Saturday, December 6, 2014

Why I Stopped Outsourcing my Spirituality: Part 2

Continued from Part 1

Making the Mistakes that Matter

Is there danger in trusting your own conscience?  Absolutely; as humans we are prone to make mistakes, and our moral compasses can get miscalibrated at times.  But I now feel a conviction that it is even more dangerous to trust our moral decisions to another human being, even a very good one. We are going to make mistakes.  We’ve got to just get over that.  The question is: will we make the mistakes that matter – the mistakes that we came here to make in the hope that they would ultimately advance our spiritual development?

In a recent Elders Quorum lesson, we were discussing the spiritual analogies in one of President Monson’s most recent conference talks that related the story of the sinking of the Bismarck.  There was much conversation about what the broken rudder represented, what the sails represented, and what the lighthouse represented.  A nice little formula seemed to be emerging: If we want to get back to the lighthouse with God, we have to set our rudder according to the words of the prophet, and the winds of the spirit will give us strength to arrive there safely.  Ever since I was released as quorum president last summer (whew), I’ve felt more freedom to stir the pot every now and then.  This was one of those times.  I raised my hand and said something like this.
What are we doing in a bunch of boats floating around here anyway? (I knew better than to ask why we were all vessels of war).  Didn’t we all start out at the lighthouse?  If our goal was to be there, it seems like we could have just stayed.  No, I don’t think the point is to just get to the lighthouse.  I think the point is to become good sailors.
This resonated with the class, and my thoughts were well received.  I knew I had pushed enough, but not too much.  What I had left unsaid probably wouldn’t have been met with the same approbation.
If I am ever going to be a good sailor, I’ve got to be the one holding the wheel.  I may get to the destination faster and encounter less waves by letting someone else steer, but I will never become a master of the sea that way.  No one is as invested in this boat as I am, because if it goes down, I’m the one who’s going to drown.  Even the prophet isn’t allowed to steer my boat.
What it comes down to for me is this: I would rather do the wrong thing for the right reason than the right thing for the wrong reason.  In the former case, I maintain my integrity and eventually gain indelible knowledge.  In the latter case, I learn nothing and lose my self-respect in the process.  I need my mistakes, but only the ones that I freely choose while striving to follow God.  

I now see clearly that if I had never questioned my support of Proposition 8, it would have been the wrong kind of mistake, because even if, in the end, it turns out that it was the right thing to do, I had done it for the wrong reasons.  If I had silenced my doubts, I wouldn’t have learned anything about myself and my ability to navigate life’s murky questions.  In rejecting the get-out-of-jail-free card of following the prophet, I took ownership of my own choices and finally accepted the joint package of risks and blessings that came when I realized I could actually be wrong.  

In deciding for myself whether to come out in support of same-sex marriage, I had to confront the possibility that no matter what I chose, I could be wrong.  If I ended up supporting same-sex marriage, but was wrong, I imagined my conversation at the judgment bar with God.  I would have to explain why I was too empathetic, too willing to see things from the gay’s point-of-view.  That I wasn’t faithful enough because I wanted to see evidence that my family (or any family) would be harmed before depriving other families of the emotional stability of a legally committed relationship.  I think I’m ready to have that conversation.  The conversation I am not ready to have, however, is the one where I decide to oppose same-sex marriage and then find out I was wrong.  I can’t imagine explaining to God why I thought I was justified in causing deep hurt and suffering to thousands of people, on the fear-based speculation that marital stability is a zero-sum game, and that increasing the stability of same-sex relationships will somehow undermine the stability of heterosexual ones.  That my “maybe someday hurt” is of greater concern than another’s “actual today hurt.”  I just can’t face the possibility that I would have to look at Christ and tell him that I thought he would understand why I felt that following the golden rule wasn’t as important as following the leader.  So I made a choice: I came out to my friends and family as an LGBT ally who supports same-sex marriage.

I contend that no matter whether I am right or wrong, I was fulfilling the measure of my creation in the very act of making a difficult choice in the face of two negative possibilities.  I think this is the very furnace where moral fiber is formed.  And as long as I can keep my heart honest and open to conflicting information from both physical and spiritual sources, I think I will be learning what I came here to learn, even when I make mistakes.

Other Ways We Outsource

At some point I realized that my morality wasn’t the only thing I had been outsourcing to the Church.  I had also come to rely almost entirely on the Church for my acts of charity, and as a consequence I wasn’t becoming a very charitable person.  This is a topic worthy of a separate post, so I won’t go into detail here other than to point out that I found myself deducting tithing electronically from my paycheck at the same time as I was averting my glance from beggars on the street.  This isn’t to say that the Church is always the problem.  In fact, the Church provides unique opportunities for meaningful charity and service.  The problem is when we stop taking ownership of our own need to develop spiritual traits.  The Church is a tool on our spiritual journey, not the destination.

