Editor’s Note: It was initially thought that this would be a series of three or four articles, but that would risk the connections and topical-links that Richard Eyre is trying to establish. Thus, it appears here over the 3-day weekend as one longer article, and you are invited to read it all together or to return to it as time allows.
What is the relationship between the three things in the title of this article?
Perhaps it is profound.
Of all the forms that division and alienation can take—from political polarization to doctrinal disagreement to cultural collision, the deepest and most eternal-feeling kind of separation that can occur in the life of faithful Church believers is when a family member—a son or a daughter, a grandchild, a sibling, or a parent, leaves the Church. To many of us, this feels like a division or separation so deep that it will keep us apart not only here but in the hereafter; and for some, that seems to be a grief that is just too great to bear. We may call it a Faith Crisis, but it can feel like an identity crisis, like something being torn from our heart, like something more permanent and more awful than death.
The term “faith crisis” is relatively new in our Church vernacular. You didn’t hear people talking, particularly in the first person, about “having a faith crisis” twenty years ago. Doubts and taking offense and becoming “inactive” or leaving the Church are certainly nothing new, but something different is happening today. In a time of instant information—accurate and inaccurate, everything, new and old, is available, and questioned, and spun, and posted, and written about. Whereas yesterday most seemed to (in Elder Uchtdorf’s words) “doubt their doubts,” today the tendency is to doubt our faith. “Faith crisis” is not only a term we use more, it is a reality that more feel—more deeply. And where bringing up, acknowledging or discussing those crises used to be largely taboo, in this current cynical age, it is somewhat stylish.
From the “non-doubters,” in response, we have all heard things like this,
Well, they say they have doctrinal doubts, but if you look a little deeper, it’s really their sin or guilt, or their fallout with a local leader that causes them to leave. Or they just don’t want to follow the Brethren or the commandments. And if they are leaving the Church now, you can be sure that they left Christ much earlier.
Anyone still saying this sort of thing hasn’t been very aware or awake lately. People are leaving or pulling away from the Church for a myriad of factors, and many of them have nothing to do with unrighteousness or personal offense. There are honest doubts out there, and sincere questions, and many of them come from our most “active minds” and our most “sincere hearts.” And many claim that their belief in Christ has waxed even as their testimony of the Church has waned.
When asked why more are leaving, the quick response is “Oh, there are so many reasons.” But the premise of this article is that, while there are many factors, there is actually just one key reason. And it has to do with a misperception, with a false paradigm which incorporates a confusion between means and ends, and between doing and being.
How Paradigm Shifts can change Everything
A paradigm is a world-view or a perspective, and with us mortals, those paradigms are often extremely limited and incomplete—so much so that it takes a metaphor or a story to even begin to grasp the pin-hole narrowness of our view.
The captain of a large ship, one dark stormy night, saw on his radar another vessel directly in his path. He radioed “Change course, or we are going to collide.” The reply came back: “You change your course.” Angered, the captain answered “I am a mega-tanker heading straight for you, MOVE.”
The next reply changed everything: “I am the lighthouse, you move.”
When a paradigm completely shifts, it can change not only our perception of the drama but of everything within the drama. The whole story changed: The mega tanker suddenly became relatively small and transitory and maneuverable—the minor player in the drama; the “other vessel” became ultimately fixed and important—the north star controlling all else. The captain went instantly from one giving directions to one taking them; the situation shifted from one of irritation and inconvenience to one of saving self and ship. The “seeing” of reality changed everything. The captain’s paradigm shifted from the power-struggle of doing and winning to simply being and staying alive.
In the moment when he underwent his paradigm shift, what came flashing into focus was the contrast between doing and being, and the difference between the means and the end. The captain shifted from thinking about what he was doing and where he was going to thinking about who and where he was in relationship to the lighthouse. And in his mind, the Lighthouse shifted from being an obstacle or a competitor to being a means of protection and of direction to where he wanted to end up.
Learning to separate doing from being, and to recognize that it is the latter that counts; and learning to separate the means from the end and to recognize that one is the path and the other the destination—learning these two differentiations—can determine the directions and the destiny of our lives.
Means and Ends (Micro)
Years ago, our 10-year-old daughter was practicing the piano when I stopped to listen and said “You are getting good!” I listened for another minute and asked “What is your goal?”
