Analogies of Belief: Expecting the Polar Express

John Nilssonchrist, doubt, faith, God, Jesus, Mormon, religion, testimony, thought 25 Comments

What does it mean to say you believe something or “believe in” something? Would a child say they believe in Santa Claus? Or would they simply act and react to situations as if Santa Claus existed? That is, if their parents took them on the Polar Express would they expect to meet Santa Claus tucked away in a cozy brick house at the North Pole checking his naughty/nice list and getting fist-bumps from Mrs. Claus before he gave rousing speeches to the elves?

Is belief as expectation the best way to understand religious belief in general?

Here’s a concrete example:

To be completely frank, I would no sooner expect to see the scene above in the Second Coming painting than I would expect the Polar Express to whisk me off to the North Pole to get a peek at Santa Claus in his workshop. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in Jesus Christ or His divinity. I do, as far as I can understand the concept of divinity, which is not very far. But I don’t ever expect to see a scene like this.

Nor do I expect any number of other things, including a physical Second Coming, the presence of multitudinous spirits hanging out with me every day influencing me for good or evil, or that the devil is sitting around thinking of how he is going to ruin my family’s picnic.

I expect that there is a residual influence from Jesus Christ which exerts an example on me and others to reach out to others in service, in compassion, and in the hope of eternal life.

I suspect that my expectations may have a greater influence on my behavior than my beliefs.


If you don’t have an expectation of something, can you be said to believe in it? For example, if Mormons are supposed to believe in the Second Coming in some form, but we are also told not to expect it (or not to expect it in our lifetimes, though the practical value is the same to me), do Mormons still believe in the Second Coming?

What things do you expect, or not expect?

Are their other ways to analogize belief besides as expectation?

Comments 25

  1. A problem with your analogy is the issue of testimony versus faith versus belief. Each one is different.
    Belief is suspension of doubt and humbling ones self regardless of truth behind what one is suspending doubt about. So you can believe in something that isn’t true like Santa Claus.
    Or, you can use your belief as a tool to gain knowledge. Indiana Jones suspended doubt and took a step into the dark to find the light. Testimony is revealed knowledge, and the first step of gaining it is suspension of doubt and having a desire to believe and know. Faith is having a belief and acting on it to gain the testimony. If your expectation doesn’t turn out, then you had faith in something that wasn’t true. If, however, the tree bears fruit, and you begin to feel the swelling motions, you know that you are starting to see fruit of your belief and faith.

    The fact that you don’t expect something doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It just means that if it turns out to be true, and you didn’t believe in it, that you didn’t suspend your skepticism long enough to start on the process of gaining revelation on it. On the other hand, there are some things in life that I doubt like bigfoot or UFO’s that are inconsequential and it doesn’t matter in the end if they turn out to be true. When salvation is on the line based on one’s faith or lack thereof, then it is a much more weighty matter. It is in that issue where skepticism can be a damning thing, where skepticism ceases to be a tool, and becomes a stumbling block.

  2. Post


    Thanks for the comment.

    I was trying to keep the belief issue simple, but let me see if I get this straight. You are saying that there are three different kinds of religious belief or knowledge. Belief is the simplest form and could include “believing” things that aren’t true. Faith comes next and means acting on the simple belief you have, followed by the testimony level at which one passes from belief to knowledge, or “revealed knowledge”, as you say. So in your model, faith is the vehicle that drives you from point A (belief) to point B (revealed knowledge). Am I right?

    You also say that there are some things in life that you doubt, “like bigfoot or UFO’s”. Why do you believe that those things don’t matter? Could it turn out that Bigfoot and UFO’s each may have a part to play in a cosmic plan which you are presently unaware of? I personally doubt that they do, but I wonder how you begin sorting through which issues are important to develop belief in and which are not.

    And how does one practically suspend doubt if one is not Indiana Jones? Can one simultaneously believe AND doubt a proposition like “Jesus Christ is the Son of God”, for instance?

