Doubt and the Dangers of Reading Alone

A lot has already been said about the Hans Mattsson article in the NYT. One issue, however, that I feel needs further exploration is how crises of faith might be approached from a more therapeutic or pastoral angle. Below are some excerpts from a sacrament talk I delivered at the beginning of this year. I hope it might contribute to the recent discussions of doubt and faith crises in Mormonism.

This invitation to speak coincided with a presentation I attended on Islam. The presenter studied Muslims who had experienced what we might call a crisis of faith within their community. Some Muslims found ways of remaining within Islam and others decided to leave. One of the interesting things the presenter noted is that many of the Muslims he encountered had their initial crisis of faith when they were “reading alone.” In other words, these Muslims explained that their doubts about Islam began when they came across information that challenged their faith. They felt that they encountered, or at least, studied this information alone. While in this context, “alone” could be taken literally, to mean that they confronted this information by themselves—reading it in the privacy of their own homes, perhaps, either in a book or on a computer—but instead we can take it more broadly to mean that they felt alone when going through some crisis of faith. They were alone in the sense of feeling that no one within their community could sympathize with their struggles. 

While I haven’t closely studied Latter-day Saint experiences with faith crises, from some of the experiences I am familiar with, this theme of “reading alone” seems to be a familiar one. Someone encounters new information (perhaps online), feels unsettled because he or she was never told this information before in Church, and then feels like there’s no one that can relate to this experience within our community of faith. Feeling alone, he or she might silently become less engaged in the community, or, perhaps they suppress these feelings until they leave the Church in a bout of anger.

I think that we, as a community of Latter-day Saints, need to think more carefully about how we view crises of faith, and how we might further work to retain members of our faith. My point isn’t that we need to become experts in explaining every facet of Church history, or that we need to become theologians who are capable of resolving every difficult theological problem. Rather, I think we should work to create space for the feelings associated with reading alone. In other words, and more practically speaking, I think that we can and should foster an atmosphere that recognizes feelings such as anger or betrayal as a legitimate response to encountering troubling information or encountering deep theological problems.

In short, my point is that if we are serious about conceptualizing our relationship with God as a parent-child relationship, we must allow feelings such as anger, betrayal, or frustration to be permissible feelings we might take into this relationship. Everyone here is involved in a number of significant relationships, think about it this way: would you love your child, spouse, brother, or sister less if he or she were mad at you?

Anger, it seems, is a natural reaction to pain. When a loved one dies, for instance, anger is a natural response to the pain associated with grief. Mourning is a process of working through the pain, and most people need to involve others in this process. Imagine what it might be like to lose a spouse to death, for instance, and have no one show up at the funeral, or to have no one to lean on in this time of need. The fear of being alone, as such, may also become quite intense; and it may contribute to the pain and anger. Alternatively, imagine what it might be like to have people suggest that you shouldn’t be mad because, “she’ll be watching down over you from heaven” or, “you’ll be reunited with her soon.” In these instances, the subtext is that grief or anger is not an appropriate feeling to bring into the relationship. Parenthetically, I’ve found, the worst thing to tell my wife when she is upset at me is, “I don’t know why you’re so mad.”

Similarly, when someone has a crisis of faith they may experience pain and anger. Similar to the way in which losing a loved one compels you to see the world differently (a world without mom or dad, for instance), encountering previously unknown information might challenge someone’s current world view (think about learning about polygamy for the first time, for instance). When they feel that they have no one to talk to, fear of loneliness can add to the pain. When members of their faith community tell them that they shouldn’t be mad because those are “insignificant problems” or, “things I’ve thought about and never got angry over,” we effectively leave them alone in their time of need or we tell them that the feelings they have are not feelings that are welcome in this community.

Instead of this, my sense is that we should respond to crises of faith with validation, compassion, and a listening ear. Validation means accepting anger as a legitimate feeling within the community. This doesn’t mean that we necessarily need to be pained by the same problems that someone experiencing a crisis of faith is pained by. We don’t need to be troubled by the same things, for instance, or to the same degree. Neither does it necessarily mean seeing anger as a good thing. Indeed, too much anger, or anger experienced for too long, can become particularly detrimental in any relationship. Rather it means saying, sometimes quite literally, “I can see why you’re angry, and it’s okay.” It means accepting anger as a natural feeling in the process of life. At a more abstract level, we are saying that you can bring your feelings of frustration, anger, or betrayal into the community and we will not think less of you. Indeed, validating feelings such as anger means reaffirming that someone, in all their complexity, is a valuable member of our community.

Compassion entails feeling with someone in their pain. Since the Church is comprised of imperfect people, each trying to be Christlike; and since God is not readily apparent in our day-to-day life, it seems that there will necessarily be real opportunities for frustration and anger. When we are compassionate we come to see how someone valuable and not so different from us, might reasonably be pained by a particular circumstance. We reinforce the fact of love—that we care for them, and that we are there in any time of need.

Lastly, we should also respond with a listening ear. Responding with a listening ear doesn’t mean providing someone who is experiencing a crisis of faith with what we think are answers to their concerns. It doesn’t mean, for instance, launching into an interpretation of Doctrine and Covenants section 132 if someone is bothered by polygamy (not, at least, until they feel ready for such a discussion and you feel qualified). Instead, it means learning to sit and listen. This idea of sitting and listening is well illustrated by a scene from the movie Lars and the Real Girl (hap tip to Aaron R. at BCC). In Lars and Real Girl, the main character, Lars, treats a life-sized doll, he names Bianca, as his girlfriend. People in the town, including his brother, are, as you would expect, quite bothered by what seems to be Lars’ irrational behavior. Over the course of the movie, though, as everyone pretends to treat Bianca as if she were real, we come to see that Lars is using the doll to work through the trauma he experienced at his mother’s death. It turns out that Bianca is a means for Lars to reengage the many relationships he had shut himself off from since his mother’s death. Toward the end of the movie, Lars declares that Bianca has contracted a terminal illness. She has only a few weeks left to live. That evening, several older women from town show up at his doorstep to sit with him, because, as they say, this “is what we do in hard times.” They don’t lecture him about the silliness of having a fake girlfriend, nor do they tell him it’s impossible to grieve over the terminal illness of a doll. Instead they sit and listen. This scene is a good illustration because we may likewise encounter situations where we do not initially understand why someone experiencing a crisis of faith is so mad. We may be tempted to say, “That’s ridiculous,” or perhaps to share our testimony to combat what we see as ill-founded doubt. Instead, though, my sense is that we should just sit and listen.

Now, all of this, of course, is not easy. While anger usually subsides, it doesn’t always subside. And anger can sometimes get more intense before it gets less intense. Indeed, some people can stay angry for a very long time. As such, we take a risk of allowing feelings such as anger, frustration, or betrayal to harm our community. Which is to also say that in other contexts we should probably talk about how much anger, frustration, or betrayal is too much. At the same time, and at least for my purposes today, the commitment found in Mosiah 18 seems to suggest that the risks are worth taking. Indeed, part of becoming a member of this community is a willingness “to mourn with those that mourn… and comfort those that stand in need of comfort… that [we] may be redeemed of God… that [we] may have eternal life.” And these are the things I leave with you in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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