A Crisis of Faith: Per Aspera Ad Astra
Apollo 1 ended in disaster. Astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee sat in their command module, in Cape Canaveral, readying for launch when an electrical failure sparked a fire inside the cabin which rapidly burned through the oxygen rich environment. Before safety crews could blow the hatch and mount a rescue, the astronauts had perished.
Launch Complex 34, the site of the tragedy, was deconstructed down to the concrete pad. NASA has never launched a rocket from Complex 34 since and never will. Like many of disaster sites, it has been made into a memorial for those who have died in the face of bold exploration. A number of plaques adorn Complex 34 as tribute to Grissom, White, and Chaffee. One of which bears the inscription Per Aspera Ad Astra, a latin phrase meaning “through hardship to the stars.”
Per Aspera Ad Astra. This phrase not only serves to immortalize all those who pay the ultimate price in humanity’s quest for the stars, but enobles and emboldens those of us undergoing our own personal forms of crisis and suffering. Life is full of hardships, hells, arduous roads, and existential horrors. But it is by passing through these great trials that we reach the stars — our ultimate destiny. This has been my experience as a human, a Mormon, and of undergoing what many hope never to confront — a Faith Crisis.
There are aspects of a faith crisis I wouldn’t wish on anyone. There are, however, aspects of a Faith Crisis that I would. Like a cylinder full of rocket fuel, a faith crisis can either be the end of one’s spirituality or the gateway to a more mature, robust, and dynamic spiritual life. I feel Mormons are often allergic to doubt, uncertainty, and nuance which leads to us to eschew any experience related to them. But this has potentially stalled our spiritual growth, both as individuals and a community.
The experience of a Faith Crisis, while not being an exclusively Mormon problem, can be exceptionally painful precisely because one is a Mormon. There is so much more wrapped up in our faith than simply our membership to a religious organization. Our religion transcends the Sunday pews to saturate the whole of our lives. It weaves its way in and through every bit of our existence from our particular worldview to our most personal eternal identity. When a faith crisis hits, seemingly out of nowhere, the pain comes from having to rework almost every tiny bit of our relationship to this Church, this world, ourselves, our families, and God. It is a painstaking and drawn out process. For many it takes decades to sort through and reexamine their spiritual lives, for better or for worse. Because Mormonism saturates the whole of our lives the stakes are massive. Our community, our friendships, our families, and our own eternal identity can ride in the balance. This is a tremendous weight which, unfortunately, drives many into unhealthy spiritual isolation. But, as with all things, it is love and acceptance from ourselves and those we love that truly heals us.
Something that is important to understand about a faith crisis for both those who are experiencing one and for those who have loved ones in crisis is that there is no blame to be had. You could be doing everything you are supposed to be doing — reading your scriptures, going to Church, attending the temple — and still feel adrift and spiritually lost. A faith crisis is not precipitated by some large unresolved sin or a desire to live a more salacious lifestyle. I can say with confidence that for people experiencing a faith crisis, more time is spent praying for the return of a simpler faith than daydreaming about what sorts of lifestyles could be pursued outside of the Church.
To experience a faith crisis is to traverse some of the darkest soul-defining paths you will ever face. The feeling is akin to losing cabin pressure on a flight and getting sucked out the door into a freefall that appears to have no end. It is the feeling of humiliation — as if we were the butt of some cosmic joke. It is the feeling of having lost a true friend. For many people, the Church defines them. If they start questioning the legitimacy of the Church, they question the very foundation of their identities, which is exquisitely uncomfortable. But perhaps the salt in the wound of a faith crisis is the profound spiritual silence. Where once God appeared to be everywhere, He is now absent from everything. Even when you cry out in prayer, visit the temple, or listen to the Prophet, the silence pervades. You may finally come to understand how even Jesus cried out in his darkest hour, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Per Aspera. Through hardship. That is the experience of a Faith Crisis. It is not easy. It is among the hardest and most painful things any person of faith could ever experience. But, it can also be one of the most beautifully soul-stretching experiences you could ever have. It is so important to authentically live through and honor this hardship. Feel it. Live it. Embrace it. You are taking part in the great human story and are taking the first true steps to a more vibrant spiritual life.