Other things I had been outsourcing to the Church included my understanding of what it means to share the gospel, my views about other religions, my adherence to gender roles, and my idea of what constitutes a valid source of spirituality.  I have experienced enormous benefits and personal growth as I have re-examined each of these topics while thinking outside of the “approved” Mormon way.  

For the first time, I had a meaningful conversation with my post-Mormon sister about her spiritual journey and convictions, and it was because she knew I was finally not judging her.  And for the first time, I had a conversation about the Church with a co-worker who really opened up about his own religious experience, and it was because I had been willing to share honestly with him the good and bad of my own religious experiences.  

My wife realized that no matter how long she continued to force herself into the stereotypical gender roles associated with being a Mormon stay-at-home mom, she still didn't fit.  Eventually, the futility of her attempts had brought her into a deep, year-long depression in which she woke up to the realization that she had almost entirely lost her sense of self in the process of raising our three young children.  Because we had given ourselves permission to re-examine the Family Proclamation in the light of personal revelation, we realized that both of us wanted things to change: she wanted to pursue a career, and I genuinely wanted to experience being a stay-at-home dad with our fourth baby.  While my wife will be rediscovering her sense of self, I fully expect to find myself through this unorthodox change.  Honest-to-goodness, I can’t wait to more fully explore my nurturing side and take advantage of baby’s naps to tinker with my latest inventions.  That is, after I emerge from the sleep-deprived zombie stage.

As a last example, I have discovered the spiritual power in the practice of meditation.  While Mormons may have figured out some awesome spiritual truths, the Buddhists deserve some serious credit for discovering and fine-tuning the art of meditation.  To me, it is the other half of prayer where I listen to what God has to say to me.  I have had some of my most powerful spiritual experiences and insights during meditation, and I don’t think I would have given it a chance before I opened my mind up.  

A Cafeteria Mormon who isn't Hungry - Keeping what's good

I will admit that I have rejected the counsel of Elder Faust when he said:
Revelations from the prophets of God are not like offerings at the cafeteria, some to be selected and others disregarded.
I am a total cafeteria Mormon.  If the prophet called for another Proposition 8 in my current state, I would campaign for the other side.  Some foods I’ve tried, and I know they make my spirit sick.  At the same time, I am not planning to go hungry while sitting at the spiritual table of the Church.  I fully embrace most of what is said at General Conference.  I love the way the Church stretches me to fulfill callings.  I love that the Church brings me into contact with people I would never have met without it.  Both those that are easy for me to get along with, and those that are not.  I need them all.  Why wouldn’t I consider with an open heart the words of President Monson, who has devoted his life to a ministry of service?  His love of great literature and his sensitivity for healing relationships is nourishing spiritual food.  

Lest I be misunderstood, I need to make an important clarification on this topic.  I don’t think that I get to pick and choose which commandments I will follow like I’m ordering from a menu.  Commandments come from God, and we should strive to obey them all.  What I am saying is that I have to have a personal witness of what God’s commandments are before I can commit to living them.  I can’t just trust in the arm of flesh (i.e., any human being) on this one.  And I promise I’m not just looking for the “easy” commandments when I do this.  I can receive a personal witness that I should do something that is hard, like forgiving my enemies or living the law of consecration.  But if an angel commands me to sacrifice my son, marry another wife, or cut off someone’s head, it’s going to give me some serious pause, with or without a handshake.

On the other hand, maybe I could get on board with Elder Faust if I re-interpret what he said.  Perhaps when he says “revelations”, he means those things the prophet says for which I do receive a personal witness, or which are accepted by the Church as canon.  Maybe I am not bound to obey everything that is only stated as an opinion, after all.

