Questioning Mormonism

The class was filled with restless teenagers, most of whom I could tell from their jaded body language had little interest in engaging the topic I was assigned to teach on the New Testament.  This was many years ago, and at the time, I was a young teacher with a Master’s degree in Near Eastern Studies and a sincere passion for sharing with teenagers insights from the Bible.  Yet no one, from my perspective, seemed at all interested in what I had to offer that day.  And then, an unusually squirrely teenage boy slowly raised his hand and asked a question.

I no longer recall what it was that he asked, but I’ll never forget the boy’s staggered response to the fact that I was visibly pleased, and sincerely praised him in front of his peers for coming to class with such a fascinating theological question.  “Really?!!,” the student responded with obvious surprise, “because I asked my Mom that same question last night and she got mad at me for questioning the Church!!”

I was shocked!!  In hindsight, I obviously have no idea how the conversation between this young man and his mother actually took place, and as a general rule, when it comes to teenagers and their perceptions, I’m typically willing to give adults the benefit of the doubt, but unfortunately, from what I’ve witnessed, this perspective that the young man connected with his mother’s attitude towards questioning religious issues is not unique within Mormonism.

What is it about our cultural tradition that often leaves Latter-day Saints with the impression that it is not only wrong to question our theology, but that doubts in any form concerning such issues as the historicity of scripture, the veracity of the Restoration, the counsel and/or policy of our Church leaders, or any other religious topic are a result of sin?  For some reason, it seems to me that many of us have bought into the notion that it is immoral to question, when in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

We ought not treat each other (or even ourselves for that matter) as sinners when we doubt.   Ironically, we can contrast this approach, whereby we rebuke the questioner for his or her lack of faith with the nature of God as defined in the very biblical passage that sparked the Restoration:  “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not” (James 1:5).  Amongst other things, this famous scriptural line suggests that God will not “upbraid” or “scold” the questioner, and for good reason, for certainly, questioning is an essential part of spiritual and intellectual maturity.

If the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants teach us anything, it is the power of a good question.  Many of these revelations came as a result of theological questions or concerns Joseph Smith developed while working his way through the Bible.  Rather than a sign of sin, a questioning mind should be recognized for what it truly is, a desire to obtain truth, and the pursuit of truth (to the extent that we as human beings can obtain it) is a profound spiritual quest for “whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit” (D&C 84: 45).

This concept was understood by one of the greatest questioning minds Mormonism has ever produced, Elder B.H Roberts.  In his own writings, intended to inspire people to think critically on religious matters, Elder Roberts expressed the importance of questioning with these words:

Mental laziness is the vice of men, especially with reference to divine things.  Men seem to think that because inspiration and revelation are factors in connection with the things of God, therefore the pain and stress of mental effort are not required; that by some means these elements act somewhat as Elijah’s ravens and feed us without effort on our part.  To escape this effort, this mental stress to know the things that are, men raise all too readily the ancient bar-“Thus far shalt thou come, but no farther.”  Man cannot hope to understand the things of God, they plead, or penetrate those things which he has left shrouded in mystery. “Be thou content with the simple faith that accepts without question.  To believe, and accept the ordinances, and then live the moral law will doubtless bring men unto salvation; why then should man strive and trouble himself to understand?  Much study is still a weariness of the flesh.”  So men reason; and just now it is much in fashion to laud “the simple faith;” which is content to believe without understanding, or even without much effort to understand.  And doubtless many good people regard this course as indicative of reverence-this plea in bar of effort- “thus far and no farther.”…This sort of “reverence” is easily simulated, and is of such flattering unction, and so pleasant to follow- “soul take thine ease”- that without question it is very often simulated; and falls into the same category as the simulated humility couched in “I don’t know,” which so often really means “I don’t care, and do not intend to trouble myself to find out.” Elder B.H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course of Theology, vol. V (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1912), pg. v.

True reverence, as Elder Roberts recognized, is not a lack of questioning.  True reverence of the type Elder Roberts envisioned involves serious study, pondering, and inquiry.

Admittedly, as those who have devoted themselves to this course recognize, there are problems in Church history.  There are traditional assumptions regarding the development of scriptural texts that under serious academic scrutiny cannot be sustained as correct.  There are problematic historical, cultural, political, and even theological views that over the years have been expressed by well-meaning Church leaders.  Questioning these matters with a critical mind, however, is not a sin, nor should the doubter who struggles with inconsistencies within Mormonism be perceived as a sinner.

The inconsistencies are real and ought not to be figuratively swept under the proverbial rug, for in reality, thinking critically over contradictions within Mormon history, scriptures, or theology can lead the questioner to greater truth.  According to the Lectures on Faith, Jesus Christ himself “was exposed to more powerful contradictions than any man can be” (Lectures Faith 5:2).  And to quote LDS scripture, “art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:8).

