Monday, November 17, 2014

What I lost when I lost Christ

For many people, leaving the faith of their youth is a relatively simply transition away from a set of beliefs imposed by others that were never really internalized. For me, however, leaving the faith of my youth, Mormonism, was a deeply trying and emotionally and spiritually draining experience. I was, if I am to be honest, a true believer. I was thoughtful and questioning to an extent, but overriding all of that, I was obedient. I wasn't a perfect Mormon in terms of my behavior, but my belief in the truth of Mormonism was really firm and foundational for my life.
I think when one has left behind a set of beliefs that no longer are viewed as true, it is really easy to treat them as obviously false and of no worth. But if I look back honestly, the truths that Mormonism presented were of great worth to me, in the context which I used them. Of greatest worth, I believe, was my belief in Jesus Christ as God and Savior. I feel compelled to make an honest assessment of what I have lost as I have lost my faith in Christ. I don't intend to inspire pity, nor is this an attempt to reclaim lost faith. What I hope it is is an honest reconciling with what I have lost, so that I can more authentically appreciate what I have gained.
My Lost God
I have lost my God.
The most all encompassing aspect of loss that I experienced when I realized that I no longer believed in Christ's divinity was that the God that was the center of my worship was no longer there. While each member of the Godhead (Mormonism's go-to word for referring to the three separate members of the traditional trinity) was important to my faith, I, like most Mormons, would say that my belief in God centered around Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ created the world under Heavenly Father's command, He was sent to earth to die for us, he visited the Nephites as the central story of the Book of Mormon narrative and He awaits us in heaven to welcome us back to Heavenly Father's home.
Prayer has fallen away from me as a spiritual practice, as I no longer am sure who or what I am praying too. I miss prayer, and I especially miss revelation. The idea that a God might speak to me and guide me along a path towards truth and righteousness was deeply comforting. 
My belief and my spirituality no longer has a center outside of its originating center in my own mind and soul. There is some aspect of focusing on the human experience generally, how wondrous is it is that we are alive, we can recognize we are alive and we can talk about it together. However, there is also an aspect of my current spirituality that derives great benefit from attempting to place humanity in its universal context, as wondrous yet terribly finite, placed here on earth with only the most tenuous hold on the future, in part contingent on how we treat our earthly home, but in part on pure chance that no cosmic event wipes us out in an instant. This free-floating belief system, focused on nothing and everything at once is at times tense, but also at times wonderfully freeing and expansive.
My Lost Savior
Losing a divine view of Christ has meant that I have given up on the idea of divine salvation from my sins. Christ as divine is able to fully negate the effects of sin through His sacrifice on the cross. Christ as human is perhaps able to experience similar suffering as me, can serve as a model of sacrifice and brother- and sisterhood, but he cannot redeem me, whichever Atonement theory one might apply. My sins, my imperfections are ultimately my own and shared by no one else.
I no longer believe that I will one day be perfect. That is both a great sorrow and a great relief. If I will never reach perfection in the future, there is certainly no chance of achieving it now. Reconciling myself to that fact can be difficult, as I recognize my own potential for goodness and how often I am so far from achieving that. Loving myself and accepting myself as I am now is made that much more difficult when I no longer believe there is a Savior that has that love for me already in place, but it becomes no less necessary for my life and my progress therein.
At the same time that I have lost the idea of a Savior for my sins, I have not fully lost a sense of sin in my daily life. In my patriarchal blessing, which is a special blessing from a special ordained "patriarch" given to teenagers "when they feel ready," I was told that I would come to know that Satan was a very real individual who was determined to pull me from the path of truth. While I perhaps never had a firm confirmation of this, there was always a feeling that some power was pulling me away from truth and purity. Even as I now primarily assign those feelings to simple biological urges that have their history in evolution and past needs and desires expressing themselves in a different context, I still don't really like them at all.
It is a sad truth that my faith in God collapsed more completely than my faith in my own unworthiness. But I am satisfied that I am still the same person as I was with faith in God, with the same inherent worth and dignity, and still welcome gratefully the existence that I am moment by moment experiencing.
My lost explanation
Christ, for the majority of my life, has been the ultimate answer. Even though there was plenty about life and the universe that I did not understand, yet I had full confidence that Christ, under the direction of God the Father, was watching over everything. Whenever there was a question on a doctrine or practice of the church I could simply put it on a shelf, and know that no matter what, Christ would make it alright, that it was His job, as God, to make sure that all wrongs were righted and all paths eventually made smooth.
Christ also provided the firmest guide to how I should live a moral life. Christ, as a man presented in the bible still has much to offer in terms of example, but without the mantle of Divine Savior attached to the man, his actions and opinions become much more contextual and less relevant to modern applications. I still look to Christ as an example of communing with the poor, of questioning power structures and of a slow, contemplative life. But His demands for devotion to a hypothetical kingdom, His organizing of a chosen faith community and His apparent preference for male leadership of the community all have become much less relevant in my life.
The need to be constantly reformulating a moral system based on my own social and historical location and privilege, on my limited knowledge and perception of the world, and in a confused and turbulent modern moral landscape can be disorienting and disillusioning. However, the challenge presented by developing an individual moral system can also be invigorating and deeply instructive. I still believe in an absolute truth and something of an ultimate morality, but I simply believe that we, as limited beings, can only approach that truth through our own limited perspective, and that we not only have to seek out our truth, but also seek out a deeper understanding of our own perspective, abilities and limitations. I probably always believed this to some extent, even when steeped in Mormonism, but there is no doubt that it was much easier to do so when I believed that I had a divine source of revelation and truth against which to check my own assumptions and prejudice.
My Lost Community
Christ was not only at the center of my faith, but at the center of my community. Growing up in a town that was predominantly Mormon, Jesus might not have been a daily topic of conversation, but church was definitely at the social center of the community. And even though He got lost sometimes, Christ was still firmly at the center of the church experience. While the Mormon community is fairly homogeneous, there are still divides along many lines, especially stark at times around political or socio-economic lines, however, there could always be a coming together, in theory if nothing else, in our shared brother- and sisterhood in the body of Christ or the Kingdom of God.
My faith in other aspects of Church doctrine, such as the authority of institutional revelation, the divine nature of gender roles and the primacy of heterosexual relationships began deteriorating years before my faith in Christ as Savior also began to collapse. However, while I was able to feel good about attending church and participating in community when other aspects of my faith were in doubt, when I felt that I had lost my faith in Christ, I no longer felt authentic or honest in a Christ-centered worship community and my motivation for "making it work" in Mormonism also declined rapidly. I know that many liberal Mormons are clinging to their place in the Mormon church because they feel that it offers their best connection to the Christ that they love and trust, and I honor their struggle, but the dissonance that I experienced in a Mormon congregation was too strong to feel comfortable there once my connection to that core faith-centering doctrine faded.
I have found an alternative community, mainly centered around Unitarian-Universalism's expansive and encompassing view of religion, but also among liberal Christians and spiritually minded atheists and agnostics. However, this community does not hold as firm of a unifying principle as worship of Christ. Thus there is no immediate bond of shared belief between members of the community, besides perhaps some very general ideals of a liberal society. It is not as close of a community. In some ways, I appreciate that. There is little idea of "us vs. them" at least in terms of claims to "the truth." There is also a great fluidity granted when God is not requiring or rewarding attendance, but that participation should be inspired by how fulfilling and wholesome the experience of community is. But that fluidity results in decreased stability and solidarity among the congregation, thus requiring greater effort to feel firmly a part of a religious community. 
My lost friend
I have lost my best friend
With all of these other losses the most personal remains the most painful. I've lost a deity, I've lost a faith, but most of all, I've lost a friend. While Christ is perhaps not often seen by theologians or scripture as primarily a friend to the human race, that was certainly my experience. Some of my most dearly held religious or spiritual experiences have been when I felt Christ, as my friend, upholding me in moments of pain or sorrow, as only a friend who knew me intimately and personally could.
In the Mormon book of scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants, Jesus after speaking to the church directly through Joseph Smith begins to repeatedly refer to Joseph and His fellow disciples as friends, as in Section 93 verse 45 when he says "I will call you friends, for you are my friends, and ye shall have an inheritance with me" right before rebuking Joseph for not keeping the commandments.
That relationship was very similar to what I felt my own relationship with Christ had become, especially during the last year of my Mormon mission and the faithful years that followed. Yes, Christ would rebuke me at times, for sloth or lust or any number of things, but He would always be there when I needed Him to be, always ready to be my friend. I have very distinct memories of memories of feeling that Christ was with me as I walked down the street with my head down or comforting me when I was deep in lamenting prayer for my own shortcomings or life situation. Now it is up to me to reach out to other fallible human friends and, in the end, to be my own best friend. But I have to admit that I am a poor substitute for what the friend I once had, imaginary or not.
In the end
As I wrote this, I was constantly tempted to stop and point out again and again what I felt like I've gained moving away from Christianity. And even though I did this in a few places, I think I achieved what I was setting out to do, make an honest accounting of what I've lost and left behind. I did not leave Christianity casually or hastily, it was an excruciating and overly-drawn-out split, even as it happened in a relatively short time span. Am I happier now? Probably. But separating my life situation and its impact on my happiness as opposed to the effect of my faith situation would be really difficult. In Madison, I wasn't so happy, but I also didn't have many friends and spent most of my day alone with toddlers. But I've also come to believe that happiness isn't necessarily the point. An authentic life has its own rewards, a questioned life has its own beauty. I'm not saying that you can't have an authentic or questioned life within Mormonism, of course you can, I'm just saying that even if I was somehow presented with the choice on whether to return to where I was before, comforted and comfortable, believing what I then believed, or stay where I am now, conflicted and wondrously confused, I, personally, would choose to stay here, embedded peacefully in the mystery.

