Agency: My own account of voluntary exit and exile

The circumstances in your life that have brought you to a place of considering the writings offered in this book are uniquely your own. They may resemble the circumstances of others who have shared similar thoughts, but ultimately the reasons you are reading these essays belong to you.

Let’s talk about spiritual or religious disillusionment. What might that phrase mean? I suggest that such disillusionment is another way of expressing spiritual discontent.

When we encounter an idea or fact that is in opposition to something we previously  accepted and believed without question there is an intellectual discontent. We may  experience a new curiosity in a venue previously thought of as inviolate. At some point we find ourselves seeking to understand the issues around which doubt has arisen. Once unquestioned faith was the dominant spiritual factor in the life of a committed Latter Day Saint. How then do we get to a place of asking questions we would not have asked in the past?

What I have written is for readers to judge. It is offered sincerely, with a desire to encourage the highest good of all concerned. My desire is for frank honesty of what I have felt, what I have learned and why I found myself in that “crisis of faith” that believers are taught to dread.

My desire with this writing is not to encourage doubters to leave or to stay. I am attempting to write as someone whose efforts have led to a personal place of absolute wisdom. On the contrary, what I have learned for myself is the importance of assuming ownership of my own reality. In that regard I challenge you to understand just how powerfully your assumptions and intentions have played a role in the formation of your  pattern of living.

Finally there is the evolution of spiritual experience to which we may become spiritually and emotionally wedded. As we have heard many times, we cannot live on borrowed light. We must make our way using a lantern of our own creation. We cannot live according to someone else’s magic.
Paradise Lost

It’s all about testimony is it not?

“How did you lose your testimony?”

“I really thought I knew it was true. But now …”

Let me offer my description of testimony as portrayed within the narratives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Is testimony  “a formal written or spoken statement, especially one given in a court of law. Is it  evidence or proof provided by the existence or appearance of something.”

Or is testimony  a religious conversion or experience?

One definition sounds real, factual and at times self-evident. It is considered proof.

The other is purely personal. In the Church it is very much personally pure.

Within Mormon culture, the word “testimony” has become synonymous with “belief.” Although testimony and belief are often used interchangeably, they are inherently different. Most Mormons believe that when faith is acted upon, individuals can receive a spiritual witness which solidifies belief into testimony. Mormons are taught that if the exercise of faith brings forth good works, they can know their religious principles are true. An individual who no longer believes in the religion is referred to as having “lost their testimony. – wikipedia

Testimony is described in a legalistic manner by and apostle known for his legal mind.

A testimony of the gospel is a personal witness borne to our souls by the Holy Ghost that certain facts of eternal significance are true and that we know them to be true. Such facts include the nature of the Godhead and our relationship to its three members, the effectiveness of the Atonement, and the reality of the Restoration. – Elder Dallin Oaks

Testimony is defined in a manner that suggests catechism or a “principle and ordinance” of the Gospel.

The foundation of a Mormon’s testimony is the knowledge that Heavenly Father lives and loves us;
that Jesus Christ lives, that He is the Son of God, and that He carried out the infinite Atonement;
that Joseph Smith is a prophet, which God called to restore Jesus Christ’s church to the earth;
that we are led today by a living prophet;
and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Savior’s Church restored on the earth today .-www. mormon.org

I offer the following as the most useful passage I have seen regarding testimony.

Mormons may not have a bound canon of prayer, an approved prayer book from which we read and repeat at our meetings, but we do have an extraordinary, complex, unwritten formality that all of us learn and which we use to evaluate other’s testimonies.

… A Mormon “testimony” is simultaneously at least two things. It is a metaphor portraying one’s internal commitment to the Church and the community.

