Doubt as an enemy of faith
I searched for “doubt is” in the BYU General Conference Corpus, and this is what I came up with:
- a negative emotion related to fear (2009)
- not a principle of the gospel (2009)
- perhaps the beginning of his apostacy [sic] from the Church (1876)
- removed by obedience to the doctrines of the Church (1943)
- set at rest by the revelations (1953)
- sometimes the very opposite of faith (1925)
- spiritual poison that stunts eternal growth (1979)
- swallowed up in knowledge and certainty (1924)
- the spirit of the evil one (1873)
- where doubt is, there faith has no power (1995)
Across the General Conference pulpit, for more than 100 years, doubt has been marginalized. As John Dehlin reminded us recently, doubt has often been connected with personal unrighteousness or some kind of desire to sin on the part of the doubter. As the snippets from conference talks above make clear, doubt and faith are often pitted against each other. We have to overcome our doubts (ideally, supplanting them with a ‘sure knowledge’ or even ‘certainty’) in order to truly exercise faith.
That is all pretty discouraging… I’ve written a lot about doubt, and I feel like my doubts are sincere–the product of honest searching and trying to reconcile my own limited experience with the things that I am taught and have learned at Church.
Problems with vilifying doubt and doubters
The overwhelmingly negative messages we receive about doubt from the institution had the effect of exacerbating the ‘crisis’ part of my faith transition. At first, I was afraid to entertain any doubt, so I ‘shelved’ a lot of issues. This probably had the effect of making the inevitable confrontation with doubt much more difficult and frightening than it might have been otherwise.
Further, the compartmentalizing of religious propositions that didn’t fit the world as I experienced it bifurcated my life into religious and secular spheres. There was the fantasy world of religion where miracles happen and divine manifestations are commonplace (which seemed entirely foreign to me), and the ‘real world’ where the normal laws of nature apply and doing ‘church stuff’ was a chore. I felt alienated and alone among a people that professed to live in a different world that seemed inaccessible to me.
I think I’ve mentioned it before, but so much institutional vilification of doubt has the effect of silencing any dissenting voices (the spiral of silence). Mormons are given models of testimony (“I know X, Y, and Z”), and while it is a powerful glue for those for whom it works, it also builds tall walls against those for whom it doesn’t.
All of this is not to say that doubt is an unalloyed good. We can become consumed by doubt. T.S. Eliot says it best in his masterful reflection on doubt, Ash Wednesday:
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us (emphasis mine)
To the extent that doubt paralyzes us — locks us into ‘too much’ internal discussion and explanation — and prevents us from rebuilding ‘something upon which to rejoice,’ it is a negative force. But it is not necessarily so.
Doubt is what led Joseph to the grove. Doubt motivated the rescinding of the temple/priesthood ban. The Gospels tell us that Jesus doubted: All things are possible to thee — remove this cup — why hast thou forsaken me? Doubt leads us to reevaluate and grow.
Certainty as an enemy of faith
As I’ve reflected on this topic, I’ve come to feel that certainty is at least as big a threat to faith as doubt might be.
Dieter Uchtdorf put this well when he said,
How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?
To the extent that certainty closes off questioning, it should be abandoned.
If I were to die tomorrow and find myself in some kind of afterlife, I would be surprised. But I would be shocked to discover if any of it was even approximately close to what I believe about it now.
Scientists have an expression, “All models are wrong, but some are useful (and some are more useful than others).” This is surely true of our knowledge of the divine. We can do our best to formulate a mental model of divinity and the eternal realms, but it will always be only a model.
I love the way that Hafiz, a 14th century Sufi poet, says this (quoted in Phyllis Barber’s beautiful 2001 Sunstone article):
I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
How are you?
I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
What is God?
If you think that the Truth can be known
If you think that the Sun and the Ocean
Can pass through that tiny opening
Called the mouth,
O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly Laughing–
The question, ‘how are you doing?’ — even when asked sincerely and not just out of habit or social obligation — can only be answered with a ‘brilliant lie.’ Given hours or days or weeks, we could not hope to really convey everything that is happening internally at any given moment. How much more so with something infinite and so far outside our experience?
Faith as something different altogether
I have come to a place where I am realizing that faith is something qualitatively different than intellectual assent to a set of particular propositions. Faith, as Joseph taught, is a principle of action. It is a confidence that helps us to move forward.
Perhaps I am alone in making the mistake of seeing faith as requiring cramming my model of the world into something that can conform to the Sunday School curriculum (any observations to the contrary be damned). One of the reasons that faith was so difficult for me was that I had my definitions all mixed up. As another blogger has helpfully pointed out, the secular and sacred meanings of terms like belief have become muddled in our post-enlightenment world.
With this new perspective, faith is on a separate plain from things like doubt, skepticism, certainty, and knowledge. Actually, the manual does a pretty good job in its discussion of faith. There is no mention of doubt, and it sticks to an action oriented definition.
An unrepentant doubter
And so I remain a doubter, but a doubter that is trying to exercise faith. Realizing that the two — faith and doubt — can (and must) coexist has made all the difference for me.
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.