Do I take my faith seriously?

This is the question I ultimately had to answer for myself.

I am a life-long, multi-generational mormon who has lived decades trying my best to do the right things.  I am also one of those people who has been blessed to be a spiritual person.

In this case, I am defining spiritual as a person who enjoys meditation, prayer, reading inspired words and can feel something during those experiences. So I would also say I have been a person who has desired to have faith.

Do I take my faith seriously?

Ten years ago I would have answered this question with a resounding yes.

But for reasons that aren’t important for the purpose of this blog, the day came when I realized I had not been taking my faith seriously.  I was just accepting what had been given to me, applied a healthy dose of confirmation bias and avoidance and went through the prescribed motions.

Even though, I never would have agreed with this observation about my approach to faith prior to 5 years ago, I have to admit now that the observation is true.

I woke up to the idea painfully that faith requires evaluation.  Faith requires honesty.  And a true faith requires real intent.

There are 7 questions I explored to try and deepen and strengthen my faith.  And to ultimately put my faith one step closer to a foundation of truth.

What are these questions?

1)  What do I mean when I say I know something is true?

2)  Is it okay to ask a question or have a doubt?

3)  How do I respond to information that contradicts my beliefs?

4)  Is there is only one valid answer to questions of faith?

5)  Would I want to know if something I currently believe is not true?

6)  How would I ever know if something I currently believe is not true?

7)  Do I have real intent?

I am now an unorthodox mormon.  I would even gladly describe myself as a happy heretic.

If you are uncomfortable reading the thoughts and journey of someone who has been willing to ask questions about their personal faith, then you may not want to proceed. But the tone is light and the historical issues are hardly touched.

But these 7 questions have profoundly changed how I view and approach the world.

Do I have some unique perspective on faith in general or Mormonism specifically.  The resounding answer is NO.

So why am I sharing any of my thoughts and perspective?

Five years ago, when I began this journey for reasons not of my making, I felt alone.  I felt like there was no one who could possibly understand what I was going through.

I was wrong.  There are tens of thousands of other current and post mormons who understood the challenging questions of faith and were willing to share their journey and insights.  I was not alone.

I share these questions and thoughts in hopes to give back in some small way.  I hope that there is someone who is like I was 5 years ago, that may be helped on their journey, regardless of where that journey may lead.

Best wishes.

Question #1 – What do I mean when I say I know something is true?

I know what I used to mean, when I said “I know” [insert truth claim] is true.

I meant that I had been taught a principle or a doctrine and I had prayed about it. And at some point in time I had a spiritual feeling that what I was hearing or thinking about was right (i.e., true).

To me, I had been taught in church, that a spiritual feeling could be many things. It could be a warm feeling in my chest. It could be a feeling of peace. It could be goose bumps on my arms or even thoughts coming into my mind. I was taught to recognize that when I felt good about an idea, principle or doctrine, that this was the Holy Ghost witnessing to me that I was in the presence of truth.

So when I read the Book of Mormon all the way through for the first time and went to the mountains and prayed about it, to test Moroni’s promise, I was surprised. Because I felt absolutely nothing.

No feeling of peace.

No burning in my chest.

Not even a stupor of thought.

Nothing.

However, my parents had taught me that the Book of Mormon was true. I trusted their faith. So I continued on in my quest of praying and seeking out these spiritual feelings that I had been taught would come when I prayed about something true.

Ultimately I did have many of these spiritual experiences while reading, studying and praying about the Book of Mormon.

So despite my initial non-answer to my prayers, I now knew that the Book of Mormon was true.

But what did I really mean, when I said I knew it was true?

At that time, I meant that everything the church had taught me about the Book of Mormon was factually and actually true. It was a second witness of Jesus Christ. The prophets who wrote it were real people. It contained the fullness of the gospel. And it was the most correct book on the earth.

That is what I had been taught that truth meant.

That is what I meant, when I said “I know” it is true.

HOWEVER.

I really didn’t “know” any of those things.

What doctrine did the Book of Mormon really teach? I couldn’t say. I had only just finished reading it completely for the first time. It would be years before I had fully studied it for what it really taught as opposed to what was taught to me in Sunday school lessons.

Did Nephi really exist? Was the brother of Jared a real person who lived at a time when all languages were the same and then God cursed the people’s languages?

I didn’t know that. I just trusted what I had been taught.

