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Conversations on Doubt

I’m not all onboard with the church anymore. If this is news, I’m sorry we haven’t been in better contact. My decision to stop going to church is complicated.

As I’m writing it, that quick summary feels inauthentic. But then so does forcing you to read an essay. I’ve been earnestly trying to know what’s right in my life. I am having a wonderful, peaceful, time at it. I’m terribly happy but not without my doubts about my decision to leave.

I’m trying not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Tolstoy said of his own doubts, “failing to find an explanation in knowledge I began to search for it in life, hoping to find it among the people around me.”

So on June 1 of this year, after feeling I had exhausted the topic through study, I decided to send out an email to a group of pragmatic and like minded friends. In the email I gave them a summary similar to the one I’ve given above. Then I said,

“Why do you go to church? Does it make you happy? Do you have any doubts or anxieties about the church? Please be yourself. If that means not replying to this email, that’s okay. If that means sending me a link to Finding Faith in Christ and talking to me like a complete stranger, that’s okay too!”

The open call for testimonies wasn’t an attempt to see how intelligent my friends are. It was a call to ethos. I wasn’t then and am still not ready to believe that if Faith is a delusion that it couldn’t also be worthwhile. For the first time in my life I feel open to anything, even the idea that a lie could also be a great cornerstone to base your life on.

I was touched and impressed with the work that many of my friends put into their reply. With their permission, I decided to publish some of them here, anonymously. The back and forth conversations I had with many of them felt very healthy—both for doubter and believer.

This is a really long post, that has been heavily cut back to be more consumable. Everything that follows has been modified for length, focus, and to maintain anonymity. If there is a back and forth, I put my reply in italics.

There isn’t a ton of normal logic to why I go to church currently

First off, this is a pretty common topic around my family these days. [A majority of my brothers] no longer believe it to be something good for their families. I’m still going, But seeing so many people that I respect and love make this decision has only made me more introspective, which is leading to a good thing in my opinion.

There isn’t a ton of normal logic to why I go to church currently. We’ve had a hard time fitting in and feeling welcome in the ward, and besides a few nuggets here and there, we find the services to be a bit dull and repetitive. We asked to be released from our calling because it was freaking us out, and making things much harder for us to understand. My wife really dislikes most of what she has been learning about church history and feels like she had been mislead in certain ways. I really dislike the marketing and business side of the church. I still can’t believe I’m starting to get spam-like emails from the church with buzzfeed-ian subject lines and hashtags.

I like to believe that there is something beyond what I called “normal logic” above. I don’t believe that we know very much in the grand scheme of things and that makes me want to lean on the feelings I have felt more than things that I read. That doesn’t feel quite right to me, as they should go hand in hand, but that is what I’m doing right now.

I remember telling myself during a couple spiritual moments in my life, “Do not forget this. Come back to this feeling if you have doubts.” Right now, I’m riding on the fumes of those feelings. I haven’t done a ton to create new ones lately and it’s running out of steam but there is a past version of myself that is telling me to keep going and I’m not ready to tell him to shove it until I know for sure it was my youthful naivety. I don’t want the pride of my know-it-all 20’s to be the deciding factor.

Right now, it’s not making me the happiest but I also don’t feel depressed or sad at all either. I feel conflicted that I’m not living the gospel well, but I also realize that the happiest way might not be the right way for me. In a lot of areas I choose the path of least resistance and that makes me happy temporarily, so I don’t want that personality trait to make this choice.

——-

Have you made any progress on your feelings here or still about in the same spot? Asking because I’m getting more confused by the day.

I’m finding a small amount of consolation in imagining up a God whose visage is more like a taste than it is a law. Perhaps the lens of faith is a proverbial lens and each person can righteously see things differently. This certainly explains why diversity is still so prevalent among good and well intended people. If God truly did create a testing ground, he would need us each to be different in order for lessons to be learned.

I’ve been reading Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life, in which he says, “It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life.” That sentiment feels true to me. It would seem that overcomplicating things is not the answer. Reading and studying has only sent me in circles—and I’m certainly not going to claim knowledge is inherently problematic but I’m getting the sense that it’s a lot like expecting a good curry recipe from a college chemistry class.

A good God gave people their minds and their relationships. For each person, the answer to life is uniquely therein.

