by Sharon Lindbloom
11 January 2024
Last week, The Salt Lake Tribune published an article about two new Gospel Topics resources produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: “Seeking Answers to Your Questions” and “Helping Others with Their Questions.” According to the Tribune, these guides are meant to help Latter-day Saints navigate through a crisis of faith.
Hailed by the Tribune as a “seismic shift in the church’s approach to handling sticky conversation,” the new guides are being praised by high-profile progressive Latter-day Saints.
LDS artist Esther Candari says she has raised difficult questions among fellow Mormons in the past, only to “watch those around her recoil.” She’s relieved that the new guides make it ok to ask questions. According to the Tribune,
“’It’s nice,’ she said, to be able to point to an official church publication as evidence that ‘the process of research and questioning’ is part of a healthy faith practice.”
James Jones, described by the Tribune as a Latter-day Saint theologian and activist, notes that it’s “significant” to be reassured by a church publication that “it’s OK if you have uncertainties.”
And LDS author Terryl Givens says that the new church guides are aimed at the “decriminalization of doubt.”
The Tribune further notes,
“The guide ‘Helping Others with Questions’ addresses this issue [of being unprepared to answer questions] by calling on readers to put in the work to ‘become better informed’ by pursuing ‘a thoughtful study of the church’s doctrine and history.’
“To Candari, this direction from an official church source for members to study the faith’s history represents ‘a paradigm shift.’ After all, 30 years ago Latter-day Saint leaders were excommunicating and disfellowshipping a number of high-profile intellectuals.”
The common thread running through all these LDS comments is that the new guides, as they acknowledge questions and doubts, represent something new, something fresh, something ground-shaking in the LDS church. As opposed to the church’s previous stance, it’s now ok to ask questions. It’s now ok to learn about church history. It’s no longer ‘criminal’ to have doubts.
This begs the question: What sort of church has this been, when faith questions and the study of church history have been taboo?
At any rate, as I’ve read the LDS church’s new resources on approaching faith questions, I’ve come to a different conclusion than that expressed in the Tribune article. Though the guides call for some changes in relation to those who are struggling with their faith, I don’t see a truly meaningful shift in the way the church approaches faith questions.
In these new resources readers will not find specific answers to any potentially troubling questions, but they will find encouragement toward a new, softer approach to questioners (e.g., love them, listen to them, respect them). They will find good advice on study habits (e.g., recognize bias, read in context, corroborate across different sources). However, the “Seeking Answers” guide carries forward some of the church’s long-standing unfortunate attitudes toward doubters. The guide still minimizes the depth of people’s struggles and still blames the doubter for his or her uncertainties, while absolving the church of any complicity in a Mormon’s crisis of faith.
Briefly, in the “Seeking Answers” guide,
- Questioners are told to trust the church as a reliable source of information. This ignores the fact that the questioner is trying to determine whether this church is trustworthy.
- Questioners are told to “hold fast to what you already know,” when what they’re trying to determine is whether what they thought they knew is actually true.
- Questioners are told of church members who saw “challenges, mistakes and failures” in the early days of the Restoration. They “learned to follow the prophet with ‘patience and faith,’” implying the need for the questioner to do the same. Yet again this doesn’t consider the fact that the questions needing answers may very well be about whether faith in the LDS prophet is even warranted.
The guide also undermines the confidence of a questioner’s ability to correctly interpret the information he or she discovers, pointing out “our own limited capacity” in understanding. In the case of history, questioners are further cautioned to “Recognize the limits of our knowledge” because “there are many things we just don’t know.”
The guide belittles a questioner’s concerns about historical events and church teachings, indicating that these aren’t “primary” questions; they “aren’t as essential” as “core gospel truths.” But of course, in Mormonism, its history is tightly bound to its “core gospel truths.” For example, Mormonism gets its core gospel truths about Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, about Joseph Smith as a prophet, and about the need for the LDS Restoration from history. The historical account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision is the source of these unique Mormon doctrines, and LDS leaders say the historical reality of the event is necessary to Mormonism. As LDS President Heber J. Grant taught in General Conference, if the actual, historical First Vision did not occur, “the whole Mormon fabric is a failure and a fraud. It is not worth anything on earth” (Heber J. Grant, Conference Reports, April 1940, 128).
The “Seeking Answers” guide also lays blame for a person’s doubts on his or her own shoulders. Questioners are told they should “Be faithful and believe,” for “Jesus Christ simply asks for us to believe.” It suggests that the questions people struggle with are the result of the person’s own misguided expectations, misunderstandings, and/or the (so-called) mistaken idea that church teachings are supposed to be unchanging. The guide seeks to absolve the church of the responsibility it bears for having set these expectations and promoted these now-conflicting teachings in the first place.
None of this fosters hope for people who are in the midst of a faith crisis.
If the mere act of giving a green light to Latter-day Saints that allows them to ask (and seek answers to) difficult church-related questions means there has been a “seismic shift” in the LDS church, so be it. But when it comes to the church’s historic lack of compassion and understanding for those who doubt, nothing much has changed. There remains a graceless church-imposed stigma, and it’s a heavy burden for any Latter-day Saint who is longing to know the truth.
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