Jesus Wants Me for a Skeptic

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There is a trend in Latter-day Saint rhetoric to argue that having questions or researching answers about the church are dangerous and misguided ventures. These arguments have good intentions—they are meant to help people avoid discomfort or cognitive dissonance by encouraging them to wear blinders or to place difficult questions on “shelves” to be ignored until all is revealed after death (this analogy is not quite as useful in the age of Marie Kondo, however!). I sympathize with the intentions behind these arguments, although I disagree with them. It’s true: questions can be painful. Questions can inspire disobedience to authority. Questions disrupt what is normal and familiar.

However, questions are also necessary tools for strengthening faith. God teaches us through questions, inspires us with questions, expects and even demands that we continue coming up with questions in order to have reasons to keep praying and researching and exploring and wondering. Questions keep us awake and curious. Questions are requisite for growth.

Socrates was sentenced to death by hemlock for inspiring the youth to ask questions. In Will Durant’s words, “he went about prying into the human soul, uncovering assumptions and questioning certainties.” Although we may admire the Socratic method in many classrooms today, Socrates was seen by authority figures in ancient Athens as a threat and a corruptor of tradition and culture.

Christ, too, was chastised for questioning authority and rejecting church dogma. In John 5, Christ breaks the Sabbath day by healing a man who had been sick for 38 years. When the man stands miraculously whole, he picks up his bedding to leave Bethesda; to “carry thy bed” on the Sabbath was against the rules, however, and a “multitude” of people were quick to persecute both the healed and the healer for their disobedience—disobedience that was required in this instance to live higher laws of charity, empathy, and kindness.

Joseph Smith was persecuted for asking questions, too. He writes of his youth, “My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant . . . . In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” We know how this story ends. Joseph reads James 1:5: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”

We value questions and changes in history, but it is harder to make allowances for them in the present. Questions lead to growth and strength, but they can also inspire members of the church to leave their congregations and their faiths. We cannot keep people from leaving by making them afraid of questions, however. The stopping of questions and research will not make us stronger as a community—it will merely make members dependent on blind, unquestioning faith. (By the way, if you haven’t read Stapley’s take earlier this week on researching answers to questions about the church, you should, especially as his excellent argument about this is a bit different from mine.)

I don’t think the Renlunds meant harm when they accused questioning Latter-day Saints as being petty complainers on the boat, focused on “the small dents and peeling paint.” Anyone who has experienced the crushing, frightening, emotional weight of the kind of questions that could lead to leaving the church altogether can agree (regardless of whether they stayed or left) that this experience is nothing at all like “Church history whack-a-mole.” Faith crises and transitions do not feel like pettiness and games. These experiences loom with the heaviness of not just life vs. death but annihilation vs. eternity. Asking questions is an act of courage, not weakness. For the Latter-day Saint who went from a rock-solid testimony to a wavering one, it can feel like everything is at stake. Such feelings are not something to be teased about and certainly not something to be judged for.

But I do agree with Sister Renlund when she said, “Faith is a choice a person must make. . . . Faith is also a principle of action.” I would also add that asking questions is an essential action and choice, too. When I teach critical thinking to my composition students, I start by drawing a spectrum between “cynics” who are “afraid to believe” on one end and “blind faith-ers” who are “afraid to question” on the other. (This works in a religious context, but other contexts also. For example, a person of blind faith might ignore all criticism against the presidential candidate they vote for, refusing to accept that the candidate is anything but perfect. A cynic might refuse to vote altogether, because no candidate gives them any hope for something better.)

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I then introduce the uncomfortable yet richly fertile middle ground: the skeptics. The skeptics are not afraid of asking questions and they aren’t afraid of having faith. They are critical of their sources, but they are also capable of coming to conclusions based on the available evidence. They are constantly seeking new evidence and are willing to change their former conclusions when confronted with new credible information. They anticipate that their world views will change and adapt over time. Church member skeptics aren’t afraid to question their faith, because they know that, in Lowell Bennion‘s words, “a faith that cannot withstand and transcend the light of reason, is not a faith worth keeping.” Additionally, even after seeing the imperfections in their religion, their nation, their family, their vocation, etc., skeptics are also not afraid to keep their trust in these same fallible people and institutions they choose to stay with, maintaining their beliefs in progress, goodness, and a better future. Bennion told BYU students:

“When faith and reason meet in the life of a college student, something must give; some type of working relationship must be established. . . . One position a student can take is to hold fast to his faith and let no knowledge or experience gained in study disturb it. . . . There is a simplicity about this approach. One is spared much mental effort and anguish by wearing blinders which shut out peripheral vision and even set boundaries to view straight ahead. . . . But those of us who go to the University, who read books, who learn to view life from many angles of vision, thoughtfully and critically, cannot with integrity don blinders to reason in order to protect a child-like faith. To be sincere, to have integrity, faith must be examined and cherished in the context of one’s total life experience.”

