By Her Brother-in-Law, Ken K. Gourdin
I recently had an on-line conversation about the faith implications of my sister-in-law’s recent passing. In response to one poster’s assertion that, essentially, there is only one valid paradigm for viewing the world and that we should all simply “follow the evidence wherever it leads”—which, of course, means (from his perspective) that, since there is no God and no afterlife, religion and faith are pointless—I replied:
If it’s all the same to you, I (along with others of the devout, I assume) find that not all paradigms are equally useful for all purposes (and that’s not just true of the devout): (a) scientific paradigm(s) is/are useful for considering scientific questions, a legal paradigm is useful for considering legal ones, a philosophical paradigm is useful for considering philosophical ones, a faith-based is paradigm is useful for considering questions of faith (and of course, there’s more than one paradigm in each of these realms), and so on. “Following the evidence wherever it leads” may lead a person who uses one paradigm to a vastly different place than it leads a person who uses another paradigm. Where one ends up depends on where one starts. We don’t see the world as it is, but, rather, as we are.
In response to this exchange, another poster asserted that my religious belief corresponds perfectly to what I wish were objectively true (something I’m not at all convinced he could know, since I hadn’t really said anything on the subject; either that, or the skills allegedly conferred upon him by Madame Zorba’s Foolproof Mindreading Course ™ aren’t as foolproof as Madame Zorba advertises them to be), I wrote (the links are to other things I’ve written on the blog):
How do you know “exactly what (I) wish was objectively true”? I hate to break it to you (no pun intended), but that crystal ball Madame Zorba lent you for mind-reading purposes has a crack in it. But OK; as long as we’re playing mind-reading games and talking about wishful thinking … A part of me wishes that the many fervent prayers offered on my sister-in-law’s behalf for healing so that she might have had a few more decades on this planet, so that she could live to see her grandchildren, so that she could serve a(nother) mission with my brother, and so on, had been more effectual. That’s what a part of me “wish[es] was objectively true.”
But, as the Rolling Stones put it so well, “You can’t always get what you want.” My paradigm is broad enough and flexible enough to allow for a God who isn’t like Santa Claus: He doesn’t always give me exactly what I want, exactly when I want it; and He doesn’t give me “presents” when I’m “good” and “lumps of coal” when I’m bad. For more on this idea, see here:
And, while you’re right that I do feel fortunate to have been born into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I’m not nearly as provincial in my possession of “truth” as you accuse me of being. For more on this, see here:
This same poster asserted that faith simply is a sociocultural phenomenon, a matter of “going along to get along” (my phrase), of believing simply because our parents, or family, or friends believe. In response, I wrote:
Do many of the faithful “believe” simply because of parental pressure, peer pressure, or pressure from ecclesiastical leaders? Yes. But others believe because they have made a conscious, deliberate choice to do so, because that choice bears good fruit in their lives, because it fills their souls and makes them happy. Contrary to your rather dogmatic assertion (indeed, such dogmatism is surprising, coming from one who writes against religion: usually, that particular malady is seen as solely an affliction of the faithful), not everyone has chosen faith simply because he has surrendered his own will in order to be “pulled along in desirable directions” by someone else.
Your arguments for abandoning faith may appeal, eventually, to those in the first group, but those in the second group will not choose to be persuaded by them: rather, they have adopted a different paradigm that allows for the ambiguities inherent to human existence, yet which still leaves room for something more than simply succumbing to the void when it comes to shuffling off this mortal coil.
In response to the poster’s confident declaration that belief in an afterlife stems from nothing more than wishful thinking, I wrote:
Yep, you got us all! We confess: we’re simply engaged in wishful thinking! “Shut ‘er down, Clancy! She’s pumpin’ mud!” Step 1: Reduce the convictions of the religiously devout to mere belief in wishful thinking; Step 2: Attack that straw man mercilessly; Step 3: Lather, rinse, and repeat!
Sorry for your own recent loss. Since I suppose the only thing that will convince you of an afterlife is your own surprise at not having ceased to exist when you shuffle off your mortal coil, I hope your memories of times spent with your loved one are fond ones, and that s/he passed on with as few regrets as possible.
