Faith is not blind

by Bruce and Marie Hafen

Posted on
religion mormonism

Elder Hafen struggled as a missionary with the concept of knowing versus believing: he felt he believed it was true, but not that he knew it. On the mission he felt pressure to bear testimony with the word “know”, but he chafed at that. In this book, Elder Hafen hopes to discuss the complex boundaries between believing and knowing, Richard Bushman, a prominent LDS historian, found himself in a similar situation. He felt that he didn’t have the right words to express his belief in the nuanced way that he needed, even though looking back he thinks he did believe. This makes me look forward to reading Bushman’s “Rough Stone Rolling”, to try to understand his language of faith.

Hafen argues that life is full of ambiguity because we have greater access to information and opinion than ever before. That, and people tend to like being certain more than being right, so the voices at the extremes are often louder.

the three stages permalink

It’s important to feel the discomfort caused by the ambiguity; if you don’t, your faith is untested and na├»ve. But the ability to acknowledge ambiguity is not the final goal of faith development. It has simply asked the right kinds of questions. Hafen believes the goal is to reach a third stage, where we acknowledge the difficult questions but choose to act in faith despite not having the answers.

Chesterton expressed this trichotomy using the terms “optimists”, “pessimists”, and “improvers”. (I think that for a long time the church has actively created a culture of optimists, while there is some movement now to acknowledge the difficulties. It has often been about the “front-bench official answer to all attacks”, as Chesterton puts it.) To Chesterton, the problem with the pessimists isn’t that they see the problems but that they don’t love the human condition enough to try to fix them. Improvers acknowledge imperfection but love enough to try to help.

At one point Hafen refers to the three stages as “simplicity”, “complexity”, and “settled simplicity”. Later he uses the metaphor from Alma 32, referring to stage two as a moment of hot sun that has the potential to wither the plant. He says that our plant can survive the complexity through a “tough but trusting process of refinement” that brings the real and the ideal closer together.

dealing with complexity in the internet age permalink

Because of the internet, it is more likely than ever that believing members will encounter complexity in the church’s historical narrative and doctrine. The Hafens say we need to teach our kids how to encounter this kind of complexity, so that it doesn’t surprise them into shifting the burden of proof of being right onto the church. Openly discussion things like the gospel topics essays can help with that. The Hafens say it’s not the church’s fault that people stay in stage one sometimes, but I think I disagree. For a very long time there has been a culture of not questioning. Past church leaders have cast shame on those who doubt. I remember that when I was growing up I was taught to avoid anti-Mormon literature as if it were spiritual pornography. This is certainly a cultural thing, but it’s been strengthened by the actions and teachings of the leaders of the church.

They say of stage three, “we won’t let the issues we don’t yet understand get in the way of the fundamental truths we do understand”. I think that when I first encountered this material I was sort of surprised into disbelief. I hadn’t really discovered definitive proof that the church wasn’t true, I just suddenly realized how likely it was and so I stopped believing. I probably shouldn’t have been so hasty. People who encounter these issues are quick to say that they understand the issues more than people on level one, but knowing about the issues isn’t the same as truly understanding them. I think that’s why I feel so driven to really get to the bottom of the issues I’m facing by reading as much as I can from both sides and finding primary sources.

I also need to try my best to maintain my desires to keep the commandments, so that I don’t get distracted by anything that would make me not want to stay. I’ve really loved the teachings of the church in the past, and that’s a useful fact to keep my motivations fair.

The Hafens argue that the amazing doctrinal truths restored through Joseph Smith are much more important than the method by which he did it. I think this downplays the importance of determining the truth carefully, and oversells the doctrine. Yes, there are some very distinct doctrinal teachings that are pretty unique, but it’s easy to see how they could have stemmed from the religious trends of Joseph’s day. To argue that those concerned with the specifics of the Restoration are missing the point is to argue that doctrine that “rings true” is more important than truth. One important point he makes is the possibility that we won’t understand the method by which God revealed the truth to Joseph. If that’s the case, it’s still valid to try as hard as we can to understand it based on the history we have.

