Monday, June 19, 2006

Questioning the Spirituality of Others

It’s interesting to me how often we Mormons respond to religious questions by impugning the questioner’s spiritual commitment, testimony, or faith instead of, or in addition to, addressing the question itself. Unfortunately, we tend to assume that people who don’t have questions, issues, or doubts are somehow more spiritually committed than those who do. There are at least two reasons I think this assumption is problematic.

First, life has a way of breaking down the dichotomies between believers and questioners, between the faithful and the doubters. As surely as every human being suffers physical and emotional pain, every Mormon, every Christian, every believer faces religious adversity. It’s highly unlikely that anyone could long endure as a member of this church without encountering some personal challenge, whether in Mormon history, in the tensions between religion and science, in doctrine, in church policy, in the unkindness or unscrupulous behavior of other members, in the pain of unfulfilled priesthood blessings, or in the loneliness that accompanies various borderline statuses: singleness, homosexuality, infertility, divorce, physical or mental illness, race or class marginality.

Maybe another way to put this is that one of the purposes of life is to learn face our trials, including our religious and our intellectual trials, with courage, integrity, and faith. When we impugn questioners’ motives, we make that vital work we all have to do harder. We drive people into circumspection about whatever their religious adversity is, and we contribute to the resulting fissure that then separates adversity from the very personal and community religious strength that questioners and sufferers—which is to say, all of us—most need.

The more fundamental problem with maligning others’ spirituality, though, is the very basic fact that we never know their hearts. We do not know, we cannot know, it is not for us to know, what hours they have spent on their knees, what years-long wrestles they have had with God, what of their lives they have given up to seeking. But we cannot assume that they haven’t. I’m persuaded from my reading of the New Testament that how we treat each other is far more important to God than the positions we come to on even the issues that matter a great deal to me personally, such as feminism. After nearly half a life of church membership (thirty-four years and counting), I’m a little weary of the lack of charity we grant each other, on both sides of all manner of political and doctrinal divides. I’m tired of the rush to impute evil motives. Everything about our doctrine and scriptures and everything about our own mortal experience teaches us, over and over, that we live in a world of ambiguity, that our knowledge even of the most profound religious truths is partial, that even our most cherished spiritual gifts will one day pass away in the knowledge to come. If there is anything this life seems at pains to teach us, it is how little we know. All of us see through a glass darkly, and perhaps our glasses are never so dark as when we gaze at the spiritual lives of our brothers and sisters. Given this, how can we assume that others who have not had exactly the spiritual experiences we have, or who have not come to the conclusions we have based on their own spiritual experiences, are therefore spiritually deficient?


Blogger Ziff said...

Great post, Eve. I know you didn't ask this, but I wonder why we're so prone to responding this way to each other's questions. You mentioned that we tend to impugn a questioner's faith "instead of, or in addition to" trying to answer her questions. My impression is that it's a lot more often "instead of" than "in addition to." I think we use personal criticism as a last resort, when we're not willing to attempt an answer.

Although I can't think of an easy way to avoid this, it seems like there is an implicit criticism of non-questioners by questioners that might motivate this kind of response. To take a silly example, if I find fake flowers in chapels to be disturbing because fake flowers are an affront to God's wonderful creation of real flowers, this might come across as a critique of all the rest of you dolts who just aren't sensitive enough to notice.

And of course, as you noted, it runs both ways. It's easy for non-questioners to just figure that people who question a particular thing that they have no trouble with are just faithless, harping fault-finders.

6/19/2006 03:06:00 AM  
Blogger Deborah said...

I think part of the problem comes from the way we generalize personal spiritual experiences -- e.g. when I pray about XXXX I feel peace. Therefore, those who do not feel peace regarding this are not praying adequately, are rebellious spirits, are "missing something," are __________, etc.

One of my most treasured spiritual lessons came from my best friend in college. She was a conservative Jew who, over the course of our college career, "converted" to orthodoxy. Some of her experiences on this journey were almost tangibly spiritual -- even for me, watching from the sidelines. But neither one of us ever mistook this "truth for her" as something that should be (or even could be) truth for ME. And yet I think, as Mormons, we often project "truth for me" as "what other people are missing." It's hard not to, with the "one true church" still at the forefront of our lexicon.

6/19/2006 08:02:00 AM  
Blogger Julie M. Smith said...

Eve, I'm wondering how you would respond to this idea, because I'm not sure if it works:

If I don't have a crisis over X, I may actually have a problem with X but that I have decided that since I have a very strong testimony of the gospel in general, I can live with my problems with X. So Br. Jones shows up having a crisis of faith over X. When I respond to him by questioning his faith, my point isn't really that he is an apostate for having doubts about X (heck, I have them, too), my point is that if X is causing a crisis of faith for him, he must lack the strong tesimony of the gospel that I have.

