I was going to present this paper at the Sugar Beet session at the Sunstone Symposium, but we were having a lot of fun and I didn’t want to offend whatever spirit had come to visit (it may have possibly been Sherwood Schwartz’s spirit).
The first article I wrote for the Sugar Beet was entitled 'Provo Temple Liftoff Successful.' It was an absurd story about an absurd event. The Provo Temple is anything but aerodynamic, and the MTC would doubtless have been obliterated by the fiery discharge of the launch, nevertheless, it turned out to be a great story, and one of Paul Browning's graphic masterpieces.
When the first issue of the Sugar Beet hit the web, I felt like I was one of the crew aboard the USS Provo Temple as it breached the troposphere. We were going somewhere; I just didn't know where it was.
A lot of other people seemed to, though. They all thought I was a hijacker and rocketing straight into Outer Darkness. As one of my critics said, not only was I corrupting my own soul, I was dragging the souls of others along with me.
It was a declaration I thought about at length, but the fact of the matter was, I HAD to write Sugar Beet articles. In retrospect, I think, as Gae Lyn Henderson pointed out in a presentation at the Association for Mormon Letters meeting a few years ago, that I was trying to put a bandage on some cognitive dissonance I was having. The Sugar Beet was a bit of Advil for the spiritual headaches I got at church. But, the relief was only temporary.
My approach to religion before and during my days with the Sugar Beet was much like the approach of the New Critic to a piece of literature. New Criticism grew out of a desire on some literary analysts' part to make literary criticism seem more scientific. There were specific elements, they contended, in a piece of literature that made it great. Thus, the literary critics had a set of real principles that they could use to ferret out truly great pieces of literature. Great literature could be recognized without error.
I thought that that 'true religion' could be found in the same way, and that 'true religion' possessed a recognizable set of elements. It seems to me that the Mormon Church enthusiastically espouses this idea. There is no shortage of testimonies, formal, informal, and authoritative, that insist that the Mormon Church is the ONLY true church, and that its truth can be found by applying its claims to a set of rules.
Writing for The Sugar Beet, however, presented an entirely new set of principles. The structure of humor, according to Sigmund Freud, is for a lesser value to temporarily supplant a greater value. As Henderson showed in her paper, many Sugar Beet articles supplant the value of obedience in favor of individual choice. Plenty of other values get switched around as well: Mandy in Ask A Beehive is notorious for using spiritual principles to forward her materialistic agenda, I'm Not Molly insists on turning church clich?É¬©s into double entendres, and Mahonri the Mormon Psychic relentlessly digs up the hushed up folk magic traditions in the Church.
As I continued to write, The Sugar Beet taught me value juggling. And it made a lot people understandably nervous. Many Mormons are quite fond of the Church's values and its attendant culture. The values, which many Mormons believe are eternal, give an anchor to their souls. They give the world and its happenings sense. They give the believer a sense of purpose, which is probably the thing most valuable to a human being. It probably seemed to them that I was juggling grandma's best china.
I need to be frank with you. I am a latter-day sinner. My biggest sin is doubt. I am riddled with it. And the colorful history of the Church is no help. And on top of that, the two main paths that have been presented the doubter are that I must either love the Church or leave it. Just a few weeks ago I was encouraged by a singularly frank Mormon that if I had found some error in the Church to leave and find the truth elsewhere. He encouraged me to have no truck whatsoever with falsehood.
I understand that point of view; in many ways I admire it, but it seems to me that there is another way to look at it.
Aristotle is reputed to have said that the mark of an intelligent person is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in one's mind at the same time. However, it seems to me that any idiot can perform this feat. Myself for example. I know that I need to exercise more and eat better in order to be healthier. But I fully plan to eat something rich and greasy during lunch today then sit on my duff and listen to some crazy Mormons all afternoon. After that I will sit in my car and drive home where I'll play video games with my kids and sit with my wife. I plan to do the same thing tomorrow.
With this in mind, perhaps the intelligent person (and I'm stealing this idea from someone I can't remember) is the person who KNOWS he or she is harboring two contradictory ideas in his or her head, and tries to get them both to come to dinner and have a talk.
Before the Sugar Beet, I was a New Critic; now, after the Sugar Beet, I am a deconstructionist. If you remember from your literary criticism class, deconstructionists identify the values of a text and then disconnect them from the system implicit in their structures in order to find a new interpretation. This is what I've been working on for the past five years: the ability to identify values and understand their relation to each other by learning to move them around the dinner table (this one at the head, this one at the foot, then switch)and listening to the discussion that ensues between them.
It just so happens that the area of most dissonance in my life, and therefore hosting the bulk of my mental dinner appointments, is the area of religion. My religion doesn't make me happy. It does not bring me peace. It is a source of frustration. Yet, it is deeply a part of me, so I find it impossible to cast it aside. Thus, I continue to juggle the values of Mormonism, trying to understand their relationships with each other, with the world, and with me.
In other words, I have given up my claim on truth. I am not at the Tree of Life. I do not know what is true. For example, people say the Church is true. I am in no position to dispute that. I'm just joining in with a host of other people in wondering just what “true” means. However, the fact that some values have fallen in question doesn't mean that they should automatically be rejected. If I doubt anything, then I must also doubt myself.
Some people may pity me and say that I have fallen into mere relativism. But to me, the world is bigger now, possibilities are more numerous, and life is much more interesting. It's not easy to stay here though. It takes work. Quite often I find myself wanting certitude again; wanting a course to be programmed into the USS Provo Temple navigation system.
But for now, I'm hosting a lot of dinner parties.