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!
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.