The God Who Weeps: Faith

October 25, 2012 | 20 comments
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I agree with The God Who Weeps that faith is a decision, but I disagree about the site of this decision.

In its first chapter, Weeps argues that most people must exercise faith because they are uncertain about what to believe. Only our uncertainty about God makes our faithful decision meaningful. Otherwise, “an overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads.” (111/2408)

But I doubt that this kind of doubt is ordinary. In this same chapter, Weeps describes the death of a friend who had a native faith that “did not seem a choice for her. It descended upon her as naturally and irresistibly as the heavy snow that fell on her upstate New York farm.” (98/2408) If this friend’s belief in God was natural and irresistible, is there room left for meaningful faith in her life? If not, why not?

Rather, I agree with Jacob Baker that in religion the most salient feature of belief is often its involuntary character. Beliefs are generally given as common sense conclusions drawn from a shared but unchosen background of practices, institutions, and assumptions. Depending on this infrastructure, God’s existence may or may not show up as a common sense conclusion. But, in either case, it is a conclusion that is unlikely to be freely chosen.

What then of faith?

When slipping from one existential framework to another, you may experience a dark night of the soul. But faith is necessary even (and perhaps especially) when you’re firmly settled. Faith is not generally a choice about what to believe but a choice about how we respond to the difficulties that press us in an unchosen world.

Faith is not the same thing as common sense. It may be that, for you, God’s reality is so natural and so consonant with common sense that you’ve never doubted it and don’t have to work at believing in it. God is just plain given as part of how things are. This is true for many people. Believing in God isn’t something they chose any more than they chose to believe that the sky is blue. They couldn’t unchoose it if they tried. But this isn’t enough. Though this native, common sense acceptance of God’s reality can be a blessing, it can also get in the way of practicing real faith. It can lull you into thinking the hard work of losing your soul is done when, in fact, you haven’t even started.

On the other hand, it may be true that, for you, the existence of God is so unlikely and runs so counter to common sense that even an earnest kind of wishful thinking is more than you can credibly muster. God is just not given to you as part of how things are. This is also true for many people. Not-believing just is and this is not the result of sin or the product of something they chose or could magically unchoose. Though this common sense godlessness can make things harder, it too can open a path to practicing faith. It may free you from common sense idolatries.

Neither kind of common sense is faith. Whether God is or isn’t obvious to you, the work is the same: practice faithfully attending to the difficult, disturbing, and resistant truths God sets knocking at your door. Faith is a willingness to lose your soul in caring for what’s right in front of you. Faith doesn’t wish these difficult things away. It invites them in, breaks bread with them, and washes their feet. Faith gives to what is given.

Common sense theist, common sense atheist, common sense (or anguished!) agnostic: the work is the same. Each must practice faith. Each must choose to care rather than wish or run.

Weeps claims that “the greatest act of self-revelation occurs when we choose what we will believe, in that space of freedom that exists between knowing that a thing is, and knowing that a thing is not.” (137/2408)

I’m hesitant to agree. It seems to me that the greatest act of revelation comes when we lose the self in faithfully caring for what God gave unchosen.

We may or may not know that a thing is. Faith is what we do either way.

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Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012).

20 Responses to The God Who Weeps: Faith

  1. unknown on October 25, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    Perhaps, I am not understanding the sense in which you are are and the God Who Weeps are using the term “faith,” but the scriptures and Brethren teach that faith is a gift to be sought – not always a choice to make.

  2. Trevor on October 25, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    I wish we could just return to the original meaning of “faith”, i.e. loyalty/commitment. That’s always a choice.

    But belief? I really like the idea that belief, to a degree (depending on circumstances, experiences, etc), can a choice. But outside that range, which will vary person to person, belief is as much a choice as a “loaded gun pointed at our heads”.