Conclusion: Discovering Deity

At the time when I was walking down the street with my neighbor Kim, I would have never believed that in just seven years, I would arrive at a point where many of my views would align with hers.  While, unlike her, I find that Mormonism speaks most clearly to my soul and is my spiritual home, I am also a wanderer seeking for those truths that I can embrace both within and without Mormonism.  I also now agree with her that prophets make better rabble-rousers than leaders of institutions.  Most surprising of all perhaps, is that I no longer think derisively about Kim “deifying her own conscience.”  In fact, I now believe that the most likely place where we will actually encounter traces of deity is in our own conscience.  C.S. Lewis said it like this:
There is one thing, and only one, in the whole universe which we know more about than we could learn from external observation. That one thing is Man. We do not merely observe men, we are men.  In this case we have, so to speak, inside information; we are in the know. And because of that, we know that men find themselves under a moral law, which they did not make, and cannot quite forget even when they try, and which they know they ought to obey. … If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. … The only packet I am allowed to open is Man. When I do, especially when I open that particular man called Myself, I find that I do not exist on my own, that I am under a law; that somebody or something wants me to behave in a certain way.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said it like this:
The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws … are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. …This sentiment is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man. It makes him illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows itself. It corrects the capital mistake of the infant man, who seeks to be great by following the great, and hopes to derive advantages from another, — by showing the fountain of all good to be in himself, and that he, equally with every man, is an inlet into the deeps of Reason. When he says, "I ought;" when love warms him; when he chooses, warned from on high, the good and great deed; then, deep melodies wander through his soul from Supreme Wisdom. … Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing. … [Men] think society wiser than their soul, and know not that one soul, and their soul, is wiser than the whole world.
It’s strange to say it, but I am actually grateful that I was in California during Proposition 8.  I never would have arrived where I am today without that initial awakening.  Despite all of the turmoil of my transition, I wouldn’t go back to where I was before.  My faith then was beautiful in its sincere certitude, and I sometimes long for it in the way I long to relive certain days of my youth.  But I believe that my faith now is even more beautiful in its uncertainty.  A margin of doubt makes room for the soul searching that reveals truth and expands empathy.  Most importantly, I’ve started the essential process of discovering how God can and does illuminate my path through the ambiguities of life.

My story isn’t just about changing perspectives on same-sex marriage.  It’s about something much deeper that affects every member of the church.  It’s about personal accountability for our own spirituality.  It’s the realization that you can’t become holy without experiencing the fire of moral ambiguity.  It’s the unequivocating rejection of anything like unto Satan’s plan, which sought the complete outsourcing of our spirituality.  My story is about fulfilling the measure of our creation by learning to navigate the complexities of life.

Following my own moral compass, I believe, is the only way I can ever hope to learn to become like my Parents in heaven.  I fully expect to make mistakes along the way.  Lots of them.  I plan to consider with an open heart the counsel of my Church leaders.  But I have to fully own any decisions I make in life.  I can never again outsource my spirituality. 

Why I Stopped Outsourcing my Spirituality: Part 1

A Scene from My Past

It was another perfect day in southern California, but my heart was beating a little faster than normal as I walked down the street with my wife and Kim, our non-LDS neighbor who had recently moved into the area.  This was the pre-Prop-8 version of myself, and Kim was explaining her approach to choosing which church to attend, “The pastor at the last church I went to didn’t line up with my beliefs, so I’m still looking.”  The missionary in me smelled blood, but my wife was already on it, asking Kim what she thought about the Joseph Smith movie we had invited her and her husband to see with us the week before at the LA Temple visitors’ center.  “To be honest,” she said, “it didn’t really do much for us.”  I was both crestfallen and incredulous.  How could anyone watch that emotional production and not at least be moved to tears, even if not fully convinced that Joseph was a prophet?  But I simply said, “What do you mean?”  Kim went on, “Well, aside from the movie’s incomplete historical representation, I just don’t see prophets the same way that you do in the Mormon Church.  To me, prophets are rabble-rousers, occasionally moved by God to call people to repentance, but not to lead an institution.”  My wife was ready, “But how would the members of God’s church know His will without a prophet to lead them?  Wouldn’t that lead to confusion and chaos?”  Neither of us said it out loud, but my wife and I were both thinking about Kim’s continuing search for a church among so many differing options and the apparent confusion that was causing in her own life.  Kim’s response took us off guard, “No, I can receive revelation directly from God.  I already know what I believe, it’s just a matter of finding a church that most closely matches those beliefs.”  There was some additional back-and-forth on biblical prophets and priesthood authority, but there was no changing Kim’s view of what constitutes a prophet.  I summed up my thoughts later that evening to my wife, “Kim has deified her own conscience.”

Choosing Conscience over Obedience

Prop-ping Open My Mind

The first cracks in my worldview formed a few months later during the campaign for Proposition 8 in the summer and fall of 2008.  In the beginning, I was as gung-ho as they come.  I felt like I was being called up by the prophet to march in the first wave of a valiant army battling for morality – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show God my true mettle.  Many aspects of it weren’t too hard: putting the “Yes on 8” sign on my front lawn, taking flyers around the neighborhood, donating money to the campaign.  But it was true dedication that carried me through the worst part: going through page after page of phone numbers, making cold calls to pitch the virtues of the Yes on 8 campaign.  Sometimes the anxiety of those phone calls would actually induce nausea.  I would do one page and have to take a break of a few hours before I could face the next page.  When I was done, I’d think to myself, “See God, I am a faithful servant; you can trust me to do whatever you ask of me.”

