[A few weeks ago, Heather wrote a lovely piece explaining how and why she has held on to Mormonism. Here, in a belated response, I explain why I have not.]
Let me tell you about the Mormonism of my youth.
I was born in the early 1980s, to a house steeped in the science fiction of the 60s and 70s. The Alan Parsons Project spun on the turntable, Frank Herbert sat on the bookshelf, and Star Trek and the Twilight Zone played on the television. As an early teen I watched The Next Generation with my father. We compared and contrasted the quasi-gods of the Q continuum with the naturalistic, contingent God of Mormonism. Our conversations would frequently devolve into gleeful riffs on the cosmic truths dispensed by Joseph Smith. Could a damned intelligence be reorganized into new spirit bodies, as Brigham Young and John Witdsoe conjectured, or were sons of perdition consigned to eternal separation from God? More frivolously: Could a celestial sword cut off the arm of a resurrected body?
My Mormonism, then, was a Mormonism of ideas. Big, cosmic, even (quasi-)scientific ideas. It was a Mormonism that inspired Parley Pratt’s speculative fiction, Battlestar Galactica, and the novels of Orson Scott Card. A Mormonism that propounded rough outlines of a cosmogony and a metaphysical dynamics, that decreed laws so unbreakable that God himself couldn’t break them. It was a Mormonism that taught me about the universe and what it means to exist — as an uncreated and independent agent — in it.
But it was also a Mormonism of knowledge. Our speculations on intelligences and agents weren’t enjoyable merely as an intellectual exercise, but as an exploration of the logical consequences of a few eternal truths. They were satisfying because they were founded on ideas we knew to be true. My Mormonism was strong on Moroni’s promise: One could know with certainty the truth of its precepts. And one had better know; Mormonism was too outrageous merely to be hoped for or taken on faith. I spent my late teen years, including the first few months of my mission, chasing that certainty, seeking and finding the sureness that made my Mormonism worthwhile.
So when I lost that sureness, there wasn’t much left to hang on to.
We could have a long conversation about the specifics, but you’ve probably heard it all before. We could go the rounds on Mesoamerican and Biblical archaeology, textual criticism, funerary papyri, doctored revelations, and suppressed historical inconveniences. We could debate the merits and reliability of spiritual sense experience as an indicator of objective reality. The short version is that I no longer trust my spiritual senses, and I judge that the evidence — in the usual sense — rules out Mormonism as I believed in it.
Of course, there’s nothing intrinsic about Mormonism as I believed in it. There are as many Mormonisms as there are (former) Mormons. And I see among them Mormonisms capable of weathering the storm that shattered my faith.
I see the historian’s Mormonism — the Mormonism of Leonard Arrington or Armand Mauss. It admits outright that the stories we heard in Seminary or read in our lesson manuals and official histories are false or oversimplified. It’s a Mormonism that did not unfold according to a tidy, obviously-miraculous narrative, but in a messy, human process — so human, in fact, that the hand of God is barely discernable. The Book of Mormon may be riddled with 19th century artifacts, this Mormonism admits, but somewhere in there is a kernel of historicity. The church may progress in a manner nearly indistinguishable from any other human organization, but somewhere in there is God leading His church.
But I can’t believe in that Mormonism. Again we could bicker about the details. We could talk of null hypotheses and burdens of proof, of positivism and falsifiability, of probability and plausibility. But ultimately this is a Mormonism for which its being true is indistinguishable, with respect to the evidence, from its being false. It’s a Mormonism that makes few observable predictions, in other words, and I can’t believe in something so far-reaching without positive evidentiary support. I admit that this position is fraught — there are countless other approaches to knowledge as well-founded as mine — but I have to hang my epistemological hat somewhere. I need a Mormonism I can know, not merely hope for.
I also see the theologian’s Mormonism — the Mormonism of Dan Wotherspoon or Jana Riess. This Mormonism isn’t terribly concerned with the facticity of the truth claims. It doesn’t matter whether the Book of Mormon is a historical record, or whether Joseph restored ancient ordinances in revealing the Endowment. What matters is that the theology point to larger, pluralistic truths that transcend culture and creed. The divine — interpreted broadly — uses this Mormonism alongside other religious traditions to teach humanity of our commonality and connectedness.
But I can’t give myself to this Mormonism. One last time, we could argue. We could discuss Fowler’s Stages of Faith or Campbell’s The Power of Myth. You might cite William James’s pragmatism, reminding me that “truth is what works.” But it wouldn’t change the fact that this Mormonism doesn’t scratch the soulful itch of my old Mormonism. Its ideas are universal, and they are worthwhile, but they are also nebulous. Following them might make me a better person, but they don’t convey tangible truths about the universe or about myself — at least, no truths I couldn’t learn somewhere else.
I see the Mormonisms you are building, and I admire them. They are ambitious and thoughtful. But they are also foreign to me. They no more speak to my soul than does Lutheranism or Buddhism, and I can no more convert to them than I can to any other faith. It’s not that I’m immature or captive to black-and-white thinking. I see the complexity; I see the nuance. But I do not find it compelling.
So I’ve let go. Yes, I entered free fall. But it was not a terrestrial fall, hurtling me to the earth at terminal velocity. It was the weightless fall of outer space — as cosmic as the Mormonism I once believed in — drifting me gently, comfortably toward no destination at all.