I once spent an uncomfortable few hours wedged in economy class on a flight from Boston to Salt Lake City. The seats were small and the air was canned, but my discomfort came more from the discussion of two part-time BYU literature professors seated in the same row. These young women had learned that I was returning from a Mormon history conference, and they asked if I would explain some problems they were having with Mormon history. What followed was not in any sense a discussion or a request for information, but a bitter tirade against the virtue of Joseph Smith â€“ they declared it unconscionable that the Church did not disavow the personal behavior of Joseph Smith, and claimed that it was increasingly difficult for them to prepare students to meet the demands of an academic future, because, they said, a BYU degree was an open invitation for future colleagues to dismiss their students as disciples of a â€œpervert,â€ a â€œpedophile,â€ and a â€œpredator.â€
This experience was uncommon in that it involved women most of us would expect to have greater respect for both Joseph Smith and the modern church which reveres him as its founding prophet. It is not, however, an uncommon experience to meet people both within and without who are genuinely disturbed by some aspect of our history. What about Mountain Meadows? they ask. What about polygamy? What about blacks and the priesthood?
I suppose that all believers are faced by variations of these questions â€“ questions asked either by the incredulous unbeliever, or by the believer herself who must address contradictions between important sacred and secular points. The scientifically minded may be asked about the record of Genesis versus the record of the rocks. The social scientist may be challenged by discrepancies between sacred beliefs about the human soul and accepted doctrines of the profession. The wife and mother may juggle feelings about her choices and the opinions of the world about those choices.
The questions are natural and the struggles are real. â€œI have myself gone through the critical period when science and religion seemed to rise up against one another; and can sympathize keenly with every young person who is in the same condition,â€ wrote Apostle John A. Widtsoe.  The â€œconditionâ€ isnâ€™t limited to youth, but comes up throughout our lives.
Below are some of the tactics I use to sort through the questions that crop up from time to time.
I recognize that both reason and religion have their place in my life; neither can be the exclusive approach to a question so long as I am advised to â€œseek learning, even by study and also by faith.â€  (Is there secular advice that recognizes the validity of the spirit?)
I accept that neither human wisdom nor sacred revelation are yet complete. As long as the heavens are open and manâ€™s mind continues to explore, we donâ€™t have the final details on much of anything yet. This means that seeming contradictions are often due to incomplete knowledge. I need to weigh the totality of experience and not allow myself to be falsely trapped by any particular detail. That is, if I were one of the two BYU teachers on that plane from Boston, I would be wise to consider everything I know of Joseph Smith and the workings of God with him on the one hand, and the [in]completeness of the historical record on the other, and admit that maybe, just maybe, I donâ€™t know quite enough to condemn him.
Not only are wisdom and revelation not complete, but too often the question itself is not complete. The Church has about all it can do to address its positive mission. Too often, this means that questions of history or social behavior are raised by people who have no interest in aiding the Church with its mission. I reserve the right to consider â€œspinâ€ and to look for what was omitted from the story before I allow myself to become even tentatively appalled by something new.
I donâ€™t expect to solve everything. One of the reasons I havenâ€™t weighed in on the Kolob discussion, for instance, is because anything I had to offer would be opinion and speculation â€“ no matter how deeply I think or how widely I study, I simply will never know in mortality whether my speculation approaches truth. Iâ€™d be foolish to let it affect me in any serious way, or to try to persuade anyone to adopt my speculation.
I can extend charity in questionable circumstances. I have been somewhat inoculated against anything I might discover in the record of the Churchâ€™s past, because of an extremely negative experience in my own past. I had to separate the actions of a man from the position he held. It requires no leap to separate the actions of men in the past from the beliefs they claimed but failed to live up to.
When faced with something I do not know, I hold on to what I do know. I know there is a God who loves His children and has a plan for us, even when I donâ€™t understand some part of that plan. I know that life extends beyond mortality, even if I donâ€™t know quite what that means. I donâ€™t know it all, but I know some things.
I invite you to share your own tools for facing the sticky questions.
 John A. Widtsoe. â€œA Voice from the Soil,â€ Improvement Era,, Vol. 2, no. 2 (December, 1898).
 D&C 88:118.