So Many Questions

This morning I re-read a comment from CJ on yesterday’s post:

The real reason people are leaving: those who consider themselves to be faithful members, but who inexplicably fail to become mindless jumper-wearing, jello-eating drones, are told “faith promoting” things like “you shouldn’t have a Temple Recommend”. If membership has to dictate one’s personality and character, then it’s only going to become less and less appealing. I, for one, like to think that I can be both religious and free-thinking–but, increasingly, I’m being told by church that I’m wrong.

I wonder how many people are leaving due to a lack of belief (there’s certainly plenty of that) and how many are leaving because they prize their individualism?

For me it was a little of both. I discovered the numerous problems with The Church’s historical and truth claims, but the trauma this caused to my testimony wasn’t ultimately what caused me to throw up my hands and walk away. It was the absolute taboo on discussion of controversy, combined with The Church’s willful encouragemwilful”Lying for the Lord.” I soon discovered that facts are not of interest to The Church. If a fact makes Mormonism look good, then it was true. If it casts a negative light on Mormonism, then it is false. My efforts to discuss controversial or complicated issues in a spirit of genuine inquiry were met with hostility and accusations of disloyalty. Ironically, the church that taught me to value my integrity above everything was behaving in such a way that my integrity forced me to leave.

I’m curious to specifically hear from CJ, but if any other faithful nonconformists (people who believe in the basic premise of Mormonism but do not adhere to the culture and practice of Mormonism in a typical active Mormon way) have answers to these questions please do share.

What do you consider the secret to your success in thinking you can be “both religious and free-thinking”? I do believe there are plenty of denominations that encourage this (Reform Judaism, Unitarianism and Lutheranism come to mind) but I agree that the LDS church can suffer from an emphasis on conformity and (sometimes public) humiliation of those who are faithful but different. You said that increasingly you’re told by the church that you are wrong. Who tells you that you are wrong? On what do they base their authority? Does anyone ever come to your defense? Why or whdefence

What do you consider to be “The Church”? Do you think there is any difference between “The Church” as in the list of members maintained by the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop, and “the church” as in a body of believers? What matters more to you, The Church or the church? Do you believe that the employees of the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop (apostles, general authorities, Correlation committee, and other bureaucrats) are right to have complete say over what constitutes a “Good Mormon”? What would the breaking point be for you between your faith in the church and your ability to maintain membership in The Church? How much do you think being a member in good standing of The Church affects your salvation?

Many nonconformists who are still active in The Church feel that their presence has value as a force fighting conformity, but others resent the fact that being different requires them to represent Those Who Are Different, when they’d rather just be accepted as part of the fold. Do you think that the slow drain of nonconformists from The Church is inevitable? Do you think that The Church is happy to see them go, making it easier to guarantee conformity of belief and behaviour? Do you think it would be useful or not useful for The Church to encourage open debate, doubt, and questioning?

If these are too many questions to answer in the comments section, please leave a link to any blog posts that discuss these issues.

16 thoughts on “So Many Questions

  1. Part I

    This may be disappointing, but the secrets to my success are, largely, that I’m 1) possessed (I like to think) of a good sense of humor, 2) am, by and large, intellectually lazy, and 3) self absorbed. These aren’t good things, but they allow me to function. Many of my more typically faithful friends take the church incredibly seriously on every issue; I don’t. The way I look at it is, I was given free agency for a reason. Jesus, by and large, is very clear about how to follow His teachings. I tend to keep those things about the church, which I personally feel reflect those teachings (or help me, personally, become more Christ-like) and discard the rest. However “true” any church is, ultimately, it’s only a man-made institution run by men. I don’t have any trouble accepting that Boyd KKK Packer wasn’t, um, all that divinely inspired–and the fact that I generally regard him to be a homophobic douchebag doesn’t really damage my Testimony.

