Below is the text of a letter that I wrote about a year ago to a close friend who was in the midst of a crisis of faith. I have edited it to remove any identifying information:
It was a pleasure to talk with you earlier. I am sorry to hear about the spiritual and intellectual difficulties that you have been struggling with. You are — quite literally — in my prayers. I have thought a great deal about what you told me of your struggles with faith and the Restoration. I hesitate to offer any advice or “solutions” to your difficulties, both because I don’t know precisely what troubles you and because I realize that when one opens up the hurting parts of one’s soul often a sympathetic listener rather than a fix-it guy is what is of most value. With that apology, let me offer a couple of thoughts.
I don’t think that a faithful life is something that flows out of a full theological reconciliation. That is, I don’t think that we are tasked with answering all of our theological questions and doubts and only once that reconciliation has been effected commit ourselves to living a faithful life. I realize that this runs counter to much of the rhetoric in the church, rhetoric that is borrowed in large part from our proselytizing efforts. According to this model, one is given a revelation of the truthfulness of the gospel in all its particulars, a revelation that gives one a sure testimony, and it is the surety of that testimony that then carries one through a faithful life. I don’t want to detract from this narrative, because I am quite sure that for many it is true. 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
This I suppose is my overly long way of suggesting that rather than approaching your crisis of faith in terms of the reconciliation of theological difficulties that you ask instead what kind of life you should live, and in particular does God want you to live not simply a good or a moral life but a faithful life as a Latter-day Saint. It seems that one can come to a conviction upon that without first reconciling all one’s theological or historical questions. Thinking through my own experience in light of what you told me the other day, I think that this is where I largely come out. There are things that I am puzzled or troubled by, but these things are not really existential challenges to me. I don’t think that this is because I have some super, slam-dunk apologetic argument. There are some things that I have sort-of, kind-of ways of reconciling. I have some things for which I have answers that satisfy me. I have some things that I am simply puzzled by. I am comfortable with a certain amount of doubt, I suppose, because I take it that I have all sorts of other reasons for living life as a faithful Latter-day Saint, reasons that I take to be powerful and legitimate.
I don’t know if any of this is useful to you. As I noted at the outset, I am hesitant to try to offer you a “solution” rather than a listening ear and to the extent that what I have written above sounds trite or self-satisfied or simply too Nate-centric, I apologize. I think that you are a good person. You have been an important example to me in my life, and I hope and pray that you can find a way through your difficulties. Please let me know if there is anything I can do or if you just want to talk some more.