Doubting at Zion’s Gate

Doubting at Zion’s Gate January 12, 2015

Through happenstance, two of my recent reads synergistically centered on doubt and the thresholds of religion.

In the first, Elmer Miller’s Nurturing Doubt, the author reflects on his time as a Mennonite missionary in the Argentine Chaco (exactly where I served my LDS mission) and his later return as a professional anthropologist. He relates how his experience in ministering to the Toba, an ethnic group native to the Chaco, caused him to question the utility of the Christian message and American missions in improving the lives of the people with whom he worked. This doubt was exacerbated by his observation that the Tobas’ cultural world resonated more with the exuberant atmosphere of miracles and demons of the New Testament than with the staid, cessationist world of the Mennonite faith; his preaching carried along culturally contingent elements that seemed to frustrate Toba religious expression. Their conversion would be both to Christianity and to a less spirit-suffused world.[1] Facing these doubts, Miller eventually resigned from his mission and entered the field of anthropology. (This is, however, only the first half of the book. Stay tuned.)

The second, Terryl and Fiona Givens’s The Crucible of Doubt, argues that Mormons who, like Miller, find their faith challenged in some way need not emulate Miller and abandon their faith.[2] Whereas Miller details the causes and consequences of paradigm shifts in his own life, the Givenses identify particular religious and philosophical paradigms that often shift under Mormons’ feet. Their purpose is explicit: to guide their struggling coreligionists through these seismic disturbances without surrendering or collapsing.

Overall, it is a fantastic book and I heartily recommend it. However, one paradigm that the Givenses do not acknowledge probably contributes significantly to people leaving the LDS flock: that doubters cannot become Mormon. The Givenses, it appears, do not try to convince non-Mormons who have doubts about Mormonism to join the Mormon community; they are mainly trying to tell doubters who are already Mormon to stay in the fold.

To be fair, their goal is daunting as it is. Further, a particularly precocious and persistent investigator who knows English and has good member connections or a handle on the Bloggernacle could conceivably learn about, read, and take to heart The Crucible of Doubt. Barring this golden circumstance, however, nearly all investigators or prospective investigators derive their first (and too often only) views of Mormonism from missionaries.[3] The message these eager young men and women proclaim is, rightly but sometimes unhelpfully, straight from Preach My Gospel: pray to know the truth and, once you know that truth, get baptized.[4] However much the Givenses might deconstruct the meaning of knowledge, certainty, and faith, the Church’s official call seems to remain, “We want people who know.”[5] While directed toward investigators, members cannot help but hear the Correlated emphasis on knowledge, which can drown out other welcome, but anomalous, overtures to the conflicted among us.[6]

This is not to say that discourse on doubt should take center stage in missionary messaging, but rather that singularly focusing our proselytizing on knowledge can preemptively alienate significant numbers of people who would be willing, even eager, to help build Zion. Indeed, these people might have indispensable gifts; rejecting or passing over them might be as reasonable as the eye saying to the hand, “I have no need of thee.” As the Givenses note, “perhaps… there is a type of flower that can bloom only in the desert of doubt.”[7]

One such flower, I believe, germinated in the Chaco when Miller returned on his anthropological errand to study his former missionary charges. Surprisingly, he finds his turn to academics, as with religion, unsatisfactory: his initial hope for an objective, scientific outlook hollows out as he finds himself wading through conflicting theories of anthropological research. Paradoxically, he even discovers that as a missionary he was often able to engage the Toba more comprehensively and substantively than as an anthropologist. To missionaries the Toba could relate; anthropological data-gathering, in contrast, restricts socialization to interactions that have little tangible value to the Toba and, consequently, garner little curiosity and less substantive participation.

Later, while reviewing the journals of his time in the Chaco, Miller witnesses the flower’s bloom in hindsight. He concludes that “rather than produce stress,” the skepticism he came to foster about the perfection of any theory of existence, theological or anthropological, “appears to have opened up new perspectives on my field experiences that enabled me to write about them from alternative perspectives.”[8] Doubt, while unsettling, he came to see as an asset that encouraged salutary retrospection and adaptation. He came to adopt an identity as a perpetual pilgrim in the continent of knowledge, ever seeking to learn with a childlike teachability and mature incisiveness.

I worry that if the Church neglects to recognize the value of these gifts[9] outside its membership, it risks rendering impotent recognition of those gifts inside. To more effectively preach the gospel to a larger audience, then, and gain some who would not otherwise be interested, I propose that we should develop missionary messages for those for who, like Miller, might be apathetic toward or skeptical of claims of being the “one true church.” Feeling his tradition had little to offer in terms of truth or material good, Elmer Miller left his religious tradition behind; on the contrary, I believe Mormonism has much to offer, but we too frequently and too willingly hide the beautiful uniquenesses of our faith under a bushel.[10]

The Church realizes that it has to broaden its scope. Nevertheless, the apparent outreach to the atypical prospective investigator–the “I’m a Mormon” campaign–seems content with deconstructing negative stereotypes of Mormonism as suffocatingly conformist and homogeneous. In specifically religious registers, the campaign often only presents the most generically Christian and familial outlines of Mormonism. Thus, “I’m a Mormon” vignettes might lower viewers’ thresholds to conversion (a worthy goal!) but offer comparably little to entice.

