Asking Hard Questions of a God Who Weeps

A few months ago I learned a hard lesson about public questions and faith, when a long-time friend chose my facebook wall as a place to tell me that I didn’t seem to have a testimony of the Church. I’ve written about this experience on another blog, where I attempted to sort through the encounter and its implications.

Recently I was reminded of this experience when the Wear Pants to Church debacle broke across facebook. As outspoken feminists encountered surprisingly bitter backlash from friends and family, the feminist Mormon housewives facebook group temporarily transformed into a group support clinic, with Joanna Brooks leading discussions about how to stay strong the face of persecution.

In the wake of what some have jokingly called Pantspocalypse, bystanders have moved on. But questions of how to approach – well, questions about faith absolutely remain. When not just actions but mere questions seem to inspire ire in friends, family, and fellow church-goers, how do Mormons and other religious people develop the contemplative lives that are necessary to learn and gain wisdom?

With these questions in the back of my mind, it’s been a bit of a relief as I’ve begun to read Terryl and Fiona Givens’s The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. I’ve never been one to read popular Mormon books, whether fiction or nonfiction, and every nonfiction book about Mormonism that friends or church programs have gifted to me remain on my bookshelf unread. But Givens and Givens have restored a little of my trust that Mormonism is a faith, movement, and culture with endless potential for contemplation.

I requested a copy of the book a couple weeks ago, intending to write a review, but instead I find myself a few chapters in, satisfied to slowly peruse my way through, rather than tackle everything at once. Because the value I see in God Who Weeps is not so much in its ability to provide answers, but rather to pose questions. Instead of diving directly into a discussion of Mormonism, Givens and Givens first work through basic questions about where faith fits in a secular world, and whether God is a being who should, in fact, be worshiped.

Subsequent chapters then focus on specific areas of Mormon belief and doctrine that shape Mormonism in fundamental ways. What does it mean, for instance, to believe in a God whose “heart is set upon us,” as the first chapter considers? Or to believe in free will that existed before we even came to Earth? I distinctly remember the moment when I realized, in a high school class, just how unique my Mormon faith made my beliefs about God’s nature. As I read over Givens and Givens’s careful consideration of basic but profound questions, I’m reminded of two things that given me hope:

1) Mormons, despite all the differences we experience, share in common some fundamental assumptions that shape our perspective. My mother and I may never see eye-to-eye on Glenn Beck, but we both believe that humans are children of God with divine potential, who made decisions even before they came to Earth. Chauvinistic BYU boys may disagree with me about who’s responsible for their thoughts when they see a woman in a bikini, but we at least agree that they shouldn’t dwell on thoughts that objectify women. For all the disagreements we may have in Sunday School and Relief Society lessons, there’s a reason we all come back.

2) Mormonism is worth contemplating. Adult Sunday School classes get a bad rap for being dry and repetitive, because too often we make them that way. Teachers and students alike sometimes go through the steps of asking and answering questions, without really considering those questions. But why should ancient beings sit in a mortal room, clothed in mortal bodies, only to speak without thought? To say that exercise is silly is an understatement.

Instead, let’s not shy away from questions that seem hard, and let’s not mistake simple questions for shallow ones.

In that spirit, I’d like some of your thoughts: how do we go about cultivating meaningful discussions at church?

 

 

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    We have a tendency to focus on one or two verses of scripture, and try to pour all sorts of meaning into those few words, without going to the effort to understand that verse in the context of the entire chapter in which it was written. Rather than taking the stance that “This verse bolsters one of the 50 standard topics of LDS doctrine”, we ought to seek understanding of larger chunks of scripture, to get insight into the mind of the author. The Book of Mormon, more than the Bible, really identifies for us who is the author of each statement in the book. We need to ask ourselves, what was the objective of the author in presenting the chapter or chapters to us. Once we have considered the meaning that is in the scripture, rather than ways we can stick standard doctrinal labels onto various verses, then we are ready to discuss it with other people in a way that calls on them to think as well.

