The Wilderness of Faith
Edited by John Sillito
Another Kind of Faith
Irene M. Bates
About three months ago a Relief Society teacher phoned to ask if I would share my testimony of the Book of Mormon in her lesson. I told her I would but that I might not be the right one to ask. I explained that the principles of love taught by Jesus were the foundation of my faith and that where the Book of Mormon illuminates those principles then it serves to build upon that foundation.
There was a pause of a few seconds, and then the teacher asked, “Well then, why do you need to be in the church?” My initial unspoken response was, “Why not?” After all this is the church of Jesus Christ. But as I thought about it I realized her question was relevant. I could be in any Christian church or not even belong to a church if that were indeed the sum total of my interest and faith. Since then I have pondered her question many times.
I know that the foundation of my faith remains deep and strong, yet I also know that over time some of my more naive, idealistic pillars built on that foundation have become somewhat fragile. The kind of saw-edged wisdom that is grief has eroded some quite severely. But I imagine many people have shaky pillars that need shoring up, and it might be more helpful if I shared some of the stalwart supports that have withstood the challenges of the years. Three of them have survived because they are constructed from the materials of my own spiritual experience—those things which I cannot deny. Two are quite predictable and uncomplicated, the third somewhat ironic and complex but always exciting.
[p.118] First of all, as a convert in a mission setting thirty-three years ago, I was very moved—and still am—by the awakening of the spirit that can be seen in converts. There is a glow, an enrichment of personality, a new kind of self-esteem, a discovery of talent, and a hunger for truth, as well as a touching vulnerability in people as the message of Jesus Christ touches their lives. It has seemed to me that missionaries are like naive angels unaware, who enter the lives of people and mine hidden treasures in the souls of those they teach. I have seen it in many converts and know what that feels like myself. I could tell no end of stories about changed lives—not tales of repentant sinners who become “good” overnight but of people who illumine for me the words of Christ when he said, “I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.” This is difficult to explain away.
The second support for my faith is a product of the first. Because of that spiritual awakening and the vulnerability accompanying it, we are afforded the opportunity of discovering a deep spiritual kinship with some of our fellow travellers in the church, first with certain missionaries who remain our friends for life and then with others with whom our spirits feel at home. This, too, is difficult to explain away. It is not just a token response, institutionally fostered. It is a spiritual affinity that makes us feel for one another, be responsive to one another, know we can depend on one another. It is, to use Marion D. Hanks’s beautiful phrase, an “ultimate concern” that is shared. It can extend to people not of our faith and even to people with whom we do not always agree. It allows for differences.
Not long after we joined the church in England, I read a speech given by Hugh B. Brown at Brigham Young University. It thrilled me when I read it, and it has been a comfort to me since. He said: “We are grateful in the Church and in this great university that the freedom, dignity and integrity of the individual is basic in Church doctrine.… Here we are free to think and express our opinions. Fear will not stifle thought, as is the case in some areas which have not yet emerged from the dark ages.”1 In the mission field there were always differences of opinion openly discussed because there was a hunger for truth, although I admit we did get off the subject at times. I think our present greater preoccupation with order and conformity does a disservice to such vital spiritual [p.119] exchange. I am reminded of Henry Adams. After touring an art exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, a friend asked Adams what he thought of the show. Adams hesitated and then said he thought it was just chaos really. His friend, Stopford Brooks, answered by asking “whether chaos were not better than death.”2 Lately I have had the sense that our church liberates the spirit only to feel a need to tame it, confine it, and make it conform. This can lead to a loss of vitality of spirit and a fear of honest expression. Nevertheless I cannot deny the wonder of those early experiences and the sense of renewal I always feel, for example, at the Sunstone symposium. I believe the Lord understands my determination to keep alive this spirit of inquiry, to retain the knowledge of what the church can mean in my life. My participation in gatherings of like-minded people provides reinforcement for this particular pillar of my faith.