Did I “know” that the Book of Mormon was really the most correct book? It would be decades before I recognized the potential historical issues and doctrinal nuances it contained.

No.

When I said “I Know” the Book of Mormon is true, I was really saying this. That I had felt something peaceful or warm in context of reading and praying about it.

All of the things I had been taught about the Book of Mormon, I really didn’t know. I just trusted the church and its leaders and took them at their word. That when I felt that warmness in my chest and a feeling of peace, then all of those other things I had been taught were true.

So no.

I didn’t really know.

I trusted.

I trusted my leaders. I trusted my feelings.

So it would have been more accurate to say, when I was bearing my testimony, that I trust that the Book of Mormon is true. I had a warm feeling when I read it and I prayed about it and this is a witness of its truth according to the leaders who have taught me.

I trust my leaders that the Book of Mormon is true would be a more accurate statement for me, and the vast majority of Mormons I know, rather than the statement “I know”.

But at that time, I didn’t know anything better. Except that I had felt something.

And that would be sufficient for decades. I would continue on as a faithful servant in God’s one true kingdom on earth.

Until….

Until the questions that periodically popped up their annoying heads, ultimately refused to go away and stay on the shelf.

Question 2 – Is it okay to ask a question or have a doubt?

Recently the leaders of the church have taught us that it is okay to doubt. It is okay to ask questions.

However, this feels dramatically different than my personal experiences in church for decades.

During Sunday school, once in a while, some liberal Mormon would ask a difficult question. The other members would squirm. People would get quiet. Ultimately someone would make a statement like, “that isn’t important to your salvation” or “we will learn everything when we die”, or “it doesn’t matter, I know the church is true, no matter what because I have had a spiritual witness”.

Or you would hear the whispered stories about a sister who recently left the church. You could hear the pity in the voice of the ward leader explaining, that they just were too smart for their own good. They had “thought” themselves out of the church.

Or even during general conference, I have personally been taught on more than one occasion about the enemies of the church. Who do they include? Why yes. Those “so-called” intellectuals.

What did these repeated experiences teach me over decades?

It was not good to ask questions.

It was not good to think too hard.

It was not good to question the possibility that something might not be right with the orthodoxy being taught week in and week out over the pulpit and in classes around the world.

Members become uncomfortable.

Questioning is shut down.

Critical thinking is shut down.

I remember being offered “anti” Mormon literature on my mission and my companion freaking out. “Throw that away right now Elder”. “It has the spirit of the devil in it”.

And so I threw it away. In fact, if my memory is correct, I burned it.

I was taught that the devil was very powerful and deceptive.  He could get good, honest and sincere people to believe the craziest things.

So it was just best not to think too deeply, because the devil is there, waiting to trick me and deceive me.

Then one day this thought came into my head, “if Satan is so powerful and subtle, how do I know that I am not already deceived?”

Maybe the church leaders today are right. It should be okay to ask a question and to have a doubt.  Otherwise, how would I know if I had the truth or if I am just being deceived by Satan?

Fortunately this is not a new philosophy or idea I am making up on my own.  President J. Reuben Clark of the first presidency once said: “”If we have the truth, [it] cannot be harmed by investigation.”

It is okay to have a question.  It is okay to have a doubt.  I believe it is how I respond to the doubts and questions that matters most.

Question 3 – How do I respond to information that contradicts my beliefs?

Avoidance.

Confirmation bias.

Cognitive dissonance.

Those are the three primary tools or effects that all of us experience many times as we deal with information that contradicts our current beliefs.

When I was given the anti-Mormon literature on my mission, what did I do? I burned it. Clearly, I loved the tactic of avoidance. I had been taught well.

When I was confronted by a Baptist minister that Brigham Young was a false prophet because he taught heresies like Adam was our God and Father and the Father of Jesus Christ. What did I do? I found quotes from general authorities that denied that he ever taught any thing like it. I found apologists who explained that Brigham Young’s words were misconstrued and misreported. I found quotes from Brigham Young, which taught a more simple and traditional version of Adam and Eve.

I cherry picked my quotes and built up an arsenal of defense against these anti-Mormon lies. I only accepted information that confirmed the position I wanted to have. Why? Because I was already right. I already had the truth. I had felt a warm feeling in my chest at some point. So I knew I already had the truth.

That Baptist minister was just a liar and tool of the devil. Again. The devil is so subtle and deceptive.

