Experience and Understanding

IMG_6067_2Two friends recently independently mentioned to me that it seems that at every turn, their friends and family, many of whom have left or are leaving the church, are expecting them to have an answer for every major issue facing the church in recent months. I wonder how many members of the church feel the weight of this pressure to have an answer for everything. I wonder too why anyone should believe that they need to have answers for everything. I don’t much respect faith when it leads a person to believe that they can turn off their mind altogether, but I also find myself suspicious of those who either demand others to have all the answers or believe themselves to have them, especially in cases where a simple “I don’t know” would suffice. Knowing when to say “I don’t know” is as virtuous as knowing when to say “I love you.” We ought not to be uncomfortable or unfamiliar with either sentence.

We want a revealed religion to make sense, for obviously good reasons. But we also sometimes act and speak as if living the gospel were an entirely rational proposition when it isn’t. I don’t mean to sound anti-intellectual or dismissive of the sacred nature of individual conscience. Rationality and individual integrity have been made by modern liberal thought into very high virtues for good reason. But it does seem to me that the fundamental ideal of revealed religion isn’t to be true to oneself merely but to seek the marriage of individual will with the will of God. It is, in other words, an integrity that binds us to God and not just an integrity that involves cohering into an integrated self. And as rational as I like to think my faith is, it isn’t always rational, nor should I demand that it must be.

I live with questions. I don’t lose sleep over them. They keep my faith nimble and alive. There is an enormous amount of room for growth, improvement, and change in the way we do things within the current existing structures and doctrines of the church. To understand revelation is to understand that it can describe a reality that might be yet to come or one we don’t yet understand. For that reason, I believe it is probably best to be patient and not demand or expect that things conform inside the church to the way things are done elsewhere. I am okay with that. It isn’t always fun or easy to explain to others. It doesn’t satisfy a lot of people. But it is also true that I would never find any contentment in the church if I spent all of my time and energy trying to identify the gaps between the way the church does things and the way the world expects it to. If it is indeed a revealed religion, things will happen on the Lord’s time and according to his will. I don’t think that means we shouldn’t ask questions or seek for more understanding, but it does mean patience and respect for what we do know the Lord has revealed. It probably means I shouldn’t judge others when they see things differently than I do. Sometimes revelations take time, multiple witnesses, and further light before they become more clear in our minds. In the meantime, I try not to get overworked when I can’t make sense of things. This patience means being willing to live with and suffer through contradictions in the short term. In the long term, it does seem to help make more sense of revelation but it also most importantly brings more peace.

I think it is imperative to remain faithful to my covenants. I must keep cultivating my testimony of what I know and keep striving to live up to the high demands those truths make on me. That’s enough for a lifetime and it keeps me humble, teachable, and walking in the light of revelation. If we keep our fundamental tasks front and center—that of bringing souls to Christ, bringing healing to others, building up their faith, loving them, seeing the best in them and loving and serving God with joy—we may not have any more answers than we would otherwise but we will have a much happier life and a deeper kind of integrity that comes when we practice loving submission to God’s will. Others might have answers and some of them might even seem better than what we can glean from the doctrines of our church, but it doesn’t mean we should lose our fundamental loyalties. I say it over and over again, but ultimately being right is not as important as being good, so I try not to let intellectual issues, or concepts understood intellectually, even ones I feel pretty passionate about, get in the way of my relationships to others and most importantly to God.

Because it is in relationships where experience is the most valuable and rich, even and especially when they don’t generate immediate understanding. I would rather experience life than understand it. And I would rather experience God than understand Him. Understanding matters and it comes but it doesn’t matter most and it doesn’t come first. Miguel de Unamuno in his inimitable masterpiece, The Tragic Sense of Life, says, “the primary reality is not that I think, but that I live.” Or: “the end purpose of life is to live, not to understand.” In other words, truth is to be lived not apprehended. That’s maybe one thing we haven’t gotten quite right. We want our faith to be rational. We want things to make perfect sense, and so many Mormons are rather confident that this is possible, but when we become overly impatient with contradiction, it can lead to some serious problems. Perhaps it sounds like I am advocating irrationality as a virtue. I am not, but it is a virtue to face the irrational and not to blink or panic but to endure it, especially if it means staying true to experience.

If the church has brought good fruits into your life, don’t let anything dissuade you from staying in. For me, at age 50, it is so obvious what I owe to my feeble efforts to live the gospel. I am immensely grateful I haven’t walked away. My life is a hard story to tell, especially in the academic language in which I was trained. But my wife and children and I enjoy our faith together, and it is a joy so real that it can’t be described.

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