Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is the source of this wonderful quote:
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
Borrowing her line of reasoning, I firmly believe it is also true that beautiful faith does not “just happen.” There are decisions that people make. There are responses that are chosen. Some time ago, I was thinking through hundreds of conversations I’ve had among people who have either lost or regained their faith in the face of challenges. I tried to write out the choices I have observed, and here is what I came up with.
Love or Cynicism
Assume that everyone is/was doing their best
Assume the worst about people’s motives?
Involve God in the process? Seek to view people through God’s eyes? Trust in God’s timing to answer things that are not immediately answerable?
Obsess, ruminate; avoid divine involvement in the process; insist on empirical verifiability of answers; employ rationalism and/or empiricism as the final arbiters of every question.
Understand what we bring to the process: account for our ideological, cognitive, social, emotional biases; assume that there may be better definitions of terms, and better ways of conceptualizing the gospel, than what we currently operate with. Recognize that our perceptions and experiences represent a bare minimum of what is possible to see and experience. See faith crisis as a normal aspect of many people’s experience of human development, and recognize that new stages of life often bring adjustments to worldview and perspective in ways that impact our faith.
Assume “objectivity” for ourselves or others; ignore our biases and our ideological commitments (progressive, fundamentalist, etc.). Be unwilling to question our own definitions and assumptions. Refuse to explore questions of personal development, and instead assume that one’s current worldview and stage of life are the only possible lenses through which to see the gospel.
Engage with witness testimony in scripture, in church history, and in our own local and online communities.
Avoid, ignore, or reject witness testimony. Reinterpret witness testimony through naturalistic, egalitarian, or other intellectual commitments. Assume that one’s own experiences represent the range of all possible experiences.
Embrace nuance: subtle features, characteristics, and distinctions among objects and ideas.
“The Book of Mormon is a historical record of real people, and its translation involved some combination of divine communications and Joseph’s mental resources (D&C 9:8)” Be open to new ways of thinking about concepts.
Homogenize and generalize (fallacy of composition): “Some spiritual experiences have an emotional component, therefore all spiritual experiences can be dismissed as emotional”; “The book of Jonah is wonderful but mostly ahistorical, therefore all scripture can be considered wonderful but mostly ahistorical”
Divide questions into simple binaries: scripture is only historical or only fiction; revelation is only a pure divine communication or an entirely-human aggregation of concepts in one’s environment.
Read book-length scholarly treatments of issues; become familiar with the systems (e.g., historiography, linguistics, philosophy) that produce sources. Accept that all sources of commentary are biased, and learn to identify biases. Learn to identify the epistemic choices that scholars make. Accept that well-researched and rational arguments can be made against historical narratives that are true. Be skeptical of sources that offer neat and tidy resolutions to complex issues, or that speak with certitude about their ability to prove negatives. Employ Richard Bushman’s “hermeneutic of generosity”: assume the best about people in the past and present.
Consume information primarily in the form of media. Either ignore questions of bias, or attribute bias only to one side of discussions. Abandon any faith narrative for which a purely rational or naturalistic counter-narrative can be produced. Treat gospel questioning as a contest between apologetic and critical voices. Crowdsource answers and place the burden of inquiry primarily upon other people. Engage in accusation as a mode of inquiry: accept as true any accusation that cannot be answered to everyone’s satisfaction.
Devotion and Praxis
Cultivate both the vertical and horizontal elements of faith. Seek to know Christ on a personal level. Turn to more frequent fasting and service. Seek revelation. Choose to view the community of believers with forgiveness and charity, and maintain loving engagement with them. Develop a love of sacred music and art. Spend time in solitude, and in nature. Commit to keeping the commandments and serving in a calling. Embrace the reality that there is very little growth without discomfort. Listen to the positive experiences of believers. Welcome people’s best efforts to demonstrate love. Forgive people’s failures and shortcomings, past and present. Keep an open mind and heart. Take leaps of faith by doing devotional and service activities that seem too hard to do. Celebrate and give thanks for every new insight, and every moment of peace. Embrace the reality of mystery as an important component of a life of faith.
Disengage from vertical and/or horizontal elements of faith to protect from the possibility of hurt feelings. Assume that there are no more depths or dimensions to faith than what have already been experienced. Dismiss fasting as a waste of effort. Reinforce doubt by focusing on sources that only validate skepticism and disbelief. Dismiss or doubt the positive experiences of believers. Focus on the failures and shortcomings of other people. Indulge anger, and seek validation in a victim identity. React constantly to negative messaging about the church and its members. Accept accusations uncritically. Demand accommodation. Place the burden of positive interactions entirely upon other people.