  3. Latter-day Guy on October 25, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    Unknown, I’m not sure that’s the majority position now:

    “Yes, faith is a choice… Thus, we are responsible for our own faith. We are also responsible for our lack of faith. The choice is yours.”
    —Richard C. Edgley (Faith – The Choice is Yours, Oct 2010 General Conference)

  4. Cameron N on October 25, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Well, I think faith is both a choice and a gift. We choose to believe, and as we act on belief, we receive the gift of faith line upon line until the perfect day. To some it is given to know, to others to believe on their words. I don’t bother thinking about the definition of faith too much, I usually just think: well, I have undeniably felt and heard the Spirit, and thus I should do a, b, c, etc…

  5. DLewis on October 25, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    I think this is spot on. While I’ve always been intrigued by Givens’s argument that the evidence for God neutral enough to force us to decide, this strikes me as a very modern outlook on faith that would have little to say to how religion has been lived and practiced for centuries, even through today. And I also agree that beliefs are not something we “choose,” though we might altar the grounds of our faith to encourage certain beliefs over others.

  6. Martin on October 25, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    I like the perspective of this post, but words like “faith” can be used to mean different things by different people, and even by the same person at different times. Consequently, if you think of “faith” as a choice, it seems likely to me that you’ll run up against scriptures that may contradict you (though one doesn’t immediately come to mind).

  7. Blake on October 25, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    What both Givens’s and Adam’s approaches miss in my view is that “faith” is both more than and distinct from belief. The words in Hebrew (‘emunah) Greek (pistis) and Latin “fiducia”) translated “faith” all have in common that the primary meaning in the semantic field is interpersonal trust. That God is trustworthy is an essential belief that under-girds this trusting faith, but it is not the primary meaning. This kind of trust is also the focus of the Lectures on Faith — which I believe are surprisingly insightful on such issues.

    I choose what heart I shall proceed from. Will it be an open heart willing to listen and feel, or will I close it to others? Will I put up walls and barriers to my heart, or will I choose to be vulnerable to them? The power of faith is thus the power of vulnerability to others; not solely or even primarily of a cognitive decision.

    However, I agree with Givens against Adam to this extent: I must have cognitive space to doubt to be able to close my heart to God so that His non-presence and obviousness are a real possibility for me to have a genuine relationship. If I could not help but to be aware of God’s constant love for me I would have no capacity to make a choice to turn away. If I could not close my heart, become hard and past feeling, then I could not avoid the obviousness of God’s presence. If God’s presence remained always in my heart, then I could not choose to hide from him behind the bushes and leaves in the Garden He Himself made for me.

    The central issue is then the choice whether to become self-deceived, to hide from ourselves what in some sense we already know so well it is a part of our very existential being. Faith is the willingness to be open and vulnerable in our very being. It is a decision made at the very core of who and what we are, in our “heart.” It is a decision so fundamental that once he have chosen our way of being in the world, or the nature of the heart from which we proceed, we have already determined what we can and cannot believe and “see” with the eyes of faith. Our “faith” is thus an expression of the state of our hearts. We are accountable for that state, but not the ability to believe what we do once we have made this existential decision. (I admit that my views, like Jacobs, are heavily influenced by my exposure to Kierkeggard on this issue).

  8. Adam Miller on October 25, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    Blake, I believe you just restated my own position.

  9. Blake on October 25, 2012 at 6:25 pm

    Adam: Just goes to show how obtuse I am when it comes to interpreting what you write. If you agree with me, then I must be right even though I was wrong?

  10. Adam Miller on October 25, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    We are always both right when you’re wrong :)

  11. Andrew S. on October 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    I appreciate reading posts that takes faith away from the dimension of belief or lack of belief, choosing to believe or choosing not to believe — because in my experience, belief really isn’t a choice.

    So, moving from there…

    Whether God is or isn’t obvious to you, the work is the same: practice faithfully attending to the difficult, disturbing, and resistant truths God sets knocking at your door. Faith is a willingness to lose your soul in caring for what’s right in front of you. Faith doesn’t wish these difficult things away. It invites them in, breaks bread with them, and washes their feet. Faith gives to what is given.

