The following first appeared in Public Square Magazine and was written by Dan Ellsworth. It is shared here with permission.
It is important to understand the lived experience of our faith, including the reasons why people step away. But real understanding of these experiences is not possible unless we account for the variable of conversion.
The great Catholic contemplative Thomas Keating writes in The Human Condition:
The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside us for the Holy Spirit to come in and heal. What prevents us from being available to God is gradually evacuated. We keep getting closer and closer to our center. Every now and then God lifts a corner of the veil and enters into our awareness through various channels, as if to say, “Here I am. Where are you? Come and join me.”
Decades ago, Carl Jung introduced the concept of enantiodromia, which is defined as the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time. Enantiodromia can be observed in such contexts as the Amish rite of passage rumspringa, where youth are given full freedom to live out their desires without the interference of the community, including the option to leave the community altogether. If a youth does end up leaving the community, that is taken to be a sad indication that the community’s faith and norms were never really internalized, despite the youth’s outward appearances of compliance.
Speaking to Latter-day Saints in a recent General Conference talk, Stephen W. Owen explained this dynamic in our own community of faith:
It is possible for young people to be raised in a Latter-day Saint home, attend all the right Church meetings and classes, even participate in ordinances in the temple, and then walk away “into forbidden paths and [become] lost.” Why does this happen? In many cases, it is because, while they may have been going through the motions of spirituality, they were not truly converted. They were fed but not nourished.
What Jung was teaching is that it’s natural in life to develop a false persona, a compliant conscious way of living that allows us to maintain relationships and function in society, but which can also mask a host of unconscious desires and tendencies that run counter to the norms we’re otherwise consciously trying to live. Jung maintains that over the course of a lifetime, if our unconscious desires are not transformed, they will either be further repressed in a life of pretense, or they will emerge in what is sometimes called “sowing our wild oats,” or open rebellion against the community’s standards and norms.
Recently Jana Riess launched a Kickstarter project for a follow-up to her book The Next Mormons. The research project is set to focus on reasons why members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leave the faith. This is a topic that has been researched several times before, and in my judgment, one oversight of each previous effort has been an avoidance of arguably the most important variable in determining the quality of people’s religious experience: namely, conversion itself.
“You’re not about to leave the church, as you say; you’ve never even been in it.”
Admittedly, conversion is a difficult experience to measure, because it’s not defined with a fixed set of parameters. In restoration scripture, the prophet Alma offers a battery of 50 personal inventory questions that explore conversion and deconversion, but the real value of passages like these can be overlooked in our tendency to think of conversion in terms of a one-time life event. Rather than attempting to assess whether we have retained a one-time internal change of perspective or heart, we would derive greater benefit from appraising our ongoing trajectory: whether it is in the direction of God’s perceptions and priorities or our own private life agendas.Conversion is an ongoing process of transformation that involves what Thomas Keating and other Christian contemplatives have called the abandonment of the “false self”—which is conceptually similar to Jung’s “false persona,” but with important differences. The contemplative tradition holds that our true identity is divine, but when we lack the tools to seek union with God and live in this divine identity, we expend much of our life’s energy on the creation and defense of false identity components, such as our own thoughts, feelings, and desires or group loyalties like nation, race, and party. Since only God and God’s ways offer real sustenance to the soul, we build and maintain the false self with ever-greater intensity either in ignorance of God, or in an effort to avoid God, preferring what Keating calls futile “emotional programs” of pleasure, validation, recognition, or control. The ego, or will, essentially tries to replace God, and instead of leading to peace and inner poise, the ego serves as a pathetic, exhausting taskmaster for a life of reactivity, impulsivity, conflict, numbing, and complaining.
Keating explains how this is possible even among people attempting to live basic Christian values, but who lack real conversion:
We can be converted to the values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and do the best we can to moderate the excesses of our desperate search for security, affection and esteem, and power and control, while our basic attitudes remain the same. This is how conversion is distinguished from external changes of lifestyle. Conversion addresses the heart of the problem. Jesus has some harsh sayings that are incomprehensible unless we see them in the light of the harm that our emotional programs are doing. For example, Jesus said, “If your foot scandalizes you, cut it off.” He wasn’t recommending self-mutilation but was saying that if your emotional programs are so close to you that you love them as much as your own hand or foot or eye, get rid of them. They are programs for human misery that will never work.
Without the ongoing inner transformation we call conversion, religious people simply transfer these emotional programs to a religious context, and religion becomes just another toolset for the creation and defense of the false self. This is why unconverted Christians are every bit as insecure, power-hungry, fearful, lustful, and egocentric as any other group; the only real difference is that unconverted Christians employ scripture and other Christian cultural resources as the means to advance the agenda of the ego.
This can even be true of deeply committed Christians, of course. One of the greatest misunderstandings that we see in Latter-day Saint Christianity, for example, is the mistaken notion that intensity and commitment somehow equate to conversion. Given the unfortunate tendency to see the visibility of one’s church calling as an indicator of one’s spiritual trajectory, it is no wonder that we often see in stories of disaffection what is sometimes called the “Ex-Mormon résumé,” where a former church member offers a list of past visible callings in an attempt to show that they have all the relevant information, and are speaking from the very summit of experience in the faith.
