My Letter to a Doubter (Myself)

This post is written to myself in the past, around ten years ago, in the earlier part of my decade long crisis of faith. At the time, I had poured myself into more fully devoted church service hoping that God would resolve my doubts somewhere along the way, but they still always lingered in my mind. I wish I could give my past self some advice and kind words of encouragement that no one I knew then was able to give me. I also hope that perhaps someone in a similar situation might read it and gain some comfort and guidance that will be of value to them. If you are content with your faith, this post is not written to you. I wish you the best, and I hope your faith brings you everything you hope for.

 

Dear Brian in the past,

I hope that by talking to you from the future, I can spare you years of anguish. I know what you have been thinking about in relation to God, religion, and the Church, and I know you have felt unable to talk to anyone about it. I know you have been quietly suffering. That is a painful, painful thing. I don’t want to scare you, but in my version of your future, it gets a lot worse before it gets any better. But it doesn’t have to.

I want you to slow down for a moment, and take a deep breath. Pay attention to what you are feeling. Your insides have been in turmoil for years. You’ve lost many days worth of sleep. Your neck hurts, your back hurts, your head hurts. You feel uncomfortable all the time, and even when everyone thinks you are fine, you still have a nagging feeling that something is just not right.

I know you’ve been praying harder than you ever have, reading and deeply pondering scripture, and attending the temple often. You’ve gone to church leaders for help, advice, and blessings. You want those things to fix your doubts. The stakes seem so high.

You want to feel safe. You want to know that you are right with God, as is your family. You want to know that you can have the promise of being together with them for eternity. You want forgiveness from your failures and mistakes. You want salvation.

You want so badly to be right- right with God, and right with your own conscience, but you are so unsure of what is true, and you’re buried in fear. You have serious doubts about the religion you were raised in, but the consequences of really questioning it terrify you. You fear causing pain to your mom and dad. You fear your loved ones’ reactions. You fear standing apart from your people. You also fear being deceived. You fear Satan. You fear Hell. You fear God.

Take another deep breath. You are going to be OK. You are a good person- there is nothing wrong with you, and you are not being punished. What you are feeling is normal. Brian, you have been committed to your faith since childhood. You have done your best to do what is right. Now, you don’t know what to believe, and it terrifies you. I want to put your uncertainty into a different context.

Right now, there are people in every faith who have doubts- and many of them feel just like you. They, too, are scared and wonder what to do. How can they know whether they are on the right path? For them and for you, this uncertainty can and should be the beginning of a very important journey- a journey of seeking truth. In our lives, each of us must learn for ourselves what we really believe, independent of our families, culture, or other outside influences. Now it is your time to learn. It is time for you to take responsibility for your own beliefs.

Brian, I’m not going to tell you what to believe, but I am going to ask you a question. What would you do if you were brave? What would you do if you had all the integrity you wished you had? Think about this hard. Ask yourself this: If there were no social consequences- no loved ones to disappoint, no public stands to take, no congregations to leave, what would you do? If you were not scared, what questions would you ask, and what ideas would you explore? What would you do if you felt free? What is in your heart of hearts?

I want you to think about your conscience. Is there any part of your life that feels wrong because you are doing what someone else believes you should do, instead of listening to what your own inner voice is saying is right? Can you hear that inner voice, or has it been drowned out by outside pressures?

Right now, you don’t know what the truth is about God or religion. Your mind goes back and forth- you have some reasons to believe, and some reasons to doubt. You have had many wonderful experiences within your faith, and some that have been seriously destructive. This uncertainty is putting you into a terrible turmoil.

Think about those feelings, but now, instead of feeling trapped, think of what you can do about your situation. Be honest with yourself. Allow yourself to acknowledge your thoughts, questions, and feelings. Then, instead of endless worrying, think: How can I move forward? What can I do to find the truth? What resources exist to help me find answers to my questions? Have other people asked the same questions already? What answers are available? Have I considered all points of view?

