The Internet can be a source of information and illumination, but for some it's also a cause for worry, and in some cases, a loss of faith, as one Mormon man discovered.
Hans Mattsson, a "solid believer" in his faith, began to have doubts after friends emailed him about websites that contained information about Mormonism that contradicted the church's official history and teachings. Mattsson began looking deeper into the contradictions and discovered evidence of historical anomalies in the Book of Mormon, among other things. "I felt like I had an earthquake under my feet," said Mattsson. "Everything I'd been taught, everything I'd been proud to preach about and witness about just crumbled under my feet."
Q: Does the thought of your congregants possibly developing doubts because of information found on the Internet concern you?
I feel sympathy for Hans Mattsson and hope that he can work through his doubts. This must be a very difficult time for him, for his family and for those who knew him as a leader.
Despite his experience, the Internet doesn't really pose a threat to the faith of Mormons or members of any other denomination. On the contrary, the access to knowledge and communication that the Web provides is a great asset.
I have to point out that issues Mattsson raises aren't new. Most have been discussed within the church and among its critics for decades. Even the more recent matter of DNA and the Book of Mormon, mentioned in his videotaped interview, has been thoroughly debated.
Having served as a lay leader in the church I am surprised — actually, a bit skeptical — that his appeal for help was rebuffed. Even if that is true, church universities have websites that address Mattsson's questions at length. (One example: a 2011 Brigham Young University paper that looks unsparingly at Joseph Smith's marriage to 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball.) There also are numerous sites created by individual members who discuss faith, history and doctrine.
Personally, I enjoy studying the church's history — even these controversial topics. They don't shake my faith in Smith or in the church he restored. Despite the sometimes rough edges of history, the fact is there is Truth, with a capital T, in what Joseph Smith taught. There is Truth in the Book of Mormon.
What we call "history" really is little more than a compilation of snapshots — moments in time — as seen from the perspective of a few individuals. The full truth, knowledge of things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come, is known only to God. That he has shared tiny portions of this with me and millions of others through prayer and study is sufficient to sustain my faith.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Two thoughts, neither original to me. Doubt is the beginning of wisdom, and belief involves accepting some things on faith.
It is no more outlandish for Latter-day Saints to believe in their story than for me to have faith that peace and justice are possible. Evidence to the contrary abounds in both instances.
Everyone should be skeptical about accuracy and quality on the Internet. Anyone can and does "publish" and we are our own editors and fact-checkers, which is sort of like being your own lawyer — and you know what they say about that. Nonsense and wisdom alike spread like wildfire.
Developing doubts means that thinking is happening, always a worthwhile activity, and especially necessary when we go online. We aren't to be mere sponges, soaking up everything and anything uncritically.
Frankly speaking, a Muslim doubting belief in Islam because of information found in some remote corner of the Internet does not rank high on the list of concerns for the mosque I attend, nor would I suspect for many other mosques around the world.
If after getting past the plethora of sites that take a bigoted or politically motivated ignorant view of Islam, if someone still finds something truly casting doubt in their heart about Islamic belief (i.e., what is put forward in the Koran and the authentic traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), then they should be encouraged to explore that concern, genuinely following it to its logical or spiritual end, asking God for guidance along the way, whether that doubt comes from the Internet or otherwise.
Indeed, questioning and exploring one's faith is a perfectly natural and valid human behavior. Islam teaches that God gave us free will, that he gave us intellectual curiosity, and by virtue of this allows us question why humans, religions, the world, the universe, even God operates the way they do. The Koran states that Islam is "for people who think" (Chapter 39, verse 42) and "for people who use their reason" (Chapter 30, verse 28).
As a result, a Muslim should come to, or solidify, his /her faith through an intellectual journey as much as a spiritual or religious journey.
Would that it were so, that my parishioners spent their hours on the Internet looking up religious truths. The Anglican ethos values human reason (meaning not only intellect but also conscience, experience, intuition and emotion) as a source of religious authority equal to, and meant to be in healthy conversation with, Scripture and church tradition. In our churches, as famous Episcopalian Robin Williams put it, "You don't have to check your brains at the door."
