Friday, December 31, 2010

Doubt/Faith

Tomorrow, I'm attending the baptism of my friend Mary. New Year, new beginning. It seems the perfect time for a baptism.

Mary called me earlier this week to tell me the news. This is a big step for her, not one she takes lightly. She's been investigating the Church for many years, and a couple of years ago she almost got baptized but then called it all off at the very last minute -- to much embarrassment, and much to the chagrin of the elders and others intimately involved. She was introduced to me by a friend of mine who happens to be an atheist. Candy had told Mary about my wrestles with faith, and my journey, and Mary decided she needed to talk with me before she made any final decisions either to join or not to join the Church. So over the last couple of years, Candy, Mary and I have met periodically for lunch and heartfelt conversation. And in that time, Mary and I have become very close.

When Mary called to tell me about her baptism, we wept together on the phone. Mary told me she had been asked to make suggestions as to who she would like to have speak at her baptism, and she wanted me to speak about the Holy Ghost. I told her I felt so incredibly honored that she would want me to do that, but I was certain I could not be allowed to speak at an LDS baptismal service. And that was when the weeping started. She told me that the reason she's getting baptized is because of my faith and testimony. And she couldn't understand why I wouldn't be allowed to speak at her baptism. And I told her what I've told her before: Everything will work out in the end for the best and highest good of each and all of us if we just move forward in faith. And my presence at her baptism will have to be enough of a witness of what I know about faith and love and about the Holy Spirit.

I called my friend Candy and told her Mary was getting baptized, and Candy agreed that we both needed to be there to support her. Candy said something about the extraordinariness of a situation that might prompt her to walk through the doors of a Mormon church in order to attend a baptismal service. And she also, to my delight, volunteered that she would repeat the performance again some day when I am finally able to be baptized too. Now that is a testimony to the depth of the love of my friend Candy, that, not really sharing any of my faith, she understands me so completely, and is able to share my deepest hope with me. So Mary's rooting section on New Year's Day will include an excommunicated gay Mormon and a Unitarian atheist, united in our desire for Mary's happiness, and in our hope for her baptism to be both a new beginning and a deepening of faith.

I've been reading a book lately about the history of unbelief in America (an excellent book, by the way). It seems there are also (synchronicity!) a crop of blog posts by Beck and Kiley and Andrew about the personal conundrums caused by belief and doubt; or by a desire to believe in the face of doubt. I think my friend Mary has a profound faith, what Mormons call a testimony, but she's also been paralyzed for many years by different kinds of doubt.

An irony of wrestling with doubt is that in the midst of such wrestling we often feel guilty, as if it is wrong for us to doubt, when in fact doubt registers what I consider one of the highest forms of integrity. A person wavers in doubt because of a desire to make the right choice, and because he or she is honest enough admit that he or she doesn't know the right way to go. Doubt is not a comfortable place to be. When in doubt, we long for the certainty that will enable us to move forward with the courage (and presumably happiness) of our convictions. We have to wrestle with uncomfortable emotions, with an awareness of personal weakness, with conflicting desires. Doubt is always as much a matter of the heart as it is of the head! Even when we don't recognize the heart's role in doubt... We wonder if the "right" thing to do is to stick with a course of action that our head tells us can't be right, but our heart tells us ought to be right. Or is the "right" course to do what reason dictates, even when it "feels" icky?

One thing I can say is woe to the person who sells out in one way or the other. By that I mean the person who consciously professes belief just to win applause or get some other tangible reward. That kind of choice will eat at your soul until you don't have the power to believe in anything any more.

A person of integrity should doubt. But there, of course, also comes a moment when a person of integrity must choose. That isn't to say that we don't sometimes have to revisit choices; swallow hard and admit we were wrong; repent! My life has, for good or ill, been shaped by those kinds of choices. I am only human. But if we don't choose, if we refuse to move forward and commit for fear of later having to admit we were wrong, we miss out on the greatest gifts and the greatest ultimate happiness life has to offer.

