A brief summary of this post can be found here. I recommend it if you aren’t up for a long or emotional post.
It left me as I dug, and cut,
and pulled, and pedaled,
and wore out the day,
Yet I wait for sleep to come.
I burn to move, to dance,
to love, as my body strains,
frozen in anxiety,
Yet I wait for morning.
I’ve been tired a lot at least since 1994. This mild, but chronic, depression has led me on a path I’m claiming more and more as my own, whether or not it is unique. I hope it is leading me more and more to live for the right.
Trigger Warning: This post refers to both pornography and masturbation without any explicit descriptions.
I’m a Mormon. I am a several generation Mormon on all sides. You’ve heard the names of my ancestors in church history lessons (although often it’s an uncle who is more famous), and the unheralded others were right there with them settling the mountain west. Our family stories include George Cannon getting a copy of the Book of Mormon from his brother-in-law, John Taylor, propping it up on his joiner’s bench, and reading it over the course of a week in snatches while he worked. He concluded that an evil-minded man could not have written it, and a good man would not have written it with intent to deceive.
Our stories include leaving family and friends and comfortable homes to settle the Virgin River valley and staying because a single desert flower bloomed just when a touch of beauty was needed.
Our grandfather and great uncle (add some greats to both) were in Carthage Jail with Joseph and Hyrum when they were martyred.
Some of my ancestors contributed significantly to building the Logan Temple, the Saint George Temple, and probably others.
One great-grandfather has an elementary school named after him in Farmington, Utah. He was the long time teacher and principal who taught his daughter to see the good in people by just finding one good quality. Of the trouble-making boy who caused everyone grief for a time, Grandpa Knowlton said he had good teeth. That was the gateway to seeing the potential in the boy.
Our stories include the third wife (Aunt Martha to my ancestors born to another wife) who defeated her husband in the race for the State Senate, and was predicted to be a front-runner for U.S. Senate. Had anti-polygamy laws not interfered, she would likely have been the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
Our stories include befriending the Indians, including some rather funny tales, like Old Cyprus politely putting a whole spoonful of fresh ground horseradish in his mouth, not knowing it was meant as a garnish. As I remember it, the tears ran silently down his face as the meal continued.
We have proud stories of education, like having the first Mormon scientist among our ancestors. Both my grandpas earned advanced degrees, the one becoming a dentist and fulfilling his childhood goal–one for which he was teased because at age 11 he wore gloves while milking the cows to protect his hands–the other becoming a botanist and plant pathologist because he watched his crops rot in the fields, unable to sell them during the Great Depression.
We have stories of missions for the LDS church, and service in all kinds of callings.
We also have less savory stories. Stories of Latter-day Saints who abused their power and trust due to their church position. Stories of people who were judgmental and didn’t follow church leaders. Stories of the families who fell away. Stories of how the loss of Mormonism often didn’t hurt the first generation, but their children were not as good or successful. Although we didn’t focus on these, the importance of staying true and faithful was strong in my heart, but it was often a burden for me–mostly because I thought I was unworthy–as I described after returning from my own mission:
When Will I Rest?
It glows and shivers in the draft,
But glows and glows throughout the long night.
Only one young child watches its flame.
Only two eyes see the pictures it lights from the past—
The pictures of men and women of truth
Whose lives flickered out before the child was born.
Only two small hands feel the warmth the light gives—
The warmth men hoped to give with their love,
The warmth women wished to spread with their hope,
When they formed and lit the light.
When can a light rest?
When can a child live in the dark?
I’ll freely admit there are much better poems, but perhaps you can see how intensely I felt called to stand for truth and righteousness–even if it wore me to exhaustion or despair. You see, I’m a Mormon, but I’ve been a depressed Mormon for at least twenty years. A depressed Mormon who always took seriously the teaching to stand for the right, whatever the pressures of the world, and whatever my own failings. But life has complicated “the right” for me. It really started way back in Middle School.
