An approximation of a talk delivered 11 Feb. 2018
Another defining difference between Cece and I is that I title all my talks, this one is entitled “The Riddles of God: Embracing Uncertainty in Pursuit of Wisdom.” Cec also had a title for hers: “talk for church.” My talk is inspired by two talks from now-President, then-Elder Nelson, “Ask, Seek, Knock” delivered in Oct. 2009 and “Where is Wisdom?” from Oct. 1992. Hopefully my remarks will build on some of the ideas that Cece just shared with all of us about feeling the sadness and darkness as part of the joy we are called to feel (you can read her notes here).
We’ll start with a scripture:
1 Corinthians 13:12:
“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
I love this verse and what it suggests about our mortal state—namely that we are in a position of uncertainty. We see through a glass darkly, we don’t know everything, we’ll never know everything. We are meant to not know.
A quote from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Mormon Pulitzer Prize-winning author, in her essay “Lusterware” speaks to some of my experience and faith in this world of seeing through this glass, darkly:
“Occasionally some gentle soul, perhaps as puzzled as my Beehive teacher by my outspoken ways, will ask, ‘What keeps you in the Church?’ ‘My skepticism,’ I answer, only half in jest. Over the years I have noticed that Saints with doubts often outlast ‘true believers.’ But of course the answer is inadequate. I don’t stay in the Church because of what I don’t know, but because of what I do.”
This rings true for me. I stay at least in part because of my skepticism, because of my questions. I don’t know things and that motivates me to hang around, there’s fascinating stuff happening for me intellectually and spiritually that I want to work out. I think, this spirit of questioning is very important and vital to an openness that allows us to receive revelation from God. In the words of Erich Fromm:
“The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.”
To truly be open to the meaning and fullness of revelation that we can find in our communication with the divine, I have found that I need to be open to the infinite possibilities of God and not be focused on certainty or specific answers. Embracing the idea of uncertainty allows me to have more experiences with the Divine. When I stop looking for specific answers and cease needing definitive solutions to my questions, I can have more full, more deep spiritual experiences.
This idea seems resonant with some of the themes in The Book of Job. Job throughout the story is seen asking questions of God and by the end of the narrative God actually comes down and interacts with Job. In this interaction, God refuses to answer any of the questions that Job has and instead asks questions of Job. However, Job leaves this encounter satisfied. G.K. Chesterton, a Christian writer of religious writings & detective novels, wrote an introduction to The Book of Job that I think captures some of this. Chesterton says:
“Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”
I love that last line, “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man,” (obviously since I stole part of it for my talk. Chesterton describes how Job here is comforted though he does not receive a specific answer. He feels something, yet remains in the uncertainty, in the “riddles of God.”
Another writer, Ursula K. Le Guin, expresses a related idea that I find useful in navigating this space of uncertainty and ambiguity:
“To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”
It can easily become stressful to be in this space (though some of what Cece taught is useful in alleviating some of that stress and leaning into the discomfort). Identifying what sorts of questions need specific or concrete answers and which may be a bit more flexible in what they require from our Heavenly Parents is key to navigating these times of stress and darkness. We identify the questions and then don’t answer them. Questioning and searching is still valuable, still powerful, still draws us closer to God, but we don’t need the answers that we may have wanted in the past. I started a list of questions as a missionary about doctrine or other Church-related topics, which guided my study for awhile and loads of conversations with companions and other missionaries. I ended my mission with about 400 questions and added to it in the year or so after until I reached about 550. I stopped adding to it because the questions started overshadowing the search and I had developed an attitude of questioning or seeking that didn’t really need the questions (though I might return to it in the near-ish future and see what I think about it now and try to systematize it a bit).
As I mentioned earlier, questioning is used throughout the scriptures. One such place this is found is with Nephi, early in his life. This is in 1 Nephi 11:16-17, where Nephi is talking with the Angel of the Lord:
“And [the Angel] said unto [Nephi]: Knowest thou the condescension of God?
And [Nephi] said unto [the Angel]: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.”
Nephi here professes a lack of knowledge, the Angel asks him a question and he says “well, I know that God loves us, but I got no clue about that.” That’s kind of a cop-out, right? Like, if you were to write that on a religion test, you’d get that question wrong. This passage frequently seems to be used to discourage questioning, to suggest that we don’t need to know things or to try and learn about them and that all we need is this basic understanding of God’s love. This to me seems like the exact opposite of the intended lesson here. Nephi is asked a question and then engages in dialogue with the Angel after he provides his lack of full knowledge. The Angel proceeds to provide some further insight, seeming to validate and encourage the act of questioning, rather than discouraging it.
In the words of General/Princess Leia Organa, in The Last Jedi:
“Hope is like the sun. If you only believe it when you see it you’ll never make it through the night.”
