Wednesday, April 11, 2012


This essay started several months ago and has evolved into something much longer than anticipated.  At the beginning of the current school year in my calling as an early-morning seminary teacher I had a philosophical disagreement with one of my directors over my less literal view of Old Testament teachings.  A friend of mine was very interested in this microcosm of a larger Mormon issue: the clash between fundamental cultural beliefs and a more nuanced understanding of life which has become more prevalent due to the information age in which we now live.  I have had a hard time separating that issue with my similar, but slightly distinct issues because one (overly fundamental dogmas) often leads to the other (faith issues on the journey of life).  In other words, because I can't separate my story from the broader issue here, this has become more of a memoir instead of the originally intended short essay. 

I wish to share what this has grown into to help three groups of people: those who struggle like I have in the past; those who don't struggle, but agree with my assessment (like my wife); and those who simply don't agree with me, but could benefit from understanding these struggles.  Disclaimer: those who are unaware of these issues might say that I'm obviously wrong because I'm telling the Church what to do and I'm not following the prescribed chain of command.  This is an incorrect assessment for two reasons.  First off, I'm not telling the Church how to do things.  I'm pointing out how the culture and members are doing things that push out a certain group of members.  Secondly, President Monson has even said that correcting this issue is his signature initiative[1].

BTW, ignore the links to cross references.  They numbers correlate to the CR's at the end of the essay, but they don't link.

Next Part

Part 1 - I want to share my crisis of faith story

For several years I have felt a desire to write down a detailed explanation of my crisis of faith story to share with others who similarly struggle.  In 2007 I even started a FAIR wiki page on the subject[2] Crisis of Faith Reconciliation.  A few people who know me well have asked me to share my experience publicly, but it's frightening to put myself out there with the end result being that culturally fundamental Mormons will now see me as different from them in a significant way.  When I say fundamental, I don't mean people of the FLDS church, but Latter-day Saints that are caught up in what I see as an overly fundamental culture.  Most of the members that I know are culturally fundamental.  I had additional hesitation in doing this because everything I want to say has already been stated elsewhere[3].  For a while I gave in more to my fears than my desire to share.  Recently, I had some experiences where I saw several others[4] in this same situation and I realized that I have to get my story out.  Not for myself alone, but for the many other people[5] that are having the same struggles as I am.  These struggles bring severe, constant and unnecessary heartache.  Pain you can't really understand without going through it yourself or with a loved one.
Because of that heartache I don't like to think about this overall issue more than I have to. Life is much easier when I don't, when the metaphorical elephant is in the room, but I can keep it out of the conversation.  Unfortunately, this elephant is potentially the most important elephant in my entire existence.  Because the Mormon lifestyle is so all-encompassing, I bump into this elephant in almost everything I do.  Because this elephant has such eternal importance, talking about it will quickly bring up strong emotions in those with whom I engage, often making the discussion painful for all and ultimately unfruitful.  Hopefully by sharing my story this ubiquitous elephant will not only hurt me less, but also others whom I care about that are similarly suffering.

What is this damage-causing elephant and how did it come to be?  I’ll explain it in more detail later, but basically this elephant is the result of a traditional Mormon going through an existential crisis of faith.  I purposefully combine existential with faith into one term because for most Mormons, when you go through a crisis of faith, you lose faith in everything!  Modern Mormonism sets us up for this, because it too often involves an “all or nothing[6]” view of people, groups, institutions and ideas.  Culturally, people tend to assume the prophets and apostles are like spiritual fax machines, getting their directions word for word directly from the divine, despite their statements to the contrary[7].  It's either all good or all bad. The Mormon belief system creates a logical understanding of existence which sets up a situation where if this church isn’t true (which logically is the most likely to be true), then what church could be?  Further progression down that logical path leads to the thought that maybe God isn’t real either.  Suddenly, that reassuring confidence that you had the ultimate truth collapses and you are left alone, cold and philosophically naked.  Just being in that soul searching place is scary, but the shock of suddenly being dropped there from a place of such confidence can be soul-racking because of the stark contrast. 

