Fly on the Wall: The Faithful Respond to Faith Crisis
The other day I saw Nate Oman’s Times & Seasons post A Letter to a Friend. In 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.)
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.