What should Mormons do with friends and family members who are drifting into the Great and Spacious Building of Doubt and Disbelief?
What should Mormons who doubt do with friends and family members who are firm in the faith, with a fierce loyalty to the faith but also fiercely devoted to family?
It takes as much courage to face doubters as it does to face one’s doubts. In this regard, doubting within the social and cultural context of the Latter Day Saint society is definitely and truly a hot button issue
… a can of worms issue
… a buzz word issue
… and to many a matter of – as Section 121 – describes it, a knowledge from which “confidence waxes strong.
I remember years ago when meeting with an older couple as their home teacher, I was struck by the answer the good sister gave me when I asked about her son …
“Oh, he’s moved into the great and spacious building for now.”
At the time I thought that was a cool-sounding way to refer to fellow Mormons who had gone inactive or actually left the Church. But then I noticed something not so cool as I perceived that the trite little phrase could not mask the pain in her voice or the pain in her eyes.
I wondered if her son was merely “touring” that Great And Spacious Building or had actually taken up residence, and – as Mom feared – intended to remain there permanently. She seemed to be assuming the worst and appeared to be attempting to accept the circumstance, move on with her life and sadly plan on the eternity she desired – but separated from her child.
At that time, as an intensely active young father with three children, I had no idea that within a few years I myself might eventually take up space in that same building. I also had no idea that my own family might painfully think of me only in the context of “where” I had gone and the “stiff-neckedness” or “hard heartedness” that had taken over my spirit.
Most LDS families – close and tight with one another as they are – include some members who have become inactive or who have been lifelong inactive members. In many of these families a separation may develop that often has to do with what I have labeled the “true churchiness of it all.” This abstraction is reflected as a perceptual difference in values, expectations and goals; a dissent from what feels like the single true way of seeing and defining things.
Active Mormons for the most part are genuinely concerned about their less-active family members. Often the active do not hesitate to express those concerns bluntly – since a blunt and unguarded openness and honesty is often part and parcel of that familiarity that breeds or encourages spontaneous reaction in close families – even when the reaction is contempt.
“Son (or daughter, brother, sister, spouse, etc) I’m very concerned about your eternal salvation.”
After all, this is a church with a scripted family relationship. Members interact one with another – often with unspoken assumptions – that causes consternation when an inactive member who repeatedly gets tossed an eternal life-preserver keeps moving away from it.
Worse, to the devout, when a family member voluntarily leaves the Church, is disfellowshipped or excommunicated, the circumstance may be perceived not only as tragic but perhaps threatening – downright dangerous. The danger? Possibility that a family member might become critical of the Church and expresses that criticism publicly.
Active family members might imagine that not only has the loved one moved into the Great And Spacious Building, but has also opened a booth and hung out a sign that says “Apostate,” or “Troublemaker.”
Does the faithful family see their wayward relative as a member of the family or seen first as an apostate?
In my own case, during the early years my questions and dissent drove an ever-growing wedge between the Church and myself. I acted out the part of dissenter-turned-apostate. I was critical and outspoken. As active members of my extended family and LDS friends might tell you – I became downright obnoxious and annoying with my opinions.
That attitude lasted several years until one simple fact dawned on me, a fact learned from one of my brothers who – after I had started pestering him with my “new truths” – did not respond in kind. The light came on when I realized that for my brother, the Church was as true as it needed to be. The whole kit and caboodle of church and its programs worked for him.
That was all that mattered to him; not history, not doctrine, not Church involvement in politics; none of those things that had totally bothered me.
I realized that if it works for active members of the Church, then that’s what matters. It is not up to me or anyone else to bring new information that – if believed – might harm that spiritual contentment without offering something equally satisfying in its place.
The Church has an official or semi-official stance it teaches to its members regarding those among the membership who stray. That stance might be best defined by a quote from a 1981 Conference Talk by Carlos Asay, a General Authority (one of the Presidents of the Seventy) entitled, Opposition to the Work of God,
“Avoid those who would tear down your faith. Faith-killers are to be shunned. The seeds which they plant in the minds and hearts of men grow like cancer and eat away the Spirit.
…We walk in uncharted mine fields and place our souls in jeopardy when we receive the teachings of anyone except he that is ordained of God.”
Mormons have long memories of the tragic aspects of their past. History includes the consequences of aggressive behavior of hostile apostates who participated or actually led ugly – even bloody – persecutions of Joseph Smith and other leaders; persecution of the church membership in general.
Justifiably then there has arisen a traditional hostility to perceived apostasy of individual members. Such an automatic stance of suspicion and distrust follows a scripted phobia against even the appearance of dissent within the Church.
