Now that I have made some general comments about the overall theological approach of An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32, I would like to engage some of the specific content. As I said in my last post, there is a lot of great material. But two subjects in particular caught my interest: faith, and creeds.
Faith often gets talked about as a cognitive effort, a sort of forcing yourself to believe despite a lack of evidence. If something doesn’t make sense to you, or seems problematic, you might be told to “just have faith.” In such an understanding of faith, it is primarily intellectual in nature. It represents a lack—you only have to have it because you don’t have knowledge. It requires you to ignore doubt, or see it as a threat. This kind of faith is fearful of new information which might challenge it. And notably, in such a model faith is a quality possessed by an individual, outside the context of any relationship.
This book lays out a very different model of faith. Rather than an intellectual act, it is a kind of letting things be. We make space for the word, rather than casting it out—we engage in a “cultivation of restraint.” (9) Faith, then, is giving the word a chance to work, being open to whatever experience it might bring you. We don’t have to make an effort to force the seed to grow. It will naturally grow, as long as we don’t resist it. The way we cultivate it, then, is through willingness.
This suggests, I think, an underlying positive anthropology, in which human nature is understood as inclined toward the good. We are the kind of beings in whom the seed can be planted. And the fruit that grows from the seed of faith, the fruit of the tree of life, is desirable to us. This is no surprise in the context of LDS theological anthropology, which takes the divine nature of human beings quite seriously. (This is not to deny the necessity of transformation, but it is notable that we are potentially fertile ground where the seed will naturally grow, if we do not fight it.)
But if this is the case, why do we resist the seed? This brings us to the fall. In the fall, the authors of this book point out, Adam and Eve choose knowledge, rather than life. And our situation here is one in which we have knowledge that we cannot escape. What exactly is this knowledge? In his essay, Adam Miller proposes that the truth which continually confronts us “is the necessity of humility, the inevitability of our insufficiency.” (32) As fallen beings, we experience this knowledge of our inadequacy as humiliation—and thus we are tempted to turn away from it. We experience God’s mercy not as a blessing, but as a threat to our sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency.
In contrast to this attitude, faith is an affirmation that the word is good. As the authors of this book write in their summary report, “faith openly and persistently acknowledges that only God can transform us and that the work of the word upon us is to be welcomed rather than feared.” (9) What I find striking about this is that faith as understood here does not focus on existence (what exists and does not exist), but on goodness. The affirmation of faith is not that God exists, but that God is good. This inevitably moves us, I think, from the realm of abstraction, in which we can debate the existence of God in a detached way, to the realm of relationship, in which it is our relation to God, our experience of God, that matter.
There is a parallel here with the Creation, in that God creates, and then affirms the goodness of what he has created. Jenny Webb points out that this goodness is connected to the ability to grow, both in the context of the Creation narratives and in Alma’s depiction of the seed. (51) I also see a reciprocity of affirmation in that the word affirms that despite our inadequacies, we are valued and loved. And the response of faith is to affirm the goodness of that word, the goodness of God’s mercy.
In this understanding of faith, it does not exist in contrast to knowledge. Nor is it a kind of poor, less reliable substitute for knowledge. Faith and knowledge are not mutually exclusive; rather, faith transforms your relationship to knowledge. When you approach the knowledge of your dependence with faith, it becomes a source of humility, rather than humiliation. The word “allows the situation to be rewritten through faith so that one’s humiliation can be remade as a willing and saving dependence on God’s mercy.” (12)
I was reminded in reading this of the work of theologian Alistair McFadyen, who writes about identity as “the patterns of communication and response in which we are engaged.”1 Who we are, in other words, is shaped by our communicative context. And the relationship between God and the human is one of call and response. God initiates a dialogue, and this call “determines the structure of human being as response without determining the form or content of that response.” In other words, it is God’s call to us that makes us who we are, but without forcing a particular response. We are potential dialogue partners, those who can respond. And this shapes our freedom, as we cannot refuse to be in relation, but only choose “what form that relationship, our response, is to take.”2 I find this resonant with the proposal in this book that knowledge of our dependence is inevitable. Our choice is not whether to be in that situation, but about where to go from there, how to respond to the word. And a response of faith, of affirming the goodness of the word (rather than resisting the relationship as a threat to our self-sufficiency), allows for transformation.
One of the other thought-provoking discussions in this book has to do with creeds. The major concern raised about creeds is that they hinder our ability to be in relation with God. The authors describe the infamous Rameumpton prayer as having “a kind of creedal spirit.” They note in particular that the statements in the prayer “are all statements about transcendent facts: whereas Alma simply talks in his prayer about what he has seen immediately before him, the Zoramites make claims about things that have not been—indeed, cannot have been—experienced personally.” (17) The problem with the prayers of the Zoramites is that they “without leaving room for God himself to speak, effectively tell God what they are willing to believe about him.” (15)
Robert Couch develops this further, warning that “when a theological creed establishes, say, a set of attributes concerning the nature of God, it obviates the need for an individual worshiper to discover these attributes for themselves.” The more elaborate the theological system, he argues, the less of a need there will be to pray, “since the theological system can increasingly provide the answer to any question that might be posed.” (92)
I am not entirely persuaded, however, that creeds are inevitably problematic. For one thing, I would propose that knowing about God’s attributes could actually spark the desire to have a relationship with God. And since the purpose of prayer is not about acquiring creedal-type knowledge of God’s attributes, but rather about building a relationship, I see at least potential room for both in the life of faith. I am in agreement with Couch that creeds cannot substitute for the kind of relationship that comes only through direct communication with God. But I do not see the two as mutually exclusive.
Couch also raises the concern that with creeds, “the danger is that the worshiper will end up praying to an imagined representation of God, rather than God himself.” (92) However, I would argue that faith is always mediated by the imagination (see here for some of my thoughts on this), and while it is important to be aware of this, it is not something we can escape. Whether or not we have formal creeds, we have some kind of imagined picture of God that influences our relationship—and I would argue that creeds which describe God in a way that would encourage our trust, for example, can contribute positively to that relationship.
Nonetheless, I agree that something has gone very wrong with Zoramite worship, and that what has gone wrong does have to do with creeds. But the problem perhaps is less with the fact that they have creeds, and more with the relationship the Zoramites have to them, in that they are seen as the final word; no further knowledge is being sought, nor is a genuine relationship with God being cultivated.
I would propose, then, that creeds per se are not inherently problematic. The problem is in the role they can potentially play. Going back to the idea of humans as those who are in dialogue with God, the problem comes when such statements are used as substitutes for genuine dialogue, when they preclude communication rather than encouraging it, when they close off further exploration. And creeds are particularly a problem if they are used as a substitute for experience. In these ways, I am in agreement with this critique of creeds. But I do want to note that this can be a danger with any text, whether or not it takes the form of a creed, if it is used in a way which encourages complacency and self-satisfaction rather than relationship and openness. And I do think that formal creeds can play a valuable role in a faith tradition. Perhaps a useful parallel is that of theology more generally. Theology is always secondary: it is reflection on faith. And it is important to hold to the primacy of faith. But this does not rule out any role at all for theology and/or creeds.
I selected here to focus on faith and creeds because they were two of the issues I found most interesting in this book, not because of any particular connection between the two. But I do see some connections between the questions they raise. Humility is tied to faith—and creeds become a problem if they are not articulated with humility. And to bring this back to the beginning of this post, while I do see at least some role for creeds, I think a model of faith is problematic if it is too closely tied to them—because then it becomes an intellectual assent to propositional truth, rather than participation in a dynamic relationship.