Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Oh, Say What Is Truth? - New Perspectives on Mormonism From An Excommunicated Member

I was reading this article the other day (which is a good read, by the way, even though the subject of it has very little to do with this post), and within the article was the following quote: "...we don't really get perspective on what's close to us until we spend time away from it."  As I read that, it really brought home my relationship with the LDS Church.

For so many years of my life, I was entrenched in Mormonism that it was hard to see beyond it.  I was born and raised a Mormon, and even when I was inactive, Mormonism pervaded my very being.  Even as an excommunicated former member of the LDS Church, Mormonism is very much a part of my life and still very much shapes the way I lead much of my life.  How could it not?

That being said, as an excommunicated former member of the church who has now been formally out of the church for a little more than three years now, I now feel like I am an outsider looking inside Mormonism from a much different perspective than I did when I was an official Mormon, and it's been very interesting to see.

About two months ago my nephew was married in the Salt Lake Temple.  I was here in Utah working, and Jonah happened to be in town visiting me.  My sister invited Jonah and I to have our photos taken with the rest of the family outside the temple, and as we were all waiting for the bride and groom to come out, Jonah and I had a lot of time to observe my fellow Mormons.  Only now, as an ex-Mormon, I saw them in a different way than I had when I was one of them.

Watching all these families and kids dressed in a very similar way and acting in a very similar manner, I was struck by just what a "peculiar people" Mormons really are, and I almost felt like I was observing them from the point-of-view of someone who had never been a member of the LDS Church even though I had spent a good portion of my life as an active member and still very much lead many portions of my life in a Mormon fashion.

No matter how Mormon I still feel I am and no matter how many tenets of the LDS Church I still hold on to, the fact is, I am not a member of the church; I am an outsider, and that has caused me to view the religion I grew up in and the members of that faith differently than I did when I was one of them.

This is not a bad thing.  In fact, in many ways, it is a very good thing.  It just is.  And like the quote says, I actually feel I am getting more of a perspective on Mormonism (and especially Utah Mormonism) because I am away from it.

Jonah turned to at one point when the energy of all these Mormon families was getting to be a bit much for him and said, "I just want you to know that I'm quite sure I was not a Mormon in a previous life."  It was kind of a half-joke, but there was truth in it."  As someone who grew up Pentecostal, Jonah certainly has a different view of Mormonism than I do, and there are many things about Mormonism that strike him as strange.  But what's funny is that as a now non-member, they strike me as strange, too, and I lived and revered them for much of my life.

One of those things is the expression, "I know the Church is true." 

I oft repeated this phrase and believed it, but as Jonah says, "What does that even mean?"  Even if the LDS Church contains the fullness of the gospel an the truths upon which it is predicated, the actual phrase "I know the Church is true" seems devoid of real meaning.  You could even say, "I know the LDS Church contains the most truth of any other church" or "I know the Church has many valuable truths" or "I know there is much goodness in the Church," but the expression "I know the Church is true" doesn't really seem to mean  anything when you really examine it.

Does that mean that everything about the church and all that goes on inside it and all that its members do is true?  Because I don't think that's true.  There are policies and practices in the church that are imperfect, and members and leaders sometimes do things that aren't right.  Perhaps it means that the policies and practices of the church and the things that its members and leaders do are based in truth, but I'm not even sure that's always true, and if it is, why not say, "I know the Church is based in truth" rather than "I know the Church is true"?  I guess it doesn't sound as succinct or catchy.

Does it mean that the foundation upon which the LDS Church is built is based in the divine truths that God has proclaimed?  If so, does that make everything about the Church "true," whatever that means?  Because I think the Church has its flaws.  Like any organization, it is imperfect.  Based on the hypothesis that the Church is run by a perfect, omnipotent, all-knowing being, His decrees and commandments are still being carried out by imperfect and flawed men and women, so therefore the organization still has flaws and imperfections.  But there's obviously a difference between "true" and "perfect."

I read a post on a blog about a month ago which you can read here in its entirety.  I hope Elliot doesn't mind my posting a few of his thoughts here, and if he does, he can let me know; but some ideas he posted that got me to thinking were these:

"I respectfully disagree with the idea that the Church is true or it isn't. I believe Joseph Smith saw what he saw, and I believe that he established a very true and good religion. I also believe that our Heavenly Father has a divine plan for all of his children, and the narrative of history seems to point to the idea that our Father provides all his children with truths according to what they are willing to receive. Essentially, I believe that the Church plays a vital role in the salvation of the human race, but I recognize the very real presence of God in other faiths.

"I've never had to articulate why I believe things are true before, so I thank you for that opportunity. I judge what is true based off of spiritual confirmation of the scriptures, spiritual confirmation of other people witnessing to me, and common experience. Truth also leads to health, physical, spiritual, emotional, etc., so I take that into account too.

