Saturday, February 16, 2013

Keeping me here

Disclaimer: This post is a long one. It also starts out rather negative (but ends positively). However, this will probably be my last post for a while, so you might want to give it a read if you are interested. The scope of what I want to write about my faith journey is eclipsing the format of allowable by a blog and will probably end up in a ebook sometime soon.

So, I've left my faith journey story at a very dark place on this blog for a while now, first with the primary program and then with "standing up." I still stand by both of those posts. I am, however, not in as negative a place toward the church now as I was when I wrote either of those posts. The night before I wrote the primary post I had told my very cool and understanding home teachers that they might not be my home teachers anymore because I was probably going to write a resignation letter. "Standing up" I published recently, but I wrote not long afterwards (but published only recently), mainly as a response to all the negative feedback I got from the primary post.

Since then, I have arrived at a fairly different place spiritually. In fact, for a while after thanksgiving through the New Year, we were attending church every Sunday, although now it's been several weeks since we have gone. I'm reading the scriptures and other church materials more than I have in a long time, but I am also reading more about spirituality from a wider variety of sources than ever before.

I still have some pretty serious moral issues with the church, that haven't really come much closer to being resolved. I think I've always been at a place where I can forgive disappointing and contradictory history, because any organization with a history of any length is going to have some skeletons. I also think that many of the doctrinal issues that bother me are easy to get passed when they are placed in the context in which they were received and the obvious humanity of the men (mostly just Joseph) who received them.

What has been and remains my issue from day one is the conservative social stances of the church, which seem aimed at keeping the church in the 1950's when everything was great...for white upper-middle class straight men. Of course, there has been some movement on all sorts of issues since the 50's: race, gender and sexual orientation. The main problem was and is that the church always seems to have to be dragged kicking and screaming into any progress, and is consistently late to the table on any issue of social justice or equality. If they didn't move on these issues at all, at least there would be some validity to the claim of remaining true to eternal principles (although it would now be seen as hopelessly backwards). Instead we get consistently begrudging progress.

What I'm saying is that, if the Mormon church was liberal, I would have almost zero problem being a part of it, end of story. I would overlook history much darker and doctrine much more disturbing if the church would just take the lead on issues of social justice and equality, instead of being dragged slowly from behind. However, the apparent preference of the leaders of the church to maintain institutional power and stability rather than prophetically guiding the church to a place of progressive moral leadership, causes me the see the history and doctrines of the church in a similar light of a Mosaic demand for obedience rather than Christ-inspired love and social change.

I say all that simply to qualify what comes next (and congrats for making it to the positive part, finally): I'm still a Mormon. I can't promise anything about next week or even the end of the day, but right now, this morning, typing while Lula plays with books at my feet and Cait and Atticus sleep peacefully, I am a Mormon. And I would like to explore why, because I'm not so sure myself.

1) To try to change the Church.

I have this vision of what the church could be. Eternal doctrines about the oneness and equality and shared potential of all human kind have the untapped power to make the church awesome in its power for creating a more peaceful and just world. The church as I picture it has the potential to be would be better than any organization I've joined, with the doctrinal depth of the church in its early days with the openness to truth from all sources of the UU church as it is now.

This reason for staying is fading quickly, however. I mean, there are all sorts of organizations that I think would benefit from being more liberal, is it my responsibility to join and attempt to reform all those organizations? When I realize how far off what I view the church as needing to become with how comfortable most of the members of the church are with where it is now, I don't know if it is even possible, or even fair of me to expect it to change, and by change, I mean shifting to a consistently liberal church over being a conservative one, because I fully expect the church to continue to shift reluctantly away from its more conservative positions as social forces demand.

2) Because I have sympathy for how hard that change would be

This is more of a return to my more forgiving position from the early days of my faith crisis than a radical new position. I felt, and still feel, that there are very obvious reasons why a church would find more success and strength in conservative positions than in liberal ones. Conservative people make the best members, in a lot of ways, because their loyalty is more predictable because they hold tight to a shared moral history. The evidence seems to make it clear that more conservative, rigid churches retain membership better, for any possible number of reasons. I think there is a much higher cost in retaining disaffected liberals than in keeping conservative ones. One is that, in their openness to truth from all sources, many liberals find value enough in the church to stay even if they view it as one among many, but if conservatives lose their faith in the church because it liberalizes, they won't stay out of some commitment to openness.

Before, I was a little more likely to see the church's adherence to conservative positions as stemming from the unwillingness of the general membership to change, and to believe that the leaders of the church would make it more progressive if they were free to do so without the fear of losing too many members. Now, I don't think that as much. While I see some possible good reasons the God might choose a gerontocracy to run the church (the Greeks seemed to think it was a good idea), there is no denying the fact that the leaders of the church are old white men, sharing very similar socio-economic backgrounds, and that they are going to bring their inherent cultural biases to the church.

I think, maybe, I am simply in a more forgiving place for this cultural bias than I was before. However, recognizing and forgiving the cultural biases of leadership is no reason to stay in the church. Recognizing some of the reasons that a church is slow to lead doesn't change the fact that it does not lead.

