Episode 57: BYU–Idaho professors Eric and Sarah d’Evegnée on faith, testimony and reconversion

When Latter-day Saints think about conversion, they often think of individuals joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through baptism. But every member is a convert in his or her own right by developing a personal testimony. And sadly, there are times when individuals choose to leave the gospel path. This episode of the Church News podcast features information about those who come back, who reengage in the gospel and build stronger foundations than before. These “reconversions” happen more often than one might think.

Eric d’Evegnée and Sarah Hafen d’Evegnéeare a married couple of BYU–Idaho English professors. Together they are creating and analyzing a database of reconversion stories to learn lessons that might help those with questions of faith. These efforts began decades ago as Sarah d’Evegnée’s father, Elder Bruce C. Hafen, an emeritus general authority of the Church of Jesus Christ spoke on faith and ambiguity at Ricks College. Their campaign grew with Elder Hafen and his wife Marie’s publication of the book  “Faith Is Not Blind,” and now they all continue the conversation with the Faith Is Not Blind Project.

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Transcript

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with leaders, members and others on the Church News team. We end each Church News podcast by giving our guests the last word and the opportunity to answer the very important question, “What do you know now?” We hope each of you will also be able to answer the same question and say, “I have just been listening to the Church News podcast and this is what I know now.”

Often when we think of conversion, we think of individuals joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through baptism, but every member is a convert in their own right as they develop and gain their own personal testimony. Sadly, some choose to leave the gospel path; but happily, many do come back. They are able to reengage in the gospel and build stronger foundations than before. These reconversions happen more often than we might think. Today for the Church News podcast, we are joined by Eric d’Evegnée and Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée, a married couple of BYU–Idaho English professors. Together they are creating and analyzing a database of reconversion stories to learn lessons that might help all of us with questions, or those who have left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints if they ever desire to return. Welcome, both of you, to the Church News podcast. 

Eric d’Evegnée: Oh, thank you, Sarah. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, it’s such a pleasure to have you with us. I was reading earlier that your efforts for this database began, Sarah, when your parents, Marie Hafen and Elder Bruce C. Hafen, an emeritus general authority of the Church, published a book: “Faith is Not Blind.” Sarah, can you start and tell us a little bit about that book and what sets you on this unique and most powerful path?

2:08  

Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée: Well, what’s funny about that story is initially when my parents were considering what they could write about and what was needed, I felt like I understood what they were talking about from a sort of cognitive, academic point of view, but also a very personal point of view. Because my parents had raised me to deal with nuance and ambiguity and uncertainty in the way that my dad had talked about in a talk he initially gave in 1978, where he gave a devotional about dealing with uncertainty. And that devotional had a sort of spike in popularity in the early 2000s, and later because of the internet. He had talked to my husband and I about how many people had reached out to him and said, “We need a more modern version of dealing with uncertainty. What could we do?” Well, fortunately, my parents had raised me in a very nuanced way so that I saw, for me, faith wasn’t blind, and I saw how valuable it was for me personally, to be raised in a way that was appreciative of complexity. And so we had these great conversations with my parents about how they could help people see a pattern, the same pattern they had taught me growing up. It’s a pattern of being able to see both the real and the ideal, and to be able to improve our lives and to improve our testimonies gradually, and to develop the faith that, they call it “worked for earned faith” rather than “blind faith.” 

So we talked to them about the book and went through lots of conversations. We read it in early drafts and then we had a difficult conversation where they said, “What are we going to do with people who don’t read books?” Because the problem — as English teachers, I know that for a lot of people, especially young people, they aren’t reading, especially longer books. And so, Eric actually had the idea to take what my parents had talked about in the podcast with this pattern that’s based on an Oliver Wendell Holmes quote about getting from simplicity to complexity, to a new kind of even deeper simplicity. And Eric said, “What if we had a podcast where we interview people that have actually gone through that pattern? Then ‘Faith is Not Blind,’ the book, would be the theory, and Faith is Not Blind, the podcast, would be the practice.” My parents said, “Let’s do it. Why don’t you be in charge of that?” Well, that was the unexpected part, we didn’t realize we were setting ourselves up for a new project.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And I absolutely love that. I’m one of those people who read your father’s talk in the early 2000s and was able to share it with friends who were dealing with uncertainty or doubt. Eric, you have to have learned so much from starting this podcast, the Faith is Not Blind podcast, and compiling and collecting stories of people who have experienced this kind of reconversion. Tell us what you’ve learned as you’ve undertaken this most unique and important project.

