Tuesday, August 27, 2013

How Doubt Can Save Your Faith

There is much talk these days about doubt. Much of the reason, at least for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), is the recent article in the New York Times about Hans Mattson’s doubts and uncertainties.

Mattson was an Area Authority for the Mormon Church in Europe, a position of no small sway. He had grown in his understanding of the Church the way most Mormons do: by attending classes and reading church-recommended literature. Unfortunately, this doctrinal fare left him without answers when he came upon anti-Mormon literature that he didn’t understand. This burden seems to have had a very troubling effect on his faith. I feel bad for him.

As a recently returned missionary, I was once asked by a former school-mate to attend a meeting with some friends. When I arrived I got a surprise. The room was occupied by several adults that all had an axe to grind. They all wanted to expose me to the errors of my church and convert me to their own brand of religion. They were persistent and didn’t concern themselves one bit about the stress that this attack on my faith might cause me. I left the meeting unable to answer many of their questions. I had never been exposed to them before. They weren’t questions that ever came up in my seminary, Sunday school or priesthood classes. I was a bit traumatized.   

Some months later I happened upon a volume by Hugh Nibley titled Lehi in the Desert. This is a book showing the remarkable similarities between the Near East (during the time of the Book of Mormon journey of Lehi and his family) and the incidents narrated in the first Book of Nephi in the Book of Mormon. The book is an argument against those who had criticized the Book of Mormon for being na├»ve and uninformed – and thence false. I couldn’t put the book down. Here at last was a Latter-day Saint scholar who wasn’t afraid to respond to our critics. In coming years I would continue devouring Nibley’s books and many other writings by informed Mormon scholars. 

Nibley wrote a lot of things and his work catalyzed a small army of Mormon apologists with expertise in various fields of study. Much of this work has been published by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), an organization that I have followed for decades.

Within the FARMS Review (and it’s various other names) lie hundreds of responses to Mormon detractors. One can read these responses without having to burden oneself with the negativity of anti-Mormon authors themselves. All it takes is a little exposure to this literature to realize that we Latter-day Saints have a lot of answers to the many criticisms of our detractors. And these answers are quite impressive, and often faith promoting. Sadly, though, very few members of the church take the time to read any of this – or even know that this literature exists. This is even true of some church leaders, as Mattson’s example shows.

It is time that we give a bit more heed to these issues. This is, in fact, the scriptural admonition for those of us that become exposed to deceit: “Wherefore, beware lest ye be deceived…” (Doctrine and Covenants 46:8); “Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods…” (Deuteronomy 11:16); “And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you.” (my italics).

What exactly does “heed” mean? It means to pay attention to, to take notice of, or to be careful about. And paying close attention to the swirl of opinions and deceit all around us is something we very much need. But what I want to specifically point out is that playing close attention also involves a healthy dose of doubt. I know this will be denied by many well-meaning and faithful persons. Doubt, after all, is what the scriptures tell us to avoid. Before you discard my argument, however, consider a couple of the most important definitions of doubt.

Doubt can be a denial of, or a hesitation about, divine things. This is the meaning we normally intend when we contrast doubt with faith. This is what Bruce R. McConkie means when he writes, “Faith and belief are of God; doubt and skepticism are of the devil.”

But doubt can also involve a healthy amount of questioning. Doubt, according to John Henry Newman, is just one of three ways of holding a proposition. “A question is the expression of a doubt… To doubt, for instance, is not to see one’s way…” If we are not to be deceived; and if the greatest modern sources of deception lie in the swelter of specious religious advocacy groups and their ever-increasing volumes of propaganda; than taking heed must involve a great deal of skepticism. In a word, giving heed needs to involve this questioning form of doubt.

Yet, sadly, the majority of Latter-day Saints are not at all prepared to take this kind of heed. And the by-product of this lack is a vulnerability to deceit.

I have been watching this happen over a number of years in my own extended family. It is a painful thing to see. The process is now almost too obvious to me: a faithful member of the Church comes across some anti-Mormon literature; The information comes as a great shock, which is often followed by pain and a feeling of betrayal, which is then often followed by a falling away from the faith.

In the cases I am aware of, the shock of discovering critical arguments about the Church is caused primarily because of a lack of previous exposure to these arguments. It comes because we have not taught are youth to question for ourselves. It may be true (it is certainly true) that Mormon doctrine requires that we find answers for ourselves. But it is also sadly true that we often give only one narrative to our varied history. We never tell our youth that other people see things differently than we do. We don’t ask our youth to give heed to potential challenges.

