…the hell is Mormonism, anyway? Part 1:Questions
Recently, I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend. A lot of people I look up to — smart, intelligent, capable people whose opinions I put in high regard and with whom I usually identify in regard to most subjects — have, one by one, started falling away from the LDS Church (the most recent example being someone who was my first counselor when I was Elders’ Quorum President a few years back). While some (not all) of the most stalwart members I know are also the most ignorant and naive in other areas of life. And with the recent spotlight of Mormonism in pop culture, what with Mitt Romney and the Book of Mormon musical and even things like Prop. 8 from a few years ago, even Internet personalities and/or famous people whose opinion I also respect have begun to weigh in on the topic of what Mormonism is and how it works. And with all this scrutiny, I’ve come to realize one important thing: I have to figure out where I stand on the issue. Gone are the days when I could just say, “I know the Church is true,” because I was standing at a pulpit during a testimony meeting. Gone are the days when I could just sorta believe, ’cause, you know, the Church does a lot of good charity work and teaches uplifting life lessons and hey, everyone else around is doing it. As I’ve made fairly clear on a few occasions, there is a lot of LDS culture that I am not a big fan of, so I don’t have the culture to tether me into the faith.
So how will I, a self-proclaimed intellectual, find the fortitude to stay within the LDS fold, when so many others of my ilk are falling away?
To begin, let’s look at the reasons people give for leaving the church. One thing I’ve found interesting is that most of the people I know who’ve left the church have fairly disparate reasons for doing so. For example, this popped up on my Facebook feed recently. It is basically a list of grievances brought forth by some members of the Church who are unsatisfied with the way it is run now and want to bring about some changes, mostly in regard to the role of women. Some of the grievances are more sins of the culture rather than the church (such as the equality in the budget and focuses of the Young Men/Young Women programs, which I’m fairly certain is more up to local leaders), others are basically never going to happen (most of the “women should have the priesthood too”-related ones), and still others are legitimate grievances that should be addressed (and in fact, one already has: one of the points is that sisters should be able to serve at age 19, which, thanks to last week’s General Conference, they now can!). Some of the points I feel are a little naive themselves. I’d argue that there are a lot of things in the Church that are way more women-friendly, and if you compare, say, the mainstream LDS view of single women to single men, you’ll find that single women come out on top, especially in recent years, where the view for women seems to be “It’s OK; do your best and you’ll be blessed anyway,” but for men it’s “Find a wife, you sinful moron!”
My point in bringing this up, though, isn’t to discuss its finer points, but to say that a lot of these ideas and similar ones are what some people seem to fixate upon. Once someone has a persecution complex, it’s easy to put on blinders and focus on only those issues in the Church, to the point that as long as that one thing isn’t addressed, then the Church isn’t worth it. I could very easily point out the disparity between the way the Church treats its single men and its single women, or between singles and married people, or between childless couples and families. I could use that as an excuse to say, “Until single men have the opportunity to serve in bishoprics, I don’t believe in the Church anymore! I can do just as well as any other married guy! With the added bonus that I wouldn’t have to leave a family home while I go to all these meetings!” This argument applies to nearly any “persecuted” minority in the church: women, gays, people who like to swear, intellectuals — the list goes on.
But is it valid? Is it right to say that, since we claim that God created the Church, and it is the only true and living Church on the face of the earth, any flaw in its policies disproves that claim? Or any part of the doctrine that doesn’t make sense with our worldview? Is the excuse that “the people in the church aren’t perfect, even though the church is,” a valid defense, or just a cop-out designed to deflect criticism?
Let’s take another angle. Matt, the author of the blog post I brought up at the beginning of this one (if I understand him correctly), grew up believing in the Mormonism of ideas. That is to say, putting Alma’s and Moroni’s promise to the test: faith was good to start, but it was possible to come to a knowledge of the precepts of the gospel; not just of the simple things like “serve your fellow man and you will be blessed” but complex things about intelligences and how spiritual matter is organized and other things hinted at by Joseph Smith that forms some of the deeper doctrine of the Church. In addition, there are a lot of differing accounts of how some things happened in Church history, many painting a different picture than the common one accepted in Sunday School classes. And while it’s easy to say that, “oh, the deeper doctrine isn’t necessary for salvation,” or “oh, some of those accounts are either fraudulent or biased or influenced by Satan or whatever” (I honestly haven’t done the research myself or I would cite examples), at some point the suspension of disbelief may begin to crack. One can debate the validity of using spiritual experiences to prove objective truth, but the point is, for him, there were too many discrepancies and/or too much vagueness on these points that it was impossible for him to form that solid foundation upon which to build a concrete belief system. (I suggest you actually go read that post, as it is quite well-written and obviously he puts forth his argument better than I have.)
Must one have blind faith to overcome these seemingly small obstacles that build up? Is it enough to say, “I believe in the Church because I’ve felt good about it, which has gotta be the Spirit,” even if it’s hard to get the objective evidence to line up? How can a serious, analytical thinker, whose core being thirsts for knowledge and understanding, weave together a perfect gospel and/or Church from so much vagueness and uncertainty? Is it enough to apply Bellisario’s Maxim (“Don’t examine this too closely”) and go around thinking that all the stuff that doesn’t quite make sense will be explained in the afterlife or something, or is that too much to swallow for a rational person? Must we go around all 1984 and employ doublethink just to keep our lives simple?
I do have my own responses to many of these claims, and with a lot of them I’ll try to go somewhat deeper, somewhat more intellectual. But first I’d like to hear what people think, especially from both those who have left the Church and those who consider themselves intellectuals and/or don’t really fit in the Mormon culture, but still stay active in the Church.