Shame and the Gospel

Amber Haslam is a friend of the blog and wrote this recently. We asked if she would mind sharing it here at BCC.

Recently, I have had lots of questions regarding the gospel. They vary in topic and most I keep to myself. But about a month and a half ago, I got the nerve to throw some of these questions into the strange void that is twitter.com. Here is a screengrab of part of that thread:

I posed these questions partially hoping for people to respond with their perspectives but mostly just to throw out some thoughts I was having with the hopes that I was not alone in my questioning.

However, the response that struck me most was from a girl who has since blocked me and protected her tweets so I cannot include a screenshot of her reply. She indicated that she was tired of sacred things being questioned and called out as sexism. She felt that if I were faithful enough, these questions would not matter. And naturally, I was pretty upset. I felt like she was saying that my questions and concerns were not worth discussing and that my inquiry was due to a lack of faith. I felt the opposite. I felt that I had faith in something and someone I do not know much about. I was asking questions, from my perspective, to gain understanding about something I feel very strongly about. And my questions were tossed to the curb and labeled as unfaithful. It hurt.

Questions and doubts are topics that are briefly discussed by church leaders. We are told to doubt our doubts (ref) and questioning in public spaces is discouraged. We are told that having questions is normal but are then dismissed when we ask the hard ones. Most questions starting with the word “why” are answered with the direction to pray and gain a testimony for ourselves. Although these things aren’t inherently wrong, they are limiting. Obviously hard questions are tough to answer. Oftentimes, the questions we ask are questions the people we are asking have as well. But I wish that didn’t have to mean we stay quiet.

I want to know why I am not supposed to say certain words. I want an explanation of how a few inches difference in hemline can determine righteousness. I want someone to explain to me why some forms of caffeine are acceptable while others are not. I don’t want to follow commandments without understanding them. To me, the commandment to love one another seems like the most, if not the only important one, yet the most ignored. And I just want to understand why the directions we’re given that to me seem petty or annoyingly specific get more attention than commandments as simple and powerful as love.

The fact that I am not satisfied with blind obedience may be a personality quirk, but I have the feeling I am not alone in feeling this way. In fact, I am sure that many people have these same questions in addition to many of their own. And I think the dismissal and discouragement of questions is leading many, especially young adults, to leave the church altogether.

By leaving questions unanswered and unaddressed, we tell people that they need to figure things out on their own. And they may come out of that with stronger faith and a better understanding. But they could also end up confused and discouraged.

At this point in my personal and spiritual development, I do not blame those who leave the church when they have doubts. Being a member can be hard. We act like it’s not, but it is. (“We” referring to the general church population). And then we judge people who leave for not being strong enough or not having enough faith. Or even more likely, we just do not understand how it’s even possible that someone could walk away from something that brings us so much joy. We view leaving as a failure and a betrayal. As a whole, we are just really bad at letting people decide that a different lifestyle or belief system is better for them than Mormonism.

Mormons do not have a monopoly on truth. In fact, we get things wrong fairly often, I think. And honestly, every member has a different idea of what truth even is. We need to stop shaming people for asking questions and subsequently shaming them if they choose to leave. We need to let people discover their personal versions of truth. We need to ask and answer hard questions. Asking questions is how we learn and grow. Progress is impossible without inquisition. If asking these questions brings people closer to LDS doctrine and increases their faith then that is wonderful. But we need to remember that questions might have the opposite effect for some people. And that doesn’t make them weak or wrong. It just means that they are still on the journey to find what lifestyle works best for them. And really, we all have that in common no matter what we believe.

Comments

  1. Asking questions might take people away from LDS doctrine and decrease their faith.
    This (imo) is Reason #1 for the shaming of Q’s and doubts. It reveals a deep insecurity, a lack of faith (!) in answers.
    “The man that feareth, Lord, to doubt,
    In that fear doubteth thee.”
    (George MacDonald)
    Thanks for the great post Amber.

  2. I have two questions that I apply to pretty much everything. “Yes, but why?” and “What does that even mean?”

    What I’ve found is that no one has any answers. Or when they do have answers, the answers don’t generally stand up well to additional questions.

    That’s why I see us shaming people for asking questions. To not have answers seems to push against the ‘Church is True!’ and ‘Follow the Prophet no matter what!’ rhetoric. When the answers are missing or difficult or seem strange (talking of some of the apologists’ answers) we start to trust less in what the church is telling us.

    All of which is too bad. Opening up to uncertainty and mysteries draws one closer to God. The more we ask and the more we search, the more we find a spiritual path, even if we don’t find concrete answers to questions.

