My Atheist Conversion, 3: A Lack of Theology

My own research played a role in the atheist conversion I described in previous posts. Like I said, I believe I’ve been able to track down the sources of all Mormon ideas from books to Joseph Smith, which, like I said, was something I’ve been generally okay with. Again, this was a gradual process for me that I felt I could make spiritual sense of, and concluded that any means that God used for the Restoration was okay with me.

Yet every now and again I’d stop and notice how far I’d drifted from orthodoxy. I recently did a podcast where I described it as occasionally feeling like this Naked Gun clip: with so much on his mind while he wandered around, Frank finally said to himself, “and where the hell was I?”

Those brushes with atheism I described in those posts were two such incidents. I was concerned about other things, but noting that I’d put together what looked to me like something of a naturalistic explanation added to my unmoored feeling.

I’d applied similar scholarly views to other scripture well as I would dabble a bit in biblical studies. At some point, I’ll post on something of a construct I put together for myself of embracing scholarship on these scriptural issues, and believing that God can work through these human means. But ultimately not feeling like I need to embrace all historical scriptural claims.

Again, I would generally feel fine spiritually with such a view, but in those atheist moments, such a view played a role in my atheist direction.

Again, I reembraced theism by the end of the day, but as I did so, I began to piece things together in a somewhat different ways. There was a lot of context, but it reminded me a bit of Rosemary Wixom’s talk about the sister with a faith crisis. “I felt I needed the answer to the question ‘What do I really believe?’” Sister Wixom relays the story. “Her first step to rebuild her faith was to start with basic gospel truths.”

Though I’m sure there are many differences, I also felt a real stripping down of the larger structure of belief I’d been handed. I was convinced that so much scripture and revelation came within human contexts that I did not believe I could take much (any?) as simple, face-value, divine declarations. In reembracing theism, I did believe in divinity and inspiration, but there was the simple question of what exactly was inspiration and what was human speculation in all that “religion” out there?

So in asking myself a similar question to “What do I really believe?” in that moment, I decided that what I really knew were the things I’d experienced personally. Again, felt like I’d had a number of spiritual experiences, but many theological claims, I’d not experienced: the afterlife, seeing God, or claims of people making such claims. This isn’t to say that I decided to disbelieve in God or the afterlife, only that I wasn’t so sure about absolute metaphysical nature, and I was okay with that.

So in my “rebuilding” (again this happened pretty quickly) I decided being okay to embrace my own spiritual experiences as my building blocks. These were important to me but somewhat amorphous: feeling directed by God throughout my life, but without a clear overarching theology. But trusting that God directed toward a generally “goodness.” Again, I can’t make any metaphysical claims about God and don’t care to. I haven’t seen the afterlife, I hope it’s there and works in a good and just way, but I don’t care to make absolute definitive claims about it. Etc.

I do want to do God’s work and I’ve felt directed to continue to patriciate in the church. At God’s prompting and my own investigation and experience, I feel that the church does do important, good work for the world and its participants. So I work to “lift where I stand” as what I see as an important social and religious good.

At times, I’d would refer to myself as an “agnostic theist,” which I defined as believing in God but not really knowing what the whole plan was. In time, I think I’ve moved away from that “label” as I’ve come to the feeling that while there’s an abundance that I don’t know, I do feel like I do have SOME knowledge. Again, I feel spiritually directed in ways I’ve embraced that give me a sense of purpose and enlightenment, and also feel that human study grants some knowledge as well.

But I don’t feel the need or ability to explain ultimate issue of “what it all means” (though am curious about such things and hypotheses are certainly fine), the problem of evil, God’s metaphysical nature, etc. A whole lot I simply do not know and don’t take other humans’ claims on such topics as absolute.

I’m not sure what the term for my beliefs would be, but I’m happy to embrace my theism and the direction it gives me within the realm of human scholarship and knowledge as well. Such a view has many key principles, but few absolutes about theological claims. And that works for me.

9 comments for “My Atheist Conversion, 3: A Lack of Theology

  1. And just to clarify, I see human speculation about divine things as a very understandable and valuable thing. Naturally we want to understand such things and propose ideas. But I view a whole lot of such declarations as (understandable) human speculation that I’d suppose says more about the humans doing such speculation than it does about absolute supernatural reality. At that same time, I do think that what humans think about God(s) says a lot about those humans. God(s) doing bad things suggests such humans ought to make a few adjustments to their beliefs, in my opinion.

    At the same time, I do believe in a God with much more knowledge and a higher morality than me. But being engaged in the questions of “what do I believe?” and “what is right and wrong?” are useful human endeavors as well, in my opinion.

  2. Thanks for this next installment. I agree in a lot of ways (like a lot of details about the afterlife are just not things I’m highly invested in).

    One question I do have: In scholarship, nearly everything that we do involves building on the work of others. Of course we have to choose who is generally trustworthy and even then check footnotes, but we end up accepting a lot of things based in our trust in other scholars – using their editions and checking the facsimiles only when we suspect something has gone wrong somewhere, for example. Spiritually, when do you decide you can generally accept someone else’s spiritual experience and build on it, so to speak?

  3. Thanks for this ongoing series; it is informative as well as helpful in formulating our own spiritual views.

    One off-topic question: you wrote “I’ve felt directed to continue to patriciate in the church.” My first thought was that a typo had slipped in, but then I began to wonder if you have created a marvelous wordsmithing recognition of the very patriarchal nature of our church structure, organization, and operation. ?

  4. Oops, thanks for the catch, Raymond. I’m not the best proofreader and didn’t even know that was a word. But good point about some find of Freudian slip!