Proudly, she said “To practice for an hour every day.”
I realized that she, like so many of us, was not clear on the difference between a goal and a plan—that she, like so many of us, confuses the means with the end. When her hour ended, we talked a little about it, and I tried to explain that a goal was a destination—something you want to get to, or complete, or BE; and that a plan was what you DO and how you get there. With that simple explanation, she decided that her goal was to finish piano book 3 and be able to play all three pieces in it without a mistake by the end of the month. And her plan was to practice for an hour every day. Even better stated and understood, her goal was about being a better musician and her plan was about doing the work it takes to become one. She began to see the relationship of the end she desired and the means that would get her there.
Why does it matter? Because if the plan is thought of as the goal, we can become mechanical—just going through the motions, doing our duty, putting in our time, being “active.”
When we try to think of and differentiate between goals and plans, it causes us to ask the important questions. Why am I doing this? Where is this leading me? Is this taking me in a direction I want to go? Is what I am doing worth the effort? Is this activity or this spending of my time and work consistent with what I want to become? Does my means fit with and lead me to my desired end?
The best test of goal-plan differentiation is the question Why. Why do you want to earn 6 figures? Why do you want a promotion and a corner office? Why do you want to run a marathon? Why do you want to be a leader in the Church? Why do you want to look younger? Why do you want to move to a different place or a different house? It is the “why” that makes our lives, in Socrates terminology, “examined” and “worth living” and it is the why that helps us separate means from ends. The question why clarifies the difference and makes us realize which things are worth doing, and within those things, which are worth doing well and which are just barely worth doing.
The longer our long-range goals are, the more comprehensive guide they become for our shorter-range goals, and for our plans. If the longest-range goal is correct and true, it will prove the validity or expose the flaws all shorter-range goals or plans. The beauty of the Restoration is that it explains, to the degree that our finite minds can understand, our longest-range goal of Exaltation, which then serves as the criteria and the filter for all our means and plans. And the beauty of the Atonement is that it compensates and makes up for the great gaps between where we desire to go and where we can get by ourselves.
The consequences of confusing means and ends can be highly consequential. The problem with false paradigms is that they often lead to calamitous conclusions and dangerous decisions.
One who thinks his career is an end in itself puts more important things—like family—in subjection to occupational success and confuses the priorities of his life; and when he finally reaches the position or financial success that he thought was the goal, he finds no satisfaction there—after reaching the top, he realizes he has leaned his ladder against the wrong wall. And one who thinks of his family as a means to other ends—who wants successful kids or a trophy wife in order to facilitate his reputation or success—can begin to treat the most important things as mere vehicles to get something else, and end up losing what matters most.
Ends treated as means get lost. Means treated at ends become hollow.
Means and Ends (Macro)
We all want to know the End. What is the destination? Where is life taking us? What is it all about—really? If we know the goal, it orients our lives and invites good plans.
Piano paradigms and supertankers and lighthouses are one thing, but when we apply the same questions, the same separation of end and means—of goals and plans, on the big, eternal plane, we begin to see a new ultimate paradigm. The why questions become cosmic, yet in the light of the Restoration, they are surprisingly simple, and they unfold like the endless series of “why” and “how” that children sometimes loop into:
Why are we here? To exercise agency and become more like God—more like our Heavenly Parents.
Why? Because They want us to have what They have.
How? By having all the options and choosing and experiencing and developing the joy and power that results.
Why? Because They love us
Why? Because we are literally their spiritually-begotten children and They want us to grow enough to return to Them and be more like Them
How? Through Christ’s Atonement
Family is the earthly embryo of what we want to be for eternity, the end for which mortality is the means.
Doing and Being
If the pianist thinks practicing for an hour a day is the goal, she can stagnate and get in a low-progress rut or routine. But if the means of practice ties to the end of finishing and perfecting something, it will bring motivation and striving and sometimes even the power to go beyond natural ability. The end is being—you are the pianist who is that good, you become the eternal family—all the doing was to get there. If the sea captain understands his end of getting safely to his destination, then the lighthouse, far from being an obstacle, becomes one of the means of getting him there.
When you do Endowments in the Temple all the doing for 90 minutes is to get you to the Celestial kingdom where you become more like Him—the plan and progression of rooms and instructions and covenants lead to the veil and the goal of being in the Celestial Kingdom. The doing leads to the becoming. Christ is the indispensable means, and His Church and its Covenants can guide us home.
