I spent most of my first three decades in the church by subscribing to the mantra that “the gospel is true, but the people aren’t.” What I really meant by “the gospel” is anybody’s guess. In the beginning, I’m sure I identified it closely with the prophet and the church itself. Yet, even in my believing days, the gospel was always something beyond the leaders and beyond the bricks and mortar of daily Mormon life. The gospel was transcendent, it was the thing that Joseph found in the grove — it was bigger than me and it was bigger than any of the church programs or individuals in my life.
I’ve mentioned many times that my parents were liberal, but there were other influential and open-minded adults in my life as well. The Mormon bohemia of my youth was small and possibly the tamest bohemia on record, but it still gave my mantra longer legs and gave me a lot of breathing room. It was a badge of honor in my mother’s largely true believing family to ignore lesson manuals and make the lessons more interesting and personal. My dad’s parents were McKay Mormons who went to McDonalds during Sunday School and formed close friendships with Mormon intellectuals. My best friend’s parents were both college professors whom I idealized. She was a staunch feminist, he was a medieval scholar. He cooked and stayed home while she finished her dissertation. In high school, when we came home from a punk rock show, he would be waiting up for us, lying in the middle of the living room floor listening to jazz and reading Bede.
None of the adults in my life told me about peep stones or polyandry, they never came close to saying that Joseph made it all up. However, my mother answered my questions about polygamy or the priesthood ban with the assertion that church leaders, even prophets, were people and people make mistakes. I heard time and time again how important personal revelation was and that I should always listen to myself. Consequently, a lot of things I heard at church were put through the filter of my mantra. When Sister A or Brother B said things that were bigoted, sexist or simply unkind, I believed it was the people, not the gospel. This even worked when I went to BYU. Although, it was my first real contact with orthodoxy, it was pretty easy to believe that it was just BYU, not the gospel (I still think there is some truth to that).
I’ve written before about the impact of motherhood upon my faith, but lately I’ve become conscious of another, more subtle, layer of my disaffection. It was not until I was a 25-year-old Young Women’s president in a large family ward and I was reading and teaching the lessons myself that I realized Sister A hadn’t been taking liberties while she was teaching me, she was just quoting the manual. After repeating that experience many, many times, I slowly came to realize that it was my family that was off the reservation; we were the oddballs, not Sister A and Brother B. Still, as I came to have a more realistic and nuanced picture of the church and its history, I found it fairly easy to accept the more unflattering aspects and I experienced no anger and little disappointment. After all, church leaders, even prophets, were just people and people make mistakes.
What I found more difficult to reconcile was the realization that the thing I believed in – the gospel – was not the same thing as the church and often bore little resemblance to the gospel my fellow saints seemed to believe in. I could and still do find it at church, but I find it far more often while reading or listening to music, during long walks, on my yoga mat and especially in the spaces between myself and others. I don’t think my faith has really changed as much as my understanding has evolved. I still believe in the gospel, but my context for understanding it has expanded and I realize that the gospel has many names and many guises. The gospel is the Golden Rule, the Tao, dharma, enlightenment — it is my bliss. Although my parents hoped I would find it in the church, as they have, I am still grateful that they taught me to seek it and taught me to listen to myself because as I’ve allowed myself to be open to it, I’ve found the gospel everywhere.