This blog post is a follow up from a previous blog post review of the book Bridges, by David Ostler. This post considers some of the criticisms of the book or pushback on some of the ideas from the book that I’ve seen from the conservative LDS perspective. That conservative LDS perspective I’m speaking to comes from various online comments as well as a formal review published at The Interpreter by Dan Ellsworth. I also give some pushback of my own to any doubters or metaphorical believers who feel the responsibility for them to feel more comfortable at church is all or mostly the responsibility of Church leaders and active members.
Role of Apologetics in Faith Crisis
When you come from the assumption that the traditional narrative of the LDS Church is true, then the solution for those in faith crisis is simply to help them understand the answers to their questions. Simple.
Apologetics is the effort to defend the church using logic and scholarly methods, and is used by many traditionally believing LDS to show answers for difficult questions to those in faith crisis. For example, a criticism of BOM historicity is that the BOM contains New Testament phraseology that ancient BOM prophets wouldn’t have had access to, implying that it has modern origins. But LDS Apologists counter this with logic such as that BOM prophets and New Testament writers might have been both relying on more ancient writings. Much of the New Testament is quoting or paraphrasing the Old Testament after all. That’s a simplistic example with more evidences both for and against BOM historicity ignored for sake of brevity.
Many LDS that have never been through a faith crisis believe that LDS Apologetics has satisfactorily answered every difficult question and there is no logical reason to ever doubt an LDS testimony. Even some that claim to have been through faith crisis believe Apologetics can answer questions such that one who once doubted can come back to full belief.
My experience and my observation of others has been different. I was interested in Apologetics and drew on apologetic reasoning to answer questions when I was early in my faith exploration/crisis. But as I studied more, I personally came to see the apologetic logic as being very weak. Since I’ve been very active online in the faith crisis world for the last five years, I know dozens of people very closely, and am part of communities that number in the thousands, and I know very, very few people who would say that Apologetics was helpful in restoring an LDS testimony after experiencing a significant faith crisis.
David Ostler, in the book Bridges, didn’t acknowledge Apologetics as being an important tool in bringing doubters back to full fellowship in the church. He implied that once one goes through the dark night of the soul experience of losing belief in a traditional LDS testimony it’s impossible or unlikely to restore it. That’s my observation as well.
That does not mean one can piece back together a belief in God, a belief that the LDS church is good and valuable and important, or that the LDS church is true in many ways, that LDS covenants are critical to one’s salvation, that Joseph Smith was inspired, that the church is inspired today, that the church is the best place to raise a family, that the church can provide meaning and spiritual guidance. This is possible and this should be our effort in ministering to doubters and trying to bring them back into the fold. Restoring literal belief in many of the difficult aspects of church history and scripture through Apologetic reasoning—that is very unlikely.
So then what is the role of Apologetics in the church? I’m not against Apologetics. I just don’t think it’s very effective for those who have reached the dark night of the soul moment. I think it’s helpful for people who are faith crisis dabblers. If you’re faith crisis level 10 out of 100, Apologetics seems to have a good chance to work. If you reach level 70 out of 100, Apologetics seems to have very little chance to work. The people that are to the point where they say they no longer believe or have reduced participation because of faith issues are in that 70 out of 100 category. I have no data to support this. Just my hunch based on many years of observation.
Dan Ellsworth’s review focused a lot on epistemology. I would like to hear Dan explain with a little more clarity for the non-academic types like myself, who struggle when big words like epistemology are used. But I think this is what he means.
The role of epistemology in an LDS faith crisis would be something like this:
Tina had a testimony that Joseph Smith was a prophet. Then Tina read stuff online that made her no longer believe that. The role of epistemology in this would be to explore what it meant exactly when Tina initially had a testimony of Joseph Smith. Did she have unnecessary or faulty assumptions? Did the information she read online really disprove Joseph as a prophet or did it just disprove a certain, incomplete and faulty definition of that? For example, what does it mean to believe that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham? A “high view” might be that Abraham wrote Egyptian with his hand on the papyri which Joseph translated. A “low view” might be that though the Egyptian papyri Joseph had access to had nothing from Abraham, Joseph might have thought it was Abraham’s words, which caused him to get in the revelatory spirit and allowed him to receive actual inspiration from God to produce the Book of Abraham. So for one person, evidence to show the papyri was something other than the Book of Abraham would be devastating to a testimony while to another it would be no big deal.
I agree this is an important aspect in sorting through LDS faith crisis. But there’s a limit to how valuable this perspective can be. For many who pass through faith crisis and can’t revive their former testimony, even when they’re walked carefully through this explanation of epistemology and assumptions, it doesn’t seem to help a lot.
