Faith is a Work in Progress

[This is Part 2 of a 4-part series. Part 1Part 3Part 4]

I appreciate the kind welcome to T&S and all the good comments and questions. I know I haven’t responded to some of them yet, and I’ll try to rectify that soon, but I wanted to make sure I had this post ready to go.

My goal is to live up to my promise to walk through a religious example of epistemic humility in action. At the end of the last post, I suggested that one of the dangers we face when our beliefs conflict with each other is that we will fictionalize one of those beliefs by compartmentalizing it. At the other extreme, we can so privilege certain beliefs that anything which contradicts them is dismissed out of hand. Both of these approaches spare us from the anxiety and frustration of cognitive dissonance, and both of them also cut us off from further growth.

The alternative, and this is where my example begins, is to frankly admit that we are confused. When I was a teenager, Nephi’s description of the “great and abominable church” provided me with just such an opportunity for confusion. The problem arises with Nephi’s claim that there are only two churches (one of the Lamb of God and the other of the devil). This cheerful disregard for what appear to be the most fundamental elements of social reality (formal institutions) created a mild but uncomfortable dissonance between prophecy that I wanted to take as more than metaphor and the only way I knew to see the world.

Rather than shrug, I let myself be bothered by this. This wasn’t a great trial–I’ve chosen a low-stakes example to work with–but more than none at all. And it’s precisely because I had it in the back of my mind every time I read through Nephi again, noodling at it with every iteration to see if I could get anywhere with it this time, that when I stumbled upon Ronald Coase’s breakthrough 1937 paper “The Nature of the Firm” I was primed to see the eerily close parallel it held with Nephi’s prophetic vision.

In this paper Coase asks a deceptively simple question: what determines the size of the firm? What was most revolutionary about this paper was the perspective Coase adopted to even conceive of the question. Rather than take firms as building blocks, Coase instead took a holistic and functional view of the economy as a single giant, interconnected, continuous process. With this view, Coase forced us to see that boundaries between companies are ephemeral and arbitrary.

A company, after all, is just a collection of people who have chosen to unite in the pursuit of their individual goals. You may have an accounting department, an analytic department, and a customer service department all working in the same firm. Or, on the other hand, you might decide to contract out the analytic work to some consultants, or hire a call center to handle your customer service. One of Coase’s points (although this wasn’t the point of his paper) was that, to a large extent, the same people can do the same work and make the same products regardless of where you draw the boundaries. And if that’s true, do the boundaries really matter after all? The foundational nature of formal firms turned out to be, from a certain perspective, largely illusory. (The actual point of Coase’s paper was to figure out what determined where the boundaries would fall, and the answer has to do with transaction costs. If you were curious.)

That’s more or less exactly the approach it seems that Nephi took in viewing religious institutions. Rather than be distracted by denominations, Nephi started with individuals and their religious activities. And, as Nibley argued in “The Prophetic Book of Mormon”, there can be only two types of such activity:

Yet standing in the middle ground, we are faced with absolute decisions… There we have only two choices. The road up and the road down are the same, says Heracleitus… You are taking either the up-road or the down-road; there is no third way, for if you try to compromise and go off at an angle, you will never reach either goal. You are either repenting or not repenting, and that is, according to the scriptures, the whole difference between being righteous or being wicked.

This provides sufficient basis for a binary division, but Nephi’s use of the word “church” requires more. The word “church” implies some kind of coordination or engagement in a larger, unified work. But how could everyone in the world be coordinating in one of two great projects without being aware of it?

This is where I borrowed a concept from systems theory: emergence. Emergence is the concept used to describe things like termite mounds or the way that fish swim in schools and birds fly in flocks. In both cases, combining lots of little agents results in macrostructures or macrobehaviors that emerge from the decentralized interactions of the agents. No termite has the blueprints for the termite mound, and a flock has no leader, but in both cases the agents coordinate to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

I do not believe that Nephi was the world’s first system’s theorist. Instead, I believe systems theory gives us a new way of looking at the world, and that in this case we are perhaps able to catch up to some extent with the way that Nephi, and perhaps many prophets, see it: stripped of the pretensions of our self-proclamations of word and intention and seen in the light of our actions in response to incentives.

It doesn’t really matter if we perceive ourselves as participating in one or the other of the churches, just as it doesn’t matter if we realized that it was the Lord who was metaphorically hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger. The heart of the matter is that, in our actions and decisions, we are participating in lifting ourselves and our neighbors up, or we are not. There are two churches. Nephi was right.

Now I could have just stated that (“Nephi was right.”) at the very beginning and closed the book on the matter. Perhaps some would even see that as faithful, but I do not. Denying our ignorance or confusion doesn’t make it go away, and in any case I don’t believe that faith is about getting the answers right to a test. If we try, if we just assert that we do in fact believe what we think we are supposed to believe then we’re missing the point, failing at failing (which is important in learning), and worst of all we could end up living locked in denial with our fictionalized beliefs. Did you cry when Doby was killed? I did too, but I don’t think it means I have a testimony of Harry Potter. Belief is a tricky thing.

