Last week I talked about the results of John Dehlin’s recent survey that showed that a leading cause of people leaving Mormonism has become the ready access to church history information on the internet. Today I’d like to continue to evaluate the survey information.
Oh Ye of Too Much Faith
It seems that often those who are most hurt by learning different perspectives on church history are those who had a very high level of faith before. The principle of modesty is just as applicable to faith as it is anything else. We can be guilty of believing in something (or someone) too much. As Sterling M. Mcmurrin said in an interview: “I am not really disillusioned because I was never illusioned in the first place.” The question then becomes not “why are so many disillusioned?” but why are so many of us illusioned about what the church, Joseph Smith, and our leaders are? I believe that we transform leaders into ideals, and it is our deification of them that is untenable.
Oscar Wilde in an ideal husband makes fun of the notion that there is an ideal; he wants us to accept our follies and laugh at them. The play tells the story of Robert Chiltern and his wife’s disillusionment as she discovers that her husband is not as perfect as she once thought. At the moment of her disillusion Robert Chiltern says:
“There was your mistake. There was your error. The error all women commit. Why can’t you women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals? We have all feet of clay, women as well as men; but when we men love women, we love them knowing their weaknesses, their follies, their imperfections, love them all the more, it may be, for that reason. It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love. It is when we are wounded by our own hands, or by the hands of others, that love should come to cure us – else what use is love at all? All sins, except a sin against itself, Love should forgive. All lives, save loveless lives, true Love should pardon. A man’s love is like that. It is wider, larger, more human than a woman’s. Women think that they are making ideals of men. What they are making if us are false ideals merely.”
If we exclude the somewhat sexist notion about the difference between men and women’s love in the passage and see it as applicable to all, Oscar Wilde in this quote taps into a significant point about humanity. Wilde points out the fact that we all place people on monstrous pedestals, we place Joseph Smith, the church, and the leadership on these pedestals. We think that we are making them ideals, but the fact is they are only false idols. Of course, the leadership are complicit in the building up of these idealistic images of the past, and the present, but our belief in them is entirely our own; no one forces us to accept the images and interpretations of others and we must take ownership of the fact that we chose to believe too much. The problem with any form of idealism is that it invariably leads to disappointment.
When we idealise leaders, we trust them too much, and place too much faith on their words. These extremes of trust and faith lead to a greater level of disillusionment. As Richard Bushman observed:
“At the heart of this turmoil is the question of trust. Disillusioned Latter-day Saints feel their trust has been betrayed. They don’t know whom to trust. They don’t dare trust the old feelings that once were so powerful, nor do they trust church leaders.”
Similarly Teryl Givens said:
“The problem is not so much the discovery of particular details that are deal breakers for the faithful; the problem is a loss of faith and trust in an institution that was less that forthcoming to begin with.”
In both cases it can be easy to point the finger at the institution for not being open with their history, but we go to church not to learn history but to find meaning and spiritual fullfilment. Do we really expect the church to change the curriculum to include in depth historical studies? The feeling of betrayal is the result of high expectations and a high degree of trust both of which are unhealthy to place in an institution. This is not to excuse the church in other areas, but we should remember that it is first and foremost a religion, not an academic institution, and religions are fuelled by myths, not factually accurate scholarship.
Facts or feelings?
We don’t like to admit that most of our decisions are emotional reactions, we want something more tangible to validate our choice, we want to be rational more than emotional. Yet, often it is emotion rather then reason that guides us in our life. Facts in and of themselves do not cause someone to leave the church. Joseph Smith having multiple wives is not going to make every person leave the church; I have known about Joseph’s many wives my whole life, and it never made me want to leave the church. I always found it amusing that Joseph was a womaniser. It was something that we laughed about at our dinner table. The fact itself is not enough, but the feeling of betrayal at learning this fact through an outside means may be. It is not the fact but the feeling that leads to disaffection.
Many (including me) have a hard time admitting that our faith comes down to what makes us feel happy and makes us feel good. We need to attach a set of facts and proofs to it to make our position sound more substantial than it really is. It is not enough to say that we believe because it gives us a meaningful life, and makes us feel good; instead members want to make their faith more tangible and real by saying that they know it is true beyond a shadow of a doubt and by using historical events to bolster their statements. Similarly, it is not enough to say that people left the church because they were uncomfortable being involved with it still, because they were no longer happy there, because it made them feel hypocritical, they likewise need to validate these emotional reasons with facts; they need to invert the “I know it’s true” to “I know it is not true,” complete with truth or false claims to bolster their argument and make it sound based on fact, not feeling. This is not to say that historical and doctrinal issues don’t lead to disillusionment; in many cases it is a catalyst to raise awareness that can shatter a worldview that then leads to disaffection, but the material point is that history or doctrine on its own is not enough.
For those who ‘discover’ the real truth about the church’s history to admit to leaving for emotional reasons such as what makes them happy, or feel comfortable about (such as honesty and integrity), devalues the effort they put into their discovery of additional facts. It diminishes the significance of their personal study into the life of Joseph Smith, or theology. If you have spent several hours a day for weeks on end reading and listening to podcasts to try to work out the truth, to suggest that it is not important to your decison to leave makes you feel that your effort was worthless.
When we tell our stories we always do it in reverse of how we experienced it. We tell the beginning with the end in mind and the past is interpreted and given significance according to how we got to the point we are at today and our reason for telling the story. We should remember that every story can be told many ways, both church history and own own personal history. As the philosopher Mary Midgley reminds us:
“We always have a choice about the perspective from which we will look at human affairs, whether we will examine them from the inside, as participants, or from some distant perspective, and if so, which of the many distant perspectives will we choose… these points of view are not really alternatives but complementary parts of a wider enquiry.”
This only an exploration of one perspective as to why church history and Joseph Smith feature so heavily in John Dehlin’s survey of why people lose faith in the church. Of course, it is in the end only one of many perspectives, and is simply my speculation from my own perspective on why history and doctrine seem to rank highly amongst the disaffected. Hopefully when we look at the issue from many other perspectives we may understand more fully the situation of why people leave the church.