Zelophehad’s Daughters

The Stages of Faith

Posted by Kiskilili

I have no faith. In the stages of faith, that is. I believe in God. I just don’t believe in the universal human trajectory, the idea that everyone is sequentially following a similar path in regards to their personal belief, with a single end point in this life at which all sincere faith-pilgrims eventually congregate.

It strikes me that, in general, those who embrace a model for journeys of faith construe themselves in the ultimate (or at least penultimate) stage, at a point of arrival, where others’ beliefs are plotted at a less developed point on the faith axis. The emotional appeal of framing a discussion of faith in such a way is obvious. Our private, idiosyncratic and sometimes harrowing examinations of personal belief can be slotted into a grand purposive scheme. The journey itself, far from being the chaotic peregrination it sometimes appears, is teleological, and even preordained in a manner of speaking. We can expect arrival; should we choose, we can even construe our confusion and uncertainty itself as an arrival.

In many ways, genuine difference in belief or in emotional reaction to information is difficult to process; after all, if we really understood differences we wouldn’t have those differences. Constructing a narrative of a universal faith journey is one way of accounting for otherwise mystifying differing conclusions: by presuming other people are less developed versions of ourselves who can be expected eventually to cast off their naivete, their concerns, or whatever else and come into bloom as us.

But I don’t believe we’re all following a universal template in regard to faith, nor do I believe anyone has reached a faith apex at which point all earthly knowledge of Mormonism has been discovered and assimilated and all heavenly knowledge of the eternities made manifest. All of us are still on that labyrinthine journey, still subject to encountering new ideas and changing our minds.

For this reason, I find the issue of inoculation in the Church complex. We frequently speak as if we ourselves stand outside the processes that cause faith to change, a perspective from which we can survey the terrain and make recommendations in provisions for those who come after us. In some ways we can, although in fact all of us are still making our way through that terrain. Naturally our most sincere emotional reference point for understanding other people is our knowledge of ourselves, but sometimes even that is not enough. Issues that drive some from the Church are easily surmounted by others, for whom they do not even pose particular obstacles.

Those of us who have been stripped of faith by the investigation of various aspects of the Church quite reasonably suppose others will react similarly if they encounter the same information, while those of us who have discovered emotionally and intellectually satisfying solutions to vexing issues rightly believe these solutions will seal similar holes in other people’s dikes protecting their own belief systems. Both of these positions have some validity and some limitations.

I endorse transparency as a matter of principle. I believe willful and misleading suppression of information to be unethical. But I acknowledge this carries potential dangers, that questions may be posed for which there are no clear answers, or even for which my own answers are not sufficient for someone else. The very term “inoculation” presumes the Church can introduce potential pathogens into an environment the Church itself has the capability of containing. If nothing else, individual variance in temperament may make this impossible.

Ideally I believe we should be open about the Church’s past and willing to discuss our own conclusions where we think it may be helpful, but in the end respect each other’s differences, both in conclusions and in concerns. But perhaps I’m merely projecting my own position–that not all answers are available–as an endpoint onto everyone else’s faith journey. Perhaps, discovering I am lost, I assume everyone else is lost in some way whether they know it or not.

37 Responses to “The Stages of Faith”

  1. 1.

    Both of these positions have some validity and some limitations.

    I think you are making a good point.

    I would also state that the conclusions people draw from historical records can vary widely. My first exposure to higher criticism came to early literature that was profoundly disrupted by current facts (e.g. German writing about how there was never a Jericho and we all needed to get over any thought that anything in the O.T. was accurate — though by the time I got around to reading the literature Jericho had been found).

    A good example is the discovery of hymns to Baal and replications of parts of those in the O.T. Were the old prophets merely pious frauds and thieves? Well, if you actually read both sets of texts you can tell that they are assuming that their audience is familiar with the originals and that they are using the elements for contrast. But I’ve read writings by people certain that those “borrowings” were proof that there was no God.

    So I would very much agree that I do not have faith in the “stages of faith” and that people have very different responses. Though as to transparency, I find myself asking “transparency to what?” Much of what people ask for when they ask for transparency is not as to facts but as to narratives that may or may not be true.

    Kind of like the call to acknowledge that there never was a Jericho or a King David or a kingdom of Israel … that was a call for what the people asking for it thought was transparency to facts but was really just a narrative.

    Not that I do not believe in both, but I think that many narratives aren’t as clear and compelling as people think they are, just as you have illustrated with your comments on the stages of faith.

  2. 2.

    Those of us who have been stripped of faith by the investigation of various aspects of the Church quite reasonably suppose others will react similarly if they encounter the same information, while those of us who have discovered emotionally and intellectually satisfying solutions to vexing issues rightly believe these solutions will seal similar holes in other people’s dikes protecting their own belief systems. Both of these positions have some validity and some limitations.

    Beautiful and insightful, K. (And anyone who disagrees with that assessment is clearly not as enlightened as you or I :P ). I think you’re absolutely right that we have a natural tendency to view ourselves as the more enlightened, and others as still figuring things out. And recognition of that principle suggests that we should be cautious to assert the superiority of our own religious frameworks.

    I wonder where this takes us, though. I’d like to think that this takes us to a place where we can recognize that different people take different paths in their spiritual journey, and that there are many ways to approach the Divine, and that we should not expect our own religious ideals to apply to all other people.

    But, isn’t that itself a set of religious ideals itself? Isn’t “let’s try to be accepting of all frameworks” itself a framework? We really _can’t_ keep all the doors open. When we suggest that we shouldn’t assert the superiority of any one framework, we close the door to many types of religious experience that _do_ involve believing in the superiority of one framework — and so we are, in a more macro sense, still asserting the superiority of our own framework.

    We’re chauvinists, all of us, whether or not we intend it.

  3. 3.

    Are you familiar with Elder Hafen’s take on stages of faith? It’s not terribly complicated, and I believe he borrows from G.K. Chesterton.

    I second Kaimi. NIcely expressed post.

  4. 4.

    I think it would be better described as a meta-framework. Saying there is no one framework for all people is not a framework itself, anymore than atheism is a religion.

