Saturday, March 5, 2011

Except We Have Charity

I'm convinced that one of the great heresies is the notion that faith is primarily about accepting intellectual propositions.

It's not that certain intellectual propositions don't bear on faith. For instance, I would characterize the Doctrine of the Atonement as an intellectual proposition. Learning and studying and engaging with the Doctrine of the Atonement, I believe, teaches us how to approach God. But it is not the doctrine itself which connects us to God, it is the approaching. It is the postures and the movements of soul that are enabled once we accept the doctrine as true.

The intellectual propositions of faith are intended to stimulate unconventional perceptions of the world around us, to free us from the tyranny of mundane evil. The world is, for the most part, trapped in an endless cycle of hate, violence, counter-hate, and counter-violence. Few will take responsibility for ending the cycle, because most are obsessed with blaming someone else for starting the cycle of violence. Christ gave us the doctrine of turning the other cheek, returning love for hate. This doctrine makes no sense within the framework of mundane wisdom: justice demands returning pain and retribution for hate. Christ demonstrated the doctrine by living a sinless life, by succumbing to the full onslaught of the world's murderous hate when he died on the cross. And then he rose again from death, showing us the wounds in his hands and feet and side; demonstrating the power love has to overcome evil without responding to it in kind.

The Doctrine of the Atonement is offensive and incomprehensible to the world. At some level, I think, we all reject it and rebel against it. But if we can find a place in our hearts for it, it transforms our perceptions of the world. In my personal encounter with the living Christ I suddenly recognized how my hate and my anger had been returned by him with pure love and forgiveness. That recognition melted the hardness of my heart and replaced it first with immense sorrow for the wrong I had done, and then with inexpressible gratitude for the gift that had been offered me so freely. It also made me recognize that if I had been so forgiven, there was no grudge I could consistently hold against anyone else. Those who sin against me in anger and hate, I realized, have simply failed to understand the underlying principles of the cosmos; principles that are masked in the false, sinful reality we all participate in. Their misunderstanding is no different from my own, so I have no basis for judging them. When I accept the new reality established in the Doctrine of the Atonement, I realize that the only appropriate response is to conform my life to Christ's by returning love for hate; to join Christ in anticipating the New Heaven and the New Earth in which this false reality, this false awareness will be wiped away.

Faith comes in living that core proposition: that love must be returned for hate. It also comes in the surrender of ego. It is our egos that make our hurts, our pain, our offended sense of justice more important than that of others. Christ says: Surrender all that. If you cling to your life, you will lose it. It is only in letting go your life (your ego) that you gain eternal life. True faith only comes as we enter into this path; as we begin to wrestle with our egos, as we exercise the discipline of holding our desire for retribution in check. Yes, it is a struggle!

The propositions, the doctrines of faith, can only really be a light to us once we have accepted the deeper commitment to live them. Yes, we explore them at first tenuously, wondering if something so nonsensical as the doctrine of loving your enemies can make the least bit of sense in the world we live in. The doctrines open us to radically different possibilities. But it is only in embracing those possibilities, in committing ourselves to them, that the full light of the doctrines can shine into our souls.

This is why Moroni says, "Ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith"! (Ether 12: 6).

For so many years, I only read half of the twelfth chapter of Ether because I misunderstood the relationship between faith and love. I shouldn't have misunderstood this chapter, because Moroni states pretty much at the outset of the chapter exactly where he's going with it:

Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God. (v. 4)

Moroni starts with an intellectual proposition ("whoso believeth in God"), which he links to "hope for a better world." But that hope, he explains, "cometh of faith... which would make them sure and steadfast always abounding in good works." So, it seems, the hope enabled by belief is a fruit of "faith" (different from belief!) which Moroni links with "good works." In other words, belief is the product of love.