Does this make sense? I'm not convinced by it (or saying that it is justified), but I think it might explain why/how two otherwise well-meaning people could end up talking right past each other.

6/19/2006 11:25:00 AM  
Anonymous Sue said...

"... my point is that if X is causing a crisis of faith for him, he must lack the strong tesimony of the gospel that I have."

This isn't the problematic part though - He DOESN'T have a strong testimony. He DOESN'T have faith. That's why it's a problem for him and not for you. The problematic thing is not pointing out that they don't have faith, it is calling into questions the reason they are not able to. "I am able to live with my questions about __ and still have doubt, you are not, therefore you must be an evil person or must be committing sin."

The very few members I've talked about my doubts with, other than my hsuband, inevitably end up questioning me about how I pray, when I pray, what unresolved sin must there be, etc. They can't understand why I have a problem with it if they don't. And I can't understand how they don't.

6/19/2006 11:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Sue said...

Oops, that should have been:
"I am able to live with my questions about __ and still have FAITH, you are not, therefore you must be an evil person or must be committing sin."

Sorry, typing too fast.

6/19/2006 11:35:00 AM  
Blogger Kaimi said...

I can only infer from the questioning nature of this post, Eve, that you have some awful unresolved sin hanging on your conscience. I recommend you talk with your Bishop about it ASAP.


6/19/2006 11:41:00 AM  
Blogger Eve said...

Julie, Thanks for a perceptive analysis of what probably often happens in these sorts of conversations--and as you say, results in two people talking past each other.

Here's a tentative foray: maybe part of the difference between Sis. Brown, who's wondered about X, come to no concluesions, but relies on her testimony of the gospel, and Bro. Jones, who finds himself plunged into a crisis of faith over X, is the varying depths at which X hits them, so to speak.

Personally (and I'm sure others feel different about this, so please chime in!), I find the ninety percent of Xs don't present me with more than mild headscratchers. Although I have no answers to the questions they pose, I'd put the more outlandish incidents in church history and Genesis/evolution issues into that ninety percent. But part of the reason those issues don't get to me is that I'm neither a historian nor a scientist. I'm sure they'd get to me more if I were. My husband has long struggled over issues of agency and environmental influence and determinism because he's a psychologist and a behaviorist. I think the questions he asks are interesting, but they don't affect my faith because I'm neither.

(And if there's anything reading the Bloggernacle has done to me, it's to make me a complete agnostic on almost every issue outside the basics of God's existence and love, the atonement of Christ, the restoration, etc. I have a few ideas about a few things, but I've been reduced to complete opinionlessness on things like multiple probations and Adam-God and the complexities of priesthood keys :>)

So maybe there are at least two factors in a crisis of faith over X--the faith itself and the personal significance of X. I don't want to generalize from myself too much, but I wonder if we all don't have a 10% of Xs that really shake us--whether those Xs are doctrinal or matters of policy or social.

That could be at least one reason Sis. Brown and Bro. Jones talk past each other. What looks like the same X is really a completely different issue for each because X is in Sis. Brown's 90% but in Bro. Jones' 10%.

6/19/2006 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger Eve said...

Thanks, Ziff. You nicely identify the way asking certain loaded questions in a church context is sort of like parting the Red Sea. And then begin the cultural wars, the doctrinal disputes, or the vicious hand-to-hand combat over the fake flowers.

Deborah, you rightly put your finger on the sore spot in all this I chickenheartedly avoided in my original post: the one true church issue (which really goes back to Lynnette's earlier post on exclusivism/inclusivism/pluralism. I'm not a theologian, and I'm already out of my depth on this issue, so I'll just say this: I believe that God is uniquely involved in the LDS Church. I also believe that our default assumption should be that others' spiritual experiences are real and true. What those two beliefs mean together, I can't begin to say.

Sue said,

"They can't understand why I have a problem with it if they don't. And I can't understand how they don't."

I think that's exactly the misunderstanding at the heart of these painful conversations that so easily disintegrate into accusations of spiritual sloth or intellectual cowardice.

Kaimi, I would (visit my bishop ASAP), but he asked me to please limit my interminable confessional visits to Sundays.


6/19/2006 12:04:00 PM  
Blogger Melinda said...

Self-defense also plays a role in deciding that someone with questions must have deep dark sins and a bad prayer life. We don't want to have uncomfortable questions. So when someone confronts us with an uncomfortable question, it's natural to distance ourselves from the situation. So you accuse the questioner of having some other problem that you don't have. Because if the doubts are caused by something that you don't have, then you don't have to worry about having doubts.

