A Mormon in the Disenchanted Forest

HG5In 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?

10 comments for “A Mormon in the Disenchanted Forest

  1. I used to live in the Bay Area. I wish I still did, I would love to attend. This piece describes me better than any I have read. I have trouble describing myself to myself, until today. Very much appreciated.

  2. I’ve found this to be one of the hardest things writing on the internet. Sometimes what we write tends to be seen as certainty. This is what we believe, argue if you can. But most of the writing by those of us who keep most things in puzzlement aren’t making a statement of certainty but of probing for answers; wondering if this thought might fit with a tentativeness that it may be completely wrong.

    We write with a desire to learn, not with the thought that none can possibly disagree.

  3. I think that this is a great topic, and also wish that I could attend. I chafe a bit at the word: disenchanted. I would prefer the word “unenchanted.” The difference being that your forest is a lovely and beautiful place, but not a very magical place. My experiences are valuable, but not other-worldly. At least that is how I understand it.

  4. I love your use of “puzzlement.” Frankly, that is one of the things that attracts me so much to the Old Testament, that it is a foreign, puzzling, tantalizing thing that beckons to peel back its layers. I think our cultural LDS need to have everything figured out and tied up in neat theological packages is both a real obstacle and stumbling block.

  5. Saying I’m “puzzled” because there’s no archaeological or genetic record of BoM peoples is like saying I’m “puzzled” to discover the earth is actually round after I’ve been taught since childhood that it’s flat – i.e., it requires a deep foundational belief in both BoM and flat earth. Puzzlement is a believer’s option and would seem to preclude the achievement of a tipping point, after which not doubt but unbelief sets in. “Doubt” is also a believer’s option, and implies that the truth/untruth of a given matter is still in play.

    “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.”

    Well, maybe not, Rosalynde. When the claims & stories simply become unbelievable, flat-earth style, “puzzlement” might simply imply denial.

  6. Of course there are really things to puzzle about, P. For example, you could start with traditions from various Native American peoples spread across the continents of a bearded (sometimes light skinned) God, who visited, healed, and taught people. There is also the eye witnessed method of how the Book of Mormon text came to be: head in a hat with no manuscript or books for reference. That is an amazing feat to both the believer and the skeptic. One last example is the heavy data that has resulted from Royal Skousen’s critical text of the Book of Mormon (volumes published by Yale Press) that the original text of the Book of Mormon contains numerous grammatical and syntactic structures from the 15th and 16th centuries. All of this merits honest humble puzzlement.

  7. Nice discussion, Rosalynde. I think we Mormons need a non-polarizing vocabulary for discussion of faith and doubt questions that doesn’t boil down to “faith good, doubt bad.” This seems like a nice step forward.

  8. “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.”

    I guess the part I don’t understand is why one should, or does, commit themselves to a belief system that they simply don’t understand. I mean, I can see how someone might find reason to commit lots of time, resources, and emotional energy to an institution when they understand only parts of its doctrine, but not the doctrine in full. But my general reaction to ideas, or a body of ideas, that I don’t understand and can’t make sense out of is either 1) to not give me serious attention, or 2) if I deem it important for me to understand such ideas, I make inquiries to others or through my own introspection until I can get some understanding of it. If after I spend a great deal of time trying to understand a set of ideas (as, for instance, I did with quantum physics and the Chinese language a number of years ago) and cannot see progress in my understanding of it, I move on to other ideas and concepts that I can more easily grasp. I gather from your post, Rosalynde, that there is something that causes you to think that the claims of Mormonism are important and that they are worthwhile for you spend at least some time trying to understand a part of them.

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