"I guess feelings do play a role in how I determine things to be true. But I also use the faculties God has provided me to engage with what I feel. From my observation, that's when the Spirit steps in and carries me.

"I factor in what the Prophets say and what the Scriptures say when mulling over truth. To answer your questions more fully, I think that I weigh self-evidence very heavily when determining truth. If what the Prophets and what the Scriptures are telling me seems insensitive, cruel, unfeeling, unreasonable or not self-evident, I do hold on to skepticism. That's where faith comes in though; I have faith in the Atonement, and I have faith in well-meaning servants of God throughout all ages.

I want to take his very first idea and expand on it.  There is this idea in Mormonism that either the Church is completely true or it isn't (and again, what does the phrase "The Church is true" really even mean?).  There is no middle ground.  It kind of goes back to a quote Ezra Taft Benson said:

“The Book of Mormon is the keystone of [our] testimony. Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. The enemies of the Church understand this clearly. This is why they go to such great lengths to try to disprove the Book of Mormon, for if it can be discredited, the Prophet Joseph Smith goes with it. So does our claim to priesthood keys, and revelation, and the restored Church. But in like manner, if the Book of Mormon be true—and millions have now testified that they have the witness of the Spirit that it is indeed true—then one must accept the claims of the Restoration and all that accompanies it."
(A Witness and a Warning, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1988, p. 19)

And Jeffrey R. Holland says: "Either the Book of Mormon is what the Prophet Joseph said it is or this Church and its founder are false, fraudulent, a deception from the first instance onward."  (Church Educational System Religious Educators’ Symposium address given at Brigham Young University on August 9, 1994)

And Orson Pratt said, " This book must be either true or false. If true, it is one of the most important messages ever sent from God... If false, it is one of the most cunning, wicked, bold, deep-laid impositions ever palmed upon the world, calculated to deceive and ruin millions... The nature of the message in the Book of Mormon is such, that if true, no one can possibly be saved and reject it; If false, no one can possibly be saved and receive it..."  (Divine Authenticity of The Book of Mormon, p. 1-2)

This line of thinking is so prevalent in the LDS Church, and it reinforces the idea that either everything in the Church is true or nothing is true.  If you believe Joseph Smith really received and translated the Book of Mormon; that God and Jesus appeared before him; that the Priesthood and the fullness of the gospel was restored through him; that all the ordinances and practices were reestablished through him, that God's church was restored under him; etc - then that, therefore, means that every prophet that has come after him is a true prophet and that every policy and practice dictated under the various prophets and leaders of the Church are good and true.

But I agree with Elliot's thoughts and add some of my own: an organization can be built on truth and contain much truth and goodness, but that doesn't make it perfect or without flaw or error.  I think church leaders would admit that they are not perfect and make mistakes.  I also agree that that I, myself, am able to learn what is true for me based on what is revealed to me by the Spirit and based on what the evidence shows.

Let's assume that homosexuality is, indeed, a sin.  I don't think it is, but let's assume that it is.  I still think that church leaders have made mistakes in how they've dealt with the issue in the past and how they continue to deal with it.  Even if the eternal truth is that acting on homosexual feelings is indeed sinful (which, again, I don't believe it is), I think church leaders have made missteps in policies and actions in how they've dealt with it.  For example, while not necessarily officially sanctioned by the Church, but unofficially sanctioned, I think such practices as the electroshock therapy done at BYU in the 70s or some of the reparative therapy done by such groups as Evergreen and LDS Family Services have caused more harm than good.  I also think poorly informed or ignorant leaders and members have pushed their gay brothers and sisters away through their words and actions.  I think the Church's involvement in Prop 8 caused a lot of damaging and unforeseen repercussions that church leaders underestimated.  I think Boyd K. Packer's October 2010 talk caused more harm and conflict regarding this issue than good.  Even for a church based on truth, it can still suffer the fallout of errors, mistakes, flaws, and missteps.

I think the Church has been flawed in its policies and practices involving race, sexuality, the transparency of its own history, how its dealt with issues such as polygamy and the Mountain Meadows Massacre, how its handled certain political issues, its excommunication practices; and at various times how it has run its missionary program and even its policies regarding church meetings.  This does not make it a bad church nor does it mean its leaders and members are not good or well-intentioned people nor does it mean that many of the attributes and values of the Church are not based in truth; it just means it is not perfect.  And the Church has never claimed to be perfect; but its leaders do sometimes instill in its members that it's "all or nothing," and I don't think that is true.

