Monday, September 12, 2011

On doubt, skepticism and faith

(Revised October 15, 2011)

There was an interesting post on the Mormon.org Facebook page that read:
"Today I will _________ to strengthen my faith."
Subscribers to the page were invited to fill in the blank in the comments beneath the post. Many of the comments were pretty conventional; "pray," "sing," "study the scriptures," etc. I usually just read these remarks, this day I felt that I should contribute—but I'm anything but conventional. I filled in the blank with something I had been pondering for a while now: "accept my doubt and skepticism as a necessary part of faith."

One person "Liked" my comment with a click of the mouse. However, there was another person who commented after I did with what appeared–to me at least–to be a rebuttal.
"ignore the skepticism from others and focus on the truth of what I have felt, and continue to feel, and have always felt in my life regarding the teachings of Jesus Christ and His church. I know it and I know He knows I know it so I will strengthen my faith by loving those that hate, but ignoring their hateful/misunderstandings of who they 'think' we are"
It's completely possible that this individual was not responding to me or what I had written but they did choose to use a word that was a key part of my comment: "skepticism."

This person did more than just use the word, they refuted it. They are choosing to "ignore the skepticism from others" as if skepticism is antithetical to faith. And I can't help but wonder if by referencing "those that hate," they might be referring to me and my so-called "hateful/misunderstandings..." Obviously, my own neuroses are shining through and I may be reading more into this person's comments than what's actually there.

So, I will do my best to disconnect from it and respond to what was said that resonates with me and not take it personally.

I honestly don't think that it's possible to have faith without some element of doubt and skepticism. We often hear the phrase, "Taking a leap of faith." Consider what that means: Choosing to accept something that is intangible–even unprovable for all practical purposes–as true without empirical evidence. The leap is what's key. The leap is from a place of doubt and skepticism to a place of acceptance and faith. This doesn't mean that doubt and skepticism are bad or "hateful." They are–in fact–a necessary step toward having faith. One cannot take a leap from nothingness. One must leap from a place of uncertainty because if you have no doubt, if you are not skeptical, then there is no need to take a leap of any kind at all.

Ignoring doubt and skepticism will not strengthen one's faith, it will merely supplant it with blind acceptance–and blind acceptance is not the same thing as faith. God does not want blind followers. God gave all of His children the capacity to think. Why would He do that if He expected us not to use it.

Labeling the doubt and skepticism of others as "hateful" does a grave disservice to those who are sincerely in search of meaning and faith. Often they are simply tired of being skeptics and having doubt but they don't think of themselves as being "hateful" so we shouldn't assume that they are. They just want some assurance and that's what faith can provide. To use Paul's words, "...faith is the substance [assurance] of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” -Hebrews 11:1

One of my favorite verses of scripture is from the Book of Mormon.
"But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words." -Alma 32:27 (emphasis added)
"...arouse your faculties..." in other words: Think. I love that Alma uses the word "experiment." Experimentation is key to seeking truth, whether its applied scientifically or theologically. This verse challenges individuals to not just accept what is being taught to them but to put it to a test. To be empirical in the application of Gospel principles–to observe the effect they can have on our lives, to experience their truth through their praxis. And it doesn't require one to fully believe from the beginning, only to "exercise a particle of faith"–not a leap–something that even the most hardened skeptic should be able to muster, even if the best that they can do is to just have the "desire to believe." And if the result of this is just belief in "a portion" of what has been presented, so be it. I highly recommend reading that chapter in its entirety.

Where does the hostility–expressed by that Facebook user and others–toward doubt and skepticism come from? Some might argue that it comes from Christ Himself who said, "...blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." -John 20:29

Of course, it's a popular practice in any religious culture to pick and choose what verses–or parts of verses–one quotes to reinforce a particular point of view. Me? I'm all about context.

Christ was speaking to the apostle Thomas–also known as "Doubting Thomas"–who had said, after he was told of Christ's resurrection, "...Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe." -John 20:25

A lot of people look at Christ's statement in verse 29 as a clear rebuke of Thomas' skepticism but–when we read more–we see that Christ himself invited Thomas to "...Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing." (emphasis added) I find it quite intriguing that even after inviting Thomas to see and feel for himself the physical presence of the resurrected Christ, He speaks of this evidence as a reason to "be not faithless, but believing." Even when one is presented with undeniable proof, we aren't supposed to abandon having faith any more than we are supposed to abandon our ability to think critically. The scriptures don't actually say that Thomas took Christ up on his offer as depicted in Caravaggio's The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. Only that he answered, "My Lord and my God." -John 20:28. We can however infer that he did because Christ invited all of the apostles to "Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have." -Luke 24:39 (emphasis added)

I don't think Thomas was rebuked. Christ's statement was simple, it was in praise of those who are willing to take that leap of faith. But His invitation to His apostles to touch Him and experience for themselves the reality of His existence and the truth of His resurrection shows the value He places on evidence and witnesses who can testify through their own observations and sensory perceptions the truth of all things. It is no different than the methodology used by scientists to gather evidence through observation and experimentation and it is validated through repetition. If it is true, it can be replicated. That is the scientific witness of truth. And it all starts by asking questions which leads to discussion, doubt, skepticism, theories, hypotheses (which some might call a kind of faith), experimentation and an arrival at some matter of truth.

