To a Doubter, From the Fringes

Hi friends.

I’m a doubter (surprise!). Most of you probably knew that already and many of you probably have some similar doubts to mine. Maybe not. Perhaps you read what I write, precisely because you don’t think the way I do. Who knows? Anyway, doubt for me is a necessary accomplice to faith and a byproduct of a questioning mind. That may sound crazy, but it works for me.

Much has been written about the ever-increasing numbers of Mormons (and religious people broadly) going through faith crises, often tying the rise of the Internet and the availability of information to this phenomenon. I don’t know solid statistics for this (does anyone?), but my anecdotal experience has been that there are many Mormons struggling to reconcile the faith they love and thought they knew with new-found information that seems to contradict or complicate that faith.

I cannot speak for others, but perhaps my experience can ease the pain of this reconciliation process, if only because it shows that others have gone before and have felt/continue to feel some of the same pressures and concerns.

My first moment of “faith crisis” occurred in high school. I started wondering if God was real. I’ve always been a curious sort and I value truth and knowledge quite highly, so I figured I should probably come to some sort of conclusion (particularly given the decisions that I would be making shortly as a young Mormon dude). My crisis was internal and intellectual at this point. After some time of thinking through possibilities, I decided to pray (how else would a young Mormon find answers to theological questions?). My goal was two-fold; to learn if God exists and to learn if the Book of Mormon was true (I didn’t really think about what that meant at this point). I prayed and asked if God loved me (decided that if God existed, but didn’t love me then I didn’t care about Him/Her/Them). I was immediately enveloped in what I can best describe as a divine embrace, I felt warmth and pure love run through me (that remains one of the most powerful spiritual experiences that I’ve had and one of the few times that typical prayer resulted in an answer like that). I then asked if the Book of Mormon was true and the feeling stayed. I know that God loves me.

That experience continues to serve as the cornerstone of my faith. Could it have been some sort of mental trickery? It’s possible. Did I hallucinate? Perhaps. How can I know that it was God? Honestly, I don’t know. Except that what I felt, felt so good and so pure that if it’s not God, it should be.

Flash forward five or six years. I just returned from a mission in Lithuania and am studying at BYU. I was hungry for spiritual knowledge. I kept a list of doctrinal/theological questions that I had, which numbered in the high 300s by the time I left Lithuania and now is closer to 500. I started looking for answers, or at least thoughtful consideration of the questions, and stumbled upon Sunstone, Dialogue, Mormon Matters and the Bloggernacle at large. Wow. It was as if huge avenues of thought opened up to me that I had never considered. However, it wasn’t long before I began reading about things that I’d either never heard of before, or had heard from ‘anti-Mormons’ as a missionary.

Everything shifted. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Yet, for some reason, I didn’t have a ‘crisis’ per-say. Instead, I underwent (still am going through) a faith remodel. The basic pieces remained the same, but took on a new shape—some things were totally removed, others repurposed, new features added.

For many, this process is more painful and difficult than it was for me (I’m not sure why it didn’t seem that way. Perhaps it was that I’ve always been the odd one out, or that I already had some unorthodox views, or that my parents always encouraged questioning and learning for yourself, or that I quickly found a community of other questioning/believing Mormons). Whatever the reasons, here’s what drove me to stay and find a place within Mormonism, rather than outside it (this may not work for everyone and may not be best for everyone).

  1. I remembered what I knew. This may sound kind of like the “doubt your doubts” platitude, and I guess in a sense it is, but that’s not really the point here. The point is to remember the knowledge and experiences that you have had. For me, this goes back to feeling God’s love that night when I was a teenager. I know that God loves me. And that’s about all that I know. I believe a lot of other things, but I don’t know them. But, because of that experience and later experiences of feeling that divine love, I stayed. If nothing else was true the way I had previously thought, I still knew that I felt God’s love here and that that love was somehow connected to the Book of Mormon, so that was enough to start re-building with.
  2. I sought understanding. Church was (and can be) a terribly challenging place. I never really enjoyed Church growing up (I didn’t really connect with the people in my classes and class was usually stuff I had ‘learned’ ages ago and could regurgitate half-asleep). The challenge grew as I shifted in my understanding of the Gospel, to something less orthodox. Over Sunday dinner my parents had always led a review of what we were taught, frequently going to the scriptures to correct what they perceived as false doctrines, so the idea of disagreeing with what I was taught at Church was not new to me, which probably aided my transition. However, it wasn’t until I tried to understand the viewpoints and perspectives of my fellow Church-goers that I really started to find value at Church again.
  3. I embraced ambiguity and uncertainty. As I mentioned, I’ve always been pretty comfortable with questions and the associated ambiguity and uncertainty. That became even more necessary. I learned things that obliterated any chance of keeping the simplistic narrative that I had learned earlier. It was hard. Facts and certainty started to slip away and I was left with a lot of things that I don’t fully understand. Now, I find beauty in that paradox and complexity. Teasing out the truth is a valuable experience for me.
  4. I sought truth. I hold strongly onto early quotes from Brigham Young and John Taylor about Mormonism embracing all truth whatever the source. It suggests a more nuanced and complicated revelation process that seems to allow for more human fallibility than the understanding typically shared in Church meetings. Like I wrote above, the process of seeking truth is beautiful for me, in all its messiness. Finding the truth isn’t quite as important to me (I don’t know if we can really get a knowledge of “truth” in mortality or really what it means for something to be ‘true’), as is the process of moving closer to it, and therefore coming closer to God.
  5. I looked for the good. It’s really easy to get bogged down with negativity and to ignore the positives. I’m not suggesting a happy-go-lucky, the-sun-is-always-shining sort of attitude, but simply that as you go through the process of remodeling your faith, remember the good that you’ve experienced and hold onto it. Look for the good and the best in ideas, in intentions, in people. Don’t ignore the bad and the ugly, but don’t forget the good. For me, this largely comes down to seeing the service that people do for each other and feeling God’s love for me and others, manifest in the goodness of mankind.

That was enough for me. I believe in the goodness of Mormonism. It has done wonderful things for my life. I know that God loves me and you. I believe that there is a place for doubting and questioning Mormons in the Church. I’ve found a way to make that place work for me. I hope that you can too. If any of you need someone to talk to, talk to me. I don’t have answers, but I can listen. Seriously—comment, email me, text me, message me, whatever—we can do this together.

Godspeed Spider—ahem, I mean, my friends,

Conor

Read Part Two, More Thoughts from the Fringes for some expanded thoughts on the nature of God, truth, and what’s left after confronting serious doubts.

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