Reimagining Apologia with an Uncertain Faith

Brian M. Hauglid, Senior Research Fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, has provided us with this guest post. We’re grateful for his participation.

I like to ask questions. It’s what got me into the Church almost forty years ago. It’s also a big part of my going into academics. I love teaching inquisitive students and I thoroughly enjoy trying, like a detective, to piece together evidence and come up with reasonable arguments and hypotheses to help explain questions in scholarship.

I’ve spent a good portion of my academic career, before and since coming to BYU (in 1998), on Book of Abraham studies, which has some of the stickiest questions I’ve ever encountered.

I’m painfully aware that sticky issues about the Book of Abraham have fueled doubts that have led many down the road to questioning their faith and even to leaving the Church. Of course, there’s much more to doubting and questioning than merely coming to know disturbing historical information about such things as the Book of Mormon, polygyny, or the Book of Abraham. There’s also the interaction with family or Church members, some who might feel that your doubting is a sin, or question your questioning; others may expect you to accept their pat answers, or what have you. When your doubts and questions get mixed in with these kinds of circumstances in whatever combinations, things can become quite complicated and emotional, which can lead to feelings of being ostracized and alone.

So let me say right up front that if you’re in the midst of a faith crisis/transition, I’m not here to judge you and try to fix you with platitudes and pat answers that will magically infuse your faith with a feeling of certainty. That’s not real faith. For me, to have real faith is to acknowledge and accept doubt and ambiguity as a companion to faith and then to move forward. No, instead, I’m going to acknowledge that some questions you harbor are problematic and cannot be answered with certainty. Such is the price of the maturing faith. You know these verses: “Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things: therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21). Paul said, “For now we see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

In my own faith journey I have come to focus more on questions and evidences than doubts, realizing that doubt is a companion to faith and that the opposite of faith is certainty, something quite rare and foreign to the human experience. Therefore, I have come to accept that I may never know with certainty all the answers to the tough questions. Of course, this fact doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask tough questions and continue to seek for the best possible answers.

This also doesn’t mean that we should let our beliefs about what’s true govern our methodologies and conclusions. Religious conviction is and should always remain a personal, sacred, ineffable matter, which we should avoid reducing to some kind of self-constructed truth paradigm within which to fit the evidence. This, to my thinking, is completely wrong headed. To me this backwards approach only leads to strange mental gymnastics, feigned certitude, premature (and mostly false) conclusions, selective evidence, and a veneer of disingenuousness—not a real, lasting help to most members with serious doubts and questions.

With the Book of Abraham, for example, some will examine the evidence, (whether thoughtlessly or thoughtfully), and gravitate to varying degrees of certainty on one side or the other, if there must be sides. Sometimes this will result in misperceptions on either side that can lead to intransigence and a kind of group certainty, which can engender something akin to a mob mentality when challenged, something quite common on Facebook and Internet discussion boards. But it seems what is lost on both groups (generally) is the human consequences of hurt and harm that results from this self-serving assurance that, in my thinking, ultimately undermines the working together of doubt and uncertainty in growing a mature faith. We must not lose sight of the human element in the faith journey, which recognizes that we are all trying to make our way, trying to make sense of this world, trying to separate the sacred from the profane, trying to find God in our lives.

In my view, religious epistemology is rooted in faith and not in certainty, so in my strivings to find answers to tough historical (academic) issues I try to let the evidence speak for itself before I posit theories or hypotheses. Taking this approach has, in most cases, compelled me to ask new questions and readjust my paradigm, not an uncommon consequence in our search for truth.

Perhaps in our defenses of the faith we could employ less dogmatism and more openness, less judgment and more forgiveness, less intransigence and more conciliation, less snarky humor and more kindness, less prescription and more pastoral care, less certainty and more faith.

Comments

  1. Your last paragraph, yes, yes, yes! Thank you for this.

  2. Wait just a minute — LESS snarky humor? Who’s in charge of quality control around here?

  3. Jennifer Poff Koski says:

    Thank you Brian M. Hauglid. A thousand times, thank you!

