Sunday, May 31, 2009

My Gifts (Whitsunday Reflections)

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

I've rarely used this space to talk at all about my own spiritual life before--I've talked my beliefs a fair amount I suppose, but always, I think, only in connection to current controversies or the questions of others. I'm going to start changing that this summer. Not that I foresee this blog becoming primarily religious; that's not my preference. But I will be doing some more merging (or cross-posting) of the stuff I've written for religious blogs and other outlets, beginning with this one. I hope none of my eight or so regular readers mind too much.

So, today is Whitsunday on the Christian liturgical calendar, a holiday in honor of the Day of Pentecost. Pretty much exactly four years ago, I wrote something about the gifts demonstrated on that day, and about those–-decidedly less spectacular–-gifts which I like to believe (or just want to believe) I have. I’m somewhat proud of it; I think it is one of the more honest things I've ever written about myself. So I'm reposting it, with a few changes, here. (You might want to check out the comments on the original post, if you're interested.) I should note that the Mormon church doesn't celebrate Whitsunday, or acknowledge it in their Sunday meetings, at least not anywhere I've ever been or heard about. To tell the truth, for all the supposed authoritarianism and ritualism sometimes associated my church, as far as the course of weekly Sunday observances are concerned the only days of truly special note the whole year through are Christmas and Mother's Day (though, depending on how attentive the local--and always overworked--leadership is to these things, there might be special Sunday programs set up for Easter or Pioneer Day (July 24th, the day the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley is celebrated; it's a state holiday in Utah)). We're very much an American Protestant "low church" in that way. So these reflections are ones I've come up with, and attempt to make a part of my faith life, on my own.

Whitsunday is a commemoration of the spiritual gifts bestowed upon the early disciples on Pentecost. Acts 2:2-4 (KJV): "And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And there were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance."

I have never personally experienced anything remotely like this, or indeed, remotely like any of the spiritual gifts promised to the faithful by Paul or Moroni (a Book of Mormon prophet). I have never seen or been party to a healing that struck me as having anything miraculous about it. I have never prophesied, nor directly witnessed the fulfilling of a prophecy. I have never seen an angel, discerned spirits, or spoken in tongues. With only a very few and very small exceptions, mine has not been a life graced, so far as I know (or so far as my own pride and sins allow me to recognize), with spiritual guidance, revelation, confirmation, or testimony.

Yet I know I have been given one spiritual gift, or perhaps two (they’re related, I believe). My patriarchal blessing (a somewhat formal blessing which Mormon men and women often receive when they are young adults) describes it as a gift of wisdom, but to me the truer description of my gift comes a couple of verses earlier: while to some it is given to know "that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world," it is my lot, I think, to rather believe the words of those who have that knowledge, even if it is not something I’ll ever be blessed with myself.

I am, in short, a believer, not a knower. While I have never seen with my own eyes evidence of any of the aforementioned, more spectacular spiritual gifts, and while I am often critical of accounts of such, I do not fundamentally doubt any of them. I've tried the existential, atheistic route, and it was a failure: I simply couldn't pretend to myself that I didn't believe, that I didn't suffer from a sehnsucht or longing for that which I felt was plainly there, despite my inability to actually apprehend any of it. In short, certainty eludes me, but credibility comes easily. I would be lying if I said I knew where the power of God resides in this world, but I do not think I have ever doubted that it is residing somewhere...and when I see men and women whom I know to be good and loving and intelligent people testify that they have found God through Christ’s grace, through the Bible and the Book of Mormon, through service in my church, I can see no reason to dispute them. I believe them: I believe the words of my father, my wife, and so many teachers and neighbors and friends that I have been blessed with. While I don’t have within me any great, foundational conviction or sure knowledge that they are all right, it also doesn't strike as at all plausible that they are all wrong.

What I’m describing here probably sounds somewhat indiscriminate, and of course it is to a degree. I believe in lots of things (like Santa Claus, for instance), as I tend to think it reasonable to not discount the possibility that truth and beauty and God’s power may dwell within practically all things. (Which makes me into a kind of panentheist, I know.) But I’m also a debater and a doubter. Is that contradictory? I don’t think so--I think that a willingness to Socratically struggle (with oneself and with others) over what reality and wisdom really are, even if (perhaps especially if) you never feel as though you have arrived at a conclusion as to what that reality is, is a sine qua non of belief. Socrates was no sophist: he was a realist, in the sense that he never appeared to feel that there wasn't something real to all this talk about justice and virtue and wisdom, even if he could never articulate it with certainty (indeed, even if, as was recorded, the most he was ever sure of was that he "knew nothing"). Socrates spoke of his daimon; we might speak of a sort of holistic intuition, or to borrow from the German romantic tradition, of Verstehen. When describing King Solomon’s wisdom, the Old Testament record curiously speaks of not only his knowledge, but of his "largeness of heart"--which I take to mean not simply his sympathy for others’ claims, but his capacity to believe what it was they said.

