I have been trying to figure out my relationship to the church for close to a decade now. Over the course of this time I have felt a lot of sadness, betrayal, fear and uncertainty. One of the reasons why my faith transition has taken such a long course is that I feel paralyzed by my own ability to discern truth. Controversial discoveries of church history and policy did not just disintegrate my testimony; they also destroyed my confidence in my capacity to evaluate information. If things “I knew” turned out to be erroneous what does that say about my ability to know? Thus far it has been this distrust that has kept me in a sort of spiritual limbo—a liminal space betwixt and between believing and leaving.
The perfect description for this middle ground is ambivalence. Rather than the colloquial connotation of apathy, ambivalence actually means feeling equally passionate about two contradictory, mutually exclusive things. At times I have felt like my ambivalence toward the church was me being too scared to leave. Other times it felt like my ambivalence was being honest to the complicated and often contradictory nature of gaining insight. Through it all I have tried to maintain a thoughtful skepticism. Although it often dips into a frustrated cynicism, especially surrounding women’s issues in the church, I have felt a great deal of integrity and loyalty in embracing the spiritual ambivalence of my present state rather than looking for reassurance of belief in my past or confirmation of doubt in my future. There is something powerful about surrendering to uncertainty. At first I assumed this period was a short stop on the long journey toward either believing or leaving. Ten years later I am no closer to either.
Spiritual ambivalence can be a very lonely and difficult path. Extended disillusionment and discouragement is not a healthy mental state to be in. Online forums, blogs, retreats and podcasts have helped with this anomie. Another thing that has been beneficial is discussions with older thoughtful skeptics—people who have found peace within their spiritual ambivalence. Recently I attended the Faith and Knowledge Conference in Washington, D.C. for LDS scholars and graduate students put on by Richard and Claudia Bushman and Terryl and Fiona Givens. It was a wonderful experience and helped me not feel so alone or abnormal.
After a long day of student presentations Dr. Bushman spoke for a few minutes on the current epidemic of intellectual disaffections. He argued that it was not just about questions and answers, but rather disillusionment, betrayal and feelings of being misled that require compassion and healing of the soul. His solution was honest knowledge of truth in church curricula. These disaffections would be limited and less traumatic if there was more openness, more candor and if potentially problematic things stopped being hidden.
Dr. Givens continued this discussion by offering six solutions for successfully negotiating a new relationship in the church.
- Have a more generous view of disaffection. There are a lot of things we do not know; a lot of questions that we do not have answers for. There are no answers to human suffering but it gives him great comfort that we believe in a God Who Weeps.
- Find your own ministry and build Jerusalem. People often feel better when they spend less time on dissonance and more time focused on building bridges.
- Take ownership of your role. There is no “they” in the church there is only “we.” Stop focusing on the institution to change and become the change we need. Start grassroots movements. Too often people use God and church leaders as the scapegoat of their own problems. He joked “you are not stuck in traffic. You ARE traffic.”
- Find your own watering place. Those who tend to thrive in the church are those who are able to find the relationships and things that nourish their souls and continue to invest in them.
- Recognize the “invisible church” or “the church without walls.” Be open and receptive of seeking out the divine wherever it comes from—this transcends Mormonism.
- As we feel unity with the divine in all things we can live out the words by Joseph Smith spoken at a Relief Society meeting: “it is by union of feeling that we become like God.”
- Lower you expectations. We know that the church and its leaders are fallible but we are constantly surprised when we find evidence.
Givens then told a humorous metaphor about a patient that is convinced he is a seed. After many sessions his therapist persuades him that he is not a seed. He goes outside, sees a chicken, gets scared and goes right back into the therapist. “But you know you are not a seed” the therapist argues. “Yes,” replies the patient, “but does the chicken know that?” Givens compared this analogy to all of the work and adjustment that thoughtful skeptics go through to find their place in the church only to discover that their ward members, bishops and church leaders are at quite a different, sometimes hurtful, place.
These insights did not tip my spiritual ambivalence one way or the other, but it did make me feel more comfortable existing within it.
What has your experience been with spiritual liminality? Why do you think that some people disaffect quickly and others take a long time? What has helped you deal with spiritual ambivalence? What has pushed you toward further believing or leaving?