The Most Important Question I’ve Been Asked

March 2020 I had a heavy weekend, between flying cheaply (read: uncomfortably and really early) to a family funeral, and doing two firesides: one on how Latter-day Saints came to read scripture in stark anti-evolutionary ways, the other on making sense of LDS creation accounts in light of what we know about both scripture and science.

During the Q&A, a young sister missionary assigned to the Visitor’s Center asked a practical question.

As missionaries, what can we do to promote this kind of understanding as we teach the simple truths of the Gospel?

This question struck me as extremely important because few people can attend, let alone give, an hour-long lesson on these topics. We may want to convey some of this, but can’t due to limitations of audience (youth? investigators?), setting (Church manuals/magazines, or Seminary classes), or time.

The answer, I think, is easy to implement at all levels. But let me tell a story first.

I’ve had a conversation with a convert from an Evangelical background who is currently a bit disaffected and inactive, because, as he said, “I was promised nothing but simple truths; I ended up with essays and footnotes” referring to the Gospel Topics Essays. The problem was the disconnect between what he was initially taught, the expectation created by missionaries (and local members?), probably inadvertently, that All Truth in the Church is Simple, or even, All Truth is Simple.

As false as that is, it has a worse corollary; you can recognize truth BY simplicity, and so complex arguments about the meaning of scripture, history, or doctrine are “obviously” false and nothing more than “mental gymnastics.”

But why should ALL truth be simple, or even just revealed, scriptural truth?

There is no reason to think that the word of God should be one-dimensional and easily accessible.- Reno, Genesis.

The idea that Scripture’s meaning is everywhere perspicuous (clear and obvious) to the average reader does not seem to be a biblical idea.- Sparks, Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture 

We need to teach people three interrelated things:

1) Expect complexity… but not from The Ensign, General Conference, or Church Manuals. They are aimed at introducing Gospel basics to new members.

2) Realize that, unless you’ve read deeply and broadly, your understanding is probably quite limited. And even then, no one knows everything. No one’s read all the books, all the sources.

3) Tradition (in the sense of “what I have been told”) is an insufficient guide to either Truth or Doctrine.

Whatever we say to our audience, we need to create the expectation that there is more to know, that reality— history, scripture, doctrine— is more complex, and that our current understanding (whether as an individual or institutionally) is, at best, incomplete.  I expand on this a bit in my non-published Ensign article.

“Milk before meat” is a true enough principle; you have to start with basic mathematical operations before algebra, and algebra before calculus. What we have often done in the Church is to claim— implicitly or explicitly— that “milk is all there is,” or “the meat doesn’t matter.” We don’t create the expectation that meat exists or has any relevance.

Now, to be clear, I do not equate “meat” either with so-called “deep doctrine”—which is rarely either “deep” or “doctrine”— or with arcane academic research. Remember that when Paul introduces this metaphor, he is sharply criticizing the Corinthians for being on milk! They are spiritual babies unable to handle the “solid food” (KJV “meat”) of the Gospel! We should not be children in understanding, nor should we implicitly promote an ideal of child-like simplicity in understanding Church doctrine, history, and scripture.

So, a manual or Ensign could contain a simple paragraph in the introduction or first page, something like,

This manual is intended to introduce some simple and basic truths of the Gospel. It represents our best attempt to teach an introductory understanding of what are often complex historical and doctrinal issues. We invite those who feel comfortable with these basic truths to continue studying and learning in other sources, and ‘out of the best books,’ (D&C 88:118, 90:15 ). As President Hinckley taught, these might include “books related directly to the history, the doctrine, and the practices of the Church [as well as] secular history, the great literature that has survived the ages, and the writings of contemporary thinkers and doers.” Such learning is necessary “for the salvation of Zion” (D&C 93:53), because as President Lee taught, “the future of the Church depends upon those who are both faithful and learned.”

A Seminary teacher, missionary, or mission President could— and probably should with some frequency— say something similar, although this presumes they themselves are aware of complexity.

This topic [whatever it might be] is actually a really complex topic, and different Church leaders have held different views on it, even if the manuals/Ensigns don’t refer to them. That’s important to remember! But since this is seminary/missionary work, we want to focus on basic understandings and saving truths as much as possible. It’s on you as individuals and families to study that stuff on your own, and it’s vital that you do so. If you want some books or articles to read, I can suggest some starting places.

Church writers, as well as missionaries, members, and teachers, need to get comfortable with various ways of saying “I’m not very well informed on that question,” “I don’t know,” or “the scriptures are ambiguous/have multiple angles on that, so let’s try to make sense of them together.”
And in that light, I’ve noted happily how often the new Come Follow Me manual for Old Testament says numerous times “we don’t know” or “we don’t understand”!

And sometimes, our traditions are simply false. Sometimes we get them from our environment, like the pernicious “curse of Cain” racial idea, or the “Catholic Church is the church of the devil” interpretation. Apostles are not removed from the immensely powerful and unconscious force of tradition, as I’ve written about here.

Again, from my non-published Ensign article,

As we make efforts to increase our gospel knowledge, we may also come to realize that some things are different or more complicated than we thought. President Hugh B. Brown (1883–1975) once observed that “God desires that we learn and continue to learn, but this involves some unlearning.” We need enough self-awareness to realize when our gospel understanding is limited or has been passively inherited from tradition.

LDS historian James B. Allen summarized Elder BH Roberts approach this way.

It was better in the long run for ambiguity to remain [by not taking a definitive stance], rather than for a mistake to be enshrined. – “Story of the Way, the Truth, and the Life” BYUS 33:4, 1993.

To conclude, if we teach youth, investigators, and members to expect further complexity, to accept and build on necessary “milk,” then it becomes much less problematic when they encounter “meat,” by which I mean nothing more than… complexity. They will understand the wrestle with “meat” to be an expected and normal part of their spiritual journey and maturation, part of becoming a “gospel adult,” instead of “meat” being a problem or a silver-bullet to testimony.

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8 thoughts on “The Most Important Question I’ve Been Asked

  1. Thank you, Ben! Just this week, I was talking with my missionary son about these ideas. He personally craves the “meat,” and he strives to give his investigators “milk” in a way that doesn’t set them up for future faith crisis. My son’s approach is foreign to some of his fellow missionaries, and incompatible with some aspects of mission culture. I will share this blog post with him; he will find it encouraging.


  2. “As false as that is, it has a worse corollary; you can recognize truth BY simplicity, and so complex arguments about the meaning of scripture, history, or doctrine are obviously false and nothing more than “mental gymnastics.”

    Can you provide an example of someone making the above argument? I have never heard it before and am inclined to believe you made it up or it is a strawman.


      1. I am not so sure it is a commonly held assumption. Can you provide an example of a commonly made argument that unwittingly relies on this commonly held assumption?


      2. I haven’t kept track, but it’s been common across Facebook, Reddit, and elsewhere. You’re welcome to think whatever you’d like, of course.


  3. One thing I love about the gospel is it can be as simple or as complex as I want it to be. The idea of being faithful is reasonably simple but the study of faith could occupy us for a lifetime. It’s wonderful!


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