I love Bennion’s optimism about questions. I love how he says that in order to “cherish” your faith, you must also “examine” it, and that donning blinders only exhibits fear that you will stop believing if you allow yourself to see the full picture. Making people afraid of asking questions or researching answers only suggests that there is something to hide. A fear of questions comes from a lack of faith—a secret worry that your faith could be easily shaken.

When Elder Lawrence Corbridge spoke to BYU students in January, he said that many members “mistakenly try to learn the truth by process of elimination, by attempting to eliminate every doubt.” This is reminiscent of the “whack-a-mole” theory, that people with questions are trying to snuff all of the pesky questions out in order to confirm that their initial conclusions were the right ones after all. But I’m not interested in this process of “elimination.” Rather than snuffing out the questions I have, I want to use them to illuminate new ideas, people, history, and knowledge that I have yet to encounter. Maybe by conflating “doubt” with “questions” I’m misconstruing what Corbridge was after. But I also think that a lot of times when we question something concerning the church, we immediately categorize these questions at “doubts.” I don’t think this is accurate. We should encourage questions, and we shouldn’t be focused on “eliminating” questions so much as pursuing them—researching them, pondering them, praying about them, and talking about them.

I miss the rhetoric of President Hugh B. Brown, member of the First Presidency back in the ’60s:

“You young people live in an age when freedom of the mind is suppressed over much of the world. We must preserve it in the Church and in America and resist all efforts of earnest men to suppress it.

“Preserve, then, the freedom of your mind in education and religion, and be unafraid to express your thoughts and to insist upon your right to examine every proposition. We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts. . . .

“Dissatisfaction with what is around us is not a bad thing if it prompts us to seek betterment.”

I want to hear more talks like this in my faith community. I want to feel free to ask questions, even when my conclusions result in “dissatisfaction” with aspects of my faith community. Dissatisfaction is not solely the realm of the cynic, who would have no faith in possible “betterment.” What we need are more skeptics in our congregations who love the church and believe in the church while at the same time acknowledge that we’ve made mistakes and can do a better job regarding inclusivity, transparency, and equality. We need LDS versions of Leslie Knope, who loves and believes in Pawnee even while being well aware of its questionable historical moments and cultural problems. Her dissatisfaction drives her work to better her community. Leslie Knope is not a cynic, but she also isn’t a person of blind faith. She’s a skeptic, and she’s a productive and optimistic one.

My point is, we should just quit it with the scare tactics. Telling our young people that they can question everything except for the church is fear-based rhetoric that reveals either (a) a lack of confidence in the church itself or (b) a lack of confidence in church members as they seek answers to their questions. I propose that we try a new tactic: Let’s exercise faith in our church and in our people. Let’s show that faith by encouraging wonder in our congregations and by welcoming questions and new perspectives. Let’s model skepticism by exhibiting faith in our people and our gospel while also questioning and challenging our problematic ways of thinking, making space for further revelation and inclusivity. Let’s go forth with faith and questions and ditch fear by the wayside.

Comments

  1. Michael Austin says:

    This is wonderful. And true. And I think that you are exactly right that that applying rhetorical and cultural force to discourage and delegitimate sincere questions and doubts is foolish and counterproductive and shows a lack of faith in one’s own position. It is not how you build faith. It is how you build loyalty. And Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saintsians need to work much harder to understand the difference.

  2. Really powerful — thank you so much for this valuable and insightful perspective! I’ve learned a lot by reading this.

  3. Thank you, Grover. Better said than I could have done it.
    Still exploring what it may mean to “keep … trust in these same fallible people and institutions” when convinced that they are wrong on some issues of importance.

  4. Kristine A says:

    Thank you for this! Many leaders (imo Dew, Corbridge, etc) seem to employing a “you can have questions, but doubts are bad,” approach. I do not find that to be spiritually healthy, more of a “fine! Have questions, but every answer you find must be one of these we’ve already found for you. Just wrestle to reconcile to our answers.”

    Trusting people to wrestle knowing they may find different conclusions, and then stay or go, would be difficult. But it is more infinitely spiritually healthy. And your framing using cynic and skeptic makes it all the more clear.

  5. In Caral Sagan’s Deamon Haunted World, he went over the difference of a skeptic and a cynic. Cynics poison their own soul with negativity. Skeptism still allows for imagination, and awe, and wonder.

  6. OregonMum says:

    Thank you for writing this. It’s helping to give words to how I’ve been feeling.