If you, in your heart of hearts, feel the need to question and evaluate your faith, that is OK. You need to obey your conscience. If you don’t obey your conscience (here’s where the years of anguish come in), you will live to deeply regret it. I promise you that. To you, and to those who have serious questions about any religion, here is my advice:

Ask the Hard Questions

Ask the hard questions, and look for honest answers. Truth will stand up to inquiry. It is OK to want answers, and to seek truth. God will not punish you. If a Muslim man has questions about his faith, he should seek answers. If a Jehovah’s Witness has come to doubt whether his faith is actually the one true religion, he should try to find out whether it is or not. The same is true for Catholics, Hindus, Mormons, and anyone else. It is by asking hard questions that we come closer to truth.

I remember my first real doubt.  I bet you do, too.  I felt like my thoughts were evil and dangerous, and I did my best to simply put them out of my mind.  I didn’t have an answer, and I was afraid of looking for one.  It can be scary to confront those hard questions.  I was terrified.  I felt that my salvation was on the line, as well as the salvation of my loved ones.  I needed to know if my religion was true or not, and I feared that if I got the answer wrong, I would be damned.

I felt a lot like this man, who eventually left the Worldwide Church of God.  The WCG claimed to be the only true Christian church.  Through a friend, he stumbled upon information that caused him to question some of his deeply held beliefs:

“I was afraid to probe deeper–truly afraid of losing my salvation if I found out too much. My mind would shut down from fear. …it was best to kill any bad thoughts or doubts before they took root. …I struggled with fear–fear that I had allowed Satan to turn my heart and mind against God’s true church. I was warned this would happen and I suffered from feeling that I had allowed myself to gain forbidden knowledge. …I was sure I had fallen into the trap that I had been warned about for years. It tortured me for some time, going back and forth between loyalty and doubt.”
-from article “Why is it Difficult for Exiters to Question Herbert Armstrong?”, posted on Exit and Support Network

Does this sound familiar? Have you felt this way? I do not believe that God will punish a person for honestly, sincerely seeking truth. You are RIGHT to seek truth! You are right to try to find answers to your deepest questions. No person, no church, no teacher, or other authority can determine the truth for you. Deep inside, you need to find the truth for yourself. You need to be at peace with yourself and know you have honestly done your best to do what you believe to be right. If you never try to find that truth, if you simply accept what others around you believe, you may never find that peace.

Whatever your questions are- whatever made you doubt- you can seek out the truth. You can carefully, even prayerfully look at evidences from many sources. You can evaluate them. You can see how people with varying perspectives interpret those evidences. Do their ideas fit the evidence, and do they make sense? You can hear what defenders, critics, and scholars have to say. You can look at all sides of any issue! You can see if what you learn lines up with what you have been taught. You can examine all of this information and see how it sits in your mind and heart. Anytime something is so important, you must do this.

Don’t Bury Your Doubts

Don’t try to bury your questions and doubts. My years of anguish came to me because I was burying my thoughts, my fears, my mind, and my conscience, trying to do what others expected of me. That is not a good way to live. I buried my doubts for years, but still they resurfaced. I eventually needed answers. The longer I waited, the higher the stakes became, and the harder it became to change. Please, don’t wait.

Brian, I don’t care what you end up believing. I just want you to be free to seek truth as you truly, honestly see fit, and to live according to what you find. So much of my suffering came from sitting in fear, unable to move forward. That’s what I want to help you avoid. Who knows- if you start now on your search for truth, you may come to different conclusions than I have. You may learn things that I don’t even know.

It may even be that your search for truth will lead you back to the same faith you are questioning. Others before you have asked similar questions, and some have found answers that have satisfied their doubts. Talk to them. Perhaps you, too, will find satisfying answers to your questions. I have seen that happen, and that’s OK! Or, perhaps your search will lead you in a new direction. That can be much scarier, but that’s OK, too! The most important thing is that you will be honest with yourself. If you are honest with yourself, you will not be filled with agony and regret many years from now because you allowed others to determine what you believe.

Don’t Do It Alone

I have one more very important thing to tell you. One of my biggest regrets is going through my crisis alone. I felt like I couldn’t really talk to anyone, and the sense of isolation I felt ate me alive. I didn’t even feel like I could talk with my immediate family about my doubts for years- if only I had known how loving and kind they would be, even though they did not share my doubts! There are people who care about you. They may be inside or outside your faith. Please find someone to talk to. Don’t be afraid to discuss your feelings with others. Talk to your family. Talk to people who share your beliefs. Talk to people who have different beliefs and different experiences. Find someone with whom you can share your questions, fears, and doubts openly. I felt so alone. I felt like I was the only one who had gone through this. Please, don’t do this to yourself! It is far too heavy of a burden!

