Recently, a friend wrote me a letter requesting my thoughts on some of the challenges, particularly historical and political, facing the LDS Church and how they affect him personally. With his permission, I'm responding on my blog because I expect these thoughts will interest and may benefit others.
I am a supportive member of the LDS Church, but I am probably not an apologist. By that, I mean that I value the church, but I'm not interested in persuading anyone to idealize it. As a few simple Google searches would illustrate, there is much in its history and politics that is not praiseworthy. There is also much in church history and politics, and more particularly in its theology and everyday practice by its members, that inspires me. This tension in my perspective regarding the church is essential to understanding the thoughts I'm going to share.
As a sort of warm-up to the expression of his general concern, my friend mentioned several specific issues. I'll quote them along with my brief reactions, addressed to my friend. There is some risk in doing this because each of the issues merits more than brief response, but I'll proceed, asking and hoping for some charity from you, the reader.
Friend: "if only Joseph Smith had behaved himself around women ... and did not marry gals who were already married"
Me: I share your concern with Joseph's courting tactics. Maybe that's what moved him to claim, on occasion as recorded in Mormon scripture, that he needed to repent? If so, I'd agree with him.
Friend: "if only polygamy had never been practiced"
Me: I don't share your concern with this, except to the extent that the polygamist relationships were promiscuous or oppressive -- some were. I favor lawful consensual committed relationships, whether monogamist or polygamist.
Friend: "if only the Book of Mormon never was (due to the lack of physical evidence for it and also the plagiarism from the KJV of the Bible)"
Me: Although there is not sufficient objective evidence to confirm that the Book of Mormon is a historical record of ancient inhabitants of the American continent, I have found and continue to find much inspiration in the Book of Mormon. The inclusion of text from the KJV Bible contributes to the inspiration I find in the Book of Mormon -- I love Isaiah.
Friend: "if only the Pearl of Great Price never was (or else the translation by Joseph Smith of the ancient Egyptian writings included in the book would be proven accurate and not a fraud)"
Me: My perspective on the Pearl of Great Price is similar to that I've expressed regarding the Book of Mormon. Although questions about its historicity interest me, I don't value the book for historical reasons. I value it because of how it inspires me.
Friend: "if only Brigham Young had never taught the Adam-God theory"
Me: I enjoy Brigham Young's ideas on the divinity of Adam, particularly if we interpret Adam to represent humanity.
Friend: "if only temple rituals remained the same, but the Masonic-style penalties never existed"
Me: Why should our rituals remain static? Changing rituals reflect our changing understanding of and relationship with God.
Friend: "if only all prophecies of Joseph Smith had come true"
Me: Perhaps you and I can contribute toward realizing the prophecies that matter most: transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end.
Friend: "if only the Church had not prohibited African-Americans from being ordained to the priesthood"
Me: We should do better.
Friend: "if only the Danites had not been a force of Church hitmen to get back at enemies"
Me: Admit it. You kind of like this one. ;-)
Friend: "if only the Bible did not condemn the concept of eternal marriage in Heaven"
Me: The Bible condemns lots of things, some of which we interpret differently than did the authors, and some of which we disregard due to changing circumstance or spiritual maturity -- further light and knowledge.
Friend: "[if only] homosexuals will ever be allowed to marry in the temple"
Me: Please see my thoughts on the issue of the LDS Church and homosexuality, shared previously.
Friend: "[if only the church would not] tell singles they cannot even masturbate to relieve sexual tension"
Me: Conservative cultures have evaluated masturbation superstitiously, hypocritically and abusively. As mentioned previously, I favor lawful consensual committed relationships. To the extent masturbation hinders such relationships, let's constructively encourage redirected attention. To the extent masturbation helps such relationships, let's recognize it as a healthy aspect of human sexuality.
My friend proceeded to explain his wishful concern, which I'll paraphrase: if only the LDS Church were not so controversial then proselyting efforts would be more successful, members would participate more actively, antagonists would have greater difficulty, and he would have an easier time believing. He shared the example of an LDS leader whose spirituality and kindness inspire him deeply, and he expressed a longing to be such a person.
To my friend and others with similar concerns and longings, I say honestly that I share in your experience. Like you, I've suffered the loneliness and despair (not a melodramatic exaggeration) that follows disillusionment from idealized religion. I've felt the tension between newfound knowledge and love for my community, and even that between deeply moving spiritual experience and frightening betrayal of trust. With you, I've sometimes yearned for return to the simple innocence of youthful consent and aspiration. But here we are, kicked out of the garden into a lone and dreary world.
I want to share with you an excerpt from my journal. I wrote this about fifteen years ago, while I was serving as a missionary for the LDS Church in southern France:
"The deepest of my fears (or one of the deepest, since it seems like there's always something deeper) is that happiness and truth are not one. If this were the case, then I would be torn to pieces. I honestly desire to follow the spirit because it brings me happiness, peace, joy, everything promised by the scriptures. I know this! I live it. The spirit comes and brings the promised gift. My sin is pride. Arrogance. Love of darkness.
"I can't reconcile the theories of man with the word of God. My pride wants to hold on to such teachings as evolution and reconcile them with my religious beliefs. It does not work and it cannot work. The two don't go together.
