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Letter to a Missionary: On Questions and Faith

I received a wonderful letter last week from my little sister who is serving a mission in Europe. She has starting thinking about Heavenly Mother and had some questions about where She is and why we don’t talk more about Her. What follows is part of my response to my sis.

It was a treat for me to read about your questions and the things you’ve been thinking about lately. Trust me when I say you are not the first person to ask these questions. :) I’m going to share some thoughts and insights I’ve gained through the years since I started thinking, reading, and talking about this sort of stuff. I hope some of it is helpful to you, but please understand that these are not The Ultimate Answers. Part of a mature faith is coming to realize that the questions are often more important than the answers. What I’ll share is just some ways I’ve interacted with the questions.

I just read a book by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and he said something that I find extremely comforting.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing, live along some day into the answer.

Our culture wants us to get the Right Answer. It’s ingrained in us, from the way we do school (testing, quizzes, etc.), to our fear of making mistakes and being wrong. But faith, especially robust faith — livable faith — exists in the tension of difficult questions, not in the resolution of easy answers.

With that in mind, I’d like to share a few thoughts your letter sparked.

In your letter, you said, “Even the bigger things, like the fact that women can’t really hold real positions of leadership, both on a local and more generalized basis, can be blamed on culture. But what about the doctrine itself? What role do women play in the eternities? And why in the world don’t we have more information about that?”

I agree that there’s a tragic lack of revelation about the role of women both here and in the eternities. But I don’t believe that’s because it’s the Way Things Are. You seem to be making a distinction in your mind between doctrine and culture…but sister, what if all doctrine is cultural?

All doctrine comes filtered through the lens of human language, human experience, human structures. There is no “pure doctrine” that is untouched by human hearts or minds. That is not to say there is no transcendent truth, or what some philosophers and theologians call Ultimate Reality. Ultimate Reality — God — exists. But the only ways we have to speak of, interact with, and experience Ultimate Reality are through the lens of our humanity.

I find this example to be useful. Think of a tree. It seems straightforward enough, right? We even have a great word for it: tree. But the word “tree” is merely a combination of letters and sounds that has no innate meaning. There’s nothing magical about the sounds “ch” “r” and “ee.” In another language, it’s something else entirely. The meaning those sounds contain is the meaning that we, as English-speaking people, have agreed upon. We’ve agreed that when you put “ch” “r” and “ee” together, we’re talking about a brown and green thing that grows tall in the forest.

The sounds are merely a way of describing the thing, of pointing to the thing. They are not the thing itself.

So it is with the language and structures we use to describe God. None of our doctrine, our teachings, our hierarchies, our Articles of Faith, our hymns, our scriptures, our rituals and ordinances, is actually God. They are things that we’ve agreed point to That Which Actually Is.

Interestingly, this concept is wholly scriptural, although the current cultural lens we often employ to talk about God in modern times is resistant to this idea. Paul said, “We see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). In D&C 1:24, 2 Nephi 2 31:3, Ether 12:39, and D&C 29:33, it is emphasized over and over that God speaks to people in their own language. In describing the process of translating the plates, Orson Pratt described Joseph’s experience thus: “Joseph…received the ideas from God, but clothed those ideas with such words as came to his mind.”

The 9th Article of Faith is even more explicit when it insists that we believe that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” This means, by definition, that we don’t know everything yet.

There is no divorcing the human from the divine when it comes to revelation. It’s possible that just as Christ was, as Christian theologians say, “Fully Human and Fully Divine,” so are our interactions with God. Don’t get so focused on one that you neglect the other. What if revelation is both Fully Human AND Fully Divine? What that means is another question you could spend an entire lifetime living into and only scratch the surface.

Well. This letter has gone on for more than enough. I don’t know if this was helpful to you. If it wasn’t, feel free to disregard it. :) I’ll be happy to hear any more thoughts or questions or feelings you have when/if you feel to share with me. I love you and am so proud of the questions you’re asking and work you’re doing.

