Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: The Call

February 11, 2011 | 19 comments
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Hakuin - Blind Men Crossing BridgeIt is a commonplace in Zen that three things are necessary for liberation. If you want to wake up from the slumber of self-absorption, if you want to live your life outside the suffocating confines of that mason jar that is your own head, you need (1) great faith, (2) great doubt, and (3) great effort.

As Mormons, we’re famous for valorizing the third. We’re also often good at promoting the first. But when was the last time you heard a talk extolling the need to cultivate great doubt?

The Zen masters were likely right to see all three as essential. It is not enough to trust and build. Ground must also be cleared.

In Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Maxwell Institute, 2010), Jim Faulconer makes a similar point in relation to reading scripture:

We often speak of and use scripture as if it were a set of propositions that are poorly expressed or, at best, “merely” poetic. We then try to discover the propositional content (doctrine) that we assume is lurking behind or implicit in those poorly expressed or poetic expressions and to disentangle the relations of those propositions. (63)

In short, we try to cheat and take the scriptures simply as an object of faith or a guide to effort.

But that approach misunderstands scripture. Instead of a poetic expression of implicit propositional truths, it is an inspired resource that allows us to question ourselves and our world through reading and reflection. (63)

Sometimes scripture answers our questions. But – perhaps more often and more powerfully – it questions our answers.

Scripture comes to us as a call, as a call to repent, to rethink, to turn around, to be different, to respond. It comes not simply as an answer, but as a question. In particular, it comes as a question that calls me into question.

Scripture fills me with doubt. Not banal religious doubt about the existence of God or the appearance of angels, but real religious doubt – doubt about me, about my actions, about their justification, about my grasp of the world, about my adequacy and sufficiency, about my comfort and my consumption, about my faithfulness or lack thereof. This great doubt pulls my self-understanding up by the roots and, with a wild swing, shakes loose the dirt.

To survive (and even thrive) in the face of these doubts, you must have both great faith and great effort. In fact, you must have great faith in the very call that thrusts you into doubt.

It is scary.

You will have hold to that rod with which you’ve been struck. You will have to press forward, with great effort and in great faith. You will have to shed the skin of what you thought you were and what you thought you knew. You will have to unscrew that hermetic mason jar from off your head and, for once, breath in God’s green air.

The scriptures are a crow bar: a tool meant not just to hammer us home but – just as surely – to pry us loose.

You must work and trust. But don’t forget to doubt.

[Picture: Hakuin Ekaku’s “Two Blind Men on a Bridge”]

19 Responses to Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: The Call

  1. Alan Jackson on February 11, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    You might have a different definition of doubt, but my first thought was the standard line that faith and doubt are opposites:

    Thomas S Monson: “Remember that faith and doubt cannot exist in the same mind at the same time” (http://lds.org/pa/display/0,17884,5931-1,00.html)

  2. Michael on February 11, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    Alan,

    In this context I think that doubt may be more analogous to questioning. My motto is “never doubt – always question”. Faith cannot be built on doubt but it can, and must be built on questioning. Questioning can also allow for the ground to be cleared as Adam mentions in the original post. The challenge comes in first recognizing that the structures we have already built upon that ground should be razed. The foundation can remain but the buildings should be constructed, re-constructed, modified, and renovated throughout life.

  3. Alan Jackson on February 11, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    To expand a little, when reading scriptures, I certainly learn things that correct mistakenly held beliefs. If I read something that tells me something I thought was ok is really not, I don’t doubt myself, I correct the notion I had and commit to do better in the future.

    I certainly acknowledge that there is much that I don’t know and I worry that I’m often making the wrong choice, but I have faith enough to try to make the best decisions with the information that I have and always expand what I know.

  4. Alan Jackson on February 11, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Michael, sorry I posted that before I read your last comment.

    I agree with doubt as defined always question. It’s a tough word/concept to explain, but my general feeling is that way too many people take “always question/doubt” too far. In fact, among people who think about things, maybe the tendency is to generally take it too far. Maybe we have to remember what *not* to question more often than remember to question things.

    Maybe “never doubting–always learning”?

  5. Adam Miller on February 11, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    Yes, I think the key here has to do with the crucial yoking of doubt, effort, and faith. None of these is much good without the others. The context is key.

  6. Adam Greenwood on February 11, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    Sensible.

    The danger with contextualizing and historical approaches to scripture–what we commonly call ‘non-literal’ understandings–is that we usually do it more with scriptures that disturb us, or cause us to doubt in your terminology.

  7. Adam Miller on February 11, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    Also note that the kind of “doubt” in question is specifically not doubt about the existence of God, angels, golden plates, the church, etc.

