John recently posted a great blog entry titled: The Gift of a Religious Faith Crisis. Its main point lies in how this really difficult thing we call a faith crisis, that can be excruciatingly painful and non-validated by the larger system, can also lead to some unexpected and wonderful shifts in life… that albeit unplanned, are also rich and rewarding. I couldn’t agree more. And it’s important for John to describe these positive possibilities, because so often the rhetoric from the larger system is that only negative things can come from faith transition.
At the same time, I want to address language that was originally used* and that I often see used by transitioners that, although unintentional, belittles and condescends. And it does this to two entities I’d like to address:
- the important people in your life who are staying affiliated to the church and/or its beliefs in more traditional ways than you are, and
- your prior self.
One of the “tasks of managing a faith transition” I regularly address with my clients is: Making Peace with and Understanding Where We Come From. This is not generally the first task we work on… since we want to validate pain before we seek to understand it. However, it is important to the overall healing process to address at some point. If you’re not ready for this task – because you’re still needing validation and empathy… there is no need to read this post at this time. You can revisit at a future time. It’s usually towards the end of the work I do with clients.
What this task generally looks like is:
- Having compassion for the system that one comes from: understanding that there are many moving parts that not one person is necessarily responsible for (even Joseph Smith).
- Staying mindful that all people come from systems that have shaped them (understanding tribes and identity formation – an entire chapter in the book will be dedicated to this). No one escapes this. Whether in the past or currently. We are not islands. We are influenced by systems around us regardless of where we stand… so it’s important to not allow the seduction of the concept of “authenticity” to be incorrectly defined to mean that one comes to all self-truth individually.
- Not allowing for the typical “grass is always greener” trap to offer unrealistic expectations of what life would have been like if one hadn’t been born Mormon or converted to Mormonism.
- Reframing negative language like “brainwashed” and “betrayed,” which require a certain intentional manipulation that most of us did not face with our parents or local leaders — in other words, they too believed what they were teaching and were part of the system we are now moving away from.
- Staying grateful for the ways one’s system of upbringing helped you and contributed to the positive attributes you’ve developed as an individual thus far.
- Avoiding “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” tactics by falling into similar patterns we come from and often criticize. Black and white thinking lies deep in our “Mormon DNA.” It’s also a big part of “American Culture DNA.” Often people don’t feel like they can keep what is still useful about their religious traditions/beliefs because it is no longer “true.” And, therefore, unnecessarily dismiss or belittle prior spiritual experiences that made sense through the original lens of belief.
John originally used words like “false” or “superficial” in contrast with “authentic” and “integrity.” Let me just offer some counters, not to dismiss, but to complicate some of John’s points. I will do this by using the YES/AND strategy that I reference often in my work. For example: YES, I had genuine spiritual experiences that I made sense of through a certain construct that was shaped by my environment as a believing Latter-day Saint… AND I’m having different experiences now as I move more into nuance, including feeling the shortcomings of how my past constructs may no longer offer what they used to.**
- I do not agree that we had “false identity” when we were in a different part of our faith trajectory (which by the way… does not mean having “left the church” — people are on faith trajectories regardless of church activity and/or belief systems). We came to those identities honestly… even when impacted and affected by the system around us. Integrity and authenticity are values. And those values don’t usually change because of a faith transition. They may have played a role in the changes you are experiencing. But I believe most of us were as authentic, genuine and real in our more orthodox or conservative pasts as we are currently. The difference is that we have new lenses we’re looking through. And new perspectives to consider. So it can feel more authentic than before… more genuine; with the advantage of hindsight that you didn’t previously have. And that’s your current truth. Something to celebrate. So… YES, I had an authentic identity within my past construct… AND, I’m having to redefine what authentic identity will look like for me now.
- We don’t lose our morality… we are now faced with the task of having to redefine it from different sources of authority, including our own (just like we did in our prior church selves). We may have more room to explore this than our system of origin encouraged, but we are still influenced by forces around us as we go about this process. So… YES, the church played a large role in forming my morality and values (most of which have probably not changed)… AND, I will now claim more self-authority as I allow morality to be explored outside certain rules or guidelines the church deems important (i.e. I still have the moral value of self-care… but I now may choose to drink coffee and focus more on losing weight).