Science and Religion
I remember a Sunday School teacher when I was about 12 teaching us that Uniformitarianism was an unproven scientific assumption. I really didn’t get his point, and believed it pretty uncritically, although I was confused. When I later learned about Punctuated Equilibrium and catastrophic geological events, I thought that’s what he had been talking about. It wasn’t until years later that I realized he was teaching us anti-evolution arguments. Maybe these words are as unfamiliar to you now as they were to me at age 12. The important point is that this was the first time I remember where I was taught anti-evolution sentiment. The second time I realized it existed was at age 14 when my school sent home a permission slip for my biology teacher to teach us about evolution. My parents signed it, of course, and even introduced me to the idea that God could have made our bodies through an evolutionary process and then put our spirits into them. I don’t remember what book they showed me where that hypothesis was discussed. That’s when my 15 year long journey to reconcile scriptural creation accounts with scientific accounts began. Along the way there were numerous stages and events. I first thought creation accounts and science could mostly be harmonized. By my late twenties I gave up on harmonizing in more than a very general, fairly symbolic way. I think that’s where I’ve ended, but I really don’t worry about it much anymore.
I had religion teachers, mission companions, acquaintances, and even a few friends, push anti-evolution views on me as Mormon doctrine. I fought back and was really upset by it. It isn’t pleasant to be called a heretic–even by implication, and especially for believing something that is true. Now I don’t argue it much. I’m not threatened by people who don’t believe in evolution. It is reality, and if they want to they can learn about it. I’ll even help them. If someone attacks science in church, I just say it’s not doctrine or try to suggest ways to view scientific discoveries that are less threatening. When we see God in science then our understanding of God is constantly growing as science progresses. If we look for God in miracles outside of science, then God gets smaller and smaller every time one of our miracles is explained. The God I believe in is bigger than science, not smaller.
Of course, coming to this view meant throwing out scriptural literalism. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Hugh Nibley, and others helped me along that path with various statements. The first was the 8th Article of Faith, of course, followed by others from scripture, followed by gems from Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Discourses of Brigham Young. I got through those as a missionary. Prior to my mission I was introduced to Hugh Nibley’s writings and loved them. I totally got behind his critiques of critics, non-believing scholars, and church members alike. I believed most anything he told me. I still think he was brilliant, clear sighted, and good, even if I no longer believe everything he wrote. I’m sure he doesn’t believe everything he taught, anymore. I learned that understanding evolves as we have new experiences and new data, and that this is true of revealed knowledge, too–not just of scientific knowledge.
Nibley did a lot to make me a cultural critic. I am an environmentalist, or at least aspire to be. I consciously developed hobbies that were minimally consumptive–no driving hours to ski resorts, playing with motorized vehicles, spending regularly on movies or clubs or other commercial activities. Instead I played sports with friends, made music, hiked and camped nearby, read, danced in my backyard or basement, and even talked with my friends about how to do cheap, fun dates. We had our own camping repentance ceremony for friends who had spent too much on a date since the last camp out. It involved running backwards around a triangle (Delta for “Date”) saying “Peach, Peach, Peach” (the opposite of “cheap”) repeatedly. Then we would run–or hop, I can’t remember–the other way saying “cheap, cheap, cheap”. The ceremony was always shorter than the time to make the triangle out of rocks or sticks or tracks in the snow–especially if the triangle covered a large portion of a meadow near the top of Y-Mountain. Fun times.
I’ve walked and biked almost everywhere since I finished high school. I averaged 5 miles a day walking throughout most of my undergraduate life, just getting around. I averaged 50 miles a week on my bike for a good chunk of graduate school, and probably 40 a week during my post-doc. It went down with my recent jobs because I was able to live closer to work. I often do shopping on foot or bike, even with little kids in tow. We bought a bike trailer for that, and pull a wagon sometimes when we walk. We don’t go out and about in the car a lot, even though there are many things we can’t buy without making a 30-60 minute drive, and friends live all over the county.
I have purchased local, organic vegetables through Community Supported Agriculture groups for 10 years until we moved where there aren’t any. I learned to eat the weird vegetables–except for sunchokes and sometimes nettles. Nettles are too much work to make good, and I like neither the flavor nor the gastrointestinal effects of sunchokes. I love most everything else, except okra. I still don’t like it unless it is breaded and deep fried–not my typical method for cooking. I make efforts from time to time to eat less meat. I certainly don’t eat it every meal, and typically only once a day.
