Merry Christmas, William

As a committed soda addict, whenever I’m living in the US I am always on familiar terms with the employees of my local 7-11 (we don’t have Maverik out East and the nearest Wawa is inconveniently distant, to my endless dismay). I’m there most nights except Sunday (a day for which I always have a couple of 12-packs of reserves squirreled away, of course) fueling my boom-and-bust cycle of caffeine addiction and sleep deprivation, always sure to avoid any caffeine above room temperature in order to keep the peace between God and me.

When I moved back to DC a few months ago, I briefly panicked because the 7-11 across from my metro station had that awful, soul-eroding problem where my drink of choice, Diet Dr. Pepper, always tasted like the syrup was mixed with some fruit-flavored abomination, but I eventually tracked down a better, closer dealer by my apartment so that the fizzy spice (that’s a Dune reference) could continue to flow.

It was on a late summer evening characterized by DC’s typical humid misery that my screaming children managed to exhaust me into taking them to my Mormon opium den for Slurpees that I first met William. Seeing him standing there by the double-doors, I got that sensation that rises up unprovoked when you know someone’s going to ask for money you don’t have (as in, I don’t physically carry money on me pretty much ever) and you hope the person’s nice when you apologetically explain that you can’t help. William did ask for change for food, and when I told him I had none, he asked if I wouldn’t mind getting him something to eat. I told him I didn’t and asked what he’d like. “A Spicy Bite and a Gatorade, please.” Sure, no problem.

I have two hard and fast rules for panhandlers, particularly since I never carry cash: 1) I will never refuse any request to purchase food, and 2) the requester is allowed to ask for whatever they want. I don’t care if a person is asking everyone who passes by for food and then collecting what they get; I figure that if an individual is in a situation where they feel compelled to “grift” for food then, well, they probably need all the food they can get their hands on. On the second point, I’m not by any means rich, particularly not by extravagant DC standards, but I have found that people begging for food have never tried to take advantage of me (I once told a gentleman he could order anything he wanted for breakfast and he asked for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a grape Gatorade). Further, I feel like being forced to ask strangers to provide even your basic sustenance must strip a person of some part of their self-worth and I hope that by showing that you’re giving willingly and without any kind of reluctance or resentment allows them to have some of that self-worth back. You’re not begging, we’re offering. We’re in this together.

I bought William his hot dog, some Gatorade, some assorted snacks, and some fruit (I worry about how much healthy food he gets) and brought it to him while my kids awkwardly stared at the concrete the way kids do when their dads do things they don’t really understand and strangers are involved. I asked William his name and told him mine, I made sure he had a place to sleep and a way to get there, and then I shook his hand and I wished him well and headed the two minutes back down the road to my apartment feeling incredibly overcome by what I had felt in the sticky hot air at the 7-11 curb. I can’t explain and won’t try to explain the exact sensation of “overcome-ness” but I think that anyone who has felt overcome in the way I did that night will probably understand and I will leave it at that. I was not overcome by my own goodness (as obnoxiously self-congratulatory as this whole essay comes off, I can assure you that to use it as some kind of emblem of my overall character would be utterly gratuitous), nor by the sense of self-satisfaction that we often instill in ourselves for the good deeds we do. If I’m being honest, the majority of my paltry good deeds are motivated as much by a desire to avoid seeing myself as a hypocrite than by pure altruism. But this simple, minor act of charity that I had been compelled toward by my own self-loathing triggered a third-party outpouring I hadn’t anticipated and genuinely didn’t deserve to receive.

And so what? All this to let you know that God spoke to me because I bought a transient person $15 worth of 7-11 brand junk food and aren’t I just amazing? I promise it’s not, my other general rule being that I try to take seriously Jesus’ call to do good in secret to the point where I don’t even tell my wife about these kinds of things (oh no, this just comes often as even more self-congratulations, sigh).

I guess it’s really because I felt like God taught me something through William and it’s something I feel compelled to share in the hope that maybe it will spread the meaning of the personal lesson beyond my own miserly little circle of spirituality and small-time charity. I had, at first, had that initially-inspiring-but-on-second-thought-horrifying notion that God had put William there (and continues to put him there, since I see him regularly) to teach me the importance of charity, but I long ago rejected the idea that God orchestrated things in that way. God didn’t put William on that curb; we did. We collectively and individually as a society and as a human race created a limitless number of people like William. These people are there not so we can make ourselves feel better by offering our charity but as examples of our failure to live in a way that genuinely acknowledges the preciousness of individual children of God both spiritually and materially. God doesn’t have to put Williams in our paths; we put them there ourselves and they are everywhere all around us.

But the lesson God taught me wasn’t socio-economic or political, it wasn’t structural or meta, it wasn’t about all the billions of people I hadn’t helped that day. The lesson was about me and William. Just the two of us. And I know that’s what the lesson was because I wasn’t overwhelmed by the fairly rote and mundane act of purchasing food, I was overwhelmed because I had done something differently from what I usually do; I had shaken William’s hand, I had asked his name and told him mine, and I had made sure that he was going to be okay. I had never done that before and why hadn’t I ever thought to do that before, why had I thought that a five-dollar non-nutritional sandwich and a 50 cent apple were all that was required of me to fulfill my responsibility to a man like William, of whom I have met so, so many around DC and the world. I had been overwhelmed by the fact that when I had touched William’s hand and heard his name, I knew that he was a child of God and that I was as responsible for his well-being as anyone else. I was floored by that knowledge and by the love I felt for him in that moment.

I see William most weeks but I think particularly about that first time we met. I think about my off-hand decision to offer him my hand, squeamish as I am about contact with strangers, and how it affected me. I think about how when the Savior healed, he didn’t simply point his finger and zap people’s blindness or leprosy away, though I’m sure he could have done so. Instead, even when faced with thousands of Nephite refugees, he made each miracle an individual miracle, an interpersonal experience for him and the recipient that showed mankind that Christ’s love and therefore God’s love are not theoretical, not philosophical or mathematical, but human and emotional, the kind of love that moves deity to tears. And ours has to be that, too. Me buying a homeless person lunch and then telling myself I’ve done my part is, eh, fine, but it’s not Godly. It’s not enough. I have to really, really care because Christ cares, because Christ loves that person as much as he loves me and he is constrained by cosmic rules from taking care of them so it falls to you and me to act in his place.

Knowing that creates a moral dilemma for people like me whose lives are characterized by material comfort and familial responsibilities. I can’t give everything I have to the poor because I have children to feed and take care of. I can’t take homeless people into my apartment because I have little kids sleeping in those rooms and I could never risk bringing a stranger into my home that way. Christ asks us to live an incredibly difficult moral law in the Sermon on the Mount and we have to stretch that thin and easily broken membrane of morality over the rigid and angular framework of our own lives as best we can. To really sit down and read the scriptures that should dictate our actions and be faced with the task of putting them into practice can be absolutely paralyzing. But what more can we do but try? Because that’s what Christ has asked and how can we say no to the person has already done it for all of us?

