I’m starting to think that we are using the wrong terminology to discuss doubts, both within the church and in the bloggernacle. The term “faith crisis” is often used when someone’s doubts create cognitive dissonance for them to the point that they aren’t sure they should stay in the church. Folks like Greg Prince and Adam Miller refer to a new focus on faith when people experience doubts, a reframing referred to as “New Mormonism”; this is not a movement, but a description of how an individual moves forward when confronted with doubts.
In a talk entitled “Come Join With Us,” an invitation for even those who experience faith crises to participate in the church, Pres. Uchtdorf made the statement:
“Before you doubt your faith, doubt your doubts.”
This statement was either taken as a wise caution not to go from one certainty to an opposite certainty (my view) or as circular logic (majority opinion among the disaffected) or possibly something in between.
As Derek Lee blogged at Rational Faiths:
It’s easy to tell someone to choose faith in the face of doubt when you don’t even understand what’s causing those doubts in the first place, but it’s not very helpful. Judging by the negative interpretations people have offered to the “doubt your doubts” line, a lot of people have been receiving a lot of unhelpful advice.
This is a valid criticism, if not of Pres. Uchtdorf’s intended message, of the ways in which his talk has been used by some members as a cudgel against doubters, as if the advice he gave is to set aside one’s own experiences in favor of someone else’s (church leaders? the “faithful”?) superior judgement and experiences.
I was recently listening to a Maxwell Institute podcast in which Blair Hodges interviews Peter Enns, author of The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our Correct Beliefs. His book is written for those who are already engaged in a faith tradition but who find themselves doubting, which as he sees it is every Christian who has ever lived. What’s valuable in his exploration is the concept that faith and belief(s) are two separate things, and that this distinction is seldom understood by both doubters and non-doubters. To put it another way, a “faith” crisis is not doubting one’s faith, but doubting one’s beliefs, and that’s a whole different ball of wax.
Beliefs include a lot of different things, some examined, some unexamined. A belief is
- an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.
- trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something.
Peter Enns points out that most of us are referring to the first definition when we experience a faith crisis, but that the second type of belief (which is faith) doesn’t need to be collateral damage just because we discard a specific belief we have previously held. Changing our opinion on various facts or statements doesn’t negate the existence of God or that there are things that are beyond our experience or understanding. Rather than a “faith crisis,” doubts arise because we discover that we don’t believe something that we had previously not given much thought to, something we sort of took for granted as a fact or worldview. Maybe we should call it a belief crisis.
What Is a Belief?
This reminded me of a leadership development training I did several years ago about questioning our assumptions. Because of the focus on “authentic” leadership, one of the key themes in leadership training for the last 20 years has been to strip away dysfunctional behaviors that impede our ability to relate to one another or to solve complex problems. One of those dysfunctions is when we operate under unquestioned assumptions, some of which are harmful to us personally (e.g. can cause negative relationship patterns or self-harming thoughts) or to the organizations we lead (e.g. can prevent progress or creativity).
- We are void of beliefs at birth.
- As we grow up, we will do whatever we think we must do for air, food, water & love.
- Some beliefs empower us; some disempower us. Some beliefs are based on invalid perceptions.
- People will always act in a manner consistent with their beliefs.
- We become what we believe to be true about ourselves.
- We forget the origin of our beliefs over time.
In religious terms, everyone is raised in some type of framework, whether that is a religious framework or not, a Christian one, a superstitious one, etc., and adhering to that framework is a safe place for the child whereas rejecting it is unsafe and can result in rejection. The parental perspective or that of the authorities in the community is the one that holds the cards. Behaviors are acceptable within defined parameters in that framework or culture. Children seldom question the framework or culture; they operate within its bounds to ensure their own safety and needs.
A graphic from the training shows how our beliefs are internalized, how they exist in the mind using an iceberg as a metaphor.
- The visible iceberg represents our awareness, our stated beliefs, the things we are conscious of believing or the way we articulate our feelings, values and beliefs.
- The waterline is our mind, which creates rules & articulates our fears based on our underlying subconscious.
- Below the water is the realm of our subconscious: our experiences, the sensory data we have received in response to our interactions with the world, our fears and hopes, memories of verbal conversations with others, snippets of wisdom, etc.
- All of these things are used by the mind as evidence supporting our fears, rules and beliefs.
Because we are largely unaware of the reasons for our beliefs, since they originate in childhood, our statements of belief are not always an accurate representation of what’s really going on with us. As Haidt puts it, we are the rider on the elephant trying to explain why the elephant goes where it goes, but we aren’t really in control of the elephant. So it is with our beliefs. We don’t know why we believe the things we believe. We forget the origin.
The next part of the training goes on to talk about how fears keep us locked in a comfort zone:
- Fears result from criticism, emotionalized “DON’T” messages, and inhibitive behavior patterns.
- Fear of rejection starts in childhood with the perception of “conditional” love.
