So much has changed in the past two years.
Sometimes I wonder where I fit in terms of religion, particularly in the Mormon world. After a lot of self-reflection (sometimes I feel like that’s all I do, haha), I’ve come to this conclusion regarding my spirituality:
There are aspects of Mormonism I love, and there are many parts of it I disagree with and truly believe to be harmful. I don’t fall neatly into the LDS church anymore, just like I don’t fall neatly into Buddhism, New-Age Spirituality, Paganism, Hinduism, Christianity, Atheism, or Mormon Restorationism. Although I have learned from and adopted philosophies from all of these ways of thinking (and I fully intend to study into as many more as I can), I do not confine myself to any of these ideologies. I listen, analyze, take what seems good and true, and leave what feels false and harmful, trusting my moral compass to develop and improve along the way.
Getting here, going through these changes, was difficult and frightening. Not only was I questioning my entire worldview countless times, from the validity of my church to the very existence of God, there were many moments (mostly just in the beginning) when I feared my very salvation was at stake. I feared that I would lose everything: my good standing in the church I knew and loved, my place in the celestial kingdom, and—worst of all—my sense of right and wrong.
But now, I do not regret the choices I made. I know I have said and done some insensitive things here and there and I know that I have unintentionally hurt some feelings due to my weaknesses in communication, understanding, and tact. I apologize for these follies and moments of disrespect. However, while I accept the consequences of my unwise actions and do not deny responsibility for any of them, these instances are simply inevitable in a complex mortal life such as mine. Of course I did stupid things; I would have done stupid things regardless of the path I chose because I am human and I do a lot of stupid things, and I will accept responsibility for these offenses and always try to do better.
But I will not apologize for the carefully-deliberated steps I have taken. From my first re-entry into the waters of baptism one chilly February morning at Saratoga Springs, to my first cup of coffee in a little Layton café, to my many agonizing considerations over whether I should leave God altogether, I am confident that these experiences have shaped my character for the better. There were plenty of difficult moments, but my story is anything but a tragedy. My journey was not a steady decline into apostasy, nor was I carefully led away by Satan into a life of sin.
When some people leave the church (or theism entirely), they are often demonized in varying degrees by some believers for very understandable reasons (I know this because I was one of those demonizers for a long time, haha). Okay, perhaps “demonize,” in most cases, is an unfairly strong word, but my point is that when someone makes a choice that we deem immoral, we instinctively assign our own reasons for that person’s actions. It’s just what we do; we have an inherent need to make sense of the world. These reasons we assign are often harsh in order to allow us to rest in the notion that if we can remain moral and righteous, such devastation will never happen to us. Here are some reasons I used to give for people leaving the church while I was an active believer in it:
- They don’t care about truth or about God
- They want to live a materialistic and self-indulgent life
- They were offended by something some church member or leader said at some point (or some obscure event in church history), and allowed their anger and bitterness to get the best of them
- They caved into the temptation of peeking at anti-Mormon literature and were ashamed because “the world” frowned down upon their beliefs
- They were too lazy and selfish to commit to their promises to God
- They’re in a temporary phase of confusion and will get over it soon
A quick disclaimer: This concept of unfairly assuming people’s reasons for actions which we deem as “immoral” or “sinful” is definitely not exclusive to the Mormon world. I’m pretty sure it’s a very human thing and everyone does it. I still do it (though, hopefully, not as much as I used to)!
Go to someone who’s left the church, sit down with them, and ask them about their journey. If they’re not an eloquent speaker, ask them to speak their mind via writing (or read what they’ve already written). That’s the easy part. The hard part is listening (or reading) with the intent to understand, and not to “understand” just enough so you can spot weakness in their reasoning or find a way to “get to them” and make them rethink their ways. Check your fault-finding device at the door and understand them for the sake of learning from them. Once you think of that interaction as a re-conversion opportunity, you’ve automatically installed a filter. Put down your teaching agenda; take notes instead.
