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.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks, Jonathan, for sharing your life and the expression of your struggle. Of course you will create a better situation on behalf of the people you work for. Courage!

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  2. Excellent. I have found the world of the postmo intellectuals, feminists, LGBT movers and shakers to be more fulfilling for me anyways. You all are my new home, and you accept me....questions, doubts, skepticism, and all.

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  3. It seems to me that you hold a lot of anger towards the Church. You spew a lot of venom towards something that holds value for me. You accuse the Church of many things, yet in what you have written, you do the same thing back, accuse and spin things to your point of view.

    There is proof that the Golden Plates existed- or have you not read the testimony of the witnesses? Just because YOU haven't seen them does not mean they do not exist.

    I am not writing this comment to argue with you or with those who agree with you. Your anger is now your testimony of things you used to believe. I wish you well on your journey.

    It is so curious to me, yet the statement seems to be so true: those who leave the Church cannot seem to leave the Church alone. If I hated something as much as you hate the Church, I would get so far away from it, not even speak of it again. The fact that you write volumes about the Church is actually very telling.

    I always thought you and Sean were the perfect couple. It broke my heart to read that you two had decided to go different ways. I know how hard that must be for you and on you. I am so sorry for the pain you have had to go through because of it. It honestly has physically hurt my heart to read of the pain it has caused you. I am so sorry. I do feel your pain.

    Best of all to you, Jonathan. Love, Duck

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    Replies
    1. Duck,

      Good to hear from you again! I am critical, yes. I am critical because, to this day, I have desperate people from around the world email me to tell me about their agony and loneliness. I am critical because the church and it's teachings are STILL driving LGBT youth to suicide. I am critical because I know there are good people sitting in those pews and yet, things have not changed. I am critical because the Church has chosen to boot out anyone who would speak of the harm being done and advocate for change.

      You mistake my passion for anger. You mentioned the Gold Plates. If you do some research on those, you would know that no one actually saw them, including the witnesses. If you study further, you'd see that they explain that they witnessed them with their "spiritual eyes," and did not physically look upon them. They were always covered by a cloth and Joseph Smith never handled them in translation and instead looked through a hat. I do not say these things in anger, I say them as a matter of reality. As I mentioned, however, it doesn't mean the book of mormon is worthless or bad. It doesn't mean it cannot be valued as scripture. It doesn't mean it can't offer good lessons and valuable insights. It doesn't mean that those who find value in its message are unintelligent. Surely the world doesn't take everything in the bible to be literal or historical, and yet we continue to accept it as holy writ and gain value from it.

      The only thing my commentary and opinions should reveal is that I am very disappointed in the church I loved. I wouldn't bother thinking about these topics if I had no love or investment in my old religious community. Don't you see? I didn't leave the Church. The Church has no place for me, just as it has no place for many of the marginalized. The Church allows us to be booted to the gutter and left behind. I didn't "leave the church." The Church left me. To add insult to injury, it has been continually invested in preventing me and other LGBT people access to equal rights and fought state recognition of the dignity of our love and relationships. But you believe I should remain silent and "leave it alone" even while it continues to be a stumbling block in my life. On that point we disagree, and that is okay.

      I did not mean to insult or offend you or any member of the church. My words are directed at the church as a corporate entity and the leaders of that organization, not the people who sit in the pews who have no power over what the leaders do. Archbishops can be openly critical of the pope and still somehow not offend Catholics, even when their doctrine says he is infallible. Surely Mormon people can withstand criticism of their leaders without feeling personally attacked. Are they above criticism?

      Thank you for your words regarding Sean and I. It has been a journey. Sometimes love hurts- that's the risk we take when we love. Luckily, I still think love is worth the pain that can sometimes come with it and I will always be grateful for the love we shared.

      love, Jonathan

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  4. Jonathan, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I always enjoy reading the words of someone who really knows how to convey their message through eloquent writing, complete with well researched facts. Please continue to share. Maybe those of us that can't leave the church alone can open the eyes of others who are still unknowingly stuck within.

    By the way, I don't know what kind of quack job the above commenter Duck is, but he/she really needs to study Mormon history so that they understand that the witnesses never really saw the plates, nor did they sign their names to such testimony.

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  5. Here are some brief snippets of observation from this writing. May God continue to guide you in marinating his unending and vastly limitless love for you just as you were from your borning cry, to your life now, into old age, and into eternal life.

    The nature of God:
    "If you you think know for certain the nature of God, I challenge you." ~ J. Adamson

    Your point here is interpreted to people who tie God down or corner him like stones in a box. Boxes like cosmic accidents or big bangs need to be challenged. Where the challenge ends however is the revelation of the person and being of Jesus Christ. (Sola Fide) There, the complete and full nature of the living God is revealed (for certain) in love, grace, mercy, compassion, suffering and incalculable sacrifice. The living and breathing spirit is known by actions and not mere words. Thus God is among us, lives in us, lives in you, here and now.

    Blame Games:
    LGBT youth suicide: Be careful on this matter when injecting the cause of an individual case by case tragedy. Just.. be.. careful with words here for a hundred different reasons.


    ISMS and Using the word Church:
    When you say the word church, the reader assumes in each instance you refer specifically to the Mormon church, which, by it's own standards, claims to stand outside all other churches viz, "the one true church." This is known as religious exclusivism.Beware of anything that ends in ISM. Christ was never an excluder except in illustration to harvest day aka judgement day separating the weeds from the wheat. Note this distinction. Thus also beware of baiting Darwinism in comparisons to allegory vs literal exegesis. Both can work but science also has limits. Most people will totally misunderstand your intention. “I regret that I suggested a theory, and that gullible men gobbled it up, as though it were fact. I never intended that.” - Charles Darwin


    Your personal experience VS. Generalizing
    Words you used to describe your feelings: damage, agony, hopelessness, isolation, hate, emptiness, worthlessness
    Many people have had this experience. Many people also have not. Beware of painting any group that can be interpreted as a blanket statement, it will stir people like "duck" up and they will feel "attacked" instead of "critiqued" or "observed."

    Mentioning Death without a footnote:
    " that last glimmer of hope, rests in the promise of death." Mention the truth after you observe a false narrative.
    Anyone who mentions Christ and ends a sentence in death doesn't know Christ. So the Mormon church says certain people will die. The biggest festival in the "whole" church is the destruction of death, we are born like him, we die like him but we are raised like Him into eternal life. Death is not the end. Death thou shalt die (J.Donne)

    God bigger than buildings:
    Lastly, in your parade of gifted intellectuals that you take with you, know that i may be a bit of wandering in the dessert, and that is okay. "From generation to generation, you have been our dwelling place." (Psalm 90 of Moses.) Now a days people claim to dwell at a ward, parish, book club, chapel, etc etc. It has always been that we are to dwell directly with God, right where we are, wherever we are, all the time. "Lord, YOU have been our dwelling place" Our help in ages past (Long before 1800's Mormonism) Our help in ages to come (Long past the day Mormon wards collapse.) God doesn't need physical structures. "There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down."(Matthew 24:2) He made the amazon forest out of nothing. Try dwelling there for even a day without marveling. And away we go into lent, until dawn. Peace be with you.

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I'm a filmmaker a blogger and hundreds of other things. Life is full of possibilities, twists, and turns and I don't pretend to know exactly where the road will lead. However, I do intend to share the journey.