Dealing with crises of faith

Recent news stories, led by a New York Times piece featuring former Swedish Area Authority Hans Mattson, who lost his testimony, have Mormons discussing the subject of faith. The common thread in these news stories is that the Internet has made information freely available, and some members are discovering facts that don’t quite square with the somewhat sanitized version of Church history we are taught in our Sunday School classes.

I wanted to share a few thoughts on this subject.

First, let us be clear that there has been only one perfect, sinless, mistake-free being in the human race: the carpenter from Nazareth. Those who we sustain as leaders of the Church are human. Furthermore, although I believe we are led by revelation, I don’t believe those we sustain as prophets, seers and revelators are puppets on a string where every thought and action is dictated by the Holy Ghost.

I’m reminded of an anecdote from one of my favorite Mormons, Professor Henry Eyring.  Someone asked him once whether having such close contact with the Brethren (he was Spencer W. Kimball’s brother in law and worked in the General Sunday School presidency) sometimes tried his faith when he saw their mistakes. Brother Eyring did not deny that the Brethren were imperfect. He simply said that if the Lord could make use of others, despite their faults, maybe He could find something useful for Brother Eyring to do. I think that humble, forgiving way of looking at others is the right approach. Henry Eyring also had a very strong opinion (which he shared with the Brethren at every opportunity) that Church authorities should teach the Saints the unvarnished truth about Church history, including the warts. We can see the wisdom of Brother Eyring’s counsel in these recent events. I don’t believe official Church teaching materials deceived the Saints, but it’s easy to understand why these materials would be written to portray Church history in a positive light – and why some Latter-day Saints might experience a crisis of faith when presented with information that seemed to be in conflict with the “official” version.

Professor Richard Bushman, a nationally respected historian and practicing Latter-day Saint, published his landmark Joseph Smith history Rough Stone Rolling in 2005. Many of the issues Brother Mattson struggled with are documented in this book. Joseph Smith did not just teach polygamy, he had many women sealed to him. It also appears the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon were largely translated the same way the Book of Moses was received: through direct revelation, rather than the decoding of ancient writings. Specifically, scholars have found no evidence of Joseph’s Book of Abraham in the papyri text it was purported to have come from, and some accounts from witnesses to the process have Joseph dictating the text of the Book of Mormon looking through the seerstone, while the plates remained covered with a cloth.

More recently, statements from Church leaders leave the impression that there was not any doctrinal justification for denying the priesthood to men of African descent. Claims that the Lamanites are the “primary” ancestors of the American Indians have been modified in the most recent Book of Mormon edition to stating they are “among” their ancestors – after modern DNA testing did not show strong evidence of a relationship with modern persons of Jewish descent.

What are we to make of all this? Here are my personal feelings on the matter. As with Christians around the world, I often turn to the wisdom of C.S. Lewis for comfort. Lewis states that all believers go through the process of finding a testimony; the point at which we decide that the evidence is overwhelming that Christianity is true (in my case, the version taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). As time goes by, things happen in our lives to create doubt. Maybe we find ourselves in a position where it would be convenient if Christian principles were not true. It is often just changes in mood or a reaction to life’s difficulties. And sometimes, we are exposed to information that appears at first glance to conflict with our knowledge. It is at this point, Lewis says, that our faith needs to come into play. He uses the analogy of his paranoia about anesthesia. His logic tells him that things will be fine during surgery, but he had a phobia that the doctors will start cutting into him before the anesthesia takes effect. He then has to exercise faith, based on logic, to suppress his emotions.  Such is the case for most that drift away from their faith. The overwhelming evidence is still in favor of their original conclusion, but the shock of some emotional experience (such as finding for the first time that Brother Joseph had other wives sealed to him) causes doubt.

That is where I stand. Occasionally we hear Latter-day Saints in testimony meeting state, “I know without a doubt that the Church is true”. Here is my testimony: Despite occasional doubts, I know the Church is true. On balance, when considering all the evidence (including the testimony of the witnesses) and my own experience with the book, I am convinced the most plausible explanation for the existence of the Book of Mormon is the account given by Joseph Smith – however implausible that account may seem to unbelievers. When I consider my understanding of Church history and the doctrines, when I read the testimonies of Church leaders and members past and present, and most of all, when I consider the sacred personal spiritual experiences I have been blessed to have, I am left with the conclusion that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the Restored Gospel being exactly what it claims to be. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few pebbles on the left hand side of the balance scale, but they are overwhelmed by the heavy gold nuggets on the right hand side.

I will close with one of those personal experiences. While I was on my mission in Sweden, my mother forwarded a cassette tape of some General Conference addresses from 1976. One was a sermon on temple work from Boyd K. Packer. The sermon was inspiring, but it was his testimony at the end that I remember. (The written record of this testimony is somewhat different than the spoken version in conference.) I received a powerful witness that this man had seen beyond the veil, and that he really did know that of which he spoke. It was an experience that has stayed with me all these years.

I have to admit that President Packer has said some things in recent conferences that make me a little uncomfortable. But the attacks on him by people I consider friends also make me uncomfortable. I think we have to be charitable to others and consider their life and actions as a whole when making judgment, and I can never forget the impact this man has had on my life and on the lives of others, despite some personal biases rooted in an earlier time.

Life is hard and occasionally confusing, but I am grateful that I have the anchor of the Restored Gospel to stand on as our family negotiates the currents of life.

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