Dear 100 Hour Board,
I guess I'm kind of going through a "faith crisis" right now, which is wild because I never thought in a million years I would doubt my faith... but, well, here we are.
Lately a lot of my friends have had doubts and questions which the church hasn't really been able to answer, and a number of them have left the church completely. All of them are incredibly wonderful and intelligent and thoughtful people, and I 100% understand why they've left, and now I find myself with a lot of similar questions and concerns. I'm in a weird limbo situation, where I can see a lot of justification for doubting the authenticity of the church and leaving but I also desperately want the church to be true and for God to exist and I've had personal spiritual experiences that support that... but I do have big questions and concerns and it's pretty uncomfortable to be a member of a church that you don't have a lot of confidence in. And then it doesn't really help when in conference they say "don't discuss your doubts with doubters" because the alternative is... what... just believe without asking questions and if there's ever not a good answer just smile and pretend the question never existed and trust that everything is fine even when it really isn't? (And sure you could discuss your doubts with believers but in my experience that doesn't often lead to meaningful conclusions, just a vague "pray about it and don't worry about it.")
Anyways, that's kind of where I'm at right now. I have a handful of concerns, but for now I'll just bring up my main one: how are you supposed to have faith in inspired leadership and revelation when there are so many examples of prophets with very deep and problematic flaws? I understand that no one is perfect, including prophets. But so many prophets have been so very wrong about really big issues, such as race and sexuality, that have significantly affected church policies, church culture, and member attitudes. So on one hand, I'm supposed to have faith in what the prophet says because he receives revelation for the church from God, but on the other hand I know that if they've made BIG mistakes in the past, they could also make BIG mistakes now. But also, if you question the prophet too much you get accused of "doubting" and "not trusting God's servants" and "going off the deep end." And this huge pushback against any sort of meaningful questioning of church leaders or policies definitely doesn't help the church look good as I'm trying to figure out what the heck to do or what the heck I believe.
How do you guys navigate this? And do you have any suggestions? (I'm mostly interested in hearing thoughts from writers still in the church, but I'd be interested in input from any of you wonderful people.)
I'm sorry for the confusion and turmoil you're experiencing. I can't promise that what I have to say will magically resolve your doubts and concerns, but I've gone through a lot of intellectual, spiritual, and emotional work to reach the place where I am, and I hope that by sharing some of the resources and ideas that got me here, I might be able to help you somewhat. I do want to offer a fair warning: this is by far the longest of my already typically long answers. Mark Twain might well have described this, like the Book of Mormon, as chloroform in print. Furthermore, the ideas which I'm going to explore here were not all ideas I understood in a day, and I expect they won't be for you either. I highly encourage you to incorporate the references I've included as well as the excellent answers by my fellow writers in your thinking as you consider your relationship with the Church and navigate the troubled waters of a faith transition, wherever it takes you.
So, without further ado, it's time for a deep dive into inerrancy, hermeneutics, and epistemology in the church.
1. Absolutist thinking in the Church: the prophet said it, therefore I believe it & how we cling to infallibility and a shortcut to Truth
To begin with, I strongly encourage you to read this absolutely phenomenal blog post by Ben Spackman, a Latter-day Saint historian of religion, science, and biblical interpretation (and a BYU alumnus), in which he breaks down what it means to be a prophet and what we mean (or ought to mean) when we describe prophetic knowledge. This is not the only resource I recommend, but it will make up the bulk of this answer. In typical fashion, I'll break down the most important bits, but really, I can't recommend reading the whole thing enough. In the interest of full disclosure, it's Spackman's work which has had probably the single greatest impact on shifting my own paradigm of faith within the Church, and much of what I've said about fallibility, faith, and interpretation in previous answers is heavily informed by his work. So, where do we begin?
[W]hat do prophets know and how do they know it? What can we reasonably expect prophets to know through their prophetic office? And why am I not bothered that prophets don’t know X, or have preached Y which is “obviously” “wrong”?
Mormons put heavy emphasis on revelation, prophets, and scripture… but we’ve never elaborated on what those things mean, hammered out how they work, their limits and mechanics. We don’t have a user’s manual. To our collective detriment, I think, LDS tend to fill in those gaps from cultural osmosis, conservative Protestantism, and inherited assumptions.
