the thinker

Response to Val Johnson's article "The Answer to All the Hard Questions" in the December 2014 Ensign

Continuing with the recent efforts to shore up the devout who may be entertaining doubts, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint's December 2014 Ensign issue published "The Answer to All the Hard Questions," by R. Val Johnson.


MormonThink's Response to "The Answer to All the Hard Questions"

Some of the hardest questions come when what we believe is challenged by changing cultural fashions or by new information, sometimes misinformation, that critics of the Church confront us with.

This piece was written shortly after the Church itself published essays on polygamy that gained international attention, presenting what to many members was "new information," yet Johnson blames the "critics" for causing the devout to have their beliefs challenged. He also throws in the term "misinformation," a typical ploy equal to hand-waving everything away since it's by "those" people—the "antis." Granted, there may be some misinformation out there by critics, but the Church seems to be a major contributor to misinformation, or at least incomplete information, about its own history. Had the church fully disclosed its history and doctrines long ago, it wouldn't be cornered into reconciling its past and present teachings. And is the current problem for the church truly one of misinformation or misinterpretation (according to them) of available information?

At such times, it may seem that our doctrinal or historical foundations are not as solid as we thought. We may be tempted to question the truths we've taken for granted and the spiritual experiences that have formed our faith.

As well a person should. People who have had information withheld from them, or feel like they've been lied to, have every right to question the teachings they've been given and the spiritual experiences they've had in relationship to that information. That is what rational people do.

Johnson uses the assumption, "…the truths we've taken for granted…" Truth according to whom? The LDS Church recognizes one organization that can give truth: itself. This is simply a way of implying that what the Church has taught is true, and with the word "tempted" it wants to ward people away from questioning their truths they have taught.

More will be said about spiritual experiences below.

What do we do when doubt seeps into our hearts? Are there really answers to those hard questions? Yes, there are. In fact, all the answers—all the right answers—depend on the answer to just one question: do I trust God above everyone else?

All of the "right" answers. But, how does one know when they have the right answers? The Church positions itself as the holders and dispensers of those right answers. So keep looking, praying and trying until your answers match the LDS Church's answers.

"[D]o I trust God above everyone else?" Whose god? Whose explanation of God's word? The Church's. As much as the Church, its leaders and apologists will try deny that, it is true. You may even be told that you can question and doubt all you want, but there is a caveat: if you receive personal revelation that is different than the Church's teachings, you can't teach it to others because if you do you are in a state of apostasy and can be excommunicated:

Sometimes members' actions contradict Church doctrine and lead others astray. While uncommon, some members in effect choose to take themselves out of the Church by actively teaching and publicly attempting to change doctrine to comply with their personal beliefs.

Emphasis added. "Church Responds to Church Discipline Questions," 11 June 2014, Newsroom Link is here.

[W]e must each guard against personal apostasy by keeping covenants, obeying the commandments, following Church leaders, partaking of the sacrament, and constantly strengthening our testimonies through daily scripture study, prayer, and service.

Emphasis added. "Apostasy," Gospel Topics, Link is here.

From these quotes, it is clear that the Church believes there is a touchstone to determine what is truth: "truth" is what the Church and its leaders say it is. So if someone receives a spiritual witness contrary to what the Church teaches, it is the individual who is wrong and in a state of apostasy, not the Church.

When personal revelation conflicts with what the Church teaches an individual experiences cognitive dissonance. This causes confusion in the individual trying to reconcile why they are "wrong" if they received their witness in the same way they received a witness about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, for example. Dilemmas like this can lead to the individual blaming themselves for not being in accordance with the Church: I'm not worthy enough to receive the right answer; maybe Satan is fooling me; I need to try harder; etc. If the person chooses to rely on their own spiritual witness, they have to keep it to themselves, and feel like they are living a lie. On the other hand, if they choose to ignore their personal witness and follow the teachings of the Church, they feel like they have lost personal integrity.

Is [asking if I trust God above everyone else] too simple? too easy?

No, it is not too simple. Yes, it is easy. Unfortunately, as stated above, it is only hard if a member's answer varies from the Church's and they suffer from cognitive dissonance.

