Wednesday, April 10, 2013

I am not ashamed, Part II (alternately titled: my path out of the Mormon Church)

Kenny just revealed a part of his story to the world, so I suppose it's my turn: Kenny and I are no longer Mormon.  I mean, I will always be partly Mormon- that was the culture of my youth, my parents and siblings are all still Mormon, and many of my favorite parts of me come out of Mormonism. But we have zero involvement with our ward, aside from occasional friendly missionary visits, and we no longer have any semblance of a testimony that the Mormon gospel is the one universal, eternal truth. 

For those who aren't Mormon, you can probably stop reading here. It's hard to properly convey the significance of all this, and I'll probably seem overly dramatic. Mormonism isn't just a religion, it's a culture, it's a tribe, it's a way of life. I don't know of anything I can equate leaving it to. Plus, the nature of the religion is that one family member's beliefs can have deep effects on their family- we're a unit, all together, so it isn't as simple as everyone just finding what works best for them. While I don't think I can say this has been the hardest thing I've ever done, it has definitely been the scariest.

As I watched General Conference this last weekend, I realized that there really isn't much left for me in the Mormon gospel, or I'm not in the right place to receive it. Any attempts to go through the motions feel like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, and leave me feeling exhausted and lonely. Even the general conference talks geared to those who struggle with doubts leave me wishing I could sit and talk with these men, who I truly do believe are well-intentioned, and explain to them how I arrived here, and see if any of them can tell me how to will myself to believe something if my heart thinks it is wrong.
While I have been completely honest about my "retiring" from Mormonism with my family and those I interact with regularly (perhaps TOO open and honest), the broader world doesn’t know unless they are extremely perceptive (yes, I post a lot of pro-gay-rights and feminist things on Facebook  but I did back when my testimony was still strong, too). Most of my public silence (not a natural state for me) was out of respect to my husband and the time he needed to take to come out publicly as well. But that cat is out of the bag (which is a bit of a relief) so I’m finally ready to declare to the world that this is who I am now- and in truth “me” now doesn’t look all that different from “me” as a Relief Society Secretary. I just get to wear tank tops and shorts again (it's hard to even joke about that, lest anyone think that this decision was arrived at lightly, but I can't pretend I haven't enjoyed a few of the side-effects of this difficult journey).

Without a doubt, the hardest part of this whole journey has been knowing how much it hurts people I love. For my own sake, I'm doing fine- in truth, it's been a positive change for me. But oh, how it kills me to know that my inability to force myself to believe something can cause so much pain to others. Ugh. But it is what it is, and I have to choose my path based on what is right for me and my family. I don't think just going through the motions would benefit anyone.
We haven't resigned our membership, and probably won't unless something big happens. We've tried to stay in touch with our ward here, but our weak attempts have been met with an even weaker response. 

