Are Questions ‘Okay’ in the Church?

My dear friend (and mindfulness teacher), Rosa, recently asked my thoughts about a New York Times article profiling a member of the Church and former area authority, Brother Mattsson – who was publicly raising concerns about historical details he hadn’t been aware of.  The article insinuates that the Church had attempted to hide things from members – and raises questions about whether hard questions are really “okay” to explore in the Church.

I agree that transparency and openness make for a uniquely healthy organization; most organizations I know (including the U.S. government), wrestle with how to address uncomfortable or painful aspects of its past (and present). And I would say the Church of Jesus Christ is no exception.

Historians exploring many communities are also getting more transparent and balanced (including Church-focused historians) – which is another positive development happening.  That being said, this article’s portrayal of a Church hiding away things and whitewashing its history seems quite overblown and overstated.  In order to fit our community within this narrative, one must ignore a great deal of nuance and counter-evidence.

To their credit, I do think we’re seeing lots of evidence for a new and growing openness and directness among Church leaders, affiliated-historians and members to address and examine uncomfortable questions.  For instance, essays on race relations, different accounts of the first vision, the doctrine of becoming like God and plural marriage all appear on the Church’s main webpage (go to “browse alphabetically” under “Gospel Topics” for more).  In that same section, there is also an essay on Book of Mormon translation that explores the “mechanics of translation” – including the seer stone in the hat.  These “official essays” reflect intense, ongoing and thoughtful efforts within our community to explore and grapple with some of the more difficult questions raised by critics (see FAIR and FARMS).

Outside of the official website, historians connected to the Church have recently published a respected, and “unflinching” account of the Mountain Meadows Massacre – as well as encouraging Richard Bushman’s book, Rough Stone Rolling where the historical evidence around Joseph’s Smith’s wives is examined with detail that makes some Church members uncomfortable.  The Joseph Smith Papers, as well –  a 12-volume set of books aggregating and publishing all manuscripts and documents created by, or under the direction of, Joseph Smith.

More broadly, Latter-day Saints are also not fearful of education or truth.  Church members being encouraged to get ‘all the education you possibly can’ (Hinckley, 2007); studies showing that Latter-day Saints with higher education tend to become more, rather than less faithful.

So is it okay to ask questions in the Church?  The New York Times author shares her answer, of course – insinuating throughout the article that questions are discouraged and feared by leaders and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints alike – e.g., “why are you afraid of the truth?”

But is that true?  Let me put it this way:  has the author ever sat in a Sunday School class and tried asking an honest question?  Did she ever approach a Church leader with a curiosity or concern?  If she did, what would happen?  Would she be told she was “impertinent” for asking?  Would we run her out of Sunday School with pitch forks?

I think not.  In fact, I think we might actually listen!  We might even express appreciation for the question – and maybe start a conversation together (and enjoy it).

Now, we may not be as adept and skilled at the whole question thing as the Jewish community (they rock at this!) – for most of us, questions really aren’t that fearful.  The whole Doctrine Covenants came out of Joseph Smith’s radical questions – and there is plenty of support in our doctrine for holding space for doubts and learning from them (see Terryl Givens’ powerful essay on the topic).

But what about the current leaders?  (You know – those old guys who have been trying to hide the full history of the Church from all of the membership for so many years).  What would they have to say about questions?  In our recent General Conference of the Church, Elder Jeffrey Holland offered a clear answer – functioning as a de facto “Proclamation on Doubt and Questions in the Church.”  Check it out when you have a chance (click here to view).  You won’t regret it.

Mormons believe in a God who loves questions.  I will never get tired of saying that.   And yet, I frequently get accused of being a “different kind of Mormon” – with my particular interests and ideas…unlike “those others.”  Is that true?  Or could I simply be a good representative of a community with a radically inclusive, exciting theology?   I’d love to hear others’ thoughts…and questions – on the subject!

5 responses

  1. I personally do not feel the expectation that Church leaders must bare their own dirty laundry before the world, let alone that of their forbears. As a scientist who has a specific job, I can understand the need to only worry about certain facts that help me accomplish a certain job. For instance, it may be true that some human beings are unable to tell the difference between green and red, but that fact isn’t useful if my job is to create a spectrometer that can. The job of the apostles and prophets is not to give a titillating, comprehensive, maybe even boring history of the church. Some folks whose expectation is that the church provide them with everything sometimes claim whitewashing and hiding, when in reality the valid reality of “doing one’s job” is actually happening. As Elder Oaks said, “Not all that is true is useful.”

    Quite frankly, I consider it even an insulting question, somewhere along the lines of, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” It assumes negative assumptions (“facts” not in evidence) that have been used, and are intended as well-poisoners. It paints a picture of the person that the questioner is, and it’s not a pretty picture.

    “Is it okay to ask questions?” I personally do not feel that “there is no such thing as a stupid question.” There ARE stupid questions, there ARE stupid questioners, there ARE rude questions. So I would say, “It is okay to ask respectful questions.” Just like I think it would be rude to ask, “why are you afraid of the truth?” I don’t think it is fair for a student to derail a teacher’s well-planned, faithful, logical lesson, with a question that has no relevance to the day’s topic, a question that isn’t sincere, or that has so many false assumptions that it can’t even be answered.

