Why I chose to stay in the Church

This past week, I have had two experiences where individuals reached out with concerns about faith crisis, and it meant a lot that they were willing to share these struggles with me. In one conversation, I was surprised that I had come to mind. Noting my struggles as a gay Latter-Day Saint, this friend of mine asked, “How did you keep your faith?” This got me reflecting today on how to summarize my own faith crisis of sorts. Why do I say “of sorts”? I didn’t feel like it happened all at once, it wasn’t sudden, and it didn’t come as a surprise.

If I were to attribute any one thing for helping me through this faith crisis, I would have to say it was constant reading and seeking. I have been reading nearly a book a week since I came home from my mission. They range in everything from fantasy to devotional to science to drama to philosophy. That, and my attempts at taking the command to pray always as literally as I can: to constantly attempt to stay connected and in conversation with God. I thought the best way to summarize is a mixture of both principles in my approach and lessons I have learned in working through the wrestle. Looking over what I have written, this isn’t so much a testimony. I don’t even really come to any conclusions as to why I chose to stay in the Church. It is more a working list of what I have learned along the way that show to some extent how my faith has changed over time.

I claim anything that is virtuous, lovely, or of good report as my spiritual heritage

I take the 13th Article of Faith literally: If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.. I don’t limit myself to Latter-Day Saint authors, because I don’t believe we have a monopoly on truth. In fact, I think we are amateurs when it comes to truth. The Church has only been around 200 years! The first books I read after I got home from my mission were by C. S. Lewis, a member of the Anglican church, and G. K. Chesterton, a Catholic.

I like Terryl Givens’ description of Joseph Smith’s approach to revelation, which I think embodies the 13th Article of Faith: Smith believed himself to be an oracle of God, subject to moments of heavenly encounter and the pure flow of inspiration. But he also was insatiably eclectic in his borrowings and adaptations, with an adventuresome mind, prone to speculation and fully comfortable with the trial and error of intellectual effort. Joseph Smith was influenced by what he was reading while he was translating the Bible. For instance, when he found out that the Hebrew word for God was plural (Elohim), he put in “Gods” for “God” (check the Book of Moses). My brand of Mormonism is also eclectic. If I find an interpretation of scripture from Judaism or Catholicism that I feel is true, it has become a part of my faith.

The Spirit of Christ invites us to do good

Building on the previous principle, I take Moroni’s teachings of the Spirit of Christ literally: For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.

If I try the seed, and find that it is good, that it makes me want to be better, that it inspires me to love and to serve, then I accept it as my own. Conversely, if I feel that it is not good, if I feel the teaching has no merit, if it does not help me love God or my fellow man, I reject it– even if it was taught across the pulpit. Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught that this is exactly the case: “To be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders of the Church may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles or doctrine.”

Don’t be rash

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. And don’t be in a hurry to come to conclusions. Don’t ever leave merely because of what an individual leader has done. And don’t leave because you can’t reconcile one or even a handful or teachings or events with the overall narrative that you feel is true. In the words of Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.

When my wife and I chose to get married, we took very seriously the importance of staying together. We made a promise to each other to only resort to divorce in the last resort. Perhaps that sounds silly, or others may think it unhealthy. But I apply this principle to my faith and to my marriage. Both are a relationship, and I have duties in that relationship. I will not relinquish those duties without sufficient cause.

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Assume the best and give others the benefit of the doubt

One of the most profound teachings on understanding other religions comes from the Swedish theologian Krister Stendahl. He outlined three principles:

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for “holy envy”.

Should I not also apply the same principles to my own religion? Kind of a “Love thy neighbor as thyself” approach, implying you need to love yourself too. I assume the best intentions in individuals. I don’t look for hidden motives that aren’t based in the historical record. I believe that members and leaders are doing their best and trying to live with a clean conscience. I look at what we have done right and not just what we have done wrong.

One passage in a talk by Jeffrey R. Holland made a big impact on me when he was talking on the Book of Mormon: As one of a thousand elements of my own testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon, I submit this as yet one more evidence of its truthfulness. In this their greatest—and last—hour of need, I ask you: would these men blaspheme before God by continuing to fix their lives, their honor, and their own search for eternal salvation on a book (and by implication a church and a ministry) they had fictitiously created out of whole cloth?

I don’t agree with all the things Joseph Smith did. But I do feel from observing his actions that he believed that what he was doing was right and true. That alone isn’t enough: the road to hell is paved with good intentions, right? But it should be taken into account.

