As I have already posted a few times, I think it’s time I introduce myself. So, this is my story, Mormon Story style (only without the cool podcast, John, and well…okay, it’s nothing like Mormon Stories). It’s likely familiar to many, so if it sounds like Déjà Vu feel free to move along!
A bit of background information is necessary. My family is of “pioneer stock” through both sides of my family, so we have a rich heritage of Mormon tradition. However, my parents actually never forced, coerced, or otherwise tried to get me to go to church. I honestly never felt pressured to live a certain way, obey any particular rules, go to church, or anything else. Part of this may be because I never gave them any reason to. I have always been a straight shooter. I have always tried my best to obey my leaders, earn all the awards, sing in the choirs, read all the books etc. From a very early age (probably around 14 or so) I began reading my scriptures every night. Because my patriarchal blessing told me to familiarize myself with the life of Joseph Smith, I read several hagiographic biographies of him. I was no expert in Church History, but I thought that I had a good feel for it (snicker).
However, much of this was a cover up for the questioner inside. I also had a lot of heterodox ideas that I kept bottled up. As a young teenager it occurred to me that the general authorities, and past prophets often contradicted each other a great deal. I was so concerned about this I even saw my bishop for it! I also had some strange ideas about absolute Truth. Typical answers for Nephi killing Laban seemed very unsatisfactory to me. I concluded that the only truth could be whatever God wanted but I admittedly didn’t know how I would know what God wanted. As a good Latter-day Saint, I deferred to my leaders and their revelations as God’s will.
I paint this picture to illustrate that my tale is, what I have come to learn, a typical disaffected Mormon story. Often the culture in Mormonism is such that those that try the hardest, fall the hardest.
Unleashing the Analyst Part I
At BYU I decided to go into engineering. While I had a propensity for analysis and questioning, I had no formal training in it, and I often deferred to authorities on various issues, assuming they knew much more than myself. At around the beginning of my graduate work it occurred to me that I could do my own analysis. I didn’t need to rely on any experts, or authorities. I could do my own analysis and draw my own conclusions from my research (a necessity in order to obtain a graduate degree).
However, having said this, I only applied this thought process to my professional life, and politics. As far as church was concerned, I still deferred to my leaders.
After graduating from BYU in Electrical Engineering, I took a job in California. In May 2008 Prop 8 came to the forefront of nearly every Californian’s life. I won’t go into any details since it is more than familiar to everyone I’m sure. Let me say that I started out determined to follow the Brethren. I walked precincts, went to firesides, donated to protectmarriage.com, put up signs, and did the other things I was asked to do. However, about three weeks before the vote I started wondering what the other side had to say. I learned that in reality both sides (protectmarriage.com, and the “No on 8” campaign) stretched the truth, used scare tactics, and were otherwise less than honest.
About this point, since I was now outside of Utah, I felt a bit less pressure to toe the Republican line. I had always felt that I didn’t align with either the Dems or the GOP. I then discovered a commentator that was more aligned with my ideals (mostly Libertarian, although I hate assigning labels). I started being very active on the forum on his website. The majority of people on this forum seemed to be agnostic/atheist, and there were very very few who stood up for the traditional, conservative values. Since I was not very well versed in politics and political history, I found myself mostly commenting on the social issues. Many people challenged my opinion in ways that were very new to me, and I did not have adequate answers to their challenges.
I started to realize that maybe I wasn’t really different than other religious people. In fact, maybe my choice of religion was/is just as arbitrary as those I thought were not in the “true” church. Maybe I was/am wrong altogether and have not realized it. This caused me to question why I believed the LDS church to be the one and only “true and living church” on the earth today. I started to ponder my own spiritual experiences.
I will admit that I have always found it difficult to discern the spiritual promptings I receive. It has always been befuddling to me why some thoughts are just thoughts and others are the promptings of the Spirit. Furthermore, I have always wondered what it meant to have a spiritual witness that the church is true. Did this mean I needed to cry? Do I just need to feel peace? And how could these things be separated from just regular emotions?
As I started rehearsing the spiritual experiences I held dear, I began to realize there was often a common pattern in them. Namely, that I was going through a rough time in my personal life, I had a lot of anxiety, and generally had an important decision to make to which I needed some confirmation or answer. I also realized that in many cases, in fact, even my most serious life questions, I actually didn’t get any answer at all. In those cases I did what I thought was the most logical thing to do, and often attributed it to the Spirit. This seemed to happen in the most serious of life decisions, and I was left to wonder if God had any interest in me at all.