5:38  

Eric d’Evegnée: Yeah, it has been such an interesting project. And I think, for me, it’s been the focus on story, and on personal stories themselves, because I think that stories have the chance to teach us a lot and maybe even teach us the most. And so we were able to find people that we knew for the podcast and find people that had dealt with some kind of complexity, some type of uncertainty in their life, somewhere along the path of their faith, some type of question. And so what we would do is we just interview them and ask them, “How are things like for you early on? What’s happened? What challenges have you faced? And then how have you overcome it? What kinds of things have you kind of worked through?” And we have had all different types of issues, all different types of people, all different types of questions come up. And to be able to see how people have addressed these issues in their own lives, how they’ve been able to take, you know, some of these ideas that come from “Faith is Not Blind,” or dealing with uncertainty or other places, and to see how they apply it in their real lives. And that has been really interesting to be able to see all the different ways that people respond to these challenges and work through them.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And I love that both of you have an academic professional background, that you can work on this project together, and that somehow you can provide and merge your scholarship with your faith. Now, I understand that you have a database where you’ve collected more than 50 of these reconversion stories. 

7:15  

Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée: Yeah, on the website. We started collecting them originally without even meaning to collect them, because we were just looking for inspiring stories of people who had dealt with uncertainty and doubt and questions in a constructive way, and we started to notice that they were just like these little flowers in the podcast, sort of garden where we saw people who had come back to the Church, and we thought, “What if we started actually looking for those stories?” Because initially, I think what started me getting really interested in it was — I did an interview actually, with one of my former students. Her name’s Janae, and she said something that was so startling to me, and so revealing, I think, of kind of what a lot of people’s worldview might be. Janae said, “I didn’t know that you could believe, and then doubt, and then choose to stay.” She said, “I thought you just had to believe and then if you doubted, you had to leave,” and she said just knowing that she had the possibility of staying made her want to stay. I thought, “I wonder if there are people who don’t know that they can stay and if there are people who don’t know they can come back.” So we started on this treasure hunt for these wonderful stories, and honestly, through every podcast —  it’s like we said before, Eric and I — it’s like the best testimony. It’s like a testimony meeting “best of” because we get people sharing these experiences that are unique and individualized and so beautiful, and some of the most beautiful stories came from the people who were reconverted that the Spirit was just so powerful and, telling us in that moment, “Look for more of these stories, their voices need to be heard,” because so many people have studied deconversion, so many people, and we hear the story about deconversion but we don’t hear these stories about reconversion. It’s like these voices that don’t usually get heard. 

BYU–Idaho professors Eric d’Evegnée and Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée with their seven children. Brother and Sister d'Evegnée created and analyzed a database of reconversion stories to learn lessons that might help those with questions of faith.
BYU–Idaho professors Eric d’Evegnée and Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée with their seven children. Brother and Sister d’Evegnée created and analyzed a database of reconversion stories to learn lessons that might help those with questions of faith. Credit: Courtesy d'Evegnée family

9:35  

Eric d’Evegnée: Yeah, and I think that’s where some of our academic background played a role. You know, we teach our students all the time to sort of look for gaps in the research, ways in which you can kind of read research that has been done and then try to fill in those gaps, try to push knowledge further. And it was interesting, because there’s all this work on deconversion. That’s a big subject. We’re undergoing a historical shift in American Christianity over the last 20 years or so, and so there’s a lot of focus on that, and as we’re looking at these stories, we’re like, “Wait a minute, there’s this gap in all of the research. There’s nothing about what happens if someone comes back,” and I thought, and Sarah and I thought, “Boy, this is a really interesting place to kind of study and say, ‘What can we learn from people that have not only just left, but then come back to the same religion that they left, in some cases, a year or two ago, and then in other cases, closer to decades? And so what can we learn about faith and about religiosity by studying this?’”

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and any one of us who feel so strongly and have such a deep testimony of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we all know someone, we all love someone who’s left, and we all hope for this type of story for us and for them. You’ve identified five insights from your research. And for our listener, I just want to kind of summarize, in my own words, some of these insights — and you can correct me if I’m off base — but the five insights are that, number one, language is important. We shouldn’t be so black and white in our thinking. Number two, when people leave the Church, they feel a physical distance from the Church and its members. As Church members, for number three, we all play a role in helping people return to the faith; and four, if someone’s on a journey back, they’re going to have a moment where they realize, “This could be possible for me,” and then they all have to rely on on some sort of spiritual experience or divine intervention to help them feel like this is possible. Is that an accurate summary?

