October 24, 2008

Simultaneous Searching and Certainty?

A few thoughts about doubt
Part 1 of 2

Because Mormons place heavy emphasis on the power of testimony based on personal metaphysical experiences with God coupled with the testimony of others, statements directly challenging beliefs can feel threatening and personal. In a culture stressing the importance of knowing, doubt may easily be seen as an aberration; perhaps something to avoid, fear, or reprimand.1 From another perspective doubt is the arbiter of an open mind, freedom, and wisdom.

Terryl Givens, a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond, described a tension within the Church; a paradox of simultaneous searching and certainty:

Mormons are admonished to "get their own testimonies" and not live by borrowed light. But immersion in a culture so saturated in the rhetoric of certainty inevitably produces the pressure to express, if not to actually possess, personal conviction; and it produces a socially reinforced confidence about those convictions.
Perhaps this explains in part the proclivity of disaffected Mormons to so frequently react with bitterness and feelings of betrayal. It explains why people can leave the Church but cannot leave it alone.2
Perhaps it also explains why it can be tempting for members to vilify those who actively or aggressively manifest antagonism or even simply doubt toward the Church. Such a response may be a defense mechanism some faithful people employ in response to encountering an intimidating apostate who proclaims they lost faith despite praying, reading scriptures, and living a good LDS life ("If someone can lose their testimony while doing everything right...."). Labeling a person as a doubter, or manifesting fear or antagonism toward such a person can actually reinforce and feed doubt.3

In LDS devotional history there are some prototypes for doubt, most notably in Joseph Smith's uncertainty in searching for forgiveness and the true religion of God or his later prayer in Liberty Jail asking where God had gone. While such stories set an example, hindsight bias reveals their happy ending while the uncertainty in experiencing current personal doubt can be a tremendous obstacle. Should doubt, then, be avoided?

Can doubt be considered a sin? Can doubt be considered righteous?


In the new "Guide to the Scriptures" on LDS.org there is no entry for doubt, nor is there one in the Bible Dictionary or Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

Terryl Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, Oxford University Press, p. 275

For more, see Richard Bushman's "Introduction" to the 2008 Bushman Seminar.


Jeremy said...

Doubt is clearly the opposite of faith. Fear is also faith's nemesis. We are constantly commanded by the Lord to doubt not, and fear not. Why? John teaches us that those that harbor doubt and fear ultimately miss the Carnival Cruiseline to the celestial kingdom:

"But the fearful, and unbelieving (i.e., doubters) . . . shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death." (Rev. 21:8)

But is harboring doubt a sin?

"Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin." (James 4:17)

In my opinion, doubt plays a valuable role in our spiritual development. Doubt effectively pushes us to search for truth, and we find truth through the subtle promptings of the HG. Once the HG testifies of something in our lives, faith fills that void once occupied by fear and doubt:

"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled (i.e., doubt), neither let it be afraid." (John 14:26)

Once our quest for truth has ended, we should be filled with God's peace, not the world's peace. All doubt and fear should be far from us.

[Can anyone tell I've been studying the NT recently?]

BHodges said...

I can tell. ;)

Thanks, jeremy, for the thoughts.

bwebster said...

[I think my first attempt at this comment vanished in the ether.]

Given that any number of prophets (Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Lehi, etc.) expressed doubt -- as did the Savior Himself -- I wouldn't classify doubt as a sin. ..bruce..

Jared said...

I have no doubt that Jesus Christ is the Son of God an atoned for the sins of the world. I have no doubt regarding the Book of Mormon or the prophet Joseph Smith. I have no doubt in the availability of the Holy Ghost. I have no doubt that the church is led by apostles and prophets.

The reason I have no doubt of the above comes from sacred experiences. Doubt and all of its relatives are banished when the level of ones scared experiences creates knowledge.

In my mind, at least when it comes to scared things, the opposite of knowing isn't doubt, but hope.

I hope for a place in the highest degree in the celestial kingdom. I hope I can continue to receive answers to prayer. I hope I can endure to the end. I hope I can resist temptations of all kind. I hope I can repent when I sin.

Doubt can be a sin, but I believe it depends on what kind of scared experiences one has been given. I think one can reach a point in their experience with God that to doubt would be a sin--where much is given, much is required.

Anonymous said...

There are few certainties in mortality. I think I have a strong testimony, but then know that if I stop doing what it takes to have one, I am in real danger of losing it. I have enough experience with that to say I know.

I have defined doubt for myself, as I think it is used in the New Testament, to refer to an attitude of wanting "evidence" (I will believe it when I see it). To those with such attitude Paul said that faith is the evidence of things not seen.

Doubt is, as has been noted, the mother of knowledge. If you are a child of parents who have done what the prophets have told them to do, you still have to come to your own through doubt as you grow up. You have to "prove" the word for yourself. This doubt, of course, takes on many forms, but fundamentally all go through it.

ALS said...

I don't think doubt should be avoided, I think it should be attacked head on so that you can find out why you doubt in that area.

I think doubt becomes a problem because some people are not comfortable living with ambiguity. Life, unfortunately, is not black and white, but it's easier to think in those terms so we choose to vociferously defend a certain viewpoint, whether it be religious, political, or otherwise. If you never allow your beliefs to be challenged because you're afraid they may be wrong, then how much do you really believe?

BHodges said...

velska: You have to "prove" the word for yourself. This doubt, of course, takes on many forms, but fundamentally all go through it.

I think the individuality of faith is a very interesting topic, given that it takes interpersonal revelation, teaching, etc. in order to be able to gain a personal testimony; if not from mortals, than at least from God and angels. So while we are are to gain our own faith, can we do so on our own? And of course, then it isn't necessarily to stay personal in an extreme sense; there is the need to share that faith.

If you never allow your beliefs to be challenged because you're afraid they may be wrong, then how much do you really believe?

I certainly like the concept of doubt as catalyst to further light and knowledge. I wonder if doubt (in a positive sense) can rightfully be tied to humility.

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