"I just went through a crisis during the last hour. It's painful when pride gets pressed up against the wall. Old feelings of guilt came rushing back for sins from my past. Things that maybe should have been confessed, but due to pride, doubts, unbelief, etc they were kept inside and continued. I'm not guilty of tremendous sins. I have not committed murder or adultery, but I had changes to make in my life. I've changed some things, and I'm glad for that. It brings me peace. I love peace. In fact, I think I've changed the most important things (the biggest problems I had), but time will tell if I've really overcome them. I'm so damn prideful ... so prideful.
"Here's where the fear comes in. This is where my darkness lives. I think this part of me exists because of raw, bloody, dark-black pride. But the fear is that ... it's almost unspeakable. My heart doesn't even want it to be written because it doesn't bring the spirit. It brings pain. Are truth and happiness one and the same?
"I love the phrase I made up a while back: good is, was, and must be true. It can be expanded ... but I guess I won't get into that. My mind catches there. The gospel as taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the most beautiful and happiness-promoting, unity-promoting, love-promoting thing with which I am acquainted. Living this gospel brings the spirit, and the spirit brings happiness. I know these things! I have experienced them, and they are accepted as truth for me.
"This brings me to another subject. Relativism and subjectivity disturb me. Miracles leave me wondering. Let me make myself more clear. The theories of relativism and subjectivity disturb me. Stories of miracles leave me wondering. There is a connection between miracles and relativism/subjectivity. The savage will call a light bulb a miracle, while the scientist will say that 'miracles don't exist, but everything can be explained by the scientific method' (or something to that effect). Are there things, is there one thing that is a miracle without any explanation? That's a stupid question. Is it a stupid question?
"I want to recognize the fact that all of these questions are getting me nowhere fast. Is truth equivalent to happiness? Or is ignorance bliss? Or what? This is beginning to degenerate.
"The spirit necessarily will testify that the truth is what brings the most happiness. Now the evil questions come to mind. I used to spend a lot of time thinking of the evil questions, and I didn't get anywhere but unhappy. That sucks. Nothing matters when you're unhappy. For me, I'd rather be wrong and happy than right and miserable. The darkness and ironic part of this is that I ... I'm afraid to write this ... I will lie to be happy. I've spent much of my life lying and I did it in search of happiness. Lying is so much a part of me. Half-lies and full-lies, but mainly the first. But half-lies are the worst of the two because they aren't even true lies. They are lying lies.
"Here's a confession for you: I spent ... I feel restrained (whether it's my pride or something else, I cannot decide or don't want to decide; I'll just assume it's pride). Maybe I'm lying to myself ... maybe I don't exist (Satan tilts his head back and laughs while his angels rejoice). Maybe I don't exist (hell opens its jaws and ...). This all leads to unhappiness. I'm living a lie. I'm living a paradox.
"My only consolation is that I honestly (I hope honestly) desire the good. I desire to love people, and I desire to help people. I don't want to hurt anyone. I would live to bring smiles to people's faces, and I'd love to dry their tears.
"I'm afraid ... well, I guess I shouldn't be comparing myself to others. Myself: I'm a creature of darkness. A history of tears, pain, lust, and carnal desires. This wondrous guilt complex, this marvelous doctrine of guilt, is so Christian. And, in a sense, it's so beautiful. The conflict will bring glory. There is so much conflict. I have wars and storms going on in my heart and mind; but that probably means the glory will come in the end. I'm either destined for godhood or its opposite. Or maybe ...
"Well, this journal entry has been a decent record of some soul-searching. I believe we all have to go through this. I'm a sinner, and I need forgiveness. The spirit testifies of this. I hope to return to the presence of my father in heaven, and the spirit testifies that it's possible. I necessarily have to accept the testimony of the spirit, otherwise I invite the pain and confusion I've so often tasted during my life, and I invite the fear of committing the unpardonable sin: denying the holy ghost.
"I'm afraid of myself. My lust for glory and my tactics seem to be so similar to Satan's. My pride is so incredibly strong. I fear that I only want people to be almost as good as me. I fear that I want to be first in everything. I fear that my good intentions are limited by my pride. I fear that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
"Darkness, darkness, darkness. The teachings of lying spirits. I want out. I want light. I want love. I desire the spirit. I don't like thinking of myself as an evil creature. But I'm sick of lies. I'm sick of partial truth. But I want to be happy. I feel like I need to go read the scriptures. I need more light. This world is darkness."
I have mixed feelings about this excerpt from my journal. On the one hand, it illustrates the dark side of religion: excessive self-debasing, debilitating guilt, lack of commitment to shared truth, idealism at the expense of pragmatism, hedonistic superstition, escapism, even nihilism. On the other hand, the expression was sincere, revealing of the tensions that inform religious perspectives, and a needed step in my life.
The journal excerpt does not recount a unique experience. That's why I share it here. It is a common experience, even if we severally articulate it in different words, through different mediums or only within the privacy of our hearts. WE are together in such experience. Our religions, our politics, our communities and worlds, are no longer what we imagined them to be. They are no longer what we were told they were. We are disillusioned.
That, however, is not the end of the story. It's not the end of my story. It's not the end of yours, even if you're in a moment that would suggest otherwise. Although the passive enchantment is disillusioned, an active enchantment beckons. A world of meaning is still possible. We can still discover something together. We can still create. The prophecies have become warnings and forthtellings. God has become a dialectic. The Church of Christ yet lives in us, its body, if we would practice atonement. Why not risk such a world?
[Thanks for reading! You might also like "Controversial Topics in Mormonism".]