    If you insist that it is a framework however, it would be somewhat akin to Rawls’ thin theory of the good; it is just enough framework to allow for social interactions while leaving most of the big questions unanswered.

  5. 5.


    I’d agree, it’s a very thin framework. I personally tend to think that’s a good thing. If we’re going to all be chauvinists anyway, then we should do so in a way that leaves the maximum possible latitude for respecting others’ beliefs.

  6. 6.

    Thanks for the comments. I agree with Kaimi that we tend to view ourselves as more enlightened than others, but I also think we naturally assume others will respond to information the way we do–it interests me that those who have lost their faith in virtually all Mormonism’s truth claims by investigating Church history, but still love the Church, want to protect other people from that experience, whereas those who have found a way to reconcile issues tend to be in favor openness about Church history, believing others will reconcile issues similarly.

    I believe that the Church does not have all the answers, which you’re of course right to point out is itself a religious ideology, one that naturally results in pluralist tendencies. On the other hand, when I was in divinity school I used to argue with a Unitarian friend about whether or not every path to God is equal to every other path–that seems ridiculous to me. But since, chauvinist that am, I assume other people, like me, are lost, I doubt anyone is in a position to reach a definitive conclusion on the validity of another’s religious quest or crisis. Some people are enormously distressed to discover the manner in which JS practiced polygamy, where others couldn’t care less, for example (this much I’ve observed personally). Given such facts, how do we create a community where we can still support and respect each other?

    Back to the first hand, I do think there are religious claims worth making (such as my assertion that God exists at the beginning of the post). Besides being a wishy-washy hypocrite, I’m not sure where that leaves me, except I think it’s helpful for us to share how we’ve reached the religious convictions we hold, positive or negative, while respecting that the questions others ask and the manner in which they arrive at conclusions might differ drastically from our own.

    Good points, Stephen. You raise the perennial question of Israel’s “specialness”–if Israel’s religious behavior was not qualitatively different from her neighbors, do we still have a basis for asserting that Israel was “inspired” where other nations were not? I’m actually not sure what I think, but I imagine if someone read our hymnbook in a few thousand years alongside a Protestant hymnbook, they might notice we’ve borrowed quite a bit (similarly if they excavated our chapels). In and of itself, that would neither vitiate nor confirm Mormonism’s claims to inspiration, although it indicates cultural situatedness in each case.

    You’re absolutely right that it gets complicated because the facts themselves are often in dispute (the current claim that Jericho is a real–and very ancient–city which was not inhabited at the alleged time of the Conquest is a good example of how scholarship changes its claims, solving and presenting new problems). Since the facts themselves are so frequently in dispute, should people really be exposed to various narrative, interpretive construals of those facts? Again, even though I believe we’re all lost in various ways, I don’t think we’re lost in relativism, in which no claims can be given any greater weight than any other claims. Some narratives are superior to others. To use my example above, there are various interpretations of JS’s polygamous behavior, but no credible source I’ve encountered asserts that JS only married one wife, which is why excising this from the record entirely constitutes suppression of information that is almost bound to backfire. Scholarship will change, and perhaps what poses a problem today will be resolved tomorrow, but scholarship is advanced in a context that virtually expects disagreement from those who see the evidence differently. Doctrine will also no doubt change, and perhaps what people consider doctrinal problems of today will similarly be resolved tomorrow, or new problems will be introduced. So what do we hold onto? I think we can only muddle along as best as possible with neither perfect transparency nor pitch blackness, but seeing through a glass darkly.

    And now I think I’m talking in circles, so I’m going to go starting cooking for this year’s Catastrofeast. Yum.

  7. 7.

    I’ve never been convinced of a “stages” theory regarding faith. But, inasmuch as it seems that we are “hardwired” with respect to psychological/emotional development, I think it reasonable to assume that our perception of faith may change as a result of a more (shall we say) comprehensive change in our perception of ourselves and the world around us.

  8. 8.

    Great post — I share all of your concerns with “stages of faith” talk, and perhaps more. In addition to the bizarre teleology of the stages framework, as well as the tendency to use such frameworks to place oneself at or near the pinnacle of human evolution, there are other difficulties. One is that the stages paradigm collapses a multidimensional process, with separate and separable components involving different aspects of belief and behavior, into a single unified idea. But do people’s beliefs about the historicity of Jesus Christ necessarily move in tandem with their beliefs about the validity of Joseph Smith’s claimed revelations? Can a person reach some kind of satisfactory resolution regarding polygamy while being deeply troubled and angry about the Mountain Meadows Massacre? Furthermore, can’t apparent resolution prove temporary or illusory — don’t people move “backwards” as well as “forwards” with their faith? In short, aren’t there vast gains, in terms of understanding, to be had in seeing faith as a complex of individual attitudes, emotions, and behaviors, rather than as a journey (a metaphor that presupposes a universal start and destination, and also implies consistent motion in some chosen direction)?

    Regarding the “inoculation” metaphor, I dislike it, as well. I think it’s problematic for a number of reasons. One is the implication that some ideas about Mormonism are dangerous. Isn’t Mormonism in large part a quest for truth? If so, then information about Mormonism isn’t a disease; it’s a necessary tool for being genuinely Mormon. A better metaphor here is probably “education.” After all, what we’re discussing is providing information, and that’s what education is. If some people use that information to conclude that Mormonism is false, well, would it have been better for them to stay within Mormonism on false pretenses? I can’t see how it could be.

  9. 9.

    Thanks for a great comment, RT; I agree with both your points. I really appreciate your desire to complexify the generally single-dimensional way in which we talk about faith. Sometimes we refer to testimony, for example, as though it is a uniform all-ecompassing thing. It’s sometimes said that one should develop a strong testimony before encountering material such as In Sacred Loneliness (or whatever else–fill in your favorite “threatening” material on Mormonism). But a testimony of what? If one has a strong testimony that Joseph Smith was a monogamist, to follow this example, then one’s faith is based in apparent falsehood. I really like your point that aspects of our faith my grow while others shrink.

    Regarding inoculation, it’s freqeuntly said that suppressing information is paternalistic. But I think the framework in which we discuss “inoculating” people is no less paternalistic.

