Skepticism and faith in Christ seem to be two sides of the same coin. In faith we embrace the things we cannot see and say, in skepticism we doubt all we can see and say. Both put us in nearly the same spot, one on the light side, the other in the dark.
I used to think that the problem of assurance of salvation was a big practical difference between Mormons and Evangelicals. I am not so sure now.The theological differences seem stark. According to the rough academic analogy, Mormons believe that everybody is born with a passing grade, and you have to decide to fail. So long as your intentions are in the right direction, and you are living up to your potential , you are going to the Celestial Kingdom. If you fall short you are going to get a great consolation prize– eternally living in heaven with Jesus forever. If you criminally screw up and reject Jesus, you are going to suffer for your sins but eventually you will be in a heavenly place with the eternal joy that the Holy Spirit can bring you. Mormons believe (or used to) that some striving souls could get a “second endowment.” An ordinance performed in the temple that seals a person with their spouse to the Celestial Kingdom. They have their “calling and election made sure.” Anymore, this concept and practice has practically disappeared from the Church. Mormons are left completely sure they are going to heaven, but always unsure of which heaven they will go to. I believed that whatever I–or nearly anybody else–was in for in the afterlife, it was going to be a whole lot better than this world.
Contrasting my experience with the children of Evangelicalism. I can see how the “faith alone” doctrine would have scared the hell out of me. Evangelicals believe you are born with a failing grade– the default is hell. People qualify for salvation by correct belief and reliance on the work of Jesus alone. It seems to me that if you are an Evangelical facing the never-ending torment of hell, you’d better make darn sure you are saved. And the problem is, because non-saving faith can masquerade as true belief and faith, there is a lot of room for consternation. Just as Mormons obsess about doing enough to be “good enough” , it seems that doubt-prone Evangelicals can easily fall into a cycle of severe anxiety trying to assure their faith is “true” enough. And the stakes– and possibly the potential anxiety seem considerably higher. It seems that many Evangelicals indeed have this problem of assurance gauging from this article in Relevant Magazine, by J.D. Greear, Evangelical author of Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart. .
When I was a kid, I loved to pretend. My life was filled with forts, guns, armies, horses, dragons, talking animals, magic swords, and space armadas. You didn’t have to point out to me that I was pretending, I was doing it on purpose.
Jesus pointed out the pretenders who did not seem to know they were pretending. To the Romans he pointed out that they were merely pretending to be the masters of the world. In fact, the Kingdom of God was in our midst and held sway over what mattered. To those pretending to be good, he said there is no good but God. To those pretending to honor the temple of God, he dealt a beating. To those pretending to be his disciples, he exposed as denyers, betrayers, and court jesters. Jesus was God who pretended to be a man and–in the end–He exposed this pretense as well.
Few would disagree that those who follow Jesus only pretend to. The Old Testament teaches us that we are foolish and pretending children to a Perfect Father who has given us his law, the New teaches us that we are all fallen and lost, incapable of following the law God gave–we can only pretend. The Book of Mormon teaches that when it comes to obedience, we are less than we are not the dust of the earth, only pretending to be submissive. Joseph Smith taught that our compliance and authority is often–because of our nature and disposition–simply pretense to fulfill our pride and hide our sins. Jesus’ apostles made it clear that Jesus was the Christ, we merely pretend to be Christians. Paul taught that whatever we are of Christ is not us, but Christ in us.
Ironically, Christians also like to point out pretenders.
Here is a question that may shed some light and understanding on the common ground between Evangelicals and Mormons:
Why (the heck) do you believe in God anyway?
There are all kinds of reasons not to believe in God, all kinds of proofs for his existence, but I doubt these make a lot of difference in the bedrock reasons for belief in a personal God. So, for those willing to share, if you do believe that a personal God exists, what is the most compelling reason for you. Is it a historical account, a personal experience, a series of personal experiences?
For me, although there are other reasons, it comes down to a series of personal experiences (quite a few) that I can’t explain effectively without refering to God. I know this comes across as pretty weak, but my skeptical nature has stripped bare my interpretations of these experiences to the point to where that is the best description of what anchors my faith.
