Should People in Other Faiths Put Their Questions on a Shelf?

The shelf model is probably familiar to most Mormons. If you have doubts, questions, concerns, the saying goes, you put them on a shelf. You focus on the basics (however those may be defined). You accept that you can’t resolve everything.

But what do we think about people in other faiths? What if they have reservations about the Trinity, or wonder why their church doesn’t teach eternal family relationships, or are bothered by a lack of modern prophets? Presumably we wouldn’t advocate that they shelve such concerns. Given our focus on proselytizing, we actually have  a lot of incentive to take the religious concerns of non-LDS about their churches quite seriously–often more so, it seems, than the issues raised by those who are already members of our faith.

Perhaps this double standard is somewhat inevitable in a church which makes the kinds of exclusivity claims that we do. But when we talk about the merits of the shelf idea, I think it’s worth considering whether we would recommend it to anyone outside the church.


  1. Sure we recommend it. We assume that others put their concerns on the shelf until they talk to the missionaries and have those questions finally answered.
    I don’t think the shelf idea is familiar to most Mormons. I never heard of it until the bloggernacle.

  2. I don’t think talking to missionaries from other faiths about one’s concerns is considered “on the shelf.” “On the shelf”, I think, means basically blocking it out and refusing to think about it in any substantive way, for fear of where it may lead.

    It does really bug me that Mormonism isn’t willing to put its own faith to the test in the same way it asks converts to do of their faiths of origin.

  3. I love Camilla’s shelf analogy. I think it’s a good idea, and I would recommend it to any person of faith. Faith is hard sometimes, and it can be overwhelming to feel as though you’ve got to resolve everything in your mind right now. Giving yourself time for reflection on various issues is a good thing.

    I realize that for many Mormons this is a double standard, but I care less about proselyting than the average Mormon. If a mainstream Christian has problems with, say, the Trinity, I’d be happy to mention the shelf. The idea isn’t to hide the issue and never take it off the shelf for consideration, but to not be rash.

  4. I don’t think “the shelf” is exclusive to Mormonism. Just yesterday I was reading a blog by a non-LDS Christian and she was talking about how she doesn’t always understand things but has faith that at some point she will. I’ve also heard lots of stories about people asking pastors about things and being told to have faith or not worry about it. (ie put it on “the shelf”)

  5. “on the shelf” dates at least back to the mid 1800s, when Louisa May Alcott uses it to title a chapter in Little Women in which Meg struggles with her role as a married woman and the financial and social aspirations she once had. By the end of the chaptershe makes peace with those issuesby learning to accept the things that she cannot change.

  6. Think about the heuristics of everyday life. We don’t struggle with every issue every day — we struggle with an issue when it demands attention, come to some resolution or workable compromise, then get on with life. Issues bubble up from time to time, but to be plagued by every issue all the time is to be mentally unbalanced. So the “shelf model” is just a description of how healthy people get through life.

    Yes, people should deal with religious issues when they arise, whether they are LDS or not. If you are the kind of person who thinks other people should have issues, and who tries to raise issues for them — well, don’t expect a pat on the back. You are out of line.

  7. Except when such people belong to other faiths, of course. Then it’s perfectly fine to knock on their door and raise every issue you can think of. Right?

  8. I think that the temple recommend interview, and lack thereof in other faiths, makes a huge difference.

    In many other faiths, there is no ongoing qualification to be a member in full fellowship. If you were baptized as an infant, you’re a member. Nobody cares what is going on inside the head whose body is sitting in a pew.

    But to partake of temple ceremonies and blessings, we actually have to agree to certain stuff.

  9. If you are the kind of person who thinks other people should have issues, and who tries to raise issues for them — well, don’t expect a pat on the back. You are out of line.

    I agree completely. And the converse is also true: if you’re the kind of person who tries to shut down other people’s theological discussions on the grounds that “those issues belong on the shelf,” don’t expect a pat on the back. Some of us are having fun playing with our theological toys; we don’t want them wrenched from our hands and put on the “shelf” to gather dust.

  10. We put questions on the shelf as a temporary (perhaps long-term but still temporary) measure because we don’t have answers today and are unaware of anyplace else to look for resolution. We take them off the shelf again when there is something new to consider.

