On Faithful Puzzlement, Belief, and Choice

August 12, 2013 | 29 comments
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I thoroughly enjoyed Rosalynde’s FAIR talk, “Disenchanted Mormonism”! Thank you, Rosalynde!

I really like the way she presents doubt as something that can be a productive and legitimate place to inhabit indefinitely, even while there is an active hope for greater knowledge and confidence in the future. I also really like how she embraces what we don’t choose, including the fact that we (at least many of us) are members of the body of Christ and of the church largely independent of personal choice.

I have a question for Rosalynde, though: isn’t there still a pretty significant form of belief, and of choice, involved in the attention and observance you describe? It seems to me that while we sometimes talk about belief as though it involves a casting aside of doubt, belief can just as well, and perhaps even more legitimately should, be a form of trust exercised in the midst of doubt, trust precisely in the sense of embracing what is uncertain. This is the subtle combination I take to be reflected in “I believe; help thou my unbelief.” In this sense, by fasting, for instance, one exercises a belief that fasting is good and worthwhile, even without claiming any certainty about it. I would say that faith is active hope, hope that one invests in through the way one acts.

And in this there is choice, is there not? I agree that to a great extent we are members of the church, those of us who are, independent of our choice. Yet the choices we make from day to day either strengthen or weaken that state and relationship, and eventually can make or break it. You choose to fast on a given day or not, even if one option or the other hardly seems like a serious option. It’s not as though you are carried along independent of your will in fasting; rather, your will carries you along, even when you the alternative does not cross your mind.

I think your critique of Terryl Givens’ radical notion of choice is perceptive, Rosalynde, but I feel like you are going too far to the opposite extreme in your analysis. When you try to separate puzzlement from belief and choice, you are reacting to an unrealistic notion of belief and choice, precisely because humans are not the kinds of radically autonomous creatures you see in Terryl’s description. I would say, instead, that in your description of faithful puzzlement, manifested through active and willing attention and observance to the church and its teachings and practices, you are describing the kind of mixture of action and passion, confidence and diffidence, freedom and constraint, attention and inattention, choice and receptivity, that are really the essence of the human condition.

I am eager to hear your thoughts (especially Rosalynde’s, but everyone else’s too . . .).

29 Responses to On Faithful Puzzlement, Belief, and Choice

  1. g.wesley on August 12, 2013 at 11:53 am

    christopher partridge’s work on the reenchantment of the west (2 vols.) offers an interesting counterbalance to the notion of disenchantment (a la max weber).

    i think in a lot of aspects early mormonism itself can be well understood within partidge’s model as a move to reenchantment. e.g. the book of mormon is a reenchanted bible.

    and of course, there are contemporary groups more or less loosely related to the lds church that are reenchantments of what they perceive to be a disenchanted mormonism.

  2. Old Man on August 12, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Rosalynde states that “I’m Mormon to the bone and have been shaped by LDS teachings in every particular.” Yet she searches for “a way of living as an engaged Latter-day Saint even if one lacks a strong spiritual sensibility, as I do.”

    With due respect to the author, that is either a complete cop-out or a request for the impossible. Can one live as an “engaged” Latter-day Saint without nourishing the spirit and gaining spiritual sensitivity and appreciation for spiritual world? It would be like claiming that one could become a master musician and artist while lacking the emotional and spiritual sensitivity to produce quality work.

    I would argue that while some may lack spiritual gifts or propensities for a deeply spiritual life, eventually that sensitivity will develop. It comes in answer to prayer as one goes about one’s work. Note that I am NOT suggesting that one should fake it. And while their are many varieties of Latter-day Saints, I don’t think anyone should be so comfortable in the Church that they fail to see the need for their own growth and progress.

  3. Last Lemming on August 12, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    I have had people tell me that I have a “certain spirituality” about me. I have no idea what they are talking about. I suspect the same could be true of Rosalynde.

