Faith, Fear and Fundamentalism

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I spent a good deal of my adult life being motivated by fear. I have always been a thoughtful person, someone who questioned and looked for context and nuance and meaning. However, I was raised in a social structure that had very prescribed ways to do, think and be. This was a conundrum for me for many, many years, and it created a dichotomy that I found very difficult to reconcile. In fact, I never have.

Polygamy has been a real spectre in my life. It’s not something I discuss an awful lot because it’s a real part of the real lives of people I really know and deeply care about, and, in reality, it is a very complex issue. However, I have strong opinions about it, and, while I do try to be fair in my assessment, I wouldn’t call them particularly positive. I still look at the influence that this belief has in my everyday life as the “other woman” in my marriage, even though there is really no one else. It is the thing that to this day makes me feel never quite worthy, never quite good enough. I guess that the easiest and kindest way to communicate this is that I fought very hard for several decades to find a way to fit into this box that was so necessary to my religious tradition. One of the scariest steps I ever took was to let myself admit that it wasn’t healthy for me, and I had to just say no to living that lifestyle. I vividly remember that day and the fear that accompanied it.

“What if I’m wrong?”
“What if I really will lose everything?”
“What if I have completely missed the boat here, and I will be alone forever?”

And, that’s the day that fear stopped holding the rudder of my life. Because once I faced those questions and contrasted them with the price I would pay for continuing to ignore my own heart in favor of messages whose sources I wasn’t confident in – because, hey, what if? – it became abundantly clear that I must take the risk. I would rather live in a way that felt true to my spirit and be potentially alone than to follow someone else’s agenda out of fear. I ugly cried for an entire day and half the next, afraid that my husband would leave me, but I have had peace in that decision from that day forward. (I wish that I could say that I haven’t succumbed to the fear again, but I have. The difficulty this causes in my marriage can overwhelm me on bad days.)

I’ve heard people talk about the Mormon traditions surrounding the afterlife as “sad heaven” because the fear message of separation from friends and loved ones if you go off-script is so prevalent. (In fact, it was strongly reiterated from the pulpit of LDS General Conference just this last weekend.) Mormonism is built upon the principles of agency and personal responsibility as well as a strong emphasis on knowing the truth for yourself. Yet, if you don’t follow the herd in lock step or your revelations aren’t the right ones, we’re told that you will be not only damaging yourself but damning your family unit. I find these messages difficult to reconcile. I think, in fact, that they are quite contradictory and it’s not really possible for religious people to have it both ways. Is God’s priority our heart even if he has to wander the wilderness to find it? Or, is God’s priority following the rules even if our heart isn’t really in it?

I talked last week about how we teach each other how to be better and how grace and connection are the currency of persuasion. I am really not sure why this approach often seems to not translate in religious structures because human nature doesn’t change based upon our environments – it’s quite universal and consistent. I get that motivating with fear works, at least for some people and for a time – it did for me. But, it was temporary. It was an empty faith that owned me more than me embracing it. It wasn’t authentic let alone powerful.

I don’t know what it takes to bring people back to religion because I’m not there. I would imagine that it is unique to each individual and that, for some, a different path will always be more healthy for them. I can say that it isn’t fear and judgment and shame. Those things brought me to my faith crisis, and when I put them down by the roadside, it was a blessed and blissful relief. When I recognize them around me, I shy away in concern that they will overwhelm my life again. What I can say is that, if I ever do change my perspective and decide to participate in religion again, it will not be motivated by fear. You cannot be bludgeoned back into the fold, but I think you can be loved back into the fold.

I am under no illusion about the certainty of my position – I know I could be wrong. However, I believe in a God that knows my heart and knows that my life choices continue to be made in integrity. I am doing the best I can with the knowledge, information and resources that I have. I believe that God wants my heart above all else and that the wilderness is likely the only place we can meet. I no longer fear that.

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Wait – Are You a Mormon? Or What?

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I’m sorry I missed posting last week! That’s a first since I started the blog, but I was really sick with a bad cold/sinus thing, and something had to give. We’re all on the upswing now!

This blog is a sometimes awkward space for me. I originally started it completely on a whim as a way to speak to people who I actually know in real life, and I have sometimes written in a way that assumes the reader has at least some basic context. However, a good part of the readership growth does not fit into this category, and I find that the missing details sometimes cause confusion. Hopefully, I can do a better job of providing context, starting with today’s question. Am I Mormon?

While this seems to be a simple question, it’s kind of not. The answer is both yes and no. I was raised as a member of the AUB or Apostolic United Brethren which is a fairly liberal-leaning Mormon fundamentalist church, so I have never been on the rolls of the mainstream Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I was, however, baptized as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because that’s how fundamentalists do that – there’s no “AUB baptism” or “FLDS baptism.” I also attended the modern LDS church for portions of my teen years and was probably more active as a non-member than a lot of my officially-baptized peers. I heard John Bytheway speak live at a stake youth conference in my father’s California ward when I was an older teen, played ward basketball and had plenty of bishop’s interviews. (Non-members have to have a new interview for every activity because guest recommends are one-time use.) In addition, my own church culture was pretty much identical to the mainstream church down to the manuals we used, except there was also polygamy. So, yes, I’m very Mormon while no, I’m not considered a member by many in the LDS church.