In the end, though, only you can be responsible for your beliefs. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks that you should believe, even though many of those people love you. That has no bearing on what is actually true. Each person must seek out truth for themselves, and it is your job to decide how to do that. You need to find out what you really believe, and live according to it. By doing that, you can find peace.

Brian, the truth will stand up to inquiry. You don’t have to be afraid of asking questions. I don’t believe God will punish a person who is honestly seeking truth and trying to do what is right. Do what you need to in order to find peace and answers. Don’t be afraid, and don’t remain paralyzed. Move forward honestly, and you will be all right.

I wish you peace,
Yourself

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Review- The First Muslim, by Lesley Hazleton

firstmuslimhazleton

After I ran across Lesley Hazleton’s fascinating TEDx talk, “Seeing Muhammad – and Each Other – Whole”, I knew I needed to read her book, The First Muslim, a biography of Muhammad.  Hazleton, an agnostic Jew, writes from an agnostic yet thoroughly respectful and open-minded point of view.  From this unique perspective, she allows readers to experience Muhammad’s life story without assuming whether or not they are believers.  As she tells of miracles, visions, revelations, tough decisions, and tragedies, she explains both conservative Muslim points of view, as well as alternate interpretations.  She is committed to not passing judgement, and she always allows her readers to come to their own conclusions.

As a religious questioner, I felt I would benefit from learning about the history of another faith, and it was refreshing to dive into such a fascinating story without the pressure of having to determine its veracity.  Having never studied the life of Muhammad, I had no idea how exciting and dramatic his story would be!  Twice orphaned and raised by Bedouins in the desert, he rises from extreme disadvantage to a position of respect, normalcy, and material success.  But a normal life is not in Muhammad’s destiny.  Hazleton paints a picture of a man with whose life is completely and unexpectedly altered by the “blinding weight of of revelation”, and who then proceeds to change all of history.

Hazelton’s writing is engaging, accessible, and highly enjoyable to read.  She gives us a vibrant sense of the time and place that Muhammad inhabited, and she renders the prophet and his contemporaries as real human beings whom we can visualize and sympathize with.  I was filled with a sense of awe at the sacrifices and successes of believers, as well as compassion and empathy for the outsiders in the story.

What I did not expect was the number of striking parallels between Muhammad’s life and the history of my own religious heritage.  Many of the themes and events in early Muslim history resembled themes in early Mormon history.  I was impressed that early Muslims shared many sincere desires, questions, and motivations with early Latter-Day Saints.  Surprisingly, I felt I could relate somewhat to both groups.  As Hazleton sets the stage for the beginning of Muhammad’s prophetic mission, those with a Mormon background will recognize familiar themes of apostasy and restoration.

The time before Muhammad’s revelations are referred to as jahiliyya, or the time of pre-Islamic ignorance.  In those days, according to Islam, men had turned from the truths God had previously revealed through Abraham, Moses, and other prophets.  They had begun to practice all forms of hypocrisy, idolatry, and false religion.  In the holy city, Mecca, those in power used their religious positions to gain wealth and influence.  Their worship had become false, and they had begun to follow the “traditions of the fathers”, an idea that is repeated throughout the book (Hazleton, p. 109, 120, 125, 128, 145).  Even the holiest place, the Kaaba, God’s home on earth, had been defiled with idolatry.  Similarly, Mormonism claims that after the death of Christ, a general apostasy from truth occurred.  In both faiths, the truth could only be restored by direct revelation from God.

Muhammad’s first revelation comes to him as he meditates quietly in the desert. At a time of such hypocrisy and confusion, perhaps he intended his meditation to bring him closer to God.  But, what he got was entirely unexpected.  No quiet voice speaks to his soul- instead, in what must have been a terrifying blaze of glory, the angel Gabriel appears to him “with feet astride the horizon” to inform him that he, Muhammad, is the messenger of God.  The vision is so overwhelming that for a short time he doubts his own sanity.

