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Posts Tagged ‘Hope’

I have this whole list of things I am struggling with spiritually right now. It’s a thing I do maybe every six months when my level of frustration about God and church and spirituality starts to bubble over and I lose my grip on my ability to articulate just what exactly is the problem. Because it’s never just one problem, it’s always a bunch of interconnected problems so the one-sentence answer is never really sufficient. So I try to write it all down, chart it all out, and explain it, first and foremost to myself, but also to anyone else who is trying to come alongside me and finding me frustrating. Inevitably, the list/chart/diagram/equation is completely different from what it was when I did the same thing six months earlier. I definitely have a sense of a moving target. Someone less charitable might say that I am always looking for something to be dissatisfied about, but being dissatisfied feels bad, so I am definitely not being dissatisfied on purpose.

So right now I have a new list, and at the top it says BELONGING/INTEGRATION. I don’t know that this is the most important thing on my list, but it’s arbitrarily first, so I’m going to write about it first. It also clearly connects to my previous post, about embracing my identity as a Mormon despite my non-membership and non-belief. And, of course, it’s two different things, and could certainly be two entries on the list. Sorry; this is just gonna have to be the way it is.

Deep in my gut, I feel like knowing God and following Jesus is something that should be done in deep community. This is probably partially baggage from my Mormon upbringing–I first learned about God in tight-knit Mormon spaces, as a part of a community of believers with a strong, discrete cultural identity. So, by default, that’s what it feels like how knowing God and following Jesus should be shaped.

My problem is that I don’t really have that, and I might have to make peace with the idea of never really having that.

In the past few years of so, during which I have been sort of evangelical or at least I have existed in various states of evangelical-adjacency, one thing has been crystal clear to me: evangelicals are not my people. Everything about evangelicals and evangelical culture and evangelical expressions of worship and spirituality feels like petting the cat backwards. And it’s not just a matter of unfamiliarity or newness. I have put in the time and effort, and it always feels 100% wrong. Setting aside my theological problems with evangelicalism (I will write a post about them later, but it boils down to Matthew 7:16), the whole endeavor just does not fit me right. I never feel at home.

This ill-fittingness isn’t just in evangelical churches; it’s in all evangelical spaces. I have many lovely evangelical friends with whom I love spending time and being in community, but as soon as you get more than about three of them in a group together, the air changes and I can’t breathe anymore.

I could certainly go and look for community in non-evangelical churches, but to be honest, my community bandwidth is pretty full already. My wife and I put hospitality at the top of our list of values, and we have a lot of people in our lives. And, as I alluded above, despite my dissatisfaction and difficulty with evangelical spaces, we do have a lot of community with evangelical people. So the idea of making space for a whole additional community of church people is pretty daunting, especially since church people are not exactly on my new friends wish list.

And more importantly, I have no particular reason to think that I will fully fit into any community of believers because I am coming to realize that I will never be able to be just one thing, spiritually. I can’t fully be one with my Methodist congregation (not that I have one, or am planning to; it’s just an example) because I have discovered that I still have a big part of me that has a Mormon identity. And I have some part of me that has a pagan identity, too. And probably another spiritual identity or two. I’m not going to be able to fully become part of a community because I will always be fractured. I belong too many places, so I will never really belong in any of them. In being true to myself and trying to know God with all of me, follow Jesus with all of me, I have to let go of the idea that I will be able to do that in deep community with others, because, in the wise words of Rocket Raccoon, “Ain’t no thing like me, except me!”

And that’s how we get to Integration. I am discovering that one of the biggest obstacles I have to knowing God deeply is knowing him with all of my pieces, and that means collecting them and honoring and acknowledging all of them. And that places limits on the extent to which I can truly know God in community.

I will admit that this makes me sad. It is a thing I have to mourn. I miss it. The Mormon idea of Zion, the utopian vision of a people who are deeply in community with each other and with God, of one heart and one mind with no poor among them, is an idea that is deeply embedded in my psyche. But I don’t know that I am able to be of one heart and one mind with anyone. It’s certainly not going to happen at church.

On the other hand, I had lunch today with Pastor Lura Groen, and she said that there are more people like me, with fragmented spiritual identities and messes of baggage, than I realize, and that for people like me, building a deep community can mean constructing a support system from people who are a part of or on the fringes of different groups and circles–a person or two here and a person or two there. So maybe there is still a Zion for me, even if it doesn’t look like the image of Zion that I have in my head.

