This blog has been fallow for over ten months now (beating out the previous record between these two posts). I’ve begun a few posts on various topics — religion, dating & romance, Player and Doodler stuff — but none of them have quite coalesced. So I figured I’d do a more off-the-cuff type deal to at least get something up here and maybe jumpstart some of the other posts I’ve been tinkering with.
Most of my attempts at a new post keep reiterating what I wrote in the last post. I still feel like I’m stuck between two worlds, trying to please everyone but not really picking a side firmly. Internally I’m completely non-LDS now, but I still have things I’ve taken from being a member for more than 30 years that are important to me. Also, most of my friends are still LDS, active or not, and I find it easier to be with them (and vice versa) if I keep the reminders that I’m not to a minimum. So I still order the Dr. Pepper at a restaurant with friends, even if technically I could get a beer, because I don’t want to shove my differences in their faces. I still try to keep my chatroom for Player and Doodler videos family-friendly (or at least PG-13-ish) even if no kids are in it. Is it cowardice? Maybe. But at the same time, I’m not going to go to church or a baby blessing or even say a prayer at a family gathering because I don’t feel comfortable doing so anymore. Is that an expression of my beliefs or is it just stubbornness? Can I be the type of guy who won’t say the prayer or go to church but still wants to keep raunchy chatting out of my goofy internet videos (even though I don’t care if somebody’s talking raunchy in front of me in person)? And, in doing so, who the hell can I find that is like me? What does it say about my moral compass (or lack thereof)? It’s been nearly a year since that Lukewarm post and I still haven’t found a community, and I can’t really talk openly to anyone because everybody’s on a different place on the scale than I am, and heaven forbid I make anyone uncomfortable! And if I reveal my opinions, then I lose the trust of those around me to express their opinions freely, cutting me off even more than I already am.
So a year goes by and the blog stays silent.
As a side note, I don’t find raunchiness necessarily off-putting anymore like I used to when I was still LDS. However, what I don’t like is when raunchiness is the punchline of a joke in and of itself, especially if there are no other layers to it (aka “he said something that is slang for penis so it’s funny”). It’s akin to a five-year-old saying “poop” then laughing until he passes out (which, OK, is kinda funny, but only because a five-year-old laughing until he passes out is kinda funny, not the “poop” part). If you’re going to make a dirty joke, at least make it clever.
I’ve been dating some more this year, and I haven’t said a lot about it, mostly because there are parts to it that would remind my LDS friends that I’ve left the Church in ways that are far more obvious than just not saying a prayer would. I have learned a lot about what I want/need out of relationships, though, especially physically. I won’t talk about them on a public blog, though; if you want to know then ask me privately (but remember, I’m not LDS anymore, and that means things. I know I keep saying that, but members tend to not really believe it because I didn’t become a complete atheistic hedonist when I left). And whatever thing you’re thinking right now, what I actually learned is probably something different.
I also want to say that I love my nieces. I especially love that they are at the age where they are starting to form their own opinions independently of the forces in their lives (family, friends, media, etc.). We had a Dokapon Kingdom recording recently, and afterwards we went to go eat at Leatherby’s (with Johnathan too), and we had a really nice time just talking about stuff. Not just light stuff like school or Undertale (which Madeleine is currently obsessed with), but some more serious topics as well. Those girls are growing up, and I love engaging them on the level of people talking to people instead of adults talking to kids.
I’ve also discovered that I don’t really like bars. They’re loud and annoying, especially if music is involved (which it often is, and it’s often terrible). Of course, I have issues with any group of people who have to interact without any clear purpose other than “get to know each other” (this is also why I didn’t particularly like LDS “Munch ‘n Mingles” either) because I find myself either compelled to perform (tossing out one-liners or whatever) or shut up unless a topic comes up that I’m interested in (and considering my interests, that doesn’t happen much in those settings). I ain’t no small-talker!
Player and Doodler stuff is taking up a lot of my time, and it’s beginning to wear on me a bit. I’ve got a far longer blog post in the works dedicated to the subject (we’ll see if it ever gets posted), but my current feelings are that I greatly enjoy the end result. But the process has become far more arduous since I got better equipment, and even though we only record maybe twice a month, I feel a little overwhelmed sometimes. But I gotta keep it going; it’s the only thing outside of work that I’ve got at the moment! I like making those videos because the experience of playing games with people is something great, and I want to preserve that, even if nobody else watches it. (It would be nice if more people watched it, though; even just to help make a teeny bit of money on the side.) Watching Let’s Plays, especially things like The Runaway Guys playing party games like Mario Party, helped me through some lean years after I graduated college when I was living with roommates who didn’t particularly like me and all my friends were far away or too busy taking care of families. They reminded me of better times when I did have friends close by and we could have fun together before life got in the way. So now, during those rare moments when my friends are close by, I need to do these things with them and document them, so that when this channel inevitably ends and all my loved ones move on with their lives (again), I’ve at least got something left. Experiences are better than things, they say, and this is turning things (video games) into experiences, which can then be remembered. This is also why my favorite stuff so far is the Dokapon Kingdom stuff, because that project is far more about the people involved than the game itself, and that’s really why I’m doing this.
I use too many parentheses (it’s true).
Anyway, there’s a bunch of random stuff that came out of me. Hope that tides you over for the next year, or whenever I feel comfortable putting my thoughts out there without alienating anyone I care about, whichever comes first.
EDIT: I forgot to mention this! Exactly ten years ago (minus a day), I moved this blog to WordPress, where it has been ever since! To celebrate, I’m making this edit!
So it’s been about two and a half years since I was active in the LDS Church, and about eight months since the time I consider to be the point where I actually left the faith (despite having been inactive for a year and a half before that). I’ve spoken at length on this subject, especially recently on this blog, and I’ve no wish to beat a dead horse. Suffice it to say that, between what I’ve already said and a lot of research I’ve done in the interim, I cannot believe in the Church or take its claims at any sort of face value. My opinion of the Church in general now is basically this: an organization, mostly filled with people doing their best to be the best people they can be in the way they’ve been taught, that, despite dubious and/or peculiar beginnings, now exists as a force both for great good and great ill, depending on both the issue and the specific people involved. If there is divinity and/or goodness in the Church, it is there because some people in it seek to be good people; it’s not an intrinsic divinity. But it is there. If there is evil in the Church, it is because fallible people are in it whose opinions hold more sway than perhaps they should, and too much emphasis is placed on contradictory, nonsensical points. But, before I get too off-topic, the point is that I’m never going to be able to go back to being an active, believing, temple-recommend-holding member again. I know too much. However, the cost has been more than I expected.
Compared to a lot of ex-Mormons, my situation has been “ideal.” I didn’t have a wife or children to be torn apart from. I wasn’t serving in an active position in a ward (especially not one high up, like a bishopric or higher) when I found out the Church wasn’t true. I didn’t really even lose any friends, though that’s mainly because I’m not the kind of guy who has a giant amount of friends to begin with. And, with a few exceptions, most people’s reactions have been, “Believe whatever you need to believe. I’m not going to drag you kicking and screaming in either direction.” I had already fallen through the cracks of the Church’s inefficient midsingles program (my inactivity coincided with my 31st birthday, the point when I became too old for the YSA program, too single to really fit in to a family ward, and too “works on Sunday too much” to attend a midsingles ward), so in essence I got lost in transit, like somebody’s luggage that was supposed to go from Newark to Los Angeles, but instead ended up outside the LDS Church. And, for a while, my life wasn’t really different, other than a change of underwear and a few people on Facebook praying for my soul or whatever.
But I’ve lost the community.
Now, fitting into the LDS community was a not a thing I ever did, even when I was active, as many posts on this blog can attest to. And my current, shall we say, melancholy, is not because I’ve “lost the Spirit” or some such. I’ve actually felt what many would consider the Spirit on several recent occasions which are irrelevant to this post. However, as time has gone on, I’ve noticed a few patterns with people, and it has started to take its toll.
With people who are still members, even people who have remained my good friends, there now exists a bit of a wall. Certain subjects simply remain taboo. There are things I’ve found that I cannot share, simply in the name of preserving the peace, whether it be “anti-Mormon” material (especially if it’s, say, a non-partisan study from scientists who’ve had almost no exposure to Mormonism; how the heck would they have a pony in the fight?) or a funny bit of fluff that may be poking fun at a sacred subject, or experiences (good and bad) I’ve had since leaving that would’ve been impossible to have when I was still a member, or even just something incredibly insightful with the word “fuck” in it (yeah, I said it; please disregard this entire blog now if it’s important for you to do so). And, in return, I’ve noticed that people are a lot less prone to talk about Church-related stuff around me, even if it’s just something funny that happened in sacrament meeting, or a bit of wisdom that a bishop shared with them, probably also in interest of keeping the peace (and those who do share Church stuff with me are very transparent in their “bring him back to the fold” motive, though fortunately that’s been rare in my case). Neither my LDS friends nor I will ever be able to be 100% comfortable around each other anymore. That’s simply the nature of the beast. It does make things lonely, though.
So what about joining an ex-Mormon community instead? The problem is that what unites the ex-Mormon community is, by definition, opposition. People in it have to remain dedicated to that cause to remain a part of the crowd. What many members don’t realize, however, is that, unlike faithful LDS members, the status of “ex-Mormon” isn’t nearly as all-consuming as the status of “Mormon” is. For some people it can be, I suppose, and most who leave have to go through a period where they untangle themselves from what they thought was true for so long. But at the end of the day, we’re all people. People have different interests, likes, dislikes, personalities, and idiosyncrasies. One thing the Church does well is unite people under a (supposedly) positive banner. “Come to us and we will make you better,” they say. The ex-Mormon community cannot offer that same promise. Nor should it. Its promise is, “Come to us and we will show you that this Church isn’t the only way to be better, and you don’t have to accept or deal with all the other stuff that’s making you worse.” It doesn’t tell you how to be better, though. It’s not a philosophy. The paths people take after leaving the Church are as diverse as the people involved. Some find another Christian faith to follow. Some let go of Christianity but hang on to belief in God and/or divinity. Some end up in atheism. I think a lot end up in atheism because they’ve found out so many flaws with Mormonism that they can’t bring themselves to believe in anything after putting so much labor, blood, sweat, and tears into a system that didn’t ultimately live up to its own ideals. You can’t make a positive belief system defined by opposition to something not wholly negative, just like you can’t make a fair and balanced news channel from opposition to a political party that isn’t wholly negative (yeah, I went there too). And, while it can be important and even cathartic to get together with a group of ex-Mormons and let out all your issues and maybe have a good time, it’s not what appeals to me. Just as I’d be the guy in the back of a priesthood meeting thinking, “This whole thing is faulty logic at best, and I can’t just sit here and take it,” I’d be the guy in the back of the ex-Mormon get-together thinking, “I don’t want to drink. Coffee tastes like burned pizza. Yes, we all have issues with the Church, now how about that local sports team or shared cultural event?”
I don’t just want catharsis. I want community.
I wanted community within the Church, but couldn’t find it. Outside the Church, I don’t even know how to find a community. Within the Church it was automatic: these people who live near you are the people you’ll see every Sunday, and the people you’ll see in activities during the week. These are your friends, or at least a decent pool from which you can hopefully draw some friends. And you all speak the same language, too, figuratively speaking. You can walk up to a random stranger in Church and gush about how great Joseph Smith/President Uchtdorf/whatever is and already have something in common. Outside the Church, there’s no such thing. About all anyone has in common is weather patterns and how much it sucks to be tired or hungry. Within the Church-based support system, I didn’t really know how to make friends; outside it, I’m thoroughly and totally hosed. It doesn’t help that I’m now over 30, not in college, and work a job with a ton of night hours, limiting my time to go do a play or join some local community group or something.
I talked with a recent ex-convert (or however you term people who’ve recently left) who was advised to stay within the Church even if they didn’t believe anymore simply to keep that support system. After all, you sure as heck can’t call the elders’ quorum to help move your stuff, or have visiting teachers watch over your sick mother, or whatever, if you don’t both believe in the same religion (for starters, how do they even know you need help if you’re not crying about it in Relief Society?). I can’t live like that, though. I have to do what I believe is right for me, even if it means I lose those opportunities. It still hurts.
It also doesn’t help that, romantically, things are a lot more complicated now. Since my ideal relationship is no longer mandated by the Church, I’ve (potentially) had the option to reach outside those definitions and experiment a little. And no, that doesn’t mean I’ve been going out having one-night stands or anything, but it has meant that I’ve been able to go out with people without the immediate pressure of “will this person be the person I marry?” And while I’ve learned a lot, I wish that I could’ve done this ten or fifteen years ago, because I really do want to have a family of my own when I’m still young enough to keep up with kids, and spending time in relationships where I’m not focusing on marriage seems to be wasting time. Don’t get me wrong, the dating experiences I’ve had are very important to me, and I want to keep having them. But finding someone who wanted to marry me in the Church was already a giant challenge for me. Finding a girl who wants to have kids with someone my age or in my position who’s outside the Church seems nearly impossible, especially since finding someone with the same moral system as me suddenly got more complicated. I want someone to come home to, or who comes home to me, or we both come home to each other, or however the employment situation would work…look, I’m open-minded; the point is, I want to be with someone who is as devoted to me as I am to them, and that’s doubly hard to find outside the Church in an environment that doesn’t specifically push that narrative.
So there’s loneliness.
When your best friend literally can’t afford to see you. When the girl you’re sort-of dating has contacted you only once over the past week just to say, “Sorry about the rash,” (uh, out of context that sounds a lot worse than it actually is; don’t read into it) and normally all you talk about between dates is scheduling anyway. When all of these people who have left the Church keep complaining about how well-meaning ward members keep trying to bring them back, and you realize that you’ve heard maybe one peep from anyone Church-related for more than two years (I’m not complaining, really, but it is odd how clean of a break I made). When you go to a party with a bunch of ex-Mormons but don’t drink anything, and so haven’t been invited to another one since. When your sister who also left the Church tells you about great parties and get-togethers and so on that she goes to that sound like a visit to a foreign country without a guide.