I’ve met a few Mormons recently whose sense of religion is one I could get on board with. Is that all that religion really is? If your people aren’t in church, are you really worshiping? If your spouse disagrees, what Christ-like community can you really be entertaining? What have you been feeling? What’s been making you more confused?

When you said “reading and studying has only sent me in circles” — I had to reread the email I sent you because that’s exactly where I am at but didn’t remember mentioning that to you.

The more I read about the history of the church, official and unofficial, the more uneasy I feel about everything. I really expected the opposite to happen, which has me pretty confused. It’s really hard to understand the culture and full story behind what Joseph Smith (and most of the early leaders) were up to and what their motives were and how it applies to me. Like some really weird stuff from my 2015 point of view was going on with my ancestors and my traditions. These folks are my people!

I really like the idea the idea that everyone can see righteousness a bit differently – but it sounds so easy. And coming from a life of extensive doctrine and missionary textbook answers to every question, this thought has me really wrapped up in thinking that it can’t be that simple. We believe in so many steps, ordinances, rituals that we consider vital to glory, it’s hard for me to see a world where for some people those things aren’t required.

But yeah, that’s sort of where I am at. Nowhere near having any answers but hoping I start to feel something more concrete at some point. I definitely can’t spend the rest of my life in the middle confused with touches of guilt.

The rewards are more amorphous

I think Mormons try really hard to be good people, and this counts for a lot as long as they acknowledge they are world class stumblers along with everyone else on the planet.

Along with being generous and patient with each other I think we also have the responsibility to address things that we can improve. In doing so, I try to remember that some things are mine to decide and some are not. Some matters may be very important to me but less so to the community, and that’s ok if we share essential values and remain humble. I’ve seen that when people advocate for change because they feel so strongly about their version of improvement, voices on both sides of the discussion sometimes include judging and belittling.

The reason this all makes sense to me is that I believe wholeheartedly, without reservation, in the agency God grants us. We choose whether to believe, whether to obey, whether to consecrate. This applies to everyone in or out of the church, including prophets and apostles. Their responsibilities and burdens are greater, and one would expect their access to God’s guidance to be greater and perhaps more specific. But I have to believe they are stretched and required to wrestle with things and apply faith and works just like the rest of us. I have no doubt that God interacts with us in ways that we can understand and that we need, providing frequent promptings and occasional dramatic clarity but not always instant feedback for course corrections.

It’s been an interesting process, taking the aggregate responses and trying to have them make sense all at once. Some go to church and hate it, some go to church and love it, some see the church as a utilitarian social structure, others a reasonable system for good living. I’m certain now that no one person is going for the same reason as another. And that feels less exclusionary, in a good way.

I can’t help but worry about the dilemma of choice. It troubles me that if God does care about what we choose that he hasn’t provided a clear enough reward for making the right choice (as he has with good health and other seemingly important choices).

I think the physical health analogy is a pretty good one. Some things make us feel healthier pretty quickly, others don’t change how we feel day to day but we trust in the long-term benefits based on lessons from science, history or personal experience. Some decisions feel like sacrifices but we believe they point us in a good direction. Other things seem harmless or actually feel good, but have a cumulative effect that ends up being catastrophic.

On the spiritual side I do think the rewards are more amorphous or variable. In the church we speak of consequences as if Action A produces Result A (hold family home evening, automatically experience more beauty all around.) But I’ve come to think of those things as secondary — not exactly irrelevant but also not really the point. The primary benefit as I see it is that we become transformed as we exercise faith. Following commandments and embracing covenants is more about becoming something than receiving something.

The pattern I have seen in my life is that most of the time I am expected to act on faith instead of knowledge. This includes beforehand and usually afterward as well. Most of the time it’s a general sense of having done the best you could at the time and under the circumstances, and trusting this is an acceptable offering. Then you build on those experiences so that your best becomes more than what it used to be.

Initially the physical health analogy caught me off guard, and provoked that ever consistent worry I have that perhaps the peace I feel lately is the spiritual equivalent of eating a candy bar. Maybe the nuances of a spiritual diet (when illustrated to a child) don’t make sense when your spirit is so young and flexible. I suppose like children, God designed our spirits to bounce back quite easily from spiritual candy bars as he knew we would eat them often.

