The Silent “and…”

Digging up the root of my confusion,
if no one planted it, how does it grow?
And why are some hell-bent upon there being an answer
while some are quite content to answer “I don’t know”?

–David Bazan

I’m conflicted about an aspect of our faith which stretches back into the fuzzy past and seems to be reaching through our future. If anything, Mormonism has had a strong confidence, even outright pride, in knowing God. Who God is, what God does, our relation to God then now and always. In our more polemical moments, church leaders have even ridiculed the God of the creeds; a God without body, parts, or passions is simply a God “without”– a nothing. Our philosophers have dissected the “omni” God as impassible and thus impersonal, incapable of being moved by our troubles or pleased by our happiness. Mormons have (sometimes confidently and sometimes not) described God as embodied. God is one who took upon flesh and lived and suffered and died. In this we join with broader Christianity, although others restrict this embodiment to the Incarnation, to the person of Jesus Christ while Mormons typically include God the Father in this same category of embodied beings. And we’re comforted to proclaim and to believe that we “know God, and Jesus Christ” who he sent because such knowledge is “eternal life” (John 17:3). But I’ve never seen God, though I’ve felt that I’ve seen the works of God’s hands. And I’ve never heard God’s voice, not audibly at least, as far as I know, though I’ve felt God’s guidance and comfort, sometimes rebuke, at times in my life. But I’ve also sensed God’s absence.

Given our confidence in knowing God, it isn’t surprising that Mormons haven’t made much use of “apophatic theology.” In this approach to knowing God, the believer recognizes her fallibility and finitude compared to God’s perfection and infinitude. She does “negative theology,” she believes in God, but she emphasizes the unknowability of God. Her limited mind can’t grasp an unlimited God, she can’t say what God is and must confine herself to declaring what God isn’t. To some believers, such an approach seems like unnecessary resignation. It’s even been called “metaphysical false modesty”– after all, such negative assertions don’t escape our human finitude any more than our positive assertions do (58). Still others have recommended it as a first step in order to clear the mind of false conceptions and begin faith in God anew. And of course, there’s Kierkegaard: “May we be preserved from the blasphemy of men who ‘without being terrified and afraid in the presence of God…without the trembling which is the first requirement of adoration…hope to have direct knowledge'” (quoted in John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist, 69).

Leaving aside the problem of knowing exactly who God is, there’s the pressing problem of knowing what God wants. An appeal to apophatic theology here would seem to be impossible for Mormons given our strong emphasis on works. (Although our lists of stuff we aren’t supposed to do might come to mind quicker than the lists of stuff we are supposed to do. Apophatic orthopraxis?) Some theologians express fears that apophatic theology applied to human action can lead to the justification of any sort of action or inaction in God’s name. Saying “I don’t know” can excuse me from working for something God might want me to work for, but I’m trapped in my finitude, offering resignation rather than putting my shoulder to the wheel.

The point is, in the process of seeking a rational faith we’re certain to run into some walls, certain to feel the press of mortality on our hearts, certain to sense our prayers bouncing off a dark ceiling in the middle of some God-forsaken night and perhaps wonder if anyone’s really listening. Especially in those moments, I hope we still hope. Negative theology, a leap of faith, can just as easily resign us to something less than what God hopes for us, something less than what we’re capable of, avoiding an action which we fear might carry too heavy a consequence. Still, there are mists of darkness. Perhaps there’s room in our doctrine, in our “probationary state,” for periods of apophatic theology. I’m not brave enough (weak enough? No…I’ll go with “steady enough”) to build a home there, but maybe I’d dwell in a tent for a time.

An angel asked Nephi, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” And I said unto him, “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:16-17). We have/seek answers. Our testimonies would each contain a “Right now I hope…” at the start, and always conclude with the silent “and…”

Comments

  1. Thanks for reminding me again of 1 Nephi 11, John C.

  2. Amen.

  3. Faith and hope. If we set up an image of God which is too much like us, it will fail to sustain us in moments when we’re barely managing to hold on. At our hardest junctures, our most indispensible doctrine is just what you’ve quoted: “I know that God loves his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.”
    Thanks, BH.

