Transcript of Trib Talk: A new Mormon faith crisis?

February 17, 2016

On February 16, Dialogue Board members Fiona Givens and Patrick Mason joined Collin McDonald to talk with Salt Lake Tribune Reporter Jennifer Napier-Pearce on Trib Talk about whether there is “A new Mormon faith crisis?” The dialogue that resulted on this issue is both enriching and vitally important. Dialogue transcribed and is providing this transcript of Trib Talk, with permission from The Salt Lake Tribune.

Jennifer Napier-Pearce: Welcome to Trib Talk: I’m Jennifer Napier-Pearce with the Salt Lake Tribune. Mormonism has been intensely scrutinized since it’s founding in 1830 but a new wave of skepticism seems to be washing over the faith. More than 1900 people responded to recent Salt Lake Tribune online survey asking readers, particularly Mormon readers, about their faith and their doubts. So today on the program we’re exploring the faith crises in the LDS community. Joining me is Fiona Givens, she’s an independent scholar and co-author of the books The God Who Weeps and The Crucible of Doubt with her husband Terryl Givens. She’s joining us today from the campus of the University of Virginia-Richmond. Fiona, it’s great to have you here, thank you so much for your time.
Fiona Givens: It’s lovely to be here.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: We also have Patrick Q. Mason, he’s the Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. He’s latest book is Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt. He joins us from his office in Claremont. Great to have you back on Trib Talk, welcome back.
Patrick Mason: Thanks, Jennifer.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: And here in the newsroom, Collin McDonald joins us. He’s a physician’s assistant, he practices here in Utah and is a lifelong Mormon who has very recently decided to step away from the faith. Thank you Collin, for being willing to share your story, I appreciate it.
Collin McDonald: Thank you Jennifer. I’m eager to contribute, eager to learn more.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: And of course our viewers are very welcome to join us. If you’d experienced a faith crisis, what triggered it? How have you approached clergy? Your family? Your friends? What have you derived from this experience? And how did it end, if it did? You can text us at the number on the screen or you can tweet us with the hashtag #tribtalk. We’ve seen in recent weeks and months, rallies. We’ve heard a lot of anecdotes. There’s a lot of activity on social media surrounding faith crises. Are more Mormons questioning aspects of their religion and is this an age of doubt as the subtitle of your latest book suggests, Patrick Mason?
Patrick Mason: Well I think certainly it’s an age of doubt. The contours, the belief of the modern world has changed significantly and not just for Mormons, but for all of us. We live in a very different world than our ancestors did, where people could simply assume that everybody else and that their neighbors believed pretty much the same things that they did. And with increased diversity and pluralism that’s just not true anymore. Especially with the advent of the internet now, more information and more options are available to more people now and how this has affected Mormonism in particular is that people have discovered a lot of things about their own church that maybe they didn’t know growing up or weren’t told. And that has rocked a lot of people. That combined with contemporary social issues, largely around gender and sexuality, other things like that, have really left, as you said, thousands and thousands of people reeling in regards to their relationship to the church, which used to be quite comfortable and solid, and now is quite tenuous.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: As we see this more general trend in the decline of religion, Fiona Givens, what is unique in what you are seeing in the Mormon community right now?
Fiona Givens: Well I think the Mormon community has always been charged with the allegation of being incredibly insular. There’s truth in that. It has been insular, a geographically centered community for most of it’s existence. But as Patrick has said, we are moving into becoming a universal church, and there are geographical boundaries being shifted. There are historical boundaries being shifted. There is no longer a shared history. There are many people who now don’t to have claim pioneers in their ancestry. For me, I’m seeing this as another point of growth for the church, and we are suffering from some very painful growing spasms.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: Collin, you responded to our survey again almost 2000 people responded. You were one of them willing to share the story of your faith journey. What was the trigger for your doubts in the Mormon Church?
Collin McDonald: That’s easy to pinpoint and hard to pinpoint. The trigger for my doubts came in 2012 when I preparing on LDS.org for a lesson for my 12-13 year old Sunday School class. I came across multiple versions of the First Vision. From there, I borrowed Rough Stone Rolling from there have since immersed myself in what I think is a more rich, more interesting version of Mormonism. And I’ve been willing to sit with that. That said, I believe my perspectives began changing a long time ago, in college when I had a sister come out as gay and I sat down with a professor of ethnic diversity who was serendipitously being in the right place and right time. I asked her about nature versus nurture and she said “I think you are asking the wrong question, the question should be ‘they are here and what are we going to do about it.'” And that’s how I’ve tried to approach Mormonism. That there is love, acceptance and tolerance with the help of people like Patrick Mason, Fiona Givens, as well as people like Adam Miller and Samuel Brown and others.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: A lot of writers are writing about this topic and two of guests are among that group. Collin, you said that this has been an evolution, something you’ve been grappling with for a long time. So why did you decide to break up with the church a few weeks ago?
