Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My Mormon Testimony

Someone asked me if I consider myself Mormon still.  I do, and here I am going to try to explain how and why.

I have always thought, and think still, that it is impossible for me to escape from my past. I can respond to the past. I can grow from it, away from it even, but in the end I am always going to be a product of it.

I am a product of Mormonism. I was raised Mormon, by devout converts. I converted myself as a little boy, reading the scriptures on my own and coming up with an adolescent identity that was very Mormon. My adult identity is also Mormon: I served a mission honorably (with real intent and honest effort: I say this to talk about myself, not to denigrate anyone else); I earned my BA at Brigham Young University; I was married in the Salt Lake temple, to a woman I still love very much (more and more each day). I still construct my identity in dialogue with ideas I learned as an active, devout Mormon (e.g. the Mormon canon of scripture). Even as I have moved beyond my Mormon-ness, compelled by personal need to seek help for problems to which our culture currently lacks useful solutions, I have never transcended it completely. I don’t think I ever will. I don’t even want to.

Unlike some people, whom I in no way judge unfavorably, I don’t wake up wishing I had never heard of the church or that I could escape its influence in my life. I see the good and the bad in my own personal journey as a Mormon, and I embrace both. If I am strictly honest, I have never left Mormonism, and I don’t plan to leave. I have stepped away from the church, because I found the doctrine and practice there hurting my soul more than it healed me, but I retain many of the core values I took from my time as an active Mormon. I still believe very strongly that people require community, that we need ways to offer service (even when that service appears trivial to others or even to us), that rituals are an important constant in human life (an anchor for our wandering minds full of fear of the unknown and irregular), and that people must be free to receive new insight from their individual experience (i.e. “personal revelation”). While I am comfortable with the label atheist, I am equally comfortable with the labels agnostic, believer, Buddhist, humanist, deist, theist, Christian, and (yes) Mormon. I see religion as language. Just as I can speak various languages, I can practice many different religions (rites, ways of expressing human values, including the values we construct to respect things we don’t understand, e.g. God). One language is not categorically better than another, and the point of language is not perfect grammar but meaningful communication--and the minimization of evil (which we all know from our own experience as well as that of others around us). How you practice religion is more important to me, infinitely more important, than what religion you happen to practice.  How you speak says more about your individual character than the language you happen to use.  I do not write in English here because I am superior, and anything good I offer is good for a reason that transcends its being expressed in English. The world would certainly not be a better place if we all forgot how to speak any language but English.

There are things I love about Mormonism: its history contains a lot of heroism to go along with the mafia politics, bigotry, and small-mindedness, and I honor that heroism. I admire the successes of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and I weep for their failures (the same way I do for my own). I respect the moral integrity of other Mormons, including those in power (in the church or outside it), even when I firmly disagree with some strong moral stance that they have taken (e.g. the stance that brands all explicit criticism of priesthood leaders as evil: I do not believe this, and I never will; I see it as a betrayal of everything good in Mormonism, but I respect the right of other Mormons to hold it and defend it). I still get a kick out of watching General Conference (for more than just the eye-rolls), and I think BYU represents a valuable educational experience (for me and other students, Mormon and not)--provided the administration does not curtail academic freedom there.

Even though history has separated me from full activity in the church, probably forever, I am not above making common cause with it, and I will always have a cultural affinity with people who self-identify as Mormons. I wish them and their churches well, even when they do things I would not do, say things I would not say, reveal the will of God as I would not reveal it. Like Joseph Smith, I know what I know, and I have to stay true to that (even when the church doesn’t like it).

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