|J. Spencer Fluhman, associate professor of history at Brigham Young University.|
Professor J. Spencer Fluhman delivered an excellent devotional talk at the LDS Business College some time ago (I recall encountering this article for the first time back in 2014, when I believe it was delivered) that is worth reposting here. (Hat tip to Dan Peterson for posting it on his blog, which reminded me to post it here.) The title of his talk is “Faith in the Past: Church History in an Information Age.” It’s an important topic that deserves our close attention. Professor Fluhman has made some important contributions to Mormon history, as his biography at the end of the article attests, and knows his way around the historian’s craft. His advice is worth heeding.
Here are a few lines from Professor Fluhman’s article that are worth highlighting:
Today, I want to share some things I’ve learned from these sometimes-difficult conversations.
First, it is clear to me that Latter-day Saints in the past, the very Saints who once occupied these same comfortable pews, often battled misrepresentation and misunderstanding. And I acknowledge that these problems certainly persist to the present—they’ll probably never end. But I’m convinced that future historians will regard our generation’s challenge differently. I believe ours is not primarily a problem of lies or the misrepresentation of our history. Rather, it falls to us, my friends, to come to grips with the complex realities of our past, of “things as . . . they [really] were,” to paraphrase D&C 93
Second, those who struggle with aspects of LDS history typically deal with more than questions about troubling content. Rather, it often becomes a matter of trust. They wonder why they were never told of this or that story, or of this or that detail. Many report finding it difficult to get straight answers, which only compounds their anxieties. Some have even been told by well-meaning leaders or friends to simply put their questions away, as if honest questions were themselves dangerous. They are sometimes left feeling isolated and alienated from their fellow Saints.
Third, many who struggle find themselves in what philosophers would call an “epistemological” crisis. (“Epistemology” is the study of the nature and meaning of knowledge—how do we know what we know?) For many in the midst of a faith crisis, the old ways of knowing become suspect. Can they trust past spiritual experiences? When the edifice of faith seems to be trembling, what authorities or sources or voices or experiences can settle such pressing questions? For many, this can be a very distressing experience.
Fourth, those who struggle have often been devastated to hear—again, from well-meaning fellow Saints—that questions or doubts essentially reduce to sin. This has usually been communicated to them in one of two ways. Some have been told that doubt is itself sinful. Others have had it suggested to them that behind their doubts or concerns, really is some secret transgression. Either way, it feels to them like “evasive action,” a dismissal or non-acknowledgment of the very things causing them concern. As a result, some wonder if they’ve even been heard. I’ll add here, too, that these are not strangers. These are people very close to me. Maybe you’ve known them as well.
Professor Fluhman is correct that rarely is it a matter of simply “discovering the truth” and then making a strictly rational decision to leave or stay in the Church. Rather, emotional, psychological, cultural, familial, cognitive, and other factors can and do play a real role in individual choices related to Church activity.
How tragic that some struggling Saints find what shreds of community they can in anonymous online comment sections rather than in their flesh-and-blood wards or biological families. Surely, we can listen better, we can walk more compassionately with those who are earnestly seeking, and we can make our Church and family spaces safer for those who “have not faith.”
In other words, avoid Reddit (and a few particular subreddits) during a faith crisis.
The Lord’s answer for a famine of faith is disarmingly simple: study. Help each other with wise words, it suggests, and then study. Study with faith, ever and always, but study we must. In other words, God trusts us to seek and learn and ask and to dive deeply into the best books. The scriptures certainly rank as the best of books. I am regularly amazed at their usefulness for our seeming uniquely modern problems. To be clear: I can’t think of a single modern spiritual conundrum that isn’t helped and healed by scripture. But even as I acknowledge their undisputed position as the best of books, they clearly do not exhaust the category “best books,” especially when one considers LDS history.
Laura Hales, co-author of the new book Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding, has made this same point to me before in our conversations about Church history, apologetics, and faith crises. She’s said that the antidote to a faith crisis is more study. I too have often said that you can always know too little about Mormon history, but you can never know too much. Some critics have scoffed at and otherwise mocked this attitude, but it’s true. Dan Peterson made this same point in his 2014 response to Jeremy Runnells (who, based on his reply to Peterson, evidently can’t be bothered to do some actual rigorous study of Mormon history), and it is a good point.
Concerning those who have successfully emerged from a faith crisis, Professor Fluhman relates:
I have watched with joy over the years as many of my conversation partners have successfully navigated complicated questions of history and faith. Every story is different and we all have unique experiences and needs, but I’ve seen some commonalities in those who make peace with the difficult elements in our past.
For one, they get comfortable with complexity and nuance. They went into their journey yearning for simple black-and-white answers but in the end many conclude that mortality sometimes provides only shades of grey on many subjects.
Secondly, they get comfortable with the human side of Church experience. They come to see past Saints and leaders alike less as cardboard superhero cutouts—larger than life but two dimensional—and more like real people. For some, this humanizing view of past Saints actually makes them more compelling, not less. Instead of unreachable icons of piety or spirituality, they seem somehow more relatable in their humanity, somehow more usable as actual examples for struggling saints like you and me.
Thirdly, those who have successfully navigated these sometimes choppy waters come to think differently about history itself. By that I mean they get comfortable with the idea of change. They come to expect it, in fact. They come to see one’s cultural and political and social contexts as mattering a great deal. They get comfortable with what history can and cannot prove. They come to realize that because the past is in many ways unavailable to us in the present, it is less like an exact science and more a matter of argument and interpretation. They conclude, in fact, that matters as fundamentally spiritual as the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith cannot be arbitrated by history alone. As Elder Neil L. Andersen wisely reminded us on Saturday afternoon (General Conference, October 2014), “the importance of Joseph [Smith’s] work requires more than intellectual consideration.
This has been my experience as well.
I am suggesting that we can be simultaneously more confident, candid, and studious in our approach to Church history and more faithful, hopeful, and charitable, too. A study of Church history will help us avoid the myth of prophetic infallibility on the one hand and, on the other, help us view past leaders more charitably.
I am a witness to history’s powerful capacity to mold and shape us as disciples of Jesus Christ. In straining to see clearly into the past’s dark glass, we can come to see ourselves and the Lord more clearly. Even acknowledging the very human difficulties in our stories, I bear witness that there is more than enough inspiration and edification to compensate. Indeed, our history is a reservoir with spiritual resources sufficient to feed us spiritually for a lifetime and beyond. I am not a committed Latter-day Saint in spite of my careful study of LDS history, but because of it.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.