  7. Thank you so much for this post. It is brilliant and inspired!
    Elder Corbridge came to my stake to speak. The talk had a hardline orthodox theme. He literally said said, “doubt not, doubt not, doubt not…” in conclusion to his talk. While the hardline theme of the talk did not appeal or resonate with me, the very old man sitting next to me said “well done” at the conclusion of Elder Corbridge’s talk. Clearly we responded to the talk differently. In my opinion, it shamed the “doubters.”
    I love the quote by Hugh B. Brown! I wish our rhetoric was like that! Questions can lead to betterment!
    I fear we are entering a new ultra orthodox era in our leadership.

  8. I think Grover has tried not to misrepresent the Renlunds and has tried to address the problem instead of accusing specific people of being part of the problem, but I do feel a need to defend the Renlunds against misrepresentations of their talk that I have seen around the bloggernacle.

    The Renlunds addressed “doubt”, and I think they used that word in a way that is closer to cynicism on this scale. Part of the problem with misinterpretation, in my view, has been an issue of semantics. I love the spectrum illustrated in this post, in part because the extremes are clear, and I think most people agree more or less on what the extremes mean, but we talk past each other when it comes to what’s in the middle. “Skepticism”, in my mind, is closer to cynicism. I think the Renlunds used “doubt” in a way that was closer to the left of that spectrum than what people in more “intellectual” circles think of.

    The term that I would place more towards the center is “questioning”, which is something the Renlunds acknowledged as healthy: “To have questions about the Church and its doctrines is normal and the root of gospel learning.”

    In other words, I think that talk and this post disagree on where on the spectrum one should place themselves, but I don’t think they’re as far apart as the reaction to the Renlunds’ talk would suggest.

  9. Further, when watching the Renlunds’ talk, the thought never entered my mind that anyone who ever has doubts or questions is like the ungrateful rescuee, nor are they necessarily playing spiritual whack-a-mole. I understood that as illustrating the extreme–where drifting toward cynicism can lead.

  10. I’m troubled that the only place I see for faithful, non-skeptical people in your categorization is to be labeled as blind believers who are afraid of questions. It seems like you’re either casually dismissing people who identify as believers, or you have a giant hole in your model. I’m skeptical that skepticism represents some kind of moderate, middle-way approach to Mormonism, even assuming it’s a viable and stable faith identity. I’d put it on the left flank somewhere.

  11. Well done, for this line of argument or approach. I both agree that questions are not the same as doubts, and that the Church community can (and in many cases does) tolerate and welcome questions.

    However, I’m not convinced “skeptic” and “skepticism” are right for this argument. “Skepticism” as equivalent to “asking questions” is a reach. “Skepticism” usually implies starting at the doubter’s position, at a disbelief to be persuaded out of. More problematic yet is “skeptic” which is a person inclined to question or doubt. As an inclination, a characteristic, being a skeptic usually has no end. I am seriously concerned that the recent talks to which you allude are saying the Church does not have a place for and does not welcome the perpetually questioning doubting skeptic.

    As a side note (for this purpose), I am more interested in trust issues. I think the important questions are not framed as truth or false, or believing or doubting, but the important questions (for me at least) all have to do with trust. (JR, should we team up on a critique?)

  12. C. Keen, you write, “It seems like you’re either casually dismissing people who identify as believers.” That is not what this post states, implies, or does at all.

  13. FoundThisOnReddit says:

    My freaking goodness, this was so refreshing. Besides the topic, I really appreciate your authentic writing style. Arguably my biggest pet peeve about the church is the repetitive-ness that I guess is just natural. I’m talking about “bless and strengthen our bodies” while prepping to eat donuts, “I know the church/[certain topic] is true” (and left at that), and/or “even Jesus Christ (I mean, really… I don’t even know how to use the word “even” in that grammatical sense and I’ll bet anything that most others don’t either).

    Anyway… thanks again. I personally lean towards the cynical side of the spectrum, and your argument is really validating. I appreciate it.

  14. This is so spot on. I’ve recently emerged from a time of much fear for precisely these reasons–you can only ask certain questions, or some questions don’t matter and maybe the questions you care about don’t matter and are evil, or our leaders know so stop. This is brainwashing. I don’t know how to explain but a combination of many events made me realize: I can ask whatever I want. Because now I’ve accepted that the church is human, I look to learn, not to excuse or justify or to fit an untrue narrative. That is liberating.

  15. Another helpful analogy to this is Handley’s vocab of “Criticism, compassion, and charity”. Criticism = critical thinking. Compassion = understanding/feeling. Charity = negotiating the tension between the two. Critical thinking can lead us to be cynics. Compassion can lead us to be blind. Charity is needed when both criticism and compassion are practiced.

