Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Ruminations on Doubt, Again

            It recently came to my attention that Terry Givens has revisited the subject of doubt in an interview from last January. I don’t follow him so I often learn about things he has said later. Such was the case with his “Letter to a Doubter” (that was so troubling) and an online interview, also troubling.

            From what I can see, in this interview he is trying to walk back (without it looking like it) some of the things he has said about doubt being good in the past that have disappointed knowledgeable and faithful members so much. Some years ago he appointed himself to minister to doubters, a highly dubious proposition (for reasons I will touch on below).

His academic standing has given him enough prominence and following/disciples so that he somehow finds himself speaking in various locations throughout the church on that subject and others. I think it likely that many bishops and stake presidents don’t know in advance what he is going to say to their audiences. I have learned that local priesthood leaders often don’t know when a guest speaker might use the opportunity for priest-craft (selling books, like the Tattooed Mormon), or to advance opinions and agendas that aren’t in harmony with church teachings.

I am one who believes that if a church member, even one with good intent or from the academy, teaches something that is outside standard orthodox gospel doctrines and principles, we should cry foul (as appropriate)—for, as President Hinckley stated, “Small aberrations in doctrinal teaching can lead to large and evil falsehoods.”[1] It is my conviction that small aberrations in approaching doubt can and has led to large and evil falsehoods.

An example of a little falsehood, from Givens: “We clearly have entered into a phase of maturity and honesty and transparency and so you know, let’s give ourselves a little bit of credit that we have repented and redressed some of the errors in the ways that we have narrated our history in the past.” Such temerity; Givens stepping forward to speak for the church and say it has repented. I have never heard any authorized and empowered church leader say such a thing; President Uchtdorf said that some past church leaders had made some mistakes, true enough, but no one has ever apologized and the church doesn’t ask or need Givens to do it for it.

What some people forget, or don’t know, is that there is a huge difference between lying about church history, and withholding the warts of church history from church publications. When missionaries and primary, seminary and institute teachers teach, their purpose is to convey truth by the power of the Holy Ghost to convert and strengthen, not to dwell on the mistakes of the past. Yet some people conclude that by not being informed of the warts, they have been cheated or deceived or tricked. To me, this doesn’t indicate very deep or thoughtful thinking. The Church’s message is one of salvation for mankind, not to sift through its history and point out the flaws. Elder Packer touched on this exact issue while talking to a group of church-employed educators, and his words should be carefully considered by those who wish to accuse the church of deceitfully withholding the warts from them, or, by those who wish to only speak of warts and withhold faith: “Those who have carefully purged their work of any religious faith in the name of academic freedom or so-called honesty ought not expect to be accommodated in their researches or to be paid by the Church to do it.”[2] When Joseph Fielding Smith, as Church Historian, withheld the warts from his historical writings, he wasn’t trying to deceive readers, but to build faith in them and in the ultimate power of salvation found in it, no matter the warts.

What is the message? The imperfections of men and women are not what the church is about. It was restored by God to a mortal prophet so He could save His children. That is the message that tithing resources are used to convey, not warts. Is that concept so difficult to understand?

In the interview, Givens (sort of) walks back some past statements about doubt: “So you know, I want to emphasize because I think I’m misquoted sometimes and I think I’m mischaracterized at times as celebrating doubt. Well, I celebrate doubt as a phase on the path to something better and richer. I don’t for a moment think that we want to inculcate an attitude of doubt that that’s a condition that we want to attain to and hold onto.”

To celebrate doubt in any way, shape, or form, is to me utter foolishness, but the question here is if Givens has been misquoted or mischaracterized (his comment may well have been aimed at me for getting after him in the past for this same stuff). So let him be precisely quoted, by copy and paste, from his infamous Letter to a Doubter:

“Be grateful for your doubts.”

“I know I am grateful for a propensity to doubt because it gives me the capacity to freely believe.”

“There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice, . . .”

“Many of us will live out our lives in doubt, . . .”

Such is our sampling of direct quotes that can easily be read in context by following the link. If words mean what they say, we see here a celebration and gratitude for that which we are formally commanded by the Lord not to do.