There are “high view” facts related to a traditional LDS testimony that seem critical to many, ie literal angel visitations, literal ancient American prophets, etc. It’s very difficult for some to accept “low view” explanations where it seems convenient but stick to “high view” explanations where it’s required to do so to maintain an LDS testimony.
I have adopted what others would call a “low view” for most all of these issues, including BOM historicity and LDS exclusivity. I still believe the church is valuable and good. But my approach to these issues has pushed me out of a traditional testimony.
Choose to Believe
Terryl Givens has championed the concept of “choose to believe” in the LDS world. The idea Terryl puts forward is that there are cases where an idea has evidence both for and against, that one can choose to believe in this. A testimony of the restored church is in this category because there is evidence against it and evidence for it. Gravity, on the other hand, is not in this category because evidence for gravity is so overwhelmingly strong, one can’t choose to not believe in gravity.
Control over beliefs in the academic world is called “doxastic voluntarism”. Scholars do not believe human beings have direct control over their beliefs. Beliefs are formulated at a deep, subconscious level. I went into this subject and what I think is a better way to express a similar idea in great detail in an old post that’s worth the read if you haven’t read it. https://www.churchistrue.com/blog/belief-as-choice/
tldr: We can’t choose beliefs. Faith is a better word to use in religious context. Faith is sometimes expressed as being synonymous with belief. But another definition of faith is to “to trust a religious proposal and to act as if one knows or believes in it.” We can choose to have faith. For example, I may not believe the church is literally the one, true exclusive church with its doctrine and teachings given to us directly from God and angels. I can’t just choose to believe it. But I can choose to exercise faith in this and live the gospel as if I knew it was literally true.
Scriptures imply belief is a choice. And for the principle of free agency and the gospel to make logical sense, it seems belief would need to be something humans can choose. Because of this, I would guess the large majority of active LDS would side with this view of belief. And that makes it very obvious how to respond to someone in faith crisis. “Just choose to believe, duh.” There doesn’t seem to be a need to make space for those with unorthodox beliefs if belief is a moral choice. That makes it tougher to have empathy for the doubter or work hard to do the things David Ostler suggests in the Bridges book.
Responsibility of Doubter
One of the common criticisms of Ostler’s book was that there seems to be no discussion of the responsibility of the doubter. He has addressed this saying he did this intentionally, as the audience was active LDS and the purpose of the book was to understand how active members can more effectively minister to those doubters.
But if a doubter takes this as permission they can do anything they want and the active member is the only one with a responsibility to make them feel more comfortable, then I agree this is a problem. There sometimes appears to be an attitude that when it comes to faith crisis, the doubter makes demands and the LDS Church and leaders and believers need to acquiesce to those demands. Missing sometimes seems to be a discussion of the responsibility of the doubter to do what he or she can to fit in responsibly in the church without disrupting things or causing doubt for others.
Ostler’s main thesis is that someone who has experienced deep faith crisis can stay in the church even without a traditional testimony if needs in three areas can be met:
–trust: they need to be able to trust the Church and local leaders
–belonging: they need to feel like they belong
–meaning: they need to be able to find meaning in the Church even if that is a different meaning than they found prior to faith crisis
Ostler discussed ways local church leaders and active members can help the doubter in these three areas. But if the doubter wants to stay, they also have a huge responsibility in each of these.
Trust. The doubter can choose to view the church and leaders with an attitude of grace, patience, and generosity. The doubter can choose to see the best in people. To assume good intentions. To understand someone with a traditional testimony views things completely differently and so what might feel hurtful to them is done with love by the active member. The doubter can understand that change in an organization like the church can be very slow and not to expect too much too quickly.
Belonging. The doubter can work in the belonging aspect as well. Believing LDS and local leaders can be more careful with lessons and comments that ostracize doubters. But doubters have a responsibility. They should realize that they are unorthodox and that they can pick and choose when to make comments that they know will be hard for others to receive. Like Abraham Lincoln, they can write the letter then throw it away without sending. Sometimes you need to be authentic and you just have to make that comment. But you can do it in a gentle way, and if your actions and comments at other times show that you’re loyal and want to be on the same team, that controversial comment will be received easier. The doubter can look for things in common rather than look for things not in common and try to focus on those things in common while seeking to feel like they belong.
Meaning. The doubter can appreciate the lived experience and work to find meaning in ways they haven’t noticed before. Even an atheist can find significant meaning in being part of a worship and service community. The doubter can find meaning in the work of LDS theologians like Adam Miller and Terryl Givens that are helping to shift the LDS narrative into finding value in more pragmatic and intellectually viable teachings. The doubter can work to find meaning in symbols and metaphors and not get hung up on the implausibility of the literalness of certain scripture and church history events. And at the same time, understand that their more traditional co-religionists are still going to talk about these events as literal and only find them meaningful if they are perceived as literal.
