Tuesday, October 18, 2016

On Anti-Faith

"And if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you." 
Friedrich Nietzsche

Like many other words in the contemporary vocabulary, I worry that the word "faith" has lost its potency. Too often it is a passive, nebulous idea: we have faith that things will work out in the long run; we have faith that God is in control; we have faith that divine justice will eventually replace injustice. Certainly these things can be said and still work within our definition of "faith," but I think that we too often resign the idea of faith to an attitude that looks into the distant future and rarely in the present.

Sure, we know that "faith without works is dead," but (and I think this is because we look so far off) these "works" are often lazily associated with our knee-jerk "read your scriptures, say your prayers, go to church."

In reality, faith is a much more active process. So active, in fact, that I don't think it ever turns off. 

We are always concerned with "developing faith," as though we can actually be a person who has no faith and therefore needs to develop it. Actually, faith is necessary for our daily operations. Because of the nature of time, nothing is empirically certain until after its originating decision has been made and acted upon. We take every literal step in faith that our body will be able to support itself, for example. Obviously we have taken thousands and thousands of steps successfully, and this reinforces our decision to take another, but we have never successfully taken this step, and therefore must do it on faith. This is true in every decision we make over the course of a day: we get in our cars in faith that they will work; we hand our debit card to people in faith that we still have money; we acquire college degrees in faith that they will benefit our socioeconomic status.

If this is the case, and we are truly perpetually acting in faith, what does it mean to "develop faith"? Too often we consider the opposite of faith to be doubt, or an uncertainty that results in standing on neutral ground. Unfortunately, there is no possible neutral doubt, only faith placed elsewhere. "I doubt we win this game" is the same as "I have faith the other team is better." Obviously one could claim that this is simply an argument of semantics, but even Descartes, in his attempt to doubt everything, settled on one irrevocable truth: "I think, therefore I am."

This thinking (in its diverse forms) is the foundation of faith. Joseph Smith taught in the 7th Lecture on Faith that "faith, then, works by words; and with these its mightiest works have been and will be performed." Some of these mighty works are given a specific frame throughout the scriptures, but I particularly like this section in the Book of Jacob, which reads: "we truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea." (4:6) While these examples illustrate an intensity of faith that may feel unobtainable to us, the guiding principle is there: a belief in faith is a belief that our inward, personal thoughts (in this case vocalized) can impact, alter, and even override the circumstances of our existence and the laws of the universe.

Obviously our every thought and passing whim doesn't manifest itself instantly. (Could you imagine?) But those thoughts that are reinforced with imagination, purpose, determination, spiritual aggression, and endurance will, in time, become hope, faith, reality. 

Unfortunately, faith elsewhere benefits from this truth as well-- especially since negative thoughts are more easily reinforced and obsessed upon. I believe, from personal experience, that faith elsewhere is the cause of a number of mental, spiritual, and emotional issues. We struggle with depression and anxiety when we have more faith in our negative perceptions of ourselves and the nature of the universe than our positive ones. We struggle with addictions when we have more faith in drugs/alcohol/pornography to provide peace in our problems than we do in our own power to solve them. We struggle with pride when we have more faith in a myopic self-will than we do in a divine order. Naturally we distance ourselves from responsibility from these things by blaming the circumstances of a mortal existence, but a belief that our negative thoughts can exist without consequence is a belief that our positive thoughts can exist without consequence and that eliminates any possibility of Godliness. 

Most of us have spent entire lives singing "I am a child of God," yet somehow seem to forget the implications of that statement. It doesn't merely mean He has our back when the going gets tough; it means that we, like him, are creators and that requires accountability. He, like us, operates on faith but it has become a faith that is refined enough to be self-directed and irreversible. Since we are like Him and faith is the governing principle of our existence, we know that developing faith doesn't mean an acquisition of faith, a strengthening of faith, or any other number of verbs that we consistently pair with "faith." Developing faith is a redirection of faith, a focusing. This is well-illustrated in D&C 4:5, which tells us to keep "an eye single to the glory of God." 

