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Fly on the Wall: The Faithful Respond to Faith Crisis

December 22, 2012

The other day I saw Nate Oman’s Times & Seasons post A Letter to a FriendIn this post, Nate counsels a friend of his who is apparently in the middle of a crisis of faith. I really love candid posts like these (or any post where a believing Mormon talks about disaffection, faith crises, or ex-Mormonism…either in reference to a specific person or in general.) I think it’s because I get to hear what believers really think and assess if they get it…even a bit.

That being said, I am not Nate O’s friend. And I don’t even know Nate’s friend’s issues. So, it’s probable that since Nate actually is friends with his friend (duh), that he has a better grasp on exactly where his friend is coming from.

(Or maybe he doesn’t, and the letter will be hopelessly ineffective. I guess the point is: there’s no way for me to tell, and I don’t even have the experience to begin to presume the latter over the former.)

[If I interpret the first comment in a way that I think is plausible, then this probably did help Nate's friend.]

But, though I am admittedly a non-friend and ignorant about the situation, I still feel like a fly on the wall…and as a fly, I still think and ponder about how such a letter would affect me.

Early in the letter, Nate raises up the idea of people having different spiritual gifts — to point out that some folks may not have the gift of knowledge or certainty. As he puts it:

One of the gifts of the spirit described in the Doctrine & Covenants is a sure knowledge or belief in the truth of the gospel.  But I take it that like other gifts, this one is not vouched safe to everyone.  Others do not have this sure conviction, but rather live in faith.  They have doubts and difficulties but orient themselves hopefully toward the gospel, accepting that we now see as in a glass darkly but trust (literally trust, hope, etc.) that in the end all will be made clear and any errors in belief will be forgiven.  I suspect that this describes the lives of most faithful Latter-day Saints.  Something like this describes my own faith.

One thing I really dislike about the spiritual gift trope that people often use is that spiritual gifts aren’t all equal. It is similar to the analogy of the church as a body — even if you can have too much liver, there’s no questioning that livers are essential. On the other hand, there are other organs that are not as essential, and there can be other things that a body does that is downright harmful.

What’s more problematic is that several of the spiritual gifts don’t make sense if they aren’t in light of other spiritual gifts. In other words, if you have neither the gift to know nor the gift to believe on the words of others (these gifts are often paired up as being catch-alls…so that if you don’t have one, then you will have the other, but this really doesn’t have to be the case), then it really doesn’t matter what other spiritual gifts you have.

And I want to emphasize a point — in this system, if you are dealing with someone who has the gift either to know or the gift to believe on the words of others, then you’re golden. But this system doesn’t guarantee that everyone will have either gift.

(I grant that the implication of Nate’s post is that he probably has reason to suspect that the friend accepts certain things as true — his crisis of faith, in other words, is limited to certain issues rather than being a general crisis. Still, I’m going to write this post to point out that this letter simply doesn’t work if your doubt touches certain issues.)

Nate continues:

If the decision to live life as a faithful Latter-day Saint, however, does not rest on a sure conviction of the truth of all theological particulars, then why live it?  I can think of at least four reasons, which I put in what I take to be their order of importance.  The first is revelation.  Even if one is not given a revelation that reconciles all difficulties and explains all questions, this does not mean that revelation is not real.  However, what is revealed is not the absolute truthfulness of the Book of Mormon or something like that.  Rather, what is revealed is that God desires that you live your life in a particular way.  I cannot say that I am without questions or doubts regarding all of the particulars of Mormon theology.  I cannot say that God has revealed the absolute truth of this or that questionable teaching to me.  On the other hand, I do believe that God has called me to live the life that I am living.  I believe that God has called me to live as a faithful Latter-day Saint, to keep the commandments, raise my children to be good Mormons, serve in the church, and support the authorities that God has called to carry out this part of his work.  In other words, my commitment to the life of a Latter-day Saint comes prior to any final theological reconciliation and rests on a revelation from God.

The thing that strikes me about this paragraph is that it ONLY works if you have a conviction (sure or otherwise) at least of the truth of revelation. If you don’t, then Nate’s answer is non sequitur. Nate says: “even if one is not given a revelation that reconciles all difficulties and explains all questions, this does not mean that revelation is not real.” Sure, I buy that. But 1) why should anyone accept revelation in the first place? and 2) what am I to see as being revelation?

