Personal Apostasy? Or Personal Growth? My Journey
So due to the recent hoopla over the new LDS Church policy barring children of same-sex couples from getting baptized, I posted a few things on Facebook, most notably that 1) if this policy were put in place some 30-odd years ago, there’s a chance that neither my siblings nor myself would’ve gotten baptized, and 2)I’m glad I don’t have to justify this kind of thing anymore, since I left the Church. I’m not going to say any more on that subject here, as there are dozens of good articles already floating about on the ‘web on the subject. However, as a result of the posts I did make, several people expressed surprise at the fact that I had left the Church and were wondering why. Long-time readers of this blog may already know that answer, but it’s spread out among several entries and may necessitate some reading-between-the-lines to get a true picture. So I thought I’d outline here the main reasons why I left as well as what that means for me in the future, as well as those people around me that my decision may affect. That way, if someone asks what my reasons are, I’ve got a place to point them to. I may repeat some things I’ve said in earlier posts, and this doesn’t cover everything I believe or have discovered, but it’s at least a good outline.
Most people who believe in the Church do so because they’ve received a spiritual witness. Many times in the Church I’d also received a spiritual witness. True, I have had my issues with the Church before, but most of them were due to either social/cultural problems or assumptions that I just wasn’t righteous enough to always have the Spirit with me to quell my fears and/or doubts.
You can throw arguments against the Church all you want until you’re blue in the face. Believers may take the hard-lined approach (“You’re not praying hard enough! When was the last time you went to the temple?”) or a more tempered approach (“Some things don’t make sense, but we’ll learn all the reasons in the next life,” or “That particular problem was because a flawed person was speaking his own mind; it wasn’t truly from God anyway. It wasn’t doctrine, just policy.”), but the fact is that most (if not all) of them inevitably fall back on how the Church makes them feel in order to keep them within the faith. I was reliant on this myself, through many hard years of personal pain and heartache, from being single at BYU even until I graduated, to basically getting barred from a ward because of my job requirements, to never really fitting in with the mainstream Church culture anyway, but through it all I still maintained my faith in the gospel, even if I had a lot of serious issues with the Church. My trials were nothing compared to others, really — who was I to feel bad about how I got treated by the Church? Even thought all I ever got from the Church were rebukes about how I was getting old and yet wasn’t married yet (maybe I should wear lipstick — no, wait…), I still maintained that somehow, some day, I’d be able to actually fulfill all the commandments. Maybe when I got married suddenly everything would be peaches and cream, ’cause I was finally doing what I was supposed to be doing and the Spirit would come crashing into my life like a giant burst of sunlight. All you married people know what I’m talking about, right?
The point is, I still had those spiritual experiences to sustain me. I’d felt peaceful in the temple. I felt a burst of (righteous) pride when singing in BYU choirs. I’ve felt that warm glow when in the service of others in a Church capacity. So how could I now turn my back on all of that, to take what I’d once believed and “throw it all away?”
Well, after years of marginalization and ostracism by the Church mainstream, and the observation that a lot of people that I respected and loved had started to leave the Church, I realized that I needed to seriously find out for myself whether or not this was all true. Therefore, I began my own analysis. Much of it is documented, bit by bit, in various entries on this blog, and I won’t rehash all that here, but let me detail the crux of the question I was seeking an answer for.
I think the first real moment of doubt happened, ironically enough, when I was on my mission. I’ve laid this out in a previous post, so let me quote myself:
“[…]let me share a personal experience that I’ve struggled with for quite some time. One day on my mission I was on an exchange with another young elder and Elder Proctor, a 70-year-old former vacuum salesman who was…let’s say…eccentric. He had a lot of crazy theories about the gospel and missionary work, and one of those was that “God bunches up the elect,” meaning that, in any particular city, God takes all the people that will accept the gospel and puts them all in the same neighborhood, and all the missionaries have to do is figure out wherever that neighborhood is and then they could baptize everyone all in one fell swoop. Most of the other missionaries (including the mission president) were somewhat skeptical of this approach, but whatever gets the work done, right? So in the city where he served he had divided the city into a grid and had one day spent hours on his knees figuring out where the elect had been bunched in the city, and had come up with map squares 8B, 14B, and the street Tío de Romero, and refused to tract anywhere else in the city since it would be a waste of time not working where the elect had been bunched.