The best goals are about being. The best plans are about doing. And the Gospel is about correctly relating the means to the end.
The Second Paradigm: Family as the End, Church as the Means (what that means, and how it ends)
The first paradigm (and the one that needs shifting) is the Church as the end, the goal, the judge—a perfect, eternal organization headed by perfect men. If we shift it in the right way, what we are really doing is expanding that limited view toward the true and total paradigm of God. We might call this the higher or second paradigm.
As we think about this second paradigm, remember that in all true paradigm shifts, everything within our personal universe and view changes. In this ultimate paradigm shift (wherein being an eternal family within His eternal family is the end, and wherein Christ’s atonement and the doing of the duties, service, callings and covenants that get us there is the means) one of the key perceptions that changes is our view of the Church— of what it is and what it isn’t.
We should already know that answer. Prophets have made it abundantly clear. President Harold B. Lee said “The Church is the scaffolding with which we build eternal families” (could there be a better metaphor for means and ends?) And president Russell M. Nelson made it even simpler, “Family centered, Church supported.”
This expanded, eternal paradigm does not, in any way lessen the Church or diminish its importance or that of its chosen leaders. Let’s be clear: The Church is the Kingdom of God on Earth, and it is led by Prophets.
But in this second perspective, with the Church as the wonderful and revealing earthly support and means, that Church is not judging us, and we are not judging the Church. Rather, the Church is the scaffolding, certainly imperfect in terms of its human-administration but sweepingly spectacular in its revelation, its covenants, and its other-serving organization—a helper, a facilitator, a means that aids us in doing what is required in order to become who we should be and to reach the end that God wants for us.
The second paradigm is not only more true, it is more beautiful. Consider a quick comparison:
The Church in paradigm one (as an end):
We judge it and are judged by it.
It is our measurement and our identity.
It is something we have to swallow whole, believing all parts of it totally whether we understand them or not, and treating doubts as weaknesses—as imperfections and flaws.
A test from a sovereign God.
The only true Church.
An opponent or competitor to false, abominable creeds.
The Church in paradigm two (as a means):
Something to enlighten, motivate and steer us toward God and God’s goals.
A support and guide for our families.
A glorious spiritual culture to supersede the down-dragging cultures of the world.
A series of beautiful revealed, restored insights and truths.
A path of powerful covenants that help us to make good choices and remember who we are.
A gift from loving Heavenly Parents to help us on our journey toward Them.
A community in which we help and are helped.
A catalyst and combiner of all truth everywhere.
- In this second paradigm, finding fault-lines in our history, or imperfections in our ward and stake leaders is not particularly upsetting or faith-challenging, it is just the reality that comes with the human-ness of a people-administered lay church.
- In this second paradigm, we are not so much trying to conform to the Church but to have the Church’s help in finding our own unique foreordinations and destinies.
- In this paradigm, we are vastly more grateful for and forgiving of those who try to serve or lead or help us along the same covenant path they are trying to follow.
- In this paradigm, we don’t compare our faith or doctrine with those of other denominations or philosophies to see who wins, we combine and synergize and serve together while learning from each other.
- In this paradigm, instead of judging ourselves or feeling judged by others on how “active” we are in attending every meeting and keeping every commandment, we pay attention to how active our minds are in questioning, in thinking, in listening, in learning and in growing; and how active and engaged our hearts are in seeking, and in serving, and in understanding.
- In this paradigm we share the restored Gospel not as the only truth which replaces, but as the new revealed truth which adds to and combines with the true beliefs and faith that others have, learning from them as we teach, and receiving from them as we give.
- In this paradigm we feel less stressed about how we compare with other Church members and how quickly we can conform to the standard sequence of the covenant path. Instead, we feel more joy in each making our own way, in our own unique sequence, toward a common ultimate end—an end that we have an eternity (which includes a millennium and a spirit world before our judgement) to reach.
- In this paradigm the Church is not the Rameumptom tower we climb to get to heaven but the temporary “scaffolding with which we build eternal families.”
- In this paradigm we are, truly, “family centered and Church supported” and we love rather than resist the scaffolding and support which helps us in mortality, to build a family that lasts into eternity.
