I Hope that My Redeemer Lives

“I am a Christian by Yearning. Opposed to my doubt and perversity is a longing that the gospel be true. Christians are made, said the apostle Paul, of faith, hope, and charity. Though I have little charity and less faith, perhaps I have hope in some abundance.”—Levi Peterson

I have been thinking about Levi Peterson’s classic essay “A Christian by Yearning” a lot recently. It articulates better than anything I know current state of my spiritual understanding, which lies somewhere in between Bruce R. McConkie’s absolute certainty that he was on the verge of meeting Christ and C.S. Lewis’s recollection that, before his conversion, he was “very angry with God for not existing.” Between the poles of faith and doubt, I find hope in great abundance.

By “hope,” here, I mean something very different than either belief or anticipation—near synonyms in other contexts. The hope I am talking about means longing for something so much that I cannot imagine the world without it; I would rather believe and be wrong than reject hope and deprive myself of its comfort. This is Emily Dickenson’s “thing with feathers”—the beautiful, fragile bird that perches in our soul and sings a warming song without asking a crumb. It costs us nothing to nurture hope, and we only hurt ourselves when we allow it to die.

But is this kind of hope the same thing as faith? Does wanting to believe something so badly that you cannot imagine life without it mean that you have faith in it? This is actually a really hard question that I don’t have a good answer for. Certainly hope can lead to belief. But hope can lead just as easily to disappointment when the thing hoped for turns out to be not true, or (perhaps even worse) not good. Hope, like love, makes us vulnerable to loss. Disbelief, like disinterest, is much safer.

But even if hope never turns into faith or knowledge it prevents doubt from becoming disbelief. To hope, one must at least accept the possibility that something can be true—that God exists and communicates with human beings, that the Atonement gives us the power to change ourselves fundamentally, that eternal life really is a thing. These things don’t make rational sense to me, and they are not supported by anything  I consider “evidence.” I can find no logical reason to believe them, much less to know that they are true. But I desperately want them to be true, and this alone prevents me from declaring them, in any final sense, to be false.

Perhaps nobody has explained me to myself better than Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his magnificent long poem, In Memoriam, which I pretty much hated until I reached my 40s. The poem is an extended meditation on the death of Tennyson’s college friend Arthur Hallam—but really it is an extended meditation on the faith crisis precipitated by living in the kind of world where Arthur Hallam could die. Stanza 54 of this poem has become one of the most important pieces of poetry in my life:

Oh, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final end of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another’s gain.

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last—far off—at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.

There are no resolutions here, just a brilliant definition of the problem: the poet wants to believe in God, but he can’t quite do it. But he can’t quite not believe either because he needs to so profoundly. He hopes that everything somehow fits together in a divine mind somewhere, but he also knows that there might not be a divine mind at all and that the world might be exactly as random and cruel as it appears. Since his hope exists in perfect tension with his doubt, he can find neither the comfort of belief nor the closure of unbelief; all he can do is cry. It is a boat that I know well.

Again, does this kind of hope count as faith? I just don’t know; I suppose it depends on who’s counting. But even if hope and desire are not quite the same as faith, they are not entirely inadequate as substitutes. For some of us, it is the best that we can do. I envy those who know that their Redeemer lives, but “I hope that my Redeemer lives” is a sweet sentence too. And the comfort that it gives should not be taken lightly.

Comments

  1. Alma 32:27

  2. Yep. I like to call myself a “desire to believe Mormon”. There is so much that I desire to believe is true – eternal families, the atonemement etc. Thanks for the post!

  3. I think hope that something is true coupled with acting as if it were true is definitely faith. A faith that can also avoid some of the excesses and closed-mindedness of the more strident “every fiber of my being” sort of “knowledge”. And yes, there is a lot of judginess in those quotation marks.

  4. Molly Bennion says:

    Lovely. I feel we’re moving into the golden age of Michael Austin and that it will be long lived; you’re sure putting out some great stuff, from blogs to books.

  5. Jason K. says:

    ^ Indeed. This gets very nicely into the complexities of belief while remaining profoundly devotional. Well done, sir!

