“For the founders and for all spiritual teachers — and by ‘founders,’ by the way, I want to broaden the founders to include people who came later, including such people, of course, as Lincoln and also — one people may find strange — Frederick Douglass and people like that who spoke very powerfully of conscience. Conscience is an absolute power within the human psyche to intuit real values of good and evil and right and wrong. We are born with that capacity. It’s not just socially conditioned into us. This is what the great traditions teach. This is what I think. But it is covered over by a lot of the egoism and chaos of our un-free inner life.”—
A democratic citizen is not a citizen who can do anything he wants. It’s a citizen who has an obligation at the same time. And just to give you an example, if I may, the freedom of speech, what is the duty associated with it?
Well, if I have the right to speak, I have the duty to let you speak. Now, that’s not so simple. It doesn’t mean just to stop my talking and wait till you’re finished and then come in and get you. It means I have an obligation inwardly — and that’s what we’re speaking about, is the inner dimension. Inwardly, I have to work at listening to you. That means I don’t have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us. And that is a very interesting work of the human being, don’t you think?
“Individualism and individuality have to be separated. Individualism can take a turn where it’s a kind of egoistic, selfish thing: Me, me, me, me, and what I want and what I care, what I think and what I like. Oh sure, we need to have the liberty to express all that, but a real individual is a different thing. And to be truly one’s self is to be truly in contact with this great self within, this divinity within. And the paradox of true individuality is that the more you are in touch with what all human beings have in common under God, the more you are uniquely what you, yourself, are. And that’s why I say we need to bring back the obligations that go along with the rights in order to understand the depths of what the human rights really mean.”—
Are human beings intrinsically good but corruptible by the forces of evil, or the reverse, innately sinful yet redeemable by the forces of good? Are we built to pledge our lives to a group, even to the risk of death, or the opposite, built to place ourselves and our families above all else? Scientific evidence, a good part of it accumulated during the past 20 years, suggests that we are all of these things simultaneously. Each of us is inherently complicated. We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners — not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal — but because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution. …
The eternal conflict is not God’s test of humanity. It is not a machination of Satan. It is just the way things worked out. It might be the only way in the entire universe that human-level intelligence and social organization can evolve. We will find a way eventually to live with our inborn turmoil, and perhaps find pleasure in viewing it as a primary source of our creativity.
“Serpent handlers, like other Christians, have chosen something to emphasize. Over the course of two thousand years, others have chosen the precise nature and identity of Christ, the proper understanding and practice of the Eucharist, the correct way to baptize, the proper way to organize a church, which day of the week to call the Sabbath, and any number of other things as the sine qua non of being a true Christian, and in each case some other Christians have regarded that defining center of faith as ‘adiaphora’ — something indifferent.”—
For my father’s memorial service, my sister suggested that I stand before the congregation and say, “We’d like to share with you exactly what it was like to live with our father. So let’s have a moment of silence.”
It’s not that Dad didn’t speak, it’s that he didn’t speak about the personal. He could rant against George McGovern and lift Richard Nixon up as a god, but remain entirely silent about my sister’s adolescent breakdown. A few years later, he declared my hero Jimmy Carter the “greatest embarrassment the White House has ever seen,” but didn’t say a word about my recent emergence from the closet.
Dad built his life on the foundations of a suburban existence: retirement plans, company loyalty, and a close-knit family that gathered to wave him down the street each morning and waited each night for his return. True to his class and time, he made himself a Manhattan before dinner and smoked incessantly. No one was going to change that.
But behind this rigid façade lay a man tragically eager to please. As kids we could always talk him into a double-scoop cone, if we could just get him away from Mom. As an adult, I learned that this tendency went much deeper.
Dad went to medical school because his parents told him to. Failing that, he accepted their second choice and became a mechanical engineer. In a rare moment of intimacy, on a father-son camping trip to the High Sierra, he confessed that his dream was to be a park ranger. I wonder what his life would have been if he’d had the courage to follow that ambition. Perhaps he would have found his voice leading nature hikes and campfire programs.
Dad never broke the habit of trying to please his parents, but he made sure that we didn’t suffer the same fate. He applauded my high school theatricals and provided financial support for a creative college major. On my weekly calls home, he always made sure that I was writing, though he never inquired about the specifics.
True to his nature, he remained silent and stoic through my mother’s seven-year battle with cancer, and continued so when he was diagnosed himself two years after her death. During Dad’s final months, I bathed him, mopped up his bodily fluids, and listened for changes in his breathing. The only concern he voiced was for the future of his dog, an oversized Sheltie who watches as I write.
It was Dad’s Lutheran pastor who put his silence into context. Older congregants, he said, had expressed a need for guidance as they considered death’s approach. My father provided the model they were seeking. Church members who visited in his final weeks all returned with the same tale: Dad was quiet, uncomplaining, unafraid.
