Fellow Traveler

December 30, 2013

I’ve recently been reacquainted with someone I knew back when I was an amateur Mormon “apologist” on a couple of LDS-related message boards (we’ll call him “Bill”). I’m surprised, though I wouldn’t say shocked, that he has gone through the terrible process of losing faith in Mormonism. I should say that it’s bad enough to conclude that the foundations of your worldview are not based in reality, but it’s worse when your conclusions cause unspeakable harm to your relationships with your loved ones. I would not wish that process on anyone.

He describes his “exit story” in several blog posts, starting with this one. The story, though definitely his own, follows a familiar arc: First, he desires to believe in his religion (see Alma 32). I’m not talking about a casual wish that your religious beliefs are true, but a genuine and passionate desire to believe and to delve deeply into those beliefs in order to have an even deeper understanding and commitment to that faith. (I can relate to this, having devoured everything I could for many years, devoting my commute time to the scriptures and teachings of LDS prophets.) This intense study leads to the discovery of the problematic, and even though he recognizes the problematic, he dismisses it as being irrelevant to this deep understanding of basic gospel principles he seeks. Eventually, life experience combines with this further light and knowledge to lead him to an unfavorable conclusion about his religious beliefs, and he walks away the best he can. Like me, he looks back at his years in the LDS church and realizes that he wasn’t very happy as a Mormon. For me, that was the more devastating conclusion than figuring out that the church might not be what it claimed to be.

I can already hear the clucking of some apologists, who remind us that these exit stories follow predictable forms because they are more about meeting the apostate community’s expectations than they are about what really happened. I would simply respond that these stories are similar because the process is similar. How could it not be? Those who wave away exit stories nonetheless find great inspiration in individual stories of conversion to the LDS church, even though these stories, too, follow predictable forms and themes. Conversion stories are similar because the experiences are similar, just as there are common experiences in losing faith.

What I find interesting is that the primary issues for others are not necessarily the ones central to my crisis of faith. That said, I completely understand the process of filling a growing “shelf” with unresolved church issues, which works as long as we have some important, critical tenet we cannot let go of; an LDS friend once put it this way: All paradigms are subject to rethinking and shifting, except for a testimony of the truth of the gospel. In other words, can turn any which way around that central axis, as long as you’re still anchored to it. Like me, Bill was able to continue in his belief for years despite knowing some of the problematic “red flags” of Mormonism. But his account shows exactly what it’s like to reach the breaking point at which that tenet, that testimony, collapses with the weight of the shelf. It’s an awful experience.

Why am I sharing this? It is not to erode anyone else’s faith but rather to provide what I think is an important glimpse into what a faith crisis is and why it happens. (Perhaps some might use it as a cautionary tale. That doesn’t matter to me.) Also, I’m hoping that those who are in the middle of such a crisis will realize that it eventually gets better, whether you find yourself back in the church or not. A faith crisis is not the end of the world.

Some Silver Linings

December 27, 2013

My wife and I watched “Silver Linings Playbook” last night, and it moved me to tears, though probably not for the reasons most people would expect. The beginning of the film depicts the protagonist in a psychiatric hospital, going to group therapy, taking his meds, and trying to make the best of a bad situation. I remember those days vividly.

In June of 2007 I was living in College Station, Texas. For a number of reasons I don’t need to rehash, things were not going well in my life and in my marriage. Things came to a head one night, and after my wife cried herself to sleep, I lay awake thinking of the damage I had done to our relationship and to our family. In an instant, I went from thinking that maybe things would be better if I weren’t around to actively trying to take my own life. I went into the walk-in closet, tied one end of a tie around the hanger rod and the other end around my neck. I think I would have gone through with it had it not hurt as much as it did.

Two days later I found myself in the back of a Sheriff’s car being taken to a psychiatric facility in Houston under a 72-hour involuntary commitment by court order. I’ve described the time I spent there elsewhere, but it wasn’t until I watched the film last night that I started thinking about what happened when I went home.

I don’t think I liked myself much back then. As I’ve mentioned in other threads, the combination of my family dynamics growing up and certain Mormon teachings about self-worth and guilt had convinced me I was never going to be good enough; indeed, I’ve been told by a few Mormons that I “failed” at Mormonism, whatever that means. But I didn’t like myself, and I think deep down inside I didn’t believe I was worthy of anyone’s love, though I don’t remember thinking that explicitly. My family’s love, I thought, was obligatory because I was a son, husband, and father.

When I came home, I was most afraid that I had done too much damage to my family relationships and that my loved ones would not know how to deal with me after everything that had happened. I thought maybe I’d given up the last reason for anyone to love me, and I prepared myself for rejection. But I was wrong. My wife and children were just happy to have me home. They loved me in spite of myself, in ways I hadn’t learned to love myself.

We also watched “The Wizard of Oz” the other night, and I had forgotten something the wizard said to the Tin Man:

A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.