I need to try to be more meek in my prayers, and acknowledge my imperfect ability to determine truth by myself. I’ve struggled to be as open in my prayers because I’ve stopped believing that anyone is listening.

The Hafens argue that part of moving to stage three is being willing to simply accept plausible explanations as a part of trusting the Lord enough to leave it to him. Am I willing to accept plausible explanations? I think that I am as long as they are actually plausible. So for example it’s plausible that the Book of Mormon was translated by some other method than reading exact words off of the seer stone, despite the fact that people said that’s what he did. But I’m not willing to accept that tapirs were the horses of the Book of Mormon, for example. That’s not plausible given how horses were used in the Book of Mormon (i.e. with chariots and for travel).

I think I need to work harder to give the church the benefit of the doubt. I’m not willing to accept implausible explanations for problems, but I am willing to accept plausible ones.

some internet soft spots permalink

The Hafens point out the internet’s capacity to reveal all relevant information about a story, even critical or difficult aspects. This leads a lot of people to reach stage two in their understanding of church history, and give up before knowing enough to form a solid, contextualized understanding of the stories in church history. Instead of seeking out this understanding, people give up early and require the church to come up with a good explanation. This is a good point, and I’d like to reach that solid level of understanding. I don’t think you need to be a historian to reach that point, just like you don’t need to be a historian to understand why Benjamin Franklin was important in the discovery of electricity. It just takes a mature mind and some time spent reading.

Provocative information is more likely to be shared, whether it’s true or not. We can see this easily in American political discourse online. So it stands to reason that the same kinds of provocative misinformation will be available online. I need to be careful to research the claims made by the books and articles I read, so that I’m not tricked into believing false information.

The purpose of many websites working against the church is simply to sow doubt. They don’t need to provide airtight explanations to accomplish that. They can share ideas backed up by limited historical evidence, and then assert the church is wrong until it provides an airtight case. Sometimes it’s possible the arguments have already been debunked, but they still have the intended effect.

While this is true, this could also be mischaracterizing the kinds of attacks leveled at the church. The Hafens talk about burden of proof as if all arguments against the church are only weakly based in fact. They’re right that the burden of proof for these anti-church claims rests on those making them, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t meeting it.

productive ambiguity permalink

There is ambiguity in life because there are competing values. The Hafens share the example of women gaining education. The church teaches that a woman’s primary responsibility is to care for her children, but also teaches that it is good for both genders to gain as much education as they desire. These principles could be considered conflicting, and it’s up to each person to choose what mix of these principles will rule in their life.

In faith it is okay (necessary?) to feel uncertain about the choice. We hear stories of faith in church history, but forget that they also were just as afraid to sacrifice as I might be. Besides, is it really a sacrifice if we aren’t afraid to do it?

the head and the heart paradox permalink

In the church there are those who say that we need to err on the side of listening closely to the authority of church leadership and not get too creative or intellectual. On the other hand there are those who say God has given us natural talents that we need to exercise creatively on our own. The Hafens point out that people can fall from the church in both directions, so there needs to be a “simple balance” between reason and faith, authoritarianism and individualism.

Modern Christianity inherits an interesting mix of Greco-Roman philosophy with Hebraic philosophy. Kitto referred to their contributions as “the religious earnestness of the Hebrews [and] the reason and humanity of the Greeks”. We can see this reflected in the two mottos on American coins: “Liberty” and “In God we trust”.

Our church inherits this same duality. We’re invited to “study it out in your mind” (D&C 9:8), but also taught that obedience is the first law of heaven. The Hafens think that there is a space in which we can abide by both faith and reason, both obedience and individuality.

beyond balance permalink

For faith to really pay out, there needs to be sacrifice involved. According to the Hafens, characterizing your faith as an “intelligent faith” necessarily limits the potential of that faith. The sanctifying experiences of faithful people come because of their faith, not because they rationally understand the truth of the church.

