Home » Mormonism » More on Mattsson and Historical Faith Crises

More on Mattsson and Historical Faith Crises

I don’t have much to say regarding the recent New York Times article that seems to have blown up in the Bloggernacle.  First, the article is far inferior to much of what has already been said in the Bloggernacle about faith crises.  The only thing notable about it is that it was featured in the New York Times, and also features a Area Authority’s faith crisis (a Seventy named Hans Mattsson).  However, the actual information is something that Mormons have known all too well ever since the beginning of the Internet era, and we’ve written millions of words about it since.

I think there have already been some good faithful responses to the NYT article, for instance, By Common Consent’s suggestions on inoculating members and improving the curriculum.  I think it was a really good article, again, not because it was necessarily novel (who in the Bloggernacle, or even in CES, doesn’t think the curriculum needs to be improved?) but because it was a single, coherent statement of the problems and solutions to the curriculum without bashing the Correlation Committee over the head.  It’s an easily digestible nugget that faithful and conservative members would likely agree with.

Similarly, the NYT article has prompted The Mormon History Guy, Russell Stevenson, to post a couple articles in response.  Stevenson, a close friend of mine and a brilliant scholar, just published an extremely interesting book on Elijah Ables, a black man whom Joseph Smith ordained to the priesthood, and the related history of blacks in the LDS church.  His blog seems to be oriented towards faithful members who want to explore Mormon History, and people who question the church, in a fair way, but it is more faithful in orientation than other efforts (like John Dehlin’s).

During Joseph Smith’s time, those who left the church were cast as the ultimate demons and traitors.  They were apostates and Sons of Perdition – those who had seen the light and rejected it, worthy of outer darkness.  I think that narrative still exists in Mormonism, but has somewhat softened over the years.  A second narrative was in full force when I was young:  those who leave Mormonism want to sin.  Their spiritual eyes have been darkened by a desire for [alcohol, sin, pornography, etc.].  Luckily, people are discovering that this narrative isn’t always fair or accurate either.  These two narratives are really just labels that help Mormons deal with their own discomfort upon seeing people leave.

Now, Stevenson, the NYT, John Dehlin, Michael Ash, FAIR, the Bloggernacle, and others are introducing a new exit narrative:  historical faith crisis.  Mormons everywhere are discovering troubling things about the Church via the Internet, and this makes them feel betrayed, hurt, shattered, etc.  When they go to priesthood leaders, family, friends, or Mormon apologetic sources, they find rejection, misunderstandings, and bad answers.  Feeling bitter and outcast, these members leave the LDS church (but they don’t “leave it alone,” since this poor treatment causes many of them to become those infamous anti-Mormons).  In fact, many people use this narrative to describe their own experience, including several who visit this blog.

However, I am still wondering whether this narrative is a fair or accurate way of describing what is actually happening.  Now I’ll be the first to admit that maybe I’m not sympathetic to this narrative because it’s not how I’d describe myself, or perhaps because, as a psychology student who leans towards Behaviorism I am always trying to collapse vague abstractions into more concrete things.  But to me, there are problems with the faith crisis narrative.  First, it glosses over individual differences.  Not everyone who leaves characterizes their journey as a crisis.

But more importantly, to me, the question is whether that many people are actually having “historical faith crises.”  The NYT article seems to imply that the fact that this happened to a Seventy shows that this is a grassroots problem that is climbing higher and higher among the ranks of the LDS church.  But is that true?  General Authorities have left the LDS church before.  “But wait, what about John Dehlin’s army of minions who filled out his survey, and all the people in comment boxes on Deseret News articles?  What about the DAMU and all the anti-Mormon websites out there?  What about the fact that the Church isn’t growing like it used to?  What about the fact that they are recruiting younger missionaries and restructuring the whole missionary program?  Aren’t these all pieces of evidence that this is a real thing?”

Well, perhaps.  Or it could be that online ex-Mormon communities give us a biased sample, that John Dehlin’s “exit narratives” survey and Mormon Stories were constructing exit narratives for people who already needed one, or that few churches can sustain massive inflationary growth for two centuries without some restructuring, rebuilding, and course correction.

But mostly I think the “historical faith crisis” is just a reification of a normal process of learning and growing for many people.  The fact that we use the term crisis implies that those who learn things about the history of the Church necessarily go through some painful battle.  But aren’t there Mormons out there who simply learn about Mormonism, live it faithfully, but then find something better and move on?  Or they read the history of Mormonism on both sides, and simply decide that, on the balance, Mormonism probably isn’t true?  And they experience rough spots along the way with family members and apologetics, etc. but these are all just “growing pains” that eventually resolve themselves as people go along?  Many people leave many religions all the time and don’t refer to this process as a “crisis.”  As I’ve learned more and more about Orthodoxy, Mormonism seemed less and less plausible/true/useful and Orthodoxy seemed beautiful, dazzling, exciting, and above all true.  Is that a crisis?  Not to me.

