Reasons I’d Be Atheist, But Choose to Be Religious
Putting it Mildly
I often wonder how I’m still an active member of the Mormon Church when many of my personal beliefs frequently do not align with the members of my congregation. My faith has changed and deepened over the years, hopefully for the good, but I am finding it harder and harder to attend church most Sundays. I still faithfully attend, serve, and uphold my callings, but the act for me has become a routinized widow’s mite. A kind of wild clinging to the iron rod that ten years ago felt more nailed in the sure place.
Unlike most faith crises, I am not really struggling with historical, theological or metaphysical claims of the Restoration. I am mostly just bored at church. I am deadened by how small, vapid and homogenous the gospel picture looks when interpreted by my fellow ward brothers and sisters, even prophets and apostles at times. I am amazed by how alien I feel in the pews; an insider who feels like an undesirable outsider. I do not think like those in my ward, and can only imagine what they’d think of me if I were to let them in on my well-guarded secret. Instead of feeling strengthened and uplifted, I often leave church feeling totally drained, depressed and disturbed. For me, Sunday is not a day of rest but a day of cross-bearing.
The Gospel is Pure, but the Culture is Messy
These feelings are really hard for me to process. They do not represent well the expansive and exciting character of Mormonism I read about in the scriptures, nor are they in harmony with the deep, panoramic feelings I get when worshipping in the temple. The Creative God I learn about in Genesis, for example, revels in distinctions, differences, and variation, whereas the Uniform God I learn about in Sunday School militates to homogenize disparity and command conformity. Fewer propositions are more aesthetically, morally, and rationally appealing than Joseph Smith’s theodicy of human potential, yet fewer places are more dull, tiresome and soul-suckingly lifeless than a Mormon meetinghouse. The Zion I live in, as opposed to the Zion I aspire to, is replete with all sorts of messy, counterintuitive feelings.
Such feelings call me into a paradox: I should confront my emotions, own them, but never maintain a false sense of certainty of “all is well in Zion.” Truth is, I am not certain about a lot of things I hear at church. This is not to say I am stating unbelief in the central tenets of Mormonism. To the contrary, I would argue that my views strive to be in concert with the many core principles and doctrines (albeit some interpretations). However, I am reticent to embrace the many testimonies and other expressions of certainty I hear that use clear-cut rhetoric to describe circumstances that are, in fact, not so clear. I am not convinced that feeling certain automatically implies that our emotions hold an ethical valence. Good thing in Mormonism we’re not required to believe anything that isn’t true, right?
While the gospel resonates with me in a really powerful way, there are many opinions we voice and postures we hold at church and throughout our culture that make atheism, at times, feel like a more desirable option. I am genuinely frightened, for example, by how quickly we seem to understand things, how defensive we get when challenged, and how easily we draw conclusions with the weight of authority on our side. I am staggered by how often we treat our prophets as demigods, our scriptures as inerrant, and our infallible testimonies of both as incontrovertible. It’s not even necessarily the opinions I hear at church that unease me. It’s the impressive, ironclad — “We can’t be wrong” — certainty that’s used to support them.
These might sound like “cultural problems” that are unrelated to the purity of the gospel itself. Yet, the truth is that my experience of the gospel is almost always inescapably mediated by, and conditioned by, the culture I find myself in. Where the gospel and the culture clash is that place we call “Church,” and this means admitting that the gospel will always be entangled with a mess of unfortunate ideas, boring meetings, people who exacerbate, and legalistic postures that irritate, bruise, and anger me at times. Hearing the Lord’s voice through this noxious environment is extremely difficult, especially in a church that cherishes certainty over humility.
The Challenge of Certainty
Where did we learn this posture of a pure and undivided certitude, in which everyone agrees (at least it seems at church) about the nature of doctrine but no one ever feels inclined to doubt another’s interpretation? Are we saying there’s only one correct way to be a follower of Christ? Is this something Joseph Smith endorsed? If not, why are we so bent on being so agreeable? So overbearingly polite? I mean, really, why are we so bad at handling disagreement? I can think of maybe two examples.
