Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Infinite Variety

Sixteen months after resigning my membership in the Mormon church, I continue to marvel at how my perspectives have changed and continue to change.  And it's not just the big theological things, on which my views have certainly changed.  It's the little things too.  Some possibly surprising.

Growing up in the Southern California Mormon Bubble, going to BYU, etc., one tends to spend countless hours in certain buildings and types of surroundings.  They end up coloring one's whole world view.  Endless hallways with carpeted floors and sometimes walls, generic classrooms, the same mass-produced art on countless white-painted cinderblock or plastered wallboard walls, imitation wood veneers.  It's all very comforting and consistent and bland.  Eventually one starts to subliminally assume that most of the world looks like that, especially in a church setting.

But now, having emerged from the bubble, somehow I'm noticing that most of the world doesn't look anything like that.  That probably sounds kind of stupid, because it's so obvious.  I'm not sure why, but somehow I just seem to be seeing the amazing variety of life and of human experience much more clearly now.  I guess that's because I've taken off those Mormon-colored judgmental lenses that were shoved onto my face when I was a tiny boy and which I was told were the only "true" and safe way to look at life.

But now, I go to church at St. Paul's, and I see the terrazo floors and the stone walls, not cheap carpet and faux wood grain formica, and I realize that the people who worship there in those surroundings have probably never set foot inside a bland, carpeted plain vanilla Mormon chapel in their lives and probably never will, yet they are just as Christian as the Mormons are--some probably more so.

I think of places I've visited in Salzburg, Seoul, Hong Kong, Edinburgh, some of them centuries and even millennia old.  Places with no carpet or correlated "inspirational" paintings.  Places that have never seen the footfall of a Mormon missionary and are unlikely to.  Totally untouched by everything that colored my whole world view growing up.

When I was inside the bubble, I tended to think of all those places as somehow deprived, even second-rate.  Because they had never come into contact with "the gospel."  It's embarrassing now to realize what an arrogant judgmental bastard I was when fueled by the benign bigotry of assumed spiritual aristocracy.  Eventually, I somehow thought, every place in the world where "the gospel" spread would come to look like my neighborhood in Southern California or in Utah.  I don't know where that idea came from; maybe from the fact that everywhere I'd seen "the gospel" permeate, well, they all did end up looking basically the same.  So I just extrapolated and assumed it would slowly happen everywhere.

Now I say OMG no way, God forbid that should ever happen.  I'm ashamed at the narrowness of mind I used to have.  I know some of my formerly Mormon friends are now firmly agnostic and bordering on atheist.  But I still retain the basics of my Christian faith.  And so I realize now that if God really did create the whole earth, and the scriptures are right to say that He loves all of his creation equally, then there is no reason to think the whole world will one day look like Utah County.  How horribly bland and boring that would be.

I hope the world will stay just as it is: an endlessly fascinating mosaic of innumerable variations in cultures, lives, choices, arts, music, right down to the little tiny details like what people put on their floors.  I can never hope to experience or learn even a small part of this infinite variety during my life, but having escaped the Mormon bubble, I find myself hungry and thirsty to experience as much of it as possible.  So ironic that the Mormons preach about the need to be "born again," yet it's only after I left that church that I really felt born again in every way.  A new heart, new courage, new confidence, a new way of seeing the world and every fascinating detail in it. 

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.

Monday, October 3, 2011

What I Learned From General Conference

Looking back at General Conference weekend I realized a number of things.

1.  Reading even the summaries of General Conference talks gives me a headache and the feeling of being sucked back into a syrupy spiritual goo that is sweet and suffocating and prevents movement.  Yeah this sounds cutesy and alliterative and all, but seriously, I thought for a while about how to describe the feeling I got from reading that stuff, and really that’s how it makes me feel.  Like my brain, my spirit is being sucked back into this sticky morass just as I described.  Not a good sign.

2.  All Mormon General Authorities have a “look.”  There’s just something about them in their white shirts and suits that look like they’re bolted on and that barely perceptible know-it-all look in their eyes that says “I’ve made it to the red chair, godhood here I come.”  They all have it.  A very self-satisfied aura of pride, which is probably justified since they’ve survived all the political climbing and jockeying that precedes getting the jobs they have.  I’m sure lots of them are very well-meaning and talented and smart guys.  I even know a few of them personally.  I also know they’re just guys doing a job.

