It’s important to keep our tough questions about Mormonism in perspective. And, especially, we need to keep the genuinely urgent questions front and center.
The big problems are straightforward. We’re dying here. You and I. We’re getting sick, we’re getting old, and we’re dying. Our lives are small and our time is short. Our days are filled with suffering of all kinds: distress, worry, boredom, frustration, and loss. Time will have its way with us. And both we – and everyone we love, and everything we love – will pass away. We are losing to time and we will, finally, lose everything.
Religion is meant to address these problems. And, in the end, the fruit it bears in addressing sin and suffering and death are its measure.
It’s easy, though, to get sidetracked by other things. In fact, it’s tempting to get sidetracked by other things.
What’s critical is the ability to (1) relieve suffering wherever possible, and (2) especially to change, in a fundamental way, our relationship to the suffering we can’t relieve.
Let me tell a story about the Buddha.
A young man comes to see the Buddha. And this young man has taken up “the training life,” he’s attempting to follow the Buddha’s instructions about how to wake up and stop sleep-walking through his own life.
He begins on the path and starts doing the hard work, but then he gets distracted when he realizes that, though the Buddha has given him some clear instructions about what to do as he practices, the Buddha hasn’t given him any answers to even the most basic religious questions: Is this the only world? Is there a soul separable from the body? Is there life after death? Etc. So he abandons his training and resolves to track down the Buddha and demand answers.
When he finally finds the Buddha and rattles off his questions, the Buddha shakes his head. Then he roars. Then he tells the following story.
You, my friend, the Buddha says, are a like a man who has been shot with an arrow, thickly smeared with poison. Wounded and dying, that man’s friends gather round to remove the arrow and help counteract the poison. But the man refuses to pull the arrow out until he’s first had some questions answered.
Who shot him? What tribe is the shooter from? Is he tall or short? Fat or skinny? Warrior or peasant? What color is his hair? What kind of bow did he use? Made of what kind of wood? Strung with what kind of material? What kind of arrow was used? With what kind of arrowhead? What kind of string fastened the arrowhead to the shaft of the arrow? And on and on. The questions pile up.
The man may have a right to ask all these questions but, the Buddha says, that doesn’t really matter here because before he’ll get any of those answers, he’ll be dead. The poison will kill him.
You are like this man, the Buddha tells his student. You are suffering and dying. And you can demand answers to all these speculative questions if you like — but if you do, you’ll die before you ever get any answers.
Regardless of how your questions get answered, the Buddha tells him, still there is suffering, still there is sickness, still there is aging, still there is worry and distress and fear, still there is death. It is the work of addressing all this in this very world that I teach.
(Find a full, non-summarized version of this story in Glenn Wallis’ Basic Teachings of the Buddha, pp. 5-8)
Start with the critical things. Pull out the arrows of suffering. Counteract the poison.
Doubts and Sacrifice
We need to be clear about the background against which our discussions of religion take place. None of us are going to make it out of this world alive. And everyone of us will have to part with everything and everyone we care about most. Everyone of us will have to sacrifice everything.
As the Lectures on Faith put it: a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things has not the power to save.
But there’s a catch here: even if your religion doesn’t require you to sacrifice everything, life will.
The basic religious question with respect to all these losses is not if you will be asked to sacrifice everything, but how you will do it. With what attitude, with what posture? With an open heart and an open hand or with a fearful mind and a closed fist?
Sacrificing everything happens more dramatically and traumatically for some, and more quietly and subtly for others. But no one gets a free pass. We will all have to face this. We’ll all have this day of reckoning when God shows up to require that we return to him what he’d previously given.
And of all the things that God will require at our hands, of all the things he’ll require us to return, our ideas about things are no exception. In particular, our ideas about God himself and about religion don’t get a free pass. He will, sooner or later, require the sacrifice of all things — your ideas included. Can you trust the truth enough to let your ideas about the truth go?
Abraham is the (terrifying) model here. God asked Abraham to sacrifice everything. He asked him to step up and give back what mattered most to him. “Go up to Moriah,” God said, “and sacrifice Isaac, your beloved son, your only son.” And Abraham went. And when he had bound Isaac and laid him on the altar, he wasn’t just sacrificing his son, he was sacrificing everything God had promised him. Abraham was sacrificing every idea he’d ever had about God and every idea he’d ever had about religion.
Abraham was sacrificing the fulfillment of every promise God himself had ever made him and he was sacrificing it at God’s own request.