Collin McDonald: Maybe a trial separation, and maybe more. I’m not sure. I’m not sure what this means as far as emotional distance and time. I just know that it’s not good for me anymore. I was suffocating. I was feeling very claustrophobic and the voice that I worked hard to develop was being chocked out by a measuring stick via the policy released in November. I’m willing to accept my responsibility in this, that my feelings have changed, but that there is a tangible retrenchment by the church on social issues that matter the most to me. And that’s been something that I’ve not been able to figure out a way around and I’ve decided to move on.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: Speaking with Collin McDonald, also Fiona Givens and Patrick Mason, talking about faith and the lack thereof particularly within the Mormon context of contemporary questions about history of the church, and a whole myriad of issues. Patrick, for Collin, it was the First Vision, and for those who may be watching and don’t know, that’s the origin story of Joseph Smith’s experience with deity, and later on, it was the contemporary policies surrounding LGBT couples and their children. What are the most common reasons you hear that are spurring Mormons to doubt?
Patrick Mason: Well I think Collin’s experience is really emblematic of what the historian Richard Bushman has talked about as the dynamics of people who are both “switched off and squeezed out.” People are in a sense switched off because they learn a number of things about the church’s history, the First Vision being one of them, and the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the translation of the Book of Abraham, polygamy is a big one, Joseph Smith’s involvement in polygamy, and race and the priesthood, the restriction on African Americans that ended only in 1978. There’s a long list of about 10, 12, or 15 issues that we see coming up quite often. But then also this sense of feeling “squeezed out” that Collin said. Just feeling like that he doesn’t feel comfortable in his congregation anymore. And there are lots of Mormons like this and this generally correlates with social issues, with a sense of feeling like the church is overwhelmingly conservative, especially in the United States and in the American West, but they perhaps don’t necessarily share these same cultural or social views. So they just don’t feel comfortable anymore in their local wards and with their local leaders. We see a lot of people like that stepping away, oftentimes really regretfully, and this brings a lot of pain. But they feel, out of their own integrity, that’s the only option they have.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: In my colleague Peggy Fletcher Stack’s story that appeared over the weekend, Fiona Givens you were quoted as thinking that maybe men and women experience faith crisis in a different way. Can you articulate that?
Fiona Givens: Well I’m not sure that they do, necessarily, there are certainly topics that affect women, I think, in a much more personal way, than perhaps men: polygamy, gender roles, women’s roles in the ecclesiastical structure of the church. Those things are definitely coming up. I think it’s not coincidental that the conversations, the internet web conversations on Heavenly Mother and women’s role in priesthood are circulating at the same time. But I do actually want to go back to the history because I think that’s where it all started. Remember that Patrick and I are historians and quite honestly we both know that if we are looking at a squeaky clean history then something is really wrong with it. Just from my faith perspective, I think it was fortunate for me that I was a convert to the church, that I didn’t grow up in the church, that’s a very different thing. The church is an incredibly demanding church as far as time and programs even though Elder Packer was trying to dismantle them in the last twenty years. It’s a very Mormon-centric church and you grow up in this and you’ve got all this culture and history coming at you at the same time. For me I found it really helpful when I looked at the primary historian of the twentieth century who was Joseph Fielding Smith. His father was Joseph F. Smith, who was six years old when the mutilated bodies of his father and his uncle were brought into the Nauvoo Mansion. You don’t get over something like that as a child. You just don’t. So naturally enough, he would tell the horrific stories to his son, whose first pamphlet–he wrote a pamphlet in 1920 on the Smith family–and it was very clear to me, as soon as I learned that, that from 1920 to 1970, the whole time he was historian for the church, this was going to be a protectionist history. This was about protecting his family, protecting his family’s name, and everything that could imbue badly on his family was erased or was not included in the historical context. This is important, because we were all raised on it. Collin was raised on it, Patrick was raised on it and the Brethren were raised on it, the ecclesiastical leadership were all raised on it. So I think what we’re all finding ourselves in this crucible now with this new history. For me, it’s an incredibly exciting time because it’s only when we can excavate the real history that we actually have something firm to stand on and something that we can actually own without chasing shadows, which we have been for quite some time.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: Before we leave history, I want to fold in some comments. This on the website from Tornagall: “I wonder if Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, or John Calvin were in their day regarded as having a faith crisis? What is going on in the LDS Church now is only a faith crisis only from the perspective of those wanting to preserve the status quo.” Here’s a text: “We are seeing a second Great Awakening in our view about God and the mystical. Fewer and fewer people are believing in a god or a higher power. This awakening has reached the Mormon culture and is expediting the exodus of once true believers.” Patrick, your thoughts?
