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A lighthouse for a small boat represents a new approach to LDS faith crisis

Black Swans and Rumspringa in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

What is the best approach to ministering to those suffering through a Rumspringa period of youthful doubt, and help them resolve their perceived black swan objections to faith?

Karl Popper, a key 20th-century figure in the philosophy of science, made many contributions to modern scientific thinking but is perhaps best known for his “black swan” concept. The idea is simple. When testing a hypothesis, sometimes a single observation is sufficient to disprove it.  As the name of the concept suggests, if one is testing the hypothesis that all swans are white, a single sighting of a black swan is all that is necessary to refute the theory.  

Many members of the Church, particularly among our young people, have experienced what they perceive as a black swan event in their spiritual lives. In testing the hypothesis that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the restored Church of Christ, some of our brothers and sisters have stumbled across an observation that they view as a black swan that has undermined or even destroyed their faith. The gift of faith is not received through scientific investigation, but as rational beings, we seek to construct a solid intellectual foundation for our beliefs, so these faith-destroying black swans can be impactful.

The Black Swan Triangle

The nature of these black swans is complex, but in general, they fall into one of three categories relating to science, history, and social issues. Collectively, we can consider these three the black swan triangle of testimony trials.

The gift of faith is not received through scientific investigation.

The black swans of science derive from inconsistencies between modern scientific theories and traditional Christian dogma regarding the origin of life and the creation of the universe.  Because we are admonished to “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom” (D&C 88:118), these scientific inconsistencies can be puzzling. These scientifically-oriented black swans mostly relating to biology and cosmology, ask a fair question that our members in a faith crisis may pose:  “Does the Church accept truth from all sources?”

The black swans of church history typically center on events in the early days of the Restoration when the actions, words, or historical accounts of certain church leaders seem strangely incongruent with the high aspirations of the gospel of Christ and also with current cultural standards. As these sometimes embarrassing bits of Church history became more broadly known in the information age, some members have found them troubling. The general question emanating from these historical black swans asked by doubting members is straightforward: “Has the Church tacitly deceived us concerning these controversial church history reports?”

The final category of black swans connected to social issues is perhaps the type that is of more contemporary interest in church culture, particularly to our young people. These black swans relate to issues of race, women’s rights, sexual orientation, and gender, among others. These matters have taken on special significance in recent decades, in part because of our postmodern society’s focus on the primacy of the self. The question stemming from doubting members regarding these “social issue” black swans is thought-provoking given our Christian ambition to love our neighbors as ourselves: “Is the Church intolerant and old fashioned?”

That some of our skeptical members put forward these questions in response to the perceived black swans they encounter is to be expected. They are fair questions to ask. And our brothers and sisters in the gospel deserve answers to the extent we can offer them.

Understanding the Black Swan Wounds

Black Swans often appear in turbulent times leading to LDS Faith Crisis
A black swan in turbulent waters

While there may be some disaffected members who use the black swans as an excuse to avoid the lifestyle constraints of commandments, there are many in faith crisis who are earnest seekers who have indeed encountered what they interpreted as a black swan that seriously undermined their faith. So, how can we help our beloved friends and family members who have been wounded by a “black swan” that has damaged their faith?

The loss of faith for many is a cataclysmic event.

First, we must recognize that the loss of faith for many is a cataclysmic event that leaves them reeling and bewildered. A religious belief system serves many purposes, but perhaps most importantly, it provides two foundational functions: First, religious belief orients us to the universe, providing a sense of reassurance by answering the “big questions” in life (e.g., Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?). Second, religious practice unites us with a supportive community that provides structure, affirmation, and sustenance.

These two functions correspond to the vertical and horizontal dimensions of The Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes referred to by scholars of the Restoration. The vertical dimension comprises the doctrines and ordinances that tie us to God (e.g., the scriptures, priesthood authority, and ceremonial practices like the sacrament and the endowment). The horizontal dimension encompasses the communal practices within an LDS congregation that link us to each other (e.g., congregational worship, ministering to neighbors, Young Men’s and Women’s programs, Primary, social gatherings, and so on).

When one of our members stumbles over what they regard as a black swan that damages their faith to the point of leaving the Church, they often confront an existential crisis. This is to be expected. The vertical and horizontal dimensions of their worldview have collapsed. They have lost their orientation to the universe and the supportive community on which they have theretofore relied. This spiritual upheaval leaves some of our disaffected members in a state of uncertainty and sometimes engenders resentment and anger against the Church. We must be understanding of the dilemma faced by our members whose faith has been upended by a black swan. They need our love and empathy at a difficult time, not our condemnation.

