Your Sunday Brunch Special #9. The Joining of Faith and Intellect.

By the time I started to study with Paul Tillich, I had been told for several years that pietas and intellectus could not join. In fact, I had tried to convince everyone, including myself, of this. My experience confirmed it. My father, a generous, liberal, loving pastor who fought both fundamentalism and rationalism in his attempt to hold faith and reason together, died of cancer shortly before I started college. That was absurd. It reduced my mother, a schoolteacher and a pillar of integrity and good sense, to pious blubbering. Family friends, mostly clergy families, visited regularly and spoke soothing nonsense. They could not explain the justice or injustice of life. I have always believed since then that pastoralia is often a studied way of obscuring the big questions. In any case, the evidence was clear: one could be either a believer or intellectually honest. One could not be both.
– Max Stackhouse, emeritus professor of theology, Princeton Theological Seminary.

In confronting the absurd, or just a case of reality that seems perfectly orthogonal to expectation, faith may be a casualty. Death, particularly sudden death, is often a catalyst in those moments of world-cracking stress. Nearly a decade ago, my brother died. Faced with a return of mental illness in his immediate family, at least that was his diagnosis I think, he got drunk, pulled the pistol from under his truck seat and killed himself. My father, who was suffering with the beginnings of senile dementia, found this difficult to process. He asked me many times in the following two years if I had heard that my brother had died, and was it really true. Only a few years previous to this he lost his wife to Alzheimers. His world had changed over the course of five years from the normal winding down of old age with a comfortable home, a reliable car and caring neighbors and friends to a disabling heart attack, the death of his wife, the suicide of a son, all while slowly losing his own cognitive abilities and submerging into the frustration of his own fading memories.

I never spoke much with my father about his feelings over these events. It felt awkward and intrusive even though we shared sorrow and shock. I did know from his conversations during this period that his faith was tried. We have been counseled to be careful in asking why these kinds of events happen to us, as if “why me?” may exhibit a selfish, even shameful perspective. But it is instinctive to do so I think and not with some pampered petulance that deserves, even needs, disappointment. For many it is simply a necessary question to parse the meaning of their lives. These events may challenge our axioms of trust in God and Heaven, his fairness and his love. For Latter-day Saints this can be especially troubling because our faith is so substantial.[1] It is in the streamlines of Mormonism to see God’s love as a devoted Father’s love, an extension of that domestic heaven that branched boldly away from Puritan fears of avarice. Understanding how a God who is all that is good, better, best and more about the ideal mortal parent, can allow or stand by, while such pain and painful puzzling inflicts itself on a beloved(?) child — leads to the awful questions. Reason seems to rise up like a tidal wave of cold darkness. Your beliefs are proven wrong. God does not care for you. And if he does not, then he is not. Life is only a finite game full of disappointment and broken dreams, played out on an illusive and foggy field that obscures vast aloneness and an associated stark purposelessness, finally shrinking into nothingness.

Many people arrive at a crisis like this, if they bear the burden of a thoughtful passage in faith. To be sure, Mormonism’s ontology and cosmology push Latter-day Saints to different questions and answers than some others face, but those who fall from faith take various well-marked courses no matter what their initial conditions in that downward curving path. Some stay on as observers like Stackhouse, some disappear into different explanations of life. Still others experience that natural diminishing of intense tragedy as growing indifference and apathy, sometimes losing as they do, the capacity for empathy and even sympathy.

Exploring the meaning of tragedy can be dangerous to faith. Many run from the idea of pursuing the contradictions, hiding in the ignorance of ignorance, or so it may seem to outsiders and cynics. For some, what appears to be escape from reason is merely a manifestation of faith superceding logic, in words that cannot be spoken, like the supratemporal supercedes time in ancient theologies. Others face their dissonance with gusto, or at least earnestness — hopefully coming out with a more nuanced and evolved faith, perhaps accommodative in some ways, but interleaving reason and belief, painting a satisfying and skillful mural of kindness, humility and openness. The Church is filled with believing people of all degrees and strata, their faith trajectories passing along to the ends of their lives. I love being a part of that enterprise.

While I conducted my brother’s funeral, not in a church but a funeral chapel, I saw friends and acquaintances who came to remember him (my brother had little to do with Mormonism but there were many who had been the recipients of his sometimes shocking generosity). His children wept in their loss, surrounding their mother, supporting, evoking their own brand of comfort with the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” playing in the background, clinging to living relations but not with that hope I see in the typical Mormon service, which reaches out to the framework of eternal Christ, eternal family, eternal life, eternal friendship and connection. Our shared past, with its links of friable memories and fading images, called to us, but in that room, full of good will, I thought that few visioned forward/future meetings illustrated and promised so grandly in Latter-day statements and revelations like D&C 130, 137 and others.

Life may be a dream, but if it is, death is not the end of the dream. It can be, I think, a moment of clarity and beauty. Of clearing skies and sun following a warm brief rain on green lawns, bounded by trees that shade the weary — beauty, seen by real beings strolling through halls of glory. Metaphor? Possibly. But real nonetheless.

