Guest Post: The Proper Care and Feeding of Faith Crises
By Erin Moore
Where I Started
Even though I’ve never felt like the church and I totally jive, I can recall the exact moment my “faith crisis” started. I lived in Provo, but at the time I was technically a California resident, and I received a phone call from a well-meaning fellow student inviting me to a fireside on Prop 8. He also asked me if I’d be interested in calling other BYU students from California to “spread the word on this important issue.”
I hung up the phone with a terse “No, thank you,” and I remember a surprising sense of disgust welling up in me. At the time, I didn’t have the language to articulate what I was feeling. My privilege had kept many issues related to the LGBTQ community off my radar, and to that point, the church and I had gotten along alright. But boy did I feel weird.
It’s hard to believe that was eight years ago. Discovering that my church might be actively working against the interests of an already-marginalized group was a disturbing one, and it led me to wonder how else Mormons act out of self-interest. What unfolded was an exploration of this and other questions through study, writing, prayer, and countless conversations.
It’s a journey I’m still on, but out of it have come two firm beliefs: first, that much of what I’ve been taught as doctrine is culture, and second, people who internalize that culture are sometimes motivated to keep power in the hands of few by limiting the growth and freedom of others.
What I Wish I’d Known When I Started
It’s pretty hypocritical of me to offer advice to my fellow doubters. When questioning the Mormon church, many of us reach the conclusion that nobody should tell anybody else how to live their faith. I definitely believe that if I had been given more freedom to be myself and worship how I wanted, I wouldn’t feel so unmoored in the church today.
However, for all the belief I’ve lost, I can’t shake my conviction that Christ is community, that people ought to help each other, and that our struggles are common. Even now it’s hard for me to predict where I’ll end up with the church, but I’ve been reflecting on the experience of actively exploring doubt, and there are some things I’d like to share. Please, consider the personal and therefore limited perspective this originates from. And remember that I don’t actually have a clue what the hell I’m talking about.
Beginning a Faith Crisis: A Few Guidelines
1. Don’t let anyone tell you where you belong.
Faith is a complex experience, and most of us are really limited in our ability to express it. One of the best coping mechanisms for this insecurity is team-building. People in the church want certainty that you share their convictions. People who’ve left the church, or never belonged, want a commitment that you’re on their side and never going back. Know that this pressure usually comes from an honest place, but what others want for you might not be what you want for yourself.
2. Getting answers isn’t as scary as asking questions.
The Mormon church has a myriad of official and cultural mechanisms for discouraging questions, but when I built up the courage to ask them anyway—whether that was directly with leadership, with my peers, or just in my own head—I found relief. Oftentimes this journey has been a process of admitting things that I’ve always felt but knew I wasn’t supposed to say, for example that polygamy is not, and never was, a divine principle.
Does that conclusion set me up for a number of other, potentially more difficult questions? You bet your testimony of divine authority it does. But don’t underestimate the value of claiming authenticity in your beliefs. We so often feel pressure to express “knowledge” of certain principles, and grabbing hold of something you actually believe can be a breath of fresh air.
3. Being able to question your faith is a privilege, even if it’s painful.
This is more of a temporary salve than anything leading to long-term solutions, but I have found comfort in reminding myself that many people in the world are not given the opportunity to question their faith. Some do so against the threat of far greater consequences than I will ever know. Even in deep sadness over my loss of belief, I try to remind myself that the capability of losing belief is, ironically, a sign of freedom and privilege.
4. There is black and white thinking everywhere, not just at church.
Many people begin a faith crisis with an aversion to the certainty and over-simplification they hear expressed at church. But Mormons do not have a monopoly on narrow-minded, all-or-nothing thinking. For example, I am often discouraged to find that people who oppose the church sound hauntingly similar to people who love it.
“Oh those poor, simple people, so easily deceived. If only they knew the truth. I’m so glad I’ve got the truth. Someday they’ll see.”
The lesson here for me is this: as you explore other ways of thinking about the world and spirituality, don’t just look for contrast. Contrast is cheap. Look for depth.
5. Hopelessness is contagious.
This has been the most painful lesson for me, and it’s something I’m really grappling with right now.
We learn as Mormons that without the church, we can’t experience full happiness. And if you choose to let go of some of the church’s teachings, the truth is you will likely feel some of that emptiness.
I believe there is occasional value to staring into that void. But here’s the problem: if you do it too long, that spiritual emptiness can overwhelm you and bleed into other areas of your life. And you’ll forget how capable and creative you are, and you’ll start to feel despair.
Adrienne Rich says that “Despair…is, like war, the failure of the imagination.”
You are not to blame when you discover inconsistencies in your inherited belief system, but you are the only one who can build something new in its place. If you feel yourself moving away from the church, don’t just think about all the things you find problematic, or things that are a source of negativity in your mind and life. Think about what you really want instead. Imagine what your faith would look like without so much outside influence, and consider how you can create more of that while also removing things that trouble your mind and cause you pain.
Thanks for reading, and I wish you well as you make your way through your own faith journey!
Erin lives in Salt Lake City and works at the University of Utah. She loves any combination of writing, movies, politics, friends, and food.