When I ultimately read the Journal of Discourses and learned first hand what Brigham Young really taught about Adam being our God and Father, I was sick to my stomach. When I read the lecture at the veil of the St. George temple where Brigham Young taught that Adam was the father of Jesus Christ, my head was spinning. When I read a letter from Bruce R. McConkie admitting that Brigham Young had taught false doctrine about Adam, which he considered heresies, I wanted to die.

How could I rectify what I had believed to be true with what now looked also to be true? I was in turmoil. I was suffering cognitive dissonance.

I had been taught that feelings like this (cognitive dissonance) were evidence that I was losing the spirit.  When these feelings came along, I needed to retreat into the practice of prayer, scripture study and only reading approved materials so that the familiar spiritual experiences could return.

However….

Early in my adult life, I had a fairly stressful situation where I thought I couldn’t get out of it. I had received an inspirational thought during this moment of turmoil and trial. That thought was this, “the only way out is through”.

The only way to really get to the other side of cognitive dissonance is to go through it as opposed to retreating from it.

On the other side is a greater probability you may achieve a more clear vision of truth.

But unfortunately many of us feel discomfort when we approach issues that cause cognitive dissonance. We have been trained that bad feelings are from Satan and so we usually retreat from exploring the issues. We never get to the other side. We stay on the side of the fence in which we were born.

But….

I ultimately recognized that it is okay to give up something untrue for something more true.

But when you get to the other side of cognitive dissonance, how can you really know what is true?

Question 4 – Is there is only one valid answer to questions of faith?

How can you really know what is true?

I had been taught by church leaders and my parents that you can know truth if you have a warm feeling in your chest or a feeling of peace, or goose bumps on your arms, or thoughts come to your mind.

I was taught that the key to truth was my feelings.

But…..

Only if those feelings confirmed what my Mormon leaders had been teaching me.

Elder Oaks taught this principle very clearly in General Conference. He said:

“Unfortunately, it is common for persons who are violating God’s commandments or disobedient to the counsel of their priesthood leaders to declare that God has revealed to them that they are excused from obeying some commandment or from following some counsel. Such persons may be receiving revelation or inspiration, but it is not from the source they suppose. The devil is the father of lies, and he is ever anxious to frustrate the work of God by his clever imitations.”

There is that devil again with his subtle craftiness.

But here is the problem.

If I am supposed to trust my feelings as the ultimate testator of truth, but only if it confirms what I had been taught by the church, then how is that feeling of any value?

There would be no way to get any valid answer to any truth claim from the church other than yes.

For example:

The book of Mormon is true. Pray about it and you will get a spiritual witness of its truth.

Well what if I don’t get a spiritual witness?

Then keep praying until you do.

What if it never comes?

Then you are doing it wrong. Keep praying.

What if I received a spiritual witness, but it tells me the Book of Mormon is not true?

Then you are being deceived by the devil (per Elder Oaks and a myriad of other church leaders).

You see.

Yes is the only valid answer.

There is only one answer in this situation. The Book of Mormon is true, no matter what.

There is no valid answer that it is NOT true.

As a believing Mormon, this is not a problem. Because you already KNOW that the Book of Mormon is true. So what is the problem?

But what if your starting point is that you are a Muslim and you are praying about the Koran?

If you use the Mormon test of truth, you would never leave Islam. You would always stay a believer in Mohammed and would never consider the truths of Mormonism.

So there you have the dilemma.

If your beliefs are unverifiable from an objective viewpoint, you can never be 100 percent positive that you really have the truth.

If you are a Mormon, you will stay a Mormon.

If you are a Muslim, you will stay a Muslim.

Which for the majority of the world’s population, this doesn’t appear to be a problem. Most people are very comfortable to stay in the religion or belief system in which they are born.

If I were wrong about my faith, would I really want to know?

Question 5 – Would I want to know if something I currently believe is not true?

This is a very serious question, which demands personal reflection.

I have asked this question on occasion to others and I usually get a very quick response.

Of course, I would want to know.

The majority of people are honest and recognize that a negative response to this question implies they are willing to indulge in willful ignorance. That response just doesn’t feel good to a person to have to admit to oneself that you would rather live a comfortable lie than live with an uncomfortable truth (i.e., I have been wrong my entire life).

However, the follow-up question is a little more indicting.

What have you done to challenge whether or not your beliefs are true?