In the end, we didn’t ask for a moment of silence at Dad’s memorial service. Instead I shared a story about Saint Francis sending his brothers out to spread the Gospel and telling them, “If necessary, use words.” When one of Dad’s elderly neighbors caught my eye and smiled her appreciation, I knew we’d made the right choice.
Dad was a quiet man, but he renounced his parents’ prejudices, encouraged his children’s ambitions, overcame his own homophobia to welcome new family members, and remained a steady presence through his wife’s long illness. If St. Francis is right, and our actions speak louder than our words, you might say the man never shut up.
Norman Allen is a playwright living in Washington, DC. His plays include In The Garden (Charles MacArthur Award), Nijinsky’s Last Dance (Helen Hayes Award), and The House Halfway, to be produced at this summer’s Source Theatre Festival in Washington, DC.
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“It seems to me that while other cities may be mortal, this one will remain as long as there are men on earth.”—Petrus Gyllius (1490-1555), the French scientist and translator on the city of Istanbul as quoted in Strolling Through Istanbul
An intimate portrait of ex-Yugoslavian émigré artist Slobodan Dan Paich, Silent Crescendo follows his daily ritual of creating simple drawings with tea and ink. In response to the modern pace of the art scene, Slobodan has embraced these fluid works of art to express his searching approach to life.
Dorothée Royal-Hedinger is a producer at the Global Oneness Project, which produces and distributes films, media, and educational materials that challenge people to rethink their relationship to the world and connect them to our greater human potential. She lives in San Rafael, California.
"The first experience is going through the sunlit area and into the twilight zone where sunlight fades and darkness begins to take over. It’s like the deepest twilight, or earliest dawn."
A beautifully told narrative of bamboo corals and coral reefs as seen by one who has been there.
About the photo: Sylvia Earle descends into the darkness, trekking with this “Jim” suit as her only protection from hundreds of pounds of pressure per square inch created by being a quarter-mile under from the ocean’s surface.
The Wrong Side of White: Black Mormons in a Presidential Year
by W. Paul Reeve, guest contributor
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism) has consistently found itself on the wrong side of white. In a recent New York Times article, “Black Mormons and the Politics of Identity,” an embedded video begins with a Times reporter commenting “it may come as a surprise to people that there are black Mormons in America.” It is a telling statement that captures the nexus of the LDS Church’s racial past and its efforts to realize a more diverse racial future.
Although few in number, blacks have been a part of the LDS movement from its founding to the present. The first documented African American to join the LDS Church was a former slave known only in the historical record as “Black Pete.” He became a member at Kirtland, Ohio, in 1830, the year of the Church’s founding. More significantly, at least two black men, Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis, were ordained to the Mormon priesthood in the Church’s early years. Abel participated in Mormon temple rituals at Kirtland and was baptized as proxy for a deceased friend and two relatives at Nauvoo, Illinois.
In this regard, it is most accurate to speak of integrated priesthood and temples in Mormonism’s early years, a progressive stance in a charged national racial context. At the same time that the nation moved toward legal segregation in the wake of Reconstruction’s demise, the open space for full black participation in Mormonism gave way in fits and starts. By the first decade of the twentieth century race-based priesthood and temple bans were firmly in place.
It is impossible to understand that trajectory without first understanding the ways in which white Mormons themselves were racialized. The prevailing American fear of interracial mixing played a significant role in that process, especially as outsiders projected their own alarm over race mixing onto Mormons. At Kirtland, outsiders suggested that Black Pete received revelations to marry white women. In Missouri settlers argued that Mormons were inviting free black converts to that state, not only to incite a slave rebellion but to steal white women.
After the Mormons openly announced the practice of polygamy in 1852, the charge of interracial mixing took on a life of its own. One Army doctor filed a report with the United States Senate in which he claimed polygamy was giving rise to a degenerate “race.” Political cartoons depicted interracial polygamous families, sometimes with black, Asian, and Native American wives mixed in among the white. In a variety of ways outsiders constructed Mormons as racially suspect, facilitators of interracial mixing and therefore of racial contamination. As one news account put it, “the days of the white race are numbered in this country.” At the crux of this fearful deterioration was the “American of the future,” “a black Mormon.”
Against such a charged national racial backdrop, Mormons responded with an effort to claim whiteness for themselves. In 1852, Brigham Young drew upon the curses of Cain, Ham, and Canaan, derived from long standing Judeo-Christian Biblical exegeses, to bar black men from the priesthood. Leaders later expanded the policy to include temple worship for black men and women, except for proxy baptisms for their deceased ancestors. In 1908, leaders cemented those policies in place when historical forgetfulness trumped verifiable evidence to misremember that the bans had always been there, divine mandates that only God could rescind.