Jesus did unequivocally state: “I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.” He also said “the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil.” From these verses, which arguably have multiple meanings, it’s not hard for me to imagine why most members of the church are tempted to prize certainty at all costs. Certainty alleviates the anxiety and fear that accompanies ambiguity. It dispels the thought of being wrong about deep, cherished beliefs. It grants power and control over uncomfortable feelings. As Bruce Hafen suggests, certainty helps engender feelings “of trust, loyalty, harmony, and sincerity so essential to preserving the Spirit of the Lord.” And when reached, certainty helps us feel “at-one” with our ward brothers and sisters, thus fulfilling the command.
Yet, what could be more troubling than becoming at-one with others prematurely, too quickly, or worse, dishonestly? Is the true gospel meant to reduce life’s most ambiguous challenges to glib forms of pseudo-harmony? What costs are there to consider for a culture that almost entirely eschews mystery and instead maintains the appearance of absolute certainty, but inwardly wrestles with raw, messy emotion? Or worse, maintains the appearance of certainty and inwardly is sure they cannot be wrong about God’s ways and intent? If you are reading this now and do not suffer doubts and questions and are perfectly content with the church just the way it is, I would argue that your posture is not only a fiction; it defies a central tenet of Mormonism that claims need for continuous revelation. As the scripture suggests, the church “doth not yet appear what [it] shall be.”
Frances Menlove articulated this Mormon (and generally human) posture well, essentially calling it a “myth.”
“This myth [of the utterly certain Mormon] is simply the commonly held picture of the Mormon as a complete, integrated personality, untroubled by the doubts and uncertainties that plague the Protestant and oblivious to the painful searching and probing of the non-believer. The Mormon is taught from Primary on up that he, unlike his non-Mormon friends, knows with absolute certainty the answers to the knottiest problems of existence, that in fact his search has come to an end, and that his main task in life is to present these truths to others so that they too may end their quests.
In reality, the Mormon is also subject to uncertainties and doubts. This fact derives inevitably from his understanding of free agency, his freedom to love or turn away, his freedom to choose this path or another one. “Lord, I believe. . .help thou my unbelief” expresses simply the profound experience of those who seek God. He who blots out internal awareness in order to maintain to himself and to others the appearance of absolute certainty, who refuses to examine his inner life, may all too often settle for the appearance of a Christian believer rather than for its actuality. No one should doubt that in some way, or for some reason, he is also a doubter.”
The Honest in Heart Doubt: The Myth of the Utterly Certain Mormon is Not Sustainable
I am not convinced that the purpose of true religion is to provide conclusive answers to life’s “knottiest problems.” “We see through a glass, darkly,” the scripture says, which seems to point us towards a humble, not cocksure, posture. “As for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part” is another reminder that the narratives we frame around deep, cherished beliefs are not inerrant, but partial to reinterpretation, criticism, and further development. Knowing these limits, there’s something about giving pat, unfeeling answers to tough questions that does terrible disservice to the idea of empathy. In these moments we seem to negate our baptismal covenant to “mourn with those who mourn.” The Mormonism I am most moved by is the one that leads me away from the stasis, ease and comfort of this Edenic myth, and instead challenges me to walk through the valley of incertitude with those who doubt. I embrace Patrick Mason’s sentiments on this point: “Given everything I was seeing in the church the past few years, in particular the pain of people leaving the church and those who were watching them leave, I decided to enter the fray.”
Perhaps Mormonism would be more appealing to those who doubt if we actually gave up this myth altogether and instead pursued innovative ways to make the familiarity of our theology stranger, rather than comfortably confirm what we profess to already unequivocally know. We’re way too certain of what we claim to know. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be if we assume that we’re able to rise above our own broken, limited interpretations and settle the meaning of big doctrinal questions once and for all. That kind of certainty hardens into arrogance. It creates mental fortresses that prevent us from questing, wondering, stretching, maybe even overturning long held doctrinal assumptions that no longer speak to the prospect of humans becoming god-like.
An overkill of certainty, even among basic doctrines, can take God hostage to what we currently are able to comprehend, thus limiting God to our own mental images. The atheistic proclivity to doubt can be a powerful tool here to resist this idolatrous temptation. For without doubt new faith cannot be found. Without doubt we cannot let go of old ways of thinking. Without doubt we are unable to cast off flawed and immature images of God. We are unable to welcome a new wave of divine presence that is not bound by a tightly woven network of nonnegotiable beliefs.
