Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"Where truth flies you follow If you are a pioneer"

This will be a long post, and yet the most heartfelt post I have written in a long time. At some point in time I chose the subtitle "cutting my own path" for my "Clean Cut" blog. When I originally started blogging I wasn't quite the Mormon "maverick" I pretend to be today.  Yeah, I drank caffeine--what a rebel, right? My wife suggested “Clean Cut with a Coke” and I liked the play on words and the alliteration. For the sake of simplicity I ended up shortening the name, while also enjoying the irony of my apparently "orthodox" appearance belying my progressively "unorthodox" views.

In reality, I despise "keeping up appearances" as much as I despise dictatorial dogmatism, rigidity of procedure and intolerance. So cutting my own path seemed to fit my personal Clean Cut philosophy as I pioneer and cut my own way through life. It especially felt applicable as I underwent my own faith transition, deconstructing my previous beliefs and then reconstructing them all over again into something more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. Along with this individualism, I still greatly value the community. But I recognize that the community exists to support the individual--not the other way around.

While I've never admitted this publicly here before today, there was a time that I had such doubt (I dislike the term faith crisis) that I wondered if I could even continue in good faith as a member of the Church. It was a lonely, dark and dreary world--quite a depressing time. It seemed at times as though nobody understood me, or could help me, let alone sympathize with me. I now personally know many others like me, and as evidenced by a recent publication in BYU Magazine that should be required reading for every member of the Church, this is a growing phenomenon that's not going to go away. Seriously, if you don't read anything else, at least go and read this article here: "Keeping the Faith".

Latter-day Saints must do a much better job of loving and supporting our brothers and sisters going through their own faith transitions and times of questioning. We must emphasize what BYU professor Spencer Fluhman told a questioning student who began to believe his doubts disqualified him from the community: “You belong with us in your doubt. We want you here. You are us. We are you. We’re all in this together. We’re all at some level of spiritual understanding with imperfect faith.”

The only thing that kept me from giving up my faith entirely is partially a good dose of stubbornness on my part, but mostly due to a fantastic wife in whom I could confide anything and everything and who kept me grounded and going slow (because on my own I sometimes make rash decisions.) Whereas many give up and leave their faith behind quite quickly, my process was very long and slow--"Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief". I've benefited immensely by connecting with a community of others like me, from great and stimulating scholarship in the Mormon Studies world, and also from insights shared by Mormon thinkers who participate in the online world.

My personal faith has emerged from what seemed at one point like ashes to what now feels like a phoenix. Unless one has read Terryl and Fiona Given's first chapter in "The God Who Weeps" or Terryl Given's "Letter to a Doubter", they might not quite understand what I mean. From "Letter to a Doubter":

I know I am grateful for a propensity to doubt because it gives me the capacity to freely believe. I hope you can find your way to feel the same. The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true and which we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true. There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore more deliberate and laden with more personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads. The option to believe must appear on one’s personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension.  
Fortunately, in this world, one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our egos. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance. 
The call to faith, in this light, is not some test of a coy god waiting to see if we “get it right.” It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions which can allow us to reveal fully who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire. Without constraint, without any form of mental compulsion, the act of belief becomes the freest possible projection of what resides in our hearts. Like the poet’s image of a church bell that reveals its latent music only when struck, or a dragonfly that flames forth its beauty only in flight, so does the content of a human heart lie buried until action calls it forth. The greatest act of self-revelation occurs when we choose what we will believe, in that space of freedom that exists between knowing that a thing is and knowing that a thing is not. 
This is the realm where faith operates; and when faith is a freely chosen gesture, it expresses something essential about the self.