We seem to value a sense of certainty when we talk about faith, a solid knowledge. Yet, I think, hope and faith is far more about the times when we don’t have that. About the darkness, the night. Faith and hope are only worth something if they carry us through times of uncertainty, through this mortal existence seeing through a glass, darkly. I believe we can have spiritual experiences, we can commune with the Divine and not receive clear, certain answers, but that doesn’t make them less real.
FAITH IN THE FACE OF MYSTERY
I think this idea is found powerfully in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s great poem, “In Memoriam”:
“He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own;
And Power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone,
But in the darkness and the cloud,
As over Sinaï’s peaks of old,
While Israel made their gods of gold,
Altho’ the trumpet blew so loud.”
I love the idea found throughout these lines that God and faith are the power found in the darkness and the light. As Leia said, it’s not just when we can see the sun, when we have that goodness ready, but that in the uncertainty, in the darkness, that’s where faith is truly found. The stronger faith. The more lasting faith.
Adam Miller expands on some of that when he talks about “Faith” in the 2nd Edition of Letters to a Young Mormon, as “fidelity,” which I think touches on some of these ideas here that I’m thinking about. He writes,
“Faith is more like being faithful to your husband or wife than it is like believing in magic. Fidelity is the key. You may fall in love with someone because of how well they complement your story, but you’ll prove yourself faithful to them only when you care more for the flawed, difficult, and unplotted life you end up sharing with them.” (22-23)
This resonates with me. Faith is what binds us to our Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, the thing that ties us together. Faith is about me honoring and being true to that connection. It’s about working with my Heavenly Parents to make something of this “flawed, difficult, and unplotted life” that I’ve ended up living. A life that is different from what I thought, I life that is still good, still faithful, still mine, but not the one I thought I would have.
This speaks to an idea that Terryl and Fiona Givens express simply in The Crucible of Doubt:
“Faith is lived, not thought.”
I love that. It resonates with the idea that Cece shared about our lives making prophecy, that we create the future, the heaven, the Zion that we hope to see here.
I’ll end with a quote from Ashley Mae Hoiland in her book One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly, describing the moment when she stopped thinking about her “faith crisis” as a “crisis” and it became something else:
“It will no longer be my crisis, but rather my story molded by a thousand broken hearts and contrite spirits, metamorphosed by a thousand more moments of sublime and inexplicable hope and joy. Not a crisis now–just my story, the surprising story that was one of faith all along.” (108)
This speaks to me and rings true for my experience. What may have seemed like a crisis is really just life. My story. My story, flawed, difficult, and unplotted, but mine. Mine to give to the divine and to show my willingness to make something of it. To turn to God with my belief and unbelief at the same time, to have hope in the darkness, to see through that glass, darkly. I find God in the uncertain, in the riddles, in the simultaneous belief and unbelief and believe that you can too.
In the name of Jesus Christ,
“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.” Ursula K. Le Guin
D&C 88:78-80, 118
“Jesus claims, instead, that he’s hidden in plain sight. God constantly gives himself to us in the inconvenient, the hungry, the outcast, the prisoner, the sinner. He gives himself in what we would like to ignore…Faith has to do with the least of these. It takes us down and into the unwieldy world, not up and away from it.” Adam Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon, 2nd Edition
“78 Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;
79 Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—
80 That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you.”
“118 And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”
“By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.” –Joseph Smith
Terryl and Fiona Givens, The Crucible of Doubt
“The scriptures are replete with encouragement to question–‘ask that you may know the mysteries of God’ is a common injunction, as is the oft-quoted verse from James 1–‘If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all…liberally…; and it shall be given’–and we also receive many assurances that questioning will bear fruit: ‘surely shall you receive a knowledge of whatsoever things you shall ask in faith.’” (9)
Brother of Jared
Julie M. Smith, “Introduction” to As Iron Sharpens Iron: Listening to the Various Voices of Scripture
“The recognition that the gospels present more than one view of the meaning of Jesus’s death implies that meaning is multifaceted, perhaps beyond our understanding.”
Ashley Mae Hoiland, One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly
“I suppose that is the beauty of religion–the ideas and beliefs give us hope where none would be offered by logic….there is value in this tradition for us, of willing our hopes, together, on the chance that someday it all really is just as glorious as we imagine.” (120-21)
“This, I say, is the first fact touching the speech; the fine inspiration by which God comes in at the end, not to answer riddles, but to propound them. The other great fact which, taken together with this one, makes the whole work religious instead of merely philosophical is that other great surprise which makes Job suddenly satisfied with the mere presentation of something impenetrable. Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”
~G.K. Chesterton: “Introduction” to The Book of Job.