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Responding to thoughts about spiritual disconnection

September 3, 2016

At Zelophehad’s Daughters, Lynnette had a personal post regarding her experience of spiritual disconnection. In the post, she discusses several possibilities she’s considered for what could be the cause of the disconnection (as well as the reasons she doesn’t think those are the case). But there was one thing she posted that was particularly interesting to me:

Maybe I’m learning some empathy from this. I realize that many people go through longer dry spells than I’ve been experiencing. And I can only imagine what it’s like for members of the church who simply don’t have spiritual experiences. I’ve talked to people who say that that’s the case for them, and this gives me a glimpse of what it’s like to be in that situation, in a church that is so focused on personal revelation.

This sort of sentiment came through from certain commenters as well:

I can totally relate to this. I went through a long “dry spell” several years ago when it felt to me like God just didn’t care about me anymore. The first time I had an identifiable spiritual experience after all that silence is one of the sweetest memories of my life. And I definitely feel like the dry spell helped me understand and feel compassion for people who are going through what I went through. Hang in there. I hope the light returns soon for you.

These thoughts are interesting to me because they are entirely foreign to my experience. It’s tough for me to even say if I know what it’s like to feel spiritually disconnected because I can’t say I’ve ever felt anything that I would feel comfortable describing as spiritually “connected.” I have nothing to compare my normal experience to, and therefore no sense of disappointment or anxiety or malaise from the difference.

I am struck by how different people experience these things so very differently. I’ve gone in comments sections for Dan Wotherspoon’s Mormon Matters podcast episodes a few times to note that the sort of experiences that he takes for granted are utterly unfamiliar to some people. He’s tried to reframe engagement with the spirit in other ways — to see if maybe some other way of explaining or describing it will stick — but that only makes me feel even more certain that it’s something that some people have, other people don’t, and we can’t really consciously choose which crowd we will be in. (I have some very strong opinions against belief voluntarism for this reason. Hence also the name of this blog.)

Likewise, I recall a podcast with Gina Colvin (of A Thoughtful Faith) where someone else (it may have even been Dan) tried to ask her about the possibility of not having spiritual experiences. Colvin was taken aback by the suggestion — it hadn’t registered to her because, as she noted, she has always been a “God girl.”

As a result, I think I have a basically different experience with Mormonism in particular, and with discussions on Christianity or theism in general.

Growing up in a church that emphasizes personal revelation

In her post, Lynnette says she can only imagine what it must be like for people in the LDS church who simply don’t have spiritual experiences. Her comment that the church emphasizes personal revelation implies to me that the lack of spiritual experiences must make things pretty difficult for such people.

This is probably a case where my experience is much at odds with most people’s. To me, the church really doesn’t emphasize personal revelation, or at the very least, that is not an explicit emphasis.

To the contrary, the church emphasized to me the need for a certain kind of public performance. If you were good at that public performance, then you’d be a good member.

(As an extended sidenote, even to this day, I think that a lot of things the church says fits with this. For example, it doesn’t matter what you believe…but it makes what you publicly present as believing. This produces seemingly absurd possibilities where the church might say that it’s OK to believe in same-sex marriage or the ordination of women, but it’s not OK to act on these thoughts, even if that action is talking about these things in a particularly public way. In short, it’s not OK to present in any public way that would lead people to interpret that you disagree with church leadership on these issues, even if you can have personal beliefs to the contrary. And to continue this sidenote, I think this fits with what the Book of Mormon says about religious liberty. It’s OK for the various anti-Christs identified in the Book of Mormon to believe whatever they want, but as soon as they preached about it to the people and drew a following, that was when they crossed a line.)

What does it mean to publicly perform personal revelation? By definition, personal revelation is, well, personal. It’s not something that anyone else can see or observe. So instead, we have proxy actions that we can observe that we usually impute for some form of righteousness or worthiness or inspiration.

In this case, there are standard seminary or standard Sunday School answers: reading your scriptures, magnifying your callings, attending church meetings, and so on.

As a youth, I was very good at these sorts of things, so as a youth, I didn’t have a problem presenting as righteous.

Lack of faith crisis

The concept of faith crisis is almost as interesting to me as the concept of faith itself, because having not had faith, I can’t really say I had a faith crisis either. If I’m being candid, I have to say that I don’t know what it’s like to fully believe in something and then come to disbelieve it. I don’t know the pain of feeling that the church lied to me, or that it betrayed me, or any of those other things, because I always had a position of distrust or incredulity toward these things.

