Faith and Doubt

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Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

My church has spent some time lately worried about doubt. What exactly is doubt and is it really something to worry about? If so, why? If we’re going to be concerned with our doubts, we must understand how to identify them when they come. I worry that imprecision in our definitions and understandings may lead to the self-censure of perfectly legitimate, natural and even necessary and healthy feelings and behavior. I also suspect that I have definite points of disagreement with some of the ideas spoken from official church channels, but I want to be as precise as I can to differentiate points where I agree and points where I don’t.

First, I think this talk is pretty typical. If I have to summarize it superficially, the fear is that too many people are leaving Mormonism and religious faith more broadly, for many, the thought might be, they’ve had an authentic faith in early years only to have that faith get destroyed by doubt.

I think to get to the bottom of doubt, it’s important to really understand religious faith. In the Mormon church, we like to use the phrase “I know” before we recite our litany of truth claims: I know the church is true, I know God lives, I know Jesus died to save us, I know our prophets are led by God, and so on and so forth. I think it’s important to differentiate religious knowledge from scientific. Through science, we collect evidence, run experiments, perform causal analysis – we use the scientific method. The goal in this approach is to be led by the evidence. We make an hypothesis and look for data that might backup that hypothesis. If someone finds evidence to contradict it, we scrap it and try again. There is no room for dogma here. The goal of science is to discover the world as it is, digging into further and deeper truths. We know something is true scientifically based on deep experimentation.

Religious truths are different. When Mormon missionaries teach a discussion they ask the investigator about their feelings. Do you feel these things are true? Do you feel greater love, greater self-confidence, do you want to soar? Are these ideas delicious? Do they bring you peace? Do you feel the fruits of the spirit? This is where faith starts. It’s a surrender into goodness. It’s following the light. It’s moving down a path because you feel called into it. It’s an abstraction of sorts. It’s not easily pinned down.

I can have faith in God, but for me this is a faith in something big, universal and relational. I think faith is intimately tied with love and so it’s definitionally relational. Mormons believe in God as a Heavenly Father (and Mother). Which is a move toward specificity but not by much and I think it necessarily describes the way this connection feels. We feel an intimate, devoted love from the one who created everything. This love seems to flow right out of creation.

I can have faith in Jesus. For Mormons this means the atonement and personal sanctification that comes through that atonement. This means grace, in other words, the relational repair that comes from repentance and forgiveness. We don’t emphasize grace in our theology but we live and expect grace practically in our lives. We believe grace stems from the sacrifice and suffering of Jesus, that began in the Garden of Gethsemane and finished at his death on the cross. Nobody understands the atonement, not really. Nobody really can explain how the suffering of one person was required to heal the world. There are many competing theories. The emphasis here is not the how but the what.

I can have faith in my church leaders, our prophets, both past and present, and in the sacred texts of my religion. We recognize their faults and failures. They are just as human as we are and are subject to the same sins and temptations. At times they succumb to them. But despite their flaws, they have been called to lead, organize churches and write our inspired texts. Having faith in other people requires us to recognize the inspired work in others. It’s having the ability to see God working through flawed human beings.

If faith is relational, emotional and a kind of surrender into goodness and beauty, what, then, is religious doubt? I don’t think doubt is the opposite of faith. Doubt, for me doesn’t to describe something that is the opposite of a loving step into goodness. That doesn’t compute. The opposite of faith is acting and behaving in ways that are isolating and destructive. It’s escapism, it’s a retreat into addiction. It’s not getting out of bed in the morning. It’s being critical of the light we find in others because we’re worried it diminishes the light in us. It’s jealousy. It’s a lack of ambition or its too much ambition. It’s self-centered. It’s not getting out in nature enough. It’s too much candy and not enough fruits and vegetables. I am over-simplifying here. Addiction, isolation, escapism and all the rest is a natural reaction to pain and life is full of it. Faith is a loving response to pain and suffering but it’s not something we just have, it’s something that needs to be developed over time. Our entire lives is not necessarily going to be enough time to fully perfect our faith.

Where I think the doubt vs. faith discussion goes wrong, is that we get faith wrong and then, as a result, we get doubt wrong. We over-specify what we have faith in, and in so doing, end up placing our faith in the wrong things. We make highly specific and way too literal claims. The earth has to be 6,000 years old. Noah’s flood happened and covered the entire earth. Jesus literally felt the pains of every sin past, present and future and God demanded someone to suffer for every sin or we all suffer for eternity. The Book of Mormon is literally true. Nephi and Lehi existed. Joseph Smith felt Peter, James and John’s hands physically on his head in order to restore the priesthood. God in a resurrected perfect body visited Joseph in the garden when he was 14 in answer to his prayer.

Becoming a Christian should not necessarily mean believing in each one of these propositions literally. I guarantee a Mormon missionary teaching someone who desires baptized because she feels called into the religion, having had powerful spiritual experiences with the Book of Mormon but didn’t intellectually believe the stories actually happened, would still allow this person baptism. These events happened or they didn’t. And if they happened, they happened in a very specific historical way. We have imperfect evidence of the historical events. When we die, something is going to happen to us (or not) that will have nothing to do with what we think will happen to us (or not). These are questions for scientists and historians. Engaging in science or history should not affect our faith.

So, then, what of doubt? If someone tells me a fantastical idea with little or no evidence in the face of contradicting evidence, I will naturally doubt their story. If they have a vested interest in believing that story, I will doubt it further. Doubt, in this sense, is good.

If I feel called into goodness, called to love and serve another, but doubt myself, and use my doubts as a reason to hold back my gifts, then doubt, in this sense is bad. Doubt our doubts, Elder Uchtdorf counseled us, “We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from the divine love, peace, and gifts that come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Choosing to walk a path of discipleship is not an easy choice. It’s easy to say we want to be a Christian, it’s difficult to know exactly what that means and it’s even harder to walk that path well. It takes faith and courage. But that’s a walk into goodness, a devotion to life, and a sacrifice to strengthen our connections, it’s not a literal belief in stories.