See, people want prophets to serve as an immediate shortcut to eternal absolute Truth; this rhetorically elevates revelation completely over human reason, wisdom, and science. And there’s an aspect to that which is accurate enough; God does speak to prophets through revelation. But it does not follow that what prophets speak under inspiration is God’s pure unmediated and eternal knowledge, or that prophetic knowledge constitutes a revealed subset of God’s omniscience.
Examples of this tendency to turn revelation into an eternal shortcut to Truth-with-a-capital-T abound. You may have heard it said in Sunday School or on a mission or in sacrament meeting that "when the prophet speaks, the debate is over"--a very unfortunate reflection of the tendency we have to assume that revelation and prophetic authority are absolute and beyond question. This infamous message was first printed in the June 1945 issue of the Improvement Era. The stir over this message was such that George Albert Smith, then president of the Church, received a concerned letter from a Unitarian leader in Salt Lake who was certain that this could not possibly be the true position of the Church. To that, President Smith responded thusly:
I am pleased to assure you that you are right in your attitude that the passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church. Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church, which is that every individual must obtain for himself a testimony of the truth of the Gospel, must, through the redemption of Jesus Christ, work out his own salvation, and is personally responsible to His Maker for his individual acts. The Lord Himself does not attempt coercion in His desire and effort to give peace and salvation to His children. He gives the principles of life and true progress, but leaves every person free to choose or to reject His teachings. This plan the Authorities of the Church try to follow.
The Prophet Joseph Smith once said: “I want liberty of thinking and believing as I please.” This liberty he and his successors in the leadership of the Church have granted to every other member thereof.
And yet, despite this response by the president of the Church, the expression continued to gain currency in Latter-day Saint circles. Why? Well, aside from the fact that President Smith didn't publicly repudiate the idea before the church body, a desire for the prophetic voice to be a shortcut to certainty and absolute, eternal Truth gave it life. We fill in the gaps in our revealed knowledge, often without realizing that we are doing so, to avoid facing ambiguous, uncomfortable, or unanswerable questions. If the debate is over once the prophet speaks, then we no longer need to do or think anything other than what he instructs us to, and we can follow him blissfully and securely, without having to face any hard moral questions or grapple with anything that might challenge us. The siren song of prophetic infallibility tells us that we can simply push off our moral responsibility onto the one who speaks for God, so the phrase lives on.
I don't know about you, but in my experience, I have heard it repeated that when the prophet speaks, the debate is over. But I have never heard it said that the President of the Church under whose tenure that statement was published explicitly rejected it as an accurate position of the Church. In fact, the original statement was repeated by Young Women General President Elaine Cannon in the November 1978 general conference--a talk which was then quoted to make the rather notorious line the title of a 1979 First Presidency message in the Ensign. This, for a quote which was described by President Smith as not representative of the Church's position! To our collective detriment, we fill in the gaps, and undue certainty, even quasi-infallibility, begins to creep in. Because we don't want to admit of any possibility for error or doubt in the prophetic word, we make absolutist statements like these, with the result that although we always say the prophet is not infallible, in practice, we do not seriously grapple with the notion that he may make mistakes. Even while we adamantly maintain that no one except for the Savior is perfect, we unconsciously treat the prophet precisely the way fundamentalist Protestantism treats the Bible: if we cannot trust his judgment in everything, we cannot trust it in anything.
Take note that tradition and absolutist thinking can impact all of us. Even Young Women presidents and First Presidency members are not immune to gap-filling in the absence of revealed knowledge.