This may sound critical. I guess it is. I don’t mean to be completely negative though. We, as members of the Church, do a marvelous job of encouraging everyone to find truth by seeking and doing. This is clearly the pattern outlined in sacred literature. But following the spirit and proceeding through our uncertainties with an active faith are the second part of avoiding deception. The first part is to give heed. And this is the part we stand in great need of improving. Without it, our friends and loved-ones will continue to be shocked by falsehoods and partial truths and then lose their faith. It is certainly time to start questioning a little more. We need to feel comfortable doubting all these claims.

Let’s look a little more closely at a few words. Let’s compare the words faith and credulity. Faith is confidence, trust, or experiential belief. It carries with it a motivational mindset. It is the underlying foundation of all action, as we learn in the Lectures on Faith. Credulity, on the other hand, is an over readiness to believe, or a disposition to believe on weak or insufficient grounds.

These two words stand in contrast to the two concepts we’ve just been considering, I mean doubt and disbelief. Where doubt involves questioning and a certain tentativeness; disbelief, like credulity, is quicker to proceed – or perhaps quicker to draw conclusions. Both disbelief and credulity are often poorly informed. Doubt, on the other hand (at least in Newman’s sense), is cautious and looks for more answers as it proceeds.

We love the innocence of children. We see a hint of the divine in their purity and sense the light of Christ in their countenance. And Christ has asked us to be more like them. But children can often be credulous. And we might mistakenly assume that in our modeling of children, we are expected to blindly believe as they often do.

Paul was himself quite worried about this among the Corinthian saints. “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3).

It is interesting that Paul would use this image of the serpent. It is the same image that Christ used when admonishing His disciples to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

And in a little-known scripture that I love, the author of Proverbs asks that knowledge and understanding not, “depart from thine eyes: keep sound wisdom and discretion: so shall they be life unto thy soul… then shalt thou walk in the way safely, and thy foot shall not stumble”. (Proverbs 3: 21-23).

I think the word discretion is particularly appropriate here, especially the meaning it bears of cautious judgment and discrimination. There is clearly no blind faith implied here.

But in our church, I see a lot of credulity and a need for a great deal more discretion in gospel teaching. I see far too many persons advancing chronologically through our various curricula developing a sense of absolute opinion on questions of history and doctrine – when uncertainty needs to be acknowledged. If we do this right, there is no need to worry. Terryl Givens (in an important fireside address in Palo Alto, California) rejoiced in this uncertainty.

He said, “in this world, one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial.” And in a candid moment admitted that “I am grateful for a propensity to doubt, because it gives me the capacity to freely believe.”

On the other hand credulity, though certainly not a sin, is very much a vulnerability. I have seen it up close in my own extended family when an individual learned about Joseph Smith’s relationship with a young woman named Fanny Alger. Polygamy is one of those subjects that we hardly talk about in the Church. We certainly ignore the occasional unsavory examples that did exist.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the anti-Mormon crowd relishes the thought of Joseph Smith as an adulterer and libertine. Even Oliver Cowdery hinted to the same effect when Joseph became involved with the young woman (Fanny) that had been working as a maid in his home. What Oliver did not know was that Joseph and Fanny had been married.

This happened at the time when Joseph was struggling to deal with the issues of plural marriage – being required to bring back the ancient practice, but hesitating because of the resistance he expected. For believing Latter-day Saints it is understandable that Joseph would feel the need to keep this early effort quiet.

Critics of the church almost always fail to mention the visit that Joseph made to Fanny’s parents asking for permission to marry her – permission that was readily granted. Yes there are other polygamous cases that look funny to us, cases where the plural wives seem to have been married already. But we make a serious mistake pretending to understand the situations involved. We have marriage records and a handful of letters and diaries, but very little of specific contexts.

Susan Easton Black mentioned years ago (in a class I took from her) that one can find every sort of experience in the Mormon history of polygamy. This experience ranges from the tragic to the sublime. The historical reality is that thousands of highly spiritually sensitive persons (including several remarkably independent individuals) knew and loved Joseph and would not have followed a libertine as they followed Joseph.

Why can’t we talk about this more openly? It can come as a surprise, for sure. But if we don’t bring it up in an environment of faith, it will very likely come up in an environment of disbelief. In such an environment in will not only shock, it can spiritually maim.

We already have a rudimentary sense of apologetics in the Church. We can build on this. As a young missionary I learned of the oft-repeated argument found in the Book of Revelation (the last book in the Bible) that God would punish those who added to His words (implying that subsequently revealed scriptures were not possible). I learned, however, that there is a similar text found in the Book of Deuteronomy (a book found towards the beginning of the Bible). This second scripture made it obvious that the divine warning at the end of the Bible was really a warning only for the Book of Revelation. The implication being that God can continue instructing His children and that revelation from God to man need not cease.

