07 March 2010

Why Suddenly Give Up On The Church?

Talking with someone not long ago, he asked me why, after all this time, I would "suddenly" give up on the church and the gospel in general by distancing myself in almost every way possible. There was more to the conversation, but for now, I'll focus on this question. At the time, I just told him it wasn't nearly as sudden as it must seem. I said it wasn't a casual decision, and I wouldn't call it "giving up" as much as acknowledging I just hadn't believed it for a long time and had lost many reasons to keep attending church or to keep choosing to trust what I'd felt years ago but about which I hadn't felt any real confirmation in the last several years and which had stopped making sense or seeming necessary for positive and productive perspective and living.

There's a flipside question I've gotten from other people, too: why didn't you get your butt out of there way sooner? Maybe some of the following thoughts might articulate some answers to both of these questions.

I have experienced, in the past, nagging questions I couldn't find answers to, and I got frustrated about that. I studied and researched and talked to parents and church teachers, and I got answers that partially satisfied but left me a bit flat. I couldn't make sense of some things, and I didn't know how the church could be true given this or that historical fact or doctrinal twist I'd not been aware of before. The bulk of this took place a couple of years before my mission. Eventually, I realized that I have a limited perspective and knowledge, and if God knows all and wants us to become like him, then one day we may know, and today is surely not that day. Just as I can't explain calculus to a student struggling with algebra, surely I was not ready for all things universal while such a spiritual infant. I placed some questions on the back burner, found satisfactorily temporary responses or coping beliefs regarding others, and carried on with faith in what I had felt and what I did believe. I trusted that one day, even if not until the next life, I might understand some of the seeming unanswerables. The church wasn't perfect, I had learned, nor its leaders, but the gospel was, and the Spirit's whispers were all I needed to keep going, to keep believing, and I found happiness in doing so and focusing on the positive things I did believe while letting go of some more troubling questions. No sense being troubled about things I probably couldn't know anyway and looking for faults with a religion which taught such wonderful doctrines I hadn't seen anywhere else but which, more importantly, had rung true in my heart and mind and brought feelings of peace, joy, longsuffering... Besides, being active in the church and serving and building friendships based on gospel principles brought so much happiness that I wanted to share that with everyone. I needed to spend my time learning and sharing the doctrines which could bring people joy rather than dwelling on the earthly foibles of the institution.

I have experienced, in the past, bitterness and frustration at attending church. I've experienced feeling viscerally repulsed by what was spoken over the pulpit by well-meaning but ignorant or misguided members preaching philosophies of men mingled with scripture and knowing most people were so steeped in traditional culture that they'd never question it, despite the unnecessary strife and misunderstanding it would surely promulgate. I've known what it's like to sit in the congregation and marvel that so many showed extreme insensitivity and lack of understanding towards those with real problems and struggles. The A student lamenting their stressful homework week, the Molly Mormon gnashing her teeth over the fact that she couldn't stay on top of cleaning her already-immaculate house, or the wealthy couple imparting their inspiring story about how they were able to buy a home far beyond their needs and thanking the Lord for blessing them with opulence. In those times, I reminded myself that I may be misjudging their words, that not everyone will or should publicize their biggest problems at the pulpit, that I needed to refrain from judging them just as I'd want them to refrain from judging me, and that the smaller lessons in life are valuable too, that there was beauty in the idea of a God who cared to comfort His children even in the smaller things. I told myself I was feeling understandably frustrated that they seemed so clueless that some people have real problems, but I was partially to blame for shielding them from my own, assuming they wouldn't or didn't care to understand them or offer real support. How could I expect from them what I wasn't willing to do myself? I can't fault the ward for not making me feel free to be open and "real" when I'm not ready or willing to take the lead. I reminded myself that we all have emotional reactions, and feeling angry or frustrated when going to church is no reason to stop going, just as feeling angry or frustrated in a relationship is no reason to walk away from someone. "Stay," I told myself, "and get through this, and see what's on the other side. Don't leave while you're upset."