When you’ve spent almost an entire week without human contact other than the work-based or store clerk type, and it hasn’t been the first time in recent history, nor will it be the last. When most people your age are too busy living their own lives to have room for you to be a significant part of it. When online dating hasn’t worked because your message gets lost amidst a sea of creepy guys sending inappropriate pictures. When the most social thing you do is talk over video games that haven’t been relevant in decades, spending hours and hours working on a series of videos and a website that, ultimately, will have ten viewers at most if you’re lucky, because you can’t, don’t know how, or are too scared to peddle it to a wider community, so you playact at running a popular series without any numbers to back it up. When people tell you all about their lives or problems, and you listen because it’s what they need, but you don’t want to alienate anyone with your problems, so you put them in a blog instead.
When you’re too Mo for the Exmo community, but too apostate for the membership. When you’re too introverted to just go to a bar or something, but you feel entirely out-of-place at a gaming/comics store or other nerd nirvana. When you like acting, music, and theatre, but never quite mesh with music or theatre people. Jack of all trades.
When you’re not hot, but you’re not cold, you’re lukewarm. And nobody wants that, not even God.
“So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” — Revelations 3:16
I was attending the LDS wedding reception of a long-time friend. While there I engaged in a conversation with one of my friend’s stepsisters: a young, vibrant, attractive, 15-year-old high school student who proceeded to tell me and my other friend at the table all about how she wanted to either go into cosmetology when she grew up, or spend some time doing professional equine sports (I don’t remember the exact field, but it was something along the lines of horse racing but with obstacles that the horse had to jump, kind of like a steeplechase but called something else*), which I thought sounded pretty cool. Later the conversation turned to dating and typical high school relationship stuff: you know, how a bunch of guys like her but she has to fend them off because she likes this other guy, etc. etc. and I joked that when she got out of high school she could just wear a fake wedding ring around guys that she didn’t want to deal with. She then gave me that withering “well, duh” look that only high school girls can give and said, “Um, when I get out of high school I’m gonna have a real wedding ring.”
That statement brought me crashing back into the reality of a culture that I had left behind years ago, where a young woman with great hopes and dreams of cosmetology and/or horse racing was also expected to immediately find a guy, settle down, and start popping out kids before she reached her 20’s. And with how many guys she said were always pursuing her, I’m sure that it would be no problem for her to find some fresh RM ready to marry the first girl that he goes on at least two dates with.
I bring this girl up, not to pick on her specifically, but to use her situation to address a larger problem. I’ve seen this story before. At first a woman will be happy that she’s fulfilling all of her godly mandates by having kids. But then she’ll start to think, “You know, I miss those times when I rode that horse through the steeplechase courses. Could I have been a good competitor?” The answer isn’t no, or yes, because she never got the chance. She had to sacrifice everything that she was for the sake of her family. The tragedy, though, isn’t that that’s what she had to do, but that she made that choice without even realizing what that sacrifice meant. She married so young that her brain wasn’t even done fully developing (which happens around 25-ish), and she went immediately into motherhood without even knowing what it was like to not be living with her own parents. The girl at this reception, who spent about ten minutes telling me a “hilarious” story about how much she sucked at Mario Kart the previous night (that was literally the entire story; most of the time telling me about it was spent giggling with her friends), was expecting to have a kid of her own before the end of this decade. It was so clear that this was her course in life that I got that contemptuous look usually reserved for the most obvious of dorks when I even hinted at her life taking a different path.
Most of my readers who are or have been LDS shouldn’t be surprised by this. This type of situation is by far expected to be the norm. Am I saying that everyone who got married young and chose motherhood over all their other interests was wrong, or misguided? Of course not. I can’t presume to tell anyone what would truly make them happy. I guess I’ve just been talking to, hearing from, or reading about so many women my age who did this when they were young, to the severe detriment of their marriages and family life, and it took them years to suss it all out (and many of them still haven’t), that it took me by surprise to hear that this mindset is not just still existent, but prevalent. Default, even. I wanted to take that girl by the shoulders and shout, “No! Don’t do it! Go buy a jumping horse (or whatever the term is), or study cosmetology! Find out who you are! Become a strong woman who knows who she is and what she wants! Then make the decision to find a good guy and have a family! Do it because you know it’s what you want, not because you’ve been told it’s what you should want!” But, of course, I didn’t. It wasn’t my place to steer a teenage girl I barely knew away from marriage in the middle of an LDS wedding reception, at least not if I didn’t want to get thrown out or something. And who knows? Maybe I’m being presumptuous and she’ll be perfectly fine giving up all her current hopes and dreams to become the attractive wife of a worthy priesthood holder. It’s not my place to judge (unless, of course, I’m doing it anonymously on a blog later; then it’s all good, right?). After all, what do I know?
What do I know?
I know that I spent a large chunk of my adult life not being able to live up to the ideals set forth in front of me by someone else, and it made me feel like less of a person by comparison. Even a cursory reading of older entries in my blog can attest to that.
I know that a culture dedicated to homogeneity on such a scale that one of the best-selling and widely-read non-official publications in it is based on trying not to feel guilty about not being good enough is a culture that doesn’t allow people to grow in positive ways.
I know that, since leaving the Church and its culture behind, I have better been able to define myself, what I want, how I feel successful, and what makes me happy. Sometimes it’s what the Church teaches. Sometimes it’s not. Often I have to tweak those definitions and seek advice from those wiser in certain areas than I am. But I can finally grow organically, freed from a cookie-cutter end goal.
I know that the leaders of the Church, at best, are mortal men trying to do what they believe is right and whose counsel is sometimes wise, but who don’t have the authority to tell me what is black and white, right and wrong, especially if what they are telling me is not what I know in my heart to be true.
I know that, if I’m wrong, then I’m OK with that, for I am learning things down this path that I didn’t even know I needed to learn, and I treasure the opportunity more than I can express.
I know that “Love thy neighbor as thyself” for many of us needs to also be “Love thyself as thy neighbor,” because many Mormons hate themselves for not being perfect, and it hurts them and everyone around them.
I know that some women have found supreme happiness in child-rearing. But many of those needed to get a few years of steeplechasing out of their system first to be able to decide who they really were and what they really wanted.
I know that, when I do eventually get married (which I still want to), I won’t be doing it because I was commanded to, or because I have a fear of dying alone, or I have to marry somebody in order to have children, but because I know who I am and what I want, and I will have found somebody who knows what she is and what she wants. Sure, we won’t be perfect people by any means, but our marriage will be built on a foundation of love, hope, and joy, knowing that out of a world of possibilities we chose to be with each other. Not because we were expected to, or because we thought we should, but because we wanted to, and we were old and experienced enough to know what that means.
Am I still Mormon? I guess I’m still technically on the records. But at this point I’m not going back. I’ve done enough research into the Church, its history, its policies, and its effects to know that I am done with this organization. What good it does is far outweighed by the damage it tolls, especially on people who don’t mesh with it, and the good that it does do can be found elsewhere. So no, I don’t consider myself Mormon anymore.
Am I still Christian? That’s a harder question to answer. At this point I’m skeptical of most religious texts in a historical and/or literal sense. I think it’s safe to say that I follow the philosophy of Christ as best I can, though I don’t limit myself to it (which is actually more a Buddhist idea, I’ve found), and the question of whether or not he is my personal savior or the Son of God and so on is, in reality, a moot question, as it doesn’t affect how I live my life or how I treat others. You can follow someone’s good example with or without literally believing in their divinity. And if he is truly the ultimate good in the universe, then I hope that my attempts to be the best person I can be will be looked upon kindly, regardless of whether or not they’re derived from a specific belief system (like the Calormene in The Last Battle, perhaps), even if the good I do consists of things like “play around with and love my nieces” or “post silly Internet videos so that my artistic roommate knows that someone values his work.”
Am I atheist then? No, I don’t believe so. While I find myself increasingly out of the Judeo-Christian tradition more as time goes on, there still exists a measure of spirituality in my life that I can’t chalk up to mundane or empirical evidence. I’ve received and acted on spiritual promptings, even as recent as within this past week. An atheist may argue that this kind of thing is a result of either physical external stimuli, or the power of suggestion/persuasion/emotion/what have you, and maybe they’re right. And maybe I’ll change my mind down the road, given enough evidence. But, for now, I choose to believe in at least some things.
I know that I am far from a shining example of a selfless, pure, giving person, and that it’s a lot easier to spout all this philosophy then it is to live it. But I also know that I don’t have to be perfect yet, as long as I am willing to continue to learn and grow. There’s room for improvement all over the place. And as I live life and learn more, my philosophy will inevitably shift and change, like a tree shaped by the weather.
I know that some people will take issue with parts of what I’ve written. I know that I may get some differing viewpoints on Facebook, or here in the comments. If so, that’s great. Let the reader read both points of view and decide which one works for them. I’m not telling you that I’m right. I’m saying that I’m doing my best to do what I believe is right, but that definition is no longer dictated to me, nor is it set in stone.
During my first semester at BYU in the fall of 2000, I took an American Heritage class. The very first day, the professor put forth the idea that there is an absolute “Good” in the universe that all (morally) good ideas and philosophies spring from, things like “2+2=4” or “slavery is wrong.” He represented this “Good” using a tree trunk with a giant “G” on it, with various branches symbolizing different belief systems that nevertheless sprang from this source. He then introduced the idea of moral relativism, i.e. there is no “Good” that ideas are coming from, and that any idea is as valid as any other idea, and humans can come up with morals from scratch that go against the “Good” and believe that, for example, “2+2=5” or “slavery is fine” (never mind the fact that math is not a moral belief system, but whatever, BYU, amirite?), taking this idea to its final conclusion: that some moral system had to govern the others, and if it was completely man-made, then there was no guarantee as to whether it was good or not. This idea he termed “utilitarianism,” represented by a mechanical monstrosity that kind of looked like a tree, and was based on the idea of a purely logical moral system (e.g. John Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”). In later classes he went on to teach that the American Revolution turned out well because the Founding Fathers were not moral relativists, but at least tried to base the government in this “Good” (which increasingly became obvious as a euphemism for “God”), where the French Revolution ended badly because it was based in philosophies of men (utilitarianism), and how other failed systems of government (e.g. communism) didn’t work for similar reasons.
In other words, moral relativism = bad. Also absolute truth exists, and one should align oneself with it as opposed to making up one’s own truths.
I still…kind of believe this? What I think I disagree with is that this “Good” must equal “God,” or at least Mormonism’s definition of God, since through the Church much harm has been done (and yes, much good too, it’s not black and white). And I don’t think that “philosophies of men” necessarily means “devoid of good,” because I think that mankind is inherently good (though that doesn’t mean that I think all philosophies of men are that way). I also believe there’s a middle ground between absolute moral relativism (i.e. every idea is just as valid as every other idea) and dogmatism (i.e. we figured out/had dictated to us everything that you should do to make your life the best it can possibly be, and if you deviate then it’s impossible for you to be happy and/or good), but it’s one that’s increasingly swallowed up by black-and-white arguments. I bring this up because I can see some people wanting to accuse me of moral relativism, when in truth that’s not the case. When I say that what is right isn’t dictated to me or set in stone, I don’t mean that I’m not seeking what is right, but that my understanding of it is changing based on what I’ve learned and how I’ve progressed.
I know that I’m grateful for the chance I’ve had to learn this in my life, and to have the opportunity to be able to explore it without being locked into a marriage or other social situation within the Church that would’ve made this exponentially more difficult. And my heart goes out to those who have had similar faith shifts but have to remain within the Church out of a sense of obligation, or familial duties, or cultural ties, or because they believe that because some part of it is probably true then it’s worth weathering all the stuff that is harmful.
And finally, I know that a young girl should be allowed to pursue her own hopes and dreams in the adult world, and get to know who she is before getting married, so that she can truly be a whole person and have a happy home. And if her true hopes and dreams are all based around motherhood, not because she’s been told they should be, but because they truly are, then more power to her. Let her be at least old enough to make that decision. Let her be at least older than fifteen.
But what I actually said at the reception was basically, “Well, that’s a choice. Hey, is there any more cake?”
It was good cake.
*EDIT: It’s called Hunter Jumping! Not Steeplechase! I’ve edited the photograph!
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.)
This past October the LDS Church held its first general conference since I somewhat left the Church last summer, and, like always, I tried to listen to the whole thing (I missed part of Saturday morning’s session because sleepytime is good times). Long-time readers of this blog may know that I used to do a “conference in a nutshell” post every time one came along, running down a bullet-point list of things I wrote down while listening to the talks. This time I’d like to return to that general idea, but instead of just listing a whole bunch of things, I’d like to take just a few bits from conference and flesh out what I think and how I feel about them.
This past conference was a more interesting one than I think anyone was expecting. I wasn’t expecting quite the level of controversy that sprung up over the new apostles (three white guys from Utah?!? Apparently that’s terrible!), but I’m not going to talk about that, simply because I don’t really care. The brethren can call whoever they want to as apostles, and either it’s a call from the Lord, or the whole organization is uninspired anyway, so either way quit complaining.
I really hated this talk. Not because it’s necessarily a bad idea (the basic gist behind it is “memorize a scripture each week, and also, like, think about it a lot”), but because it was presented in such a way that you were forced to admit, “Wow! If I don’t do this just like this random Sunday School Presidency counselor said, I’m not as good of a person!” It’s one of the many examples from the Church leadership that espouses more the philosophies of Stephen Covey than any actual spiritual leader: do this highly effective thing that works for businessmen, and you’ll be a better saint. Instead of, “Here’s something that I’ve found works for me. Give it a shot, and if you and I are the same type of person it may work for you too, but if you don’t think like a businessman you’ll probably do better with a different way of studying,” we got, “This thing will work. I don’t care if you’re terrible at memorizing, or you’ve already found a way to study the Lord’s word that fits your life better. Everyone must do this. Also, I’ve coined a phrase so that your home teachers/bishops/annoying roommate at BYU will pound this concept into your brain until you have no willpower left! Buy the T-shirt!”
Seriously, he structured this talk in such a way that listeners had no choice but to accept this as the best thing ever. He started his talk with an admittedly good piece of advice about saving money, thereby drawing a connection in our mind that his next piece of advice was similarly sound. Then he gave examples that weren’t actually examples. “Nephi was a ponderizer,” he said, then quoted a verse that said Nephi likes scriptures (and not one that said Nephi picked one each week and memorized it). Then he addressed “objections” like this: “It’s too hard, you may say. But hard can be good!” Oh, OK, thanks, that cleared it up. And finally, he actually said, “Will you ponderize a verse of scripture each week for the rest of this month? For the rest of this year? Longer maybe?” with a pause after each question, so that everyone listening in had a chance to say, “Yes! I will do this thing I just barely heard about that has a catchy slogan!” without actually thinking about it. I imagine that hapless home/visiting teachers will be trying to do the same thing to their poor home/visiting teachees for the next six months, whether or not it’s actually something that will help them.
