Landing Instructions: How to Navigate (or Help Someone Navigate) a Faith Crisis

 

I gave this talk at the Miller-Eccles Study Group in California on May 13 and 14, 2016 and it was subsequently published on Rational Faiths. I’m reposting it here for friends.

Many years ago, I took a flight from Baltimore to New York on a turboprop airplane. I love to fly and I had never experienced a turboprop, so I was thrilled to get on the plane. But what started out as an adventure ended up a nerve-wracking experience when we ran into a storm just outside of Baltimore.  One minute everything was fine, then things got bumpy, everything started shaking; we were diving, then climbing, bouncing back and forth. All the passengers were gripping our armrests with white-knuckled anxiety, at the mercy of the elements and our pilot’s skills. This turbulence roller coaster didn’t last long, but I’ll never forget the feelings of terror and helplessness that I felt that day.

I have experienced these same emotions of fear and vulnerability as I’ve confronted issues that have troubled my faith and as I’ve watched friends and family members go through the same process. The helplessness and fear are tangible. They hit you at a gut level, leaving you terrified and unsure of your future, immediate or eternal. Worst of all, unlike on a plane where seated next to you are fellow terrified passengers, in a faith crisis you often feel like you’re all alone. You don’t feel safe speaking in Sunday school classes or talking to ward members and friends. You may try to bring it up with your bishop only to discover that he has no understanding of the issues or what you’re going through. You worry that people will either dismiss you or call you to repentance. You’re isolated in your pain and afraid for the future. Also unlike bumps and jolts in flight, faith transitions don’t calm down to the same state they were before the turbulence hit. In a plane the storm or pressure change usually passes and things go back to normal. But after a faith crisis things can’t go back to what they were before. You will likely never be the same. Going through this transformation—or watching someone you love go through it—isn’t easy. But I believe it can actually lead to a deeper faith, a richer life, and greater communion with your traveling companions. But it does require more than just new information. It requires a new paradigm of belief.

I have written elsewhere about my own faith crisis.[1] Mine was more prolonged than some, starting when I was quite young and continuing on into my thirties. The words “I know the Church is true” became problematical one by one. The first word to cause me trouble was the word “church.”  I grew up with parents who did not attend Church but who were good, kind people. And I often saw hypocrisy and unkindness in Church members. So the idea that people in the Church were somehow better never sat well with me. Nevertheless, I found people at Church who nurtured my soul’s inner yearnings for an understanding and connection with God. I came to think, as many do, of the gospel being true but the church as being flawed. So when in a youth testimony meeting I got up to bear my testimony and said “I know the Church is true,” I meant “I know the gospel is true.”

Later, as an undergraduate at BYU, I became interested in Church history and theology. I worked at a used bookstore in Provo, where I had access to all kinds of esoteric books and was plugged in to the 1980s equivalent of the internet, an underground world of Mormon book nerds who traded Xerox copies of theses, dissertations, letters, and manuscripts. I learned about complicated historical problems like the Mountain Meadows Massacre and multiple accounts of the First Vision as well as how our theology has evolved over the years. I also learned that Church leaders had said and written some rather racist and sexist things, and had occasionally done some less than heroic things. All of this caused problems for me when testimony meeting rolled around. Which Church was true? The Church of the past or the present? And which parts of it? The organization itself? Priesthood authority? And which doctrines or practices would I allow into my increasingly complicated definition?

The next word to become problematic for me was the word “I.” In a graduate seminar at the University of Maryland on the concept of the subject in Western thought, we studied the idea of the self from literary, psychological, philosophical, and historical perspectives, I realized that this entity I knew as “me”—as the core of myself—was actually a socially-constructed character. Furthermore, in grad school I began taking courses in biblical studies and Bible as literature. These studies uprooted from my belief system any sense that a written text—whether the Bible or the Book of Mormon—could be the direct, unfiltered word of God. Lower criticism taught me how biblical manuscripts were altered through time as they were hand copied by scribes over generations, and higher criticism taught me about historical processes and influences that any human text goes though.

Later, my struggles with depression further eroded the idea that I could actually know myself. When I first took an anti-depressant and realized how significant it affected my moods and personality, I came to question how much of what I felt was caused by the chemicals in my brain and how much was the production of a deeply centered soul? I began to question the ability of any person to know him- or herself in any fundamental way. When I said “I know the Church is true,” what “I” was I talking about?

