Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Knowledge, Skepticism and the Gift of Faith - The Faith Crisis in America

Knowledge, Skepticism and the Gift of Faith
The Faith Crisis in America

My father spent his entire career working in the Aerospace industry.  In spite of various federal space contracts and military type security, during the mid to late 1960’s, his company had a “bring your family to work day.”  It was the only time I remember the public being privy to tour that working facility. 

Just prior to this visit, a significant acquisition had been made of a new computer; catapulting them into a new and modern age of technology.  To this day, I remember nothing about my father’s work or his office, but I do remember that computer.   Over a million dollars worth of spinning reels stacked in glass and metal boxes coughed out a steady stream of cards punched with tiny holes.  This futuristic paper spewing dragon took up an entire large room and my dad’s colleagues were nothing short of giddy as they explained all it could do. 

Just to give you the down low; computers in those days had approximately 512 K of storage.  Today’s ordinary android phone has 300,000 times more storage and an ordinary MacBook Air has more than 1,000,000 times more storage than computers from that era.  Computers in 1958 had a single transistor per circuit compared to 9 million transistors per square millimeter in today’s world. The cost of our modern devices range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. This exponential growth in electronics has doubled every two years or so and the explanation of how that happens is way over my head!  Google it!

If someone had told those computer scientists that in forty short years one or more computers would be in most American homes, would they have believed it? Would it have scrambled their brains to know that phones owned by children would have 300,000 times more capacity than the single million dollar computer that filled their small gymnasium? Could they have comprehended such things? Would they have said it could not be done?  Or, would they have been open to the notion of “possibility” of things believed but not seen?

A crisis of faith exists in America. Approximately 8% of the population between 2007 - 2014 (mostly youth) have left ideas of faith and God behind while striving to understand their place in the world. The postwar era of the 1920’s and 1930’s saw a similar downturn; where cynicism and disillusionment overcame hope.  This recent national crisis of faith spills into the LDS faith as well.

For many faith is being challenged and edged out by secular learning minimizing the need to be drawn to spirituality and prayer.  I think we can all agree that science plays a crucial role in our understanding of our world and universe.  Yet, many rely on the notion that if you can’t see it or prove it, it doesn’t exist - evidence is necessary to believe.  Why is this so?  It seems like an open mind would also be open to possibilities of things not yet seen or that do not yet exist.

For example, with no vision to see beyond established scientific theories, mankind might still believe that the world is flat or that California is an island.  We might still be convinced that the universe is static; neither expanding or contracting.  Wouldn’t we be wise to entertain all possibility of things we cannot presently see - to truly have an open mind regardless of whether it is based in science or in faith?

Science is only one reason that some are departing from God and religious notions.  Some are disillusioned with the imperfect nature and conduct of man; be it modern man or historical record of man.  History is not finite.  Historical facts have more clarity as we study context for the times in which they were written.  So often events are skewed when we overlay our current understanding onto a historical situation. 

Prophets beginning with Adam were flawed and many of them lived through periods where their behavior is not what we would expect from a leader; let alone a prophet of God.   “Mere men” have been asked throughout the ages to lead God’s children and point them back to Him.  All the prophets have been on their own mortal journeys as well.  What a tremendous amount of pressure!  The most humble servants seem to understand their responsibility and express inadequacy in their roles.  To expect in them perfection from man or from God, would be intolerant of allowing them their own earthly test.

“ When God makes the prophet, He does not 
unmake the man.”  ~ David O. McKay  

Moroni himself asks readers of the Book of Mormon to “condemn me not because of mine imperfection neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him.”  Joseph Smith wrote of himself in his history that at times he engaged in behaviors “not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been.”  (Joseph Smith History 1:28)  From prophets down to the lowliest of followers of Christ, we all strive, fall short and use the Atonement of Christ to fulfill the Plan of Salvation.  

The sword of tolerance cuts both ways for followers as well as leaders.  I would assume those least tolerant of the Prophets of God are often loudest when it comes to insisting on tolerance for individuals whose ideas and lifestyle vary from societal and cultural norms.  Tolerance begets patience, patience begets forgiveness and forgiveness allows for charity - across the board!  Period.

