EPILOGUE part 2
Secondly, when people accepted religion they usually make a bold public statement by being baptized or by coming to the front of the coliseum to be "Saved." It should hold for the inverse that in reneging religion it should be a solitary act of contrition. He chose a private ceremony in front of the magnificence of infinity.
By being alone he was sure to act sincerely. He didn't want to resign from The Church in protest of all the bigotry and chauvinism he had observed. There were plenty of other people willing to do that.
Jack had read and agreed with H.D. Thoreau on the subject of civil disobedience. He sympathized with non-violent protest in politics, but this didn't fit into that category. He had made a commitment to himself that he would not try to dissuade other people from their religious beliefs. Besides, he had done enough proselyting to last a healthy lifetime.
Jack could defend his assertion that the Mormon religious doctrines were absurd but would do so only in a cool and rational discussion. The public is inspired more by sound bites. He did not want to incite a mob. People follow charismatic and bold leaders to hear the expression of their own disenchantment. The mob thrives on the blood of a scapegoat, often without recourse to logic or reason.
He recalled the frenzied wrestling audience. That mob took strength from the popular hero as he vanquished the evil foe. They were actors as many of his missionary friends had been actors, but in their own way they believed in what they were doing. Jack was now on the outside looking in.
Religion did have its benefits and deserved both public protection and his personal respect. If it made life tolerable and even pleasurable for most people, that was a social good. If it did their ethical thinking for them, it probably did a better job of it than most people were capable of on their own, that was a social good. It helped people live decent, useful lives, that was a social good. Having very specific guidelines for one's life was a benefit of religion, not a drawback for most people.
There was even more to it than those practical advantages. The convenience of repentance and repeated absolution from sin was a compelling myth that had a tremendous appeal. If it tended to reduce responsibility for personal actions, it relieved people from the oppressive burden of their own guilt. On balance it was useful. Most people needed this kind of healing. Lucky hadn't apparently. He had chased life looking for it's benefits without any guilt or guile. His life was intense, short, but never apologetic.
Jack's mind went blank for a moment as an unclear picture of his cousin tried to make an apparition in the shadows of the smoke. He hadn't completed mourning for his lost friend. He still felt sorry for himself, because there was something missing in his life. The death of a loved one is a personal tragedy because part of grief is feeling sorry for oneself.
Giving up a religion the way Jack intended, was a personal tragedy when it involved losing a support system, friends and not returning to so many fond memories. He felt a surge of deep loneliness grip his sensibilities. He was alone and without the comfort of religion, and suffered from the burden of a conflicting nostalgia. Is loneliness the curse of a freethinker? He had a long life ahead to be concerned about such questions.
Possibly loneliness was the curse of all humanity, no matter how deeply one thought. Like Existential Angst, it was possible to be preoccupied with death and oppressed by seeing one's entire life at a single glance. Religion helped people escape that overpowering, desperate sense of loneliness. Or was Jack just being cynical? Should there be more to it than that?
The fire sent out a bright spark and brought Jack's attention back to his purpose. He placed another garment on the fire. Anyone could learn about life the way ancient people learned about fire.
His life would be different. He would no longer have the luxury of repentance, for example. If he made a deliberate mistake or spoke a falsehood, he would have to suffer the consequences quite apart from any fear of punishment in the after-life. Since he no longer had a belief in the tenants of The Church, regretting the loss of such convenience mechanisms as repentance was purely an academic exercise.
He could create standards for his own life the way he had created his own etiquette for the use of eating utensils. By learning to cut his meat with his left hand he had created a better method not only for himself but one that could be accepted by others and improve society. Thoughtful people could improve culture by refining each detail of their lives.
There were some people, like Lucky, for whom such considerations were simply superfluous. Now, even Jack was interested in living a more sensational life, combining the best from his own experience with the best from the life of his lost cousin. Jack didn't expect to follow Lucky's pattern precisely, he hoped to learn to enjoy the best life had to offer. He could be thrilled by the same pleasures that had excited Lucky without his crudeness. There was art even in that reckless and restless life.
The spell was broken. Like Lucky's life, Jack's struggle for conviction was ended. Humpty Dumpty could never be restored. He had to replace that structure with constructive guidelines of his own creation. The simple act of staying alive was instinctive, animals did that. But the challenge was creating reasons for living! That was where the art of living began. Life without the benefit of a deity was not only possible, but could be very fulfilling.
He could always search for answers by using the Cubed Rubric. The best alternative to religion he had found was to recognize life as an art-form. This was probably the most significant success Jack had during his sojourn in Italy, paradoxically. He went to teach others about the Mormon God, and ended teaching himself to appreciate the beauty in life without dependence on a belief in any god. Along the way there were those who argued that life had no meaning without a concept of god or an after-life. Jack learned that the meaning of life was more poignant and sensible when he finally discovered how to explain it in this very new, more realistic context. Solving such a riddle is even more exciting than having the solution handed to you. Again, the process was the most important element. This made the time in Italy worthwhile.
