Does the Church Have Room for Doubters?

A few weeks ago I was on a plane to India, visiting the subcontinent for the first time, excited for this grand adventure but a bit anxious about the success of our business meeting and the possibility of acquiring a nasty bout of Delhi belly. Arriving in Paris Charles De Gaulle airport, I turned on my phone and saw a text message from my daughter saying that my wife, Lilian, had been struck by a drunk driver, sending her car spinning down the interstate.

Before continuing, let me explain that for several months I haven’t felt like blogging (I know–there was much rejoicing), my feelings too raw from Kate Kelly’s excommunication and its implications for members like me. Frankly, I just haven’t been able to bring myself to care as much anymore about the Church and my relationship to it. Deep inside me something has been broken, like the shattering of an intricate vase whose rebuilding completely confounds me, and my hope that the institution will repent and evolve–becoming something that is less hurtful to some (e.g., women, LGBT, singles, people of color, non-Americans) and more welcoming to all–sometimes feels like a foolish dream.

But I still sit in the well-worn pews, I still invite my home teaching families over for Thanksgiving dinner, I still love Mormon notions of Jesus, eternal progression, community, and connected families. I was even called as choir director despite having a singing voice like Adam Sandler’s, perhaps in the hope that in such a calling my heterodox beliefs would have a lessened scope for causing damage. (Maybe they will change their mind when we start performing numbers from Book of Mormon the Musical.)

So as long as I am engaged with my religious community, I would like to have a voice, in my small way trying to make things better for someone, even if just for me. Thus I blog on.

But I wonder: Is the Church big enough for a member like me?

We claim that the Church is for all, that the good news will roll forth to fill the entire earth. We preach that the gospel is meant for all of God’s family, black and white, bond and free, male and female, the heathen, the Jew, the Gentile–none is denied.

But does the Church have room enough for non-believers? Or in my case, for those who believe differently?

I would like to think so, but at times the institution overwhelms me with its corporate unrepentance for past mistakes, it presses on me with its resistance to ecclesiastical and financial transparency. I hope it has room for me, but its correlated policies and culture that push towards lockstep belief and its stubborn adherence to the status quo in the face of suffering, especially the suffering of its most vulnerable members, causes me to wonder.

And yet I am given reasons to hope.

When I spoke with Lilian from the Paris airport, I learned that she was being enveloped in the embrace of our ward family. A friend drove across town late at night to pick her up from the police station. Other friends brought over a minivan (what else?!) for us to use until we could make other arrangements. Another friend prayed for Lilian in sacrament meeting, telling us that anything we needed, he would be there. Meals started piling up, so much so that we had to park the baked ziti (a favorite of this blog!) and the minestrone soup in the freezer until we could get to them.

My flawed church deserves credit, I believe, for creating this community of saints that has learned to practice true religion in caring for those in need. Though many non-Mormon friends helped us as well, I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love from our ward family.

So I don’t know the answer to my question. The same church that creates this wonderful community also implicitly teaches it to be wary of the Other (the world!), providing no genuine place for LGBT members, sometimes excommunicating or marginalizing those who believe differently, no matter how exemplary their lives may be. It appears that we have room for the smoker, the neglectful father, the unscrupulous business man, the sinners who are striving, but little room for the doubter.

Perhaps it is this exclusionary approach to belief that creates our robust and tightly-knit tribe. Perhaps we are strong because we are a peculiar people that must stick together, warding off those whose beliefs seem threatening, embracing those in our wards who believe as we do. Perhaps that is why I feel immediately welcomed and connected when I attend a Mormon church halfway around the world–beliefs have been pre-vetted so that we are all of one accord.

Perhaps.

But I don’t want to believe that our strength comes from our remarkable tribalism. I want to believe that our strength as a church comes from our deep and persistent commitment to seeking after that Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God may abide with us.

And that Jesus, in my experience, would welcome all into His church, even those like me who may never be able to believe as most Mormons do.

7 comments

  1. Hi Mike, I really enjoyed your blog post. Like you, I’ve been blessed by some wonderful members giving meaningful service. Also, I became sufficiently uncomfortable with the constant emphasis on mormon-specific truth claims that I no longer believed in that I stopped attending. In a way, I feel like I’m not honoring and recognizing all the good that the church still does. But for me the calculus just did not work.

    Is there room for doubters in the church? It probably depends on the doubter, their family, their bishop, and their ward members. It helps if the doubter keeps their doubts to themselves, fully participates in the rituals, and expresses a sincere desire to believe. But I don’t think the church, institutionally speaking, really wants doubters who are open about their disbelief, choose to participate in the rituals on their own terms, and do not want to believe.