  10. 10.

    (On the other hand, I do think the term “inoculation” has some usefulness, in that the very fact that the Church is unwilling to discuss certain aspects of its history, denying faithful members any systematic exposure to it, makes the information increasingly toxic when encountered in unofficial environments. But I do think some ideas in Mormonism are dangerous. And I don’t think the fact that they’re dangerous necessary means they’re “false”–the more perplexing possibility is that dangerous, inexplicable or seemingly immoral ideas accurately reflect God’s attitude. Either way, it’s unfair to suppress such ideas simply because we haven’t adequately developed theological mechanisms for making sense of them.)

  11. 11.

    But I do think some ideas in Mormonism are dangerous.

    I’d like to think about this a bit more. Dangerous for what, or for whom? Certainly there are ideas in Mormonism that are dangerous for existing power elites, but that’s true of Christianity and probably any other religion worth its salt. Furthermore, I can definitely understand why the powerful would want to suppress such ideas; that’s old-fashioned realpolitic, etc. Much of what people talk about as “inoculation” falls in this category, in my view. A problematic aspect of the usage here is that it suggests that exposure to new information about elites ought not to change our relationship with those elites in any substantial way. Rather than using suppressed information to construct a more fully adequate personal understanding of Mormonism, we’re urged to simply acknowledge the existence of the suppressed information but not meaningfully integrate it into our religious worldview. This outcome strikes me as unfortunate. It’s an opportunity missed, a case of drawing a line and saying this far I will go and no farther, as Joseph Smith said.

    There are also some ideas and facts that might undermine some people’s commitments to Mormonism. Are these dangerous? I don’t think so, or at least not for that reason. The risk here is that people, when given full information, might make different choices than they would when given partial information. An analogy would be finding out nutritional information about your favorite restaurant. The relevant risk is that the restaurant might not really be your favorite once you find out all the details. But is this risk of preference reversal “danger”? What we’re really talking about here is adult, informed choice. Why should a partially informed choice be seen as more binding than a fully informed one?

    There’s a third category of ideas within Mormonism that seem genuinely dangerous, in the sense that the ideas themselves may be the efficient cause of clear and unambiguous harm coming to individuals. An obvious instance in this category is the idea that God can command you to kill someone, and that you then have to do it. This concept has actually produced real deaths, for example at Mountain Meadows and more recently with the LeBaron family killings. Yet dangerous ideas of this kind are in fact discussed openly in Gospel Doctrine classes throughout the church.

  12. 12.

    Ah!! Kiskilili & RT, can you please come and do a panel discussion on “What’s Wrong With Stages of Faith Rhetoric?” at the next Sunstone symposium? Because, seriously, if I have to hear another self-congratulatory assessment by someone who puts himself in the fourth stage and everyone else in his ward in the first… ugh.

    Among many important things that stages of faith discourse fails to take into account is that some people are just temperamentally more comfortable with ambiguity and complexity than others, and that preferring complexity is not necessarily a moral virtue. I’m inclined to think it’s an adaptive trait, but, like most gifts, it is generally unmerited.

  13. 13.

    Oh, I agree completely with RT that even if information is deemed “dangerous” there’s no justification for suppressing it, in the interest of allowing people to make informed adult choices–whether that involves leaving the Church or not (but I would think that, given my situation!). It’s frequently asserted by advocates of “inoculation” that the problem with suppressing information is that people find it out from other sources, feel betrayed by the Church, and lose trust in it. I definitely believe this is a serious problem. But I disagree with inoculation advocates that this is the extent of the problem; the other half is that people might really not want to worship a God who manipulates women into becoming his prophet’s plural wives, to fall back on my earlier example, whether the Church is open about this fact or not. Or perhaps people will conclude that not everything the prophet says in God’s name is inspired. So (attempting to reconstruct my train of thought at 3 AM this morning when I was too sick to sleep!), information is “dangerous” in that it has the power to genuinely change people’s views of the Church, themselves, or God, in ways the Church can’t necessarily control. But it’s exactly because I think we should integrate such information into our religious worldview that I doubt “inoculationists” always have the answers sufficient to contain the alleged “pathogens” they may introduce. So to sum up: I’m absolutely in favor of transparency; I’m just not convinced the Church can open those floodgates and remain ultimately unaffected by it, as inoculation theory seems to imply. If nothing else, the Church’s own commitment to integrity makes honesty incumbent on it, but I don’t think the Church can necessarily control how people will respond. But information that’s dangerous to aspects of people’s faith should certainly be accessible–what’s dangerous is that we might be disabused of misplaced faith, and as RT says, that should be a good thing.

    So (I think?) RT and I are perhaps arguing two sides of the same coin–I disagree with the way we discuss inoculation because it implies there is no genuine danger in exposure to whatever (insert your favorite threatening information) about Mormonism: I believe it actually is “dangerous” in the sense that it has the power to genuinely change people’s faith, and while I don’t consider this a bad thing at all, I do think the process itself and even the conclusions can be painful; whereas RT is (maybe?) arguing that none of this information is truly “dangerous” in that influencing our faith is not necessarily bad (?).

    (In the interest of foregrounding my own biases which I’m no doubt projecting, in case they’re not glaringly obvious!, I’ve personally reached the tentative conclusion that God is untrustworthy, and while I’m very glad I have the information that led me to such a conclusion, it’s not a comfortable situation to occupy. That’s the “danger” I see in assimilating new religious information: the universe might not be such a benevolent place.)

  14. 14.

    Oh, but Kristine, if I don’t have the moral virtue of my astounding complexity, I have no virtues left! After all, I’ve given up on all the rest. ;)

    Really I think a “stages of faith” paradigm enables us to recast what amounts to a loss of a piece of one’s faith as a gain–what we’ve lost in faith we’ve gained in sophistication. Sometimes it’s just a rhetorical device by which we can disguise feeling we’ve been misled and then disabused of apparently inaccurate beliefs, but beliefs that may change our relationship to our religious community in uncomfortable ways. It’s well nigh impossible to announce in a Church context that you’ve lost your faith in whatever aspect of the Church without receiving pitying looks and encouragement to repent of secret sins; it makes much more sense to announce that you’ve reached a higher plane to which others can aspire.

