[Cross-posted to In Medias Res.]
So, today is Whitsunday on the Christian liturgical calendar, a holiday in honor of the Day of Pentecost. Pretty much exactly four years ago, I wrote something about the gifts demonstrated on that day, and about those–-decidedly less spectacular–-gifts which I like to believe (or just want to believe) I have. I’m somewhat proud of it; I think it is one of the more honest things I’ve ever written about myself. So I’m reposting it, with a few changes, here. (You might want to check out the comments on the original post, if you’re interested.) Whitsunday is a commemoration of the spiritual gifts bestowed upon the early disciples on Pentecost. Acts 2:2-4 (KJV): “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And there were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
I have never personally experienced anything remotely like this, or indeed, remotely like any of the spiritual gifts promised to the faithful by Paul or Moroni. I have never seen or been party to a healing that struck me as having anything miraculous about it. I have never prophesied, nor directly witnessed the fulfilling of a prophecy. I have never seen an angel, discerned spirits, or spoken in tongues. With only a very few and very small exceptions, mine has not been a life graced, so far as I know (or so far as my own pride and sins allow me to recognize), with spiritual guidance, revelation, confirmation, or testimony.
Yet I know I have been given one spiritual gift, or perhaps two (they’re related, I believe). My patriarchal blessing describes it as a gift of wisdom, but to me the truer description of my gift comes a couple of verses earlier: while to some it is given to know “that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world,” it is my lot, I think, to rather believe the words of those who have that knowledge, even if it is not something I’ll ever be blessed with myself.
I am, in short, a believer, not a knower. While I have never seen with my own eyes evidence of any of the aforementioned, more spectacular spiritual gifts, and while I am often critical of accounts of such, I do not fundamentally doubt any of them. I’ve tried the existential, atheistic route, and it was a failure: I simply couldn’t pretend to myself that I didn’t believe, that I didn’t suffer from a sehnsucht or longing for that which I felt was plainly there, despite my inability to actually apprehend any of it. In short, certainty eludes me, but credibility comes easily. I would be lying if I said I knew where the power of God resides in this world, but I do not think I have ever doubted that it is residing somewhere…and when I see men and women whom I know to be good and loving and intelligent people testify that they have found God through Christ’s grace, through the Bible and the Book of Mormon, through service in my church, I can see no reason to dispute them. I believe them: I believe the words of my father, my wife, and so many teachers and neighbors and friends that I have been blessed with. While I don’t have within me any great, foundational conviction or sure knowledge that they are all right, it also doesn’t strike as at all plausible that they are all wrong.
What I’m describing here probably sounds somewhat indiscriminate, and of course it is to a degree. I believe in lots of things (like Santa Claus, for instance), as I tend to think it reasonable to not discount the possibility that truth and beauty and God’s power may dwell within practically all things. (Which makes me into a kind of panentheist, I know.) But I’m also a debater and a doubter. Is that contradictory? I don’t think so–I think that a willingness to Socratically struggle (with oneself and with others) over what reality and wisdom really are, even if (perhaps especially if) you never feel as though you have arrived at a conclusion as to what that reality is, is a sine qua non of belief. Socrates was no sophist: he was a realist, in the sense that he never appeared to feel that there wasn’t something real to all this talk about justice and virtue and wisdom, even if he could never articulate it with certainty (indeed, even if, as was recorded, the most he was ever sure of was that he “knew nothing”). Socrates spoke of his daimon; we might speak of a sort of holistic intuition, or to borrow from the German romantic tradition, of Verstehen. When describing King Solomon’s wisdom, the Old Testament record curiously speaks of not only his knowledge, but of his “largeness of heart”–which I take to mean not simply his sympathy for others’ claims, but his capacity to believe what it was they said.
The fact that I can get all philosophical about what it is that I suspect is my most fundamental spiritual condition shouldn’t be taken to mean that I consider it to be an excellent one, as I don’t. Frankly, I’d much rather have conviction. I’d like to be able to speak with certainty about this thing that I did and these words which I spoke and this miracle which I witnessed. Being critical is often a drag, especially when one’s criticism always ends up becoming self-criticism. (“You say you doubt that’s true, but don’t you also doubt your doubts?”) It can be a very effective tool in polemical settings, but talking about deep yet inarticulate feelings by way of what you doubt you have any good reason not to believe (“I’ve never felt inclined to discount the very real possibility that the leaders of the Mormon church may well sometimes receive direct revelation from God,” etc., etc.) really kind of stinks as far as bearing testimony and witnessing ones faith goes. So I still pray for confirmation and revelation, though admittedly far less often than I used to. For now however, reflecting upon those I’ve known whose lack of conviction has led them anyway from the church, and thinking about how much my children need to see their parents grounded in something, I treasure the fact that somehow or another I am yet gifted to be bound by naive belief to the gospel of Christ.
In fact naivete, properly understood, is probably the best way to think about this. Paul Ricoeur described it (in The Symbolism of Evil ) as a “second naivete,” one which calls us across the “desert of criticism” and makes possible a certain kind of belief or intuition of the reality of the sacred. To Ricoeur such naivete was a function of hermeneutics–but then hermeneutics was originally a theological (indeed a pneumatological) endeavor, concerned with the role of spirit, or spirits, in the text or symbol or world. While I realize that it is dangerous to wish for things–as you may get what you desire–I still wish that I could be one of those who see and feel, with great immediacy, as did the early apostles, the gifts of the spirit. But in any case, on this Whitsunday, I’m grateful that I at least believe that such things are there.