Mary asked me how many baptisms I have attended in my life. I told her I wasn't sure, but probably around a dozen or so. I told her that three of those were baptisms I had performed.

"What was that like?" she asked.

"Terrifying," I told her.

"Really?" she asked in surprise. "Why?"

"Because I recognized the enormity, the incredible importance of what I was doing. And because I wasn't always sure I was worthy."

"Oh," she said, in a voice that told me she now understood perfectly.

I feel something like this now, for Mary. Of course Mary's decision to be baptized is Mary's decision. It is her choice. But she says that her baptism would not be possible without my faith and my testimony. My life has touched hers in some meaningful way that has helped her come to terms with doubt that till now had barred her way, like some angel or demon at the foot of Jacob's ladder. You don't give a gift like that to someone else without giving some part of yourself. Without owing some eternal part of yourself.

In thinking about it, I was reminded of what Elijah witnessed, when
the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Kings 19: 11-12)
So there are moments when I feel incredibly broken, like the rocks must have felt flying off the mountain, like nothing can be right with me. And there are times when I wonder if everything I believe in isn't, like the mountain in the earthquake, crashing down around me and proving me just another fool. But after the wind and the earthquake and the fire, the still small voice remains constant. It speaks of love, and keeps me grounded.

My greatest privilege in life has been to bear witness of that voice, and to see it bear fruit in love.

9 comments:

Kiley said...

Very excellent post. I like what you said about faking belief being the sort of action that eats away at your soul. I have found that to be true.

I also find what you said about doubt to be very insightful. I had never considered that doubt could be a sign of integrity. I find that I am in a state of doubt right now and wondering what sort of application faith is supposed to have in my life at this juncture. I used to feel that I knew a lot about faith and that I had a lot of faith.

Moving forward is something that weighs heavily on my mind right now.

I thank you so much for this post. It has given me a lot to think about.

Andrew S said...

When in doubt, we long for the certainty that will enable us to move forward with the courage (and presumably happiness) of our convictions.

Isn't that funny in a twisted way? Without some kind of doubt or uncertainty, we wouldn't have courage at all. Kinda like when they say that courage isn't the absence of fear, but is more like acting in spite of fear.

James said...

Ditto what Andrew and Kiley said. Very thought provoking post.

I also had never thought of doubt as a sign of integrity. I have often felt guilty for doubting the church, but I rather agree more with this perspective that doubt could be a good thing, even essential to the development of real faith.

This story is moving in how despite your struggles, she has been able to see something of such value in your testimony that motivates her to make such a huge decision as to be baptized. You must be really a good friend to these two ladies :)

Neal said...

Thank you for another beautiful and inspiring post. You're always bringing me to tears, it seems. :)

J G-W said...

Kiley - Mormons are fond of using the phrase, "I know ___ is true." While I think there is a very real spiritual sense in which we grow into saving "knowledge," the emphasis on knowledge tends to obscure the -- in my opinion -- far more important principle of faith.

I think it is more useful to view spiritual "knowledge" as a metaphor, that helps us to understand how we progress spiritually. There never comes a point where faith isn't an operative principle.

But that also requires us to understand faith not as "belief," as intellectual assent, but as "trust"... (And ultimately to understand "knowledge" as "experience" of God...)

J G-W said...

Andrew, I agree. That sounds to me like the definition of faith...

J G-W said...

James - Thanks! Real faith is the point here, I think...

Neal - Thanks, as always. Happy New Year!

GeckoMan said...

John, thank you for your post. I hope the baptism went well for you and Mary.

I appreciate so much your words of honest faith and patience to see the good follow through the fear or frustration.

Happy New Year to you and Goran.

I've decided to start blogging again in 2011.

J G-W said...

Hey, Geckoman!! Is this a New Year's resolution or something?! No matter, I'm glad you're going be blogging again!