He paused his mental revelry to throw another set of garments into the eager flames. Was he another step closer to "self-fulfillment," as some people liked to suggest? This was such a strange concept. He felt religious people could be perfectly "self-fulfilled." That hadn't occurred to him before. The search for self-fulfillment was not a deliberate part of his motivation for leaving religion. It sounded too much like a cliche`.
Was there anything about self-fulfillment that related to what he had achieved? Longing for self-fulfillment seemed conceited and egotistical. Maybe he just didn't understand the concept that was all the rage in the pop culture of America. He was making his own way in life because he had to, not because he wanted to. Beyond that, he had taken pains to make sure he could clearly help others if needed, outside his own self. He did not want to surrender a life of service to a life of self. Most animals had powerful group instincts that went well beyond self-fulfillment. It all depended on how vaguely or specifically one defined that concept.
He had repudiated his former beliefs and now he was simply and finally casting aside the tailings of those superstitions. He didn't expect to be more happy because of this, however. For him it was the only choice, religious people could be very happy. He had seen that.
It would be many years before he realized how unique it is to create peace of mind out of such inner turmoil. Even more before he could clearly enunciate his ideas. He had yet to be humbled by scope of this task, that would come too. He felt the confidence of youth. He could reason his way through life. To an eager, ambitious young man nothing looks daunting. But, the real struggles were just beginning.
Living in a religion such as the Catholic Church is like being an artist slavishly captive to a certain technique of painting. Each new work of art, each new life was caste in the same medium, with the same style, yet displaying a family resemblance.
The Hindu had their own brush and tinted the world they found with their own biases and shades of color. Leading a simple, ascetic life was an internal triumph but they became blind to the need to contribute their innate talents to the enrichment of mankind.
The unique Islamic symbols were symptoms of a different formalism. A strict association with a way of life derived from a single charismatic leader should always be suspect. A life that follows these forms can be elegant but will never move beyond to the beauty that is possible when life is inspired by independent thoughtfulness. The basic human need for security and authority is satisfied, but beyond that is where the art of life begins.
How does one go about creating a meaningful life in the absence of any of these structures, unconstrained by doctrine or myth? It's reasonably simple to look around and find out what works in society. Those actions that lead toward a better functioning society ought to be given strong consideration. An enlightened, thoughtful society creates its own morality.
The caveat of following one's own plan is that it not be arbitrary, destructive or frivolous. What is there to restrain even that? Civil law is the lowest restraint. The search for art is a much higher standard. A life of beauty is none of those, not arbitrary, not destructive, not frivolous.
Jack recalled the exhibition of paintings by Picasso in Florence, Italy. He was inspired by the freedom of expression they projected. Those unorthodox structures expressed the essence of the war torn psyche, the emotional life of the subjects and by extension all of humanity. Rather than merely duplicate trivial physical forms there was a celebration of mystery. That extra effort, the eccentric struggle for creativity and poignancy, demands attention. Being willing to put more into it than you get out of it adds to the total of a worthwhile, satisfying life. This gives birth to the art in life.
The artist of life, like the architect, seeks to build a structure that is in harmony with the circumstances that surround it but at the same time displays the idiosyncratic characteristics of its own genius. The beautiful life can rise above mundane circumstances and contribute to Enlightenment by enhancing the ethical and cultural evolution of society. Life can become more than just rational choices, it can be an inspired search for excellence.
Jack had been formulating this opinion for the last six months and saw this evening as a way of launching himself emotionally into such a life. This event was more a commencement than an ending. He would mark time from this day.
He cautiously placed the last of garments on the fire, smiling slightly as it disappeared. He was distancing himself from those industrious people, Mormons. Their closeness and network of business and social connections created an ethnic community that endeavored to support and engulf all its members. That network was a good part of the religion, Jack would eschew its suffocating influence.
He thought the dogmas of religions were absurd fairy tales but he didn't agree that religions were the villains responsible for the ills of society. They may tend to hold people in mental cramps but only those for whom the need for structure and comfort overrides their ability to strike out on their own. Many people do break away. For the others, religion provides the source of strength it's adherents could probably never gain by themselves.
When mobilized to the point of protest, the expression of religious extremism was closer to mob hysteria than to righteous indignation. Such is the case with those who demonstrate against abortion based on their own religious bias. They seek to subvert the very freedom of belief and choice that protects their right of expression. Otherwise, when religious training is used constructively, it is conducive to an organized, well-functioning society. In these cases, religions earn their tax free status. The Mormons have Relief Society, Home Teaching, the Welfare System and Fast Offering fund programs. He acknowledged the potential for redeeming ethical and social value of religious endeavor.
