Doubt at Brigham Young University

Years ago, I took English 251 from a professor at Brigham Young University who was getting ready to quit. He also visibly didn't care anymore, which worked out to my benefit. I was working early morning cleaning jobs and was still barely getting by financially. I got high marks on all of my papers in a class I either didn't show up for or slept through every time I went.

His reading list was largely comprised of books I read in high school, plus films I'd already seen. Like many educators, he assigned films when he didn't feel like grading papers, almost always as a weekend assignment with follow-up, in-class discussion. One week he picked Doubt (2008), starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. I had already seen it several times.

In case you haven't seen it, it's a film set in a Catholic community in 1960's Bronx. The story centers around a Catholic school, the nuns who run it, and a priest that may or may not be grooming and molesting a black male student who attends the school. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the principal, and the crux of the film is basically set up to make you choose sides: either with Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as a victim of false suspicion, or Streep's character as the ignored and powerless voice of warning in a patriarchal church.

Because my family was Catholic in a predominantly Catholic city during the period covered by the film, that influenced my perspective watching the film. It seemed obvious to me that Streep was supposed to be the film's protagonist, and justified in her actions in investigating the priest. It never even occurred to me that anyone could be so unaware of the Catholic Church's history with sexual abuse, so blind to the patriarchy portrayed openly in the film, as to side with the priest. 

 But that's exactly what happened in our class discussion, to my shock and disbelief.

You can't fully appreciate how bizarre this scene is if you haven't seen the film. But imagine a room full of Mormon students at BYU, defending a Catholic priest accused of sexually abusing a child. I realize we're talking about fictional characters. But the history and gender bias those characters represent is very real. Listening to people I went to school with openly admit they would side with a man in a position of authority over a woman, regardless of the circumstances, was an eye-opening experience to me. They willingly dumped on a woman for attempting to protect a child from sexual abuse because it came at the expense of a man's reputation.

The professor was somewhat taken aback by the responses was getting. He asked for someone to argue the other side. I gladly volunteered. I still can't believe how coherent my answer was, considering I'd been living off of three hours of sleep a night for four months. All I did was point out what was plainly in the film. In my view, the film is only ambiguous if you don't believe any of the women in the films or trust their motivations, even when they are plain in their every action and showing no deception.

Have you ever said something that was making an entire room full of people deeply uncomfortable? And you can see it in their faces? Yeah. That was me.

I'll never forget the question a male student asked me, pointedly, about how I could have this interpretation of the film in light of the final line. In that line, Sister Aloysius was talking to Sister James (Amy Adams) after everything is over, saying through tears, "I have such doubts."

It honestly never occurred to me that someone could interpret that line to mean Streep's character had doubts about what she had done. As in, remorse for what she had 'done to' the priest. 

"She doesn't feel doubt about investigating the priest," I said. "She has doubts about how to continue in a church that would allow someone like that to even be a priest, and whether the God she believes in can actually save or redeem someone like that."

The whole room went silent. No one knew what to say. 

In that awkward silence, I realized I had done something that several people in that room had been unprepared to experience. At a church-sponsored school, I had forced them to confront the false perceptions in their own minds of male church leadership as perfect men who would never hurt anyone and could do no wrong. They were realizing that the film was showing them how ready they were to be blind to abuse within their own religious community, to demonize those who tell the truth if the person doing so happens to be a woman.

They were not okay sitting with that truth about themselves. It honestly felt like I'd just told a class of Primary kids that Santa wasn't real. Except instead of something harmless like the reality of Santa, they were realizing not all men in positions of authority within the church are good, trustworthy people.

Moral of the story for LDS parents: don't forget to talk to your kids about abuse in churchthat it exists, what it looks like, and how important it is to listen to and believe women. If you don't, someone else will have to explain it to them, perhaps after they've already reached adulthood. And it will not be an easy experience for them.

Through the Storm

I've spent a lot of time reflecting on who I used to be, how secure and at home I used to feel in my faith. And for years now, I've been looking back and comparing myself to who I was then, as if she was a better person because she was doing more of the "right things."

I have to constantly remind myself that I keep my covenants, same as she did. I wasn't better then because I read my scriptures for hours on end, or said more prayers, or went to church even when I was ill or suffering. Those things are nothing more than labor. And laboring differently now does not make me worse than I was when I did those things more consistently.

I think about it now like a fishing boat. When the weather is good and the water is calm, it's easy to see the external results of my labor. But during a storm, things are different. That productivity changes. It becomes about doing the labor that keeps you from sinking, crashing, and minimizing losses. It's a different mentality because the labor is different.

Neither type of labor has more value than the other. They both sustain life. And comparing myself to who I was when things were more peaceful doesn't help me to navigate the waters now that they're not.

My number one job right now is to make it through the storm. That labor has value. And it's making me a better person than I was then, not worse. Where I am and what I'm doing is not a mistake. It feels that way because of what I value, which God is inviting me to change.