I remember in junior high and high school, when my traditional Christian (usually some form of evangelical Protestant) classmates would challenge me about Mormon beliefs, I would think to myself: “Why do I have to defend these sorts of things? They don’t really seem plausible to me either…” My motivation to defend the church was more because it was “us” vs “them” — and I’m a very competitive person.

Within church, professing belief was something I did because it was something that was expected. (You know those testimonies given by children where the parents whisper into the kids’ ear, and then the kid parrots what they were told? My parents certainly never whispered into my ears, and I certainly had more training in public speaking, but I definitely felt my testimonies were more about public performance.)

What does it mean that people would find my testimonies so inspiring, when I didn’t believe what I was saying to them?

I think the most interesting thing about this was that for the longest time, I was entirely oblivious to it all. I had little or no qualms with testifying because I thought everyone was similarly situated. I thought that talking about “burnings of the bosom” and so on was just a metaphor that everyone sprinkled into their talks, rather than something that some people actually experienced. So, I didn’t feel like I was lying to people, because I didn’t think there was any alternative.

[To this day, I would say that waffling between atheism and theism is the difference between whether I am skeptical that anyone is having these experiences at all, merely skeptical of their attribution to God…or if I accept their basic explanation that God did it, but He just has had nothing to do with me. I think I’m more comfortable with the latter as a possibility, but I’m not entirely sold on that.]

Things started changing when later in junior high and during high school. There is a funny story and a not-quite-as funny story.

The funny story (in hindsight) is a testimony I bore at a summer Youth Conference (which, as far as I can tell, is basically EFY but outside of Utah???). At the time, I didn’t understand the significance of the testimony and I didn’t understand why everyone was so very silent after I had finished. I didn’t (at the time) understand why no one had complimented me on my testimony (as people would sometimes do when I was younger). But I remember the gist of what I had said being something like:

I don’t really believe in a lot of the supernatural stuff, and I don’t really believe in God, but I believe in how practical the opportunities of the church are. I believe in how the church has made me a better person, given me opportunities for management and leadership and professionalism.

It was a very pragmatic testimony, as you can see.

What I didn’t realize until much later was that this testimony was essentially a profession of atheism. I didn’t realize it for so long because of that hedging word “really”. Even today, I sense a world of difference between saying “I don’t really believe” and “I don’t believe,” but intellectually, I understand that most people don’t see that same world of difference, and if I’m being honest, “really” doesn’t actually make the former statement different in content from the latter. [If you look through my posts or even earlier in this post, you’ll see that I still often use “really” as a hedging adverb to dull the severity, certainty, or audacity of what I’ve just said. I like having a certain level of moderation in my statements, so I hedge a lot.]

The not-quite-as-funny story involved my upcoming dread of going on a mission. All of the negative thoughts about bible-bashing with my classmates came rushing through. Even today, I am not really a salesperson, but if I feel confident in my knowledge about a subject, I feel much better about discussing those benefits. As a high schooler considering going on a mission, I felt woefully incapable of making the case for the church, because I didn’t believe in it.

I thought that that was likely the case for everyone else, and that the mission was meant to be a crucible experience where you would really test out the hypothesis that a testimony is to be found in the bearing of it. I thought I had simply lived too comfortable of a life, but a mission would discipline me and break me down.

I mentioned this to my father, and he thought that this was the dumbest idea for going on a mission imaginable. He said that if I didn’t believe, I shouldn’t disrespect the institution by going anyway. (This actually became the subject of my very first blog post at Mormon Matters [back when it was a blog] [Those commenters, man. Brutal].)

So, that led to my lack-of-faith crisis. I now had to consider — for the very first time in my life — that the reason other people were defending the church and bearing their testimony and going on missions and all of these other things — was not just because that was the expectation, but because that’s what they believed in.

And I tried to make belief happen for me. I tried to figure out why I wasn’t believing, since I was doing all the “standard seminary answers.”

I spent more time reading the scriptures for myself, rather than just making sure that I was reading the scriptures enough to be able to answer questions in class. I would extend my fast by locking myself in the cabinet underneath the bathroom sink and staying there for hours. I would try to pray, hoping that maybe once I would get some sort of response.

