Can We Question and Respect?

My #5 golden oldie post was written as a response to some early fireworks in the LDS Blogosphere (this was before it had been christened "The Bloggernacle"), when Times and Seasons was said to be excessively intellectual.  I smile as I recall LDS blogging’s little existential crisis.

It also doubles as a good articulation of the philosophy Bob and I bring to blogging.  There were a few comments, but not really that many.  If you’re interested in reading them visit the original post.

Also, (it should go without saying, but) I’ll point out that I wrote the post’s final sentence before I had come over to the dark side, so don’t hold the details of it against me.

Quite the hullabaloo over at Times and Seasons over whether there is too much "inappropriate intellectualism." I guess a couple of former regulars to the site feel that there is too much of the foolishness of men. I feel strongly that the doctrinal exploration and analysis typical at T&S is something that benefits me in my own search for knowledge and testimony. I also recognize that many do not feel the same way, and I have nothing but respect for people who follow their hearts and try to listen to what the Spirit tells them.

Growing up, I felt like my parents fostered an atmosphere where we were able to recognize and discuss instances in which we felt differently about certain policies and doctrines than did our leaders. At the same time, it was always clear that our leaders had a specific stewardship and responsibility, and that they deserved nothing less than our support and sustaining. An issue that came to represent these notions living side by side was that of appropriate sacrament meeting music:

My dad was ward music chairman at the time. Concerning sacrament meeting music, the manual said something along the lines of ". . . while the hymn book and children’s song book should be the primary sources of music for sacrament meeting, there are many other sources of appropriate music . . . " (I don’t actually have a copy, but my dad has quoted it dozens of times to me, and this is close). Our Stake Presidency decided that to "more fully" live this policy, the hymn book and children’s song book would be the only acceptable sources in our Stake. My dad discovered this after leading a choir in Stake Conference (they sang a selection from the Messiah or something like that) and being greeted by the Stake Prez with a "Sounded great, but make sure next time it’s from the hymn book." After many lengthy discussions, the official Stake policy was made clear.

It drove my dad nuts. Whenever the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would sing "In the Bleak Midwinter" or another appropriate hymn, he’d go crazy inside. He wrote letters to the Stake Presidency highlighting what the handbook said. He discussed it over Sunday dinner. He fasted and prayed. All to no avail — he and the Stake President continued to feel differently about it.

But he always lived by the policy, and made it clear that he respected the authority of these leaders. Even when other wards in the Stake would sneak other hymns by (the Stake Presidency weren’t musicians — they didn’t necessarily know what was in the hymn book anyway), he deferred to those under whose stewardship he served.

This is just one of many examples. Questioning and seeking personal confirmation of counsel received from leaders was a very real part of the teaching that my parents offered as I grew up. So was a respect for the priesthood and the organization of the church. Combining those two things is very near to the foundation of my testimony, and I think it is very possible to mix questioning and respect in a meaningful way. I realize that the testimonies of others may be based on different views, and I wish them nothing but the best as they make their own way toward exaltation. I just want to be on record as saying that I view Times and Seasons as something incredibly relevant to me as I search for truth (absolute or not).


  1. As always, I like to take a step back and look at larger issues. We’ve so demonized questioning and doubt, as if it’s inherently evil. We don’t trust journeying – allowing people to have their own faith journey. It may, after all, lead them down a path we don’t want them to take. Instead, we see doubt, questions, and faith journeys as something to rescue people from. At best, we pity those who go through these experiences, at worst we dismiss them with labels like apostate.

    It’s amusing to me because I’ve seen people who’s doubts have led them to happier places. Sometimes this is within the Church, sometimes not. But no one has yet to demonstrate that doubt and questioning are inherently bad. Sure, they’ll share the anecdotes about people they know who left the Church and now are one step away from resembling Pol Pot. But I’ve got plenty of anecdotes about those who leave who are the better for it. Such stories don’t solve the problem: What’s so bad about doubt, questions, or lack of faith?

    Again, we come back to exactly the same place we’re always at. Believers assume, with no evidence or proof to back them up, that their indemonstrable beliefs are correct, and they simply cannot see why someone would “throw it all away.” Plenty of people leave out of anger or for other less-than-thoughtful reasons. But some leave because they perceive a broader world of faith out there, and they feel that Mormonism hinders their search for truth and righteousness. It’s not the path I’ve chosen to take, but it’s one I can certainly respect, without automatically denouncing as foolish, wicked, or apostate.