    When I have something on the shelf, it’s still very often in the back of my mind and I’m acutely aware of relevant ideas when I run across them. It doesn’t matter where the idea comes from — in church or out, from something that happens in my life or something I read in a novel or hear in a discussion about a seemingly unrelated topic — if it triggers a connection with something on the shelf, then the idea is back in my mind.

    I don’t think there’s any double standard here. If something from Mormonism is new input for someone of another faith, I don’t see how they can help but consider it, anymore than I can help but consider ideas that have come to me through other routes. Truth is truth wherever it’s found, and sometimes it’s a simple matter of a different vocabulary or a different way of explaining something — from a Catholic or from C.S. Lewis or from Rabbi Kushner or even, heaven forbid, from Oprah — that helps me understand something.

    In some cases that new understanding may be so revolutionary that it overturns other assumptions and convictions and leads to conversion from one church to another. That hasn’t happened to me, but I have had less revolutionary resolutions for problems I had put on the shelf.

  11. z, since I specifically said “whether they are LDS or not,” it seems pretty clear what I am saying.

    Kiskilili, I suppose that depends on where you want to play with those theological toys — maybe Sunday School is not the right place. I am generally in favor of meatier discussions that the manual aims for, but most people go to church to have their faith strengthened, not challenged.

  12. Proselyting is not equivalent to attacking, z. Anyone considering a change in their religious beliefs is going to deal with a few of their shelf issues, but the tone and focus of what a member or missionary of any faith delivers as a message to those who will listen can vary dramatically. I don’t think there is much of a basis for your apparent attitude that the LDS Church necessarily attacks other faiths simply by its claim to be a restored church or by sending out missionaries.

  13. Which is why, back when I actually went to church, eventually I set a goal never to say anything, anywhere. I didn’t feel I could be sure my thoughts were orthodox or innocuous enough.

    Certainly made church boring, though. Lesson after lesson in which, like lawyers, teachers only asked questions to which they knew the answers and nipped any possibility of real discussion in the bud.

    But on my blog? This is my space. I’ll bring up any theological question I want, anytime. If other people are trying to keep that question on their shelf, they can visit a different website. For the internet is full, and there is enough and to spare.

  14. Dave, I agree that proselytizing doesn’t have to be — and works best when it isn’t — about attacking others’ faith. However, the missionary program isn’t exactly structured around waiting for “[a]nyone considering a change in their religious beliefs” to come find us — on the contrary, we go out and ask people to take their shelf issues down and think about them. We want people to have issues with the Trinity or with infant baptism or with whatever else we feel like we have a good answer for. And I don’t think this is necessarily a negative thing, so long as it isn’t unnecessarily aggressive.

    I like Ardis’s point (#11) that just because something’s off the table and on the shelf doesn’t mean it’s out of the kitchen and buried in the backyard (granted that’s my paraphrase 🙂 ) — you may have put it aside as an active question you’re pursuing, but that doesn’t mean you never think about it, or notice the way other issues you do address might have some bearing on it. And I appreciate Kevin’s related point (#4) that you can’t understand everything all at once, and we do need time to work through everything — which means putting some problems on the shelf.

    But there’s a difference between when I decide, for the sake of my own faith and/or sanity, that I need to shelve a question, and when I’m told, usually by people who are disturbed by my questions, that I need to shelve it. The language of putting questions on the shelf is often, in my experience, a way for those who are comfortable in the church, who aren’t stressed out by doctrines they find marginalizing, to tell those who are uncomfortable and unhappy and looking for answers, to please not bring their problems here. In other words, if I’m not worried about it, you shouldn’t worry about it either. Just put that on the shelf stop making the rest of us uncomfortable with your discomfort.

    Also, the more I write the word “shelf,” the more I think it’s not a real word.

  15. Melyngoch, I love it when words that are totally ordinary start looking a little bizarrely unreal. I’m such a geek…

    Some of those explaining/defending the “put it on a shelf” approach here do so by suggesting, at least implicitly, that the kinds of questions we should put on the shelf are questions that are not of central importance. However, far too often we are told by people at church to shelve questions that are incredibly important. And I think Melyngoch is absolutely right that more often than not we’re told to “shelve” our questions because those offering the advice think our questions are unimportant or non-issues. In other words, too often this advice is proffered as a condescending reassurance that “someday you too will understand the truth I understand; just stop worrying your pretty little head about it and do what you’re told and that will get you there.”