- Some friendships and family relationships may definitely change, sometimes excruciatingly so… and this doesn’t mean they were superficial to begin with. It is a known fact that humans are drawn to similar humans. So when faith transitions shift the “sameness” we once shared, then yes… wedges are created. The dance changes. And some adjust better to this than others. So… YES, I had some really meaningful relationships within the construct of Mormonism… AND, it’s so sad that this shift in my beliefs has had repercussions that I didn’t expect or want. I have a right to be hurt and angry about that.
- Spirituality can be deeply felt and experienced within organized religious systems and without. So… YES, I had sacred spiritual experiences within my more traditional belief structure…. AND, I am now enjoying new ways of experiencing spirituality I had not considered before.
- Communities within the church can be flawed and at times abandon you in your most needed times of crisis… especially when issues of belief and practice feel threatening to many within the system. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that they were shallow when you more comfortably belonged within its circle. So…. YES, I was part of a rich, loving community… AND, I am heartbroken that I no longer feel accepted the way I was before.
- “Reality” is a tricky word, regardless of where we currently stand. And it’s quite subjective. I understand John’s point about “false certainty” — because it is one of the scariest parts for people to grapple with when they can no longer count on past understanding and meanings they’ve ascribed to life. At the same time, we want to be careful to not engage in new “false certainties” that downplay our past experiences or make us feel too assured of our current understandings. Because insensitivity and violence can exist on all sides of belief spectrums. So… YES, I enjoyed the sense that I “knew” many of life’s answers that Mormonism once offered me… AND, I need to be careful not to trade one sense of certainty for another.
- Most marriages are originally based on “sameness” and have aspects of “conditional love.” I agree with John, that faith transitions (especially where one is shifting more than their partner) do not allow for these patterns to continue. However, one needs to be aware that these dynamics exist in all relationships and have to be intentionally challenged whether one is faith transitioning or not. So…. YES, our marriage may have been based heavily on our commonalities of being Mormon… AND, that doesn’t mean that we didn’t enjoy wonderful intimacy in that context and will now be challenged to experience something different if we want to stay together effectively.
- There are aspects of parenting promoted by traditional Mormon practice that are not healthy… specifically dealing with control and conformity. Faith transitions do not necessarily change this dynamic. Similar to marriage patterns, these types of issues need to be addressed through education and intentional change. So…. YES, I can see how some of the structure within Mormonism allowed me to plug my kids into a ready-made system with parts of that being super supportive and helpful to us as a family… AND, I now cannot rely on that solely and have to guard against harmful practices I was not previously aware of, or find new structures altogether.
- Many people who faith transition still hold beliefs of an afterlife in some form or another. I do not see this as a waste of energy… again, like most things there can be positive and negative aspects of structuring meaning from this belief. So… YES, I can see how many of my relationships and constructs were affected by an eternal perspective, sometimes in ways that limited me… AND, I still find value and comfort from holding on to parts of this belief.
- Motivations for making meaning of life usually shift through faith transitions, like John states… and at the same time people within a more organized religious system also can find great meaning from the activities they engage in. I often see people who are shifting in beliefs, still feel connected to service projects and organized events the church provides. So… YES, I spent a lot of my time, money and energy in ways that the church structured for me (with both negative and positive results)… AND, I now have to be more intentional in how I’m going to live the value of charity.
Embracing this new, different adventure and acknowledging its inherent gifts (as John is encouraging us to look towards with hope and optimism) without denigrating the past travel: this is my hope for all of us as we seek to heal and integrate our full experience.
We can make lots of space at the table we sit at for the many pieces of the complex jigsaw puzzle we call a faith crisis.
*John has since changed some of the language in his original post to reflect the conversations we had together and feedback from some readers. This is exactly what excites me the most about the format we have taken with this project — the idea that these are “living, breathing documents,” as John calls them. So that we are uninhibited in our writing process (which is difficult to begin with). And we can change and shift things as we go to better represent the overall experience of faith transition/crisis — ending with a better product overall. Part of my personal enjoyment in partnering with John, is that we have been able to successfully engage in these types of processes where we effectively challenge and grow from one another for almost a decade.
**All YES/AND examples are just that… they may or may not apply to all readers. It can be a good exercise to practice this strategies in ways that fit your experience (I love giving homework – so consider yourself “served” 😉 ).