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No one is without Christianity, if we agree on what we mean by that word. It is every individual’s individual code of behavior by means of which he makes himself a better human being than his nature wants to be, if he followed his nature only. Whatever its symbol — cross or crescent or whatever — that symbol is man’s reminder of his duty inside the human race. Its various allegories are the charts against which he measures himself and learns to know what he is. It cannot teach a man to be good as the textbook teaches him mathematics. It shows him how to discover himself, evolve for himself a moral codes and standard within his capacities and aspirations, by giving him a matchless example of suffering and sacrifice and the promise of hope.

from an interview with Jean Stein in 1958

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I know I’ve been over this time and again, but it’s been on my mind for weeks, so I’m going to blog about it.  I’m just not sure what to do, say, or believe about religion.

I like Christianity.  I find it moving, relevant, hopeful, important.  I like the Bible, I like Jesus, I like the richness of Christian theology, I attend an Episcopal church and I like the liturgy.  But I just don’t know if I believe in Christianity.  I don’t know how to.  I know if I totally immersed myself in Christianity- literature, music, thought, etc., that all my doubts would fade, but that’s exactly what I did with Mormonism.  It’s not because the thing I’m busying myself with is actually true, but because I’m so busy with it that I get wrapped up in it and stop questioning it.  I’m unwilling to do that again because I believe it is a kind of self-brainwashing, and because I know it doesn’t necessarily last.

I like Mere Christianity, but I have major problems with almost every Christian denomination in practice (and in theology).  And even when I find an unobjectionable denomination (i.e. Anglicanism), I still am left unsure if I really believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that his life and what he allegedly did are significant to me as anything other than a historical curiosity.  I don’t want to be an atheist, but I’m afraid that leaving Mormonism has left me unable to deal with religion.  Even if I was sure I wanted to be Christian, I wouldn’t be sure of where to start.

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One of the funny things about this blog, wherein I document my spiritual journey to some kind of truth or meaning or whatever, is that whichever twist or turn I take, there’s always a chorus of cheerleaders telling me I’m doing the right thing. That’s why when my journey then takes me away from whatever detour it had me wandering through, I’m often reluctant to say so, in fear of disappointing the people who were excited that I stopped by.

I first noticed this with paganism. When I was looking into neopaganism and druidry, I attracted many neopagans and druids who were excited by the path my journey was leading me down. When it then led me back away from paganism, they mostly kind of faded into the woodwork (with some exceptions- I’ve picked up some good friends along the way). And I was sad to say that I didn’t think paganism or druidry was going to be where I ended up, because I knew those people would be let down in a sense. On the other hand, pagans tend to be really nice, nonjudgmental people, and as long as I’m not making fun of them or damning them to Hel, I’m pretty sure they’ve still got my back.

However, this dilemma was much more acute with atheism. When I ultimately spiralled into nonbelief, I was greeted with accolades and cheers from some of the internet’s atheists, for finally freeing myself from the shackles of atheism and being a mature human being who didn’t need deities as crutches anymore. When I decided that atheism wasn’t going to really work for me, I was reluctant to say so. For starters, accolades are nice. And the opposite of accolades is scorn, and I didn’t really want that.

Of course, I wasn’t really going to let how other people decide how I believe or don’t believe, but there was a minute where I was at least a little bit cagey about saying anything. I was getting so much support for declaring my atheism, and when I recanted, that support would probably vanish.

I say all of that by way of introduction tot his post. My goal hereis to explain why I stopped believing in God and why I started again. This might be a long post, so hang on to your hats.

When I first started seriously questioning the Mormon church last summer, my initial criticisms were centered around my feeling that Mormonism wasn’t Christian enough- Mormonism and Mormon scripture didn’t track closely enough with what I thought Christianity was all about (based on the New Testament, Church history, and the true Christians that I had come across over time). I felt like Mormonism was not leading me closer to Christ, but actually keeping me away from Him. Thus, in leaving Mormonism, my initial question was “what kind of Christian should I be?”

When I started this blog, my wife and I had only recently decided to actually leave Mormonism behind us, after struggling with it for some six months. I had also just read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, and I felt like becoming a Christian was something I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. For some reason I didn’t feel like I already was a Christian, like I was already really committed to Jesus.

The problem was that my reasons for believing in Jesus, and in fact my reasons for believing in God at all, were basically the same reasons I believed in Mormonism. That is, I had simply been raised to assume that they were true, and this assumption was backed up by emotional “spiritual” confirmations. In deciding that those bases were insufficient for continued belief in Mormonism, I also took out the foundation, as flimsy as it may have been, for my entire belief in God. In other words, the same conclusions that made me question my belief in Mormonism made me ultimately question my belief in Jesus Christ and in any kind of God whatesoever.

I was waiting for some kind of mystical experience, some kind of contact with the divine that was the real deal, not the easy “warm fuzzy” self-delusion of Mormonism’s Holy Ghost. I was waiting for God to reach out and shake me, to let me know that he was real, to give me some kind of contact. But it kept not happening.