I am not going to reconcile those difficulties here. I can’t. I don’t really know if anyone can. I think maybe it comes down to each of us working out our own salvation, a task that can’t be accomplished without wrestling with these moral quandaries in our own hearts and minds and then committing to doing our best and then investing our hope in Christ to carry us the rest of the way.

I have been very reluctant to write this essay because there’s nothing I fear more than being called self-righteous or a hypocrite and because I know that by putting pearls on the Internet you’re automatically placing them before any number of swine. I recognize that by so-doing I may have surrendered any “rewards” I have received or am yet to receive from my interactions past, present, and future with William. I can only hope that you take this in the spirit in which it is written and that you extend a certain amount of charity to me in not assuming that I am trying beatify myself here. It seems churlish to be grateful for my ongoing experience with William, to exploit his continued poverty for my own spiritual self-aggrandizement. So, instead I’ll say I am thankful for a knowledge of the Gospel of Christ because the Williams of the world are going to exist and suffer regardless of that knowledge but it is through that understanding that we can discern both our own spiritual and material responsibilities toward these children of God. What’s more, it allows us to know that while we may strive and fail to catch these people who fall in mind-numbing numbers through the cracks of our broken societies, there is the net of the Atonement that is stretched out underneath us all, a net woven by Christ’s own hands and that will see us all land safely, in the end.

And so I’ll say what I said tonight and what I hope to Scrooge-ly keep in my heart every day of the year:

Merry Christmas, William. Do you have someplace to sleep tonight? Do you have a way to get home?

All Joy, No Fun

A few years ago, I read an article about a book (which is clearly better than reading a book, right?) called “All Joy, No Fun.” The book was about parenting, specifically about how people without kids rated every indicator for happiness (going out to eat, sex life, hobbies, etc.) higher than people with kids, as you’d maybe expect. The only thing was that on the final indicator, which was actual life satisfaction level, people with kids rated themselves significantly higher than people without them, which of course came as a huge, counterintuitive surprise. Fast forwarding, the researchers came to the conclusion that in the end, for people with children, despite having lost so many of the things we think of as making us happy, they experienced a joy through their children that was so much more than the sum of its parts.

 

Look, this isn’t a screed about how everyone needs to have kids RIGHT NOW, don’t worry. Life is too complicated for anyone to make the choice for anyone else when or if they should have kids (or at least, it should be, but that doesn’t stop people). But what I realized just recently, all these years later, is that the same principle that leads bored, sleep-deprived, sexless parents to feel joy from their children leads us to find joy in Christ despite the fact that, well, being a Christian is not always fun. In fact, it’s often the opposite

 

To be clear, if it’s not already obvious, when I say “joy,” I don’t mean the kind of almost material sensation of happiness that comes from so many of the activities to which we devote ourselves in the modern world. I don’t mean the dopamine hits that we get every time someone RTs something we Tweeted (I say, pointing a finger directly at myself). I mean “joy” in a sense similar to what C.S. Lewis refers to in the book “Surprised by Joy,” a kind of spiritual hope, longing, peace, and Godly comfort in the face of an absurd and often brutal world. The joy that comes from Christ isn’t dependent on our “happiness” because it comes from a connection to God that cannot be severed in the same way that we can never cast off God’s love, no matter what efforts we make to that end. It’s a feeling and a concept that’s difficult to define, but that you absolutely understand if you have felt it or even sought to feel it. It’s a feeling accompanied as often by tears and pleading as it is by laughter or praise. 

 

There’s a misconception that exists sometimes in the church and which I think is largely an osmosis-received taint from the all-conquering American Gospel of Wealth that following Christ will make you happy. If you follow Christ, things will go your way. Sin leads directly to material downfall, righteousness has a one-to-one correlation with every kind of success. This material interpretation of the Gospel is often stretched to practically Satanic lengths where one’s goodness becomes measured purely in terms of temporal blessings despite plenty of scriptural evidence to the contrary. We are promised blessings for following Christ, but none of those blessings are designated specifically as material. The sun shineth on the wicked and good, and if the modern world isn’t absolute evidence of that, then I suppose nothing can be. We have created Mormon-specific ways to interpret the Gospel of Wealth, too: pay your tithing and you’ll never want for anything, for example.

 

I mean, it’s not that God does want us to be that kind of happy. It’s not that He doesn’t care about our temporal well-being. If God didn’t care about physical suffering He wouldn’t have commanded us to serving others to relieve that suffering. And yeah, there are plenty of scriptural examples of people living righteously reaping material rewards and of sinners finding out the hard way that “wickedness never was happiness.” But there’s a big giant neon sign blinking “BUT IF NOT” above that entire storyline because there are no guarantees that ticking every box won’t result in a Job situation (the bad part) and that people who seem like they have completely abandoned any semblance of trying to do good won’t be swimming through vaults filled with money in a Scrooge McDuck style glut of facsimilistic “happiness.”

 

But the story of the Gospel is, over the course of world history starting with Adam and Eve, reaching its apex with Christ himself, and being reiterated in no uncertain terms in 1844, one of violence, oppression, persecution, and hardship. And it’s likely that at some point, it will be again. Was Peter, as he died an excruciating death on an upside down cross, suffering the material consequences of his spiritual failings? Seems unlikely. Did Peter feel a joy in Christ as he died, a longing for home, a hope in his Savior and the Atonement. I have no doubt whatsoever.

 

And here’s the truly, absolutely magnificent thing about joy through Christ: no one can regulate it, no one can take it from you, no one can excommunicate you from it, no one can define you out of it, it is not dependent on your sexuality, your status in the institutional church, your “activity” rate, your appearance. It’s a joy that comes from our direct relationship with Christ and from our desire to follow Him. Alma felt that joy so deeply it caused him pain and that was when he was in the absolute throes of evil in a way that most of us simply can’t imagine. If Alma can feel that joy as he begins his journey from the depths of sin to the heights of goodness, then that joy is certainly accessible to all of us in whatever state we find ourselves. 

 

God willing, none of us will die on an upside down cross now or in the future. For some, the hardest cross they’ll ever have to bear is three-hour church (and some of us bore that cross so, so badly). But living the Gospel isn’t always fun, even when life is generally going well. It’s not all munches and mingles (this is the correct pluralization) and it’s not all beautiful, perfect spiritual experiences with our perfect spouses, perfect children, perfect lives. Sometimes it’s just work and rules, or at least it feels that way. Even (especially? I mean, the life of even a modern day apostle sounds like hell on earth to me) for the most righteous, life can be a slog. But Christ died so that that joy could always be in reach, because no trial, no mishap, no tragedy can take away our hope in Him, our longing for home, and our faith that as miserable as things are right now, Christ has provided a path to eternal joy.

