I’m not sure where the metaphor of the shelf began, but it found a good teacher in Camilla Kimball, wife of the President of the Church at the time, Spencer W. Kimball.
“I’ve always had an inquiring mind. I’m not satisfied just to accept things. I like to follow through and study things out. I learned early to put aside those gospel questions that I couldn’t answer. I had a shelf of things I didn’t understand, but as I’ve grown older and studied and prayed and thought about each problem, one by one I’ve been able to better understand them.”
“I still have some questions on that shelf, but I’ve come to understand so many other things in my life that I’m willing to bide my time for the rest of the answers.”
— Ensign, October 1975. (Link)
This concept is used as one of many tools to keep doubting people walking in faith until a greater testimony comes. In recent years, the shelf has become a symbol for ex-mormons as they discuss topics they tried to ignore for years.
What I haven’t heard discussed, though, is that other shelf. If the Mormon shelf represents unresolved questions or doubts about the church, the other shelf represents questions you wouldn’t have answers for if you didn’t believe Mormonism was true. The Mormon shelf helps keep you Mormon by ignoring what you don’t yet understand. The non-Mormon shelf helps keep you Mormon by emphasizing what you wouldn’t know without your Faith.
This method, coupled with circular reasoning and an emotional basis for discovering truth, helps keep members from straying too far into the unknown.
On the one hand:
“You don’t have an answer yet about why Joseph Smith practiced polygamy, but you know the Book of Mormon is true. Focus on what you do know and answers will come in time.”
On the other hand:
“But if the Church isn’t true, how do you explain the spiritual experiences you’ve had in the Temple?”
With uncertainty on both shelves and a path for certainty between, we walk the straight and narrow path, holding to the word of god as interpreted by our leaders.
“How do you explain?”
The questions on the non-Mormon shelf are rhetorical: as a Mormon I had no intention of actually looking for the answers. When I asked “How would I explain spiritual experiences without the Church?” I didn’t actually want to entertain alternative explanations of my experience. The narrative I carried was a good one, and this rhetorical question is meant to support that narrative while staying firmly on the non-Mormon shelf, to be glanced at only as a way to remind myself of the dark uncertainty I would experience if I ever fully doubted the Faith.
This is the experience of many Mormons. Some stay, some leave. For those who leave, something happens, some new weight is added to their Mormon shelf, and it finally outweighs the other side — the person leaves, but they don’t turn to their non-mormon shelf immediately. That takes time. Their mind is full of dogmatic ideas, and one by one those ideas need to be challenged — their worldview is breaking apart, and needs to break fully before being able to be reformed. Then, when they look back at this shelf, it’s not to glance, but to read.
I’ve been thinking about what it was like immediately after my tipping point, considering the unresolved questions and fears I had and comparing them with how I understand the world now.
I asked a group of fellow ex-members what questions were on their non-Mormon shelf at the moment they left the LDS Church, and here were their responses.
“How do you explain the past spiritual experiences you’ve had? How do you explain the existence of the Book of Mormon? How are you going to tell right vs wrong? What Church would you join? If you leave, you’ll be like everyone else and you won’t understand anything about why you’re here and what you’re supposed to do! If you leave, you won’t have divine guidance through the prophet, and you may become prey to terrible ideas.”
There was a distinct moment when I realized I couldn’t be Mormon. I had vacillated for two years, feeling an intense swing of emotions and faith, but I had always found a way to trust in the Church again, or at least to keep searching on the premise I would find answers to support it. Ultimately, that changed.
“So — today, after I gave Nate the blessing, [my fiancé] and I drove down [to Provo] and went to her ward. Sunday School and Sacrament meeting were both on temples —- and I realized I COULD NOT … it WOULD NOT be possible for me to believe that again. So — I set myself firm in my mind, and when we got in her car after church I told her I couldn’t do it, and explained a little bit of why.”
Afterwards, I went up to the mountain and called a few people. I felt a huge burden lifted off my shoulders. Intellectual freedom! I could look at politics, religion, sexual orientation, anything, without first looking at it through LDS doctrine to see what I was supposed to think about those topics. I was also afraid. I was afraid of that non-Mormon shelf. I was afraid of being deceived, of losing my moral compass, of the new vastness of possibilities. The non-Mormon shelf loomed overhead, intimidating, but I now had the freedom to open the books.
The Non-Mormon shelf
Well, here we are, 10 years later. I dealt with one thing at a time: Homosexuality was an easy one — the moment I left I no longer had any reason to not accept homosexuality as a perfectly equal orientation. I tackled “What church should I join?” first and “Which LDS standards do I still want to uphold?” Some questions resolved themselves, like “Where will I find a sense of community?”
But I left most of these questions undisturbed, like “How do I explain past spiritual experiences?” Having had years of experience with confirmation bias, I didn’t want to try to push those spiritual experiences into new worldviews — I was afraid I would distort them or try for simplistic answers. I knew what others might say about spiritual experiences — but they hadn’t felt what I had felt. They hadn’t had the experience of feeling for certain a religion was true and then feeling for certain it was not. What was my basis for truth, now? How would I know it?
So I waited. I waited so long I forgot the shelf was there. Well, I’d like to take some of those dusty books off that Non-mormon shelf and see whether they were as scary as I thought they’d be, to see if I’ve found some answers or they’ve remained unresolved.
I won’t be posting the answers to those questions right now, but over the next little while. I’m not sure which questions fully merit an answer. Most of the truth questions, though, revolve around the same overarching questions — “What were those spiritual experiences?” and “How can we know what truth is?” That’s the most important one, to me.
Some ex-Mormons never felt the spirit. I did. I continue to feel “it,” although it’s nothing metaphysical at all. The “spirit” as a way to know the truth is such a central part to the Mormon faith system that it deserves full consideration in its own article.
What about you? If you’ve left any religion, what questions or fears did you have at the time which had worked to prevent you from leaving for awhile? If you’re a member of your original religion, what questions do you think would be unanswerable without your faith?
I have one intention — to honestly explore ideas that affect my past and present. One of the greatest problems we face today is a growing tendency to divide into competing camps of thought where we can mischaracterize and otherwise mishear those who disagree with us. That tendency makes us stupid and it makes us easy to manipulate. Honest and careful dialogue about difficult subjects is the only way forward. That means I don’t care if I offend you, and I don’t care if you offend me. But I do see you as a complex and valuable person with your own background and perspective, and I approach you in that way whether you agree with me, disagree, or both.
Hopefully, it’s both.
If this is your first time here, stay awhile! Take a peak around and feel free to contact me directly. Probably my most personally cathartic article is Unworthy. Toss me a follow or a share on social media.
Until next time,