April 24, 2009

Faith and Skepticism

I think one of the more interesting spiritual questions one might ask is "Can a person have too much faith?" The Sunday School student would of course conclude that one cannot have too much faith and that we should constantly strive to build it. Many heroes of religious stories are portrayed as having faith that could endure seemingly anything (e.g., Nephi, Abinadi, Job).

After much thought, however, I have come to realize that my answer to the same question is a resounding Yes! For example, I think if God told me that I need to move to another city, I could probably take that on faith. And that's if I'm pretty sure that it was indeed God telling me. If I felt that God Himself wanted me to drop out of school right now and join the Peace Corps, it would be pretty hard, but I would exercise faith in doing so.

But let's use a biblical example and say that I felt just as strongly as Abraham that God wanted me to sacrifice my young daughter to Him. I would probably pause a moment or two to rethink that prompting. Then even if God spoke to me face to face and commanded me to kill my daughter, I think it would be time to check myself into an institution for the mentally ill.

Now, Abraham was a god-fearing man, no doubt. He felt that he was doing God's will. But so does every suicide bomber (more). So did the crusaders (more). So did Jim Jones' followers (more). So did Adolf Hitler (more). Think how the world might be different right now if these people had paused for a moment and asked, "Is this really what I should be doing? Am I following the Creator of the universe, or the voices in my own head? Or am I following the leaders, but not necessarily God?" Too often, people assume that an impulse or feeling is indicative of God's will.

Now let's look at the other side; how can we establish that something is not of God? On my mission in Germany we often asked people a question after introducing the Book of Mormon; "If this book comes from God, wouldn't that be important to know?" I think that is an excellent question. If one does believe in God, it should be very important to evaluate a claim that He has spoken. I would not consider it a healthy reaction to immediately discredit such a claim - because it might be true. Similarly, if I passed a man on the street who said he was Jesus Christ, I would of course be skeptical. But I'd listen to what he had to say - what if it were true? That would be important to know. But as I would probe to evaluate his claim, at what point would I decide he wasn't really Christ? Would I wait until his grammar slipped up; until he was unable to answer some questions about the Bible; until he asked for my credit card number; until he told me to burn down my own house?

Perhaps there is a fine balance between faith and skepticism in order to lead a healthy and spiritual life. We shouldn't accept every claim we hear, but we shouldn't discount them all either. One makes us endlessly gullible, the other leaves us numb and without hope. Each claim must be evaluated from a position of knowledge and faith. One should obtain as much knowledge as possible, and faith can do the rest. Faith should not be used to discount what we can and do know.

If Joseph Smith had told me to sell my house and move to be with the rest of the Church, and he had demonstrated adequate credibility as a man of God, I probably would have done it. Of course that would take some faith. However, if he asked me for my wife, I would have told him to go to hell. That goes beyond faith for me because he proves to me with his asking that he is not a man of God, but a lustful, worldly creature driven by power and control. At that point, it is no longer a question of having enough faith, but it is a warning sign. It is not a matter of overcoming my knowledge of how wrong such an act would be with limitless faith, but clear evidence that Smith was not what he claimed to be.


Richard Packham said...

You might be interested in my article on this topic at http://packham.n4m.org/faith.htm.

Elder Joseph said...

"If this book comes from God, wouldn't that be important to know?"

Yes I agree. Thats why I took the time to read it whilst attending church and agreeing to word of wisdom and other commitments.

What I didn't particulalrly like was repeated, pressured attempts to baptise me. It made me very weary,cautious and suspicious.

However, as I read the book of mormon I suspected it was some kind of pseudo autobiography of its author struggling with faith and doctrine himself(Joseph Smith).

The more I read the more obvious it was becoming that he was writing at least some of it about himself and the characters such as Zeezrom and Korihor etc were based on his own real life experiences of people with those views and challenges on belief in God.

I know this because I could see my own life experiences with religion in there and my own questions and puzzles over what to believe about the various Christian Denominations/Doctrines being addressed in his book.

Its not a coincidence that the Book Of Mormon does not specifically address the reincarnation doctrine of Hindus or sacred cow Gods or any main unique Hindu or Bhuddist type teachings. Simply because they had no relevance to Joseph Smiths world or his own personal experiences/knowledge.

Had he had to accomodate the Hindu religion(as a competitor)also at that time then I'm sure the Book Of Mormon narratives would have included stories of false worship of cows etc. Well he put cows in there at least but they never existed anyway in the Book Of Mormon times!

Once I read Grant Palmers book 'An Insiders View of Mormon Origins', it all made sense to me right away and confirmed my initial very strong 'spiritual'feeling about the origin of that book.

Nick said...

Hey Eli,

I've just read some of your posts on this blog, and it has been interesting. I am sorry that this decision has been difficult for you and your family. I expect that it has added some stress to relationships that you value. However, I am sure that you are trying to do the best you know how (in spite of what so many of your commentators have suggested––my, they're feisty!) and you are still the same, thoroughly-decent person you've always been. (Though it would make a better story to say that you lost your testimony in pursuit of Scotch, fine cigars, and women of easy virtue!)

I find myself in a situation in some ways similar (which I won't further explain), and so I do sympathize with your dilemmas. Trying to find a balance between faith, family, honesty, and self is certainly painful at times. (More often than not, to be honest.) The worst is feeling like I cannot be honest with my family members about where I am in all of this. I've even been told to tone it down for the sake of young/impressionable siblings. So, I've just clammed up about many of these issues and many of my concerns, since voicing them seems to cause more distress for those I love than staying silent causes for me.

In any case, best of luck to you and yours in this continuing journey. I have no doubt that in the end God will surprise us all. (I hope with a cake... I do love a good cake now and then.)

Your ex-coworker,

PS - I will always fondly remember your cordial dislike of the missionaries. Be secure in the knowledge that your Mailroom legacy lives on! ;)

PPS - I was intrigued to read your list of sources, not least because I used so many of them in a paper I just wrote about the evolution of the doctrine of family within the church. Perhaps it might interest you: linked here.

PPPS - For that matter, there are a couple of other sites you might like. I find them to be congenial to various viewpoints, and they are frequently very interesting: www.bycommonconsent.com, and www.mormonmatters.org.

Eli said...

Response to Nick: Hey Nick, thanks for writing. I must say in the short time that we worked together I admired your quick wit and brilliant mind. I'm excited to check out those links and read your paper. Good luck in your journey, and I hope we meet again. P.S. say "hi" to the missionaries for me.