Sunday, January 25, 2015

Spiritual Responsibility and Self-Sufficiency

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

This is a slightly revised and expanded version of a sermon I gave in sacrament meeting, on January 11, 2015, in Wichita, KS.

Recently, a thought got stuck in my head: do I really take responsibility for my own beliefs? That is, do I attend to what I believe, to determine what it is and what it means for me, and to decide whether I still believe whatever I used to say I believed or not? If beliefs lead to actions--and they don't always, but surely they do often enough--then the gospel of Jesus Christ, which calls us to action of behalf of our fellow human beings (and particularly the gospel as it is interpreted through Mormonism, which additionally calls upon us to build Zion), demands that we take the time to really think over, and get clear on, and be forthright about, both what we do and what we do not believe. And I really mean we there. I'm not talking about what our church teaches us to believe, or even about what we tend to say we believe in response to questions asked by others, but rather what we, looking inside ourselves, can honestly say we--not anyone else--truly hope and affirm.

Sometimes that level of self-honesty feels dangerous. And surely pursuing it is a more complicated and difficult and diverse task than we might wish. For one thing, there are a great many ways in which the individualism which this sort of introspection seems to presume can go wrong, and lead to self-centeredness and a disregard for the communities and histories by which we become capable of introspection in the first place. But in a small but crucial way, this quest for spiritual self-sufficiency is nonetheless the responsibility of every individual member of this church (as well as every member of any Christian church which calls upon its adherents to exercise faith in something larger than themselves). So let's explore that responsibility little bit here.

Nearly eight years ago, the PBS television show Frontline produced and ran a lengthy series on our church, titled simply “The Mormons”. At the time, this program was a big deal. It isn’t every day, after all, that men whom we hold to be prophets and apostles sit down for in-depth interviews with non-Mormon journalists. In particular I’m thinking of the interview Elder Jeffrey R, Holland gave, which began right of the bat with the interviewer asking, in essence, whether or not the Mormon church really was an “all or nothing” church. Now just about everyone knows--and certainly nobody knows better than those of us who are baptized members of this church!--that the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes many expectations that are far more demanding of one’s faith and one’s lifestyle than is the case with many other Christian churches. The interviewer questioned this, particularly in regards to the revelatory claims associated with the Book of Mormon and the beginnings of this church, and challenged Elder Holland directly: “Explain why there is no middle way.” And this is how an apostle of Jesus Christ responded:

I think [you're just] as aware as I am that we have many people who are members of the church who do not have some burning conviction as to its origins, who have some other feeling about it that is not as committed to foundational statements and the premises of Mormonism. But we're not going to invite somebody out of the church over that any more than we would [over] anything else about degrees of belief or steps of hope or steps of conviction. [Instead] we would say: "This is the way I see it, and this is the faith I have; this is the foundation on which I'm going forward. If I can help you work toward that I'd be glad to, but I don't love you less; I don't distance you more; I don't say you're unacceptable to me as a person or even as a Latter-day Saint if you can't make that step or move to the beat of that drum." We really don't want to sound smug. We don't want to seem uncompromising and insensitive.

On my reading of that passage, it includes two exceptionally important points. First, here is an apostle of the church testifying that his faith rests upon a sure foundation, a foundation which is necessary for him (and, by implication, for all of us) to move forward. Second, here also is an apostle of the church recognizing that not everyone in this faith community which he loves shares that foundation. Instead, many of them–many of us--are working through their--or our--own “steps of hope or steps of conviction.” And, he importantly adds, he fully accepts all such people as fellow members as they (and we!) go about making those steps, searching for their (and our!) own drumbeat by which they (and we!) can move forward in faith as well.