b. Theological gap-filling & our tendency to replace uncomfortable "whys" with manmade, nonrevelatory justifications
c. Manmade justifications ossifying into part of the tradition and the Way Things Are Done
If we implicitly trust that the prophet is our shortcut to the mind of God, then we're left with uncomfortable questions when revelation implemented by the prophet clashes, or seems to clash, with our notions of fairness or equality. Brigham Young restricted priesthood ordination for those of African descent. Why? No one knows for certain, and so, in the absence of revelation from God, we went searching for suitable explanations. Over time, the idea that they were "less valiant" in the premortal existence and therefore barred from priesthood blessings gained such currency that even Joseph Fielding Smith was raised uncritically accepting this justification as doctrine backing the restriction. Not until 1963 in a close rereading of scripture about the question did he realize that he had inherited extrascriptural, non-doctrinal notions which he was then importing into his understanding of the scriptures. Even high-level Church leaders are not immune to this gap-filling, nor are they always aware that they are doing it. And when we are likewise unaware that the tradition we are receiving is filling in some of the gaps with nonrevelatory knowledge, we perpetuate the same myths and mistakes, some of which fossilize into quasi-doctrinal reasons of their own. Why do so many people believe that caffeine is the reason tea is forbidden in the Word of Wisdom? Because nobody wants to say "I don't know why God instructed us not to drink tea" (especially if science appears to suggest that drinking tea is healthy), and so the manmade, non-divine justification of caffeine gains a life of its own, in order to defend the authority of religious claims against the specter of scientific evidence. Why hasn't God ordained women to ecclesiastical office? We don't know--but some people will rush to tell you it's because of motherhood, and so there's no use thinking about any other definition or form of gender equality in the Church. How did Satan intend to destroy the agency of man in his premortal bid to become the Savior? No scripture nor revelation ever actually tells us--and yet everyone knows that he intended to compel us to be righteous. Why can't women be witnesses for baptisms? There actually is no reason, and they can be--but it wasn't until very recently that the Church at large examined its practices critically enough to become cognizant of that fact.
Why do all of these things happen? Why do we invent explanations for doctrinal questions, and why do they live so long if they aren't doctrinal? Because not every idea and tradition we inherit in the Church is part of our revealed body of knowledge, but we tend to absorb everything as though it is. Ambiguity and unanswerable questions make us uncomfortable, so we look to any explanation we can to fill in the blanks.
2. Accommodation in revelation: why prophets are fundamentally men of their time and place
Let's press on. If prophets aren't infallible, what does that mean? What do prophets know, and how? Spackman again:
1. A prophet is a human, reliant upon human culture, worldview, and knowledge like everyone else. ...
Among others, President McKay taught numerous times that when God makes the prophet, he does not unmake the man.
Which implies that the prophetic mantle doesn’t automatically undo or override the humanity of the prophet and all that humanity entails: his personality, language, knowledge, cultural assumptions, etc. ...
Elder Ballard talked about how his life, experience, and training allowed him to answer some kinds of questions, but “other types of questions… require an expert in a specific subject matter.” He singles out human expertise in ancient history and Biblical studies as something he lacks, but which can be very useful in answering certain questions. He consults those experts when he has those questions.
Stepping back a little, Elder Ballard is acknowledging that his prophetic calling is not an automatic shortcut to human knowledge.
To take another example, although Joseph Smith was The Prophet of the Restoration, when he wanted to learn Biblical Hebrew, he had to hire a teacher and buy a grammar and lexicon, and buckle down and study, just like any first-year Hebrew student at BYU. ... Where God does not send revelation, inspired writers and prophets must rely on their inherited cultural assumptions, worldview, and human knowledge ... just like everyone else. They have to gain knowledge the same way everybody else does. ... Human prophets are dependent on their human cognitive inheritance except where God speaks to them, i.e. revelation.
2. Revelation is always accommodated. Revelation, even so-called “direct revelation” (whatever people intend by that) is always mediated to and through human knowledge, culture, and language. God accommodates his revelation to our state. It’s impossible for it to be otherwise, as its necessity is built-in to the system. Because of accommodation, we shouldn’t expect inspired statements by prophets to reflect that absolute perfection of knowledge that we attribute to God. Revelation is not a purely-divine information dump.
a. Practical effects of accommodation in the Church & what happens when we mistake accommodated revelation for timeless, absolute Truth
Accommodation is why prophets, even the especially visionary ones, are still fundamentally men who are shaped by the time and place in which they lived. Prophets do not somehow completely transcend the circumstances, traditions, and culture into which they are born, even when God reveals to them new and exalted truths. And absent revelation, we tend to (say it with me!) fill in the gaps with the practices, beliefs, and thoughts of the traditions we absorb growing up. That's why, for instance, the 1968 edition of the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet states that "Pants for young women are not desirable attire for shopping, at school, in the library, in cafeterias or restaurants" (a view shared, incidentally, by President Kimball). I think we can safely say that we no longer hold women to that standard. But if the only dialogue you've ever heard with respect to modesty is that the Lord's standards are eternal and unchanging, and this must be the Truth, then this passage spells trouble for Latter-day Saint women everywhere. Did the Lord's standards change from 1968 to 2021?