To me, this first vision is remarkably similar to Joseph Smith’s first vision, with some notable differences.  Both men experienced an incredible vision with a similar purpose.  Hazleton makes a convincing argument that, similar to Smith, Muhammad truly believed that his revelation was real, and that it was from God.  She shows that, regardless of whether the angel Gabriel actually appeared to him, Muhammad sincerely believed it to be true.  His actions throughout his life demonstrate this.

Muhammad eventually learns that he has been called by God to restore his people to true worship and righteousness, but the importance of his first vision does not become clear immediately.  Although he discusses his revelation with family and loved ones, he does not publicly teach until the revelations begin to come again three years later.  Joseph Smith’s experience was similar.  After his first vision, years passed before he assumed his role as prophet.

When Muhammad finally begins to preach his revelations to the people of Mecca, he is not well received.  He denies many of their cherished religious tenets, and many Meccans take deep offense to this. They call Muhammad a madman, a deceiver, a demagogue, and worse.  At one point, a disbeliever pelts him with bloody sheep offal. Numerous attempts are made on his life, though he is spared each time through divine intervention.

Muhammad’s message does, however, resonate deeply with some Meccans.  The small group of believers sacrifices greatly for their faith and they face terrible persecution.  All of Mecca joins in a boycott of the believers, bringing them hunger and poverty.  Eventually, physical violence ensues between believers and unbelievers.

This, too is a familiar theme.  Both Muhammad and Smith faced persecution for claiming to have had a vision.  And, just like early members of the Mormon faith, the new religious converts are misunderstood and even hated.  The believers are finally driven from Mecca, their home, and out into the wilderness.  Against all odds, they join with the people of the small desert community of Medina.  There, they eventually form a prosperous society that grows in power and influence despite the most fierce opposition.  Persecution and exile increased the believers’ sense of identity, unity, and belief in their cause.  I am reminded of Smith’s early persecution experiences, and of the early Mormon pioneers striking out into the wilderness to form Zion in the American west.  A history of persecution and exile also forms a strong part of Mormon identity.

In style and substance, Muhammad’s revelations remind me of Smith’s revelatory experiences.  Many times, Muhammad or his followers had a dilemma, and after prayer and meditation, revelation would come to him in the form of the “Quranic voice”, as Hazleton puts it.  The revelations gave instruction, rebuke, forgiveness, and comfort.  They dispelled doubts and promised justice.  They also taught doctrine and administrative procedures.

For example, at a time in which Muhammad feared that God had stopped speaking to him, the Quranic voice breaks the silence with the “Sura of the Morning”:

“In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
By the day, full of light,
and the night when it falls peacefully,
your Lord has not forsaken you (O Prophet), nor is He displeased.
And surely the later period is better for you than the earlier period,
and soon your Lord shall give you so much that you shall be well pleased.
Did He not find you an orphan and then he sheltered you?
And He found you unaware of the Way, then He guided you,
and He found you poor, then He enriched you.
Therefore, do not be harsh to the orphan,
and do not scold the beggar,
and do proclaim the bounty of your lord.”
-Sura 93

I can almost imagine this Sura being part of the Mormon Doctrine and Covenants.  God’s revelation speaks directly to Muhammad, comforts him, declares his pleasure with his faithfulness, encourages him not to complain or fear for his present circumstances, makes promises of a better future, and reminds him to remain righteous.  This instantly reminded me of numerous LDS scriptures, such as D&C 121:7-11.   It seems that in times of trial, both Smith and Muhammad needed revelations of encouragement.

Hazelton describes the revelation process as exhausting and overwhelming (p. 88, 102).  When Sidney Rigdon experienced a revelation similar to Joseph Smith’s, he ended up “limp and pale, apparently as limber as a rag”.  Smith tells his believers that “Sidney is not as used to it as I am” (see lds.org for source).  Perhaps Muhammad’s experience was similar.

Many other major similarities fill both histories.  Muhammad’s mission to restore previous truths also featured the cleansing and restoration of the Kaaba, a strong desire to convert the Jews, and a commission from God to “arise and warn” (p. 111).  Muhammad revealed rules about polygamy and marriage, with special exceptions for himself (p. 251-256).  The early Muslim histories include miraculous conversions, escapes, and victories in battle, cautionary tales against disobedience, and fulfilled prophesy.  The Quran, to Muslims, completes and corrects the Bible, which has been corrupted (p. 59-60), and the revelations are given “in a clear Arabic tongue” (p. 114), to address God’s people in their own language.  Each of these points has a direct parallel in Mormonism.