I also don’t expect individuals or church leaders to be perfect. I recognize that humans are complex. I liked this quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quoted by Jonathan Haidt: If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

Take responsibility

I have come to know that religion is about taking responsibility, that I am my brothers keeper. If I want the Church to be good and embody truth. This was beautifully expressed by G. K. Chesterton:

“Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing — say [the church]. If we think what is really best for [the church] we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of [the church]: in that case he will merely cut his throat or [leave]. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of [the church]: for then it will remain [as it is], which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love [the church]: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved [the church], then [the church] would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; [the church] would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved [the church] as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, [the church] in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”

Avoid overstating what I know

I am now much more modest in my testimony. I rarely use the word “know” anymore. But I feel much more grounded in my faith while doing so. I like the story Jeffrey R. Holland told in a recent general conference: A 14-year-old boy recently said to me a little hesitantly, “Brother Holland, I can’t say yet that I know the Church is true, but I believe it is.” I hugged that boy until his eyes bulged out. I told him with all the fervor of my soul that belief is a precious word, an even more precious act, and he need never apologize for “only believing.” I told him that Christ Himself said, “Be not afraid, only believe,” a phrase which, by the way, carried young Gordon B. Hinckley into the mission field. I told this boy that belief was always the first step toward conviction and that the definitive articles of our collective faith forcefully reiterate the phrase “We believe.” And I told him how very proud I was of him for the honesty of his quest.

In a recent debate between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, there was a pretty difficult discussion of religion. Sam Harris is one of the New Atheists, and is very much opposed to religion. He doesn’t believe it has any redeeming qualities. But Bret Weinstein, the moderator, caught him when he posed religion in an interesting light. He asked, what if religion were a set of heuristics people used to arrive at moral principles, without having to “prove” them with the cutting edge in philosophy and science? Not everyone can be a neuroscientist like Sam Harris. Sam Harris agreed that if religion is indeed used in this way, that it could prove useful. It was perhaps a small step. But I think it profound: in terms of morals, religion allows us to live by principles we feel to be true and good, without having to prove why they are so.

Be comfortable with cognitive dissonance

I believe I can find beauty and truth in multiple interpretations of scripture from different sources. I can find beauty in a Catholic version of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, even though Latter-Day Saints don’t accept the doctrine of original sin. I believe in Aristotle’s statement that It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

I leave room for cognitive dissonance. I don’t need to resolve all my doubts, or reconcile all possible interpretations. I doubt anyone could really do so without oversimplifying the gospel to a 2D caricature of the real thing. One profound statement I heard in an interview on LDS Perspectives calls this religious tension: It is a human tendency to want to resolve tensions. But our objective should be to find balance in these tensions, as opposed to resolution. The tension, the paradox, the co-existing poles of the two sides, are part of our experience in the gospel, and working through them is what can be ultimately sanctifying. Tension is not the problem; imbalance is the problem.

Find good role models

I need to have more that doctrines and principles. I need stories and individuals by which to model my life. There is danger of putting your faith into imperfect people, I admit. I remind myself that the ultimate role model is Christ. But I needed role models of what it is like to be imperfect, to be an imperfect Christian, an imperfect Mormon.

Within the Church leadership, I look up to Jeffrey R. Holland, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, and Neal A. Maxwell. I don’t seek to set Church leaders up against each other, but they speak to me on a level that I need. I feel they acknowledge the pain and suffering in life, leave room and respect doubt, and humanize the gospel.

I look up to my mission president Lehi Schwartz, who taught me that my ideas have value, and showed me unconditional love. I look up to the first bishop of my youth, Bishop McGowan, who loved me without needing a reason to do so. I love my two bishops in my young single adult ward, who were patient and loving when I came out to them. And I look up to Papa Ostler who has made it his mission in life to minister to LGBT Latter-Day Saints and others struggling in the faith.

I also look up to Terryl Givens who taught me that there is room for doubt within my faith. I look up to Lowell Bennion who embodied the two central commandments of the gospel: to love God and to love our neighbor.

I’m not fragile

There is a feeling within the Church at times that testimonies are fragile: that if you read the wrong books e.g. anti-Mormon literature, you could lose your faith. I don’t believe my faith is that fragile, and so I am not afraid of stumbling on something that could drain away my faith. If faith is that fragile, then is it really worth believing in? To date, I haven’t found it to be so, and I have read quite a bit.

