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Friday, March 10, 2006 

Doubt as a hobby

On a whole, I think that Latter-day Saints fail to appreciate the power of doubt. It may be natural; we are a movement that demands faith and demands acts that indicate our possession thereof. At the same time, we say that it is good to have questions. We seem to approach doubt as a hobby; something that we keep working on in the basement level of our mind; something which we always work on when something more important isn't pressing; something that fundamentally only the individual is interested in and which, therefore, ought not to be widely shared; something that can always be set aside and returned to after an appropriate interval. There is much talk in and out of the church about compartmentalization and cognitive dissonance, both of which seem to accept the hobby form of doubt as the only legitimate form. People often push us to bring the doubts up from the basement; saying that there is nothing wrong with doing it. However, there is a persistent sense that, in so doing, one will become a freak, a stamp-collector or D&D player, unfit for normal company and consigned to only finding like-minded, acne-faced peers at symposia and conventions. The public airing of our hobbies risks real public consequences.

For better or for worse, another consequence of the hobby system of doubting is that, like a dream deferred, there is a chance of explosion. As we perpetually delay going through the accumulated doubts in our spiritual basement, they come to fill the shelves and floorspace. Eventually, there is no more room and the room erupts, flowing into all other aspects of our life. There is no way to contain the doubts anymore, they are too many and too powerful. Our hobby has taken over our life, like an addiction to video games. We may never leave the basement again.

This seems to often be the conclusion of the hobby/doubt system. The thing is that doubt appears to actually be necessary. In this, I don't mean the idealized doubt of the easily satisfied, wherein one reads a single passage of scripture and is suddently convinced of the way, the truth, and the life. God's victories are not so cheaply wrought. Instead, I mean real doubt, the kind that comes from ordinary life. Perhaps it may be the result of years of basement doubts; perhaps it is the result of one horrific event. In any case, all people, at one point or another, are brought to doubt, real doubt, not something affected. Who is this God and what does he think he is doing? Real doubt isn't about how we approach God; it is rather about God himself, life itself, and the meaning we derive therefrom.

We may sometime find ourselves at a point where all of our life has stopped making sense; where clocks starting ticking backwards and dogs walk on their hind legs. Everything that you knew and know is wrong. In the grip of this doubt, there is no turning away or setting aside. One cannot help but make the hole where one's life was a focus. In the midst of this doubt, we may be presented with a choice: to believe. In particular, the choice is to believe when you don't really have any good reasons for so doing. In this moment, if you choose to believe and choose to continue in belief, you will find a new sort of life, one wherein doubt plays a minimal role and God abides with you. Of this, I have no doubt.


Posted by John C.

This post really resonated with truth to me. I know that as a church member I was ashamed of the doubt that I sometimes felt and I shoved it down to the "basement." Maybe that is one of the factors that led to me leaving the Church.

I think that the Church needs to move from the lip service they pay to "questioning everything" to a more honest approach. If they did, then maybe there wouldn't be so many people with the same experience as me.

I'm glad you liked the post, Kaycee. Also, your comment reminded me to put on the author tag. I'm slowing learning.

I also agree that the problem with doubts doesn't seem to be the doubts themselves so much as it is the self-defeating manner in which we approach them in the church. We are told that doubt is natural, but that, really, it shouldn't threaten our faith. It fails to acknowledge that the decision to let faith win is person, not inevitable.

oy vey! Slowly, not slowing. Personal, not person. Someday, I'll learn to type.

I think figuring out that faith is a decision rather than an event was a key part of my experience, as well

I think I must have missed something. I was with you right up until you closed with your testimony that if we deal with doubt properly, it will play a minimal role in our life from then on. How is that different from encouraging us to find a way to keep our doubts permanently in the basement?

Beijing,
That's a darn fine question. I think that the relationship between you and the doubt changes after you have become convinced that there is a God who cares about you. The shift goes from "solving" the doubt to using it to learn about yourself and God. The doubt goes from being an obstacle to faith to being another tool for fine-tuning it. One doesn't ignore it, but rather integrates it. At least, I think this is how it works. I'll let you know for sure once I get my own basement cleaned out.

Thanks for considering my question.

My relationship with doubt changed dramatically after I stopped expecting my beliefs to eventually align with a received belief system, or even trying very hard to get my personal belief system to be internally consistent.

I still examine my beliefs, and hold them up to what I believe to be good standards, but I accept that this whole process is kind of circular. The standards that I measure my beliefs/doubts against are themselves just other beliefs of mine.

I guess what I trust in, at the core, is that my gut and my brain combined won't lead me too far afield, no matter what seems like it belongs in my basement or living room at a given time.

When teachers ask a question, like, "is there anybody in this room who doesn't want to go to the Celestial Kingdom?" they always add--except Anne?

I actually don't doubt that much, but I enjoy the debate that my playing the Devil's Advocate inspires. It's probably very Satanic of me. Well, it is, not probably.

I've said this before, but I really don't want to go to the CK. It sounds like work and boring.

Kaycee, is that your eye? I think I'm going to set up a blog, so I can get a picture next to my name.

Great post, John. I am with Beijing though. Why should I have to believe?

To be sure, I wouldn't mind to be a member of a community that subscribes to your kind of faith, John. The problem is that Mormons claim to know all sort of things that are unknowable. That really becomes a problem if when our leaders abuse this "knowledge" to justify the punishment of Grant Palmer and Simon Southerton for questioning our claims.

