06 June 2009

Shaken Faith Syndrome

Call For Contributions just below has engendered some good discussion and I hope will provoke more. Craig has read it all and is preparing his response to everyone, so stay tuned there. Thanks to everyone who contributed, and I hope more readers will do so. I particularly invite further comment on the first question, which is whether being gay is a "weakness to be overcome like any other" or whether it is simply a feature of creation.

Some of Craig's statements and the comments in response are the latest reiterations of many, many discussions I've seen and heard for years about how we should see the role of LDS leaders' statements, what constitutes authoritative doctrine, and whether the Church is an all or nothing proposition. I blogged a while back about the All or Nothing approach and why I disagree with it--and think LDS doctrine disagrees with it too.

Some question whether it's worthwhile or even defensible to be gay and remain within a church whose doctrine and policies are so clearly anti-gay. Whether it's intellectually honest to try to rationalize and harmonize one's own self-knowledge with the LDS Church's apparently opposing views. People I respect and have sincere affection for say it's not, that faith isn't a smorgasbord. That's okay. They are thoughtful and sincere and I honor them for that. I happen to have a different view. So forgive me if I advocate it here for a moment.

The 9th Article of Faith tells us we must expect new revelation on more great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God. I understand that to mean that the Church's institutional knowledge and doctrine will always be incomplete, there will always be more to learn. That in turn means that the Church itself and its understandings and teachings are a work in progress. That things not only can but must change and evolve. The history of the Church confirms this time and again.

After the 1978 revelation, Bruce McConkie, to that point one of the staunchest defenders of the racist priesthood policy, was asked to explain his prior statements. His response was basically "Forget what I said, it's been voided." Something I'm sure many members of the Church thought was a fixed, eternal principle--like polygamy?--had been completely upended overnight. And it was clearly in response to growing pressure on the Church and the circumstances it faced as it expanded worldwide. Grassroots efforts within the Church itself also contributed to the change. The Lord tends to speak when He's asked a question or there's a crisis and not before. The revelation on priesthood is a prime example. I think He wants us to learn to figure things out on our own as much as possible. If we're here to start learning how to become like Him, well, nobody tells Him what to do, and He had to learn how to be that way too. Same for us.

So I think there is a place for those of us who choose to remain in the Church and advocate for changes in understanding, to push from the bottom up for greater light and knowledge and tolerance and charity and increased vision on the part of the Church and individual members. Change can be tough but it's inevitable. If you stop, you die. That goes for organizations as well as people.

This can be difficult. An honest good faith continuing search for new knowledge and understanding presents the risk that one's beliefs may be seriously challenged, even severely shaken. Nobody welcomes the prospect of learning that they may have been mistaken, not the Church, not any of us. This has happened to me, and I don't like it any more than the next person. Everyone is at a different point on their path. I judge no one, criticize no one, condemn no one because of their belief or the nature of their faith. Certainly my own knowledge is fallible and far from complete and I would not presume to judge others in that regard. If I hope for charity myself I must extend it to all first.

All that understood, the wise and prescient Hugh Brown said (quoted over there to the left) that we should "be unafraid of new ideas for they are as stepping stones to progress." That's easy to say, hard to do. If we discover that something we trusted before wasn't accurate, or was incomplete, we naturally become skeptical about other things from the same source. I'm that way and have said so. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

In that overall context, let me highly recommend to you, gentle reader, that you have a look at this, one of the best discussions I've seen in a long time about this very issue of either/or, all or nothing, what to do when your faith is shaken or you encounter something that seriously challenges what you always believed, how to distinguish between solid official doctrine and non-binding opinion, the role and nature of personal responsibility and individual revelation in a very hierarchical Church that stresses conformity, and the paradoxes that can sometimes arise in sorting all that out. Though not specifically presented as such, a lot of the discussion there is directly relevant to how we individually and the Church collectively deal with How God Views Gays and figure out how we fit into His plan and His church.


Ned said...

Question for Alan and/or Craig. What is Stage 3? And what is very Stage 3?

Quiet Ponderings said...

I really liked this post

Alan said...


"Stage 3" refers to one of the stages of faith described by James Fowler, developmental psychologist at Candler School of Theology. Very perceptive. Just Google "Fowler stages of faith" and click on the first link you get, that'll tell you everything about it. But basically, the stages are these:

* Stage 0 – "Primal or Undifferentiated" faith (birth to 2 years), is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (ie. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse).

* Stage 1 – "Intuitive-Projective" faith (ages of three to seven), is characterized by the psyche's unprotected exposure to the Unconscious.

* Stage 2 – "Mythic-Literal" faith (mostly in school children), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic.

* Stage 3 – "Synthetic-Conventional" faith (arising in adolescence) characterized by conformity

* Stage 4 – "Individuative-Reflective" faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for their beliefs and feelings.

* Stage 5 – "Conjunctive" faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems

* Stage 6 – "Universalizing" faith, or what some might call "enlightenment".

Fowler says that it's common for people to arrive at Stage 3 and never leave it. Much of cultural Utah Mormondom fits there. Hence the remark.

Casey said...

I would add to what Alan said on Stage Three:

It's a stage in which people view faith, religion and gospel as black and white. Everything can be neatly labeled "good" or "bad". Stage Three places a large amount of trust in authority figures.

To quote Fowler, "It is a 'conformist' stage in the sense that it is acutely tuned to the expectations and judgments of significant others and as yet does not have a sure enough grasp on its own identity and autonomous judgment to construct and maintain an independent perspective."

Alan said, "Much of cultural Utah Mormondom fits there." To be fair, being stuck at Stage Three is not a uniquely Utah Mormon phenomenon, but percentage wise it seems to most often congregate amongst them, at least among Mormons. I see it coupled very closely with Group Think.

In terms of homosexuality, a Stage Three person would instantly label it "bad" and then reject outright both homosexuality and homosexuals.

My comment was that a typical Stage Three stance is that everything said from the General Conference pulpit is to be taken literally as scripture and is not open to debate or personal interpretation.

Movement from Stage Three to Stage Four, as I understand it, often begins when we awake to the painful reality that our beloved authority figures are sometimes wrong, that the world and the Gospel has shades of gray, and that being accepted by the majority is not the most important thing in life.

When this realization is made, we become open to a wider degree of ideas, philosophies and points of view.

Reading Fowler has given me vocabulary to describe the wide range of open mindedness and acceptance that exists within the church. Some people seem so ready to condemn anything that does not fit into their tidy view of religion, and others seem so willing and even excited to learn new ideas. The latter types most certainly, I've noticed, seem to care so little about what people think of them, and being part of the "crowd" just does not matter.

It's fascinating.