Saturday, July 9, 2011

Faith/Doubt

Last night, a group of people I'd mostly never met face-to-face humored me by showing up at my parents' home here in Springville, UT, to participate in what I had haphazardly called a "Gay Mormon Family Home Evening." Up until about an hour or so before people started showing up, I really wasn't quite sure what exactly we were going to do, or even if anybody would show up to eat the chips and veggies my dad and I had bought for the occasion.

I say people humored me, because I'm sure a number of folks showed up mainly to socialize (and not even necessarily with me!), and I insisted on starting and ending with a hymn and a prayer even though I knew some folks who showed up are not into that. And in between the socializing (which started around 7:30 p.m. and didn't end till 1:00 a.m.) we sat in a circle and took turns telling a little bit about ourselves, whatever we wanted to tell. And so the things people shared ranged from the mundane to the sublime, and there were stories of faith and doubt (and neither faith nor doubt), all intermingled. That, to me, was actually quite amazing.

The big happy surprise of the evening, for me, was the arrival of Kiley. I think she was actually the first one to RSVP on Facebook, so that was a big happy surprise from the moment she messaged me a few weeks ago to say she was really looking forward to it. I told her (only partly tongue-in-cheek) that I was amazed she was coming because I thought she was pissed off at me. And she said something to the effect that if she occasionally gave me that impression, it was only that the messages of faith on my blog hit too close to home for her. Which, if I had to summarize how I feel about her blog, would be very close to what I'd say about her. I understand the doubt thing, not just because I've been there, but because when I'm honest, I have to confess that the doubt is always sitting there, just at the threshold. Which is why it felt so good to actually see the real flesh and blood Kiley, and give her a great big hug, and to smile and see the smile on her face, and recognize that whatever we express of doubt or faith on our respective blogs, in the flesh we're something like a brother and a sister and much, much closer to each other than our words might make us out.

I recently received a confession of doubt from a close friend. He was weeping, because he felt like his faith and his life in the Church had been a great, big lie. He had confronted some uncomfortable truths about Church history that literally rocked his world, and he didn't see how faith was possible for him any more. I've never seen someone so utterly bereft and heartbroken. He wept and hugged me and trembled like a child.

And it occurred to me, as I was reading this recent post by Andrew, that people have this tendency to act as if the line between doubt and faith is this static boundary, which we are either on one side or the other of. When someone expresses doubt, if we've ever felt doubt, we act as if that person is where we once were. If someone expresses faith, and we no longer have faith, we act as if we were once "there," as if we've "been there, done that."

But there is no static boundary, there is no static realm or dominion of faith or doubt. Our lives are like a mountain road with a lot of twists and turns, valleys and vistas. And our faith is like that bend in the road just beyond an outcropping of rocks that lets us see miles all around us in the valley. We can sit for a while and enjoy the view. But when we move beyond that point (and move on we must, because our lives are a road we must keep walking), of course we lose the view we once had. Now we're on a stretch of trail where we can see nothing but steep walls hemming in our view, and a path that disappears after a few dozen meters. No vista any more. But it doesn't mean we didn't see what we saw earlier in the journey. It doesn't mean that previous vista was false. And if we stay on the journey, eventually we'll catch another vista again. And when we do -- when, once again, we can see the valley stretching out below us for miles away -- it's no longer the same vista we had before, but a completely new and different vista, one likely with a larger perspective than the earlier one. Even that perspective will eventually have to be abandoned if we want to keep growing.

So a normal, healthy, growing soul passes through faith and doubt, which are not so much opposed to one another as interconnected phases of the same journey; a journey which could not exist without both. When a person of faith wrestles with doubt, he's not "returning" to doubt, he's moving forward. We may wrestle with doubt at many phases of our lives, but doubt is never the same. It's always a different twist in the road. And faith reaffirmed and re-embraced is never the same faith. It's always a maturer faith, more refined by the doubts that preceded it.

