Problem 2: Surety vs. Mystery

Many people who have left the church express relief that they no longer feel obligated to believe in “absolute truths” or that they have “all the answers.” It is, in effect, refreshing to look at the world and say “I don’t know the answers, and I’m OK with that.” It relieves a mental burden of upholding a belief in invisible things that was difficult to maintain—and often a cause of inner conflict. A regained sense of mystery also feels exhilarating. 

Anyone who has consumed high quality art, especially in literature or drama, understands the value of mystery. I have noticed, for instance, that the deeper stories in literature deliberately don’t provide all the answers.

Imagine, for a moment, a moving film you have seen that involves the death of a main character. To make this analogy work, it should not be a story that involves supernatural or magical powers. It should take place in the dimension of reality that we currently call home. Imagine the emotions taking place when the character passes away, and the responses of the other characters. It is one of the most deeply emotional and moving facets of human experience—and can cause deep change in people’s lives, for better or worse.

Now, imagine what it would have felt like if soon after this death, the other characters were transported up to heaven and were reassured in a very physical and direct way that there is indeed an afterlife. Far from a whimsical vision that they could later easily doubt, they were physically present and touched their departed friend. Back to earth they go, and the story continues on.

Is the story still as touching and moving as it was before? Probably not, because the characters have no need to descend into the depths of their souls to combat the insecurities and pain surrounding death. Rather, they simply go on their way, with at most a bit of sadness that it might be a long time before they see their friend again.

In essence, such a story is superficial. It is superficial because it does not reach to the deeper regions of human feeling. In my opinion, this is why religious-themed movies often fail to capture the imagination. The temptation to provide too many answers is so strong that it is almost inescapable. Deep emotions move us, because we know that we are also deep. We know that we have felt those things before, and we instinctively know that to prevent ourselves from feeling those things would be to cut off part of our humanity.

The “problem” I am addressing here has to do with conviction and belief in doctrine. How do we believe in doctrine without superficializing our own story? Without preventing ourselves from feeling those things and plumbing the depths of our souls? Without using doctrine as a cover-up? The gospel would seem to provide comfort in times of trial, but is this comfort really a healing ointment or is it just a bandage that covers an unhealed wound?

The answer, as always, depends on approaching the gospel correctly. As I have said before on this blog, I don’t believe you will ultimately have a fulfilling experience in the gospel unless your conviction is deeply personal and goes well beyond “Mormon culture” and even the religious writings of LDS leaders (although the latter are great tools towards gaining that personal conviction). This path of personal knowledge is what the church teaches us to pursue anyway.

The answer to this dilemma is actually quite simple, but not always easy to implement. It goes back to the feelings of those people I cited at the beginning, who felt obligated to believe in doctrines or absolute truths. Why did they feel obligated to believe anything at all?

I am guessing at what their real answers may be, but for the purpose of this blog I’m going to use my imagination. I suspect they might say that they felt social pressure to belong by believing, and that they were taught the doctrines so much that they assumed they were true. They felt fear when they questioned the doctrine, because of what it might mean to their family or friends if they ended up leaving the church. This fear prevented them from honest questioning.

I very much sympathize with the feelings of these people, as I have felt similar feelings many times in my life. However, I think such a confrontation with fear is unavoidable. There is no way to become for yourself, an independent and free-thinking person, without coming face to face with what you have been taught by society and honestly considering it. This can be very difficult, even for secular people. It is a part of growing up, or at least it should be.

There are really two choices when faced with such a dilemma. One is simple and takes less effort, and the other is more nuanced and difficult. The more difficult way, however, hits at the root of the problem while the easy way does not. The easy option is abandoning the social belief network that you feel is pressuring you to believe, and becoming an outsider.

This new “outsider” status feels like a kind of independence, although in essence you have simply run away from your fear instead of facing it—because the fear consists in an inability to live honestly among your peers of that social belief network. It was easier to run away and choose another peer group where you didn’t have to stand out. Of course, maybe you simply came to a convincing knowledge that the Church is not true. I would argue, however, that it is difficult to come to any kind of knowledge that is reliable when fear is in control. Facing those fears would be a more sure way to find out what you really believed.

Facing those fears would mean being willing to stand out a bit without suddenly leaving the social belief network. You might have to bear testimony and say that you only “hope” the gospel is true, or only bear testimony of those aspects you feel you believe. You might have to fess up to your believing friends that you are “not sure” about some aspects or all aspects of the gospel or the church.

This process might take some time to work through. To me, considering things bit by bit, doctrine by doctrine, slowly, is more worthy of an effective mind than jumping out of affiliation with the church once you are “fed up” with feeling the invisible, sometimes self-exaggerated waves of social pressure. In my experience, it is surprising what such personal honesty will reveal, both in unexpected belief, and areas of doubt or questioning. You can never really know until you try, by facing such social fears head on. No matter whether you end up believing or not at the end of the process, you will be a stronger and more whole person after you do—but not if you run away and try to cover your fears with an “outsider” status.

So it all comes down to honesty and courage. The scriptures talk about “real intent” and a “sincere heart.” These are the prerequisites to a testimony or witness from the Holy Ghost. So perhaps, until we face our social fears, we can’t really know if we have a testimony at all. Its worth the cost for all of us to face them.

And as for the sense of mystery? I think if a movie could accurately portray the gradual, lifelong tutoring of the Holy Ghost as he reveals truths and guides our experiences, the story would not be simple or superficial. It would be as deep and mysterious as any other human story. The key is honesty and courage, because the essence of superficiality is dishonesty, a sort of cover-up.

Besides, spiritual experiences in and of themselves are laden with immense mystery. It is almost like each spiritual experience makes clear one truth but raises five questions with it. We learn how to improve our lives, but there is still plenty of mystery to go around. As we learn, the fear and pain of existence gradually, almost imperceptibly, diminishes—without making us incapable of understanding the pain that others still feel (whereas superficial belief makes us afraid to relate to others who feel deep pain). It really is a beautiful, mysterious thing.

Sincerely,

J.M.B.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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