Belief and Belonging in Mormonism

Mormonism’s founding narrative is of a young man struggling with doubt, and finding sure answers.  Mormonism implicitly and explicitly repeats this promise, which often puts the Mormon doubter in an uncomfortable position.  How can one claim to doubt in a tradition which is based on a promise of surety of knowledge? This is precisely the space that many, including those at the highest levels, are attempting to carve out. For instance, Latter-day Saints have recently been given permission to doubt and to explore doubt in faith.  

What, however, does it mean to believe in Mormonism beyond a simplistic fundamentalism?  Both Catholics and mainline Protestants spent much of the 20th century working out theological space in the face of historical, intellectual, and ethical problems in inherited Christianity. Many conservative religious groups went the opposite direction, seeing accommodation to modernity as a watering down and weakening of the faith, choosing fundamentalist revisions over liberalizing ones. Mormonism too has a rich intellectual heritage working out some of these issues, but the next frontier for Mormon thinking may need to engage more seriously with faith in the modern and postmodern world.  

There have been a number of attempts to establish a rational basis for faith. Some retreat to Tertullian’s dictum, “I believe because it is absurd.”  After all, the idea of the resurrection is not any more credible than Joseph Smith’s prophetic call.  Still, absurdity does not necessarily warrant belief.  The problem applies to Pascal’s wager as well. William James pointed out that Pascal gives us no grounds for believing in any particular faith, nor would it cause anyone of one faith to convert to another.  Further, the question of a “second naiveté” or “stages of faith” offers some insights for explaining how some believe and others doubt, and despite the implied hierarchy it is certainly truth that faith after real struggles can never return to edenic ignorance. Yet, this approach also lacks clear guidelines for determining what is worth believing. Basically, the problem with these approaches is that they take an intellectualist approach to religion, namely, the idea that religion is mostly about thoughts in your head that seek to be rationally explained.

It has often been pointed out that faith, or belief, as a kind of epistemic claim represents a distortion of the earlier meaning of these terms as “trust,” “love,” or “holding dear.”  Perhaps we have all been too hung up on such misrepresentations of faith. Instead of an intellectualist approach to religion, we might adopt an approach that sees religion as a social phenomenon more than a private, internal affair. I would like to point to just one Christian tradition as a potential starting point, that of religion as “spiritual practices.”

Reformulating belief as a practice rather that a set of cognitive points is critical for a few reasons. First, it is not at all clear that we really have much control over our beliefs–we cannot will to believe in something that we do not. In the Christian tradition, belief is a gift, not something that we can obtain through reason, imposed by authority, or any other means. Second, especially for Mormonism, what one does is much more central to defining “faith” that a set of formulaic affirmations.

What seems crucial in belief is how it defines someone as part or not part of a group.  To say “I believe…” implies that someone else does not. To say “I believe…” is to affirm that one belongs, that one takes on the responsibility of being a part of the group. It is an affirmation of shared tradition, a shared outlook on life, and a belonging with all that that entails. Understanding belief as a discipline or spiritual practice refocuses one’s commitment to constructive engagement rather than dogma.

In conversations with friends about believing as a spiritual exercise, I have been concerned with my own failure to offer a persuasive account.  First, Mormonism belongs to the broader Christian tradition and as such places a high cultural value on orthodoxy.  To offer another foundation for Mormonism besides orthodoxy seems incongruous with the tradition.  Second, the practices of Mormonism are not particularly persuasive to some, especially without the foundation of orthodox belief.  Why live a puritanical life if one does not believe literally? I admit that these ideas are indeed real problems worth considering further.  

I also admit to being richly blessed by my religious practices, including study, prayer and contemplation, worshipping in a community, the high value Mormonism places on cookies, endless meetings, and many others. According to one account, when Joseph Smith departed from the grove, he learned that creeds were a problem, and he ultimately offered profound new ways of understanding and being in the world. While the practice of Mormonism does not persuade some people I converse with, it has always been enough for me.

(On a final note, I want to say that this summer has been especially productive for LDS intellectuals thinking about doubt. I began compiling a list but it got too long and I didn’t want to have to enter all the links. Feel free to post recent favorites in the comments.)

  • Carl Griffin

    Taylor, I’m wondering if you don’t need to put some more semantic space between “faith” and “belief.” I think it would be a tough sell to suggest “belief” need not imply highly specific epistemic claims, though I think that is arguable of faith and even knowledge. Jim Faulconer has written a pair of good posts on this recently.

    Jim’s article “Faith Is Not Belief” is deceptively unpretentious; solving the problem of doubt (or at least, of heterodox belief) should be more difficult than just making it nonequivalent to faith. But I think that’s what most current approaches to this problem are trying to do, because in the end (as Jim makes explicit), our relationships within and to the church are much more about trust (faith/faithfulness) than doubt (belief).

