Maestro of Dissent: Finding my religion: A spritual and intellectual journey

This is an op-ed I wrote this week for the campus newspaper.

I read Bret Matthew’s recent follow up (”Losing my religion: a follow-up,” October 2 issue) to his column from almost a year ago (”Losing My religion: A rant about non-believing,” December 5 issue) with much introspection and joy. On a personal level, because my three years at Brandeis have been for me a similar spiritual and intellectual journey—albeit with unexpected results—I felt a deep connection and understanding.

On a more intellectual level, likewise, Bret’s column reconfirmed my belief that this type of searching of all sorts is precisely the purpose of college.

Like Bret, I began my time at Brandeis as a marginally Jewish agnostic. I had been the founder of my high school Jewish Student Union, but a lot of factors in my life, in particular my mother’s death from ovarian cancer during my senior year of high school, pushed me away from belief in a God.

By my second semester at Brandeis, I considered myself an ardent atheist, was an active member of the Brandeis Humanists, and wrote angry columns in the Justice denouncing prayer as silly and absurd. I thought I’d found meaning in secular humanism and felt content with my disbelief. Most frustratingly for me, I had stopped caring about the answers. I came to believe that whether God existed was at best irrelevant.

Last summer, I did a study abroad program studying traditional Chinese medicine and Public Health in Southwestern China. I had an incredible Chinese instructor that was a leader in the local Christian community and he reawakened my spiritual desire.

Throughout my time in China, I was impressed by the profound spiritual cultures of the great Eastern faiths and this reinvigorated my interest in finding spiritual fulfillment. I made a checklist of the sorts of values I wanted my eventual faith to reflect. The church I ended up falling in love with and being baptized into less than one year later was very different than what one would have predicted from that list.

One of my best friends at Brandeis was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (also known as the Mormon church). Throughout my period of atheism, I had mocked and made rude remarks about her faith in ways that I have come to realize was completely unbecoming of a true friend.

It was a church that I viewed as clearly fraudulent as well as regressively conservative. Still, I was fascinated by the way that her faith impacted her character and life choices in many positive ways.

I went to a Barnes and Noble and picked up a “Mormonism for Dummies” book and fell in love. The church theology answered all of questions I had been unable to find answers to in the past and gave me comfort and insight.

I met with the church missionaries and got a burning and searing testimony of the truth of the church one evening while praying in front of the Boston Temple (Off Route 2 in Belmont). I was eventually baptized into the church four months ago after my father came to accept my decision (a change for which I am eternally grateful) even as he continues to view it as a betrayal of my Jewish roots.

I’ve found an incredible community in the Boston area that has enabled me to improve myself in so many deep ways. Ironically, in the process I’ve also rediscovered the value of the Jewish roots that I’d once discarded and viewed as worthless and immensely enjoyed attending high holiday services and fasting for Yom Kippur because of my newfound faith.

My beliefs have been irrevocably altered during my time at Brandeis and in the Boston area, and I would not have it any other way. It is my firm belief, in fact, that if a student has not had at least one profound challenge to their most deeply held political, social or religious beliefs while an undergraduate here at Brandeis, that their time has not been well spent. In many ways, I feel deep sorrow when I see a great degree of stagnation at Brandeis with individuals clinging to groups that confirm preexisting views. Because of the small and hardly visible Republican presence on campus, for instance, I rarely see individuals having their political views challenged, let alone altered.

This semester I began attending lectures for Professor Gordie Fellman’s (SOC) War and the Possibilities of Peace class. I had taken Gordie’s Sociology of the Israel-Palestine conflict class in my freshman year and had found it a well-balanced and challenging class, which made me reconsider many of my preexisting beliefs. I expected something similar in this class.

Instead, I found lecture after lecture describing the ills of war in a very stereotypical fashion and found anti-war film after anti-war film being screened. The class seemed all in uniform agreement that war of any sort for any reason was not justified – or at the very least no one dared speak up to question the prevailing consensus. Instead of feeling soothed by this class on peace, I merely felt frustrated.
Attending a class where your deeply held beliefs are merely confirmed just seems like such a waste of time and effort. I’ve come to learn that my time is far too precious for that.

I write this not to preach my faith or any other, but to preach a gospel of self-discovery.

From my journey, I’ve learned three lessons that might help others along the way; I encourage you first to be willing to examine and question your core beliefs to ensure that they are built on a firm foundation, second to not surround yourself with people that merely reiterate your views but instead to seek out new ideas and perspectives, and third, and perhaps most important of all, to not let your pre-existing biases stand in the way of your personal growth and to be willing to act when you discover truth, no matter how unexpected or foreign.

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7 thoughts on “Maestro of Dissent: Finding my religion: A spritual and intellectual journey

  1. The church theology answered all of questions I had been unable to find answers to in the past and gave me comfort and insight.

    If I may ask, what were the questions whose answers you were able to find in the church and have comfort and insight? Just wondering what personally persuaded you…

    • I’d say that the biggest things for me were:

      1) The LDS view of heaven and hell just makes so much sense. It allows for cosmic justice without the sense of condemning people without a fair chance. Moreover, it binds human beings together into a community in the sense that we believe that I am responsible for the salvation of my ancestors as well as every human being to some extend. The notion of sealed families seems to me to be a simplified version of the notion of a sealed and eternal human family.