“When You Gatekeep Me, You Negate Me”: Creating a Church for Everyone

When I was in grad school in Indiana, the 19 year old inactive son of an inactive family started coming to church out of the blue. He’d come on Sunday morning with his girlfriend both of them dressed like they had come straight to church from a Linkin Park concert and invariably sipping on 64 ounce Super Big Gulps of Mountain Dew as they sat on the front row. We were all so, so happy to have them there. Nobody cared how they were dressed, nobody cared about the Big Gulps (well, I was jealous, but that’s it), nobody cared about piercings or tattoos. They needed to be there and we needed them to be there. That was all that mattered.

 

There’s no way around the hard truth that church culture has become incredibly aesthetic and that we often use a combination of white upper-middle class and specifically Mormon tropes to gatekeep our communities. We want people to come to church in their “Sunday best,” smelling like essential-oil-laced soap, clean cut (no beards or mustaches for leaders!), smiling, and contributing to the ward. This seems to be particularly true in large swathes of Utah but it’s not just a Utah thing, it’s a problem all over the US, particularly in white, upper-middle class wards. 

 

That gatekeeping, which I think is largely unconscious rather than deliberate, is holding back not just the spiritual potential of active members, but perhaps more importantly, it creates a perception of “us and them,” of “faithful sons and prodigal sons” rather than reminding us of the truth of that parable: that we are all prodigal sons, no one more or less than the other because we have all fallen short of perfection and that is something that is absolute, not relative. When we gatekeep, when we create these artificial cultural standards that prevent all of God’s sheep from being a part of the flock, we are all poorer for it.

 

I have a dumb thing I do on Twitter where I jokingly/not jokingly invite my followers to come back to church and inevitably get responses either by reply or by DM saying that people simply don’t feel wanted. They feel rejected because of their appearance, their sexuality, their inactivity, their lack of conviction, or a myriad of other reasons. It is absolutely abhorrent to me that we have created a culture where anyone could feel rejected by people who claim to be Christ’s representative organization on earth and there is no doubt in my mind that that culture exists. 

 

I’ve experienced it myself during my freshman year at BYU and I’ve seen a number of friends go through it as well. Whether for internal (spiritual) or external (aesthetic) reasons, people felt they could not go to church because they did not fit into the norms and faced rejection by their fellow members. This is something that has to change or we will never reach the goals we have set for ourselves as a community. That change will be incredibly hard because it has been embedded so deeply into our structure, but we are shackling ourselves spiritually with chains made from white collared shirts and maxi skirts. 

 

Seeing that Monster Energy-branded couple come to church every Sunday not caring for two seconds what anyone thought of how they were dressed because they wanted to be there changed a lot of people’s hearts in our little ward in Indiana. The responsibility to change active members’ hearts to accept people who aren’t at the aesthetic and spiritual mean does not lie with those who are on the margins of the church. But at the same time, simply by taking the step to come to church, you will change people. You will be a part of the progress that we as a culture and a community need to make. 

 

Come to church with your tattoos, smelling of cigarette smoke, hung over from the night before. Bring your coffee if you need to. If you’re a gay member of the church, bring your boyfriend or girlfriend, because we want them there, too. We need you there and you need to be there. The truth of the Gospel and the love of Christ are completely independent of my sins (perceived or real) or yours or anyone else’s, and we all bring them to church with us. Come to church if all you have is hope or you just want to believe.

 

I hate the analogy that the church is a hospital because then it naturally puts the burden on some people to be doctors and some people to be patients. A better analogy would be that the church is the family in  Lost in Space, we’re adrift from our home, every single one of us is lost. No one is less lost than anyone else and we all need each other to get home and we absolutely refuse to get home without bringing every single member of the family with us and nothing matters except we are a family and we are in this together.

 

Please come to church. It’s not about the institution, it’s about the true love of Christ. We need you there, every single one of you. And together, we’ll make it home.

A Five Year Old Takes the Sacrament

The yellowed plastic tray arrives and the process begins like so many times before as his clear blue eyes scan the week’s offerings with urgent anticipation. I hold it perfectly still as he considers his many options. With robotic precision, he examines each little cup and its contents, more discerning than the haughtiest of connoisseurs. The very slightest difference in water level is known to him, each transparent milliliter matters. His baby fat hand hovers, but first he must think, he must analyze.

 

He has decided, and his hand moves toward the one perfect cup. His soft finger pads, sticky with stolen treats and wiped away tears, the congenital grime of childhood, grip the rim of the little cup. But no, he has sensed something, some imperceptible flaw. This is not the one. He leaves a filmy signature of bacteria and dirt for some unknowing future drinker to touch to his lips and moves on.

 

This. This is the one. He picks it up and moves it tortuously toward his lips with all the care of a miner moving nitroglycerin; a single spilled drop is a disaster. It does not spill and observers whisper a silent thanks to a watching God. The cup is at his lips, now.

 

He slurps. Like a Frenchman sucking loosened snail meat from a greasy brown shell, he slurps and the purposefully quiet room is filled with the sound of his slurping. He pulls the cup away to examine his work and sees that a couple of tiny droplets have escaped the wet vacuum of his slack mouth. This is not acceptable. This cannot be.

 

The cup is back at his lips and with the efficiency of a desert animal he flicks a soft pink tongue into the recesses of the cup and gathers the liquid. It is done, and now it is time to cast away the leavings, a bandit racoon tossing empty clam shells into a riverside pile. In the tray there are three openings for the used cups and each has its merits. Each is considered in turn.

 

The mechanical claw of his little hand hangs over the middle opening for several seconds as an audience of two holds its breath. But this is not where his cup goes. The first choice is, by rule, never the correct one. One little last drop, somehow missed, more saliva than water, surely, drips from the inverted cup to land in an untouched compatriot.

 

Finally, it is decided and with Caligula logic the cup is dropped with a quiet clatter onto the bone pile pit with its dead fellows. Now, it is done and the tray moves on until next Sunday, when he will take the Sacrament again and the ritual will be repeated.

Faith and Karamazovs

Note: This is adapted from a talk, which is why it sounds kind of like…a talk. 

 

In the book Brothers Karamazov, there’s a famous passage in which Ivan Karamazov, a passionate intellectual and atheist, is discussing what is known as “the problem of evil” with his younger brother, Alyosha. Alyosha is a devout Christian, striving to live a life filled with compassion in the brutal, miserable setting of 19th century rural Russia. Ivan tells the tragic story of a small child, a serf, who is sent to a painful and arbitrary death on the whim of a cruel master, despite the child’s prayers to be saved.

Ivan uses the story as a powerful argument against God, whether He exists or not. He proclaims, essentially, that he would rather opt out entirely than be a part of a system that requires the suffering of children. It’s a passage that has become a foundational piece of the theological and philosophical back and forth on the nature of God and agency, but there’s one particular point that I wanted to pick out of the story and talk about: the little boy’s prayers, and their failure to save him from evil.