  8. DKL on February 12, 2011 at 2:00 am

    The basic problem with taking a literal view of the scriptures is that they’re morally repugnant. The New Testament is brimming with anti-Semetism. Jesus forgives the adulteress — hooray for him! — but he has no words of comfort for those whom she has hurt, like her husband or her children or the wife of the man she had sexual relations with. In spite of the occasional calls for love, they drip with condemnation for people who are different from us. The scriptures challenge us, because we must find value in them in spite of the fact that those who literally follow the admonitions of the scriptures are evil people. This frequently requires that we try to contextualize the scripture to a time different from our own or push past the literal message to a figurative one, but treating the scriptures this way is far preferable to following their literal teachings.

  9. Oatmeal on February 12, 2011 at 11:11 am

    I think this quote will add something to the discourse. It is a portion of Terryl Givens’ testimony:

    “If I have a spiritual gift it is perhaps an immense capacity for doubt…. In the course of my spiritual pilgrimage, my innate capacity for doubt led me to the insight that faith is a choice. That the call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true, and have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true. I am convinced that there must be grounds for doubt as well as belief, for only in these conditions of equilibrium and balance, equally ‘enticed by the one or the other,’ is my heart truly free to choose belief or cynicism, faith or faithlessness. Under these conditions, what I choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who I am and what I love.”

    For more see http://mormonscholarstestify.org/1904/terryl-l-givens

  10. Adam Miller on February 12, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Re #9: Thanks, Oatmeal/Terryl.

    Re #8: I think, DKL, I would rather say that scripture – with all its sharp edges and rough surfaces – is sometimes morally questionable. I think, though, that Jim’s point is that these sharp edges are not just an occasion for me to question scripture but, importantly and simultaneously, they are an occasion for me to question my assumptions about what is and is not what moral, what God would or would not do, while confessing once again the narrow limits of my own grasp of how things really are. But if the questioning doesn’t go both ways, then reading scripture is not a redemptive occasion.

  11. Krissie Ireland on February 12, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Wow, love this post! I’m a doubter. And that doesn’t mean I lack faith.
    I really love the writings of the Quakers. From the “Advices and Queries” of the Quakers in Britain: “Take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light. Remember the importance of the Bible, the writings of Friends and all writings which reveal the ways of God. As you learn from others, can you in turn give freely from what you have gained? While respecting the experiences and opinions of others, do not be afraid to say what you have found and what you value. Appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth and to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.”
    The last time I bore my testimony I said simply that I wasn’t really sure about the church, but that I know that Jesus Christ lives and that I have a Father in Heaven. I can only be honest about what I feel and what I know. And sorry if this comes up twice, my two year old was messing around with the computer…

  12. DKL on February 12, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    I’m dubious of calling it morally questionable — because it seems to indicate that there is some morally ambiguous quality about the parts of the scriptures that every moral person must out-and-out reject, like the extermination of the Ammonites, which was so important to God that He was willing to reject a king and end his dynasty just for failing to kill them, or Jesus’s constant polemic against the family.

  13. Jader3rd on February 13, 2011 at 12:08 am

    I think that in this context we can substitute the word ‘doubt’ with ‘humility’. If I’ve read everything correctly, the ariticle is trying to point out that for scriptures to have their desired effect, we must be willing to change what we currently believe when we run across something in the scriptures which conflicts with our current point of view. If someone was trying to explain that concept to me without the word doubt I would say “You’re describing humility”.
    One thing which is nice by describing it as doubt is that it’s not blind faith. Hypothetical situation: I read something in the scriptures and given my current understanding of Life, Universe and Everything, I could end up thinking “That doens’t feel right”. Do I immediatly throw out everything I’ve previously learned from personal experience? No. Do I cast out what I just read and figure some wicked midevil priest transcribed it in there? No. I try to reconcile the two. Does it happen instantly? Generally not. Perhaps years later the Spirit reveals to me that both my previous understanding, and what I had read at that point where both less than perfect and I am enlightened with new knowledge. After all, I am imperfect and could have read it wrong.
    So would doubt be concidered a component of humility or humility a component of doubt?

  14. Adam Miller on February 13, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Re #13: This is a substantial and useful response and a good question. I’m inclined to say that doubt is an essential component of humility. In fact, it seems essential to all three: faith, doubt, and effort.

    I’d like to shift, though, the focus of your example a little bit. As Jim presents it, scripture primarily questions with a kind of existential force.

    That is to say, even when I read something that is morally unquestionable and doctrinally straightforward (indeed, perhaps especially then) the scriptures still fill me with doubt because they forcefully call into question my own efforts to actually believe and live what I’m being told.

    This is the primary sense of Jim’s point, I think. The other, stickier examples are of a related but secondary character.

  15. kcn on February 14, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    Hi everybody, long time lurker, first time poster.

    Before I criticize, I want to affirm my good will by saying that I enjoyed the post, as well as Faulconer’s book. The writing was very evocative and entertaining – and did you know that Adam gets a shoutout on page 66? That’s pretty cool. Anyway, on to business.