The Consequences of Loss of Faith

We can also help our wounded members by sketching out the consequences of our individual decision-making regarding faith. The stakes are high. It is useful to consider the potential aftereffects of loss of faith in God. When we compare a life of scientific materialism (or secular humanism) versus a life of faith, several fundamental differences emerge. [Adapted in part from Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters, HarperOne, 2001.]  

First, for scientific materialists, matter is all there is. For believers, in contrast, spirit takes precedence over material things. Spirit is part of reality. The restored gospel reveals that “… the spirit and the body are the soul of man” (D&C 88:15). Life is more than just physical well-being, more than just food in the belly. This is why Christ urged us to remember that “man does not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4). A life of faith is a life of spiritual striving, wherein we endeavor to commune with God each day.  

Second, for the scientific materialist, man is the most sophisticated, highly evolved creature there is. Man is king. For the believer, in contrast, more created less;  God is the greatest of all, and man is called to become more like Him. After Moses’ encounter with Jehovah, he concluded, “Now for this cause, I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10). The charge from our creator is to recognize our subordinate position and then humbly work to emulate Him.  

Thirdly, for the scientific materialist, life has no ultimate purpose. The sobering utterance of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg calls this gloomy worldview into stark relief.  “The more the universe seems comprehensible,” he wrote, “the more it also seems pointless” (Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes, Basic Books, 1977).  For the scientific materialist, life and the universe arose from random processes and are together a big cosmic joke of sorts. For the believer, in contrast, mortal life was ordained of God and has a specified purpose. “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). With an understanding of life’s purpose,  the believer can find meaning in daily life, can have hope in a joyful outcome for the world, and can feel at home in the universe because it was made for us.

For scientific materialists, matter is all there is.

These fundamental differences between a life of scientific materialism versus a life of faith collectively constitute a “hole in the heart” with which the atheist must contend; they translate into something marvelous and wonderful in the heart of the believer.

Becoming One’s Own God

In an age of moral relativism and a postmodern focus on the self, our society often teaches our young people that “authenticity” to oneself is one of life’s paramount virtues.  In our popular culture, we often hear the aphorism, “You do you, and I’ll do me.”  That the “selfie,” a photo wherein the individual is both the photographer and the photographed, has emerged as a ubiquitous practice in our society calls attention to the narcissism of the age.  From a Christian perspective, the obvious shortcoming of making authenticity a top priority is that the gospel calls us to set aside our own desires and to be something more than we would otherwise be.

If we are honest, we must acknowledge that our “authentic” person is sometimes too close an approximation of the natural man or woman, who is “an enemy to God” and His goodness (Mosiah 3:19). This is why King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon urged us to “… putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble …” (Mosiah 3:19). In a life of faith, we aspire to be something more than humans naturally are; we seek to rise beyond the state of nature. Our Father in Heaven asks us to aim higher, to “Come unto Christ, and be perfected in Him” (Moroni 10:32). For most of us, this would typically mean abandoning some of what is authentic in us in favor of something higher and better than ourselves.

Taken to the extreme, the greatest danger of abandoning God in favor of some kind of self-centered “authenticity” is that one is very likely to emerge as one’s own god. Referring to the popular practice of following “the god within,” New York Times columnist and author Ross Douthat has called this phenomenon the “Oprahfication” of faith in America, alluding to the perpetual parade of self-help gurus on programs like the Oprah Winfrey show that advocate the pursuit of the “god within” (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, Simon & Schuster, 2012). 

This approach often reduces religious practice to self-affirmation and justification, conflating authenticity to the “god within” to communion with the divine. The popularity of the “god within” trend is one reason why today’s “Nones” (i.e., people with no formal religious affiliation) can often be heard to say: “I’m a spiritual person, but I don’t believe in organized religion.” In the same conversation, one might hear a reference to “my truth,” a philosophical oxymoron that can only be understood with postmodern moral relativism in mind. In this sentiment, there are echoes of a powerful, prescient passage from the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants:  “… but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world …” (D&C 1:16). With this danger in mind, surely this is why Jesus said: “…If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

A Latter-day Saint Rumspringa

A Rumspringa could be a new framework for understanding LDS Faith Crisis
An Amish teen leaves on Rumpsringa

It may be useful to think of departure from the Church, particularly among our young people, as something akin to the Amish practice of rumspringa. Among the Amish, the youth commonly undertake what’s called a rumspringa, wherein, as young adults, they leave their religious community and live for a time in the modern world, affording them an opportunity to consider how much they value their spiritual roots and cultural inheritance. Apparently, many young Amish return to their community after a rumspringa period of more secular exploration and experience.  

