I had the honor of presenting during the Pillars of My Faith segment at Sunstone Northwest on Sunday. Below are my rough notes. Thanks to Mary Ellen Robertson and Molly Bennion for putting on a great symposium for a good community.
What are the pillars of my faith? My Mormonism is a community of Saints, a Zion of individual souls that come together to worship God and be saved through Christ. As such my fundamental image of faith is the mosaic, the wonderful art of forming a picture composed of countless individual tiles. I have in my mind the picture of God, the master Artist, placing each of us uniquely within his plan, cementing us together, ultimately forming a masterpiece.
I’m sure there’s nothing new to this metaphor — it even sounds cliche to me sometimes. But the symbol still resonates with me on a level that is hard to describe. The first time I thought of the Church in this way was shortly after finishing my mission, when I was touring through the Loire Valley in France with my parents. We came to the town of Germigny-des-Prés, which today is a fairly unremarkable farm village, but back in the year 800 it was a nexus of art and learning. Bishop Theodulf, who was one of Charlemagne’s closest advisors, had his country residence in this town, and he built there an oratory chapel, which looks at first blush like your garden-variety Carolingian chapel, but upon inspection you see influences from ancient Rome, as well as from Byzantium, Armenia and even Moorish countries. It is an Eastern chapel found smack in the middle of the West. But the real masterpiece of this little chapel is a mosaic tiled ceiling in its east wing. It has no equal in all of France and rivals the great Byzantine mosaics of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and San Vitale in Ravenna. The mosaic shows the Ark of the Covenant, flanked by cherubim on either side and featuring the hand of God, reaching down to touch the Ark from a starry sky. At the bottom is an inscription in Latin that reads, “”See and contemplate the holy oracle with its cherubim and the resplendent ark of the divine testament. Before this spectacle, beset the Thunderer with your prayers; and, I pray of you, remember Theodulf in your prayers.”
Theodulf himself is a character worth remembering. He was bishop of Orléans and was a major figure in the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of amazing arts and culture. Theodulf was avant-garde in publicly admitting that he read and enjoyed pagan poetry such as Virgil and Ovid; he believed in public education; and perhaps most importantly, Theodulf famously advocated a culture of hospitality, preaching that those who turn away the stranger or the poor traveler have no hope of finding a spot at God’s banquet table. Theodulf embodied a spirit of intellectual and spiritual curiosity, cultural inclusion and personal piousness that rival the best of us today. But in his little private chapel, beneath the stars of his mosaic, Theodulf asks us to strive to touch the Master of Thunder with our prayers and to contemplate the holy oracle.
When I first visited Germigny-des-Prés I only knew a little about Theodulf, and I couldn’t read the Latin inscription below the Ark of the Covenant, but I still remember me, this weak, tired 21 year old, staring up at this glittering scene of the stars and the Ark of the Covenant and the Hand of God, and I felt the presence of God, the Master of Thunder. I almost felt like Elijah, in Kings: I stood in the chapel and saw this mosaic, but the Lord was not in the mosaic. I saw the stars, but the Lord was not in the stars. I saw the Ark, but the Lord was not in the Ark. And after the Ark, a still small voice. I’ve been to many of the great cathedrals and religious shrines of the West, and in many of them I’ve felt the Spirit of God, confirming the reality of the Creator in my heart. But this experience in that little mosaiced chapel remains one of the spiritual highlights of my life. I’ve often thought about the history of that place and the beauty of those little gilded cubes of glass; it is amazing to me that such little things as those, when put together, could form a masterpiece that has such potential to bring us closer to God.