We aren’t as frugal as we could be, but we try to conserve on heating, cooling, and water use. We recycle some, even though it means sorting and taking it to the county dump ourselves. We cloth diaper and are into repurposing stuff. We just try to do what we can get ourselves to do. Environmental stewardship matters. Hugh Nibley did a lot to justify that for me from a religious perspective. Science supported that religious view.
Utah culture didn’t support that view, and I learned that church leaders can ignore very important issues. I even became kind of glad that I was left to follow my conscience rather than have my actions dictated, but I further understood that the LDS church wasn’t about everything, even if the Gospel was. I guess science helped me see that church leaders didn’t know everything, didn’t speak about everything good, and sometimes even got things wrong. I still figured they were right about “moral” matters that had bearing on my salvation. It took more extreme pain to add nuance to that view.
Sex and Religion
Beginning with the fall of 1993, I was at BYU and living at home. My friends were starting to head on missions. I was viewing sexualized images of women (not even pornography) and masturbating regularly, and felt like I had to report that to my bishops and like I was a terrible sinner for it rather than just a normal, healthy young man. Consequently, I wasn’t planning on leaving on a mission. I was trying to achieve an unhealthy and unrealistic goal of never masturbating, and thinking that I was weak and not religious enough. I didn’t register for school the fall after I turned 19, and I spent a lot of time working for my mom and babysitting my nieces. As I got more and more depressed, my dad told me something had to change. I could go on a mission, go back to school, get a job, get married, or anything. I just couldn’t keep going the way I was. I said I wanted to go back to school.
My mom did my application for readmission. She picked it up one morning, filled it out, had me do some little piece, called my bishop and stake president for their ecclesiastical endorsements, and had it back 4 hours later. The admissions office staffer said she had never seen an application completed so quickly. I probably spent most of that morning doing landscaping or roofing a rental house my parents owned at the time. There is no way I could have done the application by myself.
I went back to school for another year and a half. I found that, since I was in upper level classes, lots of people assumed I had served a mission. I don’t remember feeling judged when they found out I hadn’t. It may have even made friendship easier with a couple of girls I liked ballroom dancing with. People in my ward would sometimes ask me when I was turning 19. They would be surprised when I would tell them I already was, or that I was 20. It didn’t seem to bother them, really. They had known me for years, most of them. They usually didn’t ask the next question–when are you going on a mission–but I don’t remember feeling less loved or less welcomed–a little awkward, but that’s all. I might have felt out of place if I hadn’t been teaching Primary. That saved me from hanging around Priests Quorum after my friends had moved on, or sitting in Elders Quorum with people I didn’t know how to relate to. I’ve heard of wards where rumors spread, but mine wasn’t one of them, at least not that I ever suspected. (Had they thought ill of me, there wouldn’t have been so many setting me up on dates with their relatives when I returned from my mission.) I served as a Primary teacher for most of two years.
I also found a girlfriend during that time. I pursued her for a few months rather painfully, and she finally decided to return my pitiful attentions. I think I was pretty pitiful, moping around waiting for her to return a call–for weeks. We dated for about 6 months as I was finally feeling ready to serve a mission. Not to discount her value as an individual (I loved her and was predictably, and typically, devastated when I received the “Dear John” letter), the excitement of the relationship pretty much took away the time, energy, and interest that had gone into “pornography” and masturbation, so I went to the temple and on my mission. I wrote my first poem of any quality to this girl, and I’m still quite fond of it. 1
My mission poems start to express my tiredness and depression, but colored by somewhat forced religious hope and zeal. 2 I am sincerely hopeful in many ways, but it is kind of forced, too, even to this day. I really work at optimism–it’s worth it, but it’s work. I had been tired for a semester before I left on my mission–8 am Physical Chemistry, 9 am Evolution, 10 am Cell Biology, 11 am Molecular Biology, 1 pm Organic Chemisty, 2 pm Ballroom Dance team, and 5 pm Ballroom Dance class. Every Monday, Wendnesday, and Friday. A mission wasn’t hard work after that. It wasn’t relaxing, either.
