Monday, April 13, 2015


In working our way through a self-assigned (-inflicted?) program of religious subculture-themed movies, a friend and I recently came across the unexpectedly good 2000 Mormon missionary film, God’s Army. I wouldn’t say it bears up well under all standards of judgment—it is the sort of film, indeed, which seems from the first few minutes to be flying directly toward a mountain of sentimentality, but which has enough emotional honesty in it to make you think it is bound to pull up and away before it reaches it. When it disappointingly plows straight ahead into the mountain, however, in the last thirty seconds, you realize that there are limits to the realism that can safely be incorporated into a Mormon movie and remain within the bounds of orthodoxy. Bearing that it mind, however, it comes about as close to being earnestly self-searching and self-questioning as a film on this subject could without challenging any formal tenets of the church.

One example that comes to mind of the film’s truthfulness: in one scene, the elder of two Elders setting off on their mission is giving the rookie of the pair a pop quiz; it includes the question “How many are you going to convert on your mission?” The younger one, uncomfortable, hazards: “Thirty?” Immediately comes the reprimand: “Wrong! Zero.” Because, the younger Elder is reminded, the Mormon missionary does not convert anyone. He (or more occasionally she) is simply scattering seeds, which may or may not take root. Getting the message out is the only thing the missionary does, “the rest is between them and the Lord.”

It is an insight as old as the missional craft, and indeed, has its Biblical precedent in the earliest of the four Gospels (See Mark 4). Nonetheless, it requires an unusual maturity of faith to appreciate it. It requires surrendering, most obviously, the belief that other people can be worn down in their convictions by rational argument until they concede the point to you. It compels some recognition that genuine changes in people’s lives and outlooks have to come from an internal process, which may be greatly influenced by what they hear and see from the outside, but not in any predictable or linear fashion.

More subtly, however, the Elder’s advice begs the missionary to recognize that his own faith is not the unsullied outgrowth of ratiocination. It has its own subconscious currents that are fed by the odds and ends of waking life, but which end up following a course one had not in the least consciously expected of it.


For William James, writing in the Varieties, the existence of this level of experience that takes control of our conscious life “as if” from outside, was itself enough to justify the use of the religious idiom. The Elder quoted above understands this erupting force as “the Lord”; and James too held out for the belief that it really was something external and powerful that was acting upon us in the course of this process, though he insists that calling it “subconscious” (just a redefinition of it, really, explaining nothing) is as far as we can safely go and stay within the realm of science.

To illustrate the operations of this force, James (with much apology for doing so) falls back on the use of images and metaphors, rather than abstractions. One he employs is that of a cube that is rocking back and forth in one direction or another, while always returning to the same center of gravity on one of its six sides. The conversion moment takes place, then, when the cube finally overbalances, and drops over onto an entirely different one of its aspects. This is why the last, decisive moment comes so suddenly, and from such an apparently insufficient cause. The subconscious processes had already been at work rocking the body for years, so that only a feather’s touch, administered at the right moment, was requisite to tip it.

Just how small a nudge this decisive cause can be (James: “how small an additional stimulus will overthrow the mind into a new state of equilibrium when the process of preparation and incubation has proceeded far enough”) is well illustrated by the interviews conducted in a PBS documentary on the Mormon church -- two hours of television, I maintain, that are very much worth your time. One church member describes the moment of her conversion in terms illustrative of what James has in mind.

The first important thing to note in her account is that the conversion was, as she tells it, preceded by an absolute low point in her existence –a period of supreme distress, the “depths of hell,” characterized by poverty, trouble with the law, and a deep feeling of moral failure.

These are familiar elements in conversion narratives, common in James’s time as much as in ours (more so, come to think of it), but Varieties of Religious Experience insists that they are more than just tropes, introduced to satisfy the audience that they are listening to the right genre. There is a psychological process unfolding in the conversion that in fact requires this low point in order to reach the high one (indeed, it is a process in which the lowest extremity touches the highest, as if the human spiritual scale were more circle than parabola).

What follows is my limited understanding of what James has in mind:

Much of human suffering consists in the conscious self’s desperate clinging to one conviction, one hope, one truth, that it is sure is the only means of happiness. What takes place, then, in the great “despondency,” the dark night of the soul, the valley of the shadow, is that the conscious self is forced to let go, by the sheer certainty and completeness of its failure. We abandon the hope as impossible, discard the desperate truth as a lie, and thereby we “drop down, give up, and don't care any longer.” (James's words). And in not caring, we find that the thing we were clinging to that seemed necessary to our salvation in fact was a stumbling block to it.

