Books, Thoughts

The Ambiguity of Belief

A few weeks ago, I finished reading a great essay collection: Americana by Hampton Sides.  If you need a filler book, something not too involved but not too light to tide you over till your next read, Americana is for you.  Sides’ specialty is looking at subcultures of all kinds, from skateboarders to G. Gordon Liddy wannabes to audiophiles.  In the introduction, Sides writes:

Having pushed our physical boundaries, we’re now pushing the boundaries of how we live and organize our lives, lighting out for uncharted territory. . . Ours is a land of refined fanaticism.  Anything we might dream of doing, we can find a society of Americans who are already doing it, and doing it so intensely that they’ve organized their lives around it.

I also have a soft spot for Mr. Sides.  He was a speaker at one of the first writers’ conferences I went to.  He had some great insights into the writing process & seemed like someone who was just happy to talk about whatever subject he knew about.  Of course, I gave copies of Americana as gifts before I actually ended up reading it myself.

While most of the essays are worth a long blog post, there’s one in particular I’ve been mulling over recently.  It’s called “This Is Not the Place” and focuses on Mormons trying to validate the Book of Mormon through archaeological work in Central America.

If you aren’t familiar with the story of the Book of Mormon, here’s a summary.  A tribe of Jews leave Jerusalem & travel over land & sea to reach the Americas.  After establishing a civilization, the people break into two groups.  The Nephites, who follow Abrahamic tradition and the Lamanites, who fall into idolatry.  After lengthy trials & tribulations, there is a great war wiping out the Nephites except one man, Moroni, the son of Mormon.  Moroni buries the record of his people on the Hill Cumorah.  A record found, translated & published by Joseph Smith.

What really intrigued me about this article is that there is and has been continued attempts to find historical proof for the Book of Mormon.  The New World Archaeological Foundation is a Mormon-funded group that studies the preclassic period of Mesoamerica, the time frame that is encompassed in the Book of Mormon.  If there’s any trace of Nephite civilization, the Mormons have been at the forefront of finding it for quite some time.  While endeavors like these don’t really surprise me, I have to admit that I’d never really considered the lengths people will go to prove their faith.

Use science to prove scripture?  Why?  That if just one event is possibly true, then . . . what?  Just what are you trying to prove?  I don’t ask these questions of just Mormons, but people of many faiths as well.  Sides writes the following:

But over the past fifty years, as Mormon scholars have begun to apply the techniques of modern archaeology, the search has only grown more complex, more desperate, more discouraging.  Adherents of other faiths and sects have of course encountered similar problems when the astringent of science has been applied to their most cherished beliefs.  The fields of geology and paleontology, for example, do little to substantiate the truncated time line of the creationists–quite the contrary.  Despite the painstaking efforts of numerous Christian archaeologists, not a shred of evidence has yet appeared that suggests the presence of Noah’s ark on Mount Ararat in Turkey.  For years, India and Nepal have been engaged in a rancorous and ultimately futile archaeological rivalry to resolve the ancient debate over which of the two countries was the true native land of Siddhartha (the Buddha).

Does this mean that its ultimately wrong to want some sort of evidence of a tradition that defines your life?  Only if it obscures the human lessons & insights given to you by those beliefs.  Even though I no longer have a religion, I’m not without faith.  I do believe in God, for many reasons I won’t list here right now.

But as a believer, I know that there’s a fine line to tread between recognizing religion as a way to venerate God, as an apparatus of power & as the constructed expression of a culture’s highest hopes & darkest fears. So, to me, to use science to plumb those social & emotional depths makes no sense.  You’re talking about charting the nuances of narrative, motive & belief within a system that demands specific replicable results.

A few months back, I was emailing with a friend about belief & faith.  At one point he asked me, “Are you saying an experience of faith isn’t rational?”  I responded with two answers, saying that if “rational” meant some cold method of logic that demands set proofs that could be effortlessly duplicated in any circumstance, then no.  But, if “rational” meant a method of reasoning that changes & grows with each experience that it encounters, that develops & deepens & is strengthened by the purposeful intent of a person, that accepts that human belief & human understanding is inherently flawed & loaded with motive, then, finally, yes, an experience of faith if rational.

I know you might argue with me or find holes in my argument.  I respect that.  But, what all this blather & also Sides’ essay comes down to is whether or not a person can live with the ambiguity of belief, that grain of the unknown that is the doorway to faith.  My answer is yes & I take responsibility for that choice.

Sides ends his essay with the words of a Mormon archaeologist who has tried to strike a balance between the demands of his work & his faith.

‘Look,’ Clark finally said, ‘I’m just trying to be a professional archaeologist.  To me, the Book of Mormon has the feel of an ancient document, and any problems are problems of translation.  I believe it did happen someplace.  I just don’t know where.  But I, for one, can live with the uncertainty.’

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2 thoughts on “The Ambiguity of Belief”

  1. I’ll have to check out Sides’ book. I highly recommend the essay collection _The Art of Fact_, edited by Kevin Kerrane. Before I read it, I never considered myself much of a nonfiction fan, nor did I appreciate the depths and nuances of nonfiction writing.

    I like this post. I’m too tired to say much more than that–at least intelligently. But I like how you define “rational.” It’s such a trigger word; people love to throw it around, often in an accusing way.

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