And this leads me to a third pillar. It may seem a strange one, but from the beginning it has remained deeply rooted despite increasing institutional onslaughts. It has survived, constant and strong, through changes in church leadership and in church policies over the years. It has to do with what I have learned since becoming a member of the church. I don’t mean doctrine or scriptures, although they are necessarily a part of it. I mean the significant spiritual insights afforded by having to confront the paradoxes, myths, and contradictions that are ever present in the LDS church. These exist in all institutions, but because of the peculiarities of our faith, they are more accessible for us.
As a lay church we have opportunities to confront and come to terms with the inevitability of conflict and paradox, because most of us are involved in administrative duties as well as spiritual adventures. Choices have to be made in terms of priorities, and there is a constant danger that the element of choice itself may become hidden in institutional routine. A personal experience of mine might serve to illustrate.
My aunt was a staunch Methodist, the soul of integrity, highly practical, not given to displays of emotion, but she had a kind heart which she took pains to disguise. My uncle was not much of a chapel-goer, so when he died my aunt decided to have an informal funeral service in the home. The Methodist minister came and delivered a nice little sermon and then ended with an appropriate prayer. He had barely breathed the word “Amen” when my aunt addressed [p.120] the group. “Did anyone remember to tell the bread man we don’t want any bread today?” That may well have been a cover for emotion, but she was very practical.
It seems to me we are faced with that kind of a situation in the church all the time. The practical needs of the institution and the successful implementation of programs and policies require that we attend to such ongoing demands. The programs provide opportunities for growth, but sometimes they become the end rather than the means. I recall not long after we became a stake in Manchester, forever after to be tied to a central bureaucracy, one of our leaders asked my husband if he could be released. He felt he was being swallowed up in paperwork instead of serving as a spiritual leader and comforter, something he felt he had been as a branch president in the mission setting. He feared the ease with which the institutional demands could be allowed to compromise the church’s spiritual reason for being. My husband also was keenly aware of that danger. I remember on one occasion after a particularly statistic-oriented stake conference in Salt Lake City, my husband in closing with prayer asked the Lord in all sincerity to help us “feed thy sheep as well as count them.” I believe we are all required to be aware of the nature of this ongoing balancing act.
There are other paradoxical concerns. For instance, there is excommunication. In light of the teachings of Jesus, I have always been uncomfortable with the practice of excommunication and disfellowshipping. Despite the rationale given for such actions, it has always seemed to me rather like turning a wounded person away from a hospital lest he leave blood on the clean floor. Where do we draw the line between the need for purity, order, and efficiency in the institution and the aching needs of those individuals the institution is there to serve, those who may need concern and understanding the most? I remember with gratitude Fern Lee, Harold B. Lee’s wife. I was being admonished for not regarding the church rules as all important. Sister Lee came to my rescue saying, “Sister Bates, never, ever believe you are required to forget the higher law of kindness.” How wonderful it is to experience such elevating incidents firsthand, because often they are the stuff of which myths are made.
And all institutions have myths. They serve a purpose in shaping culture, not least our own Mormon culture, and they are [p.121] often greater motivators than history. But a church as young as ours, its history relatively accessible, cannot expect those myths to remain unchallenged. It is human nature to seek the elusive truth in history, and history will continue to be rewritten. The church cannot hope to escape revisions in its history, so why not enjoy them and recognize how enriching they can be? Faith itself has to be stronger than history. Joseph Smith’s testimony cannot ever be mine. I have to discover my own knowledge and understanding of all truth. Myths may have a purpose—they can be comforting, familiar frameworks for our faith—but that is all they can be. They can never serve as pillars of our faith. They are too vulnerable, I have discovered, and they cannot be allowed to stand guard over truth itself. Since we claim to have the truth, we may be setting ourselves up for a basic contradiction in our faith.
