015-017: Mormon Stages of Faith with Tom Kimball and Dan Wotherspoon

January 24, 2006
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In this 3-part series:

  • Part 1: Dan Wotherspoon and Tom Kimball outline the basics of Fowler’s “Stages of Faith.”
  • Part 2: Tom Kimball (with support from Dan Wotherspoon) takes us through the “Stages of Faith” from an LDS perspective, and
  • Part 3: Tom and Dan both share with us a bit about their journeys into stage 4, including their attempts to work with their respective bishops to baptize (Tom) and ordain (Dan) their sons while in stage 4.

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18 Responses to 015-017: Mormon Stages of Faith with Tom Kimball and Dan Wotherspoon

  1. Just for Quix
    February 8, 2006 at 2:50 pm

    I enjoyed this 3-part series. I know Tom and I’ve heard him talk about the application of ideas within “Stages of Faith” to the Mormon/post-Mormon/N-O-Mormon experience. I think some of the ideas therein have a lot of merit, but it really was hearing his and Dan’s personal experiences in episode #3 that really emphasized the challenge and pain of intellectual pursuit within the framework of Mormon culture and theology.

    There’s no way to be nice about it: if you have any deep interest in philosophy, theology, Mormon studies, or science, sooner or later you’re gonna find the Church and culture proper has no place for you. My answer has been to try to define a new place for myself, on mine and my familiy’s own terms, come what may, but that came with limitations. Since ’97 I have not attended temple, though most weeks I attend church. Each new bishop I’ve had since then has inquired into my decision, and though they have no answers for my theological and historical issues of belief, they have respected me since they were satisfied it wasn’t on immoral grounds. Only one (who was more of an administrator rather than a minister) gave me any grief. The others have never made me feel “less than” but I sure haven’t made it easy for them to categorize. Sure, this has came with restrictions: they usually didn’t want me to teach, but they found places of service that didn’t bother them: scouts, cub scouts, humanitarian service, activities committee, or similar. This came at some pain because I’ve had a lot of experience as a speaker and teacher, and teaching is something I am good at, like, and respected for. Nevertheless I’ve honored the decisions of these men.

    During this time my wife and I have reconciled and worked through what my doubts and decisions mean to her, and we made it through those tough, hard times. Ultimately it was her trust in me as a good friend, partner and father that really seemed to matter. None of that changed after I declared my redefined beliefs. (I don’t like the term “non-belief”; I just believe differently than most orthodox members.) That her family is religiously more diverse also seemed to help things.

    Sometimes having faith on these terms is more pain than others (like at weddings), but for the most I’ve come to have a reasonably content, non-angry “routine” of “restricted” activity. My wife is considered more active than me because she goes to the temple, etc. I’ve just held on to my hope in God and the Christian message and pleaded that would be enough.

    Just recently we travelled into another state for a niece’s baptism. During the proceedings the bishop asked to speak with me in the hallway. I stepped out where he inquired how long my temple recommend has been lapsed. (He didn’t see me at the temple earlier in the day for the sis-in-law’s endowment session.) I told him the truth and he said, “Well, I’m not your bishop so I can’t tell if you’re worthy then.” I told him I am worthy and that my Bishop in year previous had seen fit to allow me to baptise and lay hands on my son. By church policy, priesthood policy and scripture, I told him that I am worthy to participate–a temple recommend is not required for such. He said, “Well I don’t know what you told your bishop but it is our policy that anyone who doesn’t hold a recommend cannot participate in ordinances.” I was incensed, deeply hurt but polite. I told him that I disagreed with the policy but that this wasn’t the time nor place to make a scene. I would not join the circle when the time came. And I didn’t. And my mom-in-law (if she wasn’t involved with the bishop’s idiotic behavior to begin with) gave me her usual “looks” as well.

    Since then I have been really conflicted. Yes, I may have a semi-progressive Bishop, but in the end I am just fooling myself. I know most members aren’t comfortable with what I believe to the extent any of them know or care.

    I wanted to write to that bishop’s stake president or go even higher, but what are my credentials? I’m only an earnest, honest, self-aware person trying to be true to my conscience and that is not good enough. I haven’t paid my dues, so to speak. Who is gonna care or listen?