I mean, what if my crisis of faith is that I don’t think God desires that I live my life in a particular way (e.g., the Mormon way)? (And of course, this is assuming that my crisis of faith isn’t about God it/him/herself.)

The second reason has the same issue:

The second basis is covenant.  I have made promises before God, angels, and witnesses at baptism, in the temple, through priesthood ordinations, and through the sacrament.  I believe that these covenants provide a reason for living a particular life that again comes prior to any detailed theological reconciliation.  I believe in the reality of God and the reality and seriousness of those promises to him.  I understand that I could tell myself a story about the church in which the covenants are frauds, empty rituals carried out be deluded but nice fanatics.  While I can articulate this story, however, it simply rings hollow to me.  I cannot make it feel real.  On the other hand, the covenants feel real to me, and when I contemplate abandoning them, I cannot help but feel the spirit testifying to me that I will be held responsible if I do so.  Again, I understand that one might simply psychologize these experiences but my interpretation feels truer to me.  It cuts closer to the joints of my experience, and I am willing to wager my life on that understanding.

It depends on someone thinking that they have made promises before God, angels, and witnesses at baptism, in the temple, etc., My experience never was such.

Nate mentions something that I do think is crucial, though. He points out that he understands he could tell himself a story about the church in which the covenants are frauds or empty rituals, but that this story rings hollow to him. It does not feel real to him, and he cannot make it so.

The thing I would try to point out for him is that there are other people for whom this story does ring true and feel real. They cannot make it otherwise either. The covenants do not feel real, and when contemplating abandoning them, there is no spirit that testifies anything to them.

(of course, that raises another possibility — that they feel the spirit testifying to them precisely that they *should* abandon those covenants. The dynamics of interreligious spiritual warfare is almost too much to my tiny mind…)

So, I mean, Nate’s second basis isn’t really an argument. It’s more: if you are like Nate, then this will work. (But then, just as well, your faith crisis also seems predetermined to resolve itself out. Without your doing anything, you will feel, as Nate does, that the skeptical answer feels “hollow.”) If you are not like Nate, then your doubt justifies itself. (And just as well, your faith crisis also seems predetermined to resolve itself out. Without your doing anything, those doubts will still nag, and skeptical explanations will seem more satisfying than faithful ones — even if you want to believe the faithful ones.)

Nate’s third point is interesting, only in that it doesn’t seem to me to justify any sort of action either way.

The third basis is identity.  I am a Mormon.  I understand that I could abandon this.  It would be painful to my family and my friends — or at least some of them — but it is certainly possible.  When I say it is my identity it is not that I am clinging to a persona because of the fear of those consequences.  Rather, my experiences in life are such that were I to cease being a Latter-day Saint it would require that I become someone quite different than I have hitherto been.  I don’t want to do this.  I believe that there is some dignity in being a Mormon and it is who I am.  I think that there is some integrity in maintaining that identity, and it is something I choose to do.

I think there is a lot to identity. But I have a different view point of identity.

I too am a Mormon. Not going to church does not undo that. Not believing does not undo that (if only because I haven’t ever believed…so I think it would be counter-intuitive to say that all the time I spent in activity was really *not* Mormon). Maybe time will do this (as some ex-Mormons who have been ex- for longer than I have been alive say).

At this point, I think a lot of faithful, active Mormons tend to think or say something like: “But if you’re not believing, not practicing, etc., then in what sense are you Mormon? You’re making Mormon meaningless!”

I think it’s difficult to narrow down the sine qua non of Mormonism. Probably because there is not a universal Mormonism throughout time and space anyway. But I mean, I can only try to grasp at it periphrastically. An ex-Mormon is different from a never-Mormon. Why? Knowledge? History? Heritage? I dunno.

I agree with Nate when he says, “were I to cease being a Latter-day Saint it would require that I become someone quite different than I have hitherto been.” But I don’t think that what’s keeping me back is that I don’t want to do this (although to the extent that such transition would require abandoning my past and history, it is true that I don’t want to do this)…but rather that I don’t think I can do this. How does one forget one’s history and past without amnesia?

(For whatever it’s worth, I do think that Nate’s use of the term Latter-day Saint vs. Mormon introduces some complexities. But that’s a different post.)

That being said, where Nate and I probably disagree (and why he probably views the identity issue a lot differently than I do) is that he probably views the locus of Mormon identity a lot more narrowly than I do…in other words, for him, Mormonism is a place that he has to choose to stay within. But for me, Mormonism is portable — I take it with me regardless of where I go.

