Faith crisis–often leading to faith transition–is a “thing” these days. Someone innocently does a google search, travels down some online rabbit hole, and soon discovers weird–sometimes really weird–stuff about the Mormon past. These substantive issues are troubling enough on their own, but pretty soon they cease to be the primary issue. Rather, the fact that the person was never taught about these things at Church becomes the dominant issue. The person feels as though she has been lied to all of her life. The image she has constructed in her mind of a church that never changes, where everything is perfect, where the prophet has afternoon tea with Jesus Christ himself every Thursday afternoon in the temple, comes crashing down around her shoulders, as she considers for the first time the very human institution that is the LDS Church.
Those who have gone through an experience like this often toss around a brief list of issues as a sort of shorthand for the longer list of problems the person has encountered that has fractured her faith, often something like “multiple first vision accounts, polyandry, Book of Abraham, a stone in a hat, City Creek Mall.” Is there anything that can be done to help these people?
(Let me be clear that if the person feels enlightened by the experience and is happy about her new found knowledge, good for her. My concern is that most people who go through this experience don’t seem to be happy about it at all.)
I like the interview scene between Morpheus and Neo in 1999’s The Matrix. Morpheus offers Neo two choices, represented by a blue pill or a red pill:
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember, all I’m offering is the truth – nothing more.
In our case, the problem is that there is no blue pill. I’ve known a lot of people who would give a lot to be able to go back to their previous ignorant–and happy–experience with the Church. But once you’re online reciting a list like the one I quote above, it’s too late–there is simply no going back, as much as one might want to do so. You can’t crawl back into the womb. You can stay where you are, continuing to recite the list as a shorthand for all the Church’s foibles and failures for the remainder of time, or you can take the red pill. And the way one takes the red pill is by going all the way down the rabbit hole, not by reading and studying less, as one might assume, but just the opposite: by reading and studying even more, as counterintuitive as that might seem.
Folks who recite “the list” seem to believe that the list is impregnable, that once one becomes enlightened as to the items on the list, a happy and continued faithful engagement with the Church is now impossible. But I don’t accept that premise at all. I happen to know a lot of people who know all about the list, and yet remain committed and engaged members of the Church. And when I think about people who fall into this category, the common characteristic that comes to mind is that they tend to be exceptionally well read.
One who comes to recite the list has almost always gained her knowledge via the internet. And the internet is great; one can learn a lot from it, and I am indeed a fan. I spend a lot of time on the internet; this blog post itself is but a little bit of internet fodder. But if that is the only source of one’s knowledge base, then one’s knowledge is going to tend to be superficial. This reminds me of these famous lines from Alexander Pope:
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Think of some of the lions of Mormon scholarship, people like Richard and Claudia Bushman, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Armand Mauss, and many, many others. They manage to maintain a productive relationship with the Church precisely because they are so well read in Mormon thought; there is nothing at all superficial about their engagement with the literature.
But I realize it’s not very helpful to tell some poor soul who has stumbled upon a lot of weird stuff in our history and scripture and doctrine and practice to become like Richard Bushman. For most people that is just not a practical option.
As I’ve thought about this, I have come up with an idea that might be helpful for people troubled by their internet-based discoveries about the Church. I am going to call this the “Dialogue diet.” What I propose is a program of reading (with some skimming and skipping allowed, of course) the entire print run of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. (You can start at the beginning and work your way forward, or start with the most recent issue and work your way backward, I don’t think it really matters very much which direction you go.) My thinking behind this is as follows:
- Just telling someone to “become extremely well read in Mormonism” is less than helpful. Your average member simply would have no idea where to start on such a quest, and the task would seem so overwhelming as to be self-defeating from the start. Reading Dialogue from stem to stern is at least a very well defined task.
- Reading the entire print run of Dialogue is a lot to bite off and chew, I acknowledge, but the task is not insurmountable. I know this because it is something I myself did when I first encountered the journal; I went back to the very first issue and read it in sequence from there. (I realize there are many more issues in print now than when I did this, but still in my view it’s a doable task.)
- Except for the most recent two years, the prior issues are all conveniently available electronically at the Archive on the Dialogue website.
- Doing this exercise will have several positive effects. First it will provide the reader with extensive substantive knowledge, in long-form, footnoted journal articles as opposed to overly superficial internet postings. It will provide a model for how faithful Saints engage challenging issues. And one will begin to realize that one is not alone, that there is indeed an extensive community of Saints that know about these issues yet retain their faith and engagement with the Church.
There are of course no guarantees. One might finish this exercise with one’s faith crisis entirely intact. But if one is sufficiently motivated to give this little diet I’m suggesting a shot, I do believe it has the potential to give you a sense of equanimity about the Church itself and the issues that so trouble you now.
While reading the entire print run may seem like a faddish diet, rather like something you would find in a grocery checkout line, it has the potential to put you on the path of making a dent towards gaining that Bushmanian type knowledge that seems beyond your grasp right now. My guess is that somewhere along the way you would broaden your reading to other journals and to books as well. And engaging Mormon scholarly literature to that extent will give you context and perspective so that you will no longer look at the issues that originally troubled you with a “list” approach, but with a far deeper and more integrated approach that would allow for religious faith to continue to flourish, should that be your desire.
Consider, for example, the current issue, Volume 44, No. 4 (Winter 2013), which hit my mailbox a week or so ago. There’s a lot of content here, but let me highlight three main items:
William V. Smith, “Early Mormon Priesthood Revelations: Text, Impact, and Evolution.” Wait–do you mean to tell me that early Mormon priesthood evolved over time? Of course it did. But this is a serious-minded, sober, scholarly take on the subject, rather than a supermarket tabloid approach. Bill (full disclosure: he is a fellow BCC perma, as is the editor of the journal, Kristine Haglund) treats the subject very carefully, utilizing to full advantage new scholarly insights from the Joseph Smith Papers Project, in 84 pages with 152 endnotes. Reading about the evolution of Mormon priesthood with this kind of substance is a very different experience from reading something superficial, and possibly polemical, on the internet.
Seth Payne has a piece that happens to be directly relevant to the subject of this post: “Ex-Mormon Narratives and Pastoral Apologetics,” with some excellent advice with respect to those to whom this post is directed.
There is also Gregory A. Prince, “An Interview with Rabbi Harold Kushner.” I would like to quote here just the beginning of the interview to give you some of the flavor of it:
Prince: Let’s start by considering the question of how religions understand themselves in relation to other religions. I think if we had enough data points we would probably find that most, if not all religious traditions at some point in their maturation process either said, “We are better,” “We are the best,” or, “We are the only.” I think that the ones that I would consider the more mature have softened those stances.
Kushner: Yes, due to reality.
Prince: The Mormons immediately populated the top one and have been very reluctant, or incapable of vacating it.
Kushner: My take on that was to say, “Our religion is the best” is like saying “Our baseball team is the best.” It’s not a statement of fact; it’s a statement of loyalty.
Prince: Yes, and “My family is the best.”
Kushner: Yes, right. “My mother is the best cook.” it’s not factual.
Prince: My mother was–I don’t know about yours.
Take that snippet, multiply it by about 10,000, and that would be the potential impact on one who were to accept my suggestion and try the Dialogue diet. I really believe that such an effort has the potential to mature the perspective of someone who only recently has been exposed in a superficial way to problematic issues in Mormonism’s past.