You have almost certainly heard of the “shelf” if you’re Mormon. This wasmormon.org site lists many of these shelf items and questions that users have responded to. Check it out, do you share any of these shelf items or want to contribute with your own story?
If you aren’t familiar with the Mormon shelf, 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 are advised to “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 is that as we follow the “milk before meat” pattern, and we progress to more “meaty” understandings, these questions will eventually be answered. It’s ok that things don’t make sense today, because we are promised that they will one day. 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, and 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!
The church leaders have seen studies that research why members leave and commonly refer to the shelf concept in the Personal LDS Faith Crisis Report.
The Shelf itself is a Red Flag
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 the accumulation of shelf items leads to disbelief, these questions all fall to the proverbial floor with an individual’s faith.
Where did the 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 of 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 that 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 therefore currently don’t matter:
Hi, I’m Maryssa. And I have a question. About the gospel…
This question has kept me up at night. It has made me ache inside. Really, it’s more a spiritual concern than an actual question…
As a woman, I’m always trying to better understand my place in God’s kingdom. For most of my life, I didn’t think about it much. But as I got older, I began to wonder about the differing roles of men and women in the Church. The more I thought about it, the more concerned I became about the imbalance I perceived. I knew that God is perfectly just and fair. But I couldn’t find a way to reconcile the differences I saw with my existing knowledge of His plan. It was like a puzzle piece that didn’t seem to fit…
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…
Since then I’ve kept searching for more insight into my questions. And answers come. In bits and fragments—but they come. I gain glimmers of understanding as I search the scriptures, as I “seek … out of the best books words of wisdom” (D&C 88:118), as I talk with people I trust, as I attend the temple, as I study the words of prophets and apostles, as I ponder and pray. Sometimes I still get discouraged. I still have bad days when I get overwhelmed by everything I don’t know…
Maybe some of my questions won’t be answered for a long time… Until then, I choose to trust in God, no matter how big or how numerous my questions are. I choose to say, “There is goodness here, and I will not abandon it. I will stand by the truth I have, because truth is worth protecting.”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 claims that God doesn’t expect us to put questions on the shelf and forget about them, but it simultaneously describes this process as to how they work to reconcile her own questions. She has questions and holds them acknowledging that they won’t be answered for a long time, but choose to trust God and stay in the church, don’t abandon the truth, even though you can’t answer your questions. Even when these are deep questions that keep you up at night and make you ache. Hold onto the church no matter how doubtful your questions make you, just forget about the doubt, put it away, and carry on. That is the experience of putting things on the shelf.
The mindset praised in the article 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 the 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 a few 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”. It aligns with the advice from Elder Anderson to “Just give Brother Joseph a break“
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 as leaders today still refer to the concept, but sometimes in a more demeaning manner. Elder Renlund and his wife enjoy sharing a parable they have come up with about a stranded immature boy, who is rescued by a fisherman in a well-used boat with dents and peeling paint. The rescuee comes to complain about the dents and peeling paint and opts to abandon ship and leave the safety of the boat. In the same talk, the Renlunds then portray a man they call Stephen who struggles through his questions he’s put on his shelf and struggles to reconcile them. They refer to him as a “perpetual doubter” who chose to play what they call “Church history whack-a-mole” rather than keep his questions at bay on his 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 its 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 the individual is faced with a real-life faith crisis, or as some prefer, a truth crisis. Individuals who 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.
The shelf can only hold so much, and some take the initiative to sort, organize, catalog, and then share their shelf issues in places like the CES letter or the well-known letter to my wife. The shelf eventually breaks!
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.org profile to tell your own “I was a Mormon” story, you can now add your shelf items to your profile. You are invited 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.