Anyways, I’ve been thinking about what to say, how to sum up where I am and how I got here and here is what I have. It's long. I'm sorry. These aren't simple things:
My testimony started to crumble January of 2012, and by April or June, was completely washed away. We have not been to an LDS church since July and attend a local Unitarian Universalist congregation regularly. This post is very long, very personal, and not intended to hurt anyone or to even change anyone’s opinion. Honesty and transparency rank pretty high in my priorities, so it feels disingenuous to pretend our lives are the same as they have always been.
My story is very similar to many others right now. The church is currently hemorrhaging- it is losing massive numbers of members of the Google generation. When wikipedia can answer questions that church manuals leave out, and FAIR and FARMS (the two main LDS apologetic groups) can’t offer answers that satisfy, you see this massive “falling away”. You can definitely hear it in the last few General Conferences- the GAs are definitely aware of the many struggling members, and I sincerely hope they find a way to stop it, because I know not all “faith transitions” have ended as happily as mine.
Let me shoot down the typical conclusions: we did not look for this to happen- as a matter of fact, it’s been one of the harder and least convenient things I’ve ever done. It did not start by us not attending our meetings, not reading our scriptures, not praying, or being led away by any sort of temptation. We followed the rules. No one at church offended us. We didn’t get sucked in by anti-Mormon propaganda. Our ward in Houston- where we were living at the time of the initial “falling away”- was like a family to us. There is no hidden massive sin in either of us that chased the Spirit away. I may have fallen into the trap of "intellectualism" but to be fair, intellectualism seems to be the thing that gave me my testimony to begin with.
I will admit I have a great fear that people will try to turn our story into a cautionary tail- “she started working out of the home and traveling away from her family”, “she started down the slippery slopes of feminism” or “they got wrapped up in LGBTQ issues and politics”. I suppose I don’t mind being a cautionary tale if they give the full ending of the story: that we are happy. I would never have guessed such a story would end that way.
Ugh, I hate knowing that the “me” of 3 years ago would read that and disregard my current happiness as superficial, temporary, or otherwise lacking. I know a few folks are just waiting for the other boot to drop, for something to shake things up and show us we can’t stand on our own and need the church. And who am I to say that it 100% won’t happen, but I can’t fathom what such an event would be. I simply can’t express in a way the “old me” would have believed that it is indeed possible to be “inactive” and still live lives that are just as happy and fulfilling. I guess I travel in new circles now, but I’ve been amazed by how many “former” latter day saints I know that are happy, raising good kids, and have moved on.
Our marriage is stronger than ever. I’ve been happier post-Mormonism and like myself more now than in any other period of my life. My children are still being raised to understand actions and consequences, to know compassion, to have worthy goals. We still believe in the virtues that Mormonism taught us, and there are many positive things we will take from Mormonism and never let go of. I have no regrets about my Mormon past- some of my favorite things about myself came very clearly from it. And I’m not ruling out going back some day, though I doubt it will ever be the same as it once was. For the time, being out of the church is more positive for us and our children than being in it. Maybe someday that will change. I still love the church, and think it is a great truth, I just don’t think it’s my truth anymore. And unfortunately, it is not a religion that readily accepts doubters (I believe I could get more out of the temple now that the cognitive dissonance is gone than I ever would have before; unfortunately, I would be unworthy to enter based on testimony alone).
I can’t speak for Kenny (his former testimony was very different from mine), but I don’t think I was wrong or faking it as a strong, faithful Latter-day Saint for 27 years. When I said "I know the church is true", I meant it. When the chapter on spiritual gifts came up in lessons, I always felt that my gift was to know the church was true, to not doubt it. I watched my sisters experiment with their beliefs as teens but maybe because I got to learn from their wanderings, I never felt tempted myself. I was rock-solid in my belief and happy to sing it from the roof tops. And I do have a rebellious streak in me, I won't pretend I don't. But the testimony I had wasn't faked.
I was an “academic” Mormon  I read the whole quad cover-to-cover in high school, I knew my scripture mastery, I loved discussing/explaining Mormonism to Mormons and non-Mormons alike, and enjoyed LDS apologetics at a surface level. Which isn’t to say I didn’t question- but I would always research things that didn’t make sense and come away stronger. 
I will say I stuck to church-correlated materials, which may have been my error. To be frank and probably sound a bit egotistical, I was so bored by the correlated materials (the scriptures, the lesson manuals, church magazines…) and knew them inside and out so well (this isn’t because I’m some genius but rather because, let’s face it, Mormonism is a religion that is all about repetition in learning) that I figured why should I dig deeper into other “deeper” church sources if it would just be even more of the same .
So if more complete/deeper church histories were out there that might have inoculated me in my youth, I did not see them (maybe if they had been included in sunday school from time to time, rather than dropped on me like a bomb when I came across them at 27 years old, I could have slowly built up an immunity). I was in my Seminary Council in high school, attended BYU, taught Relief Society and Sunday School, and regularly answered the questions during lessons that no one else would answer (either out of boredom or because they really didn’t know), so I don’t think I was foolish in thinking I knew “the full story”. In fact, I was a bit disappointed after going through the temple, not because it was weird, but because I had hoped for weirder… or at least, more depth. I was so eager to add to what I had studied and re-studied and taught and preached. But the principals of the temple were the same as what I had learned since my youth (and I’m not saying consistency is a bad thing, though boredom can be), all that was added was symbolism that alternated between too transparent and too opaque; either way, it never really spoke to me. I couldn’t turn off my analytical brain that spent the whole endowment ceremony wondering why God has bad grammar, why the producer chose that angle, and why there is only one female in the whole creation story, and she only has a couple speaking lines. And don’t get me started on the masonry thing. But all that was secondary- if I believed in the priesthood authority of the Modern Prophets, then I could deal with the rest.