The honest reply for many usually goes back to a history of avoidance and confirmation bias.  Which we have already discussed is a road of hope as opposed to a road of honesty and truth seeking.

The majority of people say they would want to know the truth.

BUT.

When confronted with difficult issues and questions and doubts, they avoid them. They seek only evidence that supports their preexisting ideas.

Getting to the other side of cognitive dissonance isn’t for sissies.

It is painful.

It can be destructive.

But, it is the only honest pathway.

If you are not willing to put your most cherished beliefs on the altar of truth, you cannot and will not ever be sure that they are in deed true.

The best you can have is hope.

And if you are lucky, maybe your beliefs are true.

But until you can examine all evidence fairly and honestly, you can never truly be sure. You can never truly stand to bear an honest testimony that you “know” something is true.

At best you can say you hope and believe. Or you can say you trust.

But an unexamined faith is only your personal hope and wish, at best.

Would you want to know if something you currently believe is not true?

Each one of us can only answer this question for ourselves if we really do.

Question 6 – How would I ever know if something I currently believe is not true?

Seeking truth is an admirable goal.

Finding truth can be elusive.

If it were really that easy, there wouldn’t be thousands of religions and a myriad of competing political and business opinions thrashing around the world today.

Truth can be elusive.

So why try?

Because truth does exist.

It exists independent of you and me.

And if you do find it, you are one step further away from self-deception and one step closer to enlightenment and discernment.

Wouldn’t you want your understanding of this life and the eternities to be as close to truth as possible?

If this life really is a test and you have to perform certain functions in order to receive a great reward in the eternities, then wouldn’t you want to know?

If this life really is all there is, wouldn’t you want to know so you didn’t waste one minute of this precious gift of time?

Either way. I would personally want to know what is true. Even if it was a hard truth over a comfortable lie.

But how can you know truth?

In my journey, I considered two tools, which continue to be of great worth to me in my pursuit of truth and understanding.

Tool #1 – Law of witnesses

We are taught that there is a spiritual law of witnesses. There must be more than one witness testifying of a truth.

AND

We also are taught that some witnesses can be FALSE.

So we have the obligation to inspect and consider all witnesses. Consider all evidence.  If we are unwilling to examine all witnesses how can we ever be sure we have identified the true witnesses from the false witnesses?

Sometimes this path leads us to a sure knowledge of truth.

For example, I was always taught that a prophet could never lead the church astray. That the only path to safety I had in this life was to follow the teachings and counsel of the prophets.  I was taught and believed that this meant a prophet would never teach false doctrine.  A prophet would never intentionally lie.  A prophet lived a higher moral code, because no unclean thing can enter heaven.  So prophets were clearly cleaner and more righteous than the average mormon.

However…

When I examined all witnesses, I learned that prophets can and do indeed teach false doctrines (race and the priesthood essay), that they can and do behave in immoral ways (polygamy essays), that they can be decades behind the times regarding ethical behavior (civil rights).

So my testimony of truth that my only path to safety was through strict obedience to prophetic teachings was not true, at least in any universally applicable sense.

The truth may be that prophets and leaders are inspired, but at times they often are just flat out wrong.

Sometimes you can examine a truth claim and be confident in what it means and in what it doesn’t mean.

However….

Sometimes the examination of all of the witnesses doesn’t lead to a firm knowledge of truth.

Real life and experiences are nuanced.

Histories written by people over time can be skewed according to an agenda.

In these circumstances, truth can become very elusive.

This brings me to my next tool for your consideration.

Tool #2 – Possibility versus Probability

Many things are possible.

There could be a can of aged cheddar cheese sitting under a rock on the moon.

It is possible.

But is it probable?

Probable events have a high likelihood that they actually occurred, even if you cannot prove with 100 percent surety that they did.

Did Joseph Smith have sex with some of his polygamous wives? As of yet, there is no DNA evidence that children exist. Joseph Smith denied his participation in the practice of polygamy vehemently until the day he died.

However, dozens of women testified that they were his wives. Many of them testified that they were his wives in all sense of the word (i.e., sexual relations). Friends and family members documented in their diaries about weddings and conjugal visits between Joseph and his wives. There is a revelation in D&C 132 declaring the principle of polygamy being directed by God. Joseph Smith had great incentive to lie about polygamy. It was one factor in his eventual death.

Was there any video of the actual act of Joseph having sex with his wives? No.

