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This I Believe: Faith v. Philosophy

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By Bryce Johnson

When I told my mom I was reading Bertrand Russell, she asked why and encouraged me to stop. I don't blame her; Bertrand Russell was an atheist well known for writing "Why I am Not a Christian," and being brusquely critical of all things religious.

As much as I loved (and still love) my mom, I kept reading because I found the material insightful, interesting and inflammatory enough to hold my attention. After Russell, I stumbled upon Feuerbach -- another atheist -- and then Foucault, Heidegger and Derrida, all of whom wrote in the wake of "the death of God."

As it turns out, my mom was right to worry that reading these texts would shake my faith. As I learned that most of what religions and governments have called "universal" or "innate" has been heavily shaped by history, culture and the interests of power, I wondered if that was the case for my faith and activity in the Church.

The more I read, the more I was convinced it was. The times I'd "received revelation" seemed, in retrospect, so tied up in social pressures and expectations that I couldn't honestly keep calling them "divine" or "inspired." For years I'd been conjuring up emotions and naming them things I'd heard in testimony meeting to set myself at ease.

From there, it was a small step coming to terms with the fact that whatever I had, it was not a testimony. Admitting that felt like the floor had dropped out of the room I was standing in. I felt queasy at church, and uninterested in maintaining relationships with people who assumed I was your everyday, believing member of the Church. I was angry that the beliefs I had allowed to shape my identity for so long suddenly seemed like a ridiculous charade. Before long, I asked to be released from my calling, I stopped going to the temple and I gave up on prayer. I could not understand how in all my years of going through the motions, God had not revealed himself to me in a way I could latch onto when the lights went out.

Even though for two or three months I oscillated between anger, numbness and despair, it was refreshing to feel like I was being honest with myself. For the first time in my life, I felt comfortable with who I was, even if I wasn't the Mormon all-star I'd always thought I wanted to be.

Then, after finally opening up to one of my professors, my bishop and a close friend, I summoned the courage to go back to square one -- yep, investigator status -- and start reading the Book of Mormon again. I resumed praying every night to the God I admitted I didn't know, telling him I just wanted to know if he was there, and that I would stay in the Church if he said to, or leave if he didn't respond. "Please say something," I thought many times. There was no bitterness; I was just trying to be honest. And finally, one night, while I sat in my kitchen reading the conference Ensign, I got the clarity I was looking for. It was like light filled up my mind. No fireworks or tears, just an awareness of a correction I needed to make, and a new, sincere desire to forge ahead.

So, it's true: philosophy obliterated my testimony; but that's because it had always been built on some pretty flimsy ideas and emotions. I wondered until very recently why God allowed me to go so long serving in the Church without giving me some ultra-convincing, other-worldly witness fit to withstand the postmodern bludgeoning I put it through. But I can see that over the years he gave me as much as I was asking him for. Deep insecurities and fears of alienation kept me from asking the hard questions; it was just easier to believe what my parents and friends expected me to believe. However, when philosophy gave me the tools to submit my beliefs to more intellectual scrutiny, I became ready for the deeper, more honest conversion God was willing to give.

And now I think I'm finally discovering what love and faith are, and who I want to be. I can see how the Church is a blessing in my life, and I want to raise a family in it. Most importantly, I can finally say I sincerely believe that God is real and so is Jesus, and that they help me make choices that make me and the people I love happy. I guess when I put it like that, it sounds like all the darkness and doubt and pining and prayer over the last year of my life have helped me be able to say something I probably learned to say in nursery -- and there's something really beautiful in that.

This post originally appeared on The Student Review.