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!