  4. I really like the way you describe things here. And I love the humble reminder of just how much we *don’t* know. I feel that quite often. And it’s all good.

  5. I love the concept of the silent “and”.

    Thanks, as always, for sharing your thoughts with us.

  6. I suppose it is sometimes necessary to kick a sleeping dog. But one is never sure of the consequences. I am still trying to figure out if taking the red pill was a better choice that taking the blue pill. (“You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.” I am not so sure that believing what you want to believe is *all* bad.

    A few months ago, our home teachers were asking me, basically, why I am the way I am. I was feeling a little bit ornery, and shared some of the things that I struggle with. He said, “I don’t want to hear this.” I apologized, and wondered who is better off, he or me?

  7. This scripture always reminds me of Neal A. Maxwell.

  8. CEF, wow. I understand. I occasionally look at the doubtless, at the True Believers, and think “They really do seem happy.” It must be incredibly comforting to really believe in one’s philosophy, to have so few doubts (and I say this in reference to True Believers of any stripe, not just Mormons). I mean, I can’t tell you how many hours I have devoted to thinking and reading and sussing through both my doubts and my certainties. At times they are stone, but much more often they are sand. I’m not unhappy in my current state, in fact I can honestly say I’m blessed and 80% happy, if not a bit more. But at those times when my doubts surround me like a gang of ninjas in a dark alley, True Believing sure looks good.

  9. Re: the “doubtless”. It doesn’t look as desirable to me as it used to. I can’t imagine standing before my Creator & saying, “I just did whatever my leaders told me to do. I shut my brain off (& I think this somewhat shuts our hearts too) and never questioned anything.”
    I can’t imagine a loving, all-knowing God wanting us to do this. Faith ought to be a struggle, in my opinion. A deep and deeply personal plumbing to the depths of our souls.
    A philosopher (LDS) put it this way: “I am convinced that the Gospel is so rich that all attempts to reduce it to a system must fail. For it is reality itself, seen through the pure eyes of our God, and transmitted to us in language that we can understand, in pieces that we can handle.”

  10. a few random thoughts that occurred to me while getting groceries, I’ll put them here for future reference. It seems to me there are people who believe a due measure of humility is required in the things we claim to know. We’ve been wrong about things, we’re infallible. Some would even take this to the point of saying it’s dangerous to feel you’ve arrived at knowledge. But when does that warning turn into a metaphysical dog-in-the-manger attitude which in itself discourages searching for more? And I see an important relationship between the things we do and the things we believe, so it can’t simply be pushed aside by appeals to orthopraxy over orthodoxy.

  11. Blair, I’ve been thinking about this much of late. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more certain that I really don’t understand anything at all about God. When I was a missionary, I understood Him very clearly (He was very much like my mission president, rich and successful and demanding of perfection). I’ve come to see some things more clearly like His unconditional love. But beyond that I’m less certain. I am, however, finding that kind of uncertainty more profound and meaningful than certainty ever was.

  12. Excellent thoughts, Blair.

  13. SteveP (#11)
    You and I could have certainly been involved in the Vulcan Mind Meld. 100% spot on the way I feel.
    BHodges (#10)
    “Too much” humility regarding any subject and I think especially theological knowledge, will almost

    certainly lead straight to Christ. No need to pass Go or collect $200. Thank you for such a thoughtful post.

    Too much humility regarding any subject; alleged theological knowledge

  14. My disjointed attempt from the Droid. Sorry.

  15. Adam Miller says:

    Thanks, Blair. I’m reminded of a passage in Pierre Hadot’s “Philosophy as a Way of Life” (highly recommended) I came across yesterday. It went something like: true negative theology only ever follows mystical union with God, it’s not a method for inducing it. The upshot being something like: negative theology isn’t a mode of discourse we use to cover over our lack of contact with God, but a mode of discourse that is more and more forced upon us by the depth of our connection with him.

