The brass serpent; or, towards an end of conservative and liberal Mormons
When last we left our hero, meaning ourselves, he was standing in the middle of a field, sun shining overhead, holding his box of crayons. I like to call this field the field of tensions. As we look up and around we are captured in various kinds of tensions by the things that we see. We see other people holding and working with their various boxes of crayons, and groups of people, and ideas, and things. The strength of these tensions is partly determined by our proximity to what we are observing, and partly determined by our individual sensibilities. For purpose of fleshing out this metaphor to its breaking point, I want to identify three kinds of tensions. I understand that these don’t speak to all the ways life goes. For instance, I’m leaving out the part biological necessity plays in the creation of these tensions. I’m also drawing in broad strokes where, in reality, these images would blend and be more difficult to sort though. I mean to draw a picture on which we can picture and assess ourselves.
The first kind of tension is the kind I began to draw in my last post. This tension becomes a force as we make from those things we see an image that we find desirable. It is generally a collage of items we have found personally attractive. You would say this image is the image of our goals, if you’re one kind of person, of our dreams, if you’re another. It is also our treasure, and a way in which we measure, and sometimes hide from ourselves, our lack. This tension acts like a rubber band, pulling us inevitably towards our object as long as we succeed in keeping it in mind. Because this tension puts us and keeps us in motion, it is qualitatively different than the next two, which keep us fixed, or in unhelpful orbits. I’ll come back to it.
The second kind of tension is created when like sees like. In terms of the metaphor, it is seeing those who color with the same crayons that we color with. This is the world of easy friendships, associations with people who, containing the same kinds of light, see as we see. This tension can be responsible for much of life’s sweetness, because there are few things so pleasing as hearing echoes of yourself in a friend. Although this tension may not feel like a tension, it is indeed, containing a powerful force that can hold us in place.
The third kind of tension is created when unlike sees unlike. This also pulls us, but the configuration of the tension means that we are repelled as well as pulled, so that we remain in stasis, to the degree we continue looking. In this tension, light does not answer to light, or dark to dark, but light attempts to shine on darkness in the other. The tension derives much of its force, then, from our own personal project of keeping our darkness out of play. The tension experienced between conservative and liberal sensibilities is one of this kind. For whatever reason, these sensibilities have a strong tendency to constellate, crystallize and harden around certain configurations of virtues. The conservative sensibility is most likely to accept virtues that lie in proximity to preservation and justice. The liberal sensibility will accept virtues that lie in proximity to tolerance and mercy. Although naturally there are people who are not easily categorized, it is astonishing the degree to which folks line up on one side of the other. We see it not only in the charged atmosphere of the present, but throughout the history of politics and religion.
Because each side holds light where the other contains darkness, their critiques of one another are often more enlightening than listening to them talk about themselves. It seems they should be capable of learning from one another. But it takes an almost superhuman moral effort to sustain a gaze into our own darkness, let alone allowing someone else shine a light on us. It is possible with an exceptional utilization of the enabling virtue of humility, but such remains the exception. And even there, there is a danger – that this tension becomes a moving tension of the first kind. This leads to the strange instances of ‘conversion'; where one throws up the virtues of one’s own side to accept the virtues of the other. This conversation leads to confessional books written about how I was once a conservative but saw the light of day and now am a liberal, and vis-a-versa. The other, with his own mostly empty box of crayons, can never serve adequately as the image of our goals.
In episode one, I referred to Section 93, where we are pointed to Christ, Himself an augmenting being, as the type of both what we are meant to worship and how we are meant to worship. Near the end of that riff, we read that there are two things that cause us to lose ‘light and truth': “disobedience” and ‘the traditions of our fathers.’ These might be thought of as the liberal and conservative ways of screwing up. I do not mean that these mistakes define the liberal and the conservative. (Let me say that again, I do not mean that these mistakes define the liberal and conservative. I think they are defined best by their virtues.) Rather, when we screw up, we tend to do it along these lines. The liberal, amidst the powerful flux of the field of tensions, will tend to privilege personal paths other than the one that leads directly from where he stands on the field to where Jesus’ stands. That is to say, they will minimize the importance of keeping covenants. The conservative will respond to the tensions of life like the man with one talent, fixated and fearful of preservation of his virtues, at all costs. Both sides following their virtues, the one helter-skelter, the other doing his best to remain immovable and calling it righteousness. Each vigorously scribbling with their crayons, which are goodness and light.
As Moses considered his bitten people, the Lord commanded him to “make a fiery serpent and set it upon a pole.” Moses then made a “serpent of brass”, and raised it up, and when any man “beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.”
One more episode forthcoming.
Thanks for listening.