“In the absence of spiritual voices in the night, or warm feelings in the bosom, or identifiable revelations of the sort,” the Givenses propose cherishing overlooked principles of Mormon theology that might “harmonize with the lived experience and stubborn claims our heart makes upon us.” These are the same five principles they expand upon in their earlier book, The God Who Weeps: the weeping God who feels our pain; the eternality of individual human essences (and a corollary I would add: divinization); the idea that mortality is “educative, purposeful, and ennobling; a “vision of human potential and worth that is universal” (including proxy ordinances for the dead); and a “belief that the relationships that are the end of all our human striving … endure.”[11] Notice that the appeal of these principles is not that they are incontrovertible from historical or propositional standpoints; instead, they are beautiful. Where talk of knowing might fall flat upon the Mormon disillusioned by seemingly traitorous imperfection in religious leaders or history or simply adrift in a sea of spiritual silence, perhaps beauty could illuminate.

I propose that not only should we emphasize these unique principles among those of us already in the Mormon fold, but that we should develop official programs for proselytization that do not reduce the value of Mormonism to epistemological certainty or social and personal edification.[12] If there are multiple reasons for remaining Mormon, maybe knowing the truth through prayer should be joined by alternative reasons for becoming Mormon. This would require us, of course, to find ways to speak to non-Mormons about topics that even among Mormons, conditioned by decades of ostracization from the broader American Christian community, are sometimes seen as taboo or are left unexplored despite broad acceptance: Zion, Heavenly Mother, temple ordinances, materiality of spirit, eternality of intelligence, and literal theosis all come to mind.

Without a doubt, openly preaching some of these doctrines would provide a cause of offense to some. In addition, preaching some of these doctrines beyond the barest outlines might require new official elaborations of theology.[13] And there will always be a message of attaining surer knowledge through the restored Gospel for those to whom that understanding appeals. However, I believe that we would find many, within our ranks and without, whose testimonies of beauty and love would draw them to modern-day revelation and the Latter-day Saint fold.[14] And if we bear the responsibility to go after the one gone astray, how much greater is our responsibility to the many who would join the flock if we but called to them.



[1] I found a similar trend on my mission in discussions with Pentecostals. Notwithstanding early Mormonism’s unapologetic proclamations of miracles and revival-style healings, modern Mormonism, if not cessationist, has pushed miracles so far into the private realm that we often only share them in insider contexts; we have also cultivated a sense that blessings of healing are not guarantees, but ritual wishes that God’s will be done, whether that be healing or death. Thus, when a Pentecostal man asked me how many people I, personally, had healed or raised from the dead, I was rendered silent not only because Mormons are loath to take credit for such things but because I faced a different approach to talk of miracles: open and nigh boasting versus quiet and downplayed.

[2] If you want to buy the book and don’t get special benefits from purchasing through Amazon (i.e., don’t have Amazon Prime), please consider buying The Crucible of Doubt through Deseret Book. If they find the book to be a success, they will be more likely to publish things like it in the future.

[3] Or from members trained in the missionary program.

[4] Note that I think that Preach My Gospel fulfills its function as a missionary manual relatively well. It is vastly superior, of course, to memorized “discussions.” However, I do not think it amiss to point out its limitations or blind spots.

[5] Of course, this approach is intended to mitigate the potential of future inactivity, a laudable goal that helps cut down on unscrupulous past mission practices (baseball baptisms come to mind). However, it can lead to a sort of self-selection bias in conversion: people who would love to participate in the LDS community or who could contribute in a variety of ways can be marginalized by the lack of epistemic humility in their potential coreligionists. As a result, converts mostly consist of those who know, while people who are uncertain leave. Worse, stories we tell about spiritual knowledge and certainty, as the Givenses address, can exacerbate faith crises and augment the numbers of people who give up on Mormonism.

[6] See any of the recent General Conference talks on doubt.

[7] Givens and Givens, 144. Note that I think the Givenses put too much stock in uninhibited agency, as if choosing a belief is virtuous in itself or we have a conscious governing stake in which propositions resonate with us. While I find value in chosen loyalty (a particular sort of “faith”), I would be wary to invest so much moral significance in the act and purity of choice.

[8] Miller, 198.

[9] See D&C 46:14: “To others it is given to believe on their words [not know!], that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.”

[10] It is little secret that I feel that catering to the hyperactive theological sensitivities of American Evangelical Christianity is at best unwise and at most directly harmful to Mormon proselytization and theological discourse.

[11] Givens and Givens, 136-7. Here I must admit not yet having read The God Who Weeps; I know the basic outlines, but cannot speak to particular nuances of the Givenses’ arguments.

[12] I must note that the social aspects of conversion, while seen as indispensable to converts’ integration into the Mormon fold, are only instrumental; rare would be the missionary arguing that someone should join the LDS Church merely because they enjoy the company. If anything, the missionary message alchemizes feelings of uplift while around Mormons into further evidence of Mormonism’s truth. I do not take issue with the use of social feelings as epistemological markers; I do take issue with how exclusively we transform all our experiences into such markers, reducing multidimensional human life to a single linear spectrum.

[13] Of course, with regard one of Mormonism’s most palatable uniquenesses–that families can be together forever–details are notoriously vague. It was on my mission that I realized that without deeper theological investigation, “forever families” could be understandably read as a propositionally contentless cipher. However, as a doctrine of affect and emotion, that families can be eternal carries some of the greatest content of all. To the mind it can be incomprehensible without further revelation.

[14] Please note that “testimony” is the language of the temple recommend interview; we are not asked if we know anything.

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