Exactly one week before President Uchtdorf offered his beautiful General Conference address suggesting that there are genuine reasons why some members of the church may doubt, I attended a conference in New York City, dedicated to that very theme.
The official title was “Negotiating LDS History and Faith Challenges.” The speakers were Richard Bushman, Fiona Givens, and Terryl Givens. It was sponsored by The Temple and The Observatory Group.
This is the part where I am about to share my notes. It is also the part where I explain that they are neither perfect nor complete: the conference was 6 hours, and I only had my phone to tap the words and sentences that meant the most to me.
Richard Bushman spoke first. He mentioned the importance of keeping fellowship alive, and then mentioned the many conversations he has had in person or in email with brothers and sisters who have historical (or other) concerns.
One of the first things he asks such members is what they still believe, and what their morality is, so that they do not suffer a collapse. He thinks that one of the biggest dangers when someone gives up on his or her Mormonism is that he or she gives up too much of it.
One of the second things he asks is about marriage. He recognizes that when one partner experiences a faith challenge, one or both partners can feel betrayed. It requires a renegotiating of marriage now. Spouses have to be very tolerant of one another, and trust in each other’s sincerity. There also must be sympathy on both sides. Each partner must be committed to working together and listening to one another.
Richard thinks that it is possible for closed mindedness to occur on either side. At this point he mentioned several members who are both very thoughtful and very faithful. Among them were Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Clayton Christensen. He does not think it fair to say that they do not really believe, or that it is not possible to be both rational and Latter-day Saint.
Next he offered a “piece of advice.” “Keep looking, keep investigating. We all should be investigators. We all should be asking questions. Sometimes things that appear to be damning prove not to be. Try to find out why something troubles you. Sometimes it is not a matter of fact, but a matter of theology.”
Here he used the specific example of the Book of Abraham/Joseph Smith papyri. ‘Many of the critiques are correct, but, the translations themselves are remarkable, and in line with other writings.’ One theological question might be, “Would the Lord let His prophet do something while not understanding it?” Again, “Try to get to the heart of the matter–what disturbs you the most.”
To complicate matters further, Richard added that all of the questions are fraught, because Mormonism is not simply a set of claims of what happened in history (though it is that too). It is also a religion, what people turn to for a guide. “Connections with a religion are why the other questions become so explosive.” Still, we should face up to every fact. We should deal with them.
Once Richard was asked by one of my California professors how he could believe in Mormonism. Richard’s answer was that when he lives the way that Mormonism teaches, he finds that he is becoming the man he wants to be. He feels a responsibility to be a good person.
Then he told us that his own questions have changed over time. His first question was whether Joseph was a magician. It is a question that has come and gone.
Sometimes he is asked how new members feel when they learn that Joseph Smith engaged in polygamous marriages with young women and/or married women. He has found that the ‘people most destroyed by truths of Joseph Smith are often those who have been raised in the church.’ They are the ones who were taught a cleaner history: they are the ones who expected more.
“We all have to make our own Mormonism… facilitated by people asking, ‘What do I really believe.'” “Sunday School becomes much better when real problems are brought up that we have to wrestle with.’ This is not to say that he thinks that every problem should be brought up in a list, but that they should be integrated. “When we talk about the scroll of Abraham, talk about the whole story from the beginning.” “Claudia is the expert at bringing up problems and disrupting Sunday School.” A pause and then, “She always makes them better.” How do we do this well? “Be pure in heart.” If you are pure in heart “you can get away with a fair amount.”
A question was raised about the Book of Mormon: Is it a meaningful mythology or is it true historically? ‘Some people will stay Mormon if they believe the first, but if that becomes the norm, Mormonism may lose its vigor.’
Before Richard closed, he suggested that we try to loosen up our minds, and ask how people we admire might approach various questions. (I should start wearing bracelets that say, ‘What would Kristine Haglund/Claudia Bushman/Laurel Ulrich do?) Then he said what, to me, was the most beautiful part of his entire presentation: “I am a very skeptical person. My big problem is God. It’s not the Book of Mormon. It’s God. I pray to God, ‘I’ve never seen you. I can’t hear you. I have no way of knowing you’re there.’ But, if I try to live in a Godly way, the Spirit does come to me.”
Fiona spoke next, and it was more lovely than I can explain. She talked about spiritual immune systems, and the way that they can be compromised. Then she talked about the nature of God, and our understanding of the fall “that should be different, but really isn’t,” and our understanding of sin “that should be different, but really isn’t.”
Joseph said that we need to know 1) that God exists, and 2) God’s correct character.
Fiona likes the adjective of searching the scriptures, because searching is important in finding the real God. “Are you praying to the Old Testament God?” She is not. “Extra canonical searching is really important.”
