Learning to love uncertainty

Mother had modest expectations when she encouraged me to attend church college in Lamoni, Iowa. She figured Graceland College (now one campus of Graceland University) was the best place for me to find a husband who was a member of our small sect, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (which later became the Community of Christ ). Had she known one of the professors would ask questions that would lead to my leaving the church, she would have had serious second thoughts about the value of a higher education.

I loved Graceland College. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by peers who shared my beliefs. We all knew Joseph Smith was a prophet. We had no doubts about the authenticity of our sacred texts, the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants.

We were thrilled by the stories of Smith’s brave martyrdom in Nauvoo, Illinois. We were convinced polygamy only began when the heretic, Brigham Young, split from the True Church and led his followers into the desert.

God didn’t just speak to our leaders. He spoke to and through anyone of us with a pure and ready heart. When the end times came, we would be on the right hand of God, scooped out of the chaos and welcomed into the rewards of eternal life.

Truth was in our pockets, sewed up in a neat package. We were smug as we walked through life fingering it, knowing we were among the few who possessed such treasure.

In my second year at Graceland, I signed up for a Bible course taught by Robert Speaks. Old Testament in the first semester, New Testament in the second. When Speaks lectured, he became the prophets, striding across the room and drawing us into the Scriptures as if he were re-living them. He was probably the finest storyteller I met during the six years of my university career. He was certainly the most memorable of my profs.

Speaks even made examinations fun, at least for me. I remember one in particular when he asked us to become Paul and write a letter to the Ephesians on some theological point. I can’t remember what I wrote. I can remember I settled into the exercise with zeal.

One of the things I liked about him was that he did not like sloppy thinking or rote responses. He was not interested in our regurgitating the truisms we’d brought with us to Graceland. He didn’t even want us regurgitating what he taught. He wanted us to think and question for ourselves.

Presenting the door

Suddenly a wide door was thrown open (Photo from dospaz Flickr Photostream)

Thinking and questioning tossed me out of a comfortable nest and forced me to fly. I don’t remember the topic he dropped into the discussion one memorable day. I do remember we parroted back the theology of our childhoods. Then he asked the nest-tipping question: “Where do you find that in Scripture?”

Our tongues were tangled in a forest so thick we fell silent. He sent us off to do some detective work and bring back the answer.

And what we found was…nothing. A major cornerstone of our religious foundation was based on air. Nothing in our three religious tomes supported it. My comfortable belief base collapsed.

I wondered what else we believed that had no basis in Scripture, and I set off to find out. I don’t know if any of my fellow students were similarly shaken. I was the only regular church attender in the class who never again darkened the chapel door.

I felt as if I’d been in a dark room with no windows. Suddenly a wide door was thrown open. What streamed in was the light and fresh air of intellectual curiosity. I’d always held my own in discussions on a wide variety of current issues, but my religious beliefs had been closed to examination. They were unassailable truths.

Once those truths were thrown into the mixer, I lost the last of my need to possess absolute certainty in at least one area of my life.

What I lost in community I gradually regained elsewhere. What I lost in unquestioning belief I never re-found.

And I’ve been grateful to Robert Speaks ever since.

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14 comments for “Learning to love uncertainty

  1. Abra
    February 2, 2011 at 8:32 am

    Dear Cathryn,
    can’t believe I didn’t know any of this about you! I have to confess I had a similar belief-shattering experience at a jesuit university in my early adulthood as well. I had a great professor who exposed me to the then newly developed liberation and feminist theologies that challenged many of the credos my catholic upbringing had burned into my psyche. And it was wonderful to have my firm belief confirmed by others that just because something has always been done doesn’t make it right.

  2. February 2, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Wow, that is quite the story.

    It’s very similar to how I de-converted except that my questions were encouraged by people at an online Christian message board.

    How did your family react to this change in you?

  3. February 2, 2011 at 11:53 am

    My mother was not thrilled and remained a believer until she died, but she came to accept our differences on that. We had a wonderful, open relationship for which I’m grateful.

  4. Michelle
    February 2, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    I second Abra’s comments when I say that I didn’t know any of that about you. These blogs certainly allow us readers to know, understand and love you more deeply. When I got to the end of this blog today, what resonated most with me was yet again, a reminder of why you and Dad found eachother and how your souls and spirits were meant to be together!!

  5. February 2, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    Sounds as if we both benefited from experiences with professors who truly believed in educating the mind rather than indoctrinating us. We were lucky to have such wise mentors on our journeys of discovery.

  6. February 2, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Your beautiful comment brought tears to both your dad’s eyes and mine.

  7. February 2, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    What a story! The Mormons and Joseph Smith have fascinated me, but I know very little about them. Fascinating that your college experience changed your thinking…


  8. February 2, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Mormonism is a fascinating religion well suited to the American land. Even though I’m no longer attached, even peripherally, I value having been part of it.

    I loved your post on Sunny Room Studio and just nodded my head reading your post on keeping children’s art work.

  9. February 2, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    How strange that you should have some Mormon history. My dad and his side of the family belonged to something called “the Reorganized Church of the Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ”. He was born in Langley, Wn., where there is a strong Mormon presence, but when the family moved north to the Skeena in Canada, they were alone with no church support and somehow we became Salvation Army. That was wonderful because the church was on Indian Reserve and the congregation was pretty much First nations except for us. I know that my life is away richer because of that immersion into the local culture. We were Irish, but far from other Irish, Mormons, but far from other Mormons. I guess I learned uncertainty here, being welcomed and nurtured by different colored, different cultured humans. I have never thought of uncertainty as being a blessing, but really, it IS freedom, isn’t it? It is what makes us tic. Hugs, lady. I am so glad I know you!

  10. February 2, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    No wonder I felt an instant connection with you. We’re cousins via family histories. I grew up in a Mormon-dominated town as a member of the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints. And one of the couples who looked after us while my mother worked belonged to the Salvation Army. We grew up comfortable in both the RLDS and Salvation Army worlds. I am fascinated by your experience with the Salvation Army on the Reserve and the richness of your experience because of that.

    I do think uncertainty is freedom, even though it can be mighty uncomfortable. It’s kind of like wearing something loose, that gives us room to move around, instead of something tight and restrictive.

    And I feel so lucky you are in my life.

  11. February 3, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    You know, I’ve been trying to learn to inhabit uncertainty all my life. Thanks for this.

  12. February 4, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Uncertainty’s a roller coaster. Sometimes it has pitched me out of the car. But I’m grateful for the wild ride. A thoughtful Twitter friend, Marjie Knudson, sent me this quote from Thucydides: “The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret to freedom is courage.”

    With uncertainty comes a kind of freedom I welcome.

  13. May 23, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    Hi Cathryn,
    I was wondering if you will be coming to the BCFSN Gathering in 100 Mile House in July? Your story about uncertainty would be relevant to our theme of resiliency and diversity. If you are planning on coming maybe we could ask you to speak to this in the opening plenary. We would sure love it if you could come and share some of your wisdom especially in light of your dedication and committment to the food security movement!

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