A Tale of Two Shelves — Uncertainty and the Mormon Church

Mormon Shelf
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.
Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 10.34.35 AM.png
“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.

The Moment

 

Journal entry from February 10th, 2008.
“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.

Your input

 

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.  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?

 

My Intention

 

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,

 

— Jefferson

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Judy’s Story (Unworthy Series)

When I was in my early teens I decided it was time for me to gain my own testimony. I buckled down and started reading my scriptures daily, praying fervently, and making an effort to be more kind, reverent, patient, meek, etc. When I got to the end of the BoM, and knelt down to fulfill my part in Moroni’s Promise, the response I got was…. nothing. Not a single thing. I still couldn’t look myself in the mirror and say, “I know the church is true.” I had a hard time even saying I believed in God, because I just didn’t know.

Over the next decade or so I fell into a cycle. I would make an effort to finally gain the testimony I so desperately wanted, lunging fully into all-out Molly Mormon mode (starting each cycle with an act designed to get me focused on the gospel, as benign as covering an entire bedroom wall with scriptures and quotes from prophets/apostles I liked, or as insane as transferring across the country to attend a church school). After months of reading my scriptures for hours a day and praying long into the night, I would come away with that big pile of nothing. I would then become severely depressed, because I knew I was doing all the things I was supposed to do, and God still wasn’t answering my prayers. I thought that must mean that I wasn’t being what I was supposed to be, that I was so inherently flawed that the Holy Ghost had abandoned me long ago. Between the ages of 14-20 I attempted suicide three times because I felt so absolutely worthless that I thought if I could just die and go to the Telestial Kingdom then at least the self-loathing and guilt would go away.

Here’s the thing – during this decade of vicious self-hatred and guilt I never once broke the Word of Wisdom. I never even got so far as a french kiss with a boy. I always dressed modestly. I didn’t swear. I paid my tithing. I went years at a time without missing a single day reading my scriptures. I was president of all of my YW groups, president of my seminary class, and on the Institute council. I went to church every week, and to all my activities. I wasn’t doing a damn thing wrong, even by Mormon standards.

But every time I told someone – a family member, a friend, a church leader – that I was feeling depressed, they told me it was because I wasn’t close enough to God. They told me that if I just put a little more effort in to Choosing The Right then I would feel the comfort of the Savior. Their first question when I said how I felt was always, “Well, are you reading your scriptures? Are you saying your prayers?” It was reinforced again and again that the fault was my own. However hard I thought I was working, I should be working harder. “Jesus is knocking on a door without a handle,” they’d remind me. “It’s up to you to let him in.”

Finally one Sunday afternoon, in my mid-20s, I was sitting on my bed looking over all the notes I had taken in Sacrament meeting and Sunday School that day (as I did every week), writing into my journal yet another idea about how I could finally gain a testimony this time. A thought popped into my head. I don’t know how it got there, exactly. It was just a simple idea – four tiny words – that changed my life forever.

“I’m a good person.”

I had never, EVER thought that about myself before. I was suddenly flooded with warmth. My breath caught in my throat. I let myself think it again. “I’m a good person.” The next thought in my head was likewise unexpected. “I bet if there’s a Heaven, I would get to go. If God is who the Mormon church says he is, I want nothing to do with him.”

I immediately grabbed my Bible. I decided right then and there that I was going to shift the direction of my spiritual studies. I was going to learn all about God – who he was, what he wanted from me, how I could know him – and I wanted to start at the beginning. I opened up Genesis, Chapter 1, and started reading.

I made it 27 verses before shutting the book and saying aloud, “This is all bullshit. I don’t believe in any of it.”

Two minutes. After more than 10 years of torturing myself trying to be better, better, better, all the time, it took less than two minutes for me to abandon religion completely. That tiny spark of self worth – “I’m a good person” – was hot enough and intense enough and bright enough to burn down my entire belief structure, and the thing that rose from the ashes like a phoenix was a new way to look at life. “I’m a good person. That’s what my religion is. To be good. To be nice. To basically not be a dick to people – and especially not to be a dick to myself. To love myself, warts and all, and know that my desire to be kind to others is worth more than any empty promise a God could give me.

(This is part of a series on shame and unworthiness.  Read more people’s experiences here)

The Death of an Atheist

Have you ever woken up from a dream–an intense dream–and had the emotions of that dream carry over into consciousness long after you awoke?  Last night that happened to me.  As I lay in bed, depressed, I had one overwhelming thought:  in all likelihood I will be completely forgotten within four generations.  This thought wasn’t depressing.  It was just a realization, a cool-headed analysis of the reality of the passing of time.  I was feeling depressed, but for a different reason.  But now I’m getting ahead of myself – let me go back to the beginning . . .