Let us quote the words of Elder Renlund in response: “doubt never leads to faith.” And this direct refutation of Givens’ philosophizing: “Doubt is not the precursor of faith. Light does not depend on darkness for its creation. Peter was not told, as he was slipping into the water after having tried to walk on it, ‘Oh Peter, if only you had more doubt.’ No, he was told, ‘O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?’”

And further, “In the Lectures on Faith, the differences between faith and doubt are explained: “And where doubt and uncertainty are there faith is not, nor can it be. For doubt and faith do not exist in the same person at the same time; so that persons whose minds are under doubts and fears cannot have unshaken confidence; and where unshaken confidence is not there faith is weak; and where faith is weak the persons will not be able to contend against all the opposition, tribulations, and afflictions which they will have to encounter in order to be heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ Jesus; and they will grow weary in their minds, and the adversary will have power over them and destroy them.” 

And lastly, “The message that we have is ‘doubt not, but be believing.’ I am here in my role as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am here to bear special witness of the name of Jesus Christ, that He lives and is the Savior of the world.”

It is very apparent that Elder Renlund does not agree with Terry Givens, but that he knows and teaches and testifies otherwise; one does not need doubt to chose to believe or to have faith. Doubt, of the kind and definition we have been using here, is the enemy; as Elder Renlund quotes Elder Widstoe saying, “it is evil.” Let us not be grateful for it or celebrate it or desire to go through a “phase” of it. Let us instead seek for faith with all our heart, mind, and strength.

More, from the interview: “she said I’ve served as a relief society president, I am a temple Mormon, I’m a committed lifelong saint, she said ‘But I’ve read things that suddenly leave me wondering and doubtful’ and then the question came. She looked into my eyes and she said ‘I need to hear from you. Do you know. Do you know these things are true.’ And I said to her ‘I don’t. I believe these things are true’, and it’s been my experience that people who are more inclined to a life of intellectual engagement, scholarship academics intellectuals tend not to have the gift of knowledge of spiritual things.”

What an unfortunate situation all around. That former Relief Society president needed to hear a powerful testimony that would carry sure conviction into her heart by the power of the Holy Ghost; what she got instead was “I don’t know”—heartbreaking. I believe that a measure of accountability will one day rest with those who don’t know when they should and therefore can’t testify. Those who go forth, uninvited or invited, to speak to others about any portion of the gospel are scripturally mandated to know: “Ye are not sent forth to be taught, but to teach the children of men the things which I have put into your hands by the power of my Spirit.” How?—by the Spirit—“he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? And if it be by some other way it is not of God.” If you teach by the Spirit, you know, you don’t just believe.

If Givens is speaking at Mormon firesides and conferences and other like venues, and is speaking by another way (academic learning) than by the Spirit of Truth, it is not of God. If he doesn’t know that the gospel is true, that Jesus is the Christ, that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that the Book of Mormon is an authentic scriptural ancient record, and can’t bear testimony in all sincerity, with power and conviction of these eternal truths, then his teaching is academic, and “not of God.” Why bother?

That woman needed to hear a genuine and mature testimony borne by the power of the Spirit of Truth, and she got some other way (secular) that is not of God. She may have temporarily felt a measure of comfort that someone else she thought smart didn’t really know either, but such is small comfort that will soon wear off.

What a missed opportunity to strengthen someone in the Lord! “Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.”

Givens refers to the fact that Joseph Smith felt resurrected hands on his head as he was ordained to the priesthood. If this reference is meant to indicate that the feeling of those hands-to-head is how Joseph knew, he is grossly mistaken. Joseph knew long before that. It was because he had great faith that he was entitled to the sign and the blessing and the priesthood ordination and commission; but he knew before. Even before he saw God the father and Jesus, Joseph had had the Holy Spirit carry the message, to ask of God, into his heart in greater intensity than anyone else had ever felt it. He could go into a grove of trees and pray in mighty faith.

It may be that Givens interprets D&C 46:14 differently than the standard meaning in the church: “To others it is given to believe on their [the special witnesses; the apostle’s] words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.” This means that when we hear the testimony of the apostles that Jesus lives today as a resurrected being guiding His Church, we can feel the truth of their words and come to know and be able to bear testimony of the same truth as they have. While some of them (the apostles, even some today) have seen and felt and conversed with Jesus, others have not, yet they still have the same special witness.

