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Mormons navigate faith and doubt in the digital age

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Dr. Terryl Givens has suggested that “members also could do more to avail themselves of reliable resources that are readily available, such as the Joseph Smith Papers, and histories and biographies by respected academic presses."

Dr. Terryl Givens has suggested that “members also could do more to avail themselves of reliable resources that are readily available, such as the Joseph Smith Papers, and histories and biographies by respected academic presses.”

Screenshot from josephsmithpapers.org

SALT LAKE CITY — Two upcoming conferences will explore the uneasy intersection of faith and doubt being carefully traversed by some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The annual conference of the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR) will open Aug. 1 with a presentation by Michael R. Ash on the recently released second edition of his book, "Shaken Faith Syndrome," and will conclude with a panel discussion on "The Loss and Rekindling of Faith." The 2013 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium begins July 31 and will feature sessions exploring such topics as "Faithful Disagreement: A Model for the Saints."

Many Latter-day Saints, however are finding answers that confirm and renew their faith, according to research conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life for its landmark “Mormons in America” study last year. A significant majority — 77 percent — of those who identify themselves as members of the LDS Church "believe wholeheartedly in all the teachings of the church." That number is higher among respondents who have attended college (81 percent), and even higher (85 percent) among those who are college graduates.

Some Latter-day Saints, however — 22 percent in the survey — find that "some teachings of the LDS Church are hard for me to believe." That number declines as individual educational level increases. Only 14 percent of LDS college graduates in the survey expressed such doubts. But anecdotal evidence suggests that other Latter-day Saints have been frustrated because the information and materials they are finding during Internet searches may not square with the things they have learned.

For example, a recent New York Times story focused on Hans H. Mattson, a third-generation Mormon and former bishop, stake president and Area Authority Seventy from Sweden who has been speaking openly, to the Times and elsewhere, about his doubts.

“I felt like I had an earthquake under my feet,” Mattsson told the Times. “Everything I’d been taught, everything I’d been proud to teach and witness just crumbled under my feet.”

Ash, the scholar and author affiliated with FAIR, told the Deseret News he believes "we are seeing a growing problem" in the LDS Church — a problem that has to do with the ready availability of vast resources of information of both the faithful and doubtful varieties.

Speaking in last April’s general conference of the LDS Church, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles cautioned members not to “hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood and resolved.”

“They do and they will,” Elder Holland said. “In this church, what we know will always trump what we do not know. And remember, in this world, everyone is to walk by faith.”

Doubt is not sin

“Doubt is not sin,” said Dr. Terryl Givens, the James A. Bostwick Professor of English at the University of Richmond, the noted author of a number of books on philosophy and theology and a practicing Latter-day Saint. “Doubt can be the beginning of deeper understanding, as it was for Mormonism’s founder. Mormonism claims the possibility of religious certainty, but its scripture also calls simple belief a spiritual gift.”

Dr. Richard L. Bushman, Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University and Howard W. Hunter Visiting Professor in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, said he doesn’t think “you could prove there is more disaffection from Mormonism now than before.”

“People have always found something to object to,” said Bushman, who has served as bishop, stake president and stake patriarch in the church. “Throughout our history, defections have occurred among high church leaders and ordinary members. The difference lies in the issues that disturb them now. Since the rise of the Internet, more people have come across unsettling historical facts. Earlier it might have been plural marriage or blacks and the priesthood. There has always been something.”

Ash expressed sympathy and concern for those who struggle with faith and doubt.

“The pain that comes when one feels they have been betrayed or lied to … can be agonizing,” he said. But, he added, it is especially sad because most of the issues with which people struggle "have all been addressed by able scholars for many years.”

Ash's claim that LDS Church leaders are "aware of this problem and are endeavoring to illuminate such issues before they become stumbling blocks" is illustrated by the LDS Church’s ongoing Joseph Smith Papers project; the book, “Massacre at Mountain Meadows,” written by LDS Church historians Richard E. Turley, Ronald W. Walker and Glen M. Leonard; and the recent update of LDS scripture references and study aids.

Givens referred to a need for openness in an emailed response to questions from the Deseret News.

“Most of the impetus for disaffection does not come from new information per se,” he wrote. “It comes from feelings of betrayal when church curricular materials are found to have presented an incomplete account of the Mormon past.”

Ash said he understands that the church’s curriculum “is set up to draw us closer to Christ” and not to “dwell on the historical details,” but he also understands how some members can be drawn into doubt.

“Someone is working on a lesson or a talk for church, and in his or her research they stumble on some information that upsets them,” he said. “They look into it more and find a whole bunch of anti-Mormon stuff, and suddenly finding the real answers doesn’t matter anymore. Their feelings are hurt. They feel their church has lied to them. They begin doubting everything.”