    (I know this because I’ve transcended the “stages of faith” plane and reached a higher level of consciousness, the stage beyond the stages of faith. ;) )

    Of course, I tend to be allergic in general to all stages and numbered charts–the four Rs of repentance, the five steps to Christ, the twelve criteria for evaluating a potential spouse.

    Anyway, thanks for your comment!

  15. 15.

    Kiskilili, comment # 6:

    . . .I’m going to go starting cooking for this year’s Catastrofeast. Yum.


    Kiskilili, comment # 13:

    . . .attempting to reconstruct my train of thought at 3 AM this morning when I was too sick to sleep

    Pray tell – are those two comments related?

    The only contribution I can make to this thread is the observation that it takes quite a bit of hubis to assume that I know just what somebody else needs to know. I also am an advocate of the assumption that more information is better, but people are individuals, and therefore unique in their hangups.

  16. 16.

    Kristine, do you want to get me mugged at my first-ever Sunstone symposium? I thought we were friends…

    I do think there’s a valuable goal being served by the stages-of-faith talk. That goal is to provide legitimacy for people whose faith positions are denigrated and marginalized within a given religious community. Such people are indeed real, are not deviant or deficient, and are not necessarily morally better or worse than people whose faith experience is closer to the community’s normative ideal. So I see the rhetorical effect of stages-of-faith in terms of legitimizing the marginalized as valuable indeed. However, that rhetorical effect comes at the cost of the very negative and distorting consequences we’ve discussed here. How about instead saying something like: we’re all God’s children, kumbaya. With or without irony as you see fit.

    Kiskilili, I agree with your comment #13. In my earlier comment, I wasn’t really sure what you meant by “dangerous.” Rather than just ask you, I decided to do more work and spell out a few different possible meanings of “dangerous.” Your more recent comment suggests that you were using the term to refer to ideas that might change our religious world view in profound ways and perhaps alter our concept of God. I certainly agree that there are ideas that can do this, and that the process is often very painful. But I hesitate to characterize that as danger. I don’t think God will condemn us for reaching wrong conclusions on theological issues — even big ones — so I resist the suggestion of spiritual danger here. Indeed, it seems to me that a Mormon ought to argue that the real danger lies in not having the information that creates meaningful choice. “For how can we meaningfully choose to stay loyal to Mormonism if we lack the genuine temptation to choose otherwise?” Lehi would object.

    My reading of the project of inoculation is that its goal is just exactly that of providing new and challenging information in ways that don’t alter or affect our basic understanding of the topic in question. I think, for example, that this was just exactly the basic project of Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling book. While the book presented most, if not all, of the challenging historical details regarding Joseph Smith, it didn’t really build those details into an overall interpretation of the man. Instead, the interpretive frame was largely that of Mormon tradition: a sincere visionary, a person with human character traits and foibles but few serious flaws, a mythic hero. The benefit of the inoculation project, and of Bushman’s book, is that new information is added to Mormon conversations. The drawback is that the information is added superficially; it is treated as a matter of superficial detail, rather than as a clue to the nature of the whole. As a result, we learn less than we could about ourselves, our faith, and our God.

    Regarding the trustworthiness of God, it certainly seems to me that there are stories in Mormon history and scripture that resonate with your view. Abraham and Isaac is a clear instance, but so also the redemption of Zion in the 1830s. I’d love to hear more of your current views on this point.

  17. 17.

    Well, Mark, the Catastrofeast was certainly catastrophic, considering I added flour to the Yorkshire pudding before noticing that it (the flour) was infested with weevils. If only I’d noticed sooner I could have roasted them, dipped them in chocolate, and served them for dessert.

    We used Monopoly money to auction off the Catastrofeast dishes, and my nephew bid all of his money on every dish. It was quite exciting! But I’m afraid the Catastrofeast is less responsible for my wee-hour blogging than is the fact that Ziff, Lady Amalthea, and I were up till 2 AM last night playing raucous board games. :)

  18. 18.

    RT, I like the way you’ve laid out different possible meanings for “dangerous,” although if I understand you right there’s a certain amount of overlap? I do think there are things the Church teaches that genuinely harm people–I think you could make the argument that marrying Joseph Smith was harmful to at least some of his plural wives, just as I think you could argue that discovering this information might undermine someone’s commitment to the Church, and even potentially threaten existing power elites. As I read them it seems all three categories are interrelated.

    Of course, I’ve chosen to alter my beliefs in the face of uncomfortable information about the Church in a way that ultimately attempts to minimize danger, so in that sense such ideas are certainly not “dangerous”–they’re quite the opposite. I’m taking a risk by concluding that God is a misogynist, but I’m taking that risk exactly because I think putting faith in the possibility that he’s not poses an even greater risk in the long run, is supported by less evidence, and runs a greater risk of betrayal.

    But terms such as “inoculation” presuppose that there are ideas about Mormonism that pose a potential threat, presumably that people’s relationship to the Church will deteriorate. While I agree with you that such ideas, and even the process of renegotiating one’s relationship to the Church, may not ultimately be dangerous, what I mean is that I think that possibility/threat (depending on your perspective) is concrete.

    Of course, if you don’t think God will condemn us for reaching wrong theological conclusions, there’s little reason to fear religious exploration. And if God is good, that makes a lot of sense. But that itself is a religious proposition in which one may place or withdraw faith as part of that very religious exploration. I’ve made the decision to annul my formal commitments to the Church, for example, but continue to believe in God’s involvement in the Church. What am I to conclude about the current state of my soul? Maybe God will be sympathetic to my reasons. But if certain of the Church’s claims reflect God’s attitude, there’s a good chance I’ve just signed up for hell, and I’m very aware of that. I can’t say I’m convinced ideas can’t lead us to behave in ways that cut us off irrevocably, eternally from God, or from happiness. I find your idea appealing, but I’m not in a position to say I put faith in it. But I’m obviously investing hope in the possibility that if God is indeed tyrannical I’ll be happier resisting his kingdom, and if he’s not he’ll understand my motivation.