    Jonathan, as you well know, that’s an extremely complicated question and the answer no doubt will vary drastically from person to person. I would say there’s can be quite a different approach between scholarly and religious claims and we all know we grad students are all taught to think rather critically of past scholarship. Quite different from religious practice. No doubt many scholars can become doctrinaire about favorite scholars and approaches, but I’d still say it’s overall a rather different approach, and something I talked about in this JI post.

    Just to relate this to my own story, my approach to Joseph Smith is kind of tricky. I often declare myself a huge fan of JS (that is indeed how I feel) but also have been quite happy to really put his claims through the ringer and come to quite unorthodox conclusions. At the end of the day, I feel quite attached to what I see as his overall vision, while at that same time, not taking every individual claim at face value. So that’s my own approach, which I’m sure is pretty unusual.

  5. I’m happy for people to be involved in the kingdom for the best reason they can come up with. Even so, as the Kingdom grows the earth will become filled with the knowledge of the Lord even as “the waters cover the sea.” So hang on–it’s gonna be a wild (and fun!) ride.

  6. Interesting. I can understand the logic of what you’re describing, but I don’t think it would work for me at all.

    There are some theological propositions that I strongly believe are both deeply wrong and positively harmful, like the traditional conception of hell or that to reach the highest spiritual state you need to rid yourself of attachments. I can’t see myself responding to those with “I don’t know, so maybe?”

    Meanwhile, the truths restored by Joseph Smith feel deeply right to me. They make sense of life, to borrow a phrase from the Givens. They taste sweet. (“I know that when I tell you these words of eternal life that are given to me, you taste them, and I know you believe them. You say honey is sweet, and so do I. I can also taste the spirit of eternal life; I know it is good. And when I tell you of these things that were given me by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, you are bound to receive them as sweet, and I rejoice more and more.”) Given my skeptical nature, I attribute the certainty I feel about them to the Holy Ghost. The certainty itself is a spiritual experience to me.

    I don’t mean to suggest that our understanding is perfect. We’ve probably got some things wrong. There is much more to be revealed. And I imagine almost all of our current understanding is really the simplified version we’re capable of grasping right now. I imagine some of learning more after this life will be like retaking physics after learning calculus (Oh, that’s why it’s 1/2at^2!) but some will be more like replacing Newtonian mechanics with Lagrangian mechanics–it’s equivalent, but to a high school physics student Lagrangian mechanics would be completely unrecognizable as physics (and incomprehensible, unless that high school student has somehow learned differential equations). I look forward to it.

  7. Our ideas don’t seem that far apart, RLD, so let me see if we can clarify a little more. I hope I got across that I totally understand people wanting much firmer certainty about the state of the afterlife (and other things) than I claim to know. I like Mormonism too and am certainly not promoting dichotomous heaven/hell beliefs. But I’m also not sure that God has completely arranged the afterlife according to my preferences. Maybe He has. I don’t know.

    And so I do see embracing Mormon ideas and rejecting strict heaven/hell bifurcation at least IN PART as a human process as working out what is just. Indeed, just look at the heading to DC 76 which is the heading Smith included in his 1838 history: “Upon my return from Amherst conference, I resumed the translation of the Scriptures. From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many important points touching the salvation of man had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled. It appeared self-evident from what truths were left, that if God rewarded every one according to the deeds done in the body the term ‘Heaven,’ as intended for the Saints’ eternal home, must include more kingdoms than one.”

    To me, that explanation from Joseph Smith makes it pretty clear that he is saying that he and Rigdon were convinced that “‘Heaven,’ as intended for the Saints’ eternal home, must include more kingdoms than one,’ BEFORE they had their vision. They had already worked that out BEFORE the vision. And that’s okay!

    I really see that as a microcosm of a larger tendency of much of theology being things like this: humans working to try to understand God and their attempts at piecing together what they think a good and just God would do.

    If one studies history (like I do) you can see these trends. DC 76 lines up with ideas available to Joseph Smith (not standard Protestantism, but stuff in other sources). Like I said, I’m totally good with that and quite committed to Mormonism. I’d just say that all my study makes me a little unsure about the absolutes of the claims about these spiritual things. And this post was kind of about how I’ve worked to grapple with that. I totally understand that my conclusions won’t be appealing to many, but perhaps can be helpful to some.

  8. I completely agree that all the core ideas of D&C 76 were available to Joseph Smith before he received the vision. Universalism was in the air (including in his family); he found multiple kingdoms in the scriptures, etc. No divine intervention was *required* for him to put them together and declare them Church doctrine. That doesn’t mean he didn’t receive a vision, but if anyone’s arguing (and I’m sure someone is) that the ideas in D&C 76 are so unique that it could only have come by divine intervention, I’m with you in rejecting that argument.

    I’m in the odd position that my testimony of the core ideas of D&C 76 (among others) is actually stronger than my testimony that Joseph Smith received them in a vision. It’s not “Joseph Smith was a prophet and received them by revelation so we know they’re true.” It’s a testimony of the truths themselves. If someone were to somehow prove that no such vision occurred and Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon just took some ideas that made sense to them and wrote them up as a vision, I’d conclude that the Lord gave them critical truths by inspiration. (It would bug me that they were deceptive about the means–but of course no one has proved any such thing.)

    I’m pretty convinced that testimonies are spiritual gifts, and different people receive different testimonies according to the Lord’s wisdom. I’m not particularly proud of the testimony I’ve received–I suspect the Lord gave it to me because he knew I wouldn’t make it without it–and I’m definitely not suggesting you should or could gain my testimony. I have no doubt that you’ve done everything you should and ended up with exactly the testimony the Lord wants you to have.

  9. Thanks, RLD. Again, it sounds to me like we’re saying similar things. I like Mormon doctrine too (why I’m a Mormon), but I’m just not totally sure what the afterlife will actually be like. I personally feel that I/we should focus on doing the good we can here on earth and I don’t worry too much about what happens after.

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