This will be a confession of belief and allegiance with very little apologetic argument. I believe most humans–no matter their socialization, education or wisdom–choose to believe a religion or ideology is true based on the desire that it be true in the face of under-whelming evidence to the contrary. Even if belief is ‘given’ to some of us as a birthright, the live option to question beliefs or to reinterpret them in momentous ways is always available. There are desirable benefits from any belief position, and we weigh those against the alternatives we have available. At age eight, I joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and over time came to believe the Articles of Faith of my religion. I had several deeply moving experiences with prayer in my teenage years—some in the form of a ‘still small voice’ within my mind and heart confirming my allegiance to the Church, or forgiveness of my sins, or the rightness of a passage of scripture or act of service, and some in the form of an intense feeling of joy for life and clarity of identity, enthusiasm for purpose, and love for those around me. When I was nineteen years old my father placed his hands on my head and in the name of Christ charged me to share my spiritual experiences in a world where intellectual apostasy from religious teachings would be widespread. I came to understand spiritual experiences to include any experiences that lead us to desire and act to expand beyond the given. I believe the very desire to create and pursue some worthy purpose with our fellow beings is the fundamental spiritual experience. For eternal souls, the most interesting purpose derives from the desire to become more together, to pro-create original beauty
Humans are distinctively aware of their freedom to live for a purpose they can negotiate together. This leads to the question of who will combine with others for some collective purpose. It also leads to the question of disagreement over collective purpose. We Latter-day Saints believe all mankind agreed to join in a family relationship with Heavenly Parents and each other to pro-create a new world—becoming something more, with others, than what we were. When we have desires to build something wonderful together we are having a ‘godlike’ experience. So, whoever you are—atheist, agnostic, religious—you are behaving ‘like the eternal gods’ when you act on your desire to freely and creatively join in common purposes with your fellow men and women. This awareness is especially clear when you experience it as a full-bodied desire—including all the faculties we describe as heart, mind, and might. This is what the best friendships and marriages and teams and communities can produce. Joseph Smith described the eternal worlds as places of ‘sociality’ between the eternal persons that each of us is. One of the most inspiring aspects of Latter-day Saint ritual and worship is the elevation of the partnership of man and woman in marriage as the divine way of eternal life. Hierogamy is the supreme form of experience for learning and enjoying love among eternal intelligences (known here as the race of gods called mankind).
I am a witness to many spiritual experiences—some of which include communications with unseen influences that I presume to be invisible immortal humanlike beings who want to help or hinder us from achieving our collective goal to creatively grow together in ways that expand our love and joy. I pray frequently by speaking out loud or in my mind to a person I trust to be my Heavenly Father, presuming that he has adequate capacity and concern to hear and respond by sending ideas and feelings to me that I can use to engage the challenges and enjoyments of life beyond my unaided ability. I believe witnesses who have returned from death to tell us about another social world to come, where we live, work, and play as persons in another sphere. I believe that we humans never cease to exist as persons in some continuous historical form (unseen before and after death to most human instruments), and that what matters most to us is experiencing the freely given love and collaboration of other everlasting persons.
I believe that God is at least a person of flesh and bones living in space-time and that belief in a divine ‘Man of Holiness’ who communicates from afar is no more (nor less) astounding or incredible than the existence of the amazing human race. Indeed, I offer as plausible evidence for the claim of divine communication the existence of human communication. I presume that God has his infinite limits and does the best he can in responding to diverse, conflicting, and impossible prayers. Impossible prayers are those that would have God change the desires and force the actions of another free soul. Moving mountains or universes might well be a cinch for God, but moving the human heart to freely change is ultimately beyond divine control. I have experienced an unseen divine influence (not unlike the influence of other humans) that entices my mind and heart to change without force. That persuasion of the heart is what I believe God does best.
What, if any, religious way of thought and practice is most worth believing and following? Along with William James, I tend to ask what difference does some belief or experience make? Given that we cannot do all things, what cause do we desire to push forward? Whose influence do we most desire to follow in life? Who do we most desire to emulate? The answer to this points to our ‘subject of worship.’ Who is our god? We are all presented enough variety within our own traditional society to allow us to feel the desire to emulate or worship one person or god more than another. Since we cannot become another being, we ask ourselves whose desire do we most wish to influence us? Whose purpose do we wish to blend with ours? With whom do we desire to share our destiny?
I am a social-psycho-teleologist looking for the why behind the truth we live by. Strong believers (some of them secular humanists) who desire to improve the world by open persuasion without coercion are my favorite godlike subjects, no matter their brand of salvation. William James said in his essay The Sentiment of Rationality that rationality is a sentiment of feeling safe based on our expectation that our actions will influence the future as we desire. Even though our reasons for acting “are ludicrously incommensurate with the volume of our feeling, yet on the latter we unhesitatingly act . . . [with] a certain degree of subjective energy . . . so that, after all, the future is conditioned by my present faith in it,—how trebly asinine would it be for me to deny myself the use of the subjective . . . method of belief based on desire!” I always presume our actions are over-determined by multiple (often conflicting) desires or motives or beliefs. So the unavoidable fact of continuous human action as living beings breaks the psycho-spiritual logjam, and we observe ourselves acting each instant for something in the face of our conflicting desires, motives, and beliefs. To be educated and wise is to be aware of the fact that no matter what might be the eventual case, so far, no God, no system, no way of being has conquered the world once and for all. Brilliant human hearts and minds are fixed on different gods, systems, and ways of being. Does anyone see how this perennial contestation over truth and purpose can end in full agreement—even if God acted more openly to set matters straight once and for all?
