The pros and cons of inoculation, the idea that the Church should proactively teach controversial aspects of its history as a prophylactic measure against people feeling betrayed and losing their faith when they encounter these things in non-Church settings, is a frequent topic of discussion around the LDS blogs and has come up again recently (see DMI here and Kevin Barney at BCC starting in comment 103 here). All this talk has me reflecting on my own experience in the Church and wondering what made me “immune” when I encountered historical issues that often cause trouble for people.
I grew up in Utah and my only education in Church history came from the Church itself by way of sunday school, seminary, and required BYU religion classes. I never sought out extra-curricular sources of history. My dad had shelves full of old Mormon-themed books, but as far as I know, no scholarly treatments of Mormon history. It never really occured to me to look deeper into history. It just wasn’t something that interested me much.
Starting in my teenage years, though, I have always been aware that there were people who thought the Book of Mormon was made up and that Joseph Smith was a charlatan and that these people felt like they had the facts on their side. I think I primarily became aware of this from two sources: 1) in seminary or church when the occasional apologetic argument was put forth, the attacks that precipitated the apologetics were referred to; 2) I always had a job and I often worked with people who were hostile to the Church (the Wasatch front has a high concentration of hostiles), who would occasionally bring up some of the tried and true attacks. So I never was under any illusions that Church history was entirely happy and uncontroversial.
I think by that time I had absorbed a couple of crucial ideas that kept me from being too troubled by faith-challenging information: The first is that people often have unacknowledged, subconscious ulterior motives for believing what they believe, especially when it comes to religious questions. I knew this to be true of both anti- and pro-Mormon folks. So I took everything everyone said with a grain of salt. I don’t think that skeptical attitude was something I was taught—I know I didn’t get it from my parents—but I think that attitude kept me somewhat anchored where I was: in the middle. By the way, I’m not saying that having a skeptical, distrusting attitude is necessarily a virtue, just that it kept me from being too influenced by people hostile to the Church.
The second idea I had absorbed was that if there was any such thing as spiritual truth, it could only be learned by spiritual means. Praying to learn truth is something that is taught constantly in the Church. I wasn’t sure that there was any such thing as spiritual truth or that prayer could really lead one to truth, but I was open to the idea. In my mind, the question of the validity of the Church was not something that could be settled definitively by weighing arguments of critics against those of apologists; it had to come from God (if there was a God).
When the time came to decide if I would go on a mission I finally was motivated to try the study and prayer thing for myself. I read the Book of Mormon for the first time in earnest with this question in my mind: “Is this the work of God or did Joseph Smith make it up?” As I read I felt again and again a witness from the Holy Ghost that it was of God. I learned how to pray and I felt that God was there and I felt His love. I gained a witness of the love of God and the validity of the Church that motivated me to serve a mission.
Though my trust in that witness is not always perfect, its power is what has anchored me over the past several years as I have learned more faith-challenging aspects of the Church. Plus, as I always have, I still take everything everyone says with a grain of salt and I still believe that there are questions that cannot be definitively settled through argumentation and examination of hard evidence. From hanging around the internet I think I have at least cursory knowledge of everything that seems to cause a lot of problems for people and some of that has probably influenced the way I regard the Church and its leaders, but it hasn’t caused a crisis and my faith has remained intact. I haven’t felt betrayed or deceived. I still trust the current leadership of the Church and I still find the Gospel as taught by the Church to be indescribably beautiful and true.
I can see upsides and downsides to a Church history inoculation regimen as proposed by Kevin Barney. I don’t know if the potential benefits would outweigh the risks. And I don’t think the Church has a moral obligation to proactively teach every aspect of its history.
I see one of my main responsibilities as a parent to help my children develop faith. I want them to have faith because my faith has been good for me and I believe the Church will bless theirs and their families’ lives. As most of us who have been on missions or taught our own children know, helping others develop faith is not a straightforward task. And I don’t think that there is a one and only best method for doing so. As I think about teaching my own children, right now I doubt that I will proactively teach them everything there is to know right upfront, but I also doubt that I will lead them to believe that there are no controversial aspects of Church history. I feel like the most important thing I can do to help them develop faith is to teach them how to pray and discern spiritual truth and share with them what I believe to be true and why.