Finally, reading Nietzsche during my PhD course work caused me to altogether reconsider the concept of “knowing.” In his essay “Truth and Lie in an Extra-moral Sense” Nietzsche notes that our understanding of everything relies on a series of metaphorical relationships. Our eyes detect the patterns of light reflected by an object, then the brain transforms that pattern into an idea or concept, then a word is attached to it. None of these points of reference—the pattern of light, the idea, the word—capture the true nature of reality. On top of that, language forces us to generalize about the essence of the objects, beings, and other phenomena we encounter. By the time I was done with Nietzsche, I was confident that I “knew” absolutely nothing. So testimony meeting became a huge dilemma. How could I say “I know the Church is true” when I knew that I couldn’t know anything, including myself? And I didn’t think my ward would understand if I added “but of course, this is a lie” to the end of my testimony.

What could I possibly mean if I said the Church (whatever that is) is “true”? Could I mean that it has a monopoly on some kind of knowledge? (Which is impossible if knowing itself is impossible.) Could I mean that the Church is in some sense an expression of an ultimate reality? (Which is likewise impossible if we cannot really know anything.) Could I mean that the Church is more efficacious in making people better than are other institutions? (But how could we know that?) Does it provide a better path to understanding? (If so, how?) I felt stuck.

What I experienced was bigger than any church leader could help me with. My bishop at the time of this last crisis was a really good man, but he was a fire fighter not a philosopher. Fortunately, I knew I was not alone, as I had friends who were going through the same things and I learned how to construct a post-critical faith. The spiritual vertigo has subsided and I feel, as the French would say, good in my skin (bien dans ma peau). However, I will never be able to go back to the days before Nietzsche and biblical criticism; nor do I really want to.

So what exactly do Mormons mean when we say “I know” the Church or Book of Mormon is true? In many languages, there are two words for “to know.” In French, there’s savoir, which means to know a fact or how to do something, and connaître, which means to know a person or be familiar with a place or thing. English used to have two words for “to know.” Old English witan, from which we get our word “wisdom,” means to know facts or information, whereas the word cennan means to be able to do something. The Scots still use the word “ken,” as in “it’s beyond his ken.” So in what way do we “know,” for example, that the Book of Mormon is true? I suppose in one sense we may mean that we know a fact about it, that it’s an ancient book, for example. But that seems to be a pretty hollow thing to base faith on. We might mean that we know the content of the book, that we’ve studied the text. I did my dissertation on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and I know a lot about that book, but I’d never say I know it’s true.

I think we get our idea about the “truthfulness” of the Book of Mormon from reading Moroni 10, but I’m not sure we really understand it. For one thing, the pronouns in the text are really confusing and don’t always seem to agree with the nouns we assume they modify. It seems to say that once you’ve read “these records” you should contemplate the mercy of God and pray and God will reveal the truthfulness of His mercy to us. Nevertheless, it also says that through the power of the Holy Ghost we can know the truth of all things. But then it says that whatever is “good” is “just,” and “true.” This almost sounds like William James’s pragmatic approach to religion—whatever “works” is true.

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We hear the words “faith crisis” quite frequently in Mormonism right now. Chances are you or someone you know is going through one right now. But a crisis of faith is not a new thing. They’ve been around since at least the time of Cain. If you look at Google Books trends for the topic “crisis of faith,” you’ll find that the topic received very little treatment until around 1860 when it rises considerably (likely, I would guess, as a result of the 1859 publication of Darwin’s Origins of the Species). It remains relatively low until the end of World War II, when it rises, and it then climbs steadily through the 1960s and 70s (likely due to the explosive social transformations of the era), and peaks in 1993 with the age of the internet.

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The internet has had a colossal effect on faith for Mormons. All things are now present: the changing theology, the historical conundrums, the ethical lapses, the racism and sexism, all are one Google search away. Many people are crying for answers. But the questions and doubts seem to multiply as Church leaders and well-intentioned members try to respond.

I recently watched the painful disciplinary hearing for Jeremy Runnells, the author of the infamous CES Letter. I won’t comment on the ethics of his recording the meeting, or of whomever for posting the video online, or of me for watching it on my iPad. I admit that it felt voyeuristic and wrong, but I kept watching like a rubbernecking driver. Tears came to my eyes as I watched the inevitable and painful collision between his stake president who began the meeting by bearing his testimony that he knew the Church is true, and Runnels, who pleaded for answers to his questions. I don’t know either Runnells or his stake president personally, so I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of either. I suspect the stake president truly believed that Runnells was hurting people’s faith and I’m sure that Runnells, at some point anyway, truly wanted answers. But the differing worldviews of the man of surety and the man of doubt led to an inevitable conclusion. It was sad and painful.