The story is itself troubling and trying. But, for all its problems and weaknesses, it has resonated with Jews and Christians and Muslims for thousands of years because it captures something fundamental about what living a religious life looks like: living a religious life will require you to willingly lose everything God has given to you and, in a really important way, this includes the religious life itself.
In some ways, this is the question at stake in an experience of doubt. Take your experience of doubt — take your experience of living with the crumbling of your ideas about your God and your religion — and then ask: can you carry out the work of living with these doubts and losses as a religious gesture?
Can you carry out the work of living with these doubts as a willing sacrifice? Can you sacrifice what you thought was your religion as an act fidelity to that religion? Can you, like Abraham, sacrifice at God’s request God’s own promises to you?
And, then, having given it all back, having returned all your ideas about God and religion to God, can you still keep coming?
Can you stay?
If your religion falls apart in your hands, don’t without further ado assume that this is because your religion doesn’t work.
Rather, start by inquiring into whether that disintegration may not itself be the clearest manifestation yet of the fact that your religion is working.
Mormonism Isn’t About Mormonism
Let me also suggest that some ways of approaching our doubts and questions will be more fruitful than others. For example, I think that it’s generally a mistake to think that Mormonism is about Mormonism.
But when investigating Mormonism, when thinking about the nature of the church and our relationship to it, it’s easy to fall into the assumption that the thing at stake in Mormonism is Mormonism itself. We do this all the time.
But I don’t think this is true.
Mormonism is not about Mormonism.
Consider an analogy. Say that I’m concerned about my own life, about whether this life is good, whether I’m being true to the things that matter to me, and whether I’m on track to finding real happiness.
In this case, I’ll be tempted to fall into the assumption that if I’m worried about my own well being and happiness, I should put more and more time and effort into making sure that my own happiness is secure.
The temptation here is to think that my life is about me.
But I think this is a fundamental mistake: my life is not about me. And the more I focus my life on my own happiness, the worse off I’ll be, the farther from happiness I’ll be, and the more fraudulent I’ll feel (and be).
This move is a bit counterintuitive, but a willingness to swim upstream against the flow of this natural assumption – the assumption that my happiness is best secured by aiming directly at my own happiness, the assumption that my own life is, of course, about me – is crucial. Our willingness to swim against the flow of this assumption is the lifeblood of faith. It’s what keeps the heart of a religious life beating.
As Jesus puts it, I can only save my life by losing it. If I try to save my own life, then that life will inevitably be lost.
The irony is that happiness, like meaning, is one of those peculiar things that you can only have as a by-product of something else. It can only be achieved as a side-effect of a life aimed at paying attention to and caring for the world that’s right in front of you.
Happiness and meaning only accrue as a (welcome) by-product when my life and time and attention are aimed at something other than itself. But the more I obsess over happiness and meaning, the farther I get from them.
I think that the same thing is true of Mormonism. If you think that Mormonism is about Mormonism, the same thing happens as when you think that your own life is about you.
Mormonism comes into focus as living and true only when we stop looking directly at it and, instead, aim our attention at what Mormonism is itself aiming at. If you aim right at Mormonism itself, you’ll miss seeing the thing that is crucial with respect to deciding whether it deserves your enduring fidelity.
This is a kind of paradox but, again, it is exactly the paradox that is at the heart of Christianity itself.
In fact, it’s the kind of paradox that, from the outside, can sound like a kind of dodge, like an easy way of avoiding the really tough issues that ought to be addressed and assessed and resolved.
More, even from the other side of the aisle, refusing to believe that Mormonism is about Mormonism can, in fact, also look like you’re being unfaithful to Mormonism itself.
Both are real possibilities. But I don’t think these worries hold.
More, I’m convinced that these kinds of questions about Mormonism can’t be answered in the abstract. The truthfulness of this claim — that Mormonism is not about Mormonism — has to be tested in the flesh, in the first person, by every person.
You must see what happens to your own heart and your own mind, to your own perception of Mormonism, when you give your full attention not to Mormonism but, by way of Mormonism, to the thing that Mormonism itself aims at.
It’s only by connecting with what Mormonism itself hopes to connect with that you can justify your enduring fidelity to it. Only by forgetting yourself and forgetting Mormonism in the hard work of caring, by way of Mormonism, for what Mormonism cares about can Mormonism itself come into focus.
Every attempt to directly address Mormonism itself will show you only, to one degree or another, a hypocrite, an empty suit, an imposter. This won’t be hard to recognize. Because you’re already deeply familiar with how this same feeling of being a hypocrite, an empty suit, and an imposter arises whenever you attempt to live your own life as if that life were about you.