Yes, Andrew, faith is relevant. But only so long as we don't define faith as the things we supposedly know -- the static, unchanging facts -- that make us moral beings (which is sort of how you've defined it in your essay). For me faith, in some profounder way is the journey, even when I'm passing through darkness and doubt. Because in those moments when my view is cut off, I've learned to keep walking, knowing that as long as I don't stop moving, I'll eventually see more clearly again.

Doubt represents the hard-won acquisition of indispensable truths. We should never jettison those truths, and so in a real sense, we never jettison those doubts. They just get incorporated into the larger understandings we acquire further up the path. That is why I ultimately can't bring myself to argue with someone who doubts, to try to convince them that they are wrong. At some profound level, I do not believe they are wrong, and to persuade them they were wrong would be to send them in the wrong direction, backwards instead of forwards.

That's why I was so happy last night. I loved that feeling in the room last night, as I sat there conversing till early this morning, that sense that wherever we are, we're all in this together.

15 comments:

mohoguy said...

I'm sorry I missed it! I would have loved to be there but my current situation made it impossible. Perhaps next time!

shenpa warrior said...

"whatever we express of doubt or faith on our respective blogs, in the flesh we're something like a brother and a sister and much, much closer to each other than our words might make us out."

I really related to this... in fact, this type of thing is part of why I struggle staying engaged in online interactions, e.g. on facebook. I've especially noticed this happen in my life when a relationship with someone whom I haven't seen in years is damaged online, even though we had a great in-person relationship. Double-edged sword I guess. Sometimes I've just wanted to be able to reach through the screen and give people a hug.

On faith/doubt - I like the simile of peaks and valleys and etc. If only I could get some of those peaks to last longer! :)

Beck said...

Faith and doubt are not static. They are definitely dynamic.

I'm so glad you had a great visit to Utah. It is so refreshing to read about your connections to your family, and your Utah roots. It's like it invigorates you and sustains you. It's fun to witness.

Kiley said...

This was really a beautiful post. I always appreciate your perspective and I really think you are right our views are not that dissimilar nor that far apart. You might be just a few steps ahead of me on the path.

I really appreciated the valleys and peaks. Such a great comparison to make.

I think you are incredible!

J G-W said...

mohoguy - Thanks! I would definitely like to try something like this again next time I visit Utah... UNLESS I can manage to time my visit to one of Sarah and Scott's Moho parties... So, indeed, one way or another, maybe next time...!

shenpa warrior - It's not that I am not incredibly grateful for the on-line interactions... Because really, the blogging world has allowed me to make so many incredible friendships. And I'm very grateful for the friendships I have, even the ones that are still strictly on-line relationships. But it's SO COOL to meet real people, in the flesh. That made me so incredibly happy...

Beck - Thanks! This time in Utah with family is such a great time to recharge my spiritual batteries...

Kiley - I guess to extend my metaphor (and to borrow another old metaphor) there can be several different paths up the mountain, and I may or may not be a few steps ahead of you on the same path...

Still, I'm glad we can speak to each other and learn from each other (and meet each other in person!!!). And if we do end up finding ourselves on the same path, there's no one I rather have for a travel companion!

Andrew S said...

I guess I should've read/responded to this post sooner, but I got caught up into a life-draining game.

Anyway, I don't really know what to say anyway. I don't even know what "faith" or "doubt" mean these days. To use the phrasing of my post, the very terms seem irrelevant...so I can't even grapple with them even to see if I agree with you or not. There just doesn't seem (at least to me, at this time) to be anything to grab. It feels kinda like math class.

Sorry...

Ty said...

Very well said. I had my own little encounter with faith and doubt tonight. I blogged about it and feel very much as you do. Doubt is an inevitable part of faith.

Miguel said...

Sorry I missed meeting you. I ended up not going to Provo kind of at the last minute and I ended up spending time dealing with other family issues. It would have certainly been nice to be in that group; hope to have the chance again in the future.
Hugs,Miguel

J G-W said...

Hey Miguel - I was sorry to miss you too...

I'm definitely planning to do it again next time I go to Utah. We had a GREAT time, especially getting to know and chatting with the other bloggers..!

Andrew S said...