One thing is for sure. Doubt has been the engine of progress that we enjoy since the renaissance. The LDS Church would be a better place if we surrendered the ridiculous knowledge claims that define the Mormon experience.

Hellmut, I don't believe that anyone must believe, although I think it will get you closer to God if you choose to. For that matter, I don't believe that the choice is only offered in moments of crisis; becoming converted likely involves making a similar choice on a daily basis. I couched my discussion in the tentative mood of academics as an acknowledgment of this point.

For that matter, I am not denying that it is possible to make sense of the world without faith. I would argue that faith is essential to understanding God and I may argue that the world makes more sense with Him included, but that may be more a matter of preference than objective fact. I generally think that it is better to have some sort of moral code than to not and I think that people generally wish that moral codes conformed to their individual opinions (Mormons are not alone in this category). As Beijing said, ultimately Beijing is making up her code and adjusting it as she goes along. I actually see most Mormons doing the same (at least most of the ones that I know); the good ones are just trying to actually get God involved, too (as opposed to just invoking His name and assuming He agrees (like I do)).

I think that, as an institution, we are enduring a winnowing where some ideas, perhaps once useful, are being discarded as inessential to faith; whereas others are surprisingly resilient. This may be somewhat akin to your "knowledge claims" discussion. I have a colleague, a philosopher, who told me that the certainty of LDS knowledge claims defy reason. This would include the certainty that there is a God, that Christ redeemed us from our sins, that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and so forth. He felt that this defiance of reasonable discourse is partially what gives the claim its power. Testimony is something that seizes a person, sometimes whether they like it or not (hence the crisis motif). It simply isn't something acquired through rational inquiry.

I am afraid that once we confuse faith for knowledge it only leads to arrogance and intolerance. Just look at how Utah Mormons relate to their gentile neighbors.

I'm with Hellmut. I see a lot of pride in the knowing, a lot of self congratulatory talk about how people feel sorry for those who don't know.

John, I'm intrigued by your use of the word "choose." I'm not sure I choose what to believe, although I think you may have something there. I suppose I could choose to act as if a thing were true, in my finite understanding, and grow as a result if the thing were desirable and true.

Isn't believing a feeling? I guess it's intellectual, like if I believe---crap, I can't think of anything I believe that I don't act on as a feeling first. Like civil rights or the mercy and merits of Christ.

Hmmm...thinking out loud here. I will ponder.

Anne, the guy's argument was that faith isn't entirely chosen. Sometimes things (feelings?) happen to us that we don't really have any choice about.

Hellmut,
I understand your concern and it is real. I think that a good relationship with God should mitigate that, as such should reveal that no particular individual is all that great and no particular individual receives all the revelation for everyone else.

Also, since not a single one of our "gentile" neighbors has ever confused faith and knowledge claims ever (or, at least, not institutionally), I think that your second point is entirely justified ;). Thank goodness you are out there to keep all of us unreasonable Mormons in check.

two thoughts:

1. i just came back from out of town and am delighted to see that one of my favorite blogs is 'regular' again.

seriously, though. whatever doubt, debate, and strength i receive from this blog--I think it's all been good for me.

2. as to my personal doubts--i hope that it's true that my current doubts are in fact good for me. i certainly have not been trying to put them anywhere, shelf or basement. but i'm haunted by what my Dad, a very bright man, said to years ago, at a time when i was insulted at his insuation that my testimony could ever not be rock solid. he first complimented my faculties and abilities, and then said, "but you need to be careful not to think yourself out of the Church."

It's both profoundly wise and, if taken the wrong way, perfect anti-Mormon fodder. I guess he would think that faith is a decision and that stewing in doubt is not productive (or at least not AS productive as, say, church service or humanitarian work). To him, knowledge is the divine, but going after the wrong sort of knowledge, once you have a testimony is a waste of time.

Looking at myself I can see how the (mulling over) the wrong sort of doubts can have huge negative impacts on my life. And have had them.

But it is a curiously balance when you choose not to doubt (b/c it's not productive) since you already were convinced / took the leap of faith. In a sense, faith involves presupposing the truth of the object and acting. Thus going back and doubting gets in the way.

But when we're commanded to be 1) honest and 2) Christ-like and see the Church institutionally being neither (sometimes)... sigh.

Thank you for your comment, Machu. I suppose that I am sidestepping the issue of whether it is possible to have faith in the church, because I don't really believe that is the prime issue. This doesn't mean it isn't for others; it just means that for me having faith in God is more important. Does the church help me have faith in God? Yes. Do I believe that it can help anybody have faith in God? Yes. Would I describe having one's faith founded in just the institution of the church as relying too much on the arm of man? Yes. The Church provides a path to God (arguably the best path(for that matter, possibly the only path)), but it is up to the individual and God to walk it.

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This Week's Topic:

  • The Sabbath Day

Various Authors

  • Monday:
    Kaycee opted out of Mormondom 4 years ago. She calls herself agnostic.
  • Tuesday:
    Sarah is not your average Gospel Doctrine Teacher.
  • Wednesday:
    Carrie Ann comes from pioneer stock, and lives in Provo, but is open minded and fair.
  • Thursday:
    Ned Flanders hasn't been to church in a while, but maintains an interest in all things Mormon.
  • Friday:
    John C. is an academic with a sense of humor and a testimony.
  • Saturday:
    JP's not going to church and feeling okay about it.

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