Wednesday, November 2, 2016
Book Review—Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt, by Patrick Q. Mason
This is a somewhat belated review, because it took me a while to get around to Patrick Mason’s volume in the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series. Then again, BYU Studies has been much slower than that at times—one of our books was recently reviewed years after it was out of print—so I won’t apologize.
This is the second book I’ve read in the series, the first being Steve Peck’s Evolving Faith. I didn’t write a review of it, but I should have. It was a fascinating and thought-provoking read, even if some of the science was a bit over my head. Mason’s book, by contrast, is more in my wheelhouse and deals with issues I have a personal interest in and have even written about.
The intent of this volume is to offer a reason to stay in the Church to two sorts of Mormons, who, in Richard Bushman’s words, feel either “switched off” or “squeezed out.” The switched-off group encounters “troublesome information online or somewhere else, usually regarding our history or doctrine” (2). Members in the squeezed-out group feel they “don’t fit in at church. Usually this comes about more because of present issues than past ones” (2).
Mason acknowledges what Elder Ballard has admitted, namely, that when members nowadays have difficult questions, it is no longer sufficient to just tell them to “study their scriptures more, pray harder, serve more diligently, and put their doubts out of their mind” (14). This book attempts to offer, not necessarily answers to difficult questions, but attitudes and rationales for living with them.
In the second chapter, titled “Testimonies,” Mason acknowledges the reality of doubt and the complexity of belief. He then quotes an absolutely heart-wrenching passage from the journal of Mother Teresa, who yearned for God’s love and approval but felt nothing but silence: “Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? . . . I call, I cling, I want—and there is no One to answer—no One on Whom I can cling—no, No One.—Alone. The darkness is so dark. . . . Where is my faith? . . . I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul” (35). This hits close to home. Compared to Mother Teresa, I am selfish and proud and do not probably merit the closeness she craved, and deserved. So I was shocked that someone like her could feel this way. But for many years now, even though I do not experience the degree of darkness she describes, I too have felt empty and disconnected.
Mason concludes this chapter with the statement that “it is possible to have questions and doubts enliven your faith life rather than squelch it” (44). Maybe for some, but this has not been my experience. My questions complicate my faith.
In the next three chapters, Mason deals with the “scandal” of religious belief in the face of modern rationalism, discusses the notion that the past is indeed an odd place, and offers five principles for thinking about Church history. This material may be valuable to some, but for me, personally, there are no surprises in Church history. I haven’t seen it all, but I’ve seen enough that any new anomalies just get filed away with all the others. The cumulative effect, though, is that I no longer see our history as glorious and awe-inspiring. While I do come across individuals whose character and experiences are exemplary, all too often the details of Church history leave me mildly disappointed.
Chapter 6, “In All Patience and Faith,” is the heart of Planted. It is the chapter Mason has said elsewhere that he receives the most correspondence about. He begins with a story from his mission about an investigator couple who were in the process of being converted when they came to the curse in the Book of Mormon, the “skin of blackness” (2 Ne. 5:21). This reinforced what they had heard about Mormons being racist, and their conversion reversed course. Their question, though, is the question for many both inside and outside Mormonism: “Does God lead his church through prophets? Yes. Then why did God either inspire prophets to create a policy, or at the very least allow prophets to perpetuate a policy, that barred blacks from full participation in the church? And even if the policy had originated in something other than direct revelation, why didn’t God intervene until 1978—almost a quarter century after the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Shouldn’t prophets be a step ahead, not a step behind?” “I had no answer,” admits Mason (100).
