The Crisis of Doubt in the Church

By Michael Vinson


Behold, I say unto you that whoso believeth in Christ, doubting nothing, whatsoever he shall ask the Father in the name of Christ it shall be granted him . . .      —Mormon 9:21


JUST THIS WEEK, a very active high priest sat in my office and confessed that his daughter, now married and a lifetime active member, has tried to discuss with him the problems with early Church history that she had uncovered on the Internet, and the sincere doubts that she now feels about her testimony. His response—probably quite typical—was to “double down” in his testimony and admonitions to her, with the not-very-surprising result that she no longer wants to discuss the subject with him.

His daughter’s experience seems to be just one of many thousands now confronting the Church. Earlier this year, Reuters reported that Elder Marlin K. Jensen compared the large numbers of members resigning from the Church to the thousands of apostasies at the time of the Kirtland Banking crisis in 1836–1837. Not surprisingly, there are anecdotal reports that Church leaders are confused by the defections, which seem to comprise some of the most educated and highest income earners—literally the “best and the brightest.”

One of the Church’s reactions has been to launch a pilot program, called “The Rescue,” designed to reach out to members who have been troubled by things they have discovered about the Church. This “rescue” program instructs bishops and priesthood leaders who counsel with members who have doubts to “work patiently and lovingly” while striving to provide the “best possible answers” to the members’ concerns.

Historically, this counsel to the doubting members would include encouragements to redouble their study of the Book of Mormon, increase the frequency of their personal prayers and temple attendance, and become more diligent in their church callings. The “Rescue” packets apparently also contain “academic-scientific” resources that are largely apologetic in nature.

I’m dubious about efforts like these, as they represent attempts bury doubt under a cloak of increased Church activity without actually dealing with the problems themselves. In my opinion, this strategy is bound to backfire. The underlying problem is not the level of a member’s church activity but the fact that they have bought into a false dichotomy about the relationship between faith and doubt—one that seems be encouraged by scriptures such as the one quoted at the beginning of this column—suggesting that the effective exercise of faith requires that one have zero doubt.

This polarization between faith and doubt plays out regularly in fast and testimony meetings, where we’ll often hear speakers claiming to “know” the Church is true, that we are led by living prophets today, and so forth. However, the first principle of the gospel is faith. And faith, by scriptural definition, is not knowing. As Alma taught, “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things” (Alma 32:35). It seems, with all the knowing going around, that the first principle of the gospel is violated frequently in testimony meetings.

This is, of course, the Mormon version of the classic theological problem of fideism—the wrestle to define a satisfying relationship between faith and reason. To state the LDS version more formally, our theology teaches that we are saved through faith, repentance, baptism, and the reception of the gift of the Holy Ghost. The first of these, faith, can be defined as trust in the empirically un-provable. This formulation fits nicely with scriptural definition given by Alma and Paul: “for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe” (Alma 32:18). Following this formulation, if the truthfulness of the plan of salvation and the Church can actually be known, then faith is unnecessary. But since faith is the first principle of the gospel (and therefore necessary), we can conclude that it is certain knowledge, not doubt, that is the opposite of faith.

Most Church members would claim that techniques such as those outlined in Moroni 10:3–5 can lead to spiritual “knowledge.” But this kind of knowledge fails two crucial tests. First, it cannot be consistently replicated in experimental form—each individual spiritual experience differs according to factors over which we have no control. Second, this kind of knowledge cannot be transmitted to others. We can tell others what we have gained, but we cannot pass it on to them or give them some exam determining if they really have received it. All spiritual experiences are highly personal and subjective, involving our own feelings—and yes, our doubts as well.

I want to propose that we formulate a new view of faith and doubt, one that recognizes the latter as an integral part of testimony. If irrefutable evidences of the truthfulness of the Church actually existed (for example, the golden plates being on display on Temple Square), the result would be no different than if God were holding a thunderbolt over our heads and telling us to believe—or else! Since there is no proof of the truthfulness of the Church, then there is also no disproof of its truthfulness. This opens the way for us to begin to thinking about a union of faith and doubt.

Embracing faith and doubt simultaneously is actually quite normal for the human mind. In his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein suggests that our minds naturally combine sensory input with pre-built interpretive patterns, leading him to declare that no “seeing” is pure; rather, all seeing is “seeing as.” He explains this phenomenon by using the sketch reproduced on this page. Is it a duck or a rabbit? Or both?

Religion philosopher John Hick expanded on Wittgenstein’s idea, suggesting that faith “be equated with the interpretative element within our experience.” Faith, then, is a subjective, observer-based mode of interpretation. Thus, we can look at a question about the truthfulness of a Mormon claim—is it a duck or a rabbit?—and get two very different answers, both of which have validity.

The simultaneous possession of both faith and doubt is not as novel as we might believe; it is our emphasis of testimony as a knowing experience rather than as a faith experience that causes our angst. Mark 9:24 shows us an ancient believer who claimed his doubt even as he declared his testimony: “And straightway the father of the child cried out with tears, Lord I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” The recognition of our doubt is actually a fuller acknowledgement of our faith. Let us have the courage to embrace both within ourselves.