Dealing with the “gray areas” of belief

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Over on By Common Consent, john f. has has started an excellent discussion on managing — or failing to manage — the “grey areas” of the gospel. Excerpt:

…I suggest that members who retain their faith/belief often do so by taking a nuanced view of Church life and policy — seeing many aspects of how culture or policy apply to real life situations as falling into a gray area that their flexible faith is able to accommodate.

By contrast, I have observed ex-believers saying that members of the Church view things as black and white and that things are really gray. But in taking this approach, I have seen some ex-believers attribute black and white type of beliefs to members of the Church that very few, if any, believing members actually hold.

As I commented in john’s post, I have found a pervasive streak among those who leave the Church over issues of belief: fundamentalism. When individuals believe so strongly in a gospel that is all black-and-white, and something comes along to challenge their rigid beliefs, they experience cognitive dissonance. Resolving the dissonance requires either becoming more flexible in their beliefs (as john rightly recommends) or leaving the Church.

By a “black-and-white gospel” I mean one in which all things are known and correctly understood by human beings. I am not advocating a “gray approach” to the essentials of the gospel — the existence of God, the atonement of Christ, the restoration of the priesthood, and so forth — but to those things which have not been revealed, or about which there is legitimate debate. (I’m thinking of things like a global versus a local Flood, if the Book of Mormon describes a limited or a hemispheric geography, or what Brigham Young really meant when he taught that “Adam is our God”.)

There are many in the Church who have rigid ideas about these nonessentials — or have never heard of them in the first place — and when evidence contrary to their beliefs presents itself, they remain inflexible and unwilling to accommodate new ideas. They cling to a fundamentalist mindset. Sometimes this means they find a religious outlet to express their fundamentalism (e.g., in polygamous groups), or they reject the gospel wholesale and then accuse those who remain of being fundamentalist themselves.

The problem, of course, is that there are a significant number of believing Mormons who haven’t had that paradigm shift yet, and so teach and preach fundamentalism, unaware that there are others who are struggling with gray areas or who are no longer so rigid.

Some of the best leaders and teachers I have had taught me to read widely and be open to new ideas. If only more Latter-day Saints could have such mentors.

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About Mike Parker

Mike Parker has been involved in LDS apologetics since the mid-1980s, and on the Internet since 1997. He joined the team of FairMormon volunteers in 2002, and has been involved in the creation of the FairMormon wiki ( and running the annual FairMormon conference. He is the recipient of FairMormon’s 2006 John Taylor Defender of the Faith Award. He resides with his gorgeous wife and two wonderful children in Utah's Dixie region.

5 thoughts on “Dealing with the “gray areas” of belief

  1. Bryce Haymond

    I agree. I think is it rigidity, or fundamentalism, that leads many away from the Church. They believe, heart and soul, that the prophet and apostles are infallible, for instance, and when they see or read of one that made a mistake the whole world comes crashing down. Rigidity leads to a closed mind, whereas we’ve been taught to ask questions, be curious, read more, educate ourselves, and constantly strive for greater light and knowledge.

  2. Kevin Hinckley

    Elder Bruce Hafen talks about a 3 tiered spiritual growth:
    1) Overly optimistic (see the “I am appalled” letters to the editor at BYU). They are very black and white in their thinking and troubled by the least suggestion of grey.
    2)Overly pessimistic. Question everything. Many ExMo’s fit in this catagory. Use rhetoric to attack any “faith” idea. Full of pride
    3) Open Heart/Open eyes. We’re not blind to human faults of our leaders, but we love them and the church and strive to help them improve.

  3. Robert Fields

    To me the law and its rules have been abolished. So judging a prophet on the Deut. 18:21,22 is to strict of a test. I do not think people should be told even official doctrine of any denomination is beyond question. Prophetic leaders after all are human and have to give an explanation or interpretation of what they find in scripture.

    It is a futile hunt to look for perfection. Somebody who feels that everything is perfect will be dissapointed if they look to close. This is an unrealistic expectation that a church must be 100% true in everything taught, or that is not true enough for belief. People who have that unrealistic expectation can have a weaker all or nothing kind of testimony.

  4. Pingback: Scattered thoughts on CES, nuance, gray areas, and teaching Institute « Faith Promoting Rumor

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