My Missionary Companion on the Reconstruction of Faith

From September 1979 to August 1981, I preached Mormonism as a proselyting missionary in the Tokyo North Mission. Although I no longer believe in Mormonism, looking back I don’t think I did any serious harm by preaching Mormonism during that time. For the most part, those I helped influence to join the Mormon Church for whom Mormonism was a minus in their lives have probably left Mormonism long ago. And in one of the paradoxes of religion that I keep puzzling over, it is easy to assemble a group of people for whom it is (A) hard to deny that believing in a supernatural religion is a plus in each of their lives, even though (B) the group is diverse enough in supernatural beliefs that there is no logical way all of those supernatural beliefs can be true. At best, I provided more choices for people through my proselyting. The one plausible way I can think of that I might have harmed someone’s life is if they married a spouse who continues to believe when they themselves ceased to believe–always a tricky and often a difficult situation to be in, and one that I, thankfully, have not had to contend with personally.

Leaving aside any possible harm I did from preaching something that I do not now believe is not objectively true, for me, the missionary experience was well worth the two years. One of the most basic lessons I learned is that you are very big in the world, or you have to worry about violence, it doesn’t matter how many strangers say “no” when you make a pitch. It only matters how many say “yes.” The pain we almost all feel at rejection far exceeds the actual practical danger one faces from being rejected in a modern environment.

I also made some good friends on my mission. For most of my life, I have not been very good at keeping up with old friends living in other cities. But Facebook has allowed me to reconnect with old friends as well as new friends. I have good memories of those I taught about Mormonism, but the closest friendships on my mission were with my missionary companions. As most people know from direct observation, Mormon missionaries go around in twos. A pair of Mormon missionaries, called “companions” come remarkably close to spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week in each others company. Needless to say, it is easy to get to know someone well under those circumstances. Today’s moving guest post is from one of my missionary companions. He asked for a bit of anonymity given the personal nature of some of the things he will share, but was glad to share the substance of what he has to say here.

For those of you who want to better understand the institutional aspects of Mormonism and Mormon missions a little better, you might want to read my post “The Message of Mormonism for Atheists Who Want to Stay Atheists” as background, either before or after reading why my missionary companion has to say. (This was a sermon I gave at the Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Brighton, Michigan, on May 20, 2012, when they asked me to talk about Mormonism in relation to Mitt Romney.) I am also putting Wikipedia links on “Stake President” and “Bishop." 

Here is my missionary companion’s guest post: 

Thank you for linking me to your post ”The Unavoidability of Faith.“ From there, I ended up reading most of your blog posts in your Religion, Humanities and Science sub-blog, with particular interest in your UU sermons. Your thoughts, ideas and experiences inspire me to learn and grow and continue to improve and strengthen my own faith and understanding. I was impressed by how diligently you continue to seek for God, spirituality and faith; yet do not believe in the supernatural.

My son struggles with belief in the supernatural. Like you, he is thoughtful, direct and honest. We probably should have had a clue to how his mind worked when he expressed profound betrayal at the age of 7 when, after constant questioning, we finally told him Santa Claus was not a real person. His immediate response was “so, have you been lying about God, too?” During his teenage years, our relationship had a few ups and downs, but nothing we could not easily manage, or so we thought. He was and continues to be a good student and enthusiastically loves to learn. But, until the last few years, what we really didn’t understand (or refused to admit) was that he is not a natural believer in God, faith and religion. To borrow terminology from a book I recently finished by Adam Miller: Sometimes, it’s like the existence of God is so unlikely and runs so counter to his common sense that wishful thinking is all he can credibly muster.