  2. Like you, I’ve always felt that questioning and respecting go hand-in-hand.

    It’s impossible for me to consider my religion without also thinking about the many questions I have and the crises of faith that I’ve passed through lo these many, many years. My current pattern of worship is the product of the questions I’ve asked and the study I’ve done.

    I guess you’re asking where the appropriate line is to be drawn for re-examining our faith and asking questions. I’m not sure that the line is one drawn on a subject-by-subject basis, though, like as if for example it would never be appropriate to ask MIH-related questions. Instead, I feel like the line of appropriateness is best drawn in relation to the enquirer, and em’s current relationship to God. Am I strong enough in my testimony that I can explore and question, but still preserve my core beliefs? What is the purpose of the exploration?

    The answers to those questions may be a better indicator of when to doubt.

  3. Let’s admit it–we’re all just a bunch of religious contrarians here. I’ll second your thoughts, John H. IMHO, there is too much faith, rather than too little, in the Church. A Conference sermon on the virtues of doubt would do us a lot of good. Sounds like a great blog post, doesn’t it?

  4. I admit it, Dave; I’m a contrarian. In fact, probably more so now than when I wrote that post originally (I think it was in January).

    Although there does seem to be something of a division between liberals and conservatives (or liahonas/iron rods, black-and-whites/grays, whatever the current fashionable term is), one of my very favorite things about blogging is the opportunity to interact with people at different stages and on different paths in their testimonies in a way I can’t at Church.

    And I like that you said there may be too much faith in the Church. I just wonder how I can work that sentence into my next Elders Quorum lesson. . .

  5. I don’t know about a conference sermon, Dave, but Neal Chandler wrote a great essay for Sunstone a few years ago, in which he proposed that every once in a while we should have a “Feast and Acrimony” meeting, in which we all share our doubts and fears and hurts, then sit down to a good meal together. I think I’d like that.

  6. john fowles says:

    Kristine, what good would that do? How would it further the God’s work and glory, to bring about the immortality and eternal life of mankind? In other words, why isn’t participation in Sunstone or BCC or the blogosphere more widely enough? Why should the Church sponsor it?

  7. John, it would help us be friends. That’s all.

  8. Er, that was me, not John, who posted that last; don’t know what happened! (Empathy run amok, or something!!)

  9. John Fowles:

    How do you know that God doesn’t want an acrimony meeting? After all, God’s ways are not man’s ways, so just because you can’t see the good in it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, right?

    Don’t you think you’re attaching your definitions of how God’s work and glory ought to be brought about, instead of relying on what God wants?

  10. A “Feast and Acrimony” meeting sounds like a great idea. I think it would actually be very faith-affirming and would encourage a sense of peace, hope, and unity.

    Sounds like a great excuse for another get-together. My place is open.

  11. john fowles says:

    John H., God wants us to eshew contention with one another in our congregations. 3 Nephi 11:29-30.

  12. John Fowles:

    Avoiding contention one with another is hardly the same thing as sharing our doubts and concerns. Of course, those intolerant of doubts or concerns could cause contention, but they are the one’s at fault for narrow-mindedness and judgmentalness.

  13. Then again, the grammar snobs might cause contention by throwing a hissy-fit over the extraneous apostrophe in “one’s.”


  14. i’m glad we dont know any grammar snobs

  15. john fowles says:

    By the way, my view is that of course we can question and respect just as long as you don’t forget that little respect part (which includes, I would posit, respecting the people who don’t “question” in this sense). My beef is with the idea that the Church should sponsor doubting and questioning. That doesn’t really make sense. The Church offers what it has and each individual can doubt or not as he or she likes.

  16. I think with most principles have a positive and negative side. We do a pretty good job of teaching the positive side of obedience, faith, etc. but not the negative side. I think it would be a welcome relief to hear a lesson, in church, about the benefits of doubt and skepticism.

  17. I suspect that the average lesson on doubt and skepticism in the Church would be as boring and unenlightening as the average lesson on faith and belief in the Church. The problem is not the choice of topics, but the fact that nine-times out of ten those speaking really have nothing to say. This is as true — alas! — for doubters as it is for believers…

  18. I just have to say that I respect you John Fowles, for continuing to return to the BCC to discuss and question those here. It would be so easy to go to a blog that you agree with everything said. Your act of being here, I think, is proof of your belief in what we are talking about (though kind of in reverse), that you question and (I presume) you respect those who post here (as do those here question and respect you (presumably)).

    As for the Church sponsoring doubting and questioning… I’m not sure, though I think the two terms are different. There is no way we can come to know the mysteries of God without questioning. I truly wonder what thoughts Joseph Smith had before he inquired about Abraham’s wives.