  3. I don’t think that there’s a difference between belief and faith. In the LDS church it does seem that it’s set up in a hierarchy with being able to say “you know” something to be true as the end point. But it seems to me to be all semantics. If I believe something then I have certain expectations associated with it and likely will be influenced in some action. But if I don’t have a personal expectation of something happening like my being here for the second coming, it doesn’t change my belief in it. As far as having a knowlege and a testimony those to me are just words unless my actions reflect and express that knowlege. If I say I believe in Christ then that’s the same to me as my saying I have faith in him and that I have a testimony of his mission and ministry. People on a regular basis, in and out of the church profess belief, faith and knowlege of things that aren’t true. I think keeping it simple and downplaying the distinctions referred to in #1 would be both practical and helpful. There are far too many people that never stand up in fast and testimony meaning because they’ve been led to believe that belief or even faith just isn’t good enough.

  4. I expect to continue learning that I am wrong. Now that I have been wrong so many times, I expect to be wrong in the future.

    I found out in the past that my views on life were wrong after I began actively practicing my “Polar Express” Mormon Faith. I found out that I was wrong about the Polar Express faith. I am looking for what’s next. I expect to find it. I expect to find out I am wrong again.

    You would think this is extremely negative. I don’t think so. It’s appears to be a process of losing what’s wrong with me. That makes it right! right? *tone of doubt*

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    I tend to agree that there is no practical difference between belief and faith. If we believe, or expect, something to be true, we WILL act on it in some way. It is almost the definition of belief.

    There’s a food storage example that could be instructive. Most active LDS, according to recent surveys, only have maybe a month’s supply of food in their homes. That would indicate to me that most active LDS don’t expect a calamity to occur which will necessitate them having to draw upon their food storage. In other words, most LDS don’t believe statements of their leaders telling them to beware of future disaster. It’s a pretty visible marker.

    Other expectations are not so visible. If someone expects Joseph Smith to be their judge in the next life (as certain statements of 19th century leaders asserted), I’m not sure how that expectation would affect behavior. But there may be outer signs like an obsession with Joseph Smith and a downplaying of Jesus Christ which a third party could observe in such a believer’s life. I don’t know.

  6. John N. – The outward focus of faith/belief/expectations gets people into a lot of trouble, IME. Scripture is deliberately vague and subject to multiple interpretations. One that comes to mind is the prophecy that the moon will turn to blood. Does the moon, a solid, have to literally become a liquid, blood? A few months ago, there was a lunar eclipse that made the moon appear red. Was that the moon turning to blood? Or it could mean that someone will be murdered on the moon. Or “moon” could be a person’s name or the name of a city. Or it could mean that it was mistranslated and it’s something else entirely. Who knows?

  7. RE #6. “The outward focus of faith/belief/expectations gets people into a lot of trouble, IME”

    Unfortunately with the “there is a law irrevocably decreed” belief, there’s this expectation that you’ll get blessings for being faithful and by inference avoid the bad things of life. People on a daily basis are reminded that there are no guarntees but they still feel intitled for being good.

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    You are right on in your comments about the book of Revelation.

    When I realized that early members of the Church had all kinds of religious beliefs I and most other LDS I know don’t have, it made me skeptical of the idea that the Lord “wants” anyone to believe a list of specific things, but perhaps rather is more concerned with our actions.

    For instance, lots of Latter-day Saints believed that your blood literally changed when you were baptized to make you part of the tribes of Israel, or that God’s skin color is a Scandinavian pasty white. I don’t expect the Ten Tribes to march out of an iceberg (maybe the Polar Express can discover them for us), but I’m sure many of us have ancestors who did. Why would God care about those kinds of beliefs?

  9. #9 “When I realized that early members of the Church had all kinds of religious beliefs I and most other LDS I know don’t have, it made me skeptical of the idea that the Lord “wants” anyone to believe a list of specific things, but perhaps rather is more concerned with our actions.”

    It took a number of years for the free wheeling theological speculation to settle down and get people headed in sort of the same direction. The idea of personal revelation and permission to imagine things about religion led to beliefs about things like protection from garments, dream mines, Adam and Eve not having blood in a mortal sense, and on and on. Some of these ideas have taken generations to die out. They were sustained by a sort of magical thinking such that if you believed it enough, it had to be true. Another characteristic is that they didn’t really make a difference in terms of the day to day living of a Christian life. I’m sure God would be much happier if we would love Him and our our neighbor. I remember years ago years ago hearing a person bear a fervent heartfelt testimony of their personal relationship with God and Jesus and the personal communication that went on between them. That was just before the Bishop disfellowshiped her for leaching off the welfare program and sleeping around. When all is said and done I think God cares about what we do and tolerates the rest.