The reality is that while we can safely say that the Lord is, in fact, unchanging, our understanding of His standards is constantly being accommodated to our level of understanding and moral preparation. Unfortunately, we tend to ellipt that second part in the Church, or remain ignorant of it entirely. The result, for some particularly conservative church members and leaders, is that our standards, whether in 1900, 1968, or 2021, simply are God's eternal and unchanging standards; moreover, all revelation is eternal, unchanging Truth, downloaded straight from God's mind, which cannot contain error or contradiction. It should become clear by now how this is a vicious circle which feeds into and is in turn fed by an implicit faith in the infallibility of prophets. This brings us to Spackman's #3:
3. Divine revelation is progressive, iterative, and line-upon-line. If God’s intent is to help humans progress, but must temper his revelation to the human condition, then it follows that God’s revelations will build on each other. He will start with a, and move on to a’, then a”, then a”’, and eventually b. Perhaps revelation can’t represent the absolute divine ideal now, but successive revelations will grow closer to and approximate it. (I like the mathematical idea of approximation here, that as x goes to infinity, you draw infinitely closer to a particular point that, for all practical purposes, means you are at that point.)
This doesn’t always mean revelation will give us a straight line of continuous progress, or that new revelation will seem like logical progression or mere expansion; sometimes new revelation can seem very discontinuous or even contradictory to the status quo. Many early LDS really struggled with the Three Degrees of Glory in D&C 76. One branch actually went apostate over it, because it seemed so contradictory. And of course, there’s the example of the New Testament decision that becoming Christian and accepting the Jewish messiah did not require accepting the requirements of the Jewish law (i.e. circumcision or avoiding pork and shellfish), even though it too was divinely given and had hundreds of years of tradition and devotion behind it. In retrospect, these make fine sense to us, but that’s the comfort of hindsight. To believers at the time, they are ground-shaking and challenging. And sooner or later, new revelation will challenge us.
Personally, when I was a missionary, I hated how cavalier some missionaries could be about how Elder McConkie or Brigham Young said some weird, off-the-rails things; Mormon Doctrine and the Journal of Discourses were, not infrequently, topics of casual humor and lighthearted mockery. The obvious implication, of course, was that we were smarter than that, and President Nelson or Elder Holland would definitely never say anything so bizarre. If that's how we smugly conceive of revelation--as something that only challenged the believers of the past because they just weren't up to our 21st-century understanding--then we don't get it. In comparison to God's omniscient glory, we see through a glass just as darkly as the ancient Israelites did, and sooner or later God will see fit to challenge us just as He challenged His followers in the past. We should never forget that possessing some eternal truths, including some that were lost to the ancients, doesn't mean that we possess all of them. A little epistemic humility goes a long, long way in reconciling perceived problems in the gospel and in maintaining faith in the face of new revelation that seems unexpected, troubling, or even contradictory to what has come before.
Revelation will thus always be a collaborative human-divine process, and this is what we find both from ancient AND modern scripture. (On the latter, see e.g. here, here, here…) As time goes on and humans progress, divine revelation will more closely approximate divine ideals. But measured at any given moment, it can seem far from it.