I believe that the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are singular linear recipients of the same keys of influential power employed by the ancient apostles of Jesus, but, along with most Mormons, I hold that every human being (Mormon or not) will attain as much divine assistance to attain joy in eternal worlds as he or she desires. I believe humans are divine offspring of God in some genetic fashion and that God desires each of us to become as joyful as God is.
There is no getting around Blaise Pascal’s practical analysis of the wager we make with our hearts and actions. Bet on God by living his commandments and, if you are right, you win eternal life; if you are wrong, you lose nothing when you annihilate at death. However, I find that bet on the hereafter less compelling than the attraction I feel to practice with my religious community here and now, and to indulge the inspiring hope that we are all divine-human beings on the road to more joy together—abundant life. The question and response between Peter and Jesus in John 6:57-71 symbolizes my experience with Mormonism so far: After Jesus tells his disciples that, through him, they will become everlasting beings (immortal like gods), many of them leave him in disbelief. Jesus says to the twelve, ‘Will ye also go away?’ and Peter replies, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.’ These are my words, too, based on the experience I have had among men and women and with the scriptures and the unseen spirit(s) that moves me to love from time to time, that I believe to be what prophets have called the spirit of Christ or of God.
I have explored other religious and philosophical paths, in part to discover what God is doing outside Mormonism and to give me context for my affirmation of following Jesus to achieve the joy of eternal life—or, as Joseph Smith so wonderfully described (without adverting to reincarnation cycles), eternal lives. What better way to live now than to anticipate that the experience of eternal life will expand all our souls together with the God of love so as to describe it as abundant and multiple? Who has a more compelling story than that one of social resurrection into divine peerage? Who told it better than Joseph Smith?
Nietzsche and Marx don’t even get close! They claim no views into heaven and tell us to enjoy what we can here because there is nothing better to come. The eastern way leads us to another story that is restful; and for those who prefer eternal rest, the way of the east is more likely to inspire a life of peacefulness if not enthusiasm. Where are words of eternal life? Human evolutionists are getting closer to sensing the power of the story of human ascent as a race, but lack the witnesses of divine messengers who affirm the personal continuity of each soul. There is more social power in the hope for personal life after death than in the hope for general human progress that will be annihilated when the sun goes cold. When I look at the alternatives to the Latter-day Saint grand narrative, I ask, where is your glory? (See Moses 1:9-18.) I believe in a God who, if he found someone who out-loved him more gloriously, would ask us all to shift allegiance to the more loving God.
I believe all people receive divine communications that God knows each person will interpret differently according to different desires and prior experiences. I believe God could communicate much more clearly (in human terms) to everyone, but does not, in order to bring people to face their conflicting interpretations about the purpose of existence, the nature of God, and the way we should treat each other. I believe this unclear communication allows us to wrestle over truth as a test of our desire to love others in spite of our conviction that they are dangerously wrong about important truths. The world is designed for people to disagree and then decide what to do about it. How do we respond to a group of people who have a contaminating plague—moreover, who believe they are well and we have the plague? Here is the set up: We are brought to decide for ourselves how we will interpret in action ‘love of neighbor’ and ‘love of enemy.’ Do we quarantine others and/or ourselves? Try to annihilate each other? Try to cure each other, somehow? This is an increasingly pressing issue in our pluralistic interactive age.
I believe the main purpose of human life is fulfilled by coming to love different human beings in social relations that bring us to respond with action to the question: How should I love these people? This, I believe, is also God’s constant question.
In midlife, I realized that the Heavenly Father I believed in needed a better public relations agent. The various scriptures did not persuade that he is a loving heavenly father—more an absentee Dad making big promises, but without follow-through. For a while, Joseph Smith’s personal story about the close human family relation with God seemed too good to be true. I did not crave an all- powerful God as much as a persuasively loving God. God seemed distant to most people, and, therefore, I began pondering the thought that there might be a distant deity or no One at all.
I was blessed to meet two new people via their writings: the radical empiricist William James, who was open to More than categorical boxes of mechanism or idealism could contain, and the Christian existentialist Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose characters, especially in The Brothers Karamazov, moved me to see Christ in every aspect of the human soul. I came to believe in God the loving father through believing in the story of Jesus Christ who loved his heavenly Father. If this Jesus, the Lord of Dimitry, Ivan, and Alyosha, could vouch for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then I would pray to the old heavenly Father with confidence (again). William James reminded me that no one has ever been able to get to truth by jumping ahead of his or her subjective desires—that there has yet to be any education or esoteric learning that is the clear and obvious answer to all questions about the purpose of life and the nature of ultimate reality and happiness.
Philosophy is a useful skepticism that keeps us aware of our limited ability to understand things comprehensively; therefore we are wise to constantly explore without final affirmation or denial what might be true. Each religious tradition affirms a true way or ways of going, but none is so universally compelling that all humanity has chosen to follow it. So, the visit of the Father and the Son and other heavenly beings to Joseph Smith, and his ensuing distinctive, synthesizing revelations, are on the table with the rest of the human stories about the big questions. I believe the Latter-day Saints’ restoration of ‘open revelation from God’ will turn out to be one of the most positive, influential stories for billions of people in coming centuries.
C. Randall Paul, Ph.D., is the president of the Foundation for InterReligious Diplomacy (New York and Utah). A native of New Jersey, he has a BS from Brigham Young University in social psychology and an MBA from Harvard University. He worked as a business partner at Trammell Crow Company in the southwestern USA, where he developed many commercial real estate projects for sixteen years. He then obtained a doctorate in 2000 at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, writing his dissertation on methods for engaging in religious conflict without acrimony or violence. He is on the executive board of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, and is an editor of the International Journal for Decision Ethics. Having served as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in France and Belgium, he has held numerous callings since, including service as a bishop. He and his wife, Jann, have five children and ten grandchildren.
Posted December 2009