I was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in early December of 1978, six months after the church lifted the ban prohibiting black men from ordination and one week before my 17th birthday. Oddly, two years earlier the ban was, in large measure, what led me to scrutinize the Church. As an eighth grader, I was so upset to learn that a church would blatantly discriminate that I spent several lunch periods boring my friend and fellow Catholic, the bespeckled and knock-kneed Maria Campagne, with my tirades. The ban put the “Mormon Church” on my radar screen and, shock of shocks, in no time I was trembling under the weight of a newly-found, but solid, testimony. I was fourteen and desired baptism, but my parents withheld permission for well over two years, until Donny Osmond got married, just to be sure I wasn’t one of those. Although I sought membership years before the restriction was lifted, I didn’t embrace the ban. I stayed quiet about it, that’s true (much to Maria’s relief), but I couldn’t embrace it. I didn’t understand it. I questioned it. I doubted it. But there it was.
Maybe, because of the way I came into the Church, I’m predisposed to embrace doubt. Doubt, after all, is what brought me into the fold. But more than that, my doubt in a particular aspect of the Church’s then-current teaching did not impede my ability to understand the beauty of the restored gospel.
Unfortunately, for many Mormons, doubt is a four-letter word. But just as doubt is not, in reality, four letters long, it is also not evil. There is neither right nor wrong embedded in the act–the process–of doubt. In fact, doubt is a mechanism by which faith may expand or retract. To draw a simple analogy, doubt is like any vehicle. With it, you can reach an array of locations, some positive, some negative.
Doubt and Testimony: During my conversion process, I was blessed with sacred experiences which solidified my testimony that Joseph Smith was what he claimed, a prophet selected to restore the fullness of the gospel. I’m not ignorant of the sometimes bizarre (particularly to our modern sensibilities) foibles of his personal life or the limitation of some of what he understood about the Book of Mormon. Parts of my conversion experience have, over the years, taught me that it is an easy thing to make inaccurate assumptions based on revelation, but that those false assumptions don’t change the revelation. Sometimes our understanding needs to change.
A new Facebook page, Mormon Women Stand, has gained broad appeal and describes itself as a group of “LDS Women who, without hesitation, sustain the Lord’s Prophet, the Family Proclamation as doctrine and our divine role as covenant women for Christ.” In the Guidelines on Discussion and Tone, we find, “Discussions focused on questioning, debating, and doubting gospel principles do little to build the kingdom of God.” The passage then states: “With this in mind, anything contentious, contrary to or criticizing the teachings, doctrines or leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on this page will not be welcome.”
I’m not sure how to react to this. If this group holds strictly to this platform, I, as a teenage investigator, would have had no place there. I (and my comments) would’ve been rejected for the very doubts, criticisms, and questions that lead to my testimony.
In fact, I don’t think I’m welcomed there now. I continue to have questions–real doubts about some things. Yet, I don’t feel my questions call into question my devotion to the Lord, my commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or my willingness to sustain the current president and prophet. I have always had doubts, things I wondered about, unexplained things that got under my skin. Over the years, I’ve supplicated my Father in Heaven about my doubts and gained insight I wouldn’t otherwise have had. So I’m confused: If approaching my God with my doubts is a good thing, why is it a bad thing to approach my fellow saints with them? Surely I’m not the only person with both a testimony and doubt.
Mormon Women Stand without a Doubt, but Should They?: I’ve no qualms with Mormon Women Stand’s assertion that it is a group of women “who, without hesitation, sustain … the Family Proclamation as doctrine.” I, too, sustain it without hesitation. But I have serious doubts about certain moral and ethical assumptions that the Mormon populace (both of the mainstream and leadership varieties) have made regarding it. The Proclamation has holes, things that are left unsaid, and yet we have, as a cultural body, assigned values, or meanings, that extend beyond the words that are written on the page. So yes, I have doubts that our interpretation–even the interpretation given at official podiums–is completely in line with Heavenly Father’s view. In other words, I doubt “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” is Heavenly Father’s final word, which is not the same thing as doubting the proclamation is His word. To me, its weave is loose.
Allow me to be specific. The Proclamation states this about gender: “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” I believe that wholeheartedly. But most Latter-day Saints make the assumption that any child of God born in mortality who says, “I’ve always known I was the opposite gender from what my body indicates” is, at best, denying his or her sacred nature, or, at worst, committing a grievous sin in the eyes of God. But the Proclamation doesn’t state that. It only states that gender is eternal. We assume that someone who says they are born into a body with the wrong genitalia is rejecting their eternal nature, their true gender. We assume a penis or vagina is the divine indicator of gender. At the same time, we reject the notion that our body defines us: We are sons and daughters of God, and, therefore, we are more than our mortal body.
