Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Healthy Skepticism

The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than that a drunken man is happier than a sober one - George Bernard Shaw

I seem to be quite easily troubled by stories from people who see the sacred in the mundane. Such behaviors are certainly not limited to Latter-day Saints. For example, I once read an essay about a Christian woman who used to give God credit when a parking space would open up at the grocery store - as if parking spaces in a parking lot were a miraculous thing.

I know I benefit from people who are able to see the miraculous in the mundane. They help me to see possibilities that I may have missed. Stories of miraculous printer repair remind me that there are people whose focus is ALWAYS turned toward God, and that they are happy and feel blessed. They remind me to look for God in my life.

However, I think the world also benefits from having people firmly grounded in reality. After all, sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.

The main advantage the Earth-bound folks have is that we do not feel the need to squish every life event into a box labeled "God's Plan." For example, I don't believe God sent Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to Louisiana to implement some grand purpose for the South. I don't believe AIDS is a plague sent to punish homosexuals. And I don't think George W. Bush was elected to bring to pass the last days (though I admit I could be wrong about that one.)

It requires less theological gymnastics just to accept that Bad Things happen. Free of the need to assign Divine Purpose to the minutiae of life, the Earth-bound can take things at face value. We can invest our mental energy in working to solve our problems, and to enjoy our good fortune, instead of trying to figure out what God is trying to tell us by sparing our house from hurricane damage, when so many better people suffered so much.

Sunday in sacrament meeting, several people shared testimonies that bothered me. By "bothered," I mean that they shared stories that were powerful and sacred to them, and my inner teenager rolled her eyes and thought, "Yeah, right, whatever." I don't think of myself as more enlightened than the people who shared their stories of a miraculous (for them) experience. Quite the contrary: I felt bad for sitting there, listening to their sacred accounts of their miraculous experiences, and not really seeing anything miraculous at all in the event.

I'm glad for them that they felt God's presence in the happenings they described. Maybe I'm missing something really important by not seeing things the same way. But in the words of Simone Weil, "the poison of skepticism becomes, like alcoholism, tuberculosis, and some other diseases, much more virulent in a hitherto virgin soil."

Maybe in my case, a skeptical point of view is inoculating me against a purely cynical one.


annegb said...

I think God opens up parking spaces for me when I need them. I have to really really need them, though. I find it quite miraculous. Maybe I even wrote that essay, I can't remember, but I remember feeling that way.

I call them sparrow prayers. God always answers my sparrow prayers, like helping me find my keys and stuff like that.

The bigger ones, like could He strike my former brother-in-law with lightning, He doesn't answer all that much.

Try it, Ann. Ask a sparrow prayer. I have the coolest little pamphlet written by a priest named Brother Lawrence (it cost me $30 and I promptly ruined it by underlining stuff in red, which I could kick myself for) about God's interest in the little things. Well, it's not all about that, but that's what I took.

Ann said...

Praying is really, really hard for me. I usually don't pray "for" anything. When I do pray, it's along the lines of "thank you" or "here's what's going on."

You are probably more miraculously inclined than I am. When I find my keys, I'm not inclined to think that God has anything to do with it.

Anonymous said...

A parking space has no religious meaning! Why would God care if you had use his creation, your body, to walk a little farther to get into Mega-lo-mart for your latest GB Hinckley tome? The answer is simply this... God doesn't care about your parking space. If he exists he may care that you are healthy and using your body to its fullest abilities. In fact he might say to those praying for parking spaces... "Walk a little more often and take better care of my gift to you."

Matt Thurston said...

Nice post. Ann, you and I are cut from the same cloth. "Sparrow prayers" or "sparrow stories" during F&T make my skin crawl. I've been known to dig my fingers/nails into my wife's arm any time one comes up, just to keep from screaming out loud.

What drives me crazy is that Mormons who believe in Sparrow Prayers are the same people who turn up their noses at people who read horoscopes, are into astrology, call psychic hotlines, etc. Is there a difference? They all originate from the same place/desire, and placate or satiate the same need. Belief is belief. You say tomAto, I say tomato.

Ann said...

Well, anonymous. That was harsh.

Matt, I try (recently) not to let the answered sparrow prayers bother me. The goal is not to find your keys. The goal is to invite God into every corner of your life. Praying for lost keys is just the method.

I think the perception of God is a very personal one, and whatever our perception may be, it changes the nature of God not one bit.

I have been really, really bitter in the past about the answered sparrow prayers, particularly after Katrina. (By the way, annegb, I like the term.) I'm trying to be more open-hearted about them these days. Sometimes I'm more successful than others.

Matt Thurston said...

Ann, are you saying you think sparrow prayers ARE answered by God?

I have a tough time going there.

The problem with sparrow prayers (and all prayers for that matter), is that there is no wrong answer. If my broken-down car at the side of the road is fixed after prayer, then God answered my prayer and my testimony is strengthened. If the car is not fixed, then it is either: 1.) God's will; 2.) A test of faith; or 3.) Unimportant to God and I probably shouldn't have asked in the first place. Either way, there is no wrong answer.

At first blush this may not seem like such a bad thing. In the realm of lost keys and parking spaces, it is probably ultimately harmless. But then we use this self-same process -- a process that is fine-tuned and strengthened via sparrow prayers, I might add -- to judge and marginalize other people.

A little healthy skepticism is essential, I think, to being a good Latter-day Saint.

Ann said...

Matt, I don't even know if there IS a God. I just try to connect with Whatever Is Out There, and enjoy whatever connections I get.

I think that people who pray Sparrow Prayers are just trying to do the exact same thing, except they DO believe in God, and they try to connect in very specific ways.

I think that however we choose to connect with Whatever Is Out There, we recognize a connection as a result of our effort. Maybe it's God. Maybe it's self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe faith is a self-sustaining activity. Maybe skepticism is, too.

But I think BOTH kinds of people can be good LDS. Especially when tempered with a healthy dose of humility, of the "I don't have all the answers" variety.

Not that I'm a good LDS, but I do sit in a pew on Sundays.

annegb said...

No, I'm not miraculously inclined. I just find that God answers my small prayers. My big prayers, well, we are talking about that. He needs to work on that.

It's really hard for me to pray, too. I sort of stopped praying when my son committed suicide. I pretty much screamed at God. I got out of the habit. Now I talk to God, but I don't often kneel for formal prayers. I should, but I don't. I do the best I can.

I didn't find anonymous harsh. I didn't believe in sparrow prayers until I tried them. They work.
Of course a parking space isn't about religion. Neither is prayer. Prayer is part of religion, but you can pray without religion.

And let me tell you, when I'm feeling overwhelmed and suicidal and can't handle another thing and my legs kill me and I have five minutes to run in the store and that parking space opens up, I consider it a God thing. And I say, "Thanks, I'll be right back so some other crazy person can have this space."

Hey, Matt! I believe in sparrow prayers and I visit my psychic regularly. Plus I totally believe in astrology.

Like how I like Cancers, but try to avoid Leos, I like Leos, but oy vey, they are so much there. My sister's a Leo. She's great at a party, but so high maintenance.

How I feel is if I exist, there's a God. If there's a God, the church is true. Everything else is sort of gravy. Or spinach, depending on the day.

But I'm not sure we're even here. Long story there.

Stephen said...

"Everything else is sort of gravy. Or spinach, depending on the day.

But I'm not sure we're even here. Long story there.

Nicely said.