Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Simple Gospel

Behold, this is my doctrine -- whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church. Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church. (D&C 10: 67-68)

Last week, I engaged in a long discussion on Andrew's blog about "Mormon Doctrine." First, it bears pointing out that this idea that Andrew repeats here that Mormonism is essentially a hodge-podge of contradictory doctrines and that no one really knows what Mormons believe is a very old anti-Mormon chestnut.

The main point I was trying to make on Andrew's blog is that, yes, many contradictory things have been taught and believed by Mormons. But "Mormonism" is not a "creedal" religion. Being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ is about making and keeping baptismal, priesthood and temple covenants -- which is to say that it is about a relationship with a living God. It is not about adhering to a list of creedal statements or doctrines or formulas.

I think this is a popular misconception about religion generally. It's an error that has become so widespread as to be almost unquestioned in our culture that religion and belief are one and the same thing. So most folks just assume that religion is the aggregate of all the intellectual propositions we adhere to, plain and simple. This is, by the way, a most congenial definition of religion within a godless intellectual framework. Since, in this framework, there is no god with whom we can possibly be in relationship, our religion must, ipso facto be the (necessarily false) propositions we intellectually accept about God (or the gods). Religion is all about belief. So to study religion, you must study all the whacky beliefs out there; which can even become a kind of sport. Let's unearth all the religious whackiness out there and then we can all have a good laugh about how foolish it is to believe in anything, much less to claim that one has anything like a relationship with God.

Now, there's no denying that there's an awful lot of that type of religion out there. There are an awful lot of religious folks who agree that their religion is about what they believe. In fact, historian James Turner has argued that it was religious folks' growing insistence that religion and belief were the same thing that laid the groundwork for modern atheism. These religious types, often, are the folks who invest a lot of energy in arguing about religion. Because again, for them, as far as religion goes, as far as they suppose, belief is all they have. They're the folks, therefore, who become most defensive when belief comes under attack, because they realize that's all they have.

But there are folks for whom religion is about something much deeper. It is about an encounter with a being -- with God! -- that they cannot deny, and that is so powerful it completely realigns their understanding of the nature of reality. Folks in this category know that "belief" of any sort can't even begin to approach the reality of God; it at best gives us metaphorical approximations of who and what God is. And it is the reality, the real, living, true God and a real, living true relationship with him that they crave. Belief, for these folks, is our painfully inadequate effort to put into words what simply defies linguistic expression.

I've been reading William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, which is actually a series of lectures James delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901-1902. I'm only about a third of the way through, and maybe when I'm done I'll provide a more complete review. Though in some aspects it comes across as rather dated, it's still really a remarkable, powerful book. In Lecture III, "The Reality of the Unseen," James quotes a number of individuals who describe spiritual experiences they have had. One of the things that struck me was the similarity of the wording that people used to emphasize the significance of the spiritual experiences they had had. There was a turn of phrase that James quoted again and again, that was extremely similar to a phrase I have used myself in describing my own encounter with the risen Christ. My phrase was something to the effect of: It would be easier for me to deny my own mundane existence, than it would be for me to deny that what I experienced in that vision was real. It was more real than I am, if that is possible. I know the existence of Christ in some very objectively true way with greater force of certainty than that I "know" I or anything else in this world exists, and I would sooner deny any of that than deny Christ.

James describes varying intensities of experience. For some people, it was more along the lines of the "still, small voice," just a quiet nudging that opened new realities up to them if they followed it. For others it was something extremely intense and powerful -- like the experience I had, which reduced me for a very long time to a sobbing mass. James is right to class these experiences on a continuum, because I agree that even though I've had a very intense, powerful experience -- a vision -- what I experienced is not different in kind from the kinds of spiritual experiences I have on a more daily basis: feeling the Spirit prompting me to do this or that, or giving me specific comforts and assurances and helping me to keep courage in the path to which I've been called. So I can truly say, in a very real sense, that having witnessed and experienced the presence of Christ in a very powerful, intense way, that I have no greater basis for knowing the truth of him than I did before that experience, or than I do now, as the Spirit whispers peace to my soul, and bears witness to me personally of the truth I bear witness to now: that Christ lives in a very real, literal, objective sense, that he is the creator and ruler of the cosmos and has everything and all power of life in him.

When I sit in fast and testimony meeting on any given Sunday, I experience something like that: when the Spirit speaks, we are all of one faith. What I know is no truer than what any testimony-bearing member of the Church knows. Our experiences may vary, but the truth to which we bear witness is one and the same thing, one and the same truth. And so often that just fills me with this indescribable gratitude.

James acknowledges that while many people do have spiritual experiences, only a few seem to have the really intense, really powerful ones, and there are many, many who never seem to have any kind of spiritual experience at all. And it is not for lack of trying. There are many, many good people who follow all the steps. They obey the commandments, they read the scriptures, and they pray and ask and sometimes even desperately plead for some sign, for some spark of revelation that will make them know too, and they just never seem to get it. And James confesses (as I think we are all obliged to confess) that he simply doesn't know why some people seem spiritually tone deaf, and others seem to have this rich world of spirit that they access easily and intuitively.

But James also documents what may be a key to answering that question. Spiritual sensitivity can come and go. Some individuals described how, for a time in their lives they didn't seem to have spiritual experiences, and then some happening in their life triggered a spiritual experience and then they were newly sensitive after that. Other individuals described having had a period of their lives where this sense of powerful, objective, spiritual presence coming from outside of them one day, seemingly inexplicably, seemed to leave them. Sometimes they mourned the loss of it, sometimes they didn't.