  19. John, I don’t really expect that the church would sponsor a Feast and Acrimony meeting, and I suspect that Neal was being more than a little tongue-in-cheek with the suggestion. Mostly it’s just a way of imagining a richer version of testimony meeting, in which there might be room for a fuller expression of the range of human religious experience (or at least for *my* religious experience).

  20. john fowles says:

    Rusty, thanks–actually I do respect everyone here. And I respect that many people question the truth of the Church and have doubts about it and the existence of God generally. I don’t have a problem with that in the slightest. But I can’t see the value in criticizing the Church for not holding question and doubt forums. People have done a great job as it is creating and maintaining such forums without the Church needing to sponsor them.

  21. Bob and Logan,

    I enjoyed these posts at your old blog. Too bad its slowly suffocating with you joining these folks over here. Hopefully your posts won’t get lost in the mix with so many other posts. I’m just going to have go make a new link on my blog to reflect this change. *sigh*

  22. Thanks, Charles, for thinking about us. Yeah, I hope we can retain our identities here myself. For a large group blog, though, I think this one enables a relatively high degree of differentiation among its members.

  23. …and we’re good looking, too!

  24. D. Fletcher says:

    …well, some of us.

  25. “Then again, the grammar snobs might cause contention by throwing a hissy-fit over the extraneous apostrophe in “one’s.””

    Apparently, you get one article published in Dialogue and all of a sudden you’re Hemmingway :)

    Great article, by the way, Kris :)

  26. Bob Caswell says:

    I don’t know, Nate, you’re going to have to back up “boring and unenlightening” before I take it as a blanket statement describing all “average” lessons.

    Every time I’ve leaned toward skepticism with my Sunday school lessons, it’s at least stirred up enough controversy to wake people more than other “average” lessons. And it has really put a smile on the face of those feeling the same way.

    Perhaps you’re saying the glamour would wear off if it became a regular feature in the Church?

  27. D. Fletcher says:

    By the way, John Fowles is better looking than all of us. Except Manahi, of course…


  28. This quote may be old hat for many of you, but I read it recently and Logan’s words reminded me of it.

    “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their Salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.”

    Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 9:150.

    I find the “or not” at the end to be rather powerful. It is logical given the argument made, but it is really not socially acceptable to put it in such terms amongst the saints.

  29. john fowles says:

    Kristine, in Peggy Fletcher Stack’s SL Trib. article about the resignation of RLDS President McMurray, I saw something that made me think of this thread. In hailing his achievements while leader of the RLDS (Stack seems very approving and complimentary of the Community of Christ in this article), Stack mentions that

    [h]e initiated “listening circles” where church members could hear various points of view on the topic without rancor and polarization.

    So, it looks like at least the Community of Christ is sponsoring Feast and Acrimony meetings rather than Fast and Testimony meetings. We should see how that has been working out over there. . . .

  30. john fowles says:

    D., thanks for the compliment. . . . but, who is Manahi?

  31. D. Fletcher says:

    Oh, John, you’re a beaut, all right!

    The name Manahi sounds like a prophet from the Book of Mormon, doesn’t it? Manahi, son of Limhi…

    Manahi Taber-Kawene is Christina’s husband. They live here in New York — he’s a filmmaker.

  32. D. Fletcher says:

    Sorry, spelled wrong. Manahi and Christina Taber-Kewene.

    Yeah, our ward might as well be called Manhattan First Ward of the Supermodels

  33. Bob Caswell says:

    Am the only intrigued by “he’s a filmmaker”? I actually met the man, and I had no idea. D., Christina, or Manahi (if you blog), tell me more!

  34. john fowles says:

    What kind of filmmaker?

  35. Rob Briggs says:

    Regarding doubts, concerns & questioning, I don’t think anyone has proposed “sponsoring” these things. Rather, the better framework is to acknowledge that these are nie on to universal life experiences. Everyone experiences them a one time or another.

    People should feel free to express their “belief” in the gospel and not just their “knowledge.” And in that highly variable state covered by the phrase, “I believe,” they should feel free to express their struggles with and against doubt. Those would be appropriate expressions in our traditional testimony meetings.

    Whether that fulfills the measure of creation of Feast and Acrimony, I’ll leave to others.

  36. “(Stack seems very approving and complimentary of the Community of Christ in this article)”

    Give me a break, John–using neutral language (i.e. not “apostate” or “splinter group”) and talking about the former RLDS church as one would any other religious organization is just good reporting, neither approving nor disapproving.