  4. Steve Smith on August 12, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    Excellent observation, Ben. I also took the time to read Rosalynde’s essay, and while I liked it and found that many of her points resonated with me, I came away with a similar impression. Rosalynde’s essay is already based on the belief that consciously suspending judgment about a number of questions, attending, and observing are actually worthwhile. And that in and of itself is significant. The problem that the LDS church faces in keeping up activity rates isn’t always people expressing active doubt about its claims, but the widespread belief held by many that organized religion is not worth their time. Much like many active LDS people believe it unnecessary to spend much time and effort pondering the historicity of the Qur’an or the Hindu Vedas and their relevance in their lives, many people (including those once active in the LDS church) believe it unnecessary to spend time concerning themselves with matters Mormon. Their response to whether or not they believe the Book of Mormon to be an ancient text, or Joseph Smith to be a true prophet, is that those are irrelevant issues and they don’t care.

    Old Man, you may be right. Rosalynde’s beliefs don’t disqualify her from being LDS, but they certainly appear to limit her level of potential engagement with the LDS church. For the LDS church itself strongly encourages members to testify of Joseph Smith’s prophethood, the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, and ‘knowing’ truthfulness through prayer and by the ‘spirit’, and tends to express disappointment at the suspended judgment/puzzlement attitude advocated by Rosalynde.

  5. YvonneS on August 12, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    I read Rosaylinde’s piece. I think it is well thought out and that she is truly a Mormon. I think most Mormons are more like her than are different from her. No one really knows all the things we teach are 100% true. All of us doubt and have faith that what we believe is true. Faith is not knowledge. Faith is the evidence of things we do not know. By doing all the things she says she does, she does because of her faith not her knowledge. And she points to her sincere beliefs. The way to tell if a person believes is not to go to testimony meeting and listen to what they say–that might help–but you can tell by what they do.

    The problem I had with the piece was that it sounds like she does it. She just doesn’t feel very secure, unless she is just making it all up.

  6. Ben H on August 12, 2013 at 7:10 pm

    Old Man, your reaction is really not fair. It’s not as though Rosalynde is pretending that spiritual attunement is unimportant for Mormons. She openly acknowledges her situation is at least a tricky fit, and then asks whether there might still be an approach available to her that makes sense and is faithful. If you answer is, “No, what you’re looking for is not possible,” you need to at least say so in a way that responds to the rather interesting set of ideas she puts forward on how it might be possible. To suggest she is copping out makes it seem like you haven’t seriously read her talk.

    YvonneS, I’m with you: by their fruits shall ye know them. As far as I can tell, Rosalynde has planted the seed, is nurturing it, and is even enjoying some of the fruits. I don’t know what else we should be looking for, by way of faith.

    Elder Bednar, in a September 2010 New Era article, says, “The process of discerning between our will and God’s will becomes less and less of a concern as time goes by and as we strive to rid ourselves of worldliness . . . as we mature spiritually, we begin to develop sound judgment, a refined and educated conscience, and a heart and mind filled with wisdom . . . the Holy Ghost has over time been expanding our intellect, forming our feelings, sharpening and elevating our perspective, such that we increasingly think and feel and act as the Lord would under similar circumstances.”

    Part of what I take him to be saying is that, to the extent that what comes naturally to us is what God wants us to do, we may not feel that there is some outside force guiding us. We could just think of this as God not fixing what ain’t broken, but what Elder Bednar seems to be suggesting is that over time the Spirit’s influence becomes incorporated into who we are, so that the guidance of the Spirit is not coming from outside; it is built into us to a large extent. Maybe that’s a lot of what Rosalynde is experiencing.

  7. Mtnmarty on August 12, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    This was posted by Ben not Rosalynde but what I would ask her is whether she has a “spiritual” perception of other people.

    In other words, does she experience other people as spiritual beings or as automatons. For example, if a person didn’t find anything beautiful or enjoyed torturing animals or found acts of service to be irrational, would she experience them as biologically unfortunate or as lacking a spirit?

    If she is wondering why she doesn’t believe in otherworldly spirituality, the place to start would seem to be with wordly spirits: those of other people. It also sounds like her experience has been so full of spiritual people that she is comparing herself to a self-selected group of very spiritually attuned people.