I am careful in judging the motives of the one presenting new material to me. I avoid anything that assumes the Church is false first, and then seeks affirming evidence. I try to form a complete picture of anything new I learn, reading multiple sources before coming to a conclusion. I like well-documented works with a full bibliography.

People come first

I fully agree with Lowell Bennion when he said: I do not accept any interpretation of scripture that denies the impartiality or love of God or the free agency and brotherhood of man. These concepts are too basic to the gospel to be denied by someone’s interpretation of a verse or scripture. People come first. Defending orthodoxy is nowhere near as important as loving individuals. The worth of souls is great in the sight of God.

I like this quote from The Russian Orthodox Christian Nikolai Berdyaev: The ethics of the Gospel is based upon existence and not upon norm, it prefers life to law. A concrete existent, a living being, is higher than any abstract idea, even if it be the idea of the good. The good of the Gospel consists in regarding not the good but man as the supreme principle of life. The Gospel shows that men, out of love for the good, may be vile and hypocritical, that out of love for the good they may torture their fellows or forget about them. The Sabbath is for man and not man for the Sabbath– this is the essence of the great moral revolution made by Christianity, in which man for the first time recovered from the fatal consequences of distinguishing between good and evil and from the power of the law. “The Sabbath” stands for the abstract good, for the idea of the norm, the law, and fear of defilement. But “the Son of man is the lord of the Sabbath.” Christianity knows no abstract moral norms, binding upon all men and at all times. Therefore for a Christian every moral problem demands its own individual solution, and is not to be solved mechanically by applying a norm set once for all. It must be so, if man is higher than “the Sabbath”, the abstract idea of the good. Every moral act must be based upon the greatest possible consideration for the man from whom it proceeds and for the man upon whom it is directed. The Gospel morality of grace and redemption is the direct opposite of Kant’s formula: you must not act so that the principle of your action could become a universal law: you must always act individually, and everyone must act differently. The universal law is that every moral action should be unique and individual, i.e. that it should have in view a concrete living person and not the abstract good.

There are no simple answers

I don’t accept simple answers to the existence of pain and suffering, doubt, or evil. If someone tries to give a simple answer, they are probably wrong. Job’s Comforters made this mistake when they tried to convince Job he was suffering because he had sinned. As Michael Austin explains:

Much like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Job’s Comforters fear being contaminated by something theologically objectionable. The priest and the Levite do not want to risk ritual uncleanliness by touching a dead body. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar don’t want to risk the moral contagion of listening to Job’s blasphemous complaints against God. In both cases, the representatives of the orthodox religion choose abstract theological purity above the physical and spiritual needs of another human being. For both Jesus and the Job poet, it is the wrong choice.

Finding the truth will be hard. I like the image of Jacob wrestling with the angel, which Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains:

To be a Jew is to carry the name Israel, meaning one who ‘struggles with God and with men and prevails’. That name was born in one of the most haunting episodes in the Bible. Left alone at night, fearing the meeting he was about to have the next day with his brother Esau, Jacob wrestled until dawn with an unnamed adversary. As night faded and the first glimmerings appeared on the horizon, the stranger asked Jacob to release him. ‘I will not let you go until you bless me’ (Gen. 32:26), Jacob said.

That is the wrestling match each of us has to undergo when evil threatens or tragedy strikes. Faith is the refusal to let go until you have turned suffering into a blessing. At that moment Jacob became a different person with a new name.

Recommended books:

As I quoted from a lot of sources, and I mentioned how reading played such an integral part of my own wrestle, I wanted to include a list of books that have contributed to where I find myself spiritually today.

  • Every book written by C. S. Lewis (you can start with Mere Christianity)
  • Every book written by G. K. Chesterton (you can start with Everlasting Man)
  • Stages of Faith by James Fowler
  • The Crucible of Doubt and Wrestling with the Angel by Terryl Givens
  • Bonds That Make Us Free by Terry Warner
  • The Divine Center by Stephen Covey
  • Saints: The Standard of Truth
  • Conscience and Community edited by Robert Goldberg
  • God in Search of Man by Abraham Heschel
  • Learning to Like Life by George Handley
  • Re-reading Job by Michael Austin
  • Way Below the Angels by Craig Harline
  • Letters to a Young Mormon by Adam Miller
  • The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt
  • To Heal a Fractured World by Jonathan Sacks
  • David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory Prince
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • The Meaning of Persons by Paul Tournier
  • Mormon Scientist: The Life of Henry J. Eyring
  • Unspoken Sermons by George MacDonald

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