    Yes, I know–that’s an exaggeration. But I think it’s a fair representation of the attitudes often behind this advice. I understand the very good reasons to use the shelf approach and I think when it works the way Ardis (#11) and Kevin (#4) describe it, it can be very effective at allowing one to continue functioning within their belief community while continuing to seek answers in a way that doesn’t become paralyzing. That is a good thing.

    Another point of consideration:

    It seems that this advice is a way of privileging answers over questions by focusing our attention and efforts on the answers we have. This seems problematic to me. It would be equally problematic to only focus on the questions. It seems to me that we should be finding some way to “live the questions” as well as to live the answers. But then, maybe I’ve just been thinking a lot about Rilke lately:

    I beg you…to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without ever noticing it, live your way into the answer…

    That’s how I’d like to deal with questions rather than putting them out of my mind because they’re scary or threatening. Or rather than trying to make the answers I have fit the questions (which I think a lot of Mormons do). And while the shelf advice certainly has its positive aspects (again, see comments by Ardis and Kevin which I think are akin to what Rilke is saying here), I think it is far more often given because the questions being asked are seen as a threat or as frightening rather than as opportunities to explore new territory or avenues to new knowledge. I don’t like how much “questioning” has become synonymous with “disbelieving” or “doubting” in Mormon culture.

  16. The shelf thing seems a variant of a response I got repeatedly to thorny theological questions while growing up: “Is it pertinent to your salvation?” It was a great shutdown. Anything other than read-your-scriptures-pray-go-to-church-keep-your-covenants-perform-the-ordinances was immediately shelved (and I was made to feel like I was unfaithful for even asking to boot).

  17. In other words, if I’m not worried about it, you shouldn’t worry about it either. Just put that on the shelf stop making the rest of us uncomfortable with your discomfort.

    I think this is an excellent point, Melyngoch. So much of the frustration associated with use of the “shelf” language comes when people try to dictate to each other what should be shelved and what taken down.

    Which kinda relates to Lynnette’s original point. When it’s LDS missionaries talking to non-LDS people, they’re going to bring up particular topics (like the Trinity, maybe, as has already been mentioned), but when it’s non-LDS people proselyting to LDS people, they’re going to have a whole different set of issues that they think should be brought down off the shelf.

  18. Lynnette’s post illustrates just one of several aspects of the proselytizing double standard.

    The church would like members of other faiths to be actively questioning the issues and open to joining a new faith if the answers they receive are unsatisfactory. (How many times do we see this in testimony meetings? “In my old church, no one could answer these questions.”) However, it discourages the same kind of behavior among LDS church members.

    Church members and leaders praise the courage and conviction of those who leave existing faiths to join the LDS church. But the same speakers engage in character assassination when someone leaves the LDS faith.

    The church ultimately would prefer that non-members approach issues openly and with a willingness to switch religious affiliation (to Mormonism), but that church members avoid that attitude.

    Of course, the church proselytizing mission involves a number of double standards. As Dave mentioned a few years ago on blog, if you tell a church member “I prayed about a book and I feel like God told me it was true,” the church member would want to know which book before agreeing or disagreeing. Similarly, members and missionaries treat Moroni’s promise as having only one answer. If you pray about the Book of Mormon and didn’t receive a confirmation, it’s because you did the experiment wrong.

    This can be frustrating or disheartening, but is normal tribal community behavior. You can see similar behavior in sports fans, for instance. “Player X hits 30 home runs in a season. Is he a great player?” For many people, the answer will depend on whether Player X is (for instance) a Yankee or a Red Sock (Sox?). Jeter is great and Ortiz stinks — or vice versa — is based on tribal affiliation, rather than on evenhanded objective application of any particular standard.

  19. Well, that and Jeter has always been so much more valuable defensively–even if he was never all that wonderful–since a shortstop is so much harder to find than a DH. 🙂

    Great points, Kaimi!

  20. @ Amelia #18 said,

    “someday you too will understand the truth I understand; just stop worrying your pretty little head about it and do what you’re told and that will get you there.”

    Yep, I’ve heard that one before.

    Great post. I had never thought of the contradiction between missionary work and the need to keep everyone in line within the church.

    It seems like missionaries/the Church has an answer for almost every questions. It’s just that many of the answers are not satisfying (ei Otterson’s essay on equality).