- In this paradigm, the concept of Heavenly Parents is not a distraction from Church doctrines that we should not think or talk about, it is the representation of the ultimate goal and the true and eternal model of the end we seek. It specifies our goal of being one with each other and one with Them. They are our parents, our helpers, and in the words of Elder Oaks, the beginning of our theology—They are the start or the stem of everything we believe—the embodiment of our goal or our end; the core and creator of who we are and what our faith holds. Our end is to be like They are, and our means is to do what they have done, including parenting.
- And in this second paradigm, having a family member leave the Church can accurately be thought of as temporary—in the context of the Millennium and the Spirit World preceding the judgement; and in the context of the goal of Family Unity and Exaltation and the ultimate means (for everyone) of Christ’s Atonement. It is true that His Church may become less of a means with one who has left the fold, but it will always be there and available. And, in this paradigm of unconditional love and zero judgement, that particular means will be far more likely to be re-possessed later in this life, or in the Millennium, or in the Spirit World.
Within this second paradigm, the problems and challenges and even the terrors of this life can actually begin to feel like benevolent parts of a plan so encompassing that we can’t grasp it all but so personal that we can feel its love and truth. We begin to understand that if things are fine, perfect, no problems, no worries—we are getting short-changed in this place, unprepared for eternity. Instead, we must learn face the problems now—all of them—neglect, abuse, addiction, separation, death—learning to deal with them in this physical world so we will know how in the eternal world.
Those without these trials and problems here may be underprepared for what is to come.
Holding to Faith and Gratitude and Beauty
This elevated, expanded paradigm shift—with family as the eternal end, Christ as the indispensable, universal means, and the Church as the additional, supportive mortal means—not only corrects the errors and short-sighted smallness of our perspectives, it beautifully replenishes and restores both our faith and our gratitude.
There is profound double meaning in the phrase “the benefit of the doubt.” Doubt, defined as the humble admission of how little we know and the unresolved questions or concerns of our minds which stimulate deeper and more humble thought and prayer, does indeed have benefits. But when our doubts point us instead to presumptuous judgements and to leaving the whole Church due to our concern about tiny parts of it, we become victims of our own false paradigms.
It is fair to say that everyone who is experiencing this kind of negative-direction faith crisis is judging the Church or its leaders or its history in some way, and many of their conclusions of inadequacy or error may be correct. But to walk away, or to discard all that the Church is and all it has given them is like throwing away a car because it has one tire with a slow leak, or deciding to swim rather than staying on a boat that is painted a color we don’t like or has an engine that coughs or sputters occasionally.
But aren’t there other cars, other boats? Certainly, and perhaps we should have higher hopes for someone who is “leaving for something else” than who is “just leaving.”
But, try to find another Church, another Means, another Boat, that will teach and expand you toward and through unique, restored doctrines like:
Our Heavenly Parents—our Parental God.
The Premortal life and the agency that comes with mortality.
Christ’s all-encompassing roles of Creator, Jehovah, Savior, and Judge.
Restoration of Priesthood and Ordinances.
Eternal marriage and families.
The Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood.
Temple covenants for us and our ancestors.
An equalizing Spirit World and an eternal-progression Heaven.
Three additional books of Holy Scripture.
The goals of Joy, Exaltation and Eternal Lives.
That is a lot to leave.
That is a Means that is impossible to replace.
And one who fails to appreciate the Church because he had a Bishop who was too conservative or because she felt that a statement on children of gay parents was unfeeling or ill-conceived is (excuse the cliches, but I am both a cowboy and a parent) like “looking a gift horse in the mouth” or “throwing out the baby with the bath water.”
Ultimately, we realize that it is not about our goals, but about His, and His for us. When we do, we begin to tilt away from focusing entirely on our agenda, and toward understanding and adopting His. We accept His way, His timing, His perspective (taking much of it on faith simply because we are grossly incapable of grasping it all)
As with the ship captain, a complete paradigm shift changes everything. And can turn a faith crisis to an eternal and ongoing faith exploration.
One more related (and needed) Paradigm Shift
It is quite amazing how often, as Linda and I speak to Church groups, parents approach us and talk about their children’s faith crisis as though it was the end of the world. Some of these parents talk about their kids who have left the Church—or even who do not currently attend Church—in the past tense, as though they have died.
As parents, grandparents, friends, and stewards of those we love, we need a paradigm shift of our own. We need to move away from the monolithic judgment of our loved ones based on the single factor of whether they are “active” in the Church.
