Spiritual Anchors

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
   —Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”

Here are three things that I learned when I was very young and that have had an enormous influence on my spiritual life.

  1. Satan can hear every word I say but can never read my mind.
  2. If I repent and am forgiven, and then commit the same sin again, my previous repentance will be revoked.
  3. If a prophet or Church leader tells me to do something that is wrong, and I do it anyway, then I will be blessed for my obedience and the Church leader will be punished.

It would be difficult to overestimate the degree to which these early beliefs messed up my spiritual life. The first one turned my prayer life into an elaborate game of keep away, where I tried to conceal my true intentions in public and only acknowledge them in silent prayer where Satan couldn’t hear them.

The second caused me to spend much of my 20s and 30s in a state of perpetual religious terror, certain that I had sinned beyond God’s capacity to forgive and that any of the hard-won forgiveness I had experienced was nullified by my inability to stop being such a sinner.

And the third created a toxic relationship with the Church that compelled me, for a time, to surrender my own judgment to institutional pronouncements. It tempted me to substitute obedience for moral reasoning and to justify my own spiritual errors with the comforting thought that, if I just obeyed hard enough, somebody else would have to pay for it.

These are all examples of what cognitive scientists now call the “anchoring heuristic.” A heuristic is a mental shortcut that we use to use to make decisions quickly, without putting a lot of thought into them because a rule of thumb usually produces answers that are good enough for our immediate needs. The anchoring heuristic causes us to take an initial piece of information and use it as a reference point for future deliberations. We may move away from the anchor a little bit, but the initial information defines our range of possible responses.

I find the metaphor of the anchor especially interesting in matters of faith. The purpose of an anchor is to keep a ship from moving around. This is a good thing when a ship is in the harbor. It keeps it close to the shore and firmly rooted in place. Ultimately, however, being safely anchored in a harbor is not what ships are for.

But leaving the harbor is a dangerous proposition for a person on a ship. You might get lost. You might hit a storm and sink. And you might find someplace that you like better than your own harbor and stay there. It happens all the time. People don’t come back, or they change so much while they are at sea that nobody even recognizes them when they return.

I am, of course, talking about journeys of faith here. I don’t actually know anything about how real ships work. I read in Moby Dick, but that was a long time ago. I do, though, know a few things about trying to navigate the vast sea of my own faith without the anchors of my childhood belief. It is incredibly difficult.

Matthew Arnold, who wrote the wonderful poem excerpted in the epigraph quite famously argued that we should maintain our faith in God, even though He does not exist, because what else are we supposed to write poetry about? When I first encountered his arguments as an English major at BYU, I thought he was a nut. But now I think he was probably right: the faith that creates culture is not quite the same as the faith that is created by belief.

Some of the most profoundly religious people I know no longer consider themselves to be religious believers at all. And there is a specificity to these non-beliefs. My friends who used to be Catholic see the world very differently than my friends who used to be Evangelical or who used to be Mormon. The anchors of faith persist, even in unbelief.

This, I think, is one of the reasons that I still define myself as a believer, and generally a contented one. I am not the same kind of believer that I used to be. I no longer talk to God in code in order to fool Satan. I see repentance as something very different than double-entry accounting. And I no longer look to the institutional Church to relieve me of my responsibility to exercise moral reason. I am pretty sure that I have lifted up dozens of the anchors that once defined my faith. Maybe even hundreds.

But there are thousands more holding me firmly in place in ways that I do not fully understand. These anchors don’t define me as a person, or even as a person of faith. But they do create the space in which my spiritual journeys must occur, and they constrain, but not completely, the routs that they must take.

And that’s OK. Because a completely open sea is really scary, and I just don’t have time to land in every port.

Comments

  1. Rachel Whipple says:

    This seems to be true across the board. I recently heard a report from PEW researchers about religious identity in Western Europe. They found that non-practicing Christians were much more like practicing Christians in their opinions on many social issues than they were like atheists or agnostics.

  2. Thanks, Michael. Fascinating perspective.

  3. I am pretty sure that I have lifted up dozens of the anchors that once defined my faith. Maybe even hundreds. But there are thousands more holding me firmly in place in ways that I do not fully understand. These anchors don’t define me as a person, or even as a person of faith. But they do create the space in which my spiritual journeys must occur, and they constrain, but not completely, the routs that they must take. And that’s OK. Because a completely open sea is really scary, and I just don’t have time to land in every port.

    Both important and true, I think. Well said, Michael.

  4. Angela C says:

    A really great look at an important concept to understand something mostly ineffable. I shared your three anchors for a time growing up and probably many more I’ve long since given up. Another one is that if good things happen to me, I have earned them. If bad things happen to me, I deserved them. I suspect that’s one that is more American than Mormon, but there’s certainly a lot of conflation between American values and the gospel in the Mormon church.

  5. Reminds me of Moana: she knows the sea is dangerous, yet it calls to her unyieldingly, and by setting sail she finds out who she really is

  6. I shared all three of those beliefs growing up, but I don’t think I viewed them quite as literally. They weren’t anchors as much as buoys — they definitely mark navigation, but they move and bob with the water, and even though you know they’re anchored to something, you’re not exactly sure what or where.

