Mormon doubts

Print More
From October 10 to November 7, we'll be discussing this book each Friday here on the blog.

From October 10 to November 7, we’ll be discussing this book each Friday here on the blog.

It’s book club time! How I have been looking forward to this.

On Fridays for the next month, we’ll be discussing The Crucible of Doubt by Terryl and Fiona Givens. Up today: the introduction, chapter 1, and chapter 2.*

A reminder: the main event here in this book club is not my posts about the book, but your thoughts, and especially the contributions of our featured commenters Sam Brown, Robert Couch, Kristine Haglund, Heather Hardy, Emily Jensen, Brandt Malone, Mitch Mayne, Rosalynde Welch, and Dan Wotherspoon.

Since the conversation is most the important thing here, I’ll be editing or deleting comments that are insulting or just wildly off-topic.

This is going to be a safe place to talk about doubt. No accusations or counter-accusations. It’s fine to discuss uncomfortable or difficult questions you have about the Church, but please use “I statements” and remember we’re all in this journey together.

To get our conversation started, I wanted to post a short, rather amazing quote from the book and then some discussion questions.

. . . . true religion is inseparable from suffering. It tells us the truth about the human condition without flinching, offers no cheap solutions, and conceals none of the costly price . . . . We feel unmoored if our religion fails to answer all our questions, if it does not resolve our anxious fears, if it does not tie up all loose ends. We want a script, and we find we stand before a blank canvas . . . Perhaps we would do better if we came to understand the fundamental incompleteness of the blueprint as something other than a defect, a failure. It is the way it must be, and the way it should be. (pp. 31-32)

So, with that in mind:

Samuel Brown Robert Couch Kristine Haglund Heather Hardy Emily Jensen Brandt Malone Mitch Mayne Rosalynde Welch Dan Wotherspoon – See more at:
  • Does the LDS Church encourage us to be comfortable with loose ends, or does it perhaps overemphasize the idea that “real” faith will eventually culminate in perfect knowledge?
  • What are the questions or doubts you still have about Mormonism, and how comfortable are you with the possibility that you may never get an answer?
  • How far can logic take us in evaluating the truth claims of the Church?
  • How much inaccuracy can you personally accept in LDS history, theology, or scripture, believing that “different ways of knowing” point overall to the LDS message being beautiful or inspiring?
  • What do you think of the assertion that “true religion is inseparable from suffering”? (p. 31)


P.S. For next Friday, we’ll read chapter 3 on the role & function of the Church and chapter 4 on the use and abuse of Scripture. That’s about 20 pages, all together.

* My apologies to all the eNerds out there who are reading this on the Kindle or another device — I used the print page numbers last week when I gave out the reading assignment. From now on I’ll just use the chapter numbers and titles, which are universal.

  • Dan Wotherspoon

    I like the flow of the Intro into the two chapters, and that is because of the paradox it sets up: seek to be open (and self-conscious about our worldviews and all the ways they color our experiences) so we can always be on the quest to ask better “questions,” but ultimately their admonition is to not focus on “answers.” Life isn’t about passing a quiz but growing, mastering how to live and honor all truths and work with universal energies rather than recite a catechism.

    Always in my early life and even into my twenties, my focus was almost exclusively on what my head could “know” and mouth could speak (and impress others with–gotta be seen as a “smarty,” you know!) only to move in the past decades into all the other ways of knowing—and becoming comfortable with the uncertainty while still feeling oriented and centered the way the Givenes describe in Chapter Two. I love that they give voice to this journey, outlining its difficulties, for sure, but also making it seem attractive to try on for ourselves. A favorite phrase of mine about the religious life and knowledge that comes in more than just via the head from Krista Tippett that would have felt right at home in these chapters: one big enough that it can honor “both poetry and physics, scripture and science, allelujah and analysis.”

    One thing I like about “unanswerable questions” that the Givenses didn’t really deal with (yet, at least—I haven’t finished the book) is how they can serve to bring communities together, to spur us to keep exploring, keep working out and refining things for ourselves but in dialogue and open sharing as a group. Impossible-to-answer-once-and-for-all questions are gifts, not curses! Factual stuff is boring and makes us lazy. Soul stuff is exciting, ever new, hard-but-satisfying.

  • The fights of the fundamentalists—religious on one side, secularist on the other—have left many of us in a terrible haze about truth claims and community loyalties. I think most of us could benefit from a deep breath and a reframing of the religion vs. science or belief vs. skepticism debates.

    I wholly agree with the Givenses that we live our lives with our full minds/souls but tend to argue about Big Questions with one small piece of our minds. I think religious people cede the framing to the secularists when they fight over what gets proved when and by whom. We should let ourselves think about and through religion with our whole minds and souls. Thinking with our whole minds opens up the possibility of Goodness and Beauty, as well as religion.

    The kind of religion the Givenses advocate celebrates Goodness and Beauty and Love. I like that, very much. I would rather be confused by the existence of Evil (the problem of theodicy that bedevils many religions) and confident of the existence of Good/Beauty/Love than vice versa (atheism explains Evil easily but struggles to account for goodness). A religion embraced with the whole mind and soul provides precisely that possibility.

  • Yes. I agree. But how do we get people to stop condemning doubt, and think more openly?

    I wanted to re-post a comment that came up last week, as someone here on the blog quoted this alarming statement from Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie. (Thanks, GP.)


    Where the gospel is concerned, doubt is an inclination to disbelieve the truths of salvation, a hesitancy to accept the revealed will of the Lord; it is a state of uncertainty in mind with reference to the doctrines of the gospel. Faith and belief are of God; doubt and skepticism are of the devil.

    There is no excuse for not knowing and believing true principles for the Lord has ordained the way whereby all may come to a knowledge of the truth. Doubt comes from failure to keep the commandments. “O then despise not, and wonder not, but hearken unto the words of the Lord, and ask the Father in the name of Jesus for what things soever ye shall stand in need. Doubt not, but be believing, and begin as in times of old, and come unto the Lord with all your heart, and work out your own salvation with fear and trembling before him.” (Morm. 9:27; Matt. 21:21.)

    In other words, McConkie says that doubt is a willful rejection of “the revealed will” of the Lord, as though there’s no ambiguity in the Gospel, no question unanswered or unanswerable. And a major part of the reason his book was so popular was that its A to Z organization seemed to promise an answer for every single issue a Mormon might face. People love certainty, and road maps.

  • I think the Givens’ tapped into something very true about our culture, something that we’re not very comfortable with.

    “We feel unmoored if our religion fails to answer all our questions, if it does not resolve our anxious fears, if it does not tie up all loose ends. We want a script…”

    To me, when it comes to the entire question of doubt within the 2014 LDS church, this sentence seems to hit on part of it. Because we have a culture where we are so “sure” about things (we know exactly where we came from, we know exactly we are here, we know exactly where we will go when we die), and we have explanations for everything, there’s only superficial room to “explore the space” of doubt.

    I’m just reflecting on experiences I’ve had when this question has come up, and I think it falls on two areas: First, someone who doesn’t “know” like we know just needs to learn more, study harder, and pray harder. Second, many of their doubts and questions revolve around areas that Mormons really don’t have answers for – they reflect possibly the collective doubts of many. This is distressing to some people, uncomfortable, and disconcerting. But perhaps because we have a culture where we know all the answers, the more distressing thing is that the only answer we can give sometimes is “I don’t know”?

  • Emily Jensen

    I ended up participating in a roundtable just this morning with Terryl and Fiona and may in future posts bring up more some of the things they discussed there. For this first intro, I want to tell a story and rant a bit. First story. As I’m on the bus to said roundtable I start to listen in on a conversation between a 20-something girl and a 40+ something man. As what I can hear begins, he is asking her if she is excited to go the temple. She hems and haws for a minute and then admits that “I just don’t believe in it anymore, so while I go to church, I’m not going to ever go to the temple because I can’t answer the questions authentically.” He seems surprised but recovers and talks about how we all have different beliefs but has she talked to her parents about it, to which she replies, “Every time I bring it up with my mother, she says I’m processed of the devil.” Well, the man explains, we are always changing in our beliefs, and then she gets up as it her stop.

    What I come away with is the following:

    1. It was so odd to have a real-life and not virtual encounter of someone with doubts who was not speaking to me about it, especially in the heart of Mormon county, and

    2. It causes me to wonder about audience of this book. Is it this girl, who professes unbelief? Her mother?

    I asked this to Terryl and Fiona and they thought it was for the girl because they want this book “To be for people who want to make it work within the framework of their beliefs, whatever those may be.”

    So in regards to your above questions, I feel a bit disheartened within the book’s framework in these first chapters (especially chapter 1) that seems to skew towards re-examining doubt with an underlying assumption that it will all be made well in the end. I’m not sure how someone within a faith transition would accept that.

    This feeds a bit into my rant. Whichever marketer, because I would hope that Terryl and Fiona did not do this, decided to end with the front flap statement of “You’ll come away feeling more certain than ever of the Lord’s love for all of His Children” needs to read the book again. Because this feeds that skewing that there is something wrong with a approaching doubt and unbelief. And if we’re going to have productive conversations about it, (which I specifically appreciated in Chapter Two) that needs to go.

