Sunday, January 06, 2008

Belief is so complicated

An article in the New York Times discusses Mormonism and Romney. The primary focus is on how the rest of the country treats Mormonism. It's worth reading. But I want to comment on how religious beliefs seem to make life so much more complex than it need be. And I don't mean complex in the sense of richness but complex in the sense of unnecessarily and overly complicated.
Faced with the allegation that they do not believe in the same God as ordinary Protestants, or that their beliefs are not truly Christian, Mormons find themselves in an extraordinarily awkward position.
This reminds me of the recent story that the Malaysian government objected to the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims when referring to non-Islamic gods. They claim that Allah refers to the god of Islam and not to the Christian god. Christians and Muslims all claim to believe not only in "one God" but in the same "one God." Yet at least some of them want to restrict a word to be used as a reference to their "one God" and not to the other "one God," who is presumably the same as their own "one God." Do they really worry about keeping it straight?
Romney has felt the need to minimize the centrality of Mormon scripture by saying that he reads the Gideon Bible when he is alone in his hotel room on the campaign trail.

The formulation may be seen as a clever hedge: to the ordinary Protestant listener, it sounds as if Romney is saying that he reads the same Bible that they do. To the Mormon insider, however, Romney is simply saying that when he travels to the hotel and finds himself, presumably, without a handy copy of the Book of Mormon, he reads the text of the Bible that can be found in the drawer beside the bed. Some LDS insiders have been heard to wonder quietly how Romney could come to be traveling without his own copy of the Mormon scriptures — or why he isn’t staying in Marriott hotels, where the Book of Mormon can be found in the nightstand drawer alongside the bible.
This is the same issue but approached with more subtlety. Heresy, I suppose, has always been a problem for people who feel strongly about what other people believe. But that makes life so difficult for them. First of all, one has to spend the time to figure out what the other person believes and whether it is different in important ways from what one believes oneself. This may matter when beliefs determine action: I'll shoot you if you do this or don't do that. But in the case of Mormonism vs. mainline Christianity we're not talking about actions. We're talking about beliefs that (a) are basically the same — they all believe in a trinitarian "one God" — and (b) by definition are outside the realm of evidence and verifiability in any case — or they would be science, which they aren't.

It's my understanding, based on conversations with someone who is very committed to religion, that belief is not the essence of religion, that belief is a final step in adopting a religion, not a first step. The essence of religion is a search for a connection to something fundamental. The connection is an experience, not a fact claim. Beliefs as fact claims may arise from the experience, but they aren't the experience. In my opinion it's unfortunate when people attempt to express a religious experience as a fact claim. It's really just an experience. So the fact claims are (or should be) secondary. (There's a good Buddhist story about this. Someone sees a glimmering of fundamental reality. Mara, who is cynical about mankind and doesn't wish us well, is asked by his attendants whether it worries him that the man has seen a bit of reality. His answer is "No" because the man will just turn it into a belief. I quote the whole thing, which is not much longer, at the bottom of this post.)

So many people put so much weight on variants in statements of belief. It seems so strange to see people who claim to hold the same fundamental beliefs finding themselves so at odds about the details. It seems to make their lives so unnecessarily complex.

1 comment:

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