I don’t really see how taking a reasoned approach to faith could limit my potential for growth. Reason won’t stop me from savoring life despite my wife’s death or my multiple sclerosis, for example.

The Hafens point out that it’s still valuable to try to “make sense of mortality”, but when we are stretched to our extremes it’s faith that we need to rely on, not reason. And I think that makes sense; what keeps you going when life seems awful is the belief that life still has meaning and that you will grow from your experience. That strength doesn’t come from reason at all.

I guess by telling us to go “beyond balance”, they’re really saying that at the end of the day faith is more important than reason, because it’s what strengthens us during trials and allows us to see life as a progression toward God.

Elder Maxwell said that we should have “citizenship in Jerusalem with a passport to Athens”. He worried about scholars who spent more time examining the gospel and the church through their academic disciplines than examining their academic disciplines through the lense of the gospel. When Elder Maxwell encountered adversity (he fought leukemia for 7 years), he chose (through faith) to see it as a learning experience given to him by a loving Heavenly Father. He used it as an opportunity to understand others better. I want to see my experiences that way too.

The simplicity beyond complexity doesn’t ask us to give up anything of value in our reasoning, though it does recognize reason’s limits.

I think the point of this chapter is that reason doesn’t accomplish what faith does. Faith is what moves us toward godliness; reason cannot do that.

When do the angels come? permalink

The Hafens compare our experience with complexity to the contrast between the Kirtland and Nauvoo temple dedications. At Kirtland there was this great outpouring of miracles and visions, while the dedication in Nauvoo was immediately after Joseph’s death, as the Saints were preparing to leave for the Salt Lake valley. The Hafens think it’s important that in Nauvoo we don’t forget the miracles and blessings of Kirtland. Just because we experience difficulty and don’t see heavenly manifestations now doesn’t mean we should dismiss those we’ve experienced in the past.

To continue the comparison with church history, when we choose to push past the complexity and continue in our path, God will manifest Himself again, but probably in a way that we cannot see as clearly as back in Kirtland. He will guide our steps and strengthen us to withstand the trials ahead. We may one day be able to have the same obvious manifestations as we did in Kirtland, but we’re okay not to.

The only experience I can use as my Kirtland experience was a sort of burning in the bosom feeling that I remember having when I finished the Book of Mormon for the first time when I was seven.

To the Hafens, the simplicity beyond complexity allows our faith to be fueled by early miraculous experiences, despite the complexities that have arisen since then.

the value of the veil permalink

Atheists point out that there are no rational arguments to show that God exists. The Hafens argue that the universe and life are so complex that the probability of the world occurring naturally is infinitesimal. They point out the complexities of DNA as an example. But more than that, they think there’s a particular reason that God doesn’t allow us to prove His existence. He is behind a veil, and we cannot rationally perceive Him. For some reason, we need the experience of seeking Him through faith in order to prepare for the Celestial Kingdom.

The Hafens believe that preparing for salvation/exaltation is about picking up skills, rather than knowledge, and if we knew by pure reason that Jesus is the Savior, we would no longer be free to learn by experience. I don’t think that makes much sense. People can be presented with logical explanations for things and still believe otherwise, and even if we were presented with an undeniable demonstration of the truth we would still have to have the experience of learning to be like Christ. To turn around their example of Stradivarius’ violin-making, this would be like saying that if we were able to know with certainty that the violin produces good sound, we wouldn’t need to go to Stradivarius himself to learn how to make one. Knowing that God exists with certainty is not the same as perfectly understanding His attributes and what we need to do to attain them.

choosing to believe permalink

Choosing to believe is what allows the Spirit to teach us. Speaking of Nephi’s vision, they say “it’s not just that the Spirit wouldn’t show him the dream and tell him its meaning, but that He couldn’t show him in a way Nephi would fully understand,” (p. 82). That sounds a lot like what Bonnie and I have always said: there are two complete systems that fully explain themselves but contradict each other.

