The following first appeared in Public Square Magazine.
During a recent and prolonged discussion with someone undergoing a faith crisis—prolonged because she brought up reasons for disbelief while I countered with reasons for belief, which could go on in perpetuity—I had a moment of clarity: We were not talking about the same thing. Her religion is a set of ideas weighed on a scale in which those on the belief side never quite outweigh those on the doubt side. But my faith is based less on epistemic certainty and more on a relationship I’ve developed with a capital-s Someone. He has carried me through a lot of hard times and been the source of my deepest joys. While abandoning religion for her means discarding ideas that don’t fit her worldview, leaving the faith for me feels more like betrayal.
I find myself in good company with a divine relationship paradigm, aided and abetted by writers like Pascal, who wrote in Pensées that those who try to disprove the Bible through reason are only proving what God calls himself in scripture: the hidden God, who will only reveal Himself to those who sincerely seek him. C.S. Lewis pointed out that when you believe in a personal God, “You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent, but with a person who demands your confidence.” And Anne Lamott’s trajectory from disbelief to belief began when she started to feel Jesus “watching me with patience and love,” a sensation she compared to “feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in.”
Their encounters with a person-God who earns trust not by granting every wish like a genie, or by answering every question like a celestial professor, mirror my own spiritual journey. While I find much that makes sense, even profoundly so, in the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and have had questions answered over the years, not every question is answered nor every mystery solved. I doubt it is for anyone. I believe because living the religion brings into my mundane, exciting, happy, sorrowful, and otherwise routine life a Presence that occasionally interrupts it—sometimes gently like the cat, every once in a while miraculously.
C.S. Lewis pointed out that when you believe in a personal God, “You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent, but with a person who demands your confidence.”
You would think that theologians from our faith tradition, with its doctrine of God as an embodied, relational being, would have already written more books like the recently released and paradigm-shifting Who is Truth: Reframing Our Questions for a Richer Faith (with “Who” replacing a crossed-out “What”) by Jeffrey L. Thayne and Edwin E. Gantt, but maybe I missed them. BYU-affiliated psychologists Thayne and Gantt explore, in philosophical terminology accessible to lay readers like me, the “person-truth” at the heart of the Bible’s Hebrew worldview: that of a dynamic, relational God who speaks to us personally. By contrast, ideas based on Greek and Enlightenment thought permeate our culture and emphasize “idea-truth,” which is abstract, impersonal, never-changing, and can be arrived at empirically.
The authors are in no way opposed to, and indeed are scholars trained in, rigorous scholarship modeled on enlightenment ideas of systematic observation and rational analysis. The salient point of their book is that conflating religion with a set of ideas requiring empirical proof leads to many of the “intellectual and spiritual labyrinths of our day,” labyrinths better navigated by a faith born of encounters with the Divine. Like others who have described the nuances of spiritual IQ, they distinguish between proving a scientific hypothesis and discovering spiritual truth. Along the way, they explore the ramifications of a person-truth view on everything from contradictory statements by faith leaders to coping with the vicissitudes of life that make us feel out of control.
The first part of the book points out philosophical differences between idea-truth, in which “religion becomes a set of doctrines” and person-truth, faith in the dynamic God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who leads His also-dynamic children through different time periods that entail changing directives. While the idea-truth of science requires its precepts to be unchanging and consistent, like the Pythagorean Theorem, the person-truth of religion exists in shifting scriptural narratives chronicling “God’s saving, rescuing, and uplifting activities.”
While idea-truth balks at inconsistency in scripture and sermons by religious leaders, person-truth views these inconsistencies differently. Gantt and Thayne point out that Church leaders “with various backgrounds and perspectives” give “dozens of sermons a year in a variety of contexts over their decades of Church service.” Obviously, they conclude, such a large volume of words from so many people will include internal contradictions, as does scripture. But according to a person-view of truth, the purpose, or forest, of both sermon and scripture is consistent, despite discrepancies among the trees: both “invite us into a covenant relationship with God” rather than “generate a perfect consensus of abstract belief.”
Fixating on idea-truth over person-truth not only leads us to unrealistic expectations of a perfect consensus, but also creates problems in other areas when we don’t understand the differences. While idea-truth requires its experts to undergo peer review and contribute to scientific consensus, person-truth allows God to choose humble prophets who often buck consensus. While idea-truth demands conformity to correct ideas only (Einstein’s infidelity, for example, never affected his scientific theories), person-truth requires living the right way and makes moral demands on us to arrive at spiritual truth.
Just as important, a person-truth approach involves fidelity. “Will ye also go away?” Jesus asks the Twelve when many of his disciples abandon him because of the Bread of Life sermon. The God of person-truth asks us to trustingly remain with Him through periods of cognitive dissonance and trials, while an idea-truth worldview lets us justifiably discard ideas we find unscientific or unhelpful. Yet loyalty to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Thayne and Gantt insist, stems not from blind faith, but from a confidence born of experience, much like a close marital relationship is based on trust derived from an accumulation of interactions in which the beloved has come through again and again.
