A few months ago I left the Mormon church and started taking communion at my local Anglican parish. I haven’t been upfront about it in my last few blog posts which was disingenuous of me. If I continue to blog, I want to be completely honest about where I am in my spiritual journey. The last two posts here by Andrew S. and Hawkgrrrl have hit oddly close to home and I think this is a good time to “come out.” It’s for my own sake as much as anyone else’s as I try to make sense of this dramatic change in my life.
So why did I leave? It happened suddenly, but not entirely unexpectedly given that I’ve long held unorthodox beliefs. My wife had left the church a few months earlier. Part of me wanted to join her. I was driving home one evening, pondering the struggles I’ve had with the church over the years. In the past, whenever I’ve imagined leaving the church, I’ve recoiled in horror. In spite of the issues I’ve had with the church, it was always unfathomable to think of abandoning my heritage, my temple covenants, and all the people I served and sustained. I can hear the voice of Elder Holland echoing: “don’t you quit!” I was on the high council and a lot of members look up to me. I love so many things about the church and I love the people in it. The church has been good to me. I’ve felt the Spirit confirm the truths within it many times. How could I leave all that behind?
But this time as I thought of leaving, something changed. A great peace came over me, a feeling of total love and acceptance, an absolute assurance that if I left the church, God would stay with me. It was as powerful a feeling as I had ever had in my life, on my mission, in the temple, or giving priesthood blessings. I even felt the uniquely LDS description “burning in the bosom,” even as it directed me to leave my LDS faith behind. I had heard similar stories: my sister-in-law says the Spirit told her to leave the church while she was praying in the temple. Film director Richard Dutcher also claims the Spirit told him to leave. Now I was one of them.
As soon as I got home I called my stake president and asked to be released from the high council. He was shocked and distressed. I know that from his perspective, I was turning my back on exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom, abandoning my eternal family and rejecting my Father in Heaven. For a believing Mormon, it is beyond tragic. Yet though I recognised the incredible sorrow my words were causing, I was sustained by a strong spiritual assurance that I was doing the right thing. I’ve since had many discussions with my heartbroken parents, trying to come to some kind of understanding. But my experience represents an irreconcilable contradiction with their deepest beliefs. There is no room in LDS doctrine to accept it. At the end of the day, I must have been deceived. My father says I was just feeling excited about not having to live the commandments. My mother wonders if maybe I was confused by my emotions, like those BYU co-eds who receive revelations to marry the wrong person. But if my experience wasn’t real, then nothing else I have experienced spiritually in the church is real either, because the experiences were unmistakably the same.
So Why Did I Want to Leave?
I don’t think God would ever have told me to leave the Mormon church unless I really wanted to leave. So why did I want to leave so badly? Unlike many others, it was not over historical or political issues like homosexuality or polygamy. I was not chafing over the church’s authoritarian hierarchy. I hadn’t lost my testimony of its divine authority. I still believe it is a true church, if not the true church. My discomfort with the church has come from something more fundamental: it’s doctrinal literalism, absolutism, and materialism. The LDS church is all about “answers” and my life was all about “questions.” Socrates said, “the more one learns, the less one knows.” The apostle Paul criticises people who are “ever learning but never coming to the knowledge of the truth.” I was one of those “ever learning” people. The more I was learning, the less certain I felt about absolute truths. One might think that a lack of certainty is a terrible existential state, but for me it is inspiring. I love being surrounded by mystery and wonder, feeling wrapped up in incomprehension. Krista Tippet of the On Being podcast, says her two favourite words are “doubt” and “surprise.” Doubting your own ideas leads you to explore realities beyond your present state of understanding. It can bring spiritual connection with people who believe differently than you. Tippet’s ideal life is to “live the questions” as poet Rainer Marie Rilke admonished. It opens you up to a state of continual surprise, and surprise, as G. K. Chesterton says is mankind’s “chief pleasure.”
Please don’t misunderstand me, I believe the “answers” of the LDS church are very positive in their own sphere. Studies show that people who are more certain about things in life are happier and more successful. Doubt may open you up to new understandings, but it can also disconnect you from your personal sense of self and the collective morals of your tribe. Personally, I was feeling suffocated by the LDS answers. I felt called to doubt, empathy, surprise and questioning. But others are called to certainty, faith, advocacy, and mission.
Certainty Vs. Doubt
I’m being hypocritical you might say. I want to “live the questions” and embrace doubt. But I have no doubt about my revelation to leave the church. Isn’t that a contradiction? My parents ask: “Didn’t you have any doubts about your revelation? Didn’t you doubt your doubts?” Well, I admit I live in two worlds on this point. I embrace both spiritual certainty and the principles of doubt and surprise. The LDS tradition of saying “I know” as opposed to “I believe” is a gnostic principle, and I aspire to gnostic spirituality. Gnosis means “knowledge,” knowledge that comes from a personal encounter with God. An LDS testimony is not a statement of belief. Rather it recounts a spiritual experience which is understood as “knowledge,” not belief. And a testimony is knowledge, albeit knowledge of a spiritual nature.
However there is one important difference between the way that Mormons interpret their spiritual experiences and the way I interpret mine. I interpret personal revelation as subjective truth about the spiritual world inside of me. It tells me something about the intimate space my soul shares with God. Because it is subjective, its meaning could change, like Joseph Smith’s interpretation of his first vision did over the years. But Mormons interpret personal revelation as objective truth about the world outside of them. For a conservative Mormon, a revelation that “the church is true” means that it is God’s truth for the whole world. Interpreting one’s revelations universally may be important for nurturing faith, maybe even essential. But for me, personal revelations are personal. My personal revelation to leave the church doesn’t mean the church isn’t true for others. It has nothing to say about anyone else’s experience with God. It is for me and me alone. I articulated this theory in my blog post “All Revelation is Personal” which argues that all revelation, including revelation given to prophets, is personal, in the sense that it only becomes revelation for others as God gives confirmatory revelations to those others through His spirit.