Patrick Mason: I do think that second text speaks to the era that we live in. The age in which it is true that in many parts of the world including Western Europe and the United States are experiencing secularization. Now in the United States has been remarkable as the rate of people who say they still believe in God is still 90 percent plus. But the number of people who say they are attending church is going down, especially among millennials, among younger people. They just don’t have the confidence and faith in religious organizations and institutions that they used to. So we have this category of “spiritual but not religious,” lots of people who say they believe in the mystical, the divine, in God in their own kind of way, but they are very skeptical about religious organizations and that’s affecting Mormonism. Now as to this first question, I do think that there’s something about a matter of perspective here. Some people are saying it’s a matter of reform, it’s a matter of change within the LDS Church and it will be interesting to see what happens. Certainly those figures like Martin Luther, John Wycliffe and others they were instigators of really important reforms in Western Christianity.  We’ll see. It’s hard for me to predict what will come out on the other side of this but it does seem we are in a moment of change for the church.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: Now that we’ve got that broader perspective, let’s bring it back to the personal. Collin this is intensely personal for you. When you started to have those doubts about the First Vision, what did you do?
Collin McDonald: I immersed myself in the literature. I looked for everything that I could through FAIR Mormon usually, and then through as many books as I could get my hands on. That’s kind of where I went. As far as the history is concerned, and Patrick cites this in his book, people have now the option of not believing in God, but I do believe that people did have options back then. I mean Judaism converting to Christianity, they gave themselves an option. I don’t think there’s a difference in the matter of whether they had options back then and we have options now. I do think the options are changing a little bit. To the perspective point, Patrick has a really beautiful illustration, it’s an optical illusion of an old woman and a young woman drawn and depending on which way you are looking at it, you can look and see both sides. And I think that could be a model. If we see perspective. If Patrick and I can see a different perspective, they are both right, but I can strain and see his perspective and he can strain and see my perspective. We are looking at the same mountain, we are just looking at from different sides and I think we need to figure out ways that we can come together to see the mountain in the same way.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: Did you ever consult with clergy? How did that go?
Collin McDonald: Absolutely. My former bishop and my current bishop both are loving individuals who have expressed not only heartache for me and love from them. Attempts to answer some questions about the policy after it came out were made not really too much satisfaction unfortunately, but what I have felt continuously from my home ward is love and I would suspect that would go all the way up. The only problem that I feel that I have with the 30,000 foot view we often talk about in academia and the beauty of the gospel versus the truth of the gospel is that it’s not yet happening on the ground and in order for it to happen on the ground, empathy has to rule and I don’t think that fear and empathy can coexist. So we need to figure out a way to get rid of the fear and move into empathy and provide emotional space, and also a physical space where people can literally get together in small groups and discuss what’s troubling them and ways to figure it out.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: I want to get to that point in a minute, but back to the comments section of SLTrib.com. Asher writes: “It’s not the new openness that is causing the faith crisis, it’s the odd way that leaders are handling it. By saying that ‘truth is not useful’ or attacking doubters as unworthy, they don’t actually confront the issues and not addressing the problems in the church doesn’t make them go away. For those who are not immersed in Mormondom, the Mormon Church is pretty much run by lay clergy so your neighbor could be your pastor. How are local church leaders advised to counsel with those who are in the midst of a faith crisis and are they well equipped to answer some pretty tough questions. Fiona?
