Ideas From a Different Perspective

Ask and ye shall receive. I thought it was worth reposting CJ’s answers to my barrage of questions about how she operates as a nonconformist believer in the LDS Church. It seems that we’ve both encountered the same difficulties; I left, she stayed. Both paths have their pitfalls and advantages.

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.

A good sense of humour is always a good thing. Intellectually lazy can also mean that you’re not rigid in your thought process, and self-absorbed can also mean introspective and not vulnerable to being shamed into groupthink. Every vice is the flipside of a virtue.

Many of my more typically faithful friends take the church incredibly seriously on every issue; I don’t.

I took my faith very seriously and personally. Perhaps that’s why I ended up leaving when it all fell down? I wonder if the seriously devout are more vulnerable to leaving when they have a crisis of faith as they are less comfortable with ambiguity?

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.

I see that you don’t take the taboo against “speaking ill of the Bretheren” very seriously. Good on you.

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.

So even if the whitewash of history affects basic truth claims such as the historicity of the Book of Mormon, that doesn’t bug you? I’m envious.

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”.

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.

Is it inherently coercive because it’s an organization? Is it acceptable that it can “brainwash” its members? Does this mean the church strikes an acceptable balance for you between beneficial and coercive?

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.

Ha! So the key to being a successful active Mormon nonconformist is to subversively use the tools of conformists. Do you ever get tired of the charade? Or is it a pretty small price to pay to be left alone?

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.

I think this viewpoint is probably what most distinctively brands you as a nonconformist Mormon. I agree that for far too many members (including my parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins) the church comes before everything. It is not hard to find examples of people who initiated divorce because their spouses went inactive, or families who shun gay or apostate children. Placing the church first means placing your loved ones second.

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.

That’s a fairly Universalist perspective. So do you feel that actual Religion (meaning specific denominations and their dogma) are irrelevant in the face of religion (meaning a less nit-picking quest for truth, ethics, morality, and meaning)? If this is the case, do you see Mormonism as what you were born to and the familiar framework that you stick with, but that it’s not the end-all-be-all Religion?

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.

I’ve heard similar sentiments from people who remain faithful Catholics despite thinking the Catholic hierarchy is chock full of horrible wankers. It is a very pragmatic and useful approach, but requires thick skin to deal with the authoritarians that seem to heavily populate religious communities.

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?

That’s shocking and revolutionary! Kind of like Jesus! Gasp.

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 😉

All joking aside, every Mormon knows that the key to getting people to like you is to bring snacks.

Now, aren’t you sorry you asked?

Nope.

I think I can see it now — a nonconformist stays or goes based on how seriously they take authority. If anything, my priggish, puritanical Salt Lake-style family shaped me to be an absolutist. I grew up Knowing(TM) that the Church Was True(TM) and the Book of Mormon Was True(TM) and that I should Follow The Prophet(TM). With such an iron rod approach to church membership, it’s no small wonder I felt so let down. Rigid structures are prone to shattering under pressure. I suppose if you’re the sort of Mormon who isn’t paranoid about falling off a path without keeping a white-knuckled grip on the safety rail, it’s a little easier for you to move along at your own pace, and you are less concerned about the cracks in the sidewalk. I can’t in good conscience contribute money or my labor for the Church’s benefit any more; I simply disagree too much with what they do with the financial and non-monetary assets of their membership. I held them to Celestial standards; you seem to have a more pragmatic view, as if they were politicians. In my crisis of faith, I was a bit more all-or-nothing than someone like you who is getting something of value out of it and does not believe that having faith requires handing over your brain. It’s a different viewpoint from mine, but also one I understand better now.

7 thoughts on “Ideas From a Different Perspective

  1. Thank you. I have enjoyed this discussion. Re: the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon, the idea that the opening chapters of Genesis describe a metaphorical Darwinian evolution, or that no people ever lived to be 600+ years old, or that Noah didn’t really save the world from a flood doesn’t really bother me. To me, whether something’s literally true, or a metaphor, is sort of irrelevant. If anything, it probably has more value as a metaphor–the way Aesop’s Fables do. The teaching point behind the story is either valid, or it isn’t.