Death

I had a dream the other night, and in the dream my sister Emily had died.  I was notified, by telephone or in person, I don’t remember.  Have you ever sought to dwell on a negative thought just so you could bring up a specific emotion in yourself?  Like when you want to feel angry so you think about someone bullying your little brother, or when you want to really feel pain so you look at pictures of friends you haven’t seen in years?  Well that’s what I did in this dream.  I visualized my sister as the sweet kid and strong adult I knew she was, saw the relationship we had, and the one we never had because of distance, being too busy, or just because of apathy.  I felt the pang of regret for not having become closer to her when I had the chance.  It seems my dreaming brain wasn’t yet satisfied with the depth of my remorse, so it conjured up something greater – after dwelling on my sister for a while I also realized I was the only one still alive in my immediate family.  Of all the depressing dreams I’ve had in my life I’ve never been the only survivor left in my family.  I felt alone without them.  My gene pool, the people I grew up with from infant to adult, the only people on earth I have any real connection with beyond mere friendship, the people who could steal from me, or ignore me, or just have such a different personality from me but who I would love anyway–my family–was completely gone.  I was in a room, maybe a waiting room or a funeral parlor, and there were people all around me, but they were strangers, not my family, not my blood, and I didn’t care about them.  I was alone.

Awake now, sitting in my bed, drinking a glass of water, I realized I need to make some changes.  Because all I have is this life.  You see, when I die – hopefully as an old man while peacefully sleeping, or maybe while I’m on a mountain doing what I enjoy with those I love – I’ll be gone.  There won’t be a judgment; a cloud where I’ll eternally play harp music or a hell where I’ll eternally burn.  There won’t even just be blackness.  I will be dead – unable to perceive even the absence of light and conclude that I’m lonely.  Unable to feel, observe, think, regret, hope, or DO anything.  I will never exist again.  It’s not a happy thought, but it’s a realistic thought, and I have no reason to seriously believe any other philosophy.

This is important to me, because there will be no second chance to make something happen if I fail to do it now.  No procrastination.  No thinking, “Well, I loved Emily, and we didn’t have as good of a relationship as we could have, but we’ll have the chance for that when I pass away.”  To believe so is to rob yourself of the truth, and to rob yourself of the chance to create truly amazing relationships now.  If I want to have real meaning in my life I have to do it now.  Right now.

Purpose

Alone in my dream, with other people around me but none of my family, no one who had any reason to remember me, I realized that by all realistic expectations I will be completely forgotten within four generations, and mostly forgotten by three.  Think about it for a second – what do you know about your great great grandparents?  I know very little about my great grandfathers and almost nothing about my great-greats, even though I’m named after one of them.  I’m sure they did some good things, and certainly their decisions still silently impact my life today, but I don’t know their humor, their accomplishments, or their stories.

Your mom undoubtedly told you you’re special, most moms do, but I grew up in a religion that taught me I’m something even more than special.  You see, I was chosen before the world was even created to be born in this difficult time, given the truth, the simple and enlightening truth, to take to others lost in the gray confusion created by Satan and years of sin.  I was sent on a mission to convert others to the teachings that would literally save them from everything bad in this world and the next.  I was sent to change the world . . . or at least a good chunk of it.  I was told I’d live forever, and that death was just another beginning.

I now realize the only reason I’m here is because my parents had sex and the biological processes worked the way they’re supposed to.  No grand purpose, no all-powerful being guiding my decisions, no big impact on the world I’m destined to accomplish.  By all probable expectations I will have been born, lived, and died without causing even a minute difference to the world, or at least not a recognizable one.  Undoubtedly one of you is saying to yourself, “Well, everything we do has an impact and we can never comprehend how much we changed those around us.”   You’re absolutely right.  But go climb a mountain and look out over a valley.  Open up an atlas and look at the world.  Look at the largest cities, and marvel at the size of them, the sheer number of people who are living right now.  Marvel at how small you are.  Realize billions have come and gone, affecting only those in their immediate vicinity and were forgotten with everyone else.

The fact is within four generations no one will remember my name.  Unless of course I’m one of the few – if I write something truly great, star in some groundbreaking movie, or accomplish some great political reform that has my name attached to it.  But even then the futility of it all makes that quest hollow.  Self-aggrandizement solely for the purpose of having your name memorized by future generations is an altogether unfulfilling purpose to live for.  I won’t care if I’m remembered – I’ll be dead!

And that simple realization helps me gain real meaning in the life I live today.

Life

This moment–right now–laughing with friends, helping a stranger, learning everything I can, hanging out with family, struggling on the climbing wall–ENJOYING every moment I can in the fullest sense of the word–that’s what life is about!  ENJOYING my family.  ENJOYING each of my friends; their unique humor; their unique outlook.  Taking joy from helping the one, from caring about someone enough to listen to them, to teach a child something that will help, to give them confidence so they’ll believe in themselves.  These are the little things that make life great.  Being remembered, my name being engraved on some wall, written in some text book, or repeated by my descendants, is of little importance to me.  What pride is there to be had when I’m a corpse?  None of that is important.  It doesn’t matter if the stranger I help remembers me, or if the kid I teach praises me – all that matters is that I did something to make his life a little brighter, a little lighter, a little happier.