    Which leads me to the second point: I’m intellectually lazy. Sure, Joseph Smith was a raging philanderer, but, hey, so was Moses. I don’t notice Jews leaving Judaism in droves, because their leaders aren’t perfect. Or, as Mr. CJ puts it, a lot of things seem more excusable, because they happened a really long time ago. I admire people who really delve into church history, but I’m not one of those people. The fact that a lot of the church is, maybe, whitewash doesn’t bother me. This is probably due to the fact that my first degree was in medieval history. Churches change their histories all the time, to suit their purposes. You can’t have it both ways: either a church is unchanging (and therefore rigid), or it’s changing (and therefore untrue). You really can’t win. So I sort of go with the flow, and tend to poke fun at the stuff that’s obviously BS.

    I learned a lot about social interaction in high school. Popularity insulates you from a lot, and popularity is, ultimately, about confidence. If you tell people, “this is who I am, and I’m cool”, they tend to believe you–as people are sheep. I don’t really look for, or accept criticism about the fact that I continue to “wrongly” accept homosexuality as perfectly OK. It bothers me on the inside, but hey–they’re wrong and I’m right.

    I’ve been generally fortunate in my leaders, although I’ve run across bishops, now and then (fortunately not *my* bishops) who’ve had huge issues with me. By and large, the people who tell me I’m an evil apostate aren’t in positions of authority. They just disagree with me, and “I disagree with you” seems to, in their minds, translate into “you’re not righteous, go fry”.

  2. Part II

    Don’t ever ask me a question; I have a hard enough time shutting up as it is 😉

    My biggest defender is my sister. She’s very vocal about telling people to go sit and spin. When we were in our university ward together, it was like this evil “through the looking glass” version of “Singles Ward”. People were genuinely nasty to each other. A few girls really seemed to make it their mission to attack anybody who wasn’t like them. You were “too Molly” or “not religious enough” or “too ugly” or “too boring” or whatever. One girl, who made me horribly sad, told me she couldn’t be friends with me, because I was just the sort of vapid, craft-making Pioneer wannabe her parents always wanted her to be and she hated me for it. She saw what she wanted to see, and heard what she wanted to hear. She also told me, on another memorable occasion, that she wished her parents had taught her about hair and makeup and attracting boys, and not about academic subjects–because she might be at [insert name of country’s top medical school here] but she couldn’t get a date. Honestly, what a miserable person.

    Do I blame the church? Yes, and no. The church is like any other clique; it’s a coercive environment and, if you let it, it’ll brainwash you.

    Honestly, I think–and this is bad, but true–another reason I get away with being myself is that this is a church that places tremendous, unhealthy emphasis on appearance, and Mr. CJ and I have, more or less, the “appearance of righteousness”. In other words, we look like June and Ward Cleaver 🙂 The whole feminist thing used to bother me more, until I realized that I could use the fact that people didn’t take me seriously to my advantage.

    I had a particularly unpleasant interview the other day, and I responded with, “Mr. CJ and I have made this decision together, and he feels led by the Spirit in it”. Well, nobody can say anything to that, can they? He and I “blame” things on each other all the time, with the other’s approval.

    We have never placed the church, or the church’s needs, above our own. Our relationship has always come first, and we’ve always done what was right for us. Thus, while our relationship certainly isn’t perfect, we’ve managed to avoid many of the issues that other couples have. I’ve spoken to many people who’ve developed huge resentment (justifiably!) over feeling “married to the church”, and the church’s intrusion into their lives.

  3. Part III

    I go by Jesus’ definition: “church” is anywhere two faithful members get together. I don’t think God is particularly bothered by our denominations. Plenty of amoral people claim to be Christians of all stripes, and many atheists are moral, Christ-like people. Ultimately, calling yourself Christ-like doesn’t actually make you Christ-like. I think, based on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus was pretty clear that He was more interested in how people act than how they label themselves.

    To coin a line from Thomas Payne, enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Church leadership may be divinely inspired (sometimes it is; sometimes it isn’t, I think), but however divinely inspired we are, we’re still human beings–and, therefore, not perfect. It’s foolish to presume that just because someone speaks for the church, he’s free from the moral, ethical, and intellectual defects infecting the rest of us.

    Take my in-laws, for example: they are surely motivated by love of the purest sort for their son, but they still express it, on occasion, in ways that don’t, you know, get me totally excited. Purity of intention isn’t the issue. Much like with the church, I try to ignore the action (where warranted) and focus on the intention.