3.  The Mormon church is like Apple.  Obsessed with its brand equity.  Convinced it’s got the best product line-up in the world and if everybody could just see things its way, the whole world would convert and everybody would be wonderfully happy with nothing but Mormon-branded everything.  In fact, that’s its goal.  Just give up all your ability to see things and do things and think about things any other way but how the brand owner wants, and everything will be fine, you’ll be blissful and content inside the walled garden while others make all the decisions.  It’s like the Land of the Lotus Eaters in the Odyssey.

4.  Leaving the church is like putting away my iPhone and changing to Android.  It’s not soup to nuts anymore.  Sure, there’s a basic platform and lots of things that fit together.  But now I have to do some of my own customization and configuration.  There’s no single entity telling me how to do everything, how to live or think.  I have to figure some things out on my own.

5.  I like the Android approach a lot better.    It’s like I finally grew up.  There’s no line of patriarchs stretching back in time making me feel like generations of stern forebears are looking over my shoulder to make sure I toe the church line.  I really am in uncharted country, exploring for myself, making my own decisions, taking my own risks, learning for my own life.  I’m an adult now, I have to fend for myself.  I don’t have the benevolent spiritual taskmasters always telling me what to do anymore.

6.  It’s exhilarating in ways I never imagined or could even have comprehended.  It’s like I spent most of my life in a small stuffy insulated square room with a handful of books, breathing nothing but that stale air, and then suddenly someone opened a door and I stepped out and found myself on a mountaintop with the most incredible views for miles and miles in every direction, the most staggering beauty above, around and below me, and I took in a deep breath of clean crisp air for the first time.  You know how intoxicating that feels?  That’s what it’s like, only not in my lungs.  It’s in my heart.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


When you grow up steeped in everything Mormon you assume that it's the only valid world view.  That everything revolves around Mormonism and Salt Lake City.  You think the trajectory of world history is simple and clear-cut, and moving inexorably to a well-known end.  You're most likely taught that you were saved for "the last days" to be part of that end.  You see the world through Mormon-colored glasses.

Then after breaking out of the shell, things are really disorienting for a while.  They have been for me.  But I'm gradually starting to get my bearings again.  And one thing I'm continuously struck by is the increasingly comical view which Mormons have of their own church's importance in the world. 

Even when I was a good faithful Mormon boy, I remember reading about early leaders' proclamations to the world, addressed to basically everybody worldwide, kings, emperors, presidents, leaders and populace alike, everywhere.  And printed in some local newspaper that probably never saw circulation beyond a few counties on the western frontier edge of the United States.  It seemed laughably presumptuous.  Like a little kindergarten boy indignantly marching outside to lecture a raincloud for spoiling his playtime and demanding that the cloud go away.  And just as effective.

But also getting just about as much notice.  And even today, with its massive wealth and media muscle, the Mormon church is still only about 4 million actual participating people worldwide.  Four million out of six billion?  With growth stalled to near zero in all developed countries? 

And yet those inside it persist in their tendency to think their organization is the fulcrum on which the world pivots.   There's such seriousness, even self-importance, within the cocoon.  Recall my previous example about apostle Russell Ballard being incredulous on learning that most Americans still had a dim view of Mormons even after decades of missionary work and untold millions spent on PR.

And this is where it gets funny.  Outside, hardly anybody even notices the cocoon's existence.  Those who do notice now have the Internet, which has stripped the church of its ability to control its own history and message, and I'm convinced that's one reason why baptismal rates have been dropping since . . . well, isn't that interesting.  Since right around the time the Internet became widely available.  Hmmm.  Coincidence?

The Book of Mormon Musical and the campaigns of Mr. Huntsman and Mr. Romney have focused some temporary media attention on the church.  But much of it isn't the kind the church wants.  And when the musical finishes its run, and next year's presidential campaign is over with, the media and the world will turn their attention to something else.  And I have no doubt the view from inside the cocoon, with its self-importance and its latent persecution complex, will remain unchanged.  As will the fact that most of the world goes on quite happily without any notice of that quirky little group out there in the Utah desert whose growth is clearly stalling out and whose social relevance is fading.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


This evening I sang the Faure Requiem as part of the special 9/11 Evensong service at San Diego's Episcopal cathedral.  I couldn't help but be struck by the contrast between how I felt as I stood in front of the altar and sang that beautiful music, and how I'd felt in countless Mormon sacrament meetings.