“To the stars” is an apt metaphor for what happens next in a faith crisis for a number of reasons. First, it requires intense perseverance. Apollo 1 was NASA’s first attempt at sending humans beyond Earth’s orbit. If NASA had decided the human cost of space flight was too high Apollo 11 would never have happened — arguably mankind's greatest achievement thus far. The shock of the initial and sometimes prolonged pain of a faith crisis is startling. This can cause people to withdraw perhaps too early. I know many who have not only deserted the Church, but fled from faith and spirituality in general. Not because they wanted to live in “sin” but because it was simply too painful to hold on any longer. I fault nobody for leaving the Church due to a faith crisis. Sometimes it is genuinely healthier for a person to leave than to subject themselves to further suffering. But, for those who lay aside faith and a spiritual life, I do wish that they had held on just a little longer.
Second, launching a rocket into space is an incredibly violent process. Some of the most volatile and highly reactive materials on Earth are thrown together inside the booster engines. The explosive capacity of any rocket is truly staggering. The pressure differentials created are enough to instantly create ice out of the air while dragon-like hellfire is created from within. But this violence doesn’t result in wanton destruction. It is utilized, actualized, and given purpose — spewing fiery violence out of nozzles to create 7.5 million lbs of thrust. Likewise a faith crisis can feel equally as violent. As described above, it can be pure destruction, leaving nothing but scorched earth in its wake. However, this violence can be transcended and utilized. It is a law of this Universe that creation follows destruction and it is a law that God is especially fond of. We break bread each Sunday for our sacrament which leads to our creative spiritual renewal. Baptism is a symbolic act of killing your old self and creating a new self. And every molecule in our body was forged in the violent heart of a dying star. A fair amount of the pain from a Faith Crisis comes from resisting this destruction. However, if you can lean into the process, take charge, and honor the experience, some pain can be spared and healing expedited. This is especially true if your sorrow can be held by a loving community.
Third, a paraphrase of Newton’s Third Law is that in order to get anywhere you have to leave something behind. Almost every rocket ever devised has multiple booster stages that must be shed from the command module before final orbital speeds can be achieved. The shuttle launches are a great example of this. There are four parts: the orange fuel pod, the two main sequence boosters, and the white shuttle that holds the astronauts. After each piece has fulfilled its purpose, it is jettisoned from the main shuttle in order to shed weight, gain a speed boost, and send the final payload to its final destination. In a Faith Crisis there are pieces of your testimony you will lose or that will evolve beyond recognition — permanently. And that is ok. They served their purpose and their destruction was part of the growing process. Jettisoning them is necessary for where this process is leading and hanging onto them will do more to hinder a spiritual astronaut than help. Trying to undo a faith crisis by clinging to the past can be poisonous to healthy and mature spirituality. Trust that where you’re going is far better than what’s behind.
The fourth, final, and perhaps most on the nose application of Ad Astra is where space flight or faith crisis leads — to the stars — “infinity and beyond,” as it’s said. To say that space, or the moon, or the stars are different from Earth would be to state the obvious. But this final point is so simple and yet so important. The end result of getting into space is to have an experience that is so fundamentally different from any experience had before. Astronauts are literally star sailors and space explorers. Their whole purpose is to do what hasn’t been done, to explore the unexplored, and push humanity further than it’s ever gone. Where a faith crisis leads is to a spiritual place different in kind and quality. The testimony before was rooted in truth claims and binary is-or-isn’t thinking. In its place complexity, nuance, and possibility have grown.
This is far different from what came before but far preferable. Binary truth, while necessary for a time, is ultimately brittle and will fracture under the weight of good criticism. However uncertainty and nuance allows truth to flourish with mystery and wonder. To become different but truer than what was had before. This way of holding truth can bear the weight of context, history, and the enumerable unknowns that comprise reality. Not because it alters or covers up history and context, but it allows them to be as inherently messy as they are. This allows you to maintain a relationship with truth that is big enough to stand the weight of life.
