(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) LDS author and scholar Terryl Givens’ “Letter to a Doubter” has been widely circulated since he presented the essay/lecture in a speech to a Mormon fireside last fall. The push to acknowledge doubt in one’s spiritual life, indeed to regard the “absence of certainty” as a component of true faith, has gained traction. In LDS General Conference earlier this month, Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland told those that believe, but do not know, that they are following Christ’s counsel, who said, “Be not afraid, only believe.” (Read)
Givens’ essay is fascinating, and ideally suitable for this era, which is seeing apostasies that result from intense, appropriate scrutiny to long-held assumptions. He begins by pointing out that some “doubts … are predicated on misbegotten premises.” As an example he relates the doubt that troubled late LDS leader B.H. Roberts, who fretted over the many languages of the American Indians. Roberts’ error, which he shared with many church leaders, was assuming that the Book of Mormon spanned the entire Americas. Givens writes, “Nothing in the Book of Mormon suggests that Lehi’s colony expanded to fill the hemisphere. In fact, … the entire history of the Book of Mormon takes place within an area of Nephite and Lamanite habitation some 500 miles long and perhaps 200 miles wide.“
The money quote from Givens is this: “You see, even brilliant individuals and ordained Seventies can buy into careless assumptions that lead them astray. That Joseph Smith at some point entertained similar notions about Book of Mormon geography only makes it more imperative for members not to take every utterance of any leader as inspired doctrine.” For longstanding Mormons, that is not necessarily an easy transition. Authority is big in the church, and the words of a general authority, let alone an apostle or prophet, can be a debate-finisher.
But understanding that all people are fallible, as well as a realization that doubt is a component of true faith, are main themes of Givens’ advice. It’s well-needed, because, the LDS Church is losing young adults who are confronted, in an Internet-archived world, with contradictions that can easily dent weak faith that relies on claims of certainty.
Givens offers five components of belief that can lead to doubt. In The Prophetic Mantle, he reminds readers that the Scriptures, including The Bible, are full of prophets who err. They include Abraham. Moses, Jonah, and Paul. Givens writes, citing LDS Prophet Spencer W. Kimball’s repudiation of Brigham Young’s Adam-God heresy as an example, “… when Pres. Woodruff said the Lord would never suffer his servants to lead the people astray, we can only reasonably interpret that to mean the prophet will not teach us any soul destroying doctrine—not that they will never err.” Again, this addresses the incorrect assumption that whenever a prophet speaks, he is absolutely correct. This weak idea is easily disproved — just read many of Brigham Young’s discourses — but it can do damage to persons who demand no errors in their belief.
Another issue Givens addresses is the mistaken idea that God was silent on issues of theology, and that the Christian church was inactive, for centuries prior to 1820, when Joseph Smith received the First Vision. Instead, Givens urges those with doubts to see Smith’s mission not as starting over, but “that of bringing it all into one coherent whole, not reintroducing the gospel ex nihilo.”
The third part of Givens’ essay addresses the idea of “Mormon Exclusivity,” or the assumption that in a world of several billion, a few million Mormons have a “monopoly on salvation.” Givens then points out something that I deeply appreciate about my religion, that it offers salvation to virtually all of God’s children. He writes, “… the most generous, liberal, and universalist conception of salvation in all Christendom is Joseph Smith’s view.” Givens stresses the theology that “here and hereafter, a multitude of non-Mormons will participate in the Church of the Firstborn.”
The final two points of Givens’ essay are a rebuttal to the idea that organized religion is unnecessary and the misbegotten assumption that belief automatically brings personal satisfaction and personal revelations of truth. He explains that the gospel of Christ is a message that invites inclusion, and sharing, and spiritual sociality that exists on the earth, will exist in the afterlife. He writes, “In this light, the project of perfection, or purification and sanctification, is not a scheme for personal advancement, but a process of better filling — and rejoicing in — our role in what Paul called the body of Christ …”
As for the personal feelings of failure, disappointment, despair, and general unhappiness, traits that do not go away even when we profess a belief, Givens advises “three simple ideas: be patient, remember and take solace in the fellowship of the desolate.”
As Givens continues, “Patience does not mean to wait apathetically and dejectedly, but to anticipate actively on the basis of what we know; and what we know we must remember.”
Memory is a powerful component of faith and belief. One reason we are taught to gather in organized churches is to participate in the Sacrament, where we remember what Christ’s sacrifice has done for us.
And, as Givens relates, membership in the Society of the Desolate is something to be proud of. Its members include Mother Teresa, whom Givens quotes, said “I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. … Heaven from every side is closed.”
If we take nothing else from “Letter to a Doubter,” please understand that even the most spiritual feel spiritually alone, not rarely but often. That too, is a test of faith.
In his conclusion, Givens urges that we be “grateful” for our doubts. He adds, “I am grateful for a propensity to doubt because it gives me the capacity to freely believe. … An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads.”
I lack the talents Givens possesses to do justice to his discourse/essay, so I urge readers, again, to read it carefully. It’s important that we not allow our doubt to be exploited by others, but use it as an advantage designed to strengthen our spiritual beliefs.