Sunday, November 6, 2011

One Of Those Moments

Some people leave Mormonism and become agnostic or atheist. That's totally understandable, given the myopic authoritarian atmosphere they're escaping.

The basics of Christianity still work for me and I consider myself lucky to have found a warm welcome at the Episcopal cathedral here as I try to figure out what I really believe and can have faith in. The people there don't care about whether I'm "doctrinally orthodox," they are just loving Christians.

Today I had one of those experiences that capture in one moment how much life can change, and it was really delightful. Three years ago--not THAT long ago, actually--I was sitting bored as hell in Mormon sacrament meetings, shot through with a mix of angst and excitement and fear and uncertainty, having just barely started to come out, and watching as each week my ward and stake turned itself into a political action committee to rise in defense of truth, righteousness and Proposition 8. "The sacrament" was a rote routine to be gotten through in silence broken by fussy babies and children.

Today I sat calmly in the cool of a beautiful cathedral's stained glass glow, no longer "certain" of some old dogmas but very certain I was in a place that fit me a whole lot better. And when I walked up front to take communion I was part of a microcosm of humanity: all ages, ethnic groups, rich, poor, healthy and infirm, all together. Real life, not an insular cultural bubble. And when I got to the front, the bread was distributed by a woman, and the wine (NOT water) by an African-American man. Both in white vestments. Could that possibly have been more different than the Mormon version?

As I sat in the pew afterward, listening to the Mozart Requiem and watching everyone else walk forward, watching an aged man with slow gait kneel to seek a special blessing from one of the clergy in the apse to the side, I felt very grateful to have found my way there, a place where I can just be myself, figure out for myself what I can believe and have faith in, and participate with many other good people who are doing the same. Not rushing about in near exhaustion to "fill callings" or home teach or make temple attendance quotas or go on splits with the missionaries or any of that busywork, but just living life as best we can, not judging anyone else, and trying to figure out how God plays into it and what Jesus means and what kind of people we should become. To me that takes a lot more real faith than just going along with a Correlated series of pablumized lessons and "following the Brethren." It means you actually have to take responsibility for yourself. It's not as uniformly packaged, but it's a lot more exciting.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Different Perspectives

Reading through the comments on another post-Mo's blog, people are talking about what it's like to go back to LDS services after being away for awhile.  All participants described how different it seemed after their hiatus.  More than one said they enjoyed Unitarian services so much more, because those services had no unofficial but understood "code of silence" like LDS meetings did and which prevented even the mention of doubts or differences of opinion.  Apparently at Unitarian services they felt completely accepted as they were, free of fears and freely able to say what they thought and felt.

As I read those remarks I thought of how a TBM would probably view them.  While the people who said these things feel freer and more accepted and happier to be who and what they are outside the LDS church, a TBM is more likely to think such people have abandoned the clear standard of truth and are selfishly seeking only those sources that will tell them what they want to hear.

This is an interesting difference.  Which perspective is more accurate?  I guess it depends on the standard you use to judge.

The commenters all said they'd felt frustrated, confused, disheartened, unfulfilled, and excluded by the LDS church whose teachings they had gradually realized were not true (in their opinions).  So they left and found more fulfilling spiritual solace elsewhere.  They're emphatic that their lives are better, happier, more purposeful, and more peaceful now after making the break.  Jesus said to judge things by their fruits, and so far the fruits of leaving the LDS church seem to be pretty positive for these people.

TBMs, on the other hand, would tend to consider these people deceived and selfish.  Willing to abandon divinely established, non-negotiable standards of truth and the authorized messengers who teach it, in order to try to make truth fit their personal agendas, indulging the "natural man" who is "an enemy to God" rather than submitting the "natural man" to God's requirements for salvation and exaltation.  Such a person would claim they are taking the truly long-term view and that whatever difficulties might be encountered in life as an active Mormon are worth it because such faithfulness will ultimately be rewarded.  They would probably be too polite to actually say these things to a post-Mo Unitarian, but I have no doubt they'd think this way.

So who's right?  The more I ponder, the more I realize that faith and the adoption of any religious perspective ultimately rest on a decision to believe.  Because by definition, faith is a belief in something you can't totally prove.  So you have to decide to accept and trust it regardless.  How strong that faith becomes, or how it may change, also depend on decisions.  One of them is how open the person will be to information and evidence that may conflict with their prior decisions to believe.  That in turn depends on the person's priorities.  Do they really value truth above all else?  Do they have the integrity to realize they might be wrong about something and to give good faith consideration to information that might suggest that?  Do they trust themselves sufficiently to be able to consider information from whatever credible sources they encounter? And do they have the courage to follow honest evidence and conclusions even if it means changing their personal course?  These questions apply to everyone, from the most liberal atheist or Unitarian to the most strictly conservative Mormon or Catholic.