11:47  

Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée: Yeah, I think so. I think with the distance, I would just add, it’s more of a metaphorical distance that is fraught with grief. That symbolic distance has a lot of grief and can inspire a lot of compassion in us, I think.

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’d like to talk about each of those. Can you start and just tell me some of the highlights, some of the things that you’ve learned in this process?

12:14  

Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée: I think for me, the biggest takeaway for me was about possibility, and how our language is a reflection of what we see as our potential choices, because again and again in these narratives — and I was so grateful to have the academic background, because it felt like my academic background enhanced my spiritual background and I was so grateful for that weaving together of the spiritual and the temporal in this project. And so, I would pray about it as I was studying the narratives: “What can I learn, and what do people need?” And I was overwhelmed with, not only the evidence, but with the intensity of this message that revealed that how we speak about our faith can influence our faith itself and our understanding of faith and our relationship with Heavenly Father. So, what I kept seeing again and again, in these narratives was people tended to have a sort of black-and-white way of thinking, and so when they talk about how they expected themselves to be, as members of the Church, often they would say things like, “I was the perfect mother,” or “I was the best missionary.” And we call that a superlative, where you have to be the ideal of that thing, and they talk about it in terms that made it clear that the expectation was they had to be perfect. Otherwise, they couldn’t fit in with the community of God and sometimes didn’t even feel valued by God, unless they did things in a black-and-white way, almost like there was no gray area. And so, if they perceived that the only possibility was to leave if they weren’t perfect, or to leave if they had questions, or to leave if they had doubts, then it was almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy where they would leave, and it was because they didn’t see a possibility for staying. For me, it was overwhelming. I often shed tears while I would read these narratives, because I thought, I wished, that they had had the language and the worldview to see that they were always welcome in a community of Saints, and certainly welcomed by God, and it motivated me to make people want to feel welcome. I think sometimes we don’t express that enough or show that enough so that they can see the possibilities for staying or see the possibility for coming back.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, that is so interesting and such an important insight. Now, another insight that you’ve acknowledged is that there are times when people leave the Church, during their time away from the Church, that they actually feel a sense of alienation or banishment. Eric, can you talk about that?

15:27  

Eric d’Evegnée: You know, Sarah said the key word “overwhelming.” One of the things that comes out of these narratives — and this just hit me over the head as I was reading through these — and it was an overwhelming sense of alienation, and then I use the word “banishment.” And banishment is a little tricky, because I’m not, I wasn’t reading this to assign blame to anyone or anything, I was just trying to analyze the narratives as I saw them. But it was clear that they felt alienated from their community, like they were being pushed away. What was really interesting, one of the things that I had talked about was their use of metaphor to describe their experience often reflected this, which was really interesting. So they would often use the metaphor of distance. They talk about falling away from the Church or leaving, they compare their disbelief or their disaffiliation from the Church, to traveling some type of distance, and that distance, that feeling of being apart or away from other people, it was in every single narrative that we read and it was pervasive. I think, on some level, I think you can read that and I think, “Well, OK. Yeah, of course other people play a role in deconversion, as we’ve known that since the study of deconversions.” It’s been around, but to know the impact of it is a totally different thing, and for me to see the impact, and I started thinking as I was reading through these, I was like, “Oh, wait a minute.” Sometimes, when I think about maybe having discussions with people and people object to something, or they’re upset with something that’s been said by someone, and they’re really upset and angry, that sometimes I think my initial impulse has been to defend what was said, or the person. And I think sometimes I was like, “Oh, I need to listen more,” because I don’t understand, I think, the impact of how people are feeling when they are facing these challenges, and that they are really sensitive to feeling like I am going to disapprove of how they feel or what they think, when in fact, what I need to do is make sure that they know that they’re OK with me. That if we have questions, we want to talk about things, that’s one thing, but making sure that they feel comfortable with me knowing that I’m a friend, or whatever our relationship is. And it’s really interesting, because you see how much the impact of other people had on their choices on how they feel, and just to know that that sense of alienation is really heightened. And in a way, to be honest, I mean, I expected it, but I did not expect to see it on the level that I did.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, that’s so interesting. So we have an insight here, where we’re saying that when people leave the Church, they feel a sense of alienation, and then another important insight is that others play this critical role in both the loss and the return to faith. Sarah, I’d love for you to talk about another insight, and it’s that those who returned to faith often experience a moment that disrupts their previous narratives.