Please note: I’m not saying that the act itself is a bad idea. For those who want to memorize scriptures and ponder them, by all means, go for it. It’s just that the message was couched in the most blatantly manipulative way possible as a one-size-fits-all solution that drove me crazy. And that’s not even getting into the controversy that popped up immediately after the session, what with the “Ponderize” T-shirt sales and so on. Somehow, I believe that wisdom that fits on a bumper sticker may deserve some more scrutiny before I’m forced to make a commitment to do it.
Guys, the Church is not a business. At least it shouldn’t be. But attitudes and worldviews like those expressed via this talk are what worm their way into Church curriculum, then Church culture, that cause a lot of people to have a beef with the faceless, monolithic “Church” while still adoring the apostles on individual bases. Manipulating people so that they have to do this “righteous” thing or feel guilty about it, even though yesterday they didn’t even know it was a thing, is not a plan based on free agency. Just sayin’.
2. Pres. Monson finished his talk and sat down unsteadily
I don’t have a whole lot to say about this occurrence. I think it’s great that the apostles love Pres. Monson enough to catch him if he falls, yet let him retain enough dignity to finish his talk without literally holding on to him. I also find it odd that many people are taking this as a sign of supreme love and sacrifice and so on when it’s really just a demonstration of basic human decency (or at least I’d like to think that most of us would try to help an old man up if his strength failed). But what I find most interesting about this is that, though members online and off are all atwitter about this great spiritual experience and how wonderful it is that the Lord supported him with angels so that he could finish his talk, substantially fewer of them could tell you without looking it up exactly what the important message was that was so important that angels had to help him deliver it.
I did not hate this talk. (In fact, I don’t think I hated any of the talks other than “ponderize” to be honest.) But it was this talk that raised some ire among the post-Mormon groups (of which I am an observer, but not really a member. Kind of like the Church itself at this point). Not because Pres. Uchtdorf was specifically targeting ex-Mormons (though he kinda was), but because he was painting their experiences with a broad brush that trivialized them more than anything else. If you want to know why people leave the Church, it’s almost never because they didn’t “choose to believe.” It was because their experiences didn’t jive with what they had been taught was true, and eventually that either breaks a person in half or causes severe cognitive dissonance. If you want actual examples, here are about 100 people or so who left the Church and why. Their individual reasons are all over the map, but you’ll rarely find one of them saying, “It was easier to disbelieve.” Many of them say “It made more sense to disbelieve,” or “I really really really wanted to keep believing.” And, while it’s true that, yes, some of them are jerks and unfairly disrespectful to the religion they left behind, the majority are just trying to follow their conscience. Pres. Uchtdorf made an analogy about unbelievers: “If we make no effort to believe, we are like the man who unplugs a spotlight and then blames the spotlight for not giving any light.” I bet a lot of those who left would reword it thusly, “We made all effort to believe, to plug in that spotlight. Imagine how we felt when we realized that the light bulb never got installed in the first place.”
What really made me take notice of this talk, however, was the attitude behind it and how prevalent it is in the Church. Or, more specifically, how even I used to espouse it. Come, dear readers, back in time to when I first started examining my own faith and Mormonism in general:
“Do you guys know what’s easy? Not being a member of the Church! Aw snap! You can do whatever you want on Sunday, you get to keep that 10% of your income instead of giving it up to build more chapels or whatever, you don’t have to worry about that whole dumb Word of Wisdom thing telling you what you can and can’t eat and/or drink, that one guy down the street who thinks Obama is a secret Muslim out to burn the country to the ground can’t tell you how to improve your relationship with God just because some other guy called him to be your bishop, and if you want to watch porn while drinking cheap scotch and swearing loudly, nobody’s gonna care! You arrive at your own morality based on your own experiences! You’re an adult, not some little five-year-old! You can figure this stuff out!
I’m (half-)kidding with those extremes, but a lot of people do leave the Church because it’s simply easier not to have to deal with a lot of crap that gets thrown at active members, whether it be requirements of active membership, outside criticism of the faith, inside judgement from nosy ward members, or personal disagreements with church leaders and/or doctrine. […]It’s a lot easier to say that the Church leaders are wrong, or misguided, or have a different belief system (and good for them), but in my life I’ll believe what I feel is right, than it is to say that maybe I’m wrong, even though I don’t understand why yet and possibly never will until I die. It’s easier, more rational, and from a purely intellectual standpoint, probably the correct thing to do.
Am I saying that everyone who leaves the Church because it’s hard is somehow a lazy bum or a hedonist? Of course not! Being a Latter-Day Saint is hard work, and I don’t just mean the physical things like going to Church, or tithing, or obeying commandments, praying, scripture study, service projects, home/visiting teaching, fulfilling callings, etc. etc. but a lot of the mental, social, and emotional wringers that people are put through in a lot of Church environments. I mean, where would you rather be: a place where people either look down upon you or (even worse) make you into a project to save the “one lost sheep” just because you happened to wear a slightly shorter skirt, or admit that you like video games, or once said that Ewan McGregor is damn smoking hot (and you’re also a guy)? Or a place where you’ve got a bunch of friends who couldn’t care less what your lifestyle is and accept you for whatever you are? I can tell you this: one of those scenarios is certainly much easier than the other one. But does picking the easier scenario mean that you’re somehow weak, or does it just mean that you’ve got a measure of sanity? Am I a lazy good-for-nothing because I didn’t join the Marines? I don’t think so.”
I made those arguments when I was still an active member (even though I hated going to Church for mostly social reasons). And, as I often do when trying to justify someone else’s opinion as if it were my own, I made quite a mess of it. I hadn’t really done any research into ex-Mormons or had an open discussion with any of them; I just said to myself, “What would make me leave the Church right now?” and extrapolated, based on what I had been taught within the Church, how those without the Church obviously feel. I thought I was being unbiased about it, hence the “Marines” line near the end: I was trying to sympathize with those who felt that way without realizing that most who have left don’t feel that way. It’s hard to be unbiased about something that you have no actual experience with. I actually got called on the carpet on this by someone who had left, and to her I responded, “This is what I see. Please correct me if I’m wrong.” It was an earnest request, even if perhaps I wasn’t quite ready for the answer.
Some within the Church who, perhaps, have some issues with it, can point to an example of someone who has left, who also is perhaps disrespectful, or hot-headed, or otherwise imperfect, and say, “See? If this is the kind of person that leaves the Church, then that gives me more reason to stay!” It’s easy to point at those people for justification. (There’s that phrase again: “it’s easy.”) But for every jackass who rails against the faith they once shared, there are more who simply up and left. Their upbringing and sense of morals is still part of their lives, and it probably always will be. They still believe in the spirit of what the Church professes, even if they can’t accept the letter of what the Church does. Staying true to a moral system when you no longer believe in the source of said system is not easy. But most people are decent. Most people are good. And most people who leave the Church do so because they can’t reconcile what they learn with what they’ve been taught in the Church. And when the best defense the Church gives is “Give Joseph a break! God knows more than a search engine!” it’s not much consolation.
Please note: I’m also not trying to trivialize those who join the Church despite opposition. Often they have an equally difficult time leaving behind their old life in pursuit of something they believe in more. That was the crux of a lot of Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk, actually: remaining faithful despite difficult circumstances. But don’t condemn anyone for taking a stance in accordance with their own conscience despite opposition, simply because that step is away from what you believe instead of toward it.
Neither is easy.
4. Spiritualism and The Spirit (not actually related to any specific talk)
I am not an atheist, in the sense that I don’t only believe in empiricism. I have had spiritual experiences that I cannot write off as pure emotion. I have felt what the Church terms “the Spirit” many times. But what I’ve realized more and more, especially since leaving, is that often the things I’ve felt spiritual about have had little to do with the Church specifically. That’s not to say that I’ve never had a spiritual experience in relation to the Church. But when I really examined my spiritualityy, I found that my truly powerful experiences have been, let’s say, perpendicular to the Church. In other words, when I feel the most peace, joy, and love, has had nothing to do with my standing in the Church, my amount of tithing paid, my scripture study time, or any of that. In fact, the times in my life that I have thrown myself headlong into trying to keep the commandments has usually turned me into a judgmental jerk who can’t stand the fact that anyone around me holds a different opinion. I hate being that guy. And it’s certainly not a healthy mindset.
My spiritual experiences have had to do with my amount of service and selflessness. They have had to do with what I can do for others. One of my most spiritual experiences on my mission occurred when I was serving in Cartagena, though it had almost nothing to do with the Church or traditional missionary work. One of our investigators was a poor Nigerian immigrant (I really wish I could remember his name) who was having some health problems one night, so my companion and I accompanied him to the hospital, along with our ward mission leader. I had to translate for him with the doctor (this was in Spain, and he only spoke English), and afterward my companion, the ward mission leader, and I were waiting out in the waiting room to hear if he would be OK. During that time my zone leader showed up and demanded that I go back out and do some street contacting. It was the end of the week, you see, and my companion and I hadn’t quite fulfilled our goal yet. I refused, because I really wanted to see if our investigator was OK and help him back home if he was discharged. This wasn’t what missionaries are supposed to do, though. Surely the ward mission leader could handle it (despite not speaking English). We argued back and forth and finally came to a compromise: we’d swap companions for the evening. My zone leader and my companion would go out street contacting (so he could count it toward our numbers), leaving his companion behind at the hospital.
I was left with his companion and the ward mission leader. Alfonso Sanchez, a man who I had worked with for quite a while, both him and his family. Of all the families on my mission, I felt probably the closest to them, having eaten at their house many times (it also helped that his wife reminded me a lot of my sister Annelise). And as we sat in that waiting room in a small medical facility in the town of Cartagena, he turned to me and said something I’ll never forget (though I’m paraphrasing it here): “Elder, I’ve been in this ward for a long time, and I’ve seen missionaries come and go. Many have been great, faithful missionaries, dutiful and true to their creed. But, perhaps only once every ten years, a missionary comes along that actually loves the people he serves. Elder, you have that love in you.”
I didn’t know what to say. For most of my mission, I thought I was a terrible missionary. It was all that my zone and district leaders could do to keep me out on the street every day. I didn’t study as much as I should have, I had a hard time keeping the rules with exactness, and I really really really hated telling strangers how to live their lives. But, for that brief moment, I felt like, maybe, I had done something important out there. Despite what the Church said I should’ve been doing, despite what my zone leader wanted me to do, despite the fact that that particular investigator never joined the Church (at least when I was there, though we did convince him to move out of a living situation where his roommates were pretty abusive) — despite all that, I followed my conscience and sense of human decency. For one moment, Elder Parkes the terrible missionary became something better. And that made the difference.
That’s a spiritual experience.
Now, understandably, that particular experience is certainly emotion-based. But it was still stronger and happier than anything else I had felt on my mission up to that point. For me, actually, most of my spiritual experiences both in and out of the Church have had a musical component to them. A certain piece of music can pierce my soul much more deeply and effectively than any talk by Boyd K. Packer (especially since he did his best to squash any kind of music in the Church that he didn’t like; look it up). An evening spent with someone you love doing something you love is time much better spent than an evening at a fireside with a stake president who tells you to get off your lazy butt and get married or start ponderizing or whatever. Not to say that such firesides are worthless or impossible to feel spiritually fed by (I think that mostly depends on both how invested you are in the topic and what the topic is), but diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks. I cannot trivialize the great spiritual feelings others get in the Church any more than they can trivialize the great spiritual feelings I get when I drive to a rest stop near Delle, Utah, and contemplate the Northern Lights.
The Church preaches a lot of great things. Principles that, if followed, will make you a better person and help the lives of those around you. But it doesn’t mean that everything the Church preaches is the same. The same is true of most religions, philosophies, and lifestyles. It’s that discernment that I seek.
Spiritual experiences can still be otherworldly even if they’re not specifically related to Mormonism. I still remember the intense spiritual feeling I got the exact moment that my niece Ivy was born, even though I didn’t know that that was happening until much later. That wasn’t just an emotional response to something I was doing at the time (I was on my mission, and at that exact time we were trying to reactivate a sister who hadn’t been to church in a long time and still didn’t return after our visit). There is more to existence than just this life. I can’t prove that, and it is based on faith. So take it for what it is.
I feel like I’m turning out to be a terrible ex-Mormon. Oh, well.
It was interesting listening to conference as more of an outside observer than a participant. I felt that I could finally look at the talks, not in the light of “How can I start applying all of this inspired message from the Lord in my life?” but in the light of, “Wait, does this make sense? What message is actually being offered here? Is it a good one? What part of it do I believe will make my life and the lives of those around me better? What part of it is good advice? Is any of it non-applicable? Bad advice? Just some guy’s opinion?” I was finally able to hear things like how unbelievers “…are like the man who unplugs a spotlight and then blames the spotlight for not giving any light” and think, “Yeah, that doesn’t actually make any sense,” without feeling bad for “speaking against the Lord’s anointed.” And, even for an unbeliever, there were plenty of good messages to take away about how to become better people. In fact, some of them had more power with an eye of skepticism: examining the messages being taught instead of merely accepting them all meant that you really did figure out what would be helpful and good in your own life. For the record, Pres. Monson’s important message was to be an example and a light of goodness to those around you, a message I believe is equally applicable and good for everyone, regardless of your belief.
But I’ll be damned if I ever use the word “ponderize” in a serious setting.
Note: this post has been edited to protect some identities. It has also been formatted to fit your screen.
A few weeks ago I shared an article on Facebook titled “Sexuality and Singledom — Navigating with Clarity and Integrity” that dealt with the frustrations of single people in the LDS Church, especially relating to sexual matters (defined by the article as not just sex, but maturity and expressing romantic affection properly in general). A bunch of people commented on it with some great discussions, and I noted that I had a blog post percolating in my head about it about how much I related to various matters contained within, especially about how LDS singles were treated and how they, in turn, treat each other.
