To Be Childlike or Childish

Innumerable blog posts and not a few books have been written in the last few years about faith crises and doubt as the Church and our Secular Age collide. The Church understands that facts on the ground are changing and that–in order to accomplish eternal objectives–tactics need to shift to accommodate the new reality. The clearest example of this is Elder Ballard’s address: The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century.

In the piece, Elder Ballard extols use of the Church’s new Gospel Topics essays–which cover sensitive and difficult topics like race and the priesthood and Heavenly Mother–and makes crystal clear that things have changed.

As Church education moves forward in the 21st century, each of you needs to consider any changes you should make in the way you prepare to teach, how you teach, and what you teach if you are to build unwavering faith in the lives of our precious youth.

Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, “Don’t worry about it!” Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue. Gone are the days when students were protected from people who attacked the Church.

Elder Ballard could not be more clear that some of our old tactics are no longer serving current needs.

It is important for us to acknowledge that, on the journey of faith, we’re all at different stages. It’s a good thing to make room in our Church culture for “I believe” to be an equally valid testimony as “I know,” since both gifts–personal knowledge and belief / reliance on those who have that gift of knowledge–are explicitly endorsed in scripture.

11 For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God.
12 To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.
13 To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.
14 To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.

Since the absence of absolute certainty entails the presence of some doubt, it is impossible to make room for the validity of belief without making room for the validity of doubt. And this is where the controversy starts.

On the one hand, there are those for whom doubt becomes an end in itself. For them, any straightforward profession of faith can be improved by adding innumerable caveats, qualifications, and–best of all!–nuance. Taken to its logical and absurd conclusion, it becomes impossible to profess anything at all, because by the time you’re done adding on the laundry list of disclaimers the initial point has become completely obscured. From this position, simple declamations–whether they begin with “I know that…” or “I believe that…”–are swept away.

And then on the other hand, there are those who object viscerally to the notion that doubt could be tolerated in any context or for any reason. Intentionally or not, the folks who take this line are in effect rejecting D&C 46 and stating that belief–which always implies doubt–is not acceptable to the Lord. Of course, this argument is not stated logically, but rather on the basis of scriptures like Mormon 9:27 (“Doubt not, but be believing”) and the numerous other exhortations against doubt. Pretty cut and dry, right?

Well, no, of course it’s not. Let me give a counterexample to lay the groundwork for some real talk. We are all familiar with the equally clear scriptural injunction to become as little children, right? Jesus himself said that “except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) Seems pretty unambiguous, right?

And yet when Paul wrote to the Galatians, he seemed to have a much dimmer view of childhood, writing “Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world:” Well, which is it? Does being like children mean that we’re ready for the Kingdom of God, or does it mean that we’re “in bondage under the elements of the world”?

That’s not the only example, by the way. When Paul wrote to the Ephesians he was even clearer:

That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;

Or was he? One chapter later he wrote (in the same letter!) explaining that we have prophets and apostles to help us avoid being like children, he then urged his audience to do exactly the opposite and “be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children.”

We are not really bothered by the contradiction here. We’ve all dealt with it in talks or Sunday school lessons, often by relying on terms like “child-like” (good) vs. “childish” (bad). We understand what Paul meant when he told us to be like children, and we also understand what Paul meant when he told us not to be like children. Whether or not we invent terminology to justify it (e.g. childish and childlike) we get the point. We understand that being like children is good or bad depending on the context, and because of that we’re not perplexed when Paul tells us not to do what Jesus told us we have to do, nor even when Paul apparently contradicts himself.

Why should it be any different with doubt?

There are no scriptures that encourage doubt, and I’m not encouraging it either. Anyone who tells you that doubt is an end in itself or something to strive for has no scriptural support and is, at best, confused. But at the same time, anyone who tells you that doubt is intrinsically wrong is also contradicting the scriptures. Because, to repeat myself, if you believe (rather than know) it means that you have less than complete certainty. That gap–the distance between your belief and perfect knowledge–can reasonably be called “doubt”. And doubt–in that sense of the word–is something we all have. It’s something we all live with . It’s not great. It’s not something we should be complacent about or simply accept without any hope of improvement, but it’s also not evidence that we’ve done something wrong or are unfaithful. It’s not a sin, it’s an imperfection, and none of us are perfect. None of us are going to be perfect in this lifetime.

Of course there are other meanings of the word “doubt” and not all of them are benign. Doubting can also refer to an actively cynical worldview, and in that sense of the word doubt is dangerous. So we have one word that spans multiple concepts. Big deal. Children are humble and trusting and full of love. They’re also psychotic poop-flinging monsters. Be like the first kind. Not like the second.

The problem with worshiping doubt is obvious. It precludes further progress and abets complacency. It can even undermine the faith of those around the person who celebrates doubt, the way the jeers from the great and spacious building caused some of those who had pressed through the mists of confusion to second-guess what they had achieved. Worshiping doubt is corrosive.

The problem with denying doubt all the time in every sense of the word might not be as obvious, but it’s just as real. Since none of us have perfect knowledge of all important things (even though some of us are blessed to have perfect knowledge of some things), there’s no way to deny doubt without falsely claiming certainty we don’t actually have. There’s a word for that, and the word is: arrogance. Or, in scriptural terms: pride.

The scriptures do not endorse doubt as such, but they do endorse humility. There is no reason to exclude intellectual humility. And that means being humble about we know–accepting that we don’t know it all, that we’re not always certain, that sometimes we’re confused or unsure–is not a violation of scriptural injunctions to “doubt not”, it is obedience to scriptural commands to be humble. And even, one could reasonably argue, to be like a little child who is willing to admit that sometimes they just don’t know.

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