Thayne and Gantt’s purpose, they point out, is not to “add fuel to the tiresome conflict between science and religion,” but to arrive at epistemic humility, meaning “that we treat naturalism as a pragmatically useful assumption, rather than as absolute truth.” In other words, yes, in the lab or classroom, reach for the peer-reviewed expert consensus, but don’t expect that same approach to lead you to the Divine. Similarly, keeping political ideology confined to politics helps further distinguish a set of ideas from a religious paradigm; otherwise, Grantt and Thayne point out, we risk pitting “our ideological worldview (whether is be liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, or any other belief system)” against the teachings of God’s servants. Doing so, they write, leads us “to ‘ideolotry,’ which is what happens when we elevate an abstract system of belief (or ideology) to the level of absolute truth.”
In other words, yes, in the lab or classroom, reach for the peer-reviewed expert consensus, but don’t expect that same approach to lead you to the Divine.
The authors’ themes about the limitations of arriving at religious truth via ideology, reason, or accumulated information, and their caveat of a behavioral component in accessing the Divine, remind me of another useful book, How to Think by literature professor Alan Jacobs. Among Jacobs’ helpful prescriptions for thinking well is his emphasis on the emotional and relational components of arriving at truth. If you want to develop your thinking, Jacobs suggests, develop your character as well as your feelings. Apparently John Stuart Mill, raised to become a rational genius, underwent a mental breakdown in young adulthood that found its cure in reading Wordsworth, the poet of feeling and transcendence.
An observation in Jacobs’ book from G.K. Chesterton on the limits of reason merits a lengthy quote:
“If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgement. His is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”
Chesterton, Jacobs, Thayne, and Gantt seem to agree that there are other ways of knowing—experiential ways beyond reason alone. William James and his Varieties of Religious Experience would concur, as do other learned types, even of the scientific ilk. Clinical psychologist and Columbia professor Lisa Miller, in her book The Spiritual Child, attributes her mother’s vocal prayers and her father’s quiet sharing of spiritual moments to developing her own spiritual IQ. She finds scientifically plausible the notion that human beings are wired for transcendence and possess inborn spirituality that must be used—or lost—and recommends spiritual and transcendent practices to develop a relationship with the divine.
Because sin, according to Thayne and Gantt, represents a sickness in our relationship with a personal God, “almost anything could be a sin and alienate us from God and small and neutral things can bring us to him.” Interestingly, the concept of person-truth, they argue, also entails the concept of person-falsehood—an embodiment of evil who represents not just an innocuous set of false ideas or beliefs, but a being actively seeking to lead us from a benevolent one. While the idea-view of truth appropriately recommends rational counterarguments to combat false concepts, the person-view of truth assumes that, when dealing with the devil, “rational arguments may be insufficient. Divine rescue is often needed.”
Speaking of the devil, I’ll conclude with one of the most compelling chapters in Who Is Truth: “Person-truth does not give us control.” In it, Gantt and Thayne offer sage counsel to neurotics like me who fall prey to Screwtape’s advice to his junior devil: Keep the human patient obsessed with uncertainty and “contradictory pictures of the future” that arouse suspense and anxiety. Dwelling on the future and the unknown, the senior devil assures, barricades a human’s mind against God, who “wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.”
Idea-truth indeed gives us a sense of control. Aided by empiricism, the “technological ideal” of modern science allows us to predict what will happen in the future and, when scientifically possible, even exert control to change conditions. Furthermore, the moral quality of our lives and “our dishonesty and pride, or our lack of compassion towards those who suffer,” write Thayne and Gantt, “are all unrelated to our ability to accurately report observations or make logical inferences.” However, person-truth not only involves moral conduct, but requires us to relinquish control. No wonder, the authors write, that we succumb to the temptation to “apply the technological ideal of idea-truth to the gospel [in which] gospel living becomes a formula that we follow to guarantee a prosperous life, a happy marriage, faithful children, or any number of other blessings.”
Yet “turning to Christ involves surrendering control over our lives,” they point out, and illustrate this aspect of person-truth by weaving through several perceptive C.S. Lewis stories. In Perelandra, one of the protagonists must spend her nights on islands that float with the currents and is tempted by a demonic being to move to the security of fixed land, which she resists. Only after being guided by divine beings to fixed land does she realize that to have left the floating islands earlier would have meant “to reject the wave—to draw my hands out of God’s and say to Him, not thus, but thus.”
Gantt and Thayne explain that neither is God “safe”: “He is not an abstract idol that we can mold in our own image, or render in our minds along wholly rational, expected, and familiar grooves.”
Just as the Beavers tell the Pevensie children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that Aslan, the Christ-lion, is not “safe,” Gantt and Thayne explain that neither is God “safe”: “He is not an abstract idol that we can mold in our own image, or render in our minds along wholly rational, expected, and familiar grooves.” Again, they pull in C.S. Lewis for the power punch: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence?”
This great iconoclast, the Who of my faith, shows up enough, even after I’ve doubted, to let me know I can handle floating islands, gospel questions, even the great unknown, as long as I feel the marks of His presence. Walking with Christ is a powerful thing, Christian writer Timothy Keller points out, illustrating this concept with the concluding chapter of A Tale of Two Cities. When protagonist Sydney Carton willingly takes the place of condemned prisoner Charles Darnay, a young seamstress, also on death row, discovers Carton’s identity and marvels at his substitutionary sacrifice. Deeply moved, she asks him to hold her hand for strength on the way to the guillotine.
While the What of gospel doctrine is important, and indeed fills the bulk of our sermons and Sunday School lessons, it ultimately can’t walk with us—or save us. Looking to the Who reframes our gospel questions, as the book’s title suggests, and not only leads to a richer faith, but helps us move through even the valley of the shadow of death knowing we’re not alone.