Where faith lives

This past Sunday the stake president asked me to speak in one of the wards in our stake. The assigned topic was cultivating the faith necessary to have success in missionary work as a ward. That got me thinking about faith and how it relates to how we think about the church’s long term fate.

It strikes me that there are two extremes in the way we think about the church and its long term destiny.

On one extreme is what I would call the extreme of certainty: the idea that the church’s success is inevitable, its destiny is already sure, and there is nothing that we can do to stop it, so it doesn’t much matter whether we are engaged in bringing Zion into existence. All we have to do is wait until God makes it happen. It’s perhaps a little ironic that we who so readily reject Calvinist ideas of predestination regardless of personal righteousness as to individuals don’t seem to have the same aversion to the idea that the church’s salvation is assured on an institutional level.

The Book of Mormon gives what I think is a nearly perfect illustration of this extreme in the people of Zeniff/Noah. Because they had taken possession of what they saw as the true land of their inheritance, they seem to have seen themselves as living the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies about the restoration of Zion. So when Abinadi comes to call them to repentance, they reject him not just because they liked being wicked, but because they saw the fact that they were living in the land of their inheritance as evidence that their project was approved of God–that their salvation as a people was already assured, and that there was no need for the kind of repentance that Abinadi was calling for. Their faith in their collective or institutional salvation was a certainty that their salvation as a people was assured to the point that repentance didn’t affect it.

The other extreme is what I would call the extreme of despair. The Book of Mormon gives an example of this in Mormon, who at one point loses so much faith in the Nephite people that he “utterly refuse[s]” to lead them in battle. He apparently reached the point that the believed that the Nephites were so completely corrupt and evil, that no amount of effort on his part would be enough to save them–that their condemnation was assured (and to the extent that they refused to repent, he was right).

Put differently, those who give in to the extreme of certainty are “the comfortable,” and those who give in to the extreme of despair are “the afflicted” of the proverb that the gospel’s purpose is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I think these extremes work on the individual level as well as on the institutional level. We give in to the extreme of certainty and we begin to believe the lie that we are okay with God, that we don’t need repentance–not anymore. Or we give in to the extreme of despair and we begin to believe the lie that we can’t repent–that it will never be enough, that we will fail to follow through with it, and that we might as well not bother, because what’s the point?

Between these extremes, I think the extreme of despair comes closer to reality–were it not for grace, that spark of life that changes everything, despair would be the only rational position. The extreme of certainty is self-deception and willful blindness to the reality of the mortal world and of what it means to be a fallen human being, or an institution made up of fallen human beings. It is a rejection of the need for grace, and therefore of the offer of grace. The extreme of despair, on the other hand, is a clear-eyed look at terror of reality, but a rejection of the power of grace to do anything about it.

But what’s so scary about this is that there are really are times where grace is powerless, perhaps not because its power is insufficient, but because it is rejected. In this fallen world, grace most often works through, or at least in concert with fallen, human agency. If the Nephites won’t repent, then it is “as though there was no redemption made,” and despair is the only thing left that makes any sense (see also Enoch’s God). In this way, the extreme of despair is cruelly self-fulfilling.

I believe that faith, true saving faith, whether on an individual level, or on an institutional level, lives in the space between these extremes. And we as humans bounce back and forth between them. It’s fascinating to me that Mormon seems to describe his oath to refuse to lead the Nephites as a commandment of the Lord, but then says later that he “did repent” of that oath and lead the Nephites once again. What is he really saying here–that renouncing his oath was disobedience to a commandment of God, or that when he called his decision obedience to a commandment he had falsely attributed his decision to God? I’m not entirely sure, but I think perhaps Mormon had come to back off just a little from the extreme of despair, and to edge back into the space where faith can live. Mormon says that when he repented of his oath, he did it “without hope,” because of the Nephites refusal to repent–but still he fought on with them. Not quite hoping that they would repent, but perhaps just wishing that they would. Maybe, when hope flees, wishing and fighting is enough to keep some spark of faith alive because someday, hope just might come back, pushing up through the world’s wreckage like a pale spring crocus pushing through the fall’s leaves and mud and detritus.

