(Image used with permission from The Little Bug by Jackie Littman)
The church was my cocoon. Think not that I love it less because I ripped it open and burst free.
Well, here I am, on my way out of Mormonism. Never thought I’d get off that train (is it a boat now?), but looking back, it’s been a really good ride. Before the door hits me on the way out, there are a few things that shouldn’t be left unsaid. I offer these letters from a departing Mormon.
Do you realize how much power for good you have that is just sitting there, unused? Yes, there is the power of the purse that comes with being a human-corporation sole with enormous unused savings, but I’m referring to the unused power of your pen.
We both know that true Church History has been a skeleton in our closet, safely under wraps for years, but now finally breaking free on the Internet to terrorize you and me alike. That’s true. But get this. If I could wave a wand and change whatever I wanted, either in Church history or in current Church policy, guess what I’d choose? It’s easy. I’d choose current policy hands down. And here’s why. Because no matter how bad things may have been in the past, it’s the current Church that my family and I have to live with. But you, – you actually hold that wand!
I know this isn’t true of everyone, but I could forgive all that past messiness if I felt like the modern Church had learned anything from it. Apologies are nice too (please pass that on to Elder Oaks if you see him today). Heck, I wouldn’t have even gone looking in the past if I hadn’t been so disturbed by the present state of affairs (see my humbly-drawn cartoon below). In fact, I believe that past mistakes can be of great value, inasmuch as they are used to inform positive change and increased empathy. But I feel in my heart, that if this blog was a physical printing press, and if you thought you could burn it down with impunity, you would follow in the footsteps of our founder and do it on the spot! Another failed lesson of history: Mormons, of all people, are viewed as being among the least empathetic toward those who deviate from traditional marriage. There are too many ironies to number! We don’t seem to learn anything! Here’s what I think you’re missing: Dissent and criticism are a really good cure for institutional blindness, and our Church has a severe case of it.
So here’s what I’m suggesting. Open your heart to some of the criticism. At least make some space for faithful criticism that uses a softer approach than I am using here. Stop excommunicating dissent. Value it! There are lots of lists out there describing how things might be improved. I like this one. Please, use the power of your pen to make just a few positive changes!
Can you forgive me now for offering some sincere but harsh criticism, motivated not out of animosity, but out of hope for change? When my grandpa was alive, he once said that you “hadn’t had an original thought in [your] life.” He and I are still waiting, but that’s not to say that we don’t appreciate the other people’s ideas that you often quote from good literature. No need to despair regarding originality, however. In the words of my favorite songwriter Joe Pug, “As long as you’re not finished, you can start all over again.” General Conference is never more than six months away. Why not mix it up next time? Do something a bit crazy, hmm? Oh, and seriously, I love the facial expressions that you used to do, but I’m talking about something a bit more policy-altering-crazy.
One idea: issue a pardon to all of those conscientious objectors who have been spiritually cut off. Now that would go a long way toward eliminating the culture of fear that square pegs like me have been living under. Another idea: call someone as an apostle that doesn’t look, think, and act just like yourself. If the Church is experiencing a downturn in the market for souls, as it appears, maybe it really is time for some disruptive innovation. Playing it “safe” by electing board members who will double down on old policies may minimize losses in the short-term, but it looks to me like a recipe for eventual market collapse. Hire a Steve Jobs. Make that a black Steve Jobs. I sincerely hope that change is coming. But I, for one, can’t sit around to have my hopes dashed by yet another conference session.
You may view public calls for change as a sign that you are doing the right thing by resisting an “evil” world. Perhaps because of this idea, the Church wears its unpopularity like a badge of honor. But the truth is, anyone who takes a stand on issues of moral significance is going to be unpopular in one quarter or another. But Mormons like me – we want a church that is unpopular because it urges us to be morally ahead of society, not because it holds us decades behind. You will say that morality doesn’t change. That may be true, but for black people and those who prefer monogamy, clearly one visit from God and Jesus (Jesus alone? Only an angel?) wasn’t enough to achieve moral perfection. Why should we believe that we’ve achieved moral perfection only 200-or-so thus-saith-the-Lord-free years later? Stanford can only boycott so many BYU games per century, after all.
You may say that God will tell us when it’s time for change. Haven’t we been blaming Him for long enough? Clearly He’s let prophets mess things up in the past, so it looks like He’s kind of hands off most of the time. It may be too late to benefit me, but there are many others like me who wait in silence. I petition you on their behalf. Use your power! You are actually the only person on earth who can fix things.
