In several previous posts (Stages of Faith Part 1, 2, 3, 4), I discuss faith stages and ask how the church can meet the needs of those in different stages of their individual journey. However, we may actually need to address a different question first:
How can the church, as an institution, guide people through a faith crisis or reconstruction?
A better term might be “faith crossing”, since it infers a transition through a difficult period; crossing from an idealistic, emotional perspective to a new foundation that is more understanding, uncertain, and inclusive.
The Problem – A Review
Those in faith crisis often struggle with discrepancies between traditional truth claims and factual evidences or logical conclusions. Sometimes this may be triggered by a traumatic event that causes people to rethink foundational propositions.
For churches that focus on certainty and conformity, addressing faith transition is no easy task. The very idea that a faithful person can experience a deconstruction is foreign and is often attributed to sin or a failure of the individual to remain true to the teachings of the church.
Nevertheless, it is quite common for practicing members to struggle with scriptural discrepancies, God’s love and hell, the role of women, exclusivity of Christian salvation, and inequity of human existence. For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, additional issues loom large, including polygamy, first vision accounts, race, prophetic fallibility, temple ordinances, political positions, LGBTQ policy, and more. (See The New Mormons, by Jana Reiss.)
These types of issues may be compounded by overbearing church leadership and expectations of individual conformity enforced by social and institutional means. (For example, in some congregations, individuals that show acceptance of LGBTQ positions may be marginalized or rejected, putting their “salvation” at risk.)
The resulting “cognitive dissonance” and social tension is painful. I have seen people address it in several ways.
The first and most common protective mechanism is avoidance. Remaining in a safe or “faithful” place can be very peaceful and satisfying. This is typically the position (preaching) of a conservative institution.
From the Audience: “I don’t read anti-Mormon material. I don’t like the way that it makes me feel.”
That is exactly right. The discomfort that arises when our faith claims are challenged can cause mental pain and anxiety. We naturally pull back from any pain. I used to intentionally avoid troubling issues too. It is an appropriate position to take at certain points in ones faith journey.
Many people remain in this space of naïve innocence throughout their lives, avoiding uncomfortable topics in their faith. This does not mean that they are ill-informed or ignorant of their religious tenants. There is plenty of intellectual space to explore within most traditions. This study can be deep and rewarding.
However, avoidance implies that we are in control. But, what happens when we are forced into situations where we must engage with challenges to our faith? This can be triggered by a personal tragedy or some other crisis.
Often, avoidance must be abandoned and people enter a period of intense study and prayer; the implications are serious, even eternal, and extreme effort is applied to learn about and resolve the issues.
Those in faith crisis soon learn that asking hard questions of other church members or presenting different perspectives can immediately marginalize one as a heretic, apostate, or a doubter, even with one’s spouse or church leaders. (Those in stage three faith cannot understand those in stage four.)
So, those in critical need of help, love, and fellowship, must suffer alone. Search alone. Learn alone. Draw their own conclusions, alone. And, ultimately, make final decisions on their faith and family, alone.
This process may take months or many years. Years of silent struggle and faking belief. This leads to a second method of resolution of cognitive dissonance.
After much study, thought, and pain, a decision point is reached. Fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, children, and fellow church members may be surprised and alienated when an ostensibly faithful member “suddenly” declares that they can no longer be a member of the church.
We all have friends that have “fallen away” or are “inactive.” Sometimes this may involve joining another church or leaving organized religion altogether. In either case, separation from the environment where those difficulties and tensions exist allows people to recover some peace in their lives.
Sometimes separation occurs when study and investigation is too difficult, not possible, does not resolve the concerns, or fully confirms and validates their concerns.
Avoidance is not an option for many people and separation may be too costly with respect to family, friends, and community. So, the alternative method to resolving cognitive dissonance is to adapt; approaching participation with a more nuanced perspective.
The troubling issues still exist and, at this point, are now better understood. The individual has found perspectives that allow for the problem to exist, while rebuilding a looser, more accommodating faith.
Those that chose this path may exist in a perpetual state of tension with respect to other church members. Interactions must be guarded in order to avoid conflict. For example, those who chose nuanced participation may see scriptural accounts as metaphorical, folkloric, or historic rather than literal. The fish that swallowed Jonah is less important than the lessons to be learned by the story.
Avoiding an Echo Chamber
So, why not just throw out the heretics? (Burning them is illegal, so that’s not an option.)
From the Audience: “Yeah! It’s about time that we separate the wheat from the tares? People need to make a choice and we need to preserve the church as a refuge for the righteous.”
That was more or less my attitude a few years ago, but the finger of heresy points both ways.
In the Mormon tradition, when we hear of a person leaving the church, one who has studied deeply, we are fond to say that: “When they are learned they think they are wise” (2 Ne 9:28), thinking, of course, that we are the wise and the learned are those that disagree with us.
But, are those in the church safe from being lead astray? Scripture says otherwise: “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion And to those who feel secure in the mountain of Samaria” (Amos 6:1). Isn’t it those in the church that Satan “will pacify and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion” (2 Ne 28:21)?
With respect to discerning who is learned and wise, we have to ask, who is it that “hearken[s] not unto the counsel of God”? Is it the one that studies only “church-approved” materials and the selected scriptures therein? We are told that God expect us to “seek … out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith” (D&C 109:7).
We are even commanded to learn “Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass” (D&C 88:79). In the LDS tradition, one might say that we are commanded to become learned in all things, so how does that reconcile with the learned-wise problem?
Many of those that dwell in faith now are likely to be troubled later. Topics that were once considered anti-Mormon are now readily available through the LDS Church website. The Joseph Smith papers, Gospel Topics Essays, Saints, and other Church materials are challenging the “faithful,” curated narratives once so common. Readily available scholarship from church institutions and members provides deeper context to scripture and historical events and also challenges folklore and former church teachings.
When old church narratives are questioned or religious practice changes, where will we land? If we have expelled all of those that have passed through troubled waters, we leave no community of support inside of our walls for those that cross later. It may very well be that those who see things differently, who have studied deeply, will provide a doctrinal-based foundation of renewed faith for those that follow.
Without accommodation and acceptance, we will lose good and honorable people who largely agree with our values and beliefs; people that believe in “pure religion undefiled before God … To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27).
Another reason to be accommodating of those with different perspectives is that we may need a check in our own doctrine, practice, and policy. Without confronting tension, our doctrine may become vapid and exclusionary without our being aware.
In the end, we are all part of the body of Christ and should make as much room as possible for a diversity of individual faith journeys. Reprimanding or marginalizing those with thoughtful disagreements will not save them or us. It will not help them reconstruct their faith, nor help us understand our own. It only creates anger and division where love should exist.
A listening ear is far more beneficial on both sides.
Making a Place
But, how do we make a place for those working through a faith crisis without throwing others into chaos?
Can we provide a space for love and acceptance within the church that allows for people to work through a tough period?
Is it is possible to create a class or discussion group within the walls of the church to help people work through a faith reconstruction?
I’ll share some ideas for a Faith Crossing Group in part two.
Resources: You might find the following podcast of Richard Ostler’s interview with Jana Spangler interesting: Listen, Learn, & Love, Episode 144.