It's the same phenomenon that keeps us from thinking that anything bad could really happen to us. Bad things only happen to other people who deserve it or who otherwise did something stupid to bring their problems upon themselves. That won't happen to us because we're smarter than they are.

Accusing questioners of lacking faith that we have is a way of distancing ourselves from a problem we don't want to have.

6/19/2006 02:43:00 PM  
Anonymous TMD said...

One answer might be that, very often, the articulation of the doubt seems to suggest that we are preferring some other approach to the gospel or the prophet or the church. Like, my philospohy/ideology/religious background/economic preferences/etc etc etc being how they are, if only the church/prophet/gospel/my ward/my bishop would be so much better if only they were different in some particular way. This, it seems to many, is seeming to put the gospel or the church on par or inferior to things of this world, and so it seems natural for those who are not troubled in that particular way to believe that the speaker must not have a strong commitment to eternal truth as it is because they are shaken by things of a more temporal nature.

6/19/2006 03:36:00 PM  
Blogger Kiskilili said...

TMD, I think what's problematic about this assumption is that the church is part of the world, and we don't really have any failsafe criteria for sifting "eternal truth" out from "things of a more temporal nature." The GAs, for example, are not only influenced by their culture, but inevitably rely to some degree on their own encounter with "worldly scholarship" in framing the gospel.

To take a couple of examples that I hope are not too controversial, a few years ago President Hinckley referred (in General Conference) to the Middle Ages as an era of "ignorance and evil," in contrast to the Renaissance, a "flowering of learning." But in the medieval history courses I took (at BYU!) we learned that the Middle Ages was actually a period of technological innovation unmatched by the pace of (so-called) progress in classical antiquity.

So what do I believe? Am I obligated to accept that President Hinckley's statement supersedes worldly scholarship and represents the definitive eternal view of the medieval period? Or am I allowed to wonder whether President Hinckley isn't simply repeating what he himself learned in school, the view prevalent in the early twentieth century?

On a more recent occasion, President Hinckley declared, "I have just completed reading a newly published book by a renowned scholar. It is apparent from information which he gives that the various books of the Bible were brought together in what appears to have been an unsystematic fashion. In some cases, the writings were not produced until long after the events they describe."

How do we understand this statement? President Hinckley acknowledges that his own source on this matter is not God directly, but biblical scholarship. Do we assume that once the prophet has absorbed the essence of this scholarship into a GC talk, it is now elevated to the status of eternal unassailable truth? Or is it still fair for us to critique biblical scholarship, even when our own prophet repeats its claims?

And if President Hinckley is consulting biblical scholarship to learn more about the Bible (and not just getting all his information directly from God), is it acceptable for me to do likewise (even if that might lead me to question statements other Church leaders have made, perhaps under the influence of other scholarship)?

6/19/2006 06:15:00 PM  
Anonymous TMD said...

Kiskilili: Two responses:

First, I'm not advocating this, I'm offering an explanation for why the trend exists. I do think, however, that most people who would be inclined to doubt others's faith would take issue with the idea that, on key matters of the faith, the church is of this world. Since your examples deal with issues not associated with key ideas in the faith--like for instance, that Joseph Smith was a true prophet and GBH is indeed a prophet, seer, and revelator with the fullest keys of the priesthood and sealing power of anyone on earth--I do not think that they get at the issue. And I would note that I do not think that the church is merely of the earth, either, but that on key matters of doctrine and theology (so far as that exists) it is indeed (and uniquely) lead by a prophet of God.

Second, faith has no clear falsification procedure, unlike science (and I'm referring to a more complex method, like that outlined by Lakatos). So, it's hard to say what would be a proper method. So, it seems to me that it's odd to think in terms of what 'would' be a prescriptively correct way of doubting others faith and what would be a prescriptively incorrect way of concluding that anothers' faith is dooubtful.

As a last note, I think it's inappropriate to conflate spirituality and faith. As I see it, spirituality is merely a feeling of a relationship with the devine. Faith (in a theological sense) is belief in particular ideas and perhaps promises about how the divine will act. This being the case, it may be more possible to create a prescriptively correct means for evaluating someones' faith in particular ideas than in their general spirituality, if one would wish to.

6/19/2006 09:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been thinking about this issue a lot lately as I have made what I consider to be a God directed choice not to attend church anymore. Because I am a unique person with individual experiences as is every child of God, I know that I will never be fully, or even partly understood. I think it was designed this way so that in our utter loneliness we could truly find God, our Heavenly Father and Mother. Knowing this it still tears me apart that much of my family will think of me as lost from God's truth, "...headed for destruction" as my mom puts it.

