Last August, Kristine wrote about labeling her personal experience a “faith transition”:

Four years ago I started to question things I’d been taught in the Church because I received an answer to prayer that I believe conflicted with church teachings. I started questioning almost everything, but never the core foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ or the basics of the Restoration. I thought it was more accurate to describe my journey from straight arrow orthodox to open, questioning, and unorthodox as a “faith transition.” I see things differently, but never felt there was any type of “crisis.” My lenses just shifted dramatically.

She unfortunately discovered that other people interpret “faith transition” very differently:

Apparently there is a connotation that I’ve left the faith, or if I’ve stayed I no longer believe in Mormonism, just general Christianity and I’ve decided to stick around for other reasons.

Where did “faith transition” come from?

The concept of transitioning seems to have originated with the application of James Fowler’s Stages of Faith to Mormonism. Dan Wotherspoon explained:

With the 1981 publication of Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, James W. Fowler presented a road map of sorts for faith transitioning, a descriptive schema that places “faith” (our way of making sense of life, of engaging transcendent values and meaning) alongside other areas of human development and the models that describe them. As they encounter this schema, many people undergoing faith transitions find hope that if they don’t turn away from the difficulties and pain, they will emerge into new and richer perspectives and sense of peace in the face of all of life’s complexities.

Fowler outlined 6 developmental stages. Essentially, as you “matured” in your religious worldview, you would move (or transition) to a higher developmental stage. In a 2002 Sunstone article, Wotherspoon described it as a journey towards “spiritual adulthood.”[1]

More recently, the linear stages of faith model was the focus of Thomas Wirthlin McConkie’s Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis published late last year. In an interview with Jana Reiss, McConkie said,

Development is often a hidden factor in these faith transitions that we see so commonly in the church, and if we understood them better, we would respond in much more appropriate and constructive ways…. Think about faith transition as new growth, a delicate bud that’s just breaking ground. We’ll trample it like a weed if we don’t see it for what it is.

So in relation to the religious developmental stages model, a “faith transition” refers to growth in religious world view. This can refer to growth towards a deeper, more nuanced, and stronger testimony of one’s belief system, or it can refer to deeper, more nuanced understanding leading to conversion to a different belief system. Both are valid options. In this sense, Kristine’s use of the term “faith transition” in describing her journey from orthodoxy to a more unorthodox understanding of Mormonism makes perfect sense.

Why do people now interpret “faith transition” as a euphemism for leaving the church?

One reason, as Andrew argued responding to Kristine’s post, is that claiming a label of “faith transition” immediately causes tension:

[T]his is an issue that runs through the faith crisis and faith transition narratives. There is an element introduced of fundamental difference — the person believes differently, practices differently, whatever. But by introducing this element of difference, one creates the divide that one was trying to avoid.

A commenter on Andrew’s post, Parker, explained further:

Within Mormonism you would not expect to hear someone refer to a “faith transition” as a way of expressing that their testimony has become stronger. The common language is to say my testimony is growing or getting stronger. When a Mormon uses the term “faith transition” to describe their perception of the Church most Mormons see it as a sign of questioning or a testimony crisis (“faith crisis,” in general terms)… It doesn’t matter how loudly and vociferously you proclaim an unwavering testimony of the “gospel,” you are considered somewhere on the edge…

The other reason is that people are already using the term “faith transition” as shorthand for exiting Mormonism. Over at Zelph on the Shelf, their “20 Tips for Handling Your Faith Transition (and Helping Others Handle it)” are helpful suggestions to those who’ve decided to leave Mormonism. At Mormon Spectrum, only the description of post- and ex-Mormons mentions the idea of “faith transitions,” and the transitioning process is related specifically to transitioning away from the church. While the official Mormon Transitions website says it serves Mormons “moving towards a more liberal, progressive form of their faith” as well as those “leaving the church altogether,” it becomes clear when browsing their website that their resources are mainly for post- and ex-Mormons. Even those not in the post-Mormon realm equate “faith transition” with switching to another belief system.

Faith transition versus… something else

So if “faith transition” now means leaving the church, we are left with a void. Bill Reel previously explained that those who go through a faith crisis (even when retaining a strong testimony of the church) are changed:

Once one has been opened up to the complexity and nuance of our faith’s history, theology, and doctrine one can never go back to the way things were. Rather they have to be permitted to take their faith apart and put it back together in a way that works. It will look different, it will seem strange to others, and yet it will be real to them.[2]

Is there a shorthand way to describe that difference? That change? A friend described it as “repacking,” like repacking a suitcase with some things left out, keeping the most important.

If we stick with the developmental stages model, we can simply describe our changed testimony as more mature or more evolved. We can arrogantly humbly declare ourselves a step closer to spiritual adulthood. My gut says any declaration of growth, enlarged understanding, deeper conversion, overcoming of Abrahamic tests, or whatever could easily come across as a declaration of superiority.

Many of us go through that process, but it’s not always from a faith crisis per se. Like Kristine, it could originate from an unexpected answer to prayer. Like me, it could derive from another type of crucible, but the need to acknowledge the existence of that tempered understanding is real. Part of the compulsion comes from wanting to make clear that the change in understanding was not something sought after or desired. Like a remodel or a renovation after a house fire, the work was necessary to make the place habitable again. While I can appreciate the new living space, it is not an experience I wish on anyone.

What do you think?

  • Is there a shorthand way to explain that change in heart? Faith renovation? Faith regeneration? Other suggestions?
  • Can we describe these changes without passing implicit judgment on the faith of other members?
  • Can someone highlight changes without throwing into question her entire testimony as a whole?

[1] Dan Wotherspoon, “When I Needed It Most,” Sunstone, April 2002 (the essay starts on page 4 of the 6-page file)

[2] In an April 2015 general conference address, Sister Rosemary Wixom referenced a woman going through this process, “My testimony had become like a pile of ashes. It had all burned down. All that remained was Jesus Christ.” The woman was still working to rebuild.