Tag Archives: certainty

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Postcard #5

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Introduction

Postcard #1 I’m finding goodness from many sources

Postcard #2 I want to see the whole elephant

Postcard #3 There are many paths up the same mountain

Postcard #4 I sense that feeling the Spirit is a universal, not exclusive, gift

Postcard #5 My faith doesn’t obligate me to believe anything that isn’t true.

faith-and-reason

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”  – Pope John Paul II

FAITH CONTINUES TO BE A BEAUTIFUL and animating force in my life. I’m not one of those who feels contemptuous of anything that can’t be proven; the things I value most are, by nature, subjective: the love I feel for my family, the sense that my life has purpose, a belief in the worth of every person. These are things I hope are true, and I choose to live accordingly.

Let’s be honest, we live in a world in which many things can neither be proven nor disproven through the faculties of reason. A spiritually vibrant life, in which faith propels us forward, allows us to sail the seas of uncertainty, to navigate the unknowable.

But some things can be known. Some claims can be tested. 

When it comes to investigating religious claims—particularly those truth claims upon which we have built our lives—we tend to have some trepidation. Few of us could say, as Thoreau, “Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats.”

If I’m committed to truth, it means I must be willing to look, in an honest, unflinching way, at the very foundations of my belief. “If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation,” J. Reuben Clark said, “but if we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.” I agree with Clark, but I also acknowledge that what we call belief is actually a composite of many beliefs—some sound and others based on false assumptions. I am learning to uproot the false, without also tearing out the true.

In this, I’m inspired by sincere seekers of truth such as Henry Eyring, the world-renowned Mormon scientist. He displayed the true scientist’s trait of openness to new ideas and an ability to cast aside old theories if they no longer proved faithful to new data; likewise, he displayed the true spiritual seeker’s trait of openness to new ideas and an ability to cast aside commonly-held beliefs (or even scriptural accounts) if they were contradicted by reliable and compelling evidence. His own father gave him permission to approach any of the Church’s teachings that way:

“In this church,” he told the young man as he was leaving for college, “you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true.”  

I no longer cower behind faith as an excuse for ignoring, suppressing, or denying information that may challenge my current beliefs. Faith may fill in the blanks when not all evidence is available, but more often than that, my faith plays a more positive, active role. My faith fills me with courage to face difficult issues. And to the extent that we must all “see through a glass darkly,” faith allows me to move forward, trusting my feet to find the way.

When we are told by leaders not to look closely at an issue, but instead to doubt our own ability to discriminate between truth and error, I wonder if we are really being invited to exercise faith, after all.  It is precisely because I have faith that I am willing to examine problematic issues. The avoidance-based approach only dulls my soul. If I want to truly awaken, I must stop humming the lullaby of certainty to myself.  

When I occasionally feel discouraged by the contempt some in the Church express towards independent thinking, I remind myself that the impulse to challenge the prevailing wisdom is not a failing, but an admirable trait, as Hugh B. Brown pointed out to young college students in the 60s. I’ll close this Postcard with his words ringing in our ears, an anthem to faith:

I admire men and women who have developed the questing spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas as stepping stones to progress. We should, of course, respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent—if we are informed . . . We should be dauntless in our pursuit of truth and resist all demands for unthinking conformity.

P.S. I have written a piece on intellectual freedom and the tension between an undaunted spirit of inquiry and institutional insecurities. Here’s the post.

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Postcard #4

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Introduction

Postcard #1 I’m finding goodness from many sources

Postcard #2 I want to see the whole elephant

Postcard #3 There are many paths up the same mountain

Photo Credit: Mode Images/Alamy

Photo Credit: Mode Images/Alamy

~  Postcard #4  I sense that feeling the Spirit is a universal, not exclusive, gift.  ~

I’ll introduce Postcard #4 with an excerpt from a story:

ONCE THERE WAS A BOY who lived in a village. At the heart of this village was an orchard filled with many kinds of trees. The boy loved to play there. He would dance barefoot under the blossoms in springtime, and when the sun grew hot he would rest under the leafy shade. As the boy grew, he would reach up to the branches and pluck peaches and apples and pears. The fruit was juicy and sweet and filled the boy with joy. When the Village Elders taught him that the fruit’s sweetness proved that their village, and their village alone, possessed the One True Orchard, the boy wept with gratitude.

The boy found it wondrous that he happened to live in the one village in all the world in which The One True Orchard grew. He began to feel compassion for the people of other villages. The day came when he filled his backpack with fruit and set out to let others know about his special village.

