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.