- Children crave unconditional love and physical contact.
- All success in life depends on our belief and positive self-concept.
- Negative self-image beliefs occur when we perceive ourselves being rejected or loved “conditionally.”
- Perceptions of lack of love create dysfunctional emotions such as blame, fear, hurt, sadness, self-pity, depression, greed, anger, anxiety, guilt, and jealousy.
- Our behaviors are driven by our beliefs. New beliefs create new behaviors.
When it comes to religion, unfortunately, we all get enamored with the idea of having correct beliefs. We have confidence in our answers rather than humility that we don’t understand everything. Without humility we never feel the need to trust in God. We are proud of our beliefs, standing up for them against people who don’t share them rather than seeking to understand and love others. We are willing to fight to the death for the rightness of our beliefs, to kill people for our opinions, not realizing that many of them are based on things we didn’t fully understand. Knowing a thing, believing we know a thing, creates a heuristic that leads to pride and elitism.
Sometimes doubt is just an exchange of old beliefs for new certainties. That doesn’t mean that the old beliefs were more correct than the new ones. That just means that when we get stuck on the idea of correct beliefs, the infatuation with certainty and being right, faith is the casualty. Being certain is the dysfunction, the sin.
From Peter Enns’ book:
Watching certainty slide into uncertainty is frightening. Our beliefs provide a familiar structure to our messy lives. They give answers to our big questions of existence: Does God exist? Is there a right religion? Why are we here? How do I handle suffering and tragedy? What happens to us when we die? What am I here for? Answering these questions provides our lives with meaning and coherence by reining in the chaos.
When familiar answers to those questions are suddenly carried away, like stray balloons at a county fair, we understandably want to chase after them to get them back.
What Is Faith?
I have pointed out elsewhere that when church leaders use the term “faith” they nearly always mean “trust.” They don’t mean a set of beliefs or of creeds or statements or a worldview. But in our testimony meetings, we nearly always do talk about a set of beliefs or how we “know” our worldview is right or better than others’.
ENNS: The word believe in the New Testament is the same word that’s used for faith in the New Testament.
HODGES: Is this pistis?
ENNS: Pistis, yeah. And a much better way—I’d say a default way of looking at those words. When you see the word believe or faith, put trust in there and see what it does because that’s pretty typically what that word means. . . .
. . . Believing in God—that sometimes has wiggle room for us. Trusting God—there’s no wiggle room involved at all. And that’s why I think the Bible talks about it so much. So having beliefs isn’t wrong. But what God cares more about is trusting God and not having these beliefs that we line up that we play games with.
When he talks about playing games with our beliefs, he’s referring to the dysfunctional behaviors that stem from too much focus on being right, things like blaming, keeping score, hypocrisy, pride, elitism, and so on–which are all the opposite of trusting God. They are specifically about not trusting God, about creating a safety net for ourselves in case God can’t be trusted and so that we aren’t vulnerable to others in our faith community.
The Role of Doubt
Dr. Enns makes a provocative statement in the podcast:
doubt is not the opposite of faith—certainty is the opposite of faith
But the point is rather obvious when you think about it. What makes a trust fall work is that you do have the queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach that you don’t know it will work, and you recognize that you are not in control. When religion feels like we are in control, like we just need to check the boxes and all will be well in Zion, we aren’t actually operating under faith. We are just momentarily lucky. Enns refers to our luck running out or a “faith crisis” as “uh oh” moments:
See, and that’s when things happen to people, if they’re raised in that mentality, they’re going to look at these “uh-oh” moments as almost entirely negative. But I think people who might have been raised differently as Christians—to just let it be and you don’t have to be have omniscient perfect knowledge to be a Christian. You can have doubts. I think they’re more set up, actually, to be more flexible maybe when these things happen. And actually at some point, maybe with the encouragement of good friends and family members, to—”where is God in all this?” and then to move forward with that.
The problem isn’t in the “uh oh” moment itself or the faith crisis, but in two things that Enns discusses: our own brittleness (or our need to be right) and the inability of our faith communities to be a safe place to discuss setbacks, doubt and ambiguity. Of our own inability to deal with our lost beliefs constructively, he talks about two different dysfunctions: throwing it all out or refusing to throw out what doesn’t work:
We tend to think of our faith as a body of truth that we hold to intellectually. And I think real faith is much deeper than that, actually. It’s about trusting God—which is the subtitle—trusting God more than holding on to correct beliefs. Because trusting is more difficult, I think, than having a set of beliefs. It’s easy to construct a system of thinking and you can keep that together for a very long time. Now, eventually, life happens, and then what happens with that faith system? You start questioning it or even worse, you ignore what’s happening to you and you just keep playing a game like it’s okay.
Like a boyfriend or girlfriend who really isn’t good for you and a jerk, but you keep making believe like the relationship is really working well. . .
It’s like playing make believe and I don’t think God wants us to play make believe. So we move forward in an attitude of trust in God rather than feeling like we have to be certain about everything, because often times we’re not.
