Now, I must confess, at the stage where I've come in my spiritual journey, I am much less interested in the question of why Mormons leave than I am in the question of why they stay -- or return. I recently also had lunch with a friend of mine who left the Church a few years ago, only to come back again recently, and we had an interesting chat about what our commitment to the Church and our faith in the Gospel means to us. Whenever I attend the Sunstone Symposium, one of my favorite things to do is to listen in on the perennial "Why I Stay" panel discussion, which never fails to reduce me to tears. I had an experience last summer with a close friend who experienced a severe crisis of faith, who eventually made it through and has emerged with a deeper, maturer more solid faith than ever. I was grateful a couple of Sundays ago to attend Church with another close friend who has shared with me some of her own recent faith struggles. We later met over lunch to talk about our struggles, and just be friends to one another in faith.
It's not to criticize those who do end up leaving -- far from it. Having left the Church for many years myself, I understand that sometimes leaving is as critical a part of the faith journey as anything else. From the perspective of LDS faith, perhaps a decision to leave the Church can be seen as analogous to the "fortunate fall" of Adam and Eve. The decision to leave the Church is rarely ever easy. It is frequently filled with doubt and intense loneliness. When people leave the Church, they choose to abandon the cozy comforts of tight-knit Church community, and an innocence preserved by never asking hard questions, in favor of a search for truth and for broader understanding that is earned by the sweat of one's face.
John Dehlin's message in "Why People Leave the LDS Church" may be viewed as negative by many Church members, but I think John does Church members a service by giving us concrete examples of the ways in which we frequently let one another down. When someone is going through a crisis of faith (and I can attest to this as one who has been through crises of faith), the things they usually need most are to be reassured that their concerns are legitimate, that our love for them is unconditional, and that we will defend their freedom to do whatever they need to do to find the answers that they yearn for. Many Church members respond to crises of faith with fear and defensiveness; and they try to shut down the answer-seeking process in favor of a rigid "follow-the-prophets" mentality. This rarely helps anyone. It usually only drives people out.
Which is ironic, because any seminary student could recite the fact that one of the main covenants we make at baptism is to bear one another's burdens. I understand that as a willingness to be with someone through their struggles with faith, to eschew condemnation in favor of listening, empathy, and understanding.
When I was a student at BYU, I witnessed a baptism. A non-LDS BYU student had converted and joined the LDS Church. I remember him saying something that struck me as rather odd at the time. He had decided to join, he said, not because of any goodness of the members of the Church. The members of the Church, he stressed, were not perfect. He made it known he was joining the Church not because of, but in spite of, its members. His comments drew a few laughs (maybe nervous laughs). At the time, I didn't quite understand why he felt obliged to make such a point. But a few short years later I understood only too well.
OK, nobody in the Church claims to be perfect. But often there is an assumption that Mormons are somehow better than others.
Recently, I commented on Andrew's blog:
I would say these kinds of attitudes are part and parcel not of “religion” per se, but of human nature. And there are plenty of religious communities — mostly mainline and liberal — that have done a pretty good job of deconstructing the kind of legalism/authoritarianism that makes religion… hmm… searching for a better word than demonic, but can’t find one.
By the way, if you listen to stories like those of the McLays, I think the evidence also clearly supports that the problem lies not in some sort of conspiracy of the Church leadership, but in Mormon popular culture. If you listen carefully to some of these stories, one of the things you realize is that a major part of the problem lies in how the disaffected believer him or herself projected certain perfectionistic ideals both on him/herself and on the Church… They struggle mightily to make everything (including themselves) fit with these perfectionistic ideals, and when they can’t (of course they can’t!!!!) everything comes crashing down like a house of cards.
I would argue that there’s a mighty good reason for this. It’s because we cannot invest in human institutions or human beings the kind of faith that we should be placing only in God. To do so is idolatry. Good, old-fashioned idolatry. There’s a reason why “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” is the First Commandment.
When this kind of faith comes crashing down, Heaven rejoices (and so do I). I actually find the McLays’ story inspiring and hopeful — an example of how the edifice of false religion needs to be torn down in order to make way for something authentic.Andrew's response was something to the effect that he didn't see how I could separate legalism and perfectionism from the Mormon faith per se. His broader complaint is legitimate. How could I presume to take those parts of Mormonism that I don't like, and label them as something extraneous to the faith. On what authority could I claim that the Mormon Gospel isn't legalistic or perfectionistic, when Mormon leaders seem to teach it?
So I insist — and what I’m saying is only a part of the puzzle, of the bigger picture — the problem resides not in the doctrine or the religion per se, but [in] what human beings add to it. And when I say “add,” I’m not talking doctrinal changes, I’m talking an attitude of legalism and perfectionism.
My response would be that if you immerse yourself in the Gospel as taught in the scriptures, there's a preponderance of evidence that legalism, judgmentalism, perfectionism are condemned unequivocally. Anybody who's spent any amount of time reading about Jesus' interactions with the Pharisees as described in the Gospels, or Paul's writings on Law and Grace will know this. And anyone who's familiar with the scriptures will also find them to be as much a chronicle of the Saints' failings as of their achievements. Can the Church possibly go wrong? Can we get distracted and lose track of the Gospel message? Have you ever read the Book of Mormon from beginning to end?
I think the only correct scriptural understanding of the Church -- and I could be wrong, because I certainly am not perfect, or even better than anyone else! -- is that if the Church is true, it is not perfect. It gives us, at best, an opportunity to strive for perfection.
If I had to list one of the top reasons for why I stay, it is this. I find in the Church that spring of life everlasting, that abiding connection with God, that presence of the living Spirit. I also find Saints who are no more nor less perfect than I am. And we together find this opportunity -- in our relationships with one another and with God -- to take up our cross daily, and follow Him, and become more like Him.