by Michael Barker
The December 2014 issue of the Ensign has an article by R. Val Johnson entitled, “The Answer to All the Hard Questions.” It’s intended audience seems to be those in faith transition, but the author attempts a reductionistic-like answer to “all the hard questions.” It’s almost an alchemist’s attempt to take all the doubts and turn them into gold. The following is a critique of Johnson’s article. Quotes from the article will be highlighted.
“Some of the hardest questions come when what we believe is challenged by changing cultural fashions or by new information, sometimes misinformation, that critics of the Church confront us with.”
The real problem for the doubter is new information. Right? The real problem (new information) is sandwiched between two easy tropes: “the world is changing its standards, but we shouldn’t,” and “don’t read anti-Mormon stuff.” By putting the problem of new information between two tropes that get used over and over again by members of our Church, it downplays the reality of the problem. Instead of dealing compassionately with a friend that is in faith transition, the family or ward member, is allowed to state either:
- The doubts are coming because one is changing their standards to fit the standards of the world (this is code-speak for sinning).
- The doubter is just reading anti-Mormon propaganda.
This type of framing causes one, not to lead with compassion and empathy, but to lead with judgment and self-defense.
“What do we do when doubt seeps into our hearts? Are there really answers to those hard questions?
“Seeps into our heart.” Ya, that makes it sound like doubt is a sin; this is a poor verb choice. Something that “seeps” is dark, filthy, sticky, and it stains. What a triggering word choice.
“Yes, there are. In fact, all the answers—all the right answers—depend on the answer to just one question: do I trust God above everyone else?”
Huh? What if God is silent? What if one has been on their knees pleading for guidance out of the dark night of the soul? This article just doesn’t address this real issue. Fiona and Terryl Givens seem to understand the distress one feels when God is silent, much better than the author of the Ensign article does – or at least they acknowledge the painful silence:
“Buckling under the agony of Gethsemane, our Lord pled with God to remove the cup before Him. God could not answer Christ’s pleas for escape from His predicament without compromising the Atonement and the fate of billions. Christ’s self-correction, however, in submitting Himself to the Father’s judgment (‘Thy will be done’), did not limit God’s ability to succor – it expanded it…Response – and relief – came to the Savior only when He did not constrain the manner in which the answer came.”2
Sometimes the answer is, “The Church got it wrong,” or “Brigham and Joseph got it wrong.” The assumption (by saying “all the right answers”) is that the answer will allow the member to still hold onto a traditional view of the Church – that is, everything the Church does is right and righteous. The assumption is that the answers will always leave the Church in good light. The assumption is that there is a wrong answer; I think there are wrong answers. The assumption is that trusting in God = trusting in the Church’s leaders, blindly.
“Perhaps. Truth isn’t always obvious, particularly when it has to compete with alternatives presented in attractive packages.”
True. It is easier to say, “It’s all wrong,” than to accommodate new, and conflicting narratives. I would also add that our questions will determine our answers.
“Often we understand the truth only in part, while the whole remains yet to be learned. And in the learning, we face the uncomfortable prospect of abandoning imperfect but heretofore comforting understandings.”
Yes this is true. This shows a more nuanced view than what was previously stated regarding finding “all the right answers.”
“So how do we go about honestly doubting our doubts? How do we anchor our faith on the solid rock of revelation and not on the sandy soil of shifting human understanding?”
Oh geez. I am tired of members misusing President Uchtdorf’s quote. Revelation is imperfect – both on the institutional and the personal level. It is imperfect because it comes through the sandy soil of the human filter. Revelation is limited by language, cultural milieus, cultural biases, etc. God has to work with all of this and work through all of this. The author’s simplistic view of institutional revelation is setting up people to fail.
Joseph Smith understood that his revelations weren’t perfect. That’s why he constantly and openly revised them over and over again. Brigham Young put it this way:
“I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fulness. The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, grovelling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities . . . ” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 2:314)
“He knows as we are ready to receive and He is ready to deliver. We just need to prepare ourselves to receive it, then seek it.”
Yes and no. He will only give us what our community can bear. So much of whether a doubter ultimately finds themselves within or without the Church depends on how their ward and family community handles the faith transition. The article also states:
“Some questions, particularly of a historical nature, have reasonable explanations, and the more information honest scholarship reveals, the clearer our views become.”
But, doesn’t scholarship rely on the, earlier stated, “shifting human understanding”? – We have two personalities here that are in conflict. Am I right? The article continues:
“We are also blessed to have living prophets and apostles to teach us under the inspiration of heaven. We need not be ‘tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.’ We can trust that their collective guidance will help us.”
Elder Ballard put it this way in our most recent General Conference:
“Recently, I spoke at the new mission presidents’ seminar and counseled these leaders:
‘Keep the eyes of the mission on the leaders of the Church. … We will not and … cannot lead [you] astray.’…
“‘I have discovered in my ministry that those who have become lost [and] confused are typically those who have most often … forgotten that when the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve speak with a united voice, it is the voice of the Lord for that time. The Lord reminds us, ‘Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same’.”