    Our household is a very interesting one. Mr. CJ shares your perspective, on this religion and on religion as a whole, I think. Unfortunately, not everyone has been as accepting of his right to exercise this (supposedly) vaunted free agency as they should be, so he tends to keep it to himself around his family. Oddly, many member friends only think this makes him more delightful; he manages to live the stereotype, culturally anyway, without actually believing much of the theology. People hear what they want to hear, and see what they want to hear.

    And that…it doesn’t make me dislike religion, it makes me dislike people, who use it for their own ends. I don’t know how inherently coercive the church, or any church, is, only that people often seem to use it as a weapon against each other. Also, as a further response to one of your questions, a family member (by marriage) has told me, repeatedly, that I’m a bad influence and going to Hell. I do such “evil” things as say that, yes, it’s OK to not believe in God, or go to church, and no, I support Mr. CJ in his decisions no matter what. Apparently, I’m not supposed to accept him the way he is, I’m supposed to change him. Which…makes me sad for them. What a bummer of a worldview.

  2. I think you’re right about the seriously devout being more vulnerable to leaving when they have a crisis of faith. I believed it all 100%, and so when I began to discover the real history, even my sense of humor couldn’t help me.

    The most important point I think is like you said, that the basic truth claims – the foundations of Mormonism itself – crumble under a close examination of the facts and history. After learning the facts I was left with the question “what is the point of staying?” I actually tried to figure out a way to stay and reconcile the differences between what the church taught and what I now knew, but it just seemed pointless. The last thing I wanted to do was be a fake so I could remain in a fake religion.

  3. Hello Molly. I’ve enjoyed your and CJ’s thoughts. I think one thing you’ve neglected to consider is Mormonism as an ethnicity. In the missionfield we would roll our eyes at the good Catholics who were born Catholic, were married Catholic, and planed to die Catholic without a lot of concern for the details of church history, doctrine or policy. There are a lot of good Mormons who are pretty much the same way. They’re Mormon because they’re Mormon. The feel guilty over not doing enough home teaching and they store wheat because that’s what Mormons do. It’s a comfortable, familiar place that provides some answers to certain questions, provides opportunities for growth, service and fellowship, and the details don’t matter much.

    Ethnic Mormons may or may not be active in the Church, they may or may not care what the doctrines and principles are, but they identify as Mormon.

    Most ethnic Mormons are lifers, generally with pioneer ancestry, but there are plenty of second generation and converts as well. The Church simply “works” for some people, and they don’t question what is working.

    My wife and I are definitely ethnic Mormons with pioneer ancestry going back into Nauvoo and Missouri, and our identity as such has little to do with whether our attitudes and beliefs on any given subject align with something the Correlation Committee would approve. Scripture is not literal history, and the origination mythology of any tradition (whether a denomination including ours, or Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc. itself) is best taken with a grain of salt. By its very nature, mythology is true unless you require it to be literally such.

    The Church isn’t immune to the foibles common to any organization. You get cliques, group think, etc. And the Church institutionally isn’t particularly good at exceptions handling or dealing with people who don’t fit into the expected mold. If you have a strong sense of self and confidence in yourself the peanut gallery really doesn’t matter. If you don’t, and if you don’t have “ethnic” ties to hold you, it’s a lot harder to stay. And die hard “true believers” can easily be disillusioned and leave even if they do have long history with the Church.

    And frankly, a lot depends on the luck of the draw on how tolerant and open minded local leadership happens to be at the time – an intolerant, micromanaging bishop will drive people away regardless of whether he’s conservative or liberal – and where you live. When you get outside of the Zion curtain, a lot of time what matters to people isn’t what you believe so much as whether you’re there to help set up chairs.

    Then PhD student in Mormon Studies Mauro Properzi wrote an essay a while back that considered the relationship between believing and belonging. His focus was directed toward young scholars in training but it has application to all. We think we belong because we believe, but often times it works the other way around. Accepting people as individuals and respecting a little diversity of opinion and approach goes a long way toward making people feel like they belong, which smooths over a lot of issues wrt belief.

    A few thoughts.

