The Faith to Leave Mountains Where They Are

Some thoughts inspired by “Move Forward with Faith,” Lesson #25 in the Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley

 

To my knowledge, nobody has ever moved a mountain with faith. I can’t be completely sure, but that seems like the kind of thing that we would have heard about. Mountains don’t move easily. There is usually going to be some kind of trace.

But do you know what does move mountains? Dynamite, that’s what. Tons and tons of dynamite. This actually happens in West Virginia, where I lived for 11 years at the start of my career. “Mountaintop removal” is a technique for mining coal. Rather than spending the time and money necessary to dig mines, put up shafts, haul in equipment, and all of that, you just blow the top off of the mountain, dump it in a nearby valley, and Bob’s your coal-faced uncle.

In 2017, moving mountains is relatively easy. It requires no faith at all. Faith is what we exercise when we trust God enough to leave the mountain where it is.

We get faith wrong, I think, when we define it as the believing in the mere existence of something. I believe that all sorts of people and organizations exist. That doesn’t mean that I have faith in them—that I would trust them with something important or accept something that they told me on face value. It is just a quirk of our language that “to believe in” something can mean either to consider its existence a fact or to accept it’s value. One can not believe in ghosts in a different way that one does not believe in war. We all know that war exists.

In my professional life, where I occupy a position of modest leadership at a small university, I frequently ask people to have faith in me. As I prepared the lesson for my Priesthood group tomorrow, I reflected a bit on what I mean by this request. Basically, I mean that I would like them to believe two things about me:

1) that I am competent—that I understand how higher education works, what budgets do, how a curriculum committee works, what academic standards are, and that sort of thing; and

2) that I am acting with good intentions (a.k.a. “good faith”)—that I am not secretly planning to shut down the Faculty Senate or divert all of the money to the basketball team, or that I don’t keep faculty salaries low and workload high for sport.

These two criteria work pretty well for what I mean when I say I have faith in God too. I believe that God is basically competent at being God—that he knew what he was doing when he made mosquitoes and thick fog, even if I don’t get it, and that the universe fulfills some purpose even if I don’t understand it. In fact, having faith means giving up the need to understand absolutely everything about the way that God works. This is also true of the IT department at work–sometimes I just have to trust that they know what they are doing.

I also believe that God is good, and that he wants good things for everybody, even me. This has actually been one of the most profound realizations of my life. For years, I thought that God wanted to trap me into doing something that would destroy my soul. And I bought into all of the religious rhetoric that I heard disparaging “the world” as a festering swamp of sin and degradation. It took me years to understand the horrible things that such a belief suggested about the world’s creator.

I don’t much like words like “omnipotence” and “omnibenevolence.” They were constructed for abstract theological arguments about angels and heads of pins. “Competence” and “Goodness” will do just fine. God is competent. God is good. From these two propositions follow just about everything that I believe:

  • That people are good too (because God was competent enough to create us right).
  • That the world is a beautiful and amazing place and not a festering swamp of sin and degradation that we are here to overcome.
  • That everybody is entitled to hear the voice of God (because God is good and wants to talk to everybody) but that they are going to hear it in their own way (because God is competent and knows how to talk to people).
  • That God doesn’t really care about who gets nominated to the Supreme Court or who wins football games (because micromanagement is a sign of incompetence).
  • That nobody gets sent to everlasting punishment for choosing the wrong religion (because that would be both incompetent and mean).
  • That God fully expects us to do things that it is our nature to do (because that is what “in our nature” means).
  • That the Atonement is real and means that we can eventually harmonize our natures with God’s nature, but everyone is going to do this on their own schedule, and we don’t even get a vote in anybody’s timetable but our own.
  • That everybody who is not God needs to exercise humility when speaking in God’s name, since we are dealing with a  being whose competence and goodness greatly exceeds our own and who is perfectly capable of speaking for Himself (see #3).
  • That God will figure out a way to make sure that everybody is happy in the way that they want to be happy (because he is good enough and competent enough to work that out).
  • That all of the stuff I don’t understand about the afterlife is going to work out, probably in a way that I just don’t know enough right now to appreciate.

In standard usage, faith is not a synonym for belief; it is a synonym for trust. It is much harder to trust something than simply to acknowledge that it exists. Trust means accepting that the mountains are exactly where they are supposed to be and not trying to dynamite them somewhere else. It also means accepting that we are who we are supposed to be and that other people are also who they are supposed to be and not trying to blow up ourselves or our loved ones because we harbor the secret belief that God got things wrong. The essence of faith is the uncompromising trust that God got things right.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Michael. With your help I may be able to participate in the HP discussion tomorrow rather than running off to the “sanctuary [Elders] quorum.” In addition, I really like some typos and hope you do not correct this one: “…West Virginia, where I loved for 11 years…” but instead will find some deep meaning in it that I haven’t yet found. Thanks again for your thoughts..