    I think salvation is between the individual and God. Jesus said that salvation is a free gift; we have but to accept it. One of the huge issues I have with the Catholic Church is the idea of intercession; why must I confess my sins to anybody? Likewise, I think people mislead themselves by focusing on church authorities to the exclusion of the actual Gospel.

    My understanding of the role and relevance of church authorities–in any church–is that they’re supposed to help us, the faithful, live the Gospel. But ultimately, like Jesus said, we must be aware of false prophets–and recognize that, indeed, the responsibility of discernment is ours alone. We can’t blindly “just follow orders”. I prioritize my free agency above any one leader’s dictates; if I honestly, in my heart of hearts, think a leader’s counsel, or a church principle, is not helping me live the Gospel, I ignore it.

    In the final analysis, I think we’ll be judged on the basis of our honest exercise of our free agency. Most of the religious justification for my views comes from Matthew, which, if it can be summed up in one sentence, is a long-winded explanation of the Golden Rule. If given a choice between doing what we know is wrong, out of fear, and doing what we know is right, even if it means suffering the condemnation of the world, which path would Jesus endorse?

  4. Part IV

    This is it, I promise.

    It is possible, I think, to be both free-thinking and conformist. It’s an issue of choosing your battles. If you look, on the outside, like a “typical Mormon”, a lot of times, people either leave you alone or cut you a lot of slack. I guess I’m something of a hypocrite; I’m OK with wearing garment-friendly clothes, even though I honestly think God doesn’t care whether my knees show or not.

    I also tend to frame my arguments–e.g. in terms of equal marriage–in terms of separation of church and state. Say “the Prophet is wrong” and nobody will listen to you. Say “it’s irrelevant what the Bible says, in this country, we have separation of church and state”, and they just think you’re a crazy Libertarian. Which I am. And, undoubtedly, I’ve been pigeonholed as such. Then again, I strive for balance–for every pro-equal marriage argument, I bake a bitchin’ cherry pie 😉

    Now, aren’t you sorry you asked?

  5. I don’t tend to conform to the surrounding LDS culture in my wards and I never have. Yet I fit into the community OK.

    The secret to my peace of place here has always been the realization that church is not my own personal soapbox. Mostly, it is a place for members from diverse backgrounds to meet together in fellowship and share in each others’ spirit. That’s primarily what most Mormons are in church for (whether they get it or not is another story). They aren’t there to get a lecture from some young radical about the evils of capitalism, or to have their worldview devastatingly challenged.

    This is not to say you can’t challenge people in Church. You just can’t go overboard, and you have to know when to draw back when you’re upsetting people too much. It also helps if you are fluent in the lingo that your fellow Mormons. That way you can couch new ideas in familiar language and your fellow classmates won’t feel too threatened.

    I even got away with suggesting that the story of Adam and Eve was mostly allegorical and that the idea of “No Death Before the Fall” might not be strictly true, and no one batted an eye. Seriously.

    It’s all in the delivery.

    And, I’m sorry to say, some people just don’t have that ability. Some people can’t say anything without a good third of the room finding them abrasive. It’s hard to say what it is, but some people just seem to have this problem. One of my good friends in one of the wards I’ve been in is a good example of this problem. She got in an argument in Relief Society with the former bishop’s wife with the whole thing ending with bad feelings. But she was only making a point that I totally could have made in Gospel Doctrine class in front of the same bishop’s wife and not had much of a scene at all.

    Part of the problem here is that living in a community – any community – takes a certain degree of social finesse. This is not something that our modern society teaches. These days, most of us stay closeted up in our suburban bunkers most of the time playing our Xboxs. We’ve really lost the art and expectation of integrating into a close knit community. Since this is something that Mormonism still maintains and promotes, there are going to be conflicts.

  6. I think it’s definitely possible to be a non-conformist and a faithful Mormon. However, you will constantly chafe against Mormon culture. Being a good Mormon won’t fit naturally, like a glove, the way it does for some people. You’ll have lots of problems where you can’t help but ask “Is it me… or is it the church?”

    And the more you have reason to ask yourself that, the higher the probability that you’ll eventually leave.