This is not that blog post.
At least, not the post I had originally intended when I shared the article.
When I go to a singles’ ward I see a bunch of people milling about, doing their best to play a game they don’t understand, with an end goal that nobody quite knows how to reach. Some do, and get married, but a lot simply just get old, then too old, then disappear. I’ve written extensively on that subject, and I’ve no wish to repeat myself, but I’ve been firmly in that latter camp for a while now. One of my problems is that normally the type of girl I’m actually interested in dating is not the typical LDS girl in the typical LDS atmosphere. You know the one, where everyone’s so concentrated on getting married that everything gets taken way too seriously, with people trying to figure out all the “rules” of dating and courtship as opposed to just getting to know each other and becoming close naturally. The one where, if a girl likes, say, video games, she has to keep it under her hat or risk becoming a pariah (this has gotten better with generations younger than mine). Sometimes I get on dating sites and I find plenty of attractive ladies who love all the same things I do and would be a great match…until I see the “Religion: Agnostic” or “Drinks Socially” or whatever attribute, and I have to say, “Well, so much for that.” If I hafta marry an LDS woman, then I’ve either got to settle or keep looking, apparently.
But, as I thought about it, I realized my frustrations lately have been more than simply related to dating and marriage within the Church.
Early this week I was talking with someone who let out more than a few disparaging remarks about my sister, who recently left the Church, including one pretty nasty one about my nieces (who, for the record, are eleven and twelve years old), and how they’re not turning out as well as other children because they don’t attend Church. (This despite the fact that they are the two best kids I know and are incredibly smart, well-behaved, talented, and all-around great, one of whom has won several academic awards to that effect.) I later relayed this to my sister, and eventually it made its way back to the originator, who was upset, as they didn’t even remember saying anything terrible; it was just a fact.
This type of attitude is fairly prevalent within the Church, of looking with disdain and/or pity to those who don’t fit in the mold. My sister suffers it because she left; I suffer it because I’m over 30 and single. However, that’s not all. I also came across a story of a bishop who told a mother of a twelve-year-old girl that she needed to go home and have the sex talk with her daughter ASAP so that he could ask her if she’d ever masturbated. Does that offend you? Because it does me. Especially since the parent isn’t present for the interview between the bishop and the daughter. And it made me realize that there was something wrong going on. Not just with individuals within the Church abusing their power, but with a system set up to force otherwise (supposedly) upstanding priesthood leaders to ask such personal questions to children clearly not ready for them.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it didn’t actually affect me. And it hadn’t for a long time. I no longer felt the need to decide one way or another, because the Church was no longer my home. You see, I actually probably left the Church probably about a year and a half to two years ago, about six months before my previous post on the subject of Mormonism, when I last attended church (or possibly August of 2013, which is when I stopped regularly attending). And since I did, I took such issues less and less personally, until they were virtually just another news item, like hearing about how those crazy Catholics did something or whatever.
During all this time, though, I still wore my temple garments, as all worthy Latter-Day Saints are commanded to do. After all that had happened earlier this week, however, I realized that, if I wasn’t actually going to Church and keeping those commandments, wearing the garments probably wasn’t a good idea, considering I wasn’t keeping the promises made when they were given to me. Not that I was going out sinning every day; mostly I was just committing all the sins of omission by not attending church, paying tithing, going home teaching, keeping the Sabbath Day holy, etc. I still was obeying the Word of Wisdom and the law of chastity, and I was still doing my best to be a good person. But I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to as a faithful Latter-Day Saint, and didn’t have any plans to repent of that attitude. They now represented something I wasn’t doing, and wearing them would probably be a little hypocritical, even if I was the only one who knew what I was wearing underneath.
So I boxed them up and bought some new underwear. And some new undershirts. Really, they were covering roughly the same area that the garments do, minus maybe an inch or two above the knee. I also bought a few tank top undershirts when the other ones proved to be really hot in the middle of the summer.
This past Wednesday I wore an undershirt and a pair of boxer briefs instead of the temple garments. And you know what? It scared the hell out of me. I was so afraid that at some point someone would notice, and suddenly condemn me to hell, or at the very least stop valuing my opinion. The first night I had several nightmares to that effect.
Today (Friday), I decided to wear the tank top under my shirt instead of a full-blown white tee. It was super-uncomfortable, though it wasn’t just the fact that the two straps over my shoulders felt like I was wearing suspenders. It also began to be uncomfortable on an emotional and mental level. I mean, I made a promise to wear the garments. Was I doing wrong? Was I really turning my back on the faith? I started feeling terrible about the decision.
Then I saw Inside Out, the new Pixar movie (you know, the one that forces everyone in the audience to contemplate their feelings). And the entire time during the movie all I could think about was what the impetus behind my decision was. Was it an act of rebellion? Was it truly breaking through long-held chains to greater freedom? Was it letting go of a safety cord to go drown in the deep? Much like in the movie, was it just my feelings being out-of-whack that forced me to make a rash decision?
I was acutely aware of the small straps across my shoulders, as foreign to me as the temple garments had felt when I first put them on nearly fifteen years ago. I eventually got used to those, and I kept telling myself that I’d get used to these, too, but it was such a change. Not just physically, but symbolically. When the movie ended I went home, opened that box, took out a pair of garments, and re-put them on, hoping that in some way, that would quell the unease and all that had seemed wrong would be right again.
So I wept.
I wept because I could no longer go back. Not because I didn’t believe in repentance, but because I didn’t believe in what the garments represented anymore.
I had been sidelined by the Church. It didn’t have a place for me anymore, because I hadn’t accomplished everything I should have by this point in my life. In addition, there were a lot of things in the Church’s story that just didn’t hold up to scrutiny, and they had started to wear on me. But the Church was where the truth was, right? If I had a problem with the Church, wasn’t it actually me who had the problem?
I needed to get away, to think. I needed to go somewhere I’d never gone before. I needed to find my way in the darkness and chase the light.
So I did. Literally.
I changed back into a plain set of boxers and normal white undershirt. I put on some clothes over them, got in my car, grabbed a 64 oz. thing of Orange Crush and two bags of pork rinds from the gas station, and I drove west, my mind whirling with thoughts. The sun had barely set, and the light was still peeking over the horizon, bathing the western sky in a purple glow. Normally when I drive around to do some thinking I head into the mountains to the east, but this time I chased the light.
You’d be surprised how long a sunset lasts when you’re going 80 miles per hour toward it.
And as I drove, blasting remixes from Chrono Trigger, I pondered.
Today the Supreme Court decided to lift the ban on gay marriage all over the country. Millions of people, both gay and straight, rejoiced at this announcement. But the Church was disappointed. Disappointed that thousands, or even millions, of people could finally find their own happiness and live true to themselves.
The larger, non-tank top shirt felt comfortable. I wasn’t thinking the whole time about how weird the straps were. I wasn’t thinking the whole time about how it didn’t represent something that I hadn’t been following for at least two years, if not long before that.
The sky began to darken, though not as slowly as normal. I left Salt Lake County, driving past Tooele. I had never been out that far, at least not at the driver’s wheel. I seriously considered driving all the way to Wendover and spending the night in a motel room. I even momentarily considered finding some girl to hook up with out there. Why not? Certain things are legal in Nevada! If I’m no longer bound by the Church’s moral laws, can’t I just go crazy and try everything? Wasn’t it time I broke out of the adolescent mold of the LDS singles’ scene? My roommate Johnathan had previously mentioned that his YSA ward was doing an activity where you go to bishopric members’ houses with a date and have different parts of a three-course meal not only at different houses, but with different dates at each house! Is this how adults meet each other? Is this the way that people truly connect, through a weird activity hosted by men who had been single adults for two, maybe three years tops, and planned by an activities committee who were planning things like they were still in Young Men’s or Young Women’s?
The sky dimmed as I passed Grantsville and headed out into the unknown.
But, at the same time, I knew that hooking up with some random stranger wasn’t the answer. I never seriously considered that it was. Even putting aside the moral issues, I personally knew that making out with someone I didn’t love was boring and stupid, and sex would probably be similar. But just the fact that I had considered it at all showed that I needed something to change. Sex, sexual morality, and all related issues are entirely abstract concepts to me, since I have virtually no experience (nor have pretty much all the girls I’ve dated), and the way that singles’ wards ran had never been the way that I related to people.
But it’s not just an issue of morality. The history of the Church is full of skeletons in the closet. For the longest time I didn’t let any of it bug me, saying to myself that someday it will all make sense. Some day, perhaps after this life, all the weird and terrible things in the Church’s past would be satisfactorily explained, and I would say, “Oh, that’s why Joseph Smith married that 14-year-old without consent! That’s why the Church asks young 12-year-old girls incredibly personal questions about masturbation without their parents present! That’s why most of the members of the Church aren’t terribly accepting of outsiders (at least without trying to convert them) (and, before you get your hackles up, there are exceptions to the rule, though said exceptions usually have to stay quiet about it).” But things kept piling up. So I had to look at a different source in order to confirm that, yes, the Church is still true, regardless of all the earthly evidence that may point in the opposite direction.
Nearly all lights from civilization had vanished, with only a few pockets visible here and there to the south of the freeway. Only a few trucks and some large cars/SUVs hauling trailers were sharing the road with me.
“Wickedness never was happiness.” That’s what we have been taught in the Church. If that gets put to the test, that means that those who have left the Church and embraced values contrary to those it teaches are not happy. So what about all those gay couples celebrating today that they can finally, legally, be bound to their spouses who they love more than anything? Are they all secretly unhappy? Would they all be so much happier if they instead tried to go against their nature and submerge themselves into the Church, either marrying someone they’re not attracted to or staying single and alone? Does one lose the ability to feel joy the instant that coffee touches their tongue? Is looking down your nose at anyone in a strapless shirt/dress and forcing them to change so you can “avoid temptation” truly the pinnacle of joy?
But, on the other hand, there is good in the Church. So, so much good. People help each other. People teach and are taught so many beautiful principles, of service, of sacrifice, of love, and hope, and charity, and peace. Lots of Church members are truly striving to be the best people they can be. Sure, there are a few bad apples, but I think most are at least attempting to be good people. Could I truly turn my back on all that? Could I leave an organization that has the potential to do so much good? Does it matter what Joseph Smith’s wife count is when you’re carrying a pot of potatoes to a grieving widow, or whatever? I know that I’ve felt peace within its boundaries, at least on occasion, though it had been less and less as the years went on, and the occasions on which it manifested seemed somewhat random.
Can I find the Spirit elsewhere, or is it only in this organization that I slipped out of (and have felt like I’ve grown more tolerant and, dare I say, Christ-like by doing so)? Was it actually the Spirit, or just an emotional elation at belonging to a group and doing what I had been told God wanted me to do? Is “the Spirit” even a thing?
It was now past 10:00 PM, and as I came upon the extremely small town of Delle, Utah (which I didn’t even know existed until tonight) about 50 miles west of Salt Lake City, I noticed that the sign said, “Next Services: 66 miles.” “Yikes!” I immediately thought, “I’d better turn around here, or I will be forced to get a room in Wendover!” So I exited the freeway, into a nearly-deserted truck stop with a giant sandy parking lot next to it, containing a few semis whose owners were undoubtedly catching a few hours of sleep before their next shift. I pulled into the lot, about a hundred feet or more away from any other vehicle, turned off the car, opened the sun roof, and sat on the raised compartment between the seats with my head sticking out of the roof. It was late June, and it had been an incredibly hot day, over 100 degrees, so even at night the temperature couldn’t have been lower than 80. The freeway was still relatively busy, and I could see at least five cars in either direction at any given time, but other than the lights from the passing cars and the gas station about 200 feet away, there were no lights other than the stars and moon. A gentle breeze was blowing through my hair. And, as I sat there, contemplating my future, I decided to pray.
I didn’t kneel down. I didn’t fold my arms, I didn’t even close my eyes. I didn’t start by saying, “Dear Heavenly Father, I thank thee for [whatever], please bless me with [whatever],” etc. I simply laid out my thoughts to the heavens. I asked if there was a Father, and if He was listening. I voiced my concerns with the Church, and my fears of leaving the Church. I voiced the frustrations of being treated as a child by adults who, in many ways, were less mature than I, but since they were married they were put over me. I voiced how scared I was of leaving the Gospel safety net, afraid that once out there I would never be able to feel the Spirit, or even true joy, again. I voiced how, until now, I had been sitting on the fence so hard that I had chain-link marks in my posterior, but when it came to the garments-on-or-off decision, it had to be an active decision every single morning: am I in or am I out? Not just for appearances to others or outward actions, but personally, intimately, and spiritually. Where was my heart? Where was the truth?
It took half an hour. Countless cars whipped past. Whoever was running the truck stop locked it up and went home. Doubtless some groggy trucker looked out their windshield, wondering what some guy was doing in the parking lot with his head sticking out of the sunroof. Through it all, I kept searching, pondering, and praying.
And you know what? I got an answer/came to a conclusion, depending on how you look at it.
It wasn’t to stay in the Church.
It wasn’t to leave the Church forever.
It was to find out for myself, through experience, where the truth is. To separate myself from what I felt was wrong and find what was right. To be true to myself, undivided, whole. And if that meant leaving the Church, and taking those scary steps out west, into the unknown, then that’s what it will take.
I need to chase the light.
Does it mean dating those agnostic girls who love video games? You betcha. Does it means I’ll go off the deep end and get drunk every night, whoring it up? Not at all. I probably still won’t touch alcohol (if I can stubbornly refuse to eat mushrooms for 32 years for no good reason, alcohol should be simple to avoid even without a religious excuse), and promiscuity isn’t really my thing either. Really, as far as my daily life goes, it’ll mostly mean a change of underwear. I’ll still go to work. I’ll still have the same friends (I hope). I’ll still stream silly video games on my “The Player and the Doodler” page, and play Pathfinder, and have big Super Smash Bros. tournaments with my nieces. I’ll still not go to church every week, just like the past two years. I can still have spiritual discussions. Many of my friends and/or family may stop talking to me about a lot of topics, which is OK.
