An Eternal Work in Progress:
A Personal Essay on Belief
All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that,
and I intend to end up there.
It may seem a bit strange that a Latter-day Saint’s confession of faith would begin with a quote from a medieval Sufi mystic. I like the fact that our tradition allows us to find truth wherever it might be—even in thirteenth-century Konya if necessary. We are, as Rumi intimates, on a journey, a pilgrimage, and as Latter-day Saints we surely can be enriched in our quest by drawing on the intellectual insights and spiritual experiences from other knowledge traditions. We are instructed in our religion to do more than merely passively appreciate truth in all its forms, but rather “we should seek after these things” (Article of Faith 13). Seek after such things, not just casually peruse or dabble.
Much of Rumi’s writing reinforces my own beliefs of inclusive spirituality and the bliss of a direct and personal experience with God. In this passage, Rumi describes the pathos of the human circumstance in this alien world as we wrestle with distressing and often torturous questions of ultimate, eternal truth. But while we often only see through a glass darkly, our inner essence calls us to a higher dimension, and we hear whispers—if ever so faintly—that we are from somewhere else. And while our Latter-day Saint tradition shines its own distinctive shaft of light on Rumi’s uncertainties, humbly we must admit that we do not have perfect knowledge.
But before getting to a discussion of belief and truth-knowing let me provide a bit of personal context. I am what some would call a birthright or “DNA” Mormon. Mormons are my folk, my tribe. I belong here. I come from stock who were among the first pioneers to settle the Utah territories. I have a rich family heritage of sacrifice, faith, and unfathomable commitment to the building of the kingdom. I’m inspired and moved to read their stories of dispossession and fortitude, their suffering, and their uncommon gratitude. I honor my history. I am proud of it. I have faithful and believing parents, who worked hard to provide a spiritual framework in which I never felt myself insignificant or that the universe was a meaningless one.
My religious upbringing created an organic worldview that made God an everyday reality for me. I cannot imagine belonging to any other religious community. This is not to say I don’t struggle with some aspects of my religious village: the prevailing social, economic and political conservatism of our current membership; the sentimentality that is sometimes presented as spirituality in our testimony sharing; the occasional over-emphasis on church activities where the church itself risks becoming an object of worship. But I suppose it’s not unlike most family circumstances where the cords that bind are stronger then the tensions that divide. There is much that is right about my faith community, and thankfully there is sufficient diversity among believing Mormons that allows people like me to find a place under its tent. The church has given much to me. I find it a remarkable place in which selfless service is rendered and its lay leadership authentically tries to respond to the will of God as they best understand it. It is a place where I’ve witnessed many types of yearning made manifest: the need for social support; the need for peace, meaning, transformation, and redemption. And, for many, the message of the restored gospel generously meets their individual needs in profound, life-giving ways.
Ours is a consequential even though underestimated theology, and as a church we are a vital and divine instrument designed to bring about much good to the human predicament. But we are not a perfect church, and I don’t think we seriously claim to be. I have come to identify my own religious experience as a part of a grand assembly of God’s children whom he loves and mercifully blesses, continuing to reveal himself “unto all nations” in different ways and by different means (2 Nephi 29:12). I have come to view different religions as a deeply valued expression of the divine human family. Alma puts it nicely: “For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 28:8). Our Latter-day Saint tradition is a part of that broader fabric of human experience with its own distinctive and vibrant threads divinely woven by the greater designs of God.
A part of our theology that speaks powerfully to me, and, in a way, sets it apart from other religious philosophies, is its sheer spiritual imagination of eternity and the stirring potential of the human soul. I have yet to come across a grander and more exquisite vision of life’s purposes. If one measures the greatness of a particular philosophy by what possibilities it inspires in people, then I cannot think of a more aspirational or noble vision for humankind than to see ourselves as gods in embryo—to not just live forever in some blissful state, but to be eternally emergent, ever becoming something more than we are. Ours is not a shallow theology, but one that is rich, thoughtful, and unique, particularly as it relates to questions of life’s purposes and the vast individuated possibilities that lie ahead of us. Mormonism is an optimistic faith and a positive affirmation of life, an optimism that fosters courage to live more fully if we let it.
But my individual faith has experienced various transformations over the years, and it indeed continues to evolve with time and experience. I’ve witnessed the beliefs of my youth transform to a more earned and independent faith as I served a mission in Pennsylvania. Studying at Stanford and Oxford, I gained a greater appreciation of reason and intellect as tools to inform and add texture to my understanding of the world. And while these tools have limits, they are not to be feared or ignored. As I have lived in various cultural contexts, and as the aperture of my experience has broadened, I have found my faith in God again change but deepen as I witnessed His hand in the affairs of his children no matter their nationality or religious profession. But I confess that my “simple” faith has given way to something else much harder to define, and I have grieved over a loss of such simplicity.