This ironically serves the opposite of its intended purpose—revealing instead the person’s inability to distinguish between commitment and conversion. President Dallin H. Oaks explained in a landmark 2000 talk, The Challenge to Become:
The Savior confirmed the importance of being converted, even for those with a testimony of the truth. In the sublime instructions given at the Last Supper, He told Simon Peter, “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” In order to strengthen his brethren—to nourish and lead the flock of God—this man who had followed Jesus for three years, who had been given the authority of the holy apostleship, who had been a valiant teacher and testifier of the Christian gospel, and whose testimony had caused the Master to declare him blessed still had to be “converted” (emphasis added).
All of this poses distinctive challenges to social science researchers like Jana Riess and others. In attempts to measure dimensions of religious experience like “activity” and “satisfaction,” researchers might ask Latter-day Saints questions about regularity of church and temple attendance; personal practices like prayer and scripture reading; or service in church callings. But rather than indicate one’s level of authentic conversion, these variables can simply be showing the researcher that the subject has a diligent personality; that they enjoy meeting community expectations; that they are comfortable giving assent to other people’s beliefs; or even that they simply find it important to maintain their heritage.
Conversion is the key difference between engaging in all of these religious practices and feeling regularly energized and healed, versus feeling constantly tired and never able to measure up. Many who leave the faith describe feeling relief that they no longer need to pretend to believe and feel things in response to community expectations, whereas among the converted, the opposite is true: the temple, for example, becomes a place of joy and authenticity as we feel no pressure to conform to the world’s delusions.
Authentic love of God and neighbor lead to a soul-renewing balance of vertical and horizontal faith commitments; whereas, for the unconverted, God exists mainly in the abstract—with the gospel message itself ultimately representing a series of theoretical propositions and brain-teasers.
For the social scientist, then, it is not really possible to understand a person’s full experience as a Latter-day Saint without understanding their level of conversion. Scholar Truman Madsen once related a conversation with a friend who was in the process of leaving the faith, where Madsen asked a series of questions to probe the depth of his conversion:
Have you ever prayed and been lifted beyond yourself, both in the manner and the content of your expressions, so that it became more than a dialogue with yourself? Have you ever had the experience … of feeling the wounds on your soul being lifted, being filled with a spirit that warms, and being quickened with a hunger and a thirst to return to the sacrament table where you find healing? Have you ever felt God’s power flow to you as you have been ordained to a calling? Have you felt it as you have ordained someone else to a calling?
Madsen recalled that his friend had almost none of these kinds of experiences, whereas Madsen had most of them. He remarked to his friend “you’re not about to leave the church, as you say; you’ve never even been in it.”
As harsh as it might sound, this assessment is fundamentally correct. The transformative personal experience of God matters—a lot! This is not a mere secondary variable. Jesus taught that unless we’re born again from on high, we cannot see the kingdom of God. Rather than experience for themselves the spiritual abundance and goodness of the kingdom, the unconverted will only ever see a “religion,” a culture full of issues to agonize about, and checklists of tasks. “Doing church” is not the same experience as an ongoing profound soul-level surrender to Christ.
Getting beyond this requires a deeper change inside that cleans out what is skewing our vision. Echoing the Buddhist “three poisons” of self-generated suffering, Thomas Keating said that seeing in the context of Christian conversion entails a mature embrace of present reality:
We can receive people and events as they are, rather than filtered through what we would like them to be, expect them to be, or demand them to be. This requires letting go of the attachments, aversions, “shoulds,” and demands on others and on life that reflect the mentality of a child rather than that of a grownup.
It’s common to hear concerns about “boundary maintenance” in our community—portrayed as a bad thing that excludes people. But I would argue our objective, lived reality is that we are already a community with implicit boundaries—the main one being this basic pursuit of conversion versus the use of experiences at church to pursue other aspirations such as social interaction, affirmation, status, or recognition. People seeking a deepening of conversion ultimately draw closer with others seeking similar levels of spiritual hunger.
“Doing church” is not the same experience as an ongoing profound soul-level surrender to Christ.
The divide in our community came into shocking view recently as “MomTok,” a group of “Mormon” TikTok influencers with millions of followers, suddenly imploded amid revelations of marital infidelity among their families. While they and people like myself might share some amount of religious heritage from the past, their actual personal experience of religion is unrecognizable to members of the Church who are primarily seeking to deepen conversion to Christ and His Gospel.
Without measuring conversion, it’s not really possible to ascertain why people of faith stay or leave or behave in any particular way. In the absence of that, our variables are more likely to just measure some combination of personality traits and worldview and how they play out in a faith community.
All this also explains my own urgency to gather a collection of resources on conversion designed to facilitate a better understanding of this essential variable that tends to elude researchers measuring disaffection. My own investment in this discussion stems from a personal sense that most of my own conversion to the restored gospel has taken place recently, in my forties. I’m reminded of a phrase in the hymn Lead Kindly Light: remember not past years. Surveys of my perceptions and participation in some earlier phases of my life would have painted a very erroneous picture of the amazing lived experience of our faith.
My hope is that researchers will engage in good faith efforts to address this important gap in their studies. Yes, defining the conversion variable is uniquely challenging, especially since many members of our faith are under the mistaken-yet-comforting impression that their experience is representative, that they have seen all there is to see, that they know all there is to know. But conversion is a very different way of seeing a life of faith, and people cannot really see what they have not yet seen.
However blind momentary self-reports may be to some of this, perhaps they can creatively tap into a sense of trajectory people are on—and have been on—and the degree to which they have (or have not) found in their church experience the deep and abiding sense of inner peace that comes with the authentic connection to God and neighbor.