In response to his further assertions that religious belief and wishful thinking roughly are synonymous, I wrote:
Prayer works or it doesn’t? God’s like Santa Claus, who gives me what I want, when I want it, or he doesn’t exist and prayer is pointless? No, with all due respect, you c’mon. (I’m reminded of the episode of M*A*S*H in which one of the patients is a head case who thinks he’s the Savior: The infamous Major Burns tells Hawkeye that the guy can’t be who he says he is because Burns said a little prayer to test him, and what Burns prayed for didn’t come to pass. Whereupon Hawkeye says, “C’mon, Frank, just because you didn’t get any chocolate pudding at lunch doesn’t prove anything.” Surprised, Burns asks, “How did you know I prayed for chocolate pudding?” and Hawkeye answers, “You always pray for chocolate pudding.”)
I don’t expect what I think God asks of me – and what He does or does not give me in return – to make any sense to you, much less to make any difference to you. If that’s what works for you, that’s perfectly fine with me; I’m not the one insisting that the particular paradigm I have adopted should be adopted by everyone else. I’ve made promises to God that I would, and would not, do certain things, and, while I’m far from perfect, I do take those promises seriously. Conversely, it’s no surprise to me that you don’t attach the same significance to those promises as I do because [Drum roll, please!] you haven’t made them, or if you have, you reevaluated them when you chose to adopt a different paradigm and, as a result, you longer attach the same significance to them now that you did when you did make them. Again, that’s fine. I won’t insist that you adopt my paradigm: Vive le difference! Conversely, since you’re the one claiming the superior paradigm and implicitly arguing that others (i.e., everyone) should adopt it, the burden of persuasion rests with you.
And, with all due respect, you have the temerity, the gall, and the chutzpah to accuse me of being dogmatic when I’m not the one insisting that mine is the One True Paradigm? Oooh-kay. I think you’re looking through the wrong end of the binoculars, there. Methinks thou dost project too much! As for the circumstances in which God chooses to intervene versus those in which He chooses not to, that’s not “the soul of dogmatism”; that’s part of the reason why God is God, and why I’m me. I but see “through a glass, darkly.” I have no idea why my sister-in-law couldn’t live to see her grandchildren, but I trust that God knows why. He knows things that I don’t, He has a perspective that I don’t, and He has purposes that I cannot fathom: “The Lord giveth, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
“God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform: He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm. His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour. The bud may have a bitter taste. But sweet will be the flow’r. Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan his works in vain; God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plain.” If there were no as-yet unanswered questions; if there were no difficulty; if there were no ambiguity, there wouldn’t be much need for, nor any point to, faith.
If you want to believe that “Life is but a poor player who struts and frets his final hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more,” that’s fine. More power to you. I prefer Wordsworth: “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting. The soul that rises with us, our life’s star, hath had elsewhere its setting, and cometh from afar. Not in entire forgetfuless nor in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory do we come, from God, who is our home.”
I quoted excerpts from his reply to me, and those quotations appear in quotation marks in my reply, followed by my response:
“But let’s be clear – I’m not insisting that I’m in possession of the One True Paradigm, any more than this blog does. I could easily be convinced otherwise. Could you?” Yes, if I felt this particular paradigm did not work, or was no longer working, for me, I would find a new paradigm.
“But I’d wager you would think twice about the loss of the social comforts of leaving Mormonism. No?” Is there a social aspect to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s just a social club – to some, it might be, but not to me. As I believe I mentioned in a previous reply, I have made promises to God to do, or to refrain from doing, certain things by virtue of my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ.
While I’m far from perfect, I take those promises seriously, and I do the things I do in my religion because they fill my soul and because, generally, they make me happy: Whether God decides to “send me to hell without an electric fan” because I didn’t do them well enough, as Captain B.J. Hunnicutt once so aptly put it, is another question for another, probably far-distant day. In the meantime, there are other, far easier ways for someone to fulfill needs that are purely social than striving to be a devout Latter-day Saint, so if that were all there was to it, no, I don’t believe I would be a member of the Church.
I think that, generally, that’s why most people adhere to the religion they adhere to: because it makes them better people, fills their souls and makes them happy, gives them opportunities to be of service to others, and so on. If a Muslim were to ask me why I’m a Latter-day Saint, I would do my best to answer that question. Otherwise, I would encourage him to be the best Muslim he could be – through shahada, [testifying, literally, uttering the declaration, “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet”; salat [five daily prayers at prescribed times]; zakat [roughly, almsgiving]; sawm [fasting during daylight hours during Ramadan]; hajj [the required pilgrimage to mecca]; and whatever else Allah asks of him.
