[Edit: the original author responded — dinosaursarefun.blogspot.com/2015/05/following-up.html]
I recently read a blog post that was posted or liked by a few of my Facebook friends: “How to Stay Mormon When You’re Tired of Mormons.” The intended audience of the post is those who wrestle with questions about some of the things that the Church teaches, or with elements of Church culture, but who nonetheless still believe and want to attend — but who feel out of place because of their questions, and their dissenting opinions on some elements of Church teaching and culture.
Today I would like to echo the message of Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf in a recent General Conference: all are welcome and wanted, wherever they stand. He explains, “There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith—even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty.” He goes on to say:
If you could see into our hearts, you would probably find that you fit in better than you suppose. You might be surprised to find that we have yearnings and struggles and hopes similar to yours. Your background or upbringing might seem different from what you perceive in many Latter-day Saints, but that could be a blessing. Brothers and sisters, dear friends, we need your unique talents and perspectives. The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church.
I think that it is vital that we reach out to those who sometimes wonder if they fit in, who struggle some elements of Church teaching, who are irritated by other members or some elements of Church culture. We must ensure that all feel welcome here. We should each examine our own words and behaviors and ensure that we are doing all we can to invite, not to exclude, those who are not as convinced as we are of some of the teachings of the Church and its leaders. We must do all we can to make sure that those who don’t feel they fit in are made to feel wanted and welcome. Because these are brothers and sisters — not strangers or foreigners.
I wanted to make three suggestions of my own for “how to stay Mormon when you’re tired of Mormons.” I personally don’t like this title — it assumes that Mormons are tiring, and it implicates anyone who is not on team “doubting” of being somehow part of the problem. It’s divisive. I would prefer the title, “How to Stay Mormon when You Don’t Feel Like You Fit In,” or “How to Stay Mormon when You Aren’t Convinced of Everything the Church Teaches.” Because these titles don’t cast aspersions on fellow members of the Church. But that’s a minor quibble. My major quibble with the post was that there was nary a mention of Christ and the covenants we make with Him. So here goes:
1. Remember that Christ is the cornerstone of our faith. It is Him we are seeking. It is He with whom we walk our daily walk. We are not saved by a set of abstract doctrines, we are saved by Christ. The focus of our meetings isn’t always on Christ, but it should be (none of us are perfect). He is at the head of this Church, not President Thomas S. Monson (who is simply a mortal representative). The Church bears His name. So the first thing to remember is that if you believe in this Church at all, it is because it is His Church. And that right there should motivate our deepest loyalties.
2. Find opportunities to communicate with God. Seek Him out in daily prayer. Prioritize reading and pondering on His word. Find quiet times to converse with Him, and pour out your concerns and your thoughts. Attend the temple and feel the Spirit there. And all of this, do humbly. Our task is not to plead with God to change His Church, the teachings of His servants, or even elements of culture we dislike. You may be right about all of your complaints about Church culture. Our task in prayer, however, is to plead with God to make us into a pure and wholesome people. It is to seek personal transformation.
3. Remember the covenants we have made with God. That’s what it means to be Mormon. It doesn’t mean that we assent to some list of abstract doctrines (even though we may covenant to do just that, for at least a few core teachings). It doesn’t mean that we were born in Utah or participate in some cultural movement. When you cut through the layers of culture, assumptions, and lifestyles associated with “being Mormon,” at the center lies a covenant (entered into by ritual) with God. That is the defining characteristic of being Mormon. We are a people who have promised ourselves to God.
And so when you are “tired of Mormons,” or “don’t feel like you fit in,” or are wondering about certain aspects of Church teaching and culture, and are unsure of what’s essential and what’s not, here’s the best thing to do (in my opinion): remind yourself of what you have covenanted with God to do, and throw yourself into that work. Look outwards. Mourn with those that mourn. Comfort those that need comfort. Work a little extra to give a more generous fast offering. Genuinely and fervently minister to those within your stewardship (be it family, home or visiting teachees, students in a class or youth group, etc.). Stand as a witness of God. Throw yourself into keeping the covenants described in scripture, and all else will fade into the background.
On Expressive Individualism and Discipleship
While pondering these issues, I thought a bit about expressive individualism. It is absolutely true that our personal standing before God matters far, far more than our standing before men — in fact, how others think of us simply doesn’t matter at all. It’s what God thinks of us that matters. It is also absolutely true that personal revelation is at the core of our faith. We should seek a personal relationship with God. And it’s also true that each of our life journeys will be unique — each of our “stone walls” may look a bit different. We all have our own experiences and unique witnesses. I have no quibbles with any of that.
