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. 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.
 I refer to our traditions on the literal and very physical continuity of life.