  16. YES. It’s not healthy. Responses to my questions and critical thinking (not even cynicism) have often been awful for my faith. Not just from leaders but from family members. It’s a practice our culture is in and it’s stifling. And for members like me, who are interested intellectually not just in history, but theology and practice, if I have to ignore that to stay, what an awful choice. It’s posed as a false dichotomy and it isn’t.

  17. Thank you, Grover, for these thoughts. Leslie Knope is a fantastic exemplar for a model of faith.

  18. I think Pres. Oaks’ comments were intended more along the lines of what Vaughn J. Featherstone said: “We have those in the Church who think if they only could understand more about the Adam-God theory—or they ask if Jesus Christ was married. You know, what a great thing it is if we understand what faith is. What is faith? How does it work? Do you have total faith? When we come to a full and total understanding of faith, then I think we ought to move on to repentance. When we understand that totally, then we should move through the principles. But I doubt we will ever really get through an understanding and complete knowledge of faith in a lifetime. I don’t care how intellectual you are, or how long you study, I doubt you will ever come to an end of the study of faith, the first principle of the gospel. The gospel is so simple that a fool will not err therein, but it is so beautiful and so sophisticated that I believe the great intellectual can make a study of faith and never come to an end of understanding.” https://www.truthwillprevail.xyz/2019/02/bishop-vaughn-j-featherstones.html

  19. The underground man says:

    Church leaders must speak to everyone. Most people want answers to there questions and are not interested in or are not capable of nuanced thinking. Maybe church leaders should challenge people to think like this but they also have to meet people where there at.
    Also the boat analogy was about not seeing the forest for the trees it’s a huge problem.

  20. The one that I’ve heard is that “having questions” is fine, but “questioning” is bad. That’s just dumb, imo.

    I might not have used “skeptic,” as Christian says, because it’s kind of a loaded word for some people, but I totally agree with the spectrum idea, and of finding the balance between blind faith and cynicism.

  21. The underground man says:

    The problem with the Leslie Knope approach is that it too often leads to ark steadying and members dividing themselves into factions.
    As someone who was raised Catholic I know how deadly that can be.
    Also what’s missing from discussions like these is the reality of satan who often gets to us through our doubts I have a firm testimony of him as I was under the influence of his ideas for many years

  22. A skeptic is someone who wants to know the truth, but isn’t willing to just take your word for it. so if someone comes up to a skeptic and says “God has revealed to me an ancient record and has helped me translate it into a book.” A skeptic will say “That’s wonderful. How can I know what you’re saying is true?”, and if the response is “Here’s a copy of the book, read it, and pray about it.” A skeptic will do that.
    If someone comes to you and says “God has been speaking to me. Join my new church.” What’s the right thing to do? A cynic would be too pessimistic to hope that God would speak to anyone anymore and not put any effort into it. A blind faith-er will believe them and join their church with no questions asked. A skeptic will study out the religion, and compare it against what they know to be true. A skeptic will see what the fruits of the religion are.
    Which one do you think Jesus wants you to be?
    If you’re not a skeptic you’re more likely to be led down false paths, give up on something good for something worse, or miss the opportunity for something better.
    If you find skeptic to be a loaded word, unload it.

  23. If the issue is that Satan can use truth in misleading ways, the correct response is not to repress questions so we can avoid confronting uncomfortable truths, it’s to repent more fully, exercise more faith in Christ, deepen conversion and receive the holy ghost so the spirit can lead us to all truth.

  24. I’m giving this post, and title, a mental standing ovation.

  25. ptylerdactyl says:

    Very well stated. Thank you for completely defanging the black and white approach to faith and doubt that we seem to be wrestling with in the church.
    As long as people (particularly leaders) grip onto the idea that true faith practice can only lead to one specific solution, then we are going to keep tripping over ourselves. Are we unable to trust that God is actually in control? Because our actions say something very different. The irony is that some who claim to be closest to God seem to struggle the most with that trust.

  26. I am grateful for all of these comments, particularly the ones pushing back on my definition and usage of “skeptic.” This is an ambiguous key term, and I agree that it carries a more negative or critical connotation in the way we commonly use it. My friend Heidi shared these thoughts on a FB thread about this post, and I’m sharing it here as well: “It is helpful to remember that the word “skeptic” has a fairly late negative connotation. *spek means ‘to observe.’ I like this explanation: ‘Skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found.’ [Miguel de Unamuno, “Essays and Soliloquies,” 1924]”

  27. pdmallamoyahoocom says:

    I CAN’T BELIEVE we’re still having these conversations! The Hugh B. Brown quote is from 1969. That settled the matter for me.