    I don’t know if this would work, but I think that it is at least a possibility that if she spent some time in prisons, strip clubs, divorce courts, pawn shops and casinos she might find that she is a surprisingly spiritual person. At least that is where spirituality calls to me most strongly. Its all a bit relative.

  8. DLewis on August 12, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    Thanks, Ben, for posting this and pointing me to Welch’s piece. I resonate with it a lot–I’ve found myself drawn to the “religious not spiritual” moniker and I agree with her that the “crisis” paradigm has not fit my own experience very well.

    Could you help me clarify what you mean by “belief” here, Ben, because I’m having a tough time parsing it. The way you use belief in regards to fasting feels closer to the word “affirm” or “trust,” something along the lines of “I believe/trust exercise is good for you.” But “belief” in a Mormon context usually relates to one’s convictions about specific truth claims that are objectively unverifiable and rely on spiritual experience (BoM is true, JS was a true prophet, etc.). It is not tied to a specific practice, but something seemingly more transcendant. In a way, Welch seems to be working backwards from the usual Mormon conversion narrative: while Preach My Gospel and other missionary methods stress gaining a spiritual confirmation of the core truth claims as the foundation for living the gospel, Welch is living the gospel without the spiritual/transcendant experience undergirding it all. Calling that “belief” seems to blur the distinction she’s making here (unless you’re suggesting that belief is not really about mental/spiritual conviction and is essentially reducible to choice, which would seem to be a subtle critique of how people tend to think about belief).

    I think Old Man’s comparison between spiritual sensitivity and musical sensibility is revealing: we tend to have a fairly mechanical idea about how spiritual experiences should work, which is a bit ironic since we’re largely unique in thinking of the Holy Ghost as a personage and that spirituality is thus more akin to a relationship with somebody than an aesthetic emotion. Maybe Welch and the Holy Ghost just don’t have a lot to talk about.

  9. Ben H on August 12, 2013 at 11:08 pm

    DLewis, I think it depends on what kinds of beliefs we are talking about. It seems pretty clear that Rosalynde believes in fasting, believes in the church, believes in marriage, believes in service . . . a lot of key elements of Mormon belief. I can’t pretend to know, but I suspect that it would feel pretty natural to her to say “I believe in ___” in these cases. These kinds of beliefs seem pretty inevitably implicit in a Mormon lifestyle. They’re different, of course, from some other kinds of beliefs we often talk about, like, “I believe I will be reunited with my grandparents (now deceased) in the resurrection,” or, “I believe that Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son in the Sacred Grove.” Somewhere in between, perhaps, would be something like, “I believe the church is true” or “I believe the scriptures are true.” But from what Rosalynde is describing it seems to me her actions are acts of believing, inseparable from believing, even if she’s not sure what to say about some of the more distant or abstract issues like whether Joseph Smith saw the Father and Son . . .

    But I’m eager to hear how Rosalynde puts all this. Straighten me out, Rosalynde!

  10. Mtnmarty on August 13, 2013 at 8:37 am

    I’m curious what use she has for the term sacred.

    She seems to equate spirituality with otherworldly but I think many people equate it with a sense of the sacred.

    Is she like Emma Bovary’s father in law who is described as being a person for whom nothing is sacred? She doesn’t write that way. I think she’s just naturalized her sense of the sacred which seems hyper spiritual to me.

    It’s like there’s no room in the world for Satan because nature is so adequate to our purposes.

    I’m speculating but I think she doesn’t have a strong need for the otherworldly because she’s not strongly inclined to do evil. Paradoxically her religious practices may be shielding her from a spiritual experience of good and evil.

    She’s still in the garden.

  11. DLewis on August 13, 2013 at 9:03 am

    “She seems to equate spirituality with otherworldly but I think many people equate it with a sense of the sacred.”
    But we have terms like “spirit world” that literally means another world that is spiritually, not physically, known. When people say they have felt the presence of the Spirit, I think they mean something more specific like a connection with God than a general idea of sacredness.