I don’t know where the road will take me. It may take me back to the Church in the end. It may take me somewhere else completely. Tonight the road took me to Delle, Utah: a place I didn’t know existed but am eternally grateful for. But I can’t grow if I’m stuck in the same place I’ve been for at least fifteen years, if not my whole life. I can’t keep living a life divided. One foot in Zion, the other in Babylon. One foot in an oppressive organization/religion/business, the other in the freedom to explore and learn.
As I lowered my head back into the car and began the drive home, the northern sky briefly lit up in a brilliant flash of color and light. It was like a gigantic lightning bolt, or rather, it was more the shape of a lightning bolt symbol you may see on signs and such, but instead of being white it was a deep reddish-green, if that’s even possible. It flitted across the sky and had disappeared almost before I could register that it was there. Apparently the Northern Lights were so active tonight that they could be seen much farther south than usual, and that’s what I had witnessed. And because I was out in the middle of nowhere, with barely any lights or pollution around, it was easy to see and absolutely beautiful. Had I stayed in Salt Lake, I would have missed it completely, even if I was outside looking up.
Beauty beyond anything I had ever seen. All because I decided to venture into the unknown and chase the light.
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.
(Note: I’ve decided to turn the “…the hell is Mormonism, anyway?” series into more of an occasional, on-going analysis with no set endpoint instead of a series of essays leading up to an ultimate goal, for a few personal reasons. I hope nobody is disappointed.)
A certain article popped up on my Facebook news feed today regarding the Church and its beliefs, coming from an author who seems to have become disillusioned with how things are run and presented, and nitpicks on some of the things in the Church that don’t really make sense. Normally I would just roll my eyes and move on, but the person who posted this article on Facebook (who shall remain anonymous for now and is not the author of the article) is someone important to me, so I felt like I needed to say something more on the subject. Unlike my previous posts on the topic of Mormonism, I’ll be revealing a little more of the basis of my own beliefs instead of just raising questions for discussion.
I find it ironic that the author of that post titles it “Obedience and Cherry-Picking”, because he seems to do a lot of cherry-picking on his own. Some of his “facts” are just nitpicking at semantics (such as the difference between “continuous” and “continuing” revelation, or whether or not Christ organized a church since he only used the actual word “church” like three times in the NT, despite, you know, organizing and teaching apostles and seventies, instituting rituals such as the sacrament, etc.), whereas others are based on widely-held beliefs within the Church that aren’t actually doctrine (such as some of the things he says about the temple ceremony and what it literally means) or are outright not true (the Church doesn’t claim to have the “fulness of truth” but the “fulness of the Gospel” which is very different). These things alone cause me to believe that there may be some other sides to the argument than the ones this author is presenting. If he wants to subject the Church to scrutiny, then it behooves us to subject his arguments to the same level of scrutiny.
But all of that ignores the larger problems with both that post and the ideas behind it. The website from which it comes is called “LDS Common Sense” which sounds like something that is good and makes sense, right? The problem is that a lot of religious beliefs, including many from the LDS church, don’t make a whole lot of sense. Some things are inconclusive, where others fly in the face of how the world works as we understand it. Applying “common sense” (which I will define as lining up all the causes and effects that are currently known in a way that we can understand without questions) to Church teachings just won’t work, at least not for all of them. It would be like a toddler trying to explain to another toddler how calculus works. If the Church is true, then by our own admission we can’t explain all of its concepts. Otherwise, what would be the point of faith?
Is that a cop-out? Maybe. Could it be true? Possibly. How can we tell the difference? Is there a way to distinguish between faith in something true yet not-understood and simple willful ignorance? Well, that’s the same question I asked in my earlier posts about Mormonism, and the same answers still apply (spoiler warning: they involve heavy use of the term “Holy Ghost”, something I felt a distinct lack of when I read that earlier article, as in I actually felt a little darker while reading it). Most of that, however, has been said before and probably won’t do much to change either side.
Something that I do believe deserves a little more scrutiny by both parties is something I mentioned earlier: namely, widely-held beliefs in the Church that aren’t actually doctrine. It is my personal belief that many of our “beliefs”, especially ones touted by ex- and anti-Mormons, aren’t actually our beliefs, but our traditions and/or speculations. An experience almost every missionary has faced involves someone wanting to come up and Bible-bash with something he once heard about Freemasons or whatever, and most missionaries don’t bite (and the ones who do rarely accomplish anything). Would it be so hard, however, to actually put in the time to research such a subject, at least enough to be able to point out enough logical fallacies in the anti-Mormon argument to leave it up to faith to reconcile the difference? Not to be able to prove that naysayer wrong, per se, but to be able to understand the topic enough so as to not ignore it entirely?
There is a lot of willful ignorance in the Church today, and many members aren’t actually sure what they believe. This is certainly not unique to Mormonism; indeed, most religions face the same problem, and the fact that the Church stresses scripture study so much is indicative of both the awareness of this problem and the solution to it. Knowledge is power, after all. If members today would step up their study of the gospel instead of coasting on half-remembered lessons from Sunday School (taught by people who half-remember their lesson from twenty years previous), some of these misconceptions may be weeded out. People may scoff at that one teacher who teaches from “Saturday’s Warrior” like it was a section of the D&C, but how many of us (including myself) are guilty of the same thing, even if it’s to a lesser degree?
Of course, another problem with scrutinizing our beliefs is where to get our information from. It’s understandable that people who are legitimately trying to understand our beliefs pull from sources both pro- and anti-Mormon in order to gain a balanced perspective. After all, both the Church and its detractors have their agendas (the Church wants to be portrayed in as positive as a light as possible, while its detractors desire the opposite), so the best way to find the truth is to compare notes and see what matches up, right? This would be true, assuming religious knowledge and truth were empirical in nature, which they are not. However, does that mean we can point-blank ignore all detractors due to our faith overcoming all shortcomings in our arguments? Also, how can we be sure that all the information we find is accurate, no matter which side it’s coming from (and it’s true that some sites sympathetic to the Church nevertheless possess and pass on inaccurate information)? I’d refer you to the answer I gave a few paragraphs above (the one that says “Holy Ghost” in it), but for bonus points I will point out that almost none of the links that that author gives to support his claims are actual official declarations of Church doctrine, and the ones that are are either semantics-arguing (such as the “continuous”/”continuing” point I mentioned earlier) or are arguments like “The Church says this [link], which some members believe means A, but I think means B, and B is wrong.”
The main beef the author of that article has is that we are expected to blindly obey, because we believe that the brethren give us God’s word. That in and of itself is one of those misunderstood doctrines, and indeed flies in the face of what the Church actually teaches. We are asked to confirm everything we’re given with a spiritual witness, even if it’s a commandment we don’t logically understand. The Primary song is “Search, Ponder, and Pray” not “Hear, Listen, and Obey”. That said, there are a lot of members who do just blindly obey, but one must not confuse that attitude with what the Church actually teaches. Even some things that may never make sense in our lifetime (such as some of the Church’s more controversial stands on things like blacks and the priesthood, or gay marriage) we are asked to pray about and seek a witness for, not just “shut up and obey”.
I also believe that the author makes the Church out to be far more arrogant and self-serving than it is. One of his assumptions, and I quote, “First, if such a conduit [referring to revelation to the prophet and apostles] existed, the Lord hasn’t been putting it to very good use. According to one of the prophets who supposedly had such a conduit, the Church is meant to be a light to the world, yet instead it has become an exclusive light meant for only those who fit a certain contrived convention. In other words, the verse that says God loves all His children equally and sent Christ ‘not to condemn the world’ but to save it (John 3:16-17) is less important than the dogma stating that revelation is only for those worthy of it according to LDS law.” This “dogma” doesn’t exist, at least not in the terms he puts forward. It’s true that revelation is only for those worthy of it, just like a driver’s license is only for those worthy of it, or a kid’s video game time is only for the kid who is worthy of it by emptying the dishwasher. Revelation is not exclusive to the Church (while doctrinal revelation has always come through God’s appointed prophets, other kinds have not). About the only things we actually claim is that we have the fulness of the Gospel (once again, not the fulness of truth), we have divine authority to perform ordinances (which we are trying to do for everyone, not just those who “fit a certain contrived convention”; that’s what work for the dead is for), and we are doing our best to follow Christ’s example (which we fail at a lot because we are human). Anything more is putting words in our mouths (or at the very least quoting personal opinions instead of “dogma”). Also, to say that because the Church doesn’t have an answer for all social problems; therefore, it can’t receive revelation, is a sub-argument of saying that God doesn’t have an answer for all social problems and therefore can’t give revelation. The Church does what it can for those suffering in the rest of the world, and the only reason that the Church emphasizes proselyting missionary work more than simple service and welfare missionary work is that a person’s spiritual well-being in the afterlife is more important than their temporal well-being here (and that is Christ’s teaching). And it does a lot for service and welfare outside its own membership. Just because it can’t do everything doesn’t mean that there’s no divinity in it, unless you make the same argument about God Himself (which I suppose you could do, if you were atheist or believed in an uncaring God).
I could go on about other specific arguments, but I’ll leave that up to others if they wish, as I simply do not have the time, energy, or knowledge to do so properly, and I also feel like I’m repeating myself and rambling a bit. But I do want to give one last thought regarding applying logic and/or common sense to Mormonism, as that site name implies.
If one assumes that the only way to discover truth is through empirical and/or logical means, then the only possible belief system one can hold is atheism. Literally nothing else makes sense as humankind understands it. However, nobody’s testimony is based in logic, but in faith (see the “babies trying to teach calculus” analogy I made earlier for why a testimony cannot be based solely in human logic). Spiritual knowledge must come from a spiritual source. Trying to apply a logical progression to our belief system may be a fun pastime and an interesting perspective on things, but it cannot be the basis of anybody’s religious belief system (unless, as I said, they’re atheist).
And that is why that article doesn’t affect my belief in the Church. As for receiving and recognizing that spiritual witness, well, that’s a discussion for another day.
Note: I’ve received a lot of comments on part one so far, and while I will eventually address them specifically and individually, first I’d like to continue with this series and see if any points pop up that I can then refer to in any specific answers. Please bear with me!
So in part one I brought up a few questions: How does one believe in a true church when it is full of flaws? And how does an intellectual believe in something so dependent on feelings? I’ll address these more later, but first I’d like to examine the root causes of why people leave the church. I am not here referring to people who have never joined the church for whatever reason, but those who were members, either through conversion or through being raised in the church, but have now decided to leave it. Like I said in my last post, everyone has different reasons for ceasing their activity and/or belief in what the gospel and the church have to offer. But after a lot of thought and consideration, I believe it boils down to two main reasons:
1) It’s easier
Do you guys know what’s easy? Not being a member of the Church! Aw snap! You can do whatever you want on Sunday, you get to keep that 10% of your income instead of giving it up to build more chapels or whatever, you don’t have to worry about that whole dumb Word of Wisdom thing telling you what you can and can’t eat and/or drink, that one guy down the street who thinks Obama is a secret Muslim out to burn the country to the ground can’t tell you how to improve your relationship with God just because some other guy called him to be your bishop, and if you want to watch porn while drinking cheap scotch and swearing loudly, nobody’s gonna care! You arrive at your own morality based on your own experiences! You’re an adult, not some little five-year-old! You can figure this stuff out!
I’m (half-)kidding with those extremes, but a lot of people do leave the Church because it’s simply easier not to have to deal with a lot of crap that gets thrown at active members, whether it be requirements of active membership, outside criticism of the faith, inside judgement from nosy ward members, or personal disagreements with church leaders and/or doctrine. It’s a lot easier to say, for example, that homosexuality is just as valid a lifestyle as heterosexuality (please do not discuss this topic in the comments; I’m not opening that argument here, this is just an example) and therefore the Church’s teachings are false, than it is to do the research to figure out where the leaders are coming from in an eternal perspective. And even if one has done that research and still disagrees, it’s a lot easier to say that the Church leaders are wrong, or misguided, or have a different belief system (and good for them), but in my life I’ll believe what I feel is right, than it is to say that maybe I’m wrong, even though I don’t understand why yet and possibly never will until I die. It’s easier, more rational, and from a purely intellectual standpoint, probably the correct thing to do.
Am I saying that everyone who leaves the Church because it’s hard is somehow a lazy bum or a hedonist? Of course not! Being a Latter-Day Saint is hard work, and I don’t just mean the physical things like going to Church, or tithing, or obeying commandments, praying, scripture study, service projects, home/visiting teaching, fulfilling callings, etc. etc. but a lot of the mental, social, and emotional wringers that people are put through in a lot of Church environments. I mean, where would you rather be: a place where people either look down upon you or (even worse) make you into a project to save the “one lost sheep” just because you happened to wear a slightly shorter skirt, or admit that you like video games, or once said that Ewan McGregor is damn smoking hot (and you’re also a guy)? Or a place where you’ve got a bunch of friends who couldn’t care less what your lifestyle is and accept you for whatever you are? I can tell you this: one of those scenarios is certainly much easier than the other one. But does picking the easier scenario mean that you’re somehow weak, or does it just mean that you’ve got a measure of sanity? Am I a lazy good-for-nothing because I didn’t join the Marines? I don’t think so.
With that said, however, I also think that a lot of people who do leave the church would be willing to put up with all that adversity if they felt it was worthwhile in the end. This leads me to my second reason why I think people leave the Church:
2) Lack of spiritual experiences
Now don’t get me wrong with this: I’m not saying that spiritual experiences are only for Church members, and that everyone who has left the Church has obviously never had one. People outside the Church have spiritual experiences all the time, while a lot of people in the Church never really have. But I think that’s part of the issue here. There have been a lot of people I’ve talked to who said that they’ve done all they can think of to receive that spiritual witness that the Church is true. They’ve read the Book of Mormon. They’ve prayed about it. They’ve been as faithful and obedient as they can: paying their tithes, attending their meetings, serving others, etc. They’ve taken Moroni’s challenge, followed Alma’s counsel to plant the seed, and even pulled an Enos or two. And still, after all is said and done, they never received that strong spiritual witness that most active members point to when they are asked what the basis of their testimony is. Or perhaps they thought they had received a witness but later find out or decide that it was just an emotional response: that their reaction to the Book of Mormon felt the same as their reaction to watching WALL-E or something. Or maybe they’ve received a witness of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ but haven’t received that witness regarding anything specifically related to Mormonism.