In recent years I have mentally revisited many of my experiences and tried to be more discerning about what they really mean. My attitude is partly shaped by the thoughts of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most compelling and entertaining anti-christ writers, who criticised the way people view religious experiences:
” As interpreters of our experiences- One sort of honesty has been alien to all founders of religions and their kind: They ahve never made their experiences a matter of conscience for knowledge. “What did I really experience? What happened in me and around me at the that time? Was my reason bright enough? Was my will opposed to all deceptions of the senses and bold in resisting the fantastic?” None of them has asked such questions, nor do any of our dear religious people ask them even now. On the contrary, they thirst after things that go against reason, and they do not wish to make it too hard for themselves to satisfy it. So they experience “miracles” and “rebirths” and hear the voices of little angels! But we, we others who thirst after reason, are determined to scrutinize our experiences as severely as a scientific experiment– hour after hour, day after day. We ourselves wish to be our experiments and guinea pigs.” — (The Gay Science #319 trans. by Walter Kaufmann, 1974, Random House. )
I have tried to take guidance from this advice, because I think it is important for me to feel comfortable that I am not deceiving myself, because ultimately I have to be able to trust myself in order to trust my experiences. One of these experiences that confirms my belief in God occurred about 4 months ago. I went to temple square in Salt Lake City and walked through the tour posing as a non-mormon. It was me, a couple from Britain and a guy from Brooklyn. The sisters that lead us through the tour, although pretty, did not have much game when it came to explaining the church to the savvy, skeptical non-believer. The tour lasted about 20 minutes and ended at the Assembly Hall a pretty church that sits next to the Tabernacle. I sat down on an pew and told the sisters I wanted to ask them a question, why did they believe in God. They gave me the standard, true believer answers, i.e. that everything tells them that there is a God, that they get answers to their prayers all the time (e.g. one sister prayed in the morning when she lost her keys, and they turned up, etc). I could tell they were sincere believers, not brainwashed, but not skeptical of the experiences they had either, therefore I found much of what they were saying un-helpful. All of this was very sincere, and I don’t find any fault with what they said or how they said it, but I was essentially disappointed, this was the same stuff rehashed and wasn’t at all compelling. Then one sister turned to me, and said that if I would pray in my room that night, and ask God to show himself that I would get an answer. Of course this is exactly what I had expected, but I did not expect the internal response I had. Almost the instant the words came out of her mount, it was all I could do just to hold it together, tears were streaming down my cheeks. I was not sure if I was surprised or not but tried to remain as “objective” as possible about what was happening, and I don’t want to jump to many conclusions about the ultimate meaning and interpretation of the experience. But suffice it to say this came at a time where I was at my most skeptical of the existence of God, the Church, Christianity, etc.
The sisters were remarkably cool about how they reacted, they stood there until I pulled it together, I apologized for my tears and they said goodbye, didn’t push anything or put any spin on what they clearly saw happen to me.
Now I am not about to put too much of a spin on this experience either, I don’t know that it should “prove” anything to you at all, after all you were not in a position to observe myself as I was, you were not in a position to be the scientist to make sure that there were not non-God influences that brought about such a strong reaction in me. Certainly you cotuld chalk up my reaction to so many similar childhood experiences, or even conditioned response. But as the observer who knew my history best, and can see the similarities and differences in this context compared to other near identical experiences where I did not have such a reaction, my conclusion is that something outside of me triggered this reaction. Given the vagueness of the way I felt, I can’t say that this experience was proof of the truth of the Mormon Church, or Christianity, or anything particularly detailed, but I can say that on that Sunday afternoon, I felt that God existed and was making me feel it in the presence of those two kids with nametags, representing the LDS Church and It didn’t seem to have much to do with what they were saying or how they said it.
This is one of dozens of experiences that I could relate. Unfortunately, even taken together, they don’t remove most of the questions I have regarding God and religion, but they do mean something. To continue with the science analogy, I am still seeking more data points before I draw my regression line.
I am interested to know what Evangelicals and Mormons alike think about this sort of anchor for a belief in God and also very interested to know what anchor’s other people’s faith. My guess is that we my have more in common on this issue than on our theology.