Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Church Without God - The Excommunication of John Dehlin

Since leaving Mormonism in 2010, and subsequently resigning my membership in 2012, I have kept watch and remained interested in the progressive Mormon movement within the religion of my youth. It has been a grassroots movement led by intellectuals, historians, feminists, LGBT-allies, and those that yearn for greater equality and diversity. They are believers in “big-tent” Mormonism and want their church to be a refuge for all that are weary, despised, rejected, and disenfranchised rather than a church that welcomes only the few “elect” who step in line and embrace the status quo. One may wonder why I have continued to engage in the dialog after leaving my faith. For those that are curious, I have two reasons:

I. After coming out, I've felt obligated to do what I can to stop the damage
I know from first-hand experience what it is like for a gay kid to grow up in the LDS Church. I know the damage it causes. I know the agony of sleepless nights. I know the hopelessness and the isolation. I know how it feels to be a shell of a person. I know what it means to hate yourself. I know the deafening silence of unanswered prayers. I know the emptiness and the feeling of total worthlessness accompanied by the realization that God has abandoned you. 

I’ve sat in church and felt the cutting pain inflicted by words, sharp as knives, hurled from the pulpit. I watched and listened to trusted leaders and fellow believers call my love “counterfeit” and unite to strip it of dignity and kick it to the gutter. I know what it is like to believe that if people ever found out, they could never love me. I've faced the paralyzing possibility of losing everyone and everything that matters to me. I've read the damning words of men I believed spoke for God. I know how it feels when the only solace left to be found, that last glimmer of hope, rests in the promise of death.

The magnitude of the agony the LDS Church inflicts upon individuals and families in this regard is beyond words. It is spiritual abuse. I feel an obligation to support those in my old church who raise up their voices in defense of those still in the grips of that special kind of hell. To be silent would be akin to refusing to help my younger broken self as he stumbled further into the grips of needless suffering. As an "ex-mormon" however, I am an outsider-- not to be trusted by those on the inside. There is little I can do other than to share my story.
II. I have historically expected more from the community I loved
I still want to believe that the people who once embraced me as family— the ones who sat with me in church, who raised and taught me to be good and decent, who sacrificed and served, and who strive to do what is right—  I still want to believe that they stand for what is good and true. I want to believe that if only they saw the whole picture, they would stop singing “all is well,” and instead, with heavy hearts and deep concern, rise up and not only challenge themselves to do more and be better, but to demand a revolution in their Church which would align their actions with the words they claim to believe and fundamentally change the way they interacted with people who are different from them.  
Sadly, however, I am losing faith in my old community. While I still know there are many good people in that community, they seem to be no match for the heavy hand of the institution. See, in order for good people to be of any use, their courage to do what is right must be greater than their fear of the consequences. Or as Edmund Burke put it, "all that's necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing." But the cost is high. The risk is to become ostracized and marginalized, to be accused of being an agitator, an apostate, to be categorized as one of little faith-- corrupted by the whims of the world, to be devalued and shunned, and yes, even to be thrown out of the only community you have known and loved.
Me as a Mormon missionary in Korea
The decision to excommunicate John Dehlin is incredibly revealing. The Mormon Church has reacted defensively to justify the decision, and in doing so has exposed its dirty laundry for all to see. It has revealed that it values orthodoxy above integrity of conscience and strict obedience over spirituality. Despite reports of other noted motivations, the LDS Church cites the following justifications for the decision:
  • Disputing the nature of our Heavenly Father and the divinity of Jesus Christ. 
  • Statements that the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham are fraudulent and works of fiction.
  • Statements and teachings that reject The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as being the true Church with power and authority from God.
Read those again and I’ll offer commentary on each:

  • Any honest truth-seeker would question the nature of God. If you believe you are an honest truth-seeker and you think know for certain the nature of God, I challenge you. Even Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, had an evolving view God. It is evident in his multiple, differing accounts of his “first vision,” and in the confusing text of the Book of Mormon which sometimes speaks as if God & Christ are one in the same. Even mainstream Christianity owes its current view of God to a meeting where religious minds came together to debate and settle on one idea for the sake of unity. Do we honestly believe that mortal modern-day men are so wise as to understand God to such a degree that the book is closed on the nature of this source of infinite knowledge and power, having no beginning or end? If so, try to explain to an ant colony what you are and why you are building a home next to it and report back to me on how much the ants comprehend you. I expect we could liken the understanding men have of God to the understanding ants have of us.
  • The Mormon Church itself has admitted to the fact that the Book of Abraham is no translation. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone and fragments of the original documents in 1966 have proven this. The debate is over, and this is why the Church had to say something acknowledging the evidence. In fact, all of Joseph Smith's supposed “translations” that have any record of ever actually existing have been proven either to be false translations or forged “ancient” records (unbeknownst to Joseph Smith). There is absolutely no evidence that the “gold plates” ever actually existed (if you think otherwise, again- I challenge you), and therefore we can’t compare the “translation” that is the Book of Mormon to any real record because no record exists. However, given what we know about the other “translations", and given the many reasons that suggest the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction, is it really such a stretch to think that, maybe, the Book of Mormon may not be historical? More importantly, does it matter? Doesn't that debate miss the mark completely anyway? Does one have to believe the whole earth was flooded or that it was literally created in 6 days or that we all descended from Adam and Eve to find value in the bible? To seek a relationship with God? Must we reject evolution in order for the bible to maintain status as scripture? Why must we need to believe a text is literal or historical in order for it to have value? Didn’t Christ himself teach in allegories? Can lessons not be learned from fictional narratives? I'll tell you the problem the Mormon Church has with this. They outline it in the next bullet point- it is their claim to one-true-churchdome and they will not let that go.
  • So on this last point, excuse my language but, enough with the “one-true-church” bullshit already. The Mormon Church has become completely disconnected with reality. It has failed to unite human life with divine life. Instead, it has taken all that is good and disfigured it into a mass of burdens, rules and obligations. It has chosen self-imposed isolation and insists on playing the victim while at the same time extinguishing the light in any real truth-seeking soul and hurling whole groups of people into the margins. Exactly the kind of thing Christ himself lashed out against. It is exclusionary and uninviting. It values the expensive white facade of its buildings and the nice conservative dress and hairstyles of its people over facilitating the divine potential of every human being, regardless of what walk of life they come from or what stage of life they are in. Is this really what “the spirit of Christ” is all about? I don’t recall and teachings about how finding the "one true" religious organization is essential in order to follow the charge to love God and love your neighbor. I do recall, however, a lot of teachings about serving the very type of people whom those religious organizations despised and rejected, insisting they were "above" mingling with for them for fear it would tarnish their image. Isn't this the core of the message?
Mormon Leadership, unanimously sustained as "Prophets, Seers, and Revelators"
by themselves and the members
In all these reasons the Church has cited I fail to see how any of it measures whether or not John Dehlin is living a life that is acceptable to God. Instead I see a list of things why he is not acceptable to the Church. John Dehlin and others like him are the ones that who have bothered to even notice the marginalized and rejected, the lost and the heavy-hearted. While Church leaders sit on their mighty red thrones of self-appointed power and authority ignoring the damage that they are doing, people like John have seen the pain and felt the need for compassion and change. Something in their heart tells them they cannot be silent. Something tells them a great injustice is being done and their conscience will not allow them to ignore it. The Mormon Church has decided to throw out people like John. It is something it has a history of doing. Soon, the only people in its pews will be what Father Alexander Schmemann, an influential Orthodox Christian priest, called “secularists":
"A 'secularist' is usually a very religious man, attached to his church, regular in attending services, generous in his contributions, acknowledging the necessity of prayer, etc. He will have his marriage `solemnized' in church, his home blessed, his obligations fulfilled, all this in perfect good faith. But all this will not in the least alter the plain fact that his understanding of all these spheres: marriage, family, home, profession, leisure and ultimately his religious `obligations' themselves, will be derived not from the creed he confesses in church, not from the Incarnation, Death, Resurrection and Glorification of Christ, the Son of God become Son of Man, but from the 'philosophies of life', i.e. ideas and convictions having nothing to do with that creed, if not directly opposed to it."

I no longer care to ever be a part of the Mormon Church again. I have no desire to be somewhere I am not wanted or valued. I have enough self-respect to demand the same dignity that every human being deserves and to have a voice. The leadership has certainly made it clear that it doesn’t want gay people- and that's fine.

They don't want feminists. They don't want intellectuals. They don't want questioners or movers and shakers. They don't want anyone that might challenge it. Challenge it to be better and do more. And that's fine too.