I learned many life lessons on my mission from doing the work, from paying attention to the people I was with, and from listening to my leaders–particularly my mission president. To not wander afield, I remember Elder Holland making a special visit to our mission. He came from the airport, spoke for an hour to the missionaries only, and headed back to the airport to get on his regular schedule. One thing he said was, now is the time to work. You can sleep all you want when you get home. It was inspiring, but I was sleep deprived. That didn’t change when I got home.
Two or three weeks after getting back to Utah I started the second half of Organic Chemistry in a 6 week summer course. I’ve been tired ever since. I’m not good at sleeping. I once left a ward party during graduate school saying I was tired and wanted to go home. My cousin came home a couple hours later and I was up doing some project. He came out of his room at 5 in the morning, and I was still up doing the project. For me, depression doesn’t lead to sleep. It leads to anxiety and negative self-talk, both of which are strongest when I am tired and trying to get to sleep. So I stay awake avoiding such feelings by doing engrossing projects until I am so exhausted I can sleep. I was rested for some brief periods after I got married. I’m much less anxious when I’m not sleeping alone, and I was getting mental health help from professionals and from twelve step groups similar to Alcoholics Anonymous.
You see, I had been called in by my graduate adviser and had a talk a lot like the talk my dad gave me when I wasn’t in school and was marking time and getting depressed. He told me I would never finish a PhD at the rate I was going. Did I need to switch projects? Take a break from graduate school for 6 months? Do something else? I chose to switch projects and work much more closely with a more experienced scientist. I also decided to try to get help with the things that were getting in the way of my progress. It took several months to figure out what I needed to do, but I did start getting help and making changes.
I had been doing stuff like staying late at the lab and viewing sexualized images of women on the internet. Sometimes, now, it was even nude pictures. I had committed an even bigger sin in my mind and found places where I could buy second hand Playboys and stuff like that. I was now contributing to the economy of the pornography industry. I didn’t know how to do research with unclear objectives or procedures, with no deadlines and no grades, with little oversight and lots of options. I didn’t know how to manage uncertainty. I had never learned healthy ways to live with my feelings of anxiety and depression. I thought they were normal for everybody, and they would go away if I would stop being such a sinner–wickedness never was happiness, after all. I didn’t have any idea that there was such a concept as healthy sexuality for a single person.
Thanks to access to a huge library system and to the internet, I discovered some books about pornography addiction. I tried seeing a psychologist, but he tried talking about the depression and not worrying so much about the pornography and masturbation. I’m now convinced he saw the situation more clearly in many regards than I did, but I had to work through my hyperfocus on the evils of being a sexual being before I could begin to believe I wasn’t the problem. I felt like I was weak or broken, and that the Atonement couldn’t help me until I did everything I could–and I could always do more. I also expected the Atonement to make me somehow a non-sexual being. I expected it to take away something and make me part instead of making me whole.
I remember the first day I showed up at a church for a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting. I went early, of course, not knowing how these things worked. There wasn’t a room number or sign posted for the meeting, so I didn’t know how I would find the right place, or if I would run into someone not associated with the meeting. When someone finally walked in close to the starting time, he asked if I was there for the twelve step meeting. I said yes, and he introduced himself and invited me in. After the formal rituals of beginning meetings–introductions by first name, recognition of ‘sobriety’ milestones, readings from official literature, and a recited group prayer–many of the participants shared their stories. I would later learn that these stories are told at many “new member” meetings, and we both ritualize and change our stories as our understandings of ourselves shift over the course of recovery. It was, for me, a spiritually and emotionally healing experience. I shared a path with serial adulterers, voyeurs, exhibitionists, viewers of child pornography, people trying to stop cycles of unsafe sex with strangers, and some people more or less like me who were losing hours and hours of their lives or endangering their jobs or relationships because of compulsive pornography viewing. Some had stopped whatever practices they wished to avoid for years. Others were just starting out. Some seemed to make little progress, but kept coming back. A lot of the members learned about the program because they had been involved with other twelve step programs. Some were recommended to it by courts or therapists. I felt at home. I felt loved. I felt better. It didn’t matter that my problems weren’t as serious as most. I was still taken seriously. And when it came down to it, a lot of our stories were the same.
