Today’s guest post is by Glenn. When I was at BYU, I got interested in the study of folklore – the way that traditional culture informs our understanding of the world. I worked in the BYU folklore archives cataloguing missionary stories – encounters with the three nephites, miraculous experiences (some easier to believe than others), initiation stories of greenie missionaries, cautionary tales — just a whole bunch of really interesting stuff. I was hooked. So I went to Indiana University to earn a Masters Degree and PhD in Folkloristics. I focused my studies on folk religion, with an emphasis on traditional mormon culture – legends, customs, beliefs, green jello…
I really enjoyed studying about ritual – the ways that we use ceremony to create value and meaning – we just experienced one with our sacrament.
And I enjoyed learning about “memorates” – personal experience stories that people tell about their own encounters with the supernatural. In the church, we often call these faith-promoting stories, and that’s the way that folklorists look at them too – that these stories function to justify and validate the beliefs of the people who tell them. They create certainty in the face of uncertainty, and whether the stories themselves are true or not, this is a very valuable thing.
It was an interesting time, and I went through many shifts and changes as I looked more closely at what I believed, why I believed it, and how it fit with the beliefs of other people all over the world. It was a pretty humbling experience, to say the least. And as a result, I have developed this constant, nagging, unshakeable, internal tug-of-war between the skeptic and the believer. It is very much like the lyrics to a song:
When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
a miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily,
joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible,
logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
clinical, intellectual, cynical.
There are times when all the world’s asleep,
the questions run too deep
for such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
but please tell me who I am.
That about sums up my graduate experience. It was kind of like worlds colliding. I had become skeptical, cynical, but I still had to exist in a believing world. What was I to do?
One thing I did was turn to the scriptures and to the counsel from general authorities and modern day prophets:
Mormon 9:27 – “Doubt not, but be believing.” Thanks, but too late.
Bruce R. McConkie – “Doubt is an inclination to disbelieve the truths of salvation… it is a state of uncertainty… faith and belief are of God; doubt and skepticism are of the devil.” Really? Yikes!
President Monson – “Remember that faith and doubt cannot exist in the same mind at the same time, for one will dispel the other. Should doubt knock at your doorway, just say to those skeptical, disturbing, rebellious thoughts: ‘I propose to stay with my faith, with the faith of my people. I know that happiness and contentment are there, and I forbid you, agnostic, doubting thoughts, to destroy the house of my faith. I acknowledge that I do not understand the processes of creation, but I accept the fact of it. I grant that I cannot explain the miracles of the Bible, and I do not attempt to do so, but I accept God’s word. I wasn’t with Joseph, but I believe him. My faith did not come to me through science, and I will not permit so-called science to destroy it’.”
With these quotes, I think it is pretty clear where I ought to be when it comes to doubt and faith. But if I’m being honest, I fall far short of these ideals. I just can’t accept the premise that faith and doubt cannot co-exist in the same mind. They have to. Because they both exist in mine. And I don’t know any other way to be.
I do want to endorse President Monson’s counsel, however, that if you can dismiss doubt when it knocks on your door, from my experience, you will be much more comfortable and far less troubled — so by all means, if you can do it, do it.
But if you’re like me – if you can’t just dismiss your doubts – there must still be a way to keep those doubts from destroying the house of faith. Right? Please? Because I can’t not doubt, but I still want to hold on to my faith. So what am I to do?
Well, the simple answer is that I have had to redefine my faith to make room for my doubts and to find a value in these doubts – so I want to share with you how I have done this.
MY TOP TEN
I want to walk you through my top ten personal beliefs about faith and doubt. Disclaimer – these are just my own imperfect opinions based on my own limited experience. I could be wrong. But this is how I have found personal peace and balance in my life amidst this constant tug-of-war between the skeptic and the believer. So I share these with you because they have helped me, but I also reserve the right to change my mind at any time – it’s happened before, it can happen again.
If I really wanted to be borderline irreverent I might say that these are the philosophies of Glenn, mingled with scripture – but I don’t, so I won’t.