One beautiful morning the boy came to a new village. A young man walked by. The boy said, “My friend, if you taste a piece of this fruit you will come to know the Truth.” The young man stopped. “I have been searching for something,” he said, “maybe this is it.” The boy gave him a piece of fruit and after a moment asked, “Is it not sweet?”  “Yes, it is sweet,” admitted the man. The boy’s face shone with light. “Now that you have tasted the sweetness of this piece of fruit,” the boy explained, “you know for yourself that the tree from which it was plucked must be a True Tree. You know the gardener who planted those trees must have been a True Gardener. And you know the whole orchard, and every tree in it, must be the One True Orchard.” The man hesitated. “That is what the sweetness means?” the man asked. “Yes,” the boy answered, “that is what the sweetness means.”

The story, of course, is mine. And it’s the story of millions of other Mormons whose testimony of the exclusive validity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is rooted in a genuine, personal experiences with sweetness. We tend to interpret these spiritual experiences as a kind of celestial variation that our church must be right. 

Let me explain.

As Latter-day Saints, we are taught that spiritual feelings, such as a “burning of the bosom,” or a peaceful assurance, can be understood as personal revelations from God witnessing that our church–and only our church—is true. 

As a young man, whenever those feelings came to me as a boy—whether singing hymns, reading sublime passages of scripture, engaged in sincere prayer, or passing the sacramental bread up and down rows of saintly white-haired widows–they confirmed I was in God’s One True Church.

Later, as a missionary, this became the logic by which we persuaded others: If someone felt spiritual feelings, it was offered up as proof that our church was true, meaning that the totality of our teachings, practices, scriptures, organizational structure, and founding narratives were divinely and uniquely inspired. This was not done manipulatively; we genuinely understood this as the divine “pattern” for how God would let people know they should become Mormons. Let’s say, for example, that we invited an investigator to read from the Book of Mormon, perhaps the passage where Jesus is blessing the children. If they felt a surge of love and goodness after reading that part, then I guided them into understanding that (1) the Spirit had just witnessed that the Book of Mormon was an ancient record; and therefore, (2) Joseph Smith was a true prophet; and therefore, (3) all his teachings are from God; and therefore, (4) our church has the only legitimate claim to the priesthood authority; and therefore, (5) all other churches are false.

When it comes to spiritual experiences, I’m no cynic. I unabashedly admit that these experiences have enriched my life. But am I justified in citing those experiences as proof that my beliefs are legitimate while someone else’s are not?

Here’s why this is problematic. Firstly, the chain of reasoning itself is deeply flawed: the reality of “A” does not necessarily prove the truth of “B,” “C,” and “D.” Secondly, these supernal feelings don’t just manifest in Mormon contexts. I know people from other faiths who cite their own sacred experiences as proof that their beliefs are correct. How to account for this? Well, I used to chalk it up to their propensity for self-deception—a vulnerability to which members of my faith were somehow immune.  

Now I’ve found myself “feeling the Spirit” both inside and outside a Mormon context: meditating with Buddhists; reciting scripture sacred to Hindus; listening to the liturgical chant of Benedictine monks; attending a Suquamish tribal funeral; visiting Grace Cathedral in San Francisco; holding signs at Pride Parades that express God’s love; participating in the Episcopalian Eucharist; awakening to a neighborhood mosque’s call to prayer in Jaipur; visiting Gandhi’s ashram in New Delhi. Each of these moments invokes its own sense of grace, of devotion, love, and peace. 

So what shall I make of those unbounded, profligate feelings? Should I interpret them as the Holy Ghost prompting me to flip-flop from one religion to another? Is it possible that, if these feelings do have a divine provenance, perhaps a heavenly Seal of Approval is getting stamped liberally across everything that’s good? And what if neuroscientists are right, that humans are hard-wired for these sort of phenomena? Should my own subjective experiences, while precious to me, be privileged above another’s subjective experience?

These are not easy questions, and I don’t have any definitive answers to them. 

My heart tells me that spiritual experiences are not exclusive experiences that prove something is true, but are universal experiences that witness something is good

Whatever their source, I continue to cherish the feelings I’ve come to associate with the Spirit. I continue to cultivate the attitudes and habits of mind that lead me to feel more love and more compassion and more joy in the happiness of others. These are the Fruits of the Spirit. To me, they are sweet above all that is sweet.

I’m grateful for the Orchard that surrounds me. And I’m grateful for the Orchards that surround us all.

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Put Away Our Telescopes? Not a Chance! The Heavens are Calling.

From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,

From the laziness that is content with half-truths,

From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,

Oh God of Truth, deliver us.