  16. StillConfused says:

    Thanks for this post. I have never felt that God has a body. It just didn’t “work” for me. Way too limiting. I have always viewed God as energy. “We are all created in God’s image because we are energy” kind of a thing. Of course, this kind of thinking put me in the Neo-pagan category of the online what-religion-are-you quiz. But I am way to old to pretend to be something I am not. So I just roll with my belief system.

  17. I am in somewhat of a funky mood today, so I am going to be a little bit more bold than I usually wish to be. Thank goodness I just reread that first line and decided the time to be more bold is *not* when I am in a funky mood. So I will just say that I too found Blair’s #10 to be something that I find comfort in.

  18. I might be over thinking it, but I’m not sure that I get the silent “and” thing. Otherwise, I like the sentiments in the essay.

  19. Thanks John. Basically, the silent “and” represents my desire (or the fact that in some ways I’m compelled) to be open to future possibilities, perspectives, or “further light and knowledge” to use a Mormon phrase. Basically my testimony is bracketed by my acknowledgement that my perspective is limited so I walk by faith, and I hope for more to come. The “and” could also fill in for all the elements of my faith that I just can’t utter, can’t find words for, and all the things that I might have forgotten about.

    Thanks for all the other comments, too, y’all, giving me more food for thought on this.

  20. Thank you. That is what I was thinking, but then started to over think it. Anyway, I enjoyed your thoughts and feel they represent my own in many ways. Mormonism tends to frown upon mystery in favor of definitive answers and certain knowledge. To me, there can be a sense of holiness in mystery, not a resignation of “who knows?” Indeed, there have been times when a profound sense of the mystery of God has moved me as much or more than the traditional (Mormon) experience of burning-bosom testimony. Both are legitimate, but mystery is by far the less valued, culturally.

  21. Well spoken, John. Like you, I’m not interested in mystery for the sake of mystery and I’m not trying to manufacture some sort of mystery in order to ape a spiritual experience, I’m just expressing something that I’ve personally noticed, and something which I think our current culture doesn’t value as highly as other types of spiritual experiences, as you noted.

  22. I think what you guys are talking about … the feeling of mystery … I would just call numinosity. And I don’t think numinosity is dispelled by knowledge.

  23. No, but what can dispel numinosity is the insistence that God is a man, a loving father with beard and a certain height, and that he’s really smart and really powerful. And that’s who God is.

    I have no problem with the idea that we can come to know God eventually; I do have a problem with the idea we can understand God in this life and that the First Vision or King Follet settles the question of God’s identity. I’m also not sure that the First Vision helps us understand God much better than, say, the Catholics. But I’m a little on the fringe in that regard.

  24. John L, I disagree completely. God is a man and a loving father. I’m unsure whether he has a beard, but I’m sure He does have a height. If I were to wager, I’d say about 6’5″. “If a man doesn’t understand God, he doesn’t understand himself.” – Jospeh Smith

    What destroys numinosity is our low grade, rather thuggish dogmatism, and our attempts to manage our way into spirituality.

  25. Thomas, I believe God has a body, but I don’t currently believe that God is just a body, or that pointing to his embodiment solves all of the riddles of his past, present, future, power, and knowledge.

  26. Bro Hodges,

    What do you mean “just a body”? After all, we are not “just a body”, either. I don’t believe that anything we can do short of figuring out how to get God to speak to us directly and seeing for ourselves will solve any riddles – what I am riddling out, all the time, is how to get God speaking to me, or how to keep God speaking to me.

  27. Thomas, check out this paper from Jim Faulconer for instance:

    http://www.smpt.org/docs/faulconer_element1-1.html

  28. I scanned the Faulconer bit, Blair. He seems to come to the same conclusions I come to – that whatever differences exist between divine bodies and our bodies, the only way to think about God’s embodiment is the way we think about our own. There are a number of passages in there that I really want to cheer.

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