And “weak faith” is usually equated with doubting. And I simply don’t think that’s the case. I think doubt is part of the journey of faith. It’s part of what actually helps us grow, I think. Because I think it’s hard to have genuine faith in God and trust God when everything is always working smoothly. It’s the pain and the suffering, I think, that move us to a closer sense of feeling God’s presence in our lives.
This concept that things working smoothly is a problem reminds me of the idea that
Fleshing out the concept that our Christian communities can actually dissolve faith faster than our own doubts do, when some church members turn on others from a place of fear:
HODGES: Another one you talked about is “when Christians eat their own.” This is something else that respondents to your survey talked about as an obstacle to their faith.
ENNS: It’s a big one. And it’s the only one that we can actually control. I’ve known over the years many Christians who have functionally left any sort of semblance of the Christian faith because of how they were treated by other Christians—especially Christians in power whether in churches or elsewhere. And yeah, I mean, that just reminds me of how community oriented the Christian faith is. It’s not individualistic. You actually need people, and you can see the face of God in others, when you love other people and they love you God’s presence is with you. But the other side of that is when there’s just plain old pettiness and meanness and politicking and slander and—I’m not exaggerating, really trying to ruin people’s lives in the name of Jesus. And that makes people say, they’re just, “I’m going to walk away from this.” Now, you might think that’s illogical because they don’t represent the Christian faith and I think that way too. Like I don’t want people like that to define what I think about the Christian faith.
But still, when you’re caught in the middle of those kinds of things, it’s a reminder to me of how powerful the notion of Christian community is. And it can make or break it. And that’s Paul’s big thing, in my opinion. Like in Romans, for example, it’s about the community of believers of Jews and Gentiles together as one, because if you don’t do that, if you can’t pull that off, you’re demonstrating that the gospel simply doesn’t work, right?
Where We Get Off Track
Unfortunately, within Mormonism, we really do often conflate a belief (a “fact” or statement of worldview) with faith in our use of the word “testimony.” A “testimony” is a witness statement in which we share our beliefs, often with an explanation of the evidence (experiences, memories, feelings) that have led us to conclude we have a correct belief. And proving that we have correct beliefs is antithetical to faith, as the Zoramites illustrated with their prayers at the Rameumptom from Alma 31:
15 Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever.
16 Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children; and also thou hast made it known unto us that there shall be no Christ.
17 But thou art the same yesterday, today, and forever; and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God.
Their prayer is entirely about the “correctness” of their beliefs, particularly as contrasted with the wrong beliefs of others. We may recognize this attitude from occasional LDS testimonies that poke fun at other faiths’ silly traditions or that tout our own beliefs as the best ones or the most true. We even hear shades of this when people decry the values of the world as if we don’t in fact live in and shape the values of our communities.
Faith exists beyond the borders of our knowing, in the realm of what we don’t fully understand but we trust. When confidence moves to certainty, we’ve overshot the mark. The mark is trust in God, trust that there are things bigger and wiser than we are, that there are greater things out there than we can imagine, that our limited beliefs aren’t the sum total of existence. If God exists, he’s greater than the box we try to put him in. Knowing that we can’t know is the beginning of faith which is why doubt is the beginning and not the end of faith. 
Maybe we should drop the term “faith crisis” altogether. We should emerge from questioned assumptions with a renewed sense of our own imperfect understanding, a newfound humility and awe, more curiosity and wonder, and the freedom that comes from letting go of dysfunctional behaviors like blaming and shaming, pride and elitism, rather than feeling boastful of our new set of “correct” beliefs. If that’s where we end up, we are really just in the same place we started.
 Not just religion, of course, but also politics and life in general.
 Enns readily admits that his book is for people who are already wrestling within a framework of belief in God and as such isn’t the book to convince an atheist. From the transcript:
HODGES: In fact, one of the big themes of the book is, one of the reasons we shouldn’t rely on certainty is precisely because of our limited ability to understand things. . . But some people want to turn that into—”you don’t need to study stuff. You don’t need to think about stuff.”
ENNS: Yeah. I mean ironically it’s this studying stuff and thinking about the stuff that has led me to this point of view [chuckles]. It’s listening and reading voices through the ages who have thought about this too and have come to certain conclusions about “what does it mean to have faith in God?”
And remember too, the book is written for people who are in some context of faith. I mean if somebody comes to me and says, “Well, you have to give me a reason to believe in anything.” I say, “Well, okay. Maybe I haven’t.” That’s another book, that’s another idea, that’s another conversation entirely—
. . .This is for people who are struggling with faith—which is frankly most Christians that I know—and saying “it’s okay.” [laughs] . . . I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m saying it’s okay. You’re not broken, you don’t need to be fixed. You’re not a sub-Christian. You’re not a tier below “super Christians” who have their act together, because they don’t. And if they think they do, they’re not as honest with themselves as you are.