    “Paradoxically her religious practices may be shielding her from a spiritual experience of good and evil.”
    Why does good and evil have to be a “spiritual experience?” Do you need a spiritual experience to know that murder is wrong? What does this mean, exactly?

  12. mtnmarty on August 13, 2013 at 10:18 am

    I think the logic behind “if there is no Godn then everything is permitted” is quite sound. No one has invented a machine that can measure good and evil and tell us that murder is wrong.

    So where I’m going with this either your sense of right and wrong and the sacred lead you to spirituality or else if its all chemistry then we can find her a spirituality fix with LSD or gene therapy or something.

  13. SteveF on August 13, 2013 at 10:21 am

    “Do you need a spiritual experience to know that murder is wrong?”

    I would say no, that it can be known in just the brain that society considers it wrong for x, y, & z reasons. But for most people I think it is more than this, there is additionally a moral sense or conscience that internally tells most people that murder is wrong. This to me is spiritual, and indeed qualifies as a spiritual experience.

  14. DLewis on August 13, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    She’s pretty specific in what she means by spirituality: “Otherworldly spiritual emotion, flashes of intuited spiritual knowledge, deeply sensed connections to spirits and their world, conviction that prayers are heard and answered, euphoric moments of confirmation.” Even when she does feel emotions typical of how LDS characterize spiritual experiences, “these sensations do not self-interpret at[sic] manifestations of the Spirit.” Nowhere does she say she doesn’t have a sense of right and wrong, it’s just that that sense of morality does not self-interpret as a spiritual, otherworldly experience.

    The ultimate question is what does Mormonism look like for someone who’s commitment to the faith is grounded in something besides spiritual experience or its expectation? What is gained (if anything), and what is lost (if anything)?

  15. mtnmarty on August 13, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    Yes, I know that the words she is using are drawing distinctions between how other people talk and how she talks. I’m trying to point out that despite what sees as differences she is very much in an enchante, spiritual world and if she really pushed herself to discover what she believes a person is that she would find she is very much more spiritual than she thinks she is. Just because many mormons talk about spirituality in a way she does not is not that significant in my worldview. Pragmatically the difference is all in her own feelings and words.

    What non-verbal thing is she doing differently because she doesn’t believe in ghosts?

  16. DLewis on August 13, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    “Just because many mormons talk about spirituality in a way she does not is not that significant in my worldview.”
    Except that’s the crux of her talk: what does it mean to be Mormon when you experience the world in very different ways from how other Mormons talk. And how we talk about spiritual experiences is very much important within the church: everything from testimony meetings to “still small voice” to “burning in the bosom” to centering our missionary efforts around Mor. 10:3-5 is about norming spiritual experiences in such a way that creates cohesion around ineffable experiences. There’s no point in talking about spirituality at all unless there are some agreed upon ideas, associations, shared concepts. Plus, hers is a pragmatic talk about living within a Mormon community when you don’t feel attached to the same discourse of spirituality as everyone else.

    “if she really pushed herself to discover what she believes a person is that she would find she is very much more spiritual than she thinks she is.”
    I don’t know what beliefs about what a person is would have to do with how someone does or does not experience spirituality. Could you clarify?

  17. Mtnmarty on August 13, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    Dlewis,

    You asked :”I don’t know what beliefs about what a person is would have to do with how someone does or does not experience spirituality. Could you clarify?”

    Under the traditional mormon conception an individual has a pre-existence and afterlife. If one believes that that creates a certain spirituality even if one doesn’t experience these spirits.

    If she doesn’t believe that, then when does a person become a person at conception at 24 weeks at birth, at age 8 at adulthood, never? Without an enchantented view of personhood, its not even clear what a person is, consciousness is otherworldly to physics.

    I went back and re-read her piece. It is quite interesting but she’s also hedges and is a bit coy about certain things as is natural for a public talk about personal experience.

    For example, if she is thoroughly Mormon, then she prays. Does she feel like a liar when she prays? If not, then she is in an otherworldly, enchanted world. She talks to God; that’s enchantment. To be disenchanted means to be convinced there ain’t no God. Not now, not ever, period. Disenchanted people don’t doubt God’s existence, they know that he doesn’t exist.

