Why Faith?

[Alternate titles: Secular Faith; Faith in Dumbledore Saved the Day]

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In the climax of his seven-book saga, Harry Potter walks, chin up, into the darkness of death, scared but willing. Knowing only that to save the wizarding world he must face his enemy and let him inflict a fatal blow, Harry enters the Forbidden Forest in a “cold-blooded walk to his own destruction.” But Harry is not alone. The spirits of his mother, his father, his godfather, and an old mentor walk at his side and support him in his final moments, much like angels ministered unto Christ during the Atonement. He receives comfort from them, but not reprieve. Death still awaits him, yet Harry walks forward with faith. He does not know how everything will turn out but knows, at the very least, that the old Hogwarts Headmaster Dumbledore loved him, and that this, presumably his final decision, will open up the way for evil to finally be destroyed.

In walking that path, Harry didn’t know everything. But he knew enough to make the right choice. He knew enough to go on. He knew enough to make a mortal commitment.

And remarkably, though he didn’t know it at the time, his knowledge of his fate was incomplete. The actual big picture eluded him; all he knew and possessed was his own personal piece to the puzzle. That’s all he could know for the plan to work.

Faith was the key. Faith as defined by the willingness to believe, and the willingness to act on that belief. Harry needed to be willing to die, to look death in the eye and accept his fate. If he had known every iota of Dumbledore’s plan, the sacrifice would not have produced the requisite magic to save his friends and loved ones. Like Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, Harry only needed to be willing to face the end; if he had had perfect knowledge, the higher plan leading ultimately to evil’s downfall would have failed. So it was not perfect knowledge nor perfect education that saved the wizarding world—it was perfect faith, nothing doubting.

It is a fascinating thing that the Spirit is something we can only feel, and never accurately explain in words or in terms of the senses. This boundary actually serves as a great equalizer. No matter our brain capacity, no matter our physical or mental capabilities, all can feel the Holy Ghost, all can feel God’s love, all can know the truth. Indeed, that is the very point of Heavenly Father’s ways: all are capable of being loved and taught without any kind of training at all.

However, this channel to God also necessitates faith rather than knowledge.  There is no consistent empirical way of verifying this sensation, no scientific instrument that can measure it, document it, repeat it. The requirement of this kind of knowledge as a foundation of faith dissuades many from even considering the existence of God. They require satisfaction of the senses before being willing to believe in a higher power, and so say to the gospel we preach, “No thanks” (at the politest), and close their door.

Elder Maxwell observed that “the Lord gives more instructions than he gives explanations.” Those of us who have tried to follow those instructions without being granted accompanying explanations know how difficult that can be.

So if believing in God challenges our minds in such a frustrating way, and if the way God chooses to work with His children is so unintuitive, and if what is asked of us leaves an impression of such a distant and indifferent Father, why did God set up that system this particular way? Why make the path so impossible for some people, even good people, to walk down? Why is there a test of faith in the first place?

I’ll put it another way. Every other attribute—patience, diligence, humility, and so forth—has obvious merit when it comes to becoming a being like our Heavenly Father; they are attributes directly associated with godhood. Faith is too, in a sense—God needs faith for a very different reason—to command the elements (see Joseph Smith’s “Lectures on Faith” for more on this). That is faith in a different entity, in a different system. The faith we are meant to hold is in God—faith as defined more by belief, the trust we are willing to have in the salvation of God and in the many uncertain mysteries of this world. Alma tells us that eventually our knowledge can be perfect in the seed we once planted in faith, and then “your faith is dormant; and this because ye know” (Alma 32:34). Belief will be replaced by perfect understanding. So why is willingness to believe so essential to this life? Why institute the veil and blind us to the other two acts of this grand play? Why the divide from our Father in Heaven that makes trusting in an unseen power and being so important? Why force faith into the foremost focus of our faculties?

That’s the question I’ve been asking for a long time. Why faith? Why believe when we could make better choices by knowing?

Well, I recently found an answer—a few, actually.

The simple answer is that faith, I’ve discovered, is fundamental to our very existence. And here I don’t necessarily mean “faith” as in “faith in God.” I mean the general matter of belief and trust in a possible but uncertain future, whatever it is.

For instance, science and the laws of physics assure us our planet will continue to rotate and so the sun will indeed rise in the morning. But is there certainty in that fact? Is there concrete proof that tomorrow will be like today? The laws of physics say so, but those laws are still accepted on faith, what we think is right based on the knowledge we’ve accumulated thus far. Scientists must work on that belief to move forward with their work.

We also have faith—by which I mean trust—in our physical senses. They are our only method of interacting with the world around us, so we don’t have much choice.  But our senses can be fooled. We go to the movies and see impossible things on the screen. We see dinosaurs and explosions and special effects that convince us, for the time we’re in that dark theater, that they are real, and we feel emotions because of them. After all, in theory, if somehow all our senses were being manipulated at once like a dream, we would have no way of verifying what was real and what was not—other than what is whispered to our spirits, a stirring in our souls.

And so it takes faith to even accept what we see every day. Daily life is a constant matter of belief and trust that things are one way and not another. A preponderance of evidence can’t prove, only lead us to believe. What we know, whether in religion or science, we know to the best of our knowledge, but we lack a “perfect knowledge.” And that, dear readers, is belief. That is faith.

So, given that faith and belief are staples in life, what does that say about faith’s role in the gospel, in the progression along our Eternal Arc towards certainty and true knowledge?

Faith, which I define as the willingness to believe, is the most necessary part of that progression. It is not one attribute among many, as I previously assumed. It is the guide that coaxes us along that path that makes internalization of godly attributes possible in the first place. Faith is manifested when we trust those teachers of godhood, whether they be wise men and women or just the storms and strife of everyday life. Faith is what catalyzes growth, born when we decide to listen to what they have to say, when we decide to believe them, even if we don’t know absolutely that they will lead us in the right place.

In other words, faith comes before knowledge. You can’t know something unless you’re willing to learn it first, until you’re willing to believe that teacher, whatever it may be. And because growth is the core purpose of this life and all existence to come, faith is the first principle and ordinance of the gospel, the foundation of learning. That was the answer to my question.

The same principle applies to worldly learning, does it not? To learn something new about chemistry, you first have to believe in the chemist, to trust her. Because a student knows considerably less, or perhaps nothing at all, he must exercise a modicum of belief, even plant a seed in faith—exactly as Alma taught the poor outcasts of Antionum. And because of that faith, he eventually learns enough from her that he can start doing experiments of his own, and acquire the same kind of knowledge she possessed.

Do you see how science and religion can contain essentially the same processes? That is because they are both pathways to truth—different kinds of truth, but truth nonetheless. And that pathway, that process, is the divine way of learning and teaching. It is what drives the Plan of Salvation. We are sent here to gain bodies to experiment and learn for ourselves what mortality is like, with all of its aches and pains. That takes time and effort, and it takes faith at first, to learn from our parents and families, before we go out and discover so much of it for ourselves.

It is the same with God, in the end. In this life we first depend on God, spiritually speaking. We depend on His commandments, on His directives. But eventually, like Nephi being given the sealing power, we will be able to make choices for ourselves, and go to God with our own ideas, our own plans, and receive sanction for them from Him. And someday, when we’ve learned enough, we can be like Him. We can be gods.

Layers upon layers, all made possible by faith, by a willingness to believe.

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