18:47  

Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée: Again, and again, what kept hitting us was, especially as English professors, that this was an epistemological study. In other words, epistemology means the study of how we know things. And what we were seeing is, it was as much a study about worldview, and about how we learn as much as it was about what happened in the story. So what we kept seeing again and again, is people had a worldview that they felt comfortable with, or that, at the very least, they did acknowledge, “This is my worldview, and I am not ready to change it.” And this established worldview, going back to what we said earlier, it’s more about certainty than it is about being right or wrong, and so people want to be certain in their belief system and it takes a whole lot to change that. But what we saw was with either the deconversion or the reconversion, often something happened to change the way that they learned or to change the way that they interacted with information. And what’s so fascinating is often, it wasn’t necessarily the information. It was how they reacted to it. So, on the deconversion side, they might find something out, but it might not actually be the information itself. It was the fact that they didn’t know it that was startling. And then on the reconversion side, to go back to your question, often — so their paradigm, their worldview, their expectations were interrupted. So, if they had the expectation that they had to be banished forever, or they’d never be welcomed back in the Church, something happened to shift their paradigm. So their cognitive state was also shifted so that they could let in information that hadn’t been there before. And this information might be, “Oh, God still loves me.” When one narrator said, “Are we ever too far gone?” And the answer that she got was, “No.” And we kept hearing again and again: “God loved me anyway.” And so they were able to let themselves stop thinking in the black-and-white way of thinking and come to this area of, ”Oh, maybe there are other possibilities for me, I can let in this new information because of an experience because of something that allows me to progress not only spiritually, but cognitively.” And so there’s this beautiful marriage between cognitive growth, epistemological growth, and spiritual growth in their stories.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, Eric, I’m totally interested in what Sarah is saying here, because it feels like it leads right into this fifth insight, which is that there is some sort of consistent awareness or increase of divine influence throughout the accounts of people returning to Church activity.

22:08  

Eric d’Evegnée: Yeah. You know, what you see happening, that disruption that Sarah is talking about, I think it opens up kind of a way for there to be a communication with God or with other members of the Church. And opening up might be the word that I think of, that there’s a softening, a turn where people go, “OK, wait a minute, I can consider this.” And you can see it in the example, I think, that Sarah just gave about the one narrator who says, “Are you ever too far gone?” And what you can see in her story, that narrator in particular was, she’s starting to consider, “Wait a minute, there is a way back. There is a path back.” And oftentimes, that comes through some type of feeling that they have that, you know, some type of spiritual inclination, or sometimes, too, it comes from other people. And it’s someone interacting with them at the right time, who becomes kind of welcoming, or just offers friendship without judgment or anything like that. And it starts to open up this possibility of, “Oh, wait a minute. In these narratives, I can come back, there is something possible for me,” and there’s this really nice connection between how other people are helping. And then, of course, this feeling of, “Oh, I want to be able to communicate now with God, I feel like this closeness that I haven’t had in my life before, or haven’t had in a while,” is now coming back.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I was interested in reading that, oftentimes, when people leave the Church, they stop attending Church meetings, but they rarely stopped believing in God. Sarah, can you talk to us more about that?

24:02  

Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée: I have seen in our research a number of people who felt like if they couldn’t belong to the religion that they have left, they didn’t feel like they belonged with God anymore at all. And so I think it largely depends on the person, but there were people who didn’t believe in God anymore, and then others who did. I think it really was individual. I don’t know — in the narratives that we studied, some of them actually did stop believing in God, and that was interesting to see that even they could come back. A lot of the statistics that we looked at just with deconversion, they talk about the nuns, and so when you look at the Gallup poll and other research studies, a lot of the people who are leaving, they don’t have any religious affiliation, and I think they wonder lot of times if God does exist.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and Eric, it feels like we should take a step back here, and maybe even define what conversion is.

