Recently I have been digging deeper into some of the more debated doctrines of the LDS church. I have been using various sources for my research including LDS doctrine, scripture, historical events, science, scholarly research, and even the beliefs of other religions. This isn’t the first time I have done this, but each time I have, I have arrived at the same conclusion: sometimes doctrinal problems, are actually our own problems.
Sometimes we have an issue with a gospel doctrine, church policy, religious practice, or scriptural interpretation. The issue can vary from simple wondering, to confusion, to outright offense. We tend to place these problems at the church’s feet, or the feet of its leaders. As I have read articles, listened to podcasts, and had lengthy conversations with others, I have come to realize that sometimes we see a problem when none actually exists. Instead what is wrong is our own lack of study and understanding, compounded by assumptions.
A Story to Illustrate
Brother Teller was a faithful member of the church. He had grown up in the church, he had gone to primary and sunday school and seminary. He served a mission and taught the truth to many people in a foreign country. He returned and began attending college and serving in his student ward. Everything was fine, he was happy and content, and enjoyed his life.
But then something happened. He learned that in general scientists theorize that horses were brought to the America’s by the Spanish. For Brother Teller this was a moment in time that many others have experienced, a moment when a sudden doubt has no immediate answer. He knew that the Book of Mormon references “horses” existing in the America’s long before the Spanish every arrived.
Uncomfortable showing doubt to his LDS friends, Brother Teller Turned to online forums and critical websites. The voices there were loud and extremely varied. It was difficult to sort through all of the “facts” and opinions. Some of these voices brought up more concerns which compounded his doubts. He continued to try and work out these concerns and doubts, but Sunday school didn’t really deal with his questions and he just didn’t have a lot of other places to turn. Eventually, Brother Teller stopped studying, stopped going to the temple, and stopped going to church as often. Suddenly one day he realized that his faith was shattered, and trying to piece it back together seemed like an overwhelming task. He eventually left the church.
This story, or some variation like it, plays out regularly in the lives of individual members of the church. Unfortunately, I believe, it often plays out not because of a problem with the doctrine, but because of a problem with our personal study and the way we react in the face of doctrinal opposition and doubt.
In Brother Teller’s case he suddenly found an apparent conflict between doctrine and science. He also found little help in the resources he relied on. Eventually leading to more issues with doctrine.
But the problem really began with Brother Teller’s understanding and assumptions. See, in Sunday school and seminary, we often deal with the basics. We deal with messages of hope and faith and the understanding of the commandments and the most central doctrines of the gospel. The same is true of General Conference and church publications. We deal very little with things like horses in the Book of Mormon and similar subjects. Thus, when some unexpected information comes to our attention we can suddenly feel conflict or doubt. But there are several really good reasons that the church deals with basics – and part of those reasons is because we as a people don’t put in effort.
Lets be honest, how often to we put in an hour worth of study to be ready for this week’s sunday school lesson? How often do we really study the church publications and manuals? How often do we do more than read our scriptures daily? How often do we even read our scriptures?
The church is a vehicle to dispense the gospel and to teach what is necessary for salvation. Thus the doctrines that are most important for salvation are given the priority in church teachings. True gospel scholarship is our own responsibility. And problems can arise when lack of scholarship allows for doubts. The doubts are usually exasperated by our natural emotional reactions to the doubt.
Often I have witnessed doubts arising because a particular scripture teaching appears week in the presence of a scientific theory, a historical account, or some other contradiction. And in these instances I have found that often times the person’s doubt really begins with the fact that their scholarship of the subject is limited to what they were taught in a primary or early sunday school class. And that no additional study, or meditation, or understanding has ever occurred since that first basic rendering of the subject.
“Doctrinal problems” are really our own problems when we learn just enough to have doubt, but not enough to actually fully understand the subject causing doubt.
They are our problems when we allow our emotional reactions to overcome our faith.
They are our problems when we give a source or critic more credit than is due, simply because they present themselves as more “objective” or having gained “greater understanding”.
They are our problem when we chase controversy instead of seeking faith.
They are our problems when we rely on what we know from Sunday school alone, and don’t admit that our gospel scholarship is weaker than it could, and probably should be.
If our “scholarship” consists of the stories we learned in primary, a few daily verses, and the occasional reading about a particular subject then our ability to deal with conflicting information, previously unknown details, or our own internal conflicts will be diminished. However, our “right” to really have any doubt is also diminished. If we are willing to be casual in our understanding of the gospel, then we must also be willing to be casual about our doubts. This is, however, rarely how we respond to doubt – and not a great way to live the gospel.
Dealing with Doubt
All too often, a person with 100 reasons to believe can have their faith jeopardized by one reason to doubt.
Our reactions to a doubt are often magnified with intensity, while our reactions to inspiration are often subdued and undernourished. We are slow to believe, but quick to doubt. It would appear that in this battle we see doubts as the David, and our belief as the Goliath. When actually, if our faith was a David it would be able to withstand any Goliath of doubt.
Two sentences in this adress really stood out to me, they were:
“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters—my dear friends—please, first doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith”
“A question that creates doubt in some can, after careful investigation, build faith in others”
Some have taken issue with this first quote, which is not completely unique to President Uchtdorf, but I would say they are falling for the very trap he is warning against. They doubt his words about doubt, before looking at it from a faithful viewpoint.
The second quote sums up almost every experience I have personally had with doubt. I see some eventually thrive in testimony and faith after experiencing a doubt, and others fall and crumble at the mere suggestion of the same doubt.
If we are going to look beyond basic doctrine, if we are going to dig deeper, if we are going to give ear to critics, then we must also be willing to look beyond doubts, dig deeper than the controversy, and give ear to faithful discussion.
Often, people stop when doubt arises and fail to take a deeper, faithful look. When really we should be willing to “first doubt your doubt”, and continue in faithful study to acquire more light and knowledge (D&C 50:24; Moroni 10:5). It is likely that what was once a doubt will later “build faith”.
My dear fellow saints, please don’t fall for this trap. Hang on to your belief with a firm grip while you work to figure out your doubts. Your final position on the subject will still be yours to make, but in the mean time give faith the benefit – and doubt the suspicion.
As I said before, almost any “doctrinal problem” we might run into has probably already been explored, investigated, debated, and had had various opinions offered. If we have doubts, we must patiently search out faithful discussions. In Brother Teller’s case, a little additional study and faithful analysis would have certainly given him the opportunity to increase his faith, instead of lose it.
It is imperative that, before venturing into deeper water, we learn to sail. A strong testimony in, and solid understanding of basic doctrines provide us the ability to navigate against unexpected currents, and can be essential to a successful voyage. But above all, we need to resist the urge to abandon ship, just because we see a little water on the deck.
I encourage the study of history and science and doctrine. I encourage an honest inquiry. But I encourage it with a focus on faith not doubt, with a good measure of patience, with careful thought, and with a consistent diet of prayer and personal inspiration.
P.S. Here are a few places to find faithful discussion: