Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Looking Back on My Silent Crisis of Faith

The first anti-Mormon I encountered was a guy on my high school campus handing out legal size flyers, both sides of which were covered with questions about Mormonism. The man truly looked like a drug addict. Most students that took flyers tossed them in the nearby trashcan. Before long, the school's resource officer ushered the guy off campus for violating public policy regarding distribution of materials at a school.

Later that day a couple of students brought copies of the flyers to seminary class. My seminary teacher admonished students to disregard and not even read anything written on the flyers. Most took his advice. But after class I talked with one classmate that had some real concerns about some of the items on the paper. A couple of other students slammed him for even entertaining such questions. I could see that he was frustrated. Was there no room in the religion for honest inquiry?

Since that time, I have known a number of people that have experienced a crisis of faith. Many of them have grappled with doubts based in the church's claims to truth. Many that know me—even my most intimate associates—might be surprised to learn that I too have struggled through a crisis of faith. Although I am a habitual journal keeper, I kept the matter so close that I didn't even write much about it in my journal.

The recent FAIR conference addressed doubt, shaken faith, the ways people leave the church, and even some of the ways that people return to the church. Some of the addresses I found interesting included Michael R. Ash's presentation about his book, Shaken Faith Syndrome; Seth Payne's talk about ministering to those struggling with doubt; and a discussion among four scholars that each had gone through a major faith crisis. At least three of those in the discussion had left the church but had subsequently returned.

I also found Rosalynde Welch's Disenchanted Mormonism presentation quite captivating; although, my own experience significantly differs from hers. Welch paints herself as a faithful Latter-Day Saint that has gone through life with little connection to the spiritual and mystic elements of the religion. She admits that her case might seem odd, given that the church is founded on and emphasizes the modern importance of spiritual events. But she seems to revel in the earthly value of various church practices and sociality.

Welch floats an intriguing idea about belonging. Namely, that individuals already either belong or do not belong to various groups and organizations, whether they know it or not. Their job is to discover where they fit. In this scenario, individual will is somewhat reduced from the modern Western understanding of individuality. I'm not sure where I come down on this idea. It's just a provocative thought.

Although Welch says that she does not discount the doubt->crisis model, she seems to suggest that it is too self-centric. The individual becomes his own god (my words, not hers) rather than humbly accepting "the limits of our intellectual and moral mastery." (Incidentally, Ralph Hancock provides a compelling argument against currently ascendant ultra individualism in this presentation.) Indeed, Don Bradley, who left and then later returned to the church, says in the round table discussion, "I am content now to let God be God and I’ll be Don."

My description may sound as if Welch is arguing for an uncritical approach to faith. I think that is not the case. Her presentation paints a more complex picture than that. It's worth reading and thinking about. At any rate, her presentation helped me better understand fellow worshipers that do not experience the spiritual as I do.

Several presenters asserted that too much rigidity in one's views of the church, its history, its people, and its doctrines lies at the root of most faith crisis situations. Even the most scholarly individual has some inflexible views that are founded in partial truths and faulty assumptions. When presented with evidence (or even supposed evidence) that seems to directly challenge views that underlie critical foundations, a faith crisis can result. (Note that presenting challenging information is fairly easy, while delving into a proper answer is often very complex.)

Many that experience such a crisis deal with it silently, as I did. They may be unaware that others have already grappled with and have expertly answered many of their questions. (See, for example.) Since a significant part of their identity and position in life is tied to the church, many are reticent to expose their doubts to others. They may (with some justification) fear that they will be treated in alienating rather than loving ways. Other church (and even family) members may naturally react with revulsion in an effort to inoculate themselves against the faltering faith of the doubter.

While my experience includes some common elements of shaken faith, I eventually came to understand that my doubts were secondary to my real crisis.

I had over a period of several years explored my personal political philosophy. During this period, I assumed alliances with some groups that seemed to share some of my understanding. As I did so, I uncritically adopted other views espoused by these groups, as if this was required of one with my political identity. (Faulty reasoning: if I agree with group X about A, and group X believes B, I must also believe B.)

As I increasingly became involved in debating this constellation of political views, I developed very un-Christ-like sentiments toward some with opposing views. The more I did this, the more I experienced seemingly imperceptible changes in my private religious practices. My prayers became less fervent and more rote. Personal scripture study suffered. Efforts to repent became less frequent and less sincere. Those with whom I disagreed became objects rather than children of God. (See 1 John 4:20.)

Although I was still doing all of the outward things that good and worthy members of the church do, fulfilling my callings, serving others, etc., I had allowed some significant chinks in my armor to go unaddressed. About this time I was exposed to some historical information that didn't fit with my (fairly well studied) view of church history. This even came from friendly, relatively orthodox sources.

I was weak, so doubts were more easily sowed. The more I mused on these doubts the more I felt like I was just going through the motions of church membership with a kind of internal emptiness. But my concerns felt very real and very significant.

I can't really say why this happened, but one day I experienced a moment of reflective clarity. I realized that I had become more certain about my politics than about my religion. I had been defending political ideas that I didn't really believe. Maybe politics was even becoming my religion.

Somehow I was able to step back and look at what was happening to me. I didn't like what I saw. I considered what I really knew deep within and what was really important to me. There were some bedrock matters that I could not deny that made my doubts pale into insignificance.

In a flash, I divorced myself from political debate. (I'm not suggesting that this would be the right step for anybody else.) I began re-examining my religious faith and my political views, giving the former preeminence over the latter. My relationship with God and with others began to improve at that moment. That was only the beginning. Over time my religious understanding has gained new stability while my political views have evolved significantly.

Although answers to my religious doubts did not immediately appear, I felt the Spirit prompting me to be still and patient. Over time I found answers to some concerns. I am still waiting for others. But that doesn't bother me at all. I have become reconnected to God in a way that puts these matters into perspective.

Like Janet Eyring said in the linked round table discussion, scripture study and the sacrament have become richer experiences for me because "you see your own self, you know you’re fallen. You know your flawed self in scriptures that you didn't see when you were younger." She is saying that you better understand how much you need Christ. Although they're not in the current version of the LDS Hymnal, I experience the hymns Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing and Amazing Grace with personally poignant insight that was previously lacking.

Seth Payne's ideas about reaching out to those struggling with a crisis of faith are valuable. Unfortunately this kind of internal strife may not be readily apparent to us, just as my struggles were likely invisible to others. This kind of care and ministering requires spiritual discernment that is rarely experienced unless diligently sought.

The validity of Rosalynde Welch's postulation on belonging might be questionable, but it has been made powerfully clear to me that I am where I belong. And I'm happy; much happier than when I was excessively focusing on real and imagined flaws.

I am not the last seemingly stalwart church member that calls his own basis of faith into question. I pray for those that are dealing with or that will deal with this kind of thing because I know that, as the hymn says, "Dear are the sheep that have wandered Out in the desert to pine."

1 comment:

Seth Payne said...


Great post. Thanks for the kind words about my FAIR presentation. I'm glad you found it useful.

I thought that overall the FAIR conference this year was absolutely fantastic. I think FAIR is really making an effort to reach out to those who are seeking answers.

Seth Payne