  • StokedMormon

    Chapter One really resonated with me. As valuable as science, logic, and reason are in improving our world and helping us chart our lives, the things that really give our lives meaning are those that couldn’t be published in a scientific journal. As I reflect on recent moments in my life when I have felt joy, those moments seem resistant to reason but filled with the other types of learning the Givens discuss: art, love, and conscience. Watching a sunset from my back yard in the cool of the evening; listening to my toddler voice something particularly adorable in his early efforts to talk; laughing nearly to the point of tears while joking with a co-worker – these are the moments when I truly feel that I am living a full life.

    And yet, in many ways, this kind of thinking just doesn’t feel at home in the Mormonism that I tend to experience at church on Sundays. That kind of Mormonism emphasizes universal truth, the kind that is true for everyone. Art, love, and conscience are far too personal, far too subjective. What happens when someone else experiences art, love, or conscience in a way that leads them down a different religious path?

  • Tiffany McCallen

    Jana, though not Mormon, I’ve certainly become very comfortable with my doubts about my faith and the overwhelming knowledge that I may never know what is truth. And I’m perfectly okay with that.

  • Fred M

    I enjoyed these first two chapters. I feel like I am at the “To whom shall we go?” stage with regards to my faith these days. The church and its teachings have brought incredible joy and fulfillment to my life. I have had spiritual experiences which I just can’t deny. But I also have doubts and concerns which the internet has revealed are pretty common. Things in the past that I find “yucky” (like Joseph Smith’s polygamous marriages to teens and heck, polygamy in general), things that I find concerning (the priesthood ban, the Book of Abraham, etc.), and things that are difficult to get my head around (the incredibly tiny percentage of people in the history of the world who’ve even been exposed to the true gospel, for instance).

    I’m all for accepting that there are things that we won’t understand in this life. I look forward to the time when we’re not seeing through a glass, darkly. And I don’t believe reason and logic are the end-all and be-all of understanding. But it seems like the Givenses are setting up a bit of a “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” argument. Especially with this quote: “…our failure to find support in science, or logic, or rationality, or whatever name we want to give it, should not cause us to doubt our intuitive moral faculty. On the contrary, it should cause us to place greater trust in and value upon it.” Huh??? Not sure I get that statement. I feel like following your heart in the face of contradicting logic can often get you in a lot of trouble! And historically has led to a lot of misery.

    I just don’t want to get to the end of the book and find that the concluding message is simply to ignore the things in the church that don’t make sense and go on faith. I’ve found, sadly, that that’s just not possible for me. And I think that overall the church’s past emphasis on “turning it off” when it comes to doubts and questioning–as if expressing anything negative is a sign of apostasy–is unfortunate and has definitely contributed to the current growing faith crisis among the youth (and others). Books like this, and talks like Pres. Uchtdorf’s, are helping to address the issue. But I think it’s going to be hard to change the church’s culture of perfection, and an unwillingness to admit any flaws (which I see popping up in these boards all the time!).

    I look forward to reading the rest of the book and hearing from everyone else!

  • Re: EmJen’s query, I wonder whether the point isn’t the creation of a church community in which “sectarian” Mormons (such as historically would have identified with Elder McConkie’s writings) and “non-sectarian” Mormons, such as the young woman on the bus, can coexist within the community. I think the Givenses’ support for a faith built on the whole mind and soul can be a template for just such a project. On this model the girl would say “I know my parents love me and their experience of Mormonism is grounded in modernist religious certainty, so I can be patient with their struggles to make sense of my faith walk” and the parents could find similar language to honor their love for the child and their pleasure that there is still space in the body of Christ for the child. I don’t think all LDS need to be like me–overly cerebral, bookish, persistently skeptical–and I salute people and projects that look to sustain a body of Christ in which we interdependently thrive.

  • Emily Jensen

    I like that a lot Sam. I certainly see this book, even in the few chapters I’ve read so far, as a carefully constructed bridge or a model in the ways we can begin conversations (although not necessarily end them). It’s obviously doing that here. 🙂

  • Emily — first off, that hardly qualifies as a rant compared to some of the comments we’ve fielded here on this blog. You can rant at me any day.

    Second — interesting. I hadn’t read the jacket copy at all, and you’re right. The description of the book seems to lead readers exactly where the book tells them they don’t need to go — to a place of certainty. (And yeah, I doubt the authors wrote the jacket copy, though I could be wrong. I often write my own but that’s not actually typical. It’s usually the marketing department, and they are naturally interested in pitching the book in a way that will interest the greatest number of readers.)

  • Fred, I can’t just “turn it off” either. And I hear from a lot of readers, especially the young ones you mention, that receiving the message that THEY should just “turn it off” is indeed a turnoff — to the whole Church and its truth claims.

    Last month via Google Analytics I found out the age breakdown of my blog readers: 27.5 in the 18-24 group, 33.5% in the 25-34 group, another 15.5% in the 35-44 bracket.

    In other words, 75% of my readers are 44 or younger! Now, some of that is surely because we’re a young church overall, demographically. But a lot of it is because these people aren’t getting their needs met for honest, open discussion at church, and they are looking online for it — not just on my blog of course, but online in general.

  • Heather Hardy

    While I am very sympathetic with the task the Givens have taken on in “The Crucible of Doubt”–that is, validating honest questioning about problematic aspects of the LDS tradition in a context of faith–I’ve been more than a bit frustrated with their opening arguments. In chapter one, for example, on the respective roles of “reason” and alternate “ways of knowing,” I was surprised to not find prophetic/scriptural revelation included as one of the these “ways of knowing.” (I’ve read ahead–they’re addressed in ch. 4 & 5 but not really in the context of epistemology.) Furthermore, I was dismayed to find “reason” so routinely caricatured (not even Richard Dawkins advocates the “scientism” they describe), and all too often their examples are either trivial or extreme. (Their neglect of the role of reason in “the voice of conscience” was another unexpected oversight–see 1 Nephi 4:10-18.)

    In demonstrating the priority of motivations “deeper than logic,” for example, the Givens put forward our moral opprobrium for child abuse: “If we apply our reason to make sense of the event, it is to forge an argument for what we already know to be true. If we find we are unable to express that truth in the language of science, or to find logical support for our moral position, that should not blind us to the reality, the truth, that child abuse is wrong. In such a case as this, our failure to find support in science, or logic, or rationality, or whatever name we want to give it, should not cause us to doubt our intuitive moral faculty” (p. 20). Such a black-and-white example belittles the genuinely problematic nature of the intellectual/moral struggles many LDS are currently facing as well as the important role reasoning plays in the education of our intuition.

    What if this were problematized a bit to address adults willfully causing pain by sticking needles with modified pathogens into (obviously non-consenting) infants and small children. Although our “intuitive moral faculty” should be similarly offended, there are important moral and “scientific” reasons for doing so, even if those who are more swayed by emotion disagree. How we process whether or not to immunize our own children seems a better example of the relationship between reason and alternate ways of knowing and the way they inform each other. Read the quote again in this context (or better still, but perhaps more edgy) with the issue of gay marriage in mind. To what extent is revelation a factor? What obligations do we owe to the interests of others? What is the interplay between reason and “the call of the beautiful, the vision granted by love, and the voice of conscience” (p. 13) in these cases?

  • Kyle

    To the first bullet point – I don’t think the Church encourages its members to be comfortable with loose ends. Instead, it tells us to take those loose ends and “put them on a shelf” where we will hopefully forget about them.

    I have doubts about the Church that range from its founder, its founding scripture, and many events in its history. I think logic has a special place when dealing with doubts. Doubts, for myself, fester when Church answers require “mental gymnastics” in order to resolve the doubt. We believe in a God of order, and I would say even logic, but often we are asked to dismiss logic and accept gymnastics.

    I agree that “true religion is inseparable from suffering” yet I don’t think true religion should cause suffering — which I think our doctrine and practice has inflicted on some.

  • Richard Morgan

    I will continue to read this book with you all, even though, intellectually, it starts off as very unsatisfying.
    When I read, “intuitive moral faculty” I must ask the question “Intuitive in which culture and at which point in history.?” “Intuitive” morality is such a varying element that to just assume it’s the same for all peoples at all times is a major error. I am keeping my fingers crossed that there won’t be too many of these blunders in the rest of the book.
    I think it will have a certain success in Mormon circles because it falls into that category of publication, “What you always wanted to know about (X) and never dared to ask your mother.”
    Having doubts has become a critical issue in the LDS church, partly, I believe, on account of the way LDS have been forced into the linguistic error of systematically saying, “I know” when they should be saying, “I believe.”
    I know that 2+2=4. I don’t need to be obedient to Gospel principles in order for this knowledge to remain intact. It is not a testimony that is “sacred and dear to me.”
    I know that I am having my own thoughts and typing these words. I don’t need to fast and pray in order to cling on to that knowledge.
    If Mormons were simply allowed to say, “I believe that the Book of Mormon is a second witness to Christ” (for example) then having doubts would not be the taboo subject that the Givens are striving to render acceptable.
    Knowledge has been defined as a “true belief”. A belief that is coherent with objective, verifiable facts. Mormon “facts” can only be verified by using a method which implies that you already accept them! Obedience and prayer. If it makes you feel good, then it becomes a fact. Knowledge.