My perspective on identity spills over into how I would address Nate’s fourth point on community:

The fourth basis is community.  I am not convinced that Mormons are an exceptional group of moral heroes.  We have lots of hypocrites and just plain human weakness, a lot more than we are comfortable admitting to ourselves.  On the other hand, Mormons are good people.  I love them.  Their god is my god, and I have promised to bear them up, to comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and be with them.  And they have made the same promises to me.  I am tied to the Latter-day Saints not just by my own identity as a Mormon, but by affection and by a set of covenants to them.  It is a relationship that is like — but obviously only like — a marriage.  This is a people where I am at home, and it is a people that I take to be engaged in a great and good cause, the cause of building Zion in the last days.  I figure that we don’t do a very good job of it most of the time, and we too often get distracted.  On the other hand, I am inclined to be charitable toward them in the hope that they will be charitable toward me.  And by and large they have been.

I too am not convinced that Mormons are an exceptional group of moral heroes. Frustratingly, I think that Mormons are particularly prone because of their Mormonism to have particular moral blind spots that bother me. (But then again — everyone has these…it’s just that my blind spots mean I am not as bothered by a lot of others’. I’m just frustrated by the ones I think are socialized by Mormonism.)

But I can see a lot of what Nate is saying. I love how I can go to a gathering like Sunstone or a Mormon Stories conference, and have a substantive conversation within moments — because we all know the Mormon lingo. (I mean, that’s already something I like about blogging — no small talk — but when conversations offline can be extensions of conversations online, that is so refreshing.) I feel connected and bound by the fact that I can understand the pain of someone who is being estranged by his faithful parents or friends because of a crisis of faith, because I know Mormonism.

But interestingly enough, some of these same things put a wedge between me and many faithful members. I mean, in many places, faith crises are analogous to leprosy.

I’ll just say that regardless of the outcome, Nate isn’t treating his friend like an untouchable.

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10 Comments
  1. Early in the post you say, “One thing I really dislike about the spiritual gift trope that people often use is that spiritual gifts aren’t all equal.”

    I’ve thought a lot about this as one who seems to share something in your experience (born/raised in the Church, but without that gift of faith or belief). As I’ve reflected on it, I’m attracted to the idea that doubt can be a gift. Oftentimes, believers are too… believing — to credulous. Doubters — so long as the remain with the community (which can be very difficult) — can push back against some of the nonsense (anti-gay bigotry, silly interpretations of scripture, etc.).

    I wrote about this a while back in a post on reading scripture from a doubter’s perspective (http://amateurmormontheology.wordpress.com/2012/11/29/scriptures-the-hebrew-canon-2/)

    I think too often the approach of well-meaning friends and family is to fix the doubter, and too often us doubters buy into part of that narrative. The Church has no room for us as we are, so we won’t have anything to do with it (at least from the inside). What if we saw doubt as a gift as well? It certainly won’t be rewarded by the institutional church in the way that faith and belief are, but I’m not in this for the little bonuses that can be doled out by the institution.

  2. brad7234,

    I have heard people raise up the idea of doubt as being a gift, but this always seems to be a (generally) unscriptural, ad hoc rationalization from liberal/uncorrelated/middle way Mormons. At least, in the sense that you speak of where the doubters “push back against some of the nonsense.”

    I hear some faithful Mormons are starting to bring doubt back at least a little bit, but the role of doubt serves to make the supposed “choice” about believing that much freer (because if the evidence is lopsided too far one way or another, then there really isn’t that much choice, or so the argument goes.)

    Thanks for the link to the post.

    I’ll note one thing you say:

    While I may have chosen different language, I think believers would be well served to take seriously the critiques of outsiders (just as I think that nonbelievers have a great deal to learn from believers).

    However much believers *would* be well served by taking seriously outsiders’ (or even nonbelieving insiders’) critiques, I just don’t think that this is going to happen. Because the believer typically doesn’t think that the outsiders’ critique is worthwhile or even potentially positive. (I was just having a conversation where the other person, out of curiosity’s sake, wondered if I considered myself an anti-Christ or like Korihor. And I mean, this is a person who was speaking in a completely friendly manner. I don’t think you can even begin to talk about learning from someone when your only real way of framing their perspective is “anti-Christ Korihor.”)