Your sis,
Katie

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13 Responses to “Letter to a Missionary: On Questions and Faith”

  1. Bruce
    February 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

    This is one of the most important and interesting of your discussions yet, Kate! The questions we have both of temporal time and spiritual eternity animate our desire and search to “know God” which is the path to life eternal. Yet the voices we hear and the answers we receive may have little to do with the questions we ask.

    And I’m not sure most answers are collective or cultural–so I’d be hesitant to “blame” culture for anything I didn’t fully understand or agree with in either the Church or the Gospel–for the very “dark glass” reasons you cite. Rather they are personal and individual, as you suggest. Perhaps the reason little is revealed about Heavenly Mother, for instance, is simply an encouragement to ASK! And in asking, whether She is revealed or not, something vital certainly will be and in that interaction, we will draw nearer to our Father–and by extension, to our Mother, as well.

  2. Katie L
    February 18, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

    Yet the voices we hear and the answers we receive may have little to do with the questions we ask.

    I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying there. Help me understand?

    And I’m not sure most answers are collective or cultural–so I’d be hesitant to “blame” culture for anything I didn’t fully understand or agree with in either the Church or the Gospel–for the very “dark glass” reasons you cite.

    I don’t know that I’m saying that culture is to “blame” for things I don’t agree with (though it does allow me to be more charitable when I am confronted with teachings I feel are damaging). Rather, my deeper point is that all revelation must, by necessity, come through human beings, and thus it isn’t dropped from Heaven like a textbook or an encyclopedia but is given in the context of human language, understanding, and culture, and can’t be divorced from it. It sounds like you’re interpreting me as emphasizing one side of the Fully Human, Fully Divine paradox, when in fact I’m saying that revelation is both at the same time.

    • Bruce
      February 21, 2013 at 8:47 am #

      Hmm…answered this once but it didn’t post. Perhaps I misspoke to say that the answers have little to do with the questions. But often, it seems, it’s the act of inquiry that opens the shutters to all the light and what we receive may or may not be directly related to the question asked in any given instance. Like listening to a sermon in Church and receiving insight on a question or a direct instruction from the Lord that has little or nothing to do with the topic of the talk. I find, at least, that while I have had direct answers to specific questions, the inspiration I receive is often a bit unexpected.

      • Katie L
        February 21, 2013 at 4:48 pm #

        Okay, that’s what I thought but I wanted to be sure. I resonate with what you’ve shared here — I’ve had that experience too.

        It’s interesting and worth noting that our language in this conversation is still very entrenched in a Greek/Western “the Answers are what matter” perspective. The Hebrews would say, “the Questions are what matter.” It’s a whole different way of interacting with the world and with the Divine that I imagine leads to some very different experiences. I can’t say I’ve had a lot of those, though, because I’m a product of Western thought. :)

  3. Katie L.
    February 19, 2013 at 10:45 pm #

    Also, this is a bit of a threadjack (my post was a response to a question about Heavenly Mother but didn’t address that aspect of the question specifically), but you said this:

    And in asking, whether She is revealed or not, something vital certainly will be and in that interaction, we will draw nearer to our Father–and by extension, to our Mother, as well.

    I think the question dear sister is asking is this:

    “Why must Mother always be an extension of Father?”

    • Bruce
      February 21, 2013 at 8:31 am #

      Ah! Good point! For that I have no answer. And in reality, that may be a semantically limited way of looking at it. It appears that, so far, at least, Mother has chosen to keep more of the details of her person shrouded in mystery. Father seems to be supporting her in that choice. Why? You’ll have to look to those either wiser or more foolish than me for an answer.

      • Katie L
        February 21, 2013 at 4:55 pm #

        But has She kept Herself shrouded in mystery, or are we just not seeing Her?

        Ancient traditions, including the Hebrew scriptures, are overflowing with references to Divine Feminine if you know where to look. But in our Greek/Western culture, language, institutions, and even thought structures, we’ve lost Her.

        And that’s kind of the larger point that my post is trying to make: what we see and what we experience of God is filtered very heavily through our culture and language. We all see through a glass, darkly. We can only get at God roughly with words, point to God with words. We must be careful not to mistake our words for the thing itself.