  7. Seth, I fail to see how inventing new and creative ways of supporting preexisting Mormon doctrine is nonconformist. Indeed, it’s inventive–within a limited scope. The things you’ve mentioned “getting away with” are hardly new to you. Most, if not all, educated Christians–of all denominations–accept evolution. Moreover, coming up with a “new” way to explain an old doctrine isn’t nonconformist. Rather, it’s coming up with a “new” way to explain an old doctrine. In other words, it’s another attempt at bolstering the status quo.

    And, you’re certainly correct–social finesse is required. My own life experience has taught me that 95% of social finesse is the ability to listen, really listen, to other people. Here, you could stand to take some of your own advice. If “everybody in the room” finds you abrasive, chances are, it’s you, not them. Really listening to people, and appreciating their–usually differing–point of view necessitates appreciating your own responsibility in communicating effectively. Talking about “social finesse”, and then blaming other people for not “understanding” you, or appreciating you, is just silly.

    Also, not to put too fine a point on it, but if you hold forth on these supposedly “revolutionary” topics, and people, as you put it, don’t have “much of a scene at all”, it means they’re not listening to you. Sometimes, when people are very fixed in their opinions–clearly more interested in “enlightening” you about their spectacularly wonderful beliefs than in actually learning what you may think–there’s really no point in engaging them. It’s easier to smile and nod, and let them feel as though they’ve had the last word. You know, not feeding the trolls, and all that.

    • I think whether or not being creative makes you a nonconformist depends on which Mormonism we’re talking about. The organization founded by Joseph Smith is an extremely different thing from the entity that bears its name today. The death of Smith’s church began when the church Incorporated shortly after (somewhat) abandoning polygamy, and the process was complete when Correlation began in the 1960’s. Public disagreement between Apostles was common in the 19th Century, and personal interpretation was encouraged. Today those who are on the membership roster of the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop are provided with documents that tell them what they are supposed to believe. It’s a matter of opinion as to which style of Mormonism is right, but I think it’s fair to say that nonconformists who reject the idea that the Church Office Building is the source of all truth are probably closer to original Mormonism than those who do as they are told.

      • Just out of curiosity Molly, did you catch the Mormon Stories podcast series with Daymon Smith?

        I heard all four installments. Great interview – quite interesting.

        • I did. I’m most of they way through Smith’s book and will review it when I’m finished. Very interesting podcast and a very odd, florid, addicting book. I’m waiting to hear when Smith is called to a disciplinary council for what he’s written. If Grant Palmer was disfellowshiped, it would be surprising for Smith to put out “Book of Mammon” with no retribution coming after him.

        • I don’t know… it’s been a long time since the “September Six.”

          I think the bloggernacle has changed the dynamic quite a bit. I’ve been seeing people on the nacle say stuff worse than anything the September Six said and get away with it without so much as an official peep for a long time now.

  8. Chanson, I think you make a good point. It’s easy to say, about any group, “don’t let this group define your identity”, but when it’s a group whose opinions influence your life–whether a high school clique, a workplace, or, indeed, the church–that’s much easier said than done.

    At the same time, you can redefine what it means to be a good Mormon–or a good anything. The church certainly isn’t the only influence out there; it’s hard to convince yourself that it’s OK to be a non-size two wearing, non-Nobel Prize winning, non-billionaire, too. Just because people tell us that they have all the answers to who we “should” be, doesn’t mean we should listen to them.

  9. Could be they weren’t listening, I suppose. But that seems to be belied by the fact that half the Elders Quorum class was nodding in agreement, and a couple even were enthused enough to jump off what I said and make further points. I’ve had feedback – almost always positive. I’ve taught lessons before and usually get someone coming up afterward with positive remarks (and they aren’t the type of people who would be doing that for all teachers).

    I don’t always hit the balance right. A couple years back, I had the Elders Quorum privately tell me I needed to tone things down a bit. Once I dialed back the aggressive tone, things got better and he had no further complaints. I felt like he was correct that my tone had gotten away from me and was not really conducive to the spirit of the meetings.

  10. Pingback: Sunday in Outer Blogness: Scenes from Church and Life Edition! | Main Street Plaza

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