Of course, there are as many points of divergence as there are parallels.  While Smith witnessed God in person during his first vision, Muhammad never saw God himself.  In Islam, Muhammad was the sole receiver of revelation, while in Mormonism, revelation is widespread and continuous.  Islam and Mormonism (and all of Christianity, for that matter) have enormous theological differences.  Still, to me, the parallels are quite notable.

What can we make of all of these parallels?  There are numerous possibilities for interpretation.  It may be that similar conditions led both men and both groups of believers to have similar experiences.  Perhaps one prophet is true and the other is false.  Or, perhaps God spoke to both Smith and Muhammad, but we simply don’t understand the nature of revelation as well as we think we do.  Could it be that revelation is imperfectly communicated through human minds?  Maybe both men communicated some truth, mixed with their own interpretations.  Maybe these parallels aren’t actually significant, and in listing them, I have succumbed to my own biases.  There are limitless ways to view this information.  I leave that judgement to you, the reader.

I do have a few issues with Hazleton’s otherwise excellent volume.  She does not provide any footnotes in the text, and this sometimes made it very difficult to tell what her sources were.  Being unfamiliar with Muslim history, and because she uses direct quotes from primary sources only sparingly, I occasionally found myself wondering if some of what I read was speculative.  This is especially noticeable in the first two chapters, when she explains certain characters’ feelings, mental states, or clothing.  Only when I finished the book did I find the brief “Notes” section, hidden away in the back.  The format she uses made it difficult to refer to the notes as I read.

While Hazleton’s agnostic point of view is useful and accessible, it would also be very interesting to read a conservative Muslim biography of the prophet.  Such a work would surely argue forcefully for the veracity of Muhammad’s divine mission.  What miraculous stories did Hazleton leave out?  Because of her mild skepticism, she surely omitted some stories that believers consider to be strong evidence of the truth.  It also seems likely that some of her interpretations of events would rankle conservative believers, but I can’t always be sure which events are considered controversial.  Reading a conservative, believing biography as well would give a fuller understanding of how Muslims today view their prophet and their history.  However, such a biography may leave out difficult or challenging information, so it’s wise to read both.

Also, I can’t fail to mention Muhammad’s treatment of the Jews in Medina.  I had never previously learned of these events, and I was shocked and appalled.  Although Muhammad is consistently portrayed sympathetically, Hazleton does not pull punches when describing what took place there.  She explains historical information as well as apologetic explanations, and true to form, lets readers pass their own judgement.

I came away from reading The First Muslim feeling that Muhammad, while flawed, was a largely sincere man, and in most cases must have truly believed he was doing God’s will.  He accomplished incredible feats, and his life story was amazing.  I feel that learning some history of another faith through an agnostic lens has greatly broadened my understanding, increased my empathy for those of any religion, and given me a new perspective on my own religious heritage.  Overall, The First Muslim was a pleasure to read, and I highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs.

As a parting thought, I have to ask myself- how many times has this happened?  How many times has a human being seen what appears to be hypocrisy and corruption in their world, and through visionary experiences, transformed that world?  Certainly, it has happened more than once.  The message that Muhammad shared, like the message Smith shared, resonates with millions, and it is worth our time to try to understand it.

More Information

Hazleton’s TedX Talk
Seeing Muhammad – And Each Other – Whole: Lesley Hazleton at TEDxRainier

Muhammad’s First Revelation
Wikipedia- Muhammad’s First Revelation
IslamReligion.com- The First Revelations

Joseph Smith’s First Vision
Lds.org- The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith
Lds.org- The First Vision: A Narrative from Joseph Smith’s Accounts

Commentary on the Sura of the Morning
Wikipedia- Ad-Dhuha
Al-Islam.org- Surah Duha, Chapter 93

Jahiliyya
Wikipedia- Jahiliyyah
IslamQA.info- Use of the Word “Jahiliyyah” (Period of Ignorance)

Apostasy and Restoration
Lds.org- The Apostasy and the Restoration of the Gospel
Lds.org- Dallin H. Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration”