A phobia is described as an irrational, intense and persistent fear of certain situations, activities, things, animals, or people. The main symptom of this disorder is an excessive and unreasonable desire to avoid the feared stimulus.
That scripted phobia can be seen in predictable reactions to uncomfortable questions asked in meetings or classes. Those reactions seem based on a notion that any question outside the scripted intent of lessons or talks constitutes what has become a dreaded word in Mormondom: “contention.”
Contention then has become the shield behind which many active members of the Church avoid addressing questions or information outside some unspoken and informal boundary of topics approved for public discussion in formal meetings and classes.
That particular aspect of life tends to break down, perhaps only slightly at first, when almost any form of negative is encountered. This could be justifiably assigned to the either/or and black/white absolutes of the theology and doctrine of exclusivity. The tendency to live by that sense of exclusivity includes a dismaying reluctance to tolerate disagreement with official Church positions or doctrines, not to mention leadership.
Whether intentional or not, the Church can be experienced as excessively utilizing fear as a motivator as the Asay quote demonstrates –
a fear of enemies of the Church,
a fear of losing one’s salvation,
a distrust in the values or integrity found within the non-LDS world
Furthermore, what might be perceived as an almost pathological fear on the part of the leadership has to do with members thinking independently and questioning. It is hard to argue against the idea that all that religious warnings against dissent tend to program irrational fears of questioning the leadership authority.
What might that look like?
Through repetition, members are exposed to a way of thinking and outlook hard to ignore since the implication of disloyalty to the Church includes putting personal salvation at risk.
Intellectually, the risk of being disfellowshipped or excommunicated is not the immediate problem. The more immediate sense is that of stepping too close to spiritual boundaries, playing with fire or exposing one’s self as more vulnerable to evil and/or Satan. Terrible consequences can be the conscious or unconscious fear of being abandoned by the divine, an example of which is found in a lesson from the official Church website library:
“Those who apostatize lose the Spirit of God, break their covenants, and often persecute members of the Church.
Strange as it may appear at first thought, yet it is no less strange than true, that notwithstanding all the professed determination to live godly, apostates after turning from the faith of Christ, unless they have speedily repented, have sooner or later fallen into the snares of the wicked one, and have been left destitute of the Spirit of God, to manifest their wickedness in the eyes of multitudes.
… From apostates the faithful have received the severest persecutions. Judas was rebuked and immediately betrayed his Lord into the hands of His enemies, because Satan entered into him.”
The irrational fear of dissent and/or doubt is not helped by the teaching which implies that at the moment of doubt or disagreement, when the Spirit of God is most vitally needed, it will be withdrawn. Light and knowledge promised to those who seek answers with a sincere heart and real intent will be arbitrarily and cruelly cut off and denied at the source:
“There is a superior intelligence bestowed upon such as obey the Gospel with full purpose of heart, which, if sinned against, the apostate is left naked and destitute of the Spirit of God, and he is, in truth, nigh unto cursing, and his end is to be burned.
When once that light which was in them is taken from them they become as much darkened as they were previously enlightened, and then, no marvel, if all their power should be enlisted against the truth, and they, Judas-like, seek the destruction of those who were their greatest benefactors.”
Worse, this lesson goes a long way to encourage one ugly notion.
- If your loved one has doubts and expresses them,
- openly disagrees with or dissents from Church doctrines and policies or the opinions of Church leaders,
- that person has become a personal enemy of the church and by implication, it’s membership
- … including an enemy to that person’s very family.
“Renegade ‘Mormon’ dissenters are running through the world and spreading various foul and libelous reports against us, thinking thereby to gain the friendship of the world, because they know that we are not of the world, and that the world hates us; therefore they [the world] make a tool of these fellows [the dissenters]; and by them try to do all the injury they can, and after that they hate them worse than they do us, because they find them to be base traitors and sycophants [flatterers].”
One final comment on a passage in the above quote,
“we are not of the world, and that the world hates us.”
Is it hard not to almost routinely accept then the notion that Satan is still persecuting the Church which is “in the world, but not of the world?”
Regarding apostasy and betrayal by former Mormons who then are part of an anti-Mormon mob mentality that is driven by untrustworthy people who are prompted by hate, does not the Church seem to see itself in a light that resembles what we might describe as a “Fort Apache” outlook?
The link to the Church’s official Gospel Library Lessons, Beware the Bitter Fruits of Apostasy, reveals the depth of that historical persecution complex.
Doubters and Believers have probably read the above paragraphs with seriously differing perspectives each driven perhaps by specifically visceral internal reactions.
Do you believe not in light because your world is full of shadows where you hide stuff?
What sort of shadows and what sort of things?
It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing or in disbelieving. Infidelity comes from professing to believe what one does not believe.