Truth isn't always obvious, particularly when it has to compete with alternatives presented in attractive packages. Often we understand the truth only in part, while the whole remains yet to be learned. And in the learning, we face the uncomfortable prospect of abandoning imperfect but heretofore comforting understandings.

Again, Johnson equates the Church's teachings as truth and those outside of the Church have the pretty packaging. But he fails to mention that the Church is the one making their packaging attractive. Look at their PR campaigns with billboards, Meet the Mormons movie, etc. They pride themselves on how comforting their message sounds, especially the idea that families can be together forever. And yes, it is hard for many people to abandon the comforting understandings they preach. Ask former members how difficult it was for them to accept their new found belief that the LDS Church was not true. Ask them how much they wanted to remain in the Church. Ask them how hard it was to become shunned by family and friends when they told them about their disaffection from the Church.

But trusting that God has all the answers, that He loves us, and that He will answer all our questions—in His way, on His timetable—can simplify our searching. It may not always be easy, but simply trusting in God's counsel can safely steer us through clouds of confusion.

As noted above, Johnson is talking about the LDS Church's definition of God, God's way, God's love and God's counsel. Many former Mormons believe that God has actually answered their questions now. And those answers are in direct opposition to the Church's answers.

And what about those who struggle with even believing that a god exists? There are, actually, members who doubt the existence of a god before they doubt the truth claims of the Church.

So how do we go about honestly doubting our doubts?

"Honestly" doubting your doubts? Is there a way to dishonestly doubt your doubts? Johnson must think so, or he wouldn't suggest there was a way to honestly go about it. So here again the Church leadership is telling members what the correct procedure is for something. This is rather condescending to believe that there is an honest and dishonest way to go about doubting.

How do we anchor our faith on the solid rock of revelation and not on the sandy soil of shifting human understanding?

If nothing else, the recent essays that the LDS Church has published goes to show that they are just as guilty of putting their faith on human understanding. They do it in two ways: 1) The essays themselves are based on the authors' human understanding—they are scholarly works, the epitome of human understanding; —if human understanding is such a scary thing, why have they even attempted to produce the essays, or support the work of FARMS, FAIR, Maxwell Institute, etc. and 2) Essays like the one on Race and the Priesthood admit that the Church spent generations teaching an erroneous doctrine that was merely "theories" espoused by former prophets, apostles and First Presidencies. ("Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church." Race and the Priesthood, Gospel Topics, Link is here.

"Principle 1: God Knows Infinitely More Than We Do. When faced with questions——whether personal, social, or doctrinal——we can rely on the fact that the Creator of the universe knows far more than we do. If He has addressed a topic (and sometimes He hasn't), we can trust that His views are clearer than ours." (emphasis added)

Again, what Johnson means is that "If He has addressed a topic" as revealed to and by the leadership of the LDS Church, then "His views" as pronounced by the leadership of the LDS Church, are clearer than the personal revelation we may get.

Principle 2: God Shares Some of His Knowledge. A corollary of principle 1 is that God shares with us as much of what He knows as we are ready to receive and He is ready to deliver. We just need to prepare ourselves to receive it, then seek it. (emphasis added)

This is disingenuous, as if this is a reason for the Church not sharing more readily all of the information they had about troubling history of the Church, such as Joseph Smith's polygamy—the people weren't ready to receive it. But more concerning is another allusion to the idea that it is the individual at fault because they weren't "prepared" or "ready to receive" truth. This can fall into two major ideas: 1) The person is unworthy (covered above) or 2) "Milk before meat". This is a belittling idea that one should only receive no truth or half-truths until one is fully "ready" to learn all truth. Truth is truth. If it seems weird or scary or troubling, so what? If God and the Holy Ghost operate the way the Church teaches, then they will bear witness to the truthfulness and that's all that matters.

Some questions, particularly of a historical nature, have reasonable explanations, and the more information honest scholarship reveals, the clearer our views become.

What Johnson means is that the Church and those who agree with the Church's answers supply "reasonable" explanations, but what doesn't agree is "unreasonable." However, one of the problems with many apologists is that they have to make many convoluted twists and turns to make something sound "reasonable" that at face value just doesn't seem reasonable at all. Like marrying 14 year olds and other men's wives.

