Which is more important – belief or action?  Is faith without action better than action without faith?  Is belief without action better than acting despite disbelief?  Which leads to the better outcome or are both fraught with their own dangers?

To illustrate this line of thinking further, suppose for a moment that Tony Soprano has entered a very strange Witness Protection program.  He is being relocated to Salt Lake City where he will be living as if he were a Mormon.  He will be assigned to a local ward where he will be made the bishop of a local congregation for five years.  He will need to attend to the temporal and spiritual needs of the ward while conducting his normal job as a business manager during the week.  Tony has been trained very successfully by his FBI Handlers.  He knows the lingo (words like “shadow of a doubt,” “every fiber of my being,” and “we’re grateful for the moisture we’ve received.”)  He understands the requirements and standards (modesty/no more wife beaters, cutting down his considerable profanity, no porn, chastity and fidelity to his wife, honesty, etc.).  While he knows it is a big departure from his previous life, he is confident he can live those standards.  However, he is entering this arrangement with no belief whatsoever in the LDS church.  He is purely going through the motions.

At the same time, because the FBI are apparently into weird social experimentation (or at least my example is), they will be sending Bishop Mike Young (whom Bishop Soprano will replace) back to run the Bada-Bing and manage Tony’s mafia affairs in his stead.  Although Bishop Young is a believer in his LDS faith, this assignment will require him to play a part that contradicts his beliefs.  He will be subject to all manner of temptations (dishonesty, murder, illicit sex–the constant barrage of profanity will be the least of his worries), and he will have to participate in these things or be killed by his new colleagues who will immediately smell a rat if he does not play the part.

So, who is in the more impossible situation?  What is the likely outcome of each?  Will Bishop Soprano become converted to the gospel through his newly clean lifestyle?  Or will he corrupt the ward members because he doesn’t believe?  Will Bishop Young become converted to the dark side by his new cronies?  Or will Bishop Young infiltrate the mafia with his more charitable tendencies?  What is the most likely outcome for each situation?

I’m inclined to think that Bishop Soprano is in a good position to become persuaded this new lifestyle is the way to go, whether that leads to a testimony or just a more Christ-like life.  I tend to think Bishop Young is at peril of falling into sin, but that he will continue to feel bad about it and long for a future situation that will allow him to return to living his beliefs.  But that’s just me.

Considering a much less extreme example, which is harder to manage through?  Believing in the church, but not living up to the standards (which often results in inactivity) or not believing in the church while going through the motions (activity, but without testimony)?  I would place the hierarchy of belief/action combos like this:

  1. EasiestNeither believing nor living the standards.  Again, depends on how far down the “not living the standards” scale you go before you get to reduced quality of life.  On some level, though, ignorance is bliss.  Once you are aware of the standards, though, even if your belief level changes, unless it becomes disbelief, you will have difficulty with this choice.
  2. Next Easiest:  Believing & living the standards.  Obviously, all of us fall short at times, but belief causes people to want to live the standards, and living the standards reinforces belief.  This helps people minimize guilt and stress.
  3. Getting More Difficult:  Not believing, but living the standards.  This is still a valuable choice because the standards create a good life.  This is the worst-case scenario in Pascal’s wager.  And belief is not all or nothing anyway.  One can believe in the value of standards that have a lifestyle benefit.
  4. Most Difficult:  Believing but not living the standards.  Since we all fall short from time to time, this seems like the next logical stop down in the hierarchy.  Some just fail to meet on a bigger scale, but their belief is still there.  They believe what they are doing is wrong.  They feel guilt and shame.

Do lower standards reinforce lack of belief or the other way around?  Does lack of belief promote self-justification?  Is faith a principle of action only (vs. one’s level of belief) in that it colors our actions?

Discuss.