Wheat & Tares welcomes guest poster Bill Reel: Host of “Mormon Discussion Podcast”

There is an epic war of ideology occurring right before our eyes in Mormonism. There are people lining up to take various sides. The trouble is the lines have been blurred and the average onlooker is perhaps not seeing things as they really are.  

The question at the heart of this battle is, “Are Doubter’s Welcome?”

This discussion is heightened at this very moment.  John Dehlin, Mormon podcaster and creator of of Mormon Stories Podcast and the Open Stories Foundation is being called in by his local leaders for a Disciplinary Council, where his membership may be determined to no longer be in good standing or even possibly finding himself excommunicated. He has been charged with Apostasy and his fate will be determined this Sunday. 

I consider John a friend and was interviewed once on his podcast.  I can attest that he has in deed helped many Latter Day Saints dig into the deeper history of their faith without feeling alone and having alternative views shared with them to help them reconcile the issues (See the Terryl Givens Interview for example).  He has helped many stay in the Church after having had their house of cards come down.  At the same time many members have lost faith and have left the Church at least in part to his opening their eyes to the deeper complex history and even perhaps their having unfaithful conclusions imparted to them as the best logical answer using, as John often refers to, Occam’s razor.

With all this stirring in the media, many are making this revolve around asking if the Church makes room for doubters.  The framing of this question is whether Mormonism’s theology and leadership welcomes difficult questions and whether Mormonism as an institution will give room for doubters to doubt and still be considered by other members and leaders as safely in the fold as a faithful member in full fellowship.

There are some voices out there suggesting that if John is disciplined the message is clear that Doubters are unwelcome or at least frowned upon. There are other voices out there that suggest these are two different groups and as such must be treated differently.  I am one of the latter and I hope you will allow me to explain.

Some background.  Personally, I entered my own major faith crisis about 5 years ago while serving as a Bishop in the Church. In some ways I am still deeply in a faith shift or transition at present though I think I see what looks like light ahead. During this faith shift and especially in the midst of my crisis I have been angry, saddened, frustrated, cynical bitter, untrusting, and hurt. I also can attest to the fact that some local leaders have been skeptical of me, have pushed me away, and have kept their distance. It is unfortunate but it is also true. At that same time I have had other leaders welcome my opinions and even at times seek my thoughts out on a particular topic as having more value than others in the room because of my faith shift.  I have had some leaders seek out my council on how to help others and I have even had the privilege of doing firesides in places far from my home such as Lafayette, Indiana and Sarnia, Canada where I have, with the blessing and encouragement of local Ward and Stake leaders, been asked to help others build a better foundation, better assumptions, and to more softly handle these faith shifts along with navigating the difficult issues within our History and Doctrine.

This positive and negative interaction is found within Mormonism. Yes, there is leader roulette. Yes, some leaders even at top levels have tried to avoid sharing difficult history. Yes, some local leaders seem to be completely unaware of the room in the tent for unorthodox belief and unorthoprax behavior (beliefs and practices outside the traditional expectations).  But in many regards that is what you get when you have an untrained lay ministry from the top down (Yes I know Leaders at the top are paid). And let me be clear, our lay ministry is one of the things I am most honored and proud of. What we have done with a lay ministry is nothing short of miraculous. So, yes, some members are offended, others marginalized; and others yet are treated uncharitably due to some of those leaders not knowing any better and in some cases likely even acting in the wrong intentionally. It is bound to occur. There seems no way around it.

I also go so far as to acknowledge we likely need more direction, resources, and help from the top down directing us how to better navigate the issue of doubt and validating why the doubter would legitimately struggle and how best to help them. We have fallen short at times and hopefully better resources are on the way.

Having said all that to establish a groundwork let me answer the following question

Consider two possible ways to dilineate two groups of people.  Those who no longer believe, but who want to remain in the Church, but also want to be able to proclaim publicly their unbelief and absolute defiance that their view is right and the Church is wrong.  The other group that has severe doubts but holds out hope.  They dissent but do so recognizing they have no more right to proclaim their stance as absolute truth than the Church institution’s stance, but rather offers their perspective as another view to consider.  They acknowledging it as an opinion while simultaneously acknowledging that their opinion could be wrong? Is there a difference between how the church treats/should treat these two groups.  

