Review of “The God Who Weeps,” Part 1: The Longing Soul

The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life, Introduction, pp. 1-7. 

Summary:

However much we study and investigate and explore and sing and paint and write the world, the world always transcends us, escapes us, overwhelms us. No one person, group, or institution can tell the whole story or encapsulate the entire human landscape. This is, in part, because of the infinitely complex creatures we are as human beings; where we seek clarity about the world and feel comfort in the ordinariness we experience, borne out of long familiarity with the microcosmic slivers of it that we call home, this eventually gives way to awe in the face of its vast mystery and wonder. But this, in turn, is short-lived and we are hungry again for clarity and the intimacy of the familiar. Never fully content with what we have received, our souls are in a constant state of longing.

Born into a secular society, we quickly become aware of the stark tensions between faith and reason. However, we must admit, in the end, that ultimately we rely on faith in order to make sense of the world, whether God plays a significant role or is completely absent. The values and meanings we imbue on the world are themselves acts of faith; the world gives us a superabundant amount of material with which to work, but we must do the work of its arrangement, and how we arrange these materials into patterns that make sense to us and resonate with the deepest longings of our hearts is a function of faithful reasoning that is not inherent in the materials themselves. We must do the work of making truth out of the substance of the universe. 

Some appear to have been given the gift of a kind of effortless, all-encompassing faith–Protestant theologian Paul Tillich seemed to recognize these persons when he wrote,

Religion does not allow a person to be also religious; in fact, it does not grant that a person is “religious” at all. It tolerates no co-ordination of the functions, even the hierarchical form in which religion stands at the top. It is, rather, a consuming fire over against every autonomous function of the human spirit. He who would seek a religious a priori must be aware that all other a priori’s thereby sink into the abyss. The concept of religion, however, knows nothing of this.

Nevertheless, this “consuming fire,” where faith totalizes the life of the believer in such a way seems to be rare. God gave us the intellectual faculties for a reason (pun intended). God expects us to use these faculties, and faith thus becomes a way of seeking resonance with “values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true and which we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true (4).” Belief, then, becomes a tangible, morally significant choice: the grounds for doubting and believing are persuasive and authentic, in order that the choices we make be more fully representative of who we are and what we love. This life, in fact, might be seen as God’s ultimate gift of (self) revelation: that we make our home in a place far from God’s overt presence in order to learn more fully who we really are and what we really desire. Choosing belief, then, does the work of this self-revealing. 

Much of this I find appealing and refreshing, particularly this notion of being co-makers of the meanings and truths that inform our lives. I wonder, though, whether one can will to believe, any more or less than one can will to doubt. I think it more accurate to say, following philosopher of religion Louis Pojman, that belief is more a “feeling of conviction about a non-volitional event,” where “volitional” means the power of using or enacting one’s will. Conversely, concerning doubt, one might say that doubt is the lack of conviction about a non-volitional event.  In other words, belief or non-belief is not something you enact, or will; it is something you find yourself in the midst of. I always already find myself in a state of belief or unbelief, no matter how I might desire it to be otherwise. If I do not believe in a particular proposition or event, in a particular political ideology or philosophy, I cannot simply will myself to do otherwise. Beliefs are “mappings in the mind by which we steer our lives…when a person acquires a belief, the world forces itself upon him.” Even if some beliefs can be willed, beliefs are just about the way the world is and are made true or false depending on the way the world actually is. Thus, a given belief is not true merely because we will it. On the other hand, as Pojman points out, acceptance is another matter entirely. I might accept what I don’t believe and I might believe what I don’t accept. “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.” Faith seems to be a deep kind of acceptance, a realization that those things that configure our beliefs–the objects and people and propositions that constitute our world–demand a certain kind of response. Here, then, is where we find ourselves needing and able to act, where we demonstrate and reveal what we desire to be faithful to–not by choosing what we believe but by responding in a particular way to what we believe. This kind of potential faithful commitment to what calls us (and what calls to us are the things and people in our world that surround us and have a claim upon us) is not possible without hope. Faith and hope, in fact, are inextricably entangled.

Hope is a particular kind of faithful acceptance of possibility and promise. It entails a kind of uncertainty about the world and the possibilities inherent in both what you cannot will yourself to believe and what you believe, because it assures you that the world can be otherwise than you understand it to be, for the religious and the atheistic alike. For everyone. That the world is inherently uncertain is, as the Givens point out, part of the fundamental structure of the vast mysterious universe. Hope eschews certainty because to be unconditionally certain about something is to delimit the very possibilities inherent in the nature of the thing one is certain about, to encase it in stone and not allow it to be able to change our perceptions about it. In certainty, we will to master and have total control over the thing which we are certain about. The language of faith and hope is not certainty, but fidelity and response, a recognition of the givenness of our world (that all these things have been given by another and we can do nothing but respond to them in particular ways).