    I think this is slowly changing. My kids are told endlessly that it is okay to have questions (so much so that is something they joke about). But tacked onto that is to not look anywhere but church approved sources for answers. Which is also problematic.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    My answer to your benevolent patriarchy would be “yes.” This is a kind of an aetiological myth. Different people speak different languages, there must be some reason for that, so the Tower of Babel story is intended to provide an answer to the question. Similarly, we don’t know much about Mother in Heaven, there must be a reason for that, what could it be? Maybe the Father is trying to protect her from scurrilous abuse by humans. That provides an answer that satisfies some people, so they consider the question closed. (Of course there are lots of other possible answers…)

  4. Welcomes to the Bloggernacle, Amber! It’s a delight to see this fine, pointed post placed here.

  5. “Mormons do not have a monopoly on truth.” — Oh my! On the path to apostasy! If you were sold on “one true Church” or “Christ’s only Church” or “Jesus wants me for a [Mormon] Sunbeam” then questions would be irrelevant. You would know that any/every answer is either faith promoting or wrong. So why bother?

    Take that as a joke told with a purpose. (How it’s intended.)

    Of course people have questions. Most of the good questions are complicated. However, the “questions” as stated here don’t read to me as true inquiry. Rather, they read as declarations with a question mark:
    “The ‘God wants to protect Her’ explanation is benevolent sexism.”
    “There’s nothing wrong with saying certain words.”
    “Hemlines don’t really matter.”
    “We should spend more time talking about love than about punctilious obedience.”
    If restated that way, appropriate responses are not on the data/information/explanation spectrum but on the agreement/disagreement spectrum.

  6. I agree with you about love being the commandment that matters most. The other day a student told me (after a robust theological discussion in class) that he was still trying to figure me out, to know where I stood. I told him that I have a witness of love and, that being the case, I feel free to ask questions about everything else. This wasn’t a premeditated answer, but I’m pretty happy with it.

    Thanks for a great post. I’m glad to have your voice in this space.

  7. I’m not sure that questions are discouraged, or at least the church is trying hard to move away from that. I just started teaching early morning seminary and one of the most important lessons they all us to cover multiple times is all about using inspired questions to acquire spiritual knowledge. And this video is what goes with it. It’s not how I was taught in seminary, but it is definitely a move in the right direction.
    https://www.lds.org/si/seminary/ask-madisons-story?lang=eng

  8. Paul Ritchey says:

    I agree with ReTx: I think this is (slowly) getting better. An apostle telling seminary and institute teachers that a simple testimony is not an adequate answer to a difficult question is a gigantic step in the right direction. As a youth leader, I have been spending a lot more time directly addressing questions the youth pose (many of which are “difficult”), and I have felt nothing but encouragement from ward and stake leadership. But our leadership is relatively progressive, so I guess that’s not surprising.

    So I think the progress is culturally contingent: in certain units or regions, the change might be less apparent, or even practically nonexistent. It appears the Twitter heckler in Amber’s story is culturally rooted in such a place. Eventually, my hope (actually, my prediction) is that the shame Amber is speaking of will become a holdover, geographically isolated vice which Church leaders regularly exhort against. Indeed, such exhortation has already begun in part (“Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you do”).

    For all of our sakes, and especially for people like Amber, I hope I’m right.

  9. As someone who’s 90% out of the church…thank you for saying: “I do not blame those who leave the church when they have doubts. Being a member can be hard. We act like it’s not, but it is.” I feel that those of us do leave are often ostracized even by those closest to us….

    But for the majority of us, it isn’t the ‘hardness’ of being Mormon that pushes us out.. it’s the truth claims. For many of us we literally went from believing Joseph was a prophet to having our entire faith ripped from us within a few hours of reading certain historical things. (For me it was polyandry — D/C obviously doesn’t allow for polyandry, if Joseph was partaking of it–that only means he was trying to justify extra-marital affairs, and Emma was never too keen on that or polygamy for that matter…I doubt she approved of all his marriages)…

    Also learning that there were 10 first vision accounts…all with different ‘characters’ present. I don’t see how you have a vision so momentous and then forget who was there… that’d be etched forever in my mind and I’d never forget.

    We all have this shelf(testimony) that we build up and is our rock… but when a boulder like some of the stuff in Rough stone rolling or the CES letter hits us..and we realize it’s from true historical documents not anti-mormon drivel…it’s much harder to discount…for many of us living a lie is too hard and we need to leave…There are also MANY ex-mormons who are STILL in the church and serving as Bishops, SP’s, Relief Society, YM, etc… I say ‘ex-mormons’ in the context that mentally they’re out.. they only stay in for fear of family issues like divorce if they leave. Also many are on reddit in the ex-mormon subreddit.