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Good stuff, Brian.

  5. Well done, Brian. Steve, Police Beat.

  6. I love the post! Thank you!

  7. Kevin Rex says:

    Thank you very much for your thoughtfulness. I think your attitude, combined with the attitudes of other emerging doubters who live by faith, such as the Givens’, has made the world a better place. I recently chose Facebook to “come out” to my ward and stake about my having resigned from the Church, and the loving feedback from so many people was very amazing, much better than I anticipated. Having grown up in the Church and having spent 20 years in the same stake, I had worried about possible shunning, but I have been surprised with much love. Thank you again.

  8. These are challenging ideas, beautifully expressed, Brian. My question (I like them, too), is Where do we find ground upon which to stand even as we explore ideas that cause us uncertainty? The fear of many who will read this post is that if you go down the path of allowing that some notion or other that was once taken to be certain by our faith community might not be so (given the evidence), what is to stop the logical dominoes from falling until our certitude in everything from modern prophets to God himself have collapsed?

    The backstop, I would argue, that prevents full collapse, is personal experience. Like Nephi, I might not know the meaning of all things, but I can know—by experience—God’s love. I might not know what to make right now of the Book of Abraham’s origins. But I can know, and do know, from experience, that I feel the power of God in that book, and it remains scripture to my soul. The problem is that logical proofs don’t give one that experience. It’s a personal attitude of openness and, frankly, desire, that enable it. For some, perhaps that isn’t good enough. They want a rational experience or nothing. But that is not a fully human criterion, unless we are going to say that love or altruism must also be logical. I believe because it is good for me to believe. It softens and widens my heart, and opens me outward and upward.

  9. Peter LLC says:

    the opposite of faith is certainty, something quite rare and foreign to the human experience.

    Indeed. Would we were more like Op Ivy: All I know is that I don’t know nothing.

  10. yeah, it’s cool that the drummer went on a mission but things just weren’t the same after that. . . .

  11. So many of our faith crises today are the product of the church having over-promised and under-delivered. Its manuals and education system, for generations, have offered little more than pat answers to complex questions, simplistic explanations regarding the origins of scripture, homiletic versions of church history, and the false impression that its doctrines never change. What are we to think when two years ago the church amends the preface to the 1978 revelation lifting the ban on blacks holding the priesthood to say that it doesn’t have a clue as to the origins of this policy and then, one year later, it publishes an essay stating: “We finally figured it out—Brigham did it!”

    Yes, Brian, you’re right—we need less certainty and more faith, but that has not been the church’s approach. Rather, it tells you what is certain and marginalizes you when you ask questions or don’t accept the “revealed truth du jour.”

    I would find it a heck of lot easier to live with my doubts if my church leaders would acknowledge some doubts of their own and admit that the institution has frequently promised certainty where none exists.

  12. Great article-really helpful as I strive to find answers to troubling questions. However I would love to see articles like this in The Ensign and these kind of issues addressed in General Conference. I feel church leaders (general authorities) need to address these troublesome issues
    This group has been a godsend to me as I now see I am not alone in my questions and feelings about things related to the church. I am still going to church and ‘hanging on in there’ but how many have left as there is no forum in the church to address these troublesome issues and church leaders seem silent or simplistic on them?

  13. Brian,
    Good to see you around these parts. We last spoke on the Malvern Hills, where, for me, certain doubts about life and God tend to drift easily away. Faith and doubt are like moods — they come and go and seem to be immune to my own will.

  14. FarSide and Claire: I think you’re right that church leaders have faced very difficult problems by erring on the side of interpreting church history with charity. This means that rhetorically, certainty has been emphasized over searching, though searching is inevitably part of any true quest for certainty. I’ve been buoyed up by recent addresses from PResident Uchtdorf:

    “My dear young friends, we are a question-asking people. We have always been, because we know that inquiry leads to truth. That is how the Church got its start, from a young man who had questions. In fact, I’m not sure how one can discover truth without asking questions. In the scriptures you will rarely discover a revelation that didn’t come in response to a question…Some might feel embarrassed or unworthy because they have searching questions regarding the gospel, but they needn’t feel that way. Asking questions isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a precursor of growth.”