Throughout his teenage years, we continued to devoutly follow the Mormon pattern with the expectation that things would change. Often, we would insist that he “just believe” as he advanced through Priesthood offices, earned his Eagle Scout, left for BYU and then a mission. Regarding his struggle to believe, he was remarkably honest and direct with his church leaders and us. In a discussion with the Stake President on the night before he left for a 2-year mission assignment, he again acknowledged his difficulty believing in God and the church but believed what he was doing was “good and right” because he trusted his parents and extended family members who had served missions. He expressed a sincere hope that his mission experience would be his “quest for faith”. At the time, we all felt that was good enough and all we could reasonably ask. For more than a year, he had many good experiences. He developed strong foreign language skills, many close relationships and a genuine affection for the people and culture. However, after moving into a position of leadership, he felt a crushing responsibility to help develop the faith of others and baptize them yet felt somewhat dishonest because of his own beliefs and the methods he was sometimes asked to use. Unable to adjust and teach with the conviction required, he faced a crisis of belief and many more doubts crept into his mind. Like many missionaries, he felt uncomfortable with the reward systems in place for missionaries with the best “numbers”. He sometimes wondered if he was really doing God’s work or just participating in another competitive event like sports or business. Most sadly, he felt disappointed with God who he believed would not personally respond to his pleas for an increase in faith and the kind of amazing spiritual experiences frequently described by other missionaries. When he had those feelings, it sometimes made it emotionally easier to believe God might not exist. Eventually, he went through an unexpected period of anxiety and depression. For a few months, we tried to help him work through it but his condition did not ultimately improve and was made worse by poor handling and support at the mission level. Fearing his situation would spiral further downward and despite his objections, I eventually made the decision to bring him home before he finished his full 24-month term. I continue believe it was the right decision, but it was not without consequence to our relationship.

After returning home, he was initially devastated by a personal sense of failure and struggled to “stay” in the church. We arranged private counseling to help him better understand what happened. We all struggled to understand to what degree his anxiety was caused by his attitude or beliefs about God, faith and religion or to what degree an anxiety condition itself was the root cause of his agitation. We encouraged him to consider schools other than BYU where he might feel more comfortable, but he had a scholarship and wanted to be with his friends so he returned the next year. The good news is he has made a degree of peace with his beliefs and is more aware of how common this experience is in the church – an experience that seems to be increasing in recent years. Like you, he sees the goodness and beauty of many church teachings and wants to believe. My continuing concern for him centers on the possibility that this experience might cause him to develop apathy, avoid the struggle to overcome and get caught in the “low-effort trap” you described in your blog. Until coming home for help, it’s like he was unable to find or even consider a space for developing faith between the extremes of orthodox Mormonism’s culture of certainty and a Nietzsche-like nihilism, which most likely contributes to more episodes of anxiety and depression. He is moving forward with his education. He married a wonderful girl he met at school and he continues to work on his education and life goals. Marriage has been an affirming boost to his faith by providing a deeper realization of the source and meaning of love and beauty.

During all this time, I started to see how my failure to not thoughtfully work out my own faith issues (especially related to the church) might have affected my ability to sensitively help him process difficult questions. No doubt, that created tension in our relationship.  After returning from my own mission in the 1980s, I remember my first real “crisis” of faith early in college. For a history class, we read Fawn Brodie’s book Thomas Jefferson – An Intimate History and that led me to her book No Man Knows My History about Joseph Smith. Among other things, some of the documented facts in that book started a chain reaction of skeptical questions, minor feelings of betrayal and doubts more credible and substantive than anything I’d experienced or considered. I spoke to my father and my Bishop about my experience. Although sensitive to my concerns, both suggested I stop “chasing my tail” and move on with my life. Ultimately, my father presented me with a choice similar to Pascal’s wager and so I made my bet on belief. I put my doubts “on the shelf” and moved forward with a more practical approach to life by diligently pursuing a successful career, marriage and being dutiful to the pattern of certainty I saw in the church. With the benefit of hindsight, I now see that my efforts became more of a plan of self-improvement and competitive achievement more than development of a healthy and genuine faith.

