Sherrae Phelps: The masterful music and compelling story of the Fiddler on the Roof earned its rightful place among Broadway's most loved. But what is it about the story that draws in so many people? It's both compelling and inspiring to watch the different individuals in the story as they confront the complexities of their culture, their poverty, their tradition, and their faith. The listener is given the privilege to watch from a safe distance as each person in the story wades through the very difficult process of making choices when tradition, faith, and love collide in painful and confusing ways.
Deborah Feldman's memoir, Unorthodox, is another brilliant work of art that provides the reader with an intimate experience to watch as she struggles with the faith and traditions that have been passed on to her. Deborah Feldman was born in Brooklyn in a Yiddish-speaking Hassidic community. In her words, she describes how she was taught to view God: "We learned in school that God sent Hitler to punish the Jews for enlightening themselves. He came to clean this up, eliminate all the assimilated Jews who thought they could free themselves from the yoke of the chosen ones. Now we atone for their sins. The first and greatest Satmar, Rheba, said that if we became model Jews, just like in the olden days, then something like the Holocaust won't happen again because God would be pleased with us. But how are we pleasing Him with our little efforts? The thicker stockings, the longer skirts? Is that all it takes to make God happy? Why did the Rebbe decide that the woman had to shave their heads? I always asked my Bubby if anybody did that in Europe, Bubby would answer that, “The Rebbe wants us to be more devout than any Jew ever was. He says that if we go to extreme lengths to make God proud of us, He'll never hurt us like He did in the war.".
I'm Sherrae Phelps and this is Ten Thousand Hours of Writing, an audio blog sorting through morals, ethics, and faith. Today, I'm talking with Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife about transactional faith. Is it wrong to approach our faith as some sort of transaction, believing that if we do what is right, then we will be blessed? Is it wrong to believe that through our actions we can secure certain blessings and outcomes? Can we, through a diligent commitment to religious practices, win favor with God and therefore receive a better life for our righteous living? Can we be spared horrific events? Can we secure financial security by paying our tithing? Do we open the door to receive revelation by fasting and attending the temple? Do we have the ability to keep our children in the faith by regular family scripture study and prayer? Is the idea of transactional faith misleading? Is transactional faith the wrong way to approach our faith?
To start off with, how would you explain what transactional faith is?
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Well, I would think of it as a notion of God that is early in faith development. Where one sees God as all-powerful, and you're hoping that you can bargain with this all-powerful God to get things that you want or that you believe are going to make you safe or give you the good life. And so the idea is that, if you are compliant or obedient or obey the rules, then you have the ability to bargain for the blessings that you see fit. And there is nothing wrong with that from a developmental perspective. That's a place that all of us start in terms of our understanding of God. And maybe some of us grew out of that when we were nine years old, but everybody has this idea of themselves as small and powerless relative to this power. And so often people see it that this transactional reality is the way to be safe.
Sherrae Phelps: Reading through the Book of Mormon and specifically the war chapters, there seems to be a lot of "We're righteous, therefore we won this battle and we lost this battle because we're wicked." And so I kind of feel conflicted because I feel like we're almost encouraged to be in a transactional relationship with our faith. But I also think it's a limiting way to approach our faith.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: You know, as we are in relationship to scriptures and principles in the church and so on, we're often hearing them in very different ways than the person sitting next to us. Dependent somewhat on our own level of development and how we think about the world and what's true and so on. And what I would say is, if you live by principles that are self-serving, deceptive, and harmful to others, you will meet destruction. Because you can't live by evil concepts (that can often be sold as good) and not be destructive and live in the consequences of that destructiveness. So it's one idea, and I think this is an earlier idea, that God loves compliance so much that He will harm people that aren’t compliant versus give the goods to people that are compliant just for the sake of obedience, just for the sake of following Him. That's transactional, but it's also a limited idea of God. It’s limiting to think that He just wants people to obey Him for the sake of it. Rather than the idea that, when you live by true principles, you live in the consequences of those. Or that when you live by untrue principles, you live in the destructiveness of that. And so it's more the idea that if you don't align yourself with truth, it hurts, you pay a price for it. And that's so much what learning and development are about is to run up against the consequences of your choices and have them shape you and teach you about what's true.
Sherrae Phelps: What would you say is a more spiritually mature or more powerful way to approach your faith?
(To better recognize what a more mature, more powerful, more developed kind of faith looks like, Dr. Finlayson-Fife explains that it's helpful to understand a little bit about emotional development first.)