Still, Mattsson's "earthquake" experience, when greater knowledge was introduced to his faith, is not an uncommon one for us, either. As people first venture beyond their childhood learning and begin to explore, say, academic study of the Bible, there's often an era of shock and grief as cherished assumptions are undermined, altered or even destroyed. Adult classes in Bible or theology are sometimes marked by rebellion and anger in their early days; and first-year seminarians are recognizable by their unsettled, stricken look.
And of course it's a lifelong experience to think you know something of God only to find out, again and again, that God is bigger and different than you thought.
What I've found helpful, when some toy of my belief has been taken away, is to ask, "Is it really necessary to my faith? Do I need it in order to have the relationship I want to have with God?" Whether there were three magi or more, and whether they came to Jesus at his birth or two years later — these things aren't deal-breakers for me. Even the virgin birth itself — we could find some scholarly proof that it wasn't empirically true and Christmas would still work for me as the birth of God's presence in Christ.
If your Internet search unveils knowledge that crumbles something precious to you, try asking, "Can I still love God without this being true?" Then take a breath, honor that belief, grieve it if you need to, and let it go. God will come to you anew — because God is always bigger than our beliefs.
The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George's Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge
We've all seen that commercial with the woman explaining how she met her "French-model" date on the Internet. She believed that whatever's on the Internet must be true, but her date arrives and reveals obvious fraud. The Internet provides a treasure trove of absolutely great information but there's also a cesspool of nonsense that people believe because they "saw it on the Internet." Holocaust-deniers come to mind. So do Christian-derivative cults that spew falsehood at spiritually starving souls.
When "The Da Vinci Code" folly emerged, I spent much time stamping out disinformation fires, and I still must whenever religious sects, supposedly using the Bible, manufacture novel interpretations or claim "new," albeit erroneous, revelations.
Mattsson encountered truth regarding his particular cult because he looked for truth, and that was good. Jesus said, "the truth will set you free." It's not that a Christian denomination was shown to be worthy of abandonment, but that a cult that abandoned Christianity a hundred years ago had its curtain thrown back — at least for him.
I wish the People's Temple folks had been so diligent when Jim Jones claimed to be God. I wish Jehovah's Witnesses would scrutinize their Watchtower organization's century of false prophesies. And the Latter-day Saints, if they'd just look at Smith and his successors and the contradiction that Mormonism is according to the Bible, one would expect them to run for the door. But most will not because they can't bear the scary inevitability that they wasted their resources on falsehood.
Folks, it's not doubt about Jesus and the Bible we need worry about, it's how the cults preach "a Jesus other than the Jesus" and "a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all." Hans, you are welcome to worship at our church. We won't promise you godhood, but we'll promise you a good God, truthfully preached.
The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
No, not at all. In fact, I am reminded of an old Greek adage that says something like, "The unexamined life is not worth living." And I would say that the unexamined faith isn't worth having. It was OK at one time in your life, I think, to believe that God was like an old man with a beard and who lived up in the sky. But I'm guessing that belief has matured a little — and if it didn't, why not? I believe in the Christmas Spirit but I no longer believe in Santa Claus. How about you?
St. Paul says in I Corinthians 13 that when he was a child, he spoke as a child and reasoned the way a child reasons. However, when he "became an adult, I put an end to childish ways" (verse 11). Just as we learn to go from addition and subtraction to multiplication and division in mathematics, so too we need to grow in our faith. The faith we learned in Sunday School as children needs to mature with the rest of us.
Jesus says to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. Use that great mind that God gave you. And if you find out that something you believed was not literally true, try to find out what other truth the author was getting at. For example, I learned in a college Old Testament class that perhaps the Hebrews didn't really walk through the Red Sea when they left Egypt under Moses; perhaps they walked through some marshy ground called the Reed Sea and pharaoh's chariots got stuck in that marshy ground. Isn't the power of God at work in either case? Isn't the story just as true if the runaway Hebrew slaves escaped through marshy ground as opposed to the spectacular Cecil B. DeMille concept?
Look for the hand of God in the ordinary, the everyday — you know, like in an ordinary, nondescript stable. Why does God always have to behave the way you think he/she should behave? It isn't about you; it's about God. Grow up, and while you're at it, grow your faith as well.
The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge
Besides being baby sitter, confidant, floor sweeper, window washer, bad-joke teller and assistant secretary, every sitting minister holds the position of resident theologian in her or his church. We must always remain ready to discuss the concerns of the faith with our parishioners at any time. That is why it is important that sitting ministers work to be well-read and clear about our own beliefs.