The story in Brothers Karamazov is fictional, but you don’t have to go very far to find countless examples of equally saddening depravities. They’re numerous in the scriptures, but they also appear every day in the news, both here at home and in far flung corners of the world. Though rarely as dramatic, devastating events happen in our own lives and in the lives of our friends and family. The reality of life is that bad things happen to good or innocent people constantly, despite an equally constant tide of prayers aimed at keeping all of those personal tragedies at bay. On balance, it seems extremely difficult to make the case that faith-based prayer has any effect at all, at least as far as deflecting from the supplicants everything that life throws at them.

To the Ivans of the world, the fact that God could ignore the prayer of a child pleading for his life, much less the countless other petitions sent to heaven each day, is an unpardonable offense against Him. To them, the explanation has to be either that God simply does not exist, and that’s why the prayers go unanswered and cruelties perpetuate themselves, or worse, God simply doesn’t care or is cruel Himself. What God would create a world where children suffer and die at the hands of evil men with no intercession from an omnipotent being? How can God be moral and also watch passively while these kinds of things happen?

On its face, it’s a potent argument. Countless Christians and other believers have lost their faith because of an inability to reconcile with the question of evil, the seeming inutility of prayer as a tool against human suffering, the indifference God seems to show to a humanity that proves over and over to be locked in a cycle of self-destruction. If God won’t fix it despite our faith, then why bother?

This is where Latter-day Saints should feel incredibly blessed to have the understanding of the Plan of Salvation that they do, because without that understanding, it can be painfully difficult to reconcile the question of evil, and even if you can, Ivan has one more argument that sinks even the devout Alyosha:

“Imagine,” Ivan says, “that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”

“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.”

Based on the information he has, Alyosha is probably right to agree with Ivan. Knowing what he knows, I wouldn’t consent, either. Not because I agree with Ivan that no eternal end could justify the temporal means, but because I simply lack the necessary perspective, love, and compassion possessed by a God willing to allow his own children to choose suffering for the sake of their own eternal good. Not only that, a God willing not just to allow his own children to suffer in a way that would cause him to feel an infinite sadness of which only God is capable, but who was willing to sacrifice his own son to take on that debt of suffering that could only be reconciled through atonement.

Moreover, when one considers that Christ himself was an architect of the Plan of Salvation, it becomes clear that in a way, God didn’t just allow his son to be sacrificed, God sacrificed himself. The atonement is often cast as a perfect act of mercy, which it is, but it is also a perfect act of fairness in which God says, “not only am I willing to ask you to come to this world and experience this suffering, I will meet you there and I will take every ounce of it on my own back in order to make certain that each one of you has the opportunity to make it to the other side.” There was no suffering that Christ would ask of us that he wasn’t willing to suffer himself.

What then, is the role of faith, in this process? Everyone on earth will undergo tragedy and pain over the course of their lives, regardless of whether or not they possess faith in Christ or faith in anything at all. Faith does not prevent trials. It can’t. Were God to grant us the power to prevent pain by having sufficient faith, to use prayer as a shield against both the natural processes of the world and the misguided or evil choices of our cohabitants, he would be destroying the engine of his own plan and removing from us the means of our salvation.

In America and elsewhere, in the church and outside of it, many have bought into the theology of the “Gospel of Wealth,” in which to be righteous is to be prosperous, to be insulated from the material costs of mortal life, and hopefully to be given the closest thing to an opportunity to make it through our earthly test relatively free of pain and suffering. It seems more likely to me, however, that we are simply enjoying the fruits of a happy coincidence that we are currently living in one of the richest and most peaceful countries in the world at a time where there is ample room for us to practice our faith. This is a historical anomaly for both the world in general and for Christ’s church in particular. I am more than happy to be living in a time when I don’t have to worry about being stoned, or fed to lions, or chased from my home, or having to watch church leaders be killed by angry mobs. It is relatively easy to be faithful under these circumstances, because by all indicators, it feels as though our faith is closely correlated with peace, happiness, and prosperity.

But what happens when that changes? What happens when despite the fortuitous circumstances in which we live, tragedy finally shows up at our doorstep? This is where faith starts to really matter. Not when all that faith requires is to read scriptures and say family prayers, but when it requires wrestling with the death of a loved one, a burned down house, financial ruin, or any of the other countless things that can go wrong even in a country like ours where things tend to go right for most people most of the time.

I don’t mean to argue that at its mean, faith provides no positive benefits. I believe that faith brings happiness, that through faith we can work miracles, that faith has value even when everything is going right. Even if we do somehow go through life without suffering any significant personal setbacks, faith in Christ is still the only means to salvation.

What I am saying is that regardless of how much faith one has, bad things will still happen to you, and that even if you have perfect faith, it seems as likely as not that those bad things will come to their logical conclusion, that divine intercession in the material hardship of life will be the rare exception rather than the rule. There are examples in the scriptures of faith in the face of trials yielding miraculously positive results. Paul, in Hebrews, explores scriptural examples of faith’s positive outcomes in some depth:

“By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac. By faith Moses … refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt. …By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king. …By faith they passed through the Red sea as by dry land. …By faith the walls of Jericho fell down. [Others] through faith subdued kingdoms, … obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight.”

In all of those examples, great faith led to great miracles. But Paul also saw that great faith often led only to a faithful death at the hands of one’s persecutors, going on to point out that “others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, … bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about … being destitute, afflicted, tormented.”

For every Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walking out of the fiery furnace unscathed, there is at least one corresponding tale like the one in which the unwavering denizens of Ammonihah are cast, man, woman, and child, into the fire with a prayer on their lips. And to what end?

“God having provided some better things for them through their sufferings, for without sufferings they could not be made perfect.”

Everyone suffers. It’s part of the plan. Faith will not prevent us from suffering. What it will do is make suffering that seems arbitrary, cruel, and pointless instead become meaningful and perfecting. Without faith, the existentialists are right and the world is nothing but an absurdity where all one can do is cast about in the darkness trying to forge some kind of logic where none exists. It is our faith in Christ, in Heavenly Father, and in the Plan of Salvation that reifies the inherent meaning of mortal existence in a way that is otherwise impossible.

The real miracle of faith is not found in moving mountains. The real miracle of faith is that every day it allows us to take the raw material of our limited human existence and transform it into something eternal. It is the tool by which, when given an endless array of inputs, good and bad, and an equally endless number of outcomes, we are able to select the outcome that leads us to God. As Terrell Givens put it, in The God Who Weeps, “The call to faith is not some test of a coy god, waiting to see if we “get it right.” It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions, which can allow us fully to reveal who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire. Without constraint, without any form of mental compulsion, the act of belief becomes the freest possible projection of what resides in our hearts…The greatest act of self-revelation occurs when we choose what we will believe, in that space of freedom that exists between knowing that a thing is, and knowing that a thing is not.”

