“The Public Memoirs and Confessions of a Doubting Believer”

This is more or less the text of remarks that I delivered at the 2021 Faith & Knowledge Conference on 30 Jan. 2021.

“Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

These words, spoken by the father of a child with a “dumb spirit”[1] capture my own faith, which I will lay bare before you all today, in these public memoirs and confessions of a doubting believer. I have not always been confident in my faith as a doubting believer, eschewing some of the supernatural elements of my childhood belief to embrace a more rational, intellectual belief, fitting for a scholar. I wrestled with these two worldviews for years, arguably dating back to when I first honed my use of the shiny pin of skepticism[2] in high school debate.

Paradoxically, it was an academic endeavor that offered me the framework to make peace with the inner wrestle that I had engaged in for so long. After a long and winding road, I had settled on James Hogg’s enigmatic 1824 novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner as the core text that I would analyze for my MA thesis. Hogg’s novel embodies in characters and structure Joseph Smith’s principle that “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”

Hogg’s contraries are a nineteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment rationality and a particular brand of Calvinist religious zealotry, embodied (literally) in the nameless “Editor” and the titular justified sinner Robert Wringhim. The structure of the novel also works to prove these contraries, with the first half being from the perspective of the Editor, who within the narrative found the memoirs of Robert Wringhim, investigated the version of events that they contain, and then lays out what the empirical evidence he accumulated suggests. Once the Editor completes his account, Hogg’s novel offers us Robert’s own memoir, which then tells us essentially the same story that the Editor just finished, but this time from Robert’s perspective. The text concludes with the Editor returning for some final investigations and climatic revelations.

The central claim of my MA thesis is that Confessions offers a postsecular spirituality that is found in the tension between Enlightenment rationality and religious, specifically Calvinist, zealotry. During my defense one of my committee members asked if there was a pastoral motivation for my argument, and I was totally caught off guard. Though as soon as he asked, I realized part of what had drawn me to Hogg’s text was the way that it embodied many of the questions and wrestles that I was engaged in in my own spiritual life. Today, I hope to finally realize the pastoral potential of what I argued some years ago.

PART ONE: The Editor

Hogg’s text opens with the nameless Editor’s perspective, easing readers into the critique of rationality that Hogg offers. We get a sense of the Editor’s position on religion early on in the text, where he describes a recently married character’s unsympathetic response to his bride’s extreme piety:

“He [Dalcastle] had better have held his peace. There was such a torrent of profound divinity poured out upon him, that the laird became ashamed, both of himself and his new-made spouse, and wist not what to say: but the brandy helped him out” (7)

“profound divinity” is “poured out”, followed up with “brandy”. The Editor’s use of ‘profound divinity’ is drenched with irony. Skeptical of the very idea that there is some sort of transcendent reality that could be brought into contact with the immanent sphere that we are presumed to dwell upon.

The Editor displays this sense of the rational as superior to and in direct opposition to the supernatural throughout his recounting of Robert’s tale. Though we begin to see cracks in his story as supernatural occurrences are piling up that the Editor cannot provide alternative explanations for and strives instead to wave them away.

I am immensely sympathetic to The Editor’s position, and to my regret, have espoused ideas quite similar to the ones that he does. I too have treated the piety and extraordinary religious experiences of others with irony and disdain, mocking them as saccharine and unbelievable. I spent years after my mission snarkily commenting to my roommates and friends about what people taught or said at church, wielding my shiny pin of skepticism and ‘rationality’ with smug satisfaction to pop the balloons of simple or miraculous faith expressed by my co-religionists.

Throughout this time I read and read and read about Mormonism and Church history, devouring facts, increasingly frustrated that others at Church expressed ideas that didn’t line up with my understanding of the facts. I was convinced that if ‘these people’ could only swallow all the things that I knew, they would stop saying ludicrous things about God helping them find their car keys or receiving divine assistance on a math test (a particularly sore subject given what I perceived as an utter lack of divine intervention to save my calculus grades, hitting a low point of a 17% on a midterm exam—you know you’re doing poorly when you should have done better just guessing).

I wanted to reshape Mormonism into something purely intellectual, a religious thought exercise. Without knowing it, I was wishing for something similar to the way that Talal Asad describes the secular creating a sphere of ‘good belief’ to be cordoned off from ‘bad belief’ (a process that Mormonism already underwent in many ways, at least as recounted by literary critic Peter Coviello).

PART TWO: The Sinner

Yet, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that there was something more, I was wrestling with past spiritual experiences that in some ways called into question my newfound paradigm. This is precisely what happens to Hogg’s Editor as he encounters the memoirs of the titular Justified Sinner, Robert. The cracks in the Editor’s belief in the supremacy of rationality occur throughout his narrative, but we don’t fully get a sense of how different Robert’s perspective is until we start to read his own words.

Early in Robert’s memoir, after he has received confirmation that he is one of the justified, he recounts an encounter that quickly takes on supernatural overtones.  

 “As we approached each other, our eyes met, and I can never describe the strange sensations that thrilled through my whole frame at that impressive moment; a moment to me fraught with the most tremendous consequences” (89).

Robert is seeing Gil-Martin, his double and according to some scholars the Devil himself, who will lead him on a wild, strange journey including apparitions, brotherly feuds, deadly duels, murder, and more. Robert recounts here and elsewhere supernatural happenings, precisely of the type that the Editor expresses disdain for.  