    Fowler’s “Stages of Faith” may provide some comfort: I’m in Stage 4 or 5 depending on the day, but in the end it seems little more than a self-satisfying comfort/conceit of just being more “elevated” than the Stage 3 orthodox members around me. Is that worth anything when there is no real place of acknowledgement for members who are like me?

  2. March 1, 2006 at 8:46 pm

    I loved this episode, especially part 2. The part where Tom discusses the book (I forgot the title) that states that when we reach a certain point in our spirituality, God abandons us (doesn’t answer prayers, no guidance). This described my story so well.

  3. JeffC
    May 24, 2006 at 11:39 am

    I have enjoyed listening to the many stories here, and am very thankful for Tom and Dan’s personal stories. I too worry about upcoming ordinances, my daughter will be 8 next year, and though I haven’t spoken with my Bishop, my temple recommend will be expiring before the appointed time of baptism. I am sure that I will have to jump through the same hoops that these good men have had to. I hope that I can keep my cool as well as Tom when the Stake President started asking inappropriate questions. I would have probably knocked the SOB to the ground and stomped him. It is very hard to be a seeker in the Mormon faith.

  4. Christopher King
    May 24, 2006 at 6:26 pm

    JeffC:

    I don’t believe you have to be a temple recommend holder to baptize and confirm your daughter.

  5. Jo
    May 25, 2006 at 9:28 pm

    No temple recommend required. Must hold the office of a priest in the aaronic priesthood.

  6. Jo
    May 25, 2006 at 9:34 pm

    Woops, you must be a priest to baptize and an elder to confirm. Sorry for the confusuion.

  7. JeffC
    May 26, 2006 at 4:14 pm

    That may be the policy according to the handbook, but there are plenty of Bishops and Stake Presidents that feel otherwise. My own included. They believe that they are being led by the spirit and therefore they can make asinine comments from the pulpit like “your family should never get in the way of your calling”, this was given 2 weeks after the last world wide training where the focus was on not neglecting your family.

  8. Jo
    May 27, 2006 at 1:43 pm

    My 16 yr old son, a priest, baptized my grandson and my husband confirmed him last year. Our bishop is a very caring and progressive man. No mention of a temple recommend on the part of my son came into play. 26 years ago my former husband, a priest, baptized my eldest son and our good friend confirmed him. Never mention of a temple recommend and that was in a particularly “straight and narrow” minded if you will ward. A very difficult bishopric and ward for me at the time.
    Jeff, I am so sorry that your nieces bishop was so punitive and misused his authority. It is painful to experience that kind of treatment.
    April

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  10. Carson
    July 19, 2007 at 1:06 pm

    Sorry to resurrect this post, but here are my thoughts that I have wanted to put on paper (electronic or tangible) for years.

    I guess I should start off with my story…I grew up a member of the church with good, but non-committal father’s line and Heber C Kimball/Orson Pratt zealous members on my mother’s line. I was in the middle, but strong with a big desire for learning church doctrine. I came across things along the years that were awkward, but didn’t bother me too much…until after my mission in college. I hit a pretty normal “stage 4” dark night of the soul period.

    Simply put, as a biology major I learned extensively about the chemical nature for emotions and strongly began to doubt my spiritual experiences. I have had many, but never any that I could state was from God with 100% assurance, 99% maybe, but not 100% (I believe more people are like this than they realize). I questioned everything about the gospel/Savior/God that I had ever learned. Only my wife knew about this doubt. I wasn’t as strong in my callings, etc because of the doubt. No issues with sin lead me here or occurred because of the doubt, thank goodness.