    Enough for now. I will follow this discussion with keen interest.
    Thank you, Jana, for initiating this open dialogue.

  • “Does the LDS Church encourage us to be comfortable with loose ends, or does it perhaps overemphasize the idea that ‘real’ faith will eventually culminate in perfect knowledge?”

    In my experience, it depends on what the “loose ends” are. It’s okay to have unanswered questions, as long as the questions aren’t about the fundamentals (God’s existence, the Atonement’s reality, the Book of Mormon’s historicity and reliability as the “word of God,” etc.). If you profess a lack of certainty about the fundamentals, this is usually interpreted as a sign of spiritual immaturity at best, and possibly even sinfulness.

    As an example of this, I gave a talk in Sacrament Meeting a couple of years ago in which I said things like “I cannot honestly say that I know God lives,” “there are some things about church history that I can’t easily reconcile with my conception of a divinely led organization,” etc. The bishop received multiple complaints about the talk, and he gave a (kindly worded) “rebuttal” the following week. I don’t know exactly what the complaints were about, but I’m guessing they had something to do with the fact that I was serving as the elders quorum president at the time. I don’t think people were comfortable with someone in leadership saying things like that.

    As another example, Elder Holland gave a talk in General Conference a few years ago in which he talked about a 14-year old boy who told him, “I can’t say yet that I know the Church is true, but I believe it is.” Elder Holland said he told the boy that “belief is a precious word, an even more precious act, and he need never apologize for ‘only believing.’” That’s a great response, but I can’t help but wonder if Elder Holland would have reacted differently if he had been talking to someone older — a returned missionary or a middle-aged parent of young children, for example. Elder Holland was careful to point out — twice — that this statement came from a 14-year old, and he juxtaposed the 14-year old’s profession of belief with his own profession of knowledge. “[W]ith the advantage that nearly 60 years give me since I was a newly believing 14-year-old,” Elder Holland said, “I declare some things I now know.” The implicit message is that belief is a sign of spiritual immaturity. It may be acceptable (and even laudable) for a 14-year old, but with the passage of time that belief should mature into knowledge.

    I appreciate the Givens’ perspective on this issue:

    “[P]erhaps providing conclusive answers to all our questions is not the point of true religion.”

    “We want a script, and we find we stand before a blank canvas. We expect a road map, and we find we have only a compass.”

    “Self-revelation and self-formation take place only in the presence of the seemingly insoluble, the wrenchingly vexing, the genuine question.”

  • “I agree that ‘true religion is inseparable from suffering’ yet I don’t think true religion should cause suffering . . .”

    Yes, that is an important distinction.

  • Richard said: “When I read, ‘intuitive moral faculty’ I must ask the question ‘Intuitive in which culture and at which point in history?’ ‘Intuitive’ morality is such a varying element that to just assume it’s the same for all peoples at all times is a major error.”

    I think this book is terrific, but I agree that this early observation is a good caveat for us.

    Years ago, Terryl and I were both part of a Mormon scholars’ group that met every summer to read and share papers. One year, we were all assigned to read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I remember commenting that the way Lewis begins his argument for Christian apologetics, on a foundation of our shared moral center, would never fly in our postmodern context. We can’t assume (if we ever could) that people share a moral heritage that makes certain suppositions clear.

  • Heather —

    “I was dismayed to find ‘reason’ so routinely caricatured (not even Richard Dawkins advocates the ‘scientism’ they describe), and all too often their examples are either trivial or extreme.”

    While I agree that the Givens may not have found the right balance between emotion and reason, I think they are simply trying to serve as a counterweight to people like Dawkins who argue that emotion plays no role in truth-seeking.

    For example, consider the following quote by Dawkins (from “The God Delusion”):

    “Religion’s power to console doesn’t make it true. Even if … it were conclusively demonstrated that belief in God’s existence is completely essential to human psychological and emotional well-being; even if all atheists were despairing neurotics driven to suicide by relentless cosmic angst— none of this would contribute the tiniest jot or tittle of evidence that religious belief is true. …

    It is amazing how many people seemingly cannot tell the difference between ‘X is true’ and ‘It is desirable that people should believe that X is true’. Or maybe they don’t really fall for this logical error, but simply rate truth as unimportant compared with human feelings. I don’t want to decry human feelings. But let’s be clear, in any particular conversation, what we are talking about: feelings, or truth. Both may be important, but they are not the same thing.”

    To Dawkins, feelings have *nothing* to do with truth. This seems pretty consistent with how the Givens describe “scientism.”

    I believe the Givens are simply trying to suggest that emotion does play a role — that not all truths are detectable by reason and scientific inquiry:

    “In most of life’s greatest transactions, where the stakes are the highest, it is to the heart that we rightly turn, although not in utter isolation from the rational and reasonable. But whom to marry, when to discipline a child, when to let go of a dream, what sacrifices to make and promises to keep—these are decisions best made when emotion is moderated but not obliterated by reason, by logic, by ‘scientific’ thinking. And these decisions are certainly made, not in the absence of truth, but in recognizing those very truths which logic and science may be powerless to detect.”

  • Richard Morgan

    Ironically, for Dawkins and the Givens, it would seem that science would support the Givens!
    “What does it mean to be convinced? This question might sound foolish. You study the evidence, weigh the pros and cons, and make a decision. If the evidence is strong enough, you are convinced there is no other reasonable answer. Your resulting sense of certainty feels like the only logical and justifiable conclusion to a conscious and deliberate line of reasoning.

    But modern biology is pointing in a different direction. It is telling us that despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” arise out of primary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of rationality or reason. Feeling correct or certain isn’t a deliberate conclusion or conscious choice. It is a mental sensation that happens to us.

    The importance of being aware that certainty has involuntary neurological roots cannot be overstated. If science can shame us into questioning the nature of conviction, we might develop some degree of tolerance and an increased willingness to consider alternative ideas — from opposing religious or scientific views to contrary opinions at the dinner table.”

    My position, if I were a Mormon, would be say: I know that I feel that I know.
    Of course, one can work to nurture feelings. Objective facts, the basis of knowledge, are pretty unyielding.
    When one has doubts, one is questioning the veracity of fact claims. The next questions are:
    How do I verify these claims? and
    To what extent does it matter?

    I am looking forward to seeing how the Givens deal with these.

    Oh, and I love the poetic irony in the authors’ name – a synonym of axioms!

  • Robert Couch

    To start on a positive note, I love what the Givenses are doing with this book, helping the increasing number of Mormons who are struggling with doubt in various ways (despite finding much to like and embrace in Mormonism). There is a desperate need for this kind of a book and I vigorously applaud the book and the larger project it represents.

    Moreover, I really like the first three main points in the book, about the importance of paradigms, the limits of logical reasoning, and the inherently incomplete nature of faith.

    I have two main grumbles so far, albeit small in comparison to the large accomplishments of the book (IMHO):

    (1) Not defining doubt: The Givenses seem to conflate several ideas that I wish they’d distinguish between. They seem to have in mind doubt as a form of questioning or seeking (or failing to seek) better understanding. That’s a reasonable working definition, but it leaves unaddressed a whole host of very important and interesting questions regarding doubt. For example, can we distinguish between positive doubt and negative or excessive doubt? To actively doubt my wife’s love for me (and/or my love for her) would be to court (Shakespearean) tragedy–and I think something similar can occur in our relationship to the religion. I worry the Givenses’ won’t be distinguishing between crucially different kinds of questioning, doubting, and seeking, which is an opportunity missed (if I’m right).

    (2) Ignoring the use of reason: To echo what others have said, the Givenses discuss the abuses of reason, but I kept waiting to see more discussion of the positive or constructive uses of reason (as their chapter title promises). The Givens acknowledge the accomplishments of science, but they reinforce a dichotomous way of thinking about logical or scientific reasoning, on the one hand and topics of art, morality, and love on the other. In so doing, they ignore various disciplines and modes of thinking that try to bridge this divide like ethics, psychology, sociology, religious studies, etc. I worry that this lack of engagement engagement will be a theme throughout the book.

  • On moral intuition, I recommend reading Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self. I think he presents a reasonable philosophical response to the hyperplural notion that there isn’t a stable moral intuition. While I don’t think they necessarily make it terribly clear in their book (which is, after all, written for lay LDS), I think the Givenses are drawing on Taylor’s philosophical foundation.

  • Richard Morgan

    I share your concern, Robert, but in the last analysis,we all know there’s going to be some sort of “happy ending”. We know where it’s all going, ultimately. The book is dealing with an embedded secondary theme – having doubts about doubt. I imagine that in the end, the reader is intended to feel more at ease with their doubts.
    After many long years, in 1978 is was suddenly OK to be black.
    Soon it will be OK to be a woman.
    On account of the inevitable foregone conclusion, I trust that the Givens couple will enable LDS to feel OK about having doubts.
    I keep having this rather naughty thought – that for some, this could backfire.
    But, more on that later.

  • I will admit, I am liking this book quite a bit–more than the Givens’ previous one, in fact.

    First off, I love (and certainly believe) the assertion that questions aren’t the problem, but the problem arises when they’re asked from the wrong perspective (ie, when essentially we’re telling God how to answer them). In my personal experience as an openly gay Mormon, God did start answering my prayers, but not until I stopped telling Him what to do.