Of course, we would prefer for them to attend, to be involved, to have callings in the Church. We want Church activity to be part of our family unity and our common bond with our children, and we want them to derive the same comfort, the same faith, and the same joy from the Church that we feel.
But that Church activity should not be our only point of reference, or of measurement, or of judgment.
One couple who we know are so obsessed with, and so saddened by their married son’s drop-out from the Church that they are blinded to all of his good points. He is a kind, thoughtful, good person who is a wonderful father and a loyal husband. He treats others well and loves and respects his parents and siblings. We asked these friends recently whether they would rather have a son of wonderful character with all of these good qualities who didn’t go to Church—or a son who was “active” but didn’t have many of those personal character traits. They took our point, but admitted that they were still having a hard time accepting and unconditionally loving this son who now was so indifferent to the Church they hold so dear, and that it was hard for them to think of him as a full member of their family.
In an attempt to make our question more pointed, we asked why they would even think of letting his separation from the temporary Church of this mortality precipitate or cause his separation from their forever family of all eternity.
Another couple we know and love sees things differently, and theirs is the perspective we wish more could follow. Their eldest son stopped attending Church years ago, but lives a wonderful and service-oriented life, and is totally involved with and committed to his younger siblings. This couple’s paradigm is that they love who their son is, and feel that though they can’t overtly use the tool or scaffolding or “means” of the Church in their ongoing parenting of this adult son, they are deeply proud of who he is, and have hopes that he will someday see and appreciate what the Church can be for him and his family, as well as what he can do for the Church. In the meantime, he is part of their goal or end, even though the Church is not presently part of their means.
How about changing our metaphorical view of “leaving the Church” from that of a great abyss into which loved ones disappear forever to that of a wonderful, beloved house that they have walked out of, but are still just outside on the veranda porch—still completely in communication, available and “meetable” and able to walk right back in through the front door and find themselves amongst our atmosphere of ongoing, never changing, unconditional love.
Being on the porch rather than in the living room may be hard for us to accept, but it keeps them close, and while we may worry more about them—it’s colder out there—we stay close and always in touch, and we don’t let the absence of the means affect the ongoing reality of the end.
Remembering that the Church is part of His Plan
Speaking of means and of plans, let us keep in mind that the Lord’s Church is a part of Heavenly Father’s plan, and His plan is a plan of agency and of growth, all through this messy but necessary stage of mortality.
In that context, the Church is not some power play of perfect results and keeping everyone in check and in control by its authority—or some end that we are all forced and predestined to get to. In fact, that sounds more like Satan’s plan.
Rather, the Church is the guide and the covenants and the community the Lord has given to us and to our families to help us negotiate the world with all of its options and opinions and oppositions. The Church is not going to save us or guarantee our return to heaven. Rather, it is here, just for this brief but important mortality, to help us make and implement our own choices of righteousness and to guide our families toward becoming the kinds of embryonic kingdoms that will fit into and return to His eternal Kingdom of Heaven.
“Covenant Path” is the perfect metaphor for means and ends, because it is our covenants that become the means that keep us pointed and headed toward the end. And we need to broaden our definition of covenants to include not just the Temple, but the Sacrament, and the Book of Mormon-explained covenants of kindness and love and empathy…”mourning with those that mourn, and comforting those that stand in need of comfort.” And we need to remember that while the covenants are the same for us all, the sequence of those covenants are unique to our particular lives and situations.
The Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios are both Pretty Good
Fully adopting the paradigm of Individual Salvation and Family Exaltation as the eternal goal or end, and the Church as an earthly part of the plan or means, may alleviate or ease or even solve some faith crises. That is the best-case scenario.
“But if not,” it may at least take much of the tension and angst and despair and defeat out of how we face and understand the alienation or departure of a loved one from Church activity and allow our hope of short- or long-term return to flourish, along with our assurance that division on the means does not have to pull us apart on the end. And in the unconditional love of our shifted paradigm, that is an acceptable worst-case scenario.
Richard Eyre, a New York Times #1 bestselling author and former Mission President in London, is a frequent contributor to Meridian. He is currently editing a book of essays on Diversity and Unity in the Church and, with Linda, teaching an online course at www.Grandparenting101.com. He can be reached at [email protected].