A topic that came up several times at Sunstone this year, and generated some thought-provoking discussion, was that of crises of faith. This got me thinking about the kind of standard “crisis of faith” narrative. Such a crisis might be set off by any number of things–disturbing information about Church history, prayers that remain unanswered or blessings that go unfulfilled, troubling experiences in sacred spaces, negative encounters with Church leaders, and so forth. Whatever the catalyst, it causes a person to re-evaluate and question her or his previous beliefs. She or he wrestles with these demons until finally reaching a resolution of some kind. Some find a way to stay in the Church as believers; others find a way to stay in the Church despite their doubts; others opt to leave altogether.
Growing up, I had the impression that the crisis of faith narrative was normative and universal, that it was the inevitable trajectory of belief. At some point in life, I gathered, you should expect to find yourself wrestling intensely with religious questions and concerns. In the versions of this story I heard at church, this was the trial of faith that preceded a spiritual witness, and the challenge was to keep praying and stay committed until eventually your concerns were resolved and the storm had abated. In other places I heard the story told with a different spin, in which the challenge was articulated as that of letting go of the problematic beliefs of the Church and seeking peace outside of it. These two versions of the crisis of faith story had clear differences, but they both framed the crisis of faith as a discrete life event which led to some sort of resolution.
I therefore expected this process to unfold in my own life. I didn’t know for sure how the story would end, but I thought I at least knew the basic plot. When as a teenager I first began entertaining a variety of doubts and questions, at the back of my mind I expected my journey to follow this path. I anticipated some future moment in which my doubts would be resolved or set aside, and I would commit myself wholeheartedly to the Church once and for all–or (though I think I considered this possibility less likely) I would decide to make a definitive break from it. Either way, I would move into the ranks of those who could tell the story of their crisis of faith in the past tense.
After a number of years, however, I began to suspect that this particular narrative might not be the most helpful way to make sense of my actual life experience. My beliefs and my relationships to the Church were simply not following this pattern. If I could frame my various doubts and concerns as a crisis of faith–and I’m not sure that’s the best phrase for my situation–it is something ongoing, and it seems more circular than linear. I periodically decide that the Church is not so bad, that there is maybe even a place for me in it. I remember the times I’ve encountered God there, and am struck how much I do believe. This is my church, I tell myself, and I’m going to stay. I’m going to make this work. I’m going to be one of those Mormons I admire who hold on to their faith even with all the challenges and the hard stuff. But I also periodically decide that I’m going to leave, that I can’t deal anymore with the aspects of the Church I find difficult and even toxic. I go to church and feel like I’m some sort of alien, and I’m reminded of how much I don’t believe.
I don’t know how many times I’ve decided this is it, I’m out of here, goodbye Mormonism. I also don’t know how many times I’ve decided that I’m going to stick it out and be a committed Latter-day Saint. And then I wonder whether I’m simply a hopelessly wishy-washy, lukewarm believer. I grow frustrated with my own indecision. Wouldn’t it better, I ask myself, to just make a decision once and for all–in either direction–rather than to continue living as a sort of half-baked believer?
But I am thinking that I need a different story with which to frame my life, an alternative way of thinking about where I am. The crisis-of-faith-leading-to-a-resolution narrative is not mine. My relationship with the Church continues to be messy, and characterized by profound ambivalence. My belief regularly waxes and wanes, and I cannot speak of either my faith or my doubts in the past tense, as bits of an earlier journey. I don’t know what to do with all the jagged edges, the contradictions in my experience and in my thinking, but I am wary of smoothing them over too quickly. I don’t really know what kind of story this is. I’m still in the middle of it.
- 14 August 2008