The mormon “shelf” and why it’s a problem

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You have almost certainly heard of the “shelf” if you’re mormon. If not, the thought goes that you are studying the gospel when you come upon something that at first doesn’t make sense to you. Rather than use that as evidence that refutes your overall worldview, you just assume there is an answer that you can’t figure out right now, so you “put it on the shelf”. Once it’s there you can move on with your study or your life, and every once in a while revisit this idea on the shelf when it comes up and see if now it makes any more sense or if you’ve found any answers. Essentially the shelf is a proverbial place for unanswered questions. The idea being that as we follow the milk before meat pattern, that as we progress to meaty understandings, these questions will be answered. So we get the feeling that we are incompetent because things bother us or are hard to understand, while everyone else seems happy, we can ignore our own feelings in order to fit in and conform to expectations.

Problems with this cultural idea: it makes us intellectually lazy, it makes us feel incapable of discovering the truth, it sets aside anything that doesn’t fit with our predetermined conclusions, it makes a number of issues become “unanswerable” in the minds of church members. Having a shelf or even the idea of a shelf being ok, makes us comfortable with cognitive dissonance, until at least the shelf gets overloaded and we suffer the ensuing crisis of having to face all these hard questions (and their answers) at once. The shelf breaks!

From a Report given to LDS Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints leaders regarding the nature and scope of members experiencing faith crises and strategies for the church to address the issue.

The fact that we have a proverbial shelf to store all our unanswerable questions should be a red flag in itself. Why are there so many issues that are unanswerable? Are they really unanswerable or is there just no way to reconcile what we can learn by research in a faith-promoting way. Eventually as the shelf is loaded and loaded, it becomes overloaded and breaks. We are either overwhelmed with all the things that need reconciling to keep the faith or the amount of faith required to continue with the laden shelf is just no longer feasible. When accumulation of shelf items leads to disbelief, these questions all fall to the proverbial floor with an individual’s faith.

Where did this shelf concept come from?

Camilla Eyring Kimball, wife to President Spencer W. Kimball is the first documented mention of a shelf to store gospel questions. She is quoted detailing the process in an Ensign article from 1975 (only a couple years into the Kimball presidency):

“I’ve always had an inquiring mind. I’m not satisfied just to accept things. I like to follow through and study things out. I learned early to put aside those gospel questions that I couldn’t answer. I had a shelf of things I didn’t understand, but as I’ve grown older and studied and prayed and thought about each problem, one by one I’ve been able to better understand them.”

She twinkles, “I still have some questions on that shelf, but I’ve come to understand so many other things in my life that I’m willing to bide my time for the rest of the answers.”

https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1975/10/camilla-kimball-lady-of-constant-learning
Ensign Magazine, October 1975, Camilla Kimball: Lady of Constant Learning By Lavina Fielding

Perhaps we could credit the Kimballs with adding the shelf to mormon culture, but if we look farther back, we can find the same concept with Brigham Young when he had trouble believing certain revelations from Joseph:

In the days of Joseph, when the revelation came to him and Sidney Rigdon, while translating that portion of the New Testament contained in the 29th verse of the third chapter of John, in reference to the different degrees of glory, I was not prepared to say that I believed it, and I had to wait.

What did I do? I handed this over to the Lord in my feelings, and said I, “I will wait until the spirit of God manifests to me, for or against.” I did not judge the matter, I did not argue against it, not in the least. I never argued the least against anything Joseph proposed, but if I could not see or understand it, I handed it over to the Lord. This is my counsel to you, my brethren and sisters…

https://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/digital/collection/JournalOfDiscourses3/id/6894
Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 18:247

Brigham Young had trouble understanding parts of the gospel coming directly from the prophet and he sets the precedent to hand the question to the Lord.

