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.

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.