My view of Mormonism as a mosaic of Saints also stems, in part, from my upbringing. Like most great comedians and Mormons, I was born in Canada. I spent my youth between the cities of Vancouver and Calgary. If you’ve ever visited those cities — and every traveler should — you’ll recognize that there is an immense cultural divide between the two places: the first has a west-coast vibe coupled with a liberal metropolitan feel, akin to San Francisco. Like Seattle, Vancouver is a town of some quiet graces. It is encircled by old, green forests while the city itself is often shaded in mist. Calgary, my second city, is the Dallas of the North: an oil town, home to rodeos and a sense of frontier machismo. There is nothing subtle about Calgary. In the summer, it sits in the middle of a golden prairie with the Rockies in the distance. But the thing to remember about both of those wonderful cities is that they are both Canadian cities, and as such they are inherently superior to any American city, and also: they are chock-full of socialists. That’s right: Canadians, that cheery, helpful lot of Godless Communists who believe in things like high taxes and public options and libraries. Canadians are also desperate for immigration to fill up their frozen wasteland territories, and as such Canada embraces a multiculturalism instead of any single national dream or identity. In fact, in 1971 a federal law was passed to promote and enhance the distinct cultural identities of all Canadians. If America likes to speak of its “melting pot,” Canadians speak instead of — you guessed it — a mosaic. And so we see ourselves as a community of individuals, with distinct identities but the common and distinctly Canadian goals of peace, order and good government. Now that I think about it, I view my own cultural identity as a series of mosaic tiles as well; there’s hints of the Vancouverite, shades of the Calgarian, and of course a deep dark shadow over it all from when I became an American citizen.
And of course Mormons have been in Canada for hundreds of years, from the days Charles Ora Card was sent by John Taylor to stretch the polygamous stakes of Zion Northward. A Canadian Mormon is an odd thing, because we preserve much of the traditional Mormon culture even while remaining decidedly un-American. We make funeral potatoes, but don’t really care about freedom of speech. We attend early morning seminary, but have little problem with socialized medicine. From what I have seen, such is the experience of many Mormons outside of the United States — we are creatures of two worlds. From the standpoint of religious devotion and piety, we tend to be very conservative, often protective of the institutional Church even as we don’t quite understand some of its action. But from a political and social standpoint, international members are almost uniformly liberal compared to their American counterparts, often embracing policies and politics that would make Skousen drop dead (again). Of course, those students of history in the room will no doubt recognize that Cleon Skousen was in fact Canadian himself, but I digress. My point here is that members of the Canadian Church, and members of the International Church already innately feel something that it seems to me the American Church is only beginning to discover — that Mormons can be, and are, a widely diverse group with views from all over the political spectrum. Indeed, all God’s critters got a place in the choir already, whether or not the institution is prepared for it.
So what then do we sad Mormons do, when our Sainthood is composed of all sorts of characters with all kinds of crazy views? How can we reconcile the confines of a fairly rigid centrally organized religious institution with the intense contrasts between individual members?
There are two key attributes to a mosaic, which may seem obvious. The first is individuality: a multitude of separate, distinct and unique tesserae are needed. If all of your tiles look alike, you will have uniformity — and there can be beauty in uniformity — but you don’t have a mosaic, you have have a monochrome fixture, which might work as a tiled backsplash but is certainly not high art. You need contrasts, complementary colors and shades along the spectrum if the collective work is to have any artistic purpose. It is the ultimate harmony of the individually unique that brings power to the master’s plan.
The second attribute is cohesion: those distinct tiles must come together and adhere to form a larger tableau, in which the distinctiveness of the individual tiles merges together in favor of the overall vision of the artist. And so in my faith I feel a dynamic between these two compelling forces; my natural tendency towards individuality and unique identity, contrasting with the need for community and the obligation to be part of something larger than myself. In Mormonism this is a classic tension, as members feel torn between individual quests for knowledge and identity on the one hand and the demands of the group to conform and to shoulder each others’ burdens.
In similar fashion, I find that I mostly think about myself, my individual freedom and my self-determination when I consider our relationship to the Gospel. While this isn’t wrong, I’m missing the bigger and better picture. Others prefer to look at the functioning of the group and the overall directives that bring us together as a community. But I’m not sure that’s right either. So it is when you are facing a piece of mosaic art; you can focus on the single tesserae, or look at the big picture. But neither is seeing the reality of the mosaic, and neither way is the whole truth. We cannot be either myopic or hyperopic if we want to see things as they really are.