Wesley J. Wildman offers some terminology that I find helpful for talking about the sorts of wild, supernatural experiences that Robert describes. Wildman describes ultimacy and anomalous experiences, which can and do overlap, but are marked by some distinctions:

 “anomalous experiences are defined by objective strangeness, ultimacy experiences … by subjective judgments of ultimate significance” (Wildman 84)

Robert’s experiences begin as both anomalous and ultimacy experiences. Yes, they are strange, but they also are significant to him. As the text progresses, they become more and more strange and their significance becomes muddied and possibly much darker.

One particular experience in my life often comes to mind when I think about these anomalous and ultimacy experiences—and is one that gnawed at my mind as I reveled in critique, skepticism, and rationality. I was a missionary in Lithuania. My companion and I were riding the bus back to our apartment with an electronic keyboard to practice for accompanying hymns at church. As we settle into position, standing, holding this giant keyboard, a very inebriated man climbs on the bus, which was not at all unusual. He sits down not far from where we were standing, and proceeds to growl, presumably in our direction. He starts talking angrily at us, muttering at first, but slowly rising in volume. I’m getting a little nervous, given the man’s heavyset frame and my, well, skin and bones build. He grows louder and louder, yelling at us, seemingly filled with rage.

I’m terrified. Shaking, holding onto this pole, standing.

Naturally, I do what any missionary would do. I pray.

A verse that I’d been studying came to mind, 1 John 4:18:

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear”

I ask God to help me love this man and I am overwhelmed with what I still only know how to describe as an outpouring of divine love from the heavens. Suddenly, I felt for this Lithuanian, what God did. Felt sorrow, hope, and above all love.

The instant that love filled me the man stopped, mid-yell. He sat patiently and quietly, like a good Lithuanian, for the next half hour or so that we were on the bus.

An objectively strange sort of experience. But one filled with significance for me. It may be possible to explain this experience away as a coincidence. And maybe it was! Yet, I cannot deny what I felt and that as far as I could tell, that love originated somewhere outside of myself.

What could I do with this sort of experience in my newfound rational, intellectual religion? What did it mean? How did it work?  

PART THREE: The Doubting Believer

And so we arrive at part three, The Doubting Believer.

In Hogg’s novel, after we read Robert’s own memoir, our fearless Editor returns to conclude his investigation. Except now, his faith in Enlightenment rationality is fully shaken. He experiences some miraculous and horrifying things, and close to his final word on the events of the memoir is that:

“With regard to the work itself, I dare not venture a judgment, for I do not understand it”

The Editor ends the novel in tension between Enlightenment rationality and the religious zealotry of the Justified Sinner.

This is spirituality, according to me, reading Hogg.

Notably, The Editor is not converted fully, but moved to a place of radical uncertainty. He has lost the surety that guided his ironic dismissal of a ‘torrent of profound divinity’ in the novel’s opening pages. He cannot bring himself to fully accept and believe Robert’s account, packed with strange happenings. Yet, he cannot dismiss it out of hand either.This is the place that I find myself. Living in the tension of these two worlds, which collide all around me. A world where belief is an “embattled option” to quote Charles Taylor. As that phrase suggests, it can be wearying to be here. But, it’s the only place I know how to be and I think it is worth the wrestle.   

I think that this is a Christian Wiman sort of spirituality. In his great spiritual memoir, My Bright Abyss, he writes of his own spiritual journey:

“Was the fall into belief or unbelief? Both. For if grace woke me to God’s presence in the world and in my heart, it also woke me to his absence. I never truly felt the pain of unbelief until I began to believe.” (Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, 12)

As Wiman says, there are some unique pains that only become apparent once we embrace belief, once we enter the tension that I am calling spirituality.

Conclusion

I have found great peace as I have let go of the need to resolve these tensions in my own life. The idea that I found in Hogg, that the very tension that had been causing me grief and anxiety could be fruitful, that that very tension which had threatened to destroy my faith could actually be the ground for a renewed spirituality and belief, premised on the radical uncertainty that I felt?

It saved my faith.

It saves my faith.

With this new framework for spirituality, that doesn’t fully reject the rational or the supernatural, doesn’t ignore the transcendent or the immanent, but instead, embraces the tensions between them, I finally feel able to go forth and do, as my radically uncertain, doubting believer self.

I’d like to close with some words from one of my own personal minor prophets (to borrow David O. McKay’s term for poets and authors), the Slayer herself, Buffy Summers:

So, I will walk through the fire
Cause where else can I turn
I will walk through the fire

I love the conviction on display here, particularly with the underlying sense of uncertainty and almost inevitability. This blend of conviction, uncertainty, and inevitability matches my own lived experience with faith—a blend that I hope may serve as an alternative to some of the stories that we tell about spirituality and may perhaps due some of the work that Amy Hoyt and others called for last night.

Here’s to walking through the fire, to doubting belief, and to radical uncertainty.

Thank you.


[1] Mark 9:17, 24

[2] A reference to Bruce C. Hafen’s fantastic 1979 Ricks College Devotional “Love is Not Blind: Some Thoughts for College Students on Faith and Ambiguity”.

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