Religious faith is not an object that can be physically observed or placed in the hands of others to study and replicate. Instead, our faith is manifested in our words and actions. But in an era of social media and information overload, explaining and thoughtfully defending your faith can be overwhelming, not to mention the challenge that personal faith-related questions can present in the chaos of opinions and information.
All of these factors can make it difficult to reason through what you know and what you don’t fully understand. The Reason for Hope Conference series addresses these difficulties each semester with speakers who discuss current topics, unique concerns, and their own personal experiences.
This semester’s lineup included a philosopher, a CEO, an LDS church history expert, and an attorney. JB Haws urged LDS members to study the church’s history with an attitude of fearlessness. Jim Faulconer theorized that the modern despair of consumerism can be eradicated with faith in God. Camille Williams urged the women of the church to see the separation between the callings of men and women as a testament to their divine role. And Sheri Dew encouraged those with questions of faith to not shy away from their doubts, but to confront them head-on and search for answers.
“LDS Church History: Official, Transparent, and More Interesting than Ever”
Embrace LDS church history with an attitude of fearlessness.
In the 70’s and early 80’s the LDS church began implementing changes regarding the dissemination of the church’s history. JB Haws, an assistant professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, is familiar with the difficulties history can pose. Because “there is no such thing as objective history… [it] really is all about interpretation.” As a worldwide organization, the church needed a more organized, consistent, and transparent approach to providing the history to members and the public.
At the same time, the 80’s were “also a time of renewed and serious anti-Mormonism.” Even greater criticism followed the national attention given to Mark Hoffman’s forgery of church history documents. Inevitably, “the Mormon history world was on edge.”
Today, the LDS church is more transparent and open than ever before. Haws explains that the most interesting part of this new atmosphere “is what’s changed and how it’s changed, and changed remarkably rapidly.”
Richard Bushman was one of those changes. His Summer Seminar became instrumental in the transformation of church history research. “He embodied a philosophy of fearlessness [when researching church history] that I would commend to all of us.”
Bushman taught his students, “We don’t go around anything, we don’t go over or under anything, We go right through it because there really is nothing to fear in church history.” According to Haws, this attitude of fearlessness began to transfer over to others and had a remarkable impact on the entire church.
The history of the LDS church can be daunting but Haws urges those with questions to search for answers. “There is something powerful about connecting with this true, transparent history that is more inspiring than ever.” Today, many historical documents and Gospel Topic Essays are available online at lds.org for anyone to study.
Haws concluded with a message of encouragement for those who search and embrace the study of church history. “We have nothing to fear, and instead something to inspire us, something to tell us God is at work among his people."
“Is Your God the God of the Philosophers?”
Modern despair can be remedied through religion and the changes it inspires within us.
“If the word despair means the absence of hope then a good deal of our culture today is in despair despite whatever appearances it might put on.” According to Jim Faulconer, consumerism has become the culture of the West and with it, modern despair. This obsession over material things eventually leaves people empty and in a vicious cycle in which consumers make repeated, fruitless attempts to fill that deep, internal emptiness with more external material things.
How did Western culture wind up in this cycle? Faulconer believes it is a consequence of contemporary secularism and confusion regarding the nature of God. The philosopher Nietzsche’s infamous claim “God is dead,” could be interpreted as a reflection of today’s Western thought. Society has accepted the idea that God is like Nietzsche’s “the one,” an intangible, disconnected being without any bounds to what he can and cannot do. If “the one” is dead then “the way in which Western life has been structured, the way we see and understand the world as a whole, has become impossible even though we continue to insist otherwise.”
With the rise of secularism and an abandonment of “the one,” certain fundamental truths have been rejected. Western culture is left asking, “Without [‘the one’] what will anchor our explanations? In particular, to what will we anchor our morality if there isn’t such a ‘one?’ The result of this death of ‘the one’ has been despair. But the collapse of religion and culture into nothing is not inevitable.”
Faulconer argues, “Mormonism’s insistence that the father and the son are each embodied in the flesh, in other words, Mormon materialism, is an antidote” to modern despair. “The theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints… offers an alternative to the absence of value and reality that have turned out to be the inheritance of the West.” And yet, even the religious can be swept up in consumerism’s wave and “unconsciously continue in the despair of our time even though the antidote is at our hands.”
Mormon theology declares that, unlike “the one,” God is intimately aware of each of us. “A divine being can be affected by other beings not only because he loves them... but also because he is affected by things such as touch and sound, by the things they do.” This knowledge counters the popular Western belief that value comes from our materials. Instead, it resides in the ultimate value God sees within us.