It is also a ritual practice. For example, when we ask someone about her testimony, we are inquiring about her connection with the body of members and thence with God This is not the same thing as when we stand, in church or elsewhere, and bear testimony;

then, we perform a ritual–a patterned practice of rhetoric, a chaining of
words together in socially established ways. In performing this ritual the metaphor is motivated and made real; our internal commitment is given context and purpose within a set of communally validated meanings.
– David Knowlton, Belief Metaphor and Rhetoric: The Mormon Practice of Testimony Bearing, Sunstone April 1991

 

In February, 1999, I received a letter from my bishop advising me that my request had finally been honored and that my name had been removed from the LDS Church records.

I was officially no longer a member of the LDS Church.

The decision to exit the Church was first reached in 1991 when my anger, frustration and disillusionment were somewhat recently fired up. In retrospect and to any who contemplate a similar action, I strongly suggest that you let sufficient time pass so as to temper your feelings with the wisdom of time – rather than acting rashly and in haste.

As with most people, my reasons for leaving the Church were extremely personal. They reflected the conflict between reality as I perceive it and the reality that is taught to those who are long-time members of the Church. That reality might be described as gentle and loving but is nevertheless a programmed reality.

I cannot say at what point I became someone whose basis of perception included a strong dose of critical thinking. I truly wish I had been taught principles of critical thinking from a neutral perspective, but I know that it did not happen.

Rather, by the time critical thinking was more a part of how I interpreted my perceptions  I was in my 40’s. When the questions start at that age, there are some who  may quickly dismiss any credibility by concluding that the cause of 40-ish questions is a stereotypical midlife crisis.

My questions and doubts were not restricted to religion. However, since my active church life was dominated by LDS social interaction, most of my varied questions about life and responsibility circulated within my ward and stake. To my surprise, they were questions that seemed to make fellow Mormons uncomfortable. Those with priesthood authority over me generally set aside my questions, advising principally that I should have faith and not give in to the temptation of doubt. Some others – closer friends – frankly told me to stop questioning and stay in line.

Such a lack of satisfactory answers or an open unwillingness to address my doubts specifically, only fueled my aroused sense of doubt and questions even more.

Then, one afternoon in the library in Vancouver, I spotted a book entitled “From Housewife to Heretic” by a woman not much older than me who grew up in Malad, Idaho, 60 miles from my hometown.

I recognized her name from her previous notoriety. She had made of herself a public thorn in the side of the Church. I especially recalled that she had chained herself to the gate at the LDS Temple in Bellevue, WA during its opening. Along with my fellow  priesthood holders, I – with joking condescension – consigned her to the Outer Darkness we all believed God was preparing for heretics and apostates.

She was eventually excommunicated as an apostate.

Her name was Sonja Johnson.

By the time I stumbled across her autobiography, I felt I was approaching panic in wanting answers. Having developed an attitude regarding further light and knowledge from my priesthood chain of authority, I checked her book out of the library. In truth, before leaving the library, I hid her book under my coat in case local LDS members might see me reading the writings of an apostate.

I took it home and read it that evening from cover to cover.

in one sitting.

When I had finished I was madder than hell, embarrassed by those elders quorum presidents, bishops and stake presidents who – in an automatic stance fashion choreographed by General Authorities – had dealt with this woman.

I saw in Sonja Johnson someone who, like me, had finally snapped. She had started questioning and challenging the actions and statements of LDS general authorities.

Sonja’s steps were bolder and more public than anything I had been doing.

Shortly, as I asked more and more questions and expressed more and more doubts, I no longer needed Johnson’s story to fuel my own.

Sensing a pattern in the consistent and almost knee-jerk reactions to anything I said that appeared to question authority, I started losing respect for local and general leadership  and it’s rigid, inflexible and aggressively authoritative way of managing dissent.

It then became easy to understand precisely what celebrity leaders like Boyd Packer meant with their pulpit criticisms and warnings regarding dissenters, feminists and gays. The noted excommunications of the September Six would not happen until 1993 (8 years later).

Expecting a summons to a church court with a confrontation that would probably end in excommunication, I spent a few years mentally wrestling with whether or not I would argue the points with a Church court or – like Jesus – simply fall silent and let the actors play out roles choreographed by a manual of instructions and/or advice from higher up.