This command wouldn't be as necessary if doubt meant neutrality, like we often think it does. No, our thoughts and words have more power than we often wish they did. They require constant redirection in a world that would take them any other way than where they belong. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Provo Problem

Every semester in my Writing 150 class, I assign an essay that is directed towards the (half dozen) readers of the BYU Universe. Because one of the keys of rhetoric is to have an understanding of your target audience, I ask my students to describe the BYU community-- the more specific, the better. I always get the same standard answers: members of this community are typically religious, conservative, family-minded, educated, etc. But in every single class I've had another set of answers that is less empirical (but just as true in the minds of my students): they're naive, socially awkward, sheltered, shallow, and marriage-hungry.

What interests me is that each of my students agrees to this description of the community on the whole, but if I were to ask one of them to point out another student in the class that represented the type of person they had just described, they wouldn't be able to do it. It wouldn't be an issue of cowardice-- it's just that there are rarely students in my class who can be accurately described as naive, socially awkward, sheltered, or shallow. And there's certainly not one who fits all of those descriptors.

Since that's the case, I wonder why my students are so consistently motivated to make this unjustifiable claim. What bothers me is that, in order to argue for this analysis of BYU culture, one has to elevate oneself above an entire group; nobody can claim that someone is naive or socially awkward unless they are personally immune to those afflictions. Any time someone points to someone else and says "look how naive that person is," what they are really saying is "look how much more experienced and wise I am compared to that person."

Think of all the ways we do this. I know you've all heard or used terms like "Vivint Bros," "Belmont Tools," "Utah Mormons," or "Hair School Girls." We do the same with the places people live. "They live at the Village? Someone's got a rich daddy."

Somehow, we've turned into a community of individuals that carries this misconception that we are somehow superior to all the other individuals in the community. This is, of course, absurd.

Maybe everyone really is marriage hungry and that's the problem. Maybe we use these nebulous phrases to medicate our way through the often painful dating process. We see our exes with someone else and are so rarely happy for them-- we say "She's with him?! But he's such a tool...." We often have a very limited idea of what these people are like, but we are so frequently willing to sacrifice our compassion towards others so that we can maintain our high opinions of ourselves. If he's a tool, then the ex has bad judgment. If the ex has bad judgment, then their rejection of us was just another example of that. Who in their right mind would reject US? Unfortunately, this kind of destructive thought pattern, though initially aimed outwardly, always finds a way inside. By placing all the blame on others, we prevent ourselves from recognizing the possibly painful, self-directed truths that we need to acknowledge in order to become a better person.

The best approach to eliminating this mindset comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (go read about his inspiring life), who claimed that “we must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

Do people do things that live up to the stereotypes we give them? You bet. Do they say things that make us cringe? Daily. But none of us are willing to let ourselves be judged simply on the things that we have done or said in our lives, unless somehow that judge is also able to perceive our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions at the time that we did or said those things. We would beg for that right vehemently, and often do. So why are we so quick to deny it to other people? Why are we so unwilling to consider the possibility that other people actually have good intentions?

At the end of the semester, I have my students do a makeshift version of their own TED Talk. One of the few students I've had that could be described as "socially awkward" or "reclusive" was obviously terrified at the prospect of speaking for five minutes in front of all of his peers. It was hard as a teacher to watch him visibly struggle through his presentation. I'd asked all the students to memorize what they were going to say, and he was willing to take a point deduction (don't worry, I didn't deduct anything) in order to have note cards with him. His whole body was shaking and his voice was so tremulous that it sounded like he was about to cry.

When the semester had started, his classmates probably considered him among the "naive, awkward Utah Mormons" that are apparently so rampant in Provo. But if you were to accuse him of that or make fun of him directly after his presentation, those same students probably would've jumped you in the parking lot.

What changed? They watched him suffer.

It's not always visible, and it's not always communicated, but it's always there. Maybe the local "tool" has always struggled with body image and that's why he's constantly at the gym. Maybe the awkward kid comes from an abusive household. Maybe the Vivint Bro is trying to provide for a family when his parents are currently incapable.

Maybe NONE of those things are true. But if we make it our genuine goal to learn about each other then we will always find something to admire. At that point, this ridiculous impulse we have to say harmful things about people will disappear, along with the stunting influence it has on our relationships with others and ourselves.

For a great talk with similar ideas, check out David Foster Wallace's "This is Water":