This is because the main witness comes from the power of the Spirit, and the same Spirit that gives the apostles their witness gives us our witness. It may not be as powerful (intense) as the apostles receive for their calling and office, but it is still present and sure. Givens may be mistaking the word “belief” as found in this verse to mean mere mental assent. That is wrong, or at least it is only the beginning of testimony. The revelation this verse is found in is talking about the gifts of the Spirit, not academic conclusions based on research or mental or emotional acceptance. It is teaching us that we may know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and was crucified for the sins of the world because we have the spiritual gift to receive the Spirit in our hearts and minds when we hear an apostle’s special witness, and we can then know, not just believe, but know. The very next verse says, “it is given by the Holy Ghost to know” speaking of a different gift, but meaning the same thing. By the power of the Holy Spirit, it is given to us to know.

Some more from Givens: “So the sin is to claim certainty when we don’t feel it. Or to pressure others to express certainty when they don’t feel it. So we need to have the kind of church in which some people can stand up like Elder McConkie and say ‘I know’. And when we hear that testimony the spirit witnesses to us; yet that person [McConkie] really does know, and then the person who follows them has to be able to stand up and say, I believe these things and there’s just as much room in the congregation for her.”

We might agree with his scenario of someone saying they know when they only believe, but on the other hand, President Packer would have argued that such a leap of faith is often how a person comes to know—when they say it, the Spirit confirms their own words to them—be that as it may, the problem with this scenario is that testimony meetings are not meant for people who only believe (by Givens’ apparent definition of mental assent); meaning those who don’t really know as he says he doesn’t.

Testimony meetings are meant for those who know to declare they know to thereby strengthen others. They are not “mere belief” meetings. Those kinds of beginning or weaker testimonies may sometimes be shared during testimony meetings, but more and better is eventually expected as the Saints come to Jesus as His disciples. All Saints do not have the same strength of testimony, but all Saints do have access to the same gift of the Holy Ghost and gift of the Spirit to come to really know and bear witness of it in testimony meetings.

As for ministering to doubters, I don’t think that joining or comforting them in doubt helps anyone. I think lifting people above or out of doubt helps them. I think good explanations about some of the various items of church history that some people get worked up about can be helpful. I know I have been helped when the Spirit has directed me to good explanations. I have felt satisfied and edified and uplifted. I have learned there is a difference, as the Renlunds taught, between a wholesome inquiring mind that seeks answers to questions, and a constantly questioning and doubting mind that jumps from one issue to another, making so-called “truth-seeking” into a game that never ends and leads only to more doubt. These people usually find their way out of the church. They will not wait for the revelation God has promised the faithful in the future, if they will but be faithful in the present. That is called living by faith. It is not starving, for we are spiritually fed now, but we are not supposed to know all things in this life. Doubters often make sport of doubting, as Elder Eyring once put it. The main problem is that the consequences of losing that particular game are eternal.

There is also a difference between not using the internet at all, ever, to find good answers, and using it appropriately and wisely to find answers to questions on the right websites. The spirit of the devil is found in many websites; that only creates doubt. People who don’t know how to discriminate between good helpful websites and those used by anti-Mormons or doubters to create doubt in others are in great spiritual jeopardy. 

Let us then absorb Elder Renlund’s testimony deep in our souls, and ponder on it; judging at to the strength of his spiritual convictions: “I know in ways more powerful and reliable than what my five senses can detect and express that Joseph Smith saw what he said he saw, translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God, and received the priesthood with its attendant keys for the salvation of mankind. I know this to be true. I know that those keys are on earth today and that President Nelson is Joseph Smith’s rightful successor on earth. What we consider dents and peeling paint on the well-used boat [LDS Church] may turn out to be divinely sanctioned and divinely directed from an eternal perspective. The Lord has either had a hand in the dents and the peeling paint or He uses them for His own purposes. I know of myself that the Lord, Jesus Christ, directs His work on the earth today. His servants know Him well. I know Him.”