Some people, at this point, look to justify why they haven’t received that witness. Perhaps it’s because the Church is for/against something they do or don’t believe in; therefore, it’s not true. Perhaps they find some bit of evidence suggesting that Martin Harris rewrote some weird manuscript and published it as the Book of Mormon; therefore the Church isn’t true. Maybe Apostle X or Bishop Y or Sister Z did something pretty boneheaded and uninspired; therefore, the Church isn’t true. Or maybe the Church isn’t able to answer their question to problem X to their full satisfaction; therefore, it isn’t true. But all of these nitpicks usually don’t bother most strong, active members. For, when you get right to the heart of it, the main difference between those who stay faithful and those who fall away, between those with a strong, unbreakable testimony and those whose testimony gets blown apart given enough adversity, is that the latter group does not have that foundation of the Spirit upon which to build everything else.
Why is it that some people can kneel down and pray about the Book of Mormon, and receive that witness, while others work for years on it with nothing to show for it? How is it that one person can do everything in their power to be the best and most faithful person they can be in the gospel and not receive that witness, especially when they see that gossipy Relief Society president with little to no regard for the people she’s supposed to serve, go up to the pulpit with tears streaming down her cheeks and proclaiming that she has received a strong spiritual prompting that her now-deceased pet dog is in Heaven and therefore she knows the Church is true with every fiber of her being?
That example may seem a bit extreme (though probably not as much as it should be, sadly), but 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.
So once again, I ask: why? Why is it so hard for some people to receive that spiritual witness despite their best earnest, sincere efforts? How can a person believe “Knock and it shall be opened unto you” when they feel like they’ve been banging on that door forever and nobody’s answered? What’s the missing puzzle piece?
Once again, I have my own thoughts on this which I will eventually share, but I’d first like to hear what you guys think.
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.
Recently I’ve been sucked into playing the Ultima series. I’d seen some fun and glowing reviews for most of the series online and it was on sale at GOG.com at the beginning of June, so I figured I’d pick the games up and see for myself if they were as good as people say. And they really have been good, especially considering that the first one came out before I was even born and nearly the entire series of fourteen games (including spin-offs) was concluded before the mid-90’s. But what surprised me more than anything else wasn’t the gameplay or the story, but the interesting ethical and moral issues these games brought up, especially the second trilogy (Ultima IV–Ultima VI).
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (which, if you pick up the series, I’d recommend starting with, since the first three are kind of weird and you don’t have to play them to understand the rest of the series) is for the most part a standard western RPG; however, it doesn’t actually have a big bad guy to defeat. Nobody’s trying to take over the world; there isn’t any cosmic force slowly dismantling reality — there aren’t even really any bullies or small-time baddies (well, there are some pirates, but they’re all pretty generic). About the worst you get are some orcs and trolls roaming the countryside and some dungeons with monsters in them, but that’s it for the forces of evil. You see, Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima games, had seen complaints made by concerned groups and parents about bad moral choices that seemed to be prevalent in video games and tabletop RPGs (like Dungeons & Dragons) and decided to craft a game devoted to morality (without tying it to any specific theology, though some of its inspiration comes from Buddhism) to prove that, yes, games can be used to inspire people to be good and virtuous instead of violent psychos or antisocial jerks. To that end, he created the system of the Eight Virtues and crafted an entire game based around living by these virtues. The virtues are Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, and Humility, all of which are based around three principles of truth, love, and courage.
I won’t go into much detail about how all this works in the game (you should go play it to find out), but basically it boils down to you actually following these virtues in-game to win. While a lot of modern RPGs have some sort of morality meter, often it’s pretty black and white: i.e. you’re either the paragon of goodness and purity, or you’re a puppy-strangling murderer. This game muddies the water a bit: you can do well in one virtue while being horrible in another (like robbing gold from people’s houses, which lowers your Honesty and Honor, but then giving it to the poor, raising your Compassion and Sacrifice). Some virtues even seem contradictory on the surface. For example, to have a good score in Valor you must never run from a fight or avoid confrontation, but to be Honorable you should never kill a defenseless/weaker opponent (unless it’s something evil like a demon), which leads to some creative solutions to accomplish both goals; in this case, beating on weak opponents until they start running away, then letting them go.
What I found especially intriguing were the events of the introduction, where you picked your starting class and stats. Instead of just choosing from a list and dividing out skill points, however, it took the form of an old gypsy woman presenting you with moral questions, having to choose between one virtue and another, until the last one you picked corresponded to your starting class, with each class represented by one of the virtues (a fighter held Valor as most important, a mage prized Honesty, a paladin followed Honor, etc.) But each question wasn’t a choice between good and evil, or good and lukewarm, or even better and best. In most cases, each question had you pick between two perfectly moral choices, depending on what you hold most important, and a lot of them were pretty tough choices (assuming you were answering them honestly, and not just picking the virtue that corresponded to whatever class you wanted to use).
So I decided to run a little experiment on Facebook and ask the general public (or at least my Facebook friends) the same questions, to see what virtue people really held most dear. And the responses were fairly telling and somewhat surprising in their own right, and I think a lot of lessons can be learned from the result. I may later post the actual answers people gave, but I want to get permission from people before I start quoting them, so for now I’ll summarize. First, let me break it down question by question:
1. Entrusted to deliver an uncounted purse of gold, thou dost meet a poor beggar. Dost thou:
A) deliver the gold knowing the Trust in thee was well-placed; or
B) show Compassion, giving the Beggar a coin, knowing it won’t be missed?
Honesty vs. Compassion. This first question had a lot of people trying to take a third option, e.g. give the beggar some of their own money, come back later afterward and help the beggar out, pray about it, etc. Of course, taking a third option was kind of a cop-out answer, and sometimes praying about it isn’t always the final answer (a point which I’ll come back to later). Although a few people noted that leaving the beggar unsuccored would be a greater sin than using money that nobody would miss anyway (though both would be bad), the majority went with option A. Being trustworthy was more important than being charitable, especially if it’s not your own money (even if it wouldn’t be missed).
2. Although a teacher of music, thou art a skillful wrestler. Thou hast been asked to fight in a local championship against those with much lesser skill. Dost thou:
A) accept the invitation and Valiantly fight to win; or
B) Humbly decline knowing thou wouldst probably have won, thus giving others a better chance?
Valor vs. Humility. I reworded this one slightly from the actual question to try to make it more balanced, but apparently it didn’t work, as not a single person picked B. Everyone chose to enter and win the tournament. I found this one the most surprising, because personally, I would have picked B. Not that I’m necessarily all that humble (in fact, I don’t think the answer here really demonstrates humility, which is one reason I tried to reword it: the original reads “Humbly decline knowing thou art sure to win”), but beating people who are obviously way worse than I am isn’t fun for the other people, nor is it really fun for me, especially in a tournament setting. I pictured it like Stephen Hawking entering a third-grade science fair: assuming the judges are completely unbiased and don’t care about anyone’s feelings, it’s obvious who’s going to win. It just seems like a petty ego-booster more than anything else. Striving to beat those on your own level, however, is a different story, as would be training those weaker than you. But that’s just my opinion.
3. Thou dost believe that virtue resides in all people. Thou dost see a rogue steal from thy Lord. Dost thou:
A) call him to Justice; or
B) personally try to sway him back to the Spiritual path of good?
Justice vs. Spirituality. This one was completely split down the middle, and I ended up having to choose a winner based on how many “likes” each comment got. The obvious Les Miz parallel was drawn (“You must use this precious silver to become an honest man…”), and some said it depended on why the rogue was stealing, which, oddly enough, is a moral dilemma presented in some other Ultima IV questions (more about those later), just not in the ones I asked. Others brought up the fact that, whatever his reasoning behind the theft, he was guilty regardless and needed to face the consequences. Nevertheless, in the end B won, though that was probably more due to people liking the Les Miz quote than anything else.
4. Thou art a bounty hunter sworn to return an alleged murderer. After his capture, thou believest him to be innocent. Dost thou:
A) Sacrifice thy sizeable bounty for thy belief; or
B) Honor thy oath to return him as thou hast promised?
Sacrifice vs. Honor. Randomly, this is the basis for a Quantum Leap episode, where in the end Sam goes with A (and it’s not like it’s his bounty anyway). Anyway, this was was also nearly 50/50. Those arguing for A noted that just because someone has a bounty after them doesn’t mean they’re guilty. You weren’t sure if he would get a fair trial, especially since the simple matter of having a bounty on one’s head tends to bias people against a person. However, those who argued for B noted that it would hurt your own reputation and honor to not fulfill your job. You could testify of your belief at the trial and put your faith in the system. Both excellent arguments, but in the end more people chose A, barely.
5. Thou has been prohibited by thy absent Lord from joining thy friends in a close pitched battle. Dost thou:
A) refrain, so thou may Honestly claim obedience; or
B) show Valor, and aid thy comrades, knowing thou may deny it later?
Honesty vs. Valor. This is the winner of the first question vs. the winner of the second question, which is how it works in the game (the whole thing is a sort of bracket system). The answers were, once again, pretty split down the middle. Some said it was more important to remain obedient, no matter what the situation (though in this case “Lord” refers to a human, fallible medieval lord, not the religious, divine kind), some chose not to fight because the war itself was most likely political, and some just chose to pray for their friends instead. Others chose to put “bros before lords” and quoted valiant poetry, in essence showing that, when it comes down to it, it’s most important to protect your fellow soldiers. Still, in the end, more people chose to follow their lord than aid their comrades, so A was the winner!
6. Thou hast spent thy life in charitable and righteous work. Thine uncle the innkeeper lies ill and asks you to take over his tavern. Dost thou:
A) Sacrifice thy life of purity to aid thy kin; or
B) decline & follow thy Spirit’s call?
Sacrifice vs. Spirituality. I think this question hit closer to home for most people than many of the earlier questions, as this type of dilemma is something faced all the time within the LDS community. I know specifically of one case where the girl involved had literally nearly this exact decision (minus the tavern): take care of her sick father, or serve a mission. She put off serving a mission for years, but finally decided that it was too important to put off any longer, and she’s currently out serving right now. On a smaller scale this struggle happens in the Church all the time. What’s more important for a bishop: raising his family, or fulfilling his duties? It’s up to each bishop and his family to decide where that line lies, but it’s not an easy decision. The same can be said of many callings in the Church.
A lot of people picked A, reasoning that helping your family is a form of charitable and righteous work anyway, and as an innkeeper you may have opportunities to be charitable and kind to others. Most of those who picked B brought up their mission experiences specifically, saying that whatever good they may have accomplished at home was not even comparable to the good they accomplished in their missionary years. Still, for the majority, family comes first.
7. Thou and thy friend are valiant but penniless warriors. Ye both go out to slay a mighty dragon. Thy friend thinks he slew it, but thou didst. When asked, dost thou:
A) Truthfully claim the gold; or
B) Allow thy friend the large reward?
Honesty vs. Sacrifice. I edited this question a little too, but it was mostly to fix grammatical errors (the original said “thee did” instead of “thou didst”, which makes about as much sense as saying “Him do” instead of “He does”).
Wow. So many people wanted to take a third option here, it was ridiculous. Almost everyone wanted to just split the money, though in my opinion this was more about the prestige of being a dragon-slayer than it was about the reward, but I suppose that can be split too, so the arguments presented still work. In the end I think A edged it out, but that must be qualified by the fact that more people tried to take a third option than answer the question.
Grand Winner: Honesty.
There are actually a lot more questions possible (one for every combination of virtues; you can find the full list here), but I wanted to present them how the game might do so. Incidentally, picking Honesty as your virtue in Ultima IV makes you a mage, which is a really good class for the player character, so well done there, I suppose.
So what can be gleaned from all this? I think there are a multitude of good lessons here, and I leave it to each individual to take their own to heart, but here are at least a few things I’ve observed and learned.
I think the main lessons I’ve gleaned revolve around the fact that life isn’t filled with black and white choices. There are a lot of definite wrong choices, sure, but oftentimes, especially in the Church, we get the idea that in many situations there is one best choice and everything else is wrong. While that can be sometimes true, I think that often we’re asked to choose between two good things. Prayer can help guide one’s thoughts, sure, but the Lord can’t decide everything for us. D&C 58 teaches that men are “agents unto themselves”, and countless scriptures (such as Ether 2-3) and examples in Church history teach that we need to come up with our own solutions to problems we face. It’s what we personally prize as most important that gives us the ability to choose, even if both choices are acceptable to the Lord.
That’s not to say that all choices must be between one virtue and another. As was proved by the third options people kept trying to take, often goodness results from trying to apply as many virtues to a situation as possible. Often choices can seem black and white, or at the very least between two extremes, but perhaps a third road could be sought to resolve things well for all involved, even if it’s not the best possible outcome for any specific party. (Insert political commentary here.) Of course, that’s just common sense, or at least it should be.
Probably the other thing I found the most interesting about this experiment was that, since there weren’t really any wrong answers, usually the answers people gave revealed much more about the person than it did about morality or virtue. For example, for question #5 (wilt thou join thy friends in battle), the people who picked to help their friends are fighters in real life; perhaps not physically (although in one case I know for a fact that, yes, physically he is a fighter), but in attitude and life outlook. While out of those who picked A, only one or two of them actually cited obedience as the main reason (the comment about “I wouldn’t fight in a political war” is especially telling). And there’s nothing wrong with avoiding a fight, especially one that you have a legitimate reason for avoiding, but it does say a lot about the personalities of the people involved.
Another good example of this is found in question #6 (taking your uncle’s inn vs. living a life of spirituality). Almost everyone who picked to live the life of spirituality attributed their decision to their mission experiences, and how much more powerful of an impact that can have on people’s life than just simply living well. Not that there’s anything wrong with just living well; especially if you’re helping family. It’s just where your priorities lie: helping your family and some number of strangers (maybe), or helping a large number of strangers (definitely) who then become like your family? Not black and white. But our priorities and perceptions of virtue are shaped as much by our own experiences and decisions as they are by any doctrine or principles learned at church or other authorities on the subject.
I guess the best lesson that can be taken from this is perspective. It’s so easy to see others with a different perception or priorities when it comes to morality and judge them based on our own priorities. For example, it would be easy to look at the person who gave up their life of charity to run their uncle’s inn and think of what a waste it is. Someone else could take over the inn; but people all over the world need help! Why in the world would you give up the chance to influence so many? It would also be easy to look at the person who continued in their charitable work and judge how callous they are toward their own family. Don’t they know that their uncle needs them? Besides, they could still do good things as an innkeeper! But it’s important to keep in mind that what one may perceive as a weakness in a virtue could just as easily be seen as a strength in another one.
