“Lord, I Believe, Help Thou My Unbelief”: Doubt, Belief, and the Paradox of Keeping the Faith

Note: An effort to recreate the talk that I gave using the quotes contained herein as a base on 21 July 2019, in the Provo UT 32nd Married Student Ward. 

INTRO

If you were here the last time that Cec and I spoke, about a year and a half ago, you know that we have very different strategies when it comes to titling our talks. Hers is once again called, “church talk” and mine is “‘Lord, I Believe, Help Thou Mine Unbelief’: Doubt, Belief, and the Paradox of Keeping the Faith”. So let’s begin with the verse referenced in that title, Mark 9:24:

“And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

For the past seven years or so, and on and off since I was 16, my faith has been this sort of faith–a faith simultaneously composed of doubt and belief, that the two coexist in varying degrees and amounts at any given time. The past few years have been fairly stable, but those early years just after my mission were hard. 

I felt as though the faith that I had as a missionary and a young man in the church had died. That it was gone and with it, my sense of certainty and purpose and morality. Yet, I think now that that death was needed. After all, as Christians, we’re in the Resurrection business. Paul teaches over and over throughout the epistles that we must die to be born again in Christ. 

Rachel Held Evans, an Evangelical author that I find inspiring and powerful who I mentioned in a testimony a few months ago when she unexpectedly passed away, wrote of a Church experience that:

“It was a death, but it was a good death.”

Searching for Sunday, 229

I believe that we can make the inevitable death of our faith, a good death. Or as Mary sings in Rob Gardner’s Lamb of God:

“Hope did not die here, but here was given.”

“Here is Hope”

Not all deaths are inherently good deaths and not all give us hope. But they can. I hope that I can help you find hope in the midst of your faith dying, as it dies again and again. That your faith too can be reborn, as mine has been and continues to be, for the work is not done. 

BELONGING

The foundational idea that has helped me to keep the faith, is the idea of belonging. Particularly as Brene Brown explores the idea and contrasts it with “fitting in”. She writes that: 

“One of the biggest surprises in this research was learning that fitting in and belonging are not the same thing, and, in fact, fitting in gets in the way of belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are: Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life, 25

Much of my experience at Church was that I didn’t fit in, that I didn’t belong. I thought because I believed different things or because I looked a little different that I couldn’t really be a part of the organization. I’ve always felt a little different than others and never felt a strong sense of community at Church, though that was at its peak in YSA wards in Provo, in the years immediately after my mission.

Not only did I experience all the pressures that come for almost all people in a YSA ward, but I layered on top of those this sense of confusion and frustration that I couldn’t really be who I was. I thought that everyone else knew for sure that all these things were true, that everyone had different political beliefs from me, that no one else had questions. That everyone else was dumb and judgmental, which ironically made me dumb and judgmental.  

As I started to be vulnerable and authentic at Church, sharing my own real expression of belief and doubt in testimony meeting and comments, I started to discover that I was wrong. All sorts of people came up to me and would thank me for being open and honest, for saying what they’d always felt and never felt able to say. I felt welcomed. Truly. For ME.

And I felt able to grant others that same space. Brene Brown describes this phenomenon like this:

“When we don’t give ourselves permission to be free, we rarely tolerate that freedom in others. We put them down, make fun of them, ridicule their behaviors, and sometimes shame them. We can do this intentionally or unconsciously. Either way the message is, ‘Geez man. Don’t be so uncool.’”

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are: Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life, 123

When I was unwilling to extend myself the grace to be real and authentic at Church, I turned that pain and suffering into ridicule of everyone else. And perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, as I refused to fit in, as I decided to stop trying to be like everyone else and to bring my whole self, difference and everything, to the table, I was suddenly much more comfortable with everyone else doing the same. 

Fast and Testimony meeting went from one of the worst, most painful, frustrating Sundays to consistently some of my favorite Sundays. If I want to be accepted and loved and welcomed for who I am, in all my weirdness and fringey-believing doubt or doubting-belief, then I need to extend that same grace and acceptance and love to those with faith that looks different from mine. 

