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Mormons with doubts shouldn't give up faith without 'intellectual and spiritual kicking and screaming'

Elder Bruce C. Hafen, an emeritus LDS general authority, and Robert Millet, former dean of religious education at BYU, said at a BYU conference that LDS culture should welcome questioners but that Mormons with doubts should fight for their faith.
Elder Bruce C. Hafen, an emeritus LDS general authority, and Robert Millet, former dean of religious education at BYU, said at a BYU conference that LDS culture should welcome questioners but that Mormons with doubts should fight for their faith.
Jaren Wilkey/BYU, Jaren Wilkey/BYU

PROVO — Elder Bruce C. Hafen met his wife, Marie, in a 1960s BYU class called "Your Religious Problems," where students grappled with criticisms of the history and doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its founder, Joseph Smith.

Decades later Elder Hafen — today an emeritus general authority Seventy of the church — couldn't understand how one of his European friends, a stake president with responsibility for several LDS congregations, could say those same, old issues were a surprise to him and felt betrayed because he didn't know about them.

LDS culture must welcome questions and questioners, but Mormons who experience doubts should fight for their faith rather than surrender it lightly or lazily, Elder Hafen and other speakers said Wednesday at a BYU conference on the interface of faith and intellect.

"It would be unusual in our day, a time of information explosion, to not have questions about an array of things," BYU religion professor Robert Millet said. "Questions are a natural byproduct of being human. They are not, in a word, strange, inappropriate or a sign of weakness."

However, "questions and doubt are not the same thing," he said, quoting a church leader. Each person of faith makes a decision to seek answers to questions either with doubt or with faith.

Cartoon bubbles

Elder Hafen's friend told a newspaper that he had lived in a happy bubble of faith before he was confronted by church history he did not know. He blamed the church, but another presenter, Richard Williams, said people who make such claims often have an incomplete or simplified image of the church.

"Most people who decide to leave the church really end up leaving a cartoon of the church," said Williams, a psychologist and director of BYU's Wheatley Institution, which hosted "Reason for Hope: Responding to a Secular World" at the Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center.

Williams spoke from experience.

"I didn't deliberately make this cartoon and assume it was the church," he said. "Nobody purposefully offered me only a cartoon of the church. The cartoon was what my subculture made available and what I had ears to hear."

Elder Hafen described the phenomenon in a different way.

"Most of us do run into some uncertainty and ambiguity," he said. Most children grow up and recognize that there is a gap between the ideal they perceived when young and what was actually real. For example, they learned that their parents, or they themselves, weren't perfect.

Mind the gap

Each person must learn to navigate that gap, and Elder Hafen described three levels of doing so. On the first level, some don't ever see that gap and never leave that black-and-white thinking, like his friend. At the second level, people see things as they really are, but often erase the ideal and therefore the gap between the two, and they suffer from "a terminal skepticism," Elder Hafen said. "Our cultural paradigm can seem permanently stuck in level-two realism."

Level three is the goal, he said, a space where people live not only with eyes wide open but hearts wide open.

"At level 3, we're neither optimists nor pessimists, we're open-minded believers who know that history and life are not always clear-cut and tidy, but our desire is to keep learning and growing. We want to improve the status quo, not just criticize it."

His friend's happy bubble didn't materialize "because the church consciously imposed some mindset to keep him in the dark. His bubble was nothing more complicated than the innocent perspective and habits of gliding along at level one, not realizing that we can grow out of that simplistic world."

Elder Hafen had cheered the publication of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism in the early 1990s. The four volumes included articles on each of the issues his friend experienced as surprises 15 years later. With the encyclopedia available for free online and the church's recent Gospel Topics essays, surprises should be less frequent.

Still, Elder Hafen said, "in this day and age of both the internet and the international church, we need to do a better job of introducing our children, young people, new converts and others to the process of learning and applying the levels of dealing with uncertainty."

He provided four suggestions. One, have a kind word for those with faithful questions. Two, be cautious about the internet's weaknesses. Three, "focus on the enormously positive doctrinal content of the restoration." Four, cultivate an attitude of meekness.

Kicking and screaming

Like Millet and Hafen, Williams said those with doubts won't overcome them alone.

"Although I didn't really get myself into this cartoon," Williams said, "it was nonetheless within my power and responsibility to get out, though not by myself."

"Do not have someone else's faith crisis," Williams added. "Don't have a non-LDS faith crisis. If you think you are having a faith crisis, make sure to find out what faith really is in the context of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. … Assume that most of your cultural understandings are wrong or at least distorted. Then give the restored gospel a chance at your mind and especially at your soul."

Giving faith an equal chance includes persistent and sometimes difficult effort, each speaker said.

"Press forward by giving the Lord and his church the benefit of our doubts and uncertainties," Elder Hafen said.

"For me," Millet said, "to doubt our doubts is to be courageous rather than cavalier when it comes to eternal things. We cannot be casual in doubting our doubts and thus succumb to spiritual and intellectual laziness. In other words, no one of us should ever allow a doubt to reign, when in fact it has not won that lofty perch through proving itself beyond all doubt.

"Just as for me it takes too much faith to be an atheist, so we should not be so kindly, such a pushover, as to allow our faith system to go by the way without intellectual and spiritual kicking and screaming on our part."

Character development

That effort should include development of personal character, said BYU religion professor Barbara Morgan Gardner, who previously served as the church's institute director at Harvard and MIT and has interviewed dozens of young Mormon adults who have experienced trials and stayed in or left the church.

"There is a heavy price that must be paid by every person who wants to stay active in the church," she said.

In Boston, she counseled numerous graduate students at some of America's top colleges and universities. In many cases, students in similar circumstances made opposing choices. She went back through taped interviews with students and detailed what she learned in a spreadsheet.

"What I have been able to understand is why people stay," she said. She boiled it down to character. Those who stayed active in the church exhibited patience, faith and trust in Jesus Christ, hope, knowledge and wisdom, obedience, diligence and persistence, humility, repentance and forgiveness, charity and virtue.

Conference organizers also assembled four focus groups with BYU students to discuss faith in what is a post-Christian era, Williams said.

The Wheatley Institution will post video of the conference on its website,, over the next week or two. Williams said Wheatley will follow up with another conference next semester.