But even if the stake president had tried to answer Runnells’ questions, there are always more. What Runnells and others like him are experiencing is not crisis of information, it’s a crisis of confidence, a crisis of confidence in Church authority and institutions and a crisis of confidence in scripture and prophetic utterance.

Let me illustrate what I mean by looking briefly at the topic of race and the priesthood. When I grew up in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, it was commonly taught that Black people were not given the priesthood because they were descendants of Cain and had been less valiant in the preexistence. If you were to ask anyone at that time, you would have found few who did not believe this was doctrine. When in 1978 the priesthood was extended to Black members, everyone I knew was thrilled. But many members continued to believe the explanations for the ban that had been given back in the past.

Flash forward to February 2012: we were in the middle of Mitt Romney’s second presidential run, and Jason Horowitz, a Washington Post reporter, published a story on the “Genesis of a Church’s Stand on Race,”[2] in which he quoted beloved BYU religion professor Randy Bott. Bott repeated many of the pre-1978 justifications for the ban and went on to compare “blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and [he explained] that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.” The following day, the Church issued a statement denouncing Botts’ words, stating that “The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.”[3] Now we have a Gospel Topic essay on “Race and the Priesthood,” which doesn’t shy away from recognizing that the ban was born in an era of racism, but also doesn’t really lay the ban at racism’s feet.[4]

Let me emphasize that I am thrilled to see these Topic Essays. I think they provide much-needed historical context for issues we’ve hitherto been unwilling to discuss. However, after reading the essay, a member of the Church has to make a choice: either, as the Book of Mormon musical puts it, “in 1978 God changed his mind about black people” or Brigham Young and everyone down to Spencer W. Kimball got it wrong. Either God or Brigham get thrown under the bus. If we choose God, we have to ask what kind of God would do that? And if we choose Brigham, how can we trust our current leaders when they talk about contemporary issues? The questions answered by the essay lead to a bigger question, a crisis of not just of faith but of credibility. As a friend of mine recently put it, “My kids aren’t asking how do I reconcile four versions of the First Vision. They are asking how can I trust that the church is getting anything right when the past seems so full of screw-ups, blunders, prejudice, ignorance, and evil?”

A popular apologetic work published in 1960 that attempted to rationalize the priesthood ban, emphasized that Church members had three choices: “Become apologizers for the Church” seeing the institution and its leaders as racist and old fashioned, confess that we don’t know the reason and accept it on blind faith, or proclaim that it is correct doctrine and explain it. He argues that only the last of those choices—to proclaim and explain the ban—was tenable.  “If we as members of the Church are going to pick and choose among the Prophet’s teachings, and say ‘this one is of God, we can accept it, but this one is of man, we will reject that,’ then we are undermining the whole structure of our faith . . . .”[5]

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Times have changed since 1960, yet I often hear this same all-or-nothing rhetoric today—either Joseph Smith was a prophet or the whole Church is false; either the Book of Mormon is ancient or it’s a fraud. I don’t think these kinds of comments serve us very well in a post-internet era where a Church member may discover one not-so-very-pleasant thing about Joseph Smith and the whole structure of their faith comes tumbling down.

Our ancestors lived in a different world than the one we do. There was no distinction between the world of the real and the world of religion. As Patrick Mason puts it, “In the premodern world, the notion of a lone individual switching religions, let alone leaving religion altogether, was exceptionally rare and in most times and places inconceivable.”[6] The modern secular world and the religious world do not overlap so well. There are those who spend their whole lives without doubting religious truth claims. Faith comes easy. But then there are those of us who doubt. And, as with Jeremy Runnells and his stake president, these world views often clash: The stake president lives in what Paul Ricoeur would call a pre-critical world and Runnells lives in a critical world. And no matter how much either may have desired, Runnells cannot go back to the pre-critical world of belief.

We’re not alone in confronting modernity. I’ve just mentioned Paul Ricoeur—a philosopher I’ve found particularly helpful in facing down the clash of precritical and critical worldviews. Ricoeur grew up a Protestant in France—a religious minority—and when Germans invaded France in 1940, he was captured and spent five years in a German POW camp. After facing the evil of war, Ricoeur could not go back to a faith that did not account for what Richard Kearney has called “the dark traversal of the abyss.”[7] Ricoeur was of two hearts: he believed religion needed to be subject to critical inquiry, but he also yearned for something more. He saw Marx, Nietzsche and Freud as masters of the school of suspicion (maîtres du soupçon) and the implications of their thought could not be ignored. As Ricoeur put it, “[t]he philosopher trained in the school of Descartes” is trained to doubt, but after Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche the philosopher must doubt consciousness itself.  “After the doubt about things, we have started to doubt consciousness.”[8] Ricoeur wanted a faith that could survive the onslaught of evil and rise above cynicism.