Interlude: Epistemic Humility

For me, this idea is encapsulated in “epistemic humility”, which is a fancy, academic jargon-y way of saying, “recognizing that you’re wrong”. I believe that I am wrong about all sorts of things. Just like you. Everyone believes that everyone else is wrong about at least some things, and in some cases many things, but we have to believe that about ourselves as well. 

It could be easy to simply dismiss everything as unknowable and to reach a state of apathy and passivity, but I think that’s misguided. I recognize that I am likely wrong about all sorts of things, but I believe that my beliefs currently lead me to be a good person that helps others. 

ACCOUNTABILITY/RESPONSIBILITY/CLAIMING/INDIVIDUAL

I believe we must couple this sense of humility with claiming our own spiritual authority. 

Claiming our spiritual authority I think is often described in terms that actually describe spiritual autonomy, that people want to believe what they want and to choose the consequences. To me, spiritual authority is believing what you believe to be true and facing the consequences. I don’t see this as a competition with prophetic authority, after all, when Moses was confronted by someone who believed that he should be concerned with the Israelites prophesying, Moses responded:

“Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”

Numbers 11:29

Moses wanted all his people to be filled with the Spirit, to be prophets, to claim their own spiritual authority. And if Moses wasn’t worried about it, then I shouldn’t be either. 

To claim your spiritual authority is not only to seek revelation and to do what you feel God calls you to do, but also to face the consequences of that course of action, whatever they may be. If you aren’t willing to face the consequences of your beliefs, what good are they?

Esther is a powerful example of claiming spiritual authority and maintaining epistemic humility. When Mordecai comes to her and tells her of the plot that Haman put into motion to kill all the Jews, she says to Mordecai:

“Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day : I also and my maidens will fast like-wise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law : and if I perish, I perish.”

Esther 4:16

Esther is willing to die for her beliefs. She doesn’t know if what she’s going to do will save her or her people, but she believes in it. She believes so strongly that she’s willing to put her own life on the line. I don’t know about you, but my convictions have never been tested quite that much, dying for my beliefs is not really in the realm of possibility. 

I’m also struck by the fact that Esther maintains this conviction even though God is entirely absent from the text. The Book of Esther is the only book of the Bible where God is not mentioned, not even once. Esther is living in the silences that I, and we all, experience. Yet, she believes. She sticks to her belief, in the face of uncertainty, in the silence from God, unto death.

Interlude: Weakness is Strength

I wonder if we misunderstand what strength means in the Kingdom of God. Ether reminds us that the Lord taught:

“… if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

Ether 12:27

This teaching seems to be in line with what Christ taught us about the Kingdom of Heaven–that it’s a topsy-turvy place, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Where it’s not like an empire or a palace or a political entity, but a mustard seed and yeast. 

The sort of faith that holds doubt and belief together that I experience may sound or look weak, but perhaps it’s exactly the sort of strength that God is looking for?

The Lord, importantly, instructs us to come to Him, and that takes us to the necessity of community, that we cannot isolate ourselves and be made strong. 

COMMUNITY

Rachel Held Evans describes the nature of and power of community and Church like this:

“We expect a trumpet and a triumphant entry, but as always, God surprises us by showing up in ordinary things: in bread, in wine, in water, in words, in sickness, in healing, in death, in a manger of hay, in a mother’s womb, in an empty tomb. Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here.”

Searching for Sunday, 258

I’ve felt this. Here. With all of you. 

Often Church is kinda boring and mundane, but every once in awhile, in the midst of that quotidian mundanity, God is here. 

As we wrestle with the scriptures, share our struggles, ask our questions, air our doubts and concerns, strive toward the light, strain to see through the glass darkly, this ground and these carpeted walls are made holy. God is here. 

The need for community meets epistemic humility and spiritual authority in my favorite quote from Joseph Smith:

“And if we go to hell, we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it. Where this people are, there is good society.” 

Joseph Smith was willing to die and go to hell for his beliefs. That’s how open to being wrong he was. That he’d end up in hell. He was willing to face eternal consequences for his beliefs. 

Yet, he maintained hope and faith in the power and goodness of his beliefs and the beliefs that he shared with his fellow Saints. He would kick out those devils and transform hell into heaven. 

CONCLUSION

As we go throughout life we often pass through times where God feels distant or absent or silent, where the glass we see through is darker than usual, where we wonder how we fit in or where we belong. 