So, I looked over the post a few times since my comment.

I still have no idea what it's saying.

But one thing that strikes me. You say, "Faith is relevant." But I never said in my post, "Faith is irrelevant." I don't know what faith is and no one can seem to give coherent answers that agree with each other.

To the contrary, I suggested that religion is irrelevant. Or, more specifically, Mormon religion. I don't see any counterargument here.

J G-W said...

Andrew - I'm trying to figure out if there's a framework within which we can discuss this.

You say: "I don't know what faith is and no one can seem to give coherent answers that agree with each other." If we can't talk about faith until everyone in the world is agreed upon a single coherent definition, then we're kinda stuck. I understand faith primarily as a relationship with God. If we can at least talk about faith in terms of that definition, then a dialogue is possible.

I don't actually separate faith from the Mormon religion. It's the religion that provides me a coherent framework for understanding what faith is. The religion is relevant, because it provides me a set of tools that actually work for me, that help me navigate through life.

Andrew S said...

I'm still lost here.

If faith is "relationship with God," this is CLEARLY different than Mormon religion. Even if it is, as you say, that religion is a FRAMEWORK for UNDERSTANDING what faith is. It would be quite pointless to say "Mormonism is a framework for understanding what Mormonism is." But clearly, there is a distinction between "faith" and Mormon religion. You say Mormon religion is relevant because it helps you navigate. But here again, you are once removing Mormon religion from faith. The former helps you navigate the latter.

I don't exactly know what a relationship with God is supposed to be, but I'm pretty sure it's different than the tools used to navigate that relationship (which doesn't make much sense to me. It seems like you're splicing two incompatible metaphors, which is why I said in the first place that I don't know what faith is and no one can seem to give coherent answers that agree with each other (or even itself, apparently).

Bravone said...

John, I love this post. As you know, I have grappled a lot lately with faith and doubt. Thanks for your perspective.

I so wish we could have met in person while you were in Utah this year. Someday we will meet, but I don't think I will feel any closer to you then than I do now.

I love you brother,
Steve

J G-W said...

Andrew - Mormonism includes a series of stories/histories/teachings about the nature of God, and about God's interactions with us that enable us to interact directly with God. It includes notions like "giving place" in our hearts for seeds to be planted; listening; sacrifice; and patience.

This post was very much speaking to the fact that sometimes the Spirit is very much present in my life, opening up vistas and visions, and giving me a clear sense of my purpose in life that helps me to forge ahead despite other people's doubts. Sometimes the Spirit is not present in my life (or at least, doesn't seem to be present); my vision feels hemmed in; I struggle to feel good about myself and where I am going. But I find that if I am patient; if I stay on the path the Spirit showed me earlier, I reach other new, more comprehensive points of clarity in my life.

That's how faith works for me. And it's been productive of much, much good in my life, and has helped me to overcome adversity -- including (but not limited to) the adversity caused by homophobia and misunderstanding of my relationship with my husband. It's been my relationship with the Spirit that has motivated me to reach out to others and to relinquish judgment, but also to stand my ground and work hard when it comes to things I know are right (like having the right to marry).

My faith flows from my Mormonism, and both my faith and my Mormonism are very, very relevant to me.

To go back to the metaphor of the mountain path... If I'm stuck on a part of the path where I can't see what's ahead or what's behind or where I am, if I decide to stop moving because I don't believe there's anything further for me down the path, then I'll never get unstuck. I'll always be trapped in a part of the trail with no view. Faith and religion, I guess, are irrelevant if we don't (or feel we can't) use them...

Steve - I too wish we could have connected. I understand that your being in Idaho makes it a stretch for you to swing down to Springville. Maybe next time we can plan to meet in SLC. But you're right, the Spirit (and/or the Internet!) can bridge physical distances!

J G-W said...

Andrew - I should add that part of my sense of "agency" includes the notion that God lets us decide what it is we want out of life. We have various gifts of the Spirit, and we get to choose how to use those gifts to help make the world a better place. So, to a large extent, we get to decide the "relevance" of a particular principle or teaching...