Filmmaker Helen Whitney graced our campus last week with her lectures, Spiritual Landscapes: A Life in Film. Each was a look and commentary of some of her work including Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, The Mormons, and most recently Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate.
I sat and listened to her Friday evening. She’s driven by the religious experience and how it drives human behavior in contexts ranging from crises of faith to the reconciliation of, “that what was will never be again.” And she does so from a unique secular position.
That’s why her work resonates with me. The shades are off in her search, any agenda thwarted in the purity of her questions. And that’s why I was so affected by the message of that evening. I’ve since tried to get a grip on that feeling by writing here.
I think it’s fair to say, generally, that we value consistency. We like, or rather we want the quotidian order of things to go the way we’ve predicted. If you’ve ever turned your car’s key in the ignition and have nothing happen as a result, you know what I’m saying here. The failure of any appliance in the home sends us scrambling to reach whatever that functionality was before it went on the fritz.
Remember that moment before the car accident, before that diagnosis, before the phone call, before the process server. We were tending to some purpose, perhaps lost in the routine of the day to have things change unpredictably. And most of us don’t like that. We don’t like uncertainty. We want that what was to last.
When certainty fails, the earth moves beneath our feet sometimes subtle enough for a new perspective, other times traumatic enough for a new paradigm. When it’s the truth that fails, beliefs change.
The search for constancy, certainty, continuity is religion. When Whitney began her research on Mormons she attended a Latter-day Saint Sacrament meeting. This happened to be on the first Sunday of the month, a Sabbath set aside for fasting, and a meeting reserved for the expression of conviction. As members of that congregation stood and declared the construct of their belief, it wasn’t done in uncertain terms like I think it’s true, I hope it’s true, I believe it’s true.
What stunned Helen was the disclosure of these witnesses that they knew it was true, convicted of it. Certain. I’ve often sat in Fast and Testimony meetings marveling at the same idea because in contrast, faith is not concrete, it is not certain. If it were, the point would be self-defeating. Nevertheless, here is a congregation, a religion that not only professes the certainty of its principles, the certainty within them assuages the mourners, calms the afflicted, and encourages any who struggle. At least that’s the idea, the implication, the promise.
And then the crash, the interpretation of the mammogram, the voice of the Highway Patrol trooper, the divorce decree. That what was will never be again. Faith is tested.
In the test faith is promised to assuage, calm and encourage. This seems to work for so many people. Often the faith of many is sought to ease the broken-hearted through collective prayer and fasting; goodwill toward those who hurt, who lost, who struggle. When faith fails, the contradiction within its ascribed certainty seems irreconcilable. Faith becomes a contradiction when it doesn’t restore a certainty that what once was.
The film, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, illustrates the same in a story of a boy who tries to make sense out of the most senseless day of his history and ours; September 11. He lost his father in the collapse of the World Trade Center and struggles to find some certainty in making sense of a key he’s convinced his father left for him, and to discover what it unlocks. At the risk of a spoiler, he doesn’t. Sense never comes. The credits roll without it.
When the earth moves and one loses their faith, the evaluation reflects back to them that the reason for its failure is not inherent in the virtue of faith, but rather in their unworthiness or their weakness.
Friday evening, listening to Helen, watching excerpts from her work, the question illuminated in my thinking once again, why can’t we be okay with that? With uncertainty, without making sense, without having all the answers, without having some divine reason as purpose for crisis?
Having been on both sides of this coin let me relate. When I held a conviction for what I believed to be true I found great comfort in its certainty. Many of my questions were answered, even in the wake of fathering a remarkable son whose life would be a constant struggle and would be cut short, the circumstances of which could have been prevented.
There was a certainty in knowing that if I did all that was expected, obedient to saving ordinances and faithful to covenants, that I would not only see him again, I’d be sealed to him as his earthly father, enabled to live with him forever and realize the blessings of his perfected resurrected state. There seemed to be some sense in the malpractice that resulted in his daily suffering and truncated life. My faith made it easy to reconcile the contradictions of suffering and a higher-power. The way he lived his life induced beauty in it.
It was at this time when I became reacquainted with a sense I had discovered as a Mormon missionary, an invasive premonition that one would sooner deny than validate but couldn’t, because it was the truth about how faith evaporates when you consider yourself unworthy. Guilt then overrides any consideration that this sense was truly complementary to my physical ones instead of subsidized by a shitty self-concept. If you feel that you may never be good enough, the certainty of heaven becomes unreachable and gone is the comfort in its conviction.
On the dissent side of the coin I eradicated the inherent evaluation of worthiness. It took a long time. It became a non-condition of my relationship with my dead son and subsequently my living son and daughter. I stopped being compelled for righteousness’ sake, I removed ideas of heaven and hell, and engaged in living without these conditions, without predication, without sense.
While within this uncertainty there’s much less the comfort I once found in conviction, there is no longer the overarching emphasis to figure out why. Why anything. No matter what decisions I make, no matter my impetus for good, life will do what she wants and once again, what once was will never be and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I choose good for goodness’ sake.
There is peace in understanding now that I don’t need certainty. What I need, instead, and the irony here is delicious, is faith.
Faith is that beauty found in contradiction.