A friend recently pointed me to the novel Bee Season, by Myla Goldberg. One of the recurring themes in the book is the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or healing or perfecting the world. One character explains, “the mystics believe that in the beginning of the world God’s divine light, containing all that is good, was enclosed in sacred vessels. But because there was already sin in the world, these vessels could not contain the light and shattered into countless pieces… it is our job to locate these shards and to mend them through good deeds, so that God’s light can be whole again.” The fixing of the world entails bringing all of these small pieces of light together through our good works. But let me clarify something: these shards of light are within ourselves and in all those around us. We are engaged in the cause of healing the world by becoming at one with our fellow Saints and by being examples to the rest of the world — we are the salt of the earth, the leaven of the world. The task of Mormonism is literally to save all the earth by bringing all of us together in Christ. As our leaders are fond of telling us, Mormons are a peculiar people; the essence of Tikkun Olam is that by being and acting our peculiar selves, together we can have universal consequences and help change the world.
This means that we must not deny our identity, either by giving up our individuality, or by hiding our Mormonism. I feel the temptation — some might call it stark reality — that to go into public life and be accepted by society, you must to a certain extent downplay your Mormon culture or hide it entirely. I remember the first time this happened to me as an adult in college. I was out getting a burger with a couple of friends, when the discussion turned to how culturally insular Mormons are and how they lack real ‘bite’ and self-awareness because of their piousness — actually, I believe what was said was more like, “Mormons are so lame.” One particularly cool guy said to me, “Come on, I bet you’ve never used the F-word.” I replied with a good deal of blustering about how I really was hip and edgy, a real rebel. To prove my point, I looked him in the eye and cursed at him. The man’s reaction was, “see, now you just look stupid.” And he was right.
Conversely, I’m sometimes tempted to overplay my Mormon identity as opportunities arise, to seize upon stereotypes of social conservatism or piousness, however inaccurate they might be. This is a pressure I feel almost daily within the world of Mormon blogs and internet interactions. It is far easier for me to act as an easy stereotype than to represent myself in a genuine and complex way. But we must also refuse this path, and instead be nothing more nor less than our honest selves. I can say this much, echoing what one Jewish author has said: non-Mormons respect us when we respect our religion, and non-Mormons are embarrassed by Mormons who are embarrassed by their faith. If we are to bring together all these diverse shards of divine light, we must be true to ourselves and respect what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks refers to as the “dignity of difference.” Joseph Smith introduced to us the challenge of bringing all of humanity together, sealing generation to generation through our particular faith. Only by respecting this particularity can be come close to achieving that goal, and this means being proud of our Mormonism.
More than this sense of external pride, though, is required if we are to accomplish anything. For me, it means we must also live our Mormonism. We can’t pretend to aspire to bring the whole world together if we get hung up on the differences among our own people. Sometimes this means swallowing those parts of being Mormon that taste a little bitter, whether it’s dealing with pronouncements from Salt Lake that we might not agree with, or lessons that bore us, or sitting next to a brother or sister at Church whose personal politics offend us. Recently I have felt tested and torn by the incredible polarization among us on issues relating to the rights of gays and lesbians. How can I respect the dignity of being a Mormon, being different, when those differences sometimes make me cringe? I don’t have an easy answer to this, but I still feel that we cannot just simply pick and choose what relationships we form — because if we do, we tend to end up with self-resembling relationships, when what we need are connections to the Other. Like the tesserae, God needs the contrast for His work; we need something different from ourselves, even if sometimes we don’t like it. I am incomplete alone. So each week I get plunked together with you lot and we worship together, forming connections, when we might never otherwise choose to connect.
I feel cemented in my Mormonism. I am just one miniscule piece of it, and feel squished in sometimes; sometimes I feel out of place, and sometimes I wonder what this is all about. But I have confidence in the artist, the Master of Thunder, who is arranging us and placing us all together in His intricate design. I don’t know what form this work will ultimately take — it may be that I never get to see the entirety of the tableau. But in the meantime I rejoice in our differences and in our sameness, seeing the wonder of our individuality coupled with the amazing potential of our collective efforts. I believe the best blessings of Zion await us when we come together and embrace the distinctiveness that makes God’s mosaic possible.