    Thanks to Ardis for first calling my attention to that one, found here: http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2009/11/12/pres-uchtdorf-%E2%80%9Cis-it-all-right-to-have-questions-about-the-church-or-its-doctrine

    His GC talk “Come Join With Us” was great, as well:

    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/come-join-with-us

  15. Claire- It’s also useful to read those who have walked this path before. I’m particularly fond of this personal article by Carlfred Broderick (just learned he has a page on Wikipedia), called “The Core of My Faith” here. He tells several stories that I’ve found personally useful.

  16. I think what Brian is saying is good. I wonder why many people seem to avoid discussion, which involves both listening and talking. For me, the opposite of faith is fear. I think fear is the reason many refuse to look into controversial topics.

  17. Thank-you for this post. I think there is reticence on the part of members to encourage these discussions of legitimate doubts, based on the fear of casting doubt on the legitimacy of church leaders. People can easily misinterpret someone questioning the origins of the Book of Abraham (and any number of “sticky” subjects) as attacking Joseph Smith’s position as a prophet. Elder Oaks was quoting an earlier apostle when he said, “When we say anything bad about the leaders of the Church, whether true or false, we tend to impair their influence and their usefulness and are thus working against the Lord and his cause” (https://www.lds.org/ensign/1987/02/criticism?lang=eng). I think a lot of people tend to extend this counsel to saying anything bad about the church’s history as well, which tends to inhibit quality discussion of controversial issues.

  18. Gayle henrie says:

    Thank you Brian, and Morgan too.

  19. hope_for_things says:

    Brian,

    Thanks for this post, I admire your work and I’m intrigued by the way you define faith here. I agree that this is an ongoing process and certainty about God and his nature is difficult if not impossible to reach in this life.

    I would like to know if you’re willing to explain where you ended up after all the work on the BoA. What is your current perspective about the origins of this work? Is it solely a creation of Joseph Smith, or do you think there is credibility in the idea that perhaps Joseph actually did translate some records about Abraham and they were lost (long scroll theory) or do you subscribe more to the catalyst theory. If you’ve already summarized what you learned from the BoA project on a website somewhere can you please point me in that direction.

    I very much value your opinion as an expert on these matters, and from what I’ve read and listened to you sound like an honest person attempting to be loyal to the church and also accurate and forthright at the same time. I value your perspective on this matter. Thanks

  20. +1 Farside. When I read/listen to people like Brian, the Givens, Bushmans, etc. I always come away thinking, “I could be a member of that church.” Then I actually attend church and listen to general conference, and I am quickly reminded that the church is nothing like the “Gospel” that is discussed by these individuals. It’s unfortunate because if it were I would probably still be attending.

  21. Matt Harmer says:

    FarSide and CRL – you both nailed it.

  22. A different question: are some arguments so bad that addressing them with kindness gives them a false legitimacy? That’s the most frequently cited justification for snark.

  23. jlouielucero says:

    I agree with many of the concerns and ideas posted, but I will say in my experience the way the church becomes the way CRL and FarSide wish is by helping it become that. I have personal experiences the ground my faith and I cannot stand the way correlated materials and leaders avoid and ignore the issues (I really believe they could help so many people by doing so) but I have found happiness and more faith as I have sought people struggling and tried to help them and help those who are oblivious to struggles of faith realize they can be more helpful and accepting of those who struggle. We really can make a difference and I personally believe the church is moving in the right direction albeit slower than many of us hope for.

  24. One problem is that novel solutions are often dismissed and ignored for at least two superficial reasons: First, because they do not fit a preconceived pattern of what a solution is supposed to look like. Second, because supposed problems are found in the novel solution and the person(s) who are proposing the solution are not afforded an opportunity to rebut the arguments against their proposed solution. I have encountered these problems when trying to get a legitimate hearing for my solutions to the Book of Abraham problems, which can be found at my blog, Mormon Puzzle Pieces.

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