——————–
[1] I refer to our traditions on the literal and very physical continuity of life.

Comments

  1. Oh, WVS, thank you for this, for reasons I don’t want to say publicly. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for this. I am facing this crisis of faith myself because of my wife’s death. Today marks ten months since she died, and the only meeting I plan to attend today is Primary, because I am the pianist and our ward has no other options. I can’t abandon the kids.

  3. You’re welcome. And Eric, I’m glad your ward is understaffed.

  4. I hadn’t seen that Maxwell talk before, thanks for the link and comments

  5. Mark Brown says:

    WVS,

    Thank you for all this. I found it very meaningful.

  6. Jeff Collins says:

    Thank you for your thought provoking post. I hope you write again. You seem able to articulate what many of us feel but cannot crystalize into formal thought or written word.

  7. Your Oldest Child says:

    Dad,
    I loved all of this, but this is my favorite part… “Life may be a dream, but if it is, death is not the end of the dream. It can be, I think, a moment of clarity and beauty. Of clearing skies and sun following a warm brief rain on green lawns, bounded by trees that shade the weary — beauty, seen by real beings strolling through halls of glory. Metaphor? Possibly. But real nonetheless.” Because I have felt that, too, even in the struggling.

  8. Since humanity came into being, man hath enjoyed himself too little: that alone, my brethren, is our original sin! And when we learn better to enjoy ourselves, then do we unlearn best to give pain unto others, and to contrive pain. Therefore do I wash the hand that hath helped the sufferer; therefore do I wipe also my soul. For in seeing the sufferer suffering–thereof was I ashamed on account of his shame; and in helping him, sorely did I wound his pride… Thus spake the devil unto me, once on a time: ‘Even God hath his hell: it is his love for man.’ And lately, did I hear him say these words: ‘God is dead: of his pity for man hath God died.’ — So be ye warned against pity: FROM THENCE there yet cometh unto men a heavy cloud! Verily, I understand weather-signs! But attend also to this word: All great love is above all its pity: for it seeketh — to create what is loved!
    — Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, ch. 25

    WVS, thank you for your perspectives. Myself, whenever I have glimpsed God, I have found that He is laughing. And it fills me with joy, and makes me wonder why we often devote ourselves to remembering Him dying, and forget that today He is laughing.

  9. christer1979 says:

    This was SO MUCH MORE HONEST than my Relief Society lesson on overcoming trials. Yes, there is power in accepting God’s will–but not in assuming your rape, infertility, mass starvation, etc. were ever His will to begin with (the unintended logical ramification of those words of so-called comfort). There is power in looking to learn, in trying to see trials as an element of being tested in this life, in growing through them and really living the gospel. But when you give people these hard-earned truths too soon, they come across like soulless platitudes. I’m convinced we must acknowledge the pain of tragedy before we try to patch it up. Process grief so it doesn’t eat us alive while we mumble things like, “I’m sure there’s a life lesson in here somewhere.”

  10. Potent stuff, WVS. And greatly appreciated.

  11. #9:christer1979,
    “I’m convinced we must acknowledge the pain of tragedy before we try to patch it up”.
    I don’t know how I would feel human if I did not do this.

  12. Thanks so much for this, WVS. (and Christer1979) I think when we are faced with someone’s grief or pain, we should NEVER hide behind those useless platitudes. For me personally, when I dealt with my father’s suffering and death, I would have punched someone who said “It’s God’s will.” Maybe so, death is certainly part of this life. But to tell someone that the Being, who is supposed to love us, wills us heart-wrenching pain?? Not so much. Why would anyone “need” to hear that? In my work as a nurse, I have dealt with grief and/or death on numerous occasions with patients and families. Really the kindest thing is to say, “I’m sorry.”–sorry for your pain, sorry for your loss, sorry for your trial. What someone in those circumstances needs is someone who allows them to express their pain, someone who sympathizes/empathizes, or is even willing to cry with them. They dont need someone to try to “solve” their pain/problem for them with words, well-meaning as they might be. When my dad died, one of the most therapeutic interactions i had was when the deaf wife of my dad’s oldest friend walked up to me with tears in her eyes and wrapped her arms around me. Not a word was said.

  13. Beautiful!

  14. This topic is beautifully depicted in the movie The Shawdowlands where CS Lewis (played by Anothy Hopkins) learns that there really is nothing to say in those moments, and the pleasantries and rationalizations will not due. I believe he comes to learn that the best we can do is to be there for others, to seek to comfort them, as his does in the final moments of the film he connects with Douglas, Joy’s son, who he has been unable to “see” because of his own pain. I like to think that in the final moments of the film, where Lewis’ voice over is heard, it can be applied to not only to his life with Joy but also to Douglas: “Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers any more. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”

  15. it's a series of tubes says:

    Carey, that scene was exactly what came to my mind as well. Thanks for sharing.

  16. WVS, thanks, this is timely. and beautiful.

  17. Thanks all, and you are welcome.

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