For many years, I hated this question, dodging and avoiding it. I felt embarrassed by my background and, frankly, found it very complex to answer. If I said “no,” it was completely overlooking the fact that I have deep-rooted cultural context in Mormonism. I have maternal family that goes all the way back to the first Mormon converts in England. My family was born, married and died in Nauvoo and on the trek west. (Not the same ones at the same time – ha ha!) I was raised on LDS primary and Sunday school, learning the same things from the same resources as my member schoolmates in Utah. On the other hand, answering “yes” in my circumstances felt dishonest and like I was pulling one over on people. While my husband thoroughly enjoyed engaging with missionaries that came to our door, I hated it and avoided it at all costs. Because, really, what do I say? Having any kind of open conversation required a level of transparency that I was just not comfortable with among strangers.

Taking my place as someone who has a rightful place at the table of Mormonism with something to add to the dialogue has been an interesting journey. Some of my first deep research I ever did into the history of Mormonism related to polygamy because it was a pretty huge catalyst for me (for some strange reason – ha!) In the process, I discovered the Year of Polygamy podcast and Lindsay Hansen Park who is now one of the top researchers on the history of polygamy and fundamentalist culture. I remember the first time I heard her interviewed (and I really hope this is the right one!) One of the things that struck me the most was her assertion that the entire spectrum of Mormon thought belonged at the table, and the mainstream church had neither the power nor the right nor the ability to insist that the conversation be a vacuum that they determined. This honestly blew my mind. It was the first time that I had heard someone who came from a mainstream LDS background say that my story was part of the picture and valuable and worthy of seeing light. As someone who was pretty traumatized as a child by LDS friends that were forbidden to associate with me when their parents heard about my background, this was a Big Deal and changed my perspective significantly. It continues to shape my approach to my engagement with Mormonism today.

So, I am a Mormon, culturally. I do have a Mormon Story, you could say. When I talk about things that are pretty consistent across all Mormon society, I don’t always even discuss the fact that I have a more complicated history. However, I do bring up the complexity when it’s pertinent to what I’m discussing, so you’ll also hear me talk about my fundamentalist background and the things that are unique about it. I apologize if that’s sometimes confusing for people – especially those of you who are not versed in the complexities of Mormon culture as a whole. Hopefully, this will clear that up and provide some context.

 

 

Belief and the Color Blue

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Untangling the webs that weave together through your life is an interesting process. What do you believe? Why do you believe it? But, one of the most interesting questions that I have chewed on over the last few years is this one – “Is belief a choice?” There are dozens of talks and articles in Mormon vernacular that suggest that choosing to believe is synonymous with looking for the good in things. Doubters are painted as Negative Nellies. I have come to believe, however, that belief isn’t a choice at all.

Let me explain using an analogy (because we all know that I love them.) If you were to look at the photo that I chose today, what color would you say it is? Blue? What if I were to tell you that, historically, there is no word for blue in any ancient language? I’m not suggesting that blue did not exist. I think one would be hard pressed to prove that the sky has changed as history has progressed – it’s most likely exactly the same as it’s always been. Still, for hundreds of thousands of years, people did not distinguish blue. This is incredibly bizarre, I know. I have no idea what color people called the sky or ocean or blueberries. But, it wasn’t blue.

Imagine living in a world where blue wasn’t recognized. (For the sake of our analogy, let’s make the assertion that all other colors were known.) I suspect that some blues would get lumped in with green or purple while others might even lean grey or black. This would be the norm – the paradigm held by everyone in society. If you were to pick yourself and plop yourself down in 800-something in a community that didn’t know blue, could you cease to see it yourself? If you were persecuted for being someone who saw blue, could you make yourself fit into a paradigm that no longer saw it for the sake of conformity? (If you could, I don’t think it would be good for your mental health to be that disconnected from your actual reality.)

In my experience, belief is like the color blue. Either you do or you don’t. Either you interpret available information based upon what you know and see it one way, or you pull from other information that makes you distinguish it differently. Belief is based upon your background, the way you think, the way you see and interpret evidence and your life experience. If you don’t see blue, you don’t. If you see it, no amount of mental gymnastics can make it disappear.

I believe lots of things about lots of different subjects. Many of my beliefs have changed over time as I have learned new things or understood things differently. Some of my beliefs have not shifted much at all as my life has progressed. While I can certainly choose to not explore any new information on any particular subject and be more likely to keep my beliefs from altering, I can’t actually choose how I believe about something. My brain either sees it one way or sees it the other based upon what information I have available to me.

I’d like to take credit for this light-bulb moment like it was my own little glimmer of genius, but it turns out that this is a long-discussed question, and I’m not even particularly original in my conclusion that you can’t choose what you believe. When I did a quick search of “Is Belief a Choice” for this blog, there was a variety of perspectives that ranged from religious discussions to psychological approaches all of which are quite interesting and worth consideration.

I understand that the way we feel about belief is, well, a belief. I understand that it can be incredibly frustrating to have a loved one or friend believe differently than you about something fundamental (boy, do I ever!) In my experience, people don’t upset the apple cart on purpose, especially when they’re riding in it. If you find yourself in a situation where you just want to blow a fuse in frustration because you can’t get through to someone, I invite you to take a deep breath, look up at the sky and squint your eyes until it becomes green. Just kidding – do it until you remember that we’re all unique and understand the world differently based upon our own unique experiences, and then rejoin the conversation with fresh eyes (maybe even blue ones?)