    In mormonism there seems to be this idea that the values of service, charity, selflessness, etc., spring forth out of having a testimony of the mormon gospel narrative. The focus is on obtaining the testimony first, and the values and Christlike actions are supposed to naturally blossom out of that testimony. So the focus is on gaining or maintaining a testimony. If you have that testimony, you can focus on the service, and that’s what many mormons do. But trying to step into that space and say, I don’t have the testimony and I’m not going to worry about that, I’m just going to focus on the service, is in many ways fighting against the church’s raison d’etre. And it opens you up for a constant barrage of forces trying to correlate and convert you.




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  2. This is beautiful, and beautifully done. For what it’s worth, I do believe that the church is bigger than its — bureaucracy? for want of a better word. And I also believe that God is bigger than our entire church. That there’s space for all of us.
    (Although that said, my current extremely traditional ward feels a lot more claustrophobic than my most recent, east coast inner-city ward….)

    Best to Lilian. It sounds like the car was hurt worse than she was? I’m glad it wasn’t worse.




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  3. Great post, Mike. I’m so glad your wife is okay. And I love that your ward members rushed to help out.

    I couldn’t find the post offhand, but I thought Lynnette wrote in the past couple of years about how she felt accepted by her ward, but rejected by the Church at a general level. You kind of allude to this issue too, and I wonder if it isn’t kind of the same thing. From the General level we get more anti-gay and black-and-white thinking ideas. And it’s not like we don’t get those at the local level too. But it seems like Church members in person often aren’t as anti-gay or pro-black-and-white thinking as General-level teachings might lead us to believe. I’m not sure if that makes any sense, but if this is a real pattern, it gives me some hope that (some of) the membership might be pushing the Church in a good direction, even if it’s at the cost of ignoring General-level rhetoric. It’s like one of my sisters has said (Eve, maybe) that she thinks lots of Mormon marriages are more egalitarian than the ideal put forward in the temple.

    And I really like your concluding point, about hoping that it’s possible to have the supportive community without the tribalism and ostracism and policing of boundaries. I hope you’re right.




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  4. “My flawed church deserves credit, I believe, for creating this community of saints that has learned to practice true religion in caring for those in need.” Yes. Yes, indeed.

    And, from what I can see, for all its flaws, the testimony of Christ flows through many, many members of this church. Whether or not the institution becomes corrupt, there is a Church of Christ within the the hearts of the people and this is my church. In time, all that is not of God will be sifted away. I honestly believe this. But the time between then and now is harsh, and likely long.

    I feel the church shifting in good ways – or maybe I’m just shifting inside. But I think (right before our eyes in slow motion) the doubter is beginning to become an acknowledged part of the church. God bless you and yours. Thank you for expressing many of my own thoughts.




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  5. Joel,

    Thanks for the really thoughtful comments. I think you are right that being a “doubter” seems to require some circumspection. I think that is reasonable, if one wishes to be part of the “believing” community, but I think the way it plays out in our church raises at least two problems.

    First, the doubting often is not black-or-white. For example, my “doubts” mostly relate to whether certain church teachings come from God (e.g., female ordination ban), but there is lots of other stuff that I believe. So I guess this “doubter” is not so easily classified; in fact, most of us are probably doubters in some sense. I think our church would be more robust and welcoming if a member like me could say (in certain appropriate settings) without fear of ecclesiastical or social sanction that I believe JS was a prophet but I believe he was wrong to take a 14 year-old wife and God did not sanction it. I’m not sure we are there yet, however, as a church.

    Second, the way our institution is set up, there are policies and practices which can promote marginalization of certain kinds of doubters. I am thinking especially of the temple recommend interview and its belief questions. I have no problem answering those questions in the affirmative even though I may be interpreting the meaning differently than my bishop or stake president is. However, I know that some members don’t feel like they can do so and as a result they may not receive their temple recommends. This can lead to marginalization because they cannot participate in temple worship and they often are excluded from certain callings.

    I also really like your point about the Church’s raison d’etre. Because of our scriptural and structural focus on saving ordinances, it seems that any unbelief in the uniqueness of Mormonism strikes at the heart of the Church. What’s the point if I can also be saved through the Baptist church or through Hinduism or Islam? I would say the point is that Mormonism is really good at building loving communities and helping us develop God-like attributes, but given the Church’s temple work and energetic proselyting program, I don’t think the Church wants to step back from any claims of having a unique path to salvation. Thus, doubters will always be suspect.




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