While an unofficial rumspringa experience is not ideal, such a path will nevertheless be a reality for some of our members. This time and perspective may help some to recognize that what they perceived as black swans in the certainty of youth are much more understandable in the complexity of life. And surely many of them, like the Amish, will also return to the fold after their unsanctioned rumspringa, short or long. They will be drawn back both for the blessings of the Latter-day Saint community, the horizontal dimension of the Church, and also for the comforting doctrines and soul-saving ordinances, the vertical dimension. 

Normalizing the Process of Doubt

So how can we help our doubting members wounded by a black swan of one kind or another resolve to come back, to “come, join with us” to use Elder Uchtdorf’s phrase (Elder Dieter Uchtdorf, Come Join with Us, October General Conference, 2013), and help us strive to build the kingdom of God on the earth? Perhaps what our black swan casualties need most is love and patience; they need space and time to sort out their beliefs. During their unofficial rumspringa, short or long, the Spirit of God will be calling to them.

Setting an expectation that the process of skepticism and doubt is a normal part of our individual members’ faith journeys is also essential. We need to make room for the doubting souls in our pews and congregations. We are all “doubting Thomases” from time to time.

The gospel calls us to set aside our own desires.

The covenant path of faith is marked by peaks and valleys of devotion. In a pattern that is often referred to as the Hegelian dialectic in academic circles, we begin as members with a thesis that the Church is the restored Church of Christ, a peak of belief. We encounter antitheses along the way, information that is counter to our original convictions that can bring us to a valley of doubt.  And we can eventually triumph with a synthesis, an exercise in which the conflicting thesis and antithesis are brought together in some kind of practical harmony, a new peak of confidence and faith. Some scholars have perceptively pointed out that this pattern corresponds to the Christian concepts of creation (thesis), fall (antithesis), and redemption (synthesis). The redemptive synthesis ultimately results in a more mature, refined faith in which the believer’s devotion to the gospel is more firmly founded and durable.

Communion More Than Arguments

Helping our members who struggle with the black swan triangle of testimony trials requires more than just an understanding and welcoming environment and more than just cogent explanations to difficult questions. Our skeptical brothers and sisters certainly deserve intelligent responses to their questions that speak to their brains, but more importantly, they need manifestations of the Holy Spirit that touch their hearts. People looking for God are not usually looking for arguments. They would not likely be persuaded by the most eloquent explanations regarding controversial Church history accounts, complex scientific questions, or perplexing social policy.

What will persuade them is the real presence of God in their lives.

What will persuade them is the real presence of God in their lives. Earnest seekers are not merely looking for intellectual evidence, but rather encounters with the divine that occur in this life but also reach beyond it, a personal encounter and a moment of trust within the storms of life in which the Holy Spirit whispers to their hearts “Peace, be still” (Mark 4:39).  As it was in the life of Elijah, the still small voice is more persuasive than any wind, earthquake, or fire incorporated into an intellectual argument (1 Kings 19:10-12). Our efforts in aiding the black swan wounded should primarily focus on providing fertile ground for such manifestations of the Holy Ghost, the real presence of God in their lives. Such strengthening spiritual experiences enable a struggling soul to stay on the covenant path despite black swan wounds.

No Need to Lose Our Nerve

In our efforts to assist the black swan casualties among us, there is no need for us to back away from our own faith commitments in some kind of appeasement to the fashionable criticisms of the day. The restored gospel has very specific truth claims: that God opened a new dispensation by calling a boy prophet; that He revealed new scripture and reestablished priesthood authority; that He restored the Church of Christ based on patterns in the primitive church, and on and on and on. We stand by these claims and make no apology for them. We also collectively engage these truths anew to understand where we have fallen short and how we can realize yet unseen possibilities for our faith. We have not lost our nerve.

Our invitation to the black swan wounded is to come back and partake of these divine gifts, the veracity of which we believe. We fully expect the Good Shepherd to keep calling to His sheep “on rumspringa” and to bring them back into His fold by and by. As the Good Shepherd’s willing ranch hands and sometimes stray sheep ourselves, we commit our best efforts to love and support all His sheep, whether in His divine pasture just now or not. We know His “… hand is stretched out still” (Isaiah 9:17) as it always will be. We worship Him in part because we can count on Him, “… the light which shineth in darkness” (D&C 11:11). May His light illuminate the path forward for all our beloved, black swan casualties, including each one of us from time to time.

About the author

Talmage D. Egan

Talmage Egan, M.D., is an anesthesiologist in academic practice in Salt Lake City, Utah. His views are his own and not those of his employer.
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