by Patrick Q. Mason
Reviewed by Stephen Carter
Doubt has two unique definitions in Mormon culture. In church meetings, we’re most likely to use the word in a negative sense to describe the state of someone who is breaking themselves against—or ignoring—an obvious gospel truth. (Except when we are talking about someone who is using doubt to release themselves from a previous religious tradition in order to join up with ours, but this usage still has a negative connotation, associating doubt with religious alienation.)
In the Bloggernacle, we’re most likely to use doubt in a positive sense to describe someone heroically swimming against the Mormon river’s implacable current, or when we are deconstructing doctrine, history, or ideology.
In both cases, we cast doubt in moral terms: it is bad to doubt, or it is good to doubt. And in looking at it this way, we misunderstand the nature of doubt all together.
At least, that’s the implication of Patrick Q. Mason’s Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt, co-published by the Maxwell Institute and Deseret Book.
The book is unique in that it is not a point-by-point rebuttal of arguments made against the Church’s truth claims—attempting to remove doubt—rather, it is a methodology for recalibrating our approach to history, truth, and belief so that we can interact with an imperfect history and leadership without taking a fatal blow to our Church membership.
Mason offers many small-scale strategies throughout the book that, if you haven’t taken graduate-level courses in history, anthropology, or sociology, are good primers (for example, morals and mores from times past rarely match ours, therefore we should be suspicious when history seems to share our current beliefs and ideologies; empathizing with historic figures is not actually possible, so investing in them is risky; the weaknesses and biases of historic records are manifold), but he makes one particularly eye-popping statement early on:
In a thousand years . . . People will no more leave Mormonism over the Mountain Meadows Massacre than modern Jews leave Judaism over biblical genocide. Mormon polygamy will be no more (and no less) vexing than ancient polygamy. The Book of Abraham will be no more textually troubling than the Bible’s Deuteronomists or multiple Isaiahs. Multiple versions of Joseph Smith’s first vision will be no more faith-shaking than varying accounts of Paul’s conversion or the disharmony of the Gospels.
Considering the number of pixels rearranged, ink spilled, and Church membership records removed over precisely these matters, the statement may seem dismissive of contemporary issues. But, if we are honest, we have to admit that Mason is right. Time will have its way with these difficulties—eventually mythologizing them into safety.
Mason implicitly invites us to take on the perspective of these future Mormons, disconnecting ourselves from the fervor of today’s debates by realizing that we are reacting to a time and place in history that will soon be gone—that our perspective on what is important is shared by almost no one outside of our tiny crack of history.
We can see this principle playing out in Mason’s discussion of the racial priesthood-temple ban. He has no problem saying that the ban was the result of the prejudices of imperfect leaders. And he can say that because the Church says something similar in its Gospel Topics essay on the subject. And the Church can say so in its essay because 40 years have passed since the ban was rescinded. Time has indeed scabbed this wound over (for Caucasians, at least) and created an environment where Mason can publish words that could have gotten him excommunicated prior to the 1978 revelation.
However, it feels like Mason glosses over one essential point: that the future is affected by what people do with the present. What would our church look like had there not been Saints who had questioned the racial priesthood-temple ban through the decades until the 1978 revelation was finally announced? We would undoubtedly be a different church.
However, I don’t think Mason glosses over this point deliberately. Mason is known for his work in peace studies, and doubtless the sacrifice of past and contemporary peacemakers is never far from his mind. It seems that with this book, he is first making a case for those who “doubt” to stay in the Church where they can affect its future. And I support him in this. I have seen first-hand the effect an awakened Church member can have on his or her ward, friends, and relatives.
However, compared to the hundred and fifty pages Mason spends on recalibrating our ideas about church, we get only thirty on what to do “when church is hard.” And most of these are spent talking about how we can modify our behavior and attitudes in order to better interface with our Mormon ward—how we can shift back into a recognizably Mormon orbit after destabilization. In other words, his proposed revolution in our thinking does not make a transition to our actions.
The Gospel Topics essays similarly reframe our perception of the past and our theology, but avoid talking about the people or processes that brought changes about. For example, the “Race and Priesthood” essay mentions only Church leaders, saying nothing of the writers, scholars, and activists who kept the issue in the public eye. One gets the feeling that Church leaders received the 1978 revelation in a social bubble. But the truth is much more Mormon.
What do I mean by that?
Mason spends a few pages talking about Eugene England, a founder of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, a former Sunstone board member, and a professor of English at BYU and Utah Valley University. He brings England in mainly for his essay “Why the Church Is as True as the Gospel,” wherein he writes, “If we cannot accept the Church and the challenges it offers with the openness and courage and humility they require, then I believe our historical studies and our theological enterprises are mainly a waste of time and possibly destructive.”
Anyone who knew England knows that this was not a mere platitude for him. He lived it. As Mason writes, “Because he took outspoken, principled positions on various controversial subjects, England was often painted as a liberal, and various Church leaders were troubled by some of his writings. Yet in an era in which a number of other Mormon intellectuals were disciplined and even excommunicated, England’s devotion to the church was so apparent that his membership was never in question . . .”