    And, despite your disdain for the “listening circles” it’s hard for me to see how a forum for members to discuss difficult issues “without rancor or polarization” is a bad thing. It sounds, actually, exactly like a “focus group” conducted recently by a member of the General R.S. Board in a friend’s stake. Even (especially?) strongly hierarchical organizations need bottom-up feedback from time to time.

  37. john fowles says:

    Kristine wrote Even (especially?) strongly hierarchical organizations need bottom-up feedback from time to time.

    How does an “acrimony” meeting fulfil that need?

  38. John Fowles:

    You seem to be missing the larger point by about a mile here. You’re obsessed with the use of the word “acrimony.” I have no doubt that Neal Chandler selected that word because it sounds like “testimony” and was a play on words. “Feast and Acrimony” – get the joke?

    The larger point is that people shouldn’t have to come to Church and feel pressured to stand up and say “I know” when they really don’t know. They should be able to share their doubts and concerns and then fellowship with other saints in spite of those doubts. What the heck good is Church if people can’t come and be strengthened by one another and uplifted by one another? And it needs to be more than just everyone patting themselves on the back as they bask in the correctness of their worldview. “Hey, you know the Church is true? Me too, let’s party!”

    People have explained how expressing doubts could be helpful to members – why do you object so strongly? If your testimony is strong, what’s your fear? If the Church is true, why are we so paranoid and insecure over these things? We’re always saying the Church can withstand any criticism – why are we so chicken to put that to the test?

  39. John Fowles:

    I ought to reread posts before I send them, not after. That was unnecessarily sarcastic and a bit biting – I apologize.

  40. john fowles says:

    John H. wrote They should be able to share their doubts and concerns and then fellowship with other saints in spite of those doubts.

    One the reasons for my contentions here is that it seems to me that this is already happening, so a separate meeting set aside for members to ponder vocally whether JS had ulterior designs in instituting polygamy or whether BY taught Adam-God or was implicated in MMM doesn’t seem useful. These things can be better addressed where they are already being addressed–in outside publications and scholarship generally.

    I would add that a Grant-Palmer-type of voicing of doubts also seems inappropriate in any official Church meeting. Imagine standing up in a Church meeting and saying that “I am an insider and I can tell you based on this insider status that some of the Church’s core teachings are patently untrue–but let’s still be Mormons and worship Christ.” It is fine for Palmer to publish a book with such a thesis but how would it improve the Church for it to become appropriate for him to do it in some kind of Church-sponsored activity? The Church wants to maintain its truth claims and claims to authority; Palmer’s claims are inimical to the Church’s claims on these issues. So why should the Church sponsor the airing of such views on its time?

    As for the testimony bearing, you need only bear your testimony about knowing that it is true if that is in fact the case. If you don’t “know” it’s true or have doubts, there’s no pressure to stand up and declare to the contrary. Even doubts are not inappropriate in testimony meeting if they are presented in a way that edifies and strengthens other’s testimonies, such as an explanation of some doubt coupled with some kind of experience that strengthened your faith on that point despite the doubt. If the former hasn’t happened, then there isn’t much utility in vocalizing the doubt to the congregation.

  41. john fowles says:

    That should be “If the latter hasn’t happened . . . .

  42. While it is fun to talk about, I can’t say that a Crossfire-type format (alternating firm believers and vocal doubters at the pulpit) for F&T would really serve the congregation better than the current format. After all, most people come to have their faith strengthened, not confronted. Nor would a supplementary meeting really be worthwhile: “Vocal doubters, report to the Scout Room following the block for your anti-testimony meeting.”

    Is this really a problem? Are members who want to tactfully share their faith challenges from the pulpit at F&T meeting actually discouraged from speaking? Surely I’ve heard people close with something like “thanks for your support, brothers and sisters” rather than “even though I’ve had a very difficult month, I know the Church is true.” Such remarks seem much more welcome in F&T than, for example, remarks I heard in yesterday’s F&T from a couple of the ward crazies. At least tactful doubters speak to religious and faith issues.

  43. Nate Oman says:

    I think that Dave is absolutely right. (There, did you think I would ever write that!)

  44. My interest is less in a special meeting to express doubts and more in a teaching style that is still principle-based but more encompassing. For example, if someone teaches on the principle of obedience, they might talk about when a particular principle becomes a virtue and when that same principle is a vice. For example, if someone teaches the principle of faith, they might include (as part of teaching that same principle) the idea that in certain situations doubt and skepticism play an important role in the development of a soul — or even in thwarting evil. From my perspective, this is simply a way to put a principle in proper perspective and helps to get past foolish assumptions that seem to be left hanging in the air.

    My thinking is that this approach to teaching would encourage people to think about things more and to ask more intelligent questions.

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