It wasn’t true of everyone, but it was pretty common to have grown up in religious homes where sex wasn’t discussed and was defined as bad outside of marriage. We internalized the badness, didn’t have anyone to talk with about it, and began using whatever provided our sexual “high” to self-medicate when life was stressful. At some point circumstances changed such that self-medicating was causing us problems with the rest of our life–a divorce, an arrest, a warning from a graduate adviser that I was failing–and we realized we needed to change. We couldn’t do it on our own. We had tried. Here’s something I wrote about those attempts, including my futile belief that God would magically make me non-sexual and not biochemically depressed if I just tried hard enough:
Fighting With Life
That’s what it is.
That’s what he’d make you think you are
For buying into it once—twice.
That’s where you’d crawl to keep it hid.
The world goes downhill and sinks
‘Cause everyone looks for where he feels OK.
So you break out.
You clean it up.
You get your hands dirty
To get your heart clean.
You go on with life.
You just make it happy.
Or the other He does.
I was only ever marginally successful at working the twelve steps, but my life began to get better. I started ignoring pretty much everything my church was teaching about pornography. Two of my sponsors were gay. I gave them hugs every time I met with them, and somehow still never developed any sexual tension between us. I read a lot about sexual addiction and addiction in general. Long lists of things I had assumed about sex were falling apart. I became a great proponent of community mental health efforts. I learned that messages from my church leaders could even be harmful, and that I had to take charge of what I listened to and followed. I did write a letter to Elder Oaks after a talk he gave about pornography. I outlined my religious credentials and my sexual history (or non-history depending on your viewpoint), and shared that I thought there could be more helpful messages about repentance and recovery rather than just condemnation of those who had already fallen, or warnings to never start. I received a short reply that I still believe was not simply a form response. One or two conferences later he gave a much more accepting and encouraging talk about addictions. It didn’t say everything I could have wished, but it was so much better than past church rhetoric regarding addictions. Within a short time, LDS Family Services finished developing a twelve step program for church members. I think a lot of people like me must have been passing their messages along and being heard. It would have been a better program for me if it was self-run by group members, like other twelve step programs, but it’s great for Latter-day Saints who are nervous about venturing out into “the world” or who find themselves misunderstood by people of other faiths. Recovery ought to be in a safe place–wherever that is.
Even with the improvements, I learned that almost no one I had ever lived around or listened to knew anything about teaching healthy sexuality to a single young man. I’m pretty sure I knew (and know) many Latter-day Saints who were sexually healthy in ways that worked for them, but they weren’t teaching me how to be a sexual being and be single. My church wasn’t doing it. Popular media wasn’t even trying to do it. Almost no one else’s church was doing it, although some were worse than others. I got lucky, and my wife had a healthier view in many ways that have helped me.
I learned that biochemical depression was the driving force behind most of my unhealthy, habitual behaviors. Working over different periods with twelve step groups, therapists, my wife, and sometimes all three, I was able to change some behaviors and change how I viewed situations that made me depressed or anxious. I made it through graduate school, three years as a post-doc at a job I realize I hated, and now four rewarding and stressful years of teaching. I’ve helped keep one child alive for almost 6 years and another for 3. I’ve contributed to a meaningful and close relationship with my wife. Typically I’d say happy, but neither of us experiences happy as the dominant emotion in our lives. It is far from absent, but depression, anxiety, and avoidance of feeling are also prominent states. Part of me still feels like everything sexual is sinful, and that continues to hurt mine and my wife’s sex life, but not as much as when we were first married. I’ve only been intensely depressed maybe one day of my life, depressed to the point where I really didn’t care about life. I wasn’t suicidal, I was just apathetic. Fortunately, that was recently and after years of increased understanding and improved habits. I knew it would pass, told my wife how I was feeling, and just kept going with what I would usually do, trying to get some extra sleep and healthy food for a few days. I felt considerably better by the next day. But I’m still tired.
So what has sex taught me? Church leaders can not only be wrong, but they can actively teach things that hurt people. They taught me–without intending to, I’m sure–that normal sexual attraction is wrong until you are married. Feeling aroused by a beautiful woman was so shameful that repentance was nearly impossible, so I might as well get the high that came from secretly searching for titillation and eventually masturbating, since I’d already committed a sin in my heart. Plus, the hunt for arousing images or stories took my mind away from the troubles of the day. Nothing else did as effectively and as privately for as long. But even now with teachings about addictions slightly improved, church leaders still haven’t recognized that not all addictions are the same. Their rhetoric doesn’t recognize that “never taking the first look” at something arousing is like teaching someone they should never take the first bite of food, because they might start eating compulsively. Sex is not the same as substance abuse, even if the effects of compulsive behavior are bad no matter what the focus. It was kind of forced on me that church leaders could be wrong and hurt many people because of it. Wow.