I have experienced, in the past, extreme difficulty dealing with local church leaders and their personal foibles and communication, to the point that I nearly left a particularly fire-and-brimstone, priestcrafty stake conference. I walked outside, breathed some fresh air, and reminded myself that the people and the doctrines are not the same, that local leaders sometimes do or say things the Lord would not have them do or say, that they may be there for their own personal growth and growth of the members, and that sooner or later, we're all bound to butt heads with our leadership or even catch them in wholly unholy behavior, but that's no reason to sour our relationship with the church as a whole. If God called a biblical prophet who sinned grievously, then surely free will allowed stake presidents to completely screw up in certain ways while in their callings. And if I was feeling so angry that I had to leave, perhaps there was an insecurity or defensiveness on my part which I needed to figure out or learn from, and running away probably wasn't the way to confront and resolve it. Perhaps I was missing something. Perhaps his flaws were magnified beyond all reason by my own pride and personal feelings. I needed to exercise patience. I went back in and tried to listen, but it was extremely difficult. I took a few breaths, reminded myself to be calm, to be open, to humbly and prayerfully open my heart and look past his words to the message the Lord would have me hear. At that prayerful moment, a line from my patriarchal blessing boldly flashed into my mind, a line which had previously always left me scratching my head a bit but which now made complete sense and was perfectly applicable to this very situation. It came with a rush of familiar "spiritual confirmation" I'd not felt for some time. Though I was left with questions around my newly shifted paradigm and its ramifications, that particular issue was resolved, and I was able to relax for the rest of the tediously boring conference confident I had the Lord's sanction to listen, consider the message beyond the imperfect delivery or personal bias of the man, and make my own decision (presumably prayerfully) even if it was not what the stake president would want or thought correct. Problems with priesthood leaders bothered me much less after that.

I have experienced, in the past, a desire to get out from under what some regard as the oppressively controlling church "rules" and culture. Even though there's little or nothing about the church's standards of behavior which conflicts with my own values and desires for my life (possible exception being same-sex partnership), I wanted to know that I was making decisions of my own accord and not to conform to social pressures or to earn the praises of men (priesthood leaders, ward members, and friends and family). But I recognized that there is danger in removing one's self from a stable community of support and accountability, and it wasn't worth trading that stability for some self-serving sense of "freedom" which might be gained by turning away from that and could result in self-destructive patterns. Besides, what did I expect to do? Go start sleeping around and doing drugs and lying and stealing and killing puppies? Or more realistically, try coffee? Date guys? No, I wasn't convinced I even wanted to do those, with or without the church (that's another post).

Unanswerable questions, flawed humanity of leadership, cultural frustrations, and rigid strictures were not enough to convince me to leave the church. Church activity was about commitment, covenants, service, and eternal truth. None of these things mattered if the message, culturally influenced though it may be in some ways, was true. If the gospel was true, if Joseph Smith restored Christ's church, if the Bible and Book of Mormon and other "canonical works" were God's word, then the institutional foibles of a church run by imperfect men were no reason to walk away. Besides, if I was going to walk away, it wasn't going to be in the middle of strong emotional reactions to cultural flaws or while I had a nasty stake president who would then surely dismiss my departure as my own pride keeping my from being humble before my priesthood leaders.

I had wholeheartedly believed in the doctrines of the church and the divine guidance of its "restoration" and revelation. I had had what I regarded as spiritual experiences confirming its truth. I had spent years of my life investing in the church and its ordinances and teachings, and I had made solemn covenants in what I'd regarded as holy places, and I refused to walk away from those on anything resembling a casual basis. I couldn't set that aside as if it were no big deal. It was huge. If those covenants were sacred and binding, going back on them by removing myself from "the kingdom" would be a huge decision. While I recognized I couldn't make decisions based on fear of the mere possibility that they're true based on past confidence, and I didn't respect those people who did things not because they believed them but because they were "fire insurance", I simply didn't see a reason to turn away from what I'd once been so sure of and what could be of utmost eternal significance. No, the obedient status quo was better than a misguided attempt at authenticity.

It took more to finally decide to step away.

