…the hell is Mormonism, anyway? Part 4: Personal Conflict
This post is going to be hard to write, but before I begin I want to say this: it has been a while since I’ve attended church, and much longer since I’ve actually been a legitimate member of a ward (since last August, to be precise). This is due to a few things: one, I got too old for the YSA ward (I turned 31 last November); two, I don’t want to go to a family ward until I’m married or at least engaged in order to avoid well-meaning but ultimately insulting questions about my dating life; and three, this sign that greeted me when I attended the mid-singles’ ward for 31 to 45-year-olds:
This picture was taken in the foyer where this particular mid-singles’ ward meets. I blurred out the ward name just in case, but the rest is as I saw it. Some of these kind of make sense (the age & marital status requirement, maybe the bishop interview, being a home/visiting teacher), some of them are a little extreme but whatever (like attending an orientation meeting…seriously, what ward have you ever been to that requires an orientation meeting? Is this church or is this a university?), and some of them are just plain over the line (have a letter of good standing from my resident ward bishop?!? What if I just moved in, or want to come back to church after some inactivity? I guess I’m not allowed to; I don’t have a letter of recommendation. Once again, this is just to be a member of the ward, not go to the temple or attend BYU or be the bishop or anything.) I have to work many Sundays since I work at a hotel, and the other two people in my department usually cannot do Sundays, due to one of them being in his bishopric and the other doing tech for Music and the Spoken Word (the MoTab broadcast from the LDS conference center) on alternating Sundays. There are times when I’m able to attend church 6 out of 8 weeks in any given time period, but there have been lots of times where that just wasn’t possible, and I can’t plan them in advance, let alone make all of them fall in the two-month period after this orientation meeting held every other month (which I haven’t attended yet).
The point is that, in perhaps the only ward where I may have been able to at least fit in without being too old and/or too single, I’ve already been confronted with a giant list of requirements before even being considered to be a regular ol’ member of the ward. If the Church wants to work on retention, perhaps posting a big list like this in a ward targeted toward a group where people are fairly likely to go inactive anyway is kind of a step backward. Just sayin’. So I haven’t been back to church ever since the Sunday when I took that picture, which was several months ago (I can’t remember the exact date now, but I want to say December, maybe?). And I haven’t actually been a member of a ward since about the time I last posted about this subject.
In any case, all of this is merely the preface, so you know where my spirituality has been and can harshly judge me accordingly.
A whole lot has changed since I started this series of blog posts about Mormonism, both in my own life and outlook, and in the Church as a whole. Various movements such as the “Ordain Women” movement have been gaining steam, and while I don’t ever think it will accomplish its stated goal, it has caused a whole lot of people to turn a more critical eye to a lot of things that members have been taking for granted. More and more people that I love and respect have been forced to confront some unpleasant things both about the Church’s past and its current policies and practices (and even some doctrines), and, as a result, have either left the Church entirely or grown completely disillusioned with it even though they still attend out of social pressure, or a desire to avoid conflict, or the faith that at least something about the Church has to be true, since they’ve felt the Spirit before in some capacity related to Mormonism.
I feel like I’ve been caught squarely in the middle of all of this. I’ve had people on all sides of this conflict confide in me (mostly because, as the youngest of a very outspoken family, I know when and how to keep my mouth shut and just keep nodding), and (most) everyone has valid, logical points supporting what they believe. The problem is conflicting worldviews and attitudes. You can go and quote General Authorities at someone all day long, but if that person doesn’t believe that said General Authorities are inspired (or that they’re just speaking as men instead of inspired prophets of God, an issue which has come up a lot recently, to the point where Pres. Uchtdorf gave a talk about it), then how will that be convincing? I’ve said it before: the basis for faith cannot be in logic. But with that said, let’s explore a few things about the Spirit and how it may affect different people.
One person can feel the Spirit when they read the Book of Mormon, and from there extrapolate that everything else about the Church is true, holy, and sacred, down to holding the requirements for a mid-singles’ ward that some bishop made up as inspired and infallible. One person can feel the Spirit when they read the Book of Mormon but find some niggling, or even serious, issues with the Church and how it’s run, but feel they have no other option than to support it, since they did receive that spiritual witness, and thus be torn apart for the rest of their lives. One person can try to feel the Spirit when they read the Book of Mormon but nothing comes for them, despite their very best sincere efforts to do everything asked of them to receive that witness (and don’t say “well, they just need to clear up some sins or something,” like I have said in the past, because some people I know who have a testimony also do some very un-Christlike things in their daily lives without a second thought, where some of the best, most giving, loving people I know still haven’t been able to receive that spiritual witness). One person can feel the Spirit when they read the Koran, or the Talmud, or Richard Dawkins (though I’ve never actually heard of that last one happening). How does one reconcile all of these issues? Who is right and who is wrong? Oh, say, what is truth?
