The splash of the Hans Mattsson story has occluded what I think is a more significant story about continuing efforts to assist those Mormons who feel alienated from the LDS Church. The story of a former Church leader questioning his faith is remarkable. Many can identify with this struggle, but the fact that a leader can experience these issues lends some legitimacy to the process. They can also identify powerfully with Mattsson’s experience of a Church grappling with his unbelief. For many, including Mattsson, that engagement with the Church is emotionally devastating. The problem for the LDS Church is that such negative reactions can continue to cost the Church long after a member has decided to stay or leave. Lost enthusiasm and, in some cases, enduring, embittered opposition to the Church are not beneficial to the LDS community.
In 2010, seventies Marlin K. Jensen and Erich W. Kopischke and Church historian Richard Turley traveled to Sweden to meet with Hans Mattsson and a small number of other struggling Mormons (twenty-five is the reported number). Elder Jensen framed these Mormons’ conundrum as a stark choice between hearkening to God or Satan. However theologically sound the approach, it seems to have backfired, because some of the Swedes retorted that their bad feelings about certain items of Church history might suggest that the Church itself was on the wrong side of the issue. In other words, the strategy of creating a stark dilemma for the Swedes framed the relationship between the speakers and the audience as oppositional from the outset. The meeting again ended on this note, when Elder Kopischke reportedly presented the Swedes with the choice of reconciling with the Church or leaving it. A handful, roughly 20% of the attendees, decided to leave that very day.
The good news is that this occurred three years ago. Even better is the news that, as far as we know, no other meetings of this kind have taken place. Yet the outreach effort continues on a basis that I think is far superior to the Swedish gathering. Terryl and Fiona Givens and Richard Bushman have been speaking at various meetings in Europe and North America to Mormons who are struggling with their religion. I was able to attend the meeting in Provo, Utah on July 6, so I can offer my perspective of this meeting as one who witnessed it first hand and also offer my comparison of this effort with the Swedish meeting. The results of this comparison are good news for Mormons who struggle with their faith, in my opinion.
First, I will offer my opinion on what went wrong in Sweden. I admit that I have limited information about the Swedish event, and so my view needs to be evaluated with that understanding. I am not a Church leader. I have no special spiritual insight into the Swedish situation, and I am not playing Monday morning quarterback where it is not my place to do so. I am a historian, and so I offer my impressions from a historian’s perspective.
I believe that the Church’s discovery of a group of five to six hundred Swedes discussing their problems with the faith triggered a “last days” script in the minds of those Church representatives who sought to help the Swedes. This number of struggling Mormons is rather remarkable in a country with roughly 9,500 members. The emotion behind the Church’s response is also suggested by the name given to the operation: The Swedish Rescue. This name conjures up visions of catastrophe-response similar to the small armies of LDS volunteers who appear to help after a hurricane or flood. If we imagine deeply concerned General Authorities flying to Sweden to rescue the souls of its members from spiritual catastrophe, then I think we can understand how the Swedish meeting came to be. Twenty-five key members of the group of “doubters” were isolated and presented with a stark choice (stay or go) so that their negative impact on the larger group could be neutralized. That stark choice seems to reflect apocalyptic scenarios in the Biblical book of Revelation. Regardless of the success or failure of the Swedish meeting, the information that was leaked did little to help the Church in its efforts to help struggling members or appear sober before the wider world.
Since that time, Terryl and Fiona Givens and Richard Bushman, respected academics and scholars of Mormonism, have toured in Europe and North America to meet with struggling Mormons in quite different circumstances. I think it is fair to say that a sense of concern similar to the one behind the Swedish Rescue has motivated this effort, yet there are important differences that promise to bring greater success to the meetings featuring the Givenses and Bushman.
Now I will embark on a comparison of the Swedish meeting and these other gatherings. Since I raised the topic of names, this will be the first point of comparison. As mentioned above, the name “Swedish Rescue” has been applied to the efforts to help struggling Mormons in Sweden. This name conjures images of disaster and last-days trials, which may or may not be fitting to the Swedish circumstance, but may have helped to shape the nature of the Church’s response to the crisis. Terryl and Fiona Givens have dubbed their firesides, “The Crucible of Doubt.” This name validates the process of questioning and the people who engage in that process. Critics of the LDS Church may complain that it presents only one valid outcome for the process, namely, strengthened faith, but I see this script as vastly superior to one in which the world stands on the precipice and doubters must shape up or be cast into the fire. And, in my experience, the Givenses do depict doubt as a natural part of religious life, which can have a positive outcome. At the very least this is a salutary effort at reversing the stigma attached to doubt in the Mormon community.
