Thursday, February 9, 2012

The True Church

Recently I listened to John Dehlin's talk on "Why People Leave the LDS Church."  I also listened to his Mormon Stories interview with Brooke and John McLay, a couple formerly employed by the Church Educational System who recently resigned their membership in the Church.

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.
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.
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?

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.


Max said...

I stopped attending Church after I did research on the origin of the Bible (as a book) for a priesthood talk. When I realized how and why it came to be (a political tool) I no longer wanted to be part of any religion based on the Bible (although I remain spiritual). But I formally resigned from the Church when it went proactive for Prop 8 in California. When the Supreme Court makes gay marriage a national right for all, I plan to send Thomas Monson a thank you card. If not for those fighting so hard against it, it may not have ever made it into the legal system to begin with, or at least not have proceeded as fast as it is.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Max - I assume you're referring to the way the texts that have made it into the Christian bible were canonized in the 4th and 5th centuries? I'm curious why this would lead you to reject Mormonism, since the LDS Church accepts as a sort of article of faith that the Biblical texts have been at least somewhat tampered with, and that many "plain and precious truths" have been lost.

I'm also wondering if you've ever gotten into any of the literature on the Nag Hammadi scrolls or the Dead Sea scrolls? For me its been fascinating to dig into and learn more about the scriptures that were rejected and declared "heretical" by the political process you describe...

It would be fantastic if the appeals process related to Prop 8 led to the complete reversal of every DOMA law and gay marriage ban in the country. That is a possiblity, though there are some complications. For one thing, the 9th Circuit ruling explicitly limited itself just to Prop 8 in California. So if the Supreme Court refuses to review it, I'm not sure what would happen to other marriage bans in other parts of the country. I assume they would still stand, though, certainly, the 9th Circuit ruling would establish some precedent to challenge those as well. Also, of course, the Supreme Court might also reverse the 9th Circuit ruling.

However, you're right... IF this went the way you suggest in the Supreme Court, then ironically those trying to eliminate same-sex marriage in California will have, in fact, done us a HUGE favor.

Beck said...

Reading this post, I find myself asking "why I stay"?

Having never left, though living a life of hidden desires, often in an environment of shame and guilt, there certainly have been motivational forces to leave.

And yet I haven't, and must agree that my reasons are centered on the central theme of your last paragraph - the spiritual connection to others as we serve together in that spirit.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Hey Beck! For me I guess it all boils down to the fact that I can't deny my testimony.

And I've been incredibly blessed for sticking with the Church, despite the present obstacles and challenges.

Beck said...

Yeah, that pesky personal and undeniable witness of the spirit always gets in the way, doesn't it? :)

Hana 羽奈 said...

This was a nice read for me, especially since I am struggling. I've come to a knowledge deep in my heart that I have no problem with the Church or its doctrines or teachings (for the most part), but it is the people and the culture I cannot stand, especially here in the West. I meet very few Mormons here where, when I'm with them, I feel like they are true Mormons, Mormons who are as Christlike as they are meant to be. It was the Church members in Japan who made me truly feel like I was in the Church. They were all Christlike, and they loved me no matter what. Out here it is so much different. I can't be accepted at all, for the most part, because I am so different. (There was my ward last year, my third year, that was almost perfect and I do miss them.)

It may just be the "Utah Mormon culture" (but I don't think it is since I am treated similarly when I go to visit my family) but I don't feel wanted or accepted in the Church because I don't follow everything anyone with some authority in the Church says. I question and I pray and I find things out for myself. I believe that my relationship with God is an individual one and what works for someone else won't work for me as much as they seem to think it will. And that raises the alarm bells. Everyone freaks out about every little thing I do, so for the most part, I am so alone that I can't stand it and I begin to hate the Church.

But it always comes back to, people aren't perfect, but I do believe that the Gospel is true. But it is so hard so keep going when the people that should be Christlike are so arrogant in their own ways that they shove out people like me who are struggling a bit, who try to still be an individual and keep a good faith in God. It's come to the point where I really just want to be gone, and stop going to Church for awhile because I am so tired of the "you need to or you are not a good Mormon" ideology out here. I want to take awhile off, and then go because I do truly want to. But the longer I am here the less I want to stay, and the more I want to leave just for my own mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. It isn't thriving in the Mormon community, even though I would truly like it to.

... I don't know what that rant was. :P But your entry made me think. Thank you.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

yusahana - Growing up in upstate New York, we had a completely different experience of the Church. When I went to Utah to attend BYU, it was actually kind of a shock. We used to joke that the Church wasn't true in Utah.

In reality, the Church is only as true as we make it by living gospel principles. When we don't embody the kind of love Christ taught, it's a kind of denial of our testimonies.

Of course there are loving, Christ-like church members in Utah! But there are some cultural challenges too. I think the important thing for you is to find friends who love you and accept you for you who are... You are a beautiful, strong, smart woman!

Don't get discouraged!

I love you!

Bravone said...


I'm always blessed by reading your thoughts. Thank you for your example of one truly tries to a Christ-like life.