Planted: An Interview with Patrick Mason

Patrick Mason is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies and Associate Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University, and has been a scholar of religion (and Mormonism in particular) for decades. His latest book, Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt, is published jointly by Deseret Book and the Maxwell Institute.

This interview will be interspersed with my own observations and review of the book, which is the sort where you buy multiple copies to share with friends and family. It’s another in the Living Faith series, which has been stellar across the board. The general approach of the series seems to be a bit of a pragmatic focus on living the gospel and cultivating a growing, thriving testimony in a modern world. Planted continues in the same format as previous books in the series: it is brief, it is fairly narrowly focused and its purpose is to reaffirm testimony.

So, how did this book come to be? What was the genesis?

The book really came about in response to Q&A sessions that I had after several firesides and other events talking with people about issues of faith and doubt. Invariably, someone would ask where they could read more, when the book was coming out, etc. I pointed them to books by the Givenses, Adam Miller, etc., but eventually decided that I had enough material to put something together. I originally approached Richard & Claudia Bushman and Spencer Fluhman to do something together, and their response was, “Great idea — why don’t you do it!” But they were very generous in sharing their notes from various lectures and firesides they had given, which were important in shaping some of the chapters. So really, it was very much a response to the questions I heard from lots of different people, both in person and online.

Here’s a question I had while reading which you hit on midway through the book: to what extent is faith a choice? To what extent did you choose your faith?

In general, I think the answer to that question is genuinely different for every individual. I absolutely believe that some people are born with the spiritual gift of faith. Faith isn’t hard for them, and in fact they don’t really choose it — it seems to choose them. For other people, faith is an absolute struggle, and others still (maybe most people?) fall somewhere in between. This is one place where I think I disagree slightly with Terryl Givens, who really emphasizes the choice aspect of faith. Of course those born with the gift of faith have to choose to act on it to nurture, but I don’t think that things are stacked equally for everyone, and thus choosing and pursuing the life of faith is essentially the same regardless of who you are. I believe there are a lot of environmental and structural factors (probably including genetics, almost surely including brain chemistry, and definitely including culture) that can impact how a person pursues a life of faith, and how.

[Review note: Mason does address this issue at some length in the book, wherein he emphasizes the individual approaches to faith. His point is that regardless of the provenance of our faith, we each carry the burden (and benefit) of figuring out what we’re going to do with the spiritual gifts we’ve been given. We can’t avoid personal responsibility and choice.]

To what extent is the thought experiment helpful where you ask yourself if you would have accepted the Gospel if the missionaries knocked on your door?
I’ve thought about it and I think it’s a bit of an unfair question, but it does reinforce how important our faith is as a heritage.

In terms of myself, as I say in the book, I’m one of those people who was more or less born with faith. I’m not good at very many things, but I’m pretty good at religion. That doesn’t make me any better — it’s just who I am. The struggle for me has been to sometimes understand, sympathize with, and have genuine charity for those who don’t have the same gift of faith, or for whom it doesn’t come quite as easily. I’ve come a long way in this regard, I think, since being a 19-year-old missionary.

I think that if I hadn’t been born Mormon, but still had the same basic proclivities, I would have pursued some kind of religious vocation. If I was born Catholic, chances are decent I’d pursue the priesthood. If Protestant, to become a minister or theologian. Or maybe pursued my same career as a religious historian, but focusing more on other faith communities. I’ve always had a good ear for religion, starting with my own but then pretty naturally expanding to other people’s as well. So if the Mormon missionaries had knocked on my door, I almost surely would have invited them in and talked to them. Who knows where it would have gone from there.

What do you think about the term ‘faith crisis’? Does it describe what you see happening?