There are absolute truths. But not all truth is absolute. And it’s important to remember that for the world to make sense without believing everyone else is wrong who doesn’t agree with you.
Not bad for a computer game from 1985 that fits on three 5 1/4″ floppy disks, eh?
In order to win Ultima IV you must actually master all eight virtues, pray at their respective shrines, and collect a bunch of other plot doodads and assemble a party of eight team members, each corresponding to a virtue, to enter the Stygian Abyss. At the bottom of the Abyss lies the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, which is basically the holy book of the virtues, and after it quizzes on you about how you’ve learned to lead a virtuous life you become the Avatar, champion of good and right, and the knowledge of the Codex becomes available to everyone in the land. Once that happens, you return home (to Earth; did I mention that you were also an interdimensional traveler?), secure in the knowledge that you’ve exemplified and codified an ethos that will help people live better for years to come.
The series doesn’t let up with its interesting moral and ethical questions there, however. Without spoiling too much, Ultima V sees all of the virtues become actual laws, punishable by fines, imprisonment, and execution, and the horrible dystopia that occurs when goodness becomes mandatory. And Ultima VI ends up being a story about racism, although for the first two-thirds of the game you don’t actually know that, which actually makes the last third even more poignant, since it’s very possible that you were guilty of the same racism for the first part of the game as everyone else.
The best part? Despite these games being over twenty years old, you can still play them on modern machines if you get them from GOG.com (see links below). And if you just want to play Ultima IV, it’s completely free! And this isn’t just “you can find it as abandonware because it’s old and therefore in a legal gray area” kind of free, it’s legitimately offered by its parent company as a free download! Though I would recommend downloading and installing xu4, which is a program that updates the graphics and music; otherwise, you’ve got a 16-color game played in virtual silence. And since this is an old game and therefore doesn’t have a tutorial to speak of (one literally couldn’t fit on the disk), I would also recommend using the “Getting Started” guide I provide a link to below.
Have fun! And may you also one day become the Avatar!
- Buy the entire 2nd Trilogy from GOG.com for $5.99 (unless it happens to be on sale; I got it for $2.99!) You can also get the rest of the Ultima series if you search the site. I’d highly recommend Ultima VII especially, though that one starts dealing with more mature themes (you begin by investigating a brutal murder that’s pretty gory for 1992 graphics).
- Get just Ultima IV for free!
- Download xu4, to play the game with better graphics and music. Gameplay is virtually identical to the original, though readying spells is easier. Note that this doesn’t include the actual game, which you still have to get using the link above.
- The “Getting Started” guide from GameFAQs. Even if you don’t like using walkthroughs, reading this is basically a must. The game itself does not hold your hand.
Here’s a story I heard from our bishop today, who is sadly getting released next week. He wanted to teach one last Sunday School lesson, and as part of it he told the tale of his son’s first wife, who was ultra-conservative in the faith, to the point that if the TV got turned on on Sunday, she’d go and play hymns loudly in the other room to drown out the sound. At one point they went to eat at my bishop’s father’s house (meaning the husband’s grandfather), and there was the grandfather, watching the Superbowl. This made her so angry that she went upstairs for three hours and didn’t speak to anyone, though the sound of hymns came through the ceiling every so often.
So what’s the moral of this story? And before you answer that, keep in mind that the name of my bishop is Thomas L. Monson. Which means the name of the grandfather watching the Superbowl was Thomas S. Monson. (Yes, that Thomas S. Monson.)
I won’t give a moral to this tale myself. My bishop’s point was that you shouldn’t marry a spiritual fanatic (unless you’re also a spiritual fanatic) because it will just make both of you unhappy; instead, marry somebody on roughly the same spiritual level as you (you know, as long as both of you are at least active members), but I leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions.
From three separate talks:
- I need to get married. Also, to stay married a couple needs to go to the temple a lot.
That’s…mostly it. That’s what I got out of it. Interesting.
More better conference nutshells. More…more better…
Recently my sister Kjersti shared with my family an article written by LDS author Orson Scott Card titled “Holding on to the ‘others'” that I found quite insightful. The article is definitely worth a read, but for those who want a summary, it basically states that in Mormon culture those who excel at sports are traditionally celebrated, while those who are bookish or artistic are usually put off to the side and ostracized, and that’s a real problem. I had a few choice comments about it, many of which I want to share with you here.
What the article really makes me think of was back to the time when I was Elder’s Quorum President in one of my BYU wards. We were trying to reach out to the less-active members of the quorum, and I noted that a lot of them liked playing video games. So I proposed having an EQ activity where we’d have a Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart tournament in the courtyard of our apartment complex, projected up on a big screen. Since it was right next to people’s apartments it would take little effort for those who live in seclusion to join the party, and it would be a nice change from the sports and/or date nights that formed the basis of every other activity we ever had.
When I brought it up in a ward council meeting, however, I received vehement opposition to the idea. Not from the bishopric, who gave me their full support, but from other girls in the meeting (I don’t even remember what auxiliaries they belonged to) who literally stood up and started yelling (well, speaking loudly anyway) about how that was a terrible idea! Video games are evil! Anyone who plays video games is forcing themselves to be alienated from society! They just need to start coming to those sporting events and date nights if they ever want to learn how to function in the church! If the ward holds a function with video games we might as well be telling those sinners that we fully embrace their corruption!
I was totally flabbergasted. They were so passionate that this was a bad idea that it was like I had suggested that we reach out to inactives by holding an orgy. How could such blatant, short-sighted bigotry exist in the Church? True, an obsession with playing video games can be a detriment to a person, but so can an obsession with almost anything (Church Ball, anyone?). But for a person to suggest that the Church would be better off not reaching out to less-actives in a way that they’d respond, rather than plan an activity that wasn’t a common one in the LDS culture? Yet this sentiment, while not always so loudly and obviously expressed, is very alive and well within the Church.
This is one reason why I’m finding it tough to remain active these days, at least on days other than Sunday. I know the gospel is true, and I’ll defend it to the end of my days, but I’ll be darned if I can find someone in any of my recent wards to whom I can relate. Life isn’t carving pumpkins, playing volleyball, baking bread and going to awkward church dances! I love the gospel too much to go totally inactive, but the social aspect is making it harder and harder these days. Maybe it’s the ward? But I haven’t felt comfortable in a ward since at least 2008, both including times I’ve moved and times where the semester change-over cleared out large chunks of wards, in effect making them different animals. It’s saying something that the most interaction I’ve had with people in my current ward has been with the bishop’s wife. It’s also saying something that the only time I’ve felt entirely at ease with a group of other people this year has been when I was on a cruise and hanging out with my cousin Katrina’s wacky friends who were progressively getting more drunk as the night went on. (I don’t quite know what it’s saying, but it’s saying something.) True, I don’t really want to live the lifestyle they live, but it was really nice to be able to be myself without having to worry about social rules that I’ve never quite grasped yet am expected to follow at church activities.
Speaking of which, Kjersti also recently shared an article detailing how the Church can reach out to singles better. While many points I would make about that particular article I’ve already made before, I think that really, these two problems are related. It falls under one umbrella: people don’t know how to treat people that are different. And often it has to do more with who’s in authority than with any particular side. There have been times where I felt like an outcast because I knew about football in social situations where everyone else was making fun of it. It’s just that right now, more often than not, those in charge in the Church, at least on a local level, are more likely to be sports fans than academics or artistic folks. And it’s definitely true that most of the people in charge in the Church are married (since it’s a requirement for a lot of positions, such as bishop). It’s simple human tendency to listen to those they agree with and discount the other side as ignorant.
I had that point driven home for me recently when I responded to a review by an semi-famous Internet reviewer. In high school he played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: the Gathering, but by doing so was ostracized by the public at large and often had to play these “devil games” (which are actually quite harmless) in secret. The reason I felt I had to respond personally to this was that he grew up in Mesa, AZ, and a large group of the people either shunning him or trying to convert him from his evil D&D playing ways, were members of the LDS faith. I posted a comment trying to explain and apologize for the situation, but had it pointed out to me that it wasn’t anything uniquely Mormon, but more human nature for people to ignore or preach at anybody they didn’t understand.
It all boils down to pride. One person or group is in charge, so their preferences are right and they have to make everyone else see that. Or one person or group isn’t in charge, so they feel resentful at the group that is, and especially at whatever that group likes or represents, however benign that thing may be. Heaven knows I’ve been guilty of this more times than I’d care to admit. Would I be happier if every week the Church had activities based on video games, or theater, or intellectual discussions, or even tabletop RPGs? Probably, but then the sports fans would be grumbling about all the accolades heaped upon the “drama freaks.” It’s finding that elusive equilibrium that has proved to be difficult: where we all can come together, united in purpose. I don’t know if that will ever happen. Even the Lord lost a third of the host of heaven because they disagreed. What hope do we have of being all-inclusive?
I’m not saying we shouldn’t try. While we can’t include everybody, we certainly can try to include as many as we can. That was my purpose behind the video game activity in Elders’ Quorum those years ago. I didn’t force those people who were opposed to the activity to come. I do think that leaders both in and out of the Church need to be more cognizant of different groups and their interests & accomplishments. I do think that the current emphasis on sports is waay out of proportion. Even in sports there’s an imbalance toward basketball and football (did you hear about the amazing performance of the local lacrosse team? Me neither). And I do think that, as a body, the Church needs to provide as many different opportunities for different groups to do what they love, even if it’s not the norm.
In short, I hate dances and playing basketball! Give me somewhere else to meet people, please, singles’ wards!
And, as a coda, the Mario Kart activity succeeded quite well. A lot of guys came that I’d never even seen before, and while many of them just as quickly sunk back into the shadows, a few started coming to other activities as well. Even some of the girls that otherwise would have been making bread or something at a Relief Society activity snuck out early to join in. (That actually became a running gag in the ward: on nights where the Relief Society had an activity the elders would plan one as well, and there were quite a few girls who would prefer our activity to theirs. Like when the girls were all going on a campout somewhere and so the guys planned to watch the manliest movie that we could get away with and still call it a Church activity, which ended up being Rocky, for some reason. Some of the girls ditched the campout because they wanted to watch Rocky instead of being in a canyon somewhere with a bunch of other girls.)
Note: this post originates as a final paper for my Persuasive Writing class. The topic given was “marriage” and under that topic we were allowed to write about whatever we wanted. Originally I was going to write about how it’s OK for spouses to have different interests and hobbies from their partner, but as I was working on that I realized that I didn’t care. I therefore changed my topic to something much more close to home and the result is what you see here.
As a single student attending BYU, I have felt a lot of pressure to get married. Every day it seems that some sort of reminder crops up that marriage brings eternal happiness, emotional strength and resolve, and stability; in effect, it provides meaning in life. Classes are offered on how to make a happy and successful marriage. The entire social structure of a singles’ ward is designed to help young men and women meet and court each other, with the end goal of matrimony in mind. Happy couples litter the landscape of the campus like wildflowers, showing the rest of us how wonderful life can be once a person has found his or her special someone. One of the main focuses of the Church is marriage and family life, and the basic unit of the Church is indeed the family.
This environment creates a lot of pressure for people like me to get married so I can share in the wonderful blessings that come with the territory. However, despite my best efforts to win a girl’s heart, I have not been successful in this regard. Recently it has been more difficult to work up the enthusiasm and effort required to date, court, and marry. My situation is not unique: there are large numbers of students at BYU who desire marriage, yet have all but given up hope for themselves. With such a pro-marriage environment such as BYU, how did this happen? Could the constant emphasis on marriage actually drive people away from doing the necessary things needed to get married?
Young people today face an increasingly complex world, one in which it is difficult to find a role. Some psychologists have termed this the “quarter-life period,” an emerging adulthood between approximately 18-29 years of age where a person has grown out of adolescence but has not fully assumed all of the roles and responsibilities of traditional adults. Generations in America before World War Two usually went straight from schooling into the work force at early ages. With the developing affluence of the post-war period, more training was require to compete in the job marketplace, and as a result of spending more time in schooling before entering a career, the teenage culture developed an identity of its own that had been missing before. As time moved on and the job market became even more complex and demanding, young people have had to put off establishing their careers well past adolescence. Identity exploration, instability, possibility, self-focus, and parental conflict – issues normally associated with adolescence, have extended into people’s twenties, creating a sense of limbo for many young Americans.1
The environment at BYU and elsewhere in the Church can be highlighted to define this stage of life for students and members of the Church. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the phenomenon that is the singles’ ward: a place where the members are too old to go to their parents’ ward as a child, yet haven’t moved on to the next stage of life, that of marriage. Although the basic elements of the ward organization exist, the auxiliaries and other organizations have often been modified or done away with altogether in order to fit the needs of this unique unit within the Church. Many of these altered organizations are put in place precisely to encourage the social interactions that will hopefully lead to marriage. A friendship committee may be set up, to organize ward date nights. The activities committee takes a large chunk of the ward’s time and budget. The Sabbath Day committee organizes events such as Break-The-Fast, Sunday ward prayers, or Linger Longers to provide more social opportunities. A lot of lessons taught in singles’ wards tend to focus more on dating and marriage than on more traditional gospel subjects such as faith, prayer, tithing, or temple attendance. In short, nearly every aspect of the singles’ ward is geared toward getting people out of the singles’ ward and into marriage.
So into this pressure cooker of a pro-marriage environment come these new “quarter-life” people: those who are still unsure of their future career, who are trying to become independent of their parents, who haven’t yet discovered their identity. A healthy identity is essential to the well-being and happiness of a person. Those with a strong sense of who they are tend to be more decisive, sure of themselves, and act with confidence. Conversely, those with a negative identity, or those who associate their identity with negative groups or connotations, tend to be more reserved, unsure, and lax in decision making. “Identity diffusion,” or a lack of a strong sense of who oneself is, often leads to a lack of orientation and ambivalence about life. A healthy sense of identity occurs when a person associates him or herself with positive groups, or believes that he or she has something good to contribute. One of many good environments to be in to cultivate a strong sense of identity is, indeed, a marital one.2 This is probably a main reason why the Church and BYU emphasize marriage so much: to help young people overcome their “quarter-life” stage and become functioning adults.