So what is the believer to do with doubts?

Continue to ponder and think critically, for one, while at the same time, recognizing the spiritual validity of one famous Book of Mormon metaphor regarding the notion of faith.  Despite its inconsistencies, if practicing Mormonism and believing in its theological constructs (even with its contradictions) leads the doubter to feel happy, then he or she must needs say that Mormonism is a good seed; that living life as a Latter-day Saint is a good thing.

Yet no matter where the believer ends up landing in his or her spiritual journey, questioning is an essential component in the life of a mature thinker and should not be treated, nor interpreted as sin.



Questioning Mormonism — 19 Comments

  1. Your final paragraph reads as a challenge to ask what inconsistencies? What contradictions? If one feels that these inconsistencies and contradictions does NOT “lead one to feel happy” as satanic doubt often does then what?

    It’s this type of baiting and questioning is different from sincere inquisition, sincere desire to understand and a sincere desire to have hope and faith bestowed upon a humble petitioner to reaffirm their direction and path within the currently revealed church structure. Re-questioning if the Book of Mormon is true (one possible version of “questioning Mormonism”) does nothing for someone who has already gained a spiritual witness of it’s veracity and divine origin.

    All I can say is be careful about how wide the inquisitor’s doubt and questioning could reach and how as a “scholar” you’ve handed them a map and permission slip to travel the broad road leading to destruction.

  2. I agree with the basic premise, David. I’d add the caveat, however, that questioning can be frightening and painful, and can lead one in uncomfortable and unanticipated directions. We shouldn’t scold those who question, but I think we also shouldn’t scold those who choose not to. Questioning, after all, is risky. The moment one asks a question, one makes oneself vulnerable to the answer. So while questioning is courageous and praiseworthy, perhaps it’s not for everyone.

  3. This was terrific advice! It was awesome to read an article by someone I knew in Belmont. Good to see you and your family are all doing well. Give Kate a big hug for me!

  4. Excellent intro to the topic – comforting for those who were worried about questioning in the first place. I had a long conversation with an author friend earlier this week (he publishes almost exclusively to unsheathe, as it were, wacky LDSaint notions of history – especially when popular/Church materials accounts to not jibe with historical realities), and, despite contradiction and (possibly even more fun) paradoxical beliefs & teachings, it boils down to, for me (and for my friend): I know what I know – I have received personal revelation – so whether all the “trappings” have fallen neatly into place yet doesn’t really matter. Besides – what is more fun than getting to the bottom of things, anyway?

    Sorry for the rambling; I meant to simply say: Bravo, my dear brother David.

  5. Nice post.

    Since scripture seems to pretty much always condemn doubt, I’d think a more productive and “faithful” approach to this issue would be to draw a careful conceptual distinction between doubt (which scripture condemns) and questioning/seeking (which scripture, on my reading, encourages…). What would you think of this kind of approach?

  6. Thank you David! To have a questioning mind is a gift we should use to pursue truth. I have some children who are not currently active in the church, and have “questions”. Like you, I LOVE IT when they ask me questions!

    Bottom line for me though, in the words of Elder Anderson…”It’s true isn’t it? What else matters?”

    Great read!

  7. Jesus:
    Re-questioning if the Book of Mormon is true (one possible version of “questioning Mormonism”) does nothing for someone who has already gained a spiritual witness of it’s veracity and divine origin.

    I disagree. I’ve found it valuable to occasionally ask myself if I still believe/am certain about/have knowledge of the important things in life. 38+ years a member of the Church and that re-validation continues – as I also continue to seek further light and knowledge.

  8. I’ve come to view faith and skepticism as gifts, perhaps of the spirit. Some people believe easily, almost effortlessly. Others have a more skeptical, probing nature. Both, I believe, lead to truth.

    Thanks, David, for a very important post.

  9. I think there is a difference between “believing” questions that you highlight and “doubting” questions that you imply. That statement that you say, “If the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants t each us anything, it is the power of a good question,” is the key. Too many “doubting” questions are about tearing down rather than building up. Mormonism is about finding answers to fill in the gaps of faith and not finding gaps to justify unbelief. Intentions and directions of questions are just as important as questions themselves.

    “All I can say is be careful about how wide the inquisitor’s doubt and questioning could reach and how as a “scholar” you’ve handed them a map and permission slip to travel the broad road leading to destruction.”

    Amen to the above quote. Any scholar who doesn’t realize that the answers have consequences has book learning, but no wisdom.