    Your comments on <em>Rough Stone Rolling</em> are very interesting–I’m personally in no position to evaluate such things, but I do think proposed inoculation tends to treat topics superficially on the assumptions both that superficial presentation will itself not be disturbing, and that people will not seek out further exposure to such issues.

    On the trustworthiness of God: my favorite book of scripture is the Hebrew Bible, in which I particularly love Lamentations and Job. We have no shortage of scriptural passages lamenting God’s betrayals and apparent refusal to respond. Basically, given the evidence I feel is at my personal disposal–God endorses a Church that requires women to act as the agents of their own dehumanization and to subordinate themselves to their husbands–I don’t believe it’s in my best interest to trust God. It’s not that I’m convinced God is a misogynist. It’s that I’m not convinced he’s not.

  19. 19.

    kislilili… I love this: “if you don’t think God will condemn us for reaching wrong theological conclusions, there’s little reason to fear religious exploration. And if God is good, that makes a lot of sense.”

    this has been a wonderful read, so much of what is on my own mind at the moment (but with better vocabulary). I have heard so often in lessons or talks the conflicting message: “Find out for yourself” and “This is the answer” … very unhealthy double-speak if you ask me.

    I wonder what would happen if the church opted for more transparency… it could go either way- loosing membership, or a strengthened membership. very likely a different membership.

  20. 20.

    if I have to hear another self-congratulatory assessment by someone who puts himself in the fourth stage and everyone else in his ward in the first… ugh.


    I’ve made the decision to annul my formal commitments to the Church, for example

    I don’t see the need for that, but it does support those who disagree with you that you have.

    Wish you well.

  21. 21.

    I can’t say I’m convinced ideas can’t lead us to behave in ways that cut us off irrevocably, eternally from God, or from happiness.

    Here I think a finer distinction is necessary. I have quite a bit of confidence that ideas can indeed lead us to behave in ways that distance us from God. That is, I think religious ideas quite certainly do have consequences. Yet my feeling based on my personal experience is that it’s the consequences that matter most, rather than the ideas in themselves. This is, however, a kind of metaphysical claim and not, perhaps, susceptible to particularly enlightening discussion.

    On the “dangerous” front, I agree that the three categories can indeed overlap. They don’t necessarily, though. I’m not even convinced that they generally overlap.

    Regarding the example you offered of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, I agree that the practice likely harmed at least some of the women involved. However, does the idea that Joseph Smith did this lead to behaviors that cause harmful practice today? Perhaps. Yet the church does seem to have found ways of hedging this idea about that minimize the prospects for modern Mormons to follow Smith into the at least potentially harmful practice of polygamy. For modern Mormons, it seems that the potential dangers of the idea of Smith’s polygamy are really primarily: (a) the danger of concluding that church leaders can think they’ve had a revelation when they haven’t; and (b) the danger of concluding that Joseph Smith really wasn’t a prophet at all, or was a fallen prophet, or something.

    Thanks for your additional comments on seeing God as untrustworthy. I’m certainly in no position to argue that you’re wrong — although I guess at the end of the day I’m placing my bets on the proposition that a different set of heresies resolves the issue of God’s evident misogyny. There’s obviously more to be said on that front, but perhaps not in public.

  22. 22.

    I have to admit that at the beginning of my crisis in faith, the stages of faith concept was incredibly helpful. It made it okay for me to have doubts. I didn’t necessarily view myself as better than those that didn’t doubt, only affirmed as still valuable with my doubts.

    I’m curious about what you have to say as far as other ethical developmental schemes are concerned, such as William Perry’s, Piaget, Erikson, and more recently, Mary Belenky (who drew largely from Perry if I understand correctly). I’m interested because the one stages of faith author I’ve read, James Fowler, drew heavily off of Piaget, Freud, Kholberg, and Erikson for his theory.

    Anyway, this discussion has been interesting for me. Especially as I continue to re-evaluate exactly what faith means to me and whether or not it really is a journey.

    Do you suppose that the journey idea has more to do with theories about collective consciousness? And is that where the argument falls apart in your opinion? That really, humanity doesn’t really follow such a path?

  23. 23.

    Hi, Lessie! I do think there’s value in the stages-of-faith rhetoric in normalizing doubt; that would have been enormously valuable to me when I first began to question my faith at the age of eleven, convinced as I was that no one I knew had ever doubted anything and something was terribly wrong with me. On the other hand, I didn’t end up in a position of more nuanced faith, but one of more intense, straightforward faith. I seem to be following a somewhat idiosyncratic path when it comes to religion, and I wonder whether even heaven knows where I’m headed next (I certainly don’t). Anyway, I’d like to think there’s a way to make room for the acceptability of doubt without constraining it by either of two predominant narratives: doubt as a result of sin, or doubt as an ineluctable step toward more sophisticated consciousness. I’m thinking of writing a post on this, if I can sort out my thoughts.

    The rest of your question is good, but I’ll have to leave it to someone more educated than I am to answer it! It’s been a long time since I encountered Kohlberg’s ethical stages (or Gilligan’s critique), and I remember only being less than completely convinced. But part of this may be a personality issue–I’ve always fiercely resisted being slotted into a category or plotted on a parabola. I value individual choice and the validation of an individual’s perception of their own experience (beyond, say, the use of a numbered chart to assign value to that experience), but I’ll have to think more about what’s at issue here.

    I’m sure Piaget, Erikson and company have fascinating things to say, but I’m simply not well-read enough!

    I have to admit I do believe there are stages of sleep, though. Maybe I should try to go through them sometime soon . . .

  24. 24.

    One thing that interests me about the way we sometimes talk about stages of faith is that institutions that provide evidence around which faith claims are based have been effectively acquitted of playing any role in that “faith journey.” If individuals feel betrayed, this is simply regarded as one unavoidable phase in the universal human trajectory; thus, whether or not institutions propogate misleading information is considered immaterial. Since our faith is rooted in specific claims and specific evidence as furnished by religious institutions, this strikes me as problematic.

