It’s been awhile since I wrote about something on the Mormon-y side of things (not really that long, but 2-3 weeks, which feels like a long time, but life’s been busy and some things have been hard to process). Anyway. We’re back. I’d been thinking about faith and the relationship between faith and truth partially due to some thoughts spinning off a comment or two that my dad made over the break and partially from reading Nietzsche for my literary theory class and discussing his perspective on truth (or more aptly, the lack thereof). Then I saw Silence (which the more I think about the more I like) and then the relationship between faith and belief and action was added to my thought stew of faith and truth, so I’ll be working through some of those connections and probably raising lots of questions that I don’t have answers to, but I think will bring me/us to interesting, thoughtful places.
First, if we take the phrase from Alma as our working definition, we’ve got the following:
“And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” Alma 32:21
There’s a few parts to this. One is that faith is not a perfect knowledge of things. The chapter draws a distinction between knowledge and faith, suggesting that knowledge eliminates the need for faith. Another is that faith is linked with this hope “for things which are not seen, which are true.” So, faith is tied to something we cannot see and a hope for those things, it seems to be forward looking and involves the unknown. Yet, importantly, faith is linked with truth. What is hoped for may not be known, but it is true.
So, it seems that truth is essential for faith. What then do you have if you do not have a perfect and have a hope for things which are not seen, which are untrue? What is that thing called? Let’s call it un-faith (even though I don’t really like that and would like a better word that suggests the closeness to faith, while highlighting the falsity of it, but perhaps still connoting something positive).
My interest here is related to concerns about teaching historically accurate accounts of events from Church history to individuals and the worry that they will not be faith-building and may even be faith-destroying. The idea that “some things are true, but are not very useful.” Say someone believes that Joseph Smith is a prophet because of their understanding of how he translated the plates—looking at them and reading from them, definitely not by looking at a rock in a hat. Or because he never practiced polygamy. Or any number of other historically falsifiable claims. What do they have? Do they have faith, even though the reasons for their faith are not true? Is it fine as long as they believe it’s true? If the reasons are not true, but the thing is true, is it faith? A subset of less stable faith? If Joseph Smith is a prophet, but the reasons someone believes so are not true, is that faith or something else?
If truth is essential to faith, then we should not be worried about truth destroying faith, right? Truth may destroy something, but if the thing needs to be true for you to have faith in it, then what you lose when you discover the truth is something different than what you had cannot be faith. That seems apparent to me. It does seem messier given ambiguities about truth (and my hesitancy to believe in our ability to really know anything). I have been rather cavalier with the idea of truth for opening with name-dropping Nietzsche, but I’m not well-read enough to fully engage with his ideas here and I’m more open to the existence of truth in some sense than Nietzsche is, not to mention that the Mormon framework that I’m operating in relies in a large sense on truth, so that has a privileged position of sorts. Anyway, felt like that needed some acknowledgment. Onward.
Now, the connections between faith and belief and action. There’s a sense in Mormonism (and likely other religious traditions) that faith is a principle of action, not a passive expression of certain ideas. It seems that one aspect of faith is action.
Silence is preoccupied with this idea. Particularly in how you choose to act. Can you support your faith by doing something that seems to deny or harm it, but allows the expression of one of its core principles? Or is the profession of faith the highest priority even when that has immediate, severe, negative consequences? What should be done?
Where does faith live? Is it in the words or in the consequences of the actions? I’m reminded of the Karl G. Maeser quote that graces the walls of BYU’s beloved testing center:
“I have been asked what I mean by “word of honor.” I will tell you. Place me behind prison walls—walls of stone ever so high, ever so thick, reaching ever so far into the ground—there is a possibility that in some way or another I might be able to escape; but stand me on the floor and draw a chalk line around me and have me give my word of honor never to cross it. Can I get out of that circle? No, never! I’d die first.”
I value honesty and giving my word and feel awful about even slightly misleading people. I won’t even commit to go to ward activities to get people off my back because I know I probably won’t go and I’d feel terrible about it if I said I would—yes, I’d rather be harassed by ward members and my bishopric about going to activities than tell a little lie. But, even for me, this quote is frustrating. Really? You’re standing in a chalk circle that you promised to not leave and you’d starve to death inside of it before breaking your word? Can something be honorable and absolutely idiotic? (Yes, I get that this is probably hyperbole, but the sentiment expressed is worth critiquing I think.)
Much like faith seems to need to be grounded in truth, I believe there has to be a pragmatic application of it. That faith is more than expressing a belief, but that faith is found in the living of it. In the consequences of our actions or inaction.
Perhaps blasphemy or breaking our word in certain situations is the only moral choice. Not just the best or the more moral choice, but the actual, moral choice. Let’s say ol’ Karl is chilling in his chalk circle that he gave his word not to leave and some woman is about to get shot. Karl could stop this from happening if he leaves the circle, but then he’s broken his word and he knows this is a faithful, righteous woman, who will probably be rewarded in heaven for dying guiltlessly. What should he do? Leave the circle and save her? Keep his word and hope that they’re both blessed for their righteousness?
It seems easy here. What if Karl was performing some symbolic denial of his faith in order to better embody that very faith he seemed to be denying? How will that be judged? Simply on the face of it? On the intentions of Karl? On the consequences of that action?
Probably all of those to some extent, I’d imagine.
What matters most to faith? Is it truth, some correctness of belief? The actions that come from it? Do people need to know that it’s from a sense of faith for it to matter? Can I live a faithful life without ever expressing belief or showing normal, outward signs of faith (prayer, church attendance, scripture reading, etc.)? What matters more, belief or action?