We are all taught that our testimony and faith in the gospel should be strong, built on the “sure foundation” (Helaman 5:12) of Jesus Christ.
And it’s true. Our faith should be resilient to all life throws at us, but that does mean that our testimonies should be rigid or unalterable? Spencer McBride, host of “The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast,” has truly immersed himself in Church history, especially the Restoration, having worked for nearly six years as a historian and documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers.
While delving into the Church’s origin story, McBride has discovered pieces of history that do not always make sense initially. But on this week’s episode of the All In podcast, McBride told host Morgan Jones that when he encounters information in Church history that could shake his faith, he is reminded of an experience that he had 15 years ago: experiencing an earthquake at the top of a swaying skyscraper.
“Skyscrapers are designed to have a bit of sway in them,” he explained. “Because if they're rigid, they will crack under the pressure. I think there's an analogy in there for how I approach my faith where Church history is concerned - having a flexible approach to Church history. . . if we have a flexible understanding of how the Restoration occurred as a process, and not just some miraculous moment where everything went according to a checklist, we can absorb that information, and it's not going to send us into a tailspin necessarily.”
The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.
Morgan Jones: How, Spencer, do you maintain a faithful perspective, while exploring history? Because I imagine, while we talked about it [how] you see the shining moments…you also see the mess. How do you maintain faith as a historian doing that?
Spencer McBride: Really good question. And I think it's an important question because there are times in the study of Church history, that you come across things that just maybe don't make sense to you. You don't quite understand what you're reading, what you're hearing about. What do you do in those moments? And I use an analogy sometimes when I'm speaking to different groups in the Church of this earthquake I experienced. Now I grew up in California, I've experienced plenty of earthquakes to the point that, unless they're big, I don't often even feel it sometimes. And I remember that it was about 15 years ago, I was in working in the top floor of a tall building in San Diego, and there was a big earthquake. And the building swayed, and I never experienced an earthquake that high up off the ground, and it was kind of unnerving to have the building sway. But I remember in the days following this experience, I talked to a friend who is an engineer and he explained that actually the skyscrapers are designed to have a bit of sway in them, especially in California for earthquakes. Because if they're rigid, they will crack under the pressure. And I think there's an analogy in there for how I approach my faith where Church history is concerned - having a flexible approach to Church history. We talked about this earlier, but understanding that God worked with imperfect people; you're going to find mistakes, you're going to find things that maybe don't make sense - and maybe they're not mistakes, we just don't fully understand them because there are limited records left behind. But there are going to be things that maybe we don't fully understand. But if we have a flexible understanding of how the Restoration occurred as a process, and not just some miraculous moment where everything went according to a checklist, we can absorb that information, and it's not going to send us into a tailspin necessarily. And so this is useful because I think it's okay if someone's studying Church history and something raises a concern and raises a question—maybe it instills some doubt in their mind—and it's okay. It's okay to have questions. It's okay to have doubts. But we also, as we work through those questions and work through those doubts, we hold on to the spiritual manifestations we've experienced in the past. We let those be part of the equation too. And, so it's this flexible approach to the history of the Church. I'm not expecting the past to be perfect. And that allows me to maintain my faith, even when, and especially when, I come across moments of imperfection.
Morgan Jones: Yeah, I love that analogy so much. As a follow up to that, I have an institute teacher who went to Divinity School, and he said that the most frequent question that people outside of the Church ask him is, they say, you know, "You've seen it all. You've seen all the things that we've seen, and yet you still believe, like, I don't get it." How would you respond to people in that situation?
Spencer McBride: You know, for me, my testimony, my faith is based on both what I've learned, but also what I've experienced. And I need both. I need to remember the times I've experienced God in my life. And what He's confirmed to me through the Spirit is true. It doesn't mean they aren’t things that I don't understand. There are certainly things they don't understand, both in terms of doctrine, but also in the way things sometimes happened in the history of the Church. And I have all sorts of questions. And I'm hoping there's a chance on the other side where I can get answers to a lot of these questions. But even in the absence of sure knowledge, my faith rests on the spiritual experiences I've had, and the things I've learned in the process of trying to understand those spiritual experiences. And both parts of the equation are essential to my personal faith journey.