After coming to this realization, I decided the best way to help my son would be to repent and reexamine and repair my own issues with faith. So I began a process of deconstructing my faith and then attempting to put it back together in a healthier, genuine way. While doing this, I painfully discovered many faults in my way of thinking, believing and parenting (e.g. believing more of a fear narrative than a grace narrative with regard to religion, relying more on conformity than developing and following my own spiritual convictions, believing that God favors the successful over the unsuccessful and those with a gift to believe over those that struggle to believe). After much effort over the past few years, I am now much more happy with the direction, quality and progress of my faith despite being less certain about many things related to it. My relationship with my son is also much improved. It’s as if my spirit, intellect, psychology and emotions are now awake, in focus and working together in greater harmony. I am now more of a Christian than a Mormon rather than the reverse. I became less certain about the “one true church” claim. At the same time, I began to feel a much stronger sense of faith and trust in God and his approval of my efforts to grow, which at first seemed like a paradox. Despite remaining doubts about church and religion, I am more settled and have decided it is right for me to stay. I consider my family, large extended family and Mormon friends as “my people” and feel that is where I am primarily called to seek truth and practice Christianity in a community – to develop more skillful faith, repentance, forgiveness, tolerance, love and ultimately become what God wants me to become and help others do the same.

Which leads me to what I really wanted to share with you. A few years ago, during my faith “reconstruction” process and while considering the real possibility that God might be leading me away from the Mormon faith, I came across a Mormon Stories podcast featuring your father. Among many things, I felt his sense of goodness and genuine wisdom and was impressed by his healthy views on education and a reasoned faith – especially his thoughts on how to reconcile reason, faith and the spiritual.  It was an approach and attitude I had not been exposed to growing up. My home and church experience was one of certainty, obedience, conformity, absolute trust for authority, yet much of love, friendship, support and good intentions. What was really missing was an open discussion of difficult questions and quality education.  I listened to the podcast several times and even watched it again with my wife on YouTube (12). Most of all, your father helped me feel confident and see the value of staying in the church even with my doubts. His words encouraged me to better distinguish between what I know, what I really don’t know, what I believe and what I really don’t believe. He also shared his thoughts on how to develop a healthy and reasoned trust and obedience in scripture, church leaders and church doctrine as a humility check of sorts - in the absence of certainty. Finally, he helped me understand that, if we are honest, we are all somewhat agnostic, to some degree or another, on different points of faith, doctrine, church history, church leadership, etc. – and sometimes we just need to face it, own it and say “I don’t know”. His thoughts put me on a more confident track to read, study, pray and wrestle for a more genuine faith that is more realistic about doubt. Shortly after that, I friend-requested you on Facebook hoping to reconnect with you at some point.

Sorry to ramble on and on as I try to patch my thoughts together. Basically, I feel some people come into my life for a reason. I know we were just young kids when we worked a few months of our life together as missionaries. I remember and appreciate what you taught me then and I enjoy and appreciate what I’ve learned from your blog posts now. I hope we can be friends and continue to discuss faith and grow more together. Thank you for your friendship. I appreciate the amazing effort, hope and genuine optimism in your faith. I look forward to staying in touch and learning more.

In addition to your father’s podcast, the following is a brief list of a few books, essays, talks, etc. that have been a tremendous help and important support to me during my struggle:

  • The Reason for God; The Prodigal God – Dr. Timothy Keller.
  • Disappointment with God; What’s so Amazing about Grace?; The Jesus I Never Knew; Soul Survivor – Philip Yancey.
  • Mere Christianity; Letters to Malcolm; Till We Have Faces – C.S. Lewis.
  • The God Who Weeps; People of Paradox; When Souls had Wings; Letter to a Doubter – Dr. Terryl Givens
  • Reformed Christians and Mormon Christians; Comments at BYU Symposium on Salvation in Christ; BYU World Religions Text – Dr. Roger Keller
  • The Other Prodigal; Lord, I Believe; Like a Broken Vessel – Elder Jeffrey Holland
  • Four Titles; The Love of God; Grateful in Any Circumstances – President Dieter Uchtdorf
  • The Challenge to Become – Elder Dallin Oaks
  • Why the Church is as True as the Gospel – Dr. Eugene England
  • Letters to a Young Mormon; Rube Goldberg Machines – Dr. Adam Miller
  • “Believest thou…?”: Faith, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Psychology of Religious Experience - Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D.