Sometimes “Doctrinal Problems” Are Actually Our Own Problems

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.

Our 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.

Our Problem

“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.

Faith like a David

President Uchtdorf discussed this very phenomenon in the October 2013 General Conference address “Come, Join with Us”.

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”

and:

“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.

Faithful Study

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:

 

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Luke Hopkin

Father, wilderness addict, Mormon. I believe that we don't give the gospel of Christ the credit it deserves, it is much more effective, deep, and personal than we often realize. I believe in principles of faith, in doctrine, and in revelation. I hope to bring new insights, and a voice for truth, to the conversation. @lukevhopkin
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Latest posts by Luke Hopkin (see all)

  • So if I study from multiple sources and find that Joseph Smith married at least 33 women, including 11 whom were already married to men as well as two girls who were 14 years old that he’d groomed for years, you’d say that’s my problem?

    I go to LDS.org today and find the page devoted to Joseph Smith and it says he married one woman, Emma. I guess that’s my problem too?

    No, that’s a flat out lie. This isn’t primary where we dumb down the doctrine. Since we are talking about the guy that supposedly restored the gospel, maybe we should know about his other practices. Some members might find this interesting, no doubt.

    Google is the worst invention for the church, but the best for members who want to learn the truth.

    • Brett, does your source say “married” or sealed. Because there is a huge difference. My husband has been excommunicated from the LDS church and broken his covenants we made in the temple. Where does that leave me? I think I would rather be a worthy man’s 2nd or 33rd wife, then be alone. I know my phrasing may be wrong, and I”m sorry for that. I don’t have a way with words. But I hope you understand my question. If my child died back then, I could also see the desire to seal her to a worthy prophet. I think that in the early days of the church, there were often mis-recorded ordinances as well. I know that I have often found duplicates and errors with my family history. I’d doubt your source before I’d doubt my faith. I know once we get to the other side of the veil, a lot of these confusing things will be “sorted” out. Heavenly Father wants us to be happy. If a 14 year old wasn’t happy to be married so young (which btw, was pretty normal in the 1800s–in fact my in-laws were both 14 when they married in the late 60s!) wouldn’t a loving God “fix” things for the eternities?

    • Luke Hopkin

      Brett, thanks for the comment. Please read the first word of the entire article “Sometimes”. You can decide which ones fall into that category for yourself. In the meantime, here is a good read.

  • Paul

    Diminishing the importance of the issues does not resolve
    them. I’m trying to resolve the fact that Joseph Smith sent the Apostle Orson
    Hyde on a mission and then married his wife. “Horses” are a relative straw man
    argument compared to the major issues of LDS history. If your research skills
    are better than your example’s, try explaining the barrage of problems found in
    “Letter to a CES Director” (which can be found by googling).

    • Luke Hopkin

      “Horses” was chosen as the example because it is actually a problem for some, but also because it is relatively benign and easily dealt with. Since this article was not intended to deal with all problems, it was an appropriate choice as an example. THIS ARTICLE is really interesting in respect to Jeremy Runnell’s letter and I find it quite helpful in analyzing the letter. You will see that the article will direct you to HERE which is great place to start, though I haven’t read all of the material there. Thanks for the comment.

    • Luke Hopkin

      I was sure that I had responded to this before. Since I do not see the response, I will link this this: http://peculiarthought.com/2014/10/02/faithful-answers-to-a-critical-letter/

  • Janie Oyakawa

    And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America
    I am a Mormon,
    And a Mormon just believes.

    You cannot just believe part way,
    You have to believe in it all.

  • Collin

    I like much of what you’re saying here, Luke. I agree that where you are with your own testimony largely determines how you will react when you come across some of these tough issues. I’m not sure that it’s helpful, though, to tell someone that the problem is with them and that if they just prayed more and studied their scriptures more, the problems would go away. (I know I’m probably oversimplifying your argument, so I apologize.) You’re right, though, that people have been dealing with these issues for a long time. In some cases, they may truly by non-issues that can easily be explained away by an article on FAIR. But it’s also true that if most of them were really non-issues, they would have been explained away years ago and people wouldn’t be struggling with them anymore. While I admire much of the work apologists are attempting to do to reconcile some of these issues, most of the time, all they’re doing is creating a slight opening for faith. This would be okay if it were just one thing (i.e. horses). But is it likely that for every one of these hard issues, the least likely explanation is correct one?