I’m making choices right now that will alter your lives, perhaps for good, perhaps for ill. As it turns out, this part of parenting really sucks. Because although I’m doing my best, with every choice, I know I might be getting it wrong. For now though, that’s just the nature of things. But someday soon, I won’t have that much control over your lives anymore, and that’s a good thing. I want to do everything I can to prepare you to take over when that day comes. I want to empower you to make choices and learn from natural consequences while the price for your mistakes is still small. I want to help you keep alive your sense of wonder for the world around you. I want to challenge you day by day to be free thinkers, so that you will have the confidence you need when I quietly let go of the bicycle, and one by one, you ride away.
For a very long time, I thought that I could never make a good decision that went against something taught by a certain external authority figure. But then I found myself having followed that authority in a campaign to take away the right to marry from gays and lesbians. Everything that followed was the result of one choice: I didn’t shy away from examining my conscience. And when I did, I discovered that my external moral authority had failed me! That was the beginning of the end for my membership in the Mormon Church. It was the start of a painful journey in which I am still paying the price for my decision, but I’d do it all again for the lesson it taught me: The best source for moral wisdom is one’s own conscience.
Now, consciences can become miscalibrated if we’re not watchful. It’s good to continue to compare yours against those of others who think differently than you from time to time. But after careful reflection on important issues, always go with your conscience over someone else’s.
I hope these ideas will bring you greater happiness and spare you from some sources of unnecessary pain. For one thing, much happiness comes from living a life consistent with your values. You are free to do so. Also, you don’t need to punish yourself for victimless crimes. If you pay close attention, you will know if you or someone else is negatively affected by a decision. I agonized over a victimless crime for years, and didn’t realize that the horrible self-loathing I used to feel was given to me by the Church, not by Satan. As you learn to listen to your conscience and become informed, you will have no need to fear. When you do something that is actually bad, an examined conscience will make that clear to you, and you will still feel bad even when no one tells you it was a sin.
Perhaps your conscience will lead you to stay active in the Mormon Church. If so, remember that the Church is a contestant in the battle of ideas, not the referee. Sometimes you’ll need to send it back into its corner and remind yourself that you are calling the shots.
I hope that at some point you have the experience of serving a mission, though not necessarily the kind of mission that I served. Getting outside of yourself and focusing on something big and important for an extended period of time can be a huge growth experience. But there is one lesson my mission could have taught me that I didn’t learn until much later: that serving and interacting with others can and should make us more open and empathetic. I didn’t see it at the time, but I was part of a factory that was turning the 0.1% of the world’s most open-minded people into the 0.1% of the world’s most closed-minded people. If you ever get a chance to leave the country and be immersed in another culture, I hope you will spend more time listening than talking. I hope you would help those you meet to discover their own perfect path, and look to their differences as assets that can inform your own path. Never commit cultural genocide, even on the scale of a single human being.
There was a time when every night I would pray for my converts by name, asking God to help each one to stay “active in the Church.” Today, I just pray that they will find joy. And I hope that they will follow their light wherever it leads them.
I think an important question to ask throughout your life is this: how would things look if it turns out I’m wrong? I think this question should be asked even (or especially) when being wrong is almost inconceivable. It turns out that my old style of Mormonism looks pretty bad in that light.
So my advice is this: be the kind of Mormon (or Catholic or Jew or Muslim or atheist) that you would respect, even if it turns out that you were wrong in the end.
I think the virtue of uncertainty may be universally applicable. It bears good fruits in matters of religion, and even (or especially) in matters of science, where skepticism has been demonstrated as the most effective method for approaching the truth. But don’t throw out your faith; instead, use it as a bridge between your best current understanding and your longing for meaning. Never use faith as the asphalt of other men’s answers under which you pave your own knowledge.
I used to think that the world was just getting more and more wicked. The problem with this was that it gave me an excuse to not strive for progress and a better world. Now, like Martin Luther King Jr., I can see the long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice.
I will never choose your path for you. I’ll guide you to consider things, but you are free. So free. Enjoy it, very few people get a clean slate at such a young age. Everyone gets “one wild and precious life.” What will you do with yours? I hope that you really live before you die.
You are some of my heroes. I tried to be a reformer too, but I ran out of steam. I blogged for about a year as Martin Harris Luther, and maybe I influenced a few people from a faithful perspective (nothing like some of you have done), but I’m just not there anymore. The middle way is hard. Everyone has a different red line that you’re not supposed to cross, and so you never know when you’ll alienate or provoke someone else. You quickly find yourself in no-man’s-land, taking shots from people on both sides.
