What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
I know many people who have struggled with or completely abandoned the Mormon faith. Some have problems with the Church’s doctrinal claims, others grew apathetic to the gospel’s lifestyle requirements, and a select few allowed a personality conflict or other evidence of a Church leader’s fallibility fester until they could not separate the gospel of Christ from the actions of His followers.
These challenges are not new, having existed since the Church was established. As Joseph Smith erected the structure of the Latter-day Church, even his closest confidants sometimes strongly disagreed with his decisions and doctrinal proclamations to the point of breaking away altogether from the Church. But after nearly two centuries of precedent and practice, combined with the rise of the information age and new media whereby people can research and write about any topic they desire, doctrinal disputes have astronomically outpaced the other reasons for disaffection from the Church.
From its inception, the Church of Jesus Christ has been criticized and attacked. Scholarly attempts to undermine its central claims have fallen short, time and again. As Elder Holland said regarding the keystone of the religion, the Book of Mormon:
For 179 years this book has been examined and attacked, denied and deconstructed, targeted and torn apart like perhaps no other book in modern religious history—perhaps like no other book in any religious history. And still it stands. Failed theories about its origins have been born and parroted and have died—from Ethan Smith to Solomon Spaulding to deranged paranoid to cunning genius. None of these frankly pathetic answers for this book has ever withstood examination because there is no other answer than the one Joseph gave as its young unlearned translator.
Still, several decades of leadership by fallible people have resulted in a number of unanswered doctrinal questions and questionable practices, and where current leadership has been unable or unwilling to offer direct responses, speculative responses both faithful and critical have attempted to fill the void. This cacophony of interpretative commentary has resulted in a virtual mist of darkness, leading people who look only to the internet for answers to “lose their way” and “wander off” to become lost.
For the past year, one of the more potent messages I would provide to my friends in such a situation was Terryl Givens’ “Letter to a Doubter”—a message of recognition, understanding, and invitation. Just as Rough Stone Rolling helped to un-deify Joseph Smith and show that God can use imperfect individuals to accomplish amazing purposes, Givens’ wonderful letter helps dismantle some of the misconceptions and illusions about the nature of doubt.
Doubts are not signs of apostasy, and they should not be suppressed. Where they exist in good faith and sincere intent, they are simply an intellectual manifestation of a curiosity or concern, and as such should be addressed and investigated. Givens wrote:
I know I am grateful for a propensity to doubt because it gives me the capacity to freely believe. I hope you can find your way to feel the same. The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true and which we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true. There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore more deliberate and laden with more personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads.
Elder Uchtdorf offered some important insights on the subject in his recent general conference address. First, he noted that unlike some other religions, and despite the disaffecting few, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues to be one of fastest growing faiths. God’s sealing authority and divine leadership is found in this Church.
Though Christ is at the helm, his appointed officers do not share in his status of perfection, and therefore their actions are not always in harmony with God’s will. As Elder Uchtdorf said, “Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past. We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of church history, along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events, there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question.” He continued:
And to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine. I suppose the church would only be perfect if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—his imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.
“Some might ask, but what about my doubts?” Elder Uchtdorf rhetorically asked. “It is natural to have questions. The acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions.”
Doubt needs to be de-stigmatized among Latter-day Saints, with open recognition that when handled appropriately it can lead not just to faith, but stronger faith. Of course, many inflate the importance of doubt, latching onto it as if it were some standalone virtue. Rather than pursuing their intellectual inquiry from a presumption of faith, they plant their feet firmly upon a foundation of doubt. Those who embrace their doubts in this unbalanced way flirt with absolutism—if any one theological claim is found to be suspect, then for them the Church’s entire system of doctrine crumbles to ashes.
Perhaps recognizing this unbalanced relationship between doubt and faith in the minds of some current and former Latter-day Saints, Elder Uchdtorf counseled, “Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.” If previous spiritual confirmations have affirmed the veracity of something, then don’t put God on the defense when contrary claims come creeping in. Instead, first challenge the claims—their source, their intent, their fruit.
Doubt has its place, but our spiritual and intellectual progress requires that doubts be overtaken by faith, and later by confirmed knowledge. To the extent that doubts are magnified, or given greater consideration than the sum of spiritual experiences we have previously enjoyed, then our quest for truth will be thwarted and we will spiral into self-defeating spiritual stupor. Unfortunately, this has become the pattern of too many disaffected brothers and sisters.
Faith must be properly prioritized. Latter-day Saints, both strong and weak in the faith, must scrutinize their testimony and continually analyze the foundational claims that comprise it—their source, their intent, their fruit. Where uncertainty or outright skepticism exist, then they should be sincerely addressed, openly discussed, researched, and prayed over.
“In moments of… doubt…, hold the ground you have already won, even if that ground is limited,” taught Elder Holland.
Hold the ground. A competent football team will at a minimum strive to defend advances by the opposition, while also working to move the ball forward. No player in their right mind will passively sit down while the opposition runs over them, let alone helpfully carry the opposition’s ball into their own territory. Let’s recognize why and how we’ve brought the ball to the point it’s now at, and then do what’s necessary both to prevent going backwards while also finding ways to move forward—in faith.