  25. 25.

    Thanks very much for your comment, G! You’re right the Church really doesn’t address what to do if what we “find out for ourselves” is not what the Church authorities teach; that tension raises all sorts of fascinating questions worthy of a post in itself.

    Thanks for the well wishes, Stephen. You’re certainly one of the kindest people on the bloggernacle! Although I’ve annulled my endowment (and thus my membership), I haven’t cut all my ties to the Church, and there are still many aspects of it (the Church) that appeal to me (yet another good topic for a post!).

  26. 26.

    I’d really like to suggest that you give some the Arbringer books a shot for the next things you read that touch the LDS Church.

    I once had someone ask me how I could believe, poor guy thinks I’m the smartest attorney he’s ever had on the other side of a case and couldn’t see how intelligence and faith could go together.

    I told him I was smart, but not smarter than God. As a result, faith endures.

    You have hit the core question, “is God good?” If yes, then faith and patience are our responses. If no, then nothing else helps us much and we are faced with the perspectives of the stoics and epicureans which basically leads us to acting the same way that faith and patience take us.

    Because love is a channel to the Holy One, I’m inclined towards hope.

    Yes, there is pain, but I don’t think that pain alone is enough to dissuade me from faith.

    Anyway, I’ve always felt it was just as easy to sit passively as to take active steps to annul membership. I wish you well, and hope that your journey brings you safely home.

  27. 27.

    Fascinating post, Kiskilili, and an interesting discussion. I have a couple of random thoughts:

    I like the point that Kiskilili and RT have made that we aren’t all following the same trajectory with regard to our faith over time. But even if everyone isn’t on the same path, is it possible that there are groups of people who follow similar trajectories? I wonder if it isn’t like alcohol consumption over time. I hardly know this research at all, but from what little I do know, I think that most people’s alcohol consumption over time can be categorized into a few groups. There are the never-consumers. There are those who consume perhaps some as teenagers, binge as early adults, and settle down to low-to-moderate levels of consumption for the rest of their lives. And there are those whose consumption goes up in young adulthood and never really comes back down again.

    So does anyone know if there has been research done on how people’s faith changes over time? It seems like if there were some reason to think that large groups of people follow similar trajectories, discussion of stages of faith might be helpful. Of course, a different term than “stages” might be preferable to reduce the tendency for us all to see each other as less developed versions of ourselves, stuck way back at stage XIV, while we have moved beyond, to stage DCLXVI!

    Another thought: I can certainly understand the motive for the Church to hide information about its past. The GAs fear that members will leave if they learn about bizarre things in our past. But I wonder if they’re not underestimating how betrayed people feel when they find these things out from sources outside the Church, and therefore discover that the Church has been suppressing the information. Perhaps feeling betrayed drives more people away than the suppressed information ever would have. It may be that, even from a perspective of maximizing membership, it would be better to be open about the past than to selectively suppress it.

    But of course this gets to RT’s point about whether newly revealed information gets integrated into how members think about the Church rather than just being considered superficially. It seems likely that if the Church were to suddenly be much more open about its past, that members might reconsider how we see the Church, and be more likely to think of it generally as a flawed, largely man-made organization, even if inspired. I agree with G’s assessment in #19 that this transparency would lead to a different Church, which is I guess perhaps the fear that leads to suppression of information even more than the simple fear of less membership in pure numerical terms.

  28. 28.

    So does anyone know if there has been research done on how people’s faith changes over time? It seems like if there were some reason to think that large groups of people follow similar trajectories, discussion of stages of faith might be helpful.

    Actually, Fowler’s “stages” discussion was based on a large number of case studies of how people’s faith has developed (up to the point of the interviews, obviously, and with retrospective accounts for the most part). Interestingly, Fowler found that most people didn’t go past his stage 3, that some people seem to have reached higher stages without passing through lower ones, and that people occasionally seemed to loop back to earlier stages. This is all at a very high level of generality, though, and I don’t think there’s been good reliability testing to see if the internal dimensions of each stage-concept empirically hold together. In my experience, people are substantially all over the map; most people I know seem to be in at least three stages at a given moment in time, depending on the specific theme at issue.

    These issues apply broadly to most of the developmental stage theories, by the way, including the ones that Lessie brings up above. I guess it’s at least possible that humanity isn’t on one large, shared journey; the stage theories almost universally assume that we are.

  29. 29.

    Thanks, RT. Maybe I should try reading Fowler. I agree that it would be interesting to see whether different dimensions of faith might hold together or not. I wonder if people have any tendency to require more or less internal consistency in their faith stages on different dimensions over time. At least when I was a missionary, the discussions seemed to be based around an assumption that we could get people to believe things by logical argument from other things. I mean like “If you feel good when you read the Book of Mormon, then it must be what it purports to be, and Joseph Smith was actually a prophet, and prophetic succession since him must be inspired, and therefore the current President of the Church is a prophet, etc.” Actually now that I think about it, this line of reasoning is sometimes trotted out as a method of responding to all kinds of concerns. I don’t recall who it was–Lynnette maybe?–who was told recently here at ZD by a commenter that if she would just read the Book of Mormon, any concerns she had would be solved by this kind of drawing conclusions from one dimension to another.

    I know stage theories are seductive: they seem to explain so much because they’re so neat and orderly and allow us to put people on handy trajectories. I’m sure they’re overused, but I don’t think they’re entirely worthless. I do still wonder if some kind of a stage theory might not describe many people’s experience on some general dimension of faith in God or belief in the Church, or in any church in general. It would be fascinating to see a prospective study that followed people starting when they were teens, perhaps, for decades, to see what they said about their faith at different ages.

  30. 30.

    You’re no doubt right that some stage paradigms are useful. It would certainly be interesting to see whether there were general trends in changes of faith over the course of people’s lifetimes (I’m sure someone has studied this), although it seems that as much as anything one would be ascertaining the contours of larger cultural changes.