Living your life as if it were about you is an intolerable burden. Life cannot bear the weight. You will smother the life right out of your own life if you try.
And the same thing follows with Mormonism. Mormonism cannot bear the weight of itself. If you ask Mormonism to be about Mormonism, the weight of that inward turning and the redoubling of that self-regard will stifle it. Mormonism will collapse under its own weight and you’ll have lost the very thing you had hoped to find.
You can only save Mormonism by losing it. You can only save Mormonism by connecting deeply with what Mormonism is itself aiming at. This is the only way to be faithful to what Mormonism itself is trying to do.
Let’s ask the question, then: what is Mormonism aiming at? Most straightforwardly, the answer is summarized in that single most important Christian word: grace.
Mormonism is aimed at grace. If you also aim at grace (rather than at Mormonism), then two things can happen: (1) you will be saved and (2) you will find Mormonism to boot.
What, then, does it mean to aim your life at grace?
Let’s admit up front, here, that our Mormon stories involve a whole host things that can only be described as pretty unlikely. Very unlikely. Extremely unlikely.
Angels and miracles and golden books and lost civilizations and life after death and worlds of spirit, etc. These things run afoul of common sense. They run against the grain of the shared world that is publically accessible to everyone. I don’t think there’s any getting around this. These beliefs look crazy from the outside.
And, for my part, I honestly don’t know much about any of these kinds of things. I’ve been going to church for three plus hours every Sunday for almost forty years and I’ve never seen or heard or felt anything supernatural.
I don’t think this is unusual.
I’m not denying that these supernatural things are real or that people don’t have the kind of direct contact with supernatural things that I never have. I’m just saying that they’ve never happened to me and that, at best, I can only speak about them in the third person on the basis of what others say.
But I don’t think that this is a disaster. And I don’t think it means that Mormonism doesn’t work. In fact, Mormonism seems to be working pretty well in transforming me in all kinds of ways that I find to be difficult and uncomfortable and extremely valuable.
But this transformation has also been profoundly ordinary and it has revolved around God trying to get me to stop speculating about other worlds and far off places and supernatural events and to, instead, pay attention to what’s happening right now, in this world, right in front of my own eyes.
This transformation has revolved around God trying to get me to pay attention to and care for the kinds of things that are so near and obvious that I’m prone to overlook them — the kinds of things that manifest God’s grace concretely at work in the world.
As best as I can tell, though, this is exactly what God wants. If I’m ever going to learn to see him, it will be by learning to see his hand at work in the air I breath and grass I mow. It will be by learning to see his eyes shining out from my child’s face. It will be by reading a book and hearing it read in his voice.
To this end, I’d recommend the following. Don’t be too distracted by questions that you can’t answer. Don’t get distracted by questions that you lack evidence to decide. Only God prove that God exists and he’s chosen not to do that. And only God can prove that the Book of Mormon is verifiably historical — and, again, he’s clearly chosen not to do that.
I assume God has his reasons.
But I don’t believe the reason he’s chosen to set aside these things is because he wants to see if we’re willing to believe things without good evidence. I don’t believe that faith and credulity are the same thing. I don’t believe that mortality is meant to test our credulity. And I don’t think the God is interested in rewarding people for being credulous. Credulity is not, in and of itself, a virtue.
If the answer to certain kinds of questions are above your pay-grade, then leave them there. These are not your burdens. They are not your responsibilities.
In fact, I suspect that God has left this kind of evidence off the table precisely in order to keep us from getting distracted by it.
Take the Book of Mormon. It seems clear to me that God wants our experience of the world to be reshaped by our reading of the Book of Mormon. And, more, it seems clear to me that he doesn’t want us pinning the success of that project on our success in trying to prove something that we can’t prove and that he has explicitly chosen not to.
Let me put it this way: it is not your responsibility to prove things that only God can prove.
Your business is to pay attention, to care for the world pressing in on you, and pull out that arrow thickly smeared with poison before you and those you love die from the wound. You business is to sacrifice all of it. Your business is consecration. And you have to consecrate everything, not just part. Even your doubts and questions need to be consecrated. Even Mormonism itself must be consecrated and returned. This work is more than enough.
And it is the accomplishment of just this work that Mormonism is itself aiming at. If you want to know the truth about Mormonism, don’t aim at Mormonism. Aim at accomplishing the work that Mormonism is itself aimed at.