    Back to this comment though…

    What if we saw doubt as a gift as well? It certainly won’t be rewarded by the institutional church in the way that faith and belief are, but I’m not in this for the little bonuses that can be doled out by the institution.

    What is the antecedent for “we” here? From your earlier sentence, it seems that it is the doubters themselves (ourselves?) But here is the thing: I don’t think doubters have an issue with seeing their doubt as a gift — in fact, I’m not one of the guys who studies the structure and tropes of disaffection narratives (for that, I would insert a link to Seth Payne or Rosemary Avance here if I weren’t so lazy)…but I’m pretty sure that a key part of the narrative is that doubt is something that helped the doubter progress past deception or lies or whatever.

    …the question is…if one views doubt as a gift, what reason does one have to view it as a gift from the institutional narrative (when the institution does not agree), OR to try to mesh one’s narrative to be friendly with the institution’s?

    …i guess I’m failing to account for a lot of people. I guess when you talk about doubters who buy the approach of friends and family to try to “fix the doubt,” you’re probably talking more about people who are just entering faith crises, not people who have roughed it out and are exiting on the side of disaffection.

    My response to your idea for these folks would be this: given that their faith crisis is a crisis of doubting the institution’s narrative (that they have previously accepted), how can they even begin to conceptualize doubt as a gift?

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’ve been a fan of your blog for a while now, but this is my first time commenting. You’ve given me a lot to chew on — I’ll try to respond point by point, but I’ll probably miss some stuff

      First, on the idea (best articulated by Givens, in my opinion) that doubt allows for agency in belief… this is a relatively positive step, but it comes with its own problems in my mind (which I wrote about a little here: http://amateurmormontheology.wordpress.com/2012/11/07/chaper-1-coming-to-know-god/ and a little more here: http://amateurmormontheology.wordpress.com/2012/11/13/chapter-4-freedom-to-choose/). This isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I say that doubt is a gift.

      Second, on the idea that doubters will not be well received. Conceded. I have become a much more vocal doubter in recent months, and while I have made some inroads with a few and perhaps given some like-minded strugglers a bit of courage to similarly speak up, change is a long and slow process. Where I have seen the most dramatic change is in my closest relationships. For example, my wife — a very traditional believer — has changed her mind about the value of doubt a great deal.

      Last, on the ‘we’ — I think you settled on what I was thinking. I was referring to the closeted doubter. My own journey began from a place of insecurity. Doubt (because I bought the story the church was telling too uncritically) was a personal failing that could be corrected given enough prayer and scripture study. I think that we can help our more traditional friends maybe see doubt as a gift as well (though that is cold comfort when accused of being antichrist by a friend).

      My relationship with my wife is richer because of our different perspectives not despite them. And while it is ‘easier’ in some sense (because the stakes are so much higher) for people in a relationship like marriage to come to some common ground (although the stress has tragically broken too many marriages), I think the analogy holds to other relationships.

      To answer your question, “how can they begin to conceptualize doubt as a gift?”

      The fact that I am married to a traditional believing Mormon is a huge part of the story. My faith-trajectory would surely have been very different if I weren’t married or if my spouse shared my doubts. I like to believe that we have a healthy back and forth (of the kind I alluded to in that post above), where we have some kind of mutual respect that forces us to re-examine our assumptions and hopefully leads us closer to something like the truth. So, in part, I stay for her.

      In addition to my marriage, I am increasingly persuaded by the Eugene England church-is-as-true-as-the-gospel argument (echoed by John Dehlin on his better days, Dan Wotherspoon, and there are hints of it in the Oman letter that prompted your original post). Because this is my tradition, I stick with it and want to make it better. It gives me opportunities to serve that I otherwise might miss, and even if I can’t say I have a testimony basically any of the truth-claims, I find tremendous joy in the community. So far, what I believe (or don’t believe) hasn’t been a barrier to that kind of fellowship.

  3. Aww shucks, Brad, thanks. I hadn’t noticed your blog before (but it’s also only 2 months old so far), but I have added it to my RSS feeds.

    Good catch on the Givens’ allusion…I’ll definitely have to read your posts on that later, because I also had some issues with Givens’ argument. Good to hear that that isn’t what you had in mind when considering doubt a gift (no offense to Givens.)