    As I see it, there are two projects involved–one delineating the characteristics of a coherent “stage,” (and in order to be useful presumably its characteristics whould be mutually exclusive to those of other stages?), and the second project putting them in order. I guess I’m more suspicious of the second project than the first; who decides what consitutes regression and what constitutes progress? Also, I’m not sure there’s a strict boundary between descriptive and prescriptive projects: what purports to neutrally describe a natural unfolding of faith quickly becomes a yardstick by which oneself and others are measured and even pushed into line.

    An interesting comparison would be to alleged stages of grief. As with faith, there are no doubt broadly characteristic ways in which people respond to loss, in both cases contingent on culture in specifics but probably with a number of cross-cultural similarities. But at its worst, “stages of grief” become a convenient way for others to schedule and dictate, and thus control, one’s emotional state. And both grief and changes in faith cry out for explanations since they’re both things we’d like to find a way to master.

    (This all smacks of the sort of reasoning by which nineteenth-century anthropologists, influenced by Darwinian evolution, slotted other culture’s religious practices into an evolutionary scheme for which Anglicanism formed the pinnacle. All other religious adherents (=heathens) were unwitting inchoate Anglicans of various stripes.)

    I guess I should read Fowler to find out the relationship between his stages of faith and people’s encountering and either incorporating or rejecting new information. It seems to me that at least some of what gets caught up into Mormon discussion of stages of faith involves issues that are simply unresolved in the community for which people are reaching various different conclusions based on differing information (as well as a number of other factors, of course). For example, the closest the Church comes to providing an official resolution to apparent problems in the book of Abraham’s historicity is unawareness, or, in the event that one becomes aware of issues, to mimic unawareness by not worrying about it. A stages-of-faith scheme is one way of bringing order to people’s attempts to grapple with this sort of issue emotionally, in the absence of intellectual order in the form of an intellectually satisfying resolution embraced by the institution.

  31. 31.

    Regarding inoculation:
    The church can’t control the way people react to the message they send out, but people may not react genuinely. A person’s first endowment session comes to mind. I think if I had received my endowment in a room all by myself, I would have reacted much differently than I did in a room full of other people who were entirely comfortable with the process. In many ways, the members of the church, knowingly or unknowingly, apply pressure to conform. Perhaps inoculation does work as intended because of the group-think culture in the Mormon church.
    Re 14:

    Really I think a “stages of faith” paradigm enables us to recast what amounts to a loss of a piece of one’s faith as a gain–what we’ve lost in faith we’ve gained in sophistication

    Absolutely.( I am still amazed at how comments on this blog continually articulate exactly what I was feeling, but couldn’t express.)
    re: 21 RoastedTomatoes said

    I’m placing my bets on the proposition that a different set of heresies resolves the issue of God’s evident misogyny.

    What do you mean by this?
    Lastly, where did this thread come from? I listened to MoStories podcasts on stages of faith last summer, but haven’;t heard much about them elsewhere.
    just curious.
    great post.

  32. 32.

    Thanks, Jessawhy! (I’m not even sure I agree with what I’m saying anymore, or even know what I’m saying, but that happens to me regularly! :) )

    This post is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Most directly it grew out of various conversations I’ve had with friends over whether the Church should publicly acknowledge unsavory aspects of its past, for example by apologizing to people of African descent for denying them the priesthood and access to the temple before 1978. It occurred to me that much of what underlies the ideological divide between the two camps (the Church should or shouldn’t) is individuals’ own response to discovering information about the Church they’ve found troubling. Those who have lost faith in most of the Church’s truth claims but still value and respect the Church want to protect others from this experience by letting this sort of information rest; those who have found ways of resolving these problems personally believe others, encountering the same problems, will be able to resolve them similarly and maintain faith in at least some of the Church’s truth claims. Both groups are probably right: some people will encounter unsavory information and lose faith entirely; some will find satisfactory ways of resolving issues; and some simply won’t worry about them. And obviously different things bother different people, and for different reasons. And of course all of us are still in the process of finding things out about the Church, and we can’t always even be sure how we ourselves will respond.

  33. 33.

    An interesting comparison would be to alleged stages of grief.

    Hmm. The “stages” of grief are not actually stages (though some shallow literature treats them that way).

    What happens is that severe grief overwhelms coping mechanisms and people cycle through various coping mechanisms because their default method fails them.

    Eventually the grief dissipates enough that they come to rest, either with a new default or back at the old one.

    Though, interestingly enough, the same way of putting the “stages” in order occurs, with the favored coping method becoming the mature or final stage in the model.

    In many areas of Church history people assume that there is a single thread or single truth. I think they are wrong.

    Take Blacks and the Priesthood.

    When I was on my mission, I felt strongly that we should tract out an area. My companion felt it wasn’t worth the time. We had some splits and that is where I took the visiting elder. We knocked on a door on the first area we went and were invited in by a young Kenyan engineering student.

    It was a dramatic and powerful series of lessons, with his inviting us back and the Spirit powerfully present. We eventually told him about the priesthood. My companion tried to explain it, and I’d say the noise to signal ratio was interesting. God communicated around or in spite of what my companion tried to say in an experience that was like fire as the room filled with light (and left both of us wondering what God had actually said).

    Later, I was there when his brother called. His brother had investigated the Church, but decided he could not join because it was racist. Richard told him he was mistaken and that not having the priesthood was a great blessing that God had given him.

    I also confirmed Richard, and had it revealed to me that Blacks would receive the priesthood within the lifespan of a general authority whose grand daughter I knew.

    Does God change who gets the priesthood and when? I’ve read Exodus, I’m familiar what happens when people take the priesthood upon themselves when it isn’t given. I also know that 99.9% or more of every person who has lived did not have the priesthood in this life.

    One thing that has also struck me is the number of general authorities who have no desire for their sons to become general authorities and the number of good bishops I’ve known who have no desire to serve again as bishops (I’ve a handful in my high priest’s group — good men, serving honorably, some in part time service missions as well as other callings, but not wanting the burden of being a bishop again).

    It also struck me to read the David O. McKay biography about how God revealed to him that there would be changes in who could have the priesthood and that he was told that the change was not to come then.

    That is more than “Brigham Young made changes in application that were driven by social mores and that were eventually corrected by later administrations.”

