I am a Mormon. Mormonism is my spiritual home, and I don’t see that changing. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when the mainstream culture of Mormonism (especially as lived in Utah) drives me nuts. I’m often troubled by a self-righteousness I see too often in Mormon culture. Lessons attacking the ‘world’ or ‘worldly values’ tend to make me crazy, for example. They tend to suggest ‘we’re right, they’re wrong,’ on issues that are by no means black and white. Often such comments strike me as politically tinged–difficult, for a life-long liberal. And they tend to attack works of art of genuine distinction and merit. I have a testimony; I also have doubts. I do my best to live according to my best sense of what’s right; I certainly don’t always succeed.
I taught at BYU for twenty years, and loved the kids I worked with. But when I re-connect with many of those former students, I’m starting to realize something important. A great many of them have left the Church, and many others are thinking about it. There is a crisis of faith among young Mormons. I talk to them and one subject keeps coming up, over and over. Doubt.
We’re losing a lot of kids. People I love, people I care about deeply, are separating themselves from the Church, and for reasons that don’t strike me as wholly unreasonable. I wonder sometimes if the culture of Mormonism is well-suited to people of a certain personality type, and ill-suited to other sorts of people. Some people want to know that there are black and white answers to moral questions. They want to believe that people in authority have the answers, that all they have to do is listen and obey. And others–and I count myself as one–see the world in shades of gray. Some of us feel safer when we have space to question and to doubt. Maybe it’s because I taught in the theatre department, and theatre kids don’t feel particularly comfortable in black and white environments. We question, we wonder, we doubt. And we’re bothered when we see our good brothers and sisters who seem perfectly content, who don’t seem to doubt at all. Are they faking it? Are they completely sincere? If so, what’s wrong with me?
Asking ourselves these sorts of questions is, of course, a normal thing, and a good thing, and perhaps some of you who read this blog who are not LDS are wondering what the big deal is. But Mormon culture is not very welcoming to doubt. There’s tremendous social pressure on all of us to never express doubt, to never reveal it, even perhaps to not feel doubt at all. And yet, doubt also seems to be increasing.
Right now in Sunday school, we’re embarked on a year’s study of ‘Church history.’ But the history we study in Sunday school is sanitized, faith promoting, edifying, testimony-building. I can see the reasons for that. But we’re living today in a world where young people are adept at finding absolutely incredible amounts of information and knowledge. It’s really extraordinary, what the internet has done. I love it, I love the era in which we live. I love navigating Wikipedia, just bouncing from strange subject to strange subject. Learning, growing.
But on the internet, it’s very easy to access all sorts of factually accurate information about LDS history that calls into question the mainstream narrative we learn in Sunday School, perhaps because they don’t include context. And when that happens, it can be destructive of innocence, destructive of testimony, and destructive of faith. And bright, wonderful, LDS young people are leaving the Church because of it. Or perhaps not leaving the Church, but questioning, doubting. Not wondering ‘should I stay a Mormon?’ but ‘what kind of Mormon am I becoming?’ And always, this: ‘where do I fit in?’
In a recent General Conference, I remember hearing this: “There is no place in the gospel for doubt.” I’m not quoting that exactly, nor am I citing who said it; I don’t want this to turn into some personal disagreement. But, here’s how I see it. Doubt seems to me much like pain; something unpleasant, but deeply necessary. Three years ago, I got very sick, and nearly died, and I am in considerable, constant pain ever since. I don’t like being sick. I think getting sick really sucks. But I also recognize that getting sick was in many ways a great personal blessing to me. I’ve learned a lot from it, and grown closer to my family, and I’m grateful for it. I would say that pain is certainly part of the gospel. And by the same token, and in the same sense, doubt can be an essential part of mature Christian reflection. Not for everyone, maybe, but for some people, for those who need it.
For example, how can I reconcile the idea that Joseph Smith or Brigham Young were prophets of God with their practice of something that seems to me as repugnant, with the practice of polygamy? Why did it take so long for the Church to overcome its legacy of racism? How can we reconcile varying versions of the First Vision narrative? Good books have been published putting these issues into context, but questions linger in my mind. And I benefit from working through them.
I doubt. Doubting has enhanced my faith. The experience, for me, of church attendance, of scripture reading and prayer, of trying to find an inner place of faith, is one often leavened by cognitive dissonance. And that, in turn, leads me to think and query and generally, to grow. And growth takes place without necessarily resolving difficult questions, or reaching answers, but just by struggling with issues. Sometimes the struggle itself leads to some kind of resolution.
And this crisis of faith in the Church I describe is a real thing, and something which the Church does seem to be addressing, but with babysteps, incrementally. One issue, for example, is the role of women in the Church, the degree to which women feel marginalized. Such websites as Feminist Mormon Housewives and Segullah provide a forum for women to commune together, support each other. Sunstone is, as always, a rock and anchor for liberal Mormons. So is John Dehlin’s Mormon Matters blog and podcast. All these developments are altogether good, but the Church has also responded, most recently by assigning women to give prayers at General Conference for the first time. Another issue for young people today is the Church’s position on homosexuality. Again, the Church has modified its position, especially on the official Church website, but only in small ways.
The biggest issue of them all, in my opinion, is the need for greater transparency when it comes to Church history. Elder Marlin Jenson has spoken up in recent years on the need for transparency, and the publication, by the Church history department, of a new history of the Mountain Meadows Massacre is a welcome development, as well as a deeply sobering read. But there’s much more that needs to be done.
Meanwhile, I intend to continue to do my poor best as well. Let’s talk together, commune together about why we doubt. Let’s not leave the kids who doubt with no place to go for answers. Doubt together, and use the power of cognitive dissonance to work through issues of faith. I am like the grieving father in Mark 9. I believe. Help, thou, mine unbelief.