    Of course, usually we expect people to apply their own filters? “Will this question uplift others or bring others down.” Sometimes we should ask ourselves, “Will asking this question even uplift me?” Some questioners are impertinent, and in scientific circles, rude, impertinent questioners aren’t tolerated, why should they be in the church? If someone asks you a personal, inappropriate question, don’t you wisely build a wall of protection against that person? That may be more calm than running with pitchforks, but I for one just consider it wise to put-up mental protections against the mentally unwell, which is sometimes indicated by their questions.

    So I guess the question shouldn’t be, “Are questions allowed”, but rather “What types of questions bring myself and others closer to God?” From my own life experience, questions which assume a priori that my understanding is right, and everyone else’s (including Church Leader’s and God’s) is wrong or incomplete, do not uplift myself or others. Questions which demand answers or explanations (“Why does it work this way?”) lead to unhappiness when they are not answered to my satisfaction. Questions which do not allow for the recognition of my assumptions, and limited understanding will not necessarily lead me into truth. So I would modify Jacob’s statement: “Mormons believe in a God who loves good questions, that lead to higher truth and better understanding and higher righteousness.” Questions which don’t fit those ideas will ultimately people away from God, and I don’t think He “loves” those types of questions.

  2. If I was going to join a church, I would want to know about its history, authoritative doctrines and beliefs and answers to any anomalies I found. Transparency and openness are hallmarks of any good organization. From the article in the NYT, it appears to me that the Mormon authorities were hesitant to answer questions related to facts about Joseph Smith and Mormon history. Why haven’t the church authorities included these facts in the public version of Mormon history so that members of the church or prospective converts are spared from disillusion?

    I challenge you to ask the following questions to your local church authorities or Sunday school class and let us know how they were received and answered.

    ■ Why does the church always portray Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon from golden plates, when witnesses described him looking down into a hat at a “peep stone,” a rock that he believed helped him find buried treasure?

    ■ Why did Smith claim that the Book of Abraham, a core scripture, was a translation of ancient writings from the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, when Egyptologists now identify the papyrus that Smith used in the translation as a common funerary scroll that has nothing to do with Abraham?

    ■ Is it true that Smith took dozens of wives, some as young as 14 and some already wed to other Mormon leaders, to the great pain of his first wife, Emma?

    • Thanks for your comment, Ron. I agree that transparency and openness make for a uniquely healthy organization; most organizations I know (including the U.S. government), wrestle with how to address uncomfortable or painful aspects of its past (and present). And I would say the Church of Jesus Christ is no exception.

      To their credit, I do think we’re seeing lots of evidence for a new and growing openness and directness among Church leaders, affiliated-historians and members to address and examine uncomfortable questions. For instance, essays on race relations, different accounts of the first vision, the doctrine of becoming like God and plural marriage all appear on the Church’s main webpage (go to “browse alphabetically” under “Gospel Topics” for more).

      In that same section, there is also an essay on Book of Mormon translation that explores the “mechanics of translation” – including the seer stone in the hat you mention.

      Outside of the official website, historians connected to the Church have recently published a respected, and “unflinching” account of the Mountain Meadows Massacre – as well as encouraging Richard Bushman’s book, Rough Stone Rolling where the historical evidence around Joseph’s Smith’s wives is examined with detail that makes some Church members uncomfortable. (I’ve read that myself – and can say that the portrayal of Joseph as somehow sex-driven – although easy to believe in our sexualized society today – simply doesn’t jive with all the evidence, in my opinion). I’m sure you’ve heard of the Joseph Smith Papers, as well – a 12-volume set of books aggregating and publishing all manuscripts and documents created by, or under the direction of, Joseph Smith.

      As for the Book of Abraham issue, I would like to do more reading on that myself. I know that FAIR has put together an exploration on the subject that is comprehensive and, I think, attends to many of the arguments in a comprehensive and “fair” way. I’d love to see that explored more openly. To your specific challenge, I don’t have any problem raising any of this in Sunday School, if it’s ever relevant. (In fact, some of this stuff about Joseph Smith came up in Elders Quorum last week – and led to a great discussion).

      Thanks a lot for the inquiry. This conversation means a lot to me – and I’d love to hear any follow-up?
      -Jacob

      • The article in the NYT about Hans Mattson’s odyssey to find the truth about some aspects of Mormon history led me to do more research on the subject. It appears that some of the Swedish members started asking Mr. Mattson certain questions for which he didn’t have the answers. The LDS Church’s response to the members’ questions covered seven years (2005-2012), two apostles’ visits, a meeting with a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and two official church historians.

        On Sunday evening, November 28, 2010, Marlin Jensen (then a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and official LDS Church Historian), assistant church historian Richard Turley, Erich W. Kopischke of the First Quorum of the Seventy, R. Ingvar Olsson of the Area Seventy, and approximately 25 members met privately at a church building in Stockholm, Sweden. One of the members took the liberty to record the meeting. The members’ questions and the authorities’ answers can be examined
        here.

  3. “To their credit, I do think we’re seeing lots of evidence for a new and growing openness and directness among Church leaders, affiliated-historians and members to address and examine uncomfortable questions.”

    Thank you for supplying the links that illustrate your point. I was especially interested in the one at FAIR on the Book of Abraham. Since you want to do more reading on the subject, I am providing a link to a website that expresses another point of view (go to “Topical Index” under Pearl of Great Price for more).

    -Ron

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