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.
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.
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:
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.Revelations from the prophets of God are not like offerings at the cafeteria, some to be selected and others disregarded.
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.
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.