Today we mark two important milestones at FPR. First, May 9th, 2008 is the third anniversary of our creation. Second, this composition is the 500th post. In light of this, we thought it proper to do something a bit special to mark the occasion.
Our founder, the illustrious John C., has posed a question and invited the rest of us to respond in 150 words or less. His response leads the roll; we follow in no specific order.
You may note that our number is not quite complete. We find ourselves unable to pry certain members out of various odd corners of the remote past in a timely fashion. This is a hazard of the occupation. We will, however, update this entry as their comments become available.
THE QUESTION: How has your decision to pursue academic research in religion or ancient history affected your faith?
My academic experience has taught me the value of having a flexible faith. For me, this means quickly paring down what is important to me in my faith to the bare minimum and then allowing the remainder of my beliefs to ebb and flow with the tide of evidence, experience, and inspiration. The academy encourages one to question everything in an attempt to see what survives. That is well and good, but there are some things that I have determined are going to survive no matter what answers or non-answers critical examination gives me. These are, primarily, my experiences with my God and they are, I believe, untouchable by rational inquiry. Rationality strikes me as a particularly temporal goal and endeavor and the pursuit thereof is best at enlightening human motivation and natural causes. It is very, very useful for learning how best to navigate, explain, and influence the world around you. It establishes good limits on what can and cannot make for proofs and arguments acceptable outside of your self. What it is best at is, I think, showing the limits of what we can legitimately claim to know. In rationality, all information is tentative, which is a very good thing. It just isn’t the basis of my faith. For all that, without the rational, I wouldn’t have the language, the reason, or the rationale to understand my own faith or others in even the imperfect manner I do today. I am as human as anyone else and we all examine ourselves rationally. The academy has given me the means to examine, articulate, experiment on, stretch, flex, and strengthen my own faith. For that, I am forever in its debt.
As the token lay person of the group, I have learned much and forgotten more in my journey through the Bloggernacle. I have never been one of valiant faith, not in this religion and not in my previous one, but I am a believer and supporter. There are aspects of LDS history that really filled me with doubt. However, through discussions among the extremely intelligent and critical thinking elite (those here at FPR and elsewhere), I have found a place in my soul where I can happily exist. I may not be Celestial material, but I have peace.
After one eats the fruit, there is no going back. This fortunate fall is as much the source of joy as it is pain. At times, the most challenging thing is not living in the lone and dreary wilderness, but living among those still in Eden. Keeping one foot in Eden and one foot in the wilderness can be harrowing, but deeply rewarding. It turns out, Eden can be a nasty place where childlike innocence can sometimes be a cover for schoolyard cruelty. But it is beautiful. Yet the wilderness is not nearly as bad as one thinks. In fact, it has a profound beauty of its own. Indeed, the longer one spends admiring it, the more one sees that Eden and the wilderness are not nearly as far apart as one might expect. There is a great deal of cross-fertilization, and I am developing a green thumb.
I’ll highlight the effect that theological pluralism in scripture has had on my faith. As a child and young adult, I received the uncritical and homogenizing presentation associated with traditional LDS sources, and I think I honestly enjoyed it. But now I find the reality of scripture as apprehended critically – and especially its theological variety – to be far more compelling than anything in my earlier experience. Both satisfaction and peace have come from integrating my rational and cognitive faculties in to my spiritual life rather than relying on rhetoric, regardless of how heart-felt it be. And happily, there is more to come because in the diversity of Biblical thought there is the stuff for a lifetime of thinking, judging, discerning, and testing, in short, for coming to appreciate, without ever comprehending, the mystery that is God.
Of the things that I have gained from my graduate study, my faith has been most impacted by the idea of reflective equilibrium, which says that we need to weigh our beliefs and practices against our core convictions and principles. When we find that our beliefs and/or practices are in opposition to our core convictions, we should adjust our beliefs and practices. In political and moral philosophy my conviction about the universal value of human dignity has led me to reject conservatism and American-style capitalism. My conviction about the gospel of Jesus Christ, has led me to consider which parts of Mormon culture are Christian doctrine and which are merely cultural practices of little moral import. I believe in Jesus Christ. My belief in “love they neighbor” is still strong. I believe in the Book of Mormon. I believe that Joseph Smith was a true prophet. However, I do not much care for white dress shirts (though I am wearing one as I type this). I do not much care about the Boy Scouts (though my boys will be Scouts). I feel no need to defend polygamists (past or present), particularly polygamists who are sexual predators. And most importantly…I despise Mitt Romney. All said, my graduate study (which has been in moral and political theory, not religion, and surely not anything ancient) has reinforced my testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church. Mormon culture on the other hand is tolerable…barely.
The more I learn, the more I know how little I know. Studying religion academically is one of the few disciplines that someone can devote their entire life to and still be considered as having only a passing knowledge by the group they work on (one would probably think twice before correcting his or her dentist, for instance). I find this judgment true in a certain sense. Not because of a privileged perspective of the insider, but because in all reality we know rather little about the religiousness of humanity at large. I don’t think any academic training is necessary to have this insight, but one of the ways in which academic involvement has impacted my faith is by allowing me to contextual Mormonism within a larger stream of religiosity. I’ve become much slower in my judgments of other’s religious experiences, and have found myself trying harder to piece together the religious traditions of the other. The academy can certainly be a place “unfriendly to faith”, but I’ve personally found it accommodating to the search for understanding; and this understanding has renewed my faith that God can be found in all humanity.
Struggle. It’s a word I naively never thought would come to define my graduate school experience. I remember in the first years being in a testimony meeting in which a prominent scientist stood up and proudly proclaimed that while so many asked him about the conflicts between religion and science, his study had only confirmed his faith. “Huh,” I thought. “If he wants real conflict, he should come and try it in the study of Religion.” In many ways, I got what I wanted out of grad school: a knowledge that extended beyond what I had learned in Sunday School and the CES. But I never anticipated that this thing would also isolate me profoundly from the mainstream body of my tradition and bring me to fundamental disagreement with SS and CES. And I really never thought that it would lead some of my own faith to antagonize me. What my graduate school experience has forced me to do is to find peace in the struggle and to seek out like minds and take comfort with them. It has forced me to find out how to be comfortable in the pursuit of answers I know I’ll probably never find, and how to help others do the same. In that unsettling sense, my graduate study has helped me to recognize my faith for what it is—a belief, a hope. And coming to that realization has strengthened me.
Nitsav (under serious time constraints):
After some reflection, I’ve concluded that my graduate studies have had a net positive for my faith.
My studies have challenged some of the things I deeply believe, and bolstered others. I reaffirm something Stephen Robinson said, that “the problem with scholarly religion, religion that has been carefully trimmed so that it conflicts with no empirical data, is that it inevitably makes scholarship the religion… such a faith would not be faith at all.” In that sense, my studies have not affected my faith at all, since its foundation was never academic. No one “comes to Jesus” by exegesis.
More than anything, my studies have caused me to weigh, refine and decide what propositions, beliefs and experiences constitute that core. I am and will remain a committed, orthodox-but-non-traditional Mormon.
And now we invite you to join our modest celebration by answering this same question according to your particular situation: How has your study of [ ? ] affected your faith?