In a few minutes I’ll be leaving to travel to California, where I’ll be speaking this weekend at the conference of the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities. I’ll be speaking Friday morning on Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Saturday on Nibley + Terryl & Fiona Givens on atonement theory. Sunday evening at 7:00 pm, I’ll be speaking to the Bay Area Mormon Studies Council on the topic of “Disenchanted Mormonism: How (and Why) to Be Religious but not Spiritual.” The talk will be at the Berkeley Institute, located at 2368 LeConte Avenue. This event is open to the public — please come and invite others, or share the invitation. I’ve posted an excerpt of my talk below.
For a sojourner in the disenchanted forest, then, what language might better serve that experience than the trio of doubt, freedom and choice? It would be difficult to match the elegance and appeal of that formulation, and I freely concede that I will fail to do so here. Nevertheless, I an alternative sequence of keywords that I hope will begin to describe another route through a disenchanted Mormonism.
My experience has not been one of conventional religious doubt, an agonizing knife-edge demanding resolution through insight or decision, but rather one of puzzlement. Puzzlement is a gentler and more sustainable state of mind. It entails patience, an internal stillness, and an acknowledgement of my own failure to wring answers from an inscrutable world. Puzzlement implies humility. If provisional doubt must be mastered by individual judgment and choice, then puzzlement marks the limits of our intellectual and moral mastery.
Where doubt brings confused casting about for answers, puzzlement is necessarily a state of waiting and stillness. “”Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him,” advises the psalm. Patient waiting is itself a work of hope. Theologian Paul Tillich draws out the hopeful work of waiting:
He who waits in quiet tension, open for what he may encounter, works for its coming. Such waiting in openness and hope does what no will power can do for our own inner development. The more seriously the great religious men took their own transformation, using their will to achieve it, the more they failed and were thrown into hopelessness about themselves. … Again there is only one answer: waiting in inner stillness, with posed tension and openness toward what we can only receive. Such openness is highest activity; it is the driving force which leads us toward the growth of something new in us.
Moreover, the notion of puzzlement allows us to uncouple belief from faith, and faith from choice, in the troubling but inescapable logic of doubt. Puzzlement allows us to think of faith not as a moral victory over uncertainty but rather as an encounter with uncertainty itself, which is to say an encounter with the limits of our own capacity to comprehend or control the world. When we encounter church doctrines or practices that we fail to understand or can’t justify, or when we taste suffering in our own lives or the lives of those we love, we find ourselves puzzled by God’s will. These moments of hesitation become the personal occasions of faith. They originate not in our capacity to choose, in our strength of will or our victory over doubt, but on the contrary in our own limitations of mind, in our insufficiency to comprehend or our present inability to decide. Faith begins at the moment we say “I don’t understand.” Faith here is not a choice to believe but choice’s opposite, born in a moment of spiritual hesitation or aporia; not first a triumph of the moral mind, but its fortunate failure.
Puzzlement primes us not to know or decide or choose, but simply to attend to experience as it comes. We “attend” not merely in the sense of showing up, as in attending sacrament meeting week after week, though that is a necessary pre-condition for real attention. I mean attend in all of its senses at once: to accompany, to care for, to serve, to pay attention, to notice. Puzzlement leaves us not in a state of heightened freedom, but in a state of heightened attention. The stones in the disenchanted forest may be only stones, no sermons attached, but stones themselves richly repay our focused attention. Whether or not one experiences Latter-day Saint practice as suffused with spiritual presence, one can make oneself fully present in the practice.
The poet Mary Oliver finds that a state of quiet, open attention yields a kind of luminous immanence, a heightened perception of the world achieved not by reference to a transcendent realm but simply by a hawk-eyed attention to what is here. She imagines a prayer not destined for a spiritual otherworld but winging its way, bird-like, in and around its given place. In a poem that can really only be reproduced in entirety, “The Real Prayers Are Not the Words, But the Attention that Comes First,” she writes:
The little hawk leaned sideways and, tilted, rode
the wind. Its eye at this distance looked like green
glass; its feet were the color of butter. Speed obvious-
ly, was joy. But then, so was the sudden, slow circle
it carved into the slightly silvery air, and the squaring
of its shoulders, and the pulling into itself the long,
sharp-edge wings, and the fall into the grass where it
tussled a moment, like a bundle of brown leaves, and
then, again, lifted itself into the air, that butter-color
clenched in order to hold a small a small, still body, and it flew
off as my mind sang out oh all that loose, blue rink
of sky, where does it go to, and why?