But as the campaign went on, I had to confront some perspectives that gave me pause: an Internet conversation in which a woman explained her conviction that “It’s disingenuous to say you love me while you take away my rights at the same time,” a phone conversation with a kind and reasonable woman who challenged me to explain the real harm in gay marriage – together with my fumbling and inadequate response, and lastly, other members of my ward who quietly, but firmly, resisted the call to participate.  It was easy enough to write these people off as misguided, uninformed, or lacking in faith, but what was hardest to reconcile was the effect all of this was having on me personally.  I felt it was important for my motives to be pure, but when I examined them honestly, I realized that what I was feeling most strongly was a combination of fear and hostility.  By the end of the campaign, I felt like the other side was out to get me and my family.  These feelings were fueled by commercials warning that my kids would be forced to read gay-promoting books in school, vandalism at my local church meetinghouse, websites that tracked the names of those who donated to the Yes campaign, and finally, by hundreds of people marching and protesting at the LA temple.  I didn’t fully confront the mirror of my anger and fear until the last week of the campaign.  I was part of an early-morning team making a last-ditch effort to put campaign signs all over the place.  Standing in the median next to a freeway on-ramp, I bent up from placing a Yes on 8 sign to see a car coming around the bend.  The driver was giving me the bird with a nasty expression on his face.  Reflexively, I flipped him off in response.  In the seconds that followed, shame washed over me.  Wow, so this is what a soldier in the army of God had come to.

The Power of a Personal Connection

Proposition 8 succeeded, and, left to my own devices, I think I would have rationalized that my anger and fear were simply signs of my own fallibility; that even though my motives weren’t always pure, the cause was always just.  Most importantly, I had a get-out-of-jail-free card: even if I’m wrong, I thought, God will forgive me because I’m following His prophet.
Fortunately for me, I married well.  My wife, wrestling under the same feeling of disquiet, had cracked open her heart enough to discover an important truth: if there was a pure motive to our cause, we would only discover it by looking at things from our opponents’ point of view.  If, after honestly considering a homosexual’s perspective, we could conclude that our actions had yielded a net positive result, then we could feel peace about what we had done.  But we needed a perspective that we could really trust, and we had never met anyone who we knew to be gay.  She stumbled onto the perfect thing: a blog written by a gay Mormon who was still active and faithful in the Church.  After getting over the initial shock that such a thing even existed, I felt that we had found it – the means to settle once and for all the godliness of the Yes on 8 campaign.  If this gay Mormon could support the Church through Prop 8, than by gum, so could we.  

In the blog, we read about a young man who courageously came out to his ward during testimony meeting and was met with kindness and love.  We read about him attending his nephew’s baptism, and his family accepting his homosexuality with good-natured jokes about his camera bag looking like a purse.  There was no denying the sincerity of this man.  His awkward moments, deep feelings, and humor were completely endearing and fully authentic.  His stories seemed to support the idea that Mormonism could offer a safe and happy place for gays.  His continued faithfulness to the Church seemed to indicate that not all gays felt attacked and marginalized by the Church.  