Adam Miller ("Letters to a Young Mormon") has also written some insightful words describing the kind of faith to which I now aspire:
"Either way, whether God is or isn't obvious to you, the work is the same. Practice faithfully attending to the difficult, disturbing, and resistant truths God sets knocking at your door. Faith is a care for what is right in front of you. Faith doesn't wish these difficult things away, it invites them in, breaks bread with them, and washes their feet. Faith is what you need to persist in truth as your sweet story, regardless of its content, gets overwritten by the real."
"Faith is more like being faithful to your husband or wife then it is like believing in magic. Fidelity is the key. You may fall in love with someone because of how well they complement your story but you'll prove yourself faithful to them only when you care more for the flawed, difficult, unplotted life you end up sharing with them. Faith isn't the opposite of knowledge. Rather, like love, faith perfects knowledge by practicing fidelity to it" (Adam Miller, "Letters to a Young Mormon").
There is a cost to leaving behind the "old" faith and embracing this "new" faith. That cost, of course, is that I can never go back to where I once was; a cost I happily pay. I'm grateful now to never be stagnant, to be on an ongoing pioneering quest for truth, because "where truth flies you follow if you are a pioneer." I embrace the life of ambiguity, messiness, and uncertainty--because that's life, and life is worth it. I try to appreciate true simplicity when and where things really are simple, but I've had to unburden myself in order to truly feel free to focus on love, compassion, and grace. Not that I've arrived by any means, but I love the path. I strive to pack my handcart with the precious things; by necessity I've had to discard a lot of unnecessary baggage.

If I'm allowed to think outside the box (and if we're wise we'll discard the box altogether), the restoration is really a process of restoring all the most vital relationships that are significant to me--restoring all that was and is broken--including myself. We focus so much on being like the Good Samaritan in the parable and treating others like he treated that "certain man" on the way to Jericho. But sometimes we are the ones that are lying half dead on the side of the road, and we're the ones in need of ministering. We may go unnoticed by others because we struggle internally. These are the times when we can have hope in Christ as the One to whom we can turn everything over and allow his grace to minister to us.

This would probably be a good place to conclude, if not for my incessant desire to share some things I've learned from my personal faith transition. (Continue at your own discretion.)

I've learned that there are actually very few things that are "core" or "essential" that I must believe, and I make progress in the gospel harness at my own pace and try to make contributions to others where I can along the way.

I've learned that many people still put too much faith in the institution rather than in their own ability to access the divine.

I've learned to make a very important distinction between "the church" and "the gospel," but I've also learned from the great Eugene England "Why The Church Is As True As the Gospel."

I've learned that traditionally and historically there has actually been a large diversity of Mormon thought and a wide latitude of possible beliefs within Mormonism. Some of us are trying to reclaim this and we push back against the current of conformity to carve out a space for people who don't want to be smothered by the culture that evolved as the Church grew from its radical and liberal early days into the conservative institutional "corporation" that many mistake for a Mormon monolith.

I've learned that Joseph Smith's words are too often forgotten: “[Other denominations] have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine" (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 5:340.)

I've learned
to simply refuse to accept that because a more dominant strain of Mormonism picked up steam post-correlation that this somehow means that there is one right or one orthodox version of Mormonism that is now somehow the only acceptable one and that I must conform like a mindless robot. This would discount the true beauty of the plan to experience using our own moral judgement as free agents.  And it would discount a plethora of wonderful Mormon voices in the past (and present) in favor of a few voices that used the loudest bullhorn to preach their own version of doctrine just as correlation picked up steam, thus shaping much of the mainstream today.

I've learned I place great value in these words:

Elder Wirthlin:
"Tied to this misconception is the erroneous belief that all members of the Church should look, talk, and be alike. The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole." 

President Ucthdorf:
"While the Atonement is meant to help us all become more like Christ, it is not meant to make us all the same. Sometimes we confuse differences in personality with sin. We can even make the mistake of thinking that because someone is different from us, it must mean they are not pleasing to God. This line of thinking leads some to believe that the Church wants to create every member from a single mold—that each one should look, feel, think, and behave like every other. This would contradict the genius of God, who created every man different from his brother, every son different from his father. Even identical twins are not identical in their personalities and spiritual identities. 
"It also contradicts the intent and purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ, which acknowledges and protects the moral agency—with all its far-reaching consequences—of each and every one of God’s children. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences.
"The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples... 
"In the great Composer’s symphony, you have your own particular part to play—your own notes to sing. Fail to perform them, and with certainty the symphony will go on. But if you rise up and join the chorus and allow the power of God to work through you, you will see 'the windows of heaven' open, and He will 'pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.' Rise up to your true potential as a [child] of God, and you can be a force for good in your family, your home, your community, your nation, and indeed in the world."