Doubt and uncertainty have become much more a part of my spiritual landscape. But I don’t despair because I believe as Miguel de Unamuno once observed, “faith which does not doubt is dead faith.”2 And maybe that is what Alma means when he writes: “if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe” (Alma 32:18). Ways of knowing are so highly individualized, and even our own scriptures speak of the differing gifts of the Spirit for each individual (Doctrine and Covenants 46:10-26; Moroni 10:9-17). But I have come to understand that perhaps there is no such thing as “certainty” for me in the way we often hear in our general conferences and fast and testimony meetings. I’m left with only evolving levels of knowledge and varying degrees of confidence in our system of understanding. I do not preclude the possibilities that others have such knowledge, but I have not been endowed to “know.” And while I have not been blessed with very many spiritual gifts, I can still say that I have felt God’s presence. I have had prayers answered. I have been reassured and guided. I have been witness to the unexplainable. But with so many unanswered questions, contradictions and paradoxes of life, I cannot claim to understand God very well. God, even though real to me, at times seems quite remote from many aspects of the human condition. His Spirit and influence seem as provisional as the breeze which “bloweth where it listeth” (John 3:8). My experiences have made me much less trusting and gullible and far more skeptical. My sense of “realism” in this regard is a product of understanding that intellectual constructions continually alter, sensory knowledge can be manipulated, and even empiricism is ultimately subjective. Epistemology—or the philosophical analysis of how and what we know, and what the horizons of any particular way of knowing are—can be extremely useful to us in approximating reality as we currently understand the world, but the boundaries of our knowledge spheres are fluid and permeable rather than confidently fixed. All religious traditions, including our own, have their inconsistencies, their troubling histories, and their operational problems as they deal with the vagaries of the human beings they serve. Our own interpretation of scripture and prophetic authority still leaves many questions unanswered or uncertainly answered. In other words, all knowledge, whether in temporal or spiritual form, requires faith of one degree or another. This no longer troubles me unduly. Sure knowledge and faith for me cannot co-exist. To build one’s house of faith solely on intellectual constructs is as shifting sand wherein the borders of our understanding are ever fluctuating and never hermetically sealed. But it also seems to me to be problematic to anchor one’s conversion in single instances of miracles or answered prayers where by the prayer of faith one person receives health, and in spite of such prayer another dies.
I’ve come to be at peace with limited understanding, having faith that the mists will clear with time, and that faith is a large part of the purpose of life. The architecture of my faith is probably more durable as a result of my skepticism. I’m not shaken by “errors” or “controversies.” Having made the study of comparative religion a life-time endeavor, I am less perplexed by the problems and anomalies of our own church history because every religious tradition has its own set of specific historical questions or inconsistencies. Controversy seems to be a natural part of the human endeavor of constructing sense—whether scientific or theological. My academic experience in the social sciences has taught me that if we don’t have a perfect, linear, measurable view of a research subject, we must take what various perspectives we have available and, through triangulation, come to a reasonable context that is logical and internally consistent. In other words, we take bits of imperfect or incomplete knowledge and configure them in a way that supports a defensible thesis on the larger question. While I have always felt a tenuous connection to the Spirit as I try to understand God’s purposes, I have been left to harness other divine powers such as mind, logic, intuition, and even emotion in triangulating a clearer picture. This melding of “heart and mind” has given me a compelling and sufficient context for daily living and sustains my needs (Doctrine and Covenants 8:2) even in the hours of my darkest struggles. In a way, the quality of lived, interpretive experience is in itself a final test of “knowing,” because our own individual subjectivity is all we ultimately have. Spiritual evidence is inherently experiential. We cannot live through others, and they cannot live through us. Not all ways of knowing are always compatible at the same moment, and at times I have had to suspend, modify, and sometimes discard certain beliefs and other presuppositions. At times the best I can muster is hope.
But I also believe this is as it should be for such testing grounds as this. We are purposely left to find our way, drawing on whatever resources we can in this soul-stretching pilgrimage. The journey we are on is, by deliberate design, neither clear nor easy. One of the eternal principles my faith-tradition teaches me is that there is “opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11). Individual growth only significantly occurs when we strain, struggle, labor. If God were too intrusive in our affairs, our individual freedom and diverse wills would be compromised and growth hindered. It’s what we fought against in the councils of the pre-existence. I’m OK with not having all the answers and being fully certain. To me there is a particular beauty in God’s mystery.