    Second, I found the discussion on B of M accuracy really timely. Last weekend when I was in Boise, I met with a large group of interfaith leaders and spent a couple of hours talking about Mormonism (and how being LGBT fits into that religious framework). Naturally, among the first questions I got was on the accuracy of the B of M.

    Was it really discovered by a young man buried in a hillside? Did the history unfold exactly as it’s written–when scientific data now support the contrary? In the face of such evidence, how true can it be?

    My response was pretty simple: It doesn’t matter. I really don’t care about the genesis of the B of M. I don’t particularly worry about the historical dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s. Independent of whether or not it’s exactly accurate from a history perspective or whether or not Joseph Smith was guided to uncover it on golden plates in a hillside–those things don’t really matter to me. What does matter, however, and matter a great deal is the book is an amazing portrayal of human behaviors-specifically pride, and the danger therein. Hidden inside that repeated lesson, inside that pride-cycle, is a secret each and every human should be mindful of, independent of brand of religion or none at all.

    The lesson is that when our pride and ego become our ruling influence, we have lost our way. We are off the path of where our Savior wants us to be, and out of synch with the harmony of the human family. In the book, when the Nephites become prideful, they oppress others–they harm other human beings. As our Buddhist fellows teach us, they lose the capacity to see themselves in others, and focus instead on the external labels we place on one another that separate us from the rest of our human family: black, white, straight, gay, wealthy, poor. Instead of “brother and sister of equals,” the paradigm becomes one of inequality, love of power, love of ego.

    That has great relevance for any group of humans, and I worry especially so for us as Mormons. We are not immune from that lesson–in fact, I suspect the lesson was chiefly written as a warning to us. We are no longer a group of poor struggling pioneers heavy-laden with hand carts, crossing the plains from place to place to find a safe haven. By and large, we are wealthy, we are included, we have vast communities of support–and it is now our egos that stand in need of a check, when we begin to enforce our will upon others, instead of recognizing that non-Mormons have a Savior too, and it isn’t us. We are often to quick to remind ourselves that we are “God’s chosen people.” We are slow to recognize that even if that’s true, “chosen” doesn’t always mean “favored.”

    So are the claims of the genesis of the book true? Is it historically accurate? My answer: I don’t care. Maybe. But maybe not. Either way, there is a great lesson wrapped inside those pages, and a lesson of which I have a personal testimony. I suspect if more of my fellows had the same testimony we’d find a much more peaceful coexistence not only with our fellow humans, but among ourselves.

  • Jon Young

    Mitch, Thank you so much for sharing that message to our group and I’m sorry I came late and missed this part. You have an unusual ability to see the good in people and beliefs without overtly or covertly labeling anyone “the evil other.” You are a great embassador for our church to any group of people.

    I’d only add that I feel the historical truthfullness of the Book of Mormon, or any work considered scripture, may be a necessary part of utilizing it effectively. In my experience, belief in scripture as a factual account has greater influenctial power or meaning than if it were considered merely fiction. Courestly and respect of epestemic resoning goes both in favor of literalism and figurativism. The difficulty is allowing both to peacefully coexist within a faith group, or even an individual. I believe we can do this by not allowing faith or history to coerce the beneficial use of the other. We can allow others to hold to either view (or combination of them) without fear of ridicule or judgment.

  • Jon Young

    ^ having a bad spell day. “Courtesy and respect for epestemic reasoning…”

  • Richard Morgan

    I can no longer follow this discussion. It is genuinely too upsetting for me, Mitch.
    It just about broke my heart to read “It doesn’t matter. I really don’t care about the genesis of the B of M. I don’t particularly worry about the historical dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s.”
    You see, you’re the third person in two weeks to tell me that the historical reality of the LDS Church just “doesn’t matter.”
    Concerning the historical details, last week a lovely-sounding lady answered me on her blog saying, “So yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying — it doesn’t matter.”

    I understand this reaction – the feel-good aspect of LDS life obliges people to go into denial concerning the behaviour of the founder of their Church, and subsequent events.

    Neither you, nor any other LDS would accept or apply that attitude anywhere else in their lives.

    Try this mind experiment – if you dare. (Seriously.)
    Your teenage daughter tells you she’s going to get married. The man in question already has several other wives. You know that this man has exerted psychological pressure on your daughter, evoking the will of God and obedience. You know that he has sent married men on distant missions in order to marry their wives in their absence.
    Just how comfortable would you feel about that?
    Would you even invite him to dinner?
    Of course not. You’re right – it’s unthinkable.
    I don’t blame you for having to bury your head in the sand and claim that it doesn’t matter.
    I am leaving this discussion because I suspect that there will be other happy, hand-waving, blinkered expressions of the relative unimportance of some of the more grotesque aspects of the origins of the Church.
    Alas, there is no possibility of genuine discussion and exchange with people who are in denial. I cherish truth and reality. You cherish feeling good – regardless of the rest.
    Like Slartibartfast in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” who said, “I’d much rather be happy than right any day. ”

    I am sad to leave this panel discussion, especially since I have just paid Amazon 10.98€ for the Kindle version of the book. But my fragile old heart could not handle any more exposure to unashamed avowals that truth doesn’t matter.
    It does.
    I would rather die with the truth than live with lies.

    To end on a more positive note, I suspect that for several readers, the purpose of this book is going to misfire. Some people will be given the courage to own up to themselves about their doubts. Maybe to others. And they will do what everybody does in any situation where there are serious doubts – go on a fact-finding mission. As Christ did not say, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you very uncomfortable, before eventually setting you free.”


  • Jon Young


    I very muched enjoyed your first comment and don’t want to see you go!

    You are being a little harsh on Mitch. You’re right that the Book of Mormon’s historical accuracy and Joseph Smith’s personal behaviors matter. They matter very much, but for something to “matter,” it MUST matter to something else.

    For example, what does it matter to you that I am left handed? What would it matter to you that I lied about being left handed? I’d certainly be a liar and you’d be misled, but that knowledge is pretty useless to you, unless you’re my dad trying to teach me to throw a ball.

    So, does the Book of Mormon’s historical authenticity matter to the disucussion of how the book influences others? Regardless of whether the Book of Mormon is a fraud or not, the book has had a temendous influence on millions of people who give it a high degree of authority on spiritual matters. The only facts necessary are the book, the people, and the perception it is true (as opposed to the actuality it is historically true) and this combination’s resulting effect on mankind. If that effect is good and useful, we keep it and love it.

    The historocity of The Book of Mormon has not been shown to “matter” to archeologists. The Book’s authenticity does “matter” to certain claims made about it by Joseph Smith, but the historical authenticity does not necisarily “matter” to those who find personal inspiration and insight into the human condition in its pages.

    Although not necessary, I believe the Book of Mormon can be seen as historically accurate for personal and spiritual reasons while currently a work of fiction for historical reasons.

    Consider this quote from the Salon article you refrenced above:

    “F. Scott Fitzgerald described an easy-to-accept but difficult-to-accomplish solution: “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This juggling act requires us to keep in mind what science is telling us about ourselves while acknowledging the positive benefits of nonscientific or unreasonable beliefs. Each opposing position has its own risks and rewards; both need to be considered and balanced within the overarching mandate — above all, do no harm.”

    We can both believe, truly believe the Book of Mormon historically for spiritualities sake, while not considering it true in situations where that truth does not seem to “matter.”

  • I like many things about this book. For one thing, the Givenses have good (i.e. similar to mine :)) taste in poetry, and there is some lovely writing here. A book about truth and beauty ought to aim to perform, rather than just describe those qualities, and this one succeeds admirably in many ways.

    The opening metaphor of the false keyhole seems terribly apt. It might be better if the method of subterfuge had included dozens of false keyholes, because that is the situation we find ourselves in–there isn’t a single key/keyhole combination that will unlock the truth for us, and it is, in part, the belief or hope that there is One True Key that gets Mormons into trouble. I do think that the encouragement to try to get a view of one’s questions from above and outside the received Mormon framing of those questions is an excellent starting point. But it would help if the authors also acknowledged that it’s impossible to ever really get outside one’s frame of reference–and that they themselves are constrained by their own invisible assumptions. The possibility that the door will never open in this life is a terror I think we’d do well to confront immediately.

    One of those assumptions that I see already in these first chapters is that doubt is essentially an individual problem and can be worked out largely by an individual mind and heart. And of course this sort of individual, existential doubt is real, and can yield fruitfully to the kind of thinking they prescribe, but I don’t think it’s the primary kind of doubt contemporary Mormons are wrestling with–there is more pain and doubt around the ethics of keeping faith with an institution that insists on certainty, and occasionally behaves very, very badly, because of the high value it places on authoritative certainty. That is, prescribing epistemic humility for individuals without confronting the distorted reasoning that plagues the community limits the helpfulness of the approach.
    In the example of Levi Savage, for instance, they gloss over the fact that it was priesthood leaders claiming revelatory certainty who insisted on the late departure for the handcart companies. It was not choice between loyalty to his brothers and sisters in Christ and personal safety that Levi Savage faced; it was a choice between his conscience and a mistaken, unrighteous exercise of religious authority by a Mormon leader. Recognizing that Jesus’ gospel is sometimes discomfiting and costly is one thing; recognizing that the wickedness of flawed human beings claiming to be Jesus’ prophets will be an instrument of suffering is another thing entirely. The relationship between what the gospel of Christ requires and what membership in an earthly institution trying and perpetually, necessarily failing to instrumentalize that gospel for both institutional and individual flourishing is impossibly fraught, but these initial chapters might have been richer if they had provided not only the assertion that questions proliferate endlessly, but also the immediate _example_ of the authors’ working through of an impossible question or two and coming to terms with the frustration and grief of living in love and hope, even without certainty or comfort.

