Spiritual Ambivalence


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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.”
  7. 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?

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18 Responses

  1. Excellent post. In my time on the Mormon boards, I’m finding more and more often that we all are ambivalent about portions of Church policy, culture, and history, in one way or another. The differences come in what we’re willing to admit to ambivalence to and how much we’re willing to accept it in others.

  2. Jess says:

    First of all, wow. This could not have come at a more perfect time. Thank you so, so much.

    I was talking with a non-member friend last night about exactly this. I have had so many questions and concerns about church doctrine/church culture, where the line between those two things is, etc. in the last year or so. It has been really distressing (like you said, extended periods of discouragement and disillusionment are not healthy), but I’ve discovered a few things.

    The biggest thing was that the root of a lot of my distress was that I was causing distress in others. My questioning elicited a lot of worry and concern for my eternal soul from people I care about. I felt bad upsetting them. Once I realized that, though it still makes me feel bad to upset them, I realized that I was pretty ok exisiting in that questioning, seeking state.

  3. Emily U says:

    This is so good – I love Givens’ advice for creating a new relationship to the church. Your post makes me think of a quote I love from Rainer Maria Rilke:

    “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which would not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.

    And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.

    Perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

  4. EFH says:

    Great post, dear friend!

    You know, your journey has been my journey. I was once talking with a friend who told me “But we are humans and it is in our nature to be inconsistent.” I have thought a lot about that statement and there are many examples in the scriptures where people and prophets (and Peter the Great) who had seen God or heard his voice and yet at some point forgot that experience and denied it in a way or another.

    When we talk about faith at church, we talk as if it is supposed to always be consistent even during crisis. But it cannot. Faith is hope and hope is very fickle in this world. It is supposed to fluctuate in order for us to self-examine better and grow. Hence for me, doubt is a corner stone for faith. Think about the phrase “struggling with God in prayer”….now that is a great image. Struggling with God for me means asking for revelation for yourself and growing in light and knowledge. We can never enter that process without recognizing how little we know and how unsatisfactory some answers are.

    I love the book God who Weeps. In it the authors say that there is enough evidence out int he world to lead us to believe that the church is true and enough for for us to conclude that it is not true. It is within this context that we make a choice.

    Why some people get disaffected latter rather than sooner? Everyone has to be ready and prepared to doubt too. That too is a process, like faith is. And it happens at different times for different reasons.

    I have stopped looking at the issue as a matter of leaving vs. not leaving. I only look at it as a process of getting to know the divine and growing in it. And I try not to let people (by this I mean traditions, cultural norms, habits, personal limitations and short-comings etc) to become part of this process. It is personal and it is about me not them.

    I must say that it is a painful process and not for the faint of heart. But we are daughters of Eve and she wanted to know more, she knew better and she wanted to experience life not only as a physical struggle but as an intellectual one too. We are her daughters and we are doing that too.

    • Whoa-man says:

      Fantastic comment, EFH. I’ve thought a lot about the nature of choice and Even in similar ways before but I like how you bring it all together. I also love the idea, right now in my life, of living in the unknown, embracing it, absorbing the struggle and not rushing through it.

  5. spunky says:

    This is very interesting! It sounds like an excellent conference.

    I was struck with the “lower your expectations.” It is such a ironic concept– to go to church and expect. hope and seek to be uplifted– and yet, we need to lower our expectations. It is a difficult conept something akin to finding upliftment in the fact that perhaps most of the pews have hymnals within arm’s reach. But it is like that. And we must seek the “invisible church.”

    These are very important points, and I am so very glad that you shared them. Thank you!

  6. Howard says:

    Excellent post! Very articulate personal insights and useful suggestions. Amazing given your ambivalence.

  7. Aime says:

    You have beautifully articulated the emotional and spiritual space I inhabit when it come to Church related matters. As hard and painful as it often is, I find this liminal space so much more lively and enriching than static certitude on either side. It takes a persistent and powerful soul to move from a mindset built around knowledge and certainty and settle into the liminal space of unknowing. I’m moved and impressed by how you’ve navigated it and am honored to call you a friend.

  8. Bradley says:

    I spent quite some time on the ex-mormon RFM (Recovery From Mormonism) and you know what I found out? It’s filled with atheists and Mormon haters. Any extension of the olive branch toward Mormonism is shouted down if it isn’t first deleted by the moderator!

    So I read the posts and sensed veins pop out of necks when Joseph and the GAs are trashed. And it dawned on me that these people aren’t capable of rational discussion. Atheism, for Christ’s sake. It’s just irrational. My rational mind embraces God as reality because the non-existence of God, based on my observation, is absolutely impossible. It has nothing to do with belief.

    And then the occasional “No Christ” riff. Well okay, I’m open minded enough to entertain the notion that he could be an archetype to be emulated. And yet, I remember him from my dreams. A rather plain looking guy, shorter than me, who spoke amazing words. On one occasion I encountered him teaching a person and felt incredible love toward him, and I asked him to be there when I die. He simply replied “done”. So, I believe in Christ.

    However, through all this, I discovered that the church has a lot of problems. They basically stem from people being hearers of the word instead of doers. There needs to be less judging and more loving. More recognition of the Christ in every person. Reading scriptures is no substitute for being the Christ.

  9. April says:

    What a great post! I have recently found a lot of value to accepting dissonance. When I was younger, I was taught that I had to develop a testimony of everything taught at church. (Galdarag recently told of a similar experience she had here: http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2013/04/21/top-ten-reasons-im-grateful-for-my-mission-3/ ) This caused me a whole of angst trying to get God to give me “yes” answers about issues that I was receiving “no”s for. And it had the opposite effect on my testimony than those who recommended it intended. I would feel like if believing in this certain whatever was necessary to be part of this church, maybe I shouldn’t be here. I am more comfortable now that I allow myself to simply not believe certain things, not know about others, and embrace the parts that ring true to me.

  10. Caroline says:

    I love everything about this post, Whoa-man.

  11. Jane says:

    Love this post, thank you Whoa-man! Definitely going to try out some of those 6 solutions.

  12. Jessawhy says:

    This is a great post. I feel this way so much of the time. Thank you for sharing your experience and what you learned at this conference.

  13. Kate Kelly says:

    Fabulous post. I find that when people get to know me they compare my political & social beliefs to my religious ones & almost invariably ask “how do you resolve that contradiction??!?” My answer is always: “I don’t.” I am a walking paradox. I probably always will be, and I’m learning to revel in that and make it a place I love to be.

  14. Suzette says:

    Good questions! Wonderful, heart wrenching, hard, good questions!

    All of God’s children struggle – some with one thing and others with different things. Nothing wrong with the struggle. I appreciate how you discuss your own feelings and your own search. It will probably be life long.

    I know my search and my wrestle with the church will probably be life long. And I have always chosen to say because I think it’s a good wrestle – and I feel grounded in the church. I like looking for answers from the inside. I like the support of my fellow Saints – some who understand me and some who just love me. I’m glad this is a journey we take together.


  1. April 28, 2014

    […] for something else, and I’m glad I did. Last year at The Exponent, Whoa-man wrote this lovely post on one of my favorite topics–how to handle a faith […]

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