Now, what makes a prophet a prophet is that God chooses to speak to them. That’s the way the prophetic causality flows. The nature of prophethood, then, is not an ability or super-power that works at the whim of the prophet. Prophethood is not an all-access backstage pass to God’s knowledge, or on-demand access to the mind of God. That door swings open from the other direction, when God chooses to speak and insert himself. Similarly, the label of “inspired” or “revelation” on certain content doesn’t guarantee the exclusion of all human aspects from that content; rather, it guarantees the inclusion of some divine aspect among those other, human aspects.
b. The compromise of accommodated vs. absolutist revelation: trading infallibility for fallibility & certainty for faith
I'll stop here, because I think Spackman's last point is the most significant, and probably the most relevant to your larger question. The prophetic mantle is not a guarantee of infallibility (a "guarantee [of] the exclusion of all human aspects" from revelation). It is a guarantee that an otherwise human product contains genuinely divine elements even if it also contains error. We pay lip service all the time to the idea that we don't believe in infallible prophets, but when the rubber meets the road and people are forced to actually grapple with the implications of that statement (i.e, prophets might have actually made mistakes or said something you disagree with), almost invariably people begin to squirm. On my mission, I often made a point of explaining to other missionaries that the Book of Mormon acknowledges frankly on its own title page that errors are possible, and that we should take away from them evidence of man's weakness and the great condescension of God in choosing to speak to us anyway:
And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.
The Book of Mormon says it itself: if there are flaws, they're merely mortal mistakes. Don't spurn real, divine truths just because they may be mixed in with flaws from mortal prophets trying their best to imperfectly transmit their experiences with the true and living God. Yet invariably, when I raised this point, there would be someone who would push back. And I understand why. By opening the door to error in canonized scripture or a conference talk or "direct revelation" (whatever that's supposed to mean), you appear to jeopardize things about which we want to be absolutely certain. If there are errors in the Book of Mormon translation, how can we be certain of its witness of Christ? If the prophets said incorrect things once (as Elder McConkie put it, quite directly, in the aftermath of the 1978 revelation on the priesthood), who's to say they aren't saying the wrong things now? Are we to be hopelessly set adrift in a sea of uncertainty and doubt?
c. The roots of absolutist thinking in Latter-day Saint tradition
This cuts to the real heart of your main concern, I think, and also brings us to the last part of Spackman's post.
Faith built on ideas of absolutist revelation is faith that is easily undermined and broken. Evangelicals are certainly having problems with it. And Mormons are too, I think. Fortunately, as I hope is obvious from above, absolutist revelation is not native to Mormonism. And so the question, how did we get to thinking that way? ...
The perception that prophetic authority is threatened by or in competition with “secular” knowledge led to reconceptualizing and elevating revelation beyond its natural limits; there’s a sense that the authority of religion is under siege (which perhaps it is, somewhat) and so people respond by making it far more absolute than it really is. For example, one book on creationism argues that "creationism is ultimately about the status of the Bible in the modern world. Creationism as a modern ideology exists in order to defend the authority of the Bible as a repository of transhistorical truth from the challenges of any and all historical sciences."
If “truth” means “scientific facts,” then for scripture to be “truthful,” it must be scientifically factual, in an absolute manner. Creationists make the validity of scripture dependent upon the authority of science; scripture is true because it is scientific. Scripture is thus “sanctified” by science, modernity’s highest and most authoritative form of knowledge, thanks to the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment.
You can see this clearly in the writings of Joseph Fielding Smith, who felt the authority of human knowledge was competing with the authority of scripture, and defended it in very Protestant ways. “These theories [of evolution, old earth, etc.] are man-made deductions but the testimony of the prophets are actual facts.”
To add some context to this, Joseph Fielding Smith, if you didn't know, was a very committed young-earth creationist. He and other General Authorities, such as B.H. Roberts, James Talmage, and John Widtsoe argued for decades with respect to evolution and the age of the earth. Why? Because Joseph Fielding Smith read the scriptures differently than they did, and because he didn't recognize his readings as interpretations of the scriptural text, but rather as the plain or "literal" meaning of the scriptures. For him, he was not interpreting one of several possible meanings of the scriptures, but simply reporting the Actual Facts as given to him by the testimony of the prophets, in defense of religious authority against competing knowledge which he believed endangered that authority.
