Faith Crisis And Penguins
When I was a young child I learned all about birds. I learned that birds could fly and that they laid eggs. I presented reports about how they had feathers and beaks. With my friends at school I learned stories about all different kinds of birds and their common characteristics. My parents loved birds and I have very fond memories of the birds we kept as pets at home. I went after school programs where I heard others testify of how birds fly and tell stories of the beautiful bird encounters they had. Then one day I came across a penguin in a book. This penguin was a bird, but it did not fly. I researched more and I discovered the rare platypus, a mammal that has a beak and lays eggs. And then I researched more and I discovered emus, ostriches, and kiwis. When I went back to school I told my teacher I read something about a penguin. She told me they didn’t exist. She showed me books about seagulls and owls and promised they were birds. My parents were worried and sent me on a bird watching tour to be able to experience the beauty of birds in flight. My classmates had never seen an emu or kiwi in real life and mocked me for my questions of these so called flightless birds for being against the laws of science. But the penguin was always there in my mind. I felt lied to. I felt alone in my class. I began to mistrust the ability of my teacher to teach me. I wanted answers, wherever I could find them.
I’m sure you’ve realized by now this post is not about birds. This is the scenario that thousands of saints are facing right now in silent faith crises across the globe. A faith crisis isn’t about one question, or about having a natural curiosity. It’s about an entire perspective or belief framework that is causing intense internal conflict. But there is a way forward, a way that seems second nature to us in other areas of learning in our lives. In science we learn and unlearn and relearn in continuing complexity. At every ascending level of scientific understanding, one has to unlearn the rules of the previous levels. And yet, one cannot skip from learning that cows say moo to advanced quantum physics without all the steps in between. Scientific definitions and models are used at every stage from babies all the way up to Steven Hawking. Religious understanding and faith develops the same way, line upon line, precept upon precept. But because of our human tendency to want the security of feeling like we know it all right now, we can sometimes be resistant to move onto the next line or the next precept. President Uchtdorf discussed this in his 2013 talk “What is Truth” when he says, “part of the reason for poor judgment comes from the tendency of mankind to blur the line between belief and truth. We too often confuse belief with truth, thinking that because something makes sense or is convenient, it must be true. Conversely, we sometimes don’t believe truth or reject it—because it would require us to change or admit that we were wrong.” But being wrong and scrapping inadequate faith models for increasingly better ones is the only way to move forward.
What becomes clear is that the difference between a faith crisis and a faith transition is really all about how we approach the cognitive dissonance that occurs when we inevitably grow and require new models of faith understanding. In the scenario above, it was never really about the penguin. In the bigger picture, this scenario was about a student who was ready for a more complex understanding of scientific truths and, when met with opposition, began to question the whole structure itself, quite unnecessarily. Too often in the church we deal with someone’s faith crisis by throwing evidences back and forth, debating the penguin over and over to death. What is needed today is not always more apologetics, but a deeper understanding of how faith develops. When we become comfortable with the idea that faith will naturally, and should naturally, change as we get older, the “penguins” aren’t so scary or jarring. They are merely indicators that one’s faith model is no longer matching our development.
This shift from perceiving that a faith crisis is a loss of faith to the idea that a faith shift is a natural process of evolution is the real essence of the matter. Many people just today woke up and did not choose to feel angst about the religion and community that they have loved and served their entire lives, but do. And it can be quite scary to feel like the solid ground beneath one’s feet is shifting and moving without knowing why. Unfortunately for them, because faith development is not well understood in the Mormon community, they are met with disdain that leads them to feel guilt, shame, and isolation. Indeed to treat a faith crisis as a loss of faith and as something to be shunned from Mormon society is the most unhealthy approach possible. In this approach those who feel their faith shifting are forced into a false dichotomy where they have to choose between being at church in a disingenuous way, or not going at all, or the choice between what is true and the church they love. And faced with this scenario many have left the church in order to feel that they were genuine or that they were following truth, and we needlessly lost so many who are still hurting over this rejection from their Mormon community.
But if that same person had an understanding that they are growing not shrinking, then the scenario completely changes. Instead there can be great excitement and awareness as they deeper their relationship with truth, God, self, and fellow man. Back to our analogy in science imagine a scientist who, for the first time, saw Neil Armstrong jumping on the moon. Would his career in science shatter because he understood gravity a certain way all his life and now that truth is disproven? It sounds silly. He would probably shout Eureka and be excited to understand gravity better and create new formulas and models with which to understand it.
A faith transition can be just as exciting, just as deepening, just as enlivening as a new scientific discovery is for a scientist. Here are some brief suggestions on how we can better make our faith progression something positive rather than something to fear.
#1 – Start with what you know
When towers fall and have to be rebuilt, its best to start with the sturdiest pieces. Rather than leave a faith tower in ruins, it can be built into something more genuine and more beautiful than before. Leave the instable pieces behind and start building again. Don’t throw away experiences and beliefs you hold to just because other beliefs are shifting. Start with what you know and start building again. It can be helpful to write your own list of what you believe in and what you want to believe in to see it take shape.
#2 – Study
Studying takes time, there are no shortcuts, no cliff notes. 10 years ago we didn’t have the language and resources we have today about faith crisis in the church. But today there are books and online resources dedicated to helping people get through a faith crisis or help a loved one through it. James Fowler’s Stages of Faith is a great place to start understanding how faith develops. There are great books out there dedicated to Mormon specific faith crisis on Amazon like Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis by Thomas McConkie or Shaken Faith Syndome by Michael Ash. For those who are not of the reading persuasion there are podcasts like Mormon Discussions Podcast dedicated to understanding faith development and helping people reframe their faith in the midst of doubt.
