I was invited to speak at a recent Relief Society conference on the topic of nurturing relationships through faith and testimony transitions. I post my remarks here by request, and because I haven’t blogged in forever.
About ten years ago my sister Gabrielle looked like a typical young Mormon mom. She had a three little boys, a knack for home renovation and photography, and had recently returned to running after her last baby. One morning on her run, she tripped and fell. Clear sidewalk, no debris: strange, but she didn’t think much about it. Then it happened again a few days later.
Suddenly something she had taken for granted every day of her life, so fundamental most of us never even notice it — the body’s ability to orient itself in space — was no longer a given. Simple tasks got exponentially harder: she questioned every movement, never sure which steps were sound and which would trip her up. The most painful bruises were psychological. She lost trust in her ability to navigate the basics of her life, and with it went the capacity to plan for the future. Fear surged. What would she lose next? Where would this end? How would her family be affected? Who was she now?
It turned out that my sister was in the first stages of an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis. After years of fighting, she’s now stable, raising her sons and contributing to the community, though she’s never regained her capacity for effortless walk — nor the breezy assumptions about identity and future that many of us harbor. After that kind of struggle, your body and soul bear the marks.
I share Gabrielle’s story, with her permission, because in some ways it parallels the emotional turmoil of a Mormon faith crisis. On this topic (and any other), advice is pointless if it doesn’t begin from compassion. Maybe you can’t imagine losing your faith; try instead to imagine losing your ability to walk. Imagine tripping over the basic assumptions that orient your life, or losing sight of the spiritual touchstones that have guided you in the past. Everything gets harder and scarier. What’s safe to say or think? Where can you turn for help and answers? How will your family be affected? What does the future hold? Where will your soul rest?
Let’s start, like the high school term paper, with the long view. In one form or another, a kind of spiritual vertigo is built into human experience. The Psalms cry out in disorientation and abandonment. Peter walked a few steps across the water in faith, then floundered and sank. Joseph Smith described his own state of “great uneasiness” and “extreme difficulty” as his family was caught up in the scene of religious confusion.
But a more urgent crisis of religious faith is afoot in the present. We live in what’s been called “a secular age” by some cultural observers. The point is not that religion is obsolete, but rather that traditional religions must work harder and better to keep their faithful in the fold. Indeed, religious participation is down across the board. Soul-searching essays like this one are cropping up in every denomination.
We might call this state of affairs “fragile faith syndrome.” I don’t have in mind any individual or denominational crisis, but a general description of the place of religion in contemporary society. To be a person of faith today is seen as just another optional element of our identity profile, not a universal expectation or given. For many, religion is as negotiable as one’s political party or profession. Church membership is just one in a menu of broadly respectable options, alongside the “spiritual but not religious,” the agnostics, and the atheists. Probably most prevalent of all are those who don’t give any of these categories much thought, who float along unaffiliated with any particular faith community, occasionally beset with spiritual whispers and yearnings but lacking a framework to understand their meaning. It’s not surprising that growing numbers of people are questioning their inherited faith affiliations and leaving religion altogether.
I want to be careful here. I think it’s helpful to recognize the broader social contours of religion within which our individual dramas play out, because doing so reminds us that we are not alone or uniquely broken, either as families or as Mormons. But I don’t want to suggest that for any particular person a crisis of faith is lightly chosen, the way we might choose a restaurant for dinner. On the contrary, loss of faith is a frightening and largely unchosen experience. Few people would choose to let go of their cherished faith on a whim. Big shifts in our worldview tend to creep up on us, prompted by diverse personal and social factors, like a picnic blanket carried away on the backs of a thousand ants. While personal choice certainly plays a role, it is rarely the defining or precipitating factor.
I think this is especially true for Mormons raised in tight family and social communities centered around shared faith. For a Latter-day Saint, the disorientation of doubt is compounded by the fear of losing their families and friends. For many, in fact, this is the primary worry. Will they be rejected or shunned? Judged as sinful and broken? Pushed out of the tent that has sheltered them, often since birth? If you know somebody in a faith crisis, you likely know somebody who is scared, confused, and alone, with no easy way forward or backward. If we start with that understanding, we can reach out from a place of love and empathy, rather than defensiveness.