God nourished the woman in the wilderness. “How does God nourish a church in the apostasy? The apostasy was full of truth. Joseph was quite clear about that. He wasn’t trying to restore truth. He was trying to restore priesthood keys.” Handle’s Messiah is one of the most beautiful religious music we have, and it came to us during that time.
She is a textual reader. There is something there that is extraordinary: The Book of Moses; Enoch. “It is not, ‘Why are you crying?’ It is, ‘How can you cry? You are the author of heaven. I heard heaven was a happy place.’ He asked the question three times.”
“God answers that it is because He sees that we will suffer. God subjects Himself to our pain. Enoch is called the weeping prophet in other texts, because he represents the weeping God.” This weeping God is the God Fiona prays to; it is the God she can adore. (Me too, Fiona. Me too.)
Next she quoted Bonhoeffer. (I may or may not have recorded it perfectly.) ‘God wins power and space in this world by being vulnerable.’ Her son served a mission in an unsafe area in an unsafe part of California. He and his companions were protected by the gangs. Why? Because “these young men chose to be vulnerable. They did this.”
“We call it a fortunate fall, but that is really unfortunate, because it is an ascent.” “Eve has a Hegelian tragedy.” She was a heroine not because it was an emotional moment, but because it was a rational one. “It will give her wisdom.” It was “not a commandment not to eat it, but a warning: you will die.” “Where was Adam? We have to ask ourselves.”
It took the great mystic, Julian of Norwhich, twenty years to get an answer to her prayer. “There can be a sense of hubris. We need to approach God with a sense of humility. We also need to consider that we may be asking the wrong questions.”
“Our scriptures make clear that we have to taste bitter to know sweet. Sin is educative.” “Our fall does not prevent Him from loving us. It is Satan creating wedges.” It is good to keep in mind that one definition of guilt is “prick sharply.” It is even better to keep in mind that “the embodiment of God is Christ. His love never changes for us. He is the healer, the cleanser.”
Then she spoke about the scripture “be ye therefore perfect,” and how it might be “the most horrendous scripture we have.” “Perfect means wholeness; fills the measure of our creation. That is all.”
In the case of prodigal children, “time is inessential to the Lord.” A mother may not be able to rescue her children, but that is okay. She once felt God say, “Did you not know I knew you were dysfunctional when I sent my children to you? Did you love your children with everything you have? He is my child. I will take care of it.”
We need to be very kind to ourselves. “Lehi was desperate to get out of the wilderness. Stay a little longer, and then the vision comes.” “Don’t abort your faith journey. It will take us all over the place.”
Joseph is a universalist, which suggests that there is transition between kingdoms. “If progression is eternal then there has to be transition between kingdoms. … If we can’t come home, then there is something wrong with the plan.”
Like Richard, Fiona suggested that we keep investigating: “Look for truth everywhere.” We have to reach high, but we also have to plummet.
She has never experienced righteous anger–not from anyone angry at her, and not from God. “This life is crucial in our preparation to meet God. He actually said it was so awful, he would make it short.”
“The word that permeates our cannon is ‘remember.'” “Sometimes we are really joyful, and sometimes we are really pained.” The joy often comes in bursts; the pain is often more prolonged. President Uctdorf once said, “Hang on to memories of joy.”
The story of the prodigal son is also the story of the father. God is watching, waiting for each one of us. He runs out to us.
Fiona read Margaret Barker on her conception of the wicked. She suggested that the wicked are lucifer and the fallen ones. Only them. Even our own Brigham Young said, “I believe all people want to be good.” “Is Judas Iscariot a son of perdition? Did he not feel remorse?”
Terryl spoke next. He told a story that I wish I could remember better, about an important door, that could not be broken into because there was a dummy keyhole: “Philosophy is what you do until you figure out the right questions.”
There is both the use and abuse of reason. We tend to privilege reason, but there are also other avenues. “We rely upon art. We rely upon love. We rely upon conscience.” Among other things, these additional pathways help us discover “the true meaning of the other.” ‘Science can tell us about the world, but it can’t tell us why we should care about the stars, or how a child should live.’
‘We look to religion to deliver us from ambiguity, but that might not be what we should expect from religion, or from our religion. Christ and Peter tried to stir us up.’ When Christ’s disciples were asked if they would also go away, they answered, “To whom should we go?” They did not say, “Of course we would stay.” “We expect a road map and what we find is a compass, or maybe a liahona.” This is how it had to be. It is not a failure.
What do we know? What did Nephi know? “That the Lord loveth his children.”
