Faith and the Origins of Prejudice: A Sunday Sermon

Belief in God would seem to be a straightforward matter.  You either believe or you don’t and you either try to obey Him or you don’t—in cartoon terms, you are either a good guy or a bad guy. However, the scriptures seem to suggest that it is entirely possible to believe in God and draw little or no value from that belief.  It can even lead to our condemnation. I am convinced that the only effectual belief is belief in a living God who has the knowledge and power to promote spiritual change and development in the very core of our personal being and in the particular circumstances of our lives. Nephi warns that if we claim belief in God but we deny this power, we say essentially “there is no God today, for the Lord and the Redeemer hath done his work, and he hath given no power unto men” (2 Nephi 28:5). Nephi portrays how this kind of casual belief leads to a philosophy of self-justification: “fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin… there is no harm in this… and if it so be that we are guilty God will beat us with a few stripes and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Nephi 28:8). When faced with the choice between confronting our every blemish and believing in a God who just doesn’t care that much about sin, it is easy to choose the latter and seek to “hide [our] counsels from the Lord.” If we really can’t bring ourselves to believe in his power to help us change, we would rather not know what he thinks of our lives. So our idea of God drifts into disbelief, distrust, and disinterest, and we end up worshipping an idol. In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord issues a severe warning about believing in a God and worldview that suit our interests rather than in a living God who can transform our will.  We end up “walk[ing] in [our] own way, and after the image of [our] own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is an idol”  (D&C 1:16). 

It is not easy to avoid this kind of idol worship, since our understanding of things is powerfully shaped by a thousand factors in our individual make-up: our upbringing, our way of life, what we do for a living, our politics and nationality, our psychology and our biology. These factors make every one of us partial and limited in our ability to see things, in Jacob’s words, “as they really are.” Our struggle is made worse by the fact that all that makes up our individuality feels so natural, so normal, and so inevitable. This comfort and habit of understanding reality—what essentially amounts to prejudice—makes it difficult for us to truly understand other cultures and religions, other nations, other political persuasions, or just those with personalities radically different from our own. Whether we are formally religious or not, what we want, more than anything, is that our inclinations, our personality, and hence our very partiality, are validated by a sense of being permanent, valuable beyond ourselves, and having legitimate claim on truth.

Today we see the naturalness of individuality paraded as a value above all others, making it seem so easy and so right to demonize opponents as if they belonged to other nations or even other human families. It seems today that beliefs are justified merely on the basis of how much passion lies behind them. We have abandoned public civility and genuine dialogue because it seems we no longer believe it is possible to have differences and still be united nor do we believe it is good and necessary to be self-questioning, to listen to criticism, or exercise caution. Given how easy it is for us to be blind to one another, to be proud and unapologetic about our limited understanding of reality, it is understandable why so many have concluded that if there is a God, it is safer to imagine that he is an unknowable and distant being. That way, at least, we can pretend that we don’t run the risk of worshipping a God after our own image.

It is radical, then, to take the risk of believing that God might communicate something directly to us through prophets “in [our] weakness, after the manner of [our] understanding” (D&C 1: 24). If we wish to insist that such faith is wrong-headed or even dangerous, then we must be prepared to explain how else we might stand a chance of breaking out of the bubbles of our culture, language, and personalities, or of having any genuine communication with God. If God exists but does not communicate, his existence is indistinguishable from his nonexistence, at least in personal terms. And if he doesn’t communicate or if he doesn’t exist at all, what hope have we of escaping ourselves, or of believing we can lay claim to truth? Even though believing in prophets may be the hardest thing about revealed religion for a skeptical mind to accept, such a belief can serve as a valuable restraint or check on anyone’s tendency, even a skeptic’s, to invent a God in their own image—that is to say, to proceed in life under the illusion that one’s worldview does in fact reflect reality. The paradox is that this only appears to be possible if we come to God admitting the possibility that we might be wrong about things. We come to him not so much for self-justification but because we seek instruction and correction and strength to solve the riddles of our weaknesses. We recognize dependence on him and accept that we cannot buy, build, or otherwise shore up sufficient power to make our personality and worldview legitimate. No matter our special talents, education, or wealth, we recognize that only faith in his power and submission to his will can protect us from our own prejudices. If we have this humble faith, the Lord promises that from time to time, he will reach down into our lives, speak with us about our circumstances, and we will receive wisdom, knowledge, and power.

It would seem, then, that the idea of God presents a choice, a choice to believe in his heavenly power to remake us in his image or in our earthly power to remake him in ours. James tells us that wisdom of men is earthly and sensual, excites the passions, divides people with strife and confusion, and creates camps of belief. It is earthly wisdom that makes our blood boil when someone disagrees with us or when we feel tempted to label entire groups of people because of their religion, politics, race, views of morality, or personality. The wisdom from above, James tells us, is pure, peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, “full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (James 3:15, 17). To deny the power of God, then is to choose to live in a reality entirely made up of our own ideas, passions, convictions, and tastes. To accept the power of God is to willingly and consistently ask oneself, might I be wrong? Is there something I haven’t thought of yet that I need to know or do to become better? The question is not if we are prejudiced, but in what way we are prejudiced.

Mormon promises that we can “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart” to have the power to change as well as the power to retain our integrity in the face of circumstances that will not (Moroni 7:48). I have never ceased to be amazed at how reliable this promise is and how real the power of Christ’s love is. Christ’s love transforms how we see ourselves and others and gives us strength beyond our natural powers to overcome weaknesses, to overlook them in others, and to see all that is holy, praiseworthy, and good in what surrounds us. This great gift of holy love is the only thing that will transform us from the state of just one more impassioned zealot possessed of a small idea into a construction worker in the kingdom of God. Despite my weaknesses and failings, I know that God’s power to affect change in my life is real, palpable, and undeniable. I have sometimes ignored or failed to use this power out of preference for the ease of prejudice, but I have learned that this is no way to be truly happy.

 

  • Jessica Brimley

    Do you have any specific examples you would like to share in that last paragraph? I don’t doubt that you have them, but I don’t get very far on uplifting rhetoric if there isn’t a personal anecdote to illustrate the point. (Of course, that does open up the possibility that I will miss the point due to my personal prejudices.)

    • georgehandley

      Jessica, it’s hard to answer this without getting too personal, but it is a fair question to ask and deserves an answer. I hope my response doesn’t seem too much of a method of parading my personal spiritual experiences. I am a big believer in the pleading prayer, the one that says, “I can’t muster up the energy to love the way I should. I can’t tolerate or suffer long or be patient like I need to. I am utterly hopeless without you. I need help. I need you to allow me to do things I can’t do on my own.” On many occasions in my life, often on a mountain or some place in utter solitude where I have been able to offer such prayers, I have felt a palpable strength come over me, one that assures me I am loved and can love beyond all expectation or reason. And one that feels like forgiveness of myself and of others simultaneously. It’s not automatic, like a vending machine, but it is something that happens when I find I am really reaching that “all the energy of heart” phase, which is usually when it is close to rock bottom. I take a lot of comfort from the Sermon on the Mount, which seems to suggest that feelings of lack are actually blessings since they set the stage for this kind of recompense. It is good to feel needy, to feel insufficient, to feel weak. But it seems to me that we must have hope and trust in a higher power for that to lead to anything but despair.


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