Here the subconscious self pulls in to our mind again with a sort of patronizing kindness. Gently, it tells the waking self, “That’s what I’ve been trying to say to you all along! Now at least you’re ready to hear it…” From the deepest despair comes the newfound hope. Thus George Bernanos, in his novel Mouchette, can speak of “the terrible, inexorable sense of futility,” not only as “the serpent of legend,” but also as “the instrument of […] salvation.”

Thus, for the woman in the documentary, the specifics of what the Mormon missionaries actually bring to her door is immaterial – it was the moment of their arrival in her life, the fact that she had reached an utter nadir, that was critical. As she describes it, all it took to make her a Mormon was to open the Book they handed her, and read the very first phrase of Joseph Smith’s stilted, pseudo-KJV prose: “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents […]”

What mattered was not even the emphasis of the original sentence, but those two minor words “goodly parents.” “I realized,” recounts the woman, “that I had not been a good parent.” The horrible thought that had constantly been fled and suppressed by the conscious mind, is now acknowledged openly. The letting go—the complete hopelessness. And in exactly that moment, the answer to that hopelessness. A profound experience.


Here’s the thing though:

James was far too good at noticing connections and finding patterns not to detect the fact that the way we lose our faiths, if we do so, often looks a great deal like the way we gain them. The subconscious self is evidently capable of more than one maneuver – it can develop more than one current out of life’s random detritus—and what is more, faith can prove as much a stumbling block as atheism to our salvation (if indeed, atheism is not itself a faith). James cites a passage from Tolstoy’s Confession, speaking of someone other than himself:
“S., a frank and intelligent man, told me as follows how he ceased to believe:—
'He was twenty-six years old when one day on a hunting expedition, the time for sleep having come, he set himself to pray according to the custom he had held from childhood.
'His brother, who was hunting with him, lay upon the hay and looked at him. When S. had finished his prayer and was turning to sleep, the brother said, ‘Do you still keep up that thing?’ Nothing more was said. But since that day, now more than thirty years ago, S. has never prayed again; he never takes communion, and does not go to church. All this, not because he became acquainted with convictions of his brother which he then and there adopted; not because he made any new resolution in his soul, but merely because the words spoken by his brother were like the light push of a finger against a leaning wall already about to tumble by its own weight. These words but showed him that the place wherein he supposed religion dwelt in him had long been empty, and that the sentences he uttered, the crosses and bows which he made during his prayer, were actions with no inner sense. Having once seized their absurdity, he could no longer keep them up.”

Faith, once gained, rapidly develops into another sort of clinging -- of just the kind that was abandoned in order to gain faith. It has to be true, there has to be a God, there has to be a heaven, otherwise I couldn’t go on. We think of the maintenance of faith in these terms: it is a question of survival. And given that the loss of faith means death, we can only wonder in incomprehension: Why then would we ever give it up? Why would any fool do so? Faith means life and hope. Abandoning it could only be the most absurd and wanton act of self-destruction and self-desolation—and so needless! The PBS documentary mentioned above features interviews with more than one Mormon who feels about faith this way-- who feels that without, more specifically, the Mormon teaching that they would eventually meet their deceased loved ones again in the afterlife, they could not continue to exist.

Less touching, and less sincere, is the lugubrious talking head of Harold Bloom, which materializes shortly after this point in the documentary and intrusively tries to summarize the meaning of these testimonies. It would appear that Bloom, in addition to steadily colonizing all known works of literature by his advance guard of introductions, forwards, and “edited bys,” also moonlights as a sort of fellow-traveler of the Mormon Church. He intones, with all the strange authoritativeness of this new role, that “all religions are an attempt to deal with the fact of death,” and that Mormonism does the best job of any faith of assuring us of death’s ultimate unreality – or something to that effect.

Leave aside the fact, as a friend pointed out, that in reality, no religions other than Christianity and Mormonism seem to meet Bloom’s criteria (Ecclesiastes doesn’t seem to believe in an afterlife, for one. Buddhism is all about how to escape the intolerable cycle of life, not how to prolong it! Etc.). The bigger problem is that Bloom does not seem to have recognized that the faith he is describing is too a kind of clinging. It is holding on to a belief because one is sure it is necessary to happiness and survival. His account portrays the battle for faith, then, purely as one of strength, a muscular contest, in which the victor is the one who manages simply to hang on to what is self-evidently good.

So long as we see our faiths in this way, it seems so unlikely we could ever lose them – it is not so hard, after all, to keep one’s hand enclosed around the escaping fairy. But here again, the subconscious is setting work in motion that we are not aware of, and it can intrude on us at the most unseemly times with an unexpected question that perfectly defeats our strength, that immediately slackens our grip. The question asks: "that’s all good—and I can see the appeal – but is it actually true?”