The answers to those questions will shed light on which view of these post-Mo commenters may be more correct.  But it still ultimately comes down to a decision to believe.  If you believe beyond question that LDS authorities speak for God and the organization they run is the divinely authorized conduit for spiritual truth, then you will consider these post-Mo Unitarians to have strayed from the true path, to their own detriment.  If you don't believe that premise, you'll be more inclined to look at them as honest seekers of truth whose lives reflect decisions that work better for them and so, for them, that path is more "true" than the Mormon path is.

In the end, I think the answer will say more about the person giving it than about any ultimate objective "truth."

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The View From Here

You don't shuck off the influence of a lifetime spent in Mormonism overnight.  Or even over the course of a year.  It will probably always be there.  I'll always be interested in what Mormons are doing and saying.  But I'm to the point now where, for example, when I hear about BYU TV programs featuring BYU religion professors sitting round a table earnestly and seriously discussing details of some Book of Mormon passage or issue, I almost start to laugh.  Because it's like watching Trekkies debate the finer points of Galaxy-class starship hull design.  Interesting to those who've bought into the story, but to those that see the wider real world, the Trekkies or the BYZoobies are just amusingly disconnected.

For all its pretense to have the answers for everything, the Mormon church sure seems not to know about a lot of pretty important stuff.  And it seems to obsess about a lot of other things that really aren't so important.  The mess it's made of dealing with the whole gay issue is almost without parallel in church history.  First it taught this, then that, then being gay went from a relatively benign less than optimum to an excommunicable offense regardless of whether the person had "acted on it," now it's just fine to be gay as long as you don't do anything about it, which is like saying it's okay to need oxygen as long as you don't actually breathe, and being gay is just a "temporary mortal affliction" that allegedly won't exist in the next life.  Well where the hell did that come from?  Sheer speculation from a couple of GAs desperate to neuter an issue that seriously threatens the stability of the whole LDS house of theological cards.  What a godawful mess.  There's no way on earth such a botched job of zig-zags could be inspired, though every LDS leader claimed to be when they preached things about it that contradicted other LDS leaders who also claimed to be inspired.

One thing that has struck me pretty forcefully of late is how fragile Mormon "testimonies" seem to be.  The church seems to be on constant alert against threats to members' "testimonies," warning against contact with groups not "in sympathy" with Mormon teachings, fostering a culture that ostracizes anyone who looks too far outside approved channels to learn about different perspectives on Mormon teachings and history, making it politically incorrect to express doubts or even say just "I believe" rather than "I know."  Teaching kids to fake it till they make it. 

But I always thought, and was taught, that truth is very robust.  It can take a beating and still stand up for itself.  It shouldn't fear the most relentless examination.  So why all the paranoia?  Why the desperation of apologists like those at the Maxwell Institute and FAIR to avoid implications of things like Native American DNA or the real translation of the Book of Abraham?

Well,  actually, the answer to that question is pretty simple.  Anybody who's honest and looks at those issues, objectively, no results pre-determined, will concede that the evidence is pretty strong against the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham.  Compelling, in fact.  And if they're not what the Mormon church claims they are, then what happens to the whole edifice?  To all the careers, the investment of time and money and work and lives spent building it all up and spreading it?  Nobody wants to think their lives or efforts have been a waste, or have been spent trusting a sham.  So the Maxwell Institute and FAIR and other self-appointed apologists chug along, more and more on defense as the Internet has stripped the church of control of its message and "the rest of the story" is available with just a few clicks.  Once one sees the full picture, it's hard to understand how Mormon beliefs make sense.  Because they don't.

I recently read a story of a Mormon man who gradually came to this same conclusion over a period of years.  One of his tipping points was Grant Palmer's book (which was the tipping point for me).  He reached this conclusion while his son was on a mission.  Shortly after the son returned, they took a road trip together and dad brought along a few books he'd been reading which were on the heterodox side, including Palmer's.  The son read Palmer's book from cover to cover as they drove.  Dad didn't say much, just let his son read.  When he finished the book, the new RM son sat silently for a little while, looking out the car window.  Then he said "It was a clever hoax, wasn't it."  And dad said "Yes."

I hope I never lose the feeling of liberation.  The feeling every day that there are amazing adventures to be had out there, that the world is a marvelous, beautiful, dangerous, chaotic, messy, miraculous place and I am so incredibly lucky to have had the life I've had so far, with so much still left to learn and do.  It's like I spent my whole life inside a tiny one-room house and then suddenly stepped out and found myself on a mountaintop with incredible views stretching for miles in every direction.  Or like I stepped out onto a broad beach, so wide and vast that I can't see the ends or how far inland it goes, but I can see the vast ocean of undiscovered truth in front of me, and an amazing blue sky above stretching to eternity.  The fresh air and the open space to explore, and the feeling of boundless adventure and learning and growing and thirst for more and more of all of it--priceless.