With that reconstructed memory as the new guiding principle, it took Spencer W. Kimball, the faith’s mild and unassuming prophet, to overturn the ban. In 1978, Kimball announced a revelation which returned Mormonism to its universalistic roots and reintegrated its priesthood and temples.
Since that time, Mormon growth in Africa has been rapid, while the pace among blacks at home has been much slower. The bans and the doctrines that supported them sometimes plague missionary efforts among blacks and make it difficult to retain converts once they join. LDS leaders have yet to repudiate past teachings which shored up the bans, a lingering problem that makes it possible for various iterations of those teachings to live on in the hearts and minds of some members.
In the meantime, black Mormons, like their coreligionists of all stripes, must decide how they will vote in this historic election year. It is a contest that is poised to pit the nation’s first president of African ancestry against the first Mormon of any color to capture a major party nomination. Mitt Romney’s ascendency to the top of the GOP ticket might signal to some Mormons that their historically pariah faith has finally arrived. In that regard, Romney may very well mark Mormonism’s full racial passage to whiteness. It is an awkwardly-timed if not tepid acceptance that coincides with Mormon attempts to claim a more diverse racial identity for themselves — witness the “I Am a Mormon” national media campaign featuring a heterogeneous group of Latter-day Saints as the faces of modern Mormonism.
Unlike his Mormon ancestors, no one today questions Mitt Romney’s whiteness. One culture critic went so far as to call him “the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory.” It is a designation that Mormons craved a century ago, but one that comes as a liability today. The historical arc of Mormonism’s racial dance is richly ironic. In the nineteenth century they were denigrated as not white enough, by the twenty-first century, as too white.
W. Paul Reeve is Associate Professor of History at the University of Utah. He is writing a book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, under contract at Oxford University Press.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines sounds depths I had never considered before, between mathematical truths and great existential questions. It does so by probing the parallel lives and ideas of Turing and another pivotal 20th-century mathematician, Kurt Gödel. Turing’s discoveries were made possible in part by Gödel, who shook the worlds of mathematics, philosophy, and logic in 1931 with his “incompleteness theorems.” They demonstrated that some mathematical truths can never be proven. Or, as Gödel says in Janna Levin’s novel, “Mathematics is perfect. But it is not complete. To see some truths you must stand outside and look in.” This held unsettling scientific and human implications; it posited hard limits to what we can ever logically, definitively know.
Janna Levin is an atheist, if we care to categorize her. And while that simple fact informs our conversation along with her exquisite intelligence and her mathematical training, we cover territory that can’t be bounded by such definitions. Janna Levin’s most certain “faith” is in the conviction that we can agree on basic realities described by mathematics — that 1 plus 1 will always equal 2. Putting God into that equation, or barring God from it, is not her concern. Yet this conversation is a beautiful example of the deep complementarity of religious and scientific questions, if not of answers. The ideas and questions Janna Levin lives and breathes open my mind to new ways of wondering about purpose, meaning, and ultimate reality.
There is much in her thought that I struggle to comprehend and will continue to ponder. I’m intrigued, at the same time, by echoes with the wisdom of ordinary life. Gödel’s idea that there are some truths we can only see at an angle — by standing outside, looking in — is a fact even in the work I do, of speaking of faith. The deepest truths are usually impossible to see and articulate straight on.
And I feel a kindred pull to Janna Levin’s delight and passion in the great narrative of the world and humanity, epitomized in these lines from her book that we read in the show:
"I am looking on benches and streets, in logic and code. I am looking in the form of truth stripped to the bone. Truth that lives independently of us, that exists out there in the world. Hard and unsentimental. I am ready to accept truth no matter how alarming it turns out to be. Even if it proves incompleteness and the limits of human reason. Even if it proves we are not free."
Of all the ideas Janna Levin presents, the most provocative and disturbing, perhaps, is her doubt that there is free will in human existence at all. She cannot be sure that we are not utterly determined by brilliant principles of physics and biology. Yet she cleaves more fiercely in the face of this belief to the reality of her love of her children and her hopes and dreams for them. She sees “evidence of our purpose” in figures like Gödel and Turing, even though they did not the find the clarity in life that they wrested from mathematics on all our behalf.
Paradoxically, perhaps, the world feels more spacious to me after this conversation with Janna Levin — even, to use her words, if it suggests incompleteness and the limits of human reason and faith; even if it suggests we are not free. She possesses a quality that keeps me interviewing scientists as often as a I can — a delight in beauty, a comfort with mystery, a limitless ambition for one’s grandest ideas combined with a humility about them that many religious people could learn from.