I can embrace who I'm becoming, without feeling like I'm worse off because it doesn't look like who I've been in the past. I may be different, but I like myself more. And that should definitely count for something.

Let's Just Stop Saying "Worthy" and "Worthiness"

Many years ago, my mother was alone with another adult female member of the church. And she took that opportunity to ask this woman, an actively practicing Mormon, why she (my mother) wouldn't be allowed in the temple on my wedding day.

Think about the heartfelt nature of this question. It doesn't help that you don't know my mother. But for her to even ask this was not vindictive. It came from a personal place of profound pain.

Imagine someone trusted you enough to invite you to sit in their pain with them for a moment, to speak to it. Coming from my mother, that's what this was. She knew I couldn't do it because then she'd have to sit with mine. So she went to someone else.

And this person, completely unprepared for this moment, looked at her and said the only people who are allowed in the temple are the ones who are worthy to be there. My mother came to an average Mormon with an honest question. And thanks to the obsolete, insensitive language we use so casually in the Church, she told my mother she wasn't worthy of God or his presence. Whether she intended to or not, that was the message she sent with the language she used.

I cannot adequately express to anyone the pain in my mother's face when she told me this. You'd have to know her to fully appreciate it. My mother and I have a complicated history, and the church has been at the center of that for more than a decade. But I cannot describe to you how angry I was when she finally told me this. It seemed impossible to me that anyone could be that insensitive or careless.

I come to my point. The "let's be as Mormon as possible so the non-members will think we're good people and want to join the church" mentality. The habit of leaning into our own exactness, our obtuse insistence in doing things our way, even when it hurts people, and calling that a virtue. This refusal to demonstrate any kind of humanity didn't entice my mother to join the Church. I don't know where people born into the Church got the impression that this is what makes people gets baptized, but that's not how this works. That's not how anything works.

My mother is not a person whose favor is easily won, but it is very easily lost. She has no patience for posturing or pretense. And I realized, after hearing this story, that the church would have to be a very different place before she would ever feel at home in it.

That day, I excised the words "worthy" and "worthiness" from my vocabulary. They have no place in what it means to be a Latter-day Saint to me anymore. There are few words that cause me more emotional and spiritual discomfort. I understand that there is a layer of judgment to them that is inappropriate for me to use because I'm not God. If what I mean to say is prepared, ready, observant, dedicated, devout, or any other words that would be more precise, then I should just say that.

Who are we, as Christians or as Saints, to attempt to measure the faith and devotion to God in another person's heart? And to use such feeble measurements, like the length of a hemline or cups of coffee, to quantify that relationship? Our rulers and measuring sticks will mean very little to God when he sees the ways we used them to punish each other for the universal imperfections that affect us all.

God is good. The thing I can't wait for each and every person to discover about him is how much he cares about us individually. The way all labels and judgments disappear in his eyes and we are finally seen for who we truly are.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

1 Cor. 13:12

We are all deeply flawed beings, struggling to understand and cope with what it means to be human. Let's all remember that a little more often.


I want to own up to something so I can dispel it as a way of thinking. Because it has taken me a long time to realize how wrong I was about people who walk away from my church, or take breaks, or interact with it on their own terms/without a set schedule of appearances.

I used to think that people who left the Church did so because they came into contact with other people who have. Like doubt was somehow contagious, and contact with people who walk away was a negative force that escalates people's feelings of dissatisfaction with the church. There are a lot of problems with this thinking. It makes the assumption that people can't be trusted to know their own minds, hearts, and motivations in relation to their own relationship with God. It assumes they are unreliable narrators in their own story.

I thought that way because it served me. It exonerated me from having to care about or address the complex and varied reasons why people walk away from my faith community. It allowed me to place blame on someone else instead of looking at myself and my behavior. It wasn't until I was invited to comb through the details of my own life that I realized doubt doesn't work like this. It isn't something you catch from someone else. It's a natural and valid response to prolonged inconsistency between expectations and reality.

I didn't wake up one day and find myself unhappy with my faith community. That disillusionment is a logical, justified response to hundreds of incidents of pain, exclusion, ignorance, loneliness, rejection, and being devalued for who I am and what I think over many years.

And here's the thing I only recently realized: the people I once feared, the ones who doubt... they are not a threat to my faith. They aren't waiting in the wings to stifle out the last candle. My experience has been quite the opposite. My friends across the faith spectrum have lifted me up. They can see I'm trying to stay, to renegotiate my place with my faith, and they respect that. They listen. They empathize. They give me the language and tools to keep my faith in God alive.

They save me from myself. Their hands, outstretched to me when I was drowning, became the familiar hands of God.

I would have lost myself completely had it not been for the people I once thought so little of. And I realized they deserved so much more credit than I was giving them.

Don't be afraid of people who distance themselves intentionally from the Church. Don't assume they want to hurt you, or that you fundamentally understand the Church better because you have stayed after they have gone.

Listen. Empathize. Learn. Embrace. 

They may just be the ones who save you someday, too.

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