    What are these difficult, disturbing, and resistant truths? What is right in front of us that we must lose our soul in caring for?

  12. Adam Miller on October 26, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    Andrew. Good question. Our lives. Our bodies. Our parents and wives and husbands and children. Our homes. Our neighbors. Our enemies. Our sicknesses. Our weaknesses. Our deaths. Our vanity and beauty. The least of these things.

  13. Latter-day Guy on October 26, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    “If I could not help but to be aware of God’s constant love for me I would have no capacity to make a choice to turn away.”

    How does this square with the normal LDS understanding of the pre-mortal life and the fall of Lucifer? If we are talking specifically about God’s love (and not simply his existence), then perhaps it makes sense that one could close oneself to that love, even while knowing that such a being exists. But surely that’s a different matter from God’s existence being in doubt. More simply, if the Devil, knowing God existed, had the freedom to choose God or reject him, why does our freedom depend on not knowing with certainty his existence? (Maybe I’ve misunderstood you.)

  14. Andrew S. on October 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    I agree with what Latter-day Guy is saying in #13 as well…

    Since God’s trustworthiness/love/righteousness/goodness/morality is not self-evident from his existence, it is entirely possible to imagine a situation where one knows that God exists, but still must choose whether to trust God. To put in another way, even if one knew God existed, that would *not* necessarily mean that one would “be aware of God’s constant love for” him…because God’s love might not be recognizable to us as such.

    But the fact that many folks don’t even know (or even perceive compelling reason to believe) that God exists, and God doesn’t really seem to care about changing this situation, seems more like a cruel joke. You’re supposed to trust something you don’t even know exists, but that if you knew for a surety existed, you wouldn’t necessarily find trustworthy. (Now, to respond with: “It’s not a joke…it makes sense from a godly perspective” is precisely to confirm my earlier statement — God’s perspective doesn’t necessarily seem right/moral/trustworthy to us.)

    Andrew. Good question. Our lives. Our bodies. Our parents and wives and husbands and children. Our homes. Our neighbors. Our enemies. Our sicknesses. Our weaknesses. Our deaths. Our vanity and beauty. The least of these things.

    But where does God come into play? Where are these God’s resistant truths?

  15. Blake on October 26, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Andrew S: “Since God’s trustworthiness/love/righteousness/goodness/morality is not self-evident from his existence, it is entirely possible to imagine a situation where one knows that God exists, but still must choose whether to trust God.”

    I would say this observation receives considerable support from the fact that the devils believe in God and tremble as stated in James 2:19. That fact does not do them much good.

  16. Andrew S. on October 27, 2012 at 6:09 am

    Blake,

    so in what way is God’s non-presence/non-obviousness necessary to provide cognitive space to doubt?

  17. Blake on October 27, 2012 at 10:37 am

    Andrew: In the same way that you cannot doubt that the sun is in the sky while you are looking at it.

  18. Julia Taylor on October 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    I don’t know that I understand everything, not even close, but Cameron’s explanation feels right in the same way that following a prompting feels right. I don’t think I have ever been at risk of losing my faith in God. In men, the structure if the church, whether God would accept me, or if Christ will claim me as his; those I doubt regularly. For me, faith is trusting that the promptings that testify of Heavenly Father and Mother, have echos as they testify of those less absolute truth.

    I guess I sound more like a poet than an academic. Lol.

  19. Andrew S. on October 28, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    re 17,

    Blake,

    But you’re conflating two things: 1) God’s existence and 2) God’s trustworthiness/morality/goodness/etc.,

  20. Carey on October 30, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    I think Blake’s “The central issue is then the choice whether to become self-deceived, to hide from ourselves what in some sense we already know so well it is a part of our very existential being. Faith is the willingness to be open and vulnerable in our very being”

    EQUALS

    Adam’s “Faith is a willingness to lose your soul in caring for what’s right in front of you….Each must choose to care rather than wish or run.”

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