  28. Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. – G. K. Chesterton, from Orthodoxy

  29. Grover, thanks again, though I did stumble on the hypothesized Proto-Indo-European root “spek” as an ultimate etymological source of “skeptic”. I think Unamuno described well what you meant, though his definition is not at all obvious in current common usage and is in fact contrary to a number of current dictionaries. If/when I use your spectrum chart, I may look for a different word (or, at the outset, explicitly adopt Unamuno’s definition for purposes of the chart/discussion). I anticipate the chart and the concept of a spectrum will quite helpful.

  30. I would add that this is not just skepticism, but constructive skepticism.
    As others have said, in secular usage, skeptics tend not to believe in faith concepts.

  31. Eric Facer says:

    “My point is, we should just quit it with the scare tactics. Telling our young people that they can question everything except for the church is fear-based rhetoric that reveals either (a) a lack of confidence in the church itself or (b) a lack of confidence in church members as they seek answers to their questions.”

    It also reveals extreme cluelessness since this approach won’t work—see, e.g., the disaffection among Mormon Millennials—and will further undermine trust in the church leadership, trust that has already been severely weakened by the disingenuous manner in which the church portrayed its history and the evolution of its doctrines over the past 50 years.

  32. Another reason I would be careful with “skepticism” (although it might be just me) is that I immediately step back to ancient world philosophical traditions where skepticism questions the possibility of certainty in knowledge about anything (even about skepticism, in some schools), i.e., the epistemological argument. And then I try to work forward to figure out how it’s being used this time.

    (Which not incidentally makes me wonder about the setting or context for “late” in “skeptic has a fairly late negative connotation.”)

  33. The underground man says:

    If millennials are not able to get over there own cynicism and suspicion of large institutions ( speaking as a millennial here) that’s there fault.
    I often hear liberal members complain about paternalism coming from church leaders well it’s very paternalistic to insist that Church leaders just flatter doubters and cynics among its members rather than challengeing them to think differently.

  34. From the comments, it sounds like “skepticism” doesn’t resonate as the middle ground. Perhaps there are instead two positions balancing the middle: “skepticism” and “faithful questioning.” The continuum would then look like this:

    Cynicism Skepticism Faithful Questioning Blind Faith

    I think the spectrum/continuum (in either form) is a useful construct.

  35. The underground man says:

    As for this idea that the church is going to alienate / purposely lose younger members with this approach well to quote Pope pius the 13th you can’t measure love with numbers you can only measure it with intensity

  36. Sorry, the post stripped out the separators. How about:

    Cynicism / Skepticism / Faithful Questioning / Blind Faith

  37. Love that the dismissive “that’s their fault” attitude coming from “The underground man.” I mean, that’s basically the attitude that spurred this whole discussion in the first place. Ironic especially, since “the underground man” follows up with quotes about more love as the solution!

  38. The underground man says:

    Brian you clearly haven’t seen the young pope which is where I got that quote from.What it means is that the church should be content with Being small.But filled with members who are passionate and committed rather large and filled with the doubtful and the cynical. As for being dismissive so I guess those of my generation have no responsibility to get over there own prejudices and ideological biases? I would argree that the church has an obligation to be honest and transparent about things but its members especially those of my generation have the same obligation to not become resentful and to not develop an entitlement mentality. In other words it’s a two way street.

  39. The underground man says:

    I meant rather than large In my last comment

  40. “The underground man,” of course, everyone has a responsibility to examine their own prejudices and ideological biases. That’s sort of the point of all of this. The problem is when, instead, people imply that doing so is somehow being tempted by Satan. No one is talking about “flattering” millennials here. Your are reading things that aren’t there. And it’s also ironic that you think this is about leaders challenging people to “think differently,” when, in fact, they are asking people to stop doing so. This post is examining this idea that is rhetorically coming across from leaders: Stop looking, stop questioning. This post doesn’t trash those leaders, or those who have questions. It is generous to both and it points out the possible dangers of such rhetoric. Your comment at 1:46pm is way out of line with what is going on in this discussion. That’s what I’m responding to.

  41. Christian, I am willing to think the nuances and connotations that “skepticism” carries, and I do start by acknowledging to my students that my definition and use of “skeptic” may be different from other contexts and definitions with which people have used this term. However, your definition that skepticism “questions the possibility of certainty in knowledge about anything” actually jives with my own definition of the term. That is how I see it. I’m a postmodernist at heart, so I don’t believe I can have access to certain knowledge, at least during more mortality. Perhaps there is a big T Truth out there, but I don’t trust my mortal experience to perfectly identify it. Thus, I anticipate that I will always be in flux, constantly questioning, constantly challenging, and also constantly coming to conclusion that lead to action, movement, determination, and hope. And then I’m ready to do the process all over again. That is how I want to live a skeptic’s life.

