Jana Riess: Overcoming LDS doubt is hard when you’ve never been given the tools

Some of church President Russell M. Nelson’s counsel could push struggling members further from the faith.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson speaks at General Conference on Easter morning, Sunday, April 4, 2021.

President Russell M. Nelson’s talk on faith in the Easter Sunday morning session of General Conference hit upon some classic points, like the role of faith in overcoming obstacles in life, and the role of study and prayer in increasing faith.

But the second of his five points struck a nerve with some listeners within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If you have doubts about God, Jesus or Joseph Smith, Nelson said, you should “choose to believe and stay faithful. Take your questions to the Lord and to other faithful sources. Study with the desire to believe rather than with the hope that you can find a flaw in the fabric of a prophet’s life or a discrepancy in the scriptures. Stop increasing your doubts by rehearsing them with other doubters.”

In my experience, few people who are having doubts study with the intent of finding flaws in the gospel or the church’s interpretations of it. Rather, they study to recover beliefs they feel are fraying. They want to return to that place of comfortable, taken-for-granted belief, so they double down on what the church has taught them to do (and which Nelson emphasizes in the first of his five points): Study the gospel and be engaged learners. Sometimes, they find answers that, rather than resolving their questions, introduce others.

This is not their fault, and we should stop placing the blame for it on their shoulders. It’s simply a natural evolution of faith to a deeper and more mature level.

Or at least, it could be. But because the church often feels threatened by doubts and questions, its rhetoric tends to criminalize doubt and the people who experience it. The “stop increasing your doubts by rehearsing them with other doubters” advice is very much of this mold: The idea is that people who doubt have nothing constructive to teach and should be avoided.

But many times in life, we need to talk to someone who has “been there” and gone through the same feelings and experiences with which we are struggling. I’m part of a Crohn’s & Colitis Facebook group, for example, because there was a time our doctor thought a family member might have Crohn’s, and I wanted to learn as much as I could so I could help. Why would I try to learn about the condition from people who had not experienced it themselves? I instead learned by going straight to the source. In this same mode, I’m also in social media groups for fellow editors, lovers of border collies, and Cincinnati foodies. In all of them, what’s most valuable is that people are sharing the wealth of their experiences, whether it’s a local restaurant with great pandemic takeout or advice on what to do when your border collie keeps trying to herd you by wrapping the leash around your and your husband’s legs.

Those are lighthearted examples, but dealing with doubt is, for many Latter-day Saints, not lighthearted at all. It can be acutely painful. Of course they want to talk to people who already understand what they are dealing with. In my interviews with former members, in fact, several have indicated one of the reasons they did not want to speak to their bishop or more orthodox family members was they didn’t want to break open a Pandora’s box for those people. If they didn’t already know some of the more controversial aspects of church history, why would the doubter want to discuss those findings with them, knowing they could cause the same down-the-rabbit-hole discomfort the doubter was experiencing?

I’m with Nelson in that I would love to see people grow in their faith. I also agree that while it’s important and healthy to air our doubts, if we want to move forward in faith we also need to, as apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf once put it, doubt our doubts. The problem is, Mormonism has given us very few tools to be able to do that.

What’s tough for Latter-day Saint doubters is that the whole process of living comfortably with doubt means having humility. I don’t mean humility in the way members typically define it, which is about not being prideful in our talents or life circumstances. I mean humility about what we believe, which means being able to say about both our belief and our nonbelief, “You know, this is what I am thinking and feeling right now, but next year or even tomorrow, that could evolve.”

Nelson and other leaders want Latter-day Saint doubters to be able to magically know how to do something we’ve never taught believers how to do, which is to understand we could be very wrong in what we are currently thinking about religion.

But in my experience, it’s that very foundation that allows doubters to choose faith. Faith and belief, as Brian McLaren has helpfully pointed out in his recent book, “Faith After Doubt,” are not synonymous. Belief is accepting certain propositions considered correct by our community. Faith is revolutionary love. And, he writes, “sometimes, it is only by doubting a religion that expresses itself in beliefs that we can discover a faith that expresses itself in revolutionary love.”

Talking with those who are acquainted with doubt — particularly those who have come out on the other side with a more nuanced, deeper faith — helps people who have been raised to mistake belief for faith to not become overwhelmed when they experience the natural stirrings of doubt. By isolating those who experience doubt, ironically, the church risks pushing them further away from faith.