  6. Faith must be approached with greater humility than most mormons are willing to grant. We are overwhelmed with phrases that merge the meaning of faith with knowledge. These phrases have devalued the concept of pure faith and they injure so many members of the greater faith community. Phrases like “every fiber of my being” create doubts in the minds of those that seek more honestly the assurance of faith, hope or trust. Am I less in my spiritual existence then this person? Or, to paraphrase and reuse a great movie title “am I a child of a lesser God?” Further, such certain declarations allow the speaker to be lazy in their own spiritual growth. Once they make such a declaration they no longer must pursue with real intent the necessary faith born of hope and belief. In the end faith and knowledge are not the same nor is knowledge of greater value than faith. Faith, with certainty leads us to act and provides us a measure of peace in dark moments. It has been my experience knowledge does not nor do the questionable declarations of certain knowledge. With careful consideration I think that most people who cherish that hope that they cannot exist without, will find with quiet reflection that faith has crept in on kittens paws.

  7. I also feel like “hope” describes my attitude toward God more accurately than “faith.” I’ve wondered if that should affect the way I answer the TR interview question, “Do you have faith in and a testimony of…” I’m sure many people would say that a hope like this certainly qualifies you to enter the temple, but the difference in words is not trivial to me. Thoughts?

  8. Many church members have definitely fallen into the habit of ‘vain repetitions’ in our testimonies. And I say ‘our’, because I have been guilty of that. We should just stop it, and be more honest about our faith, and hope. Liked your thoughts a lot.

  9. It is also permissible and healthy–I think–to leave the know-faith-belief-hope epistemological continuum for one that is more existential. When sharing my “testimony” in a context of faith, I will use language such as: “I feel compelled to share with you my conviction . . .” “Or my experiences lead me to relate to you . . .” or even “It seems good that . . . [where one’s hunger forTruth, with a capital T, evolves to a pursuit for goodness and health]. Although I am disinterested in claims like it is belief and not knowledge that saves one–I would propose that it is in our experiences that we best learn the truth/goodness/health of any teaching. The laboratory of life is a most generous gift.

  10. Love this.

  11. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    I agree with Molly–YOu are a gem, Michael!

  12. hope_for_things says:

    Thanks for this. Hope is a very important word for me personally because it describes my efforts to believe, and also acknowledges my uncertainties. Some days I find great comfort in my hopes. Others I find sorrow and fear. I try to live life hoping for the eternal, but aware of the possibility that there is nothing more. I want there to be something, I hope for it, and I try to live my life as if there will be something more. When I do, I find greater joy in the here and now, and that is meaningful to me.

  13. Yes, the most anyone can do is ‘hope’ God exists, ‘hope’ Christ is our Savior, ‘hope’ there is a heaven or ‘hope’ our family is eternal. For no human can know if God exists, there is no proof, no vision, dream, NDE, revelation or visitation that can prove God or anyone exists after this life, for it could all be created in our own minds.

    Even if God appeared to us, we wouldn’t know for sure it was him and not Satan pretending to be God, for no mortal knows what God or Christ look like, so it would be easy for Satan to pretend to be God. But of course those who think God or Christ have appeared to them never admit to this fact. They just pridefully believe they can’t be wrong.

    I know so many people who claim to have seen and talked to God or Christ, yet their God or Christ teach them opposite things to what the real Christ taught on earth or these people who claim to know God and Christ don’t even live his teachings, but just the opposite. So someone is deceived, either us by the words of Christ in the NT or those people being deceived by a false Christ or their own imaginations.

    If people would just humble themselves and admit to how often they have been deceived by prophets, preachers, people, personages or impressions, then we could really start to base our beliefs and ‘hopes’ on true things, things we have ‘proven’ to be true, for the one thing we know is that even God/Christ commanded us to ‘prove all things’ on facts, not feelings, visions or even angels, before believing anything we hear or see.

  14. Twila Warner says:

    That Tennyson stanza is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. It didn’t even register when I read it 20 years ago in college. Thank you.

  15. I really like this. Thanks for posting!

  16. Why the reference to masturbation in Peterson’s essay? Is that his perversity and ribald he himself refers to? Just can not leave it out. Maybe, if he figured out his juvenile problem, his understanding of hope and panpsychism could work themselves out.

  17. Thank you. It’s tempting to discuss, how I am like but different. But mostly I appreciate the posting, especially taking it as a devotional.