3) Liberal Mormon role models

This one is a bigger deal then you might think. I have be sincerely impressed by the number of thoughtful, considerate and wholeheartedly liberal people who have found the strength to stay in the church. I almost always find that they have spent a great deal of spiritual, mental and emanational energy on finding a place where they are comfortable, and that they are almost always better people for doing so. In fact, as a group, I find liberal Mormons among the most admirable collective in the world.

Also in this point, we've made lots of good Mormon friends here in Madison, whether liberal or not, and that helps to pull us in. But when we move, as we inevitably will, we will not be able to count on former friendships to keep us in.

I also feel that there are extremes of certainty on both ends of the spectrum, both in belief and in non-belief, and I am not really anywhere close to either one of those ends. Of course, liberal Mormons aren't the only ones to occupy some middle ground between the two, they do seem to do it really well, with a focus on compassion for and acceptance of the viewpoints of others.

Just because liberal Mormons are cool is, once again, no reason to stay in the LDS church. I've found more than enough cool people in the FUS church to feel connected to like-minded people. And maybe there will be a mass movement of liberal Mormons away from the church (bigger than the already large exodus), and so I don't want to have my membership depend on the example of others.

4) A correcting influence

I have become increasingly liberal in all sorts of ways over the past few years. I am now pretty much a social libertarian, an economic socialist, and a religious polyglot. Pretty much, I'm a European. Anyway, I feel that the conservative values that the Church espouses and holds dear act as a good counterweight to my liberalizing tendencies. Of course, there are plenty of other groups I could join to get this same influence.

5) A belief in the space of the gospel

I really believe that in the context of the gospel, especially in the teachings of Christ, there is a lot more room for dissent and doubt than I was willing to admit to earlier in my life. I think there is a modern focus on approbation from Church leaders as the ultimate signal of a righteous and good life, but I think that is in many ways a recent shift, driven mainly by Church leadership. So, the powerful men in the church say the most important thing is to listen and follow the powerful men in the church. I used to see that as absolute, now I just see it as circular. The New Testament, and most other scripture, is full of people going against what important men feel is correct, and still doing the right thing. The apostles of the New Testament were always being too strict and imposing of rules and often kept people from coming to the true source of truth in Christ, who seemed desperate to pull the people away from Mosaic checklists.

This goes back to the idea of taking responsibility for finding my own place in the church. I can't let others decide whether I fit or not, because who is anyone else to say who belongs in the tent of gospel and who does not. Even if they lock the doors to the church building whenever you get close, the gospel is not in the church, it's not even in the temple. It is in me.

Here's a quote that I like from Gregory Prince's "Manifesto for Change:"
Own your religion, don’t borrow it. If you are to make it work for yourselves, and especially if you wish to make an impact on the larger Church, you have to read, think, and write deeply for the rest of your lives. Google will not get you there, and neither will the blogs.

6) A belief in the goodness of the Church

To push back against the last point, I believe there is great goodness in the Church, especially when things are done right. Of course, the Church is good at taking care of its own. People know each other, are friends with each other and take care of each other. While I recognize that there is usually enough need within a ward or branch to keep everyone busy, when, occasionally, the church reaches out meaningfully to those outside of the church too it is almost always in beautiful and sincere ways.

But it's not just in internal social aspects that the church nurtures people, it is also in spiritual. But that always occurs within a very human and flawed context. I was listening to a podcast the other day where something like this was said: "We often confuse the LDS church for a perfectly divine institution marred only by occasional human imperfections, when really it is a perfectly human organization, exalted only by occasional touches of the divine" and then the commenter went on to talk about how an organization being human has its own beauty and power. This idea was significant for me. Rather than looking for all the less-than-perfect aspects that all to often reveal the churches flawed humanity, I can choose to look for those fleeting touches of the divine that show its potential to bring men and women closer to God.

At the same time, I recognize that church is a toxic place for many people, where the flawed humanity is so personally hurtful that the divine simply cannot be seen or felt. I recognize the validity of those concerns and know that the same can happen to me. So I work to be very aware of what kind of effect every aspect of my involvement in the church has on my life for good or bad. And then I work to hold close to the good and leave the bad. Does that make me a cafeteria Mormon? Maybe, but I still believe that the church exists for man and not the other way around, and that if we let ourselves die spiritually to protect the church institutionally, we've committed a grave sin.

7) The church is true

This leads to my final point. The one on which everything hinges. Either the church is, on some level, fundamentally "true" or it isn't. Either there is a God that uses the church in some way to bring men and women closer to him or there isn't. I have been surprised how rarely in comments or conversations this point has been brought to me by people wanting me to stay in the church. I feel that every other point above was emphasized much more often.

But this is the only one that really matters. Either the Church has something special in it that will bring me closer to God in a healthy and fulfilling way, or it won't. It's either a human organization that calls me in with it's touches of the divine, or it is a fully human organization that remains interchangeable with any other organization. If that is the case, FUS is certainly going to beat out Mormon church. It is a better fit for us organizationally in almost every way.