Anyway, on this particular day, before we went out in the afternoon, he had us get down on our knees and pray for a minute to ask the Lord whether we should tract in 8B, 14B, or Tío de Romero. As the prayer went on I didn’t feel any super-strong prompting for any of those three places, but toward the end I thought, 14B? Maybe? Is that my prompting? It’s the best I have! So after the prayer, we all stood up, and Elder Proctor asked me, “So, Elder Parkes, where does the Lord want us to go?”
“BZZZZT! Wrong!” Yes, he actually said this. He then asked the other elder, “What about you?”
“DING DING DING! Correct! Let’s go!” And we went.
I was a bit nonplussed by this, but I normally would have chalked it up to just another silly thing that Elder Proctor did (he really was quite a character), except for what happened next. The second door we knocked on contained a bunch of out-of-work Bulgarians who didn’t know anybody and were truly humble souls. To make a long story short, all six of them had been baptized within a month and it ended up being Elder Proctor’s biggest success story of his mission. Every testimony meeting since then, Elder Proctor would get up, tears in his eyes, and tell the wonderful story about how the Lord knew they had been waiting to receive the gospel, and how they were going to head back to Bulgaria and spread the word of Christ in a country that didn’t have an LDS presence, and how it was truly a great miracle, and how strong the Spirit was in that room when “the three of us knelt to ask the Lord where to find His sheep, and we all got up and all of us knew where to go — well, two of us did, anyway — and then, with His guidance, we found these wonderful souls…”
I had been doing my best as a missionary. I was praying eight times a day or so (at least), studying my scriptures, doing my best to learn the language, preach the gospel, and serve those around me. True, I was far from perfect, but I was doing the best I could. How is it that I felt absolutely nothing and came up with the wrong answer, when the other two had such a strong witness and it ended up being such a success? Was I really that apostate, even though I had been doing my best? This experience, while such a wonderful spiritual witness for everyone else involved, probably tested my faith more than anything else I had experienced up to that point, including a pretty crappy childhood and teenage years, because it hit at the very core of my testimony: my ability to recognize and follow the Spirit.”
This. This was the problem. The Spirit was where everything was based. If the Church has the Spirit, no argument against it will matter in the long run. But once that was in doubt, then none of the rest of it could stand up as a whole. The best that could be done at that point would be to analyze each teaching from the Church separately, compare it to one’s own sense of morality, and decide whether or not it’d be a good idea to try. So any serious analysis of the Church’s claims to truth, power, and authority has to start (and, really, end) right there.
So I looked at my life. I sought out the times in life that I felt most at peace, and correlated them to what was going on in my life at the time. I then sought out others’ reports of when they feel the most at peace (or when they feel the Spirit the most, or whatever). What was going on? Was it because they were following the Church’s teachings? Could they feel that peace even when they weren’t following the Church’s teachings? Could I feel that peace even when I wasn’t following the Church’s teachings? That last one was hard to answer, as it was hard to separate my own emotions from any spiritual feelings or lack thereof. Did I feel bad not going to Church because all godliness had fled from my life, or because I had lost a social support system, was doing something contrary to what I had been trained to do since birth, and had convinced myself that it was inherently wrong and I should feel guilty? Did I feel good doing service because I was truly serving my God through my fellow man, or because I felt empathy with those who I was serving? Shouldn’t I feel the same sense of peace and joy in sacrament meeting that I would donating my time to a good cause (or just plain being nice to people in general)? Why does bearing a testimony reinforce my faith in the Church and the gospel? Because I’m testifying of something absolutely true and the Spirit is confirming it? Or because I’ve been told that that’s how I should feel, so that response comes out?
These questions couldn’t simply be answered with simple introspection, and I knew what the Church taught already. So I had to explore other options.
No, I haven’t been trying other religions to see how they feel (though I probably should if I’m being honest with myself and this journey). But I have been doing a lot of reading, pondering, exploring, and even some praying. And the core problem is this:
The Holy Ghost is broken.
The Spirit doesn’t operate the way that the Church says it should. Its manifestations seem arbitrary. The gossipy Relief Society sister feels it every second of her life, while some poor woman in the last row has never felt it, or doesn’t feel it nearly as strongly as the teary-eyed testimony-bearers she hears every week, but hopes to someday, humbly doing everything that she can to follow her beliefs. Some people pray about a certain new policy change in the Church, and they feel peace that the Lord is working through His prophets in the latter days, while others pray about it and feel that the policy is completely wrong (though they still believe in the Church as a whole because prophets can be fallible). If God is a consistent God, then what the hell is going on here? Is it that one group is made up of sinners and the other the truly faithful? (A chorus of members yells, “Yes!” or at least they do until they’re unexpectedly in the “sinners” camp despite not doing anything they believe was wrong.) Or could it be that some other source is supplying each group with the emotions they are experiencing? Is there more of gravy than grave about it?
