Bruce C. Hafen was a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy until 2010 when he was given Emeritus status. Prior to that, he was a president of BYU-Idaho and dean of the BYU Law School. He also was recently the president of the St. George Temple. Marie K. Hafen, his wife, taught at BYU-Idaho, BYU, and the University of Utah, as well as serving on the Young Women General Board and on the Deseret News board of directors.
This book is an expansion of a talk they gave together at a BYU-Hawaii devotional on January 24, 2017, which was an updated version of a talk called “Love Is Not Blind: Some Thoughts for College Students on Faith and Ambiguity” at a BYU devotional on January 9, 1979. Since 1979, the Internet has of course come to be a new avenue for people to stumble across things that would destroy their faith, and much of the book focuses on that.
The Hafens suggest a three part model for understanding stages of belief that people might go through. First, is what they call “simplicity.” This is when people have an innocent faith and “tend to think in terms of black or white – there is very little gray in [their] perspective. And many youth and young single adults have a childlike optimism and loyalty that make them wonderfully teachable. They typically trust their teachers, believe what they read, and respond eagerly to invitations for Church service. New adult converts often have similar attitudes” (page 8).
The next stage is “complexity,” which might be entered when we “run across information we haven’t heard before about Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. Or maybe we encounter something posted on the Internet that raises religious questions we don’t know how to answer. Such experiences can produce an unsettling sense of uncertainty, and we might understandably yearn for simpler, easier times. We might find ourselves becoming a little skeptical, or we may begin to ask questions that haven’t occurred to us before” (page 9).
Stage three is “the simplicity beyond complexity, a settled and informed perspective that has been tempered and tested by time and experience” (page 11). This is where we must all arrive if we are to be able to grow in faith and get out of the skepticism or unbelief of stage two. Unfortunately, many stay in stage two and even enjoy spreading the skepticism. Stage three is “a knowing and trusting kind of obedience. Instead of asking us to put aside the tools of an educated, critical mind, this attitude invites us to use those tools, coupling them with confidence in the ideal, so we can improve the status quo, not just criticize it. Call it informed faith” (page 15).
The Hafens explain some reasons why many today are blindsided with things they didn’t know about the Church or its history when they stumble across them online: “During the recent decades of international growth, the Church has needed to simplify its curriculum, magazines, and other materials so that inexperienced Church members in many cultures can understand them.” This approach limited “the availability of more advanced information” (page 20). Corrections have recently been made, beginning with the publishing of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, and continuing with the Gospel Topics Essays and the Joseph Smith Papers project.
Suggestions are given for getting from stage two to stage three. First, is to ask faithful questions and be curious. “However, it’s good to remember that being a doubting Thomas is not the end goal of discipleship. Being realistic is better than not seeing reality, but…a myopic preoccupation with complexity can easily become a rigid pessimism that also blocks the search for truth” (page 22).
The next suggestion is to be cautious about information found online. The Internet gives unfiltered access to everyone’s ideas and treats them all equally. This lets anyone appear as an authority, and it may be difficult to distinguish truth from fiction. Readers of critical websites may not realize that the claims being made have already been discredited. (FairMormon Answers is a good place to start looking to see whether something has already been discredited. If not, please feel free to ask us about it!)
Another suggestion is to look at the big picture, and focus on the doctrine rather than the details of how it was received. And the fourth suggestion is to be humble. Meekness helps us keep an open mind and keep our faith alive.
(These steps parallel the suggestions given in this week’s Come Follow Me lesson: “Seek understanding through divinely appointed sources…. Act in faith…. [and] Keep an eternal perspective.” See the section called What should I do when I have questions?)
After these introductory chapters, there are chapters devoted to further discussion of the Internet, choosing to believe, how to deal with apparent contradictions, balancing our head and our heart, and why God doesn’t just show himself to us when we think that is exactly what would really help.
The Hafens also talk about working their way through questions they had, using the former priesthood restriction as an example, and whether it was a mistake. They say that “this issue matters. Concluding that the priesthood restriction itself was wrong makes it more likely that we would hold back from giving the Lord and His prophets the benefit of the doubt about other important questions” (page 118). After walking us through the process, they come to the conclusion that this is something we have to decide for ourselves. There are often no better answers available, and we eventually have to accept that. As Richard Bushman said, “I know the arguments against the [Book of Mormon’s] historicity, but I can’t help feeling that the words are true and the events happened. I believe it in the face of many questions….Unanswerable as some questions are, we need not lament the questions they bring. The strain of believing in unbelieving times is not a handicap or a burden. It is a stimulus and a prod….And…we are in this together” (page 124).
For anyone that’s currently in stage two, or knows someone who is, this book could be very helpful. It is a pretty quick read, but it has a lot of useful insights, and is definitely relevant to our time. It is a welcome addition to the growing list of books to help those struggling with their faith.