If you are going through this crisis of faith yourself it is important to understand few things.  First off, you are not alone.  Having opened up about this over the past couple of years has made several other people feel comfortable discussing their similar doubts with me.  Second, you are not less worthy or faithful because you haven’t had a spiritual confirmation strong enough to make you feel comfortable saying, “I KNOW this church is true[8].”  Our own scripture even confirms this, “To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God...To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful”[9] (I'll refer to this second group as D&C 46'ers).  In other words, the Savior is telling us that some WON'T initially (if ever) be given an experience that will make them KNOW.  Don’t let others make you feel guilty for being a D&C 46'er, even though you have probably been trying very hard your entire life to have an experience that would allow you to say “I know!”  Like most things in life, this is not a binary problem, but a continuum.  Furthermore, having a metaphysical experience that allows you to say you KNOW God exists, doesn't mean you know every teaching to be true or God's will.

Next Part

Part 2 - How did I get a crisis of faith?

How did I get there?  I’ve learned from discussing this with others in the same situation that, like many others, I arrived at my crisis of faith by being almost "too" Mormon.  Unlike most others, I didn't get there from learning how the traditional narrative differs from the actual one as many now do because of the easy access to information that the internet affords us.  I came to this crisis of faith while doing my best to live up to all the things that are expected of a stereotypical, upstanding Latter-day Saint.  I am a descendent of Heber C. Kimball and Orson Pratt.  I passed through all the traditional milestones: Eagle Scout, various leadership positions, mission to Argentina, married in the Seattle temple, went to BYU then to graduate school to "achieve as much education as possible"[10], had four kids, taught early morning seminary, etc.  Part of the reason I want to write this is so that others who know me well can see that someone who isn't addicted to porn, looking to hook up with other women or break the word of wisdom is the type of person who can be in this situation despite all the popular stereotyping that goes on.  As with most Mormons, everything I do in my life is touched by the Church in one way or another.  Both before and during this crisis of faith I gave everything I had to being the best Mormon I could be.  I made sure to live worthily enough to obtain that undeniable experience.  While working toward that goal on my mission came the start of my faith crisis.

As I stated above, I served a mission in Argentina.  To be candid, I was an incredibly hard working missionary.  I never slept in, I never delayed at members' houses, never watched television, etc.  I worked very hard to obey every commandment every day for the whole two years.  At the end of a mission in Argentina you fly home through Buenos Aires and get to attend a temple session.  Still having never had this undeniable experience that others talk about, I looked forward all mission long to the day when I would put my sacrifice “on the altar" as I went through the temple.  I knew; not hoped for or had faith in, but I knew that this would be a great spiritual experience.  According to my logic, I was guaranteed to get what I sought for because I had completely dedicated two years of my life, equal to or greater than any other missionary I knew.  I couldn't wait to go to the temple.

After getting an extension to serve an extra couple of weeks I was on my way to the temple.  To my complete shock and surprise, not only was the session not the spiritually affirming experience that I expected, but I didn't even feel the spirit very much at all.  I felt like I had a spiritual rug pulled out from under my feet.  I was left completely dumbfounded.  I didn't even know what to do as I left the temple.  After helping people develop a belief in God and the Mormon Church, suddenly I acquired a doubt in both of them.  But even though I was deeply changed, I still had much more faith than doubt.  The surreal experience of returning to the world as a regular member, and leaving behind the life of a full-time missionary helped me put these doubts on the shelf.

The next phase of my crisis started one day when I felt inspired to consider dentistry as a future job instead of engineering as I had wanted to do since I was a little kid.  Along the way to earning my BS in biology I learned from my faithful BYU biology professors about the undeniable facts of evolution[11].  I contrasted this new understanding with the traditional Mormon narrative that I grew up with and the doubts started falling off the shelf into my lap again.  I also learned in detail the chemical processes that create emotions and feelings in us.  I realized that feelings which had been explained to me as manifestations of the spirit were often also feelings felt in situations that had nothing to with the Church, or Christ.  I now understood the processes involved in my brain to release chemicals to make one feel love, joy and peace[12] among other positive feelings.  I began to wonder how to tell the difference between the spirit and these good emotions.  The guidance of the spirit that had been my Liahona since youth suddenly wasn't trustworthy anymore.  I know this isn't a problem for most people, but combined with my existing doubts, I couldn't avoid the possibility that this all could be biological instead of spiritual, having never received an experience that was undeniably from the spirit and not my body.  Again, all my doubts about the Church and God resurfaced, but even stronger than ever before.  I felt similar fears to how I did once as a kid when I got lost walking down a trail in the forest all by myself with no way to contact anyone.

