Sunday, September 20, 2015

Graduating from the Church, or Why Some Don't Find It So Easy to...Just Believe

Three years ago I got home from my 2-year mission to Mexico City. It was truly one of the greatest experiences of my life. I still keep in contact with converts, and I just received news that one of our most devoted investigators was baptized a week ago. I'm elated for her.

She's just beginning her journey in the church, and I've seen it do many wonderful things for her in her life. I whole-heartedly support her in her decision—she fits in the Mormon culture, gospel, and plan.

One year ago I attended my first Affirmation conference, a group that focuses on supporting individuals in navigating their sexuality, gender identity, and Mormon association. As the name suggests, it is an affirmative, all-inclusive group. The leadership has a rich diversity, and those that participate include the same-sex married, some who are in mixed-orientation marriages, some who are single, and men, women, transgender, gender non-binary, and more. At the conference, I met the president of the organization, who kindly invited me to invite my parents to the devotional. They were in town for my niece's baptism, so the timing was perfect. They came to the devotional, and there was an incredible experience: I posit that there are very few intersections where my mother cries from feeling the spirit at the same place and time that a transgender woman with a hot pink wig and a fairy wing costume pounds the pulpit, declaring that women will hold the priesthood because she's a woman and she exercises her pre-transition priesthood. Certainly not everyone there shared the woman's beliefs, but the intersection of several journeys, beliefs, and valid feelings was an incredible experience.

During this same testimony meeting, one man got up and spoke about his experience in the church. He said that his journey in it had come to an end, and that he graduated from the church. He said that everyone would eventually graduate from the church—they had to. I scoffed at the idea, afraid that my parents would be turned off toward supporting my participation in this organization. I thought to myself: I will never be on that side of the fence.

It's easy as a member of the church in good standing to clearly see who's wrong. As a missionary, if an investigator or less active member wasn't keeping certain commandments, it was simple: they simply didn't understand the doctrine. The task was to go and teach them with power and authority, and the behavior would follow their understanding of the doctrine. And if they didn't, it was because we weren't teaching correctly. Furthermore, the sentiment exists that if a returned missionary becomes less active, it's simple: they weren't really converted in the first place, and they didn't truly understand the doctrine. As an active member, I vowed that I would never become an inactive returned missionary—my faith was too strong.

Or was it?

My first experience of feeling targeted by the church instead of feeling embraced by it was my experience of being released as Executive Secretary by my Stake President for simply coming out. Yes, I am the YM that I wrote about. Writing in third person was therapeutic and helped me process the situation a little more objectively. I fought my doubts through every step of that experience. I vowed never to become bitter against the church. Several times, I thought I was over it, I thought I had moved on, healed. I asserted that my faith had remained strong.

But had it?

This began a period of questioning in my life. My mind had been opened to other world views as I met new people and heard their experiences. Some of these new friends were happily married to their same-sex spouses, and life was working for them.

The questioning began like this: Do I really believe that this couple is going to hell? Do I really believe that a monogamous, committed same-sex marriage is against God's will? If so, do I really believe that He would let some of his children make that choice and lose them forever, their mortal happiness costing their eternal salvation? Would he remain that silent?

But then again, isn't God always silent? I mean, He uses a still, small voice. But does He? I've never heard a voice. A voice is audible, certain. I have always been taught that He uses the Spirit and operates through the feelings, which are rather turbulent, unstable, and uncertain things. I became disturbed, so I went back to the basics (that's what you're supposed to do, right?).

I started with my testimony. I know that the church is true and that Joseph Smith was a true prophet. I know this because I read the Book of Mormon and prayed about it, asking about its truthfulness. I felt the Spirit testify of its truth through my feelings, and I recognized those feelings as the Spirit because the Bible defines them as fruits of the Spirit. I know that the Bible is true because it's scripture, and the Spirit testifies of the truthfulness of the scriptures. At least that's what the scriptures say. And scriptures are true because the Spirit testifies of them. And I know that the Spirit testifies of them because that's what the scriptures say. And the scriptures are true because...