Living in the information age is epic and my head spins almost every day when I realize the golden egg at my fingertips. Not only do we have an ability to look with a great detail at any subject, but also to delve deeply into historical events.  We find much more than mere historical accounts focusing on the good, the positive and the inspiring - the side of ourselves we want the world to see.  There continues to be much more disclosure.  We now have access to the good, the bad and the ugly.  Journals and historical accounts bring very authentic struggles to light for us to examine like never before.  

Real life feelings and experiences can be, at times very raw and unsettling.  Yet great lessons can be learned from authentic accounts of those who came before us devoid of any omissions.  As such, they more closely parallel our own real struggles.  We are not alone in our trials, our imperfections or our ability to overcome.

Neal A. Maxwell, an LDS Apostle admonished us that we need not shy away from difficult issues.  “As religious people we should create an atmosphere where questions can be aired and discussions held about important issues without shame, condemnation and alienation.” 

In helping us ground our Christian beliefs, blogger Christopher Hutton wrote “Doubt becomes the catalyst to a proper questioning of anything and everything. This questioning acts as a sharpening stone, allowing us to test and reveal whether or not our beliefs about things hold up to logic, to the physical world, and to general and special revelation.” 

              'Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?  Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’ - T.S. Elliot

With so much available information, don’t we need to learn to sift through it with an appropriate level of discernment?  Have you ever consulted Dr. Google?  If we believed everything we read, we would all have one foot in the grave with no remaining hope for a future.  It is only with a keen and careful eye that we can take the best from what we find and examine how it dovetails with what we already know.  It is only then that we can apply the information to make it useful, positive and productive.

Although useful at times, skepticism and doubt can also be an enemy to faith.  Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf suggests “there is nothing noble or impressive about being cynical.  Skepticism is easy - anyone can do it.  It is the faithful life that requires moral strength, dedication, and courage…just because we cannot see something with our physical eyes does not mean it doesn’t exist.”  

As thinking people, how do we navigate the need for a healthy dose of questioning while preserving the faithful path we desire?  How do we teach our children to develop critical thinking skills and learn to walk in faith?  Are these two ideas really oppositional?

Absolutely not.  We can handle the truth.  We can accept the shortcomings and failings of real men and women.  Doubting, questioning and even a little skepticism need not be debilitating.  We do not need to be incapacitated as questions arise.  Rarely is anything in this life all one way or another.  The truth often lies in the middle.  Looking at extremes in anything does not usually define the whole.  

As more information is brought to light our perspectives will continue to change over time.  To be open to that notion helps us to have vision, to believe in possibility, and to ultimately develop faith as we exercise patience in the process.  Eternity is a very long time.  Isn’t it worth doing right?  

In a fascinating read by Patrick Q. Mason, Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt, Mason suggests that doubt is essential in our contemporary spiritual condition. “Doubt can therefore operate as faith’s partner as much as its enemy, depending on our response to it.  People can (and most do) hold both faith and doubt in their minds and hearts simultaneously.” 

“In this Church what we know will always trump what we do not know.  
And remember, in this world, everyone is to walk by faith.”  ~Jeffrey R. Holland

In a talk to the membership of the LDS church, Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf so eloquently reassured those who question and doubt,  “It’s natural to have questions—the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith—even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty. Faith is to hope for things which are not seen but which are true.” 

“My dear friends—please, first doubt 
your doubts before you doubt 
your faith. We must never allow 
doubt to hold us prisoner and 
keep us from the divine love, peace, 
and gifts that come through 
faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” 
- Dieter F. Achtdorf

We are not powerless in juggling skepticism and faith.  We have been given tools.  These tools and approaches to finding truth will be as varied as the individual that implements them.  The trick is in the balance with an ample dose of patience and compassion with ourselves and others in that supernal search for truth.

The older I get, the more I appreciate and the less threatened I am with diversity.  Varying perspectives and ideas make up a rich tapestry of life experiences to cloak humanity with wisdom and reflection.  Extrapolations from authentic and sometimes gut-wrenching experiences lift me from my own struggles giving me quiet inspiration and abounding hope.  Any compassion I show for those who fall short of the mark will hopefully come back and be offered to me as I continually fall and stumble in my own mortal journey.    

Let’s end where it all started with James 1:5 “if any  of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”

Additional reading:

Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt, Patrick Q. Mason

“Come Join With Us,” by Dieter F. Uchtdorf

“Lord I Believe,” by Jeffrey R. Holland

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