There are many paths by which we might return to God, or so some would claim. “Organized religion is not necessary” they might say, “and is too prone to abuse by those who would use it to control their fellow man.” Others who disbelieve in God entirely think it is but an opiate to the masses, or a delusional pacification into a state of peace by promising something that will never come in this life. I am aware of such arguments, and yet I am a decided member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Yes, I believe!
This last week, FAIR (www.fairlds.org) concluded two days of conference addresses by faithful Latter-day Saints who look deeply into issues that trouble the faith of some and which challenge their choice to believe. These individuals did not shrink from the controversies, but exercised faith as they looked at controversies and critical questions in order to provide faithful answers for those who struggle. It was something of an academic pursuit, seeking to “negate the negatives”, or eliminate reasons to disbelieve. These individuals have looked closely at that which might destroy the faith of others, and yet they believe!
The topics were myriad. Joshua Johansen spoke of his personal struggles with attraction to men, but how Church standards of morality served him as he sought the same blessings we all desire – that of an eternal family. Neylan McBain spoke of the challenges facing women in a Church governed by patriarchal principles amidst a world that eschews anything but direct equality of practice and opportunity. In so doing, she highlighted both the struggles and the principles of cooperative conduct between men and women that are so central to a gospel life.
Brother Darius Gray shared insights on the rich heritage of black Mormons throughout the history of the restoration.
Dr. John Sorenson spoke on evidences of Book of Mormon culture within the Americas, and evidences of ancient Americas in the Book of Mormon. Royal Skousen shared insights that reflect and support the authenticity of the historicity of the Book of Mormon as found in the original texts.
Brother Brian Hales shared insights on the moral strength of Joseph Smith during the development of the practice of polygamy, and Ugo Perego disabused notions of DNA studies serving to condemn the historicity of the Book of Mormon. This was just the first day of a conference of believers!
Brother Jack Welch shared evidences of authenticity of the Book of Mormon through the poetic use of Chiasmus, an ancient device used to reinforce and emphasize specific teachings. Brant Gardner addressed a criticism of directions in the Book of Mormon, and turned the argument around into an evidence of its authenticity.
Dr. John Gee spoke of the Book of Abraham, and gave insights against criticisms that would claim the translation by Joseph Smith was fraudulent. Don Bradley shared insights on the lost 116 page manuscript and the likely role the lost record played in the temple worship of the Lehites. Hartt Wixam reviewed the history of the defense of the faith from the earliest modern efforts, and Dr. Dan Peterson reviewed his vision of the role of faithful defense in progressing the kingdom, and in so doing announced a new publication known as “The Interpreter” which will serve to provide academic insights to the defense of the Church. This concluded two days of spiritual uplift from knowledgeable believers.
For the first time in FAIR history, a non-member, Rosemary Avance, shared insights on the parallel process of de-conversion, and how that can help inform us in our desires to help those who leave us for various reasons.
All it takes is a simple foray into the online world to learn that critics of the Church abound with arguments that seek to chip away at the faith of some. For the past 14 years, I have worked from within FAIR to help provide needed answers, and in so doing I have been made aware, I suppose,of virtually every argument one could concoct for losing my faith. I doubt anyone could come up with an argument I have not heard of, looked into, or am not intimately aware of. And yet I believe!
It is not that I am ignorant of the thorniest issues. It is not that I am delusional or under the influence of a religious brew of mind numbing barbiturates that remove my ability to reason clearly. It is not that I am afraid of losing my family, or the association of friends that causes me to ignore facts that should destroy my faith. It is not that I have confused emotion for spiritual confirmation, and I have therefore confounded tear jerking sentiment with spiritual confirmation. No, it is none of these things. And yet, I believe!
No, my belief is a choice. It is a deliberate action borne of faith. While I am aware of those things that might challenge faith, I have decided to believe! I don’t do it by ignoring some questions that for me may remain unanswered, but I believe despite the fact that I do not, as yet, have all the answers!