So here are my top ten:
1. Faith – at its most basic level – is desire.
I think this is consistent with the scriptures. Especially Alma 32. This is where Alma is preaching to the poor among the Zoramites.
You may remember that the Zoramites were condemned for their incredible pride – they would stand up on their rameumptom and show forth false humility – praising themselves for being the elect chosen of God, and condemning everyone else around them for following foolish and corrupt traditions. They cast out the poor and were very exclusive in their membership.
So Alma went among the cast out poor and taught them an allegory about faith – that it starts with desire – and that desire can be nurtured and tested and grown into a firm conviction. He compares it to a seed that is planted in fertile soil and cultivated until it grows and bears fruit and you can taste the fruit to know that the seed was, in fact, a good seed.
So faith starts with desire, but it isn’t JUST desire – you have to act upon that desire.
One of my basic desires is to be fair to people and respectful of their beliefs. And this desire has had a great influence over the mental gymnastic that you are about to see, because I also desire to hold on to my faith in spite of all of my doubts.
2. There is really no such thing as “doubt”
I guess you could say that I doubt doubt.
“Doubt” is just a word. It’s a word that we use to describe someone else’s belief that is contrary to our belief. For example, I could say, “I believe it is going to rain today.” And you could say, “No, I doubt it.” That’s really the same thing as saying, “No, I don’t believe that it will rain today.”
My point here is that “doubt” isn’t really anything but another way of saying “I don’t believe.”
3. There is really no such thing as “don’t believe”
I’m playing a game of semantics again. When you say that you “don’t believe” that it will rain, what you really mean is that you “do believe” that it will not rain. It is still an active belief.
I believe it will rain – you believe it will not rain. Your belief vs. my belief. And we may both have valid reasons for believing what we are choosing to believe.
I believe it will rain because I trust the forecast – it’s been right more than it has been wrong, and I don’t mind carrying an umbrella.
You believe it won’t rain because, despite the forecast, you just looked outside and no Japanese person in sight is carrying an umbrella, and the Japanese are never wrong about this sort of thing. Plus, you don’t want to be the only one carrying an umbrella, cuz then you’d look stupid.
So the point here is to define belief as an active thing, despite whatever words we use – whether we call it doubt or say we “don’t believe” it is all really just belief.
4. Faith and Doubt are not opposites – they are equivalents
If both faith and doubt are active beliefs, then they are really the same thing, aren’t they? They are both beliefs, just pointed in different directions.
Someone may say that faith has action but doubt has no action, but I would challenge that.
Yes, the faithful person takes an umbrella even if they are uncertain whether it will rain or not, and that is a faithful act.
But even the doubter takes action by choosing to NOT carry an umbrella and still walking outside anyway. Both are beliefs and both inspire action. Maybe this is the secret key to unlock the mystery of believing “all things” that we have been admonished to do. And then again, maybe not.
5. Faith and Doubt can co-exist
President Monson said that doubt and faith cannot exist in the same mind at the same time – and maybe I am using this quote out of context – but don’t we all doubt some things while simultaneously having faith in others?
For example, I doubt the traditional meaning behind the James 2:20 scripture mastery scripture “faith without works is dead.” I was originally taught that this was James’ response to the atonement of Christ. That we are not saved by grace alone, but must also show forth works for our eternal salvation, for faith without works is dead.
But when I went back and read all of James chapter 2, I saw that James’ message wasn’t about the atonement. It was about our own exercise of faith. It is saying that you have to put your money where your mouth is. If someone comes to you seeking food, and you say “bless you, and hunger no more” but you don’t actually give them any food, then you aren’t actually going to save them.
So I doubt the way that I was originally taught this scripture, but I still have faith that the message is a good message and that it comes from a good source. And that is a balancing act between doubt and faith.
6. Faith without doubt is dead
That is the GOT – the Glenn Ostlund Translation of James 2:20. Faith is a hope and a desire, but it is not a perfect knowledge. So there must be uncertainty, some degree of questioning or doubt, otherwise faith would be knowledge. Uncertainty in and of itself is not a bad thing in my world. And when uncertainty or doubt spurs us to positive action, it can actually be a very good thing.
