Dealing with Doubt

Few topics give me pause to write about more than religion.

I don’t find it difficult to write about my own thoughts and experiences regarding my beliefs, but I’ve found that people close to me either misinterpret my writing or I offend someone.  In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if I possess the skill to pull it off, but here it goes anyway.

A few weeks ago I read the New York Times article about Hans Mattsson who was called to serve as an area authority for the Mormon church in Sweden. Members began asking him about historical facts that conflicted with what they had been taught in church. When Mattsson went to church leaders in Salt Lake City for answers, he wasn’t satisfied with their response and later decided to go public with his frustration.

As links to this article circulated on Facebook, I watched at the reactions that ranged from shock to dismay to mild disappointment.  I read the articles a couple of times and thought, “Yep, I can relate to that.” I can only imagine the pressure Mattsson must feel as a leader responsible for a large number of church members. His beliefs in the church are expected to be rock solid. Is there any room for doubt in a leader?

As a young missionary entering the Mission Training Center in Provo, Utah, I had a lot of questions myself. I studied the scriptures for many hours during my 8 week stay in Provo. By the time I arrived in Germany I was prepared to teach Germans about my beliefs. It would be a few months before my language skills would catch up to the doctrine I had memorized, and I was able to deliver my message to those handful of Germans kind enough to listen. As a side note, I found most Germans to be incredibly friendly and open once I earned their trust. There just weren’t many who wanted to listen to a 20-year old tell them their church didn’t have all the truth. 

I had ample opportunity to deliver my message (called discussions) that began with our belief in a God and Jesus Christ which hopefully softened up my audience enough before I dropped the Joseph Smith story bomb on them. All those head nods and hey-you-aren’t-so-strange looks I got while talking about Christ often turned to stares of you-expect-me-to-believe-that!? when I told them about Joseph Smith digging up plates of gold on a hillside.

Most pieces of the Mormon doctrinal puzzle fit within a framework I could comprehend. A few points of doctrine became clear to me the more I studied. But there were two topics I struggled with to the point that I eventually pulled out a pen and paper and wrote a letter to my grandfather asking for his take on the matter. I was close to my grandfather, and we often discussed the early history of the church. He seemed to devour books written by  church leaders and would share what he learned with me. I valued his opinion as much as anyone’s because he once told me that he’d gained both a spiritual and intellectual testimony of the church.

To a 20-year old young man, gaining an intellectual testimony meant that all the doctrinal pieces fit together. He had solved the puzzle while mine was still a work in progress. But knowing that each piece fit somewhere was comforting.

I wish I could tell you those two pieces found a home, but that’s not the case. I still pull them out and examine them from time to time. I’m resigned to the fact that one or both pieces may never fit my puzzle. Occasionally, I’ll bring up one of these topics with Kim because I know she won’t mistake my doubt for something it’s not. 

There remains an expectation that I’ll figure it out or keep my mouth shut in some circles. My doubt has often been misinterpreted as various larger issues concerning my activity in the church. I tend to let these assumptions roll right on by because a person’s beliefs are his or her own.

So Mattsson’s story gives me hope that maybe we are at the point where people can feel safe expressing their doubts without being judged. With so much information available on the internet it’s wise for the church to support their members who are searching for answers instead of attempting to hide or hush it.

My children are getting to the age where they have questions about doctrine or the history of the church. With the answer often being a Google search away, my goal is to keep an open dialog with them so that I’m part of the discussion.

It’s OK to admit that I don’t have all the answers. Not every piece has found a home. My beliefs continue to change as I learn more about the church and myself. I haven’t always respected people with beliefs at odds with my own. But I’m improving as I focus on searching for common ground instead of highlighting the differences.

My grandfather eventually responded to my letter, the tone of which was, “Hey, everyone has to figure this out on their own.”

That answer means more to me today than it did when I first read it back in my tiny apartment in Fulda.