Often individuals who have spiritual experiences -- both the more intense variety as well as the more common variety -- know, however, that they could easily be capable of losing their spiritual sensitivity if they are not attentive. If they do not live lives in harmony with what the Spirit tells them. This is congruent with what the Church teaches. What we do, how we choose to live our lives, whether we choose to live in harmony with the Spirit, has an effect, even if it is not always the determining factor. Grace -- the bestowal of a gift, over which we have absolutely no control -- also seems to be a factor, and we have no choice but to wait in patience on it if we don't get it.

True faith is an act of soul. It is an act of submission. And so the fundamental truth captured in the above quote from the Doctrine & Covenants: repentance and turning to God is the Church. Nothing more, nothing less. Not all the religious crap we carry around with us, the religious souvenirs we acquire like in so many gift shops, the beliefs, the dogmas, the foolish rationalizations we use to explain why somebody of a different skin color, or sexuality, or religion or whatever is worse than we are.

True religion is a kind of stripping away, until it is nothing but this turning to God, and the love, faith and hope that flow from that. And if we don't have that kind of religion yet, that religion of relation, all I can say as someone who has had that encounter, and whose life has become a process of renewing that encounter daily, is that it is worth everything you can do to get it. It's worth selling everything you have -- both figuratively and literally -- to acquire that one pearl. What you need to do or to give up in order to get it may be different than what anybody else needs. But I can't but believe that faith and patience and love will get it for you.


Andrew S said...

How does one repent? How does one turn to God?

I like this post, and I really, really, really do like your approach to things.

But I can't help but feel like it's ignoring the elephant in the room.

This post is littered with beliefs. It is littered with intellectual propositions that you adhere to. Why? Because they reflect your experience with reality. They are how you interface with reality.

You make sure to point out that perhaps, the intellectual propositions you make will be flawed...that they will fare incredibly poorly to capture the reality of things you find more real than the mundane.

And perhaps that is so.

But still, though you may not capture these down, you have these intellectual propositions.

J G-W said...

Andrew, I've been thinking about this. Not all belief is the same.

Some folks recognize that beliefs cannot possibly capture the full reality, they are just tools to help open us to greater light and love. Other folks use belief to shut down possibilities and close ourselves off from knowledge and from others. Belief should be used as a working hypothesis (think Alma 32), not as a shibboleth (think Jesus' words to the Pharisees in Mark 2:27).

From the perspective of someone who does not have the gift of faith, it is still hard to know when a belief has that potential to open us up vs. shutting us down! It's scary to lean on a reed when you're not sure if it's going to break. And that's what faith requires of us...

The only advice I could offer to someone who's still wrestling is to say: Find all the happiness you possibly can without faith. If after all your searching, you find that happiness eludes you and your life is still incomplete, that will be the beginning of repentance.

Anonymous said...

I have always been anti-dogma, I think because I am a scientist and am aware of the constant change in the world and how we change our views about the world. There is nothing that changes as much as science. And so should religion change. thanks for your tho

I think I have Varieties... at home; I'll look for it

Basil said...

J G-W,

Excellent post. Thanks for eloquently capturing why I continue to believe strongly in God despite being unable to justify that belief with a rigorous syllogism. And as one who has had a similar more-real-than-real experience--and the agony of trying unsuccessfully to have another--I second your comment that it's worth selling everything you have to acquire that one pearl.

Regarding your advice to Andrew, Mormon's recommendations to "search diligently in the light of Christ" and to "lay hold upon every good thing" by exercising faith have a certain pragmatic appeal to me. I read this as saying, "If you feel intuitive sparks of goodness/transcendence in something, lean into those by believing in them and see where they lead." The "search diligently" implies that this is an ongoing process of leaning, adjusting, backtracking, leaning again, etc, rather unlike a static assent to a set of propositions. Instead, it's an ongoing, intuitive process of spiritual discovery.

J G-W said...

Basil, thanks. Your advice makes me think of Gandalf's line in Fellowship of the Ring: "The air smells less foul down here. When in doubt, Meriadoc, always follow your nose."

Nate said...

Interesting Ideas. I have a question about your perspective on absolute truths. It seams as if you hold a very relativistic approach to beliefs in general. as do some others who have commented. What is religion to you? Do you believe in certain absolutes? For me God is and must be the bases of faith, after all He is perfect. In order to act in faith such action must be placed on Gods absolute word, upon which there can be no doubt, and which he says never ceases.
I also recognized the need for prioritizing Gods word. This is why the first commandment is first. Love God, then yourself as your neighbor. Doing so helps us deal with mortal dilemmas. What are your thoughts about this?

In answer to Andrew's comment I would suggest that to repent is to learn about and become more like God. Or as described by the Doctrine and Covenants in section 64, to Forsake sin.

J G-W said...

Nate - To the extent I can know anything exists, I know God exists. So yes, I definitely maintain that there are certain absolutes.

I distinguish between belief -- unproven intellectual propositions about the nature of reality -- and knowledge -- that which I know through direct personal observation or experience. Belief is obviously inferior to knowledge. Don't you agree?

I agree with your statement about knowing God... We become capable of knowing him to the extent we become like him.