The following is an updated and expanded version of the paper I presented at the Faith and Knowledge conference at the University of Virginia. The paper is probably considerably better due to the conversation following the “Faith Crisis” panel I was on, and in particular the critical comments of Joseph Spencer and Kathleen Flake.
I was struck by the similarities between this and other conferences populated by other young(ish) Mormon scholars and proprietors of the curious artifacts and marginalia that constitute Mormon academia. When I first attended Claremont schools many years ago as a young grad student in religion, there was such a feeling of community in the face of risk–I didn’t know nearly any of the difficult questions, much less the possible range of answers. Within weeks I had nearly heard it all, and at the time thought nothing of that curious fact, because we were a community of lovers first and knowers second. Later, I would hear of crises of faith initiated by these very same questions, yet my own faith crisis had largely already occurred in the form of extreme suffering confronted with a seemingly absent God. My crisis was, it seemed to me, the crisis of the cross, where Jesus cried out in agony for God and was met only with silence. In contrast, the hard questions of history, identity, authority, etc., were in a way refreshing, because, in somewhat Kierkegaardian fashion, they made things more difficult and what I was looking for was difficulty, not easiness, not a perfect systematic answer to every problem, as believers often look to institutional religion to provide. I was looking for discomfort to meet my own discomfort, but to experience it in a way that made me feel safe and loved, in a community that could weather any storm, thayt was, in fact, built for storms, simply because we loved each other and had experienced dark nights of the soul together. That’s what Claremont was for me, and it showed me how to see the wonder and beauty of worlds in collision (as Nate Oman’s perfect final address at the conference described) and not just provide a context for the anxiety and sometimes terror of being an “intellectual” in a broader community that often hasn’t the slightest clue about what do with such people.
When I am in places like Claremont or conferences with friends (and what is the point of such things if not to be in the company of friends?) I’ve often thought about Oliver Cowdrey’s reminiscence of translating the plates with Joseph Smith, and how intimately it applies to my own experiences in such places:
“These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of voice[s] dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom.”
Crises of Faith, Crisis of Love
Of course, in the end I can only ask myself, “Where do I personally stand in relation to doubt?” This is precisely the question Kierkegaard would say that we must not avoid, especially not in the academic setting, and therefore, naturally, the one that is so often avoided. “A person can divert himself in many ways,” he wrote, “and there is scarcely any means as dulling and deadening as abstract thinking, for it is a matter of conducting oneself as impersonally as possible.” So while we mine the scriptures, and the cognitive science, and the words of the prophets for the meaning of doubt or prescriptive orientations towards doubt as an object, we often avoid entangling ourselves in our own experiences with doubt, of which we are all quite familiar in some way or another.
Yes, we are all familiar with doubt, because is there anything more effortless in our age, or as natural as breathing, as doubting? Descartes went so far as to make doubting practically one of the Pauline virtues. And yet, as Catholic theologian and philosopher Jean-Luc Marion points out, the irony is that in doubting Descartes was left not only with himself (the only thing that could not be doubted), but with a negative certainty that begged the question, “So what?” Or, “What’s the use?” In fact, in the Cartesian way, as the certainty of my world more and more founders as I doubt my way through it, I who challenge that world am left more and more with–myself. As that world collapses, I am more and more justified in my singular existence as the only reality, the one thing that cannot be doubted. And so I stay true to myself, rigid in my self-authenticity, taking no prisoners with the truth, so help me God, and wherever I land at least I land with my integrity intact. And this is where doubt leaves us, if we let it carry us along its stream–alone with the one thing that cannot be doubted–me.
Yes, but, it is replied, there are others like us, others who doubt. We are certainly not alone. We have formed communities of doubters, both private and public. This is true, and I’m a resident of some of these communities myself, much in the same way that there are many islands, many pieces of sub-continental land that are surrounded by water, and some of them are somewhat geographically close together. But again, let’s not forget, doubting is easy, it’s a natural mode of being in the world. So is believing, for that matter (for those who believe). Rarely do you hear doubt or belief described as achievable struggles of Herculean effort. You either believe, or you don’t. You either doubt, or you don’t. In your praying and worshipping, studying and learning, questioning and answering, you find yourself in the midst of this corroborating, mutually constitutive dualism, and the feeling is more one of discovery than will. “I am a doubter.” “I am a believer.” “I doubt some things, I believe other things.” We owe nothing to these modes of being, for that is precisely what they are, modes of being, not activity, always already operational in us, and just because they can change and evolve–“I used to believe, now I doubt”–does not alter this fact.
