The gift of faith has never come easily to me, and from a young age I’ve always had my atheist doubts. Doubts about the existence of God and the inability to replicate spiritual experiences common for other Mormons made the ability to believe an enormous struggle. I would try to repress my doubts and attempt to replace them with faith. But they were always there, always in the background.
It hasn’t been until recent years that I’ve learned to not only accept my questioning nature, but to embrace my doubt as a wonderful blessing and an essential component to my faith. This realization did not come from scriptural inquiry or petitions to heaven. Instead, much to my surprise, the reconciliation of my faith and my doubt came from a study of one simple word: virtue.
Despite its narrow application in contemporary Mormon discourse, virtue imbues so much more than “sexual purity,” “chastity,” and “morality.” In particular, the expansion of my faith has come from exploring the meaning of virtue as it is uniquely applied to the writings of Aristotle, where it is used to translate the Greek word areté.
Areté in its loftiest sense refers to human excellence. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle attempts to explain how virtue/areté can be achieved, specifically by finding the mean or balance between two extremes. As Mormons, we often hear the term “moderation in all things,” yet we rarely realize that this Mormon maxim can be found nowhere in our scriptures, but instead is a phrase attributable to Aristotle.
In his Ethics, Aristotle makes reference to a ship navigating beyond the threatening spray of the craggy Aegean coast. Since the Greeks lacked compasses and a knowledge of the stars, they relied on maintaining visual contact with the shoreline while navigating the seas. As Aristotle alludes to, if a seafarer came too close to land he risked being shipwrecked. If he drifted too far from the coast, he would lose his bearings and become lost in the expanse of the Mediterranean. Therefore the areté or virtue of ship navigation lied in the ability to ensure that you were neither too close nor to far from the guiding line of the coast.
Aristotle uses this allegory to show how the noblest human attributes were often realized by finding the moderate balance between two extremes of excess and deficiency. Courage on the battlefield, for example, is neither a foolish act of bravery, nor a cowardly avoidance of conflict. The virtue of courage is achieved by learning to find the tension and the balance between these opposing vices. Likewise, temperance implies a virtuous balance between indulgence and ambivalence; and generosity, the tension between wasteful giving and contempt.
While studying these foundational concepts of Western Thought, I started to wonder if this Aristotelian application of virtue could help me understand Gospel principles, which has led me to reconstruct the concept of faith.
We often hear the encouragement to “increase our faith,” or for our faith to be “unshakeable” and “firm.” Our testimonies are expressed in terms of “I know . . .” and “without a doubt,” and it seems that having faith and having certainty are synonymous. Though there is certainly scriptural and ecclesiastical support for this treatment, I wonder if this is the most virtuous approach to the principle of faith.
If faith were a virtue like courage or generosity that can be achieved by finding the moderate balance between an excess and a deficiency, what would those extremes look like? And what would it mean to balance the two? It stands to reason that the deficiency of faith could be described as doubt or unbelief, while the excess implies a sense of surety or certainty. If this is true, then the idea of “increasing our faith” takes on a new meaning. Instead of faith being an acquisition of certainty and a depletion of doubt, it seems that faith as a virtue could be realized by not only allowing the existence of doubt but also by avoiding the complacency of certainty.
Though certain scriptures encourage us to “doubt not,” perhaps a more careful reading of those scriptures reveal a more pragmatic sentiment of avoiding cynicism, embracing true skepticism, and being open to new avenues of truth. Just like the rocks and reefs of the Aegean coast can snag and cripple an unsuspecting vessel, our sense of certainty can close our minds from additional truth and create an intellectual and spiritual false (dare I say carnal) sense of security. This can be tragic, because when we feel that “all is well in Zion,” our growth can be stifled and the primary purpose of this mortal experience can be thwarted.
This sentiment is wisely expressed in one of my favorite quotes by President Uchtdorf:
“Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things. We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us. How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew.”
Jesus taught that with the faith of a mustard seed we can move mountains. I would suggest that when we give ourselves permission to question, to doubt, to explore — when we submit ourselves to new truth even at the expense of cherished yet obsolete paradigms — perhaps then after we have removed the shackles of certainty and unbelief we can channel the true power of faith.