Instead of a turbulent airplane, Ricoeur used a different metaphor to describe the journey of the mind and heart: “Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.”[9] Deserts are frightening, desolate places, yet they have deep significance in religious metaphor and allegory. They are places of testing and trial, but also of transformation and revelation. And “being called again” suggests a religious calling, a calling that passes into, through, and beyond criticism.

“Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.”
—Paul Ricoeur

Ricoeur mapped out three stages of thought: the pre-critical, critical, and post-critical stages. The pre-critical stage he referred to as a “primary naïveté”—he is not using naïve in a pejorative way, but in the sense of innocence. It’s a place where religion and religious texts are taken at face value. The world we live in and the world of religion overlap to a large degree, and we live within our faith without probing it.

In the critical stage, the two worlds gradually move apart, and we begin to interrogate our faith. Many literal meanings of our faith must give way to the rational forces of modernity. The critical stage is characterized by a hermeneutics of suspicion. We no longer naively accept the world of the Bible and religion, but begin to hold them at a distance and examine them. There is no going back to where we were after we have passed through the desert of criticism.

The critical stage of faith is not something to be shunned. Rather it is an important part of the journey. As Ricoeur states, “The dissolution of the myth as explanation is the necessary way to the restoration of the myth as symbol. Thus, the time of restoration is not a different time from that of criticism; we are in every way children of criticism, and we seek to go beyond criticism by means of criticism, by a criticism that is no longer reductive but restorative.”[10] Criticism actually wipes away the false images of God that have accumulated over time and held us captive, allowing a new freedom to become and to worship the real God. It is only through an extreme form of iconoclasm that meaning can be restored. As Ricoeur puts it, “an idol must die so that a symbol of being may begin to speak.”[11]

But Ricoeur argued for a post-critical stage of what he termed a “second naïveté,” one where we “no longer [have] the first faith of the simple soul, but rather the second faith of one who has engaged in hermeneutics, [whose] faith … has undergone criticism, post-critical faith.” As he stated:

Does that mean that we could go back to a primitive naïveté? Not at all. In every way, something has been lost, irremediably lost; immediacy of belief. But if we can no longer live the great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can … aim at a second naïveté in and through criticism. In short, it is through interpreting that we can hear again. Thus it is in hermeneutics that the symbol’s gift of meaning and the endeavor to understand by deciphering are knotted together.”[12]

The post-critical stage is the place we are called to again after our wandering in the desert of criticism, a home we once knew but see again with new eyes. The post-critical stage accepts the insights from criticism—no matter where they lead—but nevertheless seeks a life of faith, a deeper kind of faith.

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In this post-critical world we are, as he put it, “animated by [a] double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience.”[13] This stage refuses, as Richard Kearney notes, “all absolute talk about the absolute, negative or positive, for it acknowledges that the absolute can never be understood absolutely by any single person or religion.”[14]

Granted, Ricoeur was not saying that everyone would pass through all of these stages. Some likely peer into the desert of criticism and run away, frightened by its foreboding terrain, turning back once again to the pre-critical world. Others surely enter into the world of criticism and lose their faith altogether. Ricoeur offers the post-critical stage as a possibility, a promised land after wandering in the desert.

This is a world of faith rather than belief. It does not demand that one accept things beyond our better judgment, but that we examine and hold them up to the light of criticism. I think this can actually be a much deeper faith and often a more humane and ethical faith. Linards Jansoms offers an example of how this post-critical faith can be more satisfying. In 1 Sam. 15, the Lord tells Saul through Samuel to “attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” When Saul spares the livestock, the scripture reads that God regrets having made Saul king and Samuel chastises him, saying “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22). A pre-critical reading of this scripture requires us to think God condones genocide. A critical reading of the text would recognize that this text was written by a relatively primitive tribal people that attributed a call for genocide to their god. But a post-critical reading of the scripture allows us to think ethically about this scripture—to hold it in tension—recognizing that God’s words are inevitably filtered through a cultural prism. We can acknowledge that this is a misrepresentation of God’s will and think deeply about how we individually might justify acts of cruelty in God’s name. [15]

So what about modern prophets? Do I have to believe everything they say unconditionally? I don’t think so. In fact, I think we are specifically called upon to exercise our own judgment as we listen to the spirit.