This is a discussion primarily about walking with our friends and family who are struggling with their faith. It’s not directed to those who are currently working through doubt themselves. My expertise is entirely informal and personal: I’m not a therapist or a social worker; I’m a scholar of theology and philosophy. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the intellectual issues that trouble some Mormons; I have many friends and family members who have decided to part ways with the church; and I’ve had the privilege of deep conversation with some of them. My experience has left me with a lot of hope that our relationships can survive big faith transitions in one or both of the parties.
While I’m not primarily addressing those currently fighting for their testimonies, I think it’s helpful to dwell a moment on what a faith crisis is and how a faith transition might unfold. There are, of course, as many unique kinds of doubt as there are individual doubters, and it’s never helpful to pigeonhole an individual’s experience. The most important thing you can do to help a loved one struggling with her faith is to listen with an open mind, without filling in the blanks for her and without making assumptions about what she means and why. She may dislike the term “faith crisis” altogether–I tend to agree!–and choose not to describe her experience in that language. Nevertheless, a framework can help to normalize what she’s saying, to take the shock or strangeness out of the situation for you. So take what I’m about to share as general background, not as a diagnosis of any particular experience.
Let’s imagine a friend who is confides in you that her faith is in flux. Her issues could be a relatively simple information gap. Maybe she lacks some background knowledge about the temple, and without it the larger picture doesn’t make sense. Or maybe she’s encountered a new piece of information that doesn’t seem to fit the picture she already has in her head, for instance learning about the seer stone used to translate the Book of Mormon. With some support and some study, a friend like this might be able to reconcile her questions without major a disruption to the pillars of her faith. This might be better understood as “faith puberty” rather than “faith crisis”: it can be awkward, it can be ugly, it can be lonely, but ultimately it’s a healthy, normal and necessary step toward a grown-up faith. Sooner or later, most adults realize that they must take responsibility for the content of their own faith, must confront nagging issues for themselves and place their commitment to the Church on footing they’ve examined themselves. Many excellent resources exist to help Saints through the transition into an informed, mature faith.
Most of the time, though, when somebody struggles seriously with her testimony there’s something deeper at play. Doubt is not just a jigsaw puzzle missing a piece, it’s more like a jenga tower: certain pieces carry all the weight of the structure above, and it’s tricky to adjust those pieces. When a loved one goes through the process of rebuilding her Jenga tower, it’s not a simple matter of snapping a missing piece of information into place. It’s a delicate process of learning, testing, and trusting. Her faith on the other side is going to look a lot different than it did at the outset.
While a host of issues could precipitate this kind of crisis, two fundamental issues are usually at stake: trust and identity. Maybe she loses trust in her ability to recognize the Spirit. She may lose trust in the goodwill and friendship of her local leaders and ward members. She might come to mistrust official accounts of the foundational events of the Restoration. Perhaps she’s lost trust in the reality of revelation itself and the moral authority of general church leadership. Or maybe she’s doubting her fundamental trust in the reality of God and the nature of the universe. Often any one of these issues will provoke questions in the others, and like a line of dominoes the whole series will teeter and fall.
Alternatively, she may have migrated away from her Mormon identity — a category that doesn’t necessarily line up with conventional Mormon beliefs. Plenty of securely self-identified Mormons hold unconventional beliefs, while others find themselves drawn away from their Mormonness even if their beliefs have not dramatically changed. It’s a quirk of human nature that our views often follow our identity, not the other way around: for mysterious reasons of the mind and heart, we feel at home in particular social tribes or categories, and then we tend to shape our views according to that sense of belonging. Once a shift in identity is underway, information is unlikely to reverse the process.
The LDS writer Jana Riess recently shared some interesting original research on the reasons why Mormons leave the church. Among Millennials, the top five answers were:
- “I felt judged or misunderstood.”