But there were other things we read that sent shockwaves through our worldview.  The post that cracked open my brain the most was when he described the moment that he fully admitted to himself that he was attracted to men.
I was on my knees next to my bed with my face buried into my mattress. Thoughts raced through my head and my breathing was uncontrollable. I clenched my eyes shut as I fought what I would later recognize as a panic attack. Inaudibly, I repeated over and over again, “I’m not gay. I’m not gay.” 
No matter how many times I repeated the words it didn’t change anything. My stomach tightened into a rock. I would have probably felt better if I threw up, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to. I was too tense. I just felt like laying on the floor with the hope that if I was there long enough I would be completely forgotten and eventually cease to exist altogether. I was sixteen.
I had been watching a music video over our dial-up connection to the internet. It was a one hit wonder that six months later would be forgotten by nearly everyone, but I would remember it for years, because as I watched I caught myself looking at the male lead singer. I realized that I wasn’t just looking, I was looking. I freaked out and ran up into my room, closing the door behind me. Had it been the first time, I probably would have been able to write it off as curiosity, something, anything, but I knew that I was facing something that I had been trying to run away from for years. I was gay and I knew it.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading.  This certainly didn’t line up with how I had imagined that people “decided” to be gay.  It was supposed to be a perversion, some kind of alluring sinful indulgence.  But here I’m reading about a kid who wanted to cease to exist rather than confront the reality of his attraction?  Someone hadn’t been telling me the whole story.  And although this man was still active in the Church and living according to gospel principles, he was regularly experiencing gut-wrenching pain, especially in regard to the Church’s involvement on Prop 8.
I am deeply hurt and offended.  I can’t point to anyone individually, but the people that have caused me to feel emotionally heavy and dark are the two political groups currently fighting over Prop 8 in California.  I’ve always been Prop 8 Agnostic in my public communications and I continue to be so in the effort to not have my opinion sway anyone one way or another (as if that could happen). … So, I have decided that I am no longer going to read, watch, or participate in any more discussions, articles, or news stories related to Prop 8.  I realize that people feel that they should stand up for their beliefs and that’s fine, but I, however, can’t.  The issues are too close, the pain is too real, and I am too tired.
Something truly remarkable happened over the few days in which my wife and I read the blog: we changed a deeply-held ideology.  No amount of logic, facts, or reasoning could have done it.  Only getting to know someone personally had the power to soften our hearts in that way toward gays.  This is how it usually happens, though in most situations, it involves a family member or a close friend.  It speaks to the writing ability of the blog author that my wife and I were able to form that kind of connection with someone we never met face-to-face.  He said it very well himself:

There is still prejudice out there and we need to fight it.  The best way to do so as individuals is simply by people knowing that we exist.  People need to know that we are here.  People need to know one of us and, if by so knowing, they still hate gay people, they hate us for who we are and not for who they imagine us to be.  When we come out, the straight people will see the real “us” and the gay people still living in secrecy and shame will see that they have options and that the world isn’t as dark as it seems.  They will see that there is hope.
We had been looking for a perspective we could trust, and we succeeded.  What we hadn’t been counting on, though, was that we would discover we had been wrong.  With our fear of gay people erased, we researched other reasons for supporting a ban on non-traditional marriages.  None of the arguments held any water.  No evidence could be found to support the arguments against gay marriage; examined closely, it was all speculation and fear.  For a while, we tried to straddle the line by telling ourselves that we had still done the right thing, but for the wrong reasons.  That it was still right that we had followed the prophet, even if we couldn’t understand the reasons.  

Dusting Off My Moral Compass

As the years passed, however, time brought the problems with our viewpoint into focus.  We recognized that very bad things have happened because of good people who silenced their moral feelings in deference to authority.  Even in the scriptures, we found examples of people who followed the established ecclesiastical authority to their own spiritual detriment.  It is so easy to read the scriptures and think, oh, well obviously King Noah’s priests were bad.  But the scriptures leave out the many good things that they certainly did as spiritual leaders.  No real person ever fits into the box of all bad or all good.  Caiaphas almost certainly got many of his judgments right, and probably did a lot of good for the community.  Recognizing his moral deficits would certainly have been very difficult from the perspective of a faithful Jew living at the time.  Especially so for the most orthodox or devout members of the congregation.  My wife and I realized that we had been blind to the warning in these scriptures: we also can fall prey to being too dependent on our leaders for our morality.  And we found examples in modern Church history as well.  Is there no accountability for those who justified prejudice against blacks during the days when it was preached that they had been “less valiant” in the pre-mortal life?  I can believe that God, in his mercy, makes allowances for culture and upbringing, but if it was me, I would have the hardest time forgiving myself – especially if I had silenced pangs of conscience in deference to a leader.

None of this is to say that our current Church leaders aren’t moral people.  On the contrary, I think that they are good, inspired men.  But they can never substitute for my conscience.  And I hope that they would agree.  Elder Christofferson certainly seemed to indicate that position in his most recent Conference talk:

God intends that His children should act according to the moral agency He has given them, “that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.” It is His plan and His will that we have the principal decision-making role in our own life’s drama. God will not live our lives for us nor control us as if we were His puppets, as Lucifer once proposed to do. Nor will His prophets accept the role of “puppet master” in God’s place. Brigham Young stated: “I do not wish any Latter Day Saint in this world, nor in heaven, to be satisfied with anything I do, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ,—the spirit of revelation, makes them satisfied. I wish them to know for themselves and understand for themselves.”
Interestingly, two of the other talks that Conference (here and here) went straight back to unquestioning obedience to authority.  You win some, you lose some, I guess.

Continued in Part 2