Much in Mormon tradition and leaders' preaching slams traditional Christianity as "apostate" and, as exemplified by Bruce McConkie, makes a huge and angry fuss over things like stained glass and incense and vestments and ceremony and all that.  I guess it's supposed to be self-evident that all those things are evidence of Satanic corruption and confirmation of Whore of Babylon status or something.

Well show me chapter and verse in the Mormon scriptural canon that requires the type of Sunday services the Mormons use.  Other than the sacrament prayer.  Oh yeah, that's what I thought.  It's nowhere in Mormon scriptures either.  Where'd it come from, then?  Most Mormon don't realize that it was Brigham Young who set the pattern for Mormon worship services still used today, and that those services represent Young's New England Congregationalist upbringing and preferences.  Very basic, simple stuff.  No liturgy, no high church trappings.  That's what Brigham Young liked, so that's what the Mormons use.

But over the last 20 years or so, I've noticed something.  And it's not just me, either, I'm seeing people all over the Bloggernacle remark about it.  Mormon services have become unendurably boring.  Bereft of spirit and inspiration.  The spiritual sclerosis induced by Correlation made going to church a chore for me years before I actually left.  And the kids would do nothing but read or sleep through sacrament meeting and eventually began begging me not to make them even do that.  Finally I realized that my time was far better spent giving them attention than sitting with them and sharing boredom and drowsiness on a Mormon chapel's back bench every Sunday.  So we stopped attending and haven't been back.  And family life's far better.

So today, as I stood in front of the altar at St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral and sang that ethereally beautiful music in memory of the victims of 9/11--who I'm sure barely warranted a mention in Mormon sacrament meetings today--I couldn't help but be struck by the contrast.  The church I was raised in came to feel like a sterile, pointless collection of automatons who assembled each week in a plain boxy room to go through the same rote, boring business meeting punctuated by songs sung abysmally with minimum enthusiasm.  Nobody new ever turned up.  There were two convert baptisms in the 4+ years I attended that ward.  It was like everybody was on autopilot.  A little cocoon of robots, unconnected to the outside world, all dutifully repeating the same things week after week.  Including the guilt for not doing better and not achieving more.  The only time I saw anybody really worked up there was during the Prop 8 campaign when they all suddenly sprang to full, vitriolic, angry, rumor-mongering, homophobic life.  The longer I was there, the more disconnected I felt.

But when I stood there today in front of the altar at St. Paul's, singing that beautiful music, I felt connected in so many ways that I never did in any Mormon setting.  Connected to everyone around me who obviously understood and knew and appreciated this music just as I did.  Connected to the greater liturgical tradition of the church in which I sang and to the literally centuries' worth of people who'd found meaning and purpose in that form of worship.  Connected to those lost on 9/11 in whose memory we sang the Requiem as a memorial and prayer for God's mercy on them.  Connected to every American who paused today to remember the victims and how the world changed ten years ago.  I was part of something vast, that reached out across the country, that reached back centuries in time.  It was awe-inspiring and gratifying in ways I can't imagine ever being possible in today's Mormon sacrament meetings.

After the services ended and the bishop pronounced the benediction, those of us in the choir--all dressed in black--filed slowly down the aisle of the cathedral as the waning day's sunlight streamed through the great rose window's stained glass and right into our eyes.  And once again, I felt connected.  Very much part of something larger, something that resonated in my heart and stirred me as deeply as anything has.  For me, at least, there really is something to the symbolism of a celebrants' procession in and out of the cathedral.  It tells everyone "Hey!  Pay attention!  Something special is about to happen!" or "Hey, be reverent!  You've been taught and inspired, and now it's time to reflect as you leave."  I was just one of many voices who'd all joined together in worship and memorial, singing music of the highest quality in a setting truly inspiring.

This was the kind of setting and atmosphere that really felt like home.  Not some barely organized plain-jane routine mish-mash of apathetic songs and rote "talks" re-hashed from somebody else's re-hash of somebody else.  For me, at least, it was real worship, real memorial, real connection to the wider world.  In a beautiful setting, with truly inspiring music, and surrounded by people that I knew cared about me not because of my home teaching statistics or anything like that, but simply because I was there, sharing faith with them.

So Brigham Young and Bruce McConkie, you know what you can do with your criticisms of "apostate" Christianity.  I'm finding a lot more inspiration there than I ever found in what you concocted and defended.  By their fruits ye shall know them, remember?