I’ve dealt with this question in a Dialogue essay titled “Why the True Church Cannot Be Perfect,” but I must admit that the answers I gave don’t completely satisfy me. The main problem I see involves the notion of prophetic infallibility, which Mason addresses in this chapter. Of course we admit that the prophets and apostles are not infallible. We even hear it from the pulpit in general conference with increasing frequency. These acknowledgments ring somewhat hollow, though, when our leaders never give any specific examples of when they have been wrong and when they never apologize for anything. This stance simply reinforces the unspoken message that they are indeed to be considered infallible. And in so many ways, we members go along and grant them this nondoctrinal infallible status. When I worked at Church magazines, because no one would dare question anything that came down the line from a General Authority or give feedback on directives that were less than inspired, the “Brethren” enjoyed what I called “de facto infallibility.” We see this same attitude among local leaders and members in the ecclesiastical side of the organization.
This is not an easy issue. Sure, it’s quite simple to explain, as I did in my essay, that God would destroy our eternal possibilities if he prevented us (including our leaders) from making mistakes. But on a practical level, fallible leaders create ethical conflicts for their followers, and sometimes they cause damage to individuals. In an organization that claims continual revelation through prophets who speak for the Lord, but that also has a history of prophetic error, how can you tell the difference, and what are you supposed to do when you are convinced your leaders are wrong about something? The standard answer is to obey anyway, and you will be blessed for obeying, even if the leaders are wrong. But I don’t buy this. I don’t think the perpetrators of the Mountain Meadows Massacre will get any eternal merit badges for going along with their leaders.
Patrick Mason offers the standard advice of receiving the prophets’ and apostles’ words “in all patience and faith” (D&C 21:5), and in most cases, this is probably best, but I do believe there are instances where the error might be so great that we might face divine censure for going along with it. Beyond this, some errors might cause irreparable harm to individuals or to the organization in which we all have a stake.
A phrase in my patriarchal blessing assures me that I will be able to “forgive the failings of men.” Little did I imagine when the blessing was given that some of that forgiveness would need to be directed toward prophets and apostles, including the founding prophet. Mason reinforces this notion, quoting Elder Holland, who reminds us that our best response to the imperfections of our leaders is to “be patient and kind and forgiving” (113). Mason also makes this important point: “To be clear, this does not mean prophets are not accountable for their teachings and behavior, nor does it require us to abdicate our own agency or personal responsibility on matters of moral conscience. Rather, it recognizes that I am no more the prophets’ ultimate judge than they are mine” (114). And yet we do have to judge. We have to determine whether to follow what we perceive as wrong directives or to not follow. This can be a faith-shattering experience.
Even though Mason does not offer answers to most of the difficult questions members face, he does acknowledge that in some cases “there aren’t good answers to be had” (15). This is the situation I find myself in. Since I deal with Mormonism full time and read a great deal in my spare time, questions have inevitably arisen for which I believe there simply are no good answers. No good “faithful” answers, I should say. Some of my questions lead me to the inevitable conclusion that maybe it is a few of my past assumptions that are off, not the questions. This can be disconcerting, disorienting. But can the Church still provide a home for such disoriented people as me?
In chapter 8, Mason draws on the words and experience of Richard and Claudia Bushman, Lowell Bennion, and Eugene England to offer reasons to stay in the Church in spite of its imperfections. There is some good material here, and this chapter reflects my own feelings. While I have some serious reservations about some of our claims and even some doctrines, I am a Mormon through and through, and the Church gives me opportunities to grow and serve that I probably could not find in another organization, religious or secular. But that means I have to live with a high level of cognitive dissonance. The result is that some of my high council talks are rather, shall we say, unorthodox.
The last two chapters deal with how to cope when the Church is hard and how to create a more welcoming environment in our wards and branches for those who struggle.
Overall, there is much I found valuable in Planted. But I felt it also fell short in the same way that most recent efforts to address faith crises fall short for me. With a few notable exceptions, Mason does not address specific difficult questions. Mostly he provides general strategies and rationales for remaining loyal to an organization that can be aggravatingly imperfect. Perhaps I am expecting too much. And this is a point I have heard before—that those who struggle are not really experiencing a faith crisis as much as a crisis of expectations. And for this the Church is largely at fault. It is trying to remedy this situation with more openness and candor, but at the same time it refuses to take the blame for decades of creating unrealistic expectations and thus producing the resulting crises in members’ lives.
