Doubts and Faith Crises
A faith crisis in Mormonism is often caused by doubts in doctrine, practice, or history of the Church. Doubts come when new information conflicts with our prior beliefs about the Church. How do we overcome these doubts? One example is a question I had early on when I began to study Mormonism more earnestly: is evolution the mechanism by which life diversified on earth? My entire upbringing was full of teachings about why biological evolution was contrary to Mormonism. Joseph Fielding Smith wrote a whole book about it before he became the President of the Church. Was Creationism a doctrine that I needed to accept?
Determining Doctrine is Your Personal Responsibility
First, we must look into the doctrine itself to determine if it is even something we “must” believe in. You might say that you have no control over what Church doctrine is, because that is determined by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve; however, it is somewhat more complicated than that:
“Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture, official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith.” (http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/approaching-mormon-doctrine)
There is no place to look for formal statements on what Mormon doctrine is, not even in the scriptures. The scriptures are not doctrine; they are a source of doctrine. It is up to us to determine what is being consistently taught to discover what the doctrine is. It is our personal responsibility to discover what Church doctrine is. In the case of evolution, there are conflicting statements from General Authorities. While there are some staunch and frequently quoted GA’s, such as Joseph Fielding Smith opposing evolution, there are others who were neutral or accepting of evolution. These statements are outlined in the book Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements. Therefore, Creationism is not an official Church doctrine is because it is not “consistently proclaimed in Church publications.”
However, even if the doctrine I was questioning was consistently taught, that does not automatically mean it is true. Reuben J. Clark said, “… The Church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’; and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest” (J. Reuben Clark Jr., “Church Leaders’ Words,” 10). It is our responsibility as part of the “body of the members” to ponder and pray over the words of the brethren to discover if they are being “moved upon by the Holy Ghost.”
Futhermore, sometimes we will receive revelation that the brethren have not yet revealed to the broader membership:
“If the Lord Almighty should reveal to a High Priest, or to any other than the head, things that are, or that have been and will be, and show to him…a new doctrine that will in five, ten, or twenty years hence become the doctrine of this Church and kingdom, but which has not yet been revealed to this people, and reveal it to him by the same Spirit, the same messenger, the same voice, and the same power that gave revelations to Joseph when he was living, it would be a blessing to that High Priest, or individual…” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 3:318)
Our personal knowledge in some areas can exceed that of the membership as a whole. This could include information that conflicts, or seems to conflict, with current Church Doctrine. After all, many doctrines that Joseph Smith revealed contradicted prior ideas, such as the Trinity. Continuing revelation does not only add to current knowledge, but also usurps false ideas. Evolution, if true, must usurp a belief in simplistic Creationism.
Some Doctrines Must be Rejected
“But we should all live so that the Spirit of revelation could dictate and write on the heart and tell us what we should do instead of the traditions of our parents and teachers.” (Discourse of Brigham Young, 36).
Some well-meaning Church members have taught that our prior beliefs will always be vindicated with further study. That is not always true. They may take quotes from apostles or prophets such as the following for this view:
“You may understandably question what you hear on the news, but you need never doubt the testimony of God’s prophets.”
“We do not discard something we know to be true because of something we do not yet understand.” (Neil L. Andersen, Oct. 2014 General Conference)
“Sometimes questions arise because we simply don’t have all the information and we just need a bit more patience. When the entire truth is eventually known, things that didn’t make sense to us before will be resolved to our satisfaction.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Oct. 2013 General Conference)
Note that President Uchtdorf says “sometimes” we need more patience. No amount of further study and prayer would have led Joseph Smith to believe that Methodism is True. In fact the opposite happened, prayer and study led him to the conclusion that the True Church did not exist on the earth. The problem is that in recent years talks from apostles – including Elder Andersen, have not explicitly stated that rejecting what we thought we “knew” is even a possibility. If Elder Andersen follows his own advice, just like many Church members will, it can lead to holding on to false beliefs long past the point where it is necessary. If Elder Andersen follows his own advice, he would be rejecting revelation when it contradicts what he thinks he already “know(s) to be true.” His advice only works if the beliefs we are clinging to are actually true. Otherwise, his refusal to reject falsehoods will lead to further questions and doubts rather than an acceptance of truth. The advice cannot be attributed to every situation and belief.
