Defending Faith When Confronted by Well-informed Doubters
Missionaries in particular; but all of us in general, are likely to confront questions raised by well-informed doubters of our faith. These questions will come at us from confirmed antagonists intent on attacking our “foolish and misguided” faith. Or more comfortably, these questions will come from honest seekers of truth who are hoping to clarify issues that they find confusing. Either way, when we face challenges to our faith, will we be able to firmly, but in a loving and non-contentious way, defend our beliefs? Will our knowledge and acceptance of truth be deep enough to withstand the attacks of antagonists? As the Apostle Peter asked of disciples in his day, will we be “ready always to give and answer to every man that asketh…a reason of the hope that is in us” (1 Peter 3:15). Or as President Monson has asked: “Do we have the moral courage to stand firm for our beliefs, even if by so doing we must stand alone? Are we both willing and able to engage in polite discussion with those who have honest questions? Without resorting to contention, are we able and willing to clarify and defend the teachings of the restored Church of Jesus Christ?” (Thomas S. Monson, “Dare to Stand Alone,” Liahona, Nov. 2011, 60.)
For most of us, being willing, but also able to effectively defend our faith will require prayerful study and preparation. Following is the result of this kind of preparation as experienced by one member of the Church. Perhaps his conclusions and reasoning will be helpful as you personally develop your own response to the kinds of questions that are likely to come up.
A Personal Response:
I am aware of questions regarding Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy. I know that there are multiple accounts of the First Vision, which vary in important ways from one another. I am familiar with much of the history involving blacks and the priesthood; and of the concerns some women have regarding their inability to hold certain priesthood offices in the Church. I am aware of treasure seeking, peep stones, and other facts in Joseph Smith’s history. Likewise, I understand the concerns some have regarding how the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price came about; as well as Church doctrine and practice regarding LGBT and other current issues. I am aware of pro-abortion arguments, concerns about the wealth of the Church, it’s political influence in certain quarters, and most other complaints and concerns raised by Church antagonists. Yet, I remain committed to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Following are some of the reasons for continued, but also growing faith.
1. The doctrines found in the products of Joseph Smith’s ministry--Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and other writings--resonate with me. I find in them profound, unique insight not found, or when found not as fully developed, in the sacred literature and beliefs of other religions. They motivate me to be a better person and add immeasurably to my understanding of life.
The important thing to me is that these enlightening doctrines exist. It’s not that important by whom or how they were produced. Even if I discovered that Joseph Smith and others were purposely misleading, or just misguided, when they explained the origin of these materials; I still clearly see a divine imprint on the sacred literature and teachings of the Church. The legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (“the thing speaks for itself) seems to apply. For instance, the only explanation for the existence of the Book of Mormon that makes any sense to me is the explanation given by Joseph Smith. The book is so beyond anything a man or men could produce, let alone an uneducated frontiersman working under the conditions that Joseph Smith did, a divine source seems self-evident. The doctrines and practices of the Church also work for me. The fruit of my faith is sweet and uplifting; which means that its value to me is again, self-evident. In other words, “the thing speaks for itself”.
In terms of my experience in the Church, it’s true that I have occasionally been misinformed on some points; and rumor and myth have occasionally been taught as truth in Church classes and sermons. But, in my experience, core teachings and instructions have always been positive and uplifting. For example, even though my active membership in the Church might lead some to label me a racist, homophobe, and bigot, I have never been taught anything in the Church other than an obligation to treat all people with respect and dignity—to give to all love and acceptance in spite of differences in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, opinions or life style. Although I and other members don’t always follow the instructions given, Church teachings have always been reasonable and decidedly in my best interest; and in the best interest of my family, neighbors, and society in general.
If I were to suddenly discover that Joseph Smith was a fraud and the basis for my belief in the Church was totally false, I would resign my membership; but my life wouldn’t change much. I would continue to live by the values I have been taught in the Church. Why? Because experience has taught me that this is the best way to live. Furthermore, I would naturally be drawn to people as friends and neighbors who are exactly like those I presently find in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Why? Because in all the different places I have lived, such people have always been the kindest, most helpful, most fun, most loyal friends and neighbors available.