Like any big umbrella term, I think “faith crisis” is insufficient to describe the complexity of what happens in a wide variety of individual people’s lives. But we use encompassing terms like that all the time to make sense of somewhat-similar phenomena, so I get why we use it as a catchall. I certainly believe that “faith crisis” is a real thing affecting lots of people (how many, who knows?). But my hesitation with the term is twofold. First, I think it can overdetermine or predetermine the phenomenon. In other words, nowadays someone who has some questions might think they are having a “faith crisis” whereas a few years ago they just thought they had some questions. Second, we’ve probably over-applied the term. “Crisis” is pretty dramatic to my ears, whereas for a lot of people their questions, struggles, doubts, etc., are far more gentle. I’m glad that the vocabulary seems to be expanding to talk about things like “faith transition,” etc. In my book I used the term “faith crisis” up front, but generally deferred to gentler terms like “doubt,” “questions,” “struggles,” etc.

Plus for quite a few people, it’s probably as much about culture and a sense of belonging as it is about ‘faith’.

Absolutely. The way we typically think about “faith” is very much a modern, Enlightenment, Protestant notion of assent to certain propositions. One of my Jewish colleagues, for instance, hates it when people talk about the “Jewish faith.” “Faith is a Christian concept!” she bellows. Religion is obviously a lot more than intellectual assent. For some people, their questions, doubts, etc., are essentially intellectual. And frankly that’s what my book talks most about — church history, etc. But for probably at least as many people, it’s about cultural issues, or justice and equality and opportunity issues (here I’m thinking about feminism, LGBT issues, lingering racism, etc.). To a certain degree that is about ideas, but as much or more it’s about experience. And Mormonism is very much an experiential religion. So that’s why I wanted the book to be about “belief and belonging,” not just “faith and doubt.”

[Review note: Mason doesn’t have easy answers to doubt, and the book is not written from the doubter’s perspective. He does emphasize the need to focus on Christ as the object of faith, but I wonder if that doesn’t underplay the increasingly social reasons behind people staying (or leaving) the Church.]

What’s the role of study in all this? It seems to me that for some, a faith crisis is triggered by uncovering some fact about the church, and yet for others, study seems to resolve a faith crisis.

Like many things, “studying” by itself is neutral. In general I think that more knowledge is better, but what really counts is what how we process and analyze the knowledge, evaluate it, apply it, interrogate and critique it, etc. There does seem to be a certain percentage of those who leave the church over church history/intellectual issues who do so after really reading very little — the CES letter, or something like that. Frankly — and this may not sound particularly charitable — I’m not sure I would put that in the “study” category. No offense to my gracious hosts, but if your knowledge begins and ends with blogs, you’re not going to exhaust the full range of religious knowledge. Now, reading BCC and other “best books” (certainly D&C 88 was anticipating the Bloggernacle) is a great start, but if you’re really serious, you’ve got to dig in and go deep. If your faith life is important to you, it’s worth the time and investment to do more than casually wading. I realize that not all people are readers, but if your questions are precipitated by reading something, anything, then you probably have a duty to do a little more reading to examine all sides. Then you’ll make an informed judgment, not a snap judgment. I’m not claiming that all roads lead to Abiding Faith in The True Church, but faith is a form of work, and study is part of that work.

I saw a reviewer at the Exponent said of your book, “For those well into a faith transition or hurting because the LDS church is toxic to them, this book is not balm”. Your reaction? Is this book a balm? What is it meant to be?

I actually don’t disagree with that review. The book didn’t set out to be a balm — or rather I should say that it didn’t set out to be only a balm. I have had plenty of people read it and say they felt some comfort and peace after doing so. I’m very glad if that’s the case, since heaven knows our lives are crazy enough that anything that brings a little peace and healing to the world is a welcome relief. But frankly I think we rush too quickly to the “balm” stage in the church, wanting fast Tums-like relief for all our symptoms. Well, some stuff can’t be healed immediately. One single book, I don’t care what it is, isn’t going to be adequate to salve the wounds that some people have felt over years, even decades. Furthermore, while I believe that true religion comforts the afflicted, I also believe that it should afflict the comfortable. (That’s one of the major messages in the “Foolishness and Scandal” chapter.) There are some people who will be unsettled by some things I say in the book. If it’s because of a lack of understanding or charity on my part, then I feel bad and seek forgiveness. But if it’s because it pushes someone into an uncomfortable but ultimately productive place in their relationship to God and other human beings, then I think the book is doing the work of true religion. The other thing I would say is that if I remember right, that reviewer was talking in particular about the book not being able to address her own experience of abuse in her family or the church (I can’t remember which). Again, my heart simply goes out, and I agree that this book by itself is not sufficient to heal those kind of deep wounds.

