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.