    I know, people like that simple narrative, but I don’t think it is the only narrative and I’m not sure it is correct. I don’t think we understand all of what God was doing or why God’s ways are not our ways.

    Reminds me of my daughter Robin’s surgery. It was strange knowing that the surgery was going to go very well, but that her life was going to be cut short, preserved only long enough for me to overcome the pain and bond with her. Sure enough, she got through the surgery where everyone expected her to die and then died at a time when the statistical chance was less than 1%.

    But, in the general narrative, just what do you say about Blacks and the Priesthood? There isn’t a simple narrative to discuss.

    Or take Joseph Smith and Polygamy. Joseph sealed lots of people to himself, male and female, in various roles. He was obviously fertile (he and Emma buried six children and had additional children who lived). What are we to make of his alleged wives who had no children with his DNA but who had children from later marriages?

    What are we to make of Brigham Young’s attitude that any woman who wanted a divorce was entitled to one on request but that men who wanted divorces were not entitled to them at all (and his relaxed attitude about wives of his who wanted to divorce him to marry someone else)?

    Something is going on there, but not polygamy as we would understand it under the classic model. Even more so when we read statements by spiritually powerful female participants such as Eliza R. Snow or the cooperatives that sent various women off to art or medical school.

    Or Brigham Young’s attitude that women made fine accountants, lawyers, doctors and businesspersons, that they were fit for every employment except raw physical labor (which he felt men had a singular aptitude for). That seems at odds with his appearance.

    When I was much younger I was reading collections of sermons and excerpts by Church leaders and I was struck, over and over again at how many had taught lessons about how women were not property and how they were equal and how that had not penetrated. I found myself wondering what lessons would later generations find in our sermons and readings that would be obvious to them and that we were missing.

    You can see my conclusion. As to inoculation, I think the real problem is that is presupposes a clear factual narrative where the complex record does not seem to provide one as much as we would like.

  34. 34.

    I also think, on reflection, that most GA’s consider various narratives irrelevant. Consider the Old Testament prophets. Were many of them weak? Is that a basis to abandon the gospel? Should I walk out because Jonah fled or had an attack of pique? Or when Balaam falls, is that reason to doubt his earlier blessing on Israel?

    Or when Paul writes about Peter’s foibles, should I conclude harsh things?

    The current dispensation is no worse than the prior ones, no more human. Once you accept that it is a part of the same chain, that there are more of the same mistakes isn’t really news.

    Not to mention, at times you get results such as Dallin Oaks research. The more he got the complete story about Joseph Smith and various legal matters, the better Joseph Smith looked, especially when one wasn’t trying to grind an ax. How much time do you spend on such things?

    Compare with http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?table=review&id=344

    Or what sort of inoculation would you suggest is appropriate, which narrative true here:


    I hope I’m making sense, though I’m afraid I need a text editor for what are passing comments.

  35. 35.

    I like your point, Stephen, that the community itself has not settled on a “true theological interpretation” of events in our past; this is exactly why I’m suspicious of stage models, in which the final stage is presumed to be the most valid (who decides which of these many competing narratives constitutes the final resting place of faith?) and the development of individuals’ psyches is seen as the primary impetus for changes in faith, rather than corresponding changes in external information or whatnot. I’m certainly in favor of exploring competing narratives to account for the Church’s past and present behavior; my own conclusions are rather different from yours. By advocating transparency I’m merely advocating that information about the Church be made available. Obviously there’s no way to avoid bias in the presentation of that information, but that in itself is not sufficient cause, to my mind, to throw up our hands and suppress the information entirely.
    (And of course there’s also bias in choosing what information to suppress.)

    You point out that there are different narrative explanations to account for the policy prohibiting black men from holding the priesthood and all blacks from attending the temple. I’m only advocating that this basic information be acknowledged. Consider a friend of mine who served a mission in Africa, who was given a directive not to let people know about the “priesthood ban.” Her black companion asked, “what priesthood ban?” This put my friend in a rather awkward position–what was she to do? Apparently, she was to refuse to let even her companion know; this would handily insure that her companion not let investigators know. I think this sort of policy is very problematic for a whole slew of reasons.

    Similarly, I took a religion course at BYU which alleged to cover Joseph Smith’s lifespan. Polygamy was never mentioned once, either in the book or by the professor. Of course there are a number of different ways of attempting to make sense of Joseph Smith’s polygamous behavior, but as a Church we’re not even acknowledging the basic facts of his behavior.

    This gets to what I think is the heart of the issue of inoculation, though–both issues are theologically unresolved in the community, which is why they’re perceived as dangerous to our current claims and are avoided where possible. In answer to the question–how much time do we spend on such things?–I think basic information should be acknowledged. Of course people who find it gripping for whatever reason will spend time investigating it and others will dismiss it as boring, as with any aspect of the Church. But a policy of “let’s not talk about that because it’s of no consequence” is absolutely disingenuous; simple observation leads one to conclude that these issues are of consequence to a number of people’s conceptions of God, Joseph Smith, the Church, and themselves.

  36. 36.

    I think this sort of policy is very problematic for a whole slew of reasons.

    Cough. “Problematic” is the least of the ways I would discuss or describe that occurrence.

    My parents served in the Kenya Mission and did not report that as a problem or an issue they had in Africa, btw.

    It also seems strange to me to have a class on Joseph Smith’s life and to skip polygamy or that of his children, six died before he did, yet you are right that both have been excluded in books about him.

    What we need are more people who say “I left the Church, explored narratives and had my faith restored” rather than “I explored narratives, left the Church, realized they didn’t matter and was led by the Spirit back to the Church.”

    I meet people in the second group but not in the first. I’m not sure what that means, though I am sad that you decided to leave the Church for now.

  37. 37.

    [...] On closer inspection, snoofs sometimes turn out to bear a striking resemblance to our former selves. But this is the thing: there are no snoofs. There are only people, in all their otherness, in all their complex, messy glory. These other people bear no necessary relationship whatsoever to our own histories of faith or disillusionment, or to our own histories or present realities more generally. It’s not for us to orchestrate their intellectual safety or to correlate their stages of faith or doubt. [...]

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