    As to your second point (responding about doubters not being well received) — I have to say that I’m glad that your wife has taken things well…because I know plenty of other stories where spouses don’t take things well. Plenty of divorces over doubt. As you too note.

    …I guess in your responses here, I see a conflict that I don’t think is resolved. Your answers for how a doubter could see their own doubt as a virtue don’t seem to mesh with what would be good answers for how a traditional believer would see doubt as a virtue.

    For example, you say that “because this is [your] tradition, [you] stick with it and want to make it better.” But your very definition of what “better” looks like differs from what a traditional believer would see it as, because of your doubt vs. their belief. E.g., in your earlier comment, you raise “anti-gay bigotry, silly interpretations of scripture, etc.”

    But I mean…the things you call anti-gay bigotry…the traditional believer calls his cherished value of the family. The things you call silly interpretations of scripture undergird the believer’s testimony.

    • I am nothing if not full of unresolved conflicts…

      When you say that my definition of ‘better’ is much different than a more traditional believer’s definition, all I can say is, “absolutely.” This is a consequence of us all having different perspectives. I am a political scientist in training, and one of my favorite observations about democracy applies here. From E.E. Schattschneider:

      “Democracy is based on a profound insight into human nature, the realization that all men are sinful, all are imperfect, all are prejudiced, and none knows the whole truth. … Democracy is a political system for people who are not too sure that they are right.”

      The Church is, of course, not a democracy in the same sense that we are accustomed to in government. However, the church as it is lived in day-to-day life in wards and branches around the world (which is in my mind of far more consequence than what happens in Salt Lake) is a profoundly democratic institution.

      As a good doubter, I doubt not only the more traditional interpretations of scripture, but also my own (tentative) conclusions. This is a dynamic process.

      At the end of the day, I think there is more agreement than we sometimes realize. I am of the opinion (and I think most believers would go at least most of the way there with me) that the only thing we can be sure of in this life is the importance of loving and caring for one another. “When ye do it unto the least of these…” “Charity never faileth…” “When you are in the service of your fellow man…”, etc. Everything else (to paraphrase Joseph) is just an appendage.

    • It is in the unresolved (and especially UNRESOLVABLE) conflicts that we find God. The desire to reconcile everything misses the point, and value, of a life of faith.

      • Katie,

        I don’t have a problem with the parts of Nate’s letter that point out that full theological reconciliation shouldn’t be the end goal (and especially not the thing that determines what path one will commit to).

        But I mean, that to me isn’t really a motivating factor either way. I mean, it may be true that you need the unresolvable to find god, but that doesn’t mean you’ll actually find anything just because you have all of these holes and unanswered questions.

  4. I have been thinking about doubt lately. I am finally embracing my doubts, owning them, celebrating them. I have decided that although I cannot honestly say that “I know the Church is true,” I can say, “I have faith that the Church is true,” with complete integrity. I am married to a good man who quietly knows. He accepts that I am acting on faith. I used to think that the “first principles of the gospel” were things we were to take care of “first,” to get them over and done with, and then to move on to bigger things. My most recent “ahah!” was that a “first principle” can also mean to come in first, to be the prize. I’m perfectly ok with operating on faith. My faith is imperfect, and I am working on it. I’m learning.

  5. Seth R. permalink

    Andrew, why exactly do you think the “gift to know” is greater than the “gift to believe on the words of others?”

  6. Seth,

    I’m not sure if I ever wrote anything that would suggest that I think the gift to know is greater than the gift to believe on the words of others.

    If I wrote anything to imply that, then I apologize. What I meant to say is more in accordance to the sentiments of this post:

    What’s more problematic is that several of the spiritual gifts don’t make sense if they aren’t in light of other spiritual gifts. In other words, if you have neither the gift to know nor the gift to believe on the words of others (these gifts are often paired up as being catch-alls…so that if you don’t have one, then you will have the other, but this really doesn’t have to be the case), then it really doesn’t matter what other spiritual gifts you have.

    And I want to emphasize a point — in this system, if you are dealing with someone who has the gift either to know or the gift to believe on the words of others, then you’re golden. But this system doesn’t guarantee that everyone will have either gift.

    Emphasis added.

    In other words, whether one has the gift to know or the gift to believe on the words of others doesn’t matter as much as having one or the other, and I think a lot of folks will automatically assume that if one doesn’t have one, then one will surely have the other — and thus, everyone is covered.

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