Monday, February 24, 2014

On Faith: or Why I Still Believe in Spite (or because) of Receiving a Liberal Education.

Let's be honest with one another, dear reader. In the following essay, I will be writing about my own faith and convictions. I understand that many who read this will have already left behind the beliefs and practices which I hold dear and true, and if this is you, I want you to know that I love you and hold no ill will nor judgment of any kind. At the same time, I would be dishonest if I did not acknowledge that I write this with a hope that all who read, including those who have lost faith, may feel a rekindling of spirit in one way or another. Simply put, this is a testimony and an invitation. If you find my words unpalatable, I simply ask that you recognize that I come in peace.

I was born into a faithful, practicing family of Latter-day Saints. Growing up, I learned to love every aspect of my religion. Religion, for me, was a great quest which offered untold rewards for those who were diligent. I occasionally stumbled in my quest, seeking siren songs instead of saintliness, but in most things, I was diligent, and my faith was unshaken.

If I were to describe this young faith, I would say that it was a fiery certainty of right and wrong. There was no gray and no doubt in this faith of mine. The whole world was divided between good and evil, and my confidence in telling them apart could not have been more sure. Not coincidentally, I learned at this time that such a faith can place a painful wedge between saints and sinners. Although I drew many people to me through my faith, I also drove many others away. This was my first awakening.

As an LDS missionary, my faith triumphed and was tested in more ways than I can adequately describe. Living among sinners whom I was also commanded to love and serve, I became keenly aware of the difficulties in deciphering good from evil. Questions concerning the meaning and practice of obedience entered my mind. Does one live the spirit or the letter of the law? What is the importance of obedience? What does it mean to “obey with exactness?” In spite of questions, I remained unquestioningly obedient and faithful to the calling I had received.

After my mission, I returned to the University and began studying the wisdom of men in earnest. I learned to think critically and reason through philosophical questions. I became more aware of the seemingly arbitrariness of human suffering in the world. In time, I turned my critical edge toward my religion, and I began to pick apart and criticize the practices that seemed to me, in some way, violent or unnecessary. For the first time in my life, I began to feel alienated from the church of my youth.

At church on Sundays, the simple practices of simple people, which once brought me joy and wholeness, made me feel annoyed and alone. The church to me seemed to be full of so many haughty and smug pigs, engorging themselves on the surety of their own righteousness. Hearing the testimonies of others was the hardest of all. I secretly began to loathe those to whom I referred as “brothers” and “sisters.” This was my darkest point.

Despite my troubling thoughts and feelings, I never lost faith in the promises of testimony and wholeness. I did, on occasion, feel tempted to rewrite in secular terms my history of spiritual experiences and miracles, but I doubted the phenomenological accuracy of such revisions. Although my spirit was troubled, I never completely doubted religious truth as its most basic level as I had experienced it. To doubt my past experiences would have been, for me, the greater lie. I could not justify a complete withdrawal from religious life, because I could not deny that I had witnessed miracles and felt things unique to my religious experience.

I was thus in a difficult position. I still believed in my religion, but I found the church unpalatable in many ways. A song lyric captured my sentiment: “I hummed the 'Dies Irae' as you played the Hallelujah.” My faith was weak because I saw nothing but sorrow and death and pride and ignorance.

Gradually, things began to change for me. My emergence from isolation came when I figuratively “beat swords into plowshares.” I learned that my education was a box of tools to be fashioned and used however I saw fit. I turned away from critique and judgment, and I applied myself to studying the Gospel of Jesus Christ. During this time, I left aside all of the ill feelings I had harbored toward others in my church, and I focused specifically on my relation with my God.

In this time of study and meditation, my faith was rebuilt in a more stable, humble, loving form. On one hand, I saw more clearly than ever before the love of God for his children. On the other hand, I recognized with greater acuity the breadth of mysteries for which I had no satisfying answer. I felt like the prophet Nephi who said, “I know that [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” I took comfort in the example of Mary, who, although she did not understand the meaning of all the things she witnessed, “kept these things in her heart.” I sincerely believed in God's words that, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Also at this time, I saw more clearly the vision of Zion. I understood that Zion could only be built on unrestrained love and understanding, rather than careful judgment and critique. I knew that truly becoming like Christ would require the abandonment of all resentments and feelings of superiority. Mocking would need to be replaced with reverence. I could not change others, but I could purify my own heart, and then others would see and feel and desire to change. I can say now that this is real. This is the most powerful kind of sermon. I've seen it happen.

And so here I am today. I still sorrow for the suffering of the world and the imperfections of my church, but rather than jumping ship, I chose to embrace the gifts I have received – scriptures, covenants, prayer, communion, intellect – and become the disciple my religion deserves. Of course, choosing a path does not mean that I have “made it.” I have my struggles, but I also have my convictions. I simply cannot deny that when I humbly, sincerely, seek the Lord, I find him and feel his love. I still cry for the evil and violence in the world and I hope that we as Christians will more fully live up to our prime exemplar, but I recognize that all is not evil here; our challenge in the world is not to find Zion and unite ourselves with it, but to build it from the ground up, starting with ourselves. We have a long ways to go as a people, but I still believe in Zion. I have caught glimpses of its shadows, and for me, that is enough. I will work for this cause all my life.

For further reading, look up the speech “Love Is Not Blind.”