This is mostly a first draft of a paper for seminary with some academic references removed, because nobody should have Calvin imposed upon them. But if you would like to read the full paper when I finish it in a few days, let me know.


  1. Tim Jesus Christ is still your friend and loves you no matter what choices you make. He will never leave your side especially now.

  2. I don't think this post is sad, necessarily. It is honest and adult, shuns finality and "happily ever after"ness. Tim, I am impressed by your ability to accept the losses and the gains and be honest about them. Will you be writing a "what I've gained" post as well, or do you feel those gains are self evident?

    You and I have both made different choices about what to do with our discomfort in and with Mormonism, but honestly, we both had different sets of circumstances in which those choices made sense. Reading your post made me realize that I don't know if I'd ever be able to theologically part with the idea of Christ as Savior. It is so intrinsic with my conception of humanity--for instance, the fact that everyone is redeemable--that the thought of giving up that belief depresses me and fills me with terror. No homilies from me. I'd like to read the full paper when it's done. Email it to me? jen(dot)bracken(dot)hull at gmail.

  3. One more comment/question: you were pretty mum on how you feel about these losses when it comes to your kids. For instance, how you feel about your kids maybe not experiencing some of the positive/happy/secure things you felt when you were at home with Mormonism. Possibly you left this out because it's SUPER personal. Or because you just don't think this is something worth discussing because they won't know the difference. What I want to know is how it impacts you. When I think about not raising my kids Mormon I draw an absolute blank. The thought of my children not being Mormon is also painful to me, and I'm not sure I can pin down why exactly. Sorry for taking over your comment section.

  4. I love your openness about all things spiritual and religious. thanks for writing this my friend.