However, expressive individualism is a philosophy that assertions of individuality are a higher virtue than meticulous adherence to moral tradition. It assumes that life involves a conflict between the self and the traditions and expectations of society, and that a flourishing life requires that the self win this conflict and assert complete moral autonomy. In other words, others don’t get to tell us what is right — we get to decide that for ourselves. And we should follow whatever path we feel is right for us, regardless if others may disagree.
On the surface, there’s little to disagree with here. After all, shouldn’t we follow God, even when all the world wants us to go the other direction? Shouldn’t we follow personal revelation, even when all the world tell us our answers are wrong? After all, damn tradition if tradition is man-made and keeps me from serving God and fellow man. However, what’s missing from expressive individualism is humility, a submissiveness that says at all times, “Not my will, but thine be done.” It is this genuine submissiveness to God that is a hallmark of Christian discipleship.
As Latter-day Saints and as Christians, we believe that in a war between self and tradition, if either wins, both lose. There is a third alternative that is not abandoning self in service of tradition, nor shirking tradition in service of the self. That third alternative is to become disciples of Christ. While tradition says “follow the rules,” and while expressive individualism says, “follow your heart,” Christ, in contrast to both, says, “Follow thou me.” Christ cuts through the competing demands of both self and tradition, and invites us to make Him our Master, rather than self or tradition. I like to imagine Him saying, “Follow thou me, and I will make the rules and change your heart.” In the battle between tradition and self, the only victory we should seek is the victory of Christ over both.
I think we sometimes approach religion a little too consumeristically — the questions asked are not, how might I become more Holy, more Pure, more Christlike, but rather, “How is the Church benefitting me?” We find fault with the Church, rightly or wrongly, rather than looking inwards and calling upon God to help us become renewed and better people. The Church is full of blessings and benefits both spiritually and socially — some might say an embarrassment of riches — but those who benefit the most are those who do not jealously eye their pile of benefits, but see and seek opportunities to serve God and others instead.
There are important questions, of course, to be answered. For example, what happens when repeated, ongoing counsel from prophets and apostles conflicts with our own understanding of the world? I think that’s where heart of the difficulty lies — some of us simply don’t believe that certain teachings and counsel from prophets and apostles come from God. (I don’t count myself as one of these — at least on issues where apostles and prophets have spoken unanimously and repeatedly.) This can create a real discord within the hearts and minds of members of the Church (and amongst each other).
The question of individualism vs. discipleship influences how we approach these sorts of questions. The individualist will assume from the outset that such counsel is part of the “traditions of men,” and will treat invitations to follow such counsel with suspicion (unless and until it can be made sensible within their worldview). Thus, they will encourage you to stop thinking about how “Church leaders” might view you, but to focus instead on God. Counsel from prophets and apostles starts to blend into and become indistinguishable from “opinions of others*, which we should ignore and follow our heart instead. To me, this is really an elevation of one’s own wisdom — a stance of pride.
The disciple will acknowledge that counsel from the Lord sometimes does conflict with our own understanding, will seek guidance from God through all venues (prayer, scriptures, the Holy Spirit, modern prophet, temple worship), and strive to be teachable. This does not presume the ultimate answers one way or the other, but it does determine the starting point and attitude with which we approach the questions. The disciple will prayerfully consult scripture and the Holy Spirit as they study the words of prophets — and they will acknowledge that God may indeed call mortal, imperfect men to be stewards of His vineyard, and He may indeed hold us accountable for how we treat their counsel.
Again, I’m not presuming anything one way or another about the ultimate answers, except that the disciple will start from the position that prophets and apostles may be right and seek to be teachable, and the individualist will start from the position that prophets and apostles may be wrong, and use that to rationalize their dissent. (Conversely, the traditionalist will start form the position that prophets and apostles are right, but will not be teachable, nor seek a personal testimony through the Spirit of these things.)
For me, I also like to think of these issues in terms of the Parable of the Faithful Husband: if we think of our relationship with the Church of Christ as a marriage, what is our first reaction when we see flaws in our spouse? Does a loyal spouse gossip about them in the marketplace, or does the loyal spouse humbly seek to serve and love their spouse?
I appreciate that the author of the original post didn’t spend it opining about the faults of the Church, but focusing on what we can do instead. That is a good approach. I just felt that the suggestions given focused way more attention on the self, how we can take care of the self, how we can be true to ourselves, etc., and not enough attention on God and His will. For the most part, I appreciated the post and the thoughts that is prompted — the author clearly wants people to stay in the Church, and clearly believes in the Church. I just felt that there is nothing better that we can do when we feel like we don’t fit in than focus on Christ and the covenants we have made with Him.