I read an article about Mother Teresa that gives me comfort considering my situation and further proves my point, especially if you don't know me.  If you know of Mother Teresa, I think you will agree that she should have been worthy of some spiritual affirmation telling her that what she was doing was God's will.  Despite all her amazing sacrifice, having lived the second great commandment[13] better than most others, she experienced a dark night of the soul saying, "As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear[14]."  Isn't it surprising that after doing so much good, she always felt that she lacked a witness or closeness to God.

Next Part

Part 3 - Why does the problem exist?

There are several factors which set up church members for a crisis of faith on some level.  Several of these factors are cultural, primarily due to people naively propagating false ideas.  For example, evolution is usually stated as against Mormon doctrine and just a theory.  In actuality, the Church has no official stance on evolution[15] regardless of what some uniformed individuals have said.  Although I can't find my source for this fact, it is accurate with my anecdotal experience that 99% of LDS people with at least a bachelors in a biological field of study consider evolution to be a scientifically proven fact, on par with the theory of gravity and germ theory, and that God used it in some way to create the animal kingdom as we know it.  Other examples of false ideas that set us up for failure would require a much lengthier piece to discuss, but would include the whitewashed history of Joseph Smith and polygamy,[16] extent of the fallibility of prophets, the assertion that everything said over the pulpit by a General Authority is doctrine, the generally accepted assumption that doctrine (the broad definition of) never changes,[17] or overlooking the nebulous implementation of the priesthood ban.  I'd rather not discuss the details of these for brevity and to keep from inadvertently causing others who are unaware to start a faith crisis of their own before having a sure foundation.

When the contrast between these false ideas and the reality is recognized it creates cognitive dissonance in the believer.  Instead of being able to discuss the issues with other members in a healthy way, the Mormon cultural pressure against speaking out on disagreements pushes people to keep these issues swept under the rug.  Furthermore, they assume that since nothing is wrong with the perfect church, then something must be wrong with you.  When you speak out you are seen as lacking the faith that would make these disparities a non-issue.  In reality, it isn't lacking faith, but not choosing to turn a blind eye to the undeniable.  One of the most dangerous and common assumptions is that if you don't have a strong enough witness to not be bothered by these issues then it is because you are either sleeping around, breaking the word of wisdom or addicted to porn.

In addition to this culturally based rejection of questions and questioners the Church itself sets up members for a crisis of faith.  On the one hand, the Church has "whitewashed" some of its historical warts.  Many unpopular facts have been left out of the correlated materials like our Seminary, Institute and Sunday manuals.  On the other hand, the Church has encouraged members to do a lot of personal study and get a good education which encourages critical thinking.  This is problematic because most of these contradictions are found in our own LDS history books.  There isn't even a need to go to anti-Mormon websites to have your faith shaken.  I understand how church leadership and members might have encouraged whitewashing in the past in an effort to put the Church's best foot forward, but this won't work anymore in today's environment with the internet and public scrutiny bringing some of these warts to the surface for everyone to see.  The Church is starting to correct this with more openness as can be seen with the Joseph Smith Papers project and Elder Marlin K. Jensen's comments about how President Monson wants to help the youth get the history correct the first time around[18].

This crisis of faith trap becomes most apparent when a person's testimony of the Church is founded on pillars such as an overly perfect view of Joseph Smith or cultural beliefs which contradict science.  Learning the truth can take the base out from under their testimony.  Then it comes crashing down, although it didn't have to be that way.  Sunday school isn't necessarily the place for the discussion of some of these issues.  If they were discussed in Seminary or at least spoken of more openly, people could build their testimony on a more sure foundation, one that won't easily be removed later.  We know that we should build our testimonies on the core doctrines, but it's too easy to build it on our cultural understanding of Mormonism, including everything from food storage to the Atonement.

Some may say in this situation I should be more faithful like Adam who made an altar despite not knowing why[19].  We should be faithful and do things even if we don't understand why, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't question or try to figure things out.  "God himself does not seem to object to our questioning even Him and His ways. Abraham persuaded the Lord to save Sodom if He could find ten righteous souls. Jacob wrestled with his heavenly antagonist until he got his way. And most impressive of all, Job challenged God’s justice and compassion and stood by his own integrity through an extended debate[20]."  As Hugh Nibley put it: "I know perfectly well that it is true; there may be things about the Church that I find perfectly appalling—but that has nothing to do with it. I know the gospel is true[21]."