    • It’s hard to find the right word, isn’t it? I think the FLDS by now constitute an ethnicity, as they have a very homogenous gene pool (and the problems that go with that) and enough generations of isolation from the outside world. It’s hard for me to say whether or not LDS Mormons constitute an “ethnic group.” There are those descended from the 1847 Pioneers, but even then these people were composed of various ethnicities, nationalities, and so on. As you say, these people self-identify and while not an “ethnicity” like Jews are, do have a kind of separate status within the church. The good from that is that it provides immense pride and the sense of belonging that you describe. The bad that can come of it is that a minority of these people put off an attitude as if they, the Utah-dwellers, the Church of the Wasatch Front, are the true heirs and custodians of what it means to be Mormon. I’ve noticed Mormons who live outside Utah spend quite a lot of time making fun of Utah Mormons and insisting they are not “one of those Mormons.” California Mormons in particular seem eager to separate themselves from the Idaho-Utah-Arizona Jello Belt and often explain that they are more laid back and normal than their Utah counterparts.

      I mean no disrepect to people who say The Church works for them and have no interest in knowing how it works. That is their choice and I understand it. But lots of us who leave take offense at certain parts of the machine. It may work, but if it works at the expense of ethics, it doesn’t work for us. I expect that we are the same sort of people who boycott Wal-Mart or are alarmed to learn that Apple sources parts for iPods from conflict materials in the Congo. People like that are going to be put off by the billion-dollar mall The Church is building in Salt Lake, or the fact that it got involved in Proposition 8.

      And as you mentioned, no large organisation is immune to problems. I suppose how people deal with that depends on whether or not they think that excuses The Church or not. In theory, if it’s God’s One True Church(TM), it should be held to higher standards than other corporations, churches, and organisations. Your mention of the difference between believing and belonging is exactly the sort of thing I was struggling to understand here. I think there is an increasing feeling among younger people that there is no difference between the two. If you don’t believe, you are treated as if you don’t belong. Half of the people I grew up with in my home ward no longer attend church because of this exact reason. Unfortunately our LDS friends and family do not encourage a culture of belonging. Exact words used to describe us have included “apostates,” “dirty traitors,” “fallen,” “sinners,” “sons of Perdition,” “hellbound,” “perverts,” and so on. All we were doing was asking questions, trying to resolve our troubled consciences, or attempting to follow our sense of integrity. Talks like Uchtdorf’s wonderful reminder to love and embrace those who are different are so very very welcome to us, but as long as they are followed up with drivel about not wearing sandals to church nothing will shift LDS people away from judging and shunning.

      Do you think that pioneer heritage or living in Utah helps inactive LDS still think of themselves as culturally/ethnically Mormon? Because of this line of descent, does it provide a connection to Mormonism that is separate from the LDS Church? Outside the Jello Belt, do you think it’s more difficult to belong without believing? I had not considered before how pioneer descent may influence one’s decision to leave The Church but remain in the church.

      • Good thoughts. At the root definition “ethnic” isn’t necessarily limited to DNA or nationality, one dictionary offers, “identity with or membership in a particular racial, national, or cultural group and observance of that group’s customs, beliefs, and language.” Viewing religion through that type of lens does sometimes help a few things come into focus.

        I would say pioneer ancestry meaning 19th century more than 1847 specifically – shared experience of conversion, immigration, first hand experience with leaders of a type of that is uncommon these days, sense of struggle and purpose, etc.

        I agree there’s a difference in tone between the western US and the rest of the US, and between North America and the rest of the world. And let’s be honest, with a few bright exceptions California is as bad as Arizona, Nevada, Utah or Idaho. A positive result of the growth is the development of local leadership and experience world wide. Westerners are less likely to approach “the missionfield” as inhabited by ignorant rubes, and Utahns living elsewhere are less likely to be treated poorly (without cause) by fellow saints who feel insecure in their “endowments”.

        And to their credit the west in general and Utah in particular DO contribute more than their share in a lot of ways. Some of that simply has to do with population density and critical mass, but we in the “Mormon boondocks” sometimes don’t give enough credit where due.