In the middle of your book is an ‘interlude’, the story of Doubting Thomas. Why is Thomas so interesting to us?

That may be the most meaningful part of the book to me. I don’t know if anyone else likes it, but I do. I think we are drawn to Thomas because each of us is Thomas. We weren’t there to see the Risen Christ. Faith in the Resurrection would be a heck of a lot easier if you were Mary or one of the Ten. Especially in our modern age, when we are so powerfully shaped by empiricism, Thomas’s statement that he wouldn’t believe until he saw just feels so natural to us. His is the predicament that faces every modern believer. Now, we can say that in the end it wasn’t so hard for Thomas, since Jesus did in fact show up. How nice for him. But my point is that Jesus only showed up for him because he came back to be in communion with the apostles and the church. True, Jesus doesn’t only appear in the church — he shows up on the road to Emmaus and on the lakeside — but for Thomas, his encounter with Jesus came in the church.

I liked it. It was certainly the most poetic part of the book. In some ways, also the most personal.

Thanks, glad you felt that way. I’m a pretty prosaic guy, but that was the one part of the book that approached poetry to me.

What’s your advice to find a way forward in the Church when it gets really hard?

Read your scriptures, pray, and go to church.
Wait…

I think the answer to that question is going to be as personal as are the questions or issues that prompt it. I do believe in the general advice that I give in my “When Church Is Hard” chapter — simplify; creatively work it out; create spaces of inclusion; make a place for yourself; use the church to accomplish good things; work with rather than against church leaders — but that’s still painting in broad brushstrokes. One thing that I do believe in strongly is that religion is local and relational. Of course, sometimes that can be the problem, when a person hates their ward or their bishop or whatever. But what I value about Mormonism is that it offers a plan and laboratory for concrete, lived religion. Mother Teresa’s example is so powerful — she went for decades without hearing the voice of God, but she went ahead and did the works of mercy anyhow. There’s a reason why she’s the paragon of Christianity and the rest of us schmucks aren’t, but there’s something powerful about doing the works of mercy, peace, and justice within the context of a community even when you seemingly don’t fit in, or have the same experiences that everyone else seems to be having. (Then again, I think most people aren’t having the experiences that we think they all are. Most of us are muddling along.) The other thing I would say is that if we lose sight of Christ, then it’s going to be harder. I know that sounds trite, and we usually talk about Christ and the Atonement in trite ways. But Christ changes everything. Everything. If religion seems hard, read the Sermon on the Mount. Then read about the Crucifixion. That’s hard. And that’s the challenge of discipleship. And that’s exhilarating.

Last point is that my advice to people who struggle and can’t find a place to stay in the church is that I hope they have somewhere to go to, and not just go from. Human beings belong in community of some type. There are lots of moral communities out there — the LDS Church has no monopoly. But find a place to develop the Christian virtues that the church, at its best, encourages. Find a way to follow Christ, wherever and however you can. I personally think that Mormonism is a really good place to do that. But more than anything, I don’t want people to abandon the journey to Christ.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this interview. I recently received this book as a gift, and I’m eager to read it!

  2. Thanks, Steve, and Patrick. Looking forward to reading the book.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Thank you both. An enlightening interview.

  4. looking forward to reading, great interview.

  5. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Great interview and great book! Reading it I almost thought Lowell Bennion had returned. It is full of insights that he taught and lived by. As his biographer I was happy to see the pages about him and Gene England–(a minor caveat–My book was published by Dialogue and not Signature.) Patrick, your book is a treasure I shall share with family and friends!