During Sunday’s church meeting, a man stood at the pulpit and bore a forceful testimony. Citing Moroni’s closing exhortation to “deny not [God’s] power,” he testified of the reality of miracles unlocked by wholehearted faith and willing belief. “Doubt and skepticism are fashionable in today’s world,” he said, and conceded that these might play a legitimate if limited role for some. But spiritual enlargement and sanctification come to those who “deny not” the power of God but instead affirm it with positive belief. His testimony was not unlike dozens of other testimonies offered from that same pulpit. But this one was delivered with such sincerity and feeling that I was struck anew.
The thing is, it didn’t ring a single bell in my soul.
My religious experience doesn’t naturally take shape in the language of doubt and skepticism, and certainly I feel no inclination to identify tribally as atheist or agnostic. But I’ve been quite open, both publicly online and in my in-person relationships at church, that belief-unto-knowledge is not my strong suit, religiously speaking. The transcendent claims of the Restoration and of religion generally — the claims that surpass ordinary, immanent human experience, that reveal an invisible realm of spirit holding hands with history; in short, precisely the sorts of claims to which Moroni refers his exhortation to “deny not” — I meet only with what I hope is an open-hearted kind of puzzlement. I haven’t been given grounds on which to settle a personal belief in the transcendent, yet many whom I trust and love have. I don’t deny them, yet I can’t attest them. Instead I simply watch and listen with attention. I try to, anyway.
Given the chasm between my experience and the testimony being borne, it was with some wonder that I observed my emotional response. Mercifully, I met no defensiveness, no bitterness, no reflexive skepticism — none of which, I confess, are strangers to my heart. No rebuttal surged, no need for approval or recognition of my difference. Instead, there was only love. I was filled with love for this good man — a man who has been a true friend to our family as a caring home teacher, who praised my Gospel Doctrine lessons and prepared searching lessons of his own, who took the trouble to know my parents and siblings and to ask about them, who reached out with gentleness and heartfelt empathy when I was grieving the policy changes in November. As I sat there in sacrament meeting listening to him talk, not a word of which I could have spoken with conviction myself, I was filled only with an awareness of my love for him.
Despite the insufficiency of my faith, despite my belief-blind mind, I can say unequivocally — yes, with every fiber of my being — that I love Mormons. I love them helplessly, despite the ways in which I differ from time to time in spiritual perception or cultural inclination. I love them when they’re wrong, I love them when they’re right. I instinctively love them, I trust them, and I belong to them.
For what it’s worth, I feel little self-congratulation for this love. I did not will it, I did not earn it, and I fail to live up to its imperatives every day. And besides, a love of Mormons is hardly a noble purpose, no more admirable than, say, a passionate attachment to WASPS or investment bankers. Much better, wouldn’t it, to be possessed by a passion for a more vulnerable community, a more deserving community. But Mormons and Mormonism were given to me, even if unmediated belief was not.
I don’t defend my way of being, and I don’t necessarily recommend it. The conviction of the brother at the pulpit, and millions like him, is the fuel that drives the Church, and I harbor no resentment against it.
But here’s the thing: when you subtract out the transcendent from religion, what remains? A lot of it, actually. Most of it, actually. Speaking in tongues and seeing visions are out. But serving, teaching, learning, attending, singing, sharing, giving — that’s all very much in. I may not have much to offer the Saints by way of transcendence. But when it comes to immanence, I was given something I can contribute to the ward potluck, and that means the world to me. Sitting on a padded bench in a ridiculous paroxysm of love is, it turns out, a little-known spiritual gift in itself.
 My oh-so-zen attitude, I realize, is a privilege of my safe and secure life, in which I have little need for divine deliverance from day to day. Should those circumstances change, these question of ultimate reality would probably take on a much more urgent cast.
“when you subtract out the transcendent from religion, what remains? A lot of it, actually. Most of it, actually.”
I’m genuinely trying to figure out if this is a good thing, or a bad thing. I agree that most of our religious experience would remain intact if the transcendent was removed. Should it be otherwise? Would I want my religion to be more transcendent, even mostly so? Probably not, as I am also reflexively skeptical. However, if it’s mostly…something else, I don’t know what that means.