    I spent the next few years of graduate school plodding along hoping for a resolution. Eventually, I came to terms with my unresolved doubts. After I hit stage 4 at times I still felt … A) feelings of the spirit or B) chemically induced emotions due to individual events/circumstances…. Regarding God, eventually I came to the decision that it was A or B that was happening, but that there was no way for me to know other than 1) receiving a 100% undeniable experience or 2) dying and finding out that is the unfortunate end. Because I don’t want to try option 2 and that I have faith that I could experience option 1 I didn’t give up my faith, but went on. I now have less difficulty with my doubts and actually feel pretty strong in my testimony. The resolution that I came to is the following: This LDS gospel, despite any questions that I may have is what makes the MOST sense, all others fall short. The questions that I have will probably be answered when I gain more knowledge either in this life or the next. A great example is that my wife and I both had issues with a couple things in the temple ceremony. After listening to the Mason podcast here, most of those were answered. I am sure that I won’t receive knowledge to answer every doubt I have in this life, but I have faith that I eventually will. With that, I am happy and have a strong, now even stronger, testimony!

    So, with that background here are my questions:
    Stage theory seems to view faith as one single element or your faith in religion as a whole. It does not seem to apply to faith on individual points of doctrine (ie-how could you be in stage 4 on baptism for the dead and stage 3 on the issue of eternal marriage?). Is this true?
    How can one reconcile stage theory progression and Alma 32 growing seed progression towards perfect knowledge?
    I get the feeling that those in the podcast and those that have commented above feel that once you have entered stage 4 and even progressed to stage 5 you can not have a testimony of the church as “the one true church” because of its imperfections. Do they/you feel that my current situation of believing that to be true despite a perfect knowledge to be in stage 3? If so, please explain.

    Thanks!

  11. July 19, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    I first stumbled onto stage theory in the late 90’s. I rolled it around for months and came to the conclusion that I was well on my way to stage five. It took a good two years of study and actually reading the stage chapters of Fowler and honesty to myself to figure out that I was really somewhere between stages three and four. The way you describe yourself is similar to the way I described myself then. From Fowler, you clearly still have a firm grip in stage three.

    When I introduce people to stage theory, their initial reaction is to place themselves at least one stage higher than they really are. (sometimes more) When and if stage four really fully happens. Your questions about Alma and eternal marriage. ect … will answer themselves.

    Grab a copy of Fowler, skip to the stages chapter, have a look, read it again in a year. It’s sort of like the parables. It will be meaningful both times and in different ways.

    Good luck

    Tom Kimball

  12. Non-Winter Meat Eater
    July 19, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    Carson,

    After reading your post I feel like we have a lot in common. I unexpectedly found myself in Stage 4 about nine months ago. In my search for answers a friend recommended Mormon Stories to me. The podcasts have provided me a private setting in which I can examine and wrestle with my beliefs as I listen to others dealing with the same questions as I’ve had.

    Like you, the source of my Stage 4 was a sudden realization that you can really never “know” whether you’re right because a strong feeling that something is true is not necessarily proof that it is true. (For example, the 9-11 hijackers may feel strongly enough about their beliefs that they fly planes into buildings, but that strong conviction is not proof that they will be getting 72 virgins in the next life. People have strong convictions about all sorts of nutty things.)

    I too have struggled with the Alma 32 language because it seems to suggest we can reach a point where we have a “perfect knowledge” and where faith becomes “dormant” (Alma 32:34.) My problem with that language in Alma is that I don’t see “knowledge” as being superior to “faith” because even people who say they “know” something are really saying: “I have experienced feelings that I interpret as being spiritual impressions from God AND I TRUST/HAVE FAITH IN MY INTERPRETATION OF THOSE FEELINGS.”

    So even those who say they “know” something can only get there by simultaneously TRUSTING and HAVING FAITH in their interpretation of their feelings. In other words, their “knowledge” does not supercede faith or make faith unnecessary. To the contrary, you cannot feel comfortable saying you “know” something without simultaneously TRUSTING or HAVING FAITH in your interpetation of your feelings.

    Ultimately I came to the conclusion that I had been misreading Alma, and that Alma implicitly acknowledges this epistemological dilemma. As I read it, Alma says in verse 34 that you can “know” that something has swelled in your soul (i.e., you can know that you felt something). However, in verses 35 and 36 he acknowledges that even if you “know” you felt something, your knowledge is not perfect, and that we still cannot lay aside our faith.

    So ultimately I think my problem with the Alma 32 language resulted from my misreading of those verses. But I know I am not alone is that misreading; I’ve heard several talks and lessons in which Alma 32 is taught as a progression from faith to knowledge, the latter making the former unnecessary. But that’s not what Alma is saying–Alma is actually saying that you will have to be patiently exercising faith your whole lifetime; you never get to a point where you don’t need faith anymore because you “know” (see verses 35 through the end of the chapter).