On the contrary, I think the point of faith is to stick determinedly to the process of learning rather than to have the right content in the right buckets in our brains. In short, you can’t fake it, and so you might as well be honest about what you do and don’t believe and proceed from there. Thus: epistemic humility is the key starting point to building authentic faith.

On a final note, I want to point out that perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned from this experience wasn’t about Nephi or about prophets. It was about waiting and about being confused. There are a great many of things which perplex me today, and some of them have far higher stakes than this example did. I don’t believe that all of them will be answered in due time during this life. I expect to die with many questions unanswered, but I also expect to be at peace with a life and a faith that is perpetually a work in progress.

12 comments for “Faith is a Work in Progress

  1. I discovered on my mission that when I read the scriptures and came across a confusing verse, I would just skip it and continue reading, attempting to pick up the story in the next verses. One time something prompted me to just stop and try and figure out the verse that I found confusing which led to a very rich experience.

    The verses were in one of the most often cited chapters in the Book of Mormon: Alma 32. The specific verse was Alma 32:20. I had read through this section of scripture multiple times but never consciously acknowledged my confusion about what the heck this verse was talking about. I took an entire morning study just trying to wrap my head around it and it was one of the best exercises of pondering the scriptures that I have experienced.

    Since that time I guess I have unwittingly been using the concept of epistemic humility and trying to seek out areas in which I have a deficit and attempting to understand the concepts more fully.

  2. Chris-

    I like your comment a lot because it shows that this is not about some obscure philosophical technicality, but something that’s quite ordinary and every-day. My hope is to better understand things that we already do so that we can do them a little bit better and a little bit more (or less, if they are bad things).

  3. I’d almost say that your illustration was even more interesting than the concept it was meant to illustrate. I loved that take on Nephi. More examples please!

  4. Thank you, Nathaniel, for these helping insights. I wonder if the ability to accept confusion and grow through it can be taught “in time” to people who join the church based on the sudden illumination of a testimony. For many converts obtaining a testimony is an overwhelming experience without a shade of doubt left. But one day, usually pretty soon after baptism, they are confronted with disturbing items and the fragile testimony crumbles. Many then just leave. Any thoughts?

  5. Glad you liked it, Adam. I’ve got at least one more example coming, but it’s not based on scripture. We’ll see how it goes.

    Wilfried, I hadn’t thought of that perspective. For now, I just think that it can be helpful for longer-term members to set an example of the diversity of faith. Try saying “I believe” instead of “I know” in your testimony if that accurately reflects how you feel, for example.

    I also think it’s a problem not just for new converts, but for all members and especially the youth. We need to be sure that we’re preparing people for the long-haul. I’d love to hear what ideas you might have.

  6. I think we can look at it in the same way science views the Grand Unifying Theory (GUT). Newtonian physics works great for big things, and Einstein’s Theories of Relativity work great for microscopic things. The two currently do not work together, though there are some theories that may unify them (String Theory, etc). Yet, we daily use both in our everyday lives. Heck, this computer is using both Newton and Einstein’s theories to work right now!

    As I see it, it is okay to use the functional teachings of the gospel, knowing that we may be missing some parts, or may be using some theories that are incomplete. It doesn’t make them wrong or bad, just that additional revelation will be necessary to unify it all together.

  7. Nathaniel: This is great. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to read something that uses Ronald Coase in Book of Mormon exegesis. Your post reminds me of an experience I had in law school. There was a visiting professor of international law who was also a rabbi and once a week he would have a voluntary Torah study session. I went to a couple of the sessions, which were an odd mix of secular Israelis, one evangelical Christian, a bunch of mildly observant American Jews, one orthodox Jew, and me — the Mormon. What struck me about the way in which the rabbi read the scriptures was the way in which he went looking for things to be doubtful and uncertain about. The point of the exercise was never to let the transparent truth of the scriptures wash over you, but was always to find the things that seemed odd, inconsistent, and out of place. Once one had the oddities, one then started thinking about ways of reconciling or dealing with the question. There was never an attempt to find a single correct answer, but rather to collect and organize possible responses, following out their implications and testing them against one another.

    What I love about this way of reading the scriptures is that it makes the process of reading, unending. We NEVER get finished reading the word of God. Far too often I think that Mormons adopt a style of exegesis — find the correct answer and move on — that ultimately aims at getting DONE with the process of scripture reading.

  8. Great post, Nathaniel. I really like how you interpreted Nephi’s vision of the two churches. As one who has experienced a fair share of cognitive dissonance in relation to matters divine, I surely appreciate your emphasis on making ourselves comfortable with ambiguity and viewing our attempts to understanding the deep questions of faith and religion as a work in progress.