As I see it, Ivan can never understand why a little child would be allowed to suffer and die for three key reasons. The first is that he does not understand the Plan of Salvation and is therefore unable to comprehend that there is the possibility that a plan could exist in which such unspeakable horror could be justified without being excused. The second is that, unlike Alyosha, he fails utterly to comprehend the love of the Savior and his willingness to justify that suffering personally by taking it upon himself, both the physical and the spiritual consequences. Third, because he has no faith himself, he cannot comprehend that faith in that eternal sacrifice by the Savior is the medium by which such events cease to be arbitrary and cruel and instead take on eternal meaning and import.

Alyosha, on the other hand, as familiar with the suffering that surrounds him as his brother, instead of seeing it as the negation of God’s plan, uses it as a driving force to become more Christ-like, to exhibit greater compassion, and through his example and his works, to bring others to Christ and thereby make some dent in the vast quantity of quotidian human tragedy.

This is our challenge, too: not to think of faith as a shield against suffering, but as the means of transforming it into perfection, and then to transfer that perfection to the world around us. In that way, we ourselves become the vessels of faith that lessen human suffering, creating within our own personal sphere at least one little holdout on this mortal earth where instead of pain, people find kindness, compassion, and love.

Fin.

 

Flags, Samaritans, and Christian Patriotism

Today on the radio while listening to an interview with a guy who recently wrote a book about flags (guess which station I was listening to), I heard something that struck me. The author, discussing the power of flags as symbols and the rising tide of nationalism around the world, made an important distinction between nationalism and patriotism. “Patriotism,” he said, “is loving one’s own and having respect for others. Nationalism, on the other hand, is loving one’s own but having contempt for others.” This isn’t the first time I’ve considered the differences between the two concepts, but I really liked the way he put it, and in the context of the country’s political climate and that of the world at large, it seemed particularly apt. America, like pretty much every country ever, has always had a nationalist streak running through it that has been expressed in various distasteful ways, usually disguised as the more virtuous patriotism.

 

But, rather than spending much time railing on nationalism, the dangers of which are well-known, I’d like to suggest a third route, a kind of patriotism that I think truly embodies who we are as both Americans and Christians. In my first post, I talked about my agnosticism (agnostic theism, to be clear), but despite my mind being Schrodinger’s cat box when it comes to my belief in god, my commitment to basic principles of Christianity remains unfazed. More on that, eventually, but that’s simply to preface my suggestion. Patriotism is certainly vastly preferable to nationalism, which to my mind is tied for first place as the most devastatingly evil and anti-Christian ideology of the modern world. However, patriotism in the sense of loving one’s own while respecting others does not meet the standard set by Christ himself. Simply respecting people from other countries and faiths and ethnic groups and whatever boundaries separate us from the “other” is not enough. Christ commanded us to love them.

 

To love the “other” is one of the most difficult parts of being human, perfectly and pointedly illustrated in my favorite parable, the story of the Good Samaritan. Among the many remarkable aspects of that story is the feature of otherness. The Samaritan, of course, is the most obvious outsider, from a sect reviled and cast out by the Jews. But to the Samaritan, it was the Jewish man dying by the roadside who was the outsider, from a group that despised his own, a man to whom he owed nothing, not even ethno-religious solidarity. But, demonstrating true Christlike love, the Samaritan looked beyond the artificial (from a spiritual viewpoint) barriers of genealogy and history and religion and did everything in his power to help a man that for all he knew considered his kind the scum of the earth. That’s part of the power of the parable.

 

Patriotism is laudable. Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and anyone who lives in a democracy with basic freedoms is living in a historical anomaly and should be incredibly grateful. But nationality isn’t merit based, and it certainly confers no preference in the eyes of God, despite what we might tell ourselves. There are no borders among children of God, and Christlike charity may begin at home, but it certainly doesn’t end at foreign shores. Overcoming the biological and psychological barriers that prevent us from conferring the love we have for those familiar to us to those who are utterly foreign to us, perhaps even hateful toward us, is one of the most difficult things about being a Christian. It goes against human nature in a very visceral way (there’s a reason it’s sometimes called the Monkeysphere). But it’s what Christ asks of each of us. It is a goal that we are commanded to strive for, to have a love of God and of all men. To love those we’ve never met, to clothe our enemies, to do good to those who spitefully use us. There are no exceptions. Enemies of the state, though they may be, Christ has commanded us to love them.

 

The Church has emphasized this in recent years, to its enormous credit and political risk, and my experience is that we as a people do a pretty solid job here. There’s still a sizeable minority within the Church, though, that has bought deeply into the growing Know Nothing fanaticism of America First, the thirst for war with other countries, the toxic political culture that is creating virtual ideological ethnic groups among people in America and across the Western world.*

 

It can be frustrating to see politics and faith constantly conflated, with one often substituting for the other. Nationalism, including nationalism under a facade of patriotism, has no place in a Christian church or a nominally Christian country. Furthermore, common patriotism is not enough, either. We as Christians have to take it one step further in this Westphalian patchwork world we live in. Love of country is laudable, but we should be working toward more than respect for other nations, but toward a perfect Christlike love to every single one of God’s children on Earth (including nationalists in and outside of the Church, I’d add). I do a terrible job at this myself, but I am really trying. How this plays out in the real world of international politics is tricky, but how it should play out in our hearts is clear.

 

I feel incredibly blessed to be American. Without trying to come off as pretentious, I’ve seen a lot of the world. I know how good we have it. I believe deeply in America as a city on a hill, and I think that many times in our short history we have, as a nation, given selflessly of ourselves and our people to better the world around us. American Exceptionalism, to me, means more than being exempt from the rules that govern international politics or the ability to buck the norms of the rest of the world (though, I don’t think that’s always or even usually a bad thing). It also means being a beacon of a different kind of patriotism, a Christian patriotism that says “we don’t just respect you, we love you and we want to help you better yourselves even as we strive every day to better ourselves.”

 

I’m a patriot, I’m a Christian, and I’m doing my best to be both despite sometimes trying conditions. Happy Fourth of July to everybody out there. Let’s remember today as the day that America declared not just independence from Great Britain, but also declared that a country and a people can be more than the sum of its borders and interests, a day when we launched the most ambitious national project for the betterment of mankind in all of human history. We’re not perfect yet, but we’re trying, and I hope we’ll never give up.

 

 

 

 

* This is not meant as a statement of my politics on one or the other side of the aisle, and certainly not as a spiritual condemnation of one side. If you want to see me rant about those from either of the major political groupings in the Church, I can, and probably will. This merely happens to relevant to the post at hand.

On Soul Fibers and Intrinsic Truth-blocking Character Flaws, Part 2

(This is part 2 of a two-part post. You can find part 1 here. – Ed.)