Finding out the truth of the Church is always going to be much more difficult than we would commonly state it to be, but it is also the very stuff of what undertaking a responsible spiritual journey is all about.

So, for now, I stay, because, in my own way, I continue to find truth in the Mormon church. I continue to find beauty there. And I continue to find God there. What form that contact with the divine takes changes every day, but for now, it is enough to keep me, in some way, here.


  1. I absolutely love this, Tim! Your thoughts really resonate with my experience over the past couple of years.

  2. i like this post a lot. but you probably shouldn't have posted it because you are going to be called as gospel doctrine teacher now. they will find you.

  3. As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts. As I've dealt with my own little faith crisis over the past year I've really had to mentally divorce the Church from the Gospel. I love the Gospel. I love my Savior. I love the scriptures. I find so much peace within the Gospel. I have to remember that the Church is filled with a lot of imperfect people trying to live the Gospel as best they can. And a lot of those people are living it in a way that is different from me and we butt heads because of it. But it's ok, because we are ultimately striving for the same goal, even if we take different roads to get there. The Church is imperfect, but so am I.

  4. Sounds like you're reconstructing your faith, a la Fowlers 5th stage of faith. Hope you're happy.

  5. Also, as a European, I'd like to note that far from all Europeans tend towards your mentioned trifecta of social libertarianism, economic socialism, and religious polyglotism. Maybe the ones who study/immigrate to the US lean that way but it's not a fair representation. Maybe you were referring to European social systems/laws more than actual Europeans though.

  6. Okay Tim, another comment from me, oh, and please know that when I capitalize words it doesn't mean I am shouting them... just so you understand the "voice" of my type. CAPS = italics

    I would argue that this increasingly ubiquitous separation of "The Church" and "The Gospel" has become so convoluted that people are usually arguing semantics. If someone says, "I know this Church is true." It is so easy for people to start in with, "Well they think that Church leaders are flawless." Well, if that is what they meant, then they are wrong. But I know that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is true.

    "We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth."
    -Article of Faith #6.

    If Christ (our Savior) established an organization in his time, and then restored it THROUGH Joseph Smith... then this is not a human organization. The podcast that you heard might be simplifying things too much by limiting it to two possibilities. I would argue that the Church is a perfectly divine institution marred by FREQUENT human imperfection. So imperfect are us humans that we think we know better than God and his plan. So if the Church is true, and lead, not by man, but by The True and Living Christ, then if priesthood leaders stray (intentionally, or un) from their stewardship, roles, or the doctrine, then they are not in line with the Church, and their mistake is usually reflected upon the Church, luckily there is repentance and forgiveness which can realign one to the truth/church.

    I compare the Church to a wall of a building, and the purpose of the wall is to keep the roof from collapsing. Sure there can be flaws in the details and the appearance, and constant onslaughts of evil forces might chip away or mar it in some way, but if it was divinely constructed, it will assuredly perform according to it's design. I will remain protected inside, and do what I can to help maintain it. I am glad that you still see yourself in it, in a way. I hope that you can gain a testimony of it's divinity instead of balancing your personal logic (not to say that thinking is bad, I like how deep of a level you allow things to mull around in your mind)... just know that receiving a personal witness from the Spirit is a little bit different.

    The Lord has a constant hand in the dealings of this organization... I promise you. If He is as powerful as I believe, then He has a constant hand in my personal life and yours... so why not the Church? If he is answering my prayers daily, why could he not be offering daily revelation to the prophets and apostles who's stewardship extend farther than their personal lives. Sometimes there is a long period of time where I don't notice His influence, but it doesn't mean it's not there. The only thing OCCASIONAL about his influence is the blatancy of it.

  7. Sorry to keep returning to this discussion (my forum interaction on this subject is typically scant), but I guess I wanted to address this last comment. I dunno about Tim/Cait, but I find it tricky when people 'know' the church is true. If you 'know' church is true, you're not using 'faith'; faith (despite the primary song) is not knowing. Making the gospel something to have faith in rather than 'knowing it's true' is perhaps one thing that permits people to remain in the Mormon tent, no?

    Also, experiencing spirituality and taking the leap from that to 'this is the one true church' is a tricky thing to do. I'm still not sure whether the importance of making that jump is overemphasized at church or not.

    Another point: while God may have a hand in his church without micromanaging it, that presents issues when we're told things like "My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it... But you don't need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray" ( The church has made some confusing moves (moves some prophets claim are doctrinal, other prophets claim to be policy, but either way they get renounced) so either God's not micromanaging and men are making mistakes and God is letting them, or God will never let his prophets mislead the saints.

  8. I agree with you most heartily on your last point. That's really what has pulled me back to church even during times when it was hard to want to go.

    Also, #4 made me chuckle a little as I tried to imagine you joining some other conservative group. Mostly it made me chuckle because the first two "conservative groups" that popped into my head were the NRA and the Tea Partyists. The idea of you ever being a part of either of those groups was pretty laughable. Thus, the chuckle.