My denomination, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) insists that no matter what level of education each licensed and ordained minister attains, all pastors in good standing must formally continue their education. Part of that education is having working knowledge of how theology and changing culture constantly inform each other.
A parishioner who is having doubts about his/her belief, whether that doubt is generated from the Internet, a movie or a casual conversation, is a congregant who is also on the verge of a deeper understanding about their faith and themselves. A minister who is a good listener will try to connect the areas between the uncertainty of the congregant and the all-encompassing love of God. Ministers have doubts too, and sitting with another one of God's children to work through faith issues can be very illuminating to the pastor.
It is not a matter of debating the congregant, it is more of an opportunity, through listening and the mutual sharing of stories, for both persons to sit on the same side of the table and address the issue(s) as collaborators.
The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel
When I think about doubt, two quotes come immediately to mind. Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. David Rankin shares one of them when he writes, "An honest 'No' is a glorious statement. Doubt is the expression of faith in the intelligence and imagination of humanity." The other comes from Anne Lamott in her book, "Plan B," in which she includes, "Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Certainty is." With those two thoughts in mind, I feel supported in not being concerned by what my congregants may discover on the Internet.
There are many other reasons why I do not worry about the beliefs of those in the congregation I serve. One is that we Unitarian Universalists are encouraged to ask questions about our faith, believing that unexamined beliefs may be misguided beliefs. In fact, two of our stated principles include a covenant affirming "encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations" and "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning."
Another reason that I am not concerned that my congregants will be misled by the Internet is that I really don't have control over their thoughts, even if I want to. It is not that I don't care what they think. But I believe my calling as their minister is to encourage them to explore ideas for themselves in the context of what I call our "beloved community." The great advantage of being a part of a religious congregation is that we are surrounded by others who are investigating life's meaning and purpose, just as we are, in a place of respect and shared values.
The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
Access to the Internet opens up a world of information on any topic related to Christianity that you can imagine. At the same time, it also offers a cesspool of misinformation, often in the form of personal agendas that are offered as "facts." "Proof texting," or taking isolated Bible passages out of the larger context in which they are embedded, is a method that has been used for centuries to attempt to prove that Scripture says almost anything.
The best way to understand any piece of writing is to have a conversation with its author. The Bible makes it clear in 2 Timothy 3:16 that even though various writers contributed to the content of the Bible, they were all inspired by the same Holy Spirit of God. Therefore, as a Christian, if I want clarity about a particular issue in Scripture, I can ask for wisdom from the Holy Spirit, the author.
The apostle John, in writing to early Christians, reminded them that they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit, who always remained with them and would always lead them into the truth. They could rely on the Holy Spirit to teach them all they needed to know about God and his son, Jesus Christ (1 John 2: 27).
While we have core beliefs in Christianity, our faith does not rest upon a set of "facts" or a doctrinal statement. Our faith is anchored in an ongoing relationship with the living God through his Holy Spirit who resides within us. There may be things that we don't understand yet, and times we get disappointed, but our relationship with God's Spirit endures, giving us hope, comfort, strength and a sure conviction of his truth.
Pastor Ché Ahn
Jewish tradition has always championed the spirit of inquiry and encouraged people to seek out information. The Talmud famously questions everyone and everything in the process of finding the truth. I see no reason to fear an open flow of information or the questions that may arise as a result of close scrutiny. Moreover, if religious doctrine cannot withstand serious examination, then I believe there is an issue with either the dogma or those presenting it.
At the same time, individuals engaged in research need to understand that doubt and uncertainty can be normal responses to new information, whether it is found on the Internet or elsewhere. It is our responsibility to be diligent and seek proper answers to our questions. Often all that is required is a good teacher or an understanding scholar. At other times, the answers we are searching for may be more elusive.
I would strongly urge people with questions not to give up on their faith while searching for answers — even if it takes some time to find answers that are satisfying. In my opinion, living a moral life guided by religious principles offers benefits to a person — and his family, friends, and community — that far outweigh the need to immediately settle debate and resolve every religious dilemma. While we should not ignore our God-given ability to inquire and explore, sometimes we need to patiently step back and look at the overall picture.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center