The following series of articles is a fictional dialogue between Shane and Doug, two former missionary companions many years after their missions. Shane writes to his friend Doug who has posted comments about his on-going faith crisis on Facebook. The characters are fictionalized composites of members who have faced these same dilemmas but the issues are based on very real problems which have caused some to stumble. Likewise, the responding arguments are based on the author’s own personal engagement with these same concerns as well as his discussion of these issues with other members who have struggled. (By Michael R. Ash, author of Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, and Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith.)
It was wonderful to hear from you again. Glad that your family is healthy and well. Exciting times now that your oldest daughter is off to college–––gray hairs on your head are sure to follow.
As an extension of our discussions on your Facebook page, I thought we could exchange some personal emails wherein we can address some of your concerns in greater detail. I can certainly appreciate your current struggle with your faith. I never told you this (my wife didn’t even know until recently) but I myself went through a similar faith crisis a number of years ago. I remember how my stomach hurt and how I had trouble sleeping. I had put so much of my life into the Church and suddenly I felt like I had been conned. I was angry, sad, and didn’t really know where to turn for answers. I started to bring up some of my issues in Priesthood and Sunday School classes, but the confused looks on other ward members’ faces quickly taught me to just keep quiet.
I tried talking to my bishop about it once. He was concerned for me but I don’t think he really understood what I was going through. He emphasized the importance of reading the Book of Mormon every day in addition to the New Testament (the Sunday School curriculum we were studying at that time) and reminded me of the importance of humility and prayer.
None of that seemed to soften the distress I was feeling from the things I was reading on the Internet. While I felt like a spiritual person, I began to wonder if I was deluding myself about my core beliefs. It wasn’t like there was a single silver bullet that had killed my testimony, but there was an accumulation of things–––like a thousand cuts (some were paper cuts, some were knife wounds) that were causing me to bleed out my religious convictions.
The thing that hurt the most was the same thing you pointed out on one of your Facebook posts–––I felt I had been lied to. It really bothered me that critics seemed to know more about the true history of my Church than I did. Why hadn’t I learned any of those things in my lifetime as a member of the Church? Why had I never been told that Joseph used a seer stone in a hat to translate the Book of Mormon? Why wasn’t I told the details about his many marriages (some of which sounded deviant)? It was hard for me to imagine that Church leaders didn’t know this information if critics knew about it. And if leaders knew about this information and weren’t sharing it with us–––the members–––it smacked of a “cover up.”
I really wished my dad was around to talk with. He loved to read church books. Sometimes he tried to share his findings with me but quite honestly, I reciprocated with perfunctory interest. I had a strong testimony since I was a kid. I went on a mission, married in the temple, and served as a bishopric counselor twice. I really didn’t get why Dad found interest in intellectual studies about the Church. I brushed it off as his “gospel hobby.” After he died I inherited his library of books but never read them. I nearly gave them all away to Deseret Industries but decided it looked cool to have so many books on my bookshelves.
At the peak of my own faith crisis–––with no one to talk to about my struggles and the issues that challenged my testimony–––I decided to categorize Dad’s books on the shelves according to topic. I found books on the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, Church history, and the lives of modern prophets. There were also books on philosophy, science, and early Christian and Jewish writings.
I found a number of books written by general authorities, books by authors I’d never heard of (and had no idea if they were LDS), and several books by the late Hugh Nibley. I don’t think I had ever read anything by Hugh Nibley (unless he had published something in the Ensign) but I knew who he was. I decided to read some of the things Dad found so interesting by starting with Nibley’s Since Cumorah.
It was a fascinating read and it opened my eyes to things about the Book of Mormon which I had never before considered. For me, the scriptures–––including the Book of Mormon–––where almost like untouchable faxes from the mind of God to the pen of prophets. I took everything they said as literal, or nearly literal. When I had first stumbled upon the writings of critics, I was badly shaken because they were able to show that some of the things that seemed literal to me were impossible, illogical, or contradicted by other scripture or the word of modern prophets.
After reading Nibley’s book I realized–––for the first time in my life–––that real people who interacted in real ways with a real ancient environment recorded the scriptures. The obvious had never occurred to me before–––I was reading the scriptures from my 21st century mind-set instead of trying to understand the scriptures from within the framework of an ancient context.
Since Cumorah was the first glimmer of light in my darkening testimony. It didn’t necessarily convince me that the Church was true, but it did make me realize that I really didn’t know that much about my own scriptures–––scriptures I had been reading regularly since my mission–––and offered hope that maybe there were logical answers to the critical claims I had read online.
It took me less than four days to devour Since Cumorah, so I dug deeper into Dad’s books. My dad was raised on an Idaho farm but got his agricultural degree at Utah State University. So mixed in his collection were several books on agriculture. As I categorized Dad’s old library I tried to separate his Church books from his agricultural books and novels. Suddenly I realized that several books that I had been putting in the agricultural pile (the books were entitled FARMS Review) were actually Church books–––most of which contained multiple essays, and all of which were tied to an organization supported by BYU. Apparently FARMS was an acronym for The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (since that time I’ve discovered that they changed their name to the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Studies). Dad had probably a dozen different FARMS Reviews dating back to the late 1980s.
To my wonderful surprise, this collection of books addressed many of the exact issues with which I was struggling. While I didn’t find answers to all of my questions in that collection, I found enough to convince me that the critics didn’t have the last word on any of these topics. I also found that there are strong intellectual reasons to believe. One of the most important things I discovered from my research was that there was no Church “cover up.” Many of the issues that troubled me were actually acknowledged and discussed in official Church publications and in publications officially supported by the Church.
The other very important thing that I realized–––and this is obvious in hindsight–––is that the same data can be interpreted in different ways. This happens all the time in science, history, politics, and so forth. It’s inescapable in religious matters as well. I’ve read some critics who imply that they’ve won the argument by declaring, “See Mormon scholars don’t deny that Joseph Smith’s various accounts of his First Vision contain discrepancies.” However, while critics and believers often agree on the data, they can disagree with the interpretation or significance of the data.
When I went through my faith crisis, it seemed that there was no way to understand the troubling information and still believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet. The new pro-LDS scholarly material that I discovered, however, showed me that such things could be understood in a context of belief. I didn’t need to abandon my faith. If my previous spiritual experiences meant anything to me–––if I felt that there was a spiritual element of truth to Mormonism–––I could harmonize seemingly difficult issues in a worldview that saw Joseph Smith as the prophet of the Restoration. I even found that such a worldview was supported (not proven, but supported) by historical and archaeological evidences that made more sense in the context of belief than they would in a context of unbelief.
My testimony had been bruised and healed. Once my brain recognized that belief was a viable and logical option, my heart was once again able to enjoy the wonderful peace I feel with the companionship of the Holy Ghost.
After devouring every Church-related book my dad bequeathed to me, my thirst for knowledge lead me to the Interpreter Foundation (www.MormonInterepreter.com)–––a site conceived by many of the scholars once associated with FARMS–––and the website FairMormon.org, which helps struggling members who are beset by the same challenging issues that damaged my faith. I found tons of answers on the FairMormon site, as well as videos, podcasts, and a bookstore with many books that helped me think more critically about my beliefs and assumptions. All of this–––my past history with the same difficult issues with which you are currently struggling–––has given me an insight into what you are going through. If you are willing, I’d really like to correspond with you and discuss those issues you raised on your Facebook page.