Eventually, I realized that my sense of being a dissenter as part of a rebel alliance was exaggerated. I was not a big fish, only a minnow in the pool of apostasy. No summons ever appeared. My desire to escape was not satisfied for almost another ten years.

Exile … of my own making … self imposed.

As someone who for 40 years practiced little if any critical thinking, I more than mildly wondered whether or not my willful rejection of the Church would bring on the  theological disaster beloved of Church authoritarians. I encountered  my share of those  who rarely hesitate to raise the specter of church discipline when “get back in line” isn’t working.

I actually prepared myself for the stupor of thought Section 9 of the D&C talks about when you are out of tune with the spirit.

I prepared to fall into psychologically spiritual depression from the want of the presence of God’s spirit.

I prepared to accept that a long term repentance or atonement of some sort would be necessary before I would ever again be prompted by the Spirit. A consistent prompting by the Spirit was something that had become commonplace in my own life goping back to the first months of my mission.

I figured the spiritual spigot would be turned off because of my own loss of faith and  and consequent apostate behavior.

Yet I was experiencing new promptings; even a gut feeling that theology and dogma was all illusion.

I realized then that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints does not have a “true-church” based monopoly on quality human spirituality. Within the devout literality of the Church’s origin story there is the implication that there is some sort of divine right based on “priesthood” to interpret the spiritual experiences of a human being regardless of membership, belonging, ordinances, ordinations, calling or culture.

This flame of assurance flared up to such an intense level that I became obnoxious to church members — family and non-family alike — because I wanted them to know that  concerns about eternal salvation hanging by threads of conformity were fueled by  church teachings that are bogus.

There followed several years of alienation and estrangement with my birth family and extended family. Devout in the faith, they were active in a Church I had rejected and was now openly criticizing.

My self-imposed exile was sustained by my own conscious choices.  I made an erroneous assumption that as an honest human being I was obligated to publicly acknowledge my apostasy and loss of testimony of the LDS Church, letting relationship chips fall where they may.

I chose to reject any notion of being “Mormon” in any context. That rejection was a mistaken assumption that created an unnecessary hole in the spiritual psyche.

A testimony lost involves merely and only the Church’s theological policies, procedures, ceremonies and formalities, all of which are rather innocently or blandly masqueraded  as divinely decreed laws and ordinances commanded by God and Jesus.

The resulting spiritual wound did not heal. I had separated myself from that absolute strongest asset any human being who was born into the Church or has spent many years of spiritual interaction with God through prayer and meditation can have.

Many Mormon men and women, completely outside any lesson book, come to know that  God will reveal His mind and compassion to humans. The Spirit is always present. The presence of the Spirit is not contingent on worthiness.

All you have to do is knock and ask. I had learned that as a nineteen-year-old green missionary and it became commonplace for the rest of my life.

The Spirit does not prompt us because the Church somehow requires and validates our worthiness through attendance, participation, ordinance records or temple covenant making. The eternity of God’s presence has never been contingent on note-taking angels auditing ward and branch ordinance and attendance records nor on callings held or money donated.

Marriages inside and outside the temple are eternal. They are based simply on the intentions and actions of the covenanting couple; not whether or not a priest in a white suit in a special room in a special building ever makes it so by exercise of religious authority.

The Spirit does not wait on anyone or anything before touching the heart with its sweetness and strong assurance of unconditional divine love.

Joseph Smith had it right early on when he said, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.”

Such is the heart of being a cultural Mormon, the who-we-really-are.

Critical thinking is required now more than ever.

If you cannot critically weigh and own your spiritual relationship to the Divine you do not have proprietorship over your own life. Someone else has that proprietorship and will define your reality for you.

The Church and its authorities,- not you – own it.

Published by

Arthur Ruger

Married and in a wonderful relationship. Retired Social Worker, Veteran, writer, author, blogger, musician,. Lives in Coeur D' Alene, Idaho

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.