When we discover information conflicting with prior beliefs, our knowledge often exists somewhere on a spectrum. This spectrum goes from our current/former belief being “highly unlikely” to still being “highly likely.” For beliefs that are in the highly likely end of the scale, or perhaps some in the middle, they need not be rejected. However, when we have something approaching a knowledge that a former belief is false, it can only cause us pain and cognitive dissonance to continue with that belief. To follow the advice of Andersen and Uchtdorf for every situation can lead to false beliefs. We must be willing to correct false beliefs. I believe that biological evolution actually occurs, as attested by many different forms of evidence. I found my former belief in Creationism to be highly unlikely based on the evidence that I had discovered. I do not have to reject evolution just because I formerly “knew” that Creationism was true. There is no reward in Heaven for believing things that are not true. Faith is a hope for things “which are true” (Alma 32:21). It does not matter how common a false belief is, how fervently it has been taught, or high how in station that individual was, that doesn’t make it more true.
The rejection of false doctrine is not a purely negative process: with new information we form new beliefs, it is not simply the rejection of old beliefs. When it comes to learning about evolution, I began to accept evolution as a true principle, I didn’t only reject Creationism. The process of developing faith or knowledge in a new principle has not changed.
Other Sources of Truth
Revelation is one way that we receive truth. However, there are other ways:
“It is our duty and calling, as ministers of the same salvation and Gospel, to gather every item of truth and reject every error. Whether a truth be found with professed infidels, or with the Universalists, or the Church of Rome, or the Methodists, the Church of England, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Quakers, the Shakers, or any other of the various and numerous different sects and parties, all of whom have more or less truth, it is the business of the Elders of this Church (Jesus, their Elder Brother, being at their head) to gather up all the truths in the world pertaining to life and salvation, to the Gospel we preach, … to the sciences, and to philosophy, wherever it may be found in every nation, kindred, tongue, and people and bring it to Zion” (Discourse of Brigham Young, 248).
In some subjects such as science or philosophy some members will set up a false dichotomy: one must choose between revelation or reason/science. However, in Mormonism that cannot exist. We accept truth from anywhere, even when it conflicts with previous doctrines or practices. Biological evolution is something that mankind learned through scientific discovery. However, that means of learning is no less valid than revelation through the President of the Church. Even though it requires the rejection of some teachings of prior Church leaders and some interpretations of scripture, it does not mean that one must reject revelation in favor of science.
The title of this blog is “How I Stopped Doubting” which may seem to imply that I won’t doubt anymore. However, the thing about continuing revelation is that it will still continue. It can be difficult to let go of formerly held beliefs, but it becomes easier with practice. Some questions never yield answers, and part of learning, for me, was to learn to accept those questions that can be pursued but never caught.
Sometimes the process of rejecting false beliefs and replacing them with new ideas can be very alienating. It can be lonely to feel that our beliefs are different than the group at large. However, ultimately I have found that taking ownership over my own beliefs to be very rewarding. The act of taking ownership, rather than passively accepting and struggling with false beliefs, is what removed my doubts. Every teaching received from any source must be personally investigated. In Mormon terms, you must gain a personal testimony of every principle. And sometimes we learn, instead, that a principle is not true.
I may not be doubting now, but I will definitely do it again. However, this time the doubts won’t be quite as painful. The journey of doubt and belief can be exciting rather than debilitating. While the initial struggle will always take some work, it’s worth it in the end. Seeking for truth is much more exciting than stubbornly holding to falsehoods. And that’s why even though I’m not doubting anything in particular right now, I’m sure I’ll find something again.
Personally, I doubt everything. My surety most of all. Faith without doubt to me is a vice. Doubt leavens. =D
Yes, doubt can be wonderfully exciting! There is real, physical and spiritual joy in striving to understand more. I’m addicted.
Doubt is an essential mental tool for learning. When we have over-invested in any idea, doubt is the way we whittle back the excess. Without doubt, we abdicate full reasoning. I embrace doubt and I banish certainty as the shortcut of cowards.