American biblical scholar Peter Enns put it this way: “[If we resist doubt] we may actually be missing an invitation to take a sacred journey, where we let go of needing to be right and trust God regardless of what we feel we know or don’t know.” My Mormon culture’s implacable preoccupation with needing to be right, needing to be certain, needing to hold onto familiar ways of thinking and defending familiar interpretations to the point where others are patently wrong if they disagree invites one of the most exhaustingly threadbare spirits into our meetinghouses. Our inability to present the familiar world of Mormonism from an unfamiliar perspective is, I believe, a mental handicap that in many instances leads to boredom at church. Soothing, repetitive, and familiar language does well to instill devotion and retrench traditional values, but treating our religion as a tired regurgitation rather than a daring adventure may be causing us to miss much of the best in Mormonism.
The gospel revealed through Joseph Smith, for example, was grand, sweeping, and capacious, but our approach during church tends to be too narrow, safe, and conservative. This seems somewhat antithetical to the approach taken by Christ, who, as Terryl and Fiona Givens attest, presented the gospel in a way that “was spectacularly designed to unsettle and disturb, not lull into pleasant serenity.” Though the true church indeed is meant to comfort the afflicted, it also serves the purpose, as Harold B. Lee contended, “to afflict the comfortable.” I am convinced there might be a silent majority yearning for greater authenticity, honesty and raw expression during our meetings, but I’m also convinced that the temptation to be lulled into the dominant, easing orthodoxy — awash with all sorts of blithe certainties—will more often than not cause us to remain fearfully silent. If that is the case, argue the Givens, “if we allow ourselves to be co-opted by practices or attitudes we deplore, we share in the “collective guilt.””
These are powerful obstacles that the “myth of the utterly certain Mormon” present to a rising generation that won’t be stigmatized because of their doubt. Certainty, after all, is extremely difficult to maintain when conscience and experience doesn’t support it. Yet, at the same time, I should make one thing very clear: I do not doubt that members of the church have profound spiritual experiences that they are positively certain about. I, too, have been strongly affected by moments of unexpected rapture, especially while praying, temple-attending and reading the scriptures. I am certain we all have these experiences. However, I am skeptical of how we often interpret such experiences and the easy conclusions we draw from them.
I share the concern, expressed by many who doubt, that the assumptions we hold about exclusivity, authority, priesthood, gender and sexual orientation issues, traditional marriage, obedience, and what it means to properly sustain the brethren, are too often invoked in support of beliefs that are morally and spiritually idolatrous. I find this troublesome, because I believe there are powerful truths nested in these principles and doctrines, but getting at them will require we remain true to the deepest principles of humility and make no obeisance to absolute certainty. It will require us to admit that while truth can be considered absolute, our understanding and knowledge of truth always changes and evolves. As Eugene England affirmed, “However clear and unified our ultimate knowledge of doctrine will be, our present understanding of the gospel, which is what we actually have to deal with, is various and limited.”
Combat False Postures, but Stay Grounded in Christ
While there are good reasons to be strongly opposed and in doubt about specific postures we hold as Mormons, I am still of the persuasion that there are equally good reasons to embrace the faith. Let me briefly sketch some of these postures in a way that contextualizes the burden of my doubts — but also reveals the optimism of my faith. I would enjoy the challenge, in other words, to translate what it means for me to sometimes feel strongly atheistic towards my church, but still choose to be religious.
The Scepter of Exclusivity
Whenever I hear members bear testimony of belonging to “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth,” I automatically think of Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride.” In my head, I rehearse the famous line: “You keep using that [phrase]. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Many I know have interpreted this scripture to mean there is no truth or spirituality or salvation outside of Mormonism. Others have been more subtle: “Well, there’s truth to all religions, but ours is most essential.” Both attitudes are where arrogance and the sin of idolatry take root. I think the most unfortunate misperception about our claim to “the only true and living church” is that we rarely articulate the all-important paradox at play that could even make sense of such a conceited claim.
The Book of Mormon, for example, paints a different picture. 2Nephi 29 challenges the authority of the Bible by breaking its monopoly on scriptural truth, then goes one step further implying that The Book of Mormon itself (along with other distinctive sacred texts outside our canon) is but one divine record in a vast world compendium. As Richard Bushman points out, “The Book of Mormon . . . prepares the way for itself by ridiculing those who think the Bible is sufficient.” It then warns against anyone who restricts God from speaking outside of Mormon scripture, especially when God’s voice appears to go against the grain of rigid orthodoxy.