A sentiment was expressed in 2005 by Wendy Ulrich, a Ph.D., M.B.A. and psychologist, who spoke at a FAIR conference just like the one that just concluded. She said “In my experience, neither critics nor apologists for the Church do much to convince me whether or not to believe. Debates, analysis, and scientific evidence may alternately undermine or support my beliefs, but belief itself is a choice.” She later stated, “If God can ask the brother of Jared, who has heard His voice and seen His finger, “Believest thou the words which I shall speak?”, then certainly we also have a choice to believe or not, regardless of our previous spiritual experiences or our intellectual skills. We believe because we are trying to learn object constancy with God, to trust that He is still there even when we cannot feel Him, and that He will tell us the truth, even when it seems improbable.” As described by Sister Ulrich, I have sought such object constancy with God, and I have found Him! Yes, through my choice, I have come to persist in my belief!
When the Church initiated its support for Proposition 8, my personal experience with my older brother (who was among the first 500 individuals in the Unites States to die of AIDS) caused me to want to shrink. I did not want to step into the controversy, and would that the Lord would take such a cup from me. But He did not. I was therefore forced to confront my loyalties, and to work through my thoughts and feelings. My answer did not come from reason. It did not come from an angelic visit, or some religious conviction that allowed me to lay aside my fears. In the end, I simply chose to follow the counsel of the 15 prophets, seers and revelators who asked me for my efforts. Through that submission of faith, I received personal revelation that assured me that my actions were correct. My heart filled with compassion for all individuals involved, and despite my support for Proposition 8, my compassion for those who sought to legalize same sex marriage was actually heightened greatly! No, it wasn’t that I got some great answer that convinced me to change my views.Rather, I chose to believe! And the answer came after my choice.
I could provide you with other examples of similar subjects that were not immediately comfortable to me. Among such a list would be polygamy, why some members of African descent were denied access to the priesthood for a time, and questions around issues of gender participation. In admitting this, I do not want you to suppose that all such issues threaten my faith in the Church, or that they caused me to question my previous choices to believe.
Rather, these issues were among those for which I had not yet achieved a degree of comfort that allowed me to think “this poses no issue for me”. But in each instance, I nevertheless chose to believe, and that choice guided my actions. It was after I actively followed the consequence for my choices that the insights and evidences came that supported my choice. So, despite my having ongoing questions, I still believe!
Why I choose to believe is, in a way, quite simple. Having been raised in a religiously agnostic but intellectually rigorous environment, I discovered that the paradigms I had operated under did not satisfy me, nor did they serve to direct me or develop me in my moral choices in life. It was not until I sought after divine influence and power in my life that I felt myself change.
In short, I felt like the people of King Benjamin and to declare with them “Yea, I believe all the words which [I was taught concerning the restoration of priesthood power and the principles of exaltation, and eternal family unity]; and also, I know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in me, or in my heart, that I have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” Yes, because of the change the doctrines of salvation and exaltation have had on me, I believe!
But it does not stop there. No, I have continuously tried the Lord through my obedience, and experienced affirmation after affirmation that my choices to believe are good. I have had rich experiences that transcend emotion, that reach beyond coincidence and defy nature, which testify to me that it is good for me to believe. So, I choose to believe!
Yes, I know all the reasons to not believe. I have even been put off by the actions of leaders, had my feelings hurt by a member or two, and had the world try to drag me into practices that seem enticing. I have read all the secular teachings that challenge belief in God, and all the criticisms that challenge belief in the restoration. I am aware of probably every reason that exists to abandon my faith, and yet none of that has the power to dissuade me. No, I have seen too much, I have persisted too long, I have experienced too much change, too much affirmation, and too much personal development from the simple act of submission by choosing to believe.
I invite you to join with me. If you are faced with things for which you don’t yet have satisfactory answers, hold to those things for which you do in fact have answers and let them bolster your strength to persist. Strive for understanding for the things where you don’t yet have satisfaction, and seek it by first choosing to persist in your belief so that, through the corresponding actions that naturally follow, you may eventually receive the affirmations and understanding you seek. Persist in patience, knowing with an assurance that I can most certainly give you is true, that the answers are there, and they will indeed come. All it requires is for you to choose to continue to believe!
If you are interested in reading the full remarks of Wendy Ulrich and her thoughts on “Faith, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Psychology of Religious Experience” you can find her FAIR presentation here