The words of General Princess Leia Organa guide me through those moments:

“Hope is like the sun. If you only believe it when you see it, you’ll never make it through the night.”

Darkness and silence are part of mortality. But they don’t erase the light that we’ve seen. 

“For I, [like Paul,] am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” –Romans 8:38-39

No matter what you believe or don’t believe, what you do or don’t do, nothing can separate you from the Love of God. And if we strive to divide ourselves to build walls to deny others our love, then we are trying to do what even God will not. If God’s love is never denied us, then who are we to deny others of our love?

I don’t know much. I believe much. I hope for quite a bit. But I know that God lives, that God loves each and every one of us and I say with Brother Joe that if I go to hell, I’ll turn the devils out and make a heaven of it because where you are, there is good society. 

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

(Re)Claiming My Mormonism

I firmly believe that reclamation is holy work. That perhaps the foundation of salvation is to reclaim and to make holy that which is tragic and broken and hurtful and imperfect and lacking and mortal. That is what God does. God helps us find and make meaning out of that which is otherwise meaningless. Suffering is not inherently meaningful. The pains and trials and tribulations that I face are not custom-made for me. But with God they can be. We together can create meaning. We can reclaim that which was previously beyond our reach.

This is what I strive to do daily with Mormonism. And what I hope I can give others a little more space to do for themselves. To reclaim Mormonism.

I believe that this is nothing new. This is precisely what every generation has done and will do. I’ve been thinking about reclaiming Mormonism for some time now and I can trace some of those thoughts back to first reading Adam Miller’s Future Mormon: Essays in Mormon Theology in 2016. A quote from the introduction still resonates quite strongly with me:

“Every generation must work out their own salvation. Every generation must live its own lives and think its own thoughts and receive its own revelations. And, if Mormonism continues to matter, it will be because they, rather than leaving, were willing to be Mormon all over again. Like our grandparents, like our parents, and like us, they will have to rethink the whole tradition, from top to bottom, right from the beginning, and make it their own in order to embody Christ anew in this passing world. To the degree that we can help, our job is to model that work in love and then offer them the tools, the raw materials, and the room to do it themselves.”

Adam Miller, “Introduction: A Future Tense Apologetics,” Future Mormon: Essays in Mormon Theology, xii

We must work out our own salvation. Just like all the generations before. We must make Mormonism new. We must transform it so that it can transform us.

The most common critique of my position in and relationship to the Church as an institution is actually leveled at me from both ex- and post-Mormons and other critics, as well as those that have more traditional beliefs (for lack of a better descriptor)—that is, that Mormonism, or the Church, is not _________ (whatever I happen to be describing it as). Essentially, that I can’t make up what Mormonism is and that I have no authority to define it.

I respectfully disagree.

I am a Mormon. I may not have power to change what the Church as an institution does or teaches, but I have power over what I do and teach. Mormonism is far more than the institutional Church. And I have a say in what that is and means and can be. I want the Church, in the experience of those around me (I’m working on another piece on the Three Churches that elaborates on this, but essentially, my local congregation(s) and family and friends and others in a broader “Church” sense), to be better. To be safe for queer people, for those that doubt, for women, for single people, for those with progressive politics. These people will be in the pews and I cannot control everything, but I can do my part to make Mormonism for our generation something that better addresses these and other imperfections currently present.

Mormonism is all the good and bad of the Church. Mormonism is Tyler Glenn’s Excommunication, Imagine Dragons, Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, Utah granting women the right to vote in 1870 and refusing to ratify the ERA, the Bundys, the great work of Gina Colvin, Sistas in Zion, Sunstone, Dialogue, the on-again-off-again Student Review at BYU, the Osmonds, Gladys Knight, jello, funeral potatoes, settling much of the West, The Book of Mormon Musical, and Matt Page’s Mormon Saint candles that Cec and I use for Advent.   

And that’s just the beginning.

Mormonism is all truth. Wherever it is found. And continuing revelation. That’s far more expansive than I can really conceive of. That’s more than any single institution, no matter how good, can fully and consistently express.