However, Mason doesn’t talk about which of England’s actions or writings “troubled” Church leaders. England headed up an effort to gather food for people who were starving in Poland during the 1980’s. This may seem like a laudable activity today, but Poland was part of the Communist bloc back then and England’s campaign was criticized as aiding an enemy country. He also wrote an article called “On Fidelity, Polygamy, and Celestial Marriage” that argued vigorously against the prospect of polygamy in the Celestial Kingdom. Articles such as this, as well as some speeches he made, moved some Church leaders to force his retirement from BYU.
And to clinch it all, as Mason puts it, England “was famously admonished by one apostle.” That would be Bruce R. McConkie, who wrote in a letter to England, “I want you to know that I am extending to you the hand of fellowship though I hold over you at the same time, the scepter of judgment,” and then went on to accuse England of committing one of what McConkie labeled as the “seven deadly heresies.”
In other words, England frequently inhabited challenging contexts that made Church leaders and members uncomfortable. And the reason he did so was because of his deep commitment to Mormonism. His mantra was a quote from Joseph Smith, “by proving contraries, truth is made manifest.” England interpreted these words to mean not that one contrary or the other needed to be proven correct, but that they must be brought into dialogue with one another. Truth arises when contraries interact. And contraries inevitably arise when we, as England wrote, “accept the Church and the challenges it offers with the openness and courage and humility they require.”
But accepting these challenges is messy. England’s life proved that many times over. Church history is full of mess, which means that it is full of people who accepted the Church and its challenges. But those messes rarely make it into our official histories.
Staying in the LDS Church does not mean that you accept its status quo. It means that you accept its challenges. You do something, knowing that your efforts will make your life messy, knowing that history will forget you, knowing that the Saints in a thousand years will not be bothered by the challenges you are grappling with today—but doing it anyway.
The 1978 revelation came about because some of our Saints accepted the Church and its challenges. Our official history does not recognize them. But they were here, and we have benefitted from their faithfulness.
The two contemporary issues that seem to bubble just beneath the surface of Planted are women and the priesthood, and LGBTQ issues. If it is so obvious to us now that the racial priesthood-temple ban was misguided, shouldn’t we be thinking along similar lines for women and the priesthood? Mason makes a few suggestions that approach the issue, talking about some women who sponsor small get-togethers in their own homes to celebrate and pray over their newborns, leaving the in-church priesthood naming ordinance intact and therefore not making a “political statement.” But all his suggestions leave the priesthood structure untouched. LGBTQ issues remain almost entirely undiscussed, his best advice being “Make a place for yourself.”
Admittedly, how we include people who traditionally occupy invisible corners of the Church is difficult territory to navigate. How do we integrate transgender people? Do we allow male-to-female members to attend Relief Society? Female-to-males to attend priesthood quorum? How can we create a nourishing environment for our homosexual, single, and divorced members? These conversations desperately need to be had, but in Planted Mason offers little guidance on how to go about having them.
I admit, however, that he is not really in a position to offer official guidance, as he does not have a Church calling with this particular stewardship. But this is precisely where the rubber he’s been trying to build up the entire book meets the road. What do his readers who have reframed Church history, who have reframed Church truth claims, who have reframed their ideas about Church leadership, who have decided to stay actively engaged with the Church do to become contemporary Helmuth Huebners, Carol Lynn Pearsons, Eugene Englands, and Chieko Okazakis? How do they enter into today’s charged territory to help make a future where that territory no longer causes conflict?
An answer suggested itself during a January roundtable discussion at Deseret Book’s offices in Salt Lake City, where twenty or so people talked with Mason about the tension between doubt and faith. Mason said that the tension will never be resolved—and that it never should be. He’s right. But the reason the tension between faith and doubt will never be resolved is not because we mortals are too dumb to wrestle it to the ground, but because that tension is precisely where creation occurs.
In other words, “doubt” (at least as Mormons understand it) is a red herring. What we call doubt is merely the tension between two worldviews or ideas, both of which have something to offer. As England pointed out, if one triumphs over the other completely, we lose out. We are best served when we instead create something new inside these tensions.
So instead of saying, “I’m entering a period of doubt,” it would be more clear-sighted to say, “I’m entering a creative space. Important tensions are becoming visible to me, and I’m centering myself between them. I’m feeling the strength of their gravities. I’m allowing them, however painfully, to stretch me into something I have never been before. I’m going to perceive through wider eyes soon, through a fuller heart, through an expanded mind, through an enriched spirit. Being a child of God, I am progressing. And I stay in this church because I can create things here I could never make in a less charged context.”
Mason himself is a great example of a person who has successfully brought Mormon ideas into creative tension with other ideas. He told us during the roundtable that the two most influential books in his life are the Book of Mormon and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. What an enthralling tension he must have experienced between those two works! We’ve already had some taste of its result in War and Peace in Our Time: Mormon Perspectives, which he edited and contributed an essay to; and his book-length treatment on peace will be available soon.
The theoretical groundwork Planted lays for contemporary Latter-day Saints is very useful. But we need a follow-up book. Mason has argued that, with the intellectual tools he presents, we can still interface with an imperfect Mormonism; he’s given us ideas for fitting into our wards and stakes; but now it’s time to come face to face with Mormon theology’s explosive potential for creation (as messy as it is) in the real world—right here, right now.
You don’t just stay. You stay to create.
Is Mason the one to write this book? I don’t know him well enough to say. Is the Maxwell Institute and Deseret Book the team to publish it? I sure hope so. Because creation, as messy as it is, is the most Mormon subject I can think of.