    I must say that even though the Book of Mormon makes more sense to me as a 19th century text (an idea which I have come to accept) that I really enjoy reading it over and over and reflecting on the messages of the stories. In fact in many ways I find myself gaining an enlightenment from the Book of Mormon by accepting it as a product of Joseph Smith’s imagination than as an ancient text. Hence I would interpret Nephi’s two churches as Joseph Smith’s imagination of two separate paths for religion: the simple reconfiguration of an old religious tradition stemming from Catholicism, or the unfolding of a new social movement that sought to restore the ancien Christian order. To forge a way forward in religion at the time, there needed to be more than just another doctrinal interpretation that sought to find space within the prevailing social framework of New York and Pennsylvania during the 1820s, there needed to be a new society built from the ground up. Joseph Smith had a unique social vision that managed to capture the hearts and minds like very few others in history have been able to do.

  9. Like Nate, I’m glad to see Coase mentioned in connection with the Book of Mormon.

    I’m curious about your statement, “It doesn’t really matter if we perceive ourselves as participating in one or the other of the churches.” Could you explain what you mean by “churches” here?

    My own take on Nephi — currently, since my take is always in flux — is that Nephi means “churches” in what we might more aptly term today “ideology,” or “a network(/system) of values,” very roughly. This is in contrast to the notion of a formal institutional church. So, when we act, regardless of what we are doing in relation to formal institutional churches, we are either instantiating a particular instance of the values taught by God and his prophets, or we are not.

    I think this is similar to what you are generally suggesting in your post, but I’m not sure….

  10. I like Paul’s description of faith. He says, ‘now, I know in part.’ That, to me is faith. It is a knowledge, if not a comprehensive one. The knowledge gets more complete until the perfect day, but it is still a knowledge based on an understanding of God.

    Steve, I’m curious how one arrives at the ‘inspired fiction’ take on the Book of Mormon, given that there were so many parties involved in translation. It is possible (though I don’t think plausible) that Joseph could write a nice ‘scripture’ book. However, to do so at times spontaneously to a scribe while walking around a room and come up with a coherent 531 page book that ranks up with the most beautiful books of scripture in the history of the world, seems to me to be impossible for even the most gifted of human beings.

    You don’t need to respond to this post and defend your thinking. It was just that your comment prompted me to spontaneously share my thoughts on the subject after being exposed to it a while ago and reflecting on it from time to time. I don’t think the inspired fiction thing flies. To cite the book itself, God deals in plainness. Inspired fiction seems a bit too convoluted for my taste. The closest analog would be Jesus parables, but those were abbreviated and clearly illustrative examples. Much different than a huge annal of religious experience and history.

  11. Robert-

    I’m curious about your statement, “It doesn’t really matter if we perceive ourselves as participating in one or the other of the churches.” Could you explain what you mean by “churches” here?

    What I was trying to convey is that Nephi was seeing that people can be unified in a common endeavor without recognizing it. Just as a flock of birds or a school of fish involves a large number of individuals coordinating without any central leader or universal signal, it’s possible that individual human beings in their day-to-day activities are participating in one of two cohesive movements that are not a formal institutions but are more than simply ideologies.

    Or, to put it another way, building Zion is like building a termite mound: a lot of the individual people contributing don’t know each other, don’t have any idea of a central plan, and may not even realizing they are building anything at all. But, perhaps by the very nature of morality, when we make decisions to increase understanding, act with love, show compassion, and so forth our acts are not isolated, but are in fact integral to some bigger whole. We’re adding one more grain of sand to the monument, and the sum of all these individual efforts is far greater than their parts.

    Does that make sense?

  12. Nathaniel #11, thanks for the clarification — yes it helps, and your point makes much more sense to me now.

    I am a bit skeptical, however, that it’s a very helpful way to think about Nephi’s conception of the two churches. My concern, in short, is that I think the conception of agency, presented in scripture (incl. Nephi’s book, e.g., 2 Ne 2:27), seems to rely on a kind of conscious (or intentional) choice that is quite different than the kind of unconscious (or unintentional) choice that I think you are suggesting.

    Now, I fully agree that the effects of our choices are often quite removed from our direct or explicit intentionality — and this is an important aspect of grace. And in this sense I think you are touching on a very good and interesting point, that there is a kind of common good that emerges in a way that exceeds the aggregate sum of the good intended by the disaggregated individuals. However, it seems to me that Nephi is invoking (avant la lettre) an aspect of apocalyptic literature that is strongly homiletic, and in a way that is depends more on conscious and intentional responses than I think what you are saying is able to support.

    But, that said (and I know I haven’t been very clear…), I think there are still many interesting ideas to mine from the point you are making — so thanks!

Comments are closed.