The tragic paradox of our culture is this: 2Nephi 29 teaches us about an ecumenical, generous, liberal, and almost near universal dispersal of divine power, truth and scriptural communications as belonging to everyone in general and no group in particular; and yet, many Mormons I know still narcissistically position the church as monopolizing these gifts under a traditional, institutional framing of an exclusive-organized tribe. The Book of Mormon derails this pompous posture, revealing instead that God has not spoken the final word or given the whole of divine truth to any person or people or institution. Bushman continues, “The world is a hive of bible-making, and in the end all these records will come together, and people will know one another through their bibles.” 2Nephi 29 reaffirms there are many promised lands, many chosen people, many lost tribes, and many records yet to emerge to reconcile us all. Knowing this, we can’t afford to substitute our humility with a closed, cocksure posture.
Ironically, it took The Book of Mormon to challenge us to reassess our assumptions by calling into question any vain denial of the validity and holiness of other traditions. The 1831 revelation in Doctrine & Covenants 49 further undermines this pernicious myth that outside churches and traditions are without truth or spirituality, wherein the Lord tells Joseph that nearly the entire world is under sin, “except those which I have reserved unto myself, holy men that ye know not of.” The Lord’s true disciples, in other words, are not limited to those who find themselves within the walls of Mormonism. As the apostle Orson Whitney declared:
“God, the Father of us all, uses the men of the earth, especially good men, to accomplish [God’s] purposes…They are among the church’s auxiliaries, and can do more good for the cause where the Lord has placed them, than anywhere else…God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of [God’s] great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous for any one people…We have no quarrel with the Gentiles. They are our partners in a certain sense.”
Until Mormons are culturally mature enough to celebrate and diffuse an attitude of love, humility, and acceptance of God’s work among all people of the earth — and truly accept the Divine in images other than our own — our ironclad claim to a one true church falls ineffectually short to living up to its ecumenical potential. Thank God for 2Nephi 29 and Doctrine and Covenants 49, right? We can now give up our pretensions to a traditional-exclusive church and look forward to that glorious day that Nephi portends, wherein all truth will be circumscribed into one great whole.
Priesthood Authority — Its Power is a Gift, not a Rite
Similar to the misperception about our claim to a one true church, there is a general tendency among members to reject the efficacy of any priesthood administered outside the institutional walls of the church. Good, honest, diving-seeking people outside of Mormonism have been culturally determined within as having no legitimate priesthood due to their lack of institutional mediation and ordination. This posture is misleading and non-scriptural and forgets that the priesthood was restored before the church was organized and can exist and operate independent of a formal organization. Our claim to divine institutional authorization does not need to be confused with the non-scriptural assumption that no divine priesthood or spiritual power can exist outside of Mormonism.
Joseph Smith, for example, taught that priesthood was first and foremost a divine, spiritual power inextricably tied to the Holy Ghost, and that the rights to the priesthood “are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven.” The priesthood, or any responsibility within it, cannot be purchased or commanded, but operates “only upon the principles of righteousness.” Failure to live the gospel and retain the spirit separates the rights of the priesthood from our ability to speak and act authoritatively. We may very well then believe we hold the priesthood and still not actually be empowered by the priesthood if our full-bodied desires — including our heart, mind, and might — are not in the right place.
Ordination, in other words, or mere membership alone, does not guarantee genuine spiritual transformation, nor does it guarantee the all-important power needed to sanction the priesthood as effective. What good, then, is the priesthood if it has no power? Priesthood without power is like Jesus without Christ. Without the power of the priesthood — the Holy Ghost — the legalistic function of the ordinance is dead, good for nothing. Or, as Joseph taught, we might as well baptize a “bag of sand.”
