Contextualizing Crises of Faith

It might seem that Latter-day Saints have a corner on the faith-crisis market, especially now that everything and everyone is online.

No doubt this is an information age second to none, at least in terms of quantity of info. Still there have been previous information ages, and Mormonism is far from being the oldest let alone the only religion on the planet.

Plus faith crises need not be religious. Many can be seen together as a subset of the universal human experience of (feelings of) betrayal — having to do in the first place with the perpetual processes of (mis)representing and (mis)understanding what is supposed to be true and false. It’s just that in the case of religion, faith crises have to do with (mis)representing and (mis)understanding what is supposed to be true and false about things that are really important to a lot of people, such as the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, the inspiration of scripture and prophets like Joseph Smith, the restoration of the church, and the hope of an afterlife, to name a few common LDS beliefs, and not to mention the orthopraxy based on them.

I don’t deny that the problem is acute in Mormonism, and at present. While issues in modern church history are being addressed now, there are issues in ancient church history that many Latter-day Saints have not wrestled with, given the way LDS tradition has yet to engage much in mainstream biblical scholarship compared to other Christian traditions.

The problem may even get worse before it gets better. If it gets better. Who knows?

My point, though, is that Latter-day Saints are not alone, which can be a comforting thought at a time of faith crisis when (feelings of) isolation and displacement are almost certain.

Finding community among others who are or have been in a crisis of faith won’t solve the problem, but it may well minimize the emotional burden. Various online LDS groups could attest to this, I suspect. Ideally the support would be found within the church itself too.

I also suspect that there is a great deal that Mormons could learn from the experiences of countless people in every age who have been through something similar.

Who are these people, then? And what were their experiences? I have one in mind. Feel free to post more in the comments.


The allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic is well known, and I’m sure the allegory has been used in LDS discussions of faith crisis more than once (even if it has not always been recognized that according to the Republic, it’s necessary to return to the cave and stay there for decades).

Far less well known is the allegory of the suppositious child (573d-539d).

After the allegory of the cave, Plato has his character Socrates describe the ideal educational system in which the curriculum builds up to dialectic or in other words a philosophic method of asking questions that tend to destabilize what is supposed to be true and false.

The (ostensible) goal of this advanced study is to get at what is really real, but that’s not what most Athenians thought Socrates himself was doing. In Aristophanes’ Clouds, written before Socrates went to trial, and before Plato was writing, the school of Socrates is portrayed as a very dangerous place. Athenians go in, and they come out no longer believing in much of anything including the traditional gods. Without belief in the traditional gods, the notion of justice (read: righteousness for Christians) is at risk. So one concerned parent of a student burns the school down while Socrates is inside.

Again that’s Aristophanes’ Clouds. But Socrates himself was indeed convicted by his peers.

Plato’s Socrates admits some of this danger. He says that even in the ideal educational system, dialectic must be introduced cautiously and only to 30-year-old students who have completed the prerequisites. The destabilizing effect of this risky advanced study is compared to what it’s like to find out as an adult that the father and mother who raised you are not your real parents: what was supposed to be true had been misrepresented to you, and perhaps you also misunderstood. Furthermore you can’t locate your real parents: you don’t know what is true anymore or how to find out. You feel betrayed. Alone. Isolated. Displaced.


The take-away is, once more, that Latter-day Saints in a crisis of faith are actually not alone. There’s a world – ancient, medieval, modern, and postmodern – full of suppositious children. To shift metaphors, Mormon talk of inoculation and when to inoculate is something that people have been talking about for thousands of years.

Within the allegory of the suppositious child it’s easy to image that the adoptive mother and father didn’t mean to deceive let alone betray the child, but that’s what ended up happening. They wanted to protect the child from potentially painful information, so they put off disclosing it. The longer they waited, though, the worse the betrayal when the info finally came out. They may have hoped that the child would never have to deal with it. Over the years, however, perhaps one parent saw that it was an impossible secret to keep and thought that telling the child would be better late than never, while the other parent sharply disagreed.

Which is to say that Plato’s Socrates was wrong about the ideal educational system. Difficult as it may have been, the adoptive father and mother should have told the child early on that they were not the child’s real parents, and that the real parents may never be found. That kind of uncertainty would surely be a painful thing for the child to learn to live with, but at least that way feelings of betrayal by the adoptive parents would not be added to the uncertainty. Put differently, dialectic should be taught to students long before their thirtieth birthdays. Advanced study – its principles and results anyway – should be made basic, even if it won’t be fully understood at age 5 or 10 or 15 or 20.

Until recently, church leadership as a whole has arguably taken an even more cautious approach to education than Plato’s Socrates. They have been like the adoptive parent who doesn’t want the suppositious child to have to deal with uncertainty ever if possible. But it’s not possible. Certainly not anymore.

It seems that leadership has come to a realization that telling the adult suppositious child about issues in modern church history is better late than never (when the child goes looking for the info).

Moving forward, the question is when and how the younger and next generations will be educated. Will they have to wait until adulthood to find out just how must uncertainty there is in modern church history? … in ancient church history?

Leadership will decide much of the answer, but it’s also up to every member to decide what the ideal (church) educational system is and so modify the curriculum as seems best – at home, with friends and neighbors, in branches, wards, and stakes, maybe even at church-owned schools, where possible.

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