And yes, the church’s stance on gender roles and homosexuality really bothers me, but that isn’t the key problem. Yes, the building of a huge high-end mall in SLC with church funds gets under my skin (more as a symbol of how the church uses its money), but that isn’t what drove me away. And yes, I didn’t enjoy Mormon Sundays- 3 hours of church and the pressure of keeping kids in an unnatural state of “reverence”, but that isn’t the problem either. And yes, it is very difficult to sit through Relief Society sometimes as a feminist, liberal, working mom (with zero interest in canning) but that was bearable, and I did really love my ward sisters there. I’ll freely admit I did not enjoy wearing garments, but that was not a deciding factor. Yes, I strongly disagree with the approach our culture takes to tackling issues like modesty, pornography, and self worth, but that’s not a deal-breaker.
The church is either true or it isn’t, and if it is, then you make the rest fit. I’ll say that again: you may hear many of these complaints and think that I let the little things bring me away from a greater truth, but rather, these little things are whats left over when the Greater Truth is gone, they are what makes it not worth hanging around when the foundation is gone. Little things about the church have always bugged me but did not make me doubt the truth of the gospel for a second. All of the inconveniences and quirks, I could deal with- after all, a mortal organization will have flaws-if I just believed the claims the church makes about exclusive priesthood authority and access to universal truths. And I did, so I made the rest fit. Now I don’t, so there is no reason to fight so hard to make it all fit.
I never did have a strong spiritual witness of the truth of the LDS gospel- when I practiced on the promise in Moroni 10, my witness was always a “it is what you make of it”. So while I’m displaying my inordinate pride in my former testimony, please know that I recognize it was not spiritually founded; it was flawed all along. It was based in logical exercise: if this, then that. If Joseph Smith did everything he said he did (and logically, I thought he must have, because of the evidences I had been exposed to), then the rest just followed. I was the foolish man who built his house upon the sand.
About a year ago, I realized my testimony was very weak in a few areas. I wanted to make the temple a more meaningful, positive experience for me. I wanted to understand better who Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were and why they did some of the things they did. I wanted to allay my concerns about what it means to support the priesthood even when your own convictions (and in some cases, spiritual promptings) contradict them (like in the case of prop 8). I listened to many MANY podcasts, read some biographies (by LDS historians), I dove deeply into scripture study and prayer, I talked to local leadership, I fasted… and every step of the way, my questions were answered with more questions. Plus I had to fight the feeling of betrayal and perhaps my own hurt pride when I realized I really had such a small knowledge of church history and how we came to be the organization we are (really, is the idea of Joseph Smith looking into a hat with a peepstone to translate the BoM all that much less palatable than the Urim and Thummim story we’re taught? Either takes a leap of faith, so why weren’t we taught the whole picture?). I really truly don’t want to get into the elements of church doctrine or church history that pushed me past a point of no return- I’ll be happy to discuss in a less public forum but my goal is not to be a missionary for apostasy.
The most surprising part is that no internal red flags went off. I’ve been told by a dozen people to read the story of Korihor (don’t get me started on how telling someone- whose only spiritual resource has always been logic- that they are “just like an anti-Christ” is probably not that productive) , to read Alma 32… and though I’ve read that all many many times, the part that stuck this time was verse 32: “Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.” I had nourished my seed, with a broken heart and real intent, for 27 years. I don’t think I could have put more into it. I’d gone through every motion (well, I may have worn flip-flops- only the fancier ones- to church, and I did watch R-rated movies if I felt they were uplifting) and shelved every doubt. And my seed had grown and helped me become who I am- but then I hit a wall and the seed just wouldn’t grow any more. Or maybe it was just bearing unexpected- and undesired fruit? I don’t know, I get lost in the metaphor.
I came home from church each week- or worse yet, the temple- feeling mentally exhausted and confused. Reading the scriptures would leave me irritable because there are so many questions unanswered, so many little inconsistencies, so many pieces of historical and cultural context that don’t wrap well into the idea that the scriptures contain eternal truths that all mesh together and are meant for our day. (The God of the Old Testament really isn’t a very nice guy. Jesus in the New Testament is actually 4 different different Jesuses, depending on which gospel you are in and what the goal and audience of the writer is; the Book of Mormon leaves out some really important fundamentals of our religion [temple ordinances, eternal nature of families, priesthood principals... and where the heck are women? There are only three named unique-to-the-BoM women in the whole book!]) Prayer was still a solace, in that I’d get warm fuzzies and feel like I was loved and doing the right things, but I found no LDS-church-faith-inspiring answers there.
So, just over a year ago, I announced to my husband that I just didn’t believe it anymore. Throughout our marriage, we didn’t discuss religion much- or when we did, I did most the talking. I couldn’t really tell you much about my husband’s testimony because it was very personal and introspective to him- not something he could share easily. In retrospect, this has less to do with how he approaches spirituality and more because his own feelings weren’t clear to himself; I was the more dominant one in the relationship when it came to mormonism. He’s always been a “worthy priesthood holder” but, like in many LDS families, the wife was at the spiritual helm.
I expected him to be shocked and saddened by my confession, but his first reaction was calm. When I asked why he wasn’t freaking out, he responded “because you seem more at peace right now than any other time we’ve talked about religion”.
We had a lot of thinking to do: would we be a part-member couple? (Answer: time would show that we were fortunately on the same path.) Could we raise kids outside of mormonism without screwing them up? (Answer: it may actually be easier this way, just less familiar.) Can I tell my family without breaking my mother’s heart? (Answer: probably not, much to my dismay.) What about my lifestyle will this change? (Answer: not much.)
It didn’t take long for us to realize that Kenny had many of the same questions I did; he was just much better at turning off the cognitive dissonance in his brain. We both have different key issues behind our decisions- Kenny will say his deciding factor was his lack of testimony in the Book of Mormon; for me, it’s most definitely about the Mormon claims to exclusive, eternal authority and truth. We continued attending church and getting nothing out of it beyond social interaction, but when we moved and even the social interaction element was weak, we found it was a good time to invest our energies in something with more positive returns for our family.
I'll admit, I relieved in some ways that our children will be raised outside of the church. At first I was worried about keeping my kids from having the great youth experiences I had, but the more I thought about it, the more I realize that there is so much of that experience I DO NOT want for my kids. So we enter uncharted territory, trying as parents to pass along the good and leave behind the parts we don't feel are beneficial.