  10. We teach and ask sincere investigators of the truth to be willing to question everything they have learned, to ask God, be willing to trust in God, and be willing follow whatever God reveals, even if that means loss of family relationships, friendships, employment, and prior certainties about their religious beliefs. Of course, I would never invite some one to make such determinations unless the person has fully studied the matter, pluses and minuses, sought input from trusted friends with whom they can safely share their concerns, and reached a careful, cautious decision. Many of us who were raised in the Church have passed through a similar stage of questioning, seeking God’s will, and careful weighing of information in making decisions and determining what is true, or true enough, for us with respect to religion, life’s purpose, and religious community. I think it is a mistake to tell a person that it is wrong to question anything; truth is truth, and for the sincere truth seeker God will lead him or her in the right way that God desires. I do not condemn those who never feel a need to re-examine long held belief and truths. But I also do not condemn those who feel that need, and I am grateful for a loving God who will bless and lead all of God’s children (even skeptics) who sincerely seek truth and answer any question (even “stupid” or “irreverent” ones).

  11. Very timely post, David. Personally, I have come to view faith and doubt as two sides of one coin rather than as two opposed and mutually exclusive concepts.

  12. I appreciate the scriptures more as I view them as volumes filled with catalysts for good and significant questions rather than books of Answers.

  13. Thank you all for the kind comments and thoughtful responses. The issue has been raised a couple of times on the distinction between “questioning” (good) versus “doubting” (bad). While a distinction can of course be made between questioning versus doubting, I’m using the two terms somewhat synonymously.

    I just don’t see having doubts in a religious context as “sinful,” nor is doubting, as far as I can see, condemned in the Bible. In the New Testament, we find Jesus encouraging those with doubts to come to believe in him and his power, but doubting itself is not the antithesis to spirituality. It seems the same, from my perspective, in specifically LDS scriptural texts: “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36).

    The mere fact that scripture encourages us to move from doubting to believing does not mean that doubting is somehow intrinsically “wrong,” anymore than the Law of Moses, for example, from a Christian perspective, was wrong or somehow immoral, since it prepared the way for accepting the higher law. In reality, the biblical examples we can turn to suggest that doubting is an integral part of our spiritual and moral development as human beings.

    Even in the Book of Mormon, a spiritual man like the Brother of Jared had “doubts” until he developed a perfect knowledge which came only by seeing the finger of Jesus:

    “And because of the knowledge of this man he could not be kept from beholding within the veil; and he saw the finger of Jesus, which, when he saw, he fell with fear; for he knew that it was the finger of the Lord; and he had faith no longer, for he knew, nothing doubting” (Ether 3:19).

    Again, speaking personally, I actually believe that there is great spiritual power in being a doubter who actively chooses to exercise belief and practice his or her religion with a healthy degree of skepticism, acknowledging the validity of contradictions and problems in his theology and/or her tradition.

    We see this idea come to life in John 6 when the contradictions seem too great for many to follow Jesus, to the point that he turns to his disciples and asks what they will do in light of these doubts. In the face of such challenges, Peter, himself a doubter, replied: “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

    Ultimately, I believe that thinking critically is an important part of our spiritual and moral development as human beings. It is my opinion that we should embrace the process of questioning rather than condemn it, and that we should avoid the temptation to define former believers who choose to follow a different life course as “sinners” because of their doubts.

  14. Great article (stumbled upon via Facebook)! While no longer a member of the LDS organization (I call myself an “unaffiliated skeptic” these days), I would like to share something from my days as a convert to the LDS faith (which lasted 14 years).

    I was a Sunday School teacher of the priest-age boys and girls and a returned missionary. My mission president had been a deep thinker of all things LDS-gospel related and encouraged us to study and think and pray. And he had an expression that I used often with my young Sunday School bunch.

    Now this was in the late 70’s and “correlation”, that great killer of independent thought among LDS, had not yet been implemented.

    I would ask my class a question and then I would use my mission president’s expression: “… and I don’t want a nice, crisp Sunday-school answer.” And I would encourage them to really think about things and REALLY liken the scriptures to themselves and to the world surrounding them.

    Thanks for reading.

  15. I have gone through a variety of trials in my life that have lead me to question, doubt and question yet again some of the things related to the church. For example, my cousin dying while I was on my mission caused me serious doubts as to whether or not the plan of salvation, God, the atonement… all of that were real. I had serious doubts, and it was made more difficult by the fact that I was teaching others about those very things as I struggled with it. I’d received answers before that the church and BoM were true, but when it came down to it, those doubts took me on a 2 month search for answers and the end result was my testimony being strengthened.