  2. Your average Mormon says:

    Thank you. I’ve had struggles having faith (trusting) in God, but this helps articulate some of the beliefs I’m accepting.

  3. I’m going to disagree with you twice.

    First, somewhat trivially, it’s a poor (in the sense of deficient, lacking) idea of “faith” that limits moving mountains to magical levitation. Faith as a principle of action that activates 1,000 people with 1,000 trucks and shovels and a load of dynamite going to work for however long it takes, works just as well for me, for my sense of “faith moving mountains.”

    Second, the trust in God that you tout is (for me anyway) a very challenging and challenged concept. The holocaust, hurricanes that destroy whole countries, Sandybrook, and a dozen more devastating events that come to mind (without ranking or comparing, but each one on its own) threaten the trust I would like to have, the competence I would like to believe in.

  4. Christian, is there any definition of “faith” that these events don’t challenge? The question is sincere, it rhetorical. But it seems to me that the events that you list have been frequently used to challenge the mere existence of God, or of any benign force giving direction to the universe. So it is certainly the case that they will have the same effect on the even more challenging kind of belief that I am proposing that we define “faith” as. I would suggest that anyone who has faith in God in any way has to figure out a way to deal with these absolutely challenging issues.

  5. Michael, a rhetorical question doesn’t call for a reply, but I will reply that my experience so far in wrestling with theodicy in its several forms is that the traditional answers (which usually take the form of weakening one of the omni-s) work reasonably well for the horrors I describe. Reasonably well in the sense of logic. I do find them mostly soul-less and unsatisfying, but that’s a different metric. My experience is that the horrors that man and nature inflict on man and nature are most challenging to my desire to trust God. It really does feel different.

  6. That makes sense, Christian. I meant “not rhetorical,” so I appreciate your answer. I can see that diminishing either God’s power or God’s goodness could allow the horrors to exist simultaneously with a belief in God. This is the move that Levinas makes (I deal with it in my Job book) when he attributes the Holocaust to a God that who is still developing moral understanding and needs our help.

    That said, I would say that the more common response is to simply stop believing in the existence of God.

  7. “To my knowledge, nobody has ever moved a mountain with faith. ”

    Ether 12:30
    For the brother of Jared said unto the mountain Zerin, Remove—and it was removed. And if he had not had faith it would not have moved; wherefore thou workest after men have faith.

  8. Aussie Mormon says:

    I think Mahonri was a bit before Michael’s time.

  9. I remember reading a bunch of Descartes in my youth, and in the Meditations he works through the idea of a deceiving God. The (partially erroneous) take away I had was that for Descartes’ method to work you needed “dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum” and “God is good” for a functional scientific method. That has deeply shaped my relationship with God.

    Your article is a delightful summation, validation (of non-solitude), and much more eloquent description of the consequences of such thoughts. Thank you

  10. One addenda to your list, from my own testimony.

    1. When the perils and misery of the world befall us, they are not from God. There is no obligation to accept as from God those un-Godly things. God does not want us to be passive and accept misery. God wants us to have peace and joy. (God is good.). God wants us to ask Him how we can proactively work with Him to “consecrate thine affliction for thy gain.”— and he will slowly teach the answers. (God is competent.)

  11. Good thoughts, Michael, but I’m disappointed that you didn’t explore all the evil that is caused by moving mountains the West Virginia way. But it’s part of the reason why Trump will never be able to restore all the lost coal jobs. You don’t need miners when you can move mountains.

  12. Just a couple counterpoints to your statement about the word ‘omnipotence’.

    1) In speaking of the forthcoming birth and life of Jesus Christ, King Benjamin refers to “the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay, and shall go forth amongst men”. The word omnipotent is used as a title to convey an attribute of Jesus and emphasize the all-powerful being that he is…it has nothing to do with angels and heads of pins.

    2) In the Lectures on Faith, Joseph Smith taught that one of they key elements of faith that leads to salvation is a “correct idea of his (God’s) character, perfections, and attributes”. Of these attributes, one of the most important characteristics is his omnipotence..and the reason for this is that we need to know that he really has the necessary power to save us.

    There are many “competent” and “good” beings out there…but none have the power to save. The only being that has the ability to do is able because of of his omnipotence.

    So God’s ‘omnipotence’, rather than be merely an abstract concept, has a very meaningful and practical role in the faith that we have in him.