J. Reuben Clark once spoke on the subject of “When are the writings of Church leaders entitled to the claim of scripture?” and gave a very post-critical understanding of how the process works. He started by turning to the scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants that this question is based on “whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture” (D&C 68:2-4). Then President Clark stated, “The very words of the revelation recognize that the Brethren may speak when they are not ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost,’ yet only when they do so speak, as so ‘moved upon,’ is what they say Scripture.” So how do we know when they are “moved upon”? Clark goes on to say, “We can tell when the speakers are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’ only when we, ourselves, are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost.’ In a way, this completely shifts the responsibility from them to us to determine when they so speak.”[16] He went on to quote Brigham Young:

I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self- security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.[17]

Revelation is, then, performative rather than propositional: It is an event of insight and meaning that occurs between us and the words of scripture or prophets, rather than a body of received beliefs and practices. In a post-critical worldview, we must accept that both scripture and prophets are imperfect, but they can help us access God. We must approach both, therefore, with a kind of double-mindedness, as Ricoeur would say, with a “willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience.”

This changes our understanding of faith. Faith is something beyond belief. My beliefs may change—I may discover new things about the Church and its history—but my faith does not depend on belief. The Catholic theologian Roger Haight has demonstrated the problem of confusing faith and belief:

Because of the social importance of beliefs and their role of defining the community’s faith, faith itself tends to be confused with, collapsed into, and mistaken for holding on to these beliefs. For this faith, which is now belief, means assenting to an objective set of beliefs about realty . . . summarized in a set of propositions.[18]

“The phenomenon of beliefs masquerading as faith is theologically wrong,” states Haight, but, more importantly it sets us up a crisis of faith, especially in an increasingly pluralist world.  As beliefs become increasingly tied to faith, when a belief is shown to be false, our faith collapses. When contradictory knowledge confronts “beliefs taken as knowledge,” “[t]he result is that many people leave the church, and what is left is a community of closed, eviscerated and impoverished faith isolated from the world on the basis of archaic beliefs.” Furthermore, we lose sight of the true transcendent. Faith becomes a form of what Haight calls “ordinary knowledge,” rather than a meaningful way of living and loving.[19] In the Book of Mormon, Alma specifically states that “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.”

I think it’s significant that the words faith and fidelity come from a common root. Faith, like fidelity to a spouse, is relational—it involves an Other—and it depends on commitment and trust. Faith mediates my relationship with God just as fidelity does my relationship with my wife. In both cases, the relationships are created out of affection, established by covenants, nourished by service, preserved by fidelity, renewed by forgiveness, and sustained by patience and love.

I believe I have developed into a better person not simply because of the joy both relationships have engendered but also because of the pain of self-revelation and repentance they have forced me to confront. Because of my membership in the Church and my marriage to my wife, I am a better person than I would have been otherwise. Both have nurtured me and blessed me in ways I don’t fully comprehend.

Let me switch gears for a moment and offer some advice to those who have friends or family going through a faith crisis:

