I want to share some thoughts that I heard last Sunday in church. The topic was “otherness,” which sounds as ambiguous as the lesson was. At first I couldn’t understand what the teacher was even talking about, but by the end, I felt thoroughly enlightened.
It began with a story about Brigham Young (warning to the scholarly reader: I’m too lazy to search for references). Some people came to him with difficult problem, asking for his advice. He told them to go read the scriptures. These people were taken aback, unable to understand how reading the scriptures related to their problem. They asked which book or passage they should read from. Brother Brigham replied that it didn’t matter. What was important was that they immerse themselves with the of the scriptures (a language that was not of the world), and that in so doing, they would be touched by the Spirit of God and attain a state of sufficient intelligence and discernment through which they could solve this particular problem.
It’s as if Brigham Young were saying, “You’ll find the answer to your equation by plugging the variables into a completely unrelated formula.” This logic doesn’t jive well with our modern world, where empiricism reigns supreme.
I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts and watching a lot of documentaries on world history. Though the commentators and subjects are unrelated, one theme that works its way into nearly every presentation is religion. Though religion is still a big part of most people’s lives, a hundred or two years prior and straight back to the beginning of humanity, religion was a HUGE part. By modern standards, practically everyone in the middle ages was a religious fanatic. In short, you could say that the ancient world was generally Platonic, and the modern world is generally Aristotelian. By generally focusing on the real world instead of the spiritual and abstract, we’ve been able to make rapid strides in civilization and science. But have there been any costs in abandoning the religious “fanaticism” of our forebearers?
One evidence that we’re missing something is our obsession with fantasy. The teacher of this lesson has been a film and TV director. He told us his observation that movies with intense fantasy elements generally sold much better than movies that were more realistic. It’s evident that not only are we tired of the practical world and long to escape into something more exciting, but we have an inherent longing for a word beyond that which we can perceive with our natural senses. And yet, day-to-day, we fully invest ourselves in the practical world. Especially in matters of controversy, it’s become unfashionable to defend one’s opinion with, “It just feels right,” or “this is my belief,” while far more acceptable to say, “According to such and such a study …”
For the devout Platonist, the temptation could arise to flip to the other extreme and say, “The world as we know it is nothing but an illusion, and only by freeing ourselves from it can we achieve enlightenment.” Mormonism takes a unique stance somewhere between these two extremes. It’s our belief that up until a few years ago, each and every one of us were resident beings of this other world, and that there were some things we simply could not learn without having a physical experience. After all, you can’t learn Spanish by reading about it in English. You have to immerse yourself in a Spanish environment. Thus, as we are truly spiritual beings having a physical experience, to seek to free ourselves from the physical world would be a mistake. And yet, at our cores, we do belong to the “other” world. Our purpose, it seems, is both to learn how to be physical while simultaneously rediscovering our spiritual roots.
The challenge is learning to achieve this balance. It’s an inherent challenge, because “the natural man is an enemy to God.” In other words, being born into physical bodies, spirituality comes anything but naturally to us. According to this article, our right brain is responsible for selfishness, and the less we focus on it, the more “spirituality” we feel.
Perhaps one reason why our world has become less spiritually-minded is because in a day of instant communication, loud music, and fast food, as opposed to the slowness and quietness of the days of yore, we have little patience for ambiguity, and at a quick glance, the “other” world simply doesn’t compute. As a beginner immerses himself in Spanish, most of it won’t make sense. But to the diligent student, the mysteries will gradually be replaced by understanding, knowledge, and eventually power.
The Holy Ghost is that little ear bud that helps us to make sense of this other world, communicating things to our understanding that we can’t yet explain rationally, helping us to make the transition from the “natural man” to the enlightened man, until we’re no longer driven by our flesh but by something higher. When we achieve this state of enlightenment, we find that that the things of the “other” world, are in fact, fully rational, but had we never taken the plunge into what seemed at the time as irrational, we would have never known.
And that, I think, is what Brigham Young meant.