To me the answer is yes. Those two groups are treated differently and while both groups may suffer at the hands of leader roulette, only one group is defined by the institution as outside the bounds of it’s policies and accepted pattern to be in full fellowship.

Again don’t get me wrong, I fully validate that there are people in both groups who are treated as unfaithful at times. My argument is while that happens, one group has clearly acted in a way that leads to some of these repercussions. The other is innocent and deserves no such treatment, and I, along with many others including some among top leadership, have at times defended their standing.

Are we allowed to have doubts?

Elder Holland  has stated clearly in his conference talk “Lord I Believe”  “Honestly acknowledge your questions and your concerns”

Add to that President Uchtdorf stating in his talk “Come Join With Us” – “Regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this Church”

But where is the line?  When does one go from being clearly defined as a faithful member into being a member entering the the space of apostasy?

The First Presidency has stated in an official letter that “We understand that from time to time Church members will have questions about Church doctrine, history, or practice. Members are always free to ask such questions and earnestly seek greater understanding. We feel special concern, however, for members who distance themselves from Church doctrine or practice and, by advocacy, encourage others to follow them”

The line it seems is when you begin advocating that your position is more right than the Church’s.  It is one thing to say “have you considered such and such” or “I am struggling to reconcile ABC”, but once you have essentially said “ I am right and you are wrong” or “The Church is not historically true and I know that for certain”, you have entered a different space where being considered a faithful Mormon and being left alone unchallenged in this space is not a given nor your right.

For those who are safely in the fold but who are treated as if you are in the other group, Elder Marlin Jensen addressed this problem when he stated “…often in the church, when someone comes with a bit of a prickly question, he’ll be met with a bishop who number one, doesn’t know the answer. Number two, he snaps and says, ‘Get in line and don’t question the prophet, and get back and do your home teaching.’ And that isn’t helpful in most cases. So, we need to educate our leaders better, I think, to be sympathetic and empathetic and to draw out of these people where they are coming from and what’s brought them to the point they are at. What they have read, what they are thinking is, and try to understand them. Sometimes that alone is enough to help someone through a hard time. But beyond that, I think we really need to figure out a way to live a little bit with people who may never get completely settled”.  

For those to whom this has happened, I am sorry and we as a Church must, going forward, become better at responding, at empathizing, at giving you room while also validating you as a faithful member. We also must have room to ask tough questions, room to discuss social issues and various positions and ask ourselves is there anything we can do better. But we can not think we can proclaim disbelief and show others why our disbelieving position is the most intelligent answer to arrive at and expect the Church to consider us still in the fold and in full fellowship.

While the lines are being blurred and many are trying to place both groups in one basket as a way to strengthen their position and garner favor, I say to those who, in spite of their doubts, lead with their faith –  you are safely in the fold as far as I am concerned. While we as a Church must be better in how we treat you at times, you are, based on Elder Holland, along with President Uchtdorf, and the letter from the First Presidency, one of us, safely within the fold.

While we have taught that faith and doubt are incompatible, the reality is they both often co-exist. The question that determines which group we fall into is which one we lead with…. our faith or our doubts?  Are we helping people deal with the issues while moving safely within the Church or are we escorting people out.  John has likely done both, but in some ways we all have in one way or another. What will happen to John, I leave that up to those with that stewardship.  I  do though wish folks on both sides who are making all the noise might take a step back and consider whether your voice is helping or hurting your cause and the faith of others.  Are doubter’s truly welcome?  I say yes.  Our theology says yes.  Many of our Leaders say yes. But in the end it is moments like this and what kind of background noise we create and react within that will tell others if they are welcome or not.  This noise will tell us how far we have come and how far we must yet go.  My conclusion = The results are mixed and more help, resources, and time are needed.

Bill Reel is the host of Mormon Discussion Podcast. The podcast tries to deal with the tough issues forthrightly while “leading with faith”.