25:12  

Eric d’Evegnée: Yeah, well, conversion: When I think about this, especially I think with the Latter-day Saint audience, we talk about the difference between testimony and conversion. So a testimony is a belief or a trust that something is true, like you have a testimony of the principle of tithing, or you know that Jesus is the Christ. And conversion is when you take all of those things that you know or trust or believe to be true, and conversion is when you turn your life towards them, and you say, “I’m going to start living my life this way, I’m going to be converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to a living and loving Heavenly Father and Savior, and I’m now going to live my life in accordance with that.” And it’s that lifestyle, I think, that is what defines conversion. And then that deconversion, of course, is when someone says, “Well, I can’t do this and I have to disaffiliate in some ways,” and so that path can look kind of different for people. So there’s one researcher who has six different trajectories for people when they deconvert, and all the different things that can happen to them. But that’s that movement, that conversion is, “This is the way I want to live.” Deconversion is that movement away from that, and that’s what makes reconversion so fascinating, is it’s someone who does the conversion, makes that change to deconvert, and then goes back to the original, which is really fascinating because I think that’s what kind of highlights for us: “What is it that makes this interesting? What is it that makes it good for you the second time around?”

Sarah Jane Weaver: And what is it? And I’d love for both of you to weigh in on this question, but what is it that you’re hoping will be accomplished as people look at what you found, as they study your database?

27:04  

Eric d’Evegnée: You know, with the database, I think one thing that I’m hoping that people can get out of it is the hope that we can broaden the discussion of faith. Going back to what Sarah had mentioned earlier about interviewing someone, and then Janae, and she was always thinking about it: “I believe, I doubt and then I leave.” And just broadening this conversation and saying there’s more to the story of faith than just simply faith and doubt, that there are different things that people go through, and different challenges that they face. And I think one of the things this study can do is help us be more compassionate and aware of what other people are going through, and what that can feel like for them to have to deconvert or disaffiliate or some of the struggles that they’re having, because I feel like it’s made me more sympathetic towards that. And then, of course, too, I think it also gives a message of hope, which is something that we have heard from a lot of people since the study came out, is the hope that whether they’re dealing with questions, or people that they love are dealing with questions, that there are ways through a lot of things, and that there are ways in which we can work through questions and challenges, and that we can feel God’s love, and that we can be compassionate and loving towards other people as they kind of work their way. And there’s something about that message for me that I love, it’s just knowing and focusing on, “OK, I have this responsibility to be loving and kind to people and to try to be as helpful as I can be.” Rather than feeling like I have to, you know, defend everything and be ready to fight people on the internet for things. I think it’s a wonderful message that there are more paths than what you might see posted on the Internet, or that’s going around.

29:08  

Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée: I think sometimes it feels like, again, that sort of black-and-white thinking: “Oh, I have a testimony. It’s mine. I just need to hold on to it, and just put it in a little box and keep it so that it doesn’t somehow get tarnished.” Well, I think Alma 32 suggests something different. It suggests we not only plant the seed, but we let it grow and we let it grow deep roots, and then we get to nurture it. And so, I think all of us probably should be asking ourselves, “How am I being reconverted?” I mean, President [Russell M.] Nelson has talked about the Restoration of the Church and celebrating the Restoration of the Church, and doing this project has made me ask myself, “How am I continually restoring my testimony? Do I have a continual restoration and renewal and reconversion in my own testimony? Am I asking questions that would allow me to plant different seeds, and again, just to grow a whole garden of faith, and allow other people to do the same, not expect that their faith is either on or off, but that we’re all in process?” We’re all working together, and that we should all be welcome in the pews at church, and be understanding and forgiving and nurturing with each other’s seeds as well.

Sarah Jane Weaver: We’ve talked a lot about reconversion. Can we talk for a minute about prevention, about what we can do before the crisis?

30:47  

Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée: I think there are a lot of ways that we can treat people’s questions as something natural and helpful, rather than something to be feared. We’ve noticed in the narrative that a lot of people who had questions didn’t feel like it was OK for them to have them, and I think if we can create an environment where questions are welcome, and they’re seen as normal, and they’re seen as developmental, and then we’re teaching each other how to deal constructively with uncertainty rather than to see it as something to be scared of. And we’ve seen that principle again and again in the narratives, but it’s been delightful, actually, to be able to apply that principle with our own kids. So we have four teenagers, and when they’ve had questions, I’ve deliberately tried to treat those questions as something natural and healthy. And so if I can answer their questions in age-appropriate ways as they’re developing, and as they’re going along the process, then the hope is they wouldn’t ever have to reach a crisis point, because we’ve talked about difficult things, as they’ve had questions at family home evening. And then, like my parents modeled in my own home growing up, I knew that it was OK for me to ask questions. That was a part of healthy faith, and they taught me to have a dialogue with them and with Heavenly Father so that I was communicating and never had to get to the point where it reached a crisis, it was just something that developed naturally and beautifully and in a healthy way, all the way along.