  4. Bruce
    February 24, 2013 at 7:29 pm #

    Bit of a contradiction in your comment about “overflowing references” and “if you know where to look.” But the point is well taken. Most of us, not so scholarly inclined,don’t know where to look for those apparently abundant references. So you speak true. We are left with the filter of our culture or traditions to see through as they are reflected in the spoken/written/interpreted/translated Word. Yet I’m encouraged by the belief that God reveals all truth to us whether filtered or not, sufficient to our needs and wants based upon our faith and proclivity to act upon what He (or,if you prefer, She) reveals to us. Perhaps many of us have received revelations from our Heavenly Mother, but attributed them to the Patriarch, instead, because we had no cultural context to recognize its Maternal origin. A provocative thought, indeed!

  5. Katie L
    February 24, 2013 at 10:59 pm #

    Perhaps many of us have received revelations from our Heavenly Mother, but attributed them to the Patriarch, instead, because we had no cultural context to recognize its Maternal origin. A provocative thought, indeed!

    LOVE THIS.

  6. Katie L
    February 25, 2013 at 1:09 am #

    And for the record, I also believe that God reveals things to us sufficient for our needs through our culture and language. That’s what I think scriptures like D&C 1:24, 2 Nephi 31:3, Ether 12:39, and D&C 29:33 are all about. It’s a beautiful manifestation of his grace that he does this for us.

    But understanding this helps us continue to hunger and thirst after knowledge, and to recognize our own limitations so that we can continually expand the way we think and seek. I have found that there is something extremely profound that happens in the spiritual life when you realize just how much you are a product of your culture. It opens things up in amazing ways that you might not have even had the capacity to think about before.

    (^^This is the unfulfilled anthropologist in me coming out. That’ll be my NEXT graduate degree.) ;)

  7. Bruce
    February 25, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

    Amen, Sista! You’re opening my eyes to the point about culture and it’s impact on our understanding and perceptions. I suppose I have a “listening” because the effects of cultural understanding are usually referred to in a derogatory or diminutive context. “S/he can’t understand my ‘enlightened’ viewpoint because of his/her cultural biases, brainwashing, or conditioning.” My knee-jerk reaction is to rebuff that shade of arrogance. Sort of like the mote and the beam–since no one escapes the influence of culture, even if it’s the culture of scholarship. But clearly, you’re right. Better than we, ourselves, the Lord knows us from the intelligence out. Therefore He speaks to us in our own “language” through the layers of culture and conditioning to reveal truth to us to whatever degree we’re prepared and capable of receiving it. I suppose.

  8. Katie L
    February 25, 2013 at 4:51 pm #

    A couple of thoughts. While the “cultural understanding” argument is often used hypocritically by people who think that they’ve “evolved” beyond their own biases and limitations (good luck with that, heh), it’s still true that in some cases we’re unable to fully empathize/understand another’s perspective because we’re so entrenched in our own way of seeing the world. It can be very, very difficult — at times almost impossible — to step fully into another person’s or culture’s worldview enough to get a sense for what’s driving them. I know that I often think, “Really? How can you SAY that?” because my perspective seems so self-evident to me and theirs so foreign. But I think that compassion demands we make the attempt, even if we end up disagreeing once we’ve stepped into their world. At least then we’ll know what we’re disagreeing with, and more importantly, where they’re coming from.

    I’ve heard it said that compassionate and responsible dialogue comes when you can articulate another’s position as well or even better than they can.

    All of this, of course, is easier said than done. I am still very bad at it myself, though I’m learning. :)

    Therefore He speaks to us in our own “language” through the layers of culture and conditioning to reveal truth to us to whatever degree we’re prepared and capable of receiving it.

    Yes. I love this way of phrasing it.

    • Kullervo
      March 4, 2013 at 7:36 am #

      I’m not 100% certain we are necessarily obligated to always struggle to see things from other people’s perspectives. “Compassion” doesn;t make demands. It’s not a person.

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