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Faith as the “Cultivation of Restraint”

April 2, 2012

An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32Since it has been open as a tab for a week or so now, I guess I should write the post I always wanted to write about Lynnette’s most recent (EDIT: Looks like I waited too long…she’s written another post, one about Ralph Hancock’s review of Joanna Brooks’ The Book of Mormon Girl, since I started this one) post at Zelophehad’s Daughters: Faith and Creeds. This post comes as the second in a series she is writing as commentary to An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32.

I probably should keep better track of things like this, but I have written about Alma 32 (and my problems with it) a lot. Sometimes in posts that reference the scripture explicitly, and sometimes in posts that embed the scripture more implicitly. Sometimes in posts that reference great jazz songs, and sometimes, in podcasts.

The book is a product of the Mormon Theology Seminar. Since Adam Miller (about whom I’ve written before) is director of said seminar and the book’s editor, I have anticipated finding whatever has come out of said seminar intriguing but ultimately incomprehensible.

Based on Lynnette’s posts so far, the former definitely applies. But what about the latter?

Let me first paste down something that Lynnette wrote in her post:

Faith often gets talked about as a cognitive effort, a sort of forcing yourself to believe despite a lack of evidence. If something doesn’t make sense to you, or seems problematic, you might be told to “just have faith.” In such an understanding of faith, it is primarily intellectual in nature. It represents a lack—you only have to have it because you don’t have knowledge.  It requires you to ignore doubt, or see it as a threat. This kind of faith is fearful of new information which might challenge it. And notably, in such a model faith is a quality possessed by an individual, outside the context of any relationship.

This book lays out a very different model of faith. Rather than an intellectual act, it is a kind of letting things be. We make space for the word, rather than casting it out—we engage in a “cultivation of restraint.” (9) Faith, then, is giving the word a chance to work, being open to whatever experience it might bring you. We don’t have to make an effort to force the seed to grow. It will naturally grow, as long as we don’t resist it. The way we cultivate it, then, is through willingness.

and here’s another interesting section:

…As fallen beings, we experience this knowledge of our inadequacy as humiliation—and thus we are tempted to turn away from it. We experience God’s mercy not as a blessing, but as a threat to our sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency.

In contrast to this attitude, faith is an affirmation that the word is good. As the authors of this book write in their summary report, “faith openly and persistently acknowledges that only God can transform us and that the work of the word upon us is to be welcomed rather than feared.” (9) What I find striking about this is that faith as understood here does not focus on existence (what exists and does not exist), but on goodness. The affirmation of faith is not that God exists, but that God is good. This inevitably moves us, I think, from the realm of abstraction, in which we can debate the existence of God in a detached way, to the realm of relationship, in which it is our relation to God, our experience of God, that matter.

I think this is intriguing. Moving away from debates about the existence of God to that kind of , “OK, so what comes after?”

I’ll take a quick detour. I think that debates on the existence of God can occur in what Lynnette describes as “a detached way” precisely because the impact of God does seem so slight on our world and in our lives. We can keep the discussion entirely academic because there’s nothing that really forces us to take it out of academic territory daily. I think it’s best for believers to move the discussion to the “What next?” stage because this first step really isn’t in their favor.

Unfortunately, I think if we’re going instead to converse about goodness, then we’re going to run into problems quickly as well. I mean…maybe we are just so completely different that we will never be able to see eye to eye, but when people start speaking of religious morality in terms of its goodness, I feel that is a non-starter.

…aw, I’m getting too snarky.

Anyway, if I’m understanding this correctly, the realm of faith would be the willingness to accept God’s words as good…even if they do not seem good. Even if they do not feel good.

OK, I think I can get that. But in that case, it seems that it still falls into the same trap described in the first part I quoted of Lynnette’s…let me make a few adjustments to what she had originally said:

Faith often gets talked about as a cognitive an emotional effort, a sort of forcing yourself to believe despite a lack of evidence confirmation. If something doesn’t make sense to you, or seems problematic, you might be told to “just have faith.” In such an understanding of faith, it is primarily intellectual in nature. It represents a lack—you only have to have it because you don’t have knowledge an internal moral confirmation.  It requires you to ignore doubt moral misgivings, or see it as a threat. This kind of faith is fearful of new information the personal moral compass which might challenge it. And notably, in such a model faith is a quality possessed by an individual, outside the context of any relationship.

See what I mean?

OK, Andrew S., stop being a curmudgeon.

I know that I’m attaching a lot of baggage to faith. I’m attacking a strawman. A very popular strawman reinforced by millions of religious adherents everywhere, reinforced in most of the General Conference talks for the LDS church in particular (man, when those transcripts come out, there will be a field day. Days), reinforced by those of faith more often than challenged. But it is a strawman nevertheless.

So maybe I am afraid. Afraid of being transformed into someone or something whom I would today surely recognize as a monster (but isn’t that the point? the natural man is the enemy of God…God’s ways are not man’s ways, blah blah blah). I’m afraid that I can’t know that what “God” calls people to be is good, because so many people are insistent that they are following what they believe God is calling them to be, and what I see is not very good at all.

I’m afraid that the transformation will not even be complete. That while on the outside I will be a monster, a source of horror for others, on the inside I will still be inside, a source of horror for myself.

…But I am aware that is not the only kind of faith out there. So I know that it is ultimately unfair to think that faith could only turn me into an unsympathetic instrument of oppression when I do not have reason to believe that the others who say their faith has only strengthened their compassion aren’t instead strengthened in spite of their faith.

But for this to work, there needs to be something more that can account for the vast differences in how people relate to God. And that’s where the second part of Lynnette’s post kicks in:

One of the other thought-provoking discussions in this book has to do with creeds. The  major concern raised about creeds is that they hinder our ability to be in relation with God. The authors describe the infamous Rameumpton prayer as having “a kind of creedal spirit.” They note in particular that the statements in the prayer “are all statements about transcendent facts: whereas Alma simply talks in his prayer about what he has seen immediately before him, the Zoramites make claims about things that have not been—indeed, cannot have been—experienced personally.” (17) The problem with the prayers of the Zoramites is that they “without leaving room for God himself to speak, effectively tell God what they are willing to believe about him.” (15)

Robert Couch develops this further, warning that “when a theological creed establishes, say, a set of attributes concerning the nature of God, it obviates the need for an individual worshiper to discover these attributes for themselves.” The more elaborate the theological system, he argues, the less of a need there will be to pray, “since the theological system can increasingly provide the answer to any question that might be posed.” (92)

Lynnette later writes to say that she doesn’t think that creeds need be all bad…that maybe creeds can encourage people to pursue the relationship with God. My experiences don’t align with that. I can accept that I am turned off by a strawman…by a creedal caricature of deity…and that this caricature prevents me from engaging with the real God. But that’s the point: I am turned off. I am prevented. It’s like I will have to start all over if I want to get anywhere. Maybe if I read the scriptures inside out, then I’ll see what other people see in them?

Maybe it’s like a portrait: so long as you try to draw what you think various facial features look like, you’ll never be able to get it. It’s only when you flip things upside down or mirror them and can’t rely upon what you think that you’ll actually approach reality.

Some people say that ex-Mormons…or those who left any religion…”did religion wrong.” Perhaps that is true. But perhaps it’s true because the majority of people are teaching it wrong.

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