September 17, 2013

The Doubt Essential to Faith

When I was a young Mormon missionary, I was intrigued by a dialogue that I would hear regularly during one of the lessons we taught investigators.  The lesson was entitled, The Plan of Salvation, and one of the first tenants it covered was our reasons for being born into mortality. According to Mormon theology, there are two grand purposes for our lives here on earth: 1) To gain a body and 2) To learn to walk by faith.  In combination, the two conditions allow us to be tested.  Regarding the second purpose, my missionary companion and I were very quick to point out that faith is not a perfect knowledge.  Humans, we taught, were caused to forget their pre-mortal existence with God, so that faith was not only possible, but that uncertainty would become an ingredient of their lives.  

Now, here's the interesting part of the story.  No sooner would we cover this concept than my companion would say with the greatest conviction: "I bear you my testimony that I know these things are true."  And he would repeat the same mantra, time and time again, after relating new theological concepts.  Was my companion a bit nutty?  Of course not, because that's exactly what our lesson plan taught us to say, but do you see the irony in this?  We were essentially saying: Faith isn't a perfect knowledge, but we can know that it's a necessary part of our existence and that all aspects of Mormon theology are true.  

As I've pointed out before, the fundamentalist's dogmatic and unshakable boast that he knows God's will on a matter disregards the fact that faith has far more to do with uncertainty than knowledge of what is true.  Yet, Christians deem uncertainty as a kind of failing and a sin.  When I tell my Mormon friends that I've become agnostic to everything that the church teaches, except for the most fundamental of Christ's commandments that we're to love each other, they believe I've committed some horrible wrong that keeps me from true communion with God.  I would know otherwise, they say, if I'd only humble myself and pray with real intent.  

I've done that, of course.  For decades there was nothing more important to me than to one day know that the church was true, but God answered my pleas in a way that surprised me.  The fact is, if we harbor no doubts about Noah and his ark, or if we stick to literal readings of Genesis, then we relegate Christian culture to a scientific backwater that fears facts and learning.  We might as well read chicken entrails for the value it provides.  

Press this link for a wonderful TED speech given by Lesley Hazleton, who has apparently been doing a lot of thinking on this topic.

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