This is not, I think, simply pastoral concern. True, he concludes by saying that members of the church shouldn’t “sound smug...[or] uncompromising [or] insensitive” in how they interact with one another, but I don’t think he’s only thinking there about the fundamental Christian kindness and tolerance we all need to show to all of God’s children. Instead, I think he also has something grander in mind. One of the bedrock principles of the Mormon understanding of faith is that everyone, ideally, should be self-sufficient in their own testimony, or in their own beliefs. One of the very last statements recorded by Mormon, whom we hold to be the primary editor of the whole Book of Mormon, is very clear on this point:

Doubt not, but be believing, and begin as in times of old, and come unto the Lord with all your heart, and work out your own salvation with fear and trembling before him. (Mormon 9:27)

In this passage, we hear in the voice of Mormon a mirror image of the same inspiration which moved Paul to write in his letter to the Philippians:

Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13, KJV)

I see these scriptures as promising us that those of us who have covenanted to obey His commandments and take upon ourselves the name of Christ will be enabled to find salvation, and find the capacity to do those good things which He puts in us to do. But the route by which that salvation is made manifest involves us “believing,” putting our own “heart” into it, and “work[ing] out our own salvation.” And here is the point: how can we be believing in this way, and how can we do this work, if the steps we take towards that end are not, in fact, our own steps? Steps which fulfill us, encourage us, move us, inspire us, enrich us--all exactly because we have figured them out for ourselves?

It's for these reasons that I think Elder Holland answered the interviewer’s question the way he did. I think he was thinking, at least in part, about the building up of the kingdom of God on the earth. We, all of us who have covenanted to bring the teachings and the hope of Jesus into our lives, are the only ones available to do that building. So if Elder Holland, or if any of us, were to get into the business of looking down upon, or harshly judging, how we or any or all of our fellow members, in all of our different ways, are working out and stepping towards that sure foundation for our own salvation, then honestly, what would ever get built? I think the obvious answer is: not much. Building Zion, seeking to make our community one of the pure in heart, requires that each of us bring our own gifts to the project of building, rather than constantly leaning on or, worse, simply copying without much thought, the steps made and gifts offered by those around us. And this is even the case–maybe it is especially the case–when those steps and contributions seem less than certain, or seem to be characterized by questions and differences and doubts. As another apostle, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, recently said:

It’s natural to have questions--the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith--even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty....The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church.

That diversity includes individuals whose stories are well-known, and deeply affecting. For instance, remember the man who, as the story is told in the Gospel of Mark, stood before the Savior and pleaded desperately for a blessing upon his suffering son.

Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. (Mark 9:23-24, KJV)

This is, particularly to those of us who are parents, a heart-rending tale. Normally, I suppose, it is read as underscoring how absolutely essential it is to develop a sure faith in the saving power of Jesus. But look at what else this story suggests: it shows us a man owning up to the fact that he's not sure about something; that he hopes, but that he also has doubts. Rather than hiding his lack of faith, or falsely embracing a conviction in the hoped-for savior of his son which he does not truly or fully possess, he puts it all on the table before the Lord, in desperate honesty. This is someone who has something to offer the kingdom of God, something that is his own. His offering is not a borrowed one, not a copied one, but rather, as limited or as uncertain as it may be, it is an honest one, which comes from his own heart.

I'm not much of a fan of church books, generally speaking--I tend to think that the scriptures are demanding enough without us filling our minds with others' spiritual interpretations or recommendations about those same teachings and traditions we are all regularly called to attend to. But despite that, I have to say that Terryl and Fiona Givens's The Crucible of Doubt is simply a tremendous book, one that makes all sort of valuable points about this very topic. Let me call attention to two passages from it. The first comes after they cite a talk that Elder Boyd K. Packer gave to a meeting of regional representatives a quarter-century ago, a talk which warned about the tendency of the modern church to fall into "over-programming" its members, and "over-prescribing" spiritual remedies. Following this they write:

The catch with over-prescribing is the dependency it creates. In the spiritual realm, it is easy for Mormons to grow accustomed to viewing their weekly meetings not just as opportunities to serve and renew covenants but as their primary sources of spiritual nourishment. But...spiritual strength requires finding one’s own well from which to drink. We should recognize, first, that we are responsible for our own spiritual diet, and second [and this, I think, is the crucial point, especially in regards to accepting ourselves and those around us as we all take our own very different, sometimes doubting steps] that sources of inspiration are sprinkled indiscriminately throughout time and place. Mormons should feel empowered and inspired to fill our own wells with nourishing waters [wherever they may find it] (pg. 98).