 

I’m going to say flat out that I think the culture of “knowing” is damaging to a lot of members of the Church and almost certainly contributes to the all-or-nothing attitude that pushes people on the fringes away. The Church very often feels like a club for “women [and men] who know,” and going to Church without that certainty can feel like showing up to a Michelin starred restaurant in sweatpants. The thing is, knowledge leaves no room to manoeuvre, it is restrictive, a line that once crossed changes one’s reality. You know or you don’t know, and if you don’t know then it’s either because there is something wrong with you (see above), or because it’s simply not true. If you fulfilled all the pre-conditions necessary for an answer and still didn’t get one, those are the only reasonable conclusions (we tell people to keep asking until they get the right answer, all the while acknowledging in our own scripture that that’s not really how God works).

 

A good illustration of how we use “know” in the Church versus how we use “believe” can be found with a quick search of both words over on LDS.org. When you search “believe,” most of the references you see are either scriptural or general use of the word to describe the tenets of the Church (e.g., “what we believe,” “we believe in Christ,” “what do Mormons believe?”). On the other hand, searching for the word “know” reveals talks with titles like, “No Greater Joy Than to Know That They Know,” “I Know These Things of Myself,” “I Know It. I Live It. I Love It.,” “Ye May Know,” and “You, Too, Must Know,” to select just a few of the many. I get that this a) isn’t exactly scientific research, and b) you’d expect the language in Conference to be a little bit more on the side of absolute knowledge. On the other hand, the language we use in daily Mormon parlance filters down to us through church leaders, especially through conference talks, and those talks set the tone for how our very centralized religion expresses its faith. Besides that, I can really only speak to my life growing up in the Church and as an adult and what I’ve observed, and I accept that much of what I’m saying here is colored by my own perceptions and my anecdotal experience. However, I’d venture to say that both those perceptions and those experiences are shared fairly widely by members of the Church. If you think I’m exaggerating, listen at your next fast and testimony meeting to see how many small children use any other word but “know,” often directed by well-meaning parents.

 

There’s nothing wrong with knowing the Church is true, or thinking you know the Church is true. The problem is that if you don’t know, it feels deeply uncomfortable to say so because it’s almost like admitting you don’t have a testimony at all. I would hazard that many, if not most, Mormons, when bearing testimony in class or at the pulpit or anywhere else, say “know” when what they really mean is “believe” or even “hope.” Many people say “know” hoping that if they say it enough times it will be true. But to not say “know” is to admit either personal failure or to cast doubt on the truth of Church. At least, that’s how it has struck me since I switched camps.

 

The real question, of course, is “Does it matter? Aren’t you being a little pedantic arguing about which words people use to describe their feeling of faith in the Gospel?” Maybe I am, and maybe it’s all semantics, but I’m one of those people who continues, somewhat futilely, to believe that words have inherent meaning and power, and the word “know” has deeply affected the LDS community’s sense of belief and faith. It is understandable, of course, that a people who are making as bold (and some would say extreme) a claim as we do, to be the only true church, the vessel for Christian salvation, should be pretty damn sure that they are hitching themselves to the right wagon. Besides that, a major theme of the Book of Mormon, especially the dog-eared pages of Alma 32, is the transition from that first seed of faith to the outright knowledge of the truth of the Gospel. Our culture is steeped in the importance of knowledge, and knowledge as the end goal of our faith journey. We took it from the Book of Mormon and we made it the key word in our common church lexicon, a universally accepted touchstone concept. And it matters.

 

It matters because of, as I mentioned above, the impact it has on people who can’t use the word “know” without feeling hollow or hypocritical. It matters because people are pushed to “know” so hard that we often miss the steps that it takes to actually get there and we miss opportunities to better understand the Gospel because of it. It matters because when everyone “knows” but you, you feel out of place and lesser, and that lack of knowledge becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the echo of that word fills your ears until it’s all you can hear. If you’re someone who “knows” the Church is true, this might seem overblown and melodramatic, but for those of us who have had to go to church feeling like the only person in the room who hadn’t had a member of the Godhood personally confirm that they’re in the right place, I can promise you that it’s not. I can remember very clearly how hard it was to bear testimony at the end of a Sunday School or Priesthood lesson for a couple of years, because it felt so awkward to say anything but “I know these things are true,” but it also felt hypocritical to say that I did when my insides were crawling with doubts.

Emphasis on knowledge shortchanges the process of getting there, or at least it has the potential to do so. You don’t have to “know” the Church is true when you’re four years old and your parents are whispering that word into your ear, when you’re eight years old and getting baptized, when you’re walking into the MTC, when you’re kneeling at the altar in the temple, when you’re baptizing your own kids or, hell, even when you’re called to be bishop. It’s okay to still be nurturing that seed of faith and hope and trying to see what you can get it to blossom into. It’s okay to pray daily for a better knowledge, a stronger faith, and a more perfect brightness of hope and to accept that it may take you your entire life to get there. Maybe you never will. True “knowledge” of the veracity of the Gospel may be an unachievable goal in this life for many of us, maybe the vast majority of us, and that’s part of the point of being here in the first place. To hear a twenty-something year old (or much younger) announce with unfeigned confidence that they know with every fiber of their being that the Church is true makes the whole idea of “knowledge” of the Gospel seem almost cheap, once that statement is placed under real examination. In our church, it never will be. Maybe they do know, and I’m simply being cynical and dismissive. I don’t mean to be. People do know, and believing you know is, for all intents and purposes, probably the same as actually knowing. In any case, belief stated as knowledge doesn’t diminish the belief, or invalidate it in any way, and I don’t mean to do either of those things to those who express their sincere testimony in words that hypercritical cranks like me insist on dissecting and parsing to satisfy our own constant self-inquisition.

 

For the vast majority of us that merely hope and believe, including the many who use “know” when they really mean “believe,” it should be a relief that we are not burdened with the overwhelming responsibility of a perfect knowledge or testimony. Knowledge can be fragile, a ship that breaks its bow on the first iceberg of doubt or self-awareness. Knowledge, real or perceived, has not, in my experience, kept a lot of people from leaving the Church the first time that knowledge was contradicted by some new piece of Church history or unconsidered misgiving (more on the former in another post). Going back to the Book of Mormon, no one could possibly have “known” that God was real and exactly what he wanted of them than Laman and Lemuel, to cite just two of many examples from that book. The knowledge they had, stripped as it was of hope, of faith, of charity, of understanding sincerely sought, was a tool they never knew how to use.

 

Hope gives us room to fall, room to doubt, room to fail. Hope allows someone like me, who can stare up into the godless blackness at one moment and then fall on his knees in prayer the next, to continue to strive toward a better understanding of Christ and the Atonement. Losing what I thought was my knowledge of the truth of the Church nearly destroyed me because I had been living in a black and white world where knowledge was the only option. It took a great deal of soul-searching and struggle, and the personal decision to keep trying, to come to the conclusion that it was okay not to know and that one verse in Moroni was not the only acceptable way to have a testimony of the Book of Mormon or the truthfulness of the Gospel.