“You can spare me the charge of dogmatism for my simple inability to believe.” I think you’re reinventing history here. You seem to have forgotten why this whole discussion started. Here’s a hint: it wasn’t because you simply said, “Well, my rational side simply won’t allow me to believe the things one must believe to be a person of faith, but if that’s not true of someone else, and if they can believe, more power to them.” As I understand it, that’s [another poster’s] position, more or less.
Whether you want to admit it or not, you, on the other hand, have taken the much more dogmatic position (and yes, it is dogmatic) that religious commitment essentially involves nothing deeper than mere belief in “wishful thinking,” while I’ve already told you that life, its inevitable vicissitudes, and religious conviction entail acceptance of a good deal more depth, ambiguity, and nuance than that. You can refuse to call your glib dismissal of faith dogmatism if you like, but I don’t know what else to call it. And it’s not only the religiously devout who wrestle with life’s vicissitudes, depth, ambiguity, nuance, and ultimate meaning: poets, philosophers, artists, and other people of like stripe (but of varying minds on questions of religious faith) have wrestled with those questions for centuries, or even for millennia. Are they all guilty of wishful thinking, as well?
“Your preference for Wordsworth, though, betrays what you fervently deny – the charm of wishful thinking.” There you go again! Dogmatism! ;-D (See my previous paragraph.) You don’t recognize it, but yes, you are insisting, in every way but coming out and actually uttering the sentence, “You must accept my paradigm in order to have anything valid to say about the questions under discussion here,” that yours is the only valid paradigm. Else why the continued insistence that any paradigm that allows for the existence of a higher power (along with belief and faith therein) is nothing more than “wishful thinking”? If alleged wishful thinking is such a threat, why not attack [another poster] for his wishy-washy “Well, it’s just not my cup of tea,” as well? Doesn’t his refusal to adopt your more dogmatic stance make him an enabler? ;-D
Alas, I received no further response. I suppose he concluded that further dialogue would be futile if he wasn’t going to dissuade me from my position. (We faithful/religious types are funny that way – unwilling to be dissuaded even in the face of the overwhelming “evidence,” which clearly, ineluctably points only in a single direction, that life, in the immortal words of philosopher Thomas Hobbes is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” after which we simply succumb to the void.
* * *
Here’s a letter I wrote to my brother, my niece, and my nephew:
June 11, 2016
As much as I wish I didn’t have to write this letter, and as much as I know mere words are wholly inadequate for times such like this, unfortunately, they’re all I have. If, as you’re reading this, you think, “Gosh, what an insensitive jerk! He really put his foot in his mouth here,” (it wouldn’t be the first time that’s ever happened!) I hope you’ll at least give me credit for trying. Maybe you can save this letter and read it – or read it again – with the additional perspective of intervening months and years, when the wounds aren’t quite so fresh.
The poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, once wrote that, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Personally, if I were Thomas or Nicolas or Gabriella, I would wonder if Tennyson wasn’t just plain nuts, or if not that, whether he ever lost anyone he loved (though I must admit, he probably did).
The truth is, no one will get out of this world alive: we’re all going to pass on sooner or later, and whether mortal life is long or short, however long we have with loved ones – whether it’s many years or not as many as we would like – it’s never easy to lose them in mortality. (I can’t speak for Thomas or for Rita, but if I know them as well as I think I do, and if someone had told them, “You’ll only have 26 or so years together in mortality as husband and wife, but what wonderful years they will be,” they would gladly have accepted.)
We might wonder how and why something so bad could happen to someone so good. What I’m about to say may be cold comfort now, but eventually, it won’t be: As Rabbi Harold Kushner put it, “Expecting to have a trouble-free life because you’re a good person is like expecting the bull not to charge you because you’re a vegetarian.” As the current GEICO advertising campaign might put it, “Bulls charge people; it’s what they do.” And, unfortunately, “Cancer kills people; it’s what it does.”
The only thing we can do when confronted with such circumstances, in the immortal words of that great philosopher, Colonel Sherman T. Potter from the television series M*A*S*H, is “hit what’s pitched,” and, while we might not like where we are at any given moment in our lives, especially not just after we’ve lost a loved one, as he said on another occasion, “If you ain’t where you are, you’re noplace.”
All we can do is make the most of whatever time we have left (whether it’s days, weeks, months, years, or decades—and no one knows for sure), do our best to ensure we die with as few regrets as possible, and do our best to live well enough so that people miss us when we die rather than, heaven forbid, celebrating our passing. In Rita’s case, mission accomplished; In my case, I hope people do the former rather than the latter, and I hope at least someone simply shows up at my funeral!