  1. Don’t freak out. I know that first hearing about someone’s faith crisis can be hard. If it’s your spouse or child, it can seem like the end of the world because we Mormons put so much emphasis on the eternal nature of families. But if you react with anger or you let your own emotions overpower you, that loved one is going to feel like he or she can’t be honest with you and future discussions about faith are over before they’ve even begun.
  2. Just listen. Empathy—knowing someone really hears and understands what you have to say—is crucial for someone going through a faith crisis. I think we can learn a lot from looking at Job’s friends and how they approach his life crises. In the beginning Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar just sit with Job: “So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.” Speechlessness is appropriate for the initial shock of hearing about someone’s pain, and Job’s friends are correct in this—so correct that it is still tradition to mourn silently or nearly silently with grieving loved ones, for seven days—“sitting Shivva” in many Jewish communities. But later each one of his friends allows his own sense of Reason to interfere with their pure grief and sympathy. Each one finds a way to blame Job for his troubles. Surely he must have sinned for God to have allowed so much suffering. (Most scholars believe the introduction and conclusion to the Book of Job were written by a different author than the middle parts, so that probably explains the different responses.) Follow Job’s friends’ first response: sit and listen. Maybe not for seven days and nights, but just be there.
  3. Don’t judge. Just as Job’s friends assume Job’s suffering must have been caused by something Job did, we often assume that a faith crisis is caused by bad behavior. I’ve heard speculation many times from Latter-day Saints that people who leave the Church do so because they have committed a grievous sin. There are many reasons to doubt. And more often than not it’s people who are doing what’s right—attending church meetings, reading scriptures, going to the temple—who confront a faith crisis. This one is hard—much harder done than said—judging is an almost instantaneous reaction. For many many people of religious conviction, to hear of doubt or anger or confusion is the Pavlovian bell that makes our judging salivary glands kick in. Resist. Detach from the instantaneous response that will pop instantly to mind, words from some manual or some Sunday school lesson to explain and excuse—those reactions are not news to the one in crisis. They have already thought of all those things. That is exactly why they feel terrible and are trying to talk to you as if you were safe. So be safe by not reacting. And bite your tongue, which leads to
  4. Don’t Preach. While it’s impossible not to long for your loved one to come around and find renewed faith, preaching is the last thing they want to hear. It is guaranteed to shut down the conversation. This is another tricky bit because we often do it when we don’t think or intend to do it. But if your words instruct—if they have imperative verbs or any language that could be from a manual, just shut up. Listen to what they are hearing you say, and if it sounds like a seminary film, Close Your mouth, right that moment. And bearing your testimony to them can come off as condescending and presumptuous. Just listen. They don’t want an answer, at least not yet. They want comfort. They want to know they can trust you, that you care. They want a friend. Remember the wise, Anne Lamott wise adage: W.A.I.T: Why Am I Talking?
  5. Be prepared to learn something. A person going through a faith crisis has inevitably encountered some information or a worldview that is new to them and will likely be new to you. It’s a big world out there. Don’t assume you’ve got all the answers. People who do have rarely asked enough questions. Plan on doing some reading. Expect to be surprised. Anticipate your own doubts. If you have really listened with empathy—if you’ve put yourself in their shoes—you are going to start seeing things the way they see them.
  6. As scary as all this is, don’t lose confidence. If you’ve come this far you cannot go back—at least not to the way you were. You’re just like Adam and Eve after they were kicked out of the Garden. You’re eyes are now open. Your world and your loved one’s world are never going to be the same. But in Mormon theology Adam and Eve were never meant to remain in the Garden. They were meant to leave it. That “lone and dreary world” is where they learn and progress. But don’t be afraid. It’s not all that lonely and dreary out there. Growth and wonder and beauty lay ahead. My father-in-law used to say that “the Gospel is like a football; you can kick it around but it’s still there.” Believe that. Trust that. There are satisfying answers to questions and new ways of seeing the world that will allow you to keep faith. But know that the new answers and new worldview are going to be a lot more complex than the old ones. Just as children’s physical and cognitive abilities develop and grow, so too should their faith. Make room for paradox. Accept complexity. Savor depth and nuance. The Gospel is still there, but it’s going to be nothing like what your child-like self thought it was. It’s going to be bigger, more expansive, more robust, more exciting! But it’s not going to be tidy.
  7. God has an eternity to work with us. Remember that whatever happens it’s not the end of the road. It may be that your loved one stops going to Church, maybe even leaves the Church, maybe stops believing in God altogether. I know this messes with the traditional narrative that if you’re sealed in the temple and you’re all faithful, you’ll be together for eternity. But trust in God’s grace and mercy. Our Heavenly Parents have an eternity to work with us, and I can’t believe they would allow 60 or 70 or 80 short earth years to completely ruin our chances for an eternity of joy and togetherness. (If you want to blow your little mind by exploring just how vast eternity is, Steven Peck has a book for you!) Remember: Mormonism is an optimistic religion. No one (well, almost no one) is going to hell, because, in Mormon theology, we don’t even have a hell like the traditional one. And we will continue to grow and develop in the hereafter. Our theology of salvation must embrace a universe as limitless as our cosmology does. Our Heavenly Parents love their children at least as much as we love our own (and I’d wager they love them much, much more). Their hearts seek us out. Their desires for our happiness and well-being are limitless. Gospel means “good news” not damnation, death, and destruction.” Christ tells us that “in the world ye shall have tribulation.” It’s tough out there and we’re going to get dirty, bruised, and banged up. But, he reminds us “be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” And he means all of it. “It is finished.” I did not leave anything out.
  8. Preserve the relationship. Above all, value the person over their declaration of faith or loss of faith. Patrick Mason has stated that the greatest test of discipleship for our generation is how we respond to those who doubt.[20] I cannot agree more. Just as God doesn’t withhold love on the basis of what one believes, neither should we. Don’t let this change come between you and your friend or loved one. Extend more love, not less. Sometimes people worry that having a doubter around family will cause doubt to spread like a contagion, that children might be enticed toward “bad behavior” and “bad ideas.” But the way you treat that doubter—the way you extend or withhold love—sends an even more powerful message to all involved. Worry less about “corrupting influences” and worry more about being kind. Joseph Smith called friendship one of the “grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism.’” He further stated that “I don’t care what a man’s character is; if he’s my friend—a true friend, I will be a friend to him.” Mormonism is an inclusive religion. Love on! And may I add, “love” does not mean “tolerate.” If you have shifted from loving someone to tolerating them, they can tell. Here’s a test: can you still laugh at their jokes? Can you still smile unreservedly (without a trace of pity or sorrow or worry in the eyebrows) when you greet them? The scriptures say that we are to love one another, not tolerate them.