One reading of Section 121 implies that we should start viewing priesthood beyond ordination rites and more as inward spiritual power. This is not to suggest that ordination rites are unimportant, only that our preoccupation with them often swindles us into believing that priesthood can be compelled by position, office, gender, or mere membership alone, none of which are true. Priesthood power, and the ability to speak and act authoritatively, is contingent upon personal strivings, or light-of-Christ righteousness. Because this power cannot be patented except on these principles, I think it would be healthier to view priesthood beyond church governance, ordination, maleness, and the exclusive right to act for God, if only to avoid the dangerous arrogance of believing that we alone are right, that we alone can vie for God’s power, and that others cannot if they disagree. I believe that a very real form of priesthood — even if not its fullness — can exist among people outside our church who especially exhibit great “faith, hope, charity, [and] an eye single to the glory of God.” “Therefore,” the Lord says, “if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work.”
Institutionally, we are not accustomed to speaking of believers outside our faith as having legitimate priesthood because 1). it disrupts our narrative of formal ordination, 2). it makes us worried that the need for ordination is unnecessary, and 3). it opens the door for anyone to make false claims to priesthood authority. However, these beliefs do not take into account that many sincere people can and often are spiritually reborn long before a given community ever ritually embraces them. Joseph Smith and even Jesus understood that there was divine power in many of the words and works of people outside the covenant, demonstrated when they asked if a person’s spiritual acts resulted in good fruit. When outsiders are empowered by the Spirit, their fruits are empowered by God, and if empowered by God, what other priesthood could they be wielding?
What makes these points above disturbing is how quick we are to disclaim any priesthood that bears not the mark of ecclesiastical office, even if the power of God is palatably present in those without the mark. Even more disturbing is how willing we are to accept any priesthood that does bear the ecclesiastical mark, because we assume that proper ordination automatically implies a direct line to God. I find these postures idolatrous and perhaps even anti-scriptural because they place trust in the appearance of priesthood while denying the reality of priesthood whenever it manifests in non-traditional ways. Section 121 leaves open the possibility that individuals called of God but not necessarily ordained by the institution may access the power of the priesthood on mere principles of righteousness alone.
After all, there is no way to validate institutionally those who claim to speak for God except to know them by their inward, spiritual fruits. We do not often think of priesthood in terms of inward spirituality because we’ve somehow allowed outward priesthood (office and ordination) to take precedence over inward priesthood (spiritual gifts). There are reasons for this of course. My argument here is simply to invite us to accept the inward, spiritual priesthood of God wherever it may manifest, both inside and outside the church, both in traditional and non-traditional ways.
I am not inspired by narratives that perpetuate the primacy of male-dominated institutional power, nor am I inspired when we promote the primacy of Mormon-dominated priesthood power. Instead, I am moved by narratives that embrace the powers of the Spirit in conditions where males and females, members and non-members, share with God their power, profession, and spiritual mission to heal and bless human families. God’s work is not limited to Mormons, nor should it be limited to worthy, male Mormons either. As various church leaders have emphasized, “men are not the priesthood.” I would go one step further and state that Mormons are not the priesthood either, nor do they possess it when they undertake to “gratify [their] pride” or “grieve the Spirit of the Lord.”
Admitting that other religious and secular traditions can possess inward priesthood is no different than claiming that God bestows spiritual gifts and callings upon all cultures and people. It also means that if we do hold the fullness of the priesthood, both outer and inner forms, it is imperative that we forgo emotions of elitism, arrogance and complacency. As President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has challenged, “In order to exercise [God’s] power, we must strive to be like the Savior.” I would hope this “exercise” can include room for people outside our faith to do the same.
LGBT Orientation is a Given, Not a Chosen
Issues of gender and sexual identity are complex. I believe we are living in a very dark time with regard to the church and these issues. I have many LGBT friends, many of whom do not feel welcomed at church. They are extremely pained over the conflict between their conscience and the current teachings of the church. Even more, they are anguished by the many unthinking, insensitive, uninformed practices, beliefs, and attitudes we hold in our culture that dehumanize them. As one anonymous author wrote: “In a lifetime of church activity, I have yet to hear a single word of compassion or understanding for homosexuals spoken from the pulpit.” This wouldn’t be so tragic if it weren’t so true.
I disclaim any church posture that puts my LGBT brothers and sisters in the margins of a stigmatized identity. I also disclaim any posture that would make them feel that their orientation is something to be shamed.
LGBT inclinations are a given, not a chosen.