And this is where Marion’s question becomes more than academic. We doubt or we believe–but what’s the use of either one? Why does that for which we cannot genuinely will, genuinely matter? This is actually the gentle way to put it. Much more pointedly, he says, how do I extract myself from this situation in which I have become so damn vain? The certainty of my existence, of my authentic self, is never enough to assure me against my own vanity. “I am,” he says, (quoting Descartes’ famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am”), and “This is less the first truth than the final fruit of doubt itself.” And the more I produce and reproduce evidence of my own justification, the less I can assure myself of myself, the more I must convince myself of my own specialness and worth. Of course, we might also say the same of belief. I believe–therefore I am, but I am still left in the end with myself for myself. True, my belief plugs me into a community of others who also believe, and communities of believers might be more viable (sustainable) than communities of doubters, who must rely on the negativity of doubt to sustain their community, but whose belief? Which beliefs? Not all beliefs will be acceptable within the community, and some may be considered the cultural equivalents of doubts. So can belief really do the work of community building? More often, we migrate into cliques of belief within the larger community, gravitating toward those who think as we do. This highlights the more Kierkegaardian point of belief, that belief in the natural, propositional mode isn’t truthful, in the sense that truth is that propositional belief is not disclosive of myself in a way that opens myself up to others. This is why Kierkegaard will stress, following Paul, that love believes all things; not that belief (can) love all things.
So we are doubters or believers, but Kierkegaard insists that this dualism, the natural default setting in our secular age, is really a smokescreen for that for that which places us directly in front of others and directly in front of God, or if you are on your way to a humble and genuine atheism, a stumbling block for becoming anything other than a cheap secular humanist. It’s an effective smokescreen in particular because though it is relatively effortless, there is genuine pain for those who live as doubters in a world of believers, or more pointedly, a world that is designed as a safe haven for believers in a universe of doubt. And so we have crises of faith, and these crises are real, often prolonged, and those that experience them genuinely suffer until they either leave their faith, or become adept at crisis management. We are all probably familiar with the varieties–My faith was compromised when I learned about history taught differently or omitted completely in official church teachings. My faith was compromised when a deeply felt political or social belief conflicted with church positions and church leaders. My faith was compromised when my unfolding personal identity could not be unproblematically located within the fold of believers, or when my personal autonomy confronted ecclesiastical authority in a serious way.
We obviously don’t have the time to parse the varieties of things that have come to count as crises of faith, but though these might be considered genuine crises (and must be dealt with regardless how one defines them), they are not necessarily religious crises, or maybe better said, not all crises of faith are faithful crises. In fact, I would argue that the seemingly irreconcilable issues presented above are, properly speaking, epistemological and axiological crises, crises of knowledge and crises of value. The religious movement behind the believe/doubt dualism (a methodologically secular dualism if there ever was one, based as it is on certain kinds of tools used to acquire evidence) is despair. We struggle with doubt, wrestle with adequate belief, but these are distractions, Kierkegaard says, from the sickness unto death, despair. Unfortunately I have almost no time to outline Kierkegaard’s extensive treatment of religious despair, but in a nutshell despair is the misrelation of the self to itself. She who is in despair recognizes the vanity of the certainty of self and realizes that assurances about oneself (Marion’s crucial distinction between “Do I exist” and “Does anyone out there love me?”) must come from elsewhere. This as contrasted with doubt, where the self is never in question, but the world that surrounds it is in collapse. Despair is that which finally puts me into question, but in a way that affirms my relation to the absolute, as a being that can relate to the absolute, and yet painfully feels the gap between me and the other (God in Kierkegaard’s thought, but also the Other capital “O”). I should point out that despair for Kierkegaard is sin, or the realization of one’s sinful state; it’s not good to be in despair, or remain in despair, but it is essential to start from despair, and this is an important point: Where doubt is natural, despair is willed. “Despair’s choice, then,” he says, “is myself, for it certainly is true that when I despair, I despair over myself just as over everything else.” In doubt we can potentially doubt everything except ourselves. The more we doubt, the more we are justified. Only in despair can I question myself, come to realizations about myself (this is how one wills despair) and in questioning myself “choose the choice between good and evil” rather than merely note the differences between them. In doubt, good and evil are academic, abstract, cataloged and categorized. In despair, I choose to choose between good and evil, and I live my choice.