It took years of not "feeling" (or only incidentally feeling) the truth of doctrines despite feeling "the spirit" or "resonance" or "comfort" or "familiarity" or "belonging" or whatever I occasionally felt at church meetings. It took questions that weren't just unknowable mysteries but became increasingly valid and applicable to here and now and weren't just a lack of answers but were apparent errors in logic or were contradictions I'd not found resolution for but which did have reasonable explanations outside of LDS doctrine or other religious creed. It took admitting there were crucial problems or cognitive dissonance I'd refused to fully acknowledge and deal with previously, much as I'd refused to acknowledge my homosexuality for so long. They weren't even partial answers satisfactory enough to appeal to reason without any spiritual confirmation to back them up, despite prayers for such. It took gaining perspectives and experiences which challenged my paradigms as well as those of the institutional church and even the core doctrines as I understand them (which I may not understand any better than the next guy, I admit). It took seeing how many doctrines have underlying principles and values and that those principles and values are espoused and embraced in a myriad of ways by innumerable people with apparently similar results in happiness, peace, and hope, with or without the same doctrinal beliefs. It took letting go of fear of choosing "unrighteously" or "incorrectly" and focusing on choosing the best I know how. It took...a lot of things.

It came after years of forcing myself to go to church when I had no friends there and didn't "get anything" from it. It came after years of trying to read scriptures but repeatedly stopping because I couldn't stop seeing holes in history, doctrine, or logic despite praying to get past those things and stay open to truth beyond perceived errors which could be my own limited or tainted understanding, and not reading the scriptures seemed more testimony-building than reading them. It came after years of praying with a vague notion I was speaking to myself in meditation which was helpful but not divine or mystically cosmic, and "feelings" which could be spiritual communication with God but which now seemed more like my own desires and need for comfort, my own effort at resolution. It came after years of reminding myself that going to church isn't just about me "getting something" but giving service, remembering gospel principles and teachings, offering sacrifice of time and energy, standing in holy places, renewing covenants, and attending meetings and activities with those things in mind. It came after years of waiting to see if I could rekindle the old flames of testimony but getting only an occasional flicker, which could usually be explained in ways other than a spiritual communication from God telling me the institutional church was his, and the president of the church was his authoritative mouthpiece for the world. It came after years of wanting to believe but not being able to, and eventually not feeling the need to.

It was time to step back and consider the possibility that though I used to believe it was true, I might have been incorrect. It was time to see what life would be like without it. Could it be worthwhile? Could it be happy? Could there be meaning? Did there even need to be meaning? Is there goodness? How can you define goodness? Surely there would be more questions, different kind, but would they feel as much like mental gymnastics as LDS doctrine had become? Could my spiritual, psychological, and interpersonal experience, as well as observations and logical conundrums, fit any better into a different paradigm, and vice versa? Would logic seem less contorted? It was then that I decided to live as an agnostic man for a while, letting go of the fear of doing so (with its social and religious, and possible but seemingly improbable eternal consequences), and the commitments I'd made to consecrate my life to the kingdom of God, to see if I could find some truth by experiment or juxtaposition, since prayer hadn't been doing the trick.

The funny thing is I still think like a believing Mormon in many ways: for example, perhaps I wasn't receptive to answers to prayer. Perhaps I was hard-hearted, clouded by philosophies of men which attracted my soul away from an eye single to the glory of God. As much as I think homosexuality and loss of testimony have been independent in my life, maybe I focused more on my sad state in life than on the blessings of eternity and thereby disconnected myself from the Spirit and therefore from the source of all faith and spiritual answers. Or perhaps I just needed to learn in a different way, take a path God knew I'd need to take to arrive back where I needed to be, a learning experience more catered to my needs and my way of learning than a simple "yes". Maybe I already knew and just needed to keep keeping the commandments and forgiving human frailty in the church and would eventually be eternally grateful I had when I realized I'd known it all along. Maybe I didn't have answers because I was tutored enough to learn that there is rarely a strict "yes" or "no" and that was why I wasn't getting one. Maybe several years wasn't enough patience for answers of eternal import. But maybe...maybe there was nobody to answer. Maybe I'm taking my life's reins into my own hands (which, yes, is probably prideful if there's a God who wants me to hand the reins to him for my own happiness' sake), learning to live by my own compass, and embarking on a new and rewarding journey.

I don't know. Maybe I'll let you know how it goes.

Disagree with my decisions and perspective if you will, but don't demean or dismiss my experience with such trite words as "sudden" or "giving up". You don't know the half of it.


MoHoHawaii said...

I have never met a man who made it from youth to age 45 as a celibate gay Mormon fully active in the Church.

There are lots and lots of 25-year-old men in this category, and you see the occasional person who perseveres to thirty-five. By 45 no one's left.