I do not believe LGBT orientation is a choice. No one willingly chooses to be gay or transgendered. And no one willingly leads a life targeted by fear, hate, intolerance, and other deplorable sentiments thrust upon them without honestly, and miserably, shouldering these crosses. In our church culture there is plenty of mythology tossed around that is frankly very destructive to our LGBT brothers and sisters, as well as their families. Just the other day during Gospel Doctrine, for example, an older man compared the LGBT community to the “wiles of Korihor.” I’ve also heard the rancorous Old Testament rhetoric of calling LGBT orientation an “abomination in the sight of God” and a “perversion of nature.” This kind of language is simply disastrous and is exactly the kind of posturing that leads to broken lives, families sundered, and even suicide.
I do not want to make it a point that having LGBT orientation is the defining characteristic of a person’s existence. We are all children of God first which means our primary identity is rooted in divine parentage. However, while I believe we choose which characteristics define us, there is something immensely disturbing about denying relations between two happy, monogamous, legally married, consenting adults, and then equating those relations with inflammatory rhetoric such as “sinfulness.” This posture is unrelentingly dehumanizing. It wants to characterize an LGBT lifestyle by unbridled lasciviousness, when in reality many people of LGBT persuasion just want an intimate, loving relationship like heterosexuals have. To insist on using such rhetoric is, I believe, to be swallowed up in the unforgiving deep of legalism. We can do better than this. We must.
Until heterosexual members — prophets and apostles not barred — are willing to bear the cross of celibacy themselves, or would be willing to stand proxy for the pain and anguish their gay and transgendered ward members feel, I find their privileged positions lacking in essential Christ-like virtues and feel no need to take their posturing seriously.
Do not misunderstand me.
I am not endorsing any sort of laissez-faire, promiscuous relations between LGBT people. I am not in support of those relations even among heterosexuals. I am merely arguing against the swaggering, puritanical certainty that exists in our congregations that compels us to reject the value of LGBT relationships, then assembles us to legislate laws through organized phone banks that deny them the same privileges that heterosexuals enjoy. I am arguing against our inability of admitting that good can come from family structures we institutionally disagree with. I am arguing against how convinced we think we are — how absolutely certain we know! — that relations between two happy, monogamous, legally married, consenting adults somehow merits our profound social and legal hostility.
I feel great compassion for my LGBT friends and will stand with them in whatever they decide to do. I will not demand that they become who they are not — nor will I guilt them with harmful rhetoric as the price of my friendship. I will look to find Jesus in them, who always stands disguised in those who suffer. I will look to them to be my teachers, their patience having been made deep by pain can impart profound lessons. I will encourage them that when their loyalty to church authority is held in dynamic tension with the demands of an informed conscience, to choose conscience. Choose the light within. Choose the still, small voice. These teachings I learned from my Mormon heritage, which I feel richly blessed by.
Wrestling with Prophets — There is Balance Between Full Assent and Full Dissent
I am not convinced that the intoxicating need to be right, to be certain, is supported by scripture. As mentioned earlier, Christ does command us “to be one” and to avoid “contention.” There are also several other passages that embolden us to “doubt not, fear not,” or when seeking knowledge to “ask in faith, without wavering.” However, I am not convinced these passages are trying to reduce the journey of faith into propositional beliefs made firm by dogmatic certitude. “We see through a glass darkly” and “Lord, help thou my unbelief” provide balanced expressions for those who live in doubt, even as they model an acceptance of mystery and surrender of cognitive certainty. Ideally, church is a place where we should feel safe to nurse our doubts in a community of saints who covenant to mourn with each other; yet, church often feels like a country club where we collectively show off how certain, with it, we are. This posture, I believe, stems from the unscriptural and dangerous assumption of infallible leadership.
Let me break this down by posing two questions: When a prophet speaks at a pulpit does he automatically speak for God? If someone doubts what a prophet says will he or she not be combatively received by their culture as subversive or apostate? Both questions reveal important doctrinal components of a lived-in faith. Mormons believe strongly in both prophetic authority and agentive authority. Put differently: How do I remain loyal to my Mormon community while at the same time remain true to my own conscience that’s been seared in the furnace of experience? Or, as Frances Menlove asked: “How free are Mormons to confront themselves? How free are they to question and analyze, to admit their strengths and weaknesses, their beliefs and doubts and problems with the Church?”