- [tied for first] “I did not trust the Church leadership to tell the truth surrounding controversial or historical issues.”
- “The Church’s positions on LGBT issues.”
- “I could no longer reconcile my personal values and priorities with those of the Church.”
- “I drifted away from Mormonism.”
Trust is really at the center of the top two reasons why these young people disconnected from Mormonism: either they lost trust in the the acceptance and support of their community, or they lost trust in the sincerity of senior leadership. A shift in identity is at the heart of the last two. The sense of betrayal that follows a loss of religious trust is devastating, and it’s not easy to overcome. It’s even harder to “fix” a loss of trust in somebody else — sometimes the more you urge the issue, the less trustworthy you seem. All you can do is stay as honest, open, transparent and trustworthy as you can, even — especially! — when that means admitting you don’t have all the answers.
The hard question is practical: how do we maintain loving and trusting relationships with those who struggle to stay on the spiritual path we’ve embraced? In the spirit of transparency, I’ll admit up front: it ain’t easy. Family, community, and faith are at the center of our identity as Mormons, and they demand the maximum emotional investment. It requires a tremendous measure of love and maturity to find the larger perspective, to quiet down our urge to fix and correct, and to face tough criticism of the faith tradition we love.
I’ll highlight three particular pitfalls that often come up when, with the best of intentions, we try to relate to somebody across the breach of a changing testimony. The first is the doubter’s fear that she will be judged and rejected as lazy, sinful, and unworthy because she doubts. It’s not hard to see where this fear comes from: most of us probably remember stories in Sunday school about Book of Mormon characters or early church apostates who denied the gospel to excuse their personal sins or faults. Even if these lessons were not intended to discredit all doubt and all doubters, it’s understandable that some who find themselves struggling spiritually would be wary of the doubter’s double-whammy: on top of the upheaval of doubt itself comes the fear of being judged and rejected for that doubt. Mormons are masters of creating community, and for those of us who feel secure in its embrace, there’s no greater blessing. It’s ironic, then, that after enjoying the warm security of the inside, it’s all the more cold and painful on the margin.
Sometimes the struggling person will respond to hurtful assumptions about her character with a corresponding –and equally unhelpful — assumption of her own: that faithful mormons are naive sheep, wilfully deluded about the reality of their religion (or, worse, cynically self-dealing). These two interlocking assumptions, of sin on one side and naivete on the other, snap together like tongue and groove, and the resulting trap is difficult to escape as each piece reinforces the other. But escape we must, because no meeting of the minds can occur when those assumptions lurk in the background.
Are doubters sinners? The answer is a resounding yes: those who question their faith struggle with sin every day. So do those who feel perfectly secure in their faith. Sin besets us all, the faithful no less than the faith-challenged. You can safely assume that anybody who struggles with her faith also meets temptations big and small every day, just as you do. But in my experience, a secret desire to excuse or cover up personal sins is vanishingly rare as the cause of a faith crisis. Put to rest once and for all the suspicion that doubt originates in bad character or spiritual laziness — for your doubting friend’s sake, but also for your own. This thinking is toxic to both parties in a relationship. And knowing that your friend or spouse may harbor this worry, offer sincere assurance of your love and respect.
A second potential pitfall in relationships across a faith difference is what I call the standpoint problem. It’s always been the case that two people sitting beside each other may take very different perspectives on the world, but the rise of social media and the other virtual worlds in which we spend much of our time has heightened the disconnect. Our social networks, our peer groups, our physical community all influence not only the information we find when we go looking, but our interpretation of that information.
Like the old visual gimmick — is it a beautiful young lady or an old woman? — sometimes what seems like a basic, factual question turns out to have no single answer. What does “the church” believe? What is its position on women or race or gays? What does the Book of Mormon mean? What is “Mormon culture”? A shift in the foundations of our faith often changes our standpoint on these question, and it can be baffling to communicate with someone whose perspective seems incompatible with our own.
