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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.

Chapter 1: The Nature of God

Once we allow for the possibility of the divine, it is only natural to try to understand just what it is we are talking about.

I don’t think it is entirely controversial to say that we Mormons don’t do mystery very well. In fact, I have sat in many Sunday School and early-morning seminary classes where the very idea that Truth could be mysterious was ridiculed. One of the founding principles of the faith was that many “plain and precious” had been lost. Mormons talk about the “Great Apostasy” — the period of time from shortly after the death of Christ and his original disciples up until 1820 and Joseph Smith’s divine encounter — as  a time when evil and designing (or perhaps well-intentioned but Satanically influenced) men twisted the meaning of simple gospel truths and transmogrified them into something mysterious and incomprehensible (for a more charitable discussion of the relationship between Mormonism and the creeds of the wider Christian world, see this).

This is a compelling narrative (and would have been perhaps especially resonant with the virulent anti-Catholicism of Joseph’s day), but I think it is at least possible that the pendulum has swung too far away from the mysterious.

The manual’s very brief discussion of the nature of God first makes the point that man was created in the image of God, and therefore, to quote its anonymous authors, “[God’s] eternal spirit”–like ours–“is housed in a tangible body of flesh and bones.” This straightforward, but radical, reading of Genesis seems to shock and scandalize the broader Christian community (do a google search for Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet for a taste of the controversy).

I really love some of the implications of this heretical theology. Terryl Givens enunciates this well, “That God has a heart that beats in sympathy with ours is the truth that catalyzes millions—that he feels real sorrow, rejoices with real gladness, and weeps real tears. This, as Enoch learned, is an awful, terrible, yet infinitely comforting truth” (from this article).

But I think we sometimes take this to ridiculous extremes.

On one hand, it is sometimes often used as a way to deny the empirically demonstrable reality of human evolution (ask yourself if you really believe that God has nostrils — lungs? lower intestines? For that matter, is God fully equipped with vestigial organs?).

This also sometimes takes us to places that would really be better left un-speculated upon. For some reason, it was very important to Bruce McConkie’s worldview that God was in the most literal sense the father of Jesus Christ. Now, McConkie was fantastically, spectacularly, and utterly wrong on many, many occasions (you really have to admire the ballsy-ness that led him to publish Mormon Doctrine in the first place), and it is perhaps unfair to trot out some of his sillier ideas. But no one ever accused bloggers of being fair. I won’t delve any further into the lurid details here, but it should be sufficient to say that I think this kind of “doctrine” is entirely unhelpful.

Most seriously however, I think there is a real danger in having a god that is too familiar. Perhaps only because it is fresh on my mind, let me appeal to the mystics once again. Armstrong discusses mysticism as a way of combating the idolatrous impulse–the desire to create god in our image. It seems to me that one of the great advantages of leaving a little mystery in God’s nature is that it restores some of the “divine distance” (to borrow from Givens again) that Joseph Smith enthusiastically closed wherever possible. The mystic traditions acknowledge that God is too big for any one person to hold in his or her imagination. The cocksure pronouncements of Mormons (pest personified in my mind my Elder McConkie) have a tendency to quickly slide into arrogance, and we might do well to back off from overconfidence in the face of the divine.

One of the things that I find most engaging about god in the mystical tradition is the vastness that I find there. It is analogous to what I find great about poetry — by jarring us out of our normal ways of thinking, it hints at transcendent truth. Similarly with the mystical. If we too readily assume that we know what Joseph was talking about when he said that God is “an exalted man” who “sits enthroned in yonder heavens,” we risk closing the door on truths that cannot be spoken.

A masculine god?

A final problem… in the short 11 sentences in this section, I count no less than 11 masculine pronouns with reference to God.

One of the great tragedies of the “mainstreaming” of Mormonism is the way in which we seem intent on erasing some of the most beautiful elements of our theology. I am not the first to comment on the absence of the divine feminine from the most recent edition of the manual. In past editions of the manual, one could find Her between the lines in references to “heavenly parents,” but even those have been removed in the 2011 version.

Others have made the case for a more prominent role for a feminine counterpart to the traditional image of god, and I feel like any attempt by me to add to what has already been said on the topic would be inadequate.

The God that I believe in is far bigger than the parochial, white-bearded kingly father-figure that we have foisted upon us at times.

Chapter 1: There is a God

Chapter 1 of the manual begins with an argument that I am finding less and less persuasive. Alma‘s argument for the existence of God has a slightly more sophisticated corollary among modern deists who argue that the “parameters of the universe” seem too finely tuned to be set by chance (if you are unfamiliar, see this). In a recent general conference address, Russell Nelson made a similar point with his unfortunately smug dismissal of “big bang” science.

These kinds of arguments disappoint me most in their refusal to engage with the strikingly beautiful and fully materialist accounts of man’s (and the universe’s) origins. We can probably forgive Alma as the cosmology of either his time (assuming his historicity for a moment) or Joseph Smith’s time (relaxing that perhaps problematic assumption) really had no plausible competition. Russell Nelson shouldn’t so easily be given a pass.

To me, modern creation myths (like this one by David Christian) are absolutely awe-inspiring. I am almost embarrassingly sentimental about these kinds of things. Corny youtube videos featuring Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking like this one or this one will reliably send chills down my spine. When I contemplate the diversity and unity of life on earth — the fascinating complexity that surrounds us, I cannot help but take a reverential attitude toward the whole amazing story.

But, of course, none of this requires a god.

It seems silly to me to argue that the “finely tuned” parameters of the universe are evidence of some unseen watchmaker. I am not the first to observe that there is some pretty serious selection bias in universes that we are able to observe. It will always only be the case that universes that produce life (and thus the ones that are capable of producing living beings to notice them) will have the precise conditions necessary to support life.

Indeed, I am inclined to find the materialist accounts of life’s origins more inspiring than the traditional creation narratives that I have grown up with. When Carl Sagan says that we are “star stuff” and I pause to reflect on the idea that we are all in some profound way embodied expressions of the universe engaged in a great collective act of self-contemplation… it’s mind-blowing.

With all of that said, I’m not ready to give up on the divine altogether.

I’ve been reading Karen Armstrong’s excellent History of God, and it has greatly expanded my thinking on the subject. She outlines an evolution of thought in the monotheistic traditions that, on balance, I believe reflects well on the religious endeavor. For all of its faults (and there are many), the religious impulse has been a tremendous force for good in the world.

I am particularly drawn to her discussion of mystical traditions in the monotheistic religions. We’ll dive more deeply into the nature of God in the next few posts, but the most compelling “evidence” for me of the divine is wrapped together with the ineffable and transcendent I catch glimpses of from time to time in poetry, nature, and the heart-rending beauty of the human experience.

I am well aware of the attempts at accounting for these types of divine encounters in materialist terms (for example the fine scholarship of Scott Atran or Ara Norenzayan), and we would do well to seriously consider what science has to say about the religious experience. However, a satisfactory explanation of a thing does not allow us to curtly dismiss it. While I think that people take Gould’s “non-overlapping majisteria” too far as a cover for some of the more indefensible claims of religion, there are some realms in which science is not well-equipped to fully understand.

And so it is with God (or perhaps gods). Something beyond reason pulls me toward the divine, and for now that is enough for me.