It may bear little to no resemblance to the testimony that came before. Uncertainty, skepticism, and doubt cease to be enemies, becoming instead helpful companions alongside mystery, hope, and faith. The spiritual unknown, while still being tinged with timid apprehension, is a place boldly entered. Divine silence is accepted, as it often comes, and becomes a sign that our spiritual legs are strengthening. While the waves of deconstruction and re-creation continue, they are utilized to come nearer and nearer the truth.
But perhaps the most exhilarating and enabling part of this process is how our understanding of who God is and what He wants from us begins to evolve. Our old conception of God desiring our worship and obedience above all fades from view. What you find is a Divine Being who is complex, vulnerable, and potentially far more real. This God is our friend, ally, and cooperative companion who values our faithful communion above anything else we could offer Him. This God resists definition. He has a wildness about Him and is bigger than any box we could hope to put Him in. This paradigm shift enables us to see that God’s business, bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man, entails much more than simply making people into Mormons who “know” the Church is true. It requires much more from us than just our obedience to a set of laws. God is in the business of making beings like Him. The process of becoming divine will require all of us. It’ll take the best and worst of what we have to offer to get there. But would we expect anything different? We cannot rest on our laurels and be content that Mormonism has brought us to the Moon. It is to the stars God calls us, and beyond.
The main reason I wanted to write this was so that we can deal more kindly with one another. It is hard to have empathy for our family and friends when we have never experienced a faith crisis. But I hope to have opened a door just wide enough to allow for love to flow. I have friends who are in the midst of Faith Crises but are afraid to talk about it with loved ones for fear of condemnation and judgment. There are a lot of things at stake in a faith crisis but spouses, families, and friends, our most cherished relationships on Earth, should not be one of them. To understand that a faith crisis is not the end, but a beginning, allows us to relax about it. Most of the time people only leave the Church if they’re driven away by those who are supposed to love and accept them without condition. If love, understanding, and acceptance pervaded our relationships with each other, a faith crisis might be more a faith evolution/transformation/maturation.
So, if you have a friend or family member undergoing a faith crisis — love them. Ensure to them that your relationship is not at stake in this. It will take mountains of pressure and pain off of them. And if you are suffering your own silent faith crisis, you are not alone. My guess is there’s a silent majority in the Church who have gone through the same experience. Find us. We are out there. And for the love of all that is holy please follow your experience through to the end. Don’t pull back at the start because of the pain or shock of learning Joseph Smith used a stone in a hat to translate the Book of Mormon (in historical context, it’s not that weird). If you’re in the nitty gritty of Church history, don’t sell yourself short, read it all from all sources. If certain Church policies or practices are just too much for you to accept, you don’t have to accept them. There is no Temple Recommend question asking if you agree with every word that comes out of the mouth of any prophet. There is honor and goodness in the struggle of a faith crisis. Drill spiritual wells everywhere so when Sunday leaves you feeling malnourished, you can sustain your spirit on poetry, music, hiking, or whatever. Read the philosophies of men, read theologies, read another spiritual tradition’s scripture. Listen to podcasts and join the conversation millions have had before about the growth and maturation of human spirituality. But above all, take heart, because what lays ahead is of far more worth than what lay behind.
Per Aspera Ad Astra. Through hardship to the stars.
This may be hard to hear, but sometimes a faith crisis leads a loved one out of the Church. This is ok. If you are healthier and safer on the outside, then I won’t stop you. Hell, I’ll encourage you. Just don’t abandon the spiritual path. There is tremendous value in spiritual practice. And spirituality is best practiced in community. Find a new community.
If you leave the Church because of institutional racism, sexism, or homophobia, don’t be surprised to find the same demons plaguing just about everything else. The imperfections found in the Church are found everywhere. The world is in fact not a safe place. So it is best to become strong and resilient.
But if you can stay — if you can learn to thrive in the tension of opposites — there’s a lot of good that can be done. There are hands hanging down that need lifting. There are burdens you can share. There are broken hearts you can bind. And there is a community that can only change from the inside. It won’t change overnight, but sure as people remain in it, it will change.