This is a simple example. Anti-Mormon literature today can be more subtle, malicious, and just mean. It is also more available (through the internet) and more organized. It is unlikely that any active Latter-day Saint today will escape this onslaught – whether it comes to friends, to loved ones or to oneself. We need to know how to handle the shock that comes when we get exposed to criticisms of our faith.

One of the normal responses to this exposure is betrayal. “How is that I have been a member of the Church all my life and have never heard of this before?” is a typical feeling. Elder Mattson (though not a member all of his life) seems to have felt this way.

We should be more aware of credulity and of its vulnerability, more serious about real scholarship. We will be shown the direction the Church has chosen to follow at the end of the year – with the new format for our organ of apologetics (that will displace the Mormon Studies Review). It will deserve our studied care, whatever form it takes.   

I am not suggesting that we hurry to our Sunday School classes and begin troubling others with contrarieties. But I am suggesting that we not shy away from teaching moments when they come. I am also convinced that we should stop disparaging those that have questions.

I have a handful of questions about my faith – questions that our best scholarship does not entirely resolve, at least to me. But I have the advantage of an empirical background. As a scientist I know that rational certainty is a rare luxury. And even on those subjects that I wonder about, I recognize that nobody has a clear understanding on these issues. Why should I lose my faith over such uncertainties?

This is where my uncertainty and questioning – my doubt, if you will, are a great blessing. They keep me grounded in a world of false accusations and pointed criticisms. When I learn of these religious attacks, I have the benefit of several defenses. I know where to find a vast literature of faithful responses. I know that certainty on these issues is not likely. And I know that better minds than my own, have faithfully handled these issues already, and give me motivation to keep looking for answers. A healthy attitude of questioning is a very valuable asset to anyone with faith.

In the end, let us focus on faith and not belief. Faith is a total vital response, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith reminded us years ago. Belief is the rational inclination to propositions. It can trouble us to no-end if we imagine that it is our ultimate goal – it shouldn’t be. It is faith that draws us to Heaven and informs our spiritual lives. Faith is the answer to doubt, and it has nothing to fear from uncertainty.

The FARMS Review grew out of the Review of Books on the Book of Mormon; later the FARMS Review of Books; later, The FARMS Review; and most recently, Mormon Studies Review – which will be changing itself again by the end of the year. McConkie’s statement on doubt comes from Mormon Doctrine (page 208 in the Second edition (1966) under “doubt”). John Henry Newman’s statement on doubt comes from his very important A Grammar of Assent (page 4 in my 1947 edition published by Longman’s, Green and Company). Terryl Givens address entitled Letter to a Doubter can be found at: terrylgivens.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Letter-to-a-Doubter.pdf. For a discussion of the Fanny Alger question see Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, published in 2005 by Alfred A. Knopf. Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s comparison of faith and belief can be found in his book by that name: Faith and Belief.


  1. Wow.... I wish I had known about this blog sooner! I can't express how much this post resonated with me. I think I was a teenager when I first became aware of the whole polygamy history in our church and it rocked my world. I was somewhat mollified because I had incorrectly assumed that when they stopped the practice it was because they were corrected and told to stop...(because in my mind OBVIOUSLY this practice was abusive, demeaning, degrading, insulting ect). It wasn't until my early 20's when I discovered the real circumstances surrounding the end of the practice. It was the catalyst to my biggest crisis of faith. It continues to be a very vulnerable spot for me in my testimony. I did feel those things described - betrayed, deceived, manipulated - and I give credit my dad for helping prevent this from being catastrophic. he allowed me to express my thoughts, feelings and anger. I was fortunate to grow up with parents who encouraged and respected our questions and ideas. I love that explanation of belief vs faith. that is essentially what has kept my head above water. I can't force myself (and don't want to try to force myself) to "believe" things that feel so contrary to the light inside me just because they are part of the package of the church I belong to. I do have "faith" that whatever wrongs needing to righted will be. I have faith that what I am incapable of understanding right now will become clear and beautiful to me. I won't be forced to embrace an idea that is damaging to my spirit. Our religion seems to be kind of an "all or nothing" package deal. I have had to learn to allow myself to feel I have a right to embrace what feels true and leave what I don't where it is. And not feel guilty about it. Ultimately we can choose what we have "faith" in, but I tried forcing myself to "believe" in things that felt repulsive to me and it almost destroyed me. if that is the only options to people like me with questions then it becomes obvious why so many are leaving the church. I hope and pray for the environment of the church to be more accepting of those who have unresolved questions.

  2. Thanks Chelan for your wonderful comment. Since writing this I have had to deal with yet another instance close to home. It never gets easier.