So I’m not denying that leaving the church is painful for many ex-Mormons, but I also think that the “historical faith crisis” narrative is limited, because now it’s just another convenient label – not just for ex-Mormons to label themselves with, but also for Mormons to use to label those who leave.  Isn’t it possible that Mormons have an emotional need to characterize leaving the church as a crisis?  Could it be that the idea of people simply leaving without experiencing some kind of major emotional upheaval is unacceptable to Mormons?  These are just some reflections I’ve had in response to all these articles.

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10 thoughts on “More on Mattsson and Historical Faith Crises

  1. Just to preempt others, the person mentioned in the NYT article was an Area Seventy, and was therefore an Area Authority, not a General Authority (since only members of the first two Quorums of the Seventy, along with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and First Presidency, are considered GAs).

  2. I think it’s easier to leave Mormonism (or whatever) for something else that roughly fills the same hole in one’s life. On the other hand, if a faithful Mormon unexpectedly discovers the shaky historical ground on which his faith stands, and suddenly finds himself losing faith, then he is like a man staring over a cliff with nothing to catch his fall in more ways than one. I would imagine that this is typically a very unsettling experience.

    Syphax, if I may be frank, if you find yourself smoothly transitioning from a sincere Mormonism to a sincere Orthodoxy then that is a great gift from God to help you in your spiritual walk with Jesus Christ. I don’t think it’s the norm.

  3. I totally get your point, and I don’t doubt that some people experience this “cliff.” But I’m also not saying that my transition has been “smooth” at all – I’m just opposed to characterizing it as a “crisis.” And perhaps I didn’t make that very clear. What I really am trying to say is that we could call it a “learning experience” or an “opportunity for growth” or “growing pains” or the “process of theologically growing up” but instead we call it a “crisis,” and I think the latter might just be giving too much weight to the negative emotions. Learning and finding out true things should not ultimately be considered a negative experience, in my opinion, even if it temporarily causes difficulties. But perhaps I hold that view because ultimately, I think Truth is positive (and in fact, Truth is God).

  4. Just as an observation, I think the problem has to do with the way we perceive the Church to begin with. For reasons I have never really been able to explain, I have never thought the Church was perfect. I thought leaders can and do make mistakes. I thought doctrine was susceptible to personal bias and prejudices. I thought members were well meaning, but frequently failed. I never felt that there was a standard to measure up to beyond the desire to try to live up to a higher standard. And I have always felt that the desire was and is sincere, even if that desire did not translate to actual action in many cases. This has never really bothered me.

    As a result, when I found out about things that most people have problems with, such as the fact that Joseph Smith was a unbelievable jerk at times, I take it with the same level of shock that I do with all things. Disappointed? Sure. Shaken? Not really. I think Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, but that he was a flawed vessel.

    And I have studied enough to realize that all religions whitewash their history, so I was not surprised that the LDS Church does it too. I am not even that upset that they do it, I considered it part of the process.

    I think it is more like growing up to realize that your parents are flawed and sometimes disappointing people, but then realizing that they are still your parents. I believe, and I am only speaking for me, that I can see the Church as a very well meaning, if frequently wrong, organization that tries very hard. I am content with that. That is just me, however. I certainly recognize that others may find it incompatible with their views, in which case they are free to leave. I do wish that others were less critical of the lack of perfection, however.

  5. If seriously flawed men can still be leaders in Christ’s church and if such men do not undermine the truth nor the authority of the church, then there is no reason why I should believe the story of a great apostasy. Either God can accomplish His work with earthen vessels or He cannot. If He can then the early church did not fail and must still be with us today.

    Someone who converts to Orthodoxy or Catholicism certainly isn’t under any illusions that their new church leaders were/are perfect or better men than LDS leaders (I’m Catholic and believe me I didn’t convert because I’m so impressed with the holiness of its bishops and priests). Our faith should be in Christ and in His faithfulness to His Body and Bride.

  6. That’s how I see it. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, when you have a new religion coming around saying that it’s the Ultimate Course-Correction, and everyone else has been wrong for 2000 years, it is contingent on that new religion to show how it’s so much better. If it ends up being “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” then the tie should go to the Home Team.

  7. I do not necessarily see it as a zero sum game, however. One of the reasons I am LDS is that I see a difference in the doctrine, rather than a difference in leadership. Men are men, they are likely going to be the same everywhere, and it is many of the doctrinal distinctions that I find more appealing in the LDS Church.

    Eternal Marriage, a Priesthood of all Believers that is more inclusive, a difference in Trinitarian conception, etc…. Were this to be the same as Catholicism, I would agree, there is no reason to change anything. I personally do not see why anyone would leave the Catholic Church for a Protestant denomination, that to me is folly, but there is a doctrinal difference between the LDS Church and Catholicism and E Orthodoxy, which is why I remain LDS, despite really liking Orthodoxy.

  8. Pingback: More about Mormon theological epistemology | Saints and Saints

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