Our heavenly parents love and nurture all their children, and so should we. No matter whether we live in a pre-critical, critical, or post-critical world, we are called to love our families and friends as well as strangers and enemies no matter which world they live in.

Finally, is there room in the Church for post-critical Mormons? I believe there is, but I think it requires us to highlight the things we love over the things we doubt. For me, I love the way the Church forces me to confront, serve, and love the “other.” Eugene England believed that the Church was as “true” as the gospel “because it is concrete, not theoretical; in all its contradictions and problems, it is at least as productive of good as is the gospel.” It forces us to get “real” with our charity. It’s not the place where love automatically exists, but the place where we learn to love each other despite disagreements, fights, tears, and pain. The Church is not a place for people who are already saved; it is for people who are committed to trying. The Church is, as England maintained, a “school of love.” It forces us to be kind to those unlike us and to engage charitably with people who disagree with us. In a world where it is possible to interact exclusively with people who think exactly like we do—where we get our news from sources we already agree with, where our Facebook friends can be sequestered into groups we share our status updates with and those we don’t, where we can socialize with people of similar interests throughout the world and never talk to our next-door neighbor—it’s really worthwhile to be forced to work with and love people who are radically different from us.

With its congregations filled by people living within geographic boundaries rather than people who choose their congregation, this church remains one of the last places where we simply cannot avoid certain kinds of difference It’s a world where I have come to love people who are fans of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, but it’s also a world where they have to come to love a John Oliver-watching progressive like me. It’s a world where, when my atheist friend needed to move a load of dirt, his geographical Ward’s elder’s quorum helped him get the job done in minutes. And as I love and interact with these people I disagree with, I find my own beliefs challenged, reshaped, and moderated, helping me to engage more charitably with others in the national and world community. As the Church community moves us toward cooperation and love for each other despite our differences, we often find our differences to be smaller and less of an obstacle to creating even larger communities.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin word religio, the same root as our word “ligament.” It is about “binding together”—in this case binding together a community of people committed to God. It’s about “getting our living together,” as Thoreau puts it. And Mormonism in particular is a system of belief that depends on community. Our theology says we are saved as a community—in fact, at one point Christ rejects us unless we are a community, for “If ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27). Joseph Smith’s Book of Moses shows us that Enoch can glimpse God and the cosmos alone, but he can only be saved with the rest of his City. Central to Mormonism are the ideas of uniting families in temple-sealings, building Zion on earth, and ultimately entering a community of gods. Religion is a way of dedicating ourselves to helping each other (imperfectly as we may) and consecrating—that is, making sacred—our lives. I don’t believe you can make your life sacred alone; you need a community—not a community of people who are just like you, but a community of people who come to work together and love each other, despite their differences, out of a shared devotion to charity, service, and God. And that devotion may not have the same haircut, clothing, and lack of tattoos as you. It may have, as Elder Uchtdorf pointed out, completely different sins than yours.

I also love the unique theology of Mormonism—the beliefs other Christian denominations consider heresies: that humans are pre-mortal and post-mortal beings, co-eternal with God, born innocent of Adam’s sin, capable of limitless potential. I love the teaching that the Godhead is composed of separate beings, and that bodies—human and divine—are eternal and holy. I believe these principles to be true not because I have any “proof”—for what proof could there be that couldn’t be called into question? Instead, I believe these concepts to be true because they “taste good,” as Joseph Smith put it in the King Follett Discourse. “You say honey is sweet and so do I,” he said. “I can also taste the spirit of eternal life. I know it is good; and when I tell you of these things which were given me by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, you are bound to receive them as sweet and I rejoice more and more.” Obviously taste is a rather ill-defined and subjective method for discovering truth. Different people have different tastes. But Joseph insisted these doctrines would taste good in the mouths of Christ’s followers, and I find myself saying “amen” to that discourse. For me, Mormonism just “tastes” good.