The problem becomes stickier when identity and emotion get involved. One of the curious things about modern life is the proliferation of distinct sub-communities made possible by the internet. We all belong to many of these mini-worlds, some by choice and some by necessity, and visit many of them everyday. So in one moment I may find my views comfortably within the dominant majority of one community, but in the next I may perceive myself to be part of a persecuted minority.
Think about the difference between what is said in the Relief Society room on Sundays versus what is said on Facebook, for example: the rules of discourse are entirely different, as are the dominant views. In today’s hyper-fragmented social world, everybody may plausibly feel like a marginalized minority at some point, whether your views are liberal, conservative or in between. You can see how this magnifies the standpoint problem: defensiveness and grievance narrow our perspective, and with it any common ground we might find with our conversation partner. Even starting a conversation — let alone finishing it — can be daunting when both parties feel misunderstood and defensive at the outset.
The bad news is that the standpoint problem is a permanent feature of human relationships; it’s not going away. The good news is that there’s a powerful antidote: charity. Where grievance is defensive and self-protective, charity is vulnerable and open. Where grievance wants to define and possess knowledge, charity is content to explore and share it. Where grievance hoards fear and indignation, charity casts out all fear. Easier said than done, I know, but I know of no other answer.
A third pitfall I’d like to highlight is what I’ve called expectation blinders. Even if we come to a cross-perspective conversation stripped of derogatory assumptions about the other party; even if we allow charity to broaden our standpoint and cast away defensiveness; we may still poison the encounter if we come to it with rigid expectations for its outcome. Our heart may be open and our perspective wide, but if we have only one end in mind — persuading our loved one to return to the path we’re on — we may miss the most promising opportunities for connection. Rigid expectations for what should happen, what our friend should choose or believe or desire, lock our view into a single point, blinding us to the other 359 degrees. And the other party will sense that rigidity and either resist it or shut down. Even seemingly innocuous statements — “I’m so worried about you,” “I weep for you,” “I’ll wait as long as it takes” — can communicate the expectation that there’s only one right way for this journey to end. That’s going to shut down the conversation.
Admittedly, the stakes are very high for a Latter-day Saint whose loved one has left the fold. We believe that families are forever, that salvation comes through sealings ratified by covenant, and that “friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism.” Our vision of heaven is a network of sanctified relationships. So it’s incredibly painful to contemplate the broken link or empty chair of a loved one who has left. We’re willing to wait for it, even to wait a very long time — but at the end of the tunnel we expect to see the happy ending where everything is fixed and restored.
But that expectation, like most, is a fantasy. When somebody has passed through the crucible of doubt, her faith will never be the same. There’s no going back. Sometimes faith is transformed into something more supple and mature and enduring. But sometimes it isn’t. Our relationships can survive a difficult faith transition, but only if we shed the expectation blinders and start paying attention to what’s actually being given to us instead of what the ending we expected.
I’ve suggested three potential pitfalls that harm our efforts to reach out to loved ones walking through doubt. So what helps us reach out? What are the best practices we should pursue?
There are a lot of obvious answers, some of which I’ve already touched on here: love, honesty, an open mind and open eyes. If these sound pretty generic, it’s because they are. The best way to nourish a relationship with a doubter is quite simply the same way we would nourish any relationship of trust: unconditional love, empathy, respect, sensitivity, generosity, loving boundaries. Those are the basic building blocks, and we could spend an hour talking about each of them. I’m not a therapist, and there are many more qualified sources out there than I. I recommend that you seek those out — with the qualification that even the most carefully chosen words will not connect if they can’t be offered with honesty.
There’s recently been a crop of articles with titles like “25 Things NOT to Say to a Loved One Leaving the Church (& what to say instead)” and “For families divided by Mormonism, 5 things to do – and not to do.” Most are full of great suggestions, but as I read I wondered whether a traditional Mormon could say some of them with complete sincerity (for instance, “Your relationship with the Church has nothing to do with our relationship.”) To paraphrase Bambi’s friend Thumper, if you can’t say it sincerely, don’t say it at all. Instead, offer every bit of the love and support you CAN give in complete candor.
