The Wheatley Institution hosted a conference at BYU last month, “Reason for Hope: Responding to a Secular World.” Video of the presentations may be posted at the Wheatley website at some point, but for now we have the Deseret News article summarizing the event, headlined as “Mormons with doubts shouldn’t give up the faith without ‘intellectual and spiritual kicking and screaming.’” I think the Deseret News headline does a better job describing the conference than the official title.
Richard Williams, the Director of the Wheatley Institution, started off with “Angst at 5, Faith at 40.” The article quotes him as criticizing those who leave the Church as doing so based on a false view of what the Church is or what LDS doctrines are: “Most people who decide to leave the church really end up leaving a cartoon of the church.” Which is a strange view to endorse, given that LDS publications have, in the past, presented an LDS historical narrative that borders on cartoonish (as Williams is using the term) in its oversimplifications and omissions. The Gospel Topics essays are, it seems, an attempt to upgrade that narrative. But it is certainly the case that those who choose to exit the Church often do so as a result of reading a more detailed and less cartoonish account of LDS history (and of course that’s not an inevitable or even probable outcome for reading real as opposed to simplified LDS history). That’s just the opposite dynamic to what Williams is describing. Here is a longer quotation from Williams (as quoted in the article; ellipsis in original) giving his advice for dealing with a faith crisis:
Do not have someone else’s faith crisis. Don’t have a non-LDS faith crisis. If you think you are having a faith crisis, make sure to find out what faith really is in the context of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. … Assume that most of your cultural understandings are wrong or at least distorted. Then give the restored gospel a chance at your mind and especially at your soul.
Robert Millet, previously Dean of Religious Education at BYU, followed with “Doubt Not, Fear Not.” He restated the emerging LDS position on faith and doubt: Questions are okay but doubt is not okay, not at all. As he was quoted in the article, “Questions are a natural byproduct of being human. They are not, in a word, strange, inappropriate or a sign of weakness.” But “questions and doubt are not the same thing.” Here is a longer quotation from Millet’s talk which includes the “kicking and screaming” metaphor featured in the headline:
For me, to doubt our doubts is to be courageous rather than cavalier when it comes to eternal things. We cannot be casual in doubting our doubts and thus succumb to spiritual and intellectual laziness. In other words, no one of us should ever allow a doubt to reign, when in fact it has not won that lofty perch through proving itself beyond all doubt. Just as for me it takes too much faith to be an atheist, so we should not be so kindly, such a pushover, as to allow our faith system to go by the way without intellectual and spiritual kicking and screaming on our part.
Barbara Morgan Gardner, on the BYU faculty but previously the Director for Seminaries and Institutes in Massachusetts, reported on her interactions with LDS graduate students back East. Here is how the article summarizes her findings:
“What I have been able to understand is why people stay,” she said. She boiled it down to character. Those who stayed active in the church exhibited patience, faith and trust in Jesus Christ, hope, knowledge and wisdom, obedience, diligence and persistence, humility, repentance and forgiveness, charity and virtue.
On the face of it, she seems to be saying that those who stay in the Church have good character or positive character traits (knowledge, diligence, etc.) and to be implying that those who exit have bad character or bad character traits (the opposites to the character virtues in the list). That’s just passive-aggressively demonizing those who leave the Church. I hope the full text of her remarks show a more nuanced approach to the issue.
Finally, Elder Bruce C. Hafen, Emeritus Seventy and formerly Dean of the BYU Law School and President of BYU-Idaho back in its Ricks College days, delivered “Faith is not Blind.” From the short excerpts in the article, it is clear that Hafen used some of the material from a 1979 BYU speech with a slightly different title, which was later reprinted in the Ensign. It is a classic, well worth your time to go read or listen to. Here is the a link to the transcript of the original BYU presentation: “Love Is Not Blind: Some Thoughts for College Students on Faith and Ambiguity.” In both talks, Hafen discussed three levels of dealing with ambiguity. Level 1: black-and-white thinking. Level 2: entrenched skepticism masquerading as realism. At Level 3, “we’re open-minded believers who know that history and life are not always clear-cut and tidy, but our desire is to keep learning and growing. We want to improve the status quo, not just criticize it.” There is a long passage in the 1979 talk depicting the dangers of overly zealous critical thinking in the context of LDS church classes and activities. Good advice for all LDS bloggers, commenters, and readers.
While I was digging around the Wheatley site looking for video from this conference (not yet posted, apparently), I ran across this video from another recent Wheatley conference at BYU: “Post Modern, Post Secular, Post Religious,” by John D. Caputo, a noted philosopher and theologian. He presents a more radical and more penetrating analysis of the place of religion in the postmodern intellectual universe. Definitely not a Level 1 guy.