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 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 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,