During my daughter’s high school years, when she made plans to go out, I had the habit of asking where she was going, who she was going with, and, specifically, would there be boys involved in her activity. She often answered that Alex (not his real name) would be accompanying them, but that “he didn’t really count” because he was “more like one of the girls.” As it turned out, Alex always believed he’d been born into the wrong type of body: he was a she and he knew it in the core of his being. After reaching adulthood, Alex began living as a woman and she continues to be one of my daughter’s favorite friends. When I think about Alex in relation to the statement on gender in the Proclamation, I see evidence that what the Proclamation states is truth: Alex was a female before her birth, she continues to be female in spite of her body’s appearance, and she will be female in the hereafter. I see no hint in her quiet, patient demeanor of sin or aberration, but I do see a spirit lost in the pain of being misunderstood, judged, and rejected. So yes, I doubt. I doubt the Proclamation’s statement on gender is complete. I doubt Heavenly Father judges her as harshly as her fellow human beings. I doubt the assumption that any son or daughter of God who tells us their genitalia misidentifies them is deceived or sinful. I think it’s much more likely our assumption that they are deceived and sinful is deceptive and sinful. These are doubts I take to Lord in prayer.
Of course, I, too, make assumptions. I assume that spirits who are born into wrongly-gendered bodies agree to this situation, or at least understand it will be the case, while still in the premortal realm. I sense that their struggle exists in order to help the rest of us develop Christlike love, or perhaps, to allow us to establish our own condemnation. This assumption feels more faithful to me than the assumption they are sinful.
Some may balk at my claims about my own faith because of my doubts, prophesying my inevitable spiritual downfall because I’m contending with God’s spokesmen. I would remind them that Joseph Smith made assumptions we are learning were in error. He assumed all native Americans were descendants of Lehi, and that the Nephites and Lamanites were the only groups present on the American continent. Neither of these assumptions, though widely accepted throughout the Church’s history, is supported in the text of the Book of Mormon. Both were errant assumptions made by the Prophet and perpetuated by church members. This does not prove Joseph Smith is not a prophet. Nor does it disprove the Book of Mormon. It only demonstrates that humans sometimes makes assumptions–sometimes look beyond the mark–and see things that aren’t there.
Doubt as Traction: In the Sunday morning session of April’s General Conference, Elder David A. Bednar shared the memorable story of a man who drove his new truck into the snowy mountains and became stuck. With no way to get out and nothing better to do, he decided to cut and load firewood into the truck’s bed. Needless to say, the additional weight of his load allowed the truck to gain sufficient traction in the snow and he was able to drive out of the wilderness, down the mountain, and back home. Elder Bednar explained that sometimes the weight of our mortal burdens is precisely what we need to get us back to our Father in Heaven.
It is a delightful analogy. As I reflect on it, however, I can’t help but notice that the truck owner actively selected his own burden, or, in other words, he cut down the timber and loaded it himself. Certainly this has parallels in our own life. Our choices often bring on our troubles. But in this story, the driver’s trouble was not his burden, nor was it caused by his burden. His trouble was caused by a foolish decision to drive into deep snow. The burden he placed in the bed of his truck was the solution to his trouble.
When I think of this story, I think of doubt as that kind of burden. I don’t want to doubt. Doubt is hard work, much like cutting and loading firewood. But I do want answers, knowledge, light. I want to get out of the deep snow. If I load up on doubt–a thing I need as much as the driver’s family needed wood for warmth–my soul can have the traction it needs to resolve the trouble I get myself into. Doubt propels results, increases faith. Or can if doubt is faithful. I ask that we reconsider the way we think of doubt. Instead of thinking of it as trouble for the soul, let’s begin considering it a burden that allows us to progress.
So yes, I have doubts. I consider those doubts a sign of my faith, not a sign of weak faith. I rejoice in the knowledge we have gained through a lineage of modern-day prophets, but I also trust that, if we desire more light and knowledge, it will come. Faith, in my eyes, is not merely the acceptance of things as they are, but the hope for things that will be. And so I doubt. And so I look for the holes, the empty spots in our knowledge, the places where the weave of the cloth is not tight, and I will examine those spaces, prod and poke them, hoping to gain some better individual understanding in advance of great revelation. In preparation for great revelation.
I understand that Mormon Women Stand wants to develop a safe, respectful place to testify, and I do not fault them that. I not only understand, but applaud, the desire to eliminate contentious banter, to have a quiet place without the noise. However, without a willingness to include doubt, they may end up bearing testimony only to themselves. And that’s okay. There is a need for that.
But me? I will continue to doubt and to engage in conversation about my doubt, both with my Heavenly Father and with my fellow doubters.
After all, doubt has been the burden that has given traction to my testimony for more than thirty-five years, and I trust in God enough to continue doubting.
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you (Mat. 7:7)