    Despite those criticisms, I think these chapters’ insistence that a pottage of certainty is not on the menu for Christians is tremendously helpful is terrifically helpful in a Church where wrestling the angel is sometimes regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime challenge, rather than a daily, hourly struggle, and in a cheerful community where we like to forget that Jacob was wounded and permanently crippled in the quest to know God and his own true self. These are some of my favorite passages:

    “Emotion is not a defect in an otherwise perfect reasoning machine.” (15)

    “In the most emphatic and urgent meaning of the word, love *reveals* truth. …Love alone reveals the full reality and value of another person.” (16-17)

    “…the human impulse toward the sublime and the artist’s revelation of the beautiful; love’s power to unlock the full splendor of the other, it’s blinding revelation of the infinite worth of the individual; and conscience, with its unwavering response to moral imperatives, its piercing protest against evil and gentle enticement to recognize the good–all these are living proofs that different ways of knowing exist. We employ them, we rely on them, and we trust in them.” (20)

    “…it is crucial to remember that cognitive dissonance lives on both sides of the faith divide, with believers and nonbelievers alike. A godless universe is hardly immune to the assaults on our mental equilibrium. …There is no escaping our fragmentary grasp on the deepest truths of our predicament, on either side of faith.” (36)

  • Oh, Richard, my friend, I’m so sorry. I had no offense in my heart when I wrote that, and I apologize that it did offend. I guess my point, more than anything, was that good can be found almost anywhere–the trick is for us to find it. Even in the example you gave–the man in question could not be one-dimensional.

    So I stand by my assertion that to me, the inaccuracies don’t matter. But I speak for myself and myself only here, and there is room for other interpretation.

    For the record, I rather like that Joseph Smith was a colorful character. I don’t condone his illegal behavior, his potential abuse of young women, or his rumored philandering. However, he still did do a very good thing. And ironically, I think we miss the true awe in that beauty when we as a faith whitewash his history and make him a shallow, one-dimensional demi-god. He was a human. He probably screwed up, and screwed up in a big way. But that’s the amazing part–our Savior still had room for him, and still had work for him. That’s a great lesson for each of us–no matter how badly we stumble, we can still be instruments for good in the hands of our Savior. We miss the mark when we drive home the message that we have to perfect–or close–to matter to God.

    If our Savior waited for only perfect people to do His work here, He wouldn’t get very much done.

    Richard, I’m a big advocate of inclusiveness inside this faith. And that doesn’t just mean people who share my viewpoints and opinions. I can’t very well be someone who advocates for inclusiveness and genuine Christlike love if I’m not among the first to grant it. There is room for you here. Please stay.

  • For those who are unsatisfied with the way that the GIvenses articulated the relationship between reason and emotion, what other resources would you recommend? Who has articulated it better? For me, Henry James’ “The Will to Believe” comes to mind. What else?

  • Mitch said: ‘It doesn’t matter. I really don’t care about the genesis of the B of M. I don’t particularly worry about the historical dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s. Independent of whether or not it’s exactly accurate from a history perspective or whether or not Joseph Smith was guided to uncover it on golden plates in a hillside–those things don’t really matter to me.”

    Well said, and I wholeheartedly agree. I, too, have become rather indifferent about historicity. My belief in what I consider to be the true aspects of Mormonism is not dependent on the historicity of the scriptures that Joseph Smith produced or the literal validity of Joseph’s claims to have been visited by Divine and/or angelic beings. Instead, I find myself drawn to some of Joseph’s teachings because they make sense to me in my mind and heart (or, as the Givenses would say, through my reason and emotion working together). In other words, even if it were conclusively proven that the Book of Mormon is not at all historical and that God and Jesus did not appear to Joseph Smith, I would still believe that we are all eternal beings (D&C 93:29), that there is a God who weeps over human suffering (Moses 7:28–29), that God did not create the universe ex nihilo and therefore did not create evil, that God is bound by natural law and therefore could “cease to be God” (Alma 42:13), that God’s “work and glory” (Moses 1:39) is to see us “have a privilege to advance like himself,” etc.

  • I meant William James, not Henry James. I always get those two mixed up. Sheesh …

  • Tom, thanks. I’m not a scriptorian (nor do I aspire to be!) but you summed it up for me. There is good to be found in the book, independent of genesis.

    And I don’t think my position is in any way denial. Recognizing that there are likely inaccuracies in how we think it came to be, yet still recognizing the good in it is kind of the opposite of denial. In my mind, denial would be to accept it wholesale without regard to understanding the discrepancies–or to reject it wholesale because of them.

    Some good friends of mine and I got into a little intellectual exercise a few months back about Buddha. One asserted Buddha was actually Jesus. The other asserted they were two distinct individuals. My take: Maybe Buddha was Jesus, maybe he wasn’t. Either way, he sure had some good stuff to say and I’m not one to turn a blind eye to the good in anyone or anything.

  • Richard Morgan

    Jon and Mitch,
    You two guys are the absolute epitome of the one thing that irks me the most about the LDS church. You both seem to be really nice, loving, intelligent, thoughtful people.
    The one thing that has remained with me over the last forty years is the fact that an astonishingly high percentage of LDS are truly good people. Likeable, sincere, caring, compassionate, humble. People who make me feel better about myself. (Aye, there’s the rub. Ask my psychoanalyst.)
    Jon and Mitch – your comments to me are brimming with love. Without any sufficient evidence – I believe you. But it gets worse. You make well-reasoned, valid points. You are coherent.
    If I could put on an act and pretend that I “had a testimony”, just in order to be able to be with people like you – I would do it. (I wouldn’t be the first!) But the church is not just a social club. Church meetings are not sessions of group therapy. Policing and censorship are everywhere.
    The fact that certain members can get together, in spite of the Church organisation, and experience compassion, support, mutual understanding and maybe some forms of emotional healing bears witness to the strong probability of the Church being entirely man-made.
    Humble mortals put it all together.
    Human beings modify it over time.
    It would be hard to obtain a “testimony” in the face of such evidence.
    Yes – I am a relatively cantankerous, nit-picking, critical old man. Which is another reason for believing that I have no place in this discussion.

    I think that doubts are not only normal and healthy (like masturbation, laughter, “lusting in the heart, etc) but they generate a creative tension, a solution-seeking dynamic.
    But doubts, like masturbation, laughter and lusting in the heart (fantasizing) have been condemned by the Church as sinful. That B.R. McConkie can officially declare that doubts are of the devil, for me, invalidates all the rest.

    In 1973 I had a companion who was very much like you guys – Jon, Mitch and Jana. In the best possible way. He told, with genuine humour, a story that was devastating for me, a British convert.
    He was from Utah, Nth generation Mormon. He recounted the excitement of receiving a call from God to serve a mission in France. Then two days later he received, in the mail, a second call from God – this time to serve a mission in Arizona.
    Not being sure about precisely what God wanted of him, he managed to speak to some GA on the phone. He explained the problem, and the reply he got was deliciously American and unceremoniously practical: “Where do you want to go?”
    “France,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation.
    “In that case, you are called to serve a mission in France,” was the reply. Eighteen months later, he was my wonderful, patient, humble companion. In France, of course.
    The cognitive dissonance generated by this situation would have left me weeping on the floor in a corner, tearing up my temple recommend.

    Today, at the age of 68, I still have difficulties with cognitive dissonance and “the willing suspension of disbelief.” I can’t dismiss the depravity of J. Smith as just his being a “colourful character”. (Our prisons are full of colourful characters!)
    So, yes, I need to part company with the Jons, Mitches, and Janas of the on-line Mormon community. Much as I enjoy the attention, I must acknowledge that I have nothing constructive to contribute.

    It really is “goodbye”, guys.

  • Tom,

    All of William James’ works are great and liked “The Varaties of Religious Experiences” the most on this topic. “Pragmatism” and “The Meaning of Truth” circle around the issue too.

    Jonathan Haidt did a great job relating reason and feeling in “The Happiness Hypothesis” and “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided on Religion and Politics.” Haidt’s premeses might be summerized as: People don’t act by their capacity to reason, but merely excuse themselves and find fellow believers with it. What you think will make you happy, won’t. What you think you know by reason, you don’t. Without intuition or “feelings”, you can’t make decisions. (As evidenced by brain damaged people who lose their emotions)

    Leo Tolstoy’s “A Confession” is refrenced by James in “The Variaties of Religious Experience” and felt very convincing to me when read entirely.

    Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” shed some light on the correct use and importance of both intuition and reason (the “fast” and the “slow”).