How to live among believers who believe in your believing what they believe?
Decadence is a difficult word to use. It has become little more than a term of abuse applied by critics to anything they do not yet understand or which seems different from their own moral concepts. Such is the decadence when believers are confronted by what you do not believe.
Thank you. What do I say or do to live among my people in harmony then?
It is not when truth is dirty, but when it is shallow that the lover of knowledge is reluctant to step into it’s waters.
But for the sake of love then I step into shallow waters frequently and wade with my people.
Thank God every morning when you get up that you have something to do that day, which must be done, whether you like it or not. Religion – like many things – is nothing but perception.
We seek something – a treasure in some form – for ourselves but which is based on nothing but perception.
A person will sometimes devote all of his life to the development of one part of his body; the wishbone.
Yearning is human happiness in the abstract.
We, then, no longer capable of enjoying human happiness in the concrete, devote ourselves utterly to yearning.
We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.
Often active Mormons who passively absorb the fear-mongering rhetoric regarding dissenters and apostates relate poorly to inactive or non-LDS friends and family. Secure in their programmed acceptance of the “true-churchiness” of their way of life, active Mormons might not understand how a mirror perception is directed back in their direction by persons who have learned and apply critical thinking; who do not passively accept rhetoric expressed by authority figures.
When outsiders who used to be insiders have lives that are anything but the disaster described in the Church lesson material on apostasy, the assumed reality as taught in Church lessons is worthy of question and doubt. The reality of the lives of non-active loved ones is blindly ignored only at a risk.
Not so much among lifelong inactive Mormons but quite prevalent among former Mormons, the common thread has to do with actual questioning and searching their own lives, assumptions and motivations that underlie their own beliefs.
When they searched, pondered and prayed, often what was obtained in terms of light and knowledge was closer to resolution, even reconciliation – and quite contrary to the curse of a so-called “stupor of thought” predicted to fall upon those who doubt.
As I believed and behaved in my early years of dissent and what family thought of as apostasy, I had the same subconscious smug and condescending attitude regarding active members stuck in the “true churchiness of it all.” With that kind of attitude what we end up with is a polarity between two groups of persons who love each other but whose lack of spiritual harmony has become the cause of unnecessary disunity and loss of loving interaction.
What to do about that?
What sort of course-correction is needed from both camps?
How do we get around the differences that appear to be based on absolute truths – or lack of truths – and just simply love one another?
How do we live and let live and stop defining each other as worthy or unworthy, saved or lost?
Sam Keen is a noted American author, professor and philosopher who is best known for his exploration of questions regarding love, life, religion, and being a man in contemporary society. He also co-produced Faces of the Enemy, an award-winning PBS documentary; was the subject of a Bill Moyers television special in the early 1990s; and for 20 years served as a contributing editor at Psychology Today magazine.
Keen has expressed the psychology of myth around how any society defines itself and how inside and outside that society’s “kingdom” is the perceptual overlay for almost every aspect of life:
Using Keen’s definition, I would describe Mormonism as
“an intricate set of interlocking stories, rituals, rites and customs that inform and give the pivotal sense of meaning and direction to a person, family, community or culture. The myths we carry around inside include unspoken consensus, the habitual way of seeing things, unquestioned assumptions, and our ‘automatic stance’.
A society lives on its own unconscious conspiracy to consider a myth the truth, the way things really are.”
When the majority within the group seem to be literal without thinking; when men and women are not critical or reflective about the guiding “truths” – myths – of their own group, what concessions are needed in the interest of family and social harmony so that no one is left outside the circle of association?
As Keen points out,
“To a tourist in a strange land, an anthropologist studying a tribe, or a psychologist observing a patient, the myth is obvious. But to the person who lives within the mythic horizon, it is nearly invisible.”
The LDS Church is a PR proclamation of the forever-ness of families. Despite the true-churchiness of its imagined reality, no family member deserves being left behind in the name of loyalty to some other entity including the Church.
From my point of view, so long as the LDS mythic horizon is nearly invisible to the membership, good people will deliberately but subconsciously leave some of their loved ones behind. They will excluded them from areas of life that will cost them qualitatively in terms of relationship and fulfillment.
Other good people will pass through significant years of life afflicted by their own assumptions regarding why active family members tend to avoid them.
Whether excluding loved ones from a marriage ceremony based on worthiness;
whether maintaining a “current-recommend-type” evaluation of every other member of the family and church;
whether avoiding excessive interaction with loved ones out of a fear of losing testimony;
or … quite plainly limiting verbal and social interaction with inactive or non-member loved ones to a few socially accepted occasions and priorities;
the family loses part of its infrastructure when loved ones are ignored.
The Church cannot replace that loss.