Even if you do not recognize it in yourself, there is no doubt in the minds of everyone who knows and reads you that you do possess an abundance of spiritual gifts – most notably the gift of tongues and the greatest of all spiritual gifts, the gift of charity. This was wonderfully and beautifully expressed, Rosalynde!
Moralistic therapeutic deism.
Q: “when you subtract out the transcendent from religion, what remains?”
A: Immanence. And immanence kicks the butt of transcendence every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
The big difference I see with you experience, is the attitude of the man you describe as also loving and caring of you.
I do not actually see any people like him at church, but the obiedient set, tell me i’m apostate for not following the Prophet over the last few months, and last time I taught a lesson (some years ago) the fact that I mentioned the essay on race and the priesthood was reported to the SP who asked that I not mention it again at church, as it upset some people.
It is much easier to love people who are loving to you, even if they see the church differently. I do not have a problem with people seeing things differently, but I do feel I understand what it’like to be a person who is supposedly loved while my understanding is hated. Much more difficult to love those.
What counts as transcendent in a religious that fundamentally is a materialistic religion? If we just mean by transcendent communication by the Holy Ghost then I guess I get what is meant.
As Paul told the Corinthians, “the greatest of these is love.”
“my attitude is a privilege of my safe and secure life, in which I have little need for divine deliverance from day to day”
That might be the case. I am in a similar place today. It wasn’t always this way, though. I know that in my extremity, when circumstance threw me in dark forests, ways were opened that were far beyond chance occurrences. Sometimes my life was saved; others my day was 1/100th as inconvenient as it might have been. I’m still alive and have all my limbs. I don’t know why others aren’t and don’t. But passing through those situations leaves me humbled that the divine, for some reason, intervened for me.
If you do end up living a little too close to the edge, be open to seeing how you got out of the experience. Quick wits? Luck? Or something beyond? Be open to the possibility.
You are a blessing to all of us, Rosalynde.
Thanks very much, Rosalynde.
BTW, I’m not able to go to the MTA conference again this year, but when I saw you were speaking it made it much harder to miss. You will be a wonderful addition.
Rosalynde, this was a good piece: well-written with an important point. Thank you. It is important tor remember that the love we feel for our fellow saints is a gift. But, like Clark, I wonder whether you mean what you say when you ask about subtracting transcendence from religion. If we understand God in traditional terms–outside of space and time, “beyond being,” etc.–then perhaps nothing. But if we reject those terms, as it seems to me Mormonism does, then we have to rethink what we mean by “transcendence.” With that rethinking perhaps you experience transcendence more often than you think.
To change the tack on this a little bit, I have been impressed by the things that youth culture is interested in. Back in the day when my son was young, he with many others became a Star Wars nut. I tried to figure out what the common denominator was. They seemed to be impressed by the incredible power the characters possessed. Yes, that mysterious thing called “the Force” was so important. It was called upon to do good and to save the galaxy from disaster. It was realized that man alone could not do it. Now popular entertainment is loaded with stories of miraculous events and people that make them happen. Call it a youth thing, no, just about everybody loves transcendence – needs transcendence.
I have found that the more I am open to the miraculous the more such events occur, including a few treasured incredible ones. Yet I am a highly educated person, two MS degrees, PhD student, but not in religious associated studies. There is a lot I have called into question, re-examined, educated myself on, re-educated myself on, tossed aside, have grave concerns about, but the ability to receive divine intervention is not something I’ve ever questioned, because the only times I’ve been without it is when I’ve not been sufficiently observant.
I know this is a kind of rebuttal, and I can’t suggest otherwise, but that doesn’t mean that I think your experience or point of view is wrong or misguided. Just different. Just as I would expect that there would be, as the scriptures suggest, all kind of believers and as has been said, spiritual gifts.
But we live in a world of the anti-miraculous, and I take some personal comfort that for all of my ability to explain away, there are events, moments, and communications that I cannot explain away. I love that dual world of the hard testable facts and the God who opens the heavens to those who believe anyway.