Not so long ago I thought I knew certain things were true and wavering was a self-inflicted condition. I also really thought I was an independent thinker who had chosen to be a conservative Republican, and to believe that homosexuality was an illness, and that the priesthood ban was imposed by God for some reason we just couldn’t understand, and that polygamy was a holy practice when it was sanctioned, and that church leaders past and present were inspired in all things and represented the will of the Lord. I thought I chose those positions because they were simply the right, or true, things and I felt that it was of paramount importance to be right with God.
In my past I spent some effort as an apologist. I was not a typical apologist, but a calming voice. I’ve never really enjoyed the sparring or “Bible-bashing” as it were. I just felt like the critics’ arguments did not even stand up against my understanding of the gospel, in the sense that if they saw it how I see it the argument would become moot. I really did seek for understanding more than winning, but ultimately I still thought I was right. Eventually, the arguing became tiresome and I gave it up. Ecumenicism is hard work. In the time I spent in apologetics, there were a few of the classic critical arguments that I was faced with, but many of the real zingers remained hidden from me. I think that speaks a lot to what we can expect the bulk of members to have been exposed to. I was in the fray and looking for info and I somehow did not hear about Fawn Brodie (some of her discoveries, but never her name or book), polyandry, baseball baptisms, Joseph’s early magical involvement, etc.
My entrance into New Mormon History was similar to my earlier entrance into apologetics. The first time, I had a job in front a computer with a lot of downtime so I wanted to find places online where I could have interesting church-related conversations with people. In the more recent case, I got an iPod and heard about podcasts so the natural place to start was with podcasts related to Mormonism. A few years ago there were not many choices. I first found a couple blatantly anti-Mormon podcasts which were basically rants on tape. I moved on and landed on John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories.
For those not familiar, or who came to Mormon Stories later, or with short memories, some of the early topics covered on the podcasts included: missionary abuses (soccer and beach baptisms in Latin America), John’s own follow-up experiences of ecclesiastical abuse, racial issues in modern history (Greg Prince), Masonic influences on Joseph Smith and the temple rituals, polygamy/polyandry and their early secretive nature, Grant Palmer’s alternative explanations for the Book of Mormon’s origin, and more. I know, all of that sounds pretty heavy and maybe even like the agenda of an anti-Mormon convention. For years, from an apologetic point of view, I always treated these subjects with a partially closed mind. It was easy to associate these issues with the bitterness and vitriol that usually accompanied the messengers. Somehow John managed to come at these topics so neutrally that the classic defense of dismissal, discreditation, and denial was left in the chamber. An interesting thing happened as I listened to John’s podcasts. Perhaps for the first time, I began to… listen.
The sheer mass of issues and questions and concerns became so much that I could not sweep them under the rug anymore. We become complacent in our testimonies, don’t we? We take wonderful experiences and use them to give out free passes to anything that is uncomfortable. Pretty much every LDS woman I know who has vocalized their feelings about polygamy is confused and even sickened by the thought of it, yet… they feel comfortable just not dealing with it.
The recurring trouble that I continue to face is actually one of Mormonism’s greatest strengths. We believe that you can know for yourself by asking God about the truth or goodness of any thing. I love the idea that God cares about us enough to help us make sense of all this. Of course, the great variance of definition of what the witness of the Holy Spirit feels like can certainly be confusing, but an amalgamation of the purveying concept is that good things are confirmed by a positive gut feeling and/or peaceful and clear thoughts. This is the instrument we have been given by which we can determine the sham from the sacred. Yet, when we run into these troublesome questions, we don’t use the instrument. Perhaps we are afraid of what it might tell us. My wife has told me that whatever it is that I’ve learned that could change my testimony this much, she is afraid to hear, and thus does not even want to hear. I know I was afraid, and for good reason. The answers have complicated my life. Ultimately I think that’s a good thing, but I will get into that in the next post.
What happens when you use the instrument, and it says something you weren’t expecting? What do you do when you take counsel to seek the comfort of the Spirit on a troubling concern and it does not comfort you? Sadly, I don’t feel that we are trained to really trust the Spirit or ourselves. It seems as though we are trained to trust our leaders more than ourselves, and perhaps even more than the Holy Spirit. In the gospel picture that I see painted in the modern LDS church, it is the place of priesthood authority to tell us what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad, what is true and what is false. In this picture the Holy Spirit is there to help you know if you should give a pass-along card to that guy in line at McDonalds, or if you should turn left on 7th street today to narrowly avoid a fatal traffic accident, or if you should go on that skiing trip to Colorado with your friends that end up buying booze and drinking all weekend.
When you face the issues, you not only have to fight the pain of disillusionment, but you also have to fight through the guilt that you must be somehow spiritually inferior if you can’t get right with priesthood discrimination or polygamy or Masonic temple connections or Book of Mormon historicity. After all, the Spirit witnesses the truth of all things to the honest in heart.
I don’t know why, or what is different about me, but this process has not hurt as much for me as it does for a lot of folks. I came into the church from a world of poverty economically, spiritually, and emotionally. The gospel liberated me and gave me confidence in my own worth. I went from a very shy and fearful nobody to a fairly vocal and confident person. Maybe it is that confidence and determination to not be a victim that has taken me through the passage mostly uninjured. The biggest challenge I face personally in this journey is resisting the instinct to anger. Anger and bitterness will not bring about peace for myself or the changes that need to happen for others’ sake.
It can be difficult, having been spiritually raised in the Mormon faith to revere justice, to deal with the apparent injustice of what is really implied when we say our leaders are fallible. I feel like that is a backup defense when apologetics fail, and the implications are rarely taken seriously. So much of what we believe is built upon foundations of other things also being true. Its easy to oversimplify the situation by presenting it as one bad brick taken from a pile of good bricks. In reality it is more like the party game Jenga, where you have a tower of blocks and you carefully remove blocks and hope the structure stands. Eventually, you start to see how certain blocks can’t be removed without failure of the whole because many others stand only on its strength.
You can easily find yourself in the very place from whence the church claims it will rescue you. Like a wave on the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. That feeling is extremely uncomfortable when you feel that your spiritual health, both now and eternally, completely hangs on being right. The Great Apostasy concept declares that it is an unacceptable relationship with God to be wrong about doctrine and practice, and the Restoration of the God’s organization and priesthood represents fixing that problem. So why does it still feel broken?
This may seem bleak, because it is. Its important to understand the thought process, and the seriousness of the challenge to faith. However, this is not the end of the story. The obvious question is, what next? Once you get here, it is usually not acceptable to simply shelve your concerns and pretend to be the Happy Mormon again. I hope you’ll stay tuned for part two, where I will approach the “what next” as best I can.
Update: you can find part two here.