What's true for me, personally, is that I am a lot happier since I came out of the closet and found a life with Jonah than I was when I was trying so hard to live my life as a good Mormon.  I know that's true for me, no matter what anyone else teaches or says.  I know I'm happier.  I know God knows I'm happier.  It's just a fact.  Even if the eternal truth supposedly says that homosexuality is a sin, there is no doubt in my mind that I am happier living the supposedly "wicked" life I am living.  I know many gay people who grew up Mormon who feel the same way and many who believe God Himself told them it was better for them to be gay and find love than killing themselves emotionally and spiritually trying to fit in the box the Mormon Church told them they had to fit into to be happy.

So what is the real truth?  Is the real truth that homosexuality is a sin and will prevent a man from being with God or is the real truth that being gay is okay and that finding someone to love, even if they are of the same sex, is a good and righteous thing?  I can only tell you what I feel and what experience has shown me, and it is definitely the latter.  That is what my truth feels like.

But is truth relative or is it absolute?  Well, I'm led to believe that it is absolute.  But I also know that sometimes people believe something is true so strongly that to them, it is true.  So is the LDS Church wrong about this or am I.  I can only go by what I feel, something my religion taught me long ago.  I feel that the truth is that God loves me, knows my heart, knows I am doing the best I can to live the best life possible, knows that I am happy, is happy that I am happy, and blesses Jonah and me and our love immensely.  And that's all that matters to me.  God will judge me accordingly and it will be with a righteous and all-knowing judgement based on my life circumstances.

I do look at kids who at a very early age show signs of gender nonconformity or a proclivity for same-sex attraction.  I see gay people who have tried with all their heart and soul to try and be something they are not and who suffer greatly for it.  And it just doesn't make sense to me.  I fail to see the wickedness in my attractions or in my relationship with Jonah.  My relationship with Jonah has brought me more happiness, joy, and well-being than I ever thought I could possibly have in this life.  How can that be wrong?  I just don't get it.

Just last night, I was listening to a CD of songs that Jonah had recorded for a concert before I had even met him.  One of the songs was a song written by Stephen Sondheim from Passion called "Loving You."  It was one of the very first things I ever heard Jonah sing and reminded me of the beginnings of our relationship when I was so in love with him and trying so hard not to be.  I am away from him because of work and I started crying because I miss him so much and I was very conscious of the fact of just how deeply I love him and how much he has changed my life for the better and made me long to be with him.

Another song was a piece from Falsettos by William Finn called "What Would I Do" that was also an earlier piece I heard Jonah sing and which reminds me of how empty my life would be without him.

Here are the two songs:

Loving You

Loving you is not a choice
It's who I am
Loving you is not a choice
And not much reason to rejoice
But it gives me purpose
Gives me voice to say to the world
This is why I live
You are why I live
Loving you is why I do
The things I do
Loving you is not in my control
But loving you I have a goal
For what's left of my life

What Would I Do?   

What would I do
If I had not met you?  
Who would I blame my life on?  
Once I was told  
That all men get what they deserve.
Who the hell then threw this curve?

There are no answers.

But who would I be

If you had not been my friend?

You're the only one,

One out of a thousand others,

Only one my child would allow.

When I'm having fun,

You're the one I wanna talk to.

Where have you been?

Where are you now?

What would I do

If I had not loved you?

How would I know what love is?

God only knows, too soon

I'll remember your faults.

Meanwhile, though, it's tears and schmaltz.

There are no answers.

But what would I do

If you had not been my friend?
What would I do
If I had not seen you?

Who would I feast my eyes on?

Once I was told

That good men get better with age.

Were just gonna skip that stage.

There are no answers.

But what would I do

If you hadn't been my friend?

Oh, say, that's my truth. 


LCannon said...

I could create an entire post with my comment - but will try to keep it short.
When teaching a lesson or offering comment, I always try to remind the audience that they still need to pray about things that are taught so that they may receive their own confirmation - so they can have a pure understanding - after all I am human. Things get misinterpreted. And sometimes the Lord may confirm something to someone and confirm something else to another. Really. It happens.
I have been a Pharisee so long - following with my eyes closed - often not taking the time to pray, but just taking word as face value. In this day and age, it seems even more important to invite personal revelation.
And as for your being a happier soul since you've found Jonah? I can testify that what you say is true. Powerfully true. You are a happier person. You are human - not just striving to be the Mormon's definition of what a human should be.

Trev said...

Thank you for sharing your very real and very meaningful testimony here. :)

Julia - Finding My Way Softly said...

I included you in today’s A Few Things I’ve Been Reading post. Thanks for a great post, and a different perspective on my own life and faith.

You can check it out here if you are interested.

Gay LDS Actor said...

Thanks for sharing some of my story with your readers. I appreciate it.