With that in mind, I began giving a loud voice to my innner skeptic. I started reading Ebon Musings’s essays on atheism, which are honestly extremely compelling and very difficult to dispute. Eventually, I was in a place where I had to admit that I had no real reason to believe in God other than wishful thinking, and if I was to be honest with myself, I would have to admit that I simply did not believe.

It seemed like a destination of sorts. It wasn’t what I was shooting for when I set out towards Byzantium, but maybe the place we intend to be is often a lot less realistic than the place we really wind up. I wasn’t a nihilist or anything; I still had some core beliefs that I was more or less confident in. But I could not say that I affirmatively believed in God.

The thing was, I wasn’t happy. I didn’t really want to be an atheist. I actually like religion! Specifically, I was (and still am) convinced that while an aheist can be a very good and moral person, and that a religious person can be a complete jerkwad, nevertheless for me personally, religion in general and Christianity in specific were going to have a much greater potential to make me the kind of person that I wished I was. I could be a good person and an atheist, that was never in question. But no atheist philosophy was going to actually transform me into a New Man. And Christianity made that promise.

But my problem was that if I was going to believe something, it would have to be more intellectually honest than my beliefs had previously been. No putting doubts on the shelf. No convincing myself until I was convinced. Nothing like that. I wanted to believe, but I didn’t want it so bad that i was willing to delude myself into believing.

So I went about tentatively trying to figure out how I could believe in God despite my loud internal skeptic (but without squashing him and pretending he didn’t exist) and despite the very good and compelling logical arguments against God’s existence, and the generally weak and limp logical arguments for God’s existence.

I read some Kierkegaard. I thought about how God and logic would interact, if there was a God. I thought about doubt, and whether there was a place for it within faith. I read Brian McLaren’s Finding Faith. I thought about hope.

In the end, I made a place where I thought I could theoreticaly believe in God. I had room for God in my framework again. However, having room for God, i.e., acknowledging the possibility of God, doesn’t equal belief in God. If, at that point, I had simply declared myself a believer, I would have been guilty of doing the very thing I was most loathe to do: talking myself into believing. Instead, I let it simmer for awhile.

At the same time, I started thinking seriously about Jesus Christ, and I found him extremely compelling. Christianity still kind of gave me the heebie jeebies, so I was still reluctant to even express interest in the religion. But the man? The more I thought about Jesus, the more I felt like there was something to him. Something more. I wasn’t really sure what it was, but I knew I liked it, and maybe I even needed it.

I then let this stew for a bit. The more I thought about God, the more I thought that maybe God exists after all, despite my efforts to logic him out of existence. And the more I thought about Jesus, the more he seemed electrifying, powerful, important. Much more so than a simple wise moral philosopher, however great he may have been.

When I read C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, I finished the book and realized that after reading it, there was no way I could ever say that I do not believe in God. I can’t explain it very well, because the book touched me on an extremely personal, maybe even primal level. But it completely evaporated all of my defenses. It didn’t resolve my concerns or wipe away all of my doubts or anything, but it spoke loud and clear to me: nevertheless, there is a God. It was a life-changing experience that I can’t do justice in writing or even in speaking- it was so strange and powerful that I have a hard time articulating exactly what it was about the book that changed my whole way of looking at God.

Once I had made room for the possibility of God, Till We Have Faces showed me that God was a sure thing.  All of my anger, my logic, my insecurity, my waffling, and my careful arguments are made completely insignificant when faced with God’s existence.

In any case, that’s where I am now. I am sure that there is a God, and I suspect that Jesus might actually have been God. I’ve not got a lot more than that. I suppose it’s a start. I can’t really be the poster child for honest atheism anymore, but I probably never should have been. I’m not at my destination yet- in fact I don’t know if I’ll ever really “have arrived”- but I like where I’m sailing right now, and I’m interested and excited to see what’s ahead.

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I had a great discussion with my mother a few days ago (she’s a true believing Mormon) about the difference between faith and testimony in Mormon theology, and I’ve been mulling around some thoughts about it ever since.

“Testimony,” as commonly used by Mormons, is an unfortunate term. It’s an umbrella term, a thought-construct composed of several different distinct but related concepts, but they’re all blurred together into one conglomerate noun in the Mormon vernacular. When the Holy Ghost bears witness of the truth of x, a Mormon calls that your testimony. When you tell others the religious things you believe or “know,” that’s also your testimony. Those two I can handle, but the third main use is the most vague and elusive, and the one least based in (even Mormon) scripture and theology. It’s this idea that a testiony is a thing, a noun, an intangible object that you actually have and need to nurture and work on so it grows.

