“Even if no salvation should come, I want to be worthy of it at any moment.” (Franz Kafka)
As a former atheist and avid reader of Ayn Rand and especially Friedrich Nietzsche (both of whom I still hold in high regard), my story of conversion to the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints might be among the more unusual ones. This is not the place to share all the details of my conversion story. Yet, the outcome is that I’m an active Mormon, with a church calling and weekly attendance of Sacrament meeting, Sunday School, and Relief Society. I hold a temple recommend, adhere to the Word of Wisdom, strive to keep the Sabbath holy, and try to support the missionaries. Although I’m childfree, career-oriented, and often don’t quite fit the stereotypical mold, I’m an earnest and faithful Mormon.
Reconciling agnosticism and faith
The truth is, I still consider myself an agnostic at heart who is wavering about the most basic concepts of Christianity and simply cannot believe many of the claims specific to the Mormon church. I cannot – nor would I want to – blind myself to my doubts or will myself to believe. Yet, I can choose to live by faith. My doctrinal skepticism no longer troubles me. I have come to love the church and the gospel. I have developed a love for our Savior, and the church has become an immensely enriching influence in my life.
Due to my intellectual and personal background, I knew before ever reaching out to the missionaries that a strictly literal understanding of doctrine would not satisfy me. In fact, in some ways I feel that I joined the church not because of, but despite the missionaries. Through reading about topics such as neuroscience and religion, meditation, and prayer, I worked my way from atheism to agnosticism. This was followed by a lot more online reading and listening: talks by Ravi Zaccharias (http://www.rzim.org) – not a Mormon, but an insightful Christian apologist -, websites such as Mormon Scholars Testify (http://www.mormonscholarstestify.org), and John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories Podcasts (http://www.mormonstories.org). I did lots of private thinking, and was inspired by the occasional insightful comments from other members.
Often, the comments I needed to hear the most were the ones suggesting to me that my approach would be accepted in the church; that I did not need to have a burning testimony of the church’s literal truthfulness in order to get baptized. Maybe somewhat ironically, I felt at home on websites such as the Stay LDS Forum (http://www.staylds.com) before ever joining the church. Slowly, I developed an approach that may be slightly nontraditional, but works extremely well for me. I truly believe that following the church’s counsel has blessed my life, and I’m steadily working on increasing my faith and my spiritual strength. I actually feel like the key to increased inner fulfillment lies here.
Even as a newly baptized church member, I continued to struggle with trying to grasp the full significance of Jesus Christ. A breakthrough in my understanding came once I logically broke down what is really involved in “accepting Christ” – a concept I had never really understood previously. Accepting Christ means accepting the idea of Jesus Christ being our Savior who died to atone for our sins and being about our salvation. This acceptance is so powerful because of the many other assumptions it encompasses, including:
– Acceptance of our imperfection: the realization that we are in need of a Savior if we are to reach perfection; that we always fall short of our best intentions and ideals; that on our own we are fairly powerless and cannot take full credit for our successes. This realization makes us humble, teachable, and changeable.
– The desire to do what is morally right: accepting the reality of sin involves an acceptance of our accountability and the reality of right and wrong. In Christ, we are also given an example of moral perfection to follow, and we are shown a way to overcome the natural man.
– Sense of self and direction: the divine figure of Jesus Christ provides a role model, which improves our understanding of who we are and what we should become. The gospel offers an outline of where we come from, why we are here, and where we are going.
– Sense of being accepted: God loves us enough to sacrifice his son for us. This is a powerful concept. Out of his free will, Christ chose to endure the most intense agony for our sake (I also long did not understand that his true agony was not experienced on the cross, but in the Garden of Gethsemane). Our Heavenly Father loves each one of us individually and accepts us the way we are despite our imperfections, even while wanting nothing more for us than our continued growth and eventual exaltation. He takes genuine interest in us and wants the best for us.
– Sense of community: the Savior died for everyone else just like he did for us. Everyone has divine potential and is profoundly loved by God, so we should treat them with mercy and kindness and be quick to forgive. Thus, acceptance of Christ connects us to society and to our fellow humans. It causes is to feel more connected to our fellow humans, and to want to get more involved in doing God’s work in society.
– Compassion: we are as inherently flawed and imperfect as everyone else, and in need of salvation. Thus, we should avoid judging others and sleeping negatively of them, and instead extend the same kindness we would wish for in face of our own shortcomings.
– Life’s inherent goodness: there is a plan to life, and we are guided by divine beings that care for us deeply. Thus, we can have faith in the present, courage in our choices, and hope in the future.
– Meaning in struggle: Jesus Christ made the ultimate sacrifice, showing that suffering can be necessary and noble to bring about a higher good.
The list could certainly go on, and each of the items would be deserving of more contemplation. However, this outline should suffice to show why “accepting Christ” can indeed be profoundly life-changing and bring peace into our life. Once we stop intellectually fighting against the message of Christianity but open our minds and hearts to it, the gospel can truly change hearts and lives.
In fact, I now believe that true peace is not possible without faith in life’s inherent goodness and purpose. Even while I was an atheist, I was not willing to accept the lack of meaning inherent in atheism. Instead, I realized early on that in order to fulfill my need for meaning, I had to live as is life was meaningful, as if I had freedom of choice, and as if my decisions matters in the bigger scheme of things. I felt as though I had to commit an act of intellectual deceit to arrive at a state of meaning that I needed in my life.
The human experience
In the meantime, I came to believe that any approach that is not coherent with my actual intuitive and natural experience of life is ultimately irrelevant. All the intellectual arguments for life’s meaninglessness aside, there is no doubt that my human experience is that of a constant decision-making process, a steady oscillating between choices, some of which are undeniably far less desirable than others.
I recoil at moral ugliness, cruelty, and blatant violence, whereas acts of remarkable kindness, strength, and courage warm my heart. I can get intensely touched and inspired by positive human examples, works of art, literature, or musical pieces. I marvel at our not at all self-evident ability to be self-aware, to reflect, and seek after truth. The magnificence and simplicity of nature inspired me with awe. I’m increasingly more open to the idea that there is a “right way” to living joyfully. While the details may vary widely, I believe aligning one’s life with God’s will is crucial for fostering true contentment.
Any theoretical constructs requiring me to negate these basic perceptions and feelings associated with my experience as a living human are ultimately irrelevant and have no practical value in the pursuit of a fulfilled life. While I firmly believe God expects us to use our brains, I have also come to believe that our worldview should have practical applicability and serve to make us better people. There is enough destructiveness in the world. It is easy to tear down meaning, and yet much harder and nobler to build it up. Even if Christianity is not true in a literal way, if it is based on good principles, leads to peace and joy, and inspires people to be the very best they can be and lead the best lives they can live, then it is worth pursuing wholeheartedly. This explanation may not satisfy a staunch atheist and may get me accused of intellectual dishonesty, but for me it actually is the result of desiring a coherent approach to life.