Comments

  1. Good stuff, JKC. I’d never thought before about that angle on King Noah’s people; that’s a useful lens to make sense of how they’re understanding themselves. I’m also fascinated by those passages from Mormon you mention, how he takes an oath and then repents of it, and seems unable to hope but unable to give up, either. And I’m intrigued by your point that we may be Calvinist after all in the way we think about the church.

    That challenge of navigating between the pitfalls of complacency and despair is one I’ve reflected on a lot. I like Julian of Norwich on this: she says that we need to “see our sin profitably without despair.” We need to acknowledge its reality, in other words, but always do so in the context of God’s love, so that it calls us toward God rather than driving us away from the divine power that could aid us. (There’s a beautiful part where Jesus shows her that she will sin, and she starts to fear, and he quickly says, “don’t worry; I am keeping you very safe.” I’ve always loved that, that he responds to sin not with rejection but with protective care and concern. But then, I’m a person with rather neurotic tendencies, and fighting off despair is a pretty regular challenge for me.)

  2. Thanks, Lynette. Julian is great.

  3. Bro. B. says:

    Interesting take JKC. Comparing Noah’s people to the Romans of 0-400 AD, what were Noah’s people getting out of the bargain, since they had to pay a 1/5th tax to his personal gluttony fund? At least the Roman citizens got free bread, free water from the aqueducts, and free (if brutal) entertainment in the colosseum. Must have been their sense of security that they were in Zion and that the King had the authority, despite whatever debauchery he or they participated in.

  4. Thanks, JKC. I’ve copied two ideas as footnotes in my private edition of the scriptures. I only do that when it’s something I want to think about further, or realize it could be useful in a lesson.

  5. Glad you found it worthwhile, Ardis.

  6. Jason K. says:

    I love this post, JKC, for reasons that Lynnette already articulated.

  7. Peter Bleakley says:

    Thankyou for these really helpful insights. I love them for all the reasons given. There is also a lot to consider in the institutional overconfidence, despair and balanced realistic but hopeful attitudes in last Conference expressed by different speakers, the balanced one being Uchtdorf who acknowledged the world has problems but reminded us of all it’s hope and potential, and how dismissing the world as going to hell and exaggerating the negative is a satanic tool that stops us having faith that we can grow or keeping focused on that goal and giving up. We are at a tipping point as growth is stalling and so few members are active and the voices of despair are everywhere, and this stops members from making the radical reforms we need in order to grow again. Anyone suggesting them gets thrown out or ostracised rather than welcomed as part of the solution to the problems holding us back from exponential growth.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for this, JKC.

  9. Good question, Bro. B. I’ve thought about that, and I don’t think the text tells us enough to make a conclusion about what the people of King Noah were getting out of the bargain. But keep in mind that these were people (or at least the first generation descendants of people) who voluntarily left the Nephite heartland to back to Lamanite territory specifically in order to repossess the land of their inheritance. And if their leader, Zeniff, is representative of them, they were people who believed that it could and should be done peacefully. So based on that, I think the idea that they were part of such a project might have been enough to motivate them to stay, but I don’t think the text gives us sufficient information to draw a conclusion about whether the average person living under Noah’s rule saw it as a worthwhile bargain, or whether there were people leaving and going back, or whether was a dissenting movement that would have been ready to overthrow him had his rule continued.

  10. I really appreciate this, JKC, particularly the perspective on Mormon’s story. I often think about Mother Teresa’s experience with despair and loss of faith. When that was revealed after her death, some people thought it made her service and sacrifice less meaningful from a faith perspective, but I thought exactly the opposite–that she would continue even when she couldn’t feel hope made her faith seem that much greater.

  11. I agree, Rebecca. It makes her more inspiring. To butcher Shakespeare, “[Faith] is not [faith] which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove.”

  12. Like many of the things I post about, it circles back to Tolkien:

    “Gandalf put his hand on Pippin’s head. ‘There never was much hope,’ he answered. ‘Just a fool’s hope…'”

    Return of the King, Ch. 4.