Every single one of us knows that no matter how ardently we wish something to be true, this does not make it so. And every single one of us believes things every day for no better reason than our wishing. Not one of us would want to confront the knowledge of how many of our cherished ideas are held simply because we feel inwardly that “I could not live without it.”

Thus, faith leaves us in just the way it came. We reach a point at which hope deserts us, in which we say “I could not live without it, so I guess I’ll have to die then, because there’s no holding on to this thing, and I just give up!” At precisely this low point arrives the subconscious again, to comfort and talk down to us at once. It tut tuts to the effect: "We both knew all along there was nothing to all that, I’m just glad you finally came around. But see, now that’s straightened out, we can get down to the real work we have to do together.”


We learn, by the way, that the writer and director of God’s Army, the film described at the outset of this article, himself lost his faith in Mormonism a few years after making it. His laconic description of the way this came about in fact gave me the idea for this post. As the Salt Lake Tribune quotes him:
"In researching the life of Smith for his film, Dutcher said, 'one day, I just simply asked myself the question, "What if it simply isn't true?"' In a faith where adherents often begin their testimony with 'I know this church is true,' that question carries enormous weight.
'My own brain, something from the deepest part of me, said, "Of course it isn't true." After that, the whole house of cards fell,' Dutcher said. 'In a very real sense, in the time span of one minute, I went from being a true believer to being a complete nonbeliever. It was actually quite terrifying.'"
I am reminded of the way Sylvia Townsend Warner describes the means by which her protagonist sheds his faith, in her beautiful, wry, and astonishingly poignant short novel, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot. Mr. Fortune in an English (very English) missionary ministering to an island tribe at the ends of the Earth. His moment of awakening arrives just after he has narrowly escaped death by volcanic explosion. Warner, however, is too wise to chalk up his (de-)conversion to some rational grappling with the problem of evil, inspired by immediate events. Instead, we learn only the following, recounted in prose worthy of the humility of Warner’s protagonist himself:
“Mr. Fortune no longer believed in a God. It had all happened quite quietly, just like that. Once he had put out his hand as though to arrest something that was floating away out of reach, but in a moment it dropped again. And there it was before him, resting upon his knees, the hand of a man who didn’t any longer believe in a God.”

None of this is precisely my own story. From the day as a child I first heard the word defined, in fact, up to the present, I have always been an atheist. I have not been a cube dropping onto a Mormon or a Christian faith and back again, however much I may have been rocking. Nonetheless, this subject has a more than ethnographic interest for me. It is not at all hard for me to understand my life, by analogy, as similar to the ones described here-- as a series of wrestling matches with beliefs I desperately wish to clasp to my chest (and which indeed I think I have, at any given moment, pretty firmly in hand), and yet which flee from me by the most sudden and unexpected routes, regardless of my efforts.

I’m wrestling with a few of these at present, in fact, and probably always will be. I’m not particularly inclined today to entertain any long description of them. Their content can be guessed, probably, from things I’ve said before, and at any rate, the conventions of the blog post genre demand some kind of resolution of the problems introduced, and I’m not sure I'm ready yet to offer one.

But I’ve had enough experience in these wresting matches to recognize the truth of James’s insights – the unexpected salvations that the subconscious life can bring -- and to maintain a hope on this base that the answers will eventually come (simply another faith, clung to like any other? We’ll see.)

Most of all what I have learned from this pattern in my life is not to trust what I think I want. It always seems to me at first that the solution to my faith crisis is simply to grip harder to whatever belief I'm trying to maintain, and that the answer, when it comes, will satisfy precisely because it justifies that faith. When the answer manifestly does not arrive, then, the hopelessness of the situation overwhelms me—I unclasp, loosen the grip, am disarmed. I give up the earlier belief, and expect the worst to follow. But it doesn’t. It turns out that I can actually live with the new knowledge. James’s script to the letter.

This is not to say, however, that the new knowledge “wins,” and that’s all there is to it. The new faith does not just elbow its way onto some mental loveseat and supplant whatever came before it. The better term for it would be Hegel’s “synthesis,” I suppose (as a friend helpfully – if irksomely—pointed out when I, in the flush of my belief that I had gained a new and original insight here, was trying to explain some of this to him). It feels as if, at my moment of self-surrender, I finally let the new and previously dreaded truth in through the door, but only on the condition that it behave itself. “Alright, alright," I say "—you can join us, but you have to take your seat at the small table with all the other truths.” It turns out the new truth is indeed true, but it is not so all-fired important as it had seemed when it was still just looming outside the gate as an unwelcome presence.

But at the moment I'm still in the less comfortable stage of trying to wedge certain truths inside, and finding I have little room to spare.

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