Friday, November 21, 2008

Sometimes I miss belief

This morning, Runtu posted a link to this video. If you're a believing Mormon, you'll probably enjoy it. If you're not, you may find it strange, confusing, boring, or creepy. I actually kind of liked it.

joseph-smith-translatingAs I watched the video, I found myself strangely emotional. Kind of in a good way, but not really. It was more of a sadness, a longing or a yearning for the days when I actually believed all this stuff. I can imagine my former bishop saying that this feeling is the Holy Ghost trying to tell me that the gospel is true. That's what he said to me about a year and a half ago, when my wife and I were first telling him about my unbelief, and I admitted that this is a painful process. But it's always painful when you find that the world isn't the way you thought it was. The pain itself is not evidence that changing your beliefs is good or bad, right or wrong.

It was nice to have a narrative in which the world could neatly fit. God loved me, Jesus was our Savior, and Joseph Smith restored the gospel so that we could all live eternally with God and our families if we had faith and lived right. It was a simple, encouraging story, and it came with an entire life framework. It had its quirks, but it was relatively straightforward. Follow the prophet and you'll be all right. I made my checklist of daily, weekly, or monthly tasks, and completing the checklist felt good, dammit. Like I'm getting something worthwhile done here! We're on the path to celestial happiness!

joseph-smith-translatingNo matter how good it felt, watching this video reminded me why I just can't be a believer. I couldn't watch Joseph Smith kneeling in prayer in the Sacred Grove without remembering his many different versions of the story, each more grand and detailed than the last, and each coming at a time when he needed to bolster people's faith in him as a prophet. I couldn't watch him finding the golden plates without remembering his stories about a huge cave inside the Hill Cumorah, filled with books and treasures. I couldn't watch him translating the golden plates without remembering that he did so via a seer stone, with his face buried in a hat, often without the plates even being in the same room. I couldn't watch him receiving the priesthood from resurrected beings without remembering that he never mentioned this alleged event until years later. I couldn't watch him rocking babies with Emma without remembering that he married 33 other women, some of them teenagers, most of them secretly, and many of them already married to other men. And so on.

I actually knew all of this (and more - there's so much more) before I joined the church. But I found the feelings and the narrative so compelling that I shelved the cognitive dissonance and got baptized anyway. Apparently through sheer force of will, I got myself to a point where none of the discrepancies bothered me anymore. And why should they? I was happily married with kids, had a good job and a nice house, and church activity fit right into our happy little life. Everything was nice and simple, and we were filled with certainty. Until I met Carl Sagan and the shelf started to buckle. The weight of the evidence demanded my attention. Fortunately, we still have a happy little life, but of course it's not the same as it used to be.

shut-eyesI think that's what I miss most. Certainty. These days I am learning to be comfortable with ambiguity, probability, uncertainty, and unanswered questions. It's difficult for me to be uncertain, but in light of the evidence I have seen over my lifetime, I must admit that I am. As Carl Sagan correctly asserted, "It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." I wouldn't trade where I am today for where I was then. My eyes are wide open, and shutting them doesn't make the world go away. But I still miss it.


Pam said...

Because my belief is not in this man nor ever really was, I honestly don't experience the missing of it. Perhaps you are missing the belief in God or the Savior more, which is more understandable to my mind. Either way, it is probably grief of some sort that you felt. My own grief was not so much over the truth of the history, but more the lack of compassion or actions I felt by church leaders after giving 30 years of my life to it.

I didn't watch the whole thing as like you said of what you thought while viewing it, I began thinking the same thoughts... I, like you, know too much of the real truth to stomach the sugar coated fairly tales. The gospel of Jesus Christ is so simple in principle and in action, we don't need the fairy tale to believe in the Good News. My own 2 cents on the subject.

Pam said...

So I had a discussion on the BofM with my son just now, and I can say that in part, I do want to still believe in the BofM or at least in some of the stories, so maybe I can relate to your missing belief in that respect. I like Alma's discussions with his 4 sons, he was a good parent or Ammon as a missionary or the part about the mothers of the stripling warriors... they are good stories. My son believes that if that book is is true... it all is. Why can't he see it is not that simple or black and white?

That a book with stories of faith can testify of truths or principles, but not necessarily be historical. I do want some of it to be, as it compelling to believe but my reasoning knows better to trust it fully. I respect what is good in that book, for now. I, too am learning to be comfortable with uncertainty.

And in response to your blog about your grandfather's death, that realization hits one hard. Death is cold hard reality, even if you have faith in Christ or want to trust in the power of the resurrection, that is one thing that is hard to know or be certain about... Will we really see our loved ones again? I sure hope so as my memory is fading at times of those I have lost.

Saganist said...

Thanks, Pam. I think you're right, there are a lot of things I'm mourning the loss of. Certainty is near the top of the list, but the idea of a personal God who cares about me is right up there, too.

Even if the Book of Mormon were historical fact, it wouldn't prove that the LDS church is "the true church" - there are plenty of other churches in the Latter Day Saint movement that claim authoritative succession. As always, things aren't so black and white.

It is touch sometimes to realize that I will never again see those who have passed on. I wish I could. I would love it, and I think that's one thing that makes religion, Mormonism in particular, so appealing. As Julia Sweeney talks about in her brilliant piece Letting Go of God, when you lose your belief in the afterlife, you basically have to mourn everyone you've ever lost, again! They were gone before, but at least you were going to see them again. Now they're really gone for good. It's sad. But it really does help me focus my thoughts on how I want to live this life before I'm gone.

tranchingreality said...


Chris said...

Very well-written post, Saganist. I know exactly what you mean. I like knowing the truth; it gives me a sense of power and control over the universe that feels so-- for lack of a better way of putting it-- grown up. But I still remember the comfort and satisfaction that my naive, childlike faith gave me, and a part of me misses that. I also miss the solidarity that it created among my family and friends over against the rest of the world in its unbelief. In spite of all that, I have no real desire to put aside my adulthood and go back to being a child.

Saganist said...

Thanks, Chris. Exactly.

Pam said...

I have no desire to go back to my childhood either, nor do I think my faith give me any power or control over the world. Comfort, yes. I don't see faith as being naive at all, if anything it takes strength to accept or believe in something that can transcend beyond us or what we know. Faith and spirituality are always on a personal level that we alone find meaning in, and a cosmic journey, one that is never stagnant, that is for sure.