7. Uncertainty is a scary thing
Without a doubt, doubt will make you more unsure about what you used to be very sure about, and this can be a scary thing. But one lesson that I learned as a kid is that anytime the scriptures say “have faith” you could interchange the phrase for “fear not” and the meaning would stay the same. So even with all of the different conflicting messages all around us in the world every day – even with all of the valid and reasonable reasons to have doubt, if we nurture our faith, we do not need to fear doubt. Doubt does not have to destroy our faith – it can bolster and lift it and lead us to new light and knowledge.
8. Our church has been built upon doubt – or at least upon the positive interaction between doubt and faith.
The First Vision would not have happened unless Joseph had experienced some questions and doubts about what he was hearing in the different revival meetings. But he also had faith that the Lord would answer his prayer. A pretty successful one-two punch, if you ask me.
And throughout the history of the church, doctrines and policies have been added or removed or amended because people have debated and doubted and questioned and reached out in faith, and received further light and knowledge. So there is a lesson to be learned here, that doubt and faith can interact together towards a good end.
9. Repentance without doubt is dead
We are constantly encouraged to evaluate and examine how we are living our lives. We are encouraged to repent when we need to repent, and I think that doubt plays a role here.
I have always found illumination in the Japanese word for repentance – kuiaratameru. If I understand it right, it literally means to remorse and to change. What causes this remorse? What leads us to a realization that we are in error? We must at some point doubt our very selves – we must doubt that our actions have been good actions. So perhaps this is another area where doubt can have a positive influence in our lives.
10. Humility is the key
Whether as individuals or as a church, regardless of what we currently believe or how strong our convictions, further light and knowledge can always reveal new truths, and our beliefs can always change.
Shouldn’t that awareness then lead to greater humility on our parts? Isn’t humility the way we learn to show Christ-like empathy and compassion and forgiveness for others, even when we disagree with them or when they disagree with us?
Isn’t that the humilty that caused the good Samaritan to stop and help the man on the side of the road, even though he probably doubted the other guys’ beliefs?
Isn’t that the compassion and empathy that caused Christ to say “forgive them father, for they know not what they do?” even as they were in the very act of doubting him to a painful and undeserved death?
Back to Alma 32 – Alma rejoiced when he saw that the poor among the Zoramites had been cast out. Why? Because they had been compelled to be humble, and that softened their hearts. No one wants to be compelled to be humble, but I think we should all have soft hearts — believers and skeptics alike. We should be open-minded, tolerant of different ideas, willing to admit our own imperfect understanding.
Doubt – for me – has compelled and pounded and softened my heart. It has lead me to a humilty in my beliefs, or at least an ability and a desire to step off of my own rameumpton and drop any pretense that I am any more elect than anyone else around me. Doubt has helped me repent of this pride.
In conclusion, I have atheist friends who are some of the most charitable, kind, Christ-like people that I know. When I ask them about God, they often say that it makes no sense to them that a loving God would put us in a no-win situation, and would punish us for living in a sinful world that God himself created.
There are many responses to this, but I want to give just one. If the story of the atonement is true – if Jesus Christ took upon himself the sins of the world and died for our sakes – then isn’t that the responsible thing for a God to do? Doesn’t that mean that he has personally erased the effects of sin and death that have come to us as a result of our following his plan and entering into this mortal probation full of death and sin? To me it is like he is saying, “don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Have faith. Fear not. Now just go and love each other as I have loved you. “
I find great beauty and hope in this approach. And I have a firm desire for this to be true. I also have a strong faith in the principles of charity that we read about in Moroni: “Wherefore, if a man have faith he must have hope; for without faith there cannot be any hope. And he cannot have faith and hope, save he shall be meek, and lowly of heart. Otherwise, his faith and hope is vain; and he must needs have charity; for if he have not charity he is nothing; for charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.”
This is my hope and my faith, in spite of my doubts.
How do you feel about doubt and its relationship to faith?