On Navigating a Faith Transition

A friend of mine recently shared that she was in the process of transition with her faith — she was beginning to ask serious questions and make significant shifts to her worldview.   It made me reflect on my own journey.  I have spent several years now asking questions and recalibrating my perspective, a process that I’m sure will continue throughout my life.   I thought it would be interesting to write a letter to myself as if I were at the beginning of the journey.  What words of advice would I share with myself?  Here’s what I came up with…

Dear Katie,

Congratulations on your questions! I’m so excited for you. You’re experiencing spiritual growth, which inevitably includes some pain and confusion. It’s a vital step forward, and a season to be explored and celebrated, despite the discomfort.

I understand that as part of your transition you feel fearful that where you are “isn’t okay” or is somehow inferior or wrong compared to where you’ve been, or perhaps compared to the more “certain” folks around you. I hope I might be able to share some context that helps you understand that what is happening right now is very normal, and why it’s a good thing, even when it hurts.

There is a wonderful quote that has given me a lot of comfort during my own periods of spiritual growth. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That might sound kind of enigmatic, but essentially it means that there is power in moving from the stark simplicity of “certainty” and a black-and-white worldview, through the complexity and struggle of nuance and doubt, to another kind of simplicity that emerges on the other side.

The complexity is an examination and a tearing apart of things you thought you knew. Its fundamental purpose is for you to become your own agent; to embrace your God-given responsibility as the ultimate arbiter of truth in your own life. It is the process by which you shift the locus of spiritual authority from external sources, such as parents, scriptures, and leaders, to an internal source: namely, you and your own connection to God. Complete transformation in the Spirit cannot occur until you make this shift and are willing to take full responsibility for your own beliefs. This might mean discarding things you previously believed because you felt you were “supposed” to. It might mean embracing things you previously didn’t believe because you felt they were “forbidden.” It always means coming face to face with inconsistencies in your beliefs and becoming aware of conflicts. Don’t be afraid of this. It’s the process.

The journey into complexity is lonely. It must be. While there are resources and people who can support you along the way, its very purpose is to help you become your own agent. No one can do that for you. No one can even do it with you: by its nature, it is distinctly and uniquely yours. To make matters more lonely, not everyone enters this stage. Some simply never arrive here. Some may not be wired to question. Some poke their heads into it, decide it’s too risky, and turn back. There is nothing wrong with that; there’s a lot of comfort in retaining the simplicity on this side of complexity, and we must be careful not to judge or look down on people who make a different choice at this stage. You give up a lot entering complexity. (Of course, you give up a lot not entering it, too.)

There are four pieces of advice I wish I would have received when I started this process. I share them with you now in case you find them helpful:

1. Be honest. You seem to feel that saying something like “I hope” is inferior to saying “I know.” Reconsider that. From where I’m sitting now, it occurs to me that hope is far more powerful than knowledge. It is an act of trust. It is an admission of vulnerability. It is a submission to God. We like to throw around the word “know” because we don’t like to appear weak, but that’s not the way of Christ, who said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek; blessed are the hungry and thirsty.” Christ’s message is that a Godly life is a vulnerable life. Don’t lie about who you are and what you believe, even if you feel pressure to “go along” with the script. You are not playing a role. You are living a life.

2. Believe you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. Accept yourself. There is nothing wrong, and everything right, with where you are — because it’s your truth.  As Rainer Maria Rilke says, “Trust in what’s difficult.” Feel pleased that you are allowing yourself to wrestle with difficult questions; it’s a sign of strength.

3. Be careful what you share and with whom. Other people — leaders, friends, family members — may try to control your journey for you. They are invested in your outcome because they inappropriately think that what you do is a reflection on them.  This is your journey. You have a right to it. Beware of people who won’t respect your process and your agency, who will try to coerce you to conform or to “get the right answer.” Anyone who is telling you that you need to get the “right answer” is someone who has likely never embarked on this journey and they will have no frame of reference for what you’re experiencing. As such, they are not a trustworthy resource to help you through it.

4. Know that where you arrive will be different from where you started. As you pass through complexity, recognize that you probably won’t end up in the same place you started, as comforting and safe as it was. The simplicity on the other side of complexity comes after you have seen the problems for what they are, have acknowledged that some questions have unsatisfactory or even infuriating answers, have picked things apart and have made the difficult realization that things are NOT as you always thought they are. But once you accept that truth, you can begin to put the pieces back together in a way that works for you. You can choose to believe with your eyes wide open. Do not fear doubt. Do not fear ambiguity and uncertainty. Do not fear questions. There is no mature faith without them.

I hope some of this is helpful to you. Feel free to disregard whatever isn’t. Best wishes on your journey.

Love,
Katie

 

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3 Responses to “On Navigating a Faith Transition”

  1. Rosebriars
    July 29, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    I miss having these conversations with you in person! I think these are great insights for someone who is truly searching to be transformed by God. I suspect most people don’t even realize that the process of becoming like God requires you to be transformed in and by Him, and that is an intensely personal and oftentimes painful process that doesn’t result in absolute certainty for most people (that requires a level of oneness with God that most of us won’t achieve in this life).

    It is a difficult part of faith to come to trust yourself as “the ultimate arbiter of truth in your own life.” The ability to come to differentiate God’s voice from other voices, including your own, is a skill developed through diligent, conscious effort. It is only when you both treasure this link and are absolutely faithful to it that you are prepared to, as you say, take full responsibility for your own beliefs.

    This transformation requires you to face and somehow reconcile the truth that although a man or woman can be called of God to fulfill a particular role in His kingdom, that person is still fallible. The guidance or decisions made by any person in their role may not be that which best serves you, and yet paradoxically that decision of theirs may not be wrong. Then again, it may be. It also requires you to acknowledge that the light and knowledge you have received and are prepared to live with may not be guidance which God desires all to have.

    No wonder so many live comfortably in the established paths without self-examination. And yet a life of striving for perfect obedience to parents, scripture and leaders can, if coupled with a true heart’s desire to know God, prepare a person for the spiritual journey of self-examination which can result in further faith, confidence, knowledge, and peace. As you said, it is vital that we extend the charity of believing that not only are we exactly where we’re supposed to be, but that others are too.

  2. Ashley
    July 29, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

    Katie, thank you so much for this. I can already tell it is going to mean a lot to me;) You have articulated so much of my truth here. Thank you, thank you for writing!

  3. Phyllis Barber
    July 30, 2013 at 9:39 am #

    Katie: My friend, Dan, gave me a link to this site and to this letter. It’s so well thought out and inspiring to read. Thank you for that. I have a new book coming out next May titled TO THE MOUNTAIN: Memoir of a Mormon Seeker, so was thrilled to see INTO THE HILLS. I respect and admire your journey, fellow traveler, and your search, and the reminder to trust yourself. Bravo.

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