A few months ago, I attended an academic conference in Houston and was curious to hear the following account, from a fellow participant. Like me, he teaches English courses to undergraduates at a university, though he lives and works in another state:
For 40 years, I was an avowed atheist. During that time, my colleagues seemed respectful of my views on religion and faith. But my students were often vocal in their mistrust of those views.
Then I converted to Catholicism. Quickly, I became aware that perceptions of my new worldview had flipped: Colleagues no longer seemed to accept my take on faith. But my students were more accepting than ever.
I don’t have a way to know how vocal this man was — on campus — about his changing spiritual view; apparently, he was pretty forthcoming. We in the room laughed when he finished his story, perhaps in self-conscious recognition of his larger point: In the first world, there’s a strong perception that a faith-based approach to life cannot coexist with a reasoned, thoughtful, fully educated one. Faith doesn’t seem connected with measurable, evidence-based and intellectual knowledge.
Instead, faith has connection with more abstract knowledge — with perception through the heart and soul and spirit. These perceptions are difficult to quantify. That doesn’t mean God’s presence is not a reality; but it does mean that our belief in the divine is particularly susceptible to doubt.
For many people — and certainly for me — negotiating faith and doubt requires painstaking self-honesty. The Book of Mormon teacher Amulek captures this with humility and eloquence: “I said I never had known much … of the ways of the Lord …. But behold, I mistake, for I have seen much of his mysteries and his marvelous power. Nevertheless, I did harden my heart … I knew concerning these things, yet I would not know” (Alma Chapter 5).
Like Amulek, I have struggled with faith and doubt. I don’t want to be duped. I don’t want to be stupid, or childish and immature.
Yet Christ asserts explicitly in both the New Testament (Matthew 18) and in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 3) that what’s necessary is to “become as little children.” Poet Christian Wiman puts it in more modern terms:
If Jesus’ first miracle can be a kind of pointless party trick — he turns water into wine! voila! — maybe the lesson that believers are meant to learn is that we have to turn everything over to God, including those niggling feelings and hesitations we have that the whole rigmarole of …. bowing one’s suddenly brainless head, and ‘believing’ in something more than matter — this is all just a little ridiculous, isn’t it? An embarrassment even. The province, perhaps, of little children. (The American Scholar, Spring 2016)
When I’ve chosen to abandon misgivings and vanity, to turn toward God and trust in him, I have felt tenderness and affirmation in response — sometimes quickly, but more often over time. These are emotions I’ve come to associate with divine love.
And so I’m convinced that spiritual knowledge involves the heart as well as the mind, involves humility and submission, and above all involves the dignity of choice.
My hope and belief are that God’s touch in our lives is real and personal and powerful, that he knows our names and desires our company. But it is up to each of us to recognize this, to search for, worship and rely on him in patience and faith.
Heidi Naylor is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon). She teaches English at Boise State University.
The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.