A more timely example may help demonstrate how this tendency persists in the Church today. I mentioned earlier the various non-doctrinal reasons we've invented to explain why the Lord has commanded us to refrain from tea and coffee. On my mission, depending on who was teaching, the "why" of this was that tea contained caffeine, or that it contained some other harmful substance we weren't supposed to ingest. Some missionaries would argue (unconvincingly, in my view) that even if they didn't know exactly why these substances were bad for us, the Lord wouldn't have prohibited them if they weren't, and so even if the science of moderate tea and/or coffee consumption didn't back us up now, it would in the future, once science caught up to God.
Just as Joseph Fielding Smith resolved the question of "why don't the scriptures and ancient prophets seem to know about evolution and an old earth?" with an absolutist appeal to the supremacy of religious knowledge (that is, the earth isn't old, and evolution is a false philosophy of man), we are often posed the question "If tea and coffee are bad for us, why isn't that empirically demonstrated by science?" And some of us, feeling perhaps that the Word of Wisdom's authority is endangered by this question, choose to uphold an absolutist notion of religious authority that supersedes all other forms of knowledge. Tea and coffee must be bad for us, and the science simply hasn't found it yet.
This is fallacious reasoning, and it misses the point of the Word of Wisdom, I think. Is the revelation a health code? Yes. Are many of its guidelines intelligent and valuable commonsense elements of healthy living? Yes. But it doesn't follow that every single restriction put in place must therefore be empirically demonstrated to be strictly beneficial for our health and that the revelation is false if they aren't. Tea or coffee or wine can be shown by science to be associated with health benefits, even if the Lord has asked us to abstain from them as a demonstration of faith and willingness to set ourselves apart from the world. But for particularly conservative readers, it can appear as though science is jeopardizing the authority of the Word of Wisdom.
I should note here that if that framing works for you, it's not my intention or my place to blow holes in your faith. I offer this analogy as a means to help the submitter of this question, and any other readers who may be struggling, come to grips with a framework of faith that is comfortable with asking questions like these.
Back to Joseph Fielding Smith. It is primarily his uncritically absolutist leanings with respect to revelation, scripture, and inspiration which I think came to prevail in the broader culture of the Church. The consequence of this is that we have a strain of thought within the Church which clings to a naïve literalism of the scriptural record and, in Spackman's words, rhetorically elevates revelation over every other source of knowledge, leading many people who have uncritically inherited this mode of interpretation to subject our current leaders (and, I would add, our scriptures) to something akin to hero worship and blind obedience. The problem, of course, is that revelation isn't absolute, which means the scriptures and prophets aren't either:
... So there were cultural pressures and competition that led to a conception of revelation and prophets as being absolute and entirely of a factual nature. The desire to preserve the authority of revelation lead to the counter-productive strategy of making it absolutist. But, again, as humans, even prophets inherit worldviews and make assumptions, and the inspired revelation they receive is not absolute, but accommodated and mediated.
Author's note: an interjection on the faithfulness of an accommodated perspective
In the preceding section, I was directly critical of President Joseph Fielding Smith's views with respect to geology, the age of the earth, and the hermeneutic he used to understand scripture and revelation. I want to make absolutely clear lest I be misunderstood that I am not casting aspersions on President Smith's testimony of Christ, his witness of the restored gospel, or of his role as one of God's leaders of the Church. In a previous Board answer, I discussed how one of my mission companions received very poorly what I intended to be an innocuous and practically-minded criticism of the Church's slowness to undertake and release the Saints project. In a similar vein, lest I be misunderstood, it is emphatically not my intention to place myself above President Smith, nor to cast aspersions on his character, calling, or faith. But insofar as he equated his understanding of scripture with the falseness of modern geology, and insofar as those uncritically absolutist assumptions have prevailed within Church culture, I think he erred, and such error needs to be corrected.
With that said, and any concerns hopefully assuaged, let's press on to the reader's concerns.
3. The problem of accommodation & crises of faith
So, if revelation isn't absolutely secure, where does this leave us? There are people who find this reframing of prophetic knowledge unacceptable, who don't see how or why they should continue to trust the prophet or the Church if we accept the model of accommodated revelation and the real, genuine possibility of error in our inspired and canonized body of scripture. I'm sympathetic to that. I understand the hesitation. Not that many years ago, I would have felt the same way. But the reasoning, while initially worrisome, is ultimately fallacious. If it can be demonstrated that divine revelation contains human, erroneous elements, it would seem to jeopardize eternal convictions. But it does not follow that because a prophet or book of scripture or conference talk erred on one issue that it therefore cannot be trusted on any issue. Modern printings of For the Strength of Youth no longer tell women that it is inappropriate to wear pants in public, but we still consult it as a valuable resource for teaching our youth about moral values. In fifty years, standards for clothing and media will probably have changed even more, but we'll still teach the law of chastity and tithing.