I excused it because I saw progress. I saw an informational and maybe generational gap, in part, and I was managing to improve my life despite church teachings. I excused it because I really had done some harmful (even if not seriously) things, so I thought they had correctly identified an evil. I no longer found the addiction model helpful, although it provided some useful skills, some powerful perspective, and some beautiful friendships. I needed to start looking for healthy sexuality rather than avoiding unhealthy sexuality, and twelve step programs and therapy helped me see that. I started carefully speaking up when hurtful things were said in Sunday School or Priesthood lessons. My leaders didn’t have everything wrong. Exploiting and objectifying women is bad. Bad habits really can ruin your life. You really do become a slave to them. It took time to decide that I needed to look outside of church teachings to find what it means to be sexually healthy. It took years for me to fully accept that my leaders were wrong at all, years more to realize that hearing every General Conference that I never ever should have looked at a picture that aroused me (maybe I should have plucked out my eyes?) really was hurting me. Now I ignore most anything said about sex at church, because it is either obvious, unhelpful, or hurtful for me the majority of the time.
Activism and Religion
Sometimes I’d like to be an advocate for people in the LDS church who are hurt by unhealthy teachings regarding sex. I’d like to get up and say, let’s stop talking about internet porn so much and start giving people real skills to be healthy, sexually. But I hang back. I’m still at the stage of not knowing how to be sexually healthy. What am I supposed to say? You all have it wrong and need to fix it? It might help if I could be an example of how to do that, but I still struggle on trying to sort out the mess that has been made of my sexual life. I muddle through and haven’t done any catastrophic damage yet, but I’m a chemist, not a sex therapist. 3 I don’t really know what to tell people. So I stay quiet about it because I don’t want to be judged by people imagining that I’m trying to justify my own sins. So I’m stuck. Not much advocating I can do because I’m not all the way better, myself. It’s not safe to struggle publicly.
I’d love to fix the anti-evolution and anti-science sentiment that continues in the LDS church. It’s silly, uninformed, and annoying. It also leads some people who are struggling in their faith for other reasons to conclude that the church can’t be true when its prophets have said such silly things about evolution and science. I don’t say much about it because I think the church is changing. The most outspoken anti-evolution advocates are dead, and there aren’t signs of any new ones replacing them. Evolution has been well established scientifically for the lifetimes of almost everyone now living, so while people resist, the resistance is literally dying off. Eloquent, religiously faithful scientists have written wonderful books explaining why they see no conflict between science and religion. There are probably thousands of credentialed LDS scientists who believe in and teach evolution professionally and are also in good standing in the church. It just isn’t a pressing battle for me. So I don’t go out of my way to bring it up.
I did become active in promoting acceptance of differences during graduate school. I grew my hair out just because I wanted to and could–not as an act of rebellion against anything. I’d liked long hair since Middle School, but not grown it out because I wasn’t a rebel. As my hair got longer, I found that young, single adults appreciated having someone around who was obviously part of Mormonism but who didn’t quite fit the standard mold. No one fits, but we do a lot of work to make it look like we do. This is particularly a problem for all those insecure, single people who are trying to figure out their place in the world. Is there really a place for them in Mormonism? If they don’t look or feel the part, is there a place? I wanted to scream YES! WE NEED YOU HERE! But we don’t get to scream much in church, and if we don’t show people there is a place for odd-balls, they won’t really believe it. I wasn’t an odd-ball, so I made myself look like one. I also reached out like I’d been taught by a good High School friend and invited all sorts of people to do stuff with me. Lots of times. I used what I learned from my mission to help me talk with dozens of strangers and to become their friend, even if we weren’t best friends. I made a difference in our little singles ward. I almost didn’t do it, though. I wasn’t going to attend the singles ward. I wanted to be in a family ward, but the bishop of the singles ward asked me to pray about it and told me God had a calling for me. I prayed and joined the singles ward. He called me as a Home Evening group leader. And it was marvelous. I was a quiet activist (actually kind of overly seriously intensely open and spot-light seeking activist, but quiet about my activism) telling my brothers and sisters that the church–specifically our ward–was big enough for them, too. I also did what I could in talks, giving Sunday School lessons, and in Institute lessons to help people see ways we inadvertently reject each other and things we can do to welcome all who want to come unto Christ. 4 I tried really hard to do good and be loving. I even succeeded a little.
