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: 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.