In a church where children are taught to sing “Follow the Prophet” and are assured that he will never lead the church astray, I think members harboring doubts or uncertainties are extremely limited in their ability to freely voice their concerns without being marginalized as insubordinate. In Sunday School, for example, the pervasive rhetoric of trust and certainty placed in our leaders can create tremendous fear in those who have contrary or countercultural opinions. The fear of looking disobedient offers too much friction for the soul in such daunting situations, that the options imagined are either to silently conform or leave the church.
I find this to be an extremely unfortunate position to feel pitted against, mostly because I believe there are many sincere members wrestling with doubt whose voices need to be heard. They can help us resist the temptation of certitude. They can help foster renewal and increase our humility. Sunday School far too often feels like a litmus-test of obedience, where the more conservative and squarely align our answers are to the brethren the more righteous and obedient we appear to be. If we are not completely turning over our agency to others in these moments, we are pretending to place great worth on individual revelation, but only insofar that it inspires us to follow the teachings of the brethren. I believe that if our sustaining vote is to hold any meaning whatsoever, we must be able to voice our dissent in respectful, constructive, worthwhile ways.
The choice between blind obedience to the prophets and blanket rejection of their teachings is, I believe, a false dichotomy. As I have stated elsewhere, the church is not an all-or-nothing enterprise for me. There must be a meaningful balance between full assent and full dissent, where agency is not overridden but works to our advantage as we experience, think, struggle, stretch, and ultimately make our testimonies our own — not someone else's. Anything less is just too easy, where either we’re asking for someone to keep our conscience, or, giving free reign to any impulse we feel and calling it our “conscience.” The first path is fueled by laziness, the second by ego. We are part of the House of Israel, whose name literally means “We who wrestle with God.” We do not simply acquiesce to every rigid, status-quo, stultifying pronouncement that prophets might make on behalf of God.
Like Jacob, we wrestle all night and perhaps even our entire lives with those pronouncements. And when done, we limp away, says Rick Jepson, “from the exhausting and injurious night as a new person, changed emotionally and spiritually.” We become “God-wrestlers,” confident and revitalized. This will often mean sustaining other fallible human beings while at the same time following our own inner-light that may lead us outside the comfort of traditional orthodoxy. It will mean admitting that doubt is not a final form of enlightenment but neither is sentimental projection. As Bruce Hafen admonished: “Those who will not risk exposure to experiences that are not obviously related to some Church word or program will, I believe, live less abundant and meaningful lives than the Lord intends.”
For these reasons I do not conflate my testimony of prophets and apostles with the unscriptural assumption that they are always right, or beyond criticism, or that vocally disagreeing with them somehow constitutes apostasy, or evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed. My loyalty to the church is not uncritical loyalty. To be intimidated otherwise would be for me to allow obedience to trump conscience, to deliberately give consent to an action or proposition I felt was wrong. My will is mine to give to Christ alone.
I hope that we can become culturally mature enough to forgo the temptation of turning our leaders into righteous celebrities who cannot err, both individually but especially institutionally. There is power uniquely designed in admitting that our leaders are not just fallible, but sometimes make egregious institutional mistakes while serving as God’s mouthpiece. But that’s ok. That’s expected. There is sanctifying power that can enter our souls when we forgive our leaders as they forgive us. That power helps us learn and practice the grace of forgiveness. It helps heal the pain that has been so disorienting when others have tried to defend what shouldn’t be defended, but simply owned. On extremely rare occasions I have felt that power invite a special kind of honesty and soul-cleansing vulnerability into our meetinghouses. It dispels the competitive certainty of needing to be right and reminds me of what true religion looks like.
“Atheism” Moves Me Into Authentic Religion
I have trust in being religious and not becoming atheist because I can readily admit that the versions of Mormonism I’ve combated here — which currently are hijacking my experience at church — will not be sustained in future decades and centuries. I have trust that the postures that irritate, bruise, and anger me at times can ultimately be alchemized for my good, but I need to place those feelings into a redemptive context. That is, I need to continually view those things that drain, depress and disturb me — the things that make me feel strongly atheistic — as opportunities to grow and awaken into deep Christ-like character. I am convinced that were it not for these immeasurable growing pains that the divine would forever remain asleep within me. While I have many reasons to feel doubt and feel strongly atheistic towards my church at times, I equally believe those feelings can help open my eyes into becoming authentically religious.