It didn’t work out in time for the mission. So as I made my decision to go to college rather than a mission, I tried something else: what would happen if I stopped pretending? If I stopped trying to force myself to believe and stopped judging myself for not believing? Would I come to feel an inescapable void in my life or heart if I didn’t have the church in it? Would my life fall apart if I didn’t perform righteousness according to the church’s standards?

It hasn’t so far.

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  1. Violet permalink

    “…I didn’t understand why everyone was so very silent after I had finished.”

    I’m shocked no one publically called you out after your testimony…I actually think it was quite tolerant of them to listen and just be silent. My god, if I had said such a thing I would have had my butt publically beaten in church. I was a catholic though, and perhaps we deal with things in a harsher way than mormons.

    Consider yourself intelligent and lucky to never have truly believed. I did the total, complete buy-in for over 40 years (including having “spiritual experiences”). I never fully recovered after the house of cards came crashing down.

    • Violet,

      Part of me is also very surprised that the reaction was like that, but at the same time, Mormons are more known for being passive aggressive than directly confrontational… There’s a big cultural stigma against being openly confrontational (since contention is of the devil, apparently).

      And I think I had enough credibility with the ward that they realized I was basically a good kid who may have been going through a tough time. I also now know that some of the leaders from back then were considerably more accepting/liberal in their thinking.

      I definitely do think I’ve avoided a lot of bad experiences, though. I know of too many stories of people who only had their faith crisis after going on missions, getting married in the temple, and having established Mormon families. A lot of those stories so tragically and unfortunately end in divorce.

  2. Seth R. permalink

    I was always pretty cerebral about religion – even as a Mormon teenager in Provo. People would get up there and bawl all over the pulpit and I’d just watch them and not “get it.” In fact, as a teenager, I even wondered privately if some of them were faking it. I certainly felt irritated at some of the Young Women during the youth campout fireside who stood no less than 5 times during the evening to bear testimony… again, with glistening eyes and tearful inventories about family and friendships. I sat there wishing they’d shut up already – but I gave them leeway because they were hot girls and teenage boys are shallow like that.

    I knew the scriptures better than just about anyone else in my age in my ward – which was actually a pretty hard accomplishment, since the youth in my ward came from a pretty deep supply of LDS intellect and education. I felt highly emotional about my life and my struggles and my teenage angst, but as for actual clear “spiritual experiences” I couldn’t honestly say I’d ever had any in my life. I went on a mission because that’s what Mormons do (and importantly – what sons of my dad do). Any lack of spiritual experience I chalked up to a combination of personal unworthiness, people faking it, and… well… maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough.

    I guess you could say this upset me to a degree and made me feel disconnected from the Church i was a part of. It wasn’t until after mission, BYU, temple marriage, bloggernacle, and three kids that I resolved my lack of spiritual experiences. I finally made the mental connection with Paul’s sermon on how we each have different gifts, and drew the now-seemingly-obvious connection that not everyone has all spiritual gifts – and one of those is to “know Jesus is the Christ.” I realized that was a spiritual gift I just didn’t seem to have, but I did have others.

    After that, I stopped worrying much about how I wasn’t measuring up to other standard Mormon experiences. I felt like a had a valid spot in God’s Church and the issue was largely resolved – though I won’t say I don’t still feel occasional guilt for my lack of emotional-spiritualism. But it’s fine.

    Maybe I’m too distant from what it was like at the time, but it still feels weird to hear someone say “I can’t imagine what that was like” for an experience that sounds like it was mine. Just speaking personally, it didn’t feel all that bad, and my experience in the LDS Church was, on the whole, positive.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Seth.

    I have considered the scriptures on different people having spiritual gifts, but this hasn’t really been satisfying to me. It seems like lacking the gift to know Jesus is the Christ and/or the gift to believe on the words of others makes all of the other potential gifts kinda irrelevant.

    (Then again, I think for me, part of what happened i started keeping track of what was going on in Prop 8…then I realized that all of the practical skills I bore my non-testimony testimony about — things like management and leadership skills — don’t mean anything good unless they are used in the pursuit of good causes. Obviously, you most likely disagree with me about whether Prop 8 or the church’s continuing efforts represent a good cause, so I can see how that wouldn’t be a big deal for everyone.)

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