 

I don’t think that we as an LDS culture are going to be moving on from the emphasis on knowledge anytime soon. I think it’s too deeply embedded in the way we think of our faith and in the average LDS person’s concept of self. But having seen so many friends leave the Church because of their doubts rather than fighting through them to find the kernels of truth beyond some of the frustrations and confusions of being Mormon, I think it would be immensely helpful to make sure that those people know that doubting is not a personal failure. It’s not a negation of their faith. The alternative to the Church being big “t” TRUE is not the Church being big “f” FALSE. Christ did not recruit his apostles from among the already converted, but instead he found men who were willing to go through the process of confronting their doubts until they understood the nature of their Savior. Considering how long it took Peter and company to get there, despite learning at the feet of Christ himself and witnessing countless miracles, it seems only fair that the rest of us should give ourselves more time, too.

On Soul Fibers and Intrinsic Truth-blocking Character Flaws, Part 1

(This is part one of a two-part post. You can find part 2 here.- Ed.)

One of the scary things about testing the waters of agnosticism as a Mormon is that we are, quite simply, a religion that culturally and institutionally is antithetical to the notion of agnosticism in the first place, and we are socialized accordingly. From the very beginning of our spiritual lives, the emphasis is placed on surety, on certainty, on making that leap from “faith” to “knowledge.” And that’s understandable. For one thing, our foundational text ends with a promise that if you ask with faith, you’ll receive a certain knowledge of the veracity of said text and all the accompanying implications. “And if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.   And by the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things.” Nice. All you have to do is sincerely ask. Real intent. Faith in Christ. Like, it seems pretty straightforward. But, there’s a problem there.

 

The problem is that if you happened to be one of those people, especially someone who was, say, already baptized into the Church at an age where they had trouble grasping the plot of a Boxcar Children novel, who didn’t come away from that prayer (or those many, many prayers) with a firm answer, well…that’s not great is it? Which thing were you lacking, then? Faith? That’s bad. Sincerity? That’s really bad. You didn’t even mean it when you asked. That’s enormous amount of pressure to know. Not to hope. Not to believe. To know (preferably with every fiber of your being/soul). Some of us, though, had one or several soul fibers that just didn’t quite get fully saturated with knowledge, and I can tell you, as one of them, that every time it comes up over the course of your religious life, it is a little bit jarring. Over time, it wears on you.

 

When I entered the MTC as a smooth-faced, ill-fitted suit wearing neo-ascetic in the fall of 2004, I had never read the Book of Mormon cover to cover. I don’t know if I had ever read a full chapter of the Book of Mormon on my own. I had memorized seminary scriptures just long enough to repeat and forget them. I had slept, physically or mentally, through basically every seminary lesson I had ever gone to and only given the most cursory attention to nightly family scripture reading. Now, a real full-time Mormon for the first time in my adult life, I was committed to the basics of actually believing in the religion it was now my job to propagate to the atheist hell holes of Western Europe. I started reading the Book of Mormon and tried to avoid any discussion that required a detailed knowledge of Gospel doctrine or the scriptures (I remember with acute embarrassment being the only person who wasn’t sure who Teancum was and asking “wasn’t he…a king?”, a question that was met with an MTC version of rather hostile derision).

 

In the MTC, I faced a constant barrage of “pure” testimony, and while I felt that I was there for the right reasons, I wanted to be able to be just as sure as everyone else that the Book of Mormon was true. I wanted my heart to burn with the spiritual fire that I was convinced drove the engines of every other missionary but me (at the time I didn’t quite realize the irony of already “knowing” the Church was true and just asking God to confirm the fact). My time at the MTC never really got me there. I had spiritual experiences and I was an enthusiastic young elder, but that nagging lack of fire that I knew was unique only to me and that one missionary whose main post-mission goal was to become a Mason was something I carried with me throughout those two years.

 

The most dramatic example of my inability to have a lightning bolt of faith strike my heart came when, recalling my MTC companion’s story of how he knelt in the Sacred Grove and prayed for a testimony and felt an overwhelming knowledge of the truth of the Gospel, I tried a poor man’s version of the same thing. On a p-day hike, I sneaked briefly away from my trainer, just long enough to find a secluded spot in the woods and pray out loud for my own First Vision Experience. Maybe it was the fact that I’d broken a mission rule in my quest for perfect knowledge, or maybe it’s the fact that God seems to have no jurisdiction in France, but I trudged back to my trainer and the other missionaries feeling entirely underwhelmed and vastly inferior to my MTC companion, who was so spiritual that even thinking about the Gospel seemed to drive him to tears.

 

Again, I had spiritual experiences as a missionary, and I’ve had them since. I sincerely loved reading the Book of Mormon. It brought me comfort during miserable days of missionary drudgery, which is what most of a mission in Western Europe consists of. But that defining answer to a prayer daily proffered never came, and I spent those two years in the shadow of an inferiority complex for it. To even speak of the fact would have been anathema, but I always felt like it was somehow evident to those with whom I spoke about the Church, and that every time I bore testimony to a rapidly retreating Frenchman or a bored African refugee, they could feel that I didn’t really believe it. It really wasn’t for lack of trying, though.

 

There’s a point to this long-winded narration of my missionary past, and it’s the fact that, well, I did have a testimony all along, in its own form. I had never received that punch-in-face Moroni’s Promise Moment, but in my own way I believed, or even “knew,” the Church was true. Ironically, it took me so long to know I knew because of Moroni’s promise. In my mind, testimony came not from a love of the Church and Gospel principles, from the happiness they brought you when you lived them, or even a deep-set hope in the Atonement and moral principles taught by Christ, all of which I possessed. I thought a testimony needed to also be accompanied by an incontrovertible spiritual experience, a kind of badge of authority that I could flash to wandering faith seekers I encountered. I was fairly certain that my middling testimony, without any kind of endorsement from the Holy Ghost, was the reason my message so rarely penetrated the hearts and minds of those I was supposed to be teaching. I would later realize that a) I was simply not a very good teacher, b) no one else’s testimonies seemed to be doing anything either, and c) penetrating a French heart with a spiritual message from an obscure American sect of Christianity is a akin to trying to pierce military grade body armor with wet corn starch.
I did have a testimony, and eventually I realized it, but by the time I did it was already too late. Coming to terms with not receiving a clear “Moroni’s Promise/First Vision” took a lot of time and thought and sometimes struggle, but gaining that understanding was an important step in my spiritual growth. It helped keep me invested and active in the Church when it would have been really easy to check out after I got home, accepting my failure to get the real answer I was seeking. Certainly when, years later, I started doubting the very existence of God, it provided me with a little bit of flexibility in how I coped with those doubts intellectually. After all, I had had a testimony for years without really knowing the way most Mormons seem to (or claim to).

