Monday, August 14, 2017

Questions, Doubts, and Faith Crises



By all accounts, quite a few Mormons are leaving the faith, and many more are entertaining serious questions about the Church. I certainly belong to the latter group. It sort of comes with the territory, I suppose.
Most of my ward members and probably most of you out there in the blogosphere live a very different life than I do. If you work full time, you may go to your job every day and write computer code or teach biology or install heating and air conditioning or help people with wills and trusts or manage a restaurant or build cabinets or do any number of “ordinary” jobs that keep the economy humming. But I go to work every day and deal full time with Mormonism. I am the editorial director at BYU Studies, where we publish the oldest Mormon studies journal as well as a variety of books on Mormonish topics. We don’t do Mormon romances or rah-rah inspirational books. We’re a scholarly publisher, so I deal primarily with articles and books written by professors or certain nonpedigreed scholars. BYU Studies Quarterly is also a multidisciplinary Mormon studies journal, so I get quite an education. I’ve edited articles on everything from cosmology and engineering to music and translation theory. And we publish a lot of LDS history. I have to learn enough about these topics to ask intelligent questions and get a sense for when the authors may be stretching the evidence too far or perhaps giving a one-sided account of some issue. In other words, I get paid to be a skeptic. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Experienced editors tend to look for inconsistencies—in grammar, in usage, in logic, in reasoning, in content, and in sources. So, much of what I read raises questions in my mind.
A significant part of my job is to keep abreast of what’s going on in Mormon studies, and the field is exploding, so this is no easy task. I counted up the other day, and I figure I’ve read over sixty books in the field of Mormon studies in the past ten to fifteen years. I also read Dialogue, Sunstone, Journal of Mormon History, Mormon Historical Studies, and pieces of The Religious Educator. In addition to all this paper reading, I spend a little time each day reading what interests me in the bloggernacle. All this is to give me enough context to judge between what’s reputable scholarship and what is a stretch. Looking into Mormonism in that sort of breadth and depth tends to produce lots of questions. Honestly, I have more questions than anyone I know.
But I have a little trouble relating to some of the terms the Church uses to describe people who ask questions. We often hear the terms “faith crisis” or “doubt.” But I’ve never felt these terms really describe my mental state. “Doubt” is especially problematic, since it is rarely defined or placed in any sort of useful context. We talk vaguely about those who doubt, but everyone doubts something (if not, then they’re just gullible). Church leaders use this term in a nebulous way that perhaps refers to people who aren’t sure that the Church or the Book of Mormon is true or that Joseph Smith was right all the time. But this word usually isn’t defined in a helpful way. If you’re going to talk about doubts, you’d better be very specific about what it is exactly that you think people doubt, because not all doubts are created equal. That’s why I don’t really consider myself a “doubter.” Of course I have doubts, lots of them. But I never doubt anything that I am certain is true. It is the notion of certainty that is problematic for me.
I prefer to frame things in terms of belief. I believe all sorts of things. And my beliefs are not set in stone. When I learn something new—and I am learning constantly—my beliefs inevitably shift. I’ve said before that if you believe the same things you did last year, then you haven’t learned anything new in that time. New information inevitably shapes what we believe. In essence, the more I learn, the less I am certain of, because I see more context, more possibilities, and more connections. I realize that something I may have been sure of at one point in my life isn’t as simple or as cut and dried as I assumed. So I have learned to be cautious, to think things through more thoroughly. This isn’t doubt. I see it as just being responsible with information. When, for instance, I encounter two doctrines that seem inconsistent, I have to reconsider all the data in order to decide what I believe, and this inevitably results in a more nuanced understanding of what I believe. The gospel is neither simply beautiful nor beautifully simple to those who take it seriously enough to dig beneath the surface. It’s all rather complicated.
Take spirit birth as an example. You may not have read my recent Dialogue article on “The Source of God’s Authority.”1 In the first part of this article, I give an overview of how our doctrine of premortality has changed and developed over the years. After considering all this information, I have decided that what makes most sense to me is what Joseph Smith was teaching in Nauvoo, not what he was teaching in Kirtland or what the Church eventually landed on in the early twentieth century. Joseph taught in Nauvoo that our spirits cannot be created. This is in direct conflict with, say, the book of Moses or what the Proclamation on the Family says, but it’s what makes most sense to me at this point. To the best of our current knowledge, Joseph never taught spirit birth, at least not publicly. For this and other reasons, I prefer the notion that God found us in our spirit state and covenanted with us to become our Father, through adoption. The numbers contribute to my current belief. I’ve estimated that, according to Mormon assumptions, God must have had between 200 and 300 billion children, just for this earth (counting Lucifer’s host, whether one third or just a “third part,” whatever that means). And that is in many ways a conservative estimate. The data is in the appendices to my article. This figure, of course, is just for one of God’s numberless worlds. Having that many children through some process similar to mortal conception, gestation, and birth is problematic, to say the least, even with polygamy gone galactic.
Anyway, this is what I do. I come upon conflicting doctrines or beliefs or historical accounts that somehow don’t add up, and I have to work out what makes the most sense to me. And as I get more information, of course my beliefs shift. So, you could say I doubt, I guess, if you mean that I doubt some of the standard doctrines of the Church or the notion that prophets never make mistakes or teach things that aren’t exactly true. But I prefer to frame these things instead as evolving beliefs, not doubts. I’m just trying to understand truth. And there has never been a “faith crisis.” That term just seems off to me. I’m not experiencing a crisis. What I do is very methodical and patient. I’m not in a hurry, and I’m not going anywhere (like leaving the Church). I just want to understand truth as best I can. And this sometimes gets me, as former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan would put it, crossways with the Church.
Several years ago, I reached the conclusion that it wasn’t my responsibility to defend either Joseph Smith or the Church on everything. This is what apologists do, and as Patrick Mason put it, it has resulted in us defending some forsaken outposts that we never had any business defending. It has caused a lot of problems for the Church. So I figure it is my responsibility to defend the truth, whatever it may be. But before I’m going to defend something vigorously, I have to be pretty sure about it. Truth is not that easy to know with any degree of certainty. I’ll talk about my beliefs and even write articles arguing for my point of view, but I’m not insisting that I’m right. I could very well be wrong, although in the “Source of God’s Authority” article, I explain how I really don’t see any other options than my conclusion, given what we do know and assume.
So, for you doubters out there and you people going through supposed faith crises, don’t be afraid of your doubts. We have every right to doubt things that don’t make sense. And maybe a faith crisis isn’t a crisis after all. Maybe it’s just a step along the path to gaining more knowledge—and more context, more nuance, more depth, more awareness of life’s inherent complexity. Often more knowledge translates into less certainty but more humility, less comfort but greater curiosity, less rigid loyalty to institutional thought patterns but more freedom to believe.
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1. Roger Terry, “The Source of God’s Authority: One Argument for an Unambiguous Doctrine of Preexistence,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 49, no. 3 (Fall 2016): 109–44. A preliminary version of this article can be found on this blog in three consecutive posts beginning at http://mormonomics.blogspot.com/2015/11/authority-part-12-unsettled-doctrine-of.html.