In the end, I know I have to do what is the right thing for me and my family, based on my experience. This is my way to God and if I am looked down on because of that, I guess I will have to swallow that very bitter pill. No matter how often I tell myself it doesn't matter what others think, I am constanly seeking validation.


6/19/2006 10:07:00 PM  
Blogger Johnny said...

I really like this post, and I find a lot of the comments insightful. Here is my take, Mormonism gives the following epistemic equation: God is not the author of confusion, thus the Truth is a unified consistent set of ideas. Revelation is the way to distinguish the True ideas and the False ones. If someone is sincere and righteous they obtain such revelation. Therefore if someone doubts these ideas they have not been sincere and/or obedient.

With this equation as the basis of testimony, how else can someone respond to doubt and disagreement? When we see what appear to be sincere, intelligent, faithful people who doubt it throws this whole equation into question. If you believe that it is not possible to be sincere, intelligent, moral and wrong, then you will question those who disagree. Otherwise the foundation of one’s entire belief system is questioned. As it is often said, the best defense is a good offense.

6/19/2006 10:21:00 PM  
Blogger Johnny said...


I just wanted to tell you that I had a very similar experience. My parents did not react positively either, to put it mildly. I can only say that it was an inspired decision. I used to go to church, defensive, depressed and sometimes very angry. Being away freed me to concentrate on concepts such as grace without the constant double speak. I am going back now (most weeks) and I am happier at church than I have been since I can remember. This may not be the path for you. As you say we all have our own paths. In fact I usually dislike stories like this where someone “goes away” only to come back later and vindicate those who have never doubted, left or searched beyond the approved boarders. I just wanted to let you know that you are not alone.

6/19/2006 10:32:00 PM  
Blogger mullingandmusing said...

I think this can cut both ways. I have heard those who question place themselves spiritually above those who don't, whom they label as "blind followers" or other similar, lesser creatures.

6/19/2006 11:06:00 PM  
Blogger Kiskilili said...

Nice comments, TMD. I didn't bring up a hotter issue because I think the thread will immediately jack to the issue rather than the method, which is what I'm interested in. :) (But for the record, I honestly don't understand how we separate key doctrinal issues from non-key issues.)

Your point about spirituality and faith being different is an interesting one, and raises the possibility that people might be equally in tune with the divine and yet have faith in different ideas. Of course, faith implies doubt, otherwise it wouldn't be mutually exclusive of knowledge. Or, if we limit faith to belief in ideas that are "true" but for which we lack knowledge, then nobody can actually know whether or not they have faith.

I really like your point, M&M. I think it's important that we recognize that we each struggle with very different things for different reasons, and accept one another anyway, regardless of our questions or lack of questions. I appreciate reading your comments on various blogs even though I realize we don't always agree.

6/20/2006 07:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think sometimes by marginilizing others doubts we avoid feeling the burden it places on our faith. It's tough to deal with those things. Of course the scriptures admonish us to bear each others burdens...

6/20/2006 11:01:00 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

A wonderful post, Eve. Having been through of crisis of faith and identity over the past year in which some have questioned my integrity and my heart, I found it comforting.

6/20/2006 02:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth said...

I love the post , it made mme think of my situation. I am Elizabeth I live in Holland Europe.
Last year I wrote a email to my bishop that I could do my calling anymore and that I was not able to come to church on sundays, because havin a depression and a burnout, during the week I use up all the energy that I have to take care of my special needs son.
I am a single mother with hardly any help.
I do go during the week with my son to thedifferent therapies he has.
I really need the weekend to rest up and last year I was most of the time in bed during the weekend.

Anyway. first of all the bishop or the RS did not react to this email.
Later people of my ward that would call or I would see in the supermarket would question my faith.
If you have faith enough you can come to church they would say.
One time in lds group that I member of a sister made a whole list of all the special needs childeren she had with her husband and how she did go to church and that I have no reason not to go.

Anyway a little afther that a good sisterfriend of mine called and we always have a spiritual conversation and she suprised me when she said: you haven't been in the church for so long but I listen to you and see that you have grown alot"

We cannot look and someones outside and see what is in the heart.
that is why I think it so importand for us not justify ourselves that we are better then others, we should not worry if somebody is sinfull or not.
What we should do is spread love, because I feel that in the end when we are before God that is what He will asks us what have you done with the love I shared with you. Did you share it with others

6/21/2006 10:47:00 AM  
Blogger ZD said...

Please leave any further comments at the new location of this post here.

6/21/2006 02:34:00 PM  

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