The best way to describe the crash that comes from this crisis of faith is to compare your understanding of life as a Mormon to a solid building.  Because Mormonism is all-encompassing, when your testimony crashes, your entire paradigm crashes.  To move on you have to rebuild that building.  You still have to have a structure that is your understanding of life, who you are, where you want to go and what you want.  To do so, you must go through each brick of this broken building, brick by brick, to decide which ones to keep and which ones to throw away.  The compounding and traumatizing problem is that your tools of evaluation were also destroyed when the building came crashing down.  In this moment, you don't know if you can rely on the scriptures, the words of the prophets or what you understood as the feelings of the spirit.  You're starting from scratch without a blue print.  Even if you don't go through a complete crisis of faith, once you recognize the problems described is this essay, intellectual honesty requires that you also take a new look at every brick in your building.

For example, imagine the brick of modesty; it can be very hard to decide what guidelines you should follow if some of the counsel could be from humans instead of faxed instructions directly from God.  If our body is a temple, should we not respect it and if so how much?  If they are sacred temples, should we cover them much more than we do now, more like what the church members did in the 1800's (wrist to ankle)?  Why is it fine for men to bear their bellies in swimsuits, but not women?  Why does being sacred mean we have to cover it or not let its shape be known?  Is modesty just avoiding things that promote sexual desires?  Is that why some don't think it is immodest for obese people to wear tight clothes, but it is bad for a fit and large breasted woman to wear tight clothing?  Do women need to have shapeless, androgynously clothed bodies?  All of these questions are difficult to answer without the tools such as infallible statements from prophets, undeniable guidance from the spirit or cultural practices being universally accepted as God's will.

Once that awareness has occurred, whether it comes with a crash or not, the person has an emotional difficulty dealing with these types of questions on their own.  For example, once you are aware that prophets are fallible, how do you know which statements, doctrines and policies are divine and which are human constructs?  The only way to know is to get personal confirmations through the spirit.  Therefore, your salvation is ultimately between you and God.  You can't cheat and just go on what the leaders and culture tell you to do.  You actually have to work things out with God making yourself ultimately responsible for what you do.  Further emotional difficulty comes from sitting in church meetings and knowing the traditional narrative so oft repeated is not accurate and potentially damaging to others as I've outlined above.  You want to speak up to help others avoid the crisis, but it's difficult to deal with the problems that are created when you do.

Next Part

Part 4 - How to handle a crisis of faith & Conclusion

To those who see crises of faith as a sign of spiritual weakness, I submit that instead of judging the 46ers, you should have great respect for the faith that they show by living faithfully without the witness.  Imagine how much harder it would be for you to pay your full tithing and sacrifice all those hours for the Church if you didn't have your witness.  Both sides should reach out with love to help people walk the path along the iron rod.  Help to inoculate others in gentleness and meekness.  Especially since you know that there are people against the Church who purposely set you up to stumble into a crisis of faith.  There is a verse in our body of scripture that describes this trap beautifully, "Treasure up wisdom in your bosoms, lest the wickedness of men reveal these things unto you by their wickedness, in a manner which shall speak in your ears with a voice louder than that which shall shake the earth; but if ye are prepared ye shall not fear[22]."  Let's help people be prepared so they don't have to hear that earth-shaking voice.

To those who understand these issues, but have had a spiritual experience which keeps you from doubting the truthfulness of the Gospel, share your experiences more.  Share your testimony experiences so that we can "believe in [your] words[23]."  Members probably do need to keep certain very sacred experiences by not sharing them when it isn't appropriate, but I think we have let that line slide too far to the overly fundamental side of the spectrum as well.  Elder Oaks shares a very sacred experience in the modern story of a humble Tongan saint raising his daughter from the dead[24].  This has been a significantly faith promoting story for me.  It would be a shame to have kept this secret and not increased the faith of so many people.