    For example, Moroni 7 is very much focused on the same problem that is addressed on Moroni 10: How can we KNOW the Book of Mormon is true? Mormon tells us that we all start out with a compass that points us to what is good and true and Christ-like. He explains that God has provided revelation to us through angels and inspired men, which we are invited to accept using the light of Christ as our truth detector. We are told that our ability to recognize truth in the Book of Mormon is being tested, even as we think that WE are testing the BOOK. Moroni tells us that WE are going to be held accoountable for how we respond to the Book of Mormon, and that he, Moroni, is going to be a witness for the prosecution if we fail the test. In this context, Moroni 10:3-5 is not an optional exercise left to the reader, but the passage itself is a mandatory test of our real intent, our faith in Christ, and our willingness to recognize and follow “the truth of all things”.

    So to have meaningful discussions at church, we first need to have meaningful monologues with ourselves.

  • http://www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com E B

    Excellent question. I remember at the start of the “Mormon Moment” some Washington Post writer exclaiming that ex-Mormons had left the church because they weren’t allowed to question, yet nothing should be further from the truth. Even someone at Deseret News wrote in response that Mormons embrace questioning, because in seeking answers and struggling with questions and problems we learn and grow and that’s why we are here in the first place.
    It is high time that we in the Church learn (and I think we’re getting there) the differences between the gospel, the Church, and Mormon culture. The gospel of Jesus Christ is truth, it is love. The Church tries to teach the gospel. Mormon culture is simply a product of a bunch of fellow worshippers coming together and it doesn’t always have much to do with the gospel. It it did, we wouldn’t waste time judging each other.

    Which brings me back to your closing question. I have benefitted from attending atypical wards in time past, where members/recent converts felt comfortable asking somewhat bizarre yet fundamental questions and we would answer them and discuss them and grapple with them, together. I experienced many meaningful Sunday School and RS lessons because of this. In part, the teachers allowed this growth by encouraging discussion yet keeping it gospel-centered. In part, those present were engaged in the discussion themselves. In conclusion, such change begins with us. Anyone can pose a question respectfully and request thoughtful consideration in the discussion following. Teachers can certainly encourage such growth by asking questions relative to applying what we study to our own lives and experiences.

  • Dan Clayton

    Religion is not science. God can not be discovered in the memorization of facts, or in the philosophical discussions of physical law. The discovery of God’s nature and His intent for us is an exercise of faith. Not simply because we do not see Him in front of us, but because trust in His word and hope in His power are key components of creating a teachable heart. That condition of the heart, is required as we make mistakes and need to reconcile to His will and improve our efforts to follow His word. Life is a journey of following His word and learning along the way. Occasionally we look back and see what His path has meant for our lives. This is very personal, and very individual. The church is intended to be a place where ordinances are administered and members receive light from others experiences. But the journey is individual, and the questions to be asked are personal and the one who answers them is the Spirit. Those are the answers that should be sought. This is religion, it is faith in His word, which when exercised always brings spiritual growth and understanding.

    Given these truths of Religion, you should not be surprised that to pause in the trail and ask, “is this God really worth worshiping” would cause consternation… Many who have proved His word and felt His reward, will feel the danger of one who talks of leaving the path. Others who are discovering faith and its reward with be offended by openly expressed doubts that run counter to their efforts…. The study of religion is in the Word of God, but details are left to the feelings of the heart and the promptings of the spirit.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bkingsf Bryan Kingsford

    What a great question!

    Generally I don’t feel safe making comments or asking questions in Church, to the point I’ve stopped going. Too often my comments are ignored and my questions make people uncomfortable, even when I’m the teacher! So for me, being supportive of comments and questions, even if the words are confusing, is a good step in the right direction.

    To me, a good lesson teaches a gospel principle and applies it to every day life. A great lesson is a collaboration between class members to better understand the principle and to gain insights into its application.

  • http://aleesasutton.com Aleesa

    Great question. I always benefit the most from lessons where the emphasis is on the quality of the discussion (i.e. is the Holy Spirit present) vs. the quantity (i.e. “getting through” all the assigned reading material). I think more meaningful discussions happen when that’s the case. In fact, glossing over important doctrinal points just to make sure x number of chapters are covered is what, I think, can create un-meaningful classes. If all the material isn’t covered in class, well, that’s what the study guide and a whole six days before the next lesson is for.


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