I got caught in the circular logic. Being a computer programmer, I drew up a dependency graph: each item depends on the items it points to. Things tend to blow up when a circular dependency is reached:

Let me explain my reasoning: every piece of Mormon Doctrine is an assertion, be it true or false. Its truthfulness depends on the truthfulness of the scriptures, where "scriptures" is defined as a canonized set of writings, General Conference talks, church publications, and words of Apostles, Prophets, and leaders when so designated by the Church as scripture.

The truthfulness of the scriptures depends on the truthfulness of two other assertions: (1) the assertion that the Spirit testifies of the truthfulness of all things, and (2) the assertion that the Spirit is designated by feelings of love, joy, peace, long-suffering, et al. These two assertions, however, are written in the scriptures; ergo they depend on the assertion that the scriptures are true, and thus begins the circular dependency.

This is where I assert that belief or non-belief is an arbitrary choice. You must choose, arbitrarily, where to jump into the circle. You must pick up an assertion, arbitrarily accept it as Truth (capital "T"), and put it in your personal truth bucket. Upon this foundational truth, you can build a set of linked truths, eventually incorporating any piece of doctrine you so desire. This is a testimony in church lingo.

Mind you, arbitrariness isn't a bad thing. It is simply a thing. You can arbitrarily choose to assign the value "true" to the assertion that the scriptures are true, and I can arbitrarily choose to assign the value "false" to the same assertion. You can't devalue my truth set, and I can't devalue yours, as it is a personal, arbitrary choice. Everyone carries their own personal "truth bucket" filled with assertions they have accepted as truth.

Once we get to this point, we must look at the pros and cons of arbitrarily choosing a truth value for a particular assertion. For my investigator in Mexico who chose to be baptized last week, it's a pretty good deal: if it's all true, great. If it's all false, what she loses (10% to tithing, time worshipping, etc) pales to what she gains: a community.

For someone who is gay, consider everything I miss out on (some thoughts here and here) if it's false and I assert that it's true.

But what if it's true, and what if I assert that it's false, thus leaving it behind? Would a loving Mormon God leave such stakes up to the uncertainty of subjective emotions? I mean, I feel the fruits of the spirit when I listen to Sarah Bareilles. Or Enya.

So, what if I can't convince myself to arbitrarily accept one of the above assertions as Truth? That's ok. I understand now why some people get up in fast and testimony meeting and say: "I don't know for certain, but I believe this is true. I hope this is true." Understanding this helps me interface better with people of backgrounds different than my own, be it sexuality, religion, faith, or anything else. I value their world view, even if I don't share it. I can see the good it does in their life. It is no longer my agenda to change, convert, persuade, or convince others but rather to understand them.

Let's step back to the idea of graduating. Maybe I am on the other side of the fence, but how I got here is a beautiful journey. It's not that I don't understand the doctrine. I do. Its truthfulness, however, is uncertain to me. And that's ok. Maybe I've been deceived my whole life by a large organization. But then again, maybe everyone in the organization truly hopes and believes in it. It's a good lifestyle, culture, and community fit for them, but not for me. I assert that God, as portrayed in Mormon doctrine and theology, would interject via a medium that is certain and undeniable if He truly were concerned about my path. I'm moving on, moving forward. My participation in the church is going to be on my terms and conditions. Maybe that sounds like a cafeteria Mormon, picking and choosing what works for me, but that might be the most sustainable solution in my case. I don't deny my past—I love and am proud of my Mormon heritage and ancestors, including the valuable lessons I've learned in my life, but I feel more genuine in my interactions with others when I don't believe that mine is the only true world view.

Now, I may be wrong in my assertion, but that's the beauty of having various world views.
It's not about being more right than everyone else but rather being more gracious myself.

Dan Bunker

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