In a not-so-recent discussion with a friend I was asked about my past (a true-believing Mormon or TBM) and how I got to where I am now (partnered to someone of the same sex). That’s not an easy question to answer but I’ll do my best to answer this question. My assumption is many who read my blog have this same question. And before I answer this question I’d like to openly state that my purpose in explaining these things is not recruit any one to my way of thinking; it’s merely to explain for those who would like to understand. Hopefully it will also explain how other people also get from point A to point B in their own “spiritual journeys”.
To start, I’ll take you down memory lane. Around my 18th birthday is when my spiritual journey started. Growing up in Utah, the religion to which I was exposed was the Mormon church. Due to the passing of a family member, I began to take religion more seriously: Is there life after death? Will I be with my family in the after life? Am I worthy to live with them in the Celestial Kingdom? Those are the questions I asked, and I decided the answers to questions were an emphatic yes and subsequently served a full-time mission for the LDS Church. I was called to the Baltic Mission (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), served two years, and loved almost about everything about it (at the time). More on that later.
Me on an LDS mission in Estonia
In preparation to serve, I went through the temple in Logan Utah. I think this is when my first doubts about religion began. Sitting in the temple ceremony I asked, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?” I felt like I had hopped on the wrong bus and it was taking me somewhere I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. My main concern was the subordination of women to men and the realization that LDS women will probably never be equal in status to LDS men. If I marry a woman in an LDS temple one day, could I ask her to submit to me? And would I be okay with my role as a mediator between her and God — that her relationship with God would be defined not as a direct relationship with God but her relationship to me as I sort of shield her from God. Another concern was the fact that I couldn’t get up and leave without being stigmatized and without embarrassing my family or letting them down.
LDS temple in Logan, Utah
You see, social pressure is a huge part of Mormonism. I couldn’t acknowledge my true feelings about that experience for fear of being kicked out, both in the literal sense of being kicked out of the temple and in the metaphorical sense of being rejected by Mormons. Actually, I did acknowledge my thoughts to a few close friends shortly after going through the temple for the first time. They asked, “So, what was it like?” and I resisted expected responses like “I felt like I was home” or “I felt so close to heaven”. I said, “I had a testimony of the Church until now.” As another blogger explained, the LDS Church is really good at enforcing social expectations to keep everyone “in the bounds of ‘acceptable’ behavior”. He speculated that the LDS Church provides a place of community (but you have to give up individuality to fit in). So, to fit in, I didn’t talk about those feelings with any one else. I didn’t want to lose friends; good friends are hard to find.
Jaani kirik (St. John's church) in Tartu, Estonia
Castle in Russia as seen across the river from Narva, Estonia
My experience in the Church continued to be one of living up to social expectations. That’s just how it seems to works. As a missionary, I tried to live up to the expectation of being a challenging and testifying missionary. My very first day in the mission field I was challenged by someone from another faith. My testimony about my church was met by the testimony from someone else about her church; she spoke with as much conviction as me. The solution other missionaries seemed to use was to speak down on members of other religions: “He’s such a good person. Too bad he’s Lutheran; he won’t make it to heaven.” As a lay service member of my local congregation (post-mission), I continued to live up to social expectations despite not really feeling all the things I was supposed to be feeling about the Church.
LDS (Mormon) chapel in Tallin, Estonia where I served as a missionary for two years.
What was I supposed to be feeling? No one really seems to know. It’s not science. You’ll just know when you feel it. Boyd K. Packer claimed it’s just like trying to explain what salt tastes like:
Such an idea came into my mind and I said to the atheist, “Let me ask if you know what salt tastes like.”
“Of course I do,” was his reply.
“When did you taste salt last?”
“I just had dinner on the plane.”
“You just think you know what salt tastes like,” I said.
He insisted, “I know what salt tastes like as well as I know anything.”
“If I gave you a cup of salt and a cup of sugar and let you taste them both, could you tell the salt from the sugar?”
“Now you are getting juvenile,” was his reply. “Of course I could tell the difference. I know what salt tastes like. It is an everyday experience—I know it as well as I know anything.”
“Then,” I said, “assuming that I have never tasted salt, explain to me just what it tastes like.”
After some thought, he ventured, “Well-I-uh, it is not sweet and it is not sour.”
“You’ve told me what it isn’t, not what it is.”
My friend, spiritually speaking, I have tasted salt. I am no more able to convey to you in words how this knowledge has come than you are to tell me what salt tastes like.
The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord (Proverbs 20:27). I'm not really sure what that means.
And that’s the whole crux of Mormonism: it’s true because you just know it is even though you can’t really explain how or why. But as a Mormon you can’t stop there. You then have the responsibility to share what you know with others (even if you don’t really know). Packer continued:
Oh, if I could teach you this one principle. A testimony is to be found in the bearing of it! Somewhere in your quest for spiritual knowledge, there is that “leap of faith,” as the philosophers call it. It is the moment when you have gone to the edge of the light and stepped into the darkness to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two.
My service in the Church was exactly that: me telling others what I knew to be true before I ever felt or believed it was true. That is the part of the mission experience I didn’t like. As Viktor Frankl contended, it seemed my whole mission experience was “depict[ing]…God as a being who is primarily concerned with being believed in by the greatest possible number of believers, and along the lines of a specified creed at that” (Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, p. 17). Those experiences didn’t stop there, however. I continued my service in the Church for several years after returning home from missionary service. I continued to tell people I knew things I didn’t really believe hoping to have the promised experiences.
So what do I believe now?
Saying that one religion is true is like saying that one point in the evolutionary history of a species is “true.” religions are cultural institutions and as such are subject to eventual and gradual change as they adapt. Those members of the religion that hold counter-productive views will not spread those beliefs and those that have effective, pro-social views will pass on the traits of their religion. This is how a religion, like a species, evolves (B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, p 128).