I've learned that I grew up within a culture of correlation with blinders on, thinking that everything was simple, and even rejoicing in my church proscribed "role"--I saw things as pretty black and white. I then awoke to find that things aren't black or white at all, but all kinds of complex and vibrant colors.

I've learned to embrace the many shades of ambiguity, whether in the Church or outside the Church, because that's life, and I choose to be faithful to it.

I've learned to adjust my paradigms and expectations.

I've learned "the science of muddling through" (Lindblom) has many applications.

When I say I no longer identify with the "culture of correlation," I mean that line of thinking that there is one right answer or one right way to be a one true Mormon. I once wrote on this blog about my experience reading an article in Dialogue that opened my eyes to the world of a "wide latitude of possible beliefs", which is a world I personally find far more compelling than the vanilla "correlated" world of Mormonism:

"Whether people realize it or not, there is a richness and diversity within Mormon thought. I've been a Mormon all my life and I feel like I'm only now beginning to scratch the surface. I like how Blake Ostler put it at the end of his article:
'Many Mormons, and probably most non-Mormons, have failed to grasp the wide latitude of possible beliefs which can be tolerated within the tradition of Mormon thought. Although many view Mormon thought as restrictive, it is in fact more inclusive than exclusive, more thought-provoking than thought-binding.

'For instance, an individual member's beliefs may range from an absolutist view to a traditionally heretical, finitist view of God and man and still remain well within the bounds of traditional Mormon expressions of faith—a latitude far beyond the tolerance of Protestantism or Catholicism. The Church's reluctance to clarify its theology on an official level has left it up to individual members to think through and work out their own understanding of and relationship to God. In short, the burden of a consistent theology and vibrant relationship with God in Mormonism is not a corporate responsibility; indeed it cannot be. Rather, it is an individual burden that reflects the unique relationship of God with each member. And each member must be willing to face the implications of his or her beliefs."

Yes, this approach can put me at odds with some of the people in the pews next to me. But I had no other choice--I had to adapt to what I was learning and experiencing. I had to decide for myself that there is enough value and enjoyment in the craziness of Mormonism--so I now embrace it, though on my own terms. I seek after that which is good and discard anything that causes harm. I also completely respect and sympathize with those who decide, through personality or experience or whatever, that it simply isn't worth the struggle anymore (because sometimes it is a struggle!) to make it work. I sympathize with that because, if I'm being honest, I'm well aware of the exit doors.

Nevertheless, I choose for myself to stay. It helps that I've come to feel at peace with the natural growth and progression from my childhood relationship with the Church to my present-day adult relationship with the Church, though naturally there are still some growing pains that come from trying to "put away childish things" without forgetting to seek the best of childlike qualities and faithfulness.

I personally love how Adam Miller has described our "faithfulness" as that of being faithful to lifenot to the stories we tell ourselves about our life or even the stories we tell ourselves about the Church, but faithful to the life God actually places before us. I still love a good story--especially history. I especially find great value, along with President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, in "Seeing beyond the Leaf."

I love making connections and living life authentically. Yes, there are times when I speak authentically and share my nuanced faith and even my deeper understanding of "the skeletons in the closet" and I'm not always understood or appreciated. But nowadays I try (though not always successfully!) to be less concerned about being understood and more concerned with seeking to understand.

Except for my family, I no longer care much about what anyone else thinks of me--that is their business, not mine. The freedom from worrying about what others think about me is most liberating. I have enough on my own plate to be concerned about as it is. I also still have plenty to learn, especially learning to be respectful of others as I seek to live and share a thoughtful faith. This respect doesn't necessarily mean I'll be passive, but patient. I still have my self-respect, and I'll speak out against wrongful accusations. I have been accused of being a "wolf in sheeps clothing" or a "faith destroyer" when the reality is actually quite the opposite.

I, for one, am pro-faith. I am against putting faith in the wrong things–the arm of the flesh, fallible men, or the institution of the church. I am for putting faith in the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, in our individual ability to search for the divine within ourselves, and the beauty and dignity of every human being. Faith in life as it unfolds right in front of us and not only the supernatural beyond--but seeking to know God by how we treat our fellow man right next to or in front of us, as we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc.

