I hear you have encountered doubt. That vexing, troubling, frustrating presence scraping many corners of the Internet.
Perhaps you have seen how the most prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins, has turned his sights on the church. Perhaps you read of the way he confronted LDS singer Brandon Flowers during a recent TV appearance.
Perhaps you have encountered websites as I have — cleanly designed and clearly written — that in seemingly soft tones lay out reasons they allege that the church isn't true.
Perhaps, even more, you have encountered the recent study by the Pew Research Center that suggests that increasingly, Americans are leaving religion, especially the younger generations. You feel unpopular and more alone.
It's hard to avoid out there, doubt.
Recently, I encountered two new postings by Dr. Terryl Givens at the University of Richmond, a foremost LDS intellectual, on this topic. His generous letter to a doubter inspired me to write you, too.
Maybe I'm the wrong person to write such a letter. My faith is and has always been based on rather simple premises. When I read the Book of Mormon — and I've read it some 50 times — I feel uniquely good. Its insights enrich and provide hope. Days where I read deeply make me feel better. I've prayed and gained a witness. Everything else in my faith comes from that.
Perhaps your gifts are different than mine. Perhaps you think in unique ways. Perhaps you wrestle longer to garner a witness. Perhaps you ask questions in ways I haven't. So, my ideas might seem too glib for you.
But let me try anyway.
One thing that helped me was thinking about the nature of knowledge. Don't get me wrong. I'm no philosopher and may even misunderstand parts of these arguments, but one day I heard someone explain the 20th-century philosopher Thomas Kuhn in a way that turned a passionate light on for me.
As I understand the logic, any complete branch of knowledge needs to have an epistemology, an understanding of what knowledge is; an ontology, an understanding of the nature of reality; and a methodology, a way of gaining knowledge.
It dawned on me that we Latter-day Saints have those things, implying we have a unique, philosophically justifiable claim on knowledge — a fully realized worldview. Of course, I don't need a philosophy to believe in the gospel. It just reminded me mainly that we have a method — prayer and revelation — and an understanding of the nature of the world that is coherent and consistent. We don't have to really discuss our beliefs on the level of science.
(Of course as a Latter-day Saint, I accept knowledge in all of its forms. I appreciate and support scientific inquiry.)
But we have a method distinct from science — a method that is "to experiment" upon the word. My reading is that just because our experiment is different, it doesn't make it any less valid — the measure is does it work?
I know hundreds personally who say they have tried successfully the virtue of the word. The experiment, so-called, has value. It bears fruit in lives that know new happiness. It works.
When I refuse to do a scientific experiment, I may have insightful analysis, but I might be dead wrong until I have used the method science expects. I have little claim on that knowledge.
Couldn't the same be said of our methods? Can I not boldly stand for methods taught in the Book of Mormon in ways not dissimilar to how Galileo stood with his telescope? Just because others haven't tried the experiment doesn't invalidate the knowledge our experiment provides.
But what if you still wrestle? What if, for now, the heavens seem silent? There's much to learn in the word doubt itself.
I'm intrigued that scripture says to doubt not. That may seem an invitation to blind following, to not test. Surely, that's not what I would believe. But what does doubt mean then? Is it merely a question? Is it only a lack of light?
Doubt, to me, is an act — an act of indecision and wavering, as I read the old Oxford Dictionary. Doubt, like faith, is a choice. Sure, there are times of questions and pondering and wondering. But deciding to waver, to hesitate, to stay still — those lead away from the gospel experiment.
I could go on. I might mention the silliness of basing testimony on interpretations and memories of historical facts. I might drift into how perspective is everything in evaluating claims about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. I might criticize those who take quotes out of context. I might question any seeker's historical and cultural assumptions about what constitutes salient literary and historical facts.
But, somehow, these all pale next to the simple words, filled with paradox and challenge to every person facing the quest of religion: Doubt not.
Those words, somehow, becomes the sum of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint and a believer. That's the simple but complex advice I would give you too, if the sharp corners of the Internet ever wound you. Act. Decide. Prove. Try. Pray. The Mormon experiment still works.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communications at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion and religion and politics.
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