Beyond the basics, let me suggest three recommendations specifically for relating across a faith disconnect. First, re-conversion is different than conversion, and so are the rules of engagement. Those of us who have served missions (or worked with someone investigating the church) have an instinctive toolbox of techniques for nurturing faith in an investigator. We might resolve concerns with scriptures or quotes, encourage basic spiritual practices like prayer and scripture reading, or bear our testimonies. These techniques work beautifully for an emerging testimony, but often they backfire when we deploy them on an ailing testimony. Struggling Mormons have most likely heard it all and tried it all before, and it feels manipulative and insulting to suggest that they just need to go back to basics.
For those whose faith is in flux, I think it’s better to suggest information and solutions strictly on a want-to-know basis. Sometimes fresh informational resources and perspectives are just what the doctor ordered — and the loved one wants — and we live in a golden age for that kind of writing. Educate yourself, and share those resources when your friend is actively seeking them. Better yet, start now to share these perspectives with those you love before they begin to struggle, because once the crisis has set in, it can be difficult to share resources without seeming to pressure or minimize concerns. Sister Bonnie Oscarson has some great advice here:
About a year ago, I visited with a mother of young children who decided to take a proactive approach to inoculating her children against the many negative influences they were being exposed to online and at school. She chooses a topic each week, often one that has generated a lot of discussion online, and she initiates meaningful discussions during the week when her children can ask questions and she can make sure they’re getting a balanced and fair perspective on the often-difficult issues. She is making her home a safe place to raise questions and have meaningful gospel instruction.
Sometimes a questioning person wants to discuss controversial issues, often with an authority figure like a parent or church leader, but not because he or she needs more information or interpretation. Sometimes these discussions, which seem to be about church history or doctrine on the surface, are really a vehicle for the person to express her new identity as a post- or para-Mormon and seek acknowledgement from the institution or culture she is departing. If that’s the underlying aim of the conversation, attempts to resolve concerns with information will fall flat or simply not register.
If you find yourself in this kind of conversation, it’s probably best simply to acknowledge the new identity and reaffirm your love and relationship. Listen empathetically, and express your respect for and confidence in her own inner compass. Once she trusts that you will respect her perspective and boundaries, she may be open to a genuine interchange of ideas, where you can share resources or perspectives that resonate with you. But until then, she’ll likely continue to assert her new identity until she’s sure you’ve accepted it, even if it seems like you’re discussing facts.
Second, I suggest that you focus on faith more than on beliefs. Beliefs are tricky things. They visit us and they leave us through the mysterious workings of many factors: social environment, personal experience, properties of mind, not to mention age and sex and class and a dozen other identity markers. Once a belief loses its power, it’s hard to talk yourself back into believing it– and if you can’t talk yourself back into belief, chances are nobody else will succeed, either. In fact, trying to persuade somebody to put on a discarded belief is likely to backfire and prompt her to further entrench the disbelief.
Faith, however, is a different animal. Faith is more enduring than belief, more supple, and more responsive to desire and choice and relationship. Like a waterski behind a boat, belief is always hitched to knowledge; it falters and sinks when knowledge stalls. But faith can persist even when we are asked to walk without knowledge. A loved one’s beliefs about God or scripture or family might change dramatically. But her faith in God and scripture and family can persist. Indeed sometimes the retreat of belief opens a new space for faithfulness to grow.
Belief, by definition, keeps us preoccupied with distance, things that are far away in space or time, for if the object of belief were right in front of us, we could examine and verify it, with no need for belief. But faith finds plenty to occupy her attention right here and now in our loved ones, our relationships, the beautiful and the messy things that fill the frame of everyday life. Shared beliefs are a powerful but brittle basis for relationship; shared faith and faithfulness can ride out the rough water through which life is sure to steer any family or friendship.
