I had a conversation with a reader on another blog post a couple of weeks ago. He asked about my thoughts on how to prepare our kids for “surprises” in church history. His question caused me to think about how I teach my kids the gospel and how I teach others (for instance now I teach occasionally in the High Priests group, and I share teaching of the Gospel Essentials class; in the past I’ve taught seminary and institute).
When it comes to exposing students (or our kids) to apparent inconsistencies in church history, here are some thoughts:
1. The setting matters. I would deal with this completely differently in an institute class or a High Priests group (where I’m more likely to be open) than in a Gospel Essentials class (where my charge is to teach basic doctrines). That said, I still accept the mandate to “teach from the manual” so I’m not interested in declaring whatever arcane historical things I’ve learned at the expense of the scheduled lesson. (I’ve blogged before about what teaching from the manual means to me, so I won’t belabor that point here.)
2. Age matters. I think whatever we teach our kids, we need to be aware of where they are. Just as the facts-of-life talk can be age appropriate, so can other issues, and I think church history issues are like that.
3. We don't have to know everything. I have had unanswered questions over time. And I think it's ok to admit to our kids or our students that we don't have every answer, and that we are looking. It's especially valuable if we can demonstrate that we have resolved some issues, but have other unresolved ones, suggesting that issue resolution takes time.
3. Encourage questions. I really believe that it's ok to ask questions. But it's also good to wait for answers, and to seek them in reliable places. (I acknowledge that one man's reliable may be another's biased source...)
4. Remember what you know. It's good for us, our students and our kids to remember the things we do know (or feel, or have faith in). For me, the sweet spirit of the temple is what helped me to hang on as I tried to resolve open issues about Joseph Smith, for instance. When we keep moving forward without complete knowledge, I think that's walking by faith, and it's ok.
5. The more we know the more we know what we don't know. Elder Theodore Burton taught me this principle on my mission years ago. As our testimony grows, the border between what we know and what we don't know also grows. And that's ok.
Some of my kids had no interest in talking about these things with me. Carlfred Broderick observed that these issues just don't matter to everyone, and that's ok. I have other family members for whom history issues were highly significant. Not every student will respond the same way, and for that reason, I think we need to be prudent in how we proceed as teachers.
For me, my period of discovery of church history matters began after high school. Having supportive and positive (but not dictatory) voices was helpful to me as I found my own way through it.