Givens suggested that “members also could do more to avail themselves of reliable resources that are readily available, such as the Joseph Smith Papers, and histories and biographies by respected academic presses.”

“Sunday School class was never designed to provide a full account of church history, in this or any other denomination of which I am aware,” Givens continued. “Mormon culture also compounds problems by constructing dangerous expectations of prophetic infallibility. Faith must ultimately be about the content of divine revelation, not the means or human instruments by which it is revealed.”

Bushman agrees that providing church members with the best and most recent historical research is one way disaffection can be curtailed.

“It is true that more information has been the cause of the current controversies, but more information is also the answer,” Bushman said. “We need to know everything we can about disturbing events and then to put them in a broader perspective. Usually people can see that there is more than one way of understanding what occurred.”

Bushman, author of the acclaimed biography of Joseph Smith, “Rough Stone Rolling,” thinks that is especially true in talking about the LDS Church’s founding prophet.

“I think we should tell the whole story about Joseph Smith,” he said. “We don’t want people stumbling on to facts on the Internet that shock them. Their testimonies will never be secure if they have to be shielded from aspects of Joseph’s life.

“Whether or not Joseph Smith was seriously flawed is a matter of personal judgment,” Bushman continued. “He certainly insisted that he was subject to human error, and we should not hold him to a higher standard than he held himself. That is just asking for trouble.”

Faith that absorbs doubt

Some have asked for that trouble — and found it. During the 2012 Sunstone Symposium, Don Bradley, an editor and researcher specializing in Mormonism and author of the soon-to-be-published "The Lost 116 Pages: Rediscovering the Book of Lehi," described his journey out of and back into the LDS Church. He described a time in his life during which he came to rely more on intellectual processes than spiritual processes while studying the early history of the church and especially the life and teachings of Joseph Smith.

“Spiritual inquiry wasn’t an objective discipline,” Bradley said. “There were too many unpredictable variables — like God — that couldn’t be worked into a systematic methodology. But intellectual inquiry could always be worked into a systematic method. It was therefore easier to trust and rely upon the intellectual than the spiritual.”

And so, like Sampson pushing on the pillars to bring a building crashing down, Bradley said that historical evidence became the pillars of his faith, and by pushing on those pillars “I brought down my faith on myself.”

After leaving the church he explored a number of different faith possibilities but could never find peace and fulfillment in any of them. When his beloved brother died a few years ago, he said he “reopened the question of whether God revealed theological truth.”

Eventually his pursuit led him back to the LDS Church. He took all of the historical evidence that he had allowed to damage his testimony and re-examined it through the eye of faith and gained “new insights” — and new faith. He has since been re-baptized as a Latter-day Saint.

“It would be wrong to think that I am unaware of the weaknesses of the Mormon subculture,” he said. “But I pay no mind to them because they are not the basis of my faith. I came back focused on everything that is ‘virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy,’ and determined to nourish the wheat until it choked the tares.”

Today he is continuing his research into Mormonism’s past, but he finds that “digging into Mormon history is ultimately favorable to faith.”

“The central claim of Mormonism is not that God spoke to a fallible human being in 1820,” Bradley said. “The central claim is that God can and will talk to fallible human beings today. When we reach out to him, we will find his hand reaching out toward us, waiting.”

And that, according to Givens, is the kind of faith that can absorb doubt — and be enhanced by it.

“Faith can’t operate in a vacuum, which is presumably why LDS scripture (instructs) the addition of study and use of ‘the best books’ to build faith,” he said. “If God is a being of light and intelligence, then belief in Him and His workings must be reasonable. At the same time, there is good reason to doubt the human capacity to fully grasp the Divine rationally, to understand history completely, or to always intuit human motives accurately. Faith must always have a role to play in human relations with the Divine, and with whatever institution we take to be His church.”

And patience with each other, Elder Holland said, should always come into play with regards to faith and doubt among members of the church.

“Be kind regarding human frailty — your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a church led by volunteer, mortal men and women,” Elder Holland said last April. “Except in the case of his only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to him, but he deals with it. So should we.”

The Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR) conference, which runs Aug. 1-2 at the Utah Valley Convention Center, is intended to provide "information and answers needed to faithfully deal with criticisms leveled against the church and gospel," according to FAIR's website.

The purposes of the Sunstone Symposium, which runs July 31-Aug. 3 at the University of Utah, include "gain(ing) insights that can come only from rigorous examination of Mormon doctrine and culture from insider and outsider perspectives," according to the symposium's schedule.

Email: jwalker@desnews.com