  42. Unless you’re open to the possibility that something’s *untrue,* you’re not truly approaching something skeptically. To me, “faithful questioning” sounds like you’re asking questions that fit your faith, not allowing your faith to form around your questions. That doesn’t seem like an honest investigation. It’s OK to start with a belief or thesis, but if you’re not open to discarding it then you aren’t investigating in, well, good faith.

    I often feel that even in pro-intellectual faithful circles, investigation is only really tolerated if it supports the essential belief that Mormonism is God’s church. You can express doubt in any individual facet of that church, but if you come to the conclusion that it’s not the right place to be then something’s wrong. Like, for example, this idea that people who leave over historical issues must not have researched enough, because there are faithful historians. Maybe that’s just intellectual arrogance, like two experts in the same field who each feel the other must be misreading the data. But it definitely contributes to the impression that open questioning isn’t as OK as we say it is.

    In conclusion, I’m with Kristine. If you really want to encourage genuine questioning, you have to accept that people might arrive at different answers. Currently I hear from the church that questions are encouraged, but only if they reach a particular conclusion. If you don’t reach the pre-determined answer, then you’ve questioned incorrectly somehow.

  43. The underground man says:

    Brian I am sorry if you don’t have a testimony of satan I do. I was under the influence of the alt right for years did not fully get over it until trump started running for President. I know how deception works and how easy it is to be deceived especially when it comes from a place of hurt and doubt. So I think I am qualified to say that the first thing my generation needs to do is to get over there emotional responses to these things. And if you want to talk about reading things that are not there the renlunds and President oaks did not say to not study or not ask questions they were just saying that it isn’t enough and that it’s your attitude towards these issues that makes the difference. If certain people don’t get that well it’s as Jesus said for those who have ears to hear let them hear.

  44. I was thinking about Patrick’s addition to the model “Cynicism / Skepticism / Faithful Questioning / Blind Faith”, as well as the presence of an in-between “way”. In my experience, maturity in the gospel plays a big role, where spiritual experiences plus questioning and new insights gets you to a place where your faith is strong, kind of the faithful questioning area. I taught an African woman on my mission who quickly felt the spirit and was baptized within a couple of weeks. She learned shortly after that of the priesthood/temple ban, and she was also wondering why we never taught her that Joseph Smith was martyred and wondered what else were we hiding? She never let us in the door again.
    I think both of the middle groups are for those that have some pretty strong cultural ties and spiritual experience in the church. Otherwise it seems like anything in the middle moves to the cynicism on the left side of the scale and a hasty exit out the door.

    In Greg Prince’s autobiography of Leonard Arrington, one highlight was when Bro. Arrington was genuinely puzzled when his discussions about church history with a member he met on an airplane were dissolving her testimony and just stopped talking. I try to remember that and consider that some people are at a stage where they’re probably going to choose to be in or out, and aren’t going to hang around for any amount of questioning if it doesn’t ring true.

  45. The underground man says:

    It case it might help the boat analogy was about the churchs flaws as an institution.
    The church whack a mole story was making the point that it’s not the historical issues that are the problem it’s some people’s cynical attitude towards them that makes the difference. I am sorry if I have come across as a bomb thrower I don’t do this that often

  46. Reading biographies of many prominent church folk has moved me away from blind faith and towards skepticism in the model above.

  47. I’d suggest that you save your largest dose of skepticism for the proposition that you assert in your title. If you in fact know that Jesus wants you to be a skeptic, fine. It’s just that nothing Jesus ever said suggests that he wants anyone, including you, to be a skeptic. And that makes me skeptical about the assertion in your title.

  48. I aspire to be a hopeful skeptic but there isn’t a lot of space for that if everything has to be the True. With a capital T.

  49. Grover @3:08 pm: Now I’m really intrigued! We might differ with respect to the existence of a big T Platonic Truth, but any difference there doesn’t matter for this lifetime anyway. Your use of skeptic and skepticism in the OP is far more radical than I understood, but in line with the questions I actually spend time on. (But probably more radical than than many are reading into the OP, and probably more than Church leaders could accept, if properly understood). Next, I’d like (I can dream, can’t I) a second piece about the move from questions to action, including openness to new information changing the actions. There’s a separate thread of talks and teachings suggesting the right way to live is to do your study, make up your mind, and don’t look back.

  50. Brother Re: says:

    Great discussion. However, let’s examine “cynics”. I don’t think that they are motivated by fear, but instead by experience. They are not afraid to question, but have questioned – and the answers caused them to lose faith or hope.
    Also, we need to remember that the sentiments of Hugh B. Brown were given at a time that many answers were being hidden – within and without the church. I doubt (am cynical?) that asking questions during that era would have led to honest answers.
    Thank you , Grover and commenters for this!