And we have enough contradictions to deal with. The Bible itself has its fair share, and our own prophets have not been immune—even contemporary leaders. One General Authority can tell us to turn to the scriptures for guidance, and another caution us to heed the words of current prophets rather than relying on the words of dead prophets. Both can be useful. Both can help us weigh our choices. I know I am quoting a dead prophet, but Brigham Young’s advice mediates between those two extremes. He said: “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation.”3
So why do these seeming conflicts reinforce this particular pillar of my faith? It sounds as if they might more appropriately be seen as threats to that faith. At most they might be accepted as a requisite testing of faith by requiring me to endure to the end without questioning the inexplicable. The fact is, however, they serve my faith in more positive ways. They do not disturb the foundation of my faith but instead contribute to my understanding of the central purpose of the church in two ways. Ironically, first of all, by requiring me to turn to that foundation even more, they bring me closer to the Savior. They cause me to measure everything by the truths Jesus taught and exemplified as I experience the meaning of those [p.122] principles in my own life. Second, these challenges serve as a means of developing, often painfully, greater understanding, wisdom, and humility. The weighing, the balancing, the choice between two or more competing goods, and the recognition of complexity can help me have compassion for others—even for leaders in their formidable tasks—as I am forced to discover my own values and limitations. When people talk of the simple truths of the gospel, they are right. What more simple teaching than the paramount virtue of love, love of God and love of one’s neighbor? What we are less anxious to point out are the complexities involved in living such simple truths.
We talked about this in a book group. A few women from our Relief Society meet once a month in the home of a bright, inquiring woman, who is homebound. At one of our meetings, we discussed what love entailed and how each of us had to interpret what love may require in any given situation. We focused on a specific problem in our ward. Our chapel, which is situated in a lovely secluded area, has been perceived as a relief station by a homeless, mentally disturbed man. He is one of those formerly institutionalized but now out on his own. We discussed the differences of opinion which have emerged informally in our ward as to how true caring might be expressed in his case. And I recognized anew how truly Lowell Bennion spoke when he pointed to the necessity of loving intelligently with a knowledge of human nature and its needs. In the case of the homeless man, we gave him food, allowed him to use the bathroom facilities at church, but when the bishop tried to get help for him he left.
The organizational structure of our church can afford us access to the paradoxes, myths, and contradictions of our faith in ways which many religions, given the nature of their structures, do not. The ultimate irony is that although the church preaches simple ideas and standards and rather simplistic prescriptions for living them, in practice it contributes its own share of contradictions and in so doing affords us the opportunity to grow and develop spiritual insights. It is true that some choose not to notice troubling questions. But my experience in the church over the years has taught me that when we do confront these challenges we become alive in a faith which is truly our own. We suffer the pain and uncertainty, take the risks, and enjoy the exhilaration of personal discovery.
The “wisdom of age,” I believe, has less to do with such experience than the kind of honesty and courage and trust shown by [p.123] a small son of friends of mine. One day while riding in the car with his mother, he said, “Mom, I don’t think God can be perfect.” She asked why he thought that. And he answered, “Well, in the Old Testament it tells of God sending the Israelites to kill people. They were all his children. Good parents don’t kill their own children.”
That is quite an observation for a nine-year-old boy. I think God must have a special love for that pure, trusting, and concerned spirit. I hope well-meaning members will not discourage Jeff’s honesty. I know his parents won’t. It may seem a small incident, but it touched me very deeply, and I wondered why. Later as I thought about it again and again, I realized that there in that one small boy was manifest a central pillar of my faith. He had dared to face God honestly and without fear. In so doing he reaffirmed the promise of the gospel in my own life. Love itself was ever present for me before joining the church. Conversion simply widened the lens. But this new and significant aspect of faith was awakened in me. Since my conversion, there has been—to use the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning—an “everlasting face-to-face with God”4 in my ongoing search for truth. In an institutional setting such a quest can be quite perilous and frustrating at times. In gatherings of people who share the quest, one can emerge unafraid. On a personal level it is both humbling and inspiring. And it is always exciting. [p.125]