    P.S. I recommend you check out the podcasts about “Finding Our Way Home.” Those were very helpful in helping me exit Stage 4. The bottom line: I believe God will reach out to us individually if we ask Him to, and can provide us with a spiritual witness of His existence that will be extremely difficult to deny. Of course, we always have to decide whether to trust and have faith in what we interpret as being an answer from God. But I feel I would be a fool to deny it.

  13. Blake
    July 19, 2007 at 6:30 pm

    Non-Winter-Meat-Eater. I came to the same realization about Alma 32. Alma talks about a number of spiritual experiences, feeling the swelling motions and knowing that the seed is good because good is discernible and it begins to be delicious. Alma notes that from these experience one knows that the seed is good and that it is growing. He then asks (in v. 35) whether that means we have “a perfect knowledge.” Surprisingly, he says “nay.” (v. 36) We must continue to nourish the tree as it grows so that the tree will bear fruit. It is only after we have tasted the fruit that we know the tree is good and only then do we have a knowledge. So these experiences in and of themselves are not a perfect knowledge. However, a life lived in love that bears fruit will yield knowledge. BTW Alma is alluding to Lehi’s dream and the fruit that is desirable above all else.

  14. Carson
    July 19, 2007 at 9:47 pm

    I’m glad you guys responded so quickly. I really wanted to discuss this further, but didn’t expect to get many if any comments.

    Tom, thank you for your comments b/c you know a lot about this subject. I still would like you (or anyone for that matter) to let me know your thoughts on questions 1 that might more directly be stated as, does stage theory only apply to faith as a whole because it doesn’t seem to work for individual items?

    Non-Winter Meat Eater,
    I especially appreciate your post. As I struggled for a few years I eventually came up with a way that you CAN have a perfect knowledge in this life, let me know your thoughts…

    Any emotion/feeling could theoretically be explained away by chemical processes. Anything you see could be explained by a delusion, even a very strong experience where you saw God the Father and his son Jesus. One day I remembered a story that I heard in the MTC that helped me think of this “Perfect Situation.”

    This man related an experience where he was kneeling in prayer with his wife before going to bed. During the prayer he saw in his minds eye an event where his children got in a car accident at a certain location. He immediately ended the prayer and saw in his wife’s eyes that she saw the same thing (later they related identical stories). They both got in the car and drove to that location to see the result of what they saw in their mind’s eye. Now this didn’t prove the church is true, but it is impossible to describe this occurrence as anything but from something other than themselves. The key factor is the first hand knowledge of an outside experience, enhanced by the dual event.

    I once felt that I couldn’t believe again w/o a similar experience. I no longer feel that I need this, despite not having a perfect knowledge.

    So, along those perfect knowledge lines…a question for anybody.

    If a person were to actually see God and Jesus (not just think, but actually do), what category would you put them in?

    Another theoretical question…if one were eventually able to reach a state of perfection/omniscience/omnipotence, would they still need faith, or would they have a perfect knowledge of everything? IOW, are faith and perfect knowledge mutually exclusive?

    thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

  15. Blake
    July 19, 2007 at 10:26 pm

    I just wanted to say thanks to Tom and Dan for sharing their experiences in such a transparent and responsible way. I learned a lot listening to them.

  16. Non-Winter Meat Eater
    July 19, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    Blake, after listening to your articulate viewpoints, I take it as a compliment that you reached the same conclusion as me regarding Alma 32.

    Carson, I will leave your first question for Tom–I am sure he is much more qualified to answer it.

    As for your second question, as I explained above, I believe “faith” and “perfect knowledge” are inseparably intertwined. To elaborate a bit more: There are at least two components of any sentient being’s thought process: (1) PERCEPTION, and (2) use of our reason to INTERPRET that perception.

    As an example, let’s say I pray, and that I feel a “burning in my bosom”. The perception is the burning.