Most importantly, don't fall for the same trick twice.  In other words, don't swallow the "black-washed" narrative hook, line and sinker like you did the "white-washed" narrative.  In fact, I would suggest that you use the scientific method to determine if there is something good for you in Mormonism.  You don't have to suddenly live a life of debauchery, but live your life for one week where you don't say your prayers and read your scriptures daily.  Then live a week where you do and compare how you feel.  Also, realize that you are a D&C 46er.  Live your life worthy of and hope for an undeniable experience, but know that you could be a 46er your whole life, and that is okay.  Share your experience with others to help them not feel so alone and give them strength to see how you have dealt with the problem.  Also, remember that you have to mentally struggle to believe just as much as you will have to mentally struggle to leave.  As Terryl Givens succinctly put it, to continue believing you have to throw aspects of the traditional narrative down the "memory hole" just as much as you would have to throw spiritual experiences down the "memory hole" if you completely stop believing.[25]  Imagine that the negative aspects of this experience are like pebbles in your left hand and the positive ones are pebbles in your right hand.  Keep both pebbles at an arm's length.  Don't pull the negative ones up so close to your eyes that they look like boulders compared to the positive ones.  Focusing on them too much will leave you unbalanced. 

This will be hard at first for several people because of the pain from feeling betrayed by the church when you find out the historical narrative is different than the traditional narrative.  Give yourself time to let that pain pass before making any final decisions.  When I doubted my faith in the Church and God, back from my mission as a young BYU student, I had to decide what I was going to do with my life.  I knew that I didn't know if the Church was true, but I didn't know that it wasn't true either.  Looking over my life I couldn't deny that the Church had helped to mold me into a better person.  That gave me a grain of faith to work with.  Moreover, if everybody in the world lived the precepts of Mormon doctrine, the world would be a truly great place.  Yes, there are some imperfections in the Church, mainly because it comes via imperfect human beings, but I also see the fingerprints of God here.  Because of this, I decided to err on the side of caution and continued to live as if the core doctrines were true.  I did this in hopes of eventually finding out one way or the other for sure.  As I have done the aforementioned scientific method test on the core Mormon doctrines with a serious intellectual integrity I have found that I have a greater peace[26] and sense of purpose in my life when I live my life as the "Primary answers" would dictate.  Whether those positive feelings come from evolutionary programming toward efforts that help the common good of the species, or mental programming from being raised LDS that subconsciously pushes me toward living the precepts, or finally because there actually is a God that sends me feelings of peace when I do these things, I am going to continue down this path because it is a happier path.  Especially when I embrace the inherent imperfections of a human-run Church.  It is my hope that we can help others avoid this kind of faith crisis and in its place "have joy[27]" on their way through this already difficult life.

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Footnotes & Further Reading

[1] Reuters,
[5] See Reuters above, under the section titled, "The Rescue"
[7] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 268
[8] There are different levels of being able to say "I know."  I'm not as bothered by this as I used to be.  I technically can't say that I know perfectly that my father is my actual father.  I wasn't there by my mother's side for 10 months making sure that no other man could have possibly been my father, nor have I genetically tested every other male in the existence of the human race before my conception to verify that my "supposed" father is the most likely candidate.  Despite that, I feel comfortable saying I know he is my father.  Similarly, although I don't like the emphasis put on saying "I know" in testimonies, I am more comfortable with it.
[9] D&C 46:13-14
[11] An interesting comparison is how most LDS biologist can't believe that general members can't see how God used evolution is very similar to how most LDS can't believe that other Christians can't see how the godhead is three distinct beings.
[12] Galatians 5:22
[13] Matthew 22:39
[17] This Is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology, Charles R. Harrell
[18] See Reuters above, under the section titled, "The Rescue"
[19] Moses 5:6,
[20] Lowell L. Bennion, The Best of Lowell L. Bennion: Selected Writings 1928–1988, Eugene England, ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), 76.
[21] Hugh Nibley, “Dear Sterling,” in Eloquent Witness, 146–47.
[22] D&C 38:30
[23] D&C 46:14
[24] Ensign, June 2001, Miracles by Elder Dallin H Oaks,
[26] These feelings of peace and purpose are subtle.  If something very exciting is happening I don't notice the lack of peace as much.  Also, if I have some project I am feeling particularly motivated about, I don't notice the lack of purpose.  But, during those moments where there isn't an overriding feeling of fun or drive in my life, the lack of those feelings is noticeable.  What is also noticeable is that I call these feelings peace and purpose, but when I'm feeling them they seem more external than regular peace or purpose.  This gives me more faith that they are actual spiritual sensations rather than chemical emotions.
[27] 2 Nephi 2:25,