  51. @Brother Re: can’t fear be learned? Most fear comes from experience. Often, the fear is quite justified based on the experience, too. Just saying someone’s afraid shouldn’t imply that they’re irrationally so.

  52. Brother Re: says:

    @Rexicon – yes! Fear can be learned. Some may be cynical out of fear, but that is merely one path to cynicism. The way it is presented, however, implies that all cynicism is fear-based. Accuracy sacrificed for symmetry.

  53. Grover, Chris,
    Rambling thoughts re: “certainty in knowledge” and “certain knowledge”. Now we’re getting even further into a semantic quagmire. Do you mean by such phrases more than or different from the inability to imagine that you (the “knower”) might be wrong about what you “know”? Maybe rejecting “certain knowledge” is only a matter of “I don’t trust my mortal experience to perfectly identify” big T Truth. [There’s that trust problem again!] How do you distinguish that position from solipsism? Or don’t you?
    I suspect there likely are some things you know with “certainty” — the smell of a favorite fragrant flower, the taste of sugar, your own love for your spouse or children. That doesn’t mean that your olfactory sense or tastebuds will never change or that your love cannot change. If they change, that does not entail your having been wrong in what you knew.

  54. Jeremiah S says:

    I think one of the greatest ironies of Mormonism is that the Restoration was supposed to throw open the doors of revelation to new and greater light and knowledge, while many members and leaders take the attitude that we know all we need to know and can therefore stop asking questions and seeking for answers and truth. Along with this is the irony that we are given the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and then are basically told all we have to do is follow the Brethren. What use is asking and have access to the truths of the heavens if we just sit on our laurels, believing we have all truth already and only need to follow the Brethren, without engaging in important moral deliberations seeking new and greater heights? My honest feelings lately…

  55. I’d touch on a potential issue with the characterization of the middle ground that goes deeper than the baggage of the label skepticism: “no fear” seems like an impossible ideal and maybe a near impossible bar. I think Grover acknowledges this when noting that reviewing issues of faith may well be an exercise of courage in the face of existential questions rather than a game, but we’re still sortof left with an ideal of fearlessness.

    Which I’d like to believe I embody to some extent. But part of what we *are* is our understanding, beliefs, and hopes. Our assumptions of solidity in each area are how we build models of the world and relationships and choices. Expecting a literally fearless unhesitation to visit, reconfigure, and even entirely discard them could be compared to tearing down and rebuilding your house once a month for the sake of refining it. You could do that (and I think I’ve done this metaphorically at some points in my life, probably not coincidentally overlapping with time periods I was semi-nomadic) but at some point you discover why many people simply just move in somewhere for years at a time even if isn’t their dream house: orienting around a core assumption that “this is the [right] place” or even “I do” provides a skeleton to build your life around and grow out into other things. In this context, the possibility of divorce (metaphorical or literal) is always terrifying.

    I still think the skeptic center sketched out here has a lot of merits, I just imagine what I’m saying here matters so that people aiming for it know it can require more than casual courage, which I think also helps us look more kindly on people who are cautiously standing by the walls.

    Great essay, though. I hope it finds its way out into the larger discussion.

  56. I seem to remember Sheri Dew writing a book called “Worth the Wrestle” a couple of years ago. It was all about asking questions and seeking answers. Who exactly is discouraging questions?

  57. Bruised, broken, yet at peace says:

    The fact that this essay, as true and beautiful as it is, even needed to be written in this era when knowledge covers the world like a sea is disheartening. Did we learn nothing from the soul destroying Orwellian regimes of the last century? And then I look at my Twitter feed and realize that duckspeak still permeates as the fruit of the believers’ goodthink, and those who seek to wrestle with the angel are guilty of thoughtcrimes and should be condemned. It scares me how much the adversary’s plan is embraced as faithfulness. Questioning is the only thing that has rescued my faith and testimony.

  58. Intellectual research might not be the answer alone, but I think studying out in your mind and heart in full earnestness and asking in faith is. I prefer to think of it as continually experimenting upon the words that I believe to be Christ’s, and when they swell and grow unto a tree within me – then they are in me and I know for myself. Skepticism may play a role in that, but I don’t think the word alone captures the full beauty of that growth process.

  59. An important and beautifully written post! Thank you.

  60. Truth Will Prevail- Thank you for Elder Featherstone’s talk. I liked the quote from President Kimball…” that if all we could tell the world was the Joseph Smith story, we could convert the world. We have so much to offer in this Church.”
    No matter what research reveals the truth of this church comes down to the Joseph Smith story.