I think I once unconsciously believed that, but I realize that it’s exactly backwards and quite unwise. If all that matters is how much others love you, you might spend your whole life trying to “earn” other people’s love, and you might feel you can’t be happy or fulfilled if you can’t earn that love.

I can tell you that, if you live that way, no amount of love or approval is ever going to be enough. You will always feel unloved and unfulfilled. The film I watched showed a young man trying to earn his estranged wife’s love by showing her “signs” of his love and his mental and emotional improvement. This kind of thinking seems to rest on the belief that love is a quantifiable commodity, and a certain saturation level has a cause-and-effect relationship with how people treat you. He had to learn, as I once did, that the quest to love enough so that you’ll get love in return is a fool’s errand.

What I have learned is that human beings have an endless capacity for love, and the best thing you can do is simply to love others and not worry about what you get in return. Not everyone is going to love you. Not everyone is going to be your friend, no matter how hard you try. But you can love everyone. You really can.

Love doesn’t always mean you have a bond of affection and emotion or anything like that. Love simply means treating people with love and care. And you really can do that with everyone, from the cashier at the supermarket to your family.

Yes, I know this isn’t the most profound thing ever, but I hope my random thoughts mean something to someone other than me. But it’s enough to know that I’ve learned this lesson in life, and I’m much happier for having learned it.

On Pine Needles and Mormon Apologetics

December 20, 2013

A few days ago my daughter bought some fir branches to use as Christmas decorations (she put them on the banisters and made a wreath for the front door), and I noticed that there were quite a few needles from the branches in the trunk (boot) of the car. While I was vacuuming the needles out yesterday, I had an epiphany of sorts.

Engaging in Book of Mormon apologetics is like attempting to prove that the trunk of my car isn’t actually a trunk but is really a pine forest. I imagine the argument would go something like this:

We would expect to find fallen pine needles on the ground of a pine forest, and–lo and behold!–we do find numerous examples in the so-called “trunk.” True, there’s carpet underneath the needles, not earth, but you can’t just dismiss the existence of the needles. (And how many times has the earth beneath a forest been referred to as being like a “carpet”? Coincidence? I think not.) And besides, if you analyzed what you vacuum up from the trunk, you would most definitely find traces of dirt and other debris in the carpet, mixed in with the needles; and that would be a real bullseye.

We would also expect to find stones, tree trunks, and other large objects in our hypothetical pine forest. Indeed, we do find large, hard objects surrounding our patch of forest. Specifically we find hard, dark-colored surfaces surrounding the needles; some claim these are simply the interior walls of the trunk, but then how do they explain the presence of the needles? Perhaps we’re being too literal in our language. It’s quite possible that the word we use, “trunk,” is actually referring metaphorically to a literal tree trunk. Again, this is another “hit” that critics can’t dismiss lightly.

Beneath the carpet we find a large disc-shaped object, which is rather stone-like in its appearance. It clearly has been in this position for a very long time, as evidenced by the indentation in the forest floor beneath the stone. (Similar discs have been found in other locations, some bearing the clear identifier, “Firestone,” which again is too close to the expected to be mere coincidence.) Alternatively, this could be the semi-buried remains of an ancient tree stump. DNA testing may yet confirm its relationship to the deposits of needles.

There are also traces of sawdust indicating that tree branches had recently been cut in the vicinity, which of course would be impossible in a desert or ocean. Human logging activity would not make sense unless the area had at some point been densely forested with trees suitable for lumber. Similarly, the presence of a small amount of tree sap makes sense only in the context of a pine forest.

We also find clear written evidence of the forest: a cryptic plaque reading “Accord,” which is in all likelihood a reference to “a cord,” which is a measurement of cut wood. Again, the context places it where it should be: a forest where there has been recent cutting.

There are other promising leads, such as a tubular object, which is described in some literature as a “fuel filler.” Clearly, then, this indicates the use of harvested timber as a source of fuel. We have yet to decipher a metallic plate bearing what appear to be carefully arranged numbers and letters, with the inscription “VIRGINIA” appearing along the top; this may refer to the newness of the timber industry, or as some have surmised, it may well be part of a cipher key used to encrypt the language of the forest-dwellers. Further research is warranted.

Critics tell us we just need to look up and see if we’re actually standing in a pine forest or in the trunk of a late-model Honda, but we prefer to focus on solid evidence rather than appealing to unverifiable illusions and celestial fantasy.

ETA: Since publication, another apologist has added this important perspective:

“People who think it’s just a trunk are barking up the wrong tree. They are gullible saps. They can leaf the church but not leaf it alone. Someone needs to talk to your branch president about disciplinary action. You are clearly pining to sin. You can’t see the forest for the trunks. You are evergreen with envy at my effortless spirituality. You can’t believe, but if you’d read what I have, you wood.

