This past Sunday Elder and Sister Renlund participated in a devotional for young single adults (ages 18-30) discussing faith and doubt. Social media and Reddit are alight with the flames of controversy due to some of the language used by the Renlunds to differentiate between questions and doubts; that they suggest doubters seek information only from approved sources; and their equating the LDS Church with a boat into which a drowning man finds help and sustenance, only to see imperfections in the boat, jump out, and probably die from sharks.
This stuff is old hat at this point, isn’t it? I’m not at all surprised that yet another LDS leader suggested those experiencing a changing faith are somehow deficient, insincere, “snake-oil salesmen”, or duped. These are the expected behaviors of an organization which lacks the humility, honesty, and vulnerability to provide adequate pastoral care to those experiencing something critical to the development of a mature faith firmly rooted in God: doubt.
St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish mystic, wrote at length about the “dark night of the soul”, the spiritual crisis one experiences as a key component of one’s journey toward union with God. This dark night spoken of by St. John of the Cross is the death of certainty, self, and all of creation. The loss of certainty can be excruciating; however, it is critical in the journey to union with God, for we naturally come before God carrying biases and certainties about how things should function. These preconceived notions frequently blind us to how God may be speaking to us. They hem God in, so to speak, and must be wiped away in order for us to experience the unmediated love God has for us. It is through this “dark night of the soul” that our biases are stripped away; we no longer rely upon flawed men to mediate our interaction with the Divine. We no longer rely upon an institution, with all of the warts that come of human interaction, and learn to stand on the solid ground of God’s love for us. We learn to stand before God, naked and as a child, stripped of our certainties and hubris, simply open to receiving God’s love. And we learn to let that love shape us.
The problem here isn’t the crisis of faith many members experience, but rather a loss of institutional credibility, and it won’t be regained by telling people to “stay in the boat”, or by demonizing doubt. Doubt isn’t a sign of weakness, but of courage. Those willing to leave the comfort of their bed and step into the dark night, “with no other light or guide than the one that burned in [their] heart”, are brave. It takes faith and courage to take steps when one cannot fully see the path ahead, and faith, in the true sense of the word (i.e., trust), can only be forged alongside doubt.
Helping those who walk in this dark night is the very purpose of Christ’s church – not to provide a set of dogmas to cling to, but rather the spiritual formation and tools to aid in one’s journey to union with God. The sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, along with prayer and communal support, become vehicles for God’s grace to help those in the dark night. The church is a hospital for sinners and those struggling, not a museum of saints. When the church is made into an idol and weaponized against those struggling in doubt, the church has failed in its mission. The way a church responds to doubters is a telltale sign of whether a church is spiritually mature enough to offer tools and help along the journey to union with God.
In short, doubt is a necessary signpost along one’s spiritual journey. It is a “dark night of the soul” because one is letting go of all certainty, which can be terrifying. All must go: ego, bias – all truth claims must be examined. This process can be short or long – we don’t get to control it – and frequently produces fear, doubt, the pain of lost certainty, and even anger; however, with the help of pastoral care geared toward spiritual formation, it can produce humility, love, and a more empathetic disciple at one with God. LDS leaders should embrace the journey and support those walking in the dark night, offering pastoral care commensurate with the struggle. That they consistently fail to do so says more about them than it does those walking in that dark night of the soul.