32:40  

Eric d’Evegnée: Or something, too — if I can just add something brief to Sarah’s great response — is, I think, just having the conversation might be more important than the answer you give. Yeah, I think as a parent, our children knew that whatever they brought up at the dinner table was fine and we would discuss it, and I think that openness goes a long way, regardless of what the answer to the question is. And I think sometimes we’d have some pretty long conversations, and sometimes we would leave and I would have to read up on stuff and try to understand something better, and we would have a conversation, but it’s just the fact that nothing felt hidden or that there wasn’t a question that we couldn’t try to work through or that questions were bad. I think just the openness itself is really, really healthy and helpful.

Elder Bruce C. and Marie Hafen
Elder Bruce C. and Marie Hafen

Sarah Jane Weaver: And I’m so interested in the fact that so much of this started with a talk that your father gave in the 1970s. The world was different then, and now we live in this world that’s so influenced by the Internet and by social media, and by so much information: Positive, negative, everything in between hitting us all the time. What advice do you have for people who are trying to navigate this and help their families navigate this whole information age that we live in?

34:09  

Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée: I would say to be patient with each other and to allow it to be a process. Reading these stories has reminded me that we have two things that are eternal, and that is time and love. We have an unlimited supply of those two things. And so I think we can nurture each other but realize there is enough love for us to be patient, to be understanding and to not assume that what we see right now is the way that the story will end. I think we can allow ourselves and others to revise our stories to never see someone’s story as a finished product that people can revise their story, and they can learn more and that God will help us in that continual revision process, and that He can teach us how to love people who are in process, and He can teach us how to be patient with them as well. And because we’re in that process, too, we’re all in the same beautiful, continually changing boat of faith together.

35:25  

Eric d’Evegnée: And I love that. I think — just to add a small thing to what Sarah said — is thinking about space. We talked a lot about knowledge. But I think after reading, doing the podcast interviews and reading these narratives, I’m beginning to think more about faith as just simply trust, and, of course, trust implies knowledge because you have to have knowledge of the thing that you have trust in, and in this case, in terms of faith, it’s having a knowledge of the person in whom you trust. And I think with everything going on with the Internet, and the questions of faith that have been around forever, I think it comes down to our relationship with our Heavenly Father and with Jesus Christ. And we saw this in the narratives as well, that that’s where many of the narratives ended, that they talked about this very personal relationship with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, regardless of any of the issues that led to their deconversion. What, ultimately, what they ended with and what was the foundation of their reconversion was their relationship with God. I love this idea. This from Jonathan Sacks, who is a rabbi in England, where he says that faith is a marriage, I believe he says, “Faith is a marriage, and every marriage is an act of faith.” And that when we have a relationship with someone, he’s using this metaphor of marriage, he says we don’t get married because we know how everything is going to work out. We get married because we have this person that we say, “OK, whatever happens in the future, I want to be there with this person.” And I think our relationship with God is somewhat similar to that. I don’t know —when I think about my own questions, things that I think about, about eternity or about history about the world — I don’t know the answer to all of those things, and I don’t know when I’ll know them. But one of the things I do know is the character of Heavenly Father. I know that He knows me, and He loves me, and I trust in that. And so that relationship kind of evolves. It doesn’t mean I know the answer to all things or that I’m always comfortable with everything, but that relationship is the thing that evolves and it grows. And that relationship I started on my mission has grown to what it is now, this kind of deep and abiding, if I can call it, friendship, this tutoring relationship I have with my Heavenly Father, and it has made such a difference to me. Jonathan Sacks had mentioned too that faith is like a marriage. He said, “It’s the combining, it’s a bond between two people against the radical intermittency of the future.” So that we don’t know some things that we’ll encounter, but we can know the person that we trust and have faith in.