Testimonies have to be personal. You cannot tell, when hearing someone testify about anything spiritual, whether that person is speaking the truth, is self-deluded, or is just plain lying. LDS doctrine says that the Spirit will help you discern the truth, but if the Spirit seems to be testifying about conflicting things to different people, then there becomes a problem with relying on it. And what’s more: what is the character of the person testifying to you about the truthfulness of the gospel? And what is the character of the person who has left the Church? There are jerks, gossips, and just plain horrible people in the Church who nevertheless tout their spiritual experiences every time they have the chance, and there are wonderful, loving, kind, nearly-perfect individuals who cannot do so honestly and therefore have had to leave the Church (at least mentally and spiritually, if not physically or socially). Personally, I think of my Elder Proctor story (though if you read the post in that link keep in mind that a lot of it no longer accurately reflects what I believe outside that story). He was a man who was deeply flawed and unwilling to do a lot of things that he was otherwise commanded to do, but he still apparently received spiritual guidance when he needed it. Why him and not others? What is the arbitrary distinction? Was there truly a spiritual guide to help him find those people, or was it simply somewhat of a coincidence that he took to be divine providence? The answer cannot be objectively given. Therefore, testimonies have to be personal. Since that is the case, allow me to bare my soul to the anonymous internet about some of these issues in a very personal way.
I’ve been a member of the Church since I was born (or I suppose since I was eight, if you want to be pedantic about it). Our family was never a perfect LDS family, mostly because my dad was gay at a time where that was far, far less accepted than it is now, both in society at large and especially in the Church. I’m grateful that he tried to overcome it (for the simple reason that if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been born), but at the same time he suffered a lot and was not a happy, loving man, though I did learn tolerance through that whole experience. My mom did her best to raise us up in the Church, but considering the great drag factor on that that was my dad, she had to worry far more about keeping us fed and dressed than making sure that we had good testimonies. Therefore, my experience with the Church was very hit-and-miss growing up. We went to Church every Sunday and I attended most activities when I was a teenager. But I never felt that I fit in with anyone there. Most of the stalwart, faithful members and their families were either condescending and mean to me or creeped me out a bit, and the only ones who I felt real connections with were also on the fringes. A lot of that may have more to do with culture than doctrine, but it still colored my perceptions.
Throughout it all, though, I believed it was true. I told myself that I knew it was true. And still today, no matter what, I know I have felt the Spirit within the Church. That is a personal truth, not an objective one. But what it has told me remains a little more muddled, as I have explored previously. The weird thing is that when I get into hyper-LDS mode where I go gung-ho about being the best possible Saint I can be, attending all my meetings and activities, trying to keep the commandments, doing service projects and home teaching, etc. etc., I can become as judgmental as most of the people in the Church that usually drive me nuts. If I made a commitment to, say, keep the Sabbath Day holy, and I come home and the TV is on or something, then it makes me really angry. Not just for myself (as I could just leave the room), but the person watching the TV is a member of the same church I am! His soul is in danger! I’d better do my best to help my fellow man and strengthen my brother in the gospel! This is especially true of missionaries and even broadly and openly taught to be correct (once in the MTC an elder in our district was wearing the fuzzy lining of his trenchcoat instead of a normal suitcoat (because it was freakin’ January), which is technically against the dress code even though it was indistinguishable from far away, and a random MTC administrator saw it and proceeded to chastise…his companion for about ten minutes, for letting said elder get away with it).
I don’t want to be that person. I hate that person. I hate myself when I am that person. So I don’t want to be that person, and I don’t want to do what I do to become that person. Which means doing my best to live the teachings of the Church. I would rather go to hell as someone I like than go to heaven hating myself.
But I still believe in a lot of LDS doctrine, and I want to believe all of it. I want to have an eternal family. I want the peace that I’m taught the gospel brings. So I’m stuck in the lukewarm spot, and I get spewed out of everyone’s mouth, to paraphrase Revelations.
This has even caused problems in my dating life. I’ve been on LDSSingles.com for a while (with little success), but recently I joined OKCupid and have found a lot more people that I am a lot more interested in. And virtually every single one of them that I believe I’d be happy with is not a member. This extends to my real life as well in many ways. I’ve said before on this blog (though I can’t find it right now) that one of the best experiences of my life happened when I took a cruise a few years back and one night just was hanging out with my cousin Kat, her husband, and a bunch of their friends. None of them were members (and most of them were getting more drunk as the night went on, and before you ask, I was emphatically not getting more drunk as the night went on; no matter what I believe when it comes to Church doctrine, I still have moral standards that I hold quite dear and will never compromise on, even if I let other do what they believe), but I felt more accepted and happy with them than I’ve ever felt at any Church activity or sacrament meeting or FHE. So I’m too non-LDS for the active members, but too LDS for the nonmembers. There’s that lukewarmness again.
That’s my conflict. On the one hand: live a life within the gospel that I am told will lead to eternal happiness and where I have felt the Spirit before, but where I don’t get along with anyone, can rarely feel the Spirit these days (even before I stopped attending, church was always a chore), and have to be someone I’m not and/or someone I hate. On the other hand: be true to myself, find people that I can get along with and love, join the path that most people I love and respect have joined, and find more happiness there than I’ve had before, but turn my back on everything I was taught growing up and possibly lose out on exaltation (assuming the Church is true). In the past I’ve simply adopted a “wait and see” attitude, but inaction is still a choice, so that stance becomes increasingly untenable unless I completely isolate myself from everything, which I find myself doing more often but no longer wish to do.
I still don’t know what to do. But if crunch time is coming up, at least I’ve got my thoughts laid out.