Isn’t it a bit more complicated than the oft-repeated mantra of, “follow the prophet,” or the misused Wilford Woodruff quote from Official Declaration 1: “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray”?
The Lord expects more from us than blind obedience. Brigham Young said:
“Think, Brethren, think. But do not think so far you cannot think back again”1
I believe a corollary can be found with science, and also with the different types of patients I encounter.
“Science” (I know that I’m personifying science, but just hold your horses) has gotten things wrong in the past. We all know this. Yet, this does not detract from the power and authority of science. Similarly, the Church and its prophets have gotten things wrong. This doesn’t take away from the institution’s authoritative voice. The problem though, is that the Church, unlike science, states that,”Doctrine doesn’t change.” That’s a problem that history just doesn’t back up. Anyone with just a little historical probing can see where our past prophets have simply gotten things wrong and where our doctrine has changed, such as:
- The Church’s recent essay on race made it quite clear that our past leaders got it wrong with regards to the Priesthood and Temple ban as it related to those of black-African decent.
- We have this recent quote from President Uchtdorf:
“We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history—along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events—there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question…And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.”
So, we have a tension. Prophets speak for God, through their human filter and they make mistakes. God honors agency, yet our agency might lead us to questions and answers that are at odds with our LDS community and its prophets. So where is the truth in all of this? A quote comes to mind:
Joseph Smith stated,
“By proving contraries, truth is made manifest” (HC 6:248).
It seems to me that the truth is found in the tension between these two poles. It’s in the wrestling that we will find the truth, not is some brusque statement like, “follow the prophet.”
As stated earlier, a corollary can be found in the three types of patients I encounter:
- The patient that doesn’t question their health-care practitioners at all – ever.
- The patient that will take the recommendations of their health care practitioner under suggestion, think about it, and then decide if the recommendation is reasonable.
- The patient that, in a bragging way, rejects all that the health care practitioner says. I’ve heard this type of conversation in the hospital elevator: “Ya, dad just had a triple bypass. The doctors told him no more ice cream. He’s gonna do it anyways. No one is going to tell him what to do.”
Which is the best approach?
The former, seems to be what this article is wanting to convey. Blind obedience. With the former, all agency is being handed over to the church leader. This is immoral. For when one does so, when mistakes are made, all the blame is taken away from the member and is heaved upon the church leader.
The latter is no good either.
I propose that, “informed-obedience” is more in harmony with God honoring agency.
But what if our conclusions are in tension with the institutional Church? Here is where the problem lies. Revelation, as it pertains to the 21st century Church, takes two forms:
- Institutional revelation
- Personal revelation.
The latter is only legitimate in the eyes of the institution if it confirms that the Church is right or if the personal revelation has nothing to do with the truth claims of the Church – ie. finding your car keys. That is where the tension lies and the Church offers no clear rubric of how to negotiate this tension.
Back to the Ensign article:
“If we are to understand the things of God, we can’t depend on human wisdom alone to do the job.”
Yes, this is true, with a whole lot of nuance. I think we can look at good scholarship, and reliably conclude that, for example, Joseph Smith married fourteen year old, Helen Mar Kimball. We don’t need the spirit to confirm that. We do need the spirit to guide us to know what that means for us on an existential/spiritual basis. As pointed out by Dr. Patrick Mason, Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University – I’m paraphrasing here:
“The facts are not the problem. Richard Bushman and Fawn Brody agree on most of the facts. The disagreement is with what it means theologically.”3
The problem is with how these facts affect our hearts.
Paraphrasing Dan Wotherspoon “We need to do the head and the heart work.” The difficulty is that the institution and its members often don’t allow us to come to our own conclusions based upon our “human wisdom” and “confirmations of the spirit.” We are often told indirectly that there really is only one answer.
“We May Need to Wait Upon the Lord. Sometimes we come up blank as we struggle to understand the trials and questions we have. Despite our best efforts, understanding escapes us. The heavens seem closed. That’s when our trust in God enables us to have the patience to wait upon Him. Not all questions will be answered immediately or even in this life. Not all trials will ease before body and spirit separate. But if we love God above all else, if we trust in His love for us, we will be able to endure in faith until that day dawns when the veil lifts and all becomes clear.”
I agree. We need to be patient with ourselves, others, and with God.
“To expand your study of difficult questions, go to lds.org/topics and history.lds.org, among other supportive online resources.”
…and, Todd Compton, apparently. The Huffington Post stated the following recently:
“The church’s public affairs department directed HuffPost to Todd Compton, a Mormon researcher whose 1997 book In Sacred Loneliness compiles a list of 33 well-documented wives of Joseph Smith.“4
How’s that for sweet validation?
The Real Answers
For someone who is doubting or going through a faith crisis, this Ensign article will be of little help. Now, allow me to offer some practical advice from someone who has made mistakes along his faith journey and has seen friends make mistakes along theirs. Just to clarify, most of this advice pertains to those who’s faith transition has been precipitated by historical issues. Those who’s faith transition is due to social issues (ie, the treatment of gays, gender equality), will find only some of the following applicable:
1. Slow down
For many of us, we have been Mormons our entire lives. Isn’t it amazing how quickly everything can fall apart? If your desire is to remain within the Church, realize that it will take, most likely, years before you have reconstructed your faith into something that is meaningful.