It’s not the same thing as Faith, which is given some pretty clear and basically consistent definitions in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. Paul (or whoever wrote Hebrews) said “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (NIV). In the Book of Mormon, Alma said faith “is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true,” and Moroni said faith is “things which are hoped for and not seen.” None of those are really the same thing that Mormons are talking about when they talk about their testimony. Testimony is the assurance of the truth of Mormonism via mystical experiences.

Faith is consistently couched in terms like “hope.” Your testimony is the things you know. You might talk about faith in terms of certainty, but you would never describe a testimony using the word “hope.” Sure, the terms are similar, but they’re not identical.

In Mormon theology, such as it is, the requirments for salvation are faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the holy ghost, and enduring to the end (which includes getting the necessary ordinances and priesthood, and continuing to develop faith, repent of sins, and renew your baptismal covenant by taking the sacrament). Testimony per se is not a requirement for the Celestial Kingdom. There’s not testimony checker at the pearly gates. Nevertheless, Mormons constantly talk about the necessity of having a testimony, as if it is basically the most important thing in Mormonism.

It has no real connected place in Mormon theology, so why is it necessary? All of the critical steps (the principles and ordinances of the gospel) for salvation are obtainable without ever once feeling the Holy Ghost, much less Getting a Testimony.

There’s a weird inconsistency yhere that bothers me. Basically, what it boils down to is that Mormonism in practice focuses almost obsessively on the need for the individual to experience successive, ongoing conversion experiences. No wonder Mormons are able to simply ignore their doubts and criticisms of the church that they hear! They are spending their time and effort constantly converting themselves. Why? I think it’s because without constant conversion-as-reinforcement, Mormonism doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Testimony may not actually be a requirement for salvation in Mormonism, but if you aren’t constantly cultivating mystical confirmations of the Church’s truth, you’re far less likely to stay a member of a Church that is heavy-handed, authoritarian, wildly implausible, and extremely demanding.

I don’t really believe there is such a thing as “having a testimony.” I think that you can experience God through the Holy Spirit, and I think you can yourself bear witness to things you believe are true, but as far as this nebulous thing that you have, I think it’s a mental and cultural construct with no real existence. It’s a doublespeak term tat obscures what’s going on. Faith is something that you have. Testimony is something you hear or give.

Given that opinion, why then does it bother me when people say I must not have ever really had a testimony, seeing as how I left the Church. I mean, if I don;t believe that testimony exists, at least the way they’re talking about it, why do I care if they say I never had one? Again, it comes down to the nebulous doublespeak use of the term. When someone says I never had a testimony, they’re actually questioning whether I ever was really ommitted to the Church, and that pisses me off. I was raised in the Church, and I was a faithful member. I scrupulously tried to keep the commandments. I graduated from early morning seminary. I served an honorable mission and I worked incredibly hard, both physically and spiritually. I read the Book of Mormon again and again, not as a skeptic, but as an earnest believer. I married in the temple, which took great personal sacrifices on my part and on my wife’s part. I always paid a full tithe, and I gave generous fast offerings. I magnified my callings. I prayed daily. When doubts came, I did my best to resolve them. I tried to me a member-missionary, and I even tried my best to do my home teaching. I did everything I was supposed to do to “get a testimony,” and I did it with pure intentions, because I honestly thought it was all the right thing to do.

The Church promises that if you do this stuff, you’ll Get A Testimony. Thus, when people say I must not have had a testimony, they are insinuating that I never did the things that were required to get one, and that impugns my integrity and my earnestness, and that bothers me a lot.

I have to say that I believe that the Church is simply not true, at least it is not true the way it claims to be. It may be a fine place for some people, but it is certainly not God’s one true church, restored in these latter days in preparation for the second coming, led by living prophets, etc. I have no problem with people disagreeing with me, but I do have a problem with people assuming that the only reason I came to the conclusion I did is that I wasn’t really genuinely committed and faithful in the first place. That’s just insulting.

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Hope

In all of this search for elusive faith, maybe I realy needed to start with hope instead.  I don’t know if I really have faith right now, but I feel like I have hope. And I feel like this is a big deal.

I grew up Mormon, which means the focus is on faith and testimony.  Hope isn’t given a prominent place.  I mean, it’s in the scriptures and everything, but it doesn’t really figure prominently into the Plan of Salvation unless its equated with Alma’s “desire to believe.”  But I don’t think hope is necessarily merely a lesser, subordinate or stepping-stone to the superior faith.  I think hope might be something completely independent of faith, but really important.

Is hope the same thing as “wishful thinking” which I’ve been extremely wary about? Maybe. Maybe it’s the other side of wishful thinking. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking from another perspective. Maybe the difference is what you do with it, how you react to it, that makes the difference between wishful thinking and hope.

I have nothing that looks even remotely like faith.  But I think hope is something that I can muster.  I wonder if that’s enough to get started with?

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