Spurred on by the many pro-marriage messages he receives, along with a desire to establish a positive identity, a young man comes on to the BYU dating scene with optimism. Examples of couples getting together, becoming closer, and getting married are all around him. However, for whatever reason, he is having little success. Dates, while numerous, always seem to end with polite disinterest. Despite his best efforts, he cannot find a girl with whom he “clicks.” Repeatedly hitting his head against a wall, he soon begins to date less and less. Eventually, years have gone by and he is poised to leave BYU, still as single as ever. What happened?
This young man has now an established identity: that of a single person. Since he has lived for years in this state, it is where he feels most comfortable, and therefore, where he defines himself. The problem comes, however, with the connotations associated with being single, especially at BYU. As has previously been mentioned, it seems that every aspect of BYU society, particularly singles’ wards, is geared toward getting people married. Therefore, if a person goes through the system, doing his best to provide opportunities for marriage yet not getting any success, the only alternative is that he has achieved failure.
Often well-meaning bishops and other members exacerbate this problem by reacting to singles with pity or patronizing comments designed to help. Statements such as “What is it going to take to get you married?” or “Quit being so picky,” or “You just need to date more,” while well-intentioned, simply exacerbate the feeling of failure many singles feel.3 When my brother was single he was asked on a consistent basis why he wasn’t married yet. He confided in me once that the response he wanted to give was, “Well, I was dating someone, but she died.” Pause. “Feeling awkward? That’s how I feel when you ask me about marriage.” The example may be somewhat extreme, but the sentiment is clear.
In addition, there exists what Dr. Bella DePaulo calls the “soulmate mythology,” or the idea that marriage to one’s soulmate will solve most of a person’s problems and allow them to live happily ever after. As she puts it, “The soulmate promises an all-in-one solution. Find that one perfect person and you have—for starters—your best friend, your sexual partner, your comforter and caretaker, your cheerleader, your escort to every social function, your consultant on matters large and small, and the one and only teammate you will ever need in home management, money management, and vacation planning. And that list doesn’t even include any of the potential coparenting possibilities. The soulmate mythology is the ultimate seduction: Find that one right person and all of your wishes will come true. Find that one perfect person, your All-Purpose Partner, and your path through the rest of your adult life is set. And it will be a happy path, indeed.”4This myth is alive and well at BYU, perhaps even more so than in the world at large.
Single people are often stigmatized by society as immature, self-centered, and insecure. In a recent study, undergraduates at the University of California were ask to define what the characteristics of married people were, as opposed to single people. Over half responded that married people were caring, kind, and giving, where only 2% described single people using the same terms. This was despite another study in which single people and married people rated their own satisfaction in life at about the same level. In addition, the study showed that most people believed that the older a single person got without marrying, the more self-centered, more envious, less socially mature, and less well-adjusted they were perceived to be.5 This attitude is prevalent within the Church and the BYU society, displaying its colors most prominently in the oft-quoted but apocryphal statement mistakenly attributed to Brigham Young that any single male over the age of twenty-five is a “menace to society.”
So what does this all add up to? In essence, as time goes on, single people at BYU feel like they have failed at getting married. They have missed out on finding their soulmate and all of the wonderful blessings associated with that. Since they’re not married, society tells them that they are selfish, immature, and inferior. And since their identity has now been established as selfish, immature, and inferior, who would want to marry them? With so much pressure, disappointment, and disapproval heaped upon them, many simply give up, resigning themselves to a miserable single life.
By living in such a pro-marriage environment, single people tend to feel a great burden of disapproval and inferiority. In this way, by creating and maintaining this environment, those who are seeking to help the cause of marriage are, in fact, hindering it. Fortunately, the Church has realized this and in recent years has published articles in the Ensign to help single people feel better about not yet being married. This is a good start; however, to truly see improvement, perhaps the emphasis of BYU and singles’ wards need not be happiness through marriage, but simply happiness despite marital status. In this way those who have been unlucky in their relationships may find the self-esteem they need to make something of their life other than being the unhappy single guy or girl.
1 Atwood, J. D., & Scholtz, C. (2008). The quarter-life time period: An age of indulgence, crisis or both? Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 30(4), 233-250.
2 Montgomery, M. J., Hernandez, L., & Ferrer-Wreder, L. (2008). Identity development and intervention studies: The right time for a marriage? Identity, 8(2), 173-182.
3 Chris Brough, “Seeing beyond Single,” Ensign, Jun 2004, 36
4 DePaulo, B. (2006). Singled out: How singles are stereotyped, stigmatized, and ignored, and still live happily ever after. New York, NY US: St Martin’s Press. 247.
5 DePaulo, B. M., & Morris, W. L. (2006). The unrecognized stereotyping and discrimination against singles. Current Directions in Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 15(5), 251-254.
Once again, here are my notes and impressions of the LDS General Conference, this time from Apr. 2009:
- New apostle — Neil Lyndon Andersen
- The prophet may sing “El Rancho Grande” if you put him in a sombrero and sarape.
- The four most caring words: “We can’t afford it.”
- Be reverent!
- Virtue is not just for young women, but men too.
- Be acquainted with the voice of the Spirit, so you can recognize and understand it in the heat of the moment.
- Trials are invitations to grow, and those who accept trials as such can find peace in the turmoil.
- Learn from others, smart guy! Prophets and apostles are in touch, despite being old.
- Learn from the past too, lest you be doomed to repeat it.
- A loving God only makes sense if there is continuing revelation, and hell is not endless.
- Faith is like spiritual photosynthesis.
- Go to the temple and participate in all ordinances!
- Forgive to be forgiven.
- Add audible “amen” as a listener to a prayer.
- Learn how to pray from Christ’s prayers.
- Prayer doesn’t need to be long-winded. Six words can be as effective, or more so, than one thousand.
- Young people speak of the future because they have no past. Old people speak of the past because they have no future.
- Take care of your body.
- Do not immerse yourself so much in the technical that you fail to learn the practical.
- Help others through this time of economic hardship, especially with unemployment issues.
- Involve the whole family in home evening. The four-year-old can still share a Primary lesson.
- Don’t do Church work on your employer’s time.
- Elder Uchtdorf pokes fun at his own propensity to tell aviation stories.
- A malfunctioning light bulb led to the crash of a plane.
- The tendency to focus on the insignificant instead of the profound ends in tragedy.
- Don’t text while driving!
- Our weakness is failing to align our actions with our conscience.
- We’re at spiritual war! Let us be not just spiritual soldiers, but spiritual medics as well.
- Prophetic counsel: take notes!
- Be always ready to give a reason for the hope within you.
- Three not-new suggestions for safety:
- Study diligently
- Pray fervently
- Live righteously
- Prayer is the passport to peace.
- Don’t eat egg salad sandwiches after leaving them out in the sun.
- Answer the call to serve, even if it’s just giving a blessing to a drummer with food poisoning.
- Live worthy every minute.
- Get on with life! Adapt to change!
- Next time you want to groan, laugh instead! Ha ha ha!
- The Spirit had to withdraw from Christ on the cross so He could understand the hopeless despair of those who have committed grievous sins.
- Don’t be an unresponsive onlooker on the road to Golgotha.
- Perseverance with faith in hard times will lead to peace.
- If you ever find a mother with four children journeying in bare feet and tattered clothes across a war-torn country, for pete’s sake help her out, lest she be forced to bury all four of her children with a spoon, and later her bare hands in the snow!
- The future is as bright as your faith.
- Church members’ willingness to sacrifice comes from faith, church leader instruction, and commitment to covenants.
- Selfishness and entitlement (the feeling of getting something for nothing because one “deserves” it) are behind the global economic meltdown.
- Going to church is better if you’re active, not passive, while there.
- Regular temple-going is the way to truly take Christ’s name upon us.
- You’re never lost when you can see the temple.
- Make your home as holy as the temple.
- Our Father will respect our freedom to shoes, er, choose.
- GPS systems are awesome, except when they lose the satellite signal in underground parking garages.
- Our personal GPS (conscience) will lose its connection with the divine if buried under the concrete parking garage of sin.
- When you lose sight of the camp, let the old experienced horse lead the way.
- Analogy: full-time missionaries = search and rescue team. Members = shepherds. Who has a better chance of bringing in the sheep?
- Share your musical talents with others! That means go to choir, kid!
- Word of caution: careful on the Internet! There’s a whole lotta crap on there! Avoid it at all costs, especially the porn!
- Remember President Monson and all general authorities in your prayers!
And perhaps most importantly:
- If you’re staying at your parents’ house from Saturday night to Sunday morning, make sure you’ve set your clock for Daylight Savings Time back in your childhood bedroom, lest you believe it’s 9:30 when you go upstairs, only to find out that conference has been going for a full half hour. I heard Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk had to do with Palm Sunday, but that’s about all I got.
This was the first April conference since I moved down to Provo where I haven’t been in the choir at one session. While that means I got to hear the whole thing instead of being stuck on a bus for most of a session, it was still kind of sad. I guess I can’t be there all the time, though, not unless I join the Tab choir. Maybe I’ll do that someday. I’ll be right up there with Mark Pearce and Brad Omer! On a related choir note, the Saturday Afternoon choir was a combined Institute choir from Salt Lake County, and it was conducted by a guy in my home stake, who was in charge of the tenors when we put on From Cumorah’s Hill when I was in seventh grade (and was a tenor). Kind of random.
In any case, enjoy the conference proceedings, and remember to consider the lilies in the field. How they grow? How they grow.
It’s always good to hear that a convert you taught stays in the church. It’s even better to hear that they got married in the temple. But it’s quite something when they go and marry the bishop’s daughter! But that’s apparently what recently happened with David Eduardo Chica Castillos (literally David Edward Girl Castle), my one truly miraculous baptism on the mission, in good ol’ Cartagena.
‘Twas a story of exact obedience and the blessings it can bring. You see, every day in Spain the whole place shuts down for mediodía, which is basically a thee or four hour break in the middle of the workday when everything closes down and everyone goes home to have a big meal and take a siesta. This usually lasts from about 1:00 to 5:00 or so. We missionaries had a break, too, but it was only from 2:00 to 4:00. At 4:00 we were required to leave and begin proselyting again, even though there was nobody on the street or anywhere (and knocking doors during siesta time is normally a very bad idea). Consequently, the 4:00-5:00 hour was dubbed the least effective hour of the day to proselyte, and sometimes it was tempting to stay in the apartment for an extra bit of time, eating or studying or working on an area book or something rather than hitting the street. Well, Elder Joey Larsen and I sometimes had problems getting out the door on time in the afternoon, but this day we were determined to be 100% obedient, so we got out the door at exactly 4:00. Naturally, the streets were deserted, except for one kid, around our age, that we contacted at around 4:01. He actually accepted our invitation to teach him (which threw us a little off guard), and then showed up to our appointment later (which really threw us off guard) and ended up getting baptized less than a month later (does that even happen in Spain?). In fact, the only issue he had during the entire teaching process was that he used to drink tea, but he gave it up without a second thought. The kid was perfectly primed and ready to hear the gospel, and was the only real golden contact I ever encountered in my entire two years out there. Elder Larsen and I concluded that somebody out there must’ve been fasting for us or something. The point is, get out there at 4:00, ’cause the golden contacts will be passing by on the sidewalk at 4:01!
We were a little worried that he got baptized because he thought Hermana Nations, a sister serving in our district, was pretty, but fortunately, we were proven wrong. And now he married the bishop’s daughter! What an awesome success story! And how do I know this? This morning I received a phone call from José Gabriel Nadal (yes, that one) informing me of this fact. He’s still trying to get a hold of Elder Joey Larsen, and I used to have his contact information but recently he must’ve moved or something because the number I had for him doesn’t work anymore. C’mon, Joeyman, where are you?
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah for Israel!
Note: I spent most of this conference being sick, and as such only took notes during the first Saturday Morning Session. When the Ensign comes out I will read through the talks and make some more notes, probably posting them here too, but for now, enjoy the few notes I did take!
- My old mission president gave the opening prayer!
- New temples: Calgary, Alberta; Cordoba, Argentina; Kansas City. MO; Philadelphia, PA; Rome, Italy
- Simplify your life!
- Casual dress invites casual attitudes. Fashion-conscious mockers are at least partly responsible for driving people away from the Tree of Life.
- Do missionary work! It’s the way to bring people to Christ, which means blessings for all!
- Fear and faith cannot coexist. The gospel gives us no reason to be afraid, but to believe.
- We repeat the same spiritual steps over and over again to receive more light and quell our doubts. In this way our faith becomes simple, and pure.
- Jesus makes everything right again. That may sound naive, but it’s still true.
- The Book of Mormon is a spiritual banquet. To ignore it would be like receiving a letter from a far-away parent, but not opening the envelope.
- Sacrament meeting a time for worship, and to focus on the Savior. Not texting!
- Hope sustains us during trials. Don’t lose it, lest you be lost!
- If you ever head for Cedar City and end up in Nevada, laugh! Bwah ha ha!
- Even when life is hard, it’s still funny! Look for the hilarity!
- Come what may, and love it!
- Angels will be sent forth to warn and comfort, as long as men have faith.
- The gospel is simple and easy to understand. Look not beyond the mark.
- Zion = pure in heart, united together
And the mantra I will most remember:
- Find joy in the journey.
See y’all soon, and hopefully I will have some thoughts on the rest of conference!
- Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”
- You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose that you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it? … Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief.
- Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal.
- There have been men before … who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God himself… as if the good Lord had nothing to do but to exist. There have been some who were so preoccupied with spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ.
- This year, or this month, or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practice ourselves the kind of behavior we expect from other people.
- What can you ever really know of other people’s souls — of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole of creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands. If there is a God, you are, in a sense, alone with Him. You cannot put Him off with speculation about your neighbors or memories of what you have read in books.
- If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
- Enough had been thought, and said, and felt, and imagined. It was about time that something should be done.
- Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.
My brother got married a few weeks ago in San Diego. I wish I had more to say, but I’m in kind of an apathetic stage in my life right now. Everyone around is moving on. . .except me. Well, and Josh, but that’s to be expected.