The second is a wonderful (and worthy of remembrance!) story from the 19th-century church:

In Salt Lake’s old Thirteenth Ward, Bishop Edwin D. Woolley frequently found himself at odds with President Brigham Young. On a certain occasion, as they ended one such fractious encounter, Young had a final parting remark: “Now, Bishop Woolley, I guess you will go off and apostatize” To which the bishop rejoined, “If this were your church, President Young, I would be tempted to do so. But this is just as much my church as it is yours, and why should I apostatize from my own church?" That sense of ownership, or, better, of full and equal membership in the body of Christ, was Bishop Woolley’s salvation (pg. 103).

I hope the point of these passages, and all that I've said earlier, is clear. Building Zion, or just building a foundation upon which we may exercise faith and hope and charity towards our fellow human beings–as well as, don’t forget, towards ourselves–is a lifelong process. The result of that process, though, is felt immediately. It is the feeling which Bishop Woolley testified to--that, in making his own steps in and on behalf of his church community, he is making this gospel his own. In the end, as dangerous as it may sometimes seem to our ability to collectively feel as one, I don't think we can get away from the fact that we really and truly are individually responsible for finding and cultivating our own spiritual resources, and taking whatever steps we are inspired to take which will enable us to testify of our foundations, and enable us to call where we stand, and call the communities we are part of, something that is part of ourselves. When our spiritual sources--and I can think of dozens: movies, books, the spoken word, scholarship, satire, song, scripture, the sacrament, and more--don't seem like those which tend to be most common (and thus, we assume, most expected) in our congregations, it is easy to be feel intimidated. But that feeling must be resisted, or else our capacity to truly bring our own contribution and perspective to the table--as opposed to those contributions which we copy without any real feeling or belief from someone else--is done for.

Thirty years ago, another apostle, Bruce R. McConkie, gave what turned out to be--and what he surely knew, as he gave it, would be--his final sermon, "The Purifying Power of Gethsemane." It is a tremendous powerful testimony of the reality of Jesus's atoning sacrifice and of our need to hold to His words so to be cleansed from our sins. I remember this sermon very well--but not, I think, primarily because of the particulars of his doctrinal claims about Christ. In truth, there more than a few things he testified to in this sermon which I am personally unsure about, and even disagree with. But he spoke a few lines towards the end which have have thrilled and haunted me for decades:

[A]s pertaining to this perfect atonement, wrought by the shedding of the blood of God--I testify that it took place in Gethsemane and at Golgotha, and as pertaining to Jesus Christ, I testify that he is the Son of the Living God and was crucified for the sins of the world. He is our Lord, our God, and our King. This I know of myself independent of any other person.

I am one of his witnesses, and in a coming day I shall feel the nail marks in his hands and in his feet and shall wet his feet with my tears. But I shall not know any better then than I know now that he is God’s Almighty Son, that he is our Savior and Redeemer, and that salvation comes in and through his atoning blood and in no other way.


The deep power of the apostle's words here is that he could express conviction in something "independent of any other person." It is easy, I suspect, to fall back on the language of revelation, invoke Peter on the "more sure word of prophecy," or Alma on "perfect knowledge," and rest on the too-often casually repeated claim that, if we all just do whatever it is we're supposed to do, we will be vouchsafed the same testimony of Christ which Elder McConkie expressed. But that misses what comes first: the courage and self-awareness which this step--like any such step--invariably involves.

In the end, I personally am convinced that our hoped-for Zion community can be as much built up by almost any honest declaration of Christian faith, however limited or idiosyncratic, as it is by the testimony of an apostle. In fact, I think even being responsible and forthright about one's spiritual dependence--as the scripture says, "to some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God...[while] to others it is given to believe on their words"--is the sort of independent honesty which can build the kingdom. Why? Because, ultimately, we are Christ's hands in this work. And, hard as it may sound to say it, if what we have to offer by way of inspiration and conviction, to both our own weaknesses and to those of others', really isn't something that we have--and still are!--tremblingly working out for ourselves, but rather something which we have uncritically, robotically borrowed from someone else, then it is almost like we're not actually consecrating anything at all. The broken hear which we are called to sacrifice on the altar is always and only our own. That we may continually learn to be brave enough to do so is my prayer for us today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was wonderful; it helped to lift a crushing weight my soul tonight and to give me permission to believe again. God bless you.