We see, and feel, that Elder Renlund knows Jesus; there is no question or uncertainty; it is knowledge, not simply faith or mental acceptance or desire to believe. He also knows that Jesus knows all about the faults and imperfections and mistakes in His Church, past and present and future. After all, He only has mortals to work through. But knowing this, that Jesus has had a “hand in the dents” (the imperfections and error), should give us pause before criticizing it, for He can use anything to further His purposes.

The Relief Society president mentioned above needed to hear Elder Renlund’s testimony, for then she would, if she could feel his words, have known. Let us then, instead of seeking cold comfort from academics who admit they believe but don’t know, eagerly drink in the declarations of those who do know and are special witnesses, or who believe in the sense of knowing, those special witnesses’ testimonies.

Additional note: The same responses/refutations to proclaiming doubt to be good that are given above could also be used to refute the expressions of another blogger, also an academic, from several years ago. A sampling of quotations copied and pasted from his guest blog, making the same erroneous arguments about doubt:

“So let me say right up front that if you’re in the midst of a faith crisis/transition, I’m not here to judge you and try to fix you with platitudes and pat answers that will magically infuse your faith with a feeling of certainty. That’s not real faith. For me, to have real faith is to acknowledge and accept doubt and ambiguity as a companion to faith and then to move forward.” [False, real faith is based on knowledge from the Spirit; see Elder Renlund’s talk.]

“In my own faith journey I have come to focus more on questions and evidences than doubts, realizing that doubt is a companion to faith and that the opposite of faith is certainty, something quite rare and foreign to the human experience.” [Those who have read Elder Renlund’s talk immediately see that he strongly refutes this fallacy.]

“Perhaps in our defenses of the faith we could employ less dogmatism and more openness, less judgment and more forgiveness, less intransigence and more conciliation, less snarky humor and more kindness, less prescription and more pastoral care, less certainty and more faith.”

            I include this last quotation because some academics love to throw it at me. My response is that in dealing with people, yes, we should generally act as here suggested. However, in dealing with people’s publicly proclaimed teachings, no such lenience is necessary or advisable. In public academic discourse, and more especially when dealing with gospel doctrine and spiritual matters of eternal consequence (like whether doubt can be good) only eternal truth and recognition of error, even “small doctrinal deviations,” should be employed.

Let us not reconcile with error or be uncertain in alerting others to the presence of falsehood in our midst. Above all, may the perennial doubters spend the necessary time on their knees and in the scriptures until they come to know. No matter what someone may tell you about that course not being the answer, it is the ultimate answer and there is no other. And let those who deal out doubt as good or some kind of solution, learn true gospel doctrine and peddle no more error and falsehood.

See also my earlier posting: “A Letter to a Doubter

[1] Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, 620.
[2]The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect”, BYU Studies, 21:3, 10.


  1. I think Dennis brings out some important points here.

    But having traveled with Terryl and Fiona and become acquainted with them, I am very appreciative of their willingness to sacrifice their time and energies to help the Saints. I have watched them in conferences where they have defended Joseph Smith as a true prophet and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as God's true church.

    I know that in the scholarly world, they have done much good for the Church generally because they have been able to maintain the respect of the scholarly community, while defending the church and its mission. Many of their good works are not known publicly or (I would guess) to Dennis.

    While the Givens’ may sometimes teach ideas that I do not embrace—even some that are significant—I’m content to let the Lord judge.

    1. Brian,
      Thanks for your comments on my posting. I am afraid we must agree to disagree.
      I don't think the church needs the Givens to give it respectability in the academy; it stands on its own and people can judge it at their peril.
      But this is my point: the Givens may go out and walk on water during their lunch hour and they may change wine to water after dinner, and if some of what they say in their seminars and books is true (and I have not read most of their work), fine.
      But I will not sit by silently while they teach false doctrine on doubt that contradicts an apostle's current teachings and tickles doubter's ears. They may well be good people, but on this subject they are teaching gross error.
      Their friends don't seem to like me pointing that out; in that case, they should convince the Givens to repent of their false teachings (maybe something to do while traveling with them).
      As you may notice, this subject gets me stirred up. And I feel powerful vindication in the Renlund's superb truth-filled talk. All Mormons (academics included) should listen to or read it and deeply ponder and digest it, and not teach contrary to it.
      Thanks again for expressing your thoughts,
      Dennis Horne