  • DougH

    Getting to this a little late, I’ve been busy, but I, too, was struck by the “To whom shall we go” response. I had never considered it that way. I don’t consider myself a philosopher, but I enjoy the subject. I’ve been listening to a lecture series called “Reason & Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages,” and found it interesting that they were debating the same question then – how far can human reason take you? How much are you going to demand be answerable by reason before you accept the truth of something? What about sources of knowledge other than reason? (Though then the offered alternate source was tradition rather than personal revelation.)

    I was also struck by the story of the nun that prayed for decades without getting an answer because she was asking the wrong question. We can do the same thing today, by basing our questions on things we think we know that turn out not to be so. As an amateur historian I know how much faulty knowledge can screw you up. When I was (much) younger I read how the ancient Minoans were a peaceful matriarchy, because their cities had no walls. Now, we think it’s more likely that their cities had no walls because they had a fleet that dominated the eastern Mediterranean, and only when they failed to keep up that fleet did the Mycenaeans successfully invade. Earlier it was believed that the ancient Mayans were peaceful, now it seems possible that there was near-constant war between cities. For the ancient cultures, ESPECIALLY in Mesoamerica, we have to constantly re-evaluate what we know. And what we know today may turn out to be wrong tomorrow.

    And our own prejudices get in the way, as well. In another lecture series about Jesus and the Gospels, the professor started out by saying he was going to focus on the Jesus of literature rather than the “historical” Jesus, because we know so little about the Jesus of “history” that each scholar that looks for that artefact ends up with a Jesus that he’s comfortable with. And one thing’s for certain, if you are comfortable with every facet of your understanding of God, Jesus, the Church, or the Book of Mormon, then you are comfortable with your own mental construct rather than the truth.

    So we need to stick to the necessary basics – God created the Earth for our benefit, Jesus died for the sins of the world and rose again on the third day, Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon and restored God’s Church, etc. Having answers for all our other questions is good, but demanding that we have them so that we may have faith is asking for nothing but trouble. As Jacob wrote:

    “Behold, my brethren, he that prophesieth, let him prophesy to the understanding of men; for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls. But behold, we are not witnesses alone in these things; for God also spake them unto prophets of old.

    “But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble.” (Jacob 4:13-14)

  • kevin jk

    i may be jumping the gun, but I read about this book last week on the FairMormon Blog. The Blog article discussed another chapter dealing with the issue of God allowing his prophets to make mistakes. Read about it here –

    I hope this sneak peak will encourage others to participate in the discussion.

  • Tom, you asked for it–here’s a rather longish response to your request for recommendations of books or authors dealing with rationality and emotion.

    First, I second Jon’s recommendation of Jonathon Haidt’s book (esp. The Happiness Hypothesis, I’ve heard good things about the other one but I haven’t read it, and I’d be slightly concerned that the political topics are a distraction from the topic of emotion and rationality). In general, I think positive psychology is doing really interesting work that bridges the gap between science and emotion.

    Another nice little book in this general vein, but from more of an organizational behavior / management perspective, is Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (there’s a short little RSA Animate video that’s will give you the gist).

    In a more theological vein, James K. A. Smith is a contemporary evangelical scholar whose very readable book Desiring the Kingdom makes a nice argument for returning to pre-Enlightenment conceptions of theology (like Augustine and Aquinas) in order to get out of our heads and to return to the importance of desire and emotion in our theology and religious practices. (Jamie Smith has also recently written an excellent little compendium of A Secular Age, a book by Charles Taylor–an author Sam mentioned in a comment above; this book nicely explores ways we might move beyond the secular rationalism of our modern age by looking to premodern/presecular thinkers.)

    In an even more philosophical vein, I am a big fan of Alasdair MacIntyre’s work. His 3 main books after After Virtue deal quite explicitly with questions pertaining to the relationship between communal/moral values and our understanding of rationality. The titles of the books hint at their content: Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, and Dependent Rational Animals. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent summary of the arguments in these books (the IEP entry by Chris Lutz, that is). Also, building on MacIntyre’s work, the book The Retrieval of Ethics by Talbot Brewer offers a rather technical philosophical account of desire that challenges the three “dogmas of desire,” as he terms them, that plague modern conceptions and theories of human agency. This is a fantastic book, but it’s quite dense and very academic.

  • Robert Couch

    Jana’s OP asks, “Does the LDS Church encourage us to be comfortable with loose ends or does it perhaps overemphasize the idea that ‘real’ faith will eventually culminate in perfect knowledge?”

    I suspect anyone reading here has experienced within Mormonism a distasteful zeal for false tidiness. That’s why the Givenses’ book is so badly needed, and it’s so great that Deseret Book(!) has published it.

    However, despite the ways that Mormon leaders have themselves propagated this view, I think there are many resources within Mormonism that can be marshalled into the service of a conception of faith that embraces its loose-end nature.

    In this vein, I think the Givenses are at their best when they draw on specifically Mormon resources — esp. scriptural or General Authority quotes — to bolster their argument, that seeking new ways of understanding God and Mormonism is itself deeply consonant with the most important tenets and texts of Mormonism. Although many Mormon leaders and cultural currents have promulgated the opposite view, I think it’s best to view these as confused conceptions of faith. (Adam Miller’s essay in the book An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32 is an excellent scripturally based argument to this effect.)

  • Dave

    Does the LDS Church encourage us to be comfortable with loose ends, or does it perhaps overemphasize the idea that “real” faith will eventually culminate in perfect knowledge?

    I’m not worried as much about the “loose ends” as I am about the outright lies the Church tell members. There seems to be at least one lie in every lesson I have ever read or taught. I normally skip over them, but are they there at all? It’s the same with missionary work. Why lie about how Smith translated the plates? I hate hearing, “if he put a rock in a hat and then put his face in the hat, why did you hide that from us? Maybe we could have believed it, but the fact that you lied to us about it is too much.”

    What are the questions or doubts you still have about Mormonism, and how comfortable are you with the possibility that you may never get an answer?

    The biggest issue I have isn’t the gospel or the doctrine, it’s the Church’s rejection of both. We have had how many “prophets, seers, and revelators,” yet none of them can translate lost scripture, only 2 have added to the D&C and only one of them with a revelation. They blame it on us, yet the early church members were just like us. I see this station as a calling, as they clearly don’t have the power. If they did blacks would never have lost the priesthood and we’d have the brass plates by now. Lord knows we need them.

    How far can logic take us in evaluating the truth claims of the Church?

    I believe that logic and reason, combined with the spirit, can take us all the way.

    How much inaccuracy can you personally accept in LDS history, theology, or scripture, believing that “different ways of knowing” point overall to the LDS message being beautiful or inspiring?

    I think the flaws that the Church trys to hide from us ARE what make it beautiful and inspiring. I think that trying to pretend like all the Church leaders are as perfect as Jesus make them look flawed as they become unreal and unbelievable.

    What do you think of the assertion that “true religion is inseparable from suffering”?

    I think that depends on the suffering. We all have doubts and trials to go through. That said, the Church videos make it seem like all Mormons are upper middle class people with perfect lives, and that is not realistic at all. It just makes us look fake and too perfect for anyone to sign up.

  • That’s an important point about the Savage story. And yes to this: ” . . . there is more pain and doubt around the ethics of keeping faith with an institution that insists on certainty, and occasionally behaves very, very badly, because of the high value it places on authoritative certainty.”

    You’ve identified a theme in the book that I see as both a strength and a weakness: the responsibility the Givenses place on the individual for finding truth. One of the chapters coming up talks about how Mormons want to have an answer for every single problem, all tied up with an official bow from Church HQ. And they present some important quotes from church leaders saying that it’s not the Church’s job to have an answer for every question. What the book does not do is present the very puzzling tradition on the other side which has told Mormons that yes, of COURSE the gospel (and by extension in this manner of thinking, the Church) has an answer to all their problems and questions. All of which reinforces the heresy that expects the Church to be a perfect vehicle of divine truth.

    So yes, I’m all for the individual bearing the responsibility to be a truth-seeker, even when the path is difficult and lonely. But Kristine is right that many people aren’t leaving the Church because of their doubts concerning abstract theological questions, but because of the very painful concrete reality of the Church’s own history of autocratic (and sometimes damaging) behavior.

  • Thanks; I’ll check it out. I think the chapter on prophetic authority is chapter 5, which we’ll get to on October 24.

  • Charles Embleton

    I disagree that atheism has trouble accounting for goodness. Atheism explains goodness the same way it explains evil, they both come through people. There are many reasons outside of the divine to be good, to treat people well, to live devotional and connected lives. I feel that atheists also celebrate goodness and beauty and love in much the same way that theists do.

  • Charles Embleton

    I agree with your analysis, particularly your middle paragraph. We should be careful with how far reason and logic carry us. Likewise, intuitive moral faculty also has a tendency to lead us astray. Neither path should command our allegiance and using the one to condemn the other should work in both directions. If we find ourselves in a place where our moral intuitions and our reasoning are at odds we are likely dealing with novel situations where throwing out either one of these tools is probably a bad idea. This kind of disagreement between reason and moral intuition is a sign of a lack of understanding, and indicates that we should proceed with extreme caution.

  • Jon Young

    I won’t suggest no lying has ever occurred in the church, but I often find the word is stretched to include honest mistakes or details unnecessary to go into, as when political candidates mud-sling each other. For example, I wouldn’t consider it a lie by the church when a story is repeated inaccurately because a few people misrepresented the story initially or details are omitted to simplify the message.

    I typically see a red flag with “angry partisan” written on it when people use the word “lie” when alternate explanations are plausible that don’t include intent to deceive.

  • Jon Young

    Did Joseph Smith claim to never translate the way church publications envision it? Did he ever claim to different methods that may include the standard church representation? There a lot of questions to answer to cover the nuances before throwing the “lie” accusation so loosely.

  • Jon, thanks for the suggestions — I appreciate it!

  • Robert, thanks for the suggestions — I appreciate it!

    By the way, I strongly agree with your earlier comment: “There is a desperate need for this kind of a book and I vigorously applaud the book and the larger project it represents.”

  • I like the book, but I wish they’d explore certain topics in a little more depth instead of giving drive-by glances. The brief cites to Gadamer, for example. Yes, he provides a nice model for productive conversation and dialogue, with each participant aware that his or her opinions and convictions are incomplete. Participants are (as the Givens note) “open” in the sense that new information and new ideas may modify pre-existing opinions and convictions. Participants hold pragmatic rather than dogmatic views, one might say. The result may not be consensus, but both parties might (should?) shift their views as a result of the dialogue. This whole approach (which Gadamer applies to encounters of readers with texts, not direct conversation) merits a couple of pages, not a couple of lines, particularly given the Mormon propensity for holding dogmatic views and *not* being open in the sense described by the Givens.

    An alternative description of the same approach to dialogue might be Krister Stendahl’s notion of “holy envy”: We should all be willing to recognize elements in the religious beliefs or practice of another faith that we wish were part of our own faith or were better represented in our own faith. That seems like a good description of the openness that the Givens were recommending in the early pages of the book.

  • lauri

    Faith has always included trusting in things that we do not understand fully or sometimes even partly. To believe in a Person that you do not see or hear or touch is the first leap of faith. To believe in a Man who said He was the Son of a God–the God and a virgin mortal woman, to believe He was born in a cave and angels heralded His birth, to believe that He could somehow Atone for the world’s sins–to feel all of our pains and to now possess the power to comfort, bless, heal, and eventually raise us all from the dead… are for lack of better words–CRAZY to believe… Hard to believe.. To believe enough to align your life with His supposed teachings. It seems to me that we swallow a camel and choke on a gnat. or something like that… I think I would agree with living more like Mother Theresa— she was so busy serving and loving the neediest people that she did not have time to doubt. What is doubt? What do we doubt? I would say I doubt myself more than God.. I have questions.. lots! But the more I ask believing that He will answer…. He does. As I write them down… and study… and seek to understand… I really do get answers. I lived without the Restored Gospel for 18 years in a broken home full of doubt and despair. When I received the gospel by two sister missionaries… I have no words to accurately describe how my life changed. God wants us to question and seek for answers. It is the process of life… how true learning takes place.

  • Scott Roskelley

    comfortable with loose ends? A few are just basic details prophets should be able to ask god and get answers to 1) what was the date when the Melchizedek priesthood was restored, and why so little taught about priesthood restoration for many years? 2) who was this second Elias who restored the dispensation of Abraham and keys of celestial marriage – shouldn’t we know who held the keys originally which are conferred upon temple sealers? others are more difficult like the reconciliation of organic evolution with theology: i.e. ebola is a virus which is very old with an ancient origin from 20M years ago. As a faith we have to be able to reconcile creation, fall, and atonement principles with the facts of organic evolution, geology, cosmology.
    What are the questions or doubts you still have about Mormonism? I hate the fanny alger secret barn sex, marinda hyde married while husband on mission, sylvia sessions married while already married, and mary heron first frigging, + lying about it + section 132 or else “she shall be destroyed” abyss. It makes it nearly impossible for me to sing the hymn “praise to the man” any more. Help! Please someone help me with this. Then when E. Anderson says that this is a rorschach test with my interpretation of facts a mirror for my own life this just makes me mad.
    “true religion is inseparable from suffering”? I just finished reading Jacques Lusseyran, and agree that it is in the most difficult suffering that we find this “light of Eärendil”, and vision for future action to reach out through technology discovery and within ourselves to serve and lift others out of suffering.

  • “I think I would agree with living more like Mother Theresa— she was so busy serving and loving the neediest people that she did not have time to doubt.”

    Well, not exactly. Mother Teresa was crippled with doubt during almost her entire life of faith, yet she continued to prioritize service over doubt. Shortly after arriving in Calcutta to follow Christ’s leading to serve the poor there, she stopped hearing from God. The sweet communion she had enjoyed in her earlier days as a nun abrutply stopped. That spiritual desolation lasted not months, not years, but decades — until the end of her life in 1997.

    The fact that she DID experience such dark and heavy doubts, yet refused to capitulate to the darkness, makes her even more of a saint in my opinion.

  • lauri

    Thank you for the response. I would love to know more about her life.. you inspire me to research more.. Doubt did not debilitate her I suppose.
    If doubt propels one to search.. then it is beneficial. If doubt ceases one to search, then it is detrimental. I always say… always question; never doubt.
    Belief is just more powerful. Focus on the positive; there is power in positivity. Not sure why… but there just is.

  • Richard Morgan

    Lest we forget:
    Oct 12,1989
    Deseret News reports that representative of Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company confirms that Utah has highest per-capita use in nation of anti-depressant Prozac.

    I am just amazed that nobody seems to have spotted the elephant in the room concerning the apparent intuition/ reason dichotomy. I keep reading that the problem is that people haven’t “understood” the issue and/or the paradigms.
    But,hang on – when you eventually understood, actually you have used your….reason.
    The Givens’ entire book presents facts – points of view, perceptions, ideas etc. In other words – information. This information is processed by the reader’s reasoning faculties.
    It’s Reason all the way down, whether you like it or not, guys.

  • Jon Young


    First, welcome back!

    Utah does have a high rate of anti-depressant use. To the person inclined to feel the LDS church is a burden, reason explains to them the anti-depressant use is proof the LDS church is a burden.

    However, that’s reason doing its job confabulating reasons to uphold our intuitive judgment. There are plenty of other reasons one may suppose anti-depressant use is high in Utah:

    * If Mormonism is a contributing factor, they don’t drink alcohol as much and use church-approved medication under professional care instead.
    * Doctors in Utah are more likely to over prescribe
    * Medicating for depression has less social taboo in Utah.
    * Utah does not spend enough on social programs to help the poor.

    I pretty much made these up, but my point is that it’s easy to come up with an hypothesis and quickly take it as truth because reason itself is your intuition’s paid lawyer who always argues your case.

    Psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s books (The Happiness Hypothesis, and The Righteous Mind) do a great job of explaining how reason is not in full control and has very limited ability to influence our intuition. Those who elevate reason above all and claim to its overriding influence (esp. religious fundamentalists and militant atheists) are themselves mostly slaves to their intuition. According to David Hume:

    “We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

    I find the Givens’ book gives a person suffering from cognitive dissonance (conflict of reason supporting two beneficial feelings) a new set of rational tools the mental lawyer of reason, who makes excuses for the passions, can use to comfort the soul.

    A person without cognitive dissonance such as someone who has a very strong identity/testimony of Mormonism and someone who very strongly believes Mormonism is evil will have no need of the Givens’ book and will not find much to persuade them since their intuition has no need of the rational tools to satisfy itself.

  • Jon Young

    …the Givens’ book gives a person suffering from cognitive dissonance a new set of rational tools that help the mental lawyer of reason comfort the soul.

  • Karen

    The Levi Savage story reminded me of Eric Facer’s essay winning story on this blog about the Pig Farm in Illinois. His dad voiced concerns that were ignored in the face of leadership feeling it was the right choice. What can we learn from that? Perhaps beware of pride, especially your own, in leadership roles.

  • Karen

    1. Yes we are encouraged to put loose ends on a shelf, but my belief or understanding has always been eventually – in the next life – we will find answers. The first one that comes up with kids is dinosaurs. I have heard just about every possible crazy explanation for dinosaurs. I don’t know the answer and I don’t think we will know in this life because it doesn’t matter to our personal salvation. So it sits as a loose end on a shelf waiting to be answered eventually.

    2. I have had many questions and doubts this year on basically everything and have had to basically rebuild my testimony. Church has changed as a result. I would like to return to teaching primary and sharing the basics with cute kids instead of sitting through teachers reading the manual in SS. It feels like torture sometimes.

    3. I want to skip the logic question because I don’t feel qualified to answer it.

    4. I believe there is more truth and goodness in the LDS church than in others. I still believe Pres. Hinckley when he said bring your goodness and let us add to it. I believe truth and goodness are found in other ways of believing and that we oversimplify some things in the name of keeping it simple for the lowest common denominator. Currently I am happy to be a believing member and teach my children but I am not going to actively seek proselyting opportunities. I’m going to focus on making myself a better person.

    5. I think we often accidentally present the idea that if you live the commandments you’ll be protected and nothing bad will happen to you. I don’t think the church actively teaches this but I have heard it out of the mouth of missionaries and other teachers. The implication is if you are having a hard time you are doing something wrong. That seems more like people with religion causing suffering from being judgmental.
    However I do believe value comes trials and that they can be tools to help us grow and improve as a person. If this is the way to interpret the quote than I agree.

