I have a dear friend whom lately I have talked to about the difficulty of being a public figure, about criticizing some Mormon policies publicly, and about the backlash I have experienced from more conservative Mormons, some of them formerly dear friends of mine. This friend nods her head, talks to me about her years in local politics, about the many people who hated her, the many who loved her, about calls at 3 a.m, and says, "you just need to know you're right with God, and nothing else matters."
I think also about the friends and families who ask me if I am distressed about the reactions to my work, doesn't that indicate that I'm not right with God, that the spirit of God is telling me that I am headed down the wrong path? To both of these groups, I must sadly say that feeling that I am right with God is not enough for me. Feeling right, feeling certain, is, in fact, a dangerous way to avoid conflict and correction and that most certainly does not seem the way that God interacts with mortals.
There have been many people in the history of Christianity (and in other religions before Christianity's founding and since) who have been absolutely certain that they were doing the right thing. They were certain they were doing the right thing when they called for the slaughter of infidels, when they roused hatred and created political upheaval that led to centuries of hatred against Jews or Muslims or other groups. They were certain that God was behind them as they stole for a righteous cause or lied to a court or committed other crimes. Ammon Bundy, currently disobeying the law and the very church he proclaims he believes in, is certain that what he is doing is right and that the Book of Mormon, our most holy scripture, supports him in his views.
Certainty is not an indicator of righteousness. I suspect it is rather the reverse, that the more certain you are that you are right, the more likely you are to be terribly, terribly wrong. If you cannot see the point of view of those who oppose you, if you see them as pure evil, or as led astray by Satan, you (and when I say you--I also mean me) are using your opposition to bolster your own position. You are not learning and growing from those who are different from you. Quite the opposite. You are destroying dissent and the possibility of a truly pluralistic society which is the foundation of modern American democracy.
If you believe, as most Mormons do, that the Constitution and the founding fathers of America were inspired by God to create a society where there is no religious oppression (by the government), then this world of differing viewpoints and lack of certainty is what God must want for us.
Why? I think because certainty is deadly to hearing the spirit of God, which often corrects us when we are veering to the wrong side of the path, and which may call us to an absolute standstill or a complete about face when we are going in the opposite direction of where we should be. If we cannot accept that we could be wrong, how can we hear this kind of correction?
I am not sure that the spirit of God always speaks as loudly as it did to Paul in the New Testament. Often it is a still, small voice that tells us quietly that we have made a mistake and we need to repent and repent again and again.
I believe that one of the great opportunities for any religion and for Mormonism in particular is what happens when Mormonism spreads to other countries, other peoples and traditions, other languages. We are forced to confront the parts of the religion that turn out to be only cultural, after all, and not really fundamental. But this can happen closer to home if we allow ourselves to see that we may always be wrong.
It has become one of my mantras to say "I believe this, but I could be wrong." No matter how much I believe in any one tenet of Mormonism, or in any of my own ideas of justice and fairness when I criticize Mormonism, I am always conscious of how wrong I might be. Certainty is the enemy of humility, which means it is the enemy of learning and the enemy of faith. I daresay it is the enemy of the divine, which can only dwell in us briefly before it withdraws and leave us to our mortal state, where we may once again misinterpret what was said to us in those few moments of transcendence.
So feeling that I am "right with God," as my friends have put it, or even if I feel sick with doubt or with anxiety that I may have gotten it wrong--neither of these means anything in and of itself. I strive to do my best in the moment, and then to be open to correction constantly. This is part of my journey to truth, the openness that I may have to leave behind some previously held ideas, and the new bits of pride that I see constantly creeping up in my heart.
For Mormons, the path to heaven is a path of eternal progression, which means also eternal repentance, eternal mistake making, and eternal uncertainty. I welcome it now and in the future!