That being said, I still struggle with the cumulative catastrophe model as it is the one we most attribute to the devil. It being a more sly or sneaky way of trapping someone into a lifestyle. It seems unlike God to provide laws (regarding eternal salvation) that are not readily apparent until it is too late.

It’s a matter that could be debated, surely, but my issue isn’t with objective good and objective bad (as that model I think there is evidence for) it is with objective truth. Objective spiritual truth seems much less easy to prove. And in that regard, I really wish that consequences were less amorphous!

It’s true because it always tries to be

I want to be edified and feel the spirit there, I believe that the sacrament is necessary, I sometimes gain new spiritual insights. I work with 4 young men and I really want to see them succeed in life (something that is against the odds in their neighborhoods). I think the church can play a big part in that goal. I want to show them an example, and be at church (and our activities) to help them gain testimonies and also try to show them the potential they have.

I also go for social reasons. It help fights the urban isolation that I think a lot of people face in this city.

Does it make me happy? Usually. There are times where I feel a little held back by it or overly stress out about my calling or service in the ward generally. But it gives me goals, a structure, and opportunities to serve I like having quite a bit.

I would classify the majority of my concerns as relatively minor annoyances. For example boy scouts, ugly buildings, and shrouding the temple in mystery unnecessarily. Doubts aside, I do believe it is the only true and living church of God. The living part is probably the more easily definable part of that phrase to me. It is living because it has the authority. Its true because it’s always trying to be.

If you don’t mind my asking, why do you go to church now?

I have wondered that myself. Perhaps old habits, or maybe a longing for community? I spent the last year or so reading theological books, and I’ve decided this year to read memoirs or more emotional takes on the experience of religion. I’ve been reading Tolstoy’s Confession this week, and I can greatly commiserate with him in that he was, “tormented by the problem to live a better life.” I cannot seem to believe in subjective truth and Mormonism at the same time. Yet subjective truth seems to have more evidence in its favor—and it also strikes me as more important if everyone is to be saved or to live a better life!

Kind of a long answer, but I guess it’s because the truth is that I don’t have an answer.

Hey Kyle, just was cleaning out my inbox and found this. Any updates?

This email was sent to ten friends and three of them have surprised me with saying they are inactive or doubting. I’m starting to see that doubting as a lifestyle isn’t very sustaining or desirable.

Eyring said, “however large the kingdom will grow […] you will not ever feel lost or forgotten […]. God will call people to care about you and to teach you.” I’ve met a lot of people lately who are a good archetype for that, but then so are you and others who have worried for me and provided guidance.

I mentioned this before, but it continues to be the theme that presses me of late: I’m trying to go back to how knowledge was when I was at the MTC—not as much a fact as a feeling. Another Eyring thought in this vein, “I knew that what he said came from God and that it was true […]. That was before scholars told me how hard it was to know.” It’s pretty anti-cerebral, but it feels like it’s the only option I have left. Reason answers none of the important questions, Faith provides none of the reasonable facts. Perhaps their lack of overlap suggests they must work hand in hand?

Conclusion

Lately when asked I call myself a secular Mormon. I might watch general conference this weekend, and I try to stay in regular contact with my ward. I’ve attended the wards of good friends, by their insistence, hoping that perhaps there is a Mormon congregation nearby that is healthy for my doubting soul. I can now see that I did not immediately become an ex-Mormon those months ago because of some vague awareness that my ideas might be mistaken.

I am interested in living a considered and meaningful life. I hope I am never closed to the ways by which others find meaning for their lives. I want healthy conversations, and I want to learn more about instincts other than those of my own soul.

And in a large part I detest my own privilege. My ability to dismiss Faith entirely is a showing of my wealth and good fortune. The world’s poor has no time for Tolstoy nor access to Seneca. Am I too good for the system by which billions live and find joy? But also those who I love and keep near to me, who need Faith in their pursuit of goodness as it has lent meaning to their lives—am I not the same as they?

One comment on “Conversations on Doubt”

  1. Kyle, you are an incredible writer! Do you have any books? I just love reading your stories. They are so emotionally charged yet grounded. Thank you for sharing your heart and being so vulnerable.

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