I believe in the good of Mormonism. I believe in the promise of Mormonism. I believe in the past of Mormonism. I believe in the present of Mormonism. I believe in the future of Mormonism.

I’m under no illusion that the Mormonism that I believe is common or traditional or whatever. But it is still Mormon. I believe that I belong and have found myself largely accepted by my local community as I authentically express my own sorta fringey, strange way of believing.

As I continue to reclaim Mormonism, to find ways that it resonates with my life and to embody its principles and teachings and ideas in the ways that weave together in the most convincing and provocative and challenging ways for me, I have found my life enriched. During the darkest days and nights of my faith remodel, I wondered if Mormonism was worth saving. If there was anything there that I could make my own, that I could keep with me authentically as I strived to life the life of integrity that I’d been taught to prioritize by the Church and my family my entire life.

I found it by digging deeper into my Mormonism and unearthing the bits and foundations that speak the most to me. That “tastes good” as Joseph Smith would say. I am who I am because of my Mormonism and the ways that I have reclaimed it, not in spite of it.

I know that some have trauma and pain and suffering that is too inextricably tied to Mormonism to reclaim it. Don’t retraumatize yourself. Do what is best for you and let go of that which does harm. I’ll do my best to make space for you however you want space made and hope that you do the same for me.

Look, don’t let the institutional Church dictate how you Morm[on]. Every time someone insists that I can’t be Mormon, they are giving the institutional Church authority over what it means to be Mormon, authority that they don’t have a monopoly on. Mormonism is way more than them. (And they recently threw out the label “Mormon”, so it’s ours for the taking.) If you find value or promise or hope or something in Mormonism, however it is that YOU relate to it, take it. Claim it. Be a Mormon. Whatever that means to you.

I see so many friends longing for a space to be Mormon, but on their own terms. I, a fellow fringey, wanderer, universalist, postsecular, agnostic-adjacent, skeptic, believer, doubter Mormon, grant you permission to (re)claim your Mormonism. Whatever it looks like.

I claim:

  • The King Follett Sermon (THEOSIS?!?!?!? Hell Yeah)
  • The Book of Mormon (these stories will always be part of my scriptural foundation)
  • The Pearl of Great Price (God weeping over Creation is one of the most transcendent passages of scripture I’ve ever encountered)
  • “In Our Lovely Deseret” (a hymn that I unironically adore with ever fiber of my gosh darn being)
  • Continuing Revelation (few things give me more thrill than the belief that God is continually revealing and restoring His/Her/Their work and that I am a part of it)
  • Gods (Abraham talks about “Gods” doing the work of Creation and D&C explicitly describes Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as “Gods” and I’m all for a funky, mythic pantheon of Mormon Gods)
  • Kolob (I mean, if all the belief in Kolob gave us was “If You Could Hie to Kolob” it would be worth it, but it also embodies Mormonism’s insistence on wild, wacky material theology and the cosmic potential of Space Mormonism that I adore)
  • Funeral Potatoes (so damn good)
  • Feminism (the early Saints, and women throughout the Church’s history, have embodied ideas and principles of gender equality we associate with feminism. I’m under no illusions about the institutional Church’s shortcomings in this arena in the present and the past, but I find inspiration in the countless women that have lived marvelous lives within Mormonism)
  • Blending the Sacred and the Profane (Joseph Smith was a radical, an underappreciated one. Perhaps the most radical of all his teachings and revelations was the ways in which he tore down the barriers between our world and the Divine and insisted on blending them, mixing the Sacred and the Profane, insisting that God is like us and that we are like God, and I am constantly in awe of the reach of these ideas—that I am co-eternal with God, lending power to the notion that I should wrestle with God. I am often challenged by them as well, that all those I see around me are, too, co-eternal with God, that they have Divinity inherent in them)

You may (re)claim different parts of Mormonism. And I hope you do so. I attend weekly and in much of my practice am indistinguishable from other, more traditional believers because of how I want to participate within the institutional Church. You must make those choices on your own. What you (re)claim is up to you. But we must all be about the work of reclamation. As Adam said, “And, if Mormonism continues to matter, it will be because they, rather than leaving, were willing to be Mormon all over again.”

I am willing to be Mormon all over again and I hope that if you wish to be, you can find the space to do so too.