My overt religious activism came about over the course of a dozen years. My sister tragically left Mormonism with her family about 10 years ago. I still say tragically, although I see the tragedy very differently, now, and I feel happy in many ways for my sister and her children. I believe we, and the whole world, benefit both from covenant relationships and the good and saving works that the LDS church participates in (part of the reason I stay bound to the church), but it feels less and less a tragedy for her family and more and more a tragedy for Mormonism that she left. Even when my sister first left and I wanted to argue with her about the historical and doctrinal problems and get her to change her mind, I never once considered she was leaving because of sin or laziness. She was my lifelong example of environmental stewardship. She was the one showing me how to live simply to be able to give more to others. She was my model of attentive parenting, where children were respected and valued intensely. My brother-in-law was in the bishopric, and was a lawyer and economist working to develop and foster sound environmental policy. He was her partner in all the things I admired. They were thoughtful people who considered wide ranges of factors in their decision making that I wasn’t even aware of until they pointed them out. I was in the midst of my own troubles with graduate school at this time, and they never did give me a copy of the letter they wrote outlining their reasons for leaving, so I didn’t pursue arguments. I had nothing to argue against. We kept on with our lives and friendships and focused on the common ground we still shared. (I even inherited a whole bunch of Hugh Nibley essays since my brother-in-law didn’t plan to reread them. The collected works weren’t available free online at that time, and it was a nice windfall.) Ten years later my sister, brother-in-law, and their children are still these good people.
I discovered podcasts during graduate school. I looked for some Mormon or religious themed podcasts and found nothing of interest to me. This was probably 2004-2006. Around 2007-2009 I looked again for some Mormon podcasts and found Mormon Stories. Suddenly I had access to people discussing all of the issues that had so bothered my sister years before. I gradually began to understand. I married in 2005, and I married a graduate student in English who was knowledgeable about ritual, Feminism, and post-modern literary theory. I began to understand even more. I began to really see how ingrained anti-women policy, attitudes, and practice are in our society, and I finally started to see it in my church. I learned about bias from my own research, and I learned some about how people’s and groups’ brains and beliefs are shaped from all of my reading related to addictions. The LDS church was showing itself as more and more human to me. That wasn’t a problem for me–remember, I’m Mormon to the core, and human, myself–except now I was seeing how the LDS church, in its very structure, policies, and practices, was hurting people I love.
Now to the present day. Words of church leaders are saying to gays, “We love you, but you can’t participate fully unless you cut off the sexual part of your being.” The message is too similar to what I suffered as a single young man, thinking that the very fact of my being a sexual being was unholy. At least that message had an end, for me. At our best we say to women, “You have priesthood power and authority under the men with the keys.” We show young women that they are less valued as we give them less money for programs and as we routinely recognize and praise young men for simply getting two years older. We even have meaningful ceremonies binding father to son in ritual at these times. This doesn’t happen for young women, and it doesn’t happen for mothers with any of their children. I won’t go on with the list, but my sister, my wife, and many other women were hurt by predictable effects of institutionalized patriarchy. There is no way for me to say to them, “This church is big enough for you.” I rejoice when they feel it is, despite the harms done them. I can still say God’s love and the Atonement are big enough for them, but avoidable abuse fostered by institutional structures is not reason to feel welcome, and not reason to believe that God’s hand is acting in the LDS church. So for all I see and feel, I can’t tell these women, “You belong here.” I sometimes have to say, “Take a break,” or even “Run away.” “You matter more than any institution. Institutions aren’t saved or damned–people are. I want you to be safe.” The LDS church and its policies and messages from its leaders are actively driving people I love away through insisting on staying the same when good alternatives are available. The stories of falling away have become mine, yet I don’t want to fall away.