“My world is a beautiful lush green forest. Yours is a dirty trunk. Which is better?” [Thanks to “Some Schmo.”]

Whom he listeth to obey: spiritual confirmation and authority

December 4, 2013

A friend sent me a link to a fascinating (and depressing) exchange of letters in 1947 between Lowry Nelson (an LDS student doing research in Cuba) and the president of the Southern States LDS mission, and then later the First Presidency of the LDS church (at that time George Albert Smith; J. Reuben Clark, Jr,; and David O. McKay). In the exchange, Nelson states that he was, until that time, unaware of any “irrevocable church doctrine” regarding the denial of the priesthood to those of sub-Saharan African descent. The First Presidency firmly disabuses him of this notion, explaining that the restriction of priesthood blessings is a direct result of choices made in the premortal life. Further, they suggest specifically that the restriction came from the position of the spirits during the War in Heaven, during which one-third of the hosts of heaven followed Lucifer in rebelling against God; thus, they subtly support the common teaching that black Africans had been “fence sitters” in the War in Heaven, not actively fighting for God but passively watching the battle unfold.

What struck me most about the letters, however, is the First Presidency’s clear belief that Nelson had gone off the rails somehow:

Furthermore, your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and White races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now.

What Nelson had done was to show, correctly, that notions of race common in the United States were quite foreign to people in places such as Cuba, where interracial marriage was definitely not “repugnant” to “normal-minded people.” This was apparently alarming enough for them to enjoin him to let go of the philosophies of men and embrace truth:

We should like to say this to you in all kindness and in all sincerity that you are too fine a man to permit yourself to be led off from the principles of the Gospel by worldly learning. You have too much of a potentiality for doing good and we therefore prayerfully hope that you can reorient your thinking and bring it in line with the revealed word of God.

As nauseating as that exchange is, it prompted me to think about LDS church members’ responsibility to sustain or follow their leaders. In this case, the leadership was quite simply wrong. Even the church now rejects what in 1947 was “doctrine,” meaning ironically that it supports Nelson, not the earlier prophets. The church’s current position is that no one knows why the restriction was implemented. In 2012, a BYU professor was roundly criticized for outlining the reasons for the restriction given by earlier church leaders, prompting an official response from the LDS church, which stated in part:

For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent.  It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.

I’m glad the church has rejected its racist past, but I do have a hard time with dismissing what prophets and apostles taught as revealed doctrine as mere speculation and opinion.

Since I read the letters, I’ve been thinking about this exchange as it illustrates perfectly what I see as a fundamental tension in Mormonism between following your own conscience and convictions, and obeying and sustaining church leaders.

All my life I have been taught that I have the right–maybe even the responsibility–to pray about counsel and instruction I receive from the leaders of the church. Such counsel is binding when the spirit confirms that it is true. A logical conclusion would be that, in the absence of such confirmation, the counsel would not be binding.

But I realize that, despite this teaching, in practice we are expected to obey by default. The underlying assumption seems to be that whatever we are instructed from our leaders will be confirmed by the spirit, so by default we are to obey automatically. Presumably we would go to the Lord for spiritual confirmation only when we had a personal disagreement with priesthood counsel.

I’m not talking about the discredited notion that “when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done” but rather more subtle (and not so subtle) injunctions to obey without question. President Packer, for example, has taught that we must all face the same way, following our leaders; Elder Bednar has said that we must have “the courage to promptly and quietly obey the counsel of the prophet in all things and at all times”; and Elder Robert Oaks has taught, “For us, to ‘believe all things’ means to believe the doctrine of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ as well as the words of the Latter-day prophets. It means to successfully erase our doubts and reservations.”

So, in my view, the default position is that the prophet and the leaders are always right, but even if we do feel the need to get spiritual confirmation, it’s not exactly a fool-proof process. First of all, the leaders giving the counsel or teaching believe they are in line with the spirit. In the First Presidency’s 1949 statements about the “Negro,” they clearly stated that they were proclaiming doctrine that had been revealed to prophets and written in scripture. Similarly, Brigham Young stated that it was “revealed” doctrine that Adam is God. Nowadays both of these ideas have been discredited, with the LDS church now saying no one knows the reason for the priesthood restrictions, and Bruce R. McConkie famously saying that anyone who “believes the Adam-God theory does not deserve to be saved.” Do my spiritual confirmations or lack thereof trump those of my priesthood leaders? What if I don’t get a spiritual confirmation and others do? Who is right?

On one Mormon-themed message board, I tried to have a conversation about this fundamental tension between doing what you believe to be right and following your leaders, but it didn’t get very far. As far as I could tell, the consensus was that, if you have a moral or spiritual objection to priesthood counsel, you must already be out of tune with the spirit. That’s not a satisfactory answer, as it suggests that leaders are either always right or that we’ll be blessed for doing the wrong thing for the sake of obedience.

I’m not even sure I have a point here, but these thoughts have been going through my mind today.