Faith and Doubt: Mormonism and Orthodox Christianity

I read the announcement today about the passing of President Thomas S. Monson, president and prophet of the LDS church, with a mix of emotions. While I no longer identify as Mormon, I do think that President Monson was a good man and tried his best to inspire the Mormon people in the way he knew to do so. In reality, I think we lost President Monson some time ago, as his encroaching dementia and physical health problems created a power vacuum that others have filled for the last few years. The news this morning was sad, but not a surprise.

Today, my LDS friends and family filled my Facebook newsfeed with quotes from President Monson. One in particular stood out to me, because I remember hearing President Monson say it in General Conference when I was still LDS:

Remember that faith and doubt cannot exist in the same mind at the same time, for one will dispel the other. Cast out doubt. Cultivate faith.

When I encountered Orthodoxy I realized just how starkly different the paradigm of Orthodoxy really is to what I was used to, as a Latter-day Saint. Now, I believe that of course faith and doubt can exist in the same mind at the same time. They are not diametrically opposed or mutually exclusive. They are both simply part of the natural ebb and flow of spirituality and belief. They play off each other. When I read Fr. Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way, he started the book off by acknowledging this fact – sometimes we doubt, and it is okay.1 That is part of the Christian life. My daily spiritual struggle no longer centers on getting my brain to stop doubting this or that aspect of Joseph Smith’s life; it now centers on becoming more aware of God in my life and letting His grace influence my life.

As a psychologist-in-training, I think that the mental aspect of the LDS “faith and doubt” paradigm is the most interesting. I think it gives too much weight to our temporary mental states – something that I train clients in therapy not to do.

I remember once I had one of those little energy bomb drinks that they sell at gas stations in order to keep me up on a long car trip. Once the drink kicked in, I started having all these existential worries and doubts, along with just an overall nervous energy. When the drink wore off, that feeling went away.

On the flip side, my advisor at university is a very well-known researcher in the psychology of religion. He built this swing contraption to use in research based on research done by Houston and Masters in the 1970s.2 This suspension device, and other experiences like staring at a spiral, have been used to subliminally induce experiences that are described as “mystical” by research participants.3

Given the fact that spiritual or existentially doubtful states of thinking can be influenced by chemicals and laboratories, I have learned to put less weight on any particular experience, and have decided to look more at the whole of my life. Every day we have temporary, fleeting, subjective mental states. Fear, anger, hope, love, etc. We also have many thoughts such as, “What am I doing here?” “I’m a failure.” “I’m stupid.” “I’m the greatest.”

My counseling clients are often on a daily roller coaster of emotions and thoughts; they take every thought and feeling very seriously and it derails them from their true valued life goals. This tendency to alter behavior based on short-term states and away from long-term values is called psychological inflexibility. According to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, the primary modality I use to guide my therapy, psychological inflexibility is the “epicenter of human suffering.”4 It locks us into a struggle with each individual tree rather than the forest as a whole.

A charitable view of Mormon theology would acknowledge that there are more nuanced takes on faith and doubt that acknowledge that getting some kind of pure mental state of faith is not the ultimate quest of life. However, that was not my personal lived experience as a Mormon. I think that inasmuch as the lived experience of Mormons involves an exhausting, daily battle with thoughts and feelings of doubt, it is bound to induce both mental and spiritual problems.

And traditionally Mormon theology has regarded an emotional “burning in the bosom” as the authenticator for the truth of Mormonism. You know it’s true because you feel it’s true.5 If you momentarily experience doubts, then you need to engage in a number of practices, like prayer, reading Scripture, going to church activities, to get those doubts to go away. Doubts are signs that you’re not “doing it right” or that you’re not good enough.

Our thoughts and feelings do matter, but they cannot be an enemy that we need to battle. I have discovered through Orthodox living that God’s grace often works through me in ways that do not enter into my conscious awareness at all. The Orthodox life is about engaging in slow, patient Christian activities and allowing God to work through us as we live. Thoughts and feelings are just that. I have them, but they are’t what defines me or my spiritual life.

  1. Ware, Kallistos. (2002). The Orthodox Way. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
  2. Houston, J., & Masters, R. (1972). “The experimental induction of religious-type experiences.” In White J., editor, The Highest State of Consciousness. Oxford, England: Doubleday/Anchor.
  3. Randolph-Seng, B., & Nielsen, M. E. (2009). “Opening the doors of perception: Priming altered states of consciousness outside of conscious awareness.” Archive for the Psychology of Religion, 31, 237-260.
  4. Hayes, S.C., Luoma, J.B., Bond, F.W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). “Acceptance and commitment therapy: Model, processes and outcomes.” Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(1), 1–25.
  5. See this LDS article, “What If I Don’t Feel a Burning in the Bosom?“, that still emphasizes feelings even if one doesn’t feel a “burning.”

3 comments:

  1. It is also interesting to note that faith is more what one does than what one accepts as a fact. We can doubt “facts” and still live a life of Faith.

  2. Faith comes by Grace. It is a gift from the triune God by way of the Holy Spirit. It is not a mental state subject to psychological or psychiatric analysis. The doubts which the author experienced in relation to “Joseph Smith’s life” have no relation to the Faith which comes through the Holy Spirit. The Faith we possess by Grace banishes doubt in relation to what God has revealed to us through his Holy Scriptures. Doubt in relation to the teachings of Joseph Smith or John Doe is irrelevant.

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