Chapter 1: Coming to Know God
Chapter 1 of the manual concludes with the tricky business of how we can come to know God.
Helpfully, the anonymous producers of Church curricula have summed it up in four easy steps. Let’s examine them individually.
1) Believe that He exists and that He loves us
I’m still not sure how much I believe that belief is really just an act of will. I think we have room in our doctrine for the idea that there are individual differences in propensity to believe (e.g. this discussion of spiritual gifts). Some people will find it much easier to make the leap from (for example) the observation that the universe exists to the reality of a supreme being who is in charge of it all (see my discussion here).
One part of me is drawn to the idea that faith is an active choice. This fits well with the traditional Mormon teachings about agency. I think Terryl Givens puts this argument best. He says,
[F]aith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true, and have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true. I am convinced that there must be grounds for doubt as well as belief, for only in these conditions of equilibrium and balance, equally “enticed by the one or the other,” is my heart truly free to choose belief or cynicism, faith or faithlessness.
On the other hand, I am very sympathetic to people who, after examining the evidence, do not find the case for belief credible (to paraphrase John Dehlin), and I am worried that, in subscribing too fully to Givens’s volitional view of faith, there is a temptation to pass judgment upon those who choose a different path. You can see this in the way that he frames the choice — between “belief” and “cynicism” — not entirely helpful. The self-congratulatory tone of talks like this one seem unbecoming.
I am committed to the idea that the human family (to extend Paul’s metaphor perhaps further than he intended) is like a single body with a diversity of members, and we all come closer to the truth when we engage in meaningful dialog. The idea of conversation presupposes a deep respect for the beliefs and experiences of both sides, and it is difficult to promote when one or both ends are too confident in their own convictions.
2) Study the scriptures
I will have an opportunity to explore the nature of scripture later on (Chapter 10) in more depth. For now, let me just say that I think there is real value to cultivating a common set of stories and creating a shared reservoir of symbols and imagery that can bind together a community of believers (or even devoted secularists, see this for example).
However, uncritical readings of scripture often lead us down strange paths.
I think Mormons are in a unique position to read scripture in a healthy way, but I don’t think we take full enough advantage of our singular perspective on prophets and the nature of revelation. Given that we have actual experience with modern-day prophets and are privileged to see them in all of their humanness, we of all people should understand that scripture is of perhaps inspired but definitely earthly character. It is impossible to separate it from its context and the culture that generated it. Unfortunately, we too often want to cram the words we read into the official narrative or take a single verse out of context to “prove” some point. When I think back to the mental contortions I had to go through to try to torture some kind of moral out of the strange stories of the Old Testament… let’s come back to scripture later.
3) Pray to Him
Again, prayer will be the subject of later posts. I fully support a healthy dose of contemplation and meditation (although, once again the male pronouns that run throughout this section are increasingly troubling to me). Taking some quiet time with our thoughts (regardless of whether Anyone is listening in) is a wise practice for those of us who are privileged to live in this world fully saturated with information and noise.
4) Obey all His commandments as best we can
Obedience also gets its own chapter in the manual, and it deserves a much deeper discussion than I care to give it right now.
Final Thoughts on Chapter 1
This has been an interesting exercise for me. If anyone is reading this, I would encourage you to do the same. What do you really believe about god? Not, “what does the Church tell you to believe about god?” or “what do you want to believe about god?” What do you believe?
In the “crisis” stage of my faith transition, I was a little nervous about poking too hard at the assumptions that surrounded fundamental gospel principles (and does it get any more fundamental than the g-word?) for fear they would collapse totally under their own weight, and so I retreated from the question altogether.
I think I am settling into a more stable place.