I started to develop an interest in understanding more about my emotions, “revelations,” and other cognitions. I started looking into psychology and was fascinated by what I found. I felt that my experiences could often be very easily explained in normal psychological terms and were really no different than people of other faiths. I began to distrust my spiritual experiences, considering them to not be adequately reliable to tell me the truth about such a perplexing question as to which religion was “true.”
Ultimately, this was the lynch pin. I felt that I had never received an “unmistakable witness” as President Packer has indicated:
Sometimes you may struggle with a problem and not get an answer. What could be wrong? It may be that you are not doing anything wrong. It may be that you have not done the right things long enough. Remember, you cannot force spiritual things. Sometimes we are confused simply because we won’t take no for an answer. … Put difficult questions in the back of your minds and go about your lives. Ponder and pray quietly and persistently about them. the answer may not come as a lightning bolt. It may come as a little inspiration here and a little there, ‘line upon line, precept upon precept’ (D&C 98:12). Some answers will come from reading the scriptures, some from hearing speakers. And occasionally, when it is important, some will come by very direct and powerful inspiration. The prompting will be clear and unmistakable.
– Elder Boyd K. Packer
A Search for Evidence
All of this led to a search for some confirming evidence for the veracity of the church. I didn’t know anything about all the conundrums, controversies, and tough questions surrounding the historicity of The Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, polygamy, and Church History in general. As most of you will realize this led to a lot of problems. Of course, one cannot address these issues without discovering lots of anti-mormon literature, as well as FARMS, and FAIRlds.org. Upon discovering these sources I began to devour information about these topics. However, I quickly discovered that while there was plenty to read about these topics, there was so much antagonism, polemics, distaste, and lack of good scholarship so as to destroy any confidence in most of the sources. It seemed completely hopeless to discover any sort of truth in all the madness. Ironically, I started to feel very much like what I envisioned Joseph himself must have felt like.
Unleashing the Analyst Part II
By now, I was prepared to finally unleash the analyst to the realm of religion and spirituality. I had been doing it in my professional career, and in other realms of life for a number of years. I had become good at doing my own independent research, both for my professional decisions, and life decisions (you don’t even wanna know what a pain it is to shop for a major purchase with me).
Discovering Church History for Myself
So, having unleashed the analyst, I was prepared to do my own study of church history. I wanted to find the “truth” about Church History. Of course, when I say “truth” I note that in fact it isn’t really “truth” per se. It is the best guess that honest scholarship can make. History is an interesting pursuit for a multitude of reasons. We don’t have all the resources we would like, the resources we do have are biased, and the researcher himself may have his own biases. Joseph Freeman once said
Everyone falsifies history even if it is only his own personal history. Sometimes the falsification is deliberate, sometimes unconscious; but always the past is altered to suit the needs of the present. The best we can say of any account is not that it is the real truth at last, but that this is how the story appears now.
At about my point of deepest despair, when I wasn’t sure whether or not I would leave the church, I discovered the Mormon Stories podcasts, and StayLDS.com. For those who don’t know, StayLDS.com is a site, with forum, in which disaffected, or otherwise questioning Mormons can go and discuss tough issues with the intent of remaining LDS. At the time, I actually wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to remain LDS. However, I did know that I didn’t need anymore negativity, nor did I need anyone to feed my ego, or validate my ideas. I needed someone to show me another side – a perspective in which people with heterodox ideas remain an active part of the community.
The site has been tremendously helpful for me. I feel much like John Dehlin does. I am a Mormon, through and through. It is my culture, my tribe, my people. And I love them, even with all the quirks.
So Where Am I At Now?
At the present, I am still in pursuit of learning about Church History. I have learned a lot, and formed some opinions which I loosely cling to. I still have much to learn in this regard and I remain open to any number of possibilities.
I do a great deal of study about philosophy, and psychology, and don’t feel any need to fit this into a Mormon theological box.
I have not forgotten what has brought me to this point, so I am still fairly skeptical, and try to remain firmly grounded in reality. In this way, I think I often come across as faithless.
I also like to explore the “Middle Way” in Mormonism. I believe that a metaphorical belief in the Gospel benefits me every bit as much as a literal belief.
I love serving others, and find that Mormonism offers me a great way to accomplish this. I also like having my heterodox ideas challenged in new ways because this helps me learn and grow.
Finally, I am a 100%, dyed in the wool, Buffet Mormon. Yep, I pick and choose what I like, and what I don’t like. I have separated my spiritual growth from the LDS church, and view the LDS church as a tool to help me obtain that growth.
Now go ahead and let me have it!!