Art by Sergio Albiac
But who will be left sitting in those pews, after these have all left? And is such a place worthy of housing all the beauty and diversity and complexity of the living, breathing, thinking creations made of the stars?

And despite it being my old home and family, and despite the fact that I expect more from a church I once called mine, I don't think it is worthy. And it's a shame, but it's fine. If it is "their” church, it is a church without God, and they can have it. And I'll find the intellectuals and the feminists, the outcasts and the other, the movers and the shakers, and the people that demand us to be better and to do more, and we will create a world worthy of beings made of the stars.

Friday, February 6, 2015

This Belongs to You, and Always Will

When you fall in love, you don’t do it with an expiration date in mind. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, you just begin to build a life around another person. Pretty soon months and years go by and you’ve created a pretty remarkable thing and you look over to find a person that knows you better than anyone. A person you trust enough to guard the deepest most vulnerable pieces of your heart. He's the last person you see before you close your eyes, and the first when you wake. Not too long after falling in love, hardly a memory is made that is void of him and life fails to take on a definition independent of this, the most significant person in it.

Breaking up with someone you love is all sorts of agony. After so many years of living a life and contemplating a future together, it feels like being an accomplice in some great crime committed against yourself, your life, and the person you care most about in the world. Managing to actually make the decision to end the relationship in the first place is enough to drive a person to the deepest depths of despair. It is a special sort of cruelty that this decision, supposedly made for the happiness of the two people you care most about, feels so incredibly horrible. And scary- boy is it scary. You wonder how the hell you will manage to survive without your best friend, your rock, your everything- by your side.

After making that courageous and difficult decision, there is no solace or comfort to be found. The pain doesn’t stop. Intense loneliness follows immediately after saying goodbye. In a single painful moment, after years of togetherness, you lose the one person you most want to be with when you are in pain. All around you are the remnants of a life you built together. A blanket he made that says “I love you.” Photos and souvenirs from trips and memories together. The wallpaper on your phone (I just barely changed it). Even the songs on the radio remind you of the life you had. You struggle to fall asleep alone. You wake to no “good mornings.” And all you want to do is text him to see how his day went or hear his voice because you know just the sound of it will make you feel less lonely. It seems so justifiable given the pain, but you know that once the conversation is over, you will find yourself alone, re-living the break up again.

In the immediate aftermath of the break up, I wrote a post about how I felt like I was leaving behind so much good. The problem is, I don’t want to give all that up (Let's be real, I couldn’t even bring myself to change the wallpaper on my phone!). Lately though, I’m coming around to this idea that actually, I don’t need to leave behind anything at all. I can keep all that was good and still change the wallpaper.

I’ve always loved the story of Peter Pan. It has always felt significant to me ever since I was young. There is a scene in Peter Pan where Wendy has decided she needs to leave Neverland and grow up. Peter is absolutely devastated by grief. We witness his denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimate acceptance of his loss. It doesn’t help that his family of lost boys leaves with his Wendy.

At the climax of the film, when complete and utter doom seems unavoidable, and death is soon upon them all, Wendy has a chance to say her goodbye to Peter. She gets close to Peter’s ear and whispers, “This belongs to you, and always will.” She then takes his face in her hands and kisses him. This act completely changes their fate and they defeat Hook and fly to the stars for their proper goodbye. But Wendy still goes home, and Peter still returns to Neverland and they go on to live out their lives without the other. Before Peter leaves, Wendy asks, “you won’t forget me, will you?” to which Peter responds, “Me? Forget? Never.” And away he goes.

I’ve often thought about that kiss and how it might be representative of love. Peter and Wendy had their “awfully big adventure.” Falling in love is just that. Adventures don’t always go as planned. There is always risk and uncertainty involved. I risked falling in love with Sean, and it was an awfully big adventure- one I will never forget.

I don't believe love is a limited resource of the heart. I don’t need to burry it or “leave it behind.” In, The Fault in Our Stars, there is a discussion about how there are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There is 0 and 0.0001 and 0.00011 and so on and so forth forever. There is an infinity even between two small numbers. Sean and I shared 3 1/2 years. Our life together was a little infinity. I am beginning to see that even though our big adventure together came to an end, our little infinity and the love I shared with Sean belongs to him, and always will. And that’s okay.