  21. The thing is, the shelf advice is based on some truth.

    We put things on the shelf, all the time. We choose to prioritize how to spend our time and energy. I know that I need to answer specific committee e-mails (tonight), write an exam (in the next two weeks), write an article (in the next few months), and learn to play the harmonica (eventually). It’s totally normal to prioritize and to put some things on the shelf. We use these to manage everyday existence.

    The problem isn’t with the idea of a shelf. It’s with the implication that these things should be shelved indefinitely.

    Shelves are useful and necessary. Without shelves, my refrigerator would be pretty messy.

    But it’s equally bad if I put something on the refrigerator shelf and then never touch it again.

  22. “Stop worrying your pretty little head”–reminds me of being told, many years ago, in response to my concerns about gender roles, that I would “understand” once I’d gone through the temple. I’m not sure what they were thinking I’d understand. Certainly going through the temple didn’t do anything to allay my concerns.

  23. The double standard Kaimi points to in 21 really worried me as a kid. I concluded that the most important religious quality was openness to the possibility that your religious convictions were wrong; otherwise you could easily be “blinded by the craftiness of men” and unwilling to accept the gospel when you discovered it. But at the same time the church was discouraging that very openness in its own members. It seemed God had set up the situation so he could legitimately condemn you no matter what you did.

  24. Yikes, janeannchovy! Clear evidence you shouldn’t try to resolve people’s concerns if you don’t even understand the concerns.

    I was fed that line about all sorts of other topics, but I don’t think about gender issues specifically. Once I went to the temple, I would understand, for example, why ordinances were necessary to salvation, why the Book of Abraham is ancient, why God issues commandments he doesn’t want followed and then punishes people for violating them anyway. I hate to admit it now, but part of me actually believed I would.

  25. There are issues for all of us that we don’t have the emotional or intellectual energy to examine in the moment, so I absolutely respect people’s need to shelve things.

    On the other side though, sometimes there are issues that, emotionally, you just can’t shelve, because they’re too central to your faith. It’s frustrating to be told, when your relationship to God is being blown apart, that you need to set your questions aside because they’re as insignificant as whether or not Adam had a belly button.

  26. I like the shelf analogy, but I don’t think it is that familiar within Mormonism. I think there are a lot of members who are absolutely faithful that there is no question that Mormonism doesn’t have the answer to. That has diminished some with time, but I think it is still a fairly large group.I think a second group feels that there is no question which needs knowing that we do not know. Then there are the rest of us. Those who put questions on the shelf, those who put questions into magnum mysterium, those who study and study and work on those questions until they are satisfied, and those who quit because there is no answer to the questions they have which can satisfy them.

    Anyway, When I was a missionary, we didn’t go around raising issues for people. We just went around and taught the assigned lessons, and asked people to pray and ask God if it were true. Experience quickly taught most missionaries that going too much outside of this was not only ineffective, but detrimental (bible bashing, etc. etc.), When I was an investigator, it wasn’t much different. So I don’t see a willingness to put things on the shelf as contradictory to proselyting. I am sure there are missionaries who do use such an approach, but that’s pretty irrelevant to my perspective.

    I much prefer the concept of the shelf to “magnum mysterium”, I think that’s the difference between saying something is answerable, but not yet, and something is completely ineffable.

  27. I can see from this discussion that I might have assumed too much in thinking most Mormons were familiar with this idea. Chalk it up to a biased sample. 😉 Maybe I should have said, most Mormons who have a habit of raising difficult questions are familiar with this analogy.

    And I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I absolutely agree that you simply can’t engage every problem or difficulty–you have to bracket things just to function. I also think it’s legitimate move in a religious context to say, this one’s still confusing to me, I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m going to maintain a religious commitment in the context of ambiguity. In that, I like amelia’s quote from Rilke (yay, Rilke!), and Ardis’ approach.

    But I think where it goes wrong, as several people have mentioned, is when it’s used as a way to shut down conversation–don’t bring that up!! put it on your shelf already!! Or, as Kiskilili said, when it’s such a central issue to your faith that you simply can’t bracket it. I probably have a bad reaction to the term simply because of my history with people dictating to me that I shelve things.

    And in this post, of course, I was thinking about the double standard, in that I see a tendency to encourage people to question until they join the church, at which point they aren’t supposed to still have that need. Maybe here’s another way of raising the issue: is it a part of our faith that our members should have fewer religious questions (based on the premise that we have more answers) than those who belong to other churches?

