Faith, certainty, and doubt

Related Posts: Faith and Charity ; Opposition in all things ; The First Vision 

I can honestly say that I have never had a prolonged crisis of faith. I’ve had moments of doubt wherein I wondered if God really existed, or if the Church is what it claims to be. But those moments never lasted long. All I needed was to remember I have a testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church.

Like many people with deep Mormon roots I was raised to believe in the Book of Mormon as scripture and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is God’s true, restored Church. Though I never seriously questioned this upbringing I did experience a crisis of sorts, which turned out to be the beginning of my testimony.

I was in the seventh or eighth grade at the time and it was a Saturday morning. I enjoyed watching those art programs where an artist creates a beautiful landscape painting in thirty minutes. (I remember there was this German guy who painted “powerful” mountains and this afro-redheaded guy who painted “happy” streams and clouds.) During one of the commercial breaks an advertisement for a Christian charity came on. I don’t remember the name of the charity or what exactly their purpose was, but clearly they were good people seeking to help others. And then, a thought struck me. These were good people. This charity works for good. Somehow, seeing those good people doing good provoked a question in me. How do I know the church I belong to is the true Church? After all, these other churches are also good. How do I know I’m right? The question in my mind grew intense. I cried out from within, “How do I know I’m right.” Suddenly an intense feeling of peace and calm came over me and my doubts were gone. I knew the Church was true.[1]

Every time I feel doubt I recall that experience.

A skeptic might say, “You should question that experience. Maybe you just got the answer you unconsciously wanted.” I’m not exactly sure what that is supposed to mean. They probably do not mean that I should question that I had a doubt erasing experience because that is exactly what happened. I can’t re-experience something different; I can’t say I experienced anything other than what I did experience. So perhaps the skeptic means something else.

Fairies and flying saucers
I was watching a video, Conversations with Arthur Henry King, the other day. One of the guest speakers recalls an experience with Arthur King. Apparently when Arthur was a boy he once saw fairies dancing on the frozen pond behind his house. The individual recounting the story then said, “When I asked him what he thought the fairies were he very seriously said to me, he said, ‘Well, I have no reason to doubt they were fairies.’”[2]

I remember when I was a very young boy, probably six to eight years old. It was the Forth of July and I was camping in the backyard of our house, and I remember seeing a flying saucer. It was square, there was a low frequency rumbling sound, and it was hovering over the roofs of the condominiums behind our home.

I experienced seeing a flying saucer. Arthur King experienced seeing fairies dancing on a frozen pond. Neither of us could say we didn’t experience seeing those things, because we did experience seeing those things. (By this I mean the experience seeing a flying saucer is what I experienced.)

Maybe the skeptic wants me to question my experience of certainty the same way I would question seeing a flying saucer. Maybe it was a blimp, or a helicopter, or flood lights on the clouds. Maybe the rumbling sound was from an automobile—maybe King was looking at dragon flies, or rustling leaves. Though I experienced seeing a flying saucer I can question my experience by positing that maybe I was looking at something other than a real, material flying saucer. Similarly, though I experienced a feeling of certainty I should be willing to question that the experience gave me knowledge that the Church is actually, really, true. Though I experienced an overwhelming sense of certainty it was simply how the neurons in my brain made me feel.

But on the other hand my doubt erasing experience was very unlike seeing fairies or a flying saucer. I didn’t have an overwhelming sense of peace and assurance that I was actually seeing a real, material flying saucer; there was no sense of certainty. My testimony experience came from within, and that experience will always be with me. There have been times when I leaned heavily on that experience for my testimony. There have been times when it formed only part of my testimony. But I can’t say that it didn’t happen. What then is the incorrigible believer to do? I can’t just decide I will no longer believe. In many ways that feeling of certainty remains with me.

Perhaps the skeptic intends to simply encourage religious questioning. Some people experience doubt because of the Church’s position on gay marriage. Others might be bothered by an historical event, such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. They might be bothered when they find out Joseph Smith was a polygamist, or that there has been doctrinal evolution in the Church. Maybe they know someone who was given a priesthood blessing and was promised a full recovery, who then died. (I have personal experience with this last one.) There are many things that can cause doubt, and these experiences can lend credence to the idea that we should question rather than declare the truthfulness of the Church. If other people experience a feeling of doubt then it seems arrogant to say that the Church is true. It seems as though I’m elevating myself above the honest, good hearted skeptics. It’s like I am saying they are totally wrong.

So perhaps what the skeptic desires is to encourage a healthy dose of religious doubt. After all, skepticism is so very different from certainty. It can encourage respect of other people’s beliefs in ways that certainty cannot.

Faith and doubt
Andrew Sullivan wrote in a Time Magazine article, “When Not Seeing Is Believing,” about the dangers of religious certainty. He then writes,

... True belief is not about blind submission. It is about open-eyed acceptance, and acceptance requires persistent distance from the truth, and that distance is doubt. Doubt, in other words, can feed faith, rather than destroy it. And it forces us, even while believing, to recognize our fundamental duty with respect to God's truth: humility. We do not know. Which is why we believe.

He also asked the question, “If we have never doubted, how can we say we have really believed?”

I remember once in a physics math class, the professor was doing a long derivation on the board. He stopped midway and said, “You can’t know something unless you can prove it. Its OK to believe, but you can’t know unless it can be proved.” (Given that the class was mostly LDS it seemed his comment was directed towards us Mormons.) Sullivan’s essay is along similar lines. Belief is OK, but certainty in religious matters is dubious, and sometimes dangerous.

