Wednesday, April 27, 2011

choosing to believe

I wrote part of this almost 2 years ago, and I thought I had lost it... thank heaven for automatic archives. Anyhow, I was reading some stuff by Eugene England that made me remember a conversation I had, and it all got me thinking...

Then I read more that England wrote (see my previous post), which got me thinking even harder, and i though it might be of interest -- tho I still haven't gotten it all figured out. This is just my working through some England's writings/ideas.

D&C 132:26
Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness.
God apparently uses such a unique and uniquely troubling test because it is the only way to teach us something paradoxical but true and very important about the universe—that trust in our personal experi- ences with divinity must sometimes outweigh our rational morality. Obedience to the divine commands that come directly to us must some- times supersede our understanding of earlier commands if we are ever to transcend the human limitations of even our best inherited culture and religion. We must learn, sometimes very painfully, to be open to continuous revelation. We must learn such a lesson partly because truth and history are too complex to be reduced to simple, irrevocable command- ments—even from past prophets—like "Thou shalt not kill" or "Thou shalt always have only one spouse." Truth is ultimately "rational," but it is not always or immediately clear to our present reason. (England).

So this is a really scary test because it teaches through paradox (a 'seeming' contradiction or two 'opposite' commandments) that trust in our "personal experience with divinity" (our own personal revelation) must at times take precedence to what seems to 'be right.' Abraham had to be obedient to a divine command that came directly to him that was in contradiction to earlier commands. I'll be honest, this is a TERRIFYING thing to contemplate ever happening to ME...  (England said it is "the most wrenching human adversity—when opposites are posed by God himself") I appreciate the careful structure that commandments give my choices... but, I can see that this getting beyond the "human limitations" of even the BEST of our "inherited culture and religion" seems to be a very necessary part of how we learn  to have real faith -- keeping us open to continuous PERSONAL revelation. And I have to agree that "truth and history are too complex to be reduced to simple, irrevocable commandments." Truth is of course ultimately 'rational' but that rationality isn't going to always be obvious us - to our abilities to perceive.

Our personal relationship with God, our divine communication, is all-important.

...revelation is, in fact, merely the best understanding the Lord can give us of those things. And, as God himself has clearly insisted, that understanding is far from perfect. He reminds us in the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants, "Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my sevants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding. And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known." (D&C 1:24-25.) This is a remarkably complete and sobering inventory of the problems involved in putting God’s knowledge of the universe into human language and then having it understood. It should make us careful about claiming too much for "the gospel," which is not the perfect principles or natural laws themselves--or God’s perfect knowledge of those things--but is merely the closest approximation that inspired but limited mortals can receive. Even after a revelation is received and expressed by a prophet, it has to be understood, taught, translated into other languages, expressed in programs and manuals, sermons and essays--in a word, interpreted. And that means that at least one more set of limitations of language and world-view enters in. I always find it perplexing when someone asks a teacher or speaker if what he is saying is the pure gospel or merely his own interpretation. Everything anyone says is essentially an interpretation. Even simply reading the scriptures to others involves interpretation, in choosing both what to read in a particular circumstance and how to read it (tone and emphasis). Beyond that point, anything we do becomes less and less "authoritative" as we move into explication and application of the scriptures-- that is, as we teach "the gospel." Yes, I know that the Holy Ghost can give strokes of pure intelligence to the speaker and bear witness of truth to the hearer. I have experienced both of these lovely, reassuring gifts. But those gifts, which guarantee the overall guidance of the Church in the way the Lord intends and provide occasional remarkably clear guidance to individuals, still do not override individuality and agency. They are not exempt from those limitations of human language and moral perception which the Lord describes in the passage quoted above, and thus they cannot impose universal acceptance and understanding (England).

Our limited understanding -- the limitations that come of our mortality as well as culture and history, all lead to the need for questioning. I think this is part of the problem of faith, people see faith as questionless but real faith exists precisely because of questions -- but that is sort of a dangerous position.

...this is a troubling, perhaps dangerous position: If we start questioning some statements of church leaders, why not all? If they were wrong about some of their rationales for polygyny and priesthood denial, why are they not wrong about God's involvement in first instituting those practices—or anything else in the Restoration? Though I sympathize with—even share—this anxiety, the assertion that revelation is either totally true or totally untrue is still a false dichotomy: We simply do not believe, as Mormons, that we must accept all scripture and prophetic teaching as equally inspired, and we have no doctrine of prophetic infallibility. The scriptures and our modern church leaders themselves have made this point again and again and have given us some guidelines for distinguishing binding truth and direction from good advice and both of these from "the mistakes of men (England).

To say leaders will NEVER speak falsely is not true, and the scriptures and modern leaders themselves have made this point again and again. The point is, we have guidelines for distinguishing truth from good advice or from "the mistakes of men" and it's our responsibility to thoughtfully and prayerfully make our judgement with guidance from other fundamental scriptures and doctrines without falling into complete skepticism. Faith is choosing to believe -- and choosing means asking questions and making decisions. As long as we do so, relying on our own personal divine relationship with God, we can understand what we need to understand and come to a sort of trust and peace with that which we don't understand.

Finally, I believe that the cognitive dissonance that comes from studying religion—or from studying the contradictions and trials of life—can be positive, in fact fruitful, in producing deeper faith (or a higher stage of faith as James Fowler would put it) provided the faith community understands how faith develops: that it’s a developmental process rather than a state of being (from an article by Boyd Peterson).

Faith as a process - Faith as a choice.

Terryl Givens defined faith in a radical new way: as a  choice, one made when legitimate evidence supports each side of possibility. While some people, Givens believes, are simply born with faith or a gift for faith, more often faith is an acquired trait. And “among those who vigorously pursue the life of the mind in particular, who are committed to the scholarly pursuit of knowledge and rational inquiry, faith is as often a casualty as it is a product.”

In this setting, life becomes, as Givens maintains, a test of our own willful decision to choose faith over doubt. As Givens continues: I am convinced that there must be grounds for doubt as well as belief, in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore the more deliberate, and laden with personal vulnerability and investment. The option to believe must appear on one’s personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension. One is, it would seem, always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites and our ego. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is in the final analysis an action that is positively laden with moral significance (from an article by Boyd Peterson).

Let me repeat those last lines: "What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is in the final analysis an action that is positively laden with moral significance."

Like i said, just something to think about.

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