    My typical INTERPRETATION of that perception would be that (a) an external source caused the burning (as opposed to being self-generated or just heartburn); and (b) the external source was God (as opposed to Satan, a false spirit, an alien, the government, etc.) Our interpretation that God was the source of the burning is something we would deduce from the fact that the burning came whilst in the act of praying to God.

    After such an experience, most Mormons I know would feel perfectly comfortable saying that they “know” that whatever they prayed about what right or true. However, what they are really saying is that they PERCEIVED something that they INTERPRET as being a witness from God, and that they TRUST/HAVE FAITH IN the accuracy of their interpretation.

    I think the dilemma people like you and I face is that we recognize the possibility that we can all MISINTERPRET our perceptions. So we feel that the most we can honestly say is that we perceived a remarkable sensation of enlightenment/clarity of thought/comfort/sense of confidence which we have INTERPRETED as being a witness from the Holy Spirit.

    So bottom line: I don’t think any sentient being can escape faith in declaring that they “know” something because in order to say you “know” something you must be trusting/having faith in your interpretation of what you are perceiving–particularly as it relates to our interpretation of what we believe to be spiritual impressions. Would it be blasphemous to say that even God must trust/have faith in His interpretation of all He perceives?

    Maybe I am misusing the word “faith” here–but that’s how I understand it. I understand “faith” to basically be a belief in something you can’t see–e.g., the Holy Spirit creating the impressions you are perceiving.

    That said, I too have developed a few “tests for authenticity” when I believe I’ve experienced a spiritual impression. They are by no means foolproof, but here they are:

    1. If the impression urges me to do something I would typically resist or don’t want to do, I give it more credibility as being from God because it is less likely I am telling myself to do something I don’t want to do. On a contrary note, if I were to think the Spirit was prompting me to take Catherine Zeta-Jones as my second wife, I would dismiss that as self-delusion.

    2. If I perceive the same impression under the same circumstances with remarkable consistency (like getting heads every time you flip a coin), I give it more credibility as coming from God. For example, I am shocked by the consistency with which I feel something when I lay my hands on someone’s head for a blessing, or read the scriptures.

    3. In a similar vein, if I have one of those experiences where my words are remarkably articulate, clear, and powerful, and I have no idea where the words are coming from, then I give more credence to the idea that I am speaking by the Spirit’s influence because I know the limitations of my abilities.

    4. In some circumstances there just does not seem to be a more probable explanation than that God has intervened. For example, I have seen the medical condition of people who are unaware that they are receiving a priesthood blessing immediately change in a way that shocks even the doctors.

    Your “dual event” test is a good one; the only potential loophole I see is that the husband or the wife could have just been repeating what they heard the other say. But generally speaking, if my wife told me she had an impression that I also just had, I would regard that as credible.

  17. Carson
    July 20, 2007 at 8:54 am

    Non-winter Meat Eater,

    Again, thank you for your insights. I like them a lot and agree with you 100%. It is nice to come to a place where I can get well thought positive comments to questions such as these.

  18. wade
    August 13, 2007 at 10:43 pm

    I have been a participant in Mormon Stories for the past year and a half, as a listener of the podcasts and reader of the blogs. Though I have never contributed thoughts of my own, I feel now is the time for me to add to this dialogue. I want to share some thoughts I had at this year’s Sunstone Symposium, and even though it has been almost a year since I listened to this particular podcast, I feel this is maybe the best place to post because John, Tom and Dan have influenced me deeply.

    I was inspired by the honesty, integrity and candor that Tom shared in the session titled “Do You Have a Testimony of…” For anyone who did not attend, I strongly recommend downloading and listening to this session (it will probably be labeled SL07361). Thank you Jim and especially Tom for your willingness to open yourself up and share with us this important and potentially vulnerable experience. I loved your prospective Tom that the priesthood allows us as men to share in the nurturing and “feminine” aspect of raising our children through blessings and ordinances.

    I hope you decide its OK to return to the temple soon, your touching spirit needs to be felt by all those who attend there. Also, I think the temple is a perfect place for someone of your integrity and honesty. Thank you John for always sharing your talent to moderate important dialogue in such an eloquent and articulate manner. Finally, thank you Dan for facilitating such a wonderful symposium and beautiful magazine.

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