2. I have decided that prophets don’t have to be perfect; nor do scriptures; nor does the Church. Joseph Smith, for example never claimed to be perfect; and he certainly had his faults. Of course, his faults are a deal breaker for some who apparently believe that those faults make it impossible to be a prophet. For me, the fact that God could use an imperfect person in such dramatic fashion is actually comforting. It means that there might be hope for the rest of us as well.
Based on examples found in the Old and New Testament, as well as experience in the latter-day Church of Jesus Christ, it is obvious to me that God allows imperfections in his Church; and in its leaders. With respect to Church operation and policy, none of the mistakes that I have seen or heard about have eternal implications; which are ultimately the only ones that really matter, but they all challenge faith to some extent. Of course, as I understand it, challenging and testing faith is an important part of what life is all about; which probably explains why mistakes are tolerated in God’s Church. With respect to Church leaders, requiring perfection would remove all humans from consideration. If as an alternative, God took charge personally, the truth would be so obvious that there would be few non-believers. In which case, man’s agency would be severely compromised; and it would again weaken the need for faith and the testing aspect of this mortal experience.
Along with imperfections in Church leaders and practice, there may be mistakes in sacred scriptures. Because humans are involved, it’s inevitable that there will be poor translations, intentional changes by scribes, problems with recall and understanding on the part of the writers of scripture, and metaphors and analogies that can easily be misunderstood. The presence of error, however, does not suggest throwing the baby out with the bath water. The fact that there are a few weeds in the garden does not suggest that we discard the bounty of fruit and vegetables that are also found there.
It’s also true that when acknowledging mistakes in scripture and Church doctrine and practice, one must be careful. The truth is that in making that judgement in any given instance, we could be mistaken! This is especially likely if we believe as I do in the declaration found in Isaiah: “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). Given the natural limitations on our memory and perceptions, our severely limited knowledge, and our temporal perspective, it strikes me as being naïve and terribly ethnocentric to insist that the truth is limited to what we see; and to what makes sense to us. We are clearly at a disadvantage when compared to God’s view, which includes the past, present and future (D & C 130:7); and God understands all things as they really are and as they really will be (Jacob 4:13).
3. In summary, can I prove that the restored scriptures I believe in are divinely inspired and that the Church I belong to is indeed the Church of Jesus Christ? Of course not. But then, my beliefs can’t be proven false either. Have I just ignored the questions about Church history and current policies and practices that have caused a good number to abandon their faith; and a good number of others to refuse to accept it? No. I have generally found answers that work for me in the Gospel Topics Essays found at (https://www.lds.org). Other sources that have also been helpful include the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (https://mi.byu.edu) and FairMormon (https://www.fairmomon.org).
Where questions remain, I trust that answers will come in time. As suggested in some detail above, I can hold on for now because the great majority of Church teachings and my Church experience is profoundly positive; and, at least to me, can be explained only through divine involvement.
I also have spiritual feelings about these things that I can’t deny; nor can I adequately explain them in words. As Alma in the Book of Mormon explained, we “cannot say the smallest part which (we) feel” (Alma 26:16). Of course, trying to explain faith is like trying to explain what sugar tastes like; or trying to describe the color yellow. But as hard as they are to describe in words, sugar and the color yellow exist; and so does my faith. I count the fact that my faith is as real to me as the taste of sugar and the color yellow to be a gift from God; which indeed it is in the last analysis. The logic and experience described above are helpful in developing and defending faith; but the most critical factor is to seek faith through prayer—by spiritual means. Once obtained, that faith must then be continually nourished in order to survive. The spiritual steps required to develop faith and nourish it are simple; perhaps so simple that some fail to fully appreciate them. The steps are continual study, prayer, and the application of eternal principles through service and obedience. At the end of the day, I justify my faith based on spiritual input from having followed, although imperfectly, these steps over many years.
Dr. Gary G. Taylor