        The machine analogy is an interesting one, and begs consideration of how the parts interact. Opinions differ on whether the mission and perspective of churches and other non profits is compromised by participating in for profit activities. Obviously, the Church does have a business arm. To its credit, the books are completely separate and tithes are completely separate from for profit ventures. I don’t see the mall and such quite as black and white. Even non profits exhibit corporate citizenship (or not). As one of the largest tenants of Salt Lake City, I find it understandable that the Church would invest in keeping the city healthy. In the middle of the largest economic downturn since the depression, how much investment and how many jobs have the Church’s (well, the Church’s corporate subsidiary) efforts provided? Over the last years the Church has contributed nine and ten digit sums to worldwide humanitarian efforts. I don’t begrudge the business arm spending some money to paint their own fences locally.

        As for PropH8, don’t get me started. We’ll be here all night. Shouldn’t have happened. Won’t happen again. I think they severely miscalculated how public opinion has changed since Hawaii 15 years ago.

        Re organizations, problems, and standards, I think if one takes claims of “one true church” literally to the standpoint that one makes no concessions to reality, one is destined for a life of unhappiness. NO organization in which human beings are allowed to contribute can meet that standard. And there are some people who jump from church to church every few years because invariably someone offends them or they find something they don’t like.

        Some wards, some families are better than others at creating an atmosphere of belonging. A lot of people are driven out unnecessarily, and this is really, really becoming an issue with the younger generation. The activity rates of young single adults is plummeting. They are turned off by the Church’s intrusion into politics and opposition to civil rights. They are turned off by the de facto presumption of right wing politics as “gospel”. Then too, some people invite controversy. CJ was quite right, often what you say is less important than how you say it. Social politics is what it is, no less at Church than in the office. I supported single payer, think gays should marry, treat the scriptures as inspired fiction, and it hasn’t gotten me out of a single calling or assignment.

        I think being ethnically Mormon will keep one “in the church” regardless of belief or lifestyle simply because it’s a part of what we are. When people say they’re Mormon, there’s a wide range of what that actually means. Living in Utah would also help simply because of population density. When you live in Italy or Brazil, the path of least resistance is to be Catholic, even if you never go to mass. Same thing with Mormonism in Utah.

        I’ve found Lutheran jello to be remarkably similar to Mormon jello. When you leave the west behind, a lot of congregations are just happy to have you there and contributing where you can even if you’re not a textbook member. In my parents’ ward, full of old rich people and with double the members of my midwestern urban ward, her calling was to teach one lesson every other month. In that type of setting, even among people of good will, there just isn’t the same pressure to make people feel welcome and find ways for everyone and anyone to contribute as when the wards are smaller and needier.

  4. I realize these questions are directed at Arthur, but personally, I think that, outside the Jello Belt, it’s easier to belong without believing. A lot of Utah Mormon transplants, in particular, are just happy to find someone who gets even 25% of what they’re talking about. When you’re in the minority, it forces you to be much more forgiving, I think. If you’re looking for people who are even tolerant of your even quasi-Mormon lifestyle, out here, at least, you’re not exactly spoiled for choice. An astonishingly high number of supposedly “enlightened” and “tolerant” people make nasty remarks to me, when they find out I’m Mormon. The PC mindset seems, for many, to only extend to PC groups. People say things about Mormons they’d never dream of saying about their Jewish, or Unitarian, or, indeed, African American brethren. Some of us aren’t, it seems, as “deserving” of tolerance.

    But I digress. Many members, especially in Utah, seem to have trouble separating Utah culture with church teachings. Yes, the two have influenced each other–but you can be a perfectly good Mormon without, you know, wearing a jumper, reading nothing but Stephenie Meyer, and spending your life baking casseroles. The church may be a missionary church, but the associated culture is definitely a closed loop.

  5. Wonderful discussion! I fall in Molly’s category. My personality just doesn’t allow me to go with the flow at church and speak out and still be me yet still go to church and fully participate. I can’t do it; it still gets to me. I can’t sit at church and listen anymore; I just can’t bring myself to raise my son in it either. It’s just been too damaging spiritually and psychologically. But I can honestly see why and how people stay with their unorthodox beliefs/unbeliefs. In a way it would make things easier out here in Utah County if this was how I was…oh well. I am who I am.

    So great to learn more about you CJ! It’s great when there are those like you who are able to stay and make a difference inside the church! Kudos!

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