I especially love the “taste” of LDS perspectives on the Atonement: that Christ effected the possibility of both immortality and eternal life, resurrection and exaltation, on the cross and in Gethsemane; that, by suffering human “infirmities,” temptations, and pains Christ learned how to “succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12); and that the immensity of the Atonement is gigantic—much greater than we can imagine—bringing together in one “all things, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth” (D&C 27:13). Most of all, I love that the humanity of Christ is as important to Mormons as his divinity—that his mortality gives him the compassion to save and that his divinity lifts our humanity from the degradations of mortality.

All of these intriguing theological concepts are made possible by the unique Mormon canon. The language of Mormon scripture has been written in my heart; it has become part of the way I think and feel. It is my language of faith. Whatever process Joseph Smith used to give these scriptures life, no matter how flawed an individual he might have been, he had an expansive mind and a heart tuned to the endless potential of humanity.

I also love Mormon rituals. I have witnessed power in the religious rites of many traditions: the ritualized call-and-response sermons of Protestant worship, the reenactment of the Lord’s Supper of high church liturgy set within the architectural splendor of a gothic cathedral and the dappled lighting of stained-glass windows, the sincere and humble submission of Muslims at prayer, and gospel choirs bearing enthusiastic witness of God’s bountiful grace. After I understood and acclimatized myself to these other ways of worship, I came to believe that God fully honors these efforts with his spirit and attends to these prayers. Nevertheless, I believe that the rituals unique to Mormonism—especially temple work and sealings—are uniquely entrusted to our faith at this time. And I have felt priesthood—some kind of divine power—flow through me as I’ve given blessings and baptized and confirmed and ordained my children. It is a unique and beautiful power; holy and efficacious.

I can still say that I know the Church is true, but I mean something different than I did when I was a young missionary in France. I mean that I am committing myself to this Church much as I did to my wife when we were first married, and as I do when I repeat the magic words “I love you” as a vow of allegiance. I am saying that, based on the elusive assurance of life experiences and the inner desires of my heart, based on love and devotion, I am placing my hopes with the LDS community. I am confident that, as in my relationship with my wife, my relationship with the Church will evolve, but I am devoted to continuing this journey together. This kind of “knowing” is very different from the kind I had as a missionary, yet the words are the same. I feel I have come back to a place I only now recognize. In the words of T.S. Eliot,

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

—T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” The Four Quartets

My testimony is a commitment of the heart, a promise made to a God I can only glimpse and to a community with whom I share my yearnings for immortality and eternal life.

 


[1] “Arriving Where I Started: Disassembling and Reassembling a Testimony,” Sunstone June 2013, 16-21.

[2] Jason Horowitz, “Genesis of a Church’s Stand on Race,” Washington Post February 28, 2012, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/the-genesis-of-a-churchs-stand-on-race/2012/02/22/gIQAQZXyfR_story.html

[3] “Race and the Church: All Are Alike Unto God,” LDS Newsroom February 29, 2012 http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/race-church

[4] “Race and the Priesthood,” https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng

[5] John J. Stewart, Mormonism and the Negro (Salt Lake: Community Press, 1960), 19.

[6] Patrick Q. Mason, Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 2015), 27-28.

[7] Richard Kearney, “Ricoeur and Biblical Hermeneutics: On Post Religious Faith,” in Ricoeur across the Disciplines, ed. Scott Davidson (New York: Continuum, 2010), 30.

[8] Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 33.

[9] Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967),

349.

[10] Ibid., 350.

[11] Paul Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics (Evaston: Northwestern University Press, 1974), 467.

[12] Ricoeur, Symbolism of Evil, 351.

[13] Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, 27.

[14] Richard Kearney, Anatheism: Returning to God After God (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 16.

[15] Linards Jansons, “What is the Second Naiveté?: Engaging with Paul Ricoeur, Post-Critical Theology, and Progressive Christianity,” October 30, 2014, available at https://www.academia.edu/14690650/What_is_the_Second_Naivet%C3%A9_Engaging_with_Paul_Ricoeur_Post-Critical_Theology_and_Progressive_Christianity

[16] J. Reuben Clark, Selected Papers, ed. David H. Yarn, Jr. (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1982), 95-96.

[17] Ibid., 96; See Brigham Young, “Eternal Punishment,” January 12, 1862, Journal of Discourses, 9:150

[18] Roger Haight, Dynamics of Theology (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1990), 35-36.

[19] Ibid., 36-37.

[20] Mason, Planted, 19.

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