Fiona Givens: Some are. Some aren’t. We are a lay clergy and nobody has been prepared for this. What is extraordinary is the amount of information coming out of the church historical department right now. The Joseph Smith Papers Project; there’s a really important book coming out at the end of the month The First Fifty Years of the Relief Society which is going to add an incredibly rich perspective and context to our history of the first fifty years of this church’s existence. So it’s sort of on a delay, the information is coming and there’s an incredible amount of it coming out so we now have to all become historians. And for bishops, that’s very difficult. They are family men, they have jobs, they have livings so actually finding the time to immerse themselves in the amount of scholarship we need now to immerse ourselves in is just about impossible. The best thing we can, quite frankly, are Collin’s bishops. Bishops who may not understand but at the end of the day it’s empathy, it’s love, it’s understanding. Those are sort of the criteria with which our bishops must be fortified, until they do have the time to read the amazing amount of information that is now coming out of church headquarters. This idea that transparency, but there is going to be a lag time naturally, and what are we going to do in between that time, that is the question. I think that Collin is sort of the poster Mormon here right now in the way that he is responding to this. He didn’t walk away. I think that this is absolutely critical. He picked up texts and started reading them.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: I guess I have a question regarding the “transparency” as you put it, the new openness from church headquarters. Is that answering questions or is it spawning more questions?
Fiona Givens: I think probably both. And both are very important. As a church culture we’re not used to asking questions, at least not particularly profound questions, and quite frankly if this church is going to move towards a more mature, more robust dialogue within itself and with other faith traditions, we’ve got to take these steps. We have to be comfortable, everybody, leadership needs to be comfortable with those uncomfortable questions. And quite honestly Jennifer, Collin is the tip of the iceberg. As Terryl and I travel around, we are hearing it from everybody, even people who feel they are comfortable in the church, are no longer really comfortable in the church. Collin nailed it: it’s fear. People do very bad things when they are frightened. I do feel that there are ways for those of us who are struggling within our congregations to articulate our concerns in a way that doesn’t illicit fear. I’m not saying that this is a panacea for everything, but if we articulate our concerns,  our problems, and what we’ve read in love. For my ward, I live in the rural south. And my ward is just beginning to feel the affects of faith crisis. I had a very dear friend of mine from a very strong family come to me on Sunday and express concern. So it’s going everywhere in the church. Nobody is exempt. But what I have found in my own life is service. We have communities that are geographically bound, in which we can serve. And I think that’s absolutely that’s critical for exactly what Collin is talking about: building this empathy and this love. Because if somebody knows in your community that you love them, that you’ve brought their family dinner, that you’ve gone to seen their mum or you’ve helped out their dad or their children, they are going to look at you with a lot greater magnanimity than otherwise. For example, we had a lesson on preparing to go to the temple and some answers were given and I put my hand up and said “You know Catholics do liturgy and symbolism so much better than Mormons. We don’t do it until we are in the temple.” So I suggested that people might want to consider going to mass three or four times before going to the temple. It was very interesting to see how the congregation responded. Some were like “oh that’s Fiona.” Others woke up and wondered “Did Fiona just ask us to join the Catholic Church?” So there are various states in the congregation, but in the end of the day it facilitated a dialogue because they knew who I was and that I loved them so we had this rapport.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: Patrick, Collin is saying that there really is not a physical space within the Mormon Church schedule to talk about harder issues and he longs for that.
Collin McDonald: I should say that I long for that so much that I created it. I have a faith group that I created and that’s where I got the fear and empathy can’t go exist from a friend named Sam Stoman. That has added more to my growth than a church block can do because I needed it and sought it out and created it.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: Patrick you address this a little bit in your book, expand on that, should the church create a place that is safe to ask some really hard questions.
Patrick Mason: I do think that’s one of the challenges we have because the typical three-hour block on Sundays do not really fill those needs nor are they really designed to. So people like Collin are creating their own spaces. So here in Southern California there is something called the Miller Eccles Study Group. Lots of other people are meeting together in homes, having lecture series. Terryl and Fiona Givens have been terrific, traveling around the world speaking together with people in homes and churches. So I think that there are a lot of efforts, individually and locally driven, sometimes with some degree of trepidation because in the past, sometimes church leaders have encouraged members not to have these types of groups. I think that’s probably counter-productive at this point because the public church doesn’t offer very many options, so people have to do this privately . The other place where a lot more of this needs to happen is under the church auspicious is within the church’s universities, Brigham Young University and within it’s seminaries and institutes. So in this moment where the church is training thousands of it’s young people, those classrooms should be where these difficult questions are asked. If you go to college and ask your biology professor a tough question, they will give you a very mature answer. If that’s not true in your religion classroom, then you are going to think that your religion is only for juveniles. So the religion needs to grow up with it’s own members.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: Sadly our time is just about up. So I’ll ask our historians: what advice do you have for people. Fiona, you go around the world as Patrick said, talking about this issue. If people ask you “Why wasn’t I told about _____ before?” or “I am feeling very disenfranchised from the church I grew up in.” What advice to you give them?