Here is a more recent ensign article which artfully discusses that questions are ok. It acknowledges that there are many valid questions people have and the article actually mentions the gender differences in the church and the author’s personal struggle when she “couldn’t find a way to reconcile the differences I saw with my existing knowledge of His plan.” but also sets a certain expectation that so many questions are “unanswerable” and currently don’t matter:

For the first time in a while, I felt peace. My questions still hadn’t been answered, but I didn’t feel lost anymore. I realized that God is in control. He doesn’t expect me to put my questions on the shelf and forget about them. But He does expect me to trust Him. In all of my truth-seeking, I have to remember who the source of all truth is. And I have to recognize that while I’m deliberating over a single piece of the puzzle, He holds the pieces I can’t see. He sees the big picture—the biggest picture. And someday I’ll see it too.

https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2018/02/i-have-a-question-and-thats-ok
Ensign Online, February 2018, I Have a Question, and That’s OK By Maryssa Dennis

This claims that we aren’t putting our questions on the shelf and forgetting about them (which may be true since, more truthfully we put them on the shelf and try to forget them). It finds comfort by focusing faith in God’s love and placing trust in him. There is a nice metaphor that these unanswered questions are small pieces of a big puzzle, and God is the puzzle master with all the pieces and the big picture. We place hope in an idea that one day, things will make sense and we’ll see the big picture too. This is a nice thought and one possible way to reconcile hard issues for a time at least. It’s also along the same lines of “milk before meat”, meaning that before we can understand the “hard” parts, we need to focus on the easy and simple parts of the gospel. The trouble is, this big picture and meat never actually comes. The church is promoting these “sleight of hand” tricks and maneuvers to reconcile our cognitive dissonance. To keep us in the boat. Just “don’t think about it”, “turn it off” or worse, be happy with the “milk” – we’ll tell you when you’re ready for “meat”.

This continues today, here’s a recent broadcast to institute and seminary teachers where a seventy encourages them to put things on the shelf as well!

“We don’t control the timing of getting answers. Sometimes answers come quickly, and sometimes we must place questions on the shelf for a time and rely on our faith that has developed from the answers we do know”

https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/church/news/church-leaders-address-seminary-and-institute-teachers-through-annual-broadcast/helping-students-dispel-doubt-through-spiritual-knowledge?lang=eng
Elder Paul V. Johnson spoke to CES instructors during a CES broadcast on August 7, 2012.

I would hope that these church leaders would have some answers to the shelf items, but they don’t offer any. The seminary and institute teachers (members who must have a rather deep understanding of the milk, and who might be ready for some meat) are instructed to use the same shelf. He’s not telling them how to teach the students about the shelf, but instructing them to utilize a shelf to cope with their own questions. The teachers don’t even have the answers to their questions. We’re all just putting things on the shelf to be answered “later”, which in the end means “in the next life” at best or simply never. Not that every question can be answered in this life, but we need to be ok with asking the questions and dealing with the true answers.

So much shelf!

So, the mormon shelf is only a proverbial place to store unanswered questions it’s where our collective cognitive dissonance goes to be ignored and hopefully just go away. We learn as mormons to put things we don’t understand on the shelf because one day we will understand everything, and why let something we don’t understand now block our progression, right? We get into such a habit of putting things on the shelf though, that we become comfortable with putting everything on it. If there were one or two complex issues to understand it would be one thing, but there are so many unanswerable questions that the shelf issues bog us down and can’t be answered because there is no real way of reconciling them properly (at least in a faith-promoting way). The simple fact that we even have this shelf analogy in mormon culture to deal with our own many cultural and doctrinal issues is unhealthy. How is it ok for an institution to create a space where there is such a false narrative of itself, that it then has to teach it’s own members how to cope with the dissonance it itself causes, and then that the members buy into it. Eventually, it crashes down and then individual is faced with a real life faith crisis, or as some prefer, a truth crisis. Individuals experience this are then cast as having little faith and many, as they take the authentic courage to examine the pieces, are forced to choose between living their own truth and submitting to authoritative church leaders.

What are your shelf items? Was there a “last straw” that brought the shelf tumbling down? We’ve just updated the profiles on this site to allow members to indicate their main shelf items. As you create a wasmormon profile to tell your story, you can now add your shelf items to your profile and if you’ve already set up your profile, simply login to add them. Feel free to add your own shelf items to the growing list. In discussing these shelf items we hope to help others process them and take the time to reconcile and resolve the dissonance they have been encouraged to ignore. There are answers to many of the questions, we need the courage and tenacity to look.

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