So, in the meantime, I'm comfortable sticking around and trying to make a contribution where I can, and maybe learn a thing or two about this charity business. I definitely relate, however, to the delightfully irreverent Robert Kirby: "I’m Mormon. It’s who I am. Yeah, there are things I don’t like about my church but there are things that I do. It helps that I’m comfortable being my kind of Mormon. It helps me handle people who think they have a better idea what I should do than me."

The richness and diversity of the Mormon community is something I cherish and embrace, and I personally acknowledge that Mormonism is more "thought-provoking than thought-binding." Most importantly, I now recognize that I am in the drivers seat of my own search for the divine--not the Church™. I can be myself and embrace all the truths I find in the world, right where I am--while Mormon. If the culture were to ever make me feel like I couldn't do this, or embrace what apostle and former member of the First Presidency Hugh B Brown called "An Eternal Quest--Freedom of the Mind", or tolerate me as a free thinker, than I would no longer find that culture worth belonging to.

But so far so good, for me at least. I'm sure I frustrate some, and at times I get frustrated too--even with myself. But I don't believe the point of our experience here on earth is to avoid the hard lessons any more than it is to learn the right dogma. I think the real lesson is to learn to treat each other as Christ taught--to "love thy neighbor as thyself". I suspect I'm going to need a lifetime to really learn that. The Parable of the Good Samaritan never gets old, and for me at least, constantly presents itself in new light as life unfolds. It teaches me to show compassion and mercy to even the most marginalized in society, even if it is ourselves, and on whatever road we're traveling.

Finally, I'm indebted to Gina Colvin for the insight that in many ways the Church™ aspect of our Mormon community is managed by "managers" rather than by the "mystics". In a recent podcast she noted that "our mystics and our theologians are all among us; we walk with them everyday." So true. This is why I love to connect with a wide diversity of people, and I have found as much or more value in many of the things spoken by the mystics as I have in many or much of the things spoken by those in positions to manage the institution.

In all of this I've come to appreciate the lesson of appreciation itself. When I'm present, I find things to appreciate all around. I especially appreciate something put into words by Hugh B. Brown:

"Some say that the open-minded leave room for doubt. But I believe we should doubt some of the things we hear. Doubt has a place if it can stir in one an interest to go out and find the truth for one's self" ("An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B Brown.") I also love the quote by Dr. Henry Eyring (father of "Hal" Eyring of the current First Presidency): "In this Church you have only to believe the truth. Find out what the truth is."

One truth I do "know" is that each of us is on our own journey to find out the truth for ourselves. Each of us is a pioneer in our own life--life has never before been lived in our own body. Each of us is on our own path, and sometimes our paths cross, weave, and unfortunately even depart from one another. But I have faith in the beauty of at-one-ment.

With that I'll close in the name of Carol Lynn Pearson, with the poem I've found so meaningful and profound. It continues to inspire me on my journey:


My people were Mormon pioneers.
Is the blood still good?
They stood in awe as truth
Flew by like a dove
And dropped a feather in the West.
Where truth flies you follow
If you are a pioneer.

I have searched the skies
And now and then
Another feather has fallen.
I have packed the handcart again
Packed it with the precious things
And thrown away the rest.

I will sing by the fires at night
Out there on uncharted ground
Where I am my own captain of tens
Where I blow the bugle
Bring myself to morning prayer
Map out the miles
And never know when or where
Or if at all I will finally say,
“This is the place,”

I face the plains
On a good day for walking.
The sun rises
And the mist clears.
I will be all right:
My people were Mormon Pioneers.

––Carol Lynn Pearson


Joe said...

Thanks for sharing. May God bless us in our search for truth

booboo-skeeterdo-beebop said...

You're amazing at writing and utilizing resources..

I too have been passing thru in my maturing view of God, church, self and others.

Thank you for sharing

Papa D said...

I love this post, friend - and I hope I had some small part in what you describe in it.

Clean Cut said...

Thank you all. And to answer your question, yes Ray, absolutely.

Hunter said...

Thanks for sharing.

Clean Cut said...

Thanks Hunter. I'm coming to see faith transitions as a healthy and positive thing, and to embrace the journey rather than fear the unknown:

“Humans are on a journey of discovery. We have nothing to fear. Our views, witnesses, and opinions are all subject to change and adaptation, and our mortal lives are verbs, not nouns. Only the damned have ‘arrived.’ Everyone else is still a work in progress."