On Casting Out Melancholy Reflections
Or the hazards of sincere belief and shelved doubts.
It seems that each of us has a shelf where we place unanswered doubt. Recently, I perceive an increasing number of disclosures as to what some of those shelves may or may not contain. The reason for this disclosure is a topic for another post, but here we'll discuss the hazards of the ever increasing load that many of us have seemingly been compelled to place on those shelves.
My personal awareness of the overburdened shelf among many Mormons became acute when I read John Dehlin's "Where I stand regarding the Church
" with its semi-comprehensive library of "shelf" items. I do not speak for John, but for myself and perhaps others when I say: these are not the same items that one would naturally shelf; things of little immediate consequence or fanciful imagination.
No, this list is desperately shrill in its call for immediate answers. These items weigh heavily upon the shelf where they are placed, not for future pursuits of trivia, but to stave the unbearable pain that they cause us when openly contemplated. We are compelled to put them there to preserve our social networks, our families, and our personal sanity. But they do not go away. The weight multiplies as they sit upon the shelf. These shelved doubts are not just some rough edges of the known and verifiable world. They are the bastard children of a family of cherished beliefs. They are born of ideas that we hold in common but are the things we dare not speak openly of in polite company. They are the unexplained by-product of a sincere but equally unexplained belief system. And it seems that the more firmly we embrace those beliefs in the face of prevailing evidence, the more numerous and unruly these little bastards become. It is no wonder that we put them on the shelf, or in the attic in hopes that they will wilt and wither away with time, or that we so readily pretend that they do not exist. Such is the end of our desire to escape the melancholy reflections that the mere existence of these children brings to us. I draw this imagery partly from a parable I once came upon while reading Carl Sagan
's The Demon-Haunted World
. This parable has permeated my mind and haunts my assumptions about the virtue of sincere belief:
A SHIPOWNER was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not over-well built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense.
Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales. What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.
Let us alter the case a little, and suppose that the ship was not unsound after all; that she made her voyage safely, and many others after it. Will that diminish the guilt of her owner? Not one jot. When an action is once done, it is right or wrong for ever; no accidental failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter that. The man would not have been innocent, he would only have been not found out. The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of his belief, not the matter of it; not what it was, but how he got it; not whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him.William K. Clifford
, The Ethics of Belief
(1874)I'll leave you with this as it requires no further explanation. It is something to think about...something to consider as each of us struggles with the question of what we have the right to believe, what the consequences of those beliefs may be, and how we deal with the doubts, melancholy reflections, and temptations that arise from the maintenance of those beliefs. Perhaps in the process we will succeed at clearing a few shelves and living more peacefully. I wish that for all of us.