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Ken Wilber talks about morality and the idea that our thinking goes from egocentric to ethnocentric to world-centric to cosmos-centric as we develop. And many of us don't develop beyond the egocentric and we don't develop beyond the ethnocentric. The primary motivation of egocentricity is safety. And so you think about ethics in terms of what's going to keep you safe. And developmentally, you can't grow past the stage until you're about seven years old. So about the time that we get baptized is when a child becomes capable of more ethnocentric thinking. That is, more about their relationship with others and what is expected of them in the way they relate to others. And many people get baptized who haven't developmentally moved beyond the egocentric stage. And egocentric sounds negative and I don't actually mean it that way. You have to go through these early stages as you're trying to establish a sense of your own sufficiency, your own adequacy, the sense that you are safe, that you can be in relationship with the world in a way that keeps you safe.
Sherrae Phelps: Visualize a developmental ladder starting at egocentric when we are born and beginning to move towards ethnocentric in our elementary years, with the possibility of growing into a world-centric development as adults. Of course, many factors in our lives can impact our emotional development.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: I think when people grow up with very harsh, punitive parents--where they live in a world that's much more uncertain, or with parents that can't be depended upon--that desire for safety and looking for an outside force that's going to give you safety is a very compelling idea. If children grow up in a more stable environment, they recognize that when they engage in right action there are positive consequences, and there's consistency across those consequences. They start to trust the world more and grow into (around age seven or eight) the ability to understand that they have a responsibility to others and others have a responsibility to them. And so then they can think about what right action looks like within their community, within their family, within their religious group, and within their society. And so this is the age that people become more capable of a sense of what is of convention and of the fact that there are rules that need to be followed because they have consequences for themselves and other people. It's not quite so self-centered.
Sherrae Phelps: So you could probably say that someone in the egocentric and ethnocentric stage of development is most likely operating out of a transactional type of faith. So if you were to describe someone who's in a world-centric or cosmos-centric developmental stage, what might their faith look like or their relationship to faith look like? How would you describe what that looks like?
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: It's more internalized. It becomes not so much linked to obedience and authority outside of yourself, but a deeper internalization of authority and truth. It's more integrity-based and it's more in alignment with true principles. Sometimes people misunderstand the idea of differentiation or integrity to be that now you can make up your own rules and as long as you can convince yourself it's the right idea, you can now do it. There are many people who use that idea to do exactly that--to rebel against the rules or to self serve and justify it. But if it's an actual expression of a deeper moral development, you're not doing what is good because you want the validation of the group. You're not doing what's good because you're afraid of the eternal consequences. Those may all be a part of your thinking and how you've come to where you are, but you're doing what's good because you care about the good, you care about being a part of it, you care about humanity, you care about its impact. And so that's what I think Christ was speaking about when he taught that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand doeth. You're doing good for its own sake, not because you want it to be seen as good and how it reflects on you, that's not the motivational element at that point in development. Leaders who do integrity-based action often do what is right, even though it will cost how they are seen and understood, even though it will discredit them from people that don't understand. Christ was always doing this. But for the person who does that, which I always respect deeply, is that what is true, what is right is more important than their ego, even though they will take a big hit socially for doing what they firmly or fervently believe is right.
Sherrae Phelps: One story I heard all growing up was the story of Mary Fielding Smith and her tithing story. After Hyrum, her husband, passed away she was paying her tithing, and someone told her that she didn't need to pay her tithing because she was in such a hard position. And she said, "I pay my tithing not only because it is a law of God, but because I expect a blessing by doing so." And recently I’ve struggled with the idea of doing something because I expect God to bless me.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Well, who knows how she really thought about that? I don't know that we know for sure. But certainly it's a story that can be told because we like the idea that she's got to bargain with God, and we want to teach our kids that same idea--that if they pay their tithing then they're going to get financial blessings or they're going to get other kinds of blessings. I remember when I was maybe twenty-five, my parents had a fire in their house and they ended up doing some renovations after because of the fire. And so a ward member just came over and was helping my parents paint in the middle of the week. And I'm sure she had lots to do. And I was just really impressed that she was there helping my parents paint. I said to her, "It's so kind of you to do this. What motivates you?" Because I was thinking--I'm not that generous. I don't, in the middle of the week, go help somebody in the ward paint. And she said, "Oh, because I need the blessings. I desperately need the blessing. That's why I'm here." And I kind of chuckled, I thought she might be joking, but she wasn't. That is how she thought about it. And I remember just thinking that was a very interesting idea. She was kind of saying it looks more generous than it is, I just need blessings pretty badly and this is my bargaining with God. And I don't think the world really works that way. I mean, I think the blessing she got was my parents' gratitude and she was able to know that she made a difference for my parents. I think she enjoyed our company. I think there are inherent blessings, in the sense that when you serve others, people are happier. There's lots of research on this--that actually being kind to others has much more to do with your happiness than your physical beauty or how much money you make. Doing something meaningful for the people around you highly impacts your sense of self and so on. So these are true principles and they bring inherent blessings, but that's different than the idea that you're going to get a reward beyond it. I don't know that it's virtuous to say you don't harm people because you're terrified of Hell. I mean, that's still good if that's a deterrent and if that's the only one that works. I would still say that's valuable because we don't want people that harm people, but it's certainly not as virtuous as not harming people because you have the capacity to care and you care what impact it has on them. That's a higher level of reasoning and higher morality because it's not about how it serves you immediately. It's more about being aligned with the good and having a desire to do what is good for its own sake. That's godly.