Thus, it turns out that faith is a strong belief in what might be true. Faith is being baffled by the Mystery and yet believing life has a purpose. Thus, according to people like Andrew Sullivan, faith accompanies the absence of certainty; faith and doubt belong together.

Two paths in a wood
Some people will ask, “Why not encourage skepticism?” After all, many of our most basic beliefs are self referential. For example, a poem’s structure can be analyzed, but can we account for the “structurality of structure.” And how can I argue that reason is a reliable way to discover truth without using reason. I also believe that any given proposition cannot be both true and false at the same time, but I can’t think of any way to demonstrate this without a proposition being either true or false and not both. Then again, reason is essential, poems can be analyzed, and the law of non-contradiction works for me. I treat these things like they were absolutes but I cannot objectively know them; there is no way I can argue that they are true without first assuming that they are true. So perhaps I should treat my religion like that. For me it is the ultimate explanatory principle and yet on a deeper level I know that I cannot objectively know my religion is the true religion.

And this is where the doubt promoters come in. Doubt can lead us to “believe in our god term and use it as if it were the ultimate explanatory principle. But on a deeper level, we also know that it is not.”[3]  Doubt can lead us to reevaluate our traditional religious beliefs, experiencing spiritual exhaustion to the point that eventually there is a humble, sincere acknowledgment that we should prize spirituality more than certainty. And after the crisis of faith a new wisdom emerges from the “born again” experience. Faith is standing in the Mystery and yet believing in an all good power.

Certainty, faith, and doubt
Now, I see nothing wrong with sincerely believing that the Ultimate is unknowable, or that faith is standing in a mystery and still believing. In some ways that kind of thinking reflects aspects of my own beliefs about God and the Ultimate. Personally I tend to have a positive spiritual response to those kinds of teachings. My criticism, however, is leveled toward those who promote a culture of religious doubt in order to produce a faith-from-doubt transforming experience by trying to make us ashamed of our history, doctrines, and traditions. By cultivating a sense of shame about our past (and present) our faith can be shaken and doubt can set in. Those who promote religious doubt often desire to transform traditional faith into a kind of doubt-faith.

The transformation pattern is basically this. We start having a deep religious faith. We then experience a crisis of faith. Then, after a prolonged struggle, we finally come to terms with the crisis in such a way that leads us to embrace a “broader” worldview. What faith-from-doubt promoters work for is transforming traditional religious beliefs into something more acceptable to them and to others who are frightened by religious certainty, or object to the Church’s position on abortion, gay marriage, women and the priesthood, etc.

Another difficulty I have with faith-from-doubt promoters is that they don’t describe faith as faith. To them faith is spiritual wonderment, awe, an apprehension of what might be true. My understanding of faith is that it originates from a religious experience, not sincere religious doubt. Though people often begin with doubts, wonderment, or spiritual apprehensions, eventually faith strengthens religious belief and moves them towards a vibrant, living knowledge that something that cannot be proved is actually, in reality, true. There is nothing wrong with feeling spiritual wonderment about the mystery of God, but that is not the goal. Knowing through personal revelation is the goal, and personal revelation is the source of faith. After Joseph Smith saw God the Father and and His Son Jesus Christ he recalled, “I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it” (JS-H 1:25). Though there were moments when he cried out, “O God, where art thou?” (D&C 121:1), he never doubted that he had the First Vision experience.

I’ll be the first to admit that our leaders are imperfect. Some aspects of our history are embarrassing, even shameful. There has been doctrinal evolution to be sure. Some questions cannot be answered objectively. Sometimes tension within belief is healthy. And there are times when having faith is more important than having proof. But questions and doubts needn’t always cultivate a sense of crisis. We can deal with them from within the framework of our faith. The kind of faith I believe in can arise while experiencing crisis or doubt, wonderment and awe, but it cannot be approached by cultivating doubt. I also believe that moments of certainty cannot alone sustain a testimony—a testimony must be nurtured. Ultimately, faith is not about believing in things because we cannot know if they are true. Faith is tightly bound to that feeling of assurance which leads us towards certainty and occasional experiences of certainty. The Gospel teaches us that it is possible to “know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5). Faith takes us towards that.

End Notes_______________
[1]  I don’t have to entirely depend on my memory because a week later I recorded it in my journal, which I still have; but I’m not going to dig it out of storage to look up the date.

[2]  See video here. The passage in question begins at about 3 min 45 sec, so you won’t have to wait long to encounter it. A transcript of the passage is

One of my favorite stories that Arthur told is about when he was a boy and saw fairies dancing on the frozen pond behind his home. Well, he rushed in to tell his father, who was a very proper man. His father made him [pause] would not let him play until he disavowed having seen the fairies...When I asked him what he thought the fairies were he very seriously said to me, he said, “Well, I have no reason to doubt they were fairies.” You have to understand, Arthur King, the highly respected scholar in academic circles today, still believes that as a child he saw fairies skating on a frozen pond behind his home. (Clifton H. Jolley)

[3]  Paul Kugler, “The Unconscious in a Postmodern Depth Psychology,” an essay from C.G. Jung and the Humanities, Toward a Hermeneutics of Culture, pp. 315-316.