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 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.