Did Joseph ever write in his journal any personal entries confessing to the practice? No.

Do people deny his sexual practices today? Yes.

However, the preponderance of evidence leads one to believe, with high probability, that he actually did engage in sex with at least some of his wives.

The evidence is so compelling that even the current church leaders have had to admit to the same (polygamy essays).

However, we will never know with 100 percent certainty.

So in the pursuit of many truth claims, you may only be left with probability versus possibility.

In these situations I personally lean on trusting the side of probability.

I know of many apologists of the church who attribute greater strength to the arm of possibility.

It could be possible that there was major steel production going on in the Americas pre Columbus which supported armies of millions but which has mysteriously vanished.

But is it probable? No.

As for me, I am willing, now, to examine all witnesses.

When the truth is evident and clear, I want to make it my friend. Embrace it. Include it in my world view. Even if it is painful.

When truth is elusive, but there is a strong probability of a path toward truth, I am also willing to embrace it and include it, in balance with the truths that I know with certainty.

I have no desire to cling to remote possibilities, just because it makes me more comfortable.

The path toward truth requires real intent.

Question #7 – Do I have real intent?

President Uchtdorf taught in a recent general conference this principle:

“First, you must search the word of God. That means reading the scriptures and studying the words of the ancient as well as modern prophets regarding the restored gospel of Jesus Christ—not with an intent to doubt or criticize but with a sincere desire to discover truth.”

He repeated in this talk multiple times that we must approach our pursuit of truth with real intent.

I assume he is imagining the cynic who approaches an issue of faith solely looking for the points of conflict where they can tear down the truth claims and faith of the religious.

Clearly this type of person is not approaching the pursuit of truth with real intent. They already have their mind made up. They are only seeking evidence (witnesses) that confirms their original point of view (confirmation bias).

This would be a good example of someone without “real intent”.

But let me ask you a question.

Does a faithful person who desires to believe, automatically have “real intent”?

If a faithful person pursuing a truth claim will only consider evidence (witnesses) that is faith affirming and confirms their original point of view (confirmation bias), are they not committing the exact same sin as the cynic?

I would argue that the cynic and biased faithful person are on the same side of the coin. Neither is pursuing the journey of truth and faith with real intent. They both have made up their minds. They both will only consider evidence that supports their position.

So where am I?

Where are you?

Do either of us have real intent?

What is real intent?

I believe real intent presumes three things:

  • Am I willing to accept either a positive or negative answer in my pursuit of truth? I may have a pre-existing opinion. But that opinion doesn’t own me or define me. I am willing to change my viewpoint with sufficient evidence and justification based upon a fair evaluation of all evidence (witnesses).
  • Am I willing to fairly consider multiple witnesses on both sides of a truth claim? Negative emotions do arise when we are confronted with two truth claims that contradict each other (cognitive dissonance). But am I willing to push through and give a fair hearing?
  • Am I willing to challenge myself and seriously consider if I am still being subject to confirmation bias. Even when we are aware of our cognitive weaknesses and risks, we can still be subject to them. The pursuit of truth in an honest and fair way is not for the faint at heart. It requires strength and courage.

I have discovered in my own past experiences, that I often was not willing to accept either a positive or negative answer. I only wanted a positive answer.

When I was in my early 30’s I intentionally decided that I would only accept faith-affirming answers about my religion. I had warm feelings often in my chest. That was enough to ignore evidence and other witnesses that made me feel uncomfortable.

I recognize that most of my life I did not have real intent in my pursuit of truth.

I had an agenda.

I already “knew” what was truth.

I knew I didn’t like the discomfort that came when I would peripherally consider contradictory evidence.

And I am sorry it took me so long to recognize these problems in my approach to truth.

I did not have real intent.

I wanted the church to be true in exactly the way it had been taught to me in church by my family and by my leaders. And by my prophet.

Clearly my approach was no better than the cynic.

Even today, I have to check myself. Is my intent pure and real?

I do not put myself out there as having discovered all of life’s great truths. Or even any of them.

However, this journey of awakening has opened my eyes.

Some things I feel that I do see more clearly. Even if I don’t truly understand them all.

But the one thing I know for certain is this. Some things I believed to be true in the past, I now know are not true.

Some things I believed to be lies and falsehoods in the past I now know to be true.

Even though the journey has included its fair share of pain and discomfort, I am grateful for the potential to be one step further away from self-deception and one step closer to understanding.