     ~ Ancient Prayer

IN 1633, THE ROMAN INQUISITION CHARGED Galileo Galilei with heresy. His crime? Entertaining the notion that the sun “does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world,” and for espousing a theory deemed “false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scripture.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 2.58.36 PMWhile Galileo didn’t invent the heliocentric model of the universe, he discovered plenty of evidence for it. His own powerful telescopes were showing him things never before encountered, and mathematical reasoning confirmed what others, like Copernicus, had been saying. To a rational mind, there was no denying the soundness of the astronomer’s conclusion, but it was an inconvenient truth, to say the least, in an age where burning heretics, not fossil fuels, contributed most to global warming.

To be fair, scientists and philosophers, not just the Church, opposed him. But it was the Church with the power to coerce and intimidate. As the sole mediator of rites essential to salvation, God’s priestly representatives could strip Galileo of his eternal salvation. What could man do more?

I can imagine Galileo’s family and friends pleading with him to stop studying the heavens. It’s dangerous, they must have said. Put away your telescope.

Inquisitive Latter-day Saints hear that, too. Why study the night sky when its constellations have already been named, catalogued, and described in our Church-approved manuals? Why look at the heavens when Deseret Book publishes thousands of titles on Astronomy? There’s no need to look for yourself. And it could be dangerous: You could lose faith in the truthfulness of the Star Map. Put away your telescope.

And yet, like Galileo, the urge to know the truth by our own experience, to understand what’s really out there, compels us to look for ourselves. So we look. And then we begin to understand why there was so much institutional hand-wringing over what we might find.

We’re discovering some stars in the night sky that don’t correspond to the official Star Maps we’ve been issued at Church. Certain constellations have been left off the official charts, and it appears that some stars have even been redrawn to suggest patterns that aren’t present in a clear reading of the starry sky. Not only that, but those who’ve traveled far and wide report that what we see printed on our Star Maps constitutes only one perspective, from a Northern line of latitude, and that skywatchers in the Southern Hemisphere see an entirely different set of stars. The discrepancies are not easily dismissed.

We are confused.

We hear leaders telling us not to trust our own eyesight, to doubt our faculties of reason. We hear apologists pat us on the head and explain that there’s really no contradiction between what we’re seeing in our telescopes and what’s on our official Star Maps. Then we go to Church and hear people bearing testimony of the Star Map. And we sing, Praise to the Cartographer. And what we hear most of all is that we shouldn’t be looking through our own telescopes in the first place, but instead should exercise faith that the Star Map is True.

That last point prompts me to ask: Should we have testimonies of the Star Map and its Cartographers? Or should we have direct encounters with the Heavens they attempt to describe? Isn’t it rather like going to a restaurant and worshipping the menu instead of savoring the food?

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 3.18.39 PMI’VE BEEN AIMING MY OWN TELESCOPE at the spectacular cosmos that is Mormonism, collapsing its distance, but until recently I’ve been reluctant to share an honest account of what I’ve seen. For one thing, I realize my view is filtered through a particular lens, shaped by my personal and cultural biases, faulty reasoning powers, and limited perception. For another, I haven’t wanted to force anyone to look through the telescope with me, believing it’s the prerogative of each person to decide if and when they look for themselves. But mostly, it’s fear that has kept me–and so many like me–from giving an honest report of our experience. We stand much to lose by admitting that we see things differently. We are branded as arrogant, faithless, deluded, disloyal, and dangerous.

I get it. I’ve been there myself. By discrediting a person, we don’t have to grapple with the questions he or she raises. And when our most crucial claim as an institution is that we’re right about everything, it’s simply not permissible to allow someone to suggest we may be wrong about anything. The community protects itself from the vulnerability of uncertainty by marginalizing anyone who doesn’t reinforce their sense of certainty. And if there’s one thing out of which we Mormons fashion a Golden Calf, it’s our personal and collective certainty.

Fortunately, astronomical charts can be redrawn to more closely reflect reality. At the institutional level, curriculum and resources are being re-written to acknowledge some of the more egregious discrepancies between our traditional narratives and more honest tellings. No doubt, this change comes as the Church is hoping to earn back the trust of those who have been far more more troubled by the lack of openness than they are by a clear reading of the stars. I applaud this forthrightness for its own sake, and am persuaded that whenever institutions resist transparency they will lose credibility with Millennials for whom unrestricted access to information is seen as a birthright.

Call me crazy, but I still find value in those Star Maps. They fire my spiritual imagination. They bestow a mythic power on our collective narrative. And the awe they’ve instilled in me over so many years has become the prime motivator for me to seek my own direct, unmediated experience with the Universe.

Put away our telescopes? Not a chance. The Heavens are calling!

 ~

Want to discuss? Share your thoughts and your experiences here, or start your own conversation among friends by sharing this essay with someone else.

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