And this is what we so often forget, what we anesthetize ourselves from, that while what we have called faith crises are seemingly unbearable, we have not begun (or stopped at some point) to bear the crucial weight of a religion that insists that its God underwent what Marion calls “the crucial crisis” on the cross when he confronted the absence of the divine (and therefore the absence of love) in his most crucial and agonizing final moments. In other words, the crucial religious crisis is often what we are missing in our otherwise comfortable religious practice.
A crisis in this sense has to work out the truth about me, not a truth or truths about history or politics or identitarianism or institutional authority and its attendant claims of truth. A religious crisis signals that there is something at stake in the moments of God’s absence or presence, something crucial that I must decide. “What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know,” Kierkegaard insisted, “the thing is to find a truth that is true for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die….What use would it be if the truth were to stand before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I acknowledge it or not?” My own death is a possible crisis along these lines, because my death decides the truth about me at the last possible moment. But precisely because it decides my final truth, and takes that decision from me, making its crisis ultimately incomplete, death cannot be the crucial and performable crisis for which despair can do its critical work of revealing myself to myself. For Marion, this crucial crisis comes to the faithful person through the figure of Christ himself, and therefore the crucial crisis, the one that can ultimately decide myself for myself, is charity, or love. Charity is the crisis because it is what is being avoided through having other crises, or what is acknowledged in faith from afar but kept at a distance. Christ gave himself, utterly exposed himself in the weakness of his flesh, on the cross, and thus calls for a decision, for a yes or no to who I am in relation to myself and others within this community of which he is the Father, to break the vanity of my natural and ultimately expert doubts in favor of a despair that can reconfigure and transform me in such a way that I will finally stop refusing love, in order to love myself and others in a way that does not invite the continuous cycles of violence and death that has haunted humankind from the beginning.
And this is where I can see that in my primal orientation of doubt-belief/belief-doubt, I find it immensely difficult to love, to relate to that which does not mirror me, the doubters with the doubters, the believers with the believers. Despair makes me see the cracks in myself, opens me up, prepares me for the Other, makes me decide to decide, rather than comfortably fall back into my default mode of belief or doubt. This is love, the crucial crisis, where everything is risked, the stakes are infinity, even my own death is of less concern than my ability to call to others and be called from elsewhere, for without this capacity I am worse than dead. Rather than by doubting I constantly re-affirm my own existence, the only question of existential import is, first, “Does anyone out there love me?” This is more than authentic verification; it is an assurance from beyond me that decides that I can only be, or exist, insofar as I am loved or not. And then, far more importantly, “Can I decide to love first?” not taking care of the risk of exposing myself, wishing only to make the other happy and to give them a meaning. Loving first is a risk that I assume, loving at a loss without the fear of losing everything, exposing myself first without any guarantee, like a lover, whose love is accomplished in loss, in giving without guarantee.
It’s important to remember that under this schema, doubt does not necessarily (and probably will not) disappear, and practical considerations and strategies for dealing with the framework of doubt and belief can still be profitable. But one’s identification as a “doubter,” whether self-imposed or externally nominated, and especially one’s designation as a “believer “often hides and assumes the work that despair alone can do. We must make way, as Kierkeegaard insisted, for the truly difficult work of love. No other work can subjectively occupy me so completely. No other work can turn me, against my natural, closed off self, into a true mourner and comforter, because love begins in despair. 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. Christian love, says Slavoj Zizek, is “rare and fragile, to be fought for and regained again and again.” Love as the work of love. We are after the creation of an erotic community of lovers, where the social hierarchy is flattened and destroyed precisely by loving and elevating the lowest member of the community, instead of an epistemic community of knowers, defined primarily by their belief or their doubt. “Faith, hope, and love” only abide when I am incomplete, when I am uncertain. Paul insists that without love I am nothing. But it is not that with love I then become something, but that, in love, I am also nothing but a nothing humbly aware of myself, a nothing made richer by awareness of my lack, or even by awareness of the infinite creative complexity of the world, which I could never fully comprehend.
This, the crisis of love, is the crisis we are avoiding by insisting on staying comfortable and unmoved within the belief/doubt binary, where our work is to become as much like ourselves as possible. This is the crisis we avoid by thinking that religion is in its essence the solver and finisher of crises, rather than a complicit proprietor.