The fact that I can get all philosophical about what it is that I suspect is my most fundamental spiritual condition shouldn't be taken to mean that I consider it to be an excellent one, as I don't. Frankly, I'd much rather have conviction. I’d like to be able to speak with certainty about this thing that I did and these words which I spoke and this miracle which I witnessed. Being critical is often a drag, especially when one’s criticism always ends up becoming self-criticism. ("You say you doubt that’s true, but don’t you also doubt your doubts?") It can be a very effective tool in polemical settings, but talking about deep yet inarticulate feelings by way of what you doubt you have any good reason not to believe ("I've never felt inclined to discount the very real possibility that the leaders of the Mormon church may well sometimes receive direct revelation from God," etc., etc.) really kind of stinks as far as bearing testimony and witnessing ones faith goes. So I still pray for confirmation and revelation, though admittedly far less often than I used to. For now however, reflecting upon those I've known whose lack of conviction has led them anyway from the church, and thinking about how much my children need to see their parents grounded in something, I treasure the fact that somehow or another I am yet gifted to be bound by naive belief to the gospel of Christ.

In fact naivete, properly understood, is probably the best way to think about this. Paul Ricoeur described it (in The Symbolism of Evil [1967]) as a "second naivete," one which calls us across the "desert of criticism" and makes possible a certain kind of belief or intuition of the reality of the sacred. To Ricoeur such naivete was a function of hermeneutics--but then hermeneutics was originally a theological (indeed a pneumatological) endeavor, concerned with the role of spirit, or spirits, in the text or symbol or world. While I realize that it is dangerous to wish for things--as you may get what you desire--I still wish that I could be one of those who see and feel, with great immediacy, as did the early apostles, the gifts of the spirit. But in any case, on this Whitsunday, I’m grateful that I at least believe that such things are there.


Lindsey said...

Thanks for this Russell. Do you think you've reached the limit of your gifts? Do you ever pray for (as Paul puts it) the greater gifts? I think every gift is great, to be honest, but experiencing the other gifts is pretty awesome.

I have several people quite close to me who move in that world (prophesy, healings, tongues, etc). Close enough that their credibility is not in question for me. In fact, one time God let me in on a prophesy (about the failing health of my mom's friend) when it was told, and I was the only one who remembered it when it came true (in the time frame given too). That was enough.

I'm a big believer in God's power. I'm also convinced that the Church is the reason we don't see as much of it. We (at least we protestants) like to squish God into neat little tidy boxes. We wouldn't believe the miraculous signs even if we saw them (cf. Matt 13:58; John 10:25).

Bob said...

Hi Russell. Just picked up your post and I suspect there are a few more than 8 or so readers but if it is only that number then I do feel privileged to be counted in.

Its late here in UK and I am just about ready to hit the sack but really felt the need to comment even though I have not taken in all of the post.

I have never been a regular churchgoer but at 62 I am at an age where one searches an awful lot about so many things (and without flattery, your blog helps considerably) and like you I believe, strongly as it goes, but the search is to know. The belief may stem from early school years with class assembly and prayers etc.but has always stayed with me.
I admire people who really show conviction but I know that deep down I do believe as stongly as they do.
Holdng onto to what you treasure is surely the right thing and to continue to question will only strenghten the belief.
I may have more to say when I have looked at the old post.
Apologies for the ramble but it is late!

Michael Morrell said...

I enjoyed reading your post very much Russell.

I am one who has moved away from his own religious upbringing and beliefs, though not for a "lack of conviction." It has more to do with the presence in the world of the senseless, both human (war, greed, cruelty) and non-human (disease, famine, natural disasters). These things make the idea of God (or other divinities) both unimaginable and unpalatable.

In some ways ironically, this has left me with my own "naive" faith in the possibility that humanity can make the world a better, though not perfect, place as a "grounding." The lack of the divine also means the lack of its opposite (original sin or incarnate evil). Senselessness will always exist, but there is no inherently spiritual basis for it.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Lindsey, Bob, Michael, thanks for all your comments.

Lindsey, as I said in my post, I don't really pray for more or greater gifts--or any spiritual gifts--much anymore. I guess I came to the point where I felt that I needed to demonstrate my faith in those small good things God has blessed me with, rather than constantly pleading for an assurance or demonstration that doesn't appear to be my lot. But maybe continually pleading is the only way to really show "faith" in God's power, perhaps? As you can tell, I'm a man whose every thought is dogged by doubts of one sort or another.

Bob, thanks for the kind words. "The search is to know"! I like that very much. It suggests that in searching, your are demonstrating a confidence, a belief, a trust. That's an important thing.

Michael, for whatever reason, senselessness and evil have never been problems for me. Well, probably not never; I've had my existentialist crises too, as the post implied. But they've never lasted. Maybe there's a deep Lutheran/Calvinist streak in my; maybe the fact that God tolerates/creates/governs over a world without direction, or with a direction that often seems negative, is for me just another demonstration of His power, and His awesome difference from you and me. But there I go again...I just can't help myself believing, I guess. Anyway, I respect your journey, even though the concerns of theodicy haven't played a particularly large role in mine.