It’s telling how often we Mormons respond to religious questions by impugning the questioner’s spiritual commitment, testimony, or faith instead of, or in addition to, addressing the question itself. Unfortunately, we tend to assume that people who don’t have questions, issues, or doubts are somehow more spiritually committed than those who do. There are at least two reasons I think this assumption is problematic.
First, life has a way of breaking down the dichotomies between believers and questioners, between the faithful and the doubters. As surely as every human being suffers physical and emotional pain, every Mormon, every Christian, every believer faces religious adversity. It’s highly unlikely anyone could long endure as a member of this church without encountering some personal challenge, whether in Mormon history, in the tensions between religion and science, in policy, in doctrine, in the unkindness or dishonesty of other members, in the pain of unfulfilled priesthood blessings, or in the isolation of singleness, homosexuality, infertility, divorce, physical or mental illness, race or class marginality.
Maybe another way to put this is that one of the purposes of life is to learn face our trials, including our religious and our intellectual trials, with courage, integrity, and faith. When we impugn questioners’ motives, we make that vital work we all have to do harder. We drive people into circumspection about their religious adversity, and we contribute to the resulting fissure that then separates adversity from the very personal and community religious strength that questioners and sufferers–which is to say, all of us–most need.
The more fundamental problem with maligning others’ spirituality, though, is the very basic fact that we never know their hearts. We do not know, we cannot know, it is not for us to know, what hours they have spent on their knees, what years-long wrestles they have had with God, what of their lives they have given up to seeking. But we cannot assume that they haven’t. I’m persuaded from my reading of the New Testament that how we treat each other is far more important to God than the positions we come to on even the issues that matter a great deal to me personally, such as feminism. After nearly half a life of church membership (thirty-four years and counting), I’m weary of the lack of charity we grant each other, on both sides of all manner of political and doctrinal divides. I’m tired of the rush to impute evil motives. Everything about our doctrine and scriptures and everything about our own mortal experience teaches us, over and over, that we live in a world of ambiguity, that our knowledge even of the most profound religious truths is partial, that even our most cherished spiritual gifts will one day pass away in the knowledge to come. If there is anything this life seems at pains to teach us, it is how little we know. All of us see through a glass darkly, and perhaps our glasses are never so dark as when we gaze at the spiritual lives of our brothers and sisters. Given this, how can we assume that others who have not had exactly the spiritual experiences we have, or who have not come to the conclusions we have based on their own spiritual experiences, are therefore spiritually deficient?
- 19 June 2006