In any case, Jack didn't perceive himself as an outspoken leader against religion. Although he had been trained to take a leading role, he was burned-out on religion and weary of the subject matter, pro or con. He had created an innovative system but he didn't know what to do with it. It was just something he felt he had to do. If it could be used to enhance family life and replace the socialization that religious groups provided, it would be beneficial. The Cubed Rubric was probably too complicated for most people to appreciate. To be widely accepted such training aides had to be simple.
It's easy to tare down a structure with a few words of cynicism but difficult to create a functional replacement even with a detailed, patient effort. That's why he was hesitant to argue against anyone who claimed to have a strong conviction. He preferred to sustain belief, if given the choice. Furthermore, the people he found willing to listen to him and potentially participate in lengthy, detailed discussions, such as his brother Sid, usually already agreed with his point of view. In these conversations a few words would suffice to explain an idea that both parties already shared.
He looked at the ashes of the garments; that which had special significance for Mormons, seemed trivial now. The childish markings stitched into the fabric over the knees and on the chest were gone. By this time he had already forgotten the specific details that accompanied these markings. He only remembered that one was a reminder to be chaste, another was for faithfulness to the beliefs. Each marking is to remind the virtuous members of certain promises made during the temple ceremony called an Endowment. In conjunction with the promises goes a stern warning that the wrath of God may descend upon those who are unfaithful or divulge these secrets.
Jack was aware that he qualified in a general way for that wrath. Even though he remained a virgin after more than 23 years of an eager life, there were other transgressions that would anger the Mormon God, not the least of which was his quiet rebellion and apostasy. This reminiscence vanished just as fast as it arrived because he felt no guilt for his present course of action. He had counseled himself free of that. His former commitments passed quickly out of his mind as each promise was consumed in flames.
He acknowledged to himself that his virginity was intact due more to his fortuitous choice of girlfriends rather than to his own fortitude. He accepted the theory that abstinence from sexual intercourse was a realistic alternative for people as they matured because of the intense, instinctive, emotional connections such intercourse might create. But, he also regretted those lost opportunities. There was a void where he imagined a healthy, intriguing memory might otherwise keep him company on lonely evenings.
He had abstained from alcohol, cigarettes, Coca Cola, coffee and most other vices The Church decries in the "Word of Wisdom." He saw no need to continue this strict abstinence, and accepted the principle of moderation in all things, even abstinence. He accepted the best part of these teachings because they led to a healthy body.
Burning these garments in public, had he chosen to do so, would have been like burning the US flag in public. This would become part of a counterculture, fashionable in the 1980's. He regarded it as an inane form of protest. It was defended as being related to free speech. The connection between burning the flag and free speech was tenuous at best. Burning draft cards was a closer comparison. Those who protested the Vietnam conflict during this time of political turmoil were rebelling against their government. His own ceremony was probably related to these gestures in some logical way if he could just rationalize it, but he was beginning to get tired and could no longer think so deeply.
More likely, the relationship between these protests and this ritual sacrifice was circumstantial, because there were as many differences as similarities. Burning a statue or cross as an effigy for a person or concept had a long tradition in the history of both political and religious protest, but these were more frequently the result of bigotry or mob action than well reasoned thought.
Self immolation, as practiced by Buddhist Monks, was the ultimate protest. All other protests involving fire paled by comparison into mere pyromania. This simple gesture had at least a trace of that sincerity of purpose for Jack.
As he watched the declining flames, his eyes grew tired and strayed into a stare. The muscles holding his eyes in focus relaxed and his vision was parallel. Two images danced on the screen of his mind rather than one, but neither made a coherent impression. His imagination was transported into the unmeasured, minute depths of infinity contained inside atoms. Then he conceived the most vast, unreachable, unimaginably large infinity beyond the visible range of stars. It was this connection to more than a purely mathematical infinity, and the emotional accommodation to it that displaced religious belief for Jack.
It was the same as when he was a child and began to relish his vision of "the far away." He lost his fear of being unattached to the security of his physical surroundings. He had lost his fear of being unattached to the mythology of religion. There was a compelling mystery in infinity wherever it was found. He had gained a respect and appreciation for that, but that didn't prove anything. He didn't have to rationalize a belief to satisfy his lack of capability to understand infinity.
Religious belief is fearful and desperate if it is based on the fire and brimstone evangelism or emotional blackmail. This belief is simpleminded if it is only a convenient reaction to the need to have answers, any answers. It is more profound if it is consciously based on an appreciation of the mystery that engulfs the world. Man can be forgiven for surrendering to a realization of his insignificance in the face of infinite Nature. When we acknowledge the limited nature of our own perceptions as the roots of religious belief, we begin to acknowledge the possibility for life as art.
