True. There is
a beautiful Jesus.
He is frozen to his bones like a chunk of beef.
How desperately he wanted to pull his arms in!
How desperately I touch his vertical and horizontal axes!
But I can’t. Need is not quite belief.
–Anne Sexton, “With Mercy for the Greedy”
The first time I read these lines—it was in a contemporary poetry class at BYU taught by the completely awesome Susan Howe—I gasped out loud right there in the first floor of the old Harold B. Lee Library. I gasped because I thought that the line “need is not quite belief” was true, and I didn’t want it to be. At the time, I knew that I needed the Church to be true, but I wasn’t at all sure that I believed it.
Conflation of need and belief seemed catastrophic to me at the time. Belief was about aligning my opinions and values with capital “T” Truth and ensuring both my terrestrial rightness and celestial glory. Need was just a pathetic form of self-delusion making me pretend to believer what wouldn’t mess up my life too much. It took me years to resolve this conflict, but resolve it I did, not by coming down on one side or another, but by rejecting the original premise. Need, it turns out, is pretty much the same thing as belief if you look at it from a certain perspective. This post is about that perspective.
It is a perspective that requires a few paragraphs of cognitive theory, drawn from Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for proving that economic behavior is not actually rational, has spent much of his career studying what he calls the “two systems” of human cognitive processing.
- System 1 is “fast thinking.” It “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” For example, you will use System 1 to determine the dominate emotion of the man in this picture. It should take about a fraction of a second:
- System 2 is “slow thinking.” It “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it” and is often associated with “the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.” To give your System 2 brain a workout, count the number of squares in this picture. If you are like me, it will take the rest of the week:
So here’s the thing: in most matters of subjective belief—religion, say, or politics—human beings make decisions based on System 1 thinking but spend almost all of their time explaining their decision (to other people and to ourselves) with System 2 justifications. Complex theological observations come entirely from the intellectual maneuvering of System 2. But the longing to believe, to align ourselves with something that connects us to something capable of providing purpose and meaning in our lives, comes from the deepest recesses of System 1.
So, how does this apply to our experience of need and belief? Look, for example, at the following sentences, any of which might occur in an LDS testimony meeting:
- I know that the Church is true.
- I think that the Church is true.
- I have faith that the Church is true.
- I believe that the Church is true.
- I hope that the Church is true.
- I want to believe that the Church is true.
- I need to believe that the Church is true.
From the perspective of System 2, these are all very different statements. They contain shades of meaning, agency, motivation, and certainty. As intellectual positions, they are quite distinct.
From the more urgent and, ultimately, more powerful perspective of System 1—which represents our intuitive understanding of the world—they are identical, and they speak to the profound need-desire-hope-belief in something inexplicable, but massively important, that human beings experience. The best word I know for this subjective experience is “faith.” All of the theological shadings that we add to this experience come afterwards. They are not part of the experience itself.
So, when I say that need really is belief, what I am really saying is that the distinction between need and belief is made at a level that is removed from the subject experience of belief. I still love Sexton’s poem, but it is ultimately a poem about an intellectual experience. It is Tennyson, in his wonderful poem “In Memoriam,” that I now turn to to describe my understanding of faith:
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.