Tag Archives: free inquiry

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.

Pioneer Spirit: Reclaiming our Spiritual Imagination

pioneer: noun. 1. one who originates or helps open up a new line of thought; one who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc. 2. one of the first to settle in a territory.

Pioneer Day. Our day to celebrate how our spiritual progenitors followed their leaders to the Promised Land and made the desert bloom like the rose. That willingness to subjugate self-interest in the service of the common good is a legacy bequeathed to us by those forebearers. In the Mormon beehive, we’re all taught to hum the same tune.

But there’s another meaning of the word pioneer. According to Merriam Webster, a pioneer is one who originates or helps open up a new line of thought; who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc. 

In this sense of the term pioneer, can modern-day Mormons also claim a spiritual heritage? If so, to what extent has institutional and cultural Mormonism kept the “questing spirit” alive? Do we hold the conviction, burning bright in Joseph Smith’s day, that the door of knowledge swings open only when someone with a question comes knocking?

This, I’ve written before, used to be the essential spirit of Mormonism, and Joseph Smith was its primary advocate, resisting all attempts at reining in his expansive, even audacious,  imagination. This may be seen as an embarrassment now, as Church leaders are left with no intellectually honest way to reconcile theologically incompatible teachings, or to harmonize early doctrines with subsequently taught doctrines, but it’s also the reason we arrived at a theology as paradigm-shattering as that presented in the King Follett Address.

Surely the Church is more than a museum to protect historical artifacts from breaking. Surely its leaders are more than curators, ensuring that nothing gets knocked over. The terms prophet, seer, and revelator used to signify particular roles. Are any of those roles reflected in the phrase, maintaining the status quo? 

Even in religious life, a breakthrough requires a breaking through.

As I’ve been grappling with the question of how a Church once infused with the questing spirit could now view public questioners as faithless and subversive, warranting extermination from the beehive, I stumbled quite accidentally on a passage from a book* I’ve been reading that presents a cultural critique of Buddhism. The author, Stephen Batchelor, points to a general trend among religions. He explains that the founding figures, possessing a genius for imagination and the “capacity to express an authentic vision that responds creatively to the needs of their particular situation,” attract an eager following. (And surely there is nowhere a more apt description of Joseph Smith!) But once established, the new faith’s enthusiasm for new ideas soon cools. “For while the founding figures were imaginative and creative, imagination and creativity were rarely qualities encouraged in the schools and orders they established.”

Why not? Why doesn’t the institution perpetuate that founding spirit of innovation and creativity?  The author’s conclusion is that over time, “the preservation of orthodoxy became the main priority.” He elaborates:

While originating in acts of imagination, orthodoxies paradoxically seek to control imagination as a means of maintaining their authority . . . and to suppress authentic attempts at creative innovation that might threaten the status quo.

The more hierarchic and authoritarian a religious institution, the more it will require that the creations of imagination conform to its doctrines…

This is what I see happening. It’s not new. An honest appraisal would acknowledge that Joseph Smith himself fended off challenges to his authority, sometimes ruthlessly. But at least that Prophet was not afraid of a free marketplace of ideas. Why the insecurity now? Do we not believe, as the apostle Hugh B. Brown believed, that in that marketplace, “truth emerges triumphant?”  That apostle went on to say, “Only error fears freedom of expression.”

Batchelor finishes his observation by stating that religions may find it convenient in the short term to silence those who ask what is possible,

Yet, by the suppression of the imagination, the very life of dharma practice is cut off at its source. While religious orthodoxies may survive and even prosper for centuries, in the end they will ossify. When the world around them changes, they will lack the imaginative power to respond creatively to the challenges of the new situation.

On this Pioneer Day, I celebrate those among us who open up new lines of thinking, who invite us to reexamine our assumptions, who keep knocking on the door of knowledge. I celebrate the bishops and Sunday School teachers and neighbors who maintain a space for people who ask questions. I celebrate the breakthroughs–the breaking through–we’ve experienced in our short history after enough people dared to raise their voices against injustice or inequality or incomplete truth-telling.  I celebrate those among us sufficiently awake not to be lulled into thinking All is Well in Zion. These are Pioneers worthy of our legacy. And this is their day.

 

 

* Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. (p.108)

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!

 ~

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