We’ve recently learned that Richard Bushman and Fiona and Terryl Givens will be presenting a series of seminars or lectures on managing doubt and crises of faith. In a way, we can see nearly all of their scholarly work on Mormonism devoted in some sense to this topic. I’ve read most of their work and have been privileged at various times to work under them and with them as a graduate student. Consequently, I think I might have some sense of what they might discuss, though I’m anxious to hear and weigh the details. I don’t always agree with them, but I think it’s certain that they are among the best exemplars of faithful people trying to sincerely negotiate, reconcile, and do justice to the various worlds they live and move in (academic, religious, familial, etc).
I’ll admit to being hopeful, though, that they speak of the importance of a certain kind of crisis of faith. Because I think part of the essence of faith within a religious life is a confrontation with just such a crisis. Of course, there are many crises of faith and various sources that produce these crises, but here I want to argue that 1) not all crises of faith are equally significant (or equally devastating); and 2) not all crises of faith are properly religious crises, or maybe better said, not all crises of faith are faithful crises. I want to be extremely careful though, in being sensitive to anyone who has undergone what they consider to be a crisis of faith. I doubt I’ll entirely succeed; not everyone (maybe not even most readers) will resonate with this, and the last thing I intend is to deny anyone the reality of their experience. This is, however, something I feel strongly about, since the struggle with faith and doubt is one I am very familiar with. Hopefully we can bear with one another.
First, a little background. I think religion has done a poor job (at least since the Enlightenment) of producing crisis. That sounds backwards, initially; shouldn’t religion be a response to crisis? Doesn’t crisis occur in the first place because one is not living his or her religion authentically in the first place, and when he or she begins to do so, things will right themselves? My answer is no. Here’s why.
Post-Enlightenment (and even pre-Enlightenment but for different reasons), religion (at least in the West) has largely been unable to provide a space for genuine religious crisis. And that is precisely what it is supposed to do–reveal the genuine crises produced by its own founding. In Christianity, this is Christ’s Word of Abandonment on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” This is both the culmination of and the heart of Christianity’s stake in the world, that the divine cries out for the divine and finds it absent; even worse, abandoned. This is the ultimate religious crisis, that irrevocable belief (belief that you cannot simply pick up or put down) runs directly into an absent God, one that seemed to be everywhere when things were going well and made sense, but in the midst of suffering appears to have fled. The Enlightenment exiled religion to the wilderness (a bit of tit for tat, really, since religion had done some nasty things itself) and the only way religion could survive was by aping its oppressors. Hence, the defining threads of religion moved from an ontology of absence/presence, tragedy, doubt, love, and hope, to epistemology (knowledge), value, certainty. This wasn’t a wholly negative thing. The Enlightenment blessed and cursed the world in a number of ways, but concerning religion specifically and positively the rise of modernity made it possible to focus on objective religious commonalities instead of going to war over divisive revelations. It also became possible for religious practitioners (not unproblematically) to simultaneously affirm revelation and the intellect, faith and reason, philosophy and theology, the sacred and the secular (much better than burning heretics at the stake). Modernity was important for our cultural maturation. But religion, in essence, became a comfort-factory, a solution to the alienation of life rather than an embodiment of it. Now religion would largely be reduced to a utilitarian tool: something otherworldly and transcendent make us feel good about ourselves, produce happiness and comfort, be the solution to a problem (corrupted agency and suffering). But the original heart of religion, of Christianity, was blood and mud contact with the intense realities of the world, grounded theologically in tragedy and suffering, exemplified in injunctions of vulnerability centered on the realization of a never-ending need for others and to reach out to others in turn. Christianity landed like a hydrogen bomb in its founding figure’s final words, a lament-cry of doubt and longing that offered no comfort or hope before death silenced him. (Even Christ’s resurrection would be a singular event, an event that the rest of humanity is still waiting to experience). That was truly radical, a crisis in a purely religious sense, and one that would shake the earth and change the world forever.
Of course, there have been crises of faith from the beginning, and that is precisely the point–Jesus’ final words reveal his own crisis of faith, a crisis that still resonates in shared sorrow with believers. Post-Enlightenment, however, we see a different kind of crisis appear on the scene. It isn’t the existential crisis of presence and absence, but the epistemological crisis of knowledge and value. So understandably people across the board experience severe dissonance because of irreconcilable narratives (historical, moral, axiological) and difficulty justifying religious claims to knowledge except through subjectivity, (in that particularly hopeless binary relationship with objectivity) all of which is part of the Enlightenment inheritance of science (in its objectivity, abstractness, and a-historicalness) as the only legitimate discourse. These are genuine crises, but my argument is that they are not authentically religious crises because they are of different natures–they are crises of historical narrative, crises of knowledge, crises of value. Religion certainly has elements of all of these, but the heart of the power of its founding narrative–the crucified, tragic Christ, encountering the human experience in the most intimate, forlorn, and brutal way imaginable–is not pierced by these particular crises. The crisis of the absent God is the genuine religious crisis. But religion instead has become divided factional ideologies or the equivalent of therapeutic focus groups instead of shared suffering and anguish in the face of our own death, and the meanings we derive out of that. This is why Kierkegaard insisted that his task as a religious author was to make things harder for Christians not easier, to create difficulties everywhere. One is not a Christian, one only always is in the process of becoming a Christian, and religion in Kierkegaard’s time to the present has largely offered us a religious identity without genuine spiritual struggle, and without a confrontation with existential lament. Kierkegaard’s aim was to produce the genuine crisies that EVERYONE must undergo to become true Christians (or Mormons, as the case may be). Everyone should undergo a faith crisis, not simply treat it as if it is a disease to be avoided or eradicated if necessary. The question is what kind of faith crisis are we undergoing? And contemporary Christianity in general and Mormonism in particular have frankly not been very effective in producing this kind of crisis, or in other words, revealing the crisis at the heart of its own narrative.
Now, to the extent that crises of knowledge and value are the crises people are nevertheless experiencing, they should certainly be addressed and explored, and given full weight of attention. They are products both of our problematic Enlightenment inheritance, and the ways we’ve chosen to express out faith narratives, as birthed in the language of this inheritance but then directly opposing it. Nevertheless, where is the genuinely Christ(ian) focus? On shared suffering. On alienation. On tragedy–as genuinely tragic. Yes, there is a resurrection–but not yet. While we live anchored to this earth we live always in the shadow of that Not Yet. But we need to be more aware of the crucial necessity of making a space, both individually and in community, for that universal lament, to the soul-shaking familiarity of that “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Our faith must become that which unsettles us, breaks us open in love so that the work of togetherness can finally, at long last, commence and the invisibility of Zion can become the exception and not the rule. Genuine acceptance of that lament is not a loss of faith but the very beginning of it. Should production of this kind of crisis be our religion’s work of love, in which we finally see how desperately we need one another and how desperately God wants us to need one another, other crises will dwindle and lose their strength by comparison.
And for those not yet encountering a crisis of faith, your work, and thus your love, has not yet begun.