      2) Related to 1, the notion of the pre-existence gives life a vastly more meaningful purpose and also answers the question of theodicy. If we existed eternally and ultimately had the choice to come to this earth that was created for our growth and benefit, I think that answers a lot of the problem of why evil is existent. I view it in some ways similar to the virtual reality simulations in the movie the Matrix. We enter into an environment where we can interact physically with the world around us and with each other. Adversity existed to give us growth and ultimately can not overcome us altogether. The idea that we are all children of God also I think gives me great compassion for my fellow man and ultimately pushes me to improve myself.

      3) Jesus Christ makes so much sense both as a fulfillment of the old testament ideals on which I grew, and as an exemplar of perfect conduct. I am so thankful for his gift of grace which allows me the opportunity to grow and to perfect myself. I feel like human beings are constantly in debt without him essentially just trying to stay even and to compensate for all of our mistakes. Faith in him is needed because without him I think we are just constantly struggling with the same mistakes and problems but unable to overcome them

      Does that answer your question?

  2. I guess I was asking the wrong question.

    I think the question I wanted to ask was…why do you believe that these things are indicative of reality?

    For example, lots of things can make sense…but making sense isn’t proof that they are true. Making sense is just indicative of being logically valid…not having logical fallacies, etc.,

    What makes you believe that cosmic justice is not simply something that would be nice to have, but something that really exists in our universe?

    Relating to point two…since you bring up the Matrix as a comparison, why don’t you believe the Matrix is truly how reality exist? What motivates you to believe that the Mormon doctrines of pre-existence are more “real” than the Matrix? Does its ability to satisfy your question mean that it is the true answer?

    What makes you believe the gift of grace truly exists rather than being just a nice concept? What makes you believe there is a “debt” for us to be in?

  3. Andrew

    I was at a law school forum and so didn’t get a chance to see this until now.

    I guess I would say that I know the church and god to be true in the very same way that I know anything to be true. For instance, I don’t know if I can philosophically explain how I know something is salty or how I know when something is painful ( of course, I can explain the physical phenomenon associated with these things, but that does not answer philosophically how I know these things to be real). I admit that this truth is subjective in the sense that it can not be directly replicated and is not testable. Still, I do believe that it is a repeatable thing that can in the right circumstances manifest itself to each individual. I am no philosopher and so I don’t spend too much time engaged in existential debates about whether anything about myself truly is knowable. If I can’t truly know anything about the world, than I am not sure that posting this or inquiring in general is meaningful, but still I do so under the assumption that there is something objective in the world outside of the self.

    In regard to cosmic justice, grace, the light of Christ and other such concepts, for me they stem from an otherwise unexplainable encounter with certain moral truths that force themselves upon me even when they were not moral principle that I grew up with or around. For instance, I grew up with parents that actively encouraged me to date and to be sexually active. My father is aghast by the fact that I am now following principles of chastity. If I followed his example I would be engaged in sexual acts with multiple partners without real emotional regard. Yet, I always felt a profound sense of sacredness associated with human sexuality. This sense was there, although diminished, even when I was an atheist. It is hard for me to explain where this moral sense came from since it is so dissimilar to my influences. Thus, for me the idea of cosmic justice stems for the sense that there are certain moral feelings that I feel deeply in a manner that does not seem to come purely from the intellect. There is a sense of shame that emerges when we fail to live up to our ideals, which seems to be not a cultural thing but truly a human universal. Thus, everyone has some internal expectation of potential and a sense of failure.

    As for pre-existence, for me it is an answer to certain feelings and stimuli that are otherwise inexplainable to me. The feeling we get when we feel like we’ve known someone before or some knowledge is so familiar that we are certain we have encountered it before. Thus, the preexistence is the most tenable hypothesis that I can imagine for what Plato describes as our sense or recollection.

  4. Ah, but saltiness and painfulness *are* subjective experiences…they are subjective reactions.

    The only way you can truly share these things is by giving someone a reliable *paradigm* of saltiness and painfulness. For example, give them a salt cube. Give them an electrical shock.

    The problem with subjective experiences are that they *may* not be the same for everyone. For example, what if you got someone who was so wired that his tastebuds registered “salty” flavor as “sweetness.” Then, no matter what kind of salt cube you gave the person, you simply could not correctly and accurately express saltiness to that individual. Then, this would show us that saltiness actually wasn’t even be an objective quality of the salt cube anymore…because we would know that it varies by the subjective response of the individual…(This is my opinion on prayer, faith, testimony.)

    So, I guess I’m curious as to what you think the “right circumstances” are that can manifest such things…since even with saltiness…a salt cube, which seems an obvious choice, isn’t as reliable as we would hope.

    That being said…getting back to *knowledge*, you can know certain things from subjective experiences…so you need not throw away your subjective experiences. In fact, even if all objective things *are* illusory, you CAN be sure about yourself, your feelings, and your reactions…so you need not feel subjective feelings are substandard…But it *does not follow* that subjective experience lead to certain conclusions aobut objective reality…for example, your subjective experiencing of salt and the objective chemistry of a salt cube do not provide proof for objective existence of the quality “saltiness.”

    That being said, I guess I don’t have problem with your answers…It’s just I wondering if perhaps you could say something that wouldn’t fall under subjectivity…

    For example, hitting on your idea of shame…the thing is…even if shame were a human universal [I don’t know, I haven’t looked into it], the problem I see is that *the ideals* are not universal. So it again becomes something subjective. And even if shame were a human universal, it could still be subjective (in the way that nearly all humans *share* wiring…that is why most of us *can* eat a salt cube and share in saltiness.)

    Oh well. I guess if these answers work for you, then I hope you find peace and joy. I’ll be looking in for your future posts…good blog.

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