This whole election stuff really has people talking about Mormons, but not necessarily in a good way. A week ago, someone asked me what church I attended and I blanched a little at answering it. I actually felt embarrassed to say that I was Mormon, which made me sad. Any thoughts on how I should have or could have answered the question without implying that I support Prop 8 or proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims or the building of Mitt Romney’s sprawling beachfront home? How should I tell people of my Mormonness without creating false assumptions OR boring them to tears with a lengthy answer?
The easy answer to this question is that you can’t worry about people’s false assumptions – about Mormons or anything else. Most people enter into conversations about politics and religion, our most tribal associations, looking for confirmation of what they already believe and understand. Because of this I wouldn’t take anyone’s assumptions too personally, they inevitably tell you more about the person making one than the complexity of what you or any other Mormon is like. There is simply no reason to put too much energy into influencing hearts and minds that aren’t open to begin with. Of course, there will always be people with whom thoughtful nuanced discussions are possible and you can cast your pearls before them freely. In these cases there is no need for a press release on your feelings about the church, I trust that you will know how much to say and what you want to explore. But this isn’t really a question about other people, it’s a question about you.
About seven years ago, I worked nights with a practicing Catholic, a part-time Baptist preacher (who wrote self-published religious books), a Latvian Lutheran and a lapsed Methodist turned agnostic Humanist. All of us were, in our own ways, faithful and committed, but open-minded and our conversations often turned to religion. One night, my friends wanted to know more detail about Joseph Smith and The Book of Mormon. By this time in my life (my late twenties), I had shared the story of Joseph going into the woods dozens of times. While I tended not to give the story unsolicited, I had never been shy or reticent about sharing my testimony when the time seemed right. Indeed, I had felt moved by the spirit many times to testify what I believed was true, filled with a sense of glowing purity and rightness. And I never had a bad experience bearing my testimony, people were always respectful and kind. In fact, they often seemed touched, perhaps because of the absolute sincerity of my belief. Sometimes they wanted to know more.
That night, as I began to repeat the familiar story, the familiar feelings didn’t come. The story sounded hollow, strange — not my own. And although my friends sat there listening with their open faces, I struggled through the telling, suddenly hearing how ridiculous and unprovable it all was. Although doubts had been brewing in my heart and mind for some time (maybe my whole life), I had never given them any light or air and it was distressing to find that they had snuck into the corners of my seemingly solid testimony, in the sacred ground of the Sacred Grove. It was the first time I had honestly considered the story of Joseph with the ears and eyes of an outsider.
There is something genuinely good and true about sharing our faith with others, but too often we fall into the trap of not seeing our own religion with honesty. We can fail to see that our Catholic, Methodist, Buddhist or Atheist friends feel just as strongly as we do about their own paths and that their paths are just as legitimate. As Joseph Campbell said, “Myth is what we call other people’s religion.” It was very painful to catch a glimpse of the myth in my own religion that night, but sometimes it takes an outsider’s eyes to see where our beliefs and practices fall short and when we have gone seriously awry. Looking back, I see that night as a seminal moment in my spiritual life, the first of many rugs that were pulled out from under me, leaving me uncertain and unfixed, but also more honest, more open, more compassionate and way more humble.
But seeing with the eyes of an outsider, as valuable as that can be, isn’t the whole story. I think your question is ultimately about spiritual maturity. It’s about having a heart that is big enough to hold the things that have nurtured you and brought you joy in the church and the things that bring you shame or discomfort. The church is like your crazy uncle, you love him, but boy do you hate it when he gets drunk and drives through the town shouting obscenities at children and kittens. You can’t defend his behavior, but you don’t want to abandon him either. There is nothing easy about accepting the paradoxical nature of life and human beings, but there is something powerful about simply owning your conflicting feelings and beliefs, in seeing the flaws, but maintaining your compassion. As we come to answer the question of what our Mormonness means to us — with all of the contradictions that may be there — it will be easier to explain to others.
“There’s no one thing that’s true. It’s all true.” -Ernest Hemingway
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