  61. Amy,

    Part of the Irony is that the church seems to have taken President Kimball’s statement too literally and taught only the simplified, pretty version of Joseph’s story. The results were successful, but we are now experiencing the other end of the stick that they picked up as members discover that there is much more to the simple story, and much of it is faith shaking. We’re left feeling betrayed and misled. It seems to me that the deeper I dig, the less comfortable I am hanging my hat on the Joseph Smith story.

  62. We need research, but we need to balance it with the basics.
    From Elder Featherstone-
    ” I have thought of questions that might enter the mind of a young Aaronic Priesthood bearer. One such question would be, Where can I go to get a commitment to the Church like the brethren, the bishops in the wards, the stake presidents? What is it that causes a man to go early in the morning and work late at night, and give his heart and soul to the kingdom of God? Where can I go to find a commitment to the Savior like you have? And then another question, Where can I get a testimony?
    I would like to brush away the fluff if we could and maybe go to that source where I gained my special testimony. It happened to be in the scriptures.”
    (“The Sure Word of God,” General Conference, October 1972.)

  63. I like my fav non-Mormon “GA” on the subject (NMGA – my wry term for Non-Mormons quotes in General Conference) by Soren Kierkegaard: ““The realm of faith is thus not a class for numskulls in the sphere of the intellectual, or an asylum for the feeble-minded. Faith constitutes a sphere all by itself, and every misunderstanding of Christianity may at once be recognized by its transforming it into a doctrine, transforming it to the sphere of the intellectual. The maximum of attainment within the sphere of the intellectual, namely, to realize an entire indifference as to the reality of the teacher (God), is in the sphere of faith at the opposite end of the scale. The maximum of attainment within the sphere of faith is to become infinitely interested in the reality of the teacher (God).” From ‘Concluding Unscientific Postscript. It might be about learning from God rather than learning about God?

  64. Bbyap. Zactly!

  65. “There is a trend in Latter-day Saint rhetoric to argue that having questions or researching answers about the church are dangerous and misguided ventures. These arguments have good intentions—they are meant to help people avoid discomfort or cognitive dissonance by encouraging them to wear blinders or to place difficult questions on “shelves” to be ignored until all is revealed after death”

    I found this a refreshing article but do have two nitpicks about this first paragraph.

    One, is that I don’t think those are the only two reasons anyone would discourage research- is contend that the strongest reason is the proliferation of false and misleading info about the church out there. In the past when I was doing some of y own digging, I found things about the church history presented as truth but when I dug a little deeper I realized the sources were extremely questionable.

    Two, to say church rhetoric discourages questions and research, I feel, is misleading. I’d say that’s a cultural thing. Growing up in the church, any reluctance I felt to have questions or do research come from attitudes of fellow members or misinterpreted quotes from the past (such as interpreting ‘the Lord will never allow His prophet to lead the church astray’ to mean that prophets can’t make mistakes). No doctrine I’ve ever been taught or talk I’ve ever heard actually discourages questions or looking into TRUSTWORTHY church history sources.

    That said, this article is great even though, having this mindset, there are still a few questions I have A few questions I have to ‘put on a shelf’ simply because no earthy answers are currently available and I don’t get a clear answer to every single question I ask in prayer. We’re not meant to know everything in this life.

  66. I love this post. Imagine the power of the church if every member practiced living in that very healthy middle with our faithful skepticism! There’s so much I could say about this, but too much I’m processing through to put it all into words. Thankfully, you’ve done a great job putting all those words down for me!

  67. Billy Possum says:

    Thanks for this post – it’s beautiful.

    And I’ll add a shameless plug for the study of philosophy (whence “skeptic”), particularly at Church universities. The inoculation against destructive, unprincipled doubt that a good philosophy of religion course can work is awe inspiring. I’ve never done better in my faith-life than to have had a professor ask “Which argument against the existence of God have you not heard? And still you believe.” If any of you are reading this (you know who you are), thank you.

  68. The spectrum is a helpful model, but really isn’t the goal to get off of it entirely rather than be somewhere in the middle. Seems like it’s fear from one end to the other, anything like actual faith and openness to full truth would need to be somewhere else.

  69. Suomalainen says:

    Thank you.

    Funny thing is we actually call people who are thinking about joining the church “investigators”. In Finnish the term used is “tutkija”, which means RESEARCHER. At what point exactly are we supposed to stop being investigators and researchers of truth?

  70. Kruiser says:

    Coming to this post late, as I always seem to do. Well anyhow, I looked up the reference to Lowell Bennion on Wikipedia and was surprised at the paucity of information about him. I do not know much about him, but could someone get on there and fill it out more?