Something Like Mormon Existentialism, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Inevitability of Being Wrong

I remember lying in bed at night while I was in grad school, staring up at the ceiling and struggling to wrap my mind around the doubts that had always been the background noise of my life but in the past year had started to coalesce from shadows into something that felt much more tangible. I have never been particularly concerned about the details of Mormonism, which is to say that many of the doctrinal or personal scandals that send others cascading out of the Church like roof tiles blown off in a storm have tended instead to kind of bounce off the surface of my brain and leave no mark after their initial impact. Maybe it’s because I was skilled at producing the kind of cognitive dissonance that jams those signals, but maybes it’s because I’ve always been more of a big picture type of person. The real question for me  was not “does Joseph Smith having multiple wives mean the Church isn’t true?” and more so “is the Church true, or not?” full stop. That was the real dividing line of reality: is the Church true, or is the Church not true?

I’m not sure what triggered the more advanced stages of doubt or whether it was simply a metastasis of those earlier lingering doubts, but after a life-time of being fairly sure the Church was true, I had now suddenly jumped to asking the question of whether God existed at all in any form and whether life had any purpose at all. I had skipped past crisis of faith and flown headlong into an existential crisis in what must be some kind of relatively common grad student experience.  At the time, I simply didn’t have the intellectual resources to wrestle with that kind of question, not because I was an idiot (though this was and remains true) but because most, if not all, of my religious and educational background was one in which the question of God’s existence had been thoroughly answered and never came up.

“Does God exist?” a Mormon might ask, semi-rhetorically, and the answer comes back completely unopposed, “yes, and we know this because we exist, which we couldn’t do if there were no God.” That’s the evidence given in Alma to resoundingly defeat an argument for atheism and it is now universally accepted as the answer in common Mormon parlance. “I clearly see that existence can no more be separated from the essence of God than can its having its three angles equal to two right angles can be separated from the essence of a triangle, or the idea of a mountain from the idea of a valley.” That’s what Descartes said, eloquently expressing basically the same idea. I remember reading once in a 100 level philosophy class that Descartes had premised his “I think therefor I am” argument with something like “just so you all know, this is all based on the assumption that God exists and created us.” I mean, if it was good enough for Descartes, it was good enough for me.

Until it wasn’t. I had pretty good practice, from my time as a missionary in France, where atheism is the true national religion, negating simplistic anti-theist arguments with equivalent lack of sophistication; enough at least to create a stalemate that allowed both sides to carry on unaffected by any inconvenient philosophical stumbling blocks. I’ve yet to hear a truly convincing philosophical, scientific, against at least the possibility of there being a god.

My doubts came, then, not as a confrontation with some kind of earth-shattering discovery in Church history or the discovery of some devastating discourse by the prophets of New Atheism. They simply were, like the black between stars simply is. Where the certainty of God’s existence was, there wasn’t exactly a void, but there was certainly a place where the clear water of my river of faith had suddenly entered a confluence with something much murkier. It was the classic existential confrontation with the possibility that maybe life really is meaningless, and what were the implications of that fact? I had to explore these terrifying ideas in the context of having a devoutly practicing Mormon wife, a two year old, and another baby on the way, not to mention the inherent uncertainties in being a second year master’s student.

I remember at the time having a radical change in perspective about people who leave the Church. This was terrible. It was abject. It was near constant misery. The old notion that people leave the Church because they’re looking to do so may apply to some, but from where I was sitting even the prospect of stepping out into that wide, open world gave me spiritual agoraphobia. It is not something I would wish on anybody. At times in my life I had sometimes envied people who grew up outside of the Church because they had the opportunity to explore the meaning of life and the universe themselves without the strictures of having all the answers handed to them. Suddenly, given the same opportunity, I no longer envied them. “Freedom! Terrible, terrible freedom!” to quote the Simpsons’ queenless space ants.

I don’t want to go into every detail of the process and catalytic events that led me to where I am today, because none of us has the time right now and because I’d like to treat them more thoroughly later. In the end, as the Gospel for me has always been more of an intellectual endeavor than a spiritual one, simply by my nature, my long and continuing struggle with the questions of god and faith has been the same, for better or worse. I read and thought a great deal and found myself increasingly influenced by the writings of Dostoyevsky, Camus, Kierkegaard, and Tolstoy. Kierkegaard, in particularly, struck me like a bolt of lightning.

The idea that in this absurd, swirling mess of meaningless existence one could choose to find meaning through faith in Christ became foundational to me. I wanted to have faith, I wanted to be Mormon, to be a good Christian, but had suddenly found that everything before that propped up my faith, ranging from powerful spiritual experiences to simple confirmation bias, had been swallowed up by this endless, crushing black hole of sourceless doubt. I took that idea and I used it to shield myself from those doubts as I worked my way through them, to prevent them from collapsing in on me and destroying the vestiges of my belief system. This was how I stumbled upon the concept of Mormon existentialism, embraced it, and let it carry me through some very difficult times of my life while I found my feet.

Eventually, I came to a point where my doubts, though always challenging, became less “bad” liberating (see, the space ants) and morphed into something akin to the being set free by the truth. Not the truth of the non-existence of God, not the truth of the “trueness” of Church, but simply the truth as I was now free to explore it. The truth broken free of the shackles of confirmation bias, to the extent that that’s possible. I openly recognize that I will never be able to seek out truth from a completely objective point of the view; that’s simply part of the human experience. There is certainly objective truth, but just like there are countless shades of light that the human eye cannot see because of its limitations, so too are we all limited by are own experiences, inadequacies, and personal situations. I accept that and embrace it. I am seeking the truth as a Latter-day Saint, as a Christian, as myself. I don’t buy into the notion of moral relativism, but I think that we know little enough about God and the nature of existence, even as Mormons, that there is plenty of unknown territory out there for each of us to stake a claim to, however we get there. A piece for each of us of the blind man’s elephant.

I have learned that I love the Church, and I love Christianity as a whole, as a set of universal moral truths that can be the physical and spiritual salvation of mankind, if we’d only embrace them. I’m not looking for a way out and I’m not “loyal opposition,” as some might term themselves. I’m undoubtedly heterodox in almost everything I believe, at this point, but maybe not quite a heretic. I am a wholehearted supporter of orthopraxis; whatever changes I might want to see in the Church, I am happy to work with things the way they are, an imperfect part of a striving but imperfect system. I would describe myself as an agnostic theist. I don’t condescend toward those who believe differently than I do on any part of the faith spectrum. We’re all just trying our best, for the most part. The one thing that I am really certain of is that if we ever do get to find out the true nature of life, the universe, and everything, we will almost undoubtedly find out that we were wrong about essentially everything, or at least that we understood so little that it amounts to the same thing as being altogether wrong. I am okay with that, though that wasn’t always the case. I guess I hope that maybe I can help other people be okay with that, too, whatever truth they find.