Furthermore, if the Church is the only true and living Church, then their members’ testimonies ought to be something really special that can be found nowhere else. But members of all faiths believe just as fervently that the Spirit (or something equivalent) is testifying to them the same truthfulness of their religion. I’ve said this before assuming that there is probably evidence to that end, but this time I’ve got proof. If the Church is true, then the Spirit should testify of it above and beyond other belief systems, but if it only “has truth” (as is often preached of other religions in LDS doctrine), then that list of testimonies from other faiths makes at least a little more sense.
I prayed about the Book of Mormon. I’ve never received a testimony of it, not really. I used to have a strong belief in Joseph Smith (mostly because Truman G. Madsen really knows how to build him up). Most of the other stuff in the Church I’ve had a “testimony” of because I believed in the basics and the rest lay on top of them, with the hope that some day I’d receive something unshakable (Alma 32 and all that). But none of those really ended up jiving for me, not in the end.
The truth is, I feel the Spirit (or the feelings I once associated with the Spirit: peace, joy, empathy) when I’m serving others. Whether it be actual service (like donating food, time, or simply helping family members or friends), or perceived service (believing that temple worship is serving those beyond the grave, for example) — that’s where I think it comes from. It’s not anything uniquely Mormon, or even Christian: it’s the good feelings you get when you help others. And all good people can partake of this fruit, regardless of their creed. The Church doesn’t have a monopoly on this. Goodness can be found elsewhere. Everything good in the Church can be found outside the Church. Service groups can be found in other religious groups, or just religiously-unaffiliated organizations. If you want to donate money to the poor, or your time to a cannery, you are perfectly able to do so in this world without having to rely on a patriarchal system that may or may not be based on untruths. That same spirit that can be found in the temple can also be found in the home of someone you love.
I used to believe that the Church was a great organization filled with flawed people. Now I understand that it’s a flawed organization filled with great people. And, truth be told, Mormonism is filled with wonderful, loving souls. But, once again, they don’t have a monopoly on those people. (In fact, a recent study shows that atheist kids are actually more kind and loving, on the whole, than religious ones). If I want to be a good person, I can be one, regardless of where my beliefs lie.
I also believe that there are things beyond our ken. I have had spiritual experiences that I couldn’t just chalk up to simple emotion. I posted quite a bit on this topic recently (under point #4) and don’t feel the need to repeat myself. Suffice it to say, I’m still a spiritual person, even if I no longer define that spirituality in LDS terms anymore.
The bottom line is, if the Spirit doesn’t testify of the Church the way the Church says it should, consistently, then the Church isn’t true. It has truth, to be sure, but it isn’t everything it claims. So one must analyze its precepts one by one and try to apply what good they can find, without having to justify the harmful parts.
So that’s where I’m at. I haven’t found any other belief system to replace Mormonism. I may not find some codified thing that already exists. But I’m learning and growing. I’m exploring, instead of being dictated to. And I don’t have to explain why Church history is fraught with problems. I don’t have to go to a place every week where I’m admonished and condemned simply because I haven’t gotten married yet. (Relief of that pressure has actually led to some dates I’ve been on that have been more mature than any I’ve had in an extremely long time, if ever. And by “mature” I don’t mean “we went and had sex” or anything, but instead of concentrating on “will this person be my eternal mate?” it was more “here’s someone with whom I have things in common, let’s get to know one another.”) Most importantly, I no longer have to justify anybody’s prejudice or hate as my own belief.
And that gives me more inner peace than anything else.
(While it’s true that conversion and deconversion are both emotional, not logical, sometimes it helps the thought process to see something illogical to force someone to examine their spiritual foundation. For any in those camp, check out Brother Jake’s videos. I found them recently, as in like last week, and I think they’re great. Nothing he says is technically inaccurate according to Church beliefs, though he does present things in a light that most members haven’t considered. Unbelievers will enjoy them, believers will probably dismiss them, but for anyone on the fence, at least check them out. You know, ponderize them.)