I guess I am more of what Richard D. Poll calls a “Liahona” Mormon, one who approaches faith issues somewhat differently than “Iron Rod” Mormons who represent the mainstream of our faithful.3 The two metaphors are, of course, drawn from the experience of the prophet Lehi in The Book of Mormon. In Lehi’s famous dream, the Iron Rod represents a sure way to God if we but hold on to His Word. The path is delineated by a hand-rail even when the mists of life consume us. It’s a single path, a “narrow way,” a path that has answers to every important question through scripture, prophetic authority, and the Spirit. In these sources the Iron Rod Mormon finds comprehensive direction to all aspects of life. And if answers are not immediately forthcoming they are either irrelevant, or the Lord will reveal His will in time and according to our faith. There is a certain safety and confidence that can be attained, not by asking questions but by looking for answers in the gospel—answers that only need to be revealed with sufficient prayer, study, and patience.
Liahona Mormons, by contrast, are represented by Lehi’s sacred compass that pointed the way but did not clearly delineate a single path. The users of the compass were left to navigate around and through obstacles on their own. Indeed, the clarity of the Liahona’s direction was dependent on the particular context of the user. Liahonas are suspicious of tidy answers, of either/or propositions. They are often preoccupied with questions and skeptical of answers that are universally applied. I suppose the longer I live and the more I experience, the more I see the world and humanity in vivid colors and in complex, transcendent hues, and, yes, sometimes gray—but rarely if ever, anymore, in black and white.
Perhaps my awareness of the faiths of diverse people and the complicated sufferings of a conflicted world has made me impatient of exclusive faith claims. A mounting realization for me is that absolutist claims in a religious sense are a form of spiritual death. We become unresponsive and insensitive to other possibilities when we have, or think we have, all the answers. It closes us off. In effect, it damns. Religious history teaches us that absolutism inevitably ends badly, fanatically, and at times even violently. Living and working many years outside of an urban-American Mormon experience gave me the opportunity of knowing and befriending others whose hearts and minds seemed very much like my own, but who had their own religious convictions, their own faith, that offered them as much peace, meaning, answers to prayers, miracles, and other transcendent spiritual experiences as my own religious tradition did for me. Are the religious experiences of others to be dismissed or minimized as something less than my own spiritual encounters? It seems ignorant, if not arrogant, to think so. I like Philip Barlow’s characterization of ours being a “uniquely true” church but not one that has the corner on all truth or goodness.4
So, in the end, I choose to believe in God. I believe He desires happiness for us. I believe Him when He generously unveils his own purpose and meaning when he says: “this is my work and my glory to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). I have also grown to be thankful for God’s grace and patience. I’m convinced that He is in it with me for the long-run. The same being who took thirteen billion years to develop our galaxy has the patience for me to get it right. I have faith that he is not done with me after this life is over. This life is merely a provisional, transitional state for something else. And while I, like Rumi, do think much about where I came from and what my purposes might be, I do have one advantage over Rumi. I have, at least, been blessed with an idea of those answers because of the grace and the sublime imagination of this church. While many of my questions remain unanswered or uncertainly answered on this glorious, wondrous quest, I have a compass that tells me in a “voice of perfect mildness” that this is not all, that I am here in preparation for something larger and more significant (Helaman 5:30). I am an eternal work in progress. And, like Rumi, “my soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that. And I intend to end up there.”
1 Barks, Coleman, The Essential Rumi (New York: Harper One, 1995), p. 2.
2 de Unamuno, Miguel, La Agonía del Cristianismo (The Agony of Christianity, 1931) as found in Gerrish, B.A., & Stimming, M.T., The Pilgrim Road: Sermons on Christian Life (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, Kentucky, 1971), p. 114.
3 Poll, Richard D., History and Faith: Reflections of a Mormon Historian (Signature Books: Salt Lake City, UT, 1989).
4 Barlow, Philip L., “The Uniquely True Church,” in A Thoughtful Faith, Philip L. Barlow (ed.) (Centerville, UT: Canon Press, 1986), pp. 235-258.
Bradley J. Cook is the Provost at Southern Utah University and also Professor of History there. Prior to his current position he served as President of the Abu Dhabi Women’s College in the United Arab Emirates. Dr. Cook began his career in higher education in 1990 as the Special Assistant to the President at the American University in Cairo. After his stint in Egypt he became the Director of Government Relations for International Bechtel, Inc., in Kuwait.
Upon completing his master’s degree at Stanford University and his doctorate at the University of Oxford, he took a faculty position in the Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations at Brigham Young University. He also served as Vice President of Academic Affairs at Utah Valley University.
He is the author of the book Classical Foundations of Islamic Educational Thought, a part of BYU’s Islamic Translation Series. Some of his other publications can be found in such academic journals as International Review of Education, Comparative Education, Compare, the Comparative Education Review, Middle East Affairs Journal, and the Journal of Critical Inquiry into Curriculum and Instruction.
Posted August 2010