Mormonism offers a salvation that is relational. God is relational. (To me, this is one of the best things we learn from Joseph Smith.) Here Terryl mentioned ordinances. He suggested that God might say of them, “‘If you want to have a relationship with me, I will give you rituals where you wed each other and me.’ Are they arbitrary? Of course.”
Before or after this, Terryl asked, “How can faith be moral?” He believes that it is a choice. There is ‘no basis in scripture of leaders being moral: Abraham lied. Sariah beat her servants. The Apostles argued with each other over who would be the greatest.’ And so forth.
Someone very close to Terryl read Rough Stone Rolling when he was on his mission, and wrote him a letter that it was the most faith promoting book that he had ever read, because “if God can work with Joseph Smith, maybe he can do something with me.” God works with fallible people, because it is the only kind he has.
“Inspiration is uneven and unpredictable.”
Terryl shared a great story about an early bishop named Edwin Woolley who was known to disagree with Brigham Young. Brigham called him in one day to chastise him, and then said, “I suppose you will go and apostatize now?” Bishop Woolley answered, “That’s exactly what I’d do if this were your church.” It seems like a beautiful attitude to foster.
“Work for the cultural change we want to see happen.”
There are many kinds of silence. Among them is the silence Joseph Smith experienced when he wrote, “He has kept his purpose from my eyes,” and all he could do was weep on his people’s behalf. ‘Many of the greatest and noblest souls have experienced a quiet, sealed heaven.’
Celebrate your doubts, and be grateful for them, ‘not as an end in themselves, but as a condition for what doubt leads to, which is faith.’ In many ways, our spiritual life has to be private. It has to be mediated by ourself alone.
The Doctrine and Covenants hints at the differences between the gift to believe and the gift to know. An atmosphere where everyone can feel the spirit is really important.
One of my last notes from Terryl’s talk is on the word “peculiar” we sometimes toss around, as if it means strange. Rather, it comes from the word “pecuniary.” We are to be a purchased people.
The next few parts of the conference were some of the best. Richard invited those in attendance to try very hard to imagine themselves in the Bishop’s or Stake President’s shoes when someone comes to them with doubts. What would we say? What would we want to be said?
Almost every respondent answered that it helps to be validated; it helps to be understood. Kindness also goes a long way, as does treating the questioner with trust that he or she is coming from a good place and a sincere one. Their questions do not reflect unfaithfulness or immorality, but rather may reflect deep faith and love.
It was also acknowledged that just as in a marriage relationship, both parties may feel threatened and afraid. This makes sense, because their identities are at stake. We must try very hard not to speak from defensiveness.
Sometime later, a question was asked about the Ordain Women movement. Claudia Bushman was called to the front. She was hesitant to answer, because in her words she “wasn’t prepared.” One thing she did say is that “it is interesting, and she sees why people think it is a good idea.” Still, it makes her a tad bit nervous. She went on to elaborate that women are in a very tricky position in the church, because they are “not given a voice,” or at least not the same voice or influence as men. She thinks we need to think very hard about another way. She likes to see women organize laterally. Sometimes “wards diminish our ability. Make more and more connections across wards and stakes.” There does have “to be a paradigm shift of how women are viewed.”
Fiona responded to the same question. She visited the temple a few days before, and heard the temple president use the phrase “Heavenly Parents” four times. The new temple film is transformative for her. It is closer to where it needs to be, and suggests to her that we are getting there. A little bit later: “I don’t want more of the same. I want the priestesshood.”
Richard asked the audience a second question: what are the most troubling issues? Some of the answers that were given were ones I was expecting, like gay marriage and women’s issues, as well as the limited access average members have to leaders in Salt Lake. I believe feelings of betrayal from historical issues was also brought up. Other answers were more specific, and sometimes more surprising to me.
Last of all, Richard asked himself and the Givens, “What is it that we really like about being a Latter-day Saint?” Their answers were tender. Terryl believes that the gospel as Joseph gave it to us has more truth and more fulness. He chooses to believe, even in the absence of certain knowledge. Fiona deeply appreciates that Mormonism places Christ “front and center.” What she does know, is that Christ is the Son of God. Richard spoke briefly of his love for Latter-day Saints themselves. “Mormon people as a group are magnificent.”
My answer would be that I love God (both Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother), and I love the plan of salvation. I feel firmly that birth and death are part of that same plan, and that Christ’s grace and mercy are at the center. I also feel firmly that heaven is not just a nice place that we are striving to go, but that it is home. It is where we came from. It is where we belong–all of us.
How would you answer Richard’s three questions? :
What would you want a bishop or other ecclesiastical leader to say to one who doubts?
What do you think the big issues are?
What do you really like about being a Latter-day Saint?