In my religious faith, children are not baptized until they reach age 8, the age we feel like they are old enough to take ownership of their faith journey. We have a seven year old now and next fall, she’ll be baptized. But is she really old enough and mature enough to mourn with those that mourn; to comfort those who stand in need of comfort; and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that you may be in? So, it’s doubtful, but it’s also not the point. She’s Mormon because we’re Mormon. I’m Mormon because my parents were Mormon. They were Mormon because their parents were Mormon. This is my legacy, my heritage and it’s something I’ll pass on to my kids.
What does this mean for me in my faith journey? What does this mean for my children in theirs? It doesn’t mean I’m obligated to remain in this faith tradition the rest of my life. I can leave at any time. Though, it’s not just me that would be affected by that decision. I married someone also committed and faithful to the church. I made commitments to her. My journey is intertwined with hers. There’s obligations in that.
Nevertheless, I don’t think I’m chained forever to my church nor are my children. Every Sunday, I remake my baptismal covenants. As my children develop, their commitments and covenants with the church will have a chance to be nurtured. And they will also have to make and re-make these same commitments and covenants.
About a month ago, I attended a conference on Mormon intellectual thought. One of the presentations really stuck with me delivered by Jon Hammer entitled “Stepping Back from the Dead-End of the Belief/Disbelief Dichotomy and Recovering the Path to Meaningful Spirituality.”
In the presentation, he describes a tree with roots similar to the picture above. Where we collectively stand has everything to do with the efforts and the sacrifices of those who walked the paths before us, like the tree that finds strength and nourishment from its roots. We have a tendency to simplify the stories of our ancestors. We dismiss them as naive or evil or dumb. History deserves nuance. Our ancestors legacy deserves consideration. And perhaps that also means the religious institutions they’ve passed on to us should not be so quickly abandoned.
This obviously doesn’t mean that we should not move on from the mistakes of our past. My ancestors made plenty of mistakes, even egregious ones. My point is to be careful not to throw all of it out. We need to grow like the tree, drawing strength from our roots.
Finding Meaningful Spirituality
But this should not mean we give up our own responsibilities for our own unique spiritual journeys. We all have a role to fulfill, special unique talents and spiritual gifts. We should dig in and seek ye out the best books of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and by faith. This means, yes feasting upon the words of Christ but it also means learning as much in this world that we can, with an open hand and an open heart.
And we may learn things that can cause a faith crisis. In his book Stages of Faith, Martin Fowler channels the spirit of the clinical psychologist, Jean Piaget in a fictional dialogue with a two other psychologists, Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg. In Piaget’s voice he offers this definition of a developmental stage:
When a novelty or challenge emerges that cannot be assimilated into the present structures of knowing then, if possible, the person accommodates, that is generates new structures of knowing. A stage transition has occurred when enough accommodations has been undertaken to require (and make possible) a transformation in the operational pattern of the structural whole of intellectual operations.
And this can and should happen with our faith. Rather than resist new information, we should continue to discover and learn new truths and find ways to accommodate these truths into our faith paradigm. This is not a journey for the feint-hearted. It might mean opening ourselves up to contradiction, finding more questions without answers, and discarding previous ideas we once held onto with unflinching certainty. We may have in this journey the dark night of the soul and experience a very real crisis of faith.
When You Disagree with Your Faith Tradition
If we take our spiritual journey seriously, as I think we should, we may discover points of conflict between truths we discover and the theology and teachings we hear over the pulpit on Sunday from our religious leaders. We may find points of theology or doctrine in our religious institution that we no longer agree with.
Ross Douthat makes an interesting point that cognitive dissonance can be a path toward spiritual growth in its own right. Here, he defends the rigor of Orthodox Judaism practice while making allowance and room within the tradition for those who can’t or won’t comply.
But Gordis is actually making a more subtle point, which is that Modern Orthodoxy has held the line while also allowing space for the cognitive dissonance of the sabbath drivers and non-kosher-eating vacationers to persist — and that dissonance, that tension, has often been a spur toward spiritual growth and more serious practice, rather than curdling into either an outraged critique or a Trish-esque indifference.
Now for a variety of reasons this may be an easier wire for Judaism to walk than Catholicism. But Gordis is raising an issue that any tradition-minded religious body needs to think through: Namely, how to make its hardest rules seem like aspirations rather than just judgments, and how to deal with the many fine personal gradations that can exist between orthodoxy and apostasy, fidelity and dissent. And I suspect there are many Catholics who would be classified as “liberal” who want something like what he’s describing in Modern Orthodoxy from their church. That is, they want room to dissent from a teaching or fail to live up to it in practice, but they don’t necessarily want the church to change that teaching so that the dissonance or tension they feel simply goes away.
For one thing, in any institution, to the degree we actually decide to dig in and think, act and feel for ourselves, we will always arrive at different conclusions on some issue than the institution we belong. In church, we could use this as a reason to leave. Here, Douthat offers another approach, to expect and welcome this tension, this dissonance as fuel to drive greater spiritual growth.
I’m not making the case that we should tie ourselves up to the traditions of our fathers and mothers here. We shouldn’t be chained to our church. I think membership to a church is a lot like my marriage with my wife.
In Letter’s to a Young Mormon, Adam Miller puts it this way:
When your faith falters and you’re tempted to run, stand up and bear testimony instead. A testimony is a promise to stay. A testimony gives form to your great faith, it gives direction to your great doubt, and it publicly commits you to the great effort of trying to live what God gives. It is less a measure of your certainty about a list of facts then it is a mark of your commitment to bearing the truths that, despite their weakness, keep imposing themselves as a grace. In this way bearing a testimony is like saying “I love you”. A testimony doesn’t just reflect what someone else has already decided, it is a declaration that, in the face of uncertainty, you have made a decision. Saying “I love you” or “I know the church is true” commits you to living in such a way as to make that love true.
It doesn’t mean I stay with my wife or she stays with me no matter what. And it certainly doesn’t mean my soon to be eight year old is having to make an equivalent to a lifelong marriage commitment when she steps into the waters of baptism. The analogy is not perfect. There are legitimate reasons people choose to leave a faith tradition. I went on my mission in Alabama talking to many people in many faith traditions, encouraging them to leave theirs and join ours.
It’s at its heart an individual decision, an individual journey. My goal is to respect yours, my hope is that you’ll respect mine. My goal is that I can support you in your journey, my hope is that you’ll support mine in mine.
In the end, though, I think our religious heritage, our institutions, our churches have played and should continue to play an important role in our culture, our community and in our lives. For me, balancing my own, personal, individual faith journey, within the larger context of a faith tradition passed down to me from my ancestors, for me, this is my path, it’s what I feel called to do. I have found and hope to continue to find joy in that journey.