    For example, when I didn’t get how Satan couldn’t read thoughts but could hear voices, my understanding changed to “Satan is aware and cognizant of many things, but he doesn’t know everything about you and his understanding of and power over you is limited.” The former sins returning if you sinned meant to me that “God doesn’t count our sins, He’s interested in whether we change”. The idea that if I did something wrong following the prophet, the sin was on his head not mine simply meant to me that if I was doing the best I could according to my understanding, God would not hold me to account if I made a wrong choice. I never felt that meant I wasn’t accountable to grow my own understanding.

    I think pretty much every scripture or statement from a church leader can lead us to an incorrect understanding if interpreted a certain way. I also think that interpreting them a certain way can lead one person closer to the truth and another further away, depending on the person.

  7. Jack Hughes says:

    Thank you, Michael. This is validating. I grew up with those same three foundational (folk) beliefs, and when combined with my mild OCD/scrupulous tendencies they led to years of unnecessary pain and heartache. My daughter is still young, but I can already see some of those tendencies in her. Here’s hoping I’ll be able to teach her a more nuanced belief system, at least enough to counteract the influences of Church leaders and future seminary teachers who still cling to the old ways.

  8. I have a lot of beliefs I intellectually reject but can’t let go of emotionally/psychologically. Somewhere in mind I think, “This really doesn’t make sense and is dumb, but what if it’s true??” I’ve found that a lot of my faith in the afterlife is a hope that the things I learned in my youth aren’t true.

  9. nobody, really says:

    If you go to Church historic sites like Nauvoo, you get a very polished and refined story at each location. They even have a system of “site leaders” who listen in on presentations and gently correct the presenter if their patter is deviating from the script. There’s a big emphasis on only presenting the information that can be verified from original sources. Naturally, people have a tendency to change wording over time, or a person on tour will relate a family story that sounds really neat, and the missionary might start incorporating elements of what they’ve heard into the presentation. The reasoning behind this is that if missionaries are presenting something that tourist knows isn’t true, they will begin to discount everything else they hear, and everything else they feel on that trip.

    Sometimes I wish we had corrections like this in our church lessons, but man would it be hard. I can’t even begin to describe some of the pure, unadulterated goose poop I’ve heard over the years. We have no right to refuse a calling. I love each and every one of you. The Bishop knows what is best for the ward. The Bishop’s Storehouse isn’t just the welfare groceries, it includes all the money, time, talent, and resources of everyone in the ward.

    And probably the most insidious one for me right now – If we don’t serve [this person], they might stop coming to church, and that would be a bad thing. I’ve seen too many use that implicit threat as a way to get what they want – give me stuff, do my work, or I won’t come back. You aren’t paying my bills, therefore, I won’t come to Sacrament meeting. I’m about ready to start calling it what it is – taking hostages and demanding ransom.

  10. Love this- it rings true to me. I spent so much energy worrying about these three things that sometimes I get angry at the church and my rather orthodox parents but I have to remind myself that they are just people trying to do what hey thought was right. The hard thing is teaching my kids about nuance and using their own best judgement but unfortunately teenagers aren’t very good at either.

    Sometimes I fantasize about a creating new life without the religious constraints taught (imposed?) by my parents but I realize that I probably wouldn’t be very successful. I’m afraid that there are many anchors that I simply can’t see and therefore I’m more Mormon than I realize.

  11. Your second anchor has tripped me up my whole life, to the point I’ve given up on the formal repentance process, because I know I will slip again. So lets just let that sin lie, instead of having to continually erase and pencil back in.

    And the one Angela C mentioned: “Another one is that if good things happen to me, I have earned them. If bad things happen to me, I deserved them.” I call that my Mormon guilt. My spouse finds it so flabbergasting that I assume that ANYTHING bad that happens in our life, or unfortunate, or just not right away obvious blessings is because we aren’t being righteous enough, i.e. PERFECT. He somehow didn’t get that memo in his primary and youth classes. It has been a heavy burden.

    As my late Uncle told his daughter who was considering leaving the church, “You can leave activity if you want, but you will always be culturally and ethnically a Mormon” We are formed in our youth and we carry that shape for the rest of our lives. Even when we work very hard to recreate ourselves, that shape is evident in our shadow.

  12. michael says:

    I agree with your comment. The problem is that a lot people don’t pull up these kind of anchors. There is a selection process for leadership which is correlated with activity that favors orthodoxy. It is not complete. But many local and I suspect higher leaders have not pulled very many anchors. We don’t make up these anchors, they are contagious and rain down on us.

    Another factor is that pulling anchors probably is inversely correlated with the amount of tithing paid. I know my mother wanted to have a dozen children, but when she developed toxemia and couldn’t have anywhere near that many, she doubled down in other areas. One anchor for her was that if she paid double tithing, she would be blessed with more children. It makes financial sense to favor the thought processes of the people who pay the bills. What other church is more financially successful than us?