#3 – Be patient
Rebuilding new ways of seeing the world takes time. Be patient with yourself. You spent your entire life building a puzzle of what the world looks like. It will take time to put everything back together again. And then once everything looks good, you’ll be given a new puzzle piece that doesn’t fit and you’ll have to rearrange it all over again. That’s life. Step away from the table and take care of your health and relationships and continue to come back to it. Be patient with it.
#4 – Find a friend
Those who have come through a faith crisis have often said what helped them the most is a listening or supportive ear who validated their concerns without questioning their faith or righteousness. If you know someone in a faith crisis, be that friend or family member that is a safe place for them to work out their beliefs without judgment or the encouragement just to pray more. If you are going through a faith crisis chances are there is someone in your ward or online if need be who has been where you are and who knows how you feel. They can be an incredible resource and a place where you can get new perspectives and talk things out.
#5 – Truth as a relationship
Sometimes we think of truth as a static thing. And though eternal truths are unchangeable, none of us are really accessing these truths in a direct way. Our perception of truth is affected by our society, emotions, experiences, upbringing, religion, etc. In English we learn the rules of writing only to see the great writers break them. In math things like imaginary numbers at one point in our development can seem ridiculous only to be understood later on. In history, the story depends on which side is telling it. This doesn’t mean that truth is relative and everything is meaningless but it does mean that we need to understand that our interaction with truth is a relationship. Think of the statement: one pound of gold is more valuable than one pound of silver. Is that true? In most cases yes. But it is also not true. One pound of gold is more valuable because we believe it to be, but that could change. So a more important question to ask is in what ways is this true and in what ways is this not true? In what ways is this law true and in what ways is this law not true? In what ways is this action right or wrong and why? These questions during a faith crisis can ground us and end up being more fruitful.
#6 – False paradigms
Richard Bushman said in 2006, “I worry about the young Latter-day Saints who learn only about the saintly Joseph and are shocked to discover his failings. The problem is that they may lose faith in the entire teaching system that brought them along.” Often it is our false paradigms that need shaking off when we are going through a faith crisis. One day we find that JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., the Founding Fathers, and Joseph Smith all were men of their time with their own weaknesses and faulty perceptions. But to condemn these men for their shortcomings is also to condemn ourselves as unable to communicate with God and do anything good in this world because of our sins, our shortcomings. So rather than say Joseph Smith cannot be a prophet because of x, y, and z, it is better to approach a situation and say how do I define what a prophet is? In what ways is a prophet the same as me and in what ways is he different? What are my preconceived notions about this subject and how are they affecting my reactions? All of us right now hold probably quite a few false paradigms. Doubt and faith transition are our opportunities to shed them. It is the space we give God to be able to work with us and raise our thinking. So rather than approach a specific question with the intent of learning the answer, we can also begin to examine our questions themselves. Sometimes we have cognitive dissonance not because we are getting the wrong answer but because we are asking the wrong question.
#7 – Separating doctrine and practice
Faith transitions are the perfect opportunity for really deepening doctrinal understanding and separating it from Mormon culture or practice. As children we practice religion in a certain cultural context. As youth we learn wise practices to guide us today. But eventually as adults things get a little bit more gray. Rather than live by the rule “don’t touch the stove” it becomes much more meaningful as an adult to understand the laws of thermodynamics. Then one can know when to touch the stove and when not to. Laws in the church work the same way and as our faith moves with us as we age it is an understanding of these deeper principles that really reveal the true religion underneath Mormon culture. In faith crisis it becomes necessary to separate out what things can be put aside as Mormon culture and what things are essential religion. This process of separating the two helps us build our houses more and more on the rock and less and less on the sand.
#7 – Find your Liahona
Another exciting opportunity as faith develops is the idea that we become our own moral agents, following our own personal liahonas. Mormonism was never meant to be a religion where we are commanded in all things and are slothful servants. How exciting it can be to really grasp that our talents in the church, our relationship with God, our moral code, our purpose in the world is all unique to us? This inner path can be scary at first when we feel like we can no longer depend on leaders or parents to have all the answers. But finding that inner liahona and the way that God talks with and works through you individually can be a great blessing that comes from a faith transition. During a faith crisis continue to reach out to whatever construct of God makes sense at the time and do not fear that God thinks any less of you. God is merciful enough that He is always there whether or not we believe in Him, and Christ is merciful enough that the atonement works even for those who call it by a different name. During a faith crisis one can journey more deeply inward to our own divine nature and find that we can better access God through that nature.
#8 – Its going to be ok
Faith has nothing to fear. Faith says I don’t know what I believe right now but I’m going to meet this head on. Christ didn’t just bless those who had a perfect knowledge of the truthfulness of the gospel. He blessed those who also said “strengthen Thou my unbelief”. Our shifting beliefs and our changing relationship to God and the church is as natural as growing into a new pair of shoes if we allow it to be. So if you are in a faith crisis and you feel like your worldview is changing, how exciting this new territory can be for your burgeoning faith. None of us like the feeling of being stretched but we can always look back and see growth.
There has been a lot of buzz lately, especially since the church essays came out, about all the penguins. Some view the essays as proof that the church has been hiding things. Others are surprised at the material. And some don’t think they went far enough. But that’s not the point. The point is we as a church are currently in a faith transition. This doesn’t mean that the church isn’t true. It means that in light of new issues, new historical information, the internet, etc. the church as a whole is changing and growing. And instead of finding it to be uneven ground and holding onto past paradigms with white knuckles, we can embrace change as faith development in the entire body of Christ itself, as well as individually. Faith transition is a beautiful process for us individually, and I believe as a church body it can be too. There are beautiful and more glorious things to come for us all as we embrace the idea that to be truly alive means that we change and for the church to be truly a living church it changes too.