It's as if there's some kind of built-in term limit for men on the celibate gay Mormon role. Most leave the Church or at least quit participating; a few enter into mixed-orientation marriages at ages greater than the standard LDS marrying age.

Many others have traveled this road, as frustrating as it is. You're not alone in this. You articulate well the reasons why it works this way.

Mister Curie said...

A very insightful post. Thanks for sharing. Since my disaffection I have definitely found a decrease in the mental gymnastics and that the world fits much better in my new paradigm. The logic is definitely less contorted.

Bravone said...

I respect you and your journey. You know my story. I distanced myself much farther from the Church than you have. I have slowly found peace again in the Gospel. I still have questions and doctrines that I do not understand, and may never have some of the answers I seek.

I used to mock the 'feelings of the spirit.' Now I know that I can rely on the feelings of the spirit, sometimes they are the only things I can trust.

I am in the process of posting my thoughts on God, Spirituality, Religion, the LDS Church and where I fit as a gay son of God. Right now I'm hung up on the religion post. It has been in rough draft form for some time. The LDS Church post will not be easy either.

Do I believe one can be happy and live meaningful lives outside the Church and outside of religion in general, absolutely.

Do I believe the place for me is within the Church, weaker absolutely. The history of any church or religion is a bit suspect to me. If one has troubles with the LDS Church, try making sense out of the doctrine of other churches. I suppose it is why it was so 'easy' for me to have no belief than believe in any other church or religion.

I do believe that, for me, living the teachings of the LDS faith, allows me an amazing opportunity to learn more about and implement the teachings of Christ.

Again, I respect you, and know you well enough to know that you haven't made rash decisions about something of such importance. I also have confidence that you will continue to live a life of integrity. Safe journey my friend.

D-Train said...

Gee, MoHoHawaii makes me feel lame for not even making it to 25. =)

In regards to the question about why you did not get out sooner, I think it's like coming out of the closet; everyone has to do it when they are ready and on their own terms. As much as I would love to save all of the younger moho's years of personal anguish and torment, they have to arrive at that conclusion on their own.

Since making the decision to leave Mormonism for myself, I have gone through the most enlightening period of my life. I have grown stronger and more open-minded, and my capacity to love as a human being has grown more than I ever imagined possible. For me, it was interesting to realize that when I belonged to the LDS paradigm, that I truly was unwilling to look at most things objectively, because I already had a preconceived notion of how things ought to be. In many ways, I feel like I am just beginning to progress as a person.

Jon said...

Very nice post. I think one of the many things members of the church don't get right is assuming that people leave the church simply because of pride and a loss of the spirit. There's a real spirit of condescension (and not the good kind) in that assumption. For so many that leave (including you) it is a true act of courage and intellectual and emotional integrity.

MoHoHawaii said...

D-Train, don't feel lame. The basic model is that 20% of gay Mormon men leave the celibate-but-goes-to-Church category every year. This means that if you start with 1,000 gay Mormon 15-year-old boys, about 100 will still be active by the time they are 25. Of those, about 10 will be active by age 35. About 1 out of that original 1,000 will make it to 45, but he won't stick around until he's 50.

(This is a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it fits the anecdotal evidence I've seen.)

Also, of those 1,000 15 year olds, a substantial fraction will enter mixed-orientation marriages before age 30. Although those marriages have a much greater than average chance of eventual dissolution, I would guess that church activity is quite high in this group. You can see this online in the MoHo community. At ages above 30, the vast majority of gay men who are active in the LDS church are married to women. I don't see this changing.

Amy said...

Though I've reached different conclusions than you have, I really appreciated what you said. It was sincere, thoughtful, and mature. Well done.

Original Mohomie said...

Mr. Curie, so far, I'm experiencing something similar.

Hawaii, an old acquaintance of mine told me not getting married by a certain age is sure to lead to social delinquency, presumably just among men, though. And I once was cautioned, while still in my teens, that guys who make it past 30 being single typically end up inactive. I hate to confirm people's notions as if there's some sort of magical cause-and-effect, since I quite disagree, but I guess they can consider me another case-in-point.

Bravone, D-Train, & Amy, thanks for your input.

Jon, thanks, and I agree. Except I do also recognize that even wrong decisions made with courageous or upright motives are still wrong decisions. :-)