I Wish I Could Go Back

I don’t think I realized that they were real people.  Mrs. Smith, the sweet old Pentecostal lady who spoke in tongues and was on fire for Jesus.  Megan, who blessed her child with the laying on of hands.  Kidane, who had moved to America to escape civil war in Eritrea.  Mike, a kind man, full of biblical and historical wisdom, who after a life of searching had joined Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Ryan, a teen who had left that same organization, and who had been kicked out of his home for doing so.  Ellen, the Baptist woman who prayed with us and for us on the side of the road.  Wanda, who had visions from God.  Suleman, home and wheelchair bound, who tried to convert me to Islam, and his old doctor friend Mamin, who gave him company and medical care without asking for payment.

It seems so distant in my mind now, like it was another life.

These people, and so many more, welcomed me into their homes and allowed me to talk with them about the deepest parts of human experience.  We discussed God, the meaning and purpose of life, the source of and reason for religious belief, revelation, sin, regret, and forgiveness.

And we butted heads.  Their beliefs challenged mine.  I prayed that God would soften their hearts and lead them to change.  I cared deeply about the people I met- I was trying to save them.  Each time I faced a rejection, I was devastated, and I feared for their souls.  I wondered if I had done something wrong to prevent them from feeling the Spirit and being converted.  I felt that I was on a mission from God.  I had the one true path, and it was my duty to share it.  Because I so urgently needed to share my own beliefs, I don’t think I really, deeply listened to the people I met.  I only saw the surface of their lives, experiences, and perspectives.

I wish I could go back.  It seems to me now that I missed an incredible opportunity.  As a 19 year old Mormon missionary, I was surrounded by people who were so different than me, most of whom had much more life experience than I did.  They had reasons for their beliefs that, to them, were absolutely as compelling as mine were to me.  Their beliefs were formed in crucibles that were far different from my own.  It could have been a chance for me to listen and learn from an incredible diversity of minds and hearts.

I did learn from them, but I was not fully open.  I realize now, in a way I didn’t understand at the time, that these people have entire, real, rich, full lives.  They had lived, loved, prayed, struggled, converted, de-converted, triumphed, failed, joyed, despaired, and made many sacrifices in ways I, as a young man, could not have known.  That sounds obvious now- but at the time, I saw them only in the context of my own beliefs.  They were semi-lost souls, good people, who had only part of the truth, and who needed my message, if only they were ready to listen.  I feel now like my memories of them are simplified shadows of real people.  I got to know them only as their beliefs collided with mine.

If I could go back and do it over again, I would do it so differently.  I would have a more open ear, and I would not worry so much about converting others.  I would not assume that my way was the only correct and valid way.  I would listen to understand instead of to build my arguments, and I would listen without judgment.  If I could go door to door and talk with people of every religious background, I would ask them:

How did you come to believe what you believe?  Why is it important?  What about your beliefs means the most to you?

Are you happy?  Do you feel fulfilled?  What gives you hope and joy?

What do your beliefs make you feel?

What experiences have solidified your beliefs?  Have you seen miracles?  Will you tell me about your spiritual experiences?

What do you feel the most important things in life are?  Why are we here?

How do your beliefs motivate you?

What has challenged your beliefs?  Have you ever changed your beliefs?

What is it like to be immersed in your community of believers and way of life?  How is it different from mine?  How is it the same?  How do you view people like me?

Of course, this is a fantasy.  I’m not going to go door to door asking people to tell me about their religious beliefs.  My mission really was a unique opportunity.  I did my best, and I tried to do what I felt to be right at the time.  I don’t think there is anything I could do now that could replicate such an experience, and even if there was, my life has become so full of other things that I wouldn’t dedicate the time and effort.  Still, I wish I could have done it differently.

If I could ask the people of Missouri these questions, would I agree with everything they shared with me?  Not likely.  But I would honor their perspectives.  I would consider their experiences to be valuable, real, human experiences, just as valid as mine.  I would admit my own perspective is limited, and in hearing their experiences, my views would be enriched.  I would acknowledge that I could learn from them, even if I disagreed on many points.  I would want to know what they thought and felt, and why.  And I would more fully KNOW them.

Instead, I just remember them, and wonder about it all.