Now somehow I always missed this teaching because I was raised in a culture that acted as if faith was the same thing as "belief." So when Moroni launches into a series of examples of the miracles that could be accomplished through faith, I was obsessing about the sheer miraculousness of the fact, for instance, that Alma and Amulek could cause a prison to collapse (v. 13), or that the three Nephites could live on the earth until the Second Coming (v. 17), or that the Brother of Jared could literally move a mountain (v. 30). As I read these examples, I thought Moroni was in essence saying, "You too could perform these miracles if only you believe in them." As if, by staring at a mountain for long enough, and really thinking about it enough, I could make the mountain collapse. That, of course misses the whole point of this discourse. Believing that I can move the mountain has nothing to do with my ability to move it.

In the second half of the chapter, when Moroni starts talking about "charity," I thought he had changed subjects. And in my immature brain and soul, I thought he had changed to a less interesting subject at that. I was more interested in the flashy stuff. Seeing the finger of God from behind the veil and all that.

In fact, the litany of things that could be accomplished by faith were just a build-up, intended to explain just how powerful faith actually could be. Yes, miracles can be accomplished by faith. But then Moroni explains precisely what faith is.

When we talk about "things hoped for but not seen," what precisely, in this world, are we talking about? Nothing less than the Kingdom of God, which is nothing less than the this-worldly embodiment of charity, or the perfect, pure love of Christ. "A better world." That's where Moroni started this discourse. Faith is that hunger, that hope for a better world which we see nowhere around us. "Wherefore, ye may also hope, and be partakers of the gift, if ye will but have faith" (v. 9).

The heart of this doctrine of faith is centered in the love Christ demonstrated through the atonement:

This love which thou hast had for the children of men is charity; wherefore, except men shall have charity they cannot inherit that place which thou hast prepared in the mansions of the Father. (v. 34)

It is this demonstration of charity, of the pure love of Christ, which constitutes the "trial of our faith" without which we will "receive no witness" (v. 6).

Moroni worries aloud in this text. What if we show charity, but others don't show it back? What if they mock us and refuse to believe us because of our weakness? (vs. 23-28). It's interesting to me how the verse we typically focus on in this half of Moroni's discourse is the part about how "if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness.... for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them" (v. 27). We're all worried about our weakness. We don't want to look weak to others. We don't want to be weak. But the Lord's point about making our weakness "become strong" is ancillary to the main point here. It's not about strength. It is about charity. The Lord expects us to show charity in spite of weakness, whether we see weakness become strength in the short term or not.

There's not a single word in this entire chapter that doesn't apply as much to gay people as it does to everybody else. I was having a conversation with a member of my gay Mormon family home evening group. He is really struggling in his relationship with the Church; feels on the verge of completely dropping out. And the focus of his conversation with me was that the Church is not acting like the Church is supposed to act. The Church is supposed to cherish every soul -- including gay souls! Not forget about us and lose track of us and discount us and and fail to take seriously our deepest needs and yearnings and hopes for love and family, because it's decided that we are defective or handicapped or undeserving sinners. Yes, it hurts to feel the nurturing bonds of love that are so characteristic of LDS community, only to see them shattered by a revelation about one's sexuality. We feel betrayed and angry. And that's how the cycle of pain, anger and hate starts for us. Yes, this is real! It's not just some Sunday School lesson any more. This is the consequence of the failure of charity. This is what failure of faith feels like. That's when our challenge really begins.

I asked him, "Who is the Church?" Isn't the Church you, when you choose to exercise charity?

"If they have not charity it mattereth not to thee," explains the Lord, "thou hast been faithful" (v. 37). Whether others show charity or not, in other words, when we show charity we have won the same victory that Christ won. We will have shown the same faith that enables us "sit down in the place" he has prepared for us "in the mansions of my father."

Now Moroni bears witness at the end of this text that he has seen Jesus and talked with him face to face. Miracles do follow faith. Belief in miracles does stir hope, and it gives us courage to try faith. But there always comes that moment when we have to decide what we believe more. Do we believe in the possibility of love triumphing over evil? Or do we believe what the world tells us about the futility of all striving for goodness?