Sherrae Phelps: A lot of times in the New Testament when Christ is talking about faith He'll say things like "Oh, you of little faith," and other times He'll compliment people's faith and say something like, "No greater faith have I seen." It seems to me that He's acknowledging different qualities of faith.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Yes.
Sherrae Phelps: What are your thoughts about what He means when He's saying, "This is little faith and this is great faith," do you think it's similar to what you are describing? Is great faith that quality of faith that's more focused on what is good than self-serving?
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: What faith is, in my view, is moral courage. The courage to do what you believe is right, even if it has a high cost to you personally. And it's not the kind of psychological martyr that we sometimes talk about--the person who wants to be seen as long-suffering and gets a hit of superiority because you're doing the long-suffering thing. It's not that. But when Christ is talking about the widow's mite--this person who has so little but wants to do what is good and benefits the collective--it’s the right thing, and there's high sacrifice in it. I think Christ saved the highest acknowledgment for that kind of courage.
I was just saying to my husband this morning, in all of the turmoil that we're in in this country, that the thing that demoralizes me most personally is to watch people betray their responsibility. Whatever position they're in--as a parent, as a leader--when their own ego drives them to betray what they have a responsibility to. And conversely, what I appreciate most deeply and have the deepest respect for is people who do take the harder path, who stand up for what is honest and true, even at their own personal cost--that's the backbone of society. It’s the backbone of good relationships. It's the backbone of good parenting. And whenever I see people do it, it inspires and helps me remember that goodness is real, that God is real, and it's what it's about and it's what it asks of us. I think sometimes when I'm up against moments that call for my courage or my honesty, it's helpful to remind myself of my faith in the principle. That is to say, it's uncomfortable but ultimately, I know this makes my life better. I know that it frees me and that it takes some bravery right now, but it's the right thing to do. It’s kind of reminding myself that right action blesses me and makes my life freer. And that can help as well, at least for me, in the moment of a moral decision where I want to step into my fear or into my cowardice. So that's true--when you live true principles and you have integrity, it doesn't only serve others and divine purposes, but it also makes your life richer and freer. But that's a little different than the idea of, I'm expecting a mansion on the other side, so I'm going to go help so-and-so. That's a lower level of thinking, even if it's a place where many of us begin.
Sherrae Phelps: Before I interviewed you, I was looking at transactional faith as the wrong way to approach faith. And what I hear you saying is it's not necessarily the wrong way, it's just the beginning of our faith. It's the early development of our faith.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Yes, exactly. It's the early development of morality and understanding good and evil and understanding self. And you don't have any other place to start except to start in the egocentric stage. You can't become wise like our parents in heaven that have a cosmocentric understanding, that is they really see broadly. They see what is. You only have the option of beginning from your own sense of "me, not me." You just have to start with that very early, primitive stage of development. And so you're going to be relating to what is right and wrong from that limited perspective. But it still matters for creating a structure internally that allows you to move into broader and broader understanding, richer and deeper understanding.