I have a problem with the idea that God created a system “carefully designed not to compel belief” (p. 82). It’s that theoretically there exists any number of these systems, and it’s impossible to simultaneously respect them all. The right answer in that case is to hold out for further confirmation of the truthfulness of one of them. It’s like a conspiracy theory if you’re willing to sacrifice your life for a system that won’t compel belief. The faithful answer in this case is that spiritual confirmations lead a believing individual to have greater certainty in the system, but that’s something observable in every religion.

The Hafens then discuss confirmation bias, possibly because that’s the disbelieving explanation for what I explained in the paragraph above. They consider confirmation bias to be evidence of the mists of darkness in this world. It’s then up to use “to choose for ourselves, as an act of will, whether to grasp the iron rod in the midst of the darkness,” (p. 83). But in reality it’s unclear which rod to grasp. There are many competing ideologies and systems, and we’ve stated before that there’s no way to know the truthfulness of one of them without grasping the rod and starting down the path for a while. Then the biases of confirmation and sunk cost take hold, and combine with the good feelings you have about the good that is in this path to convince you of the truthfulness of this one path compared to all others. They haven’t addressed the problem of confirmation bias at all here.

Next they quote William James:

“Belief and doubt are living attitudes, and involve conduct on our part. … If I doubt that you are worthy of my confidence, I keep you uninformed … as if you were unworthy of the same. If I doubt the need of insuring my house, I leave it uninsured as … if I believed there were no need. [At such times] inaction [counts] as action, and when not to be for is to be practically against; [here] neutrality is … unattainable.”

Again, it is impossible to simultaneously entertain every proposed (but unprovable) system of explanation for how the world works. I can choose to respect the possibility of an all-knowing God by selfishly trying to do what’s right, but there’s no comparison between insuring a house for fear of an unlikely catastrophe and choosing to be specifically Mormon because there might be a God.

James points out that faith is like leaping over an abyss. If you believe you’ll make it, you’re more likely to make it than if you don’t think you can. The Hafens think that certain blessings and knowledge are only available to those who believe and trust God’s promises. Until one believes, the promises won’t be fulfilled and it’ll look like the gospel doesn’t work.

Victor Frankl says that we choose to make life meaningful when we have a healthy tension “between what one is and what one should become” (p. 86). I think that’s true. Life loses its meaning when there is no earnest striving. The Hafens point out that “believers who ‘receive Him’ gradually develop Christlike capacities and skills that other people don’t stretch toward,” (p. 87). James argues that our very natures make us feel like we’re in a fight to improve, to close the gap, and that fight feels real.

I really like these statements about reaching for the ideal. It is undeniable that that is the motivation for most of the things we do here in the universe. It’s what drives my passion for family, career, and service. I just don’t see why that then implies that the Mormon church is true. At most it feels like the church can be part of my personal answer, but not the whole thing. Many of the things we do in the church are about obedience to the institution, not striving to be more like the ideal of Christ. I can set up a Christ character as my perfect example without paying tithing, keeping the Word of Wisdom, or attending the temple.

a witness more powerful than sight permalink

It’s one thing to learn about Jesus by reading the scriptures, and it’s another to see Jesus face to face. But it’s another entirely to come to know Him. The Hafens use the examples of Paul and Joseph Smith to demonstrate that seeing Jesus is not the same as knowing Him. We come to know Jesus “in our extremities”, when we sacrifice ourselves to serve Him. To the Hafens, this coming to know Jesus is a witness more powerful than sight.

climbing to know God permalink

When we struggle through adversity, the beliefs we do have become more precious to us. When we have questions it can be either an opportunity for growth or a crisis to fall into.

life and my life permalink

For most of history humans have found purpose and meaning in the framework provided to us by society, whether that was religious, political, moral, or aesthetic. In the last century or so that box has widened because of our efforts to increase personal freedom. But with the box now basically nonexistent it’s up to us to determine that purpose and meaning.