  • Richard Morgan

    Excellent reply, Jon. Well thought-out and well-expressed.
    I agree with just about everything.
    In a different context I would have asked you what you meant by soul, but here most readers already have their own definition of that word. (Even though it is impossible to define “soul” without using the vocabulary of mind and/or emotions.)
    Well done.

  • Richard Morgan

    Yep. You’ve nailed it there, bro. Great image.
    As I said, it’s Reason all the way down.

  • Richard Morgan

    Karen – thank you for what is unquestionably THE best comment so far in this thread. Perfect.
    (Since I am a cantankerous ol’ geezer, it caused me almost physical pain to write that. Sometimes you gotta say what you gotta say. And I did. Now I need to go and lie down for a few days, build up my strength in order to continue being unpleasant elsewhere.)

  • Karen

    Yes. This.
    Story: When I was in college, I learned that all of my previous math teachers had lied to me. They had taught me there were 4 arithmetic operations when in fact there are only 2. Subtraction and Division do not exist separately and independently. They are just types of addition and multiplication. Furthermore, addition and multiplication are not universal operations but only exist because they have been defined that way. We could have established an entirely different number system where we always added 1 to every number sum and called that addition. Some may think I overreacted but I was really upset. Everything I knew about arithmetic seemed like it was based on a lie. I brought it up with almost everyone for weeks. Someone did suggest perhaps my elementary math teachers had not known any better and weren’t actually lying to me. This didn’t initially comfort me because I insisted they should have known better and should have taught the whole truth from the beginning. The discussion led to perhaps in an effort to help kids learn basic arithmetic, some facts are left out and simplified. I was still unsatisfied and grumbled for years. I eventually forgave my innocent elementary teachers for their lies and moved on to embracing our constructed number system and accepting it for what it was. I think there is a pretty similar connection to teaching the gospel.

  • Richard Morgan

    Keep posting.

  • Jon Young


    For soul, I just mean the sum of all our feelings and thoughts that make us human individuals.

    I may not have understood your “Reason all the way down” comment. To me, “Reason all the way down” leaves no room for our numerous feelings and intuitions as the ultimate providers of will to believe in something. If what you mean to say is that reason is essential to the Givens’ argument that reason itself is flawed, you’re correct.

    However, reason is powerful enough to pull the rug out from under itself. A Jewish Rabbi I know explained to me that creating logical constructs and assigning value to conceptual things creates paradox eventually. Do a web search for Russell’s Paradox and Godel’s incompleteness theorem. There’s plenty of examples out there. Any rational system we come up with is doomed to fail at some point and in some cases our other mental faculties need to step in when reason fails.

  • Richard Morgan

    You’re right.
    About everything.
    (And, er, I read Russell and Gödel a long time ago, but thanks anyway for the suggestion.)
    Your fine insights allow us to get to the essentials – in my opinion. What do we actually DO with all of this? I have my answers to this, Jon, but I’d love to hear your first, since you are apparently a Mormon believer.

    Hint: the brain is a search-and-find mechanism. Having found, it tends to switch off.

    I agree that the Givens’ book makes up for the inadequacies of revelation. (Sorry guys, i’ve finished it. I’m a binge reader.)
    Clearly LDS prophetic leadership leaves many issues unattended.

    I love cognitive dissonance! Paradoxes are a wonderful stimulant. Well, as long as they don’t cause me physical pain or prevent me from paying my bills.

  • DougH

    I’ve seen this referred to as lies-to-children, the stories we tell children because they lack the foundation to tell them how things *really* work. And it isn’t just children, of course, I imagine a mathematician trying to explain serious physics to someone with High School math would be in the same boat. I suspect much of what we get in scripture and revelation is much the same way – the creation accounts, for instance, and does anyone REALLY understand how the Atonement works? And how much is it necessary for us to understand?

  • Jon Young


    That’s a great example and the concept does apply to religious knowledge too.

    An example I like to use is the differences between Aristotelian physics, Newtonian physics, and Einstein’s Relativity Theory as they apply to gravity.

    Typically, we think that Aristotle was “wrong” for thinking objects fall proportionally to their weight because Galileo showed there was very little difference. Newton and Einstein in succession refined and updated more accurate models of gravitation. So, people may say everyone was wrong but Einstein. But wait, there are observed phenomena that don’t exactly match Einstein’s gravitational theory either. Should we then conclude Einstein is “wrong?”

    I think not. Aristotle’s view is pragmatically correct for our intuitive understanding. If I want to pick an object that falls faster, I’ll pick a heavier one. If I’m shooting a field artillery, I need Newton’s accuracy. If I’m predicting planet’s movement around the sun accurately, I may need Einstein’s theory.

    The point is, all theories are right when used appropriately and wrong when they don’t give the needed accuracy. The ultimate Truth (capital T) of gravity is not accessible to us, but we keep getting closer as we learn.

    By analogy, this model fits religious knowledge as well.

    Attempts by some to suggest science always changes and religious and moral truths never do are misapplying the the absolute Truth of one to the relative, pragmatic truth of the other. I believe both religion and science help us get closer to the absolute Truths, but we are mentally limited and must keep refining the models as we get closer. There are no lies or wrongness in that, only people who use knowledge at any level in non-beneficial ways is wrong.

  • Jeff P

    Samuel: I really like your thoughts, especially your last paragraph.
    You very succinctly describing what I have struggled to describe at times: why I and other modern people find the Christian faith so compelling, despite those things that are difficult to accept or understand.

  • Jeff P

    I remember hearing an excellent sermon, I forget the speaker, the topic of which was that ‘the opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is apathy’. The essence was that struggling with God does not grieve God, its giving up and not caring or bothering any more that grieves God.

    I’ve really liked a few books Jana has recommended (plus several she has written!), and she says this book will be of interest to her general Christian readers as well. Finding a way for faith, and reason, and doubt to all dwell together in our minds and souls, I think is a great challenge to modern people (definitely including myself). Juliana of Norwich was someone who helped me come to Christ, so to me, the book opened-up with a bang!

    So many interesting thoughts in the comments above, I very much look forward to following along, though I don’t know how much I’ll be able to contribute to the discussion.

  • Pingback: "I know the Church is true," and other Mormon muddles - Flunking Sainthood()

  • Pingback: On the dangers of idolizing Mormon prophets - Flunking Sainthood()

  • TomW

    “The fact that she DID experience such dark and heavy doubts, yet refused to capitulate to the darkness, makes her even more of a saint in my opinion.”

    Perhaps there’s a significant lesson here for doubting Latter-day Saints!

  • TomW

    Tom, is there any particular reason why you think members of a ward shouldn’t be uncomfortable with the Elders Quorum President, or any leader of any organization in the church for that matter, standing at the pulput and saying, “I cannot honestly say that I know God lives”?

    One of the primary tasks of leadership is to strengthen the flock. Jesus said to Simon, “when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” I would imagine it very difficult to do this if oneself is not first converted.

    Speaking for myself, if I were to be in such a position and find myself in such a condition as to question the very existence of God, I would ask for my release so that I could focus on that particular doubt with all my energy rather than standing at the helm of a quorum which looks to me for helping them to strengthen their own testimonies. And eventually, if I’m able to emerge from the fog and reaffirm my witness that God lives, hopefully I could help others who are in the place that I once was to recapture what they have lost. Some of the greatest, most powerful testimonies can come from those who have gone through a personal Gethsemane to reclaim (or claim for the first time) a witness of the living Christ and how it has changed their lives.

  • Richard Morgan

    Tom, for once you’re right. But even in being right, you succeed once again in being embarrassingly wrong.
    There is a lesson here – for everybody, not just those LDS whose honesty and intelligence have led them into the anguish of doubt.
    The lesson here is you. Your arrogant, puerile, offensive assumption that somehow, it is not possible to be charitable without having a “burning testimony.” Those who read comments like that will feel strengthened in their motivation to doubt. So thank you Tom, on behalf of those who need just one more piece of evidence that they are right to doubt. “By their fruits ye shall know them”? Yes. And sometimes those fruits are rotten to the core.

  • TomW

    Mitch, I loved these comments of yours: “I love (and certainly believe) the assertion that questions aren’t the problem, but the problem arises when they’re asked from the wrong perspective (ie, when essentially we’re telling God how to answer them). In my personal experience as an openly gay Mormon, God did start answering my prayers, but not until I stopped telling Him what to do” and “The lesson is that when our pride and ego become our ruling influence, we have lost our way.”

  • TomW

    I think all of us can grasp that the processing of thousands of mission calls can result in clerical errors, especially the further back you go. Personally I think receiving 2 calls would be a great story, and who wouldn’t want to be able to actually pick between two choices?! Hmmm. Let’s see. Switzerland or North Dakota?

  • Richard Morgan

    Let’s see if we can slip in a few more clerical errors among divine revelations.
    “Due to a clerical error, all revelations referring to polygamy are being recalled. ” for example.
    Maybe the first ever clerical error was placing Eve and the serpent in the same garden. Alas, no pre-lapsarian UPS to get that right.

  • Pingback: Mormonism and the "only true and living church" - Flunking Sainthood()

  • Pingback: Staying Mormon when God is silent - Flunking Sainthood()