    From this and other, bigger, trials, I’ve come to my own personal conclusion that even when we are doing our best to improve ourselves and be better people, doubts will come. Unless we have see something first hand as the Brother of Jared did, (and maybe even if we have) we have every right to doubt and question and struggle. It is that struggle that builds our faith (usually) and makes us who we are. And we need to keep in mind that everyone’s road is different. We don’t know what is in their heart. If someone is sincerely searching for truth they will find it. My father once told me that sometimes the path to Christ will take someone away from him first. Sometimes people need to break from the church to be able to see more clearly the truth later on.

    It drives me crazy when people condemn those who doubt because without my doubts I would not be where I am today. This was an excellent post! Thank you!

  16. Thanks David for your thoughtful post. A church culture that cannot endure thoughtful questioning and doubting reflects deep insecurity and is, in fact, spiritually unhealthy.

  17. Terrific post!! Think of how much time we spend convincing oursleves that we do not have doubts. One fourth, one out of every four Sundays is a Fast and Testimony meeting. And in between my Bishop asks every young person baptized or advnaced in a class or priesthood to stand in sacrament meeting and bear their testimony. What if they do not have a testimony? It is an invitation to dishonesty. That is a lot of pressure on a young person to eliminate doubt and not let it do its sanctifying work.

  18. I am a doubter. Worse, I am a doubting plyg. I both believe too much and doubt much. I can not explain it. I believe the scriptures, but not the back story. I especially believe the message of the Book of Mormon. It was a gift from God. But, that it was a revealed document, possibly through the stone, but no way could it be any kind of translation of anything. There were no Nephites except as a vehicle for the story. I know, it makes no sense. But, my testimony of the BoM was a gift from God that I cannot deny. But, its origins, I do not believe at all. I have the same problem with the OT, the NT and D&C, authoritative pronouncements. Most revelations have to be checked against a personal bias or motivation of the revelator. My little off shoot church is made up of mostly men with serious personality disorders or suffer from dissociative disorders. Gifts of the spirit abound. Everything from tongues to raising the dead. Curiously, nearly all have had a revelation that under no circumstance were we to do anything that would cause us to lose our membership in the LDS Church. We believe a wide range of fairy tales. Including the BoM.

    But, I have an education. I know so many people that know that the BoM is true. That Joseph Smith was a true prophet, so was Pres Benson, Loren Woolley, and Joel F LeBaron. That the Earth is hollow, the ten tribes live on the other side of the moon, and that Pres Obama is the anti Christ. There really aren’t any with the same set of idiologies. But, that is mostly true of members of the Church, also. There are, however, those who believe what they have been taught in the correlated Church. Never questioning, even absurdities, no matter the evidence. This is brought out some what by the publication of Hales’ defense of Joseph’s polygamy. There is a gal who has studied it carefully and knows that Joseph did no such thing. He said that he didn’t, so he didn’t. She knows. It was all a vast, complicated conspiracy conceived by the sexual predator, Brigham Young. He and his coconspirators went around and forged letters, journals, etc. even those recently uncovered. Joseph said it, so it must be true. And, there are the followers of Brigham. He was a prophet of God. He said that Adam was God and he would not lie. The Earth is a living organism and breathes in and out causing the tides. The Temple should have been made of adobe. Brigham said it, it must be true. Warren Jeffs is a prophet of God. “I know him personally, and know that he would not lead any astray.” Wearing red clothes is a sign that we are in league with the devil, and bicycles are wicked. If our husbands are not to touch us, then that is the will of God. Everyone has been led astray but us. We must follow our file leader.

    Take your pick. There is an idiology for each of us. The Bible is inerrant and the Constitution was written by the finger of God. And, the black man really is only worth 3/5 of a white man. Women should keep quiet and wear a cloth over their heads. Oh, we are so proud of our pure doctrines. The Prophet will never lead us astray. If he were to do so, God would take him. Never mind that the ministry of Pres Lee and Hunter was so short. I don’t know anything about the old timers of Pres Benson or the madness of Pres Kimball. It is all a lie told by the Korihors of the Church. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. If we just live a good life, that is all that matters.

    For me it is the Temple Endowment. I love it so it must be true. I’ve just got to keep that that was given to me. Ignore other variations. Live by the principle taught in the Book of Mormon. Love, care, and try to understand. Life is a glass darkly. I want with all of my heart to return to the Church of my youth. But, there is no way in Hell that it could ever happen. Besides, that Church no longer exists. God’s is a dynamic and living Church, changing as times demand. The personhood of God must fit the modality of accepted beliefs.

    What is truth after all. Whatever it is, it is supposed to set us free. Let Freedom ring. And do unto others. Let others strive with themselves. And, pray, let us find God.