Many people of faith have carried out their own experiments on the word based on the spiritual experiences of others–past and present–and have replicated the results for themselves. I find it intriguing how the word "theology"–defined as "the study of religious faith, practice, and experience; especially the study of God and of God's relation to the world"–shares the suffix "-logy" with words used to describe scientific fields of inquiry–biology, geology, paleontology, physiology, technology, etc.–and yet, despite this common etymological structure and the way its principles, theories and hypotheses are applied, it's not discussed with the same... reverence (if you will) as other analytical disciplines.

It's interesting when one considers how many ordinary people will say that they rely on science for their truth–that they are indifferent or even suspicious of anyone's claims of spiritual enlightenment–and yet they themselves are not scientists. They did not conduct the scientific experiments or try to replicate them. They are simply taking the scientific community at its word–accepting their testimony–because scientists have done the work and validated it amongst themselves. How is that different from a group of people exploring their spirituality, putting to the test the principles they have learned–"experimenting on the word"–and sharing their experiences with others.

A lot of Mormons like to say that they "know the church is true." It's a common statement in the church and the culture and it can often sound presumptuous, especially to non-Mormons. As if what they are really saying is, "I know, therefore you don't. I have the fullness of the gospel therefore you have nothing." It can be easily perceived by others that Mormons think that they are the sole possessors of all truth–despite the fact that the doctrine and their leadership acknowledge time and again that "the Church does not hold a monopoly on truth;" that there is truth to be found everywhere, including other faiths, philosophies and, of course, science.

The commenter above said of the "truth" of what they had "felt," "I know it and I know [Christ] knows I know it..." This is a variation on what Joseph Smith said in response to his critics who tried their hardest to get him to deny his claims of a personal visitation from God and Jesus Christ. "...I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it..." -Joseph Smith–History 25

I'm glad that they specifically spoke of their feelings. I imagine that many Mormons want to have an experience like Joseph Smith's. They want that "perfect knowledge" and that statement from the Prophet is so straight forward and powerful it would be difficult not to want to emulate it, so they do when bearing their testimonies in Church or in the mission fields, by saying the words, "I know."

But the use of the word "know"–as opposed to saying, "I believe" or "I have faith that..."–carries with it certain expectations on the part of the listener. Not everyone is going to understand that the knowledge being referred to is related to feelings and the personal witness of the Holy Spirit which is ultimately a subjective experience. So, this statement of "knowledge" is often dismissed because it implies–albeit subtly–that their statement has been independently verified in such a way that there is no room for doubt and/or that the testifier has transcended the need for faith because their knowledge is perfect. But how many Mormons actually know these things? What does such knowledge entail? If it's direct, real observation on par with Joseph Smith's and other prophets' communions with God and Christ then I think that number is pretty small.

I prefer to say that I know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true because it's a concept that I have personally embraced, experimented with and received a personal, subjective knowledge of. I don't know to what degree others share this knowledge. It's the sort of thing that can't be independently verified by a non-biased third party. I can only take others at their word and my God-given faculties for thought and deduction, my direct experience with other human beings and just living my life causes me to be skeptical–even of those with whom I share an identical belief. That's when I choose to take a leap of faith. I also have the testimony of individuals who do have a perfect knowledge, who have had personal experiences that were shared with others–testifying witnesses of those events–and I take a leap of faith to believe that they are telling the truth.

One doesn't abandon all doubt at once. You can take a leap of faith on one matter and still be skeptical and have doubts about another. We are not expected to accept everything we're told at face value. We are specifically counseled to question and pray about all new knowledge that we acquire–even when the source is a Prophet of God–and to take time to develop and nurture our faith because it cannot and should not be rushed. That's why Alma, when speaking of "experimenting on the word," uses the analogy of a seed that not only has to be planted but nurtured over time.

Our doubts and skepticism are the soil in which we plant that seed of faith. They are what prompt us to ask questions and seek out the truth and those inquiries are the very nourishment that our faith needs to grow.