Terryl and Fiona, you make Mormonism beautiful. Unfortunately, you are way ahead of your time, and it was too hard for me to reconcile the faith of your books with my lived experience in the Church today. I hope the Church eventually catches up with you. If it does, I might find my way back someday.
Rock, you might be the only person who could have gotten me to think critically about my religion when I was just edging away from orthodoxy. You woke up my conscience, and for that I will always be grateful to you. I wish I could have continued to give Joseph a pass, but I reached a point where I just couldn’t any longer.
Denver, I started a few steps down the path you lit, but then I realized that I was just trading one form of extremism for another. It felt to me like jumping into a rebound relationship after a breakup and then looking in the mirror and realizing that I still hadn’t learned anything about myself. I don’t doubt that your path has been wonderful for many, but I think that trying to get a visit from Jesus would have led me into an unhealthy self-obsession. I realized that if I really want to see Jesus, instead of trying to conjure a vision, I would do better to try and see Him in the faces of the beggars and downtrodden all around me.
Kate, your cause spurred me into action. I did my best to prevent your excommunication, but it turns out that the deck is stacked against moral courage when it comes to stake presidents. Thank you for moving the needle toward progress for so many women in the Church.
John Dehlin, thank you for bringing me so many beautiful stories. More than that, thank you for sharing your own story, and for providing me with the resources I needed to help me on a very difficult journey.
Reformers, I couldn’t have made it as long as I did without you. I followed in your footsteps, but the space you occupy is exhausting to be in. As I was taking small steps away from orthodoxy, I would often think to myself, “Is this moment part of the highlight reel God will play for me when He escorts me into heaven, or into hell?” Because the truth is, it’s often not very obvious while the cameras are still rolling. But now I just can’t care anymore. I’m going to make those decisions that I can see are making me a better person and helping others here and now in this life. In the words of rock band Quiet Company, “I don’t want to waste my life, thinking about the afterlife.”
I get it if you dislike or even hate me, or if you just feel disappointed or sad. What I’m doing may feel to you like a betrayal. Maybe it is. But please believe me when I say that I didn’t mean to hurt you. I didn’t even mean to hurt the Church. Strange as it may seem, I feel like these difficult conversations are helpful for the Church, like how you’ve got to break some muscle down before you can build new and stronger muscles. But I could be wrong about that too. Maybe it’s just not my place. I am certain that I have made some mistakes in all of this. Maybe I actually have hurt the Church in some permanent way. If so, I hope you’ll at least believe me when I say that wasn’t my intent. That all said, if you feel betrayed, know this: I had to betray someone. If it hadn’t been you, it would have been a betrayal of myself. I made my choice.
I don’t expect this of you, but I’ll try not to take it personally if you don’t want playdates with my kids anymore, or if you unfriend me on Facebook. I only say this because I’ve seen things like that happen to others who have been down this path. I don’t condone it, but I can understand why someone might react that way. Whatever happens, I’ll try to assume the best in your motives, just as I’ve asked you to assume the best in mine.
You are welcome to try to “rescue” me, but know this: I’m only interested in a two-way exchange of ideas. If we talk, let’s both spend some time listening with open hearts. I like authenticity and vulnerability. If you do too, come on over. But be aware that being vulnerable is risky business if you like the status quo.
Lastly, just because this is my journey doesn’t mean that I think it should be yours. For many members, the Church is exactly where they need to be. I don’t think I’m any better, or smarter, or braver than you. Religion is very personal, and I will respect the way you practice it, so long as it does not diminish the rights or dignity of others. Going back to my opening illustration, not everyone is a caterpillar, but for those other future butterflies like me, I don’t want to be in the business of ripping off their cocoons. And no, I don’t think those who stay are just worms. How about birds? Beautiful birds that find strength in returning to the same nest time and time again.
I always thought I would be the one testifying when our years-long silence on religion was finally broken. But when the dam of our silence finally did break, it was you who taught me something.
You are so courageous. How on earth did you do this before there was an Internet? Before there were support communities, and when the stereotypes applied to those who leave were so much stronger? You might say I’m giving you too much credit, but I know you’ve paid a price for leaving. I, for one, never had to sit on the outside for your wedding, let alone for all of my siblings’ weddings.
When you left the church, I asked you if you still loved me. How asinine of me to call your love into question. You taught me that love is bigger than any belief system; as big at least, as God.
Until we talked, I had never contemplated the vicarious loneliness you felt upon seeing your young son rejected by those who fail to understand the teachings of what your son called the baby in the nest whose name sounds like cheese. He taught that our love should be blind, but instead we called our blindness love! I know your path hasn’t been easy, but I hope it helps for you to know that I am so inspired by you.