My final recommendation for shepherding a relationship through a forking spiritual path is, quite simply, to love past the fear. This, I readily confess, is so obvious that it may seem like nothing more than saccharine cliche. “Just love,” I say — but what does it mean to love when your sibling mocks the Church on social media? What does it mean to love when your friend criticizes Mormon patriarchy and the leaders you love? What does it mean to love when your spouse stops attending church and your kids follow suit? Love does not make everything fall into place, it does not clarify the situation nor print out out a definitive answer. In many cases, love makes things harder and more complicated.
But even though love has no “easy” setting, it does have a hidden superpower: it neutralizes fear. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). Love swallows up petty anxieties for our reputation and self-image, and it disarms deeper fears for the fate of our families and relationships. Fear breeds desperation — desperation to show my friend the truth of the matter, desperation to control my spouse’s actions or beliefs, desperation to somehow, someway, find out how to fix the broken testimony and get my child back on track. Love, by contrast, roots our confidence in God’s sustaining grace, in the faithfulness of God’s promises, in the power of his intention to save. Love urges us to trust in the goodness of creation and in the promise of new growth that is built into the architecture of time. Love gently quiets our desperate searching and doing, and urges us to rest in the grace of being.
My mother, on this as on so many other questions, has given me a powerful example. Twenty-eight years ago my parents lost their young son, my brother Jacob, to cancer. After Jacob’s death, three more children came to our family, and as they came a hidden anxiety brewed in my mother’s heart. Her belief in the gospel was intense–her faith is what brought her, just barely, through the grief of burying a child–and it led her to conclude that the only way she would attain the desire of her heart, to rejoice in the bosom of all of her children together, was to gather each safely to the celestial kingdom where Jacob waited.
It was a fearful strain on her already-staggering heart to watch her children, now passing through adolescence one after the other, with the secret fear that she would not succeed in shepherding each to spiritual safety. The loss of one would mean the loss of the whole. Let me be clear that she never held this fear over our heads to manipulate or induce guilt. She carried the burden of this anxiety within herself, and it exacted a steep emotional toll.
Several years ago, our family passed through another transition when our brother Christian, one of the children born after Jacob’s death, trusted us enough to share his truth: he is gay. Many wonderful things have come into our family life because of Christian’s journey, but in the process many of our former expectations and beliefs about Christian and about life generally were scattered to the wind. For my mother, especially, there have been wrenching readjustments, even though her commitment to Christian and to the gospel have never wavered.
There has been a bright lining to the upheaval in my mother’s soul. Arriving at a place where her former expectations no longer point the way forward, she has had to rely only on the first instinct of a mother’s heart: just love the child. And in doing so, the fears for her family’s celestial reunion that she carried for so many years have evaporated. Where once there was brittle anxiety about ultimate questions, there is now a supple peace–even though worries about the present remain. A growing trust in the Savior and in his power to save her children has sustained her. Exactly what will happen in the hereafter is still unknown, but repose in God’s good grace has replaced desperation to save her children — and in doing so has freed up emotional energy to care simply and faithfully for herself and for those around her. Love neutralized the fear.
Elder Uchtdorf preached powerfully on this topic:
My beloved friends, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, if we ever find ourselves living in fear or anxiety, or if we ever find that our own words, attitudes, or actions are causing fear in others, I pray with all the strength of my soul that we may become liberated from this fear by the divinely appointed antidote to fear: the pure love of Christ, for “perfect love casteth out fear.” …
Christ’s perfect love allows us to walk with humility, dignity, and a bold confidence as followers of our beloved Savior. Christ’s perfect love gives us the confidence to press through our fears and place our complete trust in the power and goodness of our Heavenly Father and of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Fear not. Trust in the capacity of the gospel to comprehend all things. Trust in your own capacity to love bigger and farther. Trust that time is generous with its gifts. Trust that the Lord is on the side of relationships. He will care for yours.
Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series
Letters to a Young Mormon, Adam Miller
Planted, Patrick Mason
A Reason for Faith, ed. Laura Harris Hales
Women at Church, Neylan McBaine
Gospel topic essays at lds.org
Joseph Smith Papers project