Hope, unlike belief, is volitional, and therefore subject to moral assessment. “If ye have no hope ye must needs be in despair; and despair cometh because of iniquity” (Moroni 10:22). It involves willful desire to be able to see what one has not yet seen (knowing that learning to see is a lesson that must be learned and a skill that must be acquired over and over again). Because it is so concerned not with the way things are, but with the way things could be, hope allows us to faithfully question ourselves and the world around us in a way that invites real religious doubt–not about the existence of God or gold plates or the possibility of miracles, but, as Adam Miller writes, “doubt about me, about my actions, about their justification, about my grasp of the world, about my adequacy and sufficiency, about my comfort and my consumption, about my faithfulness or lack thereof. This great doubt pulls my self-understanding up by the roots and, with a wild swing, shakes loose the dirt.” In this kind of doubt, then, I do not find or lose faith; I encounter hope. And it is hope that gives my acts of faith–that which the Givens sagaciously point out does the work of arranging and assembling the materials of the world into meaningful patterns–the liberating possibilities that allow belief and doubt to manifest themselves in redemptive ways, ways that speak to the deepest longings of the soul.

Comments

  1. Belief or non-belief is not something you enact, or will; it is something you find yourself in the midst of.

    This, I believe.

    And this:

    On subjects of which we know nothing, we both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble. — Emily Dickinson

    It’s kinda freaky when I consider how un-solid even the solid things in my belief system are. It’s like realizing that mass is primarily unfilled space used as a hamster wheel for whizzing electrons.

  2. I finished feeling like, where did the other half of the post go? Did Jacob forget to cut and paste the other half? ;-)

    I see the opening as a place the authors are in I ting us to check the battery packs and oxygen tanks on our space suits, before we walk into an alien, and familiar, world of belief, doubt, and whirling beauty.

  3. Not sure about the belief thing (grin). There have been times when I felt on the knife edge. I made the conscious choice to believe (or not) or so it seems to me. I think many hypotheses are untestable in any final way, but yet seem to me to merit belief (or not). Thanks for this Jacob.

  4. I guess you point out the crux of our (probably minor) disagreement, Bill. You say you more or less that with some things you force yourself to believe, whereas I say that what one is doing in those situations is exercising hope:)

  5. Jacob, this was wonderful. Thank you. Believe seems in someways to be almost an epiphenomenon in that, as you point out, it cannot be forced. When presented with something that requires I take a stance on its truthfulness, it never feels like a decision in the sense of being willed. It seems to follow. I know I can affect beliefs by gathering more evidence or reconsidering arguments, but when the belief switch is flipped it seems to follow as some sort of event that follows the weighting I’ve given to a presentation of facts and reason. Beliefs can change, but the way I stand before a collection of information seems to jump into my head as a quantum of belief or doubt or as a suspension of either and both in a feeling of uncertainty. But actual belief and doubt appear at some point such that as you say I can believe things I don’t want to and doubt things I want to believe.

  6. I think belief can be willed, or at least attempted. I know that doubt can be willed, and ought to be. I have a bit of mistrust of for any project that involves creating meaning (or identity). My attempts at that have always veered into places I’d never have intended.

  7. Yes, as reflected in the post, I do see how people will themselves into belief or doubt. There is falsity about that, it seems to me. Pascal’s Wager is vacuous precisely for this reason, also reflected in the Christian tradition’s insistence on the centrality of propositional belief as a requirement for salvation. I find that I believe this or that and doubt this or that, but faith is rewuired long after even belief is settled. And hope seems to be scripturally requisite. You still must attend to the truths and the world that calls to you, and it is living inauthentically with regard to these that is the true falsity.

  8. jacobaker says:

    Oops, I do NOT see.

  9. Whenever we choose to act on a principle, we are choosing to exercise faith. I think I’d follow pretty closely Alma, who says try an experiment on my words. We may not have generated the idea on which we are exercising faith ourselves – it may come to us from who knows where. But even in consideration and pondering alone we are altering and therefore choosing so some greater or lesser extent the grounds on which our faith rests. This whole thing … sure, sometimes we may surprise our self with a discovery that we have faith or doubt concerning some idea. That is hardly the end of it.

  10. It’s all so passive and religious. Not my thing.

  11. If someone comes on here and says … faith happens to you. Well, that’s an idea. I’m capable of taking it up, trying it on, seeing where it might fit here, there, contemplating what I should keep, what give away. Perhaps I reject it now and accept it, in part or in full, at a later time. But, I gotta say, in all of this that I’ve done, or tried to do, even in a few minutes, I have already done quite a bit to the idea that faith is something that happens to me, or that I do not choose my beliefs.

  12. I’m not trying to come after you here, Jacob. I wouldn’t call it out, at all, except that I respect and consider what you have said, the way you’ve said it, and am aware of your ability to say more. And I think you’re wrong at a couple key points, and those are points that I feel quite passionate about. There is a field here on which Mormonism is being negotiated … and I don’t want to cede that field. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t like the players who are playing. I am not personally offended, nor do I think badly – at all – of someone for holding passionately a view that I’m not completely down with.

  13. It is complicated. I am moved to tears, often, by circumstances, by even the desire to believe. Mostly by the feeling of connectedness in the world. I am moved to the core by Jesus’ life, and our desire and hunger for a savior. And our need for a savior.

    I am aware of this and the possibility of self deception. I think that Kierkegaard has commented on this. I believe, help my unbelief and my disbelief.

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