    That being said, I absolutely agree that it’s possible to deal with these issues and come out of it as a faithful, believing Latter-Day Saint. But what that means before and after you go through it are two very different things. When you find out that the neat, tidy narrative you’ve been taught since a child ends up being neither neat nor tidy and in some cases flat out wrong, it feels like your whole world is crashing down on you. And how could it not? We’re literally taught that the entire gospel hangs on the Book of Mormon. It’s supposed to be a simple equation. If it’s true, Joseph Smith was a prophet, the church he restored is true, and the prophet today speaks to God. If it’s not, well… But what does it mean to be true? Does it mean it has to be a literal history of ancient people that actually existed on the American continent from 600BC to 400AD? Or can it be true if true principles are taught through inspired fiction? If Joseph Smith made it up, but was inspired to do so, is it still true? What if he didn’t make it up, but Mormon did, is that okay? For those who confront these issues but still want to believe, it necessarily can’t be as black and white as we’re taught.

    Now, If you had a strong foundation to start with, and a supportive family and faith community, it’s possible to pick the pieces back up. But the people I know (myself included) who have done so have ended up with a very different faith than the one they started with. The issues are still there and still very real. You just have to reorient your faith to accommodate your new understanding. Your sure knowledge is replaced with a sincere hope and belief. Your perception of things like scripture, prophets and revelation has to necessarily change in the face of a less literal understanding of Joseph Smith’s translation process and many of the problematic stories of the restoration. It’s possible to do it, but you have to really want to. And the problem is that we as a church haven’t traditionally been very accommodating to those whose testimonies/faith tend to deviate from the norm. Those who have done it largely have to either do so silently, or they end up having to endure accusations of heresy, apostasy, or in some cases, face disciplinary action. I think in the age of the internet, we have to do better than that.

    • Luke Hopkin

      Thanks for the comment Collin. A few quick points: Please don’t ignore the “Sometimes….”, I am not proposing this as a hard set rule. And the “Sometimes” will actually probably be different for everyone. I also specifically didn’t say to just pray and read scripture more, and did specifically say that “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”, the point being to encourage people to take the path of faith as they figure out their specific beliefs instead of letting doubt destroy everything they have believed thus far.
      Part of the reason some of these issues are still around is because people people do exactly what I advise against in this article, they react with doubt and emotion instead of taking a deep breath and searching out in faith. But even more so the issues are still around because the church grows by hundreds of thousands of new members every year, children in the church grow older and converts come into the church, so these subjects are new to potentially hundreds of thousands of new people every year. With that kind of growth investigation of church doctrine, history, etc with never end but continue to circulate. And even beyond that, as you state, the internet has only recently made information more available, and thus even more recently the works of apologetics and debate. We are on the forefront of this time in church history. Though, lets be clear, that many of the “problems” arise from information that comes from church records and published materials. Nothing that has been hidden, but just not available. Much like once printed books, even the bible, were not widely available. I came across this article this morning and I believe it relates nicely here.
      Your example with the Book of Mormon is fine, someone could end up at that conclusion. It’s not where I have ended up, but it still doesn’t break your equation. If someone believes that the BOM is “true” in the sense that it is inspired and teaches truth (regardless of factual accuracy) then by the same logic Joseph was a true prophet and the Church is true and the prophet today is a true prophet. The equation still works.
      You are right that stating an unorthodox belief is likely to get you some awkward responses. You may even get insensitive comments from some fool about being an “apostate”. Human nature exists in the members of the church and there is room for adjustment there. But the church has clearly defined that apostasy is found in ongoing action, especially proselyting action, not in belief.
      I am in favor of someone having to avoid “picking up the pieces” as I agree it is a difficult and even risky path to have to tread. Thus my entire message of this post: to risk err on the side of faith and patience, than to let doubt undermine everything you’ve believed thus far. So yes, oversimplified, but to simplify it a little less: Don’t lose your testimony just because you have a doubt, take the time, and put in the effort, to figure it out before you abandon your faith. If you still want to jump ship or adjust to a more unorthodox set of beliefs you can still do so, and you won’t have been any worse off by arriving there via a path of faith instead of a path of doubt and controversy.

  • Collin

    For what it’s worth, I totally agree that we should doubt our doubts before we doubt our faith. I do appreciate that aspect of your post. The way we approach our doubts will definitely have an effect on our ultimate outcome. And I think we owe our faith the benefit of the doubt. My main point, I guess, is that I hope we can understand that in most cases people going through a faith crisis didn’t ask for it. They probably started with an honest question which led them to troubling information which then led them to even more troubling information. Now they’re trying to process it all and find an honest way through it. The way they react to it matters. But just as important, if not more so, is the way we as a community react to them. Too often I think we’ve failed in that regard. Most of the time it’s unintentional. Well-meaning bishops often don’t understand or even know about the issues themselves. Members with deep-seated insecurities about their own faith may reflexively lash out against others they see confirming their worst fears. I’m not sure all the reasons why we do it, but I’m positive we can do better.

    • Luke Hopkin

      Collin, Well said. I agree completely. So I guess I would say in addition to this post: For those who aren’t in a faith crisis, you should be willing, ready, and able to have a loving, open, and thoughtful discussions with those who are. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.