Simply put, the fact that some aspects of our tradition turn out to be flawed, human products of our time does not necessarily imply that every part of our tradition is flawed, human, and therefore not grounds for faith.
But a personal question deserves a personal answer, so let me respond to you a little more personally and a little less clinically. How do we determine which is which?
How are you supposed to have faith in inspired leadership and revelation when there are so many examples of prophets with very deep and problematic flaws?
What you're describing here is not faith. If we only trust the prophets or the scriptures because we are absolutely 100% assured that they cannot possibly lead us wrong, then we don't really have faith or trust in them at all; what we trust is our sense of logic and certainty. To place trust or faith in someone is to allow the possibility of your trust being betrayed or your faith broken. If the other party is physically incapable of violating that trust, you aren't really exercising faith at all.
I don't say that to sound overly critical of you in particular. This is a completely understandable and I think horribly regrettable way that faith plays out for too many people in the Church. We speak so cavalierly of truth, of having the truth, and of receiving revelation directly from God, without ever really being specific about what any of that means, that it's no wonder people run into culture shock when they start to encounter flaws from local leaders, unkind ward members, or odd, speculative, or even dated or offensive comments in Church history.
The point of the gospel is not, and never has been, that our leaders and our scripture speak infallibly and that we can trust them to never once steer us wrong in any regard, even though our culture has tenaciously clung to the idea. The notion that prophets should not, are not, and cannot be fallible is completely incompatible with any robust notion of moral agency. The point of the gospel is to seek, do, and be good in the circumstances which we are placed, and this holds true for every person on earth, from the youngest nursery child all the way up to President Nelson. Just like us, our leaders are not perfect. Sometimes, God does not speak and they're left to work out solutions to the best of their knowledge. Sometimes, He does, and they're left to implement that revelation to the best of their ability to understand it--which assuredly won't be perfect. And just like us, our imperfect leaders sometimes pass on inherited ideas, traditional readings, and commonly repeated beliefs which they also don't recognize are manmade and not divine. Thus it is that ideas such as a ban on caffeine, motherhood as a substitute for priesthood, or Heavenly Mother not being spoken about because she's simply too sacred to be discussed all persist within the Church with zombie-like immortality, even though none of these notions is doctrinal or accurate. We are not logically, perfectly guaranteed that the Church will always get it right; we are guaranteed, should we exercise the faith to believe it, that the Church will iteratively, progressively improve until we do get it right, and "till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ."
So why have faith? For some, this ambiguity in prophethood--allowing the human element to remain in inspired declaration and revelation--is paralyzing, and it calls into jeopardy eternal convictions. To me, this is, in its most robust sense, the essence of faith. It is true that, given the model of accommodation, I don't know precisely which truths are eternal and unchangeable, and which are not--but it does not follow that opening that door must necessarily upend every doctrine I've come to believe, only that I be willing to receive more light and knowledge in accordance with revelation. For some, this possibility is too much. For me, this is the real essence of faith, and the real force behind Article of Faith 9:
We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.
I, too, believe all that God has revealed, then and now. And it is because I have reframed my expectations of what His servants know and how they know it--and how, sometimes, even they are blind to their own all-too-human frailties, just as I am--that I am open to many great and important things being revealed in the future, just as they were in the past. I trust God's servants because I trust the God who has called them in spite of their flaws, even if they do make mistakes or say things they probably shouldn't have. I trust that inspired scripture, general conference talks, and other declarations from church leaders both local and distant contain genuinely divine and inspired elements, even if the contents remain fundamentally human and prone to possible error. I can accept that the Book of Mormon and the Bible are not infallible, and still trust with faith that they bear real witness of Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world. I remain in the Church because, for all its cultural oddities and foibles, I believe that it is iteratively and progressively approaching the kind of exalted and absolute perfection that God wishes each of us to attain. I find it terribly tragic that malformed notions of inerrancy, mortal perfection, and blind loyalty have damaged or irreparably broken the faith of people (among them many of my friends and family) who might have otherwise remained in the fold, had they not been led to believe that the organization ought to have been a perfect, absolute reflection of God's will on earth.