38:28  

Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée: Of course, being married to Eric — I love what he says about the comparison with a marriage. And just thinking about our own marriage, we’ve been married for 23 years, and we’ve learned to develop this trust with each other. That comes from experience, and I think when you talk about the things that people find on the internet, often we might find something and just assume it could only mean one thing, rather than stepping back and saying, “Maybe I need to learn more about this.” And I think good marriage allows you to do that, to where you don’t just assume that something that happened or an event automatically means one thing. You ask the person if you’re not sure, based on their relationship and the experiences you’ve had before. You say, “Maybe I’m making an assumption here. Are there other options for this?” Or could I ask, like I do with good literary texts: “What could this mean? Are there possibilities for what this means? And do I need to do further research and talk to people who have experience with this topic who have spent the time and have a sort of marriage with that information? Whether it’s historical information or doctrinal information, could I get to know more so that I can look at past abilities and then make an informed decision based on research and informed faith, but that it’s based on the idea?” Like Eric said, I know the character of God, I’ve gotten to know Him. So if I’m worried about this specific question, are there different possibilities for what it might mean that I could consider and talk to other people, based on the fact that I believe that God is a loving God that wants me to grow, and wants me to become like Him?

Sarah Jane Weaver: What a beautiful way to sort of wrap up this podcast. You know, we have a tradition at the Church News podcast where we have all of our guests answer the same question and then we give them the last word. And so, Eric, let’s start with you and then end with Sarah, but I want you to both answer the same question. And it’s what do you know now, after studying the stories of so many who have found their way back to the faith?

41:05  

Eric d’Evegnée: We can’t ever give up. And I mean that we can’t ever give up on ourselves. We can’t ever give up on other people, and on loving them, because God, Heavenly Father, and Jesus Christ, don’t give up on us. And that’s the thing that is just so beautiful in all of these stories, reconversion stories, stories and challenges, that when people reach out to their Heavenly Father, to see Him reach out to them as a loving Father. And it’s not always easy, I don’t mean to make it sound so neat and tidy, because it’s not, but that somewhere along that path of that asking, and of that dealing with that, those difficulties in that relationship, there’s something beautiful in it. And the beauty of all of it is how enduring God’s love and His mercy is for His children. And I think about that, and I think number one, it’s so amazing to see that and to bear witness of it. But that secondly, it’s a reminder to me of how I need to be, and how I need to be with other people, and how I can’t be worried — maybe I can be worried — but I can’t be upset when people choose paths that are different than my own. I know what my job is: That I am going to be loving and merciful, and helping them see, to some extent, some small fraction, a portion of God’s love through the way that I interact with them. And I think having that be my focus of wanting them to just feel a portion of this, this miraculous love that I see. 

I do want to say this, too, because we’ve been saying so much about knowledge and about belief, and about hope, and I think all of those things are kind of connected together. What’s interesting is, as much as I know anything, I know that God lives, I know that He knows His children, and that He loves them. Those things are as true as anything else that I know, and I trust in Him. And that doesn’t mean I know, you know, that I’m comfortable with all the answers and know everything, but I’m so grateful for that and so grateful to have heard His voice and to feel like He has reached out to me over all these years, and so grateful to have been a missionary. So grateful for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the truthfulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to be able to hear God’s voice and to feel of His Spirit. It has been just one of the great blessings of my life, to feel like I’ve been given that gift. And it has been wonderful to have that opportunity with Sarah for all of these years, and then to be able to watch all of these testimonies, and their growth and watching some of them in different parts progressing and growing as we grow and progress in our own way in our testimony. And it’s been a beautiful thing. I’m so grateful for mortality and the chance that we have to experience the spiritual on Earth and to be able to have faith in that. That has been such a wonderful blessing.

44:36  

Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée: I love that, Eric. It’s been really great to work on this project together. I had an epiphany this week, that it’s something that I know now, I think with more depth, and that is that I trust God more when He asks me to do the unexpected. Because I was realizing this week, as we’ve been able to share about this project, that I was able to go to graduate school because I stopped thinking in black and white about myself and my potential as a woman, and as a faithful woman, I asked God some difficult questions. And as when I was 19 years old, even before my mission, and because I asked those questions, when I had a difficult experience, asking Him about my role as a woman and how I could best contribute and be faithful and stay faithful, the answer I got was to go to graduate school. And I was not expecting that. And I’ve been so grateful that I pursued not only my faith, but my education, and so what I know now is that God will always give us opportunities for growth, and if we take them and put in the work, we will get rewards that are better than anything that we could have expected otherwise. Because I put in the work to know, both spiritually and intellectually, I am able to get to know people’s stories in ways that I never would have without both the academic and the spiritual life. So, now I know the work God gives us and the opportunities that He gives us, they are unlimited if we just listen and talk to Him.

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Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer KellieAnn Halverson and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.