Experiencing Groundlessness in a Faith Transition

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Many people have as their main defense of Mormonism is that it gives them purpose and meaning. “The church is good or useful for me so I stay.” Those who find it useful may or may not be all in believers, they might or might not drink deeply of the kool-aid. We each have a fundamental desire for the answers the church gives. The church teaches us to become reliant on having answers though, on having certainty, on having a purpose and a meaning for our own life. We have this desire and the church fills that void. The church also, by the way, gives us many of these questions and issues in the first place, and then in the same breath gives the answers and solutions

We’ve all heard the testimony on the first Sunday of the month when someone mentions that they “don’t know where I’d be without the Gospel”. This idea that without the church in our lives, without being mormon, we’d end up being drug dealing prostitutes who go around thieving and murdering. Why do we suppose this? Well, they suppose why not? Belonging to the church is how we make decisions and create meaning in our life. We wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves if we didn’t have that meaning or the guidelines (rules) to live by. We are taught that the gospel is our meaning and our meaning is the gospel. That it is the One way to live and the True way to live. The only meaning we can derive from our life is via the gospel and the church. God gives us life and the reason he did was for us to progress eternally to become like him. We are after all his children, right? The purpose is built into the doctrines, there is no other purpose and no other meaning that can be found in that paradigm. That without this meaning we derive from the plan we’re taught in church that we wouldn’t have one. That the great mysteries of god are wrapped up in our grand purpose. That our individual purposes must match the threefold mission of the church. We must lose ourselves in services of proclaiming the gospel (missionary work), perfecting the saints (member work) and redeeming the dead (temple work). The trouble is, in order to lose ourself we must first have a self. We are as mormons, are perhaps stunted in our individual development. We are so absorbed by the culture and the expectations that we don’t develop as individuals in some key aspects. Which makes losing ourselves in the work a bit of a redundancy. Because we haven’t even been allowed to become ourselves, we’ve neglected our own self because it’s the “natural man” and by doing this we are submitting to the Lord or the Brethren or being meek and humble.

A common “plan of salvation” diagram – it contributes to teachings that our meaning and purpose is predetermined and handed to us as part of the teachings of the church.

Challenging our thoughts on the church and thinking critically is a very uncomfortable proposition though, because our identity is so wrapped up in being mormon! All our friends, or social circle, our beliefs, thought processes, family relations, our marriages, our parenting philosophies, political leanings, our very own sense of purpose and meaning is tied to and coming from the church. We struggle to do more than “doubt our doubts” because doubting our faith or our church is so catastrophic to our world! It derails how we view the world, our place in it and how we make sense of our own existence with any meaning. It can derail why we wake up every morning, if we are no longer certain about God’s plan for us being all neatly wrapped into a flipchart worthy diagram. It leads many to throw up their hands and simply accept the status quo. That, after all, is much easier and much less revolutionary, it’s really a sense of security and comfort and self-preservation.

These are issues and questions that many people (those not indoctrinated by religions that claim to have all the answers) have grown up pondering and coming to terms with and even finding their own meaning in life. Mormons though are given sanitized sunday school answers to every question so we don’t have to wonder, we don’t have to sit in that discomfort, we don’t have to sweat it out, ever. We know this, we have a list of “primary answers” that will really suffice to answer nearly every question ever asked in Sunday School or Primary classes. Does this mean the questions are meaningless or that the answers are? Is it really possible that the simple answers of “read your scriptures & pray” will answer everything? Not really, that’s how we overloaded our shelves in the first place. These aren’t answers. They are just there to give us a sense of security in our certainty. A false security though, and that’s why it’s so hard when it all comes crashing down. Sometimes we may face a difficult time, a loss of a loved one or a devastating trial, but we’re encouraged to look at the bright side and think what God is trying to teach us in the hard moment, trust in him and his plan and keep going. Sometimes it works and keeps us “in the boat”, sometimes it becomes something to put on the shelf, and sometimes it breaks us.

I can’t keep calm, I’m having a mid-life crisis.