Finally, I need to mention one concern I have with the book. As I was reading page 108, I came to this sentence: “Saying that the church and its prophets are not perfect is not the same as saying they are not true.” There is a footnote at the end of this sentence, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Mason referred to my Dialogue essay mentioned above. So I looked in the notes at the end of the book, and sure enough, he had cited my essay. Of course I was flattered. When I returned to page 108 and continued reading, however, I became perhaps too flattered. I recognized several ideas and even phrases that looked too familiar to me, all without quotation marks or attribution. I will copy Mason’s text below, followed by excerpts from my essay.
Mason: “The prophets cannot be required to be perfect because that would foil the whole purpose of the plan, which is for human beings (including church leaders) to exercise moral agency. . . . If God were to dictate every decision and forcibly instigate every policy, if he refused to allow his church leaders, from prophets to Primary presidents, to ever make mistakes or commit sin, he would be defeating his own purpose: to help us learn to use our moral agency to develop our divine nature and become like he is. God treats the church very much like he treats individuals. As we strive to follow him, he intervenes occasionally to provide us with guidance, to warn us from danger, or to admonish us to change direction.”
Terry: “If the Church were perfect, it would fail miserably in its mission, which is, in part, to perfect us. In essence, if God were to spell out specifically for his apostles and prophets and stake presidents and bishops and auxiliary leaders every step in the Church’s onward march of establishing his kingdom on earth, if he were to dictate every decision and inspire every policy, he would defeat his own purpose. What purpose? To help us become as he is. As disconcerting as this idea might appear on the surface, both reason and experience suggest that God treats the Church in much the same way he treats each of us. As we strive to learn and grow and follow the Savior, our Heavenly Father intervenes periodically in our lives in ways that maximize our opportunities for growth and service.”
A little later in the book, on page 148, I came upon another paragraph that sounded familiar.
Mason: “The church is not only a repository of true doctrine and ordinances but is also a laboratory of love. . . . In this lab, God gives us really dangerous chemicals to work with and clear instructions on how to handle them, but ultimately we have almost complete freedom to do with them what we will. Like any other laboratory, on occasion we blow things up. . . . But God’s answer is to stay in the lab, to clean up the mess—whether it was made by us or others—to keep experimenting and gaining experience until we get it right and do something really amazing with the materials and tools he gave us.”
Terry: “Perhaps it would be more useful to portray the Church not as a perfectly designed and smoothly functioning machine that sweeps up multitudes of converts and churns out prodigious quantities of laudable good works, but as a laboratory—God’s grand laboratory—where we are allowed to experiment with dangerous substances such as free will, authority, differing perspectives, disagreement, incomplete intelligence, and unrefined personalities. In this new metaphor, the Church is a somewhat-controlled environment where we don our lab coats, roll up our sleeves, and get down to the business of finding solutions to real problems. In our experiments, we are able to apply our minds, hearts, ingenuity, initiative, and faith in creating crude approximations of something truly wonderful. And if we sometimes mix the chemicals wrong and blow up part of the lab, so what?”
I’ll let you decide just how close these passages are, but there was obviously some borrowing of both phrases and ideas, more in the first example than the second. Personally, I like Patrick and am inclined to forgive any unacknowledged borrowing. I’m happy these ideas, and even some of my words, are getting broader distribution and hopefully helping individuals who struggle. I’ll take it as a compliment. But as an editor I couldn’t help but wonder if such unattributed borrowing occurs elsewhere in the book with other sources and authors. I don’t fault the Maxwell Institute editors. At BYU Studies, we’re a little OCD about source checking as much as we can, but I know as well as anyone that we cannot expect our interns to catch every instance of borrowing that should be punctuated with quotation marks and referenced with footnotes. They would have to read every referenced source in full and even some sources that the author may not have cited. Ultimately, we have to trust our authors. So this is something that Patrick may need to pay greater attention to in the future. Overall, though, I applaud his effort with Planted.