We’ve been attending a Unitarian Universalist church here each Sunday. UUs are interesting, in that they are a non-creedal church: they don’t really believe in anything specific other than love and service, but come together to “seek truths, celebrate differences, act on Unitarian Universalist principles, inspire the best in each of us, and serve the world.” It’s warm and fluffy and vague, and exactly what we need right now. We are challenged each week to think deeply and change our perspectives and actions and better the world. We leave church feeling enlightened and wanting to be better people, and not worrying about fitting our beliefs into a specific mold. It helps that the childcare is fantastic, and the nursery worker is paid so we don’t have to feel bad for handing her our two-year-old for 2 hours each week.
I do still have beliefs. I’m not “falling for anything because I don’t stand for something”. I do still believe in God- or at least, a god, or something divine either within us or without- but he’s not anthropomorphic and probably doesn’t speak with an American accent. To be honest, I no longer feel much need to define my view of divinity. It just... is.
My belief in Christ has changed- that relationship has morphed into something akin to my relationship with the Bishop of Digne- I don't think about whether or not he's historical or fictional or somewhere in between, I just get whatever good I can out of his story. I still read scriptures, but my canon has expanded to include Kahlil Gibran and the Dalai Lama.
I believe if you put good into the world, you get good out of it. Fortunately, I was raised to do the right thing not just because some moral authority told me to, but because it’s how to live the happiest, most productive and rewarding life (even the God I believed in in my youth didn’t give commandments just for fun- he did it because he wanted us to be happy and they were a clear easy guide for how to be). Family is still my highest priority; and integrity, charity and compassion are my highest virtues. I still have a long way to go, but I’m making as much progress now as I was before- perhaps more because I’m not spending energy trying to “fix” my worldview to fit into a mold that didn’t work for me anyway.
So there you have it. What I thought would never happen has happened. And it turns out to not be the end of the world.
I do have a blog that I’ve written as I’ve gone through this. It goes into more specifics. If anyone is interested, let me know and I’ll send you a link.
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?
-Micah 6:8 