The Crumbling Wall

Along the lines of the mormon shelf analogy, here’s another. Consider that your testimony, the Gospel or even the church is a large building made with a strong foundation and all the stones are solid and firm. At least that’s what the last official inspector told us and we trust them. Over time we hear rumors of cracks in some of the bricks or even some of the foundation. We can disregard these as the inspector assures us that it is very sound, as they show us the certificate of soundness.

Eventually we examine part of the wall closely on our own. Perhaps we’re preparing for a lesson, or researching something after an uncomfortable discussion with a friend, or even after a youtube video or dreaded podcast episode that discussed a crack. We look closer on our own – no longer content to trust the certificate and the good feeling that we get when we consider if the structure is stable and true. Upon investigation, we find that indeed there is a crack in the stone. We even find a couple cracks in a couple bricks. But overall, we know the wall is sturdy, it is still standing after all. As our investigation continues out of honest concern, we are continually promised that cracks have been sealed up and repaired. The cracks are so old that they don’t represent the current structure anyways. In practice, the building is fine and working perfectly.

Cracks emerge as we look closer.

Taking courage you continue investigating each brick in hopes that if you find any cracks or holes that you can even help repair them! You find that it’s not just a few stones or bricks, or even one section, but all throughout nearly every single brick is flawed in some way: cracks, crumblings, holes, etc. Mortar is missing, blocks are even missing when you begin to look closer. It’s as if by looking closer and focusing on the validity of the structure, the actual foundation and solid structure vanishes like a mirage and the bricks and blocks and stones crumble to the ground. This moment here is the breaking of the shelf, the crumbling of the testimony, the spiral of a faith crisis. It’s no longer useful to doubt your doubts. The doubts are not the cause of the crumbling, they are only the excuse we needed to look closer. We can doubt our doubts, but not what they have taught us, what they show us still. We really doubt the certificate of soundness, and in turn the inspectors who wrote it as well as anyone involved in certifying that it was all sound.

Circular reasoning: “I know the church is true because the church told me so”.

The walls are not stable, they never were stable, we were only told it was stable, we were gullible enough to be made to believe it was stable. We were made to believe it by those who claimed the authority to claim it thus. Did they have authority to state a wall as structurally sound? They say they did and who are we to question their circular reasoning. We wanted to believe it though, we allowed ourselves to be fooled. Believing fills a deep desire that we as humans each have. We want to be in control, to understand, to have purpose and meaning, to really know why we’re here and where we’re going after. Believing also fills a deep human, hard wired need for connection and belonging. For kids especially, when this is all developing, that need for “fitting in” with your family literally feels like life and death.

The honest truth is we don’t know! That’s why it’s called believing, and not knowing. Or wait… many actually call it knowing. We really don’t KNOW! But to have the false expectation that we really do know is misleading and can be damaging. We end up with a strong reliance and trust in this structure which turns out to be unstable at best. It crumbles and leaves us without our habitual comfort and certainty. This leaves us in complete shock as we experience our literal world collapse.

What was once a certified sound structure becomes rubble once we look even closer.

After this shock wears off, we then must rebuild, if we choose to. We must inspect every one of these bricks and determine if it is itself fit or stable for us. Can we trust it. We have learned the hard way to be incredibly skeptical and test things thoroughly. We’ve been taught to rely on something that is unreliable. Can we rely on anything? Hopefully, yet slowly, we find we can rely on some things and we work to reconstruct our own structure – even using some of the existing bricks, the ones that are not crumbled to dust. But we rely on our own authority to know the difference.

If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be eliminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. This is the first step on the path. – Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

This groundlessness we experience is hard at the time, but also can fuel an awakening. There is a trend even to call a faith crisis a gift, an experience that helps us develop ourselves. It’s hard to imagine in the moment of crisis, but with time and much effort this is true. How have you experienced the groundlessness? How did the groundlessness affect you or make you feel? Have you managed to rebuild from the ashes yet? What have you salvaged from the rubble? Please share your own story and add it to the growing repository.

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