The fact is – all I have is this life.  These moments, written down in the book of my life – individual, fleeting experiences I have while the pages turn more and more quickly – is all I can guarantee.  So I LIVE.  I LIVE each day; each moment I can.  I revel in the weaknesses that make me ME, laugh at my inability to overcome them, and put one foot in front of the other and try again.  I appreciate each person around me, doing my best to not see them as society does–as a consumer, a product, a beauty or a beast–but as complex individuals with their own great stories.  I become honest with myself, and open my heart up for others around me so they can actually see the real me, and I hope they’ll do the same.

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.  It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” 
Macbeth, act V, scene v

A tale told by an idiot . . . signifying nothing.  This thought does not depress me – rather it motivates me to learn to really live a full life.  I will not be “an idiot, full of sound and fury,” thinking so highly of myself while I live and then being forgotten – my life having meant nothing.  Rather, I know I’ll be forgotten, and try to live my life according to what brings me and those around me the most joy.  The truth is I have no purpose given to me from outside myself.  No God telling me I’m important.  No teacher giving me false hopes and delusions of grandeur.  The purpose of my life is solely up to me to create and to enjoy.  And I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it!
**********
What do you think?
This is part of a series–Death, Life, and Atheism–where I’ll be compiling some of the best literature and poetry about death and atheism, along with some thoughts of my own.

Nathan and I on the Gay Mormon Stories podcast

A few weeks ago, my brother and I were interviewed for the Gay Mormon Stories podcast by Daniel Parkinson.  It was a lot of fun and I’m so grateful to be a part of it!  We talked about what it was like growing up as Mormons with a gay dad (who lived in another state), how our family has developed over the years, our eventual path out of the Church, and our new relationship with our dad as activists for homosexual equality.  The podcast went live this morning – Part 1 and Part 2.  (Update – my mom’s interview is now up as well – Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.  My dad’s is up as well – Part 1 and Part 2)

As you listen, I hope you’ll consider some of these questions:

  • “What would it be like for a 10- and 13-year-old to find out that their dad is gay?”
  • “How would that knowledge affect their Mormon faith and their relationship with their dad?”

Within a few weeks, my mom’s podcast and my dad’s podcast will also be available.  My earnest hope is that this conversation will be helpful.  I’ve become a little cynical lately by how difficult it is for us all to understand each other, impossible even (see Sunrise).  I hope you’ll listen, try to see things from our perspective, and then consider what you think about it yourself.

One thing I want to make clear is that you don’t need to leave the Church to accept gay people – many faithful Mormons already have.  Nathan and I are, however, the personal witnesses of the damage narrow doctrine can cause to families and we talk about that quite a bit in this podcast.  That was our experience.

Also, Nathan and I didn’t leave the Church because of doctrines about homosexuality, though they did challenge us in important ways.  We simply feel closer to our dad after losing the belief that he couldn’t be happy without the gospel.  Please understand that what I’m talking about here is sincere pain I felt while growing up, feeling that my dad was a bad person for choosing to be gay.

What I want to see is more Mormons who embrace the gay people in their communities.  So many gay Mormons are still ostracized by their families.  In fact, 42% of homeless youth in Utah are gay!  Many of them were kicked out of their homes by their Mormon families in a “My way or the highway” sort of way.  How many others have committed suicide?  Or lived in depression?  Or thought, for the majority of their lives, that they were wicked or “depraved?”  Or developed psychological problems or been pushed to “greater sins” as a result of losing everything because of their family’s response to their sexual orientation?  Whether or not you believe homosexuality is OK in God’s eyes, the way Mormon culture currently approaches it is hurting a lot of people, my family included.

For the sake of all the young Mormon boys who will tell their fathers, with strained voices and watery eyes, that they like boys instead of girls (and for the sake of the lesbians and bis and transgenders and everyone else too), please –  let’s drop our differences for a minute and talk.

Gun laws, gay marriage, Obama-care, all the polarizing topics we argue about every day, let’s cut it out for a minute, look around, and see things through other’s eyes for a minute.  Let’s realize that while we bicker, each as confident in our own positions as we were when we acquired them 10 years ago, others around us are experiencing a very real pain.  They need friendship, they need understanding, they need loved ones who listen and don’t judge, who don’t trivialize their inner struggles, who don’t assume things about why or what they do, but who just listen to them and trust them.

So here you go – you have an opportunity to sit back and listen for a bit, to see the world through our eyes as we talk about our past.  I hope you’ll take the chance, and then I hope you’ll help me see through yours by responding.

Much love,

Jefferson

Update:

My mom’s interview is up!  Click here to listen.

(ps – If this is your first time to this blog, please read 2012 in review for a good overview of what this blog is about.  Also, here’s the philanthropy blog mentioned in the podcast.)