Belief and Belonging in Mormonism

Belief and Belonging in Mormonism September 16, 2013

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.)

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