O Say What Is Truth?
As someone who works in Mormon scholarly publishing, and who is involved in Mormon-related social media, I’m often asked for suggestions for study (hence why I created this site). I typically inquire what it is that they are looking for, to which they usually reply, “I just want THE TRUTH.” At this point, the ground begins to shake, the heavens tear open, and light bursts forth with legions of angels delivering the holy, secret, enigmatic TRUTH OF ALL THINGS. Except usually not. I don’t mean to be derisive. I believe that these are sincere seekers with legitimate questions. By “truth,” I think they mean “what can we be fairly certain about, if anything?” Because when the foundation of what you believed immutable suddenly begins to collapse, it’s only natural to wonder what there is left to hold onto. As a friend recently remarked, “I think a crisis of faith is really a crisis of certainty.”
Pastoral writing, based in philosophy and theology, is swimming in nuance.
Nuance is a bad word to some. It is seen as an out. A justification. A cover-up. A diversion tactic from the real questions of whether or not a thing is real, actual, truthful, or even good. Nuance is messy, and we don’t deal well with messy. One popular podcaster refers to much of pastoral writing within Mormonism as “neo-apologetic,” stating that its ultimate aim is to keep people engaged within Mormonism and to defend it, but in a less-acerbic, more nuanced way that makes more room for past mistakes, non-literalism, and doubt. I don’t think he means this to be as condescending as it comes across.
I say that if it is the truth you seek, you are better off looking to the creative arts: to literature, to poetry, to music, to theatre. Because this is where you see the truest human expression. This is where human creativity surpasses our limitations and moves us. The truth lies in our potential, not in our failure. Read Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Voltaire, Whitman, Frost, Dickenson, Camus, Thoreau, Angelou, Plath, and Wilde, if it is the truth you seek. For Mormons, add to this list the fiction of Levi Peterson, Steven Peck, and Mette Harrison, the poetry of Rachel Hunt Steenblik, James Godlberg, and Heather Harris Bergevin, and the plays of Eric Samuelsen and Melissa Leilani Larson. The truth is a celebration of life in all of its glorious tragedy. The truth is our capacity to create meaning. The truth is vulnerability.
Pastoral writing embraces vulnerability.
The sources I have listed below are intended as a starting point, and a way to begin thinking more deeply about faith, doubt, meaning, and the value of religion. They are directed at an LDS audience and, yes, they are affirming of belief. But they are vulnerable. Where apologetics can at times feel condescending, and academics can feel indifferent, pastoral writing seeks to be the soothing balm of Gilead. In its best form, it seeks healing through compassion and understanding.
Patrick Q. Mason, Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt. Patrick Mason is a historian by profession. He is also the chair of the Mormon Studies program at Claremont Graduate University. But Patrick is also tremendously aware of and sensitive towards members of the Church who feel “squeezed out” or “switched off,” due to contemporary and historical issues. His book, while a plea for those who are in the throes of doubt to remain engaged in Mormonism, provides a humble and charitable acknowledgement that the questions you have are legitimate, and that the leadership of the Church have made mistakes. Planted speaks both to the individual who is experiencing a crisis of faith as well as to friends and family members who could benefit from his empathy. For a primer, you can also check out Mason’s presentation given at the 2016 FairMormon Conference.
Adam S. Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon, 2nd ed. Adam Miller is a philosopher by profession and a theologian by passion. He has published several books on Mormon theology that are more in a philosophical vein. He also co-directs the annual Mormon Theology Seminar, sponsored by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU. His Letters to a Young Mormon was written with his children in mind. It was written as a way to communicate to them the things he wished would have been said to him when he was younger. He covers many topics ranging from the theological (sin, faith, prayer) to the more natural (history, science, sex). His letters are short but profound.
Terryl L. Givens and Fiona Givens, The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith. Terryl and Fiona Givens have authored a number of devotional works together. On his own right, Terryl Givens is an award-winning author who has published numerous works on Mormon history and theology. Both Terryl and Fiona are actively involved with topics on faith and doubt, giving lectures around the United States. In The Crucible of Doubt, Terryl and Fiona recognize the role of doubt in one’s faith journey. They validate those who struggle with contemporary and historical issues, and ultimately land on belief as a choice. In addition to The Crucible of Doubt, the Givens have also published The God Who Weeps and The Christ Who Heals. Terryl also hosts a video/podcast series titled Conversations with Terryl Givens where he interviews “artists, scholars, public figures, and change-agents” within Mormonism. Finally, read Terryl Givens’s article titled “Letter to a Doubter.”
Perhaps no writer has had more influence on pastoral writing than Eugene England. Outside of his voluminous personal essays, Eugene England also co-founded Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, which, fifty years later, remains a vital and vibrant quarterly journal celebrating Mormon scholarship, literature, and the arts. Among his many essays that are relevant to those experiencing a crisis of faith, I suggest beginning with “Why The Church is As True as the Gospel.” In this essay, England poignantly captures the value of a religious community, recognizing its paradoxes, frustrations, and human failures. A website maintained by his family offers the best repository of England’s writings.
Philip Barlow is a religious studies professor and the chair of the Mormon Studies program at Utah State University. While the bulk of his publishing has been on Mormonism’s historical relationship with scripture, Philip has occasionally edited or penned works aimed at faith and doubt. His now out-of-print collection of essays, A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief By Mormon Scholars, has become the namesake of a popular Facebook group and podcast by the same name. His essay, “Questing and Questioning” is a must-read for those who are in a place of doubt.
Mormon Matters Podcast, hosted by Dan Wotherspoon, focuses on current topics and issues related to Mormonism. Dan Wotherspoon, a former editor of Sunstone Magazine, has been working for nearly two decades with those who feel ostracized or marginalized within the Mormon community, or those who have found themselves transitioning away from Mormon orthodoxy. His panelists and topics are thoughtful and respectful of faith and faith journeys.
Other books I would recommend: