Monday, February 6, 2012

Not Your Momma's Discussion on Faith

You know what I hear when I walk into a Church meeting and find out someone is going to be talking about faith? I hear, "Hey, Brett! Are you tired? Because you look like you could use a nap. Here, let me help you out. No, it's okay--I'll make this so boring you won't even have to consciously choose to sleep. No guilt!"

Now, it's entirely possible I'm just a cranky cynic, though I doubt it; I mean, could you really call someone who Photoshopped his face into a picture from Battlestar Galactica "cranky?"
Is this the face of a cynic?

Surely I'm not alone in this though. Very few topics are covered as routinely as faith; charity could perhaps give it a run for its money in both frequency and repetitiveness, but I'd still have to give faith credit for being spoken of almost weekly (certainly monthly) and with nary a variance in what's shared.

Lengthy introduction aside, I'm going to write about faith today. Still with me? Good. Grab a caffeinated beverage and read on In particular, I want to talk about three aspects of faith, any combination of which are commonly found in any given Sunday sermon on the subject: faith being like a seed, faith as an action word, and faith not being a perfect knowledge.

Faith is Like a Little Seed
As you may already be aware, when the children's song "Faith" states that "Faith is like a little seed/If planted it will grow," it is actually misquoting Alma 32:28. Though the song quite plainly states that the seed is symbolic of faith itself, the scripture rather states that the seed is the word (of God, one imagines, though it may be in reference to Alma saying "Give place for a portion of my words" in the previous verse), which, if planted and nurtured in faith, will grow into a tree.

Or, on occasion, a shrubbery.

So, having obtained some sort of seed, one then exercises faith by planting it and hoping it will grow into something. The faith doesn't nurture the plant; it doesn't feed it or care for it; rather, the faith is the driving force behind us nurturing it, feeding it, or caring for it. Faith is not a "thing." You can't hold faith. I'm not able to pour myself a tall glass of faith in the morning to start my day off right. Rather, faith is a construct designed to define that weird idea that people can do something without proper evidence or reason to believe it will work. I have faith that, when I pray, God hears me (though I may still have some questions on the subject), despite the fact that I have never seen my prayer ascend up to heaven, much less seen the Almighty incline his head and listen to it.

What's the lesson behind the whole faith-and-the-seed story? Faith leads us to action. I have faith that this seed will become something, so I sow it and reap a shrubbery. This, incidentally, segues nicely into my next point...

Faith is an Action Word
Have you ever heard this little mantra? It's catchy. "Faith is an action word." You just feel like a hip EFY speaker saying something like that. Now, I don't know the history of this little phrase, but I believe it is at least tied to if not directly resultant from the following quote in Lectures on Faith: "Faith is not only the principle of action, but of power also, in all intelligent beings, whether in heaven or on earth” (Lectures on Faith, 3; the lectures themselves would be an interesting post for another day).

I used to love this, but eventually, the more I thought about it, the less I liked it. "Faith is an action word?" Like a verb? Can I faith a miracle? Should I faith some less-active people? Can it describe an experience--"How was church?" "Oh, I got totally faithed!" Or is it like a physical action--this morning I went jogging, then grabbed my Book of Mormon for some faithing, followed by a light lunch?

Perhaps a better way to describe this is to use the words in the Lecture on Faith: "Faith is...the principle of action." This can be taken a few different ways; the most common (and more probable original intent) is that the principle of faith is a principle based on action; however, I like to think of it as referring to the concept known as faith being the essence of the separate concept known as action. Faith isn't an action by itself, but it certainly can lead to action.

It's important to remember what I said above--faith isn't a thing. It can't act as a fuel for action because it's not a fuel; it's not a thing. Faith is a concept, a state of mind, an idea; it's the curious propensity in people to reject common sense or so-called facts and do or believe something illogical based on non-empirical, non-evidential, unprovable belief.

Thus the progression in the principles of the gospel: first faith and then repentance. Perhaps this is just the psychologist in me, but to me, developing faith is a change in thinking; undergoing repentance is the change in behavior that results from that change in thinking.

Faith is Not a Perfect Knowledge
Looking back to when we were discussing Alma, it's interesting to note that, a few verses after the one quoted above, he says that the tree grows into a perfect knowledge. Now, once again, he's talking about the word which was planted--if the word grows and spreads, it breeds further knowledge and wisdom until it becomes a full-grown perfect knowledge.

However, this type of language is also used with faith. Faith is not a perfect knowledge; rather, faith is the absence of knowledge. Faith is believing in things not seen, and all that.

But is it really? I think that that's a false notion. Well, in part; there's certainly a connection between the two, so that faith can be replaced with knowledge at a later time once proof is given. However, is it not possible to disbelieve something in spite of evidence to the contrary? Can't one disagree with or outright reject proven truths?

Faith isn't a perfect knowledge because it is only at best inversely correlated with knowledge. After all--God is believed to have a perfect knowledge of all things; does that mean He no longer has faith? It's possible, I suppose, but it doesn't sit well when you consider it.

With that difference marked out, though, we get to the crux of the issue--namely, that we approach God in faith, not in knowledge. I don't believe that I'll be rejected from God's presence for understanding a passage of scripture incorrectly, or for choosing the wrong side in a Sunday School class's theological debate. Paul wrote that “we see now through a glass, darkly.” We can apply this to all sorts of things, but when applied to the gospel, we really have no idea whether something is true or false or somewhere in between. When the best sources to study from are mistranslated texts that have changed and redacted and altered over millennia, or prophetic statements that are vague and confusing and, let's face it, sometimes contradictory and possibly influenced by the person who received the prophecy (*cough* SECOND PLUG FOR MY FACILITATED COMMUNICATION ARTICLE *cough*), then Paul is dead on in saying that we see gospel truths through a murky, blurry, unfocused lens that is infested with imperfections in the glass. That is because the first principle of the Lord's church isn't “A Pursuit of Knowledge.” It is “Faith.”

Discourse done. I hope you enjoyed your naps.