Activist and psychologist Kristy Money has a smart op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribunethat responds to a conference recently held at BYU regarding intellectualism and faith. She reports that there were frequent accusations of intellectual laziness and moral defectiveness among those who leave the LDS Church. Not only are these accusations untrue, she says, but they are completely ineffective. Trying to change someone else’s beliefs never works, and in fact only reinforces their worldview. Instead, unconditional love is the only thing that will preserve relationships, which is the putative purpose of the Gospel in the first place.
Are people who leave religion morally defective? Hardly. Usually, people who purposefully leave demanding religious institutions (as opposed to those who simply drift away over time) have an almost overdeveloped feeling of personal moral conviction. Of course moral positions themselves are always debatable, but rarely do you see a case of some kind of conscious ideological embrace of immorality. Intellectual laziness? Also quite the opposite (though intellectual activity is not of itself the same as being intellectually rigorous). Deceived by Satan? Sure, why not. Yet those who launch those accusations are hardly in an epistemic position to judge whether demonic influence is at play, any more than anyone is in a position to judge someone else’s spiritual convictions.
Of course most of us have probably encountered a healthy number of exited religionists who display precisely the same problematic intellectual and moral approaches they once did as religionists, only now obviously to different moral and intellectual objects. As should be frequently expected. We rarely adopt new cognitive tools for interpreting the world just because our fields of belief have changed. But again, this does not equate to moral defection or intellectual weakness.
As always–as much for our current political crisis as our more familiar religious crises–the primary battle hinges on what we mean by love and how we enact what is meant. We consider love to be so central to human relations, yet perhaps its near universally accepted importance is why it’s a surprisingly underdeveloped concept compared to other shared values. We think we know what it means to love intimately, and our inability to fully describe this process functions as a sign of how real and powerful it is to us. So love is in a sense a mystical transcendence, something we do not fully understand, are not fully in control of, and that comes upon us, something that’s not wholly generated from inside us, and whether we are theists or atheists it is in that sense our God, that which we ultimately worship because it is, to paraphrase Paul Tillich, the object of our ultimate concern. And as our ultimate concern, one of the main problems–particularly for religious communities–is that we want to separate love from belief. Ideally, we think, we should love people “in spite of” what they or we believe, or we believe what we believe “in spite of” who we think we should love. In either case, love is ultimately Supreme. When all is said and done, we collectively affirm that we should choose love above all else (though what this amounts to can be vastly different from one person to another). But in reality, usually what we end up doing is merely loving those who share our beliefs and believing those who demonstrate their love.
Kierkegaard has a fascinating take on what real love should be capable of. “Love believes all things—and yet is never deceived,” he wrote. Of course he’s echoing Paul, who wrote the same to the Corinthians. He contrasts this belief with mistrust, which believes nothing and yet is nevertheless deceived. People act upon knowledge, he says, but they do so out of either faith or mistrust. We might think, for example, that the religious act purely out of faith, but this is not the case. The religious will faithfully affirm certain religious propositions and enact faith in particular contexts, but they will usually act on general knowledge no differently than the non-religious do–with at least initial skepticism and mistrust. Because as human beings we live in a world of constant deception, illusion, and partial understanding. We cannot always even trust our own senses or intuitions.
Nevertheless, Kierkegaard insists, this move is deceptive because it assumes that from a cautious vantage point of safe and secure mistrust (and only from this vantage point) can one act upon knowledge. When faced with something new, something unknown or unfamiliar, something never seen or experienced before, our default orientation is mistrust and skepticism. Skepticism and mistrust are thus seen as essential in order to both appropriately know and to act on that knowledge. This transforms knowledge itself into mistrust, insisting that one can only know something through an initial stance of disbelief, through a kind of skeptical scientific experimentation and therefore that everyone must come to the same conclusions about our world based on this deceptive initial disbelief. In this sense communities initially form as much due to shared mistrust of the world as faith or belief in a set of shared values. The assumption, then, is that everyone mistrusts and therefore everyone learns knowledge (or truths) through this same process. But, Kierkegaard argues, by virtue of love one can conclude the opposite based on the same knowledge, meaning that such knowledge need not be gained mistrustfully. This was simply the epistemic mode through which knowledge was originally acquired, but it needn’t be the only mode. Kierkegaard insists that love is just as knowledgeable as mistrust. True subjective living confronts you, tests you with these two possibilities–love or mistrust. It forces you to choose, and in doing so you reveal yourself to yourself and to the world: “what dwells in you must be disclosed.” To live and love, then, is to become so disclosed. It is to constantly make judgments of yourself, and to judge others is to make a particular judgment on yourself. To choose an existential stance of belief through love allows one to believe all things without being deceived; even if one is lied to or encounters a deception (a falsity about the world) one is nevertheless not deceived because one loves and does not come by this knowledge through mistrust. Love is not naive; it knows what mistrust knows. But it simply loves, affirms, builds up. In this sense it is infinitely beyond all deception because of a certain orientation toward all things: that of honest self-disclosure.
Consequently, one who believes in and through love sees goodness where others cannot. She sees many things that the loveless, or the deceptively loving do not see. Indeed, one can be deceived that one is loving. False love blinds itself to the other, ignoring weakness and fault in order to project a fantastical image of itself on the blank screen that the other becomes. True love loves the other because the other is other, and valued for itself, not merely as a means to my personal advantage. The true believer (the one who believes all things through love) no longer sees opposition between appearance and reality, no longer encounters difference as a threat. As Slavoj Žižek wrote, trying to describe the fragile absolute of Christian love, “precisely in trusting appearances, the loving person sees the other the way she/he effectively is, and loves her for her very foibles, not in spite of them.”
Most importantly, the love that believes all things does not produce certainty. It does not make things easy; on the contrary, in an important sense it makes things more difficult. Love is not a blissful escape into the Romantic idealized universe. Christian charity, says Žižek, is “rare and fragile, to be fought for and regained again and again.” Both Kierkegaard and Zizek refer to love as the work of love. Zizek writes, “love is the work of love—the hard and arduous work of repeated ‘uncoupling’ in which, again and again, we have to disengage ourselves from the inertia that constrains us to identify with the particular order we were born into…Christian unplugging is not an inner contemplative stance, but the active work of love which necessarily leads to the creation of an alternative community.” Original Christianity, he argues, was the creation of an erotic community of lovers, where the social hierarchy was flattened and destroyed precisely by loving and elevating the lowest member of the community, instead of the sole maintenance an epistemic community of knowers.
Love and belief are not, therefore, separable. You cannot bracket what you believe in order to love another who does not share your belief. Your belief, in any case, is not volitional. It came upon you as a way of understanding the world, not as a menu option you consciously and rationally selected among other options. It remains with you, something you cannot simply dispose of at will. If your love is in conflict with your belief, it is because your love cannot see, not because your belief demands that you cannot love. And if your love cannot see, then it is not truly love. True love can believe all things without fear.