    What is the actual total active membership of the church? How many converts and multi-generational members have pull up all anchors and left? How much do those who stay really care? Or is it every member for themselves. Is there anything we can do?

    Is it possible or even ethical to shake other people’s anchors loose a little bit? A lot? Who should be doing that? The lunatic fringe, or the back-row rabble rousers, or the best minds in the Bloggernacle or maybe the top leaders? I give it as my opinion that the prophets should be the most active in pulling others anchors, not promoting dead or hopeless orthodoxy while they wallow in these goose poops. Bloggers need to be more aggressive. Rabble rousers like me probably need to shut up.

  13. Michael, it’s uncanny–almost scary–how parallel some of our thinking runs. I have a draft of this article on my machine right now. Not nearly so polished, and my anchoring beliefs are different, but the same article.

    One triggering experience was an argument with my wife in the general vicinity of faith-works. After realizing that we now believe much the same, we moved to a meta-discussion about the argument itself and concluded that we were really discussing the best or better way to talk about faith and works, where her anchoring comes from a mainstream Protestant childhood and my anchoring comes from a mainstream Mormon childhood.

  14. Elizabeth says:

    I’m glad I wasn’t baptized until I was 28. I missed those three “truths.” I’ve heard them, of course, but somehow they didn’t stick as well as something taught to you as a child. I’ve taken some paths contrary to church teachings while knowing it was what God wanted for me. He hasn’t let me down yet. Our leaders are only human, doing the best they can, but not omnipotent. Love them, listen to them, but don’t be afraid to follow your own path if that is where God is leading.

  15. Christian–I would love to read this article. It sounds like a very good example of the anchoring phenomenon. Also, most people have apparently never seen us together, so there is some possibility that we are the same person.

  16. I don’t understand why there are no scriptures used in this post. For that matter, scriptures are rarely used on this blog. What’s up?

    I’ve gone through some of the same things growing up as Michael did. I think it is very common. It takes time and experience to understand repentance properly. Whose to blame?

    I don’t try to place blame, it isn’t productive. The scriptures and teachings of the prophet will put us on the path to correct understanding of the three things brought out in this post.

    Regarding repentance.

    Michael wrote, “If I repent and am forgiven, and then commit the same sin again, my previous repentance will be revoked.”

    I think he is referring to this verse:

    …that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God. D&C 82:7

    This verse refers to those who repent and then later abandon their baptism covenant and stop repenting and pursue a life without Christ.

    This verse explains what we need to know about our ability to repent of sins that we struggle with and repeat over and over again.

    8 But as oft as they repented and sought forgiveness, with real intent, they were forgiven.
    Moroni 6:8

    This scripture says it well. We need to have “real intent”.

    It’s not complicated. A child can understand it.

  17. “But there are thousands more holding me firmly in place in ways that I do not fully understand. These anchors don’t define me as a person, or even as a person of faith. But they do create the space in which my spiritual journeys must occur, and they constrain, but not completely, the routs that they must take.”

    Thanks you for putting this thought so beautifully into words. I–and I believe many others–have had this idea that I need to uproot all beliefs/thoughts/behaviors/etc. (i.e. anchors) that I was given (without any choice) in order to really get to truth. But the reality is that this is impossible. And although sometimes I feel constrained by them, I believe that many are good. Everyone lives with those anchors, some helpful, some not.

  18. A very interesting read, piquing my curiosity into my own beliefs and non-beliefs and my infrequent journey into spirituality. I left Mormonism completely and utterly, and it is only on rare occasions that I yearn for any spirituality. I find the shipping lanes and my own ship full of lots to do and see, and so, without rancor or guile, I ask the author, in what ways are you a “believer” and is that believing really anything to do with Mormonism now? I, too, have many ties to Mormonism, but they aren’t spiritual and I’ve even gone so far out into the sea that I wonder whether there is a spiritual side to us humans. I love the stormy seas, and everything in between the storms, too. Hmmmmmmmmmmm. You’ve given me lots to think about.

  19. Good post. Thank you.

  20. Mark Burns says:

    I always thought all three of those were kind of weird even though I heard them from the pulpit and in General Conference. But I confess to be sucked into a belief similar to #3 in its idiotic desire to cede agency: that you should accept all callings that come your way and never asked to be released until God says so. My foolish, spiritually naive, though completely well-intended obedience in this sense is the single worst spiritual choice I have ever made, It cost me my career and to a large degree my mental and physical health and led me into a relationship of utter abuse with the Church I have yet to recover from. To this day I loathe the word (blind) obedience and rue the day I ever succumbed to the notion. And I’ll be paying for it every day of my life. I admire and respect and to some degree envy but hope to someday be one of those people who can somehow forgive the Church for beating the shit out of me for years the second time I served as a bishop. In the meantime, I’ll be preaching the utter spiritual idiocy of #3 and any kind of stupid blind obedience resembling it.

  21. “My friends who used to be Catholic see the world very differently than my friends who used to be Evangelical or who used to be Mormon.”

    I’ve always felt this vaguely but I’m not sure I would have described it as seeing the world differently. Would you mind elaborating on it a bit?

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