Another important difference between the efforts of Bushman and the Givenses and the Swedish meeting is the absence of General Authorities from the former. Again, those inclined to find fault will attribute that absence to the inability of the Church leaders to come up with satisfactory answers. In this regard, I think there are a few things to keep in mind. First, LDS leaders are first and foremost witnesses of Christ, not apologists or historians. They are also required to manage the daily operations of a worldwide church organization. They do not have time to become experts on all things Mormon. If the outcome of the Swedish meeting made anything clear, it was the possible finality of the interaction between Church leader and member within this context. Lacking the same mission and responsibility, a Bushman or Givens can engage in a discussion about doubts without exercising the role of ecclesiastical judge. The presence of a judge can in any case chill a productive conversation.
I have not attended the “Crucible of Doubt” meetings, so I cannot speak authoritatively regarding all of these events, but the Provo meeting was explicitly aimed at Mormons who were looking for a way to reconcile with the LDS Church. The audience members were also told that the session would not be a debate. Richard Bushman, Fiona Givens, and finally Terryl Givens spoke for forty minutes apiece, sharing their views on topics like struggles with faith, dealing with historical problems, and the distinctive and attractive elements of the Mormon gospel. The speakers took questions, but at no point did either the questioners or the speakers become contentious or hostile to each other. Even a cursory comparison with the Swedish meeting reveals a comparatively higher level of tension between Church representatives and participants in the latter.
Perhaps the highlight of the Provo meeting was Fiona Givens’ talk. Her material showed rich engagement with Mormonism, but it did not have the same airy academic sensibility and polish of the other two presentations. Sister Givens instead put a very human face on what it means to be Mormon and to doubt, partly because she acknowledged her own past struggles. She was also refreshingly frank and unguarded, and I got the sense that her words ruffled feathers on both sides. For some Mormon feminists I think she may have been insufficiently committed to their own ideas of women’s equality in the Church. For her speaking companions she may have been a little too seemingly heterodox at times. For these reasons, I found her contributions to be the most satisfying of all. It is the genuineness, generosity, and warmth of Sister Givens that represents some of the best of what it means to be part of the Mormon community.
I am not sure how successful this new breed of outreach will be in the short term. Many of the people I encountered at the Provo meeting were hanging onto Mormonism by their fingernails, and I heard a handful of dissatisfied comments regarding the lack of “real answers.” For me the significance of the meeting is not in the presence or absence of answers, but in the ecclesiastical effort to engage people who struggle in a way that does not cast the struggling member in the theological role of sinner or near-goner. Bushman and the Givenses have chosen a positive theological framework for the wrestle with doubt and questions, and they seem to be trying to prod the strugglers into a more active mode in that struggle. Terryl Givens in particular discussed the struggler’s need to own his or her own Mormonism. “You are the Church,” he said at one point. His approach is arguably compatible with David Knowlton’s discussion of community versus Correlation, which was mentioned in my last post.
Without discussing the pros and cons of Correlation, I think it is fair to say that Mormonism has not been free of the influence of corporate consumer capitalism. How could it be? For better or worse, this is the world in which the LDS Church participates at this juncture in its history. According to the dominant cultural script, Mormonism becomes a product and members are its consumers. A dissatisfied customer complains to corporate headquarters with the expectation of a satisfactory response. Otherwise the customer may take her or his business elsewhere.
Furthermore, in the missionary discussions and videos of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the LDS Church pitched itself as the organization that had the answers to your questions. That message impacted both investigator and missionary alike.
Is it surprising, then, that members of the generation that presented or accepted the Church of Answers should be dissatisfied by the lack of adequate answers to its questions? In a relationship that too often gets lumped in with the interactions between consumers with any other corporation, should one not expect that the consumer’s tools of power have become the member’s way of responding to Church Headquarters?
If we look closely at the language and strategies of struggling Mormons, it is hard not to notice the consumer’s experience translated into the religious sphere. Struggling members openly speak about withholding tithing, paying tithing in fast offerings, taking a “cafeteria” approach to doctrine, and similar strategies that reveal a relationship with the LDS Church more akin to that of a dissatisfied customer than a member of a community of covenant. On its side, the Church has increasingly presented itself as the sole source of authorized ordinances, and thus the commodification of Mormonism continues.
Givens’ position in particular takes aim at this problem in that he tries to disabuse Mormons of the perception that the Church is an external entity with which the individual member has a primarily passive relationship. When it comes to answers, such an approach may mitigate the harm that is caused by the assumption that in some hidden sanctum of the Church Office Building there is a trove of satisfying, authoritative answers to the deeper conundrums of the faith. Re-contextualizing faith struggles in this way is helpful because the resolution of a faith crisis usually results from the member’s own shift in perspective, not from answers offered by the Church. The Church may facilitate the journey to that resolution, but the Church cannot bring about such a transformation for the member. I do not write this in order to invalidate the decisions of those who leave, but to suggest that ultimately the Church has to find a way to empower its members to make the best decisions for themselves instead of propagating the false expectation of being able to solve the problem, one way or the other. I think that Terryl Givens is onto something important.