2. Read good scholarship
If your faith transition began due to historical issues, just so you know, blog posts and Face Book threads don’t count as scholarship. To be frank, I have seen people get upset over something they have read online, but are just too lazy to pick up a book written by a scholar, that goes into more detail and provides some type of historical context to the subject at hand.
3.Don’t be a “Rough-Stone-Roller.”
I made up that phrase a few weeks back. There are two types of “Rough-Stone-Rollers.”
The person that is just a plain jerk because he/she knew all of the crazy historical stuff because they read, Rough Stone Rolling. This is usually some apologist that is just being a jerk. “What’s the big deal? I already knew this stuff because I read Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, five years ago so stop your whining. Do you even know who Richard Bushman is?” (say it with a Napoleon Dynamite voice, it’s way funny) I just want to punch those people in the neck-meat.
The other Rough-Stone-Roller member is one in faith transition and feels that everybody needs to know all the dark history of our Church because they just read, Rough Stone Rolling. I’ve been that dude. It’s not helpful. Some people approach Mormonism in a very utilitarian way. It just works for them in a maximally beneficial way without knowing all the gory details. This isn’t a naive way to approach Mormonism. It isn’t a lesser way to approach Mormonism, it’s just different. Learn to respect that.
4.Don’t write that freaking letter
You know the letter. It’s the one that is written to the entire family laying out all the problems one has with the Church. I’ve never seen that work out well. I know it is cathartic, but don’t do it. For many family members, this will not only be the first time they’ve heard about all the problems, but it will be the first time they’ve heard them from you. It is shocking. They don’t know what to do. “What the hell happened to my sister or brother?” they’ll ask. It shakes them, so they go into defense-mode because they are scared. Don’t write the letter. Something that is written, seems to be permanent. I know it feels cathartic to write the letter, just don’t do it.
5.Relationships are more important than truth
See number four. Even though family and ward members will be hurtful in their attempts to “help you”, you must be kind. If they pass along some article from the Ensign, don’t respond, or just say, “Thank you.”
6.Avoid the Face Book wars
Language is more than words. It’s body language, voice inflections, etc. None of that is seen in a Face Book rant. Furthermore, even if it’s a friend, the computer causes some weird distance and anonymity where people will just say the most horrible things to each other.
7. Find a community, and even better, a friend that understands.
This is the tricky part. For many, they have doubted in silence for a very, very long time. Once they find a community that will validate them, it is relieving. The pressure valve just goes bananas. It’s important to find people that will just sit with you. But, at some point we have to be willing to receive some critiques. Too many of the Face Book communities are echo-chambers. They become a feeding-frenzy of validation without the critique. Be open to different approaches to Mormonism. Try on these “different hats” and see if one of them works – maybe one will, and maybe none will.
To be honest, the best thing is to find a person that will sit with you face to face and listen. There is something just different and more intimate about having that friend to talk to across the table, during lunch.
8.Find a spiritual practice that works.
This might be traditional Mormon prayer and scripture reading. For me, I needed a different approach. I found meditation grounded me better. I recommend Phil McLemore’s meditation course for Mormons5.
9.Take a Sabbatical
If things get really bad, consider taking a break, but with a firm date of when you will return. The Sabbatical can be just from the second and third hours of church, with you still attending Sacrament Meeting. Or, it can be a complete Sabbatical from church. But set a date of when you will return. I recommend your Sabbatical being no longer than two months. Any longer than that and you will find that you feel like even more of an outsider when you return. When people say, “Hey, I’ve missed seeing you at church,” you respond, “Thanks. I’m taking a Sabbatical. I’ll be back on….”
10. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
When people from church ask you, “How are you doing?” They probably just mean, “How are you doing?” – nothing else. They aren’t spies sent from the bishop. Often those of us in faith-transition read into that simple question something nefarious. Relax. Mormons are usually good people.
You will think that he wrote these books about Mormons, not Jews.
The largest problem I see with this particular Ensign article, is that R. Val Johnson is giving uninformed advice; it seems that the author has never experienced serious doubts. The article does have some good advice, but it too easily fell into the simple answers. The other problem is that the article focuses on doubts brought on by historical issues. It doesn’t touch issues of conscience such as gender inequality, treatment of minorities, treatment of gays, etc. So, much of the advice just rings hollow. I worry that this article will prove to be unhelpful for the doubter, but instead will be used as a battling-ram by more traditional-believing-Mormons against their doubting family members and friends. So, when someone sends you a link to this Ensign article, remember to just say, “Thank you.”
1Brigham Young, JD 3:247, “Instructions to the Bishops—Men Judged According to Their Knowledge—Organization of the Spirit and Body—Thought and Labor to Be Blended Together” A Discourse by President Brigham Young, Delivered in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, March 16, 1856)
2Terryl Givens, Fiona Givens, The Crucible of Doubt, pg. 129.
4 Carol Kuruvilla,What Do We Know About Mormon Leader Joseph Smith’s Wives?, The Huffington Post, November 26, 2014