11 comments:

Emily said...

I would like the link to your other blog. You worded this so well. I understand so much of what you said, and I have experienced so many of the same thoughts and feelings. You can message me on Facebook, or if you want my email address I'll get it to you.

Crystal said...
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Crystal said...
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Crystal said...
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Kat said...

I love you no matter what your 'faith' if you are; mormon, athiest, or flying spaghetti monster. You are amazing to me.

Nancy Skanchy said...

Jenny, you are a very brave woman to speak your mind. I think you are awesome. I have some similar experiences, I have joined Mormons for Obama & Democrat Mormon group to feel grounded in my belief. I lost a few friends @ church when they found out that I think different from them. It's a bit lonely @ church during the election.
Best wishes to you on your new found path to enlightenment.
I consider myself as Zen Mormon.
Nancy Skanchy

LifeAsAConvert said...

Out of every thing I admire how you are at peace with it. So many seem to leave with bitter thoughts or hurt feelings and have no real reason. It seems you have thought yours out well. I hope if you do return that you will blog about it as well.

Marcia said...

Jenny,
What an intelligent, insightful and self-aware woman you are. I can only imagine how difficult this transition must have been for you.

I so much admire and respect you for not only your thoughtfulness, but your ability to share. As the years go by, I wish for you continued contentment, growth and joy.

Thank you for sharing so unselfishly.

Marcia. (Rachel's Mom)

Gina - RoseThistleArtworks said...

I saw this blog post and some of the questions you raised in it. I do not want to preach to you, but I would like to share some of the answers my studying The Bible by going to original languages of the manuscripts have taught me. You are free to consider and take or leave this information as you feel led by His Holy Spirit.

Psalm 40:7 Hebrews 10:7 Hebrews 13:8 KJV Any perceived differences are in the reader's understanding, not in Immanuel Isaiah 7:14 John 1:14 KJV http://www.biblestudytools.com/kjv/passage.aspx?q=psalm+40:7;hebrews+10:7;john+1:14

There are MANY women listed throughout His Word in service of God's will. Huldah, Deborah, Jael, Priscilla, the four daughters of Philip, Rachab, many listed in the salutations of Paul, may be a few of the lesser talked about. Genesis 3:20 KJV "all living" means that Jesus Christ came through the protected bloodline of Eve and eternal Life comes through Him, not that all peoples came through her specific bloodline. God created it all and said it was VERY good. Genesis 1:31 KJV Confusion aka Babylon did not come from Him. 1 Corinthians 14:33 KJV

Your refusal to give up personal integrity or brutal honesty in your love for God and your truthfulness for when you have questions, rather than going along to get along must be pleasing to Him. Galatians 1:10 KJV

MattW said...

Hey Jenn - I'm very impressed with your thoughtful, careful approach in analyzing your religious beliefs and what matters most - and more particularly your willingness to share it. Thank you! I don't want to be presumptuous, but what little I know of you and Kenny seems to speak volumes about your desires to do what's right, to raise great kids, help others - all of what we call "the Sunday-school" answers. I'm certain you'll find great resources out there and wish you all the best in your journey.

I've also struggled with difficult situations in the LDS church - primarily doctrinal, but occasionally with policy and approaches to difficult situations. I've struggled with the historical aspects of the church - I've read both the sanitized and unsanitized accounts in an effort to really understand the full context and background. I wish our church was more transparent about our problems, but keep in mind that we have generations of organizational 'baggage' that prevents us from showing weaknesses due to being persecuted so vehemently. I think your point about the "Google" generation was well said; I'd venture to guess that many in our generation are dissatisfied when they don't see acknowledgement of fault, difficulty of modern topics, or even gaps in what we believe; that feels a bit disingenuous. All I can offer is that it's hard for organizations in general to be aware of weaknesses - much less to acknowledge it - even when it might be the right thing to do.

As you mention in the blog post, it really comes down to your personal testimony. I'm still not certain why testimony is this bi-phasic substance of combined rational and inspirational truth - think of light being both electrical / magnetic, particle but wave-form simultaneously - which is like testimony in some ways. That kind of thing annoys me at times, particularly the analyst inside of me that says "faith and testimony shouldn't be so hard". I suppose I'm not alone because every religion deals with gaps doctrine with faith and testimony. Through it all, the one thing I'm certain of is that God really exists and wants a personal relationship with us - God wants us reasoning things out and really coming to know him in the end. It's that principle that has anchored me and my wife as a Latter-day Saint more than anything else.

I hope that you keep your heart open to the LDS church in the future. As it says D&C 1, we're still (as a church) coming out of "obscurity and darkness". Keep in touch - I sincerely believe it will all work out for you and Kenny. - Matt Wright

Jessica Smith said...

Your post has deeply resonated with me... I feel like I am on the same path as you, just a couple of years behind. My husband and I are beginning to discuss the issues, and fantasize about what would happen if we really left the church- or if we even COULD leave it. I feel scared at times, and then very peaceful and light at others. I guess I just need more time to work through the emotions. The lens through which I have seen the world my past 24 years is being shaken off, and everything is clear now. What I am most frightened about is how we will parent our two daughters (ages 3 and 1)? I wonder what has helped you. If you have any advice or other thoughts I'd greatly appreciate it! Thank you -Jessica