    One good interview to listen to — is the interview by Tom Phillips on Mormon Stories about receiving the ‘Second Annointing’ which is an elitist thing that only top Mormon’s have ever received which basically makes it so no matter what their ‘election and calling is made sure’…i.e. they could leave the church and go murder someone and still get into Celestial Kingdom… the fact that there’s a special temple ceremony that only ‘select’ people in select ‘circles’ are allowed to get… rubs me the wrong way, as it did Tom Phillips… It speaks of class/caste-like society within the church.

    Let me just end by saying…we (ex-mormon’s) are often times broken…. and hurt. We’ve had our entire belief-system wiped… We still have the memories/feelings that we deemed spiritual…but we know that it was just our own self-conscious mind confirming things. Losing our faith is a life altering/breaking experience.. It causes tremendous depression, it’s so scary that a lot of mormon’s are too afraid of experiencing a faith crisis they won’t even read the Church Essays or CES Letter for fear that they’re not strong enough to survive learning ‘the truth’.

    I appreciate that there are at least some active mormons as yourself who are still willing to give us love/support and accept us for who we are. Understand that leaving the church is never ever easy, and it’s often-times harder than remaining in it. I’d like to bear my testimony – I know that Joseph Smith was never a prophet, for I know that God would never pick someone so faulted to lead his true church if he were to restore it he’d restore it in full glory including shutting down any racism amidst the ranks — he would institute what’s ‘right’ not what’s ‘convenient for the times’… It wouldn’t have taken much for the early saints to have become a bastian for anti-segregation/anti-racists to fight back against slave-owners and the like..but instead some of the early church leaders were practically honorary KKK members in some of the things they’ve said… How can it be church doctrine one moment that blacks are “forever atoning for sins they did in the premortal existence and will never be worthy” to “we were wrong about blacks, god corrected himself and changed his mind”…

  10. TPM points out a real problem. There is a huge culture of shame/silence for those of us with non-traditional views of the church. It’s okay for us to see things differently as long as we pretend at church that we are orthodox (one example would be the BofM as being of God, but not historical – totally fine to think that, but keep your mouth shut about it). So then everyone just suffers silently rather than have a support system in our wards of other people struggling with the same things.

    I’ve thought any number of times that as someone who suffered a faith crisis and has stayed active (and yes, my commitment to my marriage is my primary motivator), I am one of the biggest assets my ward has in answering difficult questions (I would never break down someone’s faith intentionally, I’ve been studying the difficult topics for 15 years now, and I know quite a lot about church history from a historical rather than mythological perspective). But I am too unorthodox and will never be asked.

  11. It just means that they are still on the journey to find what lifestyle works best for them. And really, we all have that in common no matter what we believe.

    I really thought that was the case, at first. But it turns out wanting everyone to be their happiest, best selves, is not what the Gospel’s about in Mormonism. And I was hurt very badly by people who had the weight of institutional authority behind them, who made it clear to me that what it’s really about is obedience. You gain a testimony that the Book of Mormon is true, and then you submit to God’s church and His leaders, because that’s the objectively right thing to do.

    The parts of the Book of Mormon that say that you won’t be “restored from misery to happiness?” That you’re not going to suddenly be happy and healthy and whole in the afterlife, after having denied everything that makes you that way in this one? That part’s not important. Only the parts where it says that you have to obey are important.

    It took seeing how miserable this makes other people, to realize it wasn’t okay to do to myself. That’s why I’m out of the Mormon church now, spiritually and legally. I couldn’t abide what they do to people like you. I couldn’t support what they wanted to do to my “same-sex attracted” friends.

    I hope that your journey takes you to healthier places than Mormonism. I hope that it helps you be your best self. One who is happy and confident, and who is unafraid to ask questions.

  12. I guess I’m just someone who’s not perceptive. I’ve never felt anyone at church suppressing questions. I’ve always felt free to ask whatever I wanted. I’ve generally felt the message from Joseph Smith First Vision lessons is the importance for all of us to be asking gospel related questions.
    I can understand why some who don’t feel like discussing things to which there is no current answer to, feel like ending the discussion with “just have more faith”. The problem for them being that if lots of people want to discuss something that they don’t want to, it feels frustrating.

  13. Brianna Davis says:

    Thank you so much for this post. It expresses my sentiments perfectly. I’ve really been struggling with a lot of similar questions lately and have not really found a safe place in the church to ask them. What is really hard for me is the enmeshment I’ve seen between LDS culture and doctrine. What “commandments” are purely cultural, and which ones are actually doctrine? As I’ve been trying to figure it out I’ve started thinking and acting differently, and all of a sudden, other people are worried about my testimony. It doesn’t make any sense. Why are we so quick to shame others into our way of thinking and living but so slow to keep the most important commandment to love others?