And as a being with a physical, tangible body, God has the ability to be involved in the existence of those things he creates, within boundaries. “God created an ordered world out of the stuff of relative, rather than ultimate, chaos… This means that for Latter-Day Saints his omnipotence is radically different than that of the traditional God.” Mormon theology offers theories of “truth, possibility, and beauty in ways others cannot.”
God’s nature and physical body make it possible for Him to have a relationship with each of us. “I understand God to say ‘I am God. If you are my children you will behave that way.’ To not recognize Him as God in that way is to not identify as his child.” As we strive to live as God intends, we begin to see that our actions have a greater impact on us than anything we own or proclaim to believe. “Our practice is always more fundamental than our theology. Practices like prayer, scripture study, charitable works, those are where religion finds its true ground.” And according to Faulconer, these actions have the power to overcome modern despair.
“Women, Faith and Family: A Case for LDS Teachings”
Women have a divine role and unique calling within the church.
“There are tensions in the LDS church about women and family, and that is an understatement.” Camille Williams, a mother, wife, and attorney, has grappled with these tensions firsthand.
In the time leading up to her marriage, Williams began to feel a more personal connection with women’s issues. One key principle of the LDS church is the distinct role of mothers and fathers within a family. “I felt deeply the responsibility to bear and rear children” but, “I felt discomfort with the expected roles in child-rearing. I felt work outside the home fit better with my talents.”
Spurred by her discomfort and dissatisfaction towards church leadership, she began to study the office of priesthood callings and their relation to women. What she discovered surprised her. “I hadn’t thought carefully enough about the respective callings of embodied women and men.” Women are called to motherhood, to bear, nurture, and raise children, whether their own or others’. This “embodied service women give as mothers should not be dismissed as merely biological, lacking in spirituality and intentionality.”
Women are not ordained with the priesthood as men are, not because of a lack of ability or intellect, but because of the divine role of motherhood. Williams explains, “Correlation could be seen as recognizing the transcendence of women of the church… Relieving women of some of the material burdens of the church is recognition of their divine role.”
At the same time, she experienced a change of perspective about the leadership of the church. “The prophets are quite aware of their burden to speak the word of God” and "it occurred to me that the intensity of my feelings of offense, anger, or hurt were not a truth barometer."
Other faithful women struggle with similar questions and frustrations. For those who feel they are not given equal participation in their congregation, consider Williams’ final thoughts on the impact of the women of the church. “The labor of LDS women in their own homes and families though often hard to represent on social media, builds the human capital and the spiritual capital.” Consider “the millions of hours of service they give yearly [that] builds and blesses their neighborhoods, professions, communities, and nations.” Consider the specific and unique roles of men and women, “not as depriving women but as recognizing the divine in women.”
“Will You Engage in the Wrestle?”
Allow the process of asking questions & searching for truth to convert you.
Sheri Dew, CEO of Deseret Book Company and a former officer in the General Presidency of the Relief Society of the LDS Church, has had the opportunity to teach and serve all over the world. Through her personal experiences and interactions she has found that each person has their own human orbit. “Think about your sphere of influence. No one lives just for themselves, we all live in a divine orbit. There are people that we are uniquely suited to reach, often in one-on-one situations.”
Sometimes, our sphere of influence requires us to serve and guide others through their own trials of faith. To be prepared for those moments, we ourselves “have to know how to handle doubt. We have to know how to handle questions.”
A few years ago, a young woman came to Dew “deeply upset and scared” by her doubts. Dew, having worked through her own questions before, began to meet regularly with the young woman, not to dismiss her concerns, but to actively search for answers with her. “I said to her… ‘Questions are good, questions are really healthy. Bring all your questions, bring your scriptures… and let's see what the Lord will teach us about your questions.”
Years down the road, the young woman called Dew to thank her for her guidance. “She told me, ‘The best thing you ever said was ‘Questions are good.” When overwhelmed by doubt, seek out truth. Dew has called this search for knowledge, “the wrestle”. “It is about leveraging the strength of truth and pure doctrine” and our active participation is absolutely necessary.
Understanding doesn’t always come immediately. “Social media trains us to look out and expect an answer really fast. Not up.” And the answers that come from above typically arrive on their own timetable. “If we want to grow spiritually the Lord wants us to ask questions and seek answers.”
When confronted with trials of faith or sickness or loss, we may ask, "How do I continue with faith when life hands out so many disappointments?" She “respond[s] to these questions with another question: Are you willing to engage in the wrestle?”
Dew says it best, “The wrestle has done something for me; it has converted me. That is why questions aren't just good, they are vital.”