Editor's note: Portions of this were previously published in an earlier column.
Decades ago, I heard the late Stanley Kimball, a professor of history at Southern Illinois University and a former president of the Mormon History Association, deliver memorable remarks in southern California.
He described what he called the "three levels" of the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which he termed A, B and C. (Given my background in philosophy, I might have chosen G.W.F. Hegel's vocabulary instead: "thesis," "antithesis" and "synthesis.")
Level A, Kimball said, is the Sunday school version of the church and its history. Virtually everything connected with the church on level A is obviously good and true and harmonious. Members make occasional mistakes, perhaps, but leaders rarely if ever do. Looking at things from level A, it’s hard to imagine how anybody out there could fail to immediately recognize the obvious truth of the gospel, and opposition to the church seems flatly diabolical and perverse.
Level B — the "antithesis" to level A's "thesis" — is perhaps most clearly seen in anti-Mormon accounts of church history. On the extreme version of level B, what level A pronounces good, true and harmonious is actually bad, false and chaotic. The church’s leaders are deceitful and evil and the church's account of its own story is a lie.
But anti-Mormon propaganda isn’t required for encountering things that are difficult to reconcile with an idealized portrait of the Restoration. After all, members of the church are fallible mortals; ambiguities and unanswered problems exist in church history.
Kimball argued in his California speech that, in order to remain faithful, church members who have been exposed to level B need to pass through it to a better informed and more realistic level C. Very significantly, though, he insisted — as I also am convinced — that the “synthesis” represented by level C is essentially, and profoundly, like level A: The gospel is, in fact, true. Both general and local church leaders have, overwhelmingly, been good and sincere people, doing the best they can with imperfect human materials (including themselves) under often very difficult circumstances.
The great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes apparently thought along parallel lines: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity (on) this side of complexity,” he said. “But I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
Now, in their relatively short new book “Faith Is Not Blind” (Deseret Book, 135 page), Bruce and Marie Hafen lay out “a three-stage model” built on that comment from Holmes: Naïve simplicity, they contend, can be overwhelmed by complexity. But, in turn, difficult and challenging complexity can be overcome by a deeper, richer, renewed simplicity — very much like Stanley Kimball’s levels A, B and C.
The Hafens’ qualifications for the task they’ve taken upon themselves are impressive: A former member of the Young Women general board and of the board of directors of the Deseret News, Marie Hafen has taught writing, Shakespeare and the Book of Mormon at Brigham Young University-Idaho, the University of Utah and Brigham Young University in Provo and has been a contributing author to several books. Bruce Hafen is an internationally known legal scholar and an award-winning author who served as president of BYU–Idaho, dean of the BYU Law School and provost at BYU’s main campus in Provo before he was called as a General Authority Seventy in 1996. After his release as a General Authority Seventy, the Hafens served together from 2010 to 2013 as president and matron of the St. George Utah Temple.17 comments on this story
Unanticipated questions and unexpected complexities can sometimes challenge faith and, in too many cases, destroy it. Based on their extensive experience in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and as parents and grandparents, and drawing on their lifelong reading, thinking and teaching, the Hafens set out to address the problem of retaining faith while honestly confronting potential doubts — not with specific apologetic arguments on particular issues but with a general method for responding to all such issues. And, while no single approach will settle every issue or help every individual, “Faith Is Not Blind” will help many.
Manifestly written with a younger audience especially in view, it is a calmly intelligent, reflective, insightful, occasionally autobiographical and candid book.
As an endorsement on the back cover of the book expresses it, “Faith Is Not Blind” “models the very kind of ‘simplicity beyond complexity’ that it recommends to readers. Believing without ignorance (and) wisdom without sanctimony — this is the kind of earnest exploration of belief and doubt we have needed.”