    Perhaps on this model, Fowler’s famous “stages of faith” would better be termed “stages of spirituality.” Or at least, I think “spirituality” suggests a complex relationship between different types of knowledge, experience, praxis, etc., that tends to get excluded from “faith” by the social or relationship values it primarily signifies, i.e., trust, commitment, and (naturally) fidelity. Faith tends to get treated as simplex and irreducible because that’s how we see those relationship values, but spirituality and praxis are usually viewed as quite complex and individuated. So I’d be inclined to say that both belief and faith are components, or substrates, of spiritual practices, but certainly isolable and distinct.

    Orthodoxies may be somewhat plastic, but as you suggest, they have been central to boundary formation in the Christian tradition. That’s not going to change with Mormonism. The bigger problem for me is one you at least allude to: sure knowledge is typically regarded in the church as the reward of faith and righteousness, and thus doubt is equated with faithlessness (in Faulconer’s sense, i.e., disloyalty).

    I wish Elder Holland’s talk took more wind out of this problem, but I’m not sure it does. It seems to be saying, at best, that doubt = partial faith. Jim’s position is quite different. He and some others, more or less respectfully, discount fixed and static beliefs as a notional construct that is contrary to universal human experience, and nonequivalent to faith. A third, compelling approach is suggested by Rosalynde Welch is her recent FAIR paper, “Disenchanted Mormonism,” where she questions whether all of us possess the same capacity to access the spiritual affirmations upon which orthodox religious understanding rests. This truly makes belief/knowledge/faith a gift of the spirit, as scripture says. This should not seem as radical as it is.

    One issue you mention that I really wish one of our philosophers would take up is to what degree belief is an act of will (doxastic voluntarism). I think most members assume doubt is at least partly a failure of will, since there would be no culpability in doubt otherwise. And that would be theologically problematic.

    (Apologies for the length. You inspired me!)

  • Mike

    “…we cannot will to believe in something that we do not…”

    Isn’t that a bit of an obstacle to “reformulating belief as a practice?” Could we perhaps say that faith, being a practice, can be chosen, even if belief cannot? I guess, is it possible for someone to practice faith in mormonism, even while not believing (in the sense of belief being a gift, not a choice) the most basic tenets?

    There has been a lot of really interesting discussion on this topic. I for one would be very interested in seeing your list.

  • Duwayne_Anderson

    From the article: “I also admit to being richly blessed by my religious practices …..”

    How do you know? How do you know you wouldn’t have been equally “blessed” had you lived as a devout Muslim, or as an atheist?

    To really know, you’d have to run the experiment multiple times — a bunch of times as a Mormon, a bunch of times as an atheist, and a bunch of times as a Muslim. Then you’d have to correct for all the uncontrolled factors, calculate normal variations, and apply a statistical level of confidence.

    Have you done all that?

    In some fascinating experiments, B. F. Skinner (1948) setup a condition in which pigeons were fed on a random basis. The pigeons however, would associate their feeding with whatever activity they were accidentally engaged in. The result was a display of all sorts of behaviors.

    Humans seem to do the same thing. We are accidentally born into a religion. We live life, garnishing “blessings” along the way, and (like the pigeons) we associate those “blessings” with the religious life we were accidentally born into.

  • Tornogal

    I think the previous president of the LDS church said it best: “Well, it’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true. ”

    All of this abstract discussion of Mormonism, its practices, and cognitive points comes down to what Mr. Hinckley said. And I happen to take the view that it is a great fraud, that it is wrong, and false.

  • David Mohr

    Martin Luther said the basis of faith is doubt. If we have no doubt we never question and therefore never grow. Every time we ask questions we are in a position to learn and therefore to grow. My doubts allow me to examine what others say and to incorporate my discoveries into my faith. As the scriptures say – seek and ye shall find.

  • Clark Goble

    Really good post. First I agree that our beliefs aren’t volitional. I think though that moving the practice to belief is problematic too. If it’s not volitional, what’s the point? Rather I think it’s the question of what is within our power. That is striving to know. I think you see that in many Book of Mormon passages as well. Alma 32′s “exercise a particle of faith” is a great example as is the “do not cast it out.” The idea is to pursue inquiry so we can know. I think Mor 7 gets at that too.

    Doubt is useful in that it clears a place for us to exercise inquiry. What I think some might call misplaced or unfaithful doubt is clearing away one part and leaving the trees in an other. That is they are selective about inquiry. There’s a lot of inquirer about but I think doubt can easily lead to a kind of cynicism which closes down inquiry.