The Ups and Downs of a Faith Crisis

Growth always comes with tradeoffs.

Photo Credit: Gael Chardon

When I was 16 years old, I attended a week-long youth event on Brigham Young University campus. While I was there, I noted how serious, perhaps even severe, most the BYU students seemed. They didn’t smile or laugh wildly like our young group did. I vowed to myself that when I went to college, I would keep the weird, crazy happiness I felt as a 16-year-old.

Five years passed, and I became a student at BYU. One day I walked by a group of youth who were attending the same event I’d attended as a teen. As I walked by, I heard a boy say to his friend, “Dude… that guy just glared at me!”

I looked around. I was the only “guy” in the area. The teen was talking about me. I wanted to turn back to the teen and say that I wasn’t glaring. It was just my normal face.

Paradise Lost

This moment as a college student made me realize I’d lost some of the light-heartedness I’d vowed to hold onto as a teen. In those five intervening years I had encountered ideas that challenged my worldview and witnessed some real suffering. I no longer felt as carefree as I once did.

To a degree, I’d lost innocence and gained experience.

This story is as old as storytelling itself. Odysseus left the safety of his home, fought a war, and journeyed back with none of the innocence he had when he left. Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree, lost paradise, and gained experience. Even the modern story of Stephen Daedalus starts with the innocence of childhood and ends with the sorrows and excitement of gaining knowledge.

Chances are, this is the same story you live as well.

One way this story surfaces is with the experience of a faith crisis — or perhaps more properly, a faith transformation.

In childhood it’s common to accept the dominant narrative of our community without question. Then, as we grow older, we often realize these stories are flawed in ways we hadn’t noticed before. This doesn’t necessarily mean we reject our communities wholesale, but it does mean that we grow into a more nuanced and skeptical worldview.

When this happens we might feel like we’ve lost our footing and can’t find solid ground. We enjoy the excitement of our new worldview and simultaneously acknowledge the chaos it brings.

Experience is a mixed blessing.

Three Mindsets in a Faith Transformation

We might think of a faith transformation as a journey through three mindsets, each with its own upsides and downsides.

I don’t believe that everyone must pass through these mindsets to grow, nor do I believe that this is the correct way to think about a faith transformation. To the contrary, I believe that other writers, including Ken Wilber, Thomas McConkie, and James Fowler have far more nuanced and precise views when it comes to defining phases of a faith transformation. This is merely how I make sense of the topic right now, in light of my personal experience and with a brain that cannot think beyond simple sets of three.

I might call these three mindsets the institutional, the skeptical, and the integral.

1. Institutional

Part of the reason I felt so carefree as a teen is because I’d fully accepted the dominant narrative I was born into (Mormonism, in this case). My world operated within a clearly defined institutional structure, one that provided me with safety, security, and a sense of purpose. I valued what the dominant narrative said to value and didn’t question anything in the institution. Because of this, I believed my institution had figured out every major mystery of existence and by extension so had I.

I didn’t realize at the time that this mindset came with upsides and downsides. The upside was that I was fully committed to a strong community with a grand sense of purpose. The downside was that I was unwittingly self-righteous, I didn’t look favorably on people at the fringes of or beyond my institution, and I wasn’t intellectually fair with outside viewpoints.

2. Skeptical

Eventually, I discovered reasons to rethink the dominant narrative of my religion.

It happened to me in one wave on my LDS mission and then another wave after graduating from BYU. I gave my own religious narrative the same intellectual treatment that I gave any other narrative, and in the process I discovered that my narrative had some severe limitations.

This mindset came with a new set of upsides and downsides. The upside was that I felt intellectually open, willing to accept people and ideas at the fringes of (and even outside of) the institution. The downside was that I felt a tendency toward cynicism and an impulse to occasionally sneer at those didn’t know things about my religion that I’d only recently learned myself.

3. Integral

Full skepticism never sat well with me. I wanted to move beyond the skeptical mindset and acknowledge the truth, beauty, and goodness embedded within the institution I was born into. I wanted to discover a way to integrate the best aspects of my institutional upbringing with the best aspects of my new skeptical worldview — to “transcend and include” the narrative I was given rather than rejecting it completely.

This is what I’m clumsily wrestling with right now. I acknowledge that my upbringing has given me some of the best things in my life, but I also acknowledge that there are several things I once believed without question that I can no longer accept, things that have held me back in the past.

This mindset, once again, comes with upsides and downsides. The upside is that I feel more love for people wherever they’re at, whether they’re outside or inside Mormonism. The downside is that I sometimes feel like I’m experiencing a watered down version of community. I feel a longing to circle back to the institutional mindset in some form and commit to it fully. Perhaps there’s merit to viewing this all as a cycle. Perhaps at a macro level this is how old religions get revitalized and how new religions spring into existence.

Tradeoffs

Again, I don’t believe that this is the right way to view a faith transformation. If the sequence and labels I’ve listed here don’t speak to you, ignore them. They’re just placeholders that point to the deeper truth that growth comes with tradeoffs. We grow older and can’t quite keep everything we once enjoyed. “That time is past,” William Wordsworth wrote, “and all its aching joys are now no more.”

In this light, I see a faith transformation as bringing expansion, but not necessarily improvement.

For instance, say someone cultivates the upsides of an institutional mindset while someone else falls prey to the downsides of a skeptical mindset. This skeptic sneers at the true believer and lives their life in mere opposition to the institution. The skeptic has the capacity to love far beyond the institution, but in this instance they’re not living up to that capacity. It’s as though the true believer in this example has cultivated a small, beautiful garden while the skeptic is sitting on a medium-sized plot of weeds (not an improvement).

And even when a skeptic deliberately cultivates the upsides of their mindset, it’s impossible for them to hold to the same upsides that once gave them solace. This explains why a true believer might look down on a skeptic, even when the skeptic is legitimately improving (which I define as drawing closer to truth, beauty, and goodness). The skeptic really has lost some of the upsides of the institutional mindset even when they’re better off on the whole.

In the end, acknowledging these tradeoffs forces me into a position of humility. I can’t say, for instance, that I’m unequivocally better than I was as an exuberant teen. Yes, my worldview has expanded, but I’ve lost something wonderful in the process. And if I can’t say that I’m unequivocally better than my former self, I also can’t say that I’m unequivocally better than you — or anyone else. Whoever you are, you have strengths I can’t fully access. The best I can do is keep my weakness in mind moment to moment and feel the awe that naturally springs forth for each human as a result.


For more on this topic, see my book When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life.

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