Here's what Spackman says in conclusion to his essay:
For all of these reasons, which have shaped my expectations of what inspired prophets know and do, I do not find my faith severely challenged when inspired pronouncements of Church leaders (whether today or in the past) do not match up to my view of divinely absolute knowledge, ethics, ideals, or science; as I wrote elsewhere, it’s perhaps ironic that my personal relationship to the institutional church and my faith are much more resilient because I regularly expect that most of Church administration, hierarchy, and teaching is largely human. I believe God can and does speak to prophets, and I don’t think that belief is incompatible with the idea that the vast majority of day-to-day things that come from Church HQ consists of humans doing the best they can. In that sense, I’m grateful that Church leaders have much practical knowledge and expertise in things like law, finance, and organization. (Imagine a 15-million member church with leadership trained solely in Greek grammar, ancient history, and exegesis.)
I expect that revelation guides the Church in the right direction in the long run, but that even “direct revelation” will inevitably have human aspects to it. I find that to be both realistic and believing, and I suspect teaching our youth tempered notions of revelation instead of absolutist ones will help people stay active and believing. That, at least, is my hope and my goal.
I share his hope. I have dived deeply in this answer into questions of faith, interpretation, and prophetic knowledge and offered some answers that are probably somewhat heterodox. My intention in so doing is not to create the impression that we can, or should, become cynical faultfinders who dismiss everything prophets say as human and uninspired unless proven otherwise. Nor do I think we can, or should, become cafeteria Saints who pick and choose which counsel to follow based on our preexisting biases. Rather, it's my intention to share with you a framework for faith that, in my view, is more realistic about shortcomings and flaws within the Church while allowing ample room for spiritual experience and encounter with the divine. I believe God's prophets are truly called and chosen, and that He speaks to them. I also believe that much of what they do and say is, absent revelation, a product of their best judgment and the culture in which they live, and that we should be neither surprised nor alarmed to see conference talks, manuals, and media that participate in the cultural dialogue of the time, even if it means occasionally falling victim to human error.
Where does this leave me? To borrow part of Anathema's excellent answer above, I have used these principles to optimize where I feel I may be wrong within the gospel and to center my faith on those ideas which are actually essential to the truthfulness of the restored gospel. I offer these principles to you because that optimization does not necessarily lead everyone to the same conclusions about questions and common concerns within the Church--nor should they, I think. I disagree, for instance, with Anathema, guppy of doom, and other current & formers writers with respect to the inspiration or lack thereof in polygamy. But they do allow us to grapple with questions and confusion when interpreting ancient and modern scripture, as well as the words of the prophets, in ways that I think are both more realistic and believing than simply relying on inspiration to flatly settle the discussion and to do our thinking for us.
Wherever your faith takes you, I hope some of the ideas and concepts I've shared here will help you navigate the journey somewhat. I'll end with an exceptionally good FairLDS conference presentation by Patrick Mason which touches on, among other things, the place of doubt in faith & belief and coming to grips with a testimony that doesn't, in his words, load too much into the Truth Cart by filling in blanks with bunk explanations.
Lastly, I want to add that whatever you may come to feel, I believe there is always room for you in the Church, should you choose to seek it. Ultimately, precisely which ideas you believe to be eternal and which you do not is not nearly as important as your commitment to God, to truth, and to being and doing good. The cultural pressure to interpret scriptures one particular way or to hold a certain opinion--in short, to practice "orthodox" Mormonism--can be immense. The Church needs more people who can make articulate, thoughtful defenses for their beliefs, whether or not you are entirely orthodox in what you've come to believe.
If you'd like clarification or to talk more, please reach out and send me an email. I am far from perfect, but I am happy to listen, and to offer whatever meager advice I might be able to, wherever you might be with your faith.