  14. I sense that as a whole, our culture is changing to welcome more “hard” questions – and I think it is a welcome and needed thing.

    2 things I see/ponder… First, I have noticed occasionally a teacher will be teaching doctrine/principle/event A and a student will want to go in direction B (could be a hard question, could just be different topic). With the limited class time and respecting the general interest of the class, often there isn’t time to go in direction B, so the discussion gets shut down. I don’t know how much of that is because of “fearing the question”, or just being prepared or wanting to teach the main topic. Because of our lay teachers, I don’t know if we’ll ever get perfect at striking the balance, but hope to see us improve.

    Second, I empathize w/ Amber’s frustration to have her questions answered, but have found that sometimes the Lord doesn’t work w/ our time frame or deliver the answers we want. It doesn’t make the church true or say He is not there – it’s just how we learn. I have gained understanding to many questions quickly. But there have been others that I have wrestled with. Sister Dew gives a much better discourse on it, but I have found purpose and blessings through the wrestling process and think that it is often by design.

  15. Aussie Mormon says:

    My experience tends to match pconnornc:
    As it is, it’s pretty much impossible to teach all the lesson material in a chapter in the manual to a room full of people who likely have different levels of church history or gospel knowledge (hence why the manuals say to teach which parts the spirit tells you to), without having to try and answer questions that are not ultimately relevant to the point of the lesson. For instance I’d be ok spending a reasonable period of time talking about Heavenly Mother if the lesson were on the creation and plan of salvation, or eternal families, etc (since gender is quite explicit in LDS doctrine). If the lesson were on charity for instance, which isn’t inherently gendered (other than the fact that females I know tend to be more caring than the males I know), I’d find it hard to think of a good reason to spend anything more than a short period of time on Her.
    If the lessons are longer, or the class-members as a whole are willing/able to have the direction changed (such as might happen in an institute class), then the situation is different.

  16. Great post, Amber!

    I’ve heard somebody make the argument that “asking questions” is fine, but “questioning” your faith, or church leaders is wrong. I thought about that for a minute and concluded it was just silliness. In my opinion, this fear of questions seems to stem from two things: (1) fear of uncertainty/the unknown, and (2) lack of faith in either God’s ability to lead the righteous and sincere to all truth or the sincerity or righteousness of those asking questions. In either case, faith and love are the answer. If we really have faith and really love, we won’t be afraid of asking questions or of not being able to answer them.

  17. Paul Ritchey says:

    JKC: Perhaps the questions/questioning distinction you heard originated here:

    https://www.lds.org/youth/article/when-you-have-questions?lang=eng

    For a more recent, more nuanced distinction (albeit still tortured), see:

    https://www.lds.org/ensign/2015/03/when-doubts-and-questions-arise?lang=eng

    Both of these attempts at distinguishing different types of questions fail. In the final analysis, an unanswered question (or a question answered incompletely) will become a doubt that leads any honest, capable inquirer to “questioning.” And the manner of asking a question (with a smile, or with a growl, or somewhere in between) might reveal an inclination towards disobedience, or it might instead reveal genuine and proper exasperation. It’s hard say, in my experience.

  18. That probably is the source. It just seems like splitting hairs/redefining terms to me. I mean, if you want to define “questioning” to mean something antagonistic, then fine, for purposes of that conversation, you can do that, but it’s going to cause confusion b/c that’s not how most people use that word.

  19. Mormons do not have a monopoly on truth.

    So you’re what you’re trying to say is that the fullness of the Gospel is not found in the church?

  20. There is truth outside the church =/= the church doesn’t have the fullness of the gospel.

  21. Our doctrine specifically says we don’t know everything, and some of what we think we know is probably wrong. “we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” Re Heavenly Mother we just don’t know much and most everything is speculation, which comes with the speculators’ biases.

  22. Amber, I loved your post. If you want to know about Heavenly Mother, you won’t find much about her in the Mormon Church, and you certainly won’t find any doctrine surrounding her. For that, you will have to go to the Catholic Church. Catholics have worshipped her for two thousand years, and have preserved her sacred doctrine. We address her as Heavenly Queen, Our Sweetness and Our Light, Gentle Dove, and most of all, Mother.

  23. Aussie Mormon says:

    The Catholic Church’s Heavenly Mother/Heavenly Queen/Queen of Heaven (post-mortal Mary), is a different person to the Mormon Heavenly Mother (wife of Heavenly Father) though.