I came across an article in the Church News last week that got my attention. Perhaps it is because it seemed so relevant to my situation. The title was “Helping those with flagging testimonies”. With more LDS members affected by anti-Mormon and secular views about LDS beliefs it is a worthwhile discussion. The article was a synopsis of several talks given at a recent FAIR conference (The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research) on the subject of disbelieving members.
The first talk in the article was by Mike Ash. The name immediately jumped out at me because I had received an email from a Mike Ash several months ago telling me of a book he was about to publish. He sent me a pdf copy of the book to read because he thought it might help (I haven’t read it yet). A short time later I began hearing of the book from various sources on the Internet. Needless to say, I was interested to hear his view on this subject. I was encouraged by a statement he made saying, “The Church umbrella, thankfully, is large enough to include those who struggle with sporadic or even chronic doubt”. With views like this being openly expressed, maybe there is room for serious doubt among LDS membership after all.
Then I kept reading. Though I agreed that there has to be room for unbelief and doubt in the Church, Mike Ash goes on to state the following:
“It seems that those who are prone to fundamentalist, dogmatic or closed-minded perspectives about the gospel or early LDS history are more likely to suffer from shaken-faith syndrome [disbelief] when they encounter challenging issues.”
Again I agreed, however, I was a little surprised at this statement because as a lifelong members I am well aware that the image the Church projects is “dogmatic” about doctrine and LDS history, so it comes as no surprise that most members would be prone to hold to the same dogmatic and closed-minded view. How then are members supposed to have a more enlightened view of the Church if all that is presented are faith-promoting stories about our history? If we are never or rarely taught about the troubling aspects of the historical record how would most members know they exist?
The Internet has made the more seedy side of church history accessible to lay members of the LDS faith. I’ve heard it said by apologists that all the Church has to do to hide something from its members is put it in a book. My question is, why would members bother reading “extracurricular material” when they trust that the Church would be providing them with accurate and complete information? I never dreamed that after taking nearly every institute class offered by the Church that I would not be aware of issues like Joseph’s polyandry, The Book of Abraham and Book of Mormon issues, the different versions of the first vision, ugly statements made by early leaders of the Church about blacks, and other less faith building facts. Considering I received well above passing grades in all my religion coursework (Averaged B+) and attended faithfully, I do not believe I somehow missed it.
In my opinion if the Church really wanted people to be informed of these issues they would be talked about openly and honestly, when appropriate, in weekly meetings at church. Until that happens the vast majority of members will be ignorant of the issues facing the Church. When a faithful member does discover the full history he/she wonders why the Church was not willing to trust them with the information. They also wonder why the Church doesn’t have at least some official explanation for the disconcerting points in our history. It is the lack of discussion among members that worries the questioner, not necessarily the fact that the problems exist.
Another sticking point I had with Mike Ash’s talk was when he says, “Unfortunately, we occasionally confuse peripheral teachings in the Church with rumors, traditions or personal opinions and think that they’re LDS doctrines, but they’re not. Sometimes we’re unaware of how to think outside the box of conventional LDS interpretations, even if those interpretations are based on tradition rather than revelation.”
Although I agree that many members take things as doctrine when they are not, I don’t blame them at all for doing it. Not when I still hear references over the pulpit at General Conference to an earth that is only a few thousand years old. Not when we have leaders that continue to insist that members DO NOT drink caffeinated soft drinks period. As members we trust our leaders to give us accurate information. When speaking as a leader of the one true Church we expect that when we are spoken to it is revelation from God that we are hearing. Surely, personal opinion should be eliminated from talks that carry such weight in the lives of the membership. If a leader does offer his opinion, which he is entitled to, he should state that is what he is doing so that everyone understands. Without stating this many lay members will be mislead into thinking statements are from God and not merely the opinion of a man.
Some may counter saying that the Spirit will allow members to know when a leader speaks for God. Regrettably, most members trust the Church so implicitly that spiritual confirmation in most matters is considered unnecessary. Not to mention the fact that confirmation on every point in just one talk alone would take an inordinate amount of time and lead to a paranoid state of mind. The hearer would have to question everything that is said to be sure it was of God. Leaders’ opinions mixed with truth complicates the message to such an extent that one is left wondering what to take as God’s word and what is the person’s own thoughts. Feeling the Spirit during a talk may signal to many members that the entire talk is true even if that may not be accurate. Later members mistakenly point to the words of their leaders to prove that something is doctrine. Sadly, because we are taught to never “speak ill” of our leaders there is little room to discuss what we believe to be opinion without crossing an unspoken line of forbidden criticism. Only when what was once said becomes socially unacceptable (e.g. Brigham Young’s comments on blacks) are we able to conclude it must have been their opinion. Even then members must tread lightly and some invent plausible excuses to justify the teachings and preserve the image of their prophet.
To count the comments as opinion also has the problem of explaining why the general membership accepted the teachings as doctrine at the time. Perhaps the prejudice of the people at the time was enough to allow them to unquestionably accept Brigham Young’s statements. They were simply blinded by their own bigotry. Alternatively, they may have reached the point of such obedience and trust that they took anything the prophet said as God’s word. Either way it leaves a query for us today. What current teachings are we accepting today because of our bigotry? Are we following blindly the words of the prophet without seeking God’s will? In 100 years will future members say were bigoted and unthinking to have followed the Church in some matters? We must be willing to ask ourselves these questions if we have learned at all from the past.
The article moved next to an encouraging statement made by Brian Hauglid’s at the FAIR conference. He said, “We would do well to shy away from dogmatism and accusatory innuendo as this can engender misunderstanding and smacks of snobbery. Sometimes, we may even need to acknowledge with candor the reality of true facts critics bring up and also good arguments they might put forth”.
Amen to that! How can LDS members be taken seriously if they dismiss facts outright as anti-Mormon trickery? On the flip side, critics of the LDS Church should allow members the time to investigate for themselves, from multiple sources, the facts of controversial issues. It is unfair for critics to dump controversy on a member, much of which they may have heard for the first time and not allow them time to think, study, and form their own opinion without their influence.
The truth is there is good in the Mormon Church just as there is in all churches. Like many Christian traditions, the LDS faith is not perfect. As much as we wish it didn’t, it does have skeletons, flaws and error. I believe slowly we are improving. The Church is trying to be more open. Though critics and questioners may not think it is fast enough or correctly done, it is happening. In the past 5 years we have seen an article on the many versions of the first vision in the Church News, the Mountain Meadows Massacre addressed in the Ensign and the most comprehensive history of Joseph Smith by an active member to date. The author of the latter mentioned is currently involved a project funded by the Church to compile all of Joseph Smith’s writings, a seeming acknowledgement of the truthfulness in his book. Hopefully, we will continue to see the Church make more strides toward frankness and openly share the bad with the good. When members no longer expect near perfection from the Church or its leaders they will be more willing to absorb the humanity of leaders past and present. Hopefully, the dogmatism of the past can be laid aside and a spirit of welcoming and candidness can take its place within the LDS culture.