Another disclaimer: I am super awful at this. It’s a freaking difficult thing to do, alright? 95% of the time I begin a discussion with someone I know I disagree with, I’m already compiling defenses and warming up my own fault-finding device so I can rest in self-reassurance that I am in the right, not them. I’m not allowing myself to learn from them; I am not allowing myself to be wrong. Rather, I am spending all my listening-energy on organizing a plan to convert them to my perspective. But, on the bright side, now I see this problem in myself and I can make a conscious effort to change.
I realize that the intent behind most conversion attempts are innocent and benign (“I just want them to understand me,” or “I just want them to choose a path that will make them happier”), but there are times when we need to step down from our soapboxes and allow ourselves some critical self-reflection in light of the perspective gained from listening to an opposing voice.
Yes, there are moments when we must speak up, be bold, and be heard. We can’t mentally afford to question ourselves every moment of every day—we would all go insane. But too often we reject our duty of subjecting ourselves to periodical self-reexaminations, of seriously considering that we might be wrong.
Again, I really suck at this practice. I’m just really, really bad at it. Heck, there are probably sections in this very article that prove that fact. But I’m working on it, and I want to tell you all that sincere listening and critical self-reflection has taught me immensely and has improved my character overall. It is tough, but it really does work. I know because I’ve done it. I sat down with friends who disagreed with my dearly-held beliefs, listened without judgement or agenda, and then analyzed my own beliefs through my newly-gained perpectives.
I ask you to please listen to my story as well as the stories of anyone else you may disagree with. Please don’t dismiss my—or anyone else’s—religion (or lack thereof) without an attempt at empathy. Please don’t assume that you already know why I am the way I am, and please do not assume that I’ve become so because of pride, bitterness, pettiness, or selfishness.
Please do not pity me, either, for such sorrow is needless. I am truly happy. I am happy now because I am learning to live without fear.
During times at which I feel there is a God (which I’d say is probably most of the time, to be honest), I no longer fear the threat of damnation. I am no longer tormented with the worry that I have stepped over the line, that I am in need of dire repentance because of my separation from the LDS Church’s teachings.
This is why I am no longer afraid:
In the beginning of my journey, I just wanted to find God. Endless hours of prayer and following revelation was what led me to a Mormon Restorationist movement community, where I made lifelong friends, learned so much about the character of Jesus, and realized that no church institution could rightfully place limits on how I choose to worship and commit to God (neither should I dictate how anyone else should worship).
When some of my friends decided to become atheists, I just wanted to understand them. I wanted to understand how they could still be happy and loving and giving when they’d seemingly abandoned God. Now that I have listened to them and walked in their shoes, I understand.
My crimes of reading “unapproved” material, questioning authority, openly disagreeing with church policies, and doubting the existence of God were not motivated by apathy, laziness, bitterness, pride, or selfishness. It was love all along. I loved God enough to step outside of my religious comfort-zone to look for him. I loved my friends enough to empathize and deeply consider their points of view. I loved truth enough to be willing to leave God if doing so made me a freer and more altruistic individual.
Tell me where I went wrong. Show me the point on my life’s timeline where Jesus will, at the judgement bar, say, “Here. This is the event where your selfishness, recklessness, and bitterness got the best of you and you started down that slippery slope. If only you’d chosen to be more caring, more loving, more careful. But, alas, you failed this brief test of mortality, you have failed me, and there is no turning back.”
If there is a God, I am at peace with him, and I firmly believe that if he’s a god worth worshiping, he’ll be satisfied enough with my sincere attempts at self-improvement that he isn’t going to allow me to be consigned to a state of post-mortal misery or separate me from my family in the eternities. Even if there is no God (still a strong possibility in my mind), I am at peace with the transformations within me that have opened my eyes to greater compassion, acceptance of philosophical fluidity in myself, and respect for differences in others.
And no one can take that peace from me.
Thank you, friend, for listening.
featured image from the LDS Media Library