The Human Church
More deeply understanding the humanity of the LDS church actually strengthened my interest in participation. Parenting young children has dampened that activity, temporarily, but the desire continues. It gives me hope for me. I began to see real people in the scriptures. If God could work through these people who did some really awful things, He can work through me. I no longer need to reconcile it all as good and true, but can learn as much from scripture as possible to help me live the best I can. All these parts of my life–science, sex, depression, family experience–made me a new person with some new understanding:
- Prophets sometimes teach error, even fighting against beautiful truths like Evolution.
- Prophets sometimes teach harmful attitudes.
- Not everyone who leaves the LDS church does it because of his or her own weakness, but sometimes because the church is actively (if unintentionally) hurting people.
- I have to take charge of my beliefs to become truly healthy.
- I can learn truths from non-LDS sources that are sometimes never taught (or even contradicted) by LDS sources.
- The LDS church is a human organization.
- God really does use flawed people and organizations to do great things, including the LDS church, its prophets, and its members. Being human does not make me or the LDS church less divine. It didn’t make Christ less divine.
I love Mormonism and I love the LDS church. I have felt great love for and from its leaders. I’ve never encountered a theology or philosophy more expansive and beautiful. I believe we are called to and involved in essential aspects of God’s saving work, even if I view what is essential somewhat differently than I did in the past. I’ve never had the least desire to leave my faith, only to perfect it–to perfect myself and to build Zion. I believe that God directs His prophets, and it isn’t my proper sphere to dictate to those prophets. I realize that the language used in numerous statements by Ordain Women can appear to be dictating the will of God to church leaders. This is why my submission came more than a year after that of my older brother. I was unwilling to say “I believe women should be ordained”. I thought, and still think, God could provide a greater solution to the ills that face us than any of us have imagined. I also doubt that my voice can, or should, influence church policy. If God makes some greater good come from my voice, the credit is hardly mine. But my profile is up. I finally picked some pictures for Ordain Women to choose from, and it’s done. But if I am not an activist believing that I can, or should, change the LDS church, why do I do it?
I participate with Mormons Building Bridges in the Atlanta Pride Parade because I want gays and their allies to know that I want them worshiping with me if that is their desire. I don’t want to drive them out of my ward through passively excluding them. I join Ordain Women because I want the women in my life who are hurting because of inequality to know that I see the problems and I’m willing to put my comfort and peace on the line to stand with, and for, them. I am willing to say, I didn’t see before, but now I do, and I will do what I can to atone–to make us one. I won’t leave the church over it, and won’t impute ill intent or ignorance to church leaders because I disagree with them. I will even allow them to make pragmatic responses to the problems of the day. They are not in a position to always do what they want or think is best any more than I am. I will allow them to be human, and I will allow that God may be directing them to act differently than He is directing me. Many moral goods are competing for their actions, and maybe the ones I care about most aren’t the ones God wants them caring about most. But I will speak out anyway because I don’t speak primarily to them.
I will speak out and hope that church leaders will listen. I will hope that they will show they are listening to the many women and men hurt by gender inequality. I will hope they show it through changes in the Church’s public acts and words. I will hope that the leaders won’t refuse to listen simply because my tone, or anyone else’s, is not as pleasing as they might like, or because we said it publicly, or even because we are wrong. Error in my doctrine does not mean our pain is false or that all is well in Zion. I will hope that they won’t simply “follow the world”, but that they won’t refuse or postpone doing good simply because “the world” is the source that suggested a good solution. I will hope the church will change in miraculous ways, but I am an activist first and foremost to show my love to those who are hurting and oppressed. To change the world for those I matter to. I will do my part. I will stand for right even when it is unpopular in my community. I’m a Mormon and I can do nothing less. I may be wrong, but I won’t be passive. And I’ll trust God will take care of His church. He doesn’t need me to defend it or to fix it, just to do my part.
- I think of the beauties ↩
- Sorella Mia No One Will Ever Know Redemption ↩
- These women are: Natasha Helfer Parker Jennifer Finlayson-Fife ↩
- Paley, Vivian Gussin. You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992. Print. This is a great, short book about teaching active acceptance of others to children. ↩