    I don’t think she feels like a liar (although she does worries she might be telling fairy tales).

    Part of me thinks that she’s darn lucky. She has the benefits of disenchantment but her moderately ascetic religion keeps her busy taming her ego and with enough social bonds that ennui never sets in.

    Pretty good gig if you can get it.

  18. Xenophon on August 13, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    I am highly skeptical of doubt.

  19. Mtnmarty on August 13, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    I have my doubts about skepticism.

  20. Steve Martin on August 14, 2013 at 12:17 am

    “Spirituality” can mean just about anything.

    I defy anybody to define “spirituality”.

    And let us not forget that there are many different spirits. And not all of them are good.

    And, as St. Paul tells us, “the devil can come all dressed up as an angel of light.” How can we tell which is which? We can’t…apart from His Word.

    Thanks.

  21. Linda S on August 14, 2013 at 4:30 am

    I am puzzled about a lot of things. I keep these thoughts in a file called “Things to take up with Deity”. I don’t dwell on them or in them, because it is not that comfortable and also because it is time consuming in the way that perpetually remodeling a home can keep us from really living there.

    I always enjoy what Rosalynde writes and even in this piece she draws from a deep spiritual well. Her assertion of modest spiritual gifts/blessings may even be believeable….to her. But her active religious life is the result of the enlargement of soul talked about by Alma. I suspect that the recording angels will have a different story of her life.

    RW’s active religious life is a manifestation of the enlargement of soul described by Alma when the seed of faith is planted. Good works, justified by the Holy Ghost and sanctified by Jesus Christ, will go a lot further in moving us to his right hand than so-called spiritual experience. Some converts have a marvelous conversion story but that doesn’t mean that we will ever see them again.

    There is a danger in elevating the importance of spiritual experience, but there is also a danger in elevating the value of doubt. or for that matter, proof. Even in church we are more likely to hear that God answers our prayers but probably not the way we expect nor as quickly as we would like. We do not hear about answered prayers like the time Joseph Smith said a blessing over dinner of corn gruel and asked the Lord for something better and a few minutes later a man knocked on his door with a ham. I doubt that Joseph said at that moment, “oh how lucky.”

    If it quacks, it’s a duck. Acknowledging God’s hands in all things is sensible and polite, even if you aren’t completely certain of it.

    The new perspective of the disciples on the road to Emmaus was available to them even if the Lord had not revealed himself. This knowledge, however, was not vital to their experience with him. They saw a stranger, but they felt his presence, even if they did not realize it at the time. The souls that fed the hungry and comforted the weak, did not know that they were doing anything extraordinary, anything for their God until they were at the final judgement. Rosalynde, you are in for a surprise.

  22. Stephen Hardy on August 14, 2013 at 9:21 am

    Here is a quote from Rosalynde Welch’s FAIR presentation:

    “I titled my remarks “Disenchanted Mormonism.” This is a bit of wordplay. I am not a disenchanted Mormon; on the contrary, I’m Mormon to the bone and have been shaped by LDS teachings in every particular. Nor am I disenchanted with Mormonism; relationship to the church and its culture is my anchor. But I am interested in thinking about a “disenchanted Mormonism” — that is, a way of living as an engaged Latter-day Saint even if one lacks a strong spiritual sensibility, as I do. For me and others like me, does the Church offer a nourishing home?”

    Because I don’t know Rosalynde Welch personally I don’t know of any venue to reach out to her exept here. I wish to think her for so beautifully describing me: Anchored in Mormonism, but one who may lack a strong spritual sensibility. Thank you so much for offering a life-line such as this.

  23. Rosalynde on August 15, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    Ben, thank you so much for this wonderful post. I am flattered that you took the time to read and respond so carefully. I’m sorry I haven’t been active in the comments! My kids started school this week and I have been busy with that. Even this evening I feel a bit pressed for time so forgive me for being brief.