Sherrae Phelps: When you're in the transactional faith of spiritual development, there are those times when the transactions don't work. For example, like a child praying to find a lost item and they don't find it or paying your tithing and you still don't have enough money to cover your bills. Fasting on fast Sunday and still not feeling a spiritual outpouring. Those are hard moments when the transactions don't seem to work.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Yes, I think some people think God has betrayed them, but I would say that it's just the God in your mind that's betrayed you. That is to say, you need to let go of that God and grow into a truer picture of God. So the disillusionment is valuable if you let it be, in teaching you more about what is true and what is good and what that's really about. I think sometimes we want to insist on the picture that's in our mind, and in some ways stay in it by saying, "I'm just going to get that reward in the next life.” And in a way, they are pushing on a dishonest interpretation. They push off the kind of exposure of the frailties, in their view, by patching it together and out of fear hang on to an early view of God and what is true.
But a more faithful approach, a more courageous one, is allowing the disillusionment to teach you something. Allowing your conceptions to fall apart, as disorganizing as that is--as long as you remain in pursuit of what is true and what is good--can create a true or more expansive picture, a picture that accounts for more. It allows you to be more compassionate and to be more truth-based. When I was younger, I thought I had the advantages in my life because I was good, because there was something about me. When I was six or seven years old, I thought, “This must be God's affirmation of me personally.” Thankfully I've grown out of that view and see it more as I have been given some good things. I've had hard things in my life to be clear, but I do feel grateful for all of it and see myself having a responsibility to others who are as beloved and valuable as me, who may have had a harder path. And this is not about who deserved better, that's for sure. This does maybe have something to do with responsibility, which is a scarier interpretation because it asks more.
Sherrae Phelps: So it seems like when those transactions aren't working, you could almost see it as an invitation to push your faith into a higher place.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Sometimes we think in terms of "I have this trial because God is wanting to punish me for something or has a very specific lesson I should be learning," and sometimes that may be true, but I tend to think of it more as "What does this reality teach me about myself, about others, about what is true, and about God? As hard as this may be, as uncomfortable as this may be, what is there for me to learn from this?" Life is there to teach us and God is accessible in the here and now in our relationships and in our experience. It's not always lessons we want to learn or that feel good to learn, but it is there to understand if we are in pursuit. I think one of the strong lessons I took from my early instruction in our faith was this idea that truth matters and that pursuing truth matters and that truth will set you free. For me, I have thought the anchor in the storm is what is true. And as hard as it might be--as uncomfortable as it might be pursuing what is true, and aligning myself with it--the truth is what will stabilize my life. And I think that our willingness to do that and to go through the discomfort of that is an expression of faith. It's an expression of moral courage, but it's also what pushes us into deeper stages of development.
Sherrae Phelps: I've noticed that idea throughout a lot of your courses and your podcasts. The idea that truth sets us free. And that truth is not always comfortable and the process of coming to know truth is not always comfortable or maybe not even pleasant. That one idea has been a very impactful idea for me. It's very meaningful to think about truth in that way, that it's a process. It's an ongoing pursuit.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Exactly, and I think it helps you see yourself more clearly and see others more clearly, but I find it always uncomfortable. I always want to think I'm going to be better at it, but to understand the people you don't understand, the perspectives you don't understand, and not just to dismiss it, but to really ask, “What does the world look like from that perspective? How would one see me from that perspective? What can I see about myself from that perspective?” And I find it always hard and I always resist it. But I'm always better when I let myself be shaped by it and tolerate it.
Sherrae Phelps: You talk about the process of the pursuit of truth, and you also have talked a lot about love and that loving people helps develop your faith.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: I also think that faith develops love. In the sense that when I'm willing to yield to what's true, it deepens my compassion for others and myself in this difficult experience of life and all the opposition within it. It's not easy and it increases my compassion for all of us trying to sort it out. It's not for the feeble to do this. I think love-- meaning compassion to care about another person, to care about how their life experience has yielded, where they are, even when they do hurtful or dishonest things, compassion for what it is to be human and flawed and even destructive--to be able to understand better helps you see what is. Sometimes we want faithfulness to just focus on what is good. But if you're not willing or able to look at what is dark within all of us or to look at the capacity for evil within all of us, ourselves included, you can't really understand and value love and goodness. So it is loving to walk into the darker corners of humanity. It's loving to see it, to understand, to shed light on it. But it takes a tremendous amount of courage, and I think some people have far more of it than I do, that's for sure. So I am saying it as a student of it as much as anything.