Maybe he should have said careful scholarship as opposed to sloppy scholarship. But that's not his concern. What he wants the reader to believe is that there are people out there who are providing what looks like scholarship, but if it's not from the Church, or is not faith-promoting, then it's not worth your time. Just wait until the Church and its apologists produce something.

This idea that the Church is putting out scholarly pieces, and that you should only trust God's answers, is a way to help encourage members to not study on their own: members only need to trust what the Church publishes and what the Church says that God says and means.

We are also blessed to have living prophets and apostles to teach us under the inspiration of heaven.

Interesting. Since when have the living apostles and prophets spoken out on the hard issues and unabashedly declare that they were speaking the word and will of God? The Church has recently published essays addressing the hard issues, but they are anonymous. The PR department and spokespeople have spoken on hard issues. But the apostles and prophets remain silent. What happened to "Thus saith the Lord"? If it's true that the prophets and apostles receive inspiration from God himself, then they should be leading the way with strong, firm voices declaring God's word.

Principle 3: We Can Trust in God's Love. …All the counsel He gives us is given with the deepest of love to bless us eternally.

See the explanation above that this counsel is only valid if an individual has the same answer that the Church approves of.

Principle 4: We Need to Seek Spiritual Affirmations. If so much of the world's wisdom seems contrary to God's, we should not be surprised.

Again, who gets to decide what is God's wisdom? They actually mean God's wisdom as told to you y the LDS Church. Therefore, is it possible that what members have been taught is God's wisdom, really isn't? Is it possible that the world is sometimes wiser than the Church? Blacks and the priesthood seems to be a good example where the Church finally caught up with the world. How about currently with women's rights and gay marriage?

If we are to understand the things of God, we can't depend on human wisdom alone to do the job.

If God is not the author of confusion, if God loves His children, if God has endowed His creations with an intellect and wisdom, then why can't that wisdom allow a person to understand the things of God?

We need access to the Spirit of God…When we are baptized and confirmed members of Christ's Church, we are given the gift of the Holy Ghost. With that gift, we can learn from the Spirit and receive His comforting confirmations of truth. Receiving such spiritual affirmations dispels doubt more surely than the most convincing logic, and it is available to all who seek truth through sincere prayer, diligent study, and obedience to the Lord's commandments.

See the explanation above that this only works if an individual has the same answer that the Church approves of.

Why would God choose such an unreliable method of truth-verifying? It is readily admitted by devout Church leaders that the Spirit can be confused with emotions making it hard to distinguish the two. Or that Satan can mimic the promptings of the Spirit. If God gave us our intellect, why not use it to verify truth? If a doctrine/theory like denying the priesthood to blacks could be taught erroneously for 180 years by prophets and apostles, where was the spirit then?

Many people within other churches claim that they have had a spiritual confirmation that their beliefs/church is true. (see "Testimonies of Other Faiths" Link is here.). If the LDS Church is the one and only true church, and the only one that has the proper authority, and their prophets and apostles the only ones who can properly interpret truth, how can these others people have had a real witness? Are they being deceived? If so, that seems a pretty ineffectual method of conveying truth. In fact, there are so many other people belonging to religions other than Mormonism, does that mean Satan's influence is more effective than God's?

Principle 5: We May Need to Wait Upon the Lord.

This is a great catchall explanation. No answer? Maybe later. Maybe not until the afterlife. Don't worry. But why wouldn't a loving God want to help His child here and now? Why would He not want to give answers liberally, and upbraid not? He not only answered Joseph Smith many, many times about the big things, but about the little things too. Many people are currently leaving the LDS Church—it seems like if there were a time when God would want to help His children stay in the one and only true church, it would be now.


The entire piece is based on the premise that you should go to God for your answers, because God is the ultimate authority. However, this is actually an "appeal to authority" fallacy. It's a fallacy because it's not just God's word that you receive that you should rely on, it is the Church's definition of who God is and what God says that you must believe. At its simplest it takes the form: You can believe whatever you want as long as it is what the Church teaches. Johnson never explicitly says this, but as I pointed out many times above, this is what it boils down to.