  10. In Lectures on Faith, Joseph Smith used the term “assurance” to describe faith.

    “Now faith is the substance (assurance) of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

    I think assurance describes my basis of testimony better than expectation. I have an assurance, for example of life after death. My expectation, however, of being ressurrected is fraught with many questions. i.e. How is matter provided for all of the living beings that have ever existed on the earth? How can a celestial body of flesh and bone be possible without blood (which courses through the marrow of the bones).

    I don’t have the answers to these questions, but find that my assurance in the overall plan guides my behavior. Watching the Polar Express motion picture, it never seemed certain that the passengers would actually see Santa. They expected that the journey would take them toward the North Pole. They did not feel a certainty that they would actually get there, but living for the possibility was the hope of hopes. When they got there, however, (and what turned me off to the movie) it was dark, erie, with creepy elves and a Santa that was not particularly jolly.

  11. John,

    Bigfoot cannot save us. Jesus can. The only good a big hairy ape will do for us to to entertain us in a zoo. Faith in Jesus Christ leads to salvation.

  12. “They were sustained by a sort of magical thinking such that if you believed it enough, it had to be true. ”

    What’s wrong with the concept of protection if one wears garments? It’s not magical to think that keeping a covenant would have a measure of a promise of protection, not that the item itself has magical powers, but that you would have a promise based on obedience. I don’t need to rehearse what people are told in the temple. It’s not a guarantee by any means, but you certainly have no proof that the anecdotal folk tales of protection do not have basis in real experience. You cannot prove they are not so, but neither can I prove they are so. It isn’t a magical item because sometimes the protection does not protect when its not the Lord’s purpose, when a missionary is shot or whatever.

  13. I remember back in 1964 when I was in the old mission home in SLC. The mission president was talking to us about garments and said that if they were to be a physical protection then why didn’t they cover our head, hands, and feet. It’s like a girl in my old ward telling me that she was sure that her sister who was on a mission to South Africa would be protected even though there was the belief there that raping a virgin would be a cure for AIDS. To me that sort of belief or expectation is just magical thinking. Otherwise you’re left with the uncomfortable implication that if the person were good enough or if his family had prayed hard enough then whatever bad happened would have been averted.

  14. Just for the record, the actual wording does not promise protection from physical harm. I don’t question those who have had personal, miraculous experiences (and I have heard details of such experiences straight from the person involved that are difficult to explain in any other way), but the promise itself does not mention physical protection – and the real life experiences of many members does not support that type of protection as the primary or universal promise.

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    So, to extend the analogy to beliefs about garment-wearing, some people obviously expect certain kinds of physical protection from garments, and others don’t. This is a great example of where expectations influence behavior. I knew a couple of missionaries who honestly believed they could ride their bikes recklessly and God would protect them (at least the parts covered by their garments.)

    There is also the J.Willard Marriott Jr. story he told on 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace, saying he was in a boating accident (fire) and he received burns on a lot of his body but not where his garments were. I wonder if he expected that kind of protection before or if now his expectation is strengthened that the same kind of thing would happen again if he were in an accident.

    So, do these expectations encourage reckless behavior?

  16. Physical protection based on wearing garments is miraculous and true after you filter out all the people who are seriously injured or die wearing them. I just don’t seem to hear a lot of the stories from people it didn’t work for…

  17. Rigel – “I . . . find that my assurance in the overall plan guides my behavior.” Well said.

    Valoel – LOL! That is what I was thinking. My sister once sent me one of these emails about how life was so different when we were kids: no seatbelts, playing unsupervised all hours of the night, drinking from the same glass, etc., and yet we had all lived through it. I had the exact same response – that’s ’cause dead people can’t read emails.

  18. The success of religions seems to depend on having people believe difficult or impossible things. Paradoxically, the more difficult the belief is to accept intellectually and the more rigid rules with which it binds believers, the more successful the religion is in holding onto its adherents. “[T]he most successful religions, in terms of growth and maintenance of membership, are those with absolute, unwavering, strict, and enforced normative standards of behavior.” (Study cited by Peggy Catron, Encountering Faith in the Classroom, Miriam Diamond (Ed.), 2008, p. 70.)

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