Sherrae Phelps: A lot of times when prayers aren't being answered, some might feel that since God is perfect, if you’re not receiving answers the problem is on you. Maybe you’re not repenting enough or you're not studying it out in your mind enough, or you're not fasting enough. This idea that your efforts aren't enough yet.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Yeah, it's not my favorite idea, and I don't think it's a kind one. It can really create the sense that the individual is the problem and is insufficient. I remember struggling with these questions myself a lot. Am I struggling to believe and have faith in this idea because I'm broken? Is there something wrong with me or is there something limited about the idea? And this was, at least for me, really pushing me to come to try and understand who God is. Is it that all these people have perfect understandings of all these things and I'm just too faithless? Or are people just kind of going along without thinking about things in the way that I do? Is that why they have their confidence, but that there's something for me to sort out about what feels unclear? And at least for me, in my pursuit of this with God, it felt to me that God was saying to me that there's nothing going wrong, that this earnest pursuit of what's true is the path. It's not that you should know everything unless there's something defective about you. The earnest struggle for truth is part of your development.
Sherrae Phelps: I guess, because I feel like transactional faith has been a part of my thinking, it's hard to sort through it and see what the next level of spiritual faith looks like, that next level of spiritual maturity.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: Well, I think one of the things that's a little bit hard about seeing the world as it is, is there is this kind of recognition of how you have less control than you may have imagined when you were younger. And that's hard to wake up to. I mean, you really only have control over yourself in a complex world where even stability in society is out of our hands. To tolerate seeing what is can take tremendous amounts of courage. It takes courage to tolerate being awake to what is real. And so what I think you're saying is" I'm getting more and more aware that this is a limited frame, even though it's the frame I inherited and was reinforced for me--is there a richer or more truthful way to be in relationship to these ideas?" “Do unto others” is still profoundly true, but not because if I'm nice to my neighbor God's going to protect me from harm, but that doing unto others as I'd want to be done is foundational for creating really meaningful, sustaining relationships that bring me joy. It's meaningful for me to have a deeper sense of self-respect and a deeper sense of living in harmony with the divine. As you pursue what's true, it can be frightening. I think that's why it takes faith to come into deeper knowledge, because some of the pieces that you've depended upon start to crumble. But it does allow you to wake up to a deeper truth and a deeper, paradoxically, peace. So on the one hand, you're losing this overt sense of control that you might have in the transactional faith, but you start to develop a deeper sense of self-control and self-respect and an understanding that is more sustaining. It allows you to be in richer relationships with others, with yourself, and with the divine. So I'm not really giving you a concrete answer as much as to say that trusting in the pursuit of what's true and allowing yourself to see it and operate within it is that process and it takes courage. And trusting that God is in it. Christian theology is fundamentally a relational theology in which we understand truth not as true principles or true practices, but how we are in relationship to one another, to ourselves, and to God. And as we care about those around us, and we're trying to be kinder, fairer, and more honest, it pressures our evolution. It pressures our spiritual development. And so trusting that process, tolerating it (sometimes that's what it's been like for me) helps you come to a wiser understanding of God, of self, and of others.
Sherrae Phelps: Here are some of my favorite thoughts from this interview.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: What faith is, in my view, is moral courage, it's the courage to do what you believe is right, even if it has a high cost to you personally.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: A higher level of reasoning and higher morality, because it's not about how it serves you immediately. It's more about being aligned with the good and having a desire to do what is good for its own sake. That's Godly.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: What I appreciate most deeply and have the deepest respect for is people who do take the harder path and stand up for what is honest and true, even at their own personal cost. That's the backbone of society. That's the backbone of good relationships. It's the backbone of good parenting. And whenever I see people do it, it inspires and helps me remember that goodness is real, that God is real, and it's what it's about and it's what it asks of us.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: I think some people think, "Well, God has betrayed me." But I would say it's just a God in your mind that's betrayed you. That is to say, you need to let go of that God and grow into a truer picture of God.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: I think one of the strong lessons I took from my early instruction in our faith was this idea that truth matters and that pursuing truth matters and that truth will set you free.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: For me, often, I have thought the anchor in the storm is what is true. And as hard as it might be, as uncomfortable as it might be, pursuing what that is and aligning myself with it is what will stabilize my life. And I think that our willingness to do that and to go through the discomfort of that, is an expression of faith, it's an expression of moral courage, but it's also what pushes us into deeper stages of development.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: As we care about those around us and as we're trying to be kinder, fairer, and more honest, it pressures our evolution. It pressures our spiritual development. And so trusting that process, tolerating it, sometimes that's what it's been like for me, helps you come to a wiser understanding of God, of self, and of others.