Most people simply lack the capability to cope with the vast emptiness of infinity. Most of those who once perceive life in those terms lack the courage to face what for them are moments of desperation. They escape from their mental confusion to some hallowed refuge. These are the people who create absurdity in religion. Those who captured this mystery and incorporated it into their ritual came closer to giving proper homage to the vastness of the Universe and to the conspicuously limited role of humanity. Ritual is metaphor for reality when it engenders a spiritual connection to infinity.
Many people simply avoided the issue altogether and are probably no worse off. Lucky was one of these, even his life contained mystery and was a study in service.
Jack could appreciate the mystery of the Universe better without all the accompanying trappings and myths. It was more honest to say "I don't know," then proceed to solve the puzzle of life.
Jack recalled when he was much younger, maybe ten or so, he watched professional wrestling on TV with some of his family. He didn't experience the same kind of annoyance then as he had this evening. He and Lucky could become absorbed in the event and take allegiance to a favorite contestant. They honestly enjoyed the action and had been involved emotionally in the contest. For some reason a few years passed before he watched the sport again, then he recognized that the moves and holds were phoney. He could see this entertainment as a socialized form of rutting common to many wild animal species. The wrestlers were acrobats and the results must have been choreographed in advance. The Champion was already picked! But that explains what it means to be captured by religious belief.
He had experienced a sense of disappointment that a favorite activity was proven fraudulent and could never again be seen in the same light. Yet there was also some juvenile satisfaction that he was able to recognize the deception. He had grown mentally and physically and was no longer captured by the lie. But at the same time he lost his innocence, he lost a source of excitement and pleasure. He never enjoyed professional wrestling again. Losing religion made Jack feel the same kind of sadness now. It just wasn't fun anymore.
The sudden disenchantment with the highly theatrical sport of wrestling curiously paralleled and presaged the growth from his early religious upbringing. There was nothing sensational about his current state of disenfranchisement from his former religion, it had just happened and he couldn't get back in. He had moved from excitement about religion to opposition. There is no in between.
The smile he wore was not one of spite or false pride, but one of compassion and solicitude, appreciation for the enjoyment and excitement that comes from passionate belief.
Now the "rapture" was only a memory but it had been real. He could recognize it, he could see it and appreciate it in others but he couldn't recapture it for himself. He was on the outside looking in.
He took the shovel from its bracket and poked at the coals and remnants of cloth. He created another small flame adding garbage from the sides of the "alter" to urge the fire into one last burst of energy.
He remembered his inability to distinguish between emotionality and what was described by others as spirituality. He had enjoyed passionate moments of enthusiasm for his religious convictions. In retrospect that didn't seem to have been the result of spirituality. He doubted there was such a thing as spiritual aptitude. Having a certain knowledge would be spectacular, as some people claimed. It would be easier to believe The Gospel and be guided by prophecy and The Teachings than setting about organizing his own life.
The flames declined. That simple, elegant treasure of religious conviction was gone in much the same way. Maybe he just hadn't given his convictions enough fuel. He denied the dualism of body and spirit, there was just body and mystery.
As he put the last garment on the fire he remembered the mosaics in a church in Ravenna, Italy. His fellow missionaries were convinced these were similar to ancient temple garments. It all mattered little now. A superstition which lasted 2000 years was still a superstition. Jack had endured the inconvenience of garments without complaint and with indifference after the first few weeks These costumes never ceased to be the source of jokes and scorn among fellow missionaries. Young missionaries entered into the most serious activity of their lives fidgeting, squirming and in general self-conscious about having their private parts protruding beyond reasonable limits.
All this considered, his decision to sacrifice these garments was less connected with the inconvenience than to the special religious symbolism and commitments involved. He was now free and compelled to pursue his own path.
Jake had said, reminiscent of a youthful dare: "Why don't you write a book about all your experiences as a missionary?"
He could not give a short answer about the status of his faith and be fair, he was too tired for that. Any explanation about religion had to be thorough, not a cryptic comment, he was too impatient for that. It is too easy to misconstrue any argument as a diatribe against his family and the people who helped him, he was too considerate for that.
Doing philosophy wasn't like doing a scientific experiment that followed a predetermined path. When he could take the time to prepare the slow and often arduous progress from one conclusion to the next he would do so but not so soon after his mission was over. Besides all that, his emotions associated with The Church were still too strong, too close. He felt a nostalgic fondness. His emotional strength was still emerging.
He reflected briefly on his training when he had wrestled with his own doubts during the time that preceded his decision to "enter the mission field," as Mormons phrase it. He drew a deep breath. He briefly allowed himself to reflect on the excitement with which he had approached the first challenges. He still held a wistful nostalgia for those dreams and beliefs.
He was convinced that religion helps people develop the capacity to cope with life. He didn't want to say anything to upset that balance. The book would have to wait until he could tell the entire story.