    I think that a lot of great comments have been made above me, so I’ll focus on what hasn’t been addressed:

    “Scripture fills me with doubt. Not banal religious doubt about the existence of God or the appearance of angels, but real religious doubt…”

    This thought seems to convey that people’s doubts exist to entertain. In some sense, all of our lives could be described as deeply banal. The most important things in life are common, such as a sacrament meeting or Arendt’s evil. I believe God speaks through the banal more often than the novel.

    My other quibble concerns the use of Zen teaching. Unless you are trying to come to the realization of the nonduality of subject and object, I don’t think you are respecting zen. It would be somewhat like someone inspired by Nietzsche interpreting the Mormon concept of heaven, with its emphasis on the continuation of what is best in this life, as an attempt to make Christianity less life-denying.

    In order to credibly use zen to inform Mormonism, I think you’ll need to speak with it more directly. Why should we think that advice given toward the end end of nirvana would help me with scriptural exegesis, or even life in general? I think that the assumption of some perennial philosophy lurks behind your appropriation of zen, and I think we should hesitate to embrace it.

    Hopefully I haven’t overstated my case – perhaps earlier posts cover these issues.

  16. BHodges on February 14, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Thanks for this post. I wonder how 1 Chronicles chapter 3 fit Jim’s view of what constitutes scripture, and what benefit can be gained by reading it. Couldn’t a myriad of texts, upon acceptance, be read as scripture in this way, an existential force which calls into question our views and morals, etc?

  17. Jim F. on February 14, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    BHodges: “Couldn’t a myriad of texts, upon acceptance, be read as scripture in this way, an existential force which calls into question our views and morals, etc?”

    Sure. In fact, that’s our experience with great literature. But that all scripture does this doesn’t mean that everything that does it is scripture. What is scripture is something decided by communities. They designate which texts are the ones that identify the community of believers.

    I’ve said elsewhere: “The collection of texts proper to a particular religious community first of all identifies those who are part of that community by bringing them together in an act of self-recognition (‘We are the ones who read these books’). Then, having identified the community, the canonical collection of texts perpetuates that community through its continued recognition of its texts. In the same way that body and memory serve as attestations of self-identity (on-going self-identity), scripture and its interpretation serve as an attestation of the ongoing identity of the community.”

    Philosophy and the academic study of literature have their scriptures, just as do religions. I’m sure other kinds of communities also have scripture. But for a religious community to assert that certain texts are scriptural is to attest that–for this community–they speak the name of God and point us toward him. I think scripture does this by questioning us within a particular community and tradition.

  18. Kung Goo Panda on February 15, 2011 at 5:43 am

    I was THRILLED with the art and the zen embrace. I believe in truth. ALL TRUTH! To disregard something ‘praiseworthy’ over the interpretation of a word, concept, or Sutra is very Lamanish. To overlook the sweet concept is as narrow minded as the Pharisees and healing on the Sabbath. If we are truly Saints- If we are swimming in ‘Living Water’- If we are following President Monson’s advice, if we believe the articles of faith…ALL OF THEM. We will find virtue in Zen. We will stay open to higher laws, new concepts, & understanding. We will liken “doubt(2)” to the words of King Benjamin describing our extreme nothingness. We will discuss concepts with an open mind and heart while we strengthen our testimony with confirmation from the Spirit of Truth. Anything that is virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy aren’t we supposed to seek after not tear asunder? Thanks to Adam for ‘seeking’ outside the box.
    P.S to Krissie Ireland- Two outta 3 ain’t bad. You have Heavenly Father- You have Jesus- all you need now is the Holy Ghost and you will be laughing all the way to the stand with your awesome testimony of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. The church is true- like Hugh Nibley said to me Ma, “Don’t get tradition and opinion mixed up with the truth of the gospel” Read the Book of Mormon backwards. Start with Moroni cause like Peter…He rocks.

  19. M. Buxton on February 15, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    I think kcn raises a potentially valid point about the use of zen. I don’t know enough personally about zen to say, but I think too often we are tempted to use frameworks or examples outside of our own cultural/religous tradition in a superficial way. To the extent Kung Goo Panda was responding to kcn, I don’t think kcn was saying we cannot learn from zen, but that we should seek an authentic understanding (trying to understand it on its own terms, not simply to appropriate similar terms and apply them in a superficial way). Again, I am not sure that is what Adam was doing, but it may be.

    More broadly, however, I found Adam’s point about doubt and scripture very insightful. It actually tracks some of the thoughts I had this past Sunday. Someone in Sunday School said the line about faith and doubt not being able to exist together (see the Pres. Monson quote in the first comment), and I bristled a little because that is not my experience of faith. I thought of the phrase, “I believe, help thou my unbelief” and of Alma 32’s admonishment to let a “desire to believe” work within us. At least in these examples, it seems that doubt and faith are existing at the same time. To deny that we as adults have doubts about even some “banal” truths, I think is at a minimum odd and possibly dangerous. Yes, in one sense, we should try to banish our doubts. But in another sense (and this is the sense that I equate with Adam’s original post and the quote from Givens), our doubt is useful (even necessary) for our spiritual progression.