche acknowledged this and so did Joseph Smith. Said the prophet: "A fanciful and flowery and heated imagination beware of; because the things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God." 

I must admit that human communication obviously is successful to some extent, otherwise our world wouldn't function at all. Because of this, our religion is still important, but only insofar as it facilitates and promotes personal experience with God. Joseph Smith's quote suggests that such an experience requires time, dedication, and refining. However, communication from God is pure and uninhibited by the frailties of language; it is channeled in a way that exceeds understanding and is absolutely individual. Attempts to describe such an experience to others are frustratingly impossible, but necessarily so. While we can and ought to lead others to this type of experience, the path to salvation will ultimately become a personal one.


Monday, April 28, 2014

The Objectified Woman and the Snuffed Out Soul

The First Mourning- Bouguereau
Pain and love came into the world as conjoined twins. No one can escape the grief that comes with rejection, having to watch someone they care about suffer, or the separation that death brings. But in a short-sighted, pathetic attempt, our culture tries. Driven by cowardice and complacency, the goal of objectification is to maximize reward and minimize risk; to simultaneously escape both loneliness and consequence.

To say that this is a spreading problem is undeniable-- pornography has grown into an economic titan, television and film are becoming increasingly adult-themed, and the female form is exploited at every opportunity. All these mechanisms have a common engine that strives to take one thing out of the equation-- their subject's personalities. They exploit the beautiful, and in the act, remove the sublime.

Wanderer Above the Sea Fog- Friedrich
German philosopher Immanuel Kant distinguished the beautiful from the sublime by defining the beautiful as something that is found in a contained form. It has defined boundaries and shape, and it is this shape that usually causes our appreciation of the thing. The sublime, on the other hand, is limitless, expansive, and infinite. Kant felt that we can experience the sublime in two ways—either at the moment we realize something is beyond our capability to measure it or at the moment we realize that something has limitless power and the capability to destroy us, yet it has no dominion over us. If we run with Kant’s definition, then to experience the sublimity of love requires acknowledging the terror that accompanies vulnerability. Any man who has experienced this knows that women’s souls can be explosive and nebulous. One moment they can feel like a summer breeze, the next a harsh wind. To say the least, they are immeasurable. Too frequently this causes men to seek out cheap imitations of companionship that don't require risk-- either by wasting away in their dark rooms with pornography or behaving promiscuously (by this I mean expressing strong romantic feelings loosely and without conviction) with a different girl every weekend. These actions ironically distance us further and further from what it is we actually desire.

Ours is a culture obsessed with the beautiful. It seeks to capture it with film, pixels, and sounds. Our eyes have been trained to drift instantly to the measurable aspects of female interactions. Too often our conversations about women are uninspired—how hot was she? What was her body like? Instead, where are the men who are less concerned with a woman’s shape but whether or not her mind has stretched out into the far reaches of her potential? When we stop recognizing the limitless in each other, we stifle it.

 The hard truth is that recognizing the majesty of the female soul increases our sense of hesitation in approaching it. Unfortunately, simply having the courage to allow ourselves to be vulnerable doesn't always result in sublime experiences. Unlike many of the forces of nature, we can't always have control over others souls like we wish we could. We can't force others to feel for us the way we feel for them. But if we as men choose to hold out with some integrity, then we can eventually reach the sublime experience described by Kant: we will share dominion with a woman not because we force her, but because she has chosen to offer it freely to us as we offer ourselves to her in harmonious partnership. We are then exposed to both of Kant's concepts of the sublime-- another soul, limitless and measureless, has aligned itself with our own, replacing our vulnerability with security. This pursuit requires strong people who are willing to shutout the pervasive influences that tell us to seek out the easy in life. It requires both patience and ferocity and a desire to cultivate the depths of our own souls while helping others do the same. In this framework, pain no longer becomes a hindrance, but a foundation.

Ezra Pound described the need for these kind of men in the last two stanzas of his poem "Revolt:"

Great God, if men are grown but pale sick phantoms
That must live only in these mists and tempered lights
And tremble for dim hours that knock o'er loud
Or tread too violent in passing them;

Great God, if these thy sons are grown such thin ephemera,
I bid thee grapple chaos and beget
Some new titanic spawn to pile the hills and stir
This earth again.