Okay, now the really hard part. I am so sorry. So sorry that when one of your twin babies died, mixed in there with my grief was a hope that your pain would lead you back to the Church. That idea is so abhorrent to me now. No God that I can worship would employ such means, no matter how worthy the ends. Agency can only let God off the hook for pain inflicted by one human on another. Not this. And so because I can only accept a God who is all-loving, I have to concede to believe in a God that is not all-powerful. I am only glad that I never said anything to you in an attempt to exploit your grief. I think I understand now why you couldn’t talk to me about it, why you couldn’t even open up for a long hug. Perhaps you were walking on a tightrope, and showing any emotion would have knocked you off of it. I’m so sorry that I wasn’t the kind of person who could let you open up without fear. But you were right, I wasn’t that kind of person back then. I hope that I am now. I love you so much.
I’m so grateful to already know that your love for me is unconditional. And what’s more, that the outward expression of that love is also unconditional. So many people in my situation don’t have that luxury. You have been so wise in your parenting.
I will never regret the spiritual heritage that you passed on to me. But I’m setting off on a new journey now. Fortunately, there’s room in my handcart to keep the good things I learned from Mormonism. That family comes first. The joy of service. The sense of wonder and the proximity of God. The idea that I’m the same kind of creature that God is. The belief that Zion and perfection are more than just ideas. The importance of finding one’s own spiritual voice and sharing it with others. That we should be generous with our money and time. Mormonism is part of the stuff I’m made of. That will never change.
But there are some things I can’t put in my handcart. I’ll tell you about one of them that is embarrassing to me now. Mom, one night, just a few years ago, I started writing a letter to call you to repentance because you didn’t adhere to my pharisaical standards. I honestly was worried that we wouldn’t be together in the Celestial Kingdom because of what you watched on TV and other things of that nature. I would wake up in the middle of the night and agonize about it. How shameful I would feel now if I had actually sent that letter to you. Maybe my problem with Mormonism was that I just believed it too much. That kind of certainty is something that I’m leaving behind. It wasn’t good for me. I now value ambiguity. It keeps me open and empathetic. It makes me a better person.
I’ve also got to say goodbye to the temple. When I went to the temple with you for the first time, one of the first things that I saw as beautiful was how the white clothes became a great symbolic equalizer: rich or poor, we all looked the same. I’m keeping that. But the sense of equality didn’t last for me. It started to crack when I noticed unsettling gender differences, and it completely crumbled when I learned some things about past changes and present but lesser known ordinances. Even if that weren’t the case, temple recommends can only extend equality so far. My prayer roll now includes the causes of gays and feminists. My prayer circle now welcomes Hindus and atheists. My new temple is the whole world.
I won’t be paying tithing anymore, but I’m keeping the idea of donating a tenth of my income. It’s just that now it goes to things like feeding hungry children and supporting lupus research. I’m grateful to the Church for teaching me to make sharing a priority.
My worst fear in making this transition is that it will be a source of pain or disappointment for you. I even thought about hiding it all from you to spare you any of that pain. But I want you to know that I will try to live the kind of life you can be proud of, and part of that means being authentic. Which is why I’m telling you now.
I hope you can see that so much of what I love in myself I learned from you. Thank you for being exactly the kind of parents that I need. If anything in this world is eternal, it’s the love we share.
I hope you’re there. If you are, I hope that you’re a Mother. If there can be more than one of you, I’d like a Father too. And Jesus. It’s okay with me if you can be all three in one being. I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m making a mistake. I’m confident that if you do exist, you won’t rip me from my family for eternity because I followed the conscience you gave me. I’m kind of starting over with you, so please be patient if it takes me a while to figure out what you mean in my life now. How about this: I’ll keep believing in you as long as that belief makes me a better person. Oh, and if you were behind the creation of gravity, good on you! Gravity is so cool!
I hope hindsight has validated this decision I’m making. If not, I hope that at least it was a good learning experience for us. I hope that you’ve become more holy, which doesn’t mean that you’ve become more like someone else, but rather, that you’ve become more and more like yourself. I sure like what I’ve discovered about you so far.
Whether things are better or worse for you, don’t doubt the decision I made. Change your mind if you find good reasons, sure, but know that this was the right decision at the time.
Most people don’t ever wonder what they would believe in if they hadn’t been trained from youth to live someone else’s ideology. I sure hadn’t. I had never even let myself go there mentally. But now that I’m free to explore my own convictions, I can’t wait to see where it takes me. I’m jealous in a way that you already know, but not knowing is sure a thrilling ride! I’ll meet you at the end.