5 comments:

Andrew S said...

what a great post. If only it (esp. your breaking down of the doctrine of the atonement as "breaking the cycle,") were taught like this in church.

Now Moroni bears witness at the end of this text that he has seen Jesus and talked with him face to face. Miracles do follow faith. Belief in miracles does stir hope, and it gives us courage to try faith. But there always comes that moment when we have to decide what we believe more. Do we believe in the possibility of love triumphing over evil? Or do we believe what the world tells us about the futility of all striving for goodness?

One thing that's important to note is that we don't have to decide what we believe more.

After all, we don't have to believe the possibility of love triumphing over evil. We may still believe in the futility of all striving for goodness, yet strive for goodness and love anyway. You said faith COMES in LIVING that core proposition. So it's not that we live that core proposition because we hope or have faith, or even because we believe.

J G-W said...

Andrew - I agree that we may believe in the futility of striving for love in this world, and strive for it nonetheless. And this is the core of faith. This is like "planting the seed" in Alma 32.

But the narrative that I'm discussing here in Ether 12 also insists that miracles follow faith. (Actually Alma 32 also develops this theme.) So if you live the law of charity in a truly consecrated, committed way, you will see miracles. I would define a miracle here as something that snaps us out of conventional perceptions, something that, essentially, opens a crack into the divine realm, that gives us a vision of the loving possibilities that the world around us works so hard to deny. If you look at all the miracles that Christ performs in scripture, you'll see that they all do just that... They tell us something about the coming Kingdom of God.

And miracles following upon love exercised in faith foster hope. You begin to realize -- because you've experienced something that can't be explained with the framework of ordinary causality -- maybe the world isn't beyond redemption after all. Maybe there is a kingdom of love after all waiting to break out among us.

With that understanding -- and that's what I have experienced in the progression of my own faith -- it's hard for me to believe that any act of charity is ultimately hopeless. Things may seem bleak when you choose to act charitably. But I don't think they can stay bleak forever. Which is why I do believe that when you commit to a path of patience, kindness, long-suffering, and love, you are, directly or indirectly, choosing to believe in the ultimate triumph of love...

Trev said...

Thank you! This is wonderful. This post actually came as something of an answer to my fast today and has motivated me to make some concrete changes in my life and to start attaining and enjoying the fruits of this faith again.

I also appreciate these two comments. I think that Andrew's comment in the bolded sentence is illustrated by Mormon in Moroni 9:6, especially when contrasted with the horrible descriptions of what is going on in that time in the book of Mormon (the one within the Book of Mormon).

Your responding analysis of miracles following faith seems spot on to me, even in the case of Mormon and Moroni. Certainly, thinking about it, I think we can have even greater hope today since this is supposed to be the final dispensation that will actually usher in the Kingdom of God on earth.

Andrew S said...

(I guess I forgot to subscribe to comment to this post).

John,

It's no problem if miracles *follow* faith. It's no problem if things cannot stay bleak "forever." The point which you don't seem to dispute is that it's entirely possible that, at the time of action, things may nevertheless be bleak, and that for some period of time after action, the bleakness may continue.

I mean, at the end of your message, you still want to say that it's a choice to believe in the ultimate triumph of love...but from the continued description, it seems like you are "chain-loading" too much. That choice doesn't seem apparent at the time, nor will it be UNTIL one (OUTSIDE OF ONE'S CHOICE) has experienced something that "snaps him/her out of conventional perceptions." One doesn't choose to experience a miracle that will change his perceptions, so one doesn't choose hope or despair.

J G-W said...

Fair enough... I can't disagree. You are absolutely right about the framework within which these choices typically have to be made; and you're right that I myself have said as much in the body of my essay.

I guess my weakness is that I'm writing this from a perspective of hope, so I tend to see any choice for love in hopeful terms... I can't help but want to hold out hope at the end of my essay!