    I think you identify an important contradiction in the piece, because it is an important contradiction in my operating worldview, and that is the nature of free will. In the piece I resist the notion that one can choose to believe, but I think you’re right that I implicitly suggest that we can and should choose to observe, attend, etc. So is my polemic against the human self as defined by free will incoherent, since I myself rely on choice as a moral category, simply kicking the can farther down the road?

    I think I probably do. I don’t yet have a philosophical exit route out of the modern notion that moral judgment can only be based on chosen actions, not ontological categories. (Ie, it’s not a sin to be gay, only to sexually act on the impulse.) Yet I’m skeptical of robust notions of free will, finding philosophical defenses thereof mostly unpersuasive and being drawn to evolutionary-based determinisms (but trying always to resist that pull!). Nevertheless, I instinctively continue to act in my daily life as if I have free will, and to teach my children that they do. And I think I was well served by being taught as a child to believe that I can control my actions independent of context, choose my destiny, etc, even though I’ve come to question those propositions as an adult. So the possibility and extent of free will remain to me some of the greatest unknowns of human existence.

  24. Rosalynde on August 15, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    Thank you also to all the commenters on this thread! I enjoyed reading each one. I appreciate the affirmations, Stephen Hardy’s especially, as well as the criticisms, from which I learned.

    Mtnmarty got it right when s/he wrote: “Part of me thinks that she’s darn lucky. She has the benefits of disenchantment but her moderately ascetic religion keeps her busy taming her ego and with enough social bonds that ennui never sets in.

    Pretty good gig if you can get it.”

    Indeed! I am truly fortunate in so many ways, and my LDS upbringing and context are a huge part of that. And what is true for me personally — that dogmatic religion crucially informs even largely secularized forms of morality — I recognize to be true more generally. That is, traditional dogmatic forms of religion are a necessary (if unrecognized) source of moral content for secular modernity, which largely lacks its own resources. That’s why I’m such a big fan of religion, even though I am not spiritual. I learned that from Steve Smith, who commented on this thread. Thanks, Steve!

  25. Cameron N on August 15, 2013 at 11:05 pm

    Nice analogy, Linda.

  26. james on August 16, 2013 at 10:58 am

    Belief needs to be based on a foundation of some truth. The church needs to open up the archives and let us see the naked truth about the past. We can take it. My ancestors were part of that ill-fated Martin Handcart company. A true history of that event shows that their suffering was needless and in reality caused by negligent leaders. The church should have never let them go so late – whoever is to blame – Brigham Young or Apostle Franklin Richards – it really doesn’t matter. Nevertheless, we are instructed and urged to deify them. Their journals say they were instructed to not talk about it – because back then people knew the truth about the church’s mistakes. The church needs to stop with the public relations/advertising that they are doing. Stop the 1984 revisions of history.

  27. Mtnmarty on August 16, 2013 at 11:47 am

    Rosalynde, thanks for the comment. A reprise…

    Absalom, Absalom with Rosalynde as the anti-Quentin and Mtnmarty as anti-Shreve.

    RW: That’s why I’m such a big fan of religion, even though I am not spiritual.

    Mtnmarty: Tell me about Mormonism, What do they do at testimony meeting? How do they live the church teachings? Why do they?…Tell me one more thing. Why are you so spiritual?

    RW: “I’m not spiritual,” Rosalynde said, slowly, after careful reflection; “I”m not spiritual,” she said. “I’m not spirituals she thought, calmly while typing her blog entry: I’m not. I’m not. I’m not spiritual… I’m not spiritual…

  28. adam rueben on August 16, 2013 at 11:54 am

    .
    have heard a number of ill-informed speakers and even read some stories meant to be moral tales based on the martin and willy events. Maybe me and mine are naïve but we just take these as tales of the past. A pinch of truth a lot of moralizing to make a point. Over-told and over sold to the point of meaningless. If this is an ad or PR move to glorify the past it isn’t work very well.

  29. Chet on August 17, 2013 at 7:45 am

    Sometimes at church (or Gen Conf), I fight the urge to exclaim “I love the smell of eisegesis in the morning.”

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