The Hafens argue that it’s “difficult, perhaps impossible to infer general cosmic meaning” simply from personal experience (p. 106). This is a good point, but I don’t think this means we have to turn back to equally fallible societal sources in search of a framework of absolute truth.

They teach that the box provided by the church is more useful than old boxes provided by society in the past because “the gospel’s universal truths thus teach us how to engage in a personal quest for freedom and meaning,” (p. 107). I honestly don’t see that at all. I think that the message of the church caused me to close my mind to the big questions because I felt I had answers to all of it. The church gave me some specific rules to keep and told me several times that all I needed to do was be worthy of a temple recommend and I would make it. The church also teaches eternal progression and the assimilation of Christlike attributes, and I did feel like I was improving myself and my desires to serve others, but often this striving boiled down to a search to become more “holy” and a better listener to the Spirit. To me this doesn’t feel like increased freedom and meaning. Whether or not I stay in the church, I need to focus future efforts to improve on those attributes that I think are most meaningful: love and service. I think this is where the Hafens are going with the concept of stage 3: that we use the stage 1 framework to combat stage 2 complexity in a way that improves us in individual ways.

The Hafens point out that the religion Jesus taught on the Earth was more about personal freedom than the medieval churches that followed, which I think is definitely true. I also think he was more about personal choice and morality than this church is today.

The Hafens talk about two kinds of people who leave the church:

  • There are some who leave but don’t have anywhere better to go, so they lose their broader frame of reference about meaning and fall into “the cosmic loneliness that leads to agnosticism or atheism,” (p. 109). This description completely misses the point that if religions are not true then the best answer is to be agnostic or atheist. They’re giving up something in exchange for nothing, it’s true, but in their mind that something has led to negative externalities and is likely false.
  • Others leave but retain their Mormon values or practices because they’re familiar to them and feel right. They’ve left not because they think the framework is wrong but because they take issue with some specific historical or personal problem. The Hafens assume these people will return eventually but in the mean time they’ll do damage to their family or others.

I feel like this whole book is an attempt to abstract away from the problems just enough that they can ignore the possibility that “stage 2 complexity” is really just a manifestation of holes in the stage 1 framework.

the benefit of the doubt and moving beyond complexity permalink

Khumbulani Mdletshe was a man who converted to the church in South Africa, served a mission in England, attended BYU, worked for an NGO in South Africa and then in CES for most of his career, and later became an area seventy. The Hafens walk us through his life and show us how at different stages he was satisfied by different kinds of answers for his questions about the racial priesthood ban.

  • He first learned about the ban on his mission, and was finally satisfied by his mission president who said that we don’t know the reasons for the ban but what’s important is that now all worthy men can receive the priesthood.
  • Before joining CES, he began to be “troubled that the origins of the policy in Church history were so unclear,” (p. 113). As a CES director he would explain that “a revelation was needed to enlighten Church members … and to assist Church leaders who needed a doctrinal tool to teach those who would question … the change in policy. …the revelation was needed as the Church matured in order that it might reach out to all people of the world,” (p. 114).
  • As a seventy at one of the leadership meetings before General Conference, President Monson approached the three African Area Seventies and told them, “Brethren, I would like to tell you that I worked with the man who gave the priesthood to all men,” (p. 115). With that comment came a spirit of peace that resolved any concerns any of them might have had about race and the priesthood.

I think the key point the Hafens make is this: “when we choose to give the Lord the benefit of the doubt, our righteous desires will help us find, understand, and teach a plausible pattern that supports some divine instruction—knowing that we can almost never “prove” conclusively that the pattern has a divine source,” (p. 114). When Richard Bushman encounters “unanswerable puzzles”, he asks himself, “What can this teach me about God?” (p. 115).

