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Latter-day: Celebrating And Silencing Doubt In Mormon Communities

Renee Bright / KUER

Mormon culture influences nearly every aspect of life in Utah. But these days, many long-held values are being challenged, even by the faithful. KUER’s series “Latter-day” examines how Mormon culture is — and isn’t — changing in response.

KUER’s Lee Hale spoke with BYU Professor Spencer Fluhman about doubt and community. Fluhman teaches history and is director of the Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University, which specializes in religious scholarship. 

Studying Mormon scholarship at a Mormon school means that Spencer Fluhman is the go-to guy for a lot of students when — for the first time — they encounter painful truths about their church’s history. Things like Joseph Smith’s polygamy, the temple ban for black Mormons, Mountain Meadows massacre. The kind of stuff that doesn’t typically come up in Sunday school. 

Fluhman knows these discoveries can be disorienting. And that doubt can be treated almost like disease in Latter-day Saint communities. Something that will spread if talked about. But for him, these kinds of questions are exciting. 

LEE HALE: Describe the kind of students who show up in your office. 

SPENCER FLUHMAN: All my students ... I think they all go through a process. They have to gain nuance. They have to gain complexity. That’s part of the university's job, its commitments.They come to see the world as one of greater complexity, greater nuance — for some greater wonder. For others, contradictions that are heavy. They're classic in a way. 'How do I know what I know? This new knowledge that I have is challenging the old knowledge that I had. What do I do now? So that's the philosopher's epistemological challenge, right? How do I know this stuff? How does anyone know anything?' And that’s a classic university kind of experience. 

LH: But it's mixed with a faith tradition where knowledge is so prized and so pivotal. The stakes are so high. 

SF: Well and where certainty is celebrated as a as a badge of belonging. And so for a student who doesn't have certainty: 'where do I fit in this community? I don't have certainty. What does that mean for me?' So, they bring questions about the big stories [they've] been told and the new information [they] have now. The old stories now wobble a bit. Now what? Frankly this is no different though with questions of faith than it is in other history courses. 'I was told this story about the American past and now it's much messier and it's morally ambiguous.' Nothing is more energizing to me than the students engagement on these things. It's remarkable. They're smart. 

LH: What do you tell them? 

SF: I tell them, buckle up. Here we go. Now it gets good. Now it gets fun. Now it gets transformative because now we're pushing into places that demand something of us. If there's a moral implication for this idea or this problem or this intellectual conundrum — and there typically is — and we avoid it out of fear or laziness or superficiality, then we're doing an injustice to what the tradition demands of us. And that's a recurring constant unavoidable question about the pursuit of truth, pursuit of light, pursuit of the good. We're not alone in that. We're certainly not the only tradition that aggressively hungers for those things. But we are among those.

LH: When you question at a place like Brigham Young University — you said it might be actually convenient place in a way that you have a community, that you are seeking. Sometimes the community can treat these people — and this is from people I’ve interviewed — like they are diseased. What do you think about asking these kinds of questions outside of a university setting?

SF: I think it can be really problematic because it can alienate someone who has questions ... someone who is experiencing those questions as corrosive to their kind of faith. If they identify it as doubt, I'd want to be careful to say, “Well no it's not actually doubt” or “No, we're not going to have our kids hanging out with your kids anymore.” Those are the kinds of alienating moves are difficult. They’re problematic in part because of the kind of thick community that Latter-day Saints have always kind of yearned for. Peoplehood is the thing we do. It can easily devolve into a kind of cheap conformity where everyone's going to act and be alike, and if you don't quite fit then you kind of are fenced out. 

But that's not the rich version of community that I see, or at least I aspire to, and I want to be a part of and that is the search here with us: Question here with us. If you have a question that question is communal. It's we. It's us. And so if that individual is experiencing question as pain, I want it experienced in that deep community where I have to hear your pain. That's what I'm bound to do. And if you're in mourning for loss of faith, I have to be there with you and I have to sit in it. Or I'm not where I said I would be covenantly. So I think we've got work to do as a community — neighbors, friends, family members. There's always work to do. So let's get busy.

Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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