  28. I think that the temple recommend interview, and lack thereof in other faiths, makes a huge difference.

    In many other faiths, there is no ongoing qualification to be a member in full fellowship. If you were baptized as an infant, you’re a member. Nobody cares what is going on inside the head whose body is sitting in a pew.

    But to partake of temple ceremonies and blessings, we actually have to agree to certain stuff.

    That’s probably true of a lot of mainstream Protestant churches, but the demand for orthodoxy I don’t think is uniquely Mormon. Catholics still get in trouble for teaching what the Vatican has deemed heresy. Evangelicals care a lot about what beliefs are going on–that’s what’s driving the concern that Mormons believe in the wrong Jesus.

    And I actually think that at least in theory, Mormonism allows for a lot of latitude in belief. There are a few temple recommend questions (though significantly most focus instead on behavior), dealing with a few core ideas–but you don’t even have to explain your particular interpretation of, say, the Godhead, or the Restoration.

  29. Kaimi (#21), did I really say that?

    No one has mentioned Richard Bushman’s view. He doesn’t tell concerned Mormons with issues to put them on the shelf, he suggests you meet them head on, but that you do your reading and questioning broadly, reading from scholars who speak to all sides of the question.

    I would add that a broad rather than a narrow context for the question or issue helps. Every doctrine or issue is linked to related doctrines or issues. And rather than assume some absolute scale that can be used to measure the LDS position or response to a tough shelf issue, it helps to consider how other denominations or faith traditions (including secular worldviews) deal with that issue or a similar issue within that denomination. Every worldview has its shelf issues.

  30. Huh. I just ran across a quote on shelving questions that supports the notion of putting them there temporarily, not permanently, per Kaimi’s comment #24.

    “Take it and put it on the shelf. Set it aside for a time. Go on in your living and learning and studying the gospel. Invariably you’ll come back to it later, and when you take it down from the shelf you’ll now find you have the means wherewith to answer or resolve that question.”

    That was Spencer W. Kimball on questions or things “you don’t understand and you’ve studied and searched it out…and you don’t have an answer.” Spoken in an address in Cardiff, Wales several decades ago.

    So, there’s some institutional support for the notion that shelving is not supposed to be permanent nor are the questions you choose to temporarily shelve to be deemed insignificant.

    It may be hard to see that this is not condescending when you are in the throws of a frustrating question that people you know have been condescending about, but, at least in my own life, a certain length of living and study has, more than once, equipped me better to find answers and insights for some of the questions that I shelved as too frustratingly difficult or seemed to just make me angry when I was younger. So I think he has a point.

  31. MB, I definitely see that as a legitimate way to grapple with issues in your own life, to shelve them for a while and then re-think them. I think where I get uneasy with the shelf narrative is when it gets used in a way which assumes that everyone’s faith trajectory will be the same. I’ve seen both liberals and conservatives do this. The latter might say, once you’ve lived longer/thought more/had x experience, you’ll grow out of your feminism, or at least not have all these questions about women’s issues. The former might pull out something like Fowler’s stages of faith, in which you progress from a conventional faith to an individual one—a model which I note is often conveniently used to put members of the church with whom you disagree at an earlier stage of development. I find it presumptuous from either group. And going back to the shelf model, I would contend that you can’t really know when it will be helpful for other people to shelve things—you can really only make that call for yourself. So I agree with you that it’s an approach that can be helpful, but I would be uncomfortable with using it in a prescriptive way.

  32. Lynnette,

    I agree. It is not something that one person should mandate for another, nor assume that such an action will lead to a certain resolution or process.

    However, I do think that shelving is not something that every person intuitively recognizes as a legitimate option. And it can be helpful for someone to hear about options they might not have considered. That’s a basic fact about learning in general.

    So, though I would not advocate prescribing shelving, especially if such prescriptions involve a sense of superiority on the part of the one doing the prescribing, I do think that discussions or suggestions about it being an option can be helpful.

    I just noticed that you refer to “the shelf model” in your first paragraph, which I assume comes from a sense of shelving being used as a catch-all solution, tossed around by people who find difficult questions unnerving. If so, then yes, such avoidance of difficulty or condescension towards others’ struggles is undesirable. We agree on that point.


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