With the Apostle Paul, I ask, “O, death, where is thy sting? O, grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). The truth is, death does sting quite a bit for those left behind who miss loved ones who pass on, and the grave does claim at least a temporary victory. But neither death’s sting nor the grave’s victory is permanent: eventually, the sting fades, and both death and its sting are overcome in Christ.
Because of the Plan of Salvation and the Atonement of Christ, even if we, like the Apostle Paul, are “troubled on every side”; if we are “perplexed”; if we are “persecuted”; and if we are “cast down,” we need not be distressed, nor in despair, nor to feel forsaken, nor to be destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). Why not? Because Christ is our hope: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
And, while mourning is hard, and while we may wish we had nothing to mourn, in fact, we are commanded to “mourn with those that mourn” and to “comfort those who stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). Why? For the same reason that Christ wept with Mary and Martha even though he knew He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead: because He had empathy for them, just as He has empathy for us: again quoting Paul, “For we have not an high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15).
In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord commands us, “Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die, and more especially for them that have no hope of a glorious resurrection” (Doctrine and Covenants 42:45). The good news is, if anyone I’ve ever known has hope of a glorious resurrection, Rita does. And it’s worth remembering that for every sorrowful parting in mortality when a loved one dies, there’s at least one joyful reunion in the spirit world, for example, with a Salvo [her brother], and a Giuseppina [her mom], and a Rafaele [her dad].
And the only way to take the sting completely out of death is to take all of the joy out of life, and no one wants that. As Lehi reminds us, “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:27). If we did not know what sorrow is, it would not be possible for us to know what joy is, either.
Ether 12:4 says, “Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God.” If anyone exemplifies this scripture, surely, Rita does.
Some of the hard things we go through in life are because others abuse the free will God gave them by mistreating us; some of them are the natural consequences of our own choices; and some of them, such as cancer, are simply because we live in a fallen world in which, inevitably, sooner or later, people get sick and die, often sooner than they – and than we – would like. So often, we cannot choose our circumstances; the only thing we can choose is how we respond to them. Again, in Rita’s case, mission accomplished: While I’m sure she had her moments, she chose well how to respond; as hard as it might be, we can choose well how to respond, too.
I love you.
* * *
Here’s the Father’s Day note I gave my brother:
To A Brother
On Father’s Day
June 19, 2016
If what they say is true, that the best thing a man can do for his children is to love heir mother, in your case, mission accomplished. (Rita certainly makes that pretty easy.) Happy Father’s Day. No doubt you’ll feel her loss (temporary though it is) pretty keenly for some time to come, but when a gentleman (I assume he’s from your ward) told me, “Rita was a great lady,” I immediately corrected him: I felt bad, because when I thought about it afterward, my reply was so immediate that I was worried maybe he thought I was upset with him, even though I wasn’t, but I immediately said, “Is.” And that’s my message to you this Father’s Day: at times, the veil will be very thin and she will feel very close; perhaps at other times, she might feel a bit further away. Regardless, you know where she is: hold onto that.
I love you.
* * *
I love my sister-in-law. I miss her. Partly for altruistic reasons (to spare the rest of the family pain) and partly for selfish ones (I wonder why she was called home while I’m still here, since, by at least some accounts and from a certain perspective, I haven’t even really figured out what my life’s mission is supposed to be yet, let alone made any appreciable progress toward fulfilling it), gladly, I would have taken her place. (I’m not going to do anything drastic, but I do wonder if, since this life doesn’t seem to be working out all that well for me, my fortunes might be better in the next one.)
She’s one of the finest people I have ever known. (Alas, as the Great Philosopher, Billy Joel, once sang, “Only the good die young,” and she’s one of the best examples of that phenomenon I have ever known.) I don’t miss her as much as my brother, my niece, and my nephew do (which is a big part of the reason why part of me wishes she hadn’t had to leave us so soon, but, as much as I wish her choices had included “Be cured, and stay with us a few decades longer,” that wasn’t one of her options: her only options were “Be released of this horrible disease which has become such a terribly unfortunate part of your mortality, and will lead to your untimely, unfortunate earthly end” or “Continue to suffer with it, and get progressively worse, as long as you stay.” So in that sense, I’m glad she was called home. As much as I miss her, and as much as I feel bad for my brother, my niece, and my nephew, I am as sure as anyone who has never had firsthand experience with the afterlife (such as a visit to the spirit world following clinical death, or a personal encounter with someone who has passed on) that this life is not the end.