By Michael Vinson
The devil hath deceived me. And he said unto me: There is no God.
One of the greatest personal crises we as Latter-day Saints can face is the loss of testimony. One Sunday we find ourselves sitting in sacrament meeting and thinking, “What am I doing here?” Perhaps the speaker is rehashing the official view of some episode of Church history, highlighting the miraculous intervention of the Lord’s hand, while we sit there like a weasel in the Lord’s henhouse, doubts and skeptical thoughts raging through our minds. Our loss of belief is highlighted in testimony meetings, which become one of the most troublesome events for someone who no longer believes as she or he once did—listening to a parade of “I knows” every month.
We are not alone in having had our feelings shift. Consider Elder B.H. Roberts, one of Mormonism’s most stalwart defenders, who late in life began to privately doubt the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Wishing to engage in dialogue about these problems with members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, he compiled a series of historical and doctrinal Book of Mormon problems. Among the problems Elder Roberts identified were the stories of Korihor and other anti-Christs, which he considered to be examples of “amateurishness” in the Book of Mormon, concluding they could only have been the product of “a young and undeveloped, but piously inclined mind.” (Dialogue, Fall 1993, 77–86)
After Elder Roberts presented these and other problem points in the Book of Mormon, he was disheartened to see the only reaction of the Brethren was to stand and bear their testimonies to him, with President George Albert Smith being moved to tears. I don’t know how else Roberts coped with his increasing doubts, other than confiding them to his writings, but the psychic price of his doubting is known in depth psychology as “ego alienation.”
Ego alienation has been tied to one of the soul stages that St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul,” while others compare it metaphorically to being lost in a wilderness. Ego alienation may come when we find our testimony beset with questions that we can no longer comfortably answer. One of the psychological categories for this state is “meaninglessness;” if we have lost our previous testimony of the purpose of our life, what are we left with?
The loss of our religious belief system comes with a high psychic price for our souls. This loss is similar to the unmooring of a ship; we may no longer have an anchor to hold us in place, or—to extend the metaphor—a tiller to guide our lives. When set loose like this, there are several ways that ego alienation can run, ranging from deep depression to ego inflation (the idea that nothing should be denied to us).
Usually the story of Korihor is told in Sunday School classes through the lens of his being an “anti-Christ,” where Korihor rebels against the Church by teaching people that there is no God. But let’s approach it as story of ego alienation.
According to Korihor’s account, his loss of belief in God came through a revelation. He claimed that the devil appeared to him “in the form of an angel” and told him there was no God, and then sent him forth to reclaim his people who were going after an unknown god. Our “revelation” leading to the unmooring of our beliefs might come from realizations about the conflicts of science with religion, or from learning about times when Joseph Smith acted far out of character from what we deem acceptable ways for a prophet to behave, or from any of a multitude of other doctrinal, historical, or policy issues regarding the Church. It is what we do during this questioning and doubting state that determines the next steps in our personal reaction.
For Korihor, once he came to believe there was no God, he felt that all normal limitations were lifted in his personal life. He seemed to move quickly from ego alienation (confronting questions about the purpose and meaning of life, and wondering if there is a God) to ego inflation (thinking that he was entitled to anything he desired, since there was no God). He started a church and began teaching things “pleasing unto the carnal mind,” such as that every man “fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength.”
If we think of our egos as encompassing those personal attributes that we wish to present to the world, then Korihor presents a case of the ego run wild. He had no inhibitions once he believed there was no God, and he felt free to indulge every natural desire of his heart, whether it was material gain or sexual lust, which he justified by the denial of any belief in an afterlife: “when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.”
If we succumb to ego inflation in a way similar to Korihor, we might see doors opening to alcohol and stimulant experimentation, or we might feel like casting off those puritanical sexual inhibitions that have been holding us back from a life of pleasure, or any of a multitude of other options which we believe have been denied to us as active, believing members of the Church.
Is there a healthier alternative for those of us who are experiencing ego alienation? Carl Jung, a leading figure in depth psychology, had this to say about the role of religion in ego alienation:
Among all my patients in the second half of life—that is to say, over thirty-five—there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age give to their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook.
Jung believed that we need to embrace our historical religious beliefs in spite of our worldly scientific knowledge, for it is the endeavor of these non-provable religious symbols to give us a sense of higher purpose. In Jung’s words, “There is . . . a strong empirical reason why we should hold beliefs that we know can never be proved” (Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 11: 509).
Jung does not mean that we need to belong to one particular church or religion. He is instead suggesting that a living church and religion offers us the opportunity to use the concept of a deity to temper our egotistical desires. This substitution of “God” for “self” comes with its own psychic price, which is the sacrifice of a real connection with our unconscious “Self” (the healthy combination of the ego and the unconscious). However, Jung considered this state—a mediated connection between the conscious and unconscious—preferable to falling off the cliffs of ego alienation or inflation. Jung advocated religious beliefs because we need “ideas and convictions” that will give meaning to our lives and enable us to locate ourselves in the universe.
If Jung is right, perhaps we should consider that the important question isn’t “Is the Church literally true?” but “How can I engage religious questions in a way healthy for my soul?” Perhaps we might think if we have lost our testimony it would be better to stay away from our ward. Jung might suggest, however, that even with our shifting beliefs, our wards still have much to offer by providing unprovable meaning to our lives and helping to “anchor” our egos at the pier of love.