If the doubter wants to stay, and the church wants to keep the doubter, it can happen. Both sides have some work to do to create an environment where this can be done more smoothly.
Committed non-believer as detractor
In Dan Ellsworth’s Interpreter article, he expresses a concern that committed non-believers could detract from others’ church experience by causing others to doubt or damaging the trusting environment in a ward where members feel comfortable to sharing testimony.
He shares an anecdote about a woman who did temple work for her mother and received a confirmation through a dream this was effectual. He is worried the presence of committed non-believers would cause other members to feel uncomfortable. Church would no longer be a safe haven where believers could share personal experiences and affirm each other’s beliefs. This is an important aspect of the church and any religious community.
I understand Dan’s perspective, but I don’t think the concern is warranted, and it’s hard not to take it personally, even though I just got done saying we need to try our hardest to see the best motives in each other.
There are always going to be a wide variety of beliefs in an LDS congregation. Some believe in a young earth, while others believe in evolution. Some believe the reason black people have black skin is resulting from the curse of Cain and Ham, while others believe in scientific reasons and that religious reasoning is a misunderstanding rooted in racism. Some people are very spiritual and see God’s hand everywhere. I found my keys because God led them to me. Some LDS have a view of God as very hands off and allowing humans to operate with their own free agency, rarely intervening.
If a person stands up in testimony meeting and bears testimony that their dead mother visited them, some might believe it, some might not. But many that might not believe it also might have a very traditional LDS testimony and just happen to be skeptical related to this woman’s testimony.
I know enough about Dan Ellsworth to know he has a non-traditional testimony. Non-traditional enough that he likely would be chastized by certain general authorities, they perceiving him as a non-believer. We as LDS have a lot of beliefs! And some of those that are considered non-essential to some are considered core to others. Dan is non-traditional enough that he would make people in my LDS congregation very uncomfortable if he spoke about his beliefs aggressively and in a manner that made those that didn’t agree with him feel stupid. Over time, if he did this often enough, it would make people uncomfortable with sharing their own beliefs. But I would never suggest that the LDS Church is better if Dan Ellsworth stays home from church, simply based on his beliefs. If he ignores social protocol and accepted behavior repeatedly, then at that point, I might say it’s better he stays home. But if he acts with patience and courtesy, then he should easily be able to interact positively even with an unorthodox belief set.
The problem with this kind of boundary policing is that you never know where to draw the line. There is always someone more orthodox than you who might want to draw the boundary with you on the outside. The solution is for us all to find a way to worship together, treating each other with tolerance and love.
Doubt is contagious
Doubters need to acknowledge that doubt is contagious and that they should not encourage believers to doubt. If you can’t sit still when something you believe is untrue literally is being taught, if you have to confront that, then you need to do more inner work before you’re ready to mingle with believers in an LDS congregation.
It’s OK to be frustrated. It’s OK to want to stand up and rattle off . But that’s not why people are in church, and it’s not the doubter’s job to fix it in Sunday School.
I think it’s helpful for the metaphorical believer who wants to continue to engage in the LDS Church to almost have a feeling like they want to help the believer from the pain of faith crisis. I believe a person will hit faith crisis when they’re ready but not before. If they do it on their own time table, they’re more likely to do it in a more mentally healthy way. If the doubter can view it this way, it makes it easier to look for ways in church to be authentic that are gentle and graceful and not disruptive and aggressive.
“Modern science has proven beyond shadow of a doubt that there is no way possible Adam and Eve could be real people” vs “Some people view Adam and Eve as literal but some believers view them as metaphorical”.
I don’t believe the Book of Mormon is historical. I believe in evolution and take the Adam and Eve Garden of Eden story metaphorically. I think most likely the stories in the Old Testament prior to David have at best loose correlation to actual history. I don’t think polygamy was ever God’s will for Joseph Smith. I don’t think the Book of Abraham is translated from an ancient record correlating to its text. I don’t think the Church is exclusively God’s one, true church in the same way other LDS believe. You might that’s too much not in common with a traditional LDS for me to worship together peacefully and comfortably.
But I believe in God. I believe in following Jesus Christ. I think the Book of Mormon is inspired. I love our scripture. I think we have the truest religion in the world, in terms of how it can help me be a better person, serve other people, help me raise my kids, and foster conditions where I can seek and worship God. I love our doctrine of Heavenly Mother. I love our Sunday sabbath experience. I love the concept of missions. I love being a member of the Church. I want to do all I can, and I covenant to give all I can to help create Zion, a heaven on Earth. That’s a lot in common with a traditional member.
For me, what I have in common far outweighs what is not in common. My goal is to become more authentic among my ward congregation while doing my best not to disrupt other people’s experience.