I Walk Imperfectly


Thu 24 December 2015 |

In recent years the church has quietly introduced a policy of "inoculating" seminary and institute students against their faith being challenged by learning troublesome facts about church history. I first heard of this when my father-in-law, who formerly trained seminary teachers, ran into one of his former students when we were out to dinner one night. I remember specifically hearing the former student, now a seminary teacher himself, actually use the word "inoculate". Since then I've seen it pop up in multiple blog posts and podcasts.

I am troubled by what is revealed by people using the inoculation metaphor:

  • Real inoculations work by exposing the person to a dead or weakened form of the antigen. This trains the immune system to immediately reject the antigen in the future, with a very minimal risk to the person when they're first exposed. I can't support any attempt to promote dead or weakened versions of the truth.
  • The metaphor implies that truth is a damaging, contagious disease that we should fear, rather than something that we should actively seek out. I cannot support that.

These thoughts have been echoing in my mind for months, whenever the topic of inoculation was raised in a church context. Today though, I read something that showed me an important new angle on the topic. It was in a blog post by Jana Riess, in which she interviews Thomas McConkie, author of a new book entitled Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis. Riess asks McConkie to expand on one paragraph in the book that likens faith to the immune system:

RNS: I was intrigued by something you say in the book about Mormons being told that it’s fine to have doubts as long as they don’t talk about them. The fear is that if we ever admit to doubt openly, it might damage someone else’s testimony. You give a powerful analogy drawn from the world of biology to argue that the opposite is the case: we do damage when we don’t introduce real human doubt. I want to quote from this at length:

Consider the irony in modern medicine that hospitals, our cultural houses of healing, have become notorious for spreading lethal infections. These antiseptic environments pave the way for virulent strains of bacteria to ravage patients whose immune systems are compromised. Analogously, we can look to the recent eruption of discussion around Mormon history in our own communities. Who is this outbreak affecting the most? It is not those who have grown up in ‘germ-ridden’ environments where ideas and information of all kinds freely circulate. Those most affected by this new bug teeming in our ecosystem are those who lack previous exposure. How, then, do we build more resiliency in our faith communities?

This reminded me of what I wrote in my last post:

And that's the danger of the church coddling members' faith to the extent that they do. By creating an environment where the only acceptable comments and questions are faith-promoting ones, the church nurtures faith that is ill equipped to confront difficult truths.

It reminds me of the Gina Colvin blog post, The Leperization of the Mormon Doubter.

My response to these thoughts in the past has been primarily to feel lonely and resentful. It is hard to be at a family or church gathering, and hear some topic discussed in the church's one-sided way, and fear how much damage would be done to my relationships with these people if they knew how I really felt.

I have come to realize that silence about our doubts not only makes us ill-equipped to deal with difficult truths, it also causes isolation, loneliness, and anxiety.

And that was at the root of the new feelings I had today when reading those words from Riess and McConkie. Though most church members would probably reject information that challenges their testimonies, even if it's true, I wonder how I would feel if someone did listen and act on what they learned. Sharing the truth with someone could result in them experiencing the same years of frustration, isolation, and cognitive dissonance that I went through. It could result in them no longer feeling welcome in their church community. It could result in the end of their marriage.

My challenge is to find ways to navigate my relationships without violating my commitments to truth on one hand, or love on the other. There are some people who I am responsible to lead, primarily my wife and children. I am duty-bound to share the complete truth with them. But as the relationships grow more distant, my responsibility quickly wanes. I am perfectly happy to let my in-laws live out their lives without ever challenging their commitment to the church. At the same time, if one came to me wanting to know what I truly believed, or wanting to know where they could learn the whole truth, I think then I'd have an obligation to tell them what I know.