Finally, the Hafens argue that faith is more necessary for a relationship with Jesus than explanations are. It’s through faith that we come to understand him better and love him. To the Hafens, thinking about the unanswerable puzzles is only useful when we use it as a tool to understand God and to sacrifice to do his will.

I’m interested in Bushman’s approach to thinking about these problems and I think I should be more willing to let God work however he would like. But I’m not interested in demarcating the church’s teachings as untouchable and then trying to logically work around that.

the spirit of the army permalink

In regards to the priesthood ban, the Hafens want to make it clear that it’s perfectly ok to believe that the reasons given for the priesthood ban were wrong. (The church’s “Race and the Priesthood” essay states that the contemporary explanations for the curse of Cain were wrong.) But believing that the ban was a mistake makes us less willing to sacrifice and give the church the benefit of the doubt about other issues. One can turn to primary sources and evidence to try to understand the issue and come to an informed decision, but the Hafens suggest that we shouldn’t always do that. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details of which evidence is important and lose focus on “the ultimate and very personal process of deciding how, where, and to whom we should give the benefit of the doubt in close cases,” (p. 120).

I disagree on a couple of points.

  • Why are we drawing a line between revealed policy and revealed explanation for that policy? Are we only required to view the policy as correct, and not the teaching behind it, in order to call these men prophets of God? Why would God let prophets lead the people to believe horribly racist things about black people? Isn’t that “leading us astray” more than a ban on blacks receiving the priesthood does?
  • I think carefully and objectively studying the sources surrounding the priesthood ban, for example, can only make a belief in prophets more correct and useful. It can help us understand how prophets make mistakes, and where to draw the line in these “close cases”.

The Hafens think God wants us to trust him and his prophets enough to not look into the factual sources on every issue. When we try to use reason to guide us, instead of trusting God we are “bargaining” with God, expecting to find a particular answer to the issue and becoming less believing when we don’t find that answer.

What absolute garbage. Church history is just like any history: there is a lot you can learn from the historical sources and it won’t prove wrong anything that’s true. The church should have nothing to hide from those who are truly willing to give the church the benefit of the doubt, because if the church’s truth claims are true any answers derived from history shouldn’t cast shade on the true prophetic and authoritative role of the church.

The Hafens warn that relying on reason will bring us to answers that make us less likely to sacrifice for the church, but if that’s true then should we really be sacrificing for the church in that way? For example, if I decide that the priesthood ban was a mistake, I’m more likely to view the current doctrinal stance on LGBTQ people as a mistake as well. This means that I might be more tolerant of LGBTQ members of the church and pray for the day that they can be meaningfully included in our theology. I can still believe in the prophetic role of the prophets, but now my faith is more nuanced and so I am able to be more unconditional in my love for others and my Christlike compassion for the marginalized. I will be glad that my rational study of the priesthood ban has refined my understanding of prophetic authority. This process of discovery is far more valuable than being told to love LGBTQ people; “we do value what we discover far more than we value what we’re told,” (p. 122).

My thoughts above work well with the Hafens’ point about “noncontingent trust”. They define noncontingent trust as trust that doesn’t depend on a particular outcome. If our faith is contingent on a particular assumption about a sticky problem like race and the priesthood, that’s stage one simplistic faith. But if we’re able to tackle stage two complexity and promise God that we’ll trust Him no matter what the outcome is, that’s stage three. I don’t see why the Hafens think we need to avoid rational study of the sticky problems in order to maintain faith.

The Hafens apply the “faith not to be healed” concept to these sticky issues. Do I have the faith to find an answer that changes my view of modern prophets? Do I have the faith to not find proof of any explanation at all for a difficult issue?

descending to ascend permalink

Above all experiences and arguments, the Hafens point to the companionship with Jesus Christ that so many members of the church feel. That is beautiful regardless of what is true about the priesthood ban or any other historical matter. The gospel of Jesus Christ gives people confidence to overcome obstacles and become our best selves.