I can’t blame Mormons for judging my departure as a grave error. If God reveals to someone that this is the only true church, then they are obligated to apply this understanding to me and everyone else. Mormons cannot but judge me and I honour their faithfulness to what has been revealed to them. We are destined to be at loggerheads. I blame God for this contradiction, not Mormons, for He is the one who gave us the paradigms by which we judge the world. But even though we may never see eye to eye, I know that Mormons will always be kind to me, waiting patiently for the prodigal to return to the faith. The love Mormons show softens the bitterness of our conflicting views. Overall the response from my LDS friends and family has been extremely loving. Many have reached out, trying valiantly to be non-judgemental, without guilt or pressure, letting me know that I will always be their friend and that the door is always open.
And not all Mormons hold universalist beliefs. The more liberal ones have been happy to accept my unique journey as perfectly valid. In a world that is becoming ever more diverse and interconnected, it is a beautiful thing to be able to accept differing paths while remaining true to one’s own. It’s a perspective embraced by many Jews, Catholics and Buddhists. As we advance further into the new Millennium, I wonder if Mormon culture will adopt more pluralistic attitudes to truth. (Not that pluralism doesn’t have it’s own drawbacks. Conservatism is as important as liberalism in the ongoing struggle to understand a complicated world).
About a year ago I wrote a post titled “Are you a Catholic Mormon or a Protestant Mormon?” I cited W. H. Auden’s famous quote “Truth is Catholic, the search for it is Protestant.” At the time, I claimed to be a Catholic Mormon because I accepted the authority of the LDS church and objected to the progressive “Protestant” advocacy of change in the church. My stance was a conservative one. Rod Dreher wrote: “Religious conservatives put their emphasis on the finding. Religious progressives put their emphasis on the search.” Ironically, by rejecting the “the finding” of LDS truth claims and embracing “the search,” proven that I’m actually a Protestant Mormon after all.
But religious authority is still important to me. Unlike most other apostates, I feel drawn to organised religion. I don’t want to be one of those “walking in his own way, after the image of his own God, whose substance is that of an idol.” I don’t want to go out and simply worship God “in my own way” or look for a church that happens to agree with everything I think. Organised religion challenges us to embrace commandments and traditions which transcend our own personal views. Embracing an organised religion with all its peculiarities is an act of humility in the face of realities greater than ourselves. It doesn’t necessarily matter what the peculiarities are. What matters is that they challenge us to enter into a path which we would not take on our own. An ecclesiastical structure is a powerful metaphor for God in the world. I’ve blogged before about the church as our spiritual “mother” and God as our spiritual “father.” An organised religion puts us in a parent-child relationship with God.
In the absence of a direct call from God to a particular religion, I have gravitated to the Anglo-Catholic tradition: Anglican, because I live in England and want to be part of an ongoing, centuries-old conversation between God and the English people, my ancestors. And Catholic, because I seek the authority of an ancient tradition. It’s not “the true church.” Its ancient buildings are filled with the scars of violence and evil: frightening medieval depictions of hellfire, Puritan iconoclasm, flamboyant monuments to wealthy patrons, beautiful organs alongside guitars and drum sets. It is a place to worship God and ponder our troubled relationship with Him. I don’t know if Anglicanism is my final destination. Maybe I’ll become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox one day. Or maybe God will lead me back to Mormon church. Perhaps He is doing just that in His slow, patient way, as I work through the “issues” that made me want to leave.
“That’s How the Light Gets In”
There is a lyric from Leonard Cohen that has been on my mind a lot during this change:
“Ring out the bells that still will ring,
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
I am a broken person and my offerings as a Mormon have been far from perfect. So for now I am going to forget the “perfect offering” of my LDS faith and embrace the brokenness of Anglicanism. My parish church has “bells that still will ring” and light still streams into its ancient crumbling vaults. We are slowly raising the thousands of pounds needed to fix a leak in the roof. When that is repaired, we’ll go on to the broken windows, then the cracks in the foundation, on and on, indefinitely.
I find this to be a beautiful metaphor, and one that could apply to the Mormon church as well. Perhaps the Mormon church is not as perfect in its doctrine, nor as exclusive in its authority as it claims to be. Maybe Mormon churches also have cracks in their roofs. Maybe the Mormon church really is the “Old Ship Zion,” with a leaky hull, and crew like myself jumping ship. But maybe these imperfections are not a sign of weakness. Maybe they are an invitation to stay and sacrifice, to raise money for a new roof, to stay in the ship to patch its leaks, steady its course, strengthen its cords.
Some Anglicans complain that their church leadership should sell off their old crumbling churches, consolidate congregations, and spend money in more worthwhile endeavours. But I believe there is great value in bearing with the church in its imperfections just as there is value in bearing in a marriage with its imperfections. At the end of the day, I think we realise that “there is a crack in everything and that’s how the light gets in.” I have abandoned the Old Ship Zion, and I’ve gone to help out in an even older and more dilapidated ship. I believe it’s the right decision for me. Neither the Mormon ship nor the Anglican ship is going to sink and I believe we are both on course to a similar destination.