Commentary: Latter-day Saint apostle Dale G. Renlund misses the mark on doubt by blaming the victim

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Dale G. Renlund and his wife, Ruth Lybbert Renlund.

This week, apostle Dale G. Renlund and his wife, Ruth, led a devotional for young adults at Brigham Young University-Hawaii. The topic was doubt, which is an important and timely issue in Mormonism.

I was raised to try to find something good to say first, so here goes: I appreciate that this devotional acknowledges that leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is rarely about just one thing. Rather, it’s often catalyzed by a complex mixture of intellectual, social and spiritual issues.

So there’s that. But overall, the talk conveyed a damaging message about doubt and, more importantly, doubters.

The problems begin at the start of the talk, with a childish cartoon about a young man who is cast adrift when his boat capsizes. He’s eventually picked up by a kindly old fisherman, who hauls him to safety and gives him water and crackers.

Rather than being grateful for this lifesaving measure, the young guy immediately begins to complain; the water he’s been given isn’t Evian or Perrier, and the boat is in poor condition. He’s not convinced it is seaworthy. He devolves into a full-on toddleresque meltdown 12 miles from shore, insisting that he be let off. The saddened fisherman obliges, leaving the guy again in the middle of the ocean — and this time there is the ominous specter of a circling shark.

The parable, the Renlunds explain, is about the church and those who doubt it. These doubters remove themselves from the safety of the boat because they can’t see beyond their complaints that this or that element is not to their liking.

Ruth Renlund asks whether “dents and peeling paint” on the church diminish its ability to provide authorized saving ordinances that help people become like Heavenly Father. The answer is no, and here I completely agree with her. It’s refreshing to hear an acknowledgment, however implicit, that the church isn’t perfect. Too many times in the past, complaints have been dismissed with the adage that the church is perfect but its people aren’t.

In reality, neither is perfect.

It’s also refreshing to hear, without apology, several of the historical issues mentioned by name that many doubters have struggled with.

But the overall tone of the talk is dismissive, expressing little concern for the pain endured by people who are having what has been variously called a “faith crisis,” “faith transition” or “dark night of the soul.”

Those people are instead depicted as selfish, childish “snake-oil salesmen” (yes, that phrase is mentioned) who focus excessively on insignificant details because they don’t really want to have true faith.

Dale Renlund tells a story of a young man he knew called Stephen, a returned missionary who married in the temple and served in the church for many years. Stephen began having trouble with multiple accounts of Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” so he was put in touch with a scholar who helped him to resolve that issue. But by then Stephen was concerned about something else: polygamy. Next it was race and the priesthood. And on and on.

The Renlunds don’t have a lot of sympathy for this, calling Stephen a “perpetual doubter” who seems to enjoy having something to complain about. They label this “church history whack-a-mole.”

Stephen, they tell us, “let doubt and uncertainty occupy his mind” to the extent that he could no longer see the light.

Did you catch that verb phrasing? Stephen let in doubt. He opened the door and welcomed it. In doing so he destroyed his own faith.

Elder Renlund paraphrases the 20th-century Latter-day Saint apostle John Widtsoe:

“Doubt, unless changed into inquiry from reliable, trustworthy sources, has no value or worth. A stagnant doubter, one content with himself, unwilling to make the appropriate effort to pay the price of divine discovery, inevitably reaches unbelief and darkness. His doubts grow like poisonous mushrooms in the dim shadows of his mental and spiritual chambers. At last, blind like the mole in his burrow, he usually substitutes ridicule for reason, indolence for labor, and becomes a lazy scholar.”

Doubters, then, are lazy, stagnant and blind to the truth. Other takeaways from the Renlunds’ talk are that:

  • Doubt can’t be a precursor to faith.

  • Doubt and faith cannot exist in the same person at the same time.

  • Doubt causes us to harden our own hearts.

  • Doubt prevents us from receiving answers from God.

  • Doubt leads us to be taken captive by the devil.

The most damaging part of the talk seems to be addressed to the faithful, those in the pews who are, presumably, without doubt themselves. The Renlunds press them on why they should not trust doubters: Would you entrust your financial portfolio to someone who was broke? Your health to a quack doctor? (Here is where the “snake-oil salesman” comment comes into play.)

Of course not. So why would you ever dream of listening to or trusting those who are “spiritually bankrupt,” who have “ripped up in doubt what they once planted in faith”?

This rhetoric has the effect of reassuring people who have never experienced doubt that they’re on the covenant path — while blaming those who do have doubts. The devotional conjures a palpable lack of compassion for Stephen and others, who are portrayed as secretly wanting to lose their faith.

That has just not been my experience in talking to people in a faith transition. For starters, this whole notion that doubt can never be a catalyst to a deeper faith is fear-based hogwash. Some people who have a faith crisis return to the fold with even stronger beliefs. It’s not a large group, but it happens often enough that we can’t simply depict doubt as antithetical to faith.

But I’ve never seen a case in which a doubter successfully returned to the church through shaming tactics such as these. Not once.

Doubt is not a path that people embark upon because they’re selfish, lazy or somehow perverse — all of which are reasons hinted at here. Rather, doubt occurs because it’s a natural part of faith formation. (See James Fowler for more on this.) Despite the devotional’s childish cartoon about staying in the boat without question, we are not called to be spiritual children. Nor are we called to avoid doubt at all costs. Doubt is one of the stages of adult faith. Some people never arrive at that stage, and some people arrive but never leave; the healthiest and most mature are able to integrate doubt as a teacher in their ongoing faith formation.

Maybe instead of shaming doubters, we should listen to them. Maybe instead of trying to deliver answers to all their questions, we should listen to them again.

And maybe instead of simply asserting and reasserting that doubters need to stay in the boat, we should recognize that not everyone’s “covenant path” is going to look exactly the same. Sometimes you have to leave the boat for a spell to learn to walk on water.

Editor’s note • The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.