Fiona Givens: I am so glad you asked this as a historical question because for me what I’m finding that going back to the Founding Fathers of this church, that is where the beauty lies. The fact all of the early leaders of the church talked about progression through the kingdoms, that’s extraordinary. No hell and everybody eventually gets, at some point, to the celestial kingdom. The fact that we have coexistence with God. The fact that Eve is the heroine of the human family, I mean what that does for women, how that empowers women in general who have really suffered as a result of Eve being seen as a despicable, frail, useless, contemptible figure, is extraordinary.  The fact that our God is vulnerable and that he chose to love us and in so doing made himself vulnerable to our suffering. And those are really only depicted in Jacob in the Book of Mormon or in the Pearl of Great Price, so they are in restoration texts. But I am finding that in the interim, we have accumulated so much cultural rubbish that has literally drowned the beauty of the initial restoration. And for me, I find that when I go back there, we were so far ahead. The idea that there is a Heavenly Mother, I mean that’s extraordinary.  No the theology wasn’t developed, it’s being developed outside of our tradition, but we were a much more inclusive, much more embracing of other faith traditions and truths to be found everywhere. We were a much more magnanimous tradition at the beginning. That’s what we were originally and I think that’s what we need to claim and reclaim.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: How does that square with the ongoing doctrine of revelation? That there is a person on earth that is getting divine intervention on a regular basis according to Mormon doctrine.
Fiona Givens: And I think that’s actually one of the cultural fallacies we have. There are a number of ecclesiastical leaders who say that “no, there is no red phone to God actually, we stumble through these decisions on our own. We hope for light.” Patrick talks about this in his books when he quoted Spencer Kimball as saying “I’m a racist and I would have gone to my death defending this policy if something hadn’t happened.” So they are ordinary men and they have their own prejudices and every now and again something radiates through. So if we stop looking at our ecclesiastical leaders as though they were mini-gods, we would do so much better. At the end of the day we are the Church of Christ. We should only follow Christ. Our allegiance and loyalty should only be to Christ, not to intermediaries. Christ was quite firm when he said “do not put your faith in the arm of flesh.” Any flesh. And that includes our ecclesiastical leaders. We’ve gone a little bit wonky from where Christ is. I feel like Christ has been sidelined somewhat and unless we bring him back to the center in our collective life and in our individual lives, this isn’t going to go very well for us.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: Patrick, Fiona suggests stripping away some of the cultural baggage that has built up and getting back to the basics. In your book you talk about what’s not helpful, we talk about giving advice for someone undergoing a faith crisis, what advice would you give, and what advice would you stay away from?
Patrick Mason: What’s not helpful is looking at people with judgement and scorn. Feeling like people’s acts of honest questioning are in fact covering up some kind of vice or sin. We need to take people seriously, to treat them with empathy, to treat them with the kind of seriousness that we would want to be treated like the Golden Rule. I think a lot of this has to be accomplished at the level of the local congregation. That’s where most religion happens.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: Why not over the pulpit of General Conference?
Patrick Mason: I think the general church leaders have a significant responsibility about this to, and I think they are conflicted messaging coming from the top. The fact is that most people’s Mormonism is not lived purely in relationship with Salt Lake. Most people’s relationship with Mormonism happens at the local level. And certainly the general messages matter a lot and they shape and they frame the kinds of local behaviors and messages that are given. But when people have troubles, when people have questions, they don’t go to an apostle, they go to their bishop. The changes that we need, the empathy that has been called for, the greater learning that has been called for, a tolerance for a greater diversity of what kinds of testimonies and views which can occur within the church, that has to happen first and foremost on the ward level. The general level, will hopefully lead the way, but it will also follow suit from what local Mormons are doing.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: Collin, very briefly, what advice would you give to somebody who is in your situation?
Collin McDonald: Spend time in the situation. Sit with it. Don’t ask “is there a God?” Ask “where do I find God” and go find Him.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: And finally, how has your faith crisis affected your family? I understand your wife and two kids still attend Mormonism.
Collin McDonald: They do, and that’s great. It provides a great structure. I believe for youth, it’s not harmful. I have a very strong-willed daughter it may eventually become harmful for her and we